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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Crackerjack 2 (1997)

Okay, remember what happened in Crackerjack? You don’t have to, because in this curious sequel to Jack Wild’s (now Judge Reinhold) – called “Crackerjack” by exactly no one – misadventures, it didn’t happen. So Wild’s still a wild card (sorry) with spurts of violence, he’s still an asshole cop, and he’s lost his wife – though no children this time around - to an exploding car. Unlike that other Jack Wild, Jack MKII has somehow acquired attractive investment whatever girlfriend Dana Townsend (Carol Alt).

Of course, Jack’s still trying to apprehend the guy who killed this version of his wife, one Hans Becker (a Karel Roden looking barely able to contain his giggles). As luck will have it, Becker reappears exploding a warehouse and inadvertently provoking a fall-out between Jack and his much-hated boss.

As luck will have it, Becker is now working as the second fiddle to evil mastermind Mister Smith (Michael Sarrazin). Smith has a great plan, you see – catching a whole train full of rich investor-type people, trapping them in a combined railroad tunnel/bunker complex and using a computer wizard and brute force to get a their accounts while the police still think the bad guys have simply hijacked the still rolling train. It’s a plan brilliant in its simplicity, I’m sure.

Guess whose girlfriend just happens to be on that train? And guess who soon finds himself playing “Die Hard in a railroad tunnel/bunker complex”?

My mind, it boggles a bit at Robert Lee’s Crackerjack 2. Not just at a plot that seems to be based on something a producer’s five year old nephew came up with (because that sort of thing is par for the course in direct to video action cinema), for Crackerjack 2 contains a baker’s dozen of strangenesses much stranger than its mere plot. Like, why retcon the first movie out of existence in this way when you might surely have found another way to make Jack crack again (or just pretend he never got better)? Why make Becker the killer of Jack’s wife when you’re not going to milk that for all it is worth (and it would in fact have been better to make Mister Smith the wife killer)? Usually, I’d answer that with the idea the producers had a script with a different hero (such as he is) around somewhere and  only changed a few character names to attach themselves to the success of the first film. But then, can Crackerjack have been actually so successful it’s worth that kind of effort? As I said, the mind, it boggles.

It boggles even more at the producers’ decision of casting Judge Reinhold of all actors willing to do everything for a pay check in the world as the new Jack. Reinhold surely is one of the thespians least fit to play a cop on the edge role, leading to a performance that fluctuates between awkward, just plain ridiculous (though it’s clearly not supposed to), and what the hell is that man doing there!? One can’t blame Reinhold for lacking in enthusiasm for the role though, and if you give actors points for relish – which I do – Reinhold certainly wins the movie, even compared with a scenery chewing Sarrazin who loves to be evil and an absolutely outrageous (just look at all the grinning SMG air shooting she does at the slightest provocation!) performance by Katerina Brozová as Sarrazin’s (evil) girlfriend.

Also not good for one’s mental health while watching are the script’s regular attempts at call-backs to the first movie (yes, the movie that can’t have happened in the world this one takes place in), with the marine attack from the first film replaced by a less creative airborne attack on the empty train that is at least realized in miniature effects of equal adorableness, and certain scenes virtual mirrors of ones in the first film without need or reason.

If all this sounds as if Crackerjack 2 were a giant mess of a movie that makes the writing in the first one look like Shakespeare (well, more like Zschokke), and has the creative independence and intelligence of a PR shill, that’s exactly what it is. It’s also a great big heap of fun to inflict this thing on one’s brain. If one’s brain can take it, of course.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In short: Lassiter (1984)

London, 1939. Cat burglar Lassiter (Tom “I’m bored” Selleck) is pressed into the joined service of his and the British government by mild-mannered FBI agent Breeze (Joe Regalbuto), and irascible London copper Becker (Bob Hoskins). He is to steal a bunch of diamonds from the German embassy or he’ll land in jail on trumped up charges.

