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Posts Tagged ‘complete and utter crap’

What the hell is the point of the BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds? This is not a rhetorical question. After what felt like an endless wait and much teasing publicity, what eventually oozed onto the screen was possibly the most God-awful thing I’ve seen on TV all year, including second-season episodes of Space: 1999. The absolute best one could say about it is that it is well down to the usual standards of a BBC adaptation of an SF or horror classic, even worse than their version of The Lost World and quite as bad as their take on The Day of the Triffids in 2009.

There is a weird double standard within the Corporation when it comes to this sort of thing. Andrew Davies or whoever may take the odd liberty and stick in some nudity which doesn’t appear in the original text of a non-genre novel, but they are usually pretty restrained when it comes to the general thrust of the story and its subtext. And so they should, because what’s the point of doing an adaptation if all you’re going to keep of the original is the title and a vague sense of the premise?

And yet this is what we got when it came to The War of the Worlds. Let me put it another way: if the same creative talents get employed to oversee a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I confidently predict that what emerges will focus on a turbulent lesbian romance between one of the minor Bennet sisters and the scullery-maid, all wrapped up in a frame story possibly concerning the Boer War, and quite likely performed on ice, to boot.

The back-of-a-stamp, idiot’s synopsis for both is pretty much the same: early in the 20th century, projectiles from Mars arrive on Earth, disgorging metallic tripods which proceed to devastate civilisation, their occupants pausing to snack on any locals unfortunate enough to cross their path. Doing so without having your pre-trip jabs proves to be a mistake, as Earthly bacteria end up wiping out the Martian invaders. But that is more or less the extent of their similarity to each other.

I was seized by a terrible sinking feeling before the first episode even got properly going, as the continuity announcer let rip with some blether about ‘spheres from Mars’. Spheres? As any fule kno, your self-respecting Martian invader travels by cylinder, not sphere. Then again, these were not Wells’ Martians – huge-eyed, glistening, tentacled creatures the size of bears – but apparently the work of someone angling for a job on the sequel to A Quiet Place: all angular, scuttling legs (the dubious logic involved seems to be that the Martian Fighting Machines resemble tripods because they themselves are tripedal, an idea pinched, whether knowingly or not, from John Christopher).

But these are just cosmetic issues and don’t really take us to the nub of the issue. I would have thought it was simple good manners on the part of an adapter to do the original writer the courtesy of focusing on the characters from the actual source, not new creations, and likewise focus on settings and incidents from the text, rather than making new ones up. Yet we ended with a story a good chunk of which was set in a doomy post-apocalyptic wasteland, an Earth tainted by the Red Weed, with various survivors staggering about miserably. Key amongst these were the character played by Eleanor Tomlinson, and her small son, played by a small boy whose name I can’t be bothered to look up: wife and child of the Rafe Spall character, who I guess was supposed to represent Wells’ original narrator. Tomlinson and the kid are not in the book. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is not in the book.

I mean, what the hell? Really, what the hell? In what sense of the word does this qualify as an adaptation? The brutality to the English language is nearly as appalling as the brutality to one of the foundational texts of science fiction. Let us see what the writer responsible had to say when interviewed about his aims for the new adaptation:

The version of The War of the Worlds that I wanted to make is one that’s faithful to the tone and the spirit of the book, but which also feels contemporary, surprising and full of shocks: a collision of sci-fi, period drama and horror.’

Let us put to one side the mystery of what exactly he thought was the ‘tone and spirit’ of Wells’ book and consider the rest of this startling utterance. I was certainly surprised to the point of shock at various points throughout the three hours of the series, but contemporary? What, honestly, the hell? This is an adaptation of a late-Victorian novel, set in Edwardian England, so what are you bibbling on about when you say you want to make it feel contemporary? How is that remotely supposed to work? If you want to make The War of the Worlds feel contemporary, the best way is to set it in the present day: George Pal and Steven Spielberg figured this out when they came to make their versions, both of which – perhaps not coincidentally – genuinely do seem to capture the tone and spirit of the novel much, much better than the new BBC effort.

