Saturday, 17 December 2016

That dogs movie!

Hungarian movie WHITE GOD (2014) is a contemporary drama that, with an almost painful slowness, becomes surrealist horror. Lili loves her mongrel named Hagen but house pets are unwanted by the little girl’s father. Tragedy is a likely consequence of parental neglect, and Lili gets in trouble here nearly as often as the lost or abandoned barking-mad hounds and rabid strays in kennels. From a shelter in Budapest, various dogs form packs in a suddenly violent revolt against human indifference and cruelty.

This European production sets a new world record for the most dogs appearing in a movie but the main action focuses on Hagen. The homeless man who finds the mutt and sells it into a dog-fighting ring appears wholly unsympathetic, although he’s actually just as forsaken by a callous society as Hagen is. This is not Lassie Come Home, it’s a man bites dog world that obviously looks inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds. However, social-political commentary on urban deprivation and victims of economic programmes is the filmmaker’s aim.


Some quite stylish cinematography is evident - particularly in scenes of the dogs on the loose through city streets, and for the canine version of parkour that energises Hagen’s chase sequences with animal-control cops. As Lili plays a trumpet in an orchestra, there’s an off-beat but strong ‘Pied Piper’ aspect to this poetic dark fairytale about thoughtless oppression and fierce rebellion.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Voices

Iranian director Marjane Satrapi’s first English-language feature, surrealist black comedy, THE VOICES (2014), stars Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern, Deadpool) as Jerry, an everyday lonely psycho, who just happens to work in a warehouse that packages bathroom fixtures. He’s off his meds and soon collecting severed heads for his fridge at home. 

Jerry’s schizoid conversations with his dog and cat (the angel/ devil on his mentality’s shoulders), are rendered with CGI as mockingly cute, sketching out his brittle sanity in fantasy terms of live-action Disney meets Tex Avery.


With Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick as prime victims, adding further influential voices to Jerry’s confusion, cartoonish domestic scenes of serial killer horror are contrasted with flashbacks to Jerry’s immigrant childhood and abusive parents. Despite the kidnapping finale; and tactical breach by cops at Jerry’s bowling-alley residence, this fable of tragicomic sociopathy finishes with a cheerful dreamscape sing-along playing through the movie credits.


Saturday, 3 December 2016

Rigor Mortis

Asian movies like the fantastic Mr Vampire series, and Magic Cop (1990) - one of my favourites, in particular, provided fine examples of a Cantonese fun-fantasy style that helped create Hong Kong’s superhero-cinema brand as such a distinctive and fashionable model. RIGOR MORTIS (2013), the directorial debut of Juno Mak, is a superbly conceived tribute to that era of invention, with updated effects that make stunning use of CGI.

“So, you know that vampires are afraid of glutinous rice?”

Depressed actor Chin moves into a flat in a tower block of rundown housing, where he attempts to commit suicide. Although his hanged body invites evil spirits to possess him, resident spiritualist Lau ‘saves’ his life... 

Beginning with an exorcism fu action scene and eccentric performances of sympathetic characters, the setting of the cursed slum tenement becomes more than simply a backdrop for events. It’s both a symptomatic response to the general malaise of social deprivation and ultimately a vehicle for the negative energies otherworldly oppression. Another well-meaning sorcerer performs a ‘resurrection’ spell on the quasi-mummified husband of a grief-stricken widow. Non-hopping vampires stalk the corridors, acrobatic blood fiends jump from walls to ceiling, and spooky white-haired orphan boy Pak is the almost-mute witness to a crucible of encroaching apocalypse.


Although Rigor Mortis carries on basically light-hearted traditions of the memorable Mr Vampire cycle, domestic violence of the past has left its mark on a building where every day brings another trauma or tragedy and demonic forces (twin ghosts, unmasked zombie) muster madly against the luckless tenants, and so the movie’s plot also draws upon The Grudge and varied copycats. Furthermore, washed out colouring here adds a generally more sombre tone, and ensures the splashy use of vivid reds standout like punctuation and chaptering. This is an excellent blending of digital visuals, gloomy atmosphere, and marvellous horror stunts. It is astonishingly witty entertainment with the mesmerising power of dreams. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Wolves

David Hayter’s WOLVES (2014) wants to be Teen Wolf crossbred with Near Dark, but lacks the witty humour of the former and the thrilling, dramatic impact of the latter. After playing mutant Alex, alias Havoc in the X-Men prequels, Lucas Till becomes werewolf Cayden, adopted by humans for a perfect life at school, until full moon exposure drives him out of town for the Canadian countryside. He meets a local farmer (Stephen McHattie, bringing colour and depth to an otherwise flimsy effort), and couples with she-wolf Angelina, but runs into fanged/ hairy hillbilly trouble against bad guy Connor (Jason Momoa), rogue leader of the wolf-pack in a small town called Lupine Ridge.

Sadly, the shadow of Twilight falls upon this movie, so its romantic plot, unsubtle bloodline entanglements, and climactic heroics, are blunted by some lycan-soap interludes that play out like standard TV-movie fare. Over 35 years ago, The Howling accomplished more with fewer resources, while TV series Hemlock Grove has recently bought wolfen kind back into a realm of uncanny folklore after decades lost to aimless prowling around in a wilderness of slasher/ monster B-movies. 


