Monday, 27 May 2013



This was probably the last gasp of Steven Seagal's big-screen career as an action star: it wasn't long after this that we stopped going to see his movies and he started making dozens of cheap and shoddy DTV action movies instead of well-mounted films. Surrounding him with big budgets, familiar B-movie faces and lots of hardware to blow up couldn't disguise for very long the fact that the man was a faintly ridiculous figure with no sense of humour, and the real surprise is that it worked for as long as it did.

Maybe it's because this was only the seventh of Steven Seagal's action movies, before we all realised how terrible he could be, but in my memory I've always thought this film was pretty good, if only in comparison to his later films. Memory plays tricks though, and a rewatch of 1995's Under Siege 2 actually reveals it as pretty shoddy, and even more of a shameless xerox of the Die Hard formula than Under Siege. Back then it was Die Hard On A Battleship, now it's Die Hard On A Passenger Train as mad scientist Eric Bogosian hijacks his earthquake-generating satellite weapon from the US military, planning to sell it on the black market for a billion dollars AND wipe out Washington DC. His base is a passenger train which crosses the Dark Territory (where the signals cannot be traced), and in the best Hans Gruber tradition his team of mercenaries and thugs take the passengers as hostages. Except of course for restaurateur and former Navy SEAL Steven Seagal who just happens to be on board with his teenage niece (Katherine Heigl)....

The script - incidentally co-written by Cloverfield's Matt Reeves - is awful, with clunkingly obvious fill-in-the-blanks lines of dialogue such as "They found his car, but they never found the body" - lines from which you can fill in the plot twists yourself. Some of the optical effects shots are a bit on the ropey side, although I'll happily take them over soulless CGI, and Seagal himself still has the charisma of a photocopier. But it's more crunchily violent than Under Siege (still carrying an 18 certificate after around 2 minutes of cuts), and Basil Poledouris' score is loud and percussive during the action sequences but has a tendency to go for heroic fanfares every time Seagal does something awesomely heroic. But even by Seagal's standards it's not much of a film: it may be more polished and better resourced than most of his cheap Eastern European thudfests, but it still isn't any good. The subtitle "Dark Territory" appears on the DVD box, but not on the film itself (either here or on the UK cinema prints back in 1995).





This is a strange little comedy-thriller which actually feels like two radically different movies randomly spliced together - and that's because it is: all the scenes of Eddie Murphy clowning and motormouthing were shot afterwards and shuffled in, despite them apparently taking place two years after the Dudley Moore scenes. So you get captions alternating "California: 1982" and "Kuwait: 1984" for each sequence, with the result that the film's timeline bounces back and forth between 1982 and 1984, and at no time do the stars of either section ever meet. It's a mess.

Of the two strands that make up Best Defense (yes, the UK DVD annoyingly uses the American spelling), the Dudley Moore material is easily the better. Moore is an engineer working unsuccessfully on a tank guidance system; he inadvertently obtains someone else's design (before they're murdered by Russian agents) and then has to act as bait so the Feds can capture them. But the device won't work.... Two years later, Eddie Murphy is in charge of the prototype tank which goes haywire and veers off into an Iraq invasion of Kuwait that wouldn't actually happen for another six years.

In fact the two plots are actually put together pretty well, and even though the stars remain separate throughout a bizarre suspense develops regarding how 1984's events will be determined by 1982's. Billed as "Strategic Guest Star", Eddie Murphy is doing the standard early 1980s Eddie Murphy thing, which I never really warmed to, but the real joy of the film is actually Dudley Moore. He may just be doing the standard Dudley Moore thing but, even with a duff script that's palpable nonsense from start to finish, he's got more natural comedy in him than Ferrell, Sandler, Rogen, Galifianakis and chums put together. And it shows.

It's also nice to see Kate Capshaw, Helen Shaver, Tom Noonan and George Dzundza showing up in supporting roles. And it's funny enough: certainly not hysterical but there are more honest laughs than today's comedies without resorting to grossout knob and poo gags or pop culture references. Surprisingly, given the structure, it kind of hangs together and ends up reasonably amusing. I guess that's as much as you can hope for these days.


