Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some thoughts about Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

It’s among the mild ironies of film history that this film, a movie I don’t hesitate to call a masterpiece, is actually the lesser of director John Sturges’s Westerns about the (wait for it) gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Fortunately, despite being about the same historical moment, and concerning the same people, both films are also so different their existence as separate entities actually makes sense, particularly since the two films have quite different views of these people and these events. The later Hour of the Gun is most probably the slightly more historically accurate one (at the very least with a more realistically morally grey Wyatt Earp, where Lancaster’s Wyatt really does seem to go for the halo, though without ever being able to reconcile it with being a human being like we all are), though both films really aren’t about attempts to recreate history.

I don’t think it is necessary for me to go over Sturges’s virtues as a Western director, nor the particularly inspired quality of his efforts here, for that would be stating the very, very obvious. Instead, let me spend this sentence salivating about Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster (two of the very finest of their generation in Hollywood) doing what they do best, the fine rest of the ensemble, the often awe-inspiring photography, as well as Sturges’s artful sense of staging.

Beside being a film about a certain legendary shoot-out, Gunfight to me really seems to be a film about poisonous relationships, the way people tend to wallow in them, and the generally horrible consequences that come with them. Why, if you look at what’s happening in the film from a certain angle, you might even begin to think somebody involved in the film might have been of the opinion all human relationships in the end become poisonous and destructive, family ties strangling people in the end, and friendships not leaving people happier or less lonely and self-destructive (or would anyone want to argue that Holliday and Earp are good for each other any more than Holliday and Kate are?), at best giving them one thing more to die for.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Rover (2014)

Australia, ten years after an economical apocalypse that leaves the country looking quite close to the first Mad Max film.

Henry (Scoot McNairy) and two associates have stolen something valuable, leaving behind Henry’s developmentally challenged brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) for dead. Thanks to the distracting powers of bickering they crash their truck during their flight. They’re lucky in basically crashing – and it’s not much of a crash, as they’d realize if they weren’t bickering and in panic – the truck right next to a fresh ride, which they proceed to steal.

The nameless owner of the car (Guy Pearce), a man with trauma and violence written on his face, doesn’t take the loss of his ride well, and begins to chase after the car thieves in their own car, proceeding in a manner that suggests he has left sanity and reason somewhere behind in the world before the Collapse. Leaving a trail of bodies – both real and metaphorical – behind, the man encounters Rey and – after getting him patched up - decides to press him into service finding Henry.

David Michôd’s The Rover is quite an astonishing film in the way it uses elements of the post-apocalyptic films that came before it – with the first Mad Max a particularly close relation in the shape of its apocalypse and in what I can only describe as Australian-ness (australity?) – to make a meditative film about lives that don’t stop just because the world has decided to stop, finally making all the tenets of nihilism true for its characters in a world where nothing they do is of any import anymore, and where violence isn’t even morally important enough to cause much reaction from anyone anymore. To the people roaming the wastelands here, there’s not even enough reason to life anymore that concepts like sadism or transgression matter much in their violence.

Consequently, most of the film’s unpleasant acts are pictured with an emotional apathy, suggesting most everyone we see in the film (and wouldn’t that be the whole world) to be suffering from some form of PTSD. In a move as clever as it is disturbing, Michôd always gestures towards some of the things an audience would expect in this sort of film and world, some suggestions of healing, or redemption, or even just a clear explanation of why the characters here do what they do, yet never lets the characters go through with these gestures in any meaningful way, everything not just ending in blood but feeling as empty and dried out as people’s lives have become.

The Australian desert landscapes are a perfect fit for this sort of tale, both through their suggestion of other Australian desert landscapes in other post-apocalyptic films, as well as in their mirroring of the characters’ loss of humanity (or is it the other way round?).

Watching the film, I found myself particularly impressed with the way Michôd suggests much of its world, as well as of the inner lives of the people living in it, through minor throw-away details he trusts the audience to notice. Which, after reading some of the reviews of The Rover that can only see Pearce’s character as a cipher because the film only discloses in its last scene why his car is so important to him despite the fact that he can – and already has – easily acquired another one, is clearly too much trust for the sort of viewer who wants everything to be “relatable”, which is to say, without herself having to do any of that pesky thinking or relating. How you can watch a performance like Pearce’s grand, subtle, portrayal of a man who really has lost any concept of meaning in his life stumbling through a world utterly incapable of even suggesting one to him, going through the motions of violence and survival not because of any true will to survive but just because that’s what you do, and still feel the need for a detailed explanation (one supposes with many a flashback with dramatic violins on the soundtrack), I honestly don’t understand. But then I’m usually pretty annoyed by the tendency of parts of the movie and TV watching world to need every piddling detail of a film explained to them in excruciating detail. as if using one’s own imagination from time to time were unthinkable.

But speaking of acting for another moment (instead of ranting further), despite laying it on a bit thick for my tastes from time to time, Robert Pattinson actually delivers a performance that not just doesn’t embarrass him beside Pearce but really provides the film with an easier emotional anchor (and hey, relatability-needing people, that’s the character in the movie for you), if one that suggests a disquieting irony – namely, that you need to be as intellectually and emotionally challenged as Rey is to even countenance the idea of hope in a world such as the one he lives in (“innocence” doesn’t come into play here at all, by the way, because Rey is utterly immoral).

The Rover does a lot of thoughtful things with the clichés of post-apocalyptic cinema without feeling the need to get on its soap box and moralize yet also without condoning – or enjoying – its characters often horrible deeds.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

In short: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

By now, I’m actually going into Marvel productions banking on them being at least entertaining and generally non-stupid, but I think I’m going to adjust my attitude and will from now on bank on them being really good, and can still be positively surprised when they turn out like The Winter Soldier, which is to say pretty darn great.

Of course, seeing that it’s highly influenced by Ed Brubaker’s excellent run on the comics, the last decade or so of mainstream-yet-intelligent spy movies like the first three Bourne films and the Daniel Craig James Bonds, 70s conspiracy thrillers, and – quite obviously if you look at the fights – martial arts and action cinema from all around the world (The Raid quite heavily comes to mind), and does all the right things with a character that should by all rights be a horrible jingoistic mess but nearly never becomes one, Winter Soldier seems a bit made for me. Particularly because it uses the synergy of the already established Marvel movie universe very well without running into the trap of thinking this synergy replaces the actual plotting, and knows that Captain America in this century is very much a character belonging into an ensemble. By all rights, this should be called “Captain America, Black Widow & The Falcon: The Winter Soldier”, but then, that’d be a really unwieldy title. The film really does a lot of cool and interesting things with Natasha and Sam, thanks to a script that knows how to write the personal stuff into the explosions, and actors in Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie who have proven themselves highly adept at the particular acting style you need to apply in blockbuster cinema.

As a pinko commie, I’m also quite happy with the film’s politics, not because I perfectly agree with them (I’m not the kind of pinko commie who needs that to appreciate a film, fortunately), but because they are as coherent as can be expected in a film genre that can do subtlety only to a degree, and are a perfect fit for a Captain America film in 2014 that wants to stay true to the character’s origins of Hitler-punching and taking the promise of America by its word.

