Sunday, August 31, 2014

Saturday, August 30, 2014

In short: Wild Rovers (1971)

Aging cowhand Ross Bodine (William Holden) and his much younger friend Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal) are working on the ranch of patriarchal Walter Buckman (Karl Malden) and his sons John (Tom Skerritt) and Paul (Joe Don Baker), with all the exciting prospects you have in that kind of job gaping before them.

So, Frank out of youthful stupidity and Ross because he’s got nothing to show for his fifty years, the cow hands decide to rob the local bank. The robbery does succeed, even, thanks to a rather ruthless plan, and doesn’t end in any bloodbath whatsoever. As to not leave any bad blood behind, they even leave the money meant for the payroll of their home ranch with the banker. Because the territory line behind which the sheriff (Victor French) has no jurisdiction anymore is so near, Frank and Ross seem to get away scot free despite a few minor troubles.

Unfortunately, the banker and his family embezzle the money, leaving Buckman very angry because of the perceived betrayal (though I’m not too sure his reaction would have been much different otherwise), sending his sons out to go as far beyond the borders as necessary to bring his wayward cowhands back, preferably alive but not necessarily so.

Wild Rovers’ director Blake Edwards is – of course – much better known as a director of comedies but he seems to have made it a point to work in a few different genres in between the comedies. Even though these films generally have their problems they also feel a lot like labours of love to me, Edwards milking his commercial success to get astonishing amounts of money for his dream projects.

The film at hand is a case in point, with its Jerry-Goldsmith-doing-Aaron-Copland score, the lavish photography by Philip Lathrop, and its mostly excellent cast, often looking and sounding like someone’s wet dream of a Western. Unfortunately, it’s at the same time a much too self-indulgent movie for my tastes, the sort of thing where a director seems so in love with parts of his movie he just can’t let them stop, leading to some scenes that barely should be in the film at all going on forever, some ill-advised The Wild Bunch without the punch-style slow motion, and pacing that at times slows to a crawl. Then there’s the musical Overture and Entr’acte (seriously) that has no business at all in a film this slow and long already, something so useless to the film I don’t even know what to say about it.

Less a problem of self-indulgence than one of miscasting is Ryan O’Neal, who isn’t at his worst here, but whose specific kind of blandness and lack of a projected screen personality chafes badly against a William Holden who at this point of his career made things look easy and natural even when they were getting rather theatrical.

On the other hand, Wild Rovers features nearly as many moments of brilliance as it does of self-indulgent bloat, moments when Edwards’s pretensions stop being pretensions and start becoming the real thing, like basically every time Holden opens his mouth, that ill-fated poker game in Benson, or some of the shots of Holden and O’Neal travelling.

As a matter of fact, I found myself enjoying Wild Rovers more often than not, regularly buying into its world building, as well as its attempt at reaching the archetypal by way of the specific, and while I was bored for more than one scene, I can’t help but recommend it for all the parts of it that aren’t boring.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

In short: Dune Warriors (1991)

Welcome to drought plagued post-apocalyptia. A scouting party of decidedly evil warlord William (Luke Askew) takes the small, peaceful village of Chinley (who knows how it is spelled?) that is a water-y paradise in the desert, waiting for William to come and complete the invasion. Val (Jillian McWhirter), the daughter of one of the village elders, knows it’ll be over with any idea of democracy or non-slavery once William takes over, so she sneaks out into the desert to find warriors to get rid of the scouts and fight William.

She’s in luck, too, for fleeing one of those Filipino post-apocalypse movie mainstay groups of angry little persons, she is saved by Michael (David Carradine), who just happens to be William’s arch enemy, even though he isn’t telling that yet. Michael helps Val find the usual bunch of fighters – there’s her new love interest Dorian (Blake Boyd), his friend, the self-declared “scoundrel” John (Rick Hill), who were running a scam in the fine sport of motorcycle jousting, John’s friend, martial artist Ricardo (Dante Varona), and shotgun toting Miranda (Maria Isabel Lopez). Not the magnificent seven, but they’ll have to do.

So soon enough, things will explode, people will be shot, knifed and sworded (technical term), David Carradine’s legs and Maria Isabel Lopez’s breasts will be shown off, and peasants will be trained as warriors. To mix the Seven Samurai formula up somewhat, this village does have its very own traitors.

