Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Stars Are Right

Coming Wednesday, I'll be another (strange) aeon older. Which means I'll take a blogging holiday until next Sunday or so to have time to accept sacrifices, receive the other Old Ones, and take a break from sending out dreams of wholesome madness.

As always, I'll pop in on Twitter (@houseinrlyeh) from time to time, and may even answer emails.

Ravagers (1979)

The world has ended again, though it's not quite clear if in a bang or a whimper. Be it as it may, what's left of the world is rather brown and barren. Nothing grows anymore; men and animals have become barren too.

What's left of humanity largely falls into two camps - there are the "flockers", who hide away in remote places, seeking safety in numbers, and then there are the "ravagers", whose hobbies seem to be quite self-explaining.

Our hero of the day, Falk (Richard Harris, laying it on even thicker than usual with him, probably to make up for his character being a total non-entity without a past beyond the one we see being made at the beginning, and without any discernible character traits) does not belong to either of these groups. At the beginning of the movie, he leads a scavenging nomad life with his wife who dreams of better days and things beginning to grow again. They have been lulled into a sense of security by things going rather well for them, and practice some good old-fashioned domesticity. Alas, the couple's happiness is short-lived. A group of ravagers led by a very tenacious man without a name (Anthony James) discovers them, and rapes and kills Falk's wife, while Falk manages to escape.

Falk ferrets out the hiding place of the gang, kills one of their members and then goes a-wandering through the wastelands again. For some reason, the nomad gets a minor entourage, first in form of an old soldier (Art Carney) taking him for his commanding officer. Later, Faina (Ann Turkel), a young woman from one of the flocks gets rather keen on our hero. Falk doesn't exactly want to travel with others, but it's not as if he could stop them. While the trio has not exactly riveting post-apocalyptic adventures, the ravagers follow Falk for no good reason at all wherever he goes, this being the sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland where following people is easy.

Things finally come to a head when Falk and his friends come to a not quite utopian community led by Rann (a wasted Ernest Borgnine) and the more sympathetic Brown (an equally wasted Woody Strode).

See that word "finally" I used in the last sentence? That's Ravagers problem right here. While I don't expect every film - not even my post-apocalyptic adventure movies - to be a fast-paced and exciting from beginning to end, Richard Compton's film puts even my patience to the test with one of the most uneventful post-apocalyptic travelogues I've seen.

The lack of outer events would be less of a problem if the film had anything much to say, but thematically, this neither adds to nor subtracts from the expected of the end of the world. If the film has a thesis, it's "people need hope, and they'll even turn to the most boring man alive - Richard Harris's character - to project it onto". Which would possibly work out better for the movie if Falk ever did anything at all to make everyone else's fixation on him believable. It's possible he is meant as the empty page everyone can project his on ideas onto, but it's not as if the film would do anything to explore that besides looking po-faced and having dramatic music (the only actually dramatic thing on screen, I'm afraid). From time to time, Falk and the ravagers meet again, but Compton does his humanly best to film these run-ins in the least exciting or disturbing way possible; and of course, he never answers the question why the ravager leader is so damn obsessed with Falk, because his actions go far beyond vengeance for a dead gang member.

The film's not a total wash, though. The photography is moody, and does its best to milk some dilapidated buildings and many different shades of brown for the proper post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Even though there isn't anything of interest happening on screen, at least the film looks like a proper non-generic end of the world happened. The other aspect I found well thought out and well done is how differently the body language of many of the film's characters is - the new world after the end has made most people visibly afraid and insecure, remembering how living as animals must have been, and their bodies show it.

It's just unfortunate that there is no story, no thesis, no interesting character to make any use of these flashes of something better in Ravagers. Watching it is like waiting for the actual film to happen. Alas, it never starts.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

In short: The Rocketeer (1991)

This comic-based homage to serials, pulp and the late 30s (or rather, to the pop cultural ideal of what that time was all about), is about the only Disney film produced in the 90s I'm willing to watch repeatedly.

Our hero of the day is a slightly hapless but pure-hearted air race pilot named Cliff (Billy Campbell), who stumbles upon an experimental rocket-pack (that's a 1930's jetpack, bub), and decides to use it for a bit of peaceful monetary gain, but of course turns into a hero called the Rocketeer during the course of the movie. There are various factions looking for the rocket-pack - its inventor Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn) and his FBI goons, a group of Mafiosi lead by Paul Sorvino working for British Hollywood star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who of course harbours a dark secret, and the faction Sinclair is working for.

Soon enough, Cliff and his fatherly mechanic friend Peevy (Alan Arkin) are on the run from everyone, Cliff's girlfriend, the aspiring actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is kinda pissed at him and threatened by the romantic talents of Sinclair, the Nazis (you didn't expect them not to be in the movie, right?) are being nefarious, a zeppelin makes an appearance, and the course of history rests on Cliff's shoulders.

The Rocketeer is director Joe Johnston's training ground for the same sort of mood he'd later - after quite a few utterly dreadful movies - so successfully create in Captain America. I don't think it's quite as great a film as that later one - it gets a bit too nostalgic from time to time when it does things like cast Howard Hughes (even if he's as sympathetically played as here by O'Quinn, whom I'm certainly not going to tell what he can't do) as a combination of the real Hughes, a good mad scientist, and Father Christmas, is perhaps a bit too Saturday matinee harmless, and is not always as funny as it thinks it is.

On the other hand, more often than not, The Rocketeer's idealized pulp version of the world is just plain fun to watch, sending a semi-bumbling hero from one contrived situation into the next, with the mandatory daring escapes, threats to innocent people and kidnappings of girlfriends.The film also gives a very fine cast opportunities to chew scenery in various attractive and entertaining ways. Especially O'Quinn, Arkin, Dalton and Sorvino's teddybear-ish mafia boss are just great fun to watch, while Campbell is as bland as one expects of the hero in this sort of thin. And then there's Jennifer Connelly, who is not just being young Jennifer Connelly but also clearly having fun with a character that is neither as superficial, nor as incompetent, nor as helpless as pulp tradition and the expectations of her surroundings prescribe, and seems to revel in that, as do I.

It makes me quite nostalgic for the times when this film's co-writer Danny Bilson wasn't a suit in videogame companies, but working as excellent writer of films in a pulp mode, like this one, Trancers or the wonderful "Sergeant Rock and aliens versus Nazis" movie Zone Trooper.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

In short: The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Warning: it is utterly impossible to speak of Drew Goddard's and Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods without spoiling it at least a little, even if one is only coming to gush for a few hundred words in the vaguest of terms one can get away with, so if you want a completely undiluted experience, just go and watch it - it's definitely worth it.

And now to the gushing: imagine, if the Scream films had been made by someone who wasn't satisfied to stop at pointing out its genre's failures and then just repeat them without any actual change except for the pointing and laughing. Imagine a film that not only points out these failures, but actually uses them as the logical base of its plot, criticizing and deconstructing the mechanisms of large parts of the horror genre as seen on film, and giving voice to the unease the ritualization of a sometimes frightfully conservative genre can produce in a fan whose ethical convictions are anything but close to that conservatism. Now imagine the same film still being utterly in love with the horror genre, paying homage to other films in it with conviction and style, and being able to fuse this love and its critical spirit into a movie that also always works as a horror film (which also means that you can read the movie as one of the more depressing films you'll see this year).

You got that? Well, you might have just had a nerd religious experience, or you now have a mental picture of The Cabin in the Woods, only without the fact that the film is also funny as hell, subtle when you're not looking, has an obvious political subtext, and never looks down on its audience or its chosen genre even though it sees some of what's wrong with it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: You feel your Heart POUNDING, You know It's out there, You can't SCREAM, NOW IT'S AT YOUR THROAT

Le Serpent aka Night Flight From Moscow aka The Serpent (1973): Generally, this French film by Henri Verneuil with a very international cast is declared to be one of the better serious spy movies of its time, and I certainly can see the care that went into the construction of its plot, approve of the cast and so on and so forth. However, in practice, I find the film pretty much insufferable. It's ponderously in love with its own seriousness, and as self-important as the most pompous film one could imagine. I'm also not at all convinced its plot needed to be told in quite this slow manner, and be quite this concentrated on least important matters.

Time after Time (1979): Very much lacking in self-importance and pomposity, but not in intelligence and a great cast, Nicholas Meyer's generally delightful film about the fight of a time-travelling H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) against Jack the Ripper (David Warner) in 1979 San Francisco, may be the director's best film; in the very least, it's his most consistently entertaining one. Meyer spends much time and love on Wells's culture shock when he realizes the new time he's landed in is not the socialist utopia he was hoping for, but in some respects even worse than the time he came from (though, truth be told, when we compare the ages in more detail than a movie like this can or wants to, I'd rather stay in 1979) in its more humorous and its darker aspects. Surprisingly enough, the film also manages to make its plot-driving romance between Wells and bank teller Amy (Mary Steenburgen) kinda sweet in a not too contrived and not too unbelievable way, which is pretty helpful seeing that the film's basic pessimistic thesis is that life in any age sucks if not for love. And honestly, how could I not love a film that doesn't even attempt to hide this ideology behind its dapper time-travelling adventure?

The Burning (1981): When, oh when will you learn, America!? As horror movies have proven again and again, there's nothing more dangerous - well, except for your gun laws - than sending one's children to summer camp. If they're not indoctrinated by a cult or possessed by aliens there, they are sure as hell going to be killed by one of the large number of summer camp oriented slashers. Case in point is this documentary about a horde of poor summer camping teenagers (many of them actually played by teenagers, which gives some of the murders a rather more disturbing note than they deserve) falling ill of a garden scissor lover named Cropsy who is out to take revenge for his horrible summer camp accident related burn wounds.

The resulting film is of course a slasher very much by numbers, but in 1981, slashers by numbers still had a certain budget, and people with a degree of talent in front of and behind the camera, so it's decently realized, mildly exciting, and rather well shot, which makes The Burning an okay enough way to spend one's time. In "spot them before they were famous" news, say hallo to Jason Alexander with hair.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Without Warning (1980)

aka It Came Without Warning

There's trouble afoot in the rural area surrounding a lake somewhere in the USA. An alien (Kevin Peter Hall) uses the place as its hunting ground, killing people by throwing little living discs with the cutest teeth at them, and storing the corpses in a practical little shack. The fiend even gets Cameron Mitchell before the plot is getting going!

The situation escalates when a quartet of four teenagers arrives (oh look, it's a pre-sunglasses David Caruso in one of the meat roles, and he's wearing shorts in a most disturbing manner), and two of them manage to escape the alien into the loving arms of the local bar population. Because it's that sort of film, the closest the kids get to any actual help are great white hunter Joe Taylor (Jack Palance) and Vietnam vet and conspiracy theorist Fred "Sarge" Dobbs (Martin Landau). It's just too bad that Taylor is a bit too much into going mano-a-mano with his hunting brother from outer space and Sarge is so crazy he becomes convinced everyone around him - including the kids - is an alien invader in disguise.

Without Warning is a typical film by minor yet always interesting cult movie auteur Greydon Clark. I always have the impression Clark was at his best when he had the opportunity to direct comedies. At the very least, he seldom seemed very interested in the more straightforward elements of his films in other genres, and preferred to turn up the off-beat humour and the sideways weirdness in those of his movies that weren't actually supposed to be comedies.

The film at hand is no exception there, what with its numerous strange comical bits and detours into strange characters like Cameron Mitchell and his son who just can't seem to get onto the same page; I side with the son's scepticism towards using the phrase "hubba hubba" unironically - or at all - and hating books, I gotta say. That sort of thing distracts from what is supposedly the film's main thrust - you know, that thing about the alien hunter predating Predator? And yes, imaginary reader, I agree, there should be no copyright on ideas, and it's neither of the two movies who had the alien hunter idea initially anyhow.