(I am fairly sure that ‘contemporary’ is modern writer code for ‘female lead character’. Certainly, in this version, Wells’ actual narrator is too psychologically fragile to survive, and his brother is too hidebound and seized by jingoistic impulses to make it through. Of Wells’ men, only Ogilvy, a very minor character in the book, makes it through to the end of the new version, and this may or may not be because we are invited to assume he is gay. My God, I wish I were joking.)

I expect that the makers of this thing will defend their work by saying that it does stay faithful to Wells: the novel’s original subtext (in which the British Empire gets a taste of its own medicine from technologically-superior colonisers from elsewhere) is clumsily elaborated in a long speech in the final episode. Well, for one thing, Wells didn’t feel the need to articulate his subtext in quite such an ideas-for-the-hard-of-thinking way. The whole point of subtext is that it should be obvious without needing to be made explicit, and I suspect the reason it did need making explicit was that the story had been so thoroughly mangled by this point that the original message was no longer discernable without the aid of expository dialogue.

Instead we got a story we didn’t seem to be about anything, much. The innards of the story had been roughly scooped out and replaced by… well, not a great deal of anything, really. Some stuff which was presumably about climate change. Other bits riffing on imagery from recent real-world disasters. A lot of faintly mystifying material about Edwardian social mores. Possibly some of this was there in the name of making the adaptation more ‘contemporary’ – but, really, it’s a book from 1898. It’s never going to feel contemporary unless you do severe violence to the story. Why would you bother trying to bring it to the screen, if contemporary is what you’re after? Let it be itself, let it be a late-Victorian novel full of late-Victorian ideas about evolution and society. Put modern special effects in it, to be sure – but don’t lose track of what the author actually intended it to be like, and to be about. If you do that, you just end up with something that bears a vague, superficial resemblance to the source novel, but isn’t actually about anything and has nothing to say for itself. This is an adaptation in name only, made by people who seem only marginally interested in H.G. Wells. It takes real determination and talent to screw up such a great story so thoroughly.

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Well, here we are in a brand new year, still with that fresh plastic aroma, but I am saddened to have to report that a stench not unlike that of rotting leftovers is lingering on in movie theatres internationally. Yes, 2018 produced many outstanding films, but it also unloaded on us a higher than usual number of genuine stinkers, and just to remind us of this, right at the back end of the year we were treated to Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, a film which manages the feat (which I would have thought impossible) of seriously challenging Peter Rabbit for the title of Worst Film of 2018. (I initially thought Etan Cohen was a jokey pseudonym, for hopefully obvious reasons, but apparently not. This is a shame, as if so it would have been mildly amusing, which is more than you can say for anything else in this shocking non-comedy.)

Let me just describe the opening scene of Holmes & Watson and see if that gives you a taste of the very special quality, if that’s the right word, this film possesses. It opens in 1881, with Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) tending his beloved giant marrow, which he has clearly devoted many months to growing. Meanwhile, Dr Watson (John C Reilly) has recently returned from Afghanistan and, shaken by his experiences, decides to commit suicide (good comic stuff this). However, he opts to do so by jumping from the roof overlooking Holmes’ vegetable plot. Holmes, alarmed by the threat this poses to his marrow, tries to persuade Watson to jump off a different roof or possibly shoot himself instead. Naturally, Watson misunderstands all of this and believes Holmes to be genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. In his delight, he loses his footing and falls off the roof, but his fall is broken by Holmes’ marrow, which is destroyed in the process. The two men become firm friends and partners in Holmes’ detective activities as a result.

