Sunday, June 25, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

The killerest of all killers, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) murders a whole bunch of Russian gangster led by Peter Stormare using the same crappy Russian accent (note to producers: people in Sweden have a language of their own you might know as Swedish; it’s not Russian, perhaps on account of Sweden not being Russia) he puts on in American Gods because they stole Wick’s car and the picture of his dead wife in it.

Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), apparently the guy in the giant crime conspiracy that seems to control everything in these movies who allowed Wick to retire from the killing biz with said wife, sees this as a signal that Wick has come out of retirement. Seeing as Wick has a ritual debt to him these murder clowns call a Marker, Santino presses our “hero” to murder the gangster’s sister (Claudia Gerini) for him because she has inherited the family seat at the high table of the giant criminal conspiracy he’d rather have for himself.

Wick declines, so Santino blows up his house (and apparently all photos of his wife, because Wick seems not to know about the digital world). Afterwards, Wick changes his mind, pretty obviously planning to kill the sister and pay his debt and then give Santino his mind (in form of a bullet or a hundred) about blowing up his house and his photos. I probably don’t have to explain the rest of what happens in the film.

I love big dumb action movies as much as the next guy (the cheap ones probably much more than the next guy) but I didn’t really warm to the first John Wick. Mostly, if I remember right, I found the film’s all-out action attack rather exhausting with too many moments of the film showing off instead of letting the action flow naturally. I’m also pretty sure that film’s idea of what’s cool and mine are very different ones. So it comes as a pleasant surprise to me that I rather liked the second film in the series, despite it being directed by the same guy in Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad again.

Well, I thought the prologue with Wick murdering the Russians was just as annoying as the first John Wick, but afterwards, I very quickly found myself warming to a film that clearly has fun adding somewhat bizarre flourishes to the gangster secret conspiracy bits of the first movie. It’s obviously all very comic book-y, but in a way that works well as a backdrop for a film whose hero is deadly with a pencil (not to speak of guns) and that features exalted characters like Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, a variation on the old beggar king concept, or scenes like a shoot-out in an art exhibition/cabinet of mirrors.

Unlike in the first film, this John Wick doesn’t seem to feel the need to try so hard to demonstrate how cool and loud and so on it is, so there’s even time for several ten minute blocks where nobody gets shot (or stabbed, or exploded – you get the drift) which the film uses for some fun additions to its over the top world. The characterisation and dialogue is still over the top too, of course, but that fits the context here well, too. The action itself I like much better this time around. Things haven’t become any less spectacular and physically dubious, but Stahelski’s direction seems much more clear and focused, without ever losing a sense of excitement and unironic silliness. The videogame influences on the action are much less shoved into the viewer’s face, too. As a matter of fact, Chapter 2 suggests that you can indeed use elements of third person shooters in an action movie in interesting ways.

So what’s not to like? It’s fun, it’s violent, it’s over the top without being annoying and even Keanu seems to be awake most of the time.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: From a dimension beyond the living, a terror to scare you to death.

Ghoulies II (1988): The first Ghoulies us the sort of take it or leave it post-Gremlins proposition I’d rather leave than take, but this sequel, directed by producer Charles Band’s father (and veteran low budget director) Albert is rather more entertaining. It does help that it takes place on a carnival – supposed soon to be reorganized by a malevolent money man – and really puts out all the stops when it comes to the positive carny clichés. The film is full of fun (and silly) performances like the one of Phil Fondacaro as small Shakespearean thespian (at least that’s what he says) Sir Nigel Penneyweight that could be cruel and unpleasant but turn out loving and fun. Plus, there aren’t too many horror films in which the demons threatening the heroes are beaten by conjuring up a bigger (adorable) one, or the traditional “last monster nobody manages to kill” hides away in a toilet.

The Gift (2015): This small, LA-set thriller directed by Joel Edgerton (who also plays one of the main characters, together with Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) is pretty much a perfect example of its genre: it is clever, twisty, ambiguous and often truly disquieting without ever needing to show the worst things going on in it. Thanks to a wonderful script (also by Edgerton), acting and direction, it does manage the particularly fascinating trick of being character-driven while keeping the motivations and true nature of said characters at least partially hidden. I’d say more about it but this one of those films where telling much about anything going on in it really could spoil the first impression needlessly.

Body Parts (1991): Eric Red’s horror film about body part transplantation, mad science, pointless murders, and the question if evil (whatever that may be) sits in the serial killer arm transplanted onto psychologist Jeff Fahey is as entertaining as its basic idea is silly. For most of its running time, it even manages to treat its rather absurd set-up with the utmost seriousness, doing its best to avoid turning out like Oliver Stone’s The Hand. Fahey’s performance is a fine bit of middle class paranoia, and his descent into what we’re actually pretty sure from the outset isn’t madness works particularly well because Red does manage to actually make the family unit threatened this time around sympathetic without getting treacly about it. As a bonus, there’s a bonkers ending and Brad Dourif for once is not playing the killer.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Il Gatto Nero (1989? 1991? Always?)

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. Though I have to say I have seen even more Cozzi films, and do now expect the insanity rather than the boredom.

Not to be confused with all those other films about black cats, which comes especially easy in this case, because the black cat isn't important here at all.

Plot? Oh right, there was something kinda-sorta plot-like hidden away in here somewhere. Ah, there it is: Director Marc Ravenna (Urbano Barberini) is trying to re-ignite his faltering career by making a semi-sequel to Argento's Suspiria (wouldn't that actually be a semi-sequel to Inferno at this point in time?), based on a witch named Levana from an essay in De Quincey's Suspiria De Profundis. If you just ignore that Levana isn't actually a witch but a goddess and wasn't invented by De Quincey, you'll be as surprised as I was by the realization that someone working on the script for this one might have read the book the film's talking about (and, going by the inclusion of an actual quote from Poe, even more than just a single book; Italy sure ain't Hollywood). You can also be sure someone had seen Suspiria, what with parts of that movie's theme playing on the soundtrack whenever someone mentions it or De Quincey's book.

Anyway, Marc plans on giving Levana's role in his planned movie to his wife Anne (Florence Guerin), a big horror star right now playing in an adaptation of Poe's The Black Cat (this, like everything else, is not going to be important later on). Unfortunately, Levana is real and disagrees with Marc's casting decisions, so she begins to threaten Anne, first by going all green and red light on the couple's house, then by jumping out of a mirror and vomiting green goo in Anne's face, exploding the fridge, materializing a non-threatening fridge repairman and a slightly more threatening pale teenager. She also seems to induce random dream sequences, although - given how the film is structured - I'm at a loss to decide if any given scene is supposed to be a dream sequence.

Levana has plans for Anne's and Marc's baby, too, it seems. Something about possessing it and the end of the world. I think. That might just be a fake plan, though. Or not. Other stuff happens. Caroline Munro in her "big hair, unwilling to act, keep me away from the tanning bed, please" phase plays an actress sleeping with the film's scriptwriter who wants Anne's role. Cozzi lets the movie's camera leer on her legs so often even I'm getting uncomfortable with it. Brett Halsey appears as a producer sitting in a wheel chair, glaring angrily and demanding TOTAL COMMITMENT. Anne talks to the fairy girl that lives in her TV (or in her head; matters are confused, and so am I). Hearts explode. Cartoon lightning is shot from hands. Even weirder shit happens. Shots of something that might be a mouldering plastic doll appear. There's some sort of plot twist about mutants as not seen in the X-Men. And of course, any horror film containing a baby must end with the classic "baby with glowing eyes" shot.

Usually, when I sit down to watch a film directed by Luigi Cozzi, I expect one part shoddy directing and one part refined boredom, so the full-grown, random what-the-hell-is-this-ness of Il Gatto Negro (or whatever the film's title is supposed to be) hit me as a complete surprise. Starting with the insanely ambitious ploy to rip-off Argento's Suspiria and his and Lamberto Bava's Demoni and Poe's Black Cat in a single film without said film having anything to do with its supposed predecessors apart from stealing parts of their soundtracks, Cozzi uses every technique from the handbook  of Italian exploitation cinema: there's the crude yet hilarious dialogue, acting perpetually swinging between sleepwalking and hysteria, the chopped editing that again and again does counterintuitive stuff like intercutting random (and I mean random) shots of houses while people inside those houses are having a conversation for no good reason at all, the special effects of the rubbery yet gooey kind, and plotting so wavering and random one can't help but imagine someone playing scene roulette. Or, as it might be, the film being completely improvised. Obviously, on any sane level, Demons 6 is an abomination barely fit to even be called a feature film. On a less sane level, it's perhaps one of the most successful films I've ever had the honour to experience.

What makes De Profundis such a great success - at least, if you measure a movie's success by the number of times it drives you into fits of giggling and the shouting of "what the fuck!?" - I might also have thought of throwing food at the screen just for the love of it - is how completely it gives itself over to being a structureless mess consisting of one weird-out moment after the other. There's not a single second in the film's running time to suggest Cozzi was trying to tell a story, or make what boring people call "a proper movie", not even an illogical or boring one. Instead, narrative logic gives way to whatever the hell Cozzi ate when he wrote the script (apple pie?). Coherence has left the building long ago; viewers are left in a state of confusion and with a blissed-out feeling only a very few films can produce.

And here I always thought Luigi Cozzi was a bit of a bore; in truth, all the boredom of his other movies was only proof of a director saving his true powers for a magnum opus that would show humanity a) the blind idiot god at the centre of the universe b) what a man can create when he just lets go of all his mental faculties c) the last fanfare for the era of Italian movies that were more dream-like than dreams themselves.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

In short: Power Rangers (2017)

Going in, I was very much rooting for this attempt to reboot the Power Rangers (without directly repurposing existing Japanese sentai product for once) as some sort of teen superhero blockbuster franchise, probably for the market of ten to twenty year olds. There is, at least before Sony’s next Spiderman attempt hits us, a huge hole in the the big two superhero universes where the classic teen superhero belongs, and I, at least always had a big place in my heart for this particular sub-genre.

