Saturday, July 4, 2015

In short: Arsene Lupin Returns (1938)

Someone attempts to steal a particularly valuable emerald necklace from the de Grissac family just when they’ve come to the USA to sell it, yet only manages to steal a copy of it. The would-be jewel thief leaves all the hallmarks of the famed Arsène Lupin behind, if you ignore the fact he’d never by so unstylish in his approach as he’s shown to be here, would hardly confuse a copy with the original, and that he’s supposed to be dead.

Of course, Lupin (this time around Melvyn Douglas) is still around and kicking (see the first film from six years earlier), having settled down in the guise of gentleman farmer Rene Farrand. Ironically, Lupin/Farrand is attempting to woo de Grissac’s niece Lorrain (Virginia Bruce), despite her being the most boring character alive. So quite naturally, former lamplight addicted FBI agent, now insurance security man, Steve Emerson (Warren William), quickly gets it into his head that not only is Farrand Lupin but also trying to steal the necklace. At least he’s half right. I’m sure the fact that Emerson also has taken an interest in Lorraine has nothing at all to do with his ideas.

Lupin, particularly once someone pretending to be him is still trying to steal the necklace when everyone is back in France and even that unstylish crime known as murder happens, has to take on the unfamiliar role of detective, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with Emerson and wooing Lorraine.

George Fitzmaurice’s Arsene Lupin Returns is quite an example of how stupid the production code holding Hollywood back for a few decades actually was, with its gentleman thief (in the first, pre-code film still very much that) not being allowed to be an actual thief anymore (no charming people stealing from the rich for you, America!), and instead having reformed and doing the whole amateur detective bit. It would be a thing easily to get annoyed about, but the film at hand doesn’t actually deserve anyone’s ire.

It is, indeed, quite a fun little flick, with Douglas and William both doing different variations on the suave detective character, fighting each other over a cause and a woman with such enthusiasm and camaraderie it’s always clear these guys are doing what they do because they enjoy themselves so much. On the negative side, this leaves Lorraine as not much more than a trophy and a prop, and a particularly boring one at that. But then, criticizing this means applying deeper thought than the film actually merits.

This, after all, is meant to be slight, slick diversion that makes you smile (and probably swoon) about its smart leads while being entertained and a bit excited by their plotting and counterplotting, and at that Arsene Lupin Returns is quite adept indeed.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

American Ninja (1985)

Mysterious private Joe T. Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) has just barely arrived at an US Army base on the Philippines, and already gets into a whole load of trouble. First, he uses his mysterious (he’s a childhood amnesiac, of course) ninjitsu training to save Patricia (Judie Aronson), the daughter of the base’s commander, and perhaps the most insipid creature on Earth, from being kidnapped by the ninjas supporting a mysterious group of rebels, leading to everyone around, including said commanding officer, being very angry with him in a way every twelve year old will understand. Then more ninjas try to kill Joe T., a romance develops between Patricia and our hero, and after that, even more ninjas try to kill him, his co-soldier Corporal Jackson (Steve James) needs to be kicked by him until they become fast friends, and yet still more ninjas attempt the killing. Why, it’s as if nefarious things were going on in the Philippines.

I have to admit, I consciously left out the whole angle of what the bad guys in Sam Firstenberg’s American Ninja are all about here during the synopsis, and even that one of them is called The Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), but the film itself seems so disinterested in giving its bad guys a plan that’s vaguely sensible even for action movie plans, I’m just finishing what the film starts. Sure, there’s also the thing where Joe finds out why he has ninja super powers, but that is dramatically so disconnected from the rest of the plot it’s not all that interesting to learn that John Fujioka taught him.

Of course – and fortunately, seeing as how little the film cares about these other things – this is one of the core texts of not only the not so short infatuation of Western filmmakers with ninjas – preferably Caucasian ones, unless they are called Sho Kosugi – but also of Golan, Globus and Cannon Films, and as such it just isn’t about giving a damn about its plot. If there’s some interest to find in the plot of a Cannon production, that’s more of a happy accident. What it is obviously all about is the action (yes, I’m a genius, why do you ask, dear reader?), and Firstenberg’s film delivers quite a lot of that here. Well, the fights are rather slow when you’ve seen comparable Asian films from decades earlier, a comparison that is rather inevitable when you encounter a film containing as many ninjas as this one does, the choreography is not particularly inspired, and while Michael Dudikoff isn’t as improbable a ninja as Franco Nero, nor is wearing a headband declaring him to be a ninja, he’s also not as convincing as one would like.

Dudikoff isn’t much of an actor here, either, mumbling his dialogue, emoting awkwardly, and more often than not making the impression he’s not at all happy being in front of the camera. Even though he never really became a great on-screen charismatic, it’s rather astonishing when you see him here and then compare with his efforts in 1986’s Dudikoff/James/Firstenberg film Avenging Force, where he has very quickly gotten a lot more present and willing. That film is actually superior to American Ninja in pretty much every aspect, now that I think about it – the action is tighter and more interesting, the acting better, Steve James shirtlesser, the villains more interesting and lively, and there’s even something of a plot.

But I digress, quite badly even, particularly since, having said all these mean and nasty things about basically every aspect of American Ninja, I also have to note that I still had a blast watching it, because all the awkwardness and the cheese on display don’t feel like signs of incompetence at all but rather as if this were a much scrappier production than it is, of pretty insane enthusiasm, which is quite a feat for a film so clearly cashing in on various fads. True or not, competent or not, the way the film throws ninjas and slightly wonky action sequences at its audience feels a lot like kids playing with the stuff they feel is awesome, and there’s an excitement here surrounding even the most stupid moments that makes the film very much worth watching. Even if a lot about American Ninja is wrong, it just feels so right to the twelve year old inside me (and that’s its target audience anyhow).

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In short: Darkside Witches (2015)

Strange things are happening in a small Italian mountain village. Men disappear, silly CGI creatures roam, and porn scenes turn towards penis mutilation. It’s the vengeance of six innocent white witches lead by one Sibilla (Barbara Bouchet) whose death by burning during the middle ages has actually put them onto the path they were burned for, and who are now out to open a gate to hell.

Fortunately, Vatican exorcist Don Gabriele (director/writer/producer/etc Gerard Diefenthal adding male lead to the list) just happens to stroll into the village because the place’s main priest once was his mentor. Even though Gabriele is in a bit of a crisis of faith, he soon starts fighting the good fight again, later on with his excellent cartoonish support group.

I miss Bruno Mattei, I truly do, so an Italian film like Darkside Witches gives me all fuzzy feelings with its weirdly constructed plot, its bizarre dialogue post-dubbed by people with heavy accents of unknown origins, its absolute willingness to become tasteless whenever it might be (in)appropriate and the ACTING(!!!) style acting. It’s – as the Mattei comparison probably makes clear – not the kind of film people who care about that sort of thing will ever call “good”, but it sure as hell has a lot of fun being the preposterous and pretty awesome exploitation monstrosity it is.

