Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Execution Game (1979)

Original title: 処刑遊戯 (Shokei yugi)

With the help of a Woman who doesn’t even move her mouth in the proper moments when singing playback in a bar, a mysterious group lures everyone’s favourite asshole professional killer Shohei Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) into a trap. They knock him out, kidnap him and them torture him a bit. Afterwards, they stage a fake escape, apparently to test his murder skills in practice, for what these guys truly want from Narumi is to hire him for a hit. Why you’d first torture him and finish the fake escape opportunity with shooting his gun hand is beyond me, but I am after all not a member of this highly professional and mysterious group.

The choice of target doesn’t seem promising either: it’s an old pro in the professional killing business, and the former favourite killer of the group, not something that should seem to be terribly promising for Narumi’s own future. Later, we will also discover that the old killer was seduced into working for the group by the same woman who pulled in Narumi. Eventually, Narumi agrees to the hit, but of course, the old hitman is not going to be the only one our protagonist will murder.

I’ve decided not to write up The Killing Game, the second film of Toru Murakawa’s second film in his “Game” trilogy about the bloody adventures of professional killer – and perhaps professional asshole too – Shohei Narumi, because what I wrote about the first film in the series, The Most Dangerous Game, also applies to film number two, just that the later movie adds some pretty horrible comic relief and doubles down on the misogynism of the first film.

The third, and for my taste by far the best, entry in the series cuts most of these elements down completely. There’s no comedy at all anymore in the film, we never see Narumi taking on his off-day lazy guy persona, and while the film’s portrayal of its two female characters isn’t exactly progressive, they are much closer to actual people than in the first two films, and given how pared down the characterisation has become here, that’s just as close as the men. In fact, the Woman isn’t quite your standard femme fatale. She certainly works for very violent men and is responsible for luring others into their hands, but she’s also clearly trapped in a world she never chose for herself, looking for outs – be it fleeing with the old killer or begging Narumi to kill her too after she has set the older killer up for his death – she knows won’t save her.

Narumi’s relationship to women has changed too. While nothing of this is ever spoken aloud – as a matter of fact, the film’s characters speak about everything not related to killing only in vague allusions and ellipses – Matsuda’s posture and some of Narumi’s actions make clear that this time around, he isn’t dominating a woman with his “awesome” (actually really unpleasant, of course) masculinity, but can actually fall in love like a real human being. His other contact is a young watch repairwoman who clearly takes a shine to him, and whom he will in the end reject, telling her not to put her trust in strangers too fast; one never knows how dangerous they could be. This might also be the most moral, perhaps kindest, act, Narumi commits in the whole of the series.

Ironically, this increasing depth of the protagonist’s emotional life happens in a film that strips down all clear emotional expression not happening through violence even further than the first two did, Narumi hiding what might be going on in his head behind a stoic pose and under his perpetual sun glasses. However, Matsuda manages to embody greater emotional depth by doing less obvious acting here; while his Narumi still acts cool and likes to pose with his gun in front of a mirror, the coolness does seem very much like armour this time around, Matsuda suggesting with small gestures and changes in his body language quite a few of the things neither his character not the film would ever outright state.

In this context, it is pretty clear that the Woman (whose name I never noticed if the film ever actually uses it) isn’t the only one trapped in a violent world she isn’t allowed to leave here; despite all his capabilities and his talent for violence, this time around Narumi seems just as trapped in his world as she is, his macho coolness a shield that seems the more cracked the less he lets the cracks show.

On the directing side, Murakawa is doing an inspired instead of a routine job for once. Here, every shot seems absolutely focussed on creating a very specific mood of alienation, the framing often trapping characters in their surroundings or keeping them separate and far from each other. From time to time, the film’s generally naturalistic (in a 70s grimy sense) style and colour scheme is replaced by splotches of intense tones of blue or red, suggesting a wrongness to some of the film’s most violent moments in the series typical scenes of Narumi systematically gunning down a whole gang of enemies. In general, The Execution Game’s action tends more to the systematic than the loudly spectacular, an approach that fits Narumi’s profession as it does the film’s more complex context.

So, quite unexpectedly, I found myself riveted by the final film in the “Game” trilogy, fascinated by its cold aesthetic, interested by the way it frames its tale of alienation, as well as surprised by the clear evidence that Matsuda is a much better actor than I had given him credit for. That’s a pretty fantastic way to end a little franchise.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: For Ruth, the last straw was a spoon.

The Hunter (2011): Daniel Nettheim’s Tasmania set eco thriller is not at all what I’d have expected from a director whose work otherwise is centred on dependable TV jobs (which I’m not going to knock, for there’s nothing at all wrong with craftsmanship under tight restrictions). It’s a slow, thoughtful film whose direction lacks all vanity and pretention in the best way, focusing instead on the landscape and quite wonderful acting by Willem Dafoe and Frances O’Connor, and specifically their interaction (with a bit of Sam Neill and two good child actors thrown in the mix, too). The film turns out to be a rather complicated redemption film that in the end sees our protagonist do something that is at once very, very right and very, very wrong – and unlike quite a lot of films about violent men finding redemption, The Hunter is quite conscious of this ambivalence.

The Sandman (1995): The thing with me and the films of (US indie horror pioneer) J.R. Bookwalter is that I like the man’s films and respect what he’s going for with them, but that I generally wouldn’t recommend them to many people. It’s not just the roughness that comes with making films with little money and not exactly a horde of experienced crew members involved that makes his films difficult to recommend - the ambition that makes Bookwalter’s films so interesting to me is what will kill them for a lot of viewers. If one is willing and able to look past the cheap costumes, the often amateurish acting, and so on and so forth and see the ideas they are supposed to stand in for rather than their inevitably imperfect reality, then one can be charmed and delighted by Bookwalters films; if one can’t, then one will only see something cheap and amateurish - though usually somewhat better shot and edited than one would expect. I’m not saying one of these ways to look at Bookwalter’s work – or that of filmmakers like him - is wrong, or right; I just happen to enjoy them, and this variation on the “dream demon” concept in particular.

Two Lovers and a Bear (2016): Not at all like a J.R. Bookwalter film is Kim Nguyen’s magical realist tale about, well, two lovers and a bear, or rather the imperfect and doomed (or not doomed, depending on one’s perspective) attempt of two lovers to overcome the pasts that defined and broke them. I found the film captivating, interesting, and infuriating to about the same degree. There’s gorgeous (and meaningful) photography of the Great White North (which is the sort of thing that’ll half sell me on any movie), fine performances by Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany, and quite a lot of passion in the way Nguyen treats his characters; but I also found the way the ending seems to treat the characters’ brokenness as something that can’t be mended (or relieved) by anything but death unconvincing – quite literally in the sense that the film didn’t convince me of it, leading to an ending that to me felt as hollow and conventional as a classic Hollywood happy end.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Der Todesrächer von Soho (1972)

aka The Corpse Packs His Bags

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 without any re-writes or 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.

A murderer with a very peculiar modus operandi haunts London. Concentrating on people visiting the fair city, he first packs his victims' bags, then kills them with an incredibly precise knife throw. As you do.

Inspector Ruppert Redford (Fred Williams) - oh, the hilarity! - of Scotland Yard has quite a bit of trouble solving the case. I'm sure his trouble has nothing at all to do with him being a typical early 70s smartass playboy who just loves to let civilians do his job for him, like the (weirdly competent, obviously odious) comic relief photographer Andy Pickwick (Luis Morris) or his personal friend, the crime writer Charles Barton (Horst Tappert).

To be fair to Redford, one has to admit the case is rather complicated, seeing as it not only involves the strange murders, but also a shady doctor (Siegfried Schürenberg) with more than just one secret, his lovely assistant (Elisa Montés) with another secret all her own, a drug ring peddling a drug thrice as potent as heroin, various bombings, one or more revenge plots, and Barton's secret. Not unlike Redford (who will solve his case by going where Pickwick tells him to, and being obnoxious), I lost track of the plot about halfway through the movie, and never was quite sure what was going on in some of the plot lines, so it's difficult to blame him.

Say what you will about German producer impresario Artur "Atze" Brauner's attempts at jumping on the successful Edgar Wallace adaptation wagon by making a contract with Wallace's son Bryan Edgar Wallace that allowed him to use the younger Wallace's name and the often very fine titles of the man's books and make completely unrelated films out of them, but the man did show good taste when it came to the international co-operations late in his Wallace Junior cycle. After having co-produced Argento's Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Brauner hired beloved auteur Jess Franco for his next Bryan Wallace movie, Brauner's second version of Wallace's Death Packs A Suitcase.

Now, I have gone on record saying that I generally prefer Franco's more personal films - at least when we're talking about his work of the 60s and 70s - to his attempts at making more conventional genre movies, but Der Todesrächer von Soho (which translates as "the death-avenger of Soho", and no, the word "Todesrächer" does exist in German as little as "death-avenger" does in English - it's just a lovely case of the sort of random composite noun the German language loves so dearly) turns out to be an exception to the rule, and may in fact be one of my personal favourites among Franco's films. It's probably because Franco might not have been allowed to indulge in his erotic obsessions as heavily as his fans are used to - well, beyond a very short nightclub sequence and a lot of women wearing boots, anyway - but does indulge heavily in his love of pulp and a visual and narrative style that have come down through the serials (on the visual side of course combined with the man's usual tics and enthusiasms).

