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Monday, June 27, 2011

Hell of the Living Dead (1980)

Directed by Bruno Mattei
Starring Margit Newton, Franco Garofalo, Jose Gras, Gabriel Renom
Written by Jose Maria Cunilles, Claudio Fragasso
Produced by Isabel Mula
Music by Goblin and others

WARNING: Do NOT see this film if you have an appreciation for the zombie genre and want to see something that is at least on a par with the genre's semi-decent efforts like the remake of Dawn Of The Dead or, hell, even Zombi Holocaust. Only see this film if you have a sense of humour, enjoy "so-bad-they're-good" movies and films that contain scene after scene of jaw-dropping ineptness and idiocy.

"Hmm, maybe you're right, that suit is a little too tight..."

Hell of the Living Dead is hilariously inept in almost every way, save the use of music lifted from better films, most notably the far (far, far far!) superior original Dawn Of The Dead, which Hell liberally and consistently rips off every chance it gets. Absolutely nothing works in this piece of stillborn dreck - the acting is stupefying, the editing abysmal, the special effects are, for the most part, laughably pathetic, and the dialogue is on par with your typical Ed Wood film. Almost every scene screams ineptitude, for example:

- 'Scientists' in white labcoats spout inane gibberish like "how's the linear momentum?" and "check the component ratios for the module" whilst attacking 70's sci-fi panel controls that do nothing
- A scientist bemoans the fact that their geiger counter is "going crazy", but only after clearly turning the meter's dial to the right and thereby ensuring the needle moves to the right (this is before a rat easily slips into their supposedly protective radiation suits)
- There are lines of the quality: "Buildings have people in them, we'd better go investigate" and "She may not know much about chemestry, but in bed, her reactions are terrific" (!)
- The SWAT team, strongly reminiscent of the team in Romero's Dawn, act like they've never handled a gun before (clearly they haven't) and take on the most ridiculous postures and "sweeps" of enemy-laden territories
- Time and time again characters stare goggle-eyed at incoming zombie hordes and don't run, fight back or do ANYTHING - even the supposed trained SWAT team can't understand the concept of shooting them in the head, and have to be INSTRUCTED by one of the team members (the lunatic one) to go for the head, not the body
- A dead body hanging from the roof ejects blood out of her mouth on cue as instructed by the director
- The lead female gets naked and paints herself like a reject from Live And Let Die in order to infiltrate a Papua New Guinea tribe; a pointless move as it turns out
- There are countless scenes of stock footage interspersed throughout, of monkeys, storks, natives, owls (!) and elephants (!!)
- One of the SWAT team members gets killed prancing around in a tutu and top hat
- Zombies either move unbelievably slow, to the point of catatonia, or fast, like the granny or the zombie who flies out of nowhere at the end
- Characters who have survived the entire film for some reason throw all caution into the wind at the end so they end up like fodder

The critics' reaction to Hell of the Living Dead was hostile.

And so on. On top of it all, the dubbing is dreadful and the gore for the most part is woeful; the film also feels about an hour too long. As a zombie horror film, Hell of the Living Dead is a trainwreck. As an unintentional comedy, it's passable. As a textbook example for film students as how to get everything wrong, it's invaluable.

Best bit
so many "best" moments to choose from - I'll go with the ridiculous tutu and top hat scene

Iconic moment
the sort of iconic moment that summarises the idiocy of this film? - the SWAT team's ASSault on the US embassy

Worst bit
this is relatively speaking, of course, in a film engorged with "worst bits" -

Best line
"She may not know much about chemestry, but in bed, her reactions are terrific!"

Best performance
Margit Newton's breasts

the guy who filmed all that stock footage

What would have made this better
any semblance of filmmaking skill

What would have made this worse
the ending that informed us it was "all a dream"; a four-hour director's cut

Companion film
the almost equally lame Nightmare City

What to watch instead
why not the original magnum opus this so clearly rips off - Romero's Dawn of the Dead

If you liked this...
you have a preference for "bad cinema" and should immediately watch The Room

+ Goblin's music
+ a couple of gore scenes are fairly executed (only a couple, mind you)
+ it's hilarious if you're drunk
+ some scenes and lines are unintentional comedy gold

- too long, and some scenes are much too drawn out
- too much stock footage which clashes badly with the rest of the film
- the acting and dubbing is atrocious
- the script is woeful and has some truly appalling dialogue
- the gore is mostly pretty lame and cheap
- almost every scene has something stupefying in it (move this to Pros if you like)
- virtually all scenes are poorly shot, lit and/or staged
- massively rips off Dawn of the Dead

Rating on the David Emge/Zombie Roger level of cinematic shamblers:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Catwoman (2004)

Directed by Pitof
Starring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Bratt
Written by John Brancato, Michael Ferris and John Rogers
Produced by Denise Di Novi, Edward McDonnell
Music by Klaus Badelt

Sometimes a movie comes along on a wave of such negativity that it's impossible to determine whether it's simply hyperbole or in fact actually warranted. Universally panned by critics, ignored by moviegoers, Catwoman has built such a reputation of shit that you can't watch it without some sort of preconceived opinion. This is what I felt when I started to watch it. I had heard all the horror stories. This is the film that swept the Razzies, the film for which Halle Berry herself turned up to accept her Razzie award as Worst Actress. I had read positively scathing reviews that were so vitriolic you'd think the film had been responsible for the Holocaust. So I went into this with incredibly low expectations. If the movie had turned out to be bad but unintentionally hilarious (much like The Wicker Man remake) then I would have come away with the feeling that this was simply a poor film that got unfairly lambasted. But my low - nay, virtually non-existent - expectations weren't met in the slightest. This is one film that truly does live up to its awful reputation.

