Wednesday, 27 February 2013



Is it a comedy? Is it a spoof? Is it supposed to be funny? The presence of non-comedic actors like Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton and Famke Janssen, and the BBFC's 15 certificate for "strong bloody violence and gore" suggests that it's a straight horror movie, but it doesn't come across that way. In fact the biggest hint as to why this reinterpretation of the classic Grimm fairytale completely fails to work might lie in the production credit afforded to one Will Ferrell, leading one to speculate whether this was originally conceived as a Ferrell vehicle in which he would play Hansel as a pompous buffoon who constantly talks nonsense, bashes his head on things and falls over. That might, in the end, have made for a better, or at least less awful, film than the supposed comedy horror romp we've ended up with.

As per the original, two kids are abandoned in the forest and end up in the gingerbread house, but they overcome the witch and burn her in the oven. Years later, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters are the scourge of Bavarian witches, ridding towns of child-snatching hags for a price. In Augsberg, their home town, they're hired by the mayor to find eleven missing children before the blood moon sabbath, against the wishes of the local idiot sheriff (Peter Stormare, enjoying himself), who's more of a burn-first, ask-questions-later type.

Not in any particular order: first off, the 3D is rubbish. It doesn't need to be there, half the movie wasn't shot that way and it's only been pasted in so they can chuck CGI stuff at the camera and then charge you extra. Since half the movie takes place in forests at night, the image is dark to start with and the glasses and polariser make it darker still. Secondly, what's the idea with lines like "You've gotta be f***ing kidding!"? I've no problem with injoke quotes to great films like The Thing, within reason, but modern colloquialisms don't fit with the established period setting of the film - and casual swearing even less so. It jars and feels out of place. Third, precisely who is this aimed at? It's obviously too bloody and horrific for anyone under ten, but surely anyone over that age isn't going to be interested because it's Hansel And Gretel. At least kids could get into 12A fairytale reimaginings like Snow White And The Huntsman and Red Riding Hood (albeit accompanied)!

So what you're left with is something that doesn't fit any measurable demographic (except for star fans), which doesn't work as a comedy and yet can't possibly be intended seriously, and which looks ugly through the unnecessary 3D. I much preferred The Brothers Grimm as a riff on old fairytales, despite not being much of a Terry Gilliam fan and despite everyone else in the world hating it. And it's not as much sleazy fun as Tommy Wirkola's zombie Nazi schlocker Dead Snow either. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn't the worst thing you've ever seen; it's certainly not bad enough to get angry about, it's just nowhere near good enough to get excited about. And when a film's actively making you wish that Will Ferrell was in it, something gone very badly awry.


Tuesday, 26 February 2013



Whilst it's always nice to sink into your cinema seat and be rewarded with precisely what you expect down to the tiniest details and with absolutely no surprises, sometimes it's even nicer to be faced with a gloriously bizarre, one-off head trip which doesn't fit into any easily identified genre category and which could shoot off in a dozen different directions at any moment. Cloud Atlas is a wonderfully ill-advised folly: a massive 172-minute oddity with major stars rendered unrecognisable via wigs and make-up in up to half a dozen different roles: an epic anthology in which each of the six stories brushes thematically with the others and the whole giddy thing serving as its own wraparound. It may be baffling and the stories so wildly different in tone from abolitionist drama to tragic love story to conspiracy thriller to caper comedy to future dystopia to post-apocalypse SF, but somehow the six randomly selected jigsaws come together to form a larger, bigger picture of their own.

What we are, what we do, what we create, ripples down through the centuries and affects others in entirely unpredictable ways by pure chance. Chronologically, it begins in 1849 when lawyer Jim Sturgess' eyes are opened to the horrors of slavery on the Maori plantations; on the sea voyage home (captained by Jim Broadbent) greedy doctor Tom Hanks seeks to poison him. In the 1930s, Sturgess' published journal intrigues ambitious music student Ben Whishaw, who wangles a position assisting legendary but irascible composer Jim Broadbent. In 1970s San Francisco, crusading journalist Halle Berry uncovers a conspiracy at Hugh Grant's local atomic reactor (where composer Whishaw's one-time gay lover now works); she and scientist Tom Hanks are targeted by assassin Hugo Weaving. In present day England, a novel about Berry's adventures written by her next-door neighbour is sent to publisher Jim Broadbent, who has had an unexpected hit with thuggish Cockney author Tom Hanks' new book. He ends up imprisoned in a draconian retirement home owned by his brother Hugh Grant and ruled over by Hugo Weaving, but his subsequent escape is dramatised as a film starring Tom Hanks, and clips of it are watched in the future city of Neo Seoul by Doona Bae as a "fabricant", an artificial slave vital to the future economy: rescued by Jim Sturgess, she becomes a martyr to the revolution. And centuries later, after the apocalypse, her words are taken as Gospel by the farmers of the valleys (led by Tom Hanks)....

And so on. That's just the start of the interconnectedness, whether concerned with literature and music, giant themes such as slavery, references to Solzhenitsyn, or little remarks like the 2012 Broadbent quoting Soylent Green which nicely echoes another of the stories. Most of the cast turn up in multiple roles: Hanks is also a hotel receptionist in 1930s Cambridge, Grant also a woad-covered tribal warrior in the far future, Donna Bae is also Sturgess' wife in 1849. Some of these, to judge from their appearances in the end credits, are barely visible and one wonders whether a lot of footage was dropped and there's the possibility of a longer version in the offing. Even given the whopping three hours the film already runs, more wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing because it's incredibly engrossing. Nor do the stories get in the way of each other: they're intercut and edited together incredibly well and none of them drag so you're not left marking time waiting for them to go back to one of the others.

