Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Split (1968)

Career criminal McClain (Jim Brown) comes to Los Angeles looking for the opportunity for a big heist. His old acquaintance and money woman Gladys (Julie Harris) soon points him in the right direction. There's a lot of money flowing in a big football game, so if one could somehow skim off all of it, one could make half a million dollars with comparatively little effort.

Of course, this sort of job needs more than one participant, so McClain goes on the lookout for partners. Because he's apparently not a people person, he secretly tests his prospective partners' abilities before he makes them any offers, which doesn't exactly endear him to anyone. Still, once McClain has disclosed his plan and the potential loot to strongman Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), driver Kifka (Jack Klugman), racist electronics expert Gough (Warren Oates), and professional gunman Negli (Donald Sutherland), they're in. Once the heist is done, the money will be deposited with McClain's ex-wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) to be split up a few days later. Ellie of course still loves McClain so much he has no problem taking advantage of her in this way.

Yet even with the best of plans, a heist of this dimension isn't easy, and even if the team should get away with the money, they'll still have to cope with their mutual dislike, and a lot of trouble caused by Ellie's crazy neighbour (James Whitmore) and a corrupt cop (Gene Hackman).

Sometimes, all you really need to do is to point at a cast, the year a film was made in, and the writer of the book it is based on, to tell a film is worthy of a viewer's time. Of course, it's also a mixture that can promise more than it delivers, but that's not a problem I see with The Split.

The film was directed by Gordon Flemyng, whom I know best as the director of the two Doctor Who movies with Peter Cushing whose mere mention results in classic Who fans foaming at the mouth; which is a peculiar reaction to two perfectly entertaining films, but hey, what do I know. Much of Flemyng's work was for TV, and as is typical for TV directors of that era, there's really not much you can say about him based on his work there. Going by The Split, Flemyng as a director is more slick than stylish and more straightforward than flashy. This sort of direction seems ideal for a fast-paced and lean heist flick like this, particular one based on one of Donald E. Westlake's/Richard Stark's Parker novels. As always, The Split renames the character and makes him less sociopathic.

It is, in any case, very nice to see Parker portrayed by Jim Brown here, without any great gesture of "turning the character black". A ruthless bastard is after all a ruthless bastard quite independent of his skin colour. Brown's performance as Parker/McClain is quite fine, too, giving the deeply amoral character not-Parker is here a certain degree of allure without making him too sympathetic. The rest of the cast does the classic character actor job of turning their mostly rather one-dimensional characters into believable ciphers. Not that I have a problem with the characters being ciphers - this is a movie that thrives on leanness, and everything here standing in the way of its flow is radically pared down.

That technique works well for most of the time. Despite the leanness, most characters do not feel like the mere plot devices they are and rather like organic parts of the film's world. The big exception is Carroll's Ellie, whose only reason for existence is - in what alas isn't exactly a first for a supposed female lead - to look soulful into the camera and die to get the film's final acts running. A few more, or just some more convincing scenes, to build up her and McClain's relationship would have done wonders for an actual emotional effect, I think.

Still, if you ignore this flaw, The Split is an excellent example of the type of heist film that is just as interested in what comes after the heist than the heist itself.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

In short: Killing Them Softly (2012)

Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), a small-time criminal, has a plan for his even smaller-time acquaintance Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and Frankie's junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn): the two are supposed to raid an illegal gambling room belonging to the local mob. Usually, this sort of thing has lethal repercussions, but Squirrel has it all figured out. This particular game is held by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Markie had already hired people to raid one of his own games in the past, so, Squirrel thinks, he'll be the guy the mob will make responsible, leaving his friends and especially his planning hand untouched and unknown.

Not surprisingly, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), the fixer the mob calls in to mete out appropriate punishments, does not fall for that particular trick: Markie surely couldn't be that stupid. Not that it matters much. A business has to uphold appearances, so Markie has to die even though Jackie knows he's innocent. Frankie and Russell, on the other hand, could actually get away scot free if not for Russell's loose tongue. Clearly, things won't end too well for anybody except Jackie.

Andrew Dominik's adaptation of a George V. Higgins novel, on the other hand, is the good stuff, at least if you like your hardboiled crime movies laconic, grim, with an underlying sneer towards the American Dream yet also a sense of compassion. Not that this compassion saves even a single one of the characters here: Late capitalist America is not the kind of place where compassion plays an active role in anything anymore, no matter what the politicians on TV might say about ideals (and as we all know, ideals that aren't followed by actions are worse than no ideals at all).

It's really rather fascinating to see how alive the old tropes of this sort of thing can still feel in the hands of a director and writer who knows how to make them sing without having to use grand gestures or letting his cast do all-caps ACTING. It's not that kind of gangster movie, but one that concerns itself with the losers, the lost, and the people at the bottom of the criminal food chain, so all grandstanding would be completely out of place.