Halle Berry is a graphic designer called Patience Phillips (!) who works at this twatty company called Beau-Line (!!) and gets killed, then is revived by a magical cat (!!@&#!). This prompts her to get into the crime-fighting business...wearing the worst superhero costume ever conceived by man. She fights Sharon Stone, who has ended up being the CEO of Beau-Line. Like it matters. Catwoman is so bad it's like being punched in the face by a boxer with shards of glass embedded in his knuckles, then dipping your head in chili sauce. The film does NOTHING right. Let's look at the most obvious problems...

Even a surreptitious handjob from Halle Berry couldn't
keep Benjamin Bratt's attention on the scene.

1. It's directed by some French guy whose name is Pitof. Now, going by anything McG has directed in the past, you should be wary of any directors with singular names. They are a definite warning sign of crapness. This guy thinks that overedited action scenes that make Michael Bay's style look aenimic is a good thing. Cuts in fight scenes happen practically every second in a failed bid to make it look fast and exciting (and hide the fact that none of the actors can do their own stunts or fight scenes). It is almost unbearable. Pitof also likes long swooping shots over and around the city. Unfortunately they look like cheap CGI that fucked other cheap CGI and had a retarded CGI child. I assume the producers hired Pitof because of some TV commercials he directed, I bet that's his background. You can just tell. Anyway, he's crap and hopefully his career is dead in the water.

2. The CGI. Truly this was some diabolically bad shit. I've seen better computer effects in the intro movies from a ten-year old PC computer game. They've gone the route of Spider-Man in having a CGI character nip around the place, but it looks horrid. Not for one moment was I convinced this was Halle Berry running up walls and along buildings. In the scene where Berry is revived by a gaggle (or whatever the collective description is) of cats, they use a CGI cat to walk along, over her prone body and breathe life into her. Now, surely they could have filmed a real cat doing this (okay, maybe not where it breathes life into her, but why the hell couldn't they get a real cat for the scenes where it's WALKING along?) I mean, it's not like cats are on the endangered species list, for God's sake.

3. The acting. Halle may have the looks, but the way she plays this role (and as Catwoman in particular) suggests she was either high on drugs through the shoot or not high enough. Michelle Pfeiffer's turn as Catwoman in Batman Returns worked; she played the role with the right mix of camp and sexiness. But any time Berry purrs or makes some other cat-like noise, you just want to bludgeon yourself to death with a jar of your own sick. And the supporting cast suck too. Not that they could have saved this.

4. Catwoman. Face it, the character's a bit lame. But she can work when the ingredients are right, and when she's not the star of her own film. I reckon the character only works in limited amounts. Somehow the filmmakers managed to make the ridiculously good-looking Halle Berry look crap in this. Her outfit is like some lame S&M outfit that not even the most nihilistic moron would dare wear out in the open.

5. The script. There's a conspiracy involving cosmetic makeup which causes long-term damage to consumers. There's a plot twist involving Sharon Stone's character which is so ridiculous you'll wish you had killed yourself beforehand. You have a guy who's supposed to be a cop who has all this evidence thrust in his face suggesting Berry's character is Catwoman: mysterious disappearances, handwriting evidence, stolen jewelry made into cat claws found IN HER APARTMENT, and he's still not sure. I swear, if all cops were as clueless as this guy you could go out and murder anyone you liked with no fear of being caught unless you carved your name and address into the victim’s forehead.

6. Everything else. The only positive thing I can say about this film was that it was mercifully short (even then it felt overlong).

Halle realises this is the point where her career jumped the shark.

Is this the worst film ever made? No. But it's certainly the poorest piece of scum-sucking filth I've seen in a long time. The only way you can possibly cope with this film's awfulness is to get drunk with a bunch of mates and rip into it. Otherwise you're setting yourself up for some serious pain. It's not one of those "so-bad-it's-good" movies. It's one of those "dear God, life's too short for me to be watching this, what the hell is wrong with me, do I hate myself THIS much?" films.

Best bit
the trailers included with the DVD, or the moment you throw the disc across the room in a blaze of profanity

Iconic moment
are you KIDDING?

Worst bit
the whole film except for the end credits

Best line
sigh, if I must...I suppose there's that bit where Halle's crapping on about her death at the start..."If there had been an obituary, it would have described the unremarkable life of an unremarkable woman, survived by no one."

Best performance

certainly not the producers or the director for making this heap of shit - let's say YOU, the viewer, for putting up with this

What would have made this better
lots and lots, actually: a change of director, hire someone who can actually film an action scene; completely revamp the script to either make it MORE tongue-in-cheek and camp, or go the other way and make it grim and violent; redesign Catwoman's outfit; never, NEVER let Halle Berry purr; don't use cheap CGI, go with more practical effects; match Catwoman up with another superhero; snatch up every copy of this film and bury it in the earth so future generations won't have to suffer

What would have made this worse
um...if the producers stabbed you repeatedly in the chest and laughed while they forced you to watch their film over and over?

