Friday, May 31, 2013

On Exploder Button: Akuma Ga Kitarite Fue O Fuku (1979)

aka Devil's Flute

I may or may not have mentioned here that I'm not much of an admirer of so-called "Golden Age" mysteries. I just don't care enough about puzzles, it seems. However, if you're like John Dickson Carr, or Japanese writer Seishi Yokomizo and dress up your puzzles in irresistible strangeness, I'm all yours.

So it doesn't come as a total surprise that this mixture of weird mystery and Japanese Gothic turns the Yokomizo-based Devil's Flute into a somewhat special film for me. Read more about my precious, precious feelings over at Exploder Button!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Doomsday Prophecy (2011)

Mysterious writer of authentically prophetic books Rupert Crane (Matthew Walker) mysteriously calls in proof-reader Eric Fox (A.J. Buckley) to personally fetch the manuscript for his first book in decades. Now, Eric has no connection to the man he knows of, and really finds the whole idea rather bizarre, but when his publishing boss calls, he has to go. And his publishing boss very much wants to keep Crane happy.

Independently, Crane also summons archaeologist Brook Calvin (Jewel Staite), for equally mysterious reasons to do with her expertise regarding Moai heads. Brook doesn't actually want to go, either, but when Crane informs her "New York is next", and the city is in fact hit by a highly destructive earthquake just shortly after the same happened at the Black Sea, curiosity wins out over scepticism. Note to self: earthquakes are generally a good way to convince people of your prophetic powers.

When Eric and - very shortly thereafter - Brook arrive, they find Crane dead. The old man has left a curious rod whose touch induces painful visions in Eric, as well as some camcorder messages. It seems the earthquakes are only just the beginning of the End of the World™, and only Eric and Brook can stop it. As if that wasn't enough pressure, the two have also inherited another of Crane's problems: the government is after the prophetic powers, and while lead agent Garcia (Bruce Ramsay) is really rather more interested in saving the world, too, his boss General Slate (Alan Dale) only wants the rod (to become the master of the post-apocalyptic world, it seems, which only goes to show what too many Italian Mad-Max-alikes will do to a man), and is willing to have everyone between him and his goal killed.

Until now, my look at the joys and horrors of SyFy original movies has concentrated on the Channel's monster movies, but there are of course also a number of more or less absurd disaster movies in its repertoire. In truth, Doomsday Prophecy isn't really so much a disaster movie as a woo-woo-based conspiracy thriller.

Realistically speaking, the End of the World™ isn't really in the budget for a SyFy movie, so director and co-writer Jason Bourque probably aims for a more achievable goal with this approach. It's not that the film doesn't feature any of the promised disasters at all: there a some short, cost-conscious yet pretty effective scenes of destruction (something I think even cheapest CGI effects are actually good at), but those scenes are there to motivate the conspiracy/chase plot, and do not stand at the movie's centre.

This does of course lead to the very low budget movie idea that a series of world-spanning catastrophes (caused by a dark star aligning with the solar system's equator, by the way - stop giggling) can best be solved by characters driving and walking through the countryside of British Columbia, but in a film world where there's a hidden global defence mechanism consisting of Moai heads situated somewhere in British Columbia, that's just logical.

How much enjoyment a given viewer will get out of Doomsday Prophecy will most certainly be based on her tolerance for that sort of bullshit when it is presented as a sub-X-Files conspiracy plot (at least the evil general is a right-winger), and some science so ropey the script could have used a bit more duct tape. I find myself quite at home in this sort of affair, smiling delightedly at the film's earnest presentation of the most hackneyed tropes (you bet there's a knowledgeable Native Canadian played by good old Gordon Tootoosis in his final film role helping our heroes out), and nodding with approval at the rather expert way Bourque manages to give his global catastrophe via British Columbia enough reach to feel mildly exciting.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Desert Heat (1999)

aka Inferno

Eddie Lomax (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a man with a vaguely specified violent past, comes to a miniature town in the desert close to what one must assume to be Area 51 and an Airforce bombing range, to ask his old buddy Johnny Six Toes (Danny Trejo) for his permission to commit suicide - and to give him a motorcycle; it's a manly man thing we wouldn't understand, one assumes. Anyway, before Eddie actually arrives in town, he has an alcohol and depression induced breakdown in the middle of the desert, randomly shooting his gun and talking to a hallucinatory version of Johnny. As you do.That scene is interrupted by the three brothers Hogan (David "Shark" Fralick, Silas Weir Mitchell and Jonathan Avildsen) who steal the bike and nearly kill Eddie.

Fortunately, a non-hallucinatory Johnny saves Eddie and mystically babbles him back to life. Turns out the Hogan's are members of one of two gangs of drug dealing evildoers plaguing the area. Eddie - in what must be some particular manly man logic - decides that killing them all might be a good way to get rid of his guilt towards his own past violence and get the motorcycle back, so off he strides playing Yojimbo light in a small town where everyone who isn't a bad guy is totally bonkers.

Most people who have a theory regarding this sort of thing at all seem to believe the time from about the turn of the century to JCVD to be the moment when Jean-Claude Van Damme hit rock bottom. Going by John G. Avildsen's Desert Heat, that's about half of the truth. Clearly, the film isn't what most people would call a good, coherent movie, but watching it, I found myself having fun for most of the time, which really is a perfectly fine reaction for a cheap action movie to achieve.

Desert Heat is one of those action movies whose handful of action sequences are perfectly decent, but that has a lot of time to fill between the amount of fighting it can afford, and sure as hell can't buy its way into an audience's heart by any depth in the script. Fortunately, what the movie lacks in broadness of action and depth of writing, it makes up for with various silly, often adorable attempts at humour (or sometimes "humour") that mostly work because everyone involved seems to be having fun just playing around in front of the camera. It sure helps that the cast is full of character actors like Trejo, Larry Drake, Vincent Schiavelli, and Pat Morita whose reaction to playing in something often very silly isn't to look bored and cash their cheques but to act just as silly as the material they have to work with. This approach sucks the tension out of the film's more seriously dramatic parts but it sure as hell keeps the rest of the movie highly entertaining. It's a lot like watching a bunch of old friends (and most of these actors are really familiar faces you've seen in basically everything) just hanging around, having fun.

Which, come to think of it, is pretty much not what you'd expect to experience when you decide to watch a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, of this era or any other, but JCVD is as game as everyone else on screen, so why shouldn't I be?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In short: The Driver (1978)

A nameless man, let's call him The Driver (Ryan O'Neal), works as a highly successful hired-gun escape car driver for various criminals, if he deigns those criminals to be professional enough for him. The Driver doesn't like guns much, or rather, the people he works for actually shooting their guns, he's big on punctuality, as well as his prospective partners not being fools that'll get him killed or caught. In exchange for reasonable manners and a rather exorbitant fee, the Driver provides his business partners with near-miraculous escape driving that is too controlled to be called crazy, and highly successful.

