Sunday, January 30, 2011

Deathsport (1978)

In the realm of Post-Apocalyptica, a thousand years in the future, the surviving members of humanity have divided into three groups. Firstly, there are the so-called Statemen. Living in domed or force-fielded city states, they use charming skiffy tech and wear the usual mix of togas and silver Lamé, or, when they are evil, uncomfortable looking uniforms. The wasteland between the cities is mostly populated by mutant cannibals with Ping-Pong eyes, you know, the kind of people nobody likes. Lastly, and most terrifying, is the third group, the Range Guides, violent libertarian hippies utilizing swords made from transparent plastic and laser blasters that look just a wee bit like large flashlights who ride the post-nuclear ranges, sprouting mock-philosophical nonsense wherever they go until their victims had rather been eaten by mutants.

Lord Zirpola (David McLean), the leader of one of the city states entertains his populace with the good old Roman method of arena fights to the death. Everyone seems pretty happy with that, but radioactivity is turning Zirpola's brain to mush and so he decides that the fights will be a good way to convince his populace of the superiority of his new secret weapon - motorcycles with built-in (and of course immobile) lasers with a tendency to explode at the slightest provocation. It seems when your brain's radioactive goo, these things look like the ideal weapon to attack other cities. Zirpola plans to demonstrate his dubious understanding of weapon technology and the tactics of urban combat by setting his superbikes into a fight against some of those obnoxious Range Guides (you know, people he isn't actually planning to attack later on), who are known as right ass-kickers. How else could they get away with their Randian hippiedom?

So Lord Zippy sends his favourite henchman Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch), who just happens to be a renegade Range Guide, into the wastelands to catch him some arena fighters.

Among those caught are Kaz Oshay (David Carradine), a guy who just happens to be the son of a legendary fighter Ankar killed (man, the post-apocalyptic world is full of coincidences), and a gal named Deneer (Claudia Jennings), who just happens to be a former Playboy model. Obviously, there will be more idiotic philosophizing, Claudia Jennings's breasts freed from their chains, too many motorcycle stunts, daring escapes and a "climactic" duel between Kaz and Ankar.

Deathsport sure isn't one of my favourite movies from this phase of Roger Corman's New World Pictures. For large parts of its running time, the film suffers from an air of disinterest nearly as strong as like the odour of weed that hangs over David Carradine. Directors Allan Arkush and Nicholas Niciphor weren't among the better of Corman's stable of young, promising talent and would deservedly both go into careers of directing and producing exceptionally boring TV shows. Here, where you'd expect a product of people young and hungry and creative, they delivered an at times draggy, at best vaguely entertaining mix of silly ideas that doesn't dare to really get into that silliness, but instead just aimlessly trundles along.

Worse, the film's script often takes itself painfully serious, bombarding the audience with stiff noble savage Libertarian dialogue from Carradine, Jennings and Lynch whenever there's no motorcycle exploding. It's not much of a surprise that the script does not seem to know the difference between the profound and the ridiculous, and is incapable of smiling about its own foolishness, as is always the way with really bad philosophy.

It's not all Arkush's and Niciphor's fault, though. Deathsport's three cult movie stalwarts in front of the camera all must have had a very bad week when shooting this. I'm used to Carradine being permanently stoned, but in this case, he doesn't even seem to realize there's a camera running. Jennings, and even the usually scenery-chewing Lynch, also just don't seem to be fully there. That's not much of a surprise given Jennings's life when this was shot, yet it's still not pleasant to watch.

Fortunately, it's not all watching near-cataleptic actors mumbling nonsense that isn't even funny. Deathsport does sporadically feature some decent stunts (although exploding motorcycles only go that far for me), and I don't know any other film where one of the big bads dies by being pulled into his own electrified wind chimes by a random naked dancer. The problem is that Corman's production house at this point in time was churning out so many better, or at worst more entertaining, films than Deathsport is.

 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: You Won't Believe Your Eyes Until He Rips Them From Their Sockets!

Abashiri Ikka: The Movie (2009): This ultra-cheap little film based on an old Go Nagai manga picturing the adventures of a family of goofy yet supremely violent criminals puts its heroes into a state-sponsored city of criminals, where they are brainwashed into amnesia and held back from any violence by practical microchips. But a stress test of the chips and a vengeful old enemy soon enough lead our heroes(?) back on their proper ways of carnage. Not that the film has much of a budget for carnage, but director Teruyoshi Ishii does at least keep things moving at a nice pace, and drives most of his cast into pretty adorable scenery-chewing. A further plus is that lead-acting idol Erica Tonooka is quite adept at "I'll kill you" stares and wears the obligatory school uniform nicely. The latter ability does of course come with the idol job, but the former is not as due for the course as one would hope (see for example - or better not - the first Oneechanbara movie). I was pretty entertained by the whole affair, but my standards are probably a bit lower than those of most people.

 

Haunted Changi (2010): Andrew Lau does English language POV horror in Singapore. You know the deal: film crew (with Lau playing a director named Andrew Lau) goes to a creepy, supposedly haunted, place, and more or less terrible things happen to them until only their ambiguous footage remains. Haunted Changi features an excellently creepy haunted place with its hospital and does at least two - possibly even three - things differently than most other films in POV style, but suffers from a very slow and just not very interesting beginning. The final twenty minutes are effective enough if you like this sort of thing (as I do) and even manage to give the ghostly presences a fittingly Asian twist. For me, that's enough to recommend a short, cheap film like this.

 

Skyline (2010): If you want to see a total waste of perfectly excellent bio-technological monster design and really neat CGI effects (so they do exist), then you'll have to see this. The film's script is a potpourri of all clichés from every apocalyptic alien invasion movie you'd care to mention, just minus the (potential) sense of urgency or suspense of the victims it "borrows" from, and with even less of an idea of the way actual human beings react than one has grown used to in its genre. Which is probably for the better, given how indifferent most of the acting here is, except for that of David Zayas, who seems to have decided that all hope is lost for his career anyway, so he might as well try and be as bad as humanly possible; that project is a huge success for him.

Most of the Skyline's script is - frankly - just too stupid and thoughtless to make me want to go into the terrible details. Let's just say that the film hits its lowest point (circa at the centre of the Earth) with an utterly inane ending of the sort even Roland Emmerich would have been ashamed of, and that nothing the film shows ever comes together into a whole, be it emotionally, dramatically or thematically (I wanted to write "intellectually", but that's not a word deserving of this film's company). I guess this is what happens when your movie is written by visual effects people instead of, you know, writers, and one of its executive producers is the abominable Brett Ratner.

 

Friday, January 28, 2011

On WTF: Psychout For Murder (1969)

I don't think the sub-genre of the sardonic Freudian giallo gets enough play in my house, so it was quite a happy coincidence that I stumbled upon Rossano Brazzi's rather obscure entry in this particular sub-genre.

You can learn what I thought about the man's Psychout for Murder aka Salvare La Faccia in my weekly appearance on WTF-Film.

 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

In short: Three Crosses Not To Die (1968)

Original title: Tre croci per non morire

Professional bounty hunter Reno (Giovanni Cianfriglia), professional charmer of women Jerry (Craig Hill) and professional Mexican horse thief Paco (Pietro Tordi) all have to look forward to a nice thirty days of jail time for their professions. Fortunately for them, their special talents are needed, and a group of monks and a desperate Mexican father first organize a very soft jailbreak for them, and then hire the men to prove the innocence of the father's son in a murder and a rape committed in another town. Preferably, the three crooks should solve the crime before the innocent will be hanged in seven days.

There's good money in it for the trio too, so they decide to take the offer of employment on the side of what's right and honourable for once.

