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Posts Tagged ‘2012’

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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I don’t know, you wait years for a movie about violent murder and dog-kidnapping and then two come along in consecutive weeks. That’s about all that Seven Psychopaths and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers have in common, though: Martin McDonagh’s film drinks deeply of American culture, locations, and attitudes, while Wheatley’s latest offering is intensely, almost painfully English in both its subject matter and its themes.

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This is the story of Tina (Alice Lowe), a woman in her 30s still living with her clingy, demanding mother, who blames her for the death of a beloved family pet in a freak charity-related accident a year earlier. But Tina is about the fly the nest, at least temporarily, for she is going on holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), something which both hope will prove to be an erotic odyssey. An erotic odyssey aboard a 1996 Abbey Cachet caravan, to be more precise, with destinations along the way including Fountains Abbey, the Keswick Pencil Museum and the Ribblehead Viaduct.

Will their adventure allow Tina to conquer her guilt over the death of the dog? Will the two forge a real and lasting relationship together? Or will Chris’s interest in stopping people dropping litter, engaging in class warfare, and doing a little light serial-killing en route get in the way of their burgeoning romance?

‘Show me the world, Chris,’ says Tina near the start of the film. ‘I think we’ll start with Crich Tram Museum,’ Chris replies, and this establishes the tone of Sightseers rather well. There is something peculiarly English about caravanning as a leisure pursuit – this is not one of your giant colonial Recreational Vehicles, but an unwieldy off-white box, inelegant on the outside and cramped within. Chris and Tina’s selected itinerary is similarly eccentric and underwhelming. Eccentric is a good word to describe this film; underwhelming is not.

A lot of attention has been paid to the serial-killing aspect of Sightseers‘ storyline – this is understandable, given it’s largely being advertised on the strength of Wheatley’s record as director of Kill List, and executive producer Edgar Wright’s involvement in Shaun of the Dead. I suspect it’s much easier to sell a horror movie with some comic elements than a very black comedy-drama, which is what I would say Sightseers really is (if my Comparison Wrangler were on duty he’d doubtless describe it as ‘Natural Born Killers directed by Mike Leigh’).

The campaign of bloody slaughter which becomes such an integral part of Chris and Tina’s holiday is not that central to the film, and when it does appear it’s very much in keeping with the tone and style of the rest of it, which is concerned with the minutiae of their relationship.

There is some serious splatter at various points in this film (when Tina complains about Chris smashing a person’s head in with a piece of wood, Chris responds ‘he wasn’t a person, he was a Daily Mail reader’ – so maybe he’s not all bad), but I found this weirdly less uncomfortable to watch than the various human interactions. Tina’s relationship with her mum is squirm-worthy enough, but her romance with Chris is even worse – there’s a cocktail of naivete, desperation, delight and lust going on here which rings horribly true even if much of the writing and acting is done with a broad brush. Bathos and pathos abound and you sense the writer-performers have a degree of sympathy for their characters even while they are forensically exposed to ridicule – there’s a running gag about the caravan rapidly filling up with ghastly tat and Tina’s awful knitted gew-gaws which I particularly liked (although, once again, Tina’s woollen lingerie is probably pushing the joke too far to be credible).

One certainly gets the message that neither of these people was entirely normal even prior to the serial killing becoming an issue – though the film suggests Chris has form in this area, it really looks like this is something they fall into almost naturally as the film goes on. It definitely seemed to me that the murders are there to illustrate the state of the characters’ minds and their relationship, rather than being the central subject of the film per se. If so, this works rather well right up until the end, which to me didn’t quite follow from what had come before – I got a distinct sense of someone thinking ’90 minutes are up, better think of a finish.’

The ferociously banal nature of this sort of holiday is well-evoked and Ben Wheatley comes up with some startling effects in the course of the film – a particularly savage murder is accompanied by a distinguished thesp reading a poem on the soundtrack, for example. The micro-budget nature of the film is never really in doubt but then this suits the story on all sorts of levels.

Sightseers is ultimately an exercise in the presentation of grotesques, and although it does this with great wit, economy, and attention to detail, this still means that it’s quite a hard film to completely engage with. Serial-killing notwithstanding, this is a look at the less magnificent side of obsessiveness – it works as a comedy better than a horror movie, and a character study probably better than either. But it’s fun, funny and original: I enjoyed it a lot.

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The last ten years have seen the adoption by all the big studios of something called day-and-date releasing: this is the strategy whereby a new film gets released globally on pretty much the same day. It’s supposed to help combat movie piracy, but one of the fringe benefits is that the rest of the world gets to enjoy new blockbusters on the same day they come out in America, thus putting an end to the phenomenon of people timing their holidays in order to catch a particular film as early as possible.