So successful that a police Detective (Bruce Dern) has become rather obsessed with Driver, whom he dubs "Cowboy", and is willing to use highly unorthodox - even for a policeman who conducts all of his business, even interrogations, in a bar and a security van - methods to catch his prey. The Detective is even willing to press a small-time robber (Joseph Walsh) and his small gang consisting of exactly the kind of people Driver doesn't like to work with into organizing a bank robbery with Driver as the prospective escape driver.

Things get complicated and violent soon for Driver.

Walter Hill directed The Driver, his second feature film, in the middle of that phase of his career - ending after 1985's Streets of Fire - when he could do no wrong, and every film he made came out as some kind of classic.

In The Driver's case, it's a crime movie that pares every element of its plot down to its archetypal form, with characters that are nameless representation of their functions with no actual backstory even suggested (Hill often seems to prefer archetypes to characters). In this context, a film like The Driver actually looks like the Platonic Ideal of an 80s movie despite being made at the tail end of the 70s. Here, the hyper-realism and conscious grittiness of the older era turns into cool stylisation and a filmic language so composed (highly fitting for a main character who is always in control of himself when he is behind the wheel of a car) even the film's most chaotic car chases never look chaotic.

There's a distance between Hill's camera - and with it the audience - and the things it depicts that could - and later on, in different films, did - kill a film through its sheer lack of emotionality but here, this distance is exactly the point, as it mirrors Driver's cold, possibly sociopathic (really, he's closer to Westlake's Stark than most of the characters in actual Stark adaptations are) distance that enables him to live the life he leads in the way he leads it. The audience does share in Driver's emotions, it's just that he doesn't have many.

Ryan O'Neal is quite a clever bit of stuntcasting for a role that turns his weaknesses, an aura of professionalism and emptiness and the inability to emote convincingly, into the central points of his performance. And say what you will against O'Neal, he does hold his void-like ground against Dern and Isabelle Adjani, both much more classically able actors.

Oh yeah, the night car chases under neon lights are pretty great, too.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Icy May (& SyFy vs The Mynd): Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon (2008)

We agents of M.O.S.S. defy your oppressive assumptions about seasons in the northern hemisphere. To prove you (yes you!) wrong, May will be all about ice, snow and everything cold for us. Everything is better in winter, after all. This time around, I take a look at yet another SyFy movie. To my defence: it was the closest Yeti movie I hadn't watched.

A US college football team is on its way to Japan for some sort of big college football match (don't say the script doesn't start on improbable sounding excuses early). Alas, a digital storm - those are really bad for digital planes, let me tell you - hits at a bad moment, and their plane crashes high in the Himalayas. You know, the part of the Himalayas that's too high for helicopters to work but that's full of pretty Canadian looking trees quite above the actual tree line. This, as we have already learned from a pre-credit sequence, is also the part of the Himalayas where Yetis live.

However, before our heroes - star quarterback Peyton (Marc Menard), training assistant or whatever Sarah (Carly Pope), mandatory jerk Ravin (Adam O'Byrne) and assorted hangers-on - will encounter the hairy menace, they'll have to cope with their own inadequacies as plane crash survivors, namely a total inability to keep fires of a decent size going even though their plane crash site is right next to a whole lot of trees, their crap hunting skills (only one rabbit dies during their stay; and they're actually hunting for the elusive Himalayan squirrel), and the fact that jerk face Ravin is already talking cannibalism when we're just halfway into the movie and before he has even eaten the chocolate he's hidden away; I blame Alive for the latter.

So, even without the irritable and always hungry Yetis, survival chances for what goes as "our heroes" are pretty slim.

On the positive side, there's a rescue operation under way. However, because there's just no room for minor actors when the principals are already bad enough, said operation consists of two people (Ona Grauer and Peter DeLuise) hiking through the area, which isn't exactly the sort of thing I'd hope for from my rescue operations.

So yeah, as you may have already surmised reading the above, Yeti is one of those SyFy movies where nobody bothered to apply even those parts of simple logic to the script that wouldn't have cost them a penny, a problem that hits the film particularly hard during its first half when our protagonists are mostly occupied with a not very clever child's idea of survival. It's one thing to have people act incompetent in dangerous situations - a football team isn't after all where you'd look for survival specialists - but it's quite another to pretend that they're making any kind of effort when clearly they don't. In this regard, it also isn't exactly helpful that the film - directed by the usually at least decent Paul Ziller - never manages to sell the dangerous circumstances the characters supposedly find themselves in as more dangerous than a camping trip in British Columbia. All this - and the not exactly great acting - makes it quite difficult to take the characters' plight in any way seriously, even when one is willing, as I generally am, to make certain allowances for low budget affairs like this. Discussions on the "don't eat my dead brother" level don't exactly help there.

Consequently, Yeti is at its best - or at least its most entertaining - whenever it doesn't attempt to be a low budget version of Alive and wallows in its other identity as a low budget Yeti movie, the sort of thing where a character uses a ripped off arm as a splint, Yetis (by the way mostly realized via suitmation that's just as problematic as the more SyFy-typical CGI) jump like rascally rabbits, and the best way to get rid of them is the old concrete shoe trick. That part of the movie is really rather entertaining, particularly since Ziller does know how to film silly monster action quite well.

Yeti is even willing to teach its audience something new about its titular monster, namely, that all a Yeti truly wants is to abduct a cute human girl to cuddle up to at night (Mrs Yeti seems okay with it). Also, Yetis snore.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

In short: Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)

Oh noes! Evil foreigners (J. Carrol Naish and Helen Freeman) kidnap Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond's (John Howard) perma-fiancée Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell) shortly before they can get married. It's as if the fiends were in on the series' long running gag regarding the matter. Then, the bad guys proceed to have Drummond, his mentally disabled sidekick Algy (Reginald Denny), and his long-suffering (and enjoying it) butler Tenny (E.E. Clive), jump through various hoops in form of particularly lame riddles that have them racing between the same handful of sets.

Only Drummond's old friend Colonel/Inspector Neilson (John Barrymore) isn't allowed to play, so he follows the rest of the cast around in various silly disguises.

It's been some time since I last took a look at one of the Bulldog Drummond movies. B.D. Comes Back surely isn't the film to suck me back in. Too little are director Louis King's efforts to hide that the script (by Edward T. Lowe Jr.) he is working from doesn't actually have a plot, nor anything much interesting happening in it, even for the generally cheap and simple world of Bulldog Drummond movies. Most of the other films of the series (regardless of who was playing Drummond in that particular week) are at least trying to use their limited options to entertain their audience.

