Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Look, it’s not like I’m judging everything he did against Alien and Blade Runner, but he did once make those films, you know?

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I probably should have seen this film at the cinema. I mean, hello? Plagues? Parting of the waves? All that stuff? Saying that, the reason I didn’t see this on the big screen was because I thought it looked a bit all-sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing, and at least at home I can just turn off the film if I didn’t like it, whereas walking out of a cinema screening takes a lot more dedication. I’ve only ever walked out of a film once, and that was for Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. That doesn’t mean it was the worst film I’ve ever seen at the cinema, but I definitely couldn’t be arsed with it at the time.

Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t see Exodus at the cinema because its spectacle is seriously spectacular, but I’m not bothered I gave it a pass because it is a disappointing experience. For those not well versed in the Bible, this is the tale of royal Egyptian soldier Moses (Christian Bale) discovering his real Hebrew birthright. This is set in motion when he falls out with his best friend and pharaoh-in-waiting Rameses (Joel Edgerton) over one of those omens that predicts one of them will rule and one of them will not. Moses is exiled to get him out of the way but is also set up by Rameses to be murdered as a precaution. Our guy escapes and then shacks up with a beautiful villager, enjoying married bliss (and a child) for nine years until he sees a burning bush and God Himself in the form of an unlikeable kid who tells him of the plight of his people back in the city. The wife and kid stay at home as Moses demands the Hebrew slaves be freed. Rameses says no, and this is where the narrative gets somewhat choppy. All of a sudden we’re in training montage territory as Moses trains the slaves in quicktime, God gets impatient, wave upon wave of plagues are unleashed (hurting everybody, poor slaves included), Moses rounds up anyone who’s survived together for the big escape and its wave-parting time. Then it’s over.

The first hour is the most dramatically satisfying, focusing on Moses’ journey, with Bale delivering a performance of solemn intensity while Edgerton is effectively conflicted but cruel. Supporting performances by Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul are seriously underwhelming, with the latter two being giving virtually nothing to do. At least John Turturro (as Rameses’ father)’s brief screentime is understandable, given he dies in the first twenty minutes. However, the last hour-and-a-half is too busy and the plot loses focus – the plagues admittedly are incredibly visceral, beginning with a crocodile onslaught which paves the way to seas of blood, frog attacks, flies, maggots, locusts and most horrifying of all, a cloak of darkness which kills children. Rough. Unfortunately, this does mean the human element of the story gets sidelined, and Moses and Rameses end up being little dots in all of this spectacle. By the time Moses gets proactive and heads for the sea, I lost whatever connection I had to him, and by this stage even the spectacle element is strangely fluffed, with Ridley Scott making a pig’s ear of the parting of the waves (by forgetting to actually show it happening – we cut to an ocean already drained!) Rameses and co try to catch up with Moses, and the bit where they take the high road is perilously exciting. However by the end there’s little sense of reward – even God’s not happy, which paves the way for the Ten Commandments and an unexpected jump in time which makes very little sense.

The problem I guess is that in an era of epic television shows that allow stories of this magnitude to breathe, Exodus feels crammed and remote – the visuals are there, and the impact is often immense, but something’s missing. By the way. when’s Ridley Scott going to make another Absolute Classic Masterpiece again? It’s been a long time, but I’m still waiting.

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Dark Angel (I Come in Peace) (1990)

Cop Vs Alien: Fun results.

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Craig R. Baxley never did things by halves. What’s the point of one explosion when twenty will do? These days he directs episodes of TV shows, but in the late eighties and early nineties this guy delivered a triumverate of excessively silly action adventures for the big screen. The first was the Carl Weathers vehicle Action Jackson, which included a scene where someone drives a car into a house and up the spiral staircase so that it ends up in the fucking bedroom! The last was all-time favourite bad movie Stone Cold, the would-be breakout debut for Seattle Seahawks footballer Brian Bosworth which remains a 90 minute extravaganza of wildly over-the-top action and hilarious dialogue. In-between those two was Dark Angel, aka I Come in Peace, which might well be the best made of the three films, even if its not as out-and-out unforgettable as Stone Cold.

