Thursday, September 20, 2018

In short: Ouija House (2018)

Warning: I need to spoil some of the best bits!

Graduate student – we dare not ask of what – Laurie (Carly Schroeder) decides to bring a handful of friends to a supposedly haunted house in the woods her family has somewhat mysterious connections to. It’s all in the hopes of furthering her research so she can graduate, sell her thesis to a publisher who is interested in it, and make enough money to help her mother (Dee Wallace) buy back the family home she just lost. Yeah, I don’t know either, and the film’s explanation for the whole publisher business later on actually makes less sense than what I have just written. But I digress.

Laurie’s aunt Samantha (Mischa Barton) is coming too, for she is fluent in the house’s and her family’s backstory concerning a good and an evil witch cult, baby sacrifice and a bit of nudity. The plan is to hold a traditional séance in the house, but when Laurie finds a ouija board, they just use that. Surprising nobody but the characters, this turns out to be a very bad idea.

For its first half hour or so, Ben Demaree’s Ouija House has all the  hallmarks of mediocre low budget horror made in the 2010s. There are the small and tiny appearances by more or less “name” actors – besides Wallace and Barton, there are also Chris Mulkey, Tiffany Shepis and Tara Reid putting a half day of work or less in –, the boringly generic set-up, and seemingly no interest in trying to lure an audience in with atmosphere and intrigue. However, once the plot gets going, Ouija House becomes a prime example of how a film that’s really not good in a way most people would use the word becomes really rather awesome (in all senses of that word) by throwing all kinds of crazy shit at the audience while keeping a completely straight face. The film gets outright 70s/80s Italian in this regard, therefore charming me to a considerable degree.

Ouija House’s title, you see, is to be taken literally, it turns out, with the letter of a ouija board hidden away behind the titular house’s wallpaper until a possessed member of the crew (very enthusiastically played by Grace Demarco) rips the wallpaper covers off. As you may or may not imagine, there are scenes of a possessed young woman in a state of undress groping and hissing towards the letters painted on the walls, and one of the film’s dramatic highpoints sees the characters desperately trying to duct tape paper over the letters. It’s glorious. Also appearing are a young woman’s upper body (she’s wearing a bra to prove this isn’t actually an Italian film from the 80s) being used as a ouija board, an idea to which the other characters react with shrugs of “why not?”, a moebius strip road, Dee Wallace’s possessed face, and…the black guy surviving(!). It’s absurd, it’s certainly not thought through with even a bit of real world logic in mind, but damn, is Ouija House’s second half entertaining, if you like your ideas strange, and their presentation straight-faced.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Open House (2018)

Because the accidental death of their husband and father leaves Naomi Wallace (Piercey Dalton) and her son Logan (Dylan Minnette) in dire financial straits, they have to move into the mountain house of her stinking rich sister. That means Logan gets pulled out of school before his graduation – there’s never any talk of him, you know, changing schools so he can actually graduate, for reasons the script never bothers to come up with, so he can spend his time running and moping. He also doesn’t seem to have any friends at all, at least him missing anyone or using some of that new-fangled communication stuff you hear so much about these days never comes up. Naomi for her part doesn’t actually seem to look for work, which is also a thing that can be helpful when you’ve got no money, again without the script actually giving us any reasons for that.

Anyway, on the positive side, that mountain house is really rather more of a mountain palace. Less positive is that every Sunday an open house event takes place there and our protagonists have to leave for the whole of the day, because the sister and her husband want to sell the place. Don’t ask me why they don’t pause the open house stuff as long as they have relatives living there, I didn’t write this crap.

If you’ve heard any urban legends or read creepypasta, you can probably imagine what happens next. There’s a strange elderly neighbour (whose strange behaviour the script doesn’t bother to explain, obviously), and their time in the house is haunted by a series of mildly strange occurrences: food disappears, glasses disappear and appear again, and the hot water tends to cut out whenever Naomi is in the shower. It’s a little as if…there’s a murderous psychopath with them in the house!

On various technical levels, the Netflix opus The Open House directed and written by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote isn’t a bad little movie. The directors certainly do have a hand for pretty, competently generic visuals, and while they really rather overdo the whole “camera glides through the house while loud dramatic music plays” thing, I won’t deny the film even to be somewhat stylish, if strictly in a slickly professional rather than an artistically interesting way.

The acting is pretty okay too, or rather, the two leads do what they can with the little the film’s great weakness, the needlessly sloppy script, provides them with. There is, for example, a big fight in the between the two when Naomi suddenly assumes Logan is responsible for the strange things that have been happening, and Dalton and Minnette do their best to make this feel like a really bad falling out between actual human beings. Unfortunately, the whole scene is completely preposterous because Logan is absurdly easy-going for a teenager who has seen his father die in front of his eyes and has then been dragged away from home by his mother to escape threatening poverty, and the tensions between his mother and him have been so absurdly mild given the situation the scene rings completely wrong.

This is absolutely indicative of the script’s main problem. It sets up a situation, comes up with a couple of big scenes related to that situation but doesn’t bother to fill in the blanks that would emotionally and thematically connect any of it. For most of the time, this feels like a film written by people who can’t even imagine how their characters might feel in any given situation and so just choose not to write any reactions for them at all. Consequently, little of what anyone does here is based on anything an actual human being would feel or do. From this perspective, it’s really no surprise Logan has no friends he is missing, and that Naomi doesn’t have a single person to call when shit gets weird – when the police doesn’t help, Logan eventually calls in what must be the only other person in the neighbouring town, a salesperson who has been randomly flirting with his Ma, in a particularly absurd turn.

Now, if this were a film about social isolation and poverty, and the resulting helplessness expressed through the horror form, some of this would even make thematic sense, but it’s really the result of a script that doesn’t even begin to think the situation it puts its characters in, and the characters themselves, through, instead going through a bunch of well worn standard horror thriller plot beats without giving any of these beats a reason to exist at all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

In short: Posse (1993)

Instead of dead as their evil commander Colonel Graham (Billy Zane) had hoped, a group of African American soldiers (Charles Lane, Tiny Lister, and Tone Loc, plus !bonus Stephen Baldwin) under the leadership of Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles) escape the Spanish-American war very much alive and in possession of the rather large amount of gold the good Colonel wanted them to steal and then kill them for. The group leaves the Colonel behind for dead after a fight, but he and a group of gunmen will start to follow our protagonists’ every move soon enough.

As if having these particular hellhounds on their trails isn’t bad enough, Jesse Lee, prone to random flashbacks only missing the harmonica, has some vengeance to seek in and around his hometown, which isn’t conducive to anyone’s health.

As likeable as I find the attempt of the group of filmmakers around people like Posse’s director Mario Van Peebles and the Hughes Brothers to create a new African American genre cinema with a degree of social consciousness on decent budgets, as frustrating I usually find the resulting films. As is typically the case with this group of movies, it’s not the film’s cast, consisting of a whole bunch of good younger actors and a plethora of veterans and heroes of cinema like Pam Grier or Mario Van Peebles’s father Melvin, at fault here, nor are the production values the problem. It is rather the combination of a pretty terrible script, one so unfocused you seem to drift from one film to the next while making your way through Posse, and a director heavily in love with all kinds of pointless visual stylization taken in equal parts from Leone and video clips without much of an idea of how to put all the camera and post-production tricks into the service of the film instead of the other way round. I do suspect most of the time the reason for all the film’s visual busyness is the assumption it looks cool, no matter if it actually does anything useful for the film at all.

Posse is a meandering mess, wasting a bunch of great actors and a genuinely great initial idea for nothing much.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dead Curse (1985)

Original title: 猛鬼迫人

A couple of years ago, Inspector Ma prevented a witch (Angela Yu Chien) leading a Kali (or Carla, as the subtitles insist, leading to inspiring moments like the witch shouting “Carla, give me strength!”) cult from sacrificing a child, killing the witch and her assistants (witches in training?) in the process. With her last breath, the witch cursed the inspector and his family.

Now, four years later, Ma is sitting in a wheelchair, his wife is gone, and since it is July, ghost month, there’s nasty stuff in store for him and his family - his little daughter, his reporter sister Mimi (probably Elaine Kam Yin-Ling) and Mimi’s fiancée, cop Ah Chiu (Poon Chun-Wai). Particularly Mimi will turn out to have to fight off the brunt of the witch’s ire. Not that the family as a whole has it easy: little ghost children try to drown and then hang Mimi’s niece, the witch regularly appears to have a good laugh, the witch’s dead assistants attempt to throw Ma from his balcony – it’s quite the July for these people. And that’s before we come to the bit later on when Ah Chiu has a bit of ghost sex (or humps the witch’s coffin, if you can’t see ghosts) and becomes possessed afterwards, speaking in the witch’s voice.

Another female friend or family member – as it often goes with the more obscure Hong Kong films from this era, the burnt-in subtitles aren’t particularly clear so your guess is as good as mine – does have contact to a sifu named Kwan (Kwan Hoi-San), so spiritual help will be forthcoming eventually, but Kwan isn’t the most impressive example of his kind, so it’s not at all sure he will actually be able to beat the witch and her Carla-given powers.

As I said, Dead Curse – directed by one-timer Chong Biu Man and actor Gu Sam-Lam - is a reasonably obscure bit of Hong Kong horror of its time, but it’s a fun example of the style nonetheless.

