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Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

Accepted wisdom is that the second series of a TV show is often when it hits its stride, as everyone involved has figured out the logistics and issues involved in making it and can now get on with trying to make it really well. Just look at – to think of a few examples off the top of my head – Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers, Babylon 5, and so on. That said, this isn’t an absolute rule: it wasn’t the case with the original Survivors, which lost a crucial character and cast member and got bogged down rather in bucolica, and I have to say that the omens are not good for the remake of the show, which (just to reiterate) I am currently checking out in its entirety for the first time.

We are of course well beyond the original conception of Terry Nation by this point. Abby has been kidnapped by the minions of evil boffins searching for a vaccine for the plague virus which has already destroyed civilisation, Greg has been grievously wounded by killer chav Dexter after the group’s resident psycho Tom Price killed one of his men in cold blood, and everyone is stuck in the middle of a city, which (we were invited to conclude) is a really bad place to be.

The end of series one picked up the pace a bit and Episode Seven (this seems to me to be the easiest way of keeping track of which one we’re on about) appears to have been written to the brief ‘don’t give the audience time to think about anything’. Abby’s adventures in dubious virology are basically the B-plot, or maybe even the C-plot. The bulk of the episode concerns the travails of Greg and the others.

Treating Greg (who apparently has ‘shrapnel’ in his chest, rather than the shotgun pellets you might expect) requires medical supplies, and so Anya, Al, and Tom leave him in a hotel and rush off to the nearest hospital, which happens to be on fire. The hospital has the bad manners to collapse on top of them, trapping Anya and Al in the rubble. Tom rushes back to the hotel and collects Sarah and Najid to help dig them out. (Meanwhile Greg is having flashbacks to the collapse of his marriage, as you would: perhaps the programme-makers realised what a drab and thin character New Greg tended to come across as in the first series, especially compared to Ian McCulloch’s version, and this is intended to fill him out a bit.)

Well, as the digging progresses and Al and Anya are (of course) sharing significant moments of emotion in the rubble, a bunch of locals turn up looking rather sheepish – despite the city centre being a decrepit hell-hole, they are trying to build a new life here, which apparently involves burning down hospitals in order to stop the spread of disease. (No, you didn’t read that wrong, and this is basically the reason given on screen.) Rather than being completely abandoned, it seems like the city is full of people, and one of them is a slightly rum character who survives by lending construction equipment to people. (I mean, really. Really?) However, in order to get him to lend them a JCB (or, as it eventually turns out, a trolley jack), our heroes basically have to pimp Sarah out to him, against her will. I’m left slightly queasy by the casual attitude towards rape which is taken in a lot of modern culture, and by people talking about it, but this is much too close to it for comfort – and it’s not just that, it’s the fact that the situation is so ridiculously contrived and melodramatic. If the whole ethos of the show was that it takes place in a horrible, totally amoral world, then it might be more acceptable (though the ludicrously implausible plotting would still stink the place up), but it’s not – the focus of the show is still largely on the relationships between the regular characters (the group is now casually referred to as the Family, for God’s sake – note that significant capital F). Sarah wuvs Tom. Tom wuvs Anya. Anya wuvs Tom, maybe, but she’s not sure. Al and Najid wuv each other in a brotherly kind of way. Greg doesn’t wuv Tom, as he’s cottoned on to the fact that Tom’s a violent psychopath. Everyone wuvs matriarch Abby. Urrgh.

I suppose the thing that annoys me the most is that while the programme may still be called Survivors and take place in a post-apocalyptic world, there’s only the barest lip-service paid to that in the episode itself. No-one seems especially worried about where their food or water or petrol is coming from, people talk about hiring a JCB, they have video-conferences and wear suits. It doesn’t feel post-apocalyptic in any real sense.

More or less the same is true of the other storyline with Abby (who is, we’re told, an exceptional walking miracle as far as her body’s response to the virus is concerned). It may be a nightmarish satire of the attitudes of Big Pharma. It may be a disturbing conspiracy thriller. (At one point Abby is threatened with being intentionally put in a vegetative state for her own good, and at certain points I feel like this series is trying to do the same to me.) But I’m pretty sure it isn’t anything really to do with surviving after the collapse of civilisation and the tough choices involved in building a new society.

Abby stays nabbed by the boffins until the end of Episode Eight, at which point she is released by the sympathetic wife of the main villain (they are both Mums and share a Magical Mum Connection which means they instantly trust each other). Of course the evil boffins want Abby back as she is the source of a vaccine for the virus, which (we are told) may mutate at any moment into an even more lethal form.

While all this is going on, everyone else is looking for Abby, without very much success. Despite the fact that the city seemed busting at the seams with folk in Episode Seven, who all seemed pretty well-fed, here we are told the city is a decomposing wasteland where our characters are slowly starving to death. Hmmm. What follows is essentially a load more soap-opera shenanigans, with the usual ambiguous attitude towards Tom’s violent psychopathy, Sarah getting a big emotional moment as a result of having been raped the week before, Al not doing anything very interesting (as usual) and Najid being stroppy. The chickens are not mentioned at all; I fear the worst. None of it really lingers in the mind or goes anywhere particular, but at least at the end everyone is back together and ready to push on with this year’s plot, which no doubt will concern the boffins chasing Abby about the place.