I often grump about the films directed by Filipino exploitation film king Cirio H. Santiago because I find most of them even more boring than they are shoddy – the capital sin in low budget cinema – but from time to time, I find one I actually enjoy watching.

Dune Warriors does have it rather easy to conquer me (I suspect William would be jealous if I were a village), for if there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s Seven Samurai style films. Not that anyone would confuse Santiago’s approach to the material with Kurosawa or Sturges or Sayles, but it’s a perfectly fine scaffold to hang one’s action scenes on, and a straightforward structure for a plot. Quite unexpectedly for Santiago the director (I generally respect his work as a producer quite a bit more), he doesn’t mess up the traditional structure, but keeps so close to it this is actually a Santiago film I’d call tight. At the very least, the film moves from one fight to the next with pleasant pace, not getting bogged down in bad comedy, or distracted scenes full of nothing.

Santiago still doesn’t like to move his camera much, it seems, yet this time around, the film isn’t killed by the nailed-down camera set-up of doom, and the action sequences are actually edited together from of so many different shots, I suspect you could make three other Santiago films from them. It’s not pretty but it’s dynamic enough to make the action scenes actually entertaining, with many a stunt double throwing himself backwards, random explosions, David Carradine posing with his sword while wearing boots and no trousers, copious blood squibs whenever somebody thought about using them, and a rusty assortment of cars, motorcycles and – of course - dune buggies. It’s not deep, either, but Dune Warriors sure as heck is fun to watch.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Crackerjack 2 (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In short: Lassiter (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

As is traditional

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

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In short: Hannie Caulder (1971)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

On ExB: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

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

Read more in my column at Exploder Button!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Crackerjack (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In short: Stage Fright (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Band of the Hand (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

In short: The Borderlands (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

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

aka Umon Torimonocho: Katame no okami

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ninja Apocalypse (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

In short: Slaughter (1972)

Someone murders the father of Vietnam war hero (since when was there such a thing?) Slaughter (Jim Brown) in what looks a lot like a mafia hit. Slaughter knew his father was involved in shady dealings but he still takes the assassination personally, and starts a hunt for the killer that suggests his name to be his program too.

Slaughter’s violent ways awaken the interest of racist US treasury department man A.W. Price (Cameron Mitchell) who recruits our very angry hero for his own war against mafia capo Mario Felice (Norman Alfe) and his main underling Dominic Hoffo (Rip Torn), informing Slaughter that Felice is the man responsible for Slaughter senior’s death, and putting him on his trail in Mexico. Supposedly, Slaughter is to follow orders and act somewhat less extreme than is his usual style but of course, soon people die left and right, things explode, and Hoffo’s girlfriend Ann (Stella Stevens), as well as treasury department agent Harry (Don Gordon) are charmed by Slaughter’s manly man ways. The whole affair has something to do with the mafia’s new super computer, the replacement of the old mafia guard with the new, and a casino.

However, the plot really is beside the point for Slaughter’s director Jack Starrett, and is only there to enable Jim Brown to be awesome, cool and violent, sometimes awesomely violent, and to give the film an excuse to take short breaks from its own overwhelming Jim Brown-ness to provide its audience with short but sweet moments of ridiculous mafia clichés. Which, close study of Slaughter suggests, might be all I ever dreamed of.

The fact that Slaughter is as entertaining an entry in the blaxploitation cycle as it is has a lot to do with Starrett’s sure hand for action scenes whose controlled wildness often reminded me of classic serial action, filmed with all the stylistic tics of a film made in the early 70s, yet also with a sense of excitement and an exhilarating air you don’t always get from your low budget cinema (of any era), because excitement isn’t cheap. There are even car chases I enjoyed watching, something that happens about every six months to someone who is not at all a car person like me.

Then there is, of course, Jim Brown, swaggering, running, looking constipated, romancing, shooting and making things explode in a manner that can’t help but convince one of Slaughter’s main thesis, namely, that Jim Brown is a total bad-ass, admired by men like his white sidekick Harry, loved by women, and only hated by racist arseholes and mafiosi.

