Thursday, January 31, 2013

In short: Dredd (2012)

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), particularly frightful member of a dystopian police force of judge/jury/executioner types in an equally dystopian future, has just been saddled with telepathic Judge candidate Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) when the pair is locked into a (dystopian) slum skyscraper. They have to fight their way out or up through the gang of a certain Ma-Ma (Lena Heady), a remarkably psychopathic woman even in a time and place full of violent psychopaths. Parallels to The Raid - Redemption are without a doubt not based on plagiarism but the set-up being ideal for cost-conscious, tight action filmmaking.

After the horrible Stallone abomination, I did not dare hope for a decent adaptation of the long running British comic strip, especially after a trailer that screamed "crap action movie full of shitty one-liners". But sometimes, the universe is gracious, and so Pete Travis's version of the adventures of everyone's favourite fascist turns out to be a pretty darn great bit of the old ultra-violence, with some detours into entertaining surrealism, mostly courtesy of Anderson's telepathic abilities and a drug named Slo-Mo. Personally, I'd have wished for a film that underplays the source's SF parts a little less, and integrates a bit more of the typical sledgehammer satire (which in the case of the 2000AD classic may involve actual sledgehammers). As it stands, I'm not really sure the film understands that its hero is a murderous fascist monster, and that this might be something of a problem.

However, Dredd is a very effective action movie that not only does the blood and the explosions well but also gives age-old action movie tropes - especially when it comes to Olivia Thirlby's pre-Judge Anderson - some mildly clever twists and turns.

The film is also wise enough to not treat its titular hero (as embodied by Karl Urban's chin) as an actual human being with normal human emotions and - yuck - a character arc. It's somewhat ironic to praise a film for not turning its main character into a human being, but doing Dredd right predominantly means resisting the temptation to give him a Hollywood character arc and a "funny" sidekick. Anderson, being a woman in an action movie and all, is the one allowed to have feelings, but, much to my surprise, Alex Garland's script does put genuine effort into not stepping into the worst action movie cliché crap with her, which pays off well.

There's also some very effective acting by Thirlby, Urban's chin (the theoretically ridiculous helmet does in practice work for him and it), and Lena Heady who has slowly turned into a rather impressive actress of female big bads suffering from various degrees of insanity thanks to an ability to chew exactly as much scenery as any given scene can afford or slip into a more naturalistic acting style on a moment's notice.

It's all good, so Dredd's comparative lack of commercial success puzzles me quite a bit.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In short: Der Turm Der Verbotenen Liebe (1968)

aka Tower of the Screaming Virgins

Paris, 1315. The city is in minor upheaval, for nearly daily the dead bodies of nobles are fished out of the Seine. The public makes the "Witch of Nesle" responsible, a mythical creature supposed to kill the men in her tower on the outskirts of the city. In truth, Queen Marguerite de Bourgogne (Teri Tordai) and some of her chamber maids, goaded on by her chancellor the Duke de Lorrain (Karlheinz Fiege), use the tower for a kinky hobby: luring random nobles to a night of masked debauchery and letting them get slaughtered by just as nicely masked henchmen afterwards. One has to while away the time the King is gone somehow, right?

It's a good time for Swashbuckling war hero Bouridan (Jean Piat) to return to the city to protect the woman he has decided to marry, Blanche Du Bois (Uschi Glas). Blanche needs all the help she can get, for de Lorrain has taken an interest in the end of her virginity, and he's quite the cad when it comes to this sort of thing. Adding to that, Bouridan has his own reasons to hate de Lorrain and the Queen, but since they have reason to fear and hate him too, and are in quite a position to make his life hard, things will get difficult even for the best fencer in France.

The German-led German/French/Italian co-production Der Turm der Verbotenen Liebe (which translates to "The Tower of Forbidden Love") mixes three genres, two of which are particularly seldom seen in German post-war cinema. Not surprisingly, there aren't really all that many German swashbuckling adventures, nor are there many Gothic horror films. I'll give our local cinema that it did have its own style of exploitation movies, with more "educational" films about schoolgirls than one wants to imagine. Fortunately the exploitation elements in the film at hand are somewhat more interesting than those in a Schulmädchen-Report. As always, the integration of breasts into a plot filled with entertaining events makes an exploitation film more interesting than the mock documentary "report" (it's the German version of mondo, really, just more provincial and less racist) style.

First and foremost, though, this is a candy-coloured swashbuckler (based on a book by Dumas senior) that director Franz Antel (a director who did a bit of exploitation of the type we know and love, but spent most of his career in the most horrible of German movie genres, the "Musikfilm" and the "Heimatfilm") dynamically enhances with the Gothic horror by way of the krimi moments concerning the tower, the breasts, and the mild kinkiness (whips, masks, and inadvertent incest are the main course of the day here). It's not deep stuff, and Jean Piat's hero isn't as charming as he seems to think he is, but Antel's direction has verve and uses slightly pop-arty colours, fine sets, well chosen locations in Hungary and improbable (a pop fantasy of the middle ages, really) but awesome costumes to concoct a real crowd-pleaser, at least when the crowd concerned is me.

I suspect the whole affair was an attempt by various elderly filmmakers to channel the spirit of '68 into their cash registers while still working with a base genre that let them avoid including hippies (therefore avoiding the classic pitfall of old men exploiting youth culture of having no actual clue what any given youth culture is actually about) and was compatible with the tastes of slightly older parts of their audience too. For what it's worth, Der Turm der Verbotenen Liebe is one of the better efforts at this particular thing, with nary a moment that isn't entertaining in one way or the other.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Masacre Nocturna (1997)

This Mexican anthology movie features three very lightly connected stories. In the first, a strapping young actor does a Very Bad Thing to learn the secret acting and make-up powers of his very favourite actor. Turns out the secret is black magic, and murdering a black magician for his spell book never ends well.

The second story concerns the attempt of a quartet of criminal punks (oh, Mexican cinema, never change) to rob an aristocratic couple and their butler. But why are these aristos so damn sarcastic to the people with guns? And why is there a dismembered man in the fridge? Are these people from Transylvania or what?

The final story sees an elderly hunter (confounding action movie star Mario Almada) packing his nagging odious comic relief wife into an RV to finally hunt down the large, hairy creature - our hero prefers the name "Yeti" for it - he once encountered as a child.

By 1997, the Mexican genre movie industry had long since made the typical step towards generally indifferent direct-to-video material you can find all around the globe (at least that's how the situation looks from here; it may well be there's a deluge of great Mexican genre cinema of the era that never reached northward or eastward, though I highly doubt it). From time to time, though, someone like prolific director/actor/writer/producer Gilberto de Anda did (re-)stumble into the particular oddness that made up half of the charm of many a Mexican horror movie, and a film like Masacre nocturna appeared (I imagine out of a dry ice fog bank).

Of course, nobody conversant with my tastes or the sort of film to expect under these circumstances will be surprised to hear that Masacre isn't a "good" movie by anyone's definition: the stories are basic and rather stupid, de Anda's direction just not very interesting, and the jokes in the final two episodes - comedic and semi-comedic respectively - are particularly unfunny. This is a film that gets you (or rather me) by way of curious ideas and odd little moments, and not by being an effective horror movie or comedy.

