Tuesday, 30 October 2012

EXCISION

CONTAINS VERY STRONG EWWWW AND SOME SPOILERS

The BBFC's content warning for this new American festival of discomfort reads "Contains very strong language, strong gory images, strong sex and nudity": ticking most of the boxes for a fat red 18 except for hard drug use and leering rape scenes. (It's curious, and very British, that the most contentious part of the movie is not the teenage sex or the splatter but the use of the C and F words; by all means be horrible and gory, so long as you don't use naughty words.) Even a slightly absurd streak of black humour doesn't alleviate matters to the point where it could sneak under the 15 barrier. Rather than a horror film, it plays like one of those suburban teenage angst movies (because strictly speaking that's what it is) in which the parents can't understand their kids, the kids hate their parents and everything both parties do simply makes matters worse, but with added confrontational scenes of blood and sex and insanity.

It's now been three days since I saw Excision and I'm still not entirely sure about it beyond the certainty of not loving it and not detesting it. Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is a dysfunctional high-schooler with fantasies of becoming a surgeon and curing her little sister of her worsening cystic fibrosis, but Pauline is at that difficult age* of hormones, acne and rebellion, having fetishistic nightmares of blood, bandages and death, and wanting to rid herself of her virginity. Counselling at the local church (from John Waters!) doesn't help, her uberbossy mother (Traci Lords!) doesn't help, insisting on taking her to etiquette and dance classes in the hope of improving herself, while most of the parental concern focuses on poor Grace, who might have to go onto the lung transplant list....

Even though you can figure out the grisly payoff long before it arrives, it still has a substantial kick to it. The bizarre and bloody erotic fantasy/dream sequences are stylish, mostly playing against shiny turquoise bathroom tiles, but they don't really feel like they belong in an irrational-madness-behind-the-smiles-and-picket-fence American teen drama. (Disclaimer: I haven't seen enough Todd Solondz to draw any kind of comparison.) I sort of liked the film and its ability to induce high levels of discomfort and awkwardness: it's unsettling and unnerving, which is down to the performances as much as its willingness to focus on bloody tampons and cold sores. That's not to say I want to see it again, however.

* Is there a non-difficult age?

***

Saturday, 27 October 2012

COUNT DRACULA

CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT, WHAT SPOILERS THEY MAKE

Over the years, countless actors have essayed the role of Dracula and we all have our favourites: despite fierce competition from Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman and Peter Butterworth, mine's easily Sir Christopher Lee, and the first Hammer Dracula is absolutely terrific on every level. The sequels certainly less so, admittedly, but Lee is always an imposing and striking figure in any movie and it's hard to think of any other Drac of his stature. The man is a legend. His Hammer Dracula was noble, authoritative and aristocratic, so it's strange to see him playing the same part in the same story (more or less) with a completely different characterisation than expected: he first appears as a sad, white-haired old man in an empty, near-derelict castle. Stranger than that, this is one of Jess Franco's better films, at least of the ones I've seen from his impossible filmography.

Franco's Count Dracula (aka Les Nuits De Dracula) is billed as the most faithful to Stoker's original; certainly it hits many of the same beats as the more familiar film versions though it also pulls a few Eh? moments. Lawyer in training Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to arrange the Count's purchase of land in England; discovering the three female vampires, he leaps from the window in terror but just survives. Back in England, he's treated by Dr Seward at his asylum but Dracula has arrived at the house next door - Harker's beloved Mina and her best friend Lucy the Count's next targets, and only Professor Van Helsing can stop it....

The aged Dracula is initially unthreatening and almost sympathetic, but gets younger, more attractive and more sinister with each kill and infusion of blood, which is a nice touch I don't recall seeing in other adaptations. The film's major coup is a terrific cast which includes Franco regulars Paul Muller, Soledad Miranda, Jack Taylor, and Maria Rohm at her loveliest, plus Klaus Kinski (his name misspelled in the credits) as Renfield and Herbert Lom as Van Helsing - plus Franco himself unbilled as a servant! In the end it doesn't come close to the Hammer film: it lacks the visual richness and the excitement, and the climax, in which Dracula is staked in his coffin and pushed down a ravine in flames, is just no match for the thrilling face-off with Peter Cushing. Interesting to watch, and certainly one of Jess Franco's less horrendously awful films, but not a great Dracula.

**

SKYFALL

CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS BUT NOTHING MAJOR

Simple version: this is Daniel Craig's best Bond film so far. Really, that's not saying a lot: for all the virtues of Casino Royale it was an unnecessary reboot that tried to start again from scratch and pretend all the previous Bond movies never happened, but then stymied itself by carrying Judi Dench's M over from that now non-existent canon. Far better to have abandoned the reboot idea and just continued pretending it's the same bloke. If Pierce was really supposed to be Sean, George, Roger and Timothy, why can't Daniel be too? It's called recasting: far simpler and we don't have to sit through the emotional baptism of fire that made this Bond the way he is. And we also wouldn't have had to suffer Quantum Of Solace's journey of closure. We just want them to get on with the adventures.

Right from the pre-credits sequence, Skyfall is an immeasurably better film and a (sorry) quantum leap forward and upward with a car chase, motorbike chase and unarmed combat on top of a train as Bond pursues the man who stole the hard drive out of a laptop containing the names of every Western agent embedded in terrorist groups across the world. But Bond is shot, believed dead....and it's only when an explosion rips through MI6 headquarters in London that 007 reports for duty once more. But is he up to the physical demands any more? The trail leads to the skyscrapers of Shanghai, a Macau casino, then back to London and the Tube, and ultimately to the wilds of Scotland....

