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Posts Tagged ‘gory!’

Ready or Not, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, opens with a young couple, Grace and Alex (Samara Weaving and Mark O’Brien), enjoying their wedding day – he is a member of an extremely wealthy family who have made their money from publishing various different games, she from a somewhat more humble background. Naturally she is nervous about being accepted by her in-laws, who are for the most part quickly established to be comic-grotesque super-rich types. Only after the vows and the party does her new husband broach the delicate topic of an unusual family tradition – when anyone marries into the clan, they have to play a game at midnight. The rich and their eccentric ways! Not wanting to offend her new kin, Grace agrees, and ends up having to play hide and seek with them all. Still a little bemused and amused by her relatives’ funny little ways, Grace heads off to find somewhere to hide for a bit, fully aware this is a game she can’t actually win. Meanwhile, her new father-in-law (Henry Czerny) is gravely handing out crossbows, elephant guns and axes to the assembled members of the family, as they prepare to go in search of her.

Thus Ready or Not manages to contrive an undeniably brilliant moment for a black comedy-horror film; it’s just a shame that the publicity for the film (and, come to think of it, any meaningful review) is virtually obliged to give it away in advance. (It’s good to know that autumn and spring are still the natural homes for modestly budgeted genre movies, which is also what Ready or Not is.) Decent movies have been built around less striking revelations. Of course, the problem which arises when you come up with one brilliant moment for your movie script is that you then have to provide it with a decent context – which in this case means coming up with a scenario where it seems at least remotely plausible for something like this to happen, and then also a climax which resolves the situation in a reasonably satisfying manner.

The film certainly has a lot going for it when it comes to constructing this sort of narrative scaffolding. For one thing, it is notably polished and well-shot for what is still essentially a low-budget movie – the various gore effects which ensue as the story gathers pace and the body count racks up are also very acceptable. It also has an unusually strong cast for this sort of thing. Samara Weaving (who, weirdly, appears to be some sort of genetically-modified hybrid clone of both Emma Stone and Margot Robbie) is a relative newcomer, but still carries her section of the film rather well – elsewhere there are well-judged turns from Adam Brody, Czerny, Melanie Scrofano, and Nicky Guadagni (as a particularly unhinged member of the clan). Different things are required from different sections of the cast – Weaving does a lot of running, breathing hard, and contending with jeopardy, while everyone else gets the blackly comic stuff – but that doesn’t change the fact that they are all at least up to scratch. The plum veteran role in this particular movie goes to Andie McDowell as the mother-in-law – while McDowell has not quite transformed herself into Meryl Streep, it is still a very reasonable turn.

That said, the film still has to sort itself out the rest of the script, and this is a bit tricky – we’re up against the problem of people in horror movies not acting remotely in the way that real people do, to some extent. Just why are the members of the Le Donas family quite so desperate to hunt down and kill their newest member? What’s going on with this family tradition? And, given the extensive estate the film takes place in, why doesn’t Grace just hole up somewhere until dawn (at which point the game concludes)? Well, the movie manages to divert your attention away from some of these things by positioning itself as a kind of extravagant tongue-in-cheek satire, which helps a bit, but it doesn’t completely remove the need for solid narrative carpentry. In the end the film more or less gets away with it: the big reveal is terrific, as mentioned, but the rest of the film just about qualifies as good enough.

The fact that it arguably peaks at the end of the first act shouldn’t detract from the fact that Ready or Not manages to pull off one of the trickiest combinations in cinema by managing to be a horror comedy film which is pretty successful when it comes to both genres. Now, I must qualify this by saying that it is not what I would call appreciably scary – it is a horror movie by virtue of its Grand Guignol stylings and increasingly spectacular eruptions of gore and violent mutilation as it continues. If you like watching the blood spray freely and flesh get shredded, then this film should meet your needs, although this (coupled with a lot of casual profanity) probably rules it out as a good choice for a family outing. The scenes with the various family members engaging in the hunt with differing degrees of enthusiasm and skill are genuinely amusing, though – their casual irritation as the events of the film take an unfortunate toll on the domestic staff of the mansion I found to be particularly droll.

On the other hand, I have some sympathy for the view that a truly great horror movie can’t just function solely in terms of being mechanically scary and dousing the screen in fake blood – it has to be about something resonant and probably timely; the genre functions as a kind of social history on those terms. If there is a deeper theme to Ready or Not than ‘rich people are weird and horrible’ then it’s a little difficult to make out what it is. Not that this isn’t in and of itself valid – there is, after all, a very long history of the bad guys in horror stories coming from the upper echelons of society and preying upon the flesh and blood of the lower orders. But there doesn’t seem to be much new going on here beyond that simple idea. If you took out all the splatter and profanity, you could probably rewrite Ready or Not as an episode of the 1960s incarnation of The Twilight Zone and it would be at least as effective.

So, then, not a truly great horror movie, or a classic comedy, but it is fun and passes the time very engagingly – the direction is capable, the performances generally well-pitched, and if the script is a bit inconsistent that’s only because the writers haven’t yet quite figured out how to convert a great premise into a great movie. Much promise on display here anyway.

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If you can tell a lot about a movie from the kind of audience it attracts, I wonder what you can infer concerning Adrian Grunberg’s Rambo: Last Blood? Uniquely in my recent experience, the turnout for the screening that I attended was made up entirely of men – young and middle-aged – all of whom seemed to have come on their own – no-one had brought a friend. Is this a sign that people are embarrassed to ask their friends to go and see a Rambo movie with them? Or is it just that this is a film solely appealing to sociopathic loners? It’s a tough call.

Forget about The Matrix or The Terminator: the index case of a good, thoughtfully-intentioned movie being slimed in the minds of the public by dodgy sequels is surely First Blood, the original Rambo film from 1982 (well, along with Robocop). Though a highly influential action movie, buried in there somewhere is something quite heartfelt and serious about the plight of American veterans of the Vietnam war – the subsequent transformation of Rambo into a Reaganite wish-fulfilment figure means all this tends to get lost.

But here we are with Rambo: Last Blood. Rambo is one of the two characters, along with Rocky, whom Sylvester Stallone never seems entirely capable of leaving behind – when he revives one of them, it’s usually followed by a return appearance by the other. The well-deserved success of the recent Creed movies perhaps should have tipped us off to the fact that Stallone would be dusting off the bow and arrows – anyway, now he has.

The new movie finds John Rambo (Stallone, of course) now living on the family ranch in Arizona in something close to a state of peaceful contentment, although he has spent the last ten years digging an alarmingly extensive system of tunnels and engaging in various other survivalist hobbies. The apple of his eye is his innocent young niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), soon to go off to college. As a going-away gift he has forged her a letter-opener but, being Rambo, it is about a foot long and probably capable of disembowelling a rhino. (Given the fuss the film makes about the knife, I was expecting this to be the set-up for a concluding beat where it ends up buried in the villain’s head, but the movie kind of fumbles this point.)

Well, the thing on Gabrielle’s mind is the fact that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was very young, and she wants to know why. (Rambo’s excuse that her father just has a black heart full of evil cuts little ice with her, possibly because it is borderline-unintelligible.) A dodgy friend down in Mexico has managed to track him down, and so – ignoring Rambo’s pleas that the world beyond the ranch is a horrible, chaotic place full of bad people – Gabrielle, who is presented as na├»ve to the point of actual imbecility, drives south of the border and promptly gets herself drugged and captured by an evil cartel, who hook her on drugs and instal her in a brothel.

The intelligent reader will probably be able to imagine Rambo’s response to this news, when it arrives, and there is indeed a good deal of torture, mutilation and brutal violence before everyone involved has settled their differences. Certainly, there are a lot of things about this film which are problematic, to say the least – quite apart from the extended sequences of grisly, graphic violence, the film’s depictions of Mexico as a depraved hell on Earth, and the majority of Mexicans as wholly morally bankrupt, are also difficult to stomach. We should not overlook the misogyny which the film is also arguably shot through with – women are almost exclusively objects or trophies, to be used, protected, fought over, or avenged – or the film’s grindingly simplistic moral schema: some people are just born evil, and a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, especially when that comes to exacting a brutal revenge.

