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.

21 Bridges

21bIt seems a bit daft to praise a film for being an old-fashioned thriller, and perhaps to make allowances for any minor shortcomings because for once here’s a film without lots of CGI or action-packed caped capers- but you know, there was just something so endearingly comforting about this film: sure I could guess some of the ‘twists’ and some of the casting seemed to telegraph some of those twists, but on the whole this was thoroughly entertaining and such a breath of fresh air it was easy to make such allowances.

As night falls on New York City, two obviously military-background criminals Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) perform a heist on a closed restaurant that escalates quickly in all the wrong ways- the restaurant’s storeoom is full of millions of dollars worth of uncut drugs and the two perps have to shoot their way out when cops apparently stumble on the heist. They leave a bloody trail of destruction that leaves seven officers dead and a citywide manhunt closing the city down until 5 a.m. Summoned to the scene, Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a cop with a perhaps unfair reputation for being a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of law enforcer, is given the task of hunting down the two cop-killers – but Andre is immediately suspicious that not everything seems to add up.

Directed by Brian Kirk, whose resume of television shows includes episodes of Game of Thrones, Hard Sun, Penny Dreadful and Luther, this is a taut, relentlessly entertaining film with some brilliantly staged action sequences. Its paced quickly enough to mask some of the plot contrivances but not enough to make it as obvious as, say, a JJ Abrams flick does. Quite often I caught myself comparing it to Die Hard or Witness, it was that good- well, maybe that was me getting a little carried away, but I really did enjoy it. It seemed so refreshing to see something so traditional as a police thriller with a great cast and a simple, direct plot in an era in which we are assaulted by OTT superhero flicks or ludicrously explosive blockbusters.

Dare I suggest its the perfect Friday-night-in movie for our trying times?

21 Bridges is available on DVD and Blu-ray and streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

Hotel Mumbai

Hotel MumbaiHotel Mumbai is a very harrowing, suspenseful dramatisation of the 2008 attack on the city’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel during which the city was attacked by a ten-strong group of heavily armed Islamic terrorists. Its riveting stuff- as a thriller its effective indeed, and its very similarity to Gerard Butler’s Olympus Has Fallen etc makes uncomfortable viewing as we know, as disturbing as things are, this time around its based on true events. Tragedy as entertainment always has an uncomfortable feeling about it, but it makes everything seem more intense, too. The comic book heroics of Butler’s films, and others like it (I suppose, after all, you’d possibly include ‘classics’ like Die Hard in that list) have to be stripped out because these are just normal people in unusual situations and really, in the real world there’s no place for wisecracks or fisticuffs in the face of grenades and assault rifles.

So we have this weird dichotomy going on, in that as the outrage progresses, we have the misguided expectation that Armie Hammer’s tall handsome American architect or Jason Isaac’s obnoxious Russian with a military background will step up with some heroics like a typical thriller would have it, but as this film is based on a true event and such Hollywood nonsense never happened, there is a weird frustration through the film. The heroism of this film is of a different kind entirely- its one of simply surviving, and mostly of the staff protecting its guests. Perhaps you could call it civilisation versus barbarism. Perhaps we have been so used to those Hollywood action films where Willis, Butler or Neeson step up with their own brand of justice to right the violent wrongs that we struggle with their absence.

I suppose my point is, this film should possibly be a horror film, and this films only failure, really, is that its indeed ostensibly a thriller. Mans inhumanity to man is always a depressing subject but what I found most distressing was the familiarity of it all. Terrorist incidents such as this frequently seem to be in the news – bombings in foreign countries, shootings etc in which the victims almost inevitably become just numbers, statistics, and we’ve seen films simplify such events in action-thrillers of the past.

Partly this itself becomes a problem for the film- the statistics of this attack are incomprehensible, really. Over the three days that the event lasted, 174 people died, including 9 of the 10 attackers, and over 300 people were wounded. To its credit, the film shy’s away from sensationalising the events and attempts to show the simple heroism of staff trying to protect the hotels guests and those guests trying to survive and protect their loved ones. Its a human story but inevitably because of the numbers involved the film is limited to showing events from the perspective of the few, and possibly over-simplifies things.

hotel3I suppose my issue with this film -that perhaps it is ‘only’ a thriller is wholly unfair. But the polarisation of the world today, of good and evil and the fevered hysterics of both national and international politics of our day… this week alone in the UK we have witnessed our Parliament reduced to heated arguments more suited to a drunken rabble in a pub than the distinguished statesmen those elected representatives should be. I hold modern news media to blame for this (personality politics is a very modern 24-hour news thing, as journalists turn news into entertainment with viewing figures in mind) as much as social media. My contention is that perhaps film should do more than just dramatise events such as this, perhaps it should add some commentary somehow. How you do this without inflaming peoples viewpoints or world-beliefs I don’t know- maybe you can’t, hence my consideration that my issue is likely unfair.

