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Posts Tagged ‘2011’

When not surveying the slowly collapsing political and cultural outlook for my country, or indeed contemplating the great empty spaces of my own soul, one of the ways I like to spend my time is to ponder who the funniest one on Parks and Recreation is. Sometimes I think it’s Chris Pratt. Sometimes I think it’s Adam Scott. Most of the time, I have to say, I’m convinced it’s Nick Offerman. But occasionally I think it’s Aubrey Plaza.

Was this the reason I ended up putting Safety Not Guaranteed on my DVD rental list? I’m not really sure, for I have no memory of actually doing so. I suspect the words ‘time travel’ in the description of the film may have had something to do with it.

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This movie came out in 2011 and was directed by Colin Trevorrow. Plaza largely recycles her Parks and Recreation persona as Darius, a disaffected intern working for a magazine based in Seattle. The position is hardly fulfilling, but a bizarre advert in a newspaper’s classified ads section offers a brief diversion, if nothing else: someone is advertising for a companion to accompany them on a trip back in time.

At an editorial meeting Darius’ co-worker Jeff (Jake Johnson) proposes they go and investigate the ad as the basis of a tongue-in-cheek piece for the magazine. It’s only when they arrive in small town where the poster of the advert lives that Jeff reveals this is just an excuse for them to have a bit of an out-of-town break. An old girlfriend of his lives in the same town and he’s intent on hooking up with her again, so he leaves Darius to handle the actual investigating.

Darius soon makes contact with the would-be time traveller. His name is Kenneth (played by Mark Duplass) and he is just a bit paranoid – but given that there seem to be government agents taking an interest in his activities, perhaps he has a right to be. Darius soon finds herself growing fascinated by this strange dreamer, and perhaps even wanting to believe he really does have a time machine…

It’s always a bit rattling to find yourself completely out of step with the majority of the world, but I find myself in just this position when it comes to Safety Not Guaranteed. This is a movie with a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the recipient of a large number of awards from esteemed sources like Sundance, Independent Spirit, and the Tel Aviv International Fantastic Festival. And yet I found it borderline annoying, occasionally dull, largely unconvincing, and generally underwhelming.

This is obviously a modest, low-budget film, and given those constraints it looks impressive. It reminded me in some ways of the same year’s Another Earth, in that it uses a generic plot device to explore introspective and personal themes of regret and isolation. In both cases the actual plot device is a Maguffin – in the case of Safety Not Included the question of whether or not Kenneth’s time machine works or not is irrelevant to the plot for virtually the entire duration of the film. To put it another way: Primer this ain’t.

Then again, I have to note that this movie is described as a comedy, not an SF film, and I probably shouldn’t get too incensed about the fact that it’s a time travel film that doesn’t actually have any time travel in it. On the other hand, I think the fact that it’s a comedy which didn’t make me laugh once throughout its length is reasonable grounds for criticism. I wasn’t even sure which bits are actually supposed to be funny – are we supposed to be laughing at Kenneth for being such a geeky weirdo? Perhaps I am just too kindly-disposed towards geeky weirdos, being one myself, but there’s also the fact that he’s the romantic interest of the movie and thus surely not an obvious figure of fun.

I suppose I should mention that the central relationship between Plaza and Duplass did not convince me in the slightest. I suspect the intended arc here is for Plaza to go from jaded cynicism to a new-found hopefulness as a result of her interaction with Duplass’ character, but either the script isn’t careful enough in spelling this out or Plaza simply doesn’t yet have the skill as an actress to make it work. As it is, the main character in this film simply comes across as a slightly less malevolent version of Ron Swanson’s PA.

Completely non-genre related, by the way, is the second story strand about Jeff’s attempt to recapture his youthful experiences with old girlfriend Liz (Jenica Bergere). For some reason this relationship did ring true for me, and there’s almost a genuine sense of pathos as it doesn’t work out for them – but the Jeff character is too broadly crass the rest of the time for it to be really affecting.

Still, given the theme of the film as a whole is a desire to revisit the past, at least it has a sort of thematic unity, and a definite technical competence. It just doesn’t have any laughs, new ideas, genuine surprises, or a central relationship that really convinces. But, as I say, everyone else seems to disagree with me, and your mileage may differ.

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Well, only a few days now until every other film currently on release is utterly steamrollered by the arrival of the first bit of Rear-Admiral Professor Sir Peter Jackson OBE KGB BBFC’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink adaptation of The Hobbit, and the publicity machine is in full swing. One story which particularly caught my eye concerned the makers of the film choosing to issue a lawsuit against The Asylum, notorious producers of cheapie cash-in ‘mockbusters’, in an attempt to get them to retitle their own imminent movie Age of the Hobbits.

