Sunday, 23 July 2017

It Comes at Night by Trey Edward Shults

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "There's nothing like a great horror movie... and this is nothing like a great horror movie."

It's not that it's bad, exactly, it's just that it's utterly inconsequential... 

The cast is strong, though, with the reliable Joel Edgerton in the lead as Paul. Edgerton himself is a writer-director who has crafted a good suspense/horror film (The Gift), but he is just an actor here.

The movie is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. The set up is that a terrible plague has swept the world. Paul and his family have sensibly isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods.

When an outsider turns up (Christopher Abbott as Will) they assume he is an interloper who has come to steal from them — clean water is a valuable resource. 

But Will says he has a vulnerable family who are waiting for him...

Paul decides to give them a chance and Will's family move in with our heroes. But can we trust them?

It's a perfectly viable set up for a suspenseful tale, and there are some effective sequences. 

But the script is threadbare. The cheapest gimmick in any horror movie is to throw in a dream sequence to provide a shock. This movie does this not once, but five or six times. 

It seems to be the only trick available to the writer.

It Comes at Night is big disappointment. If you want a horror movie which really does the job, and is a masterpiece into the bargain, see Get Out by Jordan Peele. 

It Comes at Night would never have ranked very high, but coming in the wake of that classic, it hardly exists at all.

I liked the dog, Stanley, though....

(Image credits: only three posters at Imp Awards. The alternate poster with a tree comes from Lil Wayne.)

Sunday, 16 July 2017

"Hybrid Puppies" — Spider-Man: Homecoming

The most recent movie about Spider-Man (one simply must include that hyphen) was the truly dreadful Amazing Spider-Man 2 back in 2014. I wrote about it here and, trust me, I wasn't happy.  

So my guard was well and truly up when the new Spidey franchise came scuttling into cinemas everywhere. 

But a friend told me the movie was good — great, actually — so I decided to give it a chance and see it that very day.    

I recently discussed, in connection with Wonder Woman, how comic book film are best made as period pieces. Well, Spider-Man: Homecoming (unwieldy title, but I guess they had to call it something) blithely ignores that dictum.   

It's set in modern day New York city, and indeed that's one of its strengths. The movie draws on a realistic — but very funny — view of urban high-school life.  

And it is great.  

Besides the period piece thing, the other really useful piece of advice if you ever find yourself making a comic book film is do not do an origin story. And, blissfully, Spider-Man: Homecoming does follow this path.  

It plunges us straight into the teenage world of Peter Parker, coping with adolescence and mutant spider powers.

Parker is played by British actor Tom Holland (he was one of the voices on the phone in the magnificent Locke). Holland is splendid, just perfect.  

However, he's not alone. Let me pass quickly over Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man — no hyphen for him), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan) and even Marisa Tomei, as Peter's aunt May. They're all fine...  

But more impressive is the teen cast: Laura Harrier as Peter's love interest Liz (actually 26, not a teen at all, but perfect casting) and Zendaya — with great hair — as class rebel Michelle (she has a wonderful line about the Washington monument being built by slaves).

Then there's Jacob Batalon as Ned, Peter's chubby nerd best friend, who becomes Spider-Man's assistant with a computer, or 'the guy in the chair' as Ned calls it.     

Yet we still haven't got to the finest performer in the film. It's Michael Keaton as the bad guy. Yes, I know. Michael Keaton has been through the movie mill for so long that it didn't seem he had any surprises left.   

But this is his best role ever, and he's wonderful. And that isn't the only surprise in this film...   

Because Spider-Man: Homecoming features a brilliant twist, something which I really didn't see coming, and which remains an enduring joy whenever I think of it.  

What a dazzling movie. It is directed by Jon Watts, who also gets a screenplay credit.     

And that list of screenplay credits is extensive: six writers, consisting of three pairs of teams — each with an ampersand.         

The top credit is given to Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley, who interestingly specialise in comedies (e.g. Horrible Bosses). 

Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers also have a strong comedy pedigree (The Lego Batman Movie and the TV show American Dad). 

Whereas Jon Watts & Christopher Ford have written some comedies but have a stronger track record in horror and crime thrillers (Clown, Cop Car, both of which were directed by Watts).       

The comedy influence is strong, and Spider-Man: Homecoming (I'm getting so tired of typing that dumb title) is outstanding fun. 

But it also really delivers the thrills — there's a devastating scene featuring the Staten Island ferry — and it has suspense and, as I said, surprises.  

