Archive for April, 2007

The Drudge II

Some people have turned watching rubbish movies into something close to an art form. For the rest of us, it’s a case of avoiding them like the plague, catching something that’s virtually critic-proof (e.g. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, which I didn’t think was at all bad, though I accept a deuce of fandom on my part), or hoping that it won’t turn out to be as cruddy as it clearly is (like Goal II, which somehow managed to make the first instalment look like a Bergmanesque work of art - see my review for more). The Grudge II falls into the latter camp. It follows a movie that whilst commercially successful, was critically unloved. The derivations pile up when we see that the two American releases are remakes of Japanese originals, which in turn rip off the Ringu trilogy at every turn. Is there any hope for it?

'Get me out of this!'I admit that, against considerable odds, The Grudge turned out to be the scariest horror film I’ve seen whilst an adult. Probably, this was as much to do with my state of mind as the film itself, the fact I was alone in the house, and for hours afterwards thought I could hear all manner of noises around me. In the end, I could only watch it again after a few drinks, when of course I was ready to take on any number of lank-haired ghosts.

It was after this that I thought the sequel might turn out to have just as great a fear-inducing effect. Big mistake. TGII fails on almost every level. It tries to up the ante by increasing the number of characters bothered and finally bumped off by malevolent spirits Kayako and Toshio, and instead becomes wearily predictable long before the 102 minutes are up. Things start promisingly when the pre-credits Columbia lady transforms into Kayako (call me a sucker, but I love the clever way certain films do this, though this one isn’t as good as the superb way Event Horizon arses around with the Paramount mountain), but it’s all downhill from there. The plot, and I use that word loosely, is as follows:

There’s this haunted house in Japan. Whenever someone enters it, they’ll be scared once or twice by a couple of ghosts, before they’re offed in some improbable way. And, er, that’s it.

No really, that’s it. Virtually any semblance of a cohesive story is sucked out of the proceedings in favour of jump scene after jump scene. At first, these are reasonably well done - the spooks can strike at any time, night or day, but usually when the victim is alone. The scene where a girl is in a telephone booth, only to find black hair enveloping her, is fairly unexpected, though not all that scary. After around the fifth death, however, it just loses any edge it once had. Anyone who goes into the house has their card marked, and at no point does a character figure out how to stop the ghosts. They just keep on coming, finding new and bizarre ways to catch up with their prey, until they clearly get fed up with striking at people who are daft enough to go into the house and attack just about anyone within easy haunting distance.

'I need to get out more'Best death? There’s a wonderfully daft bit where some guy who has taken pictures of the house is getting them developed in his own darkroom. As the photo materialises, Kayako emerges at its centre, until she starts to leave the print and rise out of the developing tray. For one, pre-killing moment, the photographer and ghost just look at each other, and it’s almost possible to believe the two actors are thinking the same thing - what the fuck are we doing here?

Even Sarah Michelle Gellar, who at least can play someone who’s scared better than most, has little more than a cameo role this time around. It’s as though Buffy knew she was appearing in a real stinker, and wanted to get her chips before losing any sense of lingering credibility. Instead, poor Amber Tamblyn bears the brunt of what happens next, reprising the Gellar role to the degree that she virtually relives her fictional sister’s experiences during the first film. There’s a secondary strand involving three students who are dumb enough to brave the house. Guess what happens to them. Finally, back in America, a family rather implausibly falls foul of the ghosts, through no fault of their own.

By the end of The Grudge, I was cheering for the characters, hoping they would unlock the spirits’ secret and save their own lives. As this one lurched towards its predictable conclusion, I found myself not caring. I wasn’t bothered about any of the people involved, and principally hoped Kayako and Toshio would do away with them that bit quicker to spare me any more of this interminable bobbins.

The Grudge II is out on Region 2 DVD from 7 May, if you’re even vaguely interested.

Posted on 30th April 2007
Under: Horror, Bobbins | 1 Comment »

Getting Hitched - ‘The Guest Who’s Dead on Time’

It’s been a while since I last dipped into the Alfred Hitchcock boxset, which means I’ve had to wait to sample a film that’s a rare first time viewing. Unforgiveable really, because like Shadow of a Doubt, this entry is straight from the top drawer, an intense character study that clocks in at a mere 80 minutes.

Rope (1948)

The movie opens with a scream, and the sight of David (Dick Hogan) being strangled with a rope. David’s killers bundle his corpse into a chest, and then discuss what they’ve just done. One of them, Brandon (John Dall), is quite pleased with himself, whilst his flatmate, Phillip (Farley Granger), expresses the fear of being caught. Brandon is very much the dominant character. Not only does he think they’ll get away with the crime, he’s also going to rub the dead man’s face in it by inviting a number of guests to a supper party that evening, all of whom have some association with him. Amongst the diners is their former schoolmaster, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who made a big impression on them by passing on the ‘Superman’ theories of Nietzsche. Believing himself to be superior to ordinary people by virtue of his intellect, Brandon reckons Rupert will appreciate their motives. Phillip has gone along with this up until the murder itself, but from then on he’s a mess, drinking heavily and dropping desperate hints to the suspicious Rupert. It’s clear they’ll get caught out eventually, but when? By whom?

