Saturday, 18 November 2017

BLOODSPORT II

OUCH CONTAINS OOF AARGH SPOILERS OW

Sometimes you don't want Art. Sometimes you don't want refined analyses of the human condition or insightful reflections on contemporary society. Sometimes it's Friday night and all you really want is ninety minutes of freakishly proportioned weirdos beating the stuffing out of each other in full skull-cracking stereo, with as little narrative, character or emotional content as possible. It doesn't have to be any good, it doesn't have to be brilliantly acted, so long as most of the people on screen get repeatedly kicked in the head and end up with compound fractures of every bone they have.

Bloodsport II is that movie, ticking off pretty much all of the requirements of the idiot martial arts sequel. Minimal plot: convicted thief Daniel Bernhardt is tutored in a Thai prison hellhole in the ways of spirituality and extreme violence by wise old James Hong (telling much of the story in flashback), and then proceeds through the early stages of the legendary Kumite competition by knocking seven bags of soot out of a succession of increasingly formidale maniacs. Fearsome adversary: his former prison guard, built like a completely invulnerable brick wall, who's quite obviously going to lose the Grand Final in the last few minutes. Totty: just one token female fighter in the Kumite and one potential girlfriend for our redeemed hero, because this isn't a film for blubby romantic mush.

It's not very good (it's certainly not up there with Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakout original, with which this nominal sequel has very little connection beyond the Kumite itself), but it clearly wasn't supposed to be. So long as someone gets punched in the face every few minutes and everyone screams while delivering pulverising body blows to their opponent, it's done its job and everyone's happy. Except for the BBFC, who cut a whole second to remove the dreaded double-ear clap, thus clearly rendering the entire project a total waste of time.

**

EMMANUELLE IV

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND IDIOCY EVEN BY MY STANDARDS

It is hardly an earth-shattering revelation that Emmanuelle IV is rubbish. Copious amounts of soft-focus humping in exotic locales while tinkly Euromuzak slop burbles away on the soundtrack, glamorous women (and men) getting their kit off and going at it like hammers, supremely idiotic dialogue that makes the Star Wars prequels sound like Aaron Sorkin's pithiest, plotting that would shame a daytime soap opera: a 33-years-on recount by the Academy Awards is not on the cards. What there is, perhaps all there is, is a sense of disappointment as the previous third entry in the saga, Goodbye Emmanuelle, was probably the best thus far.

Of course, noting that an Emmanuelle movie this far down the franchise has terrible acting and a lousy script is like suggesting the last Woody Allen was short on car chases and had very little social commentary about gun control. That's really not its job. Even so, the stupidometer rarely dips below ninety in Emmanuelle IV. This is the one in which either Sylvia Kristel or the producers decided that she was too old (at 32) to keep on getting her bum out and so has extensive plastic surgery to transform her into the younger, slimmer, fitter Mia Nygren. Confusingly, she also changes her name to Emmanuelle from Sylvia, suggesting this is an entirely unrelated entry in the series as she spends the first act playing herself as a magazine journalist. But she still has her old memories of her all-consuming love for Marc (Patrick Bauchau, not in any of the previous films) - obviously, because she hasn't had her mind wiped or her memory implanted: this isn't Total Recall or Blade Runner. If there's any dick in this movie it sure ain't Philip K.

So Emmanuelle mopes around Brazil recuperating from extensive surgery, having sex, watching other people having sex, blathering on and on about her voyage of sexual discovery in a manner that you might describe as navel gazing except it's not even her own navel any more. Eventually she goes back to Marc, thus rendering the whole adventure redundant, musing that their perfect love meant they were destined to be together forever, even though [1] that perfect love didn't stop her from humping miscellaneous Brazilian randoms and [2] it's less a matter of predestined cosmic fate than a matter of flying to Paris, sneaking into his office and making dinner reservations for the two of them.

The fact that it's utter drivel, however, shouldn't have stopped it from being a good time. At least the earlier entries had a measure of exotic glamour about them and that's mostly absent here: it's got little more in the way of gloss and style than one of Joe D'Amato's artless knockoffs. To judge from his IMDb page and a brief trawl round Google videos, director Francis Leroi is apparently a hardcore guy anyway (this is soft as wet blancmange), though he subsequently made several small-screen continuations featuring flashbacks to a younger Emmanuelle as told by Kristel to jetsetting businessman George Lazenby. There's absolutely nothing in Emmanuelle IV to suggest that further entries in the series would be a sufficiently rewarding evening's entertainment.

