Some films that are better than Avatar (A-H)

It is getting on for a year since I saw Avatar in 3D at the cinema. It annoyed me then, and it’s still annoying me. It turned up as the festive highlight of the Sky movie channels and I am flabbered to the ghast at how cheap and effectsy it already looks. For no reason, other than that I love you, here is a list of films that are better than Avatar. There are millions more obviously, but these ones are tinkling my bells just now.

Airport 80: The Concorde – The fourth and best of the Airport franchise (without which we’d have had no Airplane movies). This is the one with Sylvia Kristel as an airhostess and Alain Delon as a pilot throwing Concorde round like it’s an X-wing.

Alien Nation – The James Caan/Mandy Patinkin team-up no one expected. It’s a clear influence on District 9. There is beauty in it.

Altered States – It still astonishes me that one of the most authentically “science” science fiction movies ever made was directed by Ken Russell. Fucking hell, I love the guy but this was wholly unexpected. There’s proper boffin-speak. William Hurt and Bob Balaban are awesome. So is Blair Brown who turned up 20 years later in the under-appreciated TV series Fringe.

Android – A low budget 80s sci-fi flick with Klaus Kinski. It’s short but lovely. And does anyone know what happened to director Aaron Lipstadt subsequently? The guy should definitely have directed more movies.

Beastmaster – Ha ha. It’s crap, but it’s not. Marc Singer is the eponymous hero. Tanya (Charlie’s Angels) Roberts’ boobs perk things up no end.

Big Wednesday – The Taxi Driver of surf movies. An intense Vietnam statement of a movie from the hard right wing of John Milius. A key 70s movie that deserves more attention.

The Black Hole – 1980 and Disney is still running scared of Star Wars which came out three years ago. This is their response. A dark, inexplicable, pseudo-religious piece of mentalism with Norman Bates and cute robots. It is gorgeous to behold and John Barry’s score is lush.

Blood on Satan’s Claw – A doolally cross between Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. Famous for starring two Doctor Who actors: Wendy Padbury (as was) and Anthony Ainley (as was yet to be).

Brick – An astonishing film. A film noir done with all the characters as high school students. Rian Johnson’s follow-up The Brothers Bloom is no less marvellous.

Carnival of Souls – This is the Herk Harvey 1962 original, not the 1998 remake. It remains to this day one of the most unsettling and scary horror
films I’ve ever seen.

Cat People – A beautiful marriage of Paul Schrader guilt, Giorgio Moroder funk and Nastassja Kinski beauty. The RKO original is a bit staid. This is balls-out. If you like Tony Scott’s The Hunger you will love this.

The China Syndrome – Like a Three Mile Island version of Network. Jack Lemmon has rarely been better in a dramatic role.

Conan the Destroyer – Shorn of the fascistic trappings of the original (which I enjoyed a lot) this is a romp. From the director, lest we forget, of The Vikings.

Contamination – Who even knows what those crazy Italians were doing with this? It’s sort of Alien. It’s sort of Quatermass. It’s a mess, but it’s compelling. It stars Ian McCulloch who was awe-inspiring as Greg in the BBC’s original series of Survivors.

Cube – More low-budget, high-imagination sci-fi as a bunch of amnesiacs negotiate their way through bizarre death traps. No this, no Saw.

Dick Tracy – So much money, so much talent. How did it end up this bad? You can probably blame Madonna. And yet, and yet, and yet, it exerts a pull, you know? The design work is phenomenal, and it feels like the last of the misguided, old school, blockbusters.

Dune – The one David Lynch fans try to ignore. But it’s fabulous. So grotesque, and probably as good a version of Herbert’s book as you could expect once Jodorowsky was out of the picture. And there are so many Twin Peaks actors here it’s adorable.

Emmanuelle – A personal favourite here. In between the smirking innuendo of Carry On films and the butcher’s slab brutality of hardcore porn lies the bit where sex is fun, and had by people who like or even love each other. Ding dong. Wicker chairs. Squash courts. I regret nothing.

Evilspeak – A sort of computery splatter film, once on the BBFC’s video nasty list for reasons that remain impenetrable. Eric Weston directed. Again, where is he now? Movies could use this talent.

Excalibur – John Boorman’s magnificent Arthurian fantasy choreographed with divine arbitrariness to classical music. It would fall on its arse if not for Nicol Williamson’s brilliant turn as Merlin.

Fail-Safe – A ball-shrivellingly tense, straight version of Dr. Strangelove. America launches nukes at Russia by mistake and can’t recall them. Henry Fonda is a brilliant President. A very young Larry Hagman is his translator. This is awesome.

Firefox – A weird, old-style cold war thing from Clint Eastwood that somehow works despite ropey John Dykstra special effects. Nigel Hawthorne’s in it. Hooray!

A Fistful of Dynamite – The one complete and utter anomaly in Sergio Leone’s career. Set during the Mexican revolution it’s a what? A comedy? A western? The missing link between Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America? It’s a fabulous film. James Coburn and Rod Steiger are clearly having a hatful of fun.

Flash Gordon – As The Empire Strikes Back, The Black Hole and Superman II fought for box office supremacy out waddled this insane competitor. Like some sort of sequel to Barbarella that nobody wanted. But it turns out it’s genius-level filmmaking. Just throw a bunch of incongruent stuff together and camp it up a bit. It’ll be OK.

Glengarry Glen Ross – ABC. Always be closing. The shoutingest, sweariest indictment of selling stuff to people that there’s ever been. Al Pacino is transcendent.

Gone Baby Gone – Bizarrely Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, starring baby brother Casey, is a convoluted, complex essay on human frailty. Way better than you’d imagine given the pedigree.

Halloween III – The one that just has nothing to do with the other one hundred and sixteen sequels. This had a minuscule contribution from the holy Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale. It’s not a wholly successful horror film, but you’d be mad not to want to see it. Bits of Stonehenge in silicon chips? Why not?

Hard Eight – A stilted, stagey slice of weird from the director who would later give us Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. All the talent is here to see.

The Haunting – Robert Wise, whose career also included The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound Of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, found some quiet time to direct this utterly horrifying movie that probably rates PG maximum these days. There’s nothing explicit there, it’s all suggestion. Scary as hell though. Shirley
Jackson’s source novel The Haunting Of Hill House is also a blinder if you’ve not yet read it.

Hawk the Slayer – A dismayingly low-budget addition to the 80s post-Conan Sword & Sorcery deluge. But how can you not love a movie which contains the line “The Hunchback will have something to say about this”? John Terry (Hawk the actual slayer) went on to play Jack’s dad in Lost. True Fact!

The Howling – Joe Dante’s post-Piranha pre-Gremlins monster movie is a delight for buffs. Just check out the character names. It was less popular than An American Werewolf In London but Rob Bottin’s effects still look juicy, and Patrick Macnee’s in it.

More letters of the alphabet later.

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Final Day – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Honeymooner, Symbol

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a divisive film, almost provocatively light in anything you could conventionally acknowledge as plot, incident or character development. Happily I am a fan of the recent trend towards deeply decelerated Slow Cinema. Just as well really. Here’s a summary: Boonmee, close to death with collapsing kidneys, is visited by the wraith of his dead wife, and the non-human ghost monkey form of his missing son. As death approaches he takes himself off to a cave where, he remembers, the first of his incarnations was born.

Er, that’s it.