I don’t know, folks, but I couldn’t imagine this news being greeted with anything but delight at Asylum HQ, because this is obviously the biggest advertising boost that any of their films could possibly receive. Do New Line honestly believe that anyone other than a severe mental defective, or possibly someone’s gran, is going to confuse The Hobbit (budget circa $450m, stars including Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving) with Age of the Hobbits (budget probably about $55, stars including a bloke off the TV Stargate and a woman off Celebrity Rehab)? It’s a stupid decision which appears at least partly based on the belief that the public is stupid too – New Line claim they want to stop The Asylum stealing their publicity, but this seems to be a singularly counterproductive way of doing it.

The Asylum are old hands at this sort of thing, and it helps a bit when the property they’re ripping off is in the public domain to begin with. Such was the case with their bash at doing a version of 3 Musketeers, last year, the resulting film being directed, or so it’s claimed, by Cole McKay.

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Hmmm, look at those authentic period costumes and backgrounds. I’ve no idea what they’re doing on the DVD sleeve, as the film itself starts with a montage of spy satellites and military bases and weapons, all edited so frantically and haphazardly I had to check and make sure the film was playing at the right speed. Unfortunately, it was.

The story proper opens with a stretch limo arriving at a North Korean military base. Inside are a little Asian guy, an American man with a very yellow shirt, and a woman with legs. The legs are clearly important as the camera points at them a lot. Once inside the base, which is slightly shoddy-looking and surprisingly empty of North Koreans, some sort of clever plan gets underway as the little guy starts beating up the few people in sight and the woman with the legs takes off her coat to reveal only lingerie beneath it. This would be more agreeable were she clearly not ever-so-slightly too fond of burgers.

This was shaping up to be one of those movies where things just happen in front of the camera for no reason at all, but even so I was somewhat shocked when the three main characters started calling each other Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Yes indeed, these are our heroes, members of an elite US spy group known as the Musketeers. I had no idea modern espionage involved quite so much running up and down corridors in your knickers carrying a pump-action shotgun.

The Musketeers, it transpires, are on a mission for someone codenamed the Cardinal (played by Alan Rachins, once of LA Law and possibly the best known person involved), which involves hacking into NKPR missile defences. (Porthos, he of the yellow shirt, is a wizzy nerdy hacker.) This done, however, the Cardinal reveals himself to be a bad egg by making the North Korean missiles shoot down a civilian airliner. What a fiend! The Musketeers duly escape via CGI.

Back in the States we meet (oh, God) young NSA Agent Alex D’Artagnan (Heather Hemmens), who at least looks nice in a trouser suit. We are informed with great subtlety that a) one of her ancestors served as an actual musketeer for Louis XIII and b) she herself is a former Olympic fencer. Could this possibly foreshadow an attempt at crowbarring an actual sword fight into the movie? Well, yes.

Anyway, D’Artagnan winds up with a Maguffin holding the secrets of the Cardinal’s plan to start a war between America and North Korea and has to go on the run from the authorities after she is framed for murder. All in a day’s work I suppose. Naturally she ends up having to find the three Musketeers and persuade them to help her foil the Cardinal’s strangely under-resourced scheme. Many bits nicked from Mission Impossible and Lethal Weapon turn up before the startling climax.

Suffice to say this involves Milady de Winter being beheaded by a helicopter rotor, Porthos shouting ‘I’ll Control-Alt-Delete your ass!’ at Rochefort (here renamed Rockford, rather cutely) and Athos punching the Cardinal in the balls. Meanwhile, D’Artagnan is confronting another villain in the Camp David conference room – but what’s that over there, casually popped into an umbrella stand in the corner? It – it’s not a couple of swords, is it? What, it is? You mean 3 Musketeers is actually going to finish with a sword fight? I never would have seen that coming…

Yes, this actually makes the dreadful Paul WS Anderson version of the story (which it is supposedly cashing in on) – you know, the one with the battling airships – look quite faithful to Dumas. The DVD sleeve with the swords and the period costumes is certainly not terribly accurate, and indeed it appears that another cover was also produced, which is a bit more on the money. Here it is:

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As you may just have noticed, The Asylum have taken a few liberties with the story – in fact, all that remains are the names of the characters, and it seems that most of those are faked. As to whether they’re named after Dumas’ fictitious musketeers, or if those characters are historically real in this film, it’s tempting to say things get a bit confused, but that would imply some level of functioning intelligence at work elsewhere in the making of this film.