But someone really doesn't want them to even start their investigation. Even before they arrive in the town where the crime took place, the three dubious heroes already have had to fight off a fake lynch mob and a band of Mexican bandits. Life doesn't get much easier when the three finally arrive in town. The townspeople do not want to have anything to do with the whole affair, and make for especially unhelpful witnesses. Someone behind the scenes - perhaps the man responsible for the murder and the attempts on the trio's lives - has more violent reactions to them snooping around.

Still, after some snooping, the investigators find out that there was a secret witness to the crime, a woman named Dolores. Might she have anything to do with the woman (Evelyn Stewart) living in an abandoned mill Jerry sets his mind on seducing as soon as he sees her?

Sergio Garrone's Three Crosses Not To Die is one of those films that are easiest praised by complimenting aspects of them that sound like they should be normal for any film, but usually aren't. There's an air of professionalism and competence about the movie that all too often just signals boredom and a lack of imagination. In Three Crosses' case that air is more the effect of a director and a script more interested in coherence and telling a simple and linear story cleanly than one is used to from Spaghetti Westerns.

There is, I think, something to be said for this approach, especially in a genre that usually doesn't take it, and instead tends to drift off in all directions. That drifting is something I like films to do too, obviously, but Garrone's peculiar way of being conventional makes for an interesting change, surprising in its lack of surprises.

It does help the film's case that Garrone still delivers much of what is needed in Spaghetti Westerns: people in ridiculous brownface pretending to be Mexican (Evelyn Stewart as a Latina? Really?), lots of close-ups of men making shifty-eyes, shoot-outs with a body count of the "the more, the merrier" sort, and a standard-for-its-genre yet rousing enough musical score. The movie's even well paced.

It's all quite traditional, but also very entertaining, really. The only true surprise the film offers lies in the fact that its script tends to the more American type of characterisation: the film's protagonists are really heroic beyond reason and not much given to the bouts of sadism and asshattery common in the European Western hero. In this respect, I was also a bit disappointed how much the ending pulled its punches - I didn't necessarily expect The Big Silence, but what Garrone does is too much of a cop out for my tastes.

 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shadow (2009)

Not to be confused with the dozens of other films sharing the title.

Warning: I'm going to spoil the film's ending with righteous wrath. That's what you get from me when you apply this particular plot twist.

US soldier David (Jake Muxworthy) has survived his stint in Iraq and goes on a mountain biking trip in Italy. He turns out to be a bit of a knight in shining armour when he helps another mountain biker, Angeline (Karina Testa), escape the rather rude advances of two redneck type persons (Chris Coppola and Ottaviano Blitch) in a mountain cafe.

Though everyone goes off in different directions, David and Angeline meet up again soon enough, and seem quite taken with each other. Alas, the probable couple eventually meet their redneck acquaintances again too, and those guys are really of the more murderous persuasion, especially after Angeline adds insult to injury by ruining the slaughter of a deer. The bikers manage to escape the unpleasant attentions of their (probably unwashed) enemies for a time, but flee into very peculiar - and supposedly haunted - territory, where fog hangs creepily and compasses don't work anymore. Hardly arrived there, Angeline disappears (and if you think the film's setting up something for later, you can get yourself a cookie, though what it is setting up is probably more stupid than you'd care to imagine). A shadowy shape stalks and knocks out David and his two pursuers one after the other.

When the three men gain consciousness again, they find themselves in the hands and house of the local sadist toad-licking (not an euphemism) Nazi (Nuot Arquint), who is only too happy to have a little fun with his unexpected visitors.

Federico Zampaglione's Shadow begins watchable enough. Although I have probably seen enough backwoods slasher movies to last for a life time, I have no problems with watching another one if it is executed with a basic amount of competence (as Shadow is) and presents its generic series of chases and violence in impressive or moody landscapes (again, as Shadow does). Sure, it would be nice if the film's rednecks had a more interesting motivation for their dastardly deeds than being country people, but I am used to expecting not too much of my movies.

Consequently, I felt somewhat entertained by Zampaglione's film up to the point when it turned from generic backwoods movie into a generic piece of light torture porn, with all the bad metalcore video shots that implies (though, admittedly, without whoosh or shaky cuts). I find it somewhat difficult to be creeped out by a thin, hairless guy who moves with all the menace and speed of a tranquilized Gamera, especially when a film decides to show him getting his drug kicks by licking toads. Toad-Licker's torture preferences and the way they are staged also seem damn lackluster and perfunctory. In truth, there's no way for me to take Toad-Licker even the slightest bit seriously.

Probably even worse is the fact that the film just slows to a crawl once Toady appears, with basically nothing happening that anyone having watched just a handful of horror movies in the last few years hasn't seen before in better movies, only happening slower here.

And then, there's the ending. You see, everything we saw (yes, even the scenes without David) was a dream dreamt by David in a field hospital during an operation. The redneck guys were his brutal and sadistic squad mates, who got him hurt after an argument about their civilian-slaughtering ways, and Angeline is the nurse who saved his life. And Toad-Licker must have been a metaphor - FOR DEATH. But oh noes! David will never ride his mountain bike again, because he has lost both of his legs.

Honestly, I don't even know what to say about that other than: directors, don't use the hoary old "it was all a dream" excuse to explain the illogical crapness of your films! It didn't work when the first Neanderthal storyteller tried to pull it somewhere around the invention of fire, and it sure doesn't work any better now; unless you're as good an artist as Ambrose Bierce, or, you know, are using the dream stuff to make an actual point. But when you're just looking for an excuse for making a film that's wholly made from misunderstood clichés you took from other films that again took these clichés from other movies, you're in no position to try to be clever. I suggest just making a coherent film, or one that is actually weird and dreamlike.

 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In short: Kamen Rider ZO (1993)

A guy (Hiroshi Tsuchikado) wakes up in a rather strange looking cave in the mountains. Someone informs him through the telepathic powers of an overly large grasshopper that he has to protect a little boy named Hiroshi from something called a "Neo Life Form".

Once our hero arrives wherever it is Hiroshi lives with his grandpa, a semi-mad scientist, he realizes that the voice in his head was just too right: a few nasty beasties are trying to abduct the boy, obviously not realizing into what a world of painfully whiny child-acting that would transport them. Fortunately for the sanity of monster-kind, our nameless hero can transform into a variation of the always popular Kamen Rider (what a surprise in a Kamen Rider movie!), and will spend the rest of the film enduring said whiny child-acting himself and beating (and, being a Kamen Rider, of course, kicking) the stuffing out of the nasty creatures.

The whole affair turns out to be the fault of Hiroshi's father, whose attempts to create a perfect life form went so pear-shaped that the best idea he had to correct the problem was to transform his lab assistant (our nameless hero) into a cross between grasshopper and human, obviously without the guy's consent.

Little Hiroshi sure is lucky Kamen Riders like children.

This is the first of the two short Kamen Rider features Keita Amemiya signs responsible for - the second one being Kamen Rider J - and it's also the weaker of the two by far.

The creatures and much of the strange bio-technological stuff that makes up that part of the backgrounds for the scenes of creatures mauling each other that doesn't consist of the usual empty factory buildings are as lovely designed and lovingly executed as one can expect from Amemiya, and the monster fights are fun enough if you like this sort of thing (and really, if you don't, no Kamen Rider show or movie will ever make you happy). Alas, the film makes it needlessly difficult to enjoy these elements by giving Hiroshi (and the gnome who plays him) way too much room for that most terrible of all mawkish and syrupy things - terribly executed child-actor melodrama. It sure doesn't help that the script spends so much time on Hiroshi that it either forgets to provide the Rider even with the most basic of motivations or forgets to inform the audience what that motivation might be. It's possible that leaving out the random J-Pop video clip right in the middle of the movie could have provided the time to go into the Rider's psyche for the two seconds of motivation I'm asking for here, but then as now, selling merchandise is much more important than providing a satisfying movie.

