Saturday, 22 April 2017

UNFORGETTABLE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

The biggest mystery about this isn't why they called it Unforgettable, which is a gift of a title to snarky reviewers. Ignoring the fact that it's a fairly generic title that doesn't have much to do with the onscreen action (at least the 1996 Ray Liotta film was sort of about memory), it's like calling a film Impressive or Marvellous: unless your film is undeniably impressive or marvellous then you're giving your detractors an open goal. Rather, the question I left Milton Keynes Cineworld with was: what is that doing in cinemas instead of its natural homes on Netflix or the bargain DVD rack in Sainsbury's? Sure, it's got a generic title, because it's a generic movie. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie, but it's surprising just how not surprising it is.

This feels like a film that, if it were ever in cinemas, would have screened back in the early 1990s along with Deceived and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, although it's got very strong hints of the earlier Fatal Attraction. Former City whizz David (Geoff Stults) has given up the money life to settle down in California and open a brewery with new girlfriend Julia (Rosario Dawson) and his daughter. But his impossibly perfect ex Tessa (Katherine Heigl) isn't going to let him or the child go that easily, using Julia's traumatic past secrets to wreck the new relationship....

It's pleasingly female-led, with Heigl (probably best known for romantic comedies) giving good maniac, and there's some satisfyingly face-punching violence towards the end once she stops being creepy and sinister and degenerates into full-on screaming crazy. There's a nod to blaming it all on Tessa's own upbringing (Cheryl Ladd is the overcontrolling grandmother) but as the film goes on her actions are less those of a natural mother than a regular thriller villain, as she becomes more unhinged to the point where her plans have completely disintegrated. But there are no twists, no surprises, no unexpected moments, no final reveal that something else entirely was going on throughout, nothing. This scene, then this scene, then this scene. Watchable as a Friday night New On Netflix random selection ("because you liked Domestic Disturbance"), but weirdly unremarkable as a national cinema release.

**

RULES DON'T APPLY

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND A MUSICAL PUN

There are two movies going on here: one a forbidden romance set against the backdrop (or back-projection screen) of Old Hollywood, the other a starry biopic of the later years (mostly 1959, bookended with scenes in 1964) of increasingly irrational billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. Either one would be interesting by itself, but the trouble is that they're oddly bolted together, with the conventional boy-meets-girl fluff taking ever more of a back seat to the antics of a cranky old goat surrounded by his closest employees getting steadily more frustrated by his ever more erratic behaviour by the day.

In truth Rules Don't Apply is more of a love triangle between driver Frank (Alden Ehrenreich in his second Old Hollywood movie after Hail, Caesar!), fresh-off-the-bus aspiring contract player Marla Mabery (Lily Collins) and legendary industrialist and RKO studio boss Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty, also director, producer and screenwriter). Frank and Marla's relationship is forbidden not just by their own strict religious upbringing (and Marla's even stricter mother played by Annette Bening who really isn't in it enough) but by their employment contracts with Hughes, who's never even met them. Marla's pushy and insistent, though, finally getting her meeting and screen test, and more.... Meanwhile, Frank has to decide: does he want to make it on his own or stay within the Hughes empire at the cost of his dreams? Does he really want Marla or his seventh-grade sweetheart (Taissa Farmiga)?

In the second half of the movie, Hughes takes over, embodying Dennis Hopper's bad guy line from Speed that "poor people are crazy, I'm eccentric!". He won't meet the financiers whose loans his business needs, he holes up in hotel rooms and refuses to come out, he demands a truck full of one particular ice cream then demands a different flavour, he fires his minions for doing their jobs, he turns off the aircraft engines mid-flight. The trouble is that it's stated that "everyone's got a crush on Hughes" but aside from his billions there's no apparent reason why this version of HH would be so apparently attractive. Still, an array of familiar names and faces show up, some for only a scene and a couple of lines: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Alex Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Paul Sorvino, Martin Sheen, Steve Coogan.

In the manner of Woody Allen (who could have easily done the period Hollywood romance stuff, but a lot funnier and sharper), Rules Don't Apply doesn't have a score of its own, instead using pop songs from the likes of Bobby Darin and Rosemary Clooney and, several times, Gustav Mahler's wonderfully miserable Adagietto, most famously used in Visconti's Death In Venice but probably tracked in here because the female lead's name is Marla (Marla, Mahler, geddit?). It's a bit of a mess, too long at 127 minutes and it seems curiously old-fashioned, but the period detail with the cars, decor and fashions makes up for the lack of easy afternoon's entertainment that was promised by the poster and the first third or so of the movie. Even though it's half an hour longer, I much preferred The Carpetbaggers.

