The Horrible Truth About Transformers 4…

t4$1,087,404,423. That’s the horrible truth about Transformers Age of Extinction– the tenth most successful film at the all-time box office (notwithstanding adjustments for inflation). A film so poorly written and directed, so cynically produced, and yet so hugely popular with the global audience- if we consider the movie business to be just that, a business rather than an art form, then it has to be said that Transformers Age of Extinction  is a huge quantifiable success (and yes, further proof we truly get the films we deserve). That huge figure -yes, I’ll type that sum again, $1,087,404,423- doesn’t include satellite/cable sales or DVD/Blu-ray sales or indeed the merchandising, so the true tally that it earns Paramount and its partners is higher still.

I can understand the ‘wow’ factor of the ILM special effects for the first film or two, but getting into the fourth film, I’d have thought that the pull of those effects would have lessened somewhat, so what else could be getting all those bums on seats? A fresh and invigorating take on the series, bold writing, realistic characters and drama? Well, that’s hardly AOE. Is it rather the pull of the familiar, the masses killing their spare time with more of the same big and loud tedious nonsense? The relative ease marketing sequels rather than something new? The fourth film may have dropped the cast (the human ones at least) of the third film but that was, it turned out, a hollow, even cynical  promise of a fresh approach to the franchise- indeed it was really just more of the same tedious nonsense of the first three. Its all about the money, and if the first three films taught the studio anything, making a decent movie has nothing to do with making money at the box office. Make it simple. Make it loud.

In truth, there is something reassuring in the figures. AOE grossed slightly less than the third entry in the franchise worldwide (which totalled $1,123,794,079) but domestically in the US the drop was much more pronounced (Dark of the Moon‘s $352,390,543 versus AOE‘s $245,439,076) so there may be some Autobot fatigue settling in Stateside. What saved the fourth film was the foreign sales ($841,965,423, nearly 80% of the total gross) which indicates how important the global market is these days. It also indicates the foresight (or cynicism) of setting the last section of AOE in China- its more about selling the film than any artistic merit/reason in locating the film abroad. We may be soon getting more Hollywood epics featuring Aliens invading Asia or Europe rather than landing on the White House lawn.

The final horrible truth about AOE? That $1,087,404,423 makes a fifth film in the series inevitable.



Ex Machina (2015)

machina1To be clear, there’s no shocking twist or surprise in Alex Garland’s wonderful Ex Machina, but I’m hesitant to review it in any great detail as its one of those intelligent sci-fi films that is best experienced for the first time with as little prior knowledge as possible. Whether you are going to see it at the cinema like I did or wait for the Blu-ray, its best to avoid any details so I won’t divulge any, except to say its very smart, well-acted, beautifully shot, a very gripping story about both technology and gender. Yeah its a must-see movie really. But I’ll leave the reasons why its a must-see movie for awhile yet; maybe wait for the Blu-ray release in a few months time.

(…and it only cost $15 million to make, apparently. If only all sci-fi films could be made that way.)

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction (2014)

trans4Best film I have ever seen. This was all so amazingly cool, there is nothing as awesome as giant robots and big guns and explosions, and this one has some really awesome explosions. This one guy, he gets caught in an explosion and turned to charcoal or something, like, frozen in midstride, still smoking and everything. Thats so nasty, and he was a cool dude too, he had a surfboard or something on the roof of his car. But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself, because the beginning of this film, oh man, BEST BEGINNING OF ANY FILM EVER! Spaceships and dinosaurs man!

See, the film starts with this huge space fleet flying over the Earth, and then there’s dinosaurs, so I figure, wow, we back in time, dudes, never expected that, so these spaceships turn up, and start BOMBING THE GODDAM DINOSAURS! Hell yeah! Bloody big explosions dude! So I’m thinking, wow, so THATS what made the dinosaurs extinct- they were NUKED BY GODDAM ALIENS! That Mike Bay fella is some kind of genius, goddam that’s some creative shit.