However, if you're willing and able to appreciate a film for its sheer oddness, de Anda has quite a bit to offer. There's the bizarre decision to cast the young, jealous actor of the first story with a balding middle-aged guy (in fact, everyone apart from the thugs in story number two is at least middle-aged, even a band of "rapist indios" tend to the geriatric), the fact that everyone in the story speaks about the old actor's acting as incredible and his make-up as unbelievably realistic when he is in fact hamming it up like a champ, and his monster face looks like nothing so much as a rotting onion. Or the fact the police are absolutely sure the young actor is the killer of the elderly thespian despite their only clue being his fingerprints on a coffee cup (which isn't exactly the murder weapon). Everything in the movie is ever so slightly - or pretty damn heavily - off, as if de Anda (of course also responsible for the script) had never in his life stepped outside of his apartment, ever.

Further moments of greatness include the fluffy bigfoot, sorry, yeti costume, a gang of rapist indios who only seem to appear because Almada's annoying wife had complained of her fear of them three times, turning a bad tasteless joke into friendly lunacy, the adorable and friendly looking dog the werewolf in story number two transforms into (an inspiration for True Blood?), Mario Almada's romance with his friend Yeti (honestly, I would not have been surprised if the two had gone off into the sunset with each other, leaving Mrs Nagging Wife behind), or the sudden and ridiculous influx of bad gore effects when Yeti takes care of that gang of rapists.

"Delightful" is the word that comes to my mind as a descriptor here, so as "the delightful Masacre nocturna" the movie will be known forever more in my household. If you disagree, Mario Almada will complain about his lack of endurance, threaten you with a knife larger than his head, and stare at you disapprovingly.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Punisher (1989)

Everyone's favourite serial killer/vigilante Frank "The Punisher" Castle (Dolph Lundgren) is five years into his never-ending killing spree of Mafiosi and other criminals caused by the Mafia accidentally blowing up his family with a car bomb. Castle's efforts have weakened the crime syndicates so much, they need to reimport men like Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) from England to have any vaguely competent bosses at all.

As it goes with this sort of power vacuum, other criminals attempt to move in on the Mafia's turf, namely the united yakuza clans under Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori). What, after all, would a US action movie of this era be without all foreigners in it being evil? Lady Tanaka is a bit more competent and lacking in scruples than the remaining Mafia is capable of dealing with. Still the dons refuse her gracious offer of leaving them the City's day to day operations and twenty-five percent of the income. Clearly, rougher methods are needed, so the Yakuza kidnap the dons' children - not really to blackmail their fathers (there are no mothers in this movie) but to sell them into slavery. Oh those evil foreigners!

Ironically, the Mafia's only hope now is Frank Castle, because, as his alcoholic British actor informant Shake (Barry Otto) informs him, the situation is kind of his fault, and the children are innocents after all. I foresee a lot of dead Yakuza in Castle's future, that is, if his former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) who has been after him for these five years, won't catch him first.

Remember the olden days, when the best Marvel Comics could think of doing with their properties was shoving them off into directions like the greedy little hands of Roger Corman and New World Pictures? The Punisher as directed by future blockbuster editor Mark Goldblatt is clearly the best of the handful of resulting Marvel movies of this era, seeing as it, unlike Albert Pyun's Captain America, actually gets what the character is about (a seriously deranged guy murdering lots of more or less colourful gangsters), and doesn't go out of its way to annoy its potential audience. It's not a well-loved film, though, because Lundgren isn't exactly the obvious choice of actor, and he doesn't even wear the iconic skull shirt! Or something.

Tonally, this one feels very much like Mike Baron's stint with the character in comics, that is it is entertainingly violent, very much a thing of its time, and often also very silly. This is, after all, the kind of film where Castle when he goes to rescue a bunch of kids first steals a bus to transport them (sadly, not a yellow school bus). For that's how you transport children, right? And a film where the mute adoptive daughter of the main bad woman is inevitably a ninja. And her mum owns a pair of awesome automated torture racks she even brought with her to the US, just in case she needs to torture Dolph Lundgren. And where Louis Gossett Jr plays someone named Berkowitz.

Action and violence-wise, this is a professional, tightly edited action movie in the style of its time, with lots of automatic weapons making surprisingly tiny holes in people, knife throwing (who makes Castle's skull-handle throwing knives, by the way?), destroyed cars and quite a few scenes of Lundgren rappelling down from ceilings, as is the traditional tactic of the Punisher. The action is never quite as kinetic as I would wish for, but then brutal, if somewhat silly, heft fits Castle much better than anything more elegant anyway, and it sure is fun to watch as a silly-violent comic book movie.

Lundgren - never a personal favourite - is fine in his role too, seeing as the film mostly needs him to look grim while killing a lot of people, and roll his eyes in anguish from time to time, because Personal Tragedy! These are things Dolph knows how to do and does well, so I'm not going to complain about his performance here.

The way the film treats its foreign characters, as typical as it is of its time and place, would rather be more reason to complain about - Lady Tanaka isn't much better developed than Fu Manchu - but the film's jingoist undertones more or less deconstruct themselves. After all, the people standing in for the clean (oh, the irony) American Way of Life are a bunch of drug-dealing gangsters and a serial killer, so it's not as if the film were actually making any sort of coherent racist argument. It's just too dumb to think about how it uses its clichés.

That's perfectly okay for the kind of movie this is, one which really isn't out to explain the world to us but to entertain us with silly pretend-violence and shots of Dolph Lundgren sitting naked in the sewers. The Punisher is pretty great at that.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

In short: Sansone Contro I Pirati (1963)

aka Samson Against the Pirates

aka Samson Against the Sea Beast(s) (liars!)

The Carribean (Lake Garda), 1630. Shirt-hating trouser-sceptical hero Samson (Kirk Morris; relations to other half naked musclemen named Samson are never explained) fishes Amanda (Margaret Lee) out of the sea. Amanda, the daughter of a Spanish governor, has barely escaped capture and slavery by the pirate Murad (Daniele Vargas), the terror of the easily frightened Spanish Main. Amanda's lady friends haven't been so lucky and are now awaiting to be sold off to slave traders on Murad's - stolen - main base, a place with the more exciting-than-it-actually-is sounding name of Devil's Island.

Samson, being a hero and all, can't help himself and goes to the rescue. He, two friends of no import and Amanda rescue the maidens quite easily, but actually escaping Devil's Island with them turns out to be slightly more difficult. That's for the better, too, for Manuel (Aldo Bufi Landi), the leader of the local resistance against Murad, sure could use a shirtless guy to help him out against the piratical oppressor.

On paper, Tanio Boccia's Sansone contro i pirati sounds like a sure-fire win, seeing as it combines the pirate adventure movie with elements and shirtlessness of the peplum. Alas, what should be a blast is a mostly uninvolving, plodding affair.

The film's problems are easily spotted: its villain is a pudgy alcoholic who is about as threatening as (but less cute than) a puppy. Said villains only way to escape complete lameness is to possess even lamer henchmen, which turns out to be a problem once the film attempts to prove Samson's mythical awesomeness by having him throw a handful of said henchmen around. It's the sort of thing that doesn't really make a hero look so much heroic as like the kind of guy who'd probably win a fight against a bunny rabbit. That impression of Morris's Samson isn't exactly helped when he wrestles a fake crocodile that is unmoving even for a fake peplum crocodile; poor Morris even has to move the creature's mouth while wrestling it. Having a lame villain being fought by a lame hero is ruining any possibility of dramatic or melodramatic weight.