It's not so much that the film's basic set-up is deeply stupid that's the problem here but rather that it doesn't even attempt to distract the audience from the fact all it ever does is have its characters run in circles, doing the same thing over and over again. The resulting effect is a film very close to what a lab rat in a particularly undemanding labyrinth must feel.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

SyFy vs. the Mynd: Jabberwock (2011)

In a curious medieval Europe (one supposes, at least the film mentions the Romans, so should take place on planet Earth; filming did of course take place in Bulgaria) full of American accents, where neither church nor liege lords seem to exist, but rather a lot of short swords are bandied about, a lightning storm - that all-purpose fiend - opens the remaining egg of one of the horrible flying creatures which once created the local wastelands. The Jabberwock, as the creature only still remembered via a children's rhyme (or - cough - what we know as a poem by Lewis Carroll), is called, follows an unlucky traveller (Raffaello Degruttola) to a peculiar local village whose inhabitants live from who knows what yet still have a weapon smith if no other visible means of subsistence.

The creature - as is creatures' wont - starts terrorizing the countryside, killing people and grabbing take-away virgins to eat. It will fall to Francis (Tahmoh Penikett), the smith I mentioned, his undeclared love interest Anabel (Kacey Barnfield), his dying father Reginald (Hugh Ross), and his warrior brother just returning from war Alec (Michael Worth) to find a way to get rid of the monster. Their plan will involve a dubious looking home-made armour and an oversized mouse trap, so surely nothing can go wrong.

Oh no, it's another SyFy production I liked. Despite its curiously weak worldbuilding (seriously, what do these people live off, and what are Anabel and the other villagers doing when they're not fighting a monster, and so on?), Steven R. Monroe's sword and sorcery without the sorcery movie is a really fine time.

Sure, it's not a deep film, and I sure as hell could have lived without the "Tamoh Penikett is finally growing up and learning to grow closer to his family (too bad they'll have to die for it)" subplot, but the film does at least handle its cliché characters development with a firm hand, and the actors work pretty well together, so that the character parts are never standing in the way of the medieval monster movie parts, are in fact motivating them in a not subtle yet useful manner. Plus, there's no annoying comic relief at all, the film taking its smith versus monster plot seriously.

Talking about the Jabberwock, the monster in question is a decent CGI creation with a pretty interesting looking head that is of course at its most convincing when it's alone on screen, and is the most troublesome when it's supposed to interact with the characters around it. There's an early scene with the creature sitting on the village's wall (by the way, wouldn't that kind of wall not make it a town?), and the villagers fighting it where perspective and reach seem particularly dubious, but for most of the time, Monroe shoots around the limitations of its creature well enough.

Working around the limitations of his material and his budget is really what Monroe does for most of the time here, turning out a low budget sword and sorcery CGI monster movie that gains quite an entertaining pull through its insistence on not taking lazy shortcuts when it doesn't need to, and telling an old story with enough conviction to make it feel lively again.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Some Observations Regarding Thief (1981)

Michael Mann's cinematic debut as a director is a long-time favourite of mine, so instead of a full-length write-up, I'll just give some random observations. I wouldn't review my mum either, after all (but if she's reading: 10/10, and Thief's about on her level, though my Mum isn't a clear co-inspiration for Refn's Drive).

One particularly interesting aspect of the movie is how it bridges two very different movie eras and approaches, the heated grittiness (in lack of a better description) of 70s crime cinema and the cool glossiness of the 80s. Both are represented to about the same degree here. Unlike with your typical bridge movie, this isn't a slow and unsure approach from an old style towards a new one but rather a courageous attempt to keep what's best of the old - as exemplified by James Caan's performance and the film's fascination with the way equipment and things actually work - and fuse it with the barely born new I find easiest observed in Tangerine Dream's synth rock soundtrack and the rhythm the film's editing takes on whenever it's not just putting the camera on Caan and his wonderful supporting cast and letting them work.

Mann's trust in Caan's ability to carry any scene - and his willingness to use this ability - is quite uncommon for a director like him who makes movies where every scene and shot seem particularly strictly composed. This type of director usually doesn't leave much space for his actors to actually breath (if you ask me, this was the main failing of Stanley Kubrick, which of course can come in handy when you need to squeeze a performance out of somebody like Tom Cruise). In Thief, Mann manages to have his cake and eat it, too.

The film has an open fascination with hands-on technology which it shares with a group of heist movies through the ages whose approach to practiced criminality always seemed decidedly working-class to me. In Thief's case, this fascination resonates with a growing realization of the decline of industrial and working class America. Fittingly, the relationship between Caan's Frank and Robert Prosky's syndicate man Leo mirrors that between a skilled worker and a more paternal boss. In the end, the paternal boss of course still owns you and will fuck you over when he finds it useful.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Icy May: The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

We agents of M.O.S.S. defy your oppressive assumptions about seasons in the northern hemisphere. To prove you (yes you!) wrong, May will be all about ice, snow and everything cold for us. Everything is better in winter, after all. Mary Shelley knew that, too.

Delightfully named scientist Jonathan Venkenheim (Kris Lemche) hires the documentary film crew around Vicky (Heather Stephens), an old school friend of his, to accompany him on an expedition to the Canadian Northwest Territories (channelled by Alaska, which is one of the unsung acting heroes of the age), where he plans to finally prove the truth of the great obsession of his life. The footage we watch is of course what the documentary crew shot.

Jonathan is convinced his great-grandfather was the template for Mary Shelley's Doctor Frankenstein, her novel a fictionalized account of true experiments which actually resulted in a creature that has been roaming the arctic circle ever since it finally killed its creator.
Jonathan even has some documentary proof for parts of his theory (like the original Walton letters as per the beginning of the novel, or a photograph of his great-granddad's laboratory), but his ideas are still too outrageous to be taken seriously. For no good reason, the film also puts the Illuminati (in their version of "invisible college of enlightened scientists") into the background of the story without any dramatic need or follow-through.

Jonathan is pretty sure he knows where the monster is now, and is convinced that people will finally believe him when he manages to get evidence of the creature on film. Unfortunately, he only tells his documentarian companions how he came to the conclusion when he, they, and local guide Carl are already in a yurt in the middle of nowhere. Jonathan, you see, has traced the monster via anomalous spikes in unsolved murders and unexplained disappearances in parts of the Arctic, so the project is rather more dangerous than particularly the team's soundman and cameraman (both whiners at the best of times) have assumed.
Jonathan's right on the money too, for something rather private, angry, and murderous stalks the area; something that really doesn't approve of visitors at all.

"From the creators of The Last Exorcism", threatens the cover, but in truth, neither director/writer Andrew Weiner nor co-writer Vlady Pildysh have their names in that particular train wreck's credits. It's a producer thing, so you can ignore it without getting hurt. I am, of course, awfully sorry if I've hurt the feelings of any producer of anything reading this. However, if you're one of the producers doing things like pretending to be the main creative force behind a successful film even though you're not, it's your own damn fault.

As a found footage movie, The Frankenstein Theory doesn't follow either of the two big schools of the sub-genre: there's no climactic run through the woods, most of the film takes place in daylight so it can show more of the awesome cold desolation it occurs in, and even the character bickering seems rather better placed and believable as usual.