Somehow this spiritual centuries-spanning Short Cuts all works. Somehow the wild mix of genres and the shuffling of six entirely different stories with the same casts manages to hold together. It looks great throughout, and the CGI cityscape effects in the Neo Seoul segment are fantastic. If there are isolated niggles, such as the pidgin dialect of the far future being a little difficult to get a grip on (though not so difficult as to be entirely incomprehensible), Hugo Weaving in terrifying drag for no good reason or Hanks' hilarious stab at a Cockney accent, they don't really figure too much in the vast scheme. And, unusually for anthologies, there isn't a weak story among them; in fact you could probably make a perfectly satisfying feature out of each one.

Frankly I'm thrilled that someone stumped up so much money for something so bonkers and with so little chance of commercial success. Sadly not enough people will see it (it's been taken off my local 9-screener after just one week) and investors won't be willing to ante up for the kind of insanely risky projects the art of cinema really needs. But then Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis have never gone for the easy box-office route: Speed Racer and The International may not have been huge commercial successes but they're much underrated films. Cloud Atlas laughs dementedly in the face of formula, and it's more fun, more enjoyable and more exciting than anything else on the circuits right now. Hilarious, surprising, thrilling and horrifying by turns, it's absolutely worth seeing at least once.


Monday, 25 February 2013



The more important of the two names on the poster for this new Canadian/Spanish horror movie isn't star Jessica Chastain (unrecognisable from Zero Dark Thirty), but Guillermo Del Toro. He didn't direct or write it (that's down to Andy Muschietti, who'd already made a short of the same name in 2008), but he's billed as executive producer, whatever that might mean, and the credits actually begin with "Guillermo Del Toro Presents". And there's a familiar GDT feel about the film: children, insects, fairy stories and sheer horror that's most reminiscent of the great Pan's Labyrinth as well as the solid Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (which he co-wrote and produced).

Following a financial collapse, a distraught Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) abducts his young daughters and heads out of town. But the car crashes and they end up wandering the wintry forests until chancing upon an isolated cabin - home to someone or something which they refer to as Mama. Five years later the girls are found, but when they're taken into care with their artist uncle Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) and his rock chick girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), Mama isn't about to let them go... Can they figure out who or what she is, or was, and stop her before she reclaims the girls forever?

Probably the less you know the better. Mama herself is a persuasively effective horror bogey(wo)man, single-minded in what she wants and ruthless in securing it. It's a pity that the film opts to reveal her through whizzy CGI which is undeniably spectacular but the full-on monster approach isn't nearly as unsettling as the first hour of subtler, creepy moments. Some of the jump moments work well (some work superbly - I had to look away from the screen on several occasions) but others seem cheap and unnecessary as Mama suddenly materialises where the characters don't see her, leaving you wondering why Mama would bother doing that.

Skip this paragraph if you don't want details of the ending, as that's the source of my other big problem with the film: the death of a child. I'm not happy with movies that kill the kid any more than many audiences are okay with movies that kill the dog, as it seems like a cheap taboo too far (see Hobo With A Shotgun) and, while it means the movie doesn't have a cosy and predictable Hollywood ending, it still leaves an odd taste. And since this ending does focus on the death of a child, this would surely leave Annabel and Lucas struggling to explain just what happened to the girl to social services, the police, the family courts etc. Even if the cause wasn't supernatural, it would be a hell of a difficult sequence of events and incidents to explain away.

By and large, though, Mama the movie is pretty good, anchored by strong performances (from Chastain and particularly the two girls) and with enough domestic chills of the Sinister and Insidious vein to keep it nicely unsettling for the most part (aided by lots of low brass rumbles in the Fernando Velazquez score). If it does drop the ball in the third act with too much digital effects work and an unsatisfying conclusion, there's still enough good stuff in the first hour or more to make Mama worth seeing.


Saturday, 23 February 2013



It's always the way. You wait years for a strictly average, by the numbers action DVD in which a faded 1990s martial arts superstar smashes an Eastern European sex trafficking ring, and then LoveFilm send you two of the damned things in the same envelope. Neither Steven Seagal nor Jean-Claude Van Damme have been in regular cinema releases for years outside of villain roles in knowingly nostalgic throwbacks (Machete, The Expendables 2); the likes of Sudden Death and Out For Justice are but a fond memory of a time when this sort of thing played the national circuits rather than materialising unheralded on the bottom shelves of larger branches of Blockbusters and undiscriminating off-licences.

Of the two films, Jean-Claude's is probably the better film but Seagal's is indisputably the funnier (and crucially shorter by half an hour). In Six Bullets, sleazy Moldovan gangsters abduct the teenage daughter of a visiting American couple; getting nowhere with the local cops, the distraught parents are put in touch with Jean-Claude Van Damme, an alcoholic butcher and ex-military badass haunted by the ghosts of the girls he failed to save in the opening sequence. Why have they taken Becky and how far does the chain of corruption lead, and once they find out Van Damme is after them how long before they cut their losses and just kill her? It helps that her dad is a top-level MMA fighter in town for a lucrative smackdown and her mum has a worrying ease with firearms and shooting people, but it's really about Jean-Claude facing down his demons and beating the shit out of a bunch of grunting foreign thugs.