*

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

This is supposed to be the Adam Sandler film that it's okay to have on your DVD shelf. It's the one that doesn't feel out of place on the prestigious Criterion label, the one where you don't laugh because it's not a comedy, rather than one where you don't laugh because Sandler has the comedic value of blunt force trauma. It's the one where Sandler is annoying because he's supposed to be annoying, not one where he's supposed to be a lovable goofy manchild but just comes off as annoying. That's because it's an auteur piece by the apparently uncriticisable (it's a word) dahhling of the cravat-wielding cineaste set Paul Thomas Anderson.

I'm ambivalent about PTA: I loved Boogie Nights and half-liked There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice, but absolutely hated The Master which everyone else in the world adored. Sadly, this is another one in the debit column: a deliberately weird and offputting non-romantic anti-comedy in which oddity salesman Sandler meets up with Emily Watson, co-worker with one of his (seven) sisters. He's a long-term loner with anger issues, he's buying huge stocks of supermarket desserts because of an airmiles offer, but he's also falling victim to a phone-sex scam operated by mattress mogul Philip Seynour Hoffmann...

Some of the current titans of mainstream American multiplex comedy - Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill - are more interesting (or at least less irritating) when they're playing lighter, more sophisticated comedy or actual straight drama: Melinda And Melinda, Steve Jobs, True Story. Thus far I've managed to dodge many of the Happy Gilmore-shaped bullets, because life's too short to keep hurting yourself like that, but in the case of Punch-Drunk Love it's not just him that seems to have been deliberately designed to be as odd and out of place as possible. From Jon Brion's intrusive score to Sandler's weirdly distracting bright blue suit, from the harmonium dumped at the side of the road (serving neither character nor narrative purposes, it's just something that happens) to the straight bits of comedy (unbreakable sink plungers which aren't) and violence (Sandler setting about a bunch of goons with a tyre iron), it's a film in which none of the pieces fit together, and quite deliberately.

What it does have in its favour is magnificent photography: even on Blu through a 37-inch TV, Anderson's regular DP Robert Elswit makes the celluloid soar with bold colours and it's an absolute validation of 35mm stock over cold dead digital. But I don't think the technicals of filmmaking are anywhere near enough to offset grating characters and score (including multiple uses of a song from the Popeye soundtrack, of all things) and narrative: it leaves you feeling uncomfortable and frustrated, and I don't get the logic in deliberate feelbad. I don't usually get Paul Thomas Anderson (give me Paul WS Anderson any day!), I certainly don't get Adam Sandler, and I absolutely don't get Punch-Drunk Love.

**

PRAY. / PRAY 2: THE WOODS / PRAY 3: THE STORM

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS.

Yes, there is a full stop in the title of the first film, but in truth some errant punctuation marks are the least of these movies' problems. In slasher movies with no slash and frankly insufficient stalk, performances barely this side of "speaking out loud", flat digital photography that is frequently too poorly lit to make anything out, montages of absolutely nothing that go nowhere and post-credits blooper reels, it's hard to care that much about the exact title in the opening credits beyond just noting it for the record.

Pray. is a bog-standard maniac-on-the-loose horror with Christian overtones (meaning there's no blood, sex or swearing) in which a young Christian woman is vaguely stalked by a psycho whose only noticeable characteristics are a chain tattoo and the inevitable plastic mask. She and some friends attend a Christian rock festival, and get to hang out with the band afterwards (absolutely nothing goes on) but later on there might be someone hiding in her room. That someone has already abducted one woman, and he might be watching her house the next day while she's out at Spirit Day. Eventually he gets to do his Michael Myers impression on her when she somehow gets locked into the local mall.

Pray. absolutely isn't any good at all: it drags at a mere 68 minutes and even then could have lost maybe twenty minutes of nothing much happening, including the entire Spirit Day sequence which is just video coverage of church activities. To its credit, the film does pull off one effective Boo! scare (well, it made me jump at least, even if it turns out to be a red herring), but it ends on a bizarre note in which The Lord appears to have performed a genuine miracle to help her escape, while leaving it unexplored as to why He put her in that position in the first place. As for the killer, he's left a nameless blank: we never find out what he wants, where he's from, or what the clearly significant chain tattoo represents.