Sunday, 19 May 2013



"All Roads Lead To This", proclaims the tagline on the (frankly rubbish) posters, and it's fair to say that since the third film in this increasingly silly but also increasingly enjoyable franchise they've pretty much known precisely where they were going with it, and that's upwards. No longer content with ripping off truckloads of DVD players, we've now reached a point where the McGuffin is a military superweapon that would be worth billions to the right genocidal maniac. No longer content with flinging customised sports cars round a closed circuit in the small hours, we're now flinging tanks and bikes around public highways in broad daylight. No longer content with a mere winner-takes-all race for a climax, we now have the opening plane/car chase sequence of John Woo's already balls-to-the-wall mental Face/Off extended to about three times its length and which had me in more fits of delirious giggling than Adam Sandler will manage in his next three hundred films put together.

The series has already brought one character back from the dead by rewriting the timeline so that the third film (Tokyo Drift) actually takes place after this one, presumably so Han (Sung Kang) can still be in them. Now Fast & Furious 6 also resurrects Dom's old girlfriend Letty from FF1 and FF4 (Michelle Rodriguez), murdered off-screen in Fast Five but now back as an amnesiac now working for the villains, in a shameless plot device straight from the world of daytime soaps. Even by the standards of the Resident Evil movies, in which Michelle Rodriguez was also brought back from the dead through frankly ridiculous plot contrivances, this smacks more of "whatever it takes to get the band back together" than any kind of plausibility.

But the band are back together: Tyrese Gibson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges from FF2 and FF5, Shea Wigham from FF4, Paul Walker from all but FF3, Diesel from all but FF2, Jordana Brewster from FF1, 4 and 5, and of course The Rock from FF5. They're all doing their party piece and it's now down to a fine art as precise as the demented stuntwork - which is three quarters of the appeal over the one quarter of character development. If you're expecting subtle and insightful human drama, you're not just in the wrong cinema, but the wrong town. To a greater or lesser degree, these films have always been bromances between Diesel and Walker, but they're constantly interrupted every ten minutes or so by screeching tyres or fights.On the other hand, if you're expecting screeching tyres and fights then this is the best film in ages for delivering nutso action sequences; A Good Day To Die Hard is nothing in comparison.

Does it matter that the final airport chase/fight goes on for so long that the runway must be about twenty miles long? Does it matter that there are not one but two brutal fistfights on the London Underground, neither resulting in anyone being arrested (despite three coppers being duffed up) and no-one going to Casualty to have half a dozen bones set? Does it matter than Diesel and Rodriguez are somehow able to drive through London's glittering West End at 170 mph? I'll admit to a small niggle during the tank chase as to the number of innocent civilians are casually crushed to death, but the getout is that they're all killed by the villains, and not by Diesel and his crew (Diesel is clearly heard urging them to draw the tank away from the people, Rodriguez does complain "this wasn't in the plan!").

That aside, and a pointless side mission for Paul Walker that does nothing but pad out the running time, Fast & Furious 6 is a hell of a lot of fun, certainly the best of the series, and it might even make it to the year's Top Ten! The jokes are good and I giggled pretty much throughout, especially through the two big chases. And stick to the end (just before the complete credits crawl) for the set up for Fast 7 that brilliantly ties up the loose timeline from Tokyo Drift while bringing in a new villain - a casting choice that's a stroke of pure genius. I'm salivating already: July 25, 2014 cannot come soon enough for me.


Monday, 13 May 2013



I have a very simple rule: if it isn't Jim Kirk, it isn't Star Trek. I don't care how many Romulans, Tribbles and dilithium crystals they put into Deep Space Nine and Voyager; they're Trek in name only. From Patrick Stewart onwards, they made the fatal error of taking Star Trek seriously and treating it as proper drama with depth and character development and honest emotions, and they drained all the fun out of what was supposed to be camp, colourful knockabout for kids. They made the same mistakes with Doctor Who, Spiderman, Batman and James Bond: mistaking absurd pantomime constructs for "real people". I couldn't stand the Next Generation show, although I managed better with the films, but only as dumb popcorn spectaculars (three of them with Jerry Goldsmith scores, which counts for a lot) rather than Serious Human Drama.

