Sunday, 27 November 2016

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

CONTAINS SLIGHT SPOILERS, SLIGHT SPOILERS AND SLIGHT SPOILERS

Rather than spend the entire day watching three movies back to back full of people you're really not interested in and having life crises you can't really get very excited about, here's one movie that bolts the three movies together in one unwieldy two-hour package so you can get on with watching two completely different, and probably better, films. The sad fact is that while Nocturnal Animals looks gorgeous, and sounds gorgeous (Abel Korzeniowski's score combines the lush, tremolo-strings of Herrmann and Donaggio with the repetition of someone like Philip Glass), it's impossible to get involved in the glum, sterile lives on show.

Amy Adams runs a poncey art gallery, she's unhappily married to businessman Armie Hammer in a cold and empty, but ridiculously expensive and beautifully furnished mansion. She receives an advance manuscript of ex-husband Jake Gyllenhaal's ugly, violent novel, and in between reading it she reminisces about their relationship. Past, present and fiction are intercut, with Gyllenhaal also appearing as the hero character of the dramatised novel, in which his family are run off the road by Texas lowfiles and he seeks revenge when his wife and teenage daughter are found raped and murdered. Why has he written this trash, and why has he sent it to her? Should Adams have stayed away from him, on the advice of her frankly horrible mother (Laura Linney)? Or should she now try and reconnect with her one true love?

Matters aren't helped by an opening credits sequence in which obese, elderly ladies dance nude in slow motion that has nothing to do with the film except that it's part of Adams' impossibly wanky art installations. Certainly it's beautiful: cinematography and production design are outstanding. Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough pop up briefly, and it's fun to watch Michael Shannon as the Texas sheriff taking a very unorthodox approach to police procedure in the fictional section. But it never gets us to care, it never gives us the emotional hook needed to get us involved. Disappointing overall, but wonderful on the surface.

**

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

SOUL ASSASSIN

CONTAINS SPOILERS

It's weird what goes through film-makers' minds sometimes. The decision to go for a particular mood that doesn't fit the subject, the decision to go for inappropriate or wildly anachronistic music scores, the decision to concentrate on the least interesting character. In this instance it's a curious predilection for a specific visual palette: steely blues and greys. This suits all the scenes set in modern offices: cold, shiny metal and glass with pretty much everyone in sharp power suits. But it's odd to see them maintain that look for exteriors supposedly set in broad daylight and not, despite the blue filter, at four in the morning. Fine: you've got a style you like, but as with Michael Bay's preference for contrasting unnatural teal skies with radioactive orange skin, there are times when it just doesn't fit.

Since the movie is a pretty generic action thriller in which a guy runs round a European city (in this instance Rotterdam) suspected of multiple murders and unsure which of the smartly-besuited corporate slimeballs he can trust, slapping a distracting visual style across it is pretty much of a wasted effort, like putting Dolby 7.1 Surround on the Antiques Roadshow. Skeet Ulrich, granted a fantastic promotion to Head Of Security for a clearly crooked multinational finance company, plans to propose to his hotshot investor girlfriend - but suddenly she's murdered in front of him. Meanwhile, Kristy Swanson (the original Buffy) is lurking around a factory with some activist types and there's a secret disk with incriminating evidence on it....

The DVD cover of Soul Assassin notes that the feature includes "...a short scene which contains a strobing effect..." so sufferers of photo-sensitive epilepsy should be warned. In fact the film contains numerous such sequences, because Laurence Malkin clearly doesn't have enough faith in his cast or material to carry the film without post-production gimmickry that had me looking away from the screen more than in the last two Insidious movies put together. And I don't suffer from photo-sensitive epilepsy; I just found it annoying, particularly when applied to action sequences that were already overedited. Filmed straight, and not photographed through a sheet of blue glass with the flicker effect turned on full blast, this would be a decent enough potboiler for a Friday night Netflix session. As it is, a few amusing moments apart it's really not worth the effort.