Instead, direction and performances go for nuance, a sad somewhat bitter humour, and dialogue that is intensely stylized to take on the appearance of naturalism. One could accuse Killing Them Softly of silently wallowing in the sordid. The lack of glamour, however, is rather the point of the whole affair, with characters whose lives don't so much fall apart - there hasn't been much whole about anyone's life here for a long time - but just end the same way they have always been.

Killing Them Softly is a fantastic piece of work, with a director and an ensemble cast (there are also James Gandolfini as depressed killer and Sam Shepard as mob councillor to mention) that completely disappears inside the material.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

In short: The Marseille Contract (1974)

aka The Destructors

Parisian bureau US drug agency chief Steve Ventura (Anthony Quinn) could feel happy with his cushy little position: Paris is great, there's not much going on there, and he's sleeping with the wife of one of his men on a regular basis. Alas, over in Marseille, drug kingpin Jacques Brizard (James Mason) basically does what he wants. He's so well protected politically, he's now managed to have the second US agent after him murdered, and nothing at all will happen to him. Said second agent just happened to be a friend and the guy with whose wife Ventura sleeps, which may explain why he's all the more insistent on getting to Brizard somehow, be it legally or extralegally.

A helpful French cop (Maurice Ronet) is able to provide a contact for the latter solution in form of professional killer John Deray (Michael Caine). Ventura decides that hiring hitmen is just the thing to do for a cop, and is quite surprised when he recognizes Deray as an old buddy of his.

Deray is quite willing to take care of Brizard, but takes it upon himself to michael-caine himself into the man's confidence, as well as sleep with his daughter, before he does the deed. The situation becomes more complicated when Ventura finds a more cop-like way to handle Brizard, and needs to get in contact with Deray to call him off.

Robert Parrish's The Marseille Contract is a rather curious effort. For half of its running time, it's a rather indifferent crime thriller, and only comes to life in its action sequences and whenever Michael Caine is on screen. It often feels like two different films that were only stitched together halfway through the production, with little care taken for tonal consistency or decent pacing.

The film's lame half suffers from various problems. There is a rather dubious performance by Quinn, for once eschewing his usual mugging and scenery-chewing for portraying a man who is supposed to be intense and at the end of his moral and mental tether as if he were an elderly guy who just really really needs a nap. I'm also not very fond of James Mason's French accent, though his usual pompous smugness works rather well for Brizard. And then there's the script, full of interesting possibilities it never decides to think through or do much with, resulting in a film that seems to go out of its way not to involve its audience.

Parrish's direction outside of the action scenes is perfunctory without being truly bad. In fact, the action scenes, particularly the car chases, are filmed so differently one can't help but think that one of the film's assistant directors must have been rather instrumental in letting them turn out so well.

Still, half an hour of good 70s action and Michael Caine in his prime are enough to make The Marseille Contract something worth watching once, at least if you can get over its wasted chances.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: The Screen Explodes With Wondrous Spectacle Bigger Than Anything You Have Ever Seen!!

Seven Blood-Stained Orchids aka Das Rätsel des Silbernen Halbmonds aka Sette Orchidee Macchiate Di Rosso (1972): Compared to the awe-inspiring insanity of Spasmo, Seven Orchids is a bit of a lame duck among Umberto Lenzi's giallos, a middling film that plods more or less competently through its plot without doing much that excites. It is (perhaps thanks to the fact it is a German co-production sold as an Edgar Wallace adaptation over here?) quite lacking in the four corner virtues of giallos - sleaze, style, violence and brain-melting insanity - with nary anyone getting undressed, hardly a shot that's particularly interesting to look at (Lenzi instead overuses zooms the way people always say Jess Franco does, even though Franco doesn't), murders that mostly feel harmless, and nothing particularly insane going on even in a few scenes taking place in an asylum.

Seven is not a horrible film - Antonio Sabato's horrid jackets and Riz Ortolani's score are worth the price of admission alone - it's just not particularly interesting.

The Great Impersonation (1935): Alan Crosland's (middle) adaptation of E. Phillips Oppenheim's thrice filmed novel is strictly part of Universal's low budget arm, making use of the studio's b-roll actors and sets built for some of the studio's more ambitious movies. Seen in this context, the film is a rather successful effort, its somewhat melodramatic plot flying by with enthusiastic pace. Despite this, I find myself somewhat disappointed by the film, for, treated with more visual creativity and a deeper script, its wedding of 30s espionage pot-boiler and Gothic romance could have been something rather more special than the competent little film The Great Impersonation turned out to be.

Temple of A Thousand Lights (1965): The last in our trio of mildly diverting movies is another Umberto Lenzi film. Richard Harrison plays a charming rogue without the charm by making his "I'm a mighty fine specimen of man, I am" face a lot, Malaysia plays India, and a lot of Italians wear brownface. The film's attempts at being light-hearted only emphasize how much of an asshole its hero is (his basic humour mode is "racist jerkwad"), and there's little happening I haven't seen in more exciting movies before. Again, this is not a horrible movie, just an excitation challenged one.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Der Rote Kreis (1960)

aka The Red Circle

The rich people of London and surroundings are plagued by a particularly violent blackmailer calling himself the Red Circle. If his targets don't pay or contact the police, the Red Circle murders them without remorse, leaving behind his symbol. By the beginning of the movie, the criminal mastermind has already killed nineteen times. Even the patience of Scotland Yard boss Sir Archibald (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) with the responsible detective, veteran Inspector Parr (Karl-Georg Saebisch), has worn rather thin, not to speak of the displeased public who can't help but use words like "incompetent" to describe the Inspector.

