Saturday, November 30, 2013

In short: Blind Detective (2013)

Policewoman Goldie Ho (Sammi Cheng Sau-Man), excellent at the physical aspects of her work but not much of a detective, hires the blind master detective Johnston (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) to solve a disappearance that has bothered her since her childhood. Johnston likes reward money, good food, and solving age old cases for a living, so things should be set for a quick solution but things tend to get in the way, particularly Johnston's ways of finagling himself into Ho's apartment (so she can learn the art of detection from him, or was it because his own apartment needs repairs?), and using her to assist him in solving other crimes. Then there's this pesky little thing called love.

Blind Detective finds Johnnie To half-way between his most commercial impulses (the - very effective - tear jerkers that finance the films generally seen as more personal to him, though this just might be the result of a critical bias against certain genres) and his more involved films. On one hand, it's a sometimes - effectively - sentimental film full of physical humour and wild melodrama bringing together the stars of a successful romantic comedy, on the other one, it's also a film full of the visual energy and sheer imagination that makes To's films so special, and that he pares down for affairs like this. Consequently, I suspect this may be a film that won't taste quite right to the admirers of either one of To's extremes as a director.

To my own surprise as a definite non-fan of Hong Kong romantic comedy (or really, Hong Kong comedy at all), I found myself rather taken with the movie, the natural way it goes from light slapstick to outrageous melodrama to the sort of film that features a serial killer keeping quite a few corpses around his home and back again, the weird yet organic and elegant way To marries stylistic elements that really shouldn't belong into a single movie. This approach is rather typical of To of the last one or two decades, watching Blind Detective, however, never felt as if I were watching a film by a director coasting on his successes but rather a film made by a man still in love with the imaginative aspects of filmmaking, the possibilities of play, and the (perhaps childlike) joy of seeing disparate elements collide. Somehow, To also manages to make these things look slick.

While he's at it, To also makes a romantic comedy full of love gone wrong for one reason or the other, a cynical (or realist, depending on one's personal philosophy) view that again rubs disparately yet naturally against the happy end.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Outpost III: Rise of the Spetsnaz (2013)

Oh, look, it's the third movie in what is now officially the premiere Nazi zombie movie franchise (by sheer virtue of actually being a franchise). Not that the Outpost movies aren't fun enough to watch, but I'll come to that a bit later.

First, let's get that "plot" thing out of the way. Despite the very obvious "to be continued" ending of Outpost 2, the movie at hand is not a sequel but a prequel, so if you want to learn the origin story of the bunker in film one, or maybe film two (the films didn't impress so much I actually remember much of what was going on in them beyond Nazi zombies and underground bunkers, which is probably for the best), this was made directly for you.

So it's World War II, and a small unit of Soviet Guards led by Dolokhov (Bryan Larkin doing one of the better, that is to say, least hilarious accents in the film) is harassing the Germans behind their frontlines somewhere in German occupied territory. They get pretty close to a secret German scientific base where the Nazis under the leadership of a certain Strasser (Michael McKell, with a fake German accents that manages to be at once inauthentic to an embarrassing degree as well as often difficult to penetrate) make the kind of crazy super soldier experiments that don't result in Hauptmann Hakenkreuz but in nearly uncontrollable rage zombies.

Unfortunately, the surroundings of the titular outpost are quite well patrolled and defended, so most of the Russians are soon dead, while Dolokhov, his friend Fyodor (Iván Kamarás who is Hungarian not Russian, but hey, it's closer than being Scottish, at least) and their colleague soon-to-be-dead-guy are captured to be used in some choice Nazi science. After a bit of Nazi zombie cage fighting, Strasser decides his captives are best used for zombification. They are, after all, much tougher than his own men, and might just survive the zombification process better than them. He doesn't explain why he thinks building Russian super soldiers is a good idea, but then he does rant and rave a lot without half of his sentences actually being understandable. Whatever could go wrong?

As is obvious, the largest part of this Outpost is pretty much exactly like the first two, with many a scene of armed men running and sneaking through a dark bunker and doing violence to other armed men, and an occasional Nazi zombie or three. While this sounds a bit boring on paper, in practice, O: RotS (you didn't expect me to write the stupid title out, did you?) is rather good low budget movie fun, at least when one can accept that this Nazi zombie movie contains more zombie-less bunker-based action than one would hope. Said action is realized by director Kieran Parker (acting as a producer and writer on the first two films) fast-paced, bloody, and competently choreographed, though, so I didn't find myself missing the zombies too desperately when they weren't there, particularly since the zombie make-up turned out to be the point where O: RotS''s low budget shows most. As in, the zombie make-up is really quite bad.

Visually, the film's a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, I appreciate that Parker doesn't go all out on horrible digital editing tricks, whoosh-edits and that sort of distracting nonsense, on the other hand, O: RotS is yet another contemporary movie whose colour scheme is so desaturated it can hardly be called a colour scheme. One might be tempted to say they might as well have shot the film in black and white, but then black and white films need filmmakers to think about the relation between light and shadow in their compositions where the desaturated style is more a way for the lazy or unimaginative not to have to think about colour uses and colour meanings at all.

Still, O: RotS is mostly entertaining pulp action fun with one or two cute ideas, a lot of violence, deeply unpleasant protagonists fighting even more unpleasant enemies (seriously, there's a scene of Strasser urinating on a corpse just for shock value and to prove that he's really evil, as if the whole Nazi zombie thing weren't a hint), some moments of grim b-movie humour, and a few fine cheesy lines of the sort that clearly didn't write themselves. Consequently, I find myself looking forward to a potential fourth film, perhaps even one with one (or even two!?) larger female roles again - as long as it's not going to be called Outpost: Cry of the Nazi Valkyries.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Heavy metal goes medieval

Iron Man 3 (2013): If someone had told me ten years ago that a few years later, some of the best non-stupid blockbuster movies around would be a series of interlocked Marvel superhero movies produced by Disney, I'd laughed him off, but there you have it. Shane Black's Iron Man 3 is a very fine example of its species, hitting all the mandatory Hollywood blockbuster beats with relish and talent, but adding some intelligent twists to certain parts of the formula without trying to completely deconstruct it. It's a film absolutely impossible for me to dislike, seeing as it - as most of the other Marvel movies - is the kind of pop high budget cinema the blockbuster concept should be ideal for; of course, far too often, we get Michael Bay movies or whatever that Green Lantern thing was even supposed to be instead. Happily, there's a difference between "far too often", and "always".

