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.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Ruthless invaders. A defenseless planet. And a daring band of space adventurers fighting to save it.

Eyewitness (1981): This film by Peter Yates is a weird one: part thriller, part dubious romance, full of fantastic actors being fantastic (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Plummer and James Woods in their prime are certainly nothing to sneeze at), there’s also text and subtext about the way the personal and the political intermingle that never quite comes together coherently, and a load of scenes of stuff that seems completely incidental to plot, characters or theme and just hangs there dragging things down.

When the film is good, it is brilliant: the first attempts of Hurt’s character to get closer to his long-time crush TV news reporter Weaver are pathetic, creepy and even sweet in equal measures; some of the suspense scenes are taken right out of the Hitchcock handbook in the best possible way; and an American film actually talking about class is always to be praised.

Too bad that the bizarrely sugary ending seems to forget everything that was ambiguous, creepy or actually difficult in the proposed relationship between Hurt and Weaver, and that the film again and again stops in its tracks to run off in perfectly useless directions.

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007): Made in the same spirit as the Crank movies, but less annoying and with an actor (Clive Owen) instead of a persona in the lead, this one holds itself exactly to what its title promises. Then it adds an obsession with carrots (you will believe you can kill a man with a carrot), eye mutilation (also eye mutilation by carrot), a Monica Bellucci who is totally wasted in her role as lactating prostitute (hey, I didn’t write the movie, so don’t look at me) yet still awesome, Paul Giamatti eating all of the scenery (yes, even yours), and action scenes that reach from the absurd to the hilariously insane. Oh, and the right kind of rock music, too, because every act of cartoon violence is improved by adding “Ace of Spades” to it.
It’s stupid fun in the best way, says this carrot.

Sing Street (2016): This John Carney film about a young guy  growing up poor in 1980s Dublin finding self respect and love, talent and hope when he founds a band to impress a girl does sound a bit too friendly and nice on paper, but in practice, Carney is a sharp observer of human ambiguities who can show the lies his characters tell themselves without looking down on them. Not looking down at his characters is one of Carney’s strengths in general: this is a director who lets his young characters say youthfully pretentious stuff, knows it is youthfully pretentious, but neither makes fun of them nor nods at them from a distance, taking their dreams seriously even though they aren’t his dreams anymore. Carney’s a bit of a music specialist, so it’ll come as no surprise that the music’s great too (and this is a musical in anything but name, and not just in the music video daydream scene) while also being the sort of music these characters in this time would believably make.


There’s so much genuine sympathy and warmth on screen here, only the most cynical will not to moved and charmed.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Berserker (2001)

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.


In the mythical time known as "the credits", Odin became somewhat dissatisfied with his Valkyrie girlfriend Brunhilda (Kari Wuhrer) and chained her to an altar surrounded by eternal flame. As you do.

Later, in ye olden times of fake facial hair, when everyone (except for Ms Wuhrer) spoke with a British accent, there was trouble among the Vikings. Hetman Thorsson (Patrick Bergin, who had rent to pay) wants to use the very special tribe of the berserkers to unite wherever we're supposed to be under his rule. Berserkers in this film's very special mythology are, by the way, possibly cannibalistic warlike yet highly flammable undead wearing dead bears. In a creative interpretation of Nordic lore, berserkers are created by the bite of Valkyries to serve Odin. Valkyries, vampires, same difference; they both glow and glitter, right? Nope, I'm not joking about the glowing; to my mind Berserker is now the most probable candidate for inspiring the Twilight franchise.

Anyway, for reasons that will only be explained in a misplaced flashback much, much later, the boss of the berserkers is Thorsson's son Boar (Craig Sheffer). Boar seems somewhat peeved at his father (for reasons that, yes, will also be explained in another misplaced flashback even later on), and has two conditions for his help. Firstly, he wants part of the whole hot new government action for himself. Oh, and secondly, he'd very much like to have the soul of his brother Barek (Paul Johansson). While Barek is less than impressed by any of this, Thorsson agrees to the deal, though he's loudly hinting at breaking his part of the promise once he has his kingdom. Not that anyone on screen seems to notice.

After a lackluster battle scene that does at least include a lot of shouting taking place a little later, Thorsson has his kingdom. And he is in fact not just going back on his deal with Boar, but attempts to burn his son and his berserker gang to cinders. Barek isn't impressed by his father's problem solving technique, and begs Odin to save his brother and take his life instead. Odin seems to be okay with that. At least, suddenly a lot of glowing Valkyries appear and do their patented vampire snarl, and Boar looks better again, too. But before the brothers can reunite, Brunhilda (remember her?) appears for a hug with Barek and takes a bite off his throat. Some of this will actually be explained in again another misplaced flashback later. It will also continue to not make much sense. Because all of this isn't confusing enough, the film now jumps into the present. Although it might be an alternative reality, seeing how little it has to do with reality.

Mini-skirted psychiatrist(?) Anya (Kari Wuhrer again), begins a new case in the sort of new-fangled high-security psychiatric institution that has its patients - well, at least the one the film shows - hanging from chains in the centre of their rooms, which must be great fun when lunch time comes around. As luck will have it, Anya's sexy new patient is Barek, or at least a reincarnated Barek. The poor guy seems to have had a long career as a serial killer, with various (un)popular men (for example Rasputin and Peter Kürten, but to my disappointment not Hitler) among his past incarnations. Barek at once recognizes Anya as reincarnation of Brunhilda, but the doctor only has vague flashes of the past. That is, until her nightly flashbacks/dreams begin that will explain how Barek and Boar freed Brunhilda from her altar, how Boar became a berserker, and how Barek and Brunhilda nearly had sex once, but not much else.

While Anya does some decorative sweating (there is of course quite a bit of getting wet in her future; the film's very Bollywood in that way), some of Boar's berserkers attack the psychiatric clinic and kill a few members of the personnel, but are themselves dispatched by Barek. The mass murderer and hero of the piece uses this opportunity to escape and hook up with Anya. Together, they're going to try and escape Boar, have some more flashbacks, and somehow make Berserker look even more like a mess. There's also a semi-twist ending. Everybody loves those, right?

Paul Matthews' Berserker is a film that start off trying to put the audience right into the potentially most exciting part of its action without seeming to care that nobody even knows who these guys on screen actually are or what motives drive their actions, which just might lead to said audience not caring about what it sees, and without keeping in mind that it now doesn't have much to show in its climax anymore.

In Berserker's confused and confusing case, it's all part of an attempt to make the film's backstory a big mystery the beleaguered viewer is supposed to puzzle together through the movie's whole running time. Unfortunately, this turns the experience of actually watching the film into staring at a hodgepodge of seemingly random scenes that might be connected by their actors but don't actually connect too well on an emotional or narrative level. Matthews' - who also signs responsible for the script, or "script" - just doesn't have the chops as a writer or a director to make the film's structure feel sensible; and really, once all the pieces are there, they still only fit together in the vaguest of ways, so that the film stays all skewed ambition without execution. It doesn't help Berserker's case much that its supposed dramatic climax is as limp as they come.

Fortunately, the film does have quite a few other charms for those willing to just ignore its narrative. While Matthews' failure at telling an ambitious story will only be a joy for the cruel of heart, his failure at making a cheesy mid-90s direct-to-video fantasy/action flick at the same time is pretty damn hilarious. And not something that was really still done in 2001, because the ultra-cheapo of the Oughts usually only wants to inflict pain and boredom on its viewers.

Matthews seems to be more of a traditionalist of cheap thrills, and so fills his film with everything a twelve-year-old might find awesome: Kari Wuhrer's breasts (well, actually, more "lots of Kari Wuhrer in wet outfits", with only a coy second or two of nudity, but it's the thought that counts; probably); Paul Johansson's oiled chest; great moments in fake facial hair during the Viking sequences; also, great moments in stuffing actors into everything that looks kinda Viking-y that's in the wardrobe; great moments in pretending your film has the budget for what you're trying to do; actors who seem to believe the hilariously stiff nonsense they are babbling is Shakespeare, or at least big, Oscar-baiting drama, and proceed to act in disarmingly wide-eyed (sometimes snarling) earnestness; an unholy mess of a mythology supposedly based on Nordic myth, but actually scavenged from half-remembered issues of Marvel Comics' Mighty Thor that had an unlawful relationship with Italian Sword & Sorcery movies; gratuitous decapitations; gratuitous yelling of "rrrarrr"; gratuitous post-production effects to let the dream sequences/flashbacks look even cheaper than the rest of the film; blue lighting; blue lighting and fog. Really, the only thing the film's missing in its play for being the perfect heavy metal album cover movie are a chainmail bikini and a soundtrack made by some guy who was once a roadie for Iron Maiden.