As a film it's perfectly well put together, though 110 minutes is excessive for a B-movie beat-em-up, and at the age of 52 Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg (yup, that's his real name) is able to do the ageing, world-weary veteran roles while still moving a hell of a lot better than I ever will. Steven Seagal, on the other hand, was always pretty awful but took himself so seriously that he ended up looking faintly silly, and Out Of Reach pushes the mythologising to absurd levels. When the film starts he's no less than Saint Francis Of Assisi, tending injured birds on his private wildlife reserve and posting nuggets of wisdom and Buddhist philosophy to his sponsored 13-year-old penpal in a Warsaw orphanage - but then his former Agency colleagues show up and he hotfoots it for Poland to protect the girl. (Er, why exactly?) As it turns out, he's too late: the orphanage is supplying girls for the international paedo trade and Seagal teams up with a cute Polish detective to bring the organisation down by slapping it, throwing it out of windows, blowing it up and ultimately slashing at it with a sword.

Whereas Jean-Claude at least has the decency to still kick people spectacularly in the head, Seagal's combat technique still appears to be repeatedly slapping them to death, and his fight scenes have been shot and cut together in such a way that he doesn't actually appear to be in them, merely showing up for a few subliminal closeups when the doubles have gone home. If it is actually him doing the fighting, it really doesn't look it. But then there are moments when it doesn't sound like him doing the talking either, suggesting it's been re-edited and re-dubbed by whoever happened to be in the building that day and who could do a very rough approximation of Seagal's tones. It felt like those TV edits of blockbuster movies where people who didn't sound anything like the main actors dubbed out their profanities in mid-sentence. Director trivia: Po-Chih Leong was born in Northampton and once made a useless British art/horror movie with Jude Law called The Wisdom Of Crocodiles.

Despite them being a bit rubbish most of the time and with their prime years long faded, I have a soft spot for Van Damme, Seagal and Dolph Lundgren, the "if wet" alternatives to Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger. Neither Six Bullets nor Out Of Reach is particularly impressive or even memorable, but they're both more or less watchable, and their respective stars are doing little if anything out of the usual routine (though Seagal forsakes his usual all-black costume and wears a suit for most of the film). For diehard fans that's probably enough.



Monday, 18 February 2013



Really? Sometimes it's genuinely surprising what makes it to franchise status and what gets left behind as a one-off, a narrative cul-de-sac rather than a long and winding road heading off into the wilderness. You can understand why Freddy Kruger got a career and Horace Pinker from Shocker didn't, because Shocker is rubbish - but then Mark Jones' twaddlesome 1993 comedy-horror Leprechaun, which would probably be forgotten had it not boasted an early lead role for Jennifer Aniston, was barely worthy of one film outing, let alone half a dozen. Despite his magical powers, the Leprechaun isn't scary, and his penchant for speaking in rhyming couplets in an Oirish accent just makes him an annoying little pillock more than a threatening movie bogeyman. There's also the problem that, as with Dracula, he's got so many vulnerabilities and there's so much arcane lore governing his behaviour that he's easily outwitted and trapped by his own stupid rules.

Despite the stupidity of the central idea, Leprechaun 2 at least is fairly tolerable on its chosen level and does rustle up enough visual nastiness to get by, though it is still stuck with being a Leprechaun movie. The Leprechaun (Warwick Davis) turns up in Los Angeles to claim his bride on his 1,000th birthday: Bridget, the direct descendant of his slave who betrayed him a millennium ago. Alas, she's dating a young idiot named Cody who hustles tourists into an embarrassingly unscary tour of celebrity death spots - but by chance he's picked up one of the Leprechaun's gold shillings which the Lep wants back. Can he and his drunken boss defeat the evil beast at the go-kart track? Can he rescue his comely girlfriend from the Lep's secret lair?

It's pleasantly grisly in places - enough to warrant an 18 - and competently enough done by Rodman Flender, but it does ultimately become silly with Cody, Bridget and the Lep chasing one another round the cheaply set-dressed corridors inside the Lep's treehouse. However, on the silliness scale, Leprechaun 2 is Glengarry Glen Ross when set against Leprechaun 3, in which the Lep "terrorises" Las Vegas ("terrorises" being a euphemism for "makes a bloody nuisance of himself in"). Astonishingly, this rot was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, who was all over the Ozploitation scene in the 1980s. Somewhere between the two films, the Leprechaun (Davis again) has got himself turned into a statue and sealed with a medallion; an ill-advised pawn shop owner removes the medallion, Lep comes to life, one of his precious pieces of gold gets lost, same routine again. In his quest for the wish-granting shilling, several greedy idiots meet absurd fates, including a lecherous casino owner seduced by a woman who climbs out of his TV set (several years before Ringu, incidentally), turns into a cyborg and electrocutes him, and a woman who wishes she was young and sexy again only to have her boobs and bum inflate and explode. Ha ha ha.