Companion film
the unbelievably superior Batman Returns

If you liked this...
you need drugs, lots of drugs, and you shouldn't be allowed to vote or drive a car

+ it's short

- poor acting
- even poorer direction
- an incredibly poor script
- confusing, badly directed action scenes
- howlingly lame lines and delivery
- no sense of pace, tension or thrills
- the Catwoman outfit is horrible
- unbelievably lame CGI
- not even camp or knowing enough to make fun of itself

Rating on the Ben Stiller/Mr Furious level of shithouse superheroes:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Resident (2011)

Directed by Antti Jokinen
Starring Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Christopher Lee, Lee Pace
Produced by Tobin Armbrust, Cary Brokaw, Guy East and Simon Oakes
Written by Antti Jokinen and Robert Orr
Music by John Ottman

In what's designed to give the biggest "MEH" reaction from the audience, The Resident is a generic, by-the-numbers stalker-thriller that brings nothing new at all to the genre. Were it not for some very nice cinematography and the lead performances, this would probably have self-combusted under its own mediocrity.

Look, I don't want to pretend that The Resident isn't unwatchable. In fact, it's quite watchable in the same way that an episode of The Amazing Race is watchable but you immediately forget what just happened the moment you finish watching it. The Resident's main problem is that it's a flatline of a film - there are no genuine scares, no genuine thrills, nothing but a middle-of-the-road viewing experience. It's not especially creepy either, which is probably its biggest failing.

The Resident is brought to you by Grade-A Coffee,
the brand of choice for beardy serial voyeurs!

Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, in one of her latest failed attempts to break the mainstream market, is stalked by Jeffrey Dean Morgan who has the looks and charm of a hairy Brad Pitt but, for some unexplained reason, the deep, dark secrets of Anthony Perkins from Psycho. He's the landlord, so there's a little bit of sexual tension between him and his latest tenant, but that's soon ditched for a positively uninspired game of cat-and-mouse. Christopher Lee pops up in what is essentially an extended cameo, there's some stuff that happens and then other stuff, and something else, and the viewer promptly falls asleep.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan's new eye cologne didn't work as well as he'd hoped

What little positives The Resident manages to bring to the table are the excellent cinematography by Guillermo Del Toro cinematographer-of-choice Guillermo Navarro and various semi-gratuitous shots of Hilary Swank's extremely fit body. There are precious few other reasons to watch this unless you absolutely must watch everything that Jeffrey Dean Morgan appears in or you have some time to waste and absolutely everything else that was available to watch has summarily disappeared.

Best bit
the 'flashback' scene where we see Morgan's plan in motion

Iconic moment
absolutely not applicable here

Worst bit
the toothbrush scene - it's "worst" on many different levels

Best line
I honestly can't recall a single memorable line - next

Best performance
pick a name out of the hat: either Jeffrey Dean Morgan or Hilary Swank

I *suppose* Hilary Swank, because she exec-produced it as well...thanks

What would have made this better
either gone completely for the jugular and amped up the gore to Takashi Miike levels of insanity, or rejig the screenplay and make it truly creepy and unsettling -- oh, and hire another director

What would have made this worse
if the main roles were reversed...actually, scratch that, it would have made this AWESOME

Companion film
this has some similarities with Single White Female and even Sliver, though I couldn't imagine watching The Resident and Sliver back-to-back

If you liked this...
watch the original Psycho and ask yourself why you liked The Resident in the first place

+ there are a handful of decent scenes that play with the landlord-tenant sexual tension (which are unfortunately jettisoned early on)
+ very nice cinematography
+ Jeffrey Dean Morgan for the ladies, Hilary Swank's bits for the guys

- Christopher Lee is woefully underused
- quickly becomes a bog-standard thriller
- the script is bland and generic
- not scary, creepy or bloody enough to satisfy thriller or horror fans
- the boyfriend played by Lee Pace is as bland as a beige sponge
- some plot holes and "what the hell?" moments

Rating on the Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates level of perverted hotel proprieters:

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Knightriders (1981)

Directed by George A Romero
Starring Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest, John Amplas
Produced by Richard P Rubenstein
Written by George A Romero
Music by Donald Rubenstein

I must admit, I put off watching Knightriders for the longest time purely because of the front cover of the DVD. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the material is anything but crap. But the film surprised the hell out of me, and I rank it as one of Romero’s best. It’s clear that this was a deeply personal film for him. Long story short, you have this bunch of stunt players who have established a sort of on-the-road bikie medieval community, with a King, Billy (Ed Harris), Queen, and (presumably) First Knight (Morgan, played by Romero’s gore-effects maestro Tom Savini). Instead of horses, they use motorcycles (less shit to clean up). They make ends meet by staging dangerous medieval tournaments, joust with motorcycles, perform jumps and other stunts, that sort of thing. However, as their financial problems worsen they are courted by big business who provide the means to finance their tournaments in exchange for a little cross-promotion.

"Yeah, see that fantasy troupe fan over there? I had her, and her sister too.
The chicks love the Black Knight get-up, Ed, I'm telling ya!"

It’s blindingly obvious, therefore, that Knightriders is Romero’s commentary on the movie industry and, in particular, how he fits in with it. Romero’s always preferred to make films on his own terms, even if that often means he winds up with limited budgets. His choice is pretty clear: stay independent and make the films you want, but work with the budget you can scrounge up. On the flipside, “sell-out” to the big studios as a director-for-hire, make films with virtually no restrictions in terms of resources, but have a set of demands imposed on him which often affect the quality of the outcome. Take the third and fourth zombie films in Romero's Dead series. Romero had an epic zombie movie envisaged for the third, Day, but ended up filming only a fraction of it due to the budgetary limitations; however, this meant he could keep the film unrated and not have to appease the notorious MPAA and their retarded demands. Had he opted for the studio-backing, he would have had to have slashed Day’s notoriously gory effects to gain a US R rating. For Land of the Dead, he got a larger budget with Universal’s backing, but had to make a bunch of cuts to meet an R rating for cinema release and made it a bit more commerically appealing, rather than mirror the grim and downbeat tone of Day.

