Thursday, 26 January 2012



I know it's almost gone from the cinema circuits after only a few weeks, but [1] time was when a week was all you ever got and [2] it's had some terrible reviews which I genuinely don't feel were deserved. Certainly this alien Armageddon thriller is no masterpiece and it is hugely reminiscent of Skyline (which was okay but scarcely an instant classic), but it's more fun and far less thuddingly noisy than Battle Los Angeles, and rattles along efficiently enough with some impressive scenes of urban devastation in the company of some teens not quite annoying enough to have you cheering for the alien invaders.

Having been shafted in a business deal involving social networking apps, a couple of hotshot Americans are drowning their sorrows with some cute American tourists in a top Moscow nightclub when the sky lights up with countless falling shimmers of light. But these lights are actually vicious and voracious alien creatures made of pure energy, that disintegrate their prey on contact. Within a few days, all but a handful of people remain alive, including our two couples and the hateful bastard who stole their business deal: how long can they stay on the streets? How can they possibly get back home? What do these creatures want and do they have any weaknesses that can be exploited to stop them?

The Darkest Hour benefits from being set in Moscow - it makes a change to see somewhere other than America being devastated all the time (although an early sequence shows the familiar logos of Starbucks and McDonalds), it puts our heroes' friends and families out of the way, and it also places them in further difficulties as they're in a strange city where they, and we, don't know the language or even the alphabet. The effects are fine, of course, but by this time and at this level they really shouldn't be anything less than fine. If there are some questionable plot moments - one character falls into the river but needs to be rescued from the bus depot some distance inland; and surely it would be quicker if they used bicycles to get around the city - they're really pretty minor; it's a film about luminous alien energy monsters wiping out Moscow after all.

Happily, 20th Century Fox have released the film in a 2D version along with the 3D (unlike Entertainment's release of Underworld: Awakening which was 3D only, despite the extra dimension being entirely pointless and merely rendered much of the film needlessly dark). I only watched it in 2D - I'm increasingly reluctant to cough up the 3D premium unless there's a monumentally good reason for it, such as the film being directed by Martin Scorsese or Dario Argento - and in all honesty the film loses nothing by being viewed in the mere two dimensions that most other films manage with perfectly well (and of course, the two dimensions that the DVD and BluRay release will be stuck with). Timur Bekmambetov was one of the producers.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012



I've never been the biggest Ridley Scott fan. He's made two genuine masterpieces, the marvellous Alien and the magnificent Blade Runner, but more recently he's drifted away into relatively uninteresting fare (and in the case of Robin Hood, thoroughly tiresome). Body Of Lies and American Gangster were fine: they're well made films, but they didn't have the beauty and magic of those two early showstoppers, particularly Blade Runner which is one of the richest, most gorgeous and endlessly rewatchable movies ever made. Purely on a visual level it's utterly jaw-dropping (and literally so: that was my reaction when I first saw it at my local Granada) and that look - the steam and neon and whirring fans - is such a part of it that I really wish Scott made more movies with that aesthetic.

And happily Black Rain is a film with that aesthetic as well: great chunks of it could have been shot on the same sets, and the end result is that 1987 Tokyo looks so much like the Los Angeles of 2017 that the film's almost great to start with. It's a pity that the substance of the film doesn't reward quite as much as the photography and production design do. Tough, cynical New York cop Conklin (Michael Douglas) captures Japanese gangster Sato and, along with his partner (Andy Garcia), is assigned to escort him back to Osaka, where Sato is wanted in connection with an ongoing mob war with older oyabun Saigu. But Sato's men take him before they're even off the plane and the two Americans are reduced to mere observers as the local police take charge....

It's a culture-clash film, between the rigorous code of honour in both the Japanese police and the yakuza, and the go-for-it individual attitude of the brash, vulgar Americans. Sato's behaviour is as much of an affront to the yakuza as Conkin's is to the Japanese police force. And gradually, just as Conklin learns something of honour, shame and respect (in particular concerning his own corruption), their "handler" (Ken Takakura) learns to use his own initiative to take more direct action rather than strictly observing the rulebook. But in truth I'd like it a lot more if Conklin wasn't such a naturally unlikable character - he's hard to warm to, and his charmless and foul-mouthed borderline racism (borne out of ignorance rather than malice) makes him a weak protagonist.

Nonetheless, Black Rain is certainly worth seeing for the beautiful visuals of Osaka at night and the fabulously attractive portrait of modern Japan. When I saw it on the big screen back in the 80s I was probably overwhelmed by these aspects of the movie, but watching it on a non-anamorphic DVD (with, it has to be said, pretty mediocre picture quality) the visuals, and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, are inevitably diminished. It's still a decent enough three-star film, and it's still worth seeing, but probably not as good as you remember it.