trans4bThen we are back in present day and my man Mark Warlberg turns up. He fixes things in his big barn, like a mechanic or something, and I figure right away, man that’s a really useful skillset if any giant robots need a repair. And then, pow, there’s a beat-up old truck in an old cinema. Now this made me really suspicious, like, who parks a truck inside a cinema? And whadya know, but this truck is full of bullet-holes and shell casings and my man Mark takes it home and- well,lets be frank, that dipshit Shia LeBoof fella wouldn’t know a wrench from a ladle, he wouldn’t have a clue what to do but Mark, he’s The Man. So he fixes this truck up and BAM! well you could knock me down with a duck feather its ONLY OPTIMUS PRIME! Man what a twist, I never saw that coming, I mean, I figured something was up but yes sir, its Optimus himself.
trans4dNow I pride myself on being a cine-ocultist, you know, one of those fancy smart cinema-savy experts like you see reviewing movies on the tv, so it takes something special to catch me unawares but I got to tell you, this Transformers 4 had me pinned to my armchair the whole way through, and I wasn’t even watching it in no 3D neither. It twisted and turned until I couldn’t tell you what the hell was going on, except that it was real loud and shit. Turns out that psychologist guy from tv is a government heavy who has used his psycho sorcery to brain-wash the good folks of America into believing that Optimus and his kin are bad guys. Wow that is some low down dirty trick to pull on a bunch of God-fearing patriotic robots who have saved us in films one, two and three of the trilogy. I couldn’t tell you the number of times the Stars and Stripes were flown high and proud in those movies, and this Frasier dude has the temerity to claim our heroes are UNAMERICAN? Oh man, I damn near threw my bud at the tv screen a few times, let me tell you. Gets so bad Optimus threatens to leave Earth, OH NO, I shouted, (aint ashamed to admit, I had tears in my eyes). DON’T GO OPTIMUS! WE NEED YOU BUDDY!

See these Government jerks are making their own giant robots and well, like any other jackass Government project they done messed it up and made a whole load of bad robots, hell, not only that, but the damn jerks, they’ve only rebuilt MEGATON himself! How stupid is that? Yes sir the big bad ass Darth-Vader-In-A-Leather-Seated-Chevvy himself. Oh man that Mike Bay fella must be the greatest moviemaker alive he even manages to throw in Robot-Dinosaurs too! And they’re on OUR SIDE! Well, to be honest I think they are actually Chinese, but fairs fair, they see Optimus in trouble and they step up, yes sir. Optimus rides in like John Wayne, bless him, sorting out the bad robots in this huge battle that’s so realistic I have to admit I lost track of what was going on, but that’s what war is like, man, its hell and you never know where the next bullet is coming from (or in this case flying robot lizard). Its crazy shit and Bay never falters from telling you The Way It Is, you just got to sit back goggle-eyed and let the carnage flash by in front of you. trans4eThe one good thing is it aint American soil getting burned this time, thank the Good Lord, its just some place in China called Kong Kong or something. Optimus and his boys save the day but not without The Man, yessir Mark himself stepping up the American Way with a big-ass alien gun. Damn fine shooting from my boy Mark, but I expected nothing less. By the way, his daughter is hot, hot, hot. Such interesting and talented women in these Transformer films.

I aint never seen three hours fly by so quick, it was all a blur, infact I had to have a lie down afterwards I had such a huge bloody headache from the noise and all the twists and turns of the fiendish plot. Dare say those liberal bleeding-heart fancy pants in Hollywood won’t give this film the Oscars it deserves just ‘cos they don’t get no parts in ’em. I only hope Mr Bay makes a fifth film in this epic trilogy as fast as he can ‘cos I cannot wait to see what happens next. I think next time he should make two at the same time so we get even more robot action and twice the explosions and he can make twice the money. These Transformer films never get old, best films ever made, absolutely- I absolutely loved this movie.

Out of the Past (1947)

out2Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has spent the past three years running a gas station in the small Californian town of Bridgeport, where he dates a local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) to the disapproval of her parents and the local sheriff who is sweet on her. Its a quiet, small-town life, one broken when someone from Jeff’s past turns up in town, pulling him back into his old life and the troubles he thought he had left behind. The only person Jeff can confide in is Ann, so on a late-night drive to a rendezvous with his past, Jeff relates his story to Ann. Jeff’s real name is Jeff Markham, and he was once a private eye in New York. He was hired by gangster Whit Sterling (a charmingly threatening Kirk Douglas) to track down a woman, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer in the definitive femme fatale role). Kathie had shot Will and left with $40,000 of his money- Will wasn’t bothered about the money though, he just wanted Kathie back; “when you see her, you’ll understand better” Will told Jeff. And when he does see her, he does understand. And at that point, he’s doomed.