Once you make a horror film which takes place in ice and snow, you are already halfway into my heart, so it's not that much of a surprise that I find Weiner's film rather impressive. There's something about the mixture of beauty and deadliness of snowy landscapes, and the echoes of the age of Arctic exploration (and its sense of futility) it carries that resonates with me on a very personal level. It's also not a landscape used very much in the found footage genre - probably because you either need to live in Alaska or have an actual budget to make use of it - and provides the film with an easy, yet deserved originality bonus.

Plus, there aren't really all that many found footage movies, or movies of any kind, that aren't just playing with elements of a novel but seem actually written by somebody who has read said novel. Frankenstein Theory's script does of course play fast and loose with the elements of Mary Shelley's novel it chooses - friends of the book will probably find turning the Creature into an actual monster problematic, though I think you can explain his rather unenlightened behaviour with a shitty personal past and the fact that it has lived as isolated from humanity as possible for a hundred-and-fifty years, which isn't the sort of thing that'll make somebody with anger management issues much friendlier, I suppose - but that's really rather what literary sources as canonical yet comparatively seldom read as Shelley's book are there for.

If I want to read Frankenstein as imagined by Mary Shelley, I grab her book, if I want to watch a movie cross-breeding elements of her book with the found footage genre in awe-inspiring landscapes, then The Frankenstein Theory seems to be the ticket.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In short: Welcome to the Jungle (2007)

Four horror movie meat idiots (as played by Sandy Gardiner, Veronica Sywak, Callard Harris and Nick Richey) decide to wander into the jungles of Papua New Guinea to find a decades lost millionaire's son on account of some vague rumours and dubious information. After forty-five painful minutes spent in their company, the local population of gene-pool cleansing natives take pity on the audience and kill them off. Hooray, the end.

To begin with the positive, unlike all other cannibal movies, Jonathan Hensleigh's POV horror variation on the theme does not include real (or simulated, for that matter) violence against animals, so kudos for that. Alas, that's all positive aspects of the movie right there. The rest is annoying and idiotic characters - two of them with the superpower to carry enough alcohol for weeks in their backpacks - bitching, bickering and shoving each other, doing things too stupid even for people under stress, and finally, finally, dying in ways that could be shocking if I'd give a crap about any of these twats. Of course, to achieve that sort of connection to the characters, the film shouldn't have gone out of its way to make them at best annoying, but mostly vile and too dumb to believe in them as human beings.

To make matters worse, the film takes way too much time coming to the interesting parts, and once it reached them, I couldn't help but see the film as some sort of lite version of Cannibal Holocaust that not only excises the really morally repugnant parts (like the animal violence) of that movie, but also leaves behind the original's ambiguity when it comes to the treatment of race (in Welcome, all brown people are bad, all white people too stupid to live), the rather complex meditations about the nature of civilization and barbarism (Welcome is a film proudly not containing a single thought), and the still shocking nature of the violence (Welcome just has a bit of gore). This leaves Welcome to the Jungle as the most curious of rip-offs - one that ignores all the good parts of what it is ripping off.

Friday, May 17, 2013

On Exploder Button: Icy May: Valkoinen Peura (1952)

aka The White Reindeer

We agents of M.O.S.S. defy your oppressive assumptions about seasons in the northern hemisphere. To prove you (yes you!) wrong, May will be all about ice, snow and everything cold for us. Everything is better in winter, after all. And what other climatic conditions could bring us a movie about a were-reindeer?

Valkoinen Peura not only happens to contain said reindeer but is also a very fine film in other particulars. If you want to know more, click on through to my write-up on ExB!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

In short: The Three Musketeers (1973) & The Four Musketeers (1974)

(I treat both films as one because there's really no good reason not to, seeing as they were filmed back to back and absolutely belong together).

It is always a dangerous proposition to visit one's childhood favourites again, particularly when those favourites are comedies like Richard Lester's version of Dumas's Three Musketeers. Once, most of us found farts inherently funny, and now - hopefully - we no longer do.

So it is a particular delight when one can watch movies like the ones at hand and come out with the feeling that one was a particularly clever gal or guy when one liked it, already of impeccable taste and with an eye for strangeness.

For strange Lester's film surely is: turning the romantic splendour of the previous versions of the story into a mixture of the comedic, the veracious, and the absurd with the help of "Flashman" writer George MacDonald Fraser does not sound the most - or even fourth-most - obvious way to go about another adaptation of Dumas's novels, but Lester and Fraser really pull it of. A large part of the films' charm is based on the way the often very broad humour and the greater than usual in a swashbuckler authenticity collide, showing off much of what is splendour in other versions of the tale as just as silly as the fashions and mores of our times will look a few hundred years on. The past, the films make clear, was another, quite muddy and rainy (even in undramatic moments), country where people lived and loved and dressed and acted like fools, and where France was overrun with people with - or at least pretending to have - various British accents who were totally unable to agree on a pronounciation of D'Artagnan.

The Three Musketeers could easily have drifted into the realm of deeply cynical deconstruction with this approach, but the film looks at its strange people and times with a look that is as much one of wide-eyed wonder and compassion as it is one of mockery, as if Lester and Fraser had begun with cool distance to their material but soon enough fallen in love with all its inner ironies, its unconscious naiveties, and its sense of adventure that transcends morals.

Add to this a cast of actors like Oliver Reed, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Faye Dunaway, Geraldine Chaplin, Christopher Lee, Michael York, Frank Finlay, Raquel Welch and Richard Chamberlain in a very good mood (well, Welch is absolutely dreadful and has zero comical timing, but that was to be expected), and Lester's hand for heroically ridiculous (or is it ridiculously heroic?) swashbuckling action, and you have a film I'm inordinately proud to already have loved as a little boy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Battledogs (2013)

Wildlife photographer Donna Voorhees (Ariana Richards), arrives at JFK Airport with a rather nasty wolf bite she got while romping through the wilderness. Because it is that sort of day for her, said bite transforms the poor woman into a werewolf who then proceeds to bite herself through the airport. This particular werewolf virus is highly effective (I suspect it's been crossed with a zombie virus of the "fast zombie" variety), turning everyone who isn't outright killed into another werewolf during the course of five minutes.

The authorities, in their sole show of competence in the whole of the movie, manage to sedate the infected en masse. This leaves them with more than a hundred dead bodies and two hundred and fifty people who turn into werewolves whenever their pulse rates get too high, much like hairier, more bloodthirsty versions of the Incredible Hulk.

The prospective wolfpeople are quarantined on an island outside of New York. While USAMRIID major Brian Hoffman (Craig Sheffer) and CDC doctor Ellen Gordon (Kate Vernon) - mind you, Gordon seem to be the only doctor concerned with the solving the situation - try their best to find the event's patient zero whom they hope will lead them to a cure, the commanding officer of the quarantine zone, General Christopher Monning (Dennis Haysbert), has darker plans.

