The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheExpendables

Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD bought from the Rochester, Kent, branch of Oxfam.
Seen before? Yes, on TV a few years ago.

Review: Featuring a cast of grizzled, ageing action stars, this rather laughable film pays homage to the tough-guy movies of the 1970s and 80s – both top-end fare such as Commando and First Blood, and the kind of exploitation knock-offs like Missing in Action and Invasion USA. It’s headlined by Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the script and directed this first instalment of what became a trilogy. Assisting him are old war horses such as Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Jet Li as they take on Eric Roberts’s bad guy. It’s a midlife-crisis Ocean’s 11, with the comparatively fresh-faced Jason Statham as the Brad Pitt to Stallone’s George Clooney.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s involvement is minimal (just one day’s filming, actually). Early on, lead character Barney Ross (Stallone) is hired for a dangerous mission by a shadowy man known only as Mr Church – so named because that’s where, for some reason, their meeting takes place. Mr Church is played by Bruce Willis, but before he and Ross get down to business they have to wait for the arrival of a third party. Right on cue, Trench Mauser – an old adversary of Ross’s – walks in. Schwarzenegger’s entrance into the scene of course means that the three most famous backers of the restaurant chain Planet Hollywood are in the same room. It’s quite a collision of movie stars, but cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball doesn’t seem keen to frame more than two of them at the same time. (You wonder if Willis shot his coverage separately.)

Quite why Mauser shows up at all is a bit of a mystery. He stays less than two minutes and is happy to let Ross take the gig on offer because he’s too busy to do it himself. When Mr Church wonders why, Ross says, ‘He want to be president.’ This in-joke references the fact that Schwarzenegger was still the 38th Governor of California when this film was made. The US Constitution actually barred him from going one step up the political ladder, because to be President you must have been born in the United States, but Arnie was then lobbying for a change to the law.

Compared to the stories it’s evoking, The Expendables is stunningly lacking in any irony or flair. As violent and harsh as some of those old movies could be, there was often some substance, some self-awareness or a heightened sense of popcorn entertainment. Here, though, we get ludicrous macho posturing; videogame-style fight scenes edited to within an inch of their stunt doubles; a grimy, dour colour palette; and earnest actors taking themselves seriously as they wade through a humourless storyline about mercenaries hired to destabilise a crackpot dictator on a fictional Central American island. An interesting comparison can be made with the rival Fast and Furious series, which also gives us overblown action and tough-guy characters – but does it with a knowing smirk.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Humor was what made me stand out from other action leads like Stallone, [Clint] Eastwood, and [Chuck] Norris. My characters were always a little tongue in cheek, and I always threw in funny one-liners.’

Five half-ass governments out of 10

Next: Commando

Red Heat (1988, Walter Hill)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

RedHeat

Watched: 31 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded it from TV channel 5Spike on 25 March 2019.
Seen before? Once before, on TV a few years ago. I may have also seen it at the time on VHS. I was a huge Schwarzenegger fan as a child so it seems strange if I didn’t watch this one, but I don’t remember specifically.

Review: Director Walter Hill had energised the buddy-movie format a few years earlier with the caustic 48 Hrs, pairing a racist white cop (Nick Nolte) with a motormouth black crook (Eddie Murphy) to entertaining effect. The clash this time is that James Belushi’s underwritten American policeman must work alongside a stoic and humourless Soviet counterpart played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It all feels tired and sluggish.

The film begins with a bizarre prologue, which sees a near-naked Arnie undercover (well, under loincloth) at a sauna. But outside the steamroom, cold-war Moscow is a snowy, harsh, drab place. This makes the contrast all the more effective when events then shift to America: Chicago is vibrant, colourful and scored by some prime James Horner funk-bass and saxophone. It’s a city where violence is never far from the surface and the police are coarse men willing to plant evidence to coerce a confession. Peter Boyle is the frustrated captain, Larry Fishburne an angry lieutenant: good actors going through the motions. Later, Gina Gershon shows up for a perfunctory role as the bad guy’s wife.

The rumours have it that the script was in flux during filming, with several hands at the typewriter, and that sense of messiness is evident in the finished movie, which is both aimless and shallow. The plot – a Russian drugs baron flees to the US, so Arnie’s Captain Ivan Danko gives chase – is simplistic and you never at any point believe in or care for any of the characters. It’s competently filmed in the right-wing, tough-guy mode – wetted-down streets, savage gunfights, police stations full of bored prostitutes being booked – but compare it with 48 Hrs, or the previous year’s slick and smart Lethal Weapon, and Red Heat is dead cold.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Red Heat was a success, grossing $35 million in the States, but it wasn’t the smash I’d expected. Why is hard to guess. It could be that audiences were not ready for Russia, or that my and Jim Belushi’s performances were not funny enough, or that the director didn’t do a good enough job.’

