Thursday, June 4, 2020

In short: Kill Chain (2019)

A bag of diamonds makes its way through the hands of various killers and lowlifes (played by lovely actors like Enrico Colantoni or the generally okay Ryan Kwanten) until it ends up in the hands of a Woman in Red (Anabelle Acosta) – the film’s using descriptions like this for most of the characters in its credits though (or because) most of them have several names – who wanders into a decrepit hotel run by a guy with a violent past (Nicolas Cage). The Lady’s trying to outrun a, nay, The Very Bad Woman (Angie Cepeda), and the hotel manager might just be the guy to help her out.

This interesting attempt of using traditional tropes and clichés of movies and books about violent men and women to turn their well-known plots existential and archetypal as written and directed by Ken Sanzel is probably simply a bit too cheap and quickly made to quite achieve what it seems to set out to do. The pacing drags sometimes, and its self-consciousness can border on the smug (or, if you’re easier annoyed by cleverness than me, step across the line quite a bit), with some of the deep and meaningful talk not being quite as deep and meaningful as it’s supposed to sound, the dialogue straining for a gravitas it can’t quite reach.

There’s something about the movie, though. In part, I’m charmed by how its shaggy dog tale structure reminds me pleasantly of films like Winchester 73 (or eternal favourite Fish Story), even though I would have preferred if it hadn’t gone the 2010s movie road of everything in it being part of some clever plan that’s actually less plausible than mere chance. Then there’s the fact that I genuinely still enjoy the archetypes and tropes the film so clearly also adores, as I do Kill Chain’s love for scenes of people telling tales (with more than a handful of meanings to them). And even though this was clearly made on the comparatively cheap, the film features quite a bit of acting talent apparently getting into the spirit of the piece very well, Cage underplaying more than typical yet still applying himself, and everyone selling their archetypes wonderfully.

Sanzel’s pretty good at visually creating a decrepit little part of Tijuana (clearly situated more in a Mexico of pulp imagination than the real place, and meant to be there) out of some ugly buildings, cheap neon signs and a lot of grimy looking darkness, the sort of place your noir character flees to before the past catches up on them again.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Strange Invaders (1983)

One day, his ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid) appears in the apartment of entomology docent Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat), their little daughter Elizabeth (Lulu Sylbert) in tow. There’s some sort of family problem, and she needs to return to the Midwest small town she grew up in. Charles agrees to take Elizabeth, of course, but when Margaret neither reappears nor phones for days, he and Elizabeth grow restless. After weeks have passed – a time during which all phone lines to the town Margaret is visiting are permanently unusable to boot – Charles decides to make the drive halfway around the country to find out what happened to his ex-wife.

Once he has arrived in beautiful Centerville, Illinois, things become increasingly peculiar. People there are rude, uninformative and  vaguely creepy, while the town itself still carries a heavy whiff of the 50s. More disturbing still is the fact that those people in town actually willing to talk to the stranger claim to never have heard of Margaret’s family. When Charles isn’t leaving immediately and pokes around the place a bit, the situation escalates in a not atypical series of events including a disappearing dog, a broke-down car, and mysteriously appearing and disappearing townsfolk. Eventually, Charles flees the town while a bug-eyed alien guy shoots lightning at his escape car.

Once returned to civilisation, our protagonist has a hell of a time finding anyone to believe him, be it friends, a lady from the government agency tasked with investigating strange occurrences (Louise Fletcher), or even tabloid reporter Betty Walker (Nancy Allen). And that really could be that, but these aliens clearly take security very seriously indeed, so Charles soon finds his home and office ransacked, and is threatened by various weird people. The aliens also start bothering Betty, finally winning Charles an ally as well as a love interest. Clearly, another visit to Centerville is in order.

As most people interested in cult cinema will probably know, what the 80s are to our era, the 50s were to the 80s themselves, with many a film taking heavy inspiration from pop cultural artefacts made thirty years earlier. As it is also today, this fixation can lead to a sort of lazy copyism, or to – often pretty inspired - reworkings that use elements of the old to make something new that uses looks, sounds and feelings of an earlier era and builds something different out of them.

Michael Laughlin’s Strange Invaders certainly belongs to the latter kind of film, using elements of 50s alien invasion movies, casting old school actors like June Lockhart and Kenneth Tobey (who turns out to be rather more excellent at being creepy than he ever was at being square-jawed), and including many an idea that could nearly have been borrowed from the past. At the same time, Laughlin does use many of these elements in ways the stiffer films of the 50s couldn’t have gotten away with, very companionably poking fun at the older films without anything here ever turning into outright satire or comedy. Rather, these moments in the film feel like nods for those in the audience who have seen the same films the filmmakers have.

There’s no heavy deconstruction of traditional genre tropes going on here anyway, mind you, for Laughlin’s really more interested in telling a traditional invasion plot in a slightly more contemporary manner, so if you expect a strong non-conformist subplot or something of the sort, you might be disappointed. Sometimes, an alien body snatcher is just an alien body snatcher rather than a metaphor for communism/anti-communism or whatever else floats your boat.

From a 2020 perspective, the film’s looking somewhat stranger than he will have played at the time, really giving me a bit of a double dose of nostalgia – one dose for the 50s movies the film itself feels a degree of nostalgia for, the other for the kind of mild 80s sf/horror this is, the sort of film made by filmmakers who shared many of the cultural influences and interests of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas but didn’t quite have the talent, or the luck, or the commercial instincts to make movies as accomplished or successful as these big boys of nerddom did.

Which doesn’t mean Laughlin’s a bad director. If you get used to Strange Invaders’ somewhat slow pace and are okay with a certain tendency to pull emotional punches where it would have been more effective to go for the gut, there’s a lot to enjoy here, starting with Louis Horvath’s typical (and very effective) early 80s photography (you’ll know pretty much how this will look if you have seen anything made in the first half of that decade; you’ll also know how pretty it looks), and certainly not ending with Laughlin’s love for tucking away little interesting details about characters somewhere in a scene’s background.

I’m also very happy about a film concerned with a deeply not macho Paul Le Mat as its hero, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened in the 50s (or quite a few parts of the 80s either). Le Mat’s not exactly a charisma bomb, but he plays his characters’ increasing frustration about the world’s disbelief as well as he shoes his deep well of courage when it comes down to it. From today’s perspective, Nancy Allen could really have rather more to do, but she’s also not standing around screaming all the time.

Last but not least, there is some really cool effects work on screen, with the ickily organic human masks in front of the also excellent alien faces as created by James Cummins being a particular high point; though the rest of the effects are lovely too.

All of which really adds up to a fun little film that evokes nostalgia without getting lost in it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

In short: Breaking Dawn (2004)

Warning: I’m going to at least in part spoil the ending!

Medical student Dawn (Kelly Overton) takes part in a somewhat peculiar test of her medical ability. Given six weeks to treat a patient in a mental institution for the more difficult cases, the students are apparently either succeeding at a treatment or will never be able to finish their studies.

Dawn’s patient is one Don Wake (James Haven), nearly catatonic after he supposedly murdered his mother. Turns out it’s rather difficult to practice the talking cure on a guy who usually doesn’t even acknowledge one’s presence. Increasingly desperate, Dawn secretly lowers Don’s medication, which does indeed wake him up. The first mumblings and later rantings about someone (or something?) named Malachi and a secret conspiracy Don starts spouting very quickly take on a reality of their own for Dawn, as if Don were beaming his delusions right into her brain. Very soon, strange people appear to her, objects appear and disappear and the young woman becomes emotionally fragile and paranoid. Even worse, in her interactions with Don, the power dynamics shift completely, until she’s the one begging for his help.

Yes, to put the spoilers right here, all of what’s happening is indeed going on inside of Dawn’s head, for she’s the actual mental patient of the tale, with Don some sort of spirit (let’s hope he’s not meant to be a sodding angel) come to help her before her brain is forever destroyed via electroconvulsive therapy (which the film treats as if it were a lobotomy). So everything we see that doesn’t make sense is supposed to be metaphorical or an illusion, in theory absolving the script of all responsibility to make sense or play by its own rules.

Of course, if everything’s supposed to be an actual symbol or metaphor, then a film needs to make sure all of these symbols and metaphors actually cohere into some kind of comprehensible meaning. Breaking Dawn manages this about half of the time. That wouldn’t be too bad a quota, if those bits of the film that do cohere were just a little less bland. Dawn, apparently, doesn’t have much of an imagination even in her dream-life, mostly using the kind of kitchen sink psychology metaphors you’d find in a mediocre TV movie, and those not terribly convincingly either. Really, the film simply needed either to be crazier or more thought through.

Visually, director/writer Mark Edwin Robinson never gets above that TV movie level either, not exactly creating much of a mysterious atmosphere with bright lighting and mostly text book – aka boring – framing. It’s certainly not a bad looking film, but not one that ever got my imagination going, either.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Somewhere in the US Midwest. A cucumber-cool criminal we’ll call Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood), a nom de plume bestowed on him by the newspapers in lieu of his actual name, has to leave his hideout position as a preacher rather hastily when two former associates (Geoffrey Lewis and George Kennedy) find him and try to murder him. We will later learn it is all on account of a misunderstanding, as well as the George Kennedy character being one of those “shoot first, ask questions never” guys, but right now, Thunderbolt is lucky to stumble into the arms, well, freshly stolen car of a young gentleman who goes by the name of Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges).

