Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

There are two films called Assault on Precinct 13. There’s the 2005 remake and the much better 1976 original that was written and directed by John Carpenter.

This film opens with a police ambush in which a number of gang members are killed. The gang members, being a less than stable bunch, make a blood pact with each other to take revenge. This, after a few detours, leads them to lay siege on Anderson police station — an isolated and lightly staffed station that is due to be closed down the following morning.

And it has to be said that plausibly generating this sense of isolation in the middle of a city like Los Angeles really is an incredible feat on the part of John Carpenter.

There isn’t a lot to the script, but there doesn’t need to be. The sight of a small group of people — a policeman, a couple of criminals, a secretary and a phone operator — trapped and isolated is both gripping and horrific. This is heightened by Carpenter’s score which is deeply unsettling in itself.

As a thriller, Assault on Precinct 13 is as good a demonstration of what this genre is capable as any, and it’s effective today as it ever was. Full of fear, tension and desperation, the film is both unrelenting and utterly gripping as we watch the main characters struggling to cope with the carnage around them and the hopelessness of their situation.

Assault on Pricing 13 is a memorably gripping and genuinely nail biting 90 minutes.

Tremors

There are films that can can really challenge you, that can force you to reconsider your prejudices and make you look at the world differently. And then there are films about sand-worms in Nevada.

Tremors is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be and exactly what it is. It’s a film that knows exactly what it’s audience wants, and it manages to meet and then exceed all expectations.

The plot revolves around Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward), a pair of odd-job men living and working in and around the desert town of Perfection. Inevitably enough, when they finally manage to pull together the motivation to leave their dead-end lives and head for the city, corpses start to crop up here, there and everywhere.

Of course, they head back to warn the town’s population that there is a murderer on the loose. Then discover that they are no longer able to leave…

Tremors is generally described as a comedy-horror, which is not entirely true. It is very much a horror film, in which a small population finds themselves stranded an facing an unseen menace. It is also, however, a very self-aware film and it’s this self-awareness allows for humorous touches to be included without totally ruining the atmosphere.

At heart, Tremors is an homage to the monster movies of the 1950s. It’s funny, frightening and superbly suspenseful and, unlike many homages, it manages to avoid slipping into parody and, if anything, this film improves on those films that inspired it.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are superbly sympathetic as the none too bright handymen, and this true of the whole cast. The screenwriters have clearly made an effort to ensure that all of the characters — even the survivalist couple — are both well-rounded and sympathetic.

As for the monsters themselves, these are superbly realised and their underground nature gives them the same sense of pervasive menace that Spielberg achieved so effectively in Jaws.

Tremors is a cheerfully scary monster movie, one that relies on characterisation and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat, and it’s a film that is well worth revisiting.

Dog Soldiers

A squad of British soldiers are sent on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands, where they discover that werewolves are all too real. Carnage ensues.

That’s really all you need to know about Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers and while I wouldn’t accuse it of being an exploitation film, it does share that sensibility. The premise is set up very quickly and it’s not long at all before we are right into the action.

The other thing that struck me when re-watching this film was just how closely it channels Night of the Living Dead. The squaddies, stuck in the open and facing a pack of werewolves, are rescued by Megan (Emma Cleasby) a zoologist who has some idea of what is going along. She takes the soldiers, along with the lone survivor of a Special Ops squad (the werewolves have been busy) to a remote farmhouse — the only place they can get to before the beasts come out in force.

And there we have it. A small, and divided, group of people barricaded in a remote building trying to hold off the horrors outside while undermined by their own conflicts.

Dog Soldiers is a superb action-horror film, gripping from beginning to end, and packed with edge of your seat moments. It’s also proof that, for this type of film at least, werewolves are much better monsters than zombies.

Compared to zombies, werewolves are faster, smarter, more vicious and a much more plausible predator. If you want a monster that’s really out to get your heroes, Neil Marshall very effectively demonstrates that werewolves are the way to go.

Anna

You have to give Luc Besson his due, he certainly knows his way around an action scene.

Starring in this collection of action scenes we have Anna, a struggling young woman who finds herself coerced into becoming an assassin; looking for a way out while coldly executing a series of targets. There’s nothing new in here, but it’s all competently handled and, if a stylish action film is what you are looking for, Anna certainly won’t disappoint.

The film starts in 1985 and then jumps forward to 1990 where we meet our heroine, working in a Moscow market. It’s here that a scout for a Paris modeling agency discovers her and convinces her that fashion modelling is the career for her. Things go swimmingly until she executes an arms dealer, at which point the film jumps back to explain why.