Here, Romero’s saying that just as the characters in Knightriders have a choice between artistic integrity and compromising your vision for the sake of a few bucks, so too does virtually every artist, whether you’re in film, print, paint, whatever. Like the commentary he puts in some of his other films, it’s not exactly subtle, but it works.

Bernard was secretly envious about the superlative printing on  Ron's shield.

Beyond all that guff, however, the film is a real oddity, yes, but also extremely entertaining. It’s also surprisingly moving in parts, at least, as much as a film about men on bikes pretending to be knights can be. The opening scene is a bit weird and trippy, but get beyond that and you start really getting to know the characters, and you'll see a lot of familiar faces from other Romero films pop up. Harris is reliably solid as usual, and Savini is a blast playing a more reckless biker who wants to run things his own way.

The stunts are very well staged. Some of the stuff looks pretty dangerous, so kudos to the stuntmen. One issue I have is that the driving around and jumping and racing goes on for a bit too long. Knightriders could have benefitted from some tighter editing; at two-hours-plus it definitely strains the limitations of the material. However, when you take into account the sheer enthusiasm of the production and the quality of the material then you don't really mind. Ultimately, if you're in the mood for it, I found this to be one of Romero's stronger films. Definitely the oddest, but surprisingly too it's probably one that's the most emotionally resonant.

Best bit
Savini coming to terms with what he has to do for his corporate benefactors

Iconic moment
the memorable finale

Worst bit
the very start, complete with "vasoline lens" vision

Best line
"We're bigger now. Things are different. Christ, we've got an overhead."

Best performance
Ed Harris, of course, as reliable and sturdy as a really big frickin' rock

George Romero, for bringing this oddball vision to life

What would have made this better
some editing trims, ditch the offputting opening scene

What would have made this worse
if Romero ditched the bikes and focused on one of those pissweak medieval meets as shown in Role Models

Companion film
now that I mention it, Role Models would make a pretty neat double bill with this

If you liked this...
watch Martin for another excellent Romero film that isn't quite what you expect

+ a great cast, with Harris and Savini standouts
+ a terrific "family" vibe, both in front of the screen and behind it
+ some great stunts
+ both surprisingly entertaining and curiously emotional

- a bit too long in places
- the opening scene has to go
- for a lot of viewers, the very concept will put people off
- the front video and DVD cover is extremely offputting too

Rating on the Tom Savini/Sex Machine level of tough-guy biker cameos:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

After.Life (2009)

Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
Starring Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long
Written by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk
Music by Paul Haslinger

Psychological thrillers, especially ones that deal with the afterlife (like The Sixth Sense) are tricky to get right. Tricky because there's a fine line they have to straddle between being true-to-life (so to speak) and completely daft. The Sixth Sense managed it through some strong performances, a grounding in as much reality as could be managed, and a strong script. After.Life only has one of these things (hint: it's the first).

Capably directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo (how's that for a name, I thought that guy who directed The Tourist had a hell of a name!), it's an interesting look at what *might* happen in that brief doorway between life and death. Interesting in that it's a different take on the usual thriller fare, but unfortunately fails in the execution, and what we're left with is a fairly middling thriller. Plus, it seems to contradict itself (unless I've failed miserably to grasp what the director and screenwriters were trying for).

Christina Ricci's expression when informed her wardrobe
budget for the film was going to be slashed to $20

--- minor spoilers ahead ---

Ricci gets in a car accident, and winds up in a funeral home, and the film takes pains to hint that (a) she was dead to begin with and this is merely a transition to the "after life", and Neeson can talk to dead people or (b) she's on the verge of death and Neeson is a deranged nutter who is killing people. Unfortunately, though this is resolved by the film's end, it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense throughout. Some scenes strongly suggest, right from the outset, that Ricci is dead, or dying, or a ghost, or something. Then, later on, we get the sense that Neeson is the one who's lost his mind, not Ricci, and that she is alive all along. Or something.

--- end spoiler alert ---

Ultimately the script lets the film down, not the performances nor the direction nor anything else. Liam Neeson provides a creepy and effective performance as a possibly unhinged mortician. Christina Ricci, who suffers through the majority of the film either as a psychologically damaged character, nude, or both, grounds the film, and our sympathies, as she tries to work out what the hell is going on. Justin Long is probably the only weak link, acting-wise. He's not terrible by any means...he's just...himself. Maybe After.Life benefits from a second watch to see if everything makes sense (a'la Shutter Island) but, to be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the entire experience and I don't think I could stomach a rewatch.

"I've got the latest script right here...I'm afraid it still doesn't make any sense."

The film is suitably atmospheric, there are some nice makeup effects throughout (apart from one "big" scene which has too much CGI crap) but ultimately this is a case of "nice concept, average execution", very much like a lot of M Night Shyamalan's work post-Sixth Sense. It's not scary or thrilling enough to truly work well, which means we have to rely on the script and performances to see us through, and not even Ricci and Neeson can save us in that respect.

Best bit
eh, hard to pick one - Ricci's car accident, perhaps?

Iconic moment
none, really

Worst bit
the cliched "walking down a corridor and the lights go out one by one" which seems to be completely out of place...unless I missed something

Best line
"You're a corpse; your opinion doesn't count anymore."