Lightfoot, apart from being a bit of a smartass, is also perfectly willing to help a guy out, so he and Thunderbolt go on a bit of a road trip together. Their of course ensuing misadventures lead to a friendship between the two despite their differences in age – Thunderbolt’s a Korea vet, Lightfoot most certainly not – and temperament. Eventually, Thunderbolt manages to convince his – by now their – pursuers that there’s really no reason to murder one another, and everybody teams up to rob the same bank whose first robbery got Thunderbolt his name.

Apart from Quentin Tarantino, I can hardly imagine many directors living today trying to make something comparable to this comedic road movie/serious bank heist film by Michael Cimino. Current scriptwriting dogma (which is, as dogmas tend to be, wrong) would never accept a film giving itself so much time and its characters so much room to breathe before an actual plot sets in, for one, and where’s the hero’s journey in here!?

Of course, the film’s relaxed pacing, its loose yet thematically coherent structure and Cimino’s willingness to let the audience learn what his characters are about by simply letting us watch them in various interactions with one another and the slightly eccentric or crazy characters peopling this America are not exactly en vogue today either. Instead of that one inciting incident that explains everything about a character, this is a film about guys – alas in classic New Hollywood style there’s little room for female characters here – whose characters and personality have accrued over time in a way that makes flashbacks superfluous. You simply wouldn’t get at the cores of these people that way.

Which can also be a bit frustrating to a viewer in the 2020s, of course, when we get no actual background about Lightfoot at all, simply because he’s a bit of an innocent who hasn’t accrued all the damage and lifetime of the other men, and we are watching him in the process of doing so.

Cimino’s great at this phase of the film, too, providing ample space for Eastwood and Bridges to do their things, yet also filling the space around them with things and people of interest, as well as many beautiful location shots (cinematography is by Frank Stanley) for everyone to be dwarfed by. People being dwarfed by landscape seems to be rather important for the film’s, perhaps Cimino’s, worldview also, fitting a sensibility that’s not quite nihilist yet certainly contains the sort of absurdist view of peoples’ place in the world it very well might end up there later (spoiler alert: it does), even though right now, it treats its own view of the world still as a bit of a joke. Particularly the ending, when a very good turn of fate comes with a very unfair price, points rather obviously in that direction.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot isn’t exclusively a loose road movie, though, and once the bank heist plot starts in earnest, it and its director show they can do tight as well as loose, presenting a grubby, often funny but also focussed and actually exciting heist that packs everything what I want from a good heist movie into about half of its running time, until things become very 70s indeed.

All of this combines into a film that stands in many ways in marked contrast to the structure and rules obsessed style of filmmaking en vogue today (which also produces many a great movie, don’t get me wrong), suggesting exactly the kind of maverick outlaw spirit New Hollywood mythology so loves to praise this era of filmmaking for, through a willingness to simply let its hair down.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: One hell of a rodeo.

Lasso (2017): If you can’t beat the competition in the backwoods slasher space with your movie’s quality, there’s always the time honoured use of the gimmick. So, as the title promises/threatens, Evan Cecil’s Lasso is indeed a backwoods slasher movie with rodeo and cowboy themed kills. Some of them are even pretty fun in an at once pleasantly nasty and ridiculous way. But alas, that’s all the film has to offer, for the characters are as bland and generic as you’d expect – having one arm isn’t a character trait, you know –, the plotting is by the numbers at best and stretches out nothing to great lengths at its worst, while actual suspense is absent.

Still, this one could have been much, much worse.

Spy Game (2001): For a Tony Scott movie, this spy affair with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt (two guys who managed to get impressive careers out of pretty faces, an understanding of how to best utilize their limited ranges as actors, and clever choice of roles) is downright sedate. It’s clear that Scott at times tries to emulate the style of classic 70s spy films with early 2000s technology, but he’s still not a terribly great choice for a spy film that isn’t going bigger than James Bond all of the time. Scott’s too showy a director to provide the subtlety a good espionage movie needs, even the sort that’s a third of an action movie, and simply not thoughtful (as a Scott detractor, I’m tempted to say not intelligent, but I didn’t know the guy, so…) enough to get into the questions of personal ethics, political expediency and morals the best of these movies explore. Though he is clearly trying, and not vomiting stupid camera tricks into my eyes for most of the film’s running time, so that’s a plus.

(Tyler Rake) Extraction (2020): I’m actually rather happy that Netflix is putting money into higher budget action movie fare like this, but Sam Hargrave’s Extraction doesn’t really scratch the action itch like Netflix’s Indonesian and Filipino examples of the last few years do for me. It is clearly trying to go as all out as these films, but there’s a strangely bland quality to the action, rather as if you were watching drafts for a nasty, bloody action movie than the actual thing.

The by-the-numbers script by Joe Russo (who has done much, much better in the in theory much more restrictive superhero genre) certainly doesn’t help, nor does Chris Hemsworth’s not exactly exciting lead performance. And at this point, Hemsworth is good when he has the right script to work from, but can’t make a film look better than it actually is.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Dark Was the Night (2014)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Some rather weird occurrences are happening in a US small town close to your proverbial deep dark woods. Things start with a missing horse and a line of curious, cloven-hoofed tracks running through the whole of the town, tracks that certainly don’t fit any animal anyone’s ever heard about. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the legends surrounding something living deep in the woods around town, sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his freshly imported formerly New Yorker deputy Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas) don’t believe in any cryptids roaming around town. A rather imaginative hoax seems more plausible to them.

Paul has his head full of other things, too: after the death of one of his two little sons in an accident he blames himself for, his marriage to his wife Susan (Bianca Kajlich) has hit a very rough spot, her now having moved out to live with her parents. So Paul is at first so distracted by his personal problems he doesn’t quite buy into the disquieted attitude around town. The curious incidents are piling up though, and Paul might be emotionally battered but he does take his responsibility towards the people he has sworn to protect very seriously, so he changes his mind about the “hoax” before whatever it is that has come to town can take its first human victim (apart from some introductory ones he doesn’t know about which the film gave to the audience as the mandatory blood toll).

Now, if this doesn’t sound like a dozen SyFy Original creature features: a sheriff with a marriage on the rocks, a typical US small town, a hungry cryptid known from local Native American legends, the former big city deputy running from his own piece of the past, and so on and so forth. Which only goes to show that very often, the point in genre filmmaking isn’t being original, but using the clichés and the tropes you find in the right way.

For that is what makes Jack Heller’s (also responsible for another film that made good with not exactly original ideas in Enter Nowhere) Dark Was the Night as fine a movie as it turns out to be - the thought and care that has been put into these hoary old clichés to make them breathe and come alive again. I think much of this effect is caused by how careful Heller as well as Tyler Hisel’s script approach all of the very traditional elements they’re working with, clearly putting much thought into their place and meaning in the context of their specific narrative, instead of just regurgitating them like many other films would do (sometimes even to fun effect). This is not deconstruction or an “ironic” (shudder) approach to the creature feature, though. Rather, the film takes each old element and applies it as if it were new, more by changing the emphasis on certain elements than by changing the elements themselves.

This careful (careful seems to me the watchword for the film) approach enables the film to turn plot elements that should be tiresome, like the whole dead kid/marriage trouble angle, into something emotionally touching and valid. To my eyes, the film does feel just a decisive bit more honest about the inner lives of its characters here too, aiming for a kind of psychological realism that fits its calm (or should I say careful?) approach to its monster. The way the film tells it, it’s not even feeling dishonest or clichéd that monster fighting actually can pull a guy out of his depression and bring a marriage back on track.

How well the character based parts of the plot work is in part due to the respectful and not melodramatic way these are written but is of course also something the ensemble deserve praise for too. Durand, Kajlich and Haas in particular really hit the emotional spots right, treating the emotional turmoil of their characters in a monster movie with the same respect and care they’d apply to a domestic drama. And since the film very much puts the emphasis on these characters and their inner lives, it gets all the better for it.

This doesn’t mean the film isn’t a really fun low budget monster movie too. Heller does know how to make this part of the film memorable, not surprisingly given the rest of the film’s approach, putting the emphasis here on suspense and expectation, only putting little snatches of the monster on screen for the longest time until it becomes impossible to hide the fact we have a case of a pretty mediocre looking CGI creature. At that point, however, the film has put so much effort and (again) care into building up the situation, the monster, and even the why of its attacks (without falling into a complicated mythology or over-explaining), it could have put a marionette on screen and still deserved all the praise it can get. I do love here, too, that the monster isn’t one of cryptozoology’s greatest hits but again a creature the film has put some thought into, trying to give the creature as much reality as it possibly can while still using certain urban legends.

This sense of realism goes a long way for a film in a genre that mostly goes “yeah, bigfoot/the chupacabra/etc, you know” and does of course fit with the emotional and psychological realism on display as well.