Five sacks of shit lying on the sidewalk out of 10

Next time: Conan the Barbarian

Collateral Damage (2002, Andrew Davis)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

CollateralDamage

Watched: 24 August 2019
Format: Secondhand DVD found in a branch of CEX.
Seen before? No.

Review: The wider world didn’t do this film any favours. It was set to be released in October 2001, but then pushed back because – in the immediate wake of 9/11 – no one was in the mood for a story about terrorist attacks on American soil. By 2002, however, the action-thriller genre was getting a psychologically deeper reboot thanks to The Bourne Identity. In comparison, Collateral Damage feels simplistic and immature.

It’s directed by someone who knows how to put these things together – Andrew Davis, who also made Under Siege and The Fugitive – so it has a certain energy and zip about it. But it’s a cookie-cutter action thriller where American individualism outfoxes foreign aggression, and the lack of any new ideas is a real issue. Essentially a rejigging of the much more nuanced 1994 film Clear and Present Danger (the same kind of plot, bad guys from the same country, even the presence of actor Miguel Sandoval), it sees Arnie star as fireman Gordy Brewer. After witnessing his wife and child being killed in a terrorist explosion, he feels the authorities are not pursuing the perpetrators for political reasons. So he decides – rather implausibly – to travel to Colombia to seek out the terrorists himself.

Maybe it would sing better with a more capable actor in the lead role, but Arnie’s performances have often struggled without a sci-fi or fantasy crutch to prop them up. And here he really feels lacklustre and laboured. At least there are some fun supporting roles, with Elias Koteas, John Turturro and John Leguizamo all working hard to elevate the flat script. The film passes the time but won’t linger in many people’s memories.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Any other year, Collateral Damage would have been exciting, big-budget action entertainment, but after 9/11 it just didn’t work… It felt both irrelevant and painful to watch in light of the actual events.’

Five prison breaks out of 10

Next time: Total Recall

The Villain (1979, Hal Needham)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheVillain

Watched: 17 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded the film from the amazing TV channel Talking Pictures on 3 May 2019.
Seen before? Never. I’d not even heard of it before researching this blog.

Review: Who knew that, early in his film career, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a major role in a comedy Western that mixes the spoofiness of Carry On Cowboy with the physics-defying gags of a Wile E Coyote cartoon? Not me, anyway. This movie’s tone is set up early on: after a lengthy title sequence full of Monument Valley grandeur, we’re introduced to an enigmatic loner played by a game Kirk Douglas. Jack Slade attempts to jump onto the roof of a speeding train… only to miss it and fall flat on his face. This hapless crook then does a deal with a corrupt banker to steal some cash that’s being transported across country by a woman called Charming Jones (Ann-Margret, flirty and funny).

However, she has a protector: a handsome stranger actually called Handsome Stranger, played by a spectacularly miscast Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bulk of the film is episodic nonsense as Slade makes several idiotic attempts to nab the money, often with Charming and Stranger oblivious to what’s going on. Bless him, at this stage of his career all Arnie really had to offer was his body-builder’s physique – and the role of Stranger doesn’t especially need it. His stilted line-readings and charisma vacuum are difficult issues to ignore.

The Villain is directed by stunt expert Hal Needham, who was then in the middle of making assorted Smokey and the Bandits and Cannonball Runs, but this pushes even further into childish humour than any of those movies. There’s slapstick, cartoon absurdity (even a real-life recreation of the paint-a-tunnel-on-a-rock-face gag), lots of awful ‘comedy’ sound effects, an intelligent horse, a sexist ending, and white actors playing Native Americans as if they were from the Midwest. Fun at times but the shallowness doesn’t sustain.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘The name of my character was Handsome Stranger and the rest of the movie was just as lame… The best thing I can say about it is that I improved my horse-riding skills.’

Five runaway horses out of 10

Next time: The Last Stand

Terminator Salvation (2009, McG)

Salvation

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

During a war with sentient machines, John Connor is given a mission to storm the opposition’s headquarters. Meanwhile, a mysterious man can’t remember anything since his own death 15 years earlier…

Main characters:

* Top billed is Christian Bale, playing the third on-screen John Connor we’ve had in this series. (The fourth if you count a cameo of an older version in 2029. The fifth if you count a TV series. More on that later…) After the teen of T2 and the twenty-something of T3, John is now a man of 33 (ie, the age that another idealistic JC was when he was crucified) and is fighting for the human resistance forces in the post-apocalyptic war we’ve been told about since the original movie. It’s a tough, harsh, cold world as the few remaining humans attempt to combat all-powerful metallic overlords. John has yet to reach his destiny position as the movement’s leader, however; here, in 2018, he has superiors whose orders he doesn’t always agree with. When he meets a cyborg with no love for the enemy, Skynet, John is not enamoured but reluctantly joins forces with him to mount a rescue of some humans prisoners. (That’s right, even after his experiences the previous two films, this John Connor finds it hard to believe that a cyborg might be a good guy.) Bale gives a typically po-faced, deadly serious performance, often doing little more than barking his dialogue into a handheld radio. The actor also famously lost his shit on set after the director of photography distracted him during a take. (To be fair to Bale, he later apologised profusely.)

