The Grey

Director: Joe Carnahan (2011)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
Find it: IMDB

So called because of Liam Neeson's increasingly grizzled post-Taken appearance. In The Grey, a plane full of manly men crashes in the middle of Alaska, leaving Ottway (Neeson) and his fellow survivors at the mercy of both this hostile environment and a pack of bloodthirsty wolves.

Re-united after their disappointing A-Team remake, Carnahan and Neeson are on more solid ground here, their existential survivalist thriller whipping along at a nice pace. Plenty of carnage and manly musing make up for the fact that the story is probably bollocks and also quite racist to wolves. Neeson should have taken a leaf out of his A-Teammate and not gotten on no plane (fool).

The plane crash is one of the best I've ever seen. The scenes in which Neeson struggles to make sense of the situation is very reminiscent of the first episode of LOST, except LOST wouldn't have lasted five minutes with Liam Neeson in it. There's an alternate version of LOST somewhere, where Liam Neeson punches The Smoke Monster in the face and brutally murders all of The Others in their very first appearance. Sawyer is a diminished presence in this version of LOST, as Neeson has him and his smart mouth making very good use of Locke's wheelchair. In fact, this alternate version of LOST is mostly Liam Neeson, Sayid, Mister Eko, Desmond and Lawnmower Man all chilling together in the hatch, listening to The Mamas and The Papas and reading literature (Neeson, of course, being Sayid's father-in-law now, as he was there to stop Ana Lucia from shooting Maggie Grace).

Ahem. Anyway, In The Grey, Neeson plays a deeply depressed Irishman who also happens to be an expert wolf hunter. This very particular set of skills (no doubt acquired over a long career) comes in useful when the wolves decide the humans aren't welcome on their land. Nonsense as they might mostly be, (animal lovers and wolf enthusiasts were less than happy at The Grey's depiction of wolves) the wolf attacks are thrilling and gory. It's like The Edge, except with evil wolves instead of an evil bear. The Edge is a slightly better film though, due to the fact that its bear is called Bart. Animal fans will be particularly unimpressed by a scene in which the survivors kill a wolf, eat it and then behead the creature, lobbing it back into the wilderness from whence it came.

There are people who aren't Liam Neeson in The Grey, although they're very thinly drawn and mostly uninteresting. Rather than imbue them with likeable personalities, the film goes down the easy route of having them talk about their loved ones a lot. The wolves barely need to be there though, since the humans do a perfectly fine job of killing themselves without any help from an outside party. Particularly cruel is a scene in which a man manages to drown in a shallow river. The death scenes are all memorable and shocking. The environment adds to the film's effectiveness - I felt chilly just watching The Grey.

The Grey is a well-made, gripping (if slightly portentous) survivalist thriller with Liam Neeson at his badass best. There are no Grey areas (unless you like wolves) - it's a great film.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Director: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor (2011)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Idris Elba, Ciaran Hinds, Johnny Whitworth
Find it: IMDB

Of all the ways 2007's Ghost Rider managed to disappoint, it was in casting Nicolas Cage as a man whose head caught fire all the time that was the biggest disappointment of all. Not because Cage is an inherently bad Johnny Blaze (although he probably is) but mostly because not once did Ghost Rider realise the potential of Nic Cage playing a character whose head catches fire all the time. In Spirit Of Vengeance, not only does Nicolas Cage's head catch fire all the time, but sometimes he shouts things too. HE'S SCRATCHING AT THE DOOR, hothead Cage yells, channelling a spirit not seen since NOT THE BEES or that one movie where he threatens to shoot an old lady for eyeballing his Iguana.

Spirit Of Vengeance is directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who brought us two of my favourite action movies of recent years - the mental Crank films. Spirit Of Vengeance never approaches the craziness of that Statham silliness, but it does have Ghost Rider using his flaming urine as a flamethrower and vomiting hot bullets into an enemy's face.

Set in Eastern Europe, this sort-of-sequel sees Nicolas Cage attempting to hold back the demons within when he is approached by Moreau (Elba) with a tempting proposition: in exchange for finding and protecting a magical macguffin child, he will exorcise Blaze's inner demon. However, the boy is only the bloody antichrist (maybe) and is also pursued by the devil (wearing Ciaran Hinds's body) and an angry gangster with all the powers of 2000ad's Judge Mortis. Not advertised: Giles from Buffy, Idris Elba's atrocious and occasional Irish accent, and Christopher Lambert (!) with scribbles on his face. I was inordinately excited at seeing Christopher Lambert return to the big screen, because Christopher Lambert is awesome.

It's probably good that I'm no Ghost Rider fan, since this film doesn't take the character remotely seriously. Nicolas Cage is essentially playing mad Nicolas Cage - complete with inappropriate screaming, weird bodily tics and terrible hair. As Ghost Rider, the CGI is awful (his flaming head doesn't seem to be connected to his body) but the action scenes have a wonderful punky vibe to them. The extra violence adds an element sorely missing from the previous film, as does all the screaming heavy metal and Nicolas Cage's constant gurning (depending on one's tolerance for Nicolas Cage screaming and gurning). The presence of Idris Elba and Ciaran Hinds should make Spirit Of Vengeance seem classy and worthy, but they actually have the opposite effect.

It's similar in tone and style to Cage's Drive Angry, but somehow less fun. Ghost Rider himself isn't in the film enough (is there a rule that all superhero sequels should have the hero quit at some point?) and the story is utter tosh. Still, it does have Nicolas Cage doing what he does best:

Pulling that face.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I write this review following one week relaxing on the sunny beaches of Kusudasi, in Turkey. As per any beach holiday, some properly trashy beach literature was required. I brought with me I, Partridge (the brilliant Alan Partridge autobiography), Double Dexter (reasonable, but not as good as the telly series) and a William Shatner Star Trek novel. This is not a review of any of those books. As I ran out of reading material, I turned to my lovely ladyfriend's collection of digital books. Enter a sweaty, sordid three days during which I read all three Fifty Shades of Grey books.   

Fifty Shades of Grey makes for incredible holiday reading in that it is complete bollocks (fifty shades of bollocks, in fact). It is to mothers what The Da Vinci Code is to your dad. It lends itself to skim reading because one can skip entire paragraphs pages chapters of the book without losing any sense of what is going on. And the reader's brain only has to put up with but a limited number of words, since EL James just uses the same ones over and over again. I don't think I've ever seen anyone's mouth ever "twist into a line" and yet Mister Grey's does this on practically every other page. Ditto, his ragged breath and Miss Steele's repeated acquiescence.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a book about a student (Anastasia Steele) who, after her tenacious journalist friend (we know she's tenacious because she is described as such many, many times) falls ill, steps in to conduct an interview with mysterious multimillionaire Christian Grey.  She falls over and calls him gay (Fifty Shades of Gay); he sneers at her and acts like a dick. It's a horrible interview; mostly because Ana Steele is a moron and Christian Grey is a cunt.  

But if Twilight has evidenced anything, it's that a large proportion of women swoon for fictional shitty men. They'll lust after the likes of Edward Cullen, Mister Darcy, Sawyer from LOST and Christian Grey whilst at the same time complaining that all men are bastards. If the relationship between Ana and Christian seems very similar to that of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, that's because it literally is the same. Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan-fiction (titled Master of the Universe), with EL James just changing the names for publication. So Team Jacob is now a character called Jose Rodriguez. Mexican is not the same thing as Native American, but "whatever", James thought, "they're both shades (GET IT) of brown." Ana Steele is a little too reluctant to feel like the wet, naturally submissive Bella completely, but James has the lip-biting and falling over down pat. Grey is supposed to seem cool and desirable - but this is undermined by his listening to The Kings of Leon and owning a Fight Club poster. The attempts at pop culture are laughable. As is Grey referring to Ana as 'baby'.