In the past I’ve owned up to enjoying bad movies a bit more than I probably should, and I always sort of thought of myself as a connoisseur of the form, but watching 3 Musketeers is like breaking into a whole new world of utter shite. There’s no shame in working to a low budget, but that doesn’t excuse the static and lifeless camerawork, and especially the editing, which appears to be the work of someone with some kind of neurological disorder. In places the storytelling breaks down completely: at one point D’Artagnan is trapped on the roof of a building by bad guys, but clearly the budget would not extend to actually getting her down off it. Instead there is a baffling CGI shot of something unexplained going by the camera and the next thing she is driving off in her car.

The Asylum clearly go in for duff CGI in a big way, as this movie is littered with it: helicopters, explosions, planes, explosions, U-Cavs, explosions. Unfortunately they can’t CGI a convincing Maryland background, or indeed Camp David itself, which is why the presidential retreat is cunningly camouflaged as someone’s holiday home in the San Fernando Valley. Nor can they CGI a half-decent performance onto anyone in the cast.

Well, it’s The Asylum, what else should I have been expecting? This is the first of their films that I’ve actually sat down and watched, and I suspect it will be the last. Their horror offerings (Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus, Mega Python Vs Gatoroid) apparently show signs of an ironic sensibility – not that this is really much of an excuse, surely – but there is nothing like that here. This is just cheap, stupid, unimaginative junk – whether that’s better than the expensive, stupid, overblown junk of the Anderson version, I don’t know. I don’t think it really matters: in the end, junk is junk.

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To go with all this ongoing stuff about Babylon 5, a taste of another sort of Babylon. It is, I suspect, one of the abiding shames of my family that I, the son of generations of serious sportsmen and particularly cricketers, have no physical co-ordination or flair to speak of. Possibly it’s just that I am a bit too competitive for my own good: I don’t like to do anything unless I can be genuinely good at it, and  – in the case of sports and games – challenge for the win every time. I’m not physically gifted enough to enjoy sport.

However, I can appreciate a great sporting story as much as the next person, whether that is a personal narrative or a wider social and political one. I know that in the past I have been a bit dismissive of sports bio-pics, but I’ve never had a problem with sports documentaries. One such film is Stevan Riley’s Fire in Babylon, an account of the rise to world domination of the West Indian cricket team.

Riley’s film opens by setting the scene: the Caribbean in the 1960s, with political changes afoot. With former colonies such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Antigua all winning independence, the growth of a new West Indian consciousness and identity was in progress, sweeping through all aspects of the culture. This of course also permeated into the most popular sport in the region, cricket.

Unfortunately, in the early 1970s, the West Indian team was in no shape to fly the flag for the countries it represented. Routinely dismissed as ‘Calypso cricketers’, they were renowned as being great entertainers but not truly a competitive side. This changed with the appointment of Clive Lloyd as the captain and the 1975 Test series against Australia.

The hammering meted out by the Australians, especially their fast bowlers Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, prompted Lloyd to refashion the side along much more aggressive lines, with the deployment of a ferocious pace attack of their own, in support of one of the game’s greatest ever batsmen…

And it’s the story of this transformation and what followed which is the meat of the film. As a document on Caribbean culture, it’s never less than engaging, and makes a good companion piece to Kevin Macdonald’s Marley – in addition to using some of the same archive footage, they have at least one contributor in common, in the unmistakable form of Bunny Wailer – Wailer’s contributions are always interesting, even if he does spend quite a lot of time shouting at a passing dog.

However, it’s as an insight into the world of international cricket that Fire in Babylon is genuinely eye-opening. I’ve always thought of cricket in terms of jolly good chaps in whites being, fundamentally, fairly decent and sporting to each other, even in the most competitive of fixtures. This conception of the game is comprehensively destroyed very early on in the film. The legendary Windies player Viv Richards is essentially depicted as some kind of warrior prince. He explicitly refers to his bat as a sword at one point, along with his desire to put people to it. The team’s quartet of fast bowlers in the late 70s were cheerfully nicknamed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. One of them, Andy Roberts, calmly objects to claims his style was based around intentionally trying to hit opposing batsmen. ‘I was not a hit man,’ he declares, his face a picture of benign solemnity. ‘Nevertheless, people did get hit.’

