Wednesday, 31 January 2018

DEVIL'S EXPRESS

CHOO-CHOOO! CONTAINS SPOILERS

At the end of last year I looked through my lists and spreadsheets and concluded that I'd watched way too many terrible movies for any (nominally) sane mind to endure, and would therefore try to avoid the obvious stinkers. Many of these, sadly, were horror movies, dropped out of the obscurity vaults onto Amazon Prime with no warning except for the titles, artwork, trailers, synopses and whatever can be gleaned from three minutes on the IMDb. Nevertheless, I persisted and got repeatedly kicked in the nethers like an idiot. I am definitely making the effort this year to wean myself off films which clearly weren't going to be worth the wettest of Wednesday evenings (yes, I said that last year and the year before that and the year before that). Happily, it seems to be working: I've had no one-star movies so far and the least enjoyable things I've seen have mainly been disappointments or simply not to my taste. But the cravings for obviously trash films aren't always defeated that easily: just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Luckily, Devil's Express just about scrapes its second star, though it's a close run thing. Nominally it concerns a mysterious creature on the New York subways, lurking in the tunnels and ripping apart any idiot wandering onto the tracks. The cops think it's either a turf war between the black and Chinese gangs (this was made in 1975) or a series of attacks by mutated animals in the sewers, but it's actually a Chinese demon inadvertently released by an idiot when he removed the protective amulet from its 2100-year-old coffin.

Most of the movie isn't actually concerned with the demon monster killer stuff, which is a pity because that's the most interesting angle: Barry Rosen seems more interested in making a martial arts movie in which a bunch of impressively muscled guys take their shirts off and lamp each other. I've no particular objection to that, but they go on for far too long and in the main they're nowhere near bone-crackingly vicious enough, so they're the least engaging scenes in what is supposed to be a horror movie. And female presence is minimal: there's one barmaid, who beats up a couple of morons in a scene which has nothing to do with the rest of the film, and a rambling bag lady on the train. Otherwise the film is pretty much undiluted testosterone.

Yet, as cheap, dull, stupid and terribly acted though it is, the demon in the subway stuff is more interesting and provides a few of the better moments in the film. It's not much fun, but it's presented in nice widescreen rather than a cropped video, it has the grimy 70s New York feel to it (including brief footage of old 42nd Street trash cinemas showing Tower Of Screaming Virgins, Kung-Fu Cops and, er, The Italian Job) and some agreeable music over the opening and closing titles. Plus, the lead actor's name is War Hawk Tanzania and you've got to give it a second star just for that.

**

Thursday, 25 January 2018

THE ENEMY

CONTAINS SPOILERS

So what does James Bond do when he gets too old to be James Bond? The snarky answer is that he makes A View To A Kill, but what really happens? Does he get pensioned off and he opens a pub somewhere? Does he, as the blasphemous Never Say Never Again suggests, spend his time teaching and training the next generation of Double-Ohs? Does he just keep going until the villains finally manage to shoot him? Or, as this Canadian cable thriller might imply, does he eventually move up the ranks into management, directing operations remotely by phone instead of leaping onto the nearest jetski or curvaceous floozy?

Sixteen years after signing off from 007 (typically in the shower with a woman half his age), the great Sir Roger Moore turned up in The Enemy as one of the few bright supporting lights in this mostly dull Canadian thriller. It's always good to see Moore in anything (even Boat Trip) but he's not in this one enough: he claims to be a senior Mountie but is actually a senior highup in MI5 trying to track down a missing scientist who hid the formula for a biological weapon and was then abducted. Now his son (Luke Perry) and a Canadian cop (Olivia D'Abo) has to find the formula and its antidote or they'll kill him...

This is unusual as it's one of the very few times I've read the book before seeing the film. I'm (not in the least) sorry: I'm ultimately a film person rather than a book person, cinematic rather than literary, but I'm not sure that it matters because appropriately enough they've decided on the Moonraker technique of adaptation: throwing the bulk of Desmond Bagley's novel in the bin, simply retaining a handful of fragments and character names and concocting a whole new story with them. They've ended up with something vaguely passable as an evening distraction, but it's all very wet, bland and colourless, it's not that exciting or thrilling, and if you can't spot the Third Act Twist Mystery Villain from about three seconds after they wander on screen you're not trying. Another film that's dropped through official distribution channels in the UK.