out1Out of the Past is one of the very best film noir, but deceptively so- indeed, it starts like any other 1940s melodrama, so much so you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching the wrong movie, with bright scenery of the sierras and idyllic small-town life, complete with gentle music score. Its quite the opposite of, say, Double Indemnity, another classic noir that instead wears its noir credentials from the very first titles.  Its only when Jeff relates to Ann the truth of his past that the film’s visuals turn towards the traditional nightmare dark of noir, as it relates in flashback the events that led to Jeff hiding away in Bridgeport. When we finally first see Kathie, as Jeff tracks her down to Mexico, she just looks like any beautiful woman, maybe even an innocent victim. There is a subtle ambiguity to her- when some noirs would frame her in shadows immediately revealing her true nature, Out of the Past prefers to suggest she may indeed be a victim. We have no idea, just like Jeff, that this woman will be his doom. Greer is simply astonishing as Kathie; beautiful, exuding innocence and sexiness at the same time, Kathie will do anything to survive, even fall in love, only later throwing greed and treachery into the mix.

out3Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as Jeff- I’m not a big fan of Mitchum, but his real-life laconic, laid-back reputation bleeds into his onscreen persona well here, ignorant of the trouble he is in, always thinking he has a way out, a trick to play, yet always falling back into the mistakes that ultimately seal his fate. When he falls for Kathie he thinks he’s in control. His over-confidence is in his eyes, his smile.  At the end he realises he has no escape, his character finally reaching the stature of noir hero. What starts as a simple romantic melodrama slowly darkens into a labyrinthine plot of lies and double-crosses and deceit and murder; its fascinating to see this film turn from romantic melodrama into a completely different movie and earn its reputation as a classic film noir. Out of the Past is a very, very good movie. How strange to think I’d never seen it until now. Looks like that unwatched pile still has plenty of surprises…


Vampire Circus (1972)

vamp1Have to admit, its a hell of a title for a movie. These days I suspect people come up with titles like that and only then do they go about writing a script for it. But I dare say the story or idea came first in this case, followed by the title later. I mean, this is Hammer, they shot these horror films almost by routine. Even for Hammer, though, Vampire Circus is a thoroughly nasty film. You can tell it was made at a time when audiences had had enough of implied horror and instead wanted it graphic and sensational. Its funny, as when I was a kid the Hammer films seemed pretty graphic but watching them again decades later they are really quite tame, which actually affords them some longevity. They work as horror films by holding back, the viewers imagination doing the rest. By the time Hammer’s later output came around,  people didn’t want to ‘work’ at their horror films any more, no longer wanted to use their imagination to fill in the grisly gaps. This was a new decade, the ‘seventies, and horror films were going to get gorier and nastier, eventually leaving Hammer behind. Vampire Circus, like other Hammer films of the time (Twins of Evil, The Vampire Lovers etc) was Hammer trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, and unfortunately it means losing some of the gothic charm and atmosphere that makes the earlier Hammer films so great. The rich gothic ‘look’ of the Draculas and Frankensteins was out, as was the gravitas of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, instead replaced by lots of gore and nudity- no longer was the horror and sex implied, instead its fairly graphic (for the time anyway). The funny thing is, these days (younger) horror fans find much to enjoy in Vampire Circus– they might find the older ‘classic’ Hammers old-fashioned and tame, and instead Vampire Circus more to their tastes- indeed, Vampire Circus seems to be widely appreciated these days. Each to their own I guess.

vamp3The weird thing is,I can imagine a remake of Vampire Circus being a huge success. The story isn’t too bad at all, the problem with the film is really in its execution-  the film is a little clumsy, a case of Hammer not really succeeding at making a non-Hammer movie. The production is too small; the shooting schedule obviously too ambitious and the cast not always right for their roles. In earlier Hammer films, some of these faults could be forgiven by the class acting of, say, Peter Cushing, the smart character-driven direction of Terence Fisher and the rich gothic visual charms of the films. But Cushing is gone, Fisher isn’t directing and the gothic look has been dropped in favour of being more ‘modern’ and graphic.