All these elements, as well as Chris Evans’s still note-perfect performance and many a nice nod to established comic characters, I mostly expected (or at least would have bet minor amounts of money on). What I didn’t expect is that Anthony and Joe Russo, both directors with mainly experience in sitcoms (even though one of them is the sainted and seemingly indestructible Community), were this great as action directors, with so many propulsive action sequences that also just happen to be often really cleverly and beautifully choreographed there should by all rights be not enough breath in anyone watching left to complain about them as “empty spectacle”. Which of course they aren’t – as in all good action movies, these action scenes are actually saying a lot of things about the characters the dialogue scenes don’t, all the time not just working to drive the film forward, but working as a physical connection between theme, characters and plot.

Needless to say, I’m very, very happy with the resulting movie.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

In short: Danger Route (1967)

Jonas Wilde (Richard Johnson) is working as a killer for one of the British secret services; as it goes with jobs like this, he’s gotten sick and tired of it, particularly since he’s acquired Jocelyn (Carol Lynley) as the kind of girlfriend that makes a man think of retiring. Also, not killing people for money anymore.

However, shortly after his latest job and before he can do anything about his retirement plans, Wilde is called in for an emergency assassination on British soil. The Americans have gotten hold of an Eastern defector, but Wilde’s superiors are convinced the man is in fact a double agent who will do incalculable damage if he’s not “gotten rid of”. The job doesn’t sit quite right with Wilde, particularly when curious things start to happen around the new job. His contact Ravenspur (Maurice Denham) suddenly grows a niece (Barbara Bouchet) who just happens to be in the game too, and Wilde can’t shake the idea the defector isn’t the only one who is to be gotten rid of.

He’s quite right, too, and that’s not even the worst thing Wilde will learn in the next few days. Well, at least he’s tough and unpleasant enough to have a chance for survival.

Most of us know Amicus as purveyors of horror anthology pictures, but of course the company did work in other genres too, like the mid-level realist spy movie Danger Route. The film is neither as kooky as your typical Eurospy movie or James Bond film nor as complex and dark as Le Carré style espionage films but moves on that middle ground where the spy work is relatively down to Earth yet not quite enough so to be believable as naturalistic.

On a philosophical level, the film prefers a somewhat tired bitterness and a very general feeling of disgust, a disgust that is in large part shared by its hero, who is disgusted by the things he does for a living (and once for Queen and Country), disgusted by how good he is at them, clearly disgusted too at the way he uses people like Diana Dors’s (fittingly sadly played) lonely alcoholic housekeeper, and certainly disgusted by the duplicity of everyone around him. Johnson expresses this disgust with deeply tired look and the facial expression of a man who really can’t smile at himself in the mirror anymore. The way Johnson plays him, it’s quite clear that Wilde expects the betrayals he is going to suffer during the course of the movie as the logical consequence of all the betrayals he has committed – and continues to commit - himself. In what feels like a twist of bitter irony, the only times Wilde really seems to be without doubts is when he commits the violent acts he has begun to abhor.

Seth Holt (a director with a bit of spy experience via the TV show Danger Man) films this bitter little piece without any grand gestures, concentrating on the performances of his lead and a bunch of fine supporting actors, giving everything the appropriate leanness as well as providing moments of effectively unpleasant violence that turn Danger Route into something of a lost gem of the espionage genre.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In short: Crawl or Die (2014)

aka Crawl Bitch Crawl

In some not closer defined, clearly rather unpleasant future. A team of soldiers is tasked to get “the last fertile non-infected woman” (Torey Byrne) to a secure place on another planet.

Things don’t go well at all, for once they’ve arrived at their destination, the soldiers and what they call their Package are attacked by a creature that looks like a cross between Giger’s xenomorph and a spider. The creature drives the soldiers into a system of underground tunnels, crawlspaces, and holes. The thing seems practically indestructible, so the group is quickly whittled down until there are only the Package and the frighteningly determined Tank (Nicole Alonso) still left standing. Or rather left crawling through ever tighter spaces, all the while followed by a horrible thing that just won’t die and seems to be as determined to kill and eat Tank and the Package as Tank is to not let herself get eaten.

If you’re interested in film as a physical experience, or as a way to evoke very specific bodily feelings in an audience without them having to actually live through them, Oklahoma Ward’s Crawl or Die just might make you as happy as it made me. Well, “happy” might not be the most appropriate expression here, for the feelings Ward’s film evokes so well are claustrophobia, physical and mental exhaustion, desperation, and insane determination, all generally not parts of happiness. Consequently, I should probably say the film might just make you feel pretty horrible in all the right ways, particularly if you’re even the least bit claustrophobic. As someone with a propensity for it, Crawl or Die hit me pretty hard, particularly because Ward is so very good at making the enclosed spaces the film takes place in palpable as physical spaces (or lacks of physical space?), still escalating the enclosure of his characters even at a point when that seems hardly possible anymore.

What I find particularly admirable here is Crawl or Die’s absolute focus on what it’s trying to – and managing to - achieve, with everything else – plot, characterization, etc – pared down to achieve the physical effect and an exhausting forward momentum. What there is of characterization the actors provide through looks and body language, with Alonso focus and high point of the film through a performance that sells the film’s physicality even further, adding a battered humanity to the film I even found unexpectedly touching.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

I was rather hopeful about this second Hollywood attempt to make a Godzilla movie given how much I enjoyed director Gareth Edwards’s fantastic Monsters. But then, Edwards wouldn’t have been the first director who had a hard time going from low budget cinema to mainstream blockbusters, and that’s before all the inevitable troubles of making a studio movie are taken into account.

Fortunately, this US Godzilla is at least as good as optimism could could convince one to hope for, doing very little wrong in the difficult job of making a blockbuster kaiju film. Because I am like that, let’s start off with the film’s downsides, namely the script’s – understandable – insistence on keeping its protagonist Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) close to nearly every central development in the plot, going through quite a few contrivances to get him there. I know, it’s meant to provide dramatic unity and give that part of the audience always in need of having somebody to “identify” with their due, but I honestly think you could have achieved the same goal with half a dozen characters taking on smaller individual roles in the tapestry of what’s going on; perhaps even characters of different gender and skin colour? It doesn’t exactly help that Taylor-Johnson seems to be another one of these extremely bland young male actors the last few years have brought up in Hollywood, all pretty indistinguishable from one another, serviceable actors, yet rather vacuous presences; which to me seems particularly ironic in a generation that has so many extremely talented actresses yet still too often finds little for them to do. Which neatly fits into the film’s next problem, namely that Godzilla has fuck all for Ford’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) to do.

Still, having said all this, it’s surprising how well Godzilla works in practice, its heavy emphasis on the human side of the story not feeling distracting – or as artificial and Hollywood-like – at all, and while I’m not really happy with concentrating all the humanity on one bland guy who just happens to be the son of the not-so crazy Bryan Cranston character, as well as a military bomb disarming expert, as well as the father of a family that just happens to live exactly in the monsters’ way, the film executes this problematic idea as good as humanly possible. Mostly, I think, because a lot of the reaction to the monsters we see from Brody (very much standing in for the way the film sees its monsters) is awe, a mixture of wonder and fear Edwards already managed to evoke – for much less money and on a more private level – quite wonderfully in Monsters. Awe seems to me the only proper feeling towards the sort of forces of Nature the monsters here are, accepting the beauty and the horror as different sides of the same coin.