While Der Todesrächer doesn't work at all as a straight pulpy narrative (what with it having a plot so byzantine my first viewing didn't even leave me with an understanding of the knife-thrower's motives, even though I guessed his identity without much trouble with his first appearance on screen), it's a virtual feast of classic pulp, serial, and krimi clichés as seen through the slightly skewed but loving perspective of Franco. The whole film is basically Franco shooting classic poses of the genres he's working in from his favourite weird perspectives and through glass tables while a pretty hip soundtrack by Rolf Kühn (with some contributions by Franco himself, apparently) plays, pretty obviously having a lot of fun with it and for once not even trying to achieve transcendence through boredom. In fact (and genre-appropriately), Der Todesrächer is as fast-paced and sprightly as a Franco movie gets, with nary a minute where nothing exciting or at least interesting is happening on screen, making this one a Franco movie that's much easier to appreciate for the amateur than his more self-indulgent films. How could I not appreciate Franco having fun in this way?

As much as I love the director, I usually do not use the word "exciting" to describe any of his films, but Der Todesrächer von Soho is an exception to that rule too, working as a timely reminder that Franco could be versatile if a given project interested him enough.

German viewers will probably have another reason to look fondly, or even with mild astonishment, at the film, for its use of Horst Tappert is quite an eye-opener. Here in Germany, Tappert is primarily known today as the star of the long-running (I thought about eighty years, Internet sources speak of only twenty-four) cop show Derrick. The show's complete run of 281 episodes was written by Herbert Reinecker whom you also might know as one of the core writers of Rialto Film's Edgar Wallace cycle (and yes, Tappert was in some of those too, and quite lively at that). Unfortunately, Reinecker's attempts at a more psychological crime show only resulted in a show as visually dead, emotionally and intellectually dull, and politically conservative as anything I'd care - or rather not care - to imagine, and drove Tappert to performances that would be cruel to call "wooden", for even pieces of wood have feelings that can be hurt. Having grown up with Derrick, and somewhat forgotten Tappert's part in the earlier Wallace movies, it came as a real shock to watch the actor here, about two years before he started on the show that was to make/end him, smiling, acting, even over-acting, and possessing an actual physical presence like, well, an actual human being, outplaying the film's cop character with effortless charisma. It's quite a thing to behold, though not enough for me to ever want to revisit Derrick.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

In short: Hounds of Love (2016)

Quite a few people who are probably much cleverer than I am and whose opinions I respect have written rather highly of Ben Young’s Australian horror film about a couple (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) who kidnap and torture a mildly wayward teenager (Ashleigh Cummings). The film certainly has a lot going for it: the acting is bordering on the brilliant, the writing manages to go into theoretically highly exploitative places without ever feeling exploitative while also avoiding an impression of harmlessness, and the direction is mostly stylish and clearly knows what it wants.

Well, Young does have a tendency to overuse slow-motion montages, which is certainly effective the first two times, but by the next four or five (I lost count) uses I found myself raising my eyebrows (yes, both) at the movie. I – and I’m saying this as not a particular fan of the police as an organization - also wasn’t terribly fond of the ridiculous way the film portrays the police. Now, I understand that the plot wouldn’t work if these guys would even vaguely be interested in doing their job of at least starting to look for a disappeared white teenage middle case girl (which generally is a race, class and gender combination to get the police all hot and bothered) when the parents and boyfriend of the girl poke a piece of paper into their faces that tells them where to look, but I’ve grown a bit tired of this particular cliché, particularly when there are a myriad better ways to write oneself out of this sort of situation.

I’ve also grown a bit tired of the whole kidnapping and torturing sub-genre, I have to admit, and I think it is this more than the film’s relatively minor failings that resulted in my feeling exactly nothing about or for the characters in it, and therefore not feeling much tension, excitement or interest for what was going on.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Walking Tall (1973)

To get away from a business where he’s always told what to do, to please his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), and to provide a steadier home for their children, the delightfully named Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) retires from wrestling to the small Southern town where he grew up in and that parts of his family still call home.

The place has changed, though, and not necessarily for the better. It has grown its own little vice district, and while the things going on there look pretty damn harmless to my eyes, Buford seems rather shocked on his first encounter. When he makes a fuss about the local casino cheating one of his old buddies – who clearly isn’t the most intelligent or mentally healthy to boot – the owners of the place react absurdly violent, not just beating Buford to an inch of his life, but also cutting him up with knives and leaving him somewhere by the side of the road to die. Our hero’s made from stern stuff, though, and survives his ordeal. Afterwards he doesn’t just learn the bastards also stole his station wagon but that the local sheriff’s not willing to do a damn thing about the people who nearly murdered him. Consequently, once he has recovered, he makes himself a very big stick and goes out for some vigilante justice, combining brutally beating up his would-be killers with having them pay an invoice for his damages. Him, the Sheriff does arrest, but the ensuing trial sees Buford giving a rousing speech and getting of scot free.

Next step in his project to clean up town is to run for Sheriff himself. Clearly, there’s a demand for an honest man in the role, even if he’s an amateur like Buford. Before and after he becomes Sheriff, Buford has to cope with various attacks on his life, family troubles, and the general corruption of parts of the charming little town.

Walking Tall is the first of the two films at the end of his career veteran director Phil Karlson made with Joe Don Baker, and it is generally considered to be the slightly superior one. Personally, in a cinch, I’d probably go with Framed as the slightly superior film, but that has more to do with that film’s shorter running time, tighter structure and more controlled sentimentality than with anything Walking Tall does terribly wrong. This is just a differently shaped film, telling a story of a greater scope in time and vaguely basing itself on actual events concerning the real Buford Pusser. To which degree, I don’t know, and frankly, I’m not sure I want to.

In theory, this could be one of those films whose too loud love for vigilante justice and dislike for stuff like the actual rule of law or the separation of power between judicative and executive could sour me on it too much to have fun with it. In practice, the film does use these latter bits also to portray the degree of Pusser’s naivety when it comes to the things needed beside a moral compass to do his new job properly.

In other regards, this is just a simple joy to watch: Joe Don does the Joe Don Baker swagger, inhabiting his role in a way which makes questions of “acting” seem pointless, Karlson uses his direct but effective style to the best, and most entertaining effect, and the whole thing has a wonderful sense of place. Of course, that place is a made-up sort of South made of idealisations, clichés and truth in probably equal parts but it feels alive and real on film.

Speaking of the US South, I do find it interesting to point out that both of the Baker/Karlson films feature one major black character as a friend of Joe Don’s respective character who isn’t a caricature, with actual things to do in the plot, and positioned in a way to give the film some opportunity to talk about racism in its specific Southern variety, in scenes that suggest someone involved in the production had some practical experience with these matters beyond the burning crosses and knew how this sort of thing played out in real life in smaller – but not less painful – ways at this time and place. It’s also just pretty cool to have a film showing a guy like Joe Don actively trying not being a racist prick, and even apologizing when parts of his socialisation make him act like a prick.

If you don’t care about that sort of thing and only come to see Joe Don Baker smite evildoers with his big stick, you’re well provided by Walking Tall, too.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The 39 Steps (1935)

Canadian in London Richard Hannay’s (Robert Donat) life is quickly becoming very interesting. When the mysterious Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) picks him up in a music hall and asks to go home with him, he soon finds himself involved as an amateur in the spy business. For Miss Smith, as she explains, is a freelance agent, at the moment working against a foreign government (boo, hiss) whose spies have got their hands on some sort of secret concerning British Air Defence, and plan to get it out of the country soon. Miss Smith would rather sell their secret back to the British. Unfortunately, the enemy spies are onto her, and her little visit with Hannay is an attempt to beat them through the power of sheer randomness.

As it stands, she’s soon knifed in the back by someone. Hannay is of course framed as her murderer. Trying to save the secret from the foreign power himself seems the only way of proving his innocence. Alas, our protagonist’s only clues are the name of a village in Scotland and the phrase “The 39 Steps”. Soon he’s chased by the police, the enemy agents, and god knows who else; not exactly the situation an amateur whose main skill seems to be flirting wants to find himself in.

Even in 1935, when he was still working in the UK, Alfred Hitchcock was riding his hobby horses hard, so it’s not a surprise to realize this John Buchan adaptation is a film about a supposed everyman (who just happens to look and sound like a movie star) hunted by incompetent and untrustworthy authorities, shadowy figures, and untrustworthy shadowy authority figures while chasing after a McGuffin. I’m not complaining, of course, for this set-up plays to many of the directors strength, delivering the perfect scaffold to hang episodes with highly memorable side characters (personal favourite: the crofter and his too young, romantic wife who both suggest a whole movie of their own Hannay’s just an episodic encounter in), the typically cleverly constructed suspense sequences, and a bit of quick banter on. Even only ten years into his long career as a director, Hitchcock was fantastic at this sort of thing, providing the film with an exciting sense of flow, and demonstrating an unwillingness to ever be stagey that was still not par for the course at this stage in the development of cinema. To modern eyes, some of the directors efforts may look a bit commonplace now, but that’s not so much Hitchcock doing much of anything wrong, it’s an effect of the immense influence his films had on more than one genre.