JJ Abrams' 2009 reboot, detailing young Kirk's first taste of space adventuring and boldly going, was a lot of fun: for all the exploding planets and genocidal destruction, it felt light, thanks to the tics and mannerisms of familiar characters re-enacted by younger actalikes (McCoy's grumpiness, Kirk's way of sitting in the chair, Chekov's inability to pronouce the letter V). As a sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness has less build up because most of the backstories are already established, so it's able to start at full throttle and hardly pause for more than ten seconds at a time. It begins with two furious action sequences: Spock attempting to defuse an apocalyptic volcano with a cold fusion gizmo while Kirk legs it through the forest chased by primitive tribesmen. Meanwhile, special Federation agent turned mega-terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) blows up a data archive in London - but why? Admiral Peter Weller orders an assassination mission, armed with 72 mega-destructo photon torpedoes, to Harrison's hideout in Klingon territory: if they're discovered by the Klingons, it could start a war. But Harrison isn't who he says he is....

Skip this bit if you don't want the big spoilers. Where it all falls apart is its contradictory desire to nod towards the events of Star Trek, and specifically to the events of Shatner's second Trek film (Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan), when it's already been established that this takes place in an alternate timeline. If JJ Abrams' universe isn't Shatner's, then there's no reason for any correlation: the reveal that Harrison's real name is actually Khan makes no sense except as a reference to The Wrath Of Khan and its TV forerunner Space Seed. Events somehow contrive to mirror the earlier film: Kirk is terminally irradiated at the end rather than Spock, Spock gets to bellow Shatner's famous "Khaaaaan!!!!!" and the two of them even do the Vulcan salute through the glass as one lays dying.... but given that Star Trek: Into Darkness takes place before the five-year mission, it seems bizarre to have direct echoes of a film that's a sequel to a TV episode which in Abrams' timeline hasn't happened yet.

Still, if you can forget about Shatner's film, this new one is terrific summer blockbuster entertainment with tons of whizzy action and shiny special effects, loud music and pleasantly nerdy injokes for the Trekkie/Trekker fanboys (though one in particular turned out to be a crunching plot point that could scarcely have been more obvious if it was accompanied by a marching band, a line of cheerleaders and a huge red flashing arrow pointing at it). The cast are nailing their characters more, some closer than others; you can almost see Karl Urban's McCoy turning into De Forrest Kelley, though I'm not as sure about Sulu and Chekov yet. Certainly you could quibble about some of the plot points: if they can't beam people up from a moving vehicle on the planet surface, how can they beam someone down to that vehicle? And if a character can transport from Earth to the Klingon homeworld across the vastness of interstellar space, if there's no maximum range on these things, why are we still using spaceships? But hey, it's Star Trek, it's not something that demands to be thought about in depth. I enjoyed it a lot.


Friday, 10 May 2013



I like to think I'm not an idiot. I like to think I'm capable of appreciating movies beyond the big summer blockbusters, movies that require a measure of intelligence and concentration, movies that aim for something higher than mere box office spectacle, movies that seek to explore philosophy, the meaning of life and the dark depths of the human condition. Subtitled movies, art movies, "difficult" movies. On the other hand, I came away from this bleak, intense, cerebral Russian film with a pounding headache and an overwhelming desire to watch Smokey And The Bandit with the volume cranked up. I confess there were points where I considered abandoning it. But that would have put it in the same bracket as Zombie Women Of Satan (walked out of the cinema: the only time I've done that in 29 years of cinemagoing) and Darren Ward's Sudden Fury (switched the DVD off after about 15 minutes), and I couldn't reconcile abandoning a famous piece of Russian arthouse with sticking to the end of The Evil Inside and Island Of The Dead.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (at 161 minutes, it comes on two discs) is a phenomenally "difficult" film: very slow, very quiet, very depressing. Some time after a mysterious incident involving aliens, a mysterious Zone has been created. It's been barricaded with barbed wire and armed guards, but some people known as Stalkers will guide people into the Zone, to a room which is said to grant wishes. One Stalker takes two other men with him, a Writer and a Professor, but the journey does not go entirely as planned....