Some of that is saved for Pray 2: The Woods, which has enough plot material for three films yet can't seem to satisfactorily fill one. The first film's abductee (cheekily named Laurie Curtis) finds herself in a woodland storage shed, from which she escapes and becomes a minor celebrity on the public access talk show circuit plugging her memoir. But the psycho, revealed as having gone mad after five years in prison for beating up his girlfriend (he didn't, she lied), is on her trail again, though failing to do much more than break into her house and then go on the run from the cops and FBI through the woods - the exact same woods where the first film's young Christian group are out on a camping and bible study trip. Meanwhile a trio of comedy cops, one with a false moustache and one wearing a shirt that boasts the production company logo, sit outside in a van, jabbering endlessly in scenes that must have been improvised because no actual human would ever have typed all this drivel out.

Furthering the unaccountable nods to Halloween (which also includes scary pumpkin faces in the dead slow opening credits) the maniac is listed as Shape in the cast list for both (and Tyler in the second). The first film also features a shop called Kruger's; it's a real store which is thanked in the end credits, and might have been picked less for that genre nod than the fact that Kruger is the surname of the editor/cinematographer/co-writer/co-producer. But as is so often the case, dropping a few names from classic horrors, even coincidentally, doesn't make up for a total absence of skill and style. Music is very badly used: both films' scores are culled from horror veteran Richard Band's soundtrack library service but they achieve no effect whatsoever.

Staggeringly, Pray 3: The Storm is almost decent. It's still not any good, it's saddled with terrible non-performances, bible quotes and prayers, and a songtrack full of faith-based soft rock numbers (from a band called Dutton) and it struggles to make it to the hour mark, but in the intervening years someone has clearly sat the auteurs down with a bunch of actual horror movies and shown them some simple suspense techniques they could adopt. A masked stalker, who may or may not be the same guy from the first two films, is on the trail of Laurie Curtis yet again, as she and her husband leave the kids at home with a couple of teenage videoblogger idiots. They spend most of the evening watching the first Pray. film on DVD and are too dumb to notice the wide open window right next to them.

Photography is leagues ahead of the first two instalments, possibly due to being designed for 3D (!) and, despite clearly being intended for home viewing, being framed in 2.35 widescreen. The film also manages some neat use of the security cameras in the Curtis house and doesn't overuse the night-vision cellphone gimmick in the manner of the worst of found footage. They also manage to slip in a Friday The 13th reference, and the completely useless stalker finally gets down to scaring the bejaysus out of a couple of airheads. But the lead cop's name badge has the actor's name on it, the husband wears a T-shirt advertising one of the director's earlier films, the TV news channel is actually called Faux News, and towards the end the film doesn't seem to know whether the power has been restored or not and therefore how dark things are supposed to be.

Inevitably, it has an open ending setting things up for a fourth instalment, but Pray 3 was made back in 2012 and there's no indication that the most bloodless horror franchise of all time is ripe for a continuation. All three films were directed by (Dr) Matt Mitchell, who also takes a substantial role as a pastor in the second one; he's also combined Pray. and Pray 2 to form Pray 2.5, which I haven't bothered to watch, even for the sake of my fast-fading completism. None of them are any good, but the third one is closest to "not terrible" and the closest to what the horror audience would generally recognise as a horror movie (let alone a good horror movie). Being of faith - faith of any stripe - doesn't get you a free pass for making terrible movies and it's only the third chunk of The Laurie Curtis Trilogy that picks up as a borderline entertaining horror, despite its legions of faults. Should you wish to, they're all on Amazon Prime.

*
*
**

Saturday, 11 November 2017

TERRIFIER

CONTAINS SPOILERS, HA HA HA

For some reason, we've lost all our bogeymen. The slasher icons from decades past aren't slashing any more: Freddy and Jason were both badly rebooted and both putative franchises came to a juddering halt (though they're trying Jason again), and the new Michael Myers managed two generally awful instalments before he was abandoned as well (although they're trying to resurrect him again as well). A disastrously recast Pinhead was last seen in a placeholder quickie so they could hold on to the remake rights, and Phantasm's Tall Man turned up in a belated and thoroughly underwhelming Part 5, meaning that Jigsaw's pretty much all we've got left now. So maybe it's time we stopped bringing the old scary guys back for an audience that just isn't interested in reboots, maybe we should create some new original scary guys for new original horrors.