**

Sunday, 13 November 2016

I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Exclusivity bothers me. There seems something wrong with a movie being available in only one place and if you don't have access to it - tough. Maybe it's a film you really want to see that's only showing in a cinema over 300 miles away or (as in this instance) streaming only on a subscription service to which you don't subscribe. Sure you could just sign up to Netflix, just as you could get on a coach to the Runcorn Picturehouse, but why should you have to? Isn't the idea of film distribution to, you know, distribute, so that as many people as possible are actually going to be able to see the damned thing? That's the idea, anyway: to get people to join the club because that's the only way to see these films, documentaries, TV shows. Every movie streaming service has stuff you can't get on the others, but (unlike Netflix) you don't have to join them all on a monthly direct debit, and for Google, Amazon, Blinkbox, Curzon and others you can rent individual titles for a reasonable fee as and when you like. It's not for me to question the wisdom of Netflix executives' business strategy, but I wonder whether people are going to ignore it entirely - they'd rather not sign up for yet another service, and if it means missing out on brand new Adam Sandler films and obscure American standups then they'll just live with it - or just seek out the titles on torrent sites.

The annoying thing is that I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (a handy title for reviewers struggling to reach their word count) is worth seeking out, despite its flaws. It aims for its scares through a low-key atmosphere of suffocating stillness, with long, static takes in which nothing happens (think Paranormal Activity, but without the found footage approach), generally declining the easy popcorn toss in favour of chilly gloom. Despite the simplest back-of-a-fag-packet setup - young nurse takes job looking after elderly horror novelist in old house that might well be haunted - it's effective, creepy and occasionally look-away scary: the best, and possibly the most difficult, kind.

At least for the first half, though it has sadly burdened itself with a voiceover that's the wrong side of waffle. But the gloom is ultimately too thick and, once the apparently nonthreatening ghost has appeared, the film loses a lot of its cold mood that it conjured up early on, and you start to wonder if anyone else ever comes to the house in the eleven months covered by the story, or whether it's an intangible spectre rather than something that can actually move things (like a telephone cord).

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is not a movie for fans of Insidious or Friday The 13th: it's for those who want quiet thrills rather than Boo!!! and messy chainsaw attacks. It's a film veering more towards arthouse than mainstream, and maybe for domestic televisual chills instead of a rowdy Friday night multiplex. That's to be applauded, obviously, and even if it doesn't entirely work then it's still worth seeing. Whether it's worth signing up to Netflix for it is another matter entirely.

***

HEX

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Stop me if you've heard this one: the one about the two women and the abusive husband whom they kill but then it looks like he's a ghost come back for revenge except that it's all a plot and he's only pretending... Yes, it's Les Diaboliques (which I used to write phonetically as Lady Abba Leaks), Henri-George Clouzot's classic French thriller from 1995 that eventually got Hollywoodised forty years later as the bland but watchable Diabolique. (The original book has also been adapted a couple of times for American TV.) Well, there's a Hong Kong version as well, uncredited, finally getting a UK home release and surprisingly well done.

Mrs Chan, heiress to the family businesses which have failed, has a bullying, drunken and cheating husband, Yeung, whose behaviour drives their last servant from the house in terror. A family friend shows up to look after Mrs Chan - but in one of Yeung's violent tirades they end up drowning him in a water butt and dumping the body in the local pond so it looks like he fell in while drunk. But then the body disappears and it looks like Yeung's ghost is haunting the two women. Or was it all a plot? Soon Mrs Chan is terrified to death in her own bed - but her ghost in turn seems to be seeking revenge...

Made by Shaw Brothers, and probably on the same sets as their numerous martial arts pictures, Hex suffers from a final act reveal that breaks at least one of the most celebrated rules of writing crime fiction. It's also stuck with the curious, though not unusual for Hong Kong films of that vintage, practise of needle-dropping existing Hollywood soundtracks into proceedings. In this instance they've pasted parts of Jerry Goldsmith's score to Alien over any of the scary bits - a distraction for anyone who knows that soundtrack (one wonders what credited composer Eddie H Wang originally did, or would have done, with those scenes). Still, it's a good looking film, and it does boast an entirely irrelevant exorcism sequence involving a young woman gyrating naked about the room for a whole reel. Not that I'm complaining, but it feels genuinely out of place. An enjoyable, if occasionally silly, diversion.