Anyway: if you just look at those pretty (and "green child-face in a big petri dish"-type grotesque, once Amemiya gets really going) monsters and the hitting, and go and make yourself some tea once Hiroshi begins to whine, Kamen Rider ZO is still watchable enough, just not as merrily insane or fun as the best examples of its superhero franchise.

 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Monsters (2010)

So, extraterrestrial life does exist, after all. Six years before the main action of Monsters takes place, a US space probe crashed in Central America, bringing with it a bunch of tentacled creatures that soon enough began to multiply and change the local ecosystem. Generally, these monsters seem only as aggressive as animals are when they feel threatened, but they are so large, and their actions so unpredictable, that the locations they have conquered are declared the "Infected Zone". In a not unexpected reaction to the situation, the USA have built a wall on their Southern border, and are now running regular chemical bombing raids on the Zone whose main effect seems to be to make the creatures there more aggressive.

Mexico for its part has to fight off the creatures' half-yearly migration wave with what little resources it has, obviously with an economy now completely in ruins. The rest of the world - also keeping with its traditions - really doesn't seem to care much about what happens south of the USA.

When the film starts, Mexico is just a few days away from closing its borders completely for the next six months. The photo journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is quite unwillingly pressed into a different service for one of his employers than the ones he's usually paid for. His employer's daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) has been in some sort of accident, and her old man wants Kaulder to escort her out of Mexico as long as getting her out is still possible. Kaulder, who is a bit of a jerk at the best of times, only reluctantly agrees to help the slightly shell-shocked young woman.

After some travels through the countryside during which she and Kaulder get closer to each other, a slightly contrived set of circumstances leads to Samantha missing the last boat out of the country. The only alternative to waiting out the next six months - and who knows if there will still be a country to flee from afterwards - is to take the completely illegal, dangerous route through the jungles of the Zone to the American wall.

A few of the more critical reviews of Gareth Edwards' Monsters I read on the 'net were loudly complaining about the film not being the giant monster bash the reviewers expected nor (oh my gosh!) it being the horror movie they expected. These reviewers are right on both accounts in so far as there's no monster bashing or mashing at all to be found in the movie and that it surely isn't a horror movie, but rather SF/romance film. Personally, I've always been fond of trying to deal with a movie on its own terms instead of reviewing what it isn't, and so can't help but call bullshit on the idea that a film not being what I expected of it means that it is a bad movie.

Monsters is in fact pretty darn great, treating its characters and its SF-nal concepts with an earnestness that shows great respect for the intelligence of its viewers. There is not a single second of the usual (and terrible) talking down to the audience that in too many films manifests itself in long, tiring and usually dumb reams of exposition to be found in its worldbuilding. What my synopsis above takes quite a few sentences to explain about the basic set-up, the film itself does through two sentences in the credits and intelligently placed incidental details that fully trust in the ability of the movie's audience to not only see something, but actually understand it. You know, like I'd hope for in all contemporary SF films (for a great example of how not to do low-exposition SF, see - or rather not - Skyline). This aspect of Monsters, a deft application of the old "show, don't tell" rule if I've ever seen one, reminds me most of that other great, unassuming SF film of the last few years, Moon.

Of course it's not enough to put just any old detail in to make a slightly different world (be it a mining operation on the moon or a near-apocalyptic Central America) believable and make it feel like a real place, it need to be the right details. Monsters is more or less perfect in this respect, starting with the flashes of newscasts we see, continuing through the ubiquitousness of gasmasks and not ending in elements like the short snippet of a (public service) children's cartoon from a world in which monsters are real. These details and the way the characters act towards the world they are living in come together beautifully and make the film's near future perfectly believable, not like an idea made flesh for ninety minutes, but like a real world.

Another reason for Monster's effectiveness is director (and writer, too) Edwards' photography. Edwards' camera work has a semi-documentarian quality about it, the sort of thing that could easily just end up as a mess of shaky cam and random shouting on the soundtrack. But where many other film's making use of this style tend to the hectic, Edwards' film seems more interested in using it to get closer to things and characters, to make them feel more real.

There's a true sense of beauty - possibly even poetry - running through the film's sideways looks at deserted ruins where a few years ago people were living and at the changes an alien ecosystem has brought. Monsters is driven by a visual sense of awe that reminds me of the films of Werner Herzog. Although the film is quite clear about the fact that its monsters are frightening and dangerous, the audience's clearest looks at them are clothed in a sense of wonder towards their beauty and strangeness. On a less obvious level, Edwards suggests that the monsters are made more dangerous by the way humanity interacts with them, without ever landing on the soppy side of the "poor, unloved alien". The film's very low-key love story (that might be more of a story of attraction through loneliness) with its sad, yet underplayed, ending is just as lacking in sentimentality, and just the more convincing for it.

Strangely enough for a film that doesn't have much of a plot, the word that comes to my mind most when I think about Monsters is "richness". It's not the sort of richness that could result from the ideology of "more is more", but something that is grounded in showing just enough of the right things to pull a viewer into a film as if it were a place and not a story.

 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In short: Unhinged (1982)

A trio of young women is on their way to a music festival, when they have a car accident somewhere in the deep dark woods. Fortunately (or is it?) there's a lone house hidden away even further down in those woods, with the two women living there willing enough to help the girls out. Two of the three girls are in a perfectly good state, but the third one will need a few days of rest before she will be able to walk again. So basically, the girls are stranded.

Not that their hosts seem to mind much. The younger of the two women, Marion (J.E. Penner), even seems quite glad to have someone else to talk to for a change, which isn't much of a surprise given that her cohabitant is her mother, an old lady whose long rants about the olden times and the terrible evils of the male gender just stop short of foaming at the mouth.

But - to nobody's surprise but the protagonists' - other things in their inadvertent holiday home are even less well than Mother's mental state. Someone with a love for enthusiastic heavy breathing and watching young ladies undress is sneaking around the house, and that someone might just be a little more dangerous than your usual voyeur.

Unhinged is another one of those films that landed on the UK's original video nasty list for not much reason that is still discernible today. It's far from being all that brutal or immoral (whatever that may mean), and while the style of the very few murders seems influenced by slasher movie tropes, the film mostly tries for a psychological thriller vibe one would think the guardians of all that is good and proper would have approved of.

Visually, the film is dominated by long-ish shots of a quite impressive looking mansion and the surrounding woods. These locations should have made the building of the proper mood of insanity and decay a bit more easy for Unhinged than for local independent productions that had to work with random people's living rooms and someone's backyard. It's a bit of a shame the film's director Don Gronquist wasn't really able to make as much out of these natural advantages than I would have wished for. There's a promise of true creepiness in the places we see, but the proper mood never really sets in, as nice as everything looks and as inexhaustible the synthie score - of the type you'll either love or hate with intense passion - noodles.

Gronquist's directorial style goes for slow and moody, but tends to get dragged off into the territory of the slightly boring. There are only so many evening dinner scenes with Mad Mum a viewer can watch without losing her interest. Another problem with the film's ambitions for subtlety is the acting: the three young actresses are obviously only in here because they were willing to drop their clothes, and drone through their (sometimes - yet not often enough - bizarre) dialogue, looking bored; Penner and Settle on the other hand try to outdo each other in fake upper class stiltedness and only prove that they sure aren't related to Vincent Price.