And yet, and yet… Last Blood is never entirely as bone-headed or offensive as you might expect it to be – indeed, in places it bears a startling resemblance to Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, an art-house darling from last year. Stallone brings a massive physical presence to Rambo, but more than just that – he is an essentially ambiguous figure throughout, not simply a hero to be cheered on. I remember reading somewhere that the first book about the character is at its heart a riff on Frankenstein, with Rambo a sympathetic monster created by forces he barely comprehends. Here, too, he is terrifying, but also damaged and somehow pitiable – the fact that Stallone only seems to have about 10% of the normal movement in his face isn’t actually that big a problem, as the alarming mask that results just adds to the impression of a frightening, not entirely human creature running somewhat out of control. I should say that he makes the most of the subtler elements of the script (Stallone co-wrote, as usual), and even manages to bring Rambo a rather soulful quality, verging on genuine pathos. Or perhaps it’s just the usual disagreeable right-wing sentimentality; it may be a matter of personal taste. Certainly, the final act of the film, which is essentially a cross between Home Alone and a live feed from the CCTV in a slaughterhouse, is disappointing in the way it sublimates all other concerns to a string of rather unimaginative gory deaths.

That said, the whole film has a kind of sincerity to it which I did find myself responding favourably to – the story may be simple to the point of predictability, but it’s solid and involving and may well surprise the unsuspecting viewer at one point, at least. This isn’t a film trying to tick fashionable or especially progressive boxes – you may not agree with its politics or morality, but for all that they are simplistic, they are also coherent. And I suspect that, for good or ill, people (all right, mostly men of a certain age range) will respond to films like this (that said, one person at my screening hooted with laughter at each grisly demise during the climax, which alarmed me somewhat).

Obviously Rambo: Last Blood isn’t for everyone. Obviously, this is a film which has serious issues, more than it is about them. We really should hope that the ambiguity of the ending here does not indicate that further outings for this character in future (by rights, he should end up doing serious time in some kind of mental institution). However, it is always a little bit cleverer, a little bit more subtle, and a little bit more surprising than you expect it to be. A horrible film, but somehow not a bad one.

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Film-making is not an exact science, and the exact length of the Minimal Acceptable Period Before Remake is one of those subjective things: it used to be at least twenty years, but recent developments have seen this being cut down quite considerably – Dino de Laurentiis took considerable stick for making two versions of Red Dragon only fifteen years apart, but the response to Sony doing Spider-Man’s origin twice in barely more than a decade received much more muted grumbling. Equally open to debate is that other cinematic figure, Optimum Period Before Sequel, although here there seems to be more of a consensus – two or three years is generally considered to be the ideal, although Disney have taken up something of an outlying position here, what with the 54 year wait between films about their supernatural dominatrix.

All of which brings us, more or less, to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, which began its development as a sequel to the two films about Mike Mignola’s hell-spawned superhero made by Guillermo del Toro in the mid 2000s. The producers eventually decided not to ask del Toro back to complete his planned trilogy (good move, guys, I mean – it’s not like he’s done anything worth mentioning in the last couple of years, is it?), at which point the film was switched to being a remake, or relaunch, or reimagining, or whatever the buzzy word for doing a new version of something well-known is these days.

It almost instantly becomes obvious that del Toro’s studiously subtle and quirkily atmospheric sensibility has not survived into the new film, as we are plunged into a flashback to the Dark Ages – known as such for a ‘****ing good reason’, according to the narration – where King Arthur is battling an army of demons and monsters, led by the sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich – ignore that sound you think you can hear, it’s just alarm bells starting to ring). The film’s extravagant fondness for lavish CGI gore becomes apparent as King Arthur dismembers his opponent and has the various bits entombed in secret locations across the British isles – ‘this isn’t over!’ cries Jovovich’s severed head as it is thrust into a box, and as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, it’s hard to argue with that. (Suggestions that the new Hellboy shares a fair chunk of its plot with The Kid Who Would Be King seem to me to have some truth to them.)