***

Thursday, 3 November 2016

HARD TARGET 2

OUCH. CONTAINS SPOILERS

Of all the films to sequel... Hard Target? Really? I mean, it was a more than decent action movie: John Woo's typically overblown style, a fine line in villainy from Lance Henriksen, Jean-Claude in his prime, but it was over twenty years ago, for crying out loud. Who carried a boner for that movie for that long? In practise, of course, it's less a sequel than a remake, and indeed less of a remake than just another variation on the Most Dangerous Game theme: instead of New Orleans we have the Myanmar jungles, instead of Van Damme we have Scott Adkins.

Adkins is Baylor: one-time MMA champion who quit the fight game after beating his best friend to death in the ring. Reduced to streetfighting for little more than his rent money, he's tempted by the one last bout: a big money offer in Myanmar... until it turns out to be a manhunt through the jungles to the Thai border, with half a dozen very rich sociopaths chasing him with crossbows.

Hard Target 2 has numerous callbacks to the original: the crossbows, the motorbikes, occasional use of slo-mo for the action sequences, and villains Robert Knepper and Temuera Morrison behaving, and even sometimes looking, like Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo. It even has the fluttering doves that were (and for all I know still are) John Woo's signature. Sadly, Woo isn't involved; it's actually directed by Roel Reine, specialist in nominal sequels to films to which you even didn't know you wanted second instalments even if you could remember them (Death Race 2, Death Race 3, The Man With The Iron Fists 2, The Scorpion King 3). As a Friday night thudfest it's perfectly passable, with the fight scenes well enough staged and satisfyingly brutal (Rhona Mitra's exit is particularly pleasing). Academy voting slips will not, however, require amending.

***

TRAFIC

CONTANS SPOLERS

Well, it's November: Halloween and the season of horror is now over so maybe it's time to leave the zombies and vampires and axe-wielding psychopaths to one side and Watch Something Else. There are countless other genres out there: emotional dramas, political polemics, historical costume epics, vintage French slapstick - yeah, a bit of bumbling Hulot will do quite nicely for an evening. What could possibly go wrong, except everything?

First off: it is officially Trafic rather than Traffic (though the English subs give the latter in the opening titles), which at least makes it easier to tell it apart from the rather good Michael Douglas drugs thriller. It's not as funny as Soderbergh's Traffic, and that's a film which was scarcely a barrel of hilarity to start with. Even allowing for my natural tin eye for visual comedy AND the eternal Anglo-French cultural differences AND the post-Brexit climate in which we're patriotically obliged to hate everything from Johnny Euro on principle, Jacques Tati's uncategorisable comedic blank of a film is as short on laughs, humour, any shred of interest, any damn thing at all, as it's physically possible to be without actually ceasing to exist entirely.

You would think that a film in which a small group of people have to do nothing more than drive from A to B - a car firm transporting its revolutionary new Camper Car, designed by M Hulot himself (Tati), from the Paris factory to the Amsterdam Auto Show - would have room within that skeletal framework to drop a few jokes in somewhere. The film's vein of wry social observation peaks with the discovery that drivers tend to pick their noses while sitting in gridlock (well, at least if you film enough people and then edit together all the bogeymining shots). Spiralling chaos is limited to a dumb motorway pile-up which at that point feels completely out of place, and it runs under the DVD menu anyway so you've already seen most of it.

Whatever the hell it is, it's certainly not a comedy. If anything it's an anti-comedy: it spends most of the time setting up elaborate scenes of slapstick chaos and then deliberately refusing to trigger them. Surely there's a payoff with the lump of meat that falls into the engine compartment? Surely there's a payoff with all the string markers left over the exhibition hall floor? Surely there's a payoff with the hitchhiker and the petrol can? Surely there's a payoff with the wedding party inexplicably stuck in the police station? By the time Hulot had pulled down some trellis for absolutely no reason and then climbed a tree to try and pull it back up, I was actively wondering whether to finish the course or just take the Blu out and abandon the evening entirely.