The Midnight Meat Train (2008): With hindsight, you can see this Clive Barker adaptation as director Ryuhei Kitamura's first step away from his old show-off direction ways towards tighter and moodier approaches to filmmaking. About half of Midnight Meat Train is a pretty swell tale of big city paranoia told in ways that often remind me more of 70s horror cinema than of video clips. The film's second half is a bit of a mess, though. Particularly the murders see Kitamura fall into his old direction pattern featuring too much CGI and braggart editing and camerawork distracting from what should be gritty and unpleasant. The film also suffers from a script that doesn't quite seem to know how to sell the film's supernatural aspect, nor how to make Bradley Cooper's increasing obsession with the true heart of the City believable. Neither Kitamura, never much one for actual humans on screen, nor Cooper himself seem to know either.

In fact, in true Kitamura style, most of the performances (except Leslie Bibb's lamely doomed girlfriend Maya) are rather drab, leaving as Midnight Meat Train a film lacking an emotional core.

Sleeping Dogs (1977): Believe it or not, before Roger Donaldson went to Hollywood, he made some fine movies in his native New Zealand. Case in point is this pretty bitter, very 70s sort-of thriller about Sam Neill trying his best not to get involved in or against a new and improved fascist New Zealand but ending crushed by the wheels of history anyway. The film does avoid heroic, mostly even defiant gestures like the plague and instead shows flawed incompetents like you or me as they stumble through a world that suddenly has turned nasty on them, with no way out and no control at all regarding their own fates. Not even violence does change much.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In short: The Conjuring (2013)

It's 1971. Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor, putting her considerable talent to dubious yet effective use), her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and their truckload of children have put all their money - which isn't much - into buying a beautiful house out in the middle nowhere. Unfortunately, as soon as the family has moved into its new dream home, Weird Shit™ begins to happen. Frequent horror movie goers will at once identify their troubles as sure signs of Demonic Infestation™.

When weird turns dangerous, the Perrons ask demonologist couple Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) for help. The diagnosis isn't promising, because the family's troubles are the worst case of Evil™ the Warrens have encountered in their career until then and it'll take all of their resolve to get rid of the unwanted entities.

While I wasn't looking, James Wan turned into quite a horror director. Sure, he still wouldn't recognize subtlety it fell on his head, but he has obviously learned to use loud and garish, even more loud and garish, and incredibly loud and garish so well, his The Conjuring is something of a fun time, if a very empty one. In particular, Wan has now learned to use jump scares in a manner that doesn't induce eye-rolling and loud sighing from me, seeing as he mostly uses them as pay-offs for long and surprisingly effective suspense scenes.

One could argue that a really good director would probably just keep the suspense scenes and get rid of the jump scares completely but that would be too subtle for The Conjuring. For where Wan's efforts are hitting the mark, the script by Chad and Carey Hayes is the sort of concoction I expected (before I read other reviews online) even the mildest of viewers would have a hard time not to describe as outrageously stupid or just plain idiotic. There's really not a single thought to be found in the film beyond "demons bad", "family good", "Jesus awesome", "buy the books of Ed and Lorraine". For most of the time, the script tries to distract from that absence of anything, and from its manifold plotting troubles (just look how plain stupid the Warrens repeatedly act, despite having their own museum of haunted artefacts, and oh so much experience), by throwing one shouty, hopefully creepy set piece after the next at its audience. Thanks to Wan, this distraction manoeuvre is quite effective, though the film never reaches the point of transcendent stupidity, that is to say, the point where stupid turns into awe-inspiringly strange, nor the point where I stopped caring about the stupidity going on.

The Conjuring is always at its weakest when it feels the need to work as an advert for the real-life Warrens and their "demonology" bullshit, really not giving the on-screen couple any mentionable flaws beyond their stupidity, whose existence the film doesn't even seem to realize, and not putting a single thought into what it would actually mean to live in a world as haunted by the supernatural as it and the Warrens argue it is. But then, that would lead to a film that actually has something interesting to say, and we can't have that, now can we?

Still, as far as intellectually and emotionally empty experiences that try to distract from their failings by copious amounts of - real and metaphorical - shouting go, The Conjuring is pretty awesome.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Man Who Turned To Stone (1957)

A prison for young women has a curiously high lethality thanks to a peculiarly high density of inmates with very weak hearts; nobody seems to care much, though, until young progressive social worker Carol Adams (Charlotte Austin), new to the facility, starts to take an interest. What she doesn't know is that most of the staff consists of the original mad scientists led by a Dr. Murdock (Victor Jory) who learned at the feet of the Count de St. Germaine how to siphon young women's bioelectric energy and become immortal in the process.

Nearly two hundred years seem to have made the group complacent, though, and an attempt to get rid of Carol by blaming her for the faked suicide of the newest of their victims only brings in another outsider with the best interest of the girls at heart, this time in the 50s-manly form of psychiatrist Jess Rogers (William Hudson). The scientists' life isn't made easier by the fact that their life-prolonging life-force-sucking isn't taking as well as it once did. In fact, Eric (Friedrich von Ledebur), the mute working as the group's factotum, by now needs a new soul nearly nightly lest he meet the end that awaits all of these semi-immortals and turn to stone. And you know how difficult to find good mute servants are. At the same time another member of the coterie has grown squeamish and might just leave a detailed account of what's going on to Jess when his friends decide to act against his defeatism.

László Kardos's The Man Who Turned to Stone is an obscure and minor entry into 50s SF/horror, but it's not a film completely without interest. Unlike other films of the style The Man is quite low on truly reactionary content. In fact, writer and blacklist victim Bernard Gordon makes it quite obvious that he approves of Carol's rather more progressive ideas about re-socialisation - though he's not so progressive not to turn to Jess as the film's actual hero and leave Carol by the wayside for most of the running time. On the other hand, he gives the female victims of our scientific vampires a smidgen more agency in their own rescue than usual in these films, and while they're not allowed to rescue themselves, they do at least have a hand in their own salvation. Additionally, it's rather difficult not to interpret a film that is about a group of older, well-situated people who literally suck the life force out of the young people they are supposed to better and take care of, until other, luckier young people who try to get through the class barrier with good-will and trying to see eye to eye with their wards save the day, as at least somewhat left-leaning.

The film's science vampire idea and its execution comes right out of a pulp story of the sort you could have found in Weird Tales or just about any other magazine interested in using the old science gone mad thrills, with Eric in the end turning into the usual mute fiend who likes to carry unwilling women around. But here, too, the film has a handful of half-way interesting ideas, with the addition of occultists' favourite Count de Saint-Germaine to its backstory, the simple yet effective details of the life force sucking process, and the plain strangeness of having the not-quite immortals slowly turn to stone when they are not feeding, their heartbeats suddenly audible to everyone around.

