The Great Wall


Director: Zhang Yimou (2016)
Starring: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing
Find it: IMDB

As film fans and frequent cinemagoers, we've all experienced it. You weren't exactly excited to see it, and were lukewarm on the idea at best. Perhaps you were coerced along by a friend or significant other. A film you didn't not want to see, but wouldn't go out of your way to sit through either. Sometimes it works out just fine, a pleasant surprise. Other times, you check your watch ten minutes into the film and pray for the fucking thing to be over already. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of The Great Wall.

As a rule, CGI monsters and I do not get on. If there are hordes of them, and they're computer animated, chances are, I do not give a shit about them. Whether they be zombies (World War Z), Sharknados (Sharknado), Transformers, Transformers 2s, Transformers 3s, Transformers 4s, Transformers dinosaurs, actual dinosaurs (Jurassic World), Orcs (The Hobbit) or generic ugly shits (everything else), if they're in it, there's a high possibility I couldn't care less about them or your movie.

Not unless you can back it up with good character work.  There's a reason the boring Chitauri and Ultron-bots of The Avengers and its sequel didn't make that list of whining - and that's mostly due to the characters, writing and performances elsewhere. In The Great Wall, almost everything is as muggy as the visuals. And the visuals are pretty damn muggy (save for the admittedly excellent costume design). Most muggy and indistinct of all though, is Matt Damon's grumbling, bored performance.


Here he plays a man who has a particular talent for killing monsters - something he does far better than the soldiers of The Great Wall, whose literal job and meaning in life is specifically and only killing monsters. The film throws its non-Matt Damon heroes the odd bone here and there, but it is precisely the Great White Saviour movie that it appears to be. It may not be quite as whitewashed as many had feared, but it is condescending and lazy. I can hardly begrudge Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe the work and screentime though, as they're the only fun to be had in it. Tian Jing shoulders co-lead (ish - very ish) next to Damon, but is as wooden and uninteresting as he is, making the majority of their scenes a bore.

Even (especially) the monsters are of the dull, grey, semi-dinosaur variety, and can only be killed by Matt Damon, Deus Ex Magneto, and Cliche. It's a combination of the three which win out in an astoundingly predictable CGI finale - leaving me begging for writers to start tearing certain pages out of the 'Alien Invasion' playbook, and look for a new way of defeating the monstrous horde for once. Ironically, the creatures' most effective sequence is one in which they're barely seen, shrouded in mist and attacking from the shadows.


By drowning the film in grey and brown CGI sludge, The Great Wall loses sight of what should be its greatest asset - you know, The Great Wall. I wasn't expecting full-on Crash Bandicoot: Warped, but Slightly More Colourful Game of Thrones does neither the Wall or the film any favours. Beijing looks slightly better, but never once does it feel like a real place - and certainly not an inhabited one, with stakes we should care about.

Well, at least Pedro Pascal is having fun. The only character without a predictable arc and, crucially, a smile, his charismatic mercenary almost makes The Great Wall worth suffering through, and his double-act with Willem Dafoe (typecast, but fine) gives the film a much-needed sense of comic relief. And, for all the CGI misfortune, at least the 3D is pretty good. It sounds awesome too (although I am a sucker for traditional Chinese folk music). And the scene with the paper lanterns is genuinely moving.

It's these glimpses of goodness make the film even more disappointing - that there's maybe a good movie buried somewhere beneath the rubble of The Great Wall. That movie has more imaginative monsters (like Attack the Block, but on The Great Wall) and doesn't have Matt Damon in it. This hypothetical movie lets the Great Wall actually look great, gives its Chinese actors something substantial to do, and doesn't flub its ending.

Hypothetical or no, it can keep Pedro Pascal though. All movies need more Pedro Pascal.

5. P2


Note: some elements of this review have been re-purposed from an older version written in 2011. Because nobody needs two reviews of P2. 

Director: Franck Khalfoun (2007)
Starring: Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley, Simon Reynolds
Find it: IMDB

Christmas really drives home the loneliness, doesn't it? Cheerful couples walking around, hand in hand, planning a Christmas full of presents and sex together. Love, Actually on TV. Kissing under the mistletoe. Cheerful bastards. Thomas (Bentley) is a security guard who works in a parking garage beneath the office block where the lovely Angela (Nichols) works. Come Christmas Eve, and Thomas snaps. He grabs Angela and holds her hostage in his security booth, determined to make her fall for him. 

2011 segment of review. A ghost from Christmas past, if you will: co-written by Gallic horror maestro Alexandre Aja (2016 edit: remember him?) P2 shows just how unbalanced Christmas can make people. Which singletons among us haven't considered kidnapping a crush just so's we have someone to spend Christmas with?

LOL kidnap jokes. Not really. I spend every Christmas stalking my ex on Facebook, screaming the lyrics to Last Christmas by Wham! at the computer screen, until it becomes blurred behind a film of my own furious drunken spittle.

LOL, I'm a psychopath. Not really. She's blocked me on Facebook. I actually spend every Christmas sitting in my underpants with no presents, crying and watching Silent Night, Deadly Night OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN. End 2011 segment of review. Christ, did I really use the word 'LOL' and make kidnap jokes? 

