2016.81: London Has Fallen (DVD)
“Nothing. Bugs the shit out of me.”
“Fuck. They’re not real cops.”
“God damn it, Mike.”
“Fuck. Comms are down.”
“How bad is it?”
“Its pretty goddam bad, sir.”
“Its a fucking bloodbath. How did they do it, Mike?”
“They only have to get it right once. Today they got it right way more than that.”
“I never thought you would outlive me.”
“Do me a favour? Stay alive. You gotta see your kid. Make the fuckers pay.”
“Aamir Barkawi. This man is responsible for more deaths than the plague.”
“I’ve never seen a man suffocate before.”
“I didn’t have a knife.”
“How many you think died?”
“I don’t know. A lot.”
“All those innocent people. Dead. Because of me.”
“No, not because of you. Because of them. They’re trying to kill you, sir. And they’ve killed all of those people just to make everyone else a little more afraid. Well, fuck that and fuck them!”
“What if you don’t come back?”
“Where we going next, Mike?”
“Embassy? You said they’re expecting that.”
“They are. But we are shit out of options.”
“Central London. Right under our bloody noses. Tell SAS that we’re gonna make a house call.”
“Look, we can’t let you come with us, mate.”
“How many times have you saved this man’s ass? Now, I’m gonna go get him, and you can either kill me, or you can come with me, but it ain’t gonna go any other way.”
“You don’t understand. Its their base of operations. There are nearly a hundred terrorists in there.”
“Yeah? Well, they should have brought more men.”
“Things are going to get sporty. Watch your balls.”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“Yeah. Wish me luck.”
“I won’t justify your insanity to make you feel better about yourself.”
I don’t know if this film has the worst dialogue of any film I have ever seen, or if its deliriously brilliant action movie gibberish. Either the film is the worst thing I have seen in weeks, or the towering summation of where the action movie has been going for the past decade. Or maybe both. I don’t know. I’m frankly in a daze. Astonishingly stupid nonsense.
Then again, in the real world we are currently facing an imminent election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and one of those two is soon going to be the president of the United States. No wonder people enjoy the comparative safety and reassurance of films like Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen. At least in the movies, the president is an honest heroic good guy with principles who is handsome, handy with a machine gun and not averse to shooting the bad guys himself. People enjoy the fairy tale more, I think. No wonder a third film in this franchise is in the offing.
2016.80: The Last Days on Mars (Network Airing, Film Four HD)
The Last Days on Mars isn’t a terrible film by any means, its just badly flawed and hampered by a thin script, poor editing decisions and the fact that its missing what should be its first reel. That aside, considering its low budget it looks pretty terrific and remains fairly impressive visually even compared to Ridley Scott’s rather more handsomely-budgeted The Martian of a few years later.
In the failing hours of a six-month mission on Mars, the second manned expedition to the Red Planet starts wrapping things up in anticipation of the long journey back home. The mission has been successful but is still deemed a failure by one of the frustrated science leads as no evidence has been found of life once existing on the planet. However, one scientist notices some tantalising clues in some of the extracted soil samples and in an effort to presumably claim the discovery for himself (why?) sneakily goes out on one last excursion pretending its forced on him due to faulty sensors at the dig site. His attempt for scientific immortality goes terribly wrong however when in the midst of his euphoric confirmation of life on Mars a tremor opens up the ground beneath him and he plunges to his death, whilst unleashing alien microbes upon the rest of his team that turn his corpse and that of his victims into, er, Space Zombies.
Okay. It sounds terrible.
The thing is, so much wrong about this film was easily fixable. Take that missing first reel. Part of the genius of Scott’s earlier Alien is its slow build-up, the first forty-five minutes spent introducing the characters, the dynamics of their individual relationships, the space of the Nostromo and its hardware. By the time they land on the alien planet and the shit hits the fan, we know who they are and where they are and the mechanics of it all. We don’t have that in The Last Days on Mars. We are thrown into the events not knowing who is who or the mechanics of their mission (it later transpires they are waiting to be ‘picked up’ rather than launching on a rocket themselves). We don’t understand why Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) is acting a bit oddly and isn’t looking forward to the trip home, or why Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) is such a bitch, or why Capt. Charles Brunel is so weak-willed (Elias Koteas getting so typecast now as such hopeless leaders we just know everything he decides is just plain wrong).