What Unhinged really has going for it are its final five minutes, containing a pretty nasty little twist ending and an increase in acting intensity that I surely wouldn't have expected at this point in the proceedings. One could argue this sudden transformation from mediocrity to "Holy crap! Horror movies!" is too little, too late, but I'm pretty sure Unhinged's ending will stay with me for a while, and I take what I can get from movies that by all rights shouldn't deliver anything at all.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: Father and Son Related By Blood!!! Everyone's Blood!!

Inception (2010): Somehow, we have managed to arrive in The Future, a strange place where major Hollywood studios throw money at really pretty great directors like Christopher Nolan to make Philip K. Dick adaptations not based on an actual book by the author that still really feel a lot like Dick. It's quite unlike The Past, when major Hollywood studios threw money at directors to make Philip K. Dick adaptations based on actual books by the author that didn't have the slightest idea of what Dick's books were all about (and yes, I do count Blade Runner among the latter, which is a triumph of production design, but not much of an adaptation of the book it purports to be based on, what with it completely ignoring anything but the simplest among the questions the book asks).

I for one greet this bright future, even though I wasn't as confused by the film as many mainstream film critics seem to have been. Is it really that difficult to follow a clearly told, mostly linear story?

Child's Eye (2010): Some travelling young non-entities from Hong Kong find themselves trapped in Thailand during the red shirt protests. Stranded in a cheap, dark hotel, the group is soon confronted with the local female ghost and a dog-faced boy, and the dark secret of the hotel's owner.

The Pang Brothers are a sad case. While all of their films show a pair of directors perfectly able to apply their slick technical chops in interesting and visually arresting ways, most of these films are too conventional at heart to be memorable. This one is really no exception, even though (or because?) it is in 3D. There are a lot of really pretty pictures to gawp at, but not much is going on with them. Characters are uninteresting, the plot is about as fascinating as a slide show about your parents' holiday in Buxtehude, the timely historical background is wasted as a mere impediment to the protagonists running away, and there's no thematic depth or interesting subtext worth half a brain cell. To make matters even worse, the shocks are just not working at all, which leaves the audience with a film that's professionally boring and as vapidly pretty as its lead actors.

G-9 (2006): How little of interest there is about the Pang Brothers' film shows even more when I compare it to this fifteen minute ganime (which is a word that can be used for many types of non-traditional Japanese animation, but in this case means "narrated ink-drawings") by the (somewhat inescapable on this blog these days) Keita Amemiya. It's really a just a small trifle mixing elements of new wave SF with a bit of monster bashing and a sense of melancholy given expression more through the mood of the drawings and the simplicity of (barely) animation style than anything more concrete. Yet even so, it's much more human than anything that can be found in Child's Eye.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Great Horror Family (2004)

Original title: Kaiki Daikazoku

The rather eccentric Imawano family movies into a new suburban home. While the family's dad, being an enthusiast of the paranormal, is rather excited about the fact that something's supposed to be not quite right with the new house, the rest of his family is a bit blasé about it all. And no wonder: though Dad has no talent at actually seeing the things he's so excited about under any circumstances, the rest of the family has inherited the psychic abilities of a long line of female priests and mediums.

While the family is still moving in, Grandpa (Shunji Fujimura) has some frightening experience with the central hub for all of the house's mystery, The Room That Will Not Open, and dies. Obviously, being dead and all, he's now not the best candidate for the family's spiritual protection anymore, so Gramps's ghost moves into the Room and charges his hapless grandson Kiyoshi (Issei Takahashi) with the job. The dead old man is convinced that something important and terrible will happen soon.

In fact, Kiyoshi has his hands full with a series of ghostly appearances, aliens, yokai and other weird occurrences that happen in and around the house in a matter of minutes. Cursed gothic lolitas, men in black, whacky priests and a female ghost (Kyoko Toyama) with a crush on the young man will also make an appearance. Kiyoshi's rather inconcrete mission isn't made any easier by the utter weirdness that is the natural state of the rest of the family (Tomiko Ishii, Shigeru Muroi, Asuka Shibuya). And those are just the little daily troubles the young man will have to survive before he has to cope with the true nature of what is hidden inside The Room That Will Not Open.

The 13-episode TV show The Great Horror Family is what happens when a bunch of directors and writers - among them Takashi Shimizu and Yudai Yamaguchi - with love for and experience in all things horrific decide (well, or are hired) to make a horror comedy.

The early episodes concern mostly relatively traditional Japanese ghosties and ghoulies who all go about their usual business until their problems are solved through practical absurdity. The first episode, for example, sees the beleaguered Kiyoshi turn into a nightly ghost psychiatrist babbling away with the sort of kitchen psychology that could only convince a ghost of anything and inadvertently winning a fan for life (death?) in a female ghost named Asami. Through this, the audience learns early on that ghost are just people, too, only very dead and rather single-minded ones.

The further the show goes along, the more its emphasis wanders from funny interpretations of the more traditional ghosts to the sort of total absurdity and weirdness one expects of Japanese comedy. The show turns to situations that would be outright frightening or disturbing if they weren't played with a wink followed by a deadpan look.

I already liked the beginning of the show quite a bit (it's funny, you know), but the more absurd episodes tend to be even more entertaining. Honestly, what's not to like about a Yakuza movie parody in which Kiyoshi runs away from home and starts to work for a dead Yakuza bartender called Memento Mori, who offers living guests the opportunity to spend time with some charming living corpses, until the man's business is destroyed by zombie hit men? Or the episode in which a ghostly builder decides to renovate the family's home, and the Imawanos find themselves trapped in the bizarre, non-Euclidean labyrinth it turns into? The comedy format acts as a way for the makers of the show to be as playful as possible, and watching these guys being playful is a lot like listening to a group of very good improvising musician on a good evening.

While the show's visuals are solid, yet very TV-looking and therefore are bit bland at times, the excellent cast is what carries the show besides the humour. Everyone's not just cast exceedingly well, but game for everything, willing and able to switch from an ironic emulation of utter dramatic earnestness to bizarre grimacing at a moment's notice.

Even though not every episode's plot is something to write home about, the wild, random asides so typical of what I've learned to identify as Japanese humour make every single one of them worth watching. In this context, I'm even willing to approve of the slight sappiness that comes with the J-Drama territory.

 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I Watched Troll 2 (1990), And Here's What I Learned

  • There are Little People, and then there are Little People of the Night.
  • Laura Gemser became a costume designer to take revenge for her work with Joe D'Amato. Her anger is a terrible thing to behold.
  • Never trust a mad-looking girl with pencilled-on freckles.
  • Half plant, half man, full nutrition.
  • Grandpa Seth is just an invention of Claudio Fragasso's subconscious.
  • Teenagers and goblins are basically the same thing.
  • Friends are the cause of virginity.
  • There's no family trouble that can't be repressed by loudly singing "Row Your Boat", and ten years of therapy later on.
  • Grandfatherly ghosts are so badly paid they have to moonlight as hobos.
  • All farmers are going to bed before sundown.
  • Some people will eat the green goo but not the boyish urine.
  • You can't piss on hospitality.
  • Spears work differently on planet Claudio.
  • "My ancestors came from Stonehenge" is a potential way to introduce oneself.
  • Even ghosts can have a bad sense of direction.
  • Coffee is the devil's drink. Goblins prefer milk.
  • "Nilbog" is "goblin" spelled backwards. Dr. Acula approves of this message.
  • The vegetarian cannibal religion is more complex than anyone could have suspected.
  • There are no beautiful liberated girls in the middle of nowhere.
  • Turns out time and space also work differently on planet Claudio.
  • Say what you will about dead people, but they are handy with an axe. And a Molotov. And lightning. And a fist. Come to think of it, there are good reasons to be afraid of ghosts.
  • There are things that can be done with a corncob Playboy didn't prepare a guy for.
  • One should not think about the cholesterol when driving off goblins with the magic power of fast food.