The film does also contain in embryonic form another Hitchcock standard trope, the cool blonde woman who is “tamed” (shudder) by his protagonist by treating her pretty rudely at best. In this case, the victim’s Madeleine Carroll, but The 39 Steps doesn’t drive this particular element terribly far – neither to be annoying or to be interesting - and stays closer to the “bickering means love” cliché beloved of popular culture even in the 30s.

The most important thing about The 39 Steps, though, is this: it is just a great, at its core straightforward - though Hitchcock obfuscates there quite a bit - story told in a way so accomplished it is still exciting and fun to watch more than eighty years after it was made – and not just for viewers specialized in films from the 30s and 40s.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Colossal (2016)

Warning: I’m not going to spoil everything about the film, but some spoilage is inevitable in this case!

Writer Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has hit rock bottom in New York, suffering from an alcohol problem, a feeling of alienation, a bad relationship to a tool (Dan Stevens) and an aimlessness that is rather difficult not to confuse with self-destructiveness.

When she’s losing her job too, she moves back into the empty house in the small town where she grew up, which is sure to help with her depression. There, she reconnects with some of the guys – Gloria’s clearly not a woman with much time for other women – who never left, especially Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), now the owner of the local drinking dive.

All seems set for a very typical romantic comedy plot but things take a rather different turn when a giant monster appears in Seoul for a bit of city smashing. After some time, Gloria realizes something bizarre: the monster only appears when she is at the local playground at a very specific time in the morning, and it seems to mirror whatever she does there.

I am honestly confused by the very mixed reception Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal receives, because for me this is one of the best, most touching and most clever films of the last ten years – and that’s not just because there are giant monsters in it, though that certainly never hurt a film in my appreciation. Rather, I admire the way Vigalondo starts from this extremely typical romantic comedy set-up (including the casting of Anne Hathaway who becomes pretty damn impressive once the film stops pretending to be a romantic comedy) and goes in a very different direction.

In this context, the darkness the film reveals in a certain character works for me on many levels: there’s the simple shock thanks to Vigalondo’s execution of the twist, even mirroring the moments of denial Gloria goes through, the critique on the romantic comedy way of looking at characters, where everything potentially dark in a person is at best treated as a minor quirk, and the sense of betrayal of trust and violation that comes with all this for Gloria. The film also manages to not go too far in this regard; there might have been a temptation to go full on Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the audience, but the amount of violence we get to see is perfectly measured to be just as effective and feels deeply disquieting in its context.

I also love how the fantastical and the quotidian intersect in the film, both containing an element of the horrific (Gloria’s monstrous projection really does kill people, after all) but both also grounded in the world as we know it. This isn’t a pure case of the fantastical as metaphor either, in fact, metaphor and the (fictionally) real mix in a way that can’t just be solved like an equation. That’s apparently not the sort of the solution the film is interested in. Instead, Vigalondo uses the fantastical as a way not just to get Gloria into trouble but also to get her out of it. The fantastical becomes a way towards empowerment once Gloria starts taking a degree of responsibility bordering on the heroic. Which, obviously, is very much a feminist turn on core values of the superhero narrative where with great power has to come…well, you know.

Yet the film is at the same time as it talks about rather serious elements of the (shittiest side of) the female experience and a half-metaphorical way to cope with it also just oh so very fun. I love the monster sequences, specifically because they are small-scale and personal, seen on television and heard through stompy monster effects put on scenes of Hathaway on a playground, suggesting another way for some giant monster movies to go.

Sometimes, you just gotta love a movie, and that’s how it is with Colossal and me.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Campfire Stories Can Be Deadly

Downhill (2016): Director Patricio Valladares’s film about bikers (the non-motorized kind) getting into rather big trouble in Chile is a bit of a mixed bag. In fact, it is one in more than one sense. For one, it’s an uneven film: acting, direction, the quality of the dialogue and the effects are all over the place. One minute, it’s a really neat and enthusiastic if crude little bit of indie horror, the next it’s bro horror at its most annoying, only to turn interesting again a scene later – and so on and so forth. The thing is, the good moments are really good, certainly good enough to make the film memorable. Sub-genre wise, one might get whiplash, seeing as this features the already mentioned bro horror, cabin in the woods style shenanigans, a cult, an infection angle played as outright body horror, something like Satanism, some survivalist business, and what can only be described (approvingly) as weird shit. The film never really manages to pull all these different threads together too well, but it is certainly never boring to see where it is going next.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): Anthony Minghella’s version of the Patricia Highsmith novel turns quite a bit of what was still – though clearly identifiable – subtext in the novel’s text into text, producing a psychological thriller about repressed (homo)sexuality and class, and their intersections. It’s very well acted by everyone involved – if we ignore Jude Law’s and Gwyneth Paltrow’s dubious American accents which I just do – with Matt Damon giving one of the best performances of his career until now. Minghella’s direction is typically glossy and pretty, with a penchant for the needlessly sumptuous but here all these characteristics that drag some of his other films in the direction of the vapid yet ponderous type of film beloved by the Academy Awards are actually very much part of the meaning of a film all about the things hidden under these (too) pretty surfaces.

The Hatter’s Ghost aka Les fantômes du chapelier (1982): This sometimes darkly funny thriller by Claude Chabrol is just as interested in the things hidden under orderly surfaces, though he’s obviously not exploring them via excessive gloss and a dozen of stars. Rather, Chabrol’s film feels intimate and personal, never leaving the audience in doubt about what’s going on with its murderous and utterly mad hatter (Michel Serrault in a tour de force performance that finds the horrifying and the pitiable in the histrionic as well as the subtle, usually both in a single scene). This being Chabrol, the film does of course skewer the idea of the so-called “respectable citizen” and his ostentatious “normality”. Something or someone not being, acting, or looking normal – like the film’s poor, sad, grasping for “normality” until he dies of it, immigrant tailor Kachoudas (Charles Aznavour) and his crime of not being born in France – is of course still a major obsession of every stratum of many of the good citizens of many countries.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Una Iena In Cassaforte (1968)

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 without any re-writes or 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.

Eleven months after their deed, a group of intrepid robbers and their backers come together in the villa of one of their own, Boris, to divide up the diamonds they stole out of a Swiss vault. The diamonds are hidden away in a safe that in its turn is hidden in a pool of water, only to be lifted by some sort of hydraulic device, and not openable through explosives because it's somehow built with uranium inside™. Said safe  can only be opened with six keys, one of which should be in the possession of each robber.

Of the original robbers, only Steve (Dimitri Nabokov), Klaus (Otto Tinard?) and Albert (Alex Morrison) are left, though. Boris has died (and is entombed in his own backyard) and is represented by his wife Anna (Maria Luisa Geisberger) whose frightening fashion stylings will delight and/or horrify the audience for the rest of the movie, while another of the original robbers has lost his key gambling to a certain Juan (Ben Salvador). The final robber is hiding from the police and has sent his girlfriend Carina from Algiers (Karina Kar). Because two women aren't enough, Albert has brought his fiancée Jeanine (Cristina Gaioni, doing her best Brigitte Bardot impression) to the party.

Alas, things are not going as smoothly as everyone present had hoped. Just when the group is about to open the safe, Albert realizes he has lost his key. The others don't believe his story and begin first to try and find the key on Jeanine's body and then - after that doesn't lead to anything but a woman at once sticking out her décolleté and cupping her breasts - decide to torture Albert for a night by not giving him his favourite drug and puttering about on a piano.

Once that is over, leading nowhere, somebody shoves Albert down a balcony. Obviously, this won't be the last murder in the villa, because soon enough, everyone is at each other's throats, and everyone's trying to get the diamonds for his or herself.

Una Iena In Cassaforte belongs to that school of the giallo that doesn't see its own lack of a budget as an excuse for not being a mad and stylish concoction of luridly glowing pop particles. As giallos go, this one's most definitely far on the mindless pop and pulp side of the equation, and not at all interested in (even pop-)psychology, social commentary or depth. Instead Una Iena is a film working hard to keep its audience entertained by throwing as much exciting and crazy shit at it as the money allows, in a style closer to the weirder eurospy films than most other giallos.

The whole story is presented with all the sensibility and subtlety of a fumetti (I'd be very surprised if "make it look like a comic" wasn't scrawled on the first page of the script), with caricatures instead of characterization, but delights through weird flourishes like the "uranium in the safe" business, and is dominated by a mood of overexcited playfulness that seems to have infected every part of the movie.

The actors (most of them having only this and one or two other films in their filmographies) are inhabiting their one-note roles with great enthusiasm, as if they were born into them (and I'm not too sure they weren't), and - when the situation affords it - can go from comparatively normal acting to wild scenery chewing at the drop of a hat. Especially Geisberger and Gaioni are fantastic that way. As a special bonus, the former actress does all her freak-outs wearing clothes and make-up that many of the more exalted drag queens would reject as a bit too tacky and bizarre, as if the guy responsible for her wardrobe were a Martian visitor trying to get his three brains around the concept of a "vamp", at once failing and succeeding incredibly well.