Just to reiterate, this is supposed to be a comedy film. This scene is, I think, fairly representative of the whole endeavour – in fact, I may have been quite generous, in that there are several other bits which are much, much worse. (I suppose it is just possible you may have read the foregoing and concluded ‘You know what, that actually sounds quite funny’ – if this is the case, then your imagination is doing a better job of realising this scene than anyone in the actual film, and you may want to consider a change of career.) Do you want to hear about the rest of the plot? Oh, God. The general tone of the film is one of knowing and self-satisfied stupidity. Holmes and Watson, who are both depicted as morons, are challenged to solve a murder in four days in order to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Along the way Watson falls in love with an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and Holmes falls in love with a woman who thinks she’s a cat (Lauren Lapkus).

There is actually quite a good cast here – regardless of what you think of Ferrell and Reilly, both of whom have made films I really like, it also includes Ralph Fiennes, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Rob Brydon and Kelly Macdonald. Unfortunately, the film also seems to have been afflicted by some sort of dreadful supernatural curse, which means that hardly any of these people show any sign of being genuinely amusing or showing more than marginal signs of creative talent of any kind. I would not have imagined it possible to watch a film with all these people and not once, in an hour and a half, feel the slightest inclination to laugh or express pleasure or amusement of any kind. It actually required an effort of will to stay to the end and endure the succession of witless jokes about gerontophilia, masturbation and projectile vomit.

The film’s signature joke is to insert modern ideas into its late-Victorian setting (not that historical accuracy appears to have been a concern). Thus, we have Holmes donning a red ‘Make England Great Again’ fez (along with some other unimpressive jokes about Donald Trump), Watson sending a telegram of his winky to a woman he’s attracted to, jokes about pay-per-view entertainment, and so on. I will say it again – none of it is funny. The film somehow exists within a negative-humour vortex, which even seems to be sucking the usual feeble jokes out of this review. It is uncanny. This comedy version of Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the least funny version of these characters I have ever seen. The Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is funnier. Hell, even the Jeremy Brett version is much funnier than this.

One could, of course, pause to wonder at the wisdom of doing a comedic spoof of something which was always intended as light-hearted escapism in the first place: your typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation may look like a serious costume drama, but the original stories were cut from a different cloth. One could also note the rather bemusing fact that much of this film appears to be methodically spoofing the Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law Holmes movies, the most recent of which is seven years old. Why bother? It is genuinely confounding. The only thing about this film which sort of makes sense is the news that, apparently, Sony sensed what a horror they had on their hands and tried to offload it on Netflix – but even the streaming giant, which spends money so heedlessly it apparently thought spending $80 million on Bright was a good investment, didn’t bite on this occasion.

I have to say that Holmes & Watson has caused me to question my whole choice of lifestyle as a regular cinema-goer. I saw over eighty new films on the big screen in 2018, mainly because I always like to see as many as possible and I do genuinely enjoy the mechanics of going to the cinema, buying my ticket, getting  a good seat, watching the trailers, and so on. But why on earth did I go to see this film? I knew going in it was going to be bad – word of a 0% approval rating on review aggregation websites travels, after all. And I know I always say I don’t mind watching bad films, just boring ones. But what is wrong with me? Am I some kind of masochist? Is breaking my own record worth this kind of experience? Is this review genuinely going to dissuade anyone from going to see Holmes & Watson? I don’t know. I don’t know. I may only have another 35 years left to live; do I really want to spend them trying to assimilate this kind of worthless rubbish?

The least I can say is that 2019 can only get better from this point on, because pretty much any film is going to look good after this one. Even so: this is not so much a movie as ninety minutes of existential trauma. An almost incomprehensibly bad film.

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It is the Earth Year 1977, and 20th Century Fox is preparing to release a film which will be a quantum leap forward in the evolution of the sci-fi movie. Lavishly budgeted and featuring innovative new photographic techniques, it stars a fresh young lead backed up by a distingished veteran movie star. The studio is certain they have a major hit on their hands.