The action sequences are a vast improvement on Quantum's, for the simple reason that you can tell what's going on: Quantum tried to make the chases and fights exciting by flinging a million tiny snippets of film in your face for a fraction of a second each; Skyfall makes them exciting by simply showing them to you. The photography (by Roger Deakins, the real star of the film) is just terrific: whether it's the glass and neon of Shanghai, the rich and aromatic darkness of Macau or the damp bleakness of the Scottish moorlands, it looks utterly wonderful. It's a pity Thomas Newman's score isn't massively memorable (it's perfectly decent, but it lacks that essential Bondian swagger and I'm hoping that David Arnold is rehired for the next one); Adele's title song is an undoubted improvement on Alicia Keys and Jack White's unlistenable contribution for Quantum but I have no idea what the tune is or what the lyrics were.

On the downside, there's far too much of M again, though this time the plot devices that put her at the heart of the film are more plausible than in, say, The World Is Not Enough. I was getting fed up of Judi Dench's M as some kind of a substitute mother figure (freaky-haired villain Javier Bardem refers to her as "Mommy was very bad" at one point, which is even in the trailer) and I don't want to watch Bond wrestling with his own repressed childhood demons and inner angst. Indeed, we even get the gravestone of Bond's parents and his mother's name, Monique, even begins with M! Much more mother-fixating like this and 007 will be putting on a frock and stabbing girls in the shower. You can't imagine Bernard Lee's M putting up with any of this lavender-scented sentimental rubbish.

Fortunately there's a generally light tone to the movie, with much more humour than in the last two (though we're still along way from the awful puns of the Roger Moore years), and Craig is much less terse this time around. More of a surprise is Judi Dench's gratuitous dropping of the F-bomb towards the end: I suppose it was only a matter of time, but post-watershed bleepables have thus far been largely absent from the Bond canon, and I'm not sure I'd like to see them creep in any further. All that aside, it's still Bond on much better form than he's been for some considerable time: it's not just Craig's best but it's better than any of the Brosnans (partly thanks to not having nearly as much CGI) and many of the Moores, though I don't think it touches my personal favourites You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Live And Let Die. That opening extended action sequence with the motorbike chase over the rooftop of Istanbul is worth the ticket price alone, Javier Bardem's cyber-terrorist is an unsettling and creepy villain, every frame of the whole Shanghai segment is drenched in gloriously vivid colour, and with a nicely geeky new Q (Ben Whishaw) the final wrap-up looks to be setting up Bond 24 along the more traditional lines of vintage Bond. Bring it on. Meantime, I want to see Skyfall again because I just enjoyed the hell out of it.

*****

Thursday, 25 October 2012

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SEWERAGE CHARGES

I suppose it's appropriate that Eon, the production company behind the James Bond films, has the same name as E.ON, the power company. How many of us have opened the gas bill on a Monday morning and shouted "How much??? You thieving bastards!!!" at the sight of the fat red figures at the bottom? Never mind drugs barons, dirty bombs or laser satellites: deep down we're far more annoyed about Anglian Water ramping their prices up again. I can imagine Bond producer Michael Wilson seeing the invoice for all that water used for the flooding of the ice palace in Die Another Day and deciding then and there that at some point Bond would not be taking on the demented genocidal likes of Blofeld and Hugo Drax - instead, James Bond 007 would use his 22nd adventure to sort out the utility companies.

The lack of a decent threatening villain is only one of the problems with Quantum Of Solace, and it's not the worst: far more damaging is its insistence on spending the whole running time tying up the end of Casino Royale. Sean Connery spent less than ten minutes of the pre-credits sequence of Diamonds Are Forever avenging the death of his bride at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and then she was forgotten save for two brief references in the Roger Moore years, but in the caring, emotional 21st Century Quantum has to go with Bond on his journey of emotional closure. It picks up immediately after Casino, with Bond delivering the mysterious Mr White to M in a secret torture dungeon underneath a racetrack in Italy, before M's personal bodyguard kills him: this mysterious international crime syndicate has even infiltrated the top echelons of MI6!

Through a tagged banknote, the trail leads to Haiti and an environmentalist called Greene (Mathieu Amalric) a sleazy generalissimo and the mysterious Camille (Olga Kurylenko). And then they go to Austria for a surreal staging of Tosca before heading for Bolivia where Greene is hoarding all the country's natural water resources prior to becoming the new utilities provider after the imminent regime change - but they're exchanging the money and signing contracts (can you imagine Blofeld or Rosa Klebb bothering with the paperwork?) in a huge empty hotel in the middle of the desert which blows up at the end (because it's a Bond film and it has to).

It's not just that the plot is a whole bunch of nonsense involving the transfer of ownership of a Bolivian water company, or that the villain is probably the least threatening than Bond has ever taken on, or that Camille is only a Bond Girl in the sense that she's a girl and it's a Bond film (the traditional Bond Girl role of disposable shag object is taken by Gemma Arterton). There's the cat-in-a-mangle howling of Jack White and Alicia Keys' so-called "song" which is the least musical thing to come out of 007 since Three Blind Mice and makes Madonna's contribution sound like Shirley Bassey. There's still too much of M and there's a total absence of humour. And there's the absurd overediting of the action sequences which reduce them to gibberish: I honestly had to take three runs at the pre-credits car chase before it was remotely clear which car was in front of which and which car James Bond was actually driving. Say what you like about the unfussy point-and-shoot style of the John Glen years; at least you knew what the hell was happening.

