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.

***