Best performance
Liam Neeson, just the right blend of creepy and oddly sympathetic

Christina Ricci, for at least giving it a go and acting in a challenging role that requires her to be 50% naked throughout the film

What would have made this better
a more satisfying resolution, replace Justin Long, remove the glaring continuity errors and actually make sure the damn thing MAKES SENSE

What would have made this worse
replace Christina Ricci with Kathy Bates

Companion film
for more life-near/after-death shenanigans, Flatliners

What to watch instead
probably The Sixth Sense

If you liked this...
try the very first Saw film if you want more of that "value life" lesson

+ Neeson and Ricci are very good and effectively keep the film on track
+ lots of nudity for the raincoat brigade
+ some good makeup FX
+ intriguing concept

- some illogical plot devices
- Justin Long is fairly weak in a pivotal role
- weak ending
- not enough gore for the gorehound, not enough chills for the thriller fan, not enough meat for the serious film buff

Rating on the Angus Scrimm/Tall Man level of creepy morticians:

Rambo (2008)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Reynaldo Gallegos
Written by Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone
Produced by Kevin King, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King Templeton and John Thompson
Music by Brian Tyler

First Blood is a great film. I watched it recently and it's amazing how much you forget the fact that Rambo, in that particular film, doesn't kill anyone. He injures a few people, but he hardly runs around slaughtering hundreds of bad guys. Then you watch Rambo First Blood Part II and the lamentable Rambo III where he fights off entire armies and you see the huge leap in direction the series took. You can compare First Blood to Taxi Driver; both films are about ex-Vietman vets who return home and are abandoned, finding nothing for them except disillusionment and scorn. They both have a gritty, low budget vibe. Compare that to the Rambo sequels, which are basically big, dumb cartoons.

And now we have the fourth Rambo film, confusingly titled Rambo (the original title, John Rambo, would have worked better). Initially it's an odd sight seeing Stallone as John Rambo not as the so-muscular-he-looks-like-a-knobbly bare-chested hero of parts II and III but as a moping, sour old veteran who looks like he's about ready to quit and retire to somewhere really remote like Bermuda. His face is a combination of 2008-Mickey Rourke and a melted wax candle. And once again we have John Rambo getting involved in a horrible war zone (Part II was Vietnam, III was Afghanistan, this time it's Burma and its civil unrest that's been going on for years and years). We are introduced with real footage of the atrocities in Burma, and some of the footage is deeply unsettling, as much for their content as it is that Stallone decided to include it in a Rambo film. His intentions are noble, I suppose; he wants to show the appalling violence that has been going on. It just seems a little strange to be including this sort of stuff in a film which, ultimately, wallows in the sort of gory violence that you'd expect to see in a Takashi Miike film.

Don't be fooled - though this is a rare, quiet moment, Rambo
is still thinking about eviscerating someone with a branch

We end up with a film of two halves. The first half we have Rambo as a bittered man who is thoroughly sick of the violence all around him. He's only reluctantly drawn back into action because he has a thing for a female missionary, Sarah Miller (Benz). We see the devastation of the village by an army led by a nasty NASTY general (the film points out how bad he really is by him having sex with young boys, shooting innocents in their hundreds and running a band of soldiers so ruthless that their chief enjoyment comes from raping women and making villagers run through mine-infested farmland and laying bets on which ones get blown up).

We get some truly horrific violence in the first half: people being shot down indiscriminately, mothers and children shot, limbs being hacked off. You forget this is a Rambo film, it could as easily have been a sequel to Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. The film has that same sped-up, jarring, shaky camera technique pioneered by Spielberg for Ryan and, annoyingly, used by virtually all war films since. The second half of the film has Rambo tracking down the missing missionaries with a band of mercenaries. This was a sensible decision on Stallone's behalf. At 60-something, John Rambo is clearly too old to take out an entire army by himself. He still looks pretty fit and handles the action scenes well, but at least it's not the same old 1 vs 100 that we've seen in parts II and III.

The second half of the film treats us to some truly awe-inspiring scenes of carnage. After an age of mournful pessimism, Rambo's back to what he does best: killing the shit out of baddies. And boy, does he. Rambo is by far the most violent film of the series. It's like comparing the original 50's version of The Fly to Cronenberg's gloopy remake. The first three Rambos are subdued in their presentation of violence compared to this one. Stallone said that he wanted to make the violence real, to show how bodies are actually affected by bullets and explosions. And HOLY SHIT DOES HE EVER. Let's just say if you like the Saw movies for their grisly violence, you'll love this. We see bodies torns and chopped to pieces by 50 calibre bullets. Limbs go flying in showers of blood. You have enough exploding heads. Rambo does his fair share, gunning baddies into mincemeat with a mounted turret gun and decapitating and gutting people left and right. Rambo even rips a guy's throat out in one particularly wet scene. It's shot with quite a fair amount of style and the look and feel of the film is pretty gritty (again, like a jungle version of Private Ryan) so it's not as cartoonish as it could have been. But you're still left staring open-mouthed at some of the delirious gore that showers the screen. It's certainly one of the most gloriously violent action films ever made.

"I respectfully disagree with your position, sir."

Therein lies the problem. Rambo wants to be two things: a sobering reminder of the atrocities being committed in Burma, and at the same time an exciting action-cum-war film with enough gore to make George Romero stand up and cheer. Stallone does a decent enough job both in front of and behind the camera. Jerry Goldsmith's memorable main theme is reused here by composer Brian Tyler; this is a thoughtful touch for fans and quite respectful of the work done by the legendary composer.