So, yes, Berserker is an absolute train wreck: stupid, yet over-ambitious, but also so, so loveable if you're only able to awaken your inner stupid teenager when watching it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In short: I Frankenstein (2014)

I can certainly see the attraction of trying to adapt classic horror creatures like Frankenstein’s creation into the language of the modern superhero blockbuster. Unfortunately, to do this successfully, you might want to put some actual work in, or you’ll end up like this stinker directed and written by Stuart Beattie (who has done some perfectly okay scripts in his time), a film that is indifferently stitched together from clichés (probably brought to life by lightning) without any care or thought of how to make them hang together so that they amount to anything like an actual narrative. The pacing’s completely off, too, so I, Frankenstein jumps awkwardly through exposition spanning years of background, completely forgetting to provide the audience with any reason to care for the fate of the perpetually growly-voiced monster with its one facial expression portrayed by Aaron Eckhart’s body while his mind was elsewhere. I am, by the way, also not a fan of the contemporary habit of making a guy literally sewn together out from a bunch of random body parts not look ugly (see also Penny Dreadful which unlike this turkey makes up for this failing by being pretty damn great in most other respects). It doesn’t help the script’s case any that the whole set-up of a secret war between demons and gargoyles (don’t ask me, I didn’t write this nonsense) carries little dramatic weight.

Of course, this is a film that seems to think that dramatic weight comes automatically as long as the ultra-generic music swells whenever the audience is supposed to feel something; producing that weight through writing, acting, or really anything visible on screen doesn’t seem to touch the film’s mind.

However, even writing this bad could still hold up as the base of a big dumb action movie, if only its action sequences were any good. Yet neither the set pieces nor their execution are of any interest at all; the film also clearly does not have a single clue about how to use CGI properly – but then, why should it be better at that than at anything else it does?


The rest of the affair is dismal, disinterested and blank, with a bunch of theoretically capable actors phoning in their work so that there’s not even much of the joy of outrageous overacting to be had, production design and camera work that’s there and doesn’t look cheap but also doesn’t do anything interesting, and so on, and so forth.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Framed (1975)

For once, gambler and bar owner Ron Lewis (Joe Don Baker) wins big. So big, he’ll be able to pay off the bank and actually own his bar. Alas, on his way home with the bag of money in his car, he stumbles upon a crime, is being shot at, and has barely reached his home when he is accosted by a deputy sheriff who most certainly wants to kill him for some reason Ron will need years to understand.

Ron’s tough, though, so instead of a dead gambler, there’s a dead cop in his garage now, which is an improvement on the alternative only in so far as our hero is now alive to be arrested for cop killing. To add insult to injury, the Sheriff and his cronies steal Ron’s money, and put quite a bit of work in to land him in prison. Hiring thugs to rape and threaten his girlfriend Susan (Conny Van Dyke) so that she’s too broken to help him or herself, changing police documentation – it’s all in a day’s work. Because this charming little Southern small town is going for the prize as most corrupt town in the USA, even Ron’s lawyer is part of the bad guys. Consequently, he lands in prison for the crime of self-defence, is apparently left by the woman he loves for no good reason, he life turning into a particularly harsh honkytonk tune.

In prison, Ron at first seemingly aims for getting himself killed right quick by doing everything to piss off the guards (and when in doubt other prisoners too). Fortunately, our hapless protagonist does leave a positive impression with gambler and mafia big shot Sal (John Marley) by taking a knife for him, so Sal takes Ron under his wing, teaching him the art of laying low until one is released, and promises help when needed. Because Ron’s a personable guy, he also becomes friends with professional killer Vince (Gabriel Dell), a friendship that just might save his life later on.

For once he’s released, Ron does of course return to his stinking hole of a home town to take vengeance on the men responsible for his incarceration and get back his money; and that’s before he learns why he never heard anything from Susan. Oh, and he might just have to find out what’s actually going on. Apart from his prison buddies, Ron will find an unexpected ally in deputy sheriff Brock Peters (Sam Perry) who has his own perspective on what his “colleagues” and other parts of the deeply corrupt town have been up to, thanks to him being what appears to be the only black cop in town.

Framed’s director Phil Karlson had been active in filmmaking since the 40s, with a handful of 50s hard-boiled noirs being particular jewels in his crown. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Karlson didn’t phase out from the big screen to work for TV in the 60s and 70s. Instead, he found a home in the exploitation market where veterans able to shoot quickly, on budget but with a certain panache were probably more than just a useful commodity. Consequently, he didn’t end his career on some anonymous TV stint but on his second feature with the great Joe Don Baker after Walking Tall.

Framed is a fine note to end on, too, for while there are certainly technical flaws typical for the seat of your pants filmmaking of exploitation movies visible on screen from time to time – particularly the editing seems pretty rough in a few scenes – the film has energy in spades. Much of this energy is a practical demonstration of how effective Karlson’s on paper somewhat blunt and direct style could be in practice. Karlson wasn’t the kind of guy to go for fancy camera work, overtly stylish framing or anything visibly arty in most of his films, but there’s a directness to the action scenes here that makes these scenes irresistible and riveting, belying the film’s small scale again and again by feeling big. The violence on screen has an hard edge, with fights that feel ugly and authentic for most of the time. Baker’s self-defence killing of the deputy is particularly brutal, emphasising the stakes at hand. And even though Karlson isn’t a fancy director, that doesn’t mean he’s stupid: he tends to shoot fights so close to the combatants you can see sweat (there’s a lot of sweat in the movie) dripping and spittle flying; from time to time, he also adds flourishes of grim humour, like late in the film when one character is thrown out of a window and we only hear but don’t see a dog ripping him to shreds.

Karlson’s other main virtue is his willingness and ability to leave space for his actors to inhabit, so Joe Don has ample opportunity to let his particular kind of screen presence bounce off a bunch of great character actors. This sort of thing is always a joy to watch and in Framed often adds moments of dark-humoured whimsy to the generally brutal proceedings. Ron’s relationship with Vince is a particular joy in this regard.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In short: Iced (1988)

It’s the wild, wild 80s, a time of deadly hairspray fog and nauseating pastel colours, so is it any wonder that some rather crazy twat misunderstands the interest of lovely – it says so in the script – Trina (Debra De Liso) in him and skis himself to death when she prefers getting (very) naked in a hilarious sex scene with some other twit?

Four years later, Trina is actually married to the other guy. She and the rest of the gang of friends who took part in the sad affair are invited to some kind of test weekend that’s supposed to sell them a ski cabin. Then, a lot of nothing happens. Okay, there’s a murder – with awesome ski-mask-o-vision – none of the other characters witness, but that’s a minute of vague interest followed by what feels like a worthy arthouse film’s length of characters just babbling, some nudity (male and female, at least), some awkward attempts at suspense by paper note, and some coke snorting, followed by more babbling and the sort of seduction sequence that’ll make you run for the hills (hopefully to the dulcet sounds of Iron Maiden).

After ages of that stuff, the film suddenly remembers it’s supposed to be a slasher and packs four or five kills (you don’t expect me to remember how many characters actually were in the film, or to have taken notes on this one, I hope) into the space of ten minutes. It’s a bit of a shame, too, for the hectic series of killings is actually rather fun, with some choice murder methods (ski stick to the throat being the obvious winner), “tasteful” corpse nudity (always a sign of all kinds of good sense and a deep appreciation for human suffering on account of filmmakers) and other exciting extras. If that had been sprinkled throughout the rest of the film, perhaps with the help of some sort of “plot”, Iced might have gone down much better with me, which is to say, with less yawns. Be that as it may, once the killings are done, it’s off to a pretty fun(ny) scene of Trina finding the corpses of her friends and a final girl sequence that suggests our supposed heroine to be one of the worst final girls in a slasher.


One Jeff Kwitny directed the whole she-bang with some visible basic skill, and I have indeed seen much worse fourth tier slashers than this one. Hey, at least there’s a lot of snow on screen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

From a House on Willow Street (2016)

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Hazel (Sharni Vinson), and her friends and partners Ade (Steven John Ward), Mark (Zino Ventura) and James (Gustav Gerdener), all semi-tough people with a troubled past, decide to go for a big score.

Their plan is to kidnap Katherine (Carlyn Burchell) from her family home and trade her back for a bunch of diamonds. Alas, as brilliant as that plan is (you might want to imagine a degree of sarcasm in my voice here), things go very wrong indeed. Acquiring the young woman isn’t really the problem, though she already looks as if she had been kidnapped before our protagonists got their hands on her, but once she’s in their hands, (and repeat after me:) curious things begin to happen. The kidnappers first encounter very loud, jump scary and icky looking ghost versions of their personal dead. Quickly, things devolve into demonic possession and other rather more high-grade supernatural shenanigans.

The first half hour of Alastair Orr’s South African low budget horror film is a bit tough going: the semi-hard boiled dialogue sounds off, the acting’s not terrible yet oddly stilted, and the loud jump scare zombie ghosts look awesome but feel as annoying as jump scares in films that exclusively trade (or in this case seem to trade) in jump scares tend to do.