Thinking this over, I can't help but imagine what a fantastic film could have been done with this material. What we actually get is decent 50s low budget feature that could have used a director with more visual imagination than Kardos shows (except in one or two scenes the more generous viewer might call influenced by expressionism) but that does at least pace its often very obvious outward thrills decently and features a romance which, while not exactly bound to make the viewer of 2013 happy, not makes you want to scrub your brain out afterwards.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Derailed (2002)

Secret - so secret we never even learn what organization he's working for - agent Jacques Kristoff (Jean-Claude Van Damme, obviously) has a very bad day in front of him. Not enough that his people take him off his birthday vacation to help the thief Galina Konstantin (Laura Harring, totally Eastern European) escape from Slovakia carrying some very secret loot she's selling to his people, a thing sure to anger his wife (Susan Gibney) and kids (Jessica Bowman and authentic Van Damme son Kristopher Van Varenberg) who think he's some sort of business person. No, additionally, the train Jacques and Galina escape on after Jacques explodes some cars is hijacked by international evildoer Mason Cole (Tomas Arana) and his goons, Jacques's family makes a surprise visit on the train and now thinks he's having an affair with Galina, and the very secret loot turns out to be an upgraded variation of small pocks that of course is set free when Jacques starts playing Die Hard on a Train, infecting everybody on board.

Fortunately, Jacques can shoot, knows That Kick, drives motorcycles on roofs of moving trains, and is totally honourable too.

Bob Misiorowski's Derailed, produced by Van Damme's own company in cooperation with the usual suspects (I really need to get around to computing the percentage of Van Damme films involving Boaz Davidson in some capacity), is how I imagine most people not as involved in actually watching these films imagine all Van Damme movies are: cheap, dumb, and full of the sort of ridiculous action movie cheese that either leaves you giggling happily or rolling your eyes a lot (I prefer the former). Van Damme rides a motorcycle on the roof of a moving train for gods sake, and when one of his henchmen tells Cole he fell off doing this, Cole's reaction does not contain words to the effect of "wait, he drove what where?"!

Because doing Die Hard on a Train alone would be a bit too boring (one can't fall behind the achievements of Steven "The Whale" Seagal, after all), somebody involved in the production had the brilliant idea to add disaster movie clichés to the action movie clichés in a gesture I can't help but find quite daring. Not surprisingly, Derailed's interpretation of the disaster movie genre is even more low-rent than that of the action movie (or is it the Die-Hard-alike?), so don't go and expect the one-note characters to be played by Hollywood stars past their prime, or George Kennedy (a man perpetually past his prime). On the other hand, the mild melodramatic contortions the film goes through with small pocks and train engines on fire do result in a complete lack of slack in the film. When Van Damme isn't kicking people in the face, there's guaranteed to be some sort of train problem, a Texan losing his shit over the small pocks outbreak, Van Damme's doctor wife doing heroic disaster movie doctor stuff, or something else to distract a viewer from the horrible emptiness of the universe and the cold glare of the stars.

Given this, you really can't say the film isn't working hard for its money (there are also unconvincing CGI and miniature effects to admire). Sure, it's dumb, sure, it spits on your notions of logic and gravity, but it's also lacking boring attempts at self-irony, and contains lots of scenes of Van Damme doing Van Damme things; though if you're coming for nearly nude Van Damme or ass-shots of our hero, you'll probably leave rather disappointed.

Be that as it may (and heterosexual me has seen JCVD nearly nude so often, I'm starting to get confused when he keeps his pants on), I know, it's only a cheap Die Hard rip-off with disaster movie elements, but I like it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

In short: Tales from the Dark 1 (2013)

Even in the rather sad state it is in right now, Hong Kong cinema can sometimes still offer positive surprises. Case in point is the anthology movie Tales from the Dark 1, which features three independent yet thematically connected horror stories by different directors (Simon Yam Tat-Wah in his directorial debut, Lee Chi-Ngai and Fruit Chan), all based on the stories of Lillian Lee Pik-Wah.

Simon Yam's story sees a half-crazed impoverished man played by Yam finally touching a spirit world he has always been closer to than he expected when he attempts to steal and ransom some urns. Lee Chi-Ngai's second story concerns an aging fortune-teller's (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) last job before his retirement and his attempt to get back together with his wife, shown in a very low key - at least for Hong Kong - comedic manner. Finally, Fruit Chan's story concerns the folk sorcery tradition of villain hitting (a link worth following, I think) and ghostly vengeance.

All three stories are moodily filmed, with Simon Yam showing himself as a director able to really get into a capital-w weird mood, and as the kind of actor you can actually put behind a camera without horrible consequences. Why, he's even rather subtly hiding away certain elements of his plot in plain sight. Everyone behind the camera is clearly well versed in the technological the state of the art of filmmaking without feeling the need to show off.

So far, so competent. What makes Tales from the Dark 1 interesting, particularly as a Hong Kong movie, is how little it tries to follow the expectations its prospective audience will carry towards horror cinema from the city. There's barely a single centipede on screen, the gore is not at all plentiful (only Chan's episode is interested in being gruesome at all), and where Hong Kong horror generally likes to wallow in cynicism and misery, all three stories here are connected by quite a different thematic angle. These are all stories about letting go (even if it means dying, or not committing an act of vengeance), about accepting change and endings, and because they are also all stories that don't pretend life as such is necessarily nice or fair, they are quite a bit more convincing at making their points than you'd expect, generally avoiding a kitschy feelgood vibe while also keeping away from mere cynicism. For a film with so much death and sadness in it, Tales' basic feeling is one of hope.

Even though I've always been a fan of Hong Kong horror's extreme nastiness, I find the approach of Tales from the Dark towards horror and the ghost story a rather enticing one, suggesting that there's still quite a bit of life in the old lady Hong Kong, at least today.

And who'd have thought to ever see a horror movie from the city that finds a ghost stopping her vengeance because she feels compassion?

Friday, November 22, 2013

On ExB: Sci-fighters (1996)

One of the beauties when digging through the kind of low budget fare I spend most of my movie watching time on is stumbling upon a film that is just that decided, if small, bit more interesting and complex than its peers, even though it is in many ways an utterly generic SF/action/horror piece.

Despite its deeply threatening title, threatening stupidity, that is, Sci-fighters is one of these films, so if you want to know what I found somewhat interesting about this Roddy Piper/Billy Drago vehicle, click on through to my column on Exploder Button.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

In short: Sphinx (1981)

Egyptologist Erica Baron (Lesley-Anne Down) is on her first trip to Egypt to keep contact with shady antiques dealer Abdu-Hamdi (Very Egyptian John Gielgud) for her boss, and do a serious amount of sight-seeing.

Abdu-Hamdi has something quite interesting to show her: a hitherto unknown statue carrying the names of Tuthankamun and Seti I., as well as that of Erica's special person of interest, Seti's architect Menephtah (in random flashbacks of dubious use to the film to be played by Behrouz Vossoughi). Unfortunately, Abdu-Hamdi is murdered before he can disclose the history and provenance of the statue. Erica's interest is more than a little piqued, and, despite her temperamentally really not being cut out for the adventuring life, she starts to poke around after Abdu-Hamdi's business and the statue. This, after all, could lead her to the archaeological find of a lifetime.

