Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fixed Bayonets! (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

In short: Lobos de Arga (2011)

aka Game of Werewolves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In short: Silent Trigger (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Doom (2005)

The (soon to be space) marine squad of Sarge (The Rock), consisting of people will charming nick names like Duke (Razaaq Adoti), Destroyer (Deobia Oparei) and Goat (Ben Daniels), are sent to the Mars science base on a search and destroy mission. You see, something horrible has happened in the genetics lab there, and now hungry things are around you probably wouldn’t want to get back to Earth, nor to the main part of the Mars base.

Odd man out in Sarge’s team is Reaper (Karl Urban), who is basically an intellectual – at least in comparison -l who gave up on these pursuits because of the expected family trauma and is slumming with the psychopaths now. Reaper’s not too happy his estranged sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike) is coming with the group to rescue some research material, but if you think this isn’t the kind of movie that’ll end with a nice bit of family reunion, you’ve never seen a film before.

Of course, before new peace between siblings the gods have put a bunch of genetic mutations that need killing, and the revelation of the fact that mindlessly following orders leads to evil. Go figure.

I know, by all rights, I should be quite set against Andrzej Bartkowiak’s adaptation of First Person Shooter godfather Doom but I do have a heart for Aliens lite movies about shooty guys and monsters running through dark corridors. And that, if you ask yourself this highly important question, is exactly the sort of movie this is.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that Doom keeps away from the insane hell parts of the game series’ basic plot and replaces it with the usual dumb and careless experiments with alien DNA (oh, spoiler), as is the related fact that the more beloved monsters from the game make cameo appearances and most of the monsters our protagonists spend their time fighting are of the usual infected and alien suits type. However, it’s pretty clear something more lavish just wasn’t in the budget, and the film does do its best with the things it can afford, resulting in many a tight action scene, lots of shouting, and a smidgen of blood and goo.

If I say it’s all in good fun, I’m probably again sounding like I’m damning with faint praise, but Doom really is a fine bit of corridor shooter (oh, hi, Doom 3 meet Doom). It’s well paced, and using the genre typical character archetypes well. You wouldn’t exactly call the characters three-dimensional. or the treatment of their types subversive, but they do work well in the context of the film they are in. The script even surprises once or twice by being slightly more clever than strictly necessary. First when it slowly shifts its bad ass protagonist from Sarge to Reaper (a trick that probably worked even better in 2005 when the audience wasn’t used to Karl Urban as a leading man), and a second time when it actually starts to argue that, you know, shooting and explosions is fun and all, but from time to time you should probably think through the ethics of what you’re doing; which isn’t a thing you’d expect to find in this sort of shoot ‘em up film, and is even integrated into the plot well enough it actually works.

I also can’t help but feel sympathetic towards a first person shooter adaptation that includes a perfectly silly and cheesy, yet also intensely loveable, first person shooter sequence; I’m pretty sure Paul W.S. Anderson was quite put out when he saw Doom and realized he could have used over-the-shoulder cam in one of his Resident Evil films (which might explain a certain backwards slow motion scene in one of his RE films as a very particular kind of overcompensation). There’s really something irresistible about a film that uses that sort of scene without really breaking its perfectly straight (if one-liner lined) face for me.

Plus, the violence is fun, fast, and plenty, leaving Doom a much more entertaining piece of cinematic art than I’d been led to believe.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

In short: Tulpa – Perdizioni mortali (2012)

Corporate executive Lisa (Claudia Gerini) takes steam off her daily grind with the membership in one of the more adorable private sex clubs you’d be able to find, a place calling itself Tulpa. The club is a cheesy mix of harmless decadence and mock-Buddhist eso bullshit, and looks a lot like a cross between a Hollywood Buddhist’s bath room and the cover of a German 70s prostitute romance pulp novel (yeah, that’s a thing that exists) – mostly harmless yet with a lot of entertainment value.

Poor Lisa has to take time off from flirting with her boss (Michele Placido), indulging in threesomes, mild lesbian shenanigans and entry level SM, when she realizes that a lot of her sex club sex partners are murdered in long, drawn-out murder scenes by a killer in highly traditional giallo murderer garb. Of course, Lisa can’t go to the – utterly absent from the film – police to explain that connection to them, because clearly her career would be over if people found out she’s indulging in her most harmless sexual fantasies. So it’s up to her to kinda-sorta play detective and in the end accidentally find out who the killer is.

I was no fan at all of director Federico Zampaglione’s last movie, Shadow, so Tulpa came as a pleasant surprise in that I found myself quite entertained by it and appreciated the direction it was coming from. At least, I’m pretty fine with the existence of Italian movies that try to catch the old giallo magic again, and Tulpa is good enough to have been in the lower middle tier of movies made in classic giallo times, which ain’t half bad.

Of course, there are some pretty hefty weaknesses of the kind that could easily dissuade people from enjoying the film, most of them in the script area. The short synopsis should have made clear that this is – quite in the giallo tradition – not a cleverly constructed mystery but really a series of long, stylish (and quite unappetizing) murder sequences broken up by a bit of sex and Claudia Gerini walking around, looking confused and increasingly distressed. I don’t really have it in me to criticize this aspect of the film too much, because Zampaglione makes it clear right from the start that he’s not interested in the killing spree as a mystery, so it seems wrong-headed to expect differently from the film. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to find the film’s ideas about what makes for deviant sexuality a bit adorable.

The things Tulpa gets right are nothing to sneeze at, though: the acting’s fine for the sort of story this is (Gerini in particular is a satisfying giallo heroine), Zampaglione does a nice job with creating a mood of the weird and slightly grotesque that at the very least approaches the dream-like quality of classic European horror, even if it’s perhaps not quite there yet, and the murders are aesthetically pleasing and unpleasant at the same time. Which is more than enough to please me.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Santo: Infraterrestre (2001)

Santo (Hijo del Santo) is unofficially beaten in the ring by the mysterious Blue Panther (Blue Panther) when a bunch of muscled guys wearing black sunglasses jump into the ring to kick the crap out of the idol of the masses.

When Santo reviews the fight on his supercomputer, he realizes his opponent can’t have been a normal human being for somehow, he just shakes off hits that could have killed a normal opponent (making Santo a likely killer in the ring!?) and seems to be able to change his centre of gravity at will. Before he comes to any further conclusions, Santo is called in for his part-time job as police special agent.

