Monday, August 26, 2013

Music Monday: Memories Edition & A Minor Announcement

I have to take a blogging break for a few days, so regular service will return on the weekend.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

In short: The Mechanic (2011)

There's nothing new in the world of movies about professional killers, and not just because Simon West's film is a remake of Michael Winner's 1972 Charles Bronson outing, the one Michael Winner film I absolutely love. There's really no need to go into plot details, because everything about The Mechanic's plot is obvious once you've heard the words "sympathetic professional killer takes in the son of his best friend after he assassinated said friend".

The film's problem is not so much that it doesn't have anything new or interesting to say, it's that it doesn't have anything to say at all. Without the legions of films about sort of likeable professional killers that have produced certain expectations towards what these people are about, The Mechanic would be totally devoid of anything, for it isn't building on the movies that came before it so much as it is expecting the films that came before to do all its work for it.

The characterisation is predictably bland, the acting on the okay side (Statham is fully inside his comfort zone of scowling, and then scowling some more, and Foster wears a cap), but there's just no chemistry at all between the two leads when they should work off one another like the leads in a romantic comedy.

The script earns itself additional minus points by going the easy way when trying to make a professional killer sympathetic, so everyone Statham and Foster kill basically eats babies for breakfast. The script clearly works from the true assumption that nobody involved behind or in front of the camera would be capable enough to make a professional killer who just kills people for money still sympathetic. This sort of thing is really the sound of a scriptwriter shouting "I'm not all that good at that whole writing thing", which is probably true, too.

The action scenes are okay, filmed in West's usual, technically adept yet somewhat soulless style that never gets my adrenaline glands pumping because its all-pervading competence leaves no room for the good stuff. You know, like imagination, the poetry of bodies in motion, the plain ugliness of violence, or really anything that recognizes that explosions are supposed to be emotional too.

Of course, having said all this, I also have to admit that The Mechanic is perfectly watchable. On the other hand, a film not being actively painful to watch isn't exactly much of a recommendation.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

On Exploder Button: SyFy vs. The Mynd: Behemoth (2011)

In my by now extensive studies of SyFy Channel Original (heh) Movies, I have found many horrors and many surprisingly enjoyable things, but there are only a very among these films that do anything interesting on the character level.

While Behemoth isn't any kind of psychological horror, it is one of these chosen few movies that do add some rather interesting aspects to a few of their characters, in this case specifically to the one played by William B. Davis. It also contains a monster right out of our ideals of what Weird Tales was supposed to be about, so my column about the film over at ExB may sound a bit smitten.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: When You're Cornered Like An Animal It's Kill Or Be Killed.

Vampire's Breakfast (1987): A very dead looking Western style vampire haunts the Hong Kong nights. Intrepid reporter Kent Cheng Jak-Si is on the case, when he's not taking fake vampire pictures or romancing Emily Chu Bo-Yee. For a Hong Kong horror film, this one's rather atypical, for there's neither an attempt to be as outrageous as possible nor lots and lots of mean-spirited humour (in fact, what there is of humour in the movie is of a rather good-natured kind). Unfortunately, there's also nothing to take the place of these more typical HK horror tricks, so there's really not much to talk about here, particularly since director Wong Chung isn't exactly exploding with imagination, visual or otherwise.

What's left is a mildly diverting movie that's entertaining enough for the ninety minutes of one's time it takes, but nothing more.

Apartment 1303 3D (2012): Look, I've got as much patience for shitty horror movies as the next guy, but there are certain things I find non-negotiable in a theoretically subtle horror movie about ghosts like this one. Unfortunately, this one, directed by Michael Taverna, is all kinds of dreadful, with no opportunity to be clever or just effective that isn't missed, numerous failures of timing and imagination, utterly dreadful dialogue, and a certain actress so bad, the script has her talking to herself instead of emoting. Well, that, or the script doesn't realize it doesn't need its actors to tell the audience what they are supposed to be feeling when they could, you know, act. It's difficult to decide which alternative is worse, and I don't really want to think about this one anymore than I already have, for life's too short for certain movies.

Shadow of Illusion aka Ombre Roventi (1970): Mario Caiano's film is what happens when you replace the satanic cult in your typical occult conspiracy horror film with an Egyptian-themed cult attempting to attain the power of Osiris by sacrificing a woman they take for Isis (Daniela Giordano), and let the resulting film take place in Egypt. It's a decent little flick with a bit too much Egypt tourism, and a rather meandering middle, but there's a lot of interesting temporal and local colour too gawk at. From time to time, Caiano even manages to stage a moment of inspired strangeness and surreality or two. It's a bit unfortunate that Shadow of Illusion is lacking in the tension department, or it could be a minor classic. As it stands, it's a peculiar sort of time capsule for fashion, fears and fascinations of its age.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Phantoms (1998)

Dr Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going) has left her small town practice in Snowfield, Colorado just long enough to whisk her younger sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) away from L.A. and the influence of their alcoholic mother. When the sisters arrive back in Snowfield, they find the town curiously deserted. Closer inspection reveals many empty houses but also a lot of corpses. Some of them are in a state suggesting some kind of chemical incident or a strange infection, while others have clearly been victims of the tender mercies of someone who likes to play peek-a-boo with body parts.

Even before Jennifer and Lisa can call for help, it already arrives in form of Sheriff (and former FBI agent) Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck) and two of his deputies (Liev Schreiber and Nicky Katt). At about the same time, things begin to turn a bit weirder in town, going from strange noises and screams coming from the drains to rather more horrifying things like a giant face-eating moth. Whatever is responsible for the circumstances in Snowfield isn't willing to let our protagonists go, but curiously, it has no problem with letting them contact the outside world for help.