* When we first meet Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), it’s in a prologue set before Judgment Day. He’s on death row after a criminal incident that killed his own brother and some police officers. Soon before his execution he’s persuaded to donate his body to Cyberdyne – the tech company featured in the earlier films. Then, much later, an understandably discombobulated Marcus awakens in a nightmarish future: 15 years have passed, there’s been an apocalypse, the machines have taken over, he’s not aged a day, and he’s very clearly not dead any more. WTF? He soon encounters murderous robots, but is saved by a man called Kyle Reese who says he’s a member of the human resistance… Then, after a big action sequence that should have killed Marcus, we learn that he is actually a cyborg. (He’s more shocked by this spectacularly obvious ‘plot twist’ than we are.) Turns out, he was built by Skynet to be an agent who could unknowingly infiltrate the resistance and get close to its figurehead, John Connor. Having met John, what does the cyborg Marcus do? Does he assassinate him? Take him prisoner? No, he’s so outraged by what’s been done to him that he agrees to help John defeat Skynet… Did the IT boffins not see that one coming?! Worthington is nominally this film’s lead actor, and in fact there are rumours that initially Marcus was the POV character throughout. (Then Christian Bale was hired, necessitating a swelling of John Connor’s role. Before that, Connor had been a cameo.) But the actor plays the part too tough-guy for us to care much about him.

* Kyle Reese is, of course, younger than when we knew him in the original Terminator movie. He hasn’t yet travelled back to 1984, he hasn’t heard of Sarah Connor, and he hasn’t even met John Connor. Young and impulsive – and just a bit cynical – he constitutes the LA branch of the resistance. He gets to wheel out one of the franchise’s key lines of dialogue – ‘Come with me if you want to live…’ – but is later captured by the machine forces, which provides John (who knows Kyle will one day go back in time and be his father) with the motivation to rescue Skynet’s human hostages. Kyle is played by Anton Yelchin, who fails to remind us of Michael Biehn’s original in any way beyond having the same name.

* Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) is a resistance pilot who crashes near Marcus after a big action sequence, so he helps her disentangle from her parachute cables. As he has knowledge about Skynet’s forces, she takes him to see her boss John Connor… Blair is certainly a sexy character, and it’s not a bad performance, but she’s a perfunctory role. She’s just there to move Marcus from plot point to plot point.

Other characters:
* Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) is the woman who comes to Marcus’s prison cell in 2003 and gets him to sign away his body to Cyberdyne. He twigs that she’s a cancer suffering whose time is running out. Later, in 2018, Skynet’s AI mainframe uses her likeness when talking to Marcus.
* General Hugh Ashdown, played by the dependably gruff Michael Ironside, is a resistance bigwig who clashes with the impetuous John.
* John’s wife and confidant, Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard), is no longer the vet we met in Terminator 3. Now she’s shifted to human medicine, all the better for fixing up war casualties. She’s also pregnant. Despite a new actress, she’s still a fairly boring character who only really exists on the periphery of the plot.
* Barnes, played by rapper Common, is one of John’s lieutenants.
* Sarah Connor’s voice is heard when John plays some of the cassettes of advice she made for him in the 1980s. Linda Hamilton returned to rerecord the lines so that new inelegant information could be crowbarred in. (‘This is tape number 28. It’s Sarah Connor to my son, John’).
* Star (Jadagrace Berry) is a mute child who hangs out with Kyle. She seems to have psychic powers of some kind – or maybe just an uncanny sixth sense.

Where: The prologue takes place in Longview State Correctional Facility. When we cut to the future the events range across California – taking in both LA and San Fransisco. John also has a diversion out to sea, because the resistance’s headquarters are housed on board a submarine (cute idea). When on land, Terminator Salvation’s vision of a nuclear-winter West Coast amounts to either dusty, arid scrub and deserted highways, or bland, bombed-out ruins of cities. Other than the obvious broad strokes, the locations and production design do little to texture the story.

When: The opening scene is set in 2003 – so before the events depicted in Terminator 3. The bulk of the movie is then in 2018, which is some years after Judgment Day in this new Terminator timeline. At one point, Marcus says he was born on 22 August 1975, making him 28 in the prison scene.

I’ll be back: Partly because he was then the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was not directly involved in this fourth Terminator movie. So here his famous catchphrase is instead said by John Connor before he leaves for a mission. Schwarzenegger does, however, still have a hefty presence in the film. Making use of CG technology that was then quite new and is now becoming a cliche, we see a T-800 burst out of a metallic booth and attack John. It looks exactly (well, nearly exactly) like a 1984 Arnie and the incidental music clangs heavy with the famous old Terminator cue. It’s a remarkably impressive visual effect, and the scene does actually make plot sense too as John has stumbled across the T-800 development lab.

Spin-off: In the year before Terminator Salvation’s release, a TV off-shoot called The Sarah Connor Chronicles had begun airing. Starring Lena Headey as Sarah and Thomas Dekker as John, it was a sequel to the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in other words, it ignored Terminator 3 and created *yet another* alternate timeline). The story saw Sarah, John and a reprogrammed Terminator protector (Summer Glau) evading Skynet agents sent from the future while attempting to avert the coming apocalypse. After a fun-enough start, the series soon lost its lustre and was axed after 31 episodes across two seasons.

Review: It seems that eras tend to get the Terminator film they deserve. In 1984, cinema was in the wake of visionary and impactful science-fiction movies like Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner; it was also the golden age of slashers such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. So therefore James Cameron’s original Terminator blended the two genres, creating something as smart as it was stylish; as downbeat as it was intense; as much a horror film as it is a sci-fi. Seven years later and the world had moved on. Hollywood budgets had grown, as had the digital technology available to filmmakers, so Terminator 2: Judgment Day added huge spectacle, revolutionary CGI and 1990s confidence to the mix. By the time the series reached Salvation, cinema had evolved again. The noughties saw a rush of sequels and reboots that took their subject matters more seriously than previous incarnations – see for example 2005’s Batman Begins (with Christian Bale), 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek (with Anton Yelchin). Terminator Salvation nominally does the same trick as those films, but what it lacks in comparison is dynamism. The best of that era’s series relaunches tell their stories with pace and style and just the right amount of character complexity. They’re also often *fun*, even while being much less frivolous than, say, Batman Forever or Moonraker. But Salvation is a dour, drab and depressingly straight-ahead film. It has a grimy and colourless visual palette, which is at least in keeping with the shallow characters, broad-stroke emotions and functional plotting. There’s no *heart* to any of it. This is also very much a sci-fi war film, overloaded with bombastic action (admittedly including some fun long takes) and Terminator tech that feels like it’s been cut-and-paste from another noughties reboot: 2007’s Transformers movie.

Five two-day-old coyotes out of 10

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P Cosmatos)

RamboFirstBloodPartII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

War veteran John Rambo is coerced into a dangerous mission, one which involves returning to Vietnam…

What does Stallone do? In the early 1980s, James Cameron – then known as a behind-the-scenes boffin who’d directed a dreadful B-movie called Piranha 2: The Spawning – was offered two writing assignments on the same day. Needing money, he accepted them both, so was working on a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien at the same time as a draft for a follow-up to the Rambo film First Blood. When he then had to shift focus to his own film The Terminator (1984), Sylvester Stallone took over the First Blood sequel script and made several changes. He removed a techy sidekick character, he beefed up the action, and he underlined the political subtext with some cloying dialogue about patriotism. Although George P Cosmatos is the credited director of the movie, the rumour mill says that Stallone was the real power on set… When we check in with John Rambo (Stallone) a few years after the events of his debut film, we find him breaking rocks in a prison camp. But his old mentor, Colonel Trautman, then offers him a way of cutting short the sentence. Despite the Vietnam War having been over for a decade, it’s rumoured that Americans are still being held there as prisoners of war – and Rambo is required for a covert reconnaissance mission. Parachuting into the jungle, he soon finds an illicit camp and confirms that POWs are in fact there. But despite being on a recce only, he can’t resist helping one of the Americans escape. Things go badly, however, and both men are captured. Rambo is tortured but escapes, then tools-up for a one-man assault on the compound…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up at Rambo’s prison and tells him his name has been selected by a computer as the ideal man for a dangerous mission. That’s right: the powers-that-be want to arm a war vet with PTSD and return him to Vietnam. ‘Do we get to win this time?’ deadpans Rambo. While John is on his mission, Trautman butts heads with the guy running it…
* Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier) is the arrogant bureaucrat in charge of the op in southeast Asia. He has lots of fancy computers, but no compassion or decency; to him, this is just a box-ticking exercise. When John finds the prisoners, Murdock abruptly aborts his extraction and the sordid truth comes out: the mission was always intended to fail, so money could therefore be saved by not committing to any rescue attempts. Napier is sufficiently weaselly in the role.
* Ericson (Martin Kove from The Karate Kid) is one of Murdock’s lackeys, who acts like a Mafia boss’s bodyguard. He also flies the plane when Rambo is dropped into ‘Nam. Another goon is Lifer (Steve Williams), a perma-sunglassed prick who pulls a gun on Trautman at one point.
* Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) is Rambo’s in-country contact. She helps him cross the jungle and later poses as a prostitute so she can sneak into the enemy camp and rescue him. As often happens in these kinds of films, we’re first told the character’s name in a gender-neutral way so Rambo assumes he’ll be meeting up with a man rather than a hot 20-something woman. Nickson and Stallone have virtually no connection at all in their scenes – it’s like the actors have never met before – and Co-Bao is a nothing character.
* Lt Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) is a sadistic Russian military type, who arrives in the camp after Rambo’s capture and tortures him for information. The hammy Berkoff had recently played a not dissimilar character in the James Bond film Octopussy (1983).

Key scene: One of the few subtle moments of this movie comes when Rambo breaks an American called Banks (Andy Wood) out of the POW camp. Banks is weak and thin and has clearly been through hell. He asks Rambo what year it is and looks devastated to learn he’s been in captivity so long… The notion that Americans assumed to have died during the Vietnam War were actually being held as POWs was a live political issue in the mid-80s. Given the sheer number of servicemen whose remains were unaccounted for, a lot of people believed the Viet Cong had captured them and were keeping them alive. Subsequent governmental reports, however, concluded that there’s no compelling evidence for the notion being true.

Review: Sometimes a movie’s sequels drift off-topic to such a degree that the series takes on a new reputation. The first Fast and Furious film had none of the cartoon action and Bond-style supervillains of later films, for example. The opening Carry On was a gentle, innuendo-light comedy. The original Friday the 13th doesn’t even have Jason Voorhees in it, let alone a hockey mask. Well, here the stripped-down economy and social satire of First Blood has been abandoned and we’re into the stuff that came to typify the Rambo brand. Part II is a dumb, on-the-nose, right-wing, tough-guy war movie. You half expect Chuck Norris to wander in at any point. When the scenes aren’t dominated by gunplay, stabbings, explosions and nameless foreigners being killed, the drama is patience-testingly basic and empty. In the plus column, composer Jerry Goldsmith and cinematographer Jack Cardiff – classy men with many films of a *much* higher quality on their CVs – are working very hard to lift the material. So it’s not total preposterousness. But it’s not far off.

Five rocket launchers out of 10

Next: Rocky IV

Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Aquaman

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having joined Batman, Wonder Woman and others in saving the world, Aquaman is now a famous superhero, but he’d rather live a quiet life. Then a woman from the undersea realm of his ancestors arrives and asks for his help…

Good guys: After a cameo in Batman vs Superman (2016), Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) was properly introduced in 2017’s superhero mash-up movie Justice League. (Was he called Arthur in that film?! Honestly can’t remember.) He’s played again by Jason Momoa, who enjoys highlighting the character’s flippancy, sarcasm and reluctance to be a superhero. All this lightness helps distract you from the fact that, aside from a minor subplot about his mother, Arthur has no journey or emotional resonance in this story at all. He drifts through the film, being reasonably entertaining but rarely trying to achieve or learn anything. The film begins with a 1980s-set prologue showing us how Arthur’s parents – a stranded mermaid-type called Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a laid-back lighthouse-keeper called Thomas (Temuera Morrison) – met, fell in love and had a child. It’s a lightly sketched sequence that isn’t too concerned with nuance or texture. In just a few minutes we race through a mini-episode that’s kinda reminiscent of 80s romcom Splash… if, you know, Splash had contained a 25-second shot showing its heroine beating up an invading force of mermen. The sequence then ends with Atlanna being taken away by some goons, back to her oceanic home of Atlantis… In the present day, Arthur is a grown man (a very grown man; seriously, check out his pecks!) but it seems he would rather forget his stint as a world-saving metahuman in the previous film. Then a hot, redheaded woman from Atlantis called Y’Mera Xebella Challa, mercifully aka Mera, shows up and he’s convinced to leap into superhero action again. She’s played by Amber Heard, who’s actually quite watchable despite bucketfuls of woeful dialogue and a character without much personality. Arthur’s help is needed in Atlantis, where Atlanna’s other son has taken control. He wants to combine the seven underwater kingdoms into one force, be ordained ‘ocean master’, become the commander of the greatest military might on the planet, and wage war on the land-based nations. But because Arthur is of royal blood and is Atlanna’s first-born he can challenge his half-brother to the throne. After Atlantean forces launch attacks on the countries of the world, using tsunami to fling battleships and garbage onto shorelines, Arthur and Mera head down into the depths, where Arthur challenges his brother to a ritualistic combat. The film then goes through several genre-movie clichés: fights and chases, cryptic messages and quests, MacGuffins and globetrotting locations, CGI environments and CGI monsters, a sibling rivalry between two men who have never met before and bullshit backstories explained with a straight face… While all this is going on, we also see flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood, where he was trained in the ways of the Atlanteans by a kind mentor type called Nuidis Vulko (a bored Willem Defoe), who also tells him that his mother was executed after she returned to Atlantis. Vulko is still around in the present-day scenes too.

Bad guys: The initial foe for Arthur is a high-tech pirate called David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who we meet while he’s attempting to steal a nuclear submarine. During the heist, though, Aquaman shows up, bests him, and cruelly refuses to save Kane’s father when he’s trapped under a heavy torpedo in a flooding room. So, now with a grudge against Arthur, Kane skulks off to the guy who’d hired him… who happens to be Arthur’s despotic half-brother, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson, looking so rubbery under the post-production effect of being underwater all the time that he may as well be 100-per-cent CGI). He’s the boss of Atlantis and bobs around his undersea realm in a shiny suit of armour and Aryan hair. ‘The time has come to rise again!’ he says, movie-villain-generically. The culture he wants to dominate is one of those fictional worlds that makes such little sense that you question if *any* thought went into creating it. How can the Atlanteans talk underwater? Why do they speak English? Why do they wear clothes? Why can some people breathe oxygen and others can’t? How have they forged metal underwater? Why has evolution given them arms and legs? And hair? Where does all the light come from at the bottom of the ocean? It’s impossible to take  these scenes seriously. Anyway, Mera’s dad is often by Orm’s side – he’s called Nereus, is played by Dolph Lundgren (no, honestly), and mostly just stands– I mean, swims around saying doomladen things. Later, Kane returns to the story: he suits up in elaborate scuba gear that makes him look like a manta ray, so adopts the superhero-villain name of Black Manta and attempts to get revenge on Aquaman. 

Other guys: There are a host of forgettable characters around the coastline of the story – creatures from other undersea realms who presumably have detailed backstories and personalities that were worked out in story conferences and workshopped in rehearsals but then don’t translate at all into interesting on-screen storytelling. We won’t waste time cataloguing them here.

Best bits:
* Having been taken into Thomas’s home, Atlanna is spooked by a TV playing the title sequence to puppet show Stingray – so she chucks her trident at the screen.
* As a child, Arthur is threatened by some bullies at an aquarium – then they realise the shark in the nearby tank is attempting to smash the glass in order to protect Arthur. All the other life in the tank assembles behind him too, like a gang backing up its leader. (It hardly makes any sense, and the moment – like all moments of drama in this film – is rushed through as quickly as possible, but it’s a decent image.)
* David Kane is a fun bad guy. The sequence that introduces him – as he and his dad storm a submarine – is well shot and works nicely as a character introduction. ‘I’ll do you deal,’ he tells the captured captain of the sub. ‘I won’t tell you how to captain, and you don’t tell me how to pirate.’ There’s sadly then a really awful beat as – right in the middle of taking over a submarine! – Kane’s father decides to pause, give David a family heirloom and impart some parental homilies. It’s almost like he knows he’s not to survive much longer.
* Aquaman shows up! ‘Permission to come aboard,’ he says over his shoulder like he’s in a James Bond film. He then starts beating people up in gleefully cartoony ways.
* Aquaman has a drink in a bar with his dad. A huge, scary, tattooed man aggressively interrupts – ‘Are you that fish boy from the TV?’ – and it seems like a fight will ensue… But the guy just wants a selfie because Aquaman is famous! High-larious.
* The flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood training with Vulko feature an exceedingly irritating child actor giving a wide-eyed performance, but the film actually cuts between the past and the present with a bit of flair.
* It’s quite funny when, in the midst of all the pretentious portent of the Atlantean realm, Arthur is frustrated to learn that he must fight Orm in front of thousands of onlookers. ‘Shit,’ he says to himself.
* Arthur and Mera are in a sportscar-like submersible, being chased by Orm’s henchmen. ‘Heads up, we’ve got a bogey on our six!’ he says. Mera: ‘What does that even mean?!’ Arthur: ‘Bad guys behind us.’ Mera: ‘Well, just say that!’ Arthur, in a high-pitched voice because he’s worried: ‘Bad guys behind us!’ (Momoa and Heard are a pretty good double act. They deserve a much better script.)
* Kane gets an A-Team-style montage as he builds his Black Manta cybersuit, complete with a Depeche Mode song on the soundtrack.
* Needing water to kickstart an ancient hologram machine that they’ve found buried under the Sahara, Mera uses her magical powers to delicately extract a drop of moisture from Arthur’s forehead. ‘Could have just peed on it,’ he later says.
* Hanging out in a picturesque square in Sicily, Mera eats some flowers (because being an ocean-dwelling isolationist means she doesn’t know what they are, I guess).
* Black Manta’s armoured suit looks both cool and ridiculous at the same time.
* Some of the action sequence in Sicily is quite exciting: Mera running across slated rooftops, Manta crashing through walls, that kind of thing. (It’s such an action-movie cliché, though, isn’t it? Characters visit a Mediterranean country? Gotta run across the rooftops! See The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Quantum of Solace, Taken, Skyfall…)
* Mera smashes the facemask of a Atlantean bad guy’s helmet while they fight on dry land. As he can’t breath without the water that’s now drained away, he solves the problem by… plunging his face into a nearby toilet. (Aquaman is basically a kids’ film tarted up with a blockbuster budget.)
* Arthur’s mum is still alive! I did not see that coming when they cast a really famous actress for what seemed quite a small role! She’s been hiding out all alone for several years in an uncharted area of sea near the centre of the planet (I think), so is this film’s equivalent of Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s Michelle Pfeiffer.

