Tuesday, 30 September 2014

THE EQUALIZER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH

Without wanting to sound like a broken record, but this is yet another example of the BBFC showing grotesque leniency to a distributor who's asked for a lower certificate, and who's got it after frankly insignificant trims to a couple of moments from a film that's positively awash with blood and slaughter. There is no way on Earth that this spectacularly violent action thriller, far more graphic and sweary than the still-18 rated Die Hard, should have got away with a 15 since the minimal cuts have by definition placed it right on the dividing line between 15 and 18. Distributors should grow some balls and accept the adults-only rating that comes with an adults-only film, and the BBFC should remember that their job is not to issue meaningless certificates just to make the studios richer. It's not really an issue that the cuts have neutered the film - if you can spot the edits in amidst the remaining carnage you've a better eye than mine - but there does seem to be a growing obsession with getting audiences into films which are patently unsuitable for them.

Nominally it's based on the 1980s TV show with Edward Woodward: here The Equalizer is Denzel Washington, apparently an ordinary guy working in the US equivalent of Homebase. He's friendly, helpful, but keeps to himself....until a teenage girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) he occasionally chats to in an all-night diner gets beaten up and, as a "knight in a world without knights" (his literature choices aren't the subtlest signposts of the way the film's going), he feels a growing need to intervene. This ultimately means taking on, and taking down, most of the Russian Mafia, with the final showdown in Homebase amidst its shelves of barbed wire, drills and blowtorches....

All this is good nasty fun with a healthy dose of the kind of graphic violence we don't tend to get in movies any more, and I enjoyed it immensely. Sometimes you get a Denzel Washington badass action movie that's really bloody and not very good - Man On Fire for one - but even though this one takes a while to get going, preferring to spend its time establishing character (to the extent that one of his revenge missions takes place entirely offscreen; we just see him put the hammer back on the shelf afterwards), it's well put together, and nicely shot with an old-fashioned feel about it. Sure, it's not much of an intellectual piece: the villains are all nasty evil hateful murderous boo-hiss scum with not a likable corpuscle between them, and there's no surprise twist in the plot because there's barely a plot to start with.

Perhaps, if you're a bit of a beard-stroking Guardianista, you could also take issue with the film's gender representation. Of the five female speaking roles, two are hookers for whom things go extremely badly (one is played by Chloe Grace Moretz who, let's remember, is only seventeen), two of the others are supporting non-hooker victims, and the fifth merely provides a chunk of exposition. But this isn't a film for wet liberal sensibilities: it's a film for people who want to watch Denzel Washington hurt a lot of people with DIY implements, and marking it down for its attitude to the ladies is like knocking a star off Four Weddings And A Funeral for its lack of running chainsaws. As a grim, needlessly violent exploitation movie with lots of dead people and kill shots that would have made it a video nasty a generation ago, I enjoyed it far more than I suppose I should have.

****

Sunday, 28 September 2014

MAPS TO THE STARS

CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS

I know this has the whiff of heresy about it, but to my mind David Cronenberg hasn't done a really interesting film in a very long time, and a genuinely great one in even longer. There are two bona fide masterpieces in his back catalogue: The Fly and Videodrome, but since then his films have been getting more cerebral and more intellectual but far less emotionally rewarding. Oh, I know a lot of people raved about A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises (neither of which I thought were the classics everyone claimed), but Cosmopolis was tedious, wilfully obtuse drivel and A Dangerous Method needed far more in the way of of Keira Knightley shrieking and pulling grotesque faces and far less in the way of middle-aged blokes talking earnestly about the human mind. So, given that I've generally lost interest in Cronenberg since he forsook his gloopy horrors (Shivers is probably my favourite of those early films) in favour of dreary conversation pieces, the arrival of a new David Cronenberg film no longer appeals. And sadly that extends even to a David Cronenberg film set in Hollywood and boasting a dreaded 18 certificate.

Maps To The Stars is really two movies conjoined. One is an uncomfortable satire of insecure and neurotic movie types, most of whom could frankly do with being hit by a bus: ageing and fading star Julianne Moore haunted by her more famous mother, repulsive child star Evan Bird just out of rehab, pushy star mom Olivia Williams, nonsense-spouting shrink John Cusack. The last three of these are parents and child; into their lives comes long-estranged Mia Wasikowska, who proceeds to exact a psychological revenge on everyone....

With a narrative that includes drugs (medical and other), incest, child abuse, frank sex scenes and murder, Maps To The Stars doesn't lack for incident. But the trouble is that Cronenberg is so cold and remote that the whole film can't come to life. If the portrait of Hollywood as a sewer full of shallow basket cases and babbling infants is supposed to be comedic (which I'm not entirely sure about), it doesn't work: either this is normal SOP for movie people or they're beyond parody anyway. And then there's stuff which I just don't want to see: specifically Julianne Moore on the lavatory straining to poo. It's not exactly a plot point or a moment of character delineation, and has no business being there unless you're really interested in fart sounds.