One of the great mysteries of our time is not how the Leprechaun series managed to get to Part 3, but why there are still another three films to go including - I blarney you not - Leprechaun In Space. Worse still: they're planning a reboot with a wrestler nicknamed Hornswoggle in the title role! You could make the case that it's kind of racist to indulge the worst of baseless Oirish stereotypes, and it's debatably heightist as well with an evil antagonist who's four foot tall when he's wearing his big hat. Less open to question is the very simple matter of whether it's any good or not: it isn't. Part 2 is better than Part 3, thanks to a dash of mean-spirited gore and death scenes, but that's all it's got going for it. Part 3 has nothing.


To be sure:

Friday, 15 February 2013



Most people's first idea of a haunted house is either a huge country mansion such as Hill House or Castle Dracula: an ancient, crumbling ruin full of cobwebs, secret passages and sealed-off basements, or else one of those big American family houses as seen in Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, where Something Really Evil happened in the past and It's Still There. You don't necessarily think of a suburban council semi in seventies Pontefract as the site of what's billed as Europe's most violent ever haunting.

In fact, When The Lights Went Out (a reference not just to creepy poltergeist activity but the electricity power cuts inflicted on the country by industrial action at the time) is a modestly effective and low-key haunted house movie in which an ordinary family in Yorkshire is plagued by supernatural activity: not just the swinging lampshades at the start but something deeper and more terrifying. Initially the daughter's claims of a presence, as you'd expect, are rejected, but the incidents become more frequent and ultimately undeniable. Can a spiritualist help? The Church? (Hint: there's a huge cross on the DVD artwork.)

In terms of domestic ghostliness, it's certainly a much better film than the Paranormal Activity series, for the simple reason that things do happen. Unlike those increasingly tiresome exorcises in found footage dullness, here the spirits are willing to do far more than just nudge a saucepan or push a door open very slightly when no-one's looking: the temperature drops, objects are thrown, people are physically attacked. The level of terror doesn't reach the wonderful heights of Insidious or even Sinister, but it's still jumpy and creepy as hell and I wouldn't have stayed ten minutes in the place. Sadly, it undercuts the hard work by climaxing with a huge spectacular in-your-face CGI ghost attack which doesn't really gel with the utterly believable domestic ambience.

Some of us are old enough to remember the 1970s, and that ambience is aided immeasurably by some spot-on production design showcasing 1973-4's truly hideous patterned wallpaper and bric-a-brac to go along with the equally horrendous fashions, hairstyles and spectacles of the era and shots of Noel Edmonds on the cathode ray telly. When The Lights Went Out isn't great, but it's certainly convincingly done, and unsettling enough to get by as a horror movie with superb period trappings as a bonus.



Thursday, 14 February 2013



The nation went slightly tonto this week when it was revealed that this fifth instalment of the Die Hard franchise had been cut back for swearing and violence in order to obtain a 12A certificate, because that's where the money is and who gives a toss about the integrity of the film? The idea of a Die Hard movie where John McClane couldn't use his own Oedipal catchphrase (when the film's own marketing mainly consists of punning on said catchphrase) is as ludicrous as under-12s watching Die Hard movies in the first place. Had it been neutered to the point where it was all fluffy kittens and puppies? Was John McClane taking on a mischievous elf or a naughty hamster rather than international terrorists and bank robbers? In the event, the cuts for the 12A were nonsensical because the finished film is still ridiculously violent: not so much for the graphic gore and bloodshed but for the simple fact that the film is awash with so much of it. They may die bloodlessly and painlessly, but the sheer amount of wanton killing and destruction rather mitigates against the lack of visceral grue.

Sadly, the intricacies of the BBFC and the marketing desires of 20th Century Fox are not the worst of what's wrong with A Good Day To Die Hard. Its offences include, but are certainly not limited to, an uninteresting story, a level of overkill in the deafening action sequences, poor dialogue recording, a staggering lack of subtlety, and not really being a Die Hard movie in anything but name. Rather it's a generic, perfunctory but - let's be fair - reasonably enjoyable thicko action movie which undeniably delivers in terms of smashing up cars and shooting people and blowing things up. John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Russia to patch things up with his dull and uncharismatic hunk of a son Jack (Jai Courtney) who's about to go on trial for murder. But then Jack and his fellow defendant Yuri are blasted out of the courthouse with car bombs: Jack turns out to be an undercover CIA agent and Yuri has a secret evidence file which incriminates the Russian Defence Minister in causing the Chernobyl meltdown.

Cue a spectacularly destructive car and truck chase in which approximately 300 cars and vans are written off (and goodness knows how many innocent civilians are hospitalised or killed), followed by a destructive shootout in the CIA safehouse and an even more destructive shootout in a ballroom (culminating in the Moscow city centre building being shot up by a helicopter gunship in broad daylight) in which Yuri is abducted by his double-crossing daughter and everyone heads for a secret vault in the ruins of Chernobyl which actually contains about a ton of weapons-grade uranium. Meanwhile the McClanes steal a car full of guns and head off after them for the big mega-ultra-showdown of things going boom kaboom KABOOOOOM....

That's probably what it's about, although it could be about catfood or spanners given that the sound recording is so shoddy that much of the dialogue is rendered indecipherable, even when it's not delivered in Russian accents. Even Willis' lines are lost, even when there aren't deafening explosions and gunfire effects in the background. Maybe they just decided the audience were only going to care about the chases and explosions and fights so the little verbal character details that slipped through were of no importance. Don't worry about it, there's only another four minutes before the next deafening and eye-scorching action setpiece.

