The Sweeney (2012)

sweeny1The 1970s tv series The Sweeney is a part of my childhood (the music at the end was like a dreadful dirge that signalled bedtime and another day at school sadly looming). At the time The Sweeney seemed a very raw, gritty police drama in which, alarmingly, the criminals sometimes triumphed. I guess if I watched an episode today it might seem quite tame, but this movie version didn’t really ‘feel’ like that show I remember. It seems too slick, too polished somehow. Maybe I’m remembering it wrong, but the 1970s were pretty grim and the show reflected that, whereas this movie version feels just a little too polished and clean- no doubt reflective of how London has changed (much like comparing the 1970s New York of Taxi Driver to the city of the modern day). It also all too clearly shows the influence of tv shows like The Shield and films like Heat, particularly the latter, as it features a shootout and pursuit on the streets of London very reminiscent of the one featured in Mann’s opus. In this one bullets fly everywhere but no-one seems to get hurt other than a few civilians (the cops might as well be stormtroopers out of Star Wars for all the good they are at shooting down the three bad guys). Indeed this film feels more The Shield and Heat than it ever does The Sweeney, like its having some kind of identity crisis. Rather more ill-judged is the score, which seemed to have been transplanted directly from Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack. Its fine but overly familiar, as if thats the kind of Hans Zimmer-inspired muzak that is expected in films today; frequently it just feels odd and out of place and robs the film of any real identity of its own.

The film has a few other problems. Ray Winstone’s Jack Regan is an utter bastard- its hard to empathise with a ‘hero’ so terribly flawed. He’s corrupt for one thing, stealing away evidence/money from a crime scene at one moment and then shagging the wife of one of his superiors the next (the age difference and lack of chemistry between the oafish Winstone and the bombshell Hayley Atwell is also an issue the actors never surmount). At odds with authority figures Regan is portrayed as a dinosaur doomed in the modern police force, but whilst in some films, like the Dirty Harry series for instance, we might root for our hero, in this one such empathy seems impossible. WInstone is perhaps too successful at being a complete bastard; likely its not his fault, he’s perhaps just too efficient at the character. He just needs reigning in;  it needed a more delicate touch or something in the script to open up his character- an error of judgement of the director perhaps.

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Coffy (1973)

coffy1There’s really not much to be said about Coffy. It begins with her snarling “This is the end of your rotten life, you motherfuckin’ dope pusher!” immediately prior to literally blowing the head off said dope pusher with a sawn-odd shotgun, and ends with her shooting her cheating boyfriend in the groin with the same shotgun. Coffy is a force of nature, and played to perfection by the great Pam Grier, an actress who really deserved better parts and better movies…. unfortunately she was black in 1970s America so Coffy remains her greatest role (that said, I guess great parts for black women in America today can still be considered pretty rare).

Its fascinating as much as it is wildly entertaining. Yes, its a blaxploitation movie, a somewhat derided genre, and this film is typical of so many of them- violent and littered with nudity- but there’s a quality to it that beggars many contemporary films, some decent characterisation and wily political observations. Coffy herself is a remarkable character, a nurse by day and avenger by night, she is clearly traumatised by her vigilante deeds. She isn’t a confident, experienced killer- she’s making it up as she goes along and spends as much time getting out of trouble when the odds are (often) stacked against her as she does plotting her revenge on the bastards who clearly deserve it. She gets cut and bruised and hurt, a clear departure from so many action heroes who triumph with nary a scratch. Most interestingly, she is beautiful and sexy and she knows it, using her body as much as her shotgun to get what she wants. As a heroine, she remains rather special and unique; no doubt a hugely empowering example for women at the time, I got the feeling watching this that were it made today it would still cause a huge storm. Hell, I doubt it could even get made at all these days.

coffy2Pam Grier is simply magnificent- very beautiful, and, yes, rather voluptuous, she carries a warmth and fragility that complicates what might have been just another typically badass gun-toting character. She’s also a strong woman at ease with her sexuality and how to use it to get her way in a man’s world. I’m sure many women cheer out loud when she dispenses her justice on her deserving creep of a boyfriend. Its easy to see why Tarantino cast Grier in Jackie Brown– and indeed I’m certain that Coffy must rank as one of his favourite movies, as it has clearly inspired so many of his own.