 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ultramarines (2010)

Grim future. Only war. Etc. and so on. An Imperial shrine world is sending an automated distress call; all further contact with the full company of space marines stationed there to protect a holy relic is lost.

As this is the Warhammer 40K universe whose military organization is utterly atrocious whenever a plot demands it, there's not much of a military force close-by to answer the distress signal weeks later. Only a rookie squad (with an experienced captain and a war-weary apothecary) of Ultramarines is near enough to be of any assistance. After holding some "WE ARE SPACE MARINES! RWOAR!" speeches, of course.

When the group lands on the planet, they soon enough find traces of a massacre committed by chaos forces. The logical course of action here is obviously for the twelve marines to somehow try and reach the location of the distress beacon, in the hope that twelve marines will survive what just slaughtered a hundred of their brethren. For the Emperor, etc. I'm sure it'll end with a perfectly low body count and without anyone encountering a very stupid plan to corrupt the whole Ultramarines chapter.

When I first heard of Ultramarines, the first official Warhammer 40,0000 movie, I wasn't exactly hopeful about it, especially seeing that it's fully computer-animated, a type of animation that only promises catastrophe when put in the hands of a company like Games Workshop that can be pretty sure fans will lap up everything it puts out regardless of quality. A bit of hope developed with the information that Ultramarines would at least be written by Dan Abnett, whose work-for-hire novels in the franchise often are real highpoints of their special little niche.

And indeed, apart from the hideously contrived set-up, and the rather stupid evil plan (which is to say, the whole of the film's plot) Abnett's script is the best part of the movie. Don't take that as high praise, though. Abnett's writing here is quite unexciting and completely unoriginal, front-loaded with every "For the Emperor!" style phrase the Warhammer universe provides, and contains nothing of the writer's trademark ambiguity. At least it's vaguely competent and constructed with professional knowledge of dramatic beats.

The voice acting is pretty alright, too, although I'm not sure if the movie wouldn't have fared better cast with experienced - yet still cheaper - voice actors instead of people like Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Sean Pertwee, whose acting chops just aren't needed for what's in the script (nothing). Though I have to admit it's pretty funny to hear Hurt say the "grim future" wall of text.

The producers could have used the money saved on the stars and put it into the place where it's desperately needed - the animation. As it stands, Ultramarines' animation is a complete embarrassment, falling far behind even the standards set by the CGI cut-scenes of the first Dawn of War videogame (made in 2004, ages ago in this area). I really hope you like to watch jerkily animated characters with putty faces from the uncanny valley jumping (is there grasshopper DNA in Space Marines, by any chance?) and moonwalking through grey and brown low-detail backgrounds, because that's all Ultramarines' animation department is prepared to deliver. On the design side, the whole affair reeks of cheapskating too - everything that isn't a space marine looks as if it were scrapped together in just about five minutes by a trainee. All in all, the animation doesn't look like an actual finished movie should look, but rather like an early draft for one.

Martyn Pick's direction fits this cheap and/or lazy approach perfectly. There's no sense of visual imagination, nothing that doesn't look like mere performance of a contractual obligation on screen. Of course, given how shoddy the animation itself is, I'm not sure what even the best of directors could have made out of it. This is after all a film so cost-conscious that most of its action sequences take place in the dark or during sandstorms so that there's no need for detailed backgrounds in them. Not that there are many detailed backgrounds outside of the action scenes, either. Well, at least there are lots of shots of bullet casings falling in slow-motion.

And why should there be any actual creative effort put into the movie, as long as there's a big "Warhammer 40,000" on the DVD cover? Surely, fans don't deserve quality.

 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

In short: The Haunted House Project (2010)

Three documentary makers and three members of the local ghost hunter society enter a derelict cookie factory with a very bad reputation. It's supposedly haunted by a vengeful secretary who has been causing accidents and deaths in it for years. Mildly scary things happen, until everything culminates in screaming, running around and six dead people.

Not surprisingly, the film is supposed to consist of the restored footage found on the dead bodies, which is probably preferable to it only being explainable as a Satanist trainee video, like in a certain popular US POV film.

I'm not too sure what has caused the sudden influx of POV horror films from various countries in Asia in the last two or three years. Was it a re-issue of (house favourite) Blair Witch Project? A popular TV show I don't know about? Be it as it may, there these films are, and here I am, so I'm of course going to watch as many of them as I can get a hand on.

Hopefully, not all of these films are as disappointing as South Korean director Lee Cheol-ha's The Haunted House Project (whose original title I can't find out, so I'm just going with the concept that its actual title does not have any relation to Blair Witch).

To begin with the positive, THHP is competently filmed (with not as much camera wobbling as some people's stomachs will fear), solidly acted and mercifully short. Unfortunately, that's really all the positives I can find about it.

As a horror film, THHP fails at the all-important task of being scary or creepy (or even just plain disgusting) in any kind or form. The factory buildings the plot takes place in are surely derelict, but lack the proper (and admittedly extremely subjective) creep factor, and the moments of explicit horror just aren't very interesting. This is one of the films in the POV sub-genre that don't understand the importance of ambiguity, of not showing things, and of hinting at stuff happening that must be much more terrifying than anything that it could show (something that other Project did very well indeed), and instead goes for some obvious shocks.

The film also just takes too much time getting to the (theoretically) scary parts. Instead of using the first half hour or so to build up an interesting mythology for the factory, Lee goes for a background so pedestrian and so obvious that it seems custom made to deflate any sense of mystery or actual fear, as if the director thinks knowing precisely what quotidian sort of haunting is waiting for the characters there will somehow make their experiences more interesting.

Alas, it doesn't.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

On WTF: Whistle And I'll Come To You (2010)

As frequent readers of these ramblings probably know by now, I like a good ghost story. Consequently, I've always been a fan of the BBC's "Ghost Stories for Christmas" concept, though I'm not as enamoured of every single one of them as others seem to be.

I am quite excited about the newest (and yes, very free) adaptation of M.R. James's "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You", though.

As always on a Friday, my write-up on WTF-Film.com will go into the details.

 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In short: Kamen Rider J (1994)

Environmentalist photographer Kouji (Yuuta Mochizuki) has come to some unnamed place in the Japanese countryside to document (and presumably identify the reason for) the mass-dying of local animals. He meets an adorable little girl (Yuka Nomura) there, who seems at once quite taken with her new big brother figure.

But all too soon the reason for all those dying animals becomes clear - a bio-mechanical (and quite despicable) life-form known as Fog Mother has come to Earth to repeat with us what she did with the dinosaurs once. The time for her attack has almost come, she just needs to wait a little for her spawn to hatch. Then, it will the all-night Earth buffet can open. Oh, and of course, Fog Mother's children need some wake-up food. That's what adorable little girls are for, right?

So Fog Mother's hench-creatures kidnap the girl and push Kouji down a mountain. It doesn't look good for humanity or the future of adorable little girl-dom. Fortunately, some…people with roots deep underground (I'm not talking figuratively) revive Kouji and turn him into a new version of everyone's favourite insect-themed superhero on a motorbike, Kamen Rider J. And give him an incredibly creepy looking talking grasshopper as a guide.

With the help of his new powers of ecological motorbike riding and kicking monsters in the face, Kouji will have to conquer Fog Mother's trio of favourite monsters, free his little-sister-in-spirit, and do an unexpected Ultraman on Fog Mother's fortress.