Sir Archibald thinks it best to improve the situation by consulting private detective Derrick Yale (Klausjürgen Wussow), a man whose smugness will turn out to be by far larger than the results he produces. Working in tandem, Parr and Yale still don't manage to protect anyone targeted by the Red Circle, but their investigations do at least lead them towards various suspects, which seems to be further than Parr managed on his own or with the help of subordinates like the rather peculiar Sergeant Haggett (the inevitable - not that I'm complaining - Eddi Arent).

Among these suspects are female thief and part-time secretary Thalia Drummond (Renate Ewert), young, Thalia-loving Jack Beardmore (Thomas Alder), shady investment lawyer Osborne (Ulrich Beiger), and so on, and so forth. This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, it's surely just a question of time until enough members of the herd of suspects have been pruned for the police to catch the Red Circle.

Der Rote Kreis is only the second film in Rialto's cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations, and much of the house style (if not quite the complete house cast) is already established, even though Jürgen Roland is quite a different type of director from Harald Reinl. For me as a German, Roland is usually quite an archetypal example of the peculiarity of German crime TV shows, a combination of blandness and conservatism that neither knows how to use realism inventively (they can't all be The Wire, but…), nor how to be stylish, nor how to entertain without wagging one's finger at one's audience.

Looking at Der Rote Kreis, it turns out Roland could have done much better under different circumstances (for example in a country whose TV landscape isn't quite as crap as the German one was and still is), for the film shows the director as someone who was visually inventive (though not quite as much as main Wallace krimi directors Reinl or Vohrer were), as well as perfectly able to throw as much pulp nonsense at his audience as possible without feeling the need to apologize for it.

Roland and his director of photography Heinz Pehlke do particularly fine work whenever scenes take place by night, with many a throwback to German Expressionism via the rain-wet streets of the urban gothic of US noir. At times, one could actually imagine Der Rote Kreis to have been made during the 40s (though certainly not in Germany - there's little here anyone would read as fascist), as part of some secret history of German pulp movies that never existed.

Of course, you have hardly imagined that particular mythical genre when you crash hard into Roland's weak spots, namely an inability to stage the film's more melodramatic scenes other than painfully stiffly and just horribly unconvincingly acted by thespians who really could do better (or at least less painfully bad), and the curiously inept humour. Not that Roland's efforts on the humour front are objectively worse than those of any of his international peers desperate to destroy their movies' tension through unfunny humour, but I do find Eddi Arent usually funny enough in these films, yet still could hardly bear his scenes here.

Plotwise, Der Rote Kreis manages to feel particularly convoluted (that's a compliment for Krimis, as it is for giallos, mind you), the sort of movie where one ill-timed loo visit will doom a viewer to never-ending, yet pleasant, confusion. The rest is Edgar Wallace by numbers, with all the character types you'd find in the later Rialto movies, with one exception: Renate Ewert's Thalia Drummond is quite different from the usual Wallace-heiresses typically played by Karin Dor. She is actually capable, clearly not prone to hysterics even in difficult situations, and possesses something close to an actual personality. I wish this kind of female role were more common in the Rialto movies, but then the written pulps weren't exactly full of Nita Van Sloans, either.

Be that as it may, Der Rote Kreis manages to be nearly as entertaining as Der Frosch mit der Maske, and did help to ring in the long and curious reign of Rialto's Wallace krimi cycle.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gordon's War (1973)

When Gordon Hudson (Paul Winfield) returns from the Vietnam War, he finds his wife dead of a drug overdose and his Harlem home overrun by its drug problem. After pushing around his wife's dealer, the delightfully named Big Pink (Nathan C. Heard), only leads to a group of Big Pink's business partners roughing up Gordon in turn, Gordon decides to solve Harlem's drug problem once and for all. He rounds up four of his old army buddies (played by Carl Lee, David Downing and Tony King) and declares war on the operations of Harlem's big player, Spanish Harry (Gilbert Lewis).

The group slowly work their way up through Harry's operation, harassing dealers and pimps and driving them out of town, disturbing the distribution of heroin. They're surprisingly successful too, so successful that not only Harry but also the examples of The Man he is working for, begin to get nervous and react.

Ossie Davis's Gordon's War is one of the more singular blaxploitation movies I've seen. One of the major differences between this and many other films of the genres is that Davis doesn't come to exploit black emancipation politics to make an action movie but attempts to exploit the action movie form to take a political stand dressed up as a revenge fantasy. It's no surprise coming from a man with Davis's background, and, if nothing else, makes for a nice change for the genre.