At the risk of sounding like a pseudo-intellectual Cahiers Du Cinema-wielding twerp in a beret and a well-stroked goatee for a moment: I ended up wondering whether the ghost of Jean-Luc's tedious Weekend might be lurking somewhere in the background. It's got at least as many traffic jams as Weekend, and it's no funnier, though at least it doesn't have endless scenes of to-camera hectoring about the evils of capitalism and the decadence of the West, and Trafic only degenerates into mere pointless tedium rather than the outright gibberish of Godard's film. A peculiar enterprise: it does absolutely nothing, and contains no laughs, which was presumably the point - but why the hell would it be? Absolutely hated it like it was the worst Top Gear ever. Enough with this trying out of previously unexplored genres, let's get back to the zombies and mad axe murderers.

*

Thursday, 13 October 2016

SCORING

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND BLIMEY, LOVE, PUT YOUR CLOTHES BACK ON, I'M NOT YOUR DOCTOR

The glossy erotic thriller, the 18-rated top-shelfer that festooned video libraries in the wake of Basic Instinct.... let's be honest, they weren't that good. At their best they were enjoyable enough Friday night tosh: half a dozen prettily photographed humping scenes and ladies (usually Shannon Tweed, Shannon Whirry, Delia Sheppard and/or Tanya Roberts) parading around vast mansions in lacy lingerie, while proper recognisable actors like Jan-Michael Vincent, David Carradine, Maxwell Caulfield and Sam Jones did the daft neo-noir plot scenes that stopped Animal Instincts, Illicit Dreams and Night Rhythms from just being porn movies. Sadly, as with any sudden run on a new and exciting subgenre, it quickly petered out into utter hackwork with near-unwatchable dreck like Illegal In Blue and The Pamela Principle.

Ordinarily Scoring would have bypassed me entirely (there's no UK distribution on this one anyway, unless you count a YouTube upload) were it not for the fact that it's one of a very small number of movies about film composers. As a score and soundtrack enthusiast for many years and a fan of the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Bernard Herrmann et al, the idea of an erotic thriller about a film composer naturally seems more intriguing than an erotic thriller about an architect or a restaurant critic. Nice idea, but Scoring not only stinks as a thriller, sexy or not, but it also stinks as a glimpse into the soundtrack world, being so utterly implausible that it would have been only half as laughably absurd if it has been set on Neptune.

Our hero is one Eric Lazlo, a fabulously wealthy musician despite [1] scoring terrible erotic thrillers and [2] scoring them astonishingly badly. (No soaring melodies or tremelo minor sixths here: his approach to every single scene, be it a sex session or a tarantula attack, is tinkly electric piano and bland sax solos.) Who could be trying to kill him? Could it have anything to do with the meaninglessly titled rubbish sex thriller Scorpio Descending that he's supposed to be scoring apparently over a period of weeks, when he occasionally bothers to footle about on a keyboard? Could it have anything to do with the plagiarism lawsuit mentioned near the start? Could it have anything to do with the hooker he's taken to?

It's all very boring, it's all very stupid, it's all very low on thrills and energy. All the women take their clothes off a lot, and we don't just get the sex scenes from Scoring, we get them from Scorpio Descending as well. The trouble is, they're all indistinguishably terrible: the demonstrably stupid movie-within-a-movie is no better and no worse than the demonstrably stupid Scoring itself. It's also hugely problematic in places, not least because it includes a rape scene in which the victim calls out to her boyfriend upstairs that she's fine - while being raped by an intruder. Cretinous garbage either way: badly done, makes no sense, and even as a "yeah, but on the other hand..." the endless sex scenes aren't that impressive anyway. Director Toby Phillips, aka Paul Thomas, has 445 director credits on the IMDb, over forty of them in 2005 alone. Make of that what you will.

*

Saturday, 8 October 2016

THE MASK OF SATAN

CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS, IF I COULD ACTUALLY WORK OUT EXACTLY WHAT THE HELL I JUST WATCHED

Rule one: if your father made horror movies and you want to make horror movies as well, the bar is higher than it is for Bob across the street whose dad was a coal miner. Jennifer Chambers (Lynch) has had variable success, Brandon Cronenberg sort of managed it, and Cameron Romero wisely avoided zombies altogether but it still didn't do him any good. (I'm not sure Asia Argento's Scarlet Diva was even a horror film, but I didn't much like it anyway.) Meanwhile, Lamberto Bava has doubled down on tempting the fates here: not just remaking one of Mario's films, but his first and one of his most striking - and has ultimately made a colossal Farage of it.