But before that, they let out a rather smaller project for which they have lower expectations: George Lucas’ Star Wars, which unexpectedly goes on to make twenty times its budget on its initial release alone. Somewhat nonplussed, they make a few changes and release their cherished adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley anyway. It makes less than a fiftieth of the box office of Star Wars and vanishes into obscurity as a result.

damna

Deservedly so, if you ask me, as the film recently enjoyed the first terrestrial UK screening I can remember (courtesy of the ever-surprising Horror Channel) and I was finally able to watch it. I read Zelazny’s original novel twenty years or so ago and don’t recall being particularly impressed by it, but the overall impression I take away from Jack Smight’s movie is one of a startling lack of even basic film-making skills.

The movie opens with a somewhat perplexing sequence of US Air Force officers manning a missile silo in California, during which we meet a few key characters, primarily Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Denton (George Peppard). Apropos of nothing, an incoming Russian missile strike is detected and Tanner and Denton launch their own missiles in response. A Stock Footage nuclear apocalypse duly unfolds.

And the film is already pretty much dead in the water, because it has somehow managed to make the thermonuclear extinction of civilisation thoroughly boring. No emotional context is given to this, no explanation of just what has provoked the war: we don’t see panicking populations or actual cities being vaporised, we just see Peppard and Vincent looking at radar screens and stock footage of nuclear blasts. These are two characters who are still utterly one-dimensional (not that this changes later on) – Vincent is young and rebellious, Peppard is older and does things by-the-book.

One wonders why they didn’t just cut this whole sequence and just start two years after the apocalypse, because it adds nothing to the film that couldn’t have been included in the captions which explain the new status quo of the planet. I suspect it’s just there to boost the film’s running time up to a respectable 90 minutes or so.

Anyway, as the story proper gets going, America is an irradiated wasteland baking underneath fiery skies, and the men at the base are trying to keep it together. Any hope of a revival in the film’s quality is instantly shot down by a sequence in which Tanner, on a motorbike, has to run a gauntlet of nine-foot-long giant scorpions infesting the desert. First of all, nine foot long scorpions?!? (And only two years after the bomb, as well.) Is this supposed to be a serious film or a 50s creature feature? It might be a bit more forgivable if the scorpions were realised in an even halfway decent way: but apparently the scorpion props didn’t work on location and we are left with normal-sized scorpions composited into the live plates. I say ‘composited’; it looks like they just showed the original footage on TV, let the scorpions run around on the screen, and then filmed that.

Well, while the viewer is still recovering from this special-effects extravaganza, someone drops a lit cigarette on a copy of Playboy, which (naturally) causes the base to explode, killing all but four of the men living there: Vincent, Peppard, a character played by Paul Winfield, and another minor character who is clearly going to die before long. Peppard wheels out a heavily armed-and-armoured, twelve-wheeled juggernaut called the landmaster, and announced he is going somewhere. Vincent and Winfield decide to go with him.

The whole movie is basically about their journey, but it’s not until they’re actually underway that anyone bothers to explain where it is they’re going or what might be there when they arrive. It transpires they’re all off to New York, the source of the only radio signal they’ve been able to detect, following a route between the most heavily irradiated zones that Peppard has christened Damnation Alley.

What follows is a series of episodic adventures as they travel across what’s left of the country: they pick up a lounge singer (Dominique Sanda) from the ruins of Vegas, Winfield gets eaten alive by carnivorous roaches in Salt Lake City, and so on and so on. (It’s so episodic that it’s very easy to see how and why the different versions of Damnation Alley – book and film – inspired one of the most famous early Judge Dredd epics, The Cursed Earth.) In the end, and once again apropos of nothing, there is a savage storm, following which the skies and climate return to normal. The travellers find themselves only a few miles from the enclave of survivors they’ve been looking for, and receive a warm welcome.

