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John Carter (2012)

January 14, 2013 4:40 am

John-Carter-Poster

Most movie bloggers would have spent December totting up their top 10 films of the year. Because I only go to the cinema about once a month, I never feel I see enough new films to warrant such a list, so I spend December reading those top 10 lists. There are also the occasional BOTTOM 10 lists. Really, these are the ones I like to read, especially when the same names kept cropping up : That’s My Boy, Battleship, Alex Cross, all potential future entries for the House of Trash.

I was very surprised to see that John Carter didn’t feature very much though. Most famously, Mark Kermode DID include it in his ‘worst of’ list, at number 2. Yes, Mark Kermode, who sees more films in a month than I see in a year, thought John Carter was the second worst film he saw in 2012. That’s worse than Pirahna 3DD? Worse than W.E.? Worse than Jack and Jill even!?

Kermode clearly has an issue here that goes deeper than the quality of the movie (others have postulated what that might be) but sadly a critic as influential as Kermode has the power to perpetuate the myth that John Carter is dreadful, and probably put people off giving it a go. Don’t forget this is a man who constantly tells the public that they were wrong about Howard the Duck and Heaven’s Gate. Well, Mr Kermode, you are wrong about John Carter.

john carter 1

Get your ass to Mars!

Let’s be straight here, John Carter is no masterpiece. Far from it.

I’m no scholar on the original stories, but I’m aware that last year was the centenary of he first printed appearance of the Confederate soldier transported to Barsoom (that’s Mars to me and you). The film has been in development, on and off,  since 1931, when Warner Brothers’ Bob Clampett attempted to make it as the first full length animated film. In the intervening years, not only was that ambition thwarted by a certain Mr Disney, but the continuing adventures of Carter have been systematically strip-mined by authors and film-makers for everything from Flash Gordon, through Star Wars to Avatar, and everything inbetween.

Sadly, this rather left John Carter on a hiding to nothing. It’s a highly regarded piece of literature that sci-fi fans have been lobbying to be filmed for decades. It’s also such a highly regarded piece of literature that if filmed sympathetically (as the fans would demand) it would result in a film that looked like an Asylum rip-off of every sci-fi film of the past 30 years, but with a bigger budget. Somehow Andrew Stanton (Pixar whizz working on his first live-action film) manages to avoid this, but ultimately makes a film which is enjoyable, but was clearly never going to have the wide appeal needed to justify its budget.

When it’s good, it’s very good. The advantage of having an animation director like Stanton working on a piece like this, is that he knows how to work with CGI. It’s easy to forget how much of a live action film is now added in post-production, so having someone as comfortable behind a desk as bossing 1000 extras is vital these days. For once, a CGI heavy fantasy movie doesn’t feel like your watching someone else play a computer game. The cast are all game, and clearly having fun. My one exception is Carter himself. Taylor Kitsch certainly looks the part, but there was something about his voice that grated, coming over far too much like a Californian beach bum, than a Southern Civil War veteran (a fact not helped by some distinctly 21st century action hero dialogue “Easy. Nice monster dog.”)

john carter 3

 I used to bullseye womprats with my T16 back home. They’re not much bigger than two meters.

What hinders the piece is an almost impenetrable plot. It could be argued that that is a fault of the source, which may be the case, I don’t know. But is it really any more impenetrable than Star Wars or Flash Gordon? Yes, every character has a made-up name, there are made-up races, beings, planet names… oh god, how confusing to our poor youth audiences. The best thing to do is to keep it simple. There’s this one race of humanoids who have a massive killer weapon, with which they intend to wipe out another race of humanoids (the last left on the planet). Caught in the middle is an independent race of 15 foot tall creatures, who really want to keep themselves to themselves and who end up capturing Mr Carter. That’s it, seen it before, will see it again, it’s really no more complicated than that.

So what else lets it down? Well, that’s pretty much it. A slightly confusing, and, for newcomers, derivative plot. You know what else has a confusing, derivative plot? Almost every big budget summer blockbuster that made more money than John Carter.

John Carter was an almighty failure, but it’s no fault of the film itself. The marketing was poor, certainly. Look at that poster at the top. If you’re a teenager with a tenner burning a hole in his pocket on a Saturday afternoon, are you going to see a film with THAT poster (and also one with a prominent Disney logo, the kiss of death for teenagers trying to look hard) or are you going to see Comic Book Heroes 3: The Re-imagining of the Reboot or Smashing Robot Battle 6: Dark of the Arse Crack?

The name change caused quite some controversy, with many passing the buck for the decision, but ultimately everyone agreeing that the change was due to the fact that John Carter of Mars doesn’t become John Carter of Mars until the end of the film. Until then, he is just John Carter. OK… but surely since it’s actually based on the book Princess of Mars, shouldn’t if have been called Princess of Mars? Oh, that would have been too confusing (and we all know how much sci-fi films with female leads bomb, right studio execs?). Rumours of Disney still smarting from Mars Needs Moms was suggested as another reason for getting Mars out of the title (stuff like this actually happens, so even if that’s not true you can believe it is). Incidentally Mars Needs Moms lost a hell of a lot more money than John Carter, but that’s been quietly swept under the carpet by the studio and film writers no doubt worried about being invited to the next Disney junket.

john carter 2

Flash… ah-ah!

Let’s get some perspective here: John Carter was never going to be the biggest film of the year. It should never have been green-lit with the budget it did, which would require it to be one of the biggest 5 earners of the year to ultimately break even. Did anyone really think this would compete with Avengers, Batman, Bond, Spiderman, Hobbit, Hunger Games and the interminable Twiglet. Not a chance.

They could reasonably have expected it to do better than Wrath of the Titans, or Journey 2 The Mysterious Island, both dreadfully reviewed sequels to two of the more dreadfully reviewed films of recent years.

But then, the box office only tells half the story. We are constantly baffled by the fact that Transformers movies can make a billion dollars whilst being utterly cack, and assume the ticket buying public are, rightly, morons. So should we be surprised by the fact that a reasonably well-made film, made by people with a genuine affection for the material, rather than hacks who want to sell toys, utterly fails? We already know the audience is made up of morons because they made Transformers 1, 2 and 3 huge hits. So why, when a film flops do we blame the film, rather than the audience for not getting it?

Good films often do badly at the box office, and stinkers often hit the jackpot. No one really knows which way it’s going to go. Many have suggested John Carter could have made more money with a big name star (Tom Cruise was attached for a while in the 90s). But who? Audiences are much more fickle with their stars nowadays, so it’s particularly tricky when your film takes two and a half years to make. Your flavour-of-the-month star could taste very stale by release date: Well, Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost currently sits over $70million in the red, Halle Berry’s Catwoman is still trying to claw back around $50m, not to mention all the countless Eddie Murphy ‘comedies’ clogging up the bargain bins in Tesco. Tom Cruise is hardly the draw he once was, his biggest successes now coming from established brands (Mission Impossible, Jack Reacher) rather than his more personal projects (Valkyrie, the tedious Knight and Day).

The only thing that would have saved John Carter at the box office would have been audiences giving it a chance. But with everyone shouting in their ear about how dreadful it is, why should they?