Soon the same people who killed the antiques dealer are after Erica too, as well as a black market dealer (the inevitable John Rhys-Davies) and a guy with a gun who may or may not belong to either of the factions. Rather more helpful to Erica are charming (it's an assumed trait, for he is French and this is that sort of movie) journalist Yvon Mageot (Maurice Ronet) and Egyptian department of antiquities investigator Akmed Khazzan (Even More Egyptian Frank Langella). If only Erica knew whom to trust!

Franklin J. Schaffner's Sphinx's main attraction is that not little of it was shot in Egypt itself, leading to large amounts of high quality tourist picture postcard shots. In fact, Schaffner uses so much of this admittedly very pretty footage that it more than once gets in the way of the film's actual plot of "exotic" intrigue and Victoria-Holt-style romance. Again and again, said plot is put on hold for another round of Lesley-Anne Down posing in front of prettily shot tourist attractions.

It's not as if the "Visit beautiful Egypt!" parts weren't well done, or as if the film never used them to enhance its plot, but for long stretches of the running time it becomes rather doubtful if you're watching an ad for holidays in Egypt or a movie about the adventures of an Egyptologist (who, by the way, hasn't bothered to learn a single word of Arabic). When the movie decides to be a movie, it is very old-fashioned, quite silly, yet also effective if you're like me and like rather old-fashioned adventure movies. There's even a minor thematic thread doubting the moral correctness of the European and US plundering of Egypt's cultural treasures, though the film is too distracted by gawping at Egypt to make much of it.

Despite these shortcomings I mostly enjoyed my time with Sphinx, for if it often is more of a tourism ad than a movie, it is a very attractive tourism ad which, when it gets around to it, just happens to feature some competently staged scenes of mild adventure.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: THE ONLY WAY TO LOVE IS TO DIE!

Avenger of the Seven Seas aka Il giustiziere dei mari (1962): Domenico Paolella's adventure movie contains just about everything one could possibly hope for in an Italian film of its type and era: Richard Harrison! Pirates! The most evil British commanding officer in a film not made in the USA! Italians in brown-face playing cannibals! A giant man-eating plant! Exciting ship battles! Exciting land battles! Torture! Romance! People calling each other traitor for the most perfunctory of reasons so that DRAMATIC EMOTIONS can result!

And while Paolella does not present any of these elements with more than the strictly necessary verve, the resulting film is still very good fun, particularly because it clearly doesn't care that not all of its elements would traditionally belong together in one film.

13 (2010): Director Géla Babluani remakes his own 13 Tzameti with Hollywood talent, so Mickey Rourke is doing is usual shtick, Jason Statham wears a hat and his aggressively grumpy, a painfully fragile looking Ben Gazzara and his fake German accent chew scenery, and 50 Cent can't act for shit. I haven't seen the original, so I can't be as offended by the remake as everyone else seems to be. Instead, I think this is a fine film that uses its organized group Russian Roulette idea as quite obvious critique of capitalism. The film does suffer a bit from a tendency to meander where it would have been more effective for it to be concentrated, particularly because the characters of Rourke, 50 Cent and Gazzara all feel grafted on because the actors were available, and do not really seem to be organic parts of the film.

Maneater aka Evasion (1973): In Vince Edwards's TV thriller made in what must be one of the golden years of TV movies, Ben Gazzara and friends get in trouble with crazy Richard Basehart who defies their city-slicking ways (and gets his kicks from seeing people getting killed; and from ranting, obviously). That would be bad enough for them, but the good man also comes with an equally crazy henchman and two man-eating pet tigers. Soon a very special hunting trip through the wilderness ensues.

What also ensues is a fine little survival thriller (possibly co-written by Jimmy Sangster, though only the IMDB, not the film use his name) full of clever little flourishes. Actor Edwards turns out to be a rather good director, keeping things tight (sometimes consciously claustrophobically so) and letting his actors do the rest. The film's only problem is one I assume nobody involved is responsible for: the version of the film floating around is of a somewhat battered VHS recording (with bonus digital artefacts), and tends to be very very dark, which becomes something of a problem in the film's final third that takes place exclusively in the dark. It speaks quite well of Maneater and its director that it is still thrilling to watch even when you can't see what's going on in it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Popcorn (1991)

A group of film students want to put on a horror all-nighter in an old-style movie palace a few weeks before it will be wrecked. The films are all classic gimmick horror in the spirit of William Castle, so the students plan to go all-out with the gimmicks, leaving no seat un-electrified, and no nose not bleeding when watching THE STENCH.

Alas, doom announces itself when our heroes discover a reel of a film of film cult(!) leader Lanyard Gates, who ended his career of taking drugs and making creepy films with an attempt to murder his family live in the movie theatre. Strangely, Maggie (Jill Schoelen), one of the students and our obvious heroine, recognizes Gates in the movie, for she has been dreaming of him for months.

Maggie won't realize that there's a rather natural explanation for this recognition much later than is good for her or her friends, but the audience learns much sooner that Maggie's mother (Dee Wallace) must have been a member of the cult, and that someone or something - perhaps Lanyard Gates himself - is out for revenge. So it's not exactly a surprise when the horror all-nighter becomes the noisy and enthusiastic background to a series of murders committed by a guy in the habit of stealing other people's faces. It's too bad too, for the show would have been a great success without him.

Mark Herrier's Popcorn is a rather great horror comedy whose mood permanently fluctuates between silliness, the sort of hysteria that comedy and horror share, and an enthusiastic "best of" of all kinds of horror. Alan Ormsby's (who also started as director of the film before "being replaced") script shows a clear and obvious love of the genre it is working in, as well as a sure hand when playing with genre conventions without feeling the need to tell its audience what it's doing right now. There's clearly no need for the film to pat itself on the back for its cleverness, nor does it assume its audience doesn't get what it's doing without being told. I do like an assumption of basic intelligence in my movies, I have to say.

Watching Popcorn I found myself particularly happy about the ease with which it unifies its disparate elements, showing no trouble at all going from teen comedy through dream-like killings through the excellent ravings of the murderer and to the particularly lovingly made movies in the movie, which are often very effectively and funnily intercut with the murders.

These mini movies are a pleasure in themselves, really getting the tone needed for lovingly making fun of the kind of film that sold itself through smell-o-vision right, and clearly based on films many of my readers will have no trouble recognizing, I hope. If you've seen and written about as many films of the style as I have in the last three decades (well, the writing hasn't been going on for quite that long), you can't help but see someone involved in the production as a kindred spirit. Particularly when you add all these other shout-outs to various horror traditions: the casting of Dee Wallace, the excellent parodies of 50s and 80s horror movie romances, the echoes of Phantom of the Opera, various slasher movies, José Mojica Marins, and many a thing more obvious (like the film posters), and much less obvious (everybody should find these on their own, I believe). Even better, with all these elements around, Popcorn still feels much less than a patchwork movie than the description would lead one to suspect: the way Herrier and/or Ormsby use them, they all belong in the same movie with naturalness (as far as you can speak of naturalness in a movie that is so lovingly a movie instead of a depiction of "reality") and style.

