Saturday, 31 December 2011


Wasn't 2011 a ghastly year for movies? There were plenty of candidates for the Worst List: it's honestly been difficult narrowing it down to a mere ten titles. Many of the potentials were merely mediocre rather than outright objectionable or imbecilic, though, and the final selections are films I've really hated, or films I've been massively disappointed by, rather than ones I've merely not liked very much. The list is slightly skewed to start with: there aren't any romantic comedies or digimations on there as I don't go and see them (not being a professional salaried film reviewer for whom Adam Sandler films are part of the job); these are films I went to see wanting to like them, rather than ones I knew in advance (or strongly suspected) were likely to stink.

As with the Best Of 2011 list, the film must have received a regular commercial UK cinema release in 2011 (as listed on Launching Films), so the tiresome A Horrible Way To Die and the atrocious Inbred don't qualify as they only had festival screenings and didn't show up at local Odeons, Vues or Cineworlds. Thank goodness.

Anyway, the list:

Sneaking under the wire at year's end comes this entirely pointless English language restaging of the perfectly good Swedish original. There's nothing in it that's half as impressive or interesting this time around, and it's mainly notable for being yet another duff Daniel Craig movie, the third of the year after the nonsensical Cowboys And Aliens and the tiresome Dream House. A crashing disappointment, particularly coming from David Fincher who really should be better than this.

They didn't have Schwarzenegger or Milius, Von Sydow, James Earl Jones or Sandahl Bergman, a Basil Poledouris score or an Oliver Stone script. What did they have? Marcus Nispel, some muscled bloke with bigger hooters than the female lead, and converted 3D. Awful.

Heavily fetishised jailbait fantasies for the undiscriminating pervert (the bit where someone says schoolgirl Emily Browning is actually 20 years old is basically "start your engines, boys"). None of it makes a blind bit of sense, the whole thing is CGId into oblivion and the absurdly inappropriate 12A suggests the BBFC are giving these ratings away in packets of cornflakes.

Hammer are nominally back, but this is a Hammer movie in the way that Police Academy 6 is a Warner Brothers movie, i.e. not really. It's a crashingly dull and ordinary thriller in which the psycho is blatantly obvious (there being only four significant speaking roles, it's scarcely a mystery worthy of Miss Marple), nothing much happens and Sir Christopher Lee has a couple of scenes (including yet another deathbed exit).

Another chance for dirty old men to pleasure themselves over Emily Browning in the dark, but this one is Art, so that's okay. Pretentious and tedious "erotica" that's basically porn with dull talking bits in between. Look: if you want porn, go watch some porn. We won't think any less of you than we do already.

A prequel detailing the early hauntings when the heroines of the first two movies were terrorised as children (but not explaining why they'd forgotten all about it by the time they were adults). Incredibly dull, stupid, completely unscary and can we please stop with this lame found-footage gimmick now, please? It doesn't work and it's visually ugly.

I missed this at FrightFest so only caught up with it on DVD and for a while I genuinely thought it was going to suddenly top the year's list. It's a stupid, tiresome and thoroughly obnoxious piece of mean-spirited sadism; it's incredibly boring and entirely unbelievable, and the debate about whether it's misogynistic simply isn't worth having. My overriding question is what the hell was the point of this film? It's horrible.

Oh, for God's sake.

2. APOLLO 18
Nope, apparently we can't ditch the lame found-footage gimmick yet. Yes, they've gone to a lot of effort to make it all look like 16mm and videotape of the period, but it would have been easier, quicker, probably cheaper and certainly less visually annoying to actually make a film, rather than feebly pretending they haven't. Stop it.

Not counting midnight shows where I've fallen asleep and have missed great chunks of the action, I've only ever walked out of one film (Zombie Women Of Satan). This tedious and diseased parade of cheap atrocities and sub-Troma taboo-busting would most probably have been the second if I'd been on an aisle seat. Genuinely the vilest and most misanthropic film I've seen in years. Yet everyone else - literally everyone else - loved it, and I don't think I'll ever understand that.

There were plenty of other below-par offerings on show: Justice, Abduction, Dream House, Immortals, The Green Hornet, 30 Minutes Or Less, Wake Wood, Cowboys And Aliens (it really wasn't Daniel Craig's year), Attack The Block, the Fright Night remake: all of which should have been far better.


Wasn't 2011 a terrific year for movies? Certainly it's been better than the previous year: looking back at my Best Of 2010 list there were a few films that probably didn't deserve to be there, but they ended up there simply by way of there not being enough competition. Happily, 2011 has produced a sterling set of titles, and not only am I generally satisfied with my final choices but I'm annoyed that some perfectly decent titles haven't made the cut.

On the subject of last year's list, there was of course one glaring omission: the original Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That was because I'd seen it back in 2009 so I forgot about it when compiling. No such oversight this year: I've used the UK release schedules as a guide so even if I saw the film in 2010 it counts to this year's lists if it's had a general - or even limited - theatrical release in 2010 rather than festival screenings. (Sadly, The Artist isn't going to be available to include in the list due to the distributors not releasing it out of the West End until the start of 2012.)

Not that I'm anywhere near qualified enough to detect themes, but if there has been a theme this year that I've particularly welcomed, I'd suggest that it's films harking back to earlier eras of film: two of my top three all refer back to earlier styles of film-making, openly celebrating the actual technique of making movies in days long gone. Here's hoping people can actually learn from this: not just to celebrate the days of better film making, but to actually make better films.

Enough prattle. The list:

A solid, well-crafted and creepy ghost story in the best British tradition, although with an occasional feel of an episode of The X-Files, The Awakening boasts a strong female lead (Rebecca Hall), a nicely conveyed period setting and several damn good scares and jumpy moments. Maybe it loses it slightly towards the end with a too implausible extra twist, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. More please.

I'm not much of a comicbook superhero fan. Nor am I colossally interested in the ongoing Avengers uberproject in which a whole bunch of absurdly costumed weirdos face off against each other. But Thor was such unexpected fun: visually terrific in the Asgard scenes, and Thor himself was an interesting and likable enough hero. Lord Sir Kenneth Shakespeare Of Branagh may have been an unlikely choice to direct (it's a bit like hiring Stanley Kubrick to direct The Dukes Of Hazzard), but it's paid off.

This was on many lists for last year because of festival screenings but it didn't actually come to commercial cinemas until January 2011, so there. Everyone loved it, and I certainly liked it a lot: it's a weirdo psychological horror movie with a ballet setting and that lovely sense while watching it that you haven't got the faintest clue where the hell it's going. I somehow still wish I'd liked it more, and probably need to see it again.

This emotionally raw and powerful love story knocked me sideways when shown at the 2010 Frightfest, to the extent that I couldn't bear to go back in for the next movie (The Last Exorcist), and had to go for a long walk to let it sink in. Shocking, brutally violent, and yet ultimately quite moving; nowhere near enough people saw it.

Sometimes the public get it right and support a movie that justifies it. In 2010 it was Inception, in 2011 it was this incredibly miserable and grimy spy drama entirely bereft of helicopter chases, kickass explosions and anyone under 50: espionage as an abstract game of imaginary chess where you didn't know which pieces were whose. And it makes no concession to the audience: pay attention or you're lost. Oh, and the cast is breathtaking.

It's from the certified nutjob director of Visitor Q and Ichi The Killer, but this superbly paced and gorgeously photographed samurai action movie almost makes it worthwhile putting up with the usual incoherent Takashi Miike gibberish. Culminates in an apparently endless village battle that leaves just about everyone dead, but just as gripping is the first act's political exposition and plot machinations. Marvellous.

Watching this absorbing Spanish thriller (produced by Guillermo Del Toro) I was suddenly thrust back to the Scala Cinema more than twenty years ago, watching vintage Argento gialli. Genuinely exciting and beautifully done. Why can't we Brits make genre films as good as this? Why aren't we even trying?

An absolutely charming movie that may be all over the place, veering wildly between moving drama, knockabout comedy, kiddie fantasy, action - but finally hangs a hard right turn out of nowhere into the joys of the very birth of cinema with the strange and surreal fantasies of Georges Melies. And it's probably the best showcase yet for intelligently used 3D in mainstream cinema (although the case for 3D has yet to be indisputably made).

The most genuinely scary time I've had in a cinema for years: from the creators of the gory but unscary Saw franchise and the increasingly tiresome and unscary Paranormal Activity series comes an entirely bloodless and truly frightening haunted house movie. Granted that it drops the ball in the third act, but it works not just while it's screening but days later when you're alone in the flat, late at night and it squirrels back into your mind. Utterly brilliant.

1. SUPER 8
Joyous, joyful and thrilling kids' action/SF movie that's not just a near-perfect recreation of the late 1970s (I don't give a toss that this song or that toy wasn't actually there until 1980 - it's still in the spirit of the era) but the idea of kids making movies for the sheer fun of it. I'd love for children to come out of Super 8 inspired to grab the nearest camera and start shooting. Beautiful, exciting, a near perfect kids' movie and a damn good summer blockbuster. (And if you're carping about the lens flares - get over it.)

Honourable Mentions to some films that bubbled under but didn't quite make the cut. In no particular order: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Rango, Fast Five (shut up!), Red State, Drive, The Skin I Live In, I Saw The Devil, Confessions, A Lonely Place To Die and True Grit. And to be honest, that list alone would have made an acceptable Top Ten.