Persevering with the film might turn out to be a rather good idea, though, at least for those among my readers who share my liking for gory Italian horror and other things wonderful yet probably rather silly. Orr’s film really does share quite a few genes with the louder half of Italian horror: the script is earnest about a lot of decidedly silly things and isn’t afraid to do really awkward stuff. How awkward? How about letting two of the kidnappers go back to their victim’s home because they can’t reach anyone by phone to, one assumes, deliver the ransom note in person, mostly so they can find a bunch of corpses (some of whom they expertly identify not just as priests but as exorcists) and a couple of very convenient expository video tapes that show scenes even more improbable to have been filmed than what we see in most POV horror films, among it the misadventures of two really inept exorcists. Thing is, that’s about the point when the film just might slime itself into the horror fan’s heart with the deeply earnest treatment of very specifically silly possession nonsense, the increasing amount of pretty damn fun special and make-up effects and the general increase of cheap yet creatively awesome horror set pieces that leave the realm of the jump scare as quickly behind as that of logic.


Among the wonderful, gruesome, and silly things one can encounter are the best demon tongues outside of anime tentacle porn, more demonic floating (and not just in that stupid corner at some bedroom ceiling most possession films are so fixated on) than you can shake a stick at, a fight between the burning ghost of a Mum and two demonically possessed (let’s just say Mums beat demons in a fight pretty badly), and choice demonic gloating. The film also attempts some gestures towards thematic resonance and that depth stuff we all have heard about from time to time but doesn’t really manage to get anywhere with it because it is desperately underwritten and generally awkward. However, since its main interest is in some moments of wonderful illogic and in putting Italian style possessed against criminals, that’s only a problem if you as a viewer want it to be one. I, at least, found myself charmed, gripped and delighted by the film’s tone, the effects, and Orr’s good eye for staging a gruesome and over the top scene for little money.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Your favorite fire-breathing monster... Like you've never seen him before!

Uncle John (2015): I feel a bit like a barbarian saying this, but despite being well-acted, beautifully shot, and all-around well-made, Steven Piet’s sort of crime drama, kind of romance, US post-mumblecore indie does very little for me thanks to pacing so glacial, calling it slow would be like pretending it is fast. There are quite a few scenes that are brilliant, clever, and effective but a viewer has to pay for them by suffering through long, long scenes of the characters very poignantly doing little of interest. I just found myself losing my patience watching it. It’s not only the slowness that bugged me, really, but that quite a few scenes seem to be only in the film to reiterate points about its characters it has already made twice before. As it stands, the film could lose a good twenty minutes of runtime and not say less but actually say what it has to say more effectively instead of dragging it out. I really blame the influence of mumblecore as well as a certain type of arthouse movie and their inherent unwillingness to edit things here.

Lone Star (1996): John Sayles does of course belong to an earlier generation of US indie filmmaking, and having spent his times in the (sometimes gold) mines of more commercial filmmaking quite obviously taught the man things about getting to the point of any given scene. Or rather, the points, for this – one of his best films perhaps even his best – is a film that speaks about a Texas border town and its history by way of its people, explores the idea and practice of real, metaphorical and ethical borderlines, the shaping of history and our stories about it, and understands how to draw complex characters and show complicated situations without ever feeling the need to show us every single interaction its characters have in excruciating detail. While it is a highly shaped tale, Lone Star still feels as if its storytelling came about naturally, by the by; there’s no grasping for moments of truth here, they just come, or don’t, as is their wont.


How Do You Know (2010): Theoretically, this is a light, fluffy and not terribly pointed romantic comedy deep from the Hollywood mills featuring Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd as two people finding one another in a time of personal crises, but because it’s written and directed by James L. Brooks, it is also a film that has a lot of fun with just letting (often wickedly funny) dialogue flow, knows how to shape the ensemble surrounding its stars into more than just a backdrop (which would be a waste of for example a very funny and ambiguous performance by Jack Nicholson). It is also a film about grown-ups growing up more instead of the sort of romantic comedy that pats its characters on the back for learning not to be complete tools, as well as one that comes by its emotional moments the honest way – by being about well-written and well-acted characters going through things that feel like movie-enlarged versions of experiences people might actually go through. I’m afraid real life does not have dialogue this good nor the appropriate happy end, alas.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Bay Rong (2009)

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.


Trinh (Thanh Van Ngo) has been working as an assassin and girl for every opportunity under the codename "Phoenix" for a shadowy gangster-type with connections in the grey areas between espionage and crime known as Black Dragon (Hoang Phuc Nguyen) since she was a teenager. Not that she ever had much of a choice in the matter. Black Dragon "rescued" her out of slavery as a prostitute in Cambodia and made her what she is now. Plus, he is keeping Trinh's daughter hidden away somewhere as a very convincing argument for the woman's loyalty.

Still, her life is getting to Trinh, and she only wants out and start a less violent existence somewhere with her daughter. Black Dragon even seems willing to grant Trinh her wish, there are just a tiny handful of missions she has to finish for him first.

The seventh and last of these missions sounds simple enough: steal a MacGuffinlaptop from some hairless Frenchmen. For the heist, Trinh recruits a small group of criminals, among them the less than stable Cang (Lam Ming Thang) and the upright emo gangster Quan (Johnny Nguyen).

From the beginning, everything that could go wrong for the group does go wrong. An attempt to buy guns ends in a shoot-out with weapon dealers who have reasons to hate Cang. Later on, the French turn out to be more resilient than anyone would have expected, and kill the only person beside her daughter Trinh cares about. Well, at least the group manages to get the laptop.

But that's not the end of anything. Cang uses an easy opportunity to abscond with the laptop,
leaving Trinh and Quan - the only other survivors of their group - with nothing. On the more positive side, Trinh and Quan have fallen in love with each other during the course of the operation and are even more motivated to get the merchandise back. It is just a little unfortunate that Quan isn't gangster at all but an upright emo undercover cop out to get Black Dragon (and - fittingly - just as tired of his way of life as Trinh is of hers).

Bay Rong reunites some of the key players of 2007's The Rebel, one of the finer semi-historical action movies of the last few years, and one of the few Vietnamese movies not aiming for the arthouse festival circuit to make its way outside of the country. It has been something of a dereliction of duty that I haven't reviewed the older film here or at my home base at all, so let's just say that it seemed heavily influenced by the action style of Thai movies of the last decade or so, as well as by classic Heroic Bloodshed films from Hong Kong, and did its influences honour, and leave it at that for now.

As The Rebel was, Bay Rong is again driven by Johnny Nguyen, who is here credited as the film's co-writer, co-producer and action director besides playing the lead role (and honestly, I'm not sure how large the role of the film's nominal director Le Thanh Son actually was). Nguyen has spent a lot of his time working as a Hollywood stuntman or playing the second henchman in action films, and has by now grown not only into an experienced martial artist of the sort that knows the difference between good tournament fighting and good screen fighting, but also a more than solid actor, a combination that should lead to more success than what his work in Hollywood grants him. Unfortunately US productions still seem infuriatingly incapable or just unwilling of putting the talents of Asian stars to good use. Fortunately, Nguyen does try to make the films he can't make in the USA in his native Vietnam, at least from time to time.

Given this background, it's a little surprising that Bay Rong isn't the Johnny Nguyen one-man-show one might suspect. While the film provides its male star with ample opportunity to show off his martial arts skills, it puts just as much emphasis on its female lead Thanh Van Ngo (also going under Veronica Ngo), whom everyone and her mother on the Internet describes as "singer turned actress", but who really deserves a better description for her work here. Something like "pretty darn impressive actress who is just as convincing in her fight scenes as the professional martial artist Nguyen" would probably work nicely. Having a woman without a martial arts background putting this much effort into her physical performance as Ngo does here is quite the thing to watch in a film that does stage its action so that it would be difficult to use stunt doubles extensively. This is something I'd love to see various Chinese/Hong Kong idols and models, male and female attempt in their action roles.

The film's action style is of the brutal and intense looking variety, lying somewhere between that of contemporary Thai cinema and Hong Kong circa 1987, perhaps with a little less love for the spectacular and a little more love for the fighters' health than its models showed, but realized so tight and convincing that the slight deficit in the insanity department doesn't hurt the action's quality.

So far, so close to basically every film with Tony Jaa in it, as well as most of the throwback attempts to more interesting times in the action genres Hong Kong cinema of the last few years provided us with. But Bay Rong does something a little differently than films like Coweb or Bad Blood. It treats the scenes between the various punch-ups and shoot-outs not as filler or excuses to trot out some guest stars, but is genuinely interested in telling the story of Trinh and Quan. It's as if someone had realized that the punching and shooting is even more exciting when the audience does at least care a little for the people doing the punching and the shooting.