I understand that there was something of a backlash at the Cannes Festival this year after Uncle Boonmee won the Palme d’Or. I can dig this. It’s not Toy Story 4 by any stretch of the imagination. It’s hard to recommend to anyone who’s not acclimatized to long, meandering films that may or may not mean something. The best I can say is that my own personal thumbs remained untwiddled.

Ghost monkey business

The curse of the unavailable print struck again with Uncle Boonmee unfortunately. “Our” copy of the film was apparently in Köln rather than Inverness so we had to make do with a less than perfect promotional print.

The PR company’s logo remained in the top right corner of the film right the way through, and we got regular onscreen prompts reminding us that we were watching a promo copy. Hey ho.

On the plus side: ghost monkeys and a talking catfish. I am very easily pleased

Honeymooner, my next film of the afternoon is Uncle Boonmee’s polar opposite. An indie British romance about a guy dumped just before his wedding and his two blokey-blokey male pals. I’m not a gong-banger for North London hipsterism, and my sympathy is not particularly aroused by the piffling woes of attractive, talented, wealthy twenty-somethings, but there was something beguilingly bittersweet about the movie’s candour.

When you get down to it there just are not that many British films dealing maturely with men’s emotions, and it was nice to see a film whose primary concern was the feelings of its male characters. No pantomime male infantilisation here. Plenty of exploration of the duplicitous manipulative side of women though.

It is a bold endeavour, and I became very engaged with writer/director Col Spector’s representation of the film in the Q&A afterwards. He talked extremely bluntly about how difficult it can be putting a film together in Britain. Kudos to him indeed for bringing this in (with huge use of deferred fees) for 43 grand.

Shinboru

And then back to the domain of the doolally with my last film of this year’s festival Symbol, or if you prefer Shinboru, a patently ridiculous and yet deeply, deeply loveable Japanese film.

In Mexico a family goes about their everyday business, cute kid, his termagant of a mother, his gentle granddad, his father who is a masked wrestler and his sister who is a chain-smoking nun.

Simultaneously a Japanese man wakes up clad in clownish yellow patterned pyjamas in a featureless white room. We follow him in a bizarre Scott Pilgrim meets Tomb Raider quest to get out. These two stories are intercut despite seeming to bear no relationship to each other at all. They do converge eventually however, in a way for which the word “unexpected” seems barely sufficient.

In all honesty it is completely purposeless writing about this bonkers film. I might as well do you a little dance about it. It is tremendously absorbing though and I commend it to you highly.

And there ends this year’s Inverness Film Festival at which I had fun in abundance.

Thanks Paul. Thanks Eden Court.

Same time next year?

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Days 3 & 4 – Monsters, The Edge Of Dreaming, Outcast

Days three and four of the mighty Inverness Film Festival were blighted by a couple of no shows: Of Gods And Men and A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop. I wasn’t too fussed about not seeing the first, but had been massively looking forward to the second, a Wushu style remake of Blood Simple seemingly. Bum.

Still, worse things happen at sea and all that. Extra style points to Eden Court for managing the situation with more elan than anyone had a right to expect. The fault, for those looking to fling blame, lies with the film distributors who seem to be as random now as they were the last time I had anything to  do with them, which was in 1987. (Young people, check with your parents. There were years before 2000.)

I remember hearing once of a Science Fiction convention which ordered up a movie for their film programme. I forget which one. An SF movie beginning with S – Solaris or Saturn 3 perhaps. Anyway the print duly arrived from the distributors but, on inspection, turned out to be a copy of Shenandoah. It was sent back for replacement as a matter of urgency and at some expense. The replacement arrived the next day and was –ta da! – another copy of Shenandoah.

The convention ended up showing Shenandoah at three in the morning to an appreciative audience. They’re a flexible-minded lot SF fans.

Bloody film distributors though. Makes you go “Tch.”

I got three films in anyway. First off, Monsters.

 

There’s been a lot of publicity about the big-balls on a budget exhibited by this film, and it’s all fair comment. Brought in reportedly for under $500,000, with director Gareth Edwards claiming to have done the effects on his laptop, Monsters looks the absolute business.

Set some years after an infestation of aliens has turned the territory between Mexico and the USA into a highly hazardous no-go area, the film follows the adventures of a rough diamond photo-journalist and a pampered rich girl as they try to negotiate their way back home after getting stranded in Mexico.

The background is utterly compelling, and it is uniquely to the movie’s credit that the action takes place six years after the infection took root. There is no invasion trauma here. The characters pretty much all know what’s what, or, perhaps more importantly, think they do.

I adored that aspect of the film. I was less entranced by the developing relationship between the two main characters as the story unfolded. The exemplars the director had in mind are probably Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen or Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night. These are noble role models, but Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, delightful though they are, are not quite in this league.

That’s a micro-quibble though. The film is another British triumph in a year which is already rich in them.

***

 

The Edge Of Dreaming is a miraculous documentary. Directed by Amy Hardie, whose speciality is scientific documentaries, this is a shamelessly personal work that uses scientific methodology to approach a subject that initially comes across as “spiritual” or “supernatural”.

Having had a vivid dream about her horse dying and then discovering the next day that he had, in fact, died during the night Hardie took it very seriously when she had another vivid dream about her former partner (now dead) telling her that she would die aged 48. Unable not to take it seriously, but sceptical of supernatural explanations Hardie then documented the year between her 48th and 49th birthday, and this film is the result.

Without wishing to spray spoilers around: Hardie was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness during the year, but she didn’t die.

The film is a highly moving interleaving of the personal and the detached. There are scientists talking about dreams, and how they might relate to perceived reality. There’s even a brief debate about the validity or otherwise of the word “reality” when talking about our consciousnesses and perceptions. Beyond the science though is the story of an intelligent woman and her loving family addressing the practicalities of mortality.

I loved this.

Amy Hardie took part in a Q&A session afterwards. Her thoughtfulness and clear-sighted answers made this the highlight of the festival so far.

Web details herewith:

http://edgeofdreaming.co.uk

***

 

And then at 22:00 on Saturday…

Outcast which is a macabre marvel: urban horror in the tradition of the Hellblazer comics, the works of Ramsey Campbell and early Clive Barker (his “good” period). I’d had low expectations because of the participation of James Nesbitt and my personal antipathy towards him. Possibly he’s a very nice guy, but I’ve always found him a bit of an enervating presence. I have a low tolerance for whimsical blarney, and I cannot abide a twinkle.

No worries here though. He’s a revelation, channelling a seething Plutonic darkness that I would previously have thought well outside his range. He plays Cathal, a supernaturally tooled-up Irishman seeking his son who is in hiding under magickal protection in Edinburgh.

Director and co-writer Colm McCarthy does an exemplary job of evoking a foreboding atmosphere. He’s particularly strong on eerie juxtapositions, contrasting the desuetude of central belt sink estates (fried breakfasts and dingy branches of R.S. MacColls) with arcane language and sigils daubed in blood on council flat walls.

There’s a strong through-line, some good shocks and an ending I didn’t see coming. Great cast too though (in a classic Feexby moment) the girl I dismissed mentally as being a Karen Gillan wannabe turned out in the credits to be Karen Gillan.

Hee haw.

 

Outcast showed with a supporting short called I Love Luci. Written and directed by Colin Kennedy it’s neat, sweet and tidy. I laughed but, bloody hell Scotland, not so much of the puke and the poo next time, eh?