As a Die Hard movie, it is rubbish and has none of the charm of the first two (I was never a huge fan of the third one); like Die Hard 4.0, it feels more like an ordinary action movie than part of the franchise that reinvigorated the genre a quarter of a century ago. Turning McClane from an ordinary guy into an indestructible Captain America destroys the essence of what John McClane and Die Hard are all about: his normal, average vulnerability. Now he's Robocop. That's not to say A Good Day To Die Hard isn't perfectly proficient popcorn entertainment: it's fun, on the level of dumb bang-bang shoot-em-ups, but unlike the original, it isn't anything more than that. And pasting back the F-words and blood spurts for the inevitable uncut DVD isn't going to change that.




A double bill of David DeCoteau silliness: two films which have been inaccurately repackaged as Grindhouse movies but in reality are just softcore sex comedies with occasional famous faces in them (or, more specifically, blood relatives of famous faces). Neither of these two titles are any good at all as films - in fact they're mostly terrible - but they're probably ideal one-off-the-wrist fodder for the undemanding, undiscriminating teenage boy about four years too young to legally watch them. In their favour is a brief running time: they clock in at about 75 minutes each, which is frankly more than enough. And they're not actively hateful or mean-spirited: they're just dumb knockabout Z-movies for the drive-in and home video markets.

It's hard to fathom which of the two is the worse: Beach Babes From Beyond is probably marginally sillier but it's a very close run thing. A trio of space bimbos steal Dad's prize spaceship and crashland on a California beach, where they meet up with some shirtless guys and help a bankrupt hippie win $30,000 at a bikini jiggling contest organised by Burt Ward, much to the annoyance of scheming Linnea Quigley. Most of the running time is taken up with endless montages of girls in bikinis and muscled hunks in shorts while the same bloody surf rock song plays on a loop in the background for eternity, and more fun is had spotting Martin Sheen's brother Joe Estevez (hippie Uncle Bud), Patrick Swayze's brother Don (Space Dad), John Travolta's brother Joey (health food stall owner and former NASA scientist) and Sylvester Stallone's mother Jackie (Space Dad's new girlfriend).

It's flimsy, throwaway fluff and nonsense, albeit with a soul crushing message at its heart: that Uncle Bud should grow up, move out of his beach hut and become a besuited corporate whore to achieve success and happiness rather than live his life to his own preference. The rest of it is teenie romantic twaddle (which is no different to any other teen beach movie except the girls are from Planet Zog or whatever) and discreetly pubeless nudity and bikini sequences that go on so long you'll never want a pair of hooters thrust in your eyeline again. Directed in 1993 by David DeCoteau under one of his numerous aliases (Ellen Cabot in this instance).

Meanwhile, 1988's Dr. Alien is a SF rejigging of The Nutty Professor in which high school nerd Wesley is used as a guinea pig testing a sexual attraction serum created by a disguised blue-skinned alien scientist (Judy Landers - continuing the Famous Sibling tradition, she's the sister of one-time Dallas star Audrey) seeking to restore the virility of the males back home. The glowing green serum turns him into a cool and charismatic sex machine with a rectum-like tentacle sticking out of his head which for some reason turns all the girls crazy for him! He joins a rock band, gets into car chases, beats up the evil football jock, is dragged into the ladies' showers by the girls' gym class....but all he really wants is to date the sweet and sensitive girl-next-door type.

There's seems little point in detailing the stupidities of Dr. Alien - why do the aliens think testing their gloop on humans will indicate its effectiveness on an alien species? Why don't the girls all run screaming from the bloke with a tentacle sticking out of his head? - and, as with Beach Babes From Beyond, there's not much point in kicking it around town for its technical shoddiness and cheapness. They weren't made to be any good: they were made to be disposable horror quickies for guys who want a bit of skin, a bit of action, a few laughs and nothing deep and meaningful. In that event, they've succeeded in their ambitions, but what sad ambitions they are.



Wednesday, 13 February 2013



While it's sadly established that generic, anonymous, homogeneous slop is where the money is where it comes to movies, it's nice that there's room for the individual, the one-off and the batshit loon to make their own artistic endeavours. Cinema would be nothing if it was run entirely by the wacko side of the industry, just as if it were run exclusively by the Michael Bays of this world. Theoretically, the wackos and the eccentrics should be where we get the more interesting, challenging and memorable films, if only because they're not adhering like duct tape to a ludicrous studio formula that makes 90% of all movies look the same. Theoretically.

Guy Maddin is one of those eccentrics who does his own highly stylised thing, and never mind what the focus groups and preview audiences might say. Maddin's films are tough to get into; for some they're worth the effort but I've rarely managed it. I remember struggling mightily but unsuccessfully with a double-bill of his silent melodramas Archangel and Tales From The Gimli Hospital twenty years ago, and enjoying the hand-tinted Alpine love story Careful only a little more. But in the event his Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, a lo-def retelling of the Stoker story through the medium of contemporary ballet with a Mahler score, ends up as his most accessible film.

The fairest and most open-minded thing I can possibly say about Keyhole is that, like those other films of his, it's just is not to my personal taste and I don't respond to his work as he intended. It's a dark, very harshly shot black and white film which starts off as a 30s gangster movie with goons trapped in a house awaiting the arrival of their boss, Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric). But then it becomes a sort of ghost story in which he might be a ghost, his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) and/or some of his children (one of whom he's forgotten) might be ghosts, and none of it seems to be real....