Yet watching it again last night it's not the crushing disaster it seemed on opening day. All those faults still hold true but, like Eric Serra's awful Goldeneye score, you get used to them as part of the film. At 102 minutes it's one of the shorter Bond films - it may even be the shortest - so it doesn't waste a huge amount of time, though perhaps it could have done with a little room to breathe as it's front-loaded with big action scenes, chases and fights. And David Arnold's score isn't his best for Bond, but it's still fine (I've been playing the CD this morning). While there's a lot wrong with Quantum, it's improved somewhat since it came out. Let's just hope that Skyfall doesn't require four years to mature on the shelf to the point where it's actually okay.

***

Kumquat Of Sausage:

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

HOLY MOTORS

MOLYBDENUM POUFFES, DISLOCATED SPOILERS AND LUMINOUS SPOONS

Bunion transmission crested USB cardboard plague terrapin oligarchy fruit nipples seventeen rhomboid Egyptian spatula hat flamenco dysentery. What does that all mean (assuming you haven't clicked away already)? Well, little grasshopper, it means whatever you want it to mean: such is the nature of conceptual art. Ningy nangy nob nob neeble narble noo. It's up to you, not the artist, to interpret the art. That'll be £7.50 please.

Horseshit. Oh, I know there's a part of the Art World that'll nail any old crap together and call it Futility #43 and snag a Turner Prize, but most of us real people don't include pickled cattle and canvases covered in elephant turds in even our loosest definition of Art. We mere hoipolloi and hobbledehoys can tell the difference between a proper painting, such as a Turner or a Rembrandt, and a set of maroon oblongs that no-one knows which way up they're supposed to be. (We can't tell the difference between a Banksy and a scribbled knob on a toilet wall, because essentially there isn't one.) Art in Film is even worse: you can look at some of this idiocy in galleries and call it rubbish fairly quickly but Art Cinema takes a couple of hours. I'm not a fan of impenetrable no-narrative movies in which either nothing happens or nothing makes sense, thus I only go to them very rarely. David Lynch's Inland Empire is a three-hour marathon of bugger all which feels like the reels are in the wrong order and at least two of them are missing, Jean-Luc Godard's crashingly dull and tiresome Weekend is incoherent Marxist hectoring, Michael Haneke's Hidden (Cache) and Funny Games are unlikeable and pointless. And hey - the beauty of Art is that even if I decide it's a load of wanky bollocks, I can't be wrong.

Leos Carax's Holy Motors is an Art Film, and while it's not anywhere near as horrible as the above mentioned, it's still impossible to get any kind of a grip on it and I guess the best strategy is just to go with it. It details a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who spends most of his time not just dressing up as other people, but actually becoming them for no apparent reason. He starts off as a hunchbacked old woman begging on the Paris bridges, before being whisked away to a motion capture studio to "perform" a fantasy sex sequence. Then he becomes a foul goblinesque figure in a green suit who rampages through a cemetery, bites a woman's fingers off and abducts Eva Mendes into the sewers where she sings him a lullaby while takes his clothes off and reveals an erection.

At various points he also appears as a man on the brink of death talking with "his" daughter, an apparently concerned father picking "his" (different) daughter up from a party and then abandoning her in the street, a bloke who murders someone in a factory and swaps identities with him, before meeting up with old acquaintance Kylie Minogue in an abandoned building, where she sings a song. He is ferried between all these random and unconnected encounters in a huge white stretch limo (making it the second incomprehensible dicking-around-in-a-big-car movie this year, after the intolerable Cosmopolis) by Edith Scob who at the end gets to wear her famous mask from Les Yeux Sans Visage for, perhaps unsurprisingly, absolutely no reason at all.

Is Monsieur Oscar a corporeal conduit for ghosts or aliens to vicariously experience aspects of modern life? (If so, why not choose some more exciting ones?) Is the film a treatise on acting techniques and how a great performer can "become" the character (his name is Oscar, after all)? Are they obliquely ticking off the seven deadly sins or the Ten Commandments (since neither include the heinous crime of playing the accordion in church)? Sex and death? Legalisation of cannabis? The price of fish? How the hell should I know? Leos Carax wrote and directed the film; ask him. It's his failure to communicate that's at issue here, not my failure to interpret.

Alternatively: there isn't anything to interpret because there isn't anything communicated. It's been made as a disconnected anthology of vignettes for a lark and nothing more: nothing's meant by it and it carries no profound insights buried in the sub-subtext. It's less aggressively impenetrable than it could have been, there's a sense of mischief and a sense of fun in places, and even at close to two hours it's never actively dull. I suspect the best option is just to stop trying to analyse it and enjoy it while you can, like a beautifully performed song in a language you don't speak. That, however, isn't the way I want to watch and enjoy films.

**

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

BODY HEAT

CONTAINS MODERATE SPOILERS AND INTENSE HEAT

There's not very much new and insightful I can say about Lawrence Kasdan's sweat-soaked modern (1981) noir. It's got the kind of frank nudity we suddenly don't seem to get anymore in mainstream grown-up cinema (when was the last time you saw two respectable actors taking all their clothes off and clambering about on top of each other at your local Cineworld?); it effortlessly conveys the stultifying, airless heat (even on a damp and misty October night you almost perspire with the characters); it's got a wonderfully sleazy John Barry score full of wailing saxophones. If you made it today there'd be a bunch of songs all over the soundtrack for marketing purposes, it would be shot in anodyne Canada locations for tax purposes, and everyone would keep their pants on and hump discreetly under the duvet for PG13 purposes.

