The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

deaddontHere we go, another zombie flick- do we really need another? Well, I liked the setting, and its offbeat, rather kooky feel, which was a little like a Zombie Twin Peaks. If that sounds great to you, then its possibly worth a watch- it certainly appealed to me; oddball characters in a rural, remote setting, there was a lovely mood there. But it doesn’t hold together. The weird thing was, the gentle, almost affectionate tone of the place (“Centerville”) and its laidback characters (this film has a great, albeit terribly wasted cast- Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover etc), seemed quite at odds with some of the grisly, graphic gore, feeling rather like two different movies.

The problem for this film was, if it was a comedy, it wasn’t particularly funny; certainly amusing rather than hilarious, and if it was intended to be a horror film, well, it stumbled throughout. In all honesty, it has all been done before: Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead was both more knowingly arch regards commentary on zombie flicks and also much funnier, while George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was far better with the social commentary. Director Jim Jarmusch is rather heavy-handed here with the zombies returning to favourite old haunts and habits of when they were alive, commentating on consumerism and waste – its fine but it was old years ago, and Romero was much more subtle with it. 

I was also confused by some of the plotlines, as characters seemed to come and go- three children, for instance, escaping from a zombie-infested child detention centre find a house for shelter and aren’t returned to again, its like the screenwriter forgot them and left that arc completely hanging. Other characters are followed for awhile -the three ‘Cleveland Hipsters’- and then we find later them dead, their grisly fate occurring offscreen which may have seemed an arch commentary on horror tropes but just left me feeling… not frustrated exactly, but so many of the cast are just thrown in and then wasted. And I’m still not certain there was any point to Tilda Swinton’s creepy funeral director turning out to be samurai sword-wielding alien who calls a flying saucer to come pick her up. 

In the end, I was left wondering “why?”, you know, what was the point of the whole thing? There’s certainly some reward from the kooky feel of the place and the characters but its all quite wasted- I suppose its a case of the director not really being the right guy for this particular genre mash-up. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else Jim Jarmusch has directed, but I gather his background is more arthouse, indie material than this kind of thing: I suppose how this turned out would be akin to someone like Terrence Malick making a horror film or a sci-fi film- an intriguing idea but not necessarily resulting in a successful movie. Maybe Dan O’Bannon was more of a genius than anybody gave him credit for. 

The Dead Don’t Die has recently arisen from its box-office grave and shambled onto Netflix here in the UK. Possibly worth a shot at Halloween, maybe.

 

The Boat (2018)

tboat2This film is so easily summed up (one can imagine the pitch): Stephen King’s Christine (one of my favourite books, growing up) out on the ocean. A fisherman, ‘the sailor’ (Joe Azzopardi) gets lost in dense fog, his small boat literally bumping into a luxury yacht in the murk. The fisherman calls out but nobody responds, and after tying his boat alongside, he explores the vessel and discovers the yacht is abandoned. Mystified, he moves to return to his own boat but finds it has become untethered and drifting away in the current, trapping him on the yacht. Convinced someone must be onboard after all (how else to explain his knots becoming undone), he sets on another search but again, he finds no-one. But he’s not alone.

Strange accidents and occurrences happen and it becomes clear that this yacht is a bitch (like Christine) or a bastard (like the truck in Duel) out to kill its unwelcome new crewman. Yep, the yacht is possessed; its presumably killed its previous occupants and the fisherman is next. The fog clears and, marooned on the yacht he tries to commandeer it and head for shore (wherever it is, as he realises he is lost out in the ocean and the radio doesn’t work).

Its a simple idea and at times a very involving character piece, but it struggles to maintain its premise for the length of a movie, labouring its concept (a section of the film with him  locked in a toilet cubicle inside the hold of the ship is more interminable than it is tense). I did like the film though. Its really haunted (sic) by too much familiarity to other books and films, but it certainly feels like it could be a great Stephen King novel that he has yet to write. I felt a little cheated that our lonely hero doesn’t find an old logbook which might possibly explain the mystery a little (which itself might have formed a flashback to help fill the running time, but that’s possibly where budgetary issues raise their head).

