Sunday, 27 November 2016

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

CONTAINS SLIGHT SPOILERS, SLIGHT SPOILERS AND SLIGHT SPOILERS

Rather than spend the entire day watching three movies back to back full of people you're really not interested in and having life crises you can't really get very excited about, here's one movie that bolts the three movies together in one unwieldy two-hour package so you can get on with watching two completely different, and probably better, films. The sad fact is that while Nocturnal Animals looks gorgeous, and sounds gorgeous (Abel Korzeniowski's score combines the lush, tremolo-strings of Herrmann and Donaggio with the repetition of someone like Philip Glass), it's impossible to get involved in the glum, sterile lives on show.

Amy Adams runs a poncey art gallery, she's unhappily married to businessman Armie Hammer in a cold and empty, but ridiculously expensive and beautifully furnished mansion. She receives an advance manuscript of ex-husband Jake Gyllenhaal's ugly, violent novel, and in between reading it she reminisces about their relationship. Past, present and fiction are intercut, with Gyllenhaal also appearing as the hero character of the dramatised novel, in which his family are run off the road by Texas lowfiles and he seeks revenge when his wife and teenage daughter are found raped and murdered. Why has he written this trash, and why has he sent it to her? Should Adams have stayed away from him, on the advice of her frankly horrible mother (Laura Linney)? Or should she now try and reconnect with her one true love?

Matters aren't helped by an opening credits sequence in which obese, elderly ladies dance nude in slow motion that has nothing to do with the film except that it's part of Adams' impossibly wanky art installations. Certainly it's beautiful: cinematography and production design are outstanding. Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough pop up briefly, and it's fun to watch Michael Shannon as the Texas sheriff taking a very unorthodox approach to police procedure in the fictional section. But it never gets us to care, it never gives us the emotional hook needed to get us involved. Disappointing overall, but wonderful on the surface.

**

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

SOUL ASSASSIN

CONTAINS SPOILERS

It's weird what goes through film-makers' minds sometimes. The decision to go for a particular mood that doesn't fit the subject, the decision to go for inappropriate or wildly anachronistic music scores, the decision to concentrate on the least interesting character. In this instance it's a curious predilection for a specific visual palette: steely blues and greys. This suits all the scenes set in modern offices: cold, shiny metal and glass with pretty much everyone in sharp power suits. But it's odd to see them maintain that look for exteriors supposedly set in broad daylight and not, despite the blue filter, at four in the morning. Fine: you've got a style you like, but as with Michael Bay's preference for contrasting unnatural teal skies with radioactive orange skin, there are times when it just doesn't fit.

Since the movie is a pretty generic action thriller in which a guy runs round a European city (in this instance Rotterdam) suspected of multiple murders and unsure which of the smartly-besuited corporate slimeballs he can trust, slapping a distracting visual style across it is pretty much of a wasted effort, like putting Dolby 7.1 Surround on the Antiques Roadshow. Skeet Ulrich, granted a fantastic promotion to Head Of Security for a clearly crooked multinational finance company, plans to propose to his hotshot investor girlfriend - but suddenly she's murdered in front of him. Meanwhile, Kristy Swanson (the original Buffy) is lurking around a factory with some activist types and there's a secret disk with incriminating evidence on it....

The DVD cover of Soul Assassin notes that the feature includes "...a short scene which contains a strobing effect..." so sufferers of photo-sensitive epilepsy should be warned. In fact the film contains numerous such sequences, because Laurence Malkin clearly doesn't have enough faith in his cast or material to carry the film without post-production gimmickry that had me looking away from the screen more than in the last two Insidious movies put together. And I don't suffer from photo-sensitive epilepsy; I just found it annoying, particularly when applied to action sequences that were already overedited. Filmed straight, and not photographed through a sheet of blue glass with the flicker effect turned on full blast, this would be a decent enough potboiler for a Friday night Netflix session. As it is, a few amusing moments apart it's really not worth the effort.