However, most of the film's detours are so entertaining - or just plain befuddling enough - that I think it's quite impossible not to be entertained by Without Warning. After all, there are not only the strange characters (except for the teens, which are as lacking in character traits as the genre mandates, though I did like Tarah Nutter's somewhat awkward performance enough to root for her over the guy in the big headed alien suit, which surely counts for something) to fall in love with, there's also a scenery chewing competition between Jack Palance and Martin Landau. I think Landau wins that competition easily, but then a crazy Vietnam veteran conspiracy theorist is a more fruitful base for thespian overindulgence than an Ahab without a whale.

Despite Clark trying his best to distract the audience from the very basic man in a monster suit tale he and his four writers are telling, I even discovered some worthwhile moments in the more horror movie-like parts of Without Warning. Some of the sequences of the alien stalking its prey and of said prey running around in fear of it work quite well, mostly thanks to Dean Cundey's typically great photography that turns what could be rote and uninterested moody and tense.

The script also has its moments. A lot of it is just horribly silly stuff to give people a reason to run through the woods, but from time to time, like with the death of the next to last teenager, or the scene when Nutter's character suddenly comes down from an adrenaline high and remembers her dead best friend, there's a streak of self-assured grimness and a willingness to give non-characters moments of humanity on display that stands in hard contrast to the adorable mugging of Landau and Palance, and the off-beat humour.

While the alien suit is somewhat bland - and of course very unconvincing - the design and execution of the gooey little disc things we see much more often is quite great, clearly keeping with the tradition of all those lovely latex things out to suck your blood with tiny tentacle thingies and really dig in(to your heart) with the cutest little teeth. In other words, they're just as adorable as they are creepy.

It's … than one would expect might be Without Warning's catchphrase too, for it is also funnier, sillier, and grimmer than one would expect. Now, I'm not arguing this is one of the great ignored films of the cult cinema canon (a thing I'm not sure I even believe in, nor would want to exist), I'm just saying it's much more ambitious and interesting than it needed to be as a film about a guy in a monster suit chasing people through the woods.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

In short: War of the Dead (2011)

aka Stone's War

This Finnish/Lithuanian/American/Italian co-production about a Finnish/US commando troop in Finland after the Winter War trying to blow up a bunker but encountering zombie-like undead instead at least has a strained production history to excuse some of its numerous flaws, but understanding why director Marko Mäkilaakso's film is a rather drab affair does not make it any better, and the time spent with it any less boring.

It's a bit of a shame, too, for there are a few elements buried under a cornucopia of rote war movie clichés and some not exactly exciting zombie action that could have been exploited to produce a much more interesting tale. Especially the political situation the film is taking place in could have made for emotionally complex, probably even educational zombie cinema, but the exploration of Russian/Finnish relations is as drab and tepid as everything else on screen. That part of the movie is also probably not exactly easy to understand for the audience a film shot completely in English is going for; products of the US education system, at least, generally seem to have problems enough to accept that there were other nations taking part in World War II than the Germans, themselves, and the Japanese, so it might have been useful to ease them into the historical situation a little. But since the film also never attempts to give the part of its story where the last survivors of different nationalities have to work together against the zombies either any sort of twist or enough depth to make it actually worthwhile, making at least its historical dimension clear would have been too much to ask for.

War of the Dead is not made more exciting by characters that are written so emotionally distant it would be hard to even keep them apart if not for their faces. Not that they do much with those faces, mind you, for the acting is as lethargic as the characterization. I wouldn't speak of bad performances, but rather of non-performances.

And then there's the part that usually saves me from being bored by any given World War II zombie movie, the action: expect lots and lots of slow motion, some decent choreography, and a desperate feeling you have seen all this before in movies that either had some emotional depth (that is to say, any emotional depth at all) or were funny, or just knew how to be exciting instead of vaguely, dispiritingly competent. That, alas, is War of the Dead in a nutshell.

Friday, September 21, 2012

On WTF: Pirates Of The XXth Century (1979)

Original title: Piraty XX veka

Most people probably would not expect the highest grossing Soviet movie to have been a non-propagandistic action movie about heroic Soviet sailors fighting for their lives against pirates, but that's exactly what it was.

My column on WTF-Film explains how international the language of face-punching and shooting truly is.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

In short: The Avengers (2012)

Sometimes, it's easy being me. I'm not one of those cult movie fans always in desperate need to proof they're part of the cool kids (not unlike certain friends of art movies who would not be found dead ever being entertained by a movie, or smiling watching one), so I can allow myself to like those blockbuster concoctions that are good, or - as is the case here - pretty fucking great.

Given the overabundance of money director/writer/king of nerds Joss Whedon had to blow up (often quite literally,) it's not much of a surprise The Avengers' spectacle is fantastic to watch. Although even that part is not always a given if one keeps the body of work of Michael Bay in mind, who knows how to make big explosions and giant robots boring. Whedon, on the other hand, knows how to make the big and loud things big and loud and actually interesting.

Not surprisingly, he also understands that the big and loud things become inherently more interesting, more fun and more important to an audience if you anchor them in smaller and quieter moments that are in reality much more important, and therefore spends as much - if not more - time and effort on these.

As an old comic fan, Whedon also inherently gets what his characters are about (so no Bendis-style Captain America silently condoning torture, and no Kenneth Brannagh-Thor as a jock with a hammer), and uses this knowledge, a cast that can act their asses off if given the opportunity (and isn't by the way, Mark Ruffalo the best Bruce Banner you've seen, and Scarlett Johansson a much more convincing Black Widow than anyone could have expected?), and a script that manages to squeeze an insane amount of subtlety in to make what would in a lesser movie be just the connecting tissue between action scenes sing.

Other typical Whedon virtues are also in and accounted for - the quick and clever dialogue, the sudden reversals of genre tropes, and the ability to naturally shift from comedy to tragedy and back again in the course of two lines of dialogue. The real beauty of the film is how well this aspect of The Avengers connects with the more usual blockbuster virtues, as if having a heart and a brain and big explosions in a movie wasn't a big thing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In short: Night of the Demons 2 (1994)

Melissa aka Mouse (Merle Kennedy), the sister of Night of the Demons' Angela (Amelia Kinkade) has been an orphan ever since her supposedly dead, demon-possessed sister send her parents a Halloween card so unpleasant it drove them to suicide. While Angela haunts the Hull House where she died, killing off wandering evangelicals when she's lucky to have them, Melissa is living an unhappy life in a Catholic school for boys and girls (gasp), where she is the emotional punching bag of some of her peers, especially the extra-bitchy Shirley (Zoe Trilling).

On the day of the school's annual Halloween dance (can these people really be Catholic?) Shirley and some of her friends - among them the semi-good girl Bibi (Cristi Harris) - are grounded for a bit of youthful wrestling (cough) she attempted with one of the jockier members of the student body. Shirley, being the bad girl of the piece, has different plans than just staying at home while the rest of the school is having fun, so she and a couple of her punk friends from outside the school decide on a secret Halloween party right at Hull House. Because she is a really nasty piece of work, she involves her friends and Melissa in the party too.

Who'd have thought that's not a very good idea, and that there are soon demons at the nunnery?

I've never enjoyed the classic 80s cheese horror predecessor of this film as much as many of my horror-loving peers do, this belated sequel on the other hand I adore with the fiery passion a dozen cute kittens feel for a ball of yarn. Australian exploitation veteran and sometimes exploitation genius Brian Trenchard-Smith dials up the cheese factor even further, giving a boy all the nudity, the sex gone horribly wrong, the imaginative ickiness, the impractical boss monster and the demon killing nuns he could ask for. If a nun using a ruler for the LORD, holy water super soakers, possessed dancing to Morbid Angel, and lots of other bloody-minded silliness of this type don't sound like fun, I don't know what is. Despite a script that includes a bit too much back and forth for the characters between the school and Hull House, Trenchard-Smith still manages to give his film a pacy feel, probably because he does avoid the dull moments the film's rather long-winded structure could provoke. There is - in the best exploitation manner - always something bizarre, something bloody, or something naked on screen to distract the audience from too much running and driving around.

If I were of a mind to, I probably could build up Night of the Demons 2 as an especially conservative example of the horror film, what with its most competent hero being a frightfully conservative nun (played by Jennifer Rhodes), the liberal priest getting demonized, and healthy sexual behaviour treated as devil's work, but that would mean taking a film featuring scenes of head football, head basketball and a demonic lipstick (yes, it's that lipstick, fans of part one) who must have watched a bit too much Japanese tentacle porn more seriously than any sane person should.

I was way too distracted by giggling and grinning while watching Night of the Demons 2 to get into that particular state of mind.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In short: Pinocchio's Revenge (1996)

Going into Pinocchio's Revenge, I was expecting a rather limp rip-off of the Chucky films, but Kevin Tenney's film turned out to be a rather positive surprise.

The film concerns divorced public defender Jennifer Garrick (Rosalind Allen) who is convinced her already condemned to be murdered by the state supposed serial killer client Vincent Gotto (Lewis van Bergen) is innocent in the murder of his son and two other children, even though he himself says he's guilty, and only wants do die. Jennifer can't save her client, and unwittingly inherits some of his troubles.

Jennifer's pre-teen daughter Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith) is a bit of a problem child, having taken the divorce of her parents clearly pretty hard. She already has regular appointments with a - clearly horrible - psychiatrist to help her over anxieties and certain violent tendencies.

By ways that might be natural or quite the opposite, a large wooden puppet depicting Pinocchio Gotto made for his son and buried with his dead body makes its way into Jennifer's car and from there into Zoe's heart. As it goes with these things, Pinocchio seems to have quite a bad influence on Zoe. People who annoy the girl or get between her and her mother develop a tendency to suffer from accidents; Zoe doesn't just talk to the puppet but the puppet seems to answer her.

It takes some time before Jennifer realizes something really horrible is going on, and soon she can't be sure what is actually happening to her daughter - is Zoe "just" suffering from a mental illness that makes her dangerous to herself or others and has found the persona of Pinocchio as her catalyst, or is Pinocchio actually alive and murderous?

Exactly that is the point where Pinocchio's Revenge is more interesting than your average killer doll/evil seed movie, for the film keeps the actual explanation of what's going on ambiguous throughout. While the audience knows pretty soon that some screwy things are happening, it takes more than half of the movie until we actually see the puppet move by itself, and even longer until we hear it speak. Tenney frames even these later scenes in ways that always keep the possibility open and on the surface that we're only seeing what a mentally unstable character thinks she's seeing.

Earlier on, the film doesn't show Pinocchio moving in quite a creepy way. There might be wooden scraping when the camera's not looking, and the next shot sees the puppet staring with suggestive emptiness and a threatening pose at someone. For a long time, the film is more about what its audience suspects and expects than about what is actually going on in it.

Most surprising for a US movie made during the 90s, the film keeps to being ambiguous throughout, not even giving a clear answer about what happened when all is over and done with; there's a clear suggestion that something more than just a little girl cracking has happened - we did after all see Pinocchio attack Jennifer in the end, because the film may want to be ambiguous but it also wants to give its audience some sort of pay off - but Tenney (not a director I'd ever expected to be able of subtlety) manages to still keep a question mark hanging over everything. Even in US horror cinema of the 90s, it turns out, perceptions and mental health can be more complicated than they at first appear.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ragewar (1984)

aka The Dungeon Master

80s science geek (that means he wears glasses, but with a HUD) Paul (Jeffrey Byron) has invented what seems to be some sort of super computer - talks, understands, knows all - that just happens to look like a home computer circa 1984. Paul's love life isn't quite as great. While he's in a relationship with dancer Gwen (Leslie Wing), his attempt at proposing marriage only results in a "you love your computer more than me" lecture.

Because nobody actually cares about this stuff, a demon/black magician/Satan calling himself Mesteema (Richard Moll) teleports the couple into a low-visibility set with lots of open flames and foamy rocks, chains Gwen to one the latter and challenges Paul - or as Mesteema prefers to call him "Excalibrate" (not to be confused with "Exacerbate", "Excruciate" or "Exterminate") - to some fun and games. Otherwise, Messy'll do unspeakable things to Gwen, and seeing as part of his hobby throughout the film is to put her in one ridiculous outfit after the next, these things won't be pleasant.

With that starts a series of random vignettes - broken up with some ridiculous discussions between Paul and Messy - in which Paul is harassed by little people, fights a giant stop motion Indonesian idol, duels various unfrozen criminals in Messy's ice museum, fights heavy metal band W.A.S.P. and does a bit of mad maxing in an episode where Gwen also suddenly turns from damsel in distress into post-apocalyptic ass kicker. At least Messy is a fair opponent and provides our hero with a) a particularly ridiculous outfit and b) a bracer of shooting lasers and talking to one's computer +10.

All of these vignettes are written and directed by a horde of different people from Charles Band's Empire stable (hooray for pre-doll-fixation Charles Band), and it really shows - there's no characterisation, and no plot throughline to speak off. The writers couldn't even be bothered to get on the same page about what Paul's computer can and can't do, except for the laser shooting part, but since this is a film where everything shoots lasers, from stop motion statues to the guitars of W.A.S.P., that might just be coincidence too.

So, obviously, if you're looking for coherence, even the lightest characterisation or character development, suspense, thematic resonance or a script that does anything more than throw out random nonsense, this is not the film for you.

If, on the other hand, you want to see one of the most 80s of movies ever made in the 80s or beyond that still finds time to steal most of its "ideas" (those that aren't directly ripped off from the genres of the day - sword and sorcery, post-apocalyptic action and metal panic horror) from old episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone this is certainly the thing to see. There's horrifying fashion (making its bad guy some sort of demonic hobby fashion designer and even joking about it really pays off for the film), rubber mask zombies, rubber mask monsters, more cartoon laser beams than in a weird fu movie, that surprisingly awesome stop motion statue, a soundtrack that hits all the 80s film music spots from dumb semi-orchestral loudness in the credits to disco beats to synth funk to heavy metal, scenery chewing while being made up like a five year old's version of a bad magician by Richard Moll, sets so threadbare you want to give Band a dollar so he can double the budget, the list of beautiful things goes on and on. Plus, Paul says "I reject your reality and substitute my own".

While nothing of this is done particularly well (he said politely), I can't help but be delighted by the sheer mass of stuff that's in here, with no genre left behind, as if Band's merry band (sorry) were making a highlight reel from a TV show that never existed.

I'm also quite in awe of the childishness of the whole affair. The film feels exactly like the sort of thing my eight-year-old self could have made up to my own great satisfaction in '84, with nary a hint that the people who made this were actual grown-ups who should have known better. Of course, if Band had known better, he never would have built his own private cheapass movie empire out of cardboard, imagination, the blood of many a doll, and people with more talent and enthusiasm than sanity, leaving us without a whole lot of unwatchable crap about killer dolls, but also without some really great movies, and others - like Ragewar - that are not great in a way that I can't help but love.

 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

In short: Zombie 108 (2012)

aka Z108
(Warning: I may have to curse a bit during the course of this write-up, because this film is way too fucking horrible not to)

The good news: this is supposed to be Taiwan's first zombie movie. Good for you, Taiwan! It can only get better from here.

The bad news: Everything else, for Taiwan's first zombie movie just happens to be utter shite.

But let's begin with the film's plot, which would be easier if director and writer Joe Chie Jen-Hao had deigned to include one. As it stands, we're witness to another zombie outbreak, this time around caused by a scientist (the fiend!) "inventing a new gene". Zombie 108 takes place in one of the rougher districts of Taipei. Various gangsters and SWAT members run circles through it, fleeing zombies in an attempt to, um, you got me there. From time to time, their running around is intercut with the adventures of a guy wearing what I think is supposed to be a mask made of human skin like Leatherface, lovingly called Pervert (Joe Chie Jen-Hao himself - oh the irony!), who keeps a bunch of women who - like all the actresses in the movie - look as if they rose from the same model clone tank in his cellar for easy rape and torture access, or rather, so that the camera can leer at them in just about the only shots in the film that aren't filmed by a director of photography with the shakes. After a lot of running around and getting killed, the cops and robbers survivors land in Pervert's apartment. And that's supposed to be the plot.

Apart from that whole not actually having a plot angle, and being sleazy in a manner unpleasant yet not very interesting, Zombie 108 also recommends itself for the garbage heap by not including any characterisation to speak of. The film clearly prefers to spend its time showing off all of the most unpleasant stylistic tics of contemporary cinema (while leaving its strengths out, of course), so there's the usual desaturated look where all colours have been replaced with urine yellow and vomit green, editing and camerawork so nervous and hyperactive it's usually impossible to make out what's going on on screen - doubly so in action sequences, of course, because if the audience could see what the fuck is going on, there the production would actually have to put an effort into choreographing them, employ stuntmen or equally insane things like that -, "comedy" that's closer to a lobotomy than humour (oh look, Pervert uses zombies doing the Conan wheel bit in miniature to create electricity, hurr, hurr), and various mildly tasteless attempts to shock the audience by breaking so-called taboos that could work if the film ever bothered to actually create any emotional connection between what's happening on screen and its audience. Or if this didn't look like a second-grade Marilyn Manson video clip. That, again, would of course take an actual effort by the filmmakers beyond shaking the camera and shouting, and we surely can't have that.

In other words, this piece of shit is the worst fucking thing I've seen this year; yes, even worse than Nazis at the Centre of the Earth.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: A HORROR HORDE OF CRAWL-AND-CRUSH GIANTS CLAWING OUT OF THE EARTH FROM MILE-DEEP CATACOMBS!

The Hunger Games (2012): As someone who hasn't read the book (YA in general is not meant for me, what with me being older than time and liking writers who use complex language), I don't have an opinion on the quality of Gary Ross's film as an adaptation of it. But I do recognize a confidently clever piece of dystopian SF when I see it, appreciate a film that's tighter directed than it seems to be on first look (seldom has blockbuster Hollywood been less showy while using the untold millions in its budget for production design good), and respect how script and film transform everyday experiences of its main target audience into action and drama on screen without having to betray that element for the SF, nor the SF for that element. Add to that another great (and appropriately physical) performance by Jennifer Lawrence and you'll see me all aflutter about a film.

The Survivor (1981): The IMDB (not the most trustworthy of sources, of course) says there exists a twenty minutes longer version of David Hemmings's film, which - if true - may just be the version that makes good on all the film's promises, as made by the often moody direction and a very good cast including Robert Powell, Jenny Agutter, and a ridiculously unnecessary Joseph Cotten. Unfortunately, the version I've seen is just terribly undercooked with no characterization to speak of and a plot that seems too fragmentary for words; it really does feel as if all the connecting tissue of the story were missing, with characters appearing and disappearing from the plot at random, and no sense of progression. That sort of thing can work if a film is so weird the lack of normal narrative connectivity actually feels more fitting, but in The Survivor's case, it just leaves a hole where the film's core should be.

Paprika (2006): Generally, I'm not as excited about the body of work of anime director/writer Satoshi Kon as many of my peers are. The high aesthetic and technical standards of the man's films are of course out of the question. However, I've always felt uncomfortable with the way the Kon uses pop culture to express his loathing of popular culture, even more so with the cloying nostalgia for a stagnant past that seems to underlie most of his films, even if the result is as difficult to resist as anime giallo Perfect Blue. Basically, Kon put his incredible talent in service of a conservatism that makes it impossible for me to get too excited about his films. Ironically and sadly, Kon's final finished movie sees the director changing his tune. Here, the film's designated bad guy is sprouting exactly the sort of ideology usually underlying the director's films; here, the possibility of change and a humanism in Kon's earlier works have become core values. This change of mind is packed into a SF story in techno thriller mode about the manipulation of dreams, the mutability of identity and dream-images as striking as one could wish for, always hinting at a richness and depth the Kon is actually willing and able to provide.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In short: Bulldog Drummond At Bay (1937)

This version of Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (John Lodge) lives an especially quiet life in the country. His butler has been replaced by a housekeeper and a dog (it's the dog's turn to be stuffed into a cupboard by the bad guys), and no fiancé he can avoid to marry is around.

Of course, this being Drummond, his peace is disturbed soon enough, though not by the usual damsel in distress but by evildoers looking for inventor Caldwell (Richard Bird) whose experimental airplane technology they want to sell off to the highest bidder. Before you can say "Jolly good, old chap", Drummond insinuates himself into the affair, tussles with a female henchman (Dorothy Mackaill) who might have plans of her own, and learns that his enemies work under the guise of an organisation working for world peace. Clearly, a wish for peace can only hide madmen and blackguards, and just as clearly, Drummond will put a stop to their plans.

Yes, I'm still making my way through the Bulldog Drummond films. This'll be the last one for a while, though, or I'd have to rename this blog into "The Bulldog!?", which nobody wants. And yes, this is another Drummond film made in 1937 - though this time in the UK - with again a different actor playing Drummond, and again a title that has nothing at all to do with the film I was watching.

John Lodge is the least interesting Drummond I've encountered until now, for his version of the character completely lacks in the intensity, the romantic enthusiasm and the sense of humour film versions of the character usually have. As Lodge plays the character, he could be just about any British upperclass guy punching foreigners (this time with a certain indirect whiff of being Russian Jews that doesn't outright state their national and religious affiliations but does imply it, which of course is still much less unpleasant than the state of affairs in the actual books) in the face. The script could have renamed Drummond to John Smith and nobody would have been the wiser, really. Even Algy (Claud Allister) is only in the movie for a few short scenes. Not that I can honestly say I'm sad about that.

The film's best moments are whenever Lodge shares the screen with Mackaill. While the chemistry between the actors is not exactly intense, and Lodge does not exactly breathe excitement, the romantic quipping is more fun than the rest of the film's dialogue, and Mackaill seems a lot more lively than Lodge himself.

Consequently, there are ten minutes or so right at the end when her character becomes the film's hero for a while that turn what was an okay matinee piece before into something more fun. I suspect "Doris Thompson at Bay" would have been the more exciting movie. Of course, we can't have a mere woman winning the day (think of the cooties!), so Drummond takes the heroic role over again soon enough, dragging her off to end her adventurous job and marry him. Sometimes, one has to hate movies for being of their time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937)

Notorious evader of weddings Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (John Howard) is just about to go on his way to Switzerland with his fiancé Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell) in tow to marry there, when he stumbles into another wedding-postponing affair.

I don't know what the odds are that a suitcase containing a highly experimental and volatile explosive Drummond's old friend/foe Colonel/Inspector/Whatever Nielson (John Barrymore, in an act of cruelty first-billed despite not being the actual hero of the piece) is trying to keep out of the wrong hands will land directly in front of Drummond's feet, but it does.

