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Posts Tagged ‘2012’

We have apparently lived through some sort of mini-Golden Age of the Documentary Feature – don’t tell me you missed it! – with films like Searching for Sugar Man, Project Nim, Man on Wire, and The Imposter all drawing serious attention from audiences not usually noted for their interest in non-fictitious times. Given this embarrassment of riches, it’s not really surprising that the odd really interesting film managed to sneak through without getting the profile it possibly deserved.

I’m thinking at the moment of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, which came out in 2012. On reflection, perhaps it’s understandable that this is a film with more niche appeal – most of the ones mentioned at the top of the review were based around taking a fascinating but little-known true story and bringing it to life for a new audience. Room 237 is not this kind of film. This is a film for, let’s be honest, movie nerds, and people who are interested in movie nerdery.

 

There have been lots of good movies made about the making of other movies, some semi-fictional, some not. Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining (in which Jack Nicholson moves himself and his family into an isolated hotel for the winter and comes down with the hammiest case of writer’s block in movie history). It is not, however, a film about the making of The Shining. It is a film in which various obscure movie nerds give their opinions as to what was going through Stanley Kubrick’s head when he was making The Shining.

Now, I have to be honest and admit the following: I’ve only ever seen The Shining once, over twenty years ago, and it’s one of those films I came away from wondering what all the fuss was about – it was curious, engaging, obviously made by someone with a very particular storytelling sensibility – but it wasn’t, you know, particularly frightening, which is surely the sine qua non of any self-respecting horror film (which, being based on an early Stephen King novel, this surely is).

Not knowing The Shining particularly well makes watching Room 237 (the title is drawn from a key location in the story) a rather curious experience. I have no particularly strongly-held beliefs about what this film is secretly about. I am not even sure I subscribe to the view that it even contains a secret message of any kind. However, Room 237 is populated by people who are absolutely certain that beneath its tale of psychological breakdown and (possibly) malevolent spectres, Kubrick had a very particular message that he wanted to send to the audience. The really weird thing is that none of them can agree on what it is.

One contributor is utterly convinced that the film is an allegory for the near-genocide of Native Americans by colonists to America (evidence: dialogue about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, the presence of Native American art throughout the film, a particular brand of tinned good being prominently featured). Then along comes someone else and reveals it is actually about the Nazi holocaust (evidence: Nicholson uses a certain brand of typewriter, a particular number is a motif in the script, and there is a suggestive dissolve between two scenes at one point). But it turns out they’re both wrong, because here comes a third commentator who reveals the whole story has some kind of connection of the legend of the Minotaur (evidence: a poster sort of looks a bit like a minotaur, there’s a couple of mazes in the story, and Nicholson looks a bit like a bull at one point).

Possibly the best-known thesis given an airing here is that of Jay Weidner, who argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded admission of his role in the faking of the Apollo moon landings (for which 2001: A Space Odyssey was basically the cover story). Like all his colleagues, Weidner is obviously sincere and obviously completely certain that what he is saying is true: the message is coded into almost every significant element of the movie, and also some things that are apparently insignificant (the pattern of the hotel carpet is apparently a dead giveaway). All the changes between the novel of The Shining and the film (which apparently ticked off author Stephen King so royally) are there solely to facilitate the film’s secret message.

The rabbit hole starts to yawn wide. It’s clear that Weidner not only thinks that the faked Apollo moon landings are connected to The Shining – he thinks that in a very crucial sense, it’s impossible to make sense of and really understand the film unless you approach it with this in mind. Which, of course, can’t be the case, because it is also obviously about the Holocaust, genocide, the legend of the Minotaur, and various other things.

At least these theories are based on a relatively conventional viewing of the movie. One person featured in Room 237 has gone to the trouble of carefully watching the movie and making maps of the hotel, in the process discovering that, architecturally, the place can’t exist – there are windows where no window can possibly be, for instance, and rooms overlap with each other. Was this a creative choice by Kubrick to indicate the Overlook somehow exists beyond conventional space? Or just dud continuity? Someone else has actually spent time watching two versions of The Shining playing simultaneously, one of them backwards, and discovered various apparently significant consonances. Does he honestly believe Kubrick did this intentionally, in the expectation anyone would watch the film this way?

Sometimes there really is an intentional subtext to a movie that can be uncovered by looking at it a little more closely: to choose a very obvious example, the original Dawn of the Dead works on two levels, as a brilliantly-accomplished action-horror movie and as a darkly funny satire on consumerism. But if you look too closely at a movie, there’s a danger you start to see things that just aren’t intentional. Not every prop and piece of set dressing is intended to send a message to the canny viewer. The fact that so many people have spent so many hours examining The Shining and come away with such widely disparate conclusions is surely proof that there can’t be one correct interpretation of the film. Their beliefs tell us little about Kubrick or his film, but a lot about them.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Most of Room 237 is composed of extracts from The Shining (some scenes are repeated multiple times), along with clips from other Kubrick movies and a few others (Capricorn One makes a not entirely surprising appearance, for example, as does An American Werewolf in London), and you do come away with a fuller appreciation of Kubrick’s visual sense, if nothing else. The man made very beautiful, occasionally very enigmatic films. Room 237 is about obsession, but it’s also about loving movies – even if it is just a bit too much. A curious but very engaging film.