Less a straight remake of Black Sunday, 1989's The Mask Of Satan (La Maschera Del Demonio) feels like more of a rehash of Lamberto's own equally nonsensical Graveyard Disturbance with only occasional nods to its supposed source material. Surprisingly, it begins in bright, crisp sunlight with a gathering of one-dimensional teenage dumbasses on a skiing trip: before long they tumble into a crevasse, but sadly they don't hurt themselves anything like enough. No sooner have they chanced upon a mysterious spiked mask impaled upon a long-dead body than [1] the one injured member of their party is mysteriously healed and [2] another of the gang is fatally impaled on a shard of rock and is thereafter barely mentioned again. Exploring the caverns they come across a church (complete with blind priest) and a hidden village which might be where a seventeenth century witch laid down a curse on everyone. And it suddenly looks as if the reborn Anibas is possessing cute virgin Sabina (oh, how these ancient forces of evil love their anagrams!): sex, wanton lechery, a lot of running around the church and everyone getting killed and then being alive again....

At some point this was retitled Demons 5: The Devil's Veil, so they could incorporate it into the Demons franchise along with similarly unconnected movies The Sect, The Church and the supreme gibberish of Luigi Cozzi's incoherent The Black Cat. Whatever you want to call it, it's still absolute rubbish: Sabina's dumb boyfriend takes ages to twig the backward lettering even when ANIBAS has been written on the window in capital letters in front of him, everyone behaves like a complete moron whose idea of a good time is to confuse a blind man by moving his furniture for a joke, the witch keeps revealing herself as a hideous bloated hag and then as Sabina again. It has a few nice visual moments with the coloured lighting and a Sergio Stivaletti deflating breast prosthetic, and it's nice to see Michele Soavi playing one of the morons, but it's dull and stupid, with no interesting characters and none of the atmosphere than Mario Bava's film possessed. Hardly surprising it's washed up on YouTube rather than any kind of regular UK distribution.

*

Sunday, 18 September 2016

MONOLITH

CONTAINS VERY MINOR SPOILERS

Sometimes it's the simplest ideas that can make for the most gripping movies, and sometimes the best variation on a familiar theme is a straightforward reversal - in this instance locked out rather than locked in. Monolith isn't any kind of gamechanger but as a lean, stripped-down thriller with a minimal cast (only one major speaking role, a toddler and a handful of walkons and Skype conversations) it's solid and entertaining with a dash of comment about terrible parenting.

Because Sandra (Katrina Bowden) is truly an awful mother: mislaying her kid at a gas station when easily distracted by a fan of her vapid popstar past, constantly giving the boy a dumb videogame to keep him amused and quiet rather than try and engage with him. She smokes in front of him (and is also willing to indulge in some soft drugs) and cheerfully admits to being a homewrecker, yet is hypocritically furious that the husband she stole might be playing away again. So it's somewhat satisfying dramatically when the kid inadvertently locks her out of her super-secure, ultra-safe SUV, the computer-controlled Monolith. With the car in Vault Mode lockdown, the desert temperatures turning it into a potential furnace and her son too young to understand how to open the car from inside, can Sandra "man up" to her maternal responsibilities and figure a way to get the doors open and rescue her steadily dehydrating child? While contending with the local feral wildlife a lack of water?

Sure there are a few holes in the logic - for one thing, the unaccountable lack of any other traffic on a satnav-directed diversion from the road to a major city. But it's a simple, economical setup, it doesn't waste any time at all (a running time of just 83 minutes), and Bowden makes for a flawed but attractive lead forced to make serious grownup decisions for probably the first time in her life. And even though I have absolutely no use for it on my daily commute to the wastelands of Milton Keynes, I kind of want a Monolith for myself. Well worth a look.