**

Friday, 14 April 2017

KNIGHT OF CUPS

UMMM.... CONTAINS.... ERM.... SOME.... WAFFLE.... BLATHER.... SPOILERS.... UMMM.... WAFFLE....

What's it all about, eh? Life? Really, what does it mean, what's it all for? What's the point of it? What's the point of anything? What is love? What can we be? Who are we underneath? Why? Indeed, why not? Answers to the great insoluble posers (and indeed poseurs) of our time to Terrence Malick, who here invites us to ponder at great and unnecessary length on such eternal headscratchers as love, sex, success, money, God, family, happiness, marriage, regret and Antonio Banderas. What's it all about? Don't ask me, I only watched it.

Knight Of Cups isn't much in the way of plot, narrative or incident, being mainly concerned with top screenwriter Christian Bale musing on these great philosophical abstractions that have plagued mankind since before the war at least. We never see him type a single word, but he must be fantastically successful because he's got a terrific Los Angeles apartment (with an ocean view!), and by the look of it his deadlines are incredibly distant because he spends all his time wandering along the beach, going to parties, wandering about in the desert and blathering nonsensically to a succession of impossibly glamorous women who blather as much as he does. Banderas turns up at a party, prattles about raspberries and strawberries, and doesn't show up in the rest of the film. Imogen Poots turns up, prattles for a bit and then disappears. Cate Blanchett (as his ex) turns up, prattles for a bit and then disappears. Teresa Palmer turns up, prattles for a bit and then disappears. Brian Dennehy (as his Dad) turns up, prattles, disappears, comes back, prattles a bit more, and then disappears. Natalie Portman turns up, prattles....

This all goes on for two hours: two hours in which nothing happens except a bunch of shallow, empty people try and make sense of where their lives have gone wrong. And even when things do actually happen - a mugging, an earthquake - they're immediately dropped and never mentioned again. Normally this would be utterly intolerable, but the film's sole saving grace is that it is magnificently, magnificently photographed. Los Angeles at night, the beach, the desert, strip clubs, Las Vegas, apartments, all the beautiful people: everything looks utterly wonderful. It's the people who make it such a chore to wade through: cut them all out, put some mellow ambient tones on the soundtrack and you've got a lovely relaxing screensaver. As it is, it's industrial strength piffle and not worth the TWO HOURS it takes to stodge through to its conclusion.

**

Monday, 10 April 2017

GHOST IN THE SHELL

CONTAINS SPOILERS?

This is shaping up to be one of those movies that's more notable for the Outrage! and Fury! generated by its casting decisions than for its actual merits as a film. Should an actress as demonstrably white as Scarlett Johansson be cast in a role that was originally Asian, specifically Japanese, in the original comicbook source and 1995 animated version (full disclosure: neither of which I'm familiar with)? Every so often the whitewashing controversy surfaces again, be it Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange or Gerard Butler as an Ancient Egyptian deity in Gods Of Egypt, and while no-one appears to be going as far as Mickey Rooney's "hilarious" Japanese in Breakfast At Tiffany's (a characterisation that makes Benny Hill's forays into racial stereotype look like models of cultural sensitivity), the question remains of how far you can actually go with it. Should only British actors play Richard III? Should only Danes play Hamlet? Ridley Scott's justifications for casting Christian Bale rather than "Mohammed So-and-so" in Exodus: Gods And Kings were incredibly badly phrased, but was he reflecting studio reluctance to spend hundreds of millions on a film with an unfamiliar star, or the audiences who are unlikely to bother seeing it, thus making it a bad investment?

The real pity is that the star casting in Ghost In The Shell is ultimately going to be the most memorable thing about it: it's an oddly drab, murky movie which, for all the eye-popping visuals and action sequences is curiously joyless. Sometime in the near future, when humans can be augmented with any number of cybernetic implants, Mira (Johansson) has been thoroughly converted into a cyborg superagent in the anti-terrorism unit, and her team is up against a superhacker (Michael Pitt) with his own superaugmented abilities. But Mira's mind is glitching, as the deleted memories of her pre-conversion past are starting to surface...

