Saturday, 21 September 2019

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH, THAT'S GOT TO HURT

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

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

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

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

***

Thursday, 19 September 2019

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A SUDDEN REALISATION

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

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

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

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

**

Friday, 13 September 2019

WOLF

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

**

Thursday, 12 September 2019

IT: CHAPTER TWO

WE ALL SPOIL DOWN HERE

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

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

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

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

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

**

Sunday, 8 September 2019

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE

SPOILERS AND STUFF

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

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

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

**

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

BLISS

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

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

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

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

*

FEEDBACK

SPOILERS ON LINE 5

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

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

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

****

DEADCON

FOLLOW! LIKE! SUBSCRIBE! SPOILERS!

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

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

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

*

THE DRONE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

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

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

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

****