Friday, 1 November 2019

DOCTOR SLEEP

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

The worst thing you can come out of a cinema thinking isn't "that was absolutely awful, complete waste of time, utter rubbish". Rather, it's "well, it's okay, I suppose". And sadly this followup to The Shining, 39 years since the film came out, is little more than "okay, I suppose". Even given that I've never been a huge fan of The Shining itself, which I nevertheless rewatched on DVD last week as homework, I found myself strangely disappointed in Doctor Sleep: it's long, it takes its time and it doesn't actually get creepy until it finally, finally returns to the Overlook. As niche sub-sub-genres go, "2019 sequels based on Stephen King novels in which tortured adults are compelled to revisit the site of their childhood horrors, and take over two and a half hours in the process" is pretty narrow but it least The Shining: Chapter Two (as no-one is calling it) is slightly better, or less of a letdown anyway, than It: Chapter Two.

Whereas all but the opening five minutes or so of The Shining took place within the Overlook and centred predominantly around three people, Doctor Sleep is all over the place in terms of time and place and with a far larger set of characters. By the time it gets to the adult Danny Torrance (now played by Ewan McGregor), a recovering alcoholic drifter hiding from his own supernatural abilities and his past horrors, we have also met Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), leader of a nomadic sort-of-family known as the True Knot who track down other shiners, seeking to remain immortal by consuming their victims' superpower "steam". Their latest target is 13-year-old Abra, who has established a telepathic link with Danny Torrance...

There is, happily, a lot of The Shining in Doctor Sleep, principally in the third act at the now-derelict, blizzard-strewn Overlook hotel, meticulously recreated right down to the chandeliers, Jack Nicholson's old typewriter and those godawful carpets. Wisely, recurring characters are played by look-a-bit-likes rather than CGI simulations along the lines of zombie Peter Cushing from Rogue One, and there are a few pleasingly odd touches such as Danny Torrance's interview for a hospice job apparently taking place in the same room as Jack Torrance's interview at the Overlook. It's also nice to occasionally see a film with the taller 1.85 ratio rather than the full widescreen 2.35 that pretty much every film seems to be shot in these days (the DVD of The Shining is in the even squarer 1.33, which was apparently Kubrick's own preference).

Doctor Sleep does have occasional hints of David Cronenberg's Scanners, with its ongoing psychic battles and the idea of telepathically superpowered "others" amongst us. The other film it brings to mind, though, is Near Dark for its clan of travelling near-immortals whose consumption of their victims' lifeforce is almost vampiric (be it their Shining or their actual blood). What the film isn't, though, is scary at any point: it is occasionally creepy towards the end because the Overlook is such a marvellously creepy setting anyway. That said, I never really thought The Shining itself was that scary in the first place: interesting, unusual, odd, different, fascinating, surprising, but not scary, and it wasn't even scary in the King-approved miniseries version. Certainly Doctor Sleep is interesting, unusual, occasionally surprising etcetera, but Not Scary. In the end it's fine: it's well played and shot and has some agreeably horrible moments, but it doesn't ever seem to come to full roaring life. It's okay, I suppose, but I do wish I could say it was better than that.

***

Saturday, 12 October 2019

JOKER

CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS AND CONFUSION

Because yes, I am confused. Usually I come out of the cinema and I pretty much know what I thought of the film: liked it, hated it, but on the other hand... Yet here's one of the year's major releases, from a major studio and a major lead actor, in Hollywood's prevalent genre, and suddenly I don't entirely know what to make of it. I'm suddenly not even sure what it is - drama, comedy, character piece, satire, social comment, thriller - let alone whether I like it, let alone whether I'm even supposed to like it. I'm wary of it. I don't trust it. I don't trust it because I don't trust the mind behind it.

The joker of Joker isn't Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, terrific), childhood abuse victim, struggling standup comedian and rent-a-clown on whom life dumps mightily every chance it gets. He loses his job, he loses his therapist, his mother is difficult to connect with, he's on seven kinds of medication, he has only the most tenuous of friendships with some of his former workmates and possibly the single mother down the hall in his rundown apartment block. Everything is horrible, the city is falling apart. Will he cope or will he snap? Is comedy his way out? Is he even funny? Then, in full clown makeup, he kills three Wall Street scumbags on the late train and becomes a Death Wish folk hero figurehead to the mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-any-more public backlash against the one per cent...

No, the joker is actually director and co-writer Todd Phillips himself. Just before release, he tweeted nonsensically about his move away from comedies (well, Hangover movies anyway; I suppose that's what they are technically) because Woke Culture means that comedians can't say anything at all these days. It's political correctness gone sane. A man who sucks at comedy makes a film about a man who sucks at comedy - notably we don't see much of Arthur Fleck's act because that would give the game away too early as to whether he is actually any good or not, and that requires a standard of scriptwriting that can differentiate between "good" and "bad" comedy (see the recent Late Night, where the script manages a clear contrast between smart, intelligent comedy and third-rate "adult" standup). And when he gets onto live TV, in Joker character, his first gag is a bad-taste anti-joke that kills the show stone dead. Phillips' own bad-taste anti-joke is the use of a Gary Glitter song on the soundtrack for the film's Memorable Moment of Joker dancing down some steps; some were wondering whether the American makers and American audience know about Glitter the way we do in the UK, but I think Phillips knew exactly what he was doing and why.

Of course, Joker only got made because it's a DC movie set in Gotham City and features young Bruce Wayne and his parents (who ultimately make that ill-fated theatre trip, ironically to a film about a masked avenger): it's an origins story for a comic-book villain. But you can't help feeling that if they'd junked all the Batman connections (Fleck's therapist is named Debra Kane, after original Batman co-creator Bob Kane), Joker could have been a much more interesting, serious, and grownup drama about comedy and modern society. Sadly it's shackled to its roots, setting up the bad guy for a sequel that is at least two years away and most likely won't happen with Phoenix anyway.

It is odd, but fitting, that a film about a character whose earlier incarnation had the mantra "Why so serious?", from a comicbook movie franchise that specialised in grit and grimness (while Marvel's cinematic vision was light, quip-laden knockabout), should be a non-comedic film about comedy from a director who's given up on comedy because nobody's laughing. Comparison with Scorsese's The King Of Comedy in inevitable, as Robert De Niro himself takes second billing as the TV host on whose show Fleck is desperate to appear. Plus, Joker is supposedly set in 1981, the year before The King Of Comedy came out. (As far as films about stand-ups is concerned, the low point definitely has to be Richard Driscoll's The Comic, which was slow-clapped at a Scala horror festival.) A comedian dying on his/her arse is a peculiarly horrifying, mortifying sight, like watching a traffic accident, and in the case of Joker it's made worse because deep down we really don't want Fleck to succeed: he's such a (deliberately) offputting character and performer that hideous, crushing failure is not just inevitable but justified.

So it's not a comedy, and it's not a thriller or a blockbuster, as it doesn't have action scenes and only includes a couple of viscerally violent moments (though one in particular is genuinely shocking). Nor is it really a villain piece: Fleck is pitiable and pitiful but for much of the time he's clearly not evil, and he's a long way from the dazzling criminal mastermind he supposedly becomes. Joker is more like a character who Fleck plays and is ultimately taken over by him, but he's still a long way from Romero, Nicholson or Ledger. More than anything else, Joker is more than anything else a simple drama of man versus the world and the world wins. Technically it's fine: a good exercise in convincing, detailed world-building, and well shot though saddled with a dreary, miserably joyless score. Ultimately it does as much right as it does wrong, it's an undeniably interesting film, with a great central performance, but it's definitely not a fun entertainment. I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it: I didn't hate it, I didn't love it, it's not the best DC have done (Wonder Woman, Aquaman) and it's not the worst (Man Of Steel, Dawn Of Justice, Justice League), and I don't really feel any need to see it again.

***

Saturday, 21 September 2019

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH, THAT'S GOT TO HURT

Well, it's better than the previous one in the increasingly mis-numbered series: this is actually the fifth in the series after the film that should have been, but wasn't, called Rambo IV. That fourth entry was a senseless and unengaging bloodbath that was surprisingly dull for a film with a body count of 254 (according to the Rambo Wiki site) which tried to justify its insane levels of wanton carnage with a spurious political subtext about Burma. Happily the new one doesn't even attempt any kind of commentary but just settles for being a meatheaded sub-Chuck Norris revenge movie, and it's (relatively) better for it.

Having done Vietnam, rural America, Vietnam again, Russia and Burma, John Rambo is now home on his ranch, training horses and sitting on his porch watching the sun go down. He has an undefined relationship with a woman who lives there, except that at one point he knew her grand-daughter's father before he abandoned the family and disappeared into Mexico. Said grand-daughter decides to contact her absentee father, against Rambo's advice, but is promptly abducted by a sex slave ring; when she doesn't come back, Rambo heads down there to sort things out and kill people...

Sylvester Stallone is now 73 years old (Roger Moore stopped being James Bond when he was 58) so this is probably Rambo's final outing. It plays early on with his being damaged, mentally, emotionally and physically by his war experiences, suggesting he's susceptible to flashing lights and loud noises (though he does have a long scene in a strobe-lit nightclub); despite the horrors of Nam he's built a vast network of tunnels under his ranch which come in handy for the Skyfall-like finale of bloody booby traps and absurdly huge explosions.

Rambo: Last Blood is a popcorn meat movie and a solidly mounted example of the type, but nothing deeper than that: it isn't very good at all, it has very little in the way of humour (though some of the violence is very funny in its over-the-top sadism) and Brian Tyler's unmemorable score isn't in the same league as Jerry Goldsmith's music for the first three films, to which it pays insufficient homage. But if you want half and hour of anonymous Mexican scumbags getting slaughtered bloodily enough to earn the coveted red 18 certificate then it's probably worth plodding through the first hour of backstory and setup to get there. I enjoyed it more than I was expecting, and I had more fun than I was probably supposed to, but I couldn't honestly recommend it to anyone why wouldn't go and see it anyway.

***

Thursday, 19 September 2019

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A SUDDEN REALISATION

Okay, okay, I admit it: Friday The 13th Part V: A New Beginning actually isn't very good. There, I've said it. Happy now? I've always maintained an irrational affection for this fifth instalment in the series, mainly because it was the first Friday movie I ever saw (indeed, one of the very first slasher movies I ever saw), and I saw it entirely alone in my local 1600-seat Granada. You can't buy memories like that. Even watching it again on VHS and DVD didn't kill the film for me. But then, most recently, revisiting it on the import Blu finally shattered any last illusions that it might not have been all that bad - it is. That clanging sound you hear is the scales falling from my eyes and shattering on the floor.

This is, of course, the one in which Jason only makes a token cameo appearance in a dream sequence and then it's someone else in the hockey mask killing off the local imbecile population of somewhere which isn't Camp Crystal Lake: it's a halfway house for disturbed teenagers, including newest arrival Tommy Jarvis who killed Jason at the end of Part 4 but is now troubled with nightmares. (Mysteriously he's now played by a grown adult 12 years older than early teenager Corey Feldman in Part 4 despite there only being one year between films.) But if Jason is actually, really, genuinely, truly dead, who's the hockey-masked killer picking off the patients, staff and sundry locals?

You do get a large body count: an assortment of nasty if MPAA-friendly deaths from some of the stupidest and least plausible machete magnets you've ever seen in even the dumbest of cheap sitcoms. Included in the halfwit roll call are: a top music star who lives in a Winnebago and who gets killed in a portaloo, a yeehawing redneck biker and his yeehawing redneck mom (rivalling the bickering store owners from Part 3 for irrelevance and irritation) and two stone-cold brain donors looking to pick up girls with phenomenally low standards. Dialogue and acting would be rudimentary in a below-average nativity play, and if it wasn't for Harry Manfredini's violin section working overtime while the familiar Final Girl routine is cranked up for the last reel it would be absolutely unwatchable.

The climactic battle in the barn with the lightning storm raging outside is really the only point at which the film comes to anything like slasher life, and it's hardly surprising that future instalments went back to Jason himself rather than an unlikely impostor: A New Beginning was actually An Unfortunate Diversion. It's not the worst of the slashers - it's never actively boring or offensive - but it is certainly one of the least of the Fridays overall and the weakest at least up to that point. And clearly it always was. Even my nostalgic soft spot for it has pretty much faded.

**

Friday, 13 September 2019

WOLF

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's always a nice surprise to scan the cinema listings every week and spot a film which you've never heard of, and which seems to have appeared from nowhere, with no posters, teaser trailers or adverts on the sides of buses. Even better when it's a horror movie. It's a wonderful thing, sadly too rare in an age of marketing saturation (the teaser posters for the new Wonder Woman movie have been up for ages already and the film is still a full nine months away: seriously, even babies don't take this long to arrive), to see a film totally cold: but it's a pity, however, when the film itself actually turns out not to be very good and sadly this new low-budget British werewolf movie just doesn't deliver.

It's A.D. 150 and a squad of Roman soldiers are on a mission deep in the empty wilds of the hairy British North to find their missing comrades and to convey a message of peace to the Pict leaders. But they soon realise that some kind of beast is tracking and hunting them through the forests: savagely dismembered corpses, mysterious animal tracks, and brutal attacks by barely glimpsed predators...

Wolf is essentially a war movie: a tale of soldiers on a mission that doesn't stick to the plan, with characters ranging from death-or-glory warriors to thoughtful tacticians to simple cowards. It's also pleasingly diverse: the film mixes genders and races rather than sticking with the traditional idea of a band of Roman soldiers as a bunch of white guys. But the dialogue is mostly pretty awful (though there is a nice throwaway line suggesting that the same fate befell the famously lost Ninth Legion) and, crucially for a monster movie, the monsters themselves are hardly seen, mostly running past the camera and slightly out of focus (and when they are briefly visible they appear to been fitted with Jim Dale's false teeth from Carry On Screaming).

It's not the worst film to hit UK cinemas this year. And as werewolf movies go it's certainly better than at least three of the Howling sequels (four if you count the abysmal Reborn): the low budget means a limited cast and it doesn't have ambitions it can never fulfil. But in the end it's just not very interesting and fans of British lycanthrope cinema will probably get more fun out of something like Paul Hyett's train-bound Howl. Kudos for getting it into UK multiplex chain cinemas at all, though.

**

Thursday, 12 September 2019

IT: CHAPTER TWO

WE ALL SPOIL DOWN HERE

Well, it's a disappointment. There's no two ways around it: It: Chapter Two isn't anywhere near as good as the first half and for all the visual horror unleashed at the screen - ghosts, gribbley monsters - for its hundred and sixty nine minutes (take the afternoon off or put the babysitter on overtime), it's surprising just how insufficiently scary it is, to the extent that even the simple Boo! moments didn't raise very much of a response. In terms of getting to grips with the plot it's worth rewatching the earlier instalment, because a lot of the new film directly references those events, both in flashbacks and new footage with the younger cast. However, the downside of this is that it reminds you how good It was, and how much of a comedown Chapter Two is.

Twenty seven years later, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) resurfaces in Derry, Maine and the Losers Club are called back to confront him/It again as they'd vowed to do in blood. Now middle-aged and  variously successful, but still troubled and traumatised by those childhood events, they have to perform an ancient ritual to banish the evil forever, as well as facing down the buried horrors and fears of the past. And essentially that's it: instead of bickering, squabbling kids they're bickering, squabbling adults dancing those same steps again, revisiting their earlier terrors which Pennywise is using against them.

So everyone gets a segment in which they go to their old homes, their old school, their old childhood haunts and hideaways, and Pennywise magicks up a monstrous hallucination to terrify them. And this gets repetitive: Jessica Chastain's Beverly goes back to her childhood home and the woman living there now invites her in - but then turns into a monster and then it turns out the building was long abandoned anyway. Jay Ryan's Ben goes back to the school where he was the bullied fat kid and gets chased round the empty corridors. James Ransome's Eddie goes back to the pharmacy and finds his obese, grotesque mother in the basement. Bill Hader's annoying nonstop comedian Richie goes back to the local videogame arcade... and so on.

Chapter One focussed on those characters as children and back then they were a likeable enough bunch, but in their adult incarnations they're a lot less interesting and I found myself not really caring what happened to them and not being scared for them when the bad stuff started happening. To be honest the TV version did it better and in two hours less. It's interesting that the two most horrifying scenes in the movie are a vicious homophobic assault right at the start and a scene of nasty domestic violence, and Pennywise is central to neither of them. The first, which came as a surprise as I didn't remember it from the Tim Curry miniseries (I'm assuming it's in the book, which I haven't read), arguably harks forward to a character reveal later on, though I didn't spot any suggestions of it in a preparatory rewatch of Chapter One. The second is in the miniseries (and echoes Beverly's hideous relationship with her creepy-as-hell father) but it still felt out of place and crueller and more sadistic than anything Pennywise does: Both of these are things which are real and genuine and people suffer from them every day of their lives, and they're more horrific and unsettling than any number of clearly unreal spider monsters, rotting corpses or howling ghosts conjured up by a demonic dancing clown.

I didn't hate Chapter Two, but I didn't like it nearly as much as the first one. Bits of it are very well done and the spider monster is particularly horrible (though it leads to a Thing reference that didn't need to be there), but other parts dragged terribly and I left the cinema glad that it was over. I genuinely felt it needed a massive edit: there is no way that this needs to be two and three quarter hours long, whatever the intentions of fidelity to the book might have been. I wish I'd liked it more (obviously) but in the end it didn't really deliver and it didn't fulfil the promise of the first one.

**

Sunday, 8 September 2019

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE

SPOILERS AND STUFF

Skunks. Nudity. A parrot. A mythical owl demon manifested as a naked, masked woman. A serial dog-killer. A map in an old cereal packet. A missing billionaire. A secret bomb shelter. A plummeting squirrel. Kurt Cobain's guitar. The graves of Janet Gaynor and Alfred Hitchcock. Drugged cookies. A comic book. An old issue of Playboy. Backmasking. Hobo codes. The Homeless King. A bust of James Dean. Subliminal advertising. Marilyn Monroe. A rock band. A face cast of Johnny Depp. A drone camera. A dancing girl covered in balloons. A bloke dressed as a pirate. The theme song from Cheers.

All of this and more might have something to do with the incidental mystery at the heart of Under The Silver Lake, the second film from David Robert Mitchell after the impressive It Follows. Whereas that film was a tight, intriguing genre piece with a new take on the horror movie monster, this is a long, aimless, unfocused mess of a film that comes across as a vaguely Mulholland Drive take on Terence Malick's Knight Of Cups. Andrew Garfield doesn't have a job, is behind on his rent, and spies Rear Window-style on his neighbours as they sunbathe or wander about topless. The fantastically hot girl next door abruptly disappears and Garfield, having nothing much else to do with his days, investigates...

It all sounds very interesting, but as a plot it's all over the place. Ideas are raised and dropped, some vast overarching conspiracy is hinted at but never explored, it's over two hours long, and the resolution when it comes is absolute nonsense. But it's a rambling, babbling mess with a terrific orchestral score than has echoes of Herrmann and Badalamenti about it (Herrmann presumably for Hitchcock in general rather than the specifically referenced Rear Window, which Herrmann didn't score). Comparisons have been made with Richard Kelly, who also followed up an instant hit debut with shrieking gibberish, although I never really liked Donnie Darko in the first place and Southland Tales was at least bonkers/funny. Under The Silver Lake really isn't very good, but connoisseurs of car-crash weirdness might get a few laughs out of it.

**

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

BLISS

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND CALM DOWN, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!!

DRUGS!!! SEX!!! BLOOD!!! NUDITY!!! STROBING!!! BOOZE!!! MORE DRUGS!!! HEADACHES!!! SWEARING!!! SHOUTING!!! DEATH!!! HORRIBLE PEOPLE!!! PAINT!!! BELLOWING!!! LOUD MUSIC!!! JOE BEGOS' LATEST IS SADLY A HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT AFTER THE EIGHTIES THROWBACKS OF ALMOST HUMAN AND THE MIND'S EYE!!! PARTICULARLY THE SECOND ONE!!! THIS HAS NONE OF THE RETRO CHARM OF EITHER OF THEM, BEING CONTENT MERELY TO SCREAM AT YOU THROUGH A MEGAPHONE TO ABSOLUTELY NO POSITIVE EFFECT!!!

That's what Bliss is like: a film made in All Caps. It reaches peak volume and intensity very quickly (the opening credits are look-away dazzling), so it has nowhere else to go for the rest of the running time, and it scarcely lets up. Telling of spectacularly foul-mouthed artist Dezzy facing an imminent deadline who breaks her creative block by ingesting huge amounts of drugs, but becomes something else as a result, it doesn't have all that much in the way of story, characters worth spending any time with (at no time did I give a toss about anybody on screen) or nuance BECAUSE EVERYONE IS SCREAMING AND DRINKING AND INGESTING AND LISTENING TO RUBBISH MUSIC AND TAKING THEIR CLOTHES OFF ALL THE TIME AT FULL VOLUME.

MAYBE IT WOULD.... sorry: maybe it would be less of an ordeal if seen at home: it's shot on grainy 16mm celluloid but it looks terrible when projected on an unsuitably large Imax screen, giving the low-def resolution the effect of a slightly off-station TV set. It would definitely have helped it there had been some peaks and troughs rather than a near-constant maximum: it has no room to breathe, so neither do we. And it would have helped if lead character Dezzy hadn't been so thoroughly uninteresting. I found it a slog to get through, completely unlikeable and occasionally unwatchable, and a major letdown after The Mind's Eye. Pass the Nurofen.

*

FEEDBACK

SPOILERS ON LINE 5

A confined, almost theatrical (with a few adjustments this could play nicely as a stage presentation) drama with fierce performances and a great deal of hashtag topicality behind it, Feedback was one of the best films on show at this year's FrightFest and one which I'm still thinking about several days afterwards. It bravely looks at both sides of a subject when it's easier and safer to settle for one, it opts for ambiguity rather than easy answers, and despite the bulk of the film taking place in one single darkened space it's cinematic throughout, richly photographed throughout to the extent you forget the physical limits of the setting, like Oliver Stone's Talk Radio (remember that one?).

Eddie Marsan is Jarvis Dolan, an outspoken talk radio host on a London station, wanting to stay political and significant while his ratings-savvy bosses want to partner him with Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson), an old colleague and lighter, celebrity fluff-oriented co-presenter. On their first show, the studio is taken over by a heavily-armed trio with a specific agenda: to produce on-air confessions over an incident in a Belfast hotel room with the two men and a trio of young fans some years previously. But how deeply was Jarvis involved? What happened to the second girl in that hotel room - the long-missing daughter of one of the invaders?

While it leaves no doubt as to Wilde's guilt, the film leaves open the question of whether Jarvis' own confession is genuine (was he even there?) or whether he's inventing a story, telling his gun-wielding captors what he thinks they want to hear so they won't kill any of the hostages. It's to the film's credit that it doesn't go down the easy route of making him a clear villain who then tries to pathetically justify his actions: it's dramatically far more interesting to leave us uncertain even at the end and afterwards. You can quibble about holes in the story - is no-one at the station actually listening to the broadcast? Why has someone left large inflammable gas cylinders lying around? - but it's gripping throughout, with some startling violence, pithily profane dialogue and (currently) topical Brexit references. Well worth seeing.

****

DEADCON

FOLLOW! LIKE! SUBSCRIBE! SPOILERS!

I don't get YouTube. I mean, it's useful for listening to music or watching video clips and the like: trailers, old pop songs, bits of TV shows, hilarious commercials from thirty years ago and so on. But to make a career from it, to make a fortune out of it: that just seems too weird for me. I don't get how anyone can get thousands, even millions of people to follow your opinions, theories and philosophies, let alone your thoughts on the first teaser images from the new Star Wars movie or whether the Earth is actually flat. And I don't get how anyone can make enough money from this to make it worth the effort. Yet some people seem to be doing very nicely out of it.

Not that I'm jealous or anything, but if this film is anything to go by, then the people who seem to be doing very nicely out of social media would also seem to be doing very nicely out of it while contributing absolutely nothing back to it, or the world in general. Set against a convention of YouTubers and online "personalities" whose stock in trade is pointless lifestyle blether (Look at these cool boots I got! Look at this cool hotel suite I've got! I'm going to a really cool party tonight!) Deadcon takes a handful of these pretty young content-free content generators and shoves them into a haunted hotel suite in which something very bad happened back in 1984, and the room has been sealed ever since...

The result of their empty-headed, insight-free insignificance is that I just don't care about them: they're just a bunch of whiny pretty people typical of a thousand other C-list horror movies and it's as impossible to be interested in their supernatural terrors as their personal problems and sexual antics. All you've got left is the mechanics of the movie itself but that's not very interesting either: one minor frisson involving a bedsheet apart, it's all mysterious appearances on video screens, lights going out, doors opening themselves, a creepy looking balloon and mysterious symbols on the walls. And it ends, as I hoped it wouldn't, with five minutes of incoherent phonecam found footage which frankly put the tin hat on an already unexciting and uninteresting movie that's not even as good as the not-good 1408.

*

THE DRONE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

What will movies look like in thirty years time? Will Hollywood have a little sub-industry dedicated to evoking nostalgic memories of 2019? Will some Tarantino type three decades hence be crafting meticulous recreations of the movies they grew up with, the way we currently have directors putting together loving homages to the 1980s? (Do we even have anything worth developing nostalgia for?) It seems odd that with all the developments in cinema and film-making over the years, there's still an audience for films that hark back to days gone by, in style if not in content.

In terms of its technology, The Drone is set now, but otherwise it's an eighties B-movie of the ilk of Chopping Mall, although the closest comparison is actually the Tom Selleck tech-gone-wrong thriller Runaway. Not only do both films feature a character named Ramsey, but Jon and Al Kaplan's score for The Drone clearly nods to Jerry Goldsmith's very 1980s synth soundtrack for Runaway. A young couple find an apparently dumped dronecopter in their trash: he decides to keep it, unaware that it's possessed by the spirit of a demented serial killer (in the manner of the original Child's Play) and that it now has the hots for his wife...

It's an extraordinarily silly idea and an extraordinarily silly film, but for the most part it's a great deal of dumb fun, depending on the drone being able to remotely control the entire house, from the laptops to the security system, and flit around the house without anyone noticing (and without apparently needing to recharge). Towards the end it does get out of hand, veering out of silly and towards stupid with more soul transference and nods to the original Terminator, and that was a pity because up till that point I was happily going with it. Not a masterpiece (it's from the makers of Zombeavers, so a masterpiece was frankly unlikely anyway) but it's mostly efficiently done that does the retro without getting cheesy, and more than worth a look.

****

Thursday, 15 August 2019

ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD

CONTAINS ... SOME MAJOR SPOILERS

Yes ... that is the title and that is how Quentin Tarantino has punctuated it, with an extraneous ellipsis. Why? Because he's Quentin Tarantino and he can do what he wants, that's why. Usually that's fine, though it leads to a lot of self-indulgence that some people get annoyed with, but personally it's not bothered me that much and I'd sooner watch QT's indulgences than a lot of other peoples', because I like to think I can at least pick up on some of it and I do know of at least some of the movies, posters and TV shows. Maybe I never saw them on first-run theatrical releases (and nor did Quentin, most likely, because he was six at the time) but I do know of the Matt Helm movies, Three In The Attic, CC And Company, Tora! Tora! Tora!, McKenna's Gold, Pendulum, The Illustrated Man and dozens of other old, mostly forgotten movies.

But ... the constant nostalgia callbacks and endless selections from his late 60s vinyl collection actually reached a point where even I was tiring of the nods to period culture, and QT's indulgences only stopped getting in the way of the movie because, really, they ARE the movie. Which is a pity since there's a much more interesting (and much shorter) movie in there that can't get out because of the tapestry of permanent radio chatter and cinema marquees. In fact there are at least two more interesting and shorter movies in there. First off there's the Leonardo DiCaprio thread: Rick Dalton is a one-time TV cowboy star whose hit show ended, reducing him to guest bad guy roles on other peoples' shows: there's a terrific story to be told of a big star struggling to accept that his best years are behind him and having to adapt to the idea of going to Italy to make spaghetti Westerns. Fine. But we don't need to see impeccably staged scenes from these movies and shows at quite such length. There's also an interesting, more comedic character study of Rick's laid-back stunt double and best friend Cliff (Brad Pitt), tooling around 1969 Los Angeles being The Coolest Man In Town (and this is a town with Steve McQueen in it), getting into fights with Bruce Lee and picking up hitchhiking jailbait hippie chicks, and to be honest I could have cheerfully done with a lot more of that movie. Tarantino is a world-builder in the way that Ridley Scott is, and his 1969 LA is as detailed and real as Blade Runner's 2019 LA.

However ... there's a third, much darker and much more problematic story going on, involving actual real historical people rather than figments of Quentin Tarantino's imagination. The fictional Rick Dalton's house just happens to be next door to the real Sharon Tate's, we're in 1969, and that jailbait hippie chick lives at the old Spahn Movie Ranch on a commune run by the sadly non-fictional Charles Manson. Most of Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood takes place over two days in February 1969 in which Dalton wrestles with his acting career, Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to Hollywood parties with Roman Polanski and blags her way into matinee screenings of her own films, and Cliff tools around being cool and has an uncomfortable encounter with the Mansonites - and it's followed by that night in August when the aforementioned Mansonites turn up looking for "piggies" to kill...

And ... this is where the film suddenly looks like it's going down the same route as Wolves At The Door, in which the actual Manson murders of Sharon Tate and her friends were presented as a slick, glossy piece of popcorn entertainment. Kurt Russell's voiceover is clearly leading the film, minute by minute, to that incident - but then it veers away from established reality: this is Tarantino's own personal alternate universe and, as with Inglourious Basterds, our dimension's known history does not necessarily apply. Once Upon A Time ... does suggest a fairytale, a love story, not a historical document. This last act is also the one with a frankly disturbing level of physical, head-smashing violence: I speak as one who can quite happily marathon the Saw movies over a weekend but even I felt that QT was enjoying it to a worrying degree: it felt sadistic and frankly excessive. Personally I'd have been happier to lose the whole Tate/Manson thread entirely, and concentrate entirely on Leo and Brad: it gets the reality/fantasy divide out of the way and it wouldn't touch on the genuine brutal murders of actual people.

It's ... sprawling, it's narratively messy, it's way too long (like Death Proof, half an hour plus of Tarantino indulging his movie, TV and music passions at Nerd Factor Ten could have been lopped out, tightening up the narrative drastically), it has one scene of genuinely over-the-top physical violence. Yet ... yet ... the period detail is impeccable at least as far as I can tell - if it's isn't genuinely 100% accurate it's close enough, and the clothes and cars and hairstyles and interior design look great. It's also another demonstration that given a proper DP and celluloid, proper cinematography will always be a thousand times better than cold, dead digital. But all that is just surface, while the unexpected cameos and surprise star appearances are just decoration. The incidental pleasures (and there are many) don't entirely make up for the rest of the movie being so all over the place: they go some way, but not enough.

So ... it's a very large and very mixed bag with a lot of stuff in it, some good, a lot not so good, and some of the diamonds you really have to dig for. More discipline and restraint and less geeking out would have helped, but on balance it's one of his less satisfying films. It's not a bad film by any means: there's plenty to enjoy, but he really needs someone standing over him with a baseball bat telling him No every so often. Stay through the end credits for an irrelevant bonus.

***

DOMINO

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERY THINGS

There was a time, not too long ago, when a new Brian De Palma film was a special thing. He's one of the Name Directors, one of the "Movie Brats" who made a string of amazing films, some of them among my all-time favourites. Sisters, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables: visceral, exciting, shocking, made with a love of cinema and what editing, music and the camera can do. Okay, so he missed the coconut a few times; who doesn't? The Bonfire Of The Vanities is a bit of a mess, Wise Guys is awful, Mission To Mars is beautiful and fascinating but doesn't work. But I'll still take one of his silly Hitchcock indulgences like Body Double or Raising Cain over most directors' finest work any day: they may be style-over-content, but what style.

But all good things pass, and there hasn't been a proper genuine BDP movie for quite a while now. Passion was a surprisingly so-so retread of the much better and, weirdly, more De Palma-esque French thriller Love Crime, Redacted was a found-footage assemblage, The Black Dahlia had some moments but nothing more. Sadly: Domino (a title which means nothing) isn't bucking the trend. On the night shift, two Danish cops are called to an apparent domestic incident. One is killed in the ensuing incompetence; the other, Christian (Nikolaj Coster Waldau) vows revenge. But the killer is spirited away by Guy Pearce's CIA agent to infiltrate Isis terror cells and Christian, together with his late partner's secret mistress and fellow cop (Carice Van Houten) gives chase across Europe and into Morocco.

It's a Europudding terrorist thriller with two of the man's signature set-pieces (one of which is thoroughly muffed), and a score by his longtime regular composer Pino Donaggio that only faintly echoes his earlier evocations of Herrmann in exactly the same way that the film only faintly echoes De Palma's earlier evocations of Hitchcock. What's so surprising is that a director, possibly an actual auteur, whose best work was so intensely cinematic should now have made a film that feels like a European TV miniseries: he manages to get a few moments with his trademark split diopters and camera angles but for the most part it's surprisingly flat and visually uninteresting (even the punchy fight scenes are poorly handled). There's no real depth to any of the characters and the villains are the worst kind of cheap, ugly, infidel-slaughtering stereotypes. Only in the set-pieces does the old De Palma seem to stir himself: a rooftop chase that's nowhere near as exciting as it looks in the trailer, and the big bullring climax where he can do some crosscutting and slow-motion. Otherwise it's depressingly uninteresting: you'd think it the work of a young up-and-comer who'd been influenced by Brian De Palma but you'd never think it was the work of the man himself.

**

LIZZIE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND GET ON WITH IT

Lesbians! Axe murders! Pervy old men! Big-name actresses getting their kit off! Phwoooar! Start your engines, guys! Wahay! Except... no, it's not like that at all. At least except the final reel, when the film completely shifts tone for the actual murders themselves and then goes back to being the sombre, restrained period drama it was for the first hour and a bit. It takes its time to get going (106 leisurely paced minutes) but it's perfectly well done and acted throughout, and the late change of mood does feel odd: either they could have been a little less emphatic about the murder scenes, or they could have gone a touch more Jess Franco for the rest of it.

That odd, slightly jarring swerve into sleazy nudey gore towards the end notwithstanding, Lizzie is a largely respectable retelling of the Lizzie Borden case: August 1892 in Massachusetts, when and where Andrew Borden and his second wife were brutally hatcheted to death. Only one person was tried: his younger Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) was acquitted, but whilst the world largely concluded that she did it and got away with it (after the jury decided she was too delicate to have committed a crime of such brutality, despite the obvious hefty inheritance motive) the film presents a couple of other suspects for Agatha Christie purposes: his shifty brother, concerned for a substantial inheritance, or the housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart with Irish accent) whom Andrew was molesting and who was apparently Lizzie's lover.

For the most part, it's a quiet, serious film, as buttoned-up as their all-covering Victorian era dresses. Beginning with the discovery of the bodies and then flashing back over the six months previous, mainly concerning the developing friendship (and more?) between Lizzie and Bridget, it wraps up with the Most Likely Denouement, in which the two women stripped naked to avoid staining those all-covering dresses with blood splatter and Lizzie energetically delivered the fatal blows to her stepmother and father. As for what really happened: we'll never know, but this dramatisation is generally a solid, well-mounted and non-exploitative drama that crunches its gears a little. Worth a watch.

***

MARA

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Unusually, I've watched almost zero new horror movies so far this year. Apart from new cinema releases, most of 2019's DVD and streaming choices have been older titles, non-genre films and date predominantly from the 1950s. But with the FrightFest hoving into view at the end of the month, it seemed like a good idea to ease my way back in to modern genre movies with a few interesting looking rentals. And the first thing to drop through the letterbox is... entirely average, not bad, no masterpiece, competent enough and I guarantee this time next week I'll have forgotten all about it. Which is fine: not every horror movie can be a game-changing masterpiece that redefines the genre for a generation.

Mara is a fairly ordinary horror movie in which police psychologist Olga Kurylenko is called in to assess the sanity of murder suspects when they claim the killings were actually carried out by a demon witch creature named Mara when her victims were suffering from sleep paralysis - a genuine condition that apparently occurs midway between awake and asleep. Is she real? Or is she a combination of urban legend and modern popular culture? And what can Kurylenko do when she finds she's been marked as Mara's next victim?

It would be easy, and frankly unfair to dismiss a movie about sleep paralysis as something that induces precisely that. In fact it's perfectly alright: an unremarkable mid-range DTV horror that does its job efficiently enough and doesn't waste much time about it. Javier Botet gets to do his weird spindly body-twisting again, and there's the twist ending so inevitable it would be more of a shock if they didn't have one. Really, the worst you can say about it is that it doesn't do anything you haven't seen before (it even has the brass nerve to namecheck Freddy Krueger and The X-Files), but it does its recycling solidly enough for a Friday night rental if you keep your expectations modest.

***

PIERCING

MAYBE CONTAINS SPOILERS, I'M NOT SURE

Okay, so I take an extended break from new movies (apart from cinema releases, and even then nowhere near as many of them as usual) and instead concentrate on filling in gaps from the 1950s. I finally fire up my New/Recent rentals queue and this is the first random title to drop through the letterbox. It got added to the list solely because it was one of last year's FrightFest choices (I was watching a decently creepy nun movie in one of the other screens at the time) and to be blunt I think I dodged a massive bullet.

Piercing starts off with what looks like a reasonable horror/thriller set-up: businessman Reed (Christopher Abbott) is off for a meeting but what he's actually planning to do is murder a prostitute. He's got it all worked out: precisely what to say, how much chloroform to use, what to do with the body...except that the girl who arrives (Mia Wasikowska) doesn't oblige by following his scheme, instead quickly raising a host of red flags by mutilating herself in the bathroom with scissors. Or is this all part of her weird scheme?

Okay, maybe I just didn't get Piercing. Maybe there's something in there I missed, like whatever it was supposed to be in the last shot of Haneke's Cache (Hidden) or the whole point of Mulholland Drive. Maybe I and/or the film are too dumb/smart or not dumb/smart enough to work out clearly how much of the film is actually in Reed's (or even Jackie's?) mind. Maybe the soundtrack, needledropped from vintage giallo scores including Tenebrae and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, is too familiar from its original sources and doesn't belong in a film with only hints of giallo: it's more an oddball dark comedy with more than a touch of Audition about it (no surprise that it's from a novel by the same writer). Maybe it's the elaborate cardboard cityscape lending an unreal Anomalisa air to the whole film.

Whatever the reason, it did nothing but annoy from the start. It's hard to get much of a grip on either of the two characters, one of whom is planning to kill the other (and has probably done it before) while the other has her own brand of unfathomable kookiness. There's also an entirely gratuitous nipple-piercing that's there for no reason beyond justifying the otherwise meaningless title and pushing your yuk buttons at the same time. Worst case scenario is that it's a load of old tripe; best case scenario is that I just didn't get it and still don't.

*

Sunday, 9 June 2019

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, INCLUDING SOME MAJOR ONES

Well, it's finally over. The Marvel Cinematic Universe uberproject of twenty-two films over eleven years, knitting together a vast spread of superheroes and villains, timelines and cross-referenced appearances in each others' films, has reached its climax with a whopping three-hour conclusion that more or less resolves everything, bumps off a major character or two, gives most of the cast their big moment in the sun, and throws enough intergalactic CGI gosh-wow whizzbang to satisfy pretty much everyone. It could do with a trim, and sadly it doesn't do what I really wanted it to do, which was to finish completely (rather than the obligatory post-credits teaser it concludes with the trailer for yet another Spiderman film, and there are several more films in the Phase Four pipeline) - but this one is a pretty firm We're Done Here line in the sand.

At the end of the last one (Avengers: Infinity War), Thanos had won: he'd got all the Infinity Stones and snapped his fingers, instantly wiping out half the population including several of the Avengers and Guardians themselves, including Dr Strange and Spiderman. Now it's Five Years Later: Tony Stark has gone off to raise a family, Thor has turned into a fat drunk, while some of the others (Black Widow, Captain America) are still fumbling around trying to fight back. Then Ant-Man suddenly turns up from the Quantum Realm and formulates a strategy to go back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos did. Inevitably this means trying to avoid meeting themselves, interacting with characters who showed up seven films ago: the usual wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff. But Thanos is on the Stones' - and the Avengers' - trail...

Avengers: Endgame is mostly pretty good fun; it's good to see (what's left of) the gang getting back together for one last battle and the all-star ensemble cast give it everything. Maybe I suffered through doing precisely zero revision (hey, there are more than twenty films' worth of backstory to wade through, it's not like whizzing through the Saw movies over a weekend). I also muted all the hashtags on social media in order to avoid spoilers, and this may also be why I have questions about the plot to which the answers are probably obvious: not least of which is [highlight for spoilers] why do the Avengers have to get all six of the Stones? If Thanos wasn't able to wipe out half the universe until he'd got the last Stone in Infinity War, then why couldn't they leave him powerless with only four or five? [end spoiler alert] . Like I say, maybe it's a blatantly obvious point but, as one who isn't a massive MCU enthusiast, I missed it.

In terms of colossal epic series of films, the MCU has been the most interesting and the most fun: the DC ones have tended to glum (though Aquaman was hugely enjoyable because it went the other way into eye-popping spectacle and had more humour and levity than the Nolan and Snyder films put together), Star Wars has been agreeable enough but for me nothing will ever touch the original trilogy, and Peter Jackson's Tolkein films were an increasingly weighty plod. Sure, some of the Avengers movies have been better than others - Thor was the first one I really liked, Age Of Ultron was so-so - but Endgame is definitely up to the overall standard. Perhaps it's justified, but it does take its time to get going and it does take its time to end (though the resolutions of several characters' stories are nowhere near as are-we-there-yet tiresome as Return Of The King's dragged-out finales): I could have done with a bit less, particularly at the start, but there's no denying that the very last closure of a character's arc one is surprisingly sweet, and the perfect note on which to end the film, and the saga.

****

Friday, 26 April 2019

POSSUM

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND AAARGH GET THAT ******* THING AWAY FROM ME

What's been missing from horror cinema in recent years (decades, even)? Proper horror, I think. Sudden, brilliantly timed Boo! moments and scary faces looming out of the darkness abound, and there's no shortage of severed heads or squirts of blood (even if many of them are realised by cheap CGI), but where are the actual, genuinely upsetting horror movies? Sure, they can be scary, creepy, jumpy and/or yucky while they're on, but very few of them stay with you long after the end credits and a return to daylight. There have only been a couple of films in the last ten years that had me sleeping with the lights on, but that wonderfully elusive feel and stench of nightmare and fear for one's own soul and mind.... it just doesn't seem to happen.

Possum comes as close as anything in the last ten, twenty years: a strange artefact that seems to have fallen through time from an alternative 1970s with that clammy sense of dread and terror about it. In the sense that it has any plot at all beyond a framework for the visuals, it (possibly) concerns disgraced children's entertainer and puppeteer Philip who returns to his childhood home and his abusive Uncle Maurice, a filthy, repulsive Albert Steptoe of a man. Philip always carries a holdall with him that contains (or does it?) Possum, his old puppet that might actually have a mind of its own. Meanwhile a local schoolboy has gone missing....

Much of Possum takes place in a deserted British countryside of abandoned barracks and lonely marshlands in which Philip (possibly) wants to destroy Possum or (possibly) is in thrall to him/it in the manner of a hundred horror stories about puppeteers or ventriloquists and their dummies. Every so often he opens the bag (or it opens itself) and a hideous leg arcs out of it - or is everything in his mind? There's actually little doubt that most of the film is taking place within his mind and even Maurice might well be a memory or a figment of his imagination (the two men are the only significant speaking characters in the whole film).

Not that it matters. Possum is less a story than a mood: it has the look and feel of forgotten late seventies TV, or the Scarfolk posters and blogs. The production design is immaculate, the photography is beautiful (another reminder that even the finest digital is no real match for well-utilised film stock), and the Radiophonic Workshop soundtrack, a mixture of miserable, seemingly real solo instruments and dark ambient textures, ramps up the off-kilter horror of the desolate, deserted locations. And Possum itself is genuinely terrifying in a primal "I don't care what it is or why it is, just get it out of my sight" kind of a way. It's maybe not a film to love, and fans of strong and coherent narrative will probably hate it, but it's certainly a film to admire for its atmosphere and almost Lynchian head-trip oddness and I wouldn't be averse to seeing it again. Just keep that beast thing well away from me.

****

Sunday, 7 April 2019

CHRISTINE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, AND NOT JUST THE ONES ON THE CAR

So my occasional rewatches of movies I last saw in the wrong ratio on knackered VHS a third of a century ago has landed me with this fusion of no less than Stephen King and John Carpenter. My lists tell me that I gave it one star back then and my general memories were that I really didn't care for it: had I misjudged it? Was it genuinely that awful? Surely there must be something in there, even if it's the Carpenter/Howarth score (which on this occasion has to share space with a vintage jukebox selection) or some decent death scenes?