As if to add insult to injury, Boccia's direction lacks in charm and verve. Even the movie's two good ideas - the heroine actually rescuing the hero for once and a boat-and-spears variation of drawing and quartering for Samson to struggle against - are wasted by letting Amanda getting captured in a particularly lame way right when Samson is free, and filming it in the lamest way possible, respectively.

Sansone contro i pirati is one of those films where one can't help but think that nobody involved was actually even trying.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In short: The Defector (1966)

Original title: L'espion

A CIA agent (Roddy McDowell) coerces professor of physics James Bower (Montgomery Clift) to do some amateur spying for him while he's visiting Leipzig in Eastern Germany in his capacity as a hobby art expert. A Russian physicist whose books Bower had translated and corrected has some scientific data to sell to the US, but for some reason he'll only give the microfilm containing them to Bower.

Once in Leipzig, things go wrong for our amateur spy quickly. His contact, a local doctor of medicine (Hannes Messemer), is under permanent surveillance by the Stasi and the Russians, and so has to funnel all contacts through one of his assistants, Bower's mandatory love interest played by Macha Méril. Before he has barely even done anything amounting to espionage at all, Bower is greeted by Peter Heinzmann (Hardy Krüger). Heinzmann is a physicist himself but has been recruited to get the microfilm from Bower, if the American ever manages to get his hands on it, that is, but Heinzmann is a man with rather too well developed morals to play spy games. Why, he even disapproves of the awe-inspiring brainwash hotel room his superiors put Bower into, because only evil spies and movie audiences like cheap, surrealist brainwash attempts.

What neither Bower nor Heinzmann know is that the whole thing has been a trap from the start. The Russian scientist has been made for ages, and was only allowed to live long enough to deliver the microfilm to Bower's contact. The microfilm is only McGuffin to get the physicist into compromising situation; once compromised, so the plan goes, Heinzmann's sympathetic manner and similar background will make it easy to convince Bower to defect from the US, making for a wonderful PR coup. Is it any wonder that brilliant plan doesn't work out too well?

Raoul Lévy's The Defector is best known, if it is known at all, for being the last film actor Montgomery Clift made before his death (as well as the last film Lévy made before his death). Not surprisingly, Clift's performance is nervous and slightly off throughout, and it's never quite clear if things like his shaking hands and his at times disoriented gaze are him acting the part of a frightened amateur in a dangerous situation or signs of Clift being at the end of his tether; it's quite disturbing to watch, to be honest, even if it makes the film more convincing.

Apart from this, The Defector is rather too interesting a movie to be only known as the last film made by Clift. It works well as a laconic spy movie that delights in using (West) Germany at its greyest and brownest (with some locations that are situated in my part of the country even), knows about the horrors of DDR wallpaper, does simple and effective psychedelia well in the one scene it opts to use it, and even contains one or two rather tightly realized suspense scenes. It's all pretty grim, with characters trapped in situations they don't fully comprehend, created by powers they can't control in the interest of plans that are absurd at best. In this world, escape is only possible in bitterly ironic ways.

In other words, the film does serious spy movie standards quite well, and is worth watching for that alone.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Rabid, Drug-Infested Hippies on a Blood-Crazed KILLING RAMPAGE!

The Possession (2012): I was warned by other reviews that Ole Bornedal's movie loses much of its quality during its finale, but for my tastes, the whole thing jumped the shark at about the fifty minute mark when Jeffrey Dean Morgan does his short experiment in DIY exorcism (is there a column about that in Maker Magazine?). At least that's the point when all the film's increasingly loud and dumb attempts at scaring the audience only produced increasingly annoyed eye-rolling anymore. It's a bit of a shame, too, for the film's beginning promises a decent, subtextually loaded piece of nuclear family in dismay (oh noes!) horror, some of the horror sequences show promise, and the acting is rather good throughout. Alas, the longer The Possession goes, the dumber it becomes, turning loud when it should be silent and pompous when it should be subtle. Or maybe I'm just growing too old to appreciate a movie shouting at me throughout its running time as "horror"?

Taken 2 (2012): Speaking of disappointments, Olivier Megaton's sequel to what just may be the best among Europa Corps's endless assembly line churn-out of action movies does not hold up to the standards of the first film. Somebody must have talked Luc Besson into toning the violence down, and now we have an action movie that often seems afraid to show much of the action, even in the extended cut. There's some theoretically interesting subtext about the film's bad guy - whatever his name is - and Liam Neeson's character being mirror images of each other, but in good old Besson fashion, the script wastes that potential in its insistence on having the bad guy still being cliché-evil. This wouldn't be so bad if the rest of the movie would make a better effort distracting the audience from the film's failings, but there's really not enough going on for that at all.

On the positive side, this time around Famke Janssen and Maggie Grace are allowed a bit more screen-time and personality, though of course no actual agency. I'd also wish these films would stop casting nearly thirty year old Grace as a seventeen year old girl (one assumes) with the mental development of a twelve year old, but that might be just me.

Henge (2011): I was quite a bit more impressed by Hajime Ohata's short-ish (53 minutes) movie about a man (Kazunori Aizawa) who starts transforming into a monster, which does change the marital relations to his wife (Aki Morita) in various ways. Elements of Cronenbergian body horror, Hellraiser and finally kaiju cinema come together in a movie strong enough to transcend Aizawa's indifferent performance and the dubious quality of its special effects. There's some true conviction behind the filmmaking here that is a beautiful antidote to the half-assed-ness of the other films I looked at today.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)

Years after his adventures in the first movie, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme whose accent seems to have grown heavier in the years between the first movie and this one), has long since been re-humanized, married, acquired a daughter (Karis Paige Bryant), and become a widower. Because that sort of thing makes complete sense for someone with Luc's background, he's now working for the new, improved UniSol project under a Dr Cotner (Xander "Just Popping In For Minute" Berkeley). The new UniSols have a lot less impressive uniforms, but they are stronger, more effective and randomly allowed to emote and spout horrible, horrible one-liners if they are played by wrestlers. To avoid the amok problems of the first UniSol project, all of the soldiers are controlled by a highly developed artificial intelligence called S.E.T.H. (the voice of Michael Jai White).

Things go well until the military, represented by General Radford (Daniel von Bargen) decides to shut the project down for ethical reasons (seriously). Turns out S.E.T.H. kinda dislikes losing his job enough that he uses the UniSols to take control of the project base with what we must assume to be plans for world domination. It's a little unfortunate for the poor machine that he's on a timed kill switch with a code nearly impossible to crack for the computer science of 1999, a code only the very dead Cotner and Luc know. Of course, getting the code from Luc will not be easy, even after S.E.T.H. transfers his mind into a superior body (the body of Michael Jai White) he had squirreled away for a bad week, but that's what daughters are for right? There's also some stuff about a journalist (Heidi Schanz) providing the mandatory love interest, but we can ignore her role in the plot without losing out on anything.

What a difference seven years make. By 1999, seven years after the first Universal Soldier movie, Jean-Luc Van Damme's fortunes had - like those of all contemporary action movie stars - slowly turned, pushing him into the direct to video market and films with increasingly lower budgets and increasingly more problematic scripts. The same can be said of the Universal Soldier franchise, whose two outings after the original movie (without Van Damme or anything else worth watching) were in form of a cable TV mini-series that seems to have, as far as I can ascertain, premiered as two direct to video movies the rest of the franchise would go on to ignore, as will I.