On the other hand, the unfairest thing I can say is that it's dull and completely incomprehensible bunk, and it isn't even enlivened by the "strong sexual images" that earned it an 18 certificate. Visually it's very dark with a heavy, suffocating atmosphere, a lack of narrative cause and effect that makes the whole film play like some kind of inescapable dream, and it's impossible to fathom exactly what's going on. But presumably that's the point. It's an exercise in art and style, not a plot-centred film; that style is certainly well conjured but completely impenetrable and the film emerges from the gloom as the least accessible and most difficult of Maddin's films that I've seen so far. I'm all for cinema that doesn't blindly follow the studio doctrines, but Keyhole swings way too far the other way into the arty abstract.



Saturday, 9 February 2013


Περιέχει λεπτομέρειες της ιστορίας (CONTAINS DETAILS OF THE STORY)

The infamous DPP Video Nasty list has many films on it that really aren't nasty. Some are genuinely artistic (Possession), some are rather fun (Contamination, The Evil Dead), some are cripplingly dull (Unhinged), a few are just stupid (Don't Go In The Park, Night Of The Bloody Apes). A few live up to the name and are truly nasty: The House On The Edge Of The Park, Last House On The Left and the original I Spit On Your Grave are all despicable films; Cannibal Holocaust is revolting for its animal cruelty but still brilliantly done. Well, add Nico Mastorakis' senseless and empty parade of atrocity, filth and depravity to that list: full marks for cramming as much foul behaviour as possible into 102 minutes, but no marks for making it remotely interesting.

The Island Of Death is the Greek island of Mykonos, where young attractive lovers Celia and Christopher turn up on what looks to be an extended holiday. But they're sociopaths: mad killers driven to dispose of all who offend their unimpeachable standards of unthinking fascistic bigotry. Homosexuals, elderly seductresses, lesbians, adulterers....all fair game to be humiliated and murdered because in Christopher's eyes these people are Evil. He even kills a goat (after having had sex with it for no adequately explored reason) and they also kill the detective who's tracked them from London. But the police net is closing in and they flee to the mountains, taking refuge with a mute shepherd who promptly rapes both of them, leaves one to die in a lime pit and shacks up with the other....

Despite more than four minutes of BBFC cuts having been restored to the film since its last submission, and despite all the rape, bestiality, pissing, voyeurism and incest (Christopher and Celia are revealed to be brother and sister), not to mention the cheerful murders of pretty much everyone our hero and heroine come into contact with, Island Of Death remains an ugly and tiresome plod through the Daily Mail checklist of taboos and obscenities. Frankly that's not enough of a reason to watch, or indeed make, a film: apparently even Mastorakis himself once described it as "a piece of shit", and who am I to argue? Ticking off another title from the nasties list isn't much reason to sit through it either, but that's what I did, and I rather wish I hadn't.



Friday, 8 February 2013



Exactly how can you "do" Alfred Hitchcock? He was, and remains, one of those (literally as well as figuratively) larger than life characters that it would be impossible to underplay: a distinctive figure with distinctive mannerisms and a distinctive voice. Is he still Hitchcock when he's doing the washing up? How can you show his private self when his public self is so known and recognised more than thirty years after his death? Surprisingly, the somewhat risky proposition of putting Sir Anthony Hopkins in one of Eddie Murphy's old fat suits more or less comes off. At the very least, playing someone with such a famous voice means he can't default to his usual vocal world tour of Welsh, Irish and American. Whatever the troubles with the film, Hopkins' performance isn't one of them.

In fact Hitchcock isn't really about Hitchcock the man, but the genesis and making of probably his most celebrated work (oddly, like Lincoln, it's named after the man but is focussed primarily on one pet project and its impact on his domestic life). Having completed the romantic spy caper North By Northwest, Hitch does an abrupt about face and opts for a low-budget black and white shocker, Psycho, as his next production. Paramount don't want to touch it so he finances it himself; the MPAA won't give him their seal of approval but he forges ahead anyway, and a cinematic legend is ultimately born.

There's a moment in the James Whale memoir Gods And Monsters where the aging Whale breaks off from his reminiscences to wearily ask his interviewer "You only want to know about the horror pictures, don't you?" - to which the answer was yes, we do want to know about the horror pictures. In the case of Hitchcock I could have happily sat through five or six hours of reconstructions of the shooting of Psycho: all the backstage behind-the-camera interaction and how they did this and that, with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins. I'd love to have seen more about the legendary music - Bernard Herrmann gets one brief scene with maybe two lines of dialogue, which isn't nearly enough considering his score's importance to the film (and the Herrmann pieces tracked into Hitchcock's soundtrack are from a rerecording not even conducted by him). Even screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio!!!!) is barely in it.

But what takes up too much of the time is a subplot in which Hitch comes to suspect his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, basically playing Helen Mirren, although to be fair we know a lot less about what Alma was like than we know about Hitch, Leigh and Perkins) might be having a fling with a shifty looking screenwriter played by Danny Huston. Is it just a writing partnership or is there something more going on? And how does this impact on Hitch's ability to direct his film? To be honest I didn't care; I wanted the film to get back to the set. Private lives should remain private; it's the public and the professional that I'm much more interested in and whatever their effect on Psycho, bouts of marital discord, jealousy and sexual frustration really don't need to be aired quite as much as they are here.