I think it is this sense of awe in its treatment of its kaiju that grants this Godzilla its sense of gravitas, its characters witnessing occurrences they are barely able to comprehend, the attempts to resolve the situation through the rules and regulations that already don’t help in normal human existence (when in doubt, nuke it) bound to fail and possibly to make the situation worse. The film would be nearly Lovecraftian if you look at it from that angle, if not for the moments when the film insists – and that’s Hollywood to you – that human actions do matter, at least when it comes to inadvertently helping out Godzilla with a distraction. Of course, there’s a degree of irony in the fact that what’s a distraction to the film’s monsters is not done to distract them by the film’s characters, and that a desperate heroic deed by a human is only ever a short distraction for a monster/nature/whatever you want it to stand for.

Another thing Godzilla does that works out as a plus for it against what you’d expect (or well, against what I would have expected) is how coy it is about showing its monsters at work before the final grand – which it truly is - throw-down, the film only ever showing bits and pieces of what’s going on literally above characters’ heads, yet never looking away from the destruction caused, nor its aftermath. Edwards uses this technique not to deny his audience the big destruction set-pieces it came to see but rather to put the monster action in the right perspective, which is to say, put the audience in the perspective of ants staring at a mountain, an effect not even Shusuke Kaneko in his classic Gamera trilogy strove for quite this hard.

So, despite my misgivings, I found myself quite riveted by Godzilla, enjoying – if you can call it that – its moments of awe and carnage, appreciating its philosophical level (there’s also some obvious political allegory here, if you prefer that sort of thing), and ending up convinced this is not just a US Godzilla better than the last attempt but one that can see eye to eye with many of the better kaiju eiga.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Zeppelins. Bombs. Bordellos. Burials. You name it. We have it.

Trinity is Still My Name aka Continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità (1971): I didn’t enjoy Enzo Barboni’s quickly shot seque to the first Trinity movie as much as its predecessor but it still is a fun little movie, if already suffering from the ever increasing childishness of the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedy pairings. This one’s still having a lot of fun with Spaghetti Western conventions but it’s also working pretty hard at repeating the favourite beats of the first film without just repeating itself – mostly with success, even. The sequel’s problem really isn’t so much that it isn’t a funny, well-made movie, it sure is funny and well-made movie, as that it’s just not quite as funny and well-made as the one it follows up on. It’s a bit of a luxury problem to have for a film, but there you have it.

Willow Creek (2013): Even though I am not quite as enamoured with Bobcat Goldthwait’s unexpected turn towards the bigfoot POV movie as some of my peers are, this is still a fine little film. I particularly love how Goldthwait doesn’t overdo the amateurishness of the footage, the carefully thought through shorthand he uses for the characterisation, and the film’s use of humour.

Willow Creek does take quite some time to get going, though, but once it does, it culminates in two of the most effective examples of “people frightened in their tent” and “people panicking in the dark woods” scenes I’ve seen in a POV horror film. Particularly the former, basically consisting of a single, fifteen minute shot of lead actors Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson looking frightened while creepy noises play, is quite an achievement because it takes a set-up that should be a guarantee for boredom and actually makes it work.

Sledztwo aka The Investigation (1974): I always find myself rather surprised by the comparatively high number of Stanislaw Lem adaptations. While often intellectually quite delightful, the comparative disinterest in plot and character displayed in Lem’s body of work doesn’t exactly lend itself to screen adaptations. Despite that, most Lem adaptations not only exist but are also also tend to be rather good.

Case in point is this TV movie directed by Marek Piestrak with a directness that still leaves room for visual mood-building as well as a degree of playfulness, all the while following Lem’s philosophical ideas. It’s quite wonderful to behold in its way.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

In short: St. Ives (1976)

Former crime reporter, now hapless professional writer who doesn’t get his book done and recreational gambler who can’t win, Raymond St. Ives (Charles Bronson) is hired by the eccentric rich Abner Procane (John Houseman) to work as his middle man in re-acquiring Procane’s stolen journals. Rather curiously, the thieves asked for St. Ives by name, but Procane doesn’t seem all that distrustful about it, and St. Ives acts as if this sort of thing happened to him every day. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much his reaction to everything.

Unflappability is a useful trait to have for St. Ives, too, for the handover of the money the thieves demand for Procane’s precious diaries goes very wrong indeed, and dead bodies start to pop up around our hero with a certain disturbing regularity. Instead of getting dissuaded by this minor piling up of bodies, the intense interest of dumb cops Deal (Harry Guardino) and Oller (Harris Yulin), and the friendly persuasions of his old cop friend Blunt (Dana Elcar), or by various attempts on his own life, St. Ives allows himself to be drawn into the situation further and further, teaming up with Procane, his live-in assistant Janet (Jacqueline Bisset), and his pet psychiatrist Dr. Constable (Maximilian Schell) for some rather dubious plans.

Frequent Bronson director J. Lee Thompson does his best to help the actor transition into a somewhat different persona than his usual kind, the kind of charming rogue with morals you’d find Roger Moore overplay and have turn out as an insufferable smart-ass. Bronson is certainly willing (who wouldn’t be, in his case) but I don’t think he’s actually convincing in a role that demands more smiling and a very particular kind of swagger instead of dead-eyed glaring and quite a different kind of swagger. That could have been quite a problem in a more involved film but this Ross Thomas adaptation does hold deeper human emotions at arms length for most of the time and can therefore live with the central performance that is more trying to be convincing than it is actually convincing.

In fact, part of the film’s semi-comedic charm lies in the sense of old-fashioned stylization with a big nod to Old Hollywood Thompson tries to maintain, and often manages rather successfully to build, turning the film into one giant homage to film’s of an earlier time. And, while Bronson isn’t looking too convincing with his new persona, he still is fun to watch, enough so that I think it’s a bit of shame he only got to let loose this way very seldom during the rest of his career; I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more films of pseudo-Saint shenanigans had turned Bronson into as much of a pro in this kind of role as he seems have to been in doing his usual shtick.

Be that as it may, the film at hand is a sometimes charming, sometimes very 70s, piece of old-fashioned entertainment, the sort of thing I’d call “diverting” if that did not sound quite as damning with faint praise when what it actually means is that St. Ives fulfils its function as an escapist piece of entertainment excellently, and there’s never any shame at all in that.

Friday, September 19, 2014

On ExB: Das finstere Tal (2014)

Being a German genre movie fan is often a bit of a frustrating experience, not just because Germany just loves to practice a form of censorship that likes to pretend it’s all about protecting the youth from nefarious things like blood squibs, but also because genre filmmaking of any kind hardly exists around here.

So it is rather exciting to encounter something like Andreas Prochaska’s Alpine Western Das finstere Tal, but you’ll have to click on through to ExB to learn why.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

In short: Open Range (2003)

There’s always a risk with a film as deeply informed by the traditions of the genre it is working in as Kevin Costner’s Open Range is it will become a mere nostalgia fest. And indeed, the film is full of dozens of little nods to classic (and not so classic) Westerns but these nods aren’t there as the film’s only reason for being, but rather as a way to position the film in the history of its genre.