Saturday, 19 November 2016

DUFE

“Is everybody in?” Scott Derrickson, maker of Sinister, returns to likeable generic horror with, DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). Poor Eric Bana, though. His career, since Hulk and Troy, has lurched up or down without pause for consideration of whether he’s making bad choices. For every welcome change of pace, such as Time Traveller’s Wife, there is a vacuous or villainous part, in the likes of Abrams’ wholly misjudged Star Trek. Now it seems Bana is reduced to playing thankless cop-roles, yet he still faces anger-management issues, in DUFE; a sort of NYPD X-Files with exorcist havoc.

Three US marines, Iraqi war veterans dishonourably discharged, are in trouble with derangement - or possession, according to Latin clues, and the Doors are to blame for it all, apparently. After a night of weird goings-on at the Bronx zoo, specialist investigator ‘Radar’ Sarchie (Bana) finds his sixth-sense hunches prompt him to team-up with an unorthodox priest, on the trail of the soldiers turned into portals for demonic activity threatening city-wide anarchy. 

The urban gothic atmosphere of a classic bogeyman is this movie’s best asset. There’s much crazy fun to be had in the climax of strobes, screaming, subterfuge, and stigmata, where absolution for wrath in the past means choosing justice over vengeance in the present.

Some hysteria later, the inevitable happy ending to a crisis of malice from beyond feels like an epilogistic letdown. Derrickson moved far away from this picture’s gruesomely bizarre appeal to direct Benedict Cumberbatch in the superhero remake of Doctor Strange.                  

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Obelisk

OBELISK
Stephen Baxter
Gollancz hardcover £20

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary

This book is the latest collection, from by far the sharpest mind of Arthur C. Clarke’s possible successors, boasts a diversity of deep timelines and intriguing scenarios. It challenges the notion that Baxter might be actually better than Asimov when it comes to weaving together a variety of different stories into a cohesive narrative structure; although that is more accurately a criticism of Asimov’s relative failures at patchwork epics instead of denying Baxter’s ambition to emulate the previous century’s original masters of SF. There are four sections in the book, and the first comprises a quartet of stories, all set in the same milieu as Baxter’s Ultima and Proxima novels.

After an aerial crash, On Chryse Plain is a desert adventure for three kids stranded on Mars. Their survival depends upon optimistic thinking and tech savvy, and the Viking lander is like a welcome guest star.  A Journey To Amasia concerns a post-cyberpunk data miner exploring the centre of the Earth. Standout story Obelisk is about Chinese capital building a mega-structure on Mars. The giant obelisk is a project driven ahead by two overambitious men, and the story features a tragic denouement for a woman. Escape From Eden carries echoes of the first offering, with a joy-riders’ adventure for kids from a dingy Martian work-camp.

Section two is an assortment of six ‘Other Yesterdays’ - alternative histories where the results of halting scientific progress is a shared theme, if only somewhat vaguely. The Jubilee Plot imagines a bridge built over the English Channel and the first race across it, threatened by terrorism. It’s a concise timeline offering more than simply Victorian steampunk. Fate And The Fire-lance finds the Roman empire surviving into the 20th century London where, after a politically-motivated murder, a variation of WWI looks imminent. 

The Unblinking Eye sees an Inca ship sailing into a very dissimilar version of London in the 1960s. Most enjoyable for its critiques of religious dogma, and clever championing of feminism, Darwin Anathema is likely to become an instant favourite, for many atheists, as Baxter presents evolution on trial by the Inquisition creationists of 2009. Mars Abides tells of a ‘volcano summer’ on the red planet for US and USSR colonists. Spanning millennia, from Neolithic prehistory to a 23rd century of radical change, Eagle Song is a SETI mystery of laser signals from Altair. Brimming with big ideas, it’s a pocket-sized epic of hard-SF at its most characterful.

‘Other Todays’ explores a couple of parallel worlds. Pevatron Rats is a fast-escalating SF-horror about super-vermin that can travel through time, and its beginning recalls the infamous ‘rats’ episode of classic TV series Doomwatch. Some even grander ideas are rolled out for The Invasion Of Venus, which explains how a space war in the Solar system has nothing to do with Earth. Yes, that’s how insignificant humans are! Here’s the meat-and-potatoes of genuine science fiction, with simply marvellous stories that make the generic meals cooked up by lesser authors seem like mushy peas and boiled carrots in a pretentious sauce.  

The final section, ‘Other Tomorrows’ offers 21st century visions starting with Turing’s Apples, in which messages from space test the appeal of first-contact optimism as A.I. malware, buried in a signal from alien superiors, produces havoc on Earth - especially for estranged brothers at the heart of scientific and political crises. The macro-cosmic theoretical physics of branes brings a gargantuan slice of awesomeness to Artefacts, a story grounded in the tragedy of morality with humanity as victims of engineering. 

In a boldly impressive tale, Baxter tackles the over-familiarity of superhero adventures with a highly original take in Vacuum Lad. A space rescuer becomes a legend, but his solo accomplishments seem trivial compared to the secretive meta-human colony he finds in orbit. Rock Day concerns avatar sentience after the world ends, and it feels much like a Ray Bradbury fable, with one boy and his dog, and a friendly neighbourhood philosopher. 

Although it is basically just another correspondence story, Starcall delivers an almost pure Clarkean grandeur, as unforeseeable spin-off results from an interstellar pen-pal scheme. Poignant asides emerge from the life-long duration of effort by a human, and the first starship’s A.I., to keep in touch, exchanging audio each decade. There’s trivia, and science and technology notes, and philosophical wisdom found on both sides of a most difficult conversation. Clearly, the need to keep on talking and keep on watching the skies is of decided urgency, if there’s to be any progressive future for humanity.  