Although not in Episode Nine, it seems. This is notable on one level as the one marking the first appearance of Roger Lloyd Pack in the new show (he is the only actor to appear in both TV versions of Survivors) – he plays, effectively, a slave trader (NB, New Survivors = ‘less depressing’) – and on another level as the only episode of the new show I caught on your actual television (I think it was a 2011 re-run), and it was so bad I didn’t bother going back for any more.

The crux of the episode is that the increasingly preposterous Willis and her killer chav henchman Dexter catch Tom and decide to put him on trial for the murder he carried out at the end of Series One. Abby and the others try to mount an intervention, resulting in the most ridiculous trial scene in the annals of human literature: the members of the jury are chosen at the whim of the judge, who is also counsel for the prosecution. Two of the jury are close associates of the defendant, and closely involved in events leading up to the crime. One juror recently shot and nearly killed one of the others. None of the characters seem to find anything remotely peculiar about this arrangement, of course, but despite the incredibly brazen attempts at fixing the trial by the useless Willis, Tom is found innocent, but still sent down for seven years anyway. How does someone as blatantly incompetent as Willis keep her job? Do the words ‘Hello, I’m the only government minister who didn’t die’ have some weird mystical power over everyone else? I could go on at some length, but it frankly doesn’t warrant it.

(Meanwhile, Pointless Al and Dim Sarah are getting it on somewhere else. There is not much else to the B-story this episode but at least it isn’t the A-story.)

I seem to recall that on the same day I watched this on TV, I also found a copy of the Nation novelisation in a charity shop, and after the episode concluded, I retired to bed with the book, finding it to be vastly superior in every aspect of the writing. That opinion still stands, in case you were wondering.

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One of the various innovative ticketing initiatives/scams that my magic cinema entry card allows me to avoid is so-called ‘Blockbuster Pricing’, whereby the powers that be routinely stick a couple of quid on top of the regular cost of a ticket, if they think it’s a film that a lot of people are going to want to see. Quite who decides on this sort of thing I don’t know, I imagine some sort of panel meets in a darkened room somewhere and makes a ruling on a quarterly basis. Not that they always seem to get it right: currently enjoying an extra quid on top of the regular price is Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which strictly speaking looks like being a blockbuster only in its aspirations – early projections are apparently that this is going to turn out to be a historic bomb.

There have of course been lots of Arthurian movies down the years, many of them rather undistinguished of course, perhaps the best-known being John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the most recent high-profile offering Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur from 2004. Excalibur did okay at the box office, by the standards of its day, but King Arthur didn’t, and it has been suggested that this is just one example of a curious trend where historically popular stories and genres are not capturing the imaginations of modern audiences – last year’s Tarzan movie, for instance, was only modestly successful at the box office. Perhaps it’s simply the case that the kids just want to go and see the latest superhero or computer game adaptation.

In any case, Legend of the Sword seems to be trying fairly hard to lure in a younger audience, for it opens with a virtual reprise of various bits of Lord of the Rings, with the fortress of Camelot under attack by an evil wizard and his minions (including some rather surprising elephants which are about the size of oil-rigs). Noble King Uther (Eric Bana) springs into action and sees the baddies off, fairly easily, but this turns out just to be a prelude to a grab for power by his wicked brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern seizes the throne but the king’s infant son Arthur floats off down the river to safety, his identity unknown.

He winds up in the city of Londinium (hmmm), where he is adopted by a gang of prostitutes and raised in a brothel. Years whizz past, courtesy of the first of several funky montage sequences, and soon enough Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a grown man, a face on the local underworld scene, and a dab hand at kung fu following regular training sessions down the neighbourhood martial arts school.

No, wait, it gets better (for a given value of better, anyway). In the meantime Vortigern has grown rather concerned about his nephew coming back to take revenge, but fortunately has an infallible method of finding out who he is – there’s a big stone outside the castle with a sword sticking out of it, and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) only the rightful heir can draw Excalibur forth. Young men from all over the country are being rounded up and forced to give it a try, under the watchful eye of David Beckham (formerly a noted football player, m’lud).

Yes, it really is him, and he provides one of the biggest ‘You what?’ moments in a film not exactly short on them. Truth be told, Goldenballs is not in the movie for very long, but the very brevity of his participation just makes the scale of his achievement all the more impressive: it takes a very rare individual to be quite as arrestingly awful in a really very tiny part as Beckham is here. He makes Vinnie Jones in X-Men 3 look like Sir John Gielgud.

Well, anyway, having pulled Excalibur out, Arthur is clocked as the rightful heir and things look bleak for him. However, various members of the old regime who are resisting Vortigern’s rule rescue Arthur, with an eye to grooming him as a possible replacement. But our man decides he’s nobody’s puppet and sets about assembling his own gangland crew to take down his wicked uncle, Londinium-massive style! (One thing you can say about that King Arthur, no grannies got mugged when he was around, he never hurt one of his own, and you could leave yer front door unlocked, etc.)

