Tuesday, 23 May 2017

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

CONTAINS SOME GAS-FIRED (GAS-FIRED BOILERS, SPOILERS)

Cor blimey, guvnor, strike a light and no mistake, come and 'ave a butchers at what His Bleedin' Nibs Lord Sir Guy Of Ritchie has done now, it's a right ****in' palavar, me old china, oi-oi, apples and pears, chim chimernee... Really. It's basically a London gangster movie, only nominally relocated to the fifth century but with giant fire-breathing pachyderm things at the start, an octopus demon and cor blimey, guvnor, it's David Beckham. Acting. (Some have mocked the film for this specifically, but it's not significantly worse or more jarring than everything else that's going on throughout.)

In this version Arthur is spirited away from Camelot Castle as a toddler, following a coup by his wicked uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), and ending up as an urchin living in a London bordello. Over the years he becomes a streetwise, hard-but-fair lovable rogue (Charlie Hunnam), wheeling and dealing and ducking and diving to the extent you do honestly expect the Minder theme tune to crash in at any moment. But The Sword has been found: the legend states that only the rightful King can pull it from the stone and Vortigern is having every man of the right age brought to Camelot to give it a tug. Next thing you know he's in a cave with Djimon Hounsou and mysteriously accented mage Astrid Berges-Frisbey and reluctantly manning up to reclaim the throne....

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is obviously utter tosh, in modern dialogue and modern slang (with one of the most clangingly out-of-place F-bombs in years), with CGI monsters and converted 3D action sequences crammed into a scenario where they don't really belong. Nor does the snappy, blokey, geezery banter and backchat that Ritchie wasn't able to include in his two Sherlock Holmes films or The Man From UNCLE (or presumably Swept Away, the DVD of which is still sitting in my to-watch pile). Obviously any kind of music score beyond the earliest of folk songs is going to be historically anachronistic, but Daniel Pemberton's score includes thumping techno that bolts the film too firmly to this era instead of that: a pity, since other cues of a more traditional variety (both in terms of traditional-sounding period instruments and the traditions of film scoring in general) work much better.

Still, it's not awful: it's moderate fun in parts if you can get into it but I don't think "moderate fun in parts" is anywhere near enough if they're going to try and spin this out to a six-film franchise. It's too long and never finds the right tone between Lord Of The Rings magic/fantasy and battle scenes, and cheery cockernee knockabout full of people with names like Goosefat Bill and Wet Stick. Entertaining enough as a throwaway one-off but really we don't need to be doing this again in a hurry.

**

SATANIC

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

By now we're well used to the main characters of quickie teen horror movies not just being thick as an extraordinarily large number of short planks, but eye-rollingly stupid to a near-suicidal degree. The old gag about "hot teenagers get stoned and play with a ouija board in the spooky old house at midnight" isn't a joke any more, it's practically a pitch for a studio franchise. Maybe we're just getting fed up with it down here on the ground, but in a world with four Sharknado movies the anti-idiot signals just aren't getting through.

Satanic is a prime example of dimwit cinema: two couples head to Los Angeles, either to watch a sitcom taping or en route to the Coachella Arts Festival (the script doesn't seem sure) but really they're in town to check out famous crime scenes such as the Sharon Tate residence (they've also specifically booked a hotel room that was the site of a notorious suicide). For no reason beyond idiocy they decide to follow the creepy owner of an occultist bookshop, where they promptly stumble upon what looks like a Satanic ritual...

It isn't a total disaster by any means: it's got a couple of nice moments and the Final Girl's fate is suitably grim and horrifying, and there's a weird timeloop dropped in towards the end for no obvious reason. But it's as forgettable and undistinguished as any one of a hundred low-budget horrors, and it can't get past the fact that the four main leads are so facepalm stupid as to render them impossible to empathise with. Missable in the extreme.

**

Thursday, 18 May 2017

ALIEN: COVENANT

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's a shame, it really is. The idea of Ridley Scott going back to the Alien Universe again, with a film that ties together Alien (which everyone loves) and Prometheus (which, admittedly, only I and a few others loved), is one of those genuinely exciting events in cinema, like a new Brian De Palma thriller or a new Bond / Star Wars / [insert name of favourite auteur and/or franchise here]. Having managed to keep myself pretty much unspoiled until the first showing on the first day, I waited impatiently outside through the ads and trailers: please be good, please be good, please be good....

And it was - kind of. But the trouble was that it wasn't significantly better than good: Alien Resurrection was good. (Hell, up to a point Alien Vs Predator was solidly enjoyable, if admittedly dumb.) Alien: Covenant isn't any better than good and it damn well should have been. Certainly there were several moments when I was really enjoying it, but thinking about it afterwards on the way home I realised that few of them were to do with the film itself. Rather, it was the callbacks to Alien (and, to a lesser extent, Prometheus): familiar imagery, familiar setups, familiar music, while the new stuff suddenly felt a lot less interesting. There's a cosy pleasure in seeing the ship's crew bicker and argue the way they do on the Nostromo, in the spraying water and clanking chains that hark back to Harry Dean Stanton's big moment.

In addition to Alien, there's a lot of Blade Runner in here: the film even starts with a close-up of an eye. That's synthetic David's (Michael Fassbender) eyeball, as he discusses God, creation and what it means to be human with his own creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, unbilled). The bulk of the film concerns the colony spaceship Covenant decades later, carrying two thousand colonists and a cabinet full of embryos to a new planet seven years distant. The crew, including synthetic Walter (Fassbender again), are woken from cryosleep by a chance shockwave from a nearby star; while effecting repairs they pick up a transmission from a previously undetected planet. This might make a better colony site than their original destination, but clearly there's someone or something already here...

It looks good, and so it should because that's really what Ridley Scott does so well. The creature attacks take a while to show up but they do pack a punch, partly because they're not all facehuggers and chestbursters as we've seen before, and they don't stint on the blood and gore. I'm generally a sucker for any movie with people running around spaceships and space stations (well, almost any movie) and all that's fine. But the use of Jerry Goldsmith's and Harry Gregson-Williams' thematic material from Alien and Prometheus respectively really does show up Jed Kurzel's utterly uninteresting original score (and cueing it up afterwards on Spotify revealed it as barely listenable), and the final plot twist is so blatantly obvious it's a wonder the audience weren't yelling it at the screen. There's also a peach for connoisseurs of those clunky "hmmm, do you think THAT's going to be important later on?" moments (which also happily doubles as another nod to Blade Runner).

I really wanted to love it and I'd have been perfectly happy to have just really liked it - but the more I think about it the more it just comes across as okay and an Alien movie by its original director really needs to be more than just okay. One of the reasons I liked Prometheus so much was because it did go off in different directions to Alien and had more intellectual ambitions (even if they weren't fully realised), full of questions of humanity and the meaning of life rather than bickering about their bonus payments - bickering which fits perfectly in Alien but wouldn't have done in Prometheus. This time around Fassbender's synthetics are more annoying than before; there are still too many characters to keep track of and only about half of them (particularly captain Billy Crudup, terraformer Katherine Waterston, pilot Danny McBride) get significant moments in the light, and ultimately the monster stuff is more interesting than the philosophising, which had its place in Prometheus but really doesn't seem to fit here. More than anything else Alien: Covenant is a disappointment because hopes were so high and, unlike Prometheus (and the first three Alien movies), I find I have no desire to watch it again.

***

Thursday, 4 May 2017

PHANTASM: RAVAGER

BOYYYYYYY!!!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!!!

Not to beat about the bush here, but this fifth Phantasm movie, the first in nineteen years, is a frankly unworthy note on which to end the series. It's one of those films that very quickly shuffles between any number of alternate realities - dreams, flashbacks, stories, all in someone's mind, all in someone else's mind, some, none or all of the above and possibly two at a time - leaving the audience unsure where we are and what's reality. This has always been a central idea in horror movies, whether just tricksing about with the borders of fantasy and reality or for a cheap it-was-all-a-dream shock moment, and there are movies out there that aren't much interested in an airtight narrative - Videodrome, or even the original Phantasm - but in this instance it reaches the point where it feels like homework and you can't be bothered picking through it all.

In order to fully appreciate Phantasm: Ravager I actually spent the previous day running the first four movies back to back, since I hadn't seen the third and fourth entries since their VHS rental releases. Like a lot of franchises it goes on for at least one film more than necessary: in chronological order they're good, better, better than I remembered and pants respectively, with the second one easily being the most impressive in the series though I have a certain fondness for the cult original's weirdness. The frankly ever-unappealing Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is still wandering the desert, on the trail of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and looking for his friends Mike (A Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), all returning regulars through the series (though Baldwin was briefly replaced by James Le Gros in Phantasm II). Or is he?

Much of the previous movie took place in the desert where Mike, struck by the franchise's USP flying silver spheres at the end of Part III, was apparently developing Tall Man abilities of his own - but now it appears that the whole saga has been taking place inside Reggie's imagination and he's sitting in a psychiatric hospital being visited by an entirely human Mike. Or is he really in a future hellscape of American cities levelled by giant spheres in the Independence Day manner, and he's fantasising about living in a care home as an escape from the apocalyptic horror?

The Jawa-like slaves in cowls return, the flying spheres return, and the Tall Man himself is an agreeably strange and sinister bogeyman figure. The canvas is much bigger, particularly towards the end, and the music score is much louder (happily using the same theme). But I kind of miss the wonky, shonky charm of the first two films: they'd got the goriest moments and the loopiest, most imaginative ideas, and they didn't have the dreaded CGI blood spurts as they do this time around. They were messy but fun, with a terrific villain, and this is messy and not much fun. Perhaps it's not much of a disappointment after the fourth one, but it's certainly a long fall from the series' early heights, and it's odd to see the regular performers in a franchise still doing it over a third of a century later. The imagery under the end credits suggests what a final Phantasm chapter might have looked like if they'd had the money to do it, but in the event it's sadly underwhelming and uninteresting. A muted final note for what was once one of the more intriguing and off-kilter horror series.

**

RESURRECTION OF THE MUMMY

ARISE, SPOILERS!

There's a comedy trailer online called "Hell No": a spoof horror movie trailer in which everyone does the smart thing and makes the sensible, rational decisions. (It's actually been online since 2013 but coincidentally resurfaced this week on my Twitter feed.) Decisions like not going into the abandoned mental asylum with a ouija board, like not splitting up in the spooky old house, like cops waiting for backup. Because the dimmest of horror movies have frequently relied on the simple trick of dropping a bunch of clueless idiots, all of whom can be relied upon to ignore even the most basic common sense, into a scary situation and then just watching them charge around screaming and making astoundingly bad choices. Sometimes they're so stupid that it becomes self-defeating: there's no real horror when they had it coming. Serves them right.

As dimbulb horror goes, Resurrection Of The Mummy is pretty underpowered. A gaggle of nubile Egyptology researchers (led by an obviously shady professor who's also the father of the dimmest of them) investigate the hidden pyramid of The Nameless One, despite the warnings of an Unspeakable Evil, the killing of their guides by the military and the fact that they don't have permits. Oh well, what could possibly go wrong? One of them brings some weed to help with her confinement issues (why would you go into practical Egyptology in the first place if you're claustrophobic?), they split up, they wander off in an unmapped maze of burial chambers and death traps, going back to look for their companions...

It's maybe not the worst pyramid-based Z-horror on the shelves (that could well be 2005's Legion Of The Dead), but it's still twaddle, obviously, though fairly painless and mercifully short at 77 minutes including a very slow end credit crawl. It's also surprisingly sexless: the girlies may all look like cheerleaders in their day clothes but they're covered up enough and there are no boyfriends to kinkily make out with behind the sarcophagus. And the mummy design is pretty effective, though the CG effects are as duff as expected. Overall it's hardly worth the effort, but it's not something to get angry about and I didn't resent the 50p to buy it in my local CEX. Originally called The Mummy Resurrected, emblazoned on the screen and artwork in a font that suggests it's a belated entry in the Brendan Fraser franchise (they wish); the UK packaging and onscreen title card are completely different,

**

BERSERKER: THE NORDIC CURSE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

There's not much to say about yet another dumb 80s horror slasher in which a sextet of teenage morons are set upon by an immortal Viking lunatic in a bearhide cape. The aforementioned morons, out for a long weekend of camping in the woods (famous for its legends of Olde Norse monsters) and as much sex, beer and pot as they can get, trek out to the wrong camping lodge, argue, wander off into the woods to have sex, find corpses left over from the opening sequence, run around screaming, and injure themselves while charging through the undergrowth. Meanwhile someone or something is picking them off....

After a while you get bored with them and their colossally uninteresting antics, and you end up looking around the flat wondering which household items you'd most like to shove into their heads*, particularly with regard to lead dumbass Josh who's so arrogant, charmless and tiresome I would have been happier if the entire running time of Berserker: The Nordic Curse had just been devoted to him getting his skin clawed off in loving close-up.

There's absolutely nothing surprising, nothing unusual: everyone does everything they're expected to do in a cheap join-the-dots teenkill movie. Of course there's going to be a campfire scene in which one of them explains the scary legend and another leaps hilariously out of the darkness to scare the girl. Of course they're not going to take any notice of the sheriff or the campsite owner (George "Buck" Flower"). Of course they're going to have sex in the woods in the middle of the night. They have to, it's the law. Events aren't helped by indifferent picture quality on the British DVD release and some genuinely, awesomely terrible rock songs. Made in 1987.

* Tin opener, metal coathanger and Allen key.

*