No, I hadn't misjudged it. Christine is genuinely that awful. The music is in that lovely pulsing synth Halloween/Fog style but it's far from their best (Prince Of Darkness has always been my favourite) and even the much deserved kills aren't particularly interesting. Christine itself/herself is a sentient 1958 Plymouth Fury which for no apparent reason starts killing people (beginning with a poor sap on the production line) and also has the power to rebuild itself when it's been reduced to scrap. Bespectacled, bullied loser Arnie (Keith Gordon) buys the wreck and almost instantly transforms into the coolest kid, dating the hottest chick and now driving the sharpest car. But can his few remaining friends break the anti-Herbie's spell over him before she kills any more innocent people?

It's a surprisingly mean-spirited film, with a surprising level of strong language shoehorned in (they should have called it My Mother****er The Car) and a trio of antisocial punks so hateful that you actively want them to die. Which wouldn't be so bad if the good guys were any compensation: the romantic leads are wet as fish and Arnie's too-quick transformation from hapless dweeb to cold-hearted, possessed sociopath means he merely goes from one shade of uninteresting to another. It has little of anything you'd normally associate with Carpenter: with none of the yucky surreal horror of The Thing, none of the cozy, comfortable chills of The Fog, none of the humour of Escape From New York, none of the fun of Big Trouble In Little China and none of the scares of Halloween, it's really got very little going for it except for isolated moments: Harry Dean Stanton's nice turn as a cop, Christine screaming down the highway on fire. And obviously it looks better on a shiny new Blu than it did on a battered rental videotape.

King adaptations have always been a roll of the dice: for every Misery or Dolores Claiborne there's a Graveyard Shift or Cat's Eye and Christine has always been in the latter category. I wanted to like it (obviously - why rewatch it otherwise?) but it's too long, has no characters worth following and is still difficult to enjoy or to find more than small nuggets of interest.

*

Thursday, 28 March 2019

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND WATCH OUT WHERE YOU'RE POINTING THAT HARPOON GUN, YOU COULD HAVE SOMEONE'S EYE OUT IF YOU'RE NOT CAREFUL

Ah, the heady days of early eighties slasher idiocy, and their exponentially dafter sequels. More teens trek out to Camp Crystal Lake (oddly, neither the camp nor Jason himself are referred to as such this time out) and wind up on the business end of machetes, pitchforks. spearguns, cleavers and assorted other pointy things courtesy of an indestructible maniac while Harry Manfredini's string section shrieks along on the soundtrack. Again. If it works, do it again and the Friday The 13th series does work. They're trashy, dumb and disreputable, but that's kind of the idea: simplistic stabby horror movies with absolutely no intellectual meat to them but anything up to a baker's dozen of cheerfully bloody murders every time. Pass the popcorn.

Friday The 13th Part III is the one that was made in 3D in that brief 80s craze of threedeethreequels that also gave us Amityville 3D and Jaws 3D before we got tired of the annoying glasses which didn't work - how times change. In the case of the BluRay from the imported American boxset the other night I gave up on the 3D version as my red/green glasses (which didn't come with the disc) didn't separate the images properly and turned everything to brown mulch, and went with Normal-o-vision instead (I had already seen it in polarised 3D at a late show at my local cinema back in 1992). In fact the 3D is actually perfectly good, used pretty much exclusively for shamelessly jabbing things into the camera lens, whether it's a yoyo, jumping popcorn, a TV aerial, a detached eyeball or the buttocks of a bikini-clad young lady bending over.

This is also the one that introduced the iconic hockey mask that Jason and the occasional imitator would sport for the rest of the series. But that's about it for innovation and imagination: a bus load of stoners, hot chicks and studs and one schlubby prankster loser turn up at what used to be the summer camp, and Jason picks them off in amusing ways until there's one plucky girl left to fend him off and finally defeat him until the final shot teasing that he's not really dead after all. Er, that's it. Same time next year, guys?

It's hard to make any kind of claim that Friday The 13th Part III is any good at all, because it really isn't. It's silly, it's full of idiots and annoying characters (the trio of moronic biker punks, the sitcom bickering shop owners who have nothing to do with the rest of the movie and aren't even anywhere near Crystal Lake when they get offed in the second reel) and it has no surprises on offer. But I have a nostalgic soft spot for this sort of thing. It's still kind of fun and would probably be the definition of "guilty pleasure" if I felt any shred of guilt over watching it for the fourth time.

***

Sunday, 10 March 2019

HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Of all the recent horrors that might have engendered a sequel, Happy Death Day probably wouldn't have been high on the list. It was a decent enough comedy slasher with a Groundhog Day twist: a girl found herself living her eighteenth birthday over and over for no apparent reason, getting repeatedly murdered by a masked maniac again and again until she found the killer, bested them in the final reel and finally made it to Tuesday. And this followup initially appears to be following the exact same path: the sequel that's actually a remake - until it reveals its hand early on and suddenly leaps without any warning into head-spinning SF territory concerning quantum physics, alternate dimensions, parallel realities and a few moments that actually approach poignancy. And barring a few missteps, it's terrific.

Maybe it helped that I knew nothing about Happy Death Day 2U going in and didn't even rewatch the first one as revision; happily that didn't matter as I got up to speed very quickly. This time it appears to centre around science nerd Ryan, so minor a character from the first movie (eleventh billed) that I'd forgotten about him entirely, who finds himself in the same old time loop when the baby-masked killer leaps out of a cupboard at him. But his roommate's girlfriend is Tree, the oddly-named heroine of the first movie who immediately figures out what's going on, ties it up with Ryan's theoretical physics experiment and ends up repeating her death day again in a parallel dimension where everything isn't quite the same - can she survive her daily comedy suicides long enough to figure out a way back to her own world?

It's very smart, it's very funny (I laughed out loud in the cinema which is practically unheard of these last few years), and it's constantly throwing ingenious twists into proceedings and moving quickly enough to jump over any plot problems. I did wince a little when someone namedropped Back To The Future Part 2 and Inception, partly because it always annoys me when films try and justify borrowing an idea by mentioning it in dialogue so they can pass it off as affectionate homage (and neither reference is strictly accurate anyway). The main misstep comes with an unnecessary comedy heist sequence where they have to break into the Principal's office and they have to stage the most idiotic diversion that tips the film into knockabout farce. It doesn't work and it doesn't need to be there and seems to exist simply to give those actors their moment in the light. That aside (plus a needlessly cruel mid-credits stinger), it's a lot of fun, pushing the boundaries of modern disposable slasher cinema into much more interesting areas and mostly keeping it under control. Probably unlikely to make the Top Ten of the year, but it's entertaining throughout and way better than we had any right to expect. Strongly recommended.

****

Saturday, 19 January 2019

THE BOOGEY MAN

MINOR SPOILERS, FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH (FOURPENCE)

So: rather than continue my 2018 policy of seeing as many films as possible, no matter what, no matter how blatantly terrible they may be, no matter who's playing Charlie Chan, this year I'm changing tack. Fewer first-watch movies, and instead I'm going back over some of the titles I watched over thirty years ago on VHS. Knackered rental tapes cropped to 4:3, lo-def picture and sound quality, BBFC scissor marks left and right...it really wasn't the best way to watch a movie but it was all we had. Now, many of those classics, cult titles, video nasties and unwatchable obscurities have been rescied from the rubbish bin, restored, remastered and rendered ripe for re-evaluation. Were they really so terrible?