Of course, Gordon's War's message is a very simple one - drugs, brought in by white people with an interest in destroying any future hopes of African Americans, are destroying the black community and need to be mad to disappear, if need be with violence - and so easily enough fits into action movie structures. Consequently, the film doesn't play out very differently from other films of the vigilante genre, which is blessing and curse in one. On one hand, Davis doesn't walk into the trap of becoming preachy but on the other one, everything about Gordon's War seems just a bit thin. That impression isn't improved by the film's complete lack of characterisation: Gordon has a dead wife and is very dignified (he is played by the wonderful Paul Winfield, after all), Bee reads books, Roy has sex, and Otis has eyebrows. The film doesn't even bother to explain why his three friends are willingly helping Gordon in his dangerous crusade. Sure, we can theorize, but the film doesn't seem to care. In fact, the film doesn't seem at all to care about human emotions (even a major character death leaves only results in thirty seconds of emoting), character development, or motivations, so if one is looking for that sort of thing to - say - develop an emotional connection to a film, one is shit out of luck here.

In this regard, I also found it rather peculiar that we never actually see the film's drug dealers and pimps doing much drug dealing and pimping; it's rather difficult to share or even just understand the feelings of our vigilante heroes towards them when we only ever hear about their enemies' wicked ways but don't actually witness that much of them, except for their awe-inspiring taste in clothes. The damage they do is only shown in their absence - in a flophouse sequence and the sense of seeing a decaying community. I'm nearly tempted to suggest the film is actually about four Vietnam veterans randomly roughing up or killing people who they take for gangsters because they dress like gangsters, but that's not really what the film is about.

The film's strength - and this aspect of it can turn Gordon's War into a very gripping film if you can get yourself to care about a film that doesn't put any effort into making you care - lies in Davis's somewhat dry, detail-oriented direction that reaches for the documentarian. It's when the film shows us the flophouse, or just the daily life on the streets of Harlem when it actually comes to life, showing a care and emotional connection to Harlem as a place it never seems interested in building to its characters. His documentarian eye also stands Davis in good stead when it comes to staging action scenes, resulting in action that seems authentic and believable yet also tight and exciting enough.

As a whole, I'm just not sure what to make of Gordon's War, or rather, I have trouble understanding what Davis was thinking. Without a doubt, he knew enough about filmmaking to realize how little emotional heft his film packed, so I have to assume he left it out on purpose: as a Brechtian attempt at alienation? Out of loathing for emotionally manipulating his audience? To contrast his film against the melodramatic emotionality of other blaxploitation films? Damned if I know.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

In short: Night Life (1989)

Teenager Archie Melville (Scott Grimes) does not have the easiest of lives. He's a somewhat sarcastic nerd in a high school full of jocks and jockettes (that's the technical term) with a tendency for violence. Consequently, Archie's very bad at not provoking his enemies, because, unlike the kind of nerd with a survival instinct, he just doesn't know when to shut up. His only friend is female mechanic Charly (Cheryl Pollak in one of those weird "put some baggy clothes and motor oil on the prettiest girl in the movie and pretend she's much less attractive than the boring cheerleaders surrounding her until she dresses more traditionally womanly in a later scene" performances movies love for no discernible reason), but their obvious mutual crush is of course unspoken.

Because Archie's also piss-poor, his only chance at escaping from small town hell lies in working for his uncle (or "uncle"?) Verlin Flanders (John Astin), the owner of the local funeral parlour, in the hope that this particular specimen of cynical bastard will pay his college tuition. Of course, Flanders treats the situation as an opportunity to have his own teenage serf.

After playing a particularly nasty "practical joke" on Archie, his four main jock(ette) nemeses die in an off-screen car crash. Alas, the funeral parlour is hit by lightning during a storm before their bodies are interred, and we all know what the combination of dead people and electricity leads to: the undead! Turns out jocks are even nastier when they are the living dead, and Archie and Charly will have to use all of their brains to escape the night alive.

David Acomba's Night Life is one of those surprisingly decent movies I never expect to stumble upon when watching random horror films I've never heard of before.The film is not, of course, what I'd call a lost classic, but it's an example of more than competent low budget filmmaking of a kind I'd wish more people had the opportunity to see. As it stands, Night Life doesn't seem to have been re-issued during the DVD age at all, not even as a straight transfer from laser disc which really is a bit of a shame.

Anyway, Night Life starts out rather slowly, really taking its time introducing the audience to Archie's unhappy life, only getting to the actual horror content after about an hour. Undead teens and violence are more costly than black teenage comedy, after all. Unlike in many other movies of this kind, the hour before the shit hits the fan isn't - for the most part - a chore to get through. The broad black humour is funny more often than it is not, and the film's characters turn out to be slightly more interesting than absolutely necessary. In a film with this type of set-up, it's actually nice, even somewhat original, to have a nerd who isn't only the battered victim of circumstances and footballers but actually a bit of a smart-ass, as well as the owner of enough confidence to work a difficult job beside his school time.