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Day 2 – Another Year & Rare Exports

The Inverness Film Festival is trundling along rather wonderfully. Web details for the remainder of the programme ici:

http://invernessfilmfestival.com

It’s a magnificent line up of films. There are unique opportunities to see short Scottish films supporting some of the features. Also Eden Court is just a damn spiffing place to be.

Two movies today for me. Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Slope-headed, knuckle-dragging fan, as I am, of robots that change into vampires and any movie where one character throws cars at another character it is not often that I cross paths with the Mike Leigh oeuvre.

My stupid fault. Yes, I am an idiot.

The thing is every time I actually see a Mike Leigh film I love it. The problem I have is tricking myself through the door of the cinema in the first place.

It’s hard, therefore, for me to rank Another Year against other Leigh films, but what I can say is that on its own merits it is a brilliant piece of work. Will we see a better British film this year? I would guess not.

Leigh’s practice of starting without a script but building up the lines through improvised rehearsals sounds risky to me, but it evidently works. Nothing here sounds stilted or forced. The characters, their relationships and they way they talk to each other feels entirely evolved and organic.

It was interesting for me to contrast this with last night’s Scottish premiere of Never Let Me Go. The themes of the films are very similar. They each deal with transience, frailty and, ultimately, mortality. But whereas Never Let Me Go (which I think is a fantastic film) makes a virtue of being schematic, elegant and symmetrical Another Year comes across like a chaotic gnarled thing grown out of a particularly fertile soil.

Indeed the central couple’s allotment is a fixed reference point throughout the evolution of the story.

Another Year is a transfixingly gorgeous mapping of the lives of Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) through four seasons as their friends and relations come and go. The subtlety on display is breath-taking. I kept wondering if some of the dabs of humour were too gaudy, or if some of the depressing declines were too theatrically sad, but no. Everything about the film is perfect.

Jim Broadbent is now at whatever stage of sanctity lies beyond “national treasure” and Ruth Sheen is as warm and complex as she was when I first saw her in High Hopes back in 1988.

If you have any interest in contemporary British cinema please grab your chance to see this.

Fags! Booze! Another Year

Another Year was supported by Adam Stafford’s short film The Shutdown. Set in Grangemouth it’s the tale of an incident at the town’s petrochemical plant. It’s based on a short story by Alan Bissett, who also narrates. The detail is convincing. The visuals are hypnotic.

***

Rare Exports on the other hand is a broad cinematic act of psychotronic Finnish lunacy. A cross between Miracle On 34th Street and 30 Days Of Night for which the world may not quite be ready.

On the Finland/Russian border a cull of reindeer fails because something more deadly than the hunters gets to the reindeer first. The hunters blame wolves, agitated by the explosions and drilling coming from the Russian side of the border.

Is it wolves, or is it something more sinister? Young Pietari, who knows more about the Russian drilling operation than he should, thinks he knows the truth. The difficulty lies in convincing anyone.

I don’t want to give any more detail away as, really, the less you know about the film the better. And I do strongly urge you to see it, particularly if you have a sense of humour that tends towards the dysfunctional. Occupying a point on the festive axis somewhere between A Muppet Christmas Carol and Silent Night, Deadly Night it’s a worthy addition to the elite league of fine Christmas films. Drily witty, but at the same time horrific and ultimately rousing, there isn’t anything else quite like it out there.

One note that may count as a possible spoiler: Finnish filmmakers, I have now seen enough scary elf penises and scrotums. Thank you.

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Day 1 – Never Let Me Go

There is a feeling I get that I don’t know the name for. Basically if you make an equilateral triangle of Despair, Ennui and Contempt and then extrapolate upwards to form a tetrahedron, then the emotion I’m trying to describe is the pinnacle of the pyramid.

I get it every time a soi-disant literary author has what they think of as an audacious, innovative idea which turns out, in reality, to be a well-worn science fiction device.

The usual form is for the author to deny that they are writing SF at all when its obvious to anyone who’s actually done genre writers the courtesy of reading round a bit that it effing well is effing Science Fiction. Just wanting it not to be isn’t enough.

Every time Margaret Atwood states that her SF books aren’t SF I wince as though she has actually physically punched Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Lisa Tuttle (or any honest SF writer with a feminist agenda) right in the face.

I cringed through the late seventies and eighties when Doris Lessing distanced her Canopus In Argos: Archives series from the Science Fiction genre and, seemingly the whole of literary society was too polite to say, “Nice one Doris, but what you have done here is to pointlessly re-invent the wheel. Or in this case pointlessly re-invent the Dune trilogy.”

I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go with that same dismaying nameless feeling described above. The idea, his amazing idea, of a secondary class of humans cloned solely to provide organs for “proper” humans is only surprising if you’ve not read any SF ever. Indeed the same year that Never Let Me Go was published the Michael Bay film The Island was released at cinemas. It’s pretty much the same story.

The Island is a dire film. Truly a crass, artless, thudding, bombastic, cock-wagging mess of a movie. But, in its defence, it is quite clear about its aims. There’s a perfectly serviceable basic three-act structure to it. Set-up. Conflict. Resolution. Crucially, low though they may have set the bar, the creators have had a specific intention and have seen it through.

Never Let Me Go (the novel) by contrast comes across as a meek, bovine version of the same story.

There is a superb axiom in writing that the author should strive to “show, not tell”. Marvellous. Except I think that the most important part of that is “to show”, whereas Ishiguro seems to think it’s “to not tell”.

It’s maddening the lack of explanatory detail in the book.

My generous understanding of it is that Ishiguro has created the lacunae and the vagueness as a sort of literary negative space. An absence into which we are invited to project our own interpretations of meaning.

My less generous understanding of it is that there was in his mind no clear concept of what he was writing about.

So where is the wisdom in trying to bring that book to the screen?

One of culture’s most unwatchable debasements happened when Fernando Meirelles (a bone fide brilliant director) tried to adapt Blindness a novel by Portugal’s greatest living dead writer, Jose Saramago, for the screen. The mimsy, farting mis-shape that resulted is awful; a grunting insult to Day Of The Triffids and 28 Days Later and numerous other narratives of integrity. What was the original point of the book? No idea. The film has had any trace of artistic accomplishment ruthlessly expunged from it. Whatever muse was ever involved in its inception was bludgeoned to death long before I got a chance to see the film.

So whilst the prospect of a Never Let Me Go movie was, for me, generally a grim one I could never quite let go of the fact that it was directed by Mark Romanek.

I still recall vividly the galvanising effect that Romanek’s first movie Static had on me the one and only time I saw it in 1986. It stars under-exploited treasure Keith Gordon as a worker in a crucifix factory who collects all the malformed crosses that would otherwise be thrown away. In his spare time he has invented a machine which, he says, can see into the afterlife. Static seems subsequently to have been disowned by Romanek. I think this is a shame. I’d dearly love to see it again.

Romanek didn’t make another movie until 2002 when he wrote and directed One Hour Photo, a film of incredible control and nuance.

In the intervening years he worked as a director of music videos including an emotionally ravaging one for the Johnny Cash version of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.

I’m always going to watch Romanek stuff then, whatever the apparent pedigree. But add to that a script from Alex Garland (who is much more comfortable writing for the screen than the page) and the acting talents of Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield and suddenly I’m up for it.

The film is quite beautiful.

