Sunday, 10 March 2019

HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Of all the recent horrors that might have engendered a sequel, Happy Death Day probably wouldn't have been high on the list. It was a decent enough comedy slasher with a Groundhog Day twist: a girl found herself living her eighteenth birthday over and over for no apparent reason, getting repeatedly murdered by a masked maniac again and again until she found the killer, bested them in the final reel and finally made it to Tuesday. And this followup initially appears to be following the exact same path: the sequel that's actually a remake - until it reveals its hand early on and suddenly leaps without any warning into head-spinning SF territory concerning quantum physics, alternate dimensions, parallel realities and a few moments that actually approach poignancy. And barring a few missteps, it's terrific.

Maybe it helped that I knew nothing about Happy Death Day 2U going in and didn't even rewatch the first one as revision; happily that didn't matter as I got up to speed very quickly. This time it appears to centre around science nerd Ryan, so minor a character from the first movie (eleventh billed) that I'd forgotten about him entirely, who finds himself in the same old time loop when the baby-masked killer leaps out of a cupboard at him. But his roommate's girlfriend is Tree, the oddly-named heroine of the first movie who immediately figures out what's going on, ties it up with Ryan's theoretical physics experiment and ends up repeating her death day again in a parallel dimension where everything isn't quite the same - can she survive her daily comedy suicides long enough to figure out a way back to her own world?

It's very smart, it's very funny (I laughed out loud in the cinema which is practically unheard of these last few years), and it's constantly throwing ingenious twists into proceedings and moving quickly enough to jump over any plot problems. I did wince a little when someone namedropped Back To The Future Part 2 and Inception, partly because it always annoys me when films try and justify borrowing an idea by mentioning it in dialogue so they can pass it off as affectionate homage (and neither reference is strictly accurate anyway). The main misstep comes with an unnecessary comedy heist sequence where they have to break into the Principal's office and they have to stage the most idiotic diversion that tips the film into knockabout farce. It doesn't work and it doesn't need to be there and seems to exist simply to give those actors their moment in the light. That aside (plus a needlessly cruel mid-credits stinger), it's a lot of fun, pushing the boundaries of modern disposable slasher cinema into much more interesting areas and mostly keeping it under control. Probably unlikely to make the Top Ten of the year, but it's entertaining throughout and way better than we had any right to expect. Strongly recommended.

****

Saturday, 19 January 2019

THE BOOGEY MAN

MINOR SPOILERS, FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH (FOURPENCE)

So: rather than continue my 2018 policy of seeing as many films as possible, no matter what, no matter how blatantly terrible they may be, no matter who's playing Charlie Chan, this year I'm changing tack. Fewer first-watch movies, and instead I'm going back over some of the titles I watched over thirty years ago on VHS. Knackered rental tapes cropped to 4:3, lo-def picture and sound quality, BBFC scissor marks left and right...it really wasn't the best way to watch a movie but it was all we had. Now, many of those classics, cult titles, video nasties and unwatchable obscurities have been dug out of the landfill, restored, remastered and ripe for re-evaluation. Were they really so terrible?

I see from my 30-year database that Ulli Lommel's The Boogey Man, also watched at some point in the late eighties on battered, twisted tape, was apparently a two-star movie, and I can correct that immediately. By knocking one of those stars off. It's utter rubbish, uninterestingly done and, while not as boring, insulting or incompetent as the Ray Dennis Stecklers and Al Adamsons of this world, has nothing to commend it beyond the debatable cachet of Nastyhood (the 44 seconds of cuts have now been waived) and a two-scene John Carradine cameo that must have taken anything up to half the morning to shoot. It's actually a very dull haunted mirror movie in which the spirit of a murder victim is released when the mirror he died in front of is shattered, and he can now kill at will through telekinetic powers. Not content with targeting the extended family of the child who killed him twenty years ago (the child saw him having sex with Mommy), he's now engineering the demise of the people who now live in his old house and some boring teens partying on the other side of the lake for no immediately obvious reason....

None of it makes any sense, as The Boogey Man (variously named The Bogey Man and The Bogeyman, allegedly because audiences might confuse Boogey with Boogie) has that same passing acquaintance with the real world that Lucio Fulci's more wayward zombie movies do. Why can't he come out of a complete mirror, only inch-long fragments? How is the kid keeping his foot so still for so long, so the sunlight can be reflected so precisely on a spot more than half a mile away? And why? Can he possess other people? Why does the film set up the original killer as a potential threat (collecting knives, half-strangling young women) when the horror is actually supernatural? Matters aren't helped by the unlistenable synth score, poor acting, lack of visual style, the it's-not-really-over ending that must surely have been old hat even then....

