I suppose, if you go to see yet another Roland-Emmerich-Brings-The-World-To-An-End movie, you pretty much know what you’re going to get … bags of preposterously spectacular laws-of-physics-defying special effects wrapped round a soap-bubble plot and gormless characters whose every line is a time-worn cliché. There’ll be a noble scientist, a tenacious layman with kids to protect, a fearless American president (by far the least credible element in any of these films) and no women of any consequence.

But, hey, at least he’s consistent.

What I didn’t expect was to see actors of the calibre of John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor signing on the dotted line. I mean, wasn’t Con Air (1997) enough for Cusack? Or does he think that sufficient time has passed for us to have forgotten?

Here he is unsuccessful novelist and part-time chauffeur Jackson Curtis (yes, really) who takes his kids to Jellystone Park for a trip, clambers over a ‘No Trespassing’ sign and wanders down to a seething dry lake-bad, variously decorated with the cooked corpses of critters. Turns out that here is where the upcoming apocalypse will first make its presence felt. Okay, so he’s not the smartest tie on the rack, but without recklessly endangering his children in this casual manner, he would never have encountered wild woodsman Woody Harrelson who theatrically foretells the upcoming catastrophe, seems to have somehow come into possession of a map that will lead Cusack to potential safety and who also, by the way, will be the first of the roughly six and a half billion casualties to die during the next two and a half hours of movie.

In fact, John Cusack seems to be something of a Jonah Cusack. As well as being at ground zero when it all kicks off, his wife is in the first of several earthquakes that wrack America, and the Russian gangster for whom he is the driver is also one of the select few people on Earth who know about mankind’s last hope for survival.

So, without further ado, the world starts falling apart. Fortunately, Cusack and his extended family are in the world’s fastest and most indestructible Limo, so the earthquake that follows them down the road, and the buildings that collapse all around them, are of no concern. This risible tone is very much reflecting that set by the film itself. California breaking up and sinking into the ground, at the cost of ten of millions of lives, is played for laughs.

But then, the film wastes almost no time considering the human cost of the visual splendour it creates. As Cusack and Co head off in a plane through the toppling tower-blocks (because his kids’ step-dad conveniently happens to be a pilot) we see one shot of tiny people falling to their deaths out of the side of a building which is folding-up around them. This shot was a real stab in the heart, reminding one momentarily of those horrifying September 11th images of tiny ant-like figures throwing themselves out of the World Trade Centre windows rather than face the fire.

The tone is so utterly inappropriate for the severity and intensity of the events unfolding. But, it has all been created with both eyes firmly fixed on a family audience – so there can be nothing too disturbing. Yes, Cusack does get to utter the obligatory single “Fuck” that guarantees the all-important 12A certificate but, thereafter, everything is carefully and reassuringly bloodless to ensure that the under twelves this will attract like bees to honey, will not be unduly traumatised by the extermination of everything. The film’s BBFC ‘consumer advice’ labelled this “Sustained Moderate Threat”. How many people have to die for the threat not to be considered moderate, I wonder?

As the for-want-of-a-more-accurate-term plot unfurls, we realise just how deeply derivative Emmerich’s oeuvre has become. Not only does he ram raid three of his own films (Independence Day, 1996, Godzilla, 1998 and The Day After Tomorrow, 2004) but his recipe requires ingredients stolen from sources as diverse as Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007), Crack In The World (1965) When Worlds Collide (1951), Twister (1996), Armageddon (1998), Volcano (1997), The Core (2003), and even The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

As always in films such as this, the work done by the special effects teams is much more impressive than that done by the script-writers: The tearing asunder of the Earth is gob-smacking on the big screen and, somehow, watching Las Vegas being consumed by the fires of rising magma seems oddly appropriate.

For me, the one big surprise from this film was that Mankind’s Last Hope actually wasn’t a rocket into space. I won’t give away what it is, in case you are still foolish enough to want to watch this drivel, but it’s fair to say that it is in-keeping with the loosely Biblical themes that run beneath the surface of this film, only becoming apparent during scenes like the fall of Rome where a crack appears symbolically between God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before the whole lot comes down on the heads of the thousands grovelling in St Peter’s Square.

The film’s final act comes down to a race against time against a glaring design flaw in the Escape Plan, the outcome of which is never in any doubt because, well, however much peril Mr. Cusack finds himself in, it’s only ever going to be moderate, isn’t it!

Ultimately, you do emerge from this far-far-far too long film, wanting to congratulate Roland Emmerich for, once again, creating a visually stunning, logically ridiculous and emotionally empty end of the world.