Just twenty minutes spent with them in the base beforehand, explaining their relationship dynamics and the mechanics of their mission and timeline for getting home would have benefited the film immeasurably. There is a reason why the first important scene in Alien (and likewise in Sunshine) is a communal meal in which the banter of the crew sets everything up.
Instead we are launched into the crisis almost immediately, something intended to be gripping but ultimately just proves confusing. We don’t know anyone or what they do. We don’t understand why there are two habitats or that they are linked by subterranean tunnels. We don’t understand where the base is compared to the dig site or where the pick-up location is or when it is due. Thanks to clumsy editing we don’t even know why Campbell keeps having odd visions of a spaceship (they are actually flashbacks to a claustrophobic attack on the journey to Mars, but I didn’t work that out until much later- for most of the film I thought they were visions of the future or messages from the aliens or something).
It doesn’t help that these characters are such lousy astronauts who can’t obey commands or keep their cool and ‘work the problem’ in NASA tradition. If any one of these guys suffered the fate of astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian they would be dead within a week. They are stupid and selfish and emotionally strung-out; maybe they were intended to be like the working-jock space truckers of Alien but they should instead be trained astronauts on a billion-dollar expedition.
So the film has its moments, but most of the time its painfully frustrating. It could have been good. After all, the cast is pretty high-profile for the most part and they could do much more with better material. In the end its all just a pretty vacant, dumb b-movie about alien bugs on Mars turning people we don’t care about into Space Zombies. It might have been more fun had it looked a bit more low-rent akin to the old Hammer movies; as it is, its a competently-shot, overly-serious film hampered by a weak screenplay needing much more work in an impressive-looking but frankly vacuous sci-fi/horror movie. In a way, its a bit like a modern-day Space:1999. Bit of a shame really. We need more competently-made, low-budget sci-fi films like this, but ones with great ideas, not the stupid stuff usually reserved for the big blockbusters that use spectacle and bombast to get away with it.
Space Zombie Martians. Ugh.
But the Max Richter soundtrack is pretty good- deserves a better movie infact.
2016.79: A Hologram For The King (Amazon VOD)
A Hologram For The King is a midlife crisis story, and your mileage for it might depend on your affinity for Tom Hanks and feel-good endings. I really enjoyed it, which rather surprised the old cynic in me. Part of it is likely down to the casting of Tom Hanks- his onscreen persona, defined over so many years now, leads you to have an instant liking for any character he plays in a film (I still say he’d make the most shocking and great Bond villain someday). You are almost predisposed to root for his character in this film from the very start.
The start, too, features the films highlight- a sequence in which Tom Hanks’ character, American salesman Alan Clay, appears in a mock-pop video singing Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime, the visuals and lyrics succinctly summarising his characters midlife crisis. Its unfortunate the film never surpasses that arresting first sequence.
A middle-aged failing businessman, recently divorced and unable to pay for his daughters college fees, Clay is in the figurative Last Chance Saloon on a business trip to Saudi Arabia to sell his bosses IT project (involving the holograms of the title) to the king. Naturally the film is about the crises he faces (amongst other things, he has a nasty lump in his back which may prove cancerous) and the strange characters and situations he encounters in this foreign land, while reminiscing about his own life and failures. “Do you ever feel you might have done it differently?” he asks himself and others. His doubts are reinforced by his own fathers rather scathing opinion of him ( a great, if rather brutally short, cameo from Tom Skerritt), and there is a sense that the failing here is not just of Clay but of the American Dream itself, with the American Empire suffering from Globalisation and the transfer of Economic power and wealth to Asia and the East. There is a sense of a Changing Of The Guard, of a transient world, and Clay is a little figure caught in it, as are we all.
