Tag Archives: Films

#FirstWorldProblems: The Motion Picture – Joanna Hogg’s film ‘Exhibition’

23 Oct

Every so often a film comes along that seems intentionally designed to test the limits of its audience. In action movies, for instance, one can’t help but ask if Michael Bay is taking the piss with each successive Transformers sequel, wondering just how little plot and character development he can get away with, providing he fills the screen with explosions, giant robots and the pert bosoms of actresses half his age. Pretty much the same could be said of the art-house crowd and Joanna Hogg’s latest, if you replace explosions with shots of bespoke Swedish furniture, giant robots with vague dialogues about conceptual art, and Megan Fox with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine.

Exhibition follows two artists, H (played by real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick) and D (Albertine), as they go through the process of selling their spacious London home. The film is made up of scenes from their everyday life, including dinner with friends from across the road and meetings with an estate agent, played by Tom Hiddleston. H works in an upstairs room (though at what, exactly, we never find out), while D spends a lot of time faffing about on a stool. And that’s about it.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

To call the film plotless would be to invite comparison with a fragmented, dreamlike work such as Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Exhibition isn’t plotless. In offering us two fairly commonplace characters (at least in the middle class, affluent and mono-ethnic corner of London in which it’s set), and in presenting these moments from their life in chronological order, it reaches for a plot, without having the nerve to tell a story.

With its focus on the glacial, modern interior design of H and D’s lavish pad, Exhibition’s bum-numbing 101 minutes feel not so much like a movie as a particularly uneventful episode of Grand Designs. In its asking us to sympathise with D’s agony over having to move out of this dream home, the feeling isn’t so much one of a Brideshead or Il Gattopardo-style elegy, prompting our sympathy with the well-to-do in a time of crisis, but rather a big screen adaptation of the “First World Problems” hashtag and meme.

The real world, in which police sirens wail and bad things are happening elsewhere, is alluded to in the film’s admittedly excellent sound design, which does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to D’s character development. Albertine herself drifts through the role ghost-like, more or less a blank canvas, and apart from one – and only one – scene of confrontation (someone horribly working class parks in front of their garage) Gillick’s H is barely a character at all. Are their vague conversations about art meant to provoke thought or inspire contempt? I really couldn’t tell. If it’s the former, then culturally we’re doomed. If it’s the latter, then this is satire without teeth.

Ultimately, Exhibition is about very little of any consequence. Any interesting ideas (is D a little agoraphobic? When she searches every cupboard, is she checking for burglars or just looking at each one for the last time?) are abandoned almost as soon as they are introduced. This isn’t just a slow film, it’s a film in which nothing happens, and Hogg makes the mistake of thinking that these are one and the same, that an absence of character development, plot or suspense are the hallmarks of intellectual or artistic rigour. They are not.

"Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?" "Let's not."

“Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?”
“Let’s not.”

Adding to the frustration of having lost over an hour and a half watching this film – waiting for something, anything to happen – is the almost universal praise it received from the British press. Five star reviews in the Guardian and Times. Four stars from the Telegraph and Empire. Interestingly, once you stray outside the UK’s Londoncentric and incestuous cultural scene, the reviews cool off considerably, nowhere more so than in this bang-on assessment from the Village Voice. 

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with films that explore, or attempt to explore the middle and upper classes in an age of bleak austerity; characters from all backgrounds are worthy of attention. What grates with Exhibition is its navel-gazing. This is Kensington property porn masquerading as art, and at a time when so many are struggling to put food on their own tables, let alone keep roofs over their heads, that just feels appallingly crass.

5 Observations About Netflix UK

20 Oct

I’ve been signed up to Netflix UK for a little over a year. On the whole, I’d say it’s pretty good value for money. I have eclectic tastes, so there’s always something I’ll want to watch, and its abundance of sitcoms and US shows gives me something to do on my lunch breaks. After a while, however, you do start to notice some funny little quirks the site has. Such as…

1) It’s not as good as Netflix US

Don’t ask me how (it wasn’t entirely legit) but I recently had the opportunity to compare UK and US Netflix, and OH MY WORD. While Netflix UK has plenty of TV series and some good (if not particularly recent) films, US Netflix is like a different site altogether. “They have this?” you’ll say. “Already? And this?” We were able to watch films I had seen in the cinema only a month or so earlier. And there are so many movies. And it has a “Classic Movies” section, because it has so many movies that a whole section’s worth of them count as “classic”.

2) But that doesn’t mean it’s rubbish

Peter Finch in Network

Peter Finch in Network

One complaint I hear all the time (not least of all from my partner) is that there’s never anything to watch on Netflix UK. To which I say, tish, piddle and nonsense. Taking a cursory glance at the “browse” homepage, I can see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Breaking Bad, Pixar’s Brave, Annie Hall, The Fisher King, Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Shawshank Redemption, 9 to 5, Skyfall, Black Mirror, Pulp Fiction, the documentary McCullin, Network, and Downfall, all of which are excellent.

3) Hooligan movies are a cottage industry

Jesus… There are a lot of “hooligan” films out there. Whole sections of Netflix UK are awash with close-ups of snarling men with shaved heads superimposed over a red cross, invariably with titles like Rise of the Essex Lads III: Retribution. Still… I suppose it gives Craig Fairbrass something to do.