The film was directed by Dean Israelite, whom you may know from his bland and rather confused teen time machine movie Project Almanac. There are unfortunate parallels between the two films, when it comes to a lack of basic coherence and what we in the movie watching biz like to call a lack of a point.

For unfortunately, Power Rangers really doesn’t cut the mustard, thanks to weird tonal shifts between earnestness and humour the script doesn’t work for at all, sluggish pacing, and bland teen melodrama that clearly wants to be “edgy” and inclusive but doesn’t actually go anywhere from the good start of having a group of actually diverse – if terribly clean cut – teens as its protagonists. What goes for character development is so thin it really should have been over and done with in twenty minutes with no reason at all for it to take up most of the movie.

Worst of all is the production’s decision to have its superpowered teens do nothing heroic beyond a training montage for the first ninety minutes of the film’s bloated two hour runtime, leaving what would be the warm-up fight coming in the first half hour in any decent superhero flick as the supposed climax of this one.

It’s a mind-boggling decision but then, there’s a lot about the film that doesn’t hang together at all. Why have the kids exclusively train melee fights when all they’ll ever do is jump into their mecha, ahem zoids? And really, why is there no non-robo punching in a Power Rangers movie? Why have a scene where big bad Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) tries to turn the Yellow Ranger when nothing comes of it and it never comes up again? And so on, and so forth. The whole film screams “production problems” - five names in its writing credits and its complete pointlessness are not exactly small hints that something went very wrong here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sharky’s Machine (1981)

After a larger drug bust goes badly wrong, macho cop Sharky (Burt Reynolds) is moved – really demoted – from his beloved narcotics division he had working like the titular machine (until it didn’t work) to vice, in this time and movie a place made exclusively for busting street walkers. Until Sharky acquires a list with the names and phone numbers of some high grade prostitutes working for a mystery man lamely known only as The Man (later turning out to be played by Vittorio Gassman, of all people). One of these girls, only known as Dominoe (Rachel Ward) seems to have political protection that suggests a certain degree of corruption, so Sharky convinces vice squad head Friscoe (Charles Durning) to let him surveil her, with a bit of help from colleagues Arch (Bernie Casey), Papa (Brian Keith) and Nosh (Richard Libertini).

Because that’s how things in the movies go (and because this is Rachel Ward in the early 80s), Sharky falls for the object of his surveillance badly, which will turn out to be quite the motivating factor when the corruption case turns into something even bigger and a crazy drugged up killer with the awesome name of Billy Score (Henry Silva) makes his appearance.

Sooner or later, most actors seem to get the directing bug. Some of them (not naming names but you know the type) get in the habit of trying to pull films out from under actual directors who know what they’re doing, generally ruining the films that get in the way of their egos. Others go about the business the honest way and make their own damn movies. Some of these turn out to be Sarah Polley, Charles Laughton, Joel Edgerton, or Clint Eastwood (or on a comparative level), while more than I’d like to think about just make pretty dreadful directors. The handful of films Burt Reynolds directed aren’t usually counted among the exalted ones but they are most certainly not products of a guy just coasting on being Burt.

Sharky’s Machine is usually seen as Reynolds’s best directorial effort, and while it certainly isn’t an unforgettable experience, it is a good cop movie a bit along the line of a Dirty Harry film if Harry had an emotional life, if one whose tone tends to swing from the more naturalistic to the nearly cartoonish at a moment’s notice.

The film’s major weakness is certainly the treatment of the parts of the plot concerning the romance (such as it is) between Sharky and Dominoe. It’s a bit Laura, it’s a bit Rear Window (or at least concerned with the same kind of obsession as thrillers with voyeuristic aspects) but the relationship of the characters once they actually meet never rings true to me. In part that’s because neither the script nor Reynolds manage to sell Sharky as a true voyeuristic obsessive. Nor does the film convince me that Dominoe (particularly given the background the film sketches for her) would in any way or form honestly fall for the guy. On the plus side, that latter failing has also something to do with the fact that Reynolds the director tries to stay on the right side of male gazing at the pretty woman by treating her as an an actually likeable instead person instead of only a desirable object, so turning her into the more manipulative character that would have a reason to sleep with Sharky would have been right out. Which is not at all the sort of thing I would have expected Burt Reynolds of all people to think about. So much for preconceptions.

Of course, this surprising thoughtfulness does fit nicely with one of Sharky’s Machine’s great strengths: Reynolds’s willingness and ability to step back and give his co-actors space to shine. Now, this is Reynolds’s film in the sense that he is in most of the scenes, is clearly the main character, and so on, but it doesn’t feel like an ego trip. Reynolds directs like a guy who truly appreciates the Richard Libertinis and Bernie Caseys of this world, so every one here gets a couple of scenes to shine, to do and say something interesting and not be Reynolds’s foil but have Reynolds be theirs for a bit. These scenes are a joy to watch and have the added virtue of making the audience care about these guys when things become dangerous.

Then there’s Vittorio Gassman’s wonderful outing as what is basically a cartoon villain, the kind of guy who probably would have an awesome secret lair if that sort of thing did fly down there in Atlanta, and so has to make up for it by having a trio of Asian enforcers right out of a Sonny Chiba flick, and Henry Silva giving the craziest and creepiest performance of a career full of this sort of role as his hitman brother. Silva’s as beautifully unhinged here as I have ever seen him, so thanks for that, too, Burt.

Visually, the film is not particularly fancy, apart from a handful of the more suspenseful scenes when Reynolds shows a good eye for squeezing tension out of the play of light and shadow, and for letting the audience hear instead of see certain acts of violence. And while it is not fancy, the film does follow the visual rules of late 70s crime filmmaking excellently, providing clarity when that is asked for and obscurity when that fits a given scene.

What more can you ask of a director, Burt Reynolds or not?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

In short: Serial Mom (1984)

 In all honesty, I’ve never been much of a fan of John Waters’s films. I find the campy shock the squares side of cult movies the man operates in generally not terribly interesting – perhaps because I might be square but I’m mostly not shocked by it and really don’t relate to the approach much. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy Waters exists and makes films, mind you, for while his stuff may usually not be my jam, it clearly is his, and last time I looked, directors following their personal obsessions and interests is how it should be. Serial Mom, however, does work for me quite well.

This serial killer comedy about a murderous suburban house wife played by Kathleen Turner is one of the films that came to pass when Waters somehow got the opportunity to work with actual Hollywood money. I can’t see that happening today, or rather, they’d probably try to get Waters to make a (serious) superhero movie. As it stands, Waters made great use of his budget, not just by hiring a cast of slightly higher profile actors than his usual posse (though some of them are in here too). Most impressive is how good the film looks. Waters is clearly putting to work everything he learned when making independent films to create a so-healthy-it-is-sickly (until it turns out it is actually sick) kind of suburban paradise/freak show that’s so bright and tasteless it is only natural it exclusively harbours people as unhinged as everyone in here is. As a satire, this is of course incredibly on the nose, but being unsubtle is one of the things Waters is clearly about, and here he is so imaginative in the escalation of, well, everything, that the unsubtle business filling the film can still be surprising.

The film also happens to contain one of the career best performances of Kathleen Turner. It may not be a nuanced one but then a nuanced performance would rather be missing the point, for what Turner needs to do is throw herself into every craziness, every indignity and every tasteless joke and own it completely, seeing as she’s not supposed to portray an actual human being but the over-the-top peak of everything that’s frightening (and kinda seductive) about suburban life, serial killers and the society that birthed them Waters is so lovingly skewering here. Which she does with such energy and conviction, with a complete lack of vanity she could probably have carried the film alone even if Waters hadn’t been as at the top of his game as he is here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Night of the Juggler (1980)

Former cop Sean Boyd (James Brolin) has been working as a truck driver after losing his job for not ignoring corruption in the police’s ranks. One day, his little daughter Kathy (Abby Bluestone) is kidnapped right off the street.

The kidnapper, a more than half mad and pretty pathetic guy named Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) has confused Kathy with the daughter of a rich man, and nothing anyone says or does during the course of the film will persuade him he has grabbed the wrong girl.

Since Sean’s early attempts at saving his little girl involved a bit of car theft, and he’s bound to storm off and do something stupid, violent, and or dangerous, the main cop getting on the case, Lieutenant Tonelli (Richard S. Castellano), decides to book Sean for a bit to cool him off. Alas, during that Sean encounters one of the cops he once indicted. Sergeant Barnes (Dan Hedaya) isn’t just still a policeman, he also blames Sean for a broken marriage and two months of docked pay - a cop is apparently entitled to a bit of harmless corruption, after all – and he isn’t just absolutely disinterested in kidnapped little girls, but really looks for an opportunity to murder Sean. Sean manages to escape Barnes and custody, and starts to shout, punch, shoot and run his way to his daughter, hunted by the completely unhinged Barnes (Hedaya all bulging eyes and clenched teeth), while Tonelli, suffering under heavy political pressure, has to approach the case from the side of the rich guy whose daughter wasn’t kidnapped.

Night of the Juggler isn’t at all the kind of film you’d expect from its director Richard Butler. Sure, his extensive filmography does feature some crime stuff as part of his large TV work, but most of his cinema outings were Disney family comedies made in a time when Disney was still exclusively straight-laced and conservative. That’s not the sort of background you expect for the director of a crime and action film this heated, diving in the dark mood of late 70s, early 80s New York with this much vigour.