There's something wildly inventive (always bordering on hysteria, but only succumbing to it from time to time) about Cesare Canevari's direction too. Canevari seems to have gone into the film with the determination to do something visually interesting or outright bizarre with every single shot (possibly to distract from the small number of locations). Sure, some of his ideas of the bizarre and the interesting are quite clearly part of the generic visual language of the pop cinema mainstream of his time, but Canevari manages to build a beautiful little freak out of these more generic parts and his own ideas. Plus, the generic of 1968's pop cinema is pretty damn colourful to today’s blue and yellow haunted eyes.

Una Iena In Cassaforte (yes, as far as I understand, the film's title really translates as "An Hyena in the Safe") is not only an extremely fascinating and fun film to watch, it' also one which can make for an instructive hour and a half of "guess the influences". Elements like the water death trap garage seem to point either at the Bond movies, the eurospy film, or Rialto's Edgar Wallace krimis as sources and influences for the film at hand, but it's neither impossible, nor unlikely that these influences did run in more than one direction, and this small and unassuming film influenced later films of the respective series right back. We are talking about pop cinema after all, and one of pop cinema's most noble activities is to go through an endless cycle of films borrowing ideas other films took from somewhere else, that will in turn be borrowed again by other films, and then by other films again, until it becomes difficult, possibly even absurd, to find an original source, or anything amounting to a state of authenticity.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

In short: Better Watch Out (2016)

Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) spends one of her last nights before she and her parents will be moving from a small town to a bigger city babysitting thirteen-year old Luke (Levi Miller), as she has done for years. That Luke has a big fat – and surprisingly creepy – crush on her will turn out to be the least of her problems when mysterious bad guys do the home invasion thing. Not even to mention what’s actually going on.

I know, I’m supposed to like this Christmas-set sort of home invasion movie by Chris Peckover a whole bunch – the Internet tells me so – but while I certainly see the technical abilities of everyone involved, actually watching the film, I found myself confronted with just another twist-heavy horror thriller. Which is okay, I guess, but like a lot of twist-heavy films, Better Watch Out does give the impression of a particularly needy performing monkey who permanently needs to hop up and down in front of its viewer’s face to tell him it is indeed a twist-heavy thriller – with twists! It also seems very important for the film to remind the viewer how clever it is every five minutes or so; not that I ever felt much need to be impressed by the cleverness on display, the film was already smug enough about it all on its own. And, well, it is “cleverness” but never intelligence: everything anyone says or does is in service of the film being “clever” and twisty, but only seldom makes sense for the characters; and if you’re looking for motivations beyond “the bad guys are crazy”, you’re plain out of luck. Ironically enough, if the film weren’t quite as pushy about making quite, quite sure I realize how clever it is, I might actually have enjoyed it anyway. It is after all well acted – particularly by DeJonge and Levi Miller – and looks rather slick, but it’s so empty (unless you count the usual vague pseudo-satirical gestures towards suburbia as depth) yet so self-satisfied, I mostly found myself annoyed by it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Redsin Tower (2006)

Kim (Bethany Newell) has just dumped her unstable boyfriend Mitch (Perry Tiberio) who isn’t taking it very well (see “unstable”). Her goth friend Becky (Jessica Kennedy) on the other hand is taking these news particularly well and decides to drag Kim to a party to distract her from her woes. Alas, Mitch gets wind of the party and calls in the police to shut it down before it has even begun. Kim, Beth, and a couple of their peers decide to go and make their own damn party right in their city’s most haunted building: the titular Redsin Tower.

That’ll turn out to be a very unfortunate decision. Not only does Mitch manage to follow them there too, and has upgraded his weaponry from telephone to axe and gun, there’s also the little matter of the Tower actually being haunted by the remnants of rather depraved alchemical experiments. And these aren’t polite spirits either, so the night will end pretty badly for most everyone involved who isn’t already dead (and most of those guys and gals don’t fare too well, either, come to think of it).

This one was clearly an attempt of Fred Vogel/Toe Tag Pictures to get away from the faux snuff style of the August Underground movies and make something more akin to a traditional horror film. In part The Redsin Tower is an obvious homage to films like Night of the Demons and the Lamberto Bava Demoni films, with some clear call-backs particularly to the former film. But because this isn’t made for anything anyone could ever confuse for the mass market, things become a bit nastier and a bit more unpleasant than a film made for major consumption could get away with. Not – to my surprise – with the tiresome gesture of “breaking taboos” but rather with the air of people using the freedom making films for little money and no oversight by serious adults or that most horrifying of all monsters, men in suits, affords them to make their film a smidgen more grubby and a little more nasty than they otherwise probably could. It’s good healthy fun, if you ask me, depending on one’s conception of what’s healthy or fun.

The gore and the creature design is pretty great, and while that’s certainly not the reputation Vogel’s films have, he uses them with a degree of restraint, clearly enjoying showing the icky stuff but not lingering so excessively it could become boring. That’s an approach fitting the film’s generally grubby aesthetics well, with actors that look and sound like actual young people – and whose characters act in a more believable way as usual in horror movies before the actual horror starts – and lots of shots of very dark, very dirty rooms. That’s a purposeful use of darkness though, not incompetence (incompetently shot films aren’t edited as well as this one is), a clear attempt at giving the film a realistic feel that’ll make the outbreak of the supernatural more effective and un-natural. This also keeps the film far away from being too much of a nostalgia trip for 80s demon slaughter horror.

Unfortunately, the film does have one big weakness: while I do appreciate its efforts at being more naturalistic than typical of its sub-genre, its love for the quotidian does drag The Redsin Tower’s pacing right down, leaving it very top heavy, with nothing even mildly horrific happening until about the hour mark, when soon all hell breaks loose upon the characters. I do believe the film could have lost about twenty minutes of its first hour without actually losing anything. However, once said hell does break loose, things actually become great enough I find myself okay with the slow first two thirds. It’s certainly not something everyone will agree with me on, but when has it not been such?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In short: Linewatch (2008)

Michael Dixon (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has been working for the US Border Patrol at the US/Mexican border for too long, it seems. He doesn’t seem completely cynical but he’s certainly not happy with a world where desperately poor people trying to make their way to a mildly less horrible life are preyed upon by human traffickers who don’t care about their lives as well as by right wing militias/future Trump voters who sound as if they believe shooting brown people is some kind of sport. His mood and his week certainly don’t improve when what looks like a minor drug raid leads to a shoot-out (during which his partner is shot but surprisingly enough not killed). Worse still, one of the drug runners is a guy Michael knows.

You see, a few decades ago, Michael was a gang member known as Mad Mike, and the guy is one of his former buddies. And he’s not the last one of them Michael will meet, either. Our protagonist is soon visited by half a dozen of them, lead by his old frenemie Kimo (Omari Hardwick). Turns out Michael’s little shootout got in the way of a meet-up between Kimo’s people and their drug suppliers from south of the border. They want Michael to help them set up a new meeting where nobody will disturb them. If he isn’t amenable, why, he has a nice little family now, wouldn’t it be horrible if something happened to them?

Of course, things won’t go too well for anyone involved in the end.

Linewatch by Kevin Bray is a film I’ve mostly seen critically slaughtered on the Net. Perhaps at that stage of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career, quite a few people were still expecting Oscar-baiting films from him, when clearly that kind of role either didn’t come to him anymore or wasn’t of interest? This certainly isn’t the kind of film that will win anyone any Academy Awards, nor is it one many professional critics looking for one will love.

After all, apart from its surprising compassion for the people trying to make it over the border, this is very much your typical film about a man haunted by his criminal past who will only get rid of it by killing a lot of people he once saw as family, and now can see rather more clearly as dysfunctional and abusive.

Me, as a man with simple tastes, do enjoy a competent stew of battered old tropes like this quite a bit, particularly since Bray knows how to set up an action sequence properly, and never falls into the action movie automatism of having to include one shoot-out every seven point five minutes. That would be a waste of a perfectly good Cuba Gooding Jr., and a whole handful of decent to good (mostly black) character actors, after all, so we also get quite a few moments of the characters acting like old friends who probably never liked each other all that much. There’s even a pretty clearsighted portrayal of the way a gang might work as a (dysfunctional) family unit included, and while that wasn’t exactly news in 2008 either, it certainly adds to the film’s feeling of veracity.

Which isn’t too bad of an achievement for a film hardly anybody seems to respect.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Ghouls (2017)

aka Vamps

Original title: Vurdalaki

Russia, some time in the 18th Century (I believe). Nobleman Andrej (Konstantin Kryukov), an aide-de-camp of the Czar, and his cowardly comic relief servant have travelled far from Russia’s capital to find the priest Lavr (Mikhail Porechenkov) who has been exiled to a small village. Apparently, the Czar has changed his mind about the man and wants him back. Lavr doesn’t want to come, however, for the village and its surroundings are in dire need of him. After a long absence, the local Vampire count – cape and all – has returned; not only to rekindle his traditional reign of terror but to become a daywalker.