 

 

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It is what people used to call the silly season, when not much is happening in terms of conventional news, and so the more traditional papers are falling back on hopefully-interesting non-news stories. Catching my eye the other day was another piece speculating about the identity of the next James Bond, despite the fact that Daniel Craig has yet to retire and in fact has another film in the works. Current favourite, allegedly, is Idris Elba, which – as I have discussed before – strikes me as a somewhat questionable move (angry mob, please assemble at the usual place). I’m rather more taken by the prospect of the 3/1 second favourite, who is an actor I can actually imagine playing a recognisable and interesting version of Ian Fleming’s character – Tom Hardy.

I’ve been impressed by Hardy for quite some years now, not least by the way he has kept plugging away and overcome some dubious early career moves (his turn as the Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance). Talent will out, it seems – however, if you check through his filmography to see his track record when portraying suave, lady-killing spies, the first piece of evidence which leaps out at you is not in Tom Hardy’s favour. It is in a spirit of public service, and sympathy for the actors concerned, that I must speak of McG’s 2012 film This Means War.

This movie concerns the activities of a pair of CIA agents, played by Hardy and Chris Pine – it is stated quite clearly that Hardy is British, so what he is doing in the CIA is anyone’s guess, but that’s just the level of attention to detail you can expect from this film. Pine and Hardy are partners, and as the film opens they are embarking upon a mission in Hong Kong to capture a pair of international arms dealers. The level of professionalism of this pair is foreshadowed by the way they end up having a gun battle in a crowded bar, killing one of the people they were supposed to apprehend, with his brother escaping to swear revenge. The duo’s boss (Angela Bassett, basically playing the same role as in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, though I strongly doubt the two films are in continuity) confines them to their desks in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Hardy has split up with the mother of his child, and, gripped by nebulous but powerful sentiments, he joins an on-line dating site. (Yes, even though he is a top international spy.) Here he connects with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a sort of lifestyle guru who has trouble committing to personal decisions: it transpires she was added to the site by her wacky best friend (Chelsea Handler, saddled with some particularly subpar material). Hardy and Witherspoon are somewhat taken with each other when they meet, but what should happen then? Well, after leaving Hardy, Witherspoon goes into the local DVD rental store (I tell you, this one scene dates the film like you wouldn’t believe) and has another cute-meet with Pine, who has been hanging around in case Hardy needs a hand getting out of his date.

The DVD store cute-meet scene is particularly notable in that it is especially smugly written, with Pine and Witherspoon trading repartee about their deep knowledge of movies and preferences within the field. Except, and this is barely credible, given this film was actually (by definition) written by a screenwriter, neither of them has a clue what they’re talking about, confidently asserting that any Hitchcock film from between 1950 and 1972 is a good choice (one word rebuttal: Topaz).

Well, anyway, the final piece of set-up occurs when Pine and Hardy, both having disclosed they are in a new relationship, discover they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon, crucially, is unaware the two men even know each other). Despite initially having a gentlemen’s agreement to be reasonable about this, this naturally breaks down, with most of the rest of the film taken up with their (it says here) hilarious attempts to impress Witherspoon while sabotaging the other’s chances. (Meanwhile the vengeful arms dealer from near the start occasionally pops up in a B-story, setting up a somewhat obvious climax.)

The best thing you can say about This Means War is that it is visually appealing, on a solely aesthetic level. Basically there are lots of bright colours (garishly so, which sort of matches the cartoonishness of the plot), with extremely attractive people living in immaculately styled apartments. Should you engage with it on any level beyond the utterly superficial (and this includes actually listening to the dialogue), however, this is a very lousy movie.

I watched this movie scratching my head and trying to work out what genre it actually belongs to: it has cute-meets and allegedly comic scenes, but also gun battles and fights and a big car chase. Presumably it is intended to be a sort of mash-up of the action-comedy and rom-com genres, with something for everyone going out on date night. Well, what it really comes out resembling is a rom-com aimed at jocks, which is a novel idea, in the same sense that making ladders out of rubber would be a novel idea.

Let me explain: your typical rom-com is primarily aimed at a female audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is male or female – they are invariably sympathetic and charming enough for the audience to identify with. However, in this film Witherspoon is essentially treated as an attractive trophy for the two men to joust over, too dumb and self-obsessed to notice all the weird stuff going on around her. The two male leads are alpha-jocks and it’s really not clear whether they’re genuinely interested in Witherspoon for her own (undeniable) charms, or just overtaken by the urge to outperform their former friend.