Fans of Baxter’s work, ever since his debut novel Raft first appeared, 25 years ago, are bound to treasure this collection of his recent stories. Newcomers will discover there’s an inherent love of the genre, not generics, in Baxter’s finest work which proves again that SF remains the greatest mind-expanding drug available, with or without medical prescription. Do not wait until tomorrow. Go out now, and get your maximum dosage today.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Grand Piano

“Play one wrong note; and you die!” GRAND PIANO (2013) is almost pure Hitchcockian terror with a heist plot unfolding in the middle of an orchestral concert. Musician Tom (Elijah Wood) returns to the spotlight, after five years away from the stage, and is forced to perform ‘unplayable’ piece, ‘La Cinquette’; something that he failed to finish before in public. At the keys of his legendary, recently deceased, mentor’s Bösendorfer, Tom’s heroism is splaying his fingers to play like a demon, because Tom’s wife is in the audience and her life - threatened by a sniper - depends upon him.

In part, this is a dramatic movie about overcoming stage fright, and compromising the unattainable aims of perfectionism. But musical artistry is secondary to the driving rhythm of a heist thriller (musical notes unlock a safe). John Cusack does his familiar cool-killer act. Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted fame) is fine as the efficient henchman. Eugenio Mira directs this with tremendous suspense and tension, injecting levity - if not actual comedy - into several moments with impressive skill. Previously, Mira made stylised Spanish mystery Agnosia, but this marks his Hollywood debut, and Grand Piano’s a significant improvement, especially in terms of narrative coherence, even if it is every bit as far-fetched!

Saturday, 5 November 2016

NY Winter's Tale

After helming some TV episodes of genre series Fringe, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s first big-screen directing job is epic romantic fairytale, A NEW YORK WINTER’S TALE (aka: Winter’s Tale, 2014). “The sicker I become, the more clearly I can see that everything is connected by light” comes as the punch-line to an hallucination sequence that’s really just an excuse for the filmmaker’s overindulgence in CGI lens-flare. It establishes the literary standard and artistic tone for what follows, an urban fantasy spanning two centuries lofted, from its period setting of cod-Dickensian class distinctions to modern skyscrapers in the present, by Warner’s $60 million budget and the wonders of Hollywood star power-sharing.


Colin Farrell looks typecast (yet again!) as Irish thief Peter, who falls in love with consumptive redhead Bev (Jessica Brown Findlay, overplaying every scene), before her oh so tragic death leaves our charming amnesiac rogue alone with immortality, and a white horse flying on gossamer magic wings. At least he’s safe from the predation of chief demon Pearly (Russell Crowe), who eventually makes a deal with Lucifer (portrayed laughably by Will Smith), for a showdown with absentee nemesis Pete, while embracing mortal risks as the ultimate caveat emptor. William Hurt ambles through a somnambulistic supporting role as the doomed Bev’s concerned city-father Isaac Penn and, in the movie’s later chapters, Jennifer Connolly brings her patented single-motherly anguish routine to scenes with a young daughter dying from cancer.


Based on Mark Helprin’s allegedly un-cinematic novel, first published in 1983, Winter’s Tale flitters from page to screen with its Sleeping Beauty variant plot eschewing postmodernist cynicism, but accepting the conceits of similarly otherworldly/ legendary Fisher King motifs. “Miracles are down by half. More if you count Brooklyn,” reports warden Pearly, archenemy of luck and love. In the end, this is a rather predictable chore to get through, despite a few impressive visuals.


Saturday, 29 October 2016

I, Franky

From the diurnal cycle and circadian rhythms comes our human penchant for redoing everything, including meal times, sleeping patterns, and varied anniversaries. If the zeitgebers of chrono-biology control social behaviours and genetics, why not also include psychology, language, culture, and the fields of art and entertainment? Yes, it’s only the illusion of freewill that is driving filmmakers to remake movies. Whether the projects are seemingly chosen as personal favourites, now deemed worthy of revision; neglected classics apparently in need of updating for the modernist pulse of zeitgeist concerns; or simply a money-raking spin-doctoring of re-scripted themes; it often feels like over a century of genre cinema means everything new is just a rehash of something else. The differences between before and after, and between the recent past and the near futures, appear to closing faster than ever.


A decade after the super-heroics of Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing, here’s Stuart Beattie’s I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014), with its urban- gothic/ modern fantasy of stoical demon-bashing by the patchwork immortal without a soul. If the comicbook-derived Hellboy can succeed as a monster hunter/ slayer following the super-team model, this franchistein variant of the wandering loner and killer seems eager to please as a ‘hell-bloke’ made good. Zombie champion Adam (Aaron Eckhart) is recruited by the sometimes stony-faced matriarch Leonore (Miranda Otto, War Of The Worlds remake, Eowyn in Lord Of The Rings sequels), the angelic queen of a righteous order of gargoyle vigilantes occupying a besieged cathedral.

Adam Frankenstein - as our hero becomes known, is being targeted for experiments by demon prince Naberius (Bill Nighy, doing his level best not to look bored here), conducted in secret labs by a human-pet scientist named Terra Wade (Yvonne Strahovski, co-star of TV’s Chuck), whose re-animation research is destined to enable Nab’s army, ready for possession apocalypse. 


When evil plans to win the eternal war erupt into fiery battles on the night-city streets, at least the spectacular visual effects provide us with a welcome break from the most horrendously clichéd dialogue scenes of mouldy-prune comicbook-styling we have seen for many a cyclical year. On paper, it looks less like storytelling and more like free-gift origami tat.