Well, in truth, Becker has such an irrational hate-on for Lassiter, he’s planning on locking him up in any case once the thief has gotten hold of the jewels; clearly, nobody involved explained to him the story Lassiter would tell during his process might get a wee bit embarrassing for the UK or their American friends who haven’t actually even joined the war at this point. But before he needs to solve that problem, Lassiter has to commit sexspionage on crazy German diamond courier Kari von Fürsten (Lauren Hutton), survive the ire of his girlfriend Sara (Jane Seymour), and plan and execute his jewel heist. Oh, and of course there will be The Sting-like caper movie tricks involved, just much dumber.

And there’s one of the main problems of Roger Young’s Lassiter right there: if you attempt to make a movie that’s playing on the field of movies like The Sting and the caper movies of the 30s and 40s, you really need to make sure you are actually on the same level and not a tired, erratically paced mess that seems to believe in its own cleverness too much to ever be even the slightest bit clever. And what use is all the fine, showy production design recreating 1939 if there’s not much of interest happening in it anyhow because your film is only ever dragging its feet in it, with large parts of the film consisting of an incredibly bored looking lead actor doing nothing of import or interest?

Which promptly leads us to the next problem, namely the fact that Tom Selleck isn’t just no Cary Grant, but tries to get by on his good looks alone, never showing any interest or spark of life at all, neither when he’s actually getting around to some thievery, nor when he’s half-unwillingly getting seduced by a Lauren Hutton whose crazy overacting could have used a foil willing or able to play along (the same goes for Hoskins or Seymour, by the way). I have gotten used to supposedly charming rogues in movies in truth being unpleasant arseholes, but Selleck’s performance here is so disinterested it’s impossible to get any feeling at all that suggests whatever he thinks he’s doing on screen. Selleck’s a void in the centre of a film that desperately needed the kind of actor able to take control of scenes, or sparkle.

This lifelessness seems to infect many aspects of the film, be it the stop and start plotting that never goes anywhere, the way the film builds Hutton’s character as menacing and dangerous but then just forgets about doing anything with that, and the tiresome and tedious attempts at plot twists. I’m getting as bored as Selleck looks throughout Lassiter just writing about it again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

As is traditional

we are sinking back to the depth of the ocean for a week or so. We will rise again on the 25th.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In short: Hannie Caulder (1971)

When bandit brothers Emmett (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam) and Rufus (Strother Martin), murder her husband, rape her, burn down her home, and only leave her with a single blanket she’ll become rather found of as a shirt replacement for the rest of the film, young Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch) decides vengeance is her goal now. As a very convenient turn of events will have it, the next man she meets is legendary bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp).

At first, Tom declines teaching her the ways of the gun, but after repeated begging, he changes his mind. Soon, Tom finds himself falling in love, and Hannie gets to wear a gun made by legendary weapon smith Bailey (Christopher “Southern” Lee). After a bit of training, it’s off to the races.

And that’s really the film’s whole plot, if you even want to call it that. The way it is presented, it’s not as if director Burt Kennedy was aiming for anything archetypal with this lack of…well, anything. Because what Kennedy’s aiming at more often than not is Raquel Welch’s ass, or some of those coy shots of side thigh films who try try to mold themselves after Spaghetti Westerns but are actually too stuffy for anything as honest as actual nudity (plus, Welch didn’t really do nudity).

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, at least half of the film, and probably all of the reasons for its existence, is to show off Raquel Welch again, and while I’m not immune to her charms, I really wish the people involved – the main guilty party here being good old British Tigon productions – would have bothered with making an actual movie around her. Oh ,there are promising bits and pieces, particularly Edward Scaife’s often very pretty photography, but for every fine shot, there’s at least half a dozen wasted opportunities here, and many a puzzling script and direction decision.

Why, for example, play Hannie’s arch enemies like comedic freaks reminding me of the Three Stooges instead of as dangerous monstrous people? Why use the rape revenge angle when your film is neither prepared to get truly nasty or unpleasant about it, nor has the ability to become as emotionally harrowing as the matter needs? What’s up with the ridiculous slow motion in some of the shoot-outs? Why not hire a better actress for your lead? Oh, right, the answer to that last question is of course clear: because this isn’t a movie so much as a pretty boring and problematic way of showing off said lead.

Friday, August 15, 2014

On ExB: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

I had the Tarzan movies down as a bit too family friendly to really hold the interest of decadent and cynical old me. This next-to-last of the Gordon Scott Tarzan films turned out to be something quite different than I expected, however, suggesting some curious cinematic precursors and offering a rather thoughtful approach to the question of civilization and barbarism.