This is another entry in my irregular and untitled series of write-ups on the body of work of Japanese creature designer and tokusatsu director Keita Amemiya. This time around, I've stumbled onto one of Amemiya's few contributions to Toei's humungous Kamen Rider mythos in form of a forty-five minute feature film (to be shown as part of a double feature), that were the franchises main outlets in this phase when there weren't any TV shows featuring the Rider. It's the director's last contribution to Kamen Rider as far as I understand.

Amemiya's talent for working with filmic shorthand without losing coherence makes him quite a good fit for this sort of low budget movie special. What there is of characterization is broad but effective enough to motivate the plot (and it's not as if anyone would ask the two human characters what the want anyway), and the plot in its turn is just present enough to make the series of fights and the monster design feel like part of a whole.

Speaking of monster design (very obviously at least in part also done by Amemiya), Kamen Rider J tends as far to the freakish side of tokusatsu monstrosities as possible in what is at its heart a franchise for kids. It's as if H.R. Giger had developed a sudden interest in classic Japanese art and decided to bio-punk that tradition up a bit, with the expected consequences.

As a whole, Kamen Rider J delivers exactly the thrills it promises, and is sure to put a smile on the face of everyone who is even faintly predisposed to like stuff like this.

 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blood Ties (2009)

Original title: Huan hun

Just after he has acquired proof for corruption in the police force, cop Shun (David Leong) is murdered by gangsters whose boss has an additional personal grudge against Shun. Before he dies, Shun also has the dubious luck to see his wife Ah Mei murdered and her corpse raped.

The only witness to the crime is Shun's thirteen year old sister Qing (Joey Long), who was hidden away in the traditional cupboard. The aftermath of the business is just as nasty and unfair as what happened to Shun and Ah Mei. The press seems convinced that the cop's death is proof of him being corrupt, and the police doesn't seem all that interested in protecting Shun's honour or the peace of mind of his mother (Cheng Pei Pei).

On the night of the seventh day after Shun's death - the traditional day of the return of his spirit, his sister disappears from her mother's house only to appear blood-spattered at the home of Shun's former partner. There, the girl explains to the at first unbelieving cop that she isn't Qing, but Shun possessing his sister's body to take vengeance on the people responsible for his death. Through a rather complicated (and cheating) flashback structure, Shun then goes further into the backstory, showing all the nasty details of his murder the film has been mum about until now, and then reports about the way he has already taken out his anger on two of his murderers. Now Shun plans to kill the true corrupt member of the police force - whom he also takes as being responsible for tipping off the gangsters - but he needs his old partner's help to kill the traitor at the proper place for his own spirit to be able to go back to the afterlife and reincarnation.

Chai Yee Wei's Blood Ties starts out looking like an attempt to put the traditional ghostly vengeance storyline into a slightly different context, openly doubting the propriety of taking vengeance at all. The longer the film goes on, the less correct this early impression becomes. The "vengeance is probably not such a good thing" part of the script becomes more and more perfunctory as the flashbacks add more and more nastiness to the gangsters' backgrounds, until their brutal (and I mean "penis-cut-off-and-stuffed-in-mouth" brutal) demises seem to be perfectly agreeable ends for them.

Structurally, Blood Ties tries to marry its vengeance tale to the cyclical feeling, subjective flashback form a lot of Asian "twist" movies prefer. It's one of those movies that shows flashbacks but does not signal their extreme subjectivity (not that Shun is actually lying, he just leaves details out that are then added in a later repetition of the same flashback) very well. Unlike a lot of other movies of this type, Blood Ties does not use this technique so heavily that it becomes annoying; in fact, for most parts, the structure gives the film a rhythm that nicely intertwines the nasty violence and slower scenes of somewhat softer emotions.

Chai is good enough of a director to avoid the classical trap of the much too over-constructed final twist that seems nearly mandatory in this sort of movie. Sure, I was thinking to myself something like "well, that was a bit much" once the final one-and-a-half twists began, but these twists are far from ruinous and even fit the themes and title of the film well enough.

Chai's direction style is from the school of "stylish yet gritty", and gives the film a tightness and an understanding of gangster film tropes that fits the horror movie it actually is quite nicely.

Add to that rather strong performances by Cheng Pei Pei (in a real role in a real movie, and not a dreadful cameo in an even more dreadful movie like that last Street Fighter thing) and Joey Long, and you have a perfectly decent film that packs quite an emotional punch (in fact, surely too large of one for some viewers; if you can't abide the combination of teenagers and violence in your films, you better stay away) in two of its more graphic scenes.

Blood Ties weaknesses are quite obvious, too. As always, there are one or two small holes in the film's plot (but not in the construction of its flashbacks, fortunately), one or two other elements that stretch belief even in a film featuring vengeful ghosts and the family relations who enable them (an aspect of the movie that's important for its thematic resonance, but difficult to talk about without going in much too spoiler-laden territory even for my tastes), and - probably most problematic - the fact that this is just another film about vengeance from beneath the grave that doesn't put a truly original angle on the trope. The film's few attempts at putting the ghost's vengeance in the context of Buddhist morality unfortunately don't amount to much in the long run.

Still, Blood Ties is well worth the time it takes watching it.

 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In short: The Spy Who Came (1969)

New York vice cop Harry (Louis Waldon) lets himself be seduced by a random, rather zoned-out seeming woman he meets in his favourite bar. Our hero doesn't seem to mind too much that he's eloped and this sort of thing is usually frowned upon for men with his marital status. He's in for a bad surprise, though. The woman is part of a very interesting blackmail ring that now uses a film of their little encounter (and a whole slide show of his dozens of other moments of infidelity) to blackmail Harry into working for them.

Mohammed, the gang's leader, holds a long and detailed expository speech to Harry. Turns out this isn't your typical blackmail organization, but a group specialized in targeting diplomats with the help of specially trained, drugged and brainwashed women. Harry reluctantly agrees to working for them and is invited to spend the next weekend at Mohammed's country mansion to learn a bit more about his new job. Or something.

But the next morning brings another surprise for our hero. His boss and a guy from Interpol with ze French accent know what's up and want his help to steal some documents from Mohammed. Or something. Ze French guy will tag along and photograph various acts of sex with manikins (it's training, I tell you, training) and suchlike through convenient holes in walls while Harry gets an informative tour through very scientific brainwashing techniques that takes up two thirds of the movie, until random chaos ensues.

From time to time, I just need to watch a film like The Spy Who Came to be reminded of how much of a thing of madness and beauty the New Yorker (s)exploitation film scene of the 60s and early 70s was. Sure, there are a lot of films from the place and era that are just as unwatchable now as they were then, but there are also large numbers of movies working in very different (but frequently undressed) ways at explorations of an imaginary world where frightening dry-humping, subversive subtexts, utter ridiculousness, the outlandishly bizarre and actual eroticism meet. Often, I can't escape the idea these films weren't made, but spontaneously manifested through processes that made them much too peculiar to be able to rake the grindhouse circuit money in. Not that I'm complaining.

As is often the case with films like it, The Spy Who Came starts out looking enough like a "normal" softcore film to frighten the uninitiated into the fear of it actually just being one, but of course the first sex scene is just there to lull the audience into a false sense of security. Soon enough, the film turns into a bizarre series of scenes of light-but-very-weird sado-masochism, manikin sex (and really, what better to train your brainwashed seductresses on than a thing that hasn't got any sexual organs to stimulate?), sex SCIENCE(!), and impenetrable humour (at least I think it's supposed to be funny) that culminates in a group of howling women in nighties chasing the dominatrix of the blackmail gang who is only wearing her riding boots through a patch of woods. That's, as they say, entertainment.

All these weird and complicated excuses to show naked women are - also not unexpectedly, because this is what NY sexploitation films did - filmed in somewhat raw yet often inventively arranged black and white and scored with a conglomeration of often awesome library music ranging from sleaze jazz to weird electronic warbling. It's quite a piece of entertainment, really.

