Wednesday 10 April 2024


28347568 CONTAINS 826589002 SOME 8976598765 SPOILERS

Are we living in a giant computer simulation? Are we all just incredibly advanced aliens who've jacked into a sandbox videogame so we can spend seventy Earth years pretending we're living in Stevenage? Is this the real life, is this just fantasy? Are we all stuck in the Matrix? Er, no. No, we're not and it isn't. Director Rodney Ascher seems to specialise in movies asking Questions To Which The Answer Is No - from Room 237 (does The Shining contain proof that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings? No, it doesn't) to The Nightmare (are the figures seen by sleep paralysis sufferers something more sinister than too much cheese and bondage porn before bed? No, they're not). Now: is the entirety of what we call Earth just another multiplayer day in Grand Theft Auto XII? Actually: no, it isn't. Wow, that was easy.

This absolute hogwash of a pretend documentary seeks to explore the possibility that we're all Sims. To this end there's a vast number of film clips from The Matrix (obviously), The Truman Show, They Live and The Wizard Of Oz, along with Blade Runner, Total Recall and Starship Troopers because one of the experts making the case is Philip K Dick via a 1970s videotaped lecture. The other experts on view aren't actually on view: they're hidden behind CGI costumes of a robot, a space alien and some kind of lion, blathering nonsensically.

A Glitch In The Matrix is named after the phenomenon that you occasionally see, where two people in identical clothing are sat next to each other on the tube, or three green Nissan Micras are parked together outside Tesco: seen not as a mere chance coincidence but a coding error in the randomness generator that suggests a deeper hidden layer of reality. Oddly, this glitch is something the film doesn't mention, being more concerned with utter, utter dribble at the expense of any actual evidence beyond anecdotal what-if from people wearing CGI spacesuits and animal avatars. And when your main spokesmen are those guys in their bedrooms, Elon Musk and a guy who watched The Matrix hundreds of times and then casually killed his parents with a shotgun, I'm thinking it's fair to say the case is pretty weak.

Essentially it's nothing more than another version of what an afterlife might bring - Heaven, Nirvana, Valhalla, or just Level Two. The fact that you can build things in Minecraft doesn't mean we're in a gigantic Minecraft ourselves: you can build things in Lego as well but that (and The Lego Movie, oddly) never gets mentioned either. There's a certain measure of Terror In The Aisles fun to be had from naming the film snippets as they come up (bonus points if you spot The Thirteenth Floor), but the idea behind it is tinfoil hat silly and the eyewitnesses entirely unconvincing. (But then I'm really the Zargon Overlord Xarqak who invented the game, so I would say that.)




Enough, please. This latest (and very, very hopefully last) entry in the series is perfect only in its encapsulation of everything that's wrong with modern Hollywood cinema. On any other level it's a massive, lumbering failure: not funny, not scary, not entertaining, a thorough and comprehensive waste of a hundred million dollars of Columbia's money, six quid of yours and damn near two hours of your afternoon. Like pretty much every franchise or series, from Indiana Jones or the Carry Ons through to Die Hard or Saw, Ghostbusters has gone on for maybe two films more than strictly necessary but nobody ever sensed the right moment to stop.

And it the case of Ghostbusters that moment was about thirty five years ago. Looking back at the first film, it was okay.... it was perfectly alright, the effects were great and it was funny and scary and the leads mostly likeable, but it's scarcely a masterpiece. Ghostbusters II was more of the same: perfectly alright but genuinely no more than that. Afterlife, however, was a travesty and its use of the late Harold Ramis was unforgiveable - and that leaves the non-canonical The One With The Gurlz In It as the most enjoyable of the four. And to be honest, that's the one I'm most likely to rewatch any time soon.

Ghost Busters: Frozen Empire (incidentally, the on-screen title is Ghost Busters and not Ghostbusters) is so scared of doing anything new that the only thing it can do is more of the same. All the Spenglers are now back at New York (because...?) and in the old firehouse (because...?) which is again in danger of being closed down by Mayor Walter Peck (because...?) - until Ray Stantz is sold a mysterious orb containing an ancient demon that if it gets loose will freeze the world. And Winston Zeddemore now runs a massive paranormal lab and has just such a machine that will set it free...

The answer to all the becauses is that Frozen Empire is stuck in that trap of having to move forward while standing still. We're at the firehouse because that's where the first two films happened. Walter Peck is not the mayor because that's any kind of logical character progression, he's the mayor because William Atherton was in the first film. Slimer and the Stay-Puft things are in it not because they have to be, but because they were in the previous ones. The film is so scared of doing anything different, anything innovative, that it can only tap into nostalgia: all it has to trade on is the goodwill we (supposedly) feel to the characters and trappings forty years down the line.

And nostalgia is the trap, of course: they're so busy trying to recapture that old magic that they're not creating any new magic. They're so obsessed with harking back to what they loved forty years ago that they're not making anything for today's youngsters to get nostalgic about when they get to old age. Do something new, create something different. Maybe it won't work but at least you're trying. No-one's going to hark back to something that's designed wholly for harking back even further. Despite the inclusion of teenagers central to the story, this isn't a film for today's audience, it's a film for the 1984 and 1989 audience. But we're not who we were back then: we've changed, we've grown up. (Well, some of us have.)