And, of course, Body Heat owes a lot to Double Indemnity, utilising a similar plotline in which a femme fatale lures a sap into a murder plot and then double-crosses him: Matty (Kathleen Turner) picks up with not-too-smart small-town lawyer Ned (William Hurt) and brilliantly manipulates him into not just killing her rich but largely absent husband (Richard Crenna) but making him come up with the idea and working out the details as well. But then their plot starts to unravel....

I first saw Body Heat on its pre-cert VHS release and if memory serves that's actually a slightly more explicit version. Not because anything's been cut: it's that the DVD is in 16:9 whereas the tape was in 4:3, in what they call "open matte". The widescreen DVD and cinema image is masked from the full 4:3 so part of the image has been cropped top and bottom. One of the nude scenes has Matty lead Ned across the room by taking hold of his... You see the contact on the unmasked 4:3 VHS but it takes place just below the crop on the 16:9. Or at least that's as I recall it.

Still, whether that's in there or not (it might have been too much for the BBFC back in the Ferman years), it's still a pretty terrific movie and absolutely worth seeing late at night. Love the atmosphere, love the smart dialogue, love the soundtrack (there are two CD releases of the music, one of the original tracks, the other a very good re-recording), love Ted Danson (!) as the assistant DA constantly showing off his dance moves; even the appearance of the variable Mickey Rourke as a bombmaker can't spoil it. Why the hell can't we have movies like this these days? This was thirty years ago!

****

Hot:

Friday, 19 October 2012

ADVENTURES OF A TAXI DRIVER

CONTAINS SPOILERS, DARLING!

Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets, but I'm not going south of the river at this time of night.... Obviously there's no comparison between Scorsese's dazzling cinematic art and this, which is neither dazzling nor artistic, and indeed is barely cinematic. For all the blimey-it's-him! guest stars off TV sitcoms, Stanley Long's shoddy righthander isn't remotely as funny as Taxi Driver, containing precisely zero laughs, zero funny lines and zero comedic flair, and for all the young ladies constantly besporting themselves and pointing their norks at the camera, it's not even as sexy. That's how awful this is: it's less erotic than Taxi Driver, and that's got a twelve-year-old prostitute in it. There's little in the world less phwoooarsome than Taxi Driver but Adventures Of A Taxi Driver achieves it.

If De Niro's Travis Bickle is "God's lonely man", then Barry Evans' Joe North is "God's absolute failure". North is a lovable roguish Lothario (or, if you're reading this in the 21st century, a despicable and charmless Cro-Magnon dick) who, as a London cabbie, keeps getting into saucy scrapes with comely ladies who get 'em out for this oaf before their husbands suddenly turn up unexpectedly. He's sort of reluctantly engaged to unhinged blonde Carol (Adrienne Posta) but that doesn't stop him getting his unremarkable end away with whoever's on offer, including Ingmar Bergman's daughter. Having started a number of plot threads - Carol, Joe's thieving teenage brother, a snake (used in stripper Judy Geeson's stage act) and an absurd kidnapping prank - the film brings them all together in the final reel with a jewellery robbery.

Brian Wilde, Ian Lavender, Liz Fraser and Stephen Lewis turn up, do their standard turn and are gone from the rest of the film, Henry McGee gets five minutes right at the end, and Robert Lindsay and Diana Dors are there as well. Mercifully, none of them get their clothes off (though Barry Evans does go full frontal at one point). For those moments, you can relax slightly as you're in the hands of someone who understands something of comedy and how to deliver a line, even a duff one. But then it's back to the boobs and the traditionally British cringing embarrassment - ooh, he's naked and there's a WPC! Now bring on an elderly nun! Artless, sordid, miserable, hateful; it's actually even worse than Adventures Of A Plumber's Mate. Solely for those who'll laugh at anything, and indeed for those who'll wank at anything.

*

Thursday, 11 October 2012

DIE ANOTHER DAY

NO, MR BOND, I EXPECT YOU TO SPOIL

The doubleohsevenathon trundles onwards in prep for the new one, and I've now reached the last entry of the Pierce Brosnan tenure. None of his four Bond films are among the best of the series: they all have their moments, sure, but to be honest I'll take almost any of Roger Moore's in preference: even For Your Eyes Only (minus the pre-credits foolishness and the atrocious comedy coda involving Margaret Thatcher) and, at a pinch, The Spy Who Loved Me which I still find to be Rog's worst. Goldeneye had got Brosnan off to a fair start (though Eric Serra's noodly score kills it stone dead), and Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough were okay as action movies but had very little in the way of Bondian charm or sophistication about them.

Remember when Bond plots sort of made some kind of sense? Oh, happy days....but not any more. Now, Die Another Day (a meaningless title) starts with a weapons deal in North Korea for illegal African conflict diamonds and a hovercraft chase over a minefield, which leads to a betrayed Bond being captured, imprisoned and tortured. Fourteen months later the West exchange him for terrorist Zao in the belief that Bond is giving away MI6 secrets; he escapes and persuades Chinese Intelligence to find Zao (er, didn't you just pass him on the bridge in North Korea?). That leads him to Cuba where he meets up with Jinx (Halle Berry); between them they infiltrate and destroy a gene therapy clinic where Zao is having a DNA transplant to give him a completely new identity; he gets away but Bond finds some of those diamonds supposedly from Iceland but chemically identical to the African ones. This leads him to Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens with a permanent Edward Fox sneer) and his publicist Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) who is really an MI6 agent but who is really REALLY a double agent and Graves is really the Korean Colonel who was thought dead back before the credits but survived and had the Cuban gene therapy thing, and has now created a ginormous space mirror to focus the sun onto the Earth ostensibly so he can grow crops for the hungry, but really so he can destroy the DMZ between North and South Korea and allow the North Koreans to march across the minefield....

Or some such gibberish. The movie starts off in the usual fashion with a noisy and chaotic action sequence in which everything noisily blows up and everyone's chaotically firing guns at each other, with David Arnold's noisy and chaotic score blasting along in the background. But then it goes all wrong with an absolute war crime of a title song, with the vocoder autotune cranked up to maximum and making Madonna sound like a drowning dalek. John Cleese wasn't a brilliant bit of casting as Q last time around, and he isn't this time either - and that's before he's wheeled on the invisible car: a desperately stupid idea that no-one round the table had the balls to say was a desperately stupid idea. Worse even than that is the infamous kite-surfing sequence in which Bond cannibalises a crashed ice-car thing and parachutes above a tsunami of freshly melted glacier - a CGI abomination that looks like a videogame sequence (because that's essentially what it is) and drags you out of the already tenuous reality of the film. If you're not going to put up at least some pretence that it's supposed to be vaguely real, why even bother with actors? Why not do the subsequent car chase on Grand Theft Auto or just animate it like a Wallace And Gromit?

Moments amuse, but only fleetingly. I like Rosamund Pike, Toby Stephens gives excellent sneer, and the big swordfight in the middle is energetic and enjoyably destructive. But overall it's got far too much in the way of CGI going on and when you know that most of what you're watching is just numbers on a hard drive it's hard to get excited about it. More seriously, I don't think it feels like a Bond film. For all the character names and references (this was the 40th Anniversary release so the film is littered with old props and lines of dialogue in homage to its predecessors) it doesn't have the easy charm or wit of even the second-best of the Connery and Moore eras: more noise, bigger explosions, endless machine-gun fire, more whizzy special effects, but that's not what Bond should really be about. And, despite the sound and fury, it's dull. In the end the bad, misjudged and just plain idiotic far outweigh the few things they got right.

**

KaBOOM!!!!!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

THE SEXUAL STORY OF O

CONTAINS SOME MAJOR SPOILERS

Every so often you reach a tipping point and draw a line in the dirt: No More. Over the years I've done it with Troma, I've done it with Peter Greenaway, I've done it with Found Footage and now I'm doing it with Jess Franco. I've had enough of it and him; I don't care any more. I've deleted the remaining handful of Franco titles from my rental queue and they're not going back on without a phenomenally good reason, and the 100-1 odds that that next title is going to be another Vampyros Lesbos or another She Killed In Ecstacy are not reason enough. Jess Franco has always been wildly variable: when he's good he's more or less tolerable but when he's bad he's tangibly evil.

The Sexual Story Of O (nothing to do with The Story Of O, which was pretty sexual to start with) is a hypnotically boring porn movie in which poor innocent Odile is procured by a couple of racist scumbags as a sexual plaything/victim for a pair of decadent aristocratic perverts. We first encounter Odile jigging around in her apartment: listening to funky music and reading Norman Mailer's The Naked And The Dead, with a voiceover and subtitles that may or may not be Mailer but are certainly utter gibberish. Mario and Mara watch from their neighbouring balcony and seduce her into a threesome (during which Mario keeps his underpants on). Then a sustained burst of lesbianism before they all head to the beach and they meet up with the royals - he's impotent, and she's an ugly old boot. Odile gets drunk on two mouthfuls of wine and vomits herself unconscious; the Prince can't get it up until partaking of a threesome while fantasising about Odile being beaten and whipped. But Mario has fallen in love with her - will he save her from the abusive and violent depravity into which he's sold her?

No. While the naked Odile is being chained up, sexually abused, whipped and murdered at a length and with a relish that mysteriously failed to give the BBFC a moment's pause, Mario's mooching around aimlessly on the beach and it's only literally in the last minute of the film that he finally shows up far too late to save the day. The music score (credited to one Pablo Villa which is actually Franco under a pseudonym) alternates between chirpy sub-Mancini lift music and a miserable version of the theme to Franco's own The Bare Breasted Countess from ten years previous. Yes, it's sunny and colourful, unlike some of Franco's other movies which look drab and miserable, and Odile and Mara are quite good looking, but the protracted sex scenes get incredibly boring very quickly (incidentally, this was made long before the fashion for anal bleaching, and there are some grim looking bumcracks on display) and the climactic torture and abuse sequence is simply repugnant both in terms of punishing overlength and lascivious lip-smacking.

Enough with it. Enough with Franco's obsession with corrupting the innocent: Eugenie (which, to be fair to the lecherous old perv, I didn't mind), Justine, and now this. There's another Eugenie movie of Franco's which I've already dropped from the queue in despair at the thought of having to plod through the same old routine again and again. Obnoxious, offensive garbage.

*

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME

SPOILERS! JUST WHAT I'VE ALWAYS WANTED!

Go on - name five great teenie slasher movies of the late 70s and early 80s. Halloween, obviously. Friday The 13th, obviously. The Prowler/Rosemary's Killer's a good choice, as is The Funhouse. Some might say Black Christmas, some The Burning, some Madman, though I certainly wouldn't. My Bloody Valentine? Terror Train? Really? You'll be suggesting Pranks, Hell Night and Campsite Massacre next. Sadly there aren't that many genuine greats of the genre: a few standouts and a lot of formulaic dross, and falling into the latter camp is this less-than-classic teenkill nonsense that's far too long and deeply silly, though it has a few moments where it threatens, emptily, to turn interesting.

Happy Birthday To Me is absolute nonsense in which we're expected to give a damn when the elite students of the exclusive Crawford Academy start disappearing, but since they're all smug and obnoxious douchebags the world could quite happily manage without, it's physically impossible to care. In fact they're being bumped off in unusual ways by an unseen maniac - but who could it be? The prim and po-faced old boot of a headmistress who doesn't approve of their drinking and carousing? The geeky and slightly creepy-looking kid in the nerd glasses, who couldn't be more of a blatant red herring if he was actually a fish? Glenn Ford, on hand as the kindly psychiatrist? Might it have something to do with Melissa Sue Anderson's occasional flashbacks to her brain surgery and the death of her mother? What really happened that birthday night four whole years ago?

The revelation, when it comes, is absurd and implausible (and rather depends upon an oil rig exploding at precisely the right moment hundreds of miles away), and also takes far too long to arrive as the film runs a good 20 minutes longer than a B-grade slasher should. In the meantime, some of the charmless arseholes have been offed in slightly more interesting fashion than usual - one has his scarf tossed into a motorbike wheel, another drops his barbells onto his neck, a third gets a shish kebab through the back of his throat. Other than that, and wondering why a proper director like J Lee Thompson has plummeted from the likes of The Guns Of Navarone, Cape Fear and two of the Planet Of The Apes series to this sort of bunk, there's nothing of interest to be had from it.

*

SO'S YOUR AUNT EMMA!

CONTAINS SPOILERS?

Lots of movies have ended up in the public domain. Companies close, rights lapse, owners pass away, the years go by and eventually they're public property. Some familiar titles are apparently no longer "owned" by anyone: A Bucket Of Blood, Attack Of The Giant Leeches. Night Of The Living Dead, It's A Wonderful Life and Charade were PD at one point owing to overlooked or unrenewed copyrights. Many others are presumably PD either because no-one wants the damned things or no-one's willing to admit they had anything to do with them: they were useless fifty years ago and they're just as useless now.

So's Your Aunt Emma! is a creaky and staggeringly primitive Z-list "comedy" from Monogram, made in 1942 and you do end up wondering for precisely whose benefit it's been dug up, digitised and put onto YouTube (by no less than five separate people). Just 62 minutes long and containing not one shadow of a laugh - though there are innumerable later comedies at least half as long again with just as little mirth - it's a dimwitted tale of an old biddy from the sticks (ZaSu Pitts) outwitting gangsters in the big city and mistaken for a legendary criminal mastermind amidst an incomprehensible string of kidnappings and shootings, aided by a harassed reporter who's trying to get married. His Girl Friday it ain't.

Maybe Adam Sandler can put on a dress again and remake it; otherwise it's got no value to the modern world whatsoever. Director Jean Yarbrough was churning out at least five or six films a year in the 1940s, according to the IMDb; his 1943 output included something called So's Your Uncle which is unrelated to So's Your Aunt Emma! It's unmitigated nonsense and honestly not worth the YouTube bandwidth. Stupefying.

*

Thursday, 4 October 2012

TAKEN 2

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS, REPEAT AND FADE

Over the last ten years or so, Luc Besson has got the mid-range action movie off to something approaching a fine art. Starting with Kiss Of The Dragon back in 2001, they usually consist of a glamorous European location (usually France), either an action star (Jet Li, Jason Statham) or a respected name actor (John Travolta, Jean Reno) in the lead role and plenty of violence, fights, car chases and explosions. Some of these have been pretty good - the first of the Transporter series is certainly Statham's best "vehicle" to date - while others, such as Colombiana and From Paris With Love, have been passably entertaining but silly and empty: they're fun enough while they're on but they quickly evaporate.

The respected name actor in 2008's Taken was no less than Liam Neeson: suddenly downshifting from "proper" films like Batman Begins and Kingdom Of Heaven into violent popcorn exploitation nonsense. Evil white slavers seized Neeson's daughter; he flew straight over and kicked major Albanian scumbag ass, and that was as deep, complex and emotional as it got. Taken 2 kicks off immediately afterwards, with the father of the chief Albanian white slaver vowing to avenge his son's death and rounding up a gang of nondescript thugs to snatch Neeson, daughter Maggie Grace and wife Famke Janssen. Needless to say, this is a monumentally stupid thing to do. But then they're a particularly stupid bunch anyway - not searching Neeson to find his second phone, leaving him on his own with plenty of time to free himself, putting a bag on his head so he can't see where he's being taken but driving past plenty of handy sound effects....

The big cause of contention with Taken 2 is the pre-certification edit done to secure a box-office friendly 12A certificate. On the face of it that doesn't seem such a stupid move, as it theoretically means more cash in the till. But editing a 15 film in order to attract an audience who by rights shouldn't have seen the original (which was itself cut from 18 for cinemas, and then restored to 18 for the DVD release), and are easily too young for it, doesn't make sense. Twelve-year-olds would have been eight when the first Taken was released! Successive Terminator and Die Hard films have come down from 18 to 15 to 12A, but they're franchises that entered popular culture in the way that the Taken films certainly haven't.

Besides, they'll doubtless save the meatier 15 version for the DVD release so there's no real reason to see it at the cinema. In the event, it's tolerable and efficient enough action nonsense with enough squealing tyres and crunchy (albeit trimmed) fight sequences to just about get by. It's no masterpiece, it's extraordinarily silly and implausible in places, it has no humour and it has no subtlety to it, and it really is little more than the first one warmed over a bit, to the extent that you half expect Neeson to mutter "how can the same **** happen to the same guy twice?" in the manner of Die Hard 2. Not awful, but scarcely essential.

**

HELL

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE SPOILING THE MOVIE, AND THIS DOES CONTAIN A FEW SPOILERS

Some of us like to predict the apocalypse as a biblical series of spectacular catastrophes: volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, fiery meteors, blood-red skies and possibly zombies, with humanity largely wiped out and the few survivors either reduced to feral animals or struggling to build a new and better Utopia from the dust. Others see us ending not with a bang but with a mumble as the Earth's ecology just drains slowly away to zero (as in The Road where every day is just a little colder and a little greyer), with humanity again largely wiped out and the few survivors reduced to the level of tramps aimlessly wandering the wastelands. With no livestock or crops or water, there's absolutely no hope and no future.

Hell is a glum and despairing vision of Option 2 with a few slivers of a natural disaster that caused everything. It's 2016 and the temperature has risen by about 10C: sunlight is unbearable and society has collapsed. Sisters Marie and Leonie, along with Marie's boyfriend Philip, are heading for the mountains where there'll probably be water...but they're ambushed in the woods: Leonie and their recent pickup Tom are kidnapped and Philip gets his foot broken. It's down to Marie alone to get her sister back - but who's taken her and why?

You'd think there'd be some serious spectacle given that it's executive produced by Roland Emmerich, given his career in merrily trashing New York, America and the entire planet with Godzilla, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, but there's absolutely nothing in the way of orgasmic destruction to be had here. Everything in the daylight is bleached out and overexposed, with a dull brown, sunburnt and sandblasted look to it, everyone is miserable and as in The Road, the world on view is so devoid of food and water - not to mention hope or future - that you wonder if there's anything to be gained from continuing. Keep Calm And Give Up. That said, it's persuasively done: a suitably miserable and depressing vision of a drab near-future and what people will descend to just to stay alive another day. In German with subtitles.

***

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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION

CONTAINS SPOILERS, MAYBE, SORT OF

Well, they've done it. The Resident Evil films had been getting steadily less logical and plausible as the franchise went along but here it's gone completely tonto with a movie that's not just disregarding common sense but actively defecating on it from a great height. Characters killed off in earlier episodes? Let's just bring them back as clones. Yet another gigantic underground and underwater base somewhere off the Russian coast? Hell, why not? Shameless ripoffs from other movies? Oh, go on then. Milla Jovovich naked yet again? Well, if you insist. It probably helped that I rewatched the first three Resident Evils on DVD and the fourth on BluRay in a back-to-back marathon at the weekend as prep for this new one; despite the lengthy recap at the start it's useful to have the names and references in mind.

Resident Evil: Retribution certainly starts off boldly, with a huge action sequence played backwards under the credits, to end up with the closing frames of the fourth movie - and then Alice (Milla Jovovich) wakes up as a suburban housewife with a husband and a deaf daughter. Suddenly the zombies burst in....and then this is revealed as a huge Truman Show-style simulation filled with clones in order for the Umbrella Corporation, still running despite the global zombie apocalypse and the near-obliteration of humankind, to keep on testing their T-virus. They have a huge bunker under the coast of Russia containing huge simulations of Moscow, New York, Berlin and generic suburbia (and probably Stevenage) built under a former Soviet Union submarine factory. A squad of rebels has broken in to the base to rescue the real Alice, but the homicidal Red Queen computer system will stop at absolutely nothing to kill her (except for just killing her when it has the chance)....

So we get cameos by Colin Salmon and Michelle Rodriguez, the latter in three separate roles, despite both being killed off in the first movie; and villain Arnold Wexler (Shawn Roberts) from the fourth and heroine Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) from the second both switching sides. Milla Jovovich dressed reasonably sensibly for the last two entries but here spends much of the time in a black leather catsuit, leaping balletically into the air, firing guns, flinging knives and kicking zombies in the face in gorgeous, almost fetishistic slow motion. On that level of ridiculous zombie-bashing entertainment, Resident Evil: Retribution is a winner. But on any other level, like a script that makes a blind bit of sense or any remotely scary or exciting moments, it's an absolute disaster. Most of the effects sequences are so laden down with CGI - tsunamis, huge explosions, giant monsters - that what little crumbs of reality that survived the script are just lost.

More seriously, the film includes a staggering lift from Aliens so heavy that it couldn't be lifted with the heavy power-lifters from Aliens, as the deaf kid is snatched away by the giant monster thing and despite the countdown to a ginormous explosion Ripley Alice goes off to kill the beast and rescue the child from a cocoon: a shameless xerox even Roger Corman would have balked at on the grounds of blatant ripoffery. Granted, the Resident Evils are hardly dazzling in their originality, but this one, along with the early suburbia zombie outbreak which is straight out of the opening reels of Zack Snyder's (surprisingly not bad) Dawn Of The Dead, jars somewhat. Equally shameless and shameful is the utterly pointless 3D: there's not a single frame that benefits from the stereoscopic effect and the distributors have only released it that way, forcing the audience to pay extra for a meaningless effect that doesn't even work.

Yet curiously I don't care. There's enough wanton blood, gore, rampaging zombies, ridiculously violent fighting and the usual astonishing set design to stop things getting anywhere near dull, and there's always the fabulous Milla, whether dressed in black bondage gear or just a couple of tea towels sellotaped to her body, making the nonsense far more fun than it has any right to be. Resident Evil has now had five trips to a pretty dusty well and incredibly it hasn't entirely run out of steam just yet - brains, perhaps, but by the look of the last shot it's gearing up for a full-on undead Götterdämmerung of a Part 6 that, no matter how idiotic and unoriginal, I'm now absolutely looking forward to. And then - can Paul WS Anderson please do something else?

***

Monday, 1 October 2012

RESIDENT EVIL / RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE / RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION

CONTAINS SPOILERS / CONTAINS SPOILERS / CONTAINS SPOILERS

I like my zombie movies. Obviously the greatest zombie movie of all time, and possibly the greatest movie of all time, is George A Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, the Blu of which I have stipulated will be cremated with me while Goblin's L'Albi Dei Morte Viventi plays on a loop. Other notables include Romero's Day Of The Dead, Lucio Fulci's notable trio of City Of The Living Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Beyond, Jon and Howard Ford's Africa-set The Dead, Re-Animator, The Evil Dead, even Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn, and many others. Granted there are some duds: the "remake" of Day Of The Dead, Romero's two most recent entries (Diary and Survival) and Zombie Strippers immediately leap to mind, but there are always going to be duds, and generally I'm a fan of the subgenre at its best.

Paul WS Anderson's ongoing saga, derived from the Capcom videogame series, actually isn't too bad: there's plenty of gore and violence (though sadly a lot of it is CGI) and they tend to look fabulous. Mind you, Anderson didn't exactly endear himself to the FrightFest audience on 27 August 2001 when, bigging up the promo clip from the first film, he announced that it was reimagining the whole zombie idea because the George Romero zombie movies were old and dated and passé (not verbatim, but words to that effect). At the time, that felt a bit like the producer of Midsomer Murders claiming he was reinventing the whodunnit because Tenebrae and Bay Of Blood were a load of old poo.

In the event, 2002's Resident Evil turned out to be a perfectly decent addition to the cinema of the undead: it isn't reimagining the genre but merely giving it a good kick up the backside. Sometime in the future, the Umbrella Corporation is the dominant force on the planet both financially and physically: a position giving them free rein to hire any number of mad scientists to develop viral weapons for them. One of them, the T-virus, is released to contaminate the entirety of The Hive, the corporation's ultra-secret underground laboratory complex; a squad of Umbrella badass commandos (including Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Salmon) and Alice (Milla Jovovich), the amnesiac Head Of Security, are assigned to go down there and find out what happened. But the T-virus is a regeneration serum that has turned The Hive's workforce into flesh-eating zombies....

It is absolute twaddle, but it's entertaining and enjoyable twaddle and has a fabulous final shot showing the fictitious Raccoon City devastated by the victims of the escaped T-Virus. It has the "you may now proceed to Level Three" structure you'd expect of a videogame (though I wouldn't know how close the film plays to the Resident Evil games themselves) and while the film opts for the slow, shuffling and remorseless zombies, the film charges along wasting very little time in character or emotion. The film's basic focus is getting the living people out before the computer system seals The Hive forever, though I must have missed the crucial dialogue where they explain why the computer hasn't already done that. In the end, though, the film and indeed the whole saga is less about logic and plausibility and more about watching Milla Jovovich kicking zombie arse while wearing a red party frock and black leather boots. Because....well, phwoooar.

In Resident Evil: Apocalypse, which picks up immediately after the first movie, Milla has sensibly ditched the party dress as unsuitable but has opted for a kind of chain mail vest because, again, phwoooar. The Umbrella Corporation has sealed off the whole of Raccoon City with a vast concrete barrier and has sent in more edible soldiers to try and fail to eliminate the zombie hordes. But Alice and a few other survivors should be able to get out, if [1] they rescue a schoolgirl, [2] they take an ill-advised detour through a cemetery in the middle of a zombie epidemic and [3] they face off against the Umbrella Corporation's latest mutant supersoldier minutes before the city is purged with a nuclear explosion....This one has even less logic but more monsters, including zombie dobermans and a huge increase in Milla's zombie-ass-kicking abilities, yet despite all this it feels less fun than it should.

Mysteriously, despite triggering an apocalypse that has reduced all but a handful of the Earth's entire population into mindlessly shambling zombies, the Umbrella Corporation is still merrily thriving and mad scientist Iain Glen is cheerfully producing clones of Milla Jovovich in order to find out how her blood has managed to bond with the T-virus, despite the fact that it's obviously far too late for that sort of research. Russell Mulcahy's Resident Evil: Extinction is a lunatic combination of Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior), The Birds and any number of spaghetti westerns: Alice has now at least put some proper clothes on and become a biker in the Arizona and Nevada deserts, staying off the grid so Umbrella can't massacre any more living people in their quest to capture her - but she hooks up with a convoy of survivors and convinces them to head for the allegedly uninfected Alaska. Even madder, she's now blessed with telekinetic powers, which come in jolly useful when the convoy is attacked by thousands of zombie crows....

It's probably the best of the series; it's certainly the looniest and climaxes with Iain Glen fully mutated into a giant tentacle monster for absolutely no good reason. The saga turned down again with Resident Evil: Afterlife which brought Paul WS Anderson back as director (he'd still written all the scripts) and added 3D to the mix to no great effect; watching it again in 2D on the Blu last night, it didn't lose anything by not being stereoscopic. The fifth one, Resident Evil: Retribution, has just opened in UK cinemas, and there'll almost certainly be a sixth because, well, why not? But really, where can it go from here? What more can they possibly do with the franchise and the concept? How long before Milla Jovovich calls it a day and hangs up her kneeboots? How long before we audiences get fed up with them? So far they've got away with it: five trips to the well is good going, and at least the first four of them are okay at worst, but they surely can't keep making them forever.

****
***
****

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