RopeRope started life as a stage play, based on the 1942 real life murder case involving rich postgraduates, Lieb and Leopold. The theatrical root of the movie is copied quite faithfully. Though screenwriter Patrick Hamilton had some trouble adapting the text from its British source, little of this is apparent when the action moves to New York. It is, however, quite obviously written for the stage. Everything takes place in Brandon and Phillip’s flat and was filmed in long single takes, a staggering technical achievement that was only broken up due to the length of physical film available at the time. Because of this, cuts took place when the camera zoomed into a character’s back, only to pan out and resume quite fluidly once a fresh reel of film was installed.

Unusually for any film, its most dramatic moment - the murder - takes place at the very start. The plot thus develops into a suspenseful yarn about the killers waiting to be caught, and wait they do. Though anyone in their right mind would get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible, the young men lounge in their flat, and then have people over, eating off the very chest that has become a coffin for the slain David. Casually, the group talk about the missing fellow, Brandon at one point having the gall to expand on the theories as taught by Rupert. Only a few physical mannerisms betray the killers’ fraught states of mind. On the outside, Brandon seems all the more composed, but hints develop that he isn’t all that cool a customer, such as in his shaky hand movements as he lights a candle. Phillip is all but out of his mind, a coiled ball of tension as every comment passed his way is transformed into an implication of his crime.

As always in Hitchcock flicks, there are some moments of real suspense, such as the scene where the maid is clearing away the supper from the chest, and then prepares to put some books away in it. As she methodically prepares to open it, we hear the other characters talk off screen, until at the very last minute Brandon intervenes, stopping anyone from seeing what’s inside. Generally though, this is a drama driven by its characters, particularly in the unravelling Phillip, and Rupert’s assiduous studying of the pair. The latter realises something isn’t right almost from the start, and steadily has his mild concerns mushroom into genuine suspicion as Phillip gets edgier, and Brandon talks himself into a corner. The other characters all play their parts. Joan Chandler takes the part of Janet Walker, who has previously abandoned one of the other guests for David, and believes Brandon is playing a cruel trick on her by bringing her together with an ‘ex,’ whilst her current boyfriend is nowhere to be found. On especially good form is Constance Collier as the Bracknellish Mrs Atwater, who at one point extols the virtue of a Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman movie she’s seen recently, ‘The Something of Something, or just Something,’ a delicious reference to Hitch’s own Notorious.

Rope is acted beautifully. Whilst Granger gets to lose his mind visibly, it’s Dall who puts in an underrated performance as Brandon, showing few signs that anything is wrong, but expressing the occasional quirk that reveals internally he’s just as damaged as his flatmate. Even better is Stewart, who plays the moral high ground, but expresses clear guilt at the fact it’s his teachings that have led to this moment. As Rupert digs closer to the truth, Stewart depicts him as an increasing bag of nerves, eyes rolling at the knowledge of what he’s going to discover in the chest.

A little picture, and by all accounts practically disowned by Hitchcock himself, Rope is nevertheless good value, a minor exercise in escalating suspense, and far more satisfying than many better known works. In depicting Brandon and Phillip as an openly gay couple living together (this is never expressed, but it’s obvious), it was certainly ahead of its time. On the DVD, Rope’s trailer opens with David talking to Janet in a park. The couple chat excitedly about their plans, and how they look forward to seeing each other at Brandon’s party that evening. It’s an eerily ghoulish scene, topped off with Stewart claiming ‘That’s the last time Janet would ever see David alive, and it’s the last time you’ll ever see him alive.’ Simply superb.

Posted on 29th April 2007
Under: Classics, Hitchcock | No Comments »

Martha, Vice, Powers and Lyrics

Oh dear. I’m coming to the end of my sick leave, and wanted to mark the time with a marathon viewing session of all three Lord of the Rings movies in succession, followed by a review here. Sure enough, I happily watched the films, but the article started developing into one of those mammoth concerns that surely won’t capture everyone’s attention until the end. On the one hand, I love those flicks, and have lots to say about them. Then again, so do a lot of people, and the biggest struggle was in trying not to move away from the original observations I had made to covering the usual ground.

I’ll get it edited and published some day. In the meantime, and at the risk of this blog appearing like one of those fantastic summaries produced by Robert Sharp, here’s a rundown of the things I watched over the last few days. In an effort to get it all out of my system, I won’t include Andorra-England in the following piece, but will say that as sympathetic as I am towards the best manager my team has had in a long, long time, my real feelings are with the travelling fans. The players can condemn their boo-happy supporters all they want, but when you’ve shelled out for travel, accommodation, tickets, crappy matchday food and so on, only to be greeted by the sort of bobbins England produced against Israel and Andorra, I think you have a perfect right to vent your spleen. A bit harsh perhaps. I don’t honestly care. Steve McClaren and his players take home a lot of money for their work. It’s times like these when they have to earn it.