I’m fond of many parts of the movie: Diefenthal’s earnest performance, Barbara Bouchet doing the bad main witch for quite a few more scenes than you’d expect, the shameless CGI blood, the way Gabriele’s friends act a lot like an RPG party (or really crap X-Men), the random gratuitous nudity, the plastic synth soundtrack, the tacky and often absurd costumes, and so on. This, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t a film in any way interested to stick to your ideas of good taste or good filmmaking. Instead, Darkside Witches wants to put everything on screen it thinks awesome. That it can’t really afford everything it wants to show, and so has to make do with increasingly dubious and home-made psychedelic looking CGI and a few not very good practical effects, that its ideas of structure are rather no ideas at all is utterly beside the point, because Diefenthal’s film is putting it all on screen anyway, even if “all” is made out of digital fog and goes from making little sense to making no sense at all, but with inter-dimensional travel.

And no, this doesn’t mean Darkside Witches is so bad it is good – rather, the film just doesn’t care about your (or my, for that matter) ideas of “good movies” and “bad movies” at all, doing its own thing in a way I find totally irresistible, and for which I can only salute Diefenthal. May he make more movies soon.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Night of the Serpent (1969)

Original title: La notte dei serpenti

aka Nest of Vipers

Alcoholic gringo Luke (Luke Askew) has been taken in by one of the archetypal gangs of bandits/revolutionaries that dominate Italian Mexico and the border regions of the US to Mexico. The charming people use Luke as their mascot and punching bag. The band’s leader is not completely without morals – even if it’s the sort that’ll not hinder him from killing quite ruthlessly – yet he’s not above lending Luke out as the perfect scapegoat and one-time killer for the plans of the police chief (which means he is his own kind of little violent potentate) of a neighbouring village. That man (Luigi Pistilli) has gotten in on reaping the fruits of a semi-accidental killing, and he and his not quite so willing co-conspirators just need somebody like Luke to either kill a child, or at least take the fall for the deed.

Turns out they couldn’t have chosen a worse alcoholic, for Luke’s mandatory trauma is just the right one to get him to leave off the tequila, take up his gun, and do some very practical things to assuage his guilt.

Just when I thought I finally truly had seen all the good films the Spaghetti Western had to offer and was basically down to Demofilo Fidano films (a fate as worse as death, and probably more painful than most deaths), along comes Giulio Petroni’s Night of the Serpent. I shouldn’t be too surprised, really, because Petroni’s handful of westerns is always at least interesting.

As a director Petroni here fluctuates between competently regurgitating stylistic elements of the genre he’s working in (his fast eye zooms are particularly dangerous there) and breaking them up or in with moments reminding me of completely different things. There are, for example, a handful of scenes staged as if they belonged into an old west gothic, or perhaps an atypical giallo. Particularly the initial murder-by-accident comes to mind here, but there are bits and pieces of this sort sprinkled throughout the film, turning it at times into something stranger or perhaps more personal than your typical Spaghetti Western.

Petroni also adds quite a few other strange moments to the film – there’s for example the mildly perverse subplot about two of the conspirators – the local priest and the local prostitute – and the rather unhealthy thing that’s going on between them. These moments give the film a peculiar mood and demonstrate a good degree of disgust towards your typical bourgeois, towards minor authority figures (and the film is good at emphasising how tiny these people’s authority is in the large run of things) who only ever misuse their little power and then whine about the consequences.

Consequently, the film’s positive figures are a self-destructive loser with something to feel as guilty about as his enemies, the local female shaman peyote popper, and a kid who explains he likes a certain of his relations best because that one doesn’t hit him as hard when he beats him up. Oh, it really is 1969, isn’t it?

Night isn’t quite as cynical (I’m tempted to say noirish, given the philosophical outlook) as some other Spaghetti Westerns, so it finds a kind of happy ending that might actually see the surviving characters grown through the violent proceedings. In another fine twist, it does so not in the traditional manner but by breaking up the climactic show-down through some surprising business I’m unwilling to spoil. Petroni is again playing with the expected formula here and at the very least deserves a smile and a bit of praise for that, as well as for turning what could have been a bog standard example of its genre into something a little different, without ever leaving the formula too far behind.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In short: Spring (2014)

Following the cancer death of his mother and a handful of fuck-ups, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) flees from his native US into a random direction – Italy, as it happens. There, he drifts to a town in Apulia, finds (illegal) work with a farmer, and meets and falls in love with Louise (Nadia Hilker). Louise reciprocates his feelings but she has secrets of the dark, ancient and strange kind that can become quite the problem in a relationship.

For the second time, I find myself very much excited about/by a film directed by the duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead yet also very unwilling to actually write too much about the brilliant film I’m so excited about. It’s not so much the fear of spoiling plot points for my – possibly fictional anyway – readership, for this isn’t a film going for the big twist, in fact one putting its cards quite clearly on the table, but of spoiling that perfect moment of coming into a film like this without too much baggage, and me not wanting to get in the way of anyone just watching the film and letting it unfold.

So, I’m just going to say I think Spring is as perfect a movie as I’ve encountered, a romance with fantasy and horror elements (that one of the main characters would most certainly rather call science fiction, and oh how I love the film for which of the two it is) with wonderful acting by Pucci, Hilker and Francesco Carnelutti, directed in a style that starts out as your typical indie realism yet becomes increasingly poetic in simple yet decidedly poetic ways.

Thematically, Spring concerns itself very much with those things you’d expect of a film with a title like this that sends a young man to Italy - love and decay, death and rebirth, loss and finiteness and love again, treating its themes with clarity, humanity, a feeling of sadness and a feeling of joy, as it should be.

Friday, June 26, 2015

On ExB: Universal Van Damme: Hard Target (1993)

I know, I know, I’ve said, written and thought some rude things about John Woo’s American phase but now that I’ve settled into zen-like middle-age, maaaan, I’m so relaxed I’m willing to revise this kind of opinion.

So listen to my aged wisdom and click on through to this week’s column over on Exploder Button, where I’ll go deeper into that time when John Woo met Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In short: Demonic (2015)

A handful of young ghost hunters break into a dilapidated old house where a séance once resulted in a bit of demonic possession (I’d say spoiler, but then, this thing is called Demonic) and axe murdering with only one survivor. And hey, one of our young ghost hunters (Dustin Milligan) is the only son of said survivor, so I can’t see what possibly could go wrong here.

The whole she-bang is told in flashbacks that are part of an interview police psychologist Dr Elizabeth Klein (Maria Bello) leads with what might be the lone survivor of the ghost hunters right at the scene of the crime. Why there? Because taking him somewhere else would break the plot. Anyway, terrible secrets, the same old jump scares you have in every James Wan production, and a mildly stupid plot twist follow.