This is not surprising when you consider that the kind of fast bowling under discussion involves people throwing very small, very hard projectiles at each other at speeds of over 90mph – bone-breaking impacts are a distinct possibility. If there’s an argument to be made that this sort of thing may not be the stuff genuine sport consists of, Fire in Babylon does not make it – instead, the film is keen to point out that the Australians were there first, and the West Indies only matched them. Archive footage shows Dennis Lillee explaining why the possibility of serious physical injury was central to the pace attack tactic, as it – understandably – made the receiving batsman think more about staying in one piece than actually playing the ball.

And the vicious sledging employed by the Australians is also singled out for attention, as more evidence that the West Indies were compelled to become a harder, stronger team in order to compete. This is, throughout, a partisan film – the story is told exclusively from the West Indian point of view, with no real time given to critics outside of archive footage. (Quite surprisingly, there’s no real discussion of Viv Richards’ unique approach to dealing with sledgers: after failing to hit several successive balls, one bowler told Richards, ‘It’s red, round and weighs about five ounces, if you were wondering’ – Richards hit the next delivery out of the ground into a river and suggested to the bowler, ‘You know what it looks like, now go and find it.’) Even Colin Croft is given time to explain his decision to participate in a rebel tour of South Africa, where he was designated an ‘honorary white’, although the outrage accompanying this event is also commented upon.

The political aspect of the West Indies’ rise to the total domination they enjoyed for a decade and a half is treated in some depth, and I personally found myself wondering if some of this wasn’t just a little overstated. Then again, it’s not all that long ago that Norman Tebbit was proposing that cricketing allegiance should be used as a test of whether someone was truly British or not, so I could be wrong. Statements concerning the quintessentially African nature of West Indian fast bowling still struck me as a little dubious, not to mention Bunny Wailer’s declaration that Viv Richards was some sort of stealth Rastafarian.

It’s become a tedious old saw that a great documentary takes a subject and makes it fascinating even to those previously totally ignorant of it. Fire in Babylon is a intelligent, enjoyable, cleverly assembled film, and its only real flaw is that it pitches its deliveries too much to those who are already fans of cricket in general and West Indian cricket in particular. A few more dissenting voices and a little more objectivity might have made an already good film into something really special.

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There’s nothing wrong with niche film-making, of course, but sometimes the box office figures tell a story of their own: as modern budgets go, $10 million is barely a trifle, but even so, if your film only pulls in $3000 you’re still going to be having a long and uncomfortable conversation with the head of the studio. Such was the fate of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, and it suggests that there just aren’t enough fans of pretentious arthouse apocalyptic SF movies featuring Eva Green getting ’em out for such a project to be financially viable. The revelations one stumbles across sometimes.

Eva Green brings her usual off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent to the role of Susan, an epidemiologist in contemporary Glasgow. Her life is quite nondescript, as is that of Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef she encounters via a slightly laboured cute-meet early on. Both of them have commitment issues; hey ho.

However, a strange affliction takes hold across the globe: people experience sudden surges of melancholia, followed by the total and permanent loss of their sense of smell. No-one knows what’s causing it, or how it’s spreading, but spreading it is – and soon everyone is affected. However, people adapt and life returns to a close semblence of what it previously was (although one assumes that sales of deodorant take a bit of a knock). Michael and Susan embark upon a relationship. But then it becomes apparent that the phenomenon is progressive: people are now starting to lose their sense of taste, as well. The obvious question is on everyone’s minds – how long can society survive if the other, more vital senses are lost?

Now, this sounds like the premise for a bleak SF catastrophe movie, and to some extent Perfect Sense delivers on this – the scenes of collapsing civilisation towards the end of the film are well-mounted and convincing – but this is really not a genre piece in quite that sense. I’ve heard this movie compared to Melancholia, in that both films combine what are ostensibly SF themes with a more psychological, internal focus, but this film is not as accomplished.

The main problem is that it’s too obvious that the writer and director are not interested in the collapse-of-society story per se: it’s just a device by which they can explore their real concerns, which are all to do with what it is that makes life worth living, the nature of relationships, the power of emotions, and so on – and it’s written to suit those concerns. Judged as a proper piece of SF, Perfect Sense is sorely wanting – one could perhaps excuse the lack of cause given for the progressive sensory shutdown, but not the fact that it’s such a precise and coy little affliction, much inclined to entice histrionics from the cast. No reason is given as to why the loss of each sense is accompanied by everyone experiencing the same emotion to a heightened level, but one is invited to draw the obvious conclusion that a point is being made about feeling on a personal as well as a perceptual level.