I cannot honestly say that I, Frankenstein is essential viewing, even for the most dedicated followers of cinematic fashion, but with its displays of overly commercialised awfulness this is a bizarre treat to behold, and I laughed like a drain at its charismatic authority figures, and its audacious monomythic depiction of Adam as Campbellian hero (not with a thousand faces, but one obviously stitched together from umpteen others). Watch it and chortle with delight, or sigh in disappointment. The choice might well appear to be yours... but I suspect it probably isn’t.


Saturday, 22 October 2016

POTO

When I first saw Dwight H. Little’s version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1990), on video, I was not expecting much. Pantomime at the Opera, or Sing-along-a-Freddy, was about the best I’d hoped for. So it came as a great surprise to find this was a quite enjoyable change of scenery for Robert Englund, who acquits himself with a measure of confidence and makes the often played title character his own.

Beginning in present day New York, this update is curiously time-warped, with young hopeful Christine (Jill Schoelen) getting knocked backwards in history, during her audition on a theatre stage. She wakes up in the foggy cobble-stoned London, and finds she’s got the part, after the resident diva (Stephanie Lawrence) loses her voice, dumbstruck by the sight of a flayed man in her wardrobe. 

Accepting her position as understudy like she knows it’s just a dream, Christine makes the most of her opportunity on opening night. The skinned stagehand isn’t the only one to die, though, and pretty soon the hapless cops are finding bodies (and parts of them), all over the place. The Phantom wants to marry Christine and hides his disfigured face - the result of a pact with Satan - under a Leatherface-styled mask, made from the skin of his victims, of course. 

This is a grand, lavish production, with colourful period settings and strong direction. Some graphic effects work of stabbings, beheadings, and skin-grafts in close-up, will keep the gore-hounds happy, while the slightly mushy romantic saga remains this type of movie’s major difficulty. How to make the swooning and gothic stylisation palatable for modern audiences? This is a valiant attempt to provide answers for the many problems found in adapting classics and, although it fails on some levels, there are enough inspired moments that this 25-year-old version of POTO remains a success overall. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Communion

Uncut on DVD, Alfred Sole’s cult slasher flick ALICE, SWEET ALICE (aka: Communion, 1976) marked the very first cinema appearance of Brooke Shields, here playing the doomed younger sister of troublesome schoolgirl Alice (Paula Sheppard, also seen in bizarre sci-fi comedy, Liquid Sky, 1982). While causing no end of problems for her mother, Alice taunts the obese paedophile landlord in his downstairs lair, and she has a “knack for making things look like accidents”. 

Later, Alice viciously stabs her aunt and, during the police investigation, the little bitch beats a lie detector test. But there is a clever twist in this plot-line of escalating psychotic violence.

Like Don’t Look Now, the mysterious killer wears a brightly coloured raincoat, but here it’s yellow not red. As director, Sole clearly parallels De Palma’s Hitchcock tributes but with an acute grotesquery that unbalances the perversities of this movie’s thematic reach. As indicated by its original title, Communion, this still quite shocking tragedy is about madness from familial shame with a religious source, and its urban gothic atmosphere is apparent beyond the closely observed catholic rituals and its bloody finale in the neighbourhood church.        

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Percy 2

Like an American cousin of Harry Potter, the half-blood prince of PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS (2013) is studying a kindle-pedia at summer Camp Hogwerks when he’s called away for a Bermuda triangle quest with a satyr guide, on a mission of mercy in search of a Golden Fleece macguffin. 

Leader of the pack Clarisse has deemed Percy an unlikely hero, so this becomes a tale about winning friendships and loyalty in a mawkish fantasy soap-opera that revolves around typical absentee father/ problem child issues, easily solved by typically conformist platitudes. 

Spells “make the mystical look normal”: an undercover/ fitting-in trick that translates as looking mediocre or just plain boring. At times, this sequel plays like some imaginary episode of ‘Olympus Hills, 90210’. 

PJ: SOM flips between hysterically overwrought, and tediously sentimental, for a team adventure with strap-on mythology. While visiting Washington, D.C., Percy and his chums find that Hermes operates a packing/ shipping warehouse to rival the average Amazon wish-fulfilment centre (oh, a droll Greek reference offered freely). 

After the supposedly-cool surfing without boards, on a magical wave-crest, zombies form the crew of a warship lost in the belly of a mega-whale (um, isn’t Jonah a Hebrew myth, not a Greek one?). Never mind, the vacuous lesson preached by this CGI exhibitionism is that “parents... make mistakes.” This is a US fantasy that fearlessly boasts a ‘harpy barista’ as one bemusing screen credit.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

No One Lives

NO ONE LIVES (2012) is about what happens after a gang of highway robbers pick the wrong victim. They waylay a nameless driver (Luke Evans), and their callous mercenary attitudes collide with an evil beyond their understanding. Ryuhei Kitamura is a director with an eclectic genre CV that includes samurai noir Versus, prison horror Alive, enjoyable hokum about ninja-girl Azumi, 50th anniversary kaiju Godzilla: Final Wars, and the Clive Barker-sourced urban shocker Midnight Meat Train.

NOL weaves together an unsolved-crime mystery with lawless action scenes that build up high tension slowly, towards a killing-spree bloodbath by an archetypal sadistic antagonist who acts like the proverbial one-man-army. A kidnapped heiress adds to a dilemma of confusion, although she’s the only one with any idea what is really going on.