Which of course makes it quite impossible to say how someone who doesn't share my personal predilections will see or approach Popcorn. To me, this is a delicious, comedic piece of over-the-top clever low budget horror wrapped in peanut butter of movie nerd-dom - a film impossible not to love.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Universal Van Damme: The Quest (1996)

It's the 20s of the last century. After various complications that unnecessarily prolong the beginning of the movie, poor American friend of orphans Chris Dubois (Jean-Claude Van Damme) takes part in a very special martial arts tournament that should provide him with a giant gold dragon that'll keep his kids and him off the streets forever. Because it is that sort of film, the tournament proceedings are also the culmination of our heroes' unwitting quest for moral clarity, so he's (alas, only metaphorically) got con artist Roger Moore (in one of his less smug performances) sitting on his left shoulder, and professional boxer James Remar on his right shoulder, pushing him into the directions of wrong and right, respectively.

Apart from that, there are only various violent encounters standing between our hero and his destiny.

Despite my love for martial arts cinema, I've never been too fond of tournament movies, a sub-genre that generates exceptionally mechanical stories even in a genre not exactly known for its variable plotting. Just take a white guy taking the hero's journey (yuck), let him fight a bunch of national stereotypes in some sort of ring while more or less rousing music plays, and you've got your whole film in the can. Frankly, I just find this boring and lacking in imagination or just simple emotional interest, so only a very few tournament (or tournament-centric) movies manage to not bore me, mostly those that either play around with the sub-genre's too obvious structure, or those who really go all out in the martial arts scenes, either via particularly great choreography (nothing all that easily done when fights happen in a ring) or via batshit insanity.

The Quest doesn't belong to any of these more inspired groups, unfortunately. While the fights are absolutely competent, there's just not enough variety in their set-ups to keep up my interest. The silly national stereotypes for their part are good for one or two laughs and one or two moments of eye-rolling but are not good or unpleasant enough to do anything more in the negative, yet are going too far to be able to provide a different sort of interest - say via characterization as actual people and interesting interactions outside of the ring.

The Film is Van Damme's directorial debut, so I'm not too surprised he went for a very safe structure, but it's exactly these particularly safe structures that need someone with experience or just a lot of talent behind the camera to become anything more than an exercise in rote repetition of clichés. As a director, Van Damme is neither. He's clearly a competent director, even competent enough that it seems a bit of a shame he never really tried to make a career out of it, during which he very well might have become more than competent. At the very least, he's an action director who knows when to step back and just let the martial artists and stuntmen show their stuff, even when it's not himself he's stepping back for, and the stuff they're showing isn't all that great.

One can't even blame Van Damme for not having tried anything with The Quest. Before the whole tournament business starts, there's a long-winded attempt to set up the film as Chris's epic story of growth into a responsible adult, but this too is mired down by a lack of imagination. It's rather as if the film were stating that it is going to explore important ideas about moral growth, and declaring its own epic sweep but doesn't quite know how to actually establish them, instead falling back on the sort of cargo cult filmmaking where a director uses signifiers from other movies whose functions he doesn't really seem to understand.

Having said all this, I do think The Quest is a perfectly watchable movie, just not a memorable one, nor one anyone should go out of her way to seek out.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Slayer (2006)

This is another one of those independently produced films that landed itself a SciFi Channel premiere, and like a much higher percentage of those films than of the ones SciFi/SyFy had an actual hand in making, it's pretty bad, and not even in a relatively entertaining manner. Yes, I just implied that SyFy Original Movies are often actually pretty good.

Anyway, this one finds Casper van Dien as the action movie hero name carrying US soldier Hawk (no relation to the protagonist of Dragon Age II, who is a girl), traipsing through the jungle of a Central American nation to help out with the local vampire problem, and rescue his ex-wife who left him because of an earlier vampire encounter he and his men had in the same area. He has to fight vampires played by Latino actors and Ray Park, all doing white boy kung fu, as well as his freshly turned former best friend Kevin Grevioux whose acting approach is best described as "has a deep voice", while being the worst fearless vampire slayer ever. Lynda Carter and Danny Trejo pop in for a few scenes, and not much else of interest happens.

Not surprisingly, the "action" of this action horror piece is rather on the lame side, with director Kevin VanHook never getting a bead on how to make his vampires look physically threatening instead of just silly when they do random acrobatics and snarl like cute little pooches. It's also all rather repetitive, too, for no single vampire attack or fight ever adds up to even a minor set piece, or even reaches the levels of mild craziness of your most minor Italian jungle action movie. For the first two or three action scenes, this visible cluelessness is rather charming but the film quickly reaches the point of monotony.

This impression is further exacerbated by a weak script that wastes its more interesting ideas (who knew vampires are caused by the Fountain of Youth Ponce de Leon was looking for?) on an aside or two and doesn't even attempt to do anything with about a dozen opportunities to at least grab itself a theme like a real movie. Of course, Slayer is a movie that seems to miss about five transitional and expository scenes that would at least have helped to make it feel less random and not quite as unnecessarily disjointed.

But hey, Danny Trejo smiles a few times.

Friday, November 15, 2013

On ExB: Night Wars (1988)

"Conan, what is best in life this week?"

"Watching an Action International Pictures movie that crosses 'Namsploitation, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Dan Haggerty. Should be more than enough to see your enemies driven before you, unless your enemy is the owner of this blog. He'll just love it."

Wanna be like Conan (again)? Click on through to my write-up over at Exploder Button!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Three Bonds Make A Post: Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008) & Skyfall (2012)

For all my love of Eurospy movies, I have avoided the James Bond movies these films were merrily ripping off for two decades and a half. I only have that much patience for a series of films about a smug jerk without discernible character traits fucking and killing while travelling around the world, particularly when the films clearly have no idea how deeply loathsome their hero is.

The Daniel Craig reboot movies actually seem made with people like me in mind. Suddenly, Bond actually has a character and not just an attitude. Even better, particularly Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are out to criticize Bond's misogynist streak, explain it, and then proceed to actually do something about it. Sure, in the end (or Skyfall), Bond's emotional morals are still dubious, and he's still much too fast solving problems by killing people, but the films add enough actual character development (and even a bit of meta-plot and thematic coherence between the movies) to make clear he's at least improving; and it's always easier to sympathize with a guy who is at least trying than one whose movies comment every murder and betrayal he commits and every death that is his fault with a loud "fuck yeah!".

Plus, the films are really much better than they ought to be at keeping the balance between deconstructing elements of the Bond movie mythology and just enjoying being part of it. And, you know, Judi Dench, or rather, Judi Dench and the films' generally successful efforts to turn the female characters here into something different from Bond fuck dolls. In fact, every film affords at least one of its female characters as much complexity as Bond possesses, which is more than I'd ever have expected from them.