Read more in my column at Exploder Button!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Blood-curdling giant fly creature runs amuck!!!

Le Saut de l’ange (1971): This is a grim, rather cynical revenge movie by Yves Boisset about a bloody election in Marseille, or rather Jean Yanne coming back from a self-imposed Thai exile to take revenge for his wife and kid who are (quite uselessly) killed for reasons of politics and money he doesn’t actually have anything to do with anymore. In Boisset’s hands, it is a somewhat dry, deliberately paced crime movie with jabs of intense, sharp violence, a basic feeling of hopelessness, and a sense of barely repressed political anger. It is, as they say, quite a good film if you like that sort of thing, which I do, particularly when it includes the handful of moments of brilliant filmmaking this one does, moments when the film stops being dry completely and somehow turns its quite down-to-earth idea of how horrible violence works mythical without actually changing its posture at all. Call it alchemy.

Because Boisset is a director of taste, the film also features fan (that would be me) favourites Gordon Mitchell, Senta Berger and Sterling Hayden.

Espion, lève-toi (1982): Speaking of Yves Boisset, there’s also this spy movie with Lino Ventura as a French sleeper agent situated in Switzerland who finds himself reactivated only to stumble through a business so labyrinthine, he doesn’t even know if the people who tell him he’s working for them are actually who they say they are. On the pacing level, this is also rather slow, but it is again a sure-handed slowness the film needs to get to breathe. It’s less overtly violent than the older movie but that’s because it is really much more useful for the film’s goal of having its audience share its protagonist’s feeling of alienation and confusion to keep the violence off-screen and ambiguous.

If you’re the type to enjoy films that are structured like a peculiarly nasty kind of chess – abstract until they become all too personal – like I sometimes do, this is a pretty perfect example of it. Parts of the film are really about what very abstract strategic goals do to the people who are part of the strategy, the moment when the blind and indifferent forces of politics turn against you, or rather, use your personal loyalties, your humanity, to make you their chess piece until its time for you to disappear forever.

Breakout (1975): If there’s a place in your heart for middling 70s action movies, that’s where Tom Gries’s film probably lives. It’s not a bad film at all, but one that doesn’t make enough use of a great cast (Charles Bronson! Robert Duvall! Randy Quaid! Jill Ireland!), and could do quite a bit more with the basic set-up of a charming rogue (surprisingly enough Bronson) trying to get an innocent rich American (Duvall) out of jail because he’s rather fond of the rich man’s wife (Ireland). And money. I know, it’s “based on a true story” but when has that ever stopped a movie from changing the truth into something more entertaining?

Despite its lack of depth, it’s still a fun enough film, if only because it provides an opportunity to witness Bronson smile and emote and wisecrack.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Crackerjack (1994)

Ever since the murder of his family by mafia bomb, cop Jack Wild (Thomas Ian Griffith) has suffered from PTSD, combining a propensity and talent for brutal violence with a bit of a death wish and a permanent alcohol haze. The rest of the world has by now dubbed him “Crackerjack”. I’m certain that’s very helpful. Things have gotten so bad, Jack’s sister-in-law Annie (Lisa Bunting) and his brother Mike (Richard Sali) decide on an intervention. So they do the obvious thing and take Jack on a family vacation to a secluded mountain holiday resort with a hot spring, which surely will do what a year or more of therapy hasn’t managed.

While the place does include the metaphorical magical healing powers of resort host K.C. (Nastassja Kinski), it still isn’t the ideal place for Jack to be, for, as luck will have it (cough), it just happens to be the place where the man responsible for his family’s murder (Frank Cassini), and mafia boss Don Sonny LaRosso (George Touliatos) are waiting to buy a papal audience with a whole lot of diamonds. And as if that weren’t enough to push Jack’s buttons in all the worst ways, the place is soon attacked by the man who actually killed Jack’s family, former East German spy turned gun for hire Ivan Getz (Christopher Plummer). Getz, we will learn during the course of the movie, wants Don LaRosso’s diamonds to finance a right-wing youth revolution in Germany, because that makes as much sense as anything else in this film’s script.