**

Sunday, 13 November 2016

I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Exclusivity bothers me. There seems something wrong with a movie being available in only one place and if you don't have access to it - tough. Maybe it's a film you really want to see that's only showing in a cinema over 300 miles away or (as in this instance) streaming only on a subscription service to which you don't subscribe. Sure you could just sign up to Netflix, just as you could get on a coach to the Runcorn Picturehouse, but why should you have to? Isn't the idea of film distribution to, you know, distribute, so that as many people as possible are actually going to be able to see the damned thing? That's the idea, anyway: to get people to join the club because that's the only way to see these films, documentaries, TV shows. Every movie streaming service has stuff you can't get on the others, but (unlike Netflix) you don't have to join them all on a monthly direct debit, and for Google, Amazon, Blinkbox, Curzon and others you can rent individual titles for a reasonable fee as and when you like. It's not for me to question the wisdom of Netflix executives' business strategy, but I wonder whether people are going to ignore it entirely - they'd rather not sign up for yet another service, and if it means missing out on brand new Adam Sandler films and obscure American standups then they'll just live with it - or just seek out the titles on torrent sites.

The annoying thing is that I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (a handy title for reviewers struggling to reach their word count) is worth seeking out, despite its flaws. It aims for its scares through a low-key atmosphere of suffocating stillness, with long, static takes in which nothing happens (think Paranormal Activity, but without the found footage approach), generally declining the easy popcorn toss in favour of chilly gloom. Despite the simplest back-of-a-fag-packet setup - young nurse takes job looking after elderly horror novelist in old house that might well be haunted - it's effective, creepy and occasionally look-away scary: the best, and possibly the most difficult, kind.

At least for the first half, though it has sadly burdened itself with a voiceover that's the wrong side of waffle. But the gloom is ultimately too thick and, once the apparently nonthreatening ghost has appeared, the film loses a lot of its cold mood that it conjured up early on, and you start to wonder if anyone else ever comes to the house in the eleven months covered by the story, or whether it's an intangible spectre rather than something that can actually move things (like a telephone cord).

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is not a movie for fans of Insidious or Friday The 13th: it's for those who want quiet thrills rather than Boo!!! and messy chainsaw attacks. It's a film veering more towards arthouse than mainstream, and maybe for domestic televisual chills instead of a rowdy Friday night multiplex. That's to be applauded, obviously, and even if it doesn't entirely work then it's still worth seeing. Whether it's worth signing up to Netflix for it is another matter entirely.

***

HEX

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Stop me if you've heard this one: the one about the two women and the abusive husband whom they kill but then it looks like he's a ghost come back for revenge except that it's all a plot and he's only pretending... Yes, it's Les Diaboliques (which I used to write phonetically as Lady Abba Leaks), Henri-George Clouzot's classic French thriller from 1995 that eventually got Hollywoodised forty years later as the bland but watchable Diabolique. (The original book has also been adapted a couple of times for American TV.) Well, there's a Hong Kong version as well, uncredited, finally getting a UK home release and surprisingly well done.

Mrs Chan, heiress to the family businesses which have failed, has a bullying, drunken and cheating husband, Yeung, whose behaviour drives their last servant from the house in terror. A family friend shows up to look after Mrs Chan - but in one of Yeung's violent tirades they end up drowning him in a water butt and dumping the body in the local pond so it looks like he fell in while drunk. But then the body disappears and it looks like Yeung's ghost is haunting the two women. Or was it all a plot? Soon Mrs Chan is terrified to death in her own bed - but her ghost in turn seems to be seeking revenge...

Made by Shaw Brothers, and probably on the same sets as their numerous martial arts pictures, Hex suffers from a final act reveal that breaks at least one of the most celebrated rules of writing crime fiction. It's also stuck with the curious, though not unusual for Hong Kong films of that vintage, practise of needle-dropping existing Hollywood soundtracks into proceedings. In this instance they've pasted parts of Jerry Goldsmith's score to Alien over any of the scary bits - a distraction for anyone who knows that soundtrack (one wonders what credited composer Eddie H Wang originally did, or would have done, with those scenes). Still, it's a good looking film, and it does boast an entirely irrelevant exorcism sequence involving a young woman gyrating naked about the room for a whole reel. Not that I'm complaining, but it feels genuinely out of place. An enjoyable, if occasionally silly, diversion.

***

Thursday, 3 November 2016

HARD TARGET 2

OUCH. CONTAINS SPOILERS

Of all the films to sequel... Hard Target? Really? I mean, it was a more than decent action movie: John Woo's typically overblown style, a fine line in villainy from Lance Henriksen, Jean-Claude in his prime, but it was over twenty years ago, for crying out loud. Who carried a boner for that movie for that long? In practise, of course, it's less a sequel than a remake, and indeed less of a remake than just another variation on the Most Dangerous Game theme: instead of New Orleans we have the Myanmar jungles, instead of Van Damme we have Scott Adkins.