Phew! Thanks for indulging me. Onto what I’m here to discuss…

Miami Vice (2006)

Like any kid unfortunate enough to have their formative years in the eighties, Miami Vice was a big deal for me. It’s easy to think back to the Don Johnson starrer and recall its linen jackets, rolled up sleeves, flash cars and Jan Hammer electronics (they weren’t exactly the most ‘undercover’ of undercover cops, were they?), but catching an episode recently, the brilliant scripts and way everyone took it so seriously are what struck home. The update captures little of its predecessor’s accessibility, throwing the viewer headlong into machine gun policespeak and the sense we’re already in the middle of a story within the first five minutes. It can be a little bewildering, but bear with it, because once it gets rolling Miami Vice develops into a superb cop movie. Many elements make it stand out from the usual fare, but I really liked the dynamic between Crockett and Tubbs. Unlike most buddy partnerships, there are few wisecracks to be found, and little sign that there’s any genuine affection between them. However, they are partners, showing an almost telepathic understanding of what the other’s about, which you imagine is what it would be like in real life. As with any Michael Mann film, the gunfights are loud, the suits louder, and much of it takes place under gorgeous sunsets. A great deal of the filming is done with handheld digital cameras, giving the action an urgent, gritty feel. As for the acting, which has been much criticised, I didn’t see much that didn’t hold together. In fairness, Jamie Foxx didn’t seem too challenged as the eternally second fiddle Tubbs, but Colin Farrell made for a great Santiago Crockett, personifying the macho male he would probably need to be in order to get himself into the kind of scrapes that he does.

Music and Lyrics (2007)

Music and LyricsThere’s much comic mileage to be had from Hugh Grant playing an 80s pop star, and clearly he thinks so too. Grant has loads of fun pulling off the daft dance moves and gurning of Alex Fletcher, who at one time starred in the band PoP but is now a washed up has been. It’s here that the film slips into formula tedium. Offered the chance of writing a duet with current teen sensation, Cora Corman, our hero finds the only way he can produce anything like a cohesive song is with the help of Drew Barrymore, who tenuously enters the story as someone employed to water his plants. By lucky chance, she can write lyrics, whilst he provides the score. The rest you can guess. A great pity they couldn’t do more with their talented cast. Barrymore seems to have carved out a niche as the new Meg Ryan. Grant just looks bored. How people can be satisfied with this sort of guff when everyone knows how it will all turn out even before they enter the theatre is anyone’s guess, yet Music and Lyrics has made its money, which suggests the death of the ‘Rom Com’ is depressingly nowhere in sight. The film’s ending reminded me a lot of the climax of the vastly superior About a Boy.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

DVD sales are great. They mean I can nip into HMV and walk out with a minor classic like this for a measly three quid. It may be that I haven’t watched the original Austin Powers since seeing it at the pictures originally, on a cold, damp autumn night at Cine City, Withington (and it was like that inside the cinema!), but then I didn’t have to as the sequels provided much the same laughs. Of course, the film’s a riot, from Austin’s dance routine in swinging London to Dr Evil spending time in group therapy with Scott. It manages to coax a decent(ish) performance from Elizabeth Hurley; Will Ferrell makes a good humoured cameo. Where this one scores over its follow-ups is in the clever gags that reference previous spy movies. Dr Evil and Scott’s argument over how to dispatch Austin is a good moment, and I really liked the bits where familes and friends learn about the deaths of henchmen, suggesting that the hundreds of people routinely killed in these films aren’t just there to be offed summarily but have lives of their own. The series lost much of this sense of subtlety afterwards, concentrating on gross out humour - I mean, Fat Bastard? - and catchphrases.

Doctor Who Season Three, Episode One

Nicola Bryant - sorry, couldn't resistLike most series openers for the good Doctor, this one was mildly entertaining rather than spellbinding. Presumably, the good stories are yet to come - next week’s Shakespeare episode looks like it might be interesting. David Tennant’s manic performances are getting a little irritating. Whereas he started well in The Christmas Invasion, when he was called on to give a pedestrian yarn something of a kick, I’m losing interest in his 90mph turns. As for Freema Agyeman, she looks like she could be a big improvement on Billie Piper, who left the series at the right time. Let’s hope for a lot less flirting with this one - I often wished the Doctor and Rose would just get it out of the way, couple on the TARDIS floor, and then move on. Neither companion can genuinely replace Nicola Bryant, but who can, huh?

The funny thing about ‘new Doctor Who’ is that it has me missing the classic stuff. Slowly, I’m snapping up the DVDs released by the excellent restoration team, and catch the odd UK Gold omnibus if I get up in time (rarely). So far, I own The Five Doctors (mainly for nostalgic reasons - I loved it as a kid) and Genesis of the Daleks, which has had rave write-ups, and deserves them. The Beginning is on order. Odlly enough, The Boy, who mithers me endlessly for Battles in Time cards and has become a Gallifreyan databank on the quiet, really enjoys those old shows also. I thought he’d be nothing but contemptuous about the horribly dated special effects. Not so. A viewing of the Pertwee era Inferno had us both appreciating the finer points of old Who. I guess it shows that there’s no substitute for a good story and a central character for whom the writers clearly had a good deal of affection.

Posted on 1st April 2007
Under: Telly, Bobbins, Recent Releases | No Comments »

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