**

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

BECOMING BOND

SPOILERS, CONTAINS SPOILERS

I'm a fan of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It has one of the best Bond girls in Diana Rigg, fine villainy from Telly Savalas, one of John Barry's best 007 scores, terrific action sequences, general fidelity to the Ian Fleming's novel (a surprise coming after You Only Live Twice, which retained the principal locale and a handful of character names and threw the rest of the book away) and a still-startling ending. But I'm not so blinded by the good stuff that I can ignore the film's problems, which include [1] the fact that Blofeld doesn't recognise 007 from the previous movie despite him wearing absolutely no disguise at all, and [2] the intergalactically horrible song "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown", which makes the average piece of tinkly lift muzak sound like Motorhead turned up to twelve. And, of course [3] that George Lazenby bloke.

In fairness to Lazenby, he's actually pretty good in OHMSS sometimes, particularly in the quieter and more romantic moments, and some of the physical fighting stuff is still impressive nearly half a century later. But there are times when he absolutely isn't any good: times when he's clearly not an experienced actor, but some good-looking Aussie wearing one of Sean Connery's suits who just happened to catch the right person's eye at the right moment and who then blagged and bluffed his way to the biggest and best job in the movie world. And then walked away from it, turning down a cash payment of a million pounds (more or less a whopping sixteen million in today's money) and a contract to play Bond for another six films.

Becoming Bond is a semi-documentary, a dramatised reconstruction of key (and some off-key) moments in Lazenby's life, from his childhood and early jobs as a car mechanic and salesman to his relationship with a girlfriend waaaaay out of his social league, all narrated by Lazenby (sometimes with the actors lip-synched to the voice-over). All very well but, like James Whale lamenting that "you only want to know about the horror films" in Gods And Monsters, we only really want to know about getting the Bond gig and I'd have liked a lot more since, let's face it, this is still what Lazenby is and will always be known for. There are already dramatisations with stand-ins for Peter Hunt and Harry Saltzman, why not with stand-ins for Savalas and Rigg?

For hardcore Bond fans there probably isn't very much that we don't already know: about how he was arrogant and big-headed and how he acted The Great I Am all the time. Strangely, there's also an unhealthy chunk of stuff that we most likely didn't know already, and I rather wish I still didn't. I don't really want to hear about the time Lazenby couldn't get an erection or cheated on his girlfriend or had half a dozen colourful diarrhoea attacks the night he was planning to sneak into her bedroom for a cheeky shag. Thanks for sharing, George. If only in the name of good taste (and not even because we might not think too highly of our hero) those wacky anecdotes should perhaps have been left out as they sour the tone a little.

It also left me slightly baffled as to how much Eon and the current Bond producers (and their lawyers) might have had to say about it. Presumably enough of it is true (as Lazenby says, how could could he remember it if it never happened?) and already on the public record, and the stuff that isn't well known is more about Lazenby himself and not the producers. Still, it's amusing enough in parts with Bond references and quotes scattered through (and a cameo from an actual Bond girl). And like all the best film documentaries, it did leave me wanting to rewatch the movie(s) in question; I need far less prodding to rewatch OHMSS than I do for Moonraker or Thunderball. Worth a look as a curiosity.

***

Sunday, 31 December 2017

LIST: THE WORST FILMS OF 2017

It wasn't all chocolate and unicorns in 2017: there were some puddles of sick as well. These were the worst of the bullets I failed to dodge.

10. THE HIPPOPOTAMUS
Like a weak Jonathan Creek with endless vulgarity and sex references that got very tedious very quickly, and I badly needed someone to set about the lead character with a chair leg.

9. MINDHORN
Supposed to be funny? Another tiresome full-of-himself lead in a charmless, nonsensical non-action non-comedy.

8. UNLOCKED
Not even fun in a dumbo rubbish way: yet another clunky thriller about Islamic terror in London, full of people who should, and do, know better (and Orlando Bloom).

7. WOLVES AT THE DOOR
Would have been a perfectly passable home invasion thriller with glossy 60s period detail, were it not a cheery re-enactment of the Manson Family's murderous attack on Sharon Tate and her friends. Pass the popcorn. Actual video footage of Charlie Scumbag turns up at the end.

6. THE PARTY
Supposed to be funny? An assortment of colossal bores throw surprise revelations - adultery, terminal illness, pregnancy - at each other for a slim yet nonetheless punishing 71 minutes including credits. Everyone please shut up and go away.

5. MOTHER!
It's clearly not a bad film (which is way it's not #1 on this list) but it's easily the least enjoyable, most thoroughly unrewarding and increasingly annoying time I had in a cinema this year. Accurately described on Twitter as the film equivalent of an anxiety attack, and not in a good way.