Maybe. But Art The Clown isn't it. The implacable, silent and relentless killer from Terrifier (there's no definite article on screen) is certainly creepy and unsettling when he isn't murdering people, when he's just sitting in a diner, in full costume and make-up, staring at the young women he's decided will be his victims tonight. When they find themselves stranded with an inexplicable flat tyre, and one of them needs to use the loo in an apparently empty building, it's only a matter of time before Art picks them off along with anyone else in the vicinity...

Well, okay, but why? Freddy and Michael and Jason had their reasons and rationales, albeit flimsy ones (very flimsy for Jason, though not for Mrs Voorhees), and even second-string slashers from things like My Bloody Valentine and He Knows You're Alone (and a hundred other third- and fourth-stringers) targeted specific people for specific reasons. There's usually a basic backstory behind them (not always: part of the power of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the absence of any kind of context), from sexual obsession to revenge for playground pranks or past trauma. But there isn't any depth or dimension to Art The Clown. He's just butchering strangers for no reason, and if the victims aren't significant to him then why should they be significant to us?

Art's signature is wanton bloody excess, and the splatter highlight of Terrifier has one of the women strung up by her ankles and then bloodily bisected from crotch to throat. It's a needlessly violent kill, more for the prosthetics guys to showcase their talents than for any narrative value, but the end result is like one of Troma's old gore movies where gratuitous schlock was all they had to offer. Elsewhere, Art The Clown actually uses the lamest and laziest and least imaginative weapon of all: a handgun, which as far as I'm concerned is cheating for a wannabe slasher icon of the future.

Terrifier isn't awful: it has a sort of old-fashioned retro charm about it and it does deliver on the blood and gore. But it, and its visually striking villain, just doesn't have anything that might make you want to come back for seconds in a year's time.

**

Sunday, 5 November 2017

BEYOND SKYLINE

EH? REALLY? AND CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Of all the films released in 2010, Skyline was the one to which we needed a sequel? I can understand not doing a second helping of Green Zone or The Last Airbender or A Serbian Film, but was Skyline that much higher on the list of easily marketable properties that could be franchised out into a biennial sub-Independence Day monsterfest? There actually was a Skyline 2 pencilled in at one point back in 2012, but it's taken another five years for it to actually show up.

In the event, it's turned out surprisingly well, with a couple of decent names in the cast, a much wider canvas than the first film and much more of the aliens (and less of people bickering in a hotel suite and looking out of the window). Taking place mostly parallel with the first film, Beyond Skyline kicks off with Frank Grillo as a cop trapped in a subway train when the aliens turn up and suck all the humans up into their spaceships so they can either be impregnated with weird genetically spliced mutants and/or have their brains ripped out for the death robots. But sometimes those brains are still able to think for themselves and if they can take control of the motherships then maybe the Earth can be saved...

Much of the second half takes place in Cambodia where Iko Uwais turns up to do some (although not enough) martial arts stuff and a motley gang of survivors, including a fast-growing alien-human baby (shades of the fondly remembered V: The Final Battle), hole up under a temple and prepare to fight back. It's all absolute tosh, but it's pretty good fun with top-notch CG and green screen effects: if Skyline of all things is going to get a sequel then this is the way to go: sillier, bigger, more spectacular, and ending with the suggestion that any third instalment is going to be even bigger. Really the only false step is a set of bloopers at the end indicating just how reliant they were on green-screen; at least the outtakes at the end of a Jackie Chan film underline rather than undercut the reality by showing the stunt guys landing badly and fracturing their shins. Other than that, it's hugely entertaining pulp nonsense and I enjoyed it enormously.

****

Thursday, 2 November 2017

JIGSAW

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH THAT'S GOT TO HURT

The good news regarding this belated continuation of the much maligned mutilation saga is that, for the first time, you don't need to binge watch all the previous entries in a two-day marathon of screaming and dismemberment. I did, as usual, but found that ths usual homework was entirely unnecessary: this entry steers clear of endlessly restaging and reinterpreting events from previous films and dragging characters back for another appearance (pretty much everyone was killed off in the last one anyway); all you really need to know is that John Kramer is apparently back and instructing a further collection of deadbeats and lowlifes in the error of their ways, despite being conclusively very dead indeed at the end of Saw III and even more conclusively autopsied at the start of Saw IV.