Am I saying that this film is heavy-handed? Er – yes. Several moments have the lead characters pausing just to fully appreciate whichever sense they’re fearful of losing next, and these are Loaded With Significance to a much greater degree than they require. One sequence about the pleasures of being tactile turns into an extended bout of whoa-ho-ho between McGregor and Green. There’s quite a lot of this sort of thing, to the point where it even becomes a bit desensitising: certainly by the end I found myself playing Whose Leg Is That? rather than feeling particularly stimulated.

A further problem is that, even if you’re prepared to meet the film halfway and buy into the improbable central premise as an idea, the way it’s actually implemented is actually quite preposterous. A grave voice-over by an omniscient narrator doesn’t help much when her account of ‘a single moment of hunger… and then taste was gone forever’ is accompanied by scenes of McGregor, Green, and various other players squirting mustard down their throats, eating lipstick, seizing hungrily on live rabbits, and so on. It just looks ridiculous – a scene later on where the leads try to make the most of their new situation by eating soap doesn’t help, either.

Now in theory I’d be prepared to forgive Perfect Sense a lot, because attempting to combine genre SF ideas and proper character-based emotional drama seems to me to be a potentially interesting area, but whatever it’s trying to say about relationships and emotions is either so subtle and profound I completely missed it, or utterly obvious and banal. And the central romance does not engage: the two characters are not quite, as McGregor at one point suggests, Mr and Mrs Arsehole, but neither are they people you’d particularly want to spend time with. She has no vulnerability, he has no depth; they are quite self-absorbed and humourless.

At least the romance plotline gives a counterpoint to the otherwise progressively more downbeat story of the death of civilisation. The fact that the film attempts to end on a positive, upbeat note, at a moment when the life expectancy of the human race can probably be measured in weeks, tells you everything about the preoccupations of this film. It’s nicely made and the performances aren’t awful, but it is quite pretentious and much more concerned with theme than narrative. Not a complete waste of time by any means, and it does have a certain sort of originality – but annoying and bemusing much more often than actually satisfying.

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It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that foreign-language movies are much more likely to get a prominent UK release – by which I mean a release which extends beyond the doors of the local arthouse – if they’re a genre movie of some kind. Now, my memory is possibly selective – a cineaste colleague recently described me as a ‘real genre boy’ in a manner someone less easy-going might describe as condescending – but thinking back, the subtitled movies I’ve seen in the last couple of years that have been showing outside the arthouse have been Headhunters (thriller) and The Raid (headbanging action insanity). More subtle fare like Le Quattro Volte, Habemus Papam, and 13 Assassins (maybe not so subtle in the last case) have failed to break out into the mainstream.

One Norwegian film which did manage this feat, albeit briefly, was one which I was annoyed to miss last Autumn (I was busy at the time trying to teach a Syrian TV star and the national kickboxing champion of the same country how to use the past perfect). The film in question is Andre Ovredal’s Trolljegeren – anyone aware of my frequent uncertainty as to how to refer to foreign films will be delighted to learn this movie is called Troll Hunter in the UK, Trollhunter in the US, and The Troll Hunter in Canada.

This is yet another movie in the found footage style, purporting to have been assembled from some mysterious raw footage shot by three students who have inexplicably vanished. Initially setting out to make a documentary about some bear attacks, the trio cross the path of Hans (Otto Jespersen), an enigmatic and rather bad-tempered loner who always seems to be in the area when bear-related things occur. Licenced bear hunters suggest he may be a poacher, but the truth is much stranger.

Following Hans, the students discover that he is (and the title of the movie may have given you a clue in this direction) a troll hunter. Or, to be more precise, the troll hunter. Hans works for the ultra-top-secret Troll Security Service agency of the Norwegian government. Trolls exist, as a widely diverse group of peculiar creatures, most of them extremely dangerous. As long as they remain in the preserves the government maintains for them, they are tolerated – but should they wander into human territory for any reason, it falls to Hans to put them down. Initially incredulous, the students agree to film Hans as he goes about his work, regardless of the danger this may place them in…

I’m usually loath to lapse into that lazy shorthand of describing a film in terms of ‘it’s X meets Y!’, but I’ve been racking my brains and have yet to come up with a better description of Troll Hunter than the one concocted by Dr K when the film was released – he said it was ‘The Blair Witch Project as made by Frank Oz’ (Oz is, of course, the ex-muppeteer and former Miss Piggy turned director of rather variable films). It certainly falls into the same odd category as a cluster of recent films like Apollo 18 and Chronicle, in that it’s a film which utilises the ‘instant verite’ quality of the found footage/mock documentary style in the service of a story which is utter fantasy. There’s no danger of anyone being taken in for a second, runs the standard objection to this sort of thing, so why bother at all?