It is beautiful visually thanks to Romanek’s masterful eye for frame-filling and use of colour, but it has a beauty beyond the mere superficial. With a few plot changes (choice rather than expediency) and the occasional inversion of the implicit to the explicit, this story has suddenly becoming an unbelievably moving experience.

From a novel I thought reticent, clumsy and monochromatic has come a very rich experience indeed. Romanek and his shockingly talented cast have uncovered a lot in this narrative that simply wasn’t evident in the book however closely you read it. Themes of purpose, transience and the compromises we make. And, most witheringly, a stark exposure of the futility of all the expectations and hopes we have, and the pointlessness of the suppositions we make as we huff inelegantly from alpha to omega.

A great film which I cannot wait to see again.

Rachel Portman’s score is lush too.

Pictured: Spider-Man versus Sally Sparrow

The Human Centipede: Good or Not Good? Not Good

Oh dear, I have bad ideas sometimes. The last one I had I mentioned to my ever-lucubrating, elfin pal Kay.

After listening to its bare bones she said, approximately, “In the name of fucking sanity never ever ever mention that to anyone. Don’t blog about it. Don’t put it on Twitter. Don’t put it on Facebook. Just forget you ever had it.”

And that is where I am superior to Tom Six, because where I have a network of normal people who will, quite proactively, remind me where the boundaries of acceptability lie, Tom Six apparently does not. He has a network of dimwit enablers who say stuff like “Hey Tom, that revolting idea rocks. You should make a film out of it you sexually uninhibited spliffy-boy.”

He’s Dutch, you see.

I do a great impression of Dutch people. Ahem. “Hey, thish land ish a bit marshy and shoggy. Shince it ish sho difficult to reclaim let ush build our buildingsh tall to maximishe living shpace per unit area. But alsho, let’sh shublimate our anger at thish into making Dutch cuishine the flattesht, mosht shpace conshuming cuishine in the world. Bring on the pancakesh!”

Ooh. It’s gone very quiet in the room. Bit racist? Sorry. I love Holland and spent some very happy time in Amsterdam. If you haven’t been there you should go. Before its nearest neighbour is the Lost Kingdom of Atlantis.

So anyway. Tom Six’s revolting idea is that, if you are a demented surgeon, you can stitch three humans together (mouth to anus) to form one long creature with a single digestive tract.

Yes, exactly. A striking idea, but not a story. Nevertheless he has made a feature film out of it, The Human Centipede (First Sequence).

Body horror, a distinct sub-category of horror, has a history that is long and, surprisingly, far from ignoble. There was a change in American film-making around the mid to late sixties that allowed more explicit sex and violence into what were perceived as sensible, adult movies rather than puerile drive-in fare. Bonnie and Clyde is regarded as something of a turning point.

One of the resultant effects of this was to enable seriously intentioned filmmakers to smuggle interesting agendas into populist and profitable entertainments. Graphic depictions of violence enabled directors like Wes Craven and George Romero to make gooey horror films that were also explicit criticisms of American involvement in Vietnam.

Craven, after a few stutters, went onto the broad pantomime of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies before steering that series provocatively into reflexiveness with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and following this up with the auto-critical Scream Trilogy.

Romero is a more interesting director, and I am sure more intelligent people than me have written theses about his work. What is pertinent here though is to point out how he worked the horror genre to specific ends.

His 1968 movie Night Of The Living Dead remains a landmark movie in many ways. Shot in cheap black and white it still looks tremendous. It has the imagination to render one of its central characters permanently mute with terror after her ordeal in the opening minutes of the film. The central competent character is a black man; the white characters are variously unsympathetic, dim or venal. The film even underlines its view of the futility of conflict by having the hero shot in the head at the end by redneck would-be rescuers. It’s a magnificent film.

With the two follow-ups Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and Day Of The Dead (1985) Romero used the genre to comment acerbically on the deadening passivity of materialism and the misappropriation of science by the military-industrial complex respectively.

He’s not just pissing about you know.

To a great degree horror films have always reflected the times in which they were made, and the fears that pertained at the time, be it fear of sexuality, communism, atom bombs or the passing of power to the next generation. In the seventies though this was much more of a conscious expression than a subconscious one and it reached its apex in the pioneering body horror films of Canadian director David Cronenberg.

These days he’s perhaps better known for adapting supposedly unadaptable literary works (Crash, The Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Spider and A History Of Violence) but his most recent original scripts “eXistenZ” and Eastern Promises still have an overwhelming physicality about them.

Cronenberg’s early body horror works Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers and The Fly are extraordinary movies. He also directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone which, whilst non-negligible, feels a bit out of place in the oeuvre, a slightly compromised populist piece.

The Dead Zone aside though, his films are all manifestly the work of an auteur. Typically dealing with reactions to bodily invasion, sexually transmitted disease, birth trauma, tumour growth, parasites and corruption of the flesh the films can be repellent and alienating (particularly given some of Cronenberg’s bizarre casting choices), but, importantly, they are all clearly the end product of a long and informed intellectual process. Further they have something quite significant to say about humanity’s ongoing attempts to remove itself from an organic environment into a neurotically clean, antiseptic one.

Philosophically, the only film I’ve seen recently that stands with Cronenberg’s work is Lars Von Trier’s majestic Antichrist which also equates the fall from innocence with the estrangement of nature.

Tom Six has clearly watched a lot of Cronenberg, and this has been his explicit influence in the crafting of The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Unfortunately Six seems to lack Cronenberg’s academic ambition and rigour, and has decided that the depiction of the vile is somehow just as good as the exploration of the vile.

Bad news Mr. Six. It ain’t.

I’m not sure if the addition of a plot or sympathetic characters would have changed my negative opinion about The Human Centipede. I rather suspect not, because it isn’t just the inability to develop the situation that is wrong with The Human Centipede. There are is also an unpleasant set of underlying assumptions at work that perturb me.

I watch a lot of films you really wouldn’t want to see. I’ve got base tastes. I accept that, and really as long as there’s plenty of embonpoint on display, some ludicrous fantasy violence and a Euro-disco score then I’m likely to be happy. My inner critic isn’t riled by much, but there are a few films (excluding obvious atrocities like Pretty Woman, Ghost and Die Hard 2) that have made me question why I watched them.

Firstly there is The New York Ripper. This is a 1982 rip-off of Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill (itself a rip-off of Psycho) directed by Lucio Fulci. I love Fulci and his lurid, OTT directorial style, but there’s a gloating misogyny to The New York Ripper that stops it from being entertaining on any level. Poor show, Lucio.

Secondly there is I Spit On Your Grave (1978) which occupies a uniquely ambiguous place in cinema ethics. Shoddily made and with only one good performance (Camille Keaton – Buster Keaton’s grand-niece fact fans), the film concerns itself for half of its length with the brutal violation of a New York woman holidaying alone in the country. The second half of the film deals with the woman’s (supposedly redemptive) murderous revenge. There is a school of thought that this is a film of feminist empowerment, one backed up by the film’s opportunist alternative title Day Of The Woman. Personally I think that if the director had intended that he wouldn’t have spent quite so much time depicting the defilement. Bloody hell, it makes Michael Winner’s Death Wish look like the moral equivalent of Crime And Punishment, but hey that’s just my opinion.