P2 is like a gender-reversed version of the Australian thriller The Loved Ones - which is to say, straightforward as it comes and unashamed of its exploitation cliche. With its parking lot setting, creepy obsessive kidnapper and vicious canine action, P2 is like The Loved Ones crossed with The Dark Knight crossed with The Human Centipede 2. Put that in your blurb and smoke it (2016 edit: they didn't). Wes Bentley impresses as the quietly sinister Thomas, and Angela a trooper for putting up with the crap director Franck Khalfoun puts her through.

It's not particularly memorable (I had to re-watch it for this feature, which is one more time than I ever figured I would watch P2 in my life) but it is taut, suspenseful, grisly, and has an Elvis Christmas song on the soundtrack. For sure, it'll make you think twice about wandering around parking garages late on Christmas Eve.


4. The Night Before


Director: Jonathan Levine (2015)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie
Find it: IMDB

Because we needed something to wash the taste of Filth out of our collective mouths. A Christmas addition to the ever-growing subgenre of high (ish) concept R-rated Bro Comedies that took off in 2009 with The Hangover, and still refuses to die off, nearly eight years later. Mister Seth Rogen has been responsible for more of these movies than most (his delightful Pineapple Express pre-dates The Hangover), usually with the help of a certain James Franco.

But Franco is foregone in The Night Before, replaced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is essentially a more likeable, less weird version of James Franco anyway) and B-list Avenger Anthony Mackie. Old schoolfriends, this mismatched trio of misfits have an annual tradition of going out every Christmas Eve and getting themselves utterly blitz(en)ed, thanks to an undiluted combination of booze, drugs and hotheadedness. But Rogen's Isaac is soon to be a father, and sportsman Chris (Mackie) has hit the big time, making this Christmas their last together. The lonely and heartbroken Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) is determined to make it the best yet...


It's a simple plot, and follows a predictable through-line: the friends take a bunch of drugs, get into some zany, risque scrapes, all fall out, feel sad and then (spoiler) reconnect in time for the feel-good ending. What makes The Night Before special, however, is everything which comes between. The film's strongest suit is the sheer chemistry and likability of its three leads. The men bicker, act weird and get up to some morally grey shit, but... well, it's Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Just you try being mad at those cheeky little faces. Although Seth Rogen is kind of annoying in this movie, and I say that as a massive fan of Seth Rogen. Here he's like that one friend you have who gets wasted far too quickly on a night out but refuses to go home, and becomes increasingly annoying as the party goes on.

Like everything else though, it's worth it for the payoffs - specifically, dick pics and a great hallucinatory sequence at the end. Almost every joke and setup has a fairly predictable punchline - Chris's weed gets stolen, Jewish Isaac goes to midnight mass, Ethan embarrasses himself in front of his ex, but The Night Before commits hard, and throws in enough strange, subversive or darker touches that it all feels far more original than maybe it is.

Its cameos are too good to be spoiled, but with a supporting cast which takes in Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling and Jillian Bell and Ilana Glazer, the film is more than just men behaving badly. Bell's role is relatively small, but a great alternative to the usual shrewish, nagging wife we'd usually get in this sort of movie. Glazer is similarly fantastic as Rebecca Grinch, who pays wonderfully against Mackie, and even giving him his own action sequence to liven things up.

None of them, however, can hold a candle to The Night Before's real star - Michael Shannon, as the guys' drug dealer, Mister Green. The Christmas present I didn't know I wanted until I saw it, Mister Green is... well, beautifully Michael Shannon, charismatic and terrifying at the same time.

'Transcendent' is a big word and is thrown around far too liberally for my liking. It's a word which almost certainly doesn't apply to a film like The Night Before, and yet here I am, using it. It takes a not-particularly-inspiring template and uses that to apply some of the biggest laughs I've had this year. It's not quite a Christmas miracle, but its stars are certainly bona fide angels in my book. Especially you, Michael Shannon.



3. Filth


Director: Jon S. Baird (2013)
Starring: James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan
Find it: IMDB

What's Christmassy, you say, about a film in which the life of a corrupt, drug-addled, alcoholic Scottish copper finally falls to pieces, leaving him broken, alone and suicidal? Filth is a film about chronic, self-destructive misery and loneliness during the festive period. Which, in my books, makes it every bit as Christmassy as Santa Claus, eggnog and the Queen's speech. And, if you still need convincing, it has a Christmas soundtrack.

Look, nobody wants to admit it, but being unhappy at Christmas is all a part of the grand tradition. Just look at your seasonal classics: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and Moe Szyslak's annual suicide attempt ... from the very earliest days of popular TV, literature and movies, writers and filmmakers have been depicting Christmas sadness in its many forms, with varying degrees of darkness. Filth is as black as it comes, making Bad Santa look like Elf by comparison.


For the first time since 2014, I watched Filth again this year. That doesn't sound like much - I don't watch films all the time, and many (most) I'll never watch again. But this is one I watched at least three times in the year following its release, coming to appreciate and connect with it more upon each viewing. Not only is Filth my favourite movie of 2013, but there's something about it which makes it one of my favourite films of this century, period. Filth is a film which deeply, deeply resonated with the Joel of 2013-14, to the extent where I had to stop watching it for a couple of years.

Spoilers, yes, because of the ending and Bruce's suicide. During a period of five years when I was at my lowest ebb in life and culminating with the 'time to get help' August of 2014, something in Filth - the self-loathing, the guilt, the loneliness and repressed grief of Bruce Robertson- reached out and spoke to me; specifically what I perceived at the time to be his 'taking back control' in his final act. Like I said, pitch black as it comes, almost matching the dark heart of the novel upon which it is based, and almost as good too. Never let them tell you that art isn't dangerous. I wouldn't change it for the world, though.