4. CHIPS
Remember that innocuous Saturday evening American import on ITV from decades ago? Let's do it again but with violence and swearing and crass vulgarity. Rubbish.

3. BAYWATCH
See above. Marginally worse because I expect better of Dwayne Johnson.

2. FIST FIGHT
Supposed to be funny? This year really doesn't appear to have been good for comedy.

1. BETTER WATCH OUT
Absolutely hated this cheery Christmas offering featuring a pre-pubescent sexual predator. Came close a couple of times to walking out.


Dishonourable mentions (in no particular order) to Power Rangers, The Untamed, Transformers 5 and idiotic Pierce Brosnan tech thriller I.T.

LIST: THE BEST FILMS OF 2017

It's that time again.... As usual, everything on this list had a first-time cinema release in the UK at some point in 2017, using Launching Films' site as reference. I missed a lot of films, either through choice (they looked horrible), minimal distribution, and/or assorted other personal circumstances. It's a mixture of which ones I think were the "best" and which ones I would acknowledge weren't actually the "best" but the ones I enjoyed most. In ascending order:

10. LOGAN
I'm still pretty meh on the subject of comic-book movies: they're either shiny happy Marvel or miserable joyless DC. This is actually fairly glum, much darker, much more serious than the usual X-Men fare: an actual superhero movie for actual grown-ups.

9. WONDER WOMAN
Still on the superheroes: easily the best film from the DC stable.

8. A GHOST STORY
Melancholy drama about the haunter rather than the haunted: what does the ghost do when the house is empty? Oddly moving, leisurely, unusual, liked it a lot.

7. MOONLIGHT
The Academy Awards got it right for once (eventually): infinitely better than the unsatisfying La La Land (terrific for the first five minutes, utterly unremarkable the rest of the time). Intelligent, grown-up cinema; if only we could have one of these every few months instead of yet another superhero whizzbang.

6. VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
Eye-popping fantasy from Luc Besson, even topping the bonkers The Fifth Element. Okay, the mystery villain is no mystery and the leads are cardboard, but the visuals are dazzling.

5. DETROIT
Angry, thrilling and timely drama of violent racism; incredibly powerful and utterly essential viewing.

4. SILENCE
A superb Martin Scorsese religious drama: 160 minutes long but never feels it, completely absorbing, visually beautiful.

3. THE HANDMAIDEN
I actually saw the Director's Cut which is a full half-hour longer: personally I could have done with less of the explicit sex but even so it's easily my favourite foreign-language film of the year.

2. BLADE RUNNER 2049
Granted, it didn't have Vangelis on the soundtrack (and Hans Zimmer is no substitute), but the expanded world of Ridley Scott's classic original is pixel perfect, and Ryan Gosling's usual blankness is for once a plus factor. Mainstream blockbuster of the year and a more than worthy follow-up.

1. HOUNDS OF LOVE
I don't think I breathed for the last twenty minutes.

Honourable mentions (in no particular order) to Get Out, Hacksaw Ridge, A Cure For Wellness (shut up, I enjoyed it), The Limehouse Golem, Life and Denial.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

CONTAINS SPOILERS

In a year that historical hindsight will not acknowledge as particularly hilarious, one of the funniest things to hit 2017 was fandom. First it was the bellowing idiocy of "Doctor Who CANNOT BE A WOMAN!!!" (well, she is, so stop whining and get over it), at which even Davros would have found it hard to breathe through the laughter, and he's a genocidal maniac who created the Daleks and has never been noted for a riotous sense of humour. Then it was the Official Fan Demand for Justice League to be rereleased properly in accordance with the mighty Zack Snyder's artistic vision, complete with a new score by his regular composer Junkie XL, and the removal of Joss Whedon's reshoots. Now it's the shrieking petulance of an actual petition to the Disney Corporation demanding that the new Star Wars film be removed from the canon because it didn't pan out exactly the way they wanted and it didn't explain who he is and where she came from and why that guy did these things. Seriously, guys (and they tend to be guys), have a bathroom break and calm the hell down: you're giving us regular fans a bad name here.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Episode VIII in the overarching saga) is fine. It's not great, it's not terrible, it's somewhere in the middle but it's really nothing to get worked up about in either direction. It does some lovely things and it has some serious problems, but waaaaahing like a four-year-old in Tescos, stamping your feet because Mummy won't buy you any sweeties, isn't a particularly dignified look. At the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley, surprisingly not very good this time around) has found Luke Skywalker, now living as a miserable, grumpy hermit on a remote island and absolutely refusing to help the Resistance in their darkest moment. Meanwhile General Leia and her dwindling band of rebels are being pursued through hyperspace by a Dreadnought of the evil First Order (captained by Adrian Edmondson, whom I constantly expected to start smacking his fellow officers round the head with a frying pan), and maybe only a hastily cobbled together plan to abduct a codebreaker from a casino planet and smuggle him onto the Dreadnought to disable the tracking system for long enough to make one last light-speed jump can save them, whether hothead/idiot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets permission or not...