Like the other two Baxley films, it’s a cop thriller, but the twist this time is that the bad guy is an alien. He’s a big mother too. I suppose if you’ve got Dolph Lundgren, aka Ivan Fucking Drago, as the good guy, then you better make sure the antagonist is even taller than he is. This alien, played by German direct-to-video mainstay Matthias Hues, arrives on Earth (causing an explosion in the process, natch) and proceeds to steal a suitcase of heroin from the local drug dealers, using it to get his victims super-high, after which he sucks out their super-endorphin enriched brain juice in order to sell it on back home as the ultimate drug. Intergalactic drug dealers, eh? What next? Well, thrown in an alien cop who’s also arrived to terminate our villain, though his motives aren’t so obvious right from the off. Lundgren’s Jack Caine is a cop who doesn’t like to play by the rules. His partner is killed by the same human drug dealers who are wiped out by the bad alien, so vengeance is the name of the game for Caine, followed by confusion as he realises that the most dangerous criminal on the streets isn’t human. The clues are there – early victims have been dispatched by some kind of killer compact disc, and before you know it, the FBI are getting involved, pairing Caine with a super-official, suited and booted jerk played by Brian Benben, who late-night TV enthusiasts from the 90’s might remember as the lead in US comedy Dream On. Remember? No? You should, I remember it being pretty good.

Well these two make for a predictably abrasive team, but less predictably is that their partnership works, thanks to Lundgren’s laconic demeanour and Benben’s funny performance. Oh yes, despite the extra-terrestrial element, this is a routine cop caper all the way, but everyone takes their token roles and go the distance with them. Even the stock neglected-girlfriend character is performed with charm. Hues is a striking villain – he only has six distinct words of dialogue, even if four of them are repeated over and over again. He’s got a complete straight-face, except for the moment when even he admits that Baxley knows how to blow shit up and grins a wicked grin. Sherman Howard, aka Bub from Day of the Dead, shows up at the start as the head of the drug syndicate, it’s a shame he isn’t in the film after the first act, with the exception of an appearance in a cheerfully threatening postcard. There’s also a pill-popping doctor who thinks coffee is for wimps, some wildly excessive criminality (steal drugs from a police station, then blow up police station for good measure – more explosions!), ridiculous dialogue (‘I come from the university of SUCK MY DICK!’ or ‘Fuck you, Spaceman!’) and did I mention explosions? It’s total trash, and even ends on a freeze-frame of the good guys laughing and joking like all the events of the last 90 minutes never happened, but I liked this one. Lundgren’s never had the consistent action career his presence deserves (though his turns in The Expendables films have proved ample compensation) but I liked him here. It’s nice that he drinks wine and appreciates art too. This proves he’s not just about delivering roundhouse kicks and literally killer one-lines – his parting quip to Hues has been oft-quoted but I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

More excellent thrills from Joss Whedon – the Marvel Universe is on a roll!

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I don’t know how Joss Whedon does it. He juggles and juggles all these different characters, set-pieces and plots and it should just fall out of control, those balls of plot rolling on the floor, poor Joss desperately trying to recover them, but the ones that he still had under control….well he drops those too. He slips on one of the stray plotballs. He lands on his face. We should laugh, but in the end it’s just sad. Just so very sad.

Luckily none of that happens in Avengers: Age of Ultron – second time round the magic is still there, and then some. The film is huge, impossibly, mind-boggingly huge. We are thrown directly into an action sequence that some films would be quite content to end on, and to be honest, I was so thrown by the barrage of quick-fire spectacle that it took me quite a while for me to acclimatize to Whedon’s direction. I was happy to roll with it though, for deep down I knew it would turn out all right. At some point I find myself well and truly back in the game, and from then on it was good times all the way. Now I’ve always liked the Marvel films but have struggled to truly love them – Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America….they’re all good films, peppered with the occasional outstanding moment, but a lot of the time they felt like building blocks for another instalment. I was entertained, but also undernourished – I know a great show should always leave you wanting more, but too often I wanted much, much more. That was until the first Avengers film, which admittedly was also a building block film in that it’s part of an even bigger universe, but a totally exhilarating experience, the first out-and-out classic film of the Marvel world. It should have been a total overload, combining all those existing characters for one big adventure, but Whedon wrung out something truly special with all those fantastic, and I mean really fantastic action set-pieces that made me actually lean forward in my seat in gripped awe, a thing I used to do back when I watched stuff like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as an innocent eight year old but rarely do now in my jaded, cynical days. So yeah, it was a total spectacle, but Whedon’s second killer move was in his handling of the dynamic between the characters – all of a sudden Iron Man’s cocky confidence was being taken down a notch by the no-bullshit heroism of Captain America, who in turn struggled to find his way in present-day drama. Thor’s theatrics were parodied, and everyone had to deal with the green elephant in the room, the Hulk. It could have been a mess, but a dream team was truly born.

For Age of Ultron, the team has moved on, their relationships deepened somewhat (there’s definitely something special between Scarlett Johansson’s former assassin Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s tormented Bruce Banner/Hulk) and their M.O spectacularly efficient. We first catch them on a high-tension mission to retrieve Loki (Thor’s half-brother, total dick, absent for this movie)’s sceptre of Doom or whatever, but once Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) gets home and realises the potentially incredible energy potential inside the sceptre he forges a plan to create the ultimate artifical intelligence, the ultimate defence for the planet…. the only catch being that while he and all his fellow Avengers are partying downstairs, this energy turns out to be so advanced it pretty much assumes self-authority immediately, becomes the terrifyingly advanced Ultron and wages war on PLANET EARTH. Oh shit.

Thrown into the mix are twin siblings Pietro and Wanda (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), who were working with the bad guys who had Loki’s sceptre in the opening sequence and are now in league with Ultron – they have a personal vendetta against Tony Stark but are essentially good people. Pietro/Quicksilver can move at lightning speed. Wanda/Scarlet Witch has a unnerving talent to seriously mess with people’s minds, inducing freaky hallucinations, which doesn’t do the Hulk any favours. Oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye…they’re all here too. There’s so much going on, but the result is not exhausting, it’s kind of a rush. At two hours and twenty or so minutes, this is the longest Marvel film to date, and in other hands this could have been too much, but Whedon’s got it. He’s really got it. Okay, these characters aren’t textbook models of three-dimensionality, but they are vivid and lovable enough for us to get swept along in their action, be it physical or psychological. Tony Stark remains the most interesting – he even openly admits he’s a ‘mad scientist’ at one point, such is his often reckless tendency to push the envelope of scientific discovery, even if what he uncovers is potentially apocalyptic. Ruffalo’s Banner remains the best incarnation of this character, and his motion-captured turn as Hulk means we’re watching more than a mere special effect lay waste to everything. Jeremy Renner gets plenty more screen time as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and this is very much appreciated. Chris Evans is utterly likeable as Steve Rogers/Captain America, his total lack of irony a neat counterpoint to Stark’s uber self-aware character. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is just a delight – his confidence that he cannot be affected by Scarlet Witch’s mind-contol because he is ‘mighty’ is particularly amusing. He could have been an intolerably alpha hero, but Hemsworth’s subtle deflating of muscle-bound machoism remains a delight. Johansson’s Black Widow is the film’s lean kick-arse element and the thrill of watching her ride a motorcycle out of a god-DAMNED plane is totally thrilling. Her moments with Banner are really quite sweet and revelatory, especially the bit in the first few minutes that her skills with a lullaby are the one thing that can calm that crazy Hulk down.

Then there’s Ultron. Oh yes. As brilliant as Tom Hiddleston’s turn as Loki was, and despite all the insane destruction he caused in the last film, he was almost too gleefully evil to work as a truly threatening villain – after all, even his most brutal act (think of poor Coulson) ended up being retro-actively altered and compromised. Ultron however, is a genuine menace. His intentions are deeply warped, but his conviction makes him frighteningly unshakable. Yet he’s also surprisingly funny. James Spader’s vocal performance is absolutely spot-on, getting the humour and the horror balance perfectly. He’ll crack a joke, but he’ll also crack bones if you’re not careful. Oh yeah, there’s other characters too, but you can find out who they are yourself.

The action is reassuringly terrific. The camera has a ball luxuriating in long-takes which take in the sight of the whole doing their individual thing over a huge expanse of territory, blowing up buildings with reckless abandon (and serious spectacle) and upping the WTF madness with glee. Yes, the only way to handle the Hulk (apart from lullabies) is for Iron Man to adopt the form of FAT IRON MAN and pummel his crazy best friend with about three dozen punches to the face. The chosen method of impending destruction to planet Earth in the final act is remarkably nuts. I won’t dare spoil it here. There’s so much else that I’m sure I’ve forgotten at least two dozen inspired moments. Can’t wait to see it again to be reminded.

By the end, you’re still left teased with future adventures, but Age of Ultron in itself is a totally satisfying, complete experience. It has set the bar insanely high for other blockbusters to reach this year. I totally support this film’s avenging.

PS: There is an extra scene in the MIDDLE of the film’s end credits. There’s is nothing at the very end, at least not in the version I saw in my cinema here in the UK last night.

The Falling (2014)

Terrific, beguiling mystery – seek it out!

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Totally beguiling and awash with repressed tension just waiting to boil over, Carol Morley (Dreams of a Life)’s alluring psychological drama concerns a wave of mysterious faintings that occur in a girls’ school. What’s causing them? Psychosomaticism? The supernatural? Set in a town where the Swinging Sixties was clearly something that happened to other people, best friends Abbie (Florence Pugh, spellbinding) and Lydia (Maisie Williams, Arya from Game of Thrones, equally strong here) are two of the pupils this mysterious affliction happens to, but beyond these happenings, there’s the matter of Lydia’s wilfully housebound mother (Maxine Peake, rocking the beehive) and lothario brother Kenneth (not ‘Ken’), played by Joe Cole, the latter clearly attracted to Abbie, who’s recently discovered she’s become pregnant by another man. Her predicament paves the way to the fainting spells which overcome the pupils – what could be causing them, and why? Emotional oppression? Intensified puberty? Is it a genuine illness? Is it all attention-seeking fraudulence? There’s even a theory involving ley lines offered at one stage. The teachers try to sweep all of this under the carpet but it becomes impossible to ignore, and Lydia soon becomes the most intensely affected victim in all of this.

There’s an atmosphere of unease which partly recalls Peter Weir’s surreal Picnic at Hanging Rock, especially in the character of Abbie, who like Picnic‘s Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), has a presence that’s deeply felt even when she’s not on screen. There’s also a touch of Ken Russell’s The Devils in its depiction of how authority deals with what it considers dangerous, unshackled femininity. The real reason behind the faintings is somewhat vague – intentionally so. You can read into them however you want – even when answers do become apparent, it’s no clear cut solution. The chemistry between the girls is palpable and convincing– friendly, but definitely with an air of uncertainty and paranoia. Morley’s handling of atmosphere is gorgeous – rainy days and autumnal melancholy make this as pleasurable as the hearing the sound of quiet storms from the comfort of indoors. There’s a love of nature which made me want to touch the screen, so beautifully captured are the outdoor scenes. There are also some disquietingly intimate moments between Lydia and Kenneth, sexually transgressive and crackling with uneasy tension.

Pugh, in her debut performance, exudes a beautiful, untenable air that’s utterly hypnotic. The camera loves her. Williams, along with her one-man show performance in TV’s Cyberbully, proves she’s capable of even more than her excellent, wounded, feisty Arya Stark with a turn that naturally plays second fiddle to Pugh’s centre-stage presence to begin with but soon becomes something all of its own as the film progresses. Supporting performances, especially from Greta Scaachi and Monica Dolan, are exquisitely stern (with cracks in their facades all too apparent).

I’m sure there were a few walk-outs during the screening I attended – I suppose its subtle eeriness is not for those who want something a little more easily graspable, but this is the kind of dreamy, mysterious cinema I absolutely adore. Sensuous, poetic and musical, it has a gently shivering quality all of its own.

PS: Director Carol Morley is the sister of music writer Paul Morley.

PSS: There’s a good drinking game to be had regarding the number of times Monica Dolan’s character lights up a cigarette.

PSSS: The soundtrack is by Tracey Thorn of Everything But the Girl.

The Hand (1981)

From the director of Salvador….JFKPlatoonNatural Born Killers… a film about an EVIL HAND!

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This is an odd retro-find. Oliver Stone wouldn’t make another outright genre picture for another sixteen years after this (1997’s U-Turn) but 1981’s The Hand proves that in an alternate universe, this most politicised of filmmakers could have had an easy career delivering vivid B-movies. Well, I say B-movie. This actually has the budget and star power of an A-movie, but when it comes down to it, this is a movie about a severed hand that kills people, so there’s only so much directorial flair you can do with a film like this. Michael Caine is Jon Lansdale, a comic book writer and illustrator (as well as a father of one) whose marriage is on the rocks and looks set to sever permanently until something else comes apart. That’s right, the joint between his hand and forearm, in a car accident. Ouch.

His career irreversibly altered (the guy his agent has got to help him out with his comics doesn’t respect artistic dignity), Jon starts to become psychologically troubled and very paranoid, especially regarding his wife’s relationship with her spiritual guru friend. Jon gets a prosthetic appendage, but what of his original hand? It was never found after the accident, and from the looks of it, the thing’s got a mind of its own, and it appears to be killing those who have done Jon wrong… now especially since Evil Dead II, severed hands committing mischief are ripe for amusement, but the derision this film received from some quarters meant that even back in 1981 not many were taking such shock effects seriously. The thing is, should one want to watch this film twice (I know I would!) the film does become a lot less ludicrous once you are aware of the story’s revelations. Still, certain things, like a cat running full pelt through a window pane, never get any less hilarious no matter how many times you watch it.

Michael Caine did quite a few films around this time strictly for the money, his most notorious being Jaws the Revenge, but considering the gusto he gives here, I’m surprised this was one of this ‘pay cheque’ pictures, but then again, this is a film about a severed hand that kills people, so I’m assuming he wasn’t thinking much of the project’s artistic merits, despite his performance, which is eminently watchable and often quite gripping – over the top yes, but done with real flair and intensity.  There’s colourful support from Bruce McGill (D-Day in Animal House and the recipient of ‘head or gut?’ in The Last Boy Scout) as an alcoholic work colleague who befriends Jon when the latter decides to take up teaching and a game Anne McEnroe as one of Jon’s smitten students who clearly doesn’t let a metal hand get in the way of some bedroom action. Stone directs with a lurid eye for shock effects (there’s a couple of great hallucinations where innocuous things resemble grasping hands) and one-on-one confrontations (the final scene in particular is terrific)  and he himself has a cameo during one point. I didn’t recognise him at the time but to be honest I’d forgotten this was an Oliver Stone film! There’s also a brief but effective use of Blondie’s awesome ‘Union City Blue’ during a lonesome late-night drive and James Horner’s score is also pretty good, elements of which hint at the ambience he’d deliver in Aliens a few years down the line.

Not an outstanding genre film, but frankly the sheer craziness of the plot synopsis should deter anyone this isn’t meant for right from the off, so all that’s left is for us horror-thriller fans to lap up. As for fans of the director’s later work? Well, compared to the orgy of technique and narrative that Stone would eventually deliver, this early feature is more than just a mere Hand-job.