There has been a series of mysterious disappearances and kidnappings in Mexico. The only witnesses to the misdeeds are a traumatized boy who just happens to idolize Santo, and a woman the film doesn’t make any use of, so I don’t know why she’s even in the script. What’s a mystery to our hero and the police is common knowledge to the audience for we have long since been informed the kidnappings are the work of the race of alien reptilians living underground who once ruled the Earth.

Consequently, Santo, police child psychologist Dr Alma Monreal (Diana Golden), and a handful of cops are soon crawling through the sewers - and what lies below the sewers – punching bad guys in the face. And would you believe it, Blue Panther is one of these bad guys!

On one hand, it’s difficult for me not to love Héctor Molinar’s attempt at reviving the beloved character of lucha hero El Santo for the movies, with good old Son of Santo playing his dad’s part; on the other, it’s not difficult to admit the resulting film isn’t really as good as one would hope. Of course, I’m still going to recommend it.

However, this is quite a few levels above the worst outings in the original Santo’s film career by sheer virtue of the film actually seeming to try to entertain its audience, with comparatively little foot-dragging, and a script that has some excellent silly ideas. The main problem is Molinar’s direction, the sort of effort that isn’t clever enough to film around the problems of the obviously ultra low budget of the production, using blocking that makes the cramped sets and boring grey walls of dubious origin that represent everything from a police station to sewers to an alien underground dwelling look even more cramped, with seemingly little thought put into the visuals at all. Molinar’s also not very good at filming the – surprisingly numerous, at least – action sequences. The latter is a particular shame because Hijo del Santo (or his stuntman – I don’t want to make the distinction) is actually a fine screen fighter, and the brawl choreography is pretty fun too, so it would have been nice to see the punching and wrestling presented in an appropriate way instead of Molinar’s often badly angled and underlit shots.

Still, as a lucha movie fan, I’ve gotten used to quite worse direction from the late Santo films, generally made worse by an air of apathy Molinar’s film never shows, and while it’s a shoddy little film by any interpretation, it does provide us cursed by the lucha gods with a decent enough bit of fun, good film or not.

Santo: Infraterrestre also includes some excellent additions to the all-around silliness of lucha cinema, providing Santo with a flying car (cue bored looking policemen who don’t react to Santo’s car suddenly flying away as a horrible – yet awesome – CGI effect at all, because clearly, on planet lucha you see this sort of thing every day), his own satellite in space (called PLATA-1, of course), as well as said supercomputer. Furthermore, the film posits the presence of an underground civilization of reptiles that is then basically shrugged off by our hero because he beat the big bad (and his main assistant), and surely, it’s better not to tell anyone we have alien neighbours right under our feet. In further Santo news, the film also teaches us that Santo is the kind of guy who dresses up for a visit to the sewers in his best shirtless cape ensemble, and looks rather freshly oiled too, which really makes Infraterrestre a part of the Santo canon no sane person should miss.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

In short: The Phantom Light (1935)

Experienced lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) is set to replace a colleague in a lighthouse off the coast of a small village in Wales. Once arrived he learns his new lighthouse is supposed to be haunted, a suggestion that would be rather easier to laugh off if members of the lighthouse crew didn’t have the tendency to disappear, and if the boat that’ll take Higgins to his post weren’t bound to take a lighthouse crew member who has gone crazy (with bug-eyes and all the other traditional signs) back to land.

Curiously, not everyone wants to evade the lighthouse and in fact a girl named Alice Bright (Binnie Hale, who will show off her legs during the second half of the film in a way I didn’t expect from a film made in the non-code, yet censorship-prone British cinema of the time, which only goes to show what I know) hailing from some sort of psychical research society, as well as reporter Jim Pearce (Ian Hunter) are doing their – independent – best to get Higgins to take them onto the lighthouse. That sort of thing is against all regulations of course, and Higgins declines.

Yet, also of course, Alice and Jim are still going to end up on the lighthouse, the crazy keeper will have to stay the night for medical reasons, and mysterious things will start to happen.

Before he teamed up with his other half Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell made his first directing experiences doing all kinds of genre films. The Phantom Light is one of these films, and while it’s really just an amusing, fluffy little thriller of the sort that just doesn’t look all that thrilling anymore eighty years later, you can already see quite a bit of the director Powell would become.

The director takes much more visual care than strictly necessary for the material, with often creative framing of scenes, demonstrates a finely developed sense of pacing, and shows off some moments of highly effective editing. Particularly in the early film, Powell also creates the bucolic small town United Kingdom that would appear in some of his later films quite a bit, mixing clichés, some postcard worthy landscapes, and humour that never seems mean-spirited to create a sense of place out of thin air. Even if the created place is just a figment of the imagination, it becomes a reality of its own that helps paste over the silliness of much of The Phantom Light’s plot by grounding it in a reality that feels like more than just a bunch of sets. Powell also demonstrates a sense for telling details that can’t have been easy to achieve on a budget, making the clichés his film consists of the decisively bit more real.

Of course, this is still a basically very silly movie with pretty silly characters doing rather silly things but Powell’s light-handed presentation of it all is so good-natured and charming only the greatest churl could complain about it.

On ExB: Avenging Force (1986)

Is this the magnum opus of Michael-Dudikoff-and-Steve-James-featuring Cannon action despite the absence of ninjas? It sure might be from where I’m looking.

There may be no American ninjas involved this time, but Avenging Force makes up for that sad lack by its sheer power of awesomeness. My column at the venerable Exploder Button does get rather excited, so please click on through, unless you have a very weak heart.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

In short: Night Shadows (1984)

aka Mutant

After a road encounter with the least pleasant human inhabitants of a small rural community, city-slicker brothers Josh (Wings Hauser) and Mike (Lee Montgomery) find themselves a bit stranded there, at least for a night and a day or so. Alas, they’ve picked quite the wrong time for their inadvertent stay, for the toxic waste an Evil Corporation has been dumping in the area is causing a peculiar sickness in many people around. Mike disappears quite early, and soon Josh finds himself teaming up with the local doctor (Jennifer Warren), the alcoholic sheriff (eternal sheriff Bo Hopkins), and romance-ready school teacher Holly (Jody Medford) against a whole bunch of blue-faced zombies with acid-bleeding, blood-sucking hands.