There is, too, actual nostalgia in the film, yet it’s one broken by a script honest enough to know that the real places and times we are nostalgic for never were what our dreams – and particularly the shared dreams of cinema – pretend they were. So, for every moment of sheer beauty, of the wry smile about a simpler past, there’s knowledge about violence and its cost – and how big in a place and time where violence was omnipresent that cost is – as well as the understanding that the simpler past always was as complicated as the present, if probably complicated in different ways.

Another huge achievement of the film is its ability to tell a story that is actually very small scale and personal, meaning the world to just the people of one little town and four herders riding through it, in a grand and sweeping tone without losing its human core. The way Open Range treats them, historically small lives mean the world.

From time to time, Costner with his director’s hat on may go for a bit too much Hollywood pathos here, yet the film also finds more than enough room for treating middle-age love story between Costner’s Charley and Annette Bening’s Sue Barlow with a more truthful kind of tenderness, and contains many a moment that prefers honesty to pathos.

While handling all this rather beautifully for the most part, Open Range also likes to reverse, perhaps even subvert, all kinds of little genre expectations; this is the kind of film where the big climactic showdown takes place after the big storm, and where the part of the central shoot-out that had an emphatic build-up is finished the fastest. Speaking of the climactic showdown, it’s long, and complex, and interesting, again slightly subverting genre expectations, and putting the emphasis on the chaos of large scale violence, particularly in a time and place where everyone and his mother owned a gun, which still made most of them amateurs and chaotic actors in a situation that could only be ordered and controlled to a small degree anyhow.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thale (2012)

Elvis (Erlend Nervold) is helping out his friend Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) with a (legal) job cleaning the site of a death in a house out in the woods (proverbial and real). While Leo seems completely unflappable, Elvis isn’t really cut out for this particular part of the cleaning business - not just because of his propensity for vomiting when brushing away people parts but also because he’s rather nosy.

Consequently, it’s Elvis who stumbles upon the house’s hidden cellar, a place full of jury-rigged medical equipment and cassette tapes with ambiguous monologues of a male voice (Roland Astrand) which suggest there has been something at least very strange, if not highly untoward going on down there. However, the ambiance still doesn’t prepare the men for what they eventually find: a young naked woman (Silje Reinåmo) submerged in tub full of a milky fluid.

The woman seems to be mute, as well as rather confused and wild, and it’s a fair bet she has been going through some rather harsh things down in that cellar. Instead of calling an ambulance and the police, Leo and Elvis call their boss, who will certainly appear some time. So they wait with the girl, step by step realizing what happened in the cellar might not have been what they suspected had happened, and that the girl, let’s call her Thale, perhaps isn’t exactly human. However, the humanity of the young woman might not be their greatest problem (if it is a problem at all). Rather, opening the cellar door might have been a bad idea not because of what they find inside, but because of who might now find their way in.

Despite having read quite a bit about Aleksander Nordaas’s Thale before watching it, I found myself pleasantly surprised by parts of it. I wasn’t expecting this to be a fantasy film using Norwegian folklore around the hulder together with light horror influences, black humour, a light-handed sense of poetry and a believable feeling of compassion and respect for all things Other, rather than a more typical straight horror piece.

The film’s approach to the fantastic seems to be influenced by “hard fantasy” concepts, that is, establishing something magical (at least one of the things Thale does can hardly be explained otherwise), and then thinking its implications through with logic and coherence. At its worst, this approach can suck all the magic out of the supernatural, but when it is used with care and a sense of poetry like it is here, it gives a film the opportunity to ground the fantastic without destroying it. Of course, the implications of Thale’s existence the film suggest are not very original, seeing as they concern the human propensity to destroy and use everything that’s beautiful and/or different and potentially useful. But then, humanity at large hasn’t exactly shown itself very original on this point either.

Thale doesn’t treat this aspect with unremitting bleakness, though, and instead demonstrates a belief in the possibility of kindness, redemption and love; not through grand gestures – in fact, the film avoids showing one particular moment a comparable Hollywood production would have milked for ten tear-jerking minutes completely – that can turn humanism to kitsch so easily, but with a laconic matter-of-factness that works curiously well with the film’s sense of wonder. It’s always pleasant to find a film that acknowledges humanity’s darkest impulses without ending up in nihilism or cynicism.

That Nordaas achieves all this with only a handful of locations and actors and what I can only assume must have been a pretty low budget is a particular delight, as well as a demonstration that there’s still room for ambitious yet small movies hiding surprising complexities under their simplicity of means. Sure, if I’d be out to nitpick, I could criticize the few CGI effects as cheap-looking and not convincing in their physicality but with the Thale I’ve seen, that’s just not a point I care enough about to turn it into an actual problem.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In short: The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940)

Gentleman thief and adventurer Simon Templar (George Sanders), aka “The Saint”, comes to beautiful Philadelphia to visit his old teacher, Professor Bitts (Thomas W. Ross) and his old flame, Bitts’s daughter (Helene Whitney).

However, there’s another man walking around with the Saint’s face, leaving Templar’s typical calling card on dead bodies. Murder is not a thing Templar approves of, so he jumps right into a rather convoluted and even more silly plot of doubles, peculiar traps, and cops and robbers with a decided lack in gray matter. Frightening stupidity (is it a virus!?) rules everyone except The Saint himself and Templar’s old friend and theoretical nemesis Inspector Fernack (Jonathan Hale), who just happens to be on vacation in Philadelphia too. Fernack, however, does really rather like Templar and his tendency for needlessly complicated shenanigans.

I can’t pretend to know much of or about the various incarnations of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint beyond vague memories of the Moore show and one or two books I must have read ages ago. Consequently, placing The Saint’s Double Trouble into the context of its series would consist of me repeating stuff anyone can read up on on Wikipedia, so I might just as well not pretend.

What I do know a bit about by now is the kind of programmer Jack Hively’s film is, a light concoction of convoluted plotting, a charming rogue protagonist doing charming rogue things, some action, and some moments of the film just playing around to fill out the running time. So I am quite able to identify The Saint’s Double Trouble as an entertaining example of its kind, pleasantly paced, shot straightforwardly but not without care, and acted by an ensemble that knows what its doing, and, particularly in the cases of Sanders and Hale, seems to have fun with it.

The film does of course need an audience tolerant of the contrived plot, Templar’s even more contrived manoeuvring to thwart it, the general silly stupidity of everyone involved, and the crimes’ basic improbability but then, it is charming enough to deserve this tolerance, and at least from me, had no trouble acquiring it.

The only thing I found rather disappointing was the waste of a perfectly fine Bela Lugosi in a forgettable role as The Partner (caps mandatory) of Templar’s evil double, but at least he isn’t playing a sinister butler.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

TC 2000 (1993)

The world has ended (cue lots of “again”s) thanks to our destruction of the ozone layer. Our betters have fled into a place cleverly called “The Underground”, where they are protected The Controller (Ramsay Smith) and his security forces.

Jason Storm (Billy Blanks) and his partner Zoey Kinsella (Bobbie Phillips) belong to the part of the security forces known as TCs, tasked with scouting and surface police operations. The Underground hasn’t been very secure in these last few weeks, though, for surface gang leader Niki Picasso (Jalal Merhi) and his merry band have been making attacks on Underground operatives and even incursions into Underground territory. Why, you might start thinking Niki has outside help.

While she and Jason are battling one of these incursions, Zoey is shot in the back by a shadowy figure (spoiler: it’s the Controller!). Because he seems actually interested in the death of his partner, the Controller fires Jason and sends his men out to murder him. Of course, Jason escapes to the surface where he decides to destroy Niki and the Picassos, teaming up with martial arts master Sumai (Bolo Yeung).

Once Jason’s away, the Controller and his pet scientist turn Zoey’s remains into an ersatz-Robocop – the TC 2000 – re-imagined as a Californian 80s aerobics teacher with a penchant for leather and high-heeled boots. Zoey’s supposed to team up with Niki to get access to a chemical weapons facility and cleanse the surface world from its population.

I wouldn’t exactly say T.J. Scott’s – made before he started a rather interesting and fruitful looking career as a TV director – TC 2000 is the cheapest looking post-apocalyptic martial arts movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly among the top (bottom?) ten, seeing as it takes place exclusively in boiler rooms, boring warehouses, boring warehouses dressed up as grey corridors, and other industrial buildings I really wouldn’t have needed to see. At least, it’s more than one industrial building, or the production takes care to pretend it is.

It’s also – need I even say it? – a patently ridiculous film, with the post-apocalyptic world seemingly mostly populated by beefy men with frightening haircuts who like to grimace a lot and dress as sillily as possible (favourite: Niki Picasso and his gang who aren’t quite as beefy but prefer some kind of pseudo-punk hipster garb and Picasso-like face paintings to make up for their lack of muscles). Everyone’s an idiot, too, though that might be the steroids. The plot, such as it is, does (no surprise here) make little sense even as an excuse for the fight scenes, and is presented in the least efficient way possible. The fights themselves are pretty bland, with choreography of little interest or inventiveness, which is a bit of a shame with a cast consisting of people who know what they’re doing in a screen fight, well, and Jalal Merhi who makes his usual creepy imitation of a speaking wooden puppet while hogging a position in the film’s credits he doesn’t deserve.

On the positive side, there are many shots of Blanks and co grinding their teeth during the fights in ways human teeth were never meant to be ground, there’s a lot of bad emoting, a bunch of stupid ideas, and Bobbie Phillips working very hard at making even more ridiculous fight faces than everyone else. I think she even wins the competition.

I’d be a liar if I pretended I didn’t enjoy at least half of the film quite a bit. I just can’t resist the bargain basement charm of a film that does one-liners so embarrassing they overshoot becoming cool again and become doubly embarrassing, and that tries to sell post-apocalyptica with production values so low, most Italian post-apocalypse films look lavish in comparison. Plus, there’s Bolo (doing Bolo finger gestures), and Billy, and Matthias Hues, sweating, losing shirts, wearing idiotic sunglasses, and, in Billy’s case, doing an off-screen monologue that suggests we’re listening to a first read-through done by someone who – how shall I put it? – isn’t a very good reader, Bobbie Phillips still sounding like Minnie Mouse even when she’s a killer cyborg, and a lot of ideas that are completely outside the film’s reach. What’s not to like?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In short: Crackerjack 3 (2000)

If you were – like me - hoping for another retcon of the craziness of Jack Wild, cop on the edge, with Jack Wild doing another “Die Hard in an improbable place” bit, you will be sorely disappointed. In fact, we’re not even in the same genre anymore, and instead of weirdo action, this is a piece of unfunny espionage comedy.

The only tenuous connection to the first two movies is the first name of our hero – Jack, the most original first name available. This, though, is Jack Thorn (Bo Svenson), freshly pensioned off CIA boss who finds himself and a bunch of elderly friends in the position as the scapegoats for the insane plan of his replacement Marcus Clay (Olivier Gruner) and a bunch of young up-and-comers to detonate a neutron bomb and make lots of money on the financial markets afterwards. Despite the desperately stupid evil plan of the bad guys, this might very well have made for a funny little movie, but the script’s just too weak for that, going for inane and utterly random rambling where a clash of espionage cultures and generations could actually have been funny.

The pacing is pretty dreadful too, with scenes dragged out so incessantly even the film’s few genuinely funny basic ideas (like a blackly humorous discussion about the best ways to torture people) become boring and tedious; most of the film’s ideas are tedious and stupid, anyhow, and can’t actually be made worse by the atrocious execution. Among the actors, Svenson and Leo Rossi at least seem to have a degree of fun with their roles – I suspect much more fun than anyone can possibly have watching them going from one cringeworthy joke to the next – while Gruner is desperately misplaced in a role that plays to all of his weaknesses – like acting – and ignores all of his strengths – like fight scenes – while the rest of the cast does a perfect imitation of being drugged up and bored.

Do I even need to add that the film frankly looks like crap in a way that’s easier to explain with complete disinterest in actually making an enjoyable film by everyone involved than the film’s mere low budget, and that Simandl’s direction lacks ideas, spark, or even just the ability to avoid lulling me to sleep?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

In short: King Solomon’s Mines (1937)

It’s rather startling to watch Robert Stevenson’s British – and decidedly free - adaptation of Henry Rider Haggard’s novel and compare it to American adventure movies taking place in Africa at the same time, and to realize how much more comfortable an entertainment product of the ailing Empire seems with the idea that black people are actually human like everyone else. Sure, the people of colour we get to see in the film are mostly barbarians of of kind or the other, but then, the film never makes any attempt to suggest culture and skin colour have much to do with one another, nor does it seem interested at all in ideas of white superiority, despite various plot developments that would actually make an easy starting point for this sort of (idiotic) argument. The film also feels pleasantly matter-of-fact about one of its main characters being black, treats him like everyone else on screen, and casts him with Paul Robeson, who of course doesn’t do undignified comic relief, or undignified at all. He’s also by far the most sympathetic character in the film, for Cedric Hardwicke’s Allan Quartermain (I never understood the desperate need of filmmakers to add that R to the name, by the way) is a bit of a prick additionally addled with horrifying facial hair, John Loder’s Sir Henry Curtis is your typical romantic lead (which is to say very boring), Roland Young’s Commander John Good a caricature, and Anna Lee’s fake Irishness just horribly annoying.

With Robeson some of what might make the film look quaint to contemporary eyes comes in too, because – not a surprise, given Robeson’s career as a singer – this is a film that never lets an opportunity pass by to have Robeson sing one song or another, never explaining why this African king-in-exile sings the pop version of spirituals, nor a film that ever realizes that, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with the musical numbers, they do mess up the film’s potential for excitement more than once. On the positive side, if you have to have filler in your film, there’s really worse to be found.

However, it’s not as if the film lacks in actual adventure movie excitements. There are sandstorms, a huge battle staged by a second unit in South Africa, and, finally, the rather spectacular end of the titular mine. Note to self: don’t throw rocks into a volcano.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In short: Gambit (1966)

Harry Dean (Michael Caine) and his friend Emile (John Abbott) have a most excellent plan to steal some of the art treasures of reclusive multi-(multi-multi-)millionaire Shahbandar (Herbert “Who’s Austro-Hungarian?” Lom). It’s simplicity itself, really: just hire passport-less dancer Nicole Chang (Shirley “Eurasian” MacLaine) who just happens to look exactly like Shahbandar’s dead wife to distract him, and steal away.

As it happens, Harry’s wonderful plan doesn’t really survive contact with reality, for neither is Shabandar as gullible as Harry expected, nor as easily distracted; and Nicole isn’t the walking manikin he dreams of either. Consequently, things get complicated fast.

Ronald Neame’s Gambit is a rather delightful caper movie, and I say that as someone who generally prefers heist movies to their comedic caper brethren, and only laughs on three pre-planned days per month (four days in October). However, Gambit does feature such a fine comedic cast, and such a clever script I didn’t actually want to resist it. Neame’s direction isn’t flashy, but he’s perfect with the pacing (something even I know to be most important in comedies), and does well with the curious semi-orientalist exoticism the film is playing with.

The film’s exoticism is of a very particular kind, though, always up to breaking away from cliché when the film wants to, something that does fit a film that is very much about the unpredictability of life and people very well. Consequently, this is a film where a rich – and what exactly is Shahbandar’s supposed to be, an Arab (and from where), a Muslim Indian, or what? – Eastern man takes people out to watch flamenco dancing.

Some of the film’s best scenes proceed in a comparable manner, first setting up Harry’s perfect, simple and orderly plan, and then showing it breaking down under contact with a more complex and just plain messier reality, particularly a woman who turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the mute, unblinking living doll of Harry’s imagining. And if you find a bit of matter of fact mainstream feminism hidden there, have a cookie, they’re very good.

Apart from that, Caine, MacLaine and Lom really are very enjoyable to watch together, with fine comedic interplay and very different approaches on how to deliver a punch line that come together exactly because of their difference. It’s all very delightful.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mercenaries (2014)

Evil Eastern European warlord Ulrika (Brigitte Nielsen) kidnaps the US president’s daughter Elise (Tiffany Panhilason) who is touring war-torn Kazakhstan on a humanitarian whatsit. Ulrika wants the US to make her president/queen/whatever of Kazakhstan, or else the president’s daughter dies.

Her intelligence suggests to CIA boss Mona (Cynthia Rothrock) that a rescue mission performed by female operatives will be much more likely to succeed, because Ulrika has a violent hatred of all men except for her main henchie Grigori (Tim Abell). Unfortunately, there’s nobody of the female persuasion on the actual government payroll available on this short notice, so Mona makes do with a quartet of highly talented women she kidnaps out of various prisons. Together, former special forces officer Clay (Zoë Bell), sniper Kat (Kristanna Loken), explosives expert Mei-Lin (Nicole Bilderback), and former CIA killer Raven (Vivica A. Fox) should be able to somehow infiltrate Ulrika’s compound and save the girl.

Of course, once on the ground, the quartet soon find themselves in a situation quickly getting out of control in a way that involves gunfire and explosions.

Production company The Asylum (and some parts of the Internet) are trying to sell Mercenaries as some kind of female Expendables clone, but the absence of thick, rotten smelling hunks of smug irony, and the fact that at best half of the actresses involved could be called female action movies veterans suggests that this is something rather more entertaining – a female dominated variation on the age-old Dirty Dozen formula.

But if The Asylum wants me to compare the film to the Expendables, I might as well oblige them in so far as to praise it for not carting out veteran actors with often bad luck in their careers for us to gawk and laugh at like the Expendables movies do, but for rather preferring an approach that shows working actresses mostly in the difficult middle-years of their careers (cue an annoyed sigh in the direction of a film industry that wants to have fuck all to do with middle-age actresses, however great they might be when working in a specific genre) doing the low budget action dance the Van Dammes and Lundgrens of the world know quite well, with a degree of dignity and personality you get when you’re not part of a freak show.

Obviously, Mercenaries’ less irony-laden approach to action film is much closer to my heart than that of the Expendables, as is its utter lack of shame for being the low budget action piece it is. We get all the staples of this particular genre: the idiotic plan of the scenery chewing bad guys (Brigitte really goes all out on the overacting, to highly entertaining effect), the just as dumb official reaction to it, the plot that’s an excuse to string cheap action sequences that defy the laws of physics as much as the budget allows and a cornucopia of bad one-liners and worse jokes that – at least in this particular case – somehow manage to end up more charming than annoying.

This sort of thing does fail as often as it succeeds but I found myself enjoying nearly every minute of Mercenaries. Not just because it avoids the typical low budget action movie problems of sluggish boredom and a lack of actual action but because Christopher Ray’s film seems to relish what it is and tries its hardest to transmit this relish to its audience, with a complete lack of shame making up for the script’s general weakness (though I like how it mostly lets its female badasses be female badasses without using the tired old “a guh, a guh, a girl!!!” nonsense). Enthusiasm and a willingness to escalate to stuff like a final punch-out in a plane with an open transport hatch make up for the actually not all that great action choreography. I also really appreciate how little leering the film does at the actresses, with exactly one inappropriate moment, and here, too, just goes with the typical action movie clichés for any given action film’s heroes.

Add to this a willingness to entertain even if your budget is the catering costs of The Expendables, Brigitte’s enthusiasm at chewing the scenery, Bell (who deserves many more lead roles in action films, given how generally likeable, competent at the acting part of acting, and awesome at the physical stuff she is), Loken, Fox, and Bilderback using four very different kinds of swagger, and some perfectly decent pacing, and you’ll have yourself another Asylum production that shows a company far from the disinterested vibe of its early years, still making what most people will consider crap, but now quite often crap with its own kind of dignity.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: PROFESSIONALS... You Pay for the Pleasure, the Killing is Free

Horror Island (1941): This George Waggner (of The Wolfman fame) joint is a rather good time for a little programmer shot in little time and certainly in the sets of other, more ambitious Universal productions. It’s a perfectly pleasant mix of comedy and mystery (with emphasis on the comedy) with nary a minute that’ll overstretch anyone’s intellectual capacity. What the film lacks in depth, however, it makes up for with a fun ensemble cast, often actually funny jokes, and a pleasantly placed story that carries only tenuous connections to that pesky reality stuff. All the better to distract an unsophisticated audience (that would be me) with.

The Last Valley (1971): James Clavell’s film about a mercenary company captained by Michael Caine during the Thirty Years War holing up in a hidden, peaceful valley tries to be a bit too much to be fully successful. This is, among other things, a film about the death of god, two romances, witch burnings, the evils of religion, the evils of humanity, the historical point where old superstition and a developing more modern view of the world have to co-exist resulting in even more violence, and where both impulses clearly exist in the same people, as well as about half a dozen other things, some thematically connected, some somewhat redundantly circling the film’s core, so it’s no wonder Clavell can’t quite do justice to everything he’s packed in. However, he sure gives it quite a try, with not a few scenes that manage to put rather complicated thought into plot without going the slow and pondering route.