Adkins is Baylor: one-time MMA champion who quit the fight game after beating his best friend to death in the ring. Reduced to streetfighting for little more than his rent money, he's tempted by the one last bout: a big money offer in Myanmar... until it turns out to be a manhunt through the jungles to the Thai border, with half a dozen very rich sociopaths chasing him with crossbows.

Hard Target 2 has numerous callbacks to the original: the crossbows, the motorbikes, occasional use of slo-mo for the action sequences, and villains Robert Knepper and Temuera Morrison behaving, and even sometimes looking, like Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo. It even has the fluttering doves that were (and for all I know still are) John Woo's signature. Sadly, Woo isn't involved; it's actually directed by Roel Reine, specialist in nominal sequels to films to which you even didn't know you wanted second and third instalments even if you could remember them (Death Race 2, Death Race 3, The Man With The Iron Fists 2, The Scorpion King 3). As a Friday night thudfest it's perfectly passable, with the fight scenes well enough staged and satisfyingly brutal (Rhona Mitra's exit is particularly pleasing). Academy voting slips will not, however, require amending.

***

TRAFIC

CONTANS SPOLERS

Well, it's November: Halloween and the season of horror is now over so maybe it's time to leave the zombies and vampires and axe-wielding psychopaths to one side and Watch Something Else. There are countless other genres out there: emotional dramas, political polemics, historical costume epics, vintage French slapstick - yeah, a bit of bumbling Hulot will do quite nicely for an evening. What could possibly go wrong, except everything?

First off: it is officially Trafic rather than Traffic (though the English subs give the latter in the opening titles), which at least makes it easier to tell it apart from the rather good Michael Douglas drugs thriller. It's not as funny as Soderbergh's Traffic, and that's a film which was scarcely a barrel of hilarity to start with. Even allowing for my natural tin eye for visual comedy AND the eternal Anglo-French cultural differences AND the post-Brexit climate in which we're patriotically obliged to hate everything from Johnny Euro on principle, Jacques Tati's uncategorisable comedic blank of a film is as short on laughs, humour, any shred of interest, any damn thing at all, as it's physically possible to be without actually ceasing to exist entirely.

You would think that a film in which a small group of people have to do nothing more than drive from A to B - a car firm transporting its revolutionary new Camper Car, designed by M Hulot himself (Tati), from the Paris factory to the Amsterdam Auto Show - would have room within that skeletal framework to drop a few jokes in somewhere. The film's vein of wry social observation peaks with the discovery that drivers tend to pick their noses while sitting in gridlock (well, at least if you film enough people and then edit together all the bogeymining shots). Spiralling chaos is limited to a dumb motorway pile-up which at that point feels completely out of place, and it runs under the DVD menu anyway so you've already seen most of it.

Whatever the hell it is, it's certainly not a comedy. If anything it's an anti-comedy: it spends most of the time setting up elaborate scenes of slapstick chaos and then deliberately refusing to trigger them. Surely there's a payoff with the lump of meat that falls into the engine compartment? Surely there's a payoff with all the string markers left over the exhibition hall floor? Surely there's a payoff with the hitchhiker and the petrol can? Surely there's a payoff with the wedding party inexplicably stuck in the police station? By the time Hulot had pulled down some trellis for absolutely no reason and then climbed a tree to try and pull it back up, I was actively wondering whether to finish the course or just take the Blu out and abandon the evening entirely.

At the risk of sounding like a pseudo-intellectual Cahiers Du Cinema-wielding twerp in a beret and a well-stroked goatee for a moment: I ended up wondering whether the ghost of Jean-Luc's tedious Weekend might be lurking somewhere in the background. It's got at least as many traffic jams as Weekend, and it's no funnier, though at least it doesn't have endless scenes of to-camera hectoring about the evils of capitalism and the decadence of the West, and Trafic only degenerates into mere pointless tedium rather than the outright gibberish of Godard's film. A peculiar enterprise: it does absolutely nothing, and contains no laughs, which was presumably the point - but why the hell would it be? Absolutely hated it like it was the worst Top Gear ever. Enough with this trying out of previously unexplored genres, let's get back to the zombies and mad axe murderers.

*