Nothing to do with the Sam Raimi-produced Boogeyman series, and nothing to do with a halfway decent use of a Thursday evening, this is desperately weak all round, and even the artlessly staged death scenes don't have any impact. And we've been burned enough times already by the Video Nasty tag: sometimes they're genuinely nasty, more often they're maybe a bit iffy, but usually they're just cloddingly dull, incompetent, stupid and naff. The Boogey Man falls so easily into the third category it doesn't touch the sides. It spawned a sequel which is also terrible, and which was later re-issued in a director's cut that was also terrible. Second star duly knocked off.

*

Friday, 11 January 2019

LEONARD PART 6

SPOILERS EPISODE 53

One of the reasons I've never been a fan of boycotting movies because star X is, might be, or has subsequently been revealed as, a colossal pervert, sexual predator and/or all-round piece of human garbage is that you're also boycotting the work of a whole load of other people who aren't. It's all very well to ignore the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski on the grounds of accusations, rumours or even established fact, but it means you "punish" their entirely blameless casts and crews who have nothing to do with star X's alleged or historical actions. In this instance star X is Bill Cosby, one of the most powerful and most popular TV stars of his day, trying and failing (and boy, is he failing) to move up to the big screen.

Leonard Part 6 most likely bombed not because of its star's depravities (they weren't public knowledge in 1987) but because it's an incoherent, idiotic mess: a dumb spy comedy, a dumb romantic drama, a dumb series of dumb sitcom ideas, randomly thrown together whether they belong or not, whether they work or not. Cosby is Leonard, a retired superspy called back into the field when agents are apparently being bumped off by animals under the control of a mad vegetarian looking to flood the San Francisco Bay Area with chemicals that will turn all the wildlife into killers. Initially he doesn't want to get involved: he's staggeringly rich, he owns a snooty restaurant, and he can't get over his wife leaving him. But he gets pulled back anyway, aided by his loyal butler (Tom Courtenay) and a strange Czech woman who lives in a bus and doesn't speak English (because comedy)....

In the middle of all this is a sitcom subplot in which Leonard's nubile young daughter wants to marry the 66-year-old director of a rubbish play in which she takes her clothes off, while Leonard wants to get back with his beloved but unforgiving wife. Like Schwarzenegger's True Lies, the more interesting spy stuff stops dead for the personal drama. The difference is that when it gets back to the exciting stuff, True Lies more than delivers the action. The final reels of Leonard Part 6 (the first five Leonard films were suppressed in the name of national security, hahaha) include most of the cast being drenched in coloured gloop and Cosby defeating the villain's henchmen by throwing hamburgers at them (and force-feeding one a raw sausage) before riding an ostrich off the roof.

Leonard Part 6 does have a score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, and it's pretty much the worst film he was ever involved with (okay, 50s sci-fi turkey Robot Monster is arguably worse, but he was blacklisted at the time). It's absolute rubbish, obviously, and it never hangs together for a moment. It feels like an idea that might have served for one of those old Matt Helm or Our Man Flint movies (or any Eurospy nonsense conceived at the height of the Bond rip-off frenzy) but it doesn't have a fraction of the glamour or the excitement or the wit or the grace or the style. Instead it just throws one random Mad Libs idea on the screen after another - wouldn't it be hilarious to have Bill Cosby fight avant-garde dancers with the power of ballet shoes? Wouldn't it be hilarious to have his wife pour soup in his hair? Wouldn't it be hilarious to have an army of frogs throw someone's car into the river? - as if the idea is enough, and it's certainly not the screenwriter's job to develop these ideas in any way or to link them together in some kind of coherent narrative. The result is a clumpingly stupid vanity film that doesn't make any sense at all, isn't funny in the slightest, wastes time and talent wandering aimlessly from one comedy cul-de-sac to another, going nowhere interesting in the process. Utterly terrible, even for ghoulish fans of repulsive perverts.