I even think The Last Valley could be a lost classic rather than the unfairly overlooked film it is if Clavell could have avoided the bits of Hollywood guff he threw in, the sentimentality that sometimes overwhelms the sentiment, and had reached a more consequent conclusion to the film; though I’m not sure what that conclusion could have been myself.

Happy Hell Night (1992): Brian Owens’s film is a pretty serviceable early 90s supernatural slasher that just lacks any kind of oomph to make it memorable, and just misses all interesting opportunities its plot and set-up provide. So there’s a cheap and creepy looking killer who becomes rather less creepy by having to do the usual unfunny one-liner shtick (which never spells supernatural evil as much as it does bad stand-up comedian); a backstory reaching into a hidden past of the town the film takes place in that never leads anywhere but a few shots of a before-he-was-famous Sam Rockwell (doing a young Darren McGavin, who is of course also pretty much wasted here); and a draggy middle made even more draggy by a lot of rather lame hot sexy times.

It’s certainly a watchable film but then, one might as well spend one’s time with a good one, or an interesting bad one.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

In short: Blueberry (2004)

aka Renegade

Mike Blueberry (Vincent Cassel) and his buddy Jimmy McClure (Colm Meaney) are marshals in an Old West town bordering on the holy mountains of the Chiricahua. Despite carrying some personal demons around with him, Blueberry is friends with the Chiricahua shaman Runi (Temuera Morrison), and is doing his best to keep the peace between everyone in the area.

That job is rather more difficult because some of the local whites believe the holy mountains to be home to a treasure hoard, and men like local rich guy Greg Sullivan (Geoffrey Lewis) – who just happens to be the father of Blueberry’s spunky and intense love interest Maria (Juliette Lewis) - or the crazy German prospector Prosit (Eddie Izzard) – whose name by the way translates into “cheers!” - are willing to do some quite shitty things to get at that gold.

However, there’s an even greater threat to the Chiricahuas, the peace, and perhaps even Blueberry’s soul around, in form of Blueberry’s oldest enemy, one Wallace Sebastian Blount (Michael Madsen), who is looking for something in the holy mountains, too. Blount isn’t looking for gold, though, but wants to learn a way to kill with his spirit. Which makes him the sort of enemy who can only be conquered in a giant peyote trip/healing spirit journey.

As you can see, Jan Kounen’s (loose, the titles tell us, and given my lack of knowledge with the source material, I’m just going to believe that) adaptation of venerable French leftist Western comic series Blueberry isn’t exactly a straightforward Western. Rather, it’s the kind of film that doesn’t end in a climactic shootout but in a climactic, CGI heavy drug trip.

Unlike myself Blueberry takes the whole shamanism thing very seriously, attempting to turn what could be a relatively straightforward tale of revenge and redemption into one of spiritual enlightenment, seeming to mean every strange thing it does quite intensely, which really left me as a watcher who doesn’t share its convictions in the position of either pointing and laughing at the crazy people (and I’m not that kind of atheist), or just rolling with it and trying to get into the spirit (sorry) of things.

The latter approach is made rather more easy by the simple fact that Kounen is really, really good at making the whole film feel like a drug trip full of symbols you might or might not understand, or where understanding them might not even be the point, with every camera angle seemingly chosen for maximum confusion; and that’s before the really rather effective (or silly, or both, depending on your position) religious tripping even starts.

Consequently, the film’s plot – such as it is – meanders through various Western clichés seen from a sideways angle, stops, starts, and stops again, making circles and turns that don’t really lead anywhere only to get back to the beginning of things. For a viewer who likes her films plot heavy, Kounen’s approach will probably be infuriating, but if you’re willing to let things just flow over you, you might get a lot out of the film.

At the very least, Blueberry is pretty much a one of a kind film (I don’t think comparing it with Jodorowsky would be fair, despite the shared interest in shamanistic practices and utter weirdness); if it’s successful for any given viewer will depend on him as much as on the film, I think.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1947)

Not to be confused with Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934)!

Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (Ron Randell) does what comes natural to him – he stumbles into a mystery. After World War II, there has been a minor epidemic of stolen identities, with some very active criminals of dubious taste swindling their ways into the inheritances of people who died during the war.

One Ellen Curtiss (Gloria Henry) visits a lawyer following a newspaper ad concerning the inheritance of her aunt, but the good man already had a visit by a different Ellen Curtiss (Anabel Shaw) weeks before. Scotland Yard inspector Sanderson (Carl Harbord) tries to sort things out, but someone shoots him while he’s having a talk with the Gloria-Henry-Curtiss - let’s call her Ellen #1 from now on. Drummond kind of adopts Ellen #1’s cause against Ellen #2, but various developments make it devilishly difficult to decide if he’s betting on the right heiress. Usually, he’d just follow his “sucker for a pretty face principle” and decide his loyalties from there, but both Ellen’s have pretty faces, so some actual detective work might be in order.

However, the question is if the clues our intrepid hero is following have been laid by someone else to lead him to a foregone conclusion.

When last time we met a Hugh Drummond around here, World War II hadn’t happened, and Drummond was a weird mix of upperclass dandy and adventurer. Not surprisingly in the age of noir, Australian Ron Randell’s version of Drummond seems a bit closer to the hard-boiled detective archetype, though certainly more on the easy-going side of it. Drummond has lost his upper class accent, and his valet has become non-existent (sacrilege, clearly), while he’s driven around by some junior reporter named Seymour (Terry Kilburn). Sidekick Algy (Patrick O’Moore) seems to have fallen victim to sudden brain growth, and has left true Algy-ness for only mild idiocy. On the plus side, Algy isn’t as annoying as in earlier incarnations anymore.

Apart from keeping the Drummond character close to changed contemporary tastes after the end of the War, part of these changes certainly have something to do with Randell, whom it would be difficult to take seriously with the earlier films’ approach to the character. However, Randell does provide Drummond in his second and last outing in the role with enough charm it’s still easy to think of him as a version of the movie Drummond we know, even if this character might as well be every other post-War charming rogue.

Where most of the older Drummonds I’ve seen were very pulp-like affairs with much kidnapping of pretty ladies by moustache-twirling villains, Strikes Back MkII is a mystery loosened up by a bit of a punch-out from time to time. The script actually manages to make the identity mystery at the plot’s core mysterious without having to become too silly, with some cleverly applied red herrings, and the good sense to show Drummond as suavely confused by the whole affair as is only good and proper. Our hero, it turns out, is no Sherlock Holmes, but he’s tenacious and willing to admit to himself he just might have bet on the wrong woman (and hey, they’re both pretty enough to ask out afterwards), and does mistrust the obvious in perfectly fitting manner.

B-movie stalwart director Frank McDonald keeps things moving at the appropriate sprightly pace, does some noir-lite things with expressionist lighting, and obviously knows the one thing a film like this shouldn’t do is stop for boring dithering pretending to be characterization or to take too much time off his audience’s life with comic relief. The jokes we get are even funny.