Thanks to a message written on a wall in town mentioning him by name, the government response to the situation does not only consist of military personnel and scientists but also of paleobiologist turned tabloid columnist Timothy Flyte (Peter O'Toole) who has some rather peculiar theories about an organism being responsible for all kinds of historical disappearances; and now, that organism seems to want him to write its bible.

For my tastes, Joe Chappelle's Phantoms, based on a novel by the dubious Dean R. Koontz, with a script by the author, is one of the more unfairly overlooked horror movies of the 90s. People were probably not too interested in mainstream horror films that weren't all ironic at that point in time; as with most things in horror film history, I'll just blame Scream.

Phantoms is of course a supremely silly film. Its monster is after all an oil-based organism suffering from the delusion of being Satan, and the way to get rid of it turns out to be nearly hilariously convenient. However, the implausibility of a plot has never stopped me from enjoying a film when it treats its silly ideas with the proper earnestness, particularly not when the silly ideas are also cool ones, as is the case with Phantoms.

The film starts out on a rather creepy note, with Chappelle (a future director and producer on rather good TV shows like The Wire and Fringe) getting quite a bit of mileage from the isolation and confusion of the protagonists, and creating the feeling that something quite horrible must have happened in town without showing his hand too early. Once Chappelle does show his hand, we get a few imaginatively staged scenes of protoplasm-based murder of the kind I'd love to see in a Lovecraftian movie, some eerie shots of dead-yet-walking people in broken hazmat suites, a dog very threatening in its lack of threat (excellent dog acting, believe it or not), and the sudden appearance of a mass of not-people that are near archetypal. These moments and images hit that easy to miss spot where the theoretically silly becomes the practically creepy.

The film's actual climactic action is a bit of a disappointment, though, with our pretty protagonists doing a bit of perfunctory action hero stuff (and encountering the bane of all horror films, the quipping monster) before the usual kicker ending wraps things up.

Fortunately, Phantoms is a movie where the ride itself contains more than enough worthwhile moments to make up for a merely competent ending, so I didn't find the film ruined by its end (films only are in very particular circumstances). Plus, said ending does at least show Peter O'Toole sitting on an armchair while holding forth about The Ancient Enemy on TV, and that's not something I can say about the ending of many movies.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In short: Evil Dead (2013)

Turns out it is possible to remake one of the most important independently produced horror movies in genre history as a semi-mainstream (let's be realistic here - Ghost House may belong to Sony, but it sure as hell doesn't provide filmmakers with hundreds of millions of dollars as a budget, so its films are generally really low budget movies with a commercial eye)  horror movie and not have it end up a boring piece of crap.

I suspect it helps to have somebody like Fede Alvarez in the director's chair who seems to actually know what he's doing, instead of either a Rob-Zombie-like self-declared horror fan who couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag, or a typical work-for-hire director who may be able to direct his way out of a paper bag but can't be bothered to. The tone of Evil Dead is close to the original, but rather runs parallel to it than being identical, with the older film having energy and a willingness to be crude on its side where this one is comparatively slick and professional; though not so slick and professional it can't develop the all-important sense of hysteria that is what holds the plot of both versions together at their respective cores. In fact, the film is downright exhilarating when seen in the appropriate state of mind (hint: it's not meant to stimulate intellectually).

This is also one of those remakes that neither is so far from the original you don't understand why it even needs to be a remake, nor one that's so close you have to ask yourself why it even exists until it begins changing elements but only for the worse, nor one that seems out to piss all over what made the original great (hello Rob Zombie and Marcus Nispel again). Instead, it acts as a mirror that refracts elements of the original film, often in ways more clever and more organic than I would have expected.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The One Armed Executioner (1983)

Interpol agent Ramon Ortega (Franco Guerrero) and his children's book writer wife Ann (Jody Kay) have just returned from their honeymoon. Sad piano music plays when they make love, so that's already three strikes against poor Ann even if you ignore the mild suggestion of coming violence the film's title subtly provides.

Ramon becomes involved into the investigation of an American business Interpol knows to be an important drug dealer, but alas can't prove anything about. An explosive helicopter raid and some slight police threats of the "we've got our eyes on you" type later, and the main baddy decides that his best bet is to go into traditional movie villain overreaction mood and send out a bunch of his favourite henchmen to torture, rape and kill Ramon's wife and saw off one of Ramon's arms.

Understandably, our hero spends the next twenty movie minutes or so becoming a moping alcoholic but - unlike the real-life moping alcoholics I know - he's got a fatherly ex-Interpol agent friend to not only set him straight again but also teach him the martial (and shooting) arts ways of one-armed fighting, which for some reason involves stuff like learning how to balance on a log while being blind-folded.

Once Ramon's up to speed, it's time for him to go out and kill a lot of people. Explosions may be involved.

It's difficult to watch a movie made by One Armed Executioner's director/writer/producer Bobby A. Suarez and not make comparisons to the body of work of Cirio H. Santiago, or more specifically, to imagine Suarez as the good guy Filipino exploitation filmmaker with an eye for the US market to Santiago's shady one, with Suarez always putting the extra effort into his films that makes them actually fun for an audience, a concept which Santiago only seemed to care about - if at all, on his good days - intermittently.

One Armed Executioner is really a case in point here. The film's plot is as basic, possibly crude, as they come, told in a manner that reduces its type of martial arts vengeance flick to its most basic elements, up to a point where even things like character names seem superfluous. However, Suarez really digs into these simple basics, giving the melodramatic set-up an air of surprising conviction with the sheer power of earnestness as well as through an effective performance by Guerrero. There's a sense of concentration on the central parts of the plot (such as it is) with no time for filler that makes the melodramatic build-up just as interesting to watch as the climactic violent release. (Subtext? What subtext?)