So the fourth (though probably not last) Rambo film is definitely one for fans. People who have felt that the first three films wallowed too much in excessive violence (a criticism that I felt the first film did not deserve) will definitely want to steer clear of this one. It's the most unashamedly gory, violent and grisly of the lot. There are possibly more deaths in this film than the first three combined. You have to ask yourself how it was that the notoriously scissor-happy MPAA let this through pretty much unscathed. First Blood will always be the strongest film in the series, but at least Rambo ends things in a way that has him come full-circle. In general this is a better Rambo sequel than I think most have been expecting.

Unless you like films with strong dialogue, compelling characters and a thoughtful script.

Best bit
Rambo turns some baddies to mush with a jeep mounted gun

Iconic moment
the decapitation is both sickening and hilarious

Worst bit
most of the dialogue scenes in the first half which try to be deep (but aren't really)

Best line
"Fuck the world."

Best performance
it'd have to be Sylvester Stallone, if anyone - at least in terms of screen presence

obviously Sylvester Stallone, for acting, directing, writing and everything else

What would have made this better
make the main villain less overtly nasty (we get it, really), strengthen the opening scenes between Rambo and the missionaries

What would have made this worse
more ridiculous comic-book action like Rambo II and III

Companion film
First Blood

What to watch instead
if you can't handle the gore but want something stylistically similar, try Black Hawk Down

If you liked this...
you're a wee bit sick in the head (like me) and should watch Saving Private Ryan (you probably already have)

+ it's short, streamlined and doesn't muck about
+ a stunning amount of violence and gore
+ the action scenes are well directed and exciting
+ a good, satisfying ending
+ Jerry Goldsmith's theme is reused

- it'll be way too gory for some viewers
- it wants to thrill us with exploitative violence and hammer home a "violence is bad" message as well
- some dialogue is weak

Rating on the R Lee Ermy/Sgt Hartman level of hard-arsed war veterans:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Zodiac (2007)

Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny
Written by James Vanderbilt
Produced by Cean Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer and James Vanderbilt
Music by David Shire

Some people say that Zodiac is director David Fincher’s masterpiece. It quite possibly is, although it’s not like his career is in decline and he hasn’t got a few good years left in him. Plus, this is the man who made Fight Club. Is one better than the other? It’s not like some directors don’t have two or even more masterpieces in them. Kubrick had 2001 and Dr. Strangelove, Kurosawa had Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Spielberg has Jaws and Schindler’s List.

Zodiac tells the story of the serial killer the press came to label as (funnily enough!) the Zodiac Killer who, for a period in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was linked to many murders, only a few of which were proven to be his. He gained notoriety by changing his methods and taunting the police and media with letters written in a cypher code, threatening to kill others (including a busload of school children) if his demands weren’t met. Filmmakers based Scorpio from the classic movie Dirty Harry on the Zodiac killer; interestingly, Fincher directly makes this reference within his film.

The rough draft of the final Harry Potter book was roundly criticized as a massive departure for the series

Zodiac benefits from three great lead performances by Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr and, especially, Mark Ruffalo as the driven inspector David Toschi (apparently Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character is partly based on the detective). You can see the case weighing down on their characters and their private lives, both physically and mentally, as the film goes on. Fincher establishes a great feeling of time and place, using detailed information gleaned from the crimes methodically without sacrificing the film’s tone or pacing. It’s not like those bullshit CSI-style shows which use show-off zooms into bits of evidence and corpses and the detectives do EVERYTHING, from investigations to interviews to forensic analysis to capturing the killer. Zodiac has a strong grounding in reality because it doesn’t flash up the police procedures involved in a case of this nature, and shows just how some cases can get bogged down in minutae and just plain bad luck. These sort of things aren’t necessarily filmic in nature, but somehow Fincher has made Zodiac utterly compelling; it may not be fast-paced, but it’s certainly not slow or dull. I’ve watched 80-minute shit-fests that feel far longer and drawn-out than Zodiac. Though it's occasionally show-offy, Zodiac presents the killings in such a clinical fashion that it makes them feel more chilling than if they were more stylised, especially a particularly brutal stabbing involving a young couple.

"Three letters, down...a domestic animal, known as man's best friend..."

I liken this film to the TV series The Wire – probably my favourite TV show ever, certainly one of the greatest series ever made. Like Zodiac, The Wire takes its time to delve into the methods that law enforcement uses which aren’t always glamorous, but they’re at least halfway truthful. For those who prefer the glamorous detective hijinks of, say, CSI or CSI: New York or CSI: Bethlehem, well, David Fincher wouldn't want you watching his brilliant crime film anyhow, so just go back to dragging your knuckles on the ground and picking nits out of your hair.

Best bit
detectives interview the cagey and unnerving Arthur Leigh Allen

Iconic moment
the intensely creepy driveby in 60's suburbia, shadowed by fireworks

Worst bit
a late scene in a suspect's basement reeks of try-hard suspense

Best line
"Methinks our friend's a tad bit fuckered in the head."