And make no mistake, this is a film as brilliant as it is underseen, not just as a gritty (even without the grimy VHS quality of the only print of the film that seems to be floating around) portrayal of New York’s underbelly at a very specific point in time, but also as a furious crime action movie of a tone I generally connect with Italian movies starring Maurizio Merli or Fabio Testi, an anger that is a bit clearer about the societal shapes it is angry at than it at first appears. Consequently, Night of the Juggler also uses the immense pull of its furious pace to portray the divisions of race and class devastating the city, the public disinterest that leaves people dead without good reason, the corruption and all-around violence, until nobody - black, white, rich, poor – looks all that innocent anymore. New York (and in movies, the city tends to be a stand-in for the whole of the USA more often than not) here isn’t just a grimy, brutal and unjust place, it has been that way so long that nobody actually expects from anyone else anything that isn’t brutal or unjust, so that what would normally be a quiet talk between people starts as a shouting match and escalates from there, people blowing up without their fuses even being lit. The only characters in the film willing to breathe and think and perhaps even do something kind are interestingly enough women, and rather explicitly women who very much realize in what a dangerous world they live.

While the film is showing all this mostly through action, it also finds it in itself to pop in with Sean’s daughter and Soltic from time to time. Soltic – as wonderfully portrayed by Cliff Gorman – turns out to be a rather more complicated character than you’d expect. Between racist, powerless rants, acts of murder and creepy attempts at projecting his mother onto Kathy with a certain suggestion of paedophilia, he’s also a quiet and sad man capable of actual kindness and compassion. The film knows and treats Soltic as dangerous and terrifying but it also understands that the most terrifying thing about him and people like him is that they didn’t start out as monsters, and perhaps never would have become what they are if the world treated them as more than whipping boys – all without excusing anything Soltic does.

Brolin walks – for most of the film limps, actually – through all this like a force of nature in a kind of performance I never would have believed the man capable of in this intensity, from time to time showing little gestures that still show him as a human being instead of a machine of anger and violence.

Alas, for some reason this brilliant film has not had any official DVD or BluRay releases whatsoever. Please, some boutique label, put this out, I want to throw my money at you.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Fight back or die.

Harry Brown (2009): For a time there, Daniel Barber’s film about an elderly ex-marine turning vigilante played by Michael Caine, had me thinking it was trying to say something actually interesting about the rights, wrongs and consequences of vigilantism but in the end, it all turns out to be your usual reactionary fantasy about killing the poor and the supposed inefficiency of the law in doing that, not exactly something I have much of a taste for when it doesn’t go so over the top I can stop taking it seriously. This one doesn’t go over the top, but it is also just not terribly great as a crime thriller. The only truly memorable thing is a performance by Caine that suggests a load of emotions and ideas that don’t actually seem to be in the script, Caine showing a touching vulnerability that doesn’t often ring this true in movies about aging and elderly men of violence.

Gosford Park (2001): Keeping with great old men, this is one of Robert Altman’s final films as a director (and his last truly good one, I believe). Usually, the idea of an American playing with elements of the British country house mystery suggests a bumbling tourist not getting anything about class, but this being Altman, that fear didn’t even come up for me. And rightly so, for Altman uses the form (well, the parts of the form that interest him – this is a film that’s half over before the murder happens, and rightly so) to not just explore the British class system between the wars, or the way it already shows cracks, but is most concerned about the way the lives of people intersect in a society that puts the borders between the rich, the poor, and the working rich particularly high, finding heart-breaking moments that prove a murder to be much less important than basically everything else going on around it. Altman also has time for moments of acerbic whit, nods to popular culture of the age (Ivor Novello is one of the characters, as well as a fictionalized producer of Charlie Chan films), all filled with life by a thoroughly brilliant cast and by his accustomed way with organizing large numbers of characters in an intellectually and emotionally impactful way.

Narc (2002): Joe Carnahan’s neo noirish crime film about a former undercover cop (Jason Patric) who accidentally killed a baby during a wild shoot-out pressed into investigating the murder of another undercover cop, and teaming up with the other undercover’s former friend (Ray Liotta), a man even more damaged and violent – and possibly worse – then himself is certainly not a Robert Altman film in style or thought. Apart from a handful of scenes when Carnahan falls into the worst kind of “hey, look at me! I have a digital editing suite” filmmaking, this is a wonderful film. Heated, grim, and appropriately violent, Narc portrays the characters’ world as a cesspool of cruelty and corruption yet also finds time to give even the most minor drug dealer a human personality, does good by fantastic lead performances and also has a really well-constructed mystery at its heart whose solution plays expertly with the audience expectations of the genre savvy without feeling smug.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Hair of the Beast (2010)

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.

Original title: Le Poil De La Bête

Nouvelle France, 1665. The charming, if unwashed, rogue and professional seducer of women Joseph Cote (Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge), has worked his charm on the wrong girl this time, and has been sentenced to be hanged. Using his mildly impressive wit, Joseph manages to escape from his jail cell and flees into the barely settled lands outside of Quebec. On his way, he finds the rather shredded corpse of a Jesuit priest, and decides to take what's left of the dead man's clothes and belongings; surely, as a priest he will have a much easier life getting around. In his new priestly persona, Joseph is soon enough attacked by something large, fast and hairy that knocks him out. He is rescued by a farmer who takes him into the small settlement he's living in - and by "small", I really mean small. Two large-ish huts, one church and a slightly better built house for the noble owner of these lands - who is off in Quebec right now acquiring potential brides for his sons and servants - a walk through the woods away, are all the place has to offer.

Joseph is invited to stay for the night, certainly not expecting what will happen next. While the handful of men of the place sits around a fire singing and telling stories, a werewolf attacks, killing one of them and hurting Joseph's leg during the priestly rogue's surprisingly effective attempt at fighting the monster off. The next day, the local landholder, a Seigneur de Beauport (Gilles Renaud) and two of his three sons return with a wagon full of King's Daughters (historical bonus note: these weren't daughters of the French king, but orphaned or half-orphaned young French women from poor families whose emigration and marriage were sponsored by the French crown to solve its colony's population problem once the French got afraid of the fast growth of the neighbouring English colony and realized that if they wanted to keep making money off their part of the Americas, they'd need to transform their minor outpost into an actual colony). For some preposterous reasons of that aren't the least bit suspicious, the Seigneur decides to keep the women in "quarantine" inside the church for a few days. Joseph soon enough takes the arising opportunity to do some of that seducing business he's so keen on but actually falls in love with his victim, Marie Labotte (Viviane Audet). That'll come in handy to motivate him to not run away later on.

Alas, Joseph's unpriestly demeanour (turns out having no clue about the contents of the bible and running around seducing women isn't what the locals expect from their priests; add your own joke about actual priests preferring little boys here) provokes the ire of the settlers who now decide that he's a werewolf and must be burned at the stake. Fortunately, the true werewolf attacks before worse things can happen and Joseph kills him with a cross-shooting crossbow he found in the priest's belongings. The dead priest, you see, was the French colony's premier expert on werewolf hunting. Of course, his stuff will come in handy when it turns out that there's more than one werewolf around. Whoever might it be?

As the rather preposterous sounding and overly complicated (and believe me, I've left out even more complications, asides, and characters; like the scriptwriters should have) plot synopsis already might have clued you in on, French-Canadian comedy/historical adventure/horror movie Le Poil De La Bête is neither the best written, nor the most coherent, nor the most sensible of films. If I were of a nastier disposition, I'd even suggest that it's really a pretty stupid film written by people who can't think of a better way to construct a plot than as a series of coincidences happening to a group of clichés (or, as is the case, by two very inexperienced writers: one guy who until now only worked in the electrical department of movies, and another one whose second script this was). Fortunately, Le Poil leaves me in a much better mood than it has any right to, so I can happily declare that, yes, the film's incredibly stupid, its plotting feels lazy and uninspired, and (former TV director) Philippe Gagnon's direction just doesn't do much that's exciting, but it also is a decently entertaining piece of fluff.

Decently entertaining, that is, when you are able to just roll with the bunch of nonsense the film throws at you. Don't even expect it to try to fuse the three genres it is working in into a whole. Instead of trying to connect its disparate genre parts, Le Poil makes do with having one (sometimes even funny) comedy scene, then one (usually neither horrifying nor disturbing) horror one, then one bit of (at times dumb, at times weirdly authentic feeling, unfortunately always confusing people of the past having beliefs that seem strange to us now with them being idiots) historical adventuring, in the grand old tradition of "one damn thing after another" movies. So, for Cthulhu's sake, don't expect it to be more than a series of possibly awesome events made kinda fun, kinda unfun, or you'll never have an entertaining second with the movie.

Even though it might not sound like it, I did get my ninety minutes of entertainment from the film. Le Poil is the type of movie that doesn't do a lot (or, probably, anything) right, but keeps its failings so varied that it leaves me - while not interested in its ideas, or convinced of anything amounting to its quality - looking forward to what stupid, unsuccessful stunt it's going to try to pull next. That must be a success of some kind.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

In short: The Shallows (2016)

Taking a – perhaps permanent – break from her study of medicine, Nancy (Blake Lively) travels to a secluded, hidden beach in Mexico to come to terms with the cancer death of her mother. In her mind, her mother and the beach where Mom must have had a particularly transcendent time on a holiday when she was Nancy’s age, are entwined, so Nancy seems to hope to feel nearer to her mother and be able to say goodbye. Nancy is also going to surf there.