And now we have the Human Centipede (First Sequence). Technical virtuosity aside (and it does look pretty authentic) there’s nothing good here. There’s no moral debate. There’s no character identification. There’s not even the feeble justification of a developing narrative. There’s the idea, and that’s all.

Add to that the fact that the victims are two attractive young American women (segments two and three of the centipede) and a male Japanese tourist (segment one) and you have a grim, leering confirmation of every suspicion of Europe that the grunting, idiot makers of the Hostel films harbour in their minuscule minds.

There’s another film coming apparently, alluded to in the subtitle of this one. The sequel The Human Centipede II – The Full Sequence will have a twelve-person centipede (still nowhere near a hundred legs I can’t help noticing) and is currently filming in London. It opens in 2011.

How are you going to shock us this time Mr. Six? I’ve got an idea. The Human Centi-paedophile. You can have it for free.

Just a bit of fun eh? Does no harm.

Right.

***

As a postscript, my bad idea that Kay said to shut up about. It’s not gross or anything. It’s just, you know, unacceptable.

There’s still one percent of my brain that reckons it’s worth exploring.

Maybe I’ll blog about it after all…

On Her Majesty’s Marty McFly Scape

What a droll old cove that Christopher Nolan is. He claimed with Inception that he wanted to create the same kind of effect that Star Wars had had on him as a child. He had no idea, he said, what Star Wars was about when he went to see it for the first time, and that sense of explosive discovery was what he wanted to emulate with his first movie since 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Well, I can’t speak for Christopher Nolan’s childhood, but I do know that by the time Star Wars opened in Leeds (and I went to see it first pretty early in its first run) I already had the souvenir magazine, four poster magazines, the soundtrack and 65 of the 66 bubble gum cards.

I had read the novelization by “George Lucas” four times through. Man, I was pretty much word perfect the first time I took my seat in Odeon 1, and I was still blown away.

With Inception Nolan has done more of a job of emulating one of science fiction’s more recalcitrant movies: Back to the Future Part II. And I mean that as a compliment of the highest order.

Back to the Future Part II confounded quite a lot of its audience in 1989 with its stark refusal to adhere to narrative convention. It did quite a lot of literal retreading as the characters time-travel back to events they already time-travelled to in the first film, and then have to avoid meeting themselves. It is still an astounding coup of interstitial narrative, predating Lost by decades.

But what Back to the Future Part II has, beyond all other films, to make me love it is that half way through the film one of the characters brings things to a halt and has to draw a map of the film’s plot on a blackboard.

It’s not a monumentally complicated time tripping story, but from an original starting point several alternative presents and futures have branched off, and Doc Brown has to sketch out for Marty (and sadly quite a lot of the audience) exactly what is happening. It is an elegant solution to what could have been a problem. They side-stepped the whole issue in Part III by sticking everything on train tracks. Actual, non-metaphorical train tracks.

Inception does not go quite so far as to draw a map, but Nolan’s deft script never lets an opportunity pass to have a character tell you where you are in the nested oneiric realities. This is never artless, and is frequently useful, particularly as, towards the end, some of the sequences are taking place in a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream within what may or may not be consensus reality.

Not exactly like Star Wars then.

I cannot praise Inception too highly. It is not an intellectual movie in the way that Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001 are intellectual movies, but if you stick Inception next to Avatar and let them compete as blockbusters it is quickly apparent which one has an informed intelligence behind it and which is a derivative linear spectacle.

Nolan has never made a film that is less than wonderful (Memento, the Insomnia remake, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), in fact the only director currently working who matches him for consistent high quality is David Fincher. Nolan has a meticulous, assured style verging on the obsessive, and a repertory company of devastating power: Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy and Ken Watanabe to name but three.

I don’t want to write too much about the plot now. The film has only been out a matter of days. But I do want to enthuse about the structure a bit more. This is a script which has no qualms about adding layer after layer to the characters’ perceived reality, and that was a real thrill for me.

Although the Matrix won me round eventually (mostly through its uncompromisingly dense sequels) I found it hugely unconvincing the first couple of times I saw it. I couldn’t credit that the characters were raised from one reality to another, and just quietly accepted the fact without ever wondering whether or not there were other “more real” realities above that. No time I guess. Too much shooting to be done.

Anyway, it’s almost the first concept introduced in Inception. If we can dream within dreams, then why can’t we dream within dreams within dreams? Which is what they proceed to do, with abandon. I love the fact also that each layer of dream down is much madder than the one above.

The third one down is a brilliant and sustained James Bond joke, complete with convincing music cues, and it offers one of the characters an opportunity for heroism well beyond anything he was capable of in any of the higher realities.

This is above all great fun, and the funnest bit is the satisfaction of watching Leonardo Di Caprio revel in his transition from childish parvenu to one of the most flexible and interesting actors of his generation.

Oh and it reminded me of the terrific 1985 flick Dreamscape starring faces of the eighties Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw. I haven’t seen that in ages. Oh, Amazon…

***

Predators is a slightly different kettle of fish, can of worms, bucket of frogs… Whatever.

Bottle of newts?

The original Predator (1987) is a phenomenal work. A film which is actually beyond criticism. One which transcends its idiocy so effortlessly that if it doesn’t actually reach the level of art, it certainly reaches the level where it can look up art’s skirt.

In Predator an elite bunch of mercenary-types are sent into the jungle to rescue some political hostages. They are led by Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a character called Dutch, possibly a half-arsed attempt to explain his variably-penetrable accent.

“Vhy don’t you use the reg-uh-larmy?” he asks at one point.

Anyway it turns out the thing with the hostages (“har-stitches” as Arnie calls them) is a ruse. The soldiers get stalked and killed by an elaborately-mandibled alien bounty hunter until last-man-standing Arnie kills it. The end.

This bald narrative encapsulation makes it sound like pretty thin gruel, but believe me Predator is a master-class in action film directing. It is a key film in eighties American cinema and it is endlessly re-watchable. The characters are all fleshed out just enough for you to care about them as they become imperilled, but they are played by tough guys and wrestlers giving the whole film a semi-cartoonish sense of hyper-reality.

One of the mercs, the only one who isn’t an out and out tough guy, is played by Shane Black, the writer responsible for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

The film was directed by John McTiernan who would then go on to direct Die Hard, another key movie and the primogenitor of an entire genre of film.

These guys weren’t just messing around.

Predator has had several sequels over the years. I am quite fond of the urban-set Predator 2 starring Danny Glover and Gary Busey, but it didn’t find favour with Predator fans generally and now appears to have been written out of the continuity.

And then there are the two Alien Versus Predator films which are perplexing to say the least. Sparsely populated with humans, the films instead rely on the supposedly thrilling spectacle of two feebly rendered special effects duking it out for an hour and a half.

There is a fundamental problem with these “wouldn’t it be cool if…” fight stories be it Alien Versus Predator, Batman Versus Judge Dredd or Cloverfield Monsters Versus the bloody Clangers. And the problem is that there can’t ever really be a winner. The status quo will be preserved and the tedious spectacle of the two parties scrapping at feature length is difficult to enjoy for anyone not quite far up the autistic spectrum.

With Predators (2010) the film-makers have junked everything from Predator 2 and the two Alien Versus Predator films and have made a direct sequel to the original. Fair enough. The obvious touchstone here is James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) which successfully inverted the shape of Alien (1979) whilst simultaneously providing a satisfying sequel.