 

Midnight Run (1988)

mrun1Midnight Run was very popular at my home back in the late ‘eighties when it surfaced on VHS rental.Its a great, very funny road movie, with much of its humour derived from its many f-bombs scattered throughout in a way you just never saw on broadcast television, where most films aired in family-friendly, watered down tv-versions. It was the beauty of video rentals back then; other than going to the cinema, it was the only way of properly experiencing films (pan and scan notwithstanding, but of course, none of us had widescreen televisions back then). Yes you could see violent films, and gory films, that would never surface on television back then, but you could also hear salty language that Auntie Beeb wouldn’t dream of assaulting the innocent Brit masses with, and Midnight Run has so many f-bombs. There was an almost guilty, knowing pleasure in hearing all those profanities- and particularly so in such an otherwise warm, pleasant comedy. The film is a deft, charming road movie and character piece with a warmth and emotional core that still rewards decades later. Must say I’m relieved at that. There’s nothing worse than re-watching a film after many years and discovering that its just not as great as I remembered. I hadn’t seen Midnight Run in ages until this Blu-ray release from Second Sight here in the UK, and there’s always some trepidation…. but yeah, its great. It still holds up. The cast is great (perfect performances throughout) the script is sharp, the pacing perfect and the jokes still funny. Its been nigh on 25 years since those heady VHS rental days but its still holds up as well as it ever did.

True, the Blu-ray itself may not reach the heady heights of quality that an Arrow release might, but it looks much better than the VHS and later DVD copies did. Maybe the typically ‘eighties film-stock and soft-focus photography don’t help much, but it looks fine. Sometimes the quality of the film shines above all and such is the case with this.The extras are no slouch, either.

mrun2I may be being somewhat unfair to Robert De Niro, but I have always felt that Midnight Run was pretty much his last great movie. Prior to it, he was known as a magnificent dramatic actor, bringing such an intensity and perfection to every role, and Midnight Run was a big departure for him at the time. I guess it was an indication of where his career would be going, as he chose more mainstream parts. Before, he took roles that could only have been delivered by him; afterwards he turned up in roles that most any actor in Hollywood could have taken. Most everything he did (okay, there’s the odd exception) seemed a pale shadow of the distant glories of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Godfather 2… maybe there’s an argument that films in general were a pale shadow too, De Niro’s artistic wane reflective of the roles within them, I don’t know. Anyway, the fire was apparently gone (there’s an argument that its really about age and De Niro’s fire/enthusiasm for extreme roles ebbed as he matured) and the one-time superstar acting genius seemed to become just another jobbing actor hustling for the bucks. Is there anything really wrong with that anyway? I don’t know. But yeah, always felt this was his last really great movie- its a foolish comment considering some of the films that would yet follow, but anyway, I always felt that way.

Whatever Happened to Paul W S Anderson? – Pompeii (2014)

pompeii_movie_2014-t2Paul W.S. Anderson- I quite liked his Event Horizon movie. Sure, it was a b-movie that was blatantly obvious regards its influences (it was mostly part Alien, part The Shining, amongst others) but it was pretty effective. It looked great, had a few genuine jumps and scares, had a great sense of mood and dread. It marked Anderson as a genuine talent, someone to watch. Well, so I thought at the time.

Alas, he never quite lived up to that, and has never -in my mind at least- come even close to replicating what he achieved with Event Horizon. In hindsight, maybe that film was an indication of what lay ahead, because while he may be technically proficient he’s like a poor-man’s Jim Cameron, with the same lack of writing skills or originality to give his films that extra spark, but lacking the ability of Cameron to marshal huge budgets and production values to hide those faults. I still return to Event Horizon– I bought the DVD, the Blu-ray…. I still find something rewarding in it. Its like an Alien sequel that we never had, in that its almost emphatically set in that same Alien universe (perhaps more so than Scott’s own Prometheus funnily enough). As if Fox was daring enough to think Alien films could be about horrors other than the titular Alien (if only Hollywood were ever that brave with franchises, eh?). I’m a fan of Event Horizon, but regards Anderson’s subsequent films, I always hope for the best but suffer the worst, and only ever watch them once. Once is always enough, and I face each successive film with ever mounting apathy.

pomp2So here we have Pompeii, and sadly it lives up to every cliché you could imagine- even for an Anderson picture, this one’s on Autopilot throughout. Its not that its bad, its just so blatantly obvious regards what it is, so patently lazy in its disregard of trying to be anything new or original. Akin to Olympus Has Fallen being a Die Hard movie in all but name, Pompeii, is, well, its Gladiator, complete with its hero being stuck in the arena with a personal grudge against his Roman masters (even to the point of avenging his family), and its Titanic, its star-crossed lovers from different worlds doomed to find love amidst some larger disaster (replacing an Iceberg with a volcano in this case). Its simply no more than its original pitch to the studio “hey- Gladiator mixed with Titanic! Can’t fail!” and if that wasn’t the pitch to  the studio, if the scriptwriters just put the damn thing together and sold it as something original, then more shame on them.