What Slaughter isn’t is a movie with a subtext that tells us anything about the black experience, or even white writers’ interpretation of what a black audience might want to see on screen as a dramatization of the black experience, going for a pure power (and perhaps empowerment) fantasy even mostly lacking the semi-documentary scenes of urban squalor so typical of the genre. It would be easy to criticize Slaughter for this if the film wouldn’t permanently distract one with wild action and Jim Brown.

But then, sometimes wild action and Jim Brown are exactly what you need in your life.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

In short: Cut-Throats Nine (1972)

Original title: Condenados a vivir

US cavalry sergeant Brown (Claudio Undari) and a handful of men are transporting seven highly dangerous chain gang prisoners through a snowy, mountainous landscape. Things go very wrong indeed when the local crazy bandits attack.

Soon, Brown finds himself and his daughter Sarah (Emma Cohen), who was also part of the transport for reasons that will become clear much later, alone with a groups of decidedly dangerous men clearly dreaming dreams of escape. To complicate matters further, the men soon find out their chain is actually made of gold, the consequence of one of the more idiotic secret gold transport plans in the history of idiotic plans. Furthermore, one of the men, though the Browns don’t know which one, is the killer of Brown’s wife.

Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent’s Cut-Throats Nine is a Spanish Western trying to out-nasty the more brutal arm of the Spaghetti Western, succeeding at its aim quite marvellously. It also happens to be a pretty great nihilist film that openly denies not just all the core values of the US Western but also the more generous ones its genre brethren often follow, with any believe in authority, or morally upright independent actors, or even simple human compassion quickly drowned in the film’s - at the time it was made probably quite shocking - amount of Fulci-style gore. Reading about the film, I expected its comparative goriness to be a cheap gimmick to sell the film. The gore surely is that, too, but it also is an important part of the film’s generally unpleasant mood, emphasising quite loudly the depravity of the characters committing the violence but also carrying with it a tone of what I can only read as a loathing of the human body as such, as if the film were screaming: “Look, this is how disgusting we all are inside”!

Which is of course what everyone’s actions here say already, with even the logical candidate for that other great Western value, redemption, turning out to be quite beyond it in the end, and quite ineffectual at his failed attempts in the direction too. There are some clear parallels in mood, theme, and dirtiness of the snow between this and Sergio Corbucci’s grand The Great Silence, but where Corbucci seems to express sadness about the state of humanity perhaps hiding a smidgen of hope behind the still rather shocking ending of his film, Marchent’s film is all bitterness and loathing, with Sarah, embodied by Cohen with a dignity that really brings home how horrible the things done to her during the course of the film are, as the only character with any kind of moral compass. And what she gets for that, and what she will do because of it, is in the end not very different from what the murderers and rapists around her do.

Marchent films all this very effectively, as well as appropriately unsubtly, in all the colours of mud and dirty snow, showing basically nothing but the mud, unwashed people, uncomfortable close-ups on actors making their most brutish faces, and oozing guts. While it’s not a pleasant experience, there’s actual conviction behind the film, offering up a view of humanity most of us thankfully only share on certain days.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: A secret cult of lust-craved witches torturing with fire and desire!

The Final Terror (1983): This slasher tries to enliven the usual genre slaughter by also being a survivalist thriller. It’s quite successful at that, with future mainstream director Andrew Davis demonstrating quite a hand for the action parts, a very decent cast full of people who’d go on to have something of a career later on, and some very photogenic woods shot with an eye for atmosphere by Davis himself. Of course, the script is a bit silly and the characters not much to talk about but then, that sort of thing generally isn’t what keeps a slasher from being enjoyable. Consequently, I had quite a bit of fun with this one.

Death of a Ghost Hunter (2007): Despite it suffering from two typical “indie horror” problems, namely sometimes particularly awkward acting and an inability to end the film (this could really use to lose about twenty minutes running time not just at the end), I can recommend Sean Tretta’s film to anyone with the required patience for these things. The script has as many clever moments as it has crude ones (just don’t bring your fundamentalist Christian family members), and Tretta does at times work wonders with his miniscule budget in creating the proper creepy atmosphere for his haunted house. As an added bonus, this is one among the brave number of haunted house films whose hauntings make thematic sense instead of just presenting a revue of random jump scares (a technique Tretta commendably avoids). That makes it well worth getting through the film’s flaws.