This kind of thing goes a long way to help a film stand out among its peers, but it would of course not be enough if the final thirty minutes (aka the horror part) weren't any good. Fortunately, they are. Acomba demonstrates the ability to milk a clearly low budget for as much as it is worth, resulting in a handful of (Argento-blue) moody moments, a bit of gore, and some well-staged action. Night Life's climax is a truly satisfying one, capping an entertaining ninety minutes appropriately.

Friday, March 22, 2013

On Exploder Button: The Outfit (1973)

Can there be a nicer way to return from a short hiatus than with a fine, generally underrated crime movie like John Flynn's The Outfit, with Robert Duvall playing Donald E. Westlake's/Richard Stark's Parker in the olden times when movie Parker wasn't allowed to be called by his name?

I don't think so, so click on over to my column and be convinced to agree with me there.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

News from R'lyeh

Alas, the Great Race of Yith is pestering us again, so posting will only resume some time next week, after some shoggoth-based violence.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco (1972)

aka Naked Girl Killed In The Park

Despite its title and the fact that it actually does feature a naked dead girl in a park, said naked dead girl is only a minor aspect of the plot of Alfredo Brescia's giallo. The film takes place in Germany (I think). A rich man named Wallenberger is killed in the tunnel of horrors of an amusement park. For some reason, he has a large amount of money with him, which the murderer of course absconds with. Curiously, Wallenberger had just taken out a very large life insurance a few hours before his death.

The insurance company would very much love to find that one or all of Wallenberger's heirs - his wife Magda (Irina Demick) and his daughters Barbara (Patrizia Adiutori) and Kathrin (Pilar Velázquez) - had something to do with the murder, which would make them the most impatient killers imaginable, too. The company assigns its best investigator, Chris Bayer (Robert Hoffmann) to the case.

Chris is specialized in sexspionage, so his first order of business is to slime himself into Kathrin's bed and confidence. Something clearly is not right at all with the case: threatening phone calls disturb Kathrin (who has a the vapours-style heart disease), and a rather threatening man follows her every step; why, it's enough to make Chris rather protective of her.

At that point, Kathrin invites Chris to a very interesting weekend in the family home, where the rest of the family performs the usual rich people in a giallo freak show. Magda drinks too much and speaks with her dead husband, Barbara is a cynical bitch who sleeps with the hired help, and even the servants, particularly stable boy Günter (Howard Ross) are rather on the strange side. Of course, more strangeness and murders occur until the truth becomes clear.

We all (that is, me) know and love Alfredo Brescia for his wonderful, threadbare SF films about dysfunctional space captains fighting cardboard robots and progress, and/or having sex.

Despite dysfunctionality and sex being somewhat important in the genre, I did not expect Brescia's talents to map very well to a giallo, because the word I don't use when thinking about Brescia is "style", and a giallo without style is just a rather confusing mystery movie. However, provided with a bit more money than he had for his SF films (and isn't that actually ironic, given that SF theoretically needs the believable creation of a future world unlike the rather more modest modern one of the giallo?), Brescia actually does get a bit stylish. He isn't on the level of a Sergio Martino or Dario Argento, of course, but there's some creative misuse of zoom racks, mood-building blocking of people behind carefully framed objects, and at least one clever visual idea per scene. The result isn't completely dream-like but always slightly surreal and definitely as lurid as plot and genre demand, with some actually suspenseful moments like Kathrin's first near-encounter with her stalker, or the death of the maid, thrown in for good measure.

Finding visually arresting ways to tell overcomplicated melodramatically violent plots about the corrupt ways of rich pretty people (you don't get much prettier than Pilar Velázquez or Robert Hoffmann) is of course what most second row giallos are all about. Even though Brescia's film isn't much of a serious critique of social class or does much that's thematically interesting, it is very good at that basic function of a lesser giallo, and therefore a perfectly great time when one is in the mood for this sort of thing (as I always am). As an added bonus, Ragazza ends in a perfectly ridiculous triple climax which drags the plot from the barely believable into the realm of the wonderfully absurd until it becomes rather difficult not to congratulate the film for its sheer wrong-headedness, or Alfredo Brescia for just being Alfredo Brescia.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

In short: Command Performance (2009)

Seeing how much I enjoyed the Dolph Lundgren-directed The Mechanik, I was hoping to have as much fun with his Command Performance. The plot at least promises pleasant silliness: Dolph is an American rock drummer named Joe drumming for a (horrible, though the film doesn't seem to realize) Russian rock band. Joe and the guys are taking part in a big arena charity concert organized by the Russian President (Hristo Shopov) who may or may not misuse his position to give his two teenage daughters a good look at their favourite horrible pop star, Venus (Melissa Molinaro). There's also some nonsense about Venus leering at "cute" Dolph (a further inferred attribute of the big lug is "he's a very good drummer") whose band will be the new warm-up act in her coming tour, because you always open concerts of a manufactured pop star with bad "modern rock" bands. Anyhow, Dolph is totally hot.