By now, James Wan productions are mostly their own little genre of mainstream horror films, I think. They’re distinguished by generally moody photography, clever lighting, usually decent or better acting, and a complete unwillingness to go outside a very small comfort zone of what a horror movie is supposed to be and to do. So, expect Wan production Demonic (actually directed by one Will Canon) to be slick, expect it to be professional, but also expect it to never do anything unexpected, to never really explore psychological or metaphorical depths or to feature very interesting characters. However, you can expect that jump scare based on a face seen only via camera popping out, that scene with an invisible force dragging a person around, and some lame poppycock about demons that never actually attempts to properly build a mythology around them or make them characters, because this would actually involve using some creative energy instead of genre short hand of the more boring kind.

I wouldn’t exactly call this approach lazy (I’m actually pretty sure the people involved here are putting effort in), but it certainly does result in films that are all pretty much the same, and even though they are certainly slick and professional, they’re not quite slick enough to make me forget how much they lack in creative spirit. I’m nearly tempted to use the word “soulless” here.

Canon’s film does at least mildly mix things up structurally, and in the film’s first hour or so, I found myself quite enjoying the mystery-style approach to the plot, particularly with Maria Bello giving a fine outing as what seems the only competent character in the film. The longer the film went, the clearer it became it wouldn’t use its structure for anything beyond setting up the mandatory boring plot twist. In the final tally, little actually distinguishes this one from half a dozen other Wan-horror films.

This doesn’t mean Demonic is awful. Like nearly all of these films, it’s mildly diverting (or, if you have seen fewer of these films and haven’t seen all of their tricks a dozen times or so, perhaps even mildly exciting), and a perfect film to watch when your brain isn’t up to anything with ambitions beyond being the most generic horror film possible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: THE SEQUEL YOU DID NAZI COMING

Nightlight (2015): The cast isn’t bad, the direction has its moments, yet Scott Beck’s and Bryan Woods’s film is still another POV horror film about pretty young people getting lost in haunted woods. Not surprisingly, the film lacks the vague, yet weird and disquieting mythology of that one big predecessor whose name I don’t need mention, and doesn’t really have much of its own to replace it with. There’s an attempt at characterization through classic teenage angst but whenever I actually started to believe in the characters and cared a little about what happened to them, they began to act not like frightened people but like horror movie characters, and there all caring must stop.

There are a few okay scares in here, but most of the film is of the sort of middling okay-ness that annoys me more than a truly bad movie ever does.

13 Ghosts (1960): For my taste, this is one of William Castle’s lesser efforts at gimmick – the GHOST VIEWER! – horror but I suspect that’s in large part because it’s too much of a family movie for my tastes, with not enough of the sardonic and very dark humour that makes House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler so much fun.

As all Castle films, it’s not a bad movie in any way, but I didn’t find myself exactly glued to the screen watching it, most likely because 50s (and the film still belongs very much into that decade) horror comedy is anathema to my sensibilities.

Route 666 (2001): Who’d have thunk a film about Lou Diamond Phillips fighting an undead chain gang on a by-road of Route 66 called Route 666 could be this boring? Dumb, sure; badly directed by William Wesley (director of not much beyond this and the lightyears better Scarecrows), yes, but boring? Alas, it truly is, thanks to the snail’s pace the plot happens (or not) in, the meandering tone containing much odious comic relief, the less than engaging way the undead attacks are filmed in, and the many, many scenes that could have been cut out of this thing without anyone in the audience noticing before the film would end an hour earlier than is usual. It’s a dire effort.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Road Wars (2015)

Welcome to post-apocalyptica, where Mad Max rejects roam the deserted wastelands fighting night-active rabies zombies who might be vampires or something. We concern ourselves with a small group of improbable – they’re just that bad – survivors lead by one Dallas (John Freeman) who are sitting on some sort of source of refined water (the film’s keeping vague about this, as it does about most anything) but have great trouble protecting themselves from the nightly attacks of the zombies. Which might have to do with the fact that they eschew using kiddie stuff like fortifications or even the tiniest of fences and just stand on the roof of a SUV shooting at the not exactly endless number of zombies attacking nightly.

On a boredom expedition looking for the legendary day-walking zombie species, two of our heroes (cough) pick up – well, accidentally shoot - a guy we will later learn is called Thorne (Cole Parker). Thorne has amnesia, does not get metaphors, is not Drax the Destroyer, and is possibly immune against the zombie virus. So, apart from an ammunition run and various other plans that make little sense, the group now plans to fetch that scientific marvel we know as a centrifuge, which is the only device needed for the SCIENCE(!) way to make an antidote. Wait, there are antidotes against viruses? Anyway, things become more complicated thanks to survivor Nakada (Chloe Farnworth) keeping her infected boyfriend alive and hidden, the all-around stupidity of everyone, and the obligatory band of wasteland toughs of the particularly originally named Reaver (Micah Fitzgerald) who have some sort of evil plan, I’m sure.

The Asylum and director Mark Atkins strike again, this time doing Mad Max: Fury Road, just for five dollars and with zombies. That’s, as you can imagine, not exactly a promising set-up, but for the film’s first fifty minutes or so I found myself decently amused by it, even getting small flashbacks towards the golden age of Italian genre cinema when this sort of deeply stupid mix of two of the fad genres of the day happened by the dozens.

Road Wars isn’t quite on the level of the more glorious films of this approach to getting our money, unfortunately. I’m not really complaining about the film making little sense – though I’d sure like to know how the world became a wasteland right in time for the vampire/zombie/whatever virus – because that’s truly par for the course in this sort of thing. I am complaining about the fact that the way it doesn’t make sense becomes increasingly less interesting the longer the film goes on. The bunch of crazy stupid shit it throws at us early on slowly turns into boring stupid shit, with added attempts at creating a dramatic plot that probably would have worked out mildly better if the way the characters behave made even a little bit of sense. Honestly, I have no idea what the final acts of violence here are even supposed to be about. Plus, Road Wars little action set pieces may not be terrible, but they really don’t reach the level of George Miller, Enzo G. Castellari or, frankly, a third-rate Corman director from the 80s; they’re okay, I guess, but this is the sort of film that could really use either the riveting or the plain crazy.

On the other hand, Road Wars does some things right too: it at least attempts very honestly not to be boring, where the success of that attempt depends on your resistance to rampant stupidity and your liking for basic post-apocalyptic bullshit. It suggests that one thing most zombie apocalypse movies do wrong is putting people in sensible clothes, instead of the random and cheap looking assortment of leathers, goggles, face paint, dubious hair (products), antler helmets, fur coats and random dude eyeliner tradition suggests. It very clearly states that the best post-apocalyptic acting is either the dumb staring of Cole Parker and John Freeman, the mild overacting of Chloe Farnworth or Micah Fitzgerald, or the mild, leisurely approach of everyone else, suggesting the apocalypse really is a picnic.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

In short: Judas Ghost (2013)

Four professional ghost finders working for the excellently named Carnacki Institute – cocky bossman Jerry (Martin Delaney), medium Anna (Lucy Cudden), tech guy Ian (Alexander Perkins) and former ghost hunter turned post-traumatic event cameraman Mark (Simon Merrells) – are supposed to shoot a training video for the institute getting rid of a minor haunting in some village hall. Things may not be quite what they seem though, and the harmless haunting quickly turns out to be something much more dangerous. It is even possible that our intrepid protagonists have been purposefully lead into a trap by their own employers.