The bad news is that I didn't wince once. That's not to suggest that Jigsaw is actually a heartwarming romp full of kittens and buttercups, but even on a fifth viewing I still grimace at Donnie Wahlberg's ankle smashing in Saw IV - more this time than the previous viewing - and by the high disgust standards of earlier movies (particularly the last one, which achieved crime scene photo levels of splattery verisimilitude) it's simply not in that look-away league. Still, there's more than enough ghoulish roadkill entertainment to be had: whirring saw blades, shotguns, acid injections, severed legs, and a final kill that's sadly CG silliness rather than physical shredded flesh.

It's doing all the things that the Saw series is noted for: sleight of hand with the timeline (they were doing this as far back as Saw II, and it took me a couple of runs to twig that the events of Saw III and Saw IV run concurrently), Charlie Clouser's industrial noise score (kudos for keeping the same musical voice throughout the series, which other franchises didn't bother with), a handful of red herring characters who might be the new killer, victims' characters and crimes efficiently sketched in, nods to the previous films, a complete lack of logic and sense (one might accept that John Kramer was wealthy and inventive enough to afford and construct all those traps, but can the same be said of the new holder of Jigsaw's mantle?), and a conclusion that suggests that in a year's time they, and we, will be doing the exact same thing.

That's not necessarily a bad thing: many other franchises have run out of steam a lot sooner than this, and some never had much steam to begin with. Saw has kept up the invention of new and visually impressive ways to rip the human body to pieces, it's responded to the demise of its central monster by constructing a hilariously convoluted set of backstories and flashbacks, and it's never had the good taste to look away when an eyeball's being skewered or yards of intestines are being sloshed around the floor. Best of all: none of the saga's horrors have been sexual: men and women have been victims, accomplices or both, but never because of their gender, and the driving forces behind Jigsaw and his cohorts have always been either philosophical and spiritual (albeit nonsensical), or borne out of straightforward vengeance.

Neither the best nor the worst of the saga, Jigsaw is a perhaps unnecessary stab at jumpstarting another five or six showcases for cheery torture and screaming: it feels more like a new start than a mere continuation or a retread: as if they know there's no more material to wring out of Tobin Bell's gamesmaster, and any further films could dispense with him entirely now a replacement, albeit a less charismatic one, has been anointed. Personally I'm okay with this: despite (or perhaps because of) their relentless grimness, their pretence at profundity and their eschewing of overt comedy they somehow end up as hilarious and impossible to take too seriously, and I'm more than happy to spend ninety minutes every Halloween watching people dismember and mutilate themselves for the most idiotic of reasons. Grisly fun.

***

Sunday, 8 October 2017

ESCAPE ROOM

NOT THAT IT MATTERS, BUT SPOILERS

Quite clearly, they're not trying any more. Quite clearly, they're not even pretending that a halfway decent movie was ever on the cards. Quite clearly, they just don't care about any semblance of quality or style, any semblance of interesting character or narrative. Quite clearly, so long as there's enough horror completists out there willing to watch absolutely anything with a bit of gore or a bit of violence and a couple of hot chicks, the job's as good as done and they don't need to bother doing anything better. When did audience standards slip so low that crap - there are few better words for it - like Escape Room was considered acceptable? When did people stop asking "is that really the best you (or I) can do?"

The phenomenon of the Escape Room is new to me (though a quick Google reveals that there's one not too far away from my town): a sealed environment in which a group of people have to solve a series of puzzles against the clock. In this particular instance Skeet Ulrich's escape room (called Deranged for no obvious reason) is somewhat enlivened by the presence of a mysterious Skull Box he's purchased from Sean Young's ephemera/junk shop: it contains a demon that possesses the struggling actor who's playing the sack-headed monster chained to the wall and proceeds to unspectacularly off the quartet of idiots who've just been locked in...

Why does the demon possesses the one person whose movement is restricted? Why, when it's finally clear what's going on, doesn't Ulrich at least reel back the chains from the outside? Why do the hapless idiots locked in the room waste so much time on very obvious clues? More damagingly, why do we yet again have to have a couple of horror nerds arguing endlessly about classic horror movies when their own film is not, and never had a chance of being, anywhere near that league? You haven't earned the right to casually namedrop You're Next and John Carpenter's The Thing unless your own film isn't even vaguely competent, and for all your obvious horror geekery it absolutely isn't here. Contains strobing.

