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I don’t see all that many first-release movies, but with the tidal wave of horror and science fiction films heading my way this summer, I felt it was my professional duty to get off the couch and into the cinema. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve seen….
The Haunting | Deep Blue Sea | The Sixth Sense | Lake Placid | The Blair Witch Project | End of Days | Night of the Demon | Stigmata | Night of the Living Dead | Mission to Mars | Bats
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End Of Days: Well, I couldn’t put it off forever…. Since everything indicated that the film’s title was about to become literally true, I decided I’d better see End Of Days in a hurry. The events of that bleak, rainy Saturday played out in a suitably ominous fashion. First of all I learned that the only place the film was still playing was the Village Cinema City (urgh!). Then, upon arrival at the cinema complex, I discovered that the promotional noticeboard in the lobby, upon which reviews clipped from newspapers are displayed, was bereft of any advertising for the film in question. Then I found that End Of Days was screening in Cinema 6. That’s "Cinema 6", as in the one they have hidden away up six flights of stairs; a daggy little cinema with uncomfortable, low-backed, torn and/or damaged seats, and a general air of shabbiness. The combination of these events with the prior knowledge that I was about to watch the product of a collaboration between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peter Hyams induced a distinct feeling of apprehension. Then the credits revealed that the director had again done his own cinematography, and my heart plummeted. The opening scenes were enough to confirm my very worst fears: that during the two years that passed between The Relic and End Of Days, no-one had managed to convince Hyams to turn the f**king lights on!! Here, as previously, the viewer is forced to peer through the endless murkiness - a patently artificial attempt to create atmosphere - at things that, by all rules of reality and/or common-sense, should be bathed in light (like the huge, expensive New York apartment that houses the film’s tormented heroine). Hell, even the external daytime scenes are dark! That said, overall there is more light in End Of Days than in The Relic. Why? Because End Of Days has explosions – lots and lots of great big colourful explosions! Recalling all the pre-release hype, with its promises of a "different" kind of Schwarzenegger movie, you really have to laugh. All this film is, is the same old stuff tarted up with religious trappings. It’s full of chase sequences, shoot-outs and stunts that require more suspension of disbelief than the details of the main storyline. The only thing "different" about it is its wrongheaded decision to give Ah-nuld the chance to display his, er, "dramatic range". Now, I’m quite prepared to concede that Arnie has a certain talent for comedy – particularly, most appealingly, for self-parody. However, serious drama is all too obviously beyond him. End Of Days gives us a tragic Arnold, a suicidal alcoholic after losing his wife and daughter (gee, that’s original!). In this guise, he gets to emote his way through a series of scenes that become increasingly embarrassing and difficult to watch. The only other thing that’s "different" is that this sensitive, New-Age Arnie spends a great deal of his screentime getting the living crap beaten out of him – once, most amusingly, by Miriam Margolyes (!!). Tragic Arnold has lost his faith, you see, so he no longer fights with the strength of ten because his heart is pure. But, as so often happens in Da Movies, destiny steps in to give Arnold another chance – not just to assuage his guilt over his family’s fate, but to save the entire world! That’s right, folks, it’s Arnie Vs Satan in the bout of the millennium! As ultimate battles go, this one is somewhat less convincing than that fought out by Jesus and Satan in South Park – although you could argue that here, as there, Satan throws the fight. This is one of those irritating films where, if the Chief Bad Guy just stopped threatening and taunting and gloating, and bloody well got on with it, then Evil would win in a canter. Instead, time and again, with every advantage on his side, Satan fails to deliver the knock-out punch. At one point, he wanders through a church, casually slaughtering priests right and left; but when he has the chance to kill Arnie immediately afterwards, he merely crucifies him, leaving him to be rescued and return to the fight. At the film’s (heh, heh) climax, instead of just doing what he came to do and impregnating the unfortunate heroine, he first holds up the deed for the length of a satanic ritual (giving Arnie time to interrupt), then later--- Well, that would be telling. Suffice it to say that End Of Days finishes with a string of scenes so groan-worthy it’s hard to believe the film-makers actually intended them to be taken seriously. But one of the main problems here is that no-one connected with the movie seems to have realised how ridiculous it is – with one exception. Gabriel Byrne alone was clearly aware that he was in the middle of an immensely silly story, and his performance contains an element of burlesque that the film simply cannot support. Byrne’s Satan is one suave dude, never breaking from his slow, sexy stride even when setting off explosions with every bat of his seductive eyelids. As you’d expect, he gets most of the film’s best lines. He also gets an absolutely jaw-dropping moment when we discover that Satan’s bodily functions don’t just serve the usual purpose. As the third point of the triangle, Robin Tunney doesn’t get much to do beyond being chased, captured, threatened and rescued, but I was pleased to see that when her character was cornered by a bunch of homicidal priests (don’t ask), she didn’t just wait to be saved, but fought back good and hard on her own behalf. Kevin Pollak has some nice moments as Arnie’s partner, but you just know that something unpleasant’s going to happen to him (see also "bodily functions"). As the priest who knows what’s going on, Rod Steiger gives a surprisingly restrained performance (surprising for those of us with his antics in The Amityville Horror burned into our memories, anyway). I really can’t find much to say in praise of End Of Days. The production design (when you can see it) is attractive, there are a couple of gross-out scenes I won’t forget in a hurry, and when Satan finally manifests himself (courtesy of Stan Winston), he’s pretty cool. On the other hand, there were plenty of things about the film I enjoyed for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the single most absurd moment is when Arnie barges into Rod Steiger’s church and announces, "I want to talk to you about Thomas Aquinas!" There is also the suggestion that the entire NYPD is into devil-worship; a clear demonstration of the difficulties involved in being simultaneously a priest and a hit man ("Kill her!" "I can’t, I haven’t finished giving her the last rites!"); and a display of remarkable sang-froid from Arnie’s boss who, watching him arm himself with enough firepower to re-fight the Gulf War, remarks dispassionately, "You know the police are after you?" But the bad stuff easily outweighs the good – even the unintentional good. Along with the eye-strain-inducing cinematography, Arnie’s performance and the contrivances of the plot, we have a bunch of characters weighed down by symbolic names (Robin Tunney plays "Christine", while Arnie’s character is – get this! – "Jericho Cane" [whoa, heavy – and just check out those initials!]) and a depiction of the Catholic church that frankly seems to me rather more disrespectful than the one in Dogma. But worse than all of this, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that Mr Hyams yet again sees fit to inflict upon his audience a Spring-Loaded Cat (and no, having one of your characters remark, "I knew that was going to happen!" doesn’t make it any better!). The screenplay also contains my personal nomination for The Single Stupidest Line Of The Millennium, when a radio announcer says, "It’s the 31st December, 1999 – the final day of 2000 years!" This film was clearly intended as Arnie’s Big Comeback, but I’m very much afraid that it will prove to have the opposite outcome. End Of Days, indeed….