The dense, bewildering cityscape with its giant advertising logos and bright coloured lights all over the place obviously recalls Blade Runner, though the robots starting to turn human and act on their own instincts harks back even to Westworld (Mira's was supposed to be a "clean brain", according to one line from the trailer that I didn't notice in the film itself). But this seems to be much less interested in what it means to be human and much more of a vehicle for Scarlett Johansson to leap around in her flesh-coloured cyborg suit that's absolutely not supposed to look like she's spending half the film naked, no sir. And given the substantial amount of leaping about, it really should be a lot more enjoyable.

Sure it's good looking with its immersive, detailed future. The action sequences are decent enough, there's some fun to be had from Takeshi Kitano and his weird hair, and they even throw in a giant mechanical spider towards the end, just because. It doesn't have any real emotional connection, and there's not enough to make you care whether Mira discovers how she became a cyborg in the first place. So it's a mixed bag: a superbly designed world but strangely, surprisingly unexciting things happening there. It's watchable enough, but there's the nagging sense throughout that it's not as enjoyable as it should be (certainly less fun than Lucy, for example), and it just didn't knock me sideways the way Blade Runner did. But few things do.

***

Saturday, 8 April 2017

CHIPS

DEEP FRIED SPOILERS

Whose sparklingly bright idea was it to take a piece of innocuous late-1970s network fluff that played ITV at 7pm on a Saturday evening, and reboot it as a 15-rated frenzy of knob jokes, masturbation jokes, poo jokes and sex jokes, wrapped up with lots of of shooty violence and swearing? Not to suggest my inner Mary Whitehouse is stirring again, but it's like relaunching Last Of The Summer Wine and making Foggy an obese nudist and giving Compo a crystal meth habit. You're kind of betraying whatever it was that made the original show famous more than thirty years ago. Sure, you could argue that the awkwardly-capitalised CHiPs hasn't been a thing since about a fortnight after it was cancelled, less of a thing than The Dukes Of Hazzard ever was, but it's highly unlikely that a big-screen Chips is going to make it a thing once more.

In updating Chips from family-friendly primetime twaddle to grown-up action comedy (difficult to claim it as grown-up when the bulk of the humour struggles to escape the level of "poo willy bum knickers"), it's ended up as a shooty, shouty Lethal Weapon rip but without the wit, character or energy. Jon Baker (Dax Shepard, who also wrote and directed so it's really his fault) is now a former motocross stunt biker and colossal arsehole who thinks he needs to prove himself as a California Highway Patrol officer to stop his wife from leaving him. His hugely (and justifiably) reluctant partner Poncharello (Michael Pena) is now an undercover FBI agent tracking down a gang of corrupt cops, but constantly distracted by [1] Baker's inability to stay still and shut up and [2] women in yoga pants. (I just googled them and.... meh, to be honest. Whatever blows your skirt up.)

It's less Lethal Weapon (mismatched cops, full-throttle action ensues) and more Police Academy (morons join the police force, hilarity ensues) - or more accurately a Police Academy sequel, as the first Police Academy was actually perfectly good raucous fun. It honestly feels as though the makers had never sat through an actual episode of CHiPs; certainly there's no sense of love or affection for the source material. So why bother? This isn't any fun at all: I didn't laugh once during the whole running time, instead rolling my eyes at the ceiling as if to say "Really?". And I do still laugh at stuff sometimes, so I know it isn't just me, but there's absolutely nothing here.

*

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

FREE FIRE

BANG. CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS. BANG.

Full disclosure at the outset: my hopes were not high for this one. For whatever reason, I've not clicked with any of Ben Wheatley's films thus far: the most entertaining was Sightseers, but the critical responses to High-Rise, Kill List and A Field In England literally made no sense to me. (He's also directed a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, a show whose increasingly abominable writing finally forced me to walk away from it when even the pantomime idiocies of the Sylvester McCoy era couldn't). This isn't necessarily a bad thing: not connecting with a particular film-maker is like not finding a particular standup funny or not liking a particular band, and it's nothing to be ashamed of, but when so many people you know and trust tell you he/she/it/they is/are wonderful you start to wonder if the fault lies with you, when the reality there is no more "fault" in not liking Ben Wheatley movies than there is "fault" in not liking walnut whips. The defence, such as it is, rests.