*

Thursday, 5 October 2017

UNHINGED

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND... WHATEVER, I'M NOT SURE I CAN HONESTLY BE BOTHERED ANY MORE

The standard studio wisdom appears to be that you remake the great movies because they're the famous ones and it'll make lots of money; no-one expects them to be as good as the originals because they never are but people will still watch them, and modern audiences haven't seen the earlier versions anyway because no-one is interested in movies more than two years old. Personally I'd rather they remade the rubbish films instead because the bar is so low that a better film is pretty much guaranteed. Don't remake A Nightmare On Elm Street, remake Zoltan Hound Of Dracula where there's room for improvement and people will still watch it because clearly they'll watch anything.

The flaw in the plan is when they obligingly remake something utterly worthless and still make a steaming great Farage of things. For absolutely no good reason beyond its unwarranted inclusion on the Video Nasties list from the early eighties, they've chosen the festival of rampant mediocrity that is Unhinged. (Maybe a Bloody Moon remake is already in the works somewhere and the owners of Night Of The Bloody Apes wanted too much money.) In this they've not only chosen the dullest and most miserable load of old nothing, but have done it so badly that they've failed to clear a bar that Ant-Man would have trouble slithering under. Four annoying American girlies on a road trip to a wedding get lost in the wilds of England and have to spend a few days at a remote farmhouse; bad stuff happens.

The all-new Unhinged has nothing to commend it: a complete lack of visual flair (in fairness, the original was scarcely Hitchcock), performances somehow even less expressive than a Mind The Gap tannoy announcement, characters it's impossible to root for even when they're being chased around drab woodlands or being tortured in the woodshed by a mystery maniac. In the end, for all the fact that the original's writer-director Don Gronquist is credited on this one it's actually got very little to do plotwise with the 1982 film (the trailer bills it as a "remake of the 1983 video nasty classic", not only getting the year wrong but redefining the word "classic" to mean "thing") beyond the central premise of a car load of idiots stuck in a house with a killer. It's a premise that's scarcely innovative but even so, if you can't make anything better than this out of it you probably shouldn't even bother trying. In the end it just makes you wonder whether you actually need, or even want, to watch cheapo schlock horror movies any more.

*

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND SOMETHING I CAN'T QUITE PUT MY FINGER ON, OO-ER MISSUS

There's a scene in this second Kingsman movie, about which a lot has already been said: an attempt to top the alleged anal sex joke at the end of the first one with a perhaps overly graphic gag about fingering: specifically the digital insertion of a tracking device into a lady's crevices for dubious plot purposes. I'm not about to go in to bat defending this scene: it isn't at all necessary (can't she just swallow it?) and it isn't funny, any more than the bum-based payoff from the first film. But it is indicative of the film's attitude to women in general and its lack of any sense of shame or guilt over that attitude.

Still, there's plenty of fun to be had with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, kicking off with a dizzying fight and car chase through London between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and a rejected Kingsman trainee. Later that same evening, missiles streak out of nowhere and destroy the entire Kingsman organisation, from the tailor's shop to the country training base to Eggsy's own flat. The villainess is Poppy (Julianne Moore), multi-trillionaire drugs dealer scheming to get her products legalised by contaminating the drugs with a poison to which only she has the antidote. The only survivors of the Kingsman firm (just Egerton and Mark Strong) have to team up with their American equivalent, Statesman, run by Jeff Bridges with Halle Berry and Channing Tatum in support....

It's nonsense, obviously: Poppy specifically takes out Kingsman yet not only ignores Statesman but also mysteriously ignores the CIA, FBI, MI5, Interpol, and every other national and international intelligence in the world. It's also nonsense that they've managed to get the could-not-be-deader Galahad (Colin Firth) back to life with a bag of magic jelly, because he was the best thing about the first film and they've realised they made a mistake in killing him off. Worse, though, is the boysy, blokey attitude to women as sex objects, staying behind in the office or at home while The Men go off and have all the fun fighting and chasing and blowing things up and fingering hot chicks at a rock festival. Eggsy's princess girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom) is off screen most of the time, the American tech wizard (Halle Berry) never leaves the HQ, and fellow British agent Roxy (Sophie Cookson) gets one solitary scene in her bedroom before being blown up, and the only woman of any significance is Julianne Moore's villain. It's the guys who do all the exciting stuff - even Sir Elton John, of all people, gets to kungfu a couple of disposable minions to a pulp. (It's been quite a year for rubbish celebrity cameos in blockbusters and this is every bit the equal of David Beckham and Paul McCartney except that there's a hell of a lot more of it this time around.)