Tuesday, 24 January 2012



Eh? What? WHAT? I'm not exactly a philistine and I'm all in favour of movies that do something interesting or offbeat or a little bit different, but when it comes to unbounded Art the lack of limitation enjoyed by absolute creativity can bring its own problems - specifically boring into submission any viewer who isn't on the same aesthetic wavelength. In this instance what is apparently supposed to be some kind of historical allegory emerges as cripplingly dull, failing completely to engage the viewer and boasting an admittedly unusual gimmick that achieves nothing except making the movie even sillier and less accessible. And it's got hurdy-gurdy music in it - the most grating and annoying musical instrument ever devised.

Heart Of Glass isn't a plot-based film: set in 18th century Bavaria and concerns a small village renowned for its production of spectacular red glassware - but unfortunately the factory foreman has died without revealing the secret of the Ruby Glass and without it the glassworks, and thus the town, faces ruin. No-one can find the details of the process; meanwhile everyone steadily goes nuts, holding a party in the village pub for a dead man, and a philosophising cowhand (who may or may not have paranormal abilities) is brought in to solve the secret of the glass.

The big gimmick about Werner Herzog's 1976 film is that almost all the cast were performing under hypnosis - why? If it was to get them to behave as though they'd just been hit round the head with a really large rock then it worked, but frankly nothing is gained from having them speak and movie so awkwardly that it looks like they had no idea what they were doing (which they presumably didn't). Rather than a European art film, it feels like some kind of transmission from outer space - if they made movies on Mars this is probably what they'd look like. It's got a dreamlike feel, and as with most dreams nothing makes sense, people drift in and out without explanation and talk what in the real world would be arrant nonsense.

Despite some nice imagery, it's achingly dull and too impenetrable to rack up much interest even at a slim 90 minutes. I'll admit I'm a relative newcomer to Herzog's work and it may well be, like Jean-Luc Godard and Weekend, that this movie really isn't the best place to start (although I rather liked his Bad Lieutenant film, and I remember rather admiring Nosferatu as well). I'm told Aguirre: Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo are better ways into his films; let's hope so. This one genuinely hurt to watch.


Monday, 23 January 2012



There is a certain pleasure in watching older British movies that have nothing to do with the acting, writing, photography and so on. Many are a curious archive capsule of times lost and there's a strange nostalgic appeal in the cars, the clothes, the music and the attitudes; how people dressed, how they spoke, how they behaved. Certainly that's the main attraction of this sleazy and tacky sex movie in which everyone's thoroughly horrible, selfish, with more money than soul and are obsessed primarily with themselves and their own pleasures in the glitzy and hollow world of exclusive London discotheques in the late 1970s.

The Stud himself is Oliver Tobias, manager of a supposedly glamorous London club but with plans for a club of his own. But he doesn't have the money, and he's really just the plaything of wealthy but absurdly named Fontaine Khaled (Joan Collins), bored wife of an elderly businessman. For reasons that are presumably in the Jackie Collins novel that I obviously haven't read (and equally obviously am not going to), this charmless middle-aged Lothario gets the hots for Fontaine's sweet and innocent teenage stepdaughter, seducing her on the first evening.... but then starts falling in love with her! What with all the other women he's servicing, it's not surprising that he's literally shagged out and too tired to perform to his usual high standards at Fontaine's Christmas orgy in a Parisian swimming pool. But back in London, her unsuspecting husband has found the incriminating videotape of her and The Stud going at it like billy-o in a lift....

Don't misunderstand: The Stud is rubbish. I first saw it back in the 1980s on a pre-cert VHS; I didn't much like it then and I certainly don't like it now. Pretty much every single person in it you would cheerfully push down a mineshaft, the dialogue is awful, and the sex scenes are astonishingly artless and unarousing (yes, you get to see Joan Collins OBE naked a few times). The action stops more than once for long sequences of disco dancing at the club, and the sound mix on several other disco sequences means much of the dialogue is lost in the music. But it's still somewhat interesting for its nostalgia content and its depiction of gaudy, empty and rather pathetic lifestyles. There's a sequel, The Bitch, which I also saw on VHS more than 20 years ago and didn't much like, and which I'll probably still not like when they send that to me as well.


Two in one:

Sunday, 22 January 2012



It's an odd thing. When martial artists start out in movies they usually do so at the bottom end of the industry - cheap thick-ear action movies. See the early works of Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chuck "Chuckles" Norris. Yet somehow Gina Camaro has come almost literally out of nowhere to not just land a starring role alongside Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum and Ewan McGregor, but in a film directed by one of the top Hollywood A-list name directors of our time, Steven Soderbergh. How on Earth did she luck out with that? How on Earth did they get Soderbergh - director of a two-part biopic of Che Guevara and the three Ocean's movies - to direct what is basically a direct-to-video action B-thriller? Alternatively, what was it about Haywire that so interested him? It's rather like discovering that Lemon Popsicle was made by Stanley Kubrick.