I wouldn't mind so much if Frozen Empire had been at least passingly funny, but I didn't laugh once and I doubt I even smiled. I'm even wondering whether I should tag this one as Comedy. It's not that the jokes don't work, it's more that there aren't any real jokes, just pointless callbacks. And despite all the action and mayhem, much of it is just plain dull, it's way too long and messy, too much is happening and none of it is particularly interesting. Instead it's the stench of the studios just flogging the cash cow yet again because that's all they've got: the belief that an intellectual property is just banknotes waiting to be grabbed. The sense that if Ghostbusters '84 had failed but The Couch Trip or Doctor Detroit had been megahits, Dan Aykroyd would be making The Couch Trip VI and Son Of Doctor Detroit instead. (Be honest, no-one was that devastated when Ghostbusters 3 didn't happen in the early 90s.) 

I would have had more respect for this if they'd left the old guys out of it entirely and just concentrated on the Next Generation: they'd already passed the proton pack in Afterlife and that should have been enough of a farewell to them. Winston even says at one point "we're too old for this" and frankly he's right. And maybe so are we. Time to retire?


Thursday 7 March 2024



Well, it's not terrible. But that's about they best you can say about this second helping of Denis Villeneuve's epic adaptation of the Frank Herbert doorstopper that I couldn't get into thirty years ago and don't regret giving up on. The most important thing you need to know going in is that this isn't the end of it: it's merely the continuation and maybe we'll get a third one in three to four years' time that does actually wrap everything up. At least we knew Part One wasn't a standalone; but it was assumed that Part Two would be the second half and not just the second instalment, so there's a real sense of disappointment that this episode stops rather than ends.

Though it handily begins with a brief "Previously On Dune...." recap, it's vital to have seen the first one because frankly you'll be lost if you don't. We're back on Arrakis: the Harkonnens have wiped out most of the Atreides and, with the Padishah Emperor's Sardaukar troops, are now seeking to wipe out the native Fremen; Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have escaped into the desert, avoided the sandworms and met up with Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Paul falls in love and becomes a Fedaykin (whatever that is), Jessica drinks the water of life and becomes the tribe's Reverend Mother, while the Bene Gesserit plot to manipulate the bloodlines to bring forth the Kwisatz Haderach...

Or something. (There may be spelling mistakes in this review because it's impossible to spell-check.) I actually rewatched Part One on Blu the previous night and even then I struggled with Dune: Part Two because for all the star names, for all the near-perfect special effects and visual design, for all the obvious skill and effort that went into it, it can't get away from a sense of self-importance. You can read into it any number of real-world parallels about holy wars, genocides, or rival superpowers fighting over other lands to plunder their natural resources if you want, or you can just watch it as a silly SF spectacular about people in silly costumes with sillier names. The trouble is, Denis Villeneuve is more interested in the former. Whatever else it might be, Nu-Dune is no fun. I'm not asking for Paul and Feyd to settle their differences with a custard pie fight, or for Emperor Christopher Walken's trousers to fall down, but 166 minutes is a long time to go with no amusement, intentional or not. "Shorter than Oppenheimer" is all that can be said for it on this level. While we're at it: Hans Zimmer's ethnically flavoured score adds nothing but decibels; it doesn't enhance the drama or emotion at any point and (while I accept this isn't its primary function) it isn't even a satisfying or interesting listen on its own terms.

Say what you like about David Lynch's stab at Dune: at least that moved. (Most people were just flat out wrong about that film anyway.) If nothing else, it was fun, it was entertaining and it had a proper ending, and none of that can be applied to the new ones. I regularly go back to the Lynch film, but I doubt I'll ever bother with either/any of the Villeneuves except as obligatory revision for when the next one comes along. Dune: Part Two is perfectly well done, perfectly well crafted and played, but it's ponderous, overlong and never sparks into life. Maybe if they'd injected a little more wild and crazy into it this incarnation of Dune could have been great. As it is, it's fine, but has no zip to it and it badly needs it.


Monday 29 January 2024



Yes, it's been a while. To be honest, there's hardly been anything on worth writing about or, indeed, seeing as far as I'm concerned for the last three months, to the extent that I put my cinema card on hold until they started showing things I was interested in. 2023 was scarcely a vintage year for horror films - too many unnecessary sequels that missed their marks, and few originals of any greatness - and 2024 has not started well. Night Swim was terrible, and somehow Baghead has managed to be no better.

In itself, there is nothing inherently wrong with the basic, potentially persuasive thrust of the film: a young woman inherits an old pub and discovers too late that she is now the keeper and guardian of a mysterious and ancient supernatural entity locked in the basement, with demonic powers that can become hopelessly addictive. And on no account must it ever be allowed to go free... A perfectly decent setup. However, what sinks Baghead is the fact that, even by modern horror movie standards, the entire thing takes place in near to total darkness, to the extent that I honestly thought there was something wrong with my eyesight as I constantly tried to make out something in the murk. Seriously, when the ambient light from the screen is drowned out by the ceiling lights in the cinema, something is wrong.

Not only does this make the film visually unappealing, it makes no dramatic sense either. The electricity in the building is quite clearly switched on, so why does our idiot heroine spend the entire time in the dark? Why does she constantly wander through the place - her own place, which she knows has a monster in the cellar - armed only with her mobile phone light and one of the feeblest torches in existence? Look, I understand that much of the film takes place in a  dim basement, but we the audience need to have some point of reference as to what we're supposed to be looking at. Just because the characters can't see anything doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to either. And it's clearly an aesthetic decision, because even the scenes taking place outside in broad daylight appeared to have been shot through the grandmother of all solar eclipses. Even what I've seen of the short film from which it's been expanded looks too dark.

