Tuesday, 27 June 2017

HOUSE OF THE LIVING DEAD

SPOILERS OF THE LIVING DEAD

It's an immutable law of the universe that any movie with the title ....Of The Living Dead has to be a zombie film. This one isn't: there are no living dead to be seen. Rather, it's a "mad relative locked in the attic" period piece from South Africa in 1973: a bit The Ghoul (Peter Cushing version), a bit The Beat In The Cellar, and a bit And Now The Screaming Starts except without the mesmerising heaving bosom of Stephanie Beacham.

Instead, House Of The Living Dead concerns itself with Mary Anne (Shirley Anne Field), newly arrived on the Brattling Estate vineyard on the South African Cape to marry the heir Sir Michael (Mark Burns). But the local drums carry on all night, the smell of witchcraft is in the air, the family's matriarch doesn't want Sir Michael to marry, servants are disappearing, Sir Michael's tragic brother Breckinridge stays hidden away conducting experiments on trapping the souls of the newly dead. What's really going on?

Shudder's online print looks to be from the old cinema reels, complete with scratches and the magenta tinge of faded celluloid to everything (and sometimes it's just too dark), but at least it's in the right ratio and it's blessed with a nice orchestral score; Burns gives it some enjoyable overacting welly and Shirley Anne Field does some good screaming. Personally I could have done with more of the African element and landscapes that seem curiously dialled down. It's a load of old hokum, and if you can't spot the twist coming quite early on you're really not trying, but it's fair enough fun, not too grisly, and sits comfortably with those British Gothics of the time from Tigon and Amicus. I quite enjoyed it, but don't expect a masterpiece.

***

Saturday, 24 June 2017

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

YOU WANT SPOILERS? WE'VE GOT SPOILERS

You want to know how much of an absolute starscreaming mess the new Transformers movie is? You want to know how badly you can take a spectacularly dumb idea and stretch it way beyond breaking point for the fifth time? You want to know how you can take a cartoon aimed at easily distracted children and, er, transform it into an howling melange of slo-mo explosions, shouting and destructo porn? You want to know how to avoid the Does Not Compute madness? The last one's easy: just don't go. It's a Michael Bay film, after all.

You want to know how much of a mess Transformers: The Last Knight is? Guy Ritchie only claimed the trophy for Worst King Arthur Movie Of 2017 for a few weeks before Michael Bay told him to hold his beer. Kicking off in the Dark Ages with a drunken Merlin (Stanley Tucci) obtaining a giant robot dragon from a wrecked spaceship in order to help King Arthur in battle against someone or other (either it was never mentioned or bellowed briefly into noise). He is also given an alien superweapon which - surprise! - is being sought years later by assorted factions. In the present day, Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is still covertly looking after outlawed Autobots in an open junkyard in the desert somewhere, and ducking in and out of what's left of Chicago after the last act of Transformers 3 to collect more bits and pieces. Meanwhile Optimus Prime has arrived back on the remnants of Cybertron and is immediately possessed by the evil Quintessa who wants to revive her planet by absorbing Earth.

Meanwhile Anthony Hopkins is bumbling about as the 12th Earl of Folgan, last of a secret society of Witwiccans (those who have known about the Transformers' existence throughout history) who have awaited the arrival of Merlin's last descendant as the only one who can wield the Staff Of Cybertron, and that last descendant turns out to be uptight history and philosophy professor Laura Haddock, now thrust into a chalk-and-cheese will-they-won't-they romance with Wahlberg. There's also a kid with a friendly pop-eyed blue robot sidekick, an army squad seeking to track Wahlberg down and recover this superweapon staff at all costs, and evil Decepticon leader Megatron who wants the weapon for himself and his associates... Cue scenes of things blowing up, things erupting, thirty-foot metal things beating seven million bells out of each other over and over again.

You want to know how much of a mess this film is? Quite apart from the glaring distraction of having the film change its aspect ratio literally every other shot, from 1.85 "normalvision" to 2.35 scope and back again with every cut; quite apart from the fact that much of it is basically The Da Vinci Code (!); quite apart from the all-over-the-shop plotting (We're in a junkyard! Now we're in a ghost town! Now we're in Cuba! Now we're at Stonehenge! Now we're in a nuclear submarine! Now we're in space!); quite apart from the fact that Michael Bay's trousers are clearly throbbing with glee at every chance to do those slow-motion explosions with stuntmen and/or smashy alien robots corkscrewing balletically across the screen; quite apart from the comedy relief clunks like someone dropping a set of sledgehammers down a long staircase; quite apart from the fact that it don't make no sense (what were the Transformers transforming into before humanity invented trucks, jet fighters, sports cars and photocopiers for them to disguise themselves as?); quite apart from the fact that it's One Hundred And Forty Nine Thundering Minutes Long? This is how much: it's like a vivid but narratively impenetrable dream that you can sense draining from your mind within seconds of waking up, you can feel yourself forgetting it. By the time I'd got to the car park I already knew whole chunks of the film had faded from my mind.

On the plus side.... Anthony Hopkins is clearly entering into the spirit of proceedings and looks to be having some fun with it, and for some reason Bay has stopped pointing the camera at smokin' hot chicks the way he used to: none of those scenes of Megan Fox soaping a motorcycle or following Rosie Huntington-Whitely's bum up a staircase. There's also a bit less of the city smashing and knocking skyscrapers into one another like a set of dominoes that turned up in earlier Transformers instalments. That's about enough to save it from being actively hateful, but not enough to make it actively worth watching. I mean, if you like Michael Bay's Transformers movies anyway, and respond to the incoherent action scenes and deafening soundtrack of kabooom explosions and Steve Jablonsky scores that make Batman Vs Superman look and sound like Hannah And Her Sisters, there's certainly ten quid's worth of entertainment to be had because Bay isn't changing the formula to any significant degree. And why would he?

Transformers: The Last Knight isn't any good: it's probably on a level with the last one and frankly that's probably as good as these movies are ever going to get. It ends with a mid-credits sting that teases the inevitable sequel (it's already scheduled for 2019, though both Wahlberg and Bay have suggested they're not returning), and they've already announced a Bumblebee spinoff for next year. Oh joy.