If you’re still not sure whether you want to give it a chance, the best advice I can give is this: do you like the 1980 Flash Gordon movie? That’s ridiculously camp, over the top, overblown and with a bland central hero. John Carter is the that kind of film, and possibly the highest praise I can give it, is that, like Flash Gordon, it will find an appreciative audience in  years to come.


Demonoid: Messenger of Death (1981)

January 5, 2013 12:11 pm

Demonoid poster

Do you know what’s rubbish? Crawling hand movies. Yes, there are good films which use the idea of a severed, crawling hand as an idea for a part of its story, but films which are centred solely on such a device are, to a man, dreadful.

So, Demonoid was quite a surprise. Mainly because I didn’t know it was a crawling hand movie. Let alone a cheesy, if enjoyable one.

I’d seen the trailer a few years back and was fully expecting some demon/zombie/possession type thing, with Stuart Whitman filling in for the obligatory priest character/savant who was mandatory for horror films from The Exorcist onwards, and Samantha Eggar as the unfortunate victim of whatever was going on. This turns out to be the case, except the eponymous demon turns out to be a pesky, possessive severed hand.

Handy Andy is first seen in an obviously tacked-on prologue (when the producers realised the film didn’t feature any tits), where a lady in a white smock kicks seven shades of the proverbial out of some guys who appear to be wearing some filthy second-hand KKK outfits. They eventually overcome her, tearing the smock open in the process, chain her to a wall and chop her left hand off. A Pazuzu-like demon appears to a crescendo of storm sound effects records and drawn on lightening bolts. The hand tries to do a runner, but is caught, and encased in a metal box, which it perfectly fits.

demonoid3

This is not the greatest crawling hand movie in the world…

this is just a tribute.

We’re given no indication where or when this happening, but it’s clearly some time in the past. We are most definitely thrust back into the present day, in Mexico, thanks to an abundance of bad 70’s fashions and wah-wah music.

Jennifer Baines (Eggar) is in town to meet her husband, who is trying to get his crew of underpaid local miners back to work, because they’re scared of rumours of a curse on the mine. Eggar takes it upon herself to investigate, and within 20 seconds has found a hitherto undiscovered cave just by leaning on the wall and dislodging some polystyrene rocks. In the cave the happy couple found the encased hand. So pleased with their discovery are the couple that they get drunk, and Mr Baines decides to let the hand out and promptly falls asleep, leaving the hand to touch up his wife. He tries to stop it, whereupon the hand possesses his own left hand, leaving him only with a handful of dust. He then blows up the mine, killing a bunch of his miners, and goes on the lam.

Through a series of badly edited transitions we follow Mr Baines’ exciting adventures in Vegas, before leading to the hand possessing a cop, a doctor and eventually Whitman’s priest (who Mrs Baines enlists to help her find her missing husband).

This all sounds very silly, and to be honest, it is. What saves it are game performances from Eggar and Whitman (spouting a frankly ludicrous Irish accent) and some fairly effective hand effects. Given the age and budget of the film, these are far creepier and effective than the far bigger budgeted (and dreadfully dull) The Hand.

demonoid 1

This should come in handy

The main problem with crawling hand movies, unlike say slashers or ghost stories, is the inherent suspension of disbelief required by an audience. Most of us would find the idea of a nutter with a machete or spooky noises and apparitions scary. But the idea of a severed hand being able to move, and even think, needs such a leap of faith from an audience that it’s almost impossible. I’m sure the audiences of the 20’s would have been spooked by The Hands of Orlac, and even the 40’s viewers of The Beast with 5 Fingers may have been insufficiently cynical to take the concept at face value. But even by the 60’s the countless appearances of the abnormal appendage would become laughable (Amicus films used the trope countless times in their portmanteau movies, before giving (probably) the same prop a film of its own with And Now the Screaming Starts, a film much more memorable for a truly gruelling (though not explicit) rape scene, and the wardrobe department’s heroic attempts to retain Stephanie Beecham’s heaving bosom.

Demonoid, despite its many flaws, is head and shoulders above almost all the post-war crawling hand flicks. It is fully aware of its ludicrous premise and makes no attempt to hide the fact. Any film which contains the line “You either cut off my hand, or I’m gonna kill you” is surely not taking itself too seriously. Eggar and Whitman are game for just about anything, as their filmographies demonstrate, and are perfectly good as playing frightened, concerned, baffled and surprised when confronted with a rubber fist. Let’s not forget Whitman has already dealt with a plague of giant killer rabbits, whilst Eggar produced murderous dwarves from egg sacs growing in her lady area. These guys can take on a simple low-budget, Mexican shot crawling hand movie in their sleep.

Add in some good, if infrequent, gore and a wonderfully cheesy car chase (with music surely lifted from a 70’s TV cop show library) and you’ve got a sadly very rare gem.

Sadly, Demonoid is unavailable anywhere on DVD. It is available through the internet but I’m not telling you where. Try eBay.


The Wicker Tree (2010)

October 30, 2012 1:29 am

Wicker Tree

Some films (mainly horror films) are described as ‘cursed’. It’s quite easy to acquire the reputation (a death here, a fire on set there), and producers are loathe to disassociate themselves from the claims, as it can prove fruitful at the box office. In the end no film which makes as much money as The Exorcist or The Omen can truly be described as cursed.

One film that can possibly lay claim to being cursed is The Wicker Man. It’s not cursed in the sense that strange happenings befell the making, but based more on what happened to it afterwards. Abandoned by a distributor who didn’t realise the kind of film they were getting, they removed almost half an hour from the negative which, allegedly, ended up in landfill under the M3; the remnants of the original wicker man were accidentally burned to the ground; it was the subject of a legendarily bad Hollywood remake; and now the final insult, a 40-years-in-the-making sequel, which gets everything so wrong, I found myself longing for Nicolas Cage in his bear suit to come running over the hills shrieking “How’d it get burned? How’d it get burned?”.

I take no pleasure in running down a low budget British film, particularly one which has been a labour of love for writer-director Robin Hardy for so long. But, it’s just so awful, I can’t NOT lay into it.

Things begin badly, as we meet our protagonists, a pair of dim, born-again, god-fearing, apple-pie scoffing, abstinent yanks (a female singer and a cowboy (!)) who for some reason have decided to go to Scotchland to spread the good word to those heathen Jocks who have forgotten about God. Sadly we don’t see them getting chased by pitbulls and shirt-less fat dole-scum on a rough Glasgow estate. Instead they rock up on a rather nice looking street, where everyone very politely shakes their head and mimes the word “no”, before a Lord of the Manor says to come to his place for a bit so they can experience their village’s May Day celebrations, and, hey, maybe take part too.

Brokeback Molehill

The village of Tassock is no Summerisle. It’s a modern-ish village, on the Scottish-English border, rather than an isolated, Hebridean island. It’s even got its own nuclear power station owned by the Lord Morrison. he even describes himself as being like Monty Burns from The Simpsons. But it seems whilst the power station may keep the economy of the village running smoothly, but it’s also responsible for making all the men infertile, so Morrison has persuaded them that the May Day celebrations every year are a chance for them to find a man (“a laddie”) who can reinvigorate the juices and get all the women pregnant again. This mainly involves one woman, Lolly, sleeping with EVERY SINGLE man who comes to town.