Day-and-date is still very much the norm for most big movies (although apparently Skyfall came out in the USA later than virtually anywhere else so as not to clash with the election), but for smaller offerings a degree of slippage in the schedule is not unknown. So it is with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths.

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Back in October I got a message from an American friend making sure I was planning to see (and then, with grim inevitability, write about) this particular film. I wasn’t, at the time; indeed I’d never heard of it. I’d heard of McDonagh, not so much for his well-received films like In Bruges but because he was the brother of the director of The Guard, my favourite film of last year. But I’m a sucker for requests and the cast list for this film looked interesting, at least. Paying only the most cursory attention to the plot synopsis, off I went, anticipating a comedy-crime-thriller. Hmmmm.

In the film, scripted by Irish writer Martin McDonagh, we meet an Irish writer called Marty (Colin Farrell), currently seemingly adrift in Los Angeles. He is struggling with his latest project, a script entitled Seven Psychopaths, mainly because he doesn’t have enough psychopaths and no ideas for what they’re going to do anyway. Real life around Marty is about to get somewhat psychopathic, anyway: a masked killer nicknamed the Jack of Diamonds is slaughtering his way through the LA mob, Marty’s strange best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is involved not only with the lovely girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko, very briefly appearing) of a nutso gang boss (Woody Harrelson), but also in a lucrative dog-napping business with the strangely devout, or should that be devoutly strange Hans (Christopher Walken, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there even by his standards).

Billy also wants to help Marty write the movie, and to help with the research has placed an advert inviting every psycho in California to get in touch with them and provide material for the script. Up turns Tom Waits, carrying both a live rabbit and a metaphorical torch. Meanwhile Marty is having second thoughts about the whole psychopath angle – is there no way he can do an action movie called Seven Pacifists instead?

There’s a weary old saw about how some movies review themselves – this usually meaning that the film in question is self-evidently either good or bad: you can just write about what’s up on screen without having to think too much about expressing the finer points of its quality. Seven Psychopaths also has a go at reviewing itself, but in a slightly different way.

This is because the script of the movie that Marty and Billy are writing bears an uncanny resemblence to the script of the movie they are actually appearing in – characters from the film start appearing, mixed up in the slightly awkward situation he, Billy and Hans find themselves in when Billy kidnaps the gang boss’s prized Shih Tzu. Most obviously, at one point Marty decides that their script will take a bizarre and uncharacteristic left turn – at which point his real life starts to follow exactly the same route.

It sounds cringingly knowing and clever-clever, but this element appears so subtly and unexpectedly in what starts off as a gonzo LA comedy-drama that I was quite taken in by it. It makes it hard to shake the suspicion that when someone starts criticising Marty’s writing in the film, this is really Martin McDonagh owning up to a few flaws in his own script – most obviously, Marty is criticised for writing very few, and very small parts for women, most of whom are decorative and also meet untimely ends. Does this excuse the way Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Linda Bright Clay are used (and sometimes abused) in this movie? Does saying ‘I know I’ve been bad’ excuse you for being bad? I’m not sure.

Anyway, this layer of cleverness, added to the talent at work throughout the movie, results in something which is a huge amount of slightly guilty fun: very violent, profane, and more than a bit absurd. This is not to say that there are not serious and even quite moving moments along the way – there’s a very tense scene in which Walken’s sick wife is cornered by Harrelson, who’s out to get him but doesn’t realise who she is. This could have come out of a serious thriller. As the film goes on, though, it drops these occasional pretences and becomes much more about Sam Rockwell, who’s off the leash as a kind of demented idiot-savant who – not inappropriately – seems to have lost track of the boundary between reality and fiction. Rockwell is very funny and gives a very big performance, but then so is Harrelson, so is Walken. Colin Farrell is stuck in the middle playing the straight man and actually does a really good job of it.

I haven’t seen a story crack itself open and start to play with its own guts in quite this way since Adaptation., and it may indeed be that Seven Psychopaths is not quite so accomplished, never quite escaping its slightly wearisome Tarantino-esque trappings. Certainly there are distinct signs of the film wanting to have its cake and eat it, particularly as the climax unfolds (‘unfolds’ is much too tidy and straightforward a word for it, of course).

Seven Psychopaths is certainly satisfyingly clever and different, and – being totally wrong-footed by it to begin with – I enjoyed it immensely, for a while even wondering if the McDonagh family might be about to (figuratively) take home the (non-existent) film of the year prize for the second year in a row? I think not; while The Guard plays similar games with genre tropes to a lesser degree, it’s built around a genuine piece of characterisation with a proper supporting story. Seven Psychopaths just thrashes around demolishing itself and other Hollywood thrillers to hilarious effect – not that this is in any way not a worthwhile undertaking, nor one which is executed without skill, panache, and energy. Well worth watching.

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