Having said that, I'll also have to say that Bay Rong's story will be far from surprising for anyone familiar with, say, the work of John Woo (though a female character like Trinh would be quite unthinkable for that particular director). But originality isn't necessarily the point in a genre film, as long as it puts the tropes of its genre together in an organic and thoughtful way, instead of a mere mechanical one (torture porn movies, I'm looking at you). There may be no real surprises in the film's plot or characters, but it treats both aspects with a degree of respect and seriousness that seems to be missing from many other efforts at keeping martial arts and action cinema in Asia alive, while also avoiding the kitsch of the last two Ong Bak films.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Handful of Toughts On Family Plot (1976)

Alfred Hitchcock’s final film is generally, though certainly not universally, rather unloved. It’s not much of a surprise either, for this peculiar comedy thriller (thriller comedy?) most of the time doesn’t feel at all like the sort of films you think about when it comes to defining an Alfred Hitchcock movie, even though it is certainly working in a genre space Hitchcock very much helped define.

Which is why I rather like the film, I think. At the very least, I find it very difficult not to respect a filmmaker who has been making movies since silent film times, and in the late 70s still goes out to make a film that’s not typical of him. Family Plot is not a stone cold Great Film mind you - it lacks that slightly abstract crystallized and unmoving quality films marked with this word not seldom suffer under; it doesn’t feel like a part of a canon but like part of a life’s work that could have gone on from there.

The film’s great strength and its great weakness lies in its playfulness, the director’s willingness to let his very wonderful, very 70s cast – particularly Karen Black, William Devane, Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris – interact in often funny ways that suggest personal histories between characters instead of explaining them, and to let them show off-beat flaws, how the film suggests all sorts of interesting stuff you couldn’t get into a film that’s interested in tight plotting. For Family Plot really is a rather meandering kind of movie, with quite a few scenes you’d just cut if its aim were are tight unified experience but which are left in here to create more of a space for the characters to inhabit. The plot for its part is weird, rather intricate, but also not at all the point of the film.


There are two nice Hitchcock suspense set pieces to enjoy too, but what really lets this film stay in my mind is how little this is “An Alfred Hitchcock movie”, and how much the work of a veteran director of huge talents trying on elements of what the new kids have been up to in the last years.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Immortal Sins (1991)

Susan (Maryam d’Abo) follows her husband Mike (Cliff De Young) to Spain where he is renovating the mansion his family once lived in before they went to the USA some generations ago.

Things for and between the couple seem fine at first, but Mike is plagued – well, perhaps not plagued exactly – by dreams and what amounts to visions of having sex with a beautiful woman (Shari Shattuck). These dreams do have a sinister undercurrent, and it becomes increasingly unclear if they truly are dreams. Particularly once Mike and Susan encounter Diana, who introduces herself as a very remote cousin of Mike’s. Diana, you see, does look exactly like the woman from Mike’s dreams. It doesn’t escape Susan’s notice that her hubby has the look of a guy on his face who just got a very enthusiastic physical reaction whenever he meets Diana, nor that he becomes increasingly withdrawn, sickly, cranky, and unwilling to fulfil his husbandly duties. That’s not just an opportunity for some fine rows between the couple. Susan also rather quickly decides something truly strange is going with Mike, some malignant influence hanging over him far beyond mere infidelity. Susan’s my kind of heroine, so she quickly starts on a campaign of research, and learns about a family curse.

On paper, this Corman-produced film shot in Spain by a Spanish director and with a Spanish crew, sounds a lot like a pure bit of Skinemax horror. However, while it does contain its share of sex scenes – which feel as if they were shortened by someone’s censorship knife in the VHS-based version I’ve watched - is actually a pretty serious and effective effort at evoking the virtues of traditional Gothic horror while adding quite a few Gothic romance tropes to the genre mix. Just, you know, Gothic horror with a few more naked breasts and more shots of Cliff De Young’s naked chest than you usually get to see. So if even one of these things floats your boat, you are rather in luck with the film. Generally, Immortal Sins’s approach to what amounts to a rather standard erotic horror set-up feels not so much like the US cable TV that probably inspired its existence but like a lost European horror film from the 70s, Spanish director Hervé Hechuel clearly putting quite a bit of effort into making the eroticism a bit more dreamlike than an American director would and well, actually, turning the rest of the film rather more dreamlike also.

Ironically, quite a bit of that dreamlike effect of proceedings is based on the director’s atmospheric approach to location shooting that turns an actual picturesque Spanish village, woods and roads (and a nifty building and cellar) into rather sinister places where the idea of a curse, a succubus, and the sins of the fathers coming down to first provide the sons with a lot of sex and then to crush them seem just par for the course.

While the dialogue is often – but not always – a bit rough, the acting is generally fine. Cliff De Young has always been good at playing this particular kind of libidinous asshole, while d’Abo does fine shouting matches with him but is also genuinely fun to watch when she goes on her research spree or when she starts seeing things. Sexploitation expert Shari Shattuck knows her stuff too.

This all adds up to a surprisingly effective low budget flick, certainly one of the more interesting Corman productions of the early 90s and a film I’d rather like to see uncut and with decent picture quality.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In short: Suicide Squad (2016)

Like all DC superhero movies not directed by Christopher Nolan, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is at times tough going, full of awkward tonal shifts, scenes that don’t serve any function beyond making the film longer (I shudder to think what the “extended cut” adds to a film that’s at least twenty minutes too long already), and featuring cameos from Affleck-Batman (which is to say, the Batman who is only not worse than the Clooney version because he’s not in Joel Schumacher films) and Jared Leto, the first movie Joker that can only be described as boring and would-be edgy.

There are numerous script problems. Namely, the first twenty minutes are a barrage of exposition and horrible dialogue, followed by ten minutes of posturing (the film’s pretty heavy on assumed coolness through posing anyway) before something akin to a plot evolves. And then there’s the sad fact that the thing clearly doesn’t know what to do with most of its characters (hint: copy more and better from Ostrander and Yale’s run on the comics next time), leaving the actors hanging – they might just as well have called the film “Deadshot & Harley & Some Other Guys”.

On the positive side, Will Smith is a much better Deadshot than I expected, even though I much prefer the suicidally depressed version of the character to the “killer who has a daughter and is therefore likeable” trope the film goes for, and Margot Robbie makes a fine Harley in search of a better Joker.

Generally, the film’s second hour works much better than first one, mostly because it finally stops with the introductions and the exposition and starts to show us the characters actually doing stuff instead of telling us that they are some day going to do stuff or once have done stuff. The action’s not particularly great or inventive going by superhero blockbuster standards but it’s also not the embarrassment of the action in Deadpool (which, unlike apparently everyone else, I loathed quite a bit) or the boring never-ending carnage of Dawn of the Justice League. And while the writing generally stays clichéd as all get-out (even for a genre that thrives on its clichés), it does at the very least hit the right clichés in the end. Why, there are even a handful of scenes that suggest a more interesting film about redemption and hitting monsters with baseball bats.

I don’t know how to call a film whose first hour is a tedious mess and whose second one is perfectly decent popcorn cinema, but Suicide Squad is that movie.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

After Earth (2013)

Some centuries (or more) in the future. Humanity has fled the Earth they fucked up royally and fled to the stars. Alas, their planned new home already had a owner, and we’re now quite some time into some sort of interstellar conflict where the (supposedly evil) aliens use so-called Ursa against humanity, big ugly animal-type things that smell fear.

Humanity is fighting back thanks to people who are psychically so damaged (well, that’s what I say, the film thinks it’s a-okay) they can shut off their fear completely. The best of these guys is the hilariously named Cypher Raige (Will Smith). In what it’s difficult to see as a surprising turn of events, Cypher also happens to be a crap father. His son, the only mildly less bizarrely monikered Kitai (Jaden Smith) – yes, Kitai Raige – tries to live up to his father’s legend, but doesn’t quite manage to. It’s not that he lacks the physical abilities to become a professional killer, but he’s still a kid who acts and feels like one, so the whole unhealthily shunting off an emotion that has helped humanity survive since it existed thing is rather beyond him. That he was the witness to the traumatic killing of his sister by an Ursa certainly doesn’t help there either.

Kitai will have to learn quick though, for the space ship he and his father are on crashes down on one of the most dangerous planets in the known universe: Earth itself. Surprisingly enough, the place isn’t a toxic hellhole but more of a jungle world full of nasty animals. Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors of the crash, and because Cypher has broken both of his legs, and all survival equipment in this future is built to be as breakable as possible, it’s up to Kitai to save the day.

Having a rich and famous dad really has its perks. If you play your cards right, Daddy’s going to buy you your very own survivalist SF adventure to star in. At least that’s how my cynical half reads the existence of this film. My other half enjoyed the film well enough, so I’m not too down on the Smiths, particularly since the younger Smith does comport himself better than I feared. At least, he’s a more convincing actor than his Dad was when he was young. The elder Smith for his part has developed into a decent, dependable kind of actor who sells even the ideologically dubious, and psychologically wrong-headed monologues about fear the film uses instead of actually having father and son bond like people with a degree of grace.