**

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

THE MUMMY

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND THINGS

So suddenly universe-building is the new thing. Given what Marvel has achieved by throwing together a raft of established characters into each other's films and what DC is trying to due with their own superhero roster, maybe it's not that surprising that other studios are rummaging through their own back catalogue to see who they can bolt together. This is the first project in Universal's so-called Dark Universe (the logo dissolves straight out of Universal's own right at the start), which is supposedly going to lump Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde together in an ongoing series. To an extent they used to: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolf Man were always turning up in each other's films in the 1940s, though they never expanded it to incorporate any of their other stock.

Tom Cruise is at his least likeable for some time as the uninterestingly named Nick Morton, a US soldier and treasure hunter who deserts his military assignment in Iraq to follow a map he's stolen from archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who's tracking it down for Dr Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Turns out that the map is not for a trove of shiny knick-knacks he can shift on the black market for a few dollars, but the lost Egyptian pyramid of evil princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who was mummified and buried alive for her treachery. Of course she comes back to life and seeks to turn our hero into the vessel for her lost love and then the two immortals will rule the world...

The Mummy is absolute nonsense, obviously, with too many things happening through writer's contrivance: the logic of the piece holds that this all takes place just as the missing jewel from a sacred dagger turns up in London when works on Crossrail (!) suddenly chance upon a Crusader burial chamber. If that hadn't happened, or the charmless Nick hadn't just happened to steal the map (or then hadn't been placed under military arrest for dereliction of duty), or the sarcophagus had been flown anywhere else in the world except directly over the church where the aforementioned dagger had been hidden hundreds of years previously.... Too much happenstance that's beyond the control of even the worst undead deities but crucially not beyond six credited screenwriters. It's also saddled with an unattractive star turn, an unmemorable score and a blatant riff on An American Werewolf In London as Nick's ill-fated sidekick keeps haunting him for presumably comedic relief.

Still, it's kind of enjoyable in a brain-off kind of a way: it's got huge production values and gosh-wow spectacle, and mercifully Universal haven't wimped out and trimmed the sometimes grisly imagery down to get a wimpy 12A (it was PG13 in the States). There are zombies, creepy bugs and spiders, apocalyptic sandstorms in London: you're not shortchanged for incident and stuff happening. As to where it's supposed to fit into this Dark Universe? It's scarcely a spoiler to state that a redeemed Nick rides off into the desert while Ahmanet is vanquished in the last reel, so any further Mummies are presumably going to be different ones that Nick (or someone else) has to take on, meaning that the only likely connection to an ongoing decades-long franchise would be Russell Crowe's Jekyll and Hyde characters, presumably the UDU equivalent of MCU's Nick Fury. He's actually quite fun, though no explanation is given as to what he's doing in the present day. But as a film it's a lot less entertaining than the Indiana Jones-flavoured romps of the last reboot (at least the first two, anyway), and it has absolutely no atmosphere of horror or proper scares. Agreeable, and occasionally pleasantly nasty, no-think fodder while it's on, but there's nothing much under the spectacle.

***

RIPPER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND OW MY HEAD

...which is mainly a result of bashing my forehead repeatedly against my living room wall in boredom, frustration and an almost successful last ditch attempt to stay awake during one of the most absolutely pitiful loads of old toot I've scratched myself through all year.

An assorted bunch of halfwits are brought together in a damp, miserable basement in East London for an extreme screenwriting workshop to put together the ultimate horror film. (Note to film-makers: if your horror film is about what makes horror films scary, your own film had better be bloody terrifying otherwise you're going to look like an idiot. It isn't, and they do.) One of them has handily brought along a box set of Jack The Ripper's actual genuine knives, another has apparently seen every horror film ever made yet is about nineteen years old, the professor is the most obvious nutjob on the planet, there's a ghost girl, a spooky doll, dream sequences, wandering about, a lot of prattle (much of which is lost in the murk of inadequate sound recording) and the occasional grisly murder that may or may not have happened. Could the dreaded Ripper somehow still be around?

There's enough blood and brutality to get the 18 certificate, but to no avail, and somewhere along the line Jack has abandoned his legendary surgical skills and just become a stabby butcher. It's hardly worth going in deep as to why Ripper is so dreadful: suffice to say that everyone's an idiot and none of it makes any sense. It doesn't even have a proper ending; the thing just stops midway through a scene and the credits roll, and it drags even at 88 minutes. The levels of performance and technical panache are not high either. So thoroughly terrible it's a wonder Spring-Heeled Jack himself hasn't risen from the grave to sue for defamation.

*

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

BAYWATCH

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

As if one knowing re-imagining of a piece of anodyne primetime fluff that took safe, network and family friendly nonsense and relocated it in sweary grossout territory wasn't enough for 2017 cinemas, after the tiresome misjudgements of Chips we now have the tiresome misjudgements of Baywatch. And astonishingly they're not a completely different set of misjudgements that fix the mistakes of Chips but make a whole load of new ones: they're the exact same misjudgements all over again.

Like Chips, this new Baywatch is a generation away from ITV on Saturday evenings: more F-words, more penis jokes, more inappropriate humour, and a boggle-eyed 13-year-old boy's fixation on hot chicks in bikinis. And whilst there might not have been much more than that to the TV show (I never watched it, but I'm aware of it through some weird and terrifying kind of cultural osmosis) it's not really enough for two hours at the Odeon. Much of the beach action centres around the odd couple friction between lifeguard legend and hunk Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) and Olympic medallist and idiot Matt (Zac Efron). Matt is only on the lifeguard squad for community service purposes, and causes more problems than he solves because he doesn't know what he's doing and doesn't care to learn.