Now, even though it was rated CAT III at the time, this isn’t as extreme and crass a film as one might hope or fear. There’s no centipede eating or puking action at all, and the supernatural elements are relatively conservative, featuring a lot of dry ice and green light and little that’s icky in any way, shape or form. In fact, the make-up for the ghost children is as traditional as they come, suggesting a film that sees itself standing at least with one foot in the less crazy Hong Kong horror of the 50s and 60s (and of course earlier). Its other foot, however, certainly stands in modern (80s) times. It’s not just the ghost sex scene or how the climax evolves into a magical battle between the Sifu, five elemental guardians he has conjured and the flying witch who can shoot a red laser beam out of her finger now. Rather, camera set-ups, movement, editing and general pacing do completely belong to its own time, things hopping merrily along with little time for film or characters to drag their heels between mild yet fun stunts, general spookery and moments of classic HK 80s goofiness (where else would the encounter between a threatened little girl and two ghost children come to murder her in a somewhat complicated manner include a running gag about ET?).

It’s certainly not a film that’ll leave a contemporary viewer in awe, disgust or terrible suspense, but Dead Curse’s forward momentum, its diligence in delivering at least one horror set piece every five minutes, its moments of craziness, its masses of dry ice fog and green light, its perfectly likeable leads and its general sense of fun do make for a very enjoyable time for a viewer with any kind of interest in Hong Kong horror of this time. I have no idea what anyone who doesn’t would make of this one, though I would assume that a flying witch shooting a red laser beam at a kung fu guy fighting her with a wooden coffin is of interest to any human being with taste and style.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Some mysteries should not be unlocked

Not of This Earth (1988): This Roger Corman-produced remake of a Corman joint is directed by the dread Jim Wynorski pretty early in his career of tits and boredom, so it is indeed full of female nudity (though not quite as much as in later Wynorski epics, you gotta decide for yourself if that’s for better or worse) and a metric crapton of boredom (just as much as in later stage Wynorski).

The film’s main feature is the copious amount of footage taken from a load of other Corman productions, usually used for no good reason but to get the film up to length, of course, a far cry from the clever secondary usage in something from Corman’s glory days like Targets, but comparing Bogdanovich and Wynorski is really rather unfair of me. Otherwise, poor Traci Lords seems to be the only person on screen even vaguely conscious of that thing known as “acting”, little happens, horrible jokes of a sort that makes Scary Movie look funny are made, and my eyes are getting heavy just thinking about this one again.

The Body Tree (2017): Following a Wynorski film that doesn’t even seem to have the ambition to entertain, this Russian-Spanish-US coproduction directed by Thomas Dunn about a group of young horror movie characters travelling to Siberia to take part in a ritual meant to calm the spirit of a murdered friend but alas provoking a demon feels like pure cinematic gold. At least, it clearly has ambitions to be a bit more than the spam in a cabin movie you’d expect from the set-up.

Unfortunately, the film’s attempts at psychological depth come up against writing that’s just not sharp and insightful enough to sustain many, many scenes of characters arguing, and arguing, and then arguing some more, performances that mostly can’t cope with these attempts at psychological depth, and the plain fact that about half of these characters are such unpleasant assholes I just didn’t want to hear them shouting at one another for what felt like hours. But at least The Body Tree fails while actually trying.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003): Let’s finish this on a high note, though, with Andrew Douglas’s attempt at capturing something like the heart of the weird, white American South in a sort of road trip following singer-songwriter and, ahem, “eccentric” Jim White through poverty, bars, various examples of what looks like horrifying religious mania to my atheist eyes, and sometimes awkwardly staged encounters with various alt.Country musicians from David Eugene Edwards, over Lee Sexton, over the Handsome Family, to Johnny Dowd (ironically, about half of these musicians were probably better known here in Germany than in the US at the time the film was made). The great writer Harry Crews pops in for a bit too.

I’m not terribly sure anyone will understand this South any better after watching the film, but it surely should convince one to try.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Hundra (1983)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

One day, while their best warrior Hundra (Laurene Landon) is away hunting, a generally peaceful village of amazons is attacked and eradicated by a band of ugly, hairy men riding under the sign of the bull. When all is over, a returning Hundra dispatches a horde of the aggressors in a drawn-out fight, but that still leaves her people quite dead.

Our heroine then makes her way to the only remaining elder of her kind, who for some inexplicable reason dwells among a horde of really rude little people. Though after hearing the sage's glorious plan for the revivification of her people, I'm not surprised by anything about her, for she declares Hundra to now be solely responsible for the survival of the tribe. Our poor, bedraggled heroine shall go down to the land of the men praying to the bull, and get herself pregnant stat.

But Hundra's first attempt at getting pregnant only teaches her one thing: she still has certain standards, and won't tolerate the attentions of hairy, unwashed guys who'll even turn consensual sex into rape. So, after showing off her wrestling skills and sneering at less feminist women than herself (she'd get along well with a certain type of Internet feminists), off she rides to what goes under the term of "city" in sword and sorcery land.

There she will get into trouble with the ruling cabal of religious male chauvinist pigs whose religion is orgies, meet a man who doesn't stink and isn't a jerk, learn the womanly arts, teach the warrior arts to her teacher of womanly arts, and be somewhat responsible for a death by sitting on a face.

Among the many, many films jumping on the bandwagon created by John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, Hundra is one of the most unique in that it isn't slavishly copying all of its predecessor's story beats and aping its philosophy, but actually having a head of its own. Admittedly, Hundra's head just might be as much full of nonsense as it is of clever ideas, but I find it difficult to disagree with a film that is clearly having so much fun. Plus, you can say the same about the Milius movie, too.

Still, having fun or not, Hundra is at times a film sending very mixed messages. Tonally, it's just very inconsistent, with scenes of really unpleasant slow-motion violence like the destruction of Hundra's village (ending - especially tasteful - with the rape of Hundra's teenage-at-best sister) and sequences of Hundra romping through the city and kicking guards in the balls (one of her favourite fighting moves) standing in strange contrast to each other, quite as if half of the film were made by a low-rent Sam Peckinpah and the other half by the director of one of the later Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies. I suspect part of this curious mixture is just director Matt Cimber (a man with a career so curious someone should write a book about him, as he did Hundra as well as Pia-Zadorasploitation) fulfilling his quota of exploitational values, just that in this film, violence towards women after the big village destruction usually leads to Hundra giving the respective prick a kick in the respective balls. It's a bit like a woman in prison film where all the male bad guys are dispatched before the grand climax, and therefore don't have enough time to get really sadistic.

At times, when it's not spending its time having strange plot holes (so, the main bad guys are all about seeing Hundra “tamed”, but then they somehow don't realize when she's pregnant?) or making jokes about Hundra's cowardly male dog, Hundra actually becomes a somewhat clever inversion of the classic sword and sorcery tale, where the storyteller suddenly realizes that treating women like objects isn't alright at all, and sends out a female version of Conan to sort things out with men. The film plays with a lot of traditional sword and sorcery elements this way, turning what begins like the usual tale of vengeance into the story of a woman who learns that a lot of men are indeed shits, but not all of them, and that consensual sex is a-okay if both partners want to have it. And in a really surprising turn of events, this does not lead to our heroine giving up on her curious destiny and only ever living for her man from then on, but just sees her psychologically better prepared for it. Of course, her male love interest here is just as bland as the female love interest in sword and sorcery movies with a male hero often is, so it's not too much of a surprise she can leave him (at least for a time - the film actually is all about choice on that level).

These clever bits are surrounded by an Ennio-Morricone-scored shot in Spain series of fights, brawls and slow-motion attacks (with a bit of nudity), bad jokes, good jokes, male characters so vile I'm sure they don't wash, and Spanish actors speaking English with heavy accents. It's a bit of mess, really, but so much of the film is riding on a wave of fun, with a lead actress who may not be all that great at, well, acting, but sure seems to have as much of a blast in her slightly awkward action scenes as her character has. That sort of thing always goes a long way in turning awkward action scenes into loveable awkward action scenes. And once a film is like Hundra and mixes its loveable awkward action scenes with kinda sorta feminism that would make John Milius (and Robert E. Howard, for that matter) cry, there isn't really anything anyone could do to remove it from the warm place it has found in my heart.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

In short: Crush the Skull (2015)

After what was supposed to be their last job goes rather badly awry, highly accomplished burglar couple Blair (Katie Savoy) and Ollie (Chris Dinh, also the film’s co-writer) find themselves in debt to a rather nasty gangster. If they don’t want to lose any of their precious body parts, they have to find a new object to rob fast.

Fortunately, Blair’s brother Connor (Chris Riedell) is just in the very last stages of planning a lucrative heist (as he prefers to call it instead of the too pedestrian “burglary”) on a house somewhere out in the boons. There are a couple of problems with this, though. Firstly, Connor and Ollie hate each other with a passion, Ollie taking Connor to be a dangerously irresponsible amateur responsible for landing him in prison twice, and Connor thinking himself to be a criminal mastermind. Secondly, Ollie is absolutely right about Connor, and much of what they believe about the job will turn out to be badly wrong thanks to Connor not doing his research properly.

Which is to say, the trio and Connor’s partner Riley (Tim Chiou) break into the murder castle of a serial killer and soon find themselves locked in and on the menu as they guy’s next victims.