Otherwise, this is a perfectly entertaining little survivalist SF adventure about a teenager fighting various surprisingly crappy looking CGI animals, panicking like a teenager, and having it off with his dad. I’d have wished that the absurdly easily breakable survival equipment of this particular future wouldn’t have been an important plot point three times but then this is directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan who must have been rather confused when he realized he had to use other screen writing techniques than a big plot twist in the end, even more so since he also had to keep his religious proselytizing out and replace it with anti-psychological nonsense about fear. As a director, Shyamalan is pretty much in neutral mode here, doing a perfectly competent job without showing much personality. One might argue that’s better in his case anyway.

It is obvious that I’m not feeling particularly close to the resulting film but when it comes to SF adventure movies, you certainly can do much worse, and while the film isn’t ambitious at all, it is doing what it does well enough.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: They called it God's Country... until all hell broke loose!

Morgan (2016): Luke Scott’s film starts as a very pretty to look at SF film about a woman (Kate Mara) sent to a research facility to find out what has gone wrong with the artificial life form (Anya Taylor-Joy) they have built there, promising some exploration of what it means to be human. Alas, halfway through, the whole thing turns into a very standard AI running amok flick that’s still pretty to look at and competently directed but suffers from the banality of this approach after the film has promised something slightly more interesting.

The film wastes a fantastic cast (also including Rose Leslie, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Toby Jones and more) by not giving them much to do with their underwritten characters and caps things with a so-called twist anyone in the market for SF films will have seen coming a mile away. It’s not a terrible film, mind you, but one that wastes so much potential it might as well be one.

Siren (2016): Speaking of banal, this spin-off of bro horror mainstay series VHS by Gregg Bishop is the kind of vaguely competent monster movie with a perfectly boring script (including about one somewhat interesting idea and of course not even doing something with it) that, while not being offensively bad, just isn’t worth the time invested into watching it. There are exactly one and a half relatively memorable scenes in here, the rest of this thing is the movie equivalent of a mediocre hamburger.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994): On the other hand, there’s worse things for a film than being a burger, as is amply demonstrated by Kim Henkel’s abominable fourth and final film in the original TCM series, a film that starts out as a particularly dumb slasher movie, becomes an annoying camp fest that makes a mild-mannered boy like me think very bad thoughts about its director/writer, and finishes on whatever the hell that ending even is supposed to be, seeing as it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the film that supposedly led up to it. If that’s the sort of thing that rings your bell, there are early career lead roles by Renée Zellweger (who is much better than the film she’s in deserves) and Matthew McConaughey (camping it up in what I can only read as an attempt at self defence) before they were famous. Apparently, both actors (or “their people”) tried to suppress this thing in a move I find even worse than the actual film.

Otherwise, don’t blame me if you watch this, for there’s really no sane reason to inflict this much pain on yourself.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Psychout For Murder (1969)

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.


Licia (Adrienne Larussa, in the same year she also appeared in Fulci's version of Beatrice Cenci), the daughter of a successful - and consequently highly corrupt - businessman (director Rossano Brazzi) is taken out for a nice bit of couple time in a bordello by her boyfriend Mario (Nino Castelnuovo). Alas, the cops are raiding the place and a whole lot of photographers are waiting in front of the door, too. Turns out Mario himself called them in a successful attempt to steer Licia into a compromising situation to get a blackmail handle on Daddy. Personally, I wouldn't try to do my blackmailing with photos that are already in the hands of the yellow press, but what do I know?

Daddy is paying Mario anyway. He, the rest of the family and their equally disgusting friends in business and church decide that the best way to save his face in front of the public (here's where the film's original title comes in) is to declare Licia to be mentally imbalanced and put her into a mental institution for a time.

Licia, betrayed by everyone she ever trusted, doesn't take to the clinic or the betrayal too well and has a real breakdown there. After her discharge, the young woman begins to act rather disturbingly. She gets in contact with Mario again and convinces him of a much more interesting blackmail attack on her father, and begins a long-form seduction of her sister's husband. Licia also adds a lot of little malicious things to make her Daddy's life miserable to her daily schedule, the sort of things only a once loving daughter could come up with. Everything she does is of course part of a complicated plan to destroy her family for what they've done to her. Daddy is, in good Freudian fashion, his little girl's central victim.

Psychout for Murder does not carry its very late 60s sounding title without a reason. Even in the terrible looking, bleached Alpha Video version of the film I saw, there's no escaping the decade's obligatory far-out-ness in interior decoration and fashion, and I can't help but imagine some equally mind-blowing colour schemes where my print only shows everything in the pale tones of various sorts of camembert. The film's music alone (by Benedetto Ghiglia), sounding exactly you'd expect music in an Italian movie of the era to sound, is enough to disperse any thought of browns and greys from a viewer's mind. I'd use the word "groovy" if it weren't so undignified.

Rossano Brazzi usually didn't stand behind the camera much, but had spent most of his working time (starting in 1938) as an actor in roles large and small, something that wouldn't change at all after this, his third and last work as a director. Brazzi's direction is not as psychedelic as the art direction would lead one to hope. For long stretches, the man shoots about as straight as any director of 50s Westerns, just with short breaks in the conventional in form of intense little fast-editing freak-outs that again scream "1969" as loudly as a purple wig. This doesn't mean Brazzi doesn't know what he's doing. The director just doesn't seem to want to step in the trap of over-directing everything actors working behind the camera are so often trampling into; Brazzi just trusts into his script and his co-actors and does not feel the need to show off with his work behind the camera.

The film also lacks the other big problem of film's directed by actors who are also on screen. There's nothing of the horrible "Look at me being a great actor!" that can make this sort of thing so tiring. In fact, Brazzi lets his co-actors shine as much as possible. That is of course something this particular cast, full of people like Brazzi who you've probably seen in dozens of Italian genre pictures but won't necessarily be able to name, does very well indeed, even though a rather rough English dub track might distract the novice in Italian genre cinema from their achievements. I've heard much worse dubs in Italian films, but then I always have seen or heard worse things when it comes to movies.

The weakest link in Psychout's acting is probably Adrienne Larussa (in her first film role, no less), who, as Licia, is appearing in nearly every scene. I wouldn't be very surprised if she'd been cast for her looks (a certain type of brittle and strained - and again very 60s - long-haired beauty) first, and for her acting abilities second. The actress is perfectly fine in her more measured scenes, or when staring emptily or hurt into a mirror, but whenever the script calls for a more intense and direct moment of breaking down, she's just a bit too showily melodramatic to be believable, especially in direct comparison with her more subtle co-actors.

Of course, the film's script does at times tend a bit in the direction of needless melodrama too, with one or two scenes from the soap operatic lives of the decadent and corrupt rich played a bit too earnestly for what they contain. I did, on the other hand, really enjoy the film's other face, its sardonic joy at first showing the trinity of church, business and state and their favourite institution the family as corrupt and perfectly willing to sacrifice an innocent like Licia just to make their own existence a bit easier, and then seeing it destroyed through its own vices in a way you'll only see in exploitation cinema, with a sneer not very well hidden under a candy-coloured surface. And because that alone wouldn't be fun enough, Brazzi adds a nice helping of half-digested Freudianism and a merry sense of the perverse to the mix, all the better to give his film a giant undertow of black humour to rub against the melodrama.

To me, this looks like about as much as one could wish for from a nearly forgotten giallo.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Some Thoughts About After Hours (1985)

This one’s Martin Scorsese’s weird one, apparently made when he had his Last Temptation of Christ project yanked out from under him just before shooting was supposed to begin, and before he had found a new home for it. Obviously, the next logical step when confronted with the failure of a project of particular personal importance is to make a bizarre comedy about white collar worker Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) visiting a pretty woman (Rosanna Arquette) in Soho only to drift into the bizarre dark comedy version of a Hitchcock plot about an innocent man hunted for something he didn’t do. There’s a bit of suicide and the threat of a lynching to make the stakes high in a way that does remind of Jonathan Demme in this stage of his career a bit, but predominantly this is a film about utter confusion, our protagonist having stumbled into a night world whose social cues he just isn’t able to read, and whose godhood (I’d bet on the good old cruel humorous universe) really has got it in for him tonight.

Paul gets stripped of money early on, and bodily safety quickly follows. Every offer of help only leads to another cruel twist that slowly begins to erode his sanity too, with the obstacles he encounters becoming in equal parts increasingly absurd and threatening.

What makes After Hours special – and a rather difficult film to actually enjoy watching – is how much effort Scorsese puts into making the audience feel just as violently ripped out of the world they know and – presumably – understand as Dunne’s character is. While this is a comedy, it is very much one that’s out to disquiet and unroot the viewer, and as such, it’s not the kind of fun you’d usually seek in films called comedies. The trick Scorsese uses is to film the comedy with all the stylistic elements of a classic thriller (poor old Hitchcock comes to my mind again), using the genre assumptions certain ways to edit, pace and stage scenes carry against the audience’s sense of security until, just like Hackett, every situation feels wrong, potentially dangerous, and impossible to understand.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

They’re Playing with Fire (1984)

Young Jay (Eric Brown) clearly hits the jackpot of teenage dreams. His hot (if you like the type) Professor Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning) seduces him with all the subtlety and charm we know from Sybil Danning. Who’d have thought she has ulterior motives for it?