The film begins with a child abduction, in which the horror is quite palpable as the father searches the woods for his daughter who has been led away by Anna (Domini Blythe), one of the women of his village who, it turns out, is having an adulterous affair with a vampire Count. Anna has been taking children to evil Count Mitterhaus ((Robert Tayman) so he can feed on them. This whole pre-titles sequence is very effective and horrific; Vampires feeding on children is a pretty bad low, and a wife and mother willing to facilitate this for her own misguided love affair is pretty monstrousvamp4. But its undermined in execution- Tayman is a pretty uncharismatic Vampire, lacking any kind of sex appeal. Blythe is great as his lover/servant, though once the sequence is over we don’t see her again, her part being taken by Adrienne Corri as Anna eventually returns in some kind of magical disguise. This being a mistake to me, as though Corri is fine enough she suffers in comparison to Blythe, and it breaks any continuity with Anna’s character.  More on this in a moment.

The villagers rise up at this latest child abduction/murder and attack the Count, eventually killing him and burning down the castle. Prior to his death though the Count dispatches Anna to find his cousin so that he can be returned to undead life again. Again, this sequence is staged rather awkwardly- we’ve seen it before in Hammer films and indeed done better than this. The problem might be that this is all still in the pre-title sequence, and you could likely make an entire movie out of this material. We have no involvement regards the villagers or the evil Count or indeed the motivations that drive Anna to such a despicable act. Better for this whole sequence to have formed the first half of the film- indeed, I think that would have made the second half more effective and involving. As it is, the majority of the film concerns events fifteen years later, when a circus arrives in the village. It is of course the Counts cousin, Emil,  setting up a chain of events with the magically-disguised Anna, a tale of revenge that involves killing more children in order to bring the Count back from the dead.

With the overall story in mind its clear that the most interesting character in the film is Anna. Here is a woman cheating on her husband by having an affair with a vampire, actually feeding her lover children from her village. A woman/mother actually doing something like that, its an horrific but fascinating situation ripe for investigation. When her vampire lover is slain she embarks on a quest to bring him back, enlisting other vampires and returning to the village years later to wreak bloody revenge upon them. Its a hell of a storyline, and had Blythe played her throughout, and the film given her the central role the character deserved (was she hypnotised by the Count, wildly in love with him, or just plain crazy?) then it might have been a great film. I’d have preferred a film with forty minutes showing how Anna has fallen for the Count, betrayed her husband and fellow villagers, shown her arranging the deaths of a number of children from the village and only then had the village uprising. That would have left forty-plus minutes to show the vampire circus arriving and the vengeance against the villagers, finally thwarted with Anna’s death .A different movie I suppose, but one I would love to see.

tiger1As it is, the film has its moments, including a strange and surreal dance between Emil and a naked woman in tiger-paint. There is also a double-act of two Vampires that look like reject Elves from LOTR who leap about transforming into bats in mid-air or something. You get the sense that the film-makers were trying to stretch the traditional Hammer format and style, but it doesn’t quite work. And while it may be foolish to criticise a Hammer film for not making sense, some things bothered me nonetheless- Emil is a Vampire, but also has the ability to transform into a panther. A big bloody black panther. The transformation is done quite effectively really, but it rather confused me that this didn’t seem to concern the villagers- if I saw a panther suddenly change into a man I think I’d be screaming for the hills myself. The villagers just applaud; I guess they are supposed to think its all an illusion or something, I don’t know. But its certainly one of those WTF moments that break the movie. Considering that they were terrorised by a vampire years before, I think the villagers would be a bit more jumpy about any odd goings on. Besides, since when did vampires turn into jungle cats?




The Man in the High Castle (2015)

Times Square, 1962… but not as we remember it. Welcome to a New World….

I’ve just watched The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime; its one of the contenders in this year’s Amazon Pilots programme where several tv-pilots are streamed and viewers can vote for which pilot to go to series. Well I have to say if this one doesn’t go to pilot I will be appalled. This show is extraordinarily good and deserves a series, if only because of the mother of all cliffhangers that the pilot concludes with (man, that’s one horrible cruel tease if this show doesn’t get picked up).