There's a nonsense thriller plot tacked on, to do with drug trafficking, high-level corruption and murder, so the film has a big action climax, as well of a lot of scenes in which the Baywatch squad abandon their posts entirely and zoom around on jetskis, break into the morgue and get into fights that are - as the comedy police officer never tires of pointing out - well beyond their jurisdiction. But who actually cares? Back at Tower One on the beach, the horny fat guy (because horny fat guys are always funny) wants to get it on with the glamorous blonde, and Matt wants to get it on with the glamorous brunette (Alexandra Daddario). Reference is made to the running on the beach in slow-motion, about how life isn't some crappy TV show, and the unnecessarily revealing nature of the women's swimwear, and Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff turn up for cameos (because of course they do).

But none of it's funny, none of it's exciting, none of it's interesting, the villains are obvious and stupid, and Zac Efron in particular achieves Piers Morgan levels of slappability. The outtakes over the end credits suggest that a lot of material was edited out to get the film down to a whopping 116 minutes, and much of the comedy non sequitur banter ("you're like Stephen Hawking, only without the paralysis") was made up on the spot and someone chose the best takes, presumably by drawing straws. So why is it worse than Chips? Because Dwayne Johnson is usually better than this (not always: Central Intelligence was terrible) and I'd much rather a full-on unadorned star vehicle of Dwayne Johnson hero worship to play that relatively straight as San Andreas did, and not mix it up with riffs on the zipper scene from There's Something About Mary and comedy material Revenge Of The Nerds would have balked at. Maybe Baywatch was just a product of its time and that time has gone, but even if there is a way to revive it for a new generation, this definitely isn't it. Now if they want to bring back Baywatch Nights that's another matter entirely.

*

Saturday, 3 June 2017

SADAKO VS KAYAKO

CONTAINS VS SPOILERS

There's a strange and unaccountable tradition, as demonstrated by the likes of King Kong Vs Godzilla, Alien Vs Predator and Freddy Vs Jason, for taking two characters from different series and making them fight each other. Who would win in a fight between Robocop and The Terminator? Could Jean-Claude Van Damme beat Steven Seagal? Monster mashes have been going on for a while now (in the 1930s Universal had Dracula, The Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster turning up in each other's sequels); and within the Marvel Cinematic Universe we've had Iron Man fighting Captain America, while DC gave us Batman Vs Superman and lots of it. Rights and "intellectual property" laws fortunately mean we're unlikely to see Bond Vs Bourne or Jean-Luc Picard Vs Davros, except from the blogs of fan-fiction writers constantly churning out what-if stories where Austin Powers takes on Dumbledore for absolutely no good reason whatsoever.

This latest is a prime example of having to find two participants with broadly equivalent abilities to make it a fair fight (The Incredible Hulk Vs Bambi would not be a very long film). Sadako Vs Kayako is basically The Ring Vs The Grudge: two girls fall victim to the Ring by - duh - watching the cursed video (double duh - after they've been told about it and triple duh - one of them after her friend has already received Sadako's death call). Meanwhile another girl has just moved next door to the spooky Grudge house in which the lank-haired spiderwalking girl ghost and the small white-painted boy ghost kill anyone who enters. One more than usually ludicrous and entirely unsuccessful exorcism later, an eccentric Doctor Who-type turns up and hits upon the brilliant idea of getting the Grudge ghosts to fight the Ring ghost, hopefully destroying each other and breaking both curses.

It's all babbling nonsense, obviously, making about as much sense as a talking meerkat commercial and full of people doing the most stupid things at any opportunity: don't go in the house, don't watch the haunted video. Still, it's quite watchable, occasionally creepy and, like Hollywood's recent Rings, at least ponders the notion of uploading Sadako's (radically different and much shorter) video to the internet, even if the idea doesn't go anywhere with and it's done for absolutely no reason. But, within the confines of an obviously silly idea, it's a passable Friday night entertainment and certainly no worse than any other entries in their respective (wildly variable) sagas. Maybe that's not much of a stretch but it worked well enough for me. Sadly it's a Shudder exclusive, so if you're not a member you're out of luck.

***

Saturday, 27 May 2017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: SALAZAR'S REVENGE

ARRRR, CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, JIM LAD

Well, it's now fourteen years since the first Pirates Of The Caribbean hit the world's screens and after all this time it's probably an unreal expectation that they might somehow try anything new or unusual. Instead they've played it very safe: more Johnny Depp doing more of That Silly Voice and Those Silly Mannerisms with That Silly Hair, more idiotic knockabout, more wet romance between a couple of drippy new leads (at least Kaya Scodelario is more feisty than Keira ever was), more A-list star villainy, bigger and longer action sequences and battles that would have presumably been twice as exhausting in 3D, more ghoulish horror effects work that's at the very top of the 12A rating. The stuff they didn't really bother with in the earlier films - some level of coherence in the plot, actual interesting characters, decent gags - they're twice as not bothering with in this one.

As far as an actual narrative is concerned, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (originally known as Dead Men Tell No Tales but retitled for no immediately obvious reason) basically consists of various assorted characters trying to track down the legendary Trident Of Poseidon. Henry (Brenton Thwaites) needs it to break the curse that's keeping his dad (Orlando Bloom) on the Flying Dutchman, Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush) and whoever's representing the evil British Empire this time out both want it so they can rule the oceans, cursed captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is after it to break the curse that's left him and his crew permanently zombified since a young Jack Sparrow (Depp) forced them through a magic portal. Sparrow is now destitute and permanently drunk, without a ship or crew, and has given up his enchanted compass, allowing Salazar through into the real world. Meanwhile Carina (Scodelario) has a secret map that will lead to another map "that no man can read", but she's been sentenced to death for witchcraft...

Why have the evil Brits condemned Carina to death for "witchcraft" when they use a genuine witch to track down genuinely supernatural objects? Why don't they believe a word of Henry's story when they already know Salazar always leaves one man alive? It makes very little sense, obviously, but then it's not supposed to. It's supposed to be summer blockbuster fun: two and a bit hours of gosh wow monsters and loud music and special effects and fighting and Johnny Depp bimbling about and babbling that sends you out of the multiplex convinced you've had a great time. But have you really? There's a pointless celebrity cameo in there that absolutely kills any goodwill you might still have towards the film: David Beckham's turn in King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword didn't set the bar particularly high for this sort of thing but boy, does Paul McCartney sail comfortably underneath it.