Before you know it, she and her husband Michael (Andrew Prine) ask Jay to break into the home of Michael’s – hilariously unpleasant - grandmother and mother to frighten them a bit. It’s apparently all part of a bizarre plan to have the two declared mentally unfit so that Michael and the rather costly Diane can get at their money. Diane’s veeeery convincing, so Jay agrees. However, he’s not terribly good at frightening old ladies and instead finds himself chased off and nearly shot in the back (Mum’s got guns). While he is fleeing, someone more competent murders the ladies, hiding the bodies afterwards.

Jay, Diane and Michael fall into the usual habit of infighting, distrust and betrayal. However, someone goes around killing more people, particularly those stumbling into the home of Grammy and Ma.

A look at the packaging and one-sheets of Howard Avedis’s film suggests some sort of teen sex comedy but in truth, all comedy included is exclusively of the inadvertent type. In truth, this is a tits and ass thriller that for the last thirty minutes or so veers into the realm of the bizarro slasher – perhaps imagining itself to be an American giallo – and ends on one of the more bizarre ideas of what the words “happy end” mean. But explaining that last one would really be telling.

Obviously, it’s not a very good film. Avedis’s direction is just sort of there and the plot feels as if someone had mashed up the pages of about three different movies without much of an interest in coherence, logic or any of those other advanced concepts of the art of screenwriting.

Fortunately, They’re Playing with Fire has quite a few other things going on that turn it into something terribly entertaining, and often pretty damn funny. From the first “seduction” scene on, Brown and Danning have all the on-screen chemistry of two rather freakish looking pieces of wood. Danning seems – as is so often the case with her – to believe that shoving her breasts into someone’s face and hugging him awkwardly is the high water mark of all things erotic (full disclosure: aesthetically, Danning never did anything for me, which is a bit of a problem since she certainly isn’t as a rule hired for her acting prowess). Brown spends most of his screen time looking like a frightened rabbit in the headlight; except in the sex scenes with Danning, where he looks so damn uncomfortable you want to give the poor guy a pat on the head. Combined, these two are comedy gold, and if the film did this one purpose, I’d probably praise it as a masterpiece that’s finally honest about how the fulfilment of male teen sex dreams would actually look. Of course, it’s just rather spectacularly inept.

I’m particularly fond of the film’s slasher elements. The killer – and his backstory – make no sense at all, the presence of the victims in the house generally even less, and there’s a glorious randomness about every single scene involving him. A particularly delightful moment is when he starts a kill by stepping out of a wardrobe dressed in a Santa Claus costume. Now, keep in mind that the film neither takes place on Christmas, nor is there any particular connection between the killer and the holiday. It’s just something someone involved in the production thought to be a good idea at the time, and who could blame them?

Then there’s the happy end, but that’s something everybody should have to go through by themselves (while imbibing some legal drugs), I daresay.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

In short: The Void (2016)

On a slow night, deputy Sheriff Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) picks up a hurt and bloody man from the side of the road. The closest emergency room is run by a skeleton crew in a hospital that’s nearly abandoned after a fire some time ago. As luck will have it, Daniel’s separated – they lost a child - wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) is working there this night. These personal problems won’t be the worst thing on Daniel’s mind for long, though, for soon enough he and the handful of other characters in the emergency room, will have to cope with much worse things. A gang of white-robed knife-wielding cultists surrounding the hospital not letting anyone leave or make contact with the outside world will turn out to be the least of their troubles.

I am not at all surprised that Astron-6’s Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski made quite a film in their first “serious” outing (and without the Astron-6 moniker), seeing as their more parodic work demonstrated not just surface knowledge of genre cinema as a whole but what looks like a lot of deep understanding, enthusiasm and talent, certainly all things they demonstrate here in great amounts.

After hearing The Void described as a Lovecraftian film, or at least one of cosmic horror, I did expect a much slower film as the one I got. Properly defined, The Void is cosmic horror and Lovecraft filtered through Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter, Lucio Fulci and body horror, which means its psychologically grounded cosmicism finds a dancing partner in huge amounts of practical effects that suggest a diet of the aforementioned directors and the best of the Silent Hill franchise. The monsters and the effects get going much faster than I had expected, too. Fifteen minutes in, and things become gooey and grotesque and never stop for long from then on out, very much to my satisfaction.

The pace does get – rather appropriately – weird after some time of the directors playing with something of an inverted siege scenario (nobody seems to want to get in to hurt the characters, they’re just not allowed to leave because of something locked in with them). Once parts of the cast make their way into a cellar that acts as a place where the layers between our reality and something much grimmer have grown thin through abuse, things turn ever more dream-like, visions and hallucinations breaking the until then classically plotted movie’s timing until it turns strange. At first, I was a bit displeased by how this approach seemed to throw the film out of whack, further thought and exposure convinced me it is actually a rather brilliant way to let the audience share into some of the psychological effects of the characters’ contact with the Cosmically Weird, while providing even more opportunity for these fine effects.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Detroit 9000 (1973)

When black congress man Aubrey Clayton (Rudy Challenger) holds a not at all pre-planned, totally spontaneous fundraiser for his not at all pre-planned, totally spontaneous decision to run for governor, he and the other rich black people of Detroit (one supposes those are the only rich black people in the city too) suddenly find themselves victims of a short, sharp and very professional robbery.

The robbers are so effective, in fact, nobody is even able to discern their race(s), a particularly big problem in this already politically loaded case. As it goes, the whites talk about black on black crime and inside jobs, while the blacks suggest a conspiracy to hold their candidate down.

The poor bastard of a cop chosen to solve this mess is Lieutenant Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco), whose career has been shafted by his unwillingness to play politics. He’s more into crime solving, apparently. Danny is not very racist for a white cop in what is at least in part a blaxploitation flick, and tries to get by being honest and still somehow paying for the treatments of his wife who is incurable sick with something – being terribly racist and even more melodramatic seem to be part of her symptoms. Danny is going things alone at first, but another cop, black murder beat Sergeant Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) pushes himself into the investigation when he finds a corpse who very well might have been one of the robbers when still alive.

Danny doesn’t like Jesse much, in part – though one Danny probably wouldn’t admit to it – certainly because of his race, but also because Jesse is the police department’s black poster boy: he’s stylish, he was a famous athlete, and he knows how to play politics, all things the working stiff Danny doesn’t particularly like. Not surprisingly, Jesse reciprocates most of these feelings. But Jesse’s also a good cop, so working the case, they do develop a degree of mutual understanding (one wouldn’t go so far to call it friendship), though, as the ending will show, only a degree of it.

All this does make Arthur Marks’s Detroit 9000 sound like a rather worthy police procedural about mutual understanding; in practice, the film turns out to be rather more cynical and/or complex than that and certainly still a true exploitation movie, for the film does enjoy its shoot-outs a lot. As a matter of fact, there’s one about every ten minutes, usually ending in one or more people exploding a shower of very Shaw Brothers red blood capsules after lots of running and jumping has taken place. The final set piece of this sort is a long, long running gun battle between a bunch of cops and the gangsters that practically bursts with crazed energy.

Marks isn’t a terribly elegant director – rough and tumble is probably the best description to his approach – but it is exactly this rawness that makes the action work, providing it with a gripping and direct feel that fits a film so very much of its time and place as this one is particularly well. I’d be tempted to call his approach semi-documentarian, but I’m not terribly convinced Marks is doing any of this on purpose. One way or the other, the heated effect of the action stays the same.

Apart from that, the script (by Orville H. Hampton whose stuff is all over the place in genre and quality) is often just very interesting, adding clever, sometimes humane, sometimes cynical, little flourishes to character types that turn them into characters. My favourite bit of this sort of writing in the film is a flashback concerning Vonetta McGee’s Roby Harris that turns the “misused prostitute” trope into something more individual and personal that actually lets you look at a character in a crime and exploitation flick and have pity for her without turning her into a caricature. And this is by far not the only moment of this kind in the film.

I also found Detroit 9000’s treatment of its main characters very interesting. At first, the film keeps very close to Danny, showing us his pretty sad life and the start of his investigation, yet later increasingly shifts perspective over to Jesse, not just to demonstrate how Danny looks from the outside but to put the audience as much in Jesse’s shoes as in his. Despite certainly being made for the shoot-outs, the film does prefer to show more than one side of every argument, which actually makes its observations about race and the ways it interplays with class less like an internet rant and more like actual life.