Indie horror comedies seldom work for me. Their scripts are all too often supposedly funny instead of actually funny, filled with jokes that are tedious instead of, you know, funny, and actors who lack in comical timing. So colour me happily surprised and impressed that Viet Nguyen’s Crush the Skull is a rather wonderful small (in the sense of a film that knows exactly on which scale it can best operate) movie.

Most – I’d say eighty-five percent, which is an insanely great quota for me and humour – jokes here actually hit their mark as they are written, and they are delivered with great comical timing by actors who clearly understand why what they are saying is supposed to be funny and how to emphasize it. But even when we leave the quality of the jokes aside, the script by Dinh and Nguyen is pretty great, understanding that a film needs more than just admittedly funny lines to actually work as a whole. Characterisation is probably the film’s greatest strength. For my taste, it is relatively unusual when a couple in a movie feels like any of the actual couples I know, but Ollie and Blair work wonderfully well. It’s not just that there’s chemistry in the writing and the acting between Savoy and Dinh, it’s that they show the right kind of closeness. The film avoids being demonstrative about the relationships between its characters and instead shows us how they act together and with each other in ways that feel organic and fun. And fun these characters are, fun enough, I’d watch them doing very little at all (or, you know, wish for some further adventures for them).

As it stands, the film’s whole serial killer plot is actually more of a set up to show how these characters interact than the film’s main concern. It is, however, imaginative and clever enough when it needs to be to hold the jokes and the characters together and give them something to work against. I did mention Crush the Skull is rather wonderful, didn’t I?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Along Came the Devil (2018)

aka Tell Me Your Name

After a childhood dominated by an abusive father who liked to cram his two daughters into a wardrobe while he was having sex, Ashley (Sydney Sweeney) has just moved in with her aunt Tonya (Jessica Barth) – or Tanya as the IMDB lists her. Ashley’s sister is off to study somewhere, apparently, and will not appear on screen again despite the film’s prologue – not to speak of the page of absolutely pointless explanatory text that came before - suggesting the relationship between the sisters to be an important concern. It’s that kind of script. No idea what happened to the father either, by the way.

Anyhow, Ashley soon has a number of paranormal experiences of the usual sort, leading her to the assumption her dead mother is trying to contact her from beyond the grave. Of course – see title of the movie - it’s actually a demon, and soon (more or less) we go through the usual demonic possession rigmarole. Ashley’s only chance are the Worst Exorcist Evah (Bruce Davison) and his junior partner Pastor John (Matt Dallas) of the creepy soulless smile (alas not a plot point).

Now, I’d really like to spoil how exactly things turn out for the poor kid, but alas, Jason DeVan’s film doesn’t bother with nonsense like having an actual ending, finishing on Tonya calling in Ashley’s sister who will never arrive on screen, and the Worst Exorcist showing off the little prison he keeps in the church cellar for all the people he didn’t manage to exorcise in the past, including Ashley’s mother. I’m not sure if this ending is a demonstration of pretty astonishing incompetence or the film angling for a sequel but it sure doesn’t help a script that is all over the place anyway.

There are important plot developments only alluded to in passing (what exactly happened at Ashley’s school, just to take an obvious example not already mentioned), completely pointless scenes like Ashley’s visit to a psychiatrist we’ll never see again, a complicated backstory about an abusive father and a possessed mother the film does bugger all with and either should have cut or better have made the core of the film instead of the exorcism movie 101 yawn fest it instead uses. The characters that don’t just pointlessly come and go are right out of the exorcism horror cliché grab bag, and of course the film doesn’t put a single actual thought of its own into why demons exist in its world and what their motivations might be beyond making teens first want to have sex (clearly, the existence of the teenage sex drive can only be explained by demons), speak in foreign languages (education is demons, I suppose), and then start to stink and badly imitate scenes from The Exorcist (a film, by the way, which really did put thought into its theology, even though I never liked it much). Extra minus points go for the physical portrayal of the demon as a huge guy with horns and glowing red eyes, making it inappropriately cartoonish – and frankly rather hilarious - in a film that clearly wants to be taken seriously.

Given the state of the script, it’s no surprise the pacing can’t be anything but off, the film crawling away until there’s only enough time left to pack the possibly interesting stuff into the final twenty-five minutes.

The acting’s solid, and the photography – an overuse of lens flare that’d blind J.J. Abrams excepted – is fine, but that can’t save Along Came the Devil from its so-called script.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In short: Ghost Stories (2017)

Warning: I need to discuss the film’s ending during the course of the post, so if you want to pretend to be surprised, better don’t read on!

Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman) is a professional debunker of psychics and psychic phenomena with a lot of personal baggage. Because that sort of thing always happens to people like him in the movies, his big role model Charles Cameron - now elderly, clearly dying and living in a trailer – invites him to his home, such as it is, to berate him and to give him an envelope containing the three cases that convinced him his and Goodman’s respective life’s works were misguided. Much of the film consists of Goodman following up on these stories, and getting them told via flashback in your typical ghost anthology style.

However, there’s something rather different going on here than it first appears to be.

Given all the excited reviews by people whose tastes I generally appreciate I’ve read about Ghost Stories, I went into Jeremy Dyson’s and Andy Nyman’s movie based on their (equally well received) stage play expecting to feel a bit of excitement myself, but as it stands, much of the film leaves me cold, while a certain amount of it just plain annoys me.

I certainly have mentioned it here over the years from time to time, but if there’s one style of ending I particularly loathe in a piece of supernatural horror, it is the old “it was all a dream, a coma fantasy or the hallucinations of people who are already dead” cop out, something that has been sucking meaning, joy and effect out of films for more than a hundred years now. To be fair to the filmmakers, in the case of Ghost Stories, this ending is not supposed to be a cop out but rather the actual point of the film. The tales we are told and their surroundings are meant to mirror the psychological state and the details of comatose Goodman’s surroundings, with even the presence of women in the tales only as ghosts and shadows being a point made about the man’s life, and nearly everything we see actually meaningful. Unfortunately, meaningful doesn’t necessarily mean interesting, and while the ghost stories themselves are loaded with connections to Goodman’s traumata and hang-ups, they are only very basic as ghost stories, though stuffed with many allusions to other movies and books, with little happening in them any viewer won’t have seen a thousand times before. They are meant to be pretty bland, I believe, but the boringness of a film’s elements being purposeful doesn’t actually make them less boring.

I’d probably be quite a bit more tolerant of the film being all metaphorical about everything if I ever got the impression Goodman’s actually interesting enough of a character to spend a whole movie in his coma fantasies, but as far as it goes, his psychology seems terribly generic to me, the supernatural as metaphor not enhancing our view into his mind as much as it should but rather working as a way for the film to avoid actual psychological insight. Bergman this is not.

All this is a particular shame since the level of filmmaking craft on display here is considerable, genre knowledge and a technical eye for detail standing in service of a film that is not as deep as it seems to think it is.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Requiem (2018)

Warning: I won’t spell things out completely, but there are certainly some spoilers towards the nature of the series and its ending in here!

Things are going swell for cellist Matilda (Lydia Wilson) and her musical partner – who is more of a further appearing kind of guy in their promo materials – Hal (Joel Fry). They seem to be hitting the big time as much as a chamber music duo can today, with a big London show coming up and important American tour dates in their future.

However, directly before the start of said big show, Lydia witnesses her mother Janice (Joanna Scanlan) committing suicide by cutting her own throat right in front of her. There weren’t any warning signs at all, and Matilda is very distraught. Sadness and pain mixes with confusion when she finds a shoebox on her mother’s bed. It is full of photos – apparently shot stalker-style – of people Matilda doesn’t know, newspaper clips and a videotape with TV news features about the disappearance of a small girl named Carys in a Welsh village twenty years ago. Thinking about what these things mean is like an itch she can’t stop scratching for Matilda, so she and Hal make their way to Wales, where their questions open up old wounds and suggest increasingly more occult explanations for what has happened to the girl and what all of this has to do with Matilda.

This six part BBC/Netflix series is a mix of mystery and supernatural tale, written in most part by its creator Kris Mrksa and directed by Mahalia Belo, both with TV experience – Mrksa a lot of it - but with not much else coming up on IMDB. It’s a genuinely excellent mixture, using the parallels between modern mystery and crime tales about cold cases and what at first seems to be a ghost story, but ending up in a somewhat different direction than you’d at first expect, the ghost story rather elegantly escalating into an occult conspiracy story.

The writing is not above using clichés, but this is more the case of the piece using well-worn tropes because they fit its needs, not because it can’t come up with something better. Even the crime standard of the lost child isn’t the easy emotional in for the audience it sometimes tends to be but an intrinsic part of this tale, for the story is indeed about it instead of using it as an easy way to grab the viewer. The mystery is well enough constructed that even once I had figured out the shape of the story relatively early on (subjective thousand years of genre cinema and literature consumption will do that to you), it was a pleasure to follow the series into the details, the obvious ones and the less so. The characters are interesting throughout, usually starting from a point a viewer will have a handle of as a cliché, but eventually showing more complexity and facets that turn them into people. Very often, the characters feel more like they are the people on whom the clichés were based, rather than clichés.