So the terrorists are monsters, and the film only makes a perfunctory attempt to get into their reasoning, their mindset. The film suggests that they are victims themselves, coerced into the carnage by shadowy figures back in Pakistan who have masterminded the attack.  The awful inhumanity of killing innocent civilians, and how the terrorists have justified it in their minds so those civilians are perceived as infidels and indeed as sub-human, is something too large for a thriller such as this to encompass really. Maybe no film could. The fascination in films about serial-killers for example, is partly that ‘thing’ about getting into their minds, how they reason, function, see other people as victims/prey. How do you get into the minds of terrorists without being charged with rationalising their atrocities?  And if you don’t try, isn’t that over-simplification demonising them? Failing to get to the reasons why the world is as polarised as it is? Is it East vs West, Poor vs. Rich, is it national power-brokering or religious jihad?

Hotel Mumbai necessarily skirts around such issues as it just presents what happened within the perimeters of a thriller. It doesn’t make it a bad film, but it does leave it a strangely frustrating, albeit riveting film that likely could have been something more.

Last Week: Warning- Disney loves the Alien

ndisneyDistressing news last week (at least I think it’s distressing, your own mileage may vary) was that Disney, having now gobbled up 20th Century Fox, is looking at all the IP its bought and is looking at ways to maximise the potential returns. One of the first properties under its uncanny eye is Alien, and it has been reported that it is looking to reboot the franchise.

Dear God. I hope that doesn’t mean a remake of the original Alien.

Now, I well understand that this also means we can finally dump Prometheus and Alien Covenant in the trash bin and pretend they never happened, because once the reboot button is pressed, then essentially everything prior becomes non-canon, and, well, as we won’t be getting a third prequel from Ridley Scott, the two films are pretty much even more useless than they were before. I’ll be honest, I was rather forlornly hoping that Ridley had another Alien film in him to tie things up with those Engineers and save the day but, alas, it seems its not to be. Maybe this is a good thing.

But they’d better keep there hands off remaking the 1979 movie.

Rebooting Alien. What the hell does that even mean? Do they go back to the Dan O’Bannon/Ron Shusett original treatments and start from scratch? Does that mean a redesign of the Alien and dropping Giger’s creature? There’s a special circle of Hell waiting for any execs crazy enough to make that move. Giger simply is Alien. His dark twisted horror/sexual imagery is the core of the film’s Lovecraftian dread. There’s all sorts of subconscious tensions and fears in that stuff. Maybe they could recreate the creature in CGI fully recapturing those proportions of his paintings that really confound the limitations of a man in a suit. I’d go with that. But let’s not lose the creature.

So what do Disney do? What the hell has that Mouse got in its head? Making a movie set in the same Alien universe, but maybe set after Alien, or Aliens? Pretend that everything from Alien 3 never happened?

Or does it go the Another Life route? Crew the Nostromo with a hip young crew of beautiful people, white, black, gay, straight, bisexual, oversexed, ultracool, dressed in cool fashionable clothes with perfect haircuts. Send them into space with a slick spaceship carrying a payload of water to a climate-change ravaged desert Earth and have them detour to a planet and a flying saucer with a Made In the USA sticker hidden of their sight in a cunning ploy by the Weyland corporation to field test their new bio-warfare toy on an alien Love Island?

God leave it alone Disney. You’ve messed up Star Wars, just leave Alien alone. Its not your thing. This isn’t about selling children’s toys/merchandise or creating Nostromo rides at Disneyland. Alien is Heavy Metal, its hardcore adult horror. I know it hasn’t been that for years, really, but let’s just pretend that 1979 film is Out Of Bounds.