Monning is the kind of guy who sees a bunch of uncontrollable, highly contagious monsters, and thinks to himself "super soldier", and soon proceeds with a series of idiotic experiments that will produce super soldiers as easily as sending a prayer towards Odin. And if Hoffman gets in his way, he has no moral compunction against solving the situation by dropping a werewolf on the Major from the skies. A man of subtlety, Hoffman is not. Clearly, it's the kind of situation that can only lead to a big werewolf outbreak, exactly the kind of situation the worst president ever (Bill Duke looking oh so very very bored) has only horrifically bad plans to resolve.

Finally, after all those zombie outbreak films, the creative people at the SyFy Channel have decided to use a lot of the tropes of that sub-genre - but with werewolves. It's an idea so logical I'm surprised it took this long until a film like Battledogs came along.

If you're willing to wade through the film's cornucopia of clichés, and plot holes (seriously, how are Monning's actions believable even if you think the military is rather evil, and how can we take two protagonists completely seriously who should already know who their patient zero is because she told them and are just too stupid to realize it?), you will come upon a pretty entertaining little movie.

It's particularly impressive how much value first-time director Alexander Yellen is able to squeeze out of his SyFy Channel budget. There are some excellent shots of the empty streets of New York, a surprising number of stunts and chase-scenes without much CG-help, and werewolves that are designed with a love for detail. Sure, the monsters still move all wrong (the bane of all SyFy effects work ever), but the design emphasises their humanity and gives them slightly cartoony, expressive faces, which comes in particularly handy when Hoffman tries his hand at being the werewolf whisperer.

Plus, this is a movie that sees an assassin werewolf dropping from the sky, Manhattan's bridges exploded by the President's idiotic plan, and soldiers and werewolves battling in central park. And those are just the parts of the film that aren't involved in being a chase thriller in which Monning's people and our heroes do various awesome/cheap chase movie things.

While there's a lot of stupidity in the film, Yellen counteracts that problem with so much verve and a palpable feeling of enthusiasm for the whole nonsensical affair I found it rather impossible to be charmed by it. Battledogs is one of those films that may have many, many dumb moments, but never dull ones; you can hardly ask for more from a film called Battledogs.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: How does it feel to be next?

3 A.M. 3D (2012): It's been a while since I enjoyed one of these Thai horror anthology movies where every tale is directed by a different director. In 3 A.M.'s case, I actually enjoyed only two thirds of the film, because the last story is a typical horror comedy bit, which is to say, it's neither funny nor horrifying. Star of the show is Kirati Nakintanon's middle story "The Corpse Bride", a charmingly macabre tale about necrophilia, misunderstandings and the vagaries of love that is creepy, beautifully shot and very, very strange, and so good I had already forgotten the absolutely serviceable cursed hair story the film begins with five minutes in.

Spiders 3D (2013): Too much mediocre conspiracy thriller, too little giant spider carnage. Sorry, Tibor.

The Last Stand (2013): It's a long and sad tradition for great directors from all parts of Asia to try their luck in Hollywood and don't really produce anything up to the standards they're capable of. The great Kim Ji-woon is, alas, no exception to the rule, and here delivers a Schwarzenegger vehicle best described with terms like "workmanlike" and "serviceable", the sort of thing any competent filmmaker could have delivered in exactly the same way. It doesn't help that Andrew Knauer's script goes through all the expected action movie clichés without a single interesting idea or a hint of charm.

The resulting movie is an okay Hollywood mainstream action concoction I will remember nothing about next week that wastes a hugely talented director.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Slams (1973)

Robbing a syndicate operation to the tune of one and a half million dollars must have sounded like a good idea at the time to Curtis Hook (Jim Brown), but a mutual double-cross between him and his partners leaves said partners dead and Hook wounded enough to get caught by the police.

Hook is able to hide the loot in the ruins of an amusement park before his arrest, and the cops can't put much beyond the carrying of a concealed weapon on him yet this still leaves him behind bars for one to five years. Worse still, the syndicate - and really, everyone else in his new prison home too, for the prison grapevine is strong - knows he stole from them and has put out a contract on his life.

The prison syndicate boss, a certain Capiello (Frank DeKova) isn't quite sure if he wants to see Hook dead by the hands of white supremacist Glover (Ted Cassidy), or if he'd rather get Hook to tell him where the money is hidden and kill him afterwards. Capiello and his allies aren't the only ones bothering Hook, either: the prison's major black gang leader Macey (Frenchia Guizon) would love to make nice with Hook, and he has difficulties taking "no" for an answer, while the chief of the prison guards (Roland Bob Harris) would really rather have Hook's loot for himself, even if that means putting pressure on Hook's newscaster girlfriend Iris (Judy Pace).

Hook is pretty good at surviving everybody's attentions, probably quite capable of surviving a full five years. When, however, plans are made to renovate the amusement park, breaking out becomes his only option if he wants to keep his hard-won gains.

The Slams' director Jonathan Kaplan may very well be the ultimate hired gun director. Middling major studio Hollywood thrillers, TV movies, TV shows and an Oscar-winning Jodie Foster joint are merrily dancing in his filmography. It's easy to forget Kaplan started his career as one hell of an exploitation filmmaker for the Cormans. How little seen a grand little movies like The Slams were before they hit Warner's overpriced DVD-R circuit surely didn't help the situation either. At least now, everybody interested have the opportunity to experience the short early phase of his career when Kaplan's movies showed something like an actual personality.

As is now much easier to witness, The Slams is a somewhat archetypal example of the prison movie, with all clichés you might ask for there and accounted for (though the genre-typical homophobia stops quite suddenly, and thankfully early, after half an hour or so), which is of course enough to confuse IMDB-type reviewers into calling a tight and at least partially clever script "weak". In truth, Kaplan's film not only hits the required genre beats, but uses them as the rhythmic base on which a taught, sometimes funny, never boring crime movie is built. It's the sort of script where every single element connects quite wonderfully with every other element with even seeming comic diversions - which are even funny, in their dry way - actually there to create veracity for the film's low budget prison movie world.

Plus, how weak can a prison movie script be whose protagonist class-consciously interprets the American love for identity politics as a form of gang warfare (or is it the other way round?), as just another way for "The Man" to keep the lower classes fighting each other instead of him? Of course, in a film that stands in the political tradition of most exploitation and blaxploitation movies, making this assessment only ever motivates our hero to take his money and run.

Kaplan does exceedingly fine work with what the script offers too, keeping the action sudden and - sometimes nearly shockingly so - brutal, never filming scenes too straightforwardly to have them become boring yet also never showing off too much with his abilities.