Crossing the borders of imaginative grotesquery, violating subgenre treaties and slasher exclusion zones, and revising familiar elements from the Saw and Halloween series, this engaging thriller explores a viciously sick sense of humour, and charts much specific weirdness - very much to the delight of gore-movie fandom. Finding time for siege mentality, sophomoric/ Tarantinoesque musings, an inevitable cat-fight and various sensational/ splattery fatalities, Kitamura’s latest trick offers grisly fun-time on a tremendously entertaining scale. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Dark Skies

“Just because I can’t explain something doesn’t mean aliens are responsible.” Scott Stewart’s DARK SKIES (2013) charts life in the troubled household of Daniel and Lacey, and their sons - just as one of their boys is having puberty issues. The director of quite entertaining Paul Bettany vehicles, Legion (of angels and apocalypse), and Priest (an alternative-world dystopia based on a Korean comic-book), remixes bits from Poltergeist and Shyamalan’s Signs, but without much quirky inventiveness. Dark Skies prefers to keep its cake whole while also scoffing it down, well before teatime.

There’s a Sandman visitor in the dead of night (“Maybe if I just gave him my eyes, he would leave us alone,” says little Sammy). Walkie-talkies and webcam security offer no protection against swarming bird strikes in suburbia. Creepy intruder alerts prompt domestic meltdown into UFOlogy beliefs about missing-time episodes, sleepwalking disturbances, and implants for seemingly arbitrary mind-control. 

Are you ready for some claustrophobically close encounters? Yes, here is another 'X-File' about irresponsibly meddlesome aliens, similar to ‘stranger’ entities in Philippe Mora’s floppy/ pseudo-comical movie Communion, based upon Whitley Strieber’s book.  

J.K. Simmons (TV crime series The Closer) is the consultant ‘expert’ on Greys and whatnot. Predictable scares punctuate routine development of a hackneyed plot. Dark Skies, like its 1990s TV series namesake, is all played commendably straight but, sadly, despite a few effective chills, it’s never interesting enough to maintain adequate levels of suspense and/ or dramatic tension for longer than a few minutes at a time, before it lapses into longer stretches of acute boredom, enlivened only by clichéd twists.

Keri Russell in DARK SKIES


Sunday, 18 September 2016

Beautiful Creatures

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES (2013) is a fantasy romance with a modern styling of southern gothic. Lonely among the god-fearing folks of Gatlin, South Carolina, small town mortal Ethan falls for his ‘dream girl’ Lena, a novice witch whose magic is maturing too rapidly for easy control. Her wealthy family’s waning patriarch, Uncle Macon (camp Jeremy Irons), struggles to maintain a positive influence over present day events, never mind local expectations of a gloomy future, if his worried niece is claimed by the dark side. 

Of course, Lena and Ethan’s fate is linked to a curse that has lingered/ festered since the Civil War. Predictably, the solution to this moral predicament requires a sacrifice (read that as a kind of exorcism) to finally bury its corruptive power. 

Directed with patchy competence by Richard LaGravenese (writer of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King), the movie’s humour is just as awkwardly false and strained as the comedy sideshow routines in Tim Burton’s quirky Dark Shadows remake. The principal cast are merely adequate, but Emmy Rossum (Day After Tomorrow), shines, and is good fun, as vampish cousin Ridley. The ghost of TV series Charmed, and not True Blood, haunts every twist/ downturn of this Twilight inspired scenario’s drooling sentimentality. This is fantasy with the crusts cut off, so all that’s left is the cotton-woolly insides.  

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Jaws goes shopping


Despite overwhelming evidence that humans kill many more sharks than sharks kill people, big fish continue to be presented as villains in aquatic thrillers, whether such dramas have an eco-horror dimension, or not. It’s particularly amusing to note that more than a third of these movies have fantastic creatures (see Dinoshark and Sharktopus), not realistic animals, so it is clear how exhausted this notion has become in a nature’s revenge plot.
 
BAIT (2012) is an Australian disaster movie about a great white shark that invades a coastal Queensland shopping centre after the building is flooded by a tidal wave. A makeshift shark cage is deployed but prompt fatality crushes any hopes for quick or easy escape from either the supermarket floor, or an underground car park, until...  

Co-written by Russell Mulcahy (a talented director who seems to be practically retired nowadays), this is the directing debut of Kimble Rendall. Shop-lifter girl and stock-room boy are stereotyped kids (still the population of ‘least concern’ in genre scenarios), mistaking stupidity for rebellion, but becoming heroes in spite of themselves.
 
 
The real bad guys include armed robbers (one is played by Dr Doom himself, Julian McMahon). Spectacular effects, some terrible overacting, and black comedy death scenes combine to make this almost as much brainless fun as the Piranha remake. The hi-def edition boasts crisp sound and sharp visuals, and the disc includes the 3D version.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Movie clichés

Top 20 Over-Used Lines

No catch-phrases like “Bond, James Bond” or Arnie’s “I’ll be back”.
  
These clichés should no longer be in movies unless they are used with ironic intent...


Wanna talk about it?

We need to talk

Did you hear something?

I got a bad feeling about this

I got this

Is that all you got?

Why are you doing this?

Look what you made me do!

You look like shit

It’s just a flesh wound

Get some rest

Don’t you die on me!

What’s the plan?

Cover me

Stay in the car

I should go

Wait, I can explain!

How hard can it be?

That’s impossible

Stand down!

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sunday surrealism

“We have to laugh before midnight.” Parisian weirdness is supercharged in Leos Carax’s wholly astonishing HOLY MOTORS (2012). After the self–reflexive prologue of a man (the director himself) waking up in a dream room above a cinema, we are introduced to protagonist Oscar, apparently an executive being chauffeured to work by Celine (Edith Scob, Eyes Without A Face), but nothing is what it appears to be in this realm of cinephilia. Oscar applies his first disguise to emerge from his white stretch limousine as a hunchbacked, crippled beggar. He becomes the CG–movie stuntman for mo–cap combat action and contortionist sex. In a grotesque form, he’s a rampaging sewer weirdo; eating flowers in a cemetery before intruding on a street–theatre fashion shoot to, in gothic Quasimodo mode, kidnap a supermodel (Eva Mendes).