How will she manage this with chaste, loyal Steve from the good ol’ US of A. yes, ma’am? Well, she manages it quite easily by standing in a freezing river with her tits out.

This is nowhere near as sexy as it looks

Beth, the singer, meanwhile, is having her own doubts, after being reminded of her trailer trash image past (a hilarious pop video shows her in a bar dancing with two hideous men; it looks more like the opening scene of a porn movie than a pop video) and being asked awkward questions about the rapture by Lady Morrison (“Do you think it’s right that innocent babies and children should die?” “Well, if that’s what it says in the bible!” is her wide-eyed and thick response, before shifting in her seat like she’s got an itchy bumhole).

All this stuff takes up an hour of screen time: glances are exchanged; dresses are stitched; dancing is…er danced. It’s all very ominous and a sense of foreboding hangs in the air. Except, that is, if you’ve seen The Wicker Man, where all this stuff creeps up on you and gets under your skin. Here, it sits in your lap, tugging at your sleeve.

Apparently, Hardy meant this to be a black comedy. Well, he says that NOW. The religious intolerance of Howey (a sympathetic figure despite his bigotry) in the original is replaced by cardboard cutout caricatures of that specifically American breed of Christian fundamentalism. You know the gruesome twosome are not far from waving ‘God Hates Fags’ placards or firebombing abortion clinics. How can they be when they think it’s right for children to die because “that’s what the bible says”?

But, they are so cliched, and so appallingly portrayed by the actors, that they generate no sympathy whatsoever. You just want to see them die. And die horribly.

The villagers aren’t much better. Lord Morrison is, of course, revealed to be a huge hypocrite, using the villagers faith in Celtic mythology to… well, I’m not quite sure. There is a scene when he discusses their stupidity in blindly following his lead, but I don’t think we find out why he’s doing it. But then again, he may just be doing it for giggles, because this lot are a right bunch of idiots. They are not odd-looking with a hint of menace. These are just freaks, at least the ones we meet are. The budget only stretches to us getting to know about four people, but come the climax, there’s a whole hillside full of them, mostly wandering around in g-strings and painted faces.

Considering how monumentally cheap it all looks, I was astonished to find this cost almost $8 million. It’s difficult to know where that money went.

It certainly didn’t go on the cast which includes “Man Who Provides Russian Voices for Call of Duty Videogames”,  “Her That Was In Eastenders For A  Bit” and assorted Casualty and The Bill bit players.

A hilarious sign of the cost cutting occurs early on when one of Beth’s singing performances in a church is greeted by a library sound effect of a vast hall of applauding noise, but it’s accompanied by a shot of just five people in evening wear clapping.

One sequence, the best in the film, briefly gives us a glimpse of some spending, when Steve is pursued across some lovely Scottish landscapes, in the “Laddie Hunt”, a kind of human fox hunt. It’s reasonably exciting, and well-shot. Sadly it’s short-lived.

As a final indignity, the film ropes in Lord Summerisle himself, Christopher Lee, for a pointless, though no doubt box-office friendly, flashback cameo as Lord Morrison’s dead dad. He is not playing Lord Summerisle.

Sir Should-Not-Be-Appearing-In-This-Film

And what of The Wicker Tree itself? Well, your guess is as good as mine. We’re led to believe it is to be the centre-piece of the May Day celebration. It’s prepped for burning, presumably, a sacrifice of some sort. But other fates await the un-dynnamic duo of Americans, so who is it for?

The Wicker Tree burns, while Beth tries to work out why

Hardy has been keen to point out that The Wicker Tree is not meant to be taken as a remake, or even a sequel. So why call it The Wicker Tree then? You can’t give the film that title and then not expect them to make comparisons to it. It’s like the Hollywood remakes who claim “No, it’s not a remake, it’s a new story taking ideas from the original”. Well don’t give it the same name then!!! (The Thing, I’m looking at you…) If it’s not meant to be a sequel, then it should have stuck with one of its rejected titles. I quite like Cowboys for Christ. That at least would have primed the audience for a black comedy rather than The Wicker Tree, which primes them for a bloody sequel, and a film in a similar vein.

The Wicker Tree is appalling film-making on almost every level. In some ways it does more damage to The Wicker Man than Neil LaBute’s remake, because it was made by Robin Hardy. Had it been made by anyone else, it could have been dismissed as a money-grabbing, soul-less attempt to milk ‘the Wicker brand’. As it stands, it’s a sad, desperate attempt to recapture the magic of a wonderful piece of cinema, and it finally succumbs to the Wicker Man Curse.

Arachnoquake (2012)

October 19, 2012 2:43 am

Arachnoquake poster

Watching Arachnoquake made me realise there are bad movies and there are bad movies. Which you prefer is your own decision. I love a bad movie that manages to be entertaining, normally for all the wrong reasons. Watching a dull, insulting bad movie (like say Ishtar) can be an infuriating experience.  Arachnoquake bored me to death and I really wanted to like it. The title and premise are bulletproof: earthquake unleashes prehistoric giant spiders. You can’t lose. Unless you are making a SyFy original movie.

Spider movies are such a winner I’m surprised there isn’t a new one every month. Everyone is, at the very least, a bit unnerved by the sight the site of the hairy, spindly bastards scuttling everywhere, mummifying small creatures and eating their sex victims. They are just insane. make them giant sized and, well, I’m too terrified to finish that sentence.

Arachnoquake doesn’t do one scary thing for 90 minutes. It also fails to feature one good line of dialogue, one performance that comes anywhere near the dictionary definition of ‘acting’, and contains the worst CGI I have ever seen. Ever.

They make their first mistake very early, and it’s a doozy. We get our first glimpse of our monsters for this evening. Yes, prehistoric killer, fire-breathing, spiders that will grow to building-sized proportions… what could such horrors possibly look like?

Shit, a spider!

Shit! A Spider!… I mean, a shit spider

What the hell is that supposed to be? It looks more like a crab than a spider. They’re supposed to be white, but in most shots they look pink; they don’t have a hair on them (too expensive to render in CGI); and, as it customary with low budget CGI, they don’t cast shadows.

This first one is seen bursting out of the back of some redneck who’s been bitten. He backs away from the thing which is the size of a toy car, like it’s about to bit his head off, instead of just treading on it. He ends up dead in a hole. The idiot.

We are in New Orleans for the main action (obviously filmed way, way off the beaten track, and very early in the morning, for the most part) where we meet tour guide Paul and his bus full of tourists. (Paul is played by an actor called Bug, I’m not making this up. C Thomas Howell was clearly unavailable due his killer bee movie schedule, so they got he actor who looks most like him).

On another bus we find a girls school baseball team. The bus is driven by their coach, played by the only recognisable name in the cast (sadly, he is unrecognisable in the flesh, of which there is plenty)… Ladies and Gentlemen I give you, John Connor.

Now, under normal circumstances, the man who led the human resistance against the rise of the machines would be the perfect person to lead a human resistance against the rise of the CGI spiders. Sadly, here, Mr Furlong is not the hero. He doesn’t even get top billing (or an ‘and’ credit for that matter). He’s just another struggling actor, just like the rest of the non-descript cast.