This happens a lot. Things happen, after which we jump back for an explanation of the events, all of which makes for a nicely twisty plot in which each twist reveals a further plot thread.

This is certainly well handled, with Besson keeping the narrative clear throughout while also managing to insert minor details, the relevance of which is later revealed.

If you’ve seen Besson’s previous films — most notably La Femme Nikita — then you’ve already seen most of this story. That said, Besson’s take on the femme fatale offers a few twists that you don’t necessarily see coming.

It’s certainly not a bad film, but it’s not a great one either. You you fancy a blood-spattered, cold-war spy thriller then you could do a lot worse than seeing this one. If you don’t, you haven’t really missed anything either.

Dune

I first read Dune way back in the mists of time when I was still a teenager and, for a long time, I would have counted this as my all-time favourite science fiction novel. In fact, it wasn’t until I discovered Iain M. Banks that I began to adjust my opinion. Even now, though, Dune rates as one of the best novels I have read.

While I was more than a little disappointed by David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, I never learn and the news that Denis Villeneuve was going to have a go filled me with optimism.

And now the trailer has been released and it certainly looks suitably spectacular.

A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, “Dune” tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence — a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential-only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

Frank Herbert’s novel influenced innumerable books, films and TV series — not least of which was Star Wars — and the trailer certainly captures the epic scale of the source. Whether Villeneuve has also managed to tell the dense and complex story about politics, ecology and the future of humanity remains to be seen.

And it will be seen, because this is one film that I will be rushing out to see as soon as it’s released.

The Rebel

Hancock’s Half Hour started out in 1954 as a radio comedy before transferring to TV. The series starred Tony Hancock as Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock, the perpetually frustrated resident of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. The series was notable for abandoning the traditional variety format used for comedies of the time and pioneering the sitcom. Written by Galton and Simpson, the series was hugely influential and remains funny to this day.

In 1961, The Rebel was released. The film was written by Galton and Simpson and starred Tony Hancock as Anthony Hancock, a perpetually frustrated office drone with artistic ambitions that significantly exceed his ability.

After multiple setbacks, Hancock decides to quit his job and head to Paris where his art will be appreciated.

Hancock may lack talent, but he can bluster with the best of them and it’s not long before his arrant nonsense is mistaken for artistic genius. And then things start to get out of hand…

The Rebel probably isn’t the first film to portray the desire of an individual to break the shackles of conformity, but it does manage to both embrace and mock this tradition. Hancock never allows himself to stop and reflect on either his lack of talent or his inability to dedicate himself to his ambitions because, if he did so, he would be forced to face the same despair he shows in the opening scenes of the film.

The film also turns this around somewhat to make an aside about the way in which unstudied conformity exists everywhere, as does the small-minded snobbery exemplified by Anthony Hancock.

I have already mentioned Galton and Simpson and the writing and the dialogue is absolutely spot-on. Not a single line is out of place and, while some of the specifics reflect the time in which they were written, the film as a whole is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.

At heart, The Rebel is a film about an insignificant but pretentious man who wants to escape the rat race and become someone important. Yet the film manages to avoid becoming downbeat and remains a joy to watch throughout.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is something of an oddity for a Disney film. There’s no songs for a start and the plot is much more of a pulp adventure than the House of Mouse normally delivers. And it’s really rather good.

Set in 1914, the film follows Milo Thatch who works as a janitor in the Smithsonian Museum and dreams of discovering Atlantis. His dreams begin to become realised when Helga Sinclair turns up in his apartment one evening to escort him to the home of eccentric millionaire Preston B Whitmore.

Preston, it turns out, was an old friend of Milo’s grandfather and has a journal that details the route to Atlantis. Not only that, but he is also ready to fund an expedition which he wants Milo to lead. Thus the adventure begins, and what an adventure it is.

This is a film packed with cliches — sunken cities, lost civilizations, unbelievably advanced technologies, strange creatures, brawls, dogfights and even a romance — and they are all handled exceptionally well. If you can imagine an animated Indiana Jones, you won’t be far off.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is quite a departure from the usual Disney animated fare, but it is also a solidly fun film that is well worth seeing. Go watch it.

Ternet Ninja

We saw this Danish film, dubbed into Flemish and under the title De Wraak van de Ninja. According to the IMDb, the film was released in English speaking territories under the misleadingly cute title of Checkered Ninja. This has to be the darkest children’s film I have seen in a long time.

The film opens in a Thai sweatshop with one of the child workers being beaten to death by a Danish businessman. This is also the point at which the toy ninja of the title comes to life and soon finds his way onto a boat bound for Denmark.

Once in Denmark, the ninja falls into the hands of Alex (Aske in the original), the sort of teenage underdog you would expect to encounter in a film like this. His friends are nerds, he’s a target for the school bully and is terrified that anyone will find out about his crush on the beautiful and popular Jessica.

Much of what follows is reasonably typical buddy-movie fare, with the ninja helping Alex to build his confidence, face down the school bully and attract the attention of Jessica. Of course, the ninja has his own agenda and expects Alex’s help — just at the wrong time for our hero.

Given the way it starts, Ternet Ninja is a surprisingly funny film. Although the plot’s outline not too unfamiliar, there are plenty of touches and several surprises to remind you that this isn’t a Hollywood film and you shouldn’t assume too much about what is going to happen next. And some of the set-pieces, especially Alex’s show-down with the bully, really are spectacular.

The animation is well handled, and the character design manages to be unique enough to avoid any accusations of CGI blandness. And the ninja himself is a fantastic combination of cute and dangerous.

Altogether, Ternet Ninja is a fun family film with some quite dark undertones. Not only did the film manage to keep all of us entertained but it also managed to prompt a discussion about modern slavery while we were heading home.

It really is well worth seeing.

Mars Attacks!

Much as I enjoy Mars Attacks!, I have to concede that hyperactive parodies of cheap 1950s science fiction films aren’t for everyone. Indeed, a quick look at Rotten Tomatoes reveals some very divided opinion with many critics complaining about plot, characterisation, pacing and more. But to me, many of these criticisms miss the point somewhat.

Based on a series of Trading Cards, Mars Attacks! is an anarchic tribute to the B-Movies and exploitation films of the 1950s, and one that manages to both pastiche and parody these films without losing sight of what makes them fun in the first place.

The film has a substantial cast and quite a diversity of characters, most of which are caricatures and quite broadly played. Jack Nicholson puts in a great performance as the US president, as does Glen Close as the status obsessed first lady. Pierce Bronson provides a wonderfully stereotyped English Scientist who convinces the president of the Martians’ peaceful intentions.

The list goes on, with solid performances throughout and a cast of major names, all of whom fully understand just how silly this film is, and just how disposable their characters are.

But it’s the martians that are the real stars of this film. Although hyper-intelligent and unbelievably advanced, the little green men have employed their vast array of destructive technology to lark around like a bunch of malicious schoolkids. They are more than happy to halt the carnage for an, often puerile, joke and display a malicious sense of humour that really is disturbingly funny.

And the weapon that finally defeats them is comedy gold.

Mars Attacks! is quite a chaotic film in which style takes precedence over substance and every scene is looking towards the next joke. And, once the film gets started, the jokes come thick and fast with plenty of highlights and memorable one-liners. It’s not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a film that knows its audience, consistently delivers and is a huge amount of fun.

It’s also the only film, as far as I’m aware, in which Tom Jones helps save the world.

Being There

Being There is a film based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name. I’ve not read the book, yet, but I certainly intend to because the film is superb.

Peter Sellers plays Chance, a naive and illiterate gardener who has spent his entire life living and working within the walls of a Washington townhouse. His life is simple — he tends the garden, he watches TV and the maid brings him meals at regular intervals.

This is all overturned when the owner of the house dies, the household is disbanded and Chance is told that he has to leave. So, dressed in his former employer’s impeccable cast-offs, he steps out into the world — which isn’t like TV.

As far as the premise goes, that is pretty much it. Chance knows nothing about the world beyond his garden, but he is able to behave like a talk-show guest and this proves to be enough when he finds himself — following an accident and a couple of misunderstandings — among the Washington elite. Here, his simple and obvious statements about gardening are taken for profound analogies and he quickly becomes the trusted confident of a dying industrialist who, in turn, is an unofficial advisor to the president.

What really makes this film remarkable is that it’s played completely straight, allowing the humour to emerge from the characters and the situations. The only joke is in the premise, yet the film is able to take this premise and repeatedly strike comedy gold. It really is a very funny film.

I had a quick look around after watching the film and there seems to be as many interpretations as to what this film is about as there are reviews. For me, though, Being There is a delightfully gentle satire about the way in which we impose our own prejudices onto others. Chance comes across as something of a blank slate whose agreeableness allows others to interpret his every utterance to mean exactly what they expect, or want, it to mean.