So its very much a film of its time. Its interesting though to compare it to The Swimmer, in which Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill has suffered his own midlife meltdown following a divorce and subsequent career failure. The Swimmer is a much darker and fulfilling affair, lacking any real redemption for its protagonist. A Hologram For The King in comparison feels much more lightweight and rather suffers for having a happy ending almost out of left-field, in the form of a romance with his doctor and a fresh career opportunity in Saudi. A Hologram For The King gets away with it because, well, we all root for Tom, he’s a nice guy after all, and the film is, well, always lightweight and fairly comic.But its a vindication for Clay that feels a little too Hollywood, knowing how grimly some people suffer on the wrong end of the American Dream. A Hologram For The King feels fluffy, whereas The Swimmer feels ‘real’, with something genuine to say about the 1960s America it was made in. I’m not sure, ultimately, what A Hologram For The King is really saying or how that will resonate over the decades, but it is pleasant enough and is carried by Hank’s genuine charm.
2016.78: The Witch (Amazon VOD)
The Witch is a superior horror film but also a divisive one. There are a few jumpy scares, little gore- its not THAT kind of horror film. Instead its really more about conveying an ever-deepening sense of dread. Its a beautifully-shot film dripping with mood and atmosphere and slowly rising terror, but the slow pace, and lack of defined ‘evil’ (or even ‘good’) seems to have alienated many. Modern audiences don’t seem to handle ambiguity or invitation to interpretation very well. For myself, well, I absolutely adored it, and was then quite dumbfounded to learn of so many negative opinions of the film, so much so I wondered if I had seen the same film. Of course I had- indeed the very same things I loved about the film, the archaic old English being spoken, the attitudes and behaviour of characters of their own time, the slow pace, the sense of unsettling mood and the utterly unexplained horror that befalls the characters, all the things I loved, were the same things that detractors hated in their comments/reviews. Shockingly, some people even walked out of screenings during the films cinema release.
Dubbed A New England Folk Tale, according to the title screen at the start of the film, it tells the story of a 17th-Century puritanical English family who have moved to the New World. Banished from their settlement due to some undefined dispute with the Church Elders, the family set out into the unexplored, untamed wilderness and build a homestead and farm near some wild woods. Several months after settling there, the youngest child -scarcely a baby- is mysteriously taken by some vague supernatural figure (‘the Witch’ of the title) and suffers some awful end in a bloody rite.
The family, ignorant of the supernatural presence looming in the depths of the nearby woods, simply think the infant has been snatched by a wolf and are consumed with guilt as if this tragedy has been brought about by Gods judgement of them. As the crops fail and other maladies befall them, this sense of guilt and self-loathing intensifies and the family start to turn on each other. In tone it feels like Kubrick’s The Shining mixed up with elements from all sorts of European folk tales (the Witch raises from her lair looking like Red Riding Hood at one point). It looks bizarrely ravishing in a grey, dreary, monochrome way, and sounds utterly horrifying (an unnerving soundtrack of period instruments coupled with wailing reminiscent of György Ligeti’s atmospheres in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Its a nightmare of puritanical guilt, a family consumed by their faith and religion, the darkness of their wild surroundings settling into their hearts, as if the land is itself turning upon them. Is it actually a Witch terrorising them (she never speaks, or has her actions explained, and is only fleetingly glimpsed) or is it simply the Puritans own guilt and self-loathing manifested in the shadows, externalised into something that truly only exists in their minds?
Based on all sorts of folklore and memoirs, it hearkens back to real history, of settlers in the New World struggling through the horrors of famine and disease and child mortality,the brutal testing of their Faith eventually culminating in tales of Witchcraft (and the resulting Salem Witch-trials ).
The characters all seem very real; they are of their time, never really behaving or reasoning things out as modern people would (hence the frustrations, I expect, of some audiences). Its a reminder that most period films are simply transposing modern people into historical tableau- something simply not the case here. The sense of place and time is utterly convincing; the period details are rich and seem authentic, and some of the imagery is quite amazing (and very disturbing). Its a genuinely unsettling, really gripping horror film and one of the best films I have seen this year. I’ll cautiously recommend it as I can appreciate its rather divisive, but crikey, what a horror film. It really gets under your skin (well, it did mine anyway, and I’ve been endlessly thinking about it ever since I saw it.)