Whatever else you want to say about Guy Ritchie as a film-maker, he is at least consistent. After two Sherlock Holmes movies that weren’t exactly purist in their approach to Conan Doyle, and a Man from UNCLE adaptation that frankly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the TV show, he has now rocked up with an Arthurian film which is virtually unrecognisable as anything of the sort. They keep the sword in the stone bit, but there’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Morgan le Fay, and virtually no Merlin or Mordred (mystical duties are palmed off to a somewhat ethereally gamine character played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey).

I must confess I was all set to have some fun with the fact that, in this film, King Arthur has the kind of beard and hairstyle you would normally expect to find on the barman of a hipster cafe in Shoreditch, but this seems like a very small matter when you consider that the film also contains magic elephants, half-woman half-squid life coaches, rodents of unusual size, kung fu fights, and many other elements that Tennyson, Mallory, White and the rest just plumb forgot to mention. (There’s a moment where King Vortigern tells his lieutenant to ‘Do your ****ing job’ which I suspect may not be drawn from the Venerable Bede.) These are mostly incidental, though: the film essentially feels like the result of a three-way collision between one of Ritchie’s lairy lad gangster movies, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (or, to be less charitable, Warcraft), and a Marvel superhero film – Arthur’s claim to the throne is backed up not by his nobility or wisdom, but by the fact that wielding Excalibur gives him bad-ass superpowers and the ability to slaughter vast numbers of bad guys in the twinkling of an eye.

And no doubt you are expecting me to tear into the movie for all of this. I find that I can’t quite do this, not because it really works as an experience – it doesn’t, although the sheer incongruity of the different elements does make it bizarrely watchable, simply because you never know what’s coming next – but because it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just some ham-fisted, clueless muddle – Ritchie has been largely successful in making exactly the film he wanted to make. It’s just that he had zero interest in wanting to make a traditional (some might say ‘sane’) Arthurian movie. Sequences that could’ve been quite authentic are simply rushed through, while others which bizarrely resemble chunks of contemporary gangland drama have been spliced in instead.

In some ways it resembles Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale from 2001, another movie which cheerfully took an axe to historical accuracy in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and a film which I rather enjoyed. The difference is that Legend of the Sword doesn’t seem to have quite the same cheerful sense of its own absurdity – it takes itself relatively seriously – and that A Knight’s Tale wasn’t wreaking havoc upon one of the foundational myths of Britain.

I suspect we may be spared the rest of the proposed six-film series which Legend of the Sword was supposed to inaugurate, and I must confess to feeling a little saddened by that – I would’ve been rather curious to see just how far out there the other films could get, and it would at least have kept Ritchie from getting up to mischief with other properties for a decade or so. There may well be an audience for this film – always assuming there are people out there who want to see a bog-standard fantasy film made in the style of a lad’s mag gangster dramedy – but not a big enough one to make this a commercial success. It’s not so much a bad film as much as a very, very weird one – but there are still many more bad bits than great ones. And yes, Beckham, I’m looking at you.

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Sometimes there is a danger that over-familiarity with something can blind you to its essential nature, and this is particularly noticeable when that essential nature is, well, weird. I’m a big fan of Japanese monster movies, as long term readers will no doubt (wearily) recall, but it’s only when I attempt to describe the plot of (say) Godzilla Vs Biollante to an unsuspecting party that I am reminded of how hallucinogenically strange it really is. The same with a lot of TV, I suppose. These days Doctor Who is such a national (even international) institution that we take for granted it is a programme with a rather eccentric format.

In other words, I suppose, if I want to get that cherishable sensation of ‘What the hell…?’ I have to look somewhat further afield. At this point honour requires that I credit Neil and Sue Perryman, whose latest opus arrived in the post the other day and contains details of their encounter with The Tomorrow People in its 70s incarnation. They, naturally, went for the notorious episodes featuring a bewigged and cowboy-hatted Peter Davison. Feeling inspired to revisit the highly peculiar world of the homo superior myself, I opted to go down a different route and check out another story written by Roger Price from slightly later in the series’ run – from the 1978 sixth season, it’s Hitler’s Last Secret!

Yup, this is a mainstream youth-orientated TV drama from (what was then) the UK’s only commercial channel, and it’s so openly about Fascism that they put Hitler’s name in the title. But we are still only at the very brink of the rabbit-hole. We find ourselves in a reassuringly familiar low-budget secret base/bunker, from which a young man executes an escape you could charitably describe as ‘ridiculous’. He is pursued across country by other young lads, toting machine guns, before being run over and killed by a British army land rover (it transpires we are supposedly somewhere in Bavaria). This would be odd enough, but on top of that, all the teenage boys are wearing SS uniforms, and leading them is a youthful Nicholas Lyndhurst (yes, he of Only Fools and Horses fame), affecting a frankly wobbly German accent. The boundaries of taste and sanity are already cracking and we have barely reached the opening credits of episode one.