As to the film’s actual racial politics, it goes for the obvious solution that a lot of people – white and black – are pretty damn horrible, poverty certainly doesn’t help in that regard, and that people in power or people who want to acquire power are hypocritical bastards. Which seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: WARNING: If you've ever been hypnotized, do not come alone!

Devil in the Dark (2017): Tim Brown’s film concerns two estranged brothers trying to rebuild bridges by going on a camping trip in an area that has a dark connection to something strange that happened to the younger brother when they were children. Something monstrous has been calling to them.

This is one of these perfectly decent, competently realized horror films that just never manage to truly capture anything dark, interesting, or insightful, plodding along well enough through its running time without ever hitting the right spot that would turn the film exciting in any way, shape or form. In this particular case, I’d argue this would have been a better film if it had started from where it stops and went onwards from there (probably with strategic flashbacks), because the last minute or so actually does manage to capture the imagination.

The Creature Below (2016): This British Lovecraftian indie is not as slick as Devil in the Dark but felt much more interesting than the US film. While the story isn’t particularly original when you know your Lovecraft pastiches, there aren’t terribly many long-form films going that way. Director Stewart Sparke manages to tell a tale of cosmic horror on a personal scale, trusting in a good performance of lead Anna Dawson to portray her character’s slow descent into properly Lovecraftian madness. There’s some awkwardness with a not exactly ideal sound mix, the special effects aren’t always great (unless in those moments when they absolutely are), and the verbatim quotes from HPL in the dialogue don’t really work, but these aren’t exactly show stoppers in indie horror of the really independent sort. Otherwise, the film is atmospheric and flows well and even ends on a high note in one of its best shot scenes. Okay, and on iffy CGI, but I didn’t find myself caring about that at all.

House of Wax (1953): André de Toth’s film is probably the best wax figure cabinet horror movie ever made (which is actually a surprisingly strong field as sub-sub-genres go), featuring as it does silly 3D gimmicks, what is one of the founding – and thoroughly great - performances of Vincent Price’s career as a horror actor (I do count his radio performances, nit pickers), an early larger – and pleasantly creepy - outing for Charles Bronson before he took that name, comic relief that is often not terribly odious, a wrily presented sense of the macabre, and a use of colour in a period set horror film that to me seems to prefigure things like Corman’s Poe cycle or the part of the Italian gothics that were shot in colour.

De Toth being de Toth, there’s also quite a bit of barely suppressed subtext concerning eroticism and male obsession with an imaginary ideal (potentially sublimated into art) that really shouldn’t work with the gimmicky nature of the kind of cinema that uses ping pong balls swirling at the camera to really prove its 3D merits but does.

Friday, May 5, 2017

La Dinastia Dracula (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.

In Ye Olden Times of cheap school play conquistador costumes, the inquisition gets rid of the rather nasty noble vampire Duke Orloff who likes to transform into a dog and disregards the cultural and churchly rules about keeping one's shirt buttoned in public. But woe! The men of the church completely ignore the vampire's female partner and witch lover, despite her wearing a shirt with a flame imprint that can only come from the future.

Three hundred years later, in Ye Not Quite As Olden Times of school play late 19th century costumes, witch woman goes under the name of Madame Kostoff. She seems to have been absent from Mexico for the last few hundred years, but now returns to her former home with a coffin in her luggage and a revivification plan in her mind. She'll just need to buy the mansion that stands close to the place where her vampire lover was buried, and everything will be set. It's just a wee bit unfortunate that the Solórzano family living in the mansion now doesn't want to sell.

The good lady's coffin isn't empty, of course. Kostoff has brought with her a vampire (Fabian Aranza, looking like disco vampire Elvis, and - also just like Elvis - going only under his first name in the titles) who might be a descendent of Orloff or of Count Dracula, or both, and works under the pseudonym of Baron van Helsing(!). Or something. Upon first arrival, the vampire only comes out of his coffin to hiss into the camera, turn into an especially sad looking rubber bat, suck a few families dry, and do some bat-form snogging with Kostoff, but after some time, he becomes more sociable and starts to apply all his charm to convince the Solórzanos of selling their mansion.

When the family still shows unwilling, the vampire kills off the mother of the house, which might be enough to convince her widower to leave, but doesn't fly with the Solórzano daughter Beatriz at all. Van Helsing would rather have the girl as his own private vampire bride anyway, so her reluctance does rather fit into his plans.

Now only Beatriz' fiancée, the supernatural-lovin' doctor Fuentes and the sceptical local priest can help the forces of good to triumph. It's just too bad that Fuentes is the kind of guy who goes into the lair of the chief vampire only armed with a communion wafer, and that the priest is so ineffectual he surely must make the Baby Jesus cry. The material a godhood has to work with on Earth!

Among the one hundred and fifty films (at least that's the number the IMDb gives; experience with the site suggests that it might well have been a few dozen films more) Alfredo B. Crevenna directed are some of my favourite pieces of Mexican pop cinema (Santo vs. the Martian Invasion, for example), but of course - inevitable with a body of work this large produced in a filmic environment so prone to the type of cheap-skating Roger Corman wouldn't approve of as the Mexican genre film industry - also some real stinkers.

If you're going by any sane standards, La Dinastia de Dracula with its script that never even seems to try to make too much sense (why do the bad guys even need to buy that mansion, seeing that they can teleport, turn into bats and dogs and fog at will and really can come and go everywhere how and whenever they please?), its hoary melodramatic acting and its utter disinterest in staging anything in any interesting way surely belongs to the latter group of the director's films. Fortunately, as you probably know already or else will now realize, my standards when it comes to movies aren't necessarily sane. I'm only all too willing to let myself be convinced by the most basic stimuli to my bad movie appreciation glands (say, a vampire looking like Disco Elvis Dracula) that a film that will look perfectly dreadful for everyone else is actually a pretty great time for me. Which is in fact what happened with me and Dinastia's particular charms.

The film's beauty doesn't even lie with the vampire (and/or his incredibly tacky looking stag-evil type fangs) alone. Rather, Dinastia wins the receptive viewer over with the time-honoured technique of just piling improbable, weird and/or downright disturbing stuff in front of her and treating it all as if it were part of some high, serious drama, like Shakespeare rewritten by Lord Bulwer-Lytton and staged by a group of actors trying to keep their dignity but not actually remembering any more how dignity looks.

At times, the film becomes just completely baffling, like in the scene in which the stupid doctor enters the Baron's lair to entice his enemy into the final fight and the Baron quizzes him about the weapons he brought with him in the tone of a slightly exasperated teacher. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be suspenseful? I surely don't know, but - and that's the exciting part (for me, at least), I'm pretty sure Crevenna doesn't know, either. I'm not even sure he cares. Not to go all Sonic Youth here, but confusion is sex, or does at least make for a nice time in front of the TV.

Then there's the rather peculiar relationship between Kostoff and the Baron. When she's not kissing him while he's a bat, she turns into a dog and accompanies him to social visits she might more appropriately share in human form. Of course, then the Baron couldn't describe her as "my constant companion" and do those rather illegal things they are probably doing (I just might make assumptions influenced by pink cinema here) when they are alone in their coach.
Sandwiched between these absurdities and the frequent return of the rubber bat least feasible to make repeat appearances are what might be real proper gothic horror scenes in a less interesting movie. The Baron's attacks on families (and this guy eats children too) and the staking of Beatriz' mother are staged as if they were moments of high drama, but the utter ridiculousness of the acting (especially Fabian Aranza brings tears of laughter into me eyes whenever he's trying to be menacing) can't help but pull what is supposed to be terrifying into the realm of the stupidly fun.

It's all very baffling, very confusing, and really rather entertaining.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Evil space overlord Sador (John Saxon) and his gang of mutants pop in at a tiny, pacifist farming community on an otherwise empty planet to announce the place, or rather its harvest, now belongs to him. He’ll get back once harvesting time has come; to prove his commitment to being evil, he lasers down some random farmer with his ship. After some discussion, the community decides to attempt and hire some mercenaries to protect them.

Spirited young Shad (Richard Thomas) sets out in the old ship of Zed (Jeff Corey) the only of his people who ever went out on space adventures to find help. During his own space adventures Shad manages to get together a team of seven (plus some additions that don’t count for my calculation) – shall we call them magnificent seven? There’s space trucker Space Cowboy (George Peppard), computer expert and professional love interest Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), space Valkyrie and wearer of very little clothing St. Exmin (Sybil Danning), hive-minded psi clones Nestor (Earl Boen, John Gowans and others), reptilian space whaler, opportunist slaver and Sador-hater Cayman (Morgan Woodward), and last but not least professional (space) killer Gelt (Robert Vaughan, pretty much reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven). Together, they just might beat Sador. Perhaps, there’ll even be some of them left to tell the tale afterwards.

Revisiting childhood favourites can become a bit of a drag, but I can happily report that the Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Stars is even more fun than I remembered it to be. As a grown-up (so-called), I can now understand quite a few more of the jokes and imaginative asides of John Sayles’s wonderful script which only improves the sense of fun, wonder and adventure of the film.