Whatever next? Reboot Planet of the Apes (again)? Reboot Die Hard (again)? Hey, I can see it now- it’s the grudge match everyone’s been waiting for- its Aliens versus Apes in Weyland Tower, a corporate skyscraper under siege by eco-terrorists, and our only hope is a bitter detective visiting town to see her ex-husband who works on the 99th Floor. Can Jane McClane alert the authorities of the terrorist attack before they can steal the Weyland Biowarfare files, while somehow surviving the attention of talking Apes and slimy Alien Face Huggers? It may be Easter, but those Eggs aint for kids mutha—-r.  Kerching! I can hear those cash registers ringing, I’m on fire. Talk to my agent, Disney, I’m sure we can do business.

Final Score

final1Dave Bautista (yeah, it’s been a long road, but BR2049 brought me here, again) is a blatant Die Hard knock-off set in a football stadium, the kind of killer premise that takes twenty-three (yes, twenty-three, because I counted ’em) producers to bring to the screen. Now, I love Die Hard, it’s a great film, but how long is this going to run, this endless parade of rip-off films in what has pretty much become a genre all of its own? The ‘Die Hard in a xxxxx’ action genre… its enough to turn me against a beloved classic, and that’s just plain wrong.

Who am I kidding? Knowing how Hollywood and moviemakers worldwide love to imitate success in the pursuit of money, this is going to just go on forever.

I think Final Score gets by somewhat because Bautista is pretty worthwhile in most everything he’s in, but he has to be careful- the goodwill earned by his decent acting chops demonstrated in stuff like BR2049 (and hey, hopefully Dune next year) will be for nothing if he keeps slumming in dumb b-movie action stuff like this. Final Score manages a few points for being set over here in the UK with our cops/national game and the weird perversity of it all, and it’s oddly fine supporting cast of Ray Stevenson and Pierce Brosnan. Just barely anyway.

There’s certainly a fine drinking game here, taking a shot everytime it rips off a moment/plotpoint from Die Hard. I wasn’t keeping count, but its a number somewhere north of that number of producers I think. Not a game I could ever play anyway, I suspect I’d be under the table (or on my way to ER) before the closing credits.

 

Skyscraper

There’s one thing you should know first… I’m behind you!

sky1The image above is pretty much everything you need to know about Skyscraper. If you’re thinking, “wow, that looks cool!” then yes, this film is for you. If you’re thinking, “wtf?” then do yourself a favour and never let this film anywhere near you, because preposterous eye-candy is the least of this films problems.

I’m sitting here struggling to write anything about this. I guess it’s the blogging equivalent of being rendered speechless. I do think I’ve seen more than my fair share of bad films lately. This one may not be the worst but… I mean why even bother spending my time writing anything about this? Its your typical overblown action extravaganza with a derivative plot and very unimaginative casting, it’s just laziness to the extreme.

For example, at the very start of the film, Will Ford (Dwayne Johnson), leader of some hotshot FBI hostage rescue squad, is involved in a hostage situation in rural America that goes horribly wrong with the deaths of a family, including children, and some of his own team. Its inevitable, right from those opening minutes, that the end of the film will feature a reprise of that hostage situation but now involving one of his own kids. Can he learn from the mistakes of the past and shake off all the guilt he has carried with him for the years after? Take a guess.

Its inevitable, right from a little later on when he instructs his wife that the best way to fix anything, particularly her mobile phone, is to switch it off then back on again, that when near the end of the film the authorities are perplexed at how to fix the fiery buildings fire defense systems, she steps up with the suggestion to switch it off then on again, thus rebooting the system.

Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Infact, I’ll be as lazy as this movie is, by simply stating that Skyscraper is Die Hard by way of The Towering Inferno with a bit of Cliffhanger thrown in (all three much better movies) and they even sneak in a bit of Total Recall that cues the misdirection signalled by the quote headlining this post (and possibly facepalm moment of the year). And if I dare suggest it is extra cynical by being set in Hong Kong with a mostly Asian cast in an effort to break the Asian market and all its foreign money, how far wrong could I be? Well, domestic US box office was $68 million, foreign box office totaled $236 million. Welcome to the future: Universal Pictures China is possibly as inevitable as all the telegraphing this film engineers in its hokey script.

 

Death Wish (2018)

death1Another remake, and this time a remake of a decidedly exploitative 1974 thriller, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that this was as bad as they come. What did surprise me, though, was some of the talent involved in this- so much so that this movie felt more of a betrayal to filmgoers than I could believe.