Unlike the rather well-made first Universal Soldier, The Return is pretty much what most people - somewhat unfairly - imagine all movies with Van Damme to be: a series of fights and explosions barely connected by a deeply stupid script and horrible, horrible one-liners; though, talking of the latter, wrestler Bill Goldberg has to bear the brunt of their horridness.

The whole shebang is the only directorial effort of stunt guy Mic Rodgers who does a decent enough job in so far as he isn't actively bad, and religiously holds to the tenet of low budget action cinema that says that an action movie needs at least one explosion, shoot-out, or face-kicking (it's a Van Damme film, after all) every five minutes. Add to this that many of the film's action sequences may be pretty dumb and contrived (or as contrived as you can get in a movie that mostly takes place in a - at least decorated - warehouse) but are at least staged with a certain degree of creativity, and you end up with a piece of good (bad) fun that's good for some giggles about the quality of the quips, some delighted gasps about the more outrageous plot points, and some mild cheers for the decency of the action. In brief, Universal Soldier: The Return is as good as one can reasonably hope for in this kind of thing.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nam Angels (1989)

Remember the Vietnam War, when a handful of buff Americans slaughtered hundreds of Filipinos pretending to be Vietnamese standing in a row and doing backflips when getting shot by an assault rifle? By 1989, only a handful of Italian and Filipino exploitation filmmakers still did (most of whom were in bed with Roger Corman, I assume). Even the Philippines' finest in form of Cirio H. Santiago had his problems coming up with new twists in the tale of how some 'roided guy got his people out (a lot like Moses, but with an assault rifle, generally).

But hey, what's this lying around in the costume department? A handful of jeans jackets with the Hells Angels logo on them? It's exploitation movie gold is what it is! This, or something quite like it must have gone on in Santiago's mind when he came up with this one.

Just two weeks before finally being allowed to get home, manly man solider Calhoun (Brad Johnson) and his trusty lasso - yes, he's from West Texas - finds two of his platoon members taken prisoner by a former SS/Foreign Legion guy named Chard (Vernon Wells) who has gone all Colonel Kurtz as the living god of some formerly godforsaken North Vietnamese tribe. It's a particularly dangerous area completely under control of Chard's men and the North Vietnamese forces, and while Calhoun's superiors aren't going to hinder him from going on a manly rescue expedition, there's not much they can do to help him, especially because getting in and out quickly seems to be rather important to the whole thing. So Calhoun does the logical thing, goes into the next bar, sees the only (US) Hells Angels in Vietnam beat up some Special Forces soldiers and get themselves arrested, and offers them a get out of jail free card as well as the gold treasure Chard has assembled if they help him. For reason of later plot complications, our hero doesn't mention the whole "free my buddies" aspect of the plan instead of offering them the gold for their help in freeing the prisoners. Oh well. Anyhow, there will be many explosions, shooting and biking before the film is over.

Despite its particularly stupid/genius set-up, Nam Angels is one of the better namsploitation movies you can waste your time on. I was a bit surprised by that, because director Cirio H. Santiago's films often tend to waste perfectly great exploitation ideas on perfectly boring execution. Nam Angels, however, does include everything one could wish for in an exploitation film of its genre, gets to the point of shooting and explosions without pretending too long anyone cares about its characters, and never looks back once it's gotten going. In fact, the film seems hell-bent on including as many awesome/ridiculous bits and pieces as possible, so we're not just getting a film about Hells Angels led by a lasso-swinging super soldier from Texas biking through the Vietnamese jungle aka the countryside of the Philippines, causing backflipping and explosions wherever they (oh so stealthily) ride, that treats the silly set-up with all the seriousness of an epic, but also one that does its low-budget best to have variety in its action scenes. Would you believe some of the action scenes even show people using tactics like flanking?

Of course, Nam Angels does also include the genre-mandated exploding huts, a white bad guy with copious appetite for the scenery, utterly random nudity, cursing, hilariously "poignant" moments - all presented with an actual sense of breathless excitement that is as atypical for the often drab namsploitation film as it is for Santiago's body of work.

Nam Angels is a lovely piece of exploitation cinema that may have not a single clever idea in its head, but sure wants its audience to have a good, mass-slaughter-filled, time with all the dumb ideas it has. For me, it succeeds admirably at this.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

In short: Scaramouche (1952)

France, a few years before the Revolution. Actor and charming rogue Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger doing what he does best) has to confront the more serious sides of life when the Queen's (Nina Foch) cousin, the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), slaughters his best friend and foster brother in a duel for having written a pamphlet in praise of certain soon to be revolutionary principles. The poor boy never stood a chance against de Maynes, who isn't just the best duelist in France but also a man quite willing to use his abilities to get rid of any political enemy he can provoke into a fight.

Not being a swordsman himself Andre barely escapes with his life when he attempts to avenge his brother right on the spot. From this point onward, Andre dedicates his life to taking revenge on de Maynes, learning the art of fencing from the man's own fencing teacher and getting in trouble. On the way, our hero stumbles into the commedia dell'arte role of Scaramouche.

Further complications ensue because of love, for Andre has fallen for de Maynes's ward Aline de Gavrillac (Janet Leigh), as does de Maynes himself soon enough. Aline actually reciprocates Andre's feelings, alas, Andre thinks she is his half-sister (it's complicated), so the romance is rather a no-go for him, and he spends most of his time on a rather complicated (obviously) relationship with the actress Lenore (Eleanor Parker). It's a wonder all these - and more - plot lines will get tied up in less than two hours of running time.

As every fool knows, the swashbuckling genre was one of the things 40s and 50s Hollywood was particularly good at, which comes as no surprise when one keeps in mind how exactly the mixture of a colourful view of the past, grand emotions, and light consequences many swashbucklers prefer also is what the studio movies at the time were particularly good at; in that sense, one can see the swashbuckling adventure as the slightly more violent sister to the musical. With that sentence, I've done my duty of giving film historians apoplexy.

George Sidney's Scaramouche (of course based on Rafael Sabatini's novel) is a particularly fine example of the form with a particularly deft hand at gliding from high melodrama to silliness to fine quipping in front of eye-poppingly colourful backgrounds and back again in a most organic way that does remind me of dancing; again, I think there's an obvious parallel to musicals and the wuxia film here, though that may just be me. Be that as it may, I don't think it's any question its flow creates large parts of Scaramouche's impressive charms as a film in a genre that is all about the flow.

Apart from this, there are of course also some fine moments of old-style Hollywood acting by Granger, Leigh, Parker and Ferrer to praise, fanciful art direction to admire, swashbuckling deeds to thrill at, and so on, and so forth, until the sympathetic viewer will be left with the happiest of grins on her face; or so I, and quite obviously the film itself also, hope. As a bonus, Scaramouche is one of those swashbucklers where the female characters - even though they don't buckle any swashes - have a certain degree of personality and agency. It's even one where the "bad" (not that the film moralizes at her) girl may let the hero go into the arms of the "good" girl but where she doesn't have to run into a sword for him, instead finding better prospects of a kind.

Friday, January 18, 2013

On Exploder Button: Ninja (2009)

Do you like ninjas, kids? Of course you do, everybody does. As luck will have it, this week's column on Exploder Button does include ninjas, and it's a rather great bit of American ninjasploitation as I'd not have expected to see it in a movie not made during the 80s.