Of course, this leads us onto another major problem, which is that the film is just not very funny. Not only is it not funny, but most of the unfunny comic material is rather questionable: both Hardy and Pine deploy the full apparatus of the intelligence establishment in order to get the girl, which means that Witherspoon spends most of the movie under CIA surveillance with her apartment bugged. Unauthorised government surveillance – that’s the stuff of real comedy gold, folks! There’s also a lot of very broad stuff about Hardy shooting Pine with a tranquiliser gun to stop him having sex with Witherspoon, Pine following their car with a drone (Hardy shoots it down with his handgun), and so on.

Reese Witherspoon, who I have always found a fairly agreeable performer, genuinely seems to be trying her best in a very unrewarding role. What’s more interesting is what’s going on elsewhere, for as well as the in-story contest between Pine and Hardy as characters, there is also the issue of which one of them takes the acting honours. Well, it may be that I am biased, but on several occasions I have come away from movies having been very impressed by a Tom Hardy performance, while the best I can say for Chris Pine is that once in a while I have been rather impressed by a film in which his performance was competent. It may in fact be that Tom Hardy is going easy on his co-star and not giving it 100%, but he still easily steals the movie from him.

The resolution of the actual plot of the film is another matter. While watching it, I was scratching my head (again; a lot of head-scratching went on during This Means War) trying to work out how they would conclude the story. Whichever one of the guys Witherspoon chose, I thought, it would risk disappointing that section of the audience rooting for the other one (although I suppose we should be grateful she even gets given a choice). For her to assert herself and (with justification) give both of them the boot would constitute too severe a violation of rom-com norms. The only other option (the three of them settling down to some kind of menage a troi, possibly involving Pine and Hardy admitting to having more than fraternal feelings for each other) would clearly be much too innovative and interesting for this kind of film. Needless to say, the movie bottles it.

Oh well, you can make bad films and still be a good James Bond (just look at some of the things Sean Connery was doing in the late 1950s), and we can only hope that This Means War doesn’t count against Tom Hardy too much. The fact remains, though, that this is one bad movie – not simply because it is unfunny, and unreconstructed, but also because of the way it treats a deeply suspect premise in such a knockabout manner. No-one emerges from this one with any credit.

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One of the things makers of horror movies are always desperate for is verisimilitude: the ability to convince the audience that the stuff on the screen, no matter how outlandish, is actually happening. This, I think, is the prime factor behind the recent boom in ‘found footage’ films, which started with The Blair Witch Project and continued to include such variable offerings as Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Apollo 18 and the Paranormal Activity series. In fact, it has become such a staple of the genre that sometimes people seem to be using it when you wouldn’t have thought plausibility would be a particular issue (when the film is quite strongly rooted in reality, for instance). Such is the case with Barry Levinson’s 2012 movie The Bay.

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The film is framed by the testimony of a young reporter (Kether Donohue), who is supposedly releasing the film via a whistleblowing website (hmm, topical), in defiance of the wishes of the government. The events of the story itself date back three years to the 4th of July weekend of 2009, when hundreds of people died horribly in a small seaside town off the Chesapeake Bay.

Quite what killed them is not immediately clear, but we are treated to various tantalising hints: the bay itself is horribly polluted and routinely used as a dumping ground by the local poultry farmers, two oceanographers discover the fish in the bay are plagued by nasty parasites (the boffins mysteriously disappear weeks before the disaster), much is made of the desalinisation plant providing drinking water for the town, and so on.

A number of different story threads play out in parallel, together telling the story of the fateful weekend – large numbers of citizens suddenly begin to develop a blistering rash on various parts of their bodies, which in many cases worsens to the point where their flesh actually seems to be being eaten away. The local authorities are self-serving, venal, and obstructive, while the doctors at the CDC are blindsided by the sheer strangeness and suddenness of the outbreak. Meanwhile the people of the town struggle to cope with the disaster, and a young couple sailing across the bay to visit their parents there have no idea what they’re heading into…

Well, on one level this is a somewhat more realistic version of The Crazies mashed up with Shivers. I started watching this film having no idea of what the nature of the disaster actually was, which I think was a distinct advantage: the mystery of exactly what’s going on, and how the different elements of the set-up come together, is one of the more engaging elements of the film. Watching the DVD extras I was amused to learn this project started off as a ‘straight’ documentary about the real-life on-going ecological disaster in Chespeake Bay, which mutated into a fictitious horror film in the hope it might stir people up a bit more.

I’m not sure that it works that way. The problem with The Bay is that is suspended between two imperatives: the need to work as a properly nasty horror film, and a perceived need to stay grounded and credible, both as a found footage film and a film seeking to address real world issues.

