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Showing posts from October, 2021

He's not a nightstalker, and it'll take a lot more than bench presses to defeat him.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) (SPOILERS) The most successful entry in the franchise, if you don’t count Freddy vs. Jason . And the point at which Freddy went full-on vaudeville, transformed into adored ringmaster rather than feared boogeyman. Not that he was ever very terrifying in the first place (the common misapprehension is that later instalments spoiled the character, but frankly, allowing Robert Englund to milk the laughs in bad-taste fashion is the saving grace of otherwise forgettably formulaic sequel construction). A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master boasts the most inventive, proficient effects work yet, but it’s also by far the least daring in terms of plotting, scraping together a means for Freddy to persist in his nocturnal pestilence while offering nothing in the way of the unexpected, be it characterisations or story points.

Ah, it’s good to breathe in your glorious dragon stench again.

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) (SPOILERS) It may have been entirely germane to the writers’ room process, spitballing hither and thither, but it’s very noticeable that Raya and the Last Dragon runs with Avengers: Endgame ’s – and Steven Moffat’s, for that matter – principle that nothing stays dead for long, so divesting young, impressionable minds of one of the basic unassailables of life. Who knows why such false narratives have attained such currency currently. Could it be a means to dilute the sting of mass devastation by creating a mythic salvation, one where the world one has known may still become tangible once more, if only in virtual, escapist sense? On the other hand, it might just be symptomatic of creative doldrums, where the greatest inspiration one can hope for is being inspired to copy someone else.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.

It can turn any domestic computer into a killing machine.

Runaway (1984) (SPOILERS) About the biggest takeaway from Runaway : so that’s where Spielberg got his robot spiders for Minority Report. In a very crude, clunky, 1980s Mechano set kind of way. Likewise, the bullet POV tracking shots may have got the drop on – what, Sniper ? – by eight years, but they’re nevertheless the premiere, crude, clunky 1980s STV version. Crichton’s early successes ( Westworld , Coma ), benefited from a spartan – shall we say, generously – directorial approach, emboldened as they were by strong core concepts. But he was on less solid ground as the ’80s arrived, with considerably more talented visual technicians outmatching him at every turn. Which explains why Runaway resembles TV movie fare for much of its duration, complete with a TV star and a “special guest star” of the week in the form of an ailing rock legend. Runaway seemed pedestrian, undernourished and low on thrills in 1984, and time hasn’t come round to its side.

What are we gonna do? Hijack a space shuttle? Put rockets on our backs?

F9 aka F9: The Fast Saga  aka Fast & Furious 9 (2021) (SPOILERS) Okay, fair dues. They went and did that thing clearly ­– initially – suggested in jest. They sent F&F into space. And you know what? It’s no more ludicrous seeing Ludacris and Tyrese in orbit, in a rocket car, than Elon Musk informing us of his space Tesla, “ You can tell it’s real because it looks so fake ”, or Jeff Bezos lifting off in his Dr Evil-esque penis craft with a fictionally fulsome starship captain. The rest of the movie? Far from the series’ peak period (5-7), but not without its engaging interludes, bloated action behemoth that F9 is.

My intelligence alive in human flesh, touching the universe, feeling it.

Demon Seed (1977) (SPOILERS) Demon Seed lends itself to a scornful response, because its premise is so outré as to be deemed absurd, risible even. It’s been said Donald Cammell intended to make a comedy, and some critics suggested he’d missed the boat in not delivering a satire. However, it’s difficult to see how hilarious this might have been, based on the premise (machine violation and forced propagation). And yet, conceptually, the picture is simultaneously silly and sinister. In that sense, Cammell, who rued the studio influence that spoiled his vision, might have been the perfect guy to bring it to the screen, since his obsessions inherently bridged both those extremes.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Did you not just hand over a chicken to someone?

The Father (2020) (SPOILERS) I was in no great rush to see The Father , expecting it to be it to be something of an ordeal in the manner of that lavishly overpraised euthanasia-fest Amour. As with the previous Oscars, though, the Best Picture nominee I saw last turned out to be the best of the bunch. In that case, Parasite , its very title beckoning the psychic global warfare sprouting shoots around it, would win the top prize. The Father , in a year of disappointing nominees, had to settle for Best Actor. Ant’s good, naturally, but I was most impressed with the unpandering manner in which Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton approached material that might easily render one highly unstuck.

Just a little whiplash is all.

Duel (1971) (SPOILERS) I don’t know if it’s just me, but Spielberg’s ’70s efforts seem, perversely, much more mature, or “adult” at any rate, than his subsequent phase – from the mid-’80s onwards – of straining tremulously for critical acceptance. Perhaps because there’s less thrall to sentiment on display, or indulgence in character exploration that veered into unswerving melodrama. Duel , famously made for TV but more than good enough to garner a European cinema release the following year after the raves came flooding in, is the starkest, most undiluted example of the director as a purveyor of pure technical expertise, honed as it is to essentials in terms of narrative and plotting. Consequently, that’s both Duel ’s strength and weakness.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

The unquiet spirit must be laid to rest. It is an abomination to God, and to man.