The only moment I found somewhat disappointing was the usual horror movie “gotcha!” ending that has stopped working on me so much I can only ever see it as an empty cynical gesture anymore. Though it has to be said, even here Dark Was the Night keeps to its realistic approach to the strange in so far as the ending actually makes sense in the context of at least some of what we’ve seen before. However, complaining about a movie’s final thirty seconds when the rest of it is so carefully, unassumingly fine really is a luxury problem to have, so I can’t say I minded too much.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

In short: Rampart (2011)

The first problem I have with Oren Moverman’s Rampart, a film that completely focuses on a racist, corrupt, violent cop with an utterly fucked up personal life as its protagonist is a simple one. The film never really bothers to explain to a viewer why they should care about this David Douglas Brown asshole.

Sure, Woody Harrelson’s playing him with great vigour, and I was never less than convinced that Brown is indeed a racist, corrupt, violent cop with an utterly fucked up personal life, but there’s little interest on display in really explaining or exploring how he got to be all of that, and where his humanity went if he ever had it. There’s also no attempt by the film to give a viewer something, anything about the guy to empathize with despite him being a crock of shit, no point where it tries to find our shared humanity. More problematic still, Brown isn’t just a horrible person, he’s also a really boring horrible person, doing shitty, violent acts that are quotidian and uninteresting when seen as a work of crime fiction. It’s not that the film lacks in telling details, it’s just that none of those details are actually interesting or enlightening to watch. Now, the film might be going for some kind of “banality of evil” shtick, but while that’s a perfectly good philosophical approach, it really doesn’t make the film anymore interesting to go through.

As a matter of more personal taste, I can’t say I have much time for Moverman’s direction either. It’s the kind of visual style that tries to signal “authenticity” by framing scenes badly – a particular favourite of Moverman’s seem to be dialogue scenes where we see nothing of the actors’ faces, because hiding actors behind the furniture is so avantgarde – pointlessly wobbling the camera around, and generally pretending that looking like shit makes a film “more real”. And yes, of course the dialogue’s mumbled (when the film doesn’t just decide to shoot through a window and muffle the sound as if the mikes were behind that window too) and meandering, and much of Los Angeles is apparently piss-yellow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Automatic (1995)

Some time in a weird-ish near future that features roombas which use a moray eel technique, silver-faced butler robots, and the J Series Automatics, combined servant/bodyguard androids who for some horrifying reason we are never made privy to all look like Olivier Gruner. I’d rather prefer flying cars, thank you very much.

Nora (Daphne Ashbrook) is working for the company making the J series as something like an executive assistant. When her direct superior attempts to rape her – all men who aren’t androids are pretty rapey in this one – she is rescued by one of the J’s, J269. Alas for him and Nora, he accidentally kills the rapist while kicking him in the face. When he hears of the incident, Goddard Marx (John Glover) the company’s boss, decides it would be a catastrophe for the image of his already ailing company (the film never explains why the company making ubiquitous Grunerdroids is ailing, though I suspect it’s the lack of face variety), and does the logical thing: contain Nora and J in the otherwise empty (it’s night) company building and hire the band of – also rapey – mercenaries of one Major West to murder them, too.

It turns out that J’s rather great at murdering mercenaries right back, though.

John Murlowski’s Automatic is a surprisingly fun piece of 90s action SF, making rather a lot of good decisions. Not necessarily the kind of decisions that make for a deep and thoughtful little movie, but certainly the sort that makes for a fun direct to home video action movie.

It starts with the traditional method of getting away with a martial artist/actor lead who has little talent for the second half of his job description by letting him play a character whose woodenness is actually kind of the point, avoiding the need to have him emote above his abilities and focus on what he does well. Which is mostly looking good when kicking, though clever staging and dark lighting does manage to make Gruner, who may be a great martial artist for all I know, but certainly is a mediocre screen fighter at best, look perfectly believable and effective in the film’s series of not at all Die Hard inspired action sequences.

Ashbrook is the Carl Weathers to Gruner’s low budget Schwarzenegger, the low-profile but effective pro who goes out of her way to make Gruner’s performance more relatable, while also being allowed to do slightly more than the female damsel in this sort of thing usually is. The rest of the cast is involved in various kinds of scenery chewing, Glover never having met a script with a corporate asshole he couldn’t milk for fun, Kober making all kinds of nasty faces at everyone, and everyone else reacting in kind to all this.

Because low budget action movies not made in Hong Kong never can afford quite as much action as they need to fill their runtime, there’s not just the need for bad guy scenery chewing and a plot twist that screams “I have read Philip K. Dick!” but also weird and wild little ideas to keep an audience away from boredom. Those, Murlowski (and the script by Patrick Highsmith and Susan Lambert) has down pat, filling Automatic with all kinds of goofy, silly, wild and woolly little bits of worldbuilding that suggest something has gone very wrong with this world, like the jump scare roomba that would kill people with weak hearts en masse, ideas like a company that can build androids but only uses one face and body type, and so much bizarre day to day technology, like the little automatic thingies on desks that do things like pop up a full cup of tea in a couple of seconds, or lower the photo of rape company man’s family when he goes about his nasty business. It’s all very tongue in cheek but in such a friendly and companionable way I felt charmed by it rather than annoyed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

In short: The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

Backlot Egypt. For reasons one can’t help but suspect to be gullibility and incompetence, roving archaeologist (who just happen to sound like grave robbers more often than not) Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his odious comic relief buddy Babe Jenson (Wallace) just can’t find a job with any serious archaeological institution anymore. When they are nearly destitute, Steve stumbles upon on a vase that hints at the location of the long-lost tomb of the Princess Ananka.

They wander off to the Cairo Museum to acquire funding for digging up the dead woman’s bones, but its boss, one Mr Andoheb (George Zucco), poo-poos Steve’s theories. That’s not because Steve is actually wrong, mind you, but because Andoheb is the leader of a heroic group of Egyptian citizens protecting their ancestors’ graves against Westerners out to rob them. Ahem, I mean “an evil Egyptian cult”, of course.

Eventually, the idiot protagonists do get their funding from a stage magician, who, together with his mandatory love interest daughter (Peggy Moran) will haunt the rest of the movie with his less than exciting presence. Because Babe alone just wasn’t bad enough.

Eventually, and I mean eventually, Andoheb is going to get around to bringing the mummy Kharis back to life to fight off our so-called heroes.

Universal’s new-found interest in its monster properties in the 40s resulted in some good things early, namely the basically perfect Son of Frankenstein and the wonderful The Wolfman, before it descended into usually pretty dire monster mashes. The first new mummy film is neither a Son nor a Wolfman, alas, but rather a tepid and slow attempt at making a runtime of 66 minutes feel like hours.

As is pretty typical for Universal’s modus operandi when they weren’t making great films, The Mummy’s Hand, as directed by Christy Cabanne, suffers from a script that seems to have little idea of why anyone might want to watch a movie of said title, and so decides to introduce us to its monster only about twenty minutes before it is already over, instead wasting much of its running time on its personality-less main characters doing little of interest, lots of comic relief that is neither funny nor a relief, and a romance that’ll leave every eye in the house tearless. Which isn’t just a shame because spending time with these characters will make anyone in the audience automatically side with the supposed villain of the piece – George Zucco also granting us with the only fun performance on screen – but because it turns nearly two thirds of the film into a painful slog.

This also does a heavy disservice to some perfectly adequate mummy stalking sequences late in the film, but that’s only par for the course here.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Heroes of Telemark (1965)

Nazi occupied Norway during World War II. Norwegian resistance fighter Knut Strand (Richard Harris) ropes scientist Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) into his attempts to destroy the German production of Heavy Water for their H-bomb projects. Pedersen would really rather spend the occupation tending his own garden and being a bit of a playboy, usually arguing that the Nazi repressions following an act of resistance aren’t actually worth what something like a destroyed Nazi truck wins. Obviously, this particular case is something different, so he at first reluctantly, then later somewhat heroically, helps in Strand’s struggle.

And wouldn’t you know it, turns out Pedersen’s ex-wife (Ulla Jacobsson) and ex-father-in-law are part of the resistance too.

The problem with the whole affair is that the Germans take their project as war-changingly serious as it is, so it is exceedingly difficult to destroy the heavy water production without getting a lot of innocent people killed.

Which, apart from being a World War II resistance adventure, is where the main interest of Anthony Mann’s Heroes of Telemark rests. In fact, much of the film’s running time does its best to work against the “hero” word in its title, talking about the decisions people in war time feel compelled to make, and exploring, horrified, fascinated and knowingly the kinds of inhuman equations these people believe they need to follow.

Again and again the film returns to this, showing its protagonists weighing up how many lives their mission is worth, whose lives it is worth, and how one can – and even if one should -compartmentalize the responsibility for the innocent lives destroyed in a good cause. It doesn’t come to any pat or simple answers here, never falling into the “The Cold Equations” style trap of embracing inhuman solutions wholeheartedly yet still finding itself as helpless as its characters not to use them. Though it is also clear that the film knows and understands but can’t fully approve; there’s a reason why the film’s most heroic act is in its final set piece when the protagonists risk their own lives to mitigate the cost in civilian lives their final desperate plan calls for. Inhumane decisions, the film argues, still need to be mitigated by actual humanity, if that humanity is costly, or not.