On a good day, Night Shadows’ director John ‘Bud’ Cardos was a perfectly decent man of his profession, filming straightforward plots in a straightforward manner, the unflinching professional of cinema. He had one of those days when he shot the film at hand, and while the result won’t win any originality prizes, it is an entertaining little variation on the eternal Night of the Living Dead shape.

Not surprisingly, this doesn’t have much – if any at all – of the political resonance of Romero’s film, but it goes through most of the expected zombie movie plot beats with a neat sense of pacing, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and generally knows how to be a fun time. Additionally, it features a lot of silly yet pleasing blue-faced zombie make-up, and does from time to time manage a fright scene or two archetypal enough to make the long-suffering horror fan look up with interest. There’s a really surprisingly ruthless mass child zombie scene in here, as well as a neat little monster under the bed variation early on – as long as you don’t stop to think about the practicalities of both of them, of course. But when has the stuff nightmares are made of ever cared about practicality?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ten Little Indians (1974)

aka And Then There Were None

Under various pretexts, the mysterious U.N. Owen invites a group of people (Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Adolfo Celi, Herbert Lom, Gert Fröbe, Maria Rohm, Charles Aznavour, Stéphane Audran, Alberto de Mendoza and Richard Attenborough) into an unused hotel smack dab in the Iranian desert next to some picturesque ruins.

On their first evening, a tape message by the voice of God, or Orson Welles, accuses everyone in the house of being responsible for the death of at least one other person. Usually, that would be quite enough to stop every party, but this one takes until Charles Aznavour sings a song with an invisible band to get antsy; or the sudden nervousness might be on account of his death by poisoning shortly afterwards.

Now, our protagonists find themselves trapped in the Hotel, for the desert seem rather unconquerable, and there are neither cars nor telephones around. Soon, more people die based on a free very interpretation of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme, and people become increasingly paranoid, convinced the killer must be one amongst their ten.

Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians seems to be a book that brings out the best in the people adapting it, perhaps because it lacks a single annoying detective and replaces her or him with a perfect opportunity for a bunch of actors to emote, chew scenery, or something of that kind.

Dubious yet sometimes lucky British producer Harry Alan Towers loved the material so much, he made three adaptations of it, about one every fifteen years. Okay, I suspect he needed to keep making them to keep a license alive, but given that two out of these three films are actually rather good, that’s not the worst that could have happened. As far as I understand, this second Towers version uses much of the dialogue from his first version, but it still retains a character very much of its own thanks to its acting ensemble, its locations, and Peter Collinson’s direction.

Collinson, a man with mediocre as well as quite great films on his CV, clearly saw the opportunities the locations Towers acquired gave him to build a rather macabre mood. His camera finds the inherent threat in the hotel’s interiors where spacious oriental kitsch meets occidental colour-blindness, he uses spectacular staircases for playing games of the audience watching someone watching someone else while he himself is being watched without needing more camera involvement than decidedly clever placement, etc, and so forth.

The film’s visual style seems highly influenced by the giallo, the camera generally being positioned in the more peculiar and telling ways available with no conversation – and this is a very conversation heavy peace – not enhanced by direction that seeks to express the mood inside a room via its own movement and positioning even before the actors do anything at all. Like many a giallo director, Collinson succeeds in leapfrogging an audience’s scepticism towards a faintly – or very – ridiculous plot by creating a mood that suggests dreamscapes and the workings of the subconscious, making it very easy to read the resulting films in a manner where what a film’s plot has to say becomes secondary to what its mood tells us about its characters and the meaning of the world surrounding them.

I am – obviously – very fond of that approach to filmmaking, perhaps even to a fault, but I think this particular Christie novel just calls for it. This is, after all, a film about members of the upperclass and the bourgeoisie having to show and confront the truths behind their masks and the lies they tell themselves to get to sleep at night. Why, two of the more working class characters might even be called innocent, which would probably be more telling in a class-political sense if the other two weren’t just as murderous the bourgeois.

These characters are brought to life in various ways between subtlety, thespian grandstanding, and good old scenery-chewing with most of the involved well able and willing to use all three approaches, depending on what any given scene calls for. It’s all rather lovely to watch, particularly in scenes like the surreal confrontation between Lom and Attenborough with two packs of matches and a billiard table as a prop.

This all adds up to a very fine movie, even if the ending eschews to embrace the darkness of the novel and goes for a rather more normal happy end that only fits the tone of what came before vaguely. Despite the problem of the ending, Ten Little Indians is another exception to my usual “Ugh, Agatha Christie” rule.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

In short: The Human Vapor (1960)

Original title: Gasu ningen dai ichigo

This seems to be one of the lesser loved non-kaiju movies by the great Ishiro Honda, at least in the West (the language barrier makes it pretty impossible for me to guess at its importance in Japan). While I disagree, I’m not really surprised by this.

The film is structured like a police procedural, with the first half nearly completely devoid of visible fantastical elements beyond the basic mystery of how the bank robber (Yoshio Tsuchiya) our cop hero Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) and his surprisingly – for a Japanese film of the era – independent and competent journalist girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) are chasing manages to execute his heists, and what his connection to kabuki dancer/actress Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), a young but old-fashionedly Japanese upperclass lady quite in contrast to Kyoko, might be. It’s the kind of set-up you’d find in many a standard mystery, only there, the weirdness would be explained away “naturally”. I suspect many people going in expecting something more directly science fictional will be quite disappointed, particularly since the film’s subtext concerning the inevitable clash of old and new values in Japan, and the strange and possibly dangerous mixtures that can result, won’t be what everyone is looking for (or is even necessarily noticing).

Personally, I found Honda’s approach here quite fascinating, his handling of the police procedural elements tight, and his easy build-up of character relations that aren’t quite as simple as they appear at first glance captivating, while the kabuki sequences are filmed with enough poetry of the eye to interest even somebody like me who only has a very superficial idea of what’s going on there. I suspect I miss out on even more subtext deepening measures there, but what can you do when you haven’t even really digested the ways of Western opera beyond the baroque?