As a zippy blockbuster that alternates frenetic action sequences with moody, serious character drama, nodding back to the earlier films (the horse-like Fathiers race feels like the dreaded Pod Race all over again), The Last Jedi does more right than wrong. On the plus side, it's mostly hugely enjoyable, John Williams' score is great as ever (though the piano rendition of Leia's Theme in the end credits against the dedication to Carrie Fisher feels very awkward, as though it's been shoved in at the last minute) with many of the familiar and recognisable themes well to the fore. The best single sequence is the Battle Of Crait, on a salt planet where the crystal white turns blood red when it's disturbed. Snoke's throne room is a visual treat as well. Bad moments include an absolute clunk of comedy when Poe pretends to put the Dreadnought on hold, and a jaw-droppingly stupid scene saving Leia from certain death.

I could also have done without the return, albeit briefly, of one character from both preceding trilogies, and the less said about the tribblesome Porgs the better. As the middle part of a trilogy it's not as good as The Empire Strikes Back - it should go without saying that it's better than Attack Of The Clones, because most things are - but the main (new) hope is that Rian Johnson is setting everything up for Episode IX's grand finale in 2019. At 152 minutes it's comfortably the longest Star Wars movie so far, and there are moments when it feels like it, but there's more than enough popcorn fun to be had as well as material for scholarly analysis. (There's also a great visual gag involving a steam iron, of all things.) Personally I can't take it as seriously as others have: it's enjoyable and entertaining but not without faults: on balance it's a win but not a walkover.

***

Friday, 1 December 2017

VHS FOREVER? PSYCHOTRONIC PEOPLE

CONTAINS? SPOILERS

Remember VHS? I always get the sense that I came to the party slightly too late: by the time I got to rent my own movies the dreaded Video Recordings Act had already consigned a load of the most interesting movies to the furnaces and James "Scissorhands" Ferman and the BBFC (make up your own acronym) had embarked on the entirely irrational campaign of hacking junk movies to ribbons, ostensibly to make them suitable for adults but actually rendering them even less watchable than they already were by taking all the best bits out. By then the DPP had done their work and - sarcastic hurrah - removed Night Of The Bloody Apes, Alien Contamination and Unhinged from rental shops and off-licenses across the UK so we could all sleep easier.

The foaming-at-the-mouth insanity of the pre-cert days has already been covered, particularly in Jake West's marvellous Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape; this is more of a disorganised grab-bag of reminiscences from critics, journalists, tape dealers, distributors and the occasional stars and directors. Covering everything from first rentals, the Video Nasty list of 39 formally banned titles, the back room of the Psychotronic Video shop in a Camden basement (I remember buying a few titles there) and police raids on video collectors' homes through to the lousy picture quality, the collectible tapes under the tables at film fairs and lucky finds at car boot sales, it does at least recapture the spirit of the age and almost makes me want to dig out the VHS player from the spare room and put on one of my few remaining tapes on.

The bafflingly-titled VHS Forever? Psychotronic People also allows Caroline Munro to reminisce about the guerrilla film-making of The Last Horror Film at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival: always interesting, but out of place in a documentary that's nominally about the early days of VHS. No other film gets specifically discussed to that extent, not even the far more controversial Maniac. Sadly, it also allows sewage merchant Lloyd Kaufman to ramble nonsensically to camera as though he's on Just A Minute with the topic Incoherent Bullshit, throwing together the MPAA, the McCarthy blacklists and Mary Whitehouse (referred to as Mary Blowjob, presumably for reasons of comedy) in one facepalming rant. Incidentally: say what you like about Mary Whitehouse: she may have been as comprehensively wrong-headed as it's possible for a human to be, but at least she believed absolutely in what she was doing, which is more than you can say for any of Troma's artless sludge.