I did find myself somewhat exasperated by Matilda’s approach to, well, anything, (while still rooting for her) in part because of the socially anxious person’s discomfort at someone being quite this direct and immune to what strangers might think of her, but also because Requiem makes very believable how someone genuinely hurt by her past and recent events might end up bursting through human niceties, proprieties and other people’s lives in a way that can only lead to something very bad for everyone involved. In fact, I wouldn’t see things ending much better for our protagonist if there were nothing supernatural involved here at all. At the same time, the way Wilson portrays her, she never becomes a caricature, but a pained and sometimes frustrating human being that really deserves better.

Speaking of the supernatural, one of the most pleasant surprises for me was the actual nature of the beings involved, the clever way the show portrays and uses them, basing them on a certain historical magician and his beliefs and practices, without either getting too much into the minutiae of occult practices nor ending up with people in robes muttering about Satan. Obviously, used and portrayed as present but mysterious and not truly understandable but us humans, these beings are rather disturbing not just because they are involved in spookiness, but because of the ideas about the cosmos they represent.

Belo’s direction is generally of the slick, contemporary TV style that may not have as much money to work with as a blockbuster, but that never feels cheap and suggests not the classic picture of some work-for-hire hack quickly shooting away at a script she doesn’t care about. The direction is as composed and thought through as you’d wish from every director worth your time as a viewer.

Some of the horror sequences will not be exactly new to the discerning viewer of this sort of thing, but Belo’s handling of Matilda’s shifting states of consciousness, and the intersection between the more visible horror effects and those that are just in her mind or might just be in other characters’ minds is flawless, and often wonderfully creepy without ever only wanting to creep you out. However, this is not the kind of tale that cops out on the supernatural in the end. As a matter of fact, the ending, while elegantly not showing a lot things, is consequent and rather brutal in this regard, while also keeping with what the series has set up about its supernatural world before.

So, Requiem is a rather lovely piece of work.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Seduction. Submission. Murder. Tonight . . . evil goes over the edge

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): Despite being a friend of the darker kinds of humour, I often find myself nonplussed with comedies when they become too cynical, or rather, when they seem to dislike their own characters so much they can’t seem to find any shared emotional ground with them. Consequently, I have a complicated relationship with Shane Black’s stuff as a writer as well as a director. Here, at the start of the man’s career in the latter role, I find myself rather taken with what he produces. While the characters are certainly not all around loveable, Black doesn’t only wallow in their misfortunes, and his tendency to fourth wall breaking and ironic distance is very controlled and indeed responsible for many of the film’s funniest scenes. It’s also remarkable how good Black here is at scenes that are at once playing with genre conventions in funny ways and actually highly effective expressions of genre.

Add to that charming performances by Robert Downey Jr., Michelle Monaghan and Val Kilmer, and a lovingly absurd mystery plot kinda-sorta based on a Brett Halliday story, and you’ll find me with very uncomplicated feelings towards this particular Shane Black film.

The Big Sick (2017): Staying with comedies for a bit, Michael Showalter’s film based on a script by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon that’s based on their own early relationship, with Nanjiani playing himself and eternal indie romance heroine Zoe Kazan as Emily should by all rights be a mess of a film, or a terrible tear-jerker. As a matter of fact, it is anything but, and rather ends up being a highly successful quirky romantic comedy where that “quirky” isn’t code for “too twee”, a film about the specific problems of the children of immigrants, a sometimes drama about family, and a film that may on paper sound like a bit of an ego trip but that’s very much about people not called Kumail Nanjiani too, showing every character as complex and complicated trying to manoeuvre through the messes of life, love and so on.

It’s a fantastic film. The script is funny and moving and clever and so well plotted it feels completely natural, the acting (with people like Holly Hunter and Anupam Kher giving support) is great, and Showalter’s direction is all brilliant pacing and timing, so much so you might forget it’s there – which is an art to achieve.

The Guard (2011): And while I’m at it, why not finish up on another comedy, this time around John Michael McDonagh’s very Irish homage to buddy cop movies – or is it his answer to 80s action movies as a whole? Anyway, the film’s a showcase for the copious talents of Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle and others, and feels like a bit of an ode to the virtues that might be hidden under very dubious surfaces, with some excursions into actual tragedy (the scenes between Gleeson’s character Gerry Boyle and his dying mother played by Fionnula Flannagan are absolutely heart-breaking; also funny), realpolitik, and the sad fact that in some places, the abrasive, politically un-correct man of dubious morals in little things might just be the only moral guy in big things around.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Zemlya Sannikova (1973)

aka The Sannikov Land

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

During the later stages of the existence of tsarist Russia. His - most probably revolutionary - politics have brought geographer Ilyin (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) into exile in a town near the polar circle. Ilyin dreams of being the first man to set foot onto Sannikov Land, an area north of the polar ice that is green and fecund instead of icy and barren. Some pretty talk about gold that might be found there with the local evil (as he does of course not actually intend to share the gold with the geographer) capitalist earns Ilyin, who is clearly much less interested in gold than exploration as a goal in itself, the funding for an expedition into the white north.

The expedition isn't exactly large: Ilyin, the local manly man/drunk/singer of horrible pop songs and fan of the Tsar Evgeniy Krestovskiy (Oleg Dal), and the capitalist's beleaguered right-hand man and odious comic relief Ignatiy (Georgi Vitsin) - who also seems to stand in for the oppressed working classes from time to time - make up the whole of the expedition, until revolutionary and doctor Gubin (Yuri Nazarov) sneaks on board the ship carrying the trio northwards. Gubin has escaped from prison, and is initially planning to hijack the ship to sail to America, but since he and Ilyin just happen to be old friends, and Ilyin really is quite convincing in his ardour to reach Sannikov Land, he becomes part of the expedition and the trio turns into a quartet.

Once they have set foot on icy land, the expedition doesn't go too well at first. The corpses of an earlier expedition also looking for Sannikov Land are something of a bad omen, and the Inuit our expedition has hired as guides while the camera wasn't looking turn back halfway, taking the dog sleds of the expedition with them (note to self: if you ever go on a polar expedition, bring your own dogs and sleds).

Just when all seems lost and our heroes start with the infighting and the dying, they reach Sannikov Land. It turns out the place is a valley kept warm by volcanic activity (uh oh), and really as green and pleasant as Ilyin had hoped. It's also populated by a tribe of phenotypically very diverse natives (from Caucasians in slight brown-face to a lot of Asians with blond and red wigs) called the Onkilon. While the Onkilon aren't as threatening as their demeanour initially suggests, their chief does not want anyone in the outside world to learn of the existence of their home. He's not a bad guy, though, for he is perfectly willing to provide the strangers with places among his tribe and (how romantic!) women of their own - as long as they never leave again.

This could be the beginning of a somewhat wonderful friendship (if one doesn't mind the imprisonment and shotgun wedding aspect), but alas, the tribe's shaman (Makhmud Esambayev in a performance somewhere between Iggy Pop and the worst Hollywood Indian you can imagine) has a different opinion. He sees that the strangers are threatening his power over the tribe and decides he needs to get rid of them; and while he's at it, he might get rid of that darn liberal chief for good measure.

Zemlya Sannikova is based on a novel in the Lost World mold by early Russian SF writer and man with a highly interesting life (just look at his Wikipedia page!) Vladimir Obruchev, and - as far as I can tell - is still something of a classic in the former Soviet Union. This is another indication (as if we needed more) that people at their core really are the same all over the world, political and cultural differences notwithstanding, for Zemlya Sannikova is exactly the sometimes cheesy, sometimes silly, sometimes awe-inspiringly beautiful kind of adventure movie people all over the world would love, featuring manly, bearded and morally upright heroes (except for the Tsarist, who just happens to be a bit of a prick), an insane shaman, various daring deeds, beautiful women in horrible clothing, and a basic idea that should make everyone's inner twelve year old gleefully happy. Naturally, there are a few differences in the movie's stereotypes when compared to western movies - the capitalist is evil in a slightly different way than capitalists in western movies are, for example. The film's ideology also is a bit different than one is used to from other adventure movies - the film ends on the heroes planning a rescue expedition for the threatened tribe instead of killing them all and taking their stuff, for Marx's sake! - though I think this internationalist streak is rather refreshing. Still, below these surface differences waits the archetype of the adventure story.

Often, the film is very good at what it does: Zemlya Sannikova's early stages not only convey the romance and pathos the kind of expedition our heroes go on carrries, but also a subtle sense of melancholia that will return in the film's final scenes; there's something desperate and beautiful in the history of human exploration of the world, and the early parts of Zemlya Sannikova really want to make that clear. Of course, that feeling of melancholia (already broken by two really quite horrible pop songs early on) soon enough makes room for one of slight insanity once the focus shifts from the exploration to the natives. For while the film tries its hardest to talk about some serious themes when it comes to the Onkilon, its treatment of everything surrounding the tribe is deeply cheesy and silly as is tradition in all Lost World type films. It's not just the fact that these "natives" are dressed up in ridiculous wigs and costumes no actual human being would ever have worn in any kind of wilderness, nor just that their culture - as far as we see it - does not make the slightest bit of sense (we're in full grown "they are big children, Jean-Jacques" territory here), nor is it the combination of these factors alone. Rather it's that their treatment as being the ultimate naïfs seems even more naive than they themselves are supposed to be, as if the film's only idea of how hunter and collector societies work came from a third grade version of Rousseau and Marx.