That’s it, that’s all there is to it: there’s no rising action, no deeper plot, no sense of a climax. They just arrive and the film ends, rather abruptly. None of the characters have appreciably grown or learned anything in any way – they have just trundled through the film, displaying the one or two character traits they have been assigned with monotonous regularity. (Well, most of them: calling Sanda’s character even one-dimensional is being charitable.) The novel’s story of a bad man finding redemption through adversity, perhaps too late, is completely gone.

Just about the only aspects of the film which aren’t actively exasperating to watch are the landmasters and the photographic effects of the burning skies, and the shots of the former barrelling across the wasteland under the latter are by far the best thing it has to offer: ninety minutes of these, as a sort of experimental movie, would be a lot more interesting than what we actually got. I can only assume that Damnation Alley was the victim of studio interference on a massive scale, because this feels like a film which has had many of its vital components roughly extracted (not least the plot), and ill-conceived filler material inserted to fill the gap. Jack Smight also directed probably my favourite version of Frankenstein, so I’m reluctant to blame him, anyway (that said, he also did the film version of The Illustrated Man, which was also pretty duff).

Anyway, it’s hardly surprising that the world today is not feverishly awaiting the release of Damnation Alley: Episode 7, nor that this film is as forgotten as it is. Great SF movies say something about what it means to be a human being; even an average SF movie tells us something interesting about society and culture at the time it was made. All Damnation Alley shows us is that the people responsible for its release were simply incompetent when it came to making movies.

 

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It sometimes feels like the world is full of awkward truths, facts that you would really give anything not to have to acknowledge, but ones that decency and integrity eventually and inevitably require you to. If you are a Star Wars fan you have to reach some sort of accommodation with the first two prequels; if you love Richard Wagner’s operas you have to acknowledge the noxious racial prejudice underlying much of his greatest work. And if you are an admirer of Jason Statham you have to accept that he started his movie career working for Guy Ritchie and ended up starring in the director’s Revolver.

revolver

In the past I’ve made various jokes along the lines of ‘I’ve never seen a really bad Jason Statham movie – but then I haven’t watched Revolver yet, har har’. I really shouldn’t have, but then my thought processes ran (rather naively) along the lines of ‘everyone involved appears to be at least vaguely competent, and this is a fairly big movie – film studios aren’t stupid, there’s a limit to quite how bad it can be’. Oh, boy.

Revolver was released in the first half of 2005 and so dates back to that period when Jason Statham wasn’t quite perceived as a star who could carry a movie on his own (I think this started to happen after the success of Transporter 2 and Crank, not that it matters). Certainly the essential Jason Statham characterisation has yet to fully crystallise at this point, and he is magnificently coiffed and moustachioed in this film too.

Anyway, in Revolver Mr Statham plays Jake Green, a shady character not long out of prison and intent on revenge on the gangster he holds responsible for putting him there, Macha (Ray Liotta). During his time in prison Green has learnt something only referred to as the Formula, a system which makes him utterly invincible at any game or confidence trick. It appears that this even extends to playing heads-or-tails, and if you can’t get your head around how that could possibly work, walk away now (you will beat the rush if nothing else).

Having taken Macha for a sizeable chunk of cash, Green is dismayed to learn he is terminally ill and has only three days left to live (look, just don’t ask; just let it wash over you, all right?). He agrees to an offer from two mysterious loan sharks (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) who will save his life in exchange for all his money and a sort of indentured servitude. Reluctantly he agrees.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot of Revolver; not because there are various twists and surprises which I am loth to spoil (I suppose there are), but because for most of the rest of the movie I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on. Some drugs get stolen and there’s a half-hearted attempt at a gang war, there are various cons within cons, Ray Liotta walks around a lot in his pants (even in the buff, for one dismaying scene), there is blood, mayhem, an awful lot of effing and jeffing, everyone worries a lot about a mysterious character called Mr Gold who doesn’t seem to actually appear in the film, and so on. But what you mainly get is Jason Statham doing a voice-over as Jake Green’s interior monologue.

Jake Green has a lot to say for himself through his interior monologue. Unfortunately – and you may be ahead of me here – what he has to say for himself is almost complete gibberish, mostly related to his mysterious Formula and the life lessons he has derived from it.

It’s not the case that Revolver has a complex plot which is just realised through poor storytelling. Revolver has an allegorical and symbolic plot, the deeper meaning of which remains almost entirely impenetrable simply through watching the film. Various numbers appear prominently at certain points, while colours are clearly also significant – not only do we have key players named Green and Gold, but some scenes are flooded with red or blue or white.

My understanding is that the key to attempting to make sense of Revolver is an appreciation of kabbalah, a Jewish-derived numerological system which Guy Ritchie was heavily into at the time he made the film. Quite how much of this interest derived from Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna, who is apparently a dead-keen kabbalah nut herself, I don’t know, but it’s very difficult not to jump to conclusions. (As an aside, one can’t help but be rather impressed by the way that Madonna managed to spectacularly wreck Ritchie’s directorial career even when she wasn’t personally appearing in his films. She clearly has some sort of extraordinary death-touch when it comes to anything involving the silver screen.)

Well, anyway, I don’t know the first thing about kabbalah, and neither, I suspect, does Jason Statham, which may explain why he is obviously floundering around in this film, basically resorting to just snarling and sweating a lot while his interior monologue plays over the top. This film is light on action and the kind of snappy dialogue Statham can usually deliver so well – to be honest, it’s light on everything except a sort of studied pretension. Not only is it virtually impossible to tell what the director is trying to say, it’s also impossible to tell just where the film is even supposed to be taking place – British, American, and Chinese characters mingle together almost at random.

Suffice to say this film is extremely hard work, with virtually no entertainment value beyond the background hum derived from seeing Jason Statham on screen. Mark Strong appears as a slightly nerdy hitman and achieves the minor miracle of making his scenes rather gripping – this, I remind you, in a context where unsympathetic and obscure characters do abstract things for no apparent reason and various major plot questions are never even acknowledged, let alone answered. But apart from Statham and Strong this is just awful, pretentious, obscure, nasty tripe.

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I don’t know, you wait years for a big-budget skiffy extravaganza concerning the fate of an abandoned and devastated planet Earth, and then two come along in the space of three months: closely in the wake of Oblivion, here comes After Earth, another film from M Night Shyamalan. Yes, despite his arguably not having made a decent film in well over ten years, people keep giving him multimillion dollar budgets to play with.

Shyamalan’s track record of critical calamity seems likely to continue, with professional film-watchers hailing After Earth as ‘dreary’ and ‘terrible’; even Buzz Aldrin didn’t like it very much. Which means that, excitingly, it’s time for a rare instalment of Is It Really As Bad As All That? which deals with a film which is still in cinemas.

aesmiths

And, well, I don’t want to cut to the chase too early, readers, but it very nearly is. I bobbed along to the sweetshop to pick up my ticket, found myself a bit distracted when I reached the front of the queue, and ended up asking for a ticket to see afterbirth rather than After Earth. They worked out what I was on about, obviously, but I have to say this may have been some sort of precognitive Freudian slip – spending 100 minutes chowing down on Jaden Smith’s placenta would probably have been a more memorable and nourishing experience than watching After Earth.

Oh, boy. As is practically standard for a big-budget studio SF movie, this one kicks off with a scene-setting prologue with accompanying voice-over, and as I watched it my nasal passages were flooded with that special Bad Movie reek more strongly and quickly than I can ever recall happening before. There is a special combination of contrivance, cliche, and full-on exposition in the story of how the human race abandons the planet Earth, gets into a ruck with aliens on its adopted home planet, learns to fight various gribbly horrors, etc etc, that gets the movie off to a flying stop.

From here we meet various members of the Raige family, particularly teenaged boy Kitai (Jaden Smith) and his father Cypher (Will Smith) – why would you call someone a name like ‘Cypher’ in this sort of film, anyway? Surely it’s just asking for trouble? Hey ho. Smith Senior is humanity’s top soldier, mainly because he’s so very stern and grumpy all the time (stern and grumpy people are invisible to the alien monsters. No, don’t bother to think too hard about it). Smith Junior is academically gifted, but his quest to follow in his father’s footsteps is hampered by the fact that out in the field he is always dissolving into a meeping, glibbering idiot. There is awkward family history between Smiths Senior and Junior, their relationship is strained, not least by what an authoritarian parent he is… you’ve seen all this difficult-father-and-son-relationship before, I promise you, and done with more deftness and genuine emotion than it is here.

Anyway, at the instigation of the lady of the family (Sophie Okonedo), Smith Senior takes Junior off on a space trip with him. The ship involved looks like a rather rickety contraption made of wicker and vellum and I was not at all surprised when it crashed en route (also there had been a flashforward to this). The ship goes down on the uninhabited planet Earth killing everyone on board but the Smiths, and a terrible ordeal begins (the characters don’t have a very nice time of it either).

Unfortunately, the back end of the ship falls off on the way in, which is a problem because that’s where the distress signals are kept. Also – what are the chances? – the egg of a gribbly monster was also in the back end, and it may just have survived the crash and hatched. Sadly, Smith Senior has been a bit dinged up by the crash and so it falls to Smith Junior to toddle off across the wilderness to find the back end of the ship. One ill-timed meep or glibber could spell doom for the both of them, but luckily he has a radio so his father can pass on directions and important lessons in personal development along the way, rather like a cross between a life coach and a satnav. Meanwhile Smith Senior sits around in the wreckage, occasionally having personal flashbacks, recording unhelpful messages for his wife, performing gory DIY surgery on himself, and slowly sliding into a coma. Frankly, by the end of the film I was starting to feel the same way.

Well, look: the storytelling is competently handled and the central message of the film is completely innocuous, but by any rational standard After Earth is, at best, a phenomenally boring film. I think Will Smith is a charismatic and engaging screen presence, and I thought Jaden Smith was perfectly fine in The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Karate Kid, and I can only wonder at what special technique it is that Shyamalan has employed to extract such grindingly dull performances from the pair of them. I suppose it is partly down to the script, and here at least Smith Senior must take some of the blame, seeing as he gets a story credit: where is the sense in doing a story about characters whose behaviour revolves around the fact they must never show any emotion? How are you supposed to care or get properly involved?

This is before we even get to the background to the story or the details of the plot, both of which are perfunctory in the extreme. Don’t go looking for surprises, or unexpected reversals, or clever invention. Given this is a Shyamalan movie, I was almost expecting a quirky final twist: but there isn’t one. There are only the things you predicted were going to happen fifteen minutes into the film.

And as an actual piece of SF, this is borderline insulting. We are shown Earth as a devastated wasteland at the start of the film, but it has made a near-miraculous recovery by the time the action starts. Then we are told ‘everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans’ – how? Why? (Not that this actually appears to be true.) Even more oddly, there apparently isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere of Earth for Smith Junior to survive there with regular recourse to oxygen-loaded space Jammie Dodgers, despite the fact his species is originally native to the planet (and it is much more heavily forested than the new home world). This just looks like a cheap plot device. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. (The post-human Earth is not even that interesting or imaginative a place.)

As this is a studio movie made by professional film-makers with a respectable budget, the special effects are competently done and the look of the film is generally unexceptionable. But in virtually every other department After Earth clanks and squeaks and thuds its way through its running time, almost entirely thrill-free, joyless, pointless, actively irritating and deeply hackneyed (bits of it sort of resemble Outlander, but it’s not even that good). If there is a worse star-led major studio genre movie this year, I will be astonished.