Fortunately, the audience is saved from our hero's possible cradle robbing by the brutal attack of a band of terrorists led by Oleg Kazov (Dave Legeno). Oleg and his men massacre large part of the concert audience and take the President, his daughters, Venus and various other people hostage, supposedly to get a high ransom. What neither the soon arriving Russian authorities nor Kazov's men know is that he has rather more personal reasons to catch himself a president, and really no intention at all to let the man or his daughters live; don't ask me why he doesn't just kill them on sight, though.

But don't worry, Dolph is not only a drummer, he is also a former violent biker and suddenly it's Die Hard in a Rock Arena™.

Now, obviously Command Performance's set-up is plenty stupid enough to result in a highly entertaining movie. It's full of embarrassing little moments where other people tell us how awesome our writer/director/lead character is, frighteningly bad acting by Molinaro, and indifferent acting by everyone else; it even has a scene where Dolph stabs a bad guy to death with a guitar, after having stunned him first with a bit of shredding (he's a drummer, not a guitar player, obviously). The film's problem is that for most of its running time, it's standing directly between the consciously campy (a position that would have its own pitfalls, of course, see The Expendables) and a more serious action movie, yet isn't very good at being either.

For the camp variation, there's just too little nonsense like Dolph escaping a massacre because he's on the toilet smoking pot or stabbing guys with a guitar, while the more serious action movie suffers from the mediocrity of said action. The action isn't bad, but it's lacking a certain wow factor, or just the kind of tight pacing that could make the thousandth movie about Lundgren shooting and stabbing people in a set that may or may not be a warehouse exciting. The action, and the whole of Command Performance is just okay, yet okay never really is quite what I look for in a film.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

In short: Thor the Conqueror (1983)

Barbarian archer and bad guy Gnut (Raf Baldassarre) murders the father of the freshly born Thor. Shaman Etna (Luigi Mezzanotte) escapes with the baby and raises him like his own son. Or so he says, for curiously, grown-up Thor (Bruno Minniti) doesn't know what a woman is, will only feed his foster father with fish heads, only talks in sentence fragments, and talks of himself exclusively in the third person, pretty much like the Hulk. I don't think Etna's a very good father.

After Thor has killed his first man and slept with his first woman (helpful hints by dad: women are stupid, don't be too soft with them, women are meant to serve men), Etna sends him out to invent agriculture, take vengeance on Gnut, and become the greatest chieftain ever. On his way, Thor rapes an amazon (Maria Romano) who of course falls in love with him (the sound you now hear is me vomiting), and has various cheap adventures.

I honestly think Tonino Ricci's low-rent sword and sorcery movie was at one point in its existence meant to be something rather cool - an attempt to use the sword and sorcery genre to tell a kind of origin myth that explains where agriculture and horses came from and how the world works, the sort of tale one imagines some fantasy world barbarians would tell their children.

Alas, between that basic idea and its actual execution sits quite a gulf, or a wall made out of a non-existent budget, for Thor looks so impoverished even the Deathstalker films seem lavish in comparison. There are basically no sets, just one very European looking wood, a cave, and some fur tents. The soundtrack consists of ill-fitting orchestra library music that makes the movie feel even cheaper. Camera set-ups are primitive and somewhat boring, and what special effects there are, are unsurprisingly bad.

Its immense misogyny (the film actually seems to mean that crap about woman's subservience to man), and the outright assholish-ness of its hero were no help in improving my opinion of the film, yet still I found myself watching it with a degree of tolerance and slight amusement.

It was probably the wackiness of some of Thor's ideas that did the trick: Etna's tendency to follow Thor around in owl form to sprout unasked for exposition into the camera, the shaman's obvious relish in secretly watching his foster son having sex (though I suspect there's no need for secrecy and Thor would just grunt and say "Thor say watch" if asked), snake poison as the cure for blindness, the fact that the first horse was beamed into this world by Thor's god for our hero to frighten his enemies with. There's just a whole bunch of vaguely bemusing and highly amusing crap here that makes it difficult to condemn Thor completely, as much as I would like to.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In short: L'occhio dietro la parete (1977)

aka Eyes Behind The Wall

If you have seen enough movies of a genre that was a local and temporal phenomenon, you'll in the end reach a point where a large part of the films in it that are still new to you just aren't very good at all. Case in point is my relationship with the giallo, so it is like a minor gold find when I encounter a film in the genre I haven't seen before that isn't complete crap. Giuliano Petrelli's movie (the only writing and direction work by an actor) is such a film, and certainly worth watching for the more jaded giallo fan.

Sure, the film suffers a bit from typical 70s psychology (including some really unpleasant ideas about homosexuality) and the resulting character clichés it pretends to be deep characterization, there's dialogue that confuses pseudo-intellectualism for intelligence, and a dominant wish to underplay the script's most lurid elements as if Petrelli were a little ashamed of them and would in truth have preferred to make a more straightforward psychological thriller about voyeurism and bourgeois sexual desperation without wandering too deeply into the fields of melodramatic sexual perversion it can't quite keep away from. Or it might be Petrelli thought he was being subtle about the sexual melodrama of his plot instead of a bit prudish.