Brown is also in very fine form here, making Hook believably human and sympathetic even though his character really is not a very nice person. For my tastes, Brown's acting mix of good old charisma, small meaningful gestures and physicality fits a movie as straightforward as The Slams is at its core best.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

In short: Apartment 143 (2011)

Original title: Emergo

This English language Spanish production directed by Carles Torrens belongs to the established POV horror sub-genre most likely to result in interesting movies at the moment, the paranormal investigation film; or at least likely not to end with people running through the woods.

In this particular example of the sub-genre, a trio of intrepid and experienced science-based paranormal investigators (Michael O'Keefe, Fiona Glascott and Rick Gonzalez) come to the apartment of the White family. Ever since the family's mother died in a car accident, father Alan (Kai Lennox), teenage daughter Caitlin (Gia Mantegna) and little boy Benny (Damian Roman), have been plagued by paranormal phenomena running the gamut from pounding and other strange noises, to curious telephone terror, to outright shaking walls. Strangely, even moving from their former house into a cheap apartment hasn't stopped what's going on for long, so Alan must have decided putting up three strangers and their load of equipment, which of course includes a bunch of cameras, in his home for a week is some kind of last chance before something truly horrible happens.

The arrival of the investigators seems to provoke whatever is spooking around the family to heightened activity, and it will take them quite some effort as well as the disclosure of their hosts' family secrets until they can banish whatever is spooking around, until one of those despicable last shot "shock twists" turns the until then rather carefully, if obvious, plot into sheer nonsense.

Fortunately, a badly imagined - or rather not imagined at all but unthinkingly following the most boring of all horror movie conventions - final five seconds really aren't enough to ruin a perfectly decent movie, they're just ending what is until then a conventional and conservative yet quite satisfying film on a needlessly sour note.

Before that, Apartment 143 is a pleasant little spook movie more in the tradition of Paranormal Activity than in that of Blair Witch Project, just without the former's tendency to confuse letting its audience spend forty boring minutes with boring characters doing boring things with dramatic build-up. Turns out you can have the first paranormal activity in your movie after five minutes and still find time to set up characters and relationships while escalating and intensifying what's going on.

The film also does a good job of concentrating on its small, decent, cast and its single location (okay, there is one scene taking place in a subway and two outside or in a car), using the basic claustrophobia of cheap housing to heighten the feeling of supernatural threat; there really is not much room to run away to here. There's not much more to Apartment 143, but in a film that so clearly knows what it is and what it sets out to do, this sort of self-restraint is rather a virtue.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Goodbye Ray Harryhausen

When the news of what for many of us was clearly more than just the master of stop motion animation broke, the reaction on the Internet and particularly on Twitter once again made clear how important Harryhausen and his work were for so many people. Not just the expected movie guys, but comics artists, writers and musicians shared their love for the man's work, driving again home that those of us interested in the worlds of imagination live in a house Ray helped build, a place of the imagination that connects many people in all their differences.

For me, as for many of us geeks, nerds and mutants, Harryhausen was a creator of childhood memories right next to the smile of my parents, the first book I read hidden under the covers of my bed, and that perfect moment of awe when I discovered Lovecraft for the first time. Harryhausen's films (and they were so often clearly his films), particularly the mythologicals, added a sense of wonder not just to the screen but to life which for me never had much to do with "escapism" but helped me realize that, however much crap life throws at you, there's also imagination, and love, and kindness; call it teaching me truth, call it optimism. For that, thank you Ray.


(If you want to read the handful of pieces about movies with Harryhausen's involvement I did on here, please follow this useful link. Unfortunately, they don't concern my very favourite part of Harryhausen's body of work, the mythologicals, for I've still not figured out how to write about movies this close to my heart.)


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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

SyFy vs. the Mynd: Wyvern (2009)

The loveable eccentric inhabitants of a small town in Alaska are at the height of said eccentricity after a full dose of the old midnight sun. Alas, their being kind of crazy doesn't safe them when melting ice frees a wyvern from its monstrous sleep. As you know, global warming is responsible for nearly as many monster attacks as the mad science of the military-industrial complex.

The wyvern is a curious beast. It's not just mindlessly sweeping down from the skies to nibble people's heads off, it does have enough brains to cut off the only road out of town, and even lays simple traps. Might be hillbilly philosopher Hoss (Northern Exposure's Barry Corbin who is also joined by Elaine Miles from the same show) is right, and this wyvern really is a mythological creature rather than just a hungry animal. Be that as it may, the townsfolk - particularly former ice road trucker with an ice road trucking accident based trauma Jake (Nick Chinlund), café owner/waitress Claire (Erin Karpluk), DJ Hampton (Tinsel Korey) and retired military Colonel Travis (Don S. Davis, who, I'm sorry to say, will always be Scully's dad to me) - will have to use all their working class abilities (it's, to get parenthetical here, quite interesting to note how often the heroes of SyFy Channel movies belong to the working class, by the way; even SyFy scientists usually feel curiously working class, at least the sane ones) to defend themselves against the creature.

One thing my half-way insane consumption of SyFy Channel movies in the last few weeks has brought back into perspective for me again is how little a film being formulaic or not has to do with the enjoyment I can get out of it (or not). A good director of films like these - as Wyvern's Steven R. Monroe definitely is - will make even the most formulaic of monster movie rituals interesting or fun, and a good script - as Jason Bourque's script for Wyvern surely is - will include enough that is different from the formula next to the trope check marks. It is a game of small changes and minor twists to be sure, yet these small things are what makes the difference between boredom and fun. Wyvern stays on the fun side of formula throughout, keeping the balance between cheesiness, the expected, and the not quite expected just right. It also helps that its high concept seems to have been "Northern Exposure with a giant monster", and everything gets better when you put a giant monster in (they are a lot like snow in that way).

Actually keeping in the tradition of Northern Exposure, Wyvern manages to turn its cliché characters loveable and charming, making them much more interesting - and sadder monster victims - than the more usual bunch of asshats. Half of that effect is thanks to Bourque's script that knows when to be funny - yes, the film is actually funny when it wants to be - as well as it knows how to sell a silly backstory like Jake's ice road trucking accident (that of course killed his brother) in earnest. The film's cast of experienced TV and low budget character actors are carrying the other half of the effect, generally turning clichés personable and likeable.

By now, I have to say that I also really enjoy that other way SyFy brings variations into their films by having them take place in a variety of US states - generally played by British Columbia, Bulgaria, or Louisiana. The local colour is of course never true "local colour" but a strange backyard version of exoticism that may be annoying when you're finding the place where you live portrayed unrealistically, yet really helps add personality to a movie.

