Bikini Girls on Ice (Review)

Fortean Times online October 2010 (the published version had a purely superficial line – about Victorian piety – omitted which I was rather fond of, so, somewhat smugly, I’ve included it here. I also had a rather civil correspondance with director Geoff Klein following its publication. He is a Good and Decent man, in marked contrast with his warped little film)

There’s an increasing trend in horror movies as of late to target the vogue “so-bad-it’s-good” market: one need only look at 2008’s Zombie Strippers, 2009’s RoboGeisha and the recently-released Piranha 3D as examples of studios exploiting viewers into watching knowingly bad films which insist upon themselves being amusing as a result of their sheer ineptitude. Bikini Girls On Ice is very much the same; a film which seems to find its titular moronic premise funnier than anyone watching it, and as such comes across as little more than a grating, obnoxious mess with nothing to recommend it besides the leads’ surgically-nourished assets.

Following not, as one might hope, a troupe of bikini-clad ice-skaters but instead some vacuous nimphettes stranded at an abandoned petrol station who are laboriously slaughtered by an insane employee named Moe (with a penchant for freezing them in a vat of ice), this is sub-standard slasher fare which fails to either deliver effectively the tropes that it is supposed to be mimicking (feisty female protagonist, unlikeable supporting cast of randy teens, near-invincible psychopathic antagonist, etcetera) nor make any effort to lampoon or deconstruct them – the prime accomplishment of the Scream franchise, for example.

The sheer purpose of this film – besides, of course, base titillation – is unfathomable, as it’s impossible to extract even an ounce of enjoyment out of anything it has to offer. Quite predictably, the acting is dire, the dialogue laboured and the direction atrocious; the film’s like a murderous Benny Hill sketch, but wrapped in a smug grin of self-satisfaction in having accomplished its sole goal – the creation of a bad movie. One simply wants to step inside the film, drape a coat over one of the poor bikini girls in question’s shoulders and – like a sanctimonious Victorian philanthropist – calmly reassure them that everything will be alright whilst walking them away from the scene of this depravity. 

According to the film’s IMDb trivia page, it was inspired by a dream had by a friend of the director about “putting girls on ice”, and that’s genuinely all it appears to amount to – a private joke between conceited, untalented individuals who think that viewers are either stupid enough to laugh along with them or sufficiently gullible so as to buy this without a shred of irony. Don’t let them win – steer well clear of this boring, self-satisfied mess and pray that this irritating trend in the horror genre soon subsides.

0/5

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Sweet Karma (Review)

Fortean Times online October 2010

Helmed by first-time director Andrew Thomas Hunt, Sweet Karma is a grimy, distinctly ‘70s-flavoured femme-revenge flick which, though flawed, strives nobly to punch above its weight. Indeed, its threadbare plot – Shera Bechard’s mute Russian infiltrates a Canadian sex-trafficking ring to avenge her sister’s murder – affects, whilst the film’s suitably despicable trio of flesh-peddling mobsters inevitably get their comeuppance in ways which are as satisfying as they are inventive (death by bra wire being a particular favourite). Most refreshing, though, is the film’s deft avoidance of pastiche and evident sincerity, a highly laudable gesture amidst the spate of faux-exploitation comedies which have flooded the market of late. Sure, it may be rough around the edges (some action scenes are noticeably sped-up and the odd attempt at humour is ill-advised), however, surprisingly for a film which features someone being assassinated with starch-laced cocaine, Sweet Karma is oddly endearing.

3/5

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Halo Reach (Review)

Fortean Times 268

“Remember Reach,” cries the marketing campaign accompanying the release of Bungie’s latest (and last) entry in their flagship franchise, following on from Halo 3’s slogan of “Finish the Fight” and Halo 2’s “Buy an Xbox or your loved ones will shun you!” 

And, indeed, upon reflection Halo Reach is an experience worthy of remembrance; an atypic­ally epic follow-up to its illustrious forerunners, which – though technically marvellous – nonetheless sticks all too closely to its familiar gameplay formula. It serves as a prequel to the events of 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, set upon the doomed human colony planet of Reach where the player takes the role of a nameless soldier serving as part of an elite team dispatched to investigate unusual surface behaviour. 

From the game’s opening shot – your helmet, visor shattered, sitting atop the burning, ruined surface – one knows how the story ends, an unrelenting sense of foreboding tragedy hanging over proceedings as the situation swiftly escalates from small-scale skirm­ishes to a desperate struggle for survival as the planet dies around you. The resultant experience, trading space opera for war film, is undeniably different from that of Halo 3, a balls-to-the-wall exercise in gung-ho heroics in which the player occupies the role of a Messianic superman massacring entire races at the drop of a hat. 