Stephen King didn’t just show how bad Christine was, he explained it, or at least suggested an explanation- The Boat leaves its evil yacht a mystery; call me a cynic, but I rather suspect this was a deliberate move by the film-makers to leave room for a prequel or sequel. How very post-Millennium.

Predator (4K UHD)

pred4kIts easy to forget, as time rolls on, just how wild and special the 1980s were for those of us growing up back then, and just how bloody good films were (I’m conveniently ignoring turkeys like Howard the Duck, admittedly, to make my point, but…).

Even ignoring the glorious summer of 1982 and its own remarkable crop of genre classics, we were graced with two Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Terminator, Robocop, The Abyss, Die Hard, Tim Burton’s Batman and so many others. We had Arnie, we had Sly, crikey, we didn’t know how good we had it: and I’m often surprised just how well so many of those 1980s films hold up still, all things considered, and are often clearly superior to all the remakes/reboots/sequels that they have been mined for over the decades since by an increasingly imagination-bereft Hollywood. Maybe films back then benefited from their photochemical, technological limitations, which grounded them in ways that contemporary films fail to be.

Case in point: Predator, a film which arguably looks better here on 4K UHD than it ever has, in a pretty gorgeous presentation: plenty of grain, yes, but also a delicious ‘pop’ graced from some of the highlights through HDR with a pleasing sense of depth and tactile reality. I rather felt like I was watching it for the first time, back in the cinema again. Of course, the image quality is only the icing on the cake: the film itself is a high-testosterone, gory and over-the-top majestic action spectacle, a high-octane b-movie. Tautly wound, it doesn’t waste a moment and its a magnificent example of Arnie in his absolute prime. Actually, I had to double-check the year Predator came out, because looking at Arnie’s physique in this film -he’s pretty huge- reminded me so much of his 1982 Conan The Barbarian (how dearly I’d love to see THAT in 4K) that one could be forgiven thinking he’d made Predator directly after that John Milius sword and sorcery epic.

I’d forgotten just how good Predator is though. Its simply glorious stuff, even the cheesy, 1980s-at-their-worst stuff feels like a breath of fresh air after the last several years of anodyne Hollywood blockbusters. Stogie-chomping Duke (Arnie) and old war-buddy-in-a-tie Dillon (Carl Weathers) can’t say hello without flexing their biceps for a contest of physical prowess. Jesse Ventura chewing up the scenery along with his beef jerky. Big guns! Big explosions! Boy this film is loud. The glorious Alan Silvestri score that reminds just how great movie scores could be, and how much we’ve lost with what they have lately become. By the time Arnie yelled “Get to the Chopper!” I howled with joy and high-fived my wife. What a ride this film was in 4K. Absolutely thoroughly enjoyed it and there’s no better way to experience it than in this new 4K incarnation.

Army of the Dead (2021)

army1Zack Snyder’s return to the zombie genre is as loud and dumb as anyone could have hoped for or feared (some people love this stuff, like some guilty pleasure) – I just wish it could have been more tense. Its the one thing that’s quite unforgivable about this film – the utter lack of any tension. There really isn’t any. In a zombie movie. Its violent and gory but it isn’t in the slightest bit scary, there simply isn’t much of any sense of threat- possibly because the core set of characters are so by-the-numbers and familiar that we don’t really care about any of them. I swear the woman who doubles as Aliens‘ Vasquez, from wardrobe to final death, it is so obvious its a wonder James Cameron isn’t knocking on Snyder’s door for a credit, but we’re past the point now that genre fanboys feel more clever about spotting these ‘homages’ than they do feeling pissed off at yet another bloody call-back to a better movie. They’ve even got a ‘Company man’ who pulls a double-cross and a rooftop escape that is thwarted by the transport having fled early… (oh no we’re screwed, its not here its gone no wait no its not, here it is we’re saved) yeah they even pull THAT Aliens gag, I’m almost surprised they didn’t use James Horner’s music cue.