One major surprise for me with Wyvern is its monster, or rather, its monster effects. The CGI in many SyFy movies seems needlessly crappy, probably because so many of them are about swarms of things eating people, which can't be good for detail work on a budget; though some single monsters are pretty bad too. Most of the time, it's a flaw I've learned to tolerate by now. However, Wyvern's CGI is actually pretty darn impressive with few - if any - of the flaws I mention in every second write-up of this series. Like the rest of Wyvern, its monster is realized with a degree of love and care that seems to go beyond the dictates of mere professionalism.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Icy May ( & SyFy vs. The Mynd): Ice Spiders (2007)

We agents of M.O.S.S. defy your oppressive assumptions about seasons in the northern hemisphere. To prove you (yes you!) wrong, May will be all about ice, snow and everything cold for us. Everything is better in winter, after all. And what is more typical of the cold months of the year than spiders?

Panic in a small ski resort in the mountains of Utah. The neighbouring secret government lab experimenting on helpless spiders with gene grafts from their ancestors has hit a spot of bother, and now half a dozen hungry giant spiders on steroids (not a metaphor) are roaming the mountain looking for food, which is to say, ski resort vacationers.

Still, the spiders shouldn't be much of a problem, for spiders generally can't cope with cold too well, but mad scientist Professor Marks (David Milbern) has doped them up so much, they don't even care about the weather anymore. Since the soldiers stationed to protect the spiders aren't very good at their job (and, you know, not actually stationed where the spiders were but a twenty minutes drive away), it falls on not mad scientist Dr. Sommers (Vanessa Williams), skiing instructor, ex-marine and nearly Olympic ski talent Dash Dashiell (Patrick Muldoon), and ski resort owner Frank Stone (Stephen J. Cannell) to heroically fight off the ice spider menace. Unfortunately, our ski resort is the only place in the USA where no firearms at all can be found, so our heroes will need all their creativity and natural talents (skiing, pulling levers, running) to survive.

There's an old saying among my people that states "everything is better with ice and snow", and Tibor Takács' Ice Spiders clearly displays the truth of it, for the ice-bound nature of our SyFy menace of the week does provide ample opportunity for things like spider shenanigans on a ski lift (pro-tip: don't jump down) and a climactic race between our heroic ski instructor and three skittering, jumping, and tittering CGI spiders. Truly, it is a thing only possible in the Great White of Utah.

All of this is - obviously - supremely silly business, exactly the sort of thing that could descend into the deepest chasm of camp, but through powers won in a long career of films made from the most dubious of scripts (or at least with the most dubious of stories), Takács manages to keep things funny-silly instead of "oh-look-how-ironic-and-subversive-I-am-because-I'm-crap". It's mostly the director's judicious sense of pacing that makes the difference here, I think, as well as the ability to know when a silly joke works, and when making it would annoy.

The actors are no help at all: Muldoon, Williams, and Millbern are all kinds of dreadful and earnest, neither able to convey any believable human emotion, nor fit to deliver their lines; it says something rather rude about them that TV producer Cannell is the best actor in the film. But hey, it's not as if the rest of the cast weren't at least trying, and it just might be exactly the misguided earnestness of their performances which make our heroes somewhat endearing. It sure isn't the characterization. Truthfully, I don't really care (much) about the quality of the acting in a SyFy creature feature as long as I get to regularly see giant spiders munch on people.

This, Ice Spiders provides in spades, and tops it off with letting the munching happen in ice and snow, therefore earning itself my seal of approval.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ordine Firmato In Bianco (1974)

aka Orders Signed In White

Following orders of his mafia bosses, Luca Albanese (director Gianni Manera) - a man we are traumatically informed carries "balls like watermelons" - and some colleagues rob a safe with a lot of money. Against their orders, one of the gang members shoots a civilian, so word comes down for the team and their girlfriends to lay low somewhere with the money until the eye of the public looks elsewhere.

Alas, some masked, gloved killer strangles one of the girlfriends in the safe house (but don't worry, only after the mandatory random lesbian shenanigans), painting her brow white. Clearly, a new safe house is in order, so the gang goes to the summer country house of one of the girlfriends' uncles in Abruzzo. To nobody's surprise, the killer, slowly, oh so very slowly, kills himself through the cast while babbling nonsense, and nobody else does anything of import.

Now, this short description makes Gianni Manera's Ordine sound like a taught little thriller attempting to find the golden middle ground between eurocrime and giallo, but in truth, the film is an absolute mess made by a director who couldn't tell a story to save his life. Stylistically, the film jumps randomly between cliché giallo shots as reconstructed by a blind man editing with a pair of paper scissors, would-be existential dialogue scenes, and melodramatic gangster shit that doesn't seem to realize you have to earn your melodrama. There's an awkwardness surrounding every single element of the film.

The plot is presented as a series of random vignettes, overlong transition scenes, sudden inexplicably bizarre dream sequences, and clichés half-remembered and badly digested from other movies until they turn into something like a baked-beans induced nightmare, full of non-sequitur dialogue ("Don't you think it's…who knows? Something? Strange?" is rather typical for the film's style), sudden outbreaks of monologizing about one of the gang's dream to make a film, and what can only be described as random pieces of other films. Quite consequently, Ordine also ends on what feels like fifteen minutes ripped out of a totally different film about a minor character, some sort of political sub-Damiani abomination. It's clear that Manera would very much have liked for the film to be read as a political allegory, or some sort of existentialist tract (the assistant director was supposedly called "Albert Camus", for Sartre's sake!) but it probably would have helped his case if he had actually shot one.

Don't get me wrong, though. If you have the patience to wade through the film's needlessly long transitional scenes, don't fall asleep even though its scenes just never seem to want to end, and are able to see Manera's attempts to have not a single coherent conversation in his movie as rather charming, you may find Ordine Firmato In Bianco to be rather hypnotic in its incoherence, interesting in Manera's technical incompetence, and really just way too strange to be ignored. The film does at the very least contain a handful of scenes so awkwardly staged and bizarre it's quite impossible for me not to feel the kind of misguided love one feels for a mutant teddy bear. Just take the endless sequence where the crazy wife (I think) of the caretaker of house number two (whom I didn't mention before because she doesn't actually have a reason to be in the movie) finds her husband knifed by the killer and is then hunted through the house by her half-dead husband. It's stupid, ill-advised and goes on much too long, but it's also the kind of scene you just won't find in a sane movie.

I'm not saying this lightly, but Manera's technical awkwardness, the obvious lack of a budget, the absolute loopiness of his dialogue, and the sheer unfulfilled ambition of Ordine Firmato In Bianco remind me most of saintly Edward Wood (jr.). And really, what greater compliment could I make a movie and a filmmaker than that?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

In short: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

After watching the final film of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, I've worked through various pieces of criticism about it, and I have to agree with about fifty percent of it. So yes, I agree this is a perhaps overlong, often overreaching and internally conflicted film. However, I actually think these things aren't bugs here, they are features; indeed they are for me what makes this a great film.