Friday, 30 December 2011



A big old house at night. Obscene phone calls. An unseen maniac killing sorority girls. The camera taking on the killer's POV. A shifty and suspicious boyfriend. Useless police officers. A familiar cult movie actor in an authority role. "The calls are coming from inside the house!" A nuisance cat. A creepy attic, a creepy cellar. Twist ending where the horror isn't really over. How many times have these join-the-dots ingredients come up in every cheap slasher movie ever made? Admittedly part of the fun of slasher movies is enjoying the tropes of a Halloween, as much as seeing them wittily subverted in a Scream. Fine, but they weren't tropes to start with: this pioneering Canadian slasher came four years before Halloween, five before When A Stranger Calls and six before Friday The 13th. More than those movies, this is the one with a greater claim to inventing the cliches in the first place.

Yet first doesn't always mean best, and it's curious that Bob Clark's 1974 slasher Black Christmas doesn't actually work anywhere near as well as some of the films that came after it, specifically the big franchise-starters Halloween and Friday The 13th. Certainly it has incident and it kicks off with the dirty phone calls right from the start (very dirty - the handful of C-words is probably why the film still retains its 18 certificate after more than thirty years), but once it graduates to killing its sorority girls rather than making obscene noises at them, it settles into something that now seems painfully obvious and predictable unless you actually saw it back in 1974. Suspicion is cast firmly and early on Olivia Hussey's ridiculously creepy boyfriend Keir Dullea, yet it couldn't possibly be him and there's no motivation given. But who else could it be?

Frustratingly, the film elects not to reveal its antagonist, simply letting the end credits run over the sound of the ringing telephone. Personally I feel that's a copout, like Agatha Christie ending a novel before Poirot gets round to his ten-minute deconstruction and unmasks the villain. Whether it's because the idea of an unknown murderer is more horrific than a known one, or because Clark and writer Roy Moore believe it doesn't really matter, it leaves the movie without a tidy and satisfying conclusion.

I know it's heresy but I probably prefer the 2006 remake, partly on the grounds that there's more in the way of upfront gore (this original version is pretty restrained in the ketchup department) but partly because they do actually bother to identify the killer. The slick and bloody but empty Glen Morgan version may not be much of a film overall (it's an enjoyable popcorn slasher rather than a work of actual quality) but I have a soft spot for it. But I can't get enthused about Bob Clark's original: it's okay, and it's good to see Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea and John Saxon (I've never been a fan of Margot Kidder, though), but it's really no more than okay.


Monday, 26 December 2011



Why, deep down, didn't we suspect this all along? Why did we have our hopes up for this revisitation over all the others? What had this got going for it that The Thing, Fright Night, Let Me In, Conan The Barbarian and all the other recent remakes didn't have? Well, it had Steven Zaillan scripting from a highly regarded source, it had a sterling cast including Daniel Craig, Steven Berkoff, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard and Joely Richardson, and of course it had David Fincher directing. Even ignoring the fact that outside of the Bonds (and even there he's only scored 50 per cent) Daniel Craig has an uncanny and unerring ability for picking duff projects (see Dream House and Cowboys And Aliens), how could this possibly go wrong?

Easily. Though The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo tells, frequently word for word, the same story as the Niels Arden Oplev version - crusading but disgraced journalist investigates the murder of a young girl forty years previously, aided by the angry, punk-haired computer hacker of the title, and in the process uncovers long-buried family secrets, corruption and sheer cold evil - it brings absolutely nothing to the table but the star names and English language dialogue (and the latter you could have as an English dub on the original's DVD release anyway). If you've seen the original, David Fincher's film holds few surprises, but even if you haven't, I genuinely believe it won't grab your interest.

It's as if they're really not trying. Oh, it looks great: it's drained of colour and light with the permanent snow, much of it takes place at night, everyone's dressed in drab colours and driving black cars. And I'll confess a liking for the modern Swedish architecture (mainly Stellan Skarsgard's hilltop house - if I win the lottery that's the kind of place I'll have). But it's dramatically uninteresting - neither Craig nor Rooney Mara are any kind of substitute for Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace at bringing their characters to life, and even the hideous rape sequence doesn't have the raw power of the original's. (If they didn't want to be compared to an earlier film, they shouldn't have made another version of it, and they certainly shouldn't have made an inferior version of it.)

There's also the language question: why is everyone speaking English when it's taking place in Sweden, the newspaper signs are all in Swedish and magazine covers are in Swedish? Granted it's a dramatic device as old as theatre - Hamlet doesn't have to be performed in Danish - but why are the TV news and the press cuttings in English? There's even an absurd moment when they spell a sign out - "S...N...that's a K.... Carpentry!" And why is no-one but Rooney Mara putting on some sort of accent? (Okay, they probably didn't want it to sound like a Muppets convention where everyone's come as the Swedish Chef.) It's an inconsistency that could easily have been avoided by just putting everything in English.

Matters aren't helped by the sound mix rendering chunks of the dialogue unintelligible (although that may have been the 35mm print or my local's audio system at fault), and by the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score that's been indiscriminately ladled over the movie like custard - but ladled over roast beef rather than an apple crumble. How can a director who's worked with proper musical composers like Howard Shore, Elliot Goldenthal and David Shire possibly have signed off on this ambient soundscape of droning and plinky-plonk noises? (The album release covers three CDs and frankly you might as well listen to your fridge defrosting.)

So ultimately we've ended up with a nothing movie: an A-list director, a heavyweight cast, some fabulous set design - but it simply never hangs together the way it should - and the way it did a few years ago (and presumably in the book as well). It isn't different enough from the earlier film to make it much more than a translation rather than a film in its own right. Niels Arden Oplev's film was terrifically entertaining and gripping, and this just isn't in the same league. Most importantly, from the director of Se7en and Zodiac - and even Panic Room and Alien 3, which I believe is massively underrated - it's a crashing, crushing disappointment. (Sadly, it looks like a remake of the next of the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is in development for 2013, although it doesn't appear on Fincher, Craig or Mara's IMDb pages.)


Friday, 16 December 2011



Kids ruin everything. More precisely, teenagers ruin everything. Specifically, the teenage demographic in multiplex cinema and film-making has put the tin hat on the concept of adult (as in grown-up rather than porny) entertainment. With the overwhelming majority of films released targeted at people under 25, intelligence and wit and cleverness will always be outnumbered by vulgarity and rude words and tits. It's no longer adult in the sense that it's aimed at adults, it's merely adult in the sense that it's not for kids. The 15 certificate doesn't signify anything beyond the unsuitability for 12-year-olds, and perversely, the endless references to knobs and tits and miscellaneous sexual weirdness is childish rather than mature. It's significant that the critical quote emblazoned on the front of the DVD box, claiming it to be The Funniest Movie Of the Year, is from Nuts magazine.

In days of old, when knights were bold, there was the handsome Prince Fabious (James Franco), forever on noble quests to slay wizards and cyclops; and his idle brother Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride), concerned only with sex and loafing around enjoying himself. But Fabious' virginal simpleton bride Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is abducted before the wedding by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), and the two brothers and their companions must rescue her before the eclipse of the two moons that will mark the conception of a dragon with which Leezar will rule the world (or something). Also along for the ride is vengeful Natalie Portman, but might there be a traitor in their midst?

Essentially Your Highness is Carry On Questing. Or Onan The Barbarian. Or Monty Python And The Holy Krull. Or indeed Hawk The Stoner (the word Highness having a double meaning, haha). But what it's most reminiscent of is The Black Adder: the first series where Edmund was a cowardly, obnoxious idiot (McBride even has a hapless sidekick accompanying him), and for all the period detail and generous budget (by BBC standards), it wasn't massively funny. On one level this movie is amiable knockabout nonsense with good production values, some decent effects (albeit mostly CGI) and an all-star cast that also includes Charles Dance, Damian Lewis and Toby Jones. But the steady flow of sweary gags about willies, bums, tits, bestiality and wanking gets tiresome after a while. Nor is it explained why almost everyone is putting on an English accent when - bearing in mind the eclipse of the two moons - the movie isn't even set on this planet.

Much of the movie was clearly improvised - see the extras on the DVD - by just leaving the camera running while the principals make up a dozen slight variations of the scene, and then picking the dirtiest version and not the funniest. McBride makes for a charmless lead - granted, on one level the character is supposed to be charmless, but surely the hero should not be so charmless that you genuinely don't want to spend any time looking at him? The same problem beset McBride and director David Gordon Green's earlier, generally terrible, Pineapple Express. Here we also get a lot of casual F-bombs as well which don't sit well against the medieval setting but they've have been put in because it's supposedly funny. Clearly they were having a ball making it but it just doesn't translate.


Verily, forsooth, penis:

Thursday, 15 December 2011



Maybe I'm the only one left, but I still watch Woody Allen movies in the hope of agreeable, civilised, cultured entertainment with a brain and with a sense of humour that doesn't rely on poo, knobs or crass sexism and stereotypes. Perhaps it's not entirely fair to suggest he hasn't made a genuinely terrific movie for about 20 years - I've missed some of them, and some haven't even been released to the UK - but even the best of his more recent ones certainly aren't up there with Annie Hall or Love And Death. (And that said, even some of the classic "early funny ones" aren't as good as everyone makes out: I honestly struggled with Everything You Always..... and even Sleeper.)