Is this really the best use to which Disney can put two hundred and thirty million dollars? If you're going to spend that kind of money on a movie (rather than medical research or disaster relief, say), why not push the galleon out and try for a great one? Sure, the first film in the series was pretty good fun. But the sequels never went anywhere interesting after that: Pirates 2 is particularly awful; Pirates 3 marginally better but idiotically overlong, and Pirates 4 managed to regain some ground by dropping the blathery romantics entirely and moving Depp's comedy support to the centre. And now: they've brought in new blathery romantics as well as rekindling the old ones, and Sparrow is just an annoying, slightly tiresome and frequently drunk idiot. Oh, sure, there are nice moments (so there should be, at that price), the best of which is an extended bit of business with a guillotine, but the sea battle in which Sparrow and Salazar are leaping from one ship to the other and back again feels like it goes on for ever. More, much more of the same, and more still to come: the film ends with a possible teaser for a further instalment (already listed on the IMDb). Gee thanks.

**

CRUEL INTENTIONS 2: MANCHESTER PREP

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Confession: it wasn't until after I'd watched (or, more accurately, fidgeted through in an increasingly visible state of annoyance and irritation) this and looked it up afterwards to see if there was any justification for such a colossal waste of an evening, that I found it's not actually a sequel, but a prequel, to Cruel Intentions. It's an origins story that seeks to explore how the hateful, amoral dicks and bitches from Roger Kumble's updating of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Choderlos De Laclos' original novel is uncredited this time) got that way in the first place, and thus there's no satisfying conclusion.

Douchebag Sebastian (Robin Dunne) transfers to an exclusive New York prep school, sent to live with his dirtbag father who's remarried to a phenomenally wealthy socialite (Mimi Rogers). She has groomed and moulded her daughter Kathryn (Amy Adams!) into a sociopathic ice-bitch with no empathy or feelings for anyone but herself, and events quickly spiral towards all-out war between her and her more laid-back new stepbrother, who has a romantic eye on the headmaster's daughter...

Plot twists that make absolutely no sense, characters who aren't interesting or attractive in their amorality and vicious scheming, and a sour ending in which the bad guys win (albeit one that's setting up the characters for a film that's already been made) make Cruel Intentions 2: Manchester Prep a film that's difficult to like, and the occasional softcore sex scene and the dubiously incestuous flavour to the central relationship (they're step-siblings only by marriage) don't perk things up enough. The cruelty and coldness worked in the first film, but this rehash is one instance where I spent much of the second half shouting abuse at the screen. There's a third entry in the series by other hands that's only slightly connected to these two, and is not currently on my rental queue.

*

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

CONTAINS SOME GAS-FIRED (GAS-FIRED BOILERS, SPOILERS)

Cor blimey, guvnor, strike a light and no mistake, come and 'ave a butchers at what His Bleedin' Nibs Lord Sir Guy Of Ritchie has done now, it's a right ****in' palavar, me old china, oi-oi, apples and pears, chim chimernee... Really. It's basically a London gangster movie, only nominally relocated to the fifth century but with giant fire-breathing pachyderm things at the start, an octopus demon and cor blimey, guvnor, it's David Beckham. Acting. (Some have mocked the film for this specifically, but it's not significantly worse or more jarring than everything else that's going on throughout.)

In this version Arthur is spirited away from Camelot Castle as a toddler, following a coup by his wicked uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), and ending up as an urchin living in a London bordello. Over the years he becomes a streetwise, hard-but-fair lovable rogue (Charlie Hunnam), wheeling and dealing and ducking and diving to the extent you do honestly expect the Minder theme tune to crash in at any moment. But The Sword has been found: the legend states that only the rightful King can pull it from the stone and Vortigern is having every man of the right age brought to Camelot to give it a tug. Next thing you know he's in a cave with Djimon Hounsou and mysteriously accented mage Astrid Berges-Frisbey and reluctantly manning up to reclaim the throne....

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is obviously utter tosh, in modern dialogue and modern slang (with one of the most clangingly out-of-place F-bombs in years), with CGI monsters and converted 3D action sequences crammed into a scenario where they don't really belong. Nor does the snappy, blokey, geezery banter and backchat that Ritchie wasn't able to include in his two Sherlock Holmes films or The Man From UNCLE (or presumably Swept Away, the DVD of which is still sitting in my to-watch pile). Obviously any kind of music score beyond the earliest of folk songs is going to be historically anachronistic, but Daniel Pemberton's score includes thumping techno that bolts the film too firmly to this era instead of that: a pity, since other cues of a more traditional variety (both in terms of traditional-sounding period instruments and the traditions of film scoring in general) work much better.

Still, it's not awful: it's moderate fun in parts if you can get into it but I don't think "moderate fun in parts" is anywhere near enough if they're going to try and spin this out to a six-film franchise. It's too long and never finds the right tone between Lord Of The Rings magic/fantasy and battle scenes, and cheery cockernee knockabout full of people with names like Goosefat Bill and Wet Stick. Entertaining enough as a throwaway one-off but really we don't need to be doing this again in a hurry.

**

SATANIC

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

By now we're well used to the main characters of quickie teen horror movies not just being thick as an extraordinarily large number of short planks, but eye-rollingly stupid to a near-suicidal degree. The old gag about "hot teenagers get stoned and play with a ouija board in the spooky old house at midnight" isn't a joke any more, it's practically a pitch for a studio franchise. Maybe we're just getting fed up with it down here on the ground, but in a world with four Sharknado movies the anti-idiot signals just aren't getting through.

Satanic is a prime example of dimwit cinema: two couples head to Los Angeles, either to watch a sitcom taping or en route to the Coachella Arts Festival (the script doesn't seem sure) but really they're in town to check out famous crime scenes such as the Sharon Tate residence (they've also specifically booked a hotel room that was the site of a notorious suicide). For no reason beyond idiocy they decide to follow the creepy owner of an occultist bookshop, where they promptly stumble upon what looks like a Satanic ritual...