The film does a good job of avoiding some of the cliches of the found footage genre – what usually happens as things start kicking off in earnest is that I find myself shouting ‘Why on Earth are you still bothered about filming this?!?‘, and one of the main characters in The Bay does indeed just drop their camera and head for the hills, taking no further part in the main story. Of course, this results in a slightly odd narrative structure, but not an unsophisticated one – Levinson directs creatively and well. More of a problem is that the film feels like it’s missing a third act – the bit in a more conventional, outlandish horror movie where society has totally broken down and the protagonists are battling to survive as the hordes of zombies/mutants/whatever shamble after them. The nature of The Bay‘s horror really precludes that final escalation; people can just leave town and they’re safe, which is realistic but not necessarily satisfying.

On the other hand, some aspects of the story seem a bit far-fetched – it’s never explained why hundreds of people suddenly fall victim to the outbreak practically simultaneously, when one might expect there to be a more gradual appearance (it could be that this is to do with the prominently-featured desalinisation plant, which otherwise plays no part in the main plot – if so, a little more exposition is needed). As a result I assumed that the whole thing was, in fact, made up, which kind of defeats the point of doing a ‘realistic’ eco-horror about a real place. And even now I know what a toxic hell the bottom of Chesapeake Bay really is, I’m not sure what I can do about it: this story is being played out in many places, in many forms, all across the real world. Nevertheless, The Bay is a commendable, inventively-made film, even if it doesn’t quite succeed either as a genuine horror or actual agitprop.

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I tend not to buy many films on DVD any more, mainly to do with things like space and how often I can see myself sitting down to re-watch them (didn’t stop me picking up Theatre of Blood the other day, of course). Other people have a different approach, amongst them my landlady’s extended family. They sometimes seem incapable of passing a DVD without buying it, leading to regular chuck-outs of vast piles of films most people will never have heard of. Some of these get pushed my way, and, very occasionally, I will actually sit down and watch one, just out of a terrible and misguided sense of curiosity.

Which brings us to Jeff Burr’s Alien Tornado, which apparently started life as a TV movie for whatever the Sci-Fi Channel is calling itself nowadays. The original title is what is known in our house as ‘a dead giveaway’, but for the DVD release which this extraordinary piece of work managed to land in the UK, it has been retitled Tornado Warning.

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As you can see, despite the tweaking of the title, the cover is fairly upfront about what the viewer can expect: fleeing crowds in a major urban centre, which is in the process of being devastated by tornados summoned into being by flying saucers. And all of these things are indeed present in the film, apart from the fleeing crowds, urban devastation and flying saucers. This is still more accurate than the blurb on the back, which describes a story bearing no more than a passing resemblance to the one in the film.

Speaking of which: Jeff Fahey, whom you may recall from various Robert Rodriguez movies and Psycho III, plays Judd Walker, an Illinois farmer and – it would seem – complete idiot. Judd’s teenage daughter Kelly (Stacey Asaro) has just been admitted to university, and the two share a touching, exposition-crammed scene outlining who they are, what happened to Judd’s wife, Stacey’s future plans, and so on. This is truncated when a neon-green whirlwind pitches up and causes them all sorts of trouble: Asaro runs and hides in the cellar, while Fahey has himself dragged slowly across the frame, prone, by a couple of out-of-shot chargehands, to represent him being sucked along by high winds.

The funny green tornado also comes to the attention of Gale Morgan, an – you’ll like this – investigative weather forecaster, played by Kari Wuhrer (whom you may recall from Eight Legged Freaks and various soft-core 90s films). Gale heads down to the scene where she is met by her local contact, an incredibly annoying woman who shouts all her dialogue. Many silly zeitgeisty lines about global warming are exchanged (loudly).

Meanwhile, Judd and his friend, local sheriff Norm (the magnificently-named Willard E Pugh), are surveying the aftermath of the eerie tornado. ‘Is the damage as bad as it looks?’ asks Sheriff Norm. ‘Worse,’ replies Judd. It would really have to be worse than it looks, as – to judge from what we actually see on screen – the eerie tornado has eerily caused no damage whatsoever. Nevertheless, we are assured that all Judd’s livestock is now dead and the farm is dire straits. It also turns out that, in addition to not having any insurance, Judd has already spent Kelly’s entire college fund fixing the damage from a previous tornado, without telling her. Needless to say Kelly is not pleased to hear this and strops off somewhere. An oppressive silence settles upon the devastated farm and a disconsolate Judd. Only Sheriff Norm is there to offer a few helpful words. ‘I really don’t know what to say,’ is what Sheriff Norm eventually comes up with. Nice one, Sheriff Norm.

Sheriff Norm really is the outstanding character in this movie, by the way, as he is quite possibly the most determinedly inert lawman in cinema history. Norm meanders his way through the entire film in a state of ineffectual bemusement, never apparently troubled by an idea of his own as to what to do, or any real objection to simply doing exactly what he’s told by any other character. He becomes a rather touching, everyman figure, cast adrift on the tides of fate and plot requirement.