It's thanks to this irony and slack-free tone that there was really never any doubt in this viewer's mind that Suarez means business, and knows he needs to apply himself to the melodramatic parts before he can get into the slaughter and action bits effectively. It's surely not easy to find the right balance in this regard, but for my tastes, One Armed Executioner hits the absolute sweet spot for cheap martial arts vengeance flick, with never a boring moment or one that isn't at least important in some form for the rest of the film.

Once we get to the actual action, the film makes much out of the comparatively little it has to work with budget-wise, really going to town with one helicopter and a speed boat, a few crazy and many not quite so crazy stunts and minor actors who literally (nope, not figuratively) throw themselves into their death scenes as is the sweet tradition in cheap action movies. There is, to be sure, a certain lack in originality to be found in the action scenes - by 1983 we really had seen all of this more than once before - but Suarez stages them with such a sure hand it'd be churlish to complain about a lack of originality when it's actually so much fun watching them in The One Armed Executioner.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

In short: Swordsman of Siena (1962)

Original title: La congiura dei dieci

Italy, in the second half of the 16th Century. British mercenary and charming rogue Thomas Stanswood (Stewart Granger) is moving (with quite a few horsemen trying to catch him in tow) from his former employ to work for the Spanish governor Don Carlos (Riccardo Garrone) of occupied Siena. As it turns out, Don Carlos is quite the fiend, as is his torture-loving (note to my American readers: in civilized countries, torturing people makes you the bad guy) cousin Hugo (Fausto Tozzi), chief of the guard aka main thug.

Don Carlos needs Stanswood as bodyguard for his fiancée, Orietta Arconti (Sylva Koscina), member of a renowned family of the city. Surprisingly enough, Orietta actually wants to marry Don Carlos, despite his responsibility for the death of her father, and the heavy patriotic misgivings of her younger sister Serenella (Christine Kaufmann). What Orietta doesn't want is a bodyguard, particularly not a charming and roguish bodyguard her sister falls for head over heels.

Soon, Stanswood finds himself entangled in the conflict between the Spaniards and Siena's very own band of terrorists/freedom fighters known as the Ten, and, having a chivalrous heart and a soft spot for Serenella, rather doubts his Spanish employers are the right side to work for in this conflict. Why, he might even end up joining the rebels, and winning a brutal horse race for them to incite a more large-scale rebellion.

Etienne Périer's (the IMDB lists one Baccio Bandini as co-director, but the film doesn't, and you know how notoriously trustworthy the site is in these things) Swordsman of Siena is a fine piece of swashbuckling adventure, the sort of film tailor-made to let Stewart Granger do the charming rogue bit he does so effortlessly and convincingly.

All too often, supposed charming rogues in movies really rather come over as smarmy, self-centred bastards, something Granger usually manages to avoid with natural charisma, unless he's in a film where him being a self-centred bastard is exactly the point. In Swordsman's case, Granger also has help by a script that knows the difference between being a rogue and being an asshole (there's a particularly great scene in which Stanswood refuses Serenella's teenage crush because he's "ten years too old or ten years too young"), a fact that makes Stanswood a particularly enjoyable hero.

As is more often than you'd expect the case in swashbucklers, the female characters have a bit more to do than just stare adoringly at Granger or do that bit where their particularly heavy dislike is meant to hide their attraction (something which actually makes logical sense for one of the female characters in this particular film), though they do get to do these things too, of course. It's as if the swashbuckler as a genre, unlike other genres working in the historical past, could actually accept that women, despite being constrained by the mores of their times, still were actual human beings and certainly were doing more with their time than just standing whimpering on the side-lines. Or I'm just particularly lucky with the swashbucklers I watch in this regard.

Everything else about Swordsman of Siena is very much like you'd expect of a good example of its form: it's fast paced, full of colourful costumes, rather exciting fencing, a smidgen of romance and some melodrama to properly prepare the finale. That's a good thing, mind you, particularly since Périer really does know how to keep things moving (and exciting) throughout, and how to transition from the film's light-hearted core to the more dramatic bits.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On Exploder Button: The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012)

There aren't all that many horror films standing in the same tradition as less on-the-nose and ambiguous contemporary literary horror. I'm not surprised, for doing this sort of thing well must be exceedingly difficult in a medium that is by nature not as easily turned towards interiority and ambiguousness as fiction is. Even worse, even if your film achieves its goal well, a lot of people will still hate it just for its insistence on things other than plot or blood.

Rodrigo Gudiño's The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is one of these films, and it achieves its goals admirably. My column over at ExB explains how.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: The Syrens of Tytan

Mega Snake (2007): I'm sure Tibor Takács has hidden a fine monster movie among the hours and hours of folksy, "humorous" Southern stereotypes here. Hell, I often enjoy the dubious local stereotyping in SyFy movies, but in Mega Snake's case, everything that's not related to getting eaten by a humungous snake anyone in the cast does or says grates so painfully I can't enjoy the film as a monster movie; as a comedy, it'd probably be easier to enjoy if it were even the least bit funny. It's a shame, too, for the snake attacks are - typical of the director - very well done, and the film's shot in a slightly comic-bookish colour scheme that's as far from the usual yellow and cobalt blue as a fan of colour in colour films like myself could wish for. I just can't stomach the rest of it, y'all.

Ferocious Planet aka The Other Side (2011): A science experiment goes wrong and sucks a bunch of idiots (among them Joe Flanigan and a cameo-ing yet still second-billed John Rhys-Davies) into a parallel dimension which budget-consciously looks a lot like Earth. There, they have troubles with the usual combination of death-inducing stupidity and the local human-eating wildlife. Not much of interest or surprise happens. On the positive side, there's lots of time to make yourself a cup of tea or three and to meditate on the vagaries of watching a whole load of SyFy movies.