Mann practices a bit of humanity himself by not letting the characters fall into the obvious patterns you’d expect, so Pedersen may treat his life in his occupied country like a bit of a moral coward, and is often more careful in his approach, but the film does suggest that much of this is part of him looking at the cost more clearly than the more traditional man of action, Strand. And Strand for his part is actual softer and less ruthless than Pedersen when he has made a cruel decision he deems necessary. Nobody here’s just the asshole of the film, even though both men do act like one at times.

That Mann, pretty much at the end of his career here, is a rather sure hand at action sequences and their intelligent staging doesn’t exactly come as a surprise to anyone who knows his body of work. That he manages to integrate the action and the moral and ethical concerns of his script and his characters without weakening either side isn’t a surprise either. I found myself particularly impressed with the first, stealth, attack of the Norwegians on the Nazi production facility, a long sequence that is indeed shot only with the few natural noises the word “stealth” suggests, without dramatic music, only driven by tension, and all the more exciting for it.

And really, that’s The Heroes of Telemark for you, showing thought and care even in its big action set pieces.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: There's Only You And Your Dreams

Dad Savage (1998): The main selling point of Betsan Morris Evans’s thriller about greed and betrayal set in the British countryside is Patrick Stewart in one of his infrequent – and as usual in these cases clearly cherished - eccentric villain roles, though the rest of the cast with actors like Helen McCrory, Marc Warren and Kevin McKidd isn’t half bad either. The film’s trouble lies with a script that assumes you can make a simple story more dramatic by telling it in the most complicated, flash-back heavy manner available, where more time spent on actually fleshing out the characters would have done the film much more good. I also found myself not terribly fond of the film’s chamber piece aspirations, where everything that isn’t a flashback consists of the characters trapped with each other to enable loads of overtly dramatic ACTING of the very shouty variety.

Dangerous Lies (2020): Whereas this dreadful Netflix production by Michael Scott should be so lucky to actually have aspirations on things like theatricality. It’s a psychological thriller whose characters have all the depth of those of a daytime soap, played by the sort of young and pretty things not experienced enough to provide depth when the script doesn’t, shot in the bland style of a bad 90s TV movie and showing all the verve of a sleeping pill. It’s the kind of by the numbers filmmaking that really makes a boy think fondly of a less than successful film like Dad Savage because that one’s actually trying to do something interesting, whereas Dangerous Lies is just as generic and boring as its title.

La terre et le sang aka Earth and Blood (2020): Of course – and I know I am repeating myself here – originality isn’t everything. Case in point today is Julien Leclercq’s fine French Netflix production that goes through a lot of the typical motions of movies about middle-aged men violently protecting their daughters. But Leclercq knows where to add specificity to his clichés, understands about the importance of the telling detail to sparse characterisations, and has absolute control about the pacing of his film. The cast led by Sami Bouajila is pretty great too, applying care and intelligence where others would go through the motions.

The film’s also admirably brutal and ruthless, not in a gratuitous way, but one simply unwilling to be nice for nicety’s sake. This would make a rather instructive double bill with Netflix’s Braven, a pretty similar film that does everything wrong this one does right.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Outland (1981)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

The near future. Federal Marshall O’Niel (Sean Connery in one of his neutral state performances where he’s neither applying himself particularly nor looking too bored) has just assumed his new position as the highest ranking law enforcement officer on a mining station on Jupiter’s moon Io, a position you don’t get because you’re exactly a high-flying star of your organization. In fact, O’Niel’s wife (Kika Markham) has gotten so sick of a series of jobs in horrible places and the effect that’ll have on the development of their son, she leaves O’Niel just two weeks after they have arrived, son in tow (which, given the horrible performance the poor child actor gives, is an excellent idea as far as this viewer’s nerves are concerned).

O’Niel stumbles upon the curiously high amount of suicides and self-created accidents on the station. After a bit of an investigation, O’Niel finds out the miners are supplied with a drug that increases their performance before slowly driving them mad, and it’s all done with more than just the approval of local mining corp head Sheppard (Peter Boyle). Everybody around is either looking away from the problem because they are paid off, or just because they don’t want to rock the boat and lose the tiny bit of the economic cake they can get. O’Niel, right in the middle of his own private existential crisis, realizes he won’t let himself be bought, or ignore what’s going on, whatever the consequences may be. Not surprisingly, there’s violence in the air.

I have always been rather fond of Peter Hyams’s Science Fiction variation on High Noon, and my recent re-watch only confirmed to me this is one of the seriously underrated genre films of its time. Not that there aren’t dubious scientific moments: at least people who understand physics much better than I do tell me that the film’s fixation on people exploding when coming into contact with the vacuum of space is entirely misguided, though it does make for some nice effects, and I don’t even want to think about how much else the film probably gets wrong about the potentials and hazards of space mining operations, the working of solar panels, and so on, and so forth. Fortunately, I’m too dumb to notice anyway.

On the other hand, Outland’s scientific accuracy doesn’t really matter much, because it gets the – in a work of fiction – much more important aspect of making the mining station feel believable right. The station feels like a real, and appropriately shabby, place a future working class might have to inhabit, with basically the same hardships, the same ugliness, and the same injustice as today, just with smaller cots, more artificial light and even less chances for a better life. The way the film, in its production design and its unspoken assumptions, tells it, there’s nothing glamorous about the work in space, only danger, mediocre pay, and a company who only cares for its earnings, space having become the place where dreams die and careers end instead of the place of hope and romance it once was (if only in our shared dreams). All this, the film never so much explains outright but suggests through the details of its production design, the only mildly bitter cynicism of its doctor character as played by Frances Sternhagen, and the way nobody ever quite meets anybody else’s eyes. Unlike in High Noon, even O’Niel’s attempt to ask the miners for help has something perfunctory about it, Connery’s posture carrying the knowledge he won’t get anything from these people before he even has to open his mouth. Pointedly, the film doesn’t even seem to judge the miners for not getting on O’Niel’s side, realizing that a cowed working class like that might just see the pointlessness in O’Niel’s struggle.

Because, sure, O’Niel gets his personal happy end – this is a movie after all – but there’s really no second here on screen that argues he has made much of an impact on how things are as a whole; he’s only ever been fighting a symptom of diseases it needs more than a gun and a badge to end. And he can flee to greener pastures now anyway, it seems (though the film pointedly avoids the economics of that decision).

Hyams, always at least a dependable director when it comes to action and suspense, and often a rather brilliant and unsung one, does tell this tale in a straightforward style, with some expectedly fine suspense scenes (the hostage sequence and the grand finale being the obvious examples). Hyams has found a way of turning the station into a real place by making use of great, grimy, production design (this was made at the moment when The Future in cinema became full of lived-in places populated by lived out people, after all), and some very impactful lighting decisions that sometimes even suggest a working knowledge of Bava to my eyes. Which, all in all, is quite a lot for a film whose high concept sell was probably “High Noon in Space, and get me that Connery guy!”.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

In short: Troublesome Night 2 (1997)

Original title: 陰陽路之我在你左右

This second Troublesome Night film was directed by the first film’s co-director, horror – and particularly CATIII horror- veteran Herman Yau. Despite Yau’s background, the film keeps to the less extreme tone of the first one, though the second segment features quite a bit of vomiting, the ole “insects in your food” play, and the whole film seems to be slightly more bloody than the first one.

The three tales here are a bit closer connected than in the first film, and concern the misadventures of a trio of radio DJs (Louis Koo, Simon Lui and Allen Ting all, like a lot of the other actors from the first movie returning in different roles here). It’s the shortened DJ version of the Ten Little Soldiers, really. So the first of the gang gets into ghost trouble after he encourages a girl grieving the death of her boyfriend (also ghost related) to kill herself during a call-in segment, and the second goes on a yacht tour with two of the first one’s friends to get over his buddy’s death only to end up in what I can only assume is the Hong Kong version of the Bermuda Triangle, but with ghosts. Number three cleverly leaves the radio before something nasty can happen to him, but then dooms himself by accidentally urinating on an awkwardly placed ghost tablet, which leads to a haunting by his dead friends and a female ghost we already met shortly right at the beginning.

Narratively and structurally, with plotting and ending sequences directly mirroring parts of the beginning, this is obviously constructed more as a whole than the first Troublesome Night. It does trade this degree of structural tightness for some of the first film’s peculiar charm, though, having no time to go off in really strange directions. It’s still a very fun movie, with a lot of jokes that actually land and a bit more of the patented Hong Kong melodramatic pathos, as befits ghosts of the kind used here. It’s full of ghost appearances that generally shouldn’t frighten anyone but still are the fun kind of spooky. The middle episode drags a little, though, spending a bit too much time on puke jokes and general comedic shenanigans, which is slightly more troublesome in this second outing than it would have been in the looser first one.