Before our hero can do very much about it, the bad guys out to steal the explosive break into his home, drive his and his nit-wit buddy's Algy (Reginald Denny) respective better halves into wild screeching and fainting (there is - alas - a lot of fainting of women in the movie), and escape with the explosive again. This however, as lazy scripting will have it, is not at all the last our heroes see of the explosives nor the bad guys, for everyone will make their respective ways over the channel in the same train and on the same ferry. Drummond, Phyllis, Drummond's Butler Tennison (E.E. Clive), an Algy too easily distracted by villains to leave a train on time, and the exasperated Nielson soon play catch with the bad guys again, one of whom walks around in drag for reasons of being less conspicuous.

Louis King's Bulldog Drummond's Revenge is the first appearance of John Howard as the - in the movies - decidedly non-fascist adventurer Bulldog Drummond, a role he would go on to reprise many a time. In his first film, however, the actor is not as fun to watch as Colman or Ray Milland were in the role. Here - and I've seen Howard's other Drummond appearances in a past so distant I don't dare say anything about later films or I'd turn into one of these IMDB "reviewers" who talk about films they watched once thirty years ago pretending they still know what they're talking about - Howard's Drummond seems neither as silly and charming as Colman's, nor as mad as a hatter as Milland's, and lands at an uncomfortable place where he often just seems not quite as charming as he's supposed to be, as well as just a bit too serious for the film he's in.

How much of that impression is caused by the film's rather dubious script is anybody's guess. Now, I don't expect deep psychological insights or clever plotting from this sort of movie (this clearly was an actual B-movie in the true sense of the word, that is to say, a film meant as the shorter film of a double bill), but I do expect a film to not unnecessarily bank on happenstance to drive its plot further when it might more fruitfully let its protagonists actually do something smart or fun to get to the same point, as it is generally more entertaining when a film's heroes act instead of only ever reacting to things that happen for no good reason. I'm also not too enamoured with the way the film sets up its many "comic" episodes as scenes that seem completely disconnected from what's happening around them, especially since the humorous moments that are actually needed in the plot are the only ones that are in fact funny.

I had also to cope with a certain degree of disappointment when I realized that the film uses its female characters strictly to nag and faint and get threatened a bit, which stands in strange contrast to the other Drummond's I've seen where the women all were allowed some degree of independence (most of all Heather Angel in the Milland Drummond) despite being kidnap fodder and eye candy. I know, this was made in 1937, but Bulldog Drummond's Revenge isn't doing much else to distract me from its flaws, so I don't see why I should ignore them.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

International man of adventure Hugh "Bulldog" (not that anyone ever calls him that) Drummond (Ray Milland) has barely returned to his native England to morally support his half-wit - so he's fifty percent cleverer than in the Colman-Drummonds - friend Algy (Reginald Denny) who is just about to give birth to a child (or was that Algy's wife?), when he stumbles into another adventure.

To be more precise, he first stumbles over a pretty girl (Heather Angel who'd go on to reprise her role in later Drummond movies with John Howard) - later to be revealed as Bulldog's future long-suffering fiancé Phyllis Clavering - playing dead by the side of the road. Phyllis will proceed to steal Drummond's car while he is distracted by the obligatory dead body. Of course, as Drummond fastly surmises with his own, manic yet ironic romanticism, Phyllis is stealing cars for a good reason and is in fact in need of a knight in shining armour. Phyllis, Drummond and the audience will learn soon enough, is held against her will by the mandatory bearded villain (Porter Hall) out to steal her inheritance.

It'll take a series of kidnappings, re-kidnappings, run-ins with Drummond's suffering police acquaintance Inspector/Colonel/Commissioner Nielson (Guy Standing) and much sneaking about a mansion to improve her situation.

It's quite useless to attempt to build a continuity from the various Bulldog Drummond movies, made sometimes in the US and sometimes in the UK, though I do tend to pretend the John Howard movies are taking place in something of a chronological order. Well, at least we can say that the US movie Bulldog Drummond Escapes reveals how Drummond got his fiancé, and must therefore happen before any of the US Howard movies, even though it seems to have been made - the Internet's not much help when you're trying to find out which of the three or four Drummond movies made in 1937 came out first - after the first Howard appearance and just leave it at that. We can also be happy that this Drummond version again does not partake in its source's borderline fascism and racism; it's much too good-natured for that.

This is the only time Ray Milland took on the Drummond mantle, which really is a bit of a shame, for Milland is surprisingly (one doesn't exactly think "dapper charm" when one thinks of Milland, after all) great as the two-fisted frantic romantic. The actor clearly has fun with the character's manic edge, going through much of the film eyes a-glow and excited by ADVENTURE. That sort of excitement is quite infectious and helps the willing viewer get over the fact that much of the film's adventure for budgetary reasons really only consists of people running or sneaking through a mansion. That's perfectly alright, however, for the film - sprightly directed by John P. Hogan (hopefully not the SF writer, climate change denier and oh-so-heroic defender of Holocaust deniers) - manages to be a whole lot of fun, having a light touch with its genre clichés that says (you obviously must imagine an American pretending to be British here) "It's just a jolly bit of fun, old chap". Which is absolutely true.

In a surprising turn of events, Bulldog Drummond Escapes wins over the few sceptical parts of my heart that can't be convinced by things like "fun" and "humour" by featuring a female lead in Heather Angel who - besides actually having chemistry with Milland - is not completely useless. In fact, it's not at all difficult to imagine that Phyllis would come out alright even if Drummond were not there to help her out in his own, peculiar manner. I'd suggest remake-loving Hollywood to take a look at the Drummond franchise and turn it into a female-led series of adventure comedies, but then I fear they'd be even less inclined to do that than they were in 1937.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In short: Fear X (2003)

This is the movie that drove Nicolas Winding Refn's production company into bankruptcy in the director's first attempt to get a foothold in English language cinema without betraying his aesthetic interests.