Once the action starts and the deaths start to mount up, we’re watching almost passively, utterly uninvolved. Its like everyone involved got obsessed with the technical stuff- the visual effects, the stunts etc- that they (and I guess when I write ‘they’ I’m really referring to Snyder) forgot the script. And the characters. And yet this thing is about 150 minutes long. 

Its style over substance. Nothing new there, its Snyder after all. Its competently shot and generally looks pretty great, with some quite arresting moments, but its so dumb and predictable. Its such a shame. Technically, Snyder is some kind of genius, he has this eye for this kind of stuff that can’t be denied, and he’s marshalled a team of excellent production designers and make-up artists and visual effects teams, and the premise of a zombie-infested Las Vegas as the setting for a violent heist caper is some kind of genius, especially when you can throw in a certain few Elvis Presley songs. But where’s the tension, where’s the scares, where’s the surprises? Why all the familiar genre tropes and nods to earlier movies?

Not a crushing disappointment but nowhere near as good as it might or should have been. Snyder desperately needs someone standing at his shoulder whispering “hey, hang on, lets think about this for a minute…” but at this point in his career that’s apparently long gone now. Studios get a lot of beef for interfering with creative visions but with Netflix its surprisingly routine for projects to suffer from the creative teams having too much freedom, and such is the case here. But hey, its a popcorn movie.

Corruption, anyone?

corrHmm, latest announcements from Indicator include this 1968 horror/thriller starring Peter Cushing that I’ve never heard of. Well, they had me sold at Peter Cushing. Is it wrong of me to be more excited about a special feature (“The Guardian Lecture with Peter Cushing (1986): audio recording of an interview with the legendary actor recorded at the National Film Theatre, London”) than I am the film itself? I’m such a film geek sometimes I embarrass myself.

I have no idea what the film is like (if you have, feel free to educate me in the comments), but the fact its one of Indicator’s slipcase editions with an 80-page book of essays etc would suggest its worth watching. But really, they had me at Peter Cushing, anything with that gentleman in is worth watching in my book. Well, it comes out in August so I’ll have to get my pre-order in over the next week or so when my wallet allows (I haven’t yet pre-ordered the sixth Hammer box that Indicator keep teasing me with). Damn it, every time I try to put a hold on disc buying… (“Just when I thought I was out,  they pull me back in!” as Al Pacino once said).

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)

t2bpI fondly remember Train to Busan, it was Die Hard on a Train (with Zombies!), and there was a point early on in this film, in what turned out to be a prologue before the main plot proper, when I thought that this film was going to be Die Hard on a Boat (with Zombies!). I figured that zombies would get loose on the big boat of refugees sailing to freedom and that, trapped on the ocean for three or four days in its race to salvation, it would be a claustrophobic thriller with lots of story breaks/crises (the engines are on fire! We’ve sprung a leak! Zombies in the Lifeboats! etc). In hindsight that might have been construed, possibly rightly so, as a lazy sequel, a very minor twist on established formula as most sequels are. Maybe the film-makers for Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula should be praised for trying something different, for upping the scale and having some ambition – essentially what they have done here is a similar trick to what James Cameron did with Aliens following Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic, more intimate original. Unfortunately though its possibly too much of a departure, because this film has lost most of what made the original so great.

I suppose this is the danger of coming into a film blind having no idea what to expect other than, er, lots of blood and zombies. I just didn’t expect it to be quite so much of a departure from the first film, especially when all of the changes leaves the finished production such a crushing disappointment.

So its not Die Hard on Another Train or Die Hard On A Boat; indeed its not Die Hard at all. This is more Escape From (a Zombie-Infested) New York/a (Zombie) Road Warrior/Fury Road and on that level, of some bizarre self-indulgent genre mash-up, its almost fun. Diminish your expectations and settle for a low-rent John Carpenter-inspired flick and I guess its really quite enjoyable. Well, it would be if it didn’t feel quite so much like watching someone playing a videogame. There is so much CGI in this film, particularly in the Mad Max-inspired chase through a zombie-infested city, that it rather degenerates into a cartoon; Final Fantasy: The Zombies Within maybe. The night before I watched Baby Driver and thrilled to its real-life car chases and stunts, which really put the woeful CGI here into sharp relief and all the worse for that comparison.