Then we’re back in the present day, where Hellboy (David Harbour) is taking part in a Mexican wrestling match with a luchador who’s actually a vampire, which sets up various plot and character points. Any thought that this might actually be a continuation of the del Toro films is finally put to rest, as Hellboy’s adopted father is alive again, and this time played by Ian McShane. For no particularly credible reason, McShane decides to fill Hellboy in on his origins, as he has apparently not bothered to do so in the previous 75 years and Hellboy has seemingly never thought to ask. With this flagrant slab of exposition out of the way, Hellboy is packed off to the UK to assist an aristocratic bunch of British occultists deal with an infestation of man-eating giants. But there is more afoot than the giant feet of the giants! Someone is gathering together the various bits of Milla Jovovich, and if they can complete the set, she will rise again and unleash a terrible plague upon the world, possibly even worse than the Resident Evil movie series…

Apparently the main idea that Neil Marshall brought to this project was the idea that it would straddle the horror and superhero boundaries. (This may explain the weird mish-mash of superhero, fantasy and horror trailers running before Hellboy, which included the same trailer for The Curse of La Llorona twice.) Well, hmmm. I have to say that I have always felt rather indulgent towards Neil Marshall, as his films tend to have a great sense of fun and energy, even if they are often wildly OTT gorefests. And he has made one genuinely great horror film, 2005’s The Descent, a wrenchingly tense and scary movie. Generally speaking, though, he just doesn’t seem to have the patience involved in creating the right kind of atmosphere to properly frighten an audience, and settles for just grossing them out with blood and guts spraying across the screen. This is certainly the route that his version of Hellboy takes, and I’m not really sure how it helps the project much: it doesn’t exactly broaden the appeal of the movie, just reinforces the impression that it is primarily aimed at heavy metal fans.

Of course, this was the movie that drew controversy before production even began because of some of its casting choices were considered to be ethnically inappropriate – the actor initially cast as Hellboy was not actually a demon, thus depriving representation to performers who were genuinely from the abyssal realm. Then everybody sat down and had a good think and realised that a) you’re never going to please everyone when it comes to this sort of thing and b) once someone’s in the Hellboy make-up, you can’t really tell who they are anyway, so it’s best not to get stressed out about it. So they went with David Harbour anyway. Harbour is okay at playing the sulky teenager elements of the role, but struggles to do much more with it; his great good fortune is to be acting opposite Milla Jovovich, who makes most people look good in comparison. Jovovich’s contribution sets the tone for most of the acting in this film, by which I mean it is by and large quite lousy; McShane phones in a decent performance, though, and there is some amusing voice work from Stephen Graham as a fairy with the head of a pig.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the actors can only work with what they’re given, which in this case is a fairly ropy script seemingly more concerned with lurching from one gory CGI set-piece to the next, with clunky exposition and iffy dialogue filling in the gaps. The saving grace of the new Hellboy is not that it brings us an important message or makes a great deal of sense, or even a small amount of sense, or even any sense whatsoever; it is that Marshall is clearly having a whale of a time smashing all these very disparate ideas together, doing so with great energy and even the occasional shaft of genuine wit (to pass the time before she is constituted, Nimue’s henchman piles her various body parts on a sofa, where she passes the time watching reality TV – it certainly provides motivation for her desiring the apocalypse).

The new Hellboy is not in the same league as either of the del Toro films, lacking their charm, subtlety or attention to detail; as mentioned, the actors are not well-served by the script, either. But I would be lying if I said it does not provide a certain kind of entertainment value. You really do have to indulge it a bit, though, and it may be that many people just won’t be prepared to do that. Which is fair enough. I don’t think any sane observer would claim that Hellboy is a great movie, but it’s a reasonably fun bad movie.

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