Obviously there are no laughs, no fights, no chases, special effects, sex, violence or snappy one-liners to be had. It's an art film, and it makes no concessions whatsoever to Western multiplex audiences with their popcorn and Iron Man t-shirts. There's almost no music to be heard, the film is made up of mostly long static takes in which very little happens, and most of the dialogue is abstruse philosophical musings and abstract arguments. While the Zone itself is in colour, the "real" world outside is shown in miserable brown monochrome. As a result, it's an extremely tough watch: dreary, slow and inaccessible, and a further example of why Peter Greenaway's dictum that "Cinema is too rich and varied a medium to be left to mere storytellers" is utter poppycock.

But, the argument goes, it's an art movie: it's supposed to be dreary, slow and inaccessible. Well, I'm not sure the two extremes of the spectrum - Stalker and Battleship, say - are the only two options. Just as there can be summer spectaculars that also engage the brain (such as Inception), can there also be art movies that aren't boring, that challenge the audience to think about the film rather than merely challenging the audience to stay to the end? Being long and foreign with not much incident doesn't automatically mean it's boring (see Once Upon A Time In Anatolia). For me, Stalker was a struggle and a half: too much like hard work for almost no reward (the very last minute of the film sprang the only genuinely startling and intriguing moment) and while I made it to the end, it was too cerebral for me and I lost the battle. Oh well, maybe I am an idiot after all. Bring on Smokey And The Bandit.


Thursday, 9 May 2013



The principal surprise being a Rob Zombie movie that doesn't stink the room out like a dysentery-ridden camel that's been dead for three weeks. This is Zombie's fifth live-action film (there's a cartoon thing called The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto that somehow never made it onto my rentals queue) and saying it's his best really isn't saying anything at all: House Of A Thousand Corpses was a tedious Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff riddled with trash culture references, and its sequel The Devil's Rejects was a vile piece of shrieking nihilistic garbage which only managed to not be the worst film of its year because Guy Ritchie made Revolver. Zombie also remade Halloween, which was borderline tolerable in the bits where he was pretending to be John Carpenter and barely watchable when he wasn't, and followed it up with a tawdry and ugly sequel that really marked the point where someone should have taken him aside and punched him.

Maybe they did, because The Lords Of Salem is actually the best thing he's done by a long way. It's still only middling fare, and there's stacks wrong with it, but set against Zombie's other films it's a revelation, as if Fred Olen Ray or Al Adamson had suddenly made The Exorcist. Dreadlocked hippie rock chick Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) receives a mysterious 45 rpm single from a band known as The Lords at her late-night music/chat/unlistenable rubbish radio show: it catches the attention of author Matthias (Bruce Davison) who connects the song to the local witch trials of the 17th century and the curse laid down upon the women of the town. As Heidi sinks into a stupor of evil, it becomes clear she's been selected for the ancient coven's Satanic ritual.....

While the rock video imagery looks cheap and silly (Sheri Moon Zombie astride a goat, a graphic disembowelling, the visualisation of The Beast), much of the film is actually pretty well handled, with a pleasingly 70s retro feel about it. Not just in its casting of familiar genre favourites including Judy Geeson, Ken Foree, Dee Wallace and Meg Foster, but in its lack of mobile phones, moronic teenagers and CGI, and occasional nostalgic glimpse of lens flare. Zombie's ability to give the movie a subtle, mature feel sits oddly with the shocking verbal blasphemies and his strange obsession in naked old ladies. And despite what the movie says, you can't just type someone's name into a genealogy website and automatically get their family tree for the last four hundred years - tracing your family history just doesn't work like that, and anyway Matthias goes about it completely the wrong way.