Real-life Mixed Martial Arts champion Carano stars as a freelance agent doing dirty work for the US Government: following a rescue operation in Barcelona, she's given a new assignment in Dublin, where she's double-crossed, unwisely, by her paymasters, and is forced to go on the run, clear her name and deal with the shady cabal of villains. That really is pretty much all there is to it: it's a standard B-movie action thriller that 20 years ago would have been a Cynthia Rothrock movie, but is now backed by a proper director and a surprisingly heavyweight cast - a cast that also includes Antonio Banderas, who for some reason is wearing a Saddam Hussein beard and for much of the time is unrecognisable.

Yet Haywire (which is a pretty meaningless title) is really far better than the usual thud-crunch-wallop littering the DVD rental shelves. It's got a wonderful 70s look to it, with long takes rather than rapid-fire hyperediting, impressively choreographed and inventive fight scenes which have been shot so you can actually see what's happening and which genuinely look painful, and an enjoyable funk score from David Holmes, one of Soderbergh's regular composers. In truth it isn't a great film, and Carano probably isn't going on the Academy's radar any time soon (although she does the job perfectly well), but it's fun to watch and an interesting mix of director and genre. Once more I call upon Woody Allen to make the next Resident Evil movie.


Saturday, 21 January 2012



This is a baffling movie on a number of levels, not the least of which is "Why?". Madonna's second film as a director (the first, Filth And Wisdom, was back in 2008 but still remains unreleased in the UK) is narratively and musically all over the place. I don't know the strictest details of its historical accuracies - whether they met at this castle or that hotel and wore those colours - but it's a fair bet that even at a house party full of chinless toffs on champagne spiked with Benzedrine, Mrs Simpson didn't gyrate to Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols while in front of a Charlie Chaplin movie. Nor did Wallace and Edward dance to Henry Mancini's Lujon at a time when the composer was still in short trousers. Using anachronistic source music is of course a long-standing Hollywood tradition - A Knight's Tale is set in the 14th century but stuffed full of songs by Queen, David Bowie and AC/DC - but it leaps out in something that's presumably designed as a proper period piece.

Narratively W.E. is a mess as well: it filters the famous story of Wallis Simpson's (Andrea Riseborough) scandalous relationship with the heir to the British throne (James D'Arcy) through the marital breakdown of a woman in New York in 1998 who just happens to have a similar name and an unexplained fixation on Wallis. Wally (Abbie Cornish) is neglected, cheated on and beaten by her charmless dick of a husband but finds solace with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac) at Sotheby's where there's an exhibition and auction of Wallis and Edward memorabilia. This intersplicing might have worked if the two stories were even vaguely alike, but they never match up, so it ends up as two completely different movies - one a present-day romantic drama and one essentially an episode of Downton Abbey - and someone else is switching channels between them at random intervals; sometimes a few scenes, sometimes one single shot.

So what was it all about? Who's it aimed at? What's the demographic? If it had been up to me, I'd have ditched the modern stuff entirely and turned it into a camp knockabout full of snappy one-liners, knob gags and posh buffoons falling over: Carry On Up the Monarchy or something. If you're going to make a film about alleged Nazi sympathisers, go mad. Go all the way and have everyone cavorting about like they're in Allo Allo or some kind of Mel Brooks extravaganza. But in the wake of The King's Speech (the events of which obviously overlap with this movie) that would probably be a difficult sell even in an era of lame Wayans Brothers parody movies.

But Madonna hasn't down that. Instead we're left with this melange of two completely different movies glued together, one historically questionable and the other essentially unbelievable. If she's have stuck with one of the stories - either one, it doesn't really matter which - W.E. probably wouldn't have been too bad, but it's the interlocking between the two that, for me at least, really doesn't work. And it's not even funny, which could perhaps have been a saving grace.


Friday, 20 January 2012



Don't go. That's the short version. Stay home and do something else: anything else. Wash the cat or something. It's not that this latest Underworld movie is an abomination and a blight on cinema's good name - it's actually a tolerably silly piece of monster nonsense mainly notable for having Kate Beckinsale running around in skintight black shiny trousers yet again - but what knocks a star off the rating is the worthless 3D that frankly cements 3D's bad reputation. It doesn't work, it isn't necessary, and the loss of light through the polarising filters (which doesn't usually matter that much) is a serious problem in this case given that, like the other Underworld movies, much of it takes place in the dark and at night, lit entirely in steely grey-blue, and most of the cast wear black. And even the worthless 3D wouldn't matter too much if there was a 2D version released at the same time.