A Nightmare on Elms Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to see why the third movie in this franchise proved such a big hit. It both boosted the inventive dream sequences/kills in a no-brainer way – Freddy’s Revenge is more than a little “Doh!” in that regard – and added to the lore. More astutely still, it made Freddy Kreuger a quip-meister, from whence his reputation was sealed. But what’s most notable, perhaps, is the manner in which, rather than simply piling on the set-piece deaths the way Jason Voorhees was wont, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors apes the form of a classical horror movie in plotting terms. Ultimately, this aspect peels apart, failing to satisfy, and director Chuck Russell only rarely elicits either true narrative tension or genuine suspense, but Dream Warriors is nevertheless the most satisfying outing to this point.

Madam, the chances of bagging an elephant on the Moon are remote.

First Men in the Moon (1964) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen swaps fantasy for science fiction and stumbles somewhat. The problem with his adaptation of popular eugenicist HG Wells’ 1901 novel isn’t so much that it opts for a quirky storytelling approach over an overtly dramatic one, but that it’s insufficiently dedicated to pursuing that choice. Which means First Men in the Moon , despite a Nigel Kneale screenplay, rather squanders its potential. It does have Lionel Jeffries, though.

My goodness, we’ve formed a pretty nifty team.

Squid Game (2021) (SPOILERS) Once in a blue moon, Netflix does deliver something worth one’s time, just as an exception that proves the rule. Inevitably, however, the level of attention and praise heaped on Squid Game is disproportionate with both its merit and originality. At its core, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series, riffing as it does on a range of influences, from Battle Royale (one he cited), to Big Brother (itself predicated on individuals’ capacities for selfishness and turning on one another), to Utopia (the discordantly perky soundtrack and day-glo colour scheme, as carnage and violence erupts all around), is really very familiar and its targets (capitalism, huh?) disappointingly prosaic. But if the series has little new to say about human nature, it undoubtedly succeeds in engaging through its characterisation. As for the essential “entertaining the elite” theme, it could lend itself to readings beyond the self-evident one presented. Although it doesn’t exactly beg for them…

You got any Boom Boom Lemon?

Kate (2021) (SPOILERS) The dying protagonist subgenre is a difficult one to get right. The customary approach is one of world-weary resignation on the part of the poisoned or terminally ill party that sweetens the pill, suggesting they’re being done something of a favour. It’s also a smart idea to give them some sort of motive force, in order to see them through the proceedings before they kark it. Such as a mystery to solve; there’s a good reason D.O.A. is generally seen as a touchstone in fare of this ilk. Kate fumbles on both counts, leaving the viewer with a rather icky poisoning – you don’t want to be too distracted by that sort of thing, not least because suspension of disbelief that the already superheroic protagonist can function at all evaporates – and a lead character with the slenderest of relatability working for her. Most damningly, however, is a revenge plot that’s really rather limp.

Deep down, I always knew it was a façade.

Nobody (2021) (SPOILERS) It seems the Kolchaks and Stahleskis have every chance of succeeding where Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp has recently floundered; in the unapologetically unreconstituted, muscular action genre (albeit EuropaCorp’s great error was bankrolling Besson’s folly Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with a couple of chemistry-free, charisma-free leads). That doesn’t make their fare exclusively male by any means – see Atomic Blonde , and Kate – but they betray essentially minimal interest in refining or repurposing their fare to vouch wholesale for Hollywood’s current presiding and prescriptive socio-political interests. Indeed, I spent most of Nobody expecting its Mr and Mrs Smith shoe to drop, whereby Becca (Connie Nielsen) the wife of Hutch (Bob Odenkirk), turns out to be every bit as kick ass as hubby. But it doesn’t happen. Maybe in the sequel, then.

You are not brought upon this world to get it!

John Carpenter  Ranked For anyone’s formative film viewing experience during the 1980s, certain directors held undeniable, persuasive genre (SF/fantasy/horror genre) cachet. James Cameron. Ridley Scott ( when he was tackling genre). Joe Dante. David Cronenberg. John Carpenter. Thanks to Halloween , Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror, but he made relatively few undiluted movies in that vein (the aforementioned, The Fog , Christine , Prince of Darkness (although it has an SF/fantasy streak), In the Mouth of Madness , The Ward ). Certainly, the pictures that cemented my appreciation for his work – Dark Star , The Thing – had only a foot or not at all in that mode.

Would you like to see my mask?

Batman Begins (2005) (SPOILERS) I can’t say I was especially wowed by Batman Begins . It seemed to me the very definition of “solid”, “okay” and “respectable”, in much the same way Bryan Singer’s X-Men avoided shitting the bed. That view hasn’t really changed. All the requisite sturdy elements are there, including a (mostly) sterling cast, but very rarely do any of them pop, so determined is Chris Nolan to steer a “realist” course, and with it – and his insistence on handling second unit duties – the first evidence of his vision exceeding his technical grasp. From here on out, with the odd exception, he will be making movies on a grand canopy yet lacking the accompanying stylistic distinction to make them truly sing. What is now most notable in Batman Begins , however, in a manner that seemed simply rote at the time, is its thematic content, since Christopher is, after all, all about the predictive programming.