For all that's wrong with it, I liked The Lords Of Salem far, far more than I'd expected. But that's based entirely on Zombie's abysmal track record of four damn near worthless feature films; it's odd, and a little annoying, that the first film he's made that doesn't reek is the one that goes straight to DVD while obnoxious rubbish like The Devil's Rejects got a national cinema release. Even so, The Lords Of Salem isn't great: it's messy, good and bad in equal measure, with silliness and shock material that doesn't work shuffled in with some genuine creeps and a nicely downbeat ending. In the end it's worth a C+ or a B- at best: as a rental it certainly doesn't make for a wasted evening, and I almost wish I'd been at FrightFest Glasgow for it, but it's not a film I'm ever likely to come back to.



Tuesday, 7 May 2013



And so we reach the point where they're not even trying. They've given up. They're not even pretending any more; they just don't give a toss. In fairness, why should they, given that this is a franchise that started badly and went speedily downhill from there? If we're prepared to spend money on these things, they're not going to bother wasting time and money and hiring the top people to craft a film of any quality: the audience have already demonstrated they will shell out for any old crap. It's money in the bank. Some might find such naked contempt for the paying punter almost admirable in its sheer cheek, but they probably haven't sat through a movie that is tangibly idiotic and proud of it. And yet, and yet....this may well be the dumbest, stupidest, most brazenly imbecilic film ever made, pitched at a level that would leave a horse feeling insulted, but for some ungodly reason it's not quite impossible to detest. Thanks to Gabe Bartalos' gloopy prosthetics and one outrageously hammy performance, it's got a few (though not enough) diversions to cover up the preposterous plot, acting and dialogue.

When franchises run out of steam, they go into space. Friday The 13th did it in Jason X, Hellraiser did it with Hellraiser 4: Bloodline, Critters did it with Critters 4. Hell, James Bond did it in Moonraker and that was over thirty years ago (though in fairness that isn't the worst of the Bond films by any stretch). Let's be clear: Leprechaun 4: In Space (again directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, who should frankly know better) is absolute drivel. The Leprechaun (Warwick Davis again) is now in space for no adequately explored reason, merrily accumulating gold and treasure from across the galaxy, but he's run to ground on a remote planet (a studio cave about as convincing as any William Shatner wandered through) and ultimately defeated by a rubbish troop of space marines. But you don't get rid of a Leprechaun that easily, and he's resurrected (in someone's trousers - again, don't ask) on an orbiting research ship. All he wants is his gold and his hostage, a dimwitted princess, but the resident mad scientist Dr Mittenhand wants the princess' DNA to rebuild his shattered body....

Much of the second half of the movie is taken up with sub-Aliens clanking around in metal corridors as the Marines hunt the Lep (who no longer speaks in rhyming couplets or Oirishisms, because they're just too difficult to write) and get unspectacularly taken out one by one. None of that's half as interesting as the mad scientist stuff, because he's played by Guy Siner who appears to still be channelling Lt Gruber, his hilarious gay Nazi character from 'Allo 'Allo back in the 1980s, and he plays it so over the top it makes Brian Blessed sound like a BBC announcer reading the shipping forecast on a cloudless summer day. Even the maddest of sitcoms aren't usually performed that broadly. Mittenhand is eventually revealed as a wheeled cyborg in the Davros mould, which is either a clever injoke or a whopping coincidence, as Siner also appeared in Genesis Of The Daleks, the Doctor Who story which first featured Davros.

Towards the end, though, Mittenhand gets turned into a giant spider monster (once more for reasons too stupid to explain) and that's when Gabe Bartalos' FX get insufficiently showcased: from the brief glimpses we get it looks pretty damn good. Fortunately they've done with prosthetics and animatronics and rubber, rather than cheap CGI randomly pasted in from Microsoft Paintbox, and they're much more fun. On a technical level, it's roughly on a par with the last two mediocre instalments (sequels to a film more notable for an early appearance by Jennifer Aniston than for being halfway decent in its own right); but it's still terrible. And as a result, hopes for Leprechaun 5: Leprechaun In Da Hood are so thunderously lowered that I may well not bother with it.