4) So that’s what Val Kilmer’s doing these days

As well as having ballooned, like some deep sea fish threatened by a predator, to about three times his normal size, Val Kilmer has been largely absent from the big screen for some time. The last mainstream movie release I can remember him appearing in was Werner Herzog’s not-quite-as-terrible-as-it-should-have-been Bad Lieutenant sequel/spin-off/remake/whatever, Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans. Other than that, well… I’ll let Netflix UK do the talking:

The most recent film on there I’d recommend (Wonderland) was made in 2003. Twixt is the latest offering from the truly tragic Francis Ford Coppola (I’ve watched 5 minutes of it, and it’s terrible), while The Traveler (2010 – 20% on Rotten Tomatoes) looks as if it was shot on a mobile phone. In 2002.

Great actors make occasionally shitty films, and sometimes their careers dry up. We all know that. But if any actor’s career demonstrates that there’s no harm in being easy to work with, it’s Kilmer’s.

5) You should never, EVER watch InAPPropriate Comedy

Following in the less-than-hallowed footsteps of Movie 43InAPPropriate Comedy is made up of comedy sketches, was written and directed by someone called Vince Offer and stars Adrien Brody, Rob Schneider, Michelle Rodriguez and (but of course) Lindsay Lohan. Quite how Offer managed to convince them (well… all of them except Lohan) to appear in this is beyond me. To give you a taste of just how terrible this film is, Brody plays Flirty Harry, who’s a bit like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, except the joke… get this… is that he’s gay and he flirts with people. And his catchphrase… brace yourselves… hold on to your sides… is, “Go ahead… Make me gay.”

Because Dirty Harry says “Make my day”, see? And “day” rhymes with “gay”.

"Go ahead, punk. Laugh at my career choices."

“Go ahead, punk. Laugh at my career choices.”

Having endured about 10 minutes of this shit before wanting to punch a hole through my laptop, board a flight to LAX, get in a cab, go to Adrien Brody’s house and kick him in the bollocks, then get back in the cab, go back to LAX and fly home, I can only assume that Vince Offer is a billionaire or a crime lord. Either Academy Award® winner Adrien Brody was paid a lot of money to appear in this film, or Offer kidnapped a close member of his family and wouldn’t let them go till Brody rocked up on set. Seeing as this is the actor who once dumped a girlfriend to get into character for The Pianist, I’ll assume it’s the former.

But despite my glowing recommendation, do not watch this film. Not even “ironically”. You can’t watch a terrible comedy “ironically”. If you want to laugh at a bad movie, check out Oliver “Downfall” Hirschbiegel’s Diana, which is also on Netflix UK, and which is fucking hilarious.

‘All Is Lost’

22 Aug

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It’s often hard to believe there was ever a time when movies had virtually no dialogue (you know… apart from title cards saying “Oh no! That dastardly cad has tied my beloved to the train tracks!”). If people praise a film’s script nowadays, very rarely do they mean the deft way the plot is strung together or the richness of the characterisation, but rather the cleverness, the wittiness or the realism of its dialogue. When a film is short on dialogue, it’s the first thing critics will point out, whether it’s novelty pseudo-silent movie The Artist or the bleak and speechless opening scenes of There Will Be Blood.

So tricky is it to develop characters without dialogue, that when protagonists are separated from other people, they are often given either a voice-over (The Life of Pi) or a tendency to talk to animals or inanimate objects (The Life of Pi, Castaway) to compensate, but apart from the briefest opening narration, writer-director J.C. Chandor gives Robert Redford no such props in All Is Lost.

Here Redford plays an unnamed character (listed in the credits simply as ‘Our Man’) whose yacht runs into trouble in the Indian Ocean. The film then follows him as he patches up damage to its hull, and attempts to make his way towards the nearest shipping lanes, with varying degrees of success. And that’s pretty much it. As the title suggests, things don’t exactly go to plan. Indeed, that bit of narration at the beginning suggests things will go very badly, and it would spoil the film completely to tell you how it ends, or anything that happens along the way, because this is a film in which every second, every little moment, counts.

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Without dialogue – save one or two muttered curse words and a single, abortive attempt at an S.O.S. – Redford’s performance is all about microscopic moments, changes of expression. It certainly helps that, while undeniably craggy (he is 78, after all) Redford is still in great physical condition for his age, and the fact that his opening voice-over (a letter to loved ones) is so apologetic, and he is sailing alone on the far side of the world, invites the viewer to craft their own back story for his character. Retired businessman, I guessed, with adult offspring (I pictured a small army of daughters) and at least two divorces under his belt. But despite his relative athleticism, there’s still a frailty there that will have you on the edge of your seat with both worry and suspense.

If the character were played by an actor half his age, that concern just wouldn’t be there, or the film would have to rely on cheap tactics (e.g. a full-blown shark attack, or pirates) in order to place the character in peril. Here, peril is provided by nothing more schlocky than a boat that is sinking, surrounded by thousands of miles of open water in every direction.

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Chandor’s previous feature, Margin Call, was one of my favourite films of 2012, and demonstrated his ability with both an intelligent script (packed full of dialogue) and an ensemble cast. Here, he’s gone in totally the other direction (perhaps a conscious decision), and shows incredible skill at handling both small, intimate moments and the big set pieces. The storm sequences really are the stuff of chewed fingernails and frayed nerves, and some of the underwater photography is just ravishing. The score – by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ Alex Ebert – is also worthy of much praise, adding a transcendental edge to Redford’s aquatic mishaps; though I could have done without the end credits’ song, in which Ebert more or less sings the credits as they roll (far too reminiscent of Whose Line is it, Anyway?)

At a time when so many films are either sequels, remakes or adaptations, and almost exclusively about – and aimed at – young adults, a film as exciting, as dramatic as this, with a protagonist well into his autumn years, is something to be cherished. 