Some might argue, of course, that Julianne Moore doing lavatory scenes, hands-on massage therapy in her underwear or nude FFM threesome scenes is "brave" and "fearless" acting. Me, I just think these are things I really don't want to see - and it's not that Moore is 53 years old: I don't want to look at, say, Juno Temple or the Olsen twins on the toilet either. Such images are not even best left to the imagination, but blanked completely, and Cronenberg (or anyone else) taking me there makes me very uncomfortable. Maps To The Stars is a better film than Cosmopolis, on the grounds that [1] Scooby-Doo: The Movie is a better film than Cosmopolis and [2] there is at least a narrative thread to events, even if it gets absurd towards the end, with one character in particular removed from proceedings in the most ludicrous manner. Again, as with Woody Allen and the "early funny ones", Cronenberg's "early nasty ones" are much more watchable, much more interesting and - again assuming Maps To The Stars is at heart a comedy - much more enjoyable.

**

Friday, 26 September 2014

POMPEII

INCLUDIT COPIOSAS TURPIS FABULA [THIS REVIEW INCLUDES DETAILS OF THE STORY]

Well, it's not the worst thing Paul WS Anderson, aka The One Who Isn't Paul Thomas Anderson, has made (that would be Mortal Kombat, of course), but it's still a long way off his best work. It's no Event Horizon, it's certainly no Death Race, and it's not even up there with his instalments of the increasingly deranged Resident Evil series. In the silliness stakes we're more in the ballpark of The Three Musketeers: a handsomely enough done historical, but nothing more than a breathtakingly silly romp. This is piffle, tosh and tommyrot on a colossal scale that follows the dreaded template of Titanic and Pearl Harbour: an opening stretch of blubbery schoolgirl mush and boo-hiss villainy followed by an orgy of spectacular CGI carnage and destruction.

Pompeii starts somewhere in the wilds of Northern Britain, with evil boo-hiss Roman centurion Kiefer Sutherland wiping out the Celtic Horse Tribes because they're blocking his trade routes. The sole survivor grows up to be top fighter Kit Harington, known only as The Celt and possessed of a six-pack you could bounce a grapefruit off. En route from Rome to Pompeii, his horse whispering skills and rippling muscles catch the eye of landed gentry Emily Browning, but he's condemned to gladiatorial combat in the Arena, and she has already snared the unwelcome attentions of Kiefer Sutherland, now an evil boo-hiss Roman senator who may invest in Pompeii's civic refurbishments - at a price. And occasionally, Vesuvius has a bit of a rumble.

It's almost exactly an hour before she finally blows, and we get the earth tremors, the flaming boulders, the burning rocks, the tidal waves, the clouds of ash and so on that we've been hoping would turn up and stop the Mills And Boon blither, and that's the point when it kicks in to life and we get half an hour or so of burning death and pyroclastic mayhem (perfectly acceptable in 2D, and it doesn't look like 3D would have added significantly). Terrible dialogue in English accents, Sutherland clearly having fun as a monumental bastard in a toga, plenty of demented slaughter in the Arena: it's too much I'm Spartacus and not enough I'm On Fire. It's a stupid film and it's not a very good one, but it is kind of fun.

**

Kaboom:

THE LAST SHOWING

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

For some reason I didn't see this new thriller at this year's FrightFest. It may well have been something to do with the trailer, which gave the impression that it was heavy on the found-footage style (which of course I loathe), much of the imagery apparently coming from lo-def security cameras. In the event, of course, it was nothing of the kind: it does incorporate surveillance and camcorder material but it's all within a "regular" movie context. However, the film has arrived on the home video market with some speed, whereas the films it clashed with in the festival's Discovery screens have sadly yet to obtain any kind of UK release.

The Last Showing is a pretty generic horror movie title for a frankly pretty generic movie, but it does give the legendary Robert Englund another stab at horror movie maniachood that's as radically different from Freddy Krueger as Freddy was from harmless alien Willie from V. He's Stuart Lloyd, a buttoned-up British projectionist in a soulless multiplex facing the switchover to digital and the end of celluloid: on his last night he uses the cinema's surveillance camera network, manipulating his last couple of cinemagoers with onscreen messages, to put together a "horror film" of his own....

Sadly, the plot doesn't hang together as there are too many factors beyond the maniac's control, not the least of which is that everything hinges on the girl wanting snacks that can be easily drugged. It also hinges on the cinema manager being unable to convince the hero he isn't the villain, and the hero (who has presumably never even held a handgun in his life) managing a clean kill with one shot, More crucially, it requires that a town the size of Ellesmere Port (the film was shot in their 12-screen Vue Cheshire Oaks) can only muster up two customers interested in a midnight screening of, of all things, Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes Part 2; one more ticket sold and the villain's plan won't work.

I generally like movies set in cinemas - Demons, Midnight Movie, even The Majestic - and this one uses its setting well. Taking place in one location with five speaking parts (one doesn't turn up until the last reel and another two are taken out of the action for some time) it's a decent example of getting the maximum out of very limited resources. It's also nice to see a film willing to acknowledge the projection problems that come with digital, as no-one seems willing (or qualified) to fix things like incorrect aspect ratios on electronic projectors. Against that, casual mention in the dialogue of the very real tragedies on the sets of The Crow and especially Twilight Zone: The Movie as villainous motivation strikes a sour note in what is basically a disposable Saturday night rental starring that guy from A Nightmare On Elm Street. Not awful, and fun enough while it's on, but once you start thinking about it afterwards it does unfortunately fall apart.

***

Focus!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

ASSAULT ON WALL STREET

CONTAIN$ $OM£ $POIL£R$

Say what you like about fighty German trash auteur Uwe Boll, he likes to cast an unflinching eye on a wide range of important social issues. In Seed, for example, he looks at the darkness of the immortal and unstoppable serial killer, while in Postal he looks at 9/11, Nazi death camps and comedy dwarfs. In Rampage, he looks at shooting sprees and the laxity of the gun laws in modern America, in Darfur he looks at the African genocide phenomenon, and in Blubberella he looks at the concept of a Nazi-killing female superhero with an eating disorder. Whatever it is, Boll looks.

This time around, Boll turns his attention to the banking crisis and the rich-poor divide. Everyman security guard Jim (Dominic Purcell) suddenly sees his life falling apart as the financial collapse that not only wipes out all his investments but leaves him with impossible debts: he loses his terminally ill wife (in the most absurdly melodramatic of circumstances), his job and his house, leaving him with nothing. Except a high powered sniper rifle and a righteous fury within him...

There is obviously room for a caustic commentary on America's financial institutions: how billionaire bankers lost everybody's money but they still get to keep their yachts and expensive mansions while the small investors end up losing their life savings, their pensions, and everything they've worked for. But Assault On Wall Street isn't it. Uwe Boll is not interested in dissecting Wall Street in a coolly analytical manner, he's interested in a childish revenge fantasy of violent wish fulfilment in which all the bankers are brutally murdered at their desks.

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that as a concept for a film. The trouble is that it takes over an hour before our hero finally starts fighting back, and the inevitable rampage of bloody violence is confined to the last reel of the film. It's a satisfying payoff, it just takes far too long to get there. However, there is a suggestion this could lead to a sequel, which means this functions more as an extended origins story for a vigilante superhero, and Assault On Wall Street 2 can start murdering investment bankers and hedge fund managers pretty much from the opening credits.

Which is no less stupid than this film, but it might be more fun. This is typical Uwe Boll: guest appearances by familiar faces slumming it (Eric Roberts, Keith David, the inevitable Michael Pare), a hardon for senseless violence, and the whole thing really not being very good. Boll isn't actually a particularly terrible film maker (go watch some Al Adamson films and then come back and tell me Uwe Boll is the worst director in the world), but he's no Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese in the Wall Street movie stakes.

**

Sunday, 21 September 2014

THE EXPENDABLES III

CONTAINS MINIMAL SPOILERING AND MOANING ABOUT THE 12A

Here is yet another example of a film distributor colluding with the BBFC in order to obtain a certificate which is grossly and grotesquely inappropriate for the content and context of the film. There is no way that an Expendables movie should be anything other than a 15 certificate at the very outside; indeed, given the sheer amount of carnage, as well as its casual throwaway nature, one really feels it should be worthy of an 18. But they want the teenie dollar and if that means artistic compromise (inasmuch as an Expendables film has any significant artistry in the first place), then what the hell? At this rate it wouldn’t surprise me if the guest star in The Expendables 4 was Buzz Lightyear.

In addition to turning the violence down to a point where unaccompanied eight year olds can watch it, Sylvester Stallone and the producers have also sought to capture the youth market by reducing the average age of the cast up to somewhere below ninety. Granted, they’ve brought in a shaky-looking 72-year-old Harrison Ford to replace Bruce Willis, who’s only 59 but apparently wanted too much money, but the other regulars (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Albert Steptoe) are sidelined for much of the time. Initially the oldsters are on what looks like a routine interception mission, but once it turns out that the chief villain is Mel Gibson, Stallone fires his crew and hires fresher, younger blood. Inevitably it doesn’t go according to plan and the oldsters have to get back together and rescue them...