It isn't a total disaster by any means: it's got a couple of nice moments and the Final Girl's fate is suitably grim and horrifying, and there's a weird timeloop dropped in towards the end for no obvious reason. But it's as forgettable and undistinguished as any one of a hundred low-budget horrors, and it can't get past the fact that the four main leads are so facepalm stupid as to render them impossible to empathise with. Missable in the extreme.

**

Thursday, 18 May 2017

ALIEN: COVENANT

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's a shame, it really is. The idea of Ridley Scott going back to the Alien Universe again, with a film that ties together Alien (which everyone loves) and Prometheus (which, admittedly, only I and a few others loved), is one of those genuinely exciting events in cinema, like a new Brian De Palma thriller or a new Bond / Star Wars / [insert name of favourite auteur and/or franchise here]. Having managed to keep myself pretty much unspoiled until the first showing on the first day, I waited impatiently outside through the ads and trailers: please be good, please be good, please be good....

And it was - kind of. But the trouble was that it wasn't significantly better than good: Alien Resurrection was good. (Hell, up to a point Alien Vs Predator was solidly enjoyable, if admittedly dumb.) Alien: Covenant isn't any better than good and it damn well should have been. Certainly there were several moments when I was really enjoying it, but thinking about it afterwards on the way home I realised that few of them were to do with the film itself. Rather, it was the callbacks to Alien (and, to a lesser extent, Prometheus): familiar imagery, familiar setups, familiar music, while the new stuff suddenly felt a lot less interesting. There's a cosy pleasure in seeing the ship's crew bicker and argue the way they do on the Nostromo, in the spraying water and clanking chains that hark back to Harry Dean Stanton's big moment.

In addition to Alien, there's a lot of Blade Runner in here: the film even starts with a close-up of an eye. That's synthetic David's (Michael Fassbender) eyeball, as he discusses God, creation and what it means to be human with his own creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, unbilled). The bulk of the film concerns the colony spaceship Covenant decades later, carrying two thousand colonists and a cabinet full of embryos to a new planet seven years distant. The crew, including synthetic Walter (Fassbender again), are woken from cryosleep by a chance shockwave from a nearby star; while effecting repairs they pick up a transmission from a previously undetected planet. This might make a better colony site than their original destination, but clearly there's someone or something already here...

It looks good, and so it should because that's really what Ridley Scott does so well. The creature attacks take a while to show up but they do pack a punch, partly because they're not all facehuggers and chestbursters as we've seen before, and they don't stint on the blood and gore. I'm generally a sucker for any movie with people running around spaceships and space stations (well, almost any movie) and all that's fine. But the use of Jerry Goldsmith's and Harry Gregson-Williams' thematic material from Alien and Prometheus respectively really does show up Jed Kurzel's utterly uninteresting original score (and cueing it up afterwards on Spotify revealed it as barely listenable), and the final plot twist is so blatantly obvious it's a wonder the audience weren't yelling it at the screen. There's also a peach for connoisseurs of those clunky "hmmm, do you think THAT's going to be important later on?" moments (which also happily doubles as another nod to Blade Runner).

I really wanted to love it and I'd have been perfectly happy to have just really liked it - but the more I think about it the more it just comes across as okay and an Alien movie by its original director really needs to be more than just okay. One of the reasons I liked Prometheus so much was because it did go off in different directions to Alien and had more intellectual ambitions (even if they weren't fully realised), full of questions of humanity and the meaning of life rather than bickering about their bonus payments - bickering which fits perfectly in Alien but wouldn't have done in Prometheus. This time around Fassbender's synthetics are more annoying than before; there are still too many characters to keep track of and only about half of them (particularly captain Billy Crudup, terraformer Katherine Waterston, pilot Danny McBride) get significant moments in the light, and ultimately the monster stuff is more interesting than the philosophising, which had its place in Prometheus but really doesn't seem to fit here. More than anything else Alien: Covenant is a disappointment because hopes were so high and, unlike Prometheus (and the first three Alien movies), I find I have no desire to watch it again.

***

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS?

In news that should surprise absolutely no-one, a film which Shock Xpress once listed as one of the fifty most boring movies of all time (and which I freely admit I only watched because Shock Xpress once listed it as one of the fifty most boring movies of all time) turns out to be one of the fifty most boring movies of all time. Cinema has been awash with lousy films throughout its history, and it's true that some of them are fun despite their terribleness (while many claim they're fun precisely because of their terribleness, an argument I've never been entirely convinced by). Many more of them, however, are just simply terrible.

Exhibit 1,568: Death Curse Of Tartu is a (literally) bog-standard horror cheapie from 1966 in which a bunch of utter fools wander around an allegedly cursed Indian burial ground. The legend states clearly that Tartu is a shapeshifting witchdoctor who can transform Manimal-style into any of the local wildlife and wreak hideous vengeance on any who disturb his eternal resting place in a miserable Florida swamp. Four of the group are cardboard teenagers who couldn't spell "archaeology", much less practise it, instead preferring to go swimming in the creek and dance about in their underwear. Eventually Tartu stops manifesting as a snake, shark or alligator, clambers out of his casket and fights the survivors: it doesn't go well for him and then the film stops.

Much of this is indeed cataclysmically boring and its loss to British audiences since the decline of the VHS market (it's never been upgraded to a DVD release in this country) is frankly nothing to get despondent about. Sole point of moderate interest is an orchestral music score which (tribal drums and chanting apart) sounds way too good for a schlocky Z-picture for the bottom half of a drive-in double-bill, and I spent way too much of a limited lifespan trying, without success, to find whether it was tracked in from somewhere else, because it sounds like it cost twice as much as the whole film. The only other note of trivia is that there's a brief shot of a Miami Beach hotel at the end which is the same hotel seen near the start of Goldfinger. Shock Xpress were right. The real curse of Tartu is actually sitting and watching the damned thing.