Rated 15 for idiocy:

Saturday, 4 May 2013



"A riveting crime drama". "A brilliant, towering picture." "An exhilarating epic...." "Ryan Gosling is electric." These are the quotes that show up onscreen in the trailer for this new character piece: the film and its stars are getting fantastic reviews from all over. Why? Aside from the fact that it's a rare film aimed at grown up minds rather than teenage idiots, what's the appeal? It's long (141 minutes and change), it's completely humourless, and it's filled with unlikeable and unsympathetic characters. That's not too surprising: after all, it's a crime drama. But The Place Beyond The Pines is also being slightly spuriously marketed, as the trailer goes to great lengths to hide the fact that it's effectively three short stories bolted together, not one sprawling epic. Oh, and ladies: Ryan Gosling, supposedly The Buffest And Most Knicker-Dampening Hunk Ever To Walk God's Green Earth or some such ludicrous soubriquet, is only in the first of those three sections, and has been desexified to the level of a Klingon wino.

Gosling is a stunt biker in a travelling carnival who discovers that he fathered a child with Eva Mendes the last time he drifted through town: he immediately decides to settle down and help to raise the child (despite the fact that Mendes has a new relationship). With his only skillset being his biking abilities, he becomes a bank robber in partnership with scuzzy Ben Mendelsohn; tempted by too much easy money, he's careless, cornered and shot by cop Bradley Cooper. (That's the end of Gosling's onscreen involvement.) Cooper is now regarded as a hero but is forced into corruption by his colleagues, led by Ray Liotta. And years later, Cooper's son and Gosling and Mendes' son meet up at a rundown college....

Of the three sections, the middle one is the most successful because we're given a solid, fundamentally decent central character worth caring about (in Cooper). All you can do with Gosling is hope he's caught and stopped. Certainly you can pick up all the stuff about absent fathers and bad parenting: Gosling might have had good (if unreasonable) intentions, but awful ways of going about them, while Cooper ultimately chosen his career over his family. And in the end, are the teenage kids going to be better than their dads, especially given that one killed the other? However, it's devoid of humour, devoid of lightness and devoid of charm (especially Gosling's character): a glum and overlong dram about deeply unlovely people. I honestly don't get the appeal of it.




First off: I have absolutely no problem with screen nudity, and I have absolutely no problem with movies with lots of breasts in them. You want to do the naked women thing? Fine. Fill your boots. But please be aware that constantly cutting every few minutes to sex scenes, orgy scenes, topless rituals and sundry other footage of ladies jiggling about is liable to get more than a tad boring. That's the main problem with this choice bit of seventies Eurotat: there's nominally an actual plot but the obsession with girls with their kit off gets in the way. Call me boring, but if I want naked women, there's at least three websites I can look at for that sort of thing. If I've actually rented a DVD or gone to the cinema, you can take it as read that I want a "proper" film.

Vampire Ecstasy (aka The Devil's Plaything) is a fairly dull Swedish-German-Swiss offering for the smut market that plays well over an hour before any vampires bother to show up. Various young ladies arrive at a remote mountain castle: some for the reading of a will and one because she and her brother are researching local folklore, including the legendary vampire baroness who used to live in the castle. But are the housekeeper and staff seeking to perform the rites and rituals to resurrect the baroness?

Director Joseph Sarno spent many years churning out smut and XXX films: Vampire Ecstasy is nowhere near hardcore, even in this longer unrated edit (the American R-print excised about seventeen minutes from the sex scenes and Satanic ritual/jiggy dance sequences, and to be honest it would probably be a slightly better watch). The film doesn't have the weird dreamlike feel of the works of Jean Rollin, for whom nubile young lovelies cavorting around crumbly old castles in the nude is pretty much his territory: it has more of a plot but not really enough to fill the running time so much of it is taken up with nudity and sex scenes (including an unhealthy dash of incest). Yes, it's very nice, but it's just not very interesting.


Don't let me stop you though: