Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In short: Jail Bait (1954)

Don Gregor (Clancy Malone), the son of a famous and well-loved plastic surgeon (Herbert Rawlinson) is working hard on becoming the black sheep of his family. Despite (or because of?) the incessant motherly preaching of his sister (Dolores Fuller), Don's running with a bad crowd, namely a gangster named Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell).

Just after Don's first real run-in with the police (as played by Lyle Talbot and a very young Steve Reeves) for illegal gun possession, he and Vic decide that now's the ideal time to rob some money from a nightclub. Not surprisingly, given the level of intellect the duo demonstrate, things go very wrong indeed. Don shoots the club's watchman (or a cop? or the film just pretends it's the same thing?) dead. He and Vic think they've also gotten rid of a witness in form of a nightclub dancer, but she's up and about soon enough, willing and able to identify Don to the police.

Afterwards, Don shows he isn't a completely hopeless cause. On Vic's insistence, the young man goes on the run from the police, but a stern talking-to from his dad convinces him that it would be best to give himself up to the police.

Alas, Vic has other plans.

Ah, dear Ed Wood, or rather, dear Edward D. Wood Jr. Supposedly the worst director in the history of cinema (as if there weren't many much better candidates for that title), he still managed to make a handful of highly entertaining films out of random assortments of actors and non-actors, cardboard, library footage, and the power of sheer enthusiasm.

Jail Bait surely is no exception. As should be obvious from its plot, the film is Wood's attempt at making a film noir (depending on your definition of what a film noir is - if Phil Karlson's hard-boiled crime movies don't belong under that description for you, Jail Bait won't either), though one of the often quite flatly lit variation. Wood's idea of plotting being what it is, the film's third act suddenly turns it into something of a horror movie, but that's the sort of randomness that makes Wood's movies so much more interesting than - say - those of Larry Buchanan.

On a technical level, I never found Wood to be all that bad. He's obviously conscious of the concept of camera movement, actually uses editing to set up dramatic scenes and so on and so forth. Sure, Wood has the strange proclivity to concentrate on people's backs instead of their faces during dialogue scenes, and the characters tend to stand around as stiffly positioned as if they were action figures, but honestly, when you've seen some of the stuff I've seen by now, Wood's a pretty great director.

It certainly helps that all of the film's technical flaws aren't just bad in a boring way, but of the slightly loopy sort that tend to make a film just more entertaining to watch.

More or less the same goes for the acting: Fuller, Rawlinson and Reeves (who, by the way, has a short beefcake moment for the ladies and gents looking forward to that sort of thing) are all dreadful, but they are all dreadful in various perfectly interesting ways. Farrell's surprisingly enough even quite good as a pulp gangster.

My favourite parts of Jail Bait, though, are the weird contortions of its script. It's not just the film's bizarre and random turn into an unexpected direction in its final act, there's also Wood's brilliant talent for writing highly peculiar dialogue lines - in this case hidden away between some pretty nice hard-boiled one-liners, actually - that make less sense the more you think about them.

 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Madness (1994)

Original title: Gli occhi dentro

An eye-obsessed serial killer terrorizes Italy. The black-masked murderer seems to have moulded himself after the hero of a comic book, Doctor Death - pagan professor by day, serial killer by night. Parts of the public, incited by the media campaign of journalist Calligari (Fausto Lombardi), seem all too willing to ban the book (in the hope that the killer's so lacking in creativity he's going to stop killing, one suspects).

The book's artist Giovanna Dei (Monica Seller) and her writer and would-be boyfriend Nico Mannelli (Gabriele Gori) are of two minds on how to handle the situation. Giovanna isn't willing to let unproven accusations stop her art, while Nico'd like to end the comic and just forget everything.

Giovanna's situation becomes even more difficult when the cop investigating the serial killings (Antonio Zequila) starts sniffing around her for no reasons he deigns to explain. Soon enough, there's a good reason for the man's interest, though - the killer sends Giovanna rambling answering machine messages, and a pair of eyes, freshly cut out. Is it just a really inappropriate demonstration of love towards his creator, or does the killer have plans for Giovanna's eyes too?

The usual story when people speak of Bruno Mattei's works after the divorce from Claudio Fragasso (I do at least imagine the end of their creative partnership as a divorce, with long and hard discussions about who gets which of the children's heads) is that Mattei's films afterwards fastly lost the peculiar charm of insanity and absurdity his work together with Fragasso had, and became the kind of bad movies that are bad enough to bore, but not bad enough to entertain an audience. For much of Mattei's creative life after Fragasso, this view might even hold true - I frankly haven't seen enough of the director's output of the 90s and 00s to have an honest opinion on that, but a film like Madness suggests a somewhat different story.

Madness is not a film carrying the "all shoddiness, all insanity, all the time" flag of Mattei's co-operations with Fragasso. It is instead a film of two halves. One half - quite sensationally - is a perfectly competent, happily generic giallo that is as good as what was left of Italian genre filmmaking in 1994 allowed, with some reasonably stylish filmmaking, and a sprightly little plot that might make little sense, but hangs together well enough inside the established rules of the film's genre. As someone mostly used to Mattei in his role as purveyor of crap, I was quite surprised to realize that he could be a director willing and able to pull off solid genre entertainment on an obviously miniscule budget when the stars aligned right (though at least his first cooperation with Fragasso, The Other Hell did hint at that from time to time).

The film's other half is quite a bit more like what you'd expect from Mattei at the height of his non-powers, driving actors to ruinous and strange performances that don't just make any sense psychologically, and hardly have anything to do with humanity as we know it from outside Italian movies at all, ignoring even the most basic sense of how things work in reality. When it's time for the film to lose it, it truly loses it completely, with cops acting not just improbable but completely illogical, the worst murder that's supposed to be suicide ever, red herrings that make no sense and still don't confuse the viewers etc. and so on. Some of the actors are giving their all in this respect, too. Especially Antonio Zequila's (with great help from his dubbing actor) cop is a bunch of laughs a minute, frequently rambling complete nonsense, talking to the killer ("you bastard!") when he's alone, and mangling every line he has to deliver with a perfectly strange mixture of long, inconvenient pauses and freakish emphasises, as if it were his job alone to drag down every scene he's in from the realm of the slightly silly into that of the mind-breaking ridiculous. It's quite something to see, really.

Of course, I would have wished for Mattei to decide on one tone for the film, whichever of the two he preferred. However, even in this confused state, Madness makes for an entertaining ninety minutes. At least, it's never boring for even a second.

 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

In short: Dogora (1964)

Original title: Uchu daikaiju Dogora

A series of rather inexplicable diamond robberies shakes the world. The Japanese police, especially their inspector Kommei (Yosuke Natsuki), have their eye on a local gang of robbers as the perpetrators of the Japanese part of the deeds, but something's surely not right. Diamonds disappear from safes nobody could have opened, trucks begin to levitate skywards - it's all more than a little peculiar and just might have connection to some satellites that have disappeared from orbit. In his investigations, Kommei meets interesting people, like the scientist Dr. Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura) and his assistant/Kommei's love interest Masayo (Yoko Fujiyama), as well as the shady American Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham - look, it's emperor Antonio of Seatopia!). The former is just developing a way to cheaply make artificial diamonds, while the latter always appears where the Japanese gang tries to steal diamonds.

Of course, the gangsters, the police and Mark aren't the only ones interested in diamonds. Turns out the impossible raids are committed by a giant, floating mutant cell who just loves to snack on carbon and irritate wasps. Fortunately, Munakata is a scientist with quite broad interests.

Dogora seems to have a rather bad reputation amongst many lovers of kaiju cinema as one of Ishiro Honda's least accomplished movies, but I think when you go into the film with an open mind, it can be a pretty damn enjoyable experience.

The trick is to not expect Dogora to be your standard kaiju movie at all, but rather an attempt of Toho and/or Honda to make an irreverent, often outright comedic crime film close to the pop style the competing Nikkatsu studio had perfected, that somehow got mixed up with about twenty minutes of a competent, though not exactly spirited kaiju movie. Understandably, neither the monster nor the special effects scenes are completely up to Honda's and Eiji Tsuburaya's usual standards - the monster being more off-screen than on and a few too many strings being visible when things are flying - yet the b-game of these guys is still better than most anybody's a-game. Plus, Dogora's big scene, where it is floating in the sky, waving its tentacles and gobbling up coal is suitably impressive, and as silly as the nature of the monster and the way it is going to be dispatched in the end afford.

A basic, good-natured silliness is Dogora's biggest virtue when it's not being a monster film, but a crime comedy too. It's the sort of film where gangster molls are exceptionally pretty, policemen slightly goofy and slightly cool, where all gangsters are wearing straw hats and white gloves and attempt to kill tied-up heroes by sticking dynamite in their pockets, and where shoot-outs more often than not end without any victims. Honda's direction is as playful and fun as is proper given the amount of merry silliness he is putting on screen. The only moments when the film loses its momentum a bit are when Honda has to switch from fun crime flick to tonally much more earnest monster film mode.

That, however, is hardly reason enough for me to dislike a movie so earnestly working at being fun.

 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: A Teenage Titan Of Terror On A Lustful Binge!

Battle Angel aka Battle Angel Alita aka Gunnm (1993): This two-part OVA based on the never-ending manga series by Yukito Kishiro suffers from being one of those OVAs that are really not more than moving complements of their sources. While the plot of the two OVAs mostly does stand for itself, the whole thing still feels a lot like the first chapter of a much longer story that it actually is, instead of being a truly satisfying artefact of its own. That's not to say that the anime isn't fun: it keeps closely to Kishiro's original designs and his world-building style, mixing background details that imply a lot of history with a very blunt yet effective idea of how metaphors work; the violence is satisfying and the drama works too.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008): Stylistically and tonally extremely mobile - and extremely awesome - South Korean director Kim Ji-woon takes the Spaghetti Western and transplants it into Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. Obviously, that time and place is extremely fitting for a mash-up between an Italian way to look at a very US American genre, South Korean contemporary ideas of how to film a kinetic action sequence, and bits and pieces of Japanese and Chinese cinema and culture, until everything turns into a bright, shiny and pretty damn entertaining piece of Pop (yes, the sort with a capital P and more intelligence than anyone could expect from it). Add to that Song Kang-ho out-acting the rest of a pretty swell cast (sorry, Lee Byeong-Heon's hair and Jeong Woo-seong's hat), and you have yourself quite a film.

Werewolf Woman (1976): On first glance, Rino Di Silvestro's movie about Annik Borel running around naked, having sex, screaming and moaning hysterically and killing people might look like the Platonic Ideal of the sleazy Italian sex horror movie, and therefore a film I'd absolutely adore, what with its nearly around-the-running-time nudity, its dialogue full of bad Freudian clichés, its physically improbable murder scenes and some truly histrionic performances. Alas, this is one of those sad cases where a film is so concerned with fulfilling its exploitational duties that it becomes exhausting, its wallowing in sleaze proving monotonous instead of stimulating. Werewolf Woman's fixation on all that is naked and loud is so complete that I found myself - paradoxically - getting bored by it after only half of it had run its course, as if I had found myself in the anti-matter version of all those late 70s lucha movies where nothing ever happens - a movie where so much happens (well, except for an actual plot) that it's impossible to be interested in any of it.

If that doesn't make much sense to you, welcome to the club. I can't explain why a film full of sex, violence, and screaming can still feel as tedious as Werewolf Woman does in any rational way, but feel that way it does.

 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tokyo Mafia 4: Yakuza Blood (1997)

(Don't even try to puzzle out the continuity between this and the other three films. It'll only give you a headache and distract you from the best film of the whole bunch).

Young, inexperienced and rather dumb street thug Ryo (Kazuhiro Mashiko) becomes a bit obsessed by the story of the Legendary Assassin supposed to first have killed 300 yakuza in a single night to take vengeance for his murdered girlfriend and then become the best professional killer in Japan, as told to him during a cameo of the inevitable Ren Osugi. That assassin is obviously none other than the hero of the other three Tokyo Mafia movies, Ginya Yabuki (Riki Takeuchi!).

As fate will have it, Ryo is at a bar where Yabuki is performing one of his jobs and kinda-sorta saves the older man's life. Yabuki doesn't seem very thankful, yet still Ryo decides there and then that he's going to become a hit man like Yabuki, too, and - if possible - something like his new idol's apprentice. The young idiot begins following Yabuki around, trying to insinuate himself as a junior assassin with Yabuki's controller (Hirotaro Honda), Oh and he begins to shoot the corpses of the victims of Yabuki's hits (incidentally, corpses are the only things Ryo's able to hit) in what I can only interpret a declaration of love.

Ryo also nearly guns down a witness, a Chinese girl named Yuan (Ryoko Imamura), but Yabuki, who until that point had merely pretended not to see Ryo creepily stalking his every move and mutilating corpses, painfully dissuades him from nonsense like this.

Yuan isn't easily pissed off by minor things like a guy trying to kill her, so soon enough, something as close to romance as you'll find in a yakuza movie starts between her and Ryo. It's enough for any sane guy to stop trying to imitate a man like Yabuki so obviously out for self-destruction, but fate (Ryo's dumbass-itude) has other plans.

This, the fourth, and, as it looks, last of the Tokyo Mafia films comes as something of a surprise to me. The film was again - like the third one - directed by Takeshi Miyasaki, but there's a huge difference between the highly entertaining, but generic competence of the director's last effort, and the free-form artiness of this one.

If you come looking for a bit of the old ultra-violence, Tokyo Mafia 4 will probably not make you happy, because there's not really that much action on screen, and the shoot-outs that do happen are over (I suspect realistically) fast. There's no impression of Miyasaki not being able to stage an entertaining gunfight here, though, it rather seems to me as if the director's just not interested in making a movie that is mainly about gunfights. Of course, there is a (comparatively) big, slow-mo gunfight with Riki snarling a lot at the end of the movie, but even that one will stay in my mind because a bunch of sword-fighting monks that up until that point looked to me like metaphors without any actual physical presence in the world of the film turn into Riki-gun-fodder.

What also will stay in my mind is the film's circling around the question about the difference between myth and reality, about what makes a man want to become just like another man, even when that man tries to dissuade him from this goal by any means necessary, because he knows he's just a drunk with a death-wish. This circling happens in the typical, sometimes semi-improvised style yakuza V-cinema often takes on when it's not about the shoot-outs or the honour or the boredom, in scenes that often border on the absurd, directed by Miyasaki with the light hand of a man willing to give his actors room. And - as is often the case with films like this - everyone plays his or her heart out. Not in a Hollywood "warning! star acts now!" fashion, but with a sense of spontaneity that produces authenticity even in a film whose budget doesn't provide the actors with any attractive settings to do their acting in (though the film has some - probably shot guerrilla style - outside locations).

It's all about creating a mood, looking at people, listening to people, and never quite outright saying what the point of the film is. So basically, it's the sort of film people produce who know that they don't have much money to work with, but can do what they want with the little they have as long as the end product contains three shoot-outs. As in pink cinema, so in the yakuza film.

 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In short: Stop The Bitch Campaign!: Hell Version (2004)

Original title: Enjo kosai bokumetsu undo: jigoku-hen

Aoi (Sora Aoi) and her high school friends are working for a teenage bordello to find and punish the guy (Kenichi Endo) who once raped the girl. It's all fun and games and putting the penis of rebellious clients in a vise, until an old friend of the bordello owner arrives.

That old friend is of course Aoi's arch enemy, and the bordello owner has been in cahoots with him all along, helping him in his "crusade against teenage prostitution", which consists of sticking vegetables into parts of teenage prostitutes where they don't belong while rambling about his father and/or grandfather, and sometimes cross-dressing in various glittering ensembles. Will Aoi manage to conquer her enemy before he has sung a parody on a super sentai theme song?

What's most surprising about this ultra-cheap pinku is really how harmless it is - all the violence is taking place off-screen, and the sexual content is much tamer than you'd expect too. Sure, there's a lot of theoretically shocking stuff like teenage prostitution, curious fetishes, and vegetable rape, but the film seems pretty much satisfied with vaguely implying much of it while concentrating of farcical weirdo humour of the most peculiar kind. It's the sort of thing that's much too silly to be shocking - except for the very easily shocked - but not silly enough to get one excited. When a film has a plot like StBC:HV, I expect to be either amused, or annoyed, or disturbed by it, but for most of its running time, the film just chugs along without doing much of anything.

On the positive side, the actors seem to have fun with the whole affair, and only vegetables have been hurt during the production.

 

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Tunnel (2011)

Truly, we are living in an age that can only be described as "The Future"! While people might still bemoan the absence of personal jet packs and flying cars, we have actually arrived at a point in time where much better things than falling to one's death from hundreds of meters are possible: namely, filmmakers financing a movie over the Internet to then give it away free of charge.

So, yeah, you can legally download and watch The Tunnel following this handy link to the film's site (where you can of course also buy stuff).

Because it's by now a traditional (and pretty practical) way to set-up a low budget horror film, The Tunnel is another fake documentary. The movie consists of footage supposedly shot by the film's protagonists, some security camera footage, and so on, all embedded in interviews with the survivors of the plot. It's a pretty standard set-up that has been a bit overplayed these last few years, but at least The Tunnel belongs among the number of fake documentaries that try to realistically emulate the documentary format, does so quite effectively and does not leave its audience with the question by and for whom exactly the footage at hand was edited together (The Last Exorcism, I'm looking at you).

Plotwise, the film tells the story of four TV journalists (nope, for once no film students) - played with professional aplomb by Bel Deliá, Andy Rodoreda, Steve Davis and Luke Arnold - illegally entering the system of tunnels beneath and next to the Sydney subway system to investigate why the local government suddenly and quietly dropped plans to put an old water reservoir situated down there to new use, and if this has any connection with the tales about disappearing homeless people going around. Obviously, the quartet will find out more than they asked for, and not everyone will survive the trip.

After this description, anyone who has seen a few fake documentary/POV horror movies (The Tunnel's situated in both related styles at once), will pretty much know where this is going, because original, this film is not. However, originality is not everything in genre filmmaking. Execution is just as important, and it's at this point where The Tunnel shines next to many of its peers. I've already mentioned the solid quality of the acting that makes it easy enough to view the protagonists as believable professionals and as grown-ups.

Furthermore - and this makes sense given that the characters are supposed to know what they're doing - this is not one of those POV films where every shot is made with the shakiest of shaky cams, until the more impressionable members of the audience get sea-sick. Instead, the first two thirds of the film are mostly believable as footage made by TV people shooting raw footage for a larger news feature, and do a lot to give the movie a real sense of place. The underground locations where much of the film takes place in are of course inherently creepy (as these places always are), and having them shot with an eye on composition and mood only increases that impression. There's still the sub-genre typical running around in the dark and screaming into a shaking night-sight camera in the film's final act, but to me that seems to be the proper and dramatic way to use shaky cam.

Wonderfully, The Tunnel does not live off its locations alone: director Carlo Ledesma and writers Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey have a good grip on their film's pacing (just have a look at how the after-the-fact talking heads and voice overs appear less and less the more intense the action in the POV camera segments get), and more importantly show a real sense for cheaply doable yet very effective moments of horror of the sort it'd be cruel to spoil.

Like the rest of the film, these moments aren't necessarily original, but they are clever enough, they are effective, and they are part of a film that's just like them.

 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Things That Went Through My Mind While Watching The Asylum's "The Almighty Thor" (2011)

 

  • In Asgard (or Ess-Guard, or Esger, as it's pronounced here by varying characters), no one can hear you scream.
  • Unlike real lava, digital lava has no need to follow the laws of physics.
  • Oh look, it's Skeletor, but with Richard Grieco's face! Well, what's left of it since Mickey Rourke's plastic surgeon began his work on it.
  • The Norse invented Monument Valley.
  • Not being able to speak properly is no hindrance to a starring role in an Asylum movie.
  • I can't even make a joke about the Norns (or Nerns, as some of the actors call 'em), seeing as I already made one about "actors" unable to speak.
  • Is Wahalla close to Waikiki?
  • Remember colour? The director sure didn't.
  • The Norse Gods in this movie are less competent than your usual slasher victim.
  • Talking of Norse Gods, why the hell does Odin have two eyes and no ravens? You'd think even a writer for this house of pain could afford a minute with Google. Or with some of the Marvel comics whose adaptation this is supposed to rip off.
  • If you fuck with the mythology, why not do it in an interesting or clever or entertaining way? Yeah, I know, The Asylum.
  • Thor has been eaten by a grue.
  • Hot legwarmer action!
  • Never film a fight scene in slow motion when you can't afford an action choreographer.
  • Alas, Thor has not been eaten by a grue.
  • "And your tree of life is finished!"
  • Stuff Thor really shouldn't be saying: "I don't believe in fate."
  • Come to think of it, why is Thor whining and complaining all the time?
  • "YESSSS!!! NOOOOO!!!!"
  • The modern world is very blue.
  • Guns? Really?
  • Hot Richard Grieco walking around slowly action!
  • Most boring swordfight between two dual-wielding guys ever?
  • Glad to see the tree from The Fountain is still getting work.
  • So, this Hammer of Invincibility? Why are its owners always getting beaten in a fight? Sure it's not the Hammer of Incompetence?
  • "Why is everything I do on my own wrong!?". Because you're an idiot, Thor.
  • Thor, please, please, die.
  • I'd love it if the film turned into torture porn for its last thirty minutes and Thor would be slowly hacked into little pieces. That would be the only way to make the "hero" of this thing less annoying, hateful and stupid.
  • Didn't we have this discussion already four times before? Well, The Asylum had to bring the "film" above ninety minutes of running time somehow.
  • And here I was complaining about the Clash of the Titans remake.
  • The way Grieco's talking, you might think "Muspelheim" is pronounced "Moss Pellet".
  • Oh great, it's another scene of Thor whining.
  • "The US military is doing their best to respond to the threat." Oh yes, they're attacking with all three of their CGI fighter jets and a helicopter!
  • "Ragnarök!" (or, yanno, "Ragna-RAWK!") is Loki's new catchphrase, it seems.
  • As dear Roky Erikson says, "I never have the bloody hammer! I never have the bloody hammer!"

 

Friday, May 20, 2011

On WTF: The Alien Encounters (1979)

Remember James T. Flocker? The heroic director of the rather great Ghosts That Still Walk was one of the few among the local indie directors I like to champion who made more than one film.

But will The Alien Encounters be quite as weird as Ghosts? Will there be attack rocks again? Find out in my write-up on WTF-Film!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

In short: Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970)

Victorian era barber Sweeney Todd (John Miranda) likes to kill his customers for fun and profit. He has been able to kill a few hundred people by now without the police getting wise to it, for he has an excellent way to get rid of his victims' bodies. Todd is partnered with bakery owner Maggie Lovett (Jane Hilary) and her employee Tobias Ragg (Berwick Kaler) who bake his victims into not quite delicious meat pies.

All goes well for the dastardly fiends until they start killing off people a little more closely connected to them. Eventually, it is only a question of time 'til somebody - perhaps even Lovett's other employee Johanna (Annabella Wood) - will find out what's going on in the barber shop and the bakery.

Given how obsessed mad exploitation director Andy Milligan was with ill-advised period settings, especially a Victorian England that has somehow been transported to modern Staten Island, it comes as not much of a surprise he just had to do his own version of Victorian England's favourite fictional serial killer, Sweeney Todd.

The film turned out exactly as you'd expect from a Milligan movie. Horrible, yet uncomfortably intense, actors dressed in "period" clothing below the level most high school plays would accept are doing just plain horrible British accents. The shot composition is so claustrophobically cramped the actors never seem to talk each other like people in the real world do, but push their faces into each other, so that only hate-filled ranting, physical violence, or the face rubbing that goes for sex here can result. And in fact (again, this isn't exactly a surprise in a Milligan film), most of the film's dialogue consists of hateful, long, breathless rants, as if the characters (with the ridiculously angelic Johanna as the big exception) had never had a nasty thought they didn't throw into someone's face. It's impossible to watch this, or any other of Milligan's movies I've seen, and not come to the conclusion that you're not actually watching characters ranting at each other, but Andy Milligan ranting at you, his audience. Milligan, if you haven't realized it by now, hates you. And your mother, your sister, even your pet hamster (though Bloodthirsty Butchers counterintuitively and thankfully is not one of the Milligan movies with real animal violence).

It's this wave of hardly suppressed hatred and anger that underlies every static shot, every boring useless scene of unpleasant people talking and talking and shouting, every cramped, motionless (Milligan would prefer clubbing you to death with it instead of moving it, I suspect) camera set-up, and even the seizure-inducing camera swirling that goes for an action sequence in Milligan's films; even the happy end seems to mock the audience.

If you're sensitive to Milligan's style (quite a few people will just be bored by his films), watching one of his movies can be a truly unpleasant, disquieting experience. Once you've seen enough of his films, they all start to turn into one big mass of ranting, shouting, dismemberment and bad accents that hates you and wants you to die.

 

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Occult Academy (2010)

Original title: Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin

1999. The Waldstein Academy is a peculiar school teaching its students not only from the usual academic curriculum, but also everything there is to know about the occult (where "the occult" in the parlance of this show is everything from magic to aliens to cryptozoology). Obviously, strange happenings are a daily occurrence at the place, but things get even more strange when the Academy's principal and owner dies. His alienated daughter Maya returns to the Academy for his funeral, and after cleaning up a bit of possession trouble with her Dad's corpse, takes over as the place's new principal - which later on won't dissuade her from also becoming a student of the place she owns - planning to close it down as soon as possible. Maya faults the Academy and the occult for her parents' divorce and the distance between herself and her Dad.

Closing the Academy down and hating on the occult becomes a much lower priority to Maya soon enough, though, for episode two finds her witnessing a naked guy descending from the heavens. Fumiaki Uchida, as he will later turn out to be called, is supposedly a new teacher at the school, but, as he explains, is in truth a time agent from the far-flung future of 2012. In 2012, just as Nostradamus foresaw, humanity will have been nearly destroyed by an invasion of aliens from another dimension. Fortunately, Nostradamus's prophecies make also clear that the alien trouble began with a dimensional gate opening at the Waldstein Academy in 1999, so the future resistance has sent Uchida to destroy the one element - known as Nostradamus' key - that will cause the rift to open. Alas, Uchida isn't the first time agent they send. His five predecessors all found horrible ends, and Uchida - a former kid spoon-bender turned spoon-bending fake - really is the dregs when it comes to saviours of the world. He's cowardly, an idiot, and will soon enough turn into Maya's favourite punching bag. Still, Uchida and Maya will pool their talents (his: being ineffectual and running away; hers: being dominant and hitting things with spiky or sharp things). And if you think this all sounds rather ridiculous and completely random, then it's just because you haven't heard about the side plots and single episode stories I've left out here to preserve my sanity - those are even more ridiculous and random.

Occult Academy is as complete of a mess in structure as any 13-part anime show could ever hope to be. For most of the time, the show even seems to be unsure to what genre it belongs. Is it soft teen horror? A high school comedy? A harem comedy? Tear-jerking melodrama? Time-travel SF? A romantic comedy? Well, it's everything, usually all at once or in very uncomfortable or just very silly combinations that make no dramatic sense whatsoever, as if "structure" were a word the show's lead writer Seishi Minakami (whom you might know from the more coherent Paranoia Agent) had never heard before. Occult Academy is the sort of show that doesn't see any reason not to have the usual pubescent sex jokes in a tear-jerking episode about a dead little girl finding peace through a Christmas party in July (complete with guilt-ridden Dad dressing up as Santa Claus), or to have high melodrama about childhood trauma next to magic duels right out of Final Fantasy. Heaping lots of stuff that shouldn't belong together on is of course not an atypical anime technique, but most of the better shows doing this actually have a plan and a reason for it. Occult Academy is just random.

Of course, I would not have watched the whole show if its randomness weren't often pretty enjoyable. A lot of the show's jokes are actually quite funny in their innocent low-brow way (yeah, sorry to puritans, but the childish sex jokes are innocent too), which is a plus in something that's at least in part a comedy. Though the show's randomness usually means that scenes that should have emotional punch just reduce me to giggles, it also makes the show exciting in so far as you'll never guess what bizarre nonsense it will pull off next. From time to time, Minakami even has fun with slightly subverting the same clichés he's just been wallowing in for half a dozen episodes - for example, the horrible moe character is in truth an evil witch. Which is neither all that original nor very clever, but I'll take what I can get.

If you're planning on only watching one anime show this year, Occult Academy shouldn't be it at all, but if you're looking for an entertaining distraction with an identity crisis and copious amounts of very weird and very Japanese crap, this should fit your needs.

 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In short: Yakuza Deka (1970)

aka Gangster Cop

After leaving the police force with a very loud public noise, now ex-cop Hayata (Sonny Chiba!) hires on with a local yakuza group. While they certainly don't trust him, the yakuza still don't expect him to be the undercover cop out to destroy the largest provider of dirty money and drugs in Japan that he actually is. Of course, it is necessary for Hayata to prove his loyalty to the new cause, so his first real job as a yakuza is to assassinate the head of a conflicting group. Hayata only succeeds in his second attempt, and must escape assassination by mysterious forces among his yakuza friends himself afterwards, but is now still another step closer to his actual goal.

All the while, Hayata has found the sort of friendship where men give each other roses to shoot them out of the other's mouth while driving dune buggies with one of the yakuza, and charmed the drug-addicted lover of his new boss with his manliness. But will that be enough to save the cop when his employers find out what he truly wants?

In the big picture of 70s Toei productions starring the heroic Sonny Chiba, Yukio Noda's Yakuza Deka is nothing special. The film is as vaguely plotted as any film about an undercover cop I've ever seen, with a leisurely pace that sabotages any possible impression of tension, and with an added sprinkle of pretty unfunny comedy. For a film made by the director of Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs, this is also a peculiarly un-sleazy film, with nary a moment of sex, nudity or eroticism, unless having Sonny strutting his stuff in brilliantly ugly clothing counts as erotic, which it might very well do. There's a total lack of emotional urgency on display that even hits the scenes of characters dying in Chiba's arms; what should be dramatic (or at least trite and melodramatic) becomes the movie version of a slightly disinterested shrug.

Fortunately, this is still a Toei film from the 70s, so there are enough scenes in Yakuza Deka to make it worth watching. The copious action sequences start out kinda awesome (because they have Chiba in them, and therefore can't help but contain awesomeness), but soon enough turn ridiculously awesome - though Noda's bland direction does its best to sabotage that feeling - through their willingness to be as goofy as anyone could wish for. I didn't know you can do that with a helicopter! (Well, turns out you can't outside of a Chiba movie). Then there's the usual solid Toei funk soundtrack and some fashion choices so early 70s they just might make eyes bleed.

This collection of barely connected scenes never does add up the merry insanity of the Streetfighter movies, or a good, or even just a coherent film, but it sure is enough to make watching Yakuza Deka a perfectly entertaining time.

 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Devil's Mistress (1966)

The Old West. Four cowboys - the sadistic couple of madmen Charlie (Wes Moreland) and Joe (Douglas Warren), the young Frankie (Robert Gregory) and the experienced Will (Oren Williams) - have been run out of the last town they were in, and are now fleeing through the tribal highlands of the Apache.

Right in the middle of nowhere, the quartet comes upon a hut that is the home of a bearded, hollow-voiced man (Arthur Resley) and "his woman", the mute Liah (Joan Stapleton). The couple takes the strangers in without showing any signs of fear, but soon enough, Charlie and Joe - who had already fantasized about rape in an earlier scene - can hardly contain themselves anymore. A reason to point some guns at their hosts is found easily enough.

Instead of either partaking in the following, or trying to reign their mad friends in, Will and Frankie just ride away to meet up with them again later. Now completely free to play, the sadists kill the man, and rape Liah. Afterwards, they decide that it would be quite an idea to take the woman with them as their slave.

When the four cowboys meet up again to continue their journey, Will and Frankie aren't exactly happy with their flight turning into the Wandering Rapist Revue, but Will just glares and goes away for a while when things trouble him, and Frankie's just too chickenshit to do anything beyond complaining.

Not that Will and Frankie really need to do anything. After they have kidnapped Liah, a shadow hangs over the groups' travels. Someone seems to be following them, and spending close-up time with Liah leaves her kidnappers strangely helpless and exhausted. Soon enough, the first of them dies.

With Orville Wanzer's only film The Devil's Mistress, we are back again in the loving arms of US local film productions. The film was shot in New Mexico, and - not surprisingly - the regional landscape is one of the big advantages the film has over the more studio-bound of its brethren. Wanzer isn't a director for large, sweeping shots of his location (lack of money and experience usually prevent this sort of thing in this area of filmmaking), but he still makes some effective use of the bleakness and emptiness of a landscape that makes the intrusion of the strange into life all the more believable.

Wanzer belongs to the more technically proficient among the one-film directors of the locals. Shots are often actually composed, scenes are built from more than one shot (I know, that's what's usually called "filmmaking", but if there's one thing experience has taught me, then it's that what's usually called filmmaking and how low budget semi-professional films are made are often quite different things). Hell, some of these compositions are even pretty clever.

The acting's of the more expected type, wooden, not fully professional and less than inspired, though nothing too painful. Stapleton should probably be more charismatic, and more like a force of nature than an actual human being for what the film is trying to do with her, but her muteness and the shots of her just blankly staring into the distance or noiselessly whispering to a horse are appropriately moody.

Not surprisingly, The Devil's Mistress is a bit on the slow and ponderous side, with scenes often going on much longer than they should, and not much outward - or, for that matter, inward - action happening in it.

In the end, the lack of dramatic pull is not much of a problem for me. What makes the film fascinating is the feeling it evokes through and despite its slowness and its various other flaws. It's the feeling of watching a barely embellished folktale, the sort of legend I could imagine the film's characters telling each other around a campfire. Although this tale isn't told in the voice or with the technique of an experienced storyteller, it has an ambiguity and simplicity that can't be destroyed by a telling that isn't perfect; at least not for a listener willing to overlook the moments when the storyteller is getting a bit disoriented and needs a while to find his feet again.

 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: The first 11 minutes will absolutely shock you. The last 11 minutes will rivet you to your seat.

The Brothers Bloom (2008): I suspect there's only two ways people can go with this one - either they'll fall in love with Rian Johnson's highly stylized and playful film about lies and stories so good they can become the truth, or they'll call it pretentious and be annoyed by its obvious cleverness. Me, I'll never be found among those saying even a single bad word about a film that can pull off a karaoke version of the Band's "Sleeping".

Man of Vendetta (2010): The directorial debut of Woo Min-ho has most of the qualities I associate with South Korean thrillers: it's as slickly directed as any major Hollywood film, but much more willing to go into really nasty and unpleasant places without needing to wallow in the nastiness more than is necessary. It's acted excellently by a cast that knows the difference between "sparse" and "wooden". It has a script that doesn't feel the need to always add another twist if that twist would be to the detriment of mood and characters, yet still knows and uses all the tricks of its genre.

Still, while I can and do admire these achievements, Man of Vendetta never clicked with me emotionally. It might be that the film's keeping of its child-kidnapping and murdering psycho something of a cipher without backstory makes it difficult for me to be all that frightened of or shocked by him, or just that the "lone civilian fights psycho for his little daughter" format is quite played out, even if its realized this technically proficient. For whatever reason, my admiration never turned into actually caring, and a film that was supposed to have an emotional impact just didn't.

Cyborg Girl (2008): Speaking of movies that don't have the emotional impact their directors seem to want them to have easily leads to this Japanese science fiction comedy romance melodrama (no, really) with Haruka Ayase and Keisuke Koide, directed by South Korean Jae-young Kwak whom you might know from My Sassy Girl. Guy falls in love with a time-travelling android built by his own future self to safe himself from serious bodily harm and a major disaster that is pretty uncomfortable to watch this shortly after the Japanese earthquake. Hilarity, a bit of friendly violence (yay!) and cloying, overly drawn-out sentimentality ensues. And no, there's nothing at all creepy about the film's set-up, at least nothing Kwak (also responsible for the script) knows of. Though the two leads really do their best with what they are given, Cyborg Girl is just too overloaded to get the tears out of me that it wants its audience so badly to cry. I'm perfectly willing to be moved by a weirdly artificial tragedy, but the film's tendency to just wallow in it all the time feels cynical and manipulative where it's supposed to be sad and heart-warming. The here melodrama just feels terribly artificial in all the wrong ways.

 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Even the most squamous of tentacles

need a rest sometimes, so there'll be no new content on here for a few days. Normal service will resume on Friday.

You can still reach me on Twitter or via email, if you're so inclined.

Friday, May 6, 2011

On WTF: The Abominable Snowman (1957)

aka The Snow Creature

Before Hammer became the House of Horror we all know and love, the company had a much broader portfolio of genres. Case in point are films like this Nigel Kneale scripted SF/horror (with the emphasis on the SF) movie made shortly before Hammer's gothic phase truly began.

It's a fine film however you look at it, and - as always on a Friday - I'll explain in more detail what's going on with it on WTF-Film.

 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Three Shows Make A Post: Reincarnation or Madness?

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006): I'm probably the last person on Earth who expected to be charmed by the highly polished surface of this combination of high school comedy, SF, ironic wish fulfilment, ironic formalist experimentation and every Japanese pop cultural obsession ever, great love for it from every direction be damned, but I am as charmed by it as I'm impressed by the sheer amount of enthusiasm and cleverness on display here.

It's the sort of show obviously completely conscious of every problem with the pop culture it so loves, but instead of deconstructing it completely, it has decided to playfully embrace everything, the low-brow, the high-brow and the inexcusable, and let its audience's brains sort out the difference. Who am I to argue with love?

Witch Hunter Robin (2002): Young Italian witch hunter with pyrokinetic powers works as part of an organization that solves crimes committed by other people with supernatural abilities in contemporary Japan, until she begins to doubt the morality of her mission and the motives and goals of the people she's working for. That might sound somewhat awesome, but the show sabotages itself - at least for my tastes - with the slowest narrative tempo I've ever witnessed. It's not just the extremely slow development of the show's plot that's the problem here, it's the slowness of everything: most scenes run twice as long as they need to just because everybody is animated and voiced in near slow-motion, as if the whole cast were on valium. Supposedly, this is a technique to emphasize the basic melancholy and sadness of the whole affair, but snails aren't necessarily melancholic.

Iria - Zeiram the Animation (1994): This is an animated prequel to Keita Amemiya's loveable tokusatsu Zeiram, and - as prequels do - provides us with a retcon that doesn't fit what's happening in the movie (you'd think Iria would have mentioned that Zeiram is something of an archenemy of hers), and gives us an origin story nobody ever asked for (nope, I didn't want to know what Bob the Computer did before he became a computer, sorry). Nonetheless, the six-part OVA is a perfectly entertaining early 90s anime with all that entails - including (on the negative side) spiky-haired orphans and (on the very positive side) a heroine who neither suffers from amnesia, nor moe, nor a case of the whininess. I'd call that a win.

 

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wake Wood (2011)

After their little daughter Alice (Ella Connolly) was bitten to death by a dog, veterinarian Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and his wife, pharmacist Louise (Eva Birthistle), have moved to the small country town of Wake Wood to get over the loss a bit more easily.

Now, about a year after Alice's death, the couple has reached the stage in their grieving process experts call "clinical depression". Especially Louise still can't cope the loss at all, a problem that's not made smaller by the fact that she knows she won't be able to have any further children. But it turns out that Wake Wood is just the right (or maybe just the wrong, given the movie's genre) place the couple could have come to.

The town's inhabitants semi-secretly still follow certain pagan traditions they are willing to share with Louise and Patrick. With the right ritual, there's the possibility to bring back to life anyone who hasn't been dead for more than a year, at least for three days, which surely is better than nothing. The couple is desperate enough to go through the rather frightening ritual, and their daughter is reborn.

However, not everything is well; something's just not right with Alice apart from the fact that dead little girls shouldn't walk around.

As far as I know, some amount of money of the revived Hammer Films went into the production of Wake Wood, though I'm not sure in how far this is "A Hammer Production" in the sense that the re-animated studio had actual influence on the film, and not just a film Hammer bought to put their logo on the DVD after the fact.

It doesn't matter too much anyhow, because, unlike that unnecessary Let The Right One In remake and the horrible Beyond the Rave, Wake Wood is a film that has a lot more going for it than the once good name of Hammer. For one, the film has a more than decent script, that - apart from an ending that asks for more suspension of disbelief than I'm able to achieve and the fact that there wouldn't have been much of a plot if the local pagans had bothered to explain what can go wrong with their rituals under which circumstances a little better - is well constructed, features believable grown-up characters, and does the classical clever horror film trick of using the supernatural to explore some rather horrible emotional depths.

Director David Keating manages to tell a story that could have easily turned into bad melodrama in a dignified way that doesn't shy away from looking at the less picturesque truths about loss. Wake Wood doesn't look down when it comes to its characters' suffering, but it's not a film whose cruelty is gratuitous or without compassion.

I'm also quite enamoured with the pagan ritual at the core of the film's plot. The whole set-up, especially how the archaic and the modern come together in the way the townsfolk practice their religion, carries an air of authenticity. Here, I think, do the comparisons between Wake Wood and The Wicker Man I've seen made come in, but except for the believable religious set-up, both films have nothing much in common; there are completely different aesthetic and thematic interests at work in both films. Be that as it may, it's not difficult to believe that, if there were pagan necromantic rituals that actually do work, they'd look a lot like the one in Wake Wood.

I'm not as enamoured by the film's visual presentation. The cinematography is at times a bit bland, and Keating as a director does not seem to be too interested in the "visual" part of visual storytelling, and wastes some opportunities of enhancing the film's mood further through the landscape it takes place in. Obviously, the film's visibly low budget couldn't have helped there.

Nonetheless, I can heartily recommend Wake Wood. There isn't that much horror made with a grown-up audience in mind around right now, and the films strengths are winning out over its weaknesses quite nicely.

 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In short: Ada: Zombilerin Dügünü (2010)

A bunch of Turkish friends who all seem to hate one another with great passion, and never do anything but bicker and bitch, ferry over to an island to take part in a wedding. This being 2010 and all, the film does of course present everything through the lens of a hand-held digital camera supposedly used by one of the friends. Twenty minutes of bickering later, the wedding is attacked by zombies.

Lots of people die. There's more loud bitching and bickering, most of it out in the fresh, clear air, because that's how you act when the world ends. Will anyone make it to the government evacuation point on time, or will the audience's hopes to see every single one of these non-characters suffer and die be fulfilled?

Those of my peers who hated Romero's Diary of the Dead will probably not survive contact with this thing - or they might just learn to appreciate Romero's film a little more through the time-honoured powers of pure cinematic suffering.

The Internet tells me Ada is supposed to be a horror comedy, but I find that a bit hard to swallow, seeing how the film's neither funny nor horrific, but rather a film so generic that the idea it could actually evoke laughter or any other emotional expression in a viewer sounds completely preposterous to me. The only emotional exception is hatred for the characters: seldom - even in a genre so full of characters who need to shut up and get eviscerated as horror - have I seen a bunch of more annoying, hateful non-entities. Guess how much I cared about what happened to them?

I have to admit, though, that the characters are actually the least generic parts of the film. The plot is, oh, let's be honest here instead of polite: there is no plot other than random elements from other zombie films put in a row and executed without any personality or focus. Ada uses the POV horror format for nothing more than plot-related teleportation, and to excuse the shitty photography.

There is nothing of interest here, as long as there are hundreds of other zombie films, some good, some at least mediocre, many better than this one, vying for your attention.

 

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ölüme Son Adim (1983)

aka Last Step to Death

aka Turkish Mad Max (as usual, there's not much Mad Max about the film, except for the way Arkin dresses in its second half and a bit of borrowed soundtrack)

Ultra hardcore mercenary Kaan/Kagan/Kahan (Cüneyt Arkin; my ears, the subtitles and movie databases aren't exactly of one mind when it comes to his character name), the kind of guy who carries an astonishing amount of large knives on his body at all times, is hired by some guy in a suit with a nervous tic to rescue a Professor who has found the cure for leukaemia from some unnamed and unexplained heavily armed evildoers holding him somewhere out in the country. Tic guy is willing to pay Kahan 100 million - who knows in what currency - for his efforts, so there's no reason for the mercenary not to take the offer.

Kahan doesn't think that this is the kind of job even he could manage alone, though, so he grabs his best friend Ali (Yildirim Gencer) - a specialist in tactics and sexual harassment - and his female friend Leyla (Emel Tümer) - a specialist in wearing clothes so skimpy she'd look less nude if she were naked, and kicking people in the face - to assist him in the case.

After some training against mechanical dolls that use live ammo, the trio's off to rescue the Professor. Fifty or so dead goons later, the Professor is in our heroes' hands. Surprisingly, he also comes with a girl who might be his daughter or his girlfriend (the film ain't tellin'), which delights Ali's grabby hands to no end.

Now it should be just a simple thing for the friends to deliver the rescued man to their client. Of course, they find themselves betrayed and will have to kill even more people to get to the end of the movie.

As it is a cooperation between Turkish exploitation god Cüneyt Arkin (of the chiselled chin, the steely gaze, the monkey-like gritted action scene teeth and the wild arm-flailing) and his favourite director mad, mad Cetin Inanc, Ölüme Son Adim is of course a film as crazy as a fever dream. Everything I've written about any film directed by Inanc still holds true here: the film's pacing is as hectic as toddler on a sugar binge, the editing as choppy and devoid of transitions as it can be, and half of the scenes are shot from the most improbable angles, preferably from below. Whenever I see one of Inanc's films I suspect one of the man's ambitions must have been to become an avantgarde director of the type who wouldn't even shoot the simplest of scenes straight, and when his path led him to exploitation filmmaking, he didn't see any reason to not shoot his exploitation films as he would have his dream avantgarde projects. Another possible explanation is of course that Inanc just didn't really know what he was doing, but because both theories lead to the same conclusion - namely that Inanc's films are inexplicably weird - I will probably never know.

Anyway (to fall into the tone the film takes for eighty minutes for a moment), what can you expect from this cinematic wonder!? Scenes shot from below a table! Crotch cam! Way-too-close-ups of faces (of course shot from below and slightly to the side! Shouting! Loud punching! Loud kicking! Loud (and very large) throwing knives! A loud bow! Arkin Fu! A grenade launcher gun! Horrible jokes! Two guys - who don't have secret sexual thing going on between them at all, no siree - permanently telling each other they are the worst friends ever and sharing cigarettes! Machine gun nests built from footage that is "borrowed" from some different (and very yellow-tinted) movie! Highly concentrated leering at Emel Tümer's ass and thighs (looks like former softcore and hardcore porn man Inanc compensated for the ban on nudity in Turkey at this point in time by fixating as much on Tümer's lower body half as possible, like Jess Franco exploring every hair of Lina Romay's nether regions, just dressed)!

Now that I think about it, Ölüme Son Adim is a lot like a Pakistani exploitation film, only without the musical numbers, the pointed fingers, the thunder claps; It's just much more condensed. This only goes to show that people want pretty much the same thing from their cheap and exciting films the world over, even if the actual expression of these wants is a little different from country to country. Humanity truly is a great and wonderful thing.