Not quite up to the standards of the peerless Wonder Woman, but this is an exceptional comic book movie and one of the most agreeable summer block busters. Give it a spin.

(Image credits: posters, including a rather clever triptych, are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Wonder Woman by Allan Heinberg

DC Comics haven't had a lot of luck in terms of their movie adaptations. Certainly Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise has been a hit, but elsewhere the results have been somewhat dire. 

Zack Snyder's recent Superman (and now Batman) movies are, I think, numbingly poor. As was Suicide Squad from the normally excellent David Ayer. And then there's Green Lantern...

So my hopes were low for the new Wonder Woman movie. How wrong I was. It's an absolutely delightful popcorn picture, and also one of the best films of the year.

It gets off to a rocky start with a long, long, long prologue on Paradise Island, the enclave of Amazons where Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up. We ploddingly establish the set up for the film — basically that there's a bad guy called Ares, who will turn up later in a rather obvious twist.

But as soon as plucky pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) turns up, and Wonder Woman is precipitated into the real world, the movie hits its stride and never puts a foot wrong.

The smartest decision by the writers was making Wonder Woman a period piece. Perhaps because of their inherent silliness, comic book stories work vastly better at a remove from the modern day world.

Crucially, though, unlike the World War Two setting of, say Captain America — which presented a ludicrous fantasy of a racially integrated US Army — Wonder Woman takes pains to actually try and depict the real horror and suffer of its own period — World War One.

When Diana sees the casualties of the mass slaughter she registers horror, and so does the audience. 

Gal Gadot is absolutely radiant in the lead role, playing the part with real heart and humour — "A baby!" she exclaims in London (you don't have such things back on the island) and has to be dissuaded from racing over to inspect the kid.

But that heart and humour were put there in the script. The screenplay is by Allan Heinberg (who has a distinguished track record in television, including Scandal) developed from earlier drafts by Jason Fuchs and, of all people, Zack Snyder. 

(One doesn't expect heart or humour from Zack Snyder.) The movie is splendidly directed by Patty Jenkins, best known for Monster (2003).

Wonder Woman has some terrific actions sequences (and a rather dull final battle). But for me the real pleasures were the small moments of fun, and some surprising character development. 

Among the ragtag band of good guys who join Diana on her quest is an American Indian, called simply the Chief (played by Canadian actor Eugene Brave Rock).

Diana, who of course knows nothing of our world, has a late night camp fire chat with the Chief about his history, and he tells how his ancestors lost everything. "Who took that from your people?" she asks.

"His people," says the Chief tersely, nodding at the sleeping Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is a fun movie, a classic, a wonderful blend of reality and fantasy and better than it has any right to be. If you only see one summer blockbuster, I urge you to make it this one. 

(Image credits: Plenty of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Border Town Girl by John D. MacDonald

Before John D. MacDonald embarked on his distinguished career as a novelist he learned his trade writing short fiction for magazines, both pulp magazines and slicks. Most of these shorter efforts have been consigned to oblivion, but Border Town Girl is fascinating because it preserves two of the longer examples — what we'd call novellas.

The pair of stories are of roughly equal length and are called Border Town Girl (great title) and Linda (dull title). They were published in 1950 and 1956, the title story originally appearing in Dime Detective Magazine as 'Five Star Fugitive' (lame title), a pulp if there ever was one, and Linda making its debut in this book, although it would later be reprinted in a magazine hilariously entitled Climax.

The long gap between the writing of the stories shows. Border Town Girl is about a disillusioned writer and war vet (a classic MacDonald protagonist) called Lane Sanson who gets caught up in drug smuggling from Mexico to Texas. 

It's an efficient and vivid tale, but it is chiefly notable for its villain, Christy, a great name — deceptively innocent sounding — for a memorable bad guy with frightening strength and "zany little blue eyes." 

There is a hellish, nightmarish sequence when the wounded, fever-ridden Christy stumbles towards his revenge — and his demise.

The story features some dud dialogue like "You're a strange man, Lane Sanson", but on the other hand there are some fine descriptions — "He drifted, soundless as smoke, across the room..." "The sun was a hot weight behind him, pushing him along." 

And this wonderful evocation of an airliner, a "tired old plane" which "had sagged and blundered its way through storm and hail." The plane itself is virtually irrelevant to the story, but MacDonald just can't help being an outstanding writer.

Despite it's anodyne title Linda, written six years later, is a masterpiece. It tells of a dull little man, a "desperado of the cellar workshop," who has somehow managed to marry a gorgeous siren. "Linda was flamboyantly noticeable." Whereas their friend Stella's appeal is "subtle in the way that a Japanese print is subtle."