*

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

FANGS

CONTAINSSSS SSSSOME SSSSPOILERSSSS

Staggeringly dull seventies obscurity in which fully half the movie goes by before anything happens, most of it takes place in the dark anyway and what little you can see is half lost in the murk of a dodgy transfer to a medium-definition YouTube upload from something that wasn't exactly shot in sparking 70mm in the first place. There's really nothing to be gained from slogging through Fangs except a thorough waste of a Monday evening, and any points it might earn from its arrant silliness it loses for sheer, petrifying boredom and more John Philip Sousa than any sane person would ever sit and listen to in a lifetime.

Somewhere out in a desert small town, an assortment of halfwitted locals bully and victimise snake breeder Les Tremayne (North By Northwest, The Slime People): the smug, hypocritical preacher, the obese, redneck storekeepers, the newly-married best friend who strangely wants to spend his evenings getting it on with his hot young poledancer bride instead of sitting around listening to The Stars And Stripes Forever on repeat in the company of a rambling hillbilly lunatic, even the local schoolteacher with a secret sexual fetish for snake fondling. No, really (it's called ophidicism, apparently). Eventually, of course, he snaps and starts using his collection of snakes to torture and kill his persecutors.

It's incredibly glum, with a satisfyingly bleak ending, but it takes far too long to get going, Snakey Bender (Tremayne) is a fantastically annoying villain, the soundtrack (occasional synth tracks and endless bloody Sousa marches) actively made me want to punch someone and none of his hideous victims are worth shedding a tear over. It doesn't make much sense - the local cop is an imbecile who can't remember a six-digit licence plate for ten seconds and doesn't find it remotely suspicious that all these people mysteriously left town at the same time, and no-one notices the increasing pile of the victims' cars at the bottom of a cliff - but it doesn't really matter since it's all so indifferently put together. Also known as Snakes, and nothing to do with the (somehow) even more boring Rattlers.

*

Thursday, 4 May 2017

PHANTASM: RAVAGER

BOYYYYYYY!!!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!!!

Not to beat about the bush here, but this fifth Phantasm movie, the first in nineteen years, is a frankly unworthy note on which to end the series. It's one of those films that very quickly shuffles between any number of alternate realities - dreams, flashbacks, stories, all in someone's mind, all in someone else's mind, some, none or all of the above and possibly two at a time - leaving the audience unsure where we are and what's reality. This has always been a central idea in horror movies, whether just tricksing about with the borders of fantasy and reality or for a cheap it-was-all-a-dream shock moment, and there are movies out there that aren't much interested in an airtight narrative - Videodrome, or even the original Phantasm - but in this instance it reaches the point where it feels like homework and you can't be bothered picking through it all.

In order to fully appreciate Phantasm: Ravager I actually spent the previous day running the first four movies back to back, since I hadn't seen the third and fourth entries since their VHS rental releases. Like a lot of franchises it goes on for at least one film more than necessary: in chronological order they're good, better, better than I remembered and pants respectively, with the second one easily being the most impressive in the series though I have a certain fondness for the cult original's weirdness. The frankly ever-unappealing Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is still wandering the desert, on the trail of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and looking for his friends Mike (A Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), all returning regulars through the series (though Baldwin was briefly replaced by James Le Gros in Phantasm II). Or is he?

Much of the previous movie took place in the desert where Mike, struck by the franchise's USP flying silver spheres at the end of Part III, was apparently developing Tall Man abilities of his own - but now it appears that the whole saga has been taking place inside Reggie's imagination and he's sitting in a psychiatric hospital being visited by an entirely human Mike. Or is he really in a future hellscape of American cities levelled by giant spheres in the Independence Day manner, and he's fantasising about living in a care home as an escape from the apocalyptic horror?

The Jawa-like slaves in cowls return, the flying spheres return, and the Tall Man himself is an agreeably strange and sinister bogeyman figure. The canvas is much bigger, particularly towards the end, and the music score is much louder (happily using the same theme). But I kind of miss the wonky, shonky charm of the first two films: they'd got the goriest moments and the loopiest, most imaginative ideas, and they didn't have the dreaded CGI blood spurts as they do this time around. They were messy but fun, with a terrific villain, and this is messy and not much fun. Perhaps it's not much of a disappointment after the fourth one, but it's certainly a long fall from the series' early heights, and it's odd to see the regular performers in a franchise still doing it over a third of a century later. The imagery under the end credits suggests what a final Phantasm chapter might have looked like if they'd had the money to do it, but in the event it's sadly underwhelming and uninteresting. A muted final note for what was once one of the more intriguing and off-kilter horror series.

**

RESURRECTION OF THE MUMMY

ARISE, SPOILERS!

There's a comedy trailer online called "Hell No": a spoof horror movie trailer in which everyone does the smart thing and makes the sensible, rational decisions. (It's actually been online since 2013 but coincidentally resurfaced this week on my Twitter feed.) Decisions like not going into the abandoned mental asylum with a ouija board, like not splitting up in the spooky old house, like cops waiting for backup. Because the dimmest of horror movies have frequently relied on the simple trick of dropping a bunch of clueless idiots, all of whom can be relied upon to ignore even the most basic common sense, into a scary situation and then just watching them charge around screaming and making astoundingly bad choices. Sometimes they're so stupid that it becomes self-defeating: there's no real horror when they had it coming. Serves them right.

As dimbulb horror goes, Resurrection Of The Mummy is pretty underpowered. A gaggle of nubile Egyptology researchers (led by an obviously shady professor who's also the father of the dimmest of them) investigate the hidden pyramid of The Nameless One, despite the warnings of an Unspeakable Evil, the killing of their guides by the military and the fact that they don't have permits. Oh well, what could possibly go wrong? One of them brings some weed to help with her confinement issues (why would you go into practical Egyptology in the first place if you're claustrophobic?), they split up, they wander off in an unmapped maze of burial chambers and death traps, going back to look for their companions...