The latter gentleman truly comes in once we take a look at the film's main bad guy, the shaman, who is clearly supposed to be an example of the destructive power of religion (opium of the people, etc) - more evil than capitalism! - as a way to control the minds of a people. Of course, I can't say I disagree all that much with the film's views of organized religion, it's just that Zemlya Sannikova is simplifying a complex web of human wishes and desires until it turns into a ridiculous farce. That matter sure isn't helped by Esambayev's - a professional dancer who shows his talent in here in adorably ridiculous ways - hilarious performance. Even if one ignores the ideological aspect, it's pretty difficult to take a villain seriously who spends as much time shimmying, wobbling, shaking, hip-swinging and doing the funky chicken while chewing scenery as Esambayev does. On the other hand, while the man's performance might destroy any semblance of seriousness the film had until he appeared, he sure as hell is perfectly entertaining to watch.

Add to that elements like a soundtrack by Aleksandr Zatsepin that reaches from the (still horrible) pop songs to weird, moody synth noodling to Peter Thomas like psychedelic lounge electronica, or ideas like the marriage rites of the Onkilon (basically, they're playing catch), and you have a film as strange as one could hope for. All the silliness (and the sad, scientifically correct absence of dinosaurs and monstrous animals every lost world is supposed to contain) and the many scenes that are just as cheesy as those in a comparable Hollywood adventure movie would be come together into something highly diverting, if not exactly the film I had expected going in.

Directors Albert S. Mkrtchyan (last seen here directing the excellent Priskosnoveniye) and Leonid Popov manage this strange mixture of the earnest, the bizarre, the dogmatic and the plain fun with aplomb, using - often impressively beautiful - nature shots as the best special effect of them all, and treat every aspect of the film with dignity, never mind if the aspect at hand actually deserves any dignity. It might be a cliché, but there's just never a dull moment on screen in Zemlya Sannikova.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

In short: Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (2013)

aka Witching and Bitching

I do remember a time, once in the long ago, when Álex de la Iglesia’s transgressive horror comedies were actually transgressive. Not that I liked them much, mind you, because they always had the whiff of watching films made by who did not give much of a throught about who the targets of his humour were as long as his films got someone outraged, and convinced someone else to defend him for reasons of art (seldom of, you know, substance to that art, alas). I always thought his films lacked any actual conviction, or anger, or bitterness, or love that would direct where he pointed his humour at.

This time around, it’s especially difficult not to see the lack of an actual edge in this tired sequence of mild misogyny and bored homophobia. I’m sure, parts of outrage culture will still be outraged (that’s what it lives off, after all, be it in the guise of right-wing guardians of public morals and freedom or of identity politically moved guarding the very same thing) but I couldn’t help but find myself bored by the tiredness of it all, yawning through much of the film, and finding my patience tried not by any moral apprehensions but by how little the film actually works at shocking – or entertaining, for that matter – its audience, as if shouting some shitty nonsense about women would even be worthy of notice. Being a prick who only spouts lame clichés, it turns out, isn’t all that transgressive in my book, just vaguely unpleasant, like the proverbial racist uncle one pointedly doesn’t talk to once a year yet who never seems worth the effort to actually get angry.

It doesn’t help the film as a horror comedy that it’s often quite sluggishly paced and needs nearly an hour to actually get going, but then, why should that part of the movie suggest any more intellectual or emotional involvement than anything else in it?

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Revenge (2017)

Wealthy Richard (Kevin Janssens) has taken his young mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz in what will turn out to be quite the tour de force physical performance) to his modernist holiday home so deep in a desert they get flown in. The plan is for a bit of bump and grind with the young and somewhat naive woman, and then to have her fly out again before his friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) will come in for their yearly hunting get-together.

Alas, the guys come in a bit earlier than planned. These, as it will surprise nobody, are not the type of men a woman wants to be alone with. Leering and what one might just barely get away with calling sexual tension turns into rape when Richard is out to take care of their hunting licenses. When Jen rejects Richard’s offer to pay her off to forget the whole thing, he just pushes her off a mountain. Where rapist Stan and all-around shit Dimitri are still baseline human monsters, Richard turns out to be an honest to gawd sociopath.

It takes some time until these prime examples of upper class manhood realize that Jen has somehow survived the fall and crawled away to some hiding spot. Since these guys clearly live their lives following the question “What would a serial killer do?”, they, well, Richard decides - the others follow with more or less grumbling - to hunt Jen down and murder her again. They’ve got weapons, transport and equipment, after all, and Jen doesn’t even have water. Jen is by far not going to be the easy victim they are expecting, though.

Coralie Fargeat’s rape revenge film with the catchy title is rather special, not just because the director/writer being a woman leads to her approaching some of the well-worn plot beats of the subgenre somewhat – though not as extremely as one might expect - differently from most of the male directed brethren her film shares its genre with; not only because the film doesn’t stop at being somewhat more honestly feminist than is typical of a genre that often dances ambiguously between titillation and condemnation, without being didactic. It’s Fargeat’s ability to take, twist and shape genre standards and make them her own, staging everything from the rape scene, to action sequences to dream sequences and making it look easy.

Fargeat’s clearly perfectly okay with the implausibility of some of what happens in the film. In fact, there’s a line of dark, sardonic humour running through it that seems to luxuriate in the ability of a movie to be more than real. Things never devolve into outright comedy, though, the violence – while as over the top bloody as is the French style – always feels weighty and unpleasant, and the characters – the film even gives its trio of rapist shits a bit of depth and believable character relations which doesn’t make them more likeable but definitely more believable beyond “evil” – may be broadly drawn but are also exactly the type you might imagine would inhabit Revenge’s visual world.

Said visual world is rather spectacular too, Fargeat turning the desert and the house into playgrounds of colours, using directorial choices that hint at pop art and video clips yet which in her hands don’t feel tacky and distracting but fiercely focused. Just that this focus isn’t always exactly where you’d expect it to be – which is a good thing, obviously. There’s an air of the more-than-real/not-quite-real about Fargeat’s staging that turns the film from the decent genre programmer its plot might promise into something riveting, intense and dreamlike. At the same time, the director isn’t slave to her stylishness – the rape, the following violence, and so on, never feel lessened in impact or meaning by the way they are shot, but, as it should be, strengthened.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

In short: Boar (2017)

A nice Australian family, with Bill Moseley playing the married-in stepdad from the US, have chosen a pretty bad time to visit giant – probably mutant - brother Bernie (Nathan Jones, apparently once a professional strongman known as “Megaman” to which there is nothing to add) in his outback home. For there’s a – most certainly mutant – giant boar roaming this particular stretch of the big Australian nothing, destroying fences, cars, cattle, and killing and sometimes just kidnapping people for its larder.

Why, the thing even murders good old John Jarratt, despite the man for once not playing a serial killer but a stand-up guy. Well, and it will murder large parts of the rest of the cast, too. Obviously.

Well, Razorback Chris Sun’s Boar clearly ain’t. There are certainly no ambitions visible on screen for this to be artistic or deep. This is very consciously built to be just a really fun monster flick without pretensions but also – thankfully - with little irony concerning its own genre.

Even though I wouldn’t exactly call Boar a comedy, the film has quite a few consciously goofy elements, scenes that are probably in it because they’re good fun instead of there to do much for either the plot or the characters. But then, once you encounter the scene where Nathan Jones rides around the countryside while rapping to that, ahem, classic “Ice Ice Baby”, you just might be like me and stop wanting it any other way. The film does take most of the violence and the boar attacks seriously enough, though, or as seriously as a film including something like the dramatic scene in which Jones has a knife fight with the mangy giant thing can get.

Otherwise, the film has quite a bit of fun with presenting many an outback dweller cliché, but with a twist, so everyone’s entertainingly and somewhat hilariously foul mouthed, bar owners solve the problem of grabby customers by kicking their ass, and so on and so forth. These scenes are generally so entertaining, they don’t ever feel like the filler they actually are, but rather like the film having its fun just letting the characters interact with one another and that this is indeed how rural Australia rolls.

The boar– a mixture of practical effects and CGI I believe – is looking rather impressive too for most of the time, coming over as an actual physical presence in most of its scenes, and certainly as a dire threat to life and limb of the characters. In general, Sun is as competent a hand at the action scenes as he is at the funny character bits, so there’s little at all to stand in the way of what seems to be the Boar’s main goal: being a fun movie about very Australian Australians fighting a big ass boar.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Slaughter of the Innocents (1993)

Warning: some spoilers ahead because there are a couple of moments late in the movie I need to mention, for I am only human!

Top FBI agent Stephen Broderick (Scott Glenn) seems to have rather a lot of leeway with the Bureau. At least, it seems to be par for the course for him, when it is not going to be dangerous, to take his crime obsessed boy genius son Jesse (Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus) with him. Apparently, Broderick appreciates his help analysing cases of serial killing, rape and so on and so forth. It is very possible that Jesse is supposed to be somewhere on the Autism spectrum, but then this is a film where a little kid habitually helps his FBI father solve crimes, so its ideas what is neurotypical and what not may differ rather a lot from most anybody else’s.

With Jesse’s help, Stephen nearly – the local prison warden is alas an ass - manages to save the life of a young mentally ill guy on death row in Utah for a murder and kidnapping he certainly did not commit. The crime fighting duo also finds out that this case is part of a whole series of related crimes committed by a disorganized killer if ever you’ve seen one.

Will Jesse make his way to Utah on his own and get into great danger when his dad decides things are getting too dangerous for him? You betcha.

Even James Glickenhaus amateurs like me know that the director/writer/producer was generally all about movies about cops and vigilantes made and set in grubby Koch era New York. But what’s an exploitation filmmaker to do when suddenly, post Silence of the Lambs, nobody wants to see unwashed men shooting drug dealers while rats skitter through blue lit streets? Not making any films at all is no solution for any working director, so a film about an FBI guy hunting a serial killer it was for Glickenhaus. And while one is at it, why not add a weird kid as assistant, gate to the wonders of modern technology and object to be threatened in the end? Films with kids always go down well, right? And hey, when you can cast your own son, it’s going to be a cheap kid too.

Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus, as becomes obvious rather quickly, is not one of the great child actors, and his Jesse certainly isn’t a believable kid at all, but then, given that he’s not written as one, it’s unfair to lay the blame on the poor kid. As a matter of fact, if you go into Slaughter of the Innocents expecting anything or anyone in it to be describable with the word “believable”, you’re absolutely out of luck. This is the serial killer thriller at its most absurd, with a finale that sees Jesse finding the killer’s secret cave in the desert, which is a place where our antagonist has built a new ark and dressed it up with rotting human corpses, as well as taxidermied animals, including a giraffe. The giraffe is, obviously, a plot point that leads the kid there. As it will turn out, it is also particularly annoying to the killer that his god still hasn’t gotten around to a new flood despite him having brought a giraffe to his ark. This, mind you, is not played for comedic effect at all (or Glickenhaus’s humour is drier than the desert), but follows a scene of an increasingly traumatized child stumbling through the killer’s Cave o’Corpses that wouldn’t feel out of place in particularly crass slasher.

Crassness really is a large part of Slaughter of the Innocents special charms. There’s also the discovery of the bloody corpse of a little girl early on, as well as a grim and overheated portrayal of an execution, and other moments in the same style. Glickenhaus is not quite wallowing in this sort of thing enough to make the hardened exploitation viewer queasy, but clearly has no shame at all in doing things in an unpleasant way even when it isn’t strictly necessary. This crassness, the willingness to go there is paired with the nearly comical absurdity of the whole plot – the killer makes no sense, his background makes no sense, the clue trail includes a stolen giraffe – as well as with an effective sense of the grotesque. The killer’s home, for example, isn’t just crass, but it also looks absolutely like the product of a perverted religious imagination that is to equal parts based on kitsch and violence, so while it is absurd, it also provides the right kind of frisson.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: BIG MEETS BIGGER

The Maus (2017): Using genre cinema and elements of the fantastical strictly for parable and allegory is usually the best way for a genre film to get friendly nods from critics who prefer their movies Serious and Meaningful. As Yayo Herrero’s film demonstrates, there is an easy trap to fall in with this approach, asking an audience to somehow connect with a film whose characters aren’t people – aren’t even supposed to be people – but stand-ins for groups of thousands or more individuals and/or mouthpieces for ideas.

Consequently, here, the two Serbian characters are human monsters, the Bosnian woman traumatized into violently striking back, and her German boyfriend just not able to understand because nobody murdered his family. A series of clichés which I believe amply demonstrates how shallowly this film that’s supposed to be about ideas approaches its historical target, turning a complex and horrifying part of recent history into something that’s pat and easily understandable, not reduced to its basics but simplified until the whole noble gesture of this being a Meaningful movie about Serious things seems rather dubious. Why, I can’t help but think if the film had been about specific people instead, it might have been able to actually say more about the world they inhabit and the forces that shaped them.

Habit (2017): Staying in the realm of not terribly convincing genre filmmaking, how about this poverty porn/horror movie by Simeon Halligan? If you went and told me a film concerning a cannibal sex cult running nightclubs and bordellos could be quite as bland and bloodless as this one, I wouldn’t have believed it. Alas, bland and bloodless it is, selling its argument that life as a modern city poor, the inevitable emptiness only lightened by drunken debauchery (don’t tell filmmakers not all of us lower class people are self-destructive alcoholics), can easily push one into enjoying the supposed feeling of life that comes with being a cannibal (the film tells yet doesn’t show that feeling, obviously), with all the energy and depth of an empty battery.

There’s absolutely an exciting, insightful film to be made out of the basic set-up and its basic interests, but that film would have some life to it, and would probably have a point its actually trying to get across beyond: being poor is really bad for your mental health. Who’d have thunk?

Thoroughbreds (2017): Fortunately, I can end this post on a satisfying note, namely with this nasty black comedy about the friendship between two teenage female upperclass sociopaths (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy in performances that are in turn disturbing, sad, and funny). The film recommends itself not only through the performances of its wonderful leads, but also through its sardonic portrayal of the young women’s upperclass world, the kind of privilege that seems bound to create sociopaths while only willing to notice them when they are acting out a little. It’s the old ditty about the terrors lurking beneath the surface of a supposedly normal world given a large twist of class consciousness, and presented with dry wit.

Director Cory Finley’s clinical style of direction will not be to everyone’s taste but to my eyes, it seems the perfect approach to telling the tale of two people who only ever perform emotions.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Past Misdeeds: P.O.V. - A Cursed Film (2012)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

During the shoot of the low rent idol show of Mirai Shida (playing herself) with special guest Haruna Kawaguchi (playing herself too), something disturbing happens. The show's gimmick of the week is to have the two teenagers watch ghost videos, but the videos that appear on screen aren't the ones the director and the girls’ manager have vetted beforehand.

In fact, these videos contain much better footage than this sort of video usually does, and they all seem to be shot at Haruna's former junior high school, which must be the most haunted school in Japan. Oh, and the videos continue playing when the DVD they are on isn't actually in its laptop anymore. Haruna, who spent some time at her junior high hunting but never finding exactly the ghostly apparitions she now sees on screen, is convinced she is cursed, an idea that does not become weaker once the crew films the reflection of a female ghost in one of the studio windows.

Clearly, this situation affords a fine possibility for the show to hire the world's most matter of fact psychic (who, we will learn, is psychic, not a mind reader) to help Haruna and finally get some really exciting footage. Alas, the psychic is sure that Haruna's little ghost problem can only be solved inside of the junior high. Of course, once the film crew is inside the place, they'll get to see more of the ghosts than they probably asked for.

It looks like the found footage/POV horror sub-genre is suddenly somewhat hot again in Japan. This does not come as much of a surprise seeing as how ideally the genre is suited to low budgets, with footage that is generally supposed to look cheap, no need for complicated camera set-ups or sets, scripts that tend to the simple, and hordes of idols willing to act in everything being churned out by the Japanese entertainment machine. Somewhat surprisingly going by the standard of the POV genre in the USA and Europe, a lot of the newer Japanese POV films I have seen are actually decent or even better, with Koji Shiraishi's Occult and this one being particular stand-outs that manage to fulfil all genre expectations yet also give the clichés they are working with small, effective twists.

POV and Occult invite some comparisons in other aspects than their respective quality, too. Both films are directed by men who have done good, sometimes great, work in the second row of Japanese horror directors. POV's Norio Tsuruta does not have anything quite as brilliant as Shiraishi's Noroi or A Slit-Mouthed Woman in his filmography, but his films clearly show him to be someone who understands the horror genre and is intelligent enough to know that the point of making genre movies isn't just giving people what they want from them but also surprising the audience with slight twists on and tweaks to a given formula.

POV is a perfect example of the latter. In its basic set-up, the film seems as generic as possible, with the usual non-characters going about their horror movie days, and the expected ghosts (though a lot more of them than you usually see in a film like this) doing the expected ghostly things. And what 's more generic than a middle part that mostly consists of people shaking their cameras, screaming, and running through a dark building? The film's plot, however, is decidedly more clever than it at first appears, using the comfortably familiar spook show elements in service of something more sinister and more creepy, leading into a semi-apocalyptic post-ending titles climax that is surprising and highly effective in its nature.

POV is also one of the few films of its sub-sub-genre that seems interested in using the discomfort the basics of Japanese idol culture can produce in a viewer who isn't a total idiot, presenting the low rent entertainment biz in a subtly bad light, possibly even suggesting this sort of entertainment and its unspoken greed would be the perfect in-road for actual evil (or, ironically, that certain ghosts would see idol culture as a nice way to finally become famous). POV does not explore this aspect all that deeply (which is not coming as much of a surprise from a film that by necessity is itself a part of perhaps dubious, always looked down upon, circles of pop culture), but that does also mean it's not getting preachy - and therefore annoyingly hypocritical - about it. It's just an element that's there to add more cultural resonance to the film.

Of course, all of POV's interesting subtext would be quite wasted if it did not also succeed at the bread and butter parts of a horror movie, the shocks, the moments of discomfort, and the all-purpose creepiness. Many of the film's fright scenes are based on sometimes imaginative variations of pretty traditional Japanese ghosts and traditional POV horror shocks. About half of them tend to the more carnivalesque jump scare mode, as well as grating on audience nerves by having the characters screech and shake their cameras, but there are also some exceedingly creepy scenes based on clever sound design, shadows, and my eternal favourite (that also turns a ghost story into something Weirder for me), scenes of time and space losing their usual consistence to threaten the characters. That last element is especially finely realized in the film's first major climax, a scene I find too delightful/disturbing/effectively tense to spoil by describing it. Let's just say it involves a disappearance, a camera, and a ghost moving towards the characters making rather disturbing noises (as Japanese ghosts are wont to, of course), and that it actually got to me.

