Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame; Warm Bodies; Byzantium; Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa; Dark Skies; Excision; Sabotage

 Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

The charismatic Andy Lau starts as Detective Dee in this historical epic by celebrated Hong Kong director Tsui Hark.

A tale told on a grand scale, we find that Dee is an exiled investigator brought back to the capital on the behest of the imposing first Empress of China, to look into the seemingly supernatural sabotage taking place around the preparations to her crowning celebrations. An immense statue of the Buddha is being constructed at great expense, but after a couple of officials spontaneously combust the workers are spooked and building stops.

The action comes in short bursts, with more emphasis placed on the scale and grandeur of the part real and part CGI sets depicting the China of 689. The film as a whole is undeniably impressive, but the drive for the authentic formalities of the time makes the characters seem cold and hard to relate to. Still, Lau’s charm is undeniable and helps carry you through a film that could otherwise be a bit dry.

Warm Bodies

The undead are fairly ubiquitous in the 21st century, whether it’s the continuing sequels to Romero’s Dead films, Hollywood muscling in with World War Z, or the TV adaptation of the Walking Dead comic book, but few have told their story from the zombie’s point of view.
In this case, Nicholas Hoult’s zombie falls in love with a survivor he encounters when the pack he’s part of stumbles on a raiding party. He saves her life, but takes her back to the airport where many of his kind serve out their undeath.
His thoughts and feelings are conveyed via monologue, seeing as talking is a struggle.

Coincidentally the girl of his dreams (Teresa Palmer as Julie) is the daughter of the leader of the survivors played by John Malkovich, who has a particularly violent view of zombies after the rest of his family was eaten by them.

As a zombie here is the good guy, and the central premise is about the undead regaining their humanity, there needs to be an antagonist that isn’t your normal zombie horde. So we discover that when the dead finally give up any shreds of their humanity they shed their skin and become relentless skeletal monsters. Cue a big old fight at the end where the dead transformed by the spreading power of love fight against these monsters gone too far, to save the humans.

With no jokes, this is the romzom to Shaun of the Dead’s zomromcom, and it suffers a little for it. The whole idea of the zombie ‘outsider’ trying to win over the object of his affection could be an allegory for the classic geek trying to win over high school sweetheart story, except here the male lead basically kidnaps the girl until she comes around, which is a little troubling unless you just see it as a straight up zombie movie, but then you’d have to take the ‘power of love’ element seriously.

Rob Corddry is good as Hoult’s zombie friend and Malkovich is as good as ever in his short snarling role as Julie’s dad.

Divertingly enjoyable, but no great shakes.


Neil Jordan returns to vampires 8 years after directing the adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire, but Byzantium takes us on a different tack from the more traditional vampire stories.

Those cursed with vampirism have a lust for blood, but need to use a talon growing from their thumbnails to get at it. Daylight isn’t a problem (not an original weakness for vampires, rather it's been adopted since Nosferatu) and they can’t change into bats or mist or the likes.

Rather than being part of a global conspiracy or seeking to enlarge their ranks, the vampires seem to comprise of a few secretive men, jealous of their brotherhood which has been interrupted by Gemma Arterton. In the 1800s after various run-ins with arsehole officer Johnny Lee Miller she discovers the secret to vampirism – rowing to a secret island and going inside a stone hut while blood cascades down the mountain – a striking sequence whose fairytale quality is at odds with the squalid present-day setting of a run down seaside town.

The brotherhood is after Arterton for breaking the rules by making her daughter, Saoirse Ronan, a vampire too. On the run they shack up with Daniel Mays’ pathetic hotel owner, and Ronan meets an American boy, Caleb Landry Jones who has a serious illness and works as a waiter. There’s a big showdown and the occasional burst of violence, but it feels that there’s something missing that is needed to pull Byzantium together and avoid the viewer being unsatisfied.

Still, respect to Jordan for trying for a different take on the vampire myth in a time when many studios are content with remaking any old horror classic.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Somehow Alpha Papa manages to overcome the barriers that often restrict successful sitcoms from being translated to the big screen.
When attempting to fill 90 minutes of screen time most shows tend to put the characters into an unrealistic situation that keeps the characters contained but give them a reason to be away from their usual setting – many opting for a holiday scenario (the Inbetweeners is a notably successful exception).

A siege scenario is both totally unlikely for North Norfolk Digital Radio and Alan, but the details of the story ring true, with corporate takeovers and layoffs, and the drama coming off on a distinctly small scale as Alan finds himself in the position of hostage negotiator and the opportunity of rekindling some of his lost fame.

Colm Meaney is great as Pat Farell, the sacked DJ who takes things for a violent turn, and Partridge regulars crop up including Lynn (Felicity Montagu), Michael (Simon Greenall) and Side Kick Simon (Tim Key).

If you like Coogan’s Partridge character at all you won’t be disappointed by Alpha Papa, continuing the mix of acutely observed character comedy (there’s a little of Patrick Bateman in Partridge’s obsession with detail) and sharp lines (‘honesty sporran’).

Dark Skies

Heavily influenced by the amateur camera/CCTV horror of the Paranormal Activity series, Dark Skies sees some weird things start to affect a young, suburban, middle class American family – something is getting in the house without tripping the alarm, rearranging the kitchen, causing their youngest son to sleep walk and then eventually influencing the rest of the family. The mother does some research and thinks she knows what’s going on – her husband is more cynical and finds a paranormal explanation hard to swallow, until presented with firsthand evidence. He sets up cameras around the house; they visit a world-weary expert.

This kind of thing has been done many times before, only it’s aliens rather than ghost or demons that are bothering this family. Retreading old ground is a common tactic in the horror genre, but unfortunately here the film fails to build up any decent tension, the family fail to stand up above their archetypal roles and the threat when it’s finally revealed looks and feels more like something out of a 1990s straight to video effort.



Self consciously kooky without being twee, Excision focuses on the daydreams and delusions of high school student Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) as she fantasises about performing various surgeries and having sex with corpses.

McCord is well used as her model proportions (very tall, skinny) help make for a gangly, ungainly teen with overwrought cheekbones and bad skin and hair. She is a typical geek, shunned at school but loved by her sister Grace (Ariel Winter) who is very much a girly girl, but suffers from cystic fibrosis.
Also, their mother Phyllis (Traci Lords) is overbearing and controlling, desperate for Pauline to just be a ‘normal’ teen.

Alongside a twisted version of the usual American high school tensions and stresses of an uptight family life, Excision is liberally sprinkled with evocative dream sequences where Pauline sees herself as a sexy, lithe version of herself, performing various bloodletting acts from surgery to abortion (on herself).

John Waters pops up in a cameo, and it’s his work that informs the tone here, one of a queasy, small-town Americana and the ugliness under the surface.

A neat little twist at the end breaks the day dream quality and lets the horror into the waking world.


Ridiculous OTT gung-ho action thriller with Arnie as the head of a misfit DEA unit. The unit robs some cash from a cartel, only the money goes missing and then the members of the unit keep turning up dead.

Stupidly macho in an un-ironic way that feels out of place decades after the 80s were over, Sabotage’s DEA crew are all grizzled dudebros with wild hair and tats, drinking gallons of whiskey and taking all the drugs.
Their tight knit ‘family’ swiftly unravels due to infighting over the missing money, and everything’s all a bit fishy.
Sam Worthington’s the only one of the cast who tries to do any acting besides grunts and hoo-rahs, but unfortunately doesn’t quite have the skills to pull it off, losing out to Arnie’s knuckleheaded charm.

Olivia Williams is one of the only good things in the film, as a cynical cop investigating the murders of these agents, but other than her character the film feels largely misogynistic with a miscast Mireille Enos (The Killing; World War Z) playing an addict and party girl who is singled out for vitriolic anger and bloody vengeance due to her betrayal of the group, despite Terrence Howard’s ‘Sugar’ also being involved.

The action is violent and gory but there is no one to root for here, the film’s tone is as beaten and cynical as the characters of Arnie’s John ‘Breacher’ Wharton and William’s Detective Caroline and the whole thing just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.


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