From his re–usable chrysalis car, Oscar transforms into the father of a painfully shy teenage girl, leads a parade of accordion players, imitates a murdered hoodlum and, in a burst of spontaneity, changes from a knife maniac into a hooded crazy gunman who cannot be killed. One seemingly bizarre ‘appointment’ follows another until, as elderly Mr Vogan, he sleeps in a hotel deathbed while his doting niece watches over him. Denis Lavant is quite adept at these portrayals, as if he’s a freaky eccentric in vignettes of enigmatic tragedy, or an agent provocateur for livewire role–play about urban paranoia and secret identities. Is there time for one more character stunt? Kylie Minogue plays another of this chameleonic kind, for a musical interlude and suicide, in this mystifying yet fascinating melodrama.

 
Holy Motors lacks the romantic energy of the director’s previous film works, like Lovers On The Bridge and Pola X, but this retains their emotive power of lives in disarray. What is normality? It’s show–time! In terms of cinematic references, and an auteurist consideration of digital filmmaking, this offers video vertigo. The final bit of garaged whimsy makes little or no sense of what has happened before. Perhaps that is, honestly, the point of it all.
 
 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Sound Of My Voice

SOUND OF MY VOICE (2011) begins in a promising tone of mystery and intrigue, as investigative journalist Peter and his girlfriend Lorna infiltrate a cult meeting. They tolerate a paranoid selection process for new recruits and learn the silly handshakes required for exclusive membership. Peter has a secret plan to expose the new age scam being perpetrated by young ‘guru’ Maggie (Brit Marling, Another Earth), apparently a con artist who claims to be from the future, and very allergic to the present, while she promises an unspecified ‘salvation’ from, presumably, an anticipated doomsday event.

Her growing clique of easily-led followers indulge in psychodrama sessions, intended as mind cleansing self–help therapy. But is Maggie a cellar–dwelling conceited recluse, just a sappy loony, or is she actually dangerous? At first, the lack of sympathetic protagonists, and the ridiculous campiness of some supporting characters, fosters disinterest in this scenario. It is often hard to take mysteries about cults very seriously and here the lack of any credible evidence means that Maggie’s crazy concocted story has more obvious holes than a golf course infested with moles.

 
Typical nutty shenanigans ensue; such as eating live worms: “It’s the new you.” A child-kidnapping strategy targets an autistic girl that Maggie reveals will, in the future, become her mother. The twist–ending abandons its pretentious Sundance–bait ambiguity as police swoop in to rescue the little girl. Director Zal Batmanglij previously made a short film The Recordist (which also stars Marling) and, seeing as this feature is only 85 minutes, it could have been included as a disc extra but, sadly, it is not. Why? I have no idea, but it might have added a bit more value to a hi–def release where the main feature proves to be rather disappointing.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Ghost island

Made in Singapore but shot in English, TV movie Pulau Hantu (2008) – trans: ‘Ghost Island’, is released on DVD in the UK as CURSE. Directed by Esan Sivalingam, it is set on a now unpopulated isle where a village was ruled by a corrupt medicine man whose predations led to his rape victim, and her daughter, being buried alive. In the present day, we see an army squad arrive via boat to search the island for AWOL soldiers. The troops are attacked, repeatedly, by an invisible enemy. “This is not happening!” keens one man, and he’s not even wounded.  

Reminiscent of Korean military–horror, Ghosts Of War (R–Point, 2004), Curse focuses on mortal fears in the drab jungle/ forest as night falls, suddenly, signalling the presence of dark forces. Suspicion and paranoia results in frightened soldiers shooting each other in a cluttered and, ultimately, very confusing storyline not helped by inter–cutting with the lone survivor (although he’s not the only one, we find) in army debriefing interviews after the mission has failed.

Having uncovered crimes (a ‘mass suicide’, apparently) of the past, the intruders here must learn that simply re–burying evidence will not make the supposedly evil forces go away. Badly made on video, with colourless imagery and some clumsy editing, this lacks even an ounce of the sinister heavyweight edginess that is required for strong atmosphere in a rural ghost story. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Thai house

Like many haunted house movies, Thai horror, THE HOUSE (2007), really starts with a face–at–the–window scene. A young reporter is investigating a mystery that surrounds three murdered women, all killed in crimes that span decades but are linked to the same house.

The back-story about a murderous doctor attempts to infuse some topicality but, nonetheless, it is a tired batch of pop–up gothic clichés. Subliminal scares and some first–person handycam views are hopelessly copycat after the likes of Bangkok Haunted, Shutter, and Ghost Of Mae Nak. Also, and perhaps inevitably, it borrows atmosphere and mise en scène from The Eye and Grudge movies.  

Sometimes insipid, generally underwhelming, performances do no favours to a plot which hinges upon the cartoonish loony in prison who enjoys OTT snidely Lecteresque confessions. Cheapo CGI makes for shadowy demonic phantoms that are rarely more than slightly creepy.
 