Baghead certainly has an intriguing and interesting idea behind it, and there are a couple of effectively shivery frissons and jumpy moments early on which are nicely timed; I just wish I'd been able to see them properly! Those minor moments aside, it hasn't been realized nearly as well as it should have been. A disappointment, and an inauspicious start to the year.


Tuesday 31 October 2023



Not that there's much to spoil in this nothing horror-comedy: beyond the specific rationale there's very little here that we didn't see in Willy's Wonderland, which was no masterpiece, or the Banana Splits movie, which was no better. Whereas the former at least had Nicolas Cage (but mysteriously it gave him no opportunity to do his signature routine of Bug-Eyed Shouty Freakout), and the latter tried to combine cuddly kid-friendly shenanigans with mean-spirited blood and gore, there's really nothing left for Five Nights At Freddy's to do. Which is exactly what it does.

Based on an apparently huge videogame phenomenon that I'd never heard of until this film's opening credits, Five Nights At Freddy's has schlubby loser Mike (Josh Hutcherson) compelled to accept a job as night security guard at a tacky pizza parlour (abandoned since the 1980s after several children vanished) whose main attraction was a string of animatronic robot animals that sang and danced. Mike is also haunted by the disappearance of his own brother when they were children and uses dream therapies to try and relive the abduction in order to remember a clue, AND is fighting to stop his evil aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) from seizing custody of his young sister.

So there's a lot of character stuff to fill in - and that's before we get to the attractive cop who spends far too much of her nightshift time at Freddy's and who has a Big Secret. You'd perhaps expect that would make a striking contrast with the splattery gore as the animatronic animals bump people off, but strangely the horror element is half-hearted and very low on the grue (it's a PG-13 in the States and an arguably too-strict 15 here) and there really isn't much in the way of comedy either. But it's far too light and safe, far too devoid of actual nastiness, and so ends up more as a drama with occasional horror elements than an actual horror film (released for the Halloween weekend).

On the other hand, if it is really a kids' film then there's too much backstory about abducted children and psychological trauma: on some level these things are supposed to be fun and Five Nights At Freddy's really isn't. It isn't fun, or scary, or horrific, or very much of anything. There are a few moments where the potential horror is nicely staged but it doesn't deliver because deep down it's really not sure what kind of film it wants to be and what kind of audience it's pitching for. The result is a film that doesn't do very much and doesn't do it very well, leaving you wondering just what the point was. The second star is purely an indication of how charitable I'm feeling right now.


Tuesday 10 October 2023



Another in this year's list of horror sequels that we really didn't need and aren't much good: after Saw X, Scream VI and whatever number the new Evil Dead was, here's an even more inexplicable exhumation of a scenario that absolutely should have been left alone. David Gordon Green's track record with his recent trilogy of Halloween sequels did not inspire confidence, and those low expectations have been barely scraped by this baffling revival of The Exorcist, which pretty much no-one has been crying out for since the last theatrical attempt back in 2005. The notorious Exorcist II: The Heretic is generally reckoned a disaster even though they were trying, possibly unsuccessfully, to do something different with the ideas and characters rather than merely rehashing the previous one; The Exorcist III was wonderfully dark and atmospheric with one perfect and unforgettable jump scare, while of the two parallel fourth instalments Renny Harlin's Beginning was the more multiplex scary and Paul Schrader's Dominion was the more arthouse unsettling. (I haven't seen the stage show or the TV series and I'm not going to.)

The Exorcist: Believer seems to be going out of its way to not be an Exorcist movie to the extent that for the first half hour or more I wasn't sure if the cinema had put the right film on. Two young girls, one of whom comes from a hard Christian family and the other lost her mother in childbirth after a Haitian earthquake, disappear for three days but when they return there's something badly wrong with both of them. Are they possessed? Eventually - eventually! - they call in Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who has experience of this sort of thing...

Aside from several uses of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, Chris MacNeil is really the only connection to The Exorcist and if they hadn't dragged her into it this could, and would, have been a regular standalone teen possession movie that would have passed largely unnoticed in the runup to Halloween. Making it part of the Exorcist legacy puts a burden on it that it simply cannot support, even if you're not a massive fan of the original film (and I'm not). Granted, the film accelerates mightily when it finally gets down to some actual exorcising, with an extended all-stops-out bonkers confrontation with much shouting and silly visual effects, but with almost no impact. There are a couple of nice, spooky little something-in-the-background moments early on that do raise a brief frisson, but that's all. And the very last shot, which feels like an end-of-season twist cliffhanger (presumably setting up Deceiver for 2025), just falls stone dead.

The sensible thing to do would be to just abandon the rest of the planned series and just walk away and let it rest now. The Exorcist was never really franchise material anyway; it wasn't something that warranted expansion into a Cinematic Universe. It was a one-off half a century ago that shattered the boundaries of acceptability and shock, and this latest one, which has a 15 certificate, doesn't get anywhere near those boundaries, let alone push at any new ones. The Exorcist: Believer is entirely unnecessary, entirely redundant and entirely not frightening, scary or shocking. This might not be the worst teen possession movie ever made, but it is easily the worst and least interesting Exorcist movie ever made.