The spiders seem to arbitrarily change size depending on the situation until eventually we find the Queen on her web between two skyscrapers. Incidentally, the film makes no attempt to explain whether the spiders are web based or not (early on they don’t appear to be, then for the purposes of moving the plot along a bit, they start spinning webs). Also, as far as I’m aware,  spiders don’t have queens, since they are solitary rather than hive-based… god, I’m questioning the logic of this piece of shit. That’s how shit this thing is. I actually gave up on the plot and started pondering useless crap like this.

I’m just so tired of seeing these useless movies. Budgetary restraints should not be a barrier to good film-making. I’ve no idea what this cost, but I imagine it was probably between 1 or 2 million. Lots of decent horror films are made for that price range every year. It’s very simple: if you have a low budget write a script that you can film for that budget; don’t just employ actors who look like the characters in the script, employ actors who can ACT like the characters in the script; don’t employ fallen former “name” actors, as they will have open contempt for the material and make no attempt to give a good performance.

If SyFy isn’t even going to try to make decent monster movies, then don’t flipping bother. Years ago, they used to show old AIP and Corman movies. Yeah, they were tacky, low-budget crap too, but they were entertaining. They were made by people who cared about what they were making (they had to, because if the film didn’t make it’s money back, they probably wouldn’t make another) or were at least enthusastic enough to think it would be a stepping stone to greater things. The director of Arachnoquake has made far too many of these shit-flicks to give the impression that he is anything other than a hack, who is happy to take money from the suits at SyFy who for some reason seem to be happy with the turds he lays on their schedules twice-yearly.

Sadly, until people stop watching them, he’ll carry on laying them.

And, yes, that includes me.

Sliver (1993)

October 12, 2012 7:51 am

Sliver poster

Erotic cabaret

Ah, the halcyon days of the early-to mid 90s, when the erotic thriller was king. OK, it never was ‘king’ exactly, but it’s a fact that Basic Instinct was the 4th biggest money maker of 1992, and suddenly every studio had to have a piece of the action. Preferably starring Sharon Stone, as all the other A-list actresses were a little iffy about getting their norks out.

Basic Instinct was, and probably always will be, the best erotic thriller Hollywood has ever produced. The combination of Joe Eszterhas’ script and director Paul Verhoeven was golden, taking the good stuff from Jagged Edge, and combining it with a sardonic wit and eye for cold detail that had made Verhoeven’s sci-fi flicks such massive hits. If you have issues with Basic Instinct‘s politics, you’re clearly taking it too seriously. I was always amazed at the gay community’s outrage at its portrayal of lesbians, as the film itself is so OTT camp, you’d think it would have gone down a storm, like the later Showgirls did (a film with far more gender political problems).

So the re-teaming of Mr Eszterhas and Ms Stone (by now sharing a bed, much to the surprise of Mrs Eszterhas) should have been a winner. But something went seriously wrong here, and we end up with a grubby, humourless water balloon of a film that, budget aside, isn’t far removed from the likes of Shannon Tweed epics like Indecent Behaviour or Illicit Dreams, films which at least don’t bother pretending they are not ripping off Basic Instinct.

With Sliver you get the explosive combination of a hot star, the most successful screenwriter of all time, an egomaniacal producer making his first film for a decade following his involvement in a cocaine deal and murder, a rising co-star (personally picked by Stone who then decided she hated him), whose bubble was about to burst sooner than anyone could have imagined, and a relatively hot director, fresh off a hit, but still easy to push around.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

For the uninitiated the plot is roughly this: Stone is Carly, a book editor, who moves into a swanky New York apartment block and immediately becomes an object of desire for creepy Billy Baldwin, and sleazy Tom Berenger. There’s another old man but he dies pretty quickly, and another woman (the rather lovely, but talent free Polly Walker) who may be a model or a prostitute. Someone has wired the whole block with cameras and mics and is watching everything. People keep dying, but who is the murderer?

That’s  it.

“You like to watch, don’t you?”

Nah, not really.

That would struggle to stretch over an hour let alone the ten minutes short of two we are subjected to here. The first half is dedicated to Carly moving in, being watched, having a party, being watched, being wooed by Billy and harassed by Tom. Martin Landau bobs up for two whole scenes as Carly’s boss, and adds nothing of any importance beyond pointing to a lamp.

This all builds towards what most people who bought a ticket for this mess wanted to see: Sharon Stone in the buff. And sad to report but Sliver‘s sex scenes are probably the least erotic ever filmed (and also for a while put me off ever listening to ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ forever). If you get the chance to see it in high-def though, you will spot Stone’s sweaty pits, and Billy’s extremely hairy bum hole.

Eventually after a couple more deaths (one of which briefly reminds you of the excesses of the Italian gialli that this so aspires to be) the killer is revealed, the audience shrugs and says “that doesn’t really make any sense” and it ends.

This may be the result of post-production tinkering. Not an unusual thing in Hollywood, but in the case of Sliver the messing about not only changed the identity of the killer but restructured he whole film. Message boards are filled with people saying that the original cut is actually worse but makes more sense. I am currently trying to track his down because I’m not sure how worse it could be.

The main issue here, of course, is changing the ending. A thriller (or at least a well-written thriller) would surely work backwards from the reveal, setting up the situations, dialogue, actions of characters, even their facial expressions, so that when an audience knows the outcome they don’t feel cheated. A good writer and director will hide all the clues in plain sight to at least give the audience a chance. In the case of Sliver almost everything that happens ends up being arbitrary as essentially the killer was decided on the flip of a coin, and new dialogue was added to explain it away. And the film still has ten minutes to go!

“How much longer does this shit go on for?”

Stone has probably never looked more gorgeous than she does here, but for the whole film she just looks bored. Billy, never the most charismatic of the Baldwins, is absolutely dreadful. With his floppy fringe, trendy t-shirt perpetually tucked into his white jeans and a crappy leather jacket he looks every part the sex offender. Tom Berenger seems to be the only one who realises this is all guff and just goes along for the ride. Berenger is an actor I feel has never had the breaks he deserves, and the film noticeably perks up when he’s onscreen.

Eszterhas’ script (based on an Ira Levin novel) is appalling, possibly the worst thing he’d written until An Alan Smithee Film. Where Basic Instinct was camply offensive, Sliver‘s dialogue is just vulgar. References to vibrators, anal sex and impotence may be commonplace between women (at least if Sex and the City is to be believed) but here they just add an unnecessarily sleazy gloss to an already tawdry film about a voyeuristic woman-killer.

If you like sleazy gloss, this may appeal. I like sleazy gloss and I found it dull, uninvolving, infuriating, a chore. It takes itself far too seriously and then comes up with an infantile denouement; along with one of the worst last lines in movie history (which Eszterhas has always denied writing).

It’s not Basic Instinct 2. In 1993, this was considered a bad thing. Now that sounds like a recommendation. It’s not.

NB. A brilliant comparison between the theatrical cut and the workprint can be found at Movie censorship

 

Navy Seals (1990)

October 10, 2012 2:12 am

Navy Seals

Stu-stu-stu-Studio Line

Even as a teenager, Navy Seals always had a whiff of fromage about it. Something about pairing a Oliver Stone’s favourite BratPacker (on an astonishing career turnaround following Platoon and Wall Street), with a man who only appears in good films when James Cameron is behind the camera. They posed on the video cover brandishing plastic-looking machine guns, looking like a pair of hair gel models in a photoshoot for The Face.

It certainly didn’t have the same allure to a young lad as say Commando or even a Chuck Norris punch-a-thon. In fact it looked a bit crap. Maybe because it is.

What was clearly designed to do for the Navy what Top Gun did for the Air Force, Navy Seals can’t even fluffs every opportunity to ape that films success. Swap volleyball for golf; substitute flying really fast jets with inflatable dinghys; change Kelly McGillis for Joanne Whalley.

Hicks from Aliens leads a crew of Seals round the world looking for a cardboard cut-out forrin villain who has acquired some stinger missiles. Or a bomb. Or something. It’s not important. They’re chasing a bad guy ‘raghead’ (as the film so politely refers to everyone from the Middle East), who’s name I forget as for most of the film he’s just a black and white photo occasionally flashed in front of us.

What IS important is that Charlie Sheen plays a thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent member of the crew. He’s professional, thorough, and always follows orders. Oh, no wait… that’s right, he’s a free-spirit, a hot-head, a joker who lives for the rush of the job. A “Maverick” , if you will.

Within the first 20 minutes we get all the character info we need. See Charlie leap from a moving car off a bridge, for a laugh! Gasp as he steals a bike, catches up with a tow truck that has taken his sports car away, and drives said car off the back of the tow truck into oncoming traffic! Guffaw as Sheen’s hot-headedness jeopardises a routine mission and allows the bad guy to escape because he fancied killing a few more ‘ragheads’.

Hicks plays Sheen’s best friend, but he’s also Sheen’s boss. Ooh, tension.  Also tagging along for the ride is one of Dirty Dozen-style, Guys-on-a-mission-movie collective of rag-tag ‘characters’. Except they forgot to give them any character. We’ve got Bill Paxton, wasted, but carrying the same wonderful moustache he sported in True Lies; President Palmer from 24 (who’s supposed to be getting married… uh-oh!); the lunkhead from Roxanne; the anti-semite from Porkys; and another piece of cardboard who’s only purpose seems to be to translate the gibbering rantings of the forrin villains.

That pretty much is all you need to know. What little plot there is, consists of Hicks trying to find out where the bad guy is by wining and dining Whalley’s investigative journalist (who’s also fighting off the affections of Sheen, who only wants her because Hicks has her. Great mate that he is). It seems odd that in the opening action scene, Hicks tells a rescued hostage “You don’t have to thank us because we don’t exist”, as if the Seals are some covert, secret organisation. Yet just 15 minutes later, he’s taking a journalist round their training centre (and having his men fire machine guns at her for a laugh).

The boys go off on various missions, to various ‘shit-holes’, always coming back empty handed because the film still has some time to go. And then some. For a stupid 80s actioner, this is a ridiculously tedious two hours. Decades pass between the action, and when it does arrive, it’s appallingly directed and edited. You have little idea what’s going on, and can only differentiate the good guys from the bad guys because the bad guys all have beards.

Lewis Teague was one of those directors whose career was finished as soon as Big Ben struck midnight on 31st December 1989. A good director given the right material (the excellent Alligator, Cujo, the cheesy but fun Wedlock), he somehow found himself directing The Jewel of the Nile, and found himself tagged an action director from then on, but never with the budget or talent that he had there.

Navy Seals could have easily been a Chuck Norris-starring Cannon Group film, yet despite having a bigger budget than those, it comes off as cheap and dull. Call of Duty fans may enjoy the final assault on the bad guy, but for the most part it offers little in the way of entertainment beyond a few jaw-dropping bad lines of dialogue, and who wants to sit through two hours of tripe just to hear Charlie Sheen say “You gotta stick it out there and not be afraid to get it cut off, that’s what I always say.”

Sweeney! (1977)

September 13, 2012 5:39 am

 

Sweeney poster

“Shut it!”

 Yay, it’s remake time again! And now that Hollywood has exhausted itself of horror remakes (for the time being), us Brits have decided the best way to boost our own film economy is to trawl the nostalgia files for saleable product. This week’s offering is Nick Love’s film version of the classic 70’s cop show The Sweeney. I won’t be paying to see it, but no doubt it will turn what was an edgy, brilliantly scripted, acted and directed much-loved TV show into another of Love’s Essex-boy-wet-dream tales of “pwopa nawty” folks up to no good, only this time they may have to sympathise with the police. Can’t see that going down with his core demographic.

But, of course, this isn’t the first time the dipsomaniacal duo of Regan and Carter have hit the big screen.  Back in the dark and dingy 70’s pretty much any successful TV was considered fair game for a cinematic outing, so it was inevitable that the biggest cop show on TV would arrive at your local pit with a screech of tyres, a bottle of scotch, and hitting sticks at the ready. Twice.

The first outing, Sweeney! (love the exclamation mark, like a bad west end musical version), arrived in 1977, and a rollicking good ride it is.

Given a slightly larger budget, the film has a slightly larger scope, with our heroes finding themselves involved in a conspiracy at the heart of government, which is leaving a trail of dead bodies for the police to clean up, starting with a high class prostitute played by Oxo mum, Lynda Bellingham. She worked for an extremely dodgy PR man (played by Barry Foster with an even dodgier American accent), who has ingratiated himself into the inner sanctum of Energy Minister Ian Bannen.

Regan and Carter find themselves bashing heads with Special Branch and the Secret Service along the way, though their TV guv’nor Haskins is sorely missed.

Compared to most other TV-to-film adaptations, Sweeney! works as both a continuation of the style of the TV series, and as a standalone film. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given that the show was filmed on location, on 16mm, and brought an action-orientated style that was the norm for cinema, but rare on TV in those days.

The major difference here is the violence. The Sweeney always got up the nose of Mary Whitehouse and her ilk, for its realism in the fighting stakes, but here it’s taken to a new level. Whilst not particularly gory (at least not by today’s standards), there a few shockingly brutal scenes, mostly involving machine guns fired at close range. One poor sod is shown with bullets embedded in his face, like a reject Cenobite. Another unfortunate is machine gunned to death from behind just as seems they are about to escape the bad guys. A bobby on the beat also meets his end JFK style.

Nudity is far more prominent than would have been allowed at the time, particularly in the opening few scenes, again thanks to the slightly more lax attitude employed by the cinema at the time.

While some have criticised the film for allowing the boys to get mixed up in a caper than would be far too big for the Squad to deal with, it is at least believable how Regan gets embroiled in it (and really this is Regan’s show; Carter is little more than a supporting character here). The dead prostitute was the ‘girlfriend’ of one of Regan’s snouts, who’s convinced she was murdered rather than the official verdict of suicide. Before he realises it, Regan is up to his neck in dead bodies, and he could be next.

The machinations of the plot can get a bit grating a times, when you wish they’d cut back to the Squad taking on a gang of villains, but by the end it all pays off with a rewarding, if rather abrupt, payoff.

The cast are first class. Any fan of the show will know what they are gonna get with John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. I’m no Waterman fan, but his chemistry with Thaw is absolute gold.

Ian Bannen’s oily MP is note perfect. I was particularly impressed with the political impartiality of the character. Outwardly, he gives the impression of a stereotypical Conservative, but there are hints he could be Labour (mentions of unions, his close relationship with a Liberal magazine editor, played by Colin “The British Are Coming!” Welland). By never revealing, and to be honest it matters not, it shrouds him in mystery, and you’re never entirely sure how much he knows about the conspiracy, and what his part in it actually is.

Foster, accent apart, is on top form as the 70’s answer to Malcolm Tucker, Bannen’s Mr Fixit, with motives of his own and an endless supply of high class tarts, and low rent hitmen at his disposal.

The biggest surprise, for me at least, was former coffee-salesman Diane Keen as another of Foster’s girls. She manages to portray a intriguing mix of street-smart independence and wide-eyed innocence, whilst having herself pimped out to Arab oil sheiks, being water boarded by Regan, or wearing one of Carter’s dodgy 70’s dressing gowns.

(Speaking of fashion, it’s a treat for fans of beige shirts, kipper ties and parkas. The sight of John Thaw dishing out exposition, standing in a 70’s bathroom wearing only a flasher mac is a priceless moment in movie history.)

It’s a rarity for a big screen adaptation to be good, let alone true to the spirit of its origins, but Sweeney! manages both.

The sequel, Sweeney 2, almost succeeds as much (many prefer it), but I felt the decision to take the boys out of London and drop them in Malta for a large portion of the film was a mistake. It feels even more violent than its predecessor, and is still worth watching, but it plays more like an extended version of an episode from the TV series.

Right, I better put me trousers on, and have me dinner.

 

Nazis at the Center of the Earth (2012)

August 6, 2012 6:15 am

HERE BE SPOILERS! You’ve been told…

Oh, The Asylum. It’s been far too long.

Having grown tired of ripping off blockbuster titles with cheap-jack copies (Grimm’s Snow White, The Almighty Thor) and finding ludicrous prefixes to the names of large animals (or combining the names of large animals) to create MEGA movies (Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, obviously), they have taken an interesting turn with their latest shit-fest, managing to sully the good work of someone who spent five years trying to make an interesting low budget film, whilst combining it with a Hollywood rip-off and the excesses of the long dormant Nazisploitation movies of the 70’s. And it truly is a new unwatchable low.

The title alone should tell you that The Asylum are desperately trying to ride the coat tails of Iron Sky, a film that piqued the interest of many a trash film fan a few years ago with a brilliant trailer and a marvelous concept (“Moon Nazis”), that sadly ran out of money and relied on donations from tinterweb geeks to get it finished. It’s a great achievement, managing to look a hundred times better than most Hollywood movies, and it’s good fun, with its tongue nestling nicely in its cheek without being a full-on spoof.

It’s also got a billion times more heart, soul, talent and balls than this. Trying to make a few bob convincing stupid people in video shops or skipping through the Sky EPG that your movie is connected to a big Hollywood film is one thing. Convincing those same people that this is “that new Nazi film everyone on Facebook is talking about” is a different kettle of fish, considering how hard the writer and director worked to get the bloody thing finished AND good. Sad fact is that given Iron Sky‘s wretched distribution, this is more likely to garner bigger audiences, as it will undoubtedly play endlessly on SyFy and be the subject of wonderful internet chatter about how god-awful it is. Which of course I’m perpetuating because I’m a massive hypocrite.

It’s actually more fun spotting the steals from other films than bothering to follow the plot. There’s a touch of The Thing (I wonder if the film had originally been planned to cash-in on the remake/prequel/big stinky poo but they thought better of it), a dash of Dead Snow, a soupcon of Boys From Brazil and lashings of ghastliness familiar to anyone who has ever seen an Italian Nazi camp movie.

One thing The Asylum has always had on its side, is that their films are almost watchable if you’re a few beers down with a group of mates. This is not. I’ve watched a lot of what could be deemed ‘reprehensible’ films in my time, but even I at one point thought “No, you’ve crossed a line there”. If by some bizarre quirk of fate I do choose to watch an Asylum film, I don’t expect to be laughing at the appalling acting one minute, then be witnessing a woman having her clothes ripped off by some undead Nazi, and then be left to be gang raped by a bunch of them while she screams her head off. (This is preceded by a shockingly offensive scene-lift from Schindler’s List!)

I also don’t expect to go from trying to work out how many times the same set can be used for different locations, to the sight of a villain performing an abortion on his girlfriend with a vacuum cleaner.

This is certainly the goriest Asylum film I’ve seen, and some of the effects are reasonably impressive. There’s a couple of good face-rippings, and an amusingly trashy brain operation.

Apparently there is some plot. It’s some nonsense about an Antarctic research base which happens to be right on top of a Nazi underground base where Josef Mengele is alive and well performing skin graft and organ transplant experiments to keep his henchmen alive (an idea which reminded me of the gag in Only Fools and Horses about Trigger’s road sweeping broom). Above them, Dr Jake Busey (huh?), who has ‘lost’ more students than another doctor in the history of Antarctic Research Bases, leads his charges into a big hole, looking for two colleagues snatched by a Nazi at the start of the film.

Yes, of course, Busey has been supplying Mengele with a succession of unwitting subjects for ten years in exchange for his life. Now, he’s decided he quite likes the sound of being led by them. Or does he? It’s hard to know, since he seems to change his mind every 5 minutes. Someone who definitely doesn’t is Dominique Swain (John Travolta’s daughter in Face/Off). Taken at the start of the film, Big Joe takes a bit of a fancy to her, so she dresses up in Nazi gear and plays along. As you do.

But wait… the worst is yet to come. Seriously, if you don’t want to know what all this is leading to stop reading now…

Right… are you ready?

Robot hitler

Remind you of anything? It did to me…

Robot nixon

NIXON’S BACK!!!!

So we get Mecha-Hitler finishing off the survivors, and finally launching his Death Germ Spaceship, with which he’s going to take over the world. The FX budget of about £4.50 gets blown here. They don’t even composite the actor playing Hitler into the suit for most of the shots (only close-ups) instead employing a CGI rendering that looks like a grey splodge with a moustache on it.

This is all so very wrong in so many ways. And I don’t mean that as an endorsement. If you’re even considering watching this, watch Iron Sky instead. Or at least first. The budgets aren’t wildly different, but the film quality is world’s apart.

I think it’s shameful The Asylum thought Iron Sky was fair game, and that they thought the excesses of something like Beast in Heat have a place in a supposedly ‘fun’ movie. It’s also pretty tragic that fair actors like Busey and Swain are reduced to appearing in gutter trash like this to make a buck.

Go back to what you do best Asylum, making mockbusters for the terminally stupid and drunk.

Die Another Day (2002)

May 25, 2012 7:02 am

Die Another Day poster

With all the 2012 shenanigans going on this year and Britain being the focus of the world for everyone (except us miserable Brits who are refusing to get caught up in the swirl of Union Jack clad mayhem we are being subjected to) it seems only fitting that the greatest living fictional Brit is also celebrating a jubilee this year. Yes, it’s 50 years since everyone’s favourite right-wing, gun-toting psychopath killed his first bad guy on screen, for Queen and country. And probably cos he quite enjoys killing people a bit too much.

The release this week of the first Skyfall trailer seems to have made everyone forget how dreadful Quantum of Solace was and focus instead on how the series has been rejuvenated by the casting of Daniel Craig, and the darker, more sombre tone. Sadly, ten years ago, for the 40th anniversary of Bond’s first on-screen shag, things were a little different.

Pierce Brosnan was being wildly credited with reviving the sexist, misogynist dinosaur for a new audience. Out were Roger Moore’s raised eyebrow, Timothy Dalton’s obvious disdain for a role beneath his abilities, and Sean Connery’s wigs. In came a confident swagger, better supporting actors and bigger action. And after three hugely successful films of variable quality it was decided for the big 4-0, they would go for broke on a thoroughly schizophrenic adventure which would combine a tough revenge thriller, of a kind hard core Fleming fans wanted, and high octane thrills for the mass audience.

What we got was Moonraker 2.

It’s been a long time since I last saw Die Another Day. I caught some of it on ITV a few months back and turned it off as soon as the first ad break appeared (I think it was before the opening titles), so I came back to it having largely forgotten huge chunks of it. But it was just as dreadful as I remembered it being.

If you can’t remember Die Another Day, you’re very lucky. So I’ll refresh your brain. It’s the one with the invisible car. Yes, that got through the committee script process: an invisible car. That pretty much sets the tone for everything else in the film.

Halle Berry plays another ‘female Bond’ who is as talented, resourceful and dangerous as him, but still needs to be rescued four times throughout the film. Toby Stephens is the sneering villain (and a wonderful sneer it is too) called Gustav despite the fact he’s supposed to be from Argentina (but isn’t really). Rosamund Pike is the far more attractive, and more interesting secondary female, and is consequently given little to do. She may be a spy, or she may be working for Gustav. She changes her mind everytime the plot starts to sag.

Bond is banged up in North Korea after killing a General. He’s busted within seconds of landing his helicopter despite pretending to be someone else. This is not the last time you’ll think “Actually, Bond is a bit of shit spy”.

14 months of torture later (over which plays Madonna’s entry for the ‘Worst Bond Theme Ever’ competition. It’s not clear if that’s part of the torture.), he’s still wisecracking with the father of the general he killed, but finds himself traded for the henchman Zao, a character so dull they have to imbed diamonds in his face to make him appear more interesting. MI6 think Bond has cracked and is leaking secrets, so naturally, they let him escape from a high security boat in Hong Kong harbour, so he can find out what’s really going on.

Much tedium ensues as Bond goes to Cuba, shags Halle Berry, blows some stuff up, has a sword fight with Gustav (one of the better scenes in the film, despite Madonna’s contractually obligated pointless cameo) before the villain invites him to Iceland for the demonstration of his diamond encrusted space laser. You know, just like the one Blofeld had in Diamonds are Forever.

Cyril Sneer

Once we get to Iceland things go from bad to worse. We meet ANOTHER henchman called… dear, lord… Mr Kil (sic).  There’s also a weasley electronics nerd who talks like Peter Lorre, who’s designing a Robocop style suit for Gustav to control his space laser.

The villain’s lair will here be played by a palace made entirely of ice (nice idea, based on a real hotel in Scandeweigia somewhere), which of course will have to be destroyed. Nice twist is that the villain blows it up himself in an attempt to drown Halle Berry. Odd this, as she’s trapped in a room made of ice that’s melting. Surely, it can’t be that hard to escape from? And why not just blast her directly with your space laser, instead of s-l-o-w-l-y melting the building?

Meanwhile Bond is trying to escape bad guys (by running away, like a girl) by stealing Gustav’s ice riding thing (it looks like a canoe with skis), and ends up ice surfing into the worst CGI ever seen in a $150 million movie.

Horace Goes Skiing

Bond then remembers he hasn’t driven his new car yet, so goes back to the ice palace and takes on Zao, who himself has a souped-up, gadget-laden motor. Nice, if pointless, idea, but it results in one of the dullest car chases in the series since they just keep blowing each other’s missiles up. It’s a shame, as the logistics for staging the sequence of a car chase on a frozen lake, were huge. Sadly, most of the good work is lost thanks to Tony Scott and Michael Bay editor, Christian Wagner. Ooh, sped up then slowed down car chases… exciting. The sequence does feature one of the series best ever moments though, when Bond uses the ejector seat to flip his car the right way up after being hit by a rocket.

Then there’s a ridiculous climax as our heroes stowaway on a big plane, while Gustav space lasers the demilitarised zone between the Koreas, so the North can invade the South. People get sucked out of the plane, obviously and Halle Berry calls Rosamund Pike a bitch. Which isn’t very nice.

And then we get that bloody awful Madonna theme song in an even worse, bloody awful remix version.

END. Thank god.

There’s so much wrong here, it’s hard to know where to start. The Moore-isms are back with a vengeance, but Brosnan just doesn’t convince, and comes across as a sleazy old man (particularly his continual advances to the excellent Pike who was, literally, half his age). The scene where he flirts with Hale Berry on their first meeting, is frankly the worst dialogue that has ever appeared in a Bond movie (with the possible exception of Moore’s ad-libbed “That should keep you in curry for a few weeks” to his Indian contact in Octopussy).

And Berry, is no better, possibly even worse. It’s hard to imagine this is the same woman who won an Oscar for Monster’s Ball when she was making this. Every line she delivers tumbles from her gob, with her tongue visibly in her cheek. It’s like she knows it’s complete crap, but at least she’s having fun making it. I think it’s a good example of why Bond movies are normally better with lesser known, better actors, than with BIG NAME stars (with the exception Christopher Walken). Did anyone really go to see Die Another Day just because Halle Berry was in it? Come to think of it, has anyone EVER gone to see a film just because Halle Berry was in it? They certainly didn’t go and see Catwoman. Miaow.

"How do you know I'm good?", asked Halle. "You're not, love", replied the audience

Stephens has fun as Gustav.  Many criticised his rather broad performance, and sneer, but as he’s created a new personality for himself, he clearly says he based it on Bond. It justifies all the perceived awfulness, as he’s just being Brosnan as a bad guy.

Judi Dench is her usual flawless self, facing off against an angry Bond AND Mr Blond (Michael Madsen was considered for a recurring character but it never happened. Sadly, she doesn’t slap Bond down when he snaps “Let me get on with my job”, which in the earlier films she most certainly would have.

And Rosamund Pike is excellent, considering this was her first film. She desperately tries to make Miranda Frost an interesting character, despite the script. And her contempt for Bond is as marvelous as Luciana Paluzzi in Thunderball.

A gratuitous picture of Rosamund Pike

It’s just an absolute mess. It’s like one of the major studios, with big American producers, had decided to make a rival Bond movie and got everything wrong (just like Casino Royale ’67 and Never Say Never Again). Poor CGI is tossed around, unforgivable in a series which has always prided itself on real stunts, and high quality craftsmanship in its model work. Even in this day and age, for some reason, Bond movies have never been able to master back projection. Some of the shots are as bad as the legendary Jaws on a cable car from Moonraker, which did feature real stuntmen hanging off a cable car on Sugar Loaf mountain WITHOUT a safety cable. I doubt very much a stuntmen went anywhere a glacier for the ice-surfing scene.

The dialogue is so pun heavy it starts to resemble a Carry On film, or worse, a Confessions film. None of the characters are particularly interesting, they are all just archetypes: female Bond, villainous turncoat, villain, henchman, mad doctor, cannon fodder, singer who wants to be in the film…

The excuses for its overindulgence were that it was supposed to be a celebration: 40 years, obviously, but also it was the 20th (official) film. So the film is peppered with references to all the other films in the series, some obvious, some more cryptic. What this does though, is lift you out of the film, and kills any momentum or tension it may have generated. How can you stay involved with something that every 5 minutes is nudging you going “Look, did you see that? Look it’s the jetpack from Thunderball. Look it’s the Union jack parachute. look Gustav nearly said ‘Diamonds are Forever’, but then didn’t. Aren’t we so clever?”

No, you’re not clever. You’re annoying. It feels at times like one of those awful Dr Who specials for Children in Need. I expect Terry Wogan to appear throwing a metal rimmed hat, or Graham Norton to menace Brosnan with a metal arm. Actually, either of those would have been preferable to Bond fighting Mr Kil surrounded by killer lasers (still, with the fricking lasers?).

You can make a case for several Bond movies being the worst in the series, but they all have something to redeem them. Except this one.

Die Another Day was the last DVD to leave its cellophane straight jacket in my DVD box set. I suspect when the Bluray box arrives, it will remain there forever.

 

 

Ants! (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor) (1977)

May 22, 2012 2:30 am

It’s funny the things that scare kids. As a nipper growing up in the halcyon days of the video nasty I was privy to all manner of eye gouging, limb severing and demonic possession you could shake a bloody stump at. Yet I very rarely had nightmares watching the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters or the Evil Dead. My nightmares were much more mundane, caused by the faceless man in Sapphire and Steel, Julian Glover ripping his face off to reveal his true alien identity in Dr Who, and, most terrifying of all, The Incredible Hulk. Whilst kids the country over would propel themselves behind the sofa at the mere cry of “Exterminate”, I was cowering behind cushions hoping no one was going to upset that nice Dr Banner this week. At least I would get the warning of Bill Bixby’s green contact lenses.

One set of films did give me the willies, but probably because the threat seemed a tad more real and immediate than that posed by the Caribbean undead or hockey masked psychos: revenge of nature movies.

Whilst they had been a staple of cinema for decades, the 70s brought a whole slew of them, mainly thanks to the success of Jaws. All manner of cuddly (and not so cuddly) critters were wheeled out as the next big threat to humanity. Whilst cinema generally went big (Grizzly, Orca, the wonderful Alligator, um… The Giant Spider Invasion), US TV wanted in on the act too.

Their budgets obviously wouldn’t stretch to ocean filming, or expensive locations for exotic wild animals. So their threats were generally more mundane.

Enter Guerdon Trueblood, a TV movie veteran who managed to turn out FOUR creepy crawly based creature features in a year: The Savage Bees (and a sequel Terror Out of the Sky), Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo and Ants! (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor).

These seemed to play every week on UK TV in my youth, and I loved them all, even though they would all give me sleepless nights (and ruin sunny days, particularly the day I fell in an ants nest, convinced they were going to eat me alive).

It’s interesting how these stand up pretty well today (and compared to the mega-budgeted The Swarm, The Savage Bees is Oscar-worthy) … except Ants.

An ant yesterday

A group of TV regulars (Robert Foxworth, Barry van Dyke, Suzanne Somers) and out of work B-movie plodders (Bernie Casey, Lynda Day George) find themselves trapped in a hotel, beseiged by killer ants, driven psycho nuts by pesticides.

George runs the titular Lakewood Manor with her wheelchair bound mother (30’s screen legend, Myrna Loy). She’s also having it away with gruff Foxworth, foreman of the building site next door. He’s rather perturbed when two of his men end up in hospital, one later dying, after being buried in a hole. But they didn’t suffocate as expected. Instead they suffered severe nerve trauma, probably as the result of a venomous toxin.

(I should point out here, the film has a slapdash attitude to the difference between venom and poison, using both terms with gay abandon, even from the gob of a so-called expert who talks about poisonous ants, as opposed to venomous ants.)

This 'expert' doesn't know the difference between venom and poison

Of course the hotel is ..er… half full of soap opera characters, and mute extras. There’s the sleazy businessman, and his mistress, who want to buy the hotel and turn it into a casino; there’s the single mum and her irritating son; and there’s a teenage runaway who falls for the pool attendant/desk clerk/handyman (he basically does everything).

The first half of the film very tediously takes us through all these interweaving ‘stories’, occasionally cutting to the hotel kitchen, to show the ants very very slowly making their way up the sink, whilst a jolly fat chef endlessly mixes something in a bowl.

The kid gets in next, and to be fair, it was an accident waiting to happen, what with him scrabbling around in the bins in just his swimming trunks. It’s amazing the ants got him before he severed his achilles tendon on a broken bottle. His leap into the pool (to cries of “Help, he can’t swim!”) to try and rid himself of the ants, is of course witnessed by our hero, Foxworth, who happens to be there snogging the missus. Taking charge, and ordering around the lifeguard, even though he doesn’t actually work there, he starts to wonder what’s going on.

When Bad Movies Attack!

He and buddy Bernie Casey go to investigate the hole where his men were hospitalised. Within a few seconds, Casey is spasming and swatting imaginary ants from his trousers.

At the same time, jolly chef has been got. Serves him right really for wearing open toed sandals in a food preparation area. Strangely, the health inspector isn’t bothered by that, and instead closes the hotel on the grounds that the kitchen must be infected with a virus. Obviously.

This is kick up the arse the film needs.

The extras have all been evacuated, but before our top billed stars can leave, they find themselves trapped by now a horde of ants which are slowly… very slowly, making their way inside!

Yes, this is the half way point. So you can probably guess just how tedious the build up to this has been. Thankfully the second half is so deliriously wacky and unintentionally hilarious you can almost forgive the first turgid 45 minutes.

A real actor arrives, in the shape of Brian Dennehy as a fire chief who shouts a lot and has a magic hi vis jacket which appears and disappears at regular intervals.

Brian Dennehy calls his agent

For some reason each attempt to rescue the remaining stars is only used to rescue one of them. A fire ladder is used for one, but then the truck drives away, happily honking his horn as he goes, with no explanation of why he left. A helicopter is utilised until they realise the updraft is spreading the ants all over the crowd of gawping extras who have now surrounded the hotel.

But the true highlight comes when just three survivors are left. It’s going to take half an hour to get some protective hazmat suits to them, but the ants are closing in fast. Well, not exactly fast, but … slow. Their best bet is not to move. And not breath on the ants.

This results in… well see for yourself. Any description would not do this scene the bad movie justice it deserves.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, mainly because I’m not entirely sure what happens. It’s not entirely clear if they manage to defeat the ants or not.

At the end of the day Ants is a cheap, knock-off TV movie. Thanks mainly to the interesting low-rent cast, it’s more watchable than the dreadful Empire of the Ants, and more accommodating than the widely praised, but desperately dull, Phase 4. It’ll pass the time on a wet sunday afternoon, but really it’s only recommended if you want to see Barry van Dyke fall into a digger, a naked woman covered in Ants, or you’re a Brian Dennehy completist (hey, you never know, they could exist).