Anyway, Gale and her annoying friend have meanwhile met some mysterious government types led by Armstrong (David Jensen, who plays the part rather like an extremely camp avant-garde fashion designer). Armstrong and his men are tracking more of the mysterious green tornadoes, but while watching them do so, the annoying shouty woman is sucked off. (By a tornado, I mean.) Due to the heroically low CGI budget, it’s quite hard to tell what’s going on when this happens, so Gale gets lots of scenes sobbing her heart out and telling everyone when it does occur.

For a while it looks like Sheriff Norm has been disintegrated by a malevolent tornado, too, but this is thankfully just another quirk of dodgy CGI and Norm continues his odyssey of inarticulate bafflement. Kelly has used her iPod to record mysterious signals coming from the tornados, and after an appropriate interval of Judd being an idiot and not letting her share this news, she gives the recording to Gale. Gale in turn passes it on to a friend of hers, ace cryptographer Barney (Caleb Tourres). In an interesting piece of inclusivist casting, Barney is a dwarf, but – fair do’s – no-one makes a big deal out of this. On the other hand, everyone basically treats Barney the dwarf like a very clever pet dog, so I’m not sure this really qualifies as a triumph for egalitarianism.

It turns out the tornadoes in Alien Tornado are, in fact, alien tornadoes. When Judd and Gale figure this out, Armstrong gets Sheriff Norm to lock them up as it is supposed to be secret. Rather wonderfully, he doesn’t bother telling Norm not to listen to them once they’re in the clink, which means for the next section of the film the sheriff just drives around at his prisoners’ behest, grumbling a bit but essentially doing everything they ask of him and keeping their bit of the plot going. (I’m guessing this is just because Fahey and Wuhrer were being paid by the day, and sticking them in jail for twenty minutes cut down the number of filming days they were required for.)

The alien tornadoes continue to attack vital Earthling targets like, ah, buses, and, er, sports stadiums, before arriving in Chicago itself. As is traditional, all the characters – Judd, Gale, Kelly, Armstrong, Sheriff Norm, even Barney the crypto-dwarf – gather in a vital location. For Alien Tornado, this location is a small and apparently disused TV studio, but never mind. Kelly puts her head together with Barney and – let’s pause to remember here that she’s apparently only just out of high school – within minutes cracks the alien code. All they need to do is broadcast a signal switching off the tornadoes and the world is saved!

Except – insert dramatic orchestral sting here – no-one has refuelled the old generator running the TV studio’s transmitter in ages! So we get to Alien Tornado‘s epic climax, in which various characters stagger around a rooftop car-park carrying jerry-cans, while looking apprehensively at a surprisingly clear sky. Needless to say the tornadoes are banished, Kelly gets a scholarship to the University of Malaysia, Judd and Gale get it on (off camera), and Sheriff Norm gets to stroke a horse (on camera). No idea what happens to Barney; I’m holding out for a spin-off movie – Sheriff Norm and Barney the Crypto-Dwarf Investigate.

Oh, boy, is there any real point in attempting to give a serious assessment of a movie like Alien Tornado? This is a Z-movie by any rational standard, never entertaining in the way the makers appear to have been hoping, and absolutely the best thing you can say about it is that the special effects tornadoes are just about mediocre most of the time. Apart from that, the acting runs the gamut from bizarre to imperceptible, the continuity is hopeless, the plot is absurd, and the dialogue is hokey. The general level of achievement of the thing is so consistent that if it were actually any good it would be praised as a bit of a triumph. This might well please story writer, producer, and executive producer Ken Badish (whom you may know for Flu Bird Horror, Swamp Shark, and Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators, but I doubt it), who is clearly not a man short on ambition. Or ideas for catchy titles. Alien Tornado clearly wants to be epic genre entertainment, something very Spielberg. Instead it ends up being micro-budget unintentional comedy, and very, very Badish. And to be perfectly honest, I think the ‘ish’ is dispensable.

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Well, here’s some housekeeping news for regular readers: it appears that the good people at my DVD rental company are not sending me the complete works of Woody Allen consecutively, nor are they actually reading this blog (at least, if they are, they decided not to send me Tiptoes as I requested last week). No, what turned up instead was – and I’m slightly ashamed to own up to even asking for this one, having now seen it – Cockneys Vs Zombies, directed by Matthias Hoene.

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It’s tempting to say that a film called Cockneys Vs Zombies was always going to turn out to be rubbish – the currently-flourishing Vs-genre revival is practically based on the understanding that most of these films are rubbish, and are therefore only to be enjoyed via the adoption of the dreaded Ironic Sensibility. The fact the film is called Cockneys Vs Zombies is a bit of a giveaway, after all. Nevertheless, is it possible to make a film called Cockneys Vs Zombies that is genuinely good? It is a moot point, unfortunately, because this film certainly doesn’t qualify and I don’t foresee a rush to recycle the title.