Monday 2 October 2023



Of all the major Hollywood horror series, the Saw saga has always been my favourite. Right from the start we had a central monster educating ne'er-do-wells of the value of human life and humanity rather than another indestructible bogeyman hacking up horny teenagers: if there wasn't a huge amount of profundity there, at least there was a convincing illusion that they were trying to do something a little bit more interesting. Forget Michael and Jason and Freddy. I loved the ingeniously devised torture machines, and I loved that they never shied away from the bloodshed: no quick cutaways, you saw the knife going in and the bones snapping out. (Even after multiple viewings over the years, I still wince at the ankle-smashing in Saw IV). I loved the audacious back-and-forth timeline and constantly flipping narrative structure that actually felt like it was the plan all along rather than a nonsensical retconning to squeeze another movie out, and allowed Tobin Bell's John Kramer/Jigsaw to still feature in most of the sequels, even when they killed him at the end of Saw III and autopsied him at the start of Saw IV. Even making the seventh one in 3D didn't hurt it.

I loved the frantic editing, particularly in every movie's final sequence that showed you everything with the added twists, with Bell's menacing voiceover explaining everything and Charlie Clouser's iconic industrial theme music - as much of a series signature as John Carpenter's 5/4 Halloween theme or Harry Manfredini's shrieky violins for the Friday The 13th series. More importantly, I loved that none of it was sexual. I didn't count while I was rewatching all the previous instalments, but I'm pretty sure that most of Jigsaw's victims (or pupils) were male, and when the women were targeted, it wasn't because they were women. 

Saw X fits in somewhere between Saw and Saw II, when Kramer signs up for a revolutionary new treatment (the one he was explaining at the start of Saw VI) for his cancer, and discovers too late that they've actually done nothing: he's been conned. With surprising speed, he brings in Amanda (Shawnee Smith) and they've soon converted the now-abandoned Mexico lair into a torture factory where retribution, like a poised hawk, comes swooping down upon the wrongdoers and the four grifters inevitably have to hurt, slash and mutilate themselves in order to stay alive. But there are, equally inevitably, plot twists fast approaching...

This is a jigsaw with fewer pieces than usual. Though he still abides by his philosophies of rebirth and redemption through (extreme) suffering, Kramer is more of a vigilante out for justice this time out. It doesn't have the dizzying flips in the timeline (previous movies sometimes leapt to flashback within the same shot) and it doesn't have any big reveals about the characters (except for one which I figured quite early). The first act, showing Kramer's apparent treatment, is almost idyllic but feels way too long, though it's probably necessary, and there's almost a sense that the first trap is only really there because otherwise no blood gets splattered for what feels like the first half of the film. Having said that: when it does finally go for the jugular and teaches these heartless scumbags the lessons they so urgently need and deserve, it genuinely doesn't stint on the crowd-pleasing grue and the screaming and it more than earns its 18 certificate: it almost doesn't know (or care) when and where to stop. (Can you imagine what these films would have looked like back in the James Ferman days?)

Maybe it's my fault for not really wanting them to try and do something more: going for depth and character, going for emotion and seriousness, is fine but I missed the wild, giddy when-are-we timejumps and the oh-it's-that-guy callbacks and the hilariously convoluted structure, I missed so many of the familiar characters. I love that they've retained many of the essential ingredients including the music and editing, and aimed for a consistency of tone, style and technique.

But it still feels like an unnecessary postscript to a series which had already reached its natural endpoint: the first seven movies, whether by accident or design, work as one single entity that never went for comedy (there are no jokes in any of them) and never wimped out. I adore those first seven films but they really should have gone out on a high and stopped there. All horror franchises seem to go on for at least two films more than necessary and sadly Saw has fallen into that same trap. Jigsaw had moments, as did Spiral: From The Book Of Saw (even though it was more a cop procedural with weird standup comedy asides than a Saw film) but they really didn't need to be there. And, sadly, neither does this one. Don't misunderstand: there are absolute bucketloads of disgustingly yukky fun to be had, there's certainly the sense that these people certainly deserve what they get, and there's a satisfying mid-credits coda, but in the end Saw X only feels like half of a Saw film and only scores a V out of X from me.


Monday 25 September 2023


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Another entry in the annoying trend of alphanumeric movie titles: what's wrong with The Expendables 4? Or Part IV if you want to look a bit more intellectual? Expend4bles is a ridiculous title: you can't say it, most people are just going to ask for Expendables (as with whatever Fast And Furious, Mission Impossible or Scream is out that week) anyway, and it looks stupid written in lower case since the 4 only looks (vaguely) like a capital A. Sadly the dumb password-style title is far from the worst thing about this plodding, uninteresting shoot-em-up that's got not one but two ridiculously obvious plot twists that a blind man on a galloping horse could spot within three frames without even trying.

We start in Libya, where Stallone, Statham, Lundgren and a couple of other Surnames have been assigned to retrieve some nuclear detonators that must not fall into the hands of a mysterious supervillain codenamed Ocelot. (Presumably Tiger, Puma and Snow Leopard were already taken and no-one wanted to be codenamed Colocolo or Margay.) Things go bad, everyone fires machine guns and missiles at each other and Stallone's plane explodes and crashes. Time for what's left of the Expendables to saddle up, retrieve the detonators, unmask Ocelot and get revenge for kabooming their friend and leader out of the sky...

And with Statham kicked out of the squad for disobeying orders, they need some new blood in there. Step forward Megan Fox, still probably best known as the nice-girl-next-door/hot chick bending over a motorcycle in slow motion in the first two Transformers movies. It's perhaps a sign of the times that Stallone is 77 and is allowed, indeed expected, to look it, while Megan Fox is a full forty years younger and is forbidden from looking it because what kind of audience would ever want to watch a 37-year-old woman in an action movie? Eww. One hesitates to sound ungallant, but she used to be perfectly pretty and what the hell happened? Was there a fire? In her defence, however, it's impossible to believe anything that she says or does as it's so clunkily written and no-one on Earth could get away with the hardass bantz they're all lumbered with this time out. Previous instalments have at least been kind of funny with this, and Statham's and Dwayne Johnson's alpha male bickering in Fast And Furious: Hobbs And Shaw was hilarious, but it absolutely falls stone dead here.