Free Fire is, hurrah, a lot better. Maybe because it doesn't have that nonsensical social allegory going on (High-Rise made no sense on any level at all), opting instead for a simple B-movie shoot-em-up scenario in which colourful, amusing (and distinct) characters fire guns at each other. It's some time in the 1970s (to judge from the cars, the clothes and the 8-track cartridge of John Denver) and Cillian Murphy is looking to buy guns for the IRA from dealer Sharlto Copley in a deal put together by Brie Larson. The groups meet up to make the exchange in an abandoned umbrella factory, but two of the low-level goons have unresolved business of their own and it suddenly escalates to an all-out Last Man Standing war between everybody....

It doesn't have the literary importance and significance of High-Rise (adapted from a notoriously unfilmable JG Ballard novel) and it doesn't have any of the Media Studies coursework artiness of A Field In England. What it does have is a straightforward set-up with a small starry cast in one well-used location (and apparently taking place in real time), and which is over in a crisp 90 minutes including credits. And considering it's set overnight in a derelict factory, it's well photographed and you're never lost for what's going on and who's where. It's also fun: zingy, sweary one-liners that come from character rather than the joke book, a solid lineup of character performers (Michael Smiley is probably Man Of The Match) having a great time with the 70s costumes and hair. The setting does obviously bring Tarantino to mind, and Reservoir Dogs in particular (rather moreso than the works of Martin Scorsese who acted as executive producer here), but Free Fire has a much softer and more likeable feel to it.

Against that: it's hard to care very much when Team A are international arms dealers and Team B are supplying the IRA. And to be honest the relentless shooting gets a tad wearisome from time to time, even in a film that's basically the length of a Carry On film. Yet, for some unaccountable reasons, I find I'm thinking of it more favourable than I did while I was actually watching it. I still don't think it's a Great Film and I still don't get Ben Wheatley as a master of cinema, but I can say that it's the film of his that I've most enjoyed and had the most fun with.

***

FIST FIGHT

D MINUS, SEE ME AFTER CLASS, CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

I don't generally do comedy. Even limited exposure to the senseless shouting of Will Ferrell, or the stoner/slacker dudery of Seth Rogen, has left the idea of modern mainstream American dimwit comedy entirely moribund and ghastly, even given my tin humerus for things that [1] are clearly meant to be hilariously funny and [2] lots of people hoot themselves hoarse at. Still, it's always good to poke your head round the door from time to time to see if things have picked up, be it the dreaded found-footage horror genre (at the last inspection, they hadn't) or, in this instance, the knuckle-headed high concept festival of mirth and japery that isn't Fist Fight.

Nope, things haven't improved here either, with a film as witless, charmless and utterly infantile as you couldn't imagine. It's the last day of the academic year at the roughest inner city high school in town, with many of the already demoralised staff fearing for their jobs in the face of budget cuts and the students celebrating the end of their education by pranking everybody and everything in sight. Small wonder that ball of anger history teacher Ice Cube snaps and smashes a desk with a fireaxe; less reasonable is his challenging hapless English teacher Charlie Day to a fist fight in the car park after school, like they're twelve.

There might possibly be some mileage (or inchage, anyway) in the idea of a high school where the grown-ups revert to a pre-teen state of stupidity while the students look on in bewilderment and disappointment. But that doesn't work when the kids behave like imbeciles and the staff behave like even bigger imbeciles: the film just passes straight through the event horizon of imbecility into a imbecile black hole that leads to an alternative universe made entirely of imbecilium. Sure, there's a shoehorned hint of social comment about how teachers should be valued and respected in an education system that's more interested in slashing costs and firing experienced staff to boost private corporate revenue, but it's lost in the stupidity, the inappropriate teacher-student sex fantasies, the perpetual comedy gold of drugs and masturbation, the inclusion of Tracy Morgan and a scene in which Day and his daughter perform a sweary rap song to win her talent show, because absolutely nothing on Earth or anywhere else is as intrinsically hilarious as a ten-year old girl repeatedly singing the line "Bitch I Don't Give A F*** About You".

Because that's what we've come to. Look, it's clearly not funny (there was some audible giggling from the back row of Screen 6, but no apparent reason for it), it makes absolutely no sense on any level and there isn't even any suggestion that this seemed like a good idea when they started it. It's not actively offensive, it's just offensively stupid and, like an entirely redundant simile, we could probably manage without it. My fault, my ticket - it's my own time I wasted.