Now, the technical stuff: Filth is packed with an excellent cast from all avenues of British cinema. James McAvoy is perfectly cast as Robbo, his greasy hair and crap beard (you can still see the chin beneath, which is a problem I also suffer from when trying to grow facial hair) practically emanating stink through the screen. The always underrated Eddie Marsan puts in a funny, sympathetic performance as Bruce's punching bag best mate, and there's Jim Broadbent too, as Bruce's doctor. Shauna MacDonald (adored since The Descent), Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, John Sessions, Shirley Henderson, Iain De Caestecker and Martin Compston fill out the strong supporting cast, while genre fans should also get a kick out of seeing the fantastic Pollyanna McIntosh show her face too. Its excellent soundtrack (a mix of Christmas songs and retro pop anthems), haunting score and Scottish burr make it one of the best sounding movies out there too.

Blackly hilarious, upsetting, troubling and curiously uplifting at the same time, Filth is the very Scottish answer to Bad Lieutenant and Bad Santa, and a great addition to the always 'fun' irredeemable-people-seeking-vague-redemption subgenre.

As time passes, however, so does one's perspective on art, and life. I watched Filth again in preparation for this piece and, this time, something about it didn't quite click. It remains one of my favourite films of this decade, but a part of me has moved on from Filth. And that's probably for the best.

Related: this piece I wrote for men's health charity The CALM Zone.

2. Die Hard


Director: John McTiernan (1988)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
Find it: IMDB

Terrorists at a Christmas party, 'Let it snow! Let it snow!' on the radio, and a Christmas tree. Of course Die Hard is a Christmas film. And not only that, but one of the greatest action movies of all time too. Die Hard is so influential that the sheer amount of imitators since have left it feeling a little dated and predictable when viewed for the first time by virgin, heathen eyes. And the less said about its sequels that aren't With a Vengeance the better.

A classic, but not a holiday one, which only makes it more acceptable to watch all year around. As if you needed an excuse. Good Era Bruce Willis is John McClane, but you didn't need me to tell you that. Trapped in an enormous tower block as terrorists attack on Christmas Eve (which you didn't need me to tell you either), McClane is the one man who can stand against the charismatic but terrifying Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, which you absolutely already knew). All this, and without shoes. What he does have, however, is pure working class spirit, a rebellious streak as wide as the Plaza itself, and a hell of a potty mouth.


If you're the sort of grump who has to ease into the festive spirit with a Christmas film that isn't really a Christmas film (see also: Batman Returns), then Die Hard is the perfect winterval gift. It's violent, sweary and full of explosions, but still sneaks in a bit of that Christmas goodwill between all the gunfire. The sequels may have let his marriage to Holly hit the skids again, but John's reconciliation with his wife here should warm the cockles of any old Scrooge's heart. But if that romance doesn't do it for you, there's always McClane's sweet friendship with beat cop Al and his undeniable chemistry with the villainous Gruber.

As with everything else, the shitshow that was 2016 makes watching Die Hard a bittersweet experience. Bruce Willis no longer gives a shit. Thanks to that and Jai Courtney, the franchise name is now worth less than that of its imitators. And of course, this being the year we lost the magnificent Alan Rickman. We can, at least comfort ourselves with his movies. Some may go with his turn in Love, Actually, but Rickman is more likeable in Die Hard. At least he's honest about his being an utter bastard (pretending to be an American hostage aside).

Willis is on top form here, but it's Rickman who owns this one. Magnetic, charismatic, imposing and with such unmistakable diction, even in a German accent. Its magic ingredient, Alan Rickman is the ace up Die Hard's sleeve, even after all this time.


1. Batman Returns


Director: Tim Burton (1992)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfieffer, Danny DeVito
Find it: IMDB

Tim Burton, a giant Christmas tree full of bats, Alfred doing his Christmas shopping, and Gotham City in the snow. Just try telling me that Batman Returns isn't really a Christmas movie and I'll tell you how wrong you are. Alright, like Die Hard, Filth and many Shane Black joints, the Christmas element of Batman Returns is just incidental enough that we can watch it all year around, but it wears its festivities upon its sleeve, kisses beneath the mistletoe and all.

This is a funny way to preface a love letter to Batman Returns, but Batman Returns is a terrible Batman movie. It might be the least faithful Batman movie ever made, featuring a Batman who murders more casually than even Ben Affleck and can't hold a candle to the heroism of Val Kilmer or George Clooney. In terms of its source material, Batman Returns is an absolute travesty. Say what you will about the rest, but they remained faithful to some version of Batman or another - be it camp, tortured or Frank Miller. Not so the Batman of Batman 1989 and its sequel - this is Tim Burton's very own take on the character, beholden to none...*

And yet. Batman Returns remains my favourite Batman movie of all time, head and shoulders above even The Dark Knight or Batman '66. I detested the murderous Batman of Batman v Superman. I balked at the "...I don't have to save you line" in Batman Begins. Batman tying a gargoyle to the Joker's leg and watching him drop off've the side of a building troubles me to no end. And yet. In Batman Returns Batman straps a bomb to a guy, drops him down a manhole and lets him explode. With a smile. And this is my favourite moment in Batman Returns.


Batman Returns is a film which plays entirely by its own rules, shrugging off the conventions of most comic book adaptations or action movies to do its own thing, yet still keeping everything which worked about the original film. Michael Keaton is wonderfully weird as Bruce Wayne. Michael Gough, pitch-perfect as Alfred. The car and the suit. Danny Elfman's theme. A properly Gothic looking Gotham City. Paul Reubens in the pre-credits sequence. Hell, that whole pre-credits sequence...

Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfieffer are the (pre-reboot) franchise's iconic villains, lacking the baggage (and, perhaps, one-dimensionality) of the Joker, which gives them some leway  in depiction and performance. And, of course, Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, who was made up for the film but steals it anyway.

The Mike Pence to Oswald Cobblepot's Trump, Max Shreck aids the quacking creep as he runs for Mayor of Gotham City. Watching in 2016, it's eerily prescient. I know, we say that about everything these days, but that dialogue is spot on at times. "It's not about power. It's about reaching out to people," says the Penguin of his policies, "touching people. Groping people." Then, mere moments later, of Catwoman, "Just the Pussy I've been looking for." Which would make poor Batman (again, a bit-player in his own movie) the Hillary Clinton of the piece, framed on a trumped up murder charge.

"The glory I yearn to recapture is the glory of Gotham!" speechifies the Penguin from his lectern. In other words, 'Make Gotham great again', right? Ultimately, Cobblepot is undone after Gotham overhears him badmouthing the city and its citizens - playing them like "a harp from hell." Which is, sadly, the one thing Batman Returns got wrong. Hizzoner the Trump tweets shit like that all the time and look where he ended up.


It's not all politics though: Batman Returns also takes in the hottest superhero screen romance we've ever seen; Pfieffer's puberty engine catsuit and the sizzling dialogue ("mistletoe is deadly if you eat it...") managing to bypass what is, admittedly, a lack of chemistry between herself and Keaton. His bulky, immobile Batsuit doesn't really help matters either. It's hard to feel sexy when you're walking around dressed like your car.

The Dark Knight had a rough road ahead following Batman Returns. After Burton and Keaton hit the road, the franchise would stumble on to one passable entry - the underrated but still quite bad Batman Forever - before being bludgeoned to death with neon camp in Batman & Robin. Things are on a (relatively) even keel now, but there's no Batman movie I return to more, or have fonder memories of, than this one. All year round. What, it isn't really a Christmas movie... is it?


*Except maybe for those very earliest issues by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, in which the Bat was still figuring his shit out and nobody was quite sure what he was supposed to be.

(Some Kind of) Suicide Squad


Director: David Ayer (2016)
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto
Find it: IMDB

A gang of murderers, reluctant heroes and psychopaths team up to (reluctantly) save the world from mysterious supernatural forces which threaten to destroy it, brooding a lot and constantly threatening each other in the process. But enough about Justice League, which isn't even out yet. Before that, another gang of murders, reluctant heroes and psychopaths team up to (reluctantly) save the world from mysterious supernatural forces which threaten to destroy it. But do they brood a lot and constantly threaten each other in the process? Well they do a bit - but mostly, they seem to like each other a lot more than the actual Justice League so far.

Task Force X, aka, the Suicide Squad: a ragtag band of captured supervillains, forced into collaboration with the government in exchange for mildly commuted sentences. Master assassin Deadshot (Will Smith, fun again), Joker's squeeze Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Aussie nut Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), cannibal mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, so hidden under prosthetics that it may as well be anyone), human fireball Diablo (a literally unrecognisable Jay Hernandez) and, um, expert climber Slipknot (Adam Beach), who doesn't even rate an introduction until about twenty minutes into the film. Together with minders Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and sword lady Katana (Karen Fukuhara) the team are dispatched to save a mysterious VIP from the ground zero of a supernatural event caused by all-powerful witch Enchantress (Cara Delevinge) and her CGI brother. Plus the Joker (Jared Leto) for some reason.


If introducing all of that takes up a whole lot of review time, now you know how it feels to watch the first half of Suicide Squad, which spends so long setting up characters that by the time the Squad are set to their mission, it feels like the film should be half over already. "What if Superman had decided to fly in, rip the roof off of the White House and grab the President right out of the Oval Office?' asks scary suit Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), continuing the theme of a DC cinematic universe in which Superman is such an unknowable dickhead that Batman and the government have to create contingency plans against him. Turns out that it's not Superman she needed worry about, but rather one of her own recruits, as Enchantress breaks loose to wreak havoc upon the world, creating an army of faceless zombies upon the ground and a giant portal to... something... in the sky.

Such is the plot, which is Guardians of the Galaxy meets Escape from New York, with DC characters and negative reviews. But is it as bad as all that? Certainly not, disjointed and unsure of itself as it is. The characters are fun (and funny) enough to carry the film all by themselves, the one-liners and tunes coming thick and fast throughout - varying from Queen to Kanye West to Skillex and more, depending on how on-the-nose it wants to be (usually very). I enjoyed its soundtrack hugely, but it does feel as though Ayer and the filmmakers realised that they had something of a dull one on their hands, and decided to copy and paste music all over every scene. For the first half, it's more jukebox than movie, and completely unable to see any tune through to the end.


Largely though, it handles its characters properly, and well. For all the DC cinematic universe's faults, I'm living in a world in which I get to see Killer Croc and Deadshot in live action, and upon the big screen. And for that, one should forever be grateful.