This cheap little number written by Simon R. Green (author of a few dozen or so pulpy novels that can be pretty fun when read in the right spirit and mood) and directed by Simon Pearce takes place in the universe of Green’s Ghost Finders novels (and various other series, because what genre writer can resist connecting everything with everything?). Budget-wise, this looks rather like a pretty cheap TV movie, with the single set, special effects of dubious quality just above backyard movie standard, basic direction and a script that isn’t one for subtlety or originality and contains about as many surprises as it contains new ideas (which is to say zero). In fact, you could sell me on this being a pilot made on spec for a TV series nobody wanted to pick up.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with Judas Ghost. What it lacks in intelligence or originality, it – rather typical of what I’ve read of Green’s books – makes up for with a nice sense of pacing that would probably reach break-neck speed if the production could only afford that sort of thing. And while all the paths here are well-trodden, the film presents even the most silly and generic bit of haunting business with enthusiasm and conviction, enough so that it becomes rather fun to watch on a very basic level. So, for the sort of very minor horror movie fodder it is, Judas Ghost is actually quite entertaining - not the sort of thing I’d ever recommend anyone but the completist to actually seek out, but certainly a film one can have seventy minutes of mild fun with if one stumbles upon it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

In short: The Drownsman (2014)

Madison (Michelle Mylett) is suffering from visions of a rather wet looking gentleman (Ry Barrett) trying to drown her. It’s gotten so bad, she has reached a stage of hydrophobia where she even has to take in her fluids intravenously. How she isn’t already in a mental health facility, only the script gods know.

After not appearing for her job as maid of honour for the wedding of her best friend Hannah (Caroline Korycki), Hannah and her other interchangeable girlfriends decide on the most stupid way to put her back on track again: an intervention including a part-time psychic, a staged drowning in a bathtub, and lots of nonsensical talk. This really seems to get the Drownsman going, and now he isn’t only appearing to Madison alone but to her friends also – and where he was only a threatening presence before, he now goes in for the kill.

It is rather difficult for me to take Chad Archibald’s The Drownsman as seriously as it wants to be taken, primarily because large parts of the script are quite so stupid, and the non-supernatural elements of the film do seem more unbelievable than the supernatural ones. So, no, this is not how mental illness works, this is not how interventions work, and this – I hope – is not how friendship works, the film seemingly taking place in bizarro land even without its watery supernatural serial killer. In fact, I had more difficulty suspending my disbelief regarding these supposed real world parts than the Drownsman, a process that wasn’t made any easier by the bland characters. Other horror films just go for clichéd one-note characters, but The Drownsman doesn’t even go this deep, so Maddy and her circle of friends don’t exactly make for riveting victims, or people you want to spend any screen time with.

Having said that, I also have to admit that I still enjoyed parts of the film. Sure, the plot – such as it is - is made out of bits of better movies, with a killer who works as a watery version of a less talkative Freddy Krueger, but its consciously surreal horror movie set pieces are somewhat interesting and even kinda cool, and while the film is pretty dumb, it also isn’t in the habit of dragging its feet and having nothing happen. Sure, I would have loved to see something intelligent  or thematically, or emotionally involving made from The Drownsman’s basics but at least it’s not (too) boring. How’s that for a recommendation?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

In short: La Mansión de la Niebla (1972)

aka Maniac Mansion

Warning: I’m gonna spoil the obvious

Thanks to particularly thick fog, various people (among them usual suspects Analía Gadé, Alberto Dalbés and Eduardo Fajardo) end up stranded in a lone house right next to a cemetery. This being the sort of film it is, there’s something not at all right with the place: the owner (Evelyn Stewart) tells a mildly disturbing story about a mysterious illness and a dead ancestor who was supposed to be a vampire, with many an added meaningful glance thrown; the house is full of occult pictures; and it seems there’s a big, possibly dead, chauffeur walking around. Things don’t become less disturbing for the guests the longer the night goes on, for there’s bad age make-up, random body parts and the threat of dead-or-not chauffeur-induced violence.

Francesco Lara Polop’s movie about a mansion in the mist is a bit of a throw back to the Old Dark House films of yore, though the mandatory gorilla has been replaced by that zombie chauffeur, and there are some very tame attempts at sexing proceedings up a little but still mostly keeping everyone’s clothes on. Yes, I was disappointed about that last one too. As in the old entries in the genre, the supernatural here will also turn out to be mere part of a rather dubious plan to drive an heiress mad; as is tradition, it’s a plan made rather problematic by needing to have a group of people travelling independently be stranded by fog, which is not what we in the heiress killing business call a sound idea, even in an area where it’s regularly foggy. So, as it goes with these things, the natural explanations for the seemingly supernatural occurrences are actually less plausible than explaining them by ghosts and witches; in fact, trying to think through who does what when here for what reason might lead to a mild headache.

On the other hand, nothing here is so interesting the non-supernatural explanation will actually turn out to be a disappointment, because disappointment generally needs expectations to disappoint. This doesn’t mean the film is without its attractions – there are some decent moments of classic gothic-style shudders, Polop knows his way around filming a moody bank of artificial fog, and Evelyn Stewart does know who to do sinister meaningful stares rather well, whereas the other actors are playing their quite obvious parts with off-handed professionalism and just a small side of cheese. It’s all very pleasant and old-fashioned, and while this certainly isn’t a lost classic of gothic or would-be gothic, and won’t excite anyone overmuch, La Mansion does have enough to offer for a bit of a diverting time if one adjusts her expectations properly.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: A Story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING Automatics

Locke (2013): Oh Great Cthulhu, save us from the gimmick movies. On one hand, I absolutely appreciate director Steven Knight’s technical inventiveness in making a movie that exclusively takes place in Tom Hardy’s car. On the other hand, I don’t see how the technique is actually useful for the story the film is telling. In fact, the formal reduction of the film seems to me to just emphasise the blandness of its story, and the deep been-there-done-that feeling of a central character who is yet another ultra-competent big shot guy travelling towards emotional redemption with everyone else in his life tools or obstacles to that redemption. This leads to a film that puts enormous technical accomplishment and an inspired lead actor forward to do nothing actually worth any of the effort.


Jupiter Ascending (2015): Look, I’d like there to be more space operas in cinemas as much as the next guy, and I’m perfectly willing to admit a film in the genre doesn’t need to have a clever script or do anything really intelligent, but there’s accepting a degree of stupidity, and then there’s the Wachowski Siblings’ Jupiter Ascending, a film so dumb and apathetically plotted you can feel yourself getting more stupid while watching its deeply uninvolving series of set pieces. And hey, since the film’s whole plot is based on everyone involved, particularly our supposed heroine - as given by Mila Kunis (because the Wachowskis still can’t bring themselves to cast a decent actor instead of a pretty face for their leads, and waste a lot of great talent in the minor parts) - being impressively idiotic, as if the vacuum of space had drifted into their brains, why should the audience be exempt. At least the production design is beautiful, an at times crazy mixture of anime and European SF comic aesthetics that would be a joy to watch in motion if the film it’s in wasn’t so completely lacking in anything else that could actually involve its audience in any way shape or form.