I see from my 30-year database that Ulli Lommel's The Boogey Man, also watched at some point in the late eighties on battered, twisted tape, was apparently a two-star movie, and I can correct that immediately. By knocking one of those stars off. It's utter rubbish, uninterestingly done and, while not as boring, insulting or incompetent as the Ray Dennis Stecklers and Al Adamsons of this world, has nothing to commend it beyond the debatable cachet of Nastyhood (the 44 seconds of cuts have now been waived) and a two-scene John Carradine cameo that must have taken anything up to half the morning to shoot. It's actually a very dull haunted mirror movie in which the spirit of a murder victim is released when the mirror he died in front of is shattered, and he can now kill at will through telekinetic powers. Not content with targeting the extended family of the child who killed him twenty years ago (the child saw him having sex with Mommy), he's now engineering the demise of the people who now live in his old house and some boring teens partying on the other side of the lake for no immediately obvious reason....

None of it makes any sense, as The Boogey Man (variously named The Bogey Man and The Bogeyman, allegedly because audiences might confuse Boogey with Boogie) has that same passing acquaintance with the real world that Lucio Fulci's more wayward zombie movies do. Why can't he come out of a complete mirror, only inch-long fragments? How is the kid keeping his foot so still for so long, so the sunlight can be reflected so precisely on a spot more than half a mile away? And why? Can he possess other people? Why does the film set up the original killer as a potential threat (collecting knives, half-strangling young women) when the horror is actually supernatural? Matters aren't helped by the unlistenable synth score, poor acting, lack of visual style, the it's-not-really-over ending that must surely have been old hat even then....

Nothing to do with the Sam Raimi-produced Boogeyman series, and nothing to do with a halfway decent use of a Thursday evening, this is desperately weak all round, and even the artlessly staged death scenes don't have any impact. And we've been burned enough times already by the Video Nasty tag: sometimes they're genuinely nasty, more often they're maybe a bit iffy, but usually they're just cloddingly dull, incompetent, stupid and naff. The Boogey Man falls so easily into the third category it doesn't touch the sides. It spawned a sequel which is also terrible, and which was later re-issued in a director's cut that was also terrible. Second star duly knocked off.

*

Friday, 11 January 2019

LEONARD PART 6

SPOILERS EPISODE 53

One of the reasons I've never been a fan of boycotting movies because star X is, might be, or has subsequently been revealed as, a colossal pervert, sexual predator and/or all-round piece of human garbage is that you're also boycotting the work of a whole load of other people who aren't. It's all very well to ignore the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski on the grounds of accusations, rumours or even established fact, but it means you "punish" their entirely blameless casts and crews who have nothing to do with star X's alleged or historical actions. In this instance star X is Bill Cosby, one of the most powerful and most popular TV stars of his day, trying and failing (and boy, is he failing) to move up to the big screen.

Leonard Part 6 most likely bombed not because of its star's depravities (they weren't public knowledge in 1987) but because it's an incoherent, idiotic mess: a dumb spy comedy, a dumb romantic drama, a dumb series of dumb sitcom ideas, randomly thrown together whether they belong or not, whether they work or not. Cosby is Leonard, a retired superspy called back into the field when agents are apparently being bumped off by animals under the control of a mad vegetarian looking to flood the San Francisco Bay Area with chemicals that will turn all the wildlife into killers. Initially he doesn't want to get involved: he's staggeringly rich, he owns a snooty restaurant, and he can't get over his wife leaving him. But he gets pulled back anyway, aided by his loyal butler (Tom Courtenay) and a strange Czech woman who lives in a bus and doesn't speak English (because comedy)....

In the middle of all this is a sitcom subplot in which Leonard's nubile young daughter wants to marry the 66-year-old director of a rubbish play in which she takes her clothes off, while Leonard wants to get back with his beloved but unforgiving wife. Like Schwarzenegger's True Lies, the more interesting spy stuff stops dead for the personal drama. The difference is that when it gets back to the exciting stuff, True Lies more than delivers the action. The final reels of Leonard Part 6 (the first five Leonard films were suppressed in the name of national security, hahaha) include most of the cast being drenched in coloured gloop and Cosby defeating the villain's henchmen by throwing hamburgers at them (and force-feeding one a raw sausage) before riding an ostrich off the roof.

Leonard Part 6 does have a score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, and it's pretty much the worst film he was ever involved with (okay, 50s sci-fi turkey Robot Monster is arguably worse, but he was blacklisted at the time). It's absolute rubbish, obviously, and it never hangs together for a moment. It feels like an idea that might have served for one of those old Matt Helm or Our Man Flint movies (or any Eurospy nonsense conceived at the height of the Bond rip-off frenzy) but it doesn't have a fraction of the glamour or the excitement or the wit or the grace or the style. Instead it just throws one random Mad Libs idea on the screen after another - wouldn't it be hilarious to have Bill Cosby fight avant-garde dancers with the power of ballet shoes? Wouldn't it be hilarious to have his wife pour soup in his hair? Wouldn't it be hilarious to have an army of frogs throw someone's car into the river? - as if the idea is enough, and it's certainly not the screenwriter's job to develop these ideas in any way or to link them together in some kind of coherent narrative. The result is a clumpingly stupid vanity film that doesn't make any sense at all, isn't funny in the slightest, wastes time and talent wandering aimlessly from one comedy cul-de-sac to another, going nowhere interesting in the process. Utterly terrible, even for ghoulish fans of repulsive perverts.

*

Sunday, 6 January 2019

HOLMES & WATSON

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

On the one hand I'm swearing off obviously terrible films, but on the other I can't resist a Sherlock Holmes movie, even one that's clearly not of the top rank. Even one with Will Ferrell in the lead role. It's hardly a major journalistic scoop to reveal breathlessly that Holmes & Watson is terrible, that Ferrell is terrible and that neither the film nor the star are anywhere near funny enough for even a lunkheaded 90-minute throwaway Christmas release that everyone's too bloated, hungover or exhausted to be bothered with. What is odd is that away from the insufferable star turn there are odd isolated little crumbs of not-entirely-terribleness if you're prepared to look harder than the film really deserves.

It's the usual Baker Street set-up, except that Ferrell's Holmes is an egotistical idiot who mangles vowels and consonants alike with an atrocious (though presumably comedic) British accent, while Reilly's Watson is a dunderheaded cretin that makes Nigel Bruce's bumbling old buffoon look like the smart guy he's supposed to be (he's a long-serving Army doctor and published writer, for goodness' sake). Mrs Hudson, meanwhile, is an insatiable Scottish nymphomaniac forever at it with famous figures of history (Einstein, Houdini, Mark Twain) because...I don't know, jokes? Meanwhile Ralph Fiennes doesn't get the chance to do very much with what should be the plum role of Moriarty: the villainy is mostly in other hands.

There are numerous problems with Holmes & Watson. Firstly it's clearly pastiching the Guy Ritchie versions, right down to Mark Mothersbaugh's score, which is odd since the last one was a full seven years ago and there's no sign of a Part 3. Secondly, the plot, in which Moriarty intends to assassinate Queen Victoria on the Titanic (don't even ask) and thus destroy Holmes' reputation unless the great detective and his wannabe co-detective can follow the clues and stop him, would have certainly sufficed for a straight Holmes movie with a straight actor. And thirdly, and most crucially, it's just not funny, even by the standards of such Ferrell back catalogue numbers as Talladega Nights (Ferrell outfunnied by Sacha Baron Cohen, of all people, doing camp Frenchman from a 70s sitcom) and the Anchorman movies (period detail aside there's very little comedic meat; Harrison Ford, of all people, has the only decent line in Anchorman 2).

Sure, there are some moments, but they're nothing to do with the star turn: I liked the tabloid newspaper headlines that flit across the screen every so often, the inclusion of Musgrave should please Holmesians, and there are a couple of unbilled cameos from familiar British faces (one of which nicely parallels Guy Ritchie's casting of Stephen Fry as Mycroft in A Game Of Shadows). But it's nowhere near anything like close to enough. It's actually a tough call as to whether it's more or less funny than the legendarily terrible Peter Cook grotesquerie of The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

**