Thursday, July 18, 2019

In short: Man Bites Dog (1992)

Original title: C'est arrivé près de chez vous

At least when it came out, this very dark francophone Belgian comedy by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (who also are the main cast) was a bit of a cult hit. It’s no surprise, for the film’s structure as a fake documentary by three guys following around a sociopathic killer when he’s doing his dirty business is rather useful as a device to grimly send up the growing reality show business as well as the petit bourgeoisie, and its flippant depiction of violence and a couple of horrible characters is basically catnip to us cult movie fans.

It’s the anti-bourgeois aspect the film puts the greatest emphasis on (actual reality TV as we know it today wasn’t quite a thing yet, lucky time), Poelvoorde playing the killer Ben as the sort of self-centred, pseudo-educated, racist, sexist and endlessly talking embodiment of the reason why the bourgeoisie does have a bit of a bad rep in certain circles. But then, the film seems to suggest, there’s really only a tiny step between talking this way and being a cold-hearted monster, so the on-screen filmmakers don’t slowly slide into the roles of willing accomplices but are there basically from minute one.

Which is of course one of the film’s biggest problems. It has basically said everything it wanted to say in its first thirty minutes, has demonstrated what it wanted to demonstrate and then treads water for an hour or so by going through increasingly unpleasant, yet not increasingly disturbing, scenes of Ben doing horrible things, followed by a bit of Ben ranting at someone, followed by another murder, and so on, and so forth. For my taste, it all gets a bit tedious and samey, and while I do admire the filmmakers for being consistent, I do believe the film goes nowhere terribly interesting very slowly once it has very deftly set up its basic premise.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)

After a British author who wrote a book about the Candyman is murdered by evisceration with a hook in New Orleans (in this version, the place where the Candyman legend has its source), Ethan Tarrant (William O’Leary), who had a violent altercation with the man about his responsibility for the death of Ethan’s father, confesses to the deed, even though the audience already knows quite well the actual killer was the indeed Candyman (Tony Todd) himself.

Ethan’s sister, the school teacher Annie (Kelly Rowan), doesn’t believe her brother he is a killer, whatever he says, and thinks he’s just trying to punish himself for the guilt he feels for their father’s death. Plus, there has been a whole series of murders in New Orleans committed in the same manner, and it would be preposterous to think Ethan is responsible for all of them. Annie can’t help but look into the matter everyone else treats as an open and shut thing or just ignores over the Mardi Gras season, leading her to a hidden truth about her family history but also inviting the Candyman into her life and that of her loved ones.

As is the critical consensus about the Bill Condon directed sequel to Bernard Rose’s classic Candyman, I don’t think the first film was in need of a sequel at all, having said what it wanted to say about the still on-going consequences of slavery in the USA, the creation of myths, and a guy with a nasty hook, quite eloquently.

However, if there has to be a sequel, Condon’s film is certainly at least not the kind of embarrassing nonsense that would turn its titular character into a standard issue quipping supernatural slasher. There are some conceptual weaknesses to the film, however. First and foremost, it does tend to waver a bit between the deadly sequel sickness of trying to make the same film with the same plot beats again and the much more interesting attempt to re-locate and deepen the film’s mythology and metaphorical resonance. I was also not terribly happy about the importance a certain mirror will have for the resolution of the plot, or rather, I understand why you’d want a physical object in the film that makes it possible to not repeat the first film’s ending – and at least the mirror has a connection to Candyman’s slightly revised origin – but the way the first film and this one has turned Candyman into a living myth makes it pretty difficult to buy that any physical object, even one intimately involved into turning the victim of violence into the supernatural perpetrator of it, could be dangerous to what amounts to a killing idea. The film’s final weakness is an early insistence on including a huge number of false scare style jump scares, adding the insult of nothing actually happening to the injury of the jump scare. After the first half hour or so, that element of the film just stops completely, though, leaving at least this viewer a bit confused about why and how it was there at all to begin with.

But let’s get to the good stuff, for while this certainly isn’t as good as the original, Farewell to the Flesh does quite a few things very well indeed. There is, for example, the great use Condon gets out of the film’s relocation from Chicago to a New Orleans in the thrall of carnival season. It’s not just that (pre-Katrina, obviously) New Orleans as it is used here is an excellent, moody and picturesque place that, in this season, seems to sit right on the threshold between heaven and hell, it is also that the city’s history lends itself particularly well to what the film says of the US history of slavery and racism, and the sin of trying to be mute about it. Though it has to be said that the Philip Glass score doesn’t sound much like New Orleans. Ignoring his entries into the Twilight series (which I haven’t seen and probably never will), Condon as a director seems particularly interested in liminal spaces and their connection to identity or its construction, so this aspect of the film is quite clearly right up his alley. The film also understands class as another dividing factor of people’s lives much more so than many horror films do, but also realizes that people aren’t only the sum of their tribal identity of their class and their race, so we also get a character like Annie from a certainly privileged (in the old meaning of stinking rich) background who is a more than just decent human being.

Once the film hits its stride, the more directly horrific elements of the plot become rather effective too, with a handful of nightmarish sequences that make use of quite a lot of old-fashioned tricks having come down from the Hitchcock school of suspense, as well as some cool set-ups for somewhat graphic sequences that don’t stop at being cool but actually carry thematic and even emotional resonance. Condon does a great job at fitting all of this into the proper mood of dread and doom too, with a dark and rainy New Orleans (or in part dark and rainy New Orleans as portrayed by an LA soundstage, I assume) full of desperate revellers mirroring what’s going on around Annie (or perhaps the other way round).

All of that’s not bad at all for a sequel nobody asked for.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

In short: DreadOut (2019)

A bunch of teens really feel the need to improve their social media standing. Their plan of attack involves going to an empty, supposedly haunted apartment building somewhere in what I assume to be Jakarta to film themselves there encountering fake ghosts. They do need the help of sensible, lower class classmate Linda (Caitlin Halderman) who knows the security guard to get in, though, so she’s co-opted by the guy she clearly has a crush on, too, and we have our mandatory heroine who might be somewhat closer connected to the building than she knows herself.

Of course, the teens encounter rather more serious supernatural activity in the building than they would have wished for.

The Indonesian DreadOut, directed by Kimo Stamboel (once one half of the Mo Brothers), is based on the videogame of the same title. I haven’t played that one myself, so I can’t talk to how close the film is to the game, but I believe the repeated use of cellphone flashes as a weapon against the film’s monsters is taken right from the game – and isn’t terribly convincing on screen, I have to say.

On the other hand, even though the film as a whole keeps inside the lines of horror as a carnival ride, Stamboel is a perfectly talented barker, so most of the horror sequences are well-timed and much improved in their effectiveness by some pretty cool monster design. Pocong and other creatures of Indonesian folklore pop up, and those are of course creepy as hell when done right. Going by the director’s past, I would have expected a bit more blood and gore and a higher body count, but I don’t exactly need more dead teenagers in it to enjoy a film (though your mileage may vary, of course).

The film also puts some effort into creating the proper creepy mood, with set design that gets a lot of decrepit atmosphere out of a miniscule budget. And while the script isn’t exactly deep, it does make good use of the couple of locations it has to work with, and does know how to make the most out of the film’s weirder ideas, like the impossible circular, bottomless pool of water on the sixth floor of an apartment building that is a gate to somewhere else. What more could I ask of a videogame movie?

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Stars Are Wrong!

So normal service around here will return on July, 16th (when the stars will presumably be right again).

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Summerfield (1977)

Warning: I’m going to spoil an important element of the plot that will probably suggest most of the rest of the movie to some readers!

Teacher Simon Robinson (Nick Tate) comes to a small Australian outback town to replace a predecessor who has seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth. Simon’s a bit put out by this, or rather by the complete disinterest everyone in town shows towards the disappearance. Even the local policeman is more interested in proper and correct car licenses than a guy gone missing. The town’s a bit weird for Simon’s taste anyway, with a populace that mostly carries various kinds of leers and sneers on their faces, and whose members lack even the tiniest smidgen of politeness. Well, the female half  (Geraldine Turner) of the couple running his guest house (apparently the Australian term for boarding house) wants to seduce him, and he being a 70s Australian film leading man isn’t going to say no, but otherwise, it’s an unfriendly and slightly creepy place. Why, even the kids he’s going to teach are greeting him with a fake hanging!

Given the general mood and the boredom that must come with the spirit of this place, Simon begins to poke around the disappearance himself, quickly if not verbally coming to the conclusion that some sort of foul play must have been involved. At least in his mind, he does connect the disappearance to Summerfield, an island separated from the rest of the area by water, a small driveway and quite a high gate, where Sally Abbott (Michelle Jarman), one of his students, lives with her mother Jenny (Elizabeth Alexander) and her uncle David (John Waters). Because he does have a bit of a problem with his libido, he also develops more than just a tiny crush on Jenny, which will not make the situation better in the long run.