Predators is not quite in this league, but it acquits itself admirably. Produced by the economical and energetic Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal (Kontroll and Vacancy) it avoids the pitfalls of hubris and grandiosity, functioning instead at a down and dirty level.

It was interesting watching this immediately after Inception. The Nolan film makes specific reference to the way that there is no transition time in dreams, that you are just suddenly there. And this follows in the film with scene after scene starting in the middle of the action.

Exactly the same happens in Predators with perhaps one of the most extreme in media res openings I can remember seeing. As the film begins Adrien Brody is plummeting through thin air, unconscious.

He awakens in time to deploy his parachute, and once on the ground realises that there are other people in the same position as he is. There isn’t much cocking around. No-one acts like an idiot and, with gratifying speed, we get to familiar ground. The eight humans are all killers of some sort (Spetnaz guy, Yakuza guy, Special Forces guy, woman guy…). They all come to accept quite quickly that they have been kidnapped, plonked on to an alien planet, and they all get on speedily with the business of being hunted by Predators.

It is a little bit by the numbers. Even though the eight characters are all pretty reprehensible the script, nevertheless, establishes an approximate hierarchy of worthiness. This will be familiar to anyone who is a veteran of stalk and slash films, and it will come as no surprise that the characters are then bumped off in order of nastiness.

It is, exactly what it purports to be. If you spend your money expecting a Predator movie then you will not be disappointed.

It is disturbing though how Adrien Brody, once he’s been roughed up a bit, starts looking like a young Jimmy Nail.

Predator Shoes…

***

Doctor Who news.

Everybody stop complaining about Doctor Who’s “inappropriate” sexiness now, please. It was ever thus.

My favourite Doctor was the third. Jon Pertwee’s interpretation happened along just when I was at the right age. And I had such a crush on his assistant Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning) too. There was something just very cheerful and decorous about her.

Katy Manning disarming a Dalek

She’s reprising the role in the next series of The Sarah Jane Adventures y’know.

Hat Boy Versus Monster Guy

“Thank you, no,” I said after the tiniest amount of reflection. “I am fine for chocolate. Just the paper and the petrol please.”

The woman behind the counter beamed a genuine beam. Not a faux, retail blandishment. An actual smile.

“That’s you medical students,” she said. “You know how bad it is for us.”

“Nah,” I retorted. “I’m pretty sure chocolate’s one of your five a day.” A weak joke. Almost so weak as to be not worth saying, but I needed to say something. A social obligation had been laid in front of me.

Anyway she laughed. I kept the wan smile on my face even though I was beginning to feel the musculature around my mouth, a sure sign the smile did not look genuine.

I paid for my petrol and drove the remaining couple of hundred miles to Leeds aware that something had happened that I did not understand.

Nothing to do with the random offering of chocolate when I was trying to buy something else. That’s a standard inertial selling trick, Happens all the time. You go into the shop for a paper, some petrol. You come out with two litres of water and an acre of chocolate you hadn’t intended owning.

No, what I hadn’t understood was the “medical student” reference. I am no-one’s idea of a medical student. I mean I have fantasies of jumping out of a Médecins Sans Frontières helicopter with a girl on one arm, a medical bag on the other and my stethoscope blowing in the wash from the rotors. Which middle-aged, overweight underachiever doesn’t? But the fact remains that I look like what I am: a crossword compiler in an almost permanent state of semi-abstraction.

It was only that night as I was getting ready for bed that I realised I was wearing my Miskatonic University Medical School t-shirt and everything became clear.

Score one to Senga.

It is one of a series of geeky movie shirts I own. Others include an Amityville Police Department shirt (from Jaws), a Nostromo crew member shirt (from Alien), a Summer Isle shirt (from The Wicker Man) and a HAL 9000 Logic Memory Systems shirt (from 2001: A Space Odyssey). They are fabulous. Visit http://www.lastexittonowhere.com for a look at the full range available.

Miskatonic University Medical School is not a real establishment. It is part of H.P. Lovecraft’s complicated fictional supernatural milieu in his Chthulhu stories. I think the Miskatonic library is where the fabled Necronomicon was to be found. And the medical school was where Herbert West carried out his infamous re-animation experiments.

When I was in my teens I read every single word H.P. Lovecraft published, and I’m sad to say that apart from a general recollection of lurking dread, old gods and men driven mad by things no mortal mind can encompass I can’t remember much about them.

The thing about Lovecraft, I feel, is that his legacy is far greater than anything he actually wrote. There seemed in his work, and this is just my adolescent recall at work here, to be a very high paragraph to incident ratio. It all seemed desperately over-written to me, though I did plough through hundreds of pages of it. Perhaps I should revisit it as an adult.

The people who have carried Lovecraft’s torch from his ridiculously early death (aged 46 in 1937), and there are a lot of them, have provided a great deal more entertainment to me. Stephen King’s reverent mythos stories and Ramsey Campbell’s elegant English transpositions are fabulous.

Stuart Gordon’s movie adaptations of the 80s (and this is where my t-shirt comes in) are also tons of fun. Miles away from Lovecraft’s sombre, perhaps po-faced, narrative idiom the Re-Animator movie trilogy and From Beyond nevertheless remain true to Lovecraft’s core theme that there are things lurking just beyond our perceptive threshold that mean us harm. It’s a deliciously creepy idea.

Working at the same time as Lovecraft (the 1920s and 30s) was another fantasy writer called Robert E. Howard. He ploughed a different, but adjacent, field did Howard, but in his way he shook fantasy literature as seismically as Lovecraft did. He can be as difficult to read too for a contemporary audience, sadly. He died even younger than Lovecraft, in 1936 aged only 30. Didn’t stop him having a hell of an influence though.

Howard’s best-known creation today is the genre-defining Conan the Barbarian, uncomplicated, battling hero of a series of fantasy stories set in the mythical Hyborian Age.

There were other characters though including the splendid Solomon Kane, Puritan foe of demons and witches in Elizabethan England.

I was only peripherally aware of Kane as a character, not having read any of the stories he appears in, but was delighted by the recent movie adaptation. It stars James Purefoy (in my head most famous for not being in either Goldeneye or V For Vendetta) and has a brilliant supporting cast including Pete Postlethwaite, Alice, Krige, Jason Flemyng and Max Von Sydow. The fantasy England that provides the setting is convincingly evoked and, whilst I could have done with a bit more Witchfinder General and a bit less Van Helsing, it is a film which nevertheless left me in good cheer. It fits one of the cannot-fail formulae for me: a guy in a hat fighting monsters. There will be more I hope.

Curiously Solomon Kane is the third film in recent months set in a highly fantastical historical England to feature Max Von Sydow. It is the best of the three, and the sputtering misfire that is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is, by orders of magnitude, the worst. Not Ridley’s fault at all, mind. Just a centrally compromised script combined with the fact that nobody seemed to be in charge of saying, “Hey Russell, please will you stop doing that voice. You’re embarrassing us all.”

Occupying the middle ground is the extended cut of The Wolf Man which features a perplexing Von Sydow cameo that lasts maybe a minute. Otherwise The Wolf Man is standard fare: an over-careful re-write of Carl Siodmak’s 1941 script for the Universal horror film of the same name. The script brings nothing new to Werewolf lore and is a slightly uncomfortable conjunction of modern effects work with old-school story-telling.