But the film is only being released in 3D: there doesn't appear to be a single cinema running the 2D version. Whether this was the decision of the cinema chains (it's a bumper week for new movies this week) or Entertainment Film Distributors (who submitted both versions to the censor), it's a bad deal for audiences who now have no choice but to stump up the extra cost on the ticket price for an effect that simply isn't worth it. The best advice is simply to not go. No matter how much you like vampires and werewolves and monsters and Kate Beckinsale leaping about the place in her shiny pants, wait for the BluRay which will come without this shameless ripoff of a 3D effect.

Underworld: Awakening kicks off with Selene (Beckinsale) and Michael (Scott Speedman, who isn't actually in this film except through footage from the first two films) captured by the mysterious Antigen Corporation, as the humans discover the existence of vampires and lycans and set about exterminating them. Yet both of them are placed in cryogenic capsules by mad werewolf scientist Stephen Rea for twelve years until she's released and discovers she has had a child (presumably genetically). The child is injured by a pursuing lycan and taken to a nearby secret vampire coven lorded over by Charles Dance. But the lycans are right behind them....

It's all resonably acceptable fangs and claws twaddle enlivened by enough blood and gore to garner the film an 18 certificate. And there are some nifty (albeit CGId up the wazoo) action sequences such as Selene's getaway van assailed by lycans in heavy traffic, although much of the one-on-one fighting seems merely to involve firing hundreds of bullets at each other from machine pistols that never need reloading (again, a long-standing Hollywood convention that's usually not a massive problem but it's curiously annoying here). If only they'd released a 2D print as well: there's not a single shot from start to finish that warrants an extra dimension.


It's here:

Thursday, 19 January 2012



Are top contract killers interesting characters? If you believe the movies, they're impervious to emotion and living in isolation, cynically contemplating the human condition while simultaneously working out new ways to murder people they've never met. They may travel the world wearing sharp suits and cool sunglasses, bumping off despicable people in spectacular and amusing ways, but would they make for good dinner guests? What could you possibly talk with them about? Invariably, the screenplay arc for these ruthless, machine-like loners is either that they start to develop vaguely human feelings about people, they become the target themselves and fight back using their vast experience and skills, or they have to team up with another top contract killer to really kick some final reel backside.

All three tropes show up in Assassination Games, the latest Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller in which two assassins end up on the same job and have to work together: one cold and remorseless, one angry and enraged, both capable of massacring a roomful of utter bastards without a qualm. Van Damme is in it strictly for the money and British kickboxer Scott Adkins wants revenge against the foul gangster who gangraped his wife and put her in a coma. But it's all a convoluted scheme to get rid of Adkins because he knows about high-level corruption at Interpol. Meanwhile JCVD, stoically unfeeling, has his humanity very slightly awakened by the battered woman in the apartment next door....

Like Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg (usually a more personable screen presence but pretty unlikeable here) has gone to Eastern Europe for his straight-to-DVD years, presumably because it's cheaper to make this kind of film there than in the US. Assassination Games is a miserable film as far as women are concerned: there are two principal female roles, one stuck in a coma after a gangrape (ickily, Van Damme's own daughter, who was also a coproducer) and the other regularly beaten and ultimately bloodily murdered, and even the housekeeper gets shot in the back. They're just there to provide the motivation and justification for the revenge sequences: this is a movie about blokes and killing and sadism and corruption and bigass guns. Shame then that the end result is so drab. The odd bit of crunchy violence aside, it's formulaic, grubby and nothing more than perfunctory.


Bang bang:

Wednesday, 18 January 2012



Back in the early and mid 1980s, at the height of the video nasties hysteria, this genuinely spectacular Lucio Fulci zombie movie was one of the bigger titles. Admittedly it's below the notoriety of the Big Three (Cannibal Holocaust, Driller Killer and I Spit On Your Grave) but still a more significant title than the likes of Forest Of Fear or The Werewolf And The Yeti. I probably first discovered it around 1985 via a fourth-generation bootleg VHS (paired, I think, with Romero's masterpiece Dawn Of The Dead) and then renting the cut 18-certificate video version, but it wasn't until a Eurofest screening in December 1996 that I saw the complete film clearly, in a 35mm focussed print rather than through the smear of tape-to-tape copying and tracking hash. At the time you still couldn't get it legally in the UK and you had to make do with those precious VHS dupes or try and get an import tape through Customs.