Thankfully, the audience gets a chance to process the concept of Rodney Trotter, He-Wolf of the SS, as we pop off to the secret lab HQ of the Tomorrow People (the psi-powered next step in human evolution, in case you were wondering). Your Tomorrow People for this outing are strait-laced big brother figure John (Nicholas Young), restless but good-hearted teen Mike (Mike Holoway), and Hsui Tai (Misako Koba), who may be a member of a hyper-evolved subspecies of humanity, but still sounds like she’s learned her dialogue phonetically.

In the sort of eye-rollingly contrived expository scene you only get in old genre shows, John just happens to mention to Hsui Tai that he has been breeding immortal (or perhaps more accurately amortal) rats, repeating experiments originally done long before (by the Nazis, would you believe? What a coincidence). Apparently, if you lock an organism in a state of perpetual adolescence, it essentially stops aging. This is delivered with all the earnestness usually reserved for the series’ frequent info-dumps of genuine improving knowledge, and it took me a few minutes to realise it is actually complete cobblers (well, maybe not: it’s a venerable old SF notion, perhaps most memorably employed in Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron).

The laborious laying-in of back-story takes a pause as Mike wanders through en route to the teleporter pads, heading to the youth club. However, in addition to the usual flared trousers he has also chosen to wear an SS uniform jacket and hat, which John is righteously angry about. The scene is so weird to a modern viewer that it’s quite hard to tell if it’s especially badly written or not; but it is almost certainly badly acted by any objective standard.

Once down the youth club we see another artiste who probably doesn’t include this on his showreel: Ray Burdis, actor in Scum and Gandhi, producer of The Krays, director of various iffy Primrose Hill Set movies, along with much else, turns up as the leader of a neo-Nazi youth gang called (wait for it) the Stormtroopers. Burdis’ character speaks frankly of his love for Hitler and belief that one day he will return to save the world (just to reiterate, this was apparently considered acceptable material for children’s TV back in 1978).

The studio-bound scenes in the youth club and secret lab are intercut with goings on at the SS base, which is also a youth club and a secret lab, of course. Untergruppenfuhrer Trotter is shocked to discover that the cryogenic suspension pods the perpetually-teenaged Nazis have been guarding for the last 33 years are starting to wear out and the occupants have to be defrosted, PDQ. One of these is the mad doctor responsible for making their teenage dreams last forever, the other is… well, you can probably guess.

Yes, it’s Hitler himself, played by Michael Sheard, who spent quite a lot of his time playing the Fuhrer (when he wasn’t playing Imperial Navy Admirals, autocratic school teachers, and various Doctor Who characters, anyway). But is Hitler really Hitler? John has already revealed that the Nazi leader is really Neebor, from the planet Vashir, a ‘galactic criminal’.

Taste barrier? What taste barrier? Just as John is concerned by Mike’s growing fascination with Nazism, so the world authorities have been troubled by a rising tide of neo-Nazism amongst young people (we’re told about this, not shown it, obviously), and British intelligence has realised there’s something funny going on in rural Bavaria, too. John heroically leaps to a wild but (naturally) completely accurate conclusion – at the end of the war, the Nazis used V2 rockets to spread a strain of e. coli which introduced a gene promoting blind obedience to Hitler into the population. Once again, this is an insane mixture of seriously-delivered science lecture (the young audience is informed about genetic engineering and how it works) and bonkers conspiracy theory (the rest of it). Now, of course, Hitler and his deceptively-youthful followers are planning to make the ultimate party political broadcast, activate the Hitler-worshipping gene in the world’s youth, and take over the planet! Can the Tomorrow People save the day? (Clue: yes.)

The thing about Hitler’s Last Secret isn’t just that it’s a episode of a fantasy adventure series which is to some extent fascinated by the iconography of Hitler and Nazism – these were alarmingly common in the 1960s and 70s. I have already written about the Eagle’s Nest episode of The New Avengers (Hitler is still alive and reasonably well and living on an island in the north Atlantic), and also the Patterns of Force episode of Star Trek (Hitler himself is long dead, but his ideology is alive and well and living on the remote planet Ekos, having been spread there by a misguided Federation historian). Off the top of my head, I can also think of the Anchluss 77 episode of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series (Hitler’s cells are alive and well and about to be cloned somewhere in South America), and arguably Doctor Who’s Genesis of the Daleks (though this is a much more allusive, allegorical connection). Round about this time there was also the movie The Boys from Brazil (numerous Hitler clones are alive and well and being groomed for power all over the world). So it’s not as if this was some weird anomaly, exactly; the Second World War had finished less than 35 years previously and was still a key influence on social attitudes. The seductive appeal of Nazi chic to younger people was also a genuine issue – round about the time this episode went out, you had Siouxsie Sioux and other first generation punks wearing swastikas and so on, probably more for their transgressive power to shock than for any other reason, and Nazi uniforms remained popular as bad taste fancy dress into the 20th century (even with members of the British royal family).