Maybe its the sheer scale of the thing, having so much CGI (at some points it looks like a Sin City-style greenscreen movie) and thus the sheer number of shots forcing the quality of it all downwards – it happens all the time, you’d think film producers would have figured by now that Less is More. The best films heavily reliant on CGI effects struggle to maintain credibility, here its quite beyond them, the physics and weight of most of the vehicle shots quickly degenerating into videogame nonsense and the CGI zombie hordes soon quite boring rather than anything threatening. Its a shame; if they’d just left it as an Escape From New York-inspired heist film trying to rob a bank in a zombie-infested/criminal militia-run city, a kind of Apocalypse Now journey into zombie heart of darkness, it could have been intense, thrilling, scary.

This film is everything but scary. Maybe that was largely true of the original, too but that film at least had thrills and tension. Instead this has a crazy grandpa, blubbing kids, a morose wooden hero… and lots of shades of other, better movies. Not a terrible movie but not far from it really: biggest sin of all is how much it looks like one of those FAQ/Walkthoughs of videogames one sees on YouTube. Movies should be more than that.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

promPromising Young Woman is almost a horror movie- or its a horror movie posing as tragi-comedy; its a curious mash-up that works very well. It’s hamstrung by a plot that forces a few too many coincidences and unconvincing plot twists but on the whole its quite good. The central performance of Carey Mulligan is fine enough to forgive the film’s stumbles, on the whole, even though I fear she’s possibly a little too old or maybe too perfect- I don’t know, there’s something a little ‘off’, but again, that’s possibly less Mulligan and more the scripts contrivances, that leaves the film feeling less ‘real’ and more wish-fulfilment female power fantasy.

The central premise is that our Promising Young Woman (there’s actually two of them, but one is already dead when the film starts, mourned and obsessed over by the other) Cassandra (Mulligan) is fully aware that all men are bastards but remains open to being convinced otherwise (albeit always disappointed). Well, all these bastards must pay, and Cassandra’s the girl to cash them in, like some feminist American Psycho. She frequents nightclubs late at night pretending to be so drunk she’s almost about to pass out, a sure-fire target for predatory males to lure home and take advantage of (well okay, rape) – the males of course are in for a shock when she ‘sobers up’ instantly whilst they are up to no good, and while she doesn’t physically harm them (at least as far as we see)  she does ensure that they are aware of the errors of their ways. 

The film is basically a revenge flick and a reckoning for men who see women as just sexual objects – Cassandra’s ire being from her best friend, Nina (the other Promising Young Woman) who was gang-raped whilst blind drunk when at college whose rapists (male students) went unpunished, the shame and injustice/guilt of it all driving Nina to suicide. So when the perpetrators of that said assault cross paths with Cassandra by almost random coincidence a chain of events is set in motion, an almost deliriously far-fetched rape-revenge saga that is saved by a pretty amazing (‘did they just do that’?) twist that totally saves the film. 

Some women will feel empowered, some men will feel distinctly uncomfortable, which is possibly the point of the film. I was annoyed by the plot contrivances, really, some of which felt cheap and lazy, frankly. But its not a bad film by any means, again, saved by some of the performances. I just get bugged sometimes- its fine I suppose at showing some people at their very worst, but ironically like many American films, when its showing people at their very best, it fails to be really convincing in how they act, how they relate, speak and verbalise their thoughts. A few times watching this film I asked myself ‘do people really talk like that?’ and scenes just failed to convince. Which I suppose is doubly black regards this film as dark satire, in that I can readily believe in the bad guys but not the good. What does that say?  