It's an interesting topic and an interesting era, on which I was on the distant fringes: I had boxes of pre-cert tapes but eventually gave them away when reality intruded and I realised I was probably never going to watch them ever again. Many of them are available on DVD or BluRay, in better quality, uncut and in the correct ratio, and I'm not nostalgic enough for the Vertical Helical Scan format to fire up my old mint condition cassette of The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue even though I have the Anchor Bay disc on the shelf. But the technical quality isn't that great: for a film that's shot (or at least copyrighted) in 2014, the 4:3 ratio suggests an attempt to emulate the look of full-screen video, and some external scenes are plagued by wind noise into the camera microphone. It's a pity, because I could listen to some of these guys (and it is mostly guys) talking about old trash movies for hours: Norman J Warren, Allan Bryce, David McGillivray, Graham Humphreys, Marc Morris, David Kerekes....Incredibly, Kim Newman is only in it for maybe two minutes cumulatively! Overall it's a fascinating subject in which I would normally immerse myself for days at a time - nerding about movies is What I Do given half a chance - but sadly it doesn't really come off.

**

JUSTICE LEAGUE

CONTAINS BAT-[S]POILERS

The whole Marvel/DC light/dark fun/misery debate has already been flogged well past the point of ever achieving a resolution: do you want it flip, comedic and colourful or do you want it bleak, gritty and nihilistic? Personally I'm happy with the crowd-pleasing antics of the Avengers gang and, while I'm not about to suggest that gibberish like Joel Schumacher's two Batflicks are better in any way to the Nolan films, I've never understood the appeal of grim, joyless films like Man Of Steel and Batman Vs Superman. Wonder Woman perked things up enormously, possibly because the grimy claws of Zack Snyder were nowhere in evidence, and possibly because, unlike endless reboots of Batman and Spider-Man, this was an origins story we'd not encountered before in cinema (did the Lynda Carter TV series include it?) so there was an element of freshness to it.

But the debate has been shunted back into life with Justice League, the fifth instalment of the DC glumpocalypse, because whatever the original intentions, it's actually ended up with its boots in both camps thanks to reshoots from Joss Whedon, director of two Marvel entries and a spin-off TV show. Despite the claim that he'd write direct in the same style as Snyder so there wouldn't be any obvious shifts in tone, there are scenes (particularly those featuring The Flash) which seem to be typed in a completely different font to the rest of the film. And it works. A bit. Some of the time, anyway. Not brilliantly: Superman is as thoroughly uninteresting as ever (at least since the first two Christopher Reeve movies) and the plot is the usual old CGI Armageddon nonsense, but it's almost entertaining enough in places to get by and most likely far more than Snyder's film would have been, had he not withdrawn for personal/family reasons.

An ancient world-destroying demon thing called Steppenwolf (no, really) is after three ancient boxes which, when brought together, will bring about the end of humanity and turn the planet into the Hellscape of his (its?) homeworld. One of these Mother Boxes (no, really) is guarded by the Amazons, another by the Atlanteans in Atlantis (no, really). Fortunately, Batman is putting a team together, with Wonder Woman, The Flash (who can move at incredibly high speed), Aquaman (water skills) and Cyborg (computers, electronics, data). But will they be enough? Or do they need to exhume Superman and jolt him back to life with the power of the third Mother Box?

It all ends, as these things must, with a welter of green-screen whizzbang in which various members of the gang take it in turns to punch Steppenwolf and his flying demon minion things while the surrounding landscape is terraformed around them. Which is all perfectly well done, if you like your retinas scorched and if you like not having half a clue what the hell's going on. But mass destruction and/or the imminent end of the world aren't a new thing any more: we saw all this in Man Of Steel and half the Avengers movies and the Transformers films and most Roland Emmerich films and Geostorm and it's all frankly getting a bit been there, done that, got the ticket stubs to prove it. I'm not enough of a comic-book aficionado to spot any significant narrative difference between the Mother Boxes and Marvel's Infinity Stones anyway, like the satellite weapons from assorted Bonds and XXX 3 and so on, it's the same tune played on a slightly different guitar. And raising the stakes to a global level means nothing if we don't care about anything except the gosh-wow visuals, and even with Whedon's friendlier, less doomladen input there's little in the way of Real Human Beings with whom we can find some shred of empathy and even less for the superheroes who are all invincible and can fly.

If this all sounds like I'm trying to work out exactly how I feel about the movie...well, I suppose I am. It's not Dawn Of Justice-level terrible, and it's not Suicide Squad-level pointless. It's not Man Of Steel-level glum and it's not Thor: Ragnarok-level bonkers. I've never been a fan of Superman anyway and here, saddled additionally with having Henry Cavill's moustache CGId out in the reshoots, he seems peculiarly comfortable with having brought back from death. This Batman is at least more engaging than the Christian Bale incarnation, but Wonder Woman and The Flash are still the most enjoyable and watchable of the squad.

At some point next year we're getting a solo Aquaman movie (though probably not one for Cyborg), as well as at least one more Justice League (set up in the inevitable post-credits teaser) because there's no point in the next five or ten years when these ongoing superhero smash-em-ups are going to stop. That's not necessarily a bad thing (though I still blanch at the idea of spending as obscene an amount of money as three hundred million dollars on one movie), but I just wish they were better. Instead they're okay. And okay at that price tag just isn't enough for some incidental pleasures and only two of the six lead characters. I wanted to like it (obviously: the idea of wanting to hate a movie is clearly insanity) but in the end it's a two- or three-star movie at very, very best, depending on how charitable you feel.

***

Saturday, 18 November 2017

BLOODSPORT II

OUCH CONTAINS OOF AARGH SPOILERS OW

Sometimes you don't want Art. Sometimes you don't want refined analyses of the human condition or insightful reflections on contemporary society. Sometimes it's Friday night and all you really want is ninety minutes of freakishly proportioned weirdos beating the stuffing out of each other in full skull-cracking stereo, with as little narrative, character or emotional content as possible. It doesn't have to be any good, it doesn't have to be brilliantly acted, so long as most of the people on screen get repeatedly kicked in the head and end up with compound fractures of every bone they have.

Bloodsport II is that movie, ticking off pretty much all of the requirements of the idiot martial arts sequel. Minimal plot: convicted thief Daniel Bernhardt is tutored in a Thai prison hellhole in the ways of spirituality and extreme violence by wise old James Hong (telling much of the story in flashback), and then proceeds through the early stages of the legendary Kumite competition by knocking seven bags of soot out of a succession of increasingly formidale maniacs. Fearsome adversary: his former prison guard, built like a completely invulnerable brick wall, who's quite obviously going to lose the Grand Final in the last few minutes. Totty: just one token female fighter in the Kumite and one potential girlfriend for our redeemed hero, because this isn't a film for blubby romantic mush.

It's not very good (it's certainly not up there with Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakout original, with which this nominal sequel has very little connection beyond the Kumite itself), but it clearly wasn't supposed to be. So long as someone gets punched in the face every few minutes and everyone screams while delivering pulverising body blows to their opponent, it's done its job and everyone's happy. Except for the BBFC, who cut a whole second to remove the dreaded double-ear clap, thus clearly rendering the entire project a total waste of time.

**

EMMANUELLE IV

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND IDIOCY EVEN BY MY STANDARDS

It is hardly an earth-shattering revelation that Emmanuelle IV is rubbish. Copious amounts of soft-focus humping in exotic locales while tinkly Euromuzak slop burbles away on the soundtrack, glamorous women (and men) getting their kit off and going at it like hammers, supremely idiotic dialogue that makes the Star Wars prequels sound like Aaron Sorkin's pithiest, plotting that would shame a daytime soap opera: a 33-years-on recount by the Academy Awards is not on the cards. What there is, perhaps all there is, is a sense of disappointment as the previous third entry in the saga, Goodbye Emmanuelle, was probably the best thus far.

Of course, noting that an Emmanuelle movie this far down the franchise has terrible acting and a lousy script is like suggesting the last Woody Allen was short on car chases and had very little social commentary about gun control. That's really not its job. Even so, the stupidometer rarely dips below ninety in Emmanuelle IV. This is the one in which either Sylvia Kristel or the producers decided that she was too old (at 32) to keep on getting her bum out and so has extensive plastic surgery to transform her into the younger, slimmer, fitter Mia Nygren. Confusingly, she also changes her name to Emmanuelle from Sylvia, suggesting this is an entirely unrelated entry in the series as she spends the first act playing herself as a magazine journalist. But she still has her old memories of her all-consuming love for Marc (Patrick Bauchau, not in any of the previous films) - obviously, because she hasn't had her mind wiped or her memory implanted: this isn't Total Recall or Blade Runner. If there's any dick in this movie it sure ain't Philip K.