*

Sunday, 6 January 2019

HOLMES & WATSON

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

On the one hand I'm swearing off obviously terrible films, but on the other I can't resist a Sherlock Holmes movie, even one that's clearly not of the top rank. Even one with Will Ferrell in the lead role. It's hardly a major journalistic scoop to reveal breathlessly that Holmes & Watson is terrible, that Ferrell is terrible and that neither the film nor the star are anywhere near funny enough for even a lunkheaded 90-minute throwaway Christmas release that everyone's too bloated, hungover or exhausted to be bothered with. What is odd is that away from the insufferable star turn there are odd isolated little crumbs of not-entirely-terribleness if you're prepared to look harder than the film really deserves.

It's the usual Baker Street set-up, except that Ferrell's Holmes is an egotistical idiot who mangles vowels and consonants alike with an atrocious (though presumably comedic) British accent, while Reilly's Watson is a dunderheaded cretin that makes Nigel Bruce's bumbling old buffoon look like the smart guy he's supposed to be (he's a long-serving Army doctor and published writer, for goodness' sake). Mrs Hudson, meanwhile, is an insatiable Scottish nymphomaniac forever at it with famous figures of history (Einstein, Houdini, Mark Twain) because...I don't know, jokes? Meanwhile Ralph Fiennes doesn't get the chance to do very much with what should be the plum role of Moriarty: the villainy is mostly in other hands.

There are numerous problems with Holmes & Watson. Firstly it's clearly pastiching the Guy Ritchie versions, right down to Mark Mothersbaugh's score, which is odd since the last one was a full seven years ago and there's no sign of a Part 3. Secondly, the plot, in which Moriarty intends to assassinate Queen Victoria on the Titanic (don't even ask) and thus destroy Holmes' reputation unless the great detective and his wannabe co-detective can follow the clues and stop him, would have certainly sufficed for a straight Holmes movie with a straight actor. And thirdly, and most crucially, it's just not funny, even by the standards of such Ferrell back catalogue numbers as Talladega Nights (Ferrell outfunnied by Sacha Baron Cohen, of all people, doing camp Frenchman from a 70s sitcom) and the Anchorman movies (period detail aside there's very little comedic meat; Harrison Ford, of all people, has the only decent line in Anchorman 2).

Sure, there are some moments, but they're nothing to do with the star turn: I liked the tabloid newspaper headlines that flit across the screen every so often, the inclusion of Musgrave should please Holmesians, and there are a couple of unbilled cameos from familiar British faces (one of which nicely parallels Guy Ritchie's casting of Stephen Fry as Mycroft in A Game Of Shadows). But it's nowhere near anything like close to enough. It's actually a tough call as to whether it's more or less funny than the legendarily terrible Peter Cook grotesquerie of The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

**

Monday, 31 December 2018

LIST: THE WORST FILMS OF 2018

Or "least favourite". The ten films I enjoyed least, the ten films I wish I hadn't bothered with, the ten films that most wasted the afternoon. In truth, few of them are actively bad movies, just not terribly good ones and, while today's torchbearers of Al Adamson and Ted V Mikels continue to haunt the backwaters of Amazon Prime, few make it to the cinema circuits the way they used to in the 1970s. Progress, I suppose. I actually managed to dodge a lot of the obvious rubbish on the grounds that it was obvious rubbish, but some still slipped through.

As usual, this is based on the FDA schedule of theatrical releases, no matter how small, and not festivals or Netflix or Channel 5 on a Wednesday evening, whether I actually managed to see it in a cinema or not...

10. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
I know everyone keeps telling me it's great, and I appreciate it's doing what it wants to do. And I accept that it's one of those films where I wanted the mainstream B-movie plot instead of the more difficult and unlikeable character study. All I can tell you is that I struggled with it.

9. FIFTY SHADES FREED
The first one was a tasteful and decorous Gold Blend commercial with spankings and flirtatious chat about anal fistings; the second was an episode of Dynasty with discreet nudity, and this third instalment is a ridiculous psycho kidnap thriller. Still, at least it's over and done with now.

8. TERMINAL
Over stylised revenge thriller that was pretty to look at but very silly. Decent cast (Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg) but thrown away; the film went straight to DVD and streaming, which is where it belonged in the first place.

7. DEATH WISH
The spirit of Cannon Films lives again! Subtle understatement is not Eli Roth's stock in trade, and this is not only less subtle than the Michael Winner original, but less subtle that the Michael Winner sequels.