And really, it's not much of a surprise Fear X flopped pretty hard, for where the film's basic plot description ("lost man played by John Turturro attempts to understand the murder of his wife by finding her murderer") suggests your run-of-the-mill vengeance thriller, the actual film is working hard to subvert the vengeance thriller with the power of the Weird and the metaphorical. Refn uses a rigorously composed visual style that hints at the surreal despite - or perhaps even because of - its rigidity. That style turns the quotidian into the unreal by the sheer power of hyperstylization, pretty clearly not caring one bit for mainstream interpretations of how "suspense" or "excitement" are built in a thriller. That doesn't mean that Fear X isn't suspenseful or exciting, for these seemingly lost elements reappear once a viewer has accepted the non-generic way the film is built, and just goes with it.

After a point (ironically shortly after the film pretends to become clearer and more "realistic"), it becomes utterly unclear what part of the film is a dream, or a hallucination, and what part "real" (as much as anything in a film ever can be real, of course); questions of truth and reality are, as they often seem to be in Refn's movies, completely dependent on one's interpretation.

To - depending on one's position on this sort of thing - either add insult to injury or cheese to your wine, Refn's film refuses the easy way out of an ending that explains anything at all. In fact, the ending Fear X delivers so steadfastly refuses to even show the audience an important part of what is or isn't happening (though there are enough hints to build one's own ending if one is so inclined) I can easily imagine a nice percentage of the film's audience actually hating the director for it. I for my part rather want to applaud him.

Friday, September 7, 2012

On WTF: Desyat Negrityat (1987)

aka Ten Little Indians

I'm not exactly Agatha Christie's biggest fan, but this, the only adaptation of the book you may also know as "And Then There Were None" that is faithful to the original, is still an excellent movie. At least, if you like your movies Soviet, bleak and grim.

My column on WTF-Film has all the details.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In short: The Raid: Redemption (2011)

Original title: Serbuan maut

Welshman in Indonesia's Gareth Evans's second (after the brilliant Merantau) Indonesian movie The Raid is one of those films that is easy to love but also exceedingly difficult to write about, for, like all the best action films, it really is a long series of first firefights, then stunts and extremely violent martial arts sequences, with only just the right amount of plot and characterisation to hold it all together, so not exactly a movie that invites analysis. And nothing even the best writer (which I am not) can do in a review can come close to the actual rush of just watching The Raid's actors move and hit and die.

On the plot level, this is cleverly basic stuff (instead of the idiotic basic plot style someone like Luc Besson prefers): a team of militarized police is assaulting a large apartment building to find and kill its owner, a gangster boss who manages the building as a free haven for other gangsters. Things go pear-shaped for the cops fast. At the point when half of them are already dying in a firefight with a horde of the building's tenants, the Sergeant of the team (Joe Taslim) learns that the superior who is with him on the raid has been lying to him, and the whole assault is not officially condoned at all; that means no reinforcements. Soon enough, there are only the sergeant, the bad superior, talented rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais), and some cannon fodder characters left, and they are separated in the fighting to boot. Further complications - among them Rama's discovery of the fact that his brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) is a right hand man of the main bad guy - ensue.

So yes, as a narrative, this is as bare-bones as it gets, but Evans (also responsible for the film's script, as well as its editing) knows exactly how to use the minimalist strokes of his plot to kickstart his characters into motion; and once they are in motion, they never really stop anymore. Or rather, when they stop it seems to be of mere exhaustion and therefore an absolute necessity. Exhaustion is actually a surprisingly important point in the film's action. Atypically for action cinema, Evans never seems to forget how much punishment his characters have actually taken during the course of the movie, and a part of the joy of The Raid is watching actors (with Merantau's returning Uwais as the clear star, and still able to fight at once elegant and brutal) perform ever escalating action sequences while looking progressively winded.

Another, even greater, part of said joy is experiencing Evans's sense of rhythm, the way editing, camera and actors work together to give the film a pulse that makes it closer to a long-form piece of music than a narrative. This is of course not atypical for martial arts cinema, but it's only done with as much consequence and perseverance as here in the very best examples of the genre, turning The Raid: Redemption into something special.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Three Thin Men Make A Post: Science created him. Now Chuck Norris must destroy him.

The Thin Man (1934): Of course, every fool knows that what makes the Thin Man movies such endurable classics isn't the mystery part of their formula (though there sure is a mystery, murder and crime) but the interplay between Myrna Loy and William Powell who were clearly born to play this sort of part in exactly this type of movie. Even 80 years later, it's still a joy to watch them playing one of the most matter of factly romantic couples, having what looks like the time of their lives, throwing each other one great line of dialogue after the next.

After The Thin Man (1936): The second time around, Nick and Nora's charms have a more difficult time in a film that sometimes seems to go out of its way to put stuff on screen that frankly isn't as interesting as its two core characters, needlessly prolonging a story that would work better if it always were as sharp and snappy as it becomes when its stars are actually on screen. Worst among the unnecessary additions are James Stewart (in what might be one of his worst performances) and Elissa Landi being "dramatic", and a "funny" subplot about the troubles of a dog marriage. The film also suffers a bit from the fact that our heroes' flirting needs to be quite a bit less risqué than before, for the good pre-code times are over, and even quipping alcoholics now have to be more responsible. Still, whenever Powell and Loy are together, the film regains the magic of the first part, there's just a lot of feet-dragging and filler surrounding them.

Another Thin Man (1939): The third film finds the series on surer footing again; while the puritanical streak of code filmmaking isn't going away - though the film skirts that line more than once - and there's a sad tendency to make the alcoholic partying couple of the first film more responsible, Another Thin Man knows much better what to do with the things it still is allowed to do. Returning director W.S. Van Dyke also finds an actual interest in the mystery plot this time around, actually connecting Nora and Nick with it in a way that doesn't leaves it as filler coming between the audience and the good stuff but an intrinsic part of the film that's worthwhile in its own right. I also found myself much less annoyed by Asta's dog shenanigans this time around; the mutt still feels like the smuggest show-off of a dog imaginable, but at least her scenes stay short and actually belong into the movie I was watching.