Ghost Town (2009): After a rather decent intro taking place in the old West, Todor Chapkanov's film begins to suffer from the typical problems of bad supernatural slashers - a lack of imagination, an unwillingness to give its supernatural murderers any kind of consistency, boring characters all of whom act like idiots even before they have reasons to panic. Ghost Town also adds some problems all of its own, namely some absolutely horribly used shaky-cam in "exciting" scenes, a sad waste of a perfectly fun Billy Drago, and no sense of narrative progression or dramatic escalation at all (wait, can you add an absence?).

The best I can say about the film is that it's a fitting third film for this trio of mostly crap SyFy movies.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In short: Another (2012)

One of the troubles that ails contemporary Japanese cinema is franchise-isation, where there's a frighteningly high chance that any given movie is based on a light novel which has already spawned a manga, an anime series, an anime movie, and probably a toilet paper version of the novel. As it goes with things like that, there's not much room for the people hired to do a movie version to move in, because every single version of the original has to resemble the other media versions as closely as possible, or (one supposes) the franchise fairy will descend from the skies and do some tentacle-related shenanigans to the producers. The only way to be allowed to put some creativity in is if you're making a more long-form version of the story, say the anime show, because you have the luxury to need more material.

Given this basic situation, it's no wonder Takeshi Furusawa's adaptation of Yukito Ayatsuji's novel isn't great shakes, particularly compared to the much superior anime show that at least had much more time to emotionally wallow in the franchise's (yuck) supernatural exploration of teenage alienation, and to actually build up its characters before killing them off, where in this version, the kids who die are "the guy with the eyebrows", "that other guy", "her", and so on. The show also has a much more involving art direction, but then even a cheaply produced anime can include more visually arresting and mood-building efforts than a low budget film's art direction.

Of course, even under these circumstances, one could make a moody little horror mystery, if one were only in the business of making a movie that can stand on its own instead of financially exploiting a successful franchise with as little financial and creative effort as possible. The result isn't horrible - there's the old shadow of basic competence and decent acting by the teenage actors - it's just cynical and lacking any kind of conviction, which is rather a shame given the material Another is too lazy to actually work with.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

No One Lives (2012)

(Warning: Spoilers abound!)

Because their dumbest member Flynn (Derek Magyar) wants to prove himself after he needlessly (and dangerously) shot someone he really didn't need to kill, a backwoods clan of low-level criminals and toughs comes into possession of the car of two passing travellers in some kind of strained relationship - and, in another idiocy nobody approves of, of the travellers themselves. The situation doesn't improve at all when the female half of the couple (Laura Ramsey) uses a knife held at her throat as an opportunity for suicide. The man (Luke Evans) turns out to be a rather effective and brutal serial killer (though he sees himself as something more than just a mere serial killer, who are like kittens to his panther), and now a very angry one at that.

He is certainly not less angry once he realizes that the clan has found Emma (Adelaide Clemens), the young millionaire's daughter who was famously abducted some time ago while fourteen of her friends were slaughtered, hidden in his car. Things could still turn out okay for the crooks if they'd just do what Emma tells them to, namely to run at once and give her to the police. As it goes with people who have been tougher than anyone they ever met, the clan think they can cope with anything a single guy could throw at them, and decide to keep Emma and blackmail some money directly out of her father. They only realize too late that there's always somebody more dangerous somewhere, and they have just met him. In fact, Emma is the only person around on his level, which might be exactly what the killer wants her to be.

I think I have repeatedly aired my dislike for No One Lives director Ryuhei Kitamura's films. I may even have compared the experience of watching one of his movies to watching a monkey masturbate in slow motion, with added whooshing noises. Yes, I didn't even like Versus. So cover me surprised to realize I would describe No One Lives as great, bordering on brilliant.

Absolutely gone is Kitamura's tendency to overemphasise needlessly flashy directing tics and blunder his audience into submission by empty gestures of what's supposed to be coolness. In No One Lives, every edit, every camera movement is in service of the movie, not of stroking the director's ego via technical achievements. In fact, Kitamura leaves many of his most favourite directing tricks nearly completely in the bag, instead trusting in his ability to keep his audience interested with excellent pacing, a decidedly non-stupid script by David Cohen, and even - this has always been a particular weak spot in Kitamura's films - decent acting. Particularly the way Luke Evans turns his bland pretty boy looks into something frightening, and the way Adelaide Clemens projects complicated feelings via body language are remarkable, but even someone like America Olivo (whom I'd never have suspected of it) shows actual acting chops. Of course, we are talking about acting in the context of a horror thriller here, not a naturalistic piece about the troubles of academics, but I'm not going to complain when performances are exactly as they should be.

It's also a first in a Kitamura movie to find the director actually trusting in the performances, giving the actors just enough room to work, without getting distracted by a need to make a thousand edits a second or swirling his camera around while bullets fly in slow-motion. In this film, the director seems absolutely concentrated, using his (always unquestionably high) technical proficiency to tell a simple yet clever story excitingly. He does this much more efficiently than I ever would have expected.

It does help that Cohen's script does some rather clever things with the way it plays with the slasher and the larger "serial killer on the rampage" genres he's working in, without ever forgetting to add enough blood and gore to satisfy the baser needs of his audience. I'm not quite convinced of the film's ending, though. I see where it is going with it thematically, yet I don't think the ending as it actually happens is as satisfying as the rest of the narrative. But then I always want to see the final girl in these films win completely under her own powers and (unrealistically) not end up psychologically damaged beyond repair.

That minor quibble aside, No One Lives is quite an achievement. Suddenly, I'm even looking forward to Ryuhei Kitamura's next movie.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Black Swarm (2007)

Jane Kozik (Sarah Allen) has chosen a very bad time to return with her daughter Kelsey (Rebecca Windheim) to her hometown Black Stone to become (deputy?) sheriff. Ten years earlier, Jane left town after her exterminator husband Dan died in a wasps' nest explosion (seriously). There's a lot of backstory about her actually being in love with Dan's twin brother Devin (Sebastien Roberts) - now the town's exterminator - and running away from her hurt feelings for him that will become important soon enough.