The very idea that this harmless and silly, and obviously fantastical, piece of nonsense could ever be thought obscene, to the extent of being successfully prosecuted in the UK courts is a testament to the utter absurdity of the wanton idiocy of the video nasty farce. Any movie that has a sequence with an underwater zombie attacking a shark is so beyond the bounds of common sense that it can neither deprave nor corrupt, nor eroticise. (Indeed, the overwhelming sense is one of admiration because it looks phenomenally dangerous and physically uncomfortable.) When films are hacked about these days it's for contentious scenes of sexual violence, rather than the obviously faked splatter effects which no longer trouble the censor.

These days, it's just not a problem and you can get Zombie Flesh Eaters completely uncut with very little difficulty. Hell, LoveFilm even stream it! It's just a pity that it's really not one of the frankly barking Lucio Fulci's best splattery horror movies: it doesn't have the surreal, doom-drenched atmosphere of City Of The Living Dead or the warped dreamlike illogic of The Beyond. (I really need to see The House By The Cemetery again.) What it does have is a handful of show-stopping gore sequences, most notably the celebrated splinter-in-the-eyeball that was the main casualty when it hit UK cinemas more than 30 years ago. That the plot is nonsense almost doesn't matter: a deserted yacht arrives in New York, and a top reporter (Ian McCullough) and the boat owner's daughter (Tisa Farrow) trek down to the Antilles to find out what happened. Hitching a lift to the cursed island of Matoul with a holidaying couple, they discover a doctor (Richard Johnson) trying to stop the dead coming back to life....

Strange new disease or local voodoo rituals? It doesn't really matter: it's a dumb Italian zombie movie. But it looks fantastic: while the murk of video disguised the gore effects (perversely making them look better because you couldn't really see them properly), BluRay reveals them in pinsharp clarity and they still look pretty damn good. Some of the zombie make-up jobs are pretty unremarkable but the splatter moneyshots of the zombie kills are still impressive. Doesn't really save Zombie Flesh Eaters from being a very silly film - if you're trapped in a wooden building, the weapon of choice really shouldn't be the Molotov cocktail - but an entertaining one. Mention should also be made of the splendidly doomy and remorseless Giorgio Tucci and Fabio Frizzi theme music.

As trashy Italian gore movies go, Fulci's were among the best: not only did they deliver the gore but they were perfectly well made, albeit rough and ramshackle, and if nothing else, rewatching Zombie Flesh Eaters has pushed me in the direction of revisiting other European zombie flicks of the period. In addition to seeing Fulci's The House By The Cemetery again, I also want to find a copy of Zombie Holocaust, with the same star Ian McCullough on the same island, driving the same blue Land Rover and probably wearing the same shirt.


Tuesday, 17 January 2012



Never mind the Bourne movies, this is the franchise the James Bond films should be wary of. When it comes to the glamour, globetrotting, guns, girls and gadgets, the demented antics of the IMF are precisely the kind of thing the 007 crew should be doing rather than emulating Jason Bourne's humourless personal crises. (Irrelevant aside regarding Bourne: I much prefer the first of the series rather than the hand-held grit of the two Paul Greengrass sequels.) You can almost see Brosnan or Craig - though admittedly not Sir Roger Moore - starring in this latest and possibly best of the M:I films as easily as Tom Cruise.

Ricocheting from Budapest to Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is breathless action on an industrial scale right from the start and barely lets up with hair-raising stunts, crunching fight scenes, ticking countdowns and outrageous gizmoes. Beginning with Tom Cruise's jailbreak (to the appropriate tune of Ain't That A Kick In The Head by Dean Martin), the mission is to remove a top secret file from the Kremlin archives, containing details of a potential nuclear terrorist codenamed Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist). But then the operation goes wrong: the Kremlin is bombed, the whole of the IMF disavowed - and Cruise, along with Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and analyst Jeremy Renner, must retrieve the launch codes for Russia's nuclear arsenal. This means intercepting the trade on the 118th floor of a premier Dubai hotel.... Cue vertigo attacks and clutched armrests throughout the audience as Cruise starts clambering up sheer sheet glass outside the building.

The great joy of the movie is watching the extra complications thrown in: it was pretty damned impossible to start with but the writers gleefully keep lobbing in more and more obstacles. It's not enough that they have to infiltrate the Dubai hotel computer system, for example: it's on the 125th floor and they can only access it from the outside of the building. Oh, and the electric suction gloves he has to use to climb up aren't entirely reliable. Oh, and by the way there's a sandstorm approaching. And the rubber mask generator isn't going to work. And the launch codes are going to be verified so they can't substitute dummy ones. And....