Tsuruta - who also wrote the script - shows itself as a director very capable of using the more subtle parts of horror craft even in a context like POV horror that often doesn't seem all that interested in them, with a real gift for pacing the suspense scenes beyond the usual running and screaming.

Thanks to him, POV is a surprisingly excellent piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

In short: Against the Night (2017)

aka Amityville Prison (I have no idea)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the ending, so you don’t have to suffer through the movie!

One among a number of completely interchangeable young horror movie people – even their names seem to be chosen to be as generic as possible – who earns his money shooting fake ghost hunting stuff convinces his friends to go and visit an abandoned prison with him. After way too much time of all eight of these nonentities babbling over one another, they split up into smaller groups and get slaughtered, mostly off-camera. Stupid plot twists ensue. Your seasoned viewer of crap movies sighs in annoyance, then the most stupid plot twist of them all happens, and he does at least respect the film for really not having a single brain cell, yet also no shame.

So, if your dream movie is one that features all the problems of bad POV horror films, despite only half consisting of night vision shakycam etc, Brian Cavallaro’s Against the Night is probably an absolute dream come true. This thing features characterisation so thin it’s basically see-through, no personality to anyone on screen, a plot that starts about half an hour into the film, shots so dark you can’t see much even once there may actually be something happening on screen potentially worth seeing, and a story so generic and empty one might as well call it a parking lot instead of a story.

All of which, particularly with characters who barely manage to at least be horror film clichés, makes it rather difficult to care even once something does indeed start to happen. Sure, there’s a bit of violence, there’s some bickering, probably meant as dramatic tension and paranoia as imagined by someone who has no clue what these words mean, but there’s nobody and nothing on screen, neither person nor idea, that could actually give you a reason to care about any of it. Also, darkness, night vision and screaming does not automatically lead to atmosphere.

On the plus side, the final twist reveals that the killer is not as assumed some guy in a gasmask but an alien with face tentacles that maybe look a little like a gasmask when a film is lit quite as darkly as this one. Against the Night even plays fair and does present the alien explanation earlier, letting one character theorize aliens are haunting the prison and killing idiots with generic names because it is shaped like a crop circle.  This, ladies and gents, is the art of screenwriting.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Shakedown (1988)

aka Blue Jean Cop

New York. Just one week before he’s going to leave his legal aid career behind and start a job in the Wall Street law firm of his rich girl fiancée's rich daddy, once idealistic - now pretty cynical but not completely hopeless - Roland Dalton (Peter Weller) gets quite the case dropped in his lap. Low level drug dealer Michael Jones (Richard Brooks) has apparently shot an undercover cop during an arrest attempt, but Michael says the guy tried to shoot him and steal his money and drugs without ever identifying himself as a police officer instead of a common robber. After all, if a cop would have wanted to shake Michael down, he would have let him take whatever he wanted and let his own bosses sort things out with the dirty cops. Roland believes Michael.

A friendly chat with his cop buddy Richie Marks (Sam Elliott), suggests a course of investigation to Roland that will lead to a bit of hornet’s nest of a group of corrupt cops – whose corruption is of course ignored by the rest of the force for the usual corps spirit bullshit reasons – trying to get a bit more involved in the business of a local crack kingpin (Antonio Fargas).

To add more complications, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case is the love of Roland’s life (Patricia Charbonneau) – not to be confused with his fiancée.

I am not as a great an expert on the body of work of James Glickenhaus as some other writers roaming the movie blog and podcast world are, so I just accept their received wisdom that this on paper somewhat bizarre combination of 80s action movie and courtroom drama is indeed Glickenhaus’s magnum opus. At the very least, it’s pretty damn great, avoiding he drabness of most films about people shouting “OBJECTION!” – Ace Attorney excepted – by replacing the boring bits with stuff like scenes of Sam Elliott chasing some skinny idiot through what I assume is Coney Island, and ending up on a roller coaster, or with a pretty fantastic trike versus car chase with Weller riding handgun, and a finale where Elliott solves the age old grudge match between action hero and small plane once and for all.

These scenes are generally not filmed in the overly slick way one might perhaps expect but embedded in the Glickenhaus typical (so much do even I know about his films) eye for the grimiest bits of late 80s New York, grounding the adrenaline-driven absurdity of 80s action cinema in what feels like a totally real place. Indeed, one of the film’s great strengths is how leisurely and non-dramatic its plotting is, not because the writer/director doesn’t know how to make things tight (you can’t shoot action like this if you don’t know) but because Glickenhaus seems just as interested in portraying the world his characters inhabit – for better or worse – as in the action. So even something like the whole sub-plot in which Roland and his ex are falling back in love with each other and his struggle to tell his fiancée the truth about how he feels and really, who he truly is, do not feel like filler but rather are successful attempts at creating a world that may or may not be a heightened version of how the film and its director sees New York.

This gives a film that’s beholden to a gritty version of 80s pedal to the metal action, speechifying courtroom drama (wonderfully done by Weller, by the way), and some dubious plot ideas – Roland really breaks into a lot of places and likes to get into violent situations for the honest lawyer he’s supposed to be – an uncommon sense of earnestness, very much emphasizing the value of providing its characters with humanity and the world they live in with substance in genres where that sort of thing isn’t always par for the course. This also results in some very typical cliché situations and constellations actually feeling fitting and human, even though they are not actually all that different from the dozens of other times when they just annoyed me.

The cast obviously gets this, too, so there’s a complete lack of winking and being all ironic about being evil from large parts of the ensemble. Instead everyone plays things straight and puts actual effort into their roles. Weller is simply great, whereas Sam Elliott – complete with the facial hair we his fans demand of him – convinces through his typical Sam-Elliott-ness and much soulful and/or disgusted staring. But really, everyone here is completely on point.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

In short: Minutes Past Midnight (2016)

Minutes Past Midnight isn’t quite your typical horror anthology but structured rather more like a literary anthology which, curated by Justin McConnell, brings together various short films that weren’t necessarily meant to be parts of a full length movie. I rather like this format, for it certainly helps bring short films to viewers that wouldn’t seek them out as standalones or have no way of seeing them because a surprising amount of shorts isn’t actually online and can mostly be experienced by people who either live near one of the places where a genre film festival takes place or can afford to travel to one.

Unlike with most anthology films I write up, I’m not going to go into every single one of the segments. Let’s just say that most of them are solid to great – except for Ryan Lightbourn’s “Roid Rage” which is pretty much everything I don’t like in a movie condensed into one short – but put out a couple of words for the highlights.

The most obvious highlight is of course Kevin McTurk’s puppet animation “The Mill At Calder’s End”, a wonderful concoction of Gothic mood concerning a family curse in the Victorian age, featuring the voices of the great Barbara Steele and Jason Flemyng (and one puppet that looks rather a lot like Peter Cushing), and making not a single misstep in design, tone, or mood. It’s simply a perfect piece of short cinema.

Also very fine, if not quite as exalted as “The Mill” is Christian Rivers’s “Feeder”, the tale of a struggling musician moving into a rundown house in a rundown part of suburbia where he encounters an entity that trades sacrifice – indicating its wishes through scratched drawings on a wooden floor – for inspiration. As it goes in these matters, the sacrifices required tend to grow and grow. I really like the folkloristic echoes of the trading of sacrifice for inspiration, turning this into a bit of a piece of suburban, Australian folk horror (at least as I would define the word). It’s realized with a solid understanding of how much it needs to show of the sacrifices and their psychological consequences to to be effective. It also ends on a neat little twist that may not come as a complete surprise but fits the tone of the whole piece wonderfully.

Last but not least, I’m going to praise “Ghost Train”, a tale of childhood guilt turning deadly by Lee Cronin, featuring a fantastically creepy looking animatronic ghost train (the kind you find at a carnival, not he sort that makes choo choo), some harsh revenge from the grave by one of the creepier undead children I’ve seen in my long career of watching this stuff. It’s told in a mood that reminded me quite a bit of the stories of Australian writer Terry Dowling, who also often circles comparable thematic concerns and motifs.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Dead Night (2017)

One spring break, the Pollack family make their way into one of those all too typical cabins in the snowy woods, taking their daughter Jessica’s (Sophie Dalah) best friend Becky (Elise Luthman), too. It’s not just your standard vacation, though, but rather mom Casey’s (Brea Grant) last attempt at saving her husband James (AJ Bowen) from a brain tumour. The cabin, you see, is supposedly built on magical healing stones right from the realm of woo woo. However, something magical is going to happen when James finds an unconscious woman in the woods who is going by the improbable moniker of Leslie Bison (Barbara Crampton). Alas, it’s the kind of magic that leads to zombie families and axe massacres.

Speaking of axe massacre, while the increasingly demented plot unfolds, the film from time to time cuts into what a mysterious person or thing watches on a tower of TVs stacked up in the middle of the woods: an episode of a sensationalist true crime TV show about Casey’s axe-murder of her whole family. Well, and a TV spot for Leslie Bison’s run for Ohio governor.