*

Monday, 27 March 2017

IBIZA UNDEAD

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

And still they come: the zombie comedies shuffling and shambling along like the undead themselves. Haven't we reached saturation point on these things yet? Folklore, literature, and cinema itself have so many neglected and/or unexplored demons and evils to tap into, surely we could give the tired old zompocalypse a rest for a few years and try something else? This particularly wretched example isn't merely a low point in revenant cinema, but in its crossbreeding with the imbecilic teen sex comedy genre it has mutated into something truly hateful: a film that's not just an insult to zombie movies but horror movies, British movies, movies, Ibiza, Spain, Britain, humanity and the very concept of sentient life itself. Even the zombies themselves would remain unimpressed.

Three repugnant teenage simpletons head to Ibiza for a lads' paaaaartyyyyyy holiday of sex and booze, now that the island has been deemed clear of zombies. They're deeply misogynist imbeciles whose only terms of reference for women are "sluts", "bitches" and "my sister", so it's a matter of profound regret that none of them get ripped to pieces by hordes of flesh-eating undead. Inevitably (and as a direct result of the morons' own stupidity) the zombs get loose again and our three main characters, armed only with a level of intelligence that makes The Three Stooges look like The Bloomsbury Group, have to get back to the villa to rescue the sluts girls and get off the island....

Everything about Ibiza Undead grates horribly. The lads' relentlessly sexist comedy banter gets boring astonishingly quickly, to the extent that you actually want to clamber inside the screen and punch every single one of them repeatedly in the head until your fist stops bleeding. To be fair, the bitches women are scarcely portrayed any more deeply: they seem just as interested in drinking until they're sick and copping off with lads they've just met, but in the absence of anyone to care a hoot's worth about you're at best a dispassionate observer of events and at worst actively on the side of the zombies to hurry up and kill everyone.

Eventually someone who used to be in The Bill about twenty years ago turns up as a cheery barman and the wretched thing stops. There's a reasonable amount of gore (for a 15 certificate) but it's really not worth plodding through all the tedium and foulness to get there. Enough with the knockabout zombiegeddon, enough with the blokey misogyny, it's time to grow up and do something - anything - better than this worthless, witless dross.

*

Friday, 10 March 2017

KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

I saw the original Kickboxer in what was then the Cannon quadplex in Panton Street sometime in 1989, and even back then I was aware that it wasn't Jean-Claude Van Damme's best work: I'd much preferred Bloodsport, purely on the grounds that it was more thuddingly violent. Pleasingly, and in the manner of Sleuth, this new remake/reboot promotes JCVD from pupil to master, leading to the hope that in thirty years' time they'll remake it again with this version's young pup taking the wise old mentor role to a kid who isn't even born yet. (Maybe they'll even get JCVD back again to cameo as the doddery old goat practising his tai chi moves in the courtyard.)

Kickboxer: Vengeance sticks fairly close to the original: following the death of his martial arts champion brother Eric (the late Darren Shahlavi) in an illegal tournament, Kurt Sloane (stunt double and bit-part player Alain Moussi) journeys to Thailand to take on Tong Po, the colossal brute responsible (recent Bond henchman Dave Bautista). After several thorough pummellings, Eric hires his brother's eccentric trainer Master Durand (Jean-Claude) to get him ready for a rematch...

It's all agreeably old-fashioned knockabout with lots of crunching body blows that would leave us frail and fragile mortals in pieces, but here it's more like Robocop fighting The Terminator as they keep going despite brushing off any number of roundhouse kicks to the head and body slams to the floor. That's all part of the fun of the genre, of course, and has been since the days of all those Shaw Brothers movies. Now 55 years old, Jean-Claude is more relaxed and seems to be having fun not doing as much of the fighty stuff as usual; it's more surprising that villainess Gina Carano doesn't get any action sequences at all given her track record in Muay Thai and MMA.

If, acting-wise and script-wise, Kickboxer: Vengeance is fairly uninteresting, it does liven up enormously every time it gets down to shirtless guys lamping each other - it's as if deep down that's really what the film wants to do, and stuff like character development and exposition are just the boring bits the makers (and we) have to stodge through in order to get to the good stuff. Happily, the good stuff is meaty and nasty enough to make it a decent enough watch. A sequel (which includes Christopher Lambert and Mike Tyson) is already in post-production.