Well, Troll Hunter is a bit less open to this kind of criticism than the other two films I mentioned, in that while it may be a fantasy, and at times border on being a horror movie, it is also a comedy. It’s a comedy of a very particular and extremely deadpan kind, and the grave captions introducing the film and outlining its supposed background are part of this.

The film’s best jokes come from the juxtaposition of the fantastical nature of Hans’ work and the tedious minutiae of what it actually involves – having turned a troll to stone by using a UV lamp to mimic the rays of the sun, Hans has to break it up with a pneumatic drill and sell the remains off as gravel. He agrees to participate in the film not because he thinks the public will be interested or should know, but because he’s unhappy with the terms of his contract and (it’s implied) enjoys winding up his superior, who’s in charge of covering up his activities. We get a brief, hilarious glimpse of a DEAD TROLL REPORT form, a very authentic-looking piece of bureaucratic red tape he is required to complete on a regular basis.

This kind of thing will quite probably not be everyone’s idea of a rip-roaring yuk-fest, and neither will the film’s other main area of interest, which is to enthusiastically attempt to come up with a scientific rationalisation for all the fairy tale characteristics trolls traditionally have – turning to stone in the sunlight, being able to smell the blood of Christians, and so on. Even when it can’t manage a proper rationale, the film still incorporates these ideas in a peculiarly logical way.

It may be that this sort of thing is the height of broad comedy down Oslo way, but for me it had a rather unusual flavour – I suspect there is a lot of topical and cultural Norwegian satire going on here as well, a lot of which obviously went right over my head. Some things do travel, though – there’s an amusing scene in which it is revealed that the Troll Security Service has been forced to subcontract out some of its work, at which point a van full of enthusiastic but not especially effective Polish migrant workers turns up.

On the whole, though, this is a rather strange film in the way it mixes fantastical ideas and full-on CGI with subtle black humour and downbeat naturalism. The CGI is obviously very good – there isn’t a huge amount of troll screen-time, but when they’re on they’re very convincing. The cast also do well to bring as much reality to the story as they manage. But it is still essentially a one-joke film, and the mockumentary format starts to get a little bit weary after a while, with perhaps a few too many scenes of the cast wandering around after dark in the Norwegian woods. While the film has moments where it almost generates real suspense or tension, the found footage style somehow manages to get in the way of these.

I was happy to finally catch up with Troll Hunter, which indeed turned out to be the rather bizarre movie I had expected – interesting, technically impressive and drolly amusing, but really lacking in a strong central narrative. Nevertheless, I understand that, inevitably, the US remake rights have been sold. The mind boggles as to what Hollywood will do with a film like this one, but I’m prepared to bet it won’t be pretty.

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One day someone will make a movie in which the main character moves into a delightful and surprisingly cheap new apartment, and goes on to have a thoroughly pleasant and life-affirming time with the new friends they make there. However, to the best of my knowledge this day has not yet dawned, and even if it has then the film in question is not Antti Jokinen’s 2011 offering The Resident.

Despite a good cast, this movie is mainly notable as a product of the resurrected Hammer Films, with all the associations that brings with it. However, rather than being a full-on excursion into horror, The Resident finds the House in Mystery and Suspense mode – this is an heir to old-school Hammer thrillers like The Nanny, Fear in the Night and Straight on Till Morning rather than the studio’s celebrated gothic extravaganzas. The comparisons in this case are particularly inviting, mainly because of the presence in the cast of Sir Christopher Lee, one of the company’s greatest icons.

And so to the plot. Spoilers await; this is that sort of movie. Hilary Swank (one of those actresses who always reminds me of someone else, but I’m never completely sure who) plays Juliet Devereau, a New York City doctor who – as previously alluded – is looking for some new digs after a romance-related embuggerance. After all the usual problems people have with this sort of thing in movies, she happens upon a delightful and surprisingly cheap new apartment, leased by the apparently studly Max (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). What luck! Even the unsettling presence of Max’s elderly grandfather August (Lee) does not put her off.

The little frisson going on between Juliet and Max is sufficient to take her mind off the vexed question of whether or not to forgive her unfaithful possibly-ex-boyfriend and the perhaps more pressing issue of whether or not someone is creeping around her apartment behind her back. But even so, the dilemma remains: no matter how hunky and charming he is, should you sleep with your landlord?