Anyway, once the film gets around to it, it is also quite fine SF/horror piece that seems pleasantly influenced by The Invisible Man, and ending in drama I actually found quite moving thanks to the surprising emotional complexity the film carries under a simpler surface, with Honda showing a melancholic feeling towards the end (or changing) of Old Japan but also the knowledge of the horrible price that would have to be paid to keep it unchanged beyond all reason. Honda seems quite aware of his own emotional and intellectual contradictions at play here, which enables the film to show its representations of Old Japan as monstrous and beautiful at the same time, a humanist approach that can even find compassion for a would-be mass murderer while still not excusing his deeds.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

In short: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

Sometimes it’s still surprising how damned strange 70s revisionist westerns could become, resulting in films like Philip Kaufman’s version of the James-Younger gang myth with Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger and Robert Duvall as Jesse James, a film that really lends itself to the question where the money to make it might have come from.

Surely, even in 1972, the idea of a cinema verité inspired, sometimes magically realist, sometimes ironically naturalistic western that spends its running time demythologizing the old myths about the old west while at the same time working hard to create some all of its own must have been a hard sell to the people holding the purse strings, post-hippie-dom or not. Because it is that sort of movie, Kaufman also finds space in his film for a slapstick baseball match, various digressions to emphasise the point that the USA of the time were country of immigrants (which means a lot of what the movies have taught us the West was about is wrong), satire against the rich and powerful, the absurd, the bizarre, and the lovingly observed quotidian. Kaufman shows such a good eye for the last one, as well as for the telling historical detail (even if it’s made up) that all of Raid’s disparate elements manage to fit together, if not as a narrative (just look at the people on the IMDB complaining about the film’s plot holes, missing the point of the film we’re talking about by miles), but as a strange yet believable world the characters inhabit.

It’s a film I find much easier to watch than to describe, an artefact of its time, trying to talk about its past and its present at once, yet still finding time for human warmth, humour and a sense of place that seems stronger exactly because the place Kaufman describes can’t ever have existed in the way he and his film pretend it has, just as the other, earlier movie idea of The West never existed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ironclad: Battle for Blood (2014)

The Dark Ages. Norman Gilbert De Vesci (David Rintoul) and his wife Joan (Michelle Fairley) are holding a castle in the territory of the Scots clans. A minor raid by Maddog (Predrag Bjelac) and his people ends with De Vesci losing one arm and Maddog’s son losing his life, leaving the Normans without proper leadership and quite a fighter and Maddog with a thirst for vengeance only the destruction of the castle and all who dwell in it will quench.

De Vesci sneaks his decidedly un-macho son Hubert (Tom Rhys Harries) out of the castle to go for his cousin Guy (Tom Austen) – one of the survivors of the siege of Rochester in the first Ironclad film – for help. Alas, Guy has grown up to be a bitter sell sword, and even wants payment for helping out his own family, which Hubert fortunately is able to provide. They grab three random fighters – not exactly mentally healthy murderess Crazy (see?)Mary (Twinnie Lee Moore), executioner Pierrepoint (Andy Beckwith) and Guy’s best buddy Berenger (David Caves), and ride off to help the besieged and frequently attacked castle.

Obviously, most of them don’t look forward to a healthy future, but perhaps something – like the love of De Vesci’s daughter Blanche (Roxanne McKee) – just might at least give Guy reasons for a redemptive character arc. Quite clearly, slaughter and many a slow motion death will ensue before any of that redemption can go down.

Despite the different character of its protagonists’ enemies, returning director/writer John English’s Battle for Blood most of the time doesn’t feel so much like a sequel to Ironclad as much as a remake with a lower budget and accordingly lesser ambitions. So the actors – even the character actors – are a tier lower on the thespian pecking order and on the charisma table than those in the first movie, the script hits a lot of the same plot beats but with less thematic resonance, its main bad guy is less outrageously acted, and the film feels rather more constrained in its locations and sets.

This doesn’t mean Battle for Blood isn’t worth your time, at least if you’re like me and enjoy a good piece of historical pulp adventure, you just can’t go in expecting much depth or a charismatic lead. The best I can say about Tom Austen is that he’s serviceable enough and does know how to strike the right poses during fights, but as he plays him, Guy’s bitterness is as lacking in conviction as is his love interest Blanche in, well, interest. We’re not in the realm of the horrible here, but where better actors gave the film’s clichés a bit more life in the original Ironclad, not all of the guys and girls on screen here ever really manage that, with Danny Webb, Twinnie Lee Moore, Michelle Fairley (who is the most upmarket actor in the film, obviously), and Tom Rhys Harris as the exceptions to that rule. Still, these talking, sword-wielding clichés as such are entertaining enough to watch, and while they never achieve the gravitas some of their death scenes call for, they’re more than enough for the film’s simple siege scenario and redemption tale. As in the first movie, the script also finds some surprising (for a film of this style) space for its female characters beyond Blanche to actually be characters and have a degree of agency; at the very least, Battle for Blood is a film where the existence of warrior women is just a fact of life nobody even finds worth mentioning, and where a gender having less power in general doesn’t mean its members are all damsels in distress.

English also gets bonus points for this time around avoiding to mutilate established historical facts for no good reason, and for not only having an eye for the awesome violence but also at least some of its consequences. The latter aspect might have become its own kind of movie cliché by now – the camera walking the battlefield afterwards while mournful music plays, and so on - but it is at least one that’s broadening the emotional impact and provides a film with the opportunity to not have to demonize its antagonists too much.

When it comes to Battle for Blood’s main attraction, the fighting, English uses a bit more shaky cam than in the first film, I think, probably to hide the fact that this time around there are even fewer men fighting the battles, and there’s probably less money for choreography and too many repeats of scenes as well. It works better than I would have expected because English still manages to focus his audience on what’s actually going on in the fights, the shaky cam more often plausibly mirroring the rush of adrenaline and fear going through the characters. It’s not how I like my fight scenes to be shot, but it works reasonably well for the film at hand, particularly in combination with the sense of ferociousness and brutality of the fights. There’s also a high – some might say needless – amount of gore on display making the fights grittier and a bit unpleasant from time to time, as is proper and well in the world of exploitation movie violence.