It is hard to tell if the portentous apparitions are supposed to be ‘real’, especially when they are no different to hallucinations in the dreams of traumatised victims. This is all so depressingly formulaic that it seems unlikely many viewers will care, either way.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Earth-2

“You don’t know what’s out there,” he warns her. “That’s why I’d go,” she replies. ANOTHER EARTH (2011) is an artsy variant of Gerry Anderson’s classic home-grown sci-fi Doppelganger (aka: Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun, 1969). After a road accident kills a musician’s pregnant wife and their young son, the other car’s teenage driver Rhoda is convicted of negligence. Years later, she begins an affair with still grieving widower, John, a famous composer, eccentric enough to play the saw, but he has no idea who she is, at first... 


While SETI broadcast greetings to the new planet, and hope for first contact, everybody is baffled by this apparently cosmic reflection, growing ever larger in the sky, and UFOlogy nutters roam the streets with placards of impending doom. The genre debut of director Mike Cahill, who co-wrote the screenplay with lead actress Brit Marling (Sound Of My Voice), this is a low-budget indie about festering guilt with flailing attempts at redemption. It may be viewed as metaphysical philosophy and existential introspection or simply muddled up nonsense about dreams coming true from shattered lives, but, either way, it does tend to get a bit lost in its own headspace of tragedy.
 

Facing hard truths about the improbabilities of forgiveness, like Lars von Trier’s sometimes painfully beautiful Melancholia, it’s more interested and immersed in its characters and their respective melodramas than any science fictional aspects, with a preference for the symbolic instead of the confrontational, and many – perhaps too many – of its pivotal or dramatic scenes occur off–screen. Another Earth is like a mirror world for observers in need of enlightenment but its paranormally reflective surfaces are often impenetrably blacked out. The parallel planet just hangs above the clouds offering vague promises of second chances and a multiverse heaven away from home. Unfortunately, if viewed as serious SF, this never gets off the ground. 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Real Steel

REAL STEEL (2011) is not a remake, although it feels like one, partly due to the previous adaptation of Richard Matheson’s story Steel for a Twilight Zone episode in 1963, and partly because the producer Steven Spielberg has dealt with fighting robots before in A.I. (2001). Here it is 2020, where clunky ‘Ambush’ is wrecked in a small town bullfight, and the Japanned replacement bot ‘Noisy Boy’, loses its first match so it needs repairs that remote-control operator, full-time failure, and reluctant father Charlie (Hugh Jackman, failing to carry a leading role, yet again) can’t afford.  

Now he’s stuck with custody of his 11-year-old son, for a road movie, with boxing mecha interludes, that everyone involved somehow imagines is an awesome blockbuster super-toy (to last all summer long) that’s oh so cool it’s positively hypothermic. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, TV’s Lost) is the techie who owns a rundown gym; but she can’t bring any warmth or humanity to a scenario vacancy that’s Robot Jox meets Transformers, with robo-Rocky asides, and all the testosterone thrills of beeping arcade video games. The mind–numbing predictability of its father/ son relationship reconciliation is made worse when the kid’s a winner, dad’s such a loser, and everything is going to work out so the grotesquely Hollywooden, shamelessly tearjerker style happy ending is inevitable.

Director Shawn Levy (CGI–laden Night At The Museum comedies, Pink Panther remake) keeps the machines running on a soda-pop high from scrap-yard challenges to the big leagues of New York arena bouts, while a sentimentalised variant of Terminator 2’s young John Connor mentored by Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed assassin makeover is turned into utterly cringe-worthy tripe by twin ailments of Disneyfication and Spielbergitis. There’s less room here for ‘characters’ than you get in a Twitter post, and the cliché–magnet plot is blatantly easy to summarise as a one–liner. In a montage-riddled climax, junk bot Atom becomes the best brawler, too self-consciously amazing as a painfully obvious Tin-man/ little toaster that could, who beats all the odds against autonomous champ, the mighty Zeus. Yes, it’s an A–Z of aahhh... aw shucks, or - perhaps, urgh! A sequel is on standby.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Conan

“How many names do I need?” CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011) is director Marcus Nispel’s remake of John Milius’ 30-year-old classic vehicle for Schwarznegger. German–born Nispel has carved out his Hollywood career on post-millennial updates of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th, Frankenstein (TV from a Koontz ‘concept’), and peculiar lost–Viking adventure Pathfinder (based upon a Norwegian original).

Born via battlefield C-section, the hero of this movie version of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian champion is played by Jason Momoa (from Stargate Atlantis). His unfortunately–doomed father is portrayed by Ron Perlman (making Conan the ‘son’ of Hellboy!, Eh?). It starts in a Cimmerian village where, after his day of chores, boy Conan takes a shortcut during local warrior wannabes’ egg-in-mouth race home. He survives an ambush, and collects four heads, but he’s not ready for a sword until the village is attacked in a storm of blood and fire and that familiar rain-of-arrows cliché.

Bad guy Zym (Stephen Lang, ex-killer of Smurfs-on-acid in Avatar), re–assembles the bone shards of a powerful face–hugger mask to make himself a god, and resurrect his beloved. Having lost the invasion battle, there is further horror when Conan’s dad is doused in molten steel. Once grown up, Conan and his chums free a bunch of slaves, and then our muscular champ saves elusive pureblood ‘monk’, Tamara (Rachel Nichols; P2, G.I. Joe, Continuum), in the slick yet rather characterless mayhem of numerous action set–pieces happening amidst fairytale picture–book scenery. Whether he is killing or carousing (“I live, I love, I slay”), Momoa wins this month’s award for best ‘sneer with eyebrows’ performance. Rose McGowan (from Planet Terror) is venomously witchy as the top villain’s daughter Marique, who conjures up a sand wraiths’ kung fu melee, while shirtless Conan strikes his comicbook poses in strap–on rags.