Ken Hannam’s Summerfield belongs to the not inconsiderable number of Australian films that build their own little cinematic canon of the Australian gothic. Quite a few of these films have an outsider coming (or sometimes returning) to a small town in the outback where he or she encounters various strange and unfriendly locals, the threat of violence expressed through more sweaty faces than in a Spaghetti Western, and some kind of terrible secret of the past one or more members of the want to keep buried, and which shapes the places present and future.

In Summerfield’s case, the secret is incest, which, going by the way various family portraits are shot, may have been going on for generations as some sort of family tradition, but which at least in this contemporary case is perfectly consensual (cue a discussion of how consensual sibling incest can ever be in your own mind, if that floats your boat, imaginary reader). In something of a clever twist, it’s not so much the hidden secrets bubbling to the surface and the past taking control of the present that leads to the film’s very 70s ending, but Simon not being willing (or able) to leave well enough alone; and as the nasty little twist at the end suggests, he has set in motion the death of three people for no good reason at all. But then, nothing Simon does during the film suggests he is very good at thinking through the consequences of the things he does, or trying to get into the heads of the country people he so clearly dislikes. On the other hand, you only ever know if something should actually be truly left alone or not once you’ve figured out what it is about.

Hannam’s direction style is a bit dry sometimes, perhaps not too surprising from someone working in TV more than in the movies, but there are also quite a few scenes that really drive home the particularly Australian gothic mood of the film. The film features quite a few dramatic shots of flat empty land that don’t suggest a freedom of wide open spaces but the threat of being surrounded by nothing (or nothing but people who just might be a bit crazy thanks to their surroundings), close-ups of the sweaty faces of character actors who look as if they are about to lose it every minute (but never really do), and other things that suggest a Hammer movie but by day and with too much space. Summerfield as a place is particularly great, like the idea of the traditional gothic manor turned Australian and (70s) contemporary, its dwellers isolating themselves from a part of the country that’s already too isolated for comfort, breeding behaviours rather frowned upon in less isolated spaces.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

In short: I Trapped the Devil (2019)

Surprise family visits on Christmas are seldom a great idea, yet still Karen (Susan Burke) has talked her husband Matt (AJ Bowen) into driving up to Matt’s brother Steve’s (Scott Poythress) house as a bit of a surprised. Karen’s clearly thinking this might be a great opportunity to smooth things over between the brothers who have grown estranged after Steve lost his family in an accident. Matt, you see, clearly isn’t much of a guy to understand a close relative’s psychological troubles when they start to become bothersome to him.

It really turns out to be a surprise, for not only does Steve seem even more depressed than the last time anyone here talked, and is rather adamant they’re not going to stay, but something’s not at all right in the house. There’s a palpable air of dread and doom hanging over the place even Matt has a hard time pretending to be not there. It would indeed probably be better for everyone involved if Karen and Matt would leave but they are snowed in quickly. Eventually, Steve is admitting his secret: he is convinced he has locked the Devil up in his cellar. In Steve’s interpretation, the Devil is the force responsible for everything bad that happens not caused by humans themselves (which is an interesting way to frame evil) and as long as he is keeping him prisoner, the world will become an increasingly less horrible place.

Of course, Matt and Karen do at first believe Steve has lost it completely and has locked up some poor bastard down in the cellar, but the whole atmosphere of the place, as well as the disquieting behaviour of Steve’s victim, do open up the dreadful possibility that there’s something to what he says.

There’s a lot I like about Josh Lobo’s I Trapped the Devil. There’s the heavy atmosphere of dread and doom mostly constructed out of classical Christmas colours (which also happen to be classical horror movie colours, go figure), a gloomy night, blurry visions on a TV screen, and a core acting trio that’s as good at suggesting being surrounded by a feeling of wrongness as they are at portraying the film’s more quotidian family troubles (quotidian, as always, does not mean without weight).

You could argue against the film that it really isn’t taking its basic idea very far at all, but to me, it’s exactly this willingness to focus on these three people and how the thing that may or may not be in the cellar and the mood it carries with it brings the divisions between them into clearest view, that makes I Trapped the Devil as successful as it is. As a matter of fact, I find the personal apocalypse of these three people much more concerning and moving than another tale of the devil or a demon doing apocalyptic shit again. And really, Lobo’s ability to keep the film’s palpable mood of dread up for eighty minutes without ever resorting to jump scares or obvious visual clichés is a thing to behold, turning this into a wonderfully contained and focused film that’s actually rather difficult to forget.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012)

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

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

After the death of his mother Rosalind (Vanessa Redgrave), Leon Leigh (Aaron Poole) comes to her house looking for something like closure, or at least to confront parts of the past he shared with his mother. They had been estranged for years, without visits or phone calls, because Rosalind suffered from a kind of mania that drove her to pressing her religion on Leon, playing "games" bordering on child abuse.

Rosalind's house - not the one where Leon grew up in - is a strange place, full of antiques, and statues and statuettes of angels, many of which Leon acquired for Rosalind in his profession in the antiques trade without knowing whom he bought them for. The longer Leon stays the more he is hit by a feeling of something strange, something malevolent even, going on, as if there were some truth to Rosalind's Christian cultish beliefs, and now something were about to punish Leon for his conscious decision against belief. Things seem to move where there shouldn't be movement, Leon is inexorably pressed into confrontation with elements of his mother's beliefs that seem to have taken on life and reality, and something is prowling around the house. Only time will tell if ghosts, wrathful angels, or just Leon's still bruised mind are the cause of the strange happenings.

Rodrigo Gudiño's The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is the kind of film that easily divides opinions, not just because Gudiño is the publisher of Rue Morgue mag (never trust a journo - or blogger - making movies, right?) but because it is a film that combines a lot of elements people usually either love or hate in movies, depending one their temperaments.

It's a slow moving film with comparatively little outward action, utterly dependent on the creation of mood through set design, sound design, camera work, and acting. The Last Will tells its story in a way that not quite answers the question of the reality of what Leon encounters in the house, and consciously keeps parts of the plot's background ambiguous. Seeing that this is also a film circling questions of belief and disbelief via the weird and influences of classic supernatural tales, it's no surprise certain people will find the film boring or pretentious. As with all things mood-based, it's a matter of being compatible with the feeling the film is going for, and if you don't feel it, you just don't feel it, though I'd really wish people would more often differentiate between things that aren't for them, and things that aren't good.

To me, The Last Will is a little wonder of a movie, with a lead actor in Aaron Poole who can carry a film all on his own, never sharing the screen with anyone else. Other actors make their appearances as voices on the phone, in a small bit of video footage, and in form of a long-ish monologue by Vanessa Redgrave that really pulls the film together thematically. But really, the film is centred on Poole, with not a few scenes only showing him exploring the house.

One could argue that the house - on the outside built in a mock-medieval castle style, on the inside a living space reimagined as an angel-obsessed antiques store - really is the film's other main actor beside Poole, as it is the main source of the film's increasingly oppressive mood. The way Gudiño films it, the house is a place probably once meant to fill Rosalind's loneliness through an accumulation of stuff, but now has become something different, a kind of graveyard of emotions and an attempt at keeping a past alive so that it can never truly turn into a new present. In short, it's a place that seems custom-built to create its own ghosts; and Rosalind had turned herself into a ghost even long before she died, it seems. This mood as well as Rosalind's turn of mind might very well have something to do with intellectual influence the Christian sect Rosalind belonged to had on her, but then neither Leon nor the audience ever really learn if they had an active role in the proceedings that caused the house's haunting, or if they just provided more of the emotional trouble Rosalind was looking for.

In fact, the film only ever completely accedes the existence of Rosalind's ghost to be real; we never learn how much of what happens to Leon is caused by her, how much of it is a product of his mental damage, or how much of it has another supernatural source. The film leaves room for various interpretations, if you're interested in them, so you can takes its hints about a cult awakening something supernatural that leeches onto Rosalind's and Leon's private pains at face value, or you can ignore them completely without losing out on much of the film's meaning either way. In the end, the film seems to say, there's really not much of a difference between being haunted by a ghost or being haunted by the past in its non-supernatural form - both things can kill you one way or the other.

The Last Will is also one of the few films questioning the nature of belief and unbelief that doesn't feel the need to come down on either side while damning the other. Rosalind's ghost exists as a creation of her own beliefs, while Leon saves himself by reasserting his disbelief. It's unexpectedly satisfying, and definitely quite a bit less annoying than being petulantly preached at by another movie, quite independent of the direction the preaching comes from.

So, obviously, and not quite unexpectedly given my tastes, I come down on the side of those viewers who find The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh rather spectacular in its quiet, intelligent way. If it were a book, it would probably be published by Ash Tree Press or Tartarus Press, and if that sounds like a recommendation to you, it most definitely is.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

In short: Red Island (2018)

Warning: I’m going to spoil what goes for a major plot reveal in this one right in the synopsis!