His plan, as far as we will learn it, is to first re-establish a foothold in the area and then grab and bite young, beautiful Milena (Aglaya Shilosvkaya). Milena, you see, is a half-vampire (for once not called a dhampir here), and once turned, she - or her blood, the film’s not terribly clear on that account and the subtitles I watched it with are more than a little suspicious – will provide all the daywalking power a vampire can hope for.

Fortunately for the world, Lavr is the two-fisted stake-wielding kind of priest, and once he’s fallen in love (as is obligatory) and starts believing in vampires, Andrej’s pretty handy at murdering bloodsuckers too. Because this was made in the 2010s, Milena’s not a wilting violet either, so our big bad has his work cut out for him.

Sergey Ginzburg’s Vurdalaki feels like an attempt to reconcile urban fantasy and more traditional gothic horror – this is supposedly based on Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy’s novella “Family of the Vourdalak” like the best episode of Bava’s Black Friday and does indeed feature some core elements of the piece if in a changed context - for a contemporary audience, and while I don’t think it’s a completely successful film, I do think it is a very entertaining one certainly worth anyone’s time, showing some very good ideas besides the half-baked ones.

The film’s main problem apart from two romantic leads who seem to be cast more for their exceeding prettiness than for their thespian gifts - in itself of course a tradition in much of gothic horror – is that it not always manages to fuse the gothic mood it aptly creates –particularly in the earlier vampire scenes - with the urban fantasy tendency to create a somewhat lame parallel mythology that seems much too fascinated with explaining its own mechanisms. At least, it never goes as far down the urban fantasy rabbit hole as to present a hunky vampire special forces guy nor an eminently marriageable alpha werewolf. Whereas the film’s urban fantasy elements really want explain themselves to you (please don’t run away!), the gothic does of course live on the ambiguous, on supernatural powers that aren’t clearly categorized and on a sense of doom and dread.

I’m also not terrible happy with the big more action movie style final stand our heroes get up to near the end. There’s a lot of excited and exciting build-up to it, but once it actually starts, it’s short, not terribly exciting and goes out on a whimper. It certainly doesn’t help here that the film suddenly decides the up until then competent and active Milena shouldn’t participate in her own final defence.

While all these problems – also adding the painful comic relief guy – are there and accounted for, this might make Vurdalaki sound quite a bit less enjoyable than it actually is. Particularly its first hour contains many an effective scene in the gothic style given a Russian twist selling the feel of a village under an invisible pall more often than not. The generally beautiful – and by night appropriately creepy – landscape location shots certainly add to this too.

The scenes – you can imagine which ones – that really parallel the Tolstoy story are very effectively done, achieving an undertone of dread that might not be Bava-esque but is certainly working well, emphasising the horror of betrayal when family member feeds on family member without feeling the need to make it explicit. And while the action movie tendencies sometimes feel a bit grating, Ginzburg does have a decent eye for swashbuckling and even a cheesy heroic death or two, so these scenes – apart from the last stand sequence – are at least fun to watch. Plus, how many modern vampire movies remind one at least a little of Captain Kronos?

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Touch of Unseen (2014)

Original title: 귀접

Yes, well, I don’t know about that English title either, but then, the subtitles are of a comparable quality.

Yeon-hee (Park Soo-in) has been having a really bad time lately. Her ex-boyfriend turned stalker Hak-cheol (Kim Jae-seung) has returned to their university, even though she only didn’t leave him to the tender mercies of the South Korean justice system because he went to the military instead. Hak-cheol is clearly going to continue where he left off, making creepy eyes at her 24/7, popping up in front of her home, and being an all-around threatening creep. That’s not the only trouble in the poor girl’s life, though. There’s also the incubus (Choi Ri-ho) that comes to visit her nightly, a thing that holds as little to the concept of consens as her stalker.

When Yeon-hee stops coming to school, her friend Seon-mi (Yoon Chae-young) goes to her flat where she finds the girl unconscious on the floor. At a bit of a loss what to do, Seon-mi calls Yeon-hee’s estranged older sister Yeon-soo (Lee Eon-jeong) for help.

Yeon-soo one day just packed her things and left her younger sister to fend for herself without any apparent reason, but she follows Seon-mi’s call at once. Turns out Yeon-soo had been visited by the same incubus herself, and left Yeon-hee behind in the hopes to protect her from the thing’s dubious attentions. Obviously, that hasn’t turned out terribly well. But now, reunited, the sisters might just have a chance against evil spirits and creepy stalkers alike.

Lee Hyeon-cheol’s incubus horror is certainly an interesting film. It’s also a film that’s by far not sure enough of what it wants to achieve and how to get there to handle the themes it takes on. It’s clear that its incubus parts want to be about more than some sleazy ghost sexy times but then goes and is pretty sleazy about Park Soo-in’s body and clearly can’t help itself and makes the ghost rape scenes not sound and look like rapes. It’s an approach that left this viewer rather uncomfortable, not because the film actually attempted to make me feel that way, but because it didn’t seem to put any effort into doing that at all. It’s also a confusing approach to the material Lee is handling here, for the narrative’s sympathies are strictly presented as on the side of the sisters; it just seems a bit too interested in titillation than it does in actually following through here (in part perhaps because of South Korean censorship mores?).

It is, on the other hand, completely clear that the film is utterly against Hak-cheol’s creepy stalker-dom, and it certainly – if quietly – suggests that the dice are very much weighed against women in these situations. It just doesn’t do anything terribly interesting with that whole situation either. The script is rather rough around the edges, with only a handful of scenes that actually connect the stalker and the ghost rapist parts dramatically, and little attempts at using the obvious thematic connections for anything much. It’s probably best to imagine the scripts of a stalker thriller and of The Entity had some sort of freak accident, perhaps involving radioactive spiders.

Lee’s direction isn’t too hot, either – there’s little sense of flow to anything, drama and excitement aren’t terribly high, and even the promise of an invisible ghost baby later on leads absolutely nowhere. The film just sort of starts and later finishes, its plot more or less resolved but told in such a bland manner it is difficult to feel much of anything about it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: The Strangest Girl-Hunt A Man Ever Went On!

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017): Following the Andrew Garfield movies Jon Watts’s new Spider-Man version is a little wonder, what with it being a film that actually has a concept what its hero is about, with a plot that knows what it is about, a proper villain in Michael Keaton’s working class version of the Vulture, and a good grip on the idea of a teenage superhero. It’s more than just a bonus that lead Tom Holland – despite being 20 – as well as the script actually sell Peter Parker as a teenager this time around, and that Watts’s direction is just as showy as needed, no more, no less. The integration into the Marvel mainline universe works well, too. Why, unlike with the last two Spider-Man films, this one feels as if it was made by people who actually care about the character and what he means. Personal bonus points for this not being another origin tale.

Casque d’Or (1952): Jacques Becker’s tale of crime and heated romantic passions taking place in the underbelly of Belle Epoque Paris is one of those films that pop up in most lists of “the greatest films of all time”, and it’s not difficult to understand why, for this is one of these note perfect films high brow, mid brow and low brow viewers should all get something out of, be it its portrayal of romantic passion, the way Becker creates a criminal underworld that at once feels romantically-stylized and real, or how the film posits ritualized male violence as the true cock blocker of the ages. While the director’s at it, he also creates a film that feels like the sort of proper tragedy art for a long time didn’t allow us of the lower classes to take part in as anything but servants and comic relief.

Rebirth of Mothra aka Mosura (1996): After they had sewed up the Heisei cycle of Godzilla movies, Toho went about reviving kaiju fans’ favourite giant moth. Directed by Okihiro Yoneda, this is very much an attempt to make a Mothra film as a Japanese interpretation of a Spielberg-style family movie. Consequently, it is at times kitschy and cloying, and at other times perfectly okay with having its kid (and fairy) protagonists deal with pretty heavy problems. I could have lived rather well without some of the comedic bits here, but the monster fights are tight, and it’s impossible to be too down on a film whose main villain is a tiny fairy goth riding an adorable miniature dragon.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Back Soon

I'm taking a few days off from the mean business of blogging. We'll be back to normal service on Saturday, the 18th.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sinners and Saints (2010)

Post-Katrina New Orleans. Policeman Sean Riley (Johnny Strong) is in about as bad a shape as is his city. His little son died a couple of years ago from an illness, his wife left him, and he’s a husk of a man drawn ever further into cycles of violence. Consequently, we find him straight-up murder the man who just shot his partner (a cameo by good old Kim Coates in one of his few non-gangster stints as an honest cop). Things will go even downhill from here, for Sean soon finds himself invited into a particularly horrible homicide investigation. Detective Will Glanz (Kevin Phillips) is the lucky bastard tasked with solving a series of killings whose victims are set on fire, then doused with a fire extinguisher, then set on fire again, and so on. Sean’s supposed to be his street crime expert.

As luck will have it, Colin (Sean Patrick Flanery), an old army buddy of Sean’s seems to be involved in the whole messy affair, though it’ll take some time to clear up if he’s working for the guy leading the killers (Costas Mandylor), is a direct part of the crimes, or what. What’s clear early on is that Sean’s nearly suicidal violent tendencies – and his efficacy as a killer – might actually be the appropriate tools to solve this particular case.

William Kaufman is one of the good handful of truly great, individual voices doing direct to video action films in the USA during the last fifteen or twenty years. In Kaufman’s films, there are little if any of the writing and acting short cuts you usually find in these affairs, nor are these films that can’t afford to show any actual action.

Sure, the more up-market actors here – among them Tom Berenger, Jürgen Prochnow, Jolene Blalock and the inevitable Method Man – are only on screen in a few scenes in what amounts to cameos but unlike the typical way direct to video action often operates where certain characters are only in a film because the filmmakers have Dolph or Jean-Claude for a shooting day, here these actors are cast in roles that are actually part of the plot; well, the Prochnow character might not have been absolutely necessary, but what the hey. Kaufman – who co-wrote the script with Jay Moses – clearly knows how to construct his action film as something with an actual plot, and while it is certainly one full of clichés, it uses its clichés with the kind of conviction that turns them into something a little more satisfying than you’d expect. There’s also the plain fact that Kaufman in general uses standards character types and tropes with a great degree of intelligence and care, putting the decisive bit more thought into standard character arcs and actually writing characters instead of character types. Why, Sean Riley often feels like a person as much as he does the Cop on the Edge.

Interestingly enough, the film even has some ethical concerns about what the things its main character does so well say about him as a human being, or rather, what parts of his humanity they might destroy. At the same time – which makes rather a lot of sense for an action flick – Sinners and Saints is also very specifically interested in how abhorrent acts of violence may or may not be justified depending on one’s position. It’s certainly a more thoughtful approach than you usual find in direct to video action, and it leads to a film which features certain Cop on the Edge movie standard scenes it can approach from a somewhat different angle.

On the acting side, Johnny Strong isn’t quite as, well, strong as I would have wished for the role. He’s not terribly good at acting out the more nuanced emotional beats, though he’s certainly not phoning things in, nor does he ever feel like robot or inadvertently funny. He’s just not quite there. He’s certainly a fine action performer, though, which goes a long way in this context. Costas Mandylor for his part does some fine scenery chewing (but not too much), a weird accent, and is believable as a guy who does truly horrible things as a matter of course.

Last but not least, the action is pretty terrific, with various violent shoot-outs, as well as a few more acrobatic bits, all staged by Kaufman with a sort of casual surety that really sells them as gritty and exciting.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

In short: Red Road (2006)

Warning: there will be structural spoilers!

Jackie (Kate Dickie) is working as a CCTV operator in Glasgow. Apparently, she lives a lonely life, a fortnightly appointment (one really doesn’t want to call it a date) with a married man for some of the most loveless sex I can imagine looking like the only regular social encounter in her life.

Things change when she sees a man we will later learn is named Clyde (Tony Curran) on one of her monitors. Clyde must have been involved in some sort of crime against her – a rape would be the most obvious assumption – so Jackie at first seems panicked and desperate. However, she quickly begins to do more than panic, watching Clyde, following him in person, and getting close enough for him to touch, or for her to touch him.

Andrea Arnold’s Red Road is apparently part of some kind of filmic round-robin in which Arnold and two other directors used the same group of characters, but I don’t think one needs to know that or have seen the other films to be able to appreciate the film as what it is: a study of alienation and fear; a film about recovering from loss and guilt; and a brilliant revenge flick that doesn’t play by the rules of its genre most of the time.

Despite a colour scheme dominated by grey that suggests some sort of nearly documentary approach to filmmaking, Arnold is incredibly good at a lot of techniques very much unlike a documentary. There’s expressive editing that mirrors the mental state of Jackie, a camera that seems calm and distanced until it isn’t anymore, and little moments when the greyness and the drabness (that is as much outside of Jackie as it is inside of her) subtly clear a little. Further adding weight to the film is the strength and complexity of Dickie’s and Curran’s performances in the roles of two very difficult and very complex persons who are emotionally close in a way that is so ironic it is nearly perverse.

The film’s structure is admirable – as well as highly disciplined - including a revelation about the actual nature of the relation between Jackie and Clyde I wish scriptwriters trying to use plot twists would take a look at and learn from. Not, mind you, that it feels like a plot twist (which is more often than not a cheap surprise effect) – it is a revelation of truth that is also built to shake an audience’s assumptions.

As it goes with films quite this good, I don’t really think talking Red Road up – at least my way of doing it – does the film the justice it deserves. It’s a film to be watched with an open mind, with patience and with the greatest attention; to me, it felt very much like a revelation.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Security (2017)

PTSD-stricken army vet Eddie Deacon (Antonio Banderas) finally manages to land himself a job after a year or so of being out of work. On the negative side, he’s working for minimum wage as one of five security guards in a crappy shopping mall somewhere in Bulgaria the middle of nowhere USA; oh, and the shift boss (Liam McIntyre) is in idiot with a perversely absurd haircut who could be Eddie’s son – though fortunately isn’t.

His first night on the job turns out even worse than this sounds, though, for a kid (Katherine de la Rocha) stumbles into the mall looking for help. Jamie, as she is called, is the only witness to the murder of her father, connected to crimes that could land some rather nasty people in prison for a very long time. She’s just escaped an attack by mercenaries on the convoy of “USA Marshals” (that’s what’s stitched on their jackets at least) supposed to bring her to a safe place. These mercenaries are led by a guy calling himself Charlie (Ben Kingsley), and when you hire an Academy Award winner who has also been titled by the gosh-darned queen for that kind of role, you’ll sure as hell let him appear right in front of the mall a few minutes later, so that Eddie and his colleagues can play a bit of group Die Hard.

So yeah, Antonio Banderas has now reached a point in his career where he can be an elderly action hero too in a cheap direct to home video flick produced by – among others – Avi Lerner, and shot in Bulgaria, as is tradition. For Academy Award Winner Sir Ben Kingsley, this sort of thing is of course a step up. He was, after all, already in Uwe Boll movies, and unlike the stuff Boll craps out, director Alain Desrochers clearly tries his hardest to actually make a decent action flick.

Of the two mainstream actors involved, it’s Banderas whose coming out looking the best, because he’s neither phoning things in nor presenting himself as ironically above the film he is in, but really puts effort into the at heart silly little action hero role, Cuba Gooding Jr. style. Not surprisingly, Banderas’s willingness to go along does do Security a world of good, what with him being in nearly every scene. There’s obviously not a lot of depth to his character, but Banderas provides Eddie with presence and a feeling of personality, and that’s really all I want from the hero of an action movie. He looks also surprisingly fit in the action scenes.

Kingsley, on the other hand, is phoning his role in so badly my protestant work ethic (you can imagine it as a little guy in Victorian worker’s clothing sitting on my shoulder, throwing coal at people it disapproves of) became rather annoyed with him. Weirdly enough, it thinks if a movie’s good enough for an actor to get paid for it, it should be good enough for him to actually do his job. At least there’s good old Cung Le by Kingsley’s side to look threatening and glower.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent too. Of course, without Academy Awards and the approval of the Queen, you actually gotta put the work in and not just put your face in front of the camera, read your lines from a prompter, cash your check and go home. Sorry, I’m ranting. Anyway, the lack of a proper main villain doesn’t hurt the film as much as it could, mostly because Desrochers films around Kingsley rather well, and does manage to stage some decent, somewhat creative action scenes in which the not exactly fighting fit security people fight off the bad guys with various mall-made traps and improvised weapons. And later on, Banderas is even allowed to do a bit of gun fu.

Of course, all this won’t make you happy if you don’t have a degree of tolerance for some of the film’s problems – mostly caused by budgetary constraints, I believe. Obviously, the plot is not terribly plausible, but I have to admit, I’m not terribly phased by that in US low budget action cinema. I wouldn’t exactly complain about fewer clichés and more logic, but what can you do? Then there are the rather inauthentic ideas about America that come through again and again: there’s the whole “USA Marshals” thing (which somebody would have caught in a production with a higher budget and then simply redone), the fact that the mall is about as American as I am, strategically placed stars and stripes and americana notwithstanding, and quite a few other things of this sort. At least, these kinds of goofs have charm and are generally amusing, so they are not exactly terrible flaws.

As a matter of fact, there’s little wrong at all with Security when you look at it in the context of US low budget action cinema shot in Bulgaria, and if you’re going in keeping in mind what it is, you should be more than decently entertained. I’m certainly looking forward to more adventures of Banderas in Bulgaria.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Something has put the fear of death in the living and sent the dead running for their lives

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013): It seems somewhat obvious to compare Jean-Pierre Jeunet to Tim Burton: both directors have very distinctive styles, both have aesthetics deeply rooted in the grotesque and the strange. But unlike Burton on his bad days, Jeunet seems to be easily able to find the volume knob for the grotesque and the weird and fit it to the necessities of the narrative he’s telling. T.S. Spivet is a case in point, for it shows the director mellowing the grotesque into the whimsically strange while keeping his ability to create a world not really like our own that still feels perfectly logical and following its own rules and which is rooted in recognizable human feelings. So this is not just a film that’s great to look – and sometimes to gawk excitedly – at but also an example of that mythical “heart-warming” quality, a quality Jeunet – as is his wont – reaches without ever seeming to stretch for it, and that never feels in conflict with the film’s stranger elements but rather a part of them.

Christine (2016): Antonio Campos’s 70s period piece about a reporter for a local TV station who ends her own life in front of a running camera thanks to a toxic cocktail of clinical depression, rejection, male chauvinism, her frustration at the state of the world (which always looks even worse when you’re suffering from depression), stupidity, and the tragic inability of the people who do love her to actually enable her to seek help (not that this would have been easy at this point in time). You might say it is a bit of a downer, but it is also a film that stretches to let Christine be more than just a freak we gawk at and watch die inside and outside, that attempts to understand Christine not just as that thing we know as “a depressed woman” but as a living breathing person who is/was more than just a mentally ill woman with a sensationalist exploitable end. Rebecca Hall’s central performance is highly nuanced, insightful and utterly humane.

U Turn (1997): In comparison, Oliver Stone’s neo noir is not much of a film, even though it is one of the director’s best – and certainly least annoying – ones. Stone’s direction is expectedly showy and nervous, the characters are absurd caricatures utterly divorced from actual human beings or even what we usually accept in movies as human beings, and the plot is a series of tonally wildly wavering episodes about how horrible everything and everyone is. I’d call it a nihilistic film, but for that, I’d have to take Stone’s habitual posing seriously. As it stands, I’m more reminded of The Big Lebowski’s “Autobahn”.

The thing is, I also find the combination of the overblown direction, the great actors (and Jennifer Lopez) playing cardboard cut-outs as loudly as possible, the noir clichés and the badly digested philosophy highly entertaining, running on an energy that might be Stone’s typical screeching about how awesome and deep he is (which he isn’t) or just the result of a group of people having a wild time making a really silly film.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Die Blaue Hand (1967)

aka Creature with the Blue Hand

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 without any re-writes or 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.

(This write-up concerns the original German cut of the movie, and not that abomination some cruel American producer created out of it and random horrible inserts later on.)

Dave Emerson (Klaus Kinski), descendant of a formerly rich family, is sentenced to a nice little holiday in the establishment of local shady psychiatrist (so untrustworthy he's even wearing a monocle, for Cthulhu's sake! in the 60s!) Dr. Mangrove (Carl Lange) for killing the family gardener.

Nobody cares much that Dave has insisted on his innocence in the deed throughout the trial, or that the evidence against him is pretty circumstantial, least of all his "loving" mother Lady Emerson (Ilse Steppat).

Dave seems to have one friend at least, or how else would one explain that his stint in the loony bin is cut short by some shadowy someone giving Dave the key to his cell door and providing our young escapee with a convenient rope ladder? Please applaud the brilliant security measures of Dr. Mangrove's institution here.

Dave legs it to the family mansion, and once there, begins to disguise himself as his conveniently disappearing twin brother Richard. Though Dave might be as innocent as he says, it has now become more difficult to convince the gentlemen of Scotland Yard - in the form of the mandatory Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg) and Inspector Craig (Harald Leipnitz) - of it, for his escape has coincided with the death of a nurse by strangling, and the killing of a guard who followed him to the mansion by a black robed guy wearing a glove called "The Blue Hand", an object obviously constructed by a medieval fan of Wolverine (the character, hopefully not the movie).

This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, the poor guard won't be the last victim of the titular killer before the ridiculously contrived plot is solved, various evil masterminds trying to double-cross each other are caught, and the mandatory lady in peril in form of Dave's sister Myrna (Diana Körner) has been kidnapped, threatened by a rat-and-snake dispenser, and rescued.

If you ask me, a German long suffering under the general dreadfulness and lack of ambition of German genre cinema, the German Krimi, specifically as it presents itself in the Danish Rialto Films' series of Edgar Wallace adaptations, is one of the few bright spots in my country's history of exploitation cinema. At least in the case of a certain group of films of the genre to which Die Blaue Hand quite clearly belongs.

(A short aside: Germans don't apply the word "Krimi" - a short form of "Kriminalfilm"= crime movie - as specifically to the Wallace films and stylistically similar affairs as many English language cult movie fans seem to think. We use the word to describe any kind of crime or mystery story on screen (or on paper), be it by or based on Wallace, Chandler, or the Scandinavian author of the week. I like using the word to only describe the Wallace and Wallace-alike sub-genres, though. Sounds a lot better than Wallace-alike.)

Alfred Vohrer's Die Blaue Hand falls into the beginning of the decadent phase of Rialto Films' Wallace movies, when the films started to transform from their traditional black and white to a more 60s-appropriate colour, and their scripts moved further away from Wallace's novels (no big loss given Wallace's bland plotting, if you ask me) and towards ever increasing self-consciousness. It's also pretty obvious that the films began to become inspired by elements of the early Italian giallo they themselves had helped shaped in one of the classic cases of cult film genres feeding back into each other in what more sceptical people may see as a moebius strip of rip-offs (see also the Spaghetti Western and the Chambara).

To me, none of these changes to the krimi are a bad thing, because the strengths of the Wallace films never were in keeping close to Wallace's writing anyhow, and the turn from more moody black and white to what probably was meant to be pop (as interpreted by directors born before the end of World War I) colour did work out perfectly well for the films.

Although the German directors weren't as consistently style-conscious (or perhaps visually creative, or blessed with genius technicians at their sides) as their giallo counterparts, there are still great aesthetic pleasures hidden away in their films. Die Blaue Hand's Vohrer is probably a more peculiar director than the other important Rialto guy, Harald Reinl. Vohrer's forte was to mix the stylistic tradition of the German melodrama (best developed in form of the "Heimatfilm" of the 50s that spoke to all the most conservative impulses of a painfully conservative post-war Germany, and consequently might make less hardened viewers vomit through their awesome power of hypocrisy), with its stiff overacting taking place in well-composed but curiously lifeless and improbably square visual surroundings, with a very German concept of Britishness as interpreted through the telescope of pulp fiction, and a sense of self-irony very much of the 60s. In Vohrer's movies, styles collide, and stiff theatricality is often suddenly subverted by a wildly cranked zoom objective. It's certainly a thing to behold.

Die Blaue Hand does that part of its job as well as anything by the director, and would be worth a recommendation alone for being lifeless and conservative and lively and pop at once, but the film is also pretty good with other things that make my cult movie fan heart beat faster: thrill to the embarrassing presentation of mental illness (there's surely no better way to get a bit of semi-nudity into your film than to have your policemen watch an "insane" stripper who just can't stop stripping through a peephole)! Be delighted by the most laconic butler outside of the UK, as always in these films played by Albert Bessler or Eddi Arent! Be Awed by fine, stupidly fun pulp trappings like The Blue Hand, the evil psychiatrist, crawling through secret passages, and so on!. If you like this sort of thing (and who doesn't?) there's really no good reason to avoid Die Blaue Hand.

Plus, it has Klaus Kinski kinda-sorta doing a double role, throwing around various patented Kinski stares and ever so slightly making fun of the stiffness of his co-actors without actually having to do much.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

In short: The Most Dangerous Game (1978)

Original title: 最も危険な遊戯 (Mottomo kiken na yuugi)

When he’s not working, Shohei Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) is a drunken louche who loses money and probably teeth gambling and seems to spend more time crawling drunkenly than walking. When hired for a job, he turns into an ice-cold professional assassin and all-round mercenary.

Right now, a gang of crooks is kidnapping executives of various successful Japanese companies. Most of them come back alive once the gangsters have been paid; there are, however, a couple of cases where the abducted are killed. A large company with a fat government defence contract believes the kidnapping and the blackmail are actually only a smokescreen for the murders, and these murders are the way of an enemy company to put them out of business. Narumi is hired to rescue the newest kidnapped; when that doesn’t quite work out but our hero racks up an impressive body count, his new mission is to assassinate the company head responsible for the kidnappings.

Yusaku Matsuda is apparently beloved as a particularly cool example of Japanese 70s machismo. While he’s certainly not boring to watch (though his films, the one at hand a case in point, tend to overdo his sunglasses by night shtick), he’s never been quite on the level of guys like Sonny Chiba or Bunta Sugawara for me. But then, the films he was in weren’t as a group quite as good or as crazy as the best or most memorable works featuring these two gentlemen so that might have been the actual problem.

Be that as it may, this doesn’t mean this, the first film of Toru Murakawa’s “Game” trilogy about Matsuda’s adventures as Shohei Narumi, is not an entertaining film to watch, particularly if you enjoy Japanese 70s exploitation and genre films. While Murakawa isn’t one of the most stylish, nor of the most excessive, nor the most original directors of this sort of Men’s Adventure fare, this still is a late 70s Toei production, so the photography is just the right mix of grime and style, the score tchicka tchicks well, the acting by the usual expected faces is professional in the good sense of the term, the action fun and a bit bloody, and the pacing impeccable, the film hitting all the required beats of the genre like clockwork yet without ever feeling quite as mechanical as I might make it sound.