Because the resort is really isolated, Jack has to face Getz and his men alone. Turns out being a violent madman can be a good thing in certain situations, and if you kill enough people, your trauma might just disappear into thin air.

Yes, boys and girls, Crackerjack is a very cheap Canadian straight-to-video “Die Hard in a mountain resort” movie with added heaps of implausibility and a script that starts out pretty strange and gets increasingly weird. In its first third or so, Crackerjack isn’t quite weird enough (or competent enough) for my tastes, more often than not suggesting the addition of “boring” to the “Die Hard in a mountain resort” description, but it’s actually a case of the film catching its breath to get really crazy.

The appreciative viewer will probably get the first real whiff of Crackerjack’s particular brand of strangeness once the script decides the most probable way to get the bad guys to the mountain resort is a deathly ill mafia don trying to buy his absolution with a whole lot of diamonds, but soon, our hero escapes the first sweep of the hotel the bad guys do by virtue of peeping on some other hotel guests having sex (because you gotta get breasts in there somehow, and Nastassja Kinski might be slumming but she’s not dropping her kit for this one), Christopher Plummer acquires a very fake German accent and goes from mild-mannered cold-blooded killer with a dubious taste in glasses and sunglasses to full-on crazy Hitler-quoting ranter (Jack’s analysis: “You really shouldn’t drink!”).

From then on out, everything goes: because why not, Plummer plans to erase the traces of his crime by destroying the mountain resort with an artificial avalanche (cue spirited and very ridiculous model work later on), and Jack calls in the marines who proceed to weaponize a ropeway car and get blown away because Plummer obviously saw that one coming a mile away (unlike the audience, who most probably go “marines!?” once these gentlemen appear). For the latter scene, Crackerjack offers an even more special moment of model madness that is absolutely adorable and must – and should - be seen to be believed.

Watching this whole inspired mess, one might come to the conclusion that the film’s director, one Michael Mazo, might have more than a little in common with his hero. Speaking of the direction, it’s mostly competent low coast action stuff, with few scenes that would be all too exciting standing on their. Fortunately sandwiched between the various crazy-stupid ideas the script throws out with ever quicker speed, the action can’t help but entertain.

If that isn’t enough to convince readers burned by the crap I sometimes recommend in this way to give Crackerjack a try, how about if I add a Christopher Plummer performance that goes from “paycheck, right, might as well chew some scenery here, but not too much” to a full on attempt at…well, I’m not really sure what Plummer is trying to achieve, I only know it’s inspiring and ridiculous, and really, why I am still writing this and you aren’t watching Crackerjack already!?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In short: Stage Fright (2014)

Ten years after the murder of his star Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver doing the old, traditional, famous first victim thing) directly following the premiere of their probably career making musical production of “The Haunting of the Opera”, former producer Roger McCall (Meat Loaf being quite awesome for someone whose music I loathe) is the owner of a not exactly successful musical summer camp. He has taken Kylie’s children Camilla (Allie “I’m your final girl of the evening” MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith) in like real adopted children, which is to say, they work as cooks for him.

This year, the musical kids have decided to stage a revival of “The Haunting of the Opera”. Camilla has long dreamed of stepping into the shoes of her mother, and she certainly has the talents to match, so she decides to audition for the lead role. Not only will she have to fight through the expected backstage intrigues (and possibly sell her soul – or at the very least her body - for her role), but there’s also a metal singing killer lurking around in the camp’s dark places who just might provide a very interesting opening night.

This might suggest I’m a cynic, but when I heard Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright described as a comedic slasher musical, I was rather convinced the resulting film would be a victim of that most dangerous of illnesses, gimmick-itis. Turns out that’s not true at all, for Stage Fright feels like an absolute labour of love instead of an attempt to cash-in on surface strangeness.

Just look at the sure-handed way the film mixes genre quotations, a rather meta story, everything you ever heard about the backstage shenanigans in musicals, song and dance I’m not at all prepared to judge beyond calling them really fitting, and some pretty fun kill scenes. Nary a minute goes by in which the film doesn’t do something clever, or funny, or delightful (if you’re the kind of person delighted by over-blown violence in your movies, at least, which I tragically seem to have turned into) with the genre pieces it is working with, without ever falling into the sort of lame drudge where a director only quotes better films but doesn’t actually know how to turn these quotes into a thing of its own.

A large part of Stage Fright’s copious charms are of course based on the seeming incompatibility of the genres it mixes. However, once you’ve taken the film’s measure, you might agree the very formulaic genres of the slasher and musical have quite a bit in common, as all things formulaic have, and work rather well in tandem, particularly when there’s a script at play that really knows how to play with the respective genres’ individual absurdities, as well as with our idea of what the genres are about. There’s a playfulness at display here that left me feeling delighted more often than not, even though – it has to be said – Stage Fright does get a bit flabby around its middle, mostly, I suppose, because featuring more murders before the grand finale than the film does would have made the plot rather more implausible than even a meta horror musical with a metal slasher could get away with.

That’s not too much of a problem for Stage Fright, though, because the flabbiness never becomes actual boredom, and the film stays an unexpected pleasure even when its plot is dragging its feet a little.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Band of the Hand (1986)

Young offenders Carlos (Danny Quinn), Ruben (Michael Carmine), J.L. (John Cameron Mitchell), Moss (Leon), and Dorcey (Al Shannon) are pressed into one of those survivalist betterment programs for young criminals movies are so very fond of, the sort of thing that’d be liable to end up with somebody dead in the real world. They’re learning the art of survival with former marine Joe (Stephen Lang), conquering race and class barriers and winning self esteem by barely not dying in the Everglades.

Unlike many other films of this ilk, Band of the Hand is very interested in what happens next, so Joe takes his boys back to Miami to live in a dilapidated house in the worst part of town; things could go well, if not for the fact that their new home belongs to the territory of mid-level drug operator Cream (Laurence Fishburne when they still called him Larry), and Cream doesn’t look fondly on people who throw junkies out of a house in his territory. In a turn of dramatic irony, Cream’s boss just happens to be a certain creep named Nestor (James Remar), also the former boss of Carlos, who has taken (and the emphasis really is on taken here) Carlos’s girlfriend Nikki (Lauren Holly) as what amounts to his sex slave.

Things turn violent when Joe decides to make a stand, and his boys decide to make that stand with him.

It’s difficult not to look at Paul Michael Glaser’s Band of the Hand as a Michael Mann film, even though Mann only (or “only”, who really knows) executive produced, for the film has Mann’s handprints all over it, from the production design to the music to the overall weirdness by way of an 80s concept of stylishness (which Mann at least in part created with Miami Vice) to the problematic character arc of its sole female character – it’s all very Mann and to me seems to have very little to do with the actor turned director whose next film was Running Man.

That’s not a bad thing at all, mind you, for who else but Mann would start a movie as a psychologically crude and weirdly moralizing survivalist adventure, have it turn into some sort of glossy (and still weird) social drama only to have it end up an improbable vigilante movie? And who else would manage to let this tonal change feel like an actual organic (or whatever more appropriate word there is replacing “organic” in Mann’s and Glaser’s highly artificial cinematic language) part of the film, thematically fitting if ethically and psychologically dubious? That dubiousness even seems to be something the film is conscious of, as it seems to have an inkling of how problematic its own treatment of female belonging as some subset of ownership issue between men is. The former knowledge lends the film’s violent end a degree of ambiguity, while the latter doesn’t really amount to much. At least, though, the film is clearly trying; if only up to a point.

Aesthetically, Band of the Hand does that curious thing Mann and Mann-inspired US 80s films loved to do where they talk about urban squalor but just can’t help themselves to stylize and aestheticize the hell out of this squalor, turning “the Ghetto” itself into as much of a part of the glossy, slick 80s as the shoulder pads, the hairspray, and the frightening, cold interior architecture. Here, this very unreal idea of the real world stands in wonderful contrast to the film’s Everglades based scenes that may still look slick but just can’t look artificial, the weird city standing against the authenticity of nature. Yet because this is a film made by city boys, it also knows that the weird city is exactly the place where people must live in the end lest they turn into hermits, and avoids the whole hippie nature as purity business. The weirdness and the hateful sides of (modern) life are unavoidable, and the film stays ambiguous about wanting it this way or not; it’s not as if its characters have as much of a choice as the script’s more survivalist moments pretend they have anyhow.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

In short: The Borderlands (2013)

I find myself having to go against consensus about a contemporary horror movie again in the case of Elliot Goldner’s much praised The Borderlands. A trio of investigators is sent by the Vatican to examine a supposed wonder in a church in England, and find more than they bargained for.

This time around, my dislike for the film at hand isn’t based on my finding the film at hand competent yet annoying (hello The Conjuring) but because it’s one of these “almost there” films whose flaws distract me too much to get anything out of its actual achievements.

Starting out with the positive, Goldner does show a very promising talent for establishing the mood of a place, and – one of the more important abilities when you’re doing classically shaped supernatural and folkloric horror as The Borderlands does – suggesting that its characters are doomed right from the start without ever telling this to the audience outright, aiming for a sense of disquiet.

Alas, it is exactly here where the film’s finale falters completely for me, giving up the ambiguity for an ending so silly, it must have looked brilliantly strange on paper, but that left me very disappointed actually having to sit through it. Theoretically, I should praise a found footage movie for actually making quite clear what happens to its characters in the end, in practice, however, this particular ending just demonstrates that ambiguity in horror films of this style can be a very good thing. With the ending as it is, much of the film feels like a build-up to something special that unfortunately never comes; instead, we get something strangely out of tone with the rest of the film.

The other big negative factor for me was Robin Hill’s performance as agnostic technician Gray, a character that manages to take on all the atrocious characteristics of odious comic relief, annoying tech guy division, without actually being comic or relief. This wouldn’t be all that bad if the script had the sense to tone him down after the first strange things begin to happen to his colleagues and him, but he stays whiny-voiced and annoying throughout. Hill’s very broad approach to the role doesn’t help Gray’s case either, with hardly a second of his face visible on screen going by that could not be accompanied by warning signs saying “Warning! Acting in progress!”. The rest of the acting is better, though the characters are very underwritten and one-dimensional – there’s the annoying whiny guy, the by-the-book modern priest, the more spiritual alcoholic doubter with a past, and little what happens to them will surprise or enlighten anyone. while the film’s approach to paganism versus Christianity doesn’t suggest a single idea I’ve not seen or read better realized in quite a few movies and dozens of stories - as if the last fifty years of British rural/folkloric horror with an influence of the Weird hadn’t happened.

In the end, The Borderlands as a whole just doesn’t come together for me, its flaws magnified because they hit the film in important places; I am quite interested in what Goldner will do next though, for while he doesn’t seem to be there yet, The Borderlands does show so much promise I’d be very surprise if the director’s next film (or the one after that) would not turn out excellent.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

In short: Case of Umon: One-Eyed Wolf (1959)

aka Umon Torimonocho: Katame no okami

This is one among many movies concerning the adventures of Tokugawa shogunate era constable and master detective Kondo Umon (here played by Ryutaro Otomo). In this particular case, Umon and his annoying comic relief sidekick stumble upon the bodies of half a dozen men hanging from the same tree, which is a curious thing to encounter even in suicide-prone old Japan, so Kondo quickly deduces this is in fact a case of murder. From there, our hero follows leads to a conspiracy to murder the shogun himself. Only one man can save the reign of the cruel tyrant (waitaminute…)!

As expected, this is one of those slightly stiff and often somewhat hokey pieces of jidai geki made in the somewhat conservative style samurai movies were starting to move away from at the end of the 50’s, towards more morally and artistically complex endeavours. So expect rather larger than life melodramatic declamation as main acting style, a rather simple world view, and one-dimensional characters.

That doesn’t mean One-Eyed Wolf isn’t entertaining if you take it for what it is, at least from my historical point in time. It’s the kind of thing that probably was called the Japanese variant of “an entertainment”, perhaps comparable to series hero B-Western, though of course – Japanese studios had their pride and a deep talent pool -  made to a higher visual standard than the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy. This is, after all, a Toei production, and therefore graced with very pretty sets and sound stages of old Edo that just happen to look exactly like the ones I’ve seen in other Toei productions of this type.

If you can cope with the film’s lack of depth – and way too much comic relief, alas – you might just be like me and get to the point where you fall into the natural state of entertainment movies about detectives solving preposterous and needlessly complicated plots can’t help but provide, particularly those that find our detective ending up in one of those typical samurai movie battles of one man cutting through a veritable army of henchmen. Otomo is appropriately heroic, if not very exciting, the rest of the cast is full of faces I know from dozens of other Toei films.

Some of One-Eyed Wolf’s pulpier ideas are pleasantly weird, and director Tadashi Sawashima at the very least keeps things rolling along nicely and dynamically enough. From time to time Sawashima even shows a bit of visual brilliance: the first reveal of the corpses that bring Umon on the case is wonderfully creepy, there are quite a few shots reminding of very atmospheric paintings, and the film’s grand finale is dominated by very unsubtle yet also pretty effective and artful montages of the kind that always make me think “Eisenstein”.

Consequently, Case of Umon: The One-Eyed Wolf won’t be a film to rock anybody’s world, but it’s a nice time nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ninja Apocalypse (2014)

It’s years after another end of the world. The part of post-apocalyptica we are concerned with is populated by various multi-racial clans of magical ninjas. Grandmaster Fumitaka (the inevitable – not that I’m complaining, mind you - Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) calls the leaders of all clans to his underground bunker to unite them as one against a threat we will never hear from again.

Alas, Fumitaka is shurikened to death right during the public cheer for his big reunification speech. Various freakish witnesses quickly pin the blame on Cage (Christian Oliver), the leader of the Lost Clan, who, as our designated hero, is of course totally innocent. He, his brother Surge (Les Brandt), and clan members Sky (Isaac C. Singleton Jr.), Mar (Tara Macken) and Trillion (Kaiwi Lyman), will have to fight their way back to the surface, conquering regular ninjas, animalistic dragon admiring ninjas, fire-throwing ninjas, sex ninjas, and some rather unexpected zombies in the process. Perhaps they’ll even find out who really killed Fumitaka (apart from the budget’s inability to hire Tagawa for very long).

Oh, come on, internets, of course post-apocalyptic super-powered ninjas are a silly idea, but you of all people should be able to appreciate the fact they are also an awesome idea, even before they meet the zombies. Director Lloyd Lee Barnett clearly doesn’t care if his film’s set-up makes sense but he does just as clearly care about making the resulting film as fun as possible, leading his cast of unknowns and stunt workers through fights enhanced by some very neat effects. Barnett’s copious experience on the visual effects field is a clear plus for these effects, resulting in a lot of convincing looking and simply yet cool designed energy explosions and many a blue glowing sword.

The whole ninja magic part of the film is highly video game influenced, with people talking about how much energy they still have left for the day, though the Barnett fortunately eschews trying to imitate game-y camera styles. For my tastes, the camera often frames the action slightly too close, but Barnett still seems more interested in letting his audience see the neat stunt work his actors do than obfuscating any failings. These failings are more in the non-physical parts of the acting anyway, though there’s really little that’s horrible or too annoying – everyone still does a decent job, and I at least don’t go into this kind of martial arts bonanza expecting The Method.

What Ninja Apocalypse is first and foremost is a very fun series of fight scenes that for once uses contemporary low budget cinema’s beloved grey, cramped corridors with a degree of creativity, squeezing a surprising amount of diverse action scenes out of the surroundings, which is all I ask of a film of its type, really. That the film also has a few scenes in rather breathtaking looking natural locations is an added bonus, leaving little to be desired in this regard.

Adding to the fun is the film’s continuous flow of mildly idiotic yet excellent ideas, from the playmate style poison sex ninjas (it’s tradition in Japan too, without the playmate part) to the unexplained zombies, or the just as unexplained fact that the moon in the film’s post-apocalyptica is quite a bit closer to Earth, looks rather ragged, and has lost parts that now seem to be hanging in their own close orbit (which also happens to be a rather impressive looking effect). It’s quite impossible for me to argue with a film that puts these things on screen with this much enthusiasm and competence, and it’s just as impossible for me not to recommend it highly to everyone with a taste for the kind of low budget action/martial arts cinema that isn’t afraid to be silly without feeling the need to be ironic, and that puts so many fun ideas on screen it’s impossible to not be entertained.