Angels & Demons (2009), Blu-ray
Hmm. What exactly was this film about, exactly? Some Irish priest who wants to usurp the Catholic church for Reasons Unknown and become the Pope by stealth, murder and intrigue? Or was it about some scientific discovery regards the ‘God Particle’ and how its existence proves and/or disproves the existence of God? Or is it about an assassin hired to kill four cardinals in elaborate fashion on the hour every hour as a distraction from a massive bomb nuking most of Rome and the heads of the Catholic Church? I ask because I think its all of the above, but I’m not entirely certain. Whatever it is, it finally collapses into complete farce with the bad-boy priest seizing control of a convenient helicopter and flying the bomb into the heavens in an act of saintly sacrifice, only to conveniently parachute down from the massive explosion and certain Popedom, until hero Robert Langdon discovers a handy secret camera confirming the imminent Pope is really a James Bond villain in the wrong movie.
Yes its the elaborately nonsensical sequel to The Da Vinci Code (although the book is actually a prequel as it was written first, but… well, never mind), and like that film this is a fiendishly staged and competently structured thriller that eventually unravels under the weight of an increasingly preposterous plot. Until its final twenty minutes it might even be a better movie, as its race-against-time story does have some measure of tension and mystery until everything is finally revealed to be shockingly stupid.
Its the fascinating thing about the Dan Brown books, their popularity and that of the films- its like everyone’s Dirty Secret. They are utter tosh and we know it, but we read them and the films become some kind of Modern Event, complete with major star actors, major league director (Ron Howard) and talented crew behind the scenes (the visual effects are convincing and spectacular). The films are made with such sincerity and conviction its almost heartbreaking when you realise the crass stupidity of it all.
In the end, although this film has its fans I do think the first film is the superior of the two (the ending with the helicopter is just a step too far for me, although the book is actually even dafter as I recall). The conspiracy behind The Da Vinci Code is just too seductive and enjoyable compared to this films strange arc of Catholic politics and fiendish murders. I’m still not certain if these films are just silly fun or horribly insulting.
We’ll spice up this October Horror fest with a bit of body horror, and no-one does body horror quite like David Cronenberg. So its another welcome slice of the unwatched Blu-ray pile with last year’s Arrow release of Videodrome finally getting put in the player.
In much the same way as Field of Dreams always seems to me to be the perfect Ray Bradbury movie, though he never wrote the story it was based on, so Videodrome always feels like the definitive Philip K Dick story. Okay, PKD never dealt with deviant sex or body horror in his stories, but Videodrome’s faltering sense of reality and perceptions of time and self, and its dysfunctional every-man hero, seems to be pure Philip K Dick. As chief protagonist Max Renn’s reality disintegrates you’re never sure what’s real or what isn’t, increasingly hallucinatory sequences twisting reality so far that, for much of the movie, the viewer is questioning everything he sees and the nature of reality itself. Indeed, one of the characters, Brian O’Blivion, is actually dead, only existing on hundreds of videocassettes in a sort of virtual existence: what could be more PKD than that (memories of his Mercer-ism from his story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep spring to mind)?
Decades after its release, the film remains a visceral experience, tactile in its analogue horrors (fleshy, ‘breathing’ videotapes and CRT televisions), compared to the digital-streaming world we live in today. There is something cosy and familiar about the old technologies of my youth, loading cassettes into top-loading video players, video drop-outs and tracking errors.Its also incredibly prescient too, with television ‘lives’ more ‘real’ than reality, predating celebrity culture and having hundreds of satellite/cable channels- back when this was released, the UK only had four channels and I don’t believe any of them were 24-hour transmissions, either. Feels like a different world.
Tim Lucas in his commentary track refers to a circular element of the film that was new to me- he describes the final shot of Max shooting himself in the head being followed by the start of the film with Max waking up in his apartment, stirred back to reality by the voice of his assistant’s wake-up message on his television. Its a new interpretation of the film to me and quite a seductive one. A very-noir horror, Max caught in a never-ending loop of hallucinatory reality. Videodrome is still a startling, strange and mystifying film, and James Woods is utterly brilliant. Great stuff.