So focus your chi on this link and ninja-hop on over.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Eega (2012)

Loveable goofball Nani (Nani) has had a consensual stalking relationship with charity NGO lady and hobby micro artist Bindhu (Samantha Ruth Prabhu) for about two years now. Just when Bindhu finally takes pity on Nani and a more mainstream romance is in the air, disaster strikes.

Business man/gangster boss Sudeep (Sudeep) takes himself to be absolutely irresistible to women, so when he sets eyes on Bindhu, he is quite convinced it's only a question of using his invisible charm on her to get her into his bed. Consequently, when Sudeep realizes that Bindhu is actually very much in love with Nani and couldn't care less about some sleazy clown in a suit, he does the only thing a man of his ego can do when thwarted in love: he murders what he thinks of as his rival, hoping to use Bindhu's mourning phase to slime himself into her heart.

Before anything horrible can happen in that regard, though, Nani is reborn as a rather tiny fly. Nani quickly stumbles upon Sudeep and remembers what the sleaze-bag did to Nani's former life and his love for Bindhu, and mutely (flies can't speak and the film doesn't go the expected route of having Nani speak his thoughts via an off-screen monologue) swears to kill Sudeep. But what can a fly achieve against a man?

Turns out a fly can achieve a lot if it applies itself appropriately. Nani begins an epic campaign of driving Sudeep mad, while his foe takes increasingly desperate and ridiculous counter-measures. At one point Nani discloses his flydentity to Bindhu, who proceeds to quite gleefully support him in his murder plan, building him goggles against insect spray and even tiny weapons, and helping him get in shape in a fly training montage. Still, Sudeep is such a gigantic jerk, he's not going to make things easy for the inter-species couple (still legal in Germany!).

The most loveable element among many loveable elements in S.S. Rajamouli's Telugu film Eega is that the film does not simply coast on the utter craziness of its set-up. Unexpectedly (if we can pretend not to have read the completely deserved amount of praise the film got from movie writers far and wide), Eega takes its crazy high concept and then proceeds to think it through quite rigorously, producing a film that is still plenty crazy and often very funnily undermining revenge cinema standards (because machismo automatically becomes funny when it is applied to a fly), but which never takes the lazy way out when it comes to creating its narrative and world.

Eega is also a perfectly paced movie, spending just the right amount of time on its charming yet standard Indian cinema beginning that ends in death at the point where most films of the country (quite independent of which of the local movie centres they come from) would have had some whacky plot twist to keep its lovers apart for just a little - or two hours - longer. After that, it's, as they say, all thriller, no filler, with one imaginative, absurd, and - dare I say it? - even moving scene coming directly after the other.

A large part of the film's sizeable charm lies in the ability of its main actors. Sudeep and Samantha Ruth Prabhu both are able to continuously change track from the humorous to the (melo)dramatic and back again without it ever looking like they need to make an effort, while also staying despicably sleazy, or intensely adorable, respectively.

Turning the core duo into a trio is the CGI fly Nani (I have to admit human Nani didn't make much of an impression on me one way or the other), and he's as expressive, changeable and silly an actor as his human co-stars. I never thought I'd root for an insect in a movie, but how could I resist a CGI fly that goes through as rigorous a training regime as this one does, and has an air battle against possessed sparrows? Oh, didn't I mention the possessed sparrows? They are awesome.

Speaking of the CGI, Eega opts for digital effects that leave behind attempts to look realistic for character:  Nani-fly looks more like a character created for a Pixar movie than an attempt to design a digital fly, a decision that may snub the part of the film's audience that insists on realism in its films about goggle-wearing super-flies, but leaves the rest of us with a hero full of charm and personality.

I could now gush for a few thousand words about Eega's best moments (like the scene where Sudeep discusses the possibility of avenging animals with his henchmen who know that stuff from the movies, or the one where…), but that seems rather like explaining a joke instead of telling it, so I'll end here with one of those mainstream movie critic kickers. How about "Go out and watch it!"?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Ruled by a female Svengali, he tortured women with his world prophecies!

Skin Strip(p)eress aka Sexy Ghost aka The Skinned Ghost (1992): What starts out as a mostly harmless (unless you're the snake who is squeezed to death or the frog who is eaten alive) piece of CATIII horror morphs into a just as harmless Lam Ching-Ying vehicle after half an hour or so. Both parts of the movie are definitely watchable - a Lam Ching-Ying vehicle does after all contain Lam Ching-Ying - but don't include anything I haven't seen done sleazier, nastier, funnier or just plain more creative in other movies.

99 and 44/100% Dead (1974): Sometimes you encounter films that are utterly inexplicable. Directed by John Frankenheimer with a cast led by Richard Harris, you'd expect a film to be at least watchable, but this gangster comedy (parody?) fails on every imaginable level as well as on levels the human mind wasn't meant to imagine. Ironically, the film's problem is not a lack of ideas but rather that it has a multitude of them, none of which is good, or clever, or funny. The film feels like nothing so much as like one of those pseudo-Tarantino movies made by directors totally unable to understand what makes Tarantino's movies work, which is quite an achievement for a film made twenty years before Tarantino's time.

If the film's aggressive tendency to laugh about its own, unfunny jokes weren't enough, there are also scenes that go on and on and on for no good reason but for Frankenheimer's wish to make the same, unfunny, joke three times in a row and horribly annoying acting that reaches from undead (Ann Turkel) to a mugging version of Michael Caine cool (Harris). It's so crap you could fertilize a farm with it.

Heaven and Hell aka Wong Jorn Pid (2012): As far as Thai horror anthologies go, Yuthlert Sippapak's and Tiwa Moeithaisong's (of whom I'd expected something better than this) film doesn't go very far. There are some misguided attempts by the directors to make their simple stories more complicated by adding either a wrong-headed stylistic conceit (hey, why not make an intensely talky story where all dialogue is delivered via intertitles!) or tonal shifts that seem random and ill-advised at best. The problem is, if the basics of your story aren't interesting enough to keep an audience's eyes open for half an hour, adding random crap to the story won't help.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Universal Soldier (1992)

This is the beginning of a new, irregular series of write-ups concerning the work of Belgian kicker of THAT KICK, hero and villain of many a direct-to-video movie, and now curiously dignified elder statesman of action cinema, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Because I'm not strong enough to confront Cyborg or that thing with Dennis Rodman right at the start, I ease myself and you into his body of work with a major career milestone.

The US Army, as represented by Colonel Perry (Ed O'Ross) is up to its old tricks again. Namely, turning killed in action Vietnam veterans like Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) into brain-washed, will-less, near indestructible killing machines. Some time in the 90s, though, things start to go wrong with the Universal Soldiers (or UniSols). On a mission, Deveraux begins to remember the rather traumatic circumstances of his death by the hand (well, gun) of the psychopathic Scott, and Scott is not far behind him.

Things really go wrong when disgraced TV journalist Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) tries to regain her job by sneaking around the UniSol truck (one suspects they're so off the book they can't afford an actual base or decent transportation). You can barely say "I don't think this is a good idea, Mrs Journalist" before Scott murders her camera man against orders and Deveraux goes on the run with her.

Chased by the remaining UniSols, Veronica and a Deveraux who is slowly regaining his identity are trying to find proof for what happened to Deveraux and expose the decidedly immoral doings of the military. It gets rather more dangerous for the couple once Scott has a full-on psychotic break, kills off his handlers and takes the pursuit into his own, rather more violent hands.

If you're too young to remember, you might not believe it, but there was a short time during his career, when uttering the frightening words "directed by Roland Emmerich" wasn't another way to call a movie total crap, made without respect for an audience or the most basic coherence. In fact, Universal Soldier may well be the man's best film, replacing the usual shallow dumbness of Emmerich's films with entertaining silliness, and containing none of the sins of horrible editing that ruin everything he did starting with Independence Day (well, one could argue it's the scripts that ruin most of Emmerich's films, but I'd be perfectly alright with them being overblown b-movies if they only had a sense for pacing or storytelling).

What surprises most about Universal Soldier's script is that it makes visible, continuous efforts to fill the spaces between the action sequences with things that don't feel like filler; well, that and often horrible comedy, but trying to suck all tension out of his movies with bad comedy is one of Emmerich's trademarks, and I've endured much worse (and longer) in his movies. The script has a pleasant interest in providing details that demonstrate that at least a few minutes of thought were put into them. Take for example the film actually explaining Van Damme's accent (though not Lundgren's) by making him a Cajun, or its clichéd yet clever short-hand characterisations of everyone our heroes meet.

It's also worth mentioning that I can really say "heroes". Walker's character may be a walking (sorry) cliché but she's also shown to be rather competent in various dangerous situations, keeping her away from the "useless female" and the "damsel in distress" tropes. On paper, this sort of thing doesn't sound like much, but it really helps sell the film's silliness as un-annoying and turns its competent following of a standard genre plot from predictable to pleasant, as minor yet important variations of a theme should do in good genre filmmaking.

Despite them being Universal Soldier's meat, I don't have a lot to say about its action sequences. They are more than competently done, rather exciting, not that violent (seen from today's point of view), and lack - like much of US action cinema - any concept of the poetry of moving bodies or an idea of beauty. In other words, they'll never surprise, charm or shock anyone but they're very good at being fun and loud, which is perfectly fine with me (today).

On the acting side, the jaded viewer will have to cope with a bit of broadness, Van Damme, starting his short stint as a movie star in the more classic sense, is probably a bit to wide-eyed once Deveraux starts remembering his humanity but he's actually rather good in his two or three more subtle moments, and really, a degree of broadness seems perfectly appropriate in a movie about undead super soldiers. Lundgren, on the other hand, gets way too broad too fast, turning every stupid one-liner he has to say (obviously, the film would work better without any one-liners at all) into a cringeworthy one-liner. But hey, he also clearly has grimacing, scenery-chewing fun when going psycho, so who am I to be too hard on him? It's better than not trying to act at all in any case. Plus, he and Van Damme get very naked a lot of the time, if that sort of thing floats your boat. Walker's performance one will find either somewhat annoying or somewhat charming. It's pretty clear she's the only traditional actress in a lead role on screen, but she's neither attempting to turn the film into a one woman show nor does she ever have to be "the pretty one".

So, if you have a slight tolerance for 80s/90s action movie humour, and like the idea of people kicking and shooting at each other, there's no reason not to re-watch Universal Soldier twenty years later.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

In short: Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

Remember Alice (Milla Jovovich), superpowered action heroine who lost her superpowers without, you know, the film she was in actually letting her fall back under the cruel rule of gravity? The film at hand will continue to have Alice act as if she still had superpowers even though it's a plot point for the film's stupid, stupid ending that she hasn't.

Anyway, our heroine is in the hands of the evil Umbrella Corporation again and has to escape some ridiculous underground zombie outbreak simulation facility below Siberian ice. Oh, look, she's picking up a little girl, because you can't make a female-led action movie without a girl for the heroine to protect, otherwise the male audience would run away in fear, or something.

Various other favourite characters from the videogames pop up without bothering to provide any character beyond a check mark next to their names: Li Bing-bing as the only actual actress in the movie is wasted on Ada Wong, the horrible Sienna Guillory does a horrible Jill "Mind-controlled" Valentine, Leon Kennedy and Barry Burton make an appearance, and Boris Kodjoe reappears as last movie's Luther West, without any of them making any impression.

The film also finally realizes the awesome possibilities the cloning parts of its background provide and makes some of the bad guys clones of dead characters from earlier movies; which, alas, means the return of Michelle "One-note" Rodriguez, but hey, it's not as if the film then does anything of note with her or any of the other returnees. Part of the problem is that director/writer Paul W.S. Anderson really seems to think in the audience will not only remember the "mythology" of the previous films but also care about it, and so stages every stupid nothing as if it were of wide interest and deep import when all anyone will actually remember of previous movies will be zombies, explosions, shooting, slow motion, and the immortality of Wesker.

Like the last two or three Resident Evil games, Retribution has also long since given up on pretending to have anything at all to do with horror. Zombies really only make some small guest appearances, for this is not a crappy horror movie but a crappy action movie, so there are gun battles in slow motion, people walking in slow motion, slow motion monsters, slow motion explosions, and slow motion fights as if Anderson had been cursed by the ghost of the first Matrix movie. I haven't measured it exactly - for that would have meant going through this thing a second time - but I'm quite sure there are more slow motion scenes than scenes filmed at normal speed; if he could, Anderson would film the dialogue in slow motion too. I know it's not the done thing to criticize people's fetishes, but Anderson's slow motion fetish really goes too far. Especially since this overuse of slow-motion isn't just tacky and stupid (hey, it's a Resident Evil movie, so that's to be expected) but also drains any possible excitement out of the action, turning every fight into a matter of endurance for the ill-fated viewer.

On the positive side, at least Retribution (I have, by the way, no idea why it's called that way) isn't one of the action movies where you can't see anything that's happening for all of the fast editing; it's unfortunate that what the film shows in its action scenes isn't actually worth seeing.

Friday, January 11, 2013

On ExploderButton: Fatal Exposure (1989)

My year over on M.O.S.S. compatriot ExploderButton begins with something very special. Well, at least if your idea of "special" involves a be-mulleted descendent of Jack the Ripper murdering himself through the predominantly young and female population of a Southern US town while asking them very important question for reasons of ROMANCE(!).

Truly, it's the art of filmmaking at its most wondrous, so you (yes, you!) should really pop over to my column and read all I have to say about the film. It's that awesome.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In short: The Avenger (1972)

aka The Queen Boxer

Shanghai in the early 20th Century (I think). The city's crime is ruled by a certain Mister Bai (Lee Ying) whose endless numbers of henchmen crush all opposition. Before the film's credits, Bai's people just barely manage to overwhelm Ma Yongzhen who attempts to kill Bai for some righteous reason or other.

Clearly, this sort of thing isn't without consequences, so it will come as no surprise to even the least experienced martial arts movie fan when Ma's sister Ma Su Chen (Chia Ling, whom I'm not going to call Judy Lee) arrives in Shanghai to avenge her brother. Ma Su Chen isn't Bai's only problem, though. A man named Fan Kao To (Peter Yang Kwan) has taken it on itself to make life difficult for Bai through acts of what is difficult not to describe as childish trolling.

While Fan Kao To is acting like a stupid kid, Bai erroneously - and for no reason the film ever bothers to explain - assumes his freshly arriving family to be the Ma family coming to town to take vengeance on him, resulting in a very dead Fan family, and another guy desperate on killing Bai.