It's Mission Audacious bordering on Mission Absolutely Ridiculous, and yet they pull it off. Once you accept you're watching something so outlandishly unbelievable and thoroughly preposterous it might as well be a cartoon of stick men, you can settle into the sheer stupidity of it all and it's as much delirious popcorn entertainment as I've had in a cinema in ages. The makers haven't taken it so seriously that they've squeezed all the fun out of it as the Bournes did; but MI:GP knows it's a giant heap of silly and so it plays with a big dumb smile on its face. Better, it's a team game rather than a showcase for the star, with reluctant Renner, glamorous Patton and computer whizz Pegg all pulling their weight. Even so, it's still Cruise's movie and he is the right man for it.

Okay, some of the computer effects (such as the Kremlin bombing) look a bit weak, and the villain's motivation for starting a nuclear war is perhaps implausible even in this context: rather than power or revenge or money, he just seems to want to prove a philosophical theory about mankind. But the genuinely painful-looking combat sequences (particularly the climactic one-on-one between Cruise and Nyqvist in an automated Mumbai car park) and the non-stop thunderous action and races against the clock are what count and they're done so well I want them all to go and make Mission Impossible 5 immediately. Right this minute.


Sunday, 15 January 2012



Only a matter of time before the financial crisis sparked a film or two: we've had Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (which was okay although I tend to like my Oliver Stone shoutier than that) and now this independent banking drama/thriller which does mainly consist of men barking jargon and buzzwords at one another. Mercifully, it's not completely incomprehensible although you do need to pay attention, and the one thing that leaps out is that it's not the traders on the phones who are the villains of the banking apocalypse: they're just the troops on the grounds and they're no safer than anyone else. It's the hawks in the boardrooms, at the very top of the structure, that are the outright hateful bastards and they're safe and always will be. The blokes actually selling the bad deals are just doing their jobs.

The wikipedia page that explains what a Margin Call actually is might as well be written in Ferengi for all the sense it makes; thankfully the film simplifies everything right down to the point where even I can almost grasp what's going on. At an unnamed banking corporation, a freshly redundant Stanley Tucci passes an incomplete file to Zachary Quinto; Quinto analyses it and deduces that the company is right on the brink of financial annihilation. It's passed up the chain via Paul Bettany, Simon Baker (incidentally a dead ringer for Jamie Oliver), Demi Moore and Kevin Spacey but it's not until CEO Jeremy Irons shows up via helicopter at two in the morning that it's decided the only way out is to Sell All These Toxic Debts As Quickly As Possible To Whoever Will Buy Them - a strategy which may result in everyone losing their jobs and the bank's reputation being trashed to the point that no-one will ever want to trade with them again, but Irons will survive. And survival is everything.

It's hard to feel any sympathy for the analysts on the trading desks: they're paid ridiculous amounts of money for buying and selling imaginary stuff. Bettany's character takes over a million a year, Spacey's considerably more. But uberbastard Irons, secure and remote from the trades themselves (and indeed from Planet Earth) is on eighty-nine million dollars; he's the genuine hate figure who will throw everyone and everything to the wolves - even his own people who'll man the phones and save the corporation for him regardless of the cost to themselves and the mugs they've sold worthless stuff to.

I rather enjoyed Margin Call although I suspect it's not going to be a big attraction. I guess you can interpret it as a message movie about what happens when banks are allowed to do what they like regardless of the consequences, though that's really a message we're already more than familiar with through the news. As a drama, it works perfectly well: to a financial outsider, the babbling about historical volatility levels and market capitalisation is really the same brand of nonsense Doctor Who employs every time he sets up an ionic neutron stabiliser field. And, even two years after Up In The Air, the callous and mechanical procedure of laying off redundant personnel is still shocking (I've been made redundant twice over the years and in neither instance was it as heartless and unyielding as this). Worth a look.




Phwooooar! Get a load of this! Actually, no. Much of the advance word on this film has concerned the full nudity and frank sex scenes, but those going into the movie should know - or they'll find out pretty quickly - that it's not a sex film, it's not a porn film and it's emphatically not an erotic film. For a start the most casual of the frontal nudity is Michael Fassbender and it's probably this as much as the less graphic coupling and tripling sequences that secured the film an NC-17 rating in the States. To be fair, they get the dong shots out of the way fairly early on rather than sprinkling them throughout, presumably so you can, er, get the measure of the movie and not have it distract you from the drama later on.

Shame tells of Brandon (Fassbender), a man entirely uninterested in relationships or emotional commitments, he's only interested in, obsessed by, and addicted to sex. A top executive doing unspecified things at an unspecified company (it's not made clear but it doesn't really matter), he devotes a significant amount of his working time and all of his leisure time to sex, porn, hookers, online webcams, adult magazines, picking up strangers on the train, in bars, wherever and whenever. It's all under control and he has no shame about it (even when his office hard drive is taken away by the IT department and found to be groaning with porn videos), but things start to change when his more spirited, more emotional, more alive sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up uninvited to stay with him. Each of them is all they really have, but her presence is disrupting his entire existence of cold, deadening, meaningless sex....