It's maybe not the worst pyramid-based Z-horror on the shelves (that could well be 2005's Legion Of The Dead), but it's still twaddle, obviously, though fairly painless and mercifully short at 77 minutes including a very slow end credit crawl. It's also surprisingly sexless: the girlies may all look like cheerleaders in their day clothes but they're covered up enough and there are no boyfriends to kinkily make out with behind the sarcophagus. And the mummy design is pretty effective, though the CG effects are as duff as expected. Overall it's hardly worth the effort, but it's not something to get angry about and I didn't resent the 50p to buy it in my local CEX. Originally called The Mummy Resurrected, emblazoned on the screen and artwork in a font that suggests it's a belated entry in the Brendan Fraser franchise (they wish); the UK packaging and onscreen title card are completely different,

**

BERSERKER: THE NORDIC CURSE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

There's not much to say about yet another dumb 80s horror slasher in which a sextet of teenage morons are set upon by an immortal Viking lunatic in a bearhide cape. The aforementioned morons, out for a long weekend of camping in the woods (famous for its legends of Olde Norse monsters) and as much sex, beer and pot as they can get, trek out to the wrong camping lodge, argue, wander off into the woods to have sex, find corpses left over from the opening sequence, run around screaming, and injure themselves while charging through the undergrowth. Meanwhile someone or something is picking them off....

After a while you get bored with them and their colossally uninteresting antics, and you end up looking around the flat wondering which household items you'd most like to shove into their heads*, particularly with regard to lead dumbass Josh who's so arrogant, charmless and tiresome I would have been happier if the entire running time of Berserker: The Nordic Curse had just been devoted to him getting his skin clawed off in loving close-up.

There's absolutely nothing surprising, nothing unusual: everyone does everything they're expected to do in a cheap join-the-dots teenkill movie. Of course there's going to be a campfire scene in which one of them explains the scary legend and another leaps hilariously out of the darkness to scare the girl. Of course they're not going to take any notice of the sheriff or the campsite owner (George "Buck" Flower"). Of course they're going to have sex in the woods in the middle of the night. They have to, it's the law. Events aren't helped by indifferent picture quality on the British DVD release and some genuinely, awesomely terrible rock songs. Made in 1987.

* Tin opener, metal coathanger and Allen key.

*

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.

****

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II

CONTAINS A FEW SPOILERS, IF YOU THINK THAT MATTERS

On a scale of nought to ten, exactly how surprising is it that a film called Sorority House Massacre II isn't the greatest assemblage of celluloid to ever get slung through a projector? It's barely registering at all on my personal Richter Scale of Astonishment: you'll be telling me next that cheese sandwiches have cheese in them. It's surprisingly difficult to cobble together any kind of vaguely semi-interesting review of a film which you have literally seen a hundred times before, and the occasional knowing wink to how lame and uninspired the movie is doesn't rally give you anything to work with. Unrelated to the first Sorority House Massacre (a more or less passable though forgettable entry in the direct-to-video teenslash subgenre), it's just flatly rehashing ideas from scores of earlier films, so maybe I should just cut and paste from old reviews of Blood Rage, Offerings, Slaughterhouse, Night Screams, Graduation Day....

Five annoyingly perky college girls buy up an old ruin to renovate and convert into a sorority house. They got the place cheap because (cue flashbacks and exposition from the creepy neighbour) five years ago the owner went on an axe rampage, and it's stood empty ever since. Having found a ouija board, they decide (at night, on the site of a massacre, during a storm) to hold a midnight seance and call up the spirit of the killer, because of course you do. Frankly this indicates a level of staggering idiocy you'd be shocked to find in a banana, or more likely a level of sheer bloodless laziness from a screenwriter who literally cannot be bothered. Did I mention that the girls all have a topless scene, and they spend the last two thirds of the movie running around in their underwear?

Meanwhile a hardboiled cop with nothing better to do (like, you know, solving crimes) decides to go and interview the sole survivor of the five years ago, and she works as a stripper, because of course she does. Remember, we haven't seen any norks for at least eight minutes now and it's absolutely vital to the narrative that we watch her entire performance as well as half of the next one (a brief appearance by the late porn star Savannah). Yes, dear, they're very nice, now put them away. Back at the spooky old mansion, the girlies are being picked off one by one....

The first kill moment is actually quite decently done, because at that point we're not sure what to expect: ghost, possession, or homicidal maniac creepy neighbour. But that's it. The rest of the film is just counting out the five idiots running around in their skimpies and screaming. Honestly, it's like feminism never happened. It's entirely bland, entirely unsurprising, and indifferently put together by people who don't care that much about quality, aimed at an audience who don't care that much about quality either. So long as we get to watch some young women in their pants. Your auteur is Jim (Scream Queen Hot Tub Party) Wynorski, who wrote and shot it in seven days. It shows.

*

Sunday, 19 February 2017

MY BLOODY BANJO

TWANGGGG!!!!!!!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS

It's always awkward when a film comes along that you ultimately don't like very much and you know the writer-director. How do you confess this without being insulting - or at least coming across as insulting? Do you try and intimate that the problems are with you rather than the film or with him? Do you straight up lie and say you thought it was marvellous? Do you focus on minor issues or trivial items like knowing the locations or spotting the influences and references? As one who's never been great at social interaction at the best of times, it's even more of a minefield than usual and now you've been given huge tin boots to go stomping across it.

Pelzer Arbuckle has always been bullied and persecuted: at school the only thing that got him through was his imaginary friend Ronnie, but people died as a result. Now in some unspecified office role at a paper distribution firm, he's still picked on and humiliated on a daily basis by bosses and co-workers, ramped up even more after an eye-watering sexual accident that Google informs me is a genuine thing. Not to go into details here but I'm not touching the damn thing ever again; all I can say is thank heavens for the Delete History option. Following the death of the one work colleague who wasn't a colossal bastard to him (Laurence R Harvey), Pelzer realises that maybe conjuring up Ronnie once more is his only remaining option....

An entirely British stab at Revenge Of The Wimp horror, My Bloody Banjo (originally just titled Banjo) may be set in the town of Henenlotter, but it's the Frank Henenlotter of the more uncomfortably sexual Bad Biology than the grindhouse grime of Basket Case, and in any case the tone is much more aligned to Troma films, none of which I've ever liked even a little bit. The Toxic Avenger, Tromeo And Juliet and Class Of Nuke 'Em High (and various sequels) I've always felt were mean-spirited, shoddily put together and revelling in the worst of puerile bad taste; Lloyd Kaufman (who has a brief cameo as a doctor, named after his Toxic Avenger directing alias) talks a good movie but has yet to direct even a tolerable one.