So Emmanuelle mopes around Brazil recuperating from extensive surgery, having sex, watching other people having sex, blathering on and on about her voyage of sexual discovery in a manner that you might describe as navel gazing except it's not even her own navel any more. Eventually she goes back to Marc, thus rendering the whole adventure redundant, musing that their perfect love meant they were destined to be together forever, even though [1] that perfect love didn't stop her from humping miscellaneous Brazilian randoms and [2] it's less a matter of predestined cosmic fate than a matter of flying to Paris, sneaking into his office and making dinner reservations for the two of them.

The fact that it's utter drivel, however, shouldn't have stopped it from being a good time. At least the earlier entries had a measure of exotic glamour about them and that's mostly absent here: it's got little more in the way of gloss and style than one of Joe D'Amato's artless knockoffs. To judge from his IMDb page and a brief trawl round Google videos, director Francis Leroi is apparently a hardcore guy anyway (this is soft as wet blancmange), though he subsequently made several small-screen continuations featuring flashbacks to a younger Emmanuelle as told by Kristel to jetsetting businessman George Lazenby. There's absolutely nothing in Emmanuelle IV to suggest that further entries in the series would be a sufficiently rewarding evening's entertainment.

*

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

This is supposed to be the Adam Sandler film that it's okay to have on your DVD shelf. It's the one that doesn't feel out of place on the prestigious Criterion label, the one where you don't laugh because it's not a comedy, rather than one where you don't laugh because Sandler has the comedic value of blunt force trauma. It's the one where Sandler is annoying because he's supposed to be annoying, not one where he's supposed to be a lovable goofy manchild but just comes off as annoying. That's because it's an auteur piece by the apparently uncriticisable (it's a word) dahhling of the cravat-wielding cineaste set Paul Thomas Anderson.

I'm ambivalent about PTA: I loved Boogie Nights and half-liked There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice, but absolutely hated The Master which everyone else in the world adored. Sadly, this is another one in the debit column: a deliberately weird and offputting non-romantic anti-comedy in which oddity salesman Sandler meets up with Emily Watson, co-worker with one of his (seven) sisters. He's a long-term loner with anger issues, he's buying huge stocks of supermarket desserts because of an airmiles offer, but he's also falling victim to a phone-sex scam operated by mattress mogul Philip Seynour Hoffmann...

Some of the current titans of mainstream American multiplex comedy - Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill - are more interesting (or at least less irritating) when they're playing lighter, more sophisticated comedy or actual straight drama: Melinda And Melinda, Steve Jobs, True Story. Thus far I've managed to dodge many of the Happy Gilmore-shaped bullets, because life's too short to keep hurting yourself like that, but in the case of Punch-Drunk Love it's not just him that seems to have been deliberately designed to be as odd and out of place as possible. From Jon Brion's intrusive score to Sandler's weirdly distracting bright blue suit, from the harmonium dumped at the side of the road (serving neither character nor narrative purposes, it's just something that happens) to the straight bits of comedy (unbreakable sink plungers which aren't) and violence (Sandler setting about a bunch of goons with a tyre iron), it's a film in which none of the pieces fit together, and quite deliberately.

What it does have in its favour is magnificent photography: even on Blu through a 37-inch TV, Anderson's regular DP Robert Elswit makes the celluloid soar with bold colours and it's an absolute validation of 35mm stock over cold dead digital. But I don't think the technicals of filmmaking are anywhere near enough to offset grating characters and score (including multiple uses of a song from the Popeye soundtrack, of all things) and narrative: it leaves you feeling uncomfortable and frustrated, and I don't get the logic in deliberate feelbad. I don't usually get Paul Thomas Anderson (give me Paul WS Anderson any day!), I certainly don't get Adam Sandler, and I absolutely don't get Punch-Drunk Love.

**

PRAY. / PRAY 2: THE WOODS / PRAY 3: THE STORM

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS.

Yes, there is a full stop in the title of the first film, but in truth some errant punctuation marks are the least of these movies' problems. In slasher movies with no slash and frankly insufficient stalk, performances barely this side of "speaking out loud", flat digital photography that is frequently too poorly lit to make anything out, montages of absolutely nothing that go nowhere and post-credits blooper reels, it's hard to care that much about the exact title in the opening credits beyond just noting it for the record.