 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gunslinger Girl (2003-2004)

A secret arm of the Italian government has invented an especially nefarious tool in their fight against a loose grouping of left-wing terror organizations working in the country: cybernetically augmented and brainwashed assassins. For practical reasons (and because of the utter lack in ethics that comes with a political position), the government agency - going by the name of the "Social Welfare Agency" - only uses small, orphaned girls who wouldn't survive without its very special medical intervention.

These girls are then paired up with adult males working as their handlers, called "Fratellos", whom they are conditioned to love and obey. Surprisingly enough, most of the handlers grow quite attached to the girls, and are consequently guilt-ridden and depressed.

Gunslinger Girl is a thirteen-part Japanese anime TV show. There does exist a second season/show (the differences between these two things tend to be less clear in Japan than here), Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino, that is followed by several OVAs, but that has been created by completely different companies and people, and so doesn't really belong in this post.

If you want to, there's more than enough material in Gunslinger Girl to read it as a show speaking metaphorically about paedophilia, but I don't think that's the direction the show or the manga by Aida Yu it is based on are consciously out to explore. Sexuality isn't really on the agenda here except in a few bitter asides. in fact, the show thankfully goes out of its way to avoid even the tiniest bit of sleaze (it does the same with other science fictional elements beside the cyborgs, by the way; as a lot of the best SF outside of space opera does, the show keeps to one basic new thing/idea and just follows its implications).

Rather, Gunslinger Girl is interested in less specific questions about what it means to be human, guilt, and the nature of affection and love. Mostly, the show realizes these exploration through slow, somewhat ponderous character-driven episodes that concentrate on of the girls and her handler at a time. Most of the episodes aren't much interested in turning directly towards the political conspiracy at the show's centre, or the acts of violence themselves, which tend to be short and fast, and not necessarily built to excite. The show is this still is a spy series in which the assassins not only kill terrorists, but also politicians and cops who act perfectly in their democratic rights, it's just not concentrating on analysing anyone's ideologies or the moral horrors of covert work. These spy thriller elements do appear, but for most of the time they are side-lined as much as possible. Moral questions are explored through the effects actions have on characters instead of directly. These elements are there to enable the character work happening all around them.

This character work truly is character work too - the show usually avoids casting its characters into the typical anime types, and instead gives its sad, hurt and terribly twisted (in a subtle way) girls and its sad, guilt-ridden and sometimes cruel men room to breathe.

Although part of the basic tone of the show is that of melodrama, Gunslinger Girl likes its ambiguity more than its scenes of crying, and sets much more trust into its audience's ability to fill in blanks and interpret the emotional (and often moral) implications of what is going on for themselves than is to be expected. This makes it the type of show that needs viewers willing to work a little, paying us off with an emotional mix of melancholy and disquietude, and moments of beauty that would be kitschy if they weren't standing in contrast to the show's more disturbing moments.

What Gunslinger Girl doesn't deliver is much of a plot. Sure, in about half of the episodes (sometimes terrible) things are happening to the characters, yet the emphasis is never on the outside action, instead always on the things the outside action causes inside the characters.

Of course, the world is full of TV shows and movies always concentrating on the action and the mega plot instead of the characterization, so a show building on other aspects with as much subtlety and intensity as Gunslinger Girl does provides a needed balance, especially when it packs as much of an emotional punch as this one does. And I don't even like children.

 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

In short: Dream Home (2010)

Hong Kong, 2007. Cheng Lai Sheung (Josie Ho in what big-time film critics would probably call a domineering performance) is working two miserable shit jobs, having a loveless affair with a married man, and living with her younger brother and her ailing father in a run-down old flat. She is dreaming of buying a flat in the more upscale, but not exactly luxury, apartment building across the street that is entwined with the dreams and troubles of her childhood. As far as it shows, Cheng seems to have the feeling moving in there would fix all that is wrong with her life, but she's just too poor to get where she wants in any normal way, hard as she may try.

The scenes showing us Cheng's daily life in 2007 are intercut with other scenes showing us the (non-traumatic) unhappy past that shaped her, and a third group of scenes in which she goes through a few apartments in her dream home, mercilessly slaughtering the inhabitants. The reasons for her killing spree will only become completely clear once the film's two lines of flashbacks have run their respective courses.

I wouldn't have pegged Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung as a director able to produce this kind of concentrated tale of physical and economical horror, but here Dream Home is, looking for all the world like a less weird, and slightly more upmarket sister movie to Tiwa Moeithaisong's Meat Grinder.

Pang shows himself to be a director at the same time at home with Cheng's gruesome and slightly over the top (this is a Hong Kong CATIII movie, after all, and there are traditions that need to be kept to) killing spree and the emotionally much more subdued scenes of the protagonist growing up. The latter scenes are the most interesting part of the movie for me in that they're not going for the explanations for serial murders narratives usually use. Pang shows no interest in either the "born evil" variation, or the "one single trauma causes everything" explanation, and instead shows Cheng's growing up as somewhat unhappy, with violence all around her yet never hitting her directly, and her adult life as depressing and loveless, probably not much different from the lives of thousands of other inhabitants of Hong Kong of her generation.

In direct contrast to the scenes of carnage, Cheng's daily life is shown in muted and undramatic tones. It's the kind of life that's full of little failures - mostly caused by economical factors completely outside one's control - that still doesn't drive most people into homicide or we'd all be dead. Subtextually, Pang seems to argue for the idea that Cheng would not have become what she is in a society less fixated on monetary gain as a way to escape all troubles, and that monsters are not created with a bang, but with a whisper. The shadow of fear of the reunification with mainland China and its effects that has lain over a few generations of Hong Kong inhabitants and the movies they made is still there, even in a film that on its surface is only ever about the escape into a better flat.

There's also something grimly humorous about Dream Home, like a slightly ironic shrug about the state of the world that can only find expression in hacked off body parts and people icing their own guts. It's the sort of humour possibly based on anger, possibly on resignation. Like the film it's appearing in, it seems deeply, though not necessarily pleasantly, human to me in any case.

 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: They Thought They Were Alone

Iron Man 2 (2010): No wonder mainstream critics looked less favourably on Jon Favreau's second Iron Man movie than they did on the first one. Instead of going in the direction of the serious and the dark (and we all know only the serious and the dark can be good, unless your making comedies about neurotic New Yorkers not featuring any explosions), Favreau goes on an all-out binge of the silly and the slightly to heavily ridiculous while trying to tell about half a dozen stories at once without including much of an actual plot holding them together. Not surprisingly, this leads to a highly distractible film that is lacking in coherence and dramatic power and prefers spending its time on play and having (often dumb) fun with whatever it can get its hands on.

Fortunately, I do like the silly and the ridiculous parts of superhero fiction as much as I do the more serious interpretations of the concept, and approve of a director spending ridiculous amounts of big company media money on playing around, so I had just about as much fun with the film as Favreau, Downey and the gang seem to have had.

Machete (2010): I know, as someone mostly specializing in cult movies, I am required by law to look down on the efforts of people like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino mining everyone's favourite cult movies for fun, art and profit, and to mumble some stuff about "stealing" from "my genre" that has nothing whatsoever to do with my understanding of the way cultural products feed on other cultural products or - more specifically - the way classic exploitation movies themselves have been built from other people's ideas and the lust for money (which of course doesn't say anything about their qualities as art or entertainment).

