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Don't expect a classic...
The Russian movie industry has a history of sporadically producing thought-provoking sci-fi movies. Tarkovsky's SOLARIS (1972) and STALKER (1979) being notable genre classics.

Now we have SPUTNIK, a 2020 movie set in the former Soviet Union of 1983. And its not half-bad.

The plot is a re-tread of Nigel Kneale's seminal 1953 British T.V. serial THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT and later 1955 Hammer movie version THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT. In both serial and film, a space mission (British) goes horribly wrong when only one of the three astronauts returns to earth. He is one sick puppy, having been infected by an alien invader and gradually evolves into a murderous monster that must be destroyed.

Sputnik-1 was the name given to the first artificial Earth satellite launched into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1957. Sputnik roughly translates into English as "attendant," "companion," "travelling companion" or "fellow traveller".

In SPUTNIK (the movie) something bad happens on a two-man space mission, and upon returning to earth there is only one survivor. He is one sick puppy, having been infected by an alien invader and gradually evolves into a murderous monster that must be destroyed. This time the alien invader can shrink itself down to live inside the astronaut, emerging when he sleeps to feed on cortisol drenched human brains. The astronaut is being held under armed guard at a military installation in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, where the Colonel in charge recruits a female psychiatrist with an unorthodox approach to help in separating the alien from the man. His objective is to weaponise the alien - now where have we heard that before?

Probably goes without saying, it does not end well.

This film wears its influences prominently on its sleeve. Mostly, Quatermass and the Alien franchise. That said, if you can get past the feelings of déjà vu - and they do leave weighty impressions, unfortunately - there is a fair degree to enjoy. Gorehounds are well-served with juicy blood splatter and bone crunching sound effects when the alien chows down. And the creature itself is pleasingly rendered in all its slimy, slithering semi-translucent glory, complete with high-pitched scream before it attacks.

Performances are adequate, but personally I found I did not relate to or care about any of the characters in any significant way. Konstantin, the astronaut, does not seem all that tormented or concerned about his plight as such - more focussed on escaping to retrieve the son he abandoned to an orphanage. Quite how the kid would respond to being rescued by a father who has an unbreakable symbiotic relationship with a brain-eating alien doesn't appear to be an issue for consideration. Tatyana (the psychiatrist) suspects that if separated for any length of time, both host and alien will die, yet still perseveres in a faintly hare-brained way, and Semirov (the colonel in charge) is little more than a by-the-numbers military villain of the piece - cold, cruel and emotionally blank.

It is a bleak little fable, well-made, nicely shot, with a lean and spartan feel to it. Fans of the genre could do worse. A lot worse. Just don't expect a classic.


Just go with the supercharged flow
Neil Marshall's genre mash-up is an eclectic blend of John Carpenter influences and direct references to Boyle's "28 Days Later" and Miller's Mad Max movies. From Rhona Mitras Snake Plissken eye patch to the splatterpunk villains and their insanely adapted patchwork vehicles for the gloriously cranked up chase sequences, it wears its inspirations prominently and unashamedly on its gore-soaked sleeves.

Not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the whole trip is a blast. It's the sort of movie that barely pauses for breath so you don't really have time to dwell on the sheer blatancy of what it has appropriated from other sources. It moves forwards at pace and there's nearly always something happening. Designed as a high-octane rollercoaster ride - in common with some of the director's previous works (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) - it is best appreciated by just sitting back and going with the supercharged flow.

People get killed - beaten, shot, hammered, flattened, stabbed, sliced, diced, disembowelled, blown-up, decapitated, burned, roasted, eaten - with glorious abandon. Crazy comic book mayhem dished up with a sense of black-humoured glee.

I get that it won't appeal to all tastes - it's as if the term "cult item" was designed specifically for it - but if you like Escape From New York, Mad Max and 28 Days/Months Later - there's every possibility you will get some decent mileage out of this.

There's a great cast - Mitra, Hoskins, McDowell, Pertwee, et al - and they acquit themselves with appropriate tonal gravity in regard to the sort of vehicle they are appearing in. It's fun to imagine that when society collapses, we will either become cannibalistic urban punk warriors or medieval feudalists living in a big old castle. Nice that there's a reasonable choice.

Hold the Dark

And, so...what was it about...?
There are certain attractive and intriguing elements at play here. A bleak, isolated, poverty-stricken community beyond the fringes of civilisation, surrounded by snowy mountains, forests and packs of wolves. Missing children and grieving parents. A psychologically damaged naturalist, writer and wolf expert. A dogged local sheriff. A veteran of the Iraq conflict who is a stone-cold killer of men. His wife who appears to have murdered their son and blamed it on the animals. Native American mythology surrounding wolves and spirits and stuff.

Cinematography is good, perfectly capturing and visually depicting a harsh and barren world teetering on the brink of implosion. The atmosphere of doom and foreboding, of barely glimpsed danger on the periphery of vision, is communicated effectively. All in all, a promising set-up. Attractive and intriguing elements at play.

It unravels quickly into an incoherent mess, lacking any clarity or indication of what might be going on or why. There are hints of supernatural forces in the story, of shared or inherited psychosis, but the characters and their motivation are never discernible through a chilly morass of mumbled and whispered cryptic dialogue and impenetrable expressionless stares into the void. At time it is slow and ponderous, which wouldn't automatically be such a bad thing, providing the slow burn and the pondering signposted something meaningful, revealed something that triggers understanding. It doesn't.

Over half way in there is an action-packed and well-choreographed sequence of mass slaughter, wherein a disaffected and implicated villager unloads on the local police force with a belt-fed machine gun. Why is never really explained. Frustration, boredom, revenge for something, who knows? And am I wrong in thinking that armed police should possess some meagre proficiency with firearms and been trained to use them? Ten or fifteen coppers fail to hit a static man-sized target a few metres away who never changes position. That aside, it's a thrilling ten minutes of mayhem that does liven things up, but nevertheless feels a bit misplaced.

Perhaps the underpinning concept was to make a movie that was deliberately inexplicable, that old chestnut of leaving it up to the viewer to reach their own conclusions as to what was going on or why and what it all means in the end. Ambiguity, hints, clues and cues can work well when utilised by skilled craftsmen - Kubrick's "The Shining," for instance springs to mind. It can be entertaining and fun. But the bulk of this offering is murky, indistinct and fatally flawed in a narrative sense. And in the end frustrates and alienates.

Maybe the makers will one day provide some pointers on the subject, to help out middling dullards like me. I don't know about Hold The Dark, I'm certainly In The Dark this time around.

The Alienist

Despite shortcomings...
It's 1896 and in New York a serial killer is butchering underage male prostitutes who dress as girls. The thick-eared and corrupt police force is both brainless and clueless, so the chief, Theodore Roosevelt, decides that the only option is to allow criminal psychologist Dr Laszlo Kreizler, alcoholic newspaper illustrator John Moore, police secretary Sara Howard and Jewish forensic coppers Marcus and Luscious Isaacson to form a team to catch the perpetrator. As you do.

It's not bad, but it is flawed. Firstly, on the positive side, the production values are high and the attention to period detail and the cinematography are both pretty darned glorious to behold. Atmospherically, it is evocative and environmentally immersive. It is stylishly gory and does not shy away from providing graphic visual depictions of the results of the killer's activities. Lots of grisly savaged corpses and flowing blood. The plot is fairly gripping and generally structured well and it kept me watching until the end.

Now the not so positive. The clichés. The central female character is a proto-feminist who does daring things, like work for the police doing some typing and filing and smoking cigarettes. The police captain is a ginger headed pig-thick Irish thug and as corrupt as they come. He is in thrall to the former chief of police who is a pig-thick Irish thug and as corrupt as they come. The police captain's second in command is a pig thick Irish thug and as corrupt as they come. The rest of the entire constabulary are all pig thick...you getting the picture?

Then we have a shady evil industrialist (Michael Ironside) - got to have one of those - who is in cahoots with the police captain and former police chief and seeks to obstruct the investigation. There's a mega-rich family, one of whom is a syphilitic mercury-poisoned all-round weirdo and sexual deviant and is the prime suspect for a while. That is until Captain Pig Thick shoots him in the head for no other reason than he doesn't like "pederasts." Later on he kills Kreizler's mute maid (yes, there's a dusky maid who doesn't speak) in a home invasion, but we're not sure why. Why the home invasion and why kill the maid? Unless he doesn't like homes or maids. This confused me because the derailing of the investigation was based on protecting the rich family from scandal. But as the police captain killed Mr Mercury earlier and he had been eliminated as a suspect anyway, invading Kreizler's home, chlorophorming the loyal black servant (check, loyal black servant) and the cheeky houseboy (check, cheeky houseboy) and killing the mute maid doesn't really add up. Especially considering the industrialist knew that Mr Mercury was no longer a suspect, so he no longer had a reason to want the investigation to fail. Besides, he'd given his blessing to Kreizler and the rest of Mystery Incorporated to carry on their merry way.

Most of this I can forgive. And did. But what let's the show down in a more systemic way is the fact that two of the main key characters are rather unlikeable and unsympathetic. Kreizler is a bitter, arrogant egotist who cares little for the feelings of his colleagues or those close to him. In fact, he is downright unpleasant, self-centred and self-absorbed without even a meaningful sense of humour to redeem him. And Sara Howard is equally callous and selfish, egocentric, dismissive of her physical attractiveness yet dressing to titillate and appeal to the male libido when it suits. She is both manipulative and self-serving lacking a particularly endearing personality. If they had both been killed in the scheme of things, I wouldn't have cared. Which is not good considering you should be rooting for them.

OK, I get that they are damaged human beings with histories of trauma. And I get that their behaviour is intended to be acknowledged as defence mechanisms employed to allow them to function and progress in the world. But they are painted as so dogmatic and self-important that any humanity they attempt to convey comes across as untrustworthy and fake. I didn't for a moment buy Kreizler's abrupt romance with the doomed maid or his subsequent grieving and thus it didn't work for me in making the character more human and credible.

It also irritated that both Dakota Fanning and Brian Geraghty (Roosevelt) for whatever reason mirror each other's fixed and largely immobile facial expressions throughout the proceedings. They wear the same fractionally escalating frozen look of wide-eyed shock, as if someone has spontaneously set fire to their pubic hair and they are not allowed to do anything about it. I know social interactions and roles were different back then and facades needed to be maintained, but they take being tightly wound and monolithic to a whole other dimension.

Most human is Luke Evans portrayal of John Moore. A privileged man for whom working as a newspaper illustrator is more of a hobby than a financial necessity. He is a flawed alcoholic with personal demons who lives with his affluent grandmother, yet his basic common decency and sense of moral compassion gradually turns him from the sort of weak character we should perhaps faintly despise, to someone to whom we can relate more readily.

There are some pacing issues. For significant periods it feels protracted and slow and a bit of a chore to sit through. And the scripts sometimes have a tendency to be a mite clunky and laboured.

However, despite shortcomings, there is much to enjoy and applaud and the inconsistencies don't result in terminal ruin, unlike, say, THE WALKING DEAD, which has become little more than a shambling reference to it's formerly dynamic self and caused me to pledge not to watch another season. If THE ALIENIST gets another go around, I'm prepared to give it another shot and see how it develops.

The Terror

Terribly good...
"Ill-fated" is a term much used to depict the nature of such unfortunate and misguided attempts as this exploratory voyage to discover the Northwest Passage in 1847 - the set-up is factually accurate. Hindsight being what it is, cursory examination of the personalities of those involved beforehand clearly indicates that the venture was doomed from the start. And considering those chosen by the Admiralty to lead, begs the question how much faith did they have that it stood even the most meagre chance of success? Granted, they didn't skimp on state of the art (for the time) vessels and equipment, but the big flaws here were in the planning and the players.

THE TERROR is a quite sublime exercise in mood and atmospherics and skilful storytelling. Top-notch writing, filming, and acting. It's a treat to see seasoned character actors really giving their all, and the cast is nigh-on faultless, adding to the sensation of authenticity. The notion of authenticity is an intriguing one when considering that most of the main characters are not what they seem to or should be. Thematically, THE TERROR explores the underpinning concepts of appearance, deception, and fraudulence. Heroism and the pursuit of fame and glory are hollow idols chased by hollow men hurtling towards their inevitable downfall.

Expedition leader, Sir John Franklin, is pursuing one last hurrah. He is the disgraced former governor of a British colony and wasn't the Admiralty's first, second or even third choice to head up the venture. All the other candidates must have either been otherwise engaged at the time or had enough sense to turn it down. Franklin is judgement-impaired as for him failure is not an option and success is all. At any cost. Single-minded dogma compels him to resist any option or contingency that might have saved lives.

Crozier, his second in command, is an astute officer, but compromised by chronic pessimism and hopeless alcoholism. Romantically rejected by Franklin's niece, he's only there because he seeks distraction, isolation and drink. And sees no other options in his life. He does, however, cotton-on early to the hopelessness of the situation and canvasses Franklin to abandon and bail out before it's too late. Predictably, his advice is ignored.

Third in command, James Fitzjames, is a classic British military hero. A dashing glory-hound, spinning yarns of great courage and daring for the entertainment of his fellow officers. Late in the series, he confesses to Crozier that he is a fake, not even English, never knew who his mother was, even his name is fake. He clawed his way up the ranks through reckless behaviour and sheer luck. He is part of a societal class to which he doesn't really belong, propelled there by karma and personal vanity.

The villainous Hickey, a vile manipulative psychopath, is later revealed to be a fraud. He disposed of the original Cornelius Hickey and took his identity and place on the expedition to escape the reach of the law back in Britain. Even the creature stalking the expedition, ferociously attacking and dismembering and wreaking destruction, is first identified as a bear. And it's not, it's something far, far worse.

And thus it goes, layer upon layer of deception and illusion. The complexity and sheer depth of characterisation here are core factors in the construction of one of the most compelling and chilling TV shows in quite a while. Reflecting Carpenter's THE THING, THE TERROR plays with paranoia and mistrust as men are stranded in wide open spaces with dwindling supplies and shrinking options. To add to the mix an epidemic of lead poisoning afflicts most of the crew. It's caused by inappropriately riveted canned provisions and results in necrosis of the flesh. Even good old British supplies won't play ball. Latterly, cannibalism and psychosis loom. It's all compellingly doom-laden stuff, extremely well-crafted. As one character prophetically points out: "This place wants us dead."

I would urge watching out for what is one of the most eerie and spine-tingling sequences I've seen in quite some time. A crew member is lowered into the sea beneath the ice in a deep-sea diving suit to chip ice from the propeller. This scene is so expertly shot and edited that it is emotionally immersive, and when the floating corpse comes along it provides an alarming claustrophobic jolt, to the point where you can feel the panic bite.

There isn't much wrong with THE TERROR, but if I was the highlight a flaw (or two) it would be the CGI creature (could have been much better, I feel) and some of the ice-floe landscape at times looking a little bit studio bound. Annoying niggles which serve to remind that it is a movie you're watching, and they fracture suspension of disbelief somewhat. Other than that, I can't find much to fault.

Gripping and immersive from beginning to end, suspenseful and satisfying stuff. Highly recommended.


Rule Britannia...
This is real Marmite stuff. You're either going to love it or it's going to leave you cold. If you are the sort of viewer looking for something approaching historical accuracy, best look elsewhere because you won't find it here. Likewise, if you're after the new Game of Thrones, you're likely to be disappointed. It ain't that sort of contender. Britannia is a fantasy that takes place in a fantasy universe loosely based around an invasion of Britain by the Romans in 43AD. And after that, the gloves are off. It's mad. Very mad. And it demands that either you accept it on its own terms or take heed of the advice given to the Romans by King Pellenor and "(Beep!) off back to Rome." Or wherever.

Early on, Britannia sets out it's stall. The kaleidoscopic into credit visuals, backed by Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" - a folk/pop/psychedelic/metal hybrid from 1968 - sort of makes it clear where it's headed. One half of Led Zep played on this track and it hails from a time of hippies and hallucinogenic overkill. Clearly this is a psychedelic journey into the heart of darkness set in a dirty, blood and guts world of organic drugs, random slaughter, supernatural horror, sweaty perfunctory sex, bad language and a smattering of hilarious one-liners. The dialog is unashamedly "modern."

The cast throw themselves into it whole-heartedly, especially Morrissey, Crook, Lie Kaas and Rhind-Tutt, who slice the ham as thick as it's possible to slice it, bordering on the darker side of pantomime. Initially, I wasn't fully sold on it, but three episodes in and I was starting to buy into the fun. By the end, which climaxes in an impressive apocalyptic firestorm, a lot of questions were left unanswered and scenarios set up but unexplored, and I found myself hoping for a second series, as, I'm sure, do the creators.

I liked it, and I'm glad I stuck with it. Rule Britannia!

Happy Death Day

Happy enough...
Although the core narrative is not original by any stretch, there are good reasons for liking this lightweight foray into the slasher genre. There are some original elements incorporated into the hoary old Groundhog Day chestnut – just enough dusting and polishing to make you forgive the pillaging. It doesn't aim for the same conceptual depth of, say, Timecrimes (2007), Triangle (2009), The Butterfly Effect (2004) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014) but it does manage to incorporate a nifty murder mystery thread into the time-loop motif and the execution feels a deal fresher than it probably should.

Bratty, morally challenged and egocentric frat girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself living her birthday over and over again, each day ending with her murder at the hands of a masked stalker. All she has to do is find out the identity of her killer and avoid being killed in order to break the cycle. The film is not hard core or extreme in any sense that might apply to the bulk of modern slasher flicks. There are no real scares, there is no excess of blood and guts, no explicit violence, no torture porn or gratuitous sexual activity or nudity. So what does it have going for it?

It's engaging, mildly funny in places and generally quite likable. Jessica Rothe is winningly cute in the lead. And not in a painfully forced or superficial way. Her gradual transition from selfish and self-absorbed sorority bitch to a more enlightened and humane persona is skilfully handled. You start out thinking she pretty much deserves her fate and then end up rooting for her to succeed. Rothe plays it just right and you can't help liking her. She is one of the most rounded and sympathetic female leads in a slasher movie since Jamie Lee Curtis in Carpenter's original Halloween (1978). In fairness, most of the cast deliver in terms of injecting some level of believability and personality into their rather clichéd stock characters.

HDD deserves credit for some stylish camera-work and editing – both of which are tight, smart and in some places strikingly unusual. The key emphasis is on taking a well-worn concept, playing around with it and having fun. And that's what you've got here, a fun genre piece that doesn't take itself seriously and entertains for the running time. Unlike Scream it doesn't lose itself in self-reverential satire and admiration for it's own cleverness in ragging on genre tropes, and is all the better for it.

It doesn't do anything ground-breaking or jolting, won't set the world on fire, and anyone expecting a visceral thrill-ride is more than likely to feel short-changed. But, I found it enjoyable enough, even though I'm far removed – very far removed – from its target audience. And I must add that I was wrong-footed by the ending, fully expecting the stock horror movie twist which isn't really a twist anymore – the one where you think everything's OK but suddenly evil triumphs. The twist this time around was a bit different to what I'd resigned myself to. And Groundhog Day does get a belated name check.

So all in all, not bad, just about happy enough.


Jack all...
Admittedly my expectations were low from the outset. Therefore, I was initially (the operative word here, alas) pleasantly surprised as the film capably and intriguingly set up its premise. Wayward son rescued from creepy mask-wearing death cult and taken to isolated family cabin in the woods for deprogramming by tough-talking ex-marine, divorced mum and dad, resentful older brother and girlfriend and baby daughter.

Carpenters "Assault On Precinct 13" springs to mind as the cultists lay siege to the homestead and the motley troupe prepare to fight back with limited resources. I mean, if you want a classy blueprint, they don't come much classier than the classics (Rio Bravo, Night of The Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, Straw Dogs, etc).

The set-up is a good one, the characters are portrayed by mediocre but to some extent competent actors, the script is a bit tawdry and clichéd, but what the hell, in the short term it looked primed to entertain. Until about twenty minutes in. Then it fell apart. It soon became transparently obvious where it was headed by signposting the foregone conclusion that our intrepid good guys were not going to win or put up much of a convincing fight. Why? Because there was no point, they were going to lose.

The ex-marine was mind-bendingly dumb and useless, walking straight into an obvious trap that stopped his clock, making him the first to fall. What a delight he must have been in a war-zone. The brainwashed son is portrayed as almost completely beyond redemption from the outset, a fact confirmed when he bites his brainless mother in the cranium, coming away with a snarling mouthful of wig. Everyone bickers and argues about what to do next, what course of action to take. This process burns up most of the running time and provides with only a sense that here is a bunch of delusional idiots who are doomed. The result is the nullification of any suspense or any feeling there may be a smart twist to the proceedings at some point.

Pop quiz. You're inside and a gang of homicidal cultists are outside wanting to get inside and slaughter you. Do you:

A. Run around outside in the dark woodland, blunder about looking for help that isn't there, try (and fail) to take them on single handed with a knife on a broom handle, wander up to them unarmed and snivelling just to make it easy for them, or B. All stay inside, batten down the hatches, arm your group as best as possible and get ready to kill the living bejeezus out of anyone who tries to get in

The hapless bunch make something of a half-hearted stab at plan B, but soon reach the conclusion that plan A is the way to go. And as the audience can see the train-track trajectory after the first twenty minutes – especially if they have the most meagre familiarity with the modern horror flick - what could have been a taut and chilling little repel-the-borders home invasion thriller disintegrates hopelessly into a by-the-numbers plod to an inevitable "evil triumphs" conclusion.

Some might argue that because I didn't get to see what I would have liked to see in the film I therefore didn't like the film. To some extent that is true. But it wasn't that the good guys lost as much as how they lost. They lost because the poorly conceived script made the characters dumb, mindless and irrational. If they'd gone down swinging and thinking, or thinking and swinging, then at least the outcome might have landed with some impact. As it is, what we got in the end, was jack all. Wasted potential is always a shame. This is no exception.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

A fantasy vision of a fantasy based on mythology
What do we have here in this critically mauled cinematic artefact? The knee jerk is to hate and condemn right off the bat. Rather than do that, a more measured and considered view might be in order. Let's not be quite so hasty.

The Arthurian legend source material is itself a combination of fantasy and mythology which conflicts and contradicts itself. Did Arthur actually exist? We don't know for sure. Was he a product of England, the county of Cornwall, Wales or Ireland – different accounts put him in different places at different times? The standard blueprint is and remains several pieces of literature by various authors and poets – Walter Scott, Thomas Malory, Tennyson, Coleridge. And, of course, cinematic representations and retellings. As to the truth of the matter – it's pretty much what you make it. Any version of the story is going to be a fantasy vision of a fantasy based on mythology – mythology being mostly fantasy in itself.

Guy Ritchie chooses filter his fantasy version of a fantasy based on mythology through the murky prism of his Eastend mockney gangster stylings. Which are derived from concepts based on fact, modern urban legend and myth. You can see how he started to make the loose connections between these two fantastical worlds. And in a certain context it works.

If anyone expects the dreamy mystical philosophical vibe of Boorman's "Excalibur" that's not on offer. Those complaining about the lack of historical accuracy and realistic time-framing in terms of language and visuals should be aware that in reality there isn't any in any version or account. "Excalibur" and all retellings share the same level of "realism" as Disney's "Sword in The Stone."

What Ritchie gives us is a loud, brash, fast-moving, aggressive and massively pompous slab of popcorn cinema that will work for some and not for others. Personally, I found it to be entertaining enough for the duration and at least it's a stab at doing something a bit different with the old chestnut. It's visually impressive in places, with certain degree of sweep and scope here and there. It's a reasonable time-waster and at least it's relatively unpretentious. And to my mind undeserving of the mass kicking it's been given by elitist critics, punters and the historically delusional.

For now, it's a critical punching bag and box-office bomb. Give it ten years, it will probably re-emerge and be regarded as a "cult" item in genre cinema. Life is fickle like that.

Blair Witch

Spare Glitch
The financial success of the original Blair Witch Project (1999) kick- started the "found footage" genre into high gear. Although not the first of its ilk, being predated by the likes of 84 Charlie Mopic (1989) and The Last Broadcast (1998), it certainly raised the profile in popular movie culture. The bi-product of that success was that every Dick and Jane with a camcorder and some friends started making movies in their backyard for next to nothing. And, whilst I certainly appreciated and applauded the punk aesthetic of the approach it was blighted by the numbing uselessness and tedium that infused most of these efforts.

The industry, as with punk music, stepped in and took over, with bigger budgets and widespread distribution (Cloverfield - 2008), and, of course, franchising (Paranormal Activity – 2009). Thus normalisation and sanitisation set in.

On a personal level the original Blair Witch Project bored me rigid. I found it to be little more than a protracted exercise in jumpy, jerky, running, screaming aural and visual mediocrity. Not for me, then. However, having enjoyed Adam Wingard's You're Next (2011) and The Guest (2014) I went into Blair Witch (2016) with an open mind, intrigued by the prospect of what he would do with the concept.

What he did was replicate the jumpy, jerky, running, screaming trajectory of the original with added snivelling, and extra histrionic gibbering complimented by an overwrought audio onslaught of loud noises, bangs and crashes. No shocks, no scares, just an hour and twenty-eight minutes of scrambled audio/visual ennui.

So, yeah, if the aim was to capture the spirit of the original and bump it up a notch, that was certainly achieved. But, for me, it didn't make for good cinema or a good experience overall.


Slow, tedious, depressingly predictable...
Without giving too much away, the writers and director might have thought they were being really smart and subversive. But I'm afraid they weren't. They were just being predictable.

A third of the way in there is a huge signpost on the subject of how to defeat evil in the context of the film. A murderer tells the main female protagonist that you knock a hole in a prison to let the prisoners out. He says this more than once. The female protagonist is a wannabe investigative journalist. Maybe the reason why her boss keeps her confined to writing a column on real estate becomes clear in the end. She has all the insight of a house brick.

The "evil triumphs" motif in 90-99% of most modern horror films is such a stale and predictable cliché. So much so that despite almost all, it no longer shocks and disturbs as it is so routinely expected by audiences. It's not a twist any longer. It just elicits a resigned shrug.

This is a silly drag of a film that does little to exploit it's inventive premise. Is it too much to expect that the main characters make some effort to win these days - rather than just resign themselves to being submissive, unintelligent pawns? People root for characters who actually try to put up a fight. The neutral and banal don't usually get much audience engagement or sympathy. Especially when they behave like thoughtless ciphers.

On the plus side, there are some decent production values and some FX reminiscent of those from a Disney theme park. But unfortunately for the most part it's safe, non-scary and reluctant to be visually explicit - or even properly suggestive - when it comes to carnage and mayhem.

On top of that, the story unfolds in a laborious by-the-numbers fashion and unfortunately fails to excite. You may want to give it a miss.

The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead

Watch and be Damned
This was like a gift from the gods. A comprehensive documentary focusing on one of the most under-exposed and under-appreciated bands of all time. And, by the way, one of my all-time favourites. I have been a fan since the seventies and even today I continue to love them to bits. Add to the mix that the movie is a self-confessed labour of love by director Wes Orshoski (who helmed the superb LEMMY) and it means I was always going to be first in line for the pre-order of the DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack.

The Damned were nuts from the start. Not just happily eccentric, not merely fun-loving pseudo anarchists, not just a touch out there, you know, but outright, dyed-in-the-wool, full blown, completely, irresponsibly, barking mad, dog raving nuts. Jerry Lee Lewis once summed up his entire life and career in a single psychopathic sentence: "I did what I wanted." The Damned lived this philosophy in the absolute. Orshoski's film demonstrates it clearly and without apology. Forty years down the line, and the band are still going with two founder members from the original four remaining – vocalist Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible. What lies behind them in their bizarre and erratic wake is a random trajectory of physical, emotional and psychological anarchy, chaos and destruction. From which a lot of people never recovered.

And there's the music, of course. The first British punk band to release a single (New Rose); the first British punk band to tour America and play CBGBs; the first British punk band to release an album (Damned, Damned, Damned); and oft credited with being the originators of the goth movement. Musically they ricocheted all over the place, from two chord speed punk (Neat, Neat, Neat) to seventeen minute prog-rock epics (Curtain Call) to sixties psychedelia (Naz Nomad and the Nightmares/White Rabbit), goth rock (Phantasmagoria), pop (Grimly Fiendish), synth rock (History of the World Part 1), apocalyptic ballad covers (Eloise), and so on and on and on. "Machine Gun Etiquette" remains a true musical milestone, the purest UK punk album ever made.

They've been on more record labels than the Queen's had corgi cremations, had more bass players and line-up changes than Taylor Swift's had boyfriends, been through more arguments, splits and acrimony than every British political party put together. Yet they keep on keeping on. Vanian puts it down to "sheer bloody-mindedness." This year, to mark their fortieth anniversary, they have toured relentlessly. At the Isle of Wight Festival they were as loud, fast, dynamic, lean, mean and smack bang on target with their set as ever. They somehow sounded fresh and propulsive, like they're still chasing something. Meanwhile contemporaries like Adam Ant and the Buzzcocks came across as old, lazy, bloated and tired-out relics going through the motions.

Sensible disparages miserable guitarists, says it's the best job in the world and he smiles a lot. He's sixty. He plays guitar like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and a vaudeville comedian. Vanian (the only band member to front and appear in every incarnation of the band) remains a force of nature, seemingly oblivious to any ravages of time, his vocals noticeably undiminished. He's fifty-nine.

Attitude. They just do what they do and they live it whilst doing it. Maybe that's the difference, a sense of enduring authenticity. In June 2016 they sold out a one night three hour concert at the Royal Albert Hall (six thousand tickets) a venue that ironically banned them in 1977. So there's something going on still, some draw. They've never lasted for long on a major label, never sold millions, never hit it really big. They never played the game. By rights they shouldn't exist. But they do and an audience always shows up.

Orshoski's film is a thing of great beauty and wonder to behold. The "do what you will" attitude permeates nearly every frame. The sheer hedonistic madness and frankly ludicrous dysfunction of the personalities involved is jaw-droppingly uncensored. Even the diatribes and sound-bites from bitter and damaged people who feel they have somehow been touched adversely by "the curse of The Damned" all resonate with something meaningful and positive as a result of their connection with the band. Long time drummer Rat Scabies – and still the best the band ever had (in the context of the band gestalt) – is sometimes aggressive, vitriolic, angry and "damning" about his experiences. Yet, there are flashes of affection, nostalgia and maybe even love and pride that filter through his dour missives.

It is, however, poignant and quite sad to see Scabies and Brian James, along with a wholly inappropriate female American vocalist in tow, trying to eke out a living playing live the songs from the first two Damned albums to practically empty venues. Sad fact is, you can always get another drummer and despite James having written most of the songs for "Damned, Damned, Damned" and "Music For Pleasure" the wealth of material in the band's diverse back catalogue was composed and recorded after his departure. You will never get another Captain Sensible or Dave Vanian. They are the essential core elements. Lose either of them and it's like Oasis without the Gallagher brothers. It's not Oasis.

Orshoski has delivered one of the most honest, heartfelt and powerful rock band chronicles yet compiled. I would suggest that for sheer entertainment value alone this holds appeal not just for fans (who will love it) but for those who are not fans and those who have never even heard of the band. So long as you have some interest in rock music, this movie will connect with you in some way. I'm going out on a limb and declaring it to be that essential. Watch it and be Damned.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Nostalgic Emotions...
I've read a lot of reviews of the latest SW thing, and in many of them the authors cite feeling as if they had been transported back in time to when they first experienced the first SW movie when they were younger. It evoked nostalgic emotions.

Over the festive period the opportunity arose for me to see Forced Wakeup, and so I went. And I saw. And I have to admit it I experienced the same nostalgic emotions the original film left me with after queueing in the rain to see A New Dope when it was first released unto the world. Yep, I'm that old.

I was impressed with the music then, and I remain impressed now. I was impressed with the visuals then (they were groundbreaking, technologically stunning for their time) and I was impressed now. The CGI is some of the best I have ever seen - dazzling stuff, brilliantly executed. The sound design remains a winner both then and now. And finally, on both counts, I experienced that familiar "what is everybody else seemingly seeing or getting or engaging with that I'm not?" sensation. It echoed down the decades with the force (see what I did there?) of a deja-vu moment on steroids and was as such undiminished.

OK, I wasn't bored, never felt the need to get up and leave, was wowed by the technology throughout, but the plot, the dialogue, the characters, the tweeness, the hollowness, the irrational stupidity of the whole thing marked the film as a B movie 50s potboiler dressed up in superb hi-tech clobber. I mean a key character buys the farm and the emotional response of the film is the equivalent of "Oh dear. Shame that. Anyway, roll on some more CGI and whizz-bang and let's get some more pyrotechnical eye-candy up in you!" The character who dies is, to all intents and purposes, the human heart and soul of the whole original trilogy. No special powers, you see. But it's not really worth the time of day when the ultimate aim is more "DUMB-DUMB...DUMB-DUMB-DA-DUMB-DUMB!"

I never did understand the adulation expressed by people of all ages across the globe for SW. I didn't get it then, I don't get it now. And I love sci-fi flicks. But the SW phenomenon continues to leave me cold and mildly bewildered. Maybe it's my loss and I'm very likely in a minority - but hey, so be it. I certainly don't begrudge anyone their love if it, because in my experience we don't necessarily choose who or what to love. Authentically, anyhow.

The Frankenstein Chronicles

Wonderfully creepy and disturbing stuff...
A six part mini-series with a top-notch cast, headed by Sean Bean, great production values and a nifty hook and line in grounding the Mary Shelley mythos in a real-world historical setting. It screams PRIME TIME, but finds itself inexplicably tucked away in a late night spot on the less than essential ITV2 channel. What gives? John Marlott (Sean Bean) is a London river cop in the early 1800s. In the process of busting a smuggling gang he stumbles upon the washed-up corpse of a child on the banks of the seriously polluted Thames. Only this corpse is a composite of body parts of multiple children crudely stitched together. It could never have lived, yet it briefly grabs Marlott's wrist before lying still forever.

The Home Secretary (Robert Peel) charges Marlott with finding out who is responsible for the "abomination" and we're off full tilt into a Gothic world of fog, body-snatchers, rotting corpses, child prostitution and murder, bizarre medical experimentation and political intrigue.

Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell-Martin) widow of the poet Shelley and author of Frankenstein and William Blake (Steven Berkoff) poet, writer and artist are key figures who pop up along the way and are instrumental in driving the narrative forward.

It is wonderfully creepy and disturbing stuff. So atmospherically shot and mounted that you can almost smell and taste the stench of death and decay as the characters instinctively recoil from it, covering their faces with whatever they can to blot it out.

Sean Bean gives a master-class performance as a good, honest man adrift in a world of physical and moral corruption. Marlott is an ex-soldier (from the same regiment as a guy called Sharpe, reference spotters), veteran of Waterloo, wracked by grief, guilt and despair after having unwittingly passed on syphilis to his wife and new born child, resulting in their untimely deaths. The illness is active within him, and combined with mercury treatment (a painful and pointless remedy) induces florid nightmares and vivid hallucinations. Anyone who ever wrote Bean off as little more than a movie rent-a-heavy, or sitting duck dead villain in waiting, should reassess on this evidence. His affecting portrayal of tragically damaged and conflicted humanity here is nothing short of superb. Re-imagine it as if Di-Crapio or Crooze replicated in a movie with a bit of a profile, and he'd be instant Globe or Oscar bait.

I'm going to watch the last episode in a day or two, anticipating an outcome that I haven't even been able to guess at. I have no idea how this is going to pan out exactly, and that's a good thing. It is always a great, and indeed rare experience to find a period drama that is both captivating and unpredictable. Set at a time when religion was railing and losing ground against the advance of science and in a capital metropolis teeming with filth, crime, social inequality and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, it's a compelling canvas upon which the action is drawn. The script is thoughtful and well-rendered and although ultimately it lacks the gloriously overwrought and fantastical dynamic of, say, PENNY DREADFUL, or the heroic wild-west undertones of RIPPER STREET, it represents a solid and entertaining companion piece to those two shows.


Tempus Fugit
First things first. Saw it last night. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Today, I want to see it again. So, for me, it really is that good. Effectively, it's a bit of a table-turner on the detractors/haters of the Craig-era Bond movies. The ones who felt that EoN, in the process of deconstructing Bond and the Bond movies, had thrown the baby out with the bathwater. What they have now done is put both the baby and the bathwater back – albeit in an updated/modernised way.

There may be spoilers from here on in, so if you don't want to know, stop reading now.

Gunbarrel back at the start – and it's the old fade-to-black type rather than the zoom-out version. M – complete with bureaucratically austere office – is male and running the double-0 section. Moneypenny and Q are in place – and Q ventures into the field with Bond as Desmond did on occasion. Tanner's back, always good to see him, and Felix gets a mention. There are gadgets – exploding watch, tricked-out Aston with flamethrower, ejector seat (this time with parachute), etc. A globe-trotting plot that is hilariously silly, twisty and convoluted (par for most Bond movies). One-liners, some rude, some just smart. Ludicrous and inexplicably achieved changes of clothing for Bond and Swann. White tux – always a nice touch. We get a very badass and mute (apart from one line) henchman who is infinitely more physically powerful than Bond (Oddjob/Jaws). Nehru wearing villain complete with lair (not a hollowed-out volcano, granted, but a meteor crater in the desert housing a high-tech and very explosive installation). Villain gets a very familiar facial scar (think Donald Pleasance). White cat also. Vehicles that turn up without any prior introduction (Bond arrives flying a plane at one point, where the hell did he get that? Never mind, doesn't matter, just enjoy the spectacle as it gets progressively trashed in the Alps). There are multiple action set pieces beautifully shot and choreographed, but the opening pre-credits sequence is one of the best ever. That long tracking shot is creative gold, and the faint echoes of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY in the helicopter climax brought a smile to my face early on.

I could continue for quite some time yet, but I think that's enough to illustrate the point that the stall SPECTRE lays out is fundamentally old school. General audiences and fans that accept it for what it is and go along for the ride will reap the rewards in terms of entertainment value. Those who want the more introspective vibe of SKYFALL, the muscular punch and nouveau tough edge of CASINO ROYALE or the rapid fire jump-cutting mayhem of QUANTUM OF SOLACE will not find that stuff here. There are personal elements for Bond, but they hardly have any effect on him and are shrugged off in favour of getting on with the mission. Craig plays him as a confident, ruthless, faintly sociopathic rogue with a cool steely line in sardonic humour and a penchant for shallow romance. And something of a heart and soul, of course. The past may influence the future, but the future is where this Bond is headed and what's behind him pales into insignificance in comparison with what's to come. And that's a good thing in SPECTRE.

Those "fans" and others who made up their minds in advance not to like the film probably won't. Those who slavishly indulged and bought into all the publicity and hype surrounding it may very well be disappointed, as like most movies it doesn't fully live up to it. All that jazz needs to be put aside – everyone knows it's just smoke and mirrors...don't they? Those who feel they can appreciate an old school Bond movie in a modern context or just want two and a half hours of slickly made escapist entertainment featuring one of the greatest action heroes of modern film and literature, will very likely have a blast. For me, it felt too short rather than too long. Tempus fugit. Especially when you're having fun.

As for the negatives - can't really rave over the score or the theme song as I found them pretty underwhelming – SPECTRE cries out for something a bit more rousing, but unfortunately it doesn't get it. Craig could easily throw in the towel at this point, as SPECTRE brings his tenure full circle if we look at it as a story arc. The ending – a bit unsatisfying from my perspective - leaves things open-ended. I would have preferred something a bit more conclusive. But there you go. The world is not enough and you can't have everything – and ain't that the truth?

The Pyramid

...out of here...
"How are we going to get out of here?" "Which is the way out of here?" "We should be looking for a way out of here," "Is that a way out of here?" "Let's get out of here," "Forget the history lesson, how do we get out of here?" "We need to get out of here," "We'll never get out of here," "I'm getting out of here,"

This film may hold the record for instances of times the phrase "out of here" is used as the mainstay of the dialogue. Granted, the thrust of the plot - archaeologists and camera crew trapped in pyramid look for a way out whilst mythological Egyptian creatures terrorise and pick them off - does readily lend itself to the phrase. But come on, the audience gets it very early on, so maybe more show less tell should have been in order. And sometimes, when characters have nothing to say it's better they say just that.

Those gripes aside, here is a pseudo-found footage chiller that forgets the found footage aspect sporadically throughout and with some careless abandon. It's not been well written and the words coming out of the mouths of the characters have no sense of spontaneity or realism about them. Fans of The Inbetweeners might be interested to see James (Jay) Buckley as a bearded cameraman and therein may lie some novelty value. It's not particularly inventive, clever or dynamic and relies on the odd jump-scare here and there to excite - though they are signposted pretty obviously, so there's not much to catch anyone out.

It's predictable, feels familiar, but the Egyptian mythology angle is quite a nice hook and works OK in context. The acting never rises above the material and none of the performers acquit themselves particularly memorably. And the CGI is ropey at best.

A passable time-filler if expectations are kept low.

I'm out of here.

We Still Kill the Old Way

We still kill the old way...only you wouldn't know it here
I like the idea far more than the execution. What we have here is a wasted opportunity for a jolly good old-fashioned hard-boiled torture-porn blood-spurting gut churning British gangster knees-up extravaganza Eastend-style. What we get is a graphically restrained and disappointingly timid stab at an old-school crime/revenge thriller that fritters away its potential in favour of annoying camera technique, clichéd scripting, over-the top performances, cartoon caricature characterisation and little in the way of thrills and spills.

It should have amped the violence, pumped the adrenaline and sparked the target. Rather, it tones down, cops out and misses the mark. If a film is going to name-check the Krays and the Richardson Gang then the makers should recognise that the violent methods employed by these people was medieval and then some. What happens on screen should go some reasonable distance to reflecting that, rather than shy away from the gratuitous and explicit nature. If, as the title claims, we still kill the old way, then let's see it, experience it, the power and the horror of it.