It becomes clear immediately that Christian and Ana are drawn to one another. But Mister Grey has a dark secret: he's into BDSM in a big way, and wants Ana as his 'submissive' rather than his girlfriend. Where most men would realise that you might want to be subtle with that sort of thing (a girl is more likely to let you tie her up if you introduce the idea in a sensitive, charming manner. Or, er, just ask first), Christian saunters into the shop where she works and gets her to sell him some cable ties, rope and duct tape. But Ana is a naive soul thick shit and merely assumes that Grey is doing some decorating. James tells us repeatedly that Ana is a highly intelligent, smart-mouthed character, but her dialogue and actions suggest otherwise. Grey wastes little time in stalking Ana; tracking her phone, having her followed and pretty much kidnapping her at the end of the night. Christian Grey is Bruce Wayne if Bruce had dedicated his life to wanting to fuck his dead mom instead of trying to avenge her. I can imagine Grey's own personal Lucius Fox, sweating away in the basement, fixing up some neat new stalking tools for Grey. Grey actually calls himself a Dark Knight at one point.

Morally (and probably legally) it's a pretty shitty thing to do to, manipulating a girl's obvious crush on you by dictating that the only relationship she can have with you is an abusive one. And so when Ana 'misbehaves', she is violently spanked. But it's fine to hit your partner when she 'misbehaves', because you're doing it in the name of kinky-fuckery. Grey justifies his physical and emotional abuse by saying "Ana, I'm fifty shades of fucked up". I escaped a boring relationship once by pretending to have a mental breakdown. I'm just saying, sometimes describing yourself as "being fucked up" is an easy way to act like a bell-end without repercussions.

Because apparently being "fucked up" (albeit in a tremendously emo way) will justify any errant or abusive behaviour on your part. Ana accepts that Grey is "fucked up" and lets him repeatedly control, beat and humiliate her. We all have to put up with things we don't like in relationships (I once watched The Tourist), but the use of phrases like "fifty shades of fucked up" is a hard limit for me.    

Compromise in this case means Ana doing whatever Grey tells her to do, and him hitting her slightly less. He even consents to let her have vanilla sex when he takes her virginity, because he's all heart, that man. Approximately two things happen in Fifty Shades of Grey, interspersed with a number of softcore sex scenes and some mildly kinky bits of bondage and spanky-panky. Throughout, the pair speak in atrocious dialogue (the whole thing reads like the script of a particularly dire pornography) as Ana converses with her own subconscious and - most irritatingly - her 'inner goddess'. This is a cheap way of showing that Ana secretly likes what Grey does to her and makes little sense. You can't talk to your subconscious, Ana, because it's your fucking subconscious. The whole point of your subconscious is that you can't hear it.

I suspect my subconscious is a bit of a moron, since I find it hard to dislike Fifty Shades of Grey. Make no mistake, it is one of the worst books I have ever read. It's better than Twilight, though. And much better than Pride and Prejudice too. Is it romantic? Not remotely. It is, however, the funniest thing I have read in a long time. I laughed more at Fifty Shades of Grey than I did my Alan Partridge autobiography. The book actually reminded me a lot of The Frightened Woman, without any of that film's arty weirdness.

Still, I'm hardly the target audience. People evidently like this sort of thing, and if that leads to a flush of kinky moms, then I suppose it's a good thing (aside from the fact that Grey is the worst poster boy for any lifestyle, ever). It's no revelation - it's just a crappy piece of erotica with passable sex scenes but a truly terrible story, characters and writing. For all of Christian Grey's fifty shades, I would argue that Ana is equally fucked up. What sort of imbecile, after all, continues to date a man who forbids her from doing as she wishes, dictates when she should eat (Christian's obsession with food is hilarious) and chastises her constantly for biting her lip? The pair deserve one another.