It's an interesting film but it's far too austere. Just as Brandon doesn't feel anything, neither do we. Presumably we're not supposed to, but then that makes it tougher to get involved in the drama. Nor, I suspect, are we supposed to like Brandon very much, and the arrival of Sissy makes him even less pleasant company. Only at the end does he literally break down like a regular human being would: before that he's not just an inhuman shag machine, he's one that he's really not much fun to be around. So really, why are we expected to want to spend an hour and forty with him?

On a technical level it's much better: loosely put together with very long takes and almost no music, although some of the cinematography is a bit odd, occasionally putting Fassbender right at the edge of an otherwise blank widescreen image. Despite me being lukewarm about it, I'm still glad it's getting national distribution and taking screens away from the dying Christmas blockbusters (it would have been so easy to leave Happy Feet 2 running for another week). It's very cold, and it's not a great film, but it's worth seeing.




Generally speaking, I'm a big fan of colour film. I don't mind black-and-white, I loved The Artist, I certainly don't mean to suggest that Casablanca or Son Of Frankenstein should have been made in garish three-strip Technicolour, and the mere presence of greens and reds doesn't make Carry On Up The Jungle a better film than A Night At The Opera. On occasions, imaginative and unsparing use of excessive colour can help transform the movie into an unreal, surreal nightmare - the most obvious example would be Dario Argento's glorious Suspiria. Or it can be used to evoke something else entirely, such as the primary-coloured nonsense of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy designed with the newspaper strip's colour scheme in mind.

The retina-punching colour palette chosen for Bunraku is just part of the wildly stylised look: it's a post-nuclear martial-arts action movie with heavy Spaghetti Eastern overtones, shot on theatrical-looking studio sets and interspersed with brief animations that either look like cut-up cardboard or Maurice Binder title sequences. Everything's drenched in scarlet, green, magenta or orange (or any combination of the four), many of the villains wear natty red suits and there's barely a shot goes by that hasn't been colour-coordinated to death. Sometime after the apocalypse, possibly somewhere in the Far East, a nameless drifter (Josh Hartnett) arrives in town seeking an unspecified vengeance against the local crime boss Nicola The Woodcutter (Ron Perlman with dreadlocks). He teams up with a samurai warrior (Japanese TV and music star Gackt) seeking a medallion stolen by The Woodcutter, and a nameless bartender (Woody Harrelson) to take on his nine top killers and his army of red-suited henchmen in order to reach the Woodcutter for a final confrontation and to exact revenge

Bunraku is actually a form of 17th century Japanese puppetry, and there are moments when cardboard cutouts on strings are dangled before the camera (although if Wikipedia is to be believed, it's not really that kind of puppetry so I'm not entirely sure what the point of the title is). The palette of the movie is overdrenched in coloured filters and looks like Kill Bill Volume 1, The Warrior's Way, Speed Racer and Sukiyaki Western Django, and Sin City if it had been in colour. And it's generally quite enjoyable fare: it's too long at a scratch over two hours, some of the dialogue is terrible, the Japanese language sequences aren't subtitled, and The Drifter's motivation is pretty feeble, but it's entertaining and visually fascinating, with a good cast (Demi Moore and Kevin McKidd show up as well). Mysteriously, it doesn't appear to have any main credit sequence.


Buy It Here!!

Monday, 9 January 2012



Some months ago I wrestled with the possibility that I might be a nerd. I fought against it: deep down, why wouldn't I want to be normal, why wouldn't I want to be like everyone else? But a glance at my CD shelves as they buckle under the weight of film scores, and my DVD shelves creaking with fantasy and horror - both in strict alphabetical order which means The Empire Strikes Back goes under E - rather gives it away. Likewise the Scala programme framed on the wall, or the Mr Flibble glove puppet propped up on my Yamaha keyboard. I think I'm probably entry-level rather than hardcore veteran nerd but that's as far as I'll go at present.

And is nerddom such a bad thing anyway? Nerds invented websites and mobiles and streaming music and all the fun stuff. Nerds have a passion, be it film, sci-fi, politics (tell me William Hague isn't a nerd), technology or music. Pity, then, that nerd is Normalspeak for "socially inept weirdo". The popular image of the nerd is the bespectacled loner with bad hair who wouldn't know a vulva from a fish finger but can name every episode of Babylon 5 and Red Dwarf in order of broadcast and is terribly useful for clearing up formatting problems with Microsoft Word. Mainstream media isn't about to rehabilitate the geek image - just as a soap opera character with a Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer poster on his bedroom door is being marked out as a potential murderer, so one who believes in aliens and watches way too much Deep Space Nine is basically there to be pointed at and mocked, like he's got three heads or something. Just because you dress up as Worf or Deanna Troi in your spare time doesn't make you less of a person.