Building work in the east end of London comes to an unexpected halt when workmen make a surprising discovery (this is how the plot of Quatermass and the Pit starts – Reign of Fire, too, come to that – but don’t get your hopes up). It is a 17th century plague pit, sealed by royal command, and containing – well, zombies. There’s a whole implied thing about the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London being zombie-related here, which never really gets explored. The transition from zombies-being-discovered to full-blown city-wide zombie apocalypse is handled rather briskly and economically, which would normally be a plus.

However, the time we are not spending watching the zombie apocalypse get started is instead spent in the company of the movies’ protagonists, played by Harry Treadaway and Rasmus Hardiker, who are massively implausible idiots (the characters, I mean, not the actors). The movie buys wholeheartedly into the stereotype that all Cockneys are lovable, ethically-flexible, clannish rogues, and the two lads have been upset by the news that their grandfather’s home for the elderly is due to be closed. To help the old geezer (Alan Ford), they have hit upon the idea of robbing a bank in order to provide for his material needs, assisted by their cousin (Michelle Ryan) and a couple of ridiculous comedy caricatures. The robbery, predictably, does not go quite as planned, but luckily the zombie apocalypse distracts the police in the nick of time.

Unfortunately, the zombies are also besieging their grandad’s old folks home, trapping him inside with all his friends (played by a bunch of well-known faces). Clearly the lads have to do the right thing by their kin, and rescue the pensioners from the putrescent horde…

One has to wonder quite how long the current zombie apocalypse boom – rolling now for about a decade – has got left to run. Certainly it feels like there have been dozens of zombie films recently, of rather variable quality. Let me put it this way: this is a London-set comedy zombie film, and one’s instant reaction is not ‘that’s an off-the-wall premise for a film’, but ‘oh, another one’. Cockneys Vs Zombies does nothing especially new or interesting on the zombie front.

And as a comedy film goes, it’s not actually what you’d call funny, either – there are two or three good sight gags, but that’s all. This is mainly because the general tone of the thing is that of a knockabout cartoon, with ridiculously thin characters – there’s not enough reality in the story to make you care or make you laugh. The film also comes equipped with a berserk Chas and Dave pastiche as its closing music, which is colossally annoying and irksomely catchy all at the same time.

I don’t think it’d be unfair to say this is a fairly immature movie on virtually every level. The stuff about the old folks home is easily the best element of the film, but the tedious nonsense about the robbery and its aftermath keeps getting in the way. Also – and I’m aware how this will make me sound – the movie seems to think that punctuating most of the dialogue with either fahk or fahkin’ will somehow make it sound cool and hard and mature. The effect is more like listening to schoolchildren for whom swearing is still an exciting novelty.

In fact, possibly the best way to approach this movie is to be pleasantly surprised by the number of elements in it which aren’t bad to the point of being slightly depressing and/or embarrassing. Georgia King is really surprisingly good as a slightly dippy hostage from the bank raid who ends up joining forces with her captors, but that’s all you can really say about the young cast. All that really makes Cockneys Vs Zombies at all watchable are the performances of the old folks home residents. Appearing here are Honor Blackman, Dudley Sutton, Richard Briers, and Tony Selby (an actor I’ve liked for ages – it’s a long story, followed by a much shorter story the next year). These people have the charisma and talent to rise above the indifferent material they’re served with, and all the best bits of the film concern them – it is admittedly a bit weird for Richard Briers’ final performance to revolve quite so much around him mowing down zombies with an uzi, but also somehow charming.

I’m really surprised that this film has been as well-reviewed elsewhere as it has, as I found much of it actively annoying – it has no real ideas or depth of its own, and is frequently thinly-written and poorly performed. It’s nice to see the veteran members of the cast doing a movie, but it’s a shame the movie in question doesn’t have anything else to commend it. Sad to say, but Cockneys Vs Zombies is a bit Fearne.

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Another year gone by, and (as has become a bit of a tradition) another look at the last twelve months on the blog. Hey, if nothing else it helps to break up the endless flow of film reviews and Doctor Who-related cobblers, right?

Speaking personally, this has been a slightly odd year – the diploma course which really defined the first half of the year for me concluded moderately well, though not quite as well as I’d hoped, and as for the second half… My summer job felt like a bit of a slog for the first time since I started doing it, while throughout this Autumn I’ve felt my relationship with my rest-of-the-year employer growing increasingly strained. Added to this, since the diploma finished I’ve been without a medium-to-long-term goal for the first time since 2006, and it feels like I’ve been drifting and lacking in focus ever since. I’m increasingly realising that I need to keep pushing and challenging myself if I’m not going to lapse into self-absorption and melancholia. As I lead a fairly solitary life, something which I’ve realised is unlikely ever to change, this sort of thing is a constant concern anyway. It’s good to stay self-aware, I suppose.