Best performance
Mark Ruffalo's David Toschi; hard-arsed but haunted

David Fincher, who has crafted an elegant, and eerie, crime thriller

What would have made this better
probably just the removal of the basement sequence with Gyllenhaal, and not much else

What would have made this worse
if they'd tacked on a deliberately happy ending

Companion film
Dirty Harry, obviously

What to watch instead
if you're after a more straightforward, but equally brilliant, serial killer thriller, go for Silence of the Lambs

If you liked this...
you're awesome, and you should watch Fincher's Se7en (and if you've seen it, watch it again)

+ a superb recreation of 60's/70's America
+ uniformly excellent performances
+ utterly compelling, chilling, enthralling
+ doesn't take any easy (read: cheap) routes
+ treats the audience as intelligent
+ technically astonishing

- a couple of scenes ring false
- might be too long for some
- some of the murders are deeply unsettling (this might be a Pro if you're sick in the head)

Rating on the Andy Robinson/Scorpio killer scale of completely mental serial killers:

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson, Don Cheadle
Written by Justin Theroux
Music by John Debney

What the hell happened here? Iron Man was a genuine treat; exciting, compelling, innovative in terms of superhero films, with Robert Downey Jr the highlight as a spoiled, somewhat eccentric, but charismatic billionaire. The sequel is a bloated mess, with not even a fraction of the original's wit or excitement. We have a bunch of new characters, most who are only peripherally involved with the main drive of the film (which is pretty thin anyway, involving a weapons contractor rival, Tony Stark's heart giving out and other shit). The action scenes are distancing, not involving. And even though the CGI is pretty amazing for the most part, you don't end up caring what happens from one dumb fight to the next.

This looks really retarded but thankfully when it's in full-motion it's 4% less retarded

Chief of the film's problems is Marvel Studios' insistence on shoehorning this bullcrap about Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and some organisation called S.H.I.E.L.D. who wants to recruit Tony/Iron Man for some reason, and yet not. Or something. I don't really know, nor care, because it has no impact on the main storyline. It's so they can lead into the forthcoming Avengers movie, making Iron Man 2 more about advertising the Marvel universe than, y'know, making an ACTUAL FUCKING MOVIE for those of us who think S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for Shitty Humans Interrupting Everything Largely Decent. Most of us non-comic readers probably don't give a rat's arse about all this shit. And the references to Thor and Captain America? Again: WE DON'T CARE! All it does is take us out of the moment. It's like watching The Godfather and having Robert De Niro from Goodfellas turn up in the middle of the film saying how there's a bunch of mobsters planning a heist with Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and a bunch of others and how Marlon Brando and Al Pacino should totally join up with them and then leave it at that.

The story is all over the place. Sam Rockwell is surprisingly ineffective as the main villain. Scarlett Johansson as some S.H.I.E.L.D. agent whose name I forget and don't care about looking up looks hot in tight black pants and kicks people in the head quite well, but again her character is quite superfluous. Mickey Rourke is the only actor in this who surpasses the lame material he is provided; even the usually excellent RDJ fumbles with a character who is supposed to be amending his wild, childish ways but in the next scene flip-flops right back into those annoying characteristics I thought were supposed to be dispensed with in the first Iron Man.

Note to self: fire agent, do sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang instead..."

There's a lot of CGI-stuffed action for those who like boring scenes jerked out of a computer. Where the action scenes in Iron Man felt organic and real, most of the stuff in Iron Man 2 is so over-the-top and so inconsequential to the story (such as RDJ and Don Cheadle's fight) that we, the audience, quickly lose patience. Instead of one or two iron-suited baddies at the end, we get a whole horde of them who are surprisingly easily dispatched. *Yawn*.

Iron Man 2, along with Spider-Man 3 and Transformers 2, has to be the gold standard for the typical Hollywood overblown sequel: too much of everything stuffed into an otherwise simplistic story that fails to engage the audience, too reliant on CGI to smooth over the glaring flaws, with nary an actor able to save it, not only hugely disappointing, but bad enough to besmirch the legacy of the original.

Best bit
Whiplash confronts Stark on the Grand Prix circuit

Iconic moment
none I can think of other than Mickey Rourke thrashing his electric whiplashes about...pretty piss-poor selection, really

Worst bit
so many scenes to choose from, but I'd have to say the pointless, energy-sapping moments with Samuel L Jackson and all the malarky about S.H.I.E.L.D.

Best line
"I've successfully privatized world peace."

Best performance
Mickey Rourke in full-blown Russian bad-guy mode

cinematographer Matthew Libatique: Iron Man 2 at least LOOKS excellent

What would have made this better
remove all the Nick Fury/S.H.I.E.L.D. crap, cut out a lot of the characters, don't make Tony Stark such an annoying prick

What would have made this worse
ditch the Iron Man storyline and make him a background character to a feature-length film about S.H.I.E.L.D...yet still call it Iron Man 2

Companion film
presumably the companion films to this, as advertised by Marvel frigging Studios, is Thor, Captain America and The Avengers

What to watch instead
Iron Man, and pretend it's a standalone film

If you liked this...
you've fallen into Marvel Studios' trap

+ the CGI is mostly excellent (when it's not slapping you in the face with hundreds of Iron Man knockoffs)
+ the cinematography is very nice
+ Scarlett Johansson in a tight black outfit
+ good cast

- good cast, wasted
- overlong
- needless stuff about S.H.I.E.L.D. gets in the way of the main story
- references to other Marvel characters and forthcoming films makes this feel less like a movie and more like a two-hour-plus advertisement you payed for
- too many pointless characters
- unnecessary scenes that contribute NIL to the film

Rating on the Michael Keaton/Batman level of superheroicness:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Good poster, crap poster #2: Bank heists


You don't get much cooler than this. It's simple, eye-catching and effective, and evocative of Michael Mann's ultra-blue-tinged masterpiece. Plus you have Pacino and DeNiro together, which adds extra cred (until Righteous Kill came along, anyway). I'm not a huge fan of Val Kilmer being shoved in the middle there, but I reckon this still works quite nicely.