It’s still a highly enjoyable film, pretty, charming, a bit goofy and not heartless.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) and his prison buddy Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) manage to escape from the famed Devil’s Island. They make their way to the research hut where Marcel’s by now batshit insane wife Malita (Rafeaela Ottiano) has been continuing his research work for a decade or so. Marcel, you see, is worried about the future of an ever-growing humanity in a world with finite resources. His solution to the problem is obvious: develop a method to shrink down organic life, and food problems for the now tiny human population will shrink as well. One hopes he’s also planning to create an particularly effective insecticide.

And wouldn’t you know it, while Marcel was imprisoned, he had quite a bit of thinking time and found the solution that will actually make his idea work. He just manages to finish up with his work before he dies from the consequences of his dramatic flight, leaving Lavond and Malita to deepen and finish his research. Lavond has his own ideas about how to go about this, for he has reasons to seek revenge. Lavond was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, framed by his business partners, leaving him in prison, his wife soon dead of the financial and social strain following his conviction, and his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan) embittered and sad. Lavond’s goal isn’t just revenge, it’s also to clear his name and secure a future for Lorraine.

All of which he might just manage to achieve with the help of two servants turned into mind-controlled doll people and quite a bit of cross-dressing.

For yes, Lionel Barrymore does indeed spend large parts of the film cross-dressing as an old lady, in a move that must have been pretty transgressive for its time and certainly fits well into director Tod Browning’s love for shaking up the squares in his audience (whenever the studios let him). However, neither Browning nor Barrymore treat this element of the film as particular out there, instead using it in a matter of course way that’s pretty refreshing and effective. It’s still weird, mind you, but only in that particular way that belongs to films taking place in a heightened reality where going undercover as old ladies is just what revenge seeking men do. One can’t help but think that Lavond would have quite a bit to talk about with a certain French fake hunchback.

Particularly Barrymore’s performance is lovely, never playing the cross-dressing for humour, nor showing the discomfort in his body language you get from a lot of actors getting into drag. He is also finding a wonderful balance between portraying Lavond as your typical horror movie maniac and a sad, old man who lost everything he loved for no fault of his own. The script (in theory based on Abraham Merritt’s “Burn Witch Burn” but in reality only taking a couple of ideas and names from it) by Browning, Guy “Werewolf of Paris” Endore, Garrett Fort and Erich von Stroheim(!) provides him with ample opportunity to make his character rather more complex than is typical in this sort of thing, too, adding a sadness to the character that feels well-earned. And how many horror movies do you know in which the man seeking revenge in somewhat unnatural ways also helps his daughter’s romance along, even if it is to an ambitious taxi driver with the rather unfortunate name of Toto.

For a film made in the mid 1930’s the special effects are very effective too, Browning using a combination of back projection,  larger-than-life sets and clever camera angles to make the “devil dolls” rather believable, often even a little creepy, and generally bizarre. There’s also a lovely sense of macabre creativity on display, with excellent flourishes like the final doll being delivered as a Christmas ornament to its victim. Which, in combination with the surprisingly friendly, yet not undeservedly so, ending, also turns this into an early example of the Christmas horror movie, now that I think about it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

In short: The First Purge (2018)

Well, someone really wanted to see the pilot version of the Purge in the movie universe’s dystopian but practically ripped from the headlines world whose basic set-up I really don’t think is necessary to explain by now, so we got this. Cue the expected amount of heroic, poor black, characters, a couple of poor black crazy people, and the secret mercenary groups doing most of the killing you’d expect.

This might sound a bit glib, but that’s mostly because I think the Purge series has reached the point where it has said all it can say in its format and should go out in a blaze of gory optimism called, say, “The Final Purge”. This prequel as directed by Gerard McMurray and as usual written by James DeMonaco is still much superior to the eminently forgettable streaming show in the universe, putting a lot of effort into turning the characters beyond the masked villains and the evil politician into something akin to actual people. That’s of course one of the main strengths of the Purge movies as a series, positioning its protagonists in a racially and social-economically determined place but still treating them as individuals, which not only makes their fates rather more interesting – and their triumphs in the action sequences more fist-pumping – but also strengthens the film’s political arguments about the nature of poverty and racially produced poverty, and stands in effective contrast to the series' love for the grotesque and the bizarre. Basically, selling the weird elements through the quotidian ones.

Having said that, The First Purge doesn’t quite have as much of a sense for the grotesque as its predecessor, the filmmakers clearly having decided that trying to top the last film there would lead this one so far into the realm of the fantastically absurd their political arguments would be drowned out by it. They were probably right there, too, though I think the film’s losing some of its power as an exploitation film by going less insane.

Generally, the ultra-violence, as well as the moody shots of burning streets by night, really only get going in the film’s final third, and once they start, they are slightly less fun and slightly less tight than in the last two films, yet still good enough to keep a viewer interested; and I really can’t blame a film for attempting to build characters and their social sphere properly before the carnage begins.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

James vs. His Future Self (2019)

Nerdy scientist James (Jonas Chernick) is so obsessed with striking a path towards a theory that would make time travel viable, he might as well be one of those self-centred assholes who are generally the lead characters in male-centric romantic comedies for all the difference it makes. Which is rather fitting, for this is indeed a romantic comedy. For, you see, James has somehow managed to acquire a best friend in form of scientist and colleague Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman). These two are of course the sort of friends who are actually “meant” to be in a romantic relationship, James is just too fixated on developing his theories to notice. To be fair, he clearly dreams of using time travel to save his parents from dying in an accident, so calling him egotistical wouldn’t be quite correct.

James is living with his sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie) right now, but it is only a question of time until she’ll have enough of mothering him while getting nothing back from him.

And wouldn’t you know it, one evening, an older man, let’s call him Jimmy (Daniel Stern), appears, telling James – and eventually convincing him too via the power of penis comparison – that he is James’s future self, using his own time travel invention to dissuade his younger self from turning into a lonely old man who lost all of his human relations to his scientific obsession, and thinks it’s a good idea to go back in time to fix things this way.

Young James is a difficult case, though.

Generally, male-centric romantic comedies with their fixation on asshole protagonists who are taught to be a little nicer and are then rewarded by this with a pretty new girlfriend are the least interesting part of the sub-genre to me. Too often, these guys are just too crappy human beings to actually care about their fate, and their changes tend to be so minimal and irrelevant, their redeemed state is still pretty low on the human being scale, which does not exactly suggest romance to me. Nor does these films’ tendency to treat their female characters as anything but prizes to gain improve matters on the romantic scale. Jeremy LaLonde’s James vs. His Future Self does rather better here.

It starts with James not actually being a total human wreck yet, but standing right on the cusp of it, still having understandable reasons for his flaws and a personality that actually seems worth saving even if you are not his future self. And Courtney, while not being an actual co-lead, does have a personality, agency, and a life of her own beyond being James’s love interest; why, the film even has her keep her own professional goals in the end, and it’s James who gives up on something that’s important to him. It’s also a rather clever move to also include the brother-sister relationship as more than a plot crutch or a source for snarky dialogue, relating James’s change to more than just his love life and suggesting that he’s actually improving other people’s lives with his change instead of only himself.

The film is often genuinely funny, with Stern’s interactions with basically anyone turning scenes that would be too pat and functional otherwise a bit less easy to foresee, and adding a degree of (still funny) pathos to proceedings James alone couldn’t provide, the time travel angle really adding to the film’s emotional resonance here.

Of course, you could argue that the film’s focus on James living “in the moment” instead of completely in his head, and the way it frames doing science and having a personal life as completely antithetical for him (but apparently not for Courtney) is really a bit too simple, but I don’t think it would improve as a romantic comedy if it got into this too deeply. And a romantic comedy, and a pretty good one, James vs. His Future Self is and wants to be.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Think fast. Drive faster.

The Man Who Saw Too Much aka El hombre que vio demasiado (2016): I find Trisha Ziff’s documentary about Mexican tabloid photographer turned elderly art scene darling Enrique Metinides, and the relationship of Mexican mainstream culture to violence, utterly fascinating. Particularly, I love the film’s willingness to leave questions open, to accept that there are no absolute keys to understanding a person and what drives them; instead of providing solutions, it introduces us to the man and his work from all sides, leaving interpretations open and diverse, suggesting a man who might be a kind of folk hero, simply a commercial artist, a parasite on other people’s suffering, or a man who has seen way too much.

The only element of the film that rubs me the wrong way are the interview snippets of people from the US art scene, who provide little insight in many words, blithely ignoring the actual suffering in Metinides photos, replacing it with their half-baked ideas about suffering.

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003): This one’s the final entry into the actual Timm/Dini/Reaves universe of Batman: The Animated Series but without Timm or Dini and little of the spark of what made B:TAS so great. The animation, while technically probably better than in the post B:TAS films that came before, is curiously lifeless, the design feeling as if the animators were going through the motions of reproducing a style without thinking too hard about what it’s there for. Reaves’s script is flabby and unconvincing, full of jokes that fall flat, and aiming for the detective side of Batman without constructing a decent mystery for him to solve.

There’s a sad lack of personality to the whole affair, so once again something great ends on something of a whimper instead of a bang. But then, the animated Batman has never quite left B:TAS behind even after this part of his world was officially closed.

Overdrive (2017): This mainly French production directed by Antonio Negret quite desperately wants to be a (The) Fast & (The) Furious film from the second half of that franchise’s run. Alas, it can’t actually afford the kind of effects and stunt work it would need for this, and nobody involved seems to have much of a clue about how to go about staging the kind of action the production can actually afford. But, hey, Scott Eastwood and his perfectly horrible screen presence was in the budget, as well as poor Ana de Armas.

The script is dire, too, as if it were written by people who mistakenly believe that making formulaic movies is easy; that’s only the bad formulaic movies nobody wants to see. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Supersonic Man (1979)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

aka Sonic Man (which I can only imagine to be a side story about our hero’s less favoured brother)

Poor Professor Morgan (José María Caffarel)! He is such a genius when it comes to energy SCIENCE! (energytology?), that evil, perhaps ever so slightly crazy, villain Dr. Gulik (Cameron Mitchell) sends out a bunch of his sub-COBRA goons and one of his oh so very impressive killer robots to kidnap him, somehow making the authorities believe the good Professor defected somewhere leaving a lot of dead bodies behind.

Fortunately, some aliens have decided that enough is enough with all that human nonsense, and have sent out superhero Supersonic (Richard Yesteran) to take care of business on Earth. When he’s not flying around to a one-finger synthesizer version of the Superman theme, or activating his varied superpowers via finger pointing and weird hand gestures, Supersonic (probably not Supes to his friends for copyright reasons) works as a moustachioed private eye. In this function he more or less stumbles (we shouldn’t ascribe to purpose what we can ascribe to random chance in this movie) upon Morgan’s daughter Patricia (Diana Polakov), who doesn’t believe her father could do anything morally dubious at all, and could really use a private eye to find him.

The private eye business will turn out to be Supersonic’s greatest weakness once he gets down to the whole thwarting evil Dr. Gulik, rescuing good Professor Morgan business, because like all private eyes, he too has the tendency to get conked in the head from behind, which makes life somewhat difficult for a superhero who needs to talk into – or at least think at – his (magic) space watch to transform. Hopefully, random chance will help him out there too.

I’m not much of a fan of the Italian and Spanish rip-offs of Superman, perhaps because I already don’t find the original to be exactly riveting (I’m very sorry, but Superman as a character does little for me, probably because I find perfection incredibly boring), but most probably because most of the resulting films were neither particularly inspired nor particularly crazy, which could only ever leave us with a shoddy superhero movie. [Future me’s position towards the first two Superman movies has rather improved, yet I still don’t like the rip-offs any better].

Juan Piquer Simón’s Supersonic Man is the great exception to the rule, because while it’s as shoddy, dumb, and silly as three other cheap superhero movies combined, it is also a film containing oh so many indelible charms I find it utterly impossible to resist it. There may be little the film does actually right – except for Simón’s frequent cinematographer Juan Mariné’s surprisingly pleasant photography – but most everything it does wrong, it does in delightful ways that’ll convince you a man in a cape can fly over a fake yet beautiful model of a house.

What the film, or rather Simón, does particularly right is finding a way to actually awaken Cameron Mitchell from the stupor he is in during too many of his low budget nonsense outings and get him to chew the scenery in his own inimitable way, like a prettier William Shatner on very bad drugs. During the course of the film, Mitchell gets to chew and spit out not only scenery, helpless co-actors, and possibly your mind, he also has at least half a dozen great, absolutely ridiculous villain speeches. If you’re really lucky, he does give these while having “philosophical” – which in the context of this film means “deeply stupid” - discussions with Caffarel’s Professor, whom he always keeps at his side to have someone to gloat at. Caffarel, speaking lots and lots of more loquacious versions of the words “tut, tut, you evil madman” does make a contrast that helps Mitchell shine extra bright, too, for where dear old Mister Mitchell gloats, gesticulates and mugs, Caffarel is clearly above emoting (or really, moving too much), possibly because he’s afraid that Mitchell will eat him too.

There are many other joys to be had in Supersonic Man, and not just the way Supersonic (the Man is clearly implicit) goes out of his way to not help henchmen in need (making the last Superman movies look much friendlier all of a sudden), or the fact that the film is absolutely hilarious, except in those moments when it is actually trying to be hilarious through that most horrid type of comic relief – a homeless comedy alcoholic. I could probably go on listing things for a few thousand words, but it’ll be better for everyone’s sanity if I only mention one or two.

So, there’s that famous scene where Supersonic lifts a barely three-dimensional steamroller out of Patricia’s way, like a real champ (if a real champ were a guy who cheats outrageously), with said steamroller having been built (probably in half an hour of somebody’s lunch break) either from very light wood (if you’re the more kindly minded type of thinker), or actual papier-mâché (if you’re more of a glass half empty kind of mutant). In any case, the great beauty of his scene is not just that the steamroller is clearly not a steamroller but how utterly shameless Simón is about it, obviously not caring one bit that his audience notices the extreme short cuts he’s willing to take. Curiously, in this film, that approach doesn’t look so much like a director looking down at his audience and his film than like a guy sharing a private moment with us.

As a second example, there are Gulik’s killer robots. They are silver, they have tasteful little glowing lamps, they have tiny rockets, they have in-built flame-throwers, they have in-built gas-throwers, they are so fast (cough) they can move at least three or four meters a minute (Simón already training for Slugs?), and they look exactly like giant toy robots. In fact, they look and feel exactly like what an eight year old would find awesome in a robot, so again, Simón seems to know what he’s doing with them.

These robots, as well as the film’s approach to special effects, also suggest to me that, while the film is clearly meant to rip-off the Donner Superman film, Simón is actually working off the much older serial model for Supersonic, something that also explains the film’s stop and start episodic plotting, the archetypal characters, and the way the action scenes are staged just as well, perhaps even better, than mere ineptitude would. One might even start to think there’s no ineptitude involved here at all but a rather clever and private revival of an often forgotten style of filmmaking hidden away in plain sight.

Or I just might be crazy, but then, so’s Dr. Gulik, and he gets all the best lines. Soon you will know the true force.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

In short: The Gladiator (1986)

A serial killer is haunting the streets of LA, killing other drivers in his souped up car for the tiniest of infractions of the highway code. One of his victims is Jeff Benton (Brian Robbins) who gets killed for running a yellow light while on a drive with his working class car mechanic brother Rick (Ken Wahl) in Rick’s pick-up truck.

Unlike Jeff, Rick survives the attack. Traumatized and angry, he eventually starts to turn his rebuilt pick-up into a bit of combat vehicle and starts roaming the street at night to commit his own brand of vigilante justice; he’s not out to kill anyone, mind you.

The Gladiator seems to be one of the more seldom seen films of the great Abel Ferrara, so much so that even a pretty big admirer like myself has only gotten around to digging it out more than thirty years after it came out. But, now having seen it, this isn’t mandatory watching even for the hardcore Ferraraist. Apparently initially planned for a theatrical release, the film earned a somewhat fitting place as a TV movie of the week on ABC.

It’s not that it’s a terrible film, but it goes over ground that was well-trodden even in 1986, adding very little to tales of vigilantism and cars – unlike you’re really into the concept of vigilantism in cars - and lacking the exploitation factor to make it a more fun watch. Sure, there are quite a few moody shots of Wahl or his nameless enemy cruising through the streets of Los Angeles by night, and the very Ferrara mirroring of Rick and his enemy as two sides of the same coin isn’t completely without interest, but that’s not really enough to to carry a whole film.

It’s Ferrara light, very probably cut down for TV by exactly those scenes it would need to work, ending up a bit too bland, a bit too slow, and quite a bit too friendly to be of particular interest.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

I’ll Sell My Skin Dearly (1968)

Original title: Vendo cara la pelle

The Italian American West. Years ago, local sadist black hat boss Ralph Magdalena (Dane Savours) and his henchmen led by sadist gunman Benson (Spartaco Conversi) murdered most of a family whose name I never managed to catch – father, mother and kid daughter – to get at their land, where the father had just found gold. Only teenage son Shane was away, working in another state to keep the family fed. Now, a decade or so later, he has grown up to be played by Mike Marshall, and returns to his old home to slowly shoot and stab his way through Magdalena’s henchmen. He’s frightfully good at killing, though, clearly relishing every man he murders with uncomfortable intensity.

Despite being really rather great at murdering people, Shane is eventually wounded by one of his enemies, finding himself saved and taken in by young, pretty widow Georgiana Bennett (Michèle Girardon) and her son Christian (Valerio Bartoleschi). These two manage to remind Shane of his humanity, but will of course be in danger when he still can’t stop his vengeful ways.

Depending on the cut you see, Ettore Maria Fizzarotti’s I’ll Sell My Skin Dearly shows a stronger influence of the sentimental parts of traditional American western movies than is typical for the often rather more cold-blooded Italian version of the genre; as a matter of fact, the film gets the kind of full-bodied Hollywood happy end quite a few American westerns concerned with vengeance deny their characters.

This results in something of an awkward contrast with Marshall’s portrayal of Shane with the kind of full-on crazy eyes you usually see from serial killers and the henchmen of the bad guys in the movies (indeed, Conversi seems to have a bit of a competition going on with Marshall who can outcrazy the other), smiling coldly about his body count. That’s not exactly the kind of behaviour that’s going to sell a redemption arc, scenes of Shane bonding with sugary sweet Christian and falling for Georgiana notwithstanding. On the more positive side, all of this is certainly not what one expects from a Spaghetti Western, and I’m not one to complain too loudly about a film trying to do things differently, even if it doesn’t work out quite as well as one would wish for.

In general, Fizzarotti seems to have understood the Italian western wisdom that, if you can’t hire a great actor, then hire one with interesting eyes, so while Marshall’s certainly not a master thespian in anybody’s book, he – and quite a few other cast members – do that staring into the camera in close-up thing so important to Italian westerns very well.

Their director provides them with quite a few opportunities for this sort of thing, too, for while Fizzarotti certainly isn’t a great stylist, he has at least studied the Corbucci rule book of Italian western filmmaking, going for the tight close-ups, the occasional use of a handheld camera, and an aura of grime and mud you’d expect or hope for in a film like this.

Obviously, this is not a top tier Spaghetti Western, in part because it doesn’t really have much of a handle on how to integrate the hero’s nihilist vengeance and his redemptive arc on more than the most obvious level of plotting; in part because Fizzarotti is a decent imitator instead of someone bringing much of his own to the table. However, for a film from the lower rung of the Italian western ladder, it’s a perfectly fine time, at least ticking a lot of the boxes you want to have ticked by a film if you simply enjoy genre tropes for what they are, as I often do.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

In short: Two O’Clock Courage (1945)

When a man with a head wound (Tom Conway) and a bout of amnesia stumbles in front of the taxi of spunky cab driver Patty Mitchell (Ann Rutherford), it’s the start of a very interesting time for both of them. The man, it turns out, may very well be a murderer; at least, there are a couple of hints that suggest it. Patty’s clearly charmed by him, and decides this means he can’t be a murderer, and so she starts going above and beyond everything you know about the job of a cab driver, helping him to evade the police, as well as a silly reporter. She more than aptly assists the mysterious yet increasingly quippy stranger in investigating who he is and who actually did commit the murder he’s be a prime suspect for.

The basic set-up of Anthony Mann’s – still working in the B-slot movie mills for RKO here – Two O’Clock Courage may suggest a noir, but the script by Robert E. Kent and Mann’s light-handed direction turn this into a comedic murder mystery romance closer in spirit to the Thin Man films than the Cornell Woolrich style affair it may sound like. It’s a fun little example of this particular type of film, though, directed with a bit of style and a whole heap of pizazz, merrily going from one pretty improbable sequence to the next with a spring in its step and a merry little tune on its lips, probably a little drunk. With such a fun tone, who cares that the mystery plot’s pretty weak and that the abyss is yawning elsewhere? I certainly do not.

Conway and Rutherford work rather well together too, quipping, pretending to be married, and walking through the whole affair with a bit of ironic distance, chemistry and a certain unflappable (well, very difficult to flap) charm. It’s a lovely little film, not at all suggesting anything of the movies Mann would turn out just a few years later on a regular basis, but a very worthwhile watch nonetheless.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Oblivion (1994)

Welcome to the township of Oblivion on a planet we’ll just call Wild West. After all, it’s just like the Wild West from the movies, but in space and with random goofy SF bits bolted on.

Town Marshal – and yeah, the film clearly means sheriff but in a recurring problem is too dumb to know the difference - Stone (Mike Genovese) is shot by evil reptile dude Redeye (Andrew Divoff) in a perfectly fair fight. In fact, Redeye took care of it actually being fair by disabling the Marshall’s force field which would usually have protected him from all harm – something the outlaw doesn’t have; and it’s hardly Redeye’s fault that Stone is the slowest draw on the planet. Anyway, after that Redeye does some actually evil stuff, and he and his gang of idiot wackos (played by people like Musetta Vander and Irwin Keyes) lord it over the town rather badly.

The Marshal’s alienated son Zack (Richard Joseph Paul) is out prospecting - and saving Space Indian Buteo (Jimmie F. Skaggs) from death by giant scorpion – but even once he hears of what has occurred, he is really going to take his time to get up to some revenge, what with him being an empath and – gasp! – a pacifist. He will later turn out to be a crack shot too, for reasons the film of course doesn’t bother to get into.

And that’s because Sam Irvin’s Oblivion is one of those comedies that believes it can escape any question about world building or internal logic by vaguely waving its and and cracking a crappy joke. Which comedies often can indeed get away with. Alas, that trick only works when a film’s jokes are actually funny, so no chance for Oblivion there.

The script was apparently written by great comics scribe Peter David (with the IMDB also giving “story” credits to Charles Band, John Rheaume, Greg Suddeth and Mark Goldstein), though it doesn’t actually feel like it at all. Or really, it doesn’t feel as if any professional writer had had much of a hand in it, but rather like a series of bad ideas and underdeveloped jokes somebody has scrawled on a napkin and called a script. To be fair, one or two of the film’s sixty-nine running jokes are actually somewhat funny. I found town undertaker Gaunt (Carel Struycken) with his habit to always appear shortly before somebody is killed and the resulting social awkwardness whenever he simply goes somewhere for a beer (and so on) fun and indeed funny, but this sort of thing is buried under jokes I felt actively embarrassed by despite not at all being responsible for them.

You’d think that this could still have been saved by the pretty wonderful cast of character actors and troopers – apart from those whom I have already mentioned there are also Meg Foster, Isaac Hayes, Julie Newmar and George Takei to wonder at – but most of them are pressed into bouts of deeply unfunny mugging. The usually intensely charming Takei and Newmar are particularly terrible, also thanks to the film’s insistence on making bad meta-jokes about certain other roles of these two, again and again and again. But really, the only actors on screen who seem to have any idea what they are doing and why are Divoff, Foster, Struycken, and boring love interest to a terrible hero Jackie Swanson (because really, being boring is never difficult). Everybody else seems rather too conscious of how deep the cow shit is they have stumbled into and acts accordingly.

Things become even worse whenever the film tries to turn sort of serious for a scene or two and attempts to treat Zack’s “inner struggle” as if anybody watching cared. Something that is completely impossible to take seriously given the surrounding nonsense, badly written anyway, and done by an actor who couldn’t act his way through an open door.

But hey, the space scorpions and Divoff’s make-up are pretty good, and it’s a mid-90s Charles Band movie without puppets and dolls, so there’s that to say for the whole mess.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: If you use it, you'll lose it...

Porno (2019): A handful of teenagers alone at night in the cinema of their evangelically Christian dominated town accidentally summon up a succubus. A teeny bit of nudity, some penis shots, and gore ensue. As do some moments when the film nearly turns into a more complicated discussion about the sort of Christianity these people have grown into, only to get distracted by jokes about the same thing, penises and gore again. Which is perfectly alright for what it is, director Keola Racela having a nice feel this sort of thing, as well as for friendly nods towards the Italian style of horror.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005): Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary about the late great, haunted and sad Daniel Johnston is certainly one of the great documentaries about music and mental illness, clearly coming from a position of love towards its subject, but never trying to pave over complications nor the very bad stuff. It’s also never just pandering to the romantic idea of the troubled genius, looking for humanity instead of grand gestures. If you love people with mental illness or have problems there yourself, the film may hit very close to home and watching this can hit you like a hammer, not because the film is going for cheap effects but because it absolutely refuses to look down.

The Rhythm Section (2020): Reed Morano’s thriller about revenge, the spy business and the problems with guilt and alienation these things bring with them doesn’t seem to be terribly well-loved. I, perfectly willing to overlook some plot contrivances as I am, found myself rather happy with the film. It certainly features a fine lead performance by Blake Lively, who simply plays through some of the films sillier moments as if they were perfectly natural, and adds a lot of little naturalistic touches to make a very typical character arc feel more human and personal. Morano for his part has an effective way to put ideas about guilt and how to lose it (and how not) into plot and action, keeping the focus tight on the elements he (correctly) deems most important to the material without getting distracted in flashbacks.

Admittedly, thematically, little of what is going on in the film and with its characters should be news to anyone watching genre movies at all, but an old story told well is a perfectly good thing too.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Cartes sur table (1966)

aka Attack of the Robots

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Oh no! International bigwigs are murdered by guys and gals in blackface, wearing what we from a more enlightened age can only describe as hipster glasses! The perpetrators are acting kinda weird, too, as if they were some sort of mind-controlled…robots. They are also losing their black-faces when they get killed.

Interpol finds out that these killers – at least the ones they can get their hands on after their deeds – are all people who mysteriously disappeared before now turning up all minstrel show-y. The only connection between these disappeared is their shared blood group – rhesus zero (scientific fact: the film’s science might be ever so slightly dubious). Some very vague clues point to a charming tourist spot in Spain. Because they really want a rhesus zero blood type kinda guy to investigate things in Spain, and there’s a disturbing lack of them in active service, Interpol rope their former, rhesus as well as brains zero, agent Al Pereira (Eddie Constantine) back in. Al isn’t too happy about the whole thing, particularly because a “Chinese” gentleman with the extremely probable name of Lee Wee (Vicente Roca) wants him to do the same job too, but he’s actually even too stupid to properly say no to anyone, be it Lee or Interpol. Well, at least Al’s pretty good at punching people, and charming the ladies (pheromones, I guess?).

These awesome talents will be put to good use once Al attracts the attention of robot people builders Lady Cecilia Addington Courtney (Françoise Brion) and Sir Percy (Fernando Rey) and their entourage, as well as the ire of the Chinese, and the interest of one Cynthia Lewis (Sophie Hardy).

I don’t actually know much about French genre films beyond Oughties horror, a bit of 50s swashbucklers, and Jean Rollin, but I do know the French had a – somewhat inexplicable, so I assume comparable to Jerry Lewis – thing for Eddie Constantine, hero of a quintillion of pulpy crime, spy and Godard movies, and not exactly the most inspiring actor ever to come from America, what with his difficulties expressing those “emotions” people talk about so much. One thing Constantine – as far as I know, and as Cartes as well as the Godard connection suggests – really had going for him was that he was clearly game for anything at all, with no unhelpful ideas about personal or thespian dignity. Just like Sir Ben Kingsley, now that I think about it.

Which obviously makes him the ideal lead in this relatively early directorial outing of my favourite Jesus, Jess Franco, because like all Eurospy films Franco made, Cartes sur table quickly turns out to be a Eurospy farce full of bat-shit insane ideas. The film, of course, does not make the slightest attempt to do stupid and boring stuff like tell a sensible, logical story (as if that had much risk of happening in any Franco film) in a sensible logical way, and instead throws bizarre dialogue, weird shit, and various incredibly fake looking but awesome and spirited punch-ups at its audience until it will either run off in a huff, or roll with it laughing and grinning, and having as much of a time as Constantine seems to have. Sure, the man wasn’t a great actor, and I don’t think one of the great low budget charismatics, but he sure seems to enjoy his time on screen so much it’s difficult for me not to share in the fun. So, unlike with Jerry Lewis, the our French neighbours were right.

Having fun with the possibly insane is made to look (and feel) particularly easy by Franco, of course. At this stage of his career, when he actually needed to make movies that didn’t exclusively cater to himself and his obsessions (which I actually love him and his films for, quite a lot), Franco’s films couldn’t quite get away with the full self-indulgence, so this Eurospy comedy can’t spend the time on the moments of leisure and boredom that soon became so important in the director’s films.

Fortunately, this is so early in Franco’s career too, he doesn’t just get bored with the whole affair and shoots some random crap, takes his cheque, and makes three other films with that money. Instead, Franco chooses a classic and simple one damn thing after another approach we, the easily distractible, always will enjoy. Among these damn things are some Franco mainstays, like two (alas only very short) improbable night club numbers of the kind I generally find impossible to describe effectively (because that’s what the movies are for, and I’m not Jess Franco), a main villainess with a bit of a kinky handle on villainous life and a charming dominatrix personality, the inexplicable business with the black-face robot zombie people, bizarre asides like the scene where Constantine finds his hotel room smashed after a Chinese goons versus robot goons fight in his absence, fetches a porter to complain, only to find a perfectly fine room again because the surviving Chinese have – for no reason I could make out, of course – taken it upon themselves to clean up behind themselves once they are alone in the room. All the while, Cynthia watches the proceedings through an absurdly large hatch in the wall. The Chinese only miss two corpses, but what the heck, right? Plus, that gives the film the opportunity for some corpse joke business taking up the next five minutes.

And if that doesn’t convince you Cartes sur table may be slightly atypical Franco but also very fun Franco, I don’t know what could.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

In short: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

Warning: structural spoiler ahead!

It is not a difficult feat to suggest that a few too many of the animated Batman movies made for home video or tiny theatrical releases and then home video in the decades after Mask of the Phantasm have gone back to the well of “Batman: The Animated Series” in one way or another, even when they weren’t actually connected to it. But then, when they don’t, they can easily end up like that absolutely dreadful The Killing Joke adaptation, so while there might be a certain lack in originality in that approach, it does tend to result in a film that’s not a disgusting piece of crap, so it seems to be the right one.

Rather ironically, the villain of this particular film as directed by Sam Liu and with a script by James Krieg that’s based on an Elseworlds tale by Brian Augustyn and the great Mike Mignola seems to share that version of The Killing Joke’s makers opinion of women (at least based on that film), seeing as he’s Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of an alternative Victorian age Gotham.

The Batman (as voiced by Bruce Greenwood whom I like nearly as much as Kevin Conroy in the role), clearly rather early in his role, is there, too, and he is going to be more than capably assisted by a pretty heroic version of Selina Kyle (Jennifer Carpenter, also excellent) whose instant mutual attraction here does make perfect sense. Aesthetically, this one is still clearly indebted to BTAS, with some genuinely successful attempts at injecting a hint of early Mignola into the proceedings (don’t expect shadows quite as thick, though), giving the film’s Victorian era Gotham the proper mood and feeling. There are some fine action set pieces but the film’s also – despite an mere 80 minute runtime – deftly creating its world and its characters.

Part of that is of course the old Elseworlds trick of understanding that the audience of an alternative reality version of Batman and other characters of his universe will have a working understanding of them, so you really only need to emphasise what’s different here; the rest, the audience will do for you. However, the script to this one goes one step further and bases one of its central twists on what an audience will expect from these characters and then delivering quite the opposite, while at the same time playing fair with the audience and – not alas a thing you can expect in plot twist land - still making sense.

All of this comes together exceptionally well, so well indeed the film really doesn’t end up being a copy of BTAS’s approach, but rather one that uses what it has learned from the show like it used its own aesthetic predecessors.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Target (2014)

Original title: 표적 (Pyo-jeok)

The life of happily married doctor Lee Tae-joon (Lee Jin-wook) takes a rather dark turn when an unconscious man we will later learn to be called Baek Yeo-hoon (Ryu Seung-ryong) is brought into the hospital he’s working in with a gun shot wound. Someone, or - as it will turn out soon enough - various someones are pretty desperate to get their hands on him. As is police woman Jeong Yeong-joo (Kim Sung-ryung), once reports about a murder come in for which Yeon-hoon is the main suspect. Though there’s another part of the police force under the highly punchable Chief Song (Yu Jun-sang) who want to get their hands on her case exclusively, for some reason surely nobody who has ever watched a thriller will understand.

One of the someones kidnaps Tae-joon’s very pregnant wife Jeong Hee-joo (Cho Yeo-jeong), blackmailing him into smuggling the still unconscious Yeo-hoon out of the hospital. Tae-joon isn’t much of a criminal mastermind, so things could end here rather easily, if Yeo-hoon wouldn’t awaken and take things into his own, rather badass hands. From here on out, the film turns into a series of chases, bad twists of fate and kidnappings, Yeo-hoon and Tae-joon eventually having to team up against the rest of the world, once everybody is clear about who is on whose side.

Yoon Hong-seung’s – also working under the somewhat bizarre pseudonym Director Chang – action thriller is not one of those South Korean examples of the form that start out conventionally only to turn into a very different kind of film during their second or third acts. This one’s made from a series of well-worn genre clichés and barely moves away from them at all except in certain small details, like these: very atypically for a Korean, heck, for any, production, there are three female cops in the movie, two good, one evil, all three portrayed matter of factly as competent and capable; and while Jeong Hee-joo is basically treated as an object for everyone else to do violence over for most of the movie, she does have two little moments when she’s actually allowed to do something. Which doesn’t sound like much, but in the world of the action movie, this sort of thing is not terribly common.

Otherwise, this is really exactly the film you’d expect to watch after the plot description: a couple of melodramatic moments – did I mention Yeo-hoon has a brother with a mental disability, which mixes good with pregnant wives in danger? - sprinkled between lots of action, plot twists the film is clever enough not to try to sell as big surprises, and genre tropes getting hit with clockwork precision. Of course, a genre film following the rules of its genre isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and one might very well go into a genre movie wanting exactly this. Plus, though Yoon may hit only the expected plot beats, he hits them in a very satisfying way. The pacing’s excellent too, with the different character groups converging and diverging with maximum efficiency to keep the film moving as well as always tense, so that there’s really no boring minute here. Even though you see every single plot development coming from a mile filled with a thousand other films in this style away.

As I’m nearly always writing when talking about films from South Korea, the technical standard of filmmaking is as high as expected, Yoon never making the mistake to let the fancy technology he is working with getting in the way of the impact of what the actors and stunt people are doing, so the crazy action movie moments are looking their shiniest (and are actually staged as to be parsable by people not named Michael Bay) yet also have the necessary amount of grit.