This is not in itself a bad thing, just highly otiose. In 1981, forty years after the original The Wolf Man, John Landis, neither previously nor subsequently a subtle director, pulled off a considerable coup with his film An American Werewolf In London. It captured the true tragedy of the original in that its hero is an innocent who becomes fatally afflicted with lycanthropy through no fault of his own. But it also deftly contrasted the carnality of the condition with the restricted and uptight nature of Britain at the time.

An American Werewolf In London remains a very good film, still surprisingly involving today and home of a fondly-remembered Jenny Agutter shower scene, and that makes it all the odder that we should take such a massive step back to the values of the 1941 film with The Wolf Man remake. Haven’t we been here before?

Anyway, purposelessness is no crime. And if you’re going to do this then you might as well get Joe “Good with monsters” Johnston to direct it. Benicio del Toro is not as sympathetic an actor as either Lon Chaney or David Naughton, but the film trundles along unflaggingly and the sumptuosity rating is high.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Jenny Agutter deterring wolves earlier today

That’s me on the sofa.

Up to my armpits with work at the moment and using the downtime such as there is to clear more backlogged DVDs. They haven’t all been wise choices.

The Gift (2000) is from the most mature period of Sam Raimi’s career sandwiched as it is between For The Love Of The Game (1999), which I have never seen, and the crowd-friendly Spider-Man series. The Gift is a paranormal murder thriller with a kick-ass cast (Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, J.K. Simmons, Hilary Swank) and is written, I was surprised to discover, by Billy Bob Thornton. I guess he got friendly with Raimi when they were filming A Simple Plan. Its edge is a bit dull though and there is a pervading sense of compromise, certainly when the enterprise is compared to Raimi’s thrilling early career which thoroughly explored the bit on the Venn diagram that subsets Splatter Horror and Slapstick Comedy. It’s still worth watching though. As was demonstrated with David Lynch’s Dune and Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action you can’t completely hamstring a maverick visionary just by giving him a big budget and a requirement to capture a big audience. There will still be visionary stuff in there. It’s no Drag Me To Hell however.

Some troubling movies from the East: Sick Nurses, Tokyo Gore Police and Love Exposure.

Sick Nurses (a 2007 Thai film whose directors I am unfamiliar with) is the least coherent of the three. Seven nurses who have been selling body parts on the black market kill one of their number when she threatens to expose them. On the seventh day after her murder she returns to wreak supernatural vengeance. It’s a hotchpotch, really, of successful bits from other films. Ring and Dark Water do honestly have a lot to answer for. It’s over quite quickly, but not quickly enough, and I speak as one who generally has an appetite for kinky hospital horror.

Tokyo Gore Police (2008) is, I think, the first film directed by Japanese effects artist Yoshihiro Nishimura and it wears its provenance quite proudly favouring mutated flesh and gouted gore over delicacy of script. “Engineers”, monstrous mutated humans, are hunted by self-harming, blade-wielding Ruka, who is avenging the death of her father. It’s a vigorous movie, I’ll give it that, but I may be getting a wee bit old for this sort of stuff and I was knackered at the end of it. Also there’s a weird sort of prudishness at work. There’s an endless fascination on display with the different ways flesh can be contorted, stretched and ripped, which sits oddly with the general shyness about sex. You will learn more about the psychology of revulsion from any of David Cronenberg’s, ostensibly more sober, body horror movies of the seventies and eighties. With a title like Tokyo Gore Police though, you can’t complain about false advertising in any respect.

More confusing, if anything, is Love Exposure (2008), Sion Sono’s four-hour hymn to Japan’s polymorphous perverse community. After Yu’s mother dies his father becomes a Catholic priest. The only way Yu (a pretty innocent chap) can recapture his father’s attention is by committing sins which he can then take to confession. The only sin he seems to be any good at is taking photos up women’s skirts, a practice he develops into a kind of martial arts/voyeurism hybrid. His attitude changes though when he falls in love with Yoko, a girl whom he has rescued from a gang attack. The only problem is that he was in drag at the time, and Yoko has fallen in love with the girl she thinks he is. And… Well it goes on and on. It took me a long time to warm to this, but some time around the three-hour mark I began to think, well at least they’re serious about this film. It kind of numbed me into grudging admiration eventually. I don’t think I’ll be re-watching it many times before they’re throwing soil on my box lid though.

After this prolonged exposure to unorthodox attitudes to love, sex and death it was nice to plonk myself slap bang back in the middle of Western tradition.

It is many years since I last saw In The Heat Of The Night (1967), but I remember as a sixteen year old being impressed by how a film could transcend what were obviously pretty tight constrictions and become a timeless piece so easily. Twenty-nine years later it looks even better. Sidney Poitier is beautiful and controlled. Rod Steiger is lazy and reptilian. And yet neither of them are that straightforward and it is a joy to watch these two actors develop their characters together. Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs turns out to be not as cool and controlled as we at first think. Neither is Steiger’s Chief Gillespie as complacent and venal as he first appears. The soundtrack is simply awesome too. I genuinely think that they don’t make em like this anymore.

Greg McLean’s 2006 movie Rogue is deceptive. Looking like just another creature feature, giant crocodile picks off a group of stranded survivors one by one, this is in fact a film of rare accomplishment.

McLean brings the same considered pacing to bear as he did in 2005’s tremendous Wolf Creek. He’s a filmmaker of the old school and understands that a bit of wit and compassion in setting the characters up goes a long way in making the subsequent threat more threatening. He uses the great Weta sfx crocodile sparingly, but gets a real sense of jeopardy going. Smashing performances from Michael Vartan, Sam “Ubiquitous” Worthington, and the divine Radha Mitchell. I loved it.

Radha Mitchell gets ready for crocodile combat earlier today.

One copy of Rogue, and make it snappy…

***

I could have spent Friday evening re-watching Dog Day Afternoon, but what with the real events piling up on the news channels there wasn’t much need.

For readers not in the UK we had had a disaffected, steroid abusing, gun carrying ex-convict on the loose for a week. Raoul Moat had been released from prison on (I think) Thursday July 1st. He had then shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend and killed her new partner. This escalated into a vendetta against the police generally and he publicly stated that he would proceed to murder policemen until he was caught or killed.

It’s not, on the surface, the most jolly of stories, but as he continued to evade capture, public interest increased and Moat began to take on the mantle of outlaw hero in some quarters. The tweeters on Twitter got a lot of mileage out of it with their funny jokes and observations.

On Friday night Moat was finally cornered by police in Rothbury, where the media were already encamped in large numbers, and a live standoff ensued. It culminated with Moat’s death in the early hours, audible, but off camera.

For once I don’t really have much of an issue with the way the media reported things. The police kept saying that the media were affecting the outcome of the situation and asking them to back off. The media did no such thing of course. Tricky, but I can understand why. It was a hell of a story and they were already there. Generally anyway the reporters seemed to be behaving responsibly. There was a bit of over-excitement as things started developing quickly, but the BBC, which I was watching, kept pretty sober judgement through the night.

Their man on the scene was Jon Sopel and, apart from a regrettable incident where he basically hijacked a bystander’s mobile phone call to broadcast their private business to an agog nation, he comported himself very well. You could see him occasionally getting over-exercised and having to rein himself back in with a not altogether convincing sombre expression, but who wouldn’t be the same in the circumstances? I gather the Sky coverage was a touch more hyperbolic. Didn’t see it. Can’t comment.