The simple plot opens the doors to many possibilities, but fails to capitalise. Old geezer comes to the aid of young girl being primed for gang-rape by a bunch of hoodies and gets stomped to death. But this isn't any old geezer. Oh no, this is Stephen Berkoff playing Charlie Archer, a once revered and feared sixties Eastend crime tsar. Charlie's brother, Richie (Ian Ogilvy) lives a comfortable life in Spain, but upon hearing of his brother's demise returns home for the funeral and a healthy slice of revenge. Three of his old compatriots join him, bemoaning the good old days when the streets were safe because Richie and Charlie killed every threat, real or imagined, and the people were happy and danced a jig of joy from dawn until dusk like Dick Van Dyke on acid. The four pensioners amble about their business with sawn-off shotguns, claw hammers, drills, machetes, knuckle-dusters, etc, to teach the young scum a lesson by kidnapping, torturing and killing them all. Which ought to make them see the error of their ways if anything will.

Should have and could have been an electrifying journey into the dark heart and mind of criminal psychopathy, but opts for a pedestrian trundle into blandness instead. On the way they run into Alison Doody as a wholly improbable police detective investigating Charlie's murder – and a clunky plot device whereby it turns out it was Doody's wayward daughter who Charlie saved from being raped.

On the plus side, good to see Ogilvy back on screen and actually headlining (nice to see him reunited with his WITCHFINDER GENERAL compatriot Nicky Henson), and Berkoff (fleeting though he may be here) is always worth watching. There is a nice line in black humour on occasion and there are brief flashes of inspiration, such as the juxtaposition of criminal styles between the old school and the young upstarts. The oldies are brutally elegant, ruthless, determined, clinical, unflinching, matter-of-fact, whereas the kids are messy, disorganised, borderline-retarded, histrionic and irredeemably vile. Also, they all communicate through a virtually incomprehensible hip-hop street patois which I'm pretty sure no one uses meaningfully outside of a comedy sketch. Subtitles for translation would have helped.

I liked the cheeky reference to THE Italian JOB (1969) at the end – a pleasing touch.

Throughout viewing, I couldn't help imagining how it could have been done so much better, and that's no desirable pursuit for a film to stimulate in an audience during its running time. For fans of British Crime Cinema it's not essential viewing, but it passes the time relatively harmlessly whilst entertaining on a resolutely moderate level. I'm not sure if that is a recommendation.

Dead Within

Dead within...is how it left me feeling
Remarkable, the synthesis of film title and invoked emotion. I certainly felt dead within after watching it.

The film is set in a shed, features only two characters (four, if you count the brief turn by two others...OK, five if you count the baby...dog makes it six at a stretch) and the action moves outside on only one occasion at the end. To be fair, the visual quality of the film isn't too shabby, but there ain't a lot to look at during the running time.

The dialogue is atrocious, the narrative is a recycled zombie-by-numbers riff and the acting is altogether rather dire. There is nil characterisation and therefore nil audience investment in the characters - so what happens to them doesn't matter and therefore tedium is irretrievably cemented early on. The tone is boring as the trajectory of the story (such as it is) is underpinned by verbal and visual repetition. There is a vague plundering of Polanski's "Repulsion" as the chick goes hysterically off her rocker but here imitation is hardly the sincerest form of flattery. Overall it's a dragging shrieking drone into the void.

I'll give it credit for being made with next to no money and looking visually better than it probably has any right to - edited on an iMac with a copy of Final Cut Pro, right? But that's as charitable as I'm prepared to be.

It may find a casual audience on the back of "The Walking Dead," "World War Z" pop-interest in zombie plague media out there, but there are far better genre examples available and the clued-in will be informed by word of mouth to avoid like...well, like the plague.

I can't honestly recommend.

Penny Dreadful

Dreadful in the best possible way...
I watched the eight episodes of season one over two nights. An immaculately inventive (and subversive) Gothic roller-coaster ride set mostly in the shadowy metropolis of Victorian London. And what jolly good fun it was.

At its core the narrative is a re-imagining of Stoker's "Dracula." Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) along with his clairvoyant and seemingly demon possessed companion, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), are searching for his missing daughter Mina who is supposedly being held captive by some undead fiends. Mina, it is said, was married to a man called Harker – just to affirm the links to the Dracula trajectory. Orbiting this thread are opiate-addicted Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monster; a lycanthropic American trick-shot artist, a very louche and decadent Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Brona (Billy Piper) a consumptive whore. Ripper-type murders are occurring sporadically in the capital, the devil puts in a couple of appearances, and there is arcane talk of Egyptology and a plot to wreak Armageddon upon the earth. Professor Van Helsing (David Warner) pops up for a few scenes also, but makes a rather abrupt exit. Not before advising Frankenstein on vampirism, though.

Everything hangs together in a remarkably integrated way, it moves along at a smooth and brisk clip. On show is much gore and action; a thrilling atmosphere of impending horror and doom permeates the proceedings. Smart, adult, clever, stylish and scripted with a keen sense of time, place and meaning. The characters are vividly realised and humanely drawn. Production values are convincingly high with some loving recreations of the architecture, locales and landmarks of the Victorian age.

Performances, across the board, are generally excellent, with all principal and supporting performers seemingly at the top of their game. Good to see Dalton in the lead here, but it is Eva Green who delivers a revelation, a tour-de-force portrayal of a dangerous and haunted woman with a complex and highly sexually charged persona. Top rate entertainment that grips and doesn't seriously disappoint for a moment.

The eight episodes give the impression of actually being a lengthy prelude, an establishing process for the story yet to come. They strike, when combined, as a very elaborate introductory set-up for the real meat of the show - which, as a second series has been green-lighted, is hopefully what we have to look forward to next.

The finale leaves us with Victor in the early stages of reanimating the corpse of Brona (Billie Piper) to serve as a mate for his creation, Caliban (Rory Kinnear). Brona was the doomed prostitute love of gunslinger Ethan (Josh Hartnett) who finally revealed his lycanthropic tendencies and tore apart the two sleazy Pinkerton stooges sent to return him to his homeland. Could he also be the perpetrator of the Ripper-alike murders? Suggestion is strong but I suspect misdirection is afoot here. Mina is located and found to be beyond redemption, thus put to final rest by her father Sir Malcolm (Dalton). She leaves behind the threat of the coming of The Master (Dracula?) who as yet remains unseen. Vanessa (Green) rejects the advances of Dorian Gray (Carney), is confirmed as Murray's daughter (the product of his illicit affair with her mother?) and seems to have her demons under some sort of control. The stage is thus set.

PENNY DREADFUL drips with quality and care, a rare and intelligent creative endeavour, and the forthcoming 10 episode Season 2 can't come quickly enough. Lovely stuff.

Rosemary's Baby

Whatever Happened to Rosemary's Baby, Jane?

Polanski's satanic chiller delivers a masterclass in creeping paranoia and growing unease. It pulls off that elusive achievement, the one whereby most of the action takes place in daylight hours in contemporary New York yet still managing to be eerie and spine tingling. The director knows his Hitchcock well and exploits accordingly whilst imposing his own singular stamp of identity throughout. The integration of bizarre arcane dream sequences and surreal events with a wholly modern environment helps form the spiritual core of this truly satisfying urban horror film. Technically and emotionally, it's a winner, and the years have done little to diminish its power.

As in REPULSION (1965) before it and THE TENANT (1976) after it, the apartment (block) setting is as much a character as anything or anyone else. Across this concrete canvas, deftly, and in common with those other two films, ROSEMARY'S BABY manipulates audience sensibilities through recurrent interchanging beliefs – from this is really happening, to this is all in her mind, to this is really happening, to this is all in her mind, and so on. The ending is suitably creepy and haunting and will stay with you.

So, it's cool, stylish, thrilling, scary, suspenseful – good stuff. I haven't seen it for a couple of years, but intend to revisit soon.

Why bring it up?

Ah, well, because I just sat through...

ROSEMARY'S BABY (2014)...a 240 minute TV Mini-Series in two parts.

And this is a diabolical travesty. For the most part, it seems to be intended as a showcase for the dubious acting talents of Zoe Saldana. Ms Saldana takes the central role of Rosemary. She also produces the show along with two of her family.

In all honesty, Mia Farrow, who featured in the original, irritates me as an actress in ways that cause me to actively avoid films in which she appears. Apart from ROSEMARY'S BABY, that is, in which her cutesy, whiney, elfin, borderline-anorexic, drippy, fragile, neurotic flower-child persona fits the role and the film and the time to absolute perfection. In anything else, I have to avert my eyes, but in RB she's the ideal choice.