What the film also lacks is the feel of Hitchcock: it feels like a cosy Sunday night ITV dramatisation rather than a film in its own right and while a few individual moments deliberately echo Hitch (the shooting of the shower sequence is edited together like the shower sequence itself) it doesn't have any Hitchcockian oomph behind it. To that end it could have also used a more dynamic and upfront pseudo-Herrmann soundtrack, and Danny Elfman's score is pretty uninteresting (let's not forget he adapted Herrmann's Psycho music for the Gus Van Sant remake!). Oddly, Dario Argento's underrated and surprisingly playful 2005 film Do You Like Hitchcock? was made for television, yet it feels much more cinematic and has more of the essence of Hitchcock in it (even though it's more Do You Like De Palma? in places).

Still, for all its flaws Hitchcock turned out to be a lot better than I'd feared, while not being quite as good as I'd hoped. More about the actual making of the movie and less of the private dramatics would, at least for me, have improved matters considerably. I'm also unsure of the scenes in which Hitch is visited and counselled by the spirit of Ed Gein (the inspiration for Robert Bloch's original Psycho novel). Stop trying to analyse and explain genius: once you understand, the magic is gone. Instead, just enjoy it: watch the man's films again. That's where Hitchcock really is.


Monday, 4 February 2013



Zzzzzzz.... There's not a whole lot that's worse about being sternly lectured about something we're already well aware of. Spending two and a half hours in the cinema being smacked round the head with the metaphorical rubber truncheon of Serious Message would be bad enough if it was a dazzlingly revolutionary idea being pitched, but it's far worse when it's something that no-one under the age of 150 is going to argue seriously about. You might as well make a sprawling epic about why women should have the vote or why drowning puppies in a canal is a Bad Thing: we kind of know this already. Sadly, being told a truth we already hold to be self-evident, not to say the bleeding obvious, has little dramatic heft behind it: it's like South Park's Mr Garrison shouting "Slavery is bad, mmkay?" at us for a hundred and fifty minutes.

Lincoln isn't really about Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) - the entire action covers less than a year of his second term as president - but focuses almost exclusively on his fight to abolish slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment while the Civil War still rages. As explained in pages of exposition, he needs two-thirds of the votes in Congress but is probably short by about fifteen votes: can he and his Secretary Of State William Seward (David Strathairn) persuade enough Democrats to switch sides?

It's worthy, it's respectful, indeed reverential, it's immaculately photographed, lit, performed, scored and costumed - and it's more than a little bit dull. Its political procedures are more interesting than the family soap opera dramatics, but much of it is still speech after speech after speech: deep political and philosophical arguments that go on and on and on. They may well be accurate and authentic, and endlessly fascinating to American History buffs, but in terms of cinema they're dead on the screen and the film really needed an Oliver Stone (from his angry, shouty period) behind it to give it some fire and liven the bloody thing up. There's no humour, no levity, no light or life to it: it's glum and sombre and enlivened only by the gold standard grumpiness of Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens, flamboyantly bellowing insults at everyone.

I suspect this will be enough to win the Oscars and fill that remaining bit of blank space on Steven Spielberg's mantelpiece. Frankly it doesn't deserve to: of the nominees (that I've seen) Zero Dark Thirty is indisputably the better film. But it's also the more problematic and Lincoln's the safer bet: "slavery is horrible" rather than "we sometimes torture people". (Personally I'd like Argo to win.) To take issue with the film is not to take issue with its message, but with the manner of its delivery: technically superbly crafted, but overlong, preachy and lifeless. Hugely disappointing.


Sunday, 3 February 2013



The first Demons was scarcely a classic, but it was nasty, gloopy fun: a splattery zombie movie set in a cinema in which a steel mask hanging on display in the foyer pricks the face, Black Sunday style, of a young woman who then goes Total Zombie, apparently ushering in an Undead Apocalypse via the horror movie on the screen. For all the absurdity and ludicrous characters, it's probably one of Lamberto Bava's best films (close to flawed giallo A Blade In The Dark, but leagues ahead of the unspeakable dullness of Graveyard Disturbance) and certainly the biggest; enough of a hit to warrant a sequel. A pity it's laugh out loud hilarious in the worst Golden Turkey way: a ridiculous orgy of rubber gremlin puppets and reality-bending silliness that makes absolutely no sense and is too funny to be remotely scary or horrific. Put bluntly, it's a disaster.

It would appear that the Apocalypse from the first movie was somehow averted and the site fenced off, but some teenage morons with the cumulative IQ of a Jaffa cake scale the walls with absolutely no difficulty and stumble aimlessly around the ruins until one of them cuts her hand and spills blood on the corpse of a demon. Hey presto, it comes back to life! But then the demonic force reaches out, Videodrome style, through the TV sets of the residents of an apartment block (shades of Cronenberg's Shivers), turning enough of the viewers into demons who immediately start to infect everyone else. Maybe there's refuge in the parking garage - that's where all the bodybuilders and surviving party animals have headed....