6. HUNTER KILLER
You'd have thought a shouty submarine thriller with Gerard Butler and Gary Oldman and lots of people getting shot couldn't possibly be dull. No excitement to be had at all, and that's a surprise.

5. NIGHT SCHOOL
Hey, I needed something to fill a few hours and how bad can a dimbo schoolroom comedy be? Apparently you can cure dyslexia by punching it in the face. It's not Fist Fight terrible, but few things are.

4. SLENDER MAN
Pointless supernatural bogeyman horror that doesn't work because [1] you don't care about any of these idiots, [2] aforementioned bogeyman is a bit rubbish, and [3] massive re-editing in the wake of lawsuits left the whole thing a mess.

3. THE 15:17 TO PARIS
Sorry Clint, but it's a dud. Terrorism thriller that spends much of the running time on tedious holiday and romance footage of the heroes (played by themselves) and actually very little on the terror incident itself. (Incidentally, I saw it on the same afternoon as Fifty Shades Freed.)

2. BLOOD FEST
Nonsensical and mean-spirited slash-and-splat horror with teens in a theme park full of real maniacs and monsters, overplaying it with high body count and implausible rationale. Hell Fest did it so much better.

1. CLIMAX
The most thoroughly intolerable viewing experience of the year, leaving a sour taste after one of the best FrightFests in years. Hate the music, hate the woozy atmosphere, hate all the characters, hate pretty much everything about it. This year's Mother!.

There aren't many dishonourable mentions: I wasn't crazy about The Wildling, Damascus Cover, The Cured or Thoroughbreds, but most of the other stuff was at least moderately interesting.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

LIST: THE BEST FILMS OF 2018

So it's New Year's Eve Eve and I'm sitting here with Jerry Goldsmith scores playing in the background, trying to assemble some kind of workable Top Ten of the year that doesn't make me look like some kind of uncultured buffoon. Trickier than usual: I missed a bunch of movies this year for various reasons, some personal, some down to film distribution and exhibition (the loss of the Odeon Leicester Square's six screens for much of the year meant that affordable West End cinemagoing was squeezed).

As usual I'm going by the FDA's schedule of actual UK theatrical releases: even if it's only a minimal release it counts (whether I saw it in a cinema or not), while if it's just a festival screening and a swift appearance on Sainsbury's DVD racks then it doesn't. Sorry, but them's the rulez. And yes, they're mostly genre movies, but that is where my inclinations have generally led me...

10. HELL FEST
I'm not about to make any great claims for Hell Fest, and I don't know that the ranks of Hooper, Carpenter, Cronenberg and Craven are soon to be joined by, er, Plotkin, but this was easily the best of the recent run of slasher theme park movies (Ruin Me, Blood Fest, American Fright Fest, The Funhouse Massacre). It knows exactly what it's doing and does it well, bloody and grisly when it has to be, and doesn't bog itself down in genre meta-referencing.

9. SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
Not just to annoy the internet's basement full of saddo whiners: I actually enjoyed it as a zippy, colourful and agreeable bit of fantasy fluff. Okay, Ehrenreich's Solo is no more likely to become Harrison Ford's than I am, but it's light and entertaining nonsense which is what Star Wars really should be. I have not been paid by Disney or Lucasfilm or anyone else to say this.

8. OVERLORD
Exactly what I wanted from a Nazi horror movie: gore, monsters and a sense of unspeakable evil. And it went for an 18 certificate rather than wimping out for the teen audience. More of this sort of thing.

7. HEREDITARY
Unusual and unsettling horror with some terrific moments before a climax where they decide to resolve it in a less than satisfactory way; there's still some genuine horror and one of the year's best shock twists to be had in the first hour. Not great, certainly, but different enough from the usual fare.

6. GHOST STORIES
Most horror movies don't actually creep me out, but this one did. Not all the time: the third story (the car in the woods) didn't do anything for me, and the final set of reveals annoyed me a little, but there's a lot of good stuff in there.

5. BLACK PANTHER
I suppose I should have a comicbook movie in here and it was either this or Venom (it certainly wasn't going to be Infinity War). This won out for its more interesting setting and ideas: not to say that Venom wasn't up there, but if I had to rewatch one of them today it would be Black Panther.

4. MOLLY'S GAME
I would last about twelve seconds in a proper poker game. Molly's Game works even if you don't understand the first thing about the flop or the river or the diamond fall*: it's fast and tightly written and hugely entertaining.

* One or more of these terms might be made up.

3. THE SHAPE OF WATER
Man is the real monster in Guillermo Del Toro's girl-meets-fish story which is such a weirdie that it's surely impossible to be "meh" about it. For all that I didn't much like (the dance sequence), I still went with it and enjoyed it: dark yet romantic, sweet yet bitter, strange throughout.

2. A QUIET PLACE
A simple idea. beautifully executed: creepy and with just enough shown of its monsters. Also, lovely to be in a cinema where absolutely everyone kept silent for the whole running time and left their damned phones alone.

1. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT
Out-Bonding Bond again with a dizzying international romp of pretty much non-stop action set-pieces: fights and chases and heists and more fights and more chases and by the time the utterly insane Paris bike chase was over I was exhausted. Keep them coming.

Honourable mentions (in no particular order) to Red Sparrow, Mile 22, The Spy Who Dumped Me (shut up, I enjoyed it), Ready Player One, Venom and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES

PROBABLY DOESN'T CONTAIN SPOILERS

Ted V Mikels is one of those film directors for whom you don't really need to see more than one or two of their films to get a clear idea of what you're dealing with. Like Ray Dennis Steckler or Al Adamson, it doesn't take many trips to the well before it's empty. This is only my second foray into Mikels' filmography after the miserable grot of The Corpse Grinders (seen on a cinema screen, it's no more rewarding an experience than a rental VHS tape) and already breaking point has been reached: spending further evenings with Girl In Gold Boots and Blood Orgy Of The She Devils simply isn't going to happen.

The plot of The Astro-Zombies is gibberish: something to do with mad scientist John Carradine making zombies in his basement (with obligatory Igor-type to assist) and foreign agent Tura Satana wanting to obtain the process for nefarious purposes. You'd think pretty much anyone could make something of the ingredients - masked homicidal maniacs, sinister spies, tacky nightclubs, mad boffins with scantily clad girls tied to operating tables in their basement laboratories - but not Mikels. Mikels makes you glad you're not watching an Al Adamson film, but that's about all.

It's not as achingly tedious as The Corpse Grinders, but few things and almost no other movies are: it's still dull and completely uninteresting on every level. Yet another instance where no UK distributor has seen any point in acquiring the release rights, instead leaving it for YouTube and dubious uploaders, the film is soul-sapping in its dreariness. Even the bizarre decision to run the opening and closing credits over footage of toy robots and tanks, which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie beyond the Astro-Zombies themselves being cyborgs, doesn't raise the interest. Pretty much unbearable.

*

Thursday, 20 December 2018

GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND IMBECILES

In a development that will surely surprise either absolutely everybody or absolutely no-one, a 1973 zero-budget junk horror movie starring no-one you've ever heard of plus some poor sod in a giant mutant sheep costume turns out to be utter crap to the power of bloody awful. Who'd have thought it? Eye-wateringly abysmal even by the standards of Z-film drive-in garbage, it's a festival of shrieking idiocy with not one scintilla of artistic merit or entertainment value from unexciting start to even less exciting finish.

The Godmonster Of Indian Flats is a mutant sheep created by phosgene gases escaping from an abandoned silver mine onto a small sheep farm in the Nevada mountains. For most of the time he (it?) is merely an embryo looked after by the local doctor, until he finally gets loose and goes on the inevitable rampage. Instead, pretty much the first hour we're stuck in an old-timey hick town in which everyone is a yeehawing simpleton (the film might as well have been called When Cousins Marry) trying to get rid of a mining company representative called Barnstaple who wants to buy all the land leases. Barnstaple is the film's only black character, so it's hardly surprising when the whooping rednecks try to lynch him for no reason beyond apparently roleplaying 1870.

Much of this is punishingly dull and even the long overdue appearance of Sheepzilla is bloodless and ineffective, mainly because it's clearly a bloke stumbling blindly about in a cheap, unwieldy and poorly designed costume (it looks as though one of the front legs has fallen off), failing to kill off the bad guys and barely managing to stay upright. That's probably why he gets so little screen time in what is nominally his own movie: someone must have realised the utter shoddiness of it and put the focus on the local nutters instead. It didn't work: small-town corruption and machinations over mining rights are hardly interesting enough on their own, and less so in a film about a giant mutant hybrid sheep monster on the loose. I wonder if anyone has the remake rights?