If I were a pessimist, I'd probably see the changes at the end of the third film as the starting point for a regression into less interesting times, but then these last three films should be reason enough to give the series the benefit of the doubt, particularly since the next Bond film will be again directed by Sam Mendes whose Quantum of Solace shows him surprisingly great at imbuing the scenes of spectacle with meaning where Casino Royale's Martin Campbell and Quantum of Solace's Marc Forster tended to a somewhat old-fashioned solidity or the camera shakes, respectively.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Some Thoughts About World War Z (2013)

Not surprisingly, the attempt to adapt Max Brooks's novel "World War Z" to the script structure all contemporary Hollywood movies have to follow, lest their audience would have to think a second or two a day, is pretty much a failure. In fact, the novel is a book that fits the "one pretty white guy with a father complex saves the world with the same dramatic beats all other mainstream films that came out this year had" particularly badly, seeing as its great strength is its width of different perspectives.

That point is also the big difference between the novel and pretty much all other approaches to the zombie apocalypse, which usually concentrate on a few people huddling up in very limited locations. Turns out that Brad Pitt jetting around the world being rather heroic (though at least lacking the father complex) is no good replacement for that approach, nor is the film's reliance on the same tired old set pieces zombie media of all type have delivered since Saint Romero delivered the gospel, realized by director Marc Forster with competence and in that semi-realist style that never quite gets gritty or real enough to deliver any actual emotional punches. Pitt is after all not actually acting but starring, and every other character (including his family) is only ever there to be visited for a bit or to motivate our protagonist to continue being heroic. Frankly, it's just a painfully boring approach, and a perfect example of what's wrong with scriptwriting in Hollywood right now - and I say that as a guy who does like blockbuster cinema well enough to call Pacific Rim his film of the year.

However, even if I choose to ignore the film being just another zombie movie but with a higher budget and less guts (in every sense of the word), it's just not a very good one. It's not only that the zombies are as lame and generic as the script (by J. Michael Straczynski whose writing career is a series of wasted chances, and Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof who both really can do much, much better yet only do better about half of the time): what World War Z is lacking seems to be conviction, a willingness not to just go to unpleasant places but to stay there, to present the end of the world with actual gravity, or to at least provoke emotions that go beyond lazy shorthand that assumes an audience so programmed to react to certain types of scenes in a certain way and therefore never seems to get around to thinking form and function of its elements through.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Waits Below (1985)

The US military is planning to install some kind of secret experimental radio transmitter in cave systems somewhere below a Central American country. Unfortunately, they have two problems. Firstly, they haven't found an actual cave entrance yet, and the major responsible for this particular transmitter, Stevens (Timothy Bottoms), is running out of time to get the device up and running in time for a manoeuvre. Secondly, a merry trio of anthropologists (Richard Johnson, Anne Heywood and Lisa Blount) with a hankering for caves is poking around in the very same area the military is interested in.

To solve the situation, the uniforms call in mercenary with a side-line in caving Rupert "Wolf" Wolfsen (Robert Powell, of all people), who has been hating Stevens for good reasons ever since the Vietnam War. Thanks to the efforts of Wolf and the anthropologists whom he befriends where Steven went the antagonizing route, a cave entrance is eventually found, but soon the men posted with the transmitter are attacked by mysterious forces and disappear together with the device. It's time for a rescue expedition consisting of Wolf, the anthropologists, Stevens and some redshirts. But who or what is waiting for them below?

What Waits Below's director Don Sharp was always a dependable man whose films are generally highly competent and watchable, and who always could surprise one by detours into actual brilliance. The film at hand isn't one of the latter, and the former it will only be for viewers with a bit of patience. For unfortunately, before the film gets to its actual meat in form of the adventurous cave expedition, there's an astonishing amount of introductions, dithering, and pointless nothing to get through that really starts What Waits Below off in a bad way. It's five minutes of set-up - most of the character bits could have been fruitfully moved into the caves - drawn out over thirty minutes plus.

Once the film finally gets going it doesn't exactly turn into an affair full of fast-paced excitement, but the acting is solid, the caves and cave sets are fun to look at, and the film does some half subtle, very British clever things with the lost world tropes it uses. It's also a film that doesn't want to explain the obvious, so it never outright states that the albino people are the descendants of a much more technologically advanced people who now give a religious, or at least ritual, meaning to the artefacts their forebears left behind. It's not much but I appreciate it nonetheless.

The other element of What Waits Below I find worth mentioning is its tone. On a plot level, the film is of course another lost world adventure film but Sharp stages large parts of its running time - until the final twenty minutes or so - as if it were a horror film, milking the caves, the mysterious disappearances and the way the underground people are only glimpsed and not seen, as if this were a monster movie. It's an interesting approach, and while I wish Sharp had taken it even farther - once the underground people are really revealed, they're just not that frightening or original anymore - it's an interesting way to go about things that give What Waits Below a degree of individuality despite the well-worn ideas it uses.

Of course, the effect of the unknown terror turning into just people might very well have been a very consciously used one, even if it weakens the film's effect as a horror film and an adventure movie. It is, at the very least, not improbable to read the film as a political allegory where the sheer supernatural bogeyman we built our political enemies into turns in the end out to be not all that different from ourselves.

Which, come to think of it, is quite a daring thing to attempt in a film that starts out this boring and indifferent.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Maximum Risk (1996)

Nice, France. A man (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is killed after a semi-spectacular chase through the streets of the town. Curiously, the man looks exactly like local police officer Alain Moreau (obviously also Jean-Claude Van Damme). Alain didn't know it until now, but his mother sold his twin brother off when they were both just babies (times were hard, son), and the dead man is his brother Mikhail.

Understandably, Alain feels a rather pressing need to find out who his brother really was, who murdered him, and why. The trail leads him to New York where he soon learns that Mikhail was a member of the Russian mafia, practically the son of the organization's head Kirov (David Hembleu). Various people, among them Mikhail's girlfriend Alex (Natasha Henstridge), think Alain is Mikhail, which isn't all that horrible (though ethically problematic) in Alex's case, but is really rather unpleasant in case of the people who now think they didn't manage to kill Mikhail in niece, particularly slightly lower Russian mob boss Ivan (Zach Grenier). Add corrupt FBI agents and a list containing details about the Russian mafia's network in the US Mikhail supposedly possessed to the mix, and Alain has quite a few people wanting to kill him for one reason or the other. Fortunately, he is a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie character.

To get this over with right at the start: this, Ringo Lam's first movie made for the US market in the US, isn't as good as the director's best Hong Kong films, but then, a lot of his Hong Kong films aren't as good, either; no director shoots a City on Fire or a Prison on Fire with every film he makes.