These soap operatics fortunately do have to play second fiddle behind Black Stone's new, lethal problem. A swarm of rather evil genetically modified wasps has made their home in town, stinging people to death and turning them into what the film likes to call drones but what clearly are wasp zombies (wombies?). Curiously, it takes quite some time until someone realizes that it isn't normal for, say, the town priest to stumble around town while staring and making wasp noises, and once people realize what's going on, it might already be too late.

Because a simple mutant wasp swarm with assorted zombies just isn't enough, there's also a mysterious mad scientist (Robert Englund) out for redemption, and a helpful entomologist with plans even more frightening than her botox-caused (seriously, movie land, Botox doesn't make you look younger, but more like a corpse) facial paralysis (Jayne Heitmeyer).

How's a couple ever going to find the time to get back together again, as SyFy Channel law commands? Or are the rules different when a movie is even more Canadian than many other SyFy films?

By now, I like to imagine all SyFy Channel movies are taking place on a slightly bizarre alternative Earth where all divorcees get back together again after monsters have shown them the errors of their ways, the military prefers killer wasps to drones (not the zombie version), where every newspaper is full of headlines like "Battle Dogs kill hundreds in New York" and "Prophecy of Nostradamus averted by the magical standing stones of Native Americans", and where random working class people are the deadliest monster destruction force imaginable. It's a great place to visit at least once a week, as long as you don't have to live there as a character who dies after the second commercial break.

Even for a film taking place on SyFy Earth, Black Swarm is particularly silly, needing a viewer to swallow things like an evil military agent working undercover as an entomologist (it's rather Delta Green of her, now that I think about it), killer wasps as a great idea for biological warfare, and large wasps' nest shaped holes in the plot. Like, how did the wasps get to Black Stone? Do we have to imagine Englund's Eli as a kind of Richard Kimble figure not following a one-armed man but reports of wasps? Wait, I'd actually like to imagine that! And there's the point where Black Swarm's immense silliness starts to pay off, for the film is as entertaining and fun as it is silly, taking to the place a lot of the better SyFy movies inhabit where the silly also just happens to be the awesome like a pig takes to mud, never spending a single second to apologize for its nature but instead wallowing in it, for better rather than worse.

How shall I put it? This is a film that has frigging wasp zombies, and is clearly proud of that idea and adds another layer of fun to it by particularly showing the standby character types of small town cliché (and authority) - a cop, a priest, a mayor and an ice cream man - in zombie form. I bet Stephen King is a bit miffed he didn't think of that one first. The early appearances of the wasp zombies are even rather creepy, a mood Black Swarm loses once it really gets into its groove of all out (well, as all out as director David Winning can manage on the budget) exploding van versus wasp action, Englund doing a surprisingly well-weighed bit of overacting (and, I assume, relishing the opportunity to not be the bad guy for once) every friend of subtle overacting will appreciate, and increasingly weird plot wrinkles.

Did I already use the word "awesome"?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

In short: Il Ponte Dei Sospiri (1964)

aka The Avenger of Venice

Venice at the end of the 15th century. Doge Candiano (Jean Murat) has begun a highly democratically minded series of reforms that makes him immensely popular with the lower classes. The patricians and nobility on the other hand are less than pleased with the doge's ideas. The doge's popularity makes it rather difficult to do anything against him, though.

Grand inquisitor Bembo (José Marco Davó) and captain (of the guard, one supposes) Altieri (Conrado San Martín) develop a fiendish plan to falsely convict the doge's beloved - and also very popular - war hero and do-gooder son Rolando (Brett Halsey) of a murder, overthrow the doge for treason, and win the hand of Rolando's fiancée Leonora (Vira Silenti) for Altieri. The Candianos are a bit too honest and straightforward to expect this kind of conspiracy, so soon, the elder Candiano finds himself disgraced, blinded and in exile, while Rolando rots away in prison for life.

However, while Rolando may not be the kind of guy who expects treason around every corner, he is rather tenacious and manages to escape from his ill-deserved prison. Together with robber, all-around strongman and serial accidental killer Scalabrino (Burt Nelson), he's not just planning revenge but a disclosure of the conspiracy to clear his family name. Things become rather more complicated for Rolando because Scalabrino tends to accidentally kill the people our hero would really rather capture alive, which happens so often it becomes more than a little ridiculous.

Despite this rather stupid convenience to prolong the movie's plot, directors Carlo Campogalliani and Piero Pierotti deliver an entertaining bit of cinema. Genre-wise, this is for large parts of its running time more of a hysterical-historical melodrama with most of the swashbuckling bits you'd expect from the plot pushed into the last half hour. When the swashes begin to buckle, they do so quite well done, though.

For some, all these scenes of people wringing their hands and villains being outrageously evil will probably be a bit much, but the melodrama is presented with verve by an acting ensemble in a very good mood (well, except for Halsey, who is a bit bland, but that's what his role calls for, really).

Our bad guys' particular enthusiastic evilness is just very entertaining to watch, and their traditional and well-deserved comeuppance is presented in very satisfying ways, with Scalabrino probably less meant as plot contrivance than as the unwitting hand of fate; too bad the film never actually does much to convince its audience of this.

Il Ponte Dei Sospiri is also one of the Italian historical adventure movies that could afford quite a few beautiful sets, as well as scenes that make clever use of actual contemporary Venice, so there's more of the mood of Renaissance Venice as an actual time and place, and less of people playacting in leftover costumes than is typical in movies like this.

Unless one is constitutionally unable to enjoy the melodramatics, Il Ponte Dei Sospiri is a very satisfying movie, probably already pretty old-fashioned when it was made, yet entertaining nonetheless.