Be that as it may, the film still has things to recommend it: some solid acting by Olga Bisera, Fernando Rey (how often did that poor guy have to play an impotent man in a wheelchair in his career?) and John Phillip Law (who applies himself so much he even has a frontally nude muscle training sequence, so fans of nude John Phillip Law can very much rejoice), a script that from time to time manages to not just shy away from certain genre conventions but actually manages to surprise by subverting them a little, a Goblin-esque soundtrack by Giuseppe Caruso, and stark yet stylish visuals that make the film look more thoughtful and precise than it actually is.

At this point in my giallo-watching career, Eyes Behind the Wall is a minor discovery worth celebrating.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Package (2012)

Former special forces something or other Tommy Wick (Steve Austin) works as a thug and bouncer for moneylender and gangster Big Doug (Eric Keenleyside). Tommy doesn't enjoy his work much, but his brother - right now a convict - owes Big Doug so much money it's either Tommy working off his brother's debt or a dead brother.

Consequently, it's quite an exciting development for big meathead when Doug proposes a job that will wipe his brother's slate clean in one go. Tommy will just have to deliver a Kindle-sized package to a man only known as the German (Dolph "I'm from Sweden, damn it!" Lundgren) in Vancouver. Despite knowing the German from his black ops times, and not having parted ways from him on the best of terms, Tommy takes on the mission.

Of course, the small delivery job is more dangerous than Doug told our hero, so Tommy soon has his meaty fists full with various slightly freakish guys trying to kill him and steal the package. The way to Vancouver is long.

It'll come as no surprise to anyone even slightly acquainted with the field of contemporary direct-to-DVD action movies that second-billed and cover-sharing Dolph Lundgren is only playing a small-ish guest role in The Package, until the finale only popping in for a handful of scenes barely connected with the already quite episodically structured main plot. Fortunately, these few scenes are pretty great, at least if you like watching Lundgren (or a not always well-substituted stunt double) knifing guys, holding forth about vegetables to a guy who is bleeding to death or explaining the history of the martini to William B. "Cigarette Smoking Man" Davis. Seriously, what more could you want from Dolph Lundgren?

Surprisingly enough, director Jesse V. Johnson actually has even more to offer than just the opportunity of seeing Dolph do the same sort of thing his old colleague Jean-Claude Van Damme now earns his money with, just more bizarrely.

I'm not much of an admirer of Steve Austin. I don't like the meat-head type he embodies all that much, and - worse - I think he tends to dreg better action actors down when he's paired up with them with generally deeply mediocre performances in any and all non-wrestling based action scenes. It's also not very endearing that each and every one of his films has him sprouting some "patriotic" bullshit in at least one scene. So it's saying a lot that I not only enjoyed Austin's physical performance here, but actually sort of sympathized with his character, probably because the script does its best to make him vulnerable beyond "tough guy has a family". There's even a scene where our hero calls his boss and tries to just get out of the job like a real human being confronted with insane killers in his path would. It also helps that Johnson does actually know how to stage the scenes of people not killing one another quite effectively. Sure, the film won't ever win awards as a drama, but this is not one of those action movies where "dialogue scene" equals a reason to fast forward to the next shoot-out.

The action is frequent and entertaining, too. Johnson has a steady and straight-forward directing style that tends to put the emphasis on showing stunts instead of cutting to and fro so fast the audience can only assume there's some kind of stunt work or fighting going on, an old-fashioned and very satisfying way of filming the action.

The Package's secret weapon, and the main reason I truly enjoyed it, is its slight yet steady and utterly unrepentant weirdness. There's even a completely silly (and strange) idea making up the reason for Austin's travel towards Vancouver, though I'm not going to spoil that here. Yet even ignoring that very special element, and ignoring the perfectly strange scenes with Dolph, we learn a lot of remarkable stuff about the world and how it functions. Did you, for example, know that Steve Austin and his movie wife prefer to have sex to the lover's rock of Erik Satie?

There's a spirit of generosity running through The Package that is uncommon in the generally very stingy direct-to-DVD action genre. It's as if Johnson were some kind of action Santa Claus who just can't stop himself and not only pulls a decent number of good action scenes from his sack but then proceeds to add the weird humour and the technically accomplished filmmaking and a larger than usual number of locations and sets and some drama to try to ground everything. It might not be Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (what is?) but it sure is a fun film.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (1993)

After the inevitable nuclear war, evil AIs have imprisoned the survivors of now infertile humanity in the ruins of their cities to live out their lives as the last generation on Earth. There is a resistance movement, but the AIs keep those guys under control through nearly indestructible cyborgs which actually seem to be androids.