All this adds up to a very flawed yet highly entertaining bit of pulpy, mildly exploitative entertainment, leaving Ironclad: Battle for Blood a sequel that I don’t think was precisely necessary yet that I wouldn’t mind seeing again now that it exists.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In short: Charley Varrick (1973)

Technically, robbing a tiny small town bank should be a job of easy in, easy out, but a chain of unfortunate circumstances leaves former stunt pilot Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) in quite some trouble. Not only are two of his three partners – one of whom was Charley’s wife – dead but the body count of the robbery also includes a couple or three cops, leading to a rather more enthusiastic hunt for the criminals as Charley had planned on.

Then there’s the fact that Harman (Andrew Robinson), the last surviving partner, is not the most stable of men on his best day, and it certainly isn’t his best day, or week. Even worse, there’s an absurdly large amount of money for such a little bank involved, though most of it doesn’t seem to officially exist, which leads Charley to the conclusion he’s just painted a second target on his back by stealing mafia money.

Charley’s right, too, so soon, not only the police is after him but also sadistic mafia killer Molly (Joe Don Baker). Charley isn’t quite as doomed as you’d assume, though, for his unassuming demeanour hides a pretty effective sociopath with a clever plan to get away with his money, while getting rid of anybody posing a risk to him.

Generally, I’m not the biggest fan of Don Siegel, his films often not quite hitting the spot for me I’d want them to hit. However, there’s really little I could come up with to say against Charley Varrick. Well, there’s one rather embarrassing scene that suggests Walter Matthau to have the sexual magnetism of James Bond, but apart from that peculiar misstep I’ll just write off as a harmless symptom of the director’s inability to cope with female characters (something the rest of the film avoids by not including many women with roles large enough to demand actual characterisation to begin with, of which you can make what you wish), there’s nothing about Charley Varrick that isn’t a lean and decidedly mean crime film.

This film pushes the same buttons of enjoyment that Donald Westlake’s Parker novels did, with a bunch of decidedly unpleasant men fighting it out among another until the least pleasant of them wins in the end, a large part of the pleasure lying exactly in the fact how amoral the whole affair is, with neither Siegel nor Howard Rodman’s and Dean Riesner’s script (based on a novel by John Reese I haven’t read) attempting to make anyone involved look nicer or more heroic than anyone else. Crime, it turns out, is not a game involving the nice.

The film’s plot is pleasant pulpy, containing just the right amount of violence, and is filmed by Siegel in a tight yet laconic manner that isn’t at all interested discussing the ethics or deep psychological reasons of what’s happening on screen, while still finding space to give the characters more dimensions than “is a decidedly unsexy sociopath” or “is a decidedly unsexy psychopath”. The actors are doing the expected fine jobs too, Matthau giving his sociopath bit so well I’m a little disappointed he never got to play Parker, and Joe Don Baker visibly enjoying being the sadistic monster with the mock-polite first impression.

It all comes together quite perfectly, the film setting up a situation that seems ideal for another tale of doomed losers trying to make it big, yet using it instead for a tale about monsters trying to survive in a world filled with other monsters.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Brain Eaters (1958)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A curious cone shaped – actually pretty phallic - object appears in the vicinity of a US small town. Shortly after it pops up, murders happen in town, and its mayor disappears. Pompous senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe), the kind of man who likes talking about himself in the third person and is always calling for “action”, sexy young pipe smoking scientist Dr. Kettering (Ed Nelson), the mayor’s son Glenn (Alan Jay Factor) and assorted hangers-on and love interests investigate.

While their investigation of the UFO (or whatever that thing is) is quite inconclusive, the return of the mayor in a half-crazed and rather dangerous state of mind opens new avenues of interest. Our heroes quickly realize the good man is controlled by an alien parasite with pipe filler antennas sitting on his neck. It is of course invasion time by some of those evil communist aliens, though these particular aliens come from a somewhat different direction than usual.

Our heroes (such as they are) will have to fight the alien menace’s attempts to bring peace and understanding to mankind with all the tools the film’s budget leaves them.

Bruno VeSota’s AIP production is quite obviously heftily inspired by (house nemesis) Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, though it lacks the time for the author’s rambling nonsense philosophizing, and was made a good ten years too early get something out of the nudist aspects of the novel. To make up for it, the film uses state of the art needle drop technology to get itself a soundtrack made out of classical music, as happened quite often in AIP films of this era.

That the film is also heavily inspired by a lot of the other secret invasion movies of its time and place hardly needs to be mentioned. It was a natural expression of the anxieties of its time and place, giving expression to the fear of communism and the narrow-minded fear of anything and anyone different that made the 50s such a special time in the USA (and here in Germany too, for that matter).

The Brain Eaters isn’t on the level – neither in quality nor in ambiguity – of a film like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, of course. It does however make quite a lot out of its especially impoverished means. Sure, the acting is mostly pretty dire, with Nelson and sometimes Factor as the only exceptions to the rule, and VeSota’s direction is often quite crude. The latter is at least often crude in an interesting way, trying to build a bit of an atmosphere of menace and dread out of Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups and adorable little parasites (how could I not love those pipe filler antennae?). It’s sort of successful at that, even, building up to a climax that’s weird and archetypal enough to be memorable.

Of course, VeSota has to take short cuts that need a viewer patient with some of the problems typical of shoe-string budget films of its time and place, where there’s just no money available to show some rather important plot developments and narration has to jump in, and where more narration steps in to tell us the things we already see. I’ve seen worse examples of the latter phenomenon, though, and for most of the time, the film’s ambitions aren’t completely outside its grasp.

This all might sound as if I were damning The Brain Eaters with faint praise when in fact I did enjoy myself immensely when watching it. Sure, I’ve seen 50s paranoia done more subtle as well as more cinematically interesting, but VeSota’s film not only has a handful of effective moments but manages to be comparatively fast-moving and fun in between these moments too. From time to time, it even hits on a bit more, like in the scene in which the town’s sheriff fights against the parasite sitting on his back (one of the few moments in SF/horror cinema of the era I know that’s actually interested in how the victim of a mind-controlling parasite must feel). That’s much more than anyone could ever expect from this kind of drive-in quickie, so I find myself quite taken with The Brain Eaters.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: ON THAT DAY... WE ARE DEMON. Hopefully not ironically.

Nightmare (2012) aka 青魇: As happy as I am that Hong Kong exploitation veteran turned more mainstream director Herman Yau is still making movies, I’m not at all happy with this generically titled mix of slight headfuck movie and bland mystery. It’s all nice and glossy looking, but neither the “is this dream or is this reality?” business nor the film’s mystery are very interesting. Worse for a film like this, the solution to the mystery as well as the (boring) explanation of what’s really going on are abominably obvious, which is a bit of a problem in a film that hasn’t anything else to offer beyond a handful of rote jump scares.

Nurse 3D (2013): As regular readers know, there’s little I loathe more than films that excuse their crappiness by being “ironic”, and by “not wanting to be taken seriously”, which nearly always are codes for “we just couldn’t be arsed”. Douglas Aarniokoski’s horror comedy is no exception to the rule. It doesn’t help that I found the film’s sense of humour aggressively unfunny and obvious, its attempts at ironic sexiness and ironic exploitation (seriously, you can do neither “ironically”, that is, without committing) painful to the extreme, and Paz de la Huerta’s central “acting” “performance” (I just gotta use scare quotes here and also ask myself why the production didn’t hire an actress with basic skills and just as willing to drop her clothes, until I remember this crap is based on Huerta pin-up photos, though ironically, I presume) extremely painful yet also very very dull. The whole film is pretty much anathema to everything I want and like in a horror movie, be it a comedy or not.

Hell Commandos (1969): José Luis Merino’s Spanish-Italian Euro War movie, on the other hand, is not a very good film either, but it does at least hit the main beats of its particular genre without being ashamed of them, reaching the coveted level of filmic mastership known as “perfectly watchable”. As is typical of its sub-set of war films, the tone fluctuates between sentimentality and cynicism in awkward yet entertaining fashion, while people get killed, the Second World War is won, Nazis are pigs, American soldiers are pigs until they decide to sacrifice themselves for a good cause, and a romantic subplot is a lot like nature in Jurassic Park. From time to time, the film stumbles onto exploitation gold, clearly without noticing, when it explains how French resistance women (well, one at least) can identify American soldiers by the way they kiss, or when just inexplicably weird shit happens for no good reason at all (and definitely without ironic detachment).

There’s also, alas, a bit of a homophobic undercurrent that’s quite difficult to miss, which in its own sad way does fit the film’s romantic politics as a whole well in being deeply unpleasant and ill thought through. On the plus side, it’s not the “ironic” kind of homophobia that leaves the perpetrator an easy way out to explain it away.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

It’s 1943, and people like German general Canaris (Anthony Quayle) already see the writing on the wall. Hitler, on the other hand, still has plans, like, for example, kidnapping Winston Churchill. Himmler (Donald Pleasence, because why not), recognizes a nice way to put one over on the competition and boots the whole stupid project over to Canaris, who in his turn orders his Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall, because really, why not) to at the very least produce a feasibility study.

Ironically, Radl realizes the mad project might actually be feasible, for it just so happens that a German spy in Britain has just radioed in Churchill’s plans for a weekend stay in a small village neighbouring a practically undefended beach. After a bit of political back and forth – one has to blow up the film to a running time of more than two hours after all – Radl acquires the always dangerous help of Himmler for the project and sends out disgraced – like every German not in the SS in the movie, he’s not a real Nazi, you know – paratrooper commando Colonel Steiner (Michael Caine), his men, and Irish revolutionary Liam Devlin (a man so Irish he could only be played by Canadian Donald Sutherland) to do the deed in beautiful Norfolk. The men are disguised as Polish paratroopers and a marsh inspector, respectively, so whatever could go wrong?

If for some mysterious reasons it hasn’t become quite clear already, let me just emphasize that the plot of The Eagle Has Landed (based on a novel by Jack Higgins, which never bodes well), is utterly, preposterously stupid. Not necessarily because it is lacking in historical veracity (which it sure as hell does) but because the script’s (and I very much assume the book’s this is based on) handling of the whole affair just too stupid to bluff its way through. A lot of films get away with a stupid basic idea by thinking the results of that idea through in a logical and coherent manner; The Eagle Has Landed prefers to load stupid idea on improbability on ridiculous nonsense.

This is, after all, a film that finds Sutherland’s character, who is supposed to be some sort of vanguard for the Germans, one supposes, landing in Norfolk and at once romancing Jenny Agutter, in the sort of romance that goes from meeting someone to the willingness to murder for him in the course of about half an hour, or a day in movie time. Even worse, as much as I like Agutter, the subplot really has no business at all to be in the movie, and most certainly not in the completely pointless form it takes. To make matters sillier, there’s improbable crap like that happening in nearly every scene, as if writer Tom Mankiewicz had never heard of concepts like theme, or tonal coherence, or even pacing. For of course the film does stop and start early and often, sometimes meandering from one scene to the next, sometimes drunkenly jumping, leading to a structure you can’t even call episodic because that word suggests that there’s actually something happening, which is not how I’d describe at least The Eagle’s first half.

And still, watching the film I found myself not at all bored but enjoyed myself quite a bit. Not only because I wanted to see what stupid nonsense the film would come up next but because everyone involved not responsible for the script actually put a lot of effort in. Director John Sturges, a man who made much worthier and just plain better films to be sure, doesn’t exactly bring his A-game here, but a Sturges just doing his job (I cannot assume any real personal involvement in the film at hand, at least) is still a director bringing dignity and a degree of style to material that frankly doesn’t deserve it, even managing to turn the script’s absurd ideas about pacing into something that can look like charming distractibility.

The actors, for their part, bring a bunch of underwritten clichés to life in efforts a film that sees a predominantly British and American cast playing Germans speaking English among one another with bad German accents (except for Sutherland, of course, who does a bad Irish accent, and Caine, whose character studied in England and therefore doesn’t have an accent at all, which of course only makes sense if you actually assume these Nazi – and yes, sorry, Wehrmacht soldiers were Nazis too, just ask their victims – are indeed talking English among each other), and who are incapable of pronouncing German names like “Hans” with even minor correctness probably doesn’t even want, far less warrants. Duvall is particularly good here, bringing a mix of irony and subtlety to his role that I’m quite sure wasn’t in the script. The only negative stand-out among the cast is Larry Hagman as a US Colonel in a performance that is actually as bad as the script deserves.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In short: The Professionals (1966)

Oil millionaire Grant (Ralph Bellamy), hires four professionals – former revolutionary Fardan (Lee Marvin), his explosives expert best buddy, the amoral Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), superior scout Jake (Woody Strode) and horse expert Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) – to return his wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) to him who has been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary/bandit Raza (Jack Palance) for a ransom of one hundred thousand dollars.

Raza is an old friend of Fardan’s and Dolworth’s but they still take on the job, first making a dangerous trip through the desert on the US/Mexican border, only to learn their employer just might not have told them the whole truth about the situation, and the kidnapping is anything but; not that this sort of thing matters all that much, one does have a contract with Grant, after all. On the other hand, long forgotten consciences might just be reawakened after a lot of people have died.

Quite a few reviewers on the net call Richard Brooks’s The Professional stuff like “an underseen classic” or even “one of the best westerns ever made” but frankly, I don’t see it. To earn any of these superlatives from me, a film needs a bit more than a slickly professional direction, a bunch of beloved (by me too!) aging tough guy actors going through the typical motions of this sort of thing, or picture postcard pretty photography.

What the film lacks for me are two things, and including just one of them might have been enough to turn this from perfectly watchable to great. Firstly, depth: sure, there’s a bit of moral deliberation about the uses and causes of revolutions and the men who fight in them, but the results the film arrives at aren’t exactly the stringent result of thematic work as they are in Leone’s and Corbucci’s revolutionary themed Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the moral conclusions the film draws aren’t actually convincing results of what happens in it at all, thanks to a script (also by Brooks) that tends to be desperately underwritten and leaves its inspired cast as ciphers. A Cipher, as you know, isn’t anything that does have any character or moral development per definition at all.

Secondly, the film’s very relaxed approach to storytelling does result in a certain lack of drama. Sure, there are shoot-outs, chases and an attack on a bandit fortification, and every single one of them is realized in perfectly competent manner, yet they all lack any sense of actual danger, the film never making a successful effort bringing home the stakes of any given situation.

Having said this, I don’t want to leave anyone reading in the impression I didn’t find watching The Professionals a perfectly enjoyable time; it just seems to lack in any ambition beyond being a pleasant time waster. Unfortunately there’s so much obvious talent before and behind the camera a pleasant time waster does seem like a bit of a waste of other things also.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Guilty Hands (1931)

Barbara (Madge Evans), the young daughter of former prosecutor, now lawyer and part-time cynic Richard Grant (Lionel Barrymore), has put it in her head to make a horrible mistake in marrying middle-aged, vile and rather ugly yet apparently – if you believe the script and not your eyes – sexually magnetic playboy Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray).

Grant knows Rich quite well as a client for his particular sexual tastes that see the women he’s involved with thrown away like broken toys once he had his way with them, or even mysteriously falling out of his apartment window. As a lawyer, Rich is the kind of person Grant is willing to live with, but as a father, he’s completely set against the marriage, going so far as to privately threaten Rich with murder. Neither Rich, who really just wants to marry Barbara so he can fuck her and is perfectly willing to go back to Marjorie West (Kay Francis), the only woman he always goes back to, afterwards - or in between, for that matter - , nor Babs, who for some inexplicable reason can’t control herself when it comes to Rich, are dissuaded any by Grant’s dissent.

So Grant does what any good insane father would do in his place and goes through with his plan for the perfect murder, making Rich’s death look like a suicide. And what do you know, the people in the mansion where he committed his murder think he’s just the man to solve the case before calling in the police!

If you’re of the disposition to be able to enjoy mysteries as cynical little demonstrations of the amorality of the forces of law and order, and if you’re willing to overlook what might be one of the worst film endings I’ve ever seen or just one that mocks films that see things put right through the hands of fate by letting the hands of fate move in absolutely preposterous ways, W.S. Van Dyke’s deeply pre-Code film should be quite the find for you.

I, at least, enjoyed myself immensely. There are several reasons for that enjoyment that come together to form one rather astonishing and very lovely movie. Firstly, there’s Bayard Veiller’s script about amorality putting itself in the service of morality in the worst possible way, tightly paced with many a nasty little aside, full of dialogue that does sharp as well as it does melodramatic.

Then there’s Lionel Barrymore’s central performance, utterly gleeful, showy, and shameless in the most delightful manner, yet also with enough subtlety to actual sell the idea we’re witnessing the acts of a man who truly loves his daughter, how little human sympathy he shows for anyone else. Barrymore’s character here is quite close to our contemporary charming sociopath (Dexter Morgan, to the red courtesy phone please), though probably not influenced by much clinical knowledge (which wasn’t exactly large at that time anyway, and certainly not in Hollywood), and in that sense not far away from the sort of thing Bette Davis was up to in her pre-code films, just here in other class and gender guise.

While Barrymore is quite magnetic here and certainly the film’s centre, Kay Francis’s Marjorie turns out to be as close to an actual antagonist as Richard has. Francis does a remarkable job of standing up to Barrymore acting-wise, making clear how horrible Richard is by contrasting his gloating amorality with the deeply human fragility, confusion and anger of a woman confronted with the death of the asshole she inexplicably loved (and of whose true character she was well aware), and her life falling apart with the death.

Given the script and the core performance(s), director Van Dyke does the most logical thing – particularly inside the technical constraints of his era of movie making – and puts himself fully in service of his actors and his writer, a directing approach that never grants a director much applause yet surely is the right choice here. At the very least, I find it impossible to argue with the resulting film.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

In short: Highway to Hell (1991)

Underage couple Charlie (Chad Lowe) and Rachel (Kristy Swanson) elope, planning to get married in Vegas. Alas, they take the wrong side-road and accidentally end up right next to the highway to hell. A charming hellcop (C.J. Graham) makes off with Rachel, because he’s always on the look-out for beautiful female virgins for his boss, you know who.

After some helpful exposition and an equipment endowment by road-side gas station owner Sam (Richard Farnsworth), who made one of the least effective attempts at warning anybody off in any horror movie ever before, Charlie’s off to hell to save his fiancée, only accompanied by his trusty dog Mr Ben (Rags).

Hell, it turns out, looks a lot like the Arizona desert by eternal day, and is full of slightly surreal interpretations of Americana, like the roadside diner where cops and assorted hangers-on never quite get their beloved donuts and coffee. It’s this curious and imaginative version of hell that makes Ate de Jong’s horror action comedy the minor delight that it is, with hardly five minutes going by where not at least one or two funny or (sometimes) mildly creepy versions of elements of “typical America” turn up to produce a smile or two. (There’s also a short and sweet digression into Greek myth with a seriously wonderful Charon, but I digress – as always).