The film follows in flashback and with copious voiceovers a story John (Georgie Daburas) tells a cop after his wife Amy (Alex Essoe) disappeared on an island he took her to help save their marriage. Apparently, a miscarriage had caused a depression in Amy that put quite the strain on the marriage. Well, perhaps the fact that John’s main reaction to his wife’s suffering is to whine incessantly about how she isn’t to him like she was before has something to do with their marital troubles, too, but neither he nor the film really seem to realize that. But then, John’s lying through his teeth about his wish to save their marriage by island travel anyway, and is in fact there to steal some cursed “Indian” plaque for some Russian guy. Why he’s even taking Amy? Don’t ask me.

Of course, that cursed plaque is indeed cursed, and Amy seems to connect in some vague way to its mystical goat person guardian.

Directed and written by someone calling themselves Lux, Red Island has exactly two things going for it: Alex Essoe, one of the undervalued (otherwise she’d not have to be in this film) genre actresses right now, and a forested island setting that does indeed look like the liminal space it is supposed to be. Of course, the film does very little with it human ace card, putting a cap on Essoe’s performance by telling what should really be her character’s tale through the eyes of her – frankly about as interesting as his name and certainly also not very interestingly played – husband. Which would already be bad enough, but we get a double dose of him thanks to the unnecessary framing device, and hardly a scene goes by where poor Daburas doesn’t have to go into a pointless off-screen monologue that mostly tells a viewer nothing they haven’t already seen, or descends into flowery musings that are simply not as deep as they apparently believe to be. The cut-aways to the police interview are a great way to destroy what tension the film manages to build, something that certainly isn’t helped but that whole bit of the plot not going anywhere at all. In fact, the few pieces of information we get through them and another pointless flashback to John and the Russian would have been much better integrated into scenes between Amy and John. That might even have upgraded the pacing from leaden to slow. If ever a film needed unity of place and time, this one does. Also, a ban on off-screen babbling.

It’s a bit of a shame, really, because there is a pretty interesting, a bit Laird Barron-ish tale to be told with this island, and even from Red Island’s basic premises.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Polaroid (2019)

Bird (Kathryn Prescott) doesn’t just have a dubious name, she’s also an outsider, though not a completely friendless one, at her high school, thanks to her reserved personality that may perhaps border on very mild social phobia. She does of course also have the mandatory dead father and the mandatory mother who loves her but isn’t home often enough to show it. Bird’s life doesn’t get any easier when one of her friends gives her, a noted photography nerd, a vintage polaroid camera he has found at a yard sale. Turns out the camera is cursed, and whoever is photographed with it is soon killed off by a malevolent entity (the inevitable Javier Botet and what looks like a bit too much CGI to me). Which becomes particularly problematic after Bird has shot a group photo of her friends and the guy she is rather keen on.

A lot of the things I enjoyed about Lars Klevberg’s Polaroid do sound as if I am damning the film with faint praise, but for a film hailing from the realm of PG-13 mainstream teen horror, this is really a nice enough effort. The film’s main problem is its monster. While it is conceptually fine and fun enough, the actual CGI-and-Botet execution is just not terribly scary, in part because the Botet-monster has by now become something of a generic shorthand for filmmakers with a limited imagination to use in horror, and in part because the execution doesn’t do much very much at all with the really cool idea of a monster that works like a photograph on various levels.

However, the longer the film went on, the less I found myself miffed by the monster, and started to enjoy myself because of all the other things the film gets right. First and foremost, I really like how the script (by Blair Butler) doesn’t let its characters end up as the clean tropes of teen horror and slasher cinema (the jock, the slut, well, perhaps the final girl), but does indeed put a bit of effort into its mostly effective shorthand characterization. In general, the behaviour of the characters makes sense for who and what they are supposed to be and the situation they find themselves in, without the film feeling the need to use horror movie bullshit to get them killed. Turns out, the supernatural threat is dangerous enough without that, though the film doesn’t go out of its way to kill off characters at all, leaving this with a more interesting structure than the usual string of kills. The film prefers more of an investigative angle to its horror, really. And why, even when a character acts like a total ass in the film’s final third, it does make sense for him to do so at that point.

Otherwise, apart from an unnecessary wrinkle in the final act, the film is simply solidly structured, telling its story as a series of discoveries the teen protagonists make instead of a series of plot twists that happen to them. Nothing they find out is exactly ground-breaking and new for the veteran horror viewer, but it works and isn’t aggressively stupid or clever-clever.

Klevberg’s direction is at its best when it comes to character moments, framing a couple of effective (and even two pretty cool) scare sequences, and a few solid ones with teens acting mostly believably. Again, it’s nothing spectacular, but it does get the job done in a solid an convincing way.

See what I meant about damning with faint praise? See also the solid cast (which in teen horror land of course means much better than expected) with just as solid genre veteran appearances by Mitch Pileggi and Grace Zabriskie, the solid effects, the solid score, and so on and so forth. But honestly, I liked Polaroid!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

In short: A Vigilante (2018)

A woman we will eventually learn is called Sadie (Olivia Wilde), is helping victims – mostly women of course - of domestic violence to escape the supposed loved ones who abuse them, or, depending on the situation, to drive the abusers off. She’s working with violence, planning, and an anger barely held in check. Sadie’s just holding onto her sanity, apparently, but ironically, her personal brand of vigilantism is what’s holding her together and not what’s tearing her apart.

In flashbacks to support group sessions in a women’s shelter, we eventually learn Sadie’s own story of abuse, something that isn’t quite over yet in the film’s present timeline.

Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s is a master class on how to make what is certainly still a genre film (screw the use of “elevated genre” for what’s actually “really great genre”) about domestic abuse and vigilantism without ever falling into the easy trap of exploiting its theme. In part, this is because of the film’s very careful framing, the way it focuses not on the violence committed on the victims of abuse nor very much on that Sadie inflicts on the abusers in turn, but on the aftermath of both. Like any vigilante film, the film accepts the freeing aspects of what Sadie does - and it’s clear that what she’s doing may be illegal, but it’s also moral and the only thing she can do to stay sane and a person – but it lacks the smug self-satisfaction of most vigilante films, the speechifying, the pretence that this shit is easy. It is also a film much more interested in Sadie helping free these women (and a child) from their horrible situations than in her punishing the perpetrators, and it’s just as interested in a believable portrayal of the psychology of the victims of abuse. That it in the end does finish on an act of vengeance presented in a short series of very classically styled suspense scenes doesn’t actually work against this interest; it is simply the only way for the film to give Sadie some of the peace she desperately deserves, and after having seen what she has been going through, it would be a wrong note to end on to deny her this.

On a more technical level, Daggar-Nickson’s direction impresses through her elegant and meaningful handling of the film’s flashback structure (something that’s too often used as a gimmick), the way she integrates the support group scenes with Sadie’s brand of vigilantism, one part commenting on the other in actually enlightening ways that left this viewer at least understanding more about these characters and the world we live in.

I probably shouldn’t end without mentioning Olivia Wilde’s fantastic performance as Sadie that for large parts of the film works via body language and nuance more than dialogue and huge, dramatic expression. Well, there’s that one big breakdown meant to make clear to the audience how broken she is I found a bit too loud/too much for the rest of the film, but for the most part, we learn all there is to learn about what’s going on with her through glances, posture, the shifting of shoulders and the way her back straightens when she goes out to help someone.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Presented as a flashback from a post-war time still in the hopeful future in 1942, the film presents the small village of Bramley End,  as sleepy as a town during World War II in the UK could have been.

Sleepy, that is, until a group of Royal Engineers arrive in town for some sort of official business that means they have to be billeted there for a couple of days. However, there’s something not quite right about these particular British soldiers. As a matter of fact, they turn out to be Nazi paratroopers working as the vanguard of a German invasion, tasked to sabotage radar equipment. Once the villagers cop to this, they do their best to come together and fight back against what quickly turns into an occupying force with all the charm and decency Nazi troops are known for (that is to say, none). However, not only seems fate to conspire against the villagers, squashing their first plans to get help in the sort of cruel and capricious manner you only ever encounter in real life or suspense movies, there is also a fifth columnist among them.

Directed by (Alberto) Cavalcanti – probably best known today and around here for directing the best episode in 1945’s fine horror anthology movie Dead of Night - and mostly unseen after his first run until ten years or so ago, this is a war propaganda film warning of the need to watch out for potential German spies, and embodying the fear of German invasion (which in reality was rather on the ebb by the time this was made). Said fear wasn’t really new to the British cultural mind, of course, and there had been a small literary sub-genre concerning German invasion attempts and occupation of the British Isles at leas since World War I (books like “When Wilhelm Came” come to mind). Went the Day Well? is an excellent entry into this sub-genre, and its direct propaganda ambitions are actually improving on parts of the form, because it emphasises the need for the British of all classes (it’s not quite so advanced as to do all races, too) to come together to fight off the Nazis, not something that is a given in a highly classist society and its popular culture.