The thing with the film's overreaching, the way it wants to be about three or four films at once (one of them even a superhero version of A Tale of Two Cities) really comes down to what you expect of your multi-multi-million dollar movies: a tight, slick product, or an actual creative endeavour that sometimes won't be able to fulfil everything it tries, but that makes up for the moments - in this case about twenty percent of the time - when it fails with a willingness to go to interesting, sometimes even surprising, places between the spectacle and loud melodrama the blockbuster business affords. In other words, if we as an audience want our mainstream entertainment to take risks, we also have to accept that not everything in it will work out perfectly and slickly, that there will be roughness, but also honest excitement and actual ideas when things work out, which is what happens in about eighty percent of the movie.

The Dark Knight Rises is a film full of conflicting impulses in its narrative, its politics, its emotions, even its concept of heroism; despite being a superhero movie, it's a film lacking moral certainty (especially in the few moments when it pretends to have it). Things here are messy, and clear-cut answers are not to be found; this is about striving and asking questions, and questioning answers which for my tastes fits the character of Batman much better than making him a barrel-chested 70s love god and international adventurer or a grim and gritty psychopath. It's these cracks and the breaks in the film's structure and meaning that truly make the film work for me, its imperfections working as a reflection of the messiness of reality as well as the messiness of dreams.

Despite the remaining prevalence of Michael Baysian crap, it's a pretty exciting time for blockbuster cinema right now, when movies as different and great in their own ways like this or The Avengers can be made and will be watched by millions, movies that have no problems with pushing all the spectacle buttons while still being ambitious and aggressively non-dumb.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

In short: Hit Man (1972)

Tyrone Tackett (Bernie Casey) returns to his native Los Angeles from Oakland, where he works for a shady porn tycoon, to attend the funeral of his brother. Tyrone's brother supposedly drove to death in his car while drunk (though there are also hints of suicide), but Tyrone quickly figures something was wrong with the death. It's not very difficult to think so, really, what with a couple of gangsters working for Tyrone's former boss, porn tycoon and racist Nano Zito (Don Diamond), following him just as soon as he arrives in town, pressing him to leave again right after the funeral, his brother's girlfriend having nothing to say to him at all, and his niece Rochelle (Candy All) just acting off.

Threats of any kind don't work on Tyrone, so he starts to ask questions, annoy powerful people, and give as much violence back as he receives until he'll find out how and why his brother truly died. He also finds time to sleep with any woman (including Pam Grier when she was Pamela Grier) he encounters. One would not want to be in the shoes of anyone he finds responsible for the death.

George Armitage's Hit Man is based on Ted Lewis's Jack Returns Home, the same novel Mike Hodges's classic British crime movie Get Carter adapts. For me, this resulted in a rather confusing viewing experience where nearly identical scenes play out just slightly different, yet the film as a whole feels utterly different from Get Carter. It's a bit like meeting someone who nearly looks like a dear old friend, but isn't; still, you can't help yourself and compare, and really become confused when your mysterious stranger suddenly goes off in a totally different direction.

For large parts of its running time, Hit Man feels much looser and more leisurely than the British movie, with Tackett sharing Carter's propensity for violence but seeming much more relaxed and at one with himself, even when he's dodging bullets and paying people back for racist insults. Casey's performance is rather laid back, and while he is no young Michael Caine, he does give Tackett more depth than the first look at his pimp-tastic clothes leads one to expect. The whole "unstoppable sex god" thing does get tiresome, though.

Tonally, Armitage's film feels less dark, even though both movies do share a plot. Armitage clearly loves slightly off-beat humour where Hodges just looks at the world with grim distance. I wouldn't exactly call Hit Man friendlier (it does after all end with Casey basically killing everyone) but it does at least crack a smile from time to time. Armitage's movie also changes the final fate of its protagonist, which to me felt like the result of a lack of courage.

I'd rather prefer to be able to talk about Hit Man without permanently comparing it to Get Carter but both films are just too close to each other to; and in direct comparison Hit Man is just the lesser movie, even though it certainly is a good one.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Icy May (& SyFy vs. The Mynd): Ice Road Terror (2011)

We agents of M.O.S.S. defy your oppressive assumptions about seasons in the northern hemisphere. To prove you (yes you!) wrong, May will be all about ice, snow and everything cold for us. Everything is better in winter, after all. What better way for me to begin this exciting venture than by taking a look at those Alaskan heroes, ice road truckers?

Little do Alaskan ice road truckers and best buddies Jack (Ty Olsson) and Neil (Dylan Neal) expect their final haul of the season before the ice road is melting to be quite as dangerous. Sure, having one of two trucks full of explosives, and environmental scientist Rachel (Brea Grant) as part of their load while the road they're driving on is already turning to slush sure sounds interesting and dangerous enough, but it's also - except for the scientist - all in a normal day's work for the two guys.

However, things that happen at the site our heroes are driving to are a bit out of the ordinary. I do at least assume it's not an every day occurrence up in the icy north for illegal blasting operations to free a living and very hungry specimen of a giant lizard from Inuit legend that may or may not belong to the dinosaur species called "Predator X" (environmental scientists know just about everything). The lizard proceeds to eat everyone it finds (apart from two characters needed for exposition to our heroes, obviously) Soon enough, our protagonist trio find themselves in a race against the ill-mannered CGI beast, the weather, and everything else the script can come up with.

It's not difficult to imagine the thought processes that led SyFy Channel executives to this one. Everyone, they must have thought, loves ice road truckers (a phenomenon I only ever realized is a phenomenon thanks to the movie) and everyone likes Wages of Fear, so filming a variation of the movie taking place in Alaska (or "British Columbia", as we call it) and adding an evil giant lizard to it really must have been a no-brainer. And honestly, they weren't wrong about this one.

As TV veteran (a guy with particularly many films with the word "Christmas" in their title, so at the very least an expert in filming the best white thing I know, snow) director Terry Ingram films it, Ice Road Terror is a perfectly great little movie based on a perfect low budget movie idea. Ingram doesn't linger on the weaknesses - see all my reviews of all SyFy movies ever - of his CGI monster too much, and stages a few surprisingly dynamic monster attack and truck stunt scenes that are really rather on the exciting - if physically dubious - side.

After about half of the movie is through, Ice Road Terror turns into a more typical "characters hole up in a hut and try to keep the monster out" film, which may sound a bit disappointing but is actually a good decision. There is, after all, only so much cheap action you can stage with two trucks, ice, snow, and a giant CGI lizard before things start to get boring and repetitive. The change of pace also gives the movie space to include Michael "Colonel Tigh" Hogan and Merrilyn Gann in rather delightful performances as owners of the only truck stop in in ice road county, which helps with characterization as well as providing opportunity for a smidgen of gore.

When Ice Road Terror doesn't spend its time on the lizard action - and this is a movie going out of its way to include as much as possible of said lizard action - it does the expected clichéd character work in a perfectly likeable manner, assisted by a cast full of perfectly likeable actors being, well, perfectly likeable.

Surely, that's more than anyone can expect from a movie that marries Wages of Fear, the working class romanticism of idealized trucker-dom, and a frigging giant lizard.