And yet... as a rubbish popcorn action movie for unreconstructed blokey blokes it's kind of big stupid fun and it doesn't have the dead hand of psychological angst (a post-Bourne trend that's plagued rubbish popcorn action franchises for years, from Batman to Bond to Doctor Who) weighing it down by pretending it's Serious Drama. Things go bang, people get attacked by robot dogs, people get fed through a meat mincer, people get cut in half with laser bullwhips: the film knows exactly what it's doing and for whom it's doing it. I don't think it's as good as the first one: I could have done without the brasher American angle dominating the peculiarly British charm of the original, but its flaws certainly weren't enough to get me angry and I had enough knucklehead entertainment to carry me through the dodgy passages. That said, maybe enough is enough now and they should stop while they're slightly ahead.

***

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

A GHOST STORY

CONTAINS EEEEK! SPOILERS

Don't worry: this isn't a scary film at all. I mean, it's obviously a horror film, and it's a film with a ghost in it - that much is on the poster and in the title - but it's a safe bet that you absolutely won't find what's on screen scary. Funny, quirky, sad, perhaps. Behind the screen, the ideas behind the story, that's the troubling territory. A Ghost Story is a ghost story for ghosts: a ghost story from the ghost's perspective. And if this is how we come back, it's utterly terrifying.

C and M (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) are a young, moderately happy couple whose average, everyday domestic relationship is shattered when he's killed in a car smash (this isn't a spoiler, as it takes place in the first ten minutes of the film). Rising off the morgue trolley, he has the chance to go towards the light but instead returns as an invisible, inaudible presence in the house. Invisible to everyone else, but visible to us as the simplest and most old-fashioned ghost: hidden under a sheet with eyeholes cut out. Silently watching M go through her grief, standing unobserved next to her... until she meets someone else and eventually moves out of the house, crucially leaving a handwritten note tucked into the woodwork as she leaves. The contents of this note become the driving force in his (after)life and he ends up worrying away at the tiny crack in the paint to find this sliver of paper...

Meanwhile, real life goes on as a family move in to the house - and he's still there. Years go by and the house changes hands again - and he's still there. Alone and silent under a sheet. For how long? For ever? An apparently eternal, inescapable nonexistence. Perhaps until, as is helpfully pointed out by one of the house's later tenants, the vaporisation of the Earth in some six billion years' time. Or maybe, not even then...

It's a fantastically glum film, pared right down to the basics: a 4:3 aspect ratio (with round corners), long takes with a static camera in which very little happens, one location, very low budget. Yet it's mesmerising throughout, enjoyable without having any laughs in it at all (the only actual joke is the name of the production company), slow without ever being dull, and genuinely sad. Granted, I think I may have missed the point from which things ultimately resolve themselves, and the rules governing how much interaction C can have with the physical world aren't entirely clear, but those are minor quibbles: this is a fascinating, (literally) deadpan, non-horror horror film. I enjoyed it immensely.

****

Monday, 18 September 2017

MOTHER!

contains! some! major! spoilers?

First off, let's dispense with the supposedly lower-case title malarkey: many people are referring to Darren Aronofsky's latest as mother!, for no apparent reason than because that's how it appears on the end credits. Well, so do all the names on the title cards at the end, and we don't refer to jennifer lawrence or javier bardem, because that just looks stupid, so in the absence of any solid, unanswerable reason why it shouldn't be capitalised (auteurial affectation doesn't cut it), I'm capitalising it as Mother!. I'll give you the exclamation mark, but don't push your luck.

Secondly, just what the hell is it? Horror? Allegory? Arthouse ramblings? All of the above. I don't think there's any doubt it's a horror movie: it's pure nightmare, particularly in its later scenes, with some images and moments that easily push it into the 18 certificate bracket, and it pretty much starts at a pitch of awkwardness and discomfort and proceeds downwards from there. Perhaps wisely, the publicity has been centred around the first act, which is more an unsettling drama in which the idyllic lives of Him and Mother (no-one has a name beyond their actual function, though Mother is actually Him's partner/wife) are disrupted by two strangers. Him (Javier Bardem) is a blocked poet, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) has restored their massive rural mansion from its burned-out original state. Suddenly Man and subsequently Woman (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up out of (literally) nowhere and are initially welcomed by Him, to Mother's increased concern. Then Younger Brother and Oldest Son arrive...