As quite a few British propaganda films, Went the Day seems to be surprisingly honest about the price of war, emphasising sacrifices and deaths quite a bit more than any eventual glory. But then, by 1942, a simple tale of pretty, glorious war could hardly have convinced a population that had survived the first years of World War II.

Why the film still works as well as it does today (apart from the fact that Nazis are still around, despite all suggestions of humanity’s ability to learn from mistakes) isn’t of course so much its propaganda effect (which is of course historically absolutely fascinating) but because Cavalcanti’s execution of it as a suspense movie is brilliant – and I’m talking early Hitchcock brilliant here, with particularly the scenes around the various failing attempts at getting help just being great, all-around filmmaking coming from a rather sardonic mind set. But even before things get going, Cavalcanti does great work: the film’s gentle and mildly comical introduction of the village and its population is sure-handed and funny without being condescending, and sets up characters and place wonderfully, so much so that the slow, insidious drifting in of treason and violence feels like an actual violation. Once the violence comes around completely, there are some moments of astonishing brutality (particularly keeping in mind how prissy British censors were before and after the war when it came to violence in movies) – the obvious scene is something concerning a pepper shaker, an axe, and a Nazi skull, but that’s not the only moment of this kind in the film. Violence, even when committed for the right reasons, is clearly nothing to be taken lightly here, and the direct and unpleasant way the film portrays it is nothing you’d be hard pressed to find again in British cinema until the second half of the 60s.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Pull over, park, and pray.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004): Having said quite a few nasty words about Predator 2, I’m of course now turning around to praise, if mildly, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien/Predator crossover movie. But then, this film does feature a simple method to bring Aliens and Predators together that makes enough sense for a SF/action/horror movie, has Lance Henriksen being Lane Henriksen, and seems to be perfectly alright with being a cheap and cheerful monster movie with a couple of iconic monsters. The first part of the film is a bit slow – this is one of those films where the doomed character showing family photos needs to do it three times so it sticks even with the slowest audience member, because him getting chest-bursted is apparently not enough to make us care – but once Anderson gets going, the film turns into a series of fun, not always totally dumb action set pieces of the type the director is often rather good at.

One Crazy Summer (1986): I’m not really into random style comedies, but I do tend to make an exception for the films of Savage Steve Holland (or, you know, two or three of them). Mostly, I believe, because here the randomness isn’t so much based on a lack of discipline but on an imagination too great to be constrained by silly things like discipline or proper movie structures. And hey, if it’s good enough for young John Cusack, who am I to naysay?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011): David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a perfect example of the pointlessness of Hollywood adaptations of pretty contemporary movies (well series, if you want to be anal about it) from other countries. It’s not at all the fact that this is a bad movie – the cast, particularly Rooney Mara, is certainly great, and one of Fincher’s underused strengths is his ability to depict investigations in a visually interesting but also meaningful manner – but the film doesn’t really add anything important or of interest at all to what was already there in the original. Why remake a thing (or re-adapt a book) when you don’t actually have anything new or different to say about it? On a commercial level, I get it – audiences can’t abide looking at all those foreigner with their terrible foreigner faces (I am being sarcastic, you easily offended). But what’s someone like Fincher getting out of it, who can choose projects that are actually, you know interesting?

Friday, June 28, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Le Bossu (1959)

aka The Hunchback of Paris

aka The King's Avenger

aka The Yokel (seriously?)

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

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

France in the early 18th Century, during the reign of Louis XIV. Philippe de Nevers (Hubert Noel) and Isabelle de Caylus (Sabine Sesselmann) have secretly married, despite traditional hatred between their families. They have already produced one child, a baby daughter named Aurore. Isabelle has somehow managed to hide the little girl away in the very same building where she lives with her father. Either, Aurore is a peculiarly silent baby girl, or Isabelle's dad is a bit deaf.

De Nevers confides the situation to his uncle, Duc Philippe de Gonzague (Francois Chaumett), hoping Gonzague might sway the king who in turn might sway the Marquis de Caylus towards accepting his and Isabelle's marriage. Unfortunately, de Gonzague is not a man to be trusted, particularly since only Philippe is standing between him and the de Nevers family fortune, so he uses an opportunity opened by the secret of the lovers to have de Nevers and his daughter assassinated. The fiend's men succeed in de Nevers's case but the rather gallant and eminently helpful Henri de Lagardère and his comic relief servant Passepoil (Bourvil) save baby Aurore and flee with her to Spain. On their way (and afterwards) our heroes are not only hunted by whatever scoundrels Gonzague can come up with, but also the King's men, for Gonzague has managed to put de Nevers's death on Lagardère's head.

After some adventures and fifteen years, Aurore (now also played by Sabine Sesselmann) has grown up into a beautiful young woman, leading to the foster father and foster child kind of love story between her and Lagardère most modern audiences run away from screaming, but that I'm willing to accept with a shrug in a sixty year old film based on an even older novel.

Lagardère decides that it's time for Aurore to be able to take her rightful place (and return to her mother so that mum can approve of a marriage for them), and for Gonzague to get his just deserts. For some reasons, Lagardère's plans for putting things to rights include disguising himself as an elderly hunchback and getting a lot of hunchback back rubs from Gonzague. Now, I'm usually not someone to look down upon anyone's kinks, but seriously, Monsieur Lagardère, what the hell?

It's one of the more unfair aspects of genre film history that the great French swashbucklers of the 50s are rarely seen outside the French language space, for the best of them (at least going by the subtitled films I've seen) stand on the same level as Hollywood's best swashbucklers of the era. It can't have helped the films' historical position that some of the genre's best directors in France, like Le Bossu's André Hunebelle, were particularly disliked by the nouvelle vague filmmakers and critics. Not needing to fight the theoretical battles of decades ago - battles which always look rather childish and petulant to me, I have to admit - fortunately means I can enjoy the films of the nouvelle vague directors and those of their sworn enemies.

There is, one has to admit, a certain stiffness surrounding Hunebelle's directorial approach here, a willingness to be lavish and serious in a very old-fashioned way that is anathema to the (in the beginning) much more improvisational nouvelle vague style of filmmaking, as well as to any naturalistic approaches, but it's also a natural approach to the particular kind of escapism the swashbuckler trades in. It's a perspective that treats history as a playground for the kind of story that tends to treat even the greatest hardships the genre's protagonists go through with a certain levity, and that will always end in a happy end.

If you ask me, this kind of escapism is not a bad thing, particularly because escapism by its very nature always carries the knowledge that there's something worth escaping from with it; showing us wish fulfilment fantasies also means understanding what we wish for and why. The wish to see some clear good win over some clear evil may be naive when mapped onto the complexities of real world politics, but it is a part of human imagination whose existence can't be denied.

Anyway, Hunebelle was quite a master at the sort of historical fantasy we know as the swashbuckler, using the fact that he's actually filming in the country his film takes place in (and the existence of an actual budget for his project) to put some impressive locations and mood-setting landscape shots in a genre that is often rather set-bound (though there are of course numerous colourful sets on display here, too), and showing a sure hand for the all-important timing. There's not just never a dull moment on screen but never a moment that doesn't contain something exciting or interesting (one suspects that's pretty much a technique Paul Feval, the author of the much-filmed novel the book is based on, and one of the most important writers to run with the genre after Dumas, would approve of).

Not even Bourvil's comic relief is too painful. I could rather have lived without it, obviously, but then I never wished for him to be slowly, and painfully tortured to death, so we can add his treatment to the film's positives (even though I'm not a fan of the classism that can only use the "low-born" as comic relief).

As a hero, Marais has slightly less charm and slightly more gravitas than the Stewart Granger/Errol Flynn type of swashbuckling hero, but he does have the all-important charisma, and looks good in his action scenes (even those parts not done by a stunt double), which is really all you'd ever want from the hero of a swashbuckler. It's also really funny to see people with a low tolerance for this sort of thing squirm when Sabine Sesselmann makes lovey eyes at him but that might just be an effect of my particular sense of humour, and my utter lack of a moralizing backbone when it comes to love in the movies.

So please repeat after me: "If you don't come to Largardère, Lagardère will come to you!"

Thursday, June 27, 2019

In short: Escape Room (2019)

Take a couple of strictly one-note characters whose so-called character arcs will be clear to anyone who has seen any movie at all after their introductory scenes (using actor and character names seems to be overkill by suggesting there’s anything going on there at all). Drop them into a boring and unimaginative series of escape rooms that end in strictly family-friendly deaths, like an even worse version of Saw had a boring baby with the mutant love child of Final Destination and The Game, excising every bit of possible excitement and depth that might still exist with the axe of the lazy hack writer. Direct the whole affair with little flair and only the most basic of craftsmanship. Subtract any knowledge of the real world, the laws of physics (even those that would arguably make the set pieces here more exciting). For some godawful reason add two and a half endings more than this needs, including what feels like a cringeworthy bid for a sequel. Voila, you have Escape Room, the final proof that you really don’t need any craftsmanship or effort to make a movie for Sony. Which is also rather confusing, seeing as director Adam Robitel’s other feature length movie was the rather wonderful The Taking of Deborah Logan, a film that’s the opposite of this one in basically everything.