This, then, is how the world ends. Not with a whimper but with a bag of popcorn.

Writer/Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson
Cert: 12A
Dur:  Endless



This film was co-funded by the BBC … so some small part of your licence fee was spent ensuring that George Clooney continues to have a crust to eat and a warm bed to sleep in. Hope that makes you feel good.

I’m sure George was paid far more than Jon Ronson, on whose book and investigative journalistic instincts this film is based.

Ewan MacGregor plays Bob Wilton, a journalist – not even remotely based on Ronson – who decides it’s time to make his journalistic career by heading out to Iraq to see if he can find something interesting going on there. It’s 2003, there’s a war on, shouldn’t be too hard. Now, casting MacGregor, a Scot, to play a frankly unconvincing American journalist (after his celebrated turn as an unconvincing Irish priest in Angels and Demons) seems a tad odd. But then the film-makers’ thinking becomes clear when we begin to encounter a steady stream of persistent Star Wars references. Essentially, MacGregor was cast simply so, when Clooney tells him that the secret military operation he was part of was called Project Jedi, he can ask: “What’s a Jedi?” And that’s it. He was cast simply so they could (repeatedly) employ an inter-textual Star Wars gag.

Okay, so that’s maybe a bit disingenuous, as MacGregor generally comes across as normal and likeable and Bob needs to be both of those things to throw Clooney’s mad-eyed ‘Jedi’ psych-corp soldier into stark relief. Of course, Clooney’s Lyn Cassady comes across as the exemplar of normalcy compared to an all-but unrecognisable Jeff Bridges’ Bill Django, initially only seen in flashback, who believes that the path to creating super-soldiers is to embrace ancient wisdom and new-age practices. These long-haired, chilled out and laid-back soldiers form the core of The New Earth Army.

Django (and his disciple, Lyn) believe that a man finds his ‘optimum trajectory’ (his destiny) where he least expects it. Meeting Lyn was Bob’s trajectory and it ultimately leads him into a chaotic battle between Lyn, Django, the assembled might of the American military machine and Larry Hooper, a jealous ex-New Earth soldier played with typical relish by Kevin (I only had my eyes done so I’d look younger in the flashbacks) Spacey. All of this culminates in the whole army, tripping its collective tits off on LSD, charging around the desert in scenes which reminded me (not accidentally, I suspect) of Bob Rafelson’s Monkee movie Head (1968).

It’s possibly worth reminding the casual reader at this point that the film is a comedy. Not a throwing-my-popcorn-up-in-the-air-I’m-laughing-so-hard-I-can’t-catch-my-breath comedy, but a wry, cynical, whimsical comedy … very much in-keeping with the style of writing in Ronson’s original book. Of course, under all this whimsy, there is a sharp, incisive deconstruction of America in the age of the Star Wars Generation. As Clooney’s frequent forays into political film-making have clearly demonstrated, he is a man who has little sympathy for the gung-ho, wild-west mentality which, until quite recently, yee-hawed it’s way down the corridors of The White House. That was an America that believed in super-heroes, in Jedi Knights, in the undeniable truth of a nation’s manifest destiny. It believed in the magic of the Force and in the simple, easy-to-identify villains on The Dark Side. It believed that Iraq and Afghanistan were mere rebel uprisings that could be quashed with irresistible fire-power. Maybe the film’s constant Star Wars references and similes are a way of getting the afore-mentioned Star Wars Generation to give a damn about politics again.

Looked at against that background, this film is really Kevin Spacey’s chance to play Darth Vader. Bridges gets to be an acid-casualty Obi-Wan, MacGregor becomes Luke and Clooney is Han Solo, able to do the Kessle Run in twelve parsecs, fuelled only by a bottle of beer and a Boston CD.

The film blatantly states that America under Bush is the Empire under The Dark Side. Cowardice, chaos and compromise have led to a condition of madness running unchecked through the land and all those who supposedly represent her. Well, this isn’t exactly news, guys.

As for the performers, they have a uniformly light touch, they’ve all done this sort of thing many times before. Clooney is very comfortable being directed by his ex-writing-partner, Heslov (they wrote Good Night And Good Luck together in 2005). Yet it is still interesting to see him play younger than we’ve ever seen him thanks not to Benjamin Button-style elaborate CGI but through simply wearing a long wig. Bridges, on the other hand, physically transforms himself, several times, as he ages thirty years through the film. For a role which is essentially slapstick, he manages to bring both power and pathos to the table to make it seem totally credible that this man could persuade the most narrow-minded and officious people you can imagine at military high command that he had the key to unleashing super-powers. Why is this film called The Men Who Stare at Goats? Well, I’m glad you asked: Because Django believed that, with sufficient training, a soldier could kill simply with a hard stare … and he used goats to demonstrate his theory.