Seeing as how their life goals align so beautifully now, Ma Su Chen and Fan Kao To are bound to stumble upon each other and maybe try to help each other out in the avenging biz.

Obviously, The Avenger is another very standard story of martial arts vengeance whose major discerning plot element is the rather dubious competence of everyone involved - the bad guys are too dumb to kill the right people and the good guys too emotional to ever make a sensible plan. The rest of the narrative consists of standard motions to get its characters in a position to fight, told in sometimes awkward ways but at least performed to some excellent needle-dropped music (hello, "Them from Shaft", old friend!).

Fortunately, once the film really gets going, these fights are a joyous and exciting thing to watch. It's not so much action director Mo Man-Hung's for the most part competent but not overwhelming choreography that is responsible for the effect of these all-important scenes but a combination of two things. Firstly, there's Chia Ling's highly enthusiastic performance of the genre-mandated glowering and ass-kicking with all the physical presence I want from my martial arts heroines. Secondly, (female) director Florence Yu Fung-Chi's ability to make even the least excitingly choreographed moments of the film dynamic through the power of creative direction and a sense for pacing that is so often missing in the cheaper martial arts films. Even though I've really seen it all before, and often better developed and surely better plotted, Yu's direction keeps everything moving and exciting.

The film's major highpoint is surely the grand finale where Chia Ling has to fight through a small army of henchmen armed with hatchets and lime inside the rather cramped interiors of Bai's home. Here, it's not only Yu's direction that's creative, but suddenly, Mo's choreography becomes daring too, as if the challenge of setting the final fight in cramped quarters and still making it exciting and dynamic hit a point of professional pride. The combination is riveting, making The Avenger's climax so exciting my complaints about the film's narrative flaws felt rather unimportant afterwards.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In short: Drones (2012)

Amber Benson's and Adam Busch's (yes, those Benson and Busch) Drones is a film about the old suspicion modern office culture has aroused in anyone who has ever spent more then five minutes in one of those places: some of these poor office drones must be aliens.

So it's not a complete surprise when somewhat shlubby office worker Brian (Jonathan M. Woodward) stumbles upon the truth that his best friend and colleague Clark (Samm Levine) is in fact an alien, and one researching Earth for future enslavement to boot. But Brian shouldn't worry, Clark is putting that one off for as long as he can.

Then, just after Brian and his office crush Amy (Angela Bettis), are taking steps towards an actual relationship, Amy tells Brian that she's an alien too, though one from a different planet with plans to destroy Earth. But Brian shouldn't worry, for Amy will save him and take him with her to her home world. That revelation leads to Brian freaking out, not so much because of the whole "destruction of Earth" business, but because moving in with a girlfriend one has only been together with for four days is a thing to let one freak out, especially when said girlfriend is from a mostly emotionless alien race and is making her first practical experiences with that sort of irrationality. Breaking up ensues.

Would you believe it's not the best idea to break up with your emotionally inexperienced girlfriend (not that Brian can talk here) who basically has the finger on the trigger for the destruction of Earth, nor mock her in an office public Power Point presentation? That things might get so problematic that only another Power Point presentation, the re-establishment of romantic relations and good old fashioned space hippies can save the day?

If you've read this, you'll probably already know if you'll find Drones funny or not. I, for one, did appreciate most of it: the parts when it felt like a less mean version of The Office (when I say "The Office", I do mean of course the rather brilliant UK show and not the endless US abomination based on it), the perfect low budget weirdness of its ideas (of course aliens will use the office environment to communicate with their respective home bases), and the tendency of its dialogue to get odder the longer a given dialogue scene goes on. I also really appreciate how many of Drones' comical digressions turn out to have actual narrative and thematic import later on. This isn't a comedy movie built from a series of sketches even if it may at first seem so,

Also lovely is Angela Bettis's performance. As someone familiar with her body of work, I wasn't really surprised how brilliant she was in her comical alien role. After all, her performances always have something not quite of "normal" humanity (that's a compliment), so if ever I have seen a perfect comical alien, it's her.

So, you know, you might try to watch this one. It's really funny.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Apparition (2012)

Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan) have freshly moved into a suburban palace in a development nearly bereft of humanity as some sort of long-term house sitters for Kelly's parents. The couple has barely moved in when (all together now) strange things begin to happen. Strange noises slightly inconvenience them, furniture moves when nobody is looking, and mold grows in the strangest places. Soon, the first pet death occurs - though it's not the couple's pet, for that would be too emotionally involving for this particular film.

Ben could actually tell Kelly what's going on, but doesn't for a while for reasons of bad scriptwriting and not enough actual content to make for a full-length movie. When Ben was in college, he and some friends accidentally conjured up something "from the other side" that has rather rude habits. It must have bothered them in the intervening years in some ways but the film makes puffing noises rather than showing or telling any more about that - at least, Ben's buddies attempt to bring the thing back where it came from, which would make little sense if it hadn't bothered them. Of course, the attempt to get rid of it has only made the thing stronger and is the reason for the newly intense (one supposes) attacks on Ben and Kelly.

Will Ben, Kelly, and Ben's old pal Patrick (Tom Felton) manage to get rid of the thing before it does something interesting? Warning, that was a trick question, because they don't get rid of it, but it also won't do anything interesting.

After the high of The Pact it seems only fitting the next contemporary movie about a haunting I watched was this, possibly the blandest movie about a haunting I've seen in a long time. It's probably better this way to keep my expectations for future films about ghosts and hauntings on a more realistic level.

The Apparition is a film that completely lacks the following things: tension, intelligence, imagination, scariness, actors who can actually act, and - surprisingly - jump scares. Not that I truly miss the latter, but their complete absence seems to be symptomatic of writer/director Todd Lincoln's complete unwillingness to make a horror film that actually attempts to engage its audience on any level, and be it just that of shouting "boo!" into their faces.

The whole film is a series of missed opportunities, bungled set-ups for scares and a whole bunch of nothing. It's competently made in so far as things are decently blocked and in focus, but Lincoln's direction is so lifeless even the two and half scenes that actually could work in disturbing or creeping out an audience fall flat on their asses. If I were scraping for something nice to say about the director's work here (which I'm not), I'd mention how much I appreciate that the film's not shot in the desaturated colour scheme filmmakers inexplicably love so much right now, but really, when the only positive thing that comes to mind about a film is that it uses actual colours, said film may have a problem.

The most remarkable thing on screen, on the other hand, is the cringeworthy way its first half takes time off of its busy schedule of boring its audience to show Ashley Greene in as many skimpy outfits as its rating allows. Alas, said rating is "PG-13", so what's supposed to be titillating comes off as a bit sad, provoking wistful memories of women showering in their bikinis. Yes, this is a movie where even the sleazy exploitation of a young actress's body is boring, which is particularly problematic when you keep in mind that Greene can't act her way out of a paper bag. Though that ability at least makes her the perfect fit for her male co-stars who are equally ungifted but for the most part less leered at by the camera.

So, to summarize: I'm feeling rather sleepy now.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Rewatching Dracula (1931)

I'm changing up my usual format a bit today because nobody needs to hear a plot synopsis of the first classic Universal horror movie.