All Is Lost is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Enraged Eric – ‘The Rover’

19 Aug

Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce in The Rover

I think we’ve now reached a point where we can put together a sliding scale of just how horrible the apocalypse and its aftermath will be, based entirely on post-apocalyptic movies. The final scene in 2012, for example, gives the impression that while there may be a whole lot of earthquake-related PTSD to deal with, everyone is quite enjoying the round-the-world cruise aboard their giant, tsunami-proof arks, so we could score that a 1 out of 10 for bleak hopelessness. 

Right at the other end of that scale you have something like the nuclear holocaust docudrama Threads, in which life in Britain is plunged back into the Dark Ages or the big screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which survival means not only foraging for food but making sure you don’t get eaten by redneck cannibals.

Though most high street branches of Tesco were still open for business.

…Even though most high street branches of Tesco remain open for business.

Perhaps three quarters of the way along that scale comes David Michôd’s The Rover. Starring Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson, and set in a dust bowl Australian outback, “10 years after the collapse”, the setting and subject matter were always bound to attract comparison with the Mad Max movies (a fourth installment of which is out next year), but in truth The Rover makes the Mad Max films look like Cannonball Run. 

Pierce plays Eric who, while refreshing himself at a tin shack passing itself off as a roadside tavern, has his car stolen by a criminal gang, headed by Henry (Monsters and Killing Them Softly’s Scoot McNairy). The gang are on the run from a botched robbery, having left Henry’s younger brother, Reynolds (Pattinson) behind, but when Eric and Reynolds meet, Eric forces the latter to help him find his car.

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What follows is a kind of road-movie-cum-western, as the pair travel from one ramshackle settlement to the next. Quite what caused the “collapse” is never really explained – it’s assumed to have been economic, with Australia’s mining industry just about the only infrastructure still up and running – but its aftermath is felt everywhere, from a glacially calm grandmother attempting to pimp out her grandson to a doctor keeping her dogs in cages, so they won’t be taken away and eaten by thieves. This might not be a world ravaged by environmental disaster or nuclear war, but virtually all sense of civilisation is gone. Violence is sudden, casual and almost inevitable in a world where law and order are provided by ragtag gangs of soldiers, rather than police.

The real revelation here is Pattinson, who I’d previously seen only in a handful of films, none of which were a particularly good showcase for his skills. Some reviewers have singled out his twitchy mannerisms and speech patterns for criticism, reading the character as a simpleton (one even mentioned Robert Downey Jr.’s “full retard” speech from Tropic Thunder), but I can only assume they weren’t paying attention to the film. Did they perhaps miss the moment when Eric overhears Reynolds speaking fluent Cantonese? Were they in the loo when Reynolds takes out a small army unit and rescues Eric, having dug under a fence to break into their compound? The character certainly seems more of a savant than a simpleton; and while Eric may be the film’s protagonist, Reynolds is certainly its heart.

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Pierce’s performance is perhaps not so much of a surprise, having delivered a similarly stoic turn in The Proposition, but his character remains fascinating. It becomes clear, following a shocking act of violence early on, that Eric is an unknowable quantity. If we sympathise with him for the loss of his car – even though his particular attachment to it remains a mystery until the very last scene – that sympathy dissipates pretty quickly, and soon enough it’s clear this is a movie without “goodies”… only “baddies” and “even worsies”.

The film’s major triumph, however, is in its depiction of a society that has come apart at the seams; indeed, one which no longer has the right to think of itself as a society at all. It takes only a cursory glance at recent headlines to realise that the barbarity depicted here isn’t far-fetched, begging the question – is the “collapse” referred to in the opening titles an event we have to look forward to, or something that’s already happened?

Let's face it - it's the latter.

Let’s face it – it’s the latter.

So “So Bad, It’s Good” It’s Bad – ‘Sharknado 2’

2 Aug

Sharknado 2

If, in years to come, the 21st Century is remembered for one thing, it’ll be as the era that witnessed the death of irony and sarcasm. Social media have rendered subtleties in tone obsolete, so that comments intended with tongue firmly in cheek read as utterly sincere, and “parody” accounts and websites such as christwire.org are regularly cited as genuine examples of fundamentalism. (See “Poe’s Law” for further details.)

The late 20th Century’s tsunami of postmodernism left Western culture awash with insincerity, so that almost everything these days is framed with irony. Whereas twenty years ago we might have watched films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space or Mommie Dearest because they set out for greatness but achieved only schlock, we are now making films with the intention that they will be “so bad they’re good”.

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Which brings us to Sharknado 2. This TV movie, produced by the SyFy channel, is the sequel to 2013’s Sharknado. We know this, because its full title is Sharknado 2: The Second One, in case some of us fail to understand the concept of sequels. The first film centred around the unlikely premise in which Los Angeles is hit by a tornado that manages to suck all the sharks out of neighbouring waters, and then dump them on an army of unsuspecting Angelinos, including a surprisingly lifelike Tara Reid and John “the dad out of Home Alone” Heard.

Typically, for this sort of movie, it features scenes in which those milling about in the background fail to respond in any way whatsoever to the THOUSANDS OF FUCKING SHARKS falling from the sky, and – despite the dense black clouds overhead and the editor dimming everything in post-production – the streets of LA are brightly sunlit throughout. The sharks look like something from one of the earlier Tomb Raider games, the CGI floodwater looks like mercury, and a climactic scene has our hero, Fin Shepherd (Ian Ziering) fight his way through an unconvincing shark’s innards with a chainsaw.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

Sharknado, in summary, is not a good movie, but even pointing this out feels redundant, because whereas those responsible for Batman & Robin or The Room or Battlefield Earth thought they were making good films, the makers of Sharknado knew it was rubbish. Even so, what they aim for isn’t self-conscious spoof, in the vein of Airplane! or Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, but a strangely lacklustre compromise between the two: Too aware of its own shortcomings for them to be fun, and not funny enough to inspire belly laughs.