That true crime TV show is one of the best parts of Brad Baruh’s pretty bizarre and terribly fun little horror film. It hits exactly the right tone with its over-earnest, sleazy presenter, the kitschy and melodramatic recreations, and the generally sanctimonious tone that comes with the business of making a quick buck out of terrible shit that has happened to people, without a care for boring things like truth, doubt, and responsibility. This part of the film is going to be even more entertaining than it already is once Dead Night comes around to telling the audience who watches it, when, and why, coming up with an answer that makes no logical sense (it’s not supposed to, mind you), the movie staring at its audience as if daring it to call it a damn liar. It’s pretty fantastic.

Also rather wonderful are Dead Night’s practical gore effects, a series of nicely done and excellently grotesque disfigurements that doesn’t really stop once the film has gotten going. As a frequent horror viewer, I did of course know where all of this was going in broad strokes very early on, but the film has a tendency to play with and audiences expectations at least a bit, coming up with improbable ideas and illogical little twists that certainly aren’t common.

That’s not the sort of thing everyone will enjoy, so if you need the plan of a movie’s villains to make much sense, even if it is only a ritualistic one, or things in a film to happen somewhat akin to the way things happen in the real world, you won’t find much joy here. In fact, Dead Night goes out of its way to present the violent supernatural as we know and love it from horror movies of the late 80s and the 90s as something that is at its core not logical and will therefore not act in manners that completely make sense. Or at least, that’s how its treatment seems to.

If you’re like me and go for stuff like this, you just might have a wonderful time, not only with the gory and strange bits but also some shots of wonderful strangeness, be it the TVs in the woods or Crampton’s behaviour in the cabin before the minor killing spree starts, including a fantastic bit of passive aggressive milk drinking. That last part again demonstrates how much of a treasure Crampton as a character actress specialised in all sorts of creepy, disturbed, or disturbing women has become in her return to horror.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: You can change the cards you're dealt.

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995): And with the third attempt, the magic disappears completely from the Die Hard movies. Willis’s John McClane is now pretty much like every other action hero thanks to the shunting away of his wife and the non-generic parts of his character. The moments of surprising veracity from the last films are gone, too, and the less said about the film’s attempt to make gestures of tackling racism via its buddy movie plot line with a Samuel L. Jackson who gives the only fun performance in the whole movie the better. The thing additionally suffers from a limp script that doesn’t seem to have much of a clue how to turn a series of action sequences into a movie.

Even worse, returning John McTiernan is at his worst here, directing action scenes that are basically competent but never fun, interesting, or exciting. I understand why everyone involved thought removing the constraints of locality of the first films to be a good idea, but replacing their tight, increasingly outrageous action sequences with Willis and Jackson racing all over New York solving stupid riddles while random stuff breaks isn’t an entertaining replacement. And don’t even get me started on Jeremy Irons’s performance that is exactly the wrong kind of cartoonish.

Another WolfCop (2017): I don’t think I exactly needed a sequel to WolfCop in my life, even if it is by returning director/writer Lowell Dean again. I especially did not need one where half the jokes are slight variations on ones from the first film. However, its (sometimes too) self-conscious charms, its goofy-gory humour and its general Canadian-ness might not quite add up to the outrageous gore and giggle-fest its (awesome) poster and its brilliant tagline (“Sequels are a disease. Meet the cure.”) promise but Another WolfCop is as good-natured and likeable as a meta-humorous pseudo-grindhouse film can get, and that’s worth something in my book.

Mara (2013): Over in Scandinavia it apparently takes three directors to make this – sometimes very pretty to look at – film about young people in a house in the woods – etc, etc. For a time, the whole affair looks and feels like your typical low budget slasher (including quite a bit of gratuitous nudity), perhaps artier shot, then it turns out to be a double-twist thriller that at least tries to play with the audience expectations towards plot twists. While I like the idea, and find the film more than competently shot, I don’t think the plot comes together well enough for the film to be interesting. Even with the twists, it’s just not very interesting, or exciting, or even fun to watch.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Wu Xia (2011)

aka Swordsmen

aka Dragon

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

China, 1917. Liu Jin-Xi (Donnie Yen) lives a peaceful life with his wife Ah Yu (Tang Wei), her son from a first marriage Liu Fang-Zheng (Zheng Wei) and their son Liu Xiao-Tian (Li Jia-Min) in a country town, working in a paper mill. Shadows of a different man Liu Jin-Xi once was begin to emerge when two martial artist villains try to rob the mill.

Liu Xiao-Tian kills the men in what on first look seems like a series of exceedingly lucky accidents, making him the hero of the village. But Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the detective investigating the villains' death, has his doubts regarding Xiao-Tian. How, after all, should one hapless butcher's son be able to "accidentally" kill two of the meanest martial artists around? Some of the physical evidence Xu Bai-Jiu finds tells a different story, too, and the detective is soon convinced Xiao-Tian must be a masterful martial artist and experienced killer who is just using this identity to hide himself from the law.

Even though Xiao-Tian must be a changed man from whoever he was before, Xu Bai-Jiu can't help himself but go after him, sniffing and asking questions and even accommodating himself at Xiao-Tian's place. Xu Bai-Jiu's own past has him convinced that his natural tendency to compassion is a weakness before the spirit of the law that needs to be purged, so he treats his sense of empathy as an illness that keeps him unable to practice the martial arts; not surprisingly, he also doesn't believe a man can ever truly change, so Xiao-Tian becomes an obsession and a riddle for him to solve.

Xu Bai-Jiu's investigation has other consequences than those he intends, too, for once it has reached a certain point, the people that made Xiao-Tian the man he once was (Jimmy Wang Yu! Kara Hui!) learn where their old friend now is, and they very much want him back, not realizing that some men do in fact change.

Peter Chan Hoh-San's Wu Xia is one those films from Hong Kong that makes me doubt the truth of the old-fartish refrain of "things in Hong Kong cinema are just so bad now" I and many other long-time fans of the city's cinematic output have been singing for about a decade now, for how bad can a regional cinema truly be if it still can produce fantastic movies like this?

In time-honoured fashion, Wu Xia mixes elements of the mystery genre with elements of the wuxia (a real surprise given its title, surely), to form a meditation on the possibility of change in people, the usefulness of suppressing impulses, and even the old question about nature and nurture that may remind some of Cronenberg's A History of Violence, just with the difference that Chan's film - unlike that of the Canadian - is not a comedy. (To digress for a parenthesis, yes, I am that weird guy who really thinks Cronenberg's film is not just a black comedy, but is also meant to be one rather than as the bloody drama most viewers seem to see when watching it; I'll only point at the nature of the sexual role-play between Mortensen and Bello as an obvious hint at that film's true nature.)

Unlike Mortensen's Tom Stall, though, Xiao-Tian isn't only truly alive when he is a monster, and his family life with Ah Yu and the children never has the feeling of somebody going through trained motions without any actual emotions; Xiao-Tian may have only locked away the monstrous parts of himself, but what's left is not an automaton, but an actual human being.

The movie's first two thirds are in large parts about exploring its two male main characters (with Tang Wei getting a handful of scenes that flesh her out as a character more than I would have expected from a film with this set-up and structure - it sure helps how much the actress is able to express with just a few looks) as mirror images of each other: Xiao-Tian as a man who has locked away everything destructive and monstrous about himself to become a human being, and Xu Bai-Jiu who has locked away his most human traits - compassion and empathy - to become a better agent of the Law. The former is a man who will not use his martial arts abilities because they are so closely connected to his worst nature, the latter unable to use his because his best nature cost him his abilities. I can't imagine what the Chinese censor thought about the film's treatment of compassion and the Law, especially since the film treats Xu Bai-Jiu as being in the wrong with his priorities; it's nice to still find Hong Kong films that dare to argue for humanist values being more important than the jackboot. Interestingly, the film also seems to express that it's easier to suppress one's worst impulses than one's best. Of course, both of Wu Xia's main characters will have to accept parts of what they've kept closed up to become fully functional human beings, possibly even heroes.

I was a bit surprised by how well Donnie Yen is able to sell his character's complexities. I do of course love the man and his generally motionless or scowling face, but he always has been a better martial arts actor than an actor, and this is a film that needs him to express himself outside of fight scenes quite a bit. Yen is still using more body language and posture than facial expression (though he has developed a surprisingly pleasant ability to smile over the years), but he is doing that very well, selling the inner changes his character goes through without having to talk about them.

The well handled philosophical discourse alone would be more than enough to recommend Wu Xia, but there is so much more to love here: there are the fantastic fight scenes - of course choreographed by Yen - that dominate the film's final third; Chan's curious yet effective decision to treat Chinese village life of the early 20th century as a peculiar mixture of naturalism and bucolic idyll and still have martial arts be more than a little magical instead of "realistic"; the relatively small but important roles of Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui who feature in the film's two most intense fight scenes; the way the film uses Kaneshiro's traditional Chinese science and medicine as the base for some CSI-inspired scenes and makes that work too without things becoming ridiculous; how Chan's direction handles action, near-mythical dramatic family conflicts, human-level emotions and moments of peace with the same assured sense of rhythm and pacing as well as a deep understanding of their importance. In Wu Xia, it's all good.