Review: One of the most important elements of any film is its tone. Get your tone wrong or a bit off or inconsistent, and you’re sunk. While watching Aquaman – the sixth film in the extremely variable DC Extended Universe series – you start to feel like the filmmakers have approached this issue by attempting 17 different tones all at once. The movie is occasionally so portentously po-faced that you can’t help but giggle (‘You wield our mother’s trident. Powerful, but flawed. Like her. I wield my father’s and it has never known defeat!’). Other times, there’s actually a sweetness and a charm about the characters. Elsewhere, it’s a slapstick comedy, a bombastic action movie or a collection of filler scenes from a computer game. It’s a terrible film. It really is. And it’s not just that it can’t decide on a unified mood; other faults keep piling up too: the dialogue that’s so awful it could have been written by someone who’s never heard human beings speak, the drama scenes done as swiftly and perfunctorily as possible, the self-important characters impossible to find interesting, the fight scenes that lack any impact or consequence, the musical score than hammers home every single point imaginable, the over-reliance on sudden explosions as a way of ramping up the tension, the final third that just becomes white-noise of meaningless action… However… Because the film contains some attempts at humour, and because we get two half-decent actors in the main roles, it is more diverting and slightly more enjoyable than most of the previous movies in the DC series.

Five drumming octopuses out of 10

I Confess (1953, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Will a priest break his sacred vow when he’s accused of a murder committed by one of his flock?

Filmed in black-and-white, often on real locations in Canada, I Confess has a low-key feel. Lauded at the time of its release by New Wave critics in France, who swooned over its film-noir aesthetic, it now comes off as a bit artificial. This is an undemonstrative film, which lacks the usual Hitchcock X factor.

The incident that ignites the slow-burn plot is the death of a dodgy lawyer called Villette. Soon afterwards, the German immigrant who tends to his garden, Otto Keller, asks to speak to the local Catholic priest. Father Michael Logan takes Keller’s confession and is shaken when the man admits that he’s accidentally killed his employer. Due to the priestly oath of the confessional box, however, Logan cannot reveal this information to anyone. And that becomes a major problem when, due to circumstantial evidence, the police suspect that Logan may be a murderer. He’s eventually put on trial but still refuses to speak, even though it may lead to his conviction…

The priest is played by Montgomery Clift, who gives a decidedly un-Hitchcockian performance. Introverted and quiet, he underplays everything to such a degree that it’s questionable whether it still counts as acting. Clift was a pioneer of the Method school, an acting technique that’s been called the ‘art of experiencing’ (rather than pretending to experience something), and he employed it in Hollywood before the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Clift, you do get a sense of the character’s turmoil. But he mostly remains a distant figure. Compared with the emotional weight on the shoulders of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, and Logan seems bland and unsympathetic. Hitchcock certainly didn’t enjoy working with an actor, who didn’t respond well to direction and required multiple takes. ‘Too obscure,’ was his pithy assessment.

The director also objected to having to use Anne Baxter as Father Logan’s old squeeze, Ruth, who’s now married to a politician and was being blackmailed by Villette. (The backstory of Logan and Ruth’s relationship is revealed in a long, overly romantic flashback – one of the odder sequences in Hitchcock’s canon.) Swedish actress Anita Björk was initially cast in the role but then let go due to a minor scandal, so Baxter was a last-minute, studio-suggested replacement and Hitchcock thought she was miscast. (Perhaps he got on better with Keller actor OE Hasse, who began his career with a small role in the German classic The Last Laugh (1924) – a film that the young Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed being made while working at a studio in Potsdam.)