Anti-Life (2020)

antiThis was hilarious, its utterly bizarre that people are still hellbent on ripping off Alien all these years later, and doing it so ineptly. Everything in this film was so diabolically poor- the awful script, the wooden/cardboard sets, the woeful CGI… its like a masterclass in how NOT to make a sci-fi film and looks worse than any fan-flick that might surface on YouTube. It would be embarrassed by most student films, I’m certain (if it WAS a student film, I’d suggest the film-makers change career paths and go work in a grocery store instead).

But the film was also disturbing- what in the world are Bruce Willis and Thomas Jane doing in this rubbish? Being in this film must be the absolute nadir of both careers and I cannot understand their thinking, appearing in something as bad as this must be some kind of laughing-stock in the industry that could only harm their careers and reputation. Considering the budget this film must have had – something in the region of 1970s Doctor Who, by the look of it- I cannot imagine they appeared in this for the money. Okay, Willis has been slumming around for years at this point and never fails to amaze me how deep he can dig the hole his career is falling into (Willis spends the film sniggering and taking sips from his hip-flask like he KNOWS he’s in something akin to Plan 9 From Outer Space– maybe he thinks in fifty years this thing will be deemed somehow cool for being so bad), but Thomas Jane? He has his detractors but he’s surely better than this (The Expanse must seem so faraway). 

I honestly think this film has no rights being released, in my opinion its quite un-releasable in the state its in with no redeeming features at all. Nothing works on any level – I haven’t seen anything quite as bad as this in a long, long time. You’ll note I haven’t mentioned anything of the plot. I’m not sure it really had one, and if I were to jot it down here now… well, I’d be spending more time on this post than this film deserves.

Streaming services like Netflix (how I watched this film) are so desperate for new content they will buy and stream ANYTHING and this film proves it. Its like any kind of quality control has been dismissed for the sake of having something, anything, new and Willis being attached to it is just another example of the cynicism behind rubbish like this. Films like this make me despair at the where the film industry and artform is going, now. There used to be a time when you had to have talent to be able to make films, but that isn’t the case these days. Seems any idiot can write and direct and produce a film now – they don’t even need an idea, they just need a DVD collection they can rip off (sorry, ‘homage’).

Anyway, that’s quite enough. Its past time I started trying to forget this film exists. 

 

 

Later by Stephen King

laterHaven’t read a Stephen King book for awhile, but this one was recommended by my brother and hey, by Stephen King standards this thing is practically a short story, running just under 250 pages which absolutely fly by. It has none of the padding and excess that weakens so much of Kings work- he’s always been a great writer in desperate need of a good editor in my opinion but there’s no such problems here; this book is tight and concise and pretty much has all Kings good points and few of the bad.

It also finds King on very familiar ground, with shades of his own The Dead Zone and The Shining and, as commented upon in the story itself, the Brice Willis film The Sixth Sense (I suppose one could describe this as King’s own spin on the latter). The main character is a child who realises he can see and speak to the recently dead, a ghoulish talent that finds surprising exploits as he grows up. Its probably assisted by being published as part of the Hard Case Crime imprint, which is dedicated to pulpish crime potboilers and therefore the book is not being essentially sold as a standard Stephen King horror yarn. I actually kept on expecting the crime element to come more to the fore when it really doesn’t; its there but not as much as the cover painting might suggest.

As a piece of pulp horror in the guise of a crime potboiler its really, really good, and as I have noted its brevity is perhaps its best asset. Its so easy when reading this to imagine King going off on a tangent or two and spreading the same storyline over 600 pages or more but thankfully he doesn’t, although perhaps the endearing main character and the clever premise might have some of Kings hardcore fans wishing it was indeed a 600-page opus.

My chief concern with the paperback edition I read was some bad proof-reading, as there are some pretty glaring typos that really should be unforgivable in this day and age- or is it rather indicative of how books are electronic files these days and such things are somehow easier to creep in (when I would have thought the opposite was true)? I just find them very irritating- there’s a few instances of sentences missing words, breaking the syntax although when reading it your brain will likely fill in the blank, hardly noticing (I grimaced at one and asked Claire to read the paragraph and she didn’t even notice it until I showed her- which is an interesting point perhaps regards how our brains work when reading).