Fortunately, I don't care about that law, and have enjoyed nearly anything Rodriguez (or Tarantino) has ever made. Machete is no exception to that rule. As in Favreau's movie, there's a lot of wallowing in silliness on screen here too, but also a whole bunch of silly/cool pretend violence, a bit of sledgehammer political satire, Steven Seagal actually moving and speaking his own lines (though he does both with the expected problems), mainstream Hollywood actresses not daring to undress, and Danny Trejo doing what Danny Trejo does best. It's all in good fun; most of the time, Machete is a lot of fun.

Spirited Killer 3 (or whatever it is actually called, though this might actually be the spiritual sequel to what usually goes under the name of Spirited Killer 2; 199x): Two groups of people (one Japanese, the other Chinese) are tromping through a well-known patch of Thai jungle in search of a black crane's egg. Alas, an evil shaman played by Panna Rittikrai (who else?), has called dibs on the egg and sets his undead servants (including two ninjas who just love to shout "Nin-nin-nin-nin-ja!") on them. Only when the Japanese, the Chinese and the Thai people of a nearby village unite and team-up with a girl with demonic blood (don't ask) can they hinder the bad guy from using the egg for world domination.

Unfortunately, what sounds like a perfectly awesome piece of weird fu cinema gets dragged down into that very particular brand of Thai slapstick humour that makes me want to bash my own head in when I have to witness it. Not even the ninja or a gut-munching old woman are enough to alleviate the pain of dozens of sped-up chase scenes and pratfalling. Of course, not everyone is as allergic to this sort of thing as I am, so you (yes, YOU!) might well like it.

 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vahsi Kan (1983)

aka Wild Blood

aka Turkish First Blood (and it's even true this time)

An evil rich guy named Hasmet rules a Turkish village and its surroundings with an iron hand. But his reign of smirking evilness is threatened by a middle-aged man, his daughter (Emel Tümer), and her little brother who are driving to a trial regarding one or more of Hasmet's evil deeds. Obviously, the easiest way to get rid of them is to have a bunch of henchpeople pretend to be a heap of corpses lying in the road and kill the family once they stop their car. Thanks to the surprising not-zombies, the man and his son die unpleasant deaths, but the daughter escapes.

She's soon not the only one stumbling through this particular part of the countryside anymore. Ex-commando Riza (Cüneyt Arkin) has an unpleasant run-in with some of Hasmet's men, and begins to repeatedly go Rambo on the bad guy's henchmen's asses, utilizing the awesome power of being filmed in undercranked shots when running, transforming not into a manikin like normal movie heroes do but into a ragdoll when falling from any heights, classic Arkin fu, an affinity for traps and monologue-ing  about blood, and a very big knife. When the two Hasmet-haters meet up, Riza tailors his new partner an awesome ripped red disco jungle woman outfit, proving he's a man with talents for every situation, and the sort of eye for women's clothing that would make him a reality show mainstay today.

A little later, we'll also learn that Riza is an old acquaintance of Hasmet too, and that the old evildoer is holding him responsible for his son losing both of his arms and the use of his legs. Obviously, this being a First Blood rip-off, Riza's former commanding officer will make an appearance too. But mostly, there will be ranting into the camera and killing.

Whenever Turkish exploitation master director Cetin Inanc and Turkish exploitation acting god Cüneyt Arkin made a film together, fantastic, explosive and very special things happened. And I don't just mean especially egregious cases of needle-dropped music like the cues from First Blood on the soundtrack here.

Inanc's permanently excited style of direction - heated even by the hyperactive standards of Turkish popular cinema - and Arkin's talent for steely staring into cameras, as well as the latter's ability to look ridiculous and awesome at the same time during weirdly choreographed fight scenes usually turned the films these two made together into viewing experiences even more exhausting than was the already quite exhausting standard of Turkish cinema of the time. Neither Inanc nor Arkin had much believe in standing still (or at least shutting up) for even a single second, and so their united works turn into a whirlwind of very Turkish kung fu, wild shouting, wide-eyed ranting by the film's bad guys (the wheelchair bound son - only complete with his own explosive trap - doing his thing with special enthusiasm), extreme close-ups, crotch shots, and thigh shots, all filmed with copious use of the most aggressive, probably manhandled, handheld camera and edited during an all-night cocaine binge.

It's all as ridiculous as it is intense, but Vahsi Kan is not the sort of film that leaves its viewers room or breath to contemplate its rather perfunctory script or said ridiculousness. There's only time for the most manly manliness of Cüneyt Arkin when he's really angry (you wouldn't like him when he's angry, unless he's angry at your enemies, then you'd think he's awesome when he's angry), some leering in the direction of Emel Tümer (though the leering in Turkey of 1982 was a lot tamer than it would have been ten years earlier, "thanks" to the new censorship regime), explosions, and shouting about blood and vengeance.

I have to admit that I like this version of First Blood a lot more than the original. Vahsi Kan has no time for that other film's less than believable attempts at being anti-war that were quite at odds with its obvious love for violence; there's some talk about Arkin's character's love for peace, but Inanc is nothing if not an economic director fully conscious of the fact that nobody watching his movies cares about being morally enlightened by them, and isn't ashamed to revel in the silly violence. I also suspect that Turkey's military regime of the time wouldn't have liked a film that was too clearly critical of war or the military itself.

However, if a viewer doesn't ask the film about its morals, it's certainly not going to talk about them (except for some mumbling about "blood, vengeance, wild blood, blood" while cackling insanely), and will instead merrily demonstrate everything Inanc and Arkin know about making an action film, Turkish pop cinema style, which is everything you can know about that particular aspect of the art of filmmaking without selling your soul to a godhood of your choice.

 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In short: Piranha 3D (2010)

Seismic activity opens up the passage between an ancient underground lake and a popular vacation spot somewhere in the USA, allowing the elder lake's population of pre-historic piranha a nice little holiday in sunnier parts. But the poor darlings are oh so very hungry! Fortunately, Mother Nature takes care of her own and has seen it fit to provide the fishies with a delightful welcoming feast in the form of hordes and hordes of young and tasty spring breakers.

These young people turn out to be the ideal food, at once highly nourishing and dumb as rocks. There's also some stuff about the local sheriff (Elisabeth Shue) and her children, but there's absolutely no need for anyone to spend even a second thinking about it. The script bots who shat out this film's script certainly didn't.

Still, while I'd rather not talk about the script (why put more effort in than the people actually making the movie?) of Piranha 3D - no, I'm absolutely not calling this film by its official title, Piranha, for poor Joe Dante surely has enough troubles - I have to admit I rather enjoyed watching the film. In fact, for my tastes it is director Alexandre Aja's most watchable film up until now (please don't ask me about Haute Tension). At least, this time around, Aja seems completely clear about what sort of movie he is trying to make, namely an ultra-orthodox exploitation film that exclusively worships on the altar of breasts and blood. And truly, brothers and sisters, blood and breasts is what Aja brings us. Just don't get too excited here, it's spring break style nudity, so there's nothing going on that's actually erotic, unless you're a monkey.

Now, obviously, I would have preferred a film that attempted to include at least a bit of cleverness from time to time, but this is not the sort of film that ever promises any stimulation of one's brain cells, so it would seem rather unfair of me to complain too much about the complete lack of that stimulation. And hey, a film made by people with any ambition or working brains would probably not include as many scenes of people trying to fight against a swarm of angry fishes by shooting them.

All this does still sound rather more negative than it's supposed to, given that I had a (sort of) fine time watching Piranha 3D. It's decently paced and does "carnage" quite well. There's really nothing wrong with the movie that couldn't be solved by burning its script and letting someone with even the faintest whiff of talent - or just half a clue - write a new one. Obviously, it's not a film that can hold up to even the minor scrutiny of thinking about it for ten seconds (and yes, I'm pretty sure that's still nine seconds more than Aja and the writers spent thinking about their film).

 

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