We’ll start for what passes for a script, written by Joe Carnahan. That’s the guy behind such films as Narc and The Grey (a great film, that one) although considering he was also behind the A-Team movie reboot, perhaps this particular project shouldn’t surprise me afterall. This is purely by-the-numbers gun glorification, that uniquely American myth that owning guns is a noble thing and killing bad guys is what every righteous cowboy sorry civilian should aspire to do if only they had the guts to Do The Right Thing. Its every lunatic’s God-given right to own a gun, it seems. And every cop is so inherently stupid we can’t trust them to police the streets and serve justice. Seriously, the detectives here are greedy, lazy and so idiotic they can’t see whats infront of their faces- thank God for Bruce.

Ah, Bruce. That’s Bruce Willis, not the shark from Jaws, although that rubber shark was more impressive and sincere an actor than the one Willis is now. I don’t know what happened to Willis- he was so good years ago but he’s just appalling these days, phoning in performances that are frankly embarrassing. Its infuriating, because I watched him again in Die Hard only a few weeks ago and he’s so good in that- funny and charming and wiseass and cool, but with a streak of vulnerability too. Twelve Monkeys, he was just brilliant in that. These days he’s a cardboard smirk, and that’s about it.  That word raises up in my head again- betrayal; betrayal in this case of any fans he had left and anyone who pays to see a movie because it stars him. Off the top of my head I can’t name another actor who has gone so far south of the reservation as he has. Clearly he signed up for this film for two things- the pay cheque and a cynical ploy to launch another action franchise as Liam Neeson did with the similarly-themed Taken films and all the Taken clones Neeson cashed in on afterwards.

The rest of the cast- this thing has a pretty great cast; Vincent D’Onofrio,  Elisabeth Shue (now there’s an actress who deserved a better career), Dean Norris (so great in Breaking Bad, so awful here although he’s practically playing The Same Goddam Part), Stephen McHattie (so great in Watchmen, here he’s relegated to a (perhaps merciful) several-second cameo) are wasted, the film dragged down by the Black Hole of Willis’ charisma, sucking the very life out of every scene he’s in.  Its like some kind of irresistible life-sucking force of nature draining every other actors talent, it’s almost scary ruthless it is.

Surprisingly even Eli Roth, the exploitation-enfant terrible that he is, is unable to maintain any energy in this film- there’s a bit of commentary on social media and radio talk-show debates as people argue whether our hero (‘The Grim Reaper’ no less) is  a hero or villain, but otherwise Roth’s main contribution seems to be some moments of very graphic gore during the action stuff.

Watching this film I often had to wonder, is this film really this bad or is it some kind of arch-commentary of modern action flicks and right-wing politics? Willis plays Dr. Paul Kersey a top surgeon in Chicago’s A&E department (you’d think it’d be easier to just let the scum die on his operating table). It becomes almost hilarious when on his every vengeance spree he goes down to his Bat Cave (Hospital basement) to clothe himself in the abandoned hoodies of (presumably) dead patients, which always seem to fit him like some inevitable superhero costume (“no longer the Smirking Reaper, he becomes The Grim Reaper, scourge of the criminals!’).  Nah, this film isn’t clever or sophisticated enough to carry the arch-commentary excuse.

Utter nonsense and truly dire, definitely one to avoid because life is Just Too Short.

Two Christmas movies…

I seldom if ever get chance to watch a film over Christmas, visiting family etc takes care of filling days that are just too short and exhausting. Christmas’ of old that I remember so fondly for watching Jack Lemmon films or film noirs or sci-fi b-movies are a distant memory, back when I was a youngster on long school holidays, not married middle-age and a few days off work.

However, I did manage to watch two very special Christmas movies just prior to the holidays- back on the 23rd I watched Its a Wonderful Life on blu-ray, and on Christmas Eve I watched Die Hard on 4K UHD. Both films are fantastic Christmas movies. While Its A Wonderful Life is an established classic and a firm favourite of mine (bought the books, the soundtrack etc), it is something of an acquired taste for some (a query at work revealed some spouses turn it off at the opening scenes where the stars are talking to each other- have some people no soul?). The film is surely a fable for the modern age and as relevant now as it was when first made – indeed maybe more so considering Trump is dissing Santa to kids these days.  