Alas, our heroine has chosen a very bad time to come to this particular beach, for a (obviously hyper-intelligent) killer shark has chosen the neighbouring stretch of ocean as his private feeding grounds. So soon, Nancy finds herself with a nasty leg wound, without a phone or anyone who will miss her soon enough for it to matter, stranded on a bunch of rocks, besieged by a shark that is clearly as evil yet more intelligent than your usual politician and willing to wait and lay traps like a killer in a slasher movie.

The Shallows is very much a typical Jaume Collet-Serra film (well, ignoring the absence of Liam Neeson), which is to say, a film that takes a script that is technically sound but also absolutely preposterous and turns it into genre movie gold by the sheer power of good filmmaking. Collet-Serra is one of the least lazy filmmakers imaginable, seemingly always trying to find some way to make any given scene more dramatic, or more beautiful, or more exciting through technical mastery and visual imagination. If I sound as if I’m laying it on a little thick here, just look, really look, at basically every film the guy has ever made, watch how he always seems to make directorial choices that are at once right for any given scene and also interesting in all the right ways, giving everything a flourish that suggests personal involvement when making films that are by all rights meant to be streaming fodder neither filmmaker nor audience is supposed to care all that much about. If anyone’s ever looking to declare an overlooked post-00s genre movie auteur: here’s your guy.

In The Shallows, Collet-Serra uses his immense visual powers to emphasise Nancy’s isolation, while escalating the tension relentlessly (and beautifully), or taking a bit of time for some picture postcard beach and surfing footage meant as effective contrast to the danger to life and limb of our heroine. He generally treats the script’s more dubious ideas with such a seriousness and verve that I only noticed how preposterous the shark’s behaviour was after watching the film. Lively’s performance is very fine too; there’s no moment where she doesn’t hold up to the film’s focus on her, and her portrayal of determination is exactly the note the film needs to work. If that’s still not enough (either for you to be convinced or to think I’ve got the worst taste), The Shallows also features some excellent seagull acting.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

In Bruges (2008)

When he accidentally kills a child during his first job of murdering a priest, his boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) sends hitman trainee Ray (Colin Farrell) and his older and experienced colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to lay low in Bruges of all places. Bruges, as we will learn, is mostly known for being “the best-preserved medieval city in Belgium”.

Irish boy Ray really rather resents Bruges for not being Dublin, though he is clearly plagued by guilt badly enough that he’d be unhappy there too. He still gets into various adventures with a woman he falls for on first glance (Clémence Poésy), various people he can’t help but punch in the face and so on. Ken for his part rather enjoys a bit of a holiday from his murdering duties. Of course, Harry had a less than enjoyable reason for sending the two to the town.

By now, an encounter with a film described as a black comedy about two professional killers suggests to me another of these innumerable would be Tarantino films that came upon us after Pulp Fiction, usually made by people neither achieving a voice of their own nor a good copy of Tarantino’s. Fortunately, In Bruges’s director Martin McDonagh (whose next film, Seven Psychopaths I pretty much loathed when last I saw it, but let’s ignore that tonight) was already a well-known director of stage plays at the point when he made this film, so there was little chance of this going the road of mere copy.

Consequently, this is very much a film that just happens to use some of the same genre patterns Tarantino likes but approaches them from a very different angle. McDonagh’s film is a (very dark) character-based comedy that is also a complex philosophical mediation on questions of guilt, loyalty, the possibility of redemption, and the ironic cruelty of the universe or god.
While McDonagh treats the philosophical aspects of his film very seriously, and indeed manages to derive quite an emotional punch from them later on, the film has just as much room for the goofy, the weird, and the humanly touching, presenting all of its characters as complex and flawed humans in a brilliant way. McDonagh also succeeds at another difficult thing, creating a plot that is much less straightforward than it seems to be at first look yet which is as completely character-based as is the humour.

So it’s a good thing that his two main actors as well as everyone else involved bring their best to the screen. Gleeson – not surprisingly given he specializes in exactly that sort of thing – provides Ken with a certain hard-won dignity and decency the man clearly never realized he had. Farrell again demonstrates that he can actually be a nuanced and funny actor when he doesn’t have to waste too much energy on pretending he’s not Irish (seriously, unless the actor in question is Australian – to whom putting on accents seem to come natural for some reason - acting while doing a fake accent seems to lower any given actor’s abilities not having to do with said accent by fifty percent).

As a film director, McDonagh only feels like a stage director because he trusts his actors and the characters they play a lot; otherwise he quite obviously works from an understanding that film is a medium with rather different visual needs and possibilities than the stage is, yet never falls into the trap of overdoing camera tricks and visual effects to distraction. Also, for those among us who aren’t like Ray, McDonagh makes Bruges look very attractive, while again showing a discernment that avoids the dreaded tourist postcard effect. Things in this film are generally beautiful to look at, but that’s not their only point.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In short: Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

A bunch of, well, killer klowns from outer space land their circus-tent shaped ship near a smallish US college town and proceed to turn most of the town’s inhabitants into some delicious snacks for their (clown) space journey by putting them into large cotton candy cocoons. Because they are clowns, they don’t exactly go about their little expedition in a straight and orderly fashion.

Will young Mike (Grant Cramer), his girlfriend Debbie (Suzanne Snyder) and her cop ex-boyfriend Dave (John Allen Nelson) manage to stop the carnage by shooting clown noses – yes, you of course you kill a killer klown by shooting its nose – or will they end up becoming delicious?

I’m not terribly fond of late 80s horror comedies – I’m not even particularly fond of late 80s horror – and I’m easily annoyed by films that try to be consciously camp, so Killer Klowns is not at all the kind of film I expected to think much of going in. There’s a reason why it took me until 2017 to watch it. However, it turns out I missed out rather badly, for while it is certainly camp as all get out, Killer Klowns is a pure delight for anyone who enjoys 50s horror tropes, wild imaginations and fun. The whole thing doesn’t play out with the distance and smugness I usually connect with conscious camp but breathes a sense of enthusiasm and fun. The film looks and feels as if the brother trio who made it – Stephen Chiodo is the credited director – had put a lot of love and energy into it, seeing as there’s not a single scene going by where nothing that is either candy-coloured, outrageous or brilliantly over the top happens. In fact, most of the time, all three of these things combine into some appropriately garish.

I’m particularly fond of how the film puts an enormous effort into making nearly all the kills and all the little bits and pieces surrounding them clown (and sometimes circus) themed, so there’s seldom the feeling you get when you watch your typical late 80s franchise horror film that every murder could have been done by half of the other franchise horror monsters because there’s no thematic coherence at all. Here, there’s thematic coherence up the wazoo, a clear proof – if one is even needed – that clowns are indeed the most horrifying things imaginable. So expect a film where a clown uses a balloon animal as a blood hound, a tricycle massacre, little evil klown heads growing from popcorn, a very special ventriloquist dummy (in a scene that manages to be funny, macabre and grotesque at the same time), death by finger shadow puppet, and so on, and so forth. Once you’ve bought into the Killer Klowns, it all makes perfect, twisted sense, and just happens to be really, really funny, as well as sometimes surprisingly twisted.

The special effects have an inspired handmade quality, full of character and fun and the same twisted humour that’s running through the whole of the film. Like everything else in Killer Klowns from Outer Space, they are a joy to watch.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Death Spa (1989)

Terrible things are happening at the health spa of hunky – so says the script, at least - Michael Evans (William Bumiller): first his girlfriend Laura (Brenda Bakke) suffers burns and temporary blindness from a steam room accident (or was it?). Then all hell really breaks loose, with health spa goers not only tortured by aerobics but also hit by levitating tiles, murdered by fitness apertures running amok despite (or because of) the spa’s automated control systems, stabbed by stabby things and later on exploded and mutilated in many different ways when things come to a head on the place’s annual Mardi Gras bash.

Has the spa’s computer turned evil? Is the ghost of Michael’s dead wife (Sharri Shattuck) responsible? Or is her computer nerd brother out for vengeance? All of it? Something different?

Well, there’s only one way to find out, and that’s inflicting Michael Fischa’s mind-boggling Death Spa (the spa that kills?) on your unsuspecting brains. It’s candy-coloured like the 80s themselves! It’s sleazy with many a scene of female nudity that would be absolutely gratuitous if it weren’t the point of the film apart from the gore! It has a plot way too complicated for anyone involved to keep under control that tries its hardest to pull a Carnacki on the audience with a “natural” and a supernatural threat theoretically kinda-sorta happening at the same time (but don’t ask me which parts of the wild happenings are the responsibility of the ghost and which ones that of the other threat?)!

If that’s not enough to set the eyes of the kind of person (for example me) this thing was probably made for all a-glow, there’s much more to add, for this one is probably the most successful attempt (conscious or unconscious or through sheer incompetence) of a US horror film at becoming exactly like an 80s Italian horror film. So the plot makes no sense whatsoever: try the plan of the human bad guy that consists of making the spa so horrible Michael will lose it, so that bad guy and his partners then can easily acquire a spa nobody in his or her right mind would ever want to visit. Characters like psychic investigator (with a noir private eye sort of office) Dr. (of psychometry, I assume) Lido Moray are introduced with great fanfare, to then have nothing to do but to die. The dialogue sounds exactly like the sort of thing Italian dubbing studios would have come up with, full of non-sequiturs, bizarre phrasings and absurd declarations.