El Xendra (2012): It doesn’t take a quintillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster to bore me, though. When push comes to shove, an overlong, talky would-be episode of the never realized cross-over show between The X-Files and Lost made in Honduras actually does it too. On the other hand, Juan Carlos Fanconi’s film doesn’t make me quite as cranky because it at least seems to be trying much harder than Jupiter. Unfortunately, the film is the usual mix of conspiracy theory, talk about the Maya and non-linear time, and lots and lots of talking about nothing very interesting until indeed actual things are only happening when it’s already much too late to save the film. But hey – I’m not being ironic here – there are some very nice shots of the jungle.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Killer Wore Gloves (1974)

Original title: La muerte llama a las 10

Peggy Foster (Gillian Hills) hasn’t heard from her live-in boyfriend Michael for quite some time, which not only makes her rather nervous, what with him working as a war correspondent in Saigon, but also sees her money running out quickly. So she rents out the upper flat of the double flat she shares with Michael to one John Kirk Lawford (Bruno Corazzari, I think). Shortly after Lawford arrives, a phone call supposedly coming from Michael (though Peggy can’t seem to actually identify her own boyfriend from his voice, so make of this what you will) lures her to the outskirts of London.

There, a glove-wearing would-be killer attempts to shoot Peggy. Our heroine manages to flee, only to find somebody has jumped to his death from her terrace. She just assumes the corpse is Lawford, and then proceeds to pretend to the police she knows nobody and nothing, and where is this anyway? She also tells them nothing about the attempt on her life, because Peggy is obviously not going to do anything sensible during the course of the movie. While two very rude cops – who clearly and correctly believe that Peggy’s a lying liar who lies – are still trying to get any useful information out of her, another guy calling himself John Kirk Lawford arrives (this would be Ángel del Pozo, unless it’s the other way round) for his room. Things proceed in the same tone and style from here on out, with Peggy acting like an absolute idiot while bizarre characters like her crazy and sleazy neighbour Mr Lewis (Carlos Otero) say threatening and ambiguous stuff to her that barely makes sense, people are murdered, and a bag full of money appears.

Well, you really can’t accuse Juan Bosch’s Spanish-lead giallo The Killer Wore Gloves (which indeed the killer does) of making much sense at all, or most of the time of making any sense whatsoever, perfectly fitting into that part of the giallo genre that doesn’t even construct convoluted and hardly believable plots anymore but instead presents a random series of barely coherent scenes filmed with as much style and vigour as director and money can come up with.

The film makes so little sense – and obviously doesn’t care to - I found myself zoning out of its plot quite early on, instead admiring the cheap yet excellent 70s interior design, Marcello Giombini’s derivative yet great score, Peggy’s fashion-sense (though appreciating it with horror might be the better term here), and all the different ways Gillian Hills comes up with when it comes to looks of wide-eyed panic and confusion. The last reactions are of course perfectly appropriate for the film they are in, and reflect my feelings towards Peggy’s actions during the course of the movie so perfectly, I might be just ready to pretend the film is doing this on purpose, instead of being shoddily written.

I suppose, Peggy might be supposed to think she’s protecting Michael somehow from something or someone but since she has as little clue about the truths of matters around her as any of the film’s viewers, this makes as little sense as the eventual explanation of what’s going on. Not surprisingly, given the tone of the rest of this thing, said explanation doesn’t in fact explain much about the wherefore and why of the suspense scenes, the peculiar people, and the curious happening around our heroine. Like: who threw the cat at her? Well, the assistant director, one supposes, but that’s not exactly a great in-movie explanation. What, exactly were the bad guys thinking when they came up with their plan? Did they know everybody else would act idiotic or crazy or both? Was something in the water? Who actually murdered all these people? And so on, and so forth.

So, obviously, The Killer Wore Gloves isn’t exactly a film for anyone who wants their mysteries to make even the minor amount of sense one is used to in one’s giallos, but if you’re willing to just go with it, stare at the pretty people (okay, one or two pretty persons, really, because the rest of the cast isn’t always pretty to look at), bug your eyes at how little this hangs together as a story - in a thematic sense or however else - and enjoy some cheap yet often quite stylish (if less than original) moving pictures, you might have as fun of a time with this as I had.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In short: The Night Crew (2015)

Bounty hunters Wade (Luke Goss), Rose (Luciana Faulhaber), Crenshaw (Bokeem Woodbine) and Ronnie (Paul Sloan) are tasked with getting a certain Mae (Chasty Ballesteros) out of Mexico to the US for bail bonds reasons. For reasons unexplained, that’s supposed to make their partner and boss enough money to be able to avoid being killed by Armenian gangsters.

Unfortunately, the job is a wee bit more complicated than they thought: when first they meet Mae, she’s just about to be killed by some Mexican gangsters working for cartel boss and creep Aguilar (Danny Trejo). Obviously, getting Mae out of the country will pose more of a problem than our heroes expected, seeing as they have to cope with Aguilar’s rather shoot-happy men, a woman who’d really rather not be transported to the US by them, and – worst of all – their own stupidity.

That’s not quite enough to fill a whole film, though, so there’s also the mysterious supernatural secret Mae is carrying around, as well as a love triangle between three of the bounty hunters.

Christian Sesma’s The Night Crew has a lot of the problems endemic to contemporary low budget action movies produced for the home video market: the dialogue’s generally stupid, as is the plot, there’s not much money for decent sets or locations, and visually, you get the usual combination of bleached out colours and a camera that just won’t stop wobbling drunkenly during the action scenes, which – to no one’s surprise – doesn’t exactly make them look any better or more convincing.

Still, I found myself enjoying the thing more than many films of its ilk, mostly for the handful of moments when the usual cheese turns quite fragrant (like the absurd posing in the moment before Sesma decides to not show us the climactic boss fight which you can either explain by the film’s budget not containing a position for “Danny Trejo, action scene” or a sudden interest in being avantgarde), and its honest, sometimes semi-successful attempts at creating a bleak and spooky mood through murky darkness and shady surroundings. I can also only commend the way The Night Crew employs its horror elements – unapologetic, boneheaded and with the gestures of someone who has had a very bad idea, shrugs, and just goes with it. Alright, that  might still doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation but when it comes to direct-to-DVD movies of the moment, I much prefer one like that has a cheesy idea and goes with it to the more usual kind that just doesn’t want to have any ideas – good or bad – at all.