For those not in the know, The Man in the High Castle is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award-winning alternative history novel. The Allies lost World War 2 and the Germans and Japanese have divided up control of the United States. Its a remarkably dark vision of a fascinating and horribly plausible world, and its one that is incredibly well executed in this pilot. Written by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) and executive produced by Ridley Scott, I hoped it would be good, but didn’t expect it to be so utterly brilliant. Hell, they had me at the title sequence- the use of the gentle song “Edelweiss” being sung over chilling images of an alternate past in which America has been defeated and occupied by the Axis Superpowers.

man1The show is beautifully constructed and shot- one of my only worries is how expensive this show was to produce, and how that may effect the eventual decision to go to a series. I think its clear though that if this does go to series, then Amazon have moved into a whole new ball-game of production.

Set in 1962 and full of bizarre retro charm (imagine setting Blade Runner in 1962); it looks like some kind of twisted dystopian episode of Mad Men, with Nazi’s walking New York streets and Japanese police patrolling San Francisco. The scale and detail is breathtaking, making it one of the most interesting and engaging things I have seen on tv in years. So many questions are raised and the possibilities of a full-series run are mouth-watering.

So if you have Amazon Prime, get watching this as soon as possible and be sure to score it accordingly afterwards. This really needs to go to a series. Me, I’m going to watch this show again and soak up all the details, see what I missed first time around. Great show.

The Contradictory Runaway Train (1985)

runaway1I confess to being rather nostalgic whenever I see the Cannon Films logo animation/fanfare music before the opening credits of a film. Most of the films were very bad but its still a particular period of films that I can look back at with fondness. Usually they carried the kind of bad-but-cool action film vibe that The Expendables movies aspire to. One-note movies starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris, say what you like about them, you usually knew where you stood with their films and their no-nonsense kind of indie film making. Cannon were masters of the b-movie, so bad their films, looking back, appropriate the definition of cool that Tarantino has to work at achieving but for them was perfectly natural.

Runaway Train is that rarest of things- a good Cannon Films movie. Granted, it has many of the staples of  a Cannon production; dodgy acting, stilted scripting, limited production values. The scenes in the control room, in particular, are painfully bad with poor dialogue and rotten acting from all involved (or are stunningly realistic/down to Earth, I’m not sure which) . The scenes on the train are much better, if only because they centre on the films main plus-points, the fabulous leads, but much else of the film feels staged and awkward. Part prison escape movie, part action movie, part nihilistic journey into oblivion, its a strange mix. Maybe that’s due to it being based originally on a Japanese project (a script by Akira Kurosawa, no less), or it being directed by a Russian (Andrei Konchalovsky) with his nation’s own particular sensibilities, and being produced by a company renowned for its simple exploitation fare.  Yet the film also has these great iconic performances by its two main stars, great effects (practical and miniature) and a multi-layered script bordering on art house level sophistication.

runaway2There are all sorts of contradictions regarding Runaway Train.  A particular fascination is the dangerous convict Oscar `Manny’ Manheim (Jon Voight). Here is a far deeper and nuanced character than might be expected in a film like this. Manny is a  man simply born out of his own time, reminding me of Esau Cairn from Robert E Howard’s Almuric. A hero to his fellow prisoners and a dangerous, savage criminal to normal society, Manny always seems at war with the world around him- he has the manner of a wounded animal hitting out at everything. At the start of the film he has spent three years welded to his cell, a convicted bank-robber in a bitter feud with the prisons sadistic warden Rankin (who is actually dedicated to seeing Manny dead, ideally at Rankins own hands). And yet there is a scene later on the train, when Manny tries to persuade fellow-escapee Buck not to waste his life in criminal activities, but to instead get a job – even the lowest and most menial of jobs. Buck, aghast at the notion, asks Manny if he could do that and Manny sadly replies, despairingly, “I wish I could.” Manny knows he is not that kind of man, but he wishes he could be. Instead, the runaway train is hurtling Manny to his oblivion, and by films end Manny is finally at peace with that, embracing it as he races through the Alaskan wilderness. Suddenly an exploitation prison-escape movie has become a work of poetic grandeur, complete with soaring Antonio Vivaldi music. Its an utterly brilliant transformation.