***

CINEMA SIX

CONTAINS SPOILERS, AND DON'T EAT THE POPCORN

My usual movie choices tend to be genre movies: horror, action, SF, thrillers. Not exclusively: I'll have a bash at other areas of the film landscape depending on synopsis and/or personnel involved and/or certain reviewers' recommendations. I'm happy to watch movies dating back to the late 1930s (and occasionally earlier) and I'm happy to watch movies from more or less any country on Earth. Granted, westerns have never grabbed me, big blowsy showtune musicals have never grabbed me, the less accessible reaches of impenetrable arthouse blather have never grabbed me. More often than not I watch alone, so I'd feel a bit sad and/or creepy watching romantic date movies and U-certificate childrens' films. But generally I'll give most things a stab.

The noodly indie slacker movie is one of those areas that I've not really looked into, and to be honest Cinema Six would have passed me by if [1] I hadn't been scrolling through Amazon Prime's latest additions at the time and [2] it was set anywhere other than a cinema. If it had taken place in a sardine cannery or a nuclear power plant I'd have ignored it and possibly that might still have been the wiser course. Six friends who work in various roles at a miserable-looking six-screen 'plex in Nowheresville (actually the much cheerier-looking Hometown in Lockhart, Texas) find the responsibilities of adult life creeping up on them, which they deal with in various unlikely ways....

Most of this seems to involve behaving like unreasoning idiots: one would rather stay behind the concession counter than go to college because it would mean meeting girls and he freaks out at the sight of them (he's actually been accepted at film school and he should go, because that would be really useful here). He meets a girl, behaves like an imbecile, but she's got a boyfriend who's a colossal sleaze, and then she cops off with Mr Imbecile's best mate. Another is about to have a second child so his wife is nagging him to stop goofing off at the cinema and get a proper job with her father's company but he doesn't want to do that because he's having too much fun hanging out with his buddies and rolling trailer reels down the corridors. One of the women is permanently mean and spiteful for some inexplicable reason but in a relationship with a colleague for some even more inexplicable reason. Everybody swears like they're in The Wolf Of Wall Street and their fixation on sex and women is surprisingly dull.

What Cinema Six really needs is a manager to come in and fire two of them immediately and put the rest on final written warnings; sadly, when the owners do turn up they're as hilariously unpleasant as everyone else. The film ends on the stuff of urban legend: an act of grossout grotesquerie that's beyond revolting, but it's the sign-off to what they clearly hope and assume is a cheery slacker comedy-drama about vaguely recognisable human beings. Frankly it would be hard to care about any of them if they were on fire. Odd lines and moments amuse, but nowhere near enough and interest dies away pretty early. Made in 2012 and only now surfacing here.

**

Monday, 6 March 2017

CHANBARA BEAUTY

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND WEIRDNESS

General question: how do we feel about futuristic action/horror fantasy movies featuring female leads in a state of undress? Does it objectify or demean? Does it empower or sexualise? One remembers films like Barbarella or Starcrash, or more recently Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Aeon Flux, in which the heroines capered about in costumes clearly designed for the more depraved fantasies of the male audience rather than any practical evil-fighting benefit to the wearer. One remembers Doctor Who's scantily-clad Leela taking over from the sensibly-dressed Sarah Jane Smith. One remembers the screaming fuss over a brief shot of Alice Eve in her undies in Star Trek: Into Darkness. I honestly have no idea if it's feminism or not.

The inexplicably-titled Chanbara Beauty is a Japanese zombie movie in which sword-wielding Aya, the unsmiling heroine, prefers to fight zombies while wearing a bikini and a ten-gallon hat. There is no explanation given for this curious strategy: it's unlikely the ambulant dead are going to be distracted from their quest by the sight of a women in her underwear, and surely in a world of flesh-eating undead it makes no sense to expose as much of your raw meat as possible. Aya is on a quest to track down her sister Saki, who dresses in school uniform. Again: no reason given for the costume choice, but it's a Japanese film so may have more relevance for the local audience. She's aided by gunslinger Reiko (who prefers skin-tight black leather) who's looking for the one-eyed mad scientist who created the zombie outbreak in the first place, and bumbling idiot Katsuji, who has neither courage nor weapons and who only manages to kill one zombie - and that's when it's busy chowing down on someone else. Eventually Saki and Aya confront each other and fight with magic swords that give them the ability to teleport and throw balls of coloured fire at each other...