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012): As much as I appreciate Anurag Kashyap’s attempt to apply the stylistic techniques of Martin Scorsese circa Goodfellas to an Indian gangster tale that clearly knows its Godfather movies too but that’s also deeply embedded in its own country’s history and popular culture, I can’t say the resulting film really does a lot for me. Technically, Gangs is beyond any reproach, yet still, watching it left me utterly cold. I never connected with a single member of the film’s cast of millions, nor did I find myself caring at all about the its central conflict between two crime families. The former can be easily explained by the flatness of characterization that never gives us any inside view of motivations beyond the most obvious and one-dimensional ones; the latter as a result of the former, and of the old problem of making an audience care about people killing each other on screen when everyone’s a piece of shit. The film’s decision to be this self-indulgently long and show us dozens of barely distinguished assholes killing one another instead of just three or four that are actually drawn with more than the most basic of brushes only makes the problem worse for me.

Friday, August 1, 2014

On ExB: SAGA: Curse of the Shadow (2013)

aka Curse of the Dragon Slayer

aka Dragon Lore: Curse of the Shadow

aka SAGA: The Shadow Cabal

aka Rise of the Shadow Warrior

By now, my long-suffering readers will have a realized I possess landmasses of patience for cheap sword and sorcery and fantasy films, so I often find myself championing parts of the genre most other viewers seem to loathe with true passion.

For my tastes, Curse of the Shadow makes it quite easy for me to get excited about it, too, for this is a film that might be built on clichés but works really well with them, enough so it deserves its own quite positive column over at ExB. If you click on through, you might just see a pointy ear or two.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

In short: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

I didn’t at all expect to like Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie, much less be as delighted by it as I turned out to be, because the fantastic generally seems to bring out the worst in Jarmusch, the old-mannish cultural critique, and the use of metaphors that only ever are metaphors but never feel real as part of the world of a film.

None of these things actually apply here, the cultural critique is wry, the metaphors work on the level of the film’s reality too, and most of what sometimes feels pretentious about Jarmusch’s work is charming and seems perfectly placed in context of a film that follows various ideas of romance, examines diverse concepts of bohemianism and love, digs up echoes of drug culture, and makes a lot of wry jokes about it all; well, expect for the love but then Jarmusch, like me, seems to be the kind of romantic who doesn’t find love very funny - but sometimes life-saving.

Visually, this might be the most attractive Jarmusch film I’ve seen, dominated by a sense of fluid movement, the camera dancing to the film’s (impeccable) soundtrack, and colours of intense expressivity and beauty that belie the idea a film only taking place by night couldn’t make this kind of use of colours, particularly in the times of the orange and teal filters.There’s a sense of romantic poetry about it all, though not the po-faced kind (the film dutifully makes fun of Byron and Shelley) but the one that can and will laugh about itself from time to time. This being a Jarmusch film, there’s not much of a plot – though there’s so much going on on every other level I’m not sure who would mind the absence – and there’s time for the film to just swerve off into various directions and talk about various ideas and things its director/writer is interested in. Though, I would argue, these seeming detours actually belong into the particular argument about the importance of art and science the film also makes, and the film and the argument would be much weakened without them.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are pretty fantastic here, Swinton really playing on the otherworldliness of her looks and her very individual kind of beauty without the cliché using her instead of the other way round; there’s also a nice ironic juxtaposition in the fact she’s actually the more down to earth of our central vampire couple.

And as if all that weren’t enough to make at least me all kinds of happy, John Hurt plays Christopher Marlowe, who is a vampire, and alive, and…but that would be telling what is rather more usefully experienced.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In short: Dead Snow 2 (2014)

aka Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead

If you, like me, were a little afraid Tommy Wirkola’s sequel to his Nazi zombies in the snow comedy Dead Snow would end up retreading the set pieces of the first film, you can happily run out and watch this, for Wirkola goes for escalation in everything but the now piddling amount of snow while still keeping things in dimensions a comparatively low budget can handle. Dead Snow 2 is really putting the emphasis on the action comedy more than the horror comedy, though with huge dollops of pleasantly ridiculous gore, clearly realizing the first film had done everything there was to do with the more claustrophobic set-ups it used. Wirkola is a wonderful director for this sort of madcap, blood-soaked comedy action – he’s got the timing down as well as your favourite director of classic Hong Kong martial arts cinema had, and he knows how to include millions of dumb sight gags in an action scene without distracting too much from the rest of what’s going on in it.