But whatever the respective merits of the actors, they’re fighting a losing battle in I Confess. All great Hitchcock films are told from specific points of view. In Psycho, for example, we follow Marion Crane; in Dial M for Murder, we spend the bulk of the story with would-be killer Tony Wendice; in Rebecca, the unnamed female lead is our eyes and ears. Movies don’t have to stick to just one character – Psycho, of course, switches perspective after its most famous scene – but I Confess goes too far in the other direction. We flit about all over the place, at various points experiencing the story via Logan, Keller, Keller’s wife, Ruth and Karl Malden’s classily played Inspector Larrue. There’s no fluidity to these switches and therefore we never really empathise with anyone too deeply.

Another issue is the key fact that the movie is built on a theological quandary, which obviously will have differing levels of resonance for different viewers. Hitchcock himself summed up the issue when he said, ‘We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists and the agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”’ Perhaps. However, the script and its treatment seem to *assume* the viewer will care about Logan’s plight, rather than justifying it. After all, stripped of its religious implications, this is a story of man protecting a selfish killer.

The plot then concludes with a tacked-on chase scene and a convenient climax as Keller’s guilt is revealed. But the resolution lacks any punch or grace. At least lessons were learnt: almost every aspect of the movie – the noir-ist photography, the vérité locations, a decent man being accused of a crime and reacting stoically, the stroke-of-fate ending – would be repeated by Hitchcock three years later, in the much more interesting, entertaining and powerful The Wrong Man.

Five men walking down the street out of 10

Easy Virtue (1928, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

The Paradine Case (1947)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a barrister takes on the case of a woman accused of killing her husband, he begins to fall for her – will it compromise her chances of acquittal?

The rumour is that Hitchcock only made this film to fulfil his contract with famed Hollywood producer David O Selznick, the man who’d first brought him to America. The partnership had produced at least one classic of cinema – 1946’s Notorious – but Hitch was feeling hidebound and wanted free of a producer who was all-too-keen to put his own stamp on each film. (Selznick’s name is egotistically all over The Paradine Case’s credits, even going as far as introducing two of the actors as ‘new Selznick Stars’.) Leading man Gregory Peck later said that Hitch had seemed bored with the material, and that’s not hard to believe. It’s one of his most flatly orthodox movies.

London, 1946. A wealthy widow called Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, who’s lit like a movie star but has little of the sparkle) is arrested for the murder of her husband, an older, blind man. She’s a frosty, calm, reserved woman, but when hotshot barrister Tony Keane (Peck) is hired to represent her, he can’t help falling under her spell. This causes tensions in his marriage, with wife Gay (Ann Todd) feeling increasingly sidelined and ignored…

A big problem is that neither the script nor the performances ever convince you why Tony is so infatuated with Mrs Paradine. Peck is fine enough as the blinkered barrister, but Italian actress Alida Valli – credited as simply Valli as a marketing gimmick – is too cold, too aloof, too drab to generate much interest as the defendant. (Hitch had wanted to cast Greta Garbo, but she turned it down. Hedy Lamarr and Notorious’s Ingrid Bergman were also considered.) It’s also – it must be said – a rather boring, two-suspect case. Mrs P is accused of poisoning her husband, perhaps as an act of mercy because he was unhappy with being blind. The only other person who could’ve done it is the man’s valet, a French Canadian called André Latour. Given that Tony is desperate to prove his client’s innocence, he travels to the Paradines’ Cumberland holt to meet Latour (future Bond villain and future Dracula Louis Jourdan, all brooding and intense). The valet acts suspiciously and evasively, then snaps and tells Tony that Mrs Paradine is evil.

Then, after an hour, we enter the courtroom section of the movie. We’re in the Old Bailey – still bomb-damaged after the war – so it’s a world of wigs and gowns and people sitting in place, rather than suited American lawyers Perry Mason-ing all over the place. A haughty Charles Laughton is the judge; Hitchcock regular Leo G Carroll is the prosecution lawyer. Gay Keane sits in the gallery with a friend helpfully spelling out what each story beat means. But despite Mrs P being the accused, Tony has by now gone overboard in love with her, so the scenes play more like *Latour* is on trial. Tony harangues him in the witness box, to such a degree that during a recess in the trial Latour kills himself with shame.

Courtroom stories always have built-in drama; they’re difficult things to make boring. And The Paradine Case has its fair share of legalese, barristers’ objections, semantic bickering, shock reveals and the judge intervening. But the earlier sections of the film haven’t set up the second half well enough. So when the news of Latour’s death hits Mrs Paradine hard, and she admits that she’s guilty, and that Latour was her lover, and that she hates Tony for what he’s done, it has nowhere near the punch it should have.

Five men carrying a cello out of 10