Tpomp3he sad thing about director Anderson is that he apparently hasn’t moved away from the Event Horizon method of making his movies- in the absence of any original ideas, just combine two or more earlier movies to make something ‘new’ (“DNA recombination”, as a certain Dr.Tyrell would put it). Its okay to start your career like that but to maintain your career like that? Maybe Anderson needs to start working with a  new producer, one able to promote new ideas, search for new properties. Maybe Anderson just can’t get anything else greenlit other than something with a simple pitch like ‘Gladiator meets Titanic’. I hate the word ‘competent’ but thats just what Anderson is- he’s a competent director. He can handle set-pieces, effects, can work well with actors, handles technical productions. He just needs something new to channel his abilities into. I was certain, years ago, that he had it in him, but now I’m not so sure. In his defence, maybe its more to do with how Hollywood works these days, and what films get greenlit, rather than Anderson himself.

Pompeii is just lazy and tired with an ill-judged concept from start to finish. You watch it feeling sad for all involved (there’s quite a cast marshalled here for such a poorly executed script). There’s clearly a great film in the central premise about Pompeii and the disaster that befell its people, something dramatic, heartfelt and tragic, something touching and valid regards the human condition and our fragility in the face of Nature, our place in the world, but this isn’t it- Pompeii and its fate seems almost incidental to the entire enterprise, which is shocking really; it might as well have been an alien invasion that totalled the city in this film for how cartoon-like it seems with its overblown cgi and stunts. No character feels real, nothing ever raises itself above the mundane and familiar and predictable. One to avoid really.

The Raven (1963)

raven1Watching The Raven is a delight, but I must confess it hardly feels like a proper Edgar Allen Poe movie. In a similar way to how The Haunted Palace was really a H P Lovecraft story posing as a Poe story (bookending the film with Price reading passages from Poe’s poem The Haunted Palace to maintain its place in the Poe series of AIP films by Roger Corman), I got the feeling that Price reciting lines from Poe’s The Raven, and then diverting into something else entirely, was a way of launching it into some other literary territory. This time it wasn’t Lovecraft but another of his Weird Tales contributors, Clark Ashton Smith, that was the inspiration.

Or maybe not. I’m not aware of any specific leanings towards CAS being admitted by the films creators or mentioned in the films credits. I doubt that the films screenwriter Richard Matheson ever admitted to it or likely even intended it, but Matheson was obviously aware of the writings of Clark Ashton Smith so there is a suspicion that its possible. I may indeed be barking up the proverbial wrong literary tree, but it just feels very much like a CAS story.He wrote such wonderfully rich, powerfully vivid stories of sorcerers and magic, that The Raven‘s central theme of three extravagant rival magicians, played with such scenery-chewing aplomb by horror thespians Price, Karloff and Lorre, seems to somehow channel the spirit and vitality of CAS’ prose so well, intended or not.

The obvious problem for any movie based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem The Raven is that there is little cohesive narrative to it- certainly not enough to fill a movie. Richard Matheson solved the problem by using the poem simply as a starting point for the film; not only that, but he dropped any leanings towards any horror implied by the title or by the film being part of Corman’s Poe series of films, by instead turning it into a comedy. And it works- it just doesn’t feel, as I stated earlier, authentically ‘Poe’. Perhaps it was turning it into a comedy that lost ‘the Poe’, but Clark Ashton Smiths stories certainly had plenty of macabre humour, and the subject matter echoes some of his writings.

But all this may be utter tosh and hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, as The Raven is a hoot, whatever its literary origin/influences. You just have to be in the right frame of mind, as it can be rather disorientating early on, if you are expecting a serious horror film and find yourself instead watching this strange comedic tale. Its one of those weird films in which nothing seems real, the characters behaving very oddly indeed.

The cast in particular is a joy, and includes a very young Jack Nicholson which seems quite bizarre, in a ‘was he ever really so young?’ sort of way (all the time I have known of him he always seemed middle-aged onwards re: The Shining, Batman etc, so much so that seeing him so young, and so, well, heroic/innocent/non-crazy in this does seem weird). Indeed Nicholson’s casting, considering his fame afterwards, in such a minor role in what is obviously a very b-movie production just makes the film seem more nuts than intended, somehow. Chief delight though are the great actors chewing up the scenery, hamming it up with the warm Matheson script (and ad-libbing and improvising like crazy when they aren’t, apparently). It looks like the film was just great fun to be involved with when making it, and its infectious too- by the midway point, whatever misconceptions you may have had, you can’t help but get carried away with it.

It is, to be sure, daft 1960s hokum, like the Batman tv series or the campier episodes of Star Trek. As opposed to Hammers more serious Gothic horrors of the period, these Corman films always had a West Coast, Rock and Roll, ironic sensibility and none more so than in this film.