What bugged me most was the reaction of the public. This was a standoff between an armed man in a state of extreme duress and a phalanx of armed policemen, yet all the public I saw were either weeping openly and dramatically overreacting to a thing that wasn’t happening to them, or they were pissed up and having a laugh, waving their beer glasses at the camera.

It’s a self-selecting crowd I suppose. There were probably loads of Rothbury residents sitting quietly in their homes, hoping or praying for events to come to a peaceful solution, but obviously I couldn’t see them. All I could see were the shining, anticipatory faces of a crowd in the mood for incident.

It saddens me, this monkey-mind part of humanity. I know we are better than this and that, as individuals and as a species we do extraordinary things everyday.

But we also bay for blood. We laugh when bad things happen to people we don’t know. We exult in the pain of the out-group. And, once you start drawing lines, who isn’t part of the out-group?

The only bit of the evening that I did understand was when Gazza turned up. (Paul Gascoigne is a hard-drinking, ex-professional football player/pitiable man-child, for those who require context.)

Gascoigne, who had known Raoul Moat from Moat’s time as a doorman in clubs in the North-east, turned up seeming quite refreshed himself and carrying food, beer and a fishing rod according to reports.

The media were flummoxed, but this was my one bit of big identification of the evening. It was certainly how drink worked for me. It made me feel extravagantly important in situations where I was, at the most, tangential. It also gave me overwhelming confidence in my own ability to sort anything out for the best, and screw the rest of you mooks.

In my drinking days, had a vague acquaintance of mine got involved locally in an armed standoff you can bet your arse I’d have been there. I wouldn’t have taken a fishing rod as part of my peaceful overtures though. I’d probably have made do with a copy of Dog Day Afternoon on DVD.

***

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Your undying enmity is important to us.

I don’t go to war these days.

Mostly I don’t have the attention span. I quickly forget what the conflict was, or I have a nice sleep and wake up free of whatever the resentment was in the first place.

Sometimes though, particularly if I’m not getting good sleep, something will rile me and I get all “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”. I’m always sorry afterwards. I get the brief kick of self-righteous anger and then the hangover of weary disappointment, and the big trek back to the life of inner peace and contented befuddlement that I prefer.

BT’ll do it.

In 2004 I took as much custom away from BT as I could. I moved my calls and my internet service to AOL and was left just paying BT rental for the phone line that comes into my home.

They did not take particularly well to being dumped and I was inundated for years with correspondence. Would I take them back? It wouldn’t be like before. They could change. Pleeeeeease. But I was hard-hearted, and my answer always remained “Nope.”

Then a few months ago, to simplify the line rental billing process, I gave my direct debit details to BT. Big mistake, because what they then started doing – without telling me they were doing it – was to start charging me for calls again. Just taking the money out of my bank.

They couldn’t have been more brazen if they’d been lighting cigars with my twenty pound notes and whistling “We’re In The Money” while they were doing it.

I noticed it on my bill this morning and thought to myself, “Crumbs. That’s not right. Better do something about that.”

What I have learned to do in early middle-age, is not to get on the first bus. The first bus is never the best bus. So I had a bit of a sit down and I thought about what I was going to do.

I said what you might call a prayer. Now the concept of praying is still a bit strange to me. I was brought up in a faith, but most of the praying I was encouraged to do as a kid was like some big mad Jim’ll Fix It list. “Dear God. Please fix it for me to have blessings on my family and friends and a space hopper and a chopper bike…”

I don’t believe in God, certainly not the weird, paranoid, partisan God of the theists. I mean that would be a peculiar entity to worship, eh? Don’t eat meat on a Friday. He hates that. And better sing him a few songs too or he’s going to be really pissed off. He likes being told how good he is, particularly in the medium of guitar-based folk music.

I’m not even much of a believer in the slightly more hands-off, woo-woo, power of the Universe God of the deists, although I have some understanding of where people are coming from when they make claims on His, Her or Its behalf.

What I do believe in though is the world outside my skull. I have faith that the things around me exist in a meaningful enough way for me to pay attention to them, and that’s what I’m doing in the process I loosely call prayer.

It’s a deep mental breath. It’s counting to ten. It’s making sure that my mind is fair and my intentions are good. It’s a mini, daily Copernican revolution where I try to come to terms with the fact that I am not the literal centre of the Universe, however much I feel like I am. It’s all I’ve got really.

So I did that, and I rang BT to find out what the story was and I found myself cast into some sort of hell.

Why are they so rude? Why are they so sarcastic? Where do they get the confidence from to flatly assert the opposite of something I know is true? And what is it about the first couple of bars of the overture from The Marriage of Figaro that they find so fascinating they have to play it on a loop for all eternity?

After a couple of goes of explaining what the situation had been, how it had changed, and asking why, I just suddenly lost the will to carry on. I thanked the BT person for their time, mentioned that I found their customer service extremely shoddy and even found a moment to emphasise that I didn’t appreciate their open hostility.

Then I hung up, annoyed at myself for reacting.

Still reeling slightly at what BT considers to be “customer service” I rang AOL. They grasped what had happened straightaway and said not to worry, they’d fix it. They even gave me a few months absolutely free and took my monthly tariff down by five quid.

I don’t know where the fault lies. The evidence seems to point towards BT but it might be AOL who dropped the ball. Doesn’t really matter. AOL fixed it. BT made my day unpleasant. Draw your own conclusions.

My final excess tetchiness expressed itself by way of a tweet in which I included the hash tag #BTfail. A few hours later I got an email telling me that BT are now following me on Twitter. Uh-oh.

I feel like I’ve provoked the Mafia or something. If I’m found at the bottom of Muirtown Basin, bound with fibre optic cable and with the Phone Directory stuffed in my mouth you know what has happened.

***

A better end to the day in the company of lads at a showing of Neil Marshall’s ebullient movie Centurion at Eden Court.

It’s Romans versus Picts as Belloq out of Raiders of the Lost Ark orders McNulty out of The Wire to take his legion (The Ninth) into the far North to quell the Picts. McNulty is betrayed by Camille out of Quantum of Solace, and his men are all killed apart from Mickey and the Next Doctor out of Doctor Who, that bloke from Inglourious Basterds and a couple of other characters to complete the diversity checklist. In fact the only way the surviving group of men could be more diversity-aware would be if one of them was a comedy robot sidekick.

None of them is.

It’s all a bit brilliant really, certainly a step back towards narrative sensibilism after Marshall’s previous movie, the sci-fi action cliché mash-up Doomsday.

Centurion has a huge amount in common with Marshall’s earlier movies Dog Soldiers, the jovial squaddies versus werewolves horror film, and The Descent (chicks versus troglodytes). Once the surviving group is defined and characterised it is subject to attritional destruction just trying to get home.

Marshall is gleefully obvious in his movie references and I enjoyed the Butch Cassidy, Assault On Precinct 13 and Star Wars nods on display here, but I missed the most obvious one.

It was only at the very end of the closing credits where Marshall thanked Walter Hill and Xenophon that the penny dropped. This is Marshall’s take on The Warriors.

I recommend it. It scurries along. The story-telling is fine. The landscape is magnificent. Most importantly, Marshall has found a way of fleshing out the story of the lost Legion of the Ninth that brings credit to both the Picts and the Romans. I had feared that there would be ignobility shown on at least one side, but not this time.

Olga Kurylenko sports an authentic Pictish pink bra earlier today.