The worst thing about the whole affair is that there’s no reason for the film to be quite this bad: I’d be perfectly willing and able to suspend my disbelief when it comes to the one-note characters and its complete dependence on artificial dumb set pieces. However, the film would need to meet me halfway by, say, demonstrating some sense for constructing set pieces that are interesting or exciting, or by having them resonate with character backgrounds in ways that actually make sense (which would also help elevate the characters to a second note), or by at least pretending to attempt to entertain me.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot (2018)

Elderly World War II veteran Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) lives a sad, lonely life with his dog, clearly having taken some sort of wrong turn earlier in his life he now can’t correct anymore. In flashbacks (where Calvin is portrayed by Aidan Turner who looks nothing whatsoever like young Sam Elliott, but what the hey) we learn that he was some sort of secret mythic American hero, indeed killing Hitler and most probably getting up to other things of the sort too. But at least to his mind, his deeds never actually changed anything for the better and cost him the love of his life (Caitlin FitzGerald). His isolation even makes it difficult to connect to his younger brother Ed (Larry Miller) - although there is clearly love between the two men.

Now, he is visited by two gentlemen of the Canadian and US governments. They need his help in hunting down and killing the Bigfoot, who is carrying a virus so deadly, it is threatening the world. A virus Calvin just happens to be immune against.

While Robert D. Krzykowski’s film does indeed have an awesome title, I’m not too sure it does itself much of a service with it, for the title – as well as some of the marketing material - surely suggests the film to be either a campy comedy or a two-fisted pulp tale, not exactly roping in the ideal audience for what turns out to be a film about the travails of age and loneliness. It’s not that the title is lying to the audience, mind you, this is indeed a film about the man who killed Hitler and the Bigfoot (and also not one of these “it only happened in his mind” numbers I loathe with a passion); there are even some jokes in it, too. It’s just that his killing of Hitler and the Bigfoot are not really what’s important to the film; in fact, them not being important for Calvin’s life, and being detrimental to his happiness is part of the point of the film. Or rather, part of its point is to show that these heroic achievements aren’t really what would keep one from ending up sad, alone and full of regret. To Calvin, they don’t even feel like achievements anymore, if they ever truly did.

And that’s where the film rightly puts its emphasis, slowly revealing how exactly it happened Calvin didn’t marry the love of his life, how little moments that at the time seemed to just postpone important things to some later date were actually last chances, and how Calvin’s mixed inabilities to make the important steps in his life, to really face the consequences of not making them, and to then be unable to connect to the actual world around him, left him at the bad place we find him now in the last part of his life.

Elliott’s great at this, to no one’s surprise I would hope, not just simply archetypically embodying a type of American maleness for the film to criticize as well as to admire, and absolutely being a guy you’d believe to have killed Hitler and tussle with the Bigfoot, but putting a lot of nuance into the less larger than life parts of Calvin, portraying his loneliness, his orneriness and his difficulty to connect without any melodramatic outbursts but with small gestures, glances and shifts of posture, as something natural and organic to the character.

Despite the elegiac tone of the film, it’s not a hopeless affair either, Calvin eventually taking small steps to show his connection to the world around him. They are only small steps, but then that’s how life goes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

In short: The Final Wish (2018)

Following the death of his father, luckless lawyer without career options and money Aaron (Michael Welch) returns to his home town to continue the fights he and his mother (Lin Shaye) never grew out of, pine after his former girlfriend Lisa (Melissa Bolona) – who is now together with his old nemesis, town sheriff, asshole and potential abuser Derek (Kaiwi Lyman). Well, actually, he’s just coming for the funeral, but that’s not really how things play out.

For strange things clearly connected to a sealed urn belonging to Aaron’s antiques dealer father start happening. Whenever Aaron makes a wish (and Aaron uses the phrase “I wish” with the absurd regularity of a character in a script with a certain lack of imagination) it becomes true; not in totally benign ways, mind you: when he wishes himself to be prettier, for example, he gets hit by a car and the resulting plastic surgery does indeed improve his looks. Or that’s what the film and everyone around him says, for in one of this thing’s better ideas, there’s barely any visible difference at all there.

Irregularly, the wishes do cost the lives of people as a price, but the film never sets this part of the wishing rules up terribly well, and really only seems to include them because a horror film needs to have corpses in it, or something. Obviously, Aaron has acquired a jinn, and just as obviously, things are not going to stay nice and profitable for him for long. Though, making things easier on a guy whose middle name apparently is “I wish”, this jinn doesn’t grant the traditional three wishes but seven.

Timothy Woodward Jr.’s The Final Wish is one of those examples of contemporary horror I wish I liked better than I actually do. It certainly looks pretty good (particularly for its budget bracket), and the director does add some neat little touches to some of the spookier scenes. I also enjoy how much the film starts out as your typical US indie movie about a luckless guy returning to his hometown; that is, for as long as it actually seems to put the proper effort into building the characters and their situation. Soon enough, we drop down into cliché horror movie character land where people turn into idiots whenever the script demands it, and where the character relations the film first sketched out well enough are never filled in properly, because it prefers spending its running time on co-writer Jeffrey Reddick chasing his one big success, Final Destination, with a couple of kill scenes that pointlessly and without any thematic reason play out like a cheaper and more subdued version of that franchise, bargain basement Lynchisms like a random clown appearance, Tony Todd popping in for a scene of pointless exposition, and other stuff that gets the film nowhere. And let’s not even mention the embarrassing look of the jinn once we get to see it.

There’s a good movie hiding under all the dross, one that talks about lives not going as well as those living them wished (see what I did there?) via an evil jinn that actually uses the yearning that comes with not living up to any of one’s dreams for evil, but the film we actually get is a deeply mediocre bit of cliché horror wasting talent and time on things I’ve seen done better a thousand times.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Razzia sur la Chnouf (1955)

After several years away from his native country that ended on a stint in the USA that seems to have left him with a reputation as an effective and brutal rationalizer of gangland activity, French gangster Henri Ferré (Jean Gabin), known as “Le Nantais” because French movie gangster nicknames are desperately pedestrian, has been called home to clean up the heroin running operation of one Paul Lisky (Marcel Dalio). Apparently, Lisky bumped off Henri’s predecessor because he got “too soft”, which sums up Lisky’s leadership style quite nicely. So, after having been set up with a nightclub to run as a front, Henri is supposed to tighten up Lisky’s operation, and send Lisky’s favourite killers (Lino Ventura and Albert Rémy) for anyone who doesn’t perform or wants out of the business.

Curiously enough, bloodthirsty, Henri seems to be a rather nice guy, preferring to warn off people from doing suicidal shit, being nice to junkies, and really running things with a much softer touch than his boss believes he does. He’s actually pretty nice for a brutal gangster, is what I’m saying. So it’s not a complete surprise that he quickly romances the youngest woman in his club. Plus, he’s Jean Gabin and therefore has the animal magnetism of a Tom Atkins towards younger women. Of course, there’s still quite a bit of trouble coming Henri’s way.

Henri Decoin’s Razzia sur la Chnouf is a rather interesting example of mid-50s French gangster films. It mostly lacks the highly melodramatic streak of quite a few of its peers I’ve seen, instead going about its tale of crime very much like Jean Gabin goes about acting: unfussy, focussed, with an emphasis on the telling detail instead of the telling mugging. It gives the impression of a film that knows what it is doing and why, and so isn’t going to need to get shrill about it.

Of course, it is also a film that shows a meticulous interest in portraying a mid-50s French drug milieu whose authenticity at least this viewer in 2019 can’t help but doubt, giving the film a peculiarly fairy-tale like air that fits strangely with its clear interest in the sort of detail work you’ll usually find in a police procedural. These elements of the film for the most part don’t feel dated, exactly, but rather as if they were never true in the first place, even though the film’s whole impetus insists they were. Which mostly works fine if you’re willing to just go with it, and enjoy the film’s inventiveness more than its naturalism despite all gestures it makes towards the latter. There is a painfully racist scene in a black marijuana establishment, though, that also seems to suggest that grass is worse than the heroin Henri helps sell, which really seems to be a sign of the times this was made in, and suggests a dubious knowledge of actual drugs from the filmmakers.

On the technical side, the film is often rather wonderful. Decoin not only shows that great ability to focus on telling details, he mostly gets his actors – apart from Lila Kedrova as a very melodramatic junkie the film treats with exasperation and compassion in about the same amounts - to eschew 50s French BIG acting in favour of Gabin-style thoughtful focus. There are also quite a few moments of simply excellent filmmaking on display, be it in form of many a moody shot of Parisian streets by night or Decoin’s ability to say quite a bit about his characters and the way they relate to one another simply by showing how they move through the spaces the camera creates. There’s a bit of a noir influence there, and much of Decoin’s approach to character and staging suggests a kindred sensibility to Jean-Pierre Melville’s work, just used with less abandon (which is an admittedly strange word for Melville’s style).