And if a given idea doesn’t tickle one’s fancy, the film’s so nicely paced the offending bit won’t stay on screen for too long, because there are, after all, a couple hundred other visual gags and neat ideas de Jong just has to show you. Highway to Hell is very enthusiastic about everything it has to offer too, always giving the impression of a film doing its utmost to have something fun to offer in every scene. While this approach doesn’t exactly lend the film much depth or logic, the former isn’t what it aims for (it prefers broadness), and the latter not necessarily something befitting a film taking place in hell.

At the same time, I wouldn’t say Highway to Hell is a stupid movie as such. Many of its visual gags are actually pretty clever, and it would be foolish to doubt the intelligence of a film with a Devil this ambiguous, nor of one who may use the traditional “save the princess” structure but still gives his female lead much more space to demonstrate agency and competence than you’d expect in this sort of set up. First and foremost, though, Highway to Hell is and obviously wants to be a fun, pacy, little film. It is that, too.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Wraiths of Roanoke (2007)

aka Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke

There’s a lot of things that turn this attempt at making a horror film out of the lost colony of Roanoke into one of the less watchable SciFi/SyFy Channel Originals, like the uncreative way it mixes Viking undead, understandably pissed Native Americans, and historical fact, or how little sense director Matt Codd has for the actual horrors of the situation his protagonists find themselves in. The last is absolutely inexcusable in a film about an isolated group of people without resources or recourse to help finding themselves not just plagued by the vagaries of nature and the consequences of their own bad politics, but by supernatural powers even more out of control, because you don’t actually need to seek out the horror and tension of this particular situation when it all but bites you in the ass. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I become convinced it must have taken considerable effort to make a film based on this situation and have it turn out quite as heel-dragging and confused as this effort.

It doesn’t help the film’s needlessly hopeless cause either that the acting, particularly whenever things get “dramatic” and “intense” – at least supposedly so – has a certain whiff of school play surrounding it; quite an achievement given that the cast mostly consists out of professionals who really should be able to do better.

Of course, and here I have reached the only truly memorable part of Wraiths of Roanoke, quite a few of these professionals are Australian, so this film doesn’t just delight the pained audience with the usual combination of fake and dubious accents – though we have that part covered too – but also a world where the historical invasion of the North American continent seems to have been committed by Australians, a fact the history books denied us until now. And that doesn’t begin to explain the curious accent of Native American leader Manteo (as played by Michael Teh).

All this only goes to show even the lowliest of films can and will contain some minor delight to make up for the waste of a viewer’s (that would be me) precious time (that would be the time of a guy who has by now written up about fifty SyFy Originals).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Arsène Lupin (1932)

Supremely grumpy Parisian police inspector Guerchard (Lionel Barrymore) has been hunting for gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (?) for quite some time now without ever even coming close to catching his man, leaving the police quite embarrassed. After his newest failure, during which he arrests the Duke of Charmerace (John Barrymore) as Lupin, an idea that is of course utterly impossible, Guerchard is given one final week to catch Lupin.

Guerchard is convinced the Duke actually is the thief, and the duke certainly doesn’t act like he isn’t, so it’s a helpful “coincidence” for everyone involved when Charmerace heroically volunteers for helping protect the jewellery and paintings of one Gourney-Martin (Tully Marshall) - rich people must help each other out, dontcha know – Lupin seems to be after next. The thief doesn’t have to cope with a tenacious, if sometimes ridiculous, detective who is now very close on his trail now alone, though, there’s also danger for his heart in form of Russian noblewoman Sonia (Karen Morley).

But romancing his perfect woman, thwarting the police in anti-authoritarian ways, and stealing various valuables is all in a night’s work for him.

It’s pretty curious that what seems to be the first really successful screen adventure of French master thief Arsène Lupin was not made in France but by MGM. But then, the early 30s were – at least quality-wise – one of the high points of this sort of light, somewhat pulpy, mystery film in Hollywood, so the character just fit the vibe of its surroundings quite nicely, if one can excuse the horrible things some of the actors involved do to French names. I suspect these films – at least when they involve highly moral law-breakers - were becoming increasingly difficult to make once the production code began its sad reign, for how do you make a film a bout a thief hero when the rules you have to work under say that criminal behaviour on screen has to be punished. Which is pretty much the opposite of what’s happening here, where even Guerchard is in the very end so charmed by his eternal opponent he helps his arch enemy escape. I’m actually quite interested in how the production code Lupin films that do exist got around the problem, and will report once I’ve found out. I very much suspect just letting him get hitched like this film does won’t be enough, and am right now betting on the old “thief who only steals from thieves”.

John Barrymore certainly is a wonderful Lupin, embodying the humour, the verve, and the strange morality (because at least this version of Lupin is far from being amoral, he’s just working from different ethical assumptions) of the character, as well as the romance inherent in its basic concept; and all this while looking good in early 30s evening wear. Casting John’s brother Lionel as his eternal nemesis Guerchard also turns out to be quite a coup. These two have a highly enjoyable screen chemistry going on as antagonists, which makes at least half the fun in a piece like this.

I’m also quite fond of how in Lionel Barrymore’s hands  Guerchard is not one of these bumbling cops that usual hunt the loveable rogues, but clearly a capable, if sometimes cynical and perhaps even cruel, man who is probably only missing a bit of luck to catch his prey. This makes the whole plot of “in which delightful way will Lupin fool the policeman next?” quite a bit more exciting than it could otherwise be, leading to a game of silly yet awesome, sometimes eyebrow-raising, fun.

For once the script (by Lenore Coffee, Bayard Veiller and Carey Wilson) is up to the task too, going about its business with the appropriate breakneck speed, while throwing out one witty line after the other. Because this is the pre-code era, there’s also some fun sexual innuendo between Morley and John Barrymore, with a kind of matter-of-fact positivity towards sex you won’t even find all that often in films today (we’re really much more interested in seeing people punished for their sexual behaviour today than watching them enjoy it, it seems).

Jack Conway’s direction finishes off Arsène Lupin’s all-around excellence with an approach that’s as sprightly as you could away with in a talkie made in 1932, doing justice to the actors, the often clever sets, and each and every fun idea the script throws at its audience.