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is a loose assemblage of vignettes chronicling the various relationships of two London couples: elderly Anthony Hopkins who has a midlife crisis and ditches his slightly dotty wife Gemma Jones for prostitute/actress/gold-digger Lucy Punch, and Naomi Watts (Hopkins and Jones' daughter): attracted to her married boss Antonio Banderas but herself married to struggling writer and general tool Josh Brolin - who is in turn attracted to Freida Pinto, the musicology student next door. Pinto is in turn already engaged to a diplomat, Watts wants a family, and Jones is falling into spiritualism courtesy of dodgy medium Pauline Collins.

It would be marvellous if it had all ended with custard pies or a fight at a wedding. But it doesn't really end at all: it just stops abruptly with a voiceover to the effect of "and there we must leave them", so even if you were passingly intrigued by these people and their non-hilarious situations, there's no sense of resolution. And it doesn't have one single joke in it. It doesn't even have any jokes that don't work - jokes which you know are jokes but which aren't funny: not only are there no laughs, but there are no failed laughs. Nor are there any particularly interesting characters you want to spend any time with: aside from a pleasing turn of fate for the odious Brolin it's hard to care about any of these mewling, self-absorbed individuals and their self-inflicted problems. So in addition to not working as a comedy, it doesn't work as a character drama and for a Woody Allen movie that's not good enough. You don't expect car chases or Martian invaders in an Allen film but you do expect character and/or comedy and/or drama.

Maybe it's London's fault. I haven't seen Scoop or Match Point (Scoop wasn't even released in this country although it did creep out on BBC2 one night) but Cassandra's Dream was a similarly unsatisfying and humourless stodge; before this he did Vicky Cristina Barcelona which was mildly amusing (although no real laughs) and since You Will Meet... we had the rather charming (but still far from hilarious) Midnight In Paris. And his next one's set in Rome. But the last funny one - the last one with actual hahaha oneliners in it - was Whatever Works (which nobody but me seemed to like very much), a film set in Allen's New York. Possibly as a result of the home turf, Whatever Works has 26 entries on its Memorable Quotes page on the IMDb. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger has just one which is, to paraphrase Arthur Dent, "obviously some strange usage of the word Memorable that I wasn't previously aware of." (Genuinely, I looked at it not three minutes ago and can't remember it.)

It's also an odd mixture of accents as Hopkins does Hopkins, Punch does Chav, Banderas does Spanish, Brolin does American, Watts puts on English (but uses the American pronunciation of "imbecile" to rhyme with "whistle" rather than "Lucille"). Obviously it's always good to see Sir Anthony, and it's pleasantly surprising to see people like Philip Glenister, Lynda Baron, Anna Friel, Meera Syal and Ewen Bremner turning up for tiny roles. But it just isn't any fun and you're left wondering what the point of the exercise was. Allen is now 76 and he really doesn't need to make a film or two every year, especially if it's just for the sake of it. It is a civilised, cultured film, and you can believe in these people; you're just not that bothered what happens to them.


You Will Buy:

Tuesday, 6 December 2011



Yet another desecration of an acknowledged and accepted classic, another heretical exhumation from the vaults in an ill-advised quest to recapture the magic that was fatally doomed from the start. Time after time they've blundered into the most familiar territory and completely missed the point. Whether it's Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or second-tier minor horrors like Friday the 13th, The Stepfather or My Bloody Valentine, they've failed repeatedly and spectacularly - and if you're setting the bar as low as Prom Night, why even bother? If they can't even raise more than a "whatever" response from mean-spirited exploitationers like I Spit On Your Grave or Last House On The Left, how can they ever hope to achieve anything with a film that people actually love? (Sole exception to this would be Zack Snyder's version of Dawn Of The Dead is fine, which is some achievement given that Romero's original is the greatest film ever made.

This all-new The Thing is, technically, a prequel in that it details the events at the Norwegian base (prior to the lone dog escaping to the American outpost at the start of Carpenter's film), although it's practically a remake as it attempts to restage many of its highlights. Tracing a mysterious signal, three of the Norwegians fall down a crevasse and discover a craft, and subsequently a creature frozen in the ice. Once they've flown in top paleontologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Columbia University, they set about thawing The Thing out - until it bursts loose and starts doing exactly what it would later do at the American base: masquerading as one (or possibly more) of the humans and then turning into a surreally squishy monster when it's found out. Gradually the cast are whittled down (mostly set on fire) until a climactic "face" off within the Alienesque confines of the alien craft....

John Carpenter's The Thing is a bleak, shocking, endlessly rewatchable and visually stunning SF/horror movie with eye-popping effects, a perfect Morricone soundtrack, a taut and suspenseful script and a terrific cast of character actors. Matthijs Van Heijninger Jr's The Thing differs in only nine respects. In making a prequel, they've stymied themselves by negating any suspense or excitement: we know pretty much how it will end and that most if not all the cast will die horribly. This doesn't just mean we don't care who's really The Thing, it means we don't - we can't - care who lives or dies. But even though several members of Carpenter's cast weren't immediately sympathetic or likable, you were still gripped throughout. Here, both the structure and the indistinguishable nature of the roster of characters mean it's impossible to get involved.

More damagingly, far too many of the Thing effects are computer generated and frankly they look it. Because they're just ones and zeros on a hard drive that have been cut and pasted into the shots, they don't scare and they don't revolt; despite some interesting imagery it's impossible to be scared of something that so clearly does not exist. More crucially, many of those CG effects simply aren't very good and to be honest they might as well be a hand-drawn cartoon for all the effect they have (at one point they were on the level of the incoherent Japanese zombie movies Junk and Wild Zero which were about ten years ago). Surely the whole point of The Thing is that it's indistinguishable from reality, but too often it's painfully obvious what's real and what isn't. Marco Beltrami's score occasionally has echoes of Ennio Morricone's doom-laden score for the 1982 version, but too often resorts to his standard crash-bang horror movie style he's been working in pretty much constantly since the first Scream. Which is okay, but unfortunately the contrast is highlighted by the inclusion of Morricone's end title music at the end.

It is clear that they've tried to make a movie that harks back to the 82 version. It's got a pleasantly old-fashioned grainy look, it's frequently lit and shot in a similar style, and they not only run the main credits in the same typeface  but they even kick off with the older version of Universal's logo (although for some reason they include the copyright date for the more recent one in the closing crawl). But the CGI kills it, the largely interchangeable and identically bearded cast mean you lose track of who's dead or alive (Mary Elizabeth Winstead excepted, because she's the only one who looks any different to everyone else) and none of it is a fraction as enjoyable, scary, surprising, funny, weird or interesting as Carpenter's film.

[Continual reference to the earlier film, rather than viewing it on its own terms, is entirely fair. If they didn't want the comparison with John Carpenter's film, they shouldn't have made a prequel to it.]


Monday, 5 December 2011



Early on in this 1980s slasher movie, the fantastically sleazy Joe Spinell is seen sitting in his New York taxicab reading Issue 38 of Starburst magazine; page 42 of which contains a report on the making of this very same film, and page 43 consists of a full colour photograph of Caroline Munro in costume and on the set! Horror films about horror films are less of a tightrope and more of a tripwire. Unless you're incredibly sure-footed and you know exactly what you're doing (in other words, unless you're Wes Craven) the odds decree that you're almost certain to tumble into a black hole of injokey self-referential hogwash: too often it can end up as an exercise in showing off how many movies you can quote in 90 minutes (see the worthless Hack! as an example).

Fanatic, originally released on UK video as The Last Horror Film (and nothing to do with The Last Horror Movie or Die! Die! My Darling!), is an oddly fascinating, though not entirely successful attempt at film-within-film-within-film from 1982: shot largely at the Cannes Film Festival the previous year (without permits), written in two weeks, supposedly part-improvised and, to judge from the Making Of reports from Cannes that ran in Starburst around the time, a completely different beast from the original conception. Created as a response to audience demand for the horrible Maniac (a film I can still find little love for), it told of top horror actress Jana Bates (Caroline Munro) being stalked around Cannes by New York cabbie and delusional loser Vinny (Joe Spinell). Her husband, her producer (and ex), her director, an agent are all murdered, all receiving handwritten notes warning them "You have made your last horror film".

There's little doubt that most of the movie (and indeed the title Fanatic) is setting up Vinny as the maniac: a repulsive loner obsessed with horror movies and with pathetic delusions of being a great filmmaker who's going to Cannes to direct "Jana Bates" in his Dracula film - which is clearly not going to happen. (Nor, in honesty, is "Jana Bates" ever going to snatch a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival away from the likes of Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, as we see the Jury's ballot cards being completed!) Yet towards the end it pulls a plot twist that changes everything: it's too absurd but it does allow for a sweeter ending. And perhaps more importantly, it doesn't lay the blame for real-life violence with horror geeks as it originally did; while it continually juxtaposes news broadcasts of terrorist bombings and assassination attempts on Reagan and the Pope with coverage of horror movies and press conferences (where "Jana Bates" is asked about the conflation of real and fictional violence), it finally twists that round and decides that the killer is emphatically NOT confusing movie horrors with genuine ones.