Maybe nerds have to do their image makeover themselves. A couple of years ago we had the agreeable Fanboys - a film for, by and about nerds - and now, with a much higher profile (like a proper cinema release and bigger names attached) Paul, which has likable SF/fantasy nerds Nick Frost and Simon Pegg touring the US in a Winnebago to visit ComicCon in San Diego as well as various UFO and alien sites including Area 51 and the Black Mailbox in Rachel, Nevada. (Nope, I had to look it up.) While they bicker and banter and are constantly mistaken for honeymooning civil partners, they suddenly encounter Paul, a wisecracking alien fleeing the US military and looking to get back home. But mysterious agents in black are on his trail, along with a couple of rednecks and the bible-thumping father of the fundamentalist Christian girl (Kristen Wiig) they've inadvertently abducted....

It's generally enjoyable although there's a touch too much swearing which gets tiresome after a while and it really doesn't need it. Paul, a predominantly CGI creation voiced by Seth Rogen, gets most of the grosser material although it's a film that wants to be sweet and funny rather than a lowbrow exercise in disgust. It's also a film that plays a good game of Spot The Movie, as the film is loaded with lines and references from Star Wars, ET, Close Encounters, Battlestar Galactica and several others, whether it's dialogue, T-shirts or the presence of Sigourney Weaver in a prominent role and a Steven Spielberg flashback gag. Oddly, the one I liked best (being a soundtrack nerd) is the roadside bar where the house band is playing a country and western cover of Cantina Band from the Star Wars score - but why don't Pegg and Frost's characters notice it? Nice to hear a bit of 50s-era spooky sci-fi theremin on the soundtrack as well.

I liked it, and while I don't know that it's up there with Hot Fuzz (which does go on a little too long) and Shaun Of The Dead, it's still an enjoyable, sweet and smart action/fantasy/comedy that's genuinely difficult to hate, and it manages to make the nerd double-act at its centre personable and human: you do want to spend the time with them, and crucially I think much of it would work even if you're not a nerd yourself. (I watched the theatrical version rather than the extended cut; despite the five minute difference in running time I gather there's little to choose between them beyond some alternative shots and takes and a little extra dialogue.)


Friday, 6 January 2012



Trying to produce a biopic of Margaret Thatcher must be one of the great impossibilities of our age. Anything less than a fawning slobberfest and the Right will be out to get you, anything less than a shrieking hatchet job and the Left will be out to get you. Just as the BBC is only neutral and balanced when it's biased in your favour, so any examination of Thatcher will be absurdly one-sided unless it agrees precisely with your own point of view. In the event the only thing to do is to at least attempt to be scrupulously fair, to put the pros and cons with demonstrably equal weight. Have they managed to pull off that feat? I think they have, just about.

Should they have waited until she'd passed away before attempting a biopic? There's a measure of questionable taste in The Iron Lady's depiction of Baroness Thatcher as a lonely, confused old woman in the grip of dementia, as she talks with the long-departed Denis (Jim Broadbent), but while it's queasily uncomfortable viewing, it's not as if she's babbling incoherently and dribbling into her sandwiches in front of Countdown; she's a long way from losing her marbles yet. Various moments in the modern world - a TV report, the price of milk, photographs and other memorabilia - trigger memories of her early years in the Conservative Party and her first attempts to become an MP, up to the key moments of her tenure in Downing Street, from the Brighton bomb to the sinking of the Belgrano, her 1979 election victory to her 1990 removal.

It makes for a frustrating structure as it flits between then and now, and what it really needed was an Oliver Stone in historical shouty mode, where the film could bellow facts and opinions in your face for hours (see JFK and Nixon). Sadly they didn't have Oliver Stone, although even he's calmed down these days; they've got Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia! (which I haven't seen and don't ever wish to) although there are points where the film does a good montage of TV news footage and reconstruction, Thatcher now and Thatcher then. As with the Stone movies there are plenty of brief appearances from familiar faces as other familiar faces - John Sessions has a few moments as Edward Heath, Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine!

There are also pacing problems: in a film that runs 105 minutes there's a lot to get through very quickly and some of it is very rushed. We see Michael Foot once, Kinnock is reduced to one line of voiceover, Scargill isn't even namechecked and the fateful membership ballots are passed over too quickly for us to feel enough of their impact. BUT: Streep is terrific, as you'd expect, and it earns points for not choosing the easy, lazy option of taking potshots at an old woman. And the makeup for the elderly Thatcher is superb. It's not a perfect film, but it's a fascinating piece of recent history dramatised, and there are elements of an intriguing character study. Not an outright success, but it's a damned good start to the New Year.