Poor Stella is going to be murdered by Linda and her own husband, and they are going to frame Linda's husband, the dull little man, for the killing. I could hardly bear to go on reading as the jaws of fate closed savagely on our hero...

The carefully planned murder takes place when the two couples go on holiday to Florida in rented cabins beside the beach. As usual, MacDonald brings the setting wonderfully to life: "Small sandpipers ran in flocks, pecking and then trotting up and away from the lap of waves, like groups of spry, stooped little men in tailcoats with their hands locked behind them."

The killing of Stella is horrific, as is the apparently full-proof framing of our hero. But, incredibly and satisfyingly, the tables are turned and Linda becomes "a shrewd animal fighting for its life."

This is an explosive, harrowing and unforgettable tale. No wonder it was twice filmed for television.

(Image credits: The covers are from Good Reads, except for the garter-and-typewriter  which is from Pinterest. The magazine illustration for Linda is from the superb and informative MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold. The original McGinnis illustrations — including the rather more cheeky one — are from Elisa Rolle's McGinnis blog. )

Sunday, 25 June 2017

4DX Cinema: The Tingler Returns

For most of last year my local cinema in south London was in a state of chaos, being ripped apart and undergoing extensive renovations. While part of this project was to generally upgrade the screens and seating — a good thing — another major objective was to install a new 4DX screen.

"What the hell is 4DX?" I hear you ask. Well, when I described it to a buddy of mine he laughed and said "It's The Tingler!" Which was hilarious, because that had been exactly my own reaction. The Tingler was a low budget 1959 horror movie by a huckster of a producer named William Castle. To promote it, Castle dreamed up a contrivance called Percepto. This involved having seats in the cinema wired so they would vibrate at a certain point in the movie. It was a cheap and silly gimmick.

4DX also makes your seat vibrate. And it does more than that, but allow me to quote from the publicity blurb: 

"Providing a revolutionary cinematic experience which stimulates all five senses, the 4DX includes high-tech motion seats and special effects including wind, fog, lightning, bubbles, water, rain and scents, in both 2D and 3D formats. These effects work in perfect synchronicity with the action on screen – creating the most unmissable and exhilarating cinematic experience yet."  

Friends... it is just another cheap and silly gimmick. Though it's not cheap in terms of admission prices — a full-price adult ticket is around £20. Even so, I was tempted to check out this unmissable and exhilarating cinematic experience. So as soon as the 4DX screen opened, I tried to see Rogue One there. Unfortunately, the 4DX system had broken down, as it did frequently in the first few weeks. 

But I have finally caught a movie in 4DX — Wonder Woman — and I can describe what it's like. (I will write about the Wonder Woman film itself in a separate post.)

First, it has to be said that the 4DX seats are big and comfy. But soon they are in constant motion. For instance, when we see the Amazons on horseback, our seats jog us as if we're riding a horse.

Now, this might make sense if it was a point-of-view shot of somebody who is riding a horse. To put you into the skin of the rider, so to speak. But it makes no sense at all if you have a long shot of somebody riding a horse in the distance.

Similarly, in a fight scene, as the good guys and bad guys punch each other, our seats jerk around and we get jabbed in the back — the effect is a bit like a massage chair gone rogue. 

But why, when the bad guy hits the ground, do we feel an impact? Are we supposed to be the bad guy?

This confusion about viewpoint is one of the fatal flaws of the system. But there are plenty more. When a strong wind starts blowing in a scene, a big wind machine starts up in the cinema — making a hell of a racket and ruining our enjoyment. 

And then there are the puffs of air. In the back of your seat, on either side of your head, are two small holes. These emit violent and noisy blasts of cold air onto your face to — supposedly — mimic the feel of a near miss as a bullet or an arrow whizzes past to you.

It's difficult to describe how annoying this is. I was soon dreading any gunfight or use of the bow and arrow. I ended up trying to stick wads of Kleenex into the goddamned holes to block them (it wasn't very effective).

There are controls on the arms of your chair, but unfortunately these only allow you to turn off one option — the drop of water in the face. A good idea, for those of us who don't want to contract Legionaire's disease. But it did nothing to stop the goddamned puffs of air.

4DX is a waste of time and I can't believe it will ever catch on. It won't save a bad movie but it will certainly spoil a good one. Luckily Wonder Woman was sufficiently excellent to survive the 4DX treatment, but many other movies wouldn't be.

I recommend avoiding the 4DX experience, but if you do go you might find yourself sorely tempted to use some chewing gum to block those bloody air puffs.

 (Image credits: The Tingler poster is from Texas Public Radio. The ecstatic people wearing 3D glasses and looking suspiciously like audience shills in a publicity shot are from the Wandsworth Guardian. The other awed audience members are from this Cineworld page. The man enjoying his flaming seat is from another Cineword page. The pictures of the 4DX seats are from Hey Guys. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman — and she is great — is from Cosmic Book News.)

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Mummy by Kurtzman, Koepp, McQuarrie

To say that I wasn't a fan of the previous (highly successful) Mummy franchise, created by writer-director Stephen Sommers, would be to put it mildly. 

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiss were terrific, but the movies themselves were junk. Overblown, incoherent, with no narrative armature or emotional core. 

They dumped a ton of CGI on the audience instead of bothering with niceties like empathy or story or characterisation.

So it's sad to report that the new reboot of the series falls into exactly the same trap. And it really didn't need to. The cast is even stronger this time, and the movie begins really well...

Nick (Tom Cruise) and Chris (Jake Johnson) are theoretically attached to the US Army in Iraq, but basically they're there to loot antiquities. 

Beautiful archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis, from Peaky Blinders) has a map of unique treasure site, given her to by the mysterious and powerful Henry (Russell Crowe).

Nick and Chris steal the map and are the first to arrive at the site. And given the title of the movie, there's no prizes for guessing what they find there...

This whole section of the movie is very effective and culminates in Nick, Chris and Jenny flying back with a sarcophagus in a military transport plane, which breaks apart over England in a scene which — while far from original — is thrilling fun.

The rest of the movie takes place in England, and mostly in London. If the plane crash was reminiscent of Monster Squad, much else — such as the running gag of Nick's now dead friend Chris popping up all over the place — calls to mind An American Werewolf in London.

On the other hand, the Mummy (played by the striking Sofia Boutella, who was so great in Kingsman and Star Trek Beyond) has the power to summon masses of rats and other vermin in a manner which is reminiscent of Dracula.

This actually makes a lot of sense, when you consider the true, uncredited, source of all the Mummy movies is probably Dracula's creator, Bram Stoker, in the shape of his novel The Jewel of Seven Stars.

But where The Mummy goes fatally off the rails is when it drags in the work of another great Victorian Gothic novelist. Because the 'Henry' whom Russell Crowe portrays turns out to be Dr Henry Jeckyll — yes, that's right, as in Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. 

This just makes no sense at all. It's a wild lurch into the territory of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Penny Dreadful, but the movie doesn't pull it off, and never recovers from it. The descent into boring, silly and meaningless action is precipitous and irreversible.

The characters, and the audience, are soon buried under a numbing avalanche of dull CGI. 

What a pity. This was so nearly a really good summer popcorn movie.

(Image credits: All the posters are from good old reliable old Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Unlocked by Peter O'Brien

I love a good thriller, and this is a great thriller. It is set in London, and concerns an American agent who is forced to go rogue because she is menaced from all sides and doesn't know who to trust. 

In these respects it is reminiscent of another excellent espionage adventure, Survivor, written by Philip Selby.

Unlocked is the work of Peter O'Brien. It is his first screenplay but, as the saying goes, judging by this it certainly won't be his last. 

If O'Brien is a newcomer then the film's director Michael Apted is an old hand. His many credits in a long and distingushed career include a Bond film, The World is Not Enough.

Unlocked is gripping, suspenseful and it kept me guessing. I was pleasurably surprised more than once by sudden twists in the plot. 

The only real flaw it has is in following a very hoary cliché. Cynical viewers would guess from the beginning that the heroine's black friend is marked for death. 

As soon as we see his happy home life, and watch him playing with his beloved infant daughter, we know his fate is sealed...

Other than that, though, full marks for a great script. Well researched, fast moving and very hard-edged. In its ruthlessness it reminded me a little of the spy thrillers by Trevanian like The Eiger Sanction.

Unlocked has a particularly spectacular cast. Noomi Rapace is perfect in the lead role, but the support includes Michael Douglas and John Malkovich as CIA chiefs, Toni Collette as a senior British spook and, best of all, Orlando Bloom as an ex-soldier turned burglar.

For years I had a theory that Bloom was only viable in movies where he could swordfight with the bad guys. Here he proves me comprehensively wrong. He's achieved a new maturity and seriousness.

Unlocked is a first rate action movie. Don't miss it.

(Image credits: The posters are from good old Imp Awards.)