Die Hard is a film I hadn’t seen for several years, somehow, and while Its A Wonderful Life is a Christmas staple pretty much every year, this was the first time I actually sat down with Die Hard at Christmas. Of course it’s a Christmas movie (although some argue that it isn’t) but beyond that, it’s a great action thriller that delivers excitement, laughs, shocks and surprises – particularly the surprising notion that 1980s films can feel so old-fashioned now. Old-fashioned in a good way, you understand- this was back in those pre-CGI days when the script and characterisation took preference over the action and noise, but I think I’m reaching the end of the line when a 1988 film gets to feel old-fashioned, even if it is in a good way. Everything in Die Hard is finely tuned and while it isn’t perfect it’s damn near it, and while during the long dark nights of a moviegoers soul I’d take it to task for all the rip-offs inflicted upon us in the years since, that’s hardly the films fault.

Anyway, Die Hard remains the highlight of Christmas 2018 for me. I really did enjoy it, so much so I’ve already got it booked in for Christmas Eve 2019. Could be the start of a new seasonal tradition…

The Take (Bastille Day)

take12017.13: The Take (2016) – Amazon Prime/VOD

The Take is one of those films… well, its enjoyable enough. Its an action thriller set in Paris, in which an apparent terrorist plot to set off bombs during the French national holiday Bastille day celebrations is in fact an elaborate ruse in the Die Hard tradition to disguise the real bad guys motives to steal a fortune during the ensuing chaos.So its instantly familiar, and its stunts and action sequences have a Bourne Identity-feel to them too, only reinforcing the seen-it-all before feel about the whole enterprise. It is competently made and it all seems very sincere, but that familiarity undermines it all.

If nothing else, it offers a glimpse of what a James Bond movie might have been like with Idris Elba in the starring role (although my wife thought he was channeling his BBC tv-character Luther through the whole thing). His CIA agent however is, like all of the films characters, woefully paper-thin, and while Elba does his best he can’t lift the character into anything really interesting. He is something of a rogue, doesn’t conform to procedure and authority figures well, can handle himself in a fight- what this film desperately needs is some character beats, to get under his skin, which it fails to do.  Possibly it’s a ninety-minute film that really needed to be two hours long, but its so cautious of modern viewer’s attention spans it lacks conviction enough to give that thirty minutes of character beats and narrative foundation. If this were a film made in the 1970s I’m sure it would have been more substantial. In 2016… keep it slick, keep it quick. So we get the explosions and chases and fights and shoot-outs but that’s about it. Pretty vacuous, but efficient.

Unfortunately for the film, it will likely be most widely remembered for the timing of its cinema release prior to real-life terrorist acts in France that caused it to be pulled from cinemas there. As silly as some of these films seem to be,  it’s clear that their plots are uncomfortably close to reality and an indication of how messed-up our world is.  Its a cautionary reminder.

 

A bad way to Die Hard

die5Last night we were over the in-laws, and they put A Good Day To Die Hard on the telly, bless them. Well, I of course saw this once before and as Sean Connery would be amongst the first to remind me, never say never again. So there I was, a captive audience for a study of how not to handle a franchise.

Considering how much of a genuine classic the original Die Hard is, its doubly sad to  be reminded how the mighty had fallen with this entry. Maybe we are all guilty these days for simply wanting ‘more’. Rather than let a great film stand on its own, we always want more; a second, third, fourth film of the same. Perhaps its simply an attempt -usually in vain- to rediscover and re-experience that joy of something great and original, rare such as it is. Naturally as far as the studio is concerned, it has had a hit and wants another.

But its always difficult to rekindle/recapture that magic. You can try put a fresh spin on things, raise the stakes by making it bigger/faster/louder. God knows the Bond franchise, Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator…  Die Hard isn’t alone in having inferior sequels or stumbling fortunes.

So while fans bad-mouth the creative team and studio bigwigs behind the film, and the Crown Prince of Smug, Bruce Willis, phones in another jaded performance, maybe we should examine our own role in ever-declining franchises. If we walked out of seeing a great film without immediately thinking about going to see the sequel, then maybe we would see better, and more original movies. Why, after all, do we think we have a right to another, better, Bond? Does there even have to be another Bond, another Die Hard?