Even Harley Quinn is several times less irritating than feared - and actually seems kind of rounded at some points - thankfully nowhere near the insufferable Deadpool clone she could have been. Like most of the squad, Deadshot is too heroic to ever work as a villain (and his mask is stupid) but feels authentic as the master assassin and de facto team leader. Jai Courtney is actually good as Boomerang - a thing I never thought I would be writing - getting all of the biggest and best laughs, with his unicorn fetish and beer chugging ways. Davis is perfect as the amoral asshole Waller, and even the more underwritten teammates (namely Diablo and Croc) get their little moments to shine. And, most importantly*, it gets Batman right. Not only does Batman not kill anyone in Suicide Squad, but he actively saves a criminal life too. And gets the most authentically 'Batman' line in a live-action Batman thing ever.

Admittedly, Batman not fucking murdering people is a low bar to clear, but following Batman v Superman, I'll take these small victories. The rest of it, however, ranges from ill-advised to flat-out horrible. The action is generic trash, all smoke, gunfights and Margot Robbie wrapping her legs around things so's you can get a good look at her ass. It's a disjointed mess, with the visuals of a David Ayer film (for the record, Fury is brilliant and I even liked Sabotage) married to a cutesy pop soundtrack and the sloppily inserted CGI colour palette of a Schumacher Batman. For a film in which Harley Quinn gives a guy a speech about 'owning' his being a murderous bastard, Suicide Squad is decidedly lacking in its convictions. Really, it's only the characters saving it from Expendables** level action movie mediocrity. And even then, Joel Kinnaman and Scott Eastwood are pretty damn mediocre.

Not mediocre: Jared Leto's much-vaunted Joker. Not good either: also Jared Leto's Joker. Less Ace Chemicals and more Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, this Joker, for all Leto's prophylactic pratting about, feels a lot like a sane man pretending (badly) to be insane. Never mind the tattoos or the grill, he quacks like a bad Jim Carrey performance and dresses like an idiot. I did like his lovesick mooning over Harley though, which is a better version of their monstrous relationship than expected.

Jared Leto's Joker.

Like everything else, it's been edited down to the bone. As red shirt Slipknot is no longer a serial rapist, so there's much less of Mister J than one might expect - a number of slimy, Quinn-torturing sequences said to be cut from the film so as to make it more palatable to grit-weary audiences.

Like the Squad itself, all of these disparate elements combine to make something which oddly works, but only just. A comic book curio of bad ideas edited into good ones (and vice versa), ADHD soundtracking and Jared Leto let loose, it's the most bizarre adaptation in years. Suicide Squad is not a good movie, but it is one I enjoyed nevertheless.







*To me
**The first one. The other two are alright

Batman: The Killing Joke


Director: Sam Liu (2016)
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong
Find it: IMDB

“It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for... it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?”

Yeah, alright, I went through my dumb teenage* nihilist phase too, but you don't see me making a movie about it. At last, the 'definitive' Batman/Joker story for the masses** gets its official animated adaption, once again luring Mark Hamill out of Clown Prince of Crime retirement. Well, when Mark Hamill says he wants to do The Killing Joke, you do The Killing Joke. And here it is, R-rating and all. Escaping Arkham Asylum for the latest time, the Joker embarks upon his nastiest scheme yet - proving that even the best, most sane men are only 'one day away' from becoming the Joker.

And this, as anyone who knows anything about comic book history will be aware of, sees Jim Gordon kidnapped and tortured - and Batgirl 'fridged' so as to drive Batman and the Commissioner both to the brink. The most controversial of Batman stories then, and this adaptation's first order of business should be an attempt to give Barbara some agency of her own before doing away with her.

A transparent prologue gives Barbara some time in the costume, bickering with the Bat and battling a smitten criminal. With Alan Moore patently having none of it, Brian Azzarello fills in the gaps for the pre-Killing Joke Batgirl sequences. Don’t expect the fun of recent Batgirl comics though, Azzarello sticking with his usual hardboiled vibes; maintaining the R-rating by having folks shot in the head at regular intervals and inserting the most left-field, ill-advised of sex sequences you’ll ever see in a comic book adaptation. As though The Killing Joke didn't have enough controversy of its own already.


Does the added Batgirl make what follows any more palatable? Sadly not much, the story forgetting about her anyway when it comes time for The Killing Joke to fully kick in. Worse, rather than hinting at it like the book, we finally find out how far the Joker went in his treatment of Barbara – a trio of hookers confirming to Batman that no, the Joker hasn’t visited them like he usually does after escaping Arkham (!), so he must have gotten his ‘kicks’ elsewhere. The lingering question at the ending is also answered, albeit in a more underwhelming manner.

However you feel about the book (it's still a classic!) there’s always Brian Bolland’s career-high artwork to fall back on. This animated movie has no such luck, being surprisingly slapdash in places. The Dark Knight is depicted well enough (we’re well rid of that horrible chin-strap most DCAU movies lumber him with), but this Joker is ugly in the worst way, lacking Bolland’s sense of detail or most cartoons’ vibrancy. It’s only when the animation stops aping Bolland and does its own thing that it works – see the Joker, staring up at his neon nightmare, depicted in eye-bulging anime glory. The action sequences, at least, are well done, if all too brief (and seemingly cribbed from the Two-Face story Faces, in places). Rubbish musical routine aside (Arkham Knight did it better), the rest of it is simply the novelty of hearing Mark Hamill do all of Alan Moore’s famous Joker monologues.

This Stupid Fucking Meme: The Movie

This, at least, doesn’t disappoint. The voice over legend gets to do pre-Chemical Dip Joker, enlivening a series of flashbacks which felt unnecessary even when Alan Moore did them. He and Conroy haven’t let us down yet, and The Killing Joke doesn’t disappoint from that perspective. Ray Wise and Tara Strong are also good as the two Gordons, gamely playing to an audience who only really care about their legendary leading men.

While this punchline is less overtly nihilistic than Moore’s template, it should change few minds. Those who dislike the story for its controversies and grim legacy will find little redemption here (no, not even in an Oracle nod), while the curious cult of Joker will continue to idolise his dim, bleak Nihilism 101 philosophies. Those who can appreciate the book for its place in history and considerable artistic merits will be worst off – it’s a cheap adaptation with bad animation, creaky writing (“a storm was coming”) and an opening that feels completely tacked on and disingenuous, heaping new problems onto an already troublesome prospect. It’s far from the worst DC Animated feature (hello Son of Batman and Assault on Arkham) but one should stick with The Dark Knight Returns movies or Year One for their classic Batman fix. Provided, of course, you can’t get your hands on The Animated Series proper.

In spite of the obvious passion and talent of its main players, The Killing Joke is a sad disappointment, and a concept which probably should have been well left back in the 1980s, when it was first published.

“I’ve heard it before. It wasn’t funny then.”
Why so serious, modern Joker?



*Late twenties
**The Joker's Five Way Revenge is way better

Cabin Fever (2016)


Director: Travis Z (2016)
Starring: Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario*, Samuel Davis
Find it: IMDB

A girl takes selfies all the time. A gamer guy bemoans the lack of Internet and GTA 5. The Deputy is now a lady but still really wants to party. Such are the most notable additions to Cabin Fever 2016, the remake nobody wanted, expected or needed.

Look, I am all for remaking movies to include less Eli Roth, but Cabin Fever is not a good place to start with the erasing of his Bro legacy. Not only is Cabin Fever Roth's second best movie (next to the masterful Hostel 2, which I really do like that much), but it also contains his only tolerable slash good performance in Pothead in the Woods character Justin (who I think I only like because of Doctor Mambo). It also doesn't help that his Cabin Fever is a fairly timeless horror film - a genuinely witty precursor to Cabin in the Woods that I much prefer to Cabin in the Woods.

The plot is, quite literally, the same as the first one. Pretty young college kids travel to cabin in the woods. Encounter local drifter, sick off his face with a mystery illness. Accidentally murder local drifter. Get sick. Squelch. If you've never seen Roth's Cabin Fever, you're bound to have a lovely time with this slick, sick horror movie. Everyone else however, will be left bored, nonplussed and slightly angry.

Cabin Fever: now with added CGI that looks worse than CGI from 2002.

It's not a shot-for-shot deal, like the infamous Psycho debacle or Funny Games US, but it is close enough as to be pointless to anyone with a half-decent memory and horror education. It's the same movie but with less jokes, more gore and slightly sharper visuals. The odd surprise is thrown in here and there - an effective jump scare where there wasn't before - but largely it's just longer, gooier versions of the same old splatter sequences. Where it's at its best is during the second half, when the action takes over and the pace ratchets up, at least being quick and easy to watch in spite of the all-encompassing deja vu. Dare I say it, I did actually enjoy this version of the bathtub scene a little bit more than the first time around.

Those sparse flashes of brilliance, however, do not hide the fact that Cabin Fever 2016 is perhaps the laziest remake ever (re)made.








*Related, but he's certainly no fucking Alexandra

Goodnight Mommy


Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala (2015)
Starring: Lukas and Elias Shwartz, Susanne Wuest
Find it: IMDB

Speaking as a self-confessed and unapologetic mummy's boy, there is no idea more terrifying in life than the love between a son and his mother going un-reciprocated. It's this primal (yeah, alright soppy) fear that informs Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian horror film about a violent battle of wits between a mother and her sons, both parties doing their damnest to hurt the other most viciously.

Face all bound up in bandages, Mommy (Wuest) returns from a major cosmetic procedure - literally - a changed woman. Now cold and cruel to her twin sons (the brothers Schwartz) - even refusing to acknowledge little Lukas - Mommy's sudden change in demeanor leads the boys to question whether this woman is even their mother at all.


It's a question which drives Goodnight Mommy, and one that writer/directors Franz and Fiala are in no hurry to answer. Indeed, Mommy spends most of the film looking like an archetypal slasher movie villain and acting like an abusive asshole, (allegedly) murdering cats and repeatedly slapping her one kid about the face while being downright negligent towards the other. And yet the kids aren't exactly alright either; a pair of weirdos who collect giant bugs, pickle dead cats for some reason, and dress almost exclusively in vest tops and three quarter length shorts. To say nothing of their behaviour in the second half, which verges on being the best Let's Go Play at the Adams' adaptation never made.

One's sympathies dance all over the place in a chilly, elusive narrative which refuses to stay still or take the easy route. Like the thematically similar The Babadook and The Witch, it positions itself as one thing but turns out to be another, game-changing twist and all. A twist I guessed ten minutes in, granted (as will anyone remotely versed in horror cinema), but isn't so much hiding in plain sight but rather brazenly swanning about all over the place. Thankfully, that revelation (however soon you work it out) serves only to enrich the story, making the cruelties of the second half feel even more upsetting.

And such upset it is. Goodnight Mommy is not a particularly violent and gory film, but its brutalities hit home hard, making for genuinely, profoundly difficult viewing. A film that will test viewer patiences on many levels, it's a creepy, unsettling and difficult picture with serious mommy issues.


Girl House


Director: Trevor Matthews, Jon Knautz (2014)
Starring: Ali Cobrin, Adam DiMarco, Slaine
Find it: IMDB

Online strippers live in a house together, constantly and intimately filmed by a Big Brother style setup recording their every move. Angry spurned mysoginist Loverboy (a man allegedly called Slaine in real life) breaks in, wreaking brutal violence upon the women he deems to have mocked him. Girl House opens with a quote from Ted Bundy, but it's the (paraphrased) one by novelist Margaret Atwood that seems more appropriate here: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."

And so Girl House opens with little Loverboy (Isaac Faulkner) mocked by two very young girls, who pull down his pants and laugh at his chode. A sequence which culminates with Loverboy smashing up Camren Bicondova's (little Catwoman from off've Gotham) face and booting her to her death from a great height. It's as troubling and memorable an opening for a horror film as one could wish for, and that level of violence rarely lets up. 

And therein lies (no pun intended) the rub. On the one hand, Girl House in no way glorifies its killer, being an outright condemnation of an angry weirdo and his online ilk, a genuine threat and a bitter portrayal of hateful misogynists convinced that womankind owes them something. On the other, however, there's so much glee there in depicting his crimes that one has to wonder where the filmmakers' loyalties lie. Or, indeed, if they should lie anywhere. Girl House is no feminist opus. But does it have any obligation to be?

No-one ever expected a cheap exploitation movie like Girl House to be at all forward thinking, but by having its antagonist be a very specific sort of male threat, it does open doors to equally specific criticism that could otherwise and ignorantly be ignored with a shrug. The boyfriend character, for instance, who casts aspersions upon Final Girl Kylie's choice of lifestyle and frequently suggests that she quit, displaying a (much milder) form of entitlement the likes of which are responsible for Loverboy's killing spree in the first place. Mixed messages much?

Girl House doesn't know upon which side of the fence it's sitting; whether to be empowering (it isn't) or exploitative, whether to leer or shy away, greedily attempting do everything the same time and just winding up muddled as a result. Even a confused cross between Halloween and My Little Eye has its moments though, and Girl House is always gripping, even as it grasps dimly at its messages, distracted by all the boobs sometimes, often and nearly on show. It's not even properly explicit - being surprisingly prudish for a film about strippers living in a house together.

Ultimately, it's this inconsistency which does the film in for me, a horror film which takes in important, relevant and modern ideas about misogynists and online pornography... and then proceeds to make it so that the male audience can still have a good fap over it at the same time.
   

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice


Director: Zack Snyder (2016)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams
Find it: IMDB

Prologue.
A Dream Sequence

In one of the more troubling nightmares I have had in my life, Batman and the Joker were both tramps, living in an alleyway. Burdened with the realisation that the Joker wasn't going to just stop, that he was going to get progressively worse, Batman beat the Joker to death with a brick in the back of an alley. Slowly, and in vivid detail. I woke up distressed and sad (well, I did have to get up for work), as though I'd just watched my childhood hero beat someone to death with a brick.

And that is a little bit like how it feels to watch Batman and Superman fight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now, some context:

I grinned like an absolute buffoon as Thor and Iron Man came to blows in The Avengers. Again, I sat erect in my seat and giddy with happiness as Hulk versus Hulkbuster went at it, pounding face like there's no tomorrow in Age of Ultron. I think I may have seen Freddy vs Jason ten times by now, and I love it more on each occasion. Most recently, Daredevil fights the Punisher in series two of the Netflix series - like Batman v Superman, it's a dark and serious take on the characters but, nevertheless, cuts to the heart of what makes those men who they are. Each of those fights have a coherent, plausible reason for being, and never negates from the characters themselves.

Batman v Superman, however, opens with a Batman who has spent two years plotting the straight-up murder of the Man of Steel. A Superman whose plan of recourse is to talk Batman down... unless he can't, in which case, he'll go Ozzy Osborne on his ass (head). As Batman and Superman finally - the 29 year culmination of being a Batman fanboy and lover of all things DC and Marvel - came to blows, I felt only sadness inside. Batman smashes Superman over the head with a sink and I'm sitting there feeling oddly miserable.*

1.
With Apologies to Ben Affleck

Back to the start: following the city-levelling events of Man of Steel, Superman is a controversial figure, to say the least. Just as many hold him responsible for Metropolis as those worship him for saving billions. Unfortunately, while Superman can claim Lois (Amy Adams) and The Daily Planet as friends, he's made some even more powerful enemies - billionaire Batman (Affleck) and demented genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), both determined to rid the world of Superman.

It's an interesting foundation for a Batman/Superman movie - the latter perceived as a threat to humanity, the former taking steps to protect humanity - but is frequently let down by its writing. Superman is unapologetic for the whole Metropolis debacle and Batman is, until the last twenty minutes, arguably the villain of the piece. Luthor is there with his jar of piss on the sidelines, but he's too much of a silly shit for us to take seriously, especially given his lack of motivation and Zuckerberg-ian tics; Lex Luthor, idiot savant.