If you're just joining us, young grasshopper, be advised that Tod Browning's Dracula isn't based directly on Bram Stoker's novel but on a stage play by Hamilton Deane that was later rewritten by John L. Balderston and makes some sensible and some very curious changes to the novel. Some of the latter may make more sense on the stage than on screen, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Browning would have preferred Dracula to be played by his old partner in crime Lon Chaney (senior) but Universal insisted on very successful stage Dracula Bela Lugosi. Consequently, Browning had one or more hissy fits and did not bring his full creative power to the proceedings because he found his ego more important than his movie. As far as can be said today, parts of the film were really directed by supreme cinematographer Karl Freund. This part of the film's backstory has made an easy in for a lot of critics to take the film down a peg. It's difficult to completely disagree with the brunt of their arguments, for the film is often rather more stagy than necessary with too many scenes of characters telling us important plot developments instead of the film showing them (though I don't think it's all the play's fault - some of the scenes that are only told, especially Dracula feeding his blood to Mina, would just have not gone over on screen in 1931, pre-code era or not), and Browning is visually far less imaginative than in those of his films he deigned to care about. Having said this, to me there's so much about Dracula that is a remarkable achievement I can't help but have the impression these critics are so in love with mourning a film that never was they don't look at the film that actually exists with an open mind.

It's true, Browning is not at all at the top of his game here, and especially the dialogue scenes that make up most of the film's middle are filmed with little élan or interest, but all of the film's big horror set pieces are moody and brilliant and staged with a care many filmmakers don't bring to the table when they are at their best. Then there's Freund's beautiful cinematography, Charles D. Hall's impressive art direction that sets up rules of the visual treatment of gothic horror by way of German expressionism generations would go on to follow. Freund's and Hall's contributions to the film really give the joyful impression - in a fog-shrouded doom and dread kind of way - of something happening on screen for the first time.

And then there's Bela, of course. One could make fun of the curious stiffness and theatricality of the great man's performance, but then one would rather miss out on the fact how nuanced what he's doing here actually is. Lugosi doesn't play the Count as a romantic, several hundred years old noble with a lust for blood, but as a creature that may once have been human and vaguely remembers some of the surface aspects of acting like a human being. There's a reason that Lugosi's accent is thicker whenever Dracula lets his mask drop completely, and it's the same reason why he's moving less corpse-stiff in those scenes where he's trying to fit into society, even though each of his gestures then is still slightly off. This Dracula is not a dead man walking, but something deeply inhuman pretending to be a man, and for my taste, Lugosi realizes that aspect of the role brilliantly.

I also think most of the rest of the cast does their job rather well. Helen Chandler's Mina is quite a bit more convincing than one would expect going by the generally pale performances of female romantic leads of the era. Dwight Frye does an important step to be forever type-cast as the bug-eyed madman, and while this interpretation of mental illness is of course as dubious as that of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, his performance has a strong, melodramatic (in all the best senses of the word) power that perfectly fits Lugosi's performance as well as Edward van Sloan's Dutch accent by way of Hollywood-Hindustan and Hollywood-China. No, we're not in method acting land here, but in a film where intelligently melodramatic and artificial acting come together with ideas and methods of German cinematic expressionism and Hollywood commercialism to create more than just the first horror house style in cinematic history but a foggy, shadowy, weirdly accented world of its own.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: HEXED BY THE EVIL EYE

The Scarlet Coat (1955): Like many of director John Sturges's films, this one about Cornel Wilde acting as a double agent during the US Revolutionary War and about the Arnold Conspiracy, is a more complex and emotionally grown-up film than one would expect. If most of the media concerning said Revolution you've consumed has been made during the last thirty years or so, you might also be delighted to find a film that doesn't treat the British as baby-eating Satanists and the Americans as glorious, flawless angels.

In fact, most of the film's complexity lies in its treatment of morals and ideals as a rather more personal thing; being in the right is complicated. Here, idealism depends on the beholder, and cruel and wrong things can and will be done for the best of causes. Added to this - really very spy movie-like - view of the world is dialogue that regularly reminds more of a film noir in its sharpness, and some fine acting by Wilde and Michael Wilding. The film gets a bit too morally upright and sentimental in the end for my tastes but it's much too interesting to ignore.

Green Jade Statuette aka Killer's Game aka Fists of Vengeance (1978): Lee Tso-Nam's movie falls under the thankless bracket of "just another decent Taiwanese martial arts film". Even though there's nothing to write home about except for the film's borrowing from certain Spaghetti Western soundtracks and - wonderfully - an orchestral version of "Greensleaves" for a moment right at its end, it's still an entertaining enough watch full of not inspired but professional fights, martial arts smack talk philosophy (one of the differences between Asian and Western action films is that Asian ones at least try to sound profound), and rather random twists and turns. It's fun enough.

Lupin III: Farewell to Nostradamus (1995): Speaking of films that don't move away from their genre base even one inch, this anime is exactly what you'd expect from a Lupin III movie (which are a genre for themselves), with characters you either love (you are a wonderful human being) or hate (I say thee nay), going through the usual hectic and over-blown adventures. Lupin is generally not at all about originality but about frenetic and loving execution and fulfilled expectations. Usually, I'd criticize the series for playing it safe, but when it's one of its better episodes/movies/OVAs like Farewell, I'm much too occupied with enjoying myself for that sort of thing.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

In short: The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Sometimes, it's not as easy to love the films built around the stop motion effects glories of Ray Harryhausen as I would wish for.

Case in point is The Valley of Gwangi that embodies the general weaknesses of the Charles Schneer productions (I have the impression the director of a given film didn't have much of a say in anything here, so I'll pretend Jim O'Connolly didn't exist, something his direction makes easy enough) made to showcase Harryhausen's special effects particularly well without always having the charm to make up for it. Hint: these weaknesses are mostly caused by the films' stories being built around the effects, not the effects built for the story, a problem that's much less visible in the mythological fantasy pieces of Schneer/Harryhausen which actually lends themselves to such an approach.

Gwangi's main problem is that it starts out by presenting the audience with truly atrocious human drama, featuring chauvinist pig and all-around asshole James Franciscus, racist stereotype and liar Gustavo Rojo, paternalistic douche Richard Carlson, amoral scientist Laurence Naismith, not as interesting as one would wish her to be Gila Golan and a "Mexican" boy without self-preservation instincts. These horrible personages go through various plot contortions that will some day lead them into the titular valley of Gwangi where they will kidnap a helpless Tyrannosaur for fame and money.

Obviously, it takes way too much time until the film gets to the good stuff, especially when you keep in mind how badly developed and vile the characters are, how random each of their decisions and how jumpy their emotions (why, you could think they feel exactly like the plot needs them to feel at any given moment). These are people in whose presence one wants to spend as little time as possible, particularly when one could watch cowboys fight dinosaurs and hope the main characters get eaten. I don't think I even have to mention the painful romance plot between Franciscus and Golan and the cheap moralizing, nor that I'd rather like to see a sequel to the film that tells me how many years in jail the protagonists spend afterwards (of course, it's not the protagonists' fault the T-Rex goes on the mandatory rampage at the film's finale, it's the evil brown peoples' fault; you can't help but be embarrassed by this crap).

This combination of bad, bad, horrible romance, racism, and boring yet vile characters is so strong in Valley of Gwangi's case even the beautiful and numerous dinosaurs of the film's second half make it difficult to overlook these flaws. Which is what happens when there's more flaw than film, really, and when a film about cowboys fighting dinosaurs rather wastes its time trying to convince the audience that James Franciscus is a charming rogue.