*

Sunday, 16 December 2018

PSYCHO FROM TEXAS / MARDI GRAS MASSACRE

CONTAINS SPOILERS / CONTAINS SPOILERS

Two more titles knocked off Shock Xpress's list of the Fifty Most Boring Movies Ever Made: zero-budget junk titles that have still not had any kind of legitimate, certified release in the UK and exist solely in that grey limbo of YouTube uploads. In a thoroughly unsurprising development, neither of the two movies are any good at all: basic entertainment value is pretty much as low as it can get and, despite one of them being on the legendary Video Nasties list for some gratuitous splatter and nudity, there's not a shred of fun to be had.

In addition to being an entirely pointless exercise, working out which of the two film is actually worse is like working out with which foot you'd rather step onto an upturned electric plug. Neither is significantly better and both are painful. Psycho From Texas carries a copyright date of 1981 but was apparently made around six years earlier, when it was called Wheeler: the titular psycho has drifted into town to carry out the kidnapping of a local businessman. The plan goes wrong, leading to an endless chase through drab woods and swamps in which the nutter henchman can't catch the escaping hostage when [1] the hostage doesn't know the territory, [2] the hostage is about 60 years old, and [3] the hostage has lost his glasses. Meanwhile Wheeler himself is racking up plenty of witnesses who can place him a long way from the kidnap...

The highlight, if one can grace such a repugnant and sordid moment with the term, comes when the charmless Wheeler terrorises a barmaid (Linnea Quigley's film debut, and only from the perspective of Psycho From Texas do Creepozoids and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers look like any kind of career progress) by forcing her at knifepoint to dance naked for him and then simulate sex with the body of a man he's just killed for no reason. Other than that, it's got nothing going for it at all and eventually it stops.

Mardi Gras Massacre is also criminally dull, padded as it is with travelogue footage of New Orleans, romantic montage, striptease and disco scenes and clumping reading-out-loud dialogue. A madman is on the loose in the French Quarter, butchering naked women in honour of an Aztec deity in the hope of receiving occult powers. We get three extended sacrifice scenes where he rips their hearts out (which is almost certainly why the video was banned in the UK), but we also get acres and acres of tedious prattle, all filmed in medium shot from a mostly static vantage point: Jack Weis is not a director who favours close-ups or actually moving the camera about.

Uninteresting on every level, be it artistic, technical or emotional, both movies are sleazy, grubby exercises which take way too long to do way too little and must surely have been underwhelming even in their natural home of grindhouse double-bills thirty or forty years past. Is there even a market for them any more? Mardi Gras Massacre might have its official obscenity cachet to warrant a DVD release (assuming the BBFC didn't interfere, which feels unlikely), while Psycho From Texas can't even claim that. Best to let both languish in post-VHS limbo and murky YouTube streams.

*
*

Friday, 14 December 2018

TOP DOG

CONTAINS SPOILERS. WOOF.

In that same spirit of two or more big movies on the same theme just happening along at the same time independently of each other (Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug's Life, Dante's Peak and Volcano), 1989 gave us two buddy cop movies in which one of the partners was a dog. Neither K-9 nor Turner And Hooch were anything more than okay amusements, and the trend didn't go much further than that - so it's weird that a full six years later Chuck Norris did the same thing to almost no effect. Maybe he saw the Belushi or Hanks films on late night TV and decided that sort of thing would be his next project (despite the fact that Chuck Norris is the go-to guy for light comedy the way I'm the go-to guy for a Charleston.) Sadly, or perhaps not, it didn't work: the mixture of cute dog slapstick, Norris kicking scumbags in the head and white supremacy terrorist whackjobs simply never fits together.

Chuck Norris is a tough, no-nonsense cop in the Chuck Norris mould; for comedy reasons he's partnered with Reno, a dog who witnessed the murder of his former partner/handler and will recognise the killers if he sees them again. It's all down to a cabal of neo-Nazi racist maniacs planning a bombing spree in San Diego and they'll kill anyone, even dogs, cops or dog cops, who tries to stop them....