The humour is again of a mostly low-brow, rather ruthless style that will go wherever a gory joke might lead it: if any given scene set-up will result in the question “will the film really go there?” it is most certainly going to.

Quite against my usual tastes, this approach works rather well for me in Dead Snow 2’s case, with hardly a minute going by that doesn’t at least provoke a snort – unless it provokes a groan, or the always lovely combination of both. Because this is that sort of film, there are also movie quotes that turn into inversions of the source material, American zombie hunters who are competent and ridiculous nerds and seem to be written by someone who has never met an actual American nerd in his life, a single tank (I said the budget must still have been rather low), and a climactic brawl between Nazi zombies and Soviet Russian soldiers, like the bloodiest Spencer/Hill film Italian exploitation cinema should have made.

Like everything else directed by Wirkola I’ve seen, Dead Snow 2 is fast, fun, silly and charming as hell, and while I understand why some people really can’t stand his films, I am rather happy I do.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In short: Weird Woman (1944)

When Professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns from a research and book writing year somewhere in “jungles” of what I can only assume isn’t supposed to be Hawaii or Honolulu, even if the little we get to see of it in flashback suggest a really silly Hollywood version of one of these places, with his new wife Paula (Anne Gwynne), his star is on the rise. His book is a huge success, and he seems to be a shoe-in for the post of the department head of sociology. But are his actual achievements the reason for his success, or is it the magic Paula has brought with her from the island, and whose practice she hides from the unpleasantly rationalistic Norman? (Yes, I’m still a laissez-faire atheist and am perfectly alright with the people in my life having different beliefs than myself, Richard Dawkins and his ilk be damned, so Norman’s conniptions about Paula’s activities once he learns about them still make him look like a patronizing ass to me).

Be the working of magic as it may, his new fast-lane career is bound to make Norman some enemies. The worst of them is Illona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), the college librarian he once had a – seemingly quite public – “flirtation” with, and who learned of his marriage only when he and Paula arrived at the party she gave in honour of his return. Illona does her worst to drive Paula out and/or ruin Norman’s life, and given that people on that campus really fall for the most obvious attempts at manipulation, she just might succeed.

Usually, I don’t find it very difficult to separate movie adaptations of books that diverge heftily from their sources in my mind from the novels they don’t do justice to, and can try to appreciate them as their own entities.

In the case of this first adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s “Conjure Wife”, I find this approach a rather difficult one to take. Watching Weird Woman, I spent most of my time groaning about the changes to the book that devalue the supernatural content in a way which also turns a complex treatment of the connections between superstition and rationality, that is also doing ironic work on 40s concepts of marriage, the supposed differences between men and women, and campus politics, into a simple case of a morally and intellectually black and white thriller. Gone are the ambiguities of Leiber’s book, gone are some excellent moments of supernatural menace, and gone is much of the characterization, all to be replaced by a melodramatic thriller about campus politics that goes through a lot of plot beats of the novel while completely ignoring their meaning, simplifying everything for no reason apart from Universal’s mid-40s hatred of anything supernatural.

If I could get over my problems with these weaknesses, I would probably find something good to say about the film. At the very least, its preposterous melodramatic finale is a thing of perfection in its own little way, carried by performances of Ankers and a wildly, effectively, overacting Elizabeth Russell in tandem with blunt, yet wonderful, noir-expressionist editing and camera work. Director Reginald Le Borg does one of his finer jobs here anyway, providing Weird Woman with many a scene of shadowy moodiness, which makes it probably quite the effective film for anyone not as grumpy about Scott Darling’s adaptation of Leiber’s novel as I am. Of course that mood in the service of an actual supernatural tale would have been quite the thing.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fixed Bayonets! (1951)

It’s 1951, and the Korean War is starting up rather nicely (which is to say, unpleasantly). The US forces have to withdraw after a costly battle, and it’s the job of an infantry platoon to hold off the enemy forces at a strategically important mountain pass for nine days while trying to look like a proper rear guard action instead of a suicide mission.

Not surprisingly, the platoon is slowly whittled down man by man. One of its members, Corporal Denno (Richard Baseheart), has to confront his greatest fear, that of commanding men (or really, one supposes, sending them to their deaths). He’s also not psychologically prepared to kill men in a face-to-face situation, which certainly doesn’t help his other problem any. But at least, Denno’s still outranked by veteran Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), so the responsibility might never get to rest on his shoulders at all.

Fixed Bayonets! is generally seen as the lesser of Samuel Fuller’s two Korean War movies, but if you ignore The Steel Helmet (which is rather easy if you’re like me and haven’t actually seen that movie in a very long time), it’s not at all difficult to concentrate on Fixed Bayonets!’ virtues, particularly since these virtues are rather copious.

On paper, there’s a lot speaking against the film, particularly a budget low enough to see the film produced on an obvious sound stage, going quite against the sense of pseudo-realism war movies made after the end of World War II were usually aiming for. It is indeed at first an odd feeling to find a film whose script and dialogue that tend to the realist end of the spectrum as much as Fuller’s work here does taking place in so obviously fake surroundings. However, the strength of the script and dialogue and Fuller’s tight (there’s no wasted shot here, and the idea of filler seems totally preposterous) and often unexpectedly – for the surroundings not the director – dynamic direction soon help one over the mental disconnect. In fact, Fuller often uses the comparative smallness of his sets for mood building purposes, enhancing the claustrophobia of the characters’ situation with exactly the elements of his film that should hamper its effectiveness the most. Fuller is delivering a film that uses its deceptively simple set-up not just for some very effective scenes of suspense (take for example the mine field scene) made out of shadow, close-ups of actors’ faces and an obvious knowledge of the horrors of war that doesn’t need melodrama (except for some off-screen monologue). Melodrama is something the director sure as hell could indulge in if he just wanted, as more than one of his other movies shows, but I’m glad he chose to go for more psychologically direct approach here.

It’s not only Fuller bringing his best game to the movie, though. Baseheart and Gene Evans – the latter always a much better actor than his relatively minor reputation today might suggest – both give excellent performances that fit Fuller’s tight and focused direction style perfectly. The rest of the cast is equally good.

On the thematic and tonal level, Fixed Bayonets! is not at all interested in flag waving – in fact, the film visually suggests more than once there’s not much of a difference between the protagonists’ Chinese opponents – and its view of the concepts of heroism and courage are complex to say the least. Sure, Baseheart’s character does follow the expected arc from “coward” to “hero”, but the film makes it very clear it knows quite well that the melodramatic ideas of heroics or cowardice many war film directors (yes, that Spielberg guy too) cling to have nothing at all to do with the way human beings behave under pressure, the truths of fear (here seen in many a close-up on the faces of actors), or the moral implications of the “heroic” things people do in war. The film’s clearly conscious of the horror of the fact that Denno has to learn to kill to become a leader of men, and while it doesn’t disapprove of it with pacifist fervour, it lacks any sort of pleasure or satisfaction in it. It’s a film very much about the necessities of war, and with an all too clear idea what these might entail, with a sense of responsibility to others the only reason it can contemplate as even vaguely moral in the situations its characters find themselves in.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

In short: Lobos de Arga (2011)

aka Game of Werewolves

Dorky, unsuccessful writer Tomás (Gorka Otxoa) is invited back into the village he lived in until he was fifteen to be honoured by what must be desperately bored inhabitants. Tomás has decided to use the opportunity to “return to his roots” and write a novel about the experience. Alas, peace and quiet to write his most probably horrible book is hard to find, for his old friend Calixto (Carlos Areces) would really like to renew the acquaintance, his dog Vito (?) is rather unruly, and soon, Tomás’s former publisher Mario (Secun de la Rosa) appears to hide from the police.

Then there’s the other little problem: the rest of the villagers want to sacrifice Tomás to the werewolf that has been locked up for the last forty years underground. The death of Tomás is supposed to be the only way to thwart a curse that lies on the village from turning into a worse curse, the villagers think.