Friday, August 9, 2013

On Exploder Button: Le Bossu (1959)

aka The Hunchback of Paris

If there's one thing that's utterly, absurdly wrong with people (including me), it's that we don't talk enough about the great French swashbucklers, films every bit as good as the great US swashbucklers were.

This week's column on ExB tries to begin to make amends for this horrible state of affairs by talking rather excitedly about André Hunebelle's Paul Feval adaptation Le Bossu. If you click on through to read it, you don't have to stroke my hunchback.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

In short: The Lords of Salem (2012)

I've never had any other reaction than annoyance to the movies of Rob Zombie; the man may be clearly as big a horror fan as Quentin Tarantino is a fan of all movies, but where Tarantino uses the bits and pieces of past movies he loves to make films very much his own, Zombie produces crap, overlong metal videos that impress through their stupidity, a propensity to demonstrate their director's research quite independent of the necessity of said demonstration (personally, I don't give a shit about how "authentic" a movie's occult elements are, and rather more about their use to make for an interesting film) and depress through the waste of talent in front of the camera. It's a neat demonstration of the difference between a director who has seen a lot of movies and some random guy who has seen a lot of movies and gets money for his films because he was in a (crappy) rock band behind the camera.

In a sense, Lords of Salem actually is an improvement on Zombie's previous efforts, seeing as it does contain at least twenty minutes that are actually pretty good, proves that Sheri Moon Zombie can be a better actress than is generally thought, and even gets sympathy points for its realization that yes, Dorothy, people - even women! - older than twenty-five do in fact exist.

Unfortunately, Lords of Salem regularly had me laughing tears whenever Zombie attempted one of his horror set pieces, all of them looking like a fan's idea of what's horrific and disturbing, unfiltered by any artistic talent. Unless you're making a horror comedy (and after this one, I'd actually pay good money to see a conscious comedy by Zombie), it's the death knell for your film if scenes like the dream-flashback sequence showing a the witch burning, or the witches promising nasty, nasty things to a baby, are as funny as the ones here, all over-earnestness and crap metal video style.

But hey, if you ever wanted to see how the ending of 2001 must look through the eyes of a twelve-year-old White Zombie or Marilyn Manson fan, The Lords of Salem has you covered with its climax (or rather "climax"), a sequence of scenes effortlessly combining the virtues of utter stupidity and visual cluelessness.

Also, Mister Zombie, hands off The Velvet Underground next time around.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

SyFy vs. the Mynd: Trycentennyal

Alien Tornado aka Tornado Warning (2012): Aliens decide to start an invasion attempt with (rather beautiful looking) special tornadoes slowly working their way from the boons to the big cities. Some decidedly incompetent men in black attempt to suppress the tornado attacks, and public knowledge of them. Farmer and worst dad ever Judd Walker (Jeff Fahey with frightening hobo facial hair and hair and a baseball cap glued to his head), his future scientist teenage daughter (Stacey Asaro), storm-chasing blogger Gail Curtis (Kari Wuhrer), and a sheriff who couldn't cut in Chicago (Willard E. Pugh) try to get the word out and solve their family crises. Alas, the script by John A. Burkett who also signed responsible for the equally meh Haunted High and Arachnoquake lets them and the audience down rather painfully. Alien Tornado is more boring than it is dumb (not usually a SyFy Channel movie problem - say what you will against the Channel's output, but "boring" is never what these films try to be), and generally lacks in the kind of entertaining cheesiness you'd hope for from something with such a title.

Monsterwolf (2010): Speaking of things that aren't usually SyFy Channel problems, Todor Chapkanov's Monsterwolf suffers from a case of excessive blandness. All the elements for an entertaining SyFy-style monster movie are there and accounted for - the family problems, the salt-of-the-Earth working class people, an evil oil magnate played by Robert Picardo, Louisiana, and a monster(wolf) - but not a single one of them is developed enough to actually become entertaining to watch.

There is a sense of bored professionalism surrounding everything about this that makes it impossible to care, so I won't.

Seeds of Destruction aka The Terror Below (2011): At its core, this is a typical Paul Ziller SyFy movie - much better made than its silly basic idea (giant roots from the Garden of Eden run amok)  suggests, with a real hand for distracting the audience from the fact that its view on a global apocalypse can't be anything other than locally limited, tight pacing, and some fun conspiracy thriller elements. Unfortunately, I couldn't enjoy any of it this time around, for the film's "converting the unbeliever" aspect is just pretty darn offensive to me once it gets as Christian as here, particularly in a film where the whole "Garden of Eden" bit is perfectly unnecessary. If you have the stomach for that sort of thing, this will probably the best film about roots threating the world you'll ever see.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Battle of the Damned (2013)

An evil corporation (aren't they all?) is responsible for an outbreak of rage zombie-ism in "a South-East Asian city" - the film was shot in Singapore and Malaysia (yes, with people running through empty streets and interesting locations instead of ninety minutes of the same warehouse), so take your pick. In response, the city is quarantined.

The boss of the corp hires a mercenary appropriately named Max Gatling (Dolph Lundgren) and his men to rescue his daughter Jude (Melanie Zanetti). The city's supposed to be harmless now, but of course, in truth it's full of zombies. Alas, Max is the only one in his gang with an action hero name, so he's the last man standing up to the running and snarling menace even before the ending of the film's credits. Max is really tenacious, though, and goes his merry way through the zombie hordes until he accidentally stumbles upon Jude on a solo plundering trip. Jude belongs to a small group of survivors under the dubious leadership of a certain Duke (David Field). Max, being your typical action movie hero, doesn't care about the people he hasn't been hired to rescue, and really only wants to grab Jude and go. Jude, on the other hand, has a mind of her own.