From there both Mother and Mother! descend into a nightmare of escalating madness as strangers arrive at the house en masse and systematically wreck the place, while Mother tries vainly to cope with their needs and demands (you can see her hair getting greyer as the scene progresses) even as the house starts to collapse around them. And that's only the first act of the film - the second, madder and more extreme half concern Mother's pregnancy and the birth of her son. Specifically, it's what happens after that birth that leads to the most unpleasant and shocking scenes: suffice to say that if you're in the process of having children or have recently done so, don't see this film. The entire film is centred around Mother, with Lawrence almost never off screen and the camera frequently hovering over her shoulder.

Much has already been written in director's statements and the dreaded broadsheet think-pieces about exactly what Mother! is an allegory of: Creation, Adam And Eve, mankind's destruction of Mother Earth - everything on Earth was beautiful until People came along and destroyed it. Him is God and Mother is Mother Nature. Or maybe it's about drugs or oil or The Patriarchy or the act and cost of artistic creativity. For all I know it's actually about the Power Rangers (Him's precious crystal might as well be a reference to their Zeo Crystal from which all life is supposed to spring) - yes, I'm obviously being facetious, but is it that much MORE ridiculous than the Dan Brown-level symbolology of what the frog represents or the symbol on Ed Harris' cigarette lighter?

Look: if I'd known I was basically sitting an exam I'd have done some revision. I'm not an intellectual, I didn't go to University, but I'm not a knuckle-dragging imbecile who needs everything spoonfed in simple words. I made it through Hard To Be A God in one go, for goodness' sake. Sure, I didn't much enjoy the experience, but at least I was open to it. And I think it's great that major companies like Paramount are putting difficult, challenging and unusual films into the marketplace, and pushing them in wide releases rather than a couple of Curzons and the ICA - although if Mother! doesn't connect with audiences then this probably won't happen again and cinemas will play safe with a fourteenth week of the latest Batman instead.

But I also think there's no shame in having to look these things up afterwards to find out exactly what the hell that was all about. I had to do it with Michael Haneke's Hidden (I totally missed the supposed reveal in the final shot) and it wasn't until this year that Mulholland Dr. clicked with me courtesy of a featurette that explained how I (and others) had actually got the reality/fantasy divide backwards. Now I understand this, I find I like the film more. In the case of Mother! I think it's partly down to the publicity which completely misrepresents it: the trailer makes it look like an uneasy four-character drama and ignores the more visceral and shocking second hour when logic and reality break down into apparently random chaos, and the UK posters similarly give no hint of what watching the film is actually like. (I also think it's entirely irrelevant that this Cinemascore thing, an audience-based approval system of which I was entirely unaware until this weekend, gave it the lowest possible F rating, putting it in such shameful company as Bug and Wolf Creek.)

Look, it's clearly not rubbish. At least, it's clearly not rubbish in the way that, say, a Fred Olen Ray film is rubbish or a Don Dohler film is rubbish. You can't fault Mother!'s full-tilt committed performances or the grainy 16mm photography, or the way it builds its orgies of destruction not once, but twice, and presumably you can't fault it for doing exactly what Darren Aronofsky wanted to do. (That said, Fred Olen Ray movies always did exactly what he wanted.) But did Aronofsky want me to feel so angry and depressed by his film? Did he want me to leave the cinema feeling worse than I did leaving Fist Fight or Chips? And I've liked some of Aronofsky's films in the past: I liked Black Swan and Noah and The Fountain. Not this time, and I refuse to accept that it's entirely my fault. It's a divisive film, and the whole point of divisive films is that there are camps on both sides.

Okay, my initial response might have calmed down a bit since Friday afternoon, when I came out of the cinema absolutely hating the film with an almost tangible fury. But I can't feel that I've warmed to it over the weekend. Sure, it's demonstrably not a terrible film, but it made me feel terrible as I watched it and I still feel terrible towards it now. If that makes me an idiot, well, okay, you're entitled to that view. If that means I don't ever get to be a "proper" reviewer, so be it. It doesn't make me wrong. For me it remains a one-star film: obviously not rubbish (which is why I haven't tagged it as such) but among the most frustrating, upsetting and infuriating films of the last however many years. And not, as occasionally happens, in a good way.

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