The real Django must have had the selling skills of a Siberian fridge magnate to persuade the military high command to believe this voodoo nonsense and here, in the fictionalised film version, Bridges makes it all seems so wonderfully, horribly plausible. I’d sign up to his version of the army! Wouldn’t you?

Dir: Grant Heslov
Stars: George Clooney, Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey
Dur: 94 mins
Cert: 15




There is a particularly unpleasant, but nonetheless irresistible thrill to be had from watching a vigilante movie. Possibly because we share the cold, clammy feeling of vulnerable impotence common among all who do not take the law into their own hands, possibly because, however liberal our sensitivities, we wish we had the nerve to throw caution and the rule of law to the wind; whatever base, tribal instinct it is that these films tap into, it’s a powerful one.

This latest rendering of the Death Wish (1974) gestalt takes place on a bleak English housing estate and, although it articulates thirty years’ worth of prejudices we have about such places (since a few of them went up in flames in the early eighties), it is set very much in the today.

It begins with a sequence shot on a mobile phone of the feral children of the estate killing a young mother for committing the cardinal sin of … well, of pushing a pram across their turf when they were bored.

This sets the tone of what is to come. But first, a change of pace. We are introduced to Harry (Sir Michael, of course) a stiff, sanguine old man, making his breakfast in his grotty little flat, very much as his namesake Palmer did in the opening moments of The Ipcress File back in 1965. Now, as then, there is an air of sad loneliness about Harry. Even the pub he frequents has the air of a funeral parlour. When he ventures out through the cold grey streets where the only splash of colour is the ugly, illiterate graffiti, he avoids the ominous darkness of the subway, because of the uncaged animals he can hear in there. The estate is an untamed wilderness where the young run wild and everyone else keeps their heads down and their eyes averted.

The fact that Harry used to be a Marine is rather clumsily introduced into a discussion with his sole surviving friend, Leonard (played by David Bradley) and even the dumbest of the low-brow mouth-breathers Harry fears would note the significance of this revelation.

The kids of the estate all talk like black Jamaicans, as poor white-boys with no identity or positive role-models tend to do. Deprived of any direction or schooling, all they have is their rage. They don’t know what they are raging against, of course, nor why, they just know that they must.

Meanwhile, inevitably, Harry’s own rage is building until, finally, he reaches flashpoint. He does have a target. And a purpose. The drugs industry has destroyed the estate … so that’s where he starts.

Harry is determined to protect himself. To this end he enters the Hellish abode of the utterly loathsome Stretch, played with captivating, spine-tingling menace by the deathly Sean Harris – who recently played a vicious thug cop in the mini-series Red Riding and is best remembered for his mesmerising turn as Ian Brady in the Moors Murders TV movie See No Evil (2006). This sequence is quite extraordinary, and signals the transition from Harry’s normal, mundane world to a far darker, scarier, uncontrollable place ruled by fear and adrenaline. The music drones like wind in pipes, like memories haunting Harry, as Stretch symbolically uses a World War Two Luger as a crack pipe. The explosion of violence that follows is inevitable and horrifyingly satisfying.

And Harry is unleashed. He becomes a predator, stalking the darkness he so-recently feared, striking suddenly and viciously and never looking back. It speaks volumes about the consistent quality of Caine’s career and the sheer range of characters he has brought to the screen, that he so effortlessly makes Harry sympathetic without being maudlin, then allows hi to evolve believably into a stone-cold killer. We see flashes of Harry Palmer, Jack Carter even Mortwell from Mona Lisa (1986). Harry is the sum of everything good that Caine has ever been on screen.

Unfortunately, the film is less convincing than Caine’s performance. It begins to take liberties with logic, the police presence is ridiculously small given the death-toll, and the prints Harry obligingly leaves everywhere would have brought even the few coppers on show to his door very quickly. But the velocity of his rage is so intoxicating you don’t care about logic, you just want him to continue his cull.

Then, as any graduate of a good script-writing course will tell you, there has to be a twist, a reversal, when suddenly the rug is pulled from under the audience. This is handled, I must confess, very cleverly and very satisfyingly. The film turns into a sort of modern urban Wild Bunch (1969) at its climax, but manages to remain convincing throughout.

Dir: Daniel Barber
Stars: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Liam Cunningham, Sean Harris
Dur: 103 mins
Cert: 18



Another film to be so enchanted by the date 2009 it just had to be named after it (all together now: “I didn’t go to see it ’cos I haven’t seen the first eight!” Hur-hur).