Well, my landlord is a happily married bald septugenarian called Raymond who reads the Daily Mail, so that’s a bit of a non-issue for me, but as a general principle I think probably not, especially when your landlord is secretly a obsessive psycho who’s renovated your apartment to have less actual privacy than the Big Brother house. And lo, this turns out to be the case with Max. The film has one great revelatory moment where – having previously been told entirely from Juliet’s point-of-view – it rewinds and shows events again, from Max’s perspective this time. Suffice to say he is not the ideal landlord he has previously been depicted to be.

This bit comes quite early on; arguably too early on, to be honest. With it out of the way all we are left with is a film about a woman and her stalker, with the main points of interest being a) exactly what’s he going to do to her? and b) how long before she figures out his game and we get to the bit with the kitchen knives? (There’s always a bit with kitchen knives in this kind of film.) The answers are a) the usual stuff, but also some really unpleasant shenanigans involving him drugging her while she’s asleep and b) about 75 minutes or so.

That said, both of the lead performances are reasonably good. In the past I have grumbled at length about Hollywood’s fondness for taking luminously talented, Oscar-winning young actresses and stuffing them inelegantly into dimbo genre movies (see: Halle Berry in Catwoman, Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux, Natalie Portman in Thor, and so on), but if the alternative to that is to wind up in this kind of low-rent, low-octane cobblers, I would suggest that Hilary Swank (a double Oscar winner, no less) get her agent on the phone and start lobbying hard to play Tigra or the Scarlet Witch in the next Avengers movie. In any case, Swank’s role here is so nondescript there isn’t really very much she can do with it. Morgan actually manages to give his character a bit of pathos and depth, which is fine until you remember what an absolutely repulsive piece of work he is.

I suppose this to some extent reflects the central dichotomy at the heart of this kind of fem. jeop. exploitation movie: like good citizens, we’re ultimately all siding with the female protagonist (well, I hope we are), but many of us have probably only turned up on the understanding that prior to her triumph there will be scenes where the camera (much like the bad guy) spies on her in the bath, watches her changing and rubbing on skin lotion, etc. This is all incidental, by the way; The Resident is in no way smart enough to address this kind of stuff consciously.

Which leaves us with the presence in the movie of the great, nay, legendary Christopher Lee. To be perfectly honest Lee is much more prominent on the poster than he is in the film itself – I suspect he gets more on-screen time in Revenge of the Sith than he does here. To be blunt, he’s barely in it, and his character functions only to suggest a possible reason why Max is as messed up as he is, and to serve as a red herring as to who it is that’s spying on Juliet at the start before All Is Revealed. Even in this cough-and-spit cameo, Lee still manages to blow everyone else off the screen: he’s still an effortlessly creepy presence. There’s a bit where he’s talking to Swank and whispers ‘I get very lonely, you know’ – and despite the 52-year age gap between them, the suggestion that he’s coming on to her is unsettling rather than absurd. Alas, the movie makes very little use of its greatest asset and the film may prove to be notable in Lee’s mammoth filmography simply for the fact he fell over on set and did his back in, resulting in the seeming-frailness of the great man in recent public appearances.

There really isn’t anything else to make The Resident stand out from any one of a dozen other cheap and not especially cheerful direct-to-DVD psycho-thrillers. The plot trundles along, never really thrilling or surprising, none of the major characters is especially vivid or engaging, and  – the narrative flourish previously mentioned excepted – there’s not one moment in it you don’t see coming some considerable way in advance. I have to say that I’ve always found the old-school Hammer thrillers rather wanting compared to their fantasy and horror movies, but even the most pedestrian of those had more of interest about them than The Resident. Probably one for Hammer and Lee completists only.

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Looking back through the collected works, it occurs to me that I may, on occasion, have come across as just a bit snarky and oh-ho-ho about the life and works of Jason Statham – ‘my kitchen can act better’ (about The Transporter), ‘a nuanced performer he is not’ (Transporter 2), ‘Statham in genuinely good movie shocker’ (Killer Elite), and so on. I think I am guilty of misrepresenting myself, as I’ve never seen a Statham-led movie I haven’t enjoyed on some level, but more importantly doing the man himself a disservice: Statham is clearly aware of his own range as a performer and operates inside it exceedingly well. He hasn’t quite made a gilt-edged classic yet, but neither has he put his name to a complete dog (it’s just occurred to me that I should watch Revolver before throwing that kind of assertion about).