However, Maximum Risk is still a film very much worth watching. While Jean-Claude Van Damme isn't Chow-Yun Fat, about 1996 when this was made is about the point when he added a degree of convincing acting to the kicks and the gymnastics, and before the drugs and his various other troubles made his performances erratic. So JCVD actually makes something of the opportunities to portrait a guy driven to uncover the secrets of his brother's past at least partly to understand himself the film gives him between action scenes. The script doesn't provide particularly deep insights here, but it's more than enough to make Alain more than just a deliverer of violence and bad puns, and give the film's action a degree of emotional meaning it wouldn't have otherwise. Maximum Risk doesn't go for lame action hero talk at all either, and so escapes the problem of somehow getting its audience to sympathize with a hero whose reaction to killing someone is a quip.

When he's not letting JCVD look oh so meaningfully into a broken mirror or have a desperate toilet sex scene with Henstridge (who doesn't do much of interest otherwise, unfortunately, but manages to keep her love interest out of the awkwardness zone he more often than not enters in romance scenes), Lam does something he's particularly good at, namely racing through a plot that isn't quite as simple as he makes it look, while providing one increasingly frantic yet clearly shot action scene after another.

Really, looking at the action scenes in what isn't even one of the man's best films is a master class in how to stage and shoot action for maximum visibility and maximum excitement, without using the crutches of ultra-fast cuts or particularly showy camera work. Here, the excitement comes from clever and imaginative staging (which is also what you use when you have to work with comparatively little money), and a director who seems to know instinctively how to shoot shoot-outs, car chases, hand-to-hand fights as well as dramatic scenes. What Lam achieves should embarrass ninety percent of directors making direct-to-video action films right now. I'm not usually somebody to shout "Look, this is how it's done right!", but: look, this is how it's done right!

Friends of JCVD beefcake will be happy to hear that he has a particularly homoerotic (it's all that wrestling) fight scene where he and his opponent are only dressed in towels (and underpants). Maximum Risk is actually a perfect example of how to provide appropriate stimulation for people of all sorts of sexual directions. Some may call it all-purpose sleaze or exploitation, I call it equality.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

In short: Static (2012)

Warning: I'll have to spoil the film's sort of plot twist. Again.

Writer Jonathan Dade (Milo Ventimiglia) and his wife Addie (Sarah Shahi) are still reeling from the accidental death of their three year old son Thomas, and have basically locked themselves away on their huge estate in the country. While Addie is trying to keep the trauma at bay by fleeing into drink, Jonathan has opted for burying himself in his work and making mopey-Milo-Ventimiglia facial expressions.

One night, a young woman calling herself Rachel (Sara Paxton) appears on the couple's doorstep. She says she's fleeing from a group of masked men, and could really use some help. The Dades do of course take her in, but something's clearly off about Rachel. She knows a bit too much about the Dades and their dead son for comfort, and she's acting more than a little strange.

One thing soon becomes clear: Rachel's masked men are pretty real.

I'm not much of a fan of the home invasion sub genre. I suspect it's a bit of a class thing for me, what with most of these films being about oh so lovely bourgeois or just stinking rich people being attacked by those 'orrible poor, with only a few entries of the sub-genre using this set-up to then explore issues of class instead of taking the poor as cheap human monsters.

Consequently, I should be more than happy when a film like Todd Levin's Static attempts to use audience expectations towards how a home invasion movie works to construct its twist (even though the film's not interested in talking about class at all). I generally do love this sort of thing but in Static's case, the actual execution leaves me quite cold. That's probably because Gabriel Cowan's script goes for the old "they have been dead all along!" chestnut, a trope used in more horror movies than I'd care to count, and which I'd - if I were the king of scriptwriting (lucky for anyone else I'm not) - expressly forbid any filmmaker to use unless she or he will do something wildly original or moving with it.

Static, alas, is neither very original nor very moving, nor is it all that wild. Instead, it's merely competent, neither doing anything more than averagely clever with its big idea, nor going really deep in its exploration of the Dades' grief. In fact, using the death of a child as the catalyst here seems to me the cheapest way to get an automatic emotional connection between the characters and the audience without the film actually having to work for it. Again, it's not as if Static did anything horribly wrong here, it's that it doesn't do enough that's truly right or interesting.

On technical level, Levin's direction is perfectly fine, too, and the actors are doing their best - which is quite a lot in the cases of Shahi and Paxton, not terribly much in Ventimiglia's case.

Again, Static is a film suffering from being highly competent but lacking that final element - be it intellectual, be it emotional, be it the virtue of being plain crazy - to make it anything special.

Friday, November 8, 2013

On Exploder Button: Violet & Daisy (2011)

Don't be fooled like I was into thinking that Geoffrey Fletcher's Violet & Daisy is just another pseudo-Tarantino movie, or the kind of film that finds teenage girls just hilarious, because then you'd miss out on a fantastic film that is neither of these things.

As always, my column over at Exploder Button will explain more.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

In short: The Moonstone (1997)

Thanks to decades of practice, British TV has developed a fantastic ability for making period drama, particularly period drama taking place from the 18th Century to the 1920s. Actors, directors, costume designers and writers work together to produce films and series that are never any less than convincing - not necessarily realistic - in their depiction of a given period, and usually perfectly timed to make melodramatic plots seem plausible and logical for the people and places they occur in. The best of these period pieces do of course a bit, often a lot, more.

This second version - after a 1972 mini-series I haven't seen - of one of Wilkie Collins's two great novels (the other of course being The Woman in White) does rather fall on the side of the pieces that don't do more, not really getting deeply into the colonial guilt of the book they are based on, nor really developing any element much further than Collins already did in the novel. That's not a horrible thing. The Moonstone is after all a very good novel, but where Collins was a rather progressive writer in the politics as well as the structure of his books, director Robert Bierman's version is quite conservative for its own time.

The Moonstone is still very entertaining, seeing as it was made on the level of craftsmanship I already praised - with a particular nod having to go to John Daly's clear and elegant photography - with attractive leads in Greg Wise and Keeley Hawes, and expectedly fine character acting by people like Peter Vaughan and Lesley Sharp. I just think I would have preferred an adaptation closer to Collins's spirit rather than his actual words.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Fiery Fury! Burning Passion! Flaming Color!

The Asphalt Jungle (1950): I know, this is the kind of holy grail movie you actually aren't allowed to criticize, but watching it has always been a frustrating experience for me. For about 80 percent of its running time, John Huston's movie is pretty much the perfect heist movie, the kind of film that seems unable to go wrong in anything, entwining its complexly drawn characters in a web they won't be able to escape at the end in a way that makes it look simple and easy.