For its part, Sharknado 2 does, at least, aim for the latter, and at times it even comes close. There are some mostly unnecessary “star” cameos from the likes of Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kelly Osbourne, and this time round our “Oh my God… They’re in this?” turns are provided by Judd Hirsch (playing a taxi driver… Taxi… geddit?), A Serious Man’s Richard Kind and Kill Bill star Vivica Fox. Ian Zierling and Tara Reid return as our intrepid, chainsaw-wielding hero and a Ritalin-impaired marionette (at least, I think that’s who Reid plays), and the whole thing ends with a scene in which Zierling surfs a shark through a tornado before landing it on the Empire State Building’s spire. Of course.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

But whereas a movie like Airplane! knowingly sends up the cliches and other weaknesses of disaster movies, Sharknado 2 blunders on, blissfully unaware of its own. New York’s subway system floods, and its tunnels become infested with sharks and – somehow – alligators, yet the streets of Midtown remain surprisingly calm and quiet, with shoppers and commuters visibly going about their business as usual. When three tornadoes (sorry… sharknadoes) converge on Manhattan, an aerial shot shows what appears to be a Sunday morning level of traffic passing through Times Square. That isn’t “ironic cheesiness”, that’s just terrible film-making.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh, and at times I laughed quite heartily at Sharknado 2, but when the credits rolled I was left with that same feeling of hollow dissatisfaction that I had after its predecessor, because in the absence of genuine wit (and that’s the one thing Sharknado 2 is utterly lacking), there has to be someone on the receiving end of those laughs. If you can’t laugh with someone or something, you have to feel that you are laughing at it, and with the Sharknado movies that just feels pointless.

At the risk of taking SyFy’s monster movies way too seriously, it would be easy to dismiss Sharknado and its ilk as just “trash TV”, but I can’t help but feel these movies are part of a wider programme in which our cultural benchmarks are being  lowered intentionally. High production values cost more money, so why not make a virtue out of terrible direction, acting and special effects? Groom people into not only accepting rubbish as the norm, but demanding it, and you can get away with anything.

Too late.

Exhibit B.

 

 

A Revenger’s Tragedy – ‘Blue Ruin’

7 May

Blue Ruin

The more you know about a film in advance, the more it ruins the film. This was a lesson I  learned after attending my first film festival. Going in to a film blind (not literally), with a minimum of hype, expectation and prejudice is the absolute best way to watch a movie. Want to know what happens when you watch way too many trailers and get yourself so excited you could shit yourself?

This. This is what happens.

This. This is what happens.

That isn’t to say a tiny bit of hype won’t nudge you in the right direction. Last Saturday, while finishing up a day’s work, I overheard the panel on Radio 4’s Saturday Review talk about a film called Blue Ruin. I wasn’t paying much attention, but from what I heard I liked the sound of it. It was like a revenge film, they said. But not that kind of revenge film. Or, at least, that was the gist of what I caught.

Now, if I tell you Blue Ruin is a revenge film, I know already what you’re thinking of. The revenge movie in your head stars one of the following:

  • Jason Statham
  • Denzel Washington
  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

And it features:

  • A scene in which a car flips over while exploding.
  • A corrupt FBI/DEA agent played by Eric Roberts or Don Johnson.
  • A European actor lauded for their role in an arthouse flick as the main villain.

Let me start by telling you that Blue Ruin is not that kind of movie. When we first meet protagonist Dwight (Macon Blair), he’s living in a rusting Oldsmobile (the titular “blue ruin”) on a beach, with long, straggly hair and a beard that may or may not house an entire family of sparrows. Actually, scratch that, when we first meet him he has broken in to a complete stranger’s house so he can use their bath while they’re out. Dwight is, in short, a loser, a hobo, a bum.

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And no… He’s not your unconvincing-false-beard-and-grime kind of hobo. Dwight genuinely looks as if he has been sleeping rough for a decade. Saying barely five words, if that, in the film’s opening 10 minutes, he has the look of a very haunted man; the reason for which becomes clear when he’s taken in to a police station by a tender, sympathetic officer, and told that the man who murdered his parents is about to be released from prison.

What follows is, as already mentioned, a revenge film, but one quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. If it reminded me of anything, it was of Dead Man’s Shoes, with its mixture of suddenly, clumsy and gruesome violence and its vein of very black humour. That said, whereas Paddy Considine’s character in that film is a latter day Man With No Name, skilled in the art of one-man warfare, Dwight is inexperienced and bumbling.

Macon Blair as Dwight (after having a shave)

Macon Blair as Dwight (after having a shave)

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has assembled a top notch cast for what is only his second feature film. Blair is incredible as Dwight, holding your attention while saying so very little, and he’s given great support by Devin Ratray (aka Buzz from Home Alone) as Dwight’s gun-savvy friend Ben and Kevin Kolack as Teddy Cleland – one of the limo-owning crime clan Dwight finds himself up against.

If the cast sound unfamiliar, that’s because there’s a good chance their will be. Ratray aside (and I’d be surprised if you recognised him), I wasn’t familiar with any of the main cast, and if anything this only drew me in to the film even further. From the word go I was gripped, and some scenes (one word: crossbow) had me almost literally on the edge of my seat and watching the film through my fingers.

Besides being suspenseful, occasionally very funny and in places wince-inducingly painful to watch, Blue Ruin’s chief success lies in its protagonist. Dwight is both flawed (you can’t help but wish he’d chosen another path) and sympathetic (you can appreciate why he chose this one). His stumbling into a murky, backwoods criminal underworld feels almost accidental, even if it’s intentional, reminding me of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, and his first tentative steps into the meth business.

No news yet on whether there'll be a Blue Ruin Lego play set.

No news yet on whether there’ll be a Blue Ruin Lego play set.

What’s even more amazing about Blue Ruin is that it was funded through Kickstarter, and a great example of how that particular funding model can work, even if the chances of indie films enjoying big screen success are still relatively small. At least, it would seem, there is some hope for interesting, intelligent movies to survive in a big-screen world of sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots.

5 Predictions for 2014

23 Dec

And so 2013 comes to a close, ending much like one of those Sundays you have in your early 20s, when you hit the sack as others are sitting down for breakfast and crawl out of bed when it’s dark and almost time for you to crawl back in again. It’s gone quickly, is what I’m saying. Even so, I’ll now attempt to see into the future and tell you 5 things we have waiting for us in 2014.

1) TV

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The biggest show on TV in 2014 will be Gogglebox+, a spin-off from the popular Channel4 show, in which the viewer is given the choice to watch one of up to 100,000 different families watching Gogglebox, including their own. The show will begin as a red button option, before being commissioned as its own interactive web series. Things will reach a postmodern event horizon when, via a multi-screen option, those participating in Gogglebox+ can watch the regular characters from Gogglebox watching them watching Gogglebox+.

2) Pop Music

Pop Music

2014 will be the year when, in a bold, empowering move that demonstrates her maturity and bravery as an artist, a teenage female pop star whose songs are written and produced by men in their 30s will participate in a live donkey show at the VMAs. The ensuing opprobrium will be aimed entirely at the pop star and not at the men who organised and choreographed the routine.

Meanwhile, French producer and songwriter David Guetta will be arrested, in November, accused of taking out a contract on the life of Pharrell Williams. Lawyers for the prosecution claim that Guetta wanted to end “for once and for all” Williams’s tireless campaign to “wrestle RnB back from the clutches of very boring, unimaginative white men”. In December, officers involved in the investigation begin questioning Calvin Harris for his role in the alleged plot.

3) Movies

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Following the announcements that both Batman and Wonder Woman will appear in the sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Warner Bros announce that the following characters are also to feature in the movie: The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Batgirl, Bizarro, Nightwing, Plastic Man, Swamp Thing and John Constantine. Incredibly, despite the project’s prestige, the producers struggle to find a writer willing or able to cram all these characters into a coherent story write the screenplay for this as-yet-untitled film.

4) Celebrities

Jamie Box

Following his appearance on next year’s hit TV show, The Know-Nothings (a documentary following a group of people who quite literally know nothing), next year’s biggest and best-paid celebrity will be fitness instructor Jamie Box from Chester. Box, 22, thinks that the capitol of France is Germany, and that whenever he goes to the cinema the actors in the film he’s watching are performing the film live. In September 2014 he garners his 14,000,000th follower on Twitter and publishes volume 3 of his autobiography before being named as Claudia Winkleman’s replacement on Film 2014.

5) Politics

Russell Brand

Voter apathy increases, after Russell Brand reveals – at a press junket to publicize his slapstick remake of Gandhi – how the previous change in government had little-to-no impact on his 8-figure bank balance. This shock revelation, coupled with the fact that Brand has enjoyed continuous employment for the last 10 years, leads those earning almost 1,000 times less than him and still struggling to find or hold on to a job, to believe voting makes no difference whatsoever. As a result, the only people intending to vote in 2015 will be those who fall outside his fan demographic, i.e. anyone roughly the same age or older than Andrew Sachs. Gearing up for the 2015 election, all of the major parties will announce harsher penalties on the young (loss of housing benefit for the under 40s, a pension age of 97 for anyone born after 1990) and a holiday in the Bahamas and endless repeats of Lovejoy on GOLD for the over 65s.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage will appear on the BBC no fewer than 946 times, including – thanks to the wonder of computerized visual effects – two separate appearances on a single episode of Question Time.

Nigel Farage, Ukip

‘Last of the Summer Wine’ With Explosions – Stallone & Co. return in ‘The Expendables 2’

28 Jun

Sylvester Stallone’s face is fascinating. Oh, he’s always had unconventional looks, owing to the paralysis of his lower face, but he’s now entering the realm of the sideshow. I first noticed this when he rocked up in one of his two recent-ish comeback movies, 2008’s Rambo. 

"Wait... Shouldn't Rambo 3 have been called Rambo 2: First Blood Part 3. And how come the 4th film's called just 'Rambo'?"

Wait… Shouldn’t Rambo 3 have been called Rambo 2: First Blood Part 3? And how come the 4th film is just called ‘Rambo’?

In Rambo we were meant to believe that Stallone’s character, the eponymous, troubled Vietnam vet, had spent the last 20 years of his life living in the backwoods of Thailand. What made this curious wasn’t Stallone’s Hollywood tan (I believe they have sunlight in Thailand, and Rambo is meant to be an outdoorsy type), but the fact that he was dying his hair and had clearly had “work done” since fighting alongside the brave men of the Taliban in Rambo III.

"You can ride a horse, American. But can you fly a plane?"

“You can ride a horse, American. But can you fly a plane?”

Let’s be clear here, I’m not having a go at anyone who wishes to look their best, even as they stumble into their mid-to-late sixties. Stallone has an impressive physique for a man who, if he were British, could have collected his bus pass in 2006, and I’m sure it’s in no way augmented by regular injections of monkey serum or yak’s testicles or any other weird, untested freakishness. But still… Sylvester Stallone’s face is fascinating. 

There are times, early on in The Expendables 2, when it seems to have been given a little CGI airbrushing to remove some of its more leathery creases, but elsewhere it looks like a mixed grill, twitching and mumbling its way towards sentience.

A mixed grill dressed as Magnum PI.

A mixed grill dressed as Magnum PI.

Fortunately, in the Expendables franchise Stallone is able to offset the visible signs of ageing by surrounding himself with a cast of action stars of a similar vintage. In the first film we had (a surprisingly good) Dolph Lundgren, looking like what would happen if the Easter Island heads were given a makeover by Tom of Finland, and Mickey Rourke looking like an educational film designed to warn children about the dangers of being Mickey Rourke. There were blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-cameos from then-Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger and his and Stallone’s fellow Planet Hollywood restaurateur Bruce Willis.

This time around, as well as the return of Jason Statham, Jet Li, the aforementioned Lundgren, Terry Crews, and MMA star Randy Couture we get repeat cameos from Schwarzenegger and Willis, a new one from Chuck Norris (prompting a toe-curling scene referencing “Chuck Norris facts”), and – as the film’s Euro-villain, Vilain (that’s his actual name) – Breakinstar Jean Claude Van Damme. All these 1980s action stars and – miraculously – hardly a grey hair in sight. Norris’s beard, in particular, is a significantly darker hue than it ever was in the mid-1970s, while Van Damme’s hair looks like it’s been treated with Cuprinol. Half an hour into the film I began wondering why the film’s producers hadn’t struck a lucrative sponsorship deal with Just For Men.

Expendables

And the thing is, that last sentence isn’t even a wisecrack, because I don’t think I have ever seen a film that so cynically squeezes money from its paying audience as Expendables 2. 

Here is a film whose stars, with the exception of young pup Statham, stopped being bankable a good 15-20 years ago. As if to hammer that point home, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s most recent “solo” efforts, The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head tanked at the box office. Put ’em all together, however, and a paying audience will queue around the block. After that point, the filmmakers don’t quite know what to do. This was a problem with the first film, which I think had Eric Roberts in it, and a plane that was also a big, flying gun, and… uh… some explosions… but of which I remember absolutely nothing else. And this is a film I watched earlier this year

Already, vast chunks of Expendables 2 are slipping from my memory. I’m having to resort to notes to remember what happened, because the main thing I remember, the main thing the film is about, is, “Hey… It’s Schwarzenegger. And Terry Crews just told him he’d be terminated if he didn’t take care of his gun. Ha! Do you get it! He said he’d be terminated. And Arnold Schwarzenegger played the Terminator.”

"And then you can 'Jingle all the Way' home, motherf**ker."

“And then you can ‘Jingle all the Way’ home, motherf**ker.”

What I can remember of the film’s plot (rather than its raison d’êtreinvolves some dodgy Eastern European types, headed by Van Damme, who are mining uranium in some dodgy part of Eastern Europe (Bulkrainia?) to make some sort of weapon. If it’s ever stated what JCVD intends to do with his weapon (oo-er) I missed it in among all the things going bang.

Pictured: Things going bang.

Pictured: Things going bang.

The last act, which takes place in one of those airports where they don’t have any police or security because it’s Eastern Europe, is a series of in-jokes for action fans, including about half a dozen riffs on “I’ll be back” and one baffling, doesn’t-make-the-slightest-bit-of-sense nod to “Yippee ki-yay!” There are also no fewer than three occasions when Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Willis comments on their age, as if to say to the audience, “Yeah… We know we’re getting on a bit, but you liked our movies when you were a kid and probably too young to watch them, so humour us, okay?”

Look at this, but think of this.

Look at this, but think of this.

I can’t deny there is some fun to be had, watching three 1980s action heroes charge into battle (even if it does leave Statham, Crews, Lundgren et al standing on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs), but the minute the end credits roll the film disappears as swiftly as the poorly rendered CGI smoke from one of its many, many explosions (see above). Expendables 2 isn’t so much a film with a coherent plot and characters as it is a nostalgic box-ticking exercise, and that’s a shame, because as well as getting older and wrinklier its retro stars are infinitely more comfortable in front of the camera. Jean Claude Van Damme makes a very good villain, especially in his final showdown with Stallone, and Schwarzenegger seems to have used his political career to hone a sense of comic timing (I particularly liked the scene with him and Willis driving through the airport-cum-warzone in a Smart car).

Given a decent script, by somebody like Shane Black, Expendables 2 could have been so much more than a big screen fan convention, or an episode of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ with more explosions. It could have been to action movies what The Wild Bunch was to Westerns. Looking at IMDB I see a third film is scheduled for 2014, so perhaps this time they’ll get it right.

Then my eyes scan down the page and I see they’ve cast Nicholas Cage.

Ah, well.

Pictured: Academy Award®-winner Nicholas Cage's last 5 movies.

Pictured: Academy Award®-winner Nicholas Cage’s last 5 movies.

PS: As a side-note, Van Damme’s character’s name is pronounced ‘Verlaine’, like the bisexual French poet and lover of Rimbaud (pronounced ‘Rambo’), after whom First Blood author David Morrell named his most famous character. Maybe screenwriter Richard Wenk isn’t so dumb, after all.

Panto Gore – The 2013 remake of ‘Evil Dead’

22 Apr

Evil-Dead-2013-004

MOSTLY SPOILER FREE!

Before discussing the remake of a popular movie, I’d like to trot out a couple of the cliches that get brought up every time we talk about remakes.

  • Remakes have been with us forever. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are based on pre-existing works.
  • Some remakes are good, sometimes even great. Look at The Wizard of Oz (filmed originally in 1910), The Maltese Falcon (filmed with Ricardo Cortez, 10 years before Bogart, in 1931), and Oceans Eleven.
  • Some remakes (Michael Mann’s Heat, Joss Whedon’s TV series of Buffy) enable writers and filmmakers to perfect their vision after abortive or sub-par first efforts.

And so to Evil Dead. Not The Evil Dead, you’ll notice. Just Evil Dead. Based on the 1981 film by Sam Raimi (which did include the “The”), and directed by Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez.

Just who, I wondered, during one of several odd lulls in the first 20 or 30 minutes, is the new Evil Dead – whose budget is almost 43 times that of its namesake – aimed at? Is it aimed at folks like me, who loved the original movies, youngsters who haven’t seen them, or both?

Seriously, though, if you haven't seen them... What the fuck?

Seriously, though, if you haven’t seen them… What the fuck?

You see, that’s the trouble with remakes. Unless they’re based on a novel or comic book (in which case you can argue that it’s not a remake but a new adaptation of the novel or comic), there’s something quite brazenly cynical about the whole exercise. Sure, special effects have come along in leaps and bounds since 1981, but is there really any need to give us a more polished, bigger budget version of The Evil Dead, when Sam Raimi more or less did that in Evil Dead 2 (1987)? What does the 2013 version bring to the table that the previous movies didn’t?

The answer, apparently, is gore. Buckets and buckets of gore. Did I say buckets? I meant tankers. Follow the paper trail back, and I reckon it’ll transpire that the film’s producers (Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert) have shares in a company that produces fake blood. Not that there’s anything wrong with this. If anything, the film’s abundance of over-the-top gore is the main thing it’s got going for it. And I genuinely mean that as a compliment.

Pictured: Gore.

Pictured: Gore.

Now, at some point, if you or your friends are fans of the original movies, you’ll hear somebody say, “Yeah, but it’s not as good as the original.” To which you should reply, “Shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead is good, but it’s not great. Most of the time, when people are waxing lyrically nostalgic about an Evil Dead movie, they’re thinking of the sequel.

Yes. This one.

Yes. This one.

That’s the movie with surprisingly effective special effects, a comically hyperactive turn from Bruce Campbell, and its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The first film, viewed more than 30 years on, is more “creaky” than “creepy”, and can only have cost a six figure sum to make because it was shot on film, rather than video.

The new film is better made than Evil Dead ’81. The acting, on the whole, is better. The special effects are (as you’d hope from a film that cost $17million) significantly better. The script, while often very scrappy, is inarguably more polished than the one Raimi churned out when he was just 22 years old. So, on all those fronts, this new version is a better film.

Where it stumbles is in its almost admirable refusal to acknowledge anything that’s happened in horror movies in the 32 years since the original’s release. For one thing, it’s now impossible to watch this kind of movie without imagining Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford running around behind the scenes making it all happen.

"Hey... They went with the spooky book." "Didn't that happen in 1981?" "Yep. Same thing. Almost exactly the same." "Spooky." "You're telling me."

“Hey… They went with the spooky book.”
“Didn’t that happen in 1981?”
“Yep. Same thing. Almost exactly the same.”
“Spooky.”
“You’re telling me.”

You can’t blame Alvarez, Raimi and Co. for that, and I wouldn’t suggest giving every by-the-numbers horror movie a postmodern lick of paint to make it work, as that would become stale. I just wonder if there isn’t, perhaps, a new kind of horror story we can tell, to replace this rather ropey old format that’s been with us since at least the 1970s.

The other major problem with Evil Dead 2013, especially when we’re comparing it with the original trilogy, is the Bruce Campbell-shaped hole in its heart. A tiny, barely-worth-mentioning cameo aside, Campbell isn’t in it, and while it would probably have been a mistake to shoe-horn his character into this reboot-sequel-remake-whatever, they should at least have tried to fill that gap with the same blackly comic, manic energy. Without it, this doesn’t feel so much like All New Evil Dead as Cabin In The Woods (Sans Irony). In fact, The Cabin in the Woods felt more like an Evil Dead movie than this does.

Congratulations, Whedon. You out-Raimied Raimi.

Congratulations, Whedon. You out-Raimied Raimi.

The script, as I’ve said, is a little scrappy in places, and the plot goes through a series of patience-testing contortions in its penultimate act, but overall the film is entertaining. The gore is very gory, the chills occasionally creepy, and the last 20 minutes hilariously over-the-top, like a pantomime of blood and guts. Jane Levy and Lou Taylor Pucci both turn in performances of the “better-than-this-movie-deserves” variety, with Levy in particular excelling both as a recovering addict and a bile-spewing, demon-possessed harridan.

In conclusion: Evil Dead 2013 is entertaining enough, but no classic, and while arguably more polished than its forebears it can’t hope to make anything like the same kind of impact.

My Top 5 New York Films

5 Apr

New YorK

I’m going to New York in September (trust me, I’ll be mentioning this in an increasingly excited tone of voice more and more often as we near the departure date), and this got me thinking about New York movies. Like no other medium I can think of, films allow the city to become practically a character in its own right, and few make their presence felt on film more forcefully than New York.

Here, then, in chronological order, are five of my favourite New York movies. These aren’t just great films set in New York – there are plenty more of those. These are the movies that simply couldn’t be set anywhere else.

1) King Kong (1933)

New YorK

Until King Kong, horror movies were set largely in cobwebby, Gothic castles bestruck by lightning and crawling with bats, rats and women who wore too much eye shadow. King Kong, while not strictly speaking a horror movie, really changed all that. Here was a movie following in the tradition of exotic adventure (like Conan Doyle’s The Lost World or H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She) and given a monster movie twist, but its greatest innovation was its modernity. Sure, the Skull Island sequence could be set in any era, but the minute the action moves to New York we are right in the here and now of the 1930s.

Famously, the film’s climax takes place atop the Empire State Building, then only 2 years old, and it gave us the iconic and unsurpassed image of a prehistoric monster scaling one symbol of the modern age and battling another – the aeroplane. Semiotics and symbolism aside, King Kong is a cracking adventure and touchingly poignant, and Willis O’Brien’s stunning animation heralded a whole new era of movie special effects that would last until the arrival of CGI more than 50 years later.

2) Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

New YorK

Ealing veteran Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers) may have made an unusual choice of director for this acerbic, noirish drama, but it’s arguably his greatest film. Sweet Smell of Success pits Tony Curtis’s sleazy PR man Sidney Falco against tyrannical newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (a career-best Burt Lancaster), in a dark and twisted tale of corruption and blackmail. The script is by playwright Clifford Odets, and based on a short novel by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), so as you may expect, the dialogue is to die for. One critic – I forget who – said this isn’t how New Yorkers actually speak, it’s how they wish they spoke, and it’s razor sharp throughout. Sweet Smell of Success is a remarkable, near-perfect film with an astonishing score by Elmer Bernstein and crisp, expressionistic photography by James Wong Howe.

3) Taxi Driver (1976)

New YorK

Arguably the greatest New York movie of all time, and certainly one of the bleakest, Taxi Driver gives us a vision of the city as Hell on Earth. Vietnam Vet Travis Bickle (an incredible performance from a very much pre-Fockers Robert DeNiro) works nights driving his cab around the city. Slowly he begins to envision himself as an avenging angel, sent to “wash the scum off the streets”, and ultimately launches a one man mission to rescue underage prostitute Iris (an amazing Jodie Foster, then only 14) from a small army of pimps and gangsters. Almost 40 years after it was made, this remains one of Martin Scorsese’s finest and most powerful films. Michael Chapman’s gritty photography ensures New York never looked more beautifully seedy, with Travis’s yellow cab gliding through a haze of steam, neon lights and rain-drenched streets, and though Bernard Herrmann’s score (his last) may seem a little bombastic on first viewing, it suits the film’s heightened, infernal atmosphere to a tee.

4) The Warriors (1979)

New YorK

Walter Hill took Sol Yurick’s reasonably gritty and realistic 1965 novel about gang violence, and turned it into a cartoonish, dystopian and larger-than-life riff on Xenophon’s Anabasis, the semi-legendary story in which an army of Spartans battle their way home through hostile territory. Here, the Spartans are replaced by the titular Warriors, a gang of Coney Island street toughs in (vaguely homoerotic) leather waistcoats, pursued by such bizarre themed gangs as the Riffs, the Turnbull ACs, the genuinely eerie Baseball Furies, and the murderous, all-female Lizzies. Much of The Warriors was shot on location, and although set in the “near future”, it’s a similarly grimy, hostile city to the one seen in Taxi Driver. The climax, on the bleak, dilapidated Coney Island seafront, is the stuff cult movies are made from.

5) Ghostbusters (1984)

New YorK

It almost feels unnecessary, spending a whole paragraph telling you why Ghostbusters is an amazing film because, dear reader, you are human, gifted with a human heart and soul, and therefore fully aware of how amazing it is. For those of you born too late to have appreciated it at the time, Ghostbusters heralds from an era when film studios funded family-friendly, comedy action films that weren’t based on pre-existing novels, comic books, movies or TV shows. Ghostbusters’ only pedigree, when the script landed on some studio head honcho’s desk, was that it would star Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd as likeable schlubs who rid New York of its ghosts, operating out of an old downtown fire station, and driving around in a converted, beat-up old ambulance. And somebody green-lit that. The 1980s were an amazing time. (See also Gremlins, Back to the Future.)

One of the things that makes Ghostbusters work is its setting; it really couldn’t be set anywhere but New York. The plot hinges on a spooky old gothic skyscraper, and New York has them in spades. The scenes of city folk cheering on the Ghostbusters as they head off to challenge Gozor the Gozarian just wouldn’t have worked in, say, Los Angeles. What’s more, I can guarantee that if you love Ghostbusters as much as any sane person should, you will spend at least 2 hours of a holiday in New York looking for the locations, just so you can pose in front of them doing your “scared” face while a friend Instagrams that shit. I know I will.

Purple is "Spook Central", green is the Library, and "A" is the firehouse. You're welcome.

Purple is “Spook Central”, green is the Library, and “A” is the firehouse. You’re welcome.

NOTE: I know. I didn’t pick any Woody Allen. How dare I? Well… If it wasn’t for the last 10 minutes I’d have happily put Manhattan on this list, but seriously… The minute Allen married his step-daughter that movie became intensely creepy.

"Age ain't nothing but a number..." Woody Allen (44) and Mariel Hemingway (18) in Manhattan. Made 13 years before Allen began a relationship with his 19-year-old stepdaughter.

“Age ain’t nothing but a number…” Woody Allen (44) and Mariel Hemingway (18) in Manhattan. Made 13 years before Allen began a relationship with his 19-year-old stepdaughter.