There’s also a case of possession that leads to in turns transvestism and bodily transformation into the other gender (twins, the film “explains”), smallish roles for Ken Foree, Rosalind Cash and Chelsea Field, and so much of treacly, sometimes rubbery gore I can only assume the influence of Fulci. However, to make that clear, Death Spa has little in common with the nightmarish atmosphere of the maestro’s best films – it’s much more like a hallucination induced by a bad combination of different kinds of alcohol and indigestion.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but Death Spa’s a horrible film by the standards of most sane people (though even they’d probably admit that some of the lighting is pretty rad in its way). By my standards, on the other hand, it is pretty darn awesome, mixing awkwardness, stupidity, and overambition with an increasingly hysterical tone that reaches the point of glorious absurdity once the Mardi Gras bash full of blind and deaf people who have their troubles seeing and hearing horrible deaths happening right next to them (which means they miss out on the undead fish that kill one of the cop characters, among many other things). I am convinced Death Spa is a major achievement; I’m just not sure what it achieves beyond blowing minds.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Its victims become maniacal night creatures

The Shipping News (2001): Swedish director Lasse Hallström aims for some sort of North American magic realism with elements of the (Northern?) Gothic here. At times, the result is compelling with scenes that suggest an element of near-cosmic/spiritual awe surrounding life on Newfoundland, making the more melodramatic turns of the plot feel fitting; at other times, he lays the BIG EMOTIONS on so thick they begin to feel more silly and contrived than the fated he is probably aiming at until even some of the expertly (perhaps too expertly) added lighter moments can’t always distract from the artificiality of plot, place and characters.

Always, though, the actors – which isn’t exactly a surprise with Julianne Moore, Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench only being the tip of the iceberg of talent - are doing a great job with whatever the script gods throw at them.

Cooties (2014): Summer school teachers led by Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Alison Pill have to fight off the attack of zombie-fied (well, virus infected) elementary school kids. Hilarity and/or brutal violence ensues. Well, sometimes, for about half of the jokes in this one are actually funny while the other half falls a bit flat thanks to the script’s complete lack of originality. The same thing also hampers interest for the characters, though there is one surprise that changes up at least one of the rules of how characters in this sort of movie live and die a bit.

Some of the suspense scenes are rather on the effective side – original or not. Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion tend to play most of these scenes straight, which works out well for the film. Despite its imperfections, this is a likeable little movie, not the sort of thing that’ll shift any paradigms but certainly worth a watch.

Into the Night (1985): Ed (Jeff Goldblum) suffers from insomnia, learns that his wife is cheating on him and is bored to death by his job. How lucky for him that he lives in a John Landis movie, so he meets professional mistress Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) and gets dragged into a comedy thriller plot that involves killings nobody in the film seems to feel much about, a bizarre rogues gallery of character actors, directors and even David Bowie, and an improbable romance. It all adds up to a skewed and loving portray of Los Angeles by night (like in the old chestnut with “the city is a main character”, but true), with quite a few clever thriller bits, many more funny jokes than unfunny, and a series of encounters with all sorts of strange people, neither starting nor ending with Diana’s Elvis impersonating brother. Actually, there’s also a thematic throughline concerning trust and self-knowledge that is more complex than the film’s general pace and grinning even in the face of murder suggest, which only helps turn a film that is already a joy to watch that decisive bit better. Well, the film’s ending is a bit rough and awkward but I’ve come to expect endings that don’t quite come together from everything Landis puts out.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Playgirls And The Vampire (1960)

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.

The bus carrying a group of five showgirls, their manager (Alfredo Rizzo) and their driver comes to a stop on a blocked road during a storm while traversing a nameless Central European country. The next town is far away, and the last town holds an angry hotel owner, so our heroes are only too happy when they stumble upon a castle. Having never seen a single horror film in their lives, everyone thinks it a grand idea to ask for shelter there.

At first, the place's owner, Count Gabor Kernassy (Walter Brandi) is quite displeased by the group's appearance, but as soon as he lays eyes on Vera (Lyla Rocco), one of the girls, his demeanour suddenly changes and he is willing to let them stay the night. But the Count has a few rules for his guests. Chiefly, he doesn't want to see them leave their rooms at night under any circumstances, and urges them to lock their doors from the inside. Nobody seems to think this the least bit suspicious, and so not everyone does what the Count asks.

Not surprisingly to anyone not a character in the movie, the next morning finds one of the girls dead, supposedly fallen to her death from the castle ramparts. And oh, look at that, the rain falls over night have made the way to the next town to hold the police - or for the guests to leave the castle - impassable.

Obviously, there is something strange going on in the castle. Might it have something to do with Vera's feeling of having been there before and the weird, quite changeable behaviour of the Count, whose at once cooing at Vera and urging her to get away as soon as she can? And where does the dead girl's corpse disappear to the next night? Only the movie's title and time will tell.

The Playgirls and the Vampire is not as good a film as one would hope for, but it's still an interesting part of the minor wave of Italian horror films of the early 60s trying to put the tropes - and some of the style - of the gothic vampire film into contemporary times (compare for example with the very similar - even to the use of Walter Brandi - The Vampire and the Ballerina). Unfortunately, it's also a film desperately trying to show as much supposedly titillating content as possible, without spending much of a thought on where and how to place the sexiness best. This random adding of what was probably called "risqué" when this was shot to where it doesn't work in the context of anything going on around it tends to strain one's patience with the film's permanently see-through nightie-clad protagonists. At least Vera - as the heroine - does put a leather jacket on once we all have seen enough of her breasts and her panties peaking through her gown. The most desperate and ill-fitting, and therefore most funny, moment of "sexiness" here must surely be shortly after the burial (yeah, they're fast with that, here) of the dead girl Katia. The logical reaction (if you're a character in an Italian exploitation film) of one of her friends to the shock of death and burial is - obviously - to do a (frightening looking) striptease. It's probably the way of her people instead of keening. Or a godawful moment in the history of screenwriting. In any event, this particular scene shows The Playgirls' lack of coherence, or rather, its puzzling absurdity. Who would think including a striptease in that way to be a good idea?

However, once you take a look at the name of The Playgirls' writer and director, and the body of work coming later in his career (mostly as a screenwriter), everything becomes clear. It's Piero Regnoli, writer of classics of Italian exploitation with extra sleaze like Burial Ground, Nightmare City or (the actually pretty swell) Malabimba. Of course, these films are quite a bit more effective and far-reaching in their sleaziness than The Playgirls is, but it's quite clear that Regnoli goes as far as the year of production allows (he even manages to smuggle a few seconds of naked vampire breasts in). Unfortunately, that's not far enough to let the film's attempts at titillation look anything more than desperate, and makes a good argument for the honesty of Regnoli's later work.

The Playgirls is a more interesting and effective film when it doesn't try to arouse its audience with showing either too little or too much. The movie's gothic melodrama aspect isn't exactly original (even in a film made in 1960), but works perfectly fine if you enjoy the style (as I do). From time to time, Regnoli even manages to build up a suitably spooky mood. The scenes with the vampirized Katia, always half dressed in stark shadows, are quite strong, as is Vera's encounter with the male vampire outside by night. With the help of some solid photography by Aldo Greci and in often very beautiful, noir-ish frame compositions, these scenes build up the film's vampires as a surprisingly creepy supernatural menace, only to be too soon interrupted by another reason for a girl to show off her nightgown. The gothic horror film and the would-be sexploitation one are permanently stepping on each other's toes, with Regnoli only once (in a scene between dead Katia and the manager) seeming to realize that the sex and the horror belong together in a scene and not in separate ones.

Fortunately, that's a lesson Regnoli would have learned well later on, as the full-grown psychosexual freak-out of Malabimba and Peter Bark's role in Burial Ground prove, to my delight, and the pain of many others.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

In short: The Similars (2015)

Original title: Los Parecidos

October 1968, Mexico. While rain the local radio station describes as “unnatural” is falling all over the world, the paths of a number of characters converge in a bus station a five hour drive from Mexico City. There’s for example the very bearded mine worker Ulises (Gustavo Sánchez Parra) trying to get to the City because his wife is giving birth, or Irene (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a very pregnant woman on the run from her husband.

The rain is not the only strange thing that’s going on this night. One by one, the characters in the bus stop fall down in a kind of fit to awaken as changed people. This phenomenon is only the start of a series of very peculiar occurrences.

To tell more about what happens in it would be rather unkind to Isaac Ezban’s nifty The Similars, so I’m going to keep things rather vague here. At first, I wasn’t too convinced by the movie: the acting is rather on the stagey side, and the decision to digitally tint the visuals so that they look like a bleached out print of an old grindhouse movie and even add some fake very light damage from time to time didn’t sit right with me. The production design, and Ezban’s direction work right from the start, though, the bus stop looking and feeling as if it had stepped right out of an episode of the (original) Twilight Zone, a series the film will turn out to be a wonderful homage to.

Then, a certain time in, the film’s first twist happens, and it’s certainly not what you’ll think it is going to be. In fact, I’m sure even the more seasoned viewer of this kind of film will be surprised by where The Similars is going. Or, to let me quote the notes I made at this stage of the proceedings: “What. the. actual. fuck.”

From then on out, The Similars does everything it does right and well: the bizarre and capital-W Weird twist will actually make sense, and has meaning and even political resonance with the time the film takes place in without ever losing its total weirdness, particularly thanks to effects work that really understands the disquieting lurking under the surface of the absurd. Further twists make clear that the film’s kinship to Rod Serling’s magnum opus is more than just on the surface, not just because there is a direct borrowing from a famous episode (which will get a twist of its own); there’s also a comparable humanist imagination at work here, and one that doesn’t shy away from having things end less than ideally for everyone involved if necessary. Ezban’s direction makes the most out of his own clever script, creating tense moments and a thick atmosphere out of what certainly can’t have been a lot of money, leaving this viewer rather happy about what he has encountered while randomly zapping through the (in Germany still rather shallow) depths of Netflix.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Ronin (1998)

After the end of the Cold War (and before the War on Terror was invented), quite a few intelligence operatives of various countries found themselves not just out of a job, and certainly without a pension, with skills that don’t sell too great on the normal job market, and morally adrift, lacking a master (be it in form of an abstract ideal) to do terrible things for. Therefore the film’s title.

Ronin concerns itself with a handful of such men – none of whom know each other from before - hired by people who are most certainly Irish and handle them through a woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone in one of her good performances) to acquire a traditional McGuffin in form of a silver case the IRA can’t afford to buy by violent means.

The place is Paris, and these men are American Sam (Robert De Niro being low-key at a point in his career when he was usually shouting and mugging), Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno being Jean Reno, which is not a complaint), German ex-KGB man Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), driver Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and extremely nervous former British special forces guy Spence (Sean Bean). The group will not only have to solve a difficult task but do it rather more quickly than sensible. Acquiring the case is of course only the first step in the film’s plot, for there are various betrayals waiting for the characters too. It seems some men even lose the most basic of loyalties when they lose the one thing that excused their violent behaviour in the past.

At the end of his career, having gone through the horrors of trying to get some sort of film out of Marlon “Can’t I just mumble a voice over on a shot of total darkness?” Brando and Val “I want a tree house” Kilmer at their peak levels of asshattery (levels so high the human language has no words to describe them), the great John Frankenheimer struck gold with self-assured brilliance twice in a row with this action and spy film that is also a meditation on the meaning of loyalty in a world that isn’t loyal to anyone as well as a film about getting old while the world changes around one (and a year later with Reindeer Games - at least in that film’s director’s cut). Okay, Ronin’s final five minutes are tying things up a bit too pat, smelling of studio interference, but this is not the sort of ending that actually ruins a film; it just robs its metaphorical level of a little precision and focus.

Ronin’s tale of aging men trying to survive the realization that the things that defined them are either not there anymore or might never have been what they thought they were, and now doing the same pretty terrible things (or in certain cases everything) for their basic survival they could once excuse with their Causes certainly suggests parallels to the director himself. I at least can’t shake the impression that there’s a bit of a self portrait of an aging man who is very good at making a certain type of film that isn’t much en vogue anymore here, but that might be the lure of the pat interpretation calling to me like a Polish mermaid in a weird strip club.

In any case, the film isn’t out to apologize every shitty behaviour by its characters – some of them, certainly Sam and Vincent, still cling to certain values and loyalties that protect them from the complete nihilism of some of the other characters here, something that still accepts the possibility of hope and perhaps even still believes in some sort of moral code. There’s a melancholy surrounding these two as well as the younger Deirdre that seems more clear-headed than mere nostalgia. These are people who have done and seen and survived things that have cost them their illusions but who aren’t willing to see everything they ever believed in as illusions.

Because this isn’t an art house movie but a Frankenheimer flick, these more abstract notions are packaged in a series of car chases, shoot-outs and other action sequences made by a master of that sort of thing, still inventive, clearly directed and rather exciting to watch; and because this is a Frankenheimer film, the action scenes here aren’t just meant to be exciting – though they certainly are that – but also reveal things about characters and relationships the dialogue scenes and the procedural scenes before the storm then don’t need to tell us.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

In short: Out of Time (2003)

This one’s a fun enough twisty little thriller directed by Carl Franklin with elements that look more noirish than they’ll turn out to be, its world view a bit too bound for a happy ending. The film is mostly concerned with showing how its hero - Denzel Washington as the chief of police of a tiny town in Florida – tries to juggle half a dozen problems (among them his cop soon to be ex-wife Eva Mendes and various streaks of very bad luck) to keep himself out of jail (or worse), after he has stolen drug money to pay for his girlfriend’s (who is also married to a wife-beating Dean Cain, no less) cancer treatment and finds himself betrayed. All that despite him not being exactly the brightest guy in the world.

Because the Chief is played by Denzel Washington, and his crimes are based on compassion and love (well, and lust, too, but you know) and not hurting anyone, our protagonist is not meant to be one of those thriller characters whose suffering the viewers are supposed to cheer on but rather meant for identification with his plight, an approach that makes sense but that rather divorces this from true neo noir status by being just too damn nice. As a thriller, the film suffers a bit from a script (by David Collard) that plays so fair with the audience it tends to telegraph all of its twists so clearly one might think it takes its audience to be even bigger idiots than its protagonist. There’s also a suspense scene that suggests that either Collard or his hero doesn’t know about the magic of find and replace, but I’m gonna let that slide, too.

Fortunately, the film has other things to recommend it. Once I got over the lack of neo noir goodness, I enjoyed Out of Time’s good-natured tone where not all friendship and love is based on betrayal and lies as a nice change from the more bitter and cynical stuff I usually watch when I indulge in thrillers.

Another plus is of course Denzel Washington. Even in a bad or mediocre movie, Washington is always at the very least fun to watch. Here, he works very well as the normal guy in far over his head, even though I never really bought him as quite as dumb as his character is supposed to be. There’s also a game supporting cast, and Carl Franklin’s direction that tends a bit towards the picture postcard slick but also does create a sense of (fake) place and goes through your usual suspense sequences with conviction, timing and friendly winks and nods towards the audience that do go well with the general tone of Out of Time.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Full Eclipse (1993)

Max Dire (Mario Van Peebles) doesn’t just possess a quintessential US action hero name, he’s also a cop who likes to use two automatics at once while doing the traditional action movie hero lunge that usually ends in a belly flop. Even more typical, Max’s partner is too old for this shit, and reads his wedding vows to his partner in his first scene, before suggesting they wait for backup while confronted with a hostage situation. Obviously, partner guy gets himself shot when Max decides not to wait for backup, causing some choice screaming of “noooooooooooo” from our hero, as well as slow motion shoot-diving.

In a pretty funny subversion of genre expectations, the partner survives. He does end up in a coma, though. However, while Max is off annoying his and his wife’s obviously long-suffering marriage guidance counsellor by being a bit of a twat, some mysterious mystery man mysteriously sneaks into partner dude’s hospital room and injects him with some mysterious fluids. Before you can say “mysterious, sir!”, Max’s partner is better than ever, getting back to duty in what looks like about a day (after having been shot in the chest four times). There’s something not quite right with him anymore, though. Whenever he is own screen, there are growly noises on the soundtrack; he is rude to donut sellers; and when it comes to law enforcement, he acquires a style even his action movie cop partner Max finds too much, correctly describing him as “Dirty Harry on crack”. But no matter, for a couple of scenes later, partner dude walks into a bar full of cops to commit suicide in full view of his loving partner. Oh well, movie over.

But wait, there’s much, much more, for Max is soon contacted by police psychologist Adam Garou (Bruce Payne), clearly the king of subtlety. Apart from his day job, Garou turns out to be the head of a secret police kill squad who “keeps the streets clean” by murdering arms and drug dealers, theirs wives and probably their baristas too. Garou’s “pack” does this not in the old-fashioned manner of just brutally gunning their victims down while holding self-justifying speeches. Instead, they shoot up a mysterious fluid, turn into the kind of people who kill with fang and claw, and clearly have a lot of fun doing it. Garou really, really wants Max on his team, but our hero is made of somewhat sterner stuff and declines. Why, he even tries (if not terribly hard) to sic his boss on the pack, which of course leads nowhere.

Perhaps an offer he can’t refuse of extramarital doggy style sex from Garou’s pack member Casey (Patsy Kensit) will convince Max to join?

Before Game of Thrones was even a twinkle in the eye of George R.R. Martin, when the three little letters “HBO” more often than not suggested softcore porn thrillers, this happened. As the plot of the first fifty minutes or so suggests, “this” means a wonderfully insane pairing of every US action movie cliché ever with a bizarre werewolf tale directed by good old Anthony Hickox who clearly enjoys working on a TV horror movie that looks as if it had a better budget than most contemporary direct-to-DVD action films, and suffers from none of the restrictions of network TV when it comes to sex, violence, and Van Peebles.

If you’re going into this thing looking for depth, clever ideas, and what we call “good writing”, you should probably avoid this at all costs, even though the film’s use of the old “walking dead partner” is at least a bit clever. This one’s all about explosions, slow motion, dubious sexiness, Mario Van Peebles in ripped outfits, and hilarious werewolfery, packing as much awesome nonsense into a bit more than ninety minutes as possible. Judged on that ambition, Full Eclipse is a huge success, full of details that are stupid fun at its most bizarre. For example, what’s the mystery fluid that makes werewolves? Garou’s brain fluid, of course!

Also on board for your delectation are crap werewolf make-up - later on heightened to a werewolf costume that looks more like a bear costume - clear attempts at getting at some of that Wolverine fandom, a master plan that makes no sense whatsoever, gratuitous nudity, hilarious (or was that “steamy”?) sex, and one batshit insane thing a minute. All this is directed by Hickox with verve, style and as much cheese as he could pack in, which, given Hickox particular set of talents as a director, is a lot.

The only thing about Full Eclipse I did not find enjoyable is a rape scene that’s just too unpleasant to belong in a film quite this silly.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: The flesh is weak. Wax is forever.

Death Race 2050 (2017): G.J. Echternkamp’s film isn’t another sequel to the direct-to-video films based on the idea - minus the satire and the humour - of the Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000 but a Roger-Corman produced remake of the original. That means broad, crude and sometimes funny satire is back in again, the production design is cheap yet insane, and Malcolm McDowell is the chairman of the United Corporations of America and looking like he’s having fun hamming it up and talking nonsense.

I for one welcome the return of weirdness, though I still prefer the original movie with its rather more pointed satire and its much superior stunt work. However compared with the usually deplorable quality of contemporary Corman productions, this one works out rather well by being mostly entertaining and more often than not even funny.

Klute (1971): The first film in what is sometimes known as director Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy (the other films being The Parallax View and All the President’s Men) is a giallo plot treated through the lens of US 70s hyperrealism, leading to a film that’s much more interested in the female main character’s Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda doing a brilliant job) psychology than it is in its murder mystery or its titular character (Donald Sutherland working wonderfully as a foil for Fonda to work with/against), mostly using said mystery to further emphasise thematic connections concerning trust and self-knowledge and 70s big city malaise in  the mystery and in Bree’s life. In the case of Klute, this isn’t a criticism, mind you, for Pakula’s direction and Fonda’s acting really come together to form something special and harrowing. Plus, the suspense scenes that are there are a rather brilliant bonus. I could have gone without the scenes between Bree and her psychiatrist which only tell the audience directly what the acting has made clear all along but then I’ve never been much of a fan of therapy scenes in movies.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muire (1947): This somewhat well-known (he wrote ironically) romance with a ghost between Gene Tierney (beautiful, alive) and Rex Harrison (dead, and supposedly a crusty sea bear which does use up a lot of my ability to ignore the improbable, much more so than his being a ghost) is ahead of most horror films of its time by indeed featuring a real ghost. As directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (not showing much of the talkiness classic movie buffs seem to either love or loath him for), it’s a highly effective romance I’d call a tear-jerker if that wasn’t making light of its delicate sensibilities. It’s the sort of film classic Hollywood was excellent at, an escapist tale of beautiful people and heightened emotions that looks and feels effortlessly luxurious.

In fact, the film’s emotionally so convincing I can hardly bring myself to be annoyed by its dubious idea of waiting one’s whole life away for a love one doesn’t even remember as the height of romance. Having to buy George Sanders as really hot stuff still confuses the heck out of this heterosexual guy, though.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Saviour (1980)

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.

It would be easy to confuse Hong Kong police Inspector Tom (veteran actor Pai Ying, looking a bit bored) with your run-of-the-mill cop on the edge. His boss (Chris Dryden) at least seems to take him for one, complaining that Tom never keeps any criminal alive. But what the film shows of the cop lets him look like some sort of anti-Danny Lee, killing only in self-defence, being not too fond of torture, spending his free time taking care of an orphan boy. Given these facts, our so-called loose gun acts like the least psychopathic cop in Hong Kong cinema, though, admittedly, the way police officers in HK movies usually act, that's not much to say of a cop's mental health.

Tom's newest case is a series of murders of prostitutes. While the audience knows the identity of the killer right from the start, Tom will have to spend a few scenes not moving a facial muscle, or, as the experts call it, "investigating". Fortunately, one of the killer's victims escapes with her life and is willing and able to identify him. The young man doing the deeds is one Paul Kwok (Ng Man-Hung?), who isn't quite the nice little boy he once was anymore since he witnessed his mother killing herself in front of his eyes while rambling about "sluts" and "tramps", a catastrophe caused by his Dad's very obvious cheating. Now, with a witness, it should be an easy case for Tom, and Paul should be facing a nice vacation in an institution.

Unfortunately, the young man's father (even more veteran actor Tien Feng) is a retired gangster, and the sort of gangster without any scruples to hire one of his old associates to kill the witness and later on (in utter stupidity) even try for Tom's life at that. After the inevitable death of the witness, Paul goes free again.

The only way Tom sees to still catch his man is to let a friend of one of the victims (Gigi Wong), who also doubles as his own love interest, do some undercover work in killer provocation.

Before Ronny Yu became Ronny Yu, the emperor of blue lights in neo-wuxia movies, he learned the director's trade making movies in various other genres, like this Teddy Robin Kwan-produced thriller. Even this early in his career, and confronted with a total lack of blue lights, Yu certainly knew how to stage a scene, use dynamic editing to ratchet up the tension at the right moment, and set up a nice nod in the direction of Dario Argento in a staircase sequence. Quite unlike the enthusiastic, Chor-Yuen-influenced wallowing in careful artificiality that characterizes the visual style of Yu's films of the 90s, The Saviour is aiming for the speedy edited type of tight pseudo-naturalism typical of many of Hong Kong's crime films and thrillers of the late 70s and early 80s, with only short moments of the non-realist - like the flashbacks to the death of Paul's mother, that staircase scene, and a handful of other moments - prefiguring at once Yu's later style and making that style's debt to the giallo surprisingly probable. This doesn't mean that the shots that are supposed to look spontaneous and "real" here aren't set up just as carefully as those of a film made in a more obviously artificial style; The Saviour certainly isn't a point-and-shoot affair, but a thoroughly composed picture that is meant to feel thoroughly un-composed.

Most of the time, that well-constructed pseudo-naturalism works out well for the film, that is, as long as the script plays into Yu's hands keeping things relatively low-key and reasonably believable. Unfortunately, the construction of the movie's final act leaves something to be desired. What starts out unoriginal yet casually believable (as far as such things go), turns into a classic case of an idiot plot, where the final confrontation only plays out in the supposedly exciting way it does because the female lead seems to have suddenly misplaced her brain and her once professional cop friends just as suddenly stop thinking or acting like people who know what they are doing, too. This sort of thing would rankle less in a film that never pretended to be taking place on planet Earth as we know it, but in a film that spent most of its first hour pretending not to want to be too sensationalist, this sudden turn for the preposterous is more of a problem. That the script's failure at this late stage doesn't ruin the film completely is Yu's achievement - he just pulls enough magic tricks out of the "look, I'm DIRECTING!" hat to distract from the writing problems.

The other problems Yu needs to and does distract from throughout the movie are the frankly bored and boring acting by Pai Ying and the decidedly unthreatening performance by Ng Man-Hung. It's nice that they (or Yu) decided to step back from the more typical scenery chewing found in every other film from Hong Kong ever, but they then fell into the trap of acting so low-key they might as well have been replaced by wooden puppets. I think I would have preferred the scenery-chewing here.

Still, Yu's direction is stronger than his film's flaws, and though I wouldn't recommend The Saviour as one of the director's best films, it is well worth watching for anyone interested in Yu's early career or in the move against the beautiful artificiality of the venerable Shaw productions taking place in the Hong Kong movies of that era.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Secrets of Emily Blair (2016)

Full disclosure: I still have no idea what those secrets are supposed to be.

Just shortly before nurse Emily Blair (Ellen Hollman) and her loving boyfriend William Regan (Will Kemp) – characters named Blair and Regan in a possession movie, oh yes – are eloping, a homeless patient blows a demon (in its contemporary standard form of digital black fog) down her throat.

Soon mild-mannered Emily “accidentally” cuts off parts of a little boy’s finger, holds mumbling discussions with someone or something invisible, tries to seduce a guy on her own elopement party, pukes on the table of William’s family priest Father Avital (Colm Meaney), and gets rather rowdier during sex than William appreciates (please insert your own bit about the inherent conservatism of possession horror and how it leads to really boring ideas of transgression here). The next step is of course getting bad teeth and starting on a little murder spree.

Father Avital, alas, isn’t a big believer in demons, so it takes some time before his thoughts turn from schizophrenia (as if such a thing exists in a horror movie) to possession. Trouble is, Avital’s not much of an exorcist, and writer Patricia Harrington – or whoever is responsible for that particular bit of the script - clearly doesn’t care how the Catholic Church operates, so the good Father seeks the help of a former rogue exorcist (Adrian Paul) for whose excommunication he is responsible. Hilarity, I mean excitement, ensues.

Oh dear, Joseph P. Genier’s exorcism horror film isn’t very good at all. It’s not only that Harrington’s script as it is filmed adds exactly nothing at all to one of the most tired horror sub-genres we have. The acting’s not terribly convincing either – Meaney at least vigorously chews the scenery but the rest of the ensemble is bland even when possessed and attacked by demons –, the production design suggests a bad TV movie (the church ruin set at the end actually made me feel sorry for the film for I have seen more convincing ones in microbudget films shot in backyards and empty warehouses), and Genier’s direction is lacking personality and drive.

Fortunately, The Secrets of Emily Blair might be a bad film, but it isn’t a boring one. There is quite a bit that’s amusing here, too bad the film isn’t meant to be a comedy. To wit: apparently, one of the main powers of demons is to drain telephone batteries; when you are possessed by a demon, you are trapped in a tiny forest set full of digital swirly bits that just happen to hide a bit of the cheapness of the costume of the demon who is punching you in the face repeatedly, which is one of the more wrong-headed attempts at visualising a spiritual struggle I’ve encountered; demons are easier exorcised when the possessed’s fiancée helps the praying priest out with a litany of treacly lovey-dovey crap that would be too embarrassing for most romcoms, suggesting that demons are allergic to kitsch. In general, Emily’s moments of social awkwardness caused by her possession are comedy gold.
Staying in the same ballpark of crappiness, the murders are all staged as awkwardly as possible, shot in ways that are bound to make the make-up effects look as bad as possible, but are generally worth a guffaw.

So hey, The Secrets of Emily Blair is badly made nonsense, but at least it’s entertaining badly made nonsense.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Moonstalker (1989)

Your typical US horror film core family is on vacation in their mobile home, not enjoying themselves on some godforsaken empty camping ground in the snowiest part of Nevada. To Dad, nothing says getting close to your family as much as freezing with his loved ones while they hate him for his choice of vacation site. That’s not going to be a problem for them for long, though. A nice, poor, if somewhat eccentric and probably smelly old coot who likes to be called Pop (Tom Hamil) comes to the same camping ground with his much less modern trailer.