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Anyway, there were just under 10,000 views of this blog in 2012, which sounds nice but I’ve no idea how it compares to anyone else’s. Naive old fool, I thought I was doing okay with 35 followers after two years, before a friend chirpily informed me that her company’s blog had picked up 250 followers after a week. Over a thousand of those visits all came on the same day, mainly as a result of the Mail on Sunday‘s website publicising my piece on Peter Hitchens and Howard Marks’ debate on drugs laws (oh, the shame, the shame). Obviously I need to write more positive things about Hitchens so he links to me again, and just hope people stick around for the Hammer horror reviews. Well, I’m sure a worse plan is conceivable.

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The Hitchens thing was the biggest draw of the year by far, with the bulk of the rest of the top five being bankers from 2011 – the final instalment of the original run of Natural History of Evil continues to pack ’em in, along with that silly piece about Lacey Banghard and her two great assets (her Christian name and surname, of course). The only 2012 piece to make the list was… the review of 2011 (sigh), mainly, I suspect, because it also talks about Miss Banghard. I suspect a pattern has been established.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

Bringing up the rear was another hardy perennial, the review of The Viking Queen. I am completely stumped as to why this keeps pulling in the readers week after week after week – there isn’t, so far as I can tell, anything accidentally suggestive in there that could confuse a search engine, nor is this a notable cult film. Why are so many people reading this one post and ignoring much better-written material completely? I must confess I’m starting to get mildly irritated by it.

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The bulk of what I’ve written this year has been film reviews, as usual. I thought the overall quality was higher than in 2011, but with fewer really outstanding individual films – the best things I saw at the cinema this year were Lawrence of Arabia (from 1962), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (from 1943) and RoboCop (from 1987). Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as there were still some great movies being released – Chronicle, The Cabin in the Woods, The Raid and The Imposter all turned out to be off-the-radar hits, while there were some quality blockbusters too – The Avengers was better than it really had any right to be, while The Dark Knight Rises, though not Christopher Nolan at the absolute top of his game, was still hugely impressive and deeply satisfying. Despite all that, if I had to name my favourite film from 2012 it would probably be Searching for Sugar Man. An extremely difficult call though.

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I think I’ve gone on in quite enough detail about my issues with the Autumn’s crop of Doctor Who, especially as the Christmas show has given me hope that a new and much more impressive approach may be in the offing. Obviously 2013 will be a massive year for all of us who love Doctor Who – expectations are enormous, and it’s difficult to imagine quite how the custodians of the show and the BBC will be able to meet them all.

In the end surprisingly little wargaming or serious uke-playing happened this year, mainly because for a large chunk of the Autumn I was either on holiday abroad or in the grip of one of those emotional entanglements which has occasionally complicated my life prior to this point. A shame, because the wargaming and uke-playing would at least have given me material for a worthwhile post or four.

 Expectations for 2013 are guarded, currently: if I can work solidly and feel like I am making some sort of professional progress, and continue to be a good friend and family member to those around me, I will be happy, regardless of whether I can afford a holiday, or World War Z is any good. Although it would be nice to finally get a WFB army painted before 9th Edition appears on the horizon. We shall see.

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It was, as I recall, a Tuesday afternoon in the Autumn of 1998 and I was flicking through the latest issue of a popular SF and fantasy magazine during the drive home from work.

‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘It says here that they’re making a film of The Hobbit.’

‘Oh,’ said my father, who was driving. ‘Where are they going to film it?’

‘Well,’ I said, perusing the (rather minimal) article in more detail. ‘It’s not official yet, but it says that locations in New Zealand are being scouted… some people say they’ve heard they’re going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s silly, of course, The Lord of the Rings is unfilmable, and anyway you’d want to do The Hobbit first, wouldn’t you? It’d only be sensible. They must be making The Hobbit. That’ll be interesting.’

‘That’ll be interesting,’ my father agreed.

Well, how wrong can you be? Peter Jackson did not want to do The Hobbit first. The Lord of the Rings is not, it would appear, unfilmable. And the film version of The Hobbit is…

Hang on a minute; it is interesting. But the big question – the absolutely key, inescapable question, in every respect – is, how does it compare with Jackson’s monumental, decade-defining version of the Rings?

JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a fairly lengthy children’s book, in 1937 and you could be forgiven for assuming that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of an adaptation of the same. I would argue it is not, or at least not entirely: what it is, is an attempt to use material from this book to form the basis of a prequel to the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. For many people this may be too fine a distinction; I hope I can persuade you otherwise.

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The bulk of this film is set sixty years prior to the previous trilogy and recounts the youthful adventures of the titular home-loving Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). For slightly obscure reasons, Bilbo is recruited by the enigmatic wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a band of itinerant Dwarves led by exiled prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). These Dwarves are displaced and dispossessed, their home kingdom of Erebor having fallen to the terrible dragon Smaug. Ignoring the misgivings of many of the finest minds in Middle Earth, Gandalf is intent on helping Thorin get his throne back – and he’s also quite insistent that Bilbo come along on the journey too.