I'm generally all in favour of zompocalypse movies and cool kick-ass women, and putting the two together is fine by me. But it's nonsense. If Aya has a magic sword that wipes out all the zombs in the vicinity, why doesn't she use that power all the time? Why are they walking everywhere - where are the cars or trucks that would be a lot faster and a lot better as defence against the zombie hordes? Indeed, given that set sometime in the future (the year 20XX, according to the opening captions), where's any of tomorrow's technology? Why is mad Dr Sugita working alone in apparently one room, and exactly what is he trying to achieve that requires blood from only Saki's family line?

You could perhaps ignore all that if it was at least put together with gusto, but it isn't. Much of it is dark and murky, shot cheaply and digitally, and all the blood splatter is done with CGI that couldn't look worse if it had been scribbled on with a felt-tip pen. They even put CG blood spurts onto the camera lens half a dozen times in the opening fight scene, before apparently getting bored with that idea and not using it again. And most importantly, despite that brilliant central theme of bikini-clad woman slaughtering zombies with a sword, it's surprisingly dull stuff. Those who can get on board with the lunacy and ignore all the problems might get some moderate fun out of it, but there's little if anything to be had by anyone else.

**

Friday, 3 March 2017

LOGAN

CONTAINS ****** SPOILERS

The first thing you notice about Logan, the third Wolverine movie and the ninth X-Men movie, is the big shiny 15 at the start and the BBFC's warning of "strong bloody violence, strong language". In an era where most comic-book superhero movies are fluffy 12As (even the ones that absolutely shouldn't be), it's refreshing to see one that doesn't stint on the blood and brutality, liberally tossing around F-bombs and severed heads, clearly setting it apart from the usual expectations of Captain America and Thor adventures. This is a "serious" superhero movie which does the seriousness properly: the problem with the DC movies isn't that they're taking Batman and Superman seriously, it's that they're confusing "dark" with "depressing and humourless". Man Of Steel should be fun but isn't; The Dark Knight should be fun but isn't, Deadpool is fun in its winking to the audience throughout. Logan is a proper comicbook superhero movie for grown-ups, and it manages to achieve that without the Zack Snyder techniques of washing all the colour out into a sepia smudge and smashing up cities left and right.

It's a movie FOR grown-ups because it's a movie ABOUT grown-ups: set in 2029, when John Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, for the final time), is an older recluse living and slowly dying in a rundown shack in the Mexican desert. His only fellow mutants are albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and a rambling, bitter Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), tortured by his guilt over something unspecified but unspeakable in his past. These are no longer the comfortable, likeable characters of X-Men movies past: the pills are no longer working, they're snappy, tired, aggressive and sour. They're also probably incredibly lonely: there are no mutants left now and only exist in comics. Until he encounters a young girl with mysterious superpowers whose adult guardian begs him to take them to the mythical Eden. He doesn't want to bother - Caliban and Xavier are in no fit state to make that journey and he can't abandon them - until a small army turn up intent on bringing the girl back to the laboratory complex where mad scientist Richard E Grant is trying to breed a new race of mutants....

It's a pleasingly old-fashioned film: it puts the main credits at the front (like movies used to do in olden days) and in a plain white typeface, with the kind of low-key main title music you'd expect from a 70s paranoia thriller rather than the double-forte anthems of modern superhero blockbusters, and it introduces its lead as a hard-to-like badass right from the start. I was never much of an X-Men fan anyway and Wolverine always seemed to me to be a miserable git (remember the one-line gag cameo in First Class?), but he's even less pleasant company here than usual. But what James Mangold has managed to do is find the human Logan within the superhuman Wolverine and, while that human might be bitter and angry, his journey and salvation are worth following. The film is called Logan, after all, not Wolverine Returns.

A pity, perhaps, that a movie that's been consciously designed and shot for a 1970s feel should look so terrible in the night scenes, many of which just look like unfiltered digital camcorder that kills that atmosphere they've gone to so much trouble to create. Maybe it's not as bad as the same effect in Public Enemies or Gangster Squad, where it killed the period settings as well, but there's something wrong when the night scenes look no better than the Making Of featurettes on the DVD. But that and the occasional odd casting (Caliban's superpower here appears to be making you think Ricky Gervais is standing behind you) apart, Logan's pretty impressive and probably the best of the whole X-Men run. The violence is bloody and painful and, even if it veers into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome territory in its third act, it's a solid and generally very enjoyable finale for Wolverine and the kind of comicbook superhero movie that suggests what might happen if the films, like the characters, grew up a bit.

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