One is right neighbourly to one another. Alas, Dad verbally showing off  their new-fangled MICROWAVE OVEN(!!!!) and a cooler full of food to Pop turns out to be a very bad idea. For Pop has a secret stashed away in his trailer: he has his totally crazy, camper-hating son Bernie (Blake Gibbons), wearing a straightjacket and what we will later learn is a “special hood”, chained up there, but because he really, really wants that microwave, Pop lets Bernie loose, gives him his trusty old axe, and looks forward to a bit of foraging once Bernie’s through with the family.

Because four victims really aren’t enough for a decent slasher of this period, there’s also a wilderness counsellor camp (where young people learn how to counsel the wilderness when it becomes depressed, one supposes) in the neighbourhood, obvious final girl and all.

Moonstalker is quite obviously a very traditional little slasher movie, regionally produced and shot in Nevada, with actors in the smaller roles whose acting skills suggest they are friends and family of the filmmakers; not that the rest of the cast is full of brilliant thespians, but there’s a difference between their serviceable and goofy performances and those of the guy playing the deputy who looks and sounds like a kid playing dress-up. That’s not really a complaint, mind you: there’s something pleasant and personable about Moonstalker that you wouldn’t really get otherwise, a kind of home-grown charm that actually makes me a bit jealous of the people on screen so much fun do they seem to have.

The film is also goofy as heck in many other aspects, so goofy indeed, even rather important characters in the plot are broadly played stereotypes that seem to have escaped from the amateur version of a teen comedy without the film ever parsing as a horror comedy. And let’s not even talk about the business about the microwave oven (take that, Microwave Massacre), the reason for the killer’s particular hatred of campers, and so on, and so forth. That’s all good, too, of course, for this silly approach helps Moonstalker avoid the typical problem of slashers of this budget and period: utter boredom in the scenes where nobody is killed caused by an inability to come up with anything fun besides the murders. Now, there’s actually a good amount of killings in this one – some of the murders are cleverly staged, some really silly – which at first lack a bit in blood; that however will get better in time. Moonstalker’s true awesomeness however lies in scenes like a long, long, badly (but in a likeable way) campfire origin tale, the use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as a signal for hot sexy times, and other moments of the film just goofing off that are more entertaining to watch than they have any right to be. Admittedly, suspense and focus are absent yet what the film lacks in these respects, it makes up for with charm.

From time to time, director Michael O’Rourke finds an atmospheric shot, lights scene moodily, or manages to make a killing suspenseful; on the goofier side, the film features what just might be the most bizarre use of corpses (with a jaunty tune no less) I’ve seen in a slasher movie. What exactly it is, I just can’t bring myself to spoil here – some things, everyone needs to see for herself.

Which, all in all, adds up to a movie I enjoyed quite a bit more than what I’ve come to expect from late 80s slashers.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Some Thoughts About Der amerikanische Freund (1977) & Ripley’s Game (2002)

Even if you ignore the twenty-five years of change in the technical aspects of filmmaking and the world around it, it does come as a bit of a surprise how different these two adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novel - the older directed by Wim Wenders, the newer by Liliana Cavani – are. Even though both films hew very close to some of the main plot beats, there’s a world of difference in sensibility between them. As a dear friend of mine remarked when I tried to explain the difference between the films, it’s a lot like a piece of classical music realized by (very) different conductors.

The choice of very different lead actors and two very different approaches to the character of Tom Ripley seem to me symptomatic for the difference between the two films: where John Malkovich in the Cavani film hews closer to Highsmith’s text and is a cultured sociopath whose main relation to neurotypical humanity seems to me a curiosity about how people who are very much not like him function internally, Dennis Hopper’s Ripley is a guy in cowboy hat who understands high art probably as well as the Malkovich character does but seems to find actual enjoyment in those things Malkovich-Ripley will probably sniff at as low-brow, and who seems not as precisely drawn as is his 2002 counterpart. There’s a blurriness around Hopper-Ripley’s edges, a wavering between a kind of melancholy that would be alien to Malkovich’s Ripley and the ability for ruthless action they both share. As its Ripley, so are the films: Wenders’s movie feels much more leisurely, much more interested in exploring the inner life of Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan Zimmermann (his version of Dougray Scott’s character in the Cavani film) but also arguing that you can’t understand anyone’s inner life in a precise way. Meandering and circling and walking in a direction that might very well be the wrong one (but one won’t know until one has tried) is more Wenders’s style.

Cavani’s film, on the other hand, seems to me to be all about precision and hard edges, to always know where it is going and why in the clearest manner. Malkovich’s portrayal of Ripley is of a fastidious and neat man who always gives at least the illusion of control, so Cavani’s treatment of the plot needs to and does feel much tighter and leaner than Wenders’s approach. One would be tempted to call her film more conventional, but that does sound rather patronizing to a film that is as strong as this one, and that is as much about finding beauty in the strangest of places, moments and people as it is about its thriller plot. Perhaps the difference is that one of these films was made by a woman who is nearly seventy and has seen and experienced a lot more and the other one by a comparatively young man who still had a lot to catch up on when he made it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

La vendetta di Spartacus (1964)

aka The Revenge of Spartacus

aka Revenge of the Gladiators

Spartacus isn’t dead! A band of his surviving companions led by Arminius (Gordon Mitchell) cut him down from his cross (this is Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, not the historical one who most probably died in battle, you understand), giving hope to slaves and the victims of Empire everywhere. There’s no full-on slave revolt this time around but various small groups of rebels are hitting the power of Rome with guerrilla tactics.

The Roman senate is set on not letting this new slave revolt grow into a full-grown war, and does attempt to quell the revolution with proper Roman military might from the get-go, though with less success than they’d hope for. Particularly senator Lucius Transonius (Daniele Vargas) is pushing the matter hard, though part of his eagerness is obviously bound up with an attempt to make his son Fulvius (Giacomo Rossi Stuart with very distracting hair) the general of the legion(s) quelling the insurrection. That part of Fulvius’s plan isn’t going over too well with the rest of the senate, whose members clearly prefer somebody with more to recommend him than a big head of hair for a military leadership role but Fulvius gives way in that point rather fast. Why, given the rest of his oratorical and political manner, you’d think he has a plan up his sleeve to get Lucius the position one way or the other. For now, Lucius is going to have to play the part of Henchman Number One.

While all this is going on, Roman Valerius (Roger Browne) returns to the family farm from a stint in the legions, only to find his parents and his young brother slaughtered by legionnaires under the command of Lucius. Valerius’s parents were hiding his badly wounded older brother Marcellus (Germano Longo) who had thrown in his lot with Spartacus and was indeed one of the men taking part in Spartacus’s rescue. Somehow, the Romans found out they did, killing the family, even though Marcellus managed to escape. Valerius makes short work of the three legionnaires still plundering his former home, and is left with a whole load of grudges he doesn’t know where to direct. Fortunately, his family’s former slave – set free by his brother – Cynthia (Scilla Gabel) – sent by the rebels to warn the family of the Roman raid – arrives just before he can decide the way to go is to walk right into the rest of Lucius’s cohort and die heroically. Cynthia, who is very right, and very very pretty, convinces Valerius that 1) the slave revolt is a right and just thing and 2) his best chance of at least finding his brother alive is to join with the rebels, so off they go. Valerius, it soon turns out, is rather a natural in the whole guerrilla work thing, so there still might be hope for true freedom in the Roman Empire.

Whew, and this is just the plot of the film’s first half hour or so. As a matter of fact, Michele Lupo’s La vendetta di Spartacus is one of the rare peplum films that very much seems to pride itself on having a sensible and reasonably complex plot where even the historical freedoms it takes will turn out to mostly fit into the gaps of recorded history, where characters are larger than life as are their plans yet still have discernible motivations (yes, even the bad guys).

So, quite atypical for the genre, the film doesn’t tell a series of vaguely related cool episodes (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you) but an actual story, and while there’s not quite enough money going around here to go for the true epic scale of the Kubrick film on whose coattails the film quite obviously rides – in fact, the footage of the Romans losing various skirmishes against the rebels used in a senate session is clearly from another film, what with the Romans enemies looking rather Teutonic – this is a film that puts all its efforts into making what it can put on screen as memorable as possible.

I had the film’s director Lupo generally pegged as more dependable than exciting, but there’s true enthusiasm on display here, as well as what looks to my eyes like an honest attempt at using the actual history. Not in the sense of Lupo actually aiming for or achieving real historical authenticity, of course - this is still a peplum and therefore a pulpy historical adventure but clearly one working from a consciousness of the actual history, using some of it to good effect (the senate scenes may look a bit small scale but do feel a lot like the stuff I’ve read in Latin class in their oratorical approach and the style of their intrigue, for example), and stepping away from it not out of laziness but because this is supposed to be an exciting and melodramatic adventure.

Consequently, the action scenes are rather exciting too, with some of the better stunts you’ll find in a non-mythological peplum and an energy to them that reminded me pleasantly of the best of US serials from decades past. I was surprised by how good the melodrama - usually the parts when I roll my eyes, raise my eyebrows in these movies - worked here, with many a close-up of Mitchell’s, Browne’s and Gabel’s faces in quite effectively realized states of big emotion. Big emotion even, which resonates with the film’s ideas about freedom, loss and betrayal instead of feeling shoved into the script because you need melodrama in your peplum. In the final act, there are also a few poignant scenes, staged by Lupo with a sense of dignity I didn’t really expect to find in the film, giving the latter stages of the film true emotional weight.

The melodrama also fits into the film’s not terribly difficult to see subtext about a democracy (of sorts) at a point in its development when it is only too easily convinced by a strong man, as long as he’s telling it that it can do no wrong and kicks the people who are weakest. That’s something Italians and Germans know quite a bit about, though it does seem like many of us right no prefer to forgot these lessons of history.