So why is it that Hitler’s Last Secret feels so monumentally screwed-up and misjudged? It can’t just be the clunky and obvious plotting, the preachiness of it, or the consistently bad acting of nearly everyone involved, because these were pretty much staples of this kind of TV show in the 70s and beyond (and especially The Tomorrow People). That’s not to say that there aren’t some terrible misjudgements going on here – the decision to make Hitler one of the series’ routinely duff alien monsters in disguise is surely trivialising the programme’s subject matter, especially as this is basically handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. Who is this Neebor character? Where’s he at? What’s his objective? The story is all about the appeal of the iconography of Nazism and barely considers its ideological basis.

No, the particular things that The Tomorrow People brings to the table are, firstly, the fact that this is British TV and thus very likely to have that before-they-were-famous factor somewhere in the mix – Nicholas Lyndhurst had quite an extensive career as a child star, but even so, playing a member of the Hitler Youth locked in perpetual puberty is the kind of role that doesn’t come along very often.

The other big deal is the extraordinarily low budget this story is obviously contending with. There’s a bit of location filming in some woods, but most of it takes place on the same few tiny studio sets with very primitive special effects. The Tomorrow People spend most of the story sitting around on their sofas. When Hitler is compelled to reveal his true, alien form, the effect is achieved by popping a fake eyeball in a bowl of green jelly.

It looks like a spoof of the worst kind of cod SF, but the story is clearly intended very seriously, a cautionary parable to any younger viewers who might be feeling tempted to pop on their own SS uniform before going down the school disco. There’s a kind of three-way collision between the most serious theme, the painfully unsubtle handling of this by the script, and the almost unbelievably crass way it’s all realised, and the result is something with a unique kind of awfulness to it. It is stupefying to watch, also very funny, and also has a sort of grim fascination in the way it manages to get virtually everything so very, very wrong. The Tomorrow People did produce some genuinely good stories. But this is in a class of its own, and probably one which has been placed in special measures.

 

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It’s strange how ignorance can sometimes be a source of shame and sometimes a badge of honour: just the other day I was slightly embarrassed to have to admit to a friend that I’d never actually seen, read, or otherwise experienced any version of Ghost in the Shell prior to seeing the new movie, whereas in another conversation I happily informed anyone who’d listen that I had only the scantiest knowledge of the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

This is possibly just an age thing, as the Rangers were aimed at an audience at least one generation younger than me when they were first unleashed upon the world in the 1990s. We are basically talking about a TV show with an attached line of toys (or possibly vice versa, I suppose), all concerning a team of superheroes (if doing karate while being a different primary colour from the person next to you is enough to qualify as a superhero these days) fighting unlikely monsters. Needless to say, it had its origins in a Japanese TV show entitled Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, and the US adaptation went on to be terribly successful. And as we are now living in 2017, where nothing which was once popular is ever allowed the luxury of a quiet and dignified death, the whole concept has now been revived and generally polished up for a movie, directed by Dean Israelite.

Things get going on prehistoric Earth, where Power Ranger Zordon (which is a fine name for a pulp SF character) has just received a whupping from the evil Rita Repulsa (which, um, isn’t). Zordon and Rita are played by Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks, who are both very capable and respected artists and thus presumably either being extremely well remunerated or forced to perform at gunpoint. Zordon cops it, but not before putting Rita’s plans on hold, in the hope that a new team of upstanding Power Rangers can be assembled in the meantime.

We then skip forward to present day California and the town of Angel Grove, where a quintet of disparate (and, of course, carefully diverse) teenage misfits find themselves coming together seemingly at random. (They all have various relatable teenage issues, of course.) The location for this is an old quarry, where they eventually discover some multi-coloured ‘power coins’ stashed there by Zordon 65 million years earlier, at the start of the film. Odd things start to happen, such as them finding themselves suddenly able to jump over houses in a single bound.

Another visit to the quarry leads them to Zordon’s old spaceship, which is in remarkably good nick, and a comedy-relief robot. Together the robot (Bill Hader) and Zordon’s CGI head handle the necessary exposition – buried under Angel Grove is the ‘Zeo Crystal’ (uh-huh) a semi-mystical object intrinsic to the existence of life on Earth (uh-huh) and Rita Repulsa’s target. As chance (and the demands of the plot) would have it, Rita is back in the area (uh-huh) and planning on building a giant robot out of tooth fillings (uh-huh) to dig the Zeo Crystal up, with horrible consequences for everyone (uh-huh). Our troubled teens have been selected to take on the roles of the Power Rangers, provided they can master the necessary skills. ‘Tell me, have you ever morphed before?’ enquires Zordon, gravely. ‘Only in the shower,’ replies Black Power Ranger (Ludi Lin). (In case you’re wondering, our teenage heroes are played by actors who are 20, 22, 22, 23, and 29.)

Well, I tell you, folks, despite hearing a generally positive buzz about this film, I spent quite a few happy minutes thinking of some zingy put-downs to sling its way if it turned out to be a load of gruelling old rubbish: ‘don’t go-go anywhere near it’ for one; ‘only watchable under the influence of morphine’ was another. I share these with you now, because I can’t actually use them – Power Rangers is, um, surprisingly non-terrible. Well, that’s not quite true, but it’s terrible in the best sort of way.

Can I even call it terrible? Some of it is actually pretty good, particularly the playing of the young cast, who do have chemistry together. Seeing the trailer for this movie, my first thought was ‘This looks rather like Chronicle‘ (a 2012 superhero-SF movie), and this does carry through into much of the actual film (Max Landis, who wrote Chronicle and worked on this one for a bit before being fired, felt the same way, apparently): this has a bit more heart and a bit more grit than you might expect, all things considered.

Then again, this is a Power Rangers movie, and you do have to worry about things like tonal appropriacy – I saw this film in the ‘family matinee’ strand down the local multiplex, with the rest of the audience made up entirely of very young boys and their fathers. This may be the core audience for Power Rangers, in which case you have to question the appropriacy of the 12A UK certificate, the inclusion of jokes about lamb-shanking bulls, a subplot about sexting, and so on. Despite the premise, this often feels like a film aimed at a young-adult (or maybe even older) audience, with lots of hot-button topic issues being touched upon – Yellow Power Ranger (Becky G) has a minority orientation, Blue Power Ranger (RJ Cyler) is somewhat autistic (‘I’m on the spectrum,’ he declares – ‘Is that a workout programme?’ asks Red Power Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), who’s a bit of a jock), and so on. Pink Power Ranger (Naomi Scott) is still a girl, though.

This emphasis on characterisation (and, as you can perhaps see, some decent jokes) means that Power Rangers doesn’t quite feel like a traditional superhero origin movie (which is basically what it is) for most of its running time. All the mighty morphin’ is held back until the third act, at which point the film basically turns into a massive advert for toys, but by this point you should be interested enough to stick with it until the end regardless.

The film has been somewhat tongue-in-cheek prior to this point, and Elizabeth Banks has clearly figured out that hers is a role that requires the kind of performance which registers on the Richter scale, but… ‘Tell me where the Zeo Crystal is!’ demands Rita, threatening to kill one of our heroes. ‘It’s under Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!’ squeaks Blue Power Ranger, who has somehow figured this out. ‘What is this… Krispy Kreme Doughnuts?’ hisses Rita, before setting off to activate her tooth-filling robot. ‘Guys, we have to stop her before she reaches the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts store!’ cries Red Power Ranger. (Things go on in a similar vein at surprising length.)

Now, I love doughnuts as much as the next person – actually, that’s a lie, I love doughnuts to the extent that my dietician is constantly in a strop with me – but the sheer brazenness of the product placement for Krispy Kreme in this film is utterly jaw-dropping. The film even pauses for a moment so Rita Repulsa can eat a Krispy Kreme doughnut within the store itself. I have no idea what percentage of the budget of Power Rangers Krispy Kreme stumped up for, but putting the brand at the very centre of the plot in this way is… either it’s an inspired bit of insanity that probably means this film is guaranteed to become a campy cult classic, or it topples the whole thing over into absolute absurdity.

Power Rangers’ heady mixture of teen angst, dubious jokes, plastic karate, epic over-acting, and blatant product placement really should not result in a functioning movie. And yet somehow it does, because this is consistently entertaining all the way through. Certainly, much of the film does not make any sense whatsoever, and the rest of it only makes sense in a way which is completely ridiculous, but you are carried along by some winning performances and clever direction, not to mention just how knowing most of it is. I imagine some people will sneer about this film on principle, but if this was a new property released under the auspices of Marvel Studios or even DC, I suspect it would have smash hit written all over it. All things considered I’m very glad I went-went to see it.

 

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If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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Well, Valentine’s Day and the global corporate attempt to make people who are not single by choice feel worse about themselves than they already do are almost upon us as I write, and one could reasonably expect the onset of a spate of films all extolling the modern ideal of romance at its most epically glutinous. But wait, what’s this? A rather odd film about a slightly alarming dysfunctional relationship and someone with ball bearings up their wazoo?

Ah, it must be time for Fifty Shades Darker, directed by James Foley, the peculiar sequel to 2015’s peculiar Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, as before I felt it behoved me to check out such a significant piece of pop culture action, and thankfully my faithful companion when it comes to this sort of thing, Protective Camouflage, was also up for it. ‘Two tickets for Sex Dungeon 2, please,’ we proudly said, then (moving past a group of possibly underage cinema-goers arguing with the manager over whether they were allowed to watch the film) took our seats. With the first film, we practically had the place to ourselves (that’s what you get for watching soft-core porn at the art house, I guess), but this time around we found ourselves in the midst of a riotous, febrile atmosphere, with a brittle sense of people pretending not to take it all too seriously but secretly really, really excited about the prospect of seeing naked flesh and simulated whoa-ho-ho.

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All very much at odds with the actual film, of course, which as before is primarily concerned with the doings of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who has just started a new job in publishing, her kinky entanglement with the inexplicably attractive young, handsome, ripped billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) definitely a thing of the past. For the first ten minutes anyway, for then Mr Grey reappears, declares he can’t live without her, and so on, and so on.

The plot beyond this point is a little difficult to describe… it’s not quite as if nothing actually happens, because obviously things do, and I don’t just mean visits to the sex dungeon. It turns out that Mr Grey, despite being more than a bit stalkerish and controlling himself, has got a couple of stalkers of his own, one of whom is played by none other than Kim Basinger. (This reminded me of Basinger’s role in the 1989 Batman movie, which also concerned a handsome, athletic young billionaire with an obsessive interest in punishment. But I digress.) Anastasia Steele attracts another weirdo (Eric Johnson), who is not a non-threatening billionaire and thus not dreamy boyfriend material. Mr Grey is in a helicopter crash with a female colleague, but this does not appear to bother him overmuch, no doubt because he has gone down with a lady many times in the past. Most excitingly, we finally get to meet Mr Grey’s housekeeper, who is presumably the one who keeps everything in the sex dungeon so well-oiled and shiny, but she is sadly only a very minor character.

But all of this feels very incidental to the main storyline (the helicopter crash bit in particular feels bizarrely throwaway), which concerns the, um, unexpectedly conventional relationship between Miss Steele and Mr Grey – she’s worried that he has something of a history with other ladies, struggles to get him to open up emotionally, and is bowled over when he asks her to move in. Radical stuff this really isn’t – this is a romance very much done by the numbers, as a quiet Everygirl discovers she has almost effortlessly won the heart of the handsome prince (it’s just that on this occasion the handsome prince has an extensive selection of recreational aids, even if he seems unsure of where to stick them). There’s something so blandly aspirational about the whole thing, with its tasteful interior decor, designer clothing, and endless product placement.

The advertising for this film is once again built around how blisteringly steamy and boldly transgressive it all is. Well, what floats your boat is a personal matter, I suppose, but even for an 18-rated film this is hardly very explicit (the only time Mr Grey gets his chopper out is when he’s preparing a salad) nor is it especially daring. Early on there’s a spanking sequence which is unintentionally funny rather than erotic (the fact the soundtrack at this point actually features the lyric ‘bum-diddy-bum-bum’ may be partly responsible, I suspect), and the whole ball-bearings-up-the-wazoo bit had Protective Camouflage and I sniggering up our sleeves. Your mileage may vary, naturally: we were practically the last people to leave the theatre, but as we did so there was one couple near the back apparently intent on sucking each others’ faces off, so it clearly did the trick for them.

Of course, this movie has already made an enormous pile of money, so (short of the total collapse of western civilisation, which admittedly feels like more of a genuine possibility than was the case a few months ago) I foresee little that can fend off the release of Sex Dungeon 3 next year, not least because it was filmed back to back with this one, by the same director. Not much chance of the last film redeeming the series, then, and every chance of more of the same.

Joking apart, this is simply quite a dull film, the characters are flat and not performed with any real energy, the plot is meandering and under-powered, and once again there’s a disconcerting lack of anything actually approaching an, um, climax – when it comes to the plot, anyway. It just resembles a very long advert for designer goods with some fairly tame soft-core sex scenes incongruously inserted. I expect that Protective Camouflage and I will check out number three as well, not least because we both enjoy a good laugh, but on the whole I would say that while the makers of Fifty Shades Darker have indeed come up with a film which will appeal to masochists, this is not quite in the way they probably intended.

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Well, what a year it’s been so far at the cinema, and it’s still only the third week of January – A Monster Calls, Silence, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea all went on release in the space of a relatively few days, any of which individually would have been a great harbinger for the year to come. Collectively, it’s looking like an anno mirabilis, twelve months in which every movie proves to be a rewarding, sophisticated, intelligent work of art. But how long can this kind of quality continue?

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Who knows, but let’s take a moment to look at D. J. Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, starring the great Vin Diesel. Now, you know me, I like Vin Diesel, broadly speaking, and will give anything he does a fair hearing. But this doesn’t change the fact that Vin has a dark secret known to only a select few with access to an obscure website known as ‘Wikipedia’.

Once upon a time there was a sincere young artist called Mark Sinclair. Mark was a screenwriter, director and actor who spent his time working on heartfelt, serious films about what it was like to be of ambiguous ethnicity in the modern USA, breakdancing, and playing a lot of purist Dungeons & Dragons. And then something happened. Just as the virtuous and heroic Anakin Skywalker was consumed and obliterated by the dark animus of Darth Vader, so no-one ever seems to hear from Mark Sinclair any more, but we do get regular offerings from Mark’s alter ego Vin Diesel, who seems unlikely to make a heartfelt, serious film about anything, but seems very comfortable playing a tree in various Marvel Comics movies.