Not surprisingly if you know Japanese cinema of the era, one of those beats is alas the nearly mandatory scene of our protagonist starting to rape a woman, who quickly begins to enjoy it and from then on falls madly in love with what we must assume is his magical penis (alas, there’s no scene where Narumi trains said organ by hitting it with various appliances, Tomisaburo Wakayama-style). I’ve seen the abominable trope done worse in Japanese cinema of the era, but if that’s the sort of thing that’ll sour you on a film completely, take this as a warning.

Otherwise, The Most Dangerous Game is a typical, fun, violent bit of filmmaking with a great finale that’s certainly not one of the strongest examples of its genre but which is much too enjoyable to ever be called middling.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

In short: Armed Response (2017)

The inventor (Dave Annable) of secret, weird AI mind-reading buildings doing illegal interrogations for the government called the Temple(s) is called in by his old CIA cronies (among them Wesley Snipes and Anne Heche, who are actually in the whole film and not just doing cameo biz) to help them check out what happened to the crew manning a Temple situated on US soil after all contact with them has broken off without warning. They find everyone inside the building dead. The problem won’t turn out to be something as pedestrian as terrorists attacking the building, though. There’s something more bizarre and much more sinister going on inside it, and soon, the protagonists will find themselves locked in and under a very different kind of attack.

Despite title and marketing that make it look like an action film, John Stockwell’s Armed Response is in truth a psychological horror movie about a small group of people who a supernatural force confronts with and punishes for past guilt, taking place in that most horrific place of all contemporary horror films: a series of empty corridors and boring half-industrial rooms with little sign of anything as advanced as production design. Consequently, the film has its trouble building up the proper mood of dread and doom, or believably portraying the supernatural terror the characters find themselves attacked by. The special effects are also pretty dreadful (sub-SyFy Original, I dare say), with Stockwell not showing much talent for or interest in obfuscating their crappiness.

In general Stockwell’s direction is not terribly exciting. The film may not be technically incompetent, but there are few attempts visible at smoothing over the troubles its obvious low budget and lack of visual assets cause it. That’s a bit of a shame, for there’s a core of a really interesting horror film about people building a judgemental machine and then finding themselves judged by it – the possible religious connotations don’t go further than the name of the place either – as well as one about guilt for terrible acts someone has committed and how different people deal with this guilt (or do not deal). There are certainly scenes when the film approaches the more interesting aspects of these ideas – particularly the finale has its moments there – but for every one of these, there are three of boring walking through dark corridors. Still, that’s certainly more than quite a few direct to home video/streaming films can boast of, so Armed Response isn’t a total failure.

Its problem is more how easy it is to see that better direction and a smidgen more money could have turned this into a hidden gem instead of a film that’s not as bad as it could be.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Parents (1989)

Little Michael (Bryan Madorsky) and his parents Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) and Nick (Randy Quaid) have just moved into a new suburb, in a new town, with a new job for Nick and a new school and new people for Michael to be afraid of. Ever since they’ve arrived, the family’s – already humungous – consumption of large masses of meat whose appearance suggests vegetarianism as the only healthy and sane reaction has increased even further. Apparently, they are eating the left-overs from their old freezer, but left-overs from what exactly, Michael is not told.

With a father who seems to boil with a kind of cold rage underneath aggressive 50s Dad manners and a mother whose face seems painted on in a perpetual fake smile, it’s not a surprise Michael’s behaviour is rather strange, and he quickly becomes the pet project of his school counsellor.

However, there’s more going on than rampant meat consumption and a kid confused and threatened by everything, even more than suggestions of animalistic sexuality between his parents to a child’s inability to always quite grasp what the adult world expects of him.

On paper, Bob Balaban’s suburban cannibal film as seen through the eyes of a child is a horror comedy, but most of the things here that are funny are also frightful, oppressive, and at best dominated not by the sort of humour that lightens one’s mood but by one based in the grotesque. Michael’s child’s eye view turns what goes by normality in his very white and very clean (both unhealthily so, and with a seething underbelly of rot, you won’t be surprised to hear) suburb and (so-called) home into a relentless attack of Lynchian strangeness. The grown-up world can already look like a confusing nightmare to any child, so Balaban’s very strict adherence to his kid protagonist’s perspective turns even the theoretically most innocuous parts of his world into sources of danger and all kinds of horror, even before we come to the whole bit about his family actually being cannibals acting out the roles their time and society expects of them with an added bit of extra wrongness.

Parents is an incredibly rich film. I’m not just impressed by the style, taste and intelligence Balaban uses to show the nightmarish aspects of childhood, but also by how far and complex he dares to go in every aspect, not stopping at picturing the idea of the dark underbelly of the most normal, instead emphasising that the upside of normality looks just as rotten to the right eyes. There are also parts of the film that can be read as a comment on a child’s inability to cope with his discovery of his parents’ sexuality; angry stabs at conformism and the brutal oppression through the concept of normality it enacts; and over all hovers the shadow of child abuse. It’s not the kind of comedy that’ll get many laughs out of anyone who isn’t like Michael’s father, I believe. That’s not a failing, mind you, it’s just the sort of film this is, and it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

This doesn’t mean the film is completely hopeless and dark, though. There are acts of actual humanity here as well, and while the ending suggests something that certainly isn’t closure, this seems to be a film more driven by a wish to artfully express anger and perhaps pain over the world and we who dwell in it than to cynically revel in it.
On the sheer visual, atmospheric and technical level, Parents is a straight-up masterpiece (and frequent readers will know how little I like that term), putting Madorsky’s incredible, fragile performance, Quaid’s creepy, nuanced seething (nobody does barely disguised scorn quite like Quaid here), and Hurt’s teetering at the edge of what might still be a rest of sanity and humanity into the context of a film where every moment looks and feels like the archetype of 50s style suburbia and a living nightmare of oppression and dread at once.

Parents is an incredibly film that doesn’t just stand a bit isolated in its director’s – really rather interesting – filmography, but that seems rather unique in anyone else’s too.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Black Death (2015)

Original title: Phi ha Ayothaya

In 1565, European and/or Iranian traders brought the plague to today’s Thailand (for once, not on purpose). That’s what the history books tell us, at least. The Black Death imagines what really happened. Turns out the plague was actually a zombie virus (zombie type: fast, loud, dead).

The film concerns the misadventures of your typical group of rag-tag survivors who are thrown together when the village they are in is attacked by the ravenous dead. Eventually, our protagonists – among them guilt-ridden, heroic swordsman Thep (Gandhi Wasuvitchayagit), star-struck lovers Mien (Sonya Singha) and Kong (Pongsakorn Mettarikanon), dual-hammer wielding female smith Bua (Veeree Ladapan), and deaf-mute prostitute Ploy (Apa Bhavilai) – barricade themselves in the local brothel, but we all know this won’t end too well for anyone involved.

Apparently, one way to end the druthers of the tiredness the zombie movie as a sub-genre has been in for a couple of years now at least is to set them in a different time and place than the usual contemporary USA. Though I do remember a pretty dire Vikings versus Zombies film, so it is no cure-all. At least, this works out nicely for Chalermchatri Yukol’s The Black Death, a film that takes us quite a few centuries into a past where everyone acted and looked suspiciously like people today but where the armaments to fight off zombies were a bit less evolved. The film makes this up to its characters by making nearly everyone some kind of badass or half-badass. Why, even the female half of the star-struck lovers is allowed to kill a couple of zombies between the mandatory bouts of simpering.

The film shows quite a few hallmarks of a low budget – the sets are a bit sparse, though Yukol makes nice use of the bad visibility in the jungle for a few suspenseful scenes, the actors aren’t too great, and not all of the costumes scream exactly 16th Century. It does however make good use of the opportunities that come with being a bit more under the radar, so there’s a bit more gore than you’ll find in more mainstream Thai cinema. While the film certainly has its melodramatic moments, it does feature the fine pessimism of every good zombie movie that argues that being a good person just might not save you; though it is not so cynical as to suggest that assholes will survive the zombie apocalypse all that longer. Clearly, no survivalists were involved in the production.

In general, the film’s script isn’t terribly deep, but it uses stock characters and standard situations with great aplomb, obviously going by the old adage that the most important thing about a film isn’t depth but that there’s never a boring minute; that’s a rule The Black Death manages to hold itself to quite nicely, racing from one cheap yet neat zombie set piece to the next, pausing for some very competent character moments, adding a bit of hopeless doom, some melodrama, and mixing it nicely. An added pleasure to all this is of course that the stock characters the film uses aren’t necessarily ones you get in many zombie films. Thep, for example, is a standard martial arts movie character, and I had a lot of fun watching what happens to the haunted swordsman type during a zombie apocalypse.

Even though the film isn’t particularly stylish, and the action scenes aren’t on the wild side of Thai action filmmaking, Yukol’s direction is generally fast and fun, with an eye for cheap, short, mildly gruesome bits, never lingering on anything so long you might realize quite how cheap it probably is, and always getting to the good stuff as early as possible. It also features some of the best “things hitting zombie heads” sounds I’ve heard in a long time. That’s probably not what a lot of people will call art. I, on the other hand, do believe there’s a lot of art (and craft) in turning out a neat, cheap and fast zombie/action movie like The Black Death. It’s just not the kind of art that’ll get you much praise outside of very specific circles.