With its distant, unsympathetic, unsympathising Superman and its murderous bastard Batman, Batman v Superman is not a good Batman/Superman movie. It's depressing, over-serious, mumbled and awfully paced. Its finale is a CGI mess, most reminiscent of The Incredible Hulk (with a Doomsday abomination who looks all to much like The Abomination). And yet....

2.
Sexy Alfred

... It is also the most ambitious superhero film I've seen since The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy. If it feels cut to bits and its pacing is terribly off, that's because it's always firing on full cylinders, darting from Metropolis to Gotham to Smallville to dream sequence to outer space and back again, spinning so many plates it can't help but drop a few in the process.

Affleck's Batman is a murderous asshole, but in doing so he recalls my absolute favourite version of the character - and for that, I can't bring myself to hate him or his Bat. It's like Michael Keaton resurgent, with his love of mounted machine guns and smashing people's heads into things. Even better is his Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons, and perhaps my favourite portrayal of the character to date, continuing the Nolan-esque tradition of having Alfred get all the jokes in a Batman movie.

Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman shines in the few sequences in which she appears, the only one of the Trinity who isn't trying to murder a fellow superhero at some point or other. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman don't get much time together, but it's far more exciting to see them team up than it is watching them try to beat each other's faces in.

As one would expect, Zack Snyder has a good eye for the action, making Batman v Superman look gorgeous in spite of the doom and gloom. The opening ten minutes are a masterful (re-ish)introduction to Batman, at last giving us a Thomas Wayne with a moustache followed by a discovery of the Batcave and ground level view of Man of Steel's Metropolis mayhem. His Bat in action is a thing to behold too, even if its a bit too much like watching someone play Arkham Knight at times.

Another of the film's successes is in its nightmare and fantasy sequences, which give us Desert Storm Batman, a bizarre Justice League setup and Pa Kent on a mountaintop, trying to backtrack on his shitty parenting in The Man of Steel. There's a definite concerted effort to grow from the mistakes made in that movie - in fighting Doomsday, Superman does the most Superman thing ever at one point - not least characters constantly talking about how uninhabited the to-be destroyed bits of city are.

As a Batman movie, it's acceptable. As a Superman film, it's almost a complete and utter failure, seeming to misunderstand Superman at best, and actively hate him at worst. But as an Elseworlds tale for a dark and bizarre DC Universe populated by shitheads and reluctant Space Jesuses, it works. It shouldn't - like Luthor's ridiculous jar of piss or bizarro Zod Doomsday plan - but it does.  

Epilogue
Works Like a Jar of Piss.

Who wins when Batman and Superman fight? Certainly not Batman, definitely not Superman and, as an audience, our victory is only Pyrrhic at best (Wonder Woman and Alfred come out of it alright though). Batman v Superman is not a good movie, but it is one I enjoyed nevertheless.

Like watching two nightmare tramps fight each other to the death in an alleyway with bricks, it's curiously compelling and a little bit sad all at the same time..








*More context: movie characters hitting people over the head with bathroom masonry is one of my favourite things ever, so I should theoretically have adored this.

L.A. Slasher/Abducted


DirectorMartin Owen (2015)
StarringMischa Barton (occasionally), Dave Bautista (barely), Eric Roberts (even less)
Find itIMDB

When his daughter (Barton) is kidnapped by Eastern European gangsters, rogue special forces agent Frank Hardcastle (Bautista) is forced to take matters into his own burly, callused hands, breaking necks and taking names (in that order, which unfortunately hampers his investigation quite a bit). Along with ex-colleague, betrayer and eventual cannon fodder Jesus the Goon (Trejo), Hardcastle sets out along the twisted and bloody road of bodies to Roman Casanova (Eric Roberts) the man - and Vice President of the United States of America! - ultimately responsible. Danger, as the tagline promises, awaits.

Nah, I'm just shitting you. Dave Bautista plays a drug dealer and, with Danny Trejo, is in the movie for less than ten minutes. That's more than some, though: Eric Roberts is in precisely one scene. If you bought the DVD of Abducted, rented Abducted, streamed Abducted, stole Abducted (for shame) or watched anything with Abducted in the title, the joke's on you, because Abducted ain't the movie you're getting.

Straight to DVD action fans will in fact be sorely disappointed by the retitled and remarketed L.A. Slasher, which bears precisely nothing in common with the movie promised by the UK DVD case. Cashing in on the recent popularity of Bautista, of Guardians of the Galaxy and Spectre fame, it promises a Taken rip-off which L.A. Slasher couldn't be any less if it tried. Those who tune in wanting to see Dave Bautista stomp some face will not be happy bunnies.


Oh yeah, this thing is totally the same as the other thing.

There is some danger though, so it's not all lies. Pissed off by an endless parade of talentless dimwits becoming famous for their sex tapes and lack of brains, a serial killer begins kidnapping the reality TV stars of L.A. and broadcasting their murders for our satisfaction. And yet, as his star begins to rise, the slasher threatens to become the thing he hates the most: Internet famous.


Martin Owen's  L.A. Slasher is a lurid, hypnotic cross between Drive and Kill Keith - a truly weird slasher film that transcends its limited budget with style, sass, all-star cameos (within reason) and a soundtrack to die for. Its message is outdated by over ten years, and it's not as funny or clever as it should be, but it is a movie that demands one's attention - not to be hidden under a fake name with a mildly perplexed Dave Bautista on the cover.

On that note, I should probably have wrote more than just a paragraph about it, too. Oops.