So it is with the utterly mind-boggling xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Now, for anyone not following along (wise souls), the xXx series was launched in 2002 as a tough-guy vehicle for Vin Diesel, then riding high after the first Fast and Furious movie, but – somewhat bizarrely – continued in his absence when he dropped out of 2005’s xXx: State of the Union to make the eminently forgettable comedy The Pacifier. Roll on over ten years and we still find Diesel there or thereabouts when it comes to movie stardom, but still one of those people whose ability to open a movie is severely limited: people will go to see him in droves for Fast and Furious sequels, and to a lesser extent in films about his Riddick character, but anything else with him on-screen struggles to get a wide release (here in the UK anyway). One might even suggest that this very belated return to the xXx series puts one in mind of a dog returning to his own… you know what, let’s not even complete that image, as things are going to get unsavoury enough, I suspect.

The first scene sets the tone quite well, as Samuel L Jackson (barely appearing) delivers a bafflegab lecture about the need for the xXx programme, wherein people with minimal actual skills but bags of kewl attitude are recruited to save the world. The gag is that he is talking to Neymar Junior, who I understand is a football player, and the lad almost at once gets to show his potential by using his ace keepy-uppy skills to subdue an armed robber. No, honestly.

Well, anyway. The CIA have got their hands on a evil Maguffin widget capable of blowing lots of things up, and no-nonsense CIA dominatrix Toni Collette (really slumming it) is not best pleased when a bunch of scallywags led by Donnie Yen break into the building, cause all kinds of mayhem, and run off with it to their top-secret lair, which is a beach resort in the Philippines.

The CIA decide to disregard the fact that former top agent Xander Cage (Mark Sincl – sorry, Vin Diesel) died in the previous sequel and ask him to come back and get the evil widget out of Donnie Yen’s hands. Naturally he says yes, or this would be a very short film. Up to this point proceedings have been rather vacuous, but once Vin gets going… well, calling this film empty-headed would be a profound insult to Barbie dolls everywhere.

See Vin ski through the jungle. See Vin skateboard down a road against the flow of traffic. See Vin get his end away with someone half his age. See the CIA try to recruit Vin. See him scorn and mock them but agree to help out anyway. See Vin lech at more young women. See him track down the incredibly hard-to-find bad guys in about eight seconds flat. See him get his end away again. See the CIA assign Vin a backup squad of uptight soldiers who sneer at his rebel ways. See Vin throw them all out the back of a plane in flight. See Vin juggle grenades at a beach party. See Vin flirt laboriously with imported Bollywood star Deepika Padukone. See Vin ride a motorcycle, underwater. And so on (this is just the first act of the movie, more or less).

I mean, I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It is admittedly never completely dull, although this is in the same sense that it’s not dull being inside an oil drum being repeatedly struck by baseball bats, and there are at least a couple of sequences in which we get to see Donnie Yen in full flow, which is always a cherishable experience (Tony Jaa, who also features, is much less well-served), and there is at least one laugh-out-loud in-joke about this series’ somewhat peculiar production history.

If I were a young person I think I would feel profoundly insulted by this movie, as it seems to operate according to the belief that all young people are congenital morons capable only of involvement on the most superficial of levels – that, or the film is intended to be enjoyed with the dreaded ironic sensibility (but I really doubt this as it would require a subtlety utterly lacking in all other departments of the movie). Vin dismisses the trained soldiers originally assigned to back him up, instead plumping for a tattooed lesbian sharpshooter (I suppose she does have some utility for the mission), an unhinged stunt driver whose hobby is crashing into things, and a kid whose main talent is that he is a really good DJ. I mean, what? What? Being young and edgy can only take you so far in life.

Nor does it last, of course: and perhaps it might be worthwhile for someone to have a quiet word in Vin Diesel’s shell-like, to the effect that having extensive inks and wearing cargo pants all the time only go so far in disguising the fact that you are a grown man pushing fifty but still really acting like a teenager. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a grown man who appears to be having a mid-life crisis of some kind. One scene has Vin, who has chosen to turn up in an extraordinary fur coat which even a mid-1970s football manager would quail at wearing, being descended upon by half-a-dozen young lingerie models – the next we see, they are all in a happy, stupefied heap, with our hero standing nearby looking as smug as only a highly-paid actor-producer can.

And it just radiates a kind of lazy contempt for its target audience – these kids are stupid! Just stick in a load of overblown stunt sequences and hot young women in swimsuits and they won’t care if the plot is just an absurd assembly of set pieces! Let’s keep on about what a rebel Vin’s character is even though he hardly ever does anything especially rebellious that isn’t also ridiculously stupid! Let’s keep on with those cool and edgy credentials – anyone in a suit is the Man and evil (except for Sam Jackson, he’s cool) and anyone into extreme sports is great!

I still like Vin Diesel a lot. I’m looking forward to Fast and Furious 8 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 very much. But this is like the dark, twisted, idiot brother of a Fast and Furious film: sexist, soulless, and calculating in a particularly thick-headed way. I like an absurd action movie as much as the next person (probably), but this film works much too hard at being actively stupid. Return of Xander Cage sets the bar for this year’s crop of thicko movies impressively low. I wouldn’t be surprised if xXx turned out to be the xXXxiest film of 2017.

 

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