The only thing, apart from the racist scene, that’s going to be a bit strange for a viewer in 2019, is the film’s plot twist, that seemed preposterously obvious from very early on to me. That might have something to do with the movie going public in the mid-50s being a bit slow on the uptake (doubtful), or with them not being inundated with the particular trope about police work the film uses, or the film just not actually fooling its contemporary audience at all – who knows? Razzia sur la Chnouf is still a worthwhile watch, particularly if you think that very melodramatic acting was a part of all French genre films of the 50s.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Survival is its own Journey.

Antarctic (2018): A cynic might say there’s not much new for the survival genre in Joe Penna’s movie about Mads Mikkelsen finding himself stranded in the Arctic and starting a dangerous attempt towards safety to rescue the lone survivor (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) of a helicopter come to save him. But then, this cynic here would say there’s alas very little new in life at all, so I’m not going to criticize a film for making a very good entry inside genre lines. And really, there’s so much to like here, starting with Mads Mikkelsen’s controlled performance that seems utterly believable and has little problem convincing that we are indeed witnessing a desperate man trying to survive without the actor ever needing to lay things on thick. Also wonderful are the nature photography that manages to find the point where a landscape can be beautiful but also utterly indifferent to all human concerns, and a script that is very good at providing Mikkelsen with opportunity to portray the struggle between the desperate need for survival and his better nature.

Police Story (1985): This one’s an eternal classic of Hong Kong action cinema (and therefore even more so of action cinema in general), full of the kind of stunts that aren’t just to be described as “jaw-dropping” but which will make your jaw drop for real, with the typical Jackie Chan mix of low-brow but high physical creativity slapstick and insane action where even less glass remains unbroken than in other Hong Kong films. Was there still sugar glass in Hong Kong after they shot the climax? I doubt it.
If one were a bore, one might complain that the slapstick and the cop on the edge business of the film don’t always flow into one another as organically as they could, but since Jackie’s damn great at both sides of the equation as an actor and as a director, I can’t say I ever cared watching the film. At the very least, both slapstick and action movies are about bodies in motion, so there’s always that most natural of connections.

BOO! (2019): There are some moments of the kind of dramaturgic awkwardness you encounter in films with a budget that’s a bit too low for their ambitions, but there are elements in Luke Jaden’s film about a wavering mixed-race family encountering a supernatural threat that will break them apart even more than anything of what they get up to without it which I found genuinely haunting. There’s something about the way the performances, the notion of how the nightmarish supernatural widens the gaps between the family members and rips open never truly healed wounds, and some just great, memorable moments of horror (even if the special effects are a bit crap) come together that I found more than a little disquieting and sad, and while I’m still not quite sure how and why the film affected me this way, it just might do the same thing to you.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Past Misdeeds: A Viking Saga: The Darkest Day (2013)

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

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

It's 793, and a band of Vikings led by Athelstan (Christopher Godwin) has just raided the abbey of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England. Athelstan is obsessed with the idea that acquiring the Lindisfarne Gospels will give him the power to make his son the ruler of England, perhaps even of the whole of the British Isles. His plan's a bit like my last Crusader Kings II run-through, really. Unfortunately for him, all his slaughtering of unarmed monks has been for naught, for an elderly monk and what amounts to his adoptive son Hereward (Marc Pickering) have escaped with the mission to carry the Gospels the long way to safety - to Iona off the west coast of Scotland.

The monks are supposed to meet up with a group of armed protectors in a nearby ruin, but the protectors had their own encounter with Vikings that left only one warrior, Aethelwulf (Mark Lewis Jones) alive. A small group of Athelstan's men are following the trio through the woods that make up most of England at the time, not all of them happy with their leader's plan. But after Athelstan's son is killed by Aethelwulf in an encounter that leaves the old monk raped and dead and Hereward well on the way to PTSD, there's no holding him back anymore; he'd probably go to the Holy Land itself to get it back now.

Hereward and Aethelwulf for their part have additional problems to being followed by a small group of brutal maniacs, for Saxon England is pretty much a hell hole, full of bandits, desperate religious maniacs, and so much death and destruction Hereward will have to give up at least parts of his soft-spoken and slightly naive approach to Christianity and life (a poison-induced vision of Christ helps there too). On their way, our protagonists also encounter the Pictish "witch" Eara (Elen Rhys) who demonstrates a rather different approach to paganism than the Vikings have to offer.

Chris Crow's A Viking Saga: The Darkest Day is not at all the film I expected. What I expected was an Asylum-like attempt to cash in on Hammer of the Gods at worst, a fun piece of medieval hack and slash at best. This was before I actually saw Hammer of the Gods and realized not even the part of The Asylum responsible for that horrible Sherlock Holmes film could manage to create something worse than that, nor would anyone in possession even a mild degree of sanity try to rip that thing off.

What I got with The Darkest Day however, is a film exceedingly interested in exploring various directions of the early medieval mind set (of course a thing we can never do more than make informed speculations about), taking great care to take its characters' various ways of filtering the world through their ideas and beliefs very seriously. Doing this, the film avoids looking down on the characters for what they believe in, yet also avoids to agree with these beliefs as objective truth. On paper, you could read the film, particularly Hereward's character development, as a defence of violent Christianity, but I assume it is rather trying not to let the way its medieval characters develop become too influenced by our contemporary views. This attempt to stay - at least to a degree - true to a medieval mind set, is quite effective, I think.

In fact, one of the film's strong suits is how it gives the characters’ various world views (and at that point in human development, religion in one form or the other was the natural seeming basis for seeing the world, for better as well as for worse) space, and takes a look at what happens when they are confronted with the facts of life of a horrifying and violent time. It has to be said that the film's title is a bit of a lie: this is no Viking saga. The Vikings are pretty much the designated bad guys here (something of a pleasant change of pace after one too many Viking metal glorifications of a people who were about as sympathetic as any Christian crusader, though did indeed write some greats sagas), and while the film spends some time with them, it's Hereward and the people he encounters who are the film's protagonists and targets of audience sympathy. Crow does spend time to give the Vikings actual motives, though, and while we're clearly supposed to like them less, he does leave them their humanity.

When it comes to the violence, Crow goes for short, intense bursts of it which emphasise brutality and desperation, with people struggling, biting and scratching for their lives until it ends cruelly and suddenly. As befits the tone of the film, there's no elegance and beauty in killing here but a mixture of desperation, cruelty and necessity. I was quite surprised to find a male-on-male rape scene in the film used to double down on the fact that violence really is not a fun thing; like it goes with all rape scenes, it's not exactly something I was clamouring to watch, but it also very much belongs to the world the film takes place in, and therefore needs to be shown.

The only flaw worth mentioning I can find in The Darkest Day is the usual insistence on using the monochromatic colour schemes so beloved of contemporary filmmakers as a cheap and easy way to build mood. This method can still be effective, but has mostly become a boring short hand that only displays a lack of visual imagination and tends to bring up the question why the hell you'd shoot a film in colour when you then won't actually use colours, or even colour contrasts. In The Darkest Day's particular case, I can't help but think that these monochrome ways are actually weakening the impact the awesomely bleak landscape (somewhere in South Wales, the IMDB says) the film was shot in could otherwise have had.

However, I don't want to end on this somewhat sour note, for if I'm not able to accept the use of short cuts in a low budget movie willing to put this much thought and actual emotional power into so many of its other aspects as The Darkest Day is, where would that leave me as a film fan?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

In short: Miami Vice (2006)

The least subtle undercover cops alive, Crockett (Colin Farrell letting his hair and whatever that stuff growing on his face is do the acting this time around) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx, woefully underused despite being the more interesting character with room for a deeper character arc and being simply less stilted in his role) are roped into an investigation concerning a mysterious big time drug operator after one of their former informants gets killed working on the case. In between shoot-outs, shots of Farrell rubbing his neck and head ponderously, and various explosions, Crockett also falls in Instant Big Lust with Isabella (Gong Li), one of the leading heads of the cartel they are investigating.

Like all the mainstream film critics that heaped praise on this film, I’m a big admirer of most of the oeuvre of Michael Mann, but this movie version of Mann’s old stomping grounds, the 80s cop show Miami Vice, leaves me decidedly cold. For the most part, it is because most of Mann’s standard tricks don’t work for me here. He’s perhaps trying his usual thing of adding veracity to a highly improbable script by providing many layers of absolutely realistic feeling details, but all of these details don’t really add up to any reality here, but just add more mannerisms to an already incredibly mannered and over-stylized film, making things not less but more antiseptic.

It doesn’t help the film at all that its script (by Mann and co-TV-Miami Vice-veteran Anthony Yerkovich) seems to work from a “Miami Vice plot elements” checklist, where every big beat of the show needs to be included in some way, turning the whole affair clumsy and ponderous where leanness would probably have helped. But then, leanness has never been part of the Mann approach. This is also the kind of film that becomes basically paralyzed by all of the clichés and tropes it needs to somehow stuff into its running time, so Crockett gets to hear the “in too deep” speech about twenty minutes into the case, and he and Isabella basically jump each other the moment they lay eyes on each other. Who cares that it doesn’t make sense for the kinds of people they are supposed to be, or that Farrell and Gong have no on-screen chemistry whatsoever despite the film’s permanent visual insistence that this is The Big Thing. And don’t get me started on how stupid everyone in the film needs to be to let things play out like they do here. Again, these are not problems new to Mann’s work, but usually, he’s telling his tales of moody macho men embedded in what feels like a (not necessarily the) real world in which they and their troubles actually belong. Here, it’s just the posing of emotionally stunted assholes typical of bad high budget action cinema in front of slick backgrounds without substance or emotional resonance relating them to actual human feelings. And when it comes to high budget action, there are simply better choices for a viewer.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Road House (1989)

Dalton (Patrick Swayze), a legendary bouncer with a tragic past that clearly has taught him the art of bouncer Zen, is hired on by Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) to clean up the small town road house he has acquired a short time ago. Right now, it’s the kind of place where drugs are sold pretty much openly, and where things are so rowdy, the house band (The Jeff Healy Band, whose leader is actually as pleasant a natural amateur actor as you can find) has to play in a cage to protect them from an audience that throws glass bottles at blind singer/guitarists. With his legendary reputation (yes, this film takes place in a world where bouncers can become legends), his insistence on being nice first and only hitting when that doesn’t work out, and his air of calm, Dalton actually does make great strides towards cleaning up the place, even finding time in his schedule for a romance with local doctor Doc (Kelly Lynch) he initiates by bringing his medical records and the explanation that “pain don’t hurt”.

Unfortunately, pain hurting or not, he soon comes into conflict with the town’s very own Big Bad, Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara) and his gang. Wesley controls the place with the verve of a Bond villain – and has the appropriate kind of underlings, too. So eventually, Dalton has to get back to the old ways of his tragic past again and do what 80s action heroes do. Though most action heroes don’t have a mentor played by Sam Elliott at his most Sam Elliott-ish they can call in.

When it came out, Rowdy Herrington’s Road House wasn’t terribly well-loved (I certainly remember being nonplussed by it myself when I first saw it when I was sixteen or so) but by now the film has grown quite the cult following. It’s a properly deserved cult following too, for when it comes to 80s action films taking place in the kind of strange parallel world where Brad Wesley runs a town by doing evil deeds like destroying the place of a car-salesman who gets uppity with a monster truck, and where a bouncer can be a lot like a western hero who comes to town trying to find peace only to have to fall back into violent ways, this one’s actually as brilliant as that description sounds.

A lot of the film’s impact certainly has to do with Swayze. The guy’s speciality when appearing in action movies was being the soft tough guy – someone who can be just as violent as your typical macho but usually chooses not to because he’s above proving his manliness by breaking your face, but over the lines he draws you certainly shouldn’t step; yet also one of those action heroes who is believable in the romantic moments because he can actually act like a guy in proper love. Basically, Swayze’s the anti-Seagal, is what I’m saying, believably projecting being a guy who may know one thing or the other about ripping throats out with his bare hands (in what I assume to be a pretty wonderful nod to what Sonny Chiba does as a much less nice hero in The Streetfighter and its sequels) but who also knows that actually doing that is wrong. Swayze is also simply genuinely great at physical acting and screen fighting, and while he may have a comparatively small range as an actor, the things he does well, he does well.

Of course, Swayze’s not the only wonderful actor on screen. Gazzara chews the scenery with insane enthusiasm, gripping the opportunity to be a completely self-centred asshole with a bad case of megalomania and a complete lack of a sense of proportion with both hands (and probably also digging his teeth in), so that a guy with a handful of goons lording it over a small town becomes some kind of supervillain. If you want to read something into the film, you may want to take a look at the difference in the performance of manliness between Wesley and Dalton. The former is all about “alpha male” dominance, abusing (and weaponizing) his girlfriend, kicking his men when they are down, and clearly having never encountered a situation in his life that isn’t a dick measuring contest. Whereas Dalton clearly couldn’t care less about “dominance”, obviously wants his sexual partners to have an orgasm (it’s impossible to read the emphasis in the film’s sex scene any other way), treats everyone he meets as an equal, and only resorts to violence as a last measure against the violent. The film even acknowledges that Dalton’s way is still not good enough when it still ends in a bloodbath.

Apart from that, Road House is just incredibly well constructed, with any given scene taking care of the needs of characters, plot, and theme and usually throwing in some action too, with everything going on making total sense if you are willing to accept the film’s set-up, and flowing wonderfully. Herrington’s a very fine action director, too, certainly never trying to be an 80s Hong Kong action filmmaker, but really doing wonders with the classic American punch-up style of action.

Road House is just a completely wonderful film, as flawless as any you’ll encounter, unless you don’t like fun, or road houses, or Patrick Swayze ripping a guy’s throat out.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

In short: McBain (1991)

I don’t believe James Glickenhaus actually knew about irony, not to speak of anything with the post prefix, so he presents this patently goofy transferral of his typical New York vigilante shtick into a Colombia just waiting to be freed from tyranny by some Vietnam vets under the leadership of Christopher Walken(!) as the titular McBain – also including Michael Ironside as their arms dealer frenemie who really needs to feel alive by shooting a lot of people again as well as Steve James for all your action movie needs - and the worst rebel army ever as sort of spearheaded by a Maria Chonchita Alonso who commits to her role with total earnestness. Every cheesy bit of revolutionary kitsch his script comes up with, every dubious speech about the very real horrors of dictatorship and the domination of one Simon Escobar (cough) is done with total conviction, as if the stuff these people spouted had any actual emotional impact.

For a Glickenhaus film, the whole affair is surprisingly awkwardly paced, partly because the film does want to tell an epic tale of Vietnam flashbacks, the death of a friend and the following revolution but only has 107 minutes time for it all instead of the three hours it would probably need to get serious. More curious, even a couple of the action sequences fall flat, perhaps because so little of the film takes place in the grimy New York of the director’s best films. Instead, most of it was shot in the Philippines which do of course stand in for Colombia as well as take on their more typical role as Vietnam for a low budget production.

However, even though the whole thing doesn’t hang together too well, at least Walken, Ironside, James, Alonso and the merry rest of the cast are usually fun to watch, the film’s freewheeling moments of craziness can be pretty great, and from time to time, Glickenhaus comes up with the sort of thing I have by now learned to love him for. Take the scene where our heroes are in dire need of money to buy guns from Ironside, and shoot through a bunch of drug dealers, only to be taught the class politics of the drug war by the lone survivor (Luis Guzmán!), after which they rather steal from a banker (while pretending to be Mossad agents, because why not, right?). That’s not the sort of thing you’ll encounter in many vigilante and mercenary movies, and it is this kind of curveball that makes slogging through the slow bits perfectly worthwhile.

Do I need mention that Glickenhaus’s politics are certainly rather more complicated than those of the filmmakers of your typical flag-waving US action movie?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bullitt County (2018)

Warning: contains vague spoilers about the ending and the film’s structure!

It’s the late 70s. Four friends – Gordie (Mike C. Nelson), Keaton (director/writer David McCracken), Robin (Jenni Melear) and Wayne (Napoleon Ryan) – come together for a days-long outing they call a bachelor “party” for Gordie after quite some time of drifting apart. These attempts of rekindling old fires always work well, right? One can’t help but think that Keaton’s idea of taking the tiny gang on their old famous Kentucky distillery trip for it just might be a bit misguided, given that Gordie’s a recovering alcoholic. Once we get to know the characters a little more, the whole affair seems even more doomed, for the whole distillery trip’s just bound to remind everyone exactly of the catastrophic event that started them off on their way to drifting apart.

But that’s not all that’s wrong here: Gordie clearly carries a deep, simmering resentment towards himself and his friends around that tends to express itself through violence against the world, as well as a deep – and clearly not reciprocated – crush on Robin; Keaton’s still not a proper grown-up; and Robin’s still trying to be friends with people she obviously has outgrown quite some time ago. So it seems like an even worse idea than the distillery tour when Gordie convinces his friends to go off with him traipsing through the woods for some days, digging for a legendary treasure he just heard about. Things are tense enough for as long as these guys believe to be alone in the woods, but once they encounter company, and a potentially dangerous situation, things devolve quickly.

For my tastes, David McCracken’s Bullitt County is a pretty excellent example of how to make a clever, emotionally complex indie genre movie. It’s a film that at first seems a bit too interested in going for one wild stylistic flourish or the other, but what at first feels like the director showing off a little really turn out to be good, creative and meaningful directorial decisions meant to strengthen the naturalistic portrayal of character relationships and mental states through non naturalistic stylistic choices. Which sounds paradoxical but works wonders in practice.

