Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Choke
Dir: Clark Gregg
2008
****
I’m still amazed to this day that, not only did someone manage to adapt Fight Club into a film, they did it brilliantly. If you’re brave enough to adapt a Chuck Palahniuk novel into a film, you have to do it right, if you cant, you need to walk away. As much as I’d love to see the novels Invisible Monsters and Survivor made into films I honestly don’t think its possible to do so authentically. I love the novel Snuff but I don’t think anyone would really want to see that made into a film, the very thought of it makes me feel a little queasy, as much as I enjoyed it. Choke is probably one of the more obvious choices for an adaptation but I’m not sure those involved pulled it off as successfully as they could have. They certainly got the casting right with Sam Rockwell utterly convincing as main character Victor Mancini and Anjelica Huston, who certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice, as Ida, Victor’s mother. The story is about Victor Mancini, a reformed sex addict who works as a re-enactor of life in Colonial America – a colonial theme park in New Jersey. He works and shares an apartment with his best friend, Denny (played by Brad William Henke), who is also a reformed sex addict. To pay for his mother’s Alzheimer's disease hospital bills, Victor cons diners by intentionally choking at restaurants to get money from his rescuers, by keeping a detailed list of everyone who saves him and sending them frequent letters about fictional bills he is unable to pay. The people feel so sorry for him that they send him cards and letters asking him about how he is doing, and continue to send him money to help him with the bills. When he visits his mother one day, he meets Dr Paige Marshall (played by Kelly Macdonald), who takes care of her. She tells Victor that his mother's condition is worsening and that they could try an experimental stem cell technique that would require harvesting cells from the umbilical cord of a newborn baby with Victor's genes. She convinces Victor to have sex with her so she can have his child and save his mother. Victor never knew his father and is anxious to obtain the information from his mother, but she never recognizes him when he visits. He asks Denny to pose as him and ask her questions. Denny agrees and reveals that Victor's mother kept a diary. Victor finds it, but it is in Italian. Paige tells Victor she can read Italian and agrees to translate the diary. Victor and Paige try several times to have sex, but Victor cannot maintain an erection. After discussing it with Denny, he realizes he loves Paige. She then reveals to him that his mother may have fled Italy because she stole Jesus' foreskin, and used its cells to conceive Victor, making him the Second Coming. He is reluctant to believe but, in the end, accepts Paige's assertion. However, his mother finally recognizes him and tells him that she stole him as a baby and she has no idea who his birth parents are. As she tells him this, he feeds her chocolate pudding and accidentally chokes her to death. While Paige tries to resuscitate Victor's mother, a hidden band around her wrist falls into Victor's view, revealing that she is a patient in the hospital and not a doctor after all. Paige then reveals that she was admitted to the hospital years ago, in a catatonic state, and fell in love with Victor through the stories his mother told her about him. As she was a former medical student, the nurses allowed her to wear a white coat, as it calmed her down. Paige, a voluntary patient, checks herself out without saying goodbye to Victor. After his mother's funeral, Victor boards a plane. He goes to the bathroom and the door opens to reveal Paige joining him. Only half of what we see in the film actually happens in the book. Chuck Palahniuk sold the rights to Choke following the success of Fight Club and Clark Gregg (now famous for his role as Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D) fought for the opportunity to direct it based on a writing assignment he had written on it years before. Gregg worked for five years on a script, trying to adapt it faithfully. In the end he decided to write his personal version of the story, believing that it would be one that Chuck Palahniuk would oppose. However, much to Gregg's surprise, the author liked and supported the departures made in his updated version and the film was a go, with Palahniuk even making a cameo appearance. It’s a nice film, I enjoyed it very much, but it isn’t a true Palahniuk story and I think that’s the problem I have with it. It’s a little to lite and comical in places where it really should have been dark and about the twisted relationship between a boy and his mother. Gregg later stated that he wanted to shift the tone of the story to be somewhere between Hal Ashby’s Being There and Harold and Maude, and more recent films like Secretary and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I really didn’t feel that to be the case at all, it’s not badly directed but its nothing special. For me it was all about the lead performances, which are more than enough to make it an enjoyable dark comedy.
Barfly
Dir: Barbet Schroeder
1987
***
Directly after watching 1987’s Barfly you should read Charles Bukowski’s novel Hollywood. Adopting the stylized alter-ego, Henry 'Hank' Chinaski, a character used in previous novels, this book relates his experiences of working with a director, finding financial backing, losing financial backing, writing the screenplay and finally completing Barfly. The seemingly preposterous exchanges and occurrences within these pages leave the reader with the conviction that Hank Chinaski's life was truly stranger than fiction. Everyone involved with the film had nice things to say of the author/screenwriter, until he wrote about them. It adds a fascinating extra level to the film. Everyone in the book is given a false name; Mickey Rourke, the lead actor in the film, is named Jack Bledsoe, Faye Dunaway is named Francine Bowers, Barbet Schroeder, the director, is named Jon Pinchot and Menahem Golan, co-producer, is named Harry Friedman. Other Hollywood people Chinaski (Bukowski) encounters are easier to spot; Madonna is named Ramona, Roger Ebert is named Rick Talbot, Isabella Rossellini is named Rosalind Bonelli, Taylor Hackford is named Hector Blackford, Werner Herzog is named Wenner Zergog and Francis Ford Coppola is named Frances Ford Lopalla. The film is ‘presented by’ Coppola so his name is more obvious but still hilarious. The story of the film sort of follows on from his Chinaski novel’s; Post Office, Factotum and Women (and Ham on Rye, although it is about Hank’s earlier life before working at the Post Office) but I wouldn’t say the character is particularly recognisable. The story finds Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) as a destitute alcoholic who lives in a rundown apartment and works menial jobs when he can find them. An intelligent man and keenly aware of his circumstance, he finds solace in expressing his feelings and perceptions of the world through writing poetry and short stories which he submits to magazines and papers for a few extra dollars. So far so Bukowski. It’s the fighting that didn’t really ring true for me. There is something about Bukowski’s writing also that just can’t be translated into film. He has written pages and pages about sitting in his flat drinking, something you can’t just simply watch. After one fight too many with the bar tender at his local drinking spot, Hank staggers on to another establishment down the street, where he continues to drink. There, he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), a fellow alcoholic and a kept woman, who, lonely in her own right, invites Henry to drink with her, with booze she buys on her lover's account at the liquor store. She invites Henry to her shabby apartment to drink whiskey, and he quickly takes up residence with her. They share a bed and drink to excess. The next day they set out to get jobs to finance the booze soaked life together. This is the Chinaski/Bukowski that I recognise. The film is fairly un-climactic but that’s authentic really. Mickey Rourke played Hank his way – which was good – but not at all like I ever imagined him. For me Faye Dunaway is the star of the film. Bukowski originally wanted Sean Penn to star as Chinaski, but Penn insisted that Dennis Hopper direct the film. Bukowski had written the screenplay for Barbet Schroeder, who had filmed him for French TV years before, but would not surrender the script to Hopper, whom he despised as a gold-chain-wearing Hollywood phony; Bukowski and Penn remained friends for the rest of Bukowski's life but you have to wonder what could have been and I’m sure Penn has his regrets about it – or at least he should. Rourke and Bukowski were initially nice about each other but both turned around and were critical after a few years, with Bukowski stating that he thought Rourke’s performance was wrong and Rourke saying how unpleasant Bukowski was. The film is also included in Cannon Studio legend. Cannon very nearly pulled the plug before filming. The film was ultimately produced because Barbet Schroeder allegedly appeared at the Cannon offices one day with a battery powered portable saw and threatened to cut off his finger unless Cannon reconsidered its decision and agreed to make the film, stating that he was represented by the law firm of Black and Decker and would be forced cut off his finger to allegedly show to the world that Cannon was cutting off a piece of him by abandoning the film. Alas, all the things that happened behind the camera ended up being way more interesting than anything that happened in front of it. Watch it as reference before reading the book only, as this isn’t quite Bukowski as it should be.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Meg
Dir: Jon Turteltaub
2018
****
Early negative reviews of 2018’s The Meg suggest that some people were under the impression the film was going to be something other than a big-budget B-movie. I’m not sure how anyone could be confused on this issue, as The Meg has been anything but dishonest about what it is. Indeed, I’m relieved that The Meg is everything I thought it would be and more. Seriously, a ridiculously over the top film about a giant pre-historic shark starring Jason Statham? I was sold before I even bought my ticket. I went to the late-night showing and bought the biggest tub of popcorn the cinema sold and I loved every minute of it. I’ve heard many people mention that they thought it ripped off 1999’s Deep Blue Sea somewhat but I’m not sure that many people realise that The Meg is an adaption of Steve Alten’s 1997 novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror. Disney bought the rights to the novel the very year it was released, at a cost of one million dollars. The project was put on ice when Warner Bros released Deep Blue Sea in 1999. Author Steve Alten was so frustrated with the lack of movement on the project that he wrote his own draft screenplay that he took to executive producer Nick Nunziata who then in turn handed it to Guillermo del Toro after the pair worked together on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Del Toro then took the screenplay to Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin, who brought on Speed and Twister director Jan De Bont to helm. The project stalled once more due to budget concerns. The rights reverted to Alten again and it became one of those infamous ideas in cinema-land that got stuck in development hell. It didn’t look like it would ever happen, until 2015 that is when , it was announced that the film was now moving forward at Warner Bros, with a new script penned by Dean Georgaris. Eli Roth was attached as director before he was replaced with Jon Turteltaub. Roth left due to creative differences with the studio, namely that he wanted the film to maintain both its R-rating and a $150 million budget. It's also rumored that Roth, on top of writing and directing, also wanted to play the lead role of Jonas, but the studio believed he didn't have the star power. The film started shooting in October 2016 and ended in January 2016. The film then had a whole years worth of special effects added to it – and it shows (in the best possible way). While the film does feature elements of Jaws and Deep Blue Sea - how could it not? – this is very much its own beast. It is of course a ridiculous premise but not as ridiculous as you’d expect from an Asylum Studio monster film or indeed Deep Blue Sea (sharks can’t swim backwards). I liked the characters and the cast wasn’t a bunch of a-listers for the sake of big names, they were instead a group of likable people who played their parts well. My favorite shark-themed b-movie up until now has been Shark Attack 3: Megalodon but The Meg has certainly given it a run for it’s money. While the massive beast is scary he also has a lot of character to him. It really is shark versus Jason Statham, literally and in personality. The key to making a great shark movie is getting the balance between fun and horror, knowing when to be serious and when to be playful – The Meg gets this spot on every time. You are frightened and sad when a character is chewed up but you can laugh at the overall ridiculousness of it all. The one thing that did surprise me was the lack of gratuity. This isn’t a film about taking characters out one by one just for the sake of it, in this sense it may disappoint the more graphic horror film enthusiasts. However, the promotional material always suggested as much, so no one should have been surprised by this. Jason Statham did indeed steal the show, he is now the Orson Welles of the alternative action film, but Li Bingbing played the romantic interest who gives as good as she gets refreshingly well, Rainn Wilson (who I don’t always like I have to say) played the not so villainous villain brilliantly and Cliff Curtis certainly wasn’t afraid to get his feet wet. Ruby Rose (who nearly drowned on set), Page Kennedy and ├ôlafur Darri ├ôlafsson also provided spark to the supporting cast, and it was nice to see Masi Oka again on the big screen. I think my only criticism is with a few of the changes in the adaptation. In the novel, the shark is pure white, almost luminescent from living so deep down in an environment with virtually no light. The Meg also only attacked at night as living in the deep water made its eye sensitive to light. When it does attack during the day it is automatically blinded. I have no issue with these changes whatsoever, even though they’re quite realistic should the Megalodon still be alive, they work so much better in the film. The big change that does feel like a big shame was the ending and how The Meg is killed. In the Book, Jonas kills the Meg by driving the mini submarine down its throat and landing in its belly. He then rips out the Meg's heart from within. Granted it would have been pretty hard to film that, it’s a shame, but I did like the film’s version, especially the help Jonas receives from the other sharks. Overall, The Meg is magic, a blockbuster budget but with a B-movie heart.
Very Bad Things
Dir: Peter Berg
1998
***
Peter Berg’s 1998 dark comedy Very Bad Things wasn’t successful upon release and it was looked down upon for its mean-spirit and overall reprehensibility – the things I liked most about it. It is dark and nasty but to be honest I found it to be rather refreshing, especially given that butter-wouldn’t-melt big names such as Cameron Diaz and Christian Slater were attached. For me it felt like an evil version of Seinfeld in that it featured mean-spirited and selfish people doing wrong and getting their comeuppance. That entertainment in my book. The story begins with Laura (Cameron Diaz) and Kyle (Jon Favreau) discussing their forthcoming wedding and we get the idea that she is becoming somewhat obsessed with it. Kyle needs a bit of time out and organises a trip to Las Vegas for him and his buddies Charles (Leland Orser), Robert (Christian Slater), brothers Adam and Michael (Daniel Stern and Jeremy Piven) to enjoy a bachelor party. Even though Laura says she will allow Kyle to take cocaine on the trip, you can tell she’s apprehensive of the trip, especially as Robert tends to lead the others astray. The men arrive and enjoy a night of drugs, drink and gambling before heading to their luxury hotel room for a late night party. Unbeknownst to the others, the highly-strung Michael brings up a prostitute and has rough sex with her in the bathroom. Unfortunately the sex is a little too rough and Michael accidentally impales her skull on a clothes hook on the back of the door. Soon thereafter, a security guard comes to investigate the ruckus and discovers Tina's corpse. In desperation, Robert stabs the guard to death. Boyd convinces the group to dismember the bodies, bury them in the desert, and never speak of it again. After Vegas at the rehearsal dinner, Adam cracks under the pressure, leading to a confrontation with Michael outside. The fight is broken up and Michael is convinced to leave. While leaving, he tries to ram his jeep into Adam's beloved minivan but Adam runs in front of his van to try and stop him and is crushed in the collision. In the hospital, Adam whispers something to his wife Lois (Jeanne Tripplehorn) before dying, as Robert looks on through a glass window. Lois demands answers about what happened in Las Vegas. Kyle makes up a story about Adam sleeping with a prostitute. Robert, suspecting she does not believe them, kills Lois. Later, Robert calls Kyle and Charles to bring Michael to the house, where he kills him. He concocts a story about a Michael/Lois/Adam love triangle to answer any interrogation by police. After these events and being named beneficiary of Adam and Lois' estate, Kyle breaks down and confesses the story to Laura, who demands that the wedding she has dreamed about proceed as planned. On the wedding day, Robert confronts Kyle, demanding the money from Adam's life insurance policy. Kyle refuses and a fight ensues which ends with Laura bludgeoning Robert. During the ceremony, Kyle and Charles realize that Robert has the wedding rings. Charles goes to retrieve them, opening a door that knocks Robert down a stairwell where he dies. Laura demands Kyle bury Robert's body in the desert and then ensure no loose ends remain by killing Charles. Ultimately, Kyle cannot go through with the act and as he drives home, he loses focus and crashes into an oncoming car. After the collision, Kyle has had both his legs amputated below the knee and Charles is brain damaged and confined to a motorized wheelchair, leaving Laura to care for all of them in addition to raising Adam's sons. As Laura watches Fisher's futile attempt to control the two boys, she realizes her life and dreams are totally ruined and suffers a nervous breakdown as she runs out of the house and collapses screaming in the street. It is funny, shocking and farcical, and very dark indeed. I can see why many people didn’t enjoy it but I liked it for its individuality. The late 90s hit a bit of a wall when it came to cinema, Europe was making great cinema but America and the UK were stuck a little following certain hits that were impossible to replicate – even though everyone was desperately trying. The Blockbuster Video bargain bin is were many of the overlooked independent gems were found and I would argue that they have aged better than many of the classics. Christian Slater was a great villain and Cameron Diaz was superb as the obsessed and crazed bride-to-be. Favreau, Stern and Piven were great character actors and Orser, who had played quite a few ‘innocent’ killers in the 90s, was perfect for the role of sympathetic ‘other guy’. It was overlooked because the mainstream critics couldn’t take a bit of nasty, even though cinema really needed some at that point in the decade. It didn’t help that Slater, who we see drinking, taking drugs and murdering people, had only just finished rehabilitation after assaulting his then girlfriend under the influence of drink and drugs, it doesn’t sit well but it is still fiction. It’s one hell of a debut anyway and I’m not sure I’ve really liked Peter Berg as much since. Weird to think Adam Sandler was nearly Jeremy Piven’s character, that would have interesting to see.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Dennis SkinnerNature of the Beast
Dir: Daniel Draper
2017
****
Skip Kite’s brilliant 2014 documentary Tony Benn: Will and Testament sang praise to one of England’s greatest ever politicians and a personal hero of mine. It was released some months after Benn died but followed the last two years of his life. The title suggested that he knew he was reaching the end of his life and his involvement with the film made it so much more fulfilling. Then, in 2017, Daniel Draper decided it was time Benn’s colleague and friend Dennis Skinner had his praises sung. However, Skinner doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, continuing his role as MP well into his 80s. Skinner thankfully accepted Draper’s offer and here we have a pleasant and unfussy portrait of one of the few people left in the Houses of Parliament with an ounce of integrity in them. I know a lot about Skinner’s political life but I knew nothing of his private one and Draper’s Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast dips in and out of it rather well. Between footage of Skinner’s passionate speeches of which he is famous for, we are also treated to a few anecdotes, a trip to various parks and fields and a few old renditions sung by the man himself. I knew he was a miner, a democratic socialist and trade unionist but I didn’t know he could sing. I was unaware of his love of nature and his obsession with London's parks (including Richmond Park where I was married) where he walks every day between parliamentary sessions. The film uses a combination of archival and recent footage, along with interviews with Skinner, his family and his friends. It explores every aspect of Skinner's life. It follows Skinner from early years to modern day, his entry into politics, his high and low points, his rebellions against the party, while naturally highlighting the wit and passion that has earned him the nickname "The Beast of Bolsover". Born in 1932, Skinner became the Member of Parliament for Bolsover in 1970 becoming the longest continuously serving Labour MP on 16 December 2017 – shortly after the film was released. The film follows a lot of Skinner’s early work, his commitment to the miners and his local constituents, which is only right and probably what he would want. It touches on one of his greatest achievements and, in his own words, his proudest political moment, when on 7 June 1985, he talked out a bill by Enoch Powell which would have banned stem cell research by moving a writ for a by-election in Brecon and Radnor. I’m dead against filibustering in the houses of parliament but without Skinner doing so many lives would have been lost. The documentary couldn’t not touch on some of the mischief Skinner had got up to over his career or the amount of times he has been kicked out of parliamentary sessions but I would have hoped for a little more. Indeed, a lot of the film had Skinner walking around the countryside when really it could have been singing his praise just a little more. I wanted to know his feelings on some of the other MPs of the house, both in his party and the opposition. They missed out on many of his best quipps too. Known for his republican sentiments, Skinner has regularly heckled during the annual Queen's Speech ceremony. He does this upon the arrival of Black Rod (the symbol of royal authority in the House of Lords) to summon MPs to hear the Queen's speech in the Lords' chamber. It all started in 1980 when Skinner and other Labour MPs blocked the entrance of Black Rod who was attempting to summon the Commons for the prorogation of Parliament, the cause being the Conservative government announcing increased rents for council houses, which the Labour Party wanted more information on. A few years later, Skinner realised because his seat was close to where Black Rod would stand, the microphone nearest him would have been switched on. He realised that he had around five seconds to say something so that absolutely everyone would hear. After a few years of ribbing Black Rod himself ("Ey up, here comes Puss In Boots!") he became a little more daring. In 1992 Skinner shouted "Tell her to pay her tax!" directly at the Queen. One of my favorites was when, in the middle of the ceremony, Big Ben rang and he quipped "It tolls for thee, Maggie.” and indeed, Margaret Thatcher was soon voted out by her party. I don’t agree with everything Skinner has done but he himself states in the film that no MP is perfect and no MP ever could be, you just have to keep going as best you can. That’s a political truth and a half. He has however, always been on the right side of history. Skinner has voted for equalisation of the age of consent, civil partnerships, adoption rights for same-sex couples and to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and for same sex couples to marry and has a strongly pro-choice stance on abortion. In 2003, Skinner was among the quarter of Labour MPs who voted against the Iraq War; he later rebelled against the party line when he voted against government policy to allow terror suspects to be detained without trial for ninety days. In 2007, Skinner and 88 other Labour MPs voted against the Labour government's policy of renewing the Trident Nuclear Missile System. In March 2011, he was one of 15 MPs who voted against British participation in NATO's Libya intervention. He later supported Corbyn, alongside the majority of Labour MPs, in voting against the extension of RAF airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria on Wednesday 2 December 2015. He’s been kicked out a few times but always for good causes. In 1984 he was removed for calling David Owen a "pompous sod", in 1992, referring to the Minister of Agriculture John Gummer as a "little squirt of a Minister" and a "slimy wart on Margaret Thatcher's nose", In 2016, for referring to Prime Minister David Cameron as "Dodgy Dave" in relation to Cameron's tax affairs and in 2005, when referring to the economic record of the Conservatives in the 1980s, making the remark, "The only thing that was growing then were the lines of coke in front of boy George and the rest of the Tories", a reference to allegations originally published in the News of the World of cocaine use by the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. It’s a great tribute to a great man – it has a lot of things missing from it that followers of his will be surprised by but it is how he would want it I’m sure, the modest man that he is. One of the few Englishmen I can say I’m truly proud of.
Murderball
Dir: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
2005
****
I think Murderball can be best described by one of the lines from the film; “We’re not going for a hug. We’re going for a fucking gold medal”. Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s sports film is an unsweetened and brutally honest look at wheelchair rugby, the players and more specifically the rivalry between the Canadian and U.S. teams leading up to the 2004 Paralympic Games. It was the first time the Paralympic Games really popped up on my radar and when the Paralympics came to London in 2012 this was the first sport I made sure I got a ticket for. It’s brutal stuff. Rugby is a rough sport anyway but watching someone get knocked out of a wheelchair for the first time is shocking – made even more so by the fact that they have to get back in the chair unassisted and carry on. The players take it in their stride though and for many they represent the spirit of the Paralympic games. In Murderball some of the players explain how they became to be in a wheelchair, while others don’t deem it important. I have sympathy for them – particularly Jeff Zupan who fell asleep in his friends flat-bed truck only for his friend to drive off in it drunk and crash into a river, trowing Zupan from the vehicle and making him paraplegic at age sixteen – but none of the players ask for it. They all have their demons, and maybe that’s what keeps them going and pushes them forward but mostly they don’t want to be seen as any different to anyone else. The determination is viewed from various different levels depending on the players. They are tough and the best at what they do – Murderball is just as difficult as Rugby and warrants just as much skill, its just played slightly differently. This means that the film isn’t quite about disabilities in the way you might think, rather that those with disabilities are really no different to anyone else. The film is about the sport, the competition, the passion and the pure violence. This isn’t about people with disabilities doing their best, this is about people with disabilities being great, this is about real sportsmen and real competition. The final showdown is pretty spectacular and is the sort of thing any documentary maker could only dream of capturing. The rivalry is intense with a lot of politics involved. You couldn’t write this sort of thing and I expect a dramatization to be made of it any day now but it still won’t quite be the same as watching it as it happened. There are some great characters involved in both teams but I never felt as if anyone was putting on a show for the cameras. Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s film was nominated for many awards and it won most of them but the truth is they struck gold. They really only had to point and shoot the camera and edit it all together. This film is really all about editing thousands of hours of brilliant footage into a ninety minute feature. It’s not really the sort of brilliance you’d expect from an MTV movie. It’s a great film about sports, overcoming the odds and success over adversity but without any of the sugarcoating or forced emotional manipulation. The admiration comes naturally as does the fly-on-the-wall documentary style of filming. It’s an exceptional documentary.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Tomb Raider
Dir: Roar Uthaug
2018
**
It has been over twenty years since I’ve played Tomb Raider and I can’t say I remember much about it other than being chased by dogs and dinosaurs, not being able to jump over ledges very well but being impressed with the graphics. The last time I saw the Angelina Jolie adaptation was also the first time back in 2001 and I was less impressed. I do however remember thinking it followed the style of the game enough to regard it as an adequate adaption but then video game adaptions are a funny thing anyway. The first thing that struck me about 2018’s Tomb Raider was just how unlike the original game it was. This however is not surprising, as it is based on the 2013 re-boot of the game that totally passed me by. The 2013 re-boot of the game seems to have been inspired by Raiders of the Lost Arc and Lara Croft now seems to be less dynamic as she used to be. To be honest, I had no anticipation for this film, I neither love nor hate the Tomb Raider franchise but I do love a classic adventure film and I like Alicia Vikander. I was also quite excited and intrigued by the choice of Roar Uthaug as director. His 2015 disaster film The Wave was pretty good and a nice change from the usual Hollywood-centric action film. However, the film never reeled me in, I was totally open but nothing of interest and nothing I hadn’t seen before happened. In all honesty, the first chapter of the film got on my nerves. Following the disappearance of her father seven years ago, Lara Croft makes a living as a bike courier. She trains at a local gym, lives in a squalid flat (in a very expensive area of London) but has no money. Her clothes are designer and her bike is top of the range – but she’s skint. Her colleagues challenge her one day to act as a fox in an urban hunt involving bicycles. She basically has a tin of paint attached to the back of her bike and around a hundred other cyclists have to chase her and catch her before the paint runs out. If they don’t, she wins £500. She agrees and is chased around London. Thing is, she is chased around impossible areas of London to access by bike and the geography is all wrong. Why do films do this? So many people will know that Fleet Street isn’t next to Brick Lane, they are two of London’s most famous streets and popular tourist destinations. As a proud Londoner it irks me. Also, she could not live in a Brick Lane apartment – even if it is just a room – on a courier’s salary. More annoying is that after she is arrested by the police for her illegal bike chase (and reckless vandalism regarding the paint she’s left everywhere) it turns out she has inherited her fathers fortune (her father is played by Dominic West – for the second time following 2014’s Testament of Youth), it’s just that she hasn’t signed the papers claiming any of it. She thinks that if she does she is declaring him dead, ignoring the fact that she could just give it back to him should he return alive at any time. But no, the family mansion is falling into disrepair and all his stuff is rotting away. I know the idea is to make Lara an everywomen and not the privileged character she was originally but actually this new Lara is dumb and hard to like. The ‘hard up’ message is a little forced, and if you want to get into the poor versus the privileged then what about the big empty mansion that has been abandoned? How many people could live there. I’m wandering from the film review here I know but this sort of bad writing really hacks me off. Her father’s business partner Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas in a pointless five minute cameo) posts her bail and warns her that if she does not claim her vast inheritance, her father's country estate, Croft Manor, will be sold off. Just as she is about to sign Mr. Yaffe, an associate at Croft Holdings (Derek Jacobi in a pointless three minute cameo) gives her a puzzle her father left to her in his will. She grabs it and forgets to sign – Jesus Christ she’s annoying. Lara follows a clue and gains access to a secret chamber in her father's tomb. There she finds a pre-recorded video message from him detailing his research into Himiko, the mythical Queen of Yamatai who was said to command the power over life and death. Her father warns Lara to destroy all of his research so it doesn’t get into the wrong hands (namely a secret organisation called Trinity who also want the power of Himiko) but Lara decides not to so she can investigate further. She decides to pawn the necklace her father gave her before he left and tells the pawn shop owner (Nick Frost) that it is valuable. He doesn’t check, he simply believes her because she is pretty, and hands over ten thousand pounds – because that is exactly how pawn shops work. To make the scene even worse, Lara purposely knocks hot coffee over Frost when he lowers his office, which doesn’t make us warm to her any more. It also features Jaime Winstone. With her money, Lara travels to Hong Kong where she hires Lu Ren, captain of the ship Endurance, to sail into the Devil's Sea and the island of Yamatai. Lu Ren turns out to be the son of the captain Lara's father hired to take him to the island seven years ago. The ship runs into rocks in a violent storm as they approach the island. Lu Ren, a self-confessed experienced sailor, clearly doesn’t know how to sail in bad weather or use radar. Lara is of course washed ashore unscathed and barely wet where she is knocked unconscious by a strange figure. She is revived by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, the leader of an expedition to locate Himiko's tomb. The expedition has been funded by a shadowy organization called Trinity that seeks to harness and weaponize Himiko's power. Vogel takes Lara prisoner, claiming that he killed her father and intends to use Richard's research to continue his expedition. Now don’t get me wrong, Walton Goggins is a good actor but he’s such a lazy and obvious choice of bad guy and at this point I actually wanted him to succeed. He adds Lara and Lu Ren to his slave force but soon Lara escapes with the help of Lu (after learning Vogel murdered his father), who stays behind after being severely injured. Lara is washed down a wild river, jumps onto the wreck of crashed WW2 bomber and parachutes into thick jungle. This particular series of action sequences is more than tiresome. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that a WW2 bomber – that has sat on the edge of a waterfall for over seventy years on an island partial to extreme weather, will suddenly crumble when a 91lb girl steps on it for a few seconds. I’m also pretty sure it is near impossible to parachute just by holding the parachute pack without having it on your back – keeping hold of it would be hard enough – but add the fact that all the material has rotten away, I don’t buy the physics. I’m all for a bit of fantasy and escapism but this action sequence felt like it was making up for lost time. Lara sleeps but wakes again after nightfall and is forced to kill a Trinity guard when she is nearly discovered. She follows a mysterious figure wandering the island and discovers that the figure is her father, who stayed on the island to prevent Trinity from finding Himiko's tomb. After Lara convinces him that she is real and not a figment of his imagination, Richard treats her injuries. Despite his protests, Lara sets off to recover his research from Vogel's camp. Lara makes contact with Lu Ren, and he, along with the fishermen, stage distractions that allow Lara to infiltrate the Trinity camp and recover her father's research. In the ensuing chaos, Richard makes his way to Himiko's tomb and is captured by Vogel, who persuades Lara to open the tomb. I say captured, he just walks up to them like an idiot. The film then turns into full on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade mode when the party navigates a series of booby traps before locating Himiko's sarcophagus. Two Trinity soldiers attempt to remove her corpse but become infected by Himiko's "power", which is actually a disease so potent that mere physical contact triggers immediate bodily disintegration, and reduces those infected to an aggressive zombie-like state. Images around the tomb reveal that Himiko, who was apparently immune to the virus herself and was a carrier, came to the island voluntarily rather than being forced as the legends imply, sacrificing herself to contain the virus. Himiko and her lot must have had more money then sense, as the elaborate tomb must have cost a fortune, when all she had to do was ask her friends to burn her body once she died – job done! Vogel concludes that he cannot remove Himiko's body and instead settles for detaching a finger, which he seals in a pouch. In the confusion, Lara and Richard overpower the remaining soldiers, though Vogel escapes and Richard becomes infected. Knowing there is no cure, Richard proposes destroying Himiko's tomb to prevent the disease from spreading across the world - because blowing things up won’t ever end up spreading anything. The fact that a water supply surrounds the tomb seems to go unnoticed. Lara pursues Vogel as Richard sets off a bomb, killing himself and sealing the tomb. Lara confronts Vogel and the two fight. Lara force-feeds him Himiko's severed finger and kicks him into a deep chasm as the infection takes over. She escapes the tomb as it collapses, meets back up with Lu Ren and the fishermen, and commandeers a Trinity helicopter to escape Yamatai. Courier to killer in just under a week. Lara then returns to London, where she formally accepts her inheritance and inadvertently discovers that Trinity's front company, Patna, is actually a subsidiary of Croft Holdings. She proceeds to investigate Trinity further and begins to suspect that Ana Miller is one of their agents who manipulated her into accepting her inheritance in order to have Lara sign over control of Croft Holdings' business operations to her when Richard Croft stopped cooperating with Trinity. Having witnessed Trinity's ruthlessness firsthand, she prepares for her next adventure by going back to the pawn shop, getting her necklace back for the same money she got for it and spending it on two hand guns – her signature guns from the game. It is the only thing I recognised from the game but at this point I didn’t much care. Pawn shops in the UK do not sell guns as we do not have guns in the UK. Sure you can buy guns for hunting and target sports but I’m pretty sure you can’t just rock up to a pawn shop and buy them and I’m also pretty sure most pawn shops don’t have a full arsenal of weapons round the back that customers are welcome to rummage through. The ending is presumptuous in that it suggests they’ll be another film, it’ll be a crime if there is but the fact that the film made less than the first film in 2001 suggests to me that this will soon be a forgotten incident and the end of any further Tomb Raider talk until the next unimaginative young producer walks through the studio doors – which is probably sooner than we’d hope.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Dir: Simon West
2001
***
Adaptations of video games very rarely go well but 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (also known as simply Tomb Raider) was an exception. It’s no masterpiece and I’m not sure anyone looks back on it with that much regard but while it was criticized for its somewhat camp and cartoonish action, those were the two qualities I rather liked about it. Simon West was a pretty good choice of director in my opinion and while I was in the Rhona Mitra camp, Angelina Jolie turned out to be a good choice as Lara Croft after Jennifer Love Hewitt, Famke Janssen, Jennifer Lopez, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Diane Lane, Demi Moore and Denise Richards were all considered. Any adventure where our hero has to obtain ancient artifacts from the Illuminati is also okay by me. It’s a ridiculous but fun idea and it begins in a ridiculous and fun manner where we find Lara Croft battling a large robot in an Egyptian tomb in pursuit of a diamond. She disables said robot by ripping out its circuits. The diamond, revealed to be a memory card, is inserted into a laptop computer inside the robot to play music. The fight took place in a practice area of Lara's home and the robot was programmed by her technical assistant Bryce (Noah Taylor) to challenge her in combat. Utter nonsense but it came as a relief that the film clearly had no intention on being held seriously. It gets sillier when we are told that the first phase of a planetary alignment, culminating in a solar eclipse, has arrived. In Venice, the Illuminati search for a key that will rejoin halves of "The Triangle", which must be completed by the final phase. Manfred Powell (Iain Glen), an Illuminati member, assures that they are almost ready, but actually has no idea of the location. Lara's butler Hilary (played by Red Dwarf’s Chris Barrie), tries to interest her in several projects, but on account of the anniversary of her father's disappearance, Lara is not interested. She dreams of her father telling her about the alignment and an object linked to it, the Triangle of Light, and awakens to a clock ticking. Lara finds the clock and Bryce discovers a strange device hidden inside. Lara consults a clock expert friend of her father's, Wilson (played by the great Leslie Phillips), who claims no knowledge of the clock or the Triangle when Lara mentions a possible connection. Wilson gives Lara's name to Powell in regards of the clock. Lara encounters Alex West (future Bond Daniel Craig), a fellow tomb raider with unscrupulous methods and for-profit attitude. Lara shows Powell photographs of the clock; she later points out to Bryce that Powell was lying about his knowledge. That night, armed commandos invade the house and steal the clock despite Lara's attempts to fend them off. The next morning, a letter from her father, arranged to arrive after the beginning of the alignment, explains that the clock is the key to retrieve the halves of the Triangle of Light, an object of phenomenal destructive power which grants its wielder power over time and space. The Triangle destroyed the city it was housed in after misuse of its power. It was then separated in half; one was hidden in a Cambodian tomb, the other in the ruined city, now part of modern-day Siberia. Her father urges her to find and destroy both halves before the Illuminati can find it. In Cambodia, West figures out part of the puzzle on how to retrieve the triangle half. However, West is incorrect and Lara figures out the true puzzle, informing West and Powell that what they thought was the correct holder for the key was but a reflection. She reminds Powell that they only have so many seconds before the opportunity is gone for another 5,000 years. Powell, realizing West was wrong and that Lara is right, and that she is the only one who can solve the puzzle, throws her the clock. Lara proves she is right as she inserts the key and the half of the triangle is revealed. Before everyone can leave, the liquid metal which came out with the piece brings the statues in the temple to life and attacks the team killing some members. Lara is left to fight off and destroy a huge six-armed guardian statue which is the last one to come to life. She successfully defeats it and leaves the temple by diving through a waterfall. She then travels to a Buddhist town where a young monk welcomes her. After a worship service, an aged monk who serves as the chief gives Lara some tea and as they converse, he reminds her to get a much needed rest to continue her father's mission, implying that that monk might have been Lara's father's acquaintance. She and Powell arrange to meet in Venice, since each of them has what the other needs to finish the Triangle. Powell proposes a partnership to find the Triangle, and informs Lara that her father was a member of the Illuminati, which she vehemently denies. Though hesitant at first, she, along with Bryce, meets with Powell for the trip to Siberia. Entering the tomb, the teams discover a giant model of the solar system, which activates as the alignment nears completion. Lara retrieves the last half of the Triangle, but when Powell tries to complete it, the halves will not fuse. He realizes that Lara knows the solution to the puzzle, and kills West in order to persuade her to complete the Triangle to save both West's life and her father's. Lara reluctantly complies, and they then struggle for control of the Triangle, with Lara prevailing and saving West's life. Lara then finds herself in a strange alternate existence facing her father Lord Richard Croft (Jolie’s real father Jon Voight). He explains that it is a "crossing" of time and space, and urges her to destroy the Triangle instead of using it to save his life. Lara leaves her father and returns to the chamber, where time is slowly running backwards from the point where Powell killed West. Croft takes the knife Powell threw into West's chest and reverses it, then destroys the Triangle, which returns time to its normal flow and directs the knife into Powell's shoulder. The chamber begins to self-destruct. As everyone turns to leave, Powell reveals to Lara that he murdered her father and stole his pocket watch with a picture of Lara's mother inside as a trophy. Lara and Powell engage in a hand-to-hand fight. Lara kills him, retrieves the pocket watch, and escapes as the chamber crumbles. At the mansion, Hilary and Bryce are shocked to see Lara wearing a dress. She goes into the garden to her father's memorial, then returns inside, where Bryce has a reprogrammed SIMON, ready to challenge Lara once again. Hilary reveals a silver tray holding Lara's pistols, which she takes with a smile. The film gain a lot of attention as it marked the first time Jolie had spoken to her father Jon Voight for many years and the tabloids loved the drama. It was the first time for me that Daniel Craig popped up on my radar and I loved that Chris Barrie was in a big Hollywood movie. Hardcore fans of the game complained that Jolie was right for the part because she was American and not British but what they really meant was that her boobs weren’t as big as the computer game character’s. Daniel Craig put on an American accent so I thought all was fair really, both actors did well in such an outrageously silly film. It really was no masterpiece, and to be honest the first few years of the new millennium were disappointing when it came to the world of cinema but there were far more less fun and entertaining films available at the time and not many female-fronted ones either. It wasn’t such a bad film.
The Day He Arrives
Dir: Hong Sang-soo
2011
**
Director Hong Sang-soo is clearly influenced by European new wave in his 2011 film The Day He Arrives but I’m not sure it works or translates particularly well. Filmed in black and white, the film follows Seong-jun, a director who has stopped making films with only four pictures under his belt. We get the impression that he’s just run out of ideas, rather than given up on film for any other reason. He has arrived in Seoul to meet a close friend who lives in Bukchon, towards the cold north of the city. When the friend does not answer his calls, Seong-jun wanders around town and runs into an actress he used to know. The two talk for a while but soon part after the conversation becomes strained. He makes his way down to Insa-dong, finds a little bar and drinks by himself. Some film students at another table ask him to join them and they soon recognise him, although they admit that they haven’t seen any of his films and actually seem to know very little about him as a film maker. They soon get drunk together and the student’s questions become a little blunt. Seong-jun tells them of a great place he wants to take them but half-way there he forgets what he’s doing and runs from them, feeling that they are copying his every move. He soon recognises where he is and heads for his ex-girlfriend's house where he drunkenly declares his love for her again. It soon becomes unclear if it is the same day, the next day or some other day, as Seong-jun leaves the flat in daytime (when he entered at night) and continues to wander around Bukchon. He runs into the actress again. They talk and soon part once the conversation reaches a natural and somewhat awkward end. He eventually meets his friend and they head to a bar called Novel with a female professor his friend knows. The owner of the bar has a striking resemblance to Seong-jun's ex-girlfriend so he decides to play the piano for her. Again unclear if it is the next day or some other day, Seong-jun goes to the Jeongdok Public Library with his friend and mentions that it was the first place he chased after a woman. Later, they have drinks with a former actor who had been doing business in Vietnam. Seong-jun is excited to meet the actor as he was the star of his first film, however, the actor is bitter towards him, as it transpires that he was fired after just two weeks, Seong-jun didn’t have the guts to fire him himself and the actor couldn’t get work again for another year. It seems Seong-jun has forgotten many things and many people. The same female professor joins them and the four go to the same bar. Seong-jun gets drunk and ends up kissing the owner of the pub. Seong-jun may have spent a few days in Seoul with his friend, or it may still be his first day there. He may have learned something from the encounter with his ex-girlfriend, or may have to meet the woman who resembles her again, for the first time. As life presents itself in no more than today’s worth of time, Seong-jun also has no other choice than to face his "today". I believe Hong Sang-soo was trying to emulate directors such as Eric Rohmer, as well as people like Jim Jarmusch. The idea is very new wave but not particularly remarkable. The fact that our protagonist is a film director makes me think this is a personal film for Hong Sang-soo who might be questioning his creativity. I like a film that lets its audience interpret its meaning but I never felt that compelled to do so, in fact, I found it rather dull. The black and white served no purpose and wasn’t rich enough to impress visually. I don’t know whether it was a poor translation issue but the dialogue was far too disjointed to be interesting and there were times where I felt it was trying to be too ‘Coffee & Cigarettes’ for it’s own good. Some scenes where clearly meant to sound intellectual and interesting but I found that most of them fell flat and the whole thing felt like an amateur imitation of other, better films/directors. I understand it’s intentions, I think, but it just didn’t grab my attention, not even for a moment.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Bunch of Kunst
Dir: Christine Franz
2017
****
I’ve seen Sleaford Mods a few times now, the first time being about two years before Christine Franz filmed the band on tour (2015) for this documentary. It surprises me just how humble and surprised the two men are at their success, I guess it takes a while to get used to, but this humble surprise is what makes Bunch of Kunst so enjoyable. Sleaford Mods is two men – Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn. Williamson’s lyrics and the way he delivers them are an experience to behold. Passionate performance aside, his words cut deep in what it is to be English in this day and age. His words are raw, rude and not without humour but more often than not they are a collective rant against all that is wrong with our government, our media and our society. Frankly they tell it like it is - warts and all. Fearn provides the simplistic but catchy dance tracks that he plays from his laptop. It’s rather refreshing to watch him not 'perform' on stage. Many a electronic/dance group these days mime on stage, which is stupid really, so he just pushes the play button, has a bit of a dance with one hand in his pocket and the other holding a vape pipe. I’m in an occasional electronica band and I used to mime all the time and I really wish I’d hadn’t now. They’re a group with no delusion, they’re modest but have no false persona. Throughout the documentary I tried looking for a hint of pretense or something that would question their authenticity but it just isn’t there. Their performance is them, they’re not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They’re a couple of guys in their fifties - Jason has been singing for years and Fearn Djing for quite a while - why would either of them bother with any bullshit. This is what is so refreshing about them. It’s also nice to see a combination of styles come together. I like rock and I like hip-hop but to combine the two rarely ever works. Sleaford Mods have described their work as "electronic munt minimalist punk-hop rants for the working class” which is pretty spot-on. What kind of music do you make when you are attracted to the mod subculture but love listening to Wu-Tang Clan? – the answer is Sleaford Mods. Christine Franz captures the buzz the band has generated through their eyes and the documentary is as raw as their performances and lyrics. It was nice to see a bit of Jason’s private life – we meet his wife and daughter – and Fearn opens up in a refreshingly un-rock star sort of way. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how the two men cope with the come-down after an exciting tour. Jason’s wife explains that her husband is low for a couple of days but bounces back soon after. She describes it beautifully as ‘cunt flu’. The realism of the film really hits home when, after the tour, the band sign with Rough Trade records, leaving their small independent label behind. Throughout the film, their manager Steve Underwood is constantly at their side. Underwood is a friend and the third member of Sleafords. Proud of the band and proud of his little label, Underwood also feels the pressure of success and when they sign to a bigger label he is clearly upset. Life is life though and the move is best for everyone and everything is amicable. Anyone who may shout ‘sell out’ is shouted down louder by the way in which the three men explain the transition. It’s a very private and personal moment and a rare thing to see in a music documentary. The film’s title – Bunch of Kunst – obviously sounds grubby and is a satirical dig at themselves, not just because of the rude sounding word, but because they clearly don’t see themselves as artists (Kunst is German for art). Sleaford Mods prove that you don’t need labels and to ‘make sense’, they are what they are and people react to it. It’s weird to see a Mod and a DJ play John Cooper Clark – in the style of Oi punk – with a backing dance track, your brain tells you it shouldn’t work, but it does. I would have liked to have seen more said about Jason’s collaborations, as in 2015 he worked with both The Prodigy and Leftfield, although a few nice words are given by rock legend Iggy Pop. The short interview is the film’s big finale and then we see Jason and Andrew watching it on a laptop - laughing their socks off. It is also a shame that we hear the same few songs played over again. They have quite a few albums now, so it would have been nice to hear a few more. Still, the simplicity and honesty is quite profound, no pretense, just complete purity in all its dirty glory. It’s quite the time piece too, a future classic no doubt and a music documentary people will go back and discuss thirty years from now.