****

MOST LIKELY TO DIE

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

A group of late-20s smugheads get together for a 10-years-later high school reunion, so they can angst over their wretched failures and bad life choices, follow through on their adolescent crushes, and reminisce nostalgically over the anonymous classmate they routinely humiliated until they wrecked his life. Meanwhile a masked killer in a graduation robe is viciously offing them one by one in the manner of their hilarious "Most Likely To...." captions from their class yearbook. Who could it possibly be? Answers on a postcard if [a] you work out who the killer is before the denouement, and [b] you actually care.

There are a few nice moments in Most Likely To Die, it's certainly violent enough, and the 10-years-later idea means the potential meat courses have a (tiny) bit of history and depth to them, rather than the usual cardboard teenagers. But it's still impossible to give that much of a hoot about them, and the film degenerates into the traditional scenes of squabbling halfwits running around a big house and screaming, the traditional ludicrous unmasking, and the traditional final twist ending that might (but probably won't) lead to a sequel. Oddly, Anthony DiBlasi's film has bypassed UK cinemas (well, maybe not that oddly) and DVD, and has simply popped up unannounced on Netflix. Cast includes Jake Busey for a couple of scenes leching over the girls, and timewasting bandwidth squanderer Perez Hilton, so annoying you'd honestly rather have Paris instead.

**

Monday, 12 September 2016

DANCE WITH DEATH

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

There is something irresistibly sleazy about a slasher movie centred around a strip club. It's the ideal combination of sadistic violence and tacky nudity, with impoverished young ladies gyrating half naked even as a mystery killer bloodily picks them off. That the acting, writing, plot and directing are all functioning on the lowest possible level feels kind of irrelevant so long as there is a either an extended sequence of naked jiggling about or vicious knife murders every 15 minutes or so, and the script makes a decent fist of hiding the murderer's identity.

So it's pretty obvious that Dance With Death is rubbish. Co-written by Katt Shea Ruben, the film has newspaper reporter Kelly (Barbara Alyn Woods) going undercover as an exotic/erotic dancer at a seedy club where the performers are being picked off one by one. Who could the maniac be? Charmless club owner Martin Mull? The creepy weirdo who always sits right up against the stage? What about Kelly's editor? Meanwhile, undercover cop Maxwell Caulfield is there all the time, spectacularly failing to find the killer...

Even by the standards of low rent exploitation trash, this really isn't any good at all: functional as a grubby time waster but hardly a long lost classic of the genre. Yet again this has bypassed UK distribution entirely, instead finding a home as a murky looking YouTube upload. Completists may get a few chuckles out of it, but for anyone else it's really not worth the effort. Includes a brief and fully clad supporting role for Lisa Kudrow.

*

Thursday, 1 September 2016

NIGHT SCREAMS

CONTAINS SPOILERS, WHICH IS MORE SURPRISING THAN ANYTHING IN NIGHT SCREAMS

Yet another 80s slasher obscurity crawls miserably through my YouTube connection. The spectacularly unexcitingly named Allen Plone can't be accused of making a film in which nothing happens: this one has a house full of partying teen football jocks and cheerleaders (who cumulatively could barely outthink a Jaffa Cake), two vicious criminals who have escaped from prison and hidden in the same house's wine cellar, a blatantly obvious mystery killer released from the nuthouse as they're no longer considered dangerous, four pre-credit kills (two of them in footage taken from Graduation Day) that are so badly edited together it looks like two of them are being watched on TV by the other two, and a dance routine.

Sadly, for all the incident Plone has packed in, Night Screams (an utterly generic title that could be applied to pretty much every single teenkill epic of the period) is pretty rubbish. It's impossible to care whether lunkhead quarterback David is going to cop off with this or that girl, or whether he's going to take up the scholarship or not. It's also curious that the movie's main killer takes a hell of a long time to bump off half a dozen high school cretins when there are a couple of convincts hiding in the basement who had earlier killed four people in a diner in as many minutes.

This is yet another of those movies that has no current UK distribution: like so many films, it's fallen down the back of the post-VHS, pre-DVD sofa and in all honesty there's no particular reason why this one should ever be rescued from the murky wastelands of YouTube, It's never actually boring and it's certainly not the worst teen slasher movie you've ever seen, but that is literally all it's got going for it.

*