The Cannes footage itself is fantastic: everywhere you see posters, billboards and cinema hoardings for Evil Under The Sun (a far more genteel example of the murder genre), For Your Eyes Only, Zulawski's Possession and even Cannibal Holocaust showing at a tatty backstreet screening room. There's a pleasingly geeky coincidence to be found: the film for which Jana Bates is being honoured is called Scream, and there's a huge promotional billboard for a movie entitled Stab (the name of the slasher movies within Wes Craven's Scream series), although that turned out to be a pre-production title for the Scheider-Streep thriller Still Of The Night.

Fanatic (and, to add to the title confusion, not THE Fanatic as it appears on the UK DVD box) is pretty shoddily put together, there's some ropey acting, and several scenes don't make any sense, but it's engaging, there are a few decent scenes and memorable moments, particularly Jana being chased by Vinny down the spiral staircase of the Hotel Martinez and through a crowd who all applaud it as a clever publicity stunt for some crazy horror movie. I don't know that it's a better film than Maniac on a technical level; it's certainly a less repellent one and I'd rather have this than the promised Maniac 2 (abandoned when Spinell died at just 52). Or, worse, the supposedly upcoming Maniac remake with - of all people - Elijah Wood! For the behind-the-scenes guerilla footage of Cannes '81, and for Munro and Spinell, it's worth a look, although the British DVD is pretty shabby with indifferent picture quality (very poor in night scenes, or when everything's suffused in red or blue) and presented in 4:3. Still, oddly enjoyable.


Saturday, 3 December 2011



The third of Cannon Films' triumvirate of regular action stars, after Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff was the least of the three, both in terms of acting skills and martial arts mastery. While Norris was a bona fide world karate champion and Bronson was an effortless screen presence and a highly experienced actor, Dudikoff wasn't any of these things - he's a former model and martial arts student but he really isn't an actor at all. However, he has accumulated 54 acting credits on the IMDb page, including an episode of Dallas, a bit part in Tron, Enter The Ninja and three of the American Ninja series of low-grade kickabouts. Happily, he isn't required to act in this typical Cannon meat-headed nonsense which interestingly predates John Woo's Hard Target.

Avenging Force apparently originated as a sequel to Invasion USA of all things but Chuck Norris couldn't do it, so they gave it to Dudikoff instead. Despite being 14 years younger than Norris, he's nominally playing the same part and, having retired from the CIA Very Special Forces to New Orleans to look after his young sister, he finds himself dragged back when his best friend Steve James, running for Senator, is the target for a murder attempt by a secretive group of racist millionaire whackjobs known as Pentangle (presumably unrelated to the British folk band of the same name). In addition to sending out incompetent minions to botch absurdly public assassinations, the leaders of Pentangle like to dress up as historical warriors and hunt men to their deaths in their private swamp. Once they get a sniff of Dudikoff's skills, they foolishly decide to use him for their next Most Dangerous Game....

Despite having plenty of biff-kerpow headkicking fight sequences, Avenging Force isn't particularly good: it's as if they scaled the whole project down once they realised they couldn't have Chuck Norris for it. The final action sequence is pretty good, as Dudikoff takes on the lunatics from Pentangle in a swamp during a torrential rainstorm, and some of the stuntwork is sufficiently dangerous-looking (particularly in a burning house); John P Ryan has fun as the head of the organisation, getting to spew obnoxious racist bile left and right, and it's surprising in that the villains kill off a couple of children, which is surely even more of a taboo than killing puppies. But much of it is still formulaic, predictable and unstylish to look at, and it never overcomes the George Lazenby-shaped hole where a charismatic leading man should be. Dedicated fans of low-rent karate actioners should get their money's worth, but everybody else....



Thursday, 1 December 2011



This is an interesting film, but it's not what it's been billed as, at least on the cinema websites. Cineworld claim it's a "haunting psychological thriller" but while it may be psychological, it's not a thriller and it's not haunting; and according to them it "blends heartfelt domestic drama with disaster movie spectacle", which is again only half right. Fine: Cineworld need to put bums on seats and billing the film as "a bleak psychological character piece ..... that blends heartfelt domestic drama with a man possibly succumbing to delusions and/or an inherited mental condition with the occasional jumpy bit" isn't going to sell them much popcorn and nachos. This certainly isn't a horror film, despite the approaching Apocalypse; it's a character drama focusing on a man's mental disintegration.

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis, an ordinary small-town family guy with a blue-collar job and a loving family: out of nowhere he starts having dreams of an apocalyptic storm. But are they genuine visions of an imminent Armageddon - visions which become more vivid as the film progresses, with people or creatures of some unknown and unseen kind snatching his child away - or merely the early signs of schizophrenia, the same condition that wrecked his mother's life at about the same age? Curtis doesn't want to take any chances and doubles the size of the family's tornado shelter - but what will it cost him (and not just financially)? And are his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter in more danger from him and his obsessions than from this mythical storm, that might just be one of the regular twisters that affect that part of the country? Or is it all in his head?

It's a very low-key movie, it's very believable and it certainly feels like an authentic portrait of that world and those characters, and it has a pleasantly chilling ending that wraps the film up very neatly. I'm also glad that the apocalypse wasn't presented in religious terms. But it's far too long at a scratch over two hours, and it badly needs trimming in the sags between the dramatic peaks. Take Shelter has been critically lauded, perhaps too much (it's not "an American Masterpiece"!) and it won one of the Fipresci Prizes in Cannes from the International Federation Of Film Critics, but while I admired the film in places, I found it a bit of a slog in places. It's definitely overlong, and too downbeat and humourless, but at least partially successful as a drama and the more I think about it the more I like it.


Wednesday, 30 November 2011



Probably the best of Charles Bronson's films for the Cannon Group (certainly better than the amusing but silly Murphy's Law and the thoroughly inept Assassination): this is a resolutely sleazy, cheesy and nasty-edged slasher movie-cum-cop thriller with the barest nod towards presenting an intriguing moral and ethical dilemma, but which is really far more interested in a maniac slashing up defenceless young women with plenty of blood and screaming. It's surprisingly tacky for a film that was released at proper cinemas rather than straight to video or onto the drive-in and grindhouse circuits.

And as a title, 10 To Midnight doesn't even mean anything. Bronson is a tough LA homicide cop (again) on the trail of a sadistic maniac knifing women: he and his new partner Andrew Stevens come to suspect calm, smiling Gene Davis not just for the murders but the obscene phone calls directed at the student nurses at the local hospital - and one of the nurses happens to be Bronson's daughter (Lisa Eilbacher). And she just happens to be attracted to Andrew Stevens. But adopting the ethos of "forget what's legal, do what's right" (the tagline and the "moral" of the movie) and snarling the killer line "the way the law protects these maggots, you'd think they were an endangered species", Bronson goes too far. Having decided the case against Evans isn't strong enough, and despite his apparently unbreakable alibi for two of the killings, Bronson plants traces of blood on the maniac's clothes, unaware that Evans is such a psychopath that he commits his crimes in the nude....

At least he does in the original version: releases apparently vary and the TV version loses all the swearing and nudity (and Evans keeps his underpants on every time he kills someone) but the British DVD appears to be the complete cut of the film, with some graphic murder scenes involving naked women that were taken out of the earlier VHS releases of the film by the BBFC. But any nasty edges are smoothed over slightly by the sight of a reputable action star like Charles Bronson, 61 at the time, appearing in what would most likely have been picked up as a video nasty were it not for the presence of a bona fide Hollywood Legend in the lead role. It's not very good, but for sleazy nudity and violence, 10 To Midnight does deliver.


Tuesday, 29 November 2011



If you think Charles Bronson, chances are the titles that leap to mind instantly are the Death Wish series, The Great Escape, Once Upon A Time In The West, maybe The Dirty Dozen - his A-list films. Probably less likely to come to mind immediately would be his later B-movies for the Cannon Group, films like Assassination, 10 To Midnight or this very silly cop thriller in which he spends a good chunk of the first hour handcuffed to a woman forty-three years his junior. Sadly, there isn't much in the way of development for their May-December (or more accurately, February-December) relationship: he's 65, she's 22, and frankly it would have been a far more fascinating film if either or both of them had been perfectly happy (or better still, enthusiastic) about the situation. Alternatively, if the ages had been reversed and Justin Timberlake was handcuffed to Angela Lansbury.

Murphy's Law ("if anything can go wrong, it will", a maxim that's actually included in the lyrics of the end title song) isn't to be confused with Jack Murphy's Law: "Don't **** with Jack Murphy!". Jack Murphy (Bronson) is a tough and grizzled homicide cop with a short temper and a fondness for the bottle. His wife has left him, shacked up with a sleazy bar owner and taken up dancing in a strip club; he's trying to arrest a mobster for murder. But then he's arrested for the murder of his wife - all the evidence says he did it - and the only way out is to go on the run. Trouble is, through an absurd set of circumstances he's handcuffed to Kathleen Wilhoite as a punkette car thief with an astonishing talent for creative swearing, so they both have to track the real murderer down....

It all climaxes at the Bradbury Building, probably most famous as the location for the final reels of Blade Runner and, according to GoogleMaps, it's still there. Murphy's Law is boneheaded nonsense with an interesting odd-couple on the trail of a serial killer trying to dodge the police as well as the mob, but it is rather fun with a near-geriatric Bronson paired with street trash Wilhoite snarling out insults like "you snot-licking donkey fart" and "dildo-nose": things which are simultaneously hilariously inventive and tiresomely childish. Bronson's always great, but it isn't really one of his better films (10 To Midnight is trashier, nastier and funnier). Made in 1986.


Don't "mess" with Jack Murphy:

Sunday, 27 November 2011



There are quite a few things you have to ensure when making a twisty psychological thriller with a supernatural angle. It's not just the performances and production values are up to an acceptable standard, nor that there any any great gaping holes in the narrative or moments when you cheat on your own rules. What's most important is that the audience isn't at least three reels ahead of you. In these post-Sixth Sense days, we know there's going to be a twist and you have to work damned hard to hide it or disguise it - but this new chiller barely bothers to try and as a result the Big Reveal isn't accompanied by a dropped jaw and a gasp of "Blimey!", rather a smug smirk of "Thought so" (or a shrug of "congratulations on catching up, I was here an hour ago"). Admittedly there are a couple of other reveals - one of which doesn't make any sense - but the main plot development is so dazzlingly, blindingly obvious that spotting it is the intellectual equivalent of completing a four-piece jigsaw.

At the start of Dream House, Daniel Craig is a top editor for a major publisher who quits his job to slob about in his new house with wife Rachel Weisz and their two adorable little daughters, and write a novel. But there seems to be someone lurking around outside, the neighbour across the road (Naomi Watts) is initially unfriendly, and a group of local teens are sneaking into his basement because the previous occupants were brutally murdered: apparently the husband shot his wife and two daughters, and was put into a psychiatric hospital. But what really happened that night? Might someone else have committed the crimes? And why?

If you haven't figured out the Big Reveal now (and you haven't seen the trailer, which supposedly gives away everything short of a free pizza and Daniel Craig's phone number), it's really not difficult: exactly how many people interact with Rachel Weisz's character? Figure that out and you're there, leaving the film puffing laboriously on behind. Shyamalan's hide-in-plain-sight trick disguised the character interactions quite neatly but we're wise to the concept now, and Dream House makes no attempt to camouflage the blatantly obvious. The result is a bland, competent but thoroughly uninteresting film with no surprises and no scares (apart from once nicely timed Boo! moment); not just a horror film for people who don't usually watch horror films, but a horror film apparently made by people who've never watched a horror film and don't really know how.


Friday, 25 November 2011



I'm not the world's biggest Chuck Norris fan. I've seen most of his movies from his Golden Age - the 80s and his time with Cannon Films - but I wouldn't really say that any of them were neglected classics in need of rediscovery. Some of them are a touch too flagwaving and jingoistic for my taste - Invasion USA, The Delta Force - while others are entertaining enough but entirely disposable and I've no urge to put any of them on my DVD shelves. Code Of Silence, for example, is a bog-standard cop thriller with a terrific David Michael Frank score and a great villainous turn from Henry Silva, but blows it in the final reels with a silly remote-control robot thing that looks like Robocop via Blake's Seven.

I first saw Lone Wolf McQuade on the bottom half of a double bill with The Terminator at the tiny little Star Centa four-screener in the Swiss Centre just off Leicester Square (recently bulldozed). Rediscovering it twenty-six years later, it now stands as probably Norris' best film: a tough, violent action yarn with Chuck as Jim McQuade, a legendary, no-nonsense Texas Ranger in El Paso up against an arms trafficking ring led by David Carradine, following the inadvertent injury of his daughter (Dana Kimmell, from Friday The 13th Part III) during a massive weapons heist. The only question, since it's carved in stone that the movie's going to end with Norris and Carradine kicking seven bells out of each other at Carradine's desert base, is whose side the widow Parkinson (Barbara Carrera) is on.

Lone Wolf McQuade is infused with, indeed drenched in, the Spaghetti Western spirit, thanks mainly to an overblown Francesco De Masi score that's full of twangy guitars, whistling (by Alessandro Alessandrini), organ, choir and harmonica in the best Morricone tradition, along with the barren desert setting and Norris doing the stolid, impassive hero routine (oddly enough, if you believe the IMDb, the film was originally conceived for Kris Kristofferson). Even the opening credits slide onto the screen in that instantly recognisable Spaghetti Western typeface! There's also the sight of the "Eastwood Hospital" although that's probably real since it's mentioned in the acknowledgements in the end credits (although GoogleMaps suggests there's currently no hospital of that name in El Paso).

It's generally an enjoyable, silly, violent B-movie with equal parts martial arts and gunfire and explosions and, it being former world karate champion Norris squaring off with the great David Carradine (no slouch at the fight sequences), the martial arts stuff is pretty good. In fact much of the action footage is well handled: it's an efficient piece of work that's well shot and mostly well put together (although it is perhaps absurd that McQuade leaves a vital witness in the care of his retired buddy and an inexperienced deputy to go home and suddenly start having sex with Barbara Carrera - shouldn't he really have more important things to be getting on with?). A fun couple of hours and probably Chuck Norris' best film: not a classic but definitely worth a rental.



Thursday, 24 November 2011



Funny old cove, Abel Ferrara. The director and star of one of the most notorious titles on the Video Nasties list (The Driller Killer), alternating commercial projects with personal, micro-budget, rough-edged films. In truth I'm not a big fan of his more famous films: I've never liked The Driller Killer or Bad Lieutenant, and the arty vampire number The Addiction nearly put me to sleep, but I enjoyed the more commercial King Of New York and Body Snatchers (although in both cases it's a long time since I saw them).

And I liked Fear City a lot: it's a hymn to the neon-soaked world of hookers and strip clubs and porn cinemas of New York's Times Square, while it was still a stinking cesspit of vice and degeneracy and before it was wiped clean and turned into something that GoogleMaps Streetview makes me never want to go anywhere near. (But if I had a Tardis, this is when and where I'd go.) That now-lost urban nightscape is brilliantly brought to life here: part unwavering gaze into hell, part slasher movie in which a mad killer is attacking the strippers provided by the "Starlite Talent Agency" run by former boxer Tom Berenger and old friend Jack Scalia. Who will he target next - Rae Dawn Chong, Maria Conchita (Alonso), or Melanie Griffith, who happens to be Berenger's on-off girlfriend and is trying to kick a drugs habit?

Fear City has a terrific cast - there's also Rossano Brazzi as a mafia boss and Billy Dee Williams as the cop on the case - and a sense of authenticity in its feel for the streets and the clubs, and the lowlifes who live and work there. It's a 42nd Street grindhouse movie set and shot on 42nd Street, and as a document of a bulldozed cultural phenomenon it's fascinating. As a slasher movie, though, it's less successful: the maniac is never identified (the actor isn't even credited) and he's given no reason no carve up strippers beyond being a homicidal maniac. He has no depth, he has no character, he doesn't even have any interaction with the other characters except when he's killing them.

Probably the film's trump is that there's plenty of nudity and violence - far more than on the old video release, which was a TV edit that dropped most of the contentious stuff, and was then cut further by the BBFC before being given an 18. Most if not all of that has been included in the new version, including Melanie Griffith's toplessness, lots of other striptease and lapdance nudity, and the use of chainsticks which the BBFC were perhaps unnecessarily strict on at the time. I've never seen the cut version, but I can only envisage it as a frustrating experience that failed to deliver the grubby goods. This edit is squalid, grimy, sordid and seedy entertainment and probably my favourite of Ferrara's films.

But where is he now? Despite several well-regarded movies on his CV, including King Of New York and the original Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara's later work hasn't had a theatrical release in the UK since 1997's uninteresting The Blackout: the IMDb makes New Rose Hotel (a SF drama with Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento) and Mary (a religion-themed drama with Matthew Modine, Juliette Binoche and Forest Whitaker) sound fascinating, but no-one appears to want to release them in the UK. Pity.


Live Girls Here:

Sunday, 20 November 2011



Rewatching this distinctly minor Eastwood action movie for the first time since seeing it sometime in early 1991 at the now-defunct Cannon Portsmouth, it's a film that falls right in the middle. On the one hand it's a monumentally silly and implausible cop thriller that's riddled through with rotten dialogue and plot holes; but on the other hand it's a monumentally silly and implausible cop thriller that's been given a level of A-list treatment that it really doesn't deserve in terms of production values, photography and direction. It certainly isn't one of Eastwood's finest films, but as a dunderheaded action flick it is rather good fun.

Charlie Sheen is The Rookie: shiny new partner to grizzled, cynical, hardbitten veteran Eastwood in the LAPD's auto theft division; up against a gang of car thieves led by Raul Julia and Sonia Braga (he's Puerto Rican, she's Brazilian, and they've been cast as Germans for who knows what kind of reason). They specialise in trafficking stolen luxury cars, and more importantly they killed Eastwood's former partner. Sheen's inexperienced dilettante is precisely what the job doesn't require. And when Eastwood is taken hostage by the unintentionally hilarious villains, Sheen has to man up and find him....

"This isn't just a job, it's a ****ing adventure!" bellows their captain for no good reason, as idiocy piles upon idiocy. There's no two ways about it - hell, there's no one way about it: The Rookie is stupid beyond the mere confines of Earth and is genuinely stupid on a cosmic level. An example: in order to track down Eastwood's captors, Sheen sets fire to a bar, yet mysteriously he isn't prosecuted for arson! It's also notable for a frankly unaccountable sequence in which Eastwood's character, tied to a chair, is raped by Sonia Braga's character.

If it wasn't for some well-executed action sequences and car stunt action (particularly an early chase involving a transporter full of cars), the movie would be a total disaster instead of merely a mess. Certainly it's very nicely shot and put together - it has that late seventies look to it and could in places pass for Dirty Harry 6 - and Clint is obviously having fun with it, but good as he is, this is strictly routine and rather more sweary than usual. Enjoyable in parts, but very minor fare. (Watched on BluRay.)


Brrrrm brrrrm:



Although things would have been improved substantially if they'd included a few scenes of people throwing fish at Charlie Sheen. Made in the days when Sheen Jr was a decent enough action lead instead of an unemployable basket case (this came just after Clint Eastwood's The Rookie), this is another ridiculous, overly jingoistic boom-bang movie in which the brightest and best of the US military kick Middle East terrorist ass in the name of freedom and democracy, blow things up and shoot everyone in sight. Hurrah! It's incredible to think Hollywood ever made movies so idiotically simplistic.

The Navy Seals are actually the Navy SEALs: the SEa, Air and Land special operations teams of the US Navy. Michael Biehn's squad (which includes Bill Paxton and Charlie Sheen) are assigned to rescue a helicopter crew captured by terrorists: during the mission Sheen finds a hoard of weaponry including Stinger missiles but there is no real opportunity to do anything about them. Subsequent attempts to relocate the missiles, now known to be in the possession of extremists, initially prove humiliatingly fruitless but information provided by half-Lebanese journalist Joanne Whalley-Kilmer eventually leads them to Beirut....

In fairness to the film, the action sequences are perfectly well executed and put together with some decent stunt work and an impressive car chase towards the end. Lewis Teague knows how to make solid, no-nonsense B-movies (Cujo, Wedlock, Cat's Eye, Alligator), and even had a shot at the big time with The Jewel Of The Nile; it's a pity he's been absent from our cinema screens for such a long time. But Navy SEALs is thuddingly crass and predictable: as soon as one of the team is set to be married you know - you absolutely KNOW - he's not going to make it to the end of the film, just as you absolutely KNOW Charlie Sheen will eventually control his wild and crazy adrenaline rush attitude.

Backed by thumping rock ballads and a Sylvester Levay synth score that sounds exactly like Top Gun, it's efficiently made, but it is badly written, overly and overtly flagwaving and ultimately annoying. Matters aren't helped by the poor picture quality of the DVD, which looks one step up from a VHS tape and is in the wrong ratio. I don't recall caring for it very much in 1991 when it quite unaccountably got a UK theatrical release, and I still don't care for it.


Bang Bang:

Saturday, 19 November 2011



"Meh" is a modern made-up onomatopoeic word which UrbanDictionary suggests acts as a general non-response to any question or statement, signifying indifference to the point of not being bothered enough to form actual words. To be honest, in the case of this Nicolas Cage action thriller the so-called word "meh" is pushing it, as indeed is "huh", "mmmm" and "tch", but I can't find the letter combination for the sound of someone repeatedly punching themselves in the eye, which is frankly the best response.

Justice (originally known as Seeking Justice) has Cage as an ordinary English teacher at a New Orleans high school, whose musician wife (January Jones) is attacked and raped. While at the hospital he's approached by Guy Pearce who tells him that in return for a small, unspecified favour at some time in the future, he can arrange for the rapist to be dealt with - a deal which he unwisely agrees to only to find that the favour is actually to murder a man he's told is a child pornographer. But it's not long before things unravel and Cage finds himself trapped in a city-wide vigilante conspiracy that will protect itself just as efficiently as it washes the human scum off the streets....

The big mystery isn't how a reputable director like Roger Donaldson has been reduced to this morally confused and illogical twaddle; it's what on Earth it's doing in cinemas when its natural home is the £1.50 per night rental racks in corner shops and off-licences. There's a rather nifty action and foot-chase sequence in heavy traffic, but it's sadly undone by some of it being shot with cheap digital equipment with noticeably poorer picture quality, and the film's conclusion sadly degenerates into people emptying guns at each other. And Nicolas Cage can usually be relied upon to flip out and go entertainingly berserk, but he doesn't even afford us the pleasure of a "Not The Bees!!!!!" moment this time out. All in all it's not worth the effort.


Friday, 18 November 2011



Maybe it's a bit too late to still hold out hope for a franchise to radically improve once it reaches Part 4. It was always a safe bet that the Police Academy series wasn't going to suddenly turn great itself once it got to Citizens On Patrol, and if you didn't like the first three Friday The 13ths then The Final Chapter wasn't going to change your mind. So it is with The Twilight Saga: if you couldn't rack up any enthusiasm for the ludicrously overlong tale of a soulful vampire and an easily annoyed werewolf as they competed for the affections of a miserable teenage schoolgirl, it's not going to suddenly transform into gripping and compelling drama. Similarly, if you are a fan of the series, this entry probably won't disappoint.

The problem with this latest episode - the fourth of five - is not that it's more of the same, although it certainly is more of the same. The last one finished with a soap opera end of season cliffhanger as Edward (Robert Pattinson, dull) suddenly proposed to Bella (Kristen Stewart, wet), and Breaking Dawn: Part 1 kicks off with Jacob (Taylor Lautner, sculpted) ripping his shirt off and disappearing into the woods when he receives his invitation to the wedding. After the ceremony, which appears to have been performed on the forest moon of Endor, Edward and Bella jet off for an idyllic honeymoon on a private island off the Brazilian coast, where everything is perfect - the light, the weather, the ocean, the moonlight. And they finally Get Their End Away.

Such bliss, inevitably, can't last, as Bella falls pregnant. Trouble is, of course, she's human, the father's a vampire, and the embryo is some kind of inbetween thing that we're now told will kill Bella. Flown hurriedly back to the Cullen house and the extended clan, Bella is now gaunt and grey, heavily pregnant far quicker than is natural, and frankly looks like some kind of drug addict: Edward mopes around unable to help, and Jacob keeps changing his mind as to whether he wants to kill Edward, protect Bella, save the baby or return to his tribe. And there may be only one way that she can be saved....

No, it's not that Breaking Dawn Part 1 is more of the same, it's that it's far too much of the same. Even though it's the shortest of the four so far, it's still just under two hours and could really do with serious trimming. (I was actually wondering whether the first three could be hacked down and distilled into one fairly eventful 100-minute feature rather than spread over more than six hours.) I've nothing against substantial running times: the best movies find their own optimum lengths, and a three-hour Carry On Cowboy would be just as wrong as an 80-minute Apocalypse Now. The thing is, these characters simply aren't interesting enough, and don't really do enough, to warrant such a running time not just over this film but the whole of the saga so far.

Lautner gets to do his looking angry, looking sulky and looking besotted (he only takes his shirt off once this time, though); Pattinson spends the bulk of the post-honeymoon section looking miserable and helpless, and Stewart is again so drippy and miserable you can't work out why both the hunky blokes are so obsessed with her. Honestly, she is so wet you could wring her out like a chamois leather. (In addition, she's alarmingly skinny.) The only light relief comes from Michael Sheen camping it up as King Of The Vampires - and he only turns up in an extra bit (between the static credits for director, writer, producers etc, and the final end crawl) which is really a teaser for next year's Breaking Dawn: Part 2. And this movie could really use him to liven things up because it really isn't any fun.

Aside from the autumnal look - everything looks like a commercial for either Timotei shampoo or Flake bars - there's really not a lot I like about the film. Bits of it are silly, there are a lot of dreary guitar dirges on the soundtrack, and much of it is dull: far too much time is spent with what to the adult male mind is more blubbery schoolgirl mush rather than anything dramatic. Again, as with the previous three movies - Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse - I suspect a significant part of my lack of enthusiasm may lie precisely in my not being a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, and not being a member of either Team Edward or Jacob (or indeed Team Bella). If it's not aimed at me, it's hardly surprising that I don't respond to it as much as the core demographic doubtless will. But it's still annoying that I don't get very much out of it.


Thursday, 17 November 2011



With one small but significant caveat, I have absolutely no problems with spoofing James Bond. Some of the Roger Moore Bond films are Bond pastiches anyway: Moonraker is entertaining nonsense but has nothing to do with espionage, coherent plot construction, plausibility or even James Bond (and in any case no film with a pigeon doing a double-take or a comedy Thatcher impression, as in the case of For Your Eyes Only, has any right to be taken seriously). The small but significant caveat, however, is that they're funny, so this discounts the three Austin Powers movies, which ran out of steam less than one reel into the first film, and the second was so tediously vulgar I seriously considered demanding my money back (I see from the IMDb that Austin Powers 4 has been announced, in a decision which has to be financial because it sure as hell isn't creative).

Far more successful was 2003's Johnny English, a generally enjoyable Bond spoof (it was even co-written by two of the regular Bond screenwriters) in which Rowan Atkinson recreated his character from a series of Barclaycard adverts: according to the IMDb page it cost $35 million and took $129 million. Eight years on we have Johnny English Reborn and it really is a case of more of the same: English (Atkinson) has retired to seek enlightenment in a Tibetan monastery after an assignment in Mozambique went disastrously wrong. But MI7 desperately need him back as they learn that a mysterious organisation called Vortex is planning to assassinate the Chinese Premier at a forthcoming summit meeting. They have just one lead: a CIA agent in Macau. Can English unmask the members of the organisation and foil their scheme? It's clearly not giving anything away to say "yes, he can".

And like the first one, it's pretty good (in fact it's probably a shade better than the original) although it isn't great. it's Much of the movie's success is down to Rowan Atkinson's comedic abilities, both physical and verbal. In the case of the physical slapstick comedy I'm usually less taken with him - I loathe and detest Mr Bean and won't watch it, although it's the Bean character than annoys me rather than Atkinson - but there is plenty of verbal as well. The weakest sequence is probably the motorised wheelchair chase which really isn't funny or exciting enough.

But it's engagingly silly with a surprisingly strong cast including Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike (who was actually in Die Another Day and was one of the best things about that overblown mess), Richard Schiff, Tim McInnerny and Burn Gorman. None of the original cast appear to have returned although I thought I glimpsed Ben Miller as a children's entertainer - the IMDb doesn't list him or the character. Pierce Brosnan was rumoured to be in it, but isn't (possibly linked to the role played by Dominic West?), which is probably just as well as it would probably have punched up the Bond connection too much. In any case the Ilan Eshkeri score not only adapts the theme from the first Johnny English but is clearly emulating the David Arnold sound of the Brosnan and Craig eras.

While there are bits that don't entirely come off, it works perfectly well as a whole and it easily passes Mark Kermode's Six-Laugh Test Of Comedy (although six laughs in a 101-minute film is about one laugh every seventeen minutes which is an absurdly low batting average outside of the world of ITV sitcoms). I know we're all supposed to be sniffy and snobby about the Johnny English movies as though they're really not the kind of movies we should be making. But why? I can't be snobby and sniffy about it: I enjoyed it and I laughed. Stay through the end credits for a clever extra bit.


Monday, 14 November 2011



An absolute apocalypse of testosterone and rugged manliness in which two hulking great Alpha Males swagger and snarl and wave their massive manly balls at each other for breeding rights over the sole significant woman in the Tex-Mex district (there might be a secretary with a couple of lines or something, but that's pretty much all there is in the way of any other female interest), while a pride of other hairy-balled Men prepare to prepare to terminate either, both, themselves or anyone and everyone. Reeking of sweaty machismo from start to finish, it's probably one of the most masculine films ever made.

Nick Nolte is the rock hard and incorruptible Texas Ranger - Robocop but less willing to show any kind of emotion - is a small town not far from the Mexican border; just the other side is his one-time friend Powers Boothe, now a big league drugs baron and legally untouchable so long as he stays out of the USA. Between them is not just the black and white of good and evil but the affections of Maria Conchita Alonso: Nolte's current girlfriend but, significantly, Boothe's ex. Into town comes a team of ex-military Special Ops badasses led by Michael Ironside (sending the machismometer into the danger levels), with orders to rob the local bank and remove the contents of Boothe's safety deposit box along with the cash. Things don't go exactly as planned.... For the final reels everyone treks down to Mexico, armed to the eyebrows with bigass firearms: Ironside and his squad to take down Boothe and his men, and Nolte to take back Alonso....

Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice is, in its action sequences, phenomenally violent, particularly the climactic massacre where pretty much everyone's shooting at pretty much everyone. I'm not sure whether it manages to top the final reels of The Wild Bunch but it's certainly one of the most bullet-strewn final sequences we'd seen prior to the glory days of John Woo. Seeing it again the other night for the first time in maybe 20 years, I think I enjoyed it more this time around: certainly I always liked the Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack (I have the CD: performed by the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra, augmented with synths and big echoey 80s drums) but I don't recall having so much fun with the overly macho characters or dialogue.

Maybe that's a sign of the times: we're used to action movies being a little fluffier and softer these days, restrained to a 15 or even a 12A level rather than a blood-soaked 18, and perhaps the aggressive manliness feels overblown. We could take the Rambo movies at face value at the time but now - as witness the atrocious fourth Rambo movie - such characterisation feel more like a parody. The same went for Road House which I've also rewatched recently, and that's even more macho and crunchily violent: it feels absurd now. That's not to say any of those 80s movies aren't fun, and it's certainly not to suggest that Extreme Prejudice isn't a good movie: it is, but to some extent it's a product of its time.

Still, I had more fun and more visceral thrills with it than many, many modern action movies that consistently fail to reach those standards. The action sequences are properly edited, so you exactly who's where, and not hacked into a thousand subliminal pieces that flash past your eyes like a strobe; and the blood is done properly with squibs rather than cartoonish CGI blobs painted on in post-production. Well worth watching, and well worth rewatching.


When men were men, and women were glad of it:

Sunday, 13 November 2011



I'd like to say hopes were high for this, the first Bruce Robinson film in 19 years (after the okay serial killer movie Jennifer 8) and a return to Hunter S Thompson territory for Johnny Depp. But really, hopes weren't that high. Bruce Robinson's most famous and most acclaimed film, Withnail And I, was a film that completely failed to resonate with me at all: quite inexplicably, I am absolutely unique in this and every other person on the planet adores the film to pieces. And I know I'm also pretty much alone in this but I didn't care for Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas very much either: maybe I'm just too old for that sort of thing. So putting the key ingredients of Withnail And I and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas together in the same movie was probably not a recipe that was going to work particularly well for me.

And really, it doesn't. Sozzled struggling novelist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) arrives in Puerto Rico in 1960, starting off writing the astrology column and reporting from the numerous bowling alleys for the San Juan Star, but it's not long before he's sucked into the orbit of "PR consultant" Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and his shady cabal of property developers and insane rednecks planning to desecrate the untouched island paradise with hotels - and Sanderson's free-spirited girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).

There's an entirely irrelevant drugs sequence where Depp sees his fellow imbiber's tongue undulate across the room towards him courtesy of some dodgy CGI, there's an even more hopelessly raddled journalist (Giovanni Ribisi) on the staff, there's a vast quantity of rum consumed. Sadly, despite (or perhaps because of) the phenomenal amount of drinking involved, The Rum Diary doesn't really amount to anything. It's not a thriller because there are no thrills; it's not a comedy because, apart from a few nice turns of phrase, it isn't funny; it's not a crime movie because there's no sense of law and order and ultimately no justice. What it is, is a character piece about a character who isn't really very interesting. It feels like they were more interested in having the lead character develop his own voice and conscience than telling a fulfilling story in its own right, by simply putting him up against utterly evil bastards that are the easiest of targets: millionaire property developers, tax dodgers, nuke-happy lunatics.

It's not without pleasures: I liked the period detail (at least, nothing leapt off the screen at me as wrong), there were several neat lines of dialogue and nicely colourful characters, Johnny Depp's quite fun and Amber Heard takes her clothes off. But it's an unsatisfying and uninvolving film: I just left wishing more had happened.


Saturday, 12 November 2011



Eh? Wasn't Clash Of The Titans enough of a stinker? Apparently not - and that's before we get the frankly unnecessary sequel in March 2012 - as this is basically treading the same territory, but far better shot and soaked in the comic-book visual flavour of Zack Snyder's 300: everything's bronze and metallic-looking, it's CGI'd to destruction and it frequently cuts to slow-motion action shots of muscular men in leather and skirts battling with swords and pikes. But while 300 got away with its oddly enjoyable mixture of Triumph Of The Will and gay fetish imagery, Clash Of The Titans was mainly dull and uninteresting (and incidentally not a patch on an already average original), and fusing the two together has produced nearly two hours of arrant nonsense, undeniably with a nice visual flair but which really doesn't work at all as either a drama or a dumb popcorn spectacular.

The Immortals aren't just the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, watching over mankind but bound not to interfere (rather in the manner of the Time Lords), but potentially any man who fights for the right things with enough passion and courage with no thought for himself. It's the 12th Century BC and evil King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, overdoing it) seeks the legendary Epirus Bow with which he can free the Titans from underneath Mount Tartarus and bring down the Gods. Peasant Theseus (Henry Cavill), coached throughout his life by Zeus himself in human form (John Hurt), is driven to seek revenge against Hyperion for the murder of his mother and the destruction of his village. He is aided by Phaedra the Oracle (Frieda Pinto), whose visions could also reveal the location of the Epirus Bow to Hyperion.....

And so on. It's all absolute cobblers, it's too long, it's dull and it doesn't make sense. We don't find out how Zeus can repeatedly lay down the "no interference" law when he himself has been training Theseus from childhood. Nor is it satisfactorily explained why the Gods bothered to chain the Titans up for centuries in a giant box under a mountain (rather than wiping them out when they had the chance), or why they left the Ultimate Weapon lying around where pretty much anyone could find it by chance. That's because Tarsem Singh Dhandwar isn't that interested in plot or performance or character: he's only concerned with the visual look of it and pretty much every scene looks like it's meant to advertise exotic perfumes or expensive chocolates. He's very good at striking images, such as the unreal worlds of The Cell or the fantasy landscapes of The Fall, but not so hot on story and characters, so outside of the pretty visuals there's nothing interesting about Immortals at all. The look is more important that anything else.

More damagingly, it isn't any fun. It's certainly violent in its battle sequences and CGI monster fights (18 seconds was trimmed to avoid an 18 certificate) but no matter how many punches to the face and spears through the heart, it doesn't mean anything. Most of what you're looking at is just pixels on a hard-drive anyway so there's little sense of jeopardy as you never believe any of this is anywhere near real. I haven't seen the 3D version as it was shot in 2D and  converted in post-production; the 2D is dull enough, frankly. Perhaps it's an odd decision to release a movie about the imminent extermination of Ancient Greece while the economy of the real Modern Greece continues to disintegrate; as it happens, watching the news coverage of the financial meltdown in the Eurozone is far more compelling.


Thursday, 10 November 2011



When there's no more room in hell.....It's almost impossible to start even trying to describe what I love about this film: one of the very greatest films ever made and one of the few films that I never tire of watching in any of its various cuts (of which more later). Perhaps because it's not really about the zombies, it's about us, the living. Perhaps it's the idea of abandoning all personal, fiscal and social responsibilities in a playground world where everything's there for the taking - I love empty world and apocalypse movies, and Charlton Heston's The Omega Man is a personal favourite. Perhaps it's the familiarity of the location - we've all been in shopping malls. Or perhaps it's just the idea of unstoppable armies of the living dead walking the earth forever.

Everyone knows the basic setup of Dawn Of The Dead: in a world struggling to cope with the sudden and unexplained return to life of the freshly dead, four survivors flee the infested city and hole up, at least temporarily, in an out-of-town shopping mall where the mindless dead are a little more thinly spread. All they need to do is to clear the inside of the building and seal off the main entrances, and the mall provides pretty much everything that they need: the water and power is still connected, the supermarkets are full of food (including tinned and frozen) as well as clothing, weaponry and tools. Initially it's idyllic, but ultimately the walking dead bumbling around outside aren't the only problem - the remains of the living want a piece of paradise as well.

The opening, detailing the "story so far" as seen through the chaos of a TV news studio degenerating into yelling and childish squabbling, doesn't ease the viewer gently into the apocalypse; rather it starts at full throttle with the collapse of society already underway and no-one listening to the experts whose rational, logical approach goes against all our ideas of social and human dignity. And then not just maintains that pace but increases it with an action sequence as the National Guard storm a tenement block. It really is a film that doesn't let up for its first act at all. While it does eventually allow the audience to get their breath half way through, with the dead pretty much reduced to comedic relief as they fall up and down escalators and into ornamental fountains (they're still a threat, but a manageable one), it is only a brief respite before the real danger shows up in the shape of Tom Savini's anarchist biker gang.

Dawn Of The Dead was the second film I ever saw at the mighty Scala Cinema in Kings Cross: the first was Night Of The Living Dead with which it was playing one afternoon in late December 1986. At that point the VHS video version had been withdrawn as it wasn't certificated under the Video Recordings Act, and it would be another three years before it would be resubmitted to the BBFC (and was then cut, albeit by just a few seconds). At some point I'd obtained a fourth or fifth-generation copy of the full version but it wasn't until 2003 that the film was released with that gorgeous BBFC phrase "All previous cuts waived".

Much of Dawn Of The Dead is fantastically gory, thanks to Tom Savini's make-up and prosthetic effects, with liberal use of blood squibs, bites, machetes, dismemberment and one full-on disemboweling; given the sheer amount of gore it's astonishing that the BBFC didn't completely butcher the film (their site gives the final running time of the original cinema release at 125 minutes). Such moments as the "screwdriver in the ear" and "zombie walking under helicopter blades" are one-off splatter gags but the bulk of the horror is that of the siege: trapped against genuinely overwhelming odds not just by the shambling dead but by other survivors who are even more dangerous.

I tend to alternate between the different cuts of the film: the "director's cut/US theatrical version" which is the standard release version, the "Extended Version" which is 12 minutes longer, and the "European Version". This last edit was the one I watched a few nights ago and even though it's been edited by Dario Argento, it's my least preferred version. Part of the problem is, incredibly, the Goblin score. Whereas the Romero seamlessly mixes those Goblin tracks with an assortment of cues from the De Wolfe music library, the European cut simply needledrops the same pieces over and over again. Given how Argento and Goblin have performed so well together in Argento's own films, it's surprising how the soundtrack doesn't work here. The other problem, I guess, is merely familiarity with the Romero version, so you miss the bits that have been taken out and are surprised by the inclusion of the odd extra shot or line of dialogue.

As part of Romero's presumably ongoing Dead series (six to date), it's probably eclipsed by Day Of The Dead which I think is probably a better film - the writing, acting, effects and claustrophobic setting are all more powerful - yet I still enjoy Dawn a lot more. I've never been a massive fan of the original Night, although I haven't seen it in a long time now, and while the long-awaited fourth film Land Of The Dead was fun, its canvas was too wide. Night, Dawn and Day all concentrate on a small group of people in a confined space, while Land expanded its gaze to a larger cast in a city and the countryside beyond, thus losing focus.

Diary Of The Dead was an interesting entry adopting the "found footage" technique: a stylistic change which fell into the trap that most of the FF films have of keeping its characters pointlessly filming themselves rather than abandoning the cameras and running away from the flesh-eating zombies, and his most recent, Survival Of The Dead, was frankly pretty underwhelming apart from a few amusing moments. It says something, I guess, that I bought the DVD of Survival a few years ago and it's still in its shrinkwrap. Mention should also be made of the Zack Snyder remake from 2004. Which is fine. Since Romero's film is one of my all-time favourites, and the majority of modern remakes have tended to suck somewhere between massively and completely, the bar was incredibly high for Snyder but I actually ended up enjoying his take on it as a gory and entertaining popcorn zombie movie.

But it's just not in the same league as George A Romero's original: one of the highpoints of genre cinema one of my favourite films ever (along, for context, with Aliens and Blade Runner). I never get bored with Dawn and while I wouldn't go so far as to name my (nonexistent) children Peter, Steven, Roger and Fran or get tattoos of the film's logo or imagery, it's probably the only film where it will be stipulated in my will that the DVDs are cremated with me. While Goblin's remorseless "L'Alba Dei Morti Viventi" plays.


When there's no more room in hell....

Monday, 7 November 2011



It's mystifying sometimes how the universe decides which directors are particularly worthy of scorn. Uwe Boll is the obvious one, hated as if he set fire to everyone's dog when in truth he's no better or worse than a hundred other low-budget hacks, and dodgy as some of his work might be (I still refuse to acknowledge there's a single redeeming feature in Postal), he's not down there with Michael Bay, who comes up with films consistently more tedious than Boll's but at a hundred times the cost. Brett Ratner is also high on the list of Directors You Should Hate, and again for no massively good reason. Some don't see his third X-Men movie in the same blinding glory as the first two Bryan Singer films, but personally I don't see much difference: they're all bloated, overlong and humourless orgies of CGI and uninteresting characters. Yes, Ratner's Red Dragon isn't a patch on Michael Mann's Manhunter, from the same original source novel, but it's okay.

Granted, he's also given us four more Chris Tucker movies than we really needed or even wanted: Money Talks and the three Rush Hour films. In truth I rather enjoyed the Rush Hours when the peerless Jackie Chan was doing his knockabout stuff although Chris Tucker is a spectacularly irritating screen presence and you really want someone to hit him (the only time he's been correctly cast is as a jabbering idiot in The Fifth Element). Like all those movies, Tower Heist is glossy, empty, stuffed with reputable names and, possibly since Chris Tucker isn't in it, rather good fun. The staff at an exclusive luxury high-rise in the middle of New York discover their pension funds have been stolen by multi-billionaire Alan Alda, and led by building manager Ben Stiller, they decide to rob his penthouse to get their money back when it looks like Alda is going to walk free.

How they manage to achieve all this is basically Mission: Impossible (right down to the catchy score, which sounds like it's going to burst into either the M:I theme tune or The Taking Of Pelham 123 at any moment) involving messing about in lift shafts, blocking off security cameras and dangling out of top-floor windows, and once it gets going it's far more entertaining than it had any right to be. I still don't much care for Ben Stiller as a leading man, and you might raise an eyebrow at the fact that the only two roles for black actors are the large woman (Gabourey Sidibe) and the petty crook (Eddie Murphy). Elsewhere, Tea Leoni is the Federal Agent in charge, Matthew Broderick is a guy about to be evicted, and Casey Affleck is the new building manager.

It's good fun, and in an era of Occupy Wall Street and insane amounts of personal wealth held by investment bankers, rather timely. It's not a great film: it won't be troubling most Best Of 2011 lists or Academy votes, but as Friday night multiplex fare it's perfectly alright, with generally likable characters and some nicely amusing moments. Bottom line is I really enjoyed it, and it's certainly the best thing we've seen from Ratner so far.