Nispel is so fanatically intent on presenting stunts and special effects that lucid storytelling is neglected, and it falls to stilted unwashed dialogue and blunt flashbacks to carry the mediocre plot. Sadly, the filmmakers ‘forgot’ there needs to be an intriguing mythical dimension (which the original Arnie flick had plenty of!) to swordplay adventures like this. Empty spectacle is never appealing enough to fully entertain and this Conan fails the same way that Mike Newell’s clunky Prince Of Persia failed. It rattles hollowly and thoughtlessly along with nothing much to say about barbaric heroism or vengeance, and clearly no idea how to make up for its shortcomings with only the studio toolkit and high grade production values as commendable assets. “Behold, and despair!”

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Caped crusader

“One man can still make a difference.” Somewhere in the vast comicbook continuum, between Unbreakable and Batman, Tom Wheeler’s THE CAPE (2011) cleverly distils generations of superhero lore, while adding some postmodern influences as its secret ingredient.

Vince Faraday (David Lyons, Ozploitation flick Storm Warning) is the proverbial good cop framed for murder. With fanfare cued appearances in Palm City, Faraday turns crusader as the Cape - opposing corporate psycho Fleming, the super-villain alias, Chess (James Frain, Tron: Legacy), who intends privatisation/ takeover of every authority. He’s sick and twisted but not even a genius. 

Keith David heads the local carnival underworld of bank robbers and he becomes our outlaw hero’s mentor. Summer Glau brings genre-favourite appeal to her sidekick role as techie/ spy Orwell (who drives a flashy gull-wing Mercedes). Vinnie Jones is a repeat offender as campy snake–faced (“Wot choo lookin’ at?”) mobster ‘Scales’. My sandwich broker says that hammy acting and cheesy plots should not be mixed on a morally wholesome bread ‘n’ butter adventure like this, but it does make a tasty TV snack.


Significant borrowings from the futuristic satire of RoboCop (especially its spin-off TV show) are noticeable. Throughout its meagre ten–episode season, The Cape’s Palm City contrasts the gleaming spires of Metropolis with gritty Gotham alleyways as varied backdrops for a low–budget, yet briskly paced, telefantasy action series. There’s a tarot pack of villainy in the secret society of killers. The cape’s original owner (Thomas Kretschmann, later seen in Argento’s Dracula 3D) returns to provide back-story to the mystery but he’s a bit too chatty and unmotivated for his plans to succeed. Apart from obvious parallels of jokey circus stereotypes with costumed superheroes, the basic season–arc theme is typical friction between white-collar crooks and blue-collar thugs.


The main point of soapy irritation is a flashback surplus with parental bonding of Faraday and his young son. The hero and villains socialise through their inner–child parade for the masquerade party aboard a runaway train. Mena Suvari guests as vengeful savant Dice. Elliott Gould plays Chess’ doctor/ shrink. Fake deaths paralyse Palm City folk: “Terrorist zombies? Now that’s a bad combination.”

A drug-trip nightmare wedding ceremony in an asylum for captive Orwell distinguishes two-parter The Lich, while Razer sees Faraday going undercover to impersonate a bomb-maker. Genre interest wanes whenever producers try making straightforward drama of eccentrics, weirdoes and madmen, and their storylines start slipping into clichéd soap opera, as Heroes so often did. Inevitably, there’s a big showdown and yet, also predictably, the chief baddie Fleming wriggles away to escape justice. This is no copycat of Kick-Ass or Super, because The Cape isn’t cheaply jaded, or bitterly ironic, and presents a trad comicbook style with a retro feel that’s modestly entertaining.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Ltd.

Everyone’s dream is to reach the next level; to be far more than ordinary. LIMITLESS (2011) sees author Eddie struggling through writer’s block, until acquiring a stash of designer drugs which increase his potential, radically. The enhanced-Eddie’s brain upgrade runs intelligence at peak efficiency; focused learning and problem-solving-energy that’s on with a capital O, capital N. Total recall, clarity of thought, spiky reasoning, fresh perspectives, and vaulting imagination but human nature’s sys op is hampered by greed. On NZT pills, Eddie becomes New York City’s wonder boy. A high flyer, go–getter, and jet–setter, he’s making headlines until - suddenly, his life moves so swiftly he can’t keep up and a burn-out seems inevitable, more so when he’s facing a final test (working De Niro) of outsmarting the crooked capitalist Van Loon.  

Despite its blatant symbolism – an inverted camera shows Eddie’s world turned upside down, Neil Burger’s SF thriller boasts a likeable star (Bradley Cooper, A-Team remake, Midnight Meat Train, Alias TV series) ably portraying the mental crashes of an addict off his smart meds, even though he’s less convincing as a born-again genius. The narrative climax is a bloodily violent interrogation and subsequent getaway, that follows genre references to Flowers For Algernon (see also Charly, Lawnmower Man), and The Man Who Fell To Earth, while toying with allegories of Lazarus and Icarus, and yet it is really nothing more than Wall Street rebooted as sci-fi suspenser.

Eddie fails to go further than corporate–merger broker, overlooking the fact that no matter how quick a student he is, there’s just no substitute for the kind of hard-won experience that produces genuine wisdom. The DVD has two versions of a happy ending, the better/ preferred choice of which also manages a neat and uncanny trick of quietly dramatising a face-to-face handover of power between Van Loon - representing the corrupt old guard of 20th century saps, and fast Eddie who is aiming much higher as possibly the next stage in human evolution.

Since I wrote this movie review five years ago, there’s been a spin-off TV series but it was cancelled after one season (to be released on DVD, 22nd August).