McCracken’s never using his stylistic adventurousness to obfuscate what his actors – and himself as an actor – are doing. Instead, he’s emphasizing a couple of wonderful, nuanced performances by the cast, digging into the complexities of undead friendships, secret loathing and self-loathing, guilt, and what happens when the things we never speak about are being spoken about, much deeper than the film’s beginning made me expect.

I’m not, however, terribly convinced by the decision to set the film in the late 70s. Sure, the fashion works, and there are few enough locations to make these feel semi-authentic, too, but neither the way the characters talk to each other, nor how they relate, nor the way the film sees and portrays them, really seems native to any other era than the late 2010s. At first, that’s the sort of thing to raise my eyebrows, but the longer the film went on, the less I cared about this feeling, for the character work was much too strong when taken on its own terms for the film’s time period to matter in the end. Even philosophically, the film is not terribly close to 70s thriller nihilism. This is, after all, a film where the final character is rewarded for a morally (and ethically) correct decision, instead of dying like everyone else, which is pretty much the opposite of everything the cinema of the 70s taught me about life. It’s not a fake or cheesy moral, mind you, but something that works organically as part of the film.

Speaking of organically, the film even manages to contain a couple of plot twists that not annoy me to bits. Both of them are the kind of twists that are not just actual parts of the film but part of the meaning of the film, so we are not talking of deus ex machina or horror movie bullshit endings here. Why, even realizing what these twists will be before they come as I did doesn’t work against the film at all.

As a thriller, Bullitt County is a bit eccentrically paced, but this never feels like McCracken not knowing what to do with the genre, rather like the only way the film’s kind of emphasis on characters will work inside of the structures of this genre. Classically styled and effective suspense scenes are still coming during the course of the movie, an audience only needs to be willing to engage with the things that lead up to them properly. And meeting a film on its own terms is always the thing to do; even more so when it’s as good on them as Bullitt County turns out to be.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Same Day, New Killer

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997): Even though nobody would ever call the first Jurassic Park intelligent, how we got from there to this thing, also directed by Spielberg and written by David Koepp, I have no idea. Surely, Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn versus dinosaurs should be kind of a sure thing, but the script has everyone acting even more stupid than in the first film, with little happening here making any sense even by the rules of the universe Jurassic Park was set in, and no visible attempts by the director to jump over the giant holes where a script was supposed to be through his usual magic touch with suspense and thrilling fun. It’s a film made by highly capable professionals in front and behind the camera who all act like they suddenly have no clue about making movies anymore.

To add insult to injury (that is, wasted time), the film also never seems to actually want to end, finally petering out after the worst King Kong rip-off imaginable has gone on and on where every other film this shitty would at least have had the decency to end after ninety minutes.

The Sting (1973): Fortunately, to the rescue of my mood comes the classic George Roy Hill period caper movie that manages to make the depression era look sexy without pretending it isn’t the depression era. This, despite by far not being the first comedic heist film at all, is of course the caper movie most later entries into the sub-genre want to be. Who, after all, would not be captured by the magic of a clever, twisty script that is light and light in touch but never one to pretend depths don’t exist (there is in fact a lot of sadness in this comedy, and quite a few moments that acknowledge bitter truths about the US and life in general, it has just decided not to fall into them), direction that somehow manages to make things that should by all rights be grimy and gritty look slick, cool and elegant without shaving off all the hard edges, the power of Robert Redford and Paul Newman at the height of their stardom, and a supporting cast that’s to die for?

Sky High (2005): If nothing else, this superhero teen comedy directed by Mike Mitchell (who otherwise has a perfectly horrible filmography) is a perfect example of how a film can be utterly generic, and follow the genre structures of teen comedy and pre-Nolan Batman (really, more pre-Raimi Spider-Man, even if the chronology would suggest otherwise) superhero movies slavishly, yet still be charming as heck. Mostly that’s thanks to the lovely cast featuring people like Kurt Russell, Bruce Campbell, Lynda Carter and Kelly Preston as well as young Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Danielle Panabaker selling the clichés with charm and conviction, as well as to a script that may only ever aim at the low hanging fruits of humour and humanity but hits those every single time. It’s not terribly deep (it’s a 2005 Disney teen comedy, after all), but so likeable I’m perfectly okay with that. Plus, who wouldn’t like a film featuring Ron Wilson, Bus Driver?

Friday, June 14, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Manchas de sangre en un coche nuevo (1975)

aka Blood Stains In A New Car

On the surface, Ricardo (José Luis López Vázquez) seems to have a rather cushy life in late Franco Spain: he's the owner of successful art restoration business, his wife Eva (Lucia Bosé) is stinking rich, and he keeps his young and pretty employee Maria (May Heatherly) as a really rather emotionally loving mistress on the side.

However, the cracks in Ricardo's ordered life of quotidian hypocrisy deepen when his wife buys him a new luxury car (oh, the glories of Volvo, master of cardom) as a wedding anniversary gift. On his first drive home with his new toy, Ricardo passes the scene of a car accident by the side of an otherwise empty road. A man and his little son are trapped in the flipped car and beg Ricardo for help, but out of fear of getting involved - and what of his brand new car!? - he drives on again, only to see the car explode in his rear view mirror, as cars do.

Afterwards, things really go downhill for Ricardo. He begins to see blood stains nobody else can see on the backseat of his car, something that disturbs his already very guilty conscience even more. Ricardo is becoming unable to drive his car himself. It seems driving is now something the women in his life must do for him (holy metaphor, Batman!). He also begins - not for the first time it seems - to doubt the basics of his life. Is having a convenient, rich existence with a woman who won't sleep with him (and who reacts to his tale about leaving people behind to die with pure cynicism), clearly doesn't love him, and never wants kids, and a job that makes him rich yet also hides a minor criminal enterprise (Ricardo's in the art forging business too, we learn late in the movie), truly all he wanted from life? Then there's the fact that Eva has been sent yellow roses these last few days and seems even less inclined to loving companionship of any kind than usual, awakening an unexpected amount of jealousy in Ricardo, given the actual relationship between his wife and him, and which I'd explain more through hurt machismo than anything else.

Despite Maria's reaction to the whole situation being quite more humane towards Ricardo - the dead people are ironically not important to anyone but Ricardo himself - than Eva's, and a hopeless attempt to cure him of car related anxiety through good old car related intercourse, it's clear that Ricardo is going to crack soon.

Antonio Mercero's Manchas de Sangre is a minor, yet very interesting psychological thriller that suffers a bit from how on the nose its metaphorical and symbolical language is. As it often goes for me with this sort of thing, it's all a bit much, and I'd like to take the director to the side to tell him: "Yes, Senor Mercero, we get it already. All symbols of masculinity can't salve Ricardo's deservedly guilty conscience for what looks decidedly like a metaphor for the guilt of looking away the upper bourgeoisie in Franco's Spain carried. But did you really have to hammer his emasculation home by giving his wife a lesbian affair? And while we're at it, why does it sometimes look as if Ricardo's feeling of emasculation seems more important to you and not just to Ricardo than his being a murderer by inaction?". But then I have a rather low tolerance for this sort of thing, so your mileage may vary.

Mercero does make some rather interesting decisions, though, namely turning Ricardo - quite perfectly embodied by Vázquez, who is the kind of guy you never see playing the lead in a genre movie - into a surprisingly sympathetic figure despite of all the perfectly horrible things he does, even if you're like me and do not care about anyone's lack or possession of any degree of masculinity, and generally don't have very much empathy for people who care about this sort of thing. Still, the respectful and deeply human way Mercero and Vázquez portray Ricardo makes empathising really rather natural.

Ricardo is a man whose central problem in life seems to be that he has always played by the rather perverse rules the society he lives in has established, yet has never quite been able to stomach these rules, nor to believe in them as the way the world should be. He is consequently plagued by a guilty conscience, but at the same time, and despite all his emphasis on overt masculinity, never courageous enough to stop and lead a life he needn't be secretly ashamed of. It is the central irony of the film's plot that he's either too cynical, or not cynical enough, not moral enough, or too moral, to live in this movie's Spain, a place where only cynical monsters like his wife can be happy. Of course, I could have lived quite well without the film treating Eva's lesbian sex life as a sign of her complete lack of morals; her "just take a valium" reaction to Ricardo's guilty conscience is rather more poignant and less bigoted, and would have been more than enough to make the point. Which leads us back to the point that Mercero likes to lay things on a little too thickly.

Formally, Mercero clothes these themes and ideas in a well-done, if not overtly spectacular psychological thriller (the only kind of thriller that doesn't need an actual bad guy in its plot because people are able to destroy themselves well enough without more direct intervention) with a more subtle hand for the visual than the writing side of things, that perhaps suffers a bit from showing little interest in being exciting on its surface because it is much more interested in other things.