These minor internal struggles are our survivors' least problems: apart from the zombie horde, there's also the fact that the city is soon going to be destroyed by fire bombs, and the fact that Max doesn't have any transportation, either. There also seems to be no way to actually get out of the city, quite independent if its six people or two. Oh, and Jude is pregnant by one of her co-survivors (Matt Doran) to give her a little more motivation to actually want to get out.

Still, things look rather bleak until Max meets and befriends a squad of battle robots roaming the streets.

It's Dolph Lundgren and robots versus zombies! 'nuff said!

But seriously, the way Christopher Hatton's Battle of the Damned plays its cards, this really is an excellent selling point for the film. The first two thirds of Battle's running time are spent on your usual low budget rage zombie standards, just with an added "but what if a Dolph Lundgren character were caught up in the zombie apocalypse", which really would be enough to make for a rather entertaining, if not very original film. At one point during the writing process, director and writer Hatton must have realized that the zombie apocalypse genre is rather bleak, and that, really, even a Dolph Lundgren type action hero won't make it through it alive. Dolph will need help, and what better help could there be than letting him team up with some of the robots who went crazy in Hatton's last movie, Robotropolis. It's a plan brilliant in its simplicity. Plus, it adds zombies versus robot action to the whole affair.

Hatton is also clever enough to realize that, once you have your hero team up with robots, the (mostly) earnest tone with "funny" one-liners Battle of the Damned had until then is impossible to maintain, so the film's last half hour turns into the sort of crazy, silly, nonsense the idea really needs to not become annoying. The robots may still be a bit underused (that CGI doesn't come cheap, you know) but Hatton manages to make the Dolph and survivors and robots versus zombies thing as entertainingly silly as one might hope for.

However, there's also a lot to like about the parts of the movie that aren't based on being slightly insane, when you may still think you're watching a standard decent low budget flick. The film's action choreography by Jen Kuo Sung aka Jen Sung Outerbridge (a man who seems to do a bit of everything from stunts to acting to voice acting, and who also plays a sword-swinging survivor named Elvis here) is in part responsible for this. Sure, there's a bit too much shaky cam in these scenes for their own good, but they are also quite inventive and tense, not something you can find in all cheap action movies. A particular high point finds Lundgren fighting off a bunch of ragers (among them one former colleague, though Dolph isn't the kind of guy who even blinks before killing infected he knows, so there's no melodrama about it) while he's hand-cuffed to a lamp post, which really isn't something you get to see every day.

It's always lovely to encounter a piece of direct to DVD low budget filmmaking that is so obviously going out of its way to entertain, with nothing half-assed about. So what if it's silly? Battle of the Damned can play in my home cinema any time.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Children of the Corn (1984)

The children of the corn farming town of Gatlin, Nebraska get a bit of the real old time religion courtesy of (what will turn out to be a rather unimpressive looking) "He Who Walks Behind The Rows", some kind of cornfield-dwelling supernatural entity.

Under the leadership of young preacher Isaac (John Franklin) and his right-hand boy Malachai (Courtney Gains), the kids slaughter all of Gatlin's grown-ups and start their own little religious wacko dictatorship. Only little Job (Robby Kiger) and his prophetic sister Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy) aren't in on the whole evil kid shtick, but they're mostly left in peace because Isaac says so.

Three years after the initial slaughter, Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton, a bit wasted on screaming and hanging from corn crosses) accidentally (or is it?) come into the sphere of the town's influence, and soon they have to fight for their lives against the crazy kids and their godhood - or well, Peter does, while Vicky isn't actually allowed to do much.

Famously hated by Stephen King on one of whose not-excretion based stories this is based, and who didn't have a problem taking money for the rights or with directing Trucks, Fritz Kiersch's Children of the Corn is in actual fact a pleasant little low budget affair. Sure, George Goldsmith's script sometimes lacks the imagination to pump the very short story up to feature length and tries to fill time with a bit too much running around between cornfield and town than is good for the film's pacing on one hand, and doesn't explore the children's weird religion as much as one would wish for on the other hand. Sure, Kiersch clearly wasn't able to find a way to make He Who Walks interesting or convincing to look at.

However, for every missed chance, the script also contains something good. I particularly enjoy the mix of bible-bashing Christianity and real unpleasant paganism (you know, the sort with human sacrifice) the little we do see of the kids' religion has to offer; my, it seems the film suggests all hate-based religions are the same at their core. At times, especially in its treatment of Sarah and Job, Children is also rather clever about how it presents the way its children see the world, with Sarah and Job even half playing when they're trying to help Burt escape from a farm-tool carrying horde of their peers.

The children's acting on the other hand is generally horrible. The cleverly mock-biblical tone of the dialogue can't have helped with their performances, either, as fitting as it is thematically. Of course, it's difficult enough to find one good child actor anyhow, so it's pretty much impossible to get six or seven for a single film. Consequently, Children doesn't feature a single one. John Franklin and Courtney Gains are at least very enthusiastic scenery chewers, with Franklin also looking appropriately creepy for his role, so there is at least quite a bit of enjoyment to be found in the performances of these two. Actual creepiness, not so much.

Kiersch's direction of the whole affair is variable. He likes unnecessarily contrived fake scares a bit too much for my tastes, but he is also quite good at taking the creepy basic idea of his film and turning it effectively into pictures, so that the ever-present corn - also thanks to a lot of cleverness in the film's production design - takes on a malevolent personality.