Well, there are Trolls and Orcs and Goblins along the way, along with ominous portents of a dark power resurgent in the realm – none of which seems particularly connected to the Dwarves’ quest, until Bilbo happens upon a magical ring in the course of his travels…

I have to say I turned up to watch this first part of The Hobbit almost out of a sense of obligation, without much genuine excitement and with my expectations dialled down very low. Quite why this should be I can’t really say – I was genuinely excited when it looked like Guillermo del Toro was going to be directing a diptych of Hobbit films, but the news that Peter Jackson was going to do three just made me very dubious.

Part of this is just mathematical – The Hobbit is about the same length as one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I can see how you’d justify a nine-hour movie trilogy based on a 1200-page epic novel. I can’t see how or why you would want to make a nine-hour movie trilogy (which is what this promises to be) out of a 350-page children’s story.

Except, of course, this isn’t what Jackson’s doing. Where Lord of the Rings still had to have great chunks chopped out for the screen, The Hobbit has had to have large quantities of new material added just to (delete according to taste) expand the story onto a larger canvas / bloat the running time sufficiently to justify making people pay for three movie tickets. Some of this is extrapolated from stuff mentioned in the novel, other bits are derived from additional material in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings itself (it looks like Jackson and his team may not have the rights to all of Tolkien’s peripheral material, as they don’t appear able to use the names Alatar and Pallandro), and quite a lot of it looks like it’s completely new.

Now, in some ways this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Jackson and his crew to open out their vision of Middle Earth even further, and it is – of course! – lovely to see people like Cate Blanchett and Sir Christopher Lee coming back to reprise their characters (even if it is fairly obvious that Lee has a stand-in most of the time he’s not in close-up). We also get the pleasure of Sylvester McCoy giving a very – er – Sylvester McCoy-ish performances as the psychedelically-addled wizard Radagast (Peter Jackson is apparently a big fan of McCoy, which makes you wonder why he’s made the actor perform all his scenes covered in birdshit). Take this as you will, but Landy Bloom is being held in reserve for later installments in this trilogy.

But the upshot of all this new material is that the narrative focus of the film is all over the place – it’s baggy and saggy and strangely paced, and, for a film called The Hobbit with an actor as good as Martin Freeman playing the Hobbit in question, the protagonist gets relatively little chance to shine. Freeman is good in his opening scenes, and again in the riddle-game sequence playing opposite Andy Serkis as Gollum, but too often the rest of the time he’s either lost in a crowd of Dwarves or not on the screen at all – there’s so much other stuff going on that Bilbo Baggins largely shrinks almost to obscurity.

It’s a shame, especially when you consider that the filming of these movies was very eccentrically scheduled simply in order to allow Freeman to appear here while still honouring his commitments on Sherlock. That, if nothing else, exemplifies why I have a problem with this movie – it’s just fundamentally very self-indulgent film-making, and too often this shows.

I suppose when you’ve won over a dozen Oscars and made over a billion dollars, you’re entitled to exert a little clout in future projects: so why not film on different sides of the world and shut down and restart production just to meet the availability of some of your key cast members? Why not write characters in just to satisfy your  existing fanbase (I can’t think why else Elijah Wood appears as Frodo in this film)? Why not throw everything but the kitchen sink into the narrative?

Certainly, telling Tolkien’s original story doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. I popped into one of my favourite restaurants for a buffaloburger before seeing this film, and got chatting to the waitress. It turned out she was considering seeing The Hobbit herself, but hadn’t seen The Lord of the Rings. I confidently assured her that, as this story took place earlier, no prior knowledge was needed. This is not the case, I suspect: the way the film is written and played seems to me to assume you already know who Frodo is, who Saruman and Galadriel are, the significance of things like Mordor and ‘Morgul blades’, and so on.

I know I have been very negative about The Hobbit, and this honestly pains me, partly because the Lord of the Rings movies are so special, but also because, in many ways, this film is technically brilliant (even in 24FPS 2D on the small screen with the inadequate rake at the Phoenix). There are breathtaking visuals, striking effects sequences, a stirring score and some memorable performances – but even here it seemed to me that the film was just aping the style of its distinguished predecessors. Thorin comes across as a brooding heir-in-waiting in a very Viggo-esque manner, while the big action sequence with the Dwarves escaping from the Goblins hits so many of the same beats as the Moria section of the first film.

There are enough good things about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to make me excited about seeing the other films in the series, and not even regret promising to see it again in the not-too-distant future. But it’s a bloated spectacle rather than a compelling story. The Lord of the Rings films were so special partly because they seemed to be taking a leap into the unknown and tackled bringing epic fantasy to the screen with ceaseless originality and imagination. The Hobbit, on the strength of this first outing, just feels like an exercise in ticking boxes in order to meet the requirements of a pre-existing formula – in many ways a beautiful formula, but a formula nevertheless. The toxic miasma surrounding the words ‘prequel trilogy’ still lingers, somewhat.

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