More serious, however, is the appalling CGI slathered over too much of the film, rendering a lot of the action as little more than a cartoon. How many more times: I'll be far happier with one exploding helicopter done for real than a hundred exploding helicopters rendered on an Xbox. It's a pity because when it gets down to people kicking and punching each other in the head, old-school, The Expendables 4 is perfectly acceptable popcorn knockabout and The Stath is always good value when knocking bad guys into next week. But then everything's suddenly CGId into cartoon nonsense again and it loses what little substance it had; you might as well be watching Shrek. Armies of anonymous goons get mown down with machine guns, tanks and jeeps and planes get blown up: none of it is even slightly interesting because clearly none of it is real and none of it exists, and none of it means anything. Expend4bles has four producers, three co-producers, six co-executive producers and twenty-one executive producers, and one has to wonder what the hell they did all day. Because outside of a couple of nicely crunchy fight scenes, this is 4bsolutely 4wful.


Monday 18 September 2023



The first thing to say about this third outing for Kenneth Branagh's incarnation of Hercule Poirot is that it's easily the best of them so far. Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile were both saddled with, and suffered from, the inevitable comparisons with the earlier Brabourne-Goodwin film versions, which have since become much-loved classics along with Evil Under The Sun and, to a lesser extent, The Mirror Crack'd, thanks to the sense of fun, glamour, crafty plotting and casts heaving with Hollywood legends from Bette Davis to Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor to James Mason. (Let's draw a discreet veil over Michael Winner's later Appointment With Death.) I was massively relieved when, having done two of the Brabourne-Goodwins, Branagh elected not to tackle Evil Under The Sun as I have a lot of love for that film: the first VHS tape we rented and a long-standing family favourite (and the Cole Porter-adapted soundtrack is glorious).

A Haunting In Venice, nominally based on Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, is more able to stand on its own terms, partly because the only other adaptation is the ITV version with David Suchet, and partly because it has very little to do with the book anyway. In a sense they've Moonrakered it: kept some of the character names, thrown the rest of the source novel away and fashioned an entirely new story (Hallowe'en Party is another English village mystery). Poirot is now a retired recluse living in Venice, weary of death and murder and refusing to take any more cases. Until his old friend, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), turns up and convinces him to attend a Hallowe'en seance at an enormous palazzo rumoured to be haunted... Murder, obviously, ensues.

With its ominous, dimly-lit, creepy old house, its array of shifty and secretive characters, its jump moments, and occasional hints towards the supernatural, plus a vivid thunderstorm, much of A Haunting In Venice plays less as elegant whodunnit and more as full-blooded gothic horror (a genre in which Branagh has form, with his Frankenstein, and the much underappreciated Dead Again), possibly even bordering on giallo. Ultimately, though, it is a whodunnit and it requires the traditional unmasking which, as usual, fooled me completely: I had no idea who the killer was though to be honest I was having too much macabre fun to sift through the clues and work it out for myself.

Perversely perhaps, the relative absence of an Oscar-laden megastar cast of familiar faces worked to its advantage. But it wouldn't be a Poirot without an unmasking and the villain here is Hildur Gundadottir, who has given the film an inexplicably miserable sawing-a-cello-in-half score that absolutely fails to enhance the film (and is a frankly dreary listen on its own). Branagh's regular composer Patrick Doyle would have given it some full-blooded energy, but he had to pass as he was working on a Coronation March at the time. But given that they were in Venice anyway, why didn't they just go round to Pino Donaggio's place? At least that would have made up for his Ordeal By Innocence score being rejected back in 1984 in favour of Dave Brubeck honkings! Gudnadottir's joyless dirges do nothing to assist in the drama, the mystery or the horror and form the one major flaw in an otherwise mostly successful movie. While it's never going to supplant the colourful romp of Evil Under The Sun as a favourite Christie adaptation, it's the best of Branagh's - even the moustache isn't a distraction this time out - and a fourth or even fifth trip to the Poirot well would be most welcome.




Is this, as Dr Mark Kermode would have you believe, The Greatest Film Ever Made? Certainly it's a film that's earned its legendary, even iconic status, certainly it's a film that has the power to shock, upset and disturb in a way that few others have achieved, certainly it's a film that pushed the limits then and still pushes them now. Books and documentaries have been written and made about it (not least by Dr K himself), we've had sequels of varying quality, a stage adaptation, a TV series and an upcoming addition to the series later this year. Its impact and reputation are undenied. But is it The Greatest Film Ever Made? No, I really don't think it is.

I first saw The Exorcist sometime in the mid 1980s on its pre-cert VHS release (though after the film had been officially withdrawn, and thus unofficially banned, under the Video Recordings Act) and I do recall that I was shocked, upset and disturbed as intended. Oddly, I was far more disturbed by the book, which I couldn't finish and eventually had to throw away, possibly putting on rubber gloves to pick it up and carry it out, at arm's length, to the wheelie bin. Years later I finally worked up the courage to see it again, this time at the Cannon Cinema in Portsmouth on  November 10, 1990, on a late double-bill with Exorcist II: The Heretic. The experience was marred by a very battered and scratched print, and by a large number of hooting idiots just out of the pubs, but the scares and primal unsettling power still shone through. (At least until they were substantially dissipated by the Still A Bit Rubbish But Really Not As Bad As You've Heard Exorcist II.) And since then I've managed to avoid it... until FrightFest commemorated the fiftieth (!) anniversary by showing The Version You've Never Seen on the IMAX screen, prior to a theatrical re-issue and a 4K home release.

It's still good, sure. But it didn't leave me as shaken this time: that which upset and unsettled me back in the 80s and 90s just didn't upset and unsettle me to that extent in 2023. I didn't need a light left on all night, and I didn't have any trouble sleeping. Maybe that's because in the myriad possession and exorcism movies since then we've become much more used to the levitating and the shaking beds, the grisly make-up effects and growled obscenities, that what was once the ultimate in unimaginable and unspeakable horror simply doesn't feel that raw and shocking any more. Just as a rewatch of the original Star Wars, after forty years of sequels, spinoffs and countless other space adventures, doesn't have the gosh-wow sense of wonder it did back then, so it's perhaps hard to see The Exorcist with fresh eyes in the wake of however many demons, succubi and vomiting innocents we've waded through, from the video shop shelves to the lower tiers of Amazon Prime.

That's not to suggest the visceral horror of Dick Smith's alarming effects doesn't still punch you in the gut, or the sight and sound of a pre-teen girl contorting and blaspheming isn't still deeply uncomfortable. As a horror movie it is still of the top confrontational rank, though it probably plays better and more frighteningly in The Version You've Seen Loads Of Times, substantially shorter and missing several scenes more concerned with character-based drama. In this extended cut, the horror feels less relentless, with those additional scenes spacing out the shock moments and giving the audience time to calm down before the next onslaught. Maybe I need to rewatch the shorter version to compare for sure, but frankly I'm too scared to try it as I live on my own. It's still good, but it's not as scary as it was and it's absolutely not, not, not the Greatest Film Ever Made.


Sunday 10 September 2023



There's little to say, and even less that's positive, about this cheap, ugly slasher movie about cheap, ugly slasher movies. Who is hacking their way through the cast of a Z-grade horror movie at the miserable wrap party, dressed up as their own film's masked and bewigged killer? You won't care even before the entirely gratuitous nude shower scene that's only there out of sheer desperation, nostalgia for the days when you could do that kind of thing unironically, and the brainwave that it's somehow still a great idea to "hommage" Psycho yet again (and believe me, the quotation marks around the word "hommage" are doing a hell of a lot of heavy lifting). You won't care even when they wheel on an equally gratuitous gay sex scene that really is only there because someone thought they're really pushing the boundaries and being incredibly progressive. (Hint: they're not.) And you certainly won't care at the big reveal and villainous monologue which, even by rubbish slasher movie standards, wouldn't be remotely plausible even if it made any sense at all. Minor trivialities like halfway decent acting and a halfway decent script aren't so much absent without leave as heading for the border in a stolen car as fast as they can, and it's impossible to tell whether it's a genuinely rubbish slasher or a failed spoof of same. Not even acceptable as a six-pack Friday night quickie.


Saturday 2 September 2023



Maybe I'm just weird, but I genuinely don't understand the fascination with true crime. There seems to be something ghoulish about forensically poring over the tiniest details of brutal, pointless murders carried out by brutal, pointless men, as if there's still something to be gleaned from exhuming these horrors yet again. If you were law enforcement, if you were personally connected to the case, if you were a specialist in that kind of psychopathic or sociopathic behaviour, then possibly there's some legitimate justification for diving deep into the ghastly stories of these ghastly people. But for a film?

The Black Mass is yet another Ted Bundy movie, focussing on one single period in 1978 in Florida as he stakes out a sorority house, eventually succeeding in getting in and savagely attacking the young women living there. Though the names (except for his) have been changed, it's still hewing uncomfortably close to known fact - at least according to his extensive Wikipedia page - with date and time captions coming up at every scene change in an authoritative typewriter font. 

On a technical level it's perfectly well done: a misty late 70s ambience, with all the right hairstyles and costumes and no massive anachronisms, and a few familiar genre names in the cast (Lisa Wilcox from a couple of Elm Street sequels, Kathleen Kinmont from Bride Of ReAnimator, Eileen Dietz from The Exorcist). Bundy himself is almost never offscreen, with the camera giving us a scumbag's-eye-view, hovering over his shoulder pretty much the entire time (very rarely is he actually seen in full focus) as he plans and schemes and tries to pick up women in what must, even then, have been an appallingly red-flag creepy manner.

But the problem isn't that The Black Mass is yet another Ted Bundy movie, it's that it's just another Ted Bundy movie. It's not that it's raking over the real deaths and real suffering of real people, it's that that's all the film is doing. No new information is available, no new insight is forthcoming. This is just restaging the cold-blooded assaults on young women: pass the popcorn. The Black Mass could have bypassed all that by simply making everything up and inventing their own fictional serial killer: it's not as if audiences won't enjoy a Hannibal Lecter or a Michael Myers, and personally I'm rarely happier than during a Saw marathon because They're Not Real. But, as with Mansonsploitation movies like Wolves At The Door, if you're telling a true story you have a responsibility to the victims and on that level, this film doesn't make it. And I hated it for that.


Sunday 2 July 2023



The summer season of New Instalments You Didn't Need continues: after Transformers 7 and DC Comics 13/Keaton Batman 3/Affleck Batman 6 (?) comes Raiders 5, an entirely unnecessary mess of a dead horse that yet again feels the inexplicable urge to wink to the fans with recurring characters that don't need to be there, and to try and crank up the action by making the chases and fights longer and noisier and more chaotic than ever before. Gone are the simple, linear, easy to follow but no less exciting setpieces like the truck chase from Raiders, the tank sequence from Crusade or even the dancefloor frenzy from Temple Of Doom: the template now is the jungle jeep chase from Crystal Skull, but more of it. Now, anything goes and the hell with wit, plausibility or basic physics. Like all the other blockbusters of the last few years, everything is CGId into pixelgasms of nonexistent nonsense, and this time it's thrown into your eyes at a hundred miles an hour because Dan (The Bourne Confusion) Bradley's doing the second unit.

Most series go on for two instalments more than strictly necessary, whether it's Star Trek, Die Hard or Saw and Indiana Jones has long passed its natural end point. Having capped everything nicely with the end of Last Crusade, they didn't need to do a fourth, especially as everyone was now twenty years older and frankly looked it. In fairness I quite liked Crystal Skull, but felt that they had pushed it as far as it could go and they just about got away with it: there was just about enough good stuff to mitigate the bad. Now they've taken it too far and it doesn't work.

The first section of Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny is the best, with Jones, as ever, trying to get artefacts away from the Nazis in 1944. The CGI de-aging is convincing enough that we could be watching a 35-year-old Harrison Ford, but the effect is dissipated by his 80-year-old voice. Intriguingly, this sequence sets up one mythical relic (the Lance Of Longinus, which pierced Christ on the cross) as the potential McGuffin before discarding it in favour of one half of the altogether less impressive-sounding Archimedes' Dial which, after a long and chaotic action sequence on a train, Jones and his colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) manage to snatch from the evil Voller (Mads Mikkelsen). In 1969, Voller is still searching for the dial, following Shaw's daughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as she tracks the Dial down so she can sell it to pay off gambling debts, and only the 80-year-old Jones knows where it is. Cue another loud and chaotic action chase sequence...

No sooner does Jones arrive in Tangiers in pursuit of Helena than we get yet another long and ever more chaotic chase sequence between two cars and two tuk-tuks, before we then all have to go off to Greece to meet Antonio Banderas and raid a shipwreck, and then we all have to shoot off to Sicily to find the other half of the dial and take off for Munich for Mikkelsen's big plan, except the plan goes wrong and the (finally) final act of the movie cannonballs through the credibility barrier even harder than any of the aforementioned nonsense, even harder than the last act of Crystal Skull. If the previous film felt as if they'd stopped making Bond films after Goldfinger, waited 20 years and then returned with Moonraker, then this feels like them waiting another fifteen years before giving us Die Another Day, all with an increasingly aged Sean Connery.

And it's no fun. For all the dizzying mayhem there's very little humour, either verbal or visual, surprisingly not even from Grumpy Old Fart Indy with his shirt off shouting at the hippies next door to turn the music down. (James Mangold isn't Spielberg and can't - or doesn't want to - put in those comedic touches like shooting the swordsman in Raiders or the gruff interplay between Jones and Jones in Last Crusade.) Helena is surprisingly unsympathetic (for much of the time) and I never really warmed to her either as a character in her own right or as a foil for Indiana; not even as much as the legendary Willie Scott from Temple. Toby Jones is engaging while he's on, of course, but that's not enough, and the mighty John Williams returns with a very John Williams Indiana Jones score, though curiously (given that this has to be the last one now) he elects not to conclude the final credits with a big rousing rendition of the Raiders March, in favour of a more muted presentation of lesser, and less memorable, cues.

So why, given the excessive budget (scratching on the door of $300 million, if you believe Wikipedia), the lack of any proper wit or humour, the preponderance of heavily CG-augmented nonsensical action and a third act that I just didn't buy, do I feel a tad less hostile to this than to the intolerable The Flash and the inexcusable Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts that came out in the last few weeks? Partly it might be that Harrison Ford can still make these things watchable even at eighty, and partly it might just be that for the first chunk at least I was kind of enjoying it and the de-aging worked well enough. But it may also be down to a nostalgic liking for the earlier Indiana Jones films which I certainly don't have for those other franchises. And that's the problem. Raiders was already infused with a nostalgic love for the old pulp adventure movies and Saturday matinee serials of decades past and the next two ran with that. But who in 2023 is still nostalgic for Charlton Heston in Secret Of The Incas or (picking at random) the 13-part Lost City Of The Jungle from 1946? Today's audience is too young to be nostalgic even for Indiana Jones movies: they've got other things to reminisce fondly about. 

Look, Dial Of Destiny isn't terrible. It's got some good players in it, the period settings are well evoked, the music is fine, the first section is properly Indiana Jones entertaining, and Indy is still more of an engaging hero than the current crop of cardboard cutouts from the Marvel, DC and Transformers films even if he is clearly way too old for all the international gallivanting. But it's still overlong and messy, the final act doesn't work, and the film sags badly in the middle with the underwater sequence. And beneath it all there seems little more than a desire to milk the intellectual property one more time rather than create another. As Jones Senior urged Junior at the end of Last Crusade: "Let it go".


Wednesday 28 June 2023



Well, congratulations to The Flash. It took less than 24 hours for this month's superhero offering to be unseated as Worst Film So Far of 2023. Awful though The Flash is, the new Transformers instalment is probably worse: I'm just hoping the new record holder lasts a couple of weeks at least. Of course, the Transformers movies have never been the first choice for genuine quality cinema: they're excessively loud, they're excessively stupid, they're excessively long, they're excessively excessive. They're not movies about people, characters or ideas, they're movies about massive robots smashing the living sump oil out of each other and things exploding and city blocks being annihilated and massive great kaboom eruptions of fire and destruction.

To suggest that this seventh trip to the Autobot Cinematic Universe (a prequel - none of the La Boeufs and Wahlbergs have happened yet) isn't the worst of the saga so far is merely to suggest that a punch in the mouth isn't as bad as a kick in the balls: probably objectively true but hardly a recommendation. Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts may be substantially shorter than previous instalments (except for Bumblebee) but all that means is that it's over quicker. It doesn't wipe out the entirety of New York but it does still trash a goodly chunk of it with a massive robot battle and car chase. Its humans may not be Shia La Boeuf and Megan Fox but they're not of any greater depth, and you don't even get high-calibre reliables like Anthony Hopkins or John Malkovich in support. It all concerns another ancient alien artefact of incredible power (yawn) that's wanted by a planet-eating god called Unicron so he (it?) can open a dimensional portal to come through and eat the Earth. All that stands in the way of Unicron and his (its?) legions of evil Terrorcon robots is a couple of New Yorkers and a handful of Autobots and Maximals (robot animals).

Why is all this so dull? Because the last chunk of the movie is one mammoth battle sequence entirely dependent on so much CGI that the eye and the mind simply cannot process it. You're not excited, you're just battered into submission. There's nothing about it that's real, there's nothing about it that even vaguely resembles real; it might as well be a cartoon. You know, like the ink-and-paint TV show for children more than thirty years ago? But the film opts for kaboom kaboom kaboom because that's all it has in its arsenal: bigger, louder, longer. All it can do is try and top the previous movies in terms of jawdropping spectacle because the alternative would be to work on actual character, narrative and emotion and that's not in their skillset: there's none of that here beyond the bare minimum of soap opera backstories (he's desperate for cash, she's unappreciated at work). So you end up watching two hundred million dollars' worth of artificial fireworks because that's all there is on offer. And it's not enough.


Wednesday 21 June 2023



This is where we've come to, is it? This is the end result of however many years of bellends in spandex repeatedly punching space monsters, mythical demons and occasionally each other into ever more spectacular orgasms of CGI destruction? Coherent storytelling and involving characterisation have been sacrificed on the multiple altars of incoherent computer effects, gibberish writing and bowing and scraping to the hardcore comicbook nerd audience who frankly should have grown out of this thudding drivel by now. (I speak as a semi-hardcore horror movie nerd, but even I have long since wearied of nudge-wink references to An American Werewolf In London and movies that name their supporting characters Romero or Carpenter.)

The big thing now is the Multiverse, allowing alternate versions of characters to turn up in each other's universes. Star Trek, Doctor Who and Red Dwarf have all given their casts opportunities to encounter wildly different versions of themselves: young/old, good/evil, male/female. Marvel have been doing it for a while: the last live-action Spiderman did this, dragging Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire's versions into Tom Holland's world, along with their respective villains for a multi-dimensional supermegasmackdown, and the last Doctor Strange whizzed through a whole series of possible other realities. Then there are the two (so far) Spider-verse animations, which I haven't bothered with. And Everything Everywhere All At Once sought to bring the possibilities of interdimensional travel into some kind of comprehensible comedic focus, with some measure of success.

Let's ignore the numerous offscreen controversies surrounding star Ezra Miller: suffice to say that a brief skim through Wikipedia reveals way more than you ever want or need to know. The problems start with Barry Allen/The Flash: most superheroes are more interesting in their human guises than in their secret identity but he's profoundly annoying in both hats and if that wasn't enough there are two of him because he's tried to go back in time to prevent his mother's murder. Instead he's ended up in a parallel timeline where General Zod (the one from the Zack Snyder Superman movies) is about to attack Earth and The Flashes have to team up with Batman (the one from the Tim Burton movies) and Supergirl and they all go off and fight in the desert to save the world or something.

Multiverse logic also means we don't really care: why should we? It's all happening in an alternate reality where some things are slightly different (Eric Stoltz was the star of Back To The Future) and some things are radically different (there's no Superman) but crucially it isn't happening in ours. So what if that world gets destroyed? Ours doesn't: Zod's already been defeated in this one. The timeline crossover is a device for disregarding continuity completely while at the same time giving you more continuity than you know what to do with. So: walk-on cameos from Helen Slater's Supergirl and Adam West's Batman (among others) through the dubious miracle of CGI as multiple realities and unrealities collide and explode around them, while The Two Barries conspire to be four times as tiresome as when there's only one of them.

DC and Warners apparently coughed up somewhere in the region of Two Hundred Million Dollars for The Flash, which makes you wonder just how terrible Batgirl was that they wrote it off at half that price and put all their weight behind this rubbish. I refuse to believe it's worse, if only because I don't see how it could be. The end result of all the computer-generated whizzbang isn't excitement or exhilaration, it's just bludgeoning exhaustion as the plot strives ever more frantically to get back to where it started in as loud a fashion as possible. The opening action sequence feels like a nightmare that piles mayhem upon chaos upon disaster, but at no point are we invited or expected to care about the "drama" that follows. It's crushingly dull and part of me, not altogether mean-spiritedly, hopes that Warners and DC lose an absolute ton of money on this and maybe, just maybe, start making halfway decent films instead.  What happened to cinema that this tedious stodge is regarded as borderline acceptable even as a summer blockbuster entertainment?