Zoe Saldana is very pretty to look at. Outside of that, she irritates me here even more than Farrow in any film that isn't RB . Every other sentence she speaks is punctuated by a nervous and incongruous giggle that becomes really annoying after the first ten times it manifests. And it never stops. Just when you think it's gone, it pops up again. It's the most unnerving and affecting thing about this whole venture. I don't know how much creative control the girl had, but someone should have at least advised her to stop with the giggling every other line as it doesn't effectively represent dramatic punctuation. Maybe they did. Maybe they got fired for it. Lucky them.

RB 2014 is one of the most sterile pieces of work I've seen for a long time. It's a resolutely flat, monotone one chord visual drone that is filmed without style, panache, flair or meaning. The script is mundane, the performances are mediocre and there is very little by way of tension or suspense. Actually, that's an exaggeration. There's nothing by way of tension or suspense.

The original didn't really need overt special effects to make a point or illustrate anything. This version uses them sporadically – computerised hallucinations, flies, blood, gore, viscera, fire, scalded flesh, etc. It's all amateurish stuff, half-heartedly rendered, and fails to add any life or interest. Worse still, the trajectory of the fates of most of the characters is signposted in the most obvious ways.

The one bright spot was seeing Carole Bouquet in a prominent role. She looks a little faded around the edges these days, but remains something of a vision of stylish beauty.

Some might wonder why I watched it. Why I stuck with it until the bitter end – which, by the way, turned out to be a jaw-droppingly mindless conclusion consisting of a shot of a portly baby in a pram with luminous blue contact lenses blazing like lasers in place of his eyeballs. And this is scary and disturbing how, exactly? As opposed to laughable?

Recently I have been watching HANNIBAL and FARGO and enjoying them. Good quality stimulating and intriguing US TV. HANNIBAL especially pushes the envelope in tone, style and content, with humour so black, serrated and malevolent it almost leaves bite marks. I had an idea that RB might be up to the same standard. Got that wrong.

Stayed till the end because I'm a stickler. And an optimist. Didn't get any better. More fool me, perhaps.

Went the Day Well?

A remarkable historical artifact
A latterly controversial propaganda piece that even today represents a powerful, if transparently manipulative slice of British wartime filmmaking.

Taken from a story by Graham Greene, the premise sees a chocolate box English country village, packed to the brim with staunch salt of the earth types from various strata of the class system, which plays host to a troop of Nazi invaders disguised as regular Tommies. The locals soon rumble the dastardly plan and gradually, as the bulldog spirit inevitably blooms and swells, turn the tables on their oppressors and merrily chop, shoot, stab, strangle, punch and grenade the evil Hun interlopers into submission – well, death really.

The villagers – from the lady of the manor to the lowly poacher and the local postmistress – are hewn from ye olde stout oak of English courage and fortitude, every man jack of 'em. The Nazi troops are evil, barbaric, baby-bayoneting, child-murdering dictators through and through. They have no redeeming features whatsoever. They are uniformly inhuman.

Many of the villagers get blown away – main characters die indiscriminately – but they all cop it doing their duty and performing deeds of selfless heroism or flag-waving moral defiance. The Germans buy it because they deserve to, and that's reason enough here.

The controversy heaped on the film in later times stems from it being so amazingly subversive in its approach along with the gleeful degree of sadistic violence suggested on screen. In one scene the local postmistress throws pepper in the eyes of a Nazi trooper and then whacks him into the next world with an axe. She is subsequently brutally transfixed with a bayonet when another Nazi walks in on the scene. Earlier the local vicar is shot point blank in the church by a Nazi officer – no concept of sanctuary or God, you see? There's more, much more, but it's best to see and enjoy (or not) for yourself.

I love this film on two levels. Firstly, as a remarkable historical artifact depicting a fantasy England that never was and never will be. It smartly dupes you into wanting to believe that this is just the way it was and truly should have been. You end up thinking maybe it was a lot like this back then. Even though you know full well it wasn't. Secondly, it's a bloody good crack. It demonises and dehumanises the enemy of old and is more black and white than hot tar on a freshly laundered bed sheet. There is plenty of action and slaughter, and even though it's tame by modern standards due to a lack of explicit visuals, what it suggests by leaving sight unseen is a force to be reckoned with. There is no doubt who to root for. On the one hand a group of righteous, good, humane, patriotic and caring folk (us). On the other, a bunch of irredeemably evil bastards out to butcher you and your kids (them). Clear enough.

Racist, bigoted, xenophobic, prejudiced and wholly simplistic. But in the context of the times, perhaps not without some justification. And possibly one of the best British war films ever made. Seek it out.

Ninja: Shadow of a Tear

Cannon Fodder
Any fan of the Golan-Globus era of Cannon action potboilers will be in their element here. If this had been made in the 80's, Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff would be the ass-kicking lead and the movie would eventually wind-up a mini-sensation on VHS. As it is, today in the here and now, we have the physically imposing but charisma-challenged Scott Adkins headlining and a film that is another example of straight to DVD/Blu-Ray cannon fodder (ahem!).

But let's not be too negative. NINJA 2 is actually a quite lovely spiritual re-imagining of the Cannon glory days that doesn't bother to re-imagine very much. And that's a good thing.

The plot preamble is done and dusted in the first ten minutes, which leaves the rest of the running time devoted to a plethora of exceptionally well choreographed fights, stunts, explosions and action sequences.

Casey (Adkins) is an American Ninja-type working in a dojo as a ninjitsu master and happily settled in conjugal bliss with his cute Japanese bride. After an altercation with two street thugs, Casey returns home to find his pregnant wife has been strangled and garroted to death with a barbed-wire whip contraption. She's quickly consigned to the grave and the film moves forward at breakneck speed into a ninja-revenge narrative which sees our hero punching, chopping, kicking, stabbing, slicing and dicing his way through Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) in pursuit of a villainous jungle drug lord. And that's it.

Adkins is physically imposing and visually impressive, but lacks the awe-inspiring on-screen presence of Chuck or Arnie or JCVD in their prime. That said, he let's his physicality do the talking for him and it easily makes up for the on-screen deficit resulting from his lack of acting ability and moribund persona. The fights are superb and furious, and the scene in which he takes out a dojo of martial arts hoodlums in one fluid go is a stunner.

The film is well shot, very economical but clean and sharp and ploughs a comfortably familiar furrow from beginning to end. You're never in any doubt as to the outcome, but it's so much fun getting there that doesn't matter in the least. There's a "twist" which isn't any sort of surprise as its massively signposted early on, and the violence on show falls into the medium-rare category without being overly explicit.

A word to the very hard-of-thinking. There are some subtitles – more than one might usually expect in a film of this type – but hopefully this will not alienate audiences who traditionally don't like to or can't read. If the subtitles weren't there, it would make little difference as it's strikingly obvious what's being said and what's going on. You'll get the gist without any unnecessary effort or strain, so don't panic.

Overall, NINJA 2 is resolutely undemanding action fare that wears its beating 80s Cannon-rendered heart on its Golan-Globus embroidered sleeve. A welcome reminder of a time when action-movies were marvellously mindless fun and VHS was the home-entertainment weapon of choice. More like this.


Tears In Zero Gravity
The set-up is simplicity itself, you probably know what it's about, so let's not waste time with that.

On the positive side it's gripping, fast-paced and involving. Visually, it is superb, one of the best–looking, best designed movies you're ever likely to see. Overall, an intense little thriller with some well-sustained edge-of-the-seat moments and a neat, quite brave twist as the one half of this superstar two-hander bows out half way through the running time. In some respects, the most interesting and charismatic of the two as it happens.

On the downside, the dialogue is mostly doggerel – trite, manufactured and clunky. The hackneyed and stage-managed life-affirming epiphany bestowed on Bullock's insular grief-stricken character is both heavy-handed and monumentally unsubtle. And a bit gag-inducing to boot. I can do without references to a child's missing red shoe and knotted hair and conversations in the afterlife and all that phony corn-syrup coating.

The two leads do relatively well with their cardboard cut-out roles. Clooney is his usual practised mix of macho smarm and sophisticated swagger. Bullock whinges and hyperventilates effectively all over the place whilst her frozen face is now surgically incapacitated beyond the remotest chance of projecting convincing emotional expressions.

There are some great touches which could have delivered much more emotional impact. For instance, Bullock's tears floating in zero gravity. Now if only her face could have looked as if she were actually distressed and crying that would have been an amazing scene, rather than one that merely strikes as a very imaginative creative idea.

Cuaron directs with confidence and style and he conveys a stunning atmosphere of outer-space realism with a convincing use of physics and dizzying camera-work. He makes it easy to believe in the on-screen environment he has created. Sadly, I found it a lot harder to believe in the characters. It's strange but true, little things like bad dialogue and blank facial expressions that don't fit dramatic situations can jolt you out of a carefully constructed and immersive cinematic environment, diminishing the experience somewhat.

Bottom line, a solid, well-made, sci-fi flick with an ingenious narrative. Shame that shoddy characterisation and dialogue along with some self-imposed physical restrictions on the part of the lead-actress let it down. Could have been great, but wasn't. However, remains very good viewing despite the wasted potential.

Ah, wasted potential. Always the worst cinematic crime.

The World's End

The World's End Delivers
The third and final in what Pegg and Wright have dubbed "The Cornetto Trilogy," the preceding two being SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. This final film is the most personal and probably the one with the most emotional resonance.

Gary King (Pegg) is an eternal teenager. Stuck in a time-warp and never moving on from what he imagines was the best ever time in his life – the day he left school with his mates and embarked on a never-completed pub crawl in their home town. As a result of a group therapy session, Gary hatches a harebrained scheme to change his life, a plan to reunite the old crew and replicate the pub crawl reaching the final fabled hostelry "The World's End."

Pegg is centre stage throughout and acts as a lightning rod conducting the emotional electricity at the heart of the film. The audience identifies with Gary because he represents both what and where we might have been had we never grown up and moved on. He manifests the same impact on his friends as they slowly come to realise that buying into the benchmarks by which society measures success – houses, marriage, kids, careers, work – has not rendered them any less unhappy, unfulfilled and unsatisfied with their lot. Pegg delivers a masterclass of hyperactivity, rapid-fire patter, selfishness, bravura and poignantly fragile optimism. By sheer force of will and persistence, he cajoles manipulates and cons his friends into taking part in his adventure. This is Pegg's career best performance to date and his Gary King stimulates both the funny-bone and the heart-strings in equal measure.

Kudos in the characterisation stakes also goes to Nick Frost as Gary's former best friend Andy. At heart, Andy is a hulking, alcoholic bruiser squashed into a suit and working as a teetotal corporate stuffed shirt. The relationship between Gary and Andy is beautifully acted and the two performers resonate off each other with masterful interactions defined by bittersweet sensitivity and precise timing.

Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine provide engaging support as the other three members of "The Five Musketeers" and Rosamund Pike is achingly lovely as the token female. But really, the focus is the Pegg/Frost double act – as it was in SHAUN and FUZZ. And that's the way it should be.

The plot line proceeds to inject elements of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, STEPFORD WIVES and THE TERMINATOR into the narrative, but in spite of this manages to evolve into something that is presented in a wholly original way. Everything powers along at a snappy pace with fights, chases, explosions, slapstick and comic stunts arriving one after the other. Although the gang realise that something sinister is afoot and that people are no longer people rather alien machines, they decide to go with Gary's plan to continue the pub crawl as a means of escape. Thus giving the impression to any onlookers that they don't know what they know. However, the drunker they get the more they employ alcohol-challenged and terminally cracked logic to reason and strategise their way out of the nightmare which in turn leads to ever escalating destruction and disaster.

THE WORLD'S END is cool, entertaining, funny and an impressive and fitting way to wind-up the trilogy. Fans of SHAUN and FUZZ are unlikely to be disappointed and although it isn't quite as good as the first film, for me it just edges ahead of the second. Pegg and Frost are at the top of their game, the sfx and pyrotechnics are a gas and the CGI doesn't intrude to the point of overkill. Genre fans will especially get a kick out of train-spotting the subtle and good humoured references and in-jokes; the MAD MAX/ANY NUMBER OF POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES inspired epilogue is a satisfying cherry on the cake.

Those expecting a sustained barrage of crass, crude, foul-mouthed, egocentric Hollywood mega-bloat like THIS IS THE END will probably feel short-changed. If, though, expectations are more for something developed with prominent consideration and care, thought, witty satire, good humour and a heart and soul whilst also including some decent thrills, action and suspense, THE WORLD'S END unconditionally delivers.

The Exorcist

Pure Cinema - 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray
Having just taken delivery of the 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition and watched the director's cut I am reminded fully of just why this is one of the most influential and important motion pictures ever made. The longer cut (by 11 minutes) doesn't add that much to the theatrical version (also included) apart from a minimal feeling of having watched a slightly more complete and thorough presentation. But, really, it's neither here nor there.

The plot is simple. Daughter of actress single mother is possessed by an evil spirit (may or may not be the devil), an Old Catholic priest intervenes to perform an exorcism and he's accompanied by a young modern Jesuit priest experiencing a crisis of faith. Yes, simple. But the content, the events and the themes explored within are immensely complex and emotionally affecting.

It's a tale of good versus evil, of the power of religious faith along with redemption through self- sacrifice. Now I'm not a religious person but even I was impressed by the compelling and matter-of-fact way the film seeks to reaffirm belief in the existence of both God and the Devil. And I still remain astonished at the amount of religiously oriented people, even today, who are offended by this film. Considering it works on an acceptance of God's existence and clearly shows good triumphing over the best efforts of malicious evil; how is that offensive exactly? What I personally find offensive, but admittedly unsurprising, is the number of people who haven't actually seen the film but feel qualified to critique and judge it. This is a testament to the closed-minded intolerance of religion and the power of media mythology. More powerful than God for some, it would seem.

Undeniably, pure evil is depicted as monstrous, defiling, sick, twisted, malevolent and destructive. The host child is physically tortured and made to behave supernaturally and unspeakably. Well, what would anyone expect – a demon that just pops around for crumpets and afternoon tea with perhaps a sedate game of lawn croquet thrown in for a clincher?

The deal here is, for those of a particularly media susceptible and narrow-minded nature and those who haven't seen it but know something of the reputation; put aside the myths and sensationalism surrounding THE EXORCIST. This stuff is causing you to miss out on experiencing a classic exercise in pure cinema.

Friedkin (director) and Blatty (writer) employ almost peerless craftsmanship in structuring and executing this film. It represents the masterwork of both and they will probably never better it. There is some incredibly fine acting on show from Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb and Jason Miller. Not forgetting the best ever screen work of Linda Blair. As the possessed child she is a revelation. Whatever subsequent acting performance she gave as an adult it was, quite honestly, atrocious in comparison. Child actors are unselfconscious and blessed with monumental confidence and self-belief and the ability to imaginatively project. Some of them lose this when they grow up. Linda Blair certainly did. However, in THE EXORCIST, she was something else entirely.

The screenplay by William Peter Blatty is one of the most carefully composed and atmospherically chilling pieces one could imagine. He draws each and every character as a three-dimensional human being and takes time over development. Quite remarkable, considering Blatty had been a hack comedy writer up to this point (he scripted, of all things, the Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau flick A SHOT IN THE DARK).

Friedkin directs each shot with painstaking care and an eye for making the commonplace seem frightful and unsettling. Case in point is the scene when Ellen Burstyn is simply walking home in daylight. Autumn leaves blow along the street, kids trick-or-treating run by, the wind tugs the habits of some passing nuns, and Mike Oldfield's signature loop from "Tubular Bells" plays in the background. It is really uncannily unnerving. And quite brilliant. Friedkin's choice of this particular music is inspired, but it's used very, very sparingly (only twice?) throughout the movie. Oldfield's piano repeat has a weird hook/tempo that the listener can never quite get their head around. This is what makes it addictive and unsettling and it gets into your head, stays there and helps set a unique tone.

The audio visual tapestry Friedkin weaves builds steadily and seamlessly through a series of escalating events and the tension increases in sympathy. Owen Roizman's cinematography is absolutely magnificent, framing the story in a psychologically affecting range of strikingly beautiful textures and tones. Add the support of some immaculately subtle audio effects, the incredible vocalism of Mercedes McCambridge and some truly shocking but never arbitrary or exploitative sequences, and you have one of the most frightening and emotionally rewarding cinematic experiences ever committed to film.

THE EXORCIST is one of those rarest phenomena; like PSYCHO, it's a movie that invokes strong feelings in anyone who sees it by intricately creating an atmosphere that is unrivalled in film. There has never been anything else quite like it. And probably never will be again. It's pure cinema and as such demands and deserves the attention it gets. Scrap the media-generated infamy and see it for what it is.

The Blu-Ray print is a thing of impressive beauty – crisp, clean, fresh and vibrant. The director's cut has a very slight edge over the theatrical release, if only for providing the most complete viewing platform available. You get a lot of bang for your buck – commentary by Friedkin and Blatty, interviews, documentaries, trailers, all the usual suspects. Plus you get the theatrical cut thrown in. It's worth the dough.

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