On paper, an attempt to get at some of that sweet, sweet, Star Wars money while also ripping off the structure and plot of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven might sound like a dreary exercise. In practice, however, the film perfectly hits the tone, the bizarre imagination and the general craziness of classic space opera, working from a script that is perfectly conscious of the utter silliness of the whole proceedings but it also wallowing in it with great delight. Sayles’s script isn’t just funny but also packs in so many ideas ripped right from the SF pulps of the space opera persuasion it at times, particularly in the film’s first hour, feels as if he got paid by the idea, turning the film’s outer space into exactly the kind of weird and wacky wonderland it should be in this sort of film.

The rest of the people involved under director Jimmy T. Murakami certainly got into the same spirit. The space ship miniatures (art design in part by a young James Cameron) and other effects designs certainly suggest that Corman told his people to get as close to the Star Wars (and sometimes Westworld and so on) style as possible without getting sued, but the designs are also genuinely wonderful, putting all the strange beauty of 70s SF paperback covers right on screen, and that in often surprisingly – given the budget - accomplished effect sequences. The matte paintings are incredibly gorgeous, the costume design looks as if the clothes from all old SF movies and shows had gotten together and made babies, and the creature design is high pulp. There’s a good reason beyond his legendary stinginess why Corman would go on to use effects shots from the film in quite a few other productions during the next ten years or so.

Add to this box of the delights the inspired cast (John Boy Walton as Luke Skywalker! Sybil Danning’s breasts as Sybil Danning’s breasts! Robert Vaughan, the killer in space! And so on!), giving just the right kinds of performances – with John Saxon then eating them, the scenery, and probably our mothers, all up – and Sayles’s incredibly fun script, and you have yourself a film with all the feverish ideas of classic pulps, more subversive intelligence than the pulps ever dreamed of having, and just a whole load of beauty to satisfy everybody’s inner child, while keeping the outer grown-up at peace.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In short: 12:01 (1993)

Supposedly loveable office worker and semi-professional loser Barry (Jonathan Silverman) stumbles into one of those time loop situations somehow connected to a particle accelerator the company he’s working at develops. Since apparently a part of resolving it will consist of him saving the scientist (Helen Slater) he has had a silent crush on for ages from being gunned down in the street, he’s certainly motivated to get time back to turning again. There’s just a bit of a conspiracy to clear up to put things right again.

Based on a short by Richard Lupoff, this time loop movie is a TV production that mixes romantic comedy, a bit of science fiction and thriller elements to generally entertaining effect.
The direction by veteran journeyman Jack Sholder certainly keeps the film’s timing and pace rolling along very effectively, getting it over a few bumpy moments in the script through the pull of a well-told tale.

Slater and the supporting cast are charming, effective, funny and/or Martin Landau. Early on, Silverman comes over as a bit of a layabout and a mild creep instead of the likeable dude with a boring job the film pretends he is, but once the plot gets going and he starts doing things beyond whining and pining for Slater’s character, I found myself rooting for him – even for the romantic fulfilment part.

It’s an entertaining, well-made and likeable little TV movie, and while its treatment of the time loop (or as it calls it, “time bump”) concept isn’t terribly original, it is always a fun set-up for all kinds of plot shenanigans. Here, the concept is used well on a comparatively small scale, certainly making 12:01 a nice way to while away a few hours-

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bullet to the Head (2012)

New Orleans. After a hit, someone who we will later learn is a big bad mercenary named Keegan (Jason Momoa) murders the partner of freelance killer James Bonomo aka (delightfully) Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) in a bar. Jimmy barely escapes with his life and decides to do what killers in movies do when they are sure their employers have fucked them over. There’s a little killing spree in the making, but first point of business is to actually find out who hired him because the hitperson business usually works through middlemen. To complicate matters, Jimmy has to team up with a cop (spit). Said cop, one Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) owns a cell phone. Which, in combination with his job, is more than enough reason for Jimmy to come up with some awkward and ill-fitting racist jibes, him being the kind of racist who can’t even get the races he’s against straight. However, the script declares they’ve gotta team up and do the old buddy thing, so they do.

There’s much violence, some business with Jimmy’s daughter (a sadly underutilized Sarah Shahi), and then some more violence.

For my tastes, it has been a decade or two since Walter Hill, once one of the best directors of stylized action movies (and more) in the USA, has made a really great film (not to be confused with Great Films, in which I don’t believe). It’s still nice to see him working regularly as a director again, though, and while Bullet to the Head certainly isn’t a masterpiece, it is a very entertaining minor work by an old master. It is not as weirdly – and to my eyes pointlessly – experimental as his newest film The Assignment but on the other hand it is pleasantly straightforward, its plot never coming to a screeching halt for scenes of Sigourney Weaver (bless her) rambling without point or end.

Here Hill does get back to the old buddy action movie formula, though the script (apparently based on a graphic novel) isn’t terribly funny or interested in doing anything of note with the old formula. Sung Kang and Stallone are perfectly serviceable as bickering tough guy couple but there’s little chemistry between them, and their dialogue just isn’t terribly interesting. Of course, Stallone does look like the avantgarde project with painted-on eyebrows of a slightly mad sculptor, so chemistry probably isn’t in the cards between him and any even vaguely human looking member of our species. This doesn’t mean Stallone isn’t fun to watch here – he still has screen presence but it has grown pretty damn weird in his old age and really doesn’t lend itself to any kind of nuance beyond presenting him as some sort of force of nature or mad science, which actually work in his favour in the film at hand.

Hill somewhat makes up for that by giving nominal big bad Adewale Akinnuyoe-Agbaje a lot of scenery to chew, providing Jason Momoa with many an opportunity to glare (he even gets into a glaring duel with Stallone later on), and having Christian Slater pop in for a visit.

Otherwise, it’s classic American action directed by a classic American action director, who still edits circles around some of the young guns. Bullet to the Head is a fun flick, is what I’m saying, and while I am a bit sad that it isn’t more than that, I’m not going to complain about merely being entertained by ten or so well-done action scenes.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

If you have played any of Ubisoft’s five thousand Assassin’s Creed games, you’ll know what this thing’s about. Otherwise: Templars bad, assassins good, history is a lie, we need that artefact. To be more precise, we need the Apple of Eden because it “contains the genetic code for free will”.

Frankly, the film’s dreadful, even when I put on my glasses with the highest possible tolerance for blockbusters and very carefully keep in mind what these films can and can’t do. It’s not just that the script is stupid, with character motivations that never make any damn sense at all and a plot that lacks any hooks that might make it exciting and a structure which misses any kind of effective throughline. The writing also makes the bizarre mistake to take all the AssCreed Templars versus assassins nonsense much too seriously, treating it as the most po-faced melodrama imaginable throughout, seemingly completely impervious to the fact that much of the tropes it uses are extremely silly, perhaps even outright goofy. Of course, that’s a problem the franchise’s games also tend to suffer under. A lightness of touch would not necessarily mean not taking emotional beats and metaphors seriously, but rather approaching them from an angle that makes sense. I don’t want to trot out Marvel Studios’ films as an ideal example how to do it again, but they are the obvious comparison, getting their tones just right without losing dramatic weight or excitement.

However, the script isn’t the film’s only problem. It’s also pretty boring from the perspective of sheer spectacle, a problem I can only fault director Justin Kurzel (last seen by me when directing the fantastic The Snowtown Murders) for. Kurzel apparently can’t direct a decent action sequence to save his life, so most of the fights and chases here are messed up by pointless sweeping camera movements, editing I can only call random and the director’s total inability to fulfil one of the most crucial rules of filmmaking when creating scenes that find characters traversing a dangerous environment: turn the environments into physical spaces in the audience’s minds. Otherwise, an action scene becomes just a series of random, pointless movements and shots of demonstrative coolness that never show anything that actually is cool because there’s no context to any of what we see. It’s like a musical whose director doesn’t realize he actually needs to show the dancers properly. There’s also a general air of emotional detachment surrounding the action scenes, something too abstracted, as if the film were going down a check list of what it needs to include but never finds any actual excitement in what it shows.

Because all these problems just don’t make the film quite tedious enough, Kurzel (or whoever actually is the guilty party) also decides to have his actors go through the (usually dumb) dialogue with all the emotional involvement of rocks, wasting a bunch of highly talented actors on the po-faced, lifeless staring of automatons. Not even Jeremy Irons’s big bad gets a decent moment of megalomania. Even the games don’t take themselves serious enough to make this particular mistake (and they are also much prettier to look at and more or less fun to play in the right-sized doses).

On the positive side, Marion Cotillard’s haircut is excellent. The production design is pretty good too, though Kurzel’s extremely muted colour schemes and distanced camera work don’t really do it any favours. But hey, it’s still better than a Michael Bay movie.