One of a few posters for Ben Affleck's excellent The Town, this one is probably the best of the bunch, even though I'm personally not mad keen on it (this is about GOOD posters, not brilliant ones). The shot from the film is intriguing, and the tagline is a strong one. Like the Heat poster, not so stunning you'd want to frame it, but it captures the mood of the film well.

This second one for The Town has the old "floating head" cliche, but the mood and lighting work well enough in its favour so that you don't mind so much.


I'm not sure if this third one for The Town is part of the studio's official marketing strategy or just a "teaser" poster, but either way it doesn't work. It's going for an "Angelina Jolie moody side shot from Wanted" look, but unfortunately ol' Ben can't carry it off, and the whole thing looks like it's been pasted together in a few minutes.

But, of course, that's a masterpiece compared to...

This one is particularly notorious around Photoshop "FAIL" circles, and it's clear to see why. Pretty much horrid on every level, from the lame tagline, the way the lighting falls on the actors' faces from all directions, the fact that the designer has obviously pasted heads onto other people's bodies (and in most cases, such as with Paul Walker, not very well) to the general crumminess of the concept. And that line down the bottom - "taking theaters soon"? Absolutely awful. They should stop doing that sort of thing: "hitting cinemas soon" and "smashing its way into theaters this fall" and all that. It's not clever, it's irritating.

By the way, I have no idea if this reflects the general quality or mood of the film itself, but based on this poster I have no desire to see it, and if it does, then I would assume the film Takers is a Heat-wannabe with actors' heads CGI-ed onto other actors' bodies, with a script that is a humongous pile of shit.

This second one for Takers is somewhat better, but that's like saying stomach cancer is better than bone cancer. And it still has Hayden Christiansen's awful headwear:

And what are those cops aiming at? Why does one look like he's taking a dump in his pants?

Review Listing


Apocalypse Now (1979)











Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Machete (2010)













Zodiac (2007)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Directed by Simon West
Starring Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, Daniel Craig, Iain Glen, Chris Barrie, Noah Taylor
Written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman
Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin and Colin Wilson
Music by Graeme Revell

It really wouldn’t have been that hard to make this a decent adventure film on par with something like The Mummy. After all, no one was expecting an adventure on par with Raiders of the Lost Ark. But something Mummy quality, even The Mummy Returns? Sadly for all involved, ingredients seemed to be in place, but something got screwed up along the way.

Mr. Brittas was not at all pleased with the "new" Whitbury Leisure Centre

The ridiculously-proportioned Lara Croft was the star of a popular series of video games which apparently got crummier as the series went along. The games were basically an excuse to attract the lucrative teenage boy market and create a boom for one-handed controllers. In the lookout for a new viable film franchise, the makers decided that the complex storylines and deep characterisation present in the original...ah, whatever. For two hours, they figured they'd put a pair of tits on screen and count the money that rolled in.

Like I’ve said, the ingredients seemed to be there. You had a character which should translate nicely from game to screen. The simplicity of the source material made it perfect for an adventure romp. They have a perfect lead for Lara Croft in Angelina Jolie, who does her best but ultimately the retarded story, the idiotic MacGuffin (a mystical triangle) and some dumb choices hamstring the film. The action scenes aren't too badly staged, but the makers decided they couldn’t have Croft shoot any bad guys or kill them directly. For example, instead of Croft going all Chow Yun-Fat on a bunch of baddies and emptying a bunch of clips in their heads, they have her shoot something that drops a weight on their head, or she incapacitates them with some object within reach. For God’s sake, just let her shoot or stab someone! Obviously they wanted to get a PG-13 rating for the US market, but for crying out loud, Indiana Jones gets to shoot and stab and maim people in his series, so why not here? Is this some sort of discrimination thing? It’s okay for Indy to shoot people, but not a female adventurer? Thankfully, this annoying issue was dropped for the sequel.

The three stars of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

It’s a shame because the potential is there. Jolie is great in the lead role, and let's be honest, without her this film would have been nigh-on unbearable. It's nice to see Daniel Craig in an early role, but the main bad guy is a bit of a wet fish. Sure, there are far better action films out there, but if you want to waste two hours I guess you could do worse.

Best bit
for the lads, Jolie's shower scene; for the I mention Daniel Craig is in this?

Iconic moment
if anything I guess there's a shot of Jolie with her dual pistols in there somewhere

Worst bit
the statue warriors are pretty naff

Best line
"I woke up this morning and I just hated everything!"

Best performance
has to be Angelina, without whom this would have been a very sorry film indeed

again, Angelina Jolie virtually saves this dud

What would have made this better
more actual TOMB RAIDING, cut out the robot and the statues, make the bad guy more memorable, and let Lara shoot people for God's sake!

What would have made this worse
replace Angelina Jolie with Lindsay Lohan

Companion film
presumably the sequel The Cradle of Life until the remake comes out

What to watch instead
any of the Indiana Jones movies, even the fourth one

If you liked this...
catch Jolie in Wanted, a far superior action film that at least has a sense of humour

+ Angelina is a perfect Lara Croft
+ some half-decent action scenes
+ some of the cinematography is quite nice
+ um, that's about it

- too much CGI crap
- the main villain is weak
- stupid story and a lame MacGuffin
- Lara seemingly can't shoot people

Rating on the Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones level of grumpy-but-lovable adventurer: