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Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

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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Here’s a (probably borderline) interesting thing: both the movies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons came out on basically the same weekend in the middle of May (albeit three years apart), an extremely reliable release date for something aspiring to be a solid summer blockbuster. You can’t argue with success, one way or another, and so here we are with another film from the same people – Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, as a glance out of your window may already have revealed, we are in the middle of October, much more nebulous territory for films looking to make pots of money, and in some ways the preserve of those actually aspiring to receive a little critical acclaim and recognition. Has a multi-hundred-million dollar take gone to everyone’s heads? Or is this genuinely a more sophisticated and classy film than its antecedents?

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Um, no it’s not. But it does have a go at being a rattling good yarn (I believe this is the term). One of the good things about these films is that you get the benefits of Dan Brown’s command of story structure without needing to be exposed to his prose style, and – following some prefatory material about someone falling off a tower in Florence while being chased by mysterious agent-types – we get a properly barnstorming opening, as maverick symbologist (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hmmm) Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in hospital with Movie Amnesia, having had a bang on the head. Rather to his surprise Hanks finds he is in Florence.

Events proceed apace as a slightly psychotic policewoman turns up and starts shooting at Hanks, leading him to take cover with the fortuitously English and pulchritudinous ER doctor, played by Felicity Jones. Sure enough, it seems that Langdon has got himself tangled up in another of those shadowy conspiracies he is so prone to encountering.

Basically, visionary cleverclogs Bert Zobrist (Ben Foster – he’s had a busy year) has come to the conclusion that the planet is hopelessly overpopulated and made what looks rather like a TED Talk to share his thoughts. Unlike most people who make TED Talks, however, Zobrist has also cooked up a lethal virus which will resolve the situation by killing off half the world’s population. (He really should have checked with Professor Hans Rosling first.)

However, Zobrist’s ability to carry out his cruel-to-be-kind scheme is limited as he fell off a tall building at the start of the film, and no-one knows where the virus has been hidden. Except, of course, that before his death, Zobrist created a trail of terribly erudite and subtle clues, all referencing the works of Dante, which will ultimately lead to the location of the virus. (As you would.) So the authorities have got Langdon in to find this very valuable, not to mention spectacularly dangerous, commodity. But is there something else going on? Did Zobrist have a back-up plan which is even now unfolding? Could be…

Well, Awix’s handy guide to the Robert Langdon films runs as follows: Da Vinci Code – a bit weird but actually quite thought-provoking and certainly original, in its own way. Angels and Demons – utterly ridiculous but secretly quite fun. Inferno may not feature skydiving pontiffs or photon torpedoes under the Vatican, but it definitely inclines more towards the preposterously daft end of the Dan Brown spectrum.

Things adhere very much to the style of the previous films, with a lot of breathless jogging from one art treasure to another while Hanks holds forth on the history of whatever it is they’re going to see – I’ve made the mistake of over-doing my schedule on a holiday and ended up having a similar experience, come to think of it – and then some pointing. One sequence sees Hanks and Jones fleeing a team of heavily armed men while Hanks tries to complete an anagram; this is kind of the level of the whole thing.

While it is, as I believe I mentioned, almost absurdly over-plotted and with a few truly outrageous twists along the way (the main one of which I must confess to having figured out well in advance of its appearance), on the whole this remains a pacy, slick and good-looking film – very much a potential apocalypse sponsored by the Italian and Turkish tourist boards. It may be nonsense, but it’s such busy and engaging nonsense that you never completely focus on this, though it’s a near thing.

Hanks is his usual personable self and a steady presence at the centre of the film; I don’t think he quite gets the material he deserves, though. As befits a film on this kind of scale, a top-rate cast has been assembled to try and keep a straight face around him – as well as Foster (who’s in the film an impressive amount considering he dies in the first five minutes), there’s Omar Sy, but my award for Best Thing in a Dodgy Movie goes to Irffan Khan, who delivers a bizarrely deadpan comic performance as the leader of a fairly improbable secret organisation. Howard’s direction is as competent as ever, and he stages some interestingly nightmarish hallucinations at the start of the film – these sort of fade away as it continues, which I thought was a bit of a shame, as if nothing else they gave the film more of an identity of its own.

I’m not sure what else to say about Inferno: the actual content of the story may be implausible cobblers, but the narrative structure itself is utterly sound, and there’s enough talent involved for the film to pass the time rather agreeably, provided you disconnect your critical faculties. (I’m still not sure if there’s some significance to a film about overpopulation ending with someone having a baby.) I will be utterly staggered if Inferno has any presence in the major categories of next year’s awards season, but it should probably make a tidy sum. A solid piece of rather hokey mainstream entertainment.

 

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With Awards Season pretty much over (nice job, Spotlight) we can hopefully get back to more quotidian fare for a bit – although, as previously mentioned, Blockbuster Season seems to be creeping outwards in both directions – not that long ago we routinely got a couple of months’ breathing space between the Oscars and the first big popcorn movie of the year – it’s down to about three weeks now. Frankly, I was glad of the change of pace and so along I trotted to see Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the latest vehicle for (deep breath) GERARD! BUTLER!

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Extremely long-term readers may recall my one-time enthusiasm for GERARD! BUTLER! and concern for his career, following winning supporting turns in otherwise dodgy films like Reign of Fire and Tomb Raider 2, but then a couple of things happened: firstly, Jason Statham came along, and just as you can only really support one football team, so you can only really get behind one slightly ridiculous action star, and secondly, GERARD! BUTLER! made 300 – so I figured he should be okay from now on, firmly established as a proper leading man.

Hmmm, well. On paper, London Has Fallen looks like silly popcorn fun, a good Bad Movie in the making. You hope to come out of it feeling slightly ashamed but nevertheless generally entertained, but there are always the possibilities of it either being simply dull and foolish, or – perhaps most remote of all – actually a pretty accomplished film. You don’t expect to emerge feeling genuinely appalled and quite angry, and yet this is more or less what happened to me.

The film opens as it means to go on with a US drone strike blowing up the wedding of an arms dealer’s daughter in Pakistan, and instantly one gets a strong sense of taste barriers being well and truly breached. We skip forward a couple of years and encounter (or catch up with, for those who’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen, to which this is a sequel) US President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his ace bodyguard, swivel-eyed maniac Mike Banning (Butler – I’m going to stop shouting now). A number of rather mechanical character beats follow, as we learn that Banning’s wife is heavily pregnant and he is considering resigning from the Secret Service to raise his child.

Then, however, the British Prime Minister unexpectedly drops dead, leading to a short-notice funeral gathering in London, attended by numerous world leaders (at one point the movie describes this as a ‘state funeral’, which is almost certainly wrong, but this is a tiny, tiny issue compared to everything else going on here). Obviously the dead PM is not Chinless Dave, but the film-makers have a bit of nudge-wink fun in their depiction of the various statespeople – the German chancellor is a severe-looking middle-aged blonde woman, the Italian premier is a bit of a lady’s man with a much younger wife, and so on.

So far the film has been a bit of a hard slog, with a lot of plot and character stuff being rather laboriously plumbed in, and no particular sign of a sense of humour on display. Then, however, in the space of a matter of seconds, the film executes an astonishing change of gear and soars off into a realm of howling absurdity. It turns out that most of the emergency services of London, not to mention the British army itself, has been heavily infiltrated by terrorist fanatics, and the whole funeral has been arranged as a massive trap for the visiting dignitaries. The scale on which this happens is utterly ridiculous: every passing ambulance driver pulls out a grenade launcher and starts trying blow Banning and the Prez up. The bearskin-wearing soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace start mowing down onlookers. Every tower block in London suddenly has a terrorist packing a missile launcher on the roof. Logic and credibility are completely discarded in the cause of finding new things to shoot at and/or blow up.

Well, of course, that arms dealer whose daughter got blown up at the start is back for revenge against the forces of the west, and he and his family will not stop until they’ve completed their sweep of world leaders by taking out the US President too. However they have reckoned without Banning and his swivel-eyed mania!

And, um, yuck. To be honest, it’s almost enough to make you long for the omni-competent president of Clinton era films like Independence Day and Air Force One, because I suspect we would then have been spared a dreary, ugly character like Banning at the centre of the film. I wonder how much Eckhart is being paid to essentially play second banana: he inevitably comes across as a rather soft and ineffectual figure, simply because Butler looks better as a result. (Eckhart doesn’t even get to make the big stirring speech at the end of the film – that job goes to Morgan Freeman’s Veep, because you always want Morgan Freeman making your big speeches if you can manage it.) I say ‘better’: I found the character almost impossible to like. There’s a scene where Banning gives someone a painful, drawn-out death by stabbing, mainly so the victim’s listening brother can hear it. ‘Was that really necessary?’ cries the President, aghast. ‘No,’ says Banning. It’s a sign of London Has Fallen‘s lack of self-awareness that one plot element is the difficulty people have in telling good guys from bad guys; well, I know how they feel.

I’m not sure such an uncompromising character would be improved by being played with more of a twinkle in the eye and an attempt at warmth, but Butler doesn’t even seem to try. At one point he’s about to set off to butcher another squad of terrorists, ordering the Prez to hide in a cupboard while he does so. ‘What happens if you don’t come back?’ bleats the leader of the free world. ‘You’re ****ed,’ says Banning, and again it’s not clear if this is supposed to be funny or not.

Then again, as I mentioned up the page, London Has Fallen has serious tone issues throughout. There’s nothing wrong with a crazed action movie sensibility, with one man crunching his way through legions of faceless goons and lengthy sequences resembling nothing so much as a shoot ’em up computer game, but I think that kind of disqualifies you from attempting to make serious points about contemporary geopolitics and the attendant ethical issues. This won’t be the year’s only film where drone strikes are a plot point, but hopefully it’s the most messed-up one. The villains are, of course, pretty much presented as evil incarnate once they start bumping off world leaders and tearing down London, but you would have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel that they kind of have a point – the movie starts off with a wedding being bombed by the ostensible good guys, after all. The film concludes with another drone attack, and while it’s probably supposed to be interpreted as the righteous vengeance of the good guys, I just got a queasy sense of an endless cycle of bitter violence gearing up for another iteration.

In short, any moral ambiguity in London Has Fallen is almost certainly not an intentional creative choice – the characters and dialogue are too gung-ho cartoony for that to be credible – but actually the result of artistic incompetence. I mean, the film is technically proficient, but that’s meaningless as a piece of praise these days, it’s like saying ‘well, at least they remembered to turn the cameras on’. There’s also a sense in which the film is actively disingenuous – the bad guys are, we’re repeatedly told, super-villain arms dealers, not motivated by any othe religious or ethical creed. Hmmm, yeah, but they’re arms dealers with a middle-eastern surnames and complexions, much given to beheading prisoners on live internet feeds. You would have to be thicker even than this film’s target demographic not to figure out what’s really going on.

We live in a more dangerous world than was the case a few years ago – or at least that’s how we perceive it, which may amount to much the same thing. Spectacular terror atrocities on the streets of western nations are not just the stuff of fantasy any more, and there are arguably worthwhile and interesting films to be made on this topic. But just making a bone-headed video-game style shooter with fantastically thin characters and no sense of moral compass or the actual issues involved isn’t just crass, it’s dangerous and insulting. It’s just exploiting fear and feeding it, rather than trying to take any steps to improve the situation (unless you genuinely believe that blowing people up is the answer to every problem – funnily enough, the bad guys in this film would seem to agree with you).

At the end of the film, Gerard Butler’s character cradles his new-born daughter and asks ‘What are you going to be passionate about?’ Well, jingoistic nonsense, human rights violations and stabbing people to death, if she’s anything like her dad. I would have the mite taken into care forthwith. Whether the same measures would help Gerard Butler’s film career, I don’t know, but it’s probably worth a try. This movie is horrible, and I’ve a nasty feeling that left to his own devices, Butler is only going to get worse.

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It may well come as a surprise to you to learn this, but someone once took exception to my general principle of referring to the Dungeons & Dragons-loving actor known to his parents by the name of Mark Sinclair as ‘the great Vin Diesel’. Vin Diesel is simply not that great, ran the argument. He is a man of limited range. When he is not doing a Fast & Furious movie or playing Riddick, the chances of you wanting to see what he’s been up to are frankly quite small.