Then, quite suddenly, everything gets bogged down in obvious examples of studio (and Code) interference, with endless, useless scenes for the dramatically useless Marilyn Monroe (who at this point in her career just couldn't act at all) character, and a needless fixation on spelling out every single detail of everyone's demise that makes DOOM look less existentialist than like a subset of tedious bookkeeping. Huston does his best (which is a lot, obvious) with what he has to work with at the end, but for me, these flaws turn what could have been the perfect heist movie just ever so frustrating.

L'insolent aka The Insolent aka Deadly Sting aka The Killer (1973): I suspect Jean-Claude Roy (mostly a specialist in soft and hardcore porn) would have loved to have Huston's kind of problems. As it stands, he's staging a low budget vehicle for Henry Silva playing a character modern parlance would probably re-dub The Jerk, with a script so indifferent and lackluster it won't even bother to explain our central character's motivation. Not that the rest of the script makes much more sense, for neither the central heist nor its consequences nor the ensuing double-crosses work in any way at all once you start thinking about them for more than one second.

Now, if Roy's direction were more stylish instead of bland and dependable, I'd love to be distracted from the script's numerous improbabilities, but as it stands, there are just so many more interesting Eurocrime or heist movies to watch I don't know why anyone should bother with this one. Roy doesn't even make very good use of Silva, a man - as everybody knows - born to play exactly this type of thug (or a very loving family man).

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013): If there's anything I dislike more than crappy semi-slashers with boring CGI monsters which should by all rights be awesome (or at least fun), it's crappy semi-slashers with boring CGI monsters that think they are oh so funny, even though they're just lazy and stupid. Axe Giant sure as hell is one of these examples of everything I hate, so the less said about it, the better.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Ragin' Cajun Redneck Gators (2013)

Warning: I'm going to spoil a perfectly excellent bizarre plot development of the kind one doesn't necessarily see coming, so proceed at your own risk.

Avery Doucette (Jordan Hinson) left her family home in the swamps of Louisiana some years ago to go to college, and because she didn't want to end up as the Southern white trash cliché everyone around her was. Now she's back, bringing with her excellent personal grooming habits and veganism. Avery hardly has time to rekindle her old Romeo and Juliet love for Tristan (Victor Webster), youngest and least incest-hit member of the traditional enemy of her clan, the Robichauds. For a strange, new and highly aggressive, species of gators, red of neck (oh yes they went there), with practical spike-shooting tails and a higher intelligence than usual is appearing in the area, and these Redneck Gators are hungry.

Once the gators start eating, Avery will have to drop parts of her vegan ways right quick, or there won't be any happy ending for her and Tristan. Perhaps it would also be helpful if the Doucettes and the Robichauds could forget their feud for a bit. Fat chance.

But wait, there's more: did I mention these animals are weregators caused by bad, chemically enhanced moonshine dumped in the swamp? Or that, like the bite of all good were-creatures, their bites are contagious?

So yeah, Ragin' Cajun Redneck Gators is Griff Furst doing the crazy monster movie dance for SyFy again, something that for me generally results in films I utterly loathe (don't mention Arachnoquake) or films that are the proverbial (gator oil) barrel of fun. RCRG clearly belongs to the latter group, hitting that sweet spot where a film is funny and whacky, yet also mildly subversive (just look at that ending, in which Avery ends up exactly like she didn't want to end up; you shouldn't go home again, it seems), as well as a perfectly fun piece of monster movie.

RCRG clearly knows what its audience wants - Cajun clichés and gator attacks - and has no qualms delivering that, but it also has no qualms at adding some unexpected depths (or at least complications) to its characters, nor does it shy away from making a very ambiguous commentary on the nature of "home" and "family" on a subtextual level. It's the best of both worlds and - I have used the comparison before when talking about some of these films - reminds me of the kind of film Roger Corman produced in his early New World Pictures days, films as stupid and silly as they could get away with (which is more today than it was back then), yet also as clever and fun as the people involved could manage.

Of course, there are also the expected "rednecks at dinner" jokes, a guy who never leaves his banjo, and gold teeth that transform right with you from human to gator, so if the film's interest in the thoughts about feeling strange among your own kin, of loving one's family but not belonging with it, isn't your cup of tea, it certainly isn't going to push it on you. Here, have an awesome gator attack and a bad joke instead. I for my part take, and love, of course all of it.

Speaking of these gator attacks, RCRG surprised me with some of the CGI being on the more convincing side, with more way more good moments than bad. This time around, the murderous animals actually seem to be having a physical presence, even when the script asks the effects crew for a half a dozen of them on screen at once. They are of course not perfect, but then when are effects ever perfect?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

On ExB: I Know Who Killed Me (2007)

In which we repeat the lesson that there's a good chance I'll adore movies everybody else seems to hate, say friendly things about Lindsay Lohan, try not to spoil a twist but not completely succeed, and provide pretty pictures like I never do around here.

I do suggest you click on through.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

In short: The Bell Witch Haunting (2013)

When will people ever learn to ask their real estate agents if the property they are interested in is haunted? The Sawyer family doesn't and soon finds themselves in a shiny new house in Tennessee right on the property famed for the Bell Witch Haunting. Not surprisingly, their house is haunted by the Bell Witch, who proceeds to go through all the tricks we know from Paranormal Activity style POV horror, so there will be falling and flying household items, levitating bed sheets, and last but not least possession. The family doesn't have it too bad, though, for people walking through the woods around the house get killed in violent and increasingly stupid ways by the witch, who really doesn't sell her point of getting the Sawyers to leave her house very logically.

All this doesn't just sound rather familiar but is shot by director Glenn Miller without much more than the usual cargo cult copying of the surfaces of the films it bases its ideas of scariness on. I don't mind so much that The Bell Witch Haunting does not seem to have a single original idea but rather that it really doesn't seem to know how to sell all the ideas it has borrowed decently.

The film is completely lacking in any sort of actual mood of horror, or dread, and never lets one forget that one is watching only a movie. Nor is there much excitement to be had, nor is the Bell Witch mythology used in any interesting way, or really, used in any way except for dropping the name and giving a vague one minute version of the supposed original haunting. There are one or two moments that actually threaten to work, but they are buried under the film's hapless attempts to have a higher body count than POV horror usually has by randomly getting people we couldn't care less about killed in the woods (of course all carrying cameras). Which also rubs the audiences' noses in the fact that the local police is reacting to a sudden series of violent deaths, and people from one family who knew all of the victims running around the woods in a disturbed manner, by picking up the bodies and delivering the family members back to their house, respectively.

Even worse, the grand finale starting with an - of course - failing exorcism, is just plain ridiculous, with the film seemingly giving up on even trying to be creepy or scary and instead just throwing bad make-up on a teenager, turning on the wind machine, and making screeching noises. Watching The Bell Witch Haunting's grand finale, I wasn't sure if I was mildly amused by its crappiness, or embarrassed on behalf of the filmmakers. But then this is an Asylum production, so I'm pretty sure I would be the only one embarrassed here.

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