In the event the film's failure wasn't entirely their fault: Top Dog opened in the USA nine days after an actual terrorist bombing (Oklahoma City), although they could have pulled the release until a decent interval had passed, the way Arnie's meh terrorism thriller Collateral Damage was held back for several months after September 11. Even allowing for all that, however, it's still not very good: fans of vintage Norris knockabout like Missing In Action and (my favourite CN film) Lone Wolf McQuade will have to put up with the cutesy stuff and relatively bloodless action sequences. Like the Hanks and Belushi films, it's pleasant enough and generally harmless, but that's really not what you want from Chuck.

**

Sunday, 9 December 2018

MARIANNE

DOESN'T CONTAIN MUCH IN THE WAY OF SPOILERS

Okay, okay, it's not terrible. We're not talking the depths of genuine rubbish here: we're not talking Ted V Mikels here. But it is ultimately a mostly boring family drama from Sweden with only a light dash of the supernatural about it and a couple of brief appearances from Peter Stormare. Other than that it's pretty dull and about twenty minutes longer than it needs to be, and someone really should have taken a pair of garden shears to it.

Mostly Marianne concerns a man failing to communicate with his sulky teen goth daughter in the aftermath of (and indeed before) the death of his wife in a car smash, the exact details of which are kept hidden until the end. Is he being stalked in his sleep by a Mare, a vengeful spirit of Swedish folklore, or is it just a manifestation of grief and guilt over the accident and his broken family?

Stormare is usually good for some agreeable hamming, but not in this case: Marianne is a quiet, sombre and frankly miserable drama, it's not a horror movie and there's little fun to be had with it, so the performances are quite rightly restrained and non-theatrical. As a drama about grieving and family it's fine, and more successful than the horror movie it veers towards every often, but crucially it's advertised as horror and not gloom and glumness, and it's hard enough to care very much anyway given that our lead is not terribly likeable. Of minor interest.

**

Saturday, 8 December 2018

WHEELS OF FIRE / THE SISTERHOOD

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

One of the problems with putting old trash movies onto the streaming services is that on many occasions the print quality is absolutely terrible. They're frequently sourced from VHS tapes (and not even first generation by the look of some of them, which might make for a warm nostalgic feeling for the days of bootlegged copies of copies) and more often than not are cropped to four by three. Sometimes they're windowboxed into the middle of the screen. Happily, sometimes you get a nice widescreen film print to look at, with the added bonus of all the footage the BBFC snipped out in their more scissor-happy days.

Two slices of prime 80s macho trash from Cirio H Santiago have turned up on Prime recently, dating from the Mad Max era when anyone with access to a desert, some pimped-up stock cars and a wardrobe full of leather bondage gear could royally rip it off. Both take place in a barren post-holocaust wasteland where armies of disposable thugs roam around in dune buggies, picking off travellers and abducting the womenfolk for the usual sordid reasons. (As you'd expect, there's little indication where they get an apparently inexhaustible supply of gasoline.) Wheels Of Fire has a man tracking down his sister, kidnapped by a gang leader and holed up in a fortress for the big final reel showdown. The Sisterhood is far less petrol-driven, with an all-female community (all of whom have superpowers such as healing or telekinesis) at risk from the usual biker/buggy gangs.

Despite the desert setting and the curious plot contrivance of a female character having the ability to communicate with birds, the two films aren't connected in any way. Of the two, Wheels Of Fire is easily the better film, if only for the fact that it's blessed with an early score by Christopher Young, later to emerge as an A-list horror composer (Hellraiser, The Fly II) although in this instance he seems to been told to emulate the sound of Brian May's scores to the first two Mad Max films. By contrast, The Sisterhood is saddled with an unlistenable Fisher-Price plonky keyboard score that makes a two-octave Bontempi sound like the London Symphony Orchestra by comparison. (It does, however, include Lynn-Holly Johnson, the barely legal ice-skating nymphomaniac from For Your Eyes Only.)

Neither of the films are masterpieces: the car action obviously lacks the insane verve of the Mad Max movies, the acting is pretty basic and the plots sometimes veer off in weird diversions such as underground communities and hidden bunkers full of weapons. The fixation on rape is an uncomfortable callback to a less enlightened mindset, which is hopefully something that even trashy exploitation movies have grown out of now. It's nice to see they're still available, and as a special treat Wheels Of Fire probably includes the two minutes plus that the BBFC removed for its VHS release a third of a century ago, but unless you've a soft spot for this kind of junk (I kind of enjoyed 2019: After The Fall Of New York, and I do want to rewatch the likes of Bronx Warriors and The New Barbarians at some point) they're neither of them essentials.

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