And I suppose there is a case to be answered here. But, as I’ve often said, the Fast & Furious movies are generally pretty entertaining ones that you have a good time watching, and this is surely reflected in the massive success of the last few episodes. And if you should doubt the importance of Vin Diesel to the whole undertaking, all you need to do is watch the only one he makes no appearance whatsoever in, John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, from 2003.

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With Diesel off making xXx at the time (possibly not a great career move, Vin), the only major character from the original to make an appearance is Brian O’Conner, played as usual by Paul Walker. O’Conner has left his former career as an undercover cop and is now making a living as a professional street-racer in Miami. Unfortunately his past catches up with him when he is nabbed by the local cops.

Brian is presented with an ultimatum: go undercover working as a driver for local drugs kingpin Verone (Cole Hauser), or go to jail. He agrees, but only on the condition that he can have his old friend Roman (Tyrese Gibson), another boy racer, as his partner on the job. The authorities inevitably agree, and…

Well, here’s the thing. I’ve watched 2 Fast 2 Furious three times, I think, including twice in the last ten days or so. And yet if you asked me what the plot of the film is about, or indeed what happens in the course of the story, I would find myself somewhat stuck. There’s a bit where a car gets crushed by an oil tanker, and a ridiculous CGI bridge jumping stunt, and Eva Mendes in a succession of tight tops (just for a change), and a bit where a guy has a rat trying to burrow into his stomach, and a big chase at the end with some ejector seats and someone crashing a car into the top deck of a yacht. Ludacris, not yet the Q-like techno-wizard his character later becomes, shows up in a couple of frankly startling hairstyles. But it’s almost as if your brain rejects the plot of the movie and refuses to give it headspace.

Or it could be that the film is just a tottering stack of action and racing movie clichés assembled with an eye to slickness and general aestheticism. None of the characters are in any danger of achieving a second dimension, let alone a third. The whole thing is just vapid and feels pointless – there’s never any sense of anything being at stake, the film is just about floating a series of pretty pictures past the viewer.

The most recent time I watched the movie it was in a vain attempt to try and dig into it and find something worth discussing about it – some subtext, intentional or not, some comment on society or the time in which it was made. Somehow I ended up watching it with the director’s commentary switched on, and in the end I decided to go with that as it seemed likely to offer a few insights.

Hmmm. Well, John Singleton earned his place in the history books as the youngest person ever to get Oscar nominated as Best Director (at the age of 23, in case you were wondering). Sadly this seems to have been a classic case of someone peaking too soon, as his work since then has been increasingly undistinguished. The odd thing is that his is the opposite case to that of a successful genre director who tries his hand at making a serious statement and promptly comes a cropper: Singleton started off making socially-conscious dramas about urban life in America, which were generally fairly well-reviewed, only to later switch to making populist fodder which has generally stunk out the theatres it has (briefly) appeared in. However, the commentary on 2 Fast 2 Furious reveals that a startling amount of considered thought seems to have gone into the making of this very generic, rather dumb movie: doubly startling given that Singleton himself declares the film to be all about ‘fast cars and sexy girls’. (Said commentary also regularly features Singleton describing in some detail what’s happening on the screen. This confusion of the ‘director’s commentary’ and ‘audio described for the visually impaired’ functions is generally a sign of a film-maker struggling to find things to say.)

It’s true, the movie is filled with this sort of thing – in places it has an almost cartoony look to it, the result of a Japanese anime influence (it would be nice to think this was a conscious foreshadowing of Tokyo Drift, but I really, really doubt it) – but, as I said, there is nothing underpinning it, at least nothing that Singleton can persuade you to care about.

In fact all you really take away from watching this film is a deeper understanding of Tyrese Gibson’s place in the group dynamic of the other F&F films: here, he’s definitely playing the hero’s sidekick. But in the other movies, the guy who’s the hero here is actually the sidekick. Which means that Gibson has been stuck playing the sidekick’s sidekick for the past three films, which may explain the look of thinly-veiled desperation I’m sure I’ve spotted in his eyes now and then. Maybe he will be able to move up the pecking order a bit in future outings.

What else do I need to say? It’s the one genuinely bad Fast & Furious movie. It really has nothing to commend it beyond the fact it introduces Tej and Roman. It’s one for completists only. We’ve all already wasted too much time discussing it. Let’s move on.

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