Sadly that's the tone of My Bloody Banjo: abortion jokes, HIV jokes, wildly overpitched performances, excessive gore. Now I'm certainly not against tacky splatter movies, and some of my all-time favourites could never be described as subtle, but the trouble is that this movie is very much all on one note, and there's very little in the way of light and shade. It doesn't give you any respite from the horrors of Pelzer's constant suffering, until the final turning of the worm where good and bad alike are slaughtered and the worst of the villains do not suffer nearly enough (it also never explains why he even works there and even throws in better reasons why he doesn't need to). Some of the gore is impressive (there's a nifty chainsaw-head interface, and kudos for the truly uncomfortable banjo incident itself, one of the most effective look-away moments in years), and Ronnie himself is kind of fun, but I could have done with a little respite from the horribleness.

**

Friday, 17 February 2017

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

XONTAINX XPOILERX

It's now fifteen years since the first XXX movie, and twelve years since it sputtered to a close with the Diesel-free follow-up. How many Vin Diesel franchises are there that you'd have expected to die off after the frankly underwhelming second one in which Mr Diesel didn't show up? (Fast And Furious doesn't really count - that didn't really pick up until Part 4 AND he was only in the teaser of Part 3, which actually takes place between Parts 6 and 7 anyway.) And it doesn't look like they've spent the intervening years fine-tuning the concept for a triumphant blockbuster return; rather it looks like they've simply sat down with any number of Mission Impossibles and other assorted globetrotting knockabouts, then hired a particularly excitable fourteen-year-old boy to knit them together.

That would explain why the film's line of demented action sequences include a motorbike chase through the jungle onto the beach and then into the sea, where the bike sprouts skis! And Vin Diesel and Donnie Yen chase each other through the surf! It would explain the oh-no-not-again MacGuffin of yet another whizzy computer gizmo, this time one that can send satellites plummeting to Earth. And it would also explain why the film is heaving with numerous hot chicks mercilessly objectified under the camera's pubescent gaze. Even the bespectacled techie nerd is an only slightly dressed-down Miss October. In anonymous retirement in the Dominican Republic, Xander Cage (Diesel) is brought back into the XXX program to retrieve a terrifying electronic plot device that has been audaciously stolen from American Intelligence but Must Not Fall Into The Wrong Hands. Assembling his own team of specialist mavericks and lunatics (in favour of hardass, dumbass Marines), Cage tracks down the team who stole the toy in the first place...

Of course it doesn't make a whole lot of sense: if not-in-it-enough Samuel L Jackson has been convinced Diesel's extreme sports maniac is still alive (despite being killed off and replaced by the slightly cheaper Ice Cube in The Next Level), how come it takes new boss Toni Collette absolutely no time to track him down? How does Diesel expect to go undercover on a tropical island full of rogue agents when he's got the XXX agency logo tattooed on the back of his neck? And how can the studio expect to make a stand against video piracy when Xander's first big action scene is a dizzying hillside descent so he can patch his slum town into the premium sports channels?

Still, despite the stupidity, of which it's not just fully aware but out-and-out proud, XXX: Return Of Xander Cage is perfectly adequate blockbuster action fare, and while it may not have the gripping suspense of the best of the Mission Impossible movies or the A-list class of the best of James Bond, it'll more than suffice in the (temporary?) absence of those franchises. Frankly I'm more excited about another Fast And Furious instalment, but while we're waiting, this will more than fill the gap.

***

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

FIFTY SHADES DARKER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS OUCH PHWOOOOAR

Here we go again.... The middle section of the Fifty Shades Trilogy really is more of the same: bigger, raunchier, sillier, softer. While the original film was little more than a Pretty Woman poor-girl-rich-boy romance with tasteful lighting and music choices to dilute the depravities we weren't really shown anyway, Part Two ups the frank nudity factor (at last there's some meat to go with the cheese) but descends into so much absurdity and terrible dialogue that you expect the theme from Dynasty or Falcon Crest to erupt at half a dozen particularly gigglesome moments. Maybe it's unfair for me to pick holes in the Fifty Shades movies given that, like the Twilights or the Star Wars prequels, I'm not the target audience. This isn't a blokey film about bonking, it's a girlie film about lurve; a sweet and sentimental fairytale, albeit one in which Prince Charming likes to tie Cinderella to the bedpost and spank her with a table tennis bat. It's Beauty And The Beast, except he's ugly on the inside and America's Next Top Adonis on the outside.

Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) may have walked away from multi-billionaire Christian at the end of the first movie, but he can't let go: pining for her in his cavernous penthouse and plotting to win her back (apparently by shelling out money left and right in the belief this will impress her). His sexual hangups are all down to his backstory of abuse and mother issues, but he's trying to put it all behind him for Anastasia, even if it's just with apparently fantastic regular sex rather than cable ties and whips. But he's too controlling, too stifling - he buys the publishing house where she has her dream job, he won't let her go to New York for work because he's jealous of her boss (of course, it's fine for him to go off on business trips). Even when it looks like they're finally together and he pops the question, Kim Basinger is lurking around trying to break them up....

Fifty Shades Darker is a very silly episode of a very silly soap opera with dialogue George Lucas would have rolled his eyes at, and sex scenes that are franker than you'd expect at a multiplex these days, where an 18 certificate suddenly stands out amidst the 12A blandness. It's fairly painless and it looks nice, Danny Elfman has the soft strings going, and it's too silly to be either boring or offensive. Sure, you might want to read it as a film about emasculation - Christian Grey is giving up that very part of him that makes him what he is at the behest of a woman who's giving up very little in return, just as he was the one giving up control in the first film, the tagline of which was "Lose Control" - in which she's in charge, not the dominant sadist. It's still not very good though.

**