I’ll not go into the plot or its twists/developments as they are the rewards of reading the story. Suffice to say this is a great little read that doesn’t out-stay its welcome, I really quite enjoyed it. Wouldn’t surprise me though if it turned out to be the start of a series…

Secret Behind the Door (1947)

secretdoorAfter what must have been several months or longer, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the fourth and last disc in Arrow’s unimaginatively titled ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ Blu-ray set that I bought last year. This last film was generally regarded as the weakest of the set and I have to agree, although it does have its plus points. 

Secret Behind the Door is a noir from consummate visual stylist Fritz Lang, who was no stranger to the genre and later would direct The Big Heat, the Indicator release of which a few years back blew me away and a film I would count amongst my very favourite noir. Secret Behind the Door is nowhere near as good as that later classic, but it does sport some absolutely top-notch visuals. There are a few shots that are amongst the best of any noir I’ve seen- shots that are framed in a particular way, and so consummately well-photographed with lighting and shadows in selected areas, that tell the story wholly cinematically without any need of narration or dialogue. Visually we see everything regards how characters relate to each other, body language, their positioning relative to each other within the frame, the scaling, lighting… really quite arresting stuff that is sadly let down by a script that borders on the implausible and then jumps off the cliff into the frankly bizarre.

Its perhaps some testament to Lang’s skills as a director and control of the medium that he manages to hold together the film for as long as he does. By the end of the film we’ve somehow passed from dark romantic drama to murderous noir to Roger Corman’s Poe horror territory and somewhere beyond before landing with a terrific thud back into the land of ridiculous romance. I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, to be honest. 

Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) is a beautiful New York socialite who seems to have finally decided she’s spent too long carefree and single and its time she found the right man: in this case the safe choice of an old friend,  Bob Dwight (James Seay), who works with her wealthy brother. Dwight is besotted by her and is eminently dependable but its clear she doesn’t love him- he’s simply a safe choice. Before she acquiesces to his advances however she goes off on one last vacation/adventure, this time to Mexico where she finds a man who strangely excites her like she’s never experienced before; tall, dark, handsome magazine owner Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). In just days they marry, but moving to his mansion home near New York she suddenly discovers that not only was Lamphere married, he also has a son and a household full of strange characters including a dominating elder sister and a fire-scarred assistant.

Possibly strangest of all however is her new husband who acts increasingly odd and unhinged, soon revealing his pastime of adding a wing of rooms to his mansion in which famous historical murders of wives by their husbands or lovers took place, a chamber of horrors if you will, but the final room, behind door number seven, remains mysteriously locked and whose contents he refuses to divulge. Something to do with his recently deceased wife, of his new wife perhaps?

Clearly this is a psychological horror dressed up in noir tropes: certainly not an unlikely combination at all and as I have noted, it visually wears its noir stylings spectacularly well. It simply drips noir in most every shot- deep shadows, surreal lighting and framing, exaggerated angles and backlighting accentuating mood and tension. Unfortunately Redgrave doesn’t convince as romantic lead or as twisted, haunted and dangerous male- not that’s he’s really helped by a nutty script that goes dafter with every page. The oddest thing about the film -and likely what saves it at all- is Joan Bennett who seems so intoxicated by the premise that we can almost accept, to our utter bafflement, that she hangs around with her new husband and his deranged family more than a day in his mansion of horrors. I suspect there is a valid reading of the film in which every character is quite insane, including Celia, especially when, at the films end after Lamphere has almost strangled Celia to death and both almost died in a fiery conflagration as the house of horrors burns around them, we finally see them enjoying a second honeymoon back in Mexico. If Celia at this point has not got bountiful reasons to cite for a swift divorce, no-one has. Its like the cinematic definition of jumping the shark, but hey, maybe wives were more forgiving back then.