None of Demons 2 adds up. Presumably this malarkey amidst the ruins is a live broadcast (how else could the demons get through?) but it's shot and edited and acted like a regular crappy Italian horror movie and really looks no different to Demons 2 itself. We get a demonically possessed child, but out of him suddenly bursts a rubber monster that looks like something out of Gremlins, rampaging around the apartment until it's killed with a handy bottle of sulphuric acid the victim fortuitously keeps on the drinks trolley. We also get a possessed dog, which in long shots is a glowy-eyed dog in a blonde wig and in close-up is a puppet thing that would have been laughed off the set of Dr Who in the Sylvester McCoy years.

What you don't get is very much in the way of gore - it's been downgraded to a 15 certificate which is pretty much as soft as you can get for a demon/zombie horror movie - or any characters worth caring much about. Demons 2 really is pretty terrible: it might manage to raise a few laughs at the rotten effects and the now-hilarious 80s fashions, but mostly it's just awful, and it's a long, long way down from Demons. As with the first one, it's produced by Dario Argento.



Saturday, 2 February 2013



You can tell it's awards season because cinemas are suddenly full of the "good" movies: the ones the studios like to think represent the movie industry at its best. Lincoln, Les Miserables, Django Unchained (the wildcard entry), Zero Dark Thirty: the quality films that tackle a serious subject or a classic text, and do so with maturity and respect and responsibility (and length) but with no laughs. The bum and poo jokes, sci-fi blockbusters, and stupid CGI explodogasms can wait till the summer: these are the movies For Your Consideration.

Flight's serious subject is alcoholism: Denzel Washington is Whitaker, an airline pilot and established drunk who then snorts cocaine to sober himself up. But when his plane goes down due to what appears to be a combination of mechanical failure and very bad weather, does his vodka-fuelled state contribute to the disaster, or to the miraculous crash landing in which only six out of over a hundred are killed? And will he manage to stay off the booze for the enquiries and tribunals and legal hearings? Indeed, in the face of potential prison time for manslaughter, will he even accept and acknowledge that he has a serious addiction problem in the first place? The flight of the title doesn't refer to Flight 227, it's Whitaker's flight from reality: it's his refusal to face his alcoholism and drug addiction and the lies he'll tell to convince himself (if no-one else) that he's okay.

The early section featuring the disaster itself is absolutely gripping, the dramatic and character-based second half considerably less so. Chunks of running time are spent on Kelly Reilly's fellow addict trying desperately to get clean and rebuild her life, but hanging around with Whitaker clearly isn't helping as he doesn't want to change. In the end the film is certainly worthy, and it's very well done, but despite John Goodman's colourful appearances as Whitaker's drug supplier, it tends towards the preachy, and it doesn't have enough of the dramatic fireworks to sustain the second half of the action after the crash. Instead it turns into a string of scenes in which Whitaker either resists the temptation to get thoroughly unattractively sloshed, or he succumbs to that temptation.

It's nice to see Robert Zemeckis back doing proper live action movies rather than motion capture cartoons (Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), and he's in serious mode rather than high-concept popcorn entertainment mode. But it just becomes a little too glum. That's not necessarily a bad thing: coked-ups alcoholics in charge of jet aircraft isn't really something to be flippant about. (Not that it's any reflection on the film, but the cinema showed it through the 3D filter they hadn't removed from the previous day's screenings, which perhaps added to the darkness.) NB: you might want to look away when Piers Morgan turns up as himself on TV sets.


Friday, 1 February 2013



What the cluck is going on? A baffling avant-garde arthouse movie disguised as a second-tier giallo (or possibly the other way around), set in the glamorous environs of the factory floor of a hi-tech chicken farm with one of the most unsettlingly inappropriate music scores imaginable and a you're-not-serious English title; it doesn't work for a moment but the bizarre fusion of rubbish dialogue, gloved maniacs, mad scientists, kinky sex and chickens makes for a genuinely unusual film nonetheless. Small wonder it's commercially unavailable in the UK; it's available as an import but it has never had a British release in any form, so don't go hunting for it round Cash Converters or Blockbusters. If chickens could make a film about human greed, lust and venality, this is probably what it would look like.

The cockamamie bonkersness of Death Laid An Egg begins with its gialloesque title and its offputting score. No groovy lounge music or bossa nova rhythms here: it's an experimental noise soundtrack consisting mainly of solo guitar or violin, not accompanying the visuals but by the sound of it just randomly playing whatever comes into the soloist's head. Most of the plot - in which perverted poultry farmer Jean-Louis Trintignant is torn between rich chicken magnate wife Gina Lollobrigida and hot secretary Ewa Aulin while seeking favour with The Association (the chicken trade organisation) - is melodramatic soup opera tosh that's mostly lacking in thrills and suspense and, crucially, an unseen homicidal maniac bumping off the rest of the cast. Meanwhile, the resident mad scientist has created a mutant superchicken that has small bones, lots of meat and no head!

It's a pity, but the jarring, awkward soundtrack, the vaguely comedic overtones of the machinations of the Chicken Marketing Board and the countless close-up shots of chickens (alektoraphobics beware) rather defuse the already minimal giallo content, while the tinges of sex and murder detract from the difficult arthouse feel of the rest of the film. It sort of wants to be two things at the same time and ends up not really succeeding at either. If nothing else, it's an intriguing curiosity with a little bit of leftie comment: the rich bastards either humping or plotting against each other while the poor peasantry, recently made redundant by advances in chicken farming technology, huddle defiantly together outside. Definitely an oddity.