Clearly, Children of the Corn isn't one of the overlooked masterpieces of the horror genre, but I think it is still a film it's easy to have a good time with. In fact, I found re-watching it after twenty years or so a much more enjoyable experience than I remembered. There is something to be said for the simple pleasures in life, and what could be more simple and more pleasurable than watching a movie about children worshipping a cornfield-based godhood with a rather Lovecraftian name, and killing off all unbelievers and grown-ups?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Ba'al - The Storm God (2008)

Technically, archaeologist Lee (Jeremy London) and ancient Sumerian translator Carol (Stefanie von Pfetten) are sent by their museum to check what the heck elderly archaeologist and Lee's former mentor Doctor Stanford (Scott Hylands) is doing at his dig in the (muddiest, warmest part of) the arctic circle. However, they soon find themselves involved in Stanford's hunt for four Sumerian amulets hidden all around the world (those Sumerians really travelled far) that are supposed to awaken the storm god Ba'al.

Unfortunately, even the excavation - or what the obsessed Stanford calls an excavation - of the first amulet is already enough to produce a supernaturally nasty storm - with a face - that ravages whichever part of the planet it touches. Further amulets will probably make the thing strong enough to destroy the Earth, or something. It takes quite some time until our heroes realize that Stanford is a raving lunatic, the kind of guy willing to risk destroying the world, rob his own museum and blame Lee for it, and rant whenever possible if it gives him a chance to cure the cancer he's dying from. Once they get it, it's time for a race around a world whose every country looks surprisingly like British Columbia.

Apart from Lee's and Carol's efforts, the storm squad of the US military and rogue meteorologist Doctor Pena (Lexa Doig) are also rather interested in the whole affair, what with super storms destroying the planet and all; there may be h-bombs in Baal's future.

Needless to say, the script for Paul Ziller's Ba'al is of glorious stupidity, mixing half-digested bits of archaeological lore, cultures that have fuck all to do with each other, ley lines, bad meteorology, illogical character motivation and all kinds of weird crap into a cocktail of sheer implausibility.

Also needless to say, the resulting film is highly entertaining in its overwhelming drive to be a low rent pseudo-archaeological adventure movie taking place all around the world while visibly never leaving Canada, and a low rent disaster movie at the same time, providing its audience with double the silly pseudo science, random chases, and a storm with glowing red eyes. Like nearly all films directed (and co-written) by Ziller, Ba'al is exceedingly well paced, which is to say, barely stops for a one minute breather before the next stupidly awesome thing happens, and always goes out of its way to provide as much thrills (in the classic and in the Bollywood sense of the term) as its budget can provide.

Ba'al may be stupid (and I'm hopeful everyone involved realizes that) but it sure as hell isn't letting itself get away with wasting time on winking at its audience, or being ashamed of its nature as contemporary pulp entertainment - that's after all time better spent on having Doig mumble outrageous stuff about super storms fed by the Van Allen Belt or have London and von Pfetten solve utterly idiotic "archaeological riddles".

I'm always astonished by the tenaciousness with which the better SyFy (in particular the ones directed by Ziller) movies actively work at being as fun as they can be, when really, they could get away with just putting any old crap on screen, something the bad SyFy movies of course do (I'm looking at you, Arachnoquake). That's probably not the spirit of art, but surely the spirit of the kind of low budget filmmaking that does care about its audience.

Friday, August 2, 2013

On Exploder Button: A Viking Saga: The Darkest Day (2013)

As an experienced friend of all that is horrible, I'm all for going into movies with low expectations, because then most surprises will be positive ones.

Chris Crow's not exactly honestly named A Viking Saga: The Darkest Day would not have needed me expecting a Hammer of the Gods rip-off to make a good impression, though. As a matter of fact, it's a really neat little film about the medieval mind. What's good about it, I'm going to explain in my column over at Exploder Button.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

In short: The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980)

In the months and years after Bruce Lee's death, various film industries, with Hong Kong quite in front, did their best to exploit the man's legacy with frightening enthusiasm. There were shady Bruce Lee biopics, Bruce Lee films made from old outtakes, Bruce Lee-themed softcore, but first and foremost, there was a small army of martials artists/actors willing (if anybody even asked them) to be rechristened into Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, or Dragon Lee, in the hopes nobody would realize this wasn't the original specimen before they had laid down their money.

By the time the 70s ended, there really wasn't anywhere to go for Brucesploitation movies, or so anybody not working for our old friends at Filmark thought. Somebody there stumbled upon an idea brilliant in its simplicity: why not gather a variety of pseudo-Bruces and let them team up and/or fight against each other? So it happened that Bruce Le, Dragon Lee, Bruce Lai aka Chiang Tao, Bruce Thai and some other guys of the type gathered. Of course, this being a Filmark production, we never get all of this dubious star power all at once, and instead find various combinations of Bruce clones (who actually are clones of Lee in the film) fighting through three very loosely connected episodes, because even when the Filmark guys didn't make one of their Frankenfilms (and I don't think this is one), they did their best to make any given movie feel like one of them.

One would expect the sheer exploitational chutzpa of the endeavour to be enough to turn The Clones of Bruce Lee into a minor classic of WTF filmmaking but once you've gotten over the idea of a Bruce clone team-up (which was good for about ten minutes for me), you realize that mostly, it's a pretty boring affair, directed in typical Filmark style (possibly by Joseph Kong Hung), which is to say, with actual visible direction being completely optional, decidedly monotonous fight choreography, and of course no plot or characterization to speak of. At about the forty-five minute mark, the film turns interesting for a bit, when three Bruces (two of them official clones) go to Thailand to provide us with some of the most bored looking titillation ever committed to film, and fight a pleasantly crazy scientist who has - among some decent ranting and raving - developed a method to paint some of his henchmen slightly golden, umm, turn their flesh to metal, I mean, making them unconquerable until our heroes feed them poisonous vegetation.

Now, even for me, one great horrible idea and ten to fifteen entertaining minutes do not a worthwhile film make, so I'd rather attempt to dissuade people from yawning through this thing. On the other hand, anyone actually inflicting Filmark productions on themselves (you know, like I do) will not listen to advice of this sort anyhow.