However, this arguably detracts from the game’s more visceral enjoyment; Master Chief’s exploits empowered players, allowing them to topple entire empires with the swift blow of the butt of a gun to a chitinous extra­terrestrial ribcage. Halo Reach’s more muted experience is compar­atively underwhelming, even emasculating. 

But most important are the actual mechanics underpinning the game, which are without exception excellent; overhauled graphics are matched with impeccable art design to ensure that the tragedy of Reach is captured with visual splendour almost befitting a work of art. Similarly, slight tweaks to the weapon system and the introduct­ion of power-ups – holograms, jet packs – are imagin­atively implemented, helping to spice up gameplay. 

However, it’s precisely this element which is sadly all-too familiar; Bungie deserve full credit for streamlining the Halo experience, wisely removing the widely-derived Flood levels in favour of well-designed firefights against intelligent AI, but it’s still an (admittedly polished) evolution of their previous work bedecked in the fineries of experi­mental narrat­ive and paraded around like some geeky Second Coming (or fourth, as the case may be). 

Nonetheless, fanatical, frothy-mouthed Microsoft fans may point towards the towering monolith of the game’s multiplayer as its saving grace, particularly in light of its arrestingly brisk single-player. While it’s true that the game generously provides an array of new modes, maps and tools, very little innovates or reinvigorates a franchise which has doggedly remained faithful to its roots in defiance of the ever-changing nature of an industry obsessed with revolutionising the way one interacts with the gaming experience. 

In this regard, Halo Reach is the Sylvester Stallone of videogaming; a proud brute steeped in the excess of yesteryear and proudly flaunting its trademark delivery under an updated guise. But one suspects that the franchise has finally reached full circle and inevitable future iterations of Halo Kart Racers or Master Chief’s Brain Training will be steps too far.

8/10

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Buried (Review)

Fortean Times 268

For many – particularly, perhaps, the fairer sex – the prospect of spending 95 minutes trapped in a box with Ryan Reynolds is an inviting prospect. For a cinema audience, however, the experience presented in Buried is certainly a unique one and the result is one of the most intense cinematic experiences in recent memory, even it does feel a bit like an extended Tales of the Unexpected yarn as opposed to a fully-fledged motion picture.

The plot, which is as sparse as the film’s set, sees Reynolds’s Iraq-based US contractor Paul Conroy finding himself buried alive in a coffin following an apparent insurgent attack. Now, armed with just a mobile phone and lighter, he must race against time to escape his deadly situation before time runs out.

It’s a startlingly intelligent starting-point, and one which must be applauded for providing an immediate, visceral hook; with the camera permanently lingering solely on Reynolds’ tortured visage, one instantly sympathises with his dreadful plight and wishes him to survive. Reynolds certainly helps here, expressing as he does startling vulnerability whilst at the same time exhibiting undeniable charm and even moments of warm humour. For an actor to consistently convince and engage over such a period of time, and primarily through a physical performance, is quite an achievement, and Reynolds deserves full credit for carrying the film on his shoulders.

However, it goes without saying that the film’s very premise severely limits it; Buried is as claustrophobic as its protagonist’s unhappy surroundings, and the lack of an on-screen supporting cast or scenery not overlaid with plywood means one is simply left voyeuristically observing Conroy’s suffering, meaning consequently that one can hardly ‘enjoy’ the film in the conventional sense of the word without venturing into the unsettling realm of so-called “torture porn.” The barebones plot doesn’t help matters; although a short amount of time is spent uncovering the reason for Conroy’s situation, the film is crucially lacking in any significant twists or plot developments which might allow it to extend its interest beyond one’s instinctive, primal empathy for Conroy, and its periodically shoehorned “message” relating to the American experience in Iraq quickly becomes irritating.

As a result, Buried comes across paradoxically as an impossibly tense but lightweight experience whose proceedings also have an irritating tendency to drag; despite an instantly arresting opening (bathed mostly in darkness), the middle section sags before picking up for the film’s nerve-wrecking denouement.

Intense, brutal and wickedly cruel, Buried may offer a hard-to-shake trip to the cinema but is probably not an experience you’d be keen to relive. Despite obvious hardwired shortcomings, the film is carried by Reynolds’ impressive one-man-show and the sheer gall of its central premise.

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He Ate WHAT?

Fortean Times online Aug 2010

Earlier this month a Massachusetts man was shocked to find a pea plant growing in one of his lungs. Sometimes, however, when strange objects are found lodged in a patient’s insides it comes as less of a surprise. Here’s our list of the ten weirdest objects that people have intentionally eaten.

HAIRBALL
In 2007, an 18-year-old Chicago teenager suffering from trichophagia – the compulsion to eat one’s own hair – was admitted to hospital complaining of abdominal pains and vomiting. She was found to have a hairball weighing a whopping 4.5kg blocking her entire stomach.

MAGNETS
Eating 10 magnets and 20 steel balls caused an American girl to suffer such extreme injuries that Indiana doctors compared them to “gunshots” or “stab-like holes.” Eight-year-old Haley Lents said she had eaten the objects – parts from a toy called Magnetix – because they “looked like candy.” She was given emergency surgery, and was deemed lucky to be alive by doctors.

COINS
“He likes eating coins”, explained a French surgeon at Cholet General Hospital, after treating a 62-year-old patient who, in 2002, was found to have swallowed 350 coins, an assortment of necklaces and several needles. The ingested mass, weighing 5.5kg (the equivalent of a bowling ball), was so heavy that it had pushed the man’s stomach between his hips. The man suffered from pica, a word derived from the Latin for magpie to describe a compulsion to eat unusual objects.

COCKROACH (AND FORK)
When cleaning her house one day in 2003, a 32-year-old Israeli woman was unlucky enough to have a cockroach leap into her open mouth. Things only got worse, however, when the metal fork she was using to try and scoop the creature out slipped from her fingers and almost choked her to death. Though surgeons managed to successfully remove the cutlery, the cockroach was believed to have been naturally digested and thus irretrievable.

CUTLERY
When 52-year-old Margaret Daalman was admitted to Sittard hospital in the late-1970s with abdominal pains, Dutch surgeons were astonished to discover 78 pieces of cutlery packed in her stomach. X-rays showed the assortment of spoons and forks had collected into a bundle; each piece had to be extracted individually. The woman told doctors: “I don’t know why but I felt an urge to eat the silverware – I could not help myself.” She always, however, abstained from knives.

WIRE MESH
In a desperate bid to escape, one potty prisoner tore the wire mesh off his cell wall and tried to hide the pieces by – gulp – swallowing them. According to a report by the prison’s forensic expert, his plan was foiled when this gave him such severe stomach cramps that he was admitted to hospital, where doctors discovered his bizarre eating habits. In another case, in Central Prison, Raleigh, N.C., there was something of a craze among inmates for ingesting odd items – including bed springs and batteries – in the hope that they’d be granted sick leave .

Cobblestones
Following a quarrel with her boyfriend in 2006, a girl from Foshan, China, swallowed more than 20 cobblestones in a fit of anger. Thinking that they would pass through her body naturally, she became alarmed when they not only remained within her stomach, but felt as if they were constantly knocking against each other. In extreme pain, she logged on to the online forum of a local hospital and was advised to seek immediate medical attention.

Engagement ring
When 28-year-old Simon Hooper saw a £1,750 engagement ring he wanted for his long-term girlfriend but couldn’t afford, he swallowed it whilst the jeweller’s back was turned. Dorchester police were unable to fathom the location of the ring until they ran a metal detector over his stomach. He was placed in a cell until nature – despite Hooper’s determined efforts to the contrary – took its course three days later.

Smokey Quartz crystal
As reported on her mother’s blog (which covers primarily sewing and quilt-making) in 2006, an American girl was given a small smokey quartz crystal – a free gift from a magazine – by a friend; when the mother told her to “put it somewhere safe”, she ate it. The crystal was successfully ejected and thoroughly cleaned.

Door key
So determined was one Bournemouth student to stay at a particularly enjoyable party that he ate the door key to his own lodgings. After having had a “fair bit” to drink and being urged by his friends to go home, 18-year-old Chris Foster swallowed the two-inch Yale key to his room in protest. It re-emerged 31 hours later, allowing its owner to dodge the £20 fee his landlord would have charged for a replacement.

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Top 10 Weird Towns

Fortean Times online Aug 2010

News this week that southern Sudan is to rebuild its cities in the shape of animals and fruit; Chinese developers plan to construct an imitation Cadaqués, the Costa Brava port that was once home to Salvador Dali, in Xiamen Bay. And these visionaries are by no means the first to get all creative with urban planning. Some schemes are never more than castles in the air, others get built but are demolished by practical-minded authorities (farewell Walled City, we mourn you Sanzhi UFO houses), but nevertheless the world is strewn with fantastical follies, themed towns and surreal cityscapes. Here’s our top ten.

Chess City
Kalmykia
A city themed around chess may sound like something dreamt up by Lewis Carroll but the impoverished Republic of Kalmykia has transformed it into reality, albeit a costly one. Boasting neatly lined streets and a magnificent Chess Palace, the city was masterminded by the nation’s chess-obsessed president (who also claims to be an alien abductee) but is largely deserted.

Jewish Autonomous Oblast
Birobidzhan, Russia
An artificial Jewish homeland created by Stalin in inhospitable far eastern Siberia, Birobidzhan is today a strange, cold and half-deserted historical relic, a monument to those idealistic early inhabitants whose dreams of a “Soviet Zion” were swiftly crushed by the 1930s purges. Few Jews remain, yet its unlikely history still echoes through this largely-forgotten region, an incongruous outpost of Yiddish culture, architecture and traditions.

Dwarf Village
Kunming, China
With each of its residents measuring in at under 1.5m, this curious mountain commune in Kunming was created either (depending on the source) as a safe haven for persecuted Chinese dwarves or as a tasteless theme park. The latter seems more likely, given the strange mushroom houses that litter the landscape, the medieval costumes worn by the diminutive denizens, and the bizarre musical numbers put on for baffled visitors.

Garbage City
Manshiyat Naser, Egypt
A city in which trash flows freely from apartment doors and is stacked several stories high may sound nightmarish, but to the residents of this Cairo suburb it’s a vital money-making opportunity: ‘Garbage City’s’ inhabitants make a living by cheaply collecting, sorting and disposing of the vast waste produced by Africa’s most populous city. It’s a dangerous lifestyle, but they manage to recycle an astonishing 80-90% of what they find.

Battleship Island
Hashima Island, Japan
At one time the world’s most densely populated location, this artificial island off the Japanese coast whose high sea walls make it look like a huge battleship is now possibly the world’s largest ghost town. Originally founded as a coal-mining facility by Japanese giant Mitsubishi, it contained casinos, cinemas and scores of people until the mine’s closure in 1974, whereupon it was swiftly abandoned. The walled island was recently reopened to curious tourists drawn to the eerie silhouette it casts on the Nagasaki horizon.

White Man In A Hole
Coober Pedy, Australia
Though commonly known as the opal capital of the world, Coober Pedy (an anglicised version of the Aboriginal words ‘kupa piti’ or ‘white man in a hole’) is perhaps more remarkable in that the majority of its 3,500-strong population live underground in refurbished mines. This cavernous community was built by miners sheltering from harsh daytime temperatures, and now includes an underground church, museums, potteries, shops, an art gallery and a hotel; residents emerge at night to play golf on grassless courses using illuminated balls.

Modern Ghost Town
Kangbashi, Ordos, China
This gleaming, over-designed new district of a rich Inner Mongolian coal-mining city has earned itself the name ‘China’s modern ghost town’ due to the fact that its intended population has – for the most part – yet to arrive. Though built to attract residents from the Ordos old town, the only inhabitants to grace its abstract landscape so far have been construction workers, and its extensive infrastructure remains practically unused. Still, the construction continues…

Federation of Damanhur
Italy
Boasting extravagant underground temples constructed by a neopagan commune nestled in the foothills of the Alps, The Federation of Damanhur’s ‘Temples of Humankind’ have been dubbed by the Italian government ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World.’ Secretly constructed by former insurance broker Oberto “Falco” Airaudi based on his own childhood visions, the community also now has its own university, currency and award-winning eco homes, and is famed for its time-travel experiments.

Thames Town
Songjiang, China
Commonly referred to as ‘Thames Town’, this picturesque Shanghai satellite has been built to resemble Middle England as closely as possible in the hope of attracting Chinese homebuyers, and features exquisite Georgian terraces, quaint village greens and winding cobbled lanes. It’s not the only themed community planned by local authorities; neighbouring towns based on Italy and Barcelona are already in development, as well as an ‘auto-town’ boasting a Formula 1 track and BMW plant.

The Villages
Florida, USA
This surreal suburban utopia has been dubbed the world’s first age-segregated community; not only does it refuse residence to anyone aged under 19, but it also insists that each household contain at least one person over the age of 55. It’s designed as a haven for active retirees, and Villagers can enjoy a range of tailored activities, tune into a local radio station that only plays ‘oldies’, and get around on the community’s preferred mode of transport – souped-up golf carts.

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Devil (Review)

TheShiznit Sept 2010

The well-documented declining fortunes of M. Night Shyamalan – last seen squatting down over your local Odeon and squeezing out The Last Airbender for your viewing displeasure – have reached a point now where the shamed twist-peddler has been forced into a new career.