On the other hand, it might not go amiss were he to stretch himself just a little more in his choice of roles – because long stretches of Simon West’s The Mechanic are virtually interchangeable with bits from other Statham movies, or other recent action movies generally. It has the same colour-saturated cinematography, the same kind of graphic design, the same aesthetic, the same sensibility – with the insertion of a bare minimum of new material I suspect you could edit The Mechanic, Colombiana, either of the first two Transporters and Haywire together into one sprawling six-hour epic, so very similar are all of these movies.

In The Mechanic Jason Statham plays… well, officially, someone called Arthur Bishop, but really he’s just playing his standard Jason Statham Character. (There’s a broad unity between most of his roles, moreso even than with the average action movie star.) For the benefit of newcomers, the Jason Statham Character is a highly skilled and extremely dangerous mercenary, who is also either blessed or saddled with a strict code of personal honour which he does his best to abide by at all times. He has feelings, but most of the time he knows better than to show or act upon them – except when the plot demands it, of course. In this movie the Jason Statham Character is a professional assassin who specialises in invisible killings (making it look like an accident, in other words).

The Jason Statham Character’s code is stretched, however, when he is called upon to terminate his own mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland), who has apparently gone bad. He initially demurs from this, but the client – another member of the same nebulous organisation – is insistent and makes the point that surely the Jason Statham Character would prefer to do it himself, and be sure that Harry doesn’t suffer unnecessarily. Harry himself expresses relief on the same point when the deed is actually done – there’s a strange commingling of sentiment and brutality here which I found rather creepy, to be honest.

Anyway, motivated largely by guilt, the Jason Statham Character takes on Harry’s troubled son Steve (Ben Foster) as an apprentice – not bothering to tell him that he killed his father, of course. Needless to say, Steve has issues of all kinds, which perhaps mean he’s not the best person for this line of work. And what will happen if he ever finds out the truth about his father’s demise…?

Well, The Mechanic is a solidly competent action thriller which should satisfy fans of both the genre and Statham himself. That it isn’t anything more is a shame, because West has previously shown himself to be a superior director and there are flashes here of what could have been a rather more accomplished movie.

Part of the problem is that the movie could really use another fifteen or twenty minutes to add onto the relatively brief running time: for most of its length the film is building up the relationship between Bishop and Steve, and at the same time increasing one’s expectations of what will kick off when – inevitably – Steve learns the truth about his father’s death. One kind of expects the climax of the movie to be an extended battle of wits and skill between master and apprentice. Suffice to say it’s nothing of the sort; the bulk of the movie turns out to revolve around a seen-this-before hero-is-screwed-over-by-his-own-employers plot, with the stuff you’ve been expecting handled in a very cursory way almost as an afterthought.

So the plot is a bit lopsided and doesn’t deliver on what it appears to be promising. On the other hand, what it delivers instead is a series of effective action sequences and character bits, slickly assembled and presented. Some of it is a little far-fetched – it’s a fairly big ask to have as total a professional as Bishop decide to take a loose cannon like Steve on as a trainee – but the script and (to be fair to him) Statham both work hard to make Bishop’s guilt (and thus his desire to help Harry’s son) plausible. As I mentioned, there’s nothing really very new going on here, but what does happen is playing to the strengths of the performers.

And, as I mentioned, there are moments that lift the film briefly above the average – early on we see Bishop meeting a woman in a bar, they dance, it then transpires they’re lovers – and you think, ah ha, she’s the girlfriend who doesn’t know what his job is, she’s going to get caught in the middle of this and force him to reappraise his lifestyle. But almost instantly the film kicks all this out from under you: she’s simply a prostitute Bishop regularly uses, and for all that she’s the top-billed woman she’s barely in the film (no pun intended). Your expectation of the worst kind of cliches is, refreshingly, not met. This kind of intelligence in a genre movie is welcome no matter how fleetingly it manifests itself.

This is a movie with a slightly harder edge than many action films, but not to the point where it ever becomes too gruelling or realistic to be entertaining. That said, there’s a slightly lurid flavour to it in a couple of places – a couple of incidental victims of the two hitmen both turn out to be sex offenders, for no other reason than to reassure the audience that they really do deserve to be executed. I can really do without this kind of material, to be honest: a dumb action movie it may be, but this just struck me as salacious and unnecessary.

Apart from this there was very little in The Mechanic I found myself taking exception to and a lot that I rather enjoyed. I must confess that a little more of Statham himself, properly in action, wouldn’t have gone amiss, but his actual performances these days are more than competent enough to lead a movie with the minimum of martial arts nonsense being required. This movie doesn’t quite give you exactly what it suggests it will, but it comes close enough to be satisfying.

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