Friday, May 22, 2015

On ExB: Magistrate Toyama: Falcon Magistrate (1957)

If you go by Western cult film web sites like mine, there wasn’t much happening in Japanese genre films before the new wave of samurai and yakuza films of the mid 60s and onwards. That’s of course not true, because the Japanese studios had been churning out genre movies in absurd tempo throughout the 50s, and while these films weren’t generally as rebellious, or crazy, or visually inventive as what would follow, it would be rather bizarre if they were all without merit or interest.

Indeed, once you dive into sub-genres like the jidai geki pulp mystery (insert fancy Japanese genre name here), you’ll quickly find pearls like Magistrate Toyama: Falcon Magistrate, the film my column over at the stately Exploder Button will have to say quite a bit about.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: Crawling, Slimy Things Terror-Bent on Destroying the World!

Preservation (2014): To my surprise, I found myself quite taken with this new variation on the old, old theme of people (in form of the excellent Wrenn Schmidt) having to unleash their inner beast to defend themselves against other people hunting them through the woods. At first, the film seems a bit talky and smug, but soon enough director Christopher Denham demonstrates a nice eye for mood, and all-around inventive yet subtle direction, and the film becomes pleasantly ruthless.

Sure, there’s little that’s new here, but Denham executes particularly the scenes taking place after the hunted has become the hunter™ very suspenseful, always ready to surprise with a minor twist on the formula or just a particularly well executed example of it. That’s really more than enough to keep me happy.

John Wick (2014): Take one painfully miscast lead actor, a bunch of great but underused character actors, dialogue so painfully stupid not laughing seems utterly impossible, some cool action scenes, just as many action scenes that are by far not as cool as they obviously think they are and go on and on and on and on, obnoxious loud music playing obnoxiously loud, and you have Chad Stahelski’s application for the job as the new Neveldine/Taylor or perhaps the new mid period Luc Besson. The resulting film is at times inadvertently funny (seeing as it concerns Keanu Reaves’s bloody vengeance on the Russian mobsters who stole his car and killed the little dog his dead wife gifted him from beyond the grave), at times actually exhilarating if stupid, and at other times painfully annoying in its permanent attempts at overstylizing everything and at overselling Keanu’s supposed badassness.

Dark Summer (2015): About half of Paul Solet’s film is a fine, subtle ghost story centring on ideas about love, desire, and the inability to get these things to work in a way that isn’t messy among teenagers, with two excellent lead performances by Keir Gilchrist and Stella Maeve and direction that makes a virtue of the film’s limited means. Alas, the other half – at times running in parallel to the good parts - is working hard to undo that good work with way too much stuff about black magic, eyebrow-raising twists, and the sort of scenes you put in your film when you don’t trust your audience to stay awake if you don’t shout at it “look, I’m a horror movie!” from time to time. Needless to say, it doesn’t work out too well for the film as a whole.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

In short: Nailbiter (2013)

Despite an acute tornado warning, Janet Maguire (Erin McGrane) packs her daughters Jennifer (Meg Saricks), Alice (Emily Boresow) and Sally (Sally Spurgeon) into a car to make the long drive through the countryside to reach the airport where her husband will come back from one of the USA’s many wars against brown people.

Alas, the tornado warning is only all too correct, and the family just barely manages to find shelter in the storm cellar of a farm on the outskirts of some godforsaken small town on their way to the airport. Turns out it would probably have been healthier for everyone involved if they’d have tried the tornado, for there’s some thing prowling outside that doesn’t want the family to leave. Even worse, there’s also someone boarding the cellar up from the outside, leaving the Maguires trapped even once the storm has passed. They’ll need quite a bit of determination to survive the ordeal in front of them, and even then, they might not all survive.

Patrick Rea’s Nailbiter is a wonderful little film that uses a variation on a classic monster that should be more than just a little bit silly but which works – at least in parts – well because the film doesn’t treat that variation as something silly at all, leaving the ironic winking to others. This doesn’t mean the film doesn’t possess a sense of humour; rather, it prefers to be sardonic but really focuses on other things, using all the tricks in the suspense book to keep its audience excited. Even better, Rea is actually quite great at this.

Consequently, Nailbiter, like all tight and exciting low budget monster movies convinces by using its necessarily small cast and small (yet not warehouse-bound) number of locations as the ideal way to focus on a pacy and exciting execution, with a plot that escalates a bad situation into a horrifying one with very precise steps, just revealing enough of its mythology to make its audience nervous for its characters. It’s exceedingly well done, executed with a decided lack of fat, with no scene after the simple yet effective introduction of its characters that isn’t driving things forward and making the situation of the protagonists more precarious.

In a way, Nailbiter is a decidedly simple movie, but it is a simplicity based on clear decisions about what the film is supposed to be about, and what it is supposed to do with its audience, leaving a film that does exactly what it sets out to do, and does so very well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In short: Gone Girl (2014)

I rather want to opt out of the discussion if this film is horribly misogynist and David Fincher consequently a monster or if it is actually a feminist movie (the former interpretation needs one to ignore the actual tone of large parts of the movie, the latter that Amy is a sociopath, just a more effective one than the creeps around her), mostly because I could write a short piece about the film arguing either way but also because I really read this as a film about how horrible people at large are, a cynical and rather bitter attack on the institution of marriage, romance, the contemporary media circus, and the horrors of a culture based on lies and appearances and the horrid shapes people might grow into through it inside.

This is a film where nearly every single character is so heavily flawed he or she tends to the monstrous, the disgusting, or the plain creepy (with Kim Dickens’s Detective Boney and Carrie Coon’s Margo the obvious exceptions that very pointedly aren’t able to do much about anything here). Which might have gotten rather tiresome over 150 minutes of running time if not for Gillian Flynn’s pitch-perfect, intelligent and involving script that never does something boring and nice when it can do something clever and nasty and that is also pretty damn funny in its own dark way, Fincher’s in this case atypically undemonstrative yet highly effective direction, and so much good acting the concept of Oscar nominations actually makes total sense for once. Why, even Ben Affleck (who is quite perfectly cast) gives an nuanced performance here, though of course, Rosamund Pike’s the true stand-out, turning Amy into what I think may be the most frightening sociopath I’ve seen on screen while still acknowledging she’s an actual human being, just one on the borders of what we tell ourselves human beings are supposed to be.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mercy (2014)

Following a violent incident, young George’s (Chandler Riggs) beloved grandmother Mercy (Shirley Knight) has been brought into a care home for the elderly, because George, his brother Buddy (Joel Courtney), and his mother Rebecca (Frances O’Connor) live toe far away from the Appalachian family home to care for her.

Things have to change a year later, though, when various “incidents” get Mercy thrown out of the home. So, Rebecca and her sons move into the old family home Rebecca left (or is it fled?) when she was eighteen to take care of a Mercy who is barely more than a vegetable following a stroke, bad care by George’s uncle Lanning (Mark Duplass), and the dubious decision of the home to keep the old lady drugged up to the gills.

However, something just isn’t right at all with Mercy. Slowly, George unravels hints and suggestions of the family’s past - the curious suicide by axe of his grandfather, the honeymoon camping trip of his aunt that left her husband dead and hers raving mad, and the strangely two-faced nature of Mercy, whom George felt closer to than his own mother when she was still well, but who showed cruelty and perhaps even worse things towards others he never noticed when he was younger. So, it might not be the best idea when George replaces his grandma’s knock-out drugs with saline solution.

Peter Cornwell’s adaptation of a Stephen King story (with a bit of Lovecraftian terminology – though Mythos fans might be a bit perturbed by the curious choice of Mythos god for the function it has in the plot - as well as quite a bit more Appalachian folklore thrown in that reminded me of the way Manly Wade Wellman used these things) is a pleasantly straight-forward piece of horror, telling a simple story focussed on theme, mood, and character, and eschewing showiness for most of the film’s running time. It’s not at all what I would have expected from the director of Haunting in Connecticut, seeing as it lacks all the annoying trends I loathe most in contemporary mainstream horror – the fixation on loud noises, the useless jump scares and so on – opting for an emphasis on mood and characterisation instead, letting a fine acting ensemble, calm direction, and meaningful landscape shots do a lot of the work of creeping the audience out.

Cornwell’s direction isn’t without style,  but it’s a style used to emphasise the story and the film’s thematic interests in family and love as the cause of emotional turmoil as well as a safe haven from these things, and the point where both sides of the equation become ambiguous. With this approach Cornwell manages to sell even the more preposterous plot developments during the last third of the film, convincing at least this viewer to take on a bit of George’s still child-like view of reality. In this context, I also think it’s very much in the film’s favour – making it more convincing as well as more effective - how easily it manages to portray George as intelligent, resourceful – as well as in possession of an imaginary friend who just might be a dead girl or perhaps something a little different - yet really a child, with all the lack of direct power and agency as well as information about the more sordid parts of his family history this implies, making his situation all the worse because he really can’t expect anyone to believe the nature of what’s going on, nor be sure he has the information he should have to survive.

Once the proverbial shit hits the fan, Cornwell also shows himself to be quite adept at classic suspense techniques, as well as totally unafraid to show and do things that sound silly on paper but feel completely right for the world of the film, where everything that goes bump in the night truly exists: cursed books, evil powers of the outer dark, sin-hunting haints, pacts with horrid forces and ghosts are all part of the film’s world, without the whole affair ever feeling just a bit too much. There is, of course, an obvious parallel to fairy tales and a child’s view of the world, and who am I to disagree with a film that mixes these particular ways to look at and explain the world with a sober perspective on the horrors and pleasures of family and love, and the way these are all too often intermingled?

Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)

Some years after the first Monsters, the zones of alien invasive species have grown. The US have started another invasion into “the Middle East” (and yes, the film never bothers to name an actual, you know, country, because who cares how the brown people call the places they live, right?) to bomb the wandering giant monsters back into the stone age. Or something.

Anyway, the usual combination of imperialism and “collateral damage” does of course lead to resistance among the local population, and so the US military forces find themselves more involved in warring with the people they are supposedly helping than killing any of those “monsters”. The film follows the tragic misadventures of a quartet of freshly shipped in young guys from Detroit whose first tour under the experienced, competent and damaged Sergeant Frater (Johnny Harris) will also be the last one for most of them. (Hint: the African Americans die first). Things start out bad, and turn into a complete clusterfuck on a rescue mission deep in alien infested and “insurgent” dominated country.

You know what I really, really wanted out of the sequel of one of the best SF movies of the past decade? The Hurt Locker 2! No, wait, I actually didn’t want that at all, but that’s what Tom Green’s film no doubt is. In fact, the titular “monsters” are so unimportant for the film beyond a couple scenes where they act as a random natural force that could have been replaced by anything you’d care to name, I am tempted to suspect the film’s script started as just your typical contemporary war film and got turned into part of the Monsters franchise for reasons only movie producers would understand. Why anyone would think this would be a good idea is beyond me. But hey, if you pretend your mediocre war film is a sequel to a film people dearly loved, you don’t have to wonder about the exceedingly negative reactions by the people who loved it and find nothing of what made that film great in it, and really deserve all the bile you get.

So, what we have here is a film that doesn’t care about its titular monsters, provides nothing of the sense of awe and wonder the first film was suffused with, doesn’t do any of the clever worldbuilding via small details (because you can only do that if you actually care about the aliens) it did, and replaces an interesting world with, sorry I have to repeat myself, The Hurt Locker, but worse.

Even if I pretend this isn’t in any way connected to the first film, Dark Continent is still not a very good film. It suffers from all the problems the Hurt Locker school of war/anti-war film has: firstly the inability to actually show the other side of the conflict as human beings in a way that often more than just borders on racism. Nameless and mostly faceless enemies who talk in a language the protagonists don’t understand and are only in the film to be killed by them, kill them, or make them feel bad things just are not a good idea in a film that seems to want say something about actual armed conflicts happening right now. Sure, the US grunts we usually follow – even in a UK production like this, curiously enough - in these films are not in an ideal position to provide a perspective on their enemies but then who says all war movie scripts have to be so desperately centred around them?

Which leads us directly to secondly: the films’ - and this film’s specifically - inability to actually decide what it wants to say about wars, the soldiers fighting in them, and the painful messiness the last dozen US wars have been. It’s certainly not going to criticize the white people taking part in them for taking part in them, but then it’s also not at all interested in analysing the structural reasons for young, uneducated men to become professional soldiers. Dark Continent sure seems to think that war is hell, but since the film also manages to avoid any talk about actual politics and steadfastly doesn’t take any actual concrete position regarding anything itself, it treats war as a sort of vague natural tragedy, not a thing that is the fault of people in power and those people who follow them (which would be the combatants, oops, but you can’t say that because soldiers are “heroes”), and so not a thing anyone has any control over. Which I have a hard time interpreting as anything but hypocrisy or stupidity on the parts of the filmmakers; take your pick.

But what’s worst about Dark Continent – except for the whole thing where they take out everything that was great about the first film and replace it with something not at all worthwhile or even just interesting – is that it’s not even a very good example of the type of war/anti-war-but-not-really film it wants to be: the acting is generally okay, but the dialogue, particularly during the first act, is often inadvertently funny tough guy speak right out of a bad pulp novel, the characters are flat and clichéd, and the film is about an hour too long for what it is.

One could get rather angry about the whole thing, but I can’t honestly say I expected Monsters: Dark Continent to be anything but bad; I just expected it to be bad in a slightly different way than it turned out to be.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: Enter the mutant

Blackwood (2014): I found Adam Wimpenny’s film immensely frustrating. On one hand, I really appreciate the efforts it makes to do something different with the most clichéd haunted house movie set-up you can get right now (psychologically troubled man, wife and kid move to a lone house in the country to retry the whole family thing; spookiness ensues), as well as Wimpenny’s eye for landscape and the fine cast (including Ed Stoppard, Sophia Myles and Russell Tovey). On the other hand, for a film that is completely character based, the characters never really come to life, with most of the character development that happens feeling more like a contrivance to keep the plot going. And then there’s the whole climax that’s just a big heap of your usual horror movie bullshit that pretty much managed to sour me on the film completely. Filmmakers don’t seem to know, but it’s actually legal to end a supernatural tale in a quiet way.