With the help of Calixto, Tomás – and Mario – manage to escape from the werewolf but their flight also frees the monster from its captivity, providing excellent opportunity for a bit of a werewolf rampage. It also turns out that the villagers were quite right about the curse, and the new improved curse does indeed turn out to be worse than the first one. It’ll be the kind of night a man might only survive with the help of his grandma.

While it isn’t exactly bursting with originality, Juan Martínez Moreno’s Lobos de Arga (the English title’s really too stupid to use) is nearly bursting with charm, a state of affairs that certainly more than just kept my interest up for its running time.

There might be little depth to the film (or really, any at all) but Moreno sure knows how to pace a comedy, how to tell jokes of varying degrees of darkness and increasing absurdity without having to escape into plain randomness or frightful “aw, shucks, ain’t I weird, audience!?” posturing (if you need to ask, you probably aren’t very weird, by the way). I wouldn’t exactly call the film’s sense of humour good-natured, but its tone certainly sells even its more cynical moments as something not completely misanthropic. When it looks down on its characters, Lobos does so with the gestures of someone quite conscious of his own imperfections.

Apart from the humour, the film also provides a bit of gore (werewolves are rather cranky bastards, it seems, and like to pop peoples’ heads off), old-fashioned and plain neat wolf people suits, jumping werewolves (for why should rabbits have all the fun?), a bit of cannibalism, jokes about country people and about the kind of people who make jokes about country people, and finely timed escalation of the action. From time to time, there’s even a minor surprise or two on the programme, like the appearance of that least common of horror film characters, a competent cop (played by Luís Zaher, I think) – and one who drops the names of Lovecraft and Poe to boot, though I must have missed the werewolves in the works of these two.

All in all, Lobos de Arga is great fun, unless of course you were expecting a Game of Thrones parody with werewolves or something.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In short: Silent Trigger (1996)

A sniper (Dolph Lundgren) working as an assassin for The Agency and a spotter (Gina Bellman) he once worked with during her first assignment that ended in a right clusterfuck reunite for another assassination in a weird empty apartment building.

While the two are preparing their hit, the film clues the audience in on the way their first bad work together went down via flashbacks. In the present, the sniper and the spotter find themselves facing various problems, namely that one of the building’s security guards (Christopher Heyerdahl) is a cocaine-addled crazy rapist, and the other (Conrad Dunn) is so by the book it becomes slightly surreal, which is not conducive to a good working environment for professional killers. Then there’s the little fact the sniper is sure his own agency is out to get him, and suspects the spotter might just be meant to clean him up after the hit.

Russell Mulcahy’s Silent Trigger is one of the finest films I’ve seen Dolph Lundgren in. It may have a rather thin plot, a weird structure, and only tenuous connections to outside reality, but it’s the sort of film where these are strengths rather than weaknesses; not a film that’s trying to convince its audience of the physical reality of what’s happening in it but rather one working hard to induce a dream-like mental state in a viewer.

This does of course play to Mulcahy’s strengths as a director who traded in a curiously individual video clip inspired aesthetic at least since Razorback, sometimes with great success, sometimes with very little of it. If Mulcahy is good at one thing it’s using bizarre, unreal set design, moody and highly artificial looking lighting and all manner of slo-mo effects to turn everything he touches into a dream.

Consequently, Silent Trigger is all about building a slightly unreal mood where the characters’ archetypal yet ambiguous dance of distrust, attraction and violence can play out in. This also just happens to be pretty much the only environment where I can imagine the script’s experimental (some might think it’s just shoddy but I disagree) start-and-stop structure as well as a pacing that (like the film’s characters) only seems to know standstill and high octane and doesn’t believe in switching slowly between them, actually working. At least, here it does work.

If I step away from the film’s mood for a moment, I also see some real creativity in action scenes that blow-up some very simple set-ups (and at its core very little production values beyond Mulcahy’s aesthetic obsessions) into moments of excitement and disquietude.

You might also be surprised at the quality of the four core performances with Dolph’s typical disillusioned assassin (how often has he played one of these?) seeming quite believable brittle around the edges, and Bellman projecting a confounding mix of sexiness and ambiguity. Or you might hate Silent Trigger for doing weird things to the direct-to-DVD action formula, but then that’s the thing one may love the film for just as much.