But there is still hope for the human race. A group of American scientists have managed to acquire the Last Fertile Woman on Earth™. Mary (Nicole Hansen), as she is of course called, or rather Mary's ovaries (looks like sperm still works fine?), have already produced one perfectly okay looking foetus the scientists prefer to keep alive ex vitro, because this is a science fiction movie and a foetus in a jar is awesome. They plan to transport Mary and her jar baby to Europe where the resistance seems to have been quite a bit more successful. The resistance group only needs to get Mary to the port of their city before the magical portable baby jar battery runs out or something.

As it goes in films like this, the AI gets wind of the project just minutes before Mary and her band of protectors are supposed to go on their way towards the port. The only killer cyborg we'll ever get to see (John Saint Ryan) slaughters everyone else while only Mary manages to escape.

Last Fertile Women On Earth are always pretty helpless when it comes to violence (note to self: if you ever have the responsibility for the LFWOE, find her a fighting teacher), so poor Mary won't stand a chance against the cyborg in the long run. Fortunately, she soon stumbles upon Austin (Joe Lara). Austin is one of those post-apocalyptic manly man heroes with the hair of 80s bedroom jazz sax players who hide their hearts of gold behind a grumpy demeanour, so of course he'll protect Mary from cyborgs and radioactive mutant cannibals (cannibal mutants?), fall in love with her, etc., and etc.

Wherever cheap US action movies go, American Cyborg's director Boaz Davidson goes too. The man has had - particular in his role as producer - his hands in so many films of the genre he sometimes seems omnipresent. Most of Davidson's directorial work falls rather early in his career, before he became the action man, but there are a handful of films that fall in the genre of his main body of producing work.

American Cyborg may very well be the best among Davidson's self-directed action movies, but then I would say that, seeing as the film contains a lot of things I find nearly irresistible. It takes place in one of those weird post-apocalyptic worlds where leather and latex must rain from the skies like manna, features a peculiar mixture of high and low tech, a lot of illogical ideas (so, the science of these people is good enough to produce drugs that make you absolutely immune against radioactivity as long as you take them, but can't solve the fertility problem, or hack an AI?), dialogue as melodramatic as it is stupid, scenes that are ripped off wholesale from Cameron's first Terminator, an evil AI that is so cost-conscious it sends a single cyborg-who-really-is-an-android (with the milky blood we know and love from the Alien films, of course) out, even when said android clearly doesn't cut it - the wonders go on and on.

Particular favourites of mine are the cyborg-androids' powers of lizard-like limb regeneration, cannibals who argue that the best way to appreciate babies is by eating them, and the never explained backstory that explains the nature of Austin (the spoiler's actually in the film title). It's all pretty wonderful if you like this sort of thing.

I also really appreciate how Lara's shitty acting (at least with melodramatic fighting faces that'd get him a thumbs up from Sonny Chiba) and Hansen's shitty acting come together to attempt to produce some kind of acting black hole where bantering can only be delivered with awkward pauses and romantic attraction is demonstrated by making Amrish Puri-like goggle eyes at one another.

Of course, all the cheese, leather and nonsense is only there to fill the space between action sequences. These are pretty good too, filmed with competence, and choreographed professionally, so there's nothing about American Cyborg: Steel Warrior I don't find entertaining.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: The only thing they don't the scream

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976): Sure, they can't all be as good as Blacula but when they're directed by the same William Crain who did Blacula, one would hope so. Alas, Crain's blaxploitation version of Stevenson's short novel is just a bit crap, with many a wasted opportunity in a script that sure would like to go interesting places but doesn't seem to know how to get there, actors that really could do better than be bland and uninvolving, and direction that seems disinterested in most of what's going on here. The effect is a kind of mild boredom - the worst thing that can happen with a film with a perfectly fine exploitation idea and people of actual talent involved.

Dead Rising (2010): I honestly don't understand some companies' multi-media strategies. Why bother to make a movie companion to your videogame at all when all you're willing to pay for are boring actors waddling or wheelchairing through warehouse sets to the tune of an indifferent script whose main claim to creativity is a flashback-heavy structure that does not fit the primitive plot at all? Capcom won't to tell, so all I got were 80 minutes of my time wasted on a zombie film so aggressively mediocre it won't take more than a day for me to completely forget I even watched it at all.

Firepower (1979): Oh hi, The 70s! What did you bring me today? James Coburn baring his (frightening) teeth, Sophia Loren's hot middle-aged woman act, O.J. Simpson and Jake LaMotta, Gato Barbieri working oh so hard on the soundtrack, and a convoluted plot full of sometimes gritty, sometimes just dumb action scenes? Directed by Michael Winner in his most hyperactive white light/white heat manner? I'll take it, though I certainly would enjoy the whole concoction more if it were less satisfied with racing through its plot and actually attempted to involve the viewer on any level at all.

Friday, March 1, 2013

On Exploder Button: Universal Van Damme: U.F.O. (2012)

Sometimes, it pays off to be patient with movies. Case in point is this low budget Van-Damme-cameo epic about an alien invasion that starts off incredibly annoying but later turns into a seriously entertaining bit of budget SF/horror/action cinema as our ancestors liked 'em.

I provide more details over at Exploder Button, where Van Damme will stare into your very soul!