Housebound (2014): Gerad Johnstone’s horror comedy on the other hand, is neither frustrating nor prone to tone deafness, but rather a joy from beginning to end, starting with the central performances by Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata and Glen-Paul Waru, a flawless pace, and a sure sense for how to shift the tone around between the silly, the macabre, and the pleasantly grotesque while never betraying one’s characters and ending with some joyfully clever subversions of various genre clichés. This one would really deserve a longer piece instead of being sandwiched between two films I’ll never want to see again but how many words do you really need to call a film brilliant?

A Dandy in Aspic (1968): When it came out, this final film of the great Anthony Mann (finished by its leading man, Laurence Harvey) got roundly trounced by critics; by now, there’s a bit of a critical renaissance for it. Frankly, though, I think the old guard was absolutely right about this one. At the very least, the film’s a terrible mess, permanently fluctuating between the more greyish realist elements of the spy film and the kind of psychedelia you get when a director of 60 years tries to make a movie for the kids (which is to say, people under fifty) without the psychedelic elements ever making sense in the context of the film. Add to that an incredible annoying performance by Mia Farrow as a 60s manic pixie dream girl, and Harvey’s typical lack of affect, and you can count me among the displeased.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In the Electric Mist (2009)

(This short write-up is based on the shorter US cut of the film. I haven’t seen the longer European one, so I can’t possibly comment on the differences between the two versions.)

Former New Orleans, now rural Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) is drawn into two separate cases: a serial killing of prostitutes, and the discovery of the body of a murdered African American who must have died during the 60s in what looks a lot like a lynching. In both cases, Dave searches and ponders and might just find some hints pointing him towards the truth of the matters. Somebody seems to think so, at least, because even before the hints and the hunches Dave follows can cohere into a concrete picture, he finds himself first drugged with LSD that induces a series of visions of talks with a very dead confederate General (Levon Helm), and later implicated in a wrongful shooting. Even worse things are still to come.

As members of various secret societies all around the world know, every major (or at least somewhat bigger) French director is promised by law the right to make at least one US film, preferably some kind of genre movie. That film, the US audience will then ignore while a handful of - predominantly French – critics  will praise it to the high heavens. If you have my blessed taste, you’ll probably rather want to agree with the latter than the former. In the case of Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation of James Lee Burke’s sixth Dave Robicheaux crime novel, agreeing with the French is not a particular difficult proposition to me, for it is a pretty brilliant mystery, though one that will need very specific sensibilities to appreciate, exactly the kind of sensibilities that tend to not make a film much of a hit with a larger audience.

For In the Electric Mist is a film that trusts its audience to work with it, and persevere with it, to accept its calm, unhurried yet involved tone as the mirror of the way its central character tries to approach the world, to understand the film’s crime plot without it ever explaining anything in a detailed way. After all, we have experienced what Dave experienced, we witness his reactions to it, we see the conclusions he draws, so – in Tavernier’s mind as well as in mine – there’s no need to have the characters then explicitly tell us what’s going on.

For me, this approach to crime film and mystery seems pretty natural, but going by various online reactions I’ve seen, it’s also one quite a few people just seem to loathe, so what I think is one of In the Electric Mist’s greatest strengths to them make it nigh unwatchable and certainly impenetrable. It certainly isn’t an easy film to grasp in all details, with its philosophical approach to the world, and it’s ambiguous way to present its characters. In particular the way Tavernier never shows Dave’s emotional turmoil all that directly or dramatically beyond through the sheer, quietly sad presence of Tommy Lee Jones (who gives another wonderful performance in a late career full of these performances) might not be too easy to relate to for everyone, though I felt it carries quite an emotional heft more outward emotional explosions might not have produced. And it’s not as if Dave doesn’t get violent and does some morally highly doubtful things, he just does them in ways lacking outward signs of melodrama. This is of course quite fitting for a character who keeps much of what is going on inside him closed up deep inside, and finds a kind of philosophical clarity in talks with the vision/hallucination/ghost of a dead confederate general.

Despite the film’s basically heady and earnest nature, Tavernier does include some lighter elements too, so there are the not always so tiny roles for musicians like Levon Helm and Buddy Guy, or great US independent director and writer John Sayles (of course playing a director), as well as a lot of little strange details – particularly surrounding John Goodman’s mafioso Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni – that break up things a little without breaking them. I’m actually somewhat tempted to call the film’s tone magical realist – at least, the way the naturalistic, the poetic and the philosophical meet one another here seems to come from a kindred direction to the genre, as does our dead confederate general.

Speaking of poetry, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bruno de Keyzer’s cinematography, the way he and Tavernier shoot beautiful landscape after beautiful (and possibly meaningful) landscape without ever overindulging in it so it would get in the way of their movie. There’s a love on display here, for a place and its people, that doesn’t come as a complete surprise from Tavernier, whose interest in the American South goes back quite some time, yet which can’t be taken for granted either. Even though I’m sure the South of In the Electric Mist isn’t a documentarian depiction (though how could I know from Germany?), in the film it’s as real and as unreal as any place you might inhabit, and what more could I ask of a movie to create?

In short: El Callejón (2011)

Blind Alley (2011)

During an insomniac night before the audition that might mean her big break as a dancer and finish her career as a cleaning lady, Rosa (Ana de Armas) ends up in her corner washing salon. There, she meet-cutes a charming if slightly strange young man called Gabriel (Diego Cadavid), and things would be all set for a bit of romance, if this were a romantic comedy that is, and not a horror film with a bit of a sense of humour. So, inevitably and rather unfortunately, all may not be as it seems with Gabriel – most men I know at least don’t spend their night washing bloody women’s clothing – and Rosa’s night just might get exciting in a rather different way than the set-up suggests.

Antonio Trashorras’s Spanish/Colombian co-production is a simple, clever, sometimes ironic and pretty stylish piece of suspense horror that – as many a good low budget film does for obvious reasons – concentrates on a handful of actors (mostly Ana de Armas and Diego Cadavid, really) and locations and a straightforward plot. There are no distractions, and no attempts at doing things it’s not actually possible for the film to achieve, yet I never had the impression the film is any poorer for it. In fact, if El Callejón is anything, even in its little moments of humorous asides, it’s a film made by someone in control of his material, and very much willing and able to turn the simple set-up into an old-fashioned (as in 80s and early 90s horror, not as in Karloff) fun little horror film without pretensions that knows “unpretentious” doesn’t have to mean dumb.

Trashorras’s direction is dynamic (there’s even some fun use of that weirdest of traditional techniques, split screen), his use of colour moody and oh-so-un-2011 (which is to say, colours exist and might even mean something!), and the film never stops for breath once it’s got going. Add to this a charming performance by Ana de Armas, and there’s nothing to stop me from calling El Callejón a fun not-so-little romp.