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Now, I like a bad movie more than most people. But I like a bad movie that’s energetically and inventively bad, a movie that has bold new bad ideas and executes them in an inventively misguided way. In short, I like a bad movie with panache and style and the courage of its convictions – and, what the hell, at least a minimal degree of technical competency.

goodday

A Good Day to Die Hard is not my idea of a bad movie. I mean, it’s not a good bad movie. It’s a bad bad movie. I would have ventured to suggest it might constitute a sharp, savage blow to the windpipe of the whole Die Hard edifice but for the fact that it is already $25m in profit less than a fortnight after its release. This would suggest we can anticipate yet further installments with painfully punning titles such as The Die Hard Is Cast, Die Hard Fliedermaus, and I Think I’d Rather Die Hard Than Sit Through Another Sequel As Rotten As This One.

Sigh. A distinctly unengaged-looking Bruce Willis is back in harness as NYPD cop John McClane, a man who really appreciates the value of wearing lots of layers. As usual, we don’t get to see him doing any NYPD cop stuff, for almost as soon as the movie starts (BBC newsreader Sophie Raworth’s family will be delighted as hers is the first face you see) he flies off to Russia, where his tearaway son John Junior (Jai Courtney) is in the clink for shooting someone, a crime it appears he really did commit (not that the film makes much of a fuss about it). He is driven to the airport by his daughter, who as before is played by the ever-watchable Mary Elizabeth Winstead. However, she is only ever-watchable in this movie for about three minutes, which is a shame.

Anyway, take your credulity by the neck and exert strong, steady pressure with those thumbs, as it turns out that McClane’s tearaway son is actually an undercover CIA agent, but has neglected to tell anyone this. His being in the Moscow nick is all part of a cunning plan to spring a political prisoner who… oh, look, I’m not going to bother with any details about the plot, as it is just silly and convoluted and borders on the very tasteless indeed.

All we get across the comparatively brief running time of this film is a succession of deafening and technically competent action sequences, all of which are overblown to some level. Bruce Willis occasionally shouts ‘I’m on vacation!’ between bouts of machine-gunning people in ski-masks. I suspect the Die Hard movies are where M Night Shyamalan got the idea for the indestructible Bruce Willis character in Unbreakable: at one point he is catapulted thirty feet through the air and smashes through what looks very much like a plate-glass window only to rise, grumbling, to his feet and get on with the excuse for a plot. His default expression for most of the movie is that of a man dragged out of the shower to answer the phone.

None of this is necessarily bad in an action movie, but the most basic elements of the story simply aren’t there, like characterisation, decent establishment of relationships and characters, signposting the plot, and so on. A lot of the dialogue at the screening I attended was actually unintelligible, though this may have been down to that particular theatre. Not only are the fundamentals of film-making only marginally present, but the movie appears to have only a passing acquaintance with the region in which it is set: Moscow and Chernobyl are well over 400 miles apart and yet the characters appear to drive between them in a couple of hours.

So, the plot is risible and occasionally hard to follow, the characters are shallow and irritating, there’s hardly any memorable dialogue, and there’s none of the wit or subtext that distinguished the best of the earlier films. The first film was about a skyscraper under the control of a dangerous criminal, the second about an airport under the control of a dangerous criminal, and so on. You’d’ve thought that bringing the series to Russia would have provided the occasion for at least something edgy and pithy to make it into the script, but no. This film just lurches from one ridiculous set of explosions to another, pausing only for an unconvincing piece of father-son bonding on the way.

As long as we’re talking superannuated action stars from the 1980s, then I think this movie shows the power of an existing ‘name’ franchise – Willis’ fellow Expendables Schwarzenegger and Stallone both brought out new movies recently, both of which mightily flopped, despite the fact that they were both narratively and creatively much more competent than A Good Day to Die Hard. Here, though, the studio looks like it’s going to make money, though at the cost of comprehensively sliming the name of a once-iconic action series. This movie is mechanical, joyless, tedious crap – a good day for the accountants, but a bad day for everyone else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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