It’s June! Here’s some of the films I watched by using my eyeballs, which sent messages to my brain, in the month of April. Yes, April!
The Borderlands (2013)
UK critic Mark Kermode described The Borderlands as “properly alarming”. It’s okay in patches, largely thanks to some terrific sound design that navigates around the low-budget, delivering chills that outdo most horror films costing three or four times as much. But when the budget’s low for a horror movie, the default fallback seems to be the well-worn “found footage” sub-genre.
Here, the protagonists are Vatican investigators of paranormal activity who’ve been sent to a small church in the British countryside to check out the wild claims of the local vicar. What this means is three guys with cameras attached to their heads, so we see everything from their perspectives.
The film falls victim to what’s now a major irritant with found footage films, and that’s down time. So there’s a lot of sitting around, and checking equipment, interspersed with the occasional jump scare. Distractingly, one of the investigators sounds like (and also looks a bit like) former nineteen-eighties stand up comic, Ben Elton. Then, at the end, the whole thing unravels, with a final scene that had me laughing rather than quaking with fear.
I’ve not seen the 1953 film, Wages of Fear, which shares a French book with Sorcerer, as its, um, source. I probably should, seeing as how the old black and white film is considered a classic. But sometimes it’s better that way, watching a film with no “baggage”, without constantly comparing it to the original that came before it. Even so, some remakes are just genuinely average, whether you’ve seen the original or not.
I’m happy to report that Sorcerer is a genuinely excellent film. It’s set in a hot, grimy, South American hell hole whose economy relies on the oil drilling of an American company 200 miles away. When the oil well explodes, the only way to bung it up, is to blow it up. With dynamite. Trouble is, the dynamite is highly volatile, and needs to be transported the 200 miles across dangerous terrain by four volunteers in two trucks.
That’s pretty much the story. It focuses tightly on the four volunteers, and racks up the tension in numerous ways, the two trucks having to drive across a rope bridge during a thunderstorm being a particularly butt clenching highlight (the poster above should give you some idea). The film is nightmarish, and full of desperation, with men from different walks of life being pushed to their limits in extreme conditions. It’s probably the finest acting performance I’ve seen from the late, and always underrated, Roy Scheider.
How I Live Now (2013)
Like The Hunger Games and Twilight, How I Live Now is based on a young adult novel of the same name. Before you bury your head in your hands in utter dismay, take a step back from your preconception of YA films, and give How I Live Now a chance.
Yes, it’s a love story (see Twilight), yes, it’s set in an apocalyptic world (see The Hunger Games), and yes, Saorise Ronan’s character does get it on with her cousin, which is a bit icky. But looking beyond all that, it’s a beautiful looking film offset by the darker elements of a world that’s going through nuclear war. Like a lot of YA adaptations, it takes itself very seriously. You’ll either see it as another example of teenagers thinking they’re the only ones with problems, or simply be entranced by it’s quiet, understated scenes of a nuclear aftermath. I’m one of the latter, even if it sometimes verges on being a (as coined by Brian Aldiss) “cosy catastrophe”. As ever, the story benefits from a typically strong central performance from Saorise Ronan.
Death Wish 3 (1985)
Death Wish 3 is about as far from the more serious tone of the original Death Wish as you could ever wish for (if you wish for that kind of thing). That film had serious questions to ask. Death Wish 2 was a more straight up revenge thriller. Death Wish 3 evolves (or maybe devolves) further, becoming an insane action romp where gangs of thugs roam the streets like a Broadway dance troupe.
Enter Charles Bronson, visiting an old buddy who, before Bronson can even get to his apartment, has been brutally beaten to death with lengths of chain by a gang of no-good punks. At this stage of the game, Bronson has become a kind of magnet for scumbags. He lands himself in jail early on, where he runs into a local gang leader who takes an instant dislike to him. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s something to do with that wispy moustache that Bronson was always trying to grow throughout his career. Anyhoo, as a parting shot, the gang leader, as he’s released from jail, promises Bronson that he’ll “kill a little old lady, just for you.” Charming!
But it sets the tone. There’s a great bit where Bronson is eating dinner with friends, hears someone breaking into his car outside, excuses himself from the table, then nips out and shoots two scumbags point-blank through the chest. He then heads back inside to finish his dinner like he’d just stepped out for a cigarette break. But even that scene can’t really prepare you for the utter mayhem that is the last half an hour of the film. If, by now, you haven’t realised that Death Wish 3 is pretty far from a serious treatment of the implications of being a vigilante, then you will when Bronson gets out the rocket launcher.
If I learnt one thing, it’s that Bronson “likes chicken” and thinks “chicken is good”. It’s an amazing film, for all the wrong reasons, and the finest comedy of the last thirty years.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)
Which unfortunately brings me to Anchorman 2, which is definitely not the finest comedy of the last thirty years.
The long gap between the original and the sequel obviously hasn’t been taken advantage of to deliver a polished, funny script. Sure, the first one could hardly be called an example of coherent screenwriting. But it worked, getting by on its freewheeling style, and proving to be a film that got better with repeat viewings.
Anchorman 2 expands on some of the best (and worst) scenes of the original, with lots of them outstaying their welcome, especially another street brawl between the various news teams that goes on forever. Although there is one longish stretch of the movie where Ron suffers from a disability that really shouldn’t be funny, but it is. It does, however, play like a sketch that was maybe discarded from the screenplay of a different movie. Everything else is mediocre, adding weight to the fact that the original really is a one-off that should have been left well alone.
File under: crushing disappointment.
Recommendation: just watch the first one again.