He’s producing once-a-year features based upon his own fevered original concepts, to be directed by his legion of sick disciples, eager to earn the favour of their twisted master. The first squirt of this annual cinematic bukkake is Devil; a film which improves upon its author’s three bastardisations but remains in itself a thoroughly lightweight, unintelligent morsel.

The Tales From the Crypt-esque pseudo-plot sees five strangers become stuck in an office lift and they’re subsequently terrorised by an unseen menace who may or may not be the Devil in human form, sent to torture the living before he harvests their souls. Meanwhile, Chris Messina’s troubled detective tries desperately to free the group from their unfortunate situation.

In all honesty, this is one hack reviewer who wholeheartedly adores the film’s frankly hilarious premise, bringing to mind as it does the throwaway pulpy simplicity of an old EC Comic strip. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with such an absurd undertaking, and indeed it offers excellent potential for both the tension and plot twists that Shyamalan has used to both build up and piss on his career.

However, therein lies one of the film’s main problems; it feels far more like an inflated anthology horror segment (or, at most, a Masters Of Horror episode) than a fully-blown motion picture worthy of worldwide release. It is a film almost solely reliant on the cheap trick of its central dilemma, and as such any peripheral happenings – the plight of loved ones wheeled out at the eleventh hour, for example – feel like strictly superfluous plot tumours, whilst its ceaseless, po-faced pomposity largely rids it of any superficial enjoyment.

Certainly, the film’s main ploys lie in a marriage of mystery and ambiguity; a steadfast refusal to divulge too much detail (including surnames) pertaining to each of the lift-locked quintet or their respective motivations so as to keep the audience constantly guessing as to which one is the titular Father of Lies. To a certain point this is relatively effective, allowing for the odd sly revelation, but it comes at the heavy cost of decent characterisation. It’s hard, after all, for an audience to sympathise with characters beyond a purely primal level if not only their background and motives, but also their behaviour itself, remains unclear to such a significant degree.

However, one might argue that an eventual clever, satisfying payoff might justify such lofty sacrifices. Unfortunately, this utopian vision of a denouement never comes to pass – unlike his acclaimed celluloid calling-card, The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s script here selfishly refuses to give the audience an opportunity to “play along” and participate in the Beelzebub-guessing-game by hiding away potential clues and seemingly determining its final revelation by picking a name out of a hat.

Though everyone is initially a Satanic suspect before being gradually narrowed down, this is done not through the altruistic provision of clues or hints but rather darkness-soaked set-pieces, whose horrific ramifications are simply explained away as Lucifer fucking around rather than examined in more detail. Supposed revelations as to character backgrounds simply lead to nowhere and serve only as contrived red-herrings designed to stretch the film’s running time at the expense of the audience’s attention. This is, frankly, a resolutely imbecilic film, who – like an embittered, shifty-eyed only child clutching hungrily onto their Pokémon cards – greedily refuses to share information with others.

The film’s performances, meanwhile, are generally passable; Messina’s lead is sympathetic if forgettable, dragging a heavy-handed dead family back-story that was last seen providing characterisation in Signs. Though Bojana Novakovic, Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine all do their suitably naturalistic best as both victims and potential Abaddons, Jenny O’Hara’s old woman barely registers and Geoffrey Arend’s affected routine as the film’s obligatory salesman/jerk simply bemuses.

A nice supporting performance from Matt Craven stands out most, although his Hispanic sidekick – intent on force-feeding those around him a ham-fisted narration seeped in borderline-racist superstition – deserves to be immediately cast off into the circle of Hell usually reserved for preachy, irritating gobshites such as himself.

In sum, Devil – though not as terrible as the ever-increasing legions of Shyamalan-haters may have hoped – is a distinctly inadequate cretin of a movie, director John Erick Dowdle lacking his glorious overlord’s skill at arousing and maintaining tension (and filming his title credits upside-down, in what one assumes is a misguided attempt at originality which instead comes across at a low-budget sweded recreation of Inception), whilst the film is stuck with an ass-pull faux-twist of a resolution delivered in a manner which anyone acquainted with the horror genre over the past decade will be thoroughly unimpressed by.

Shyamalan may think himself a master of storytelling, but in the end the film’s crucial lack of characterisation and clues so as to incite audience interest leave it resembling more an especially maudlin Scooby-Doo episode, albeit one with a somewhat more Biblical overtones and a Latino Scrappy-Doo frantically cramming bullshit morality down one’s throat at every available opportunity.

2/5

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