Pray. is a bog-standard maniac-on-the-loose horror with Christian overtones (meaning there's no blood, sex or swearing) in which a young Christian woman is vaguely stalked by a psycho whose only noticeable characteristics are a chain tattoo and the inevitable plastic mask. She and some friends attend a Christian rock festival, and get to hang out with the band afterwards (absolutely nothing goes on) but later on there might be someone hiding in her room. That someone has already abducted one woman, and he might be watching her house the next day while she's out at Spirit Day. Eventually he gets to do his Michael Myers impression on her when she somehow gets locked into the local mall.

Pray. absolutely isn't any good at all: it drags at a mere 68 minutes and even then could have lost maybe twenty minutes of nothing much happening, including the entire Spirit Day sequence which is just video coverage of church activities. To its credit, the film does pull off one effective Boo! scare (well, it made me jump at least, even if it turns out to be a red herring), but it ends on a bizarre note in which The Lord appears to have performed a genuine miracle to help her escape, while leaving it unexplored as to why He put her in that position in the first place. As for the killer, he's left a nameless blank: we never find out what he wants, where he's from, or what the clearly significant chain tattoo represents.

Some of that is saved for Pray 2: The Woods, which has enough plot material for three films yet can't seem to satisfactorily fill one. The first film's abductee (cheekily named Laurie Curtis) finds herself in a woodland storage shed, from which she escapes and becomes a minor celebrity on the public access talk show circuit plugging her memoir. But the psycho, revealed as having gone mad after five years in prison for beating up his girlfriend (he didn't, she lied), is on her trail again, though failing to do much more than break into her house and then go on the run from the cops and FBI through the woods - the exact same woods where the first film's young Christian group are out on a camping and bible study trip. Meanwhile a trio of comedy cops, one with a false moustache and one wearing a shirt that boasts the production company logo, sit outside in a van, jabbering endlessly in scenes that must have been improvised because no actual human would ever have typed all this drivel out.

Furthering the unaccountable nods to Halloween (which also includes scary pumpkin faces in the dead slow opening credits) the maniac is listed as Shape in the cast list for both (and Tyler in the second). The first film also features a shop called Kruger's; it's a real store which is thanked in the end credits, and might have been picked less for that genre nod than the fact that Kruger is the surname of the editor/cinematographer/co-writer/co-producer. But as is so often the case, dropping a few names from classic horrors, even coincidentally, doesn't make up for a total absence of skill and style. Music is very badly used: both films' scores are culled from horror veteran Richard Band's soundtrack library service but they achieve no effect whatsoever.

Staggeringly, Pray 3: The Storm is almost decent. It's still not any good, it's saddled with terrible non-performances, bible quotes and prayers, and a songtrack full of faith-based soft rock numbers (from a band called Dutton) and it struggles to make it to the hour mark, but in the intervening years someone has clearly sat the auteurs down with a bunch of actual horror movies and shown them some simple suspense techniques they could adopt. A masked stalker, who may or may not be the same guy from the first two films, is on the trail of Laurie Curtis yet again, as she and her husband leave the kids at home with a couple of teenage videoblogger idiots. They spend most of the evening watching the first Pray. film on DVD and are too dumb to notice the wide open window right next to them.

Photography is leagues ahead of the first two instalments, possibly due to being designed for 3D (!) and, despite clearly being intended for home viewing, being framed in 2.35 widescreen. The film also manages some neat use of the security cameras in the Curtis house and doesn't overuse the night-vision cellphone gimmick in the manner of the worst of found footage. They also manage to slip in a Friday The 13th reference, and the completely useless stalker finally gets down to scaring the bejaysus out of a couple of airheads. But the lead cop's name badge has the actor's name on it, the husband wears a T-shirt advertising one of the director's earlier films, the TV news channel is actually called Faux News, and towards the end the film doesn't seem to know whether the power has been restored or not and therefore how dark things are supposed to be.

Inevitably, it has an open ending setting things up for a fourth instalment, but Pray 3 was made back in 2012 and there's no indication that the most bloodless horror franchise of all time is ripe for a continuation. All three films were directed by (Dr) Matt Mitchell, who also takes a substantial role as a pastor in the second one; he's also combined Pray. and Pray 2 to form Pray 2.5, which I haven't bothered to watch, even for the sake of my fast-fading completism. None of them are any good, but the third one is closest to "not terrible" and the closest to what the horror audience would generally recognise as a horror movie (let alone a good horror movie). Being of faith - faith of any stripe - doesn't get you a free pass for making terrible movies and it's only the third chunk of The Laurie Curtis Trilogy that picks up as a borderline entertaining horror, despite its legions of faults. Should you wish to, they're all on Amazon Prime.

*
*
**