I honestly don’t know what more I could ask of a series b-movie made in 1947. A lot of fun, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back delivers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Some Rambling about Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

Frank Pavich’s documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s gloriously failed – and also glorious – attempt at adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune (the project that eventually turned into David Lynch’s existing yet not glorious at all film), is a joy to watch. It’s an inspiring film about the power of outrageously insane plans (let’s start our movie with a long shot through the galaxy, why don’t we?), starring Jodorowsky as some sort of joyous trickster half-god telling stories that defy belief, even if a lot of what he tells may have actually happened. Which, of course, makes the improbability of it all all the more wonderful.

It’s a film that can’t help but leave a viewer with even the least bit of heart shouting (like one of Jodorowsky’s beloved “spiritual warriors”, one assumes) “let’s make some art and change the world!” or “let’s write-up a movie!”, or whatever. Really, if you come down to it, this film about a film that was never made is much more life-affirming and positive and rousing than anything Hollywood throws Oscars at.

It’s also a pretty funny film, be it Jodorowsky telling stories about his casting of Salvador Dali as Emperor of the Universe, his successful attempt to convince Pink Floyd his messianic movie to change the world is a bit more important than their junk food, or how he sent his son to what I can’t help but call Übermensch training – the last very much in the spirit of Herbert’s original, I can’t help but add – or how he describes an (awesome) ending to his movie that to me seems quite the opposite of Herbert’s philosophy, and then adds that that’s of course not in the book, as if anyone could doubt it. I was laughing a lot while watching this, not from a position of pointing and laughing at the crazy people, but laughing with the freedom of Jodorowsky’s approach, the daring to just do what he thought was right, not wasting a second on thinking if what he’s doing also just might be a little (or a lot) crazy, or faintly ridiculous, or just impossible. It’s awesome in the older meaning of the word.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Saturday, August 30, 2014

In short: Wild Rovers (1971)

Aging cowhand Ross Bodine (William Holden) and his much younger friend Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal) are working on the ranch of patriarchal Walter Buckman (Karl Malden) and his sons John (Tom Skerritt) and Paul (Joe Don Baker), with all the exciting prospects you have in that kind of job gaping before them.

So, Frank out of youthful stupidity and Ross because he’s got nothing to show for his fifty years, the cow hands decide to rob the local bank. The robbery does succeed, even, thanks to a rather ruthless plan, and doesn’t end in any bloodbath whatsoever. As to not leave any bad blood behind, they even leave the money meant for the payroll of their home ranch with the banker. Because the territory line behind which the sheriff (Victor French) has no jurisdiction anymore is so near, Frank and Ross seem to get away scot free despite a few minor troubles.

Unfortunately, the banker and his family embezzle the money, leaving Buckman very angry because of the perceived betrayal (though I’m not too sure his reaction would have been much different otherwise), sending his sons out to go as far beyond the borders as necessary to bring his wayward cowhands back, preferably alive but not necessarily so.

Wild Rovers’ director Blake Edwards is – of course – much better known as a director of comedies but he seems to have made it a point to work in a few different genres in between the comedies. Even though these films generally have their problems they also feel a lot like labours of love to me, Edwards milking his commercial success to get astonishing amounts of money for his dream projects.

The film at hand is a case in point, with its Jerry-Goldsmith-doing-Aaron-Copland score, the lavish photography by Philip Lathrop, and its mostly excellent cast, often looking and sounding like someone’s wet dream of a Western. Unfortunately, it’s at the same time a much too self-indulgent movie for my tastes, the sort of thing where a director seems so in love with parts of his movie he just can’t let them stop, leading to some scenes that barely should be in the film at all going on forever, some ill-advised The Wild Bunch without the punch-style slow motion, and pacing that at times slows to a crawl. Then there’s the musical Overture and Entr’acte (seriously) that has no business at all in a film this slow and long already, something so useless to the film I don’t even know what to say about it.

Less a problem of self-indulgence than one of miscasting is Ryan O’Neal, who isn’t at his worst here, but whose specific kind of blandness and lack of a projected screen personality chafes badly against a William Holden who at this point of his career made things look easy and natural even when they were getting rather theatrical.

On the other hand, Wild Rovers features nearly as many moments of brilliance as it does of self-indulgent bloat, moments when Edwards’s pretensions stop being pretensions and start becoming the real thing, like basically every time Holden opens his mouth, that ill-fated poker game in Benson, or some of the shots of Holden and O’Neal travelling.

As a matter of fact, I found myself enjoying Wild Rovers more often than not, regularly buying into its world building, as well as its attempt at reaching the archetypal by way of the specific, and while I was bored for more than one scene, I can’t help but recommend it for all the parts of it that aren’t boring.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

In short: Dune Warriors (1991)

Welcome to drought plagued post-apocalyptia. A scouting party of decidedly evil warlord William (Luke Askew) takes the small, peaceful village of Chinley (who knows how it is spelled?) that is a water-y paradise in the desert, waiting for William to come and complete the invasion. Val (Jillian McWhirter), the daughter of one of the village elders, knows it’ll be over with any idea of democracy or non-slavery once William takes over, so she sneaks out into the desert to find warriors to get rid of the scouts and fight William.

She’s in luck, too, for fleeing one of those Filipino post-apocalypse movie mainstay groups of angry little persons, she is saved by Michael (David Carradine), who just happens to be William’s arch enemy, even though he isn’t telling that yet. Michael helps Val find the usual bunch of fighters – there’s her new love interest Dorian (Blake Boyd), his friend, the self-declared “scoundrel” John (Rick Hill), who were running a scam in the fine sport of motorcycle jousting, John’s friend, martial artist Ricardo (Dante Varona), and shotgun toting Miranda (Maria Isabel Lopez). Not the magnificent seven, but they’ll have to do.

So soon enough, things will explode, people will be shot, knifed and sworded (technical term), David Carradine’s legs and Maria Isabel Lopez’s breasts will be shown off, and peasants will be trained as warriors. To mix the Seven Samurai formula up somewhat, this village does have its very own traitors.

I often grump about the films directed by Filipino exploitation film king Cirio H. Santiago because I find most of them even more boring than they are shoddy – the capital sin in low budget cinema – but from time to time, I find one I actually enjoy watching.

Dune Warriors does have it rather easy to conquer me (I suspect William would be jealous if I were a village), for if there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s Seven Samurai style films. Not that anyone would confuse Santiago’s approach to the material with Kurosawa or Sturges or Sayles, but it’s a perfectly fine scaffold to hang one’s action scenes on, and a straightforward structure for a plot. Quite unexpectedly for Santiago the director (I generally respect his work as a producer quite a bit more), he doesn’t mess up the traditional structure, but keeps so close to it this is actually a Santiago film I’d call tight. At the very least, the film moves from one fight to the next with pleasant pace, not getting bogged down in bad comedy, or distracted scenes full of nothing.

Santiago still doesn’t like to move his camera much, it seems, yet this time around, the film isn’t killed by the nailed-down camera set-up of doom, and the action sequences are actually edited together from of so many different shots, I suspect you could make three other Santiago films from them. It’s not pretty but it’s dynamic enough to make the action scenes actually entertaining, with many a stunt double throwing himself backwards, random explosions, David Carradine posing with his sword while wearing boots and no trousers, copious blood squibs whenever somebody thought about using them, and a rusty assortment of cars, motorcycles and – of course - dune buggies. It’s not deep, either, but Dune Warriors sure as heck is fun to watch.