This is an animation which, in their capacity as producers, brings together the visionary imaginations of Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton, a tempting prospect and no mistake. The film itself is an animation directed by Shane Acker, based on his Oscar nominated 2006 short which you can watch here.

It begins rather like Henry Selick’s Coraline, with cloth puppets being sewn together; but here these puppets are not a vessel for connecting a fantasy world with a real one they are, instead, a time capsule from a desperate, war-torn apocalyptic present to a hoped-for future.

We are told: “ … our blind pursuit of technology only sped us to our doom …” so, once again, we are faced with the dichotomy of a CGI movie, created with the finest, fastest computers modern technology can conjure up, advising us to abandon technology and live a natural life. I imagine we’ll get the same message from Avatar in about six weeks’ time. We’ve certainly had that hand-wringing, brow-furroughed earnestness time and again in the 32 years since Star Wars first employed cutting-edge technology to tell us to turn off our machines and trust to faith.

So, what’s different this time? Well, thankfully, for a CGI animation, this one isn’t in 3D Gimmick-o-Scope, so we can concentrate on the story-telling and leave the sideshow antics to other movies. Also unusually for an animation, we have a gloomy, dark, gothic depiction of the end of times where a few cloth puppets live as scavengers on the wreckage of the fallen civilisation which spawned them. Here they are preyed upon by the last surviving bio-mechanical chimeras, such as the creature they call The Beast which, sporting a bleached cat skull held together with wires and featuring one garish red light-bulb eyeball plus lots and lots of spikes, is one part Bosch to two-parts Terry Gilliam.

Indeed, all the creatures in this broken land seem to made of bones and blades. There is no soft tissue left, the softest material available being the Hessian from which the puppets are woven.

It is not insignificant that these rough-hewn stragglers hide from the night like mice in a church. At one point, the leader of their little community – voiced by the magisterial Christopher Plummer – makes a good point … sometimes fear is the appropriate response.

Throughout their, admittedly rather limited world, the burned-out memories of grand buildings tower massively above them, reminding one both of Terry Gilliam’s haunting 12 Monkeys (which, of course, featured Plummer back in 1995) and, of course, of the architecture of Bekmambetov’s own Russian homeland.

Plummer (puppet number 1) has been keeping his group safe these many years, through caution and stealth whilst waiting, presumably, for the inevitable end to come and hoping that, for his people, it will at least be a peaceful one. Then 9 arrives, newly awoken, full of questions and the arrogance of youth, who inadvertently sparks off a catastrophic chain of events. 9 awakens The Machine, the great self-aware device which wrought the destruction of mankind with its mechanical weapons and which, once awake, resumes building its wartoys, now with the single-minded purpose of capturing the numbered puppets and draining them of their life-force.

Puppets suffer. Puppets die.

At one point they are attached by a sock-puppet-snake which was chillingly conceived and is terrifyingly executed. The fires burning in the heart of The Machine’s dark, Satanic factory remind one of an extermination camp, surrounded, as it is, by bunkers, barbed-wire and trenches.

All of this is played out on a canvas splashed with a quite exquisite palette of colours. Stark blues and greys are offset with burning reds and oranges. The imagination unleashed by this film and the artistic eye for composition, colour and texture unleash a barrage of emotions in you as you watch.

Lord, this film was gorgeous on the big screen. Tragically, inevitably, it didn’t last there long enough for many people to see it. But, on Blu-Ray this will be a Must Own.

The story is fairly flimsy, the characters are the expected archetypes, the denouement almost inevitable, but the execution is so deliciously complex, the world so heavy with secretive wonder, the visuals so mouth-dryingly dramatic that I could forgive it almost anything, even its disappointingly short 79 minute run time.

If the end of the world can look this good, it should have ended years ago.

Director: Shane Acker
Stars: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connolly
Dur: 79 mins
Cert: 12A
Image © Focus Features



While I was updating my research on Dan O'Bannon for my Alien @ 30 articles, I stumbled across an interesting little piece which connects my pieces about Alien and the link posted below about George Lucas.

The article is about the computer monitors and displays in Star Wars, all primitive by modern standards, but quite visionary at the time and all the work of a jobbing animator who was between movie scripts: one Dan O'Bannon.

The article is just one of many thoughtful and well-researched pieces you find on the very excellent webzine Den of Geek.  Don't let the name put you off ... it is far from the amateurish rumour-mill you might expect ... Indeed, I don't think there are many more well-written and deeply-considered science fiction websites out there.

So go and have a look ... then hurry back.



This summer, a quite extraordinary piece of cinema history was unearthed ... an hour-long video interview with George Lucas from 1971, the year THX 1138 was released.

Even though he was only 27 at the time, Lucas was considered something of a veteran of the film industry and this rambling interview details his career to that point, includes footage some of his early experimental films, much of which I've never seen before.

It also finds Lucas at a crossroads in his life: The ideals he and his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, had cherished of creating an independent film company - the first Zoetrope - had floundered and Lucas was facing up, for the first time, to either going mainstream and dealing with the big studios, or abandoning film-making all-together. 

Well, we all know the decision he made and we all know the end result but, back in 1971, Lucas himself didn't know which way to go.  I think it makes fascinating viewing to see him speaking so candidly about his influences and his ambitions ... when we know exactly how much of it eventually came to pass.

Michael Heilemann's website Binary Bonsai found the film and put it on-line.

It's about an hour long but, I think, an hour very, very well spent.

Let me know what you think.

Blu-Ray: Drag Me To Hell


Without actually referencing Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or any of those horror staples of the dim and distant past, Sam Raimi has evoked their spirit with Drag Me To Hell.

It’s a good, old-fashioned creepy horror story, it’s not torture porn, it’s not stalk ‘n’ slash, it’s horror! It’s the sort of thing Stephen King and George Romero grew up reading, and channelled through their work to a whole new generation.

Nowadays, if you want to read the formative works of Wally Wood, Jack Davis and Joe Orlando (oddly, those old EC comics are remembered for the artists rather than the writers) et al, or watch The Twilight Zone, you need to get yourself a second mortgage to buy the deluxe hardback editions and DVD box sets. They are something that only the connoisseurs are aware of today, yet, two generations ago, they were something every kid knew intimately.

Their stories were replete with curses and demons and ancient evil just waiting for its chance to corrupt the modern day. Last-minute rescues and redemptive final acts were not the purview of the EC horrors. Very bad things happened to good people for no good reason, without warning and without mercy.

There was always a thread of black humour in these tales and a delight in the suffering inflicted on the poor schmuck embroiled in their own nightmares. All of that is true of Drag Me To Hell. Even it’s name rings with the lascivious joy of the awful.

Our heroine, Christine, is a banker. Well, there you go, if ever there was a sector of society that deserve to be dragged to Hell … but, no, Raimi makes her as human, as confused and as sympathetic as possible, because we need to spend ninety minutes watching her suffer. We need to care about her.

She refuses credit to a derelict old woman, who curses her, then unleashes upon her an utterly unrelenting and entirely hilarious attack in the bank’s underground car-park. Because this is a proper horror film, it has its fair shares of cattle-prod stabs, but doesn’t rely on them in place of genuine thrills, it adds them to the mix of gross, disturbing, incomprehensible and wildly creative terror that Raimi unleashes.

Unlike your typical, tedious, stalk ‘n’ slash, you genuinely have no idea what is going to happen to this poor woman next. This film doesn’t follow a pre-determined, proscribed and predictable path of interlocking clichés leading to the inevitable reassuring ending.

Well, of course, it does follow the trail of generic signifiers laid down by the hundreds of films, books and comics that have come before, but at least these leave enough loop-holes for experimentation … we are never entirely sure when the suspense will burst into unpredictable bouts of violence. And the demon that’s after her is a real multi-tasking deity, attacking her in several different ways, so she never knows where to turn.

Of course, going to meet your boyfriend’s parents for the first time, whilst under a demonic curse, was always going to be a mistake.

Back in his pre-Spider-Man, pre-Hercules days, Raimi was known for his © Sam Raimi Shots … which generally involved seeing the scene from the perspective of an inanimate object and, as often as not, through an extremely wide-angle lens. As he has matured, these have got subtler, but are no less mischievous. Here he introduces an important fly by having it land on the camera’s lens.

Eventually, as the eye-popping gore became more and more visceral, more and more ludicrous, the audience with which I saw the film, realised they were watching a comedy. During the inevitable séance, a goat is brought to the table. Well, the dumbest audience in the world is gonna get the gag by then!

The only way to deal with insane levels of violence and horror … is to laugh at them. Most film-makers don’t seem to get that. Raimi did right from day one with The Evil Dead (1982). There are moments in here which are just as powerfully disturbing and as delightfully contrived as in that film, which many still feel is his masterpiece. Whether we’ll still be talking about Drag Me To Hell in almost thirty years is, of course, quite a different question.

Written and Directed by Sam Raimi
Stars: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao
Dur: 99 mins
Cert: 15

image © Universal Pictures