All of this is perfectly enjoyable as these things go: lots of explosions, lots of anonymous, faceless henchmen cheerily thought bloodlessly mown down, elderly men beating the tar out of each other and the occasional funny line. In terms of mayhem and destruction The Expendables III is good crash bang wallop popcorn knockabout. But the issue of the 12A will not go away and the knowledge that this film is available to children sits very uncomfortably. Surely it's better that impressionable children are taught the true horrific consequences of violence, and not sold it as a family friendly entertainment in which most of the people indiscriminately murdered are not even given the courtesy of a close-up to suggest they might actually be real human beings rather than a collection of pixels from Call Of Duty? I really do feel the BBFC have their hat on backwards on this issue.

***

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

One of the things we appear to have lost in recent years, as studios apparently concentrate exclusively on massive quarter of a billion dollar superhero behemoths, is the old fashioned midrange crime thriller, the film aimed at adults (as in grown-ups rather than dirty old men) rather than clueless and easily distracted teenagers. Once upon a time of movies were principally made for mature audiences rather than families and children; now it's the other way round and in all honesty the industry is worse for the switch. Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favour of the mindless 12A blockbuster if it's done well enough; but it's nice to find that once in a while they still make films aimed slightly higher than whizzbang eye candy.

A Walk Among The Tombstones turns out to be just such a film: a grim, serious lowlife crime thriller which has no interest in easy popcorn thrills, instead of choosing to explore the seamy, grimy side of pre-millennial New York. Liam Neeson is the hard boiled world weary former cop turned unofficial private eye, called in by sleazy trafficker Dan Stevens to track down the hideous psychopaths who kidnapped, and then murdered, his wife. As he digs through the tenuous leads, he discovers that it's happened before - and will probably happen again...

It's not a great film: for one thing Neeson ends up as a reluctant mentor to a street kid (Brian 'Astro' Bradley - best known for being an X factor contestant), and for another pretty much everyone in the movie is an unsympathetic individual for whom it's difficult to raise much empathy. (The female roles are almost exclusively victims.) But I liked the downbeat feel of the film, the washed out colours, the fact that the plot is perfectly happy to place young children in mortal danger, and the sometimes vicious level of violence.

Having said that, it's a pity that the distributors elected to try and water down the film by making a few trims (for very strong language and a scene of sexualised threat) in order to obtain a 15 certificate. Quite apart from the fact that this is quite clearly an adult film for adult audiences and should be rated as such, this means it's a very strong 15: as close as possible to an 18 without actually being burdened with one. Personally I feel the released version is still worthy of an 18, just as the sanitised A Good Day To Die Hard still warranted a restrictive 15 rather than a cuddly 12A. No matter: those small excisions don't get in the way of a grim, sordid but still darkly enjoyable thriller. Worth seeing.

****

Monday, 15 September 2014

HOW I LIVE NOW

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

First off, I'm probably not the principal target audience for this. The novel appears to be classified as Young Adult, and I'm neither, and the central character is yet again a teenage girl. But on the other hand I'm a fan of apocalypse movies and "empty world" stories (The Day Of The Triffids, The Omega Man), so anything in which The Bomb goes off or 99% of the population are otherwise disposed of pretty swiftly is usually okay with me. However, in this case there's a struggle to find the right tone between the teenie romance and the horrors of post-nuke Britain, and I don't think they've entirely found it.

Essentially How I Live Now is a cross between The Famous Five and Threads: Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) has been reluctantly shipped off to cousins somewhere in Norfolk and is having a generally rotten time until she sees her strapping neighbour: sensitive, kind, good with animals. But then the endless games in the hazy summer countryside are brought rudely to a halt by unidentified extremists exploding a nuclear weapon in London. Rather than face evacuation, they decide to stay where they are, until the Army turn up and take them away to farms and military training camps. Daisy and her youngest cousin plan their escape back to the farmhouse, through the woods and the horrors of war....

It's difficult to reconcile the idyllic rural larking about (there is very little adult presence in the film) and hesitant relationship of the first half hour with scenes such as Daisy working through a courtyard full of corpses to see if her cousins are there. There's enough horrific imagery in the film to guarantee the 15 certificate that cuts out that YA/"tweenie" demographic (there's also a smattering of F-words, and a curious, very brief and entirely unnecessary nude dream sequence). It's also a very quick series of about-changes for her character: from her sullen, unsocial arrival when she's actually more interesting, through love-struck teen (a change apparently brought about by nothing more than being pushed into the river) to gritty survivalist prepared to kill.

Still, in spite of it never quite getting the tone right, I rather enjoyed How I Live Now: it conveys enough of the possible chaos and massive disruption to everyday English life to make it plausibly chilling, and frankly to keep a 50-year-old bloke like me interested when the drippy teen stuff kicks in. I can't remember why I didn't catch it on its cinema release, though, as it's generally the sort of thing I go for. I'd be surprised if I come back to it any time soon, but I liked it well enough.

***

Kaboom: