Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In short: Ice Soldiers (2013)

During the Cuba Crisis. a warmongering Soviet splinter group sends three genetically modified, crazy, recreationally rapist super soldiers to blow up a bomb in New York. After destroying an outpost in the Canadian Arctic and leaving one woman behind alive, the trio gets frozen up somehow, though. Fifty years later, Malraux (the charisma-free zone of bloated beefcake known as Dominic Purcell), the son of said woman – of course the product of evil Soviet super soldier rape – makes a pact with a – most probably evil – corporation and their pet ex-military (Michael Ironside, cruising for a pay check) to get the opportunity to search for his father and associates. He does indeed find them, but his efforts are only going to be cause for them coming back to life again and continuing their mildly effective killing spree. Soon, Malraux is the only member of the expedition still alive and goes on the hunt for the three super soldiers.

Sturla Gunnarsson’s Ice Soldiers is a bit of frustrating experience, the sort of film that’s always nearly making an interesting point, barely exploring interesting themes, and just missing really exhilarating action set pieces, as if it were made by people who didn’t have much of a grip on what could be done with the material at hand.

It really is a shame too, for the action movie style confrontation between evil super soldier dad and a son who isn’t quite sure about the answer to the whole nature versus nurture question could have been, if not deeply original, a nice way to ask slightly philosophical questions through violence, as is tradition in these kinds of circumstances. Unfortunately, Ice Soldiers doesn’t really get around to much more than a few very obvious moments of doubtful dialogue; the violence on the other hand never gets all that interesting or expressive on its own, its case certainly not helped by a non-performance by Purcell that reaches Steven Seagal levels of bloated protagonist who can’t be bothered.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

In short: The Legend of Hercules (2014)

Warning: contains rampant misuse of parentheses, but then the film at hand contains rampant misuse of any viewer’s time, so I can still feel morally superior to it. Which I do.

As long-suffering victims of this blog know, I have a high tolerance for all kinds of things in movies that make sane people cry, so when a film is as generally reviled by mainstream critics as Renny Harlin’s CGI epic about everyone’s third-favourite Greek half-god, I’m not too fussed by it. Unfortunately, this time around, it turns out I can’t disagree with the consensus at all, for this Hercules version really makes the baby Eros cry.

There’s bad writing (and I don’t mean bad writing in a “I don’t like the film’s world view, or want it to be exactly like something I would have written” way the phrase often means on the internet but in the “these people don’t actually know anything about writing for movies, not even blockbuster style ones where the writing flavour of the year takes care of most of your plotting anyhow”), dialogue to make one’s brains bleed with its combination of insipidness and lack of style (it’s high-falutin’ EPIC MOVIE talk time written by people who just don’t get how this sort of thing works, and wouldn’t have an ear for it even if they did), acting that is all too often bad in the most boring manner (except for Scott Adkins as – I kid you not – Amphitryon -, who clearly will make a great scenery chewer one day when his buffness has diminished and all evil ninjas have been ass-kicked), and special effects with a big emphasis on the “special” (and partying like it’s 1999). In fact, I have seen Asylum movies with better CGI. Well, and with better scripts, now that I think about it.

To really top things off, Renny Harlin – who really should know better – presents this mess as a piece of cargo cult filmmaking that takes the idiot surface of things like 300, The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones without a) realizing that these films and shows actually have diametrically opposite styles and approaches to storytelling from one another, and without b) understanding what functions any given stylistic element actually fulfils in them. It’s enough to make one look forward to Brett Rat(t)ner’s Hercules version, if only in hot expectation of the ways in which that guy will be able to make things even worse.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), the son of the original monster-creating genius, returns with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and his incredibly annoying little son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), to his father’s old haunts – Castle Frankenstein in the village of Frankenstein. The Frankensteinians are not at all happy with their new neighbours and are only a small step from turning into a torch-wielding mob already. Fortunately, Krogh (Lionel Atwill), the one-armed chief of police of the village (and this place must have quite the crime rate, given that he’s the chief of police instead of the lone village cop), is a rather reasonable man, so things still might turn out well for everyone involved.

Of course, Wolf seems a bit too fascinated by his father’s experiments right from the start; that state of mind doesn’t improve when he meets Dad’s old assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) who has no trouble walking around with neck broken when he was hanged for his work for Frankenstein senior. Ygor shows Wolf the body of his father’s Creature (Boris Karloff) who has been lying in a coma for some weeks now, after it was hit by lightning, and easily convinces the scientist to revive it again. Curiously, Ygor fails to explain that he has some sort of mental hold on the Creature (implied to be connected to some fine woodwind playing), and that he has used it to kill the people involved in his hanging. Nor does Ygor mention he’s planning to continue the killing spree.

Soon, the son of Frankenstein is in a bit of trouble, and the never very peaceful village of Frankenstein is riled up again.

The usual narrative among us horror fans is that the Frankenstein films lost their lustre as quickly as the other Universal horror series, too soon descending in self-parody and the kind of films seemingly made by people who loathed the horror genre as much as they did their audience. This narrative’s not completely wrong, but too easily, a film as wonderful as Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein gets put down on the side of the increasingly bad films Universal made during its second wave of horror films, though I suggest Universal horror lost its enthusiasm a few years after the start of that wave, shortly after The Wolfman. Still Son carries a bit of a stigma with it in some circles, despite it being just as good as its two predecessors, if very different from them.

For most of its running time, Son feels a lot like an effort to outdo the two James Whale movies that came before in as many ways as possible. To some, this might sound sacrilegious, yet I think In some ways, the film is even quite successful with this project. Sure, Son doesn’t quite have the poetry of the best moments of Whale’s films, nor is it as thematically resonant as they are but it does probably win out when it comes to plotting and characterization by eschewing the slightly episodic feel of the first two Frankenstein films in favour of a surprisingly tight plot full of comparatively complex characters with actual motivations for their behaviour. Not that the behaviour itself makes much sense in the ways of reason and logic, mind you, but then, Frankenstein isn’t the place where these things would actually have a proper place.

One of the film’s many joys is the interplay between Rathbone’s increasingly crazed and frightened Wolf and Atwill’s stiff and distrustful but basically kind Krogh, culminating in a game of darts of all things.

I also just adore Lugosi’s performance here that sees the great man doing much of what he does best – the curious and threatening pronunciation of certain WORDS nobody around HIM seems to NOTICE, the grand overacting, the joyfully glittering eyes whenever the macabre or the grotesque rear their heads. And in this particular Frankenstein movie, the grotesque and the macabre are nearly always present. Even the comic relief tonally fits into the movie this time around, not really working as a relief but strengthening the audience’s conviction that Universal’s Backlot Europe is a place where nothing ever isn’t macabre and/or grotesque, not even the funny people.

This is after all a place where no angle ever is just a right one, where no stair step is shaped like the one next to it, and where people dine in nearly empty, starkly shadowed rooms dominated by giant somewhat cubist looking boar heads. In fact, where the visual style in the earlier Universal horrors seemed inspired by German expressionism, many of the (brilliant) sets here are expressionism pure, completely ignoring any idea of naturalism, and turning every place the characters dwell in into a part of a dream world, or, if you’re so inclined, places where the subconscious is right on the surface of things, and where it seems perfectly natural that men with broken necks walk, life can be created out of death, people pretend Bela Lugosi’s Ygor seems harmless, and the very same people are only very mildly concerned when six of the eight men responsible for a hanging wind up dead by exploding heart.

It’s all a pure joy to watch and witness, the sort of movie that makes a lot of weird decisions but then follows them through so well and so (un-)naturally, they make up a perfectly fitting whole.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: She's out to score for more of what you love her for!

Witchtrap (1989): Kevin Tenney clearly was a horror director with many faces. With Witchtrap, the face he wears is that of the purveyor of awkward crap that is highly entertaining in all the wrong ways. Visually, this reminds me of the less interesting local productions of about a decade earlier, with a smidgen more gore and Linnea Quigley's breasts added, and a slightly more moveable camera. The film's real comical high points are the dialogue and the acting though. What comes out of people's mouths is a mix of "how dumb people think educated people talk"-speak, some of the worst "sarcasm" ever to flow out of a character's mouth (James W. Quinn, I'm looking at you), hare-brained discussions of faith and disbelief, and slightly Ed-Woodian non-sequiturs pretending to be dialogue. All this the actors deliver with all the style and verve of someone reading a newspaper aloud at the coffee table, with emphasises that suggest nobody involved even understood what the sentences they were saying were supposed to mean. To make matters even more interesting, most of the dialogue seems to have been post-dubbed. It's really quite the thing to listen to for ninety minutes.

Gonger (2008): Thanks to various cultural factors too annoying to get into here, not many horror movies beyond semi-professional gore movies have been produced in Germany after the Second World War. Consequently, even a minor, totally derivative (of "J-horror" in particular) TV movie like Christian Theede's Gonger is something to cherish. It helps that the film, quite in the tradition of TV horror, may have no original idea in its body, but is decently acted, competently made and doesn't overstay its welcome. The film's biggest negative point is really that you could imagine seeing its plot, set-up and locality used in much more interesting and complex manner. But that's not how TV, and certainly not German TV, works.

Catacombs (1988): This David Schmoeller film was made during Charles Band's Italian phase, which provides the film with some fine locations, an excellent Pino Donaggio score, and an Italian co-writer who gives the film some of that thought-after Italian movie weirdness. Of course, the last element also leads to a film whose plot developments are not always logical, and whose characters are erratic to say the least. What it curiously does not lead to is an abundance of weird gore. In fact, the film's body count is relatively low, and while some of the deaths are rather strange (there are not many horror films having the theological chutzpah to have someone killed by a Jesus statue come to life), they mostly seem to be beside the point of Catacombs.

Said point seems to be an attempt to reconcile possession type horror with non-crazy Christianity, something the film mostly achieves while also being one of the few horror films that shows monks as actual human beings. It's more an interesting effort than a completely successful film, but it's certainly worth a viewing or two.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

In short: Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark (2014)

Another megalodon (still pronounced “Megglo-don” by half of the cast) is thawed out and starts another rampage through the seven seas, brining intercontinental transportation to a grinding halt yet again. As the cameoing Debbie Gibson later explains, this megalodon even has a motivation: it’s looking for love (in all the wrong places).

This time, though, the US Navy is kinda-sorta prepared with a brilliant plan. No wait, actually, somebody involved in their planning – I suspect Admiral Whatsisname (Matt Langan) – must have been a big fan of kaiju eiga, so they decided to built a giant mecha shark instead to fight humanity’s by now traditional enemy.

That thing is to be piloted by Rosie (Elisabeth Röhm) and remotely engineered by her husband Jack (Christopher Judge) who will turn out to be our default heroes by virtue of being only half incompetent. Jack must be some kind of genius too, for he has invented a fully functional AI that is to be installed in the Mecha Shark because…why not. The new Megalodon turns up a bit early, unfortunately, so Mechs (as the film alas doesn’t call the Mecha) isn’t quite ready for prime time, leading to many an eaten sailor, as well as, in the film’s grand finale of silliness, an amphibious Mecha Shark mildly rampaging through the streets of Sydney.

Either I’m growing mild at my old age, dementia’s setting in, or The Asylum are actually turning out watchable movies now. Fact is, this is the third Asylum production in a row that did not drive me into convulsions of rage and annoyance; I’m even willing to say I quite enjoyed it.

Of course, if you’re not me – poor/lucky bastard or bastardess – and go into a movie called Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark produced by notorious peddlers of cheap crap expecting a deep exploration of shark culture and the people who make them explode, you’re like half of the reviewers of these things and quite out of luck. What you get is pretty much what the movie title suggests, though, unlike in certain other Asylum outings, with the money shot silliness sensibly distributed throughout the film’s running time, suggesting director Emile Edwin Smith and writer Jose Prendes have basic filmmaking skills and aren’t afraid to use them. Smith’s direction in particular is quite good, even, with visible effort put into making this thing not look as cheap as it probably is, and more than one scene I can’t help but read as homage to classic kaiju films. This also means that the film’s best – and therefore also its silliest – scenes come in the grand finale where they actually belong.

Tonally, MS vs MS mostly treats its very silly contents with the straightest of faces, in the (true) assumption that a film about a shark shaped piloted robot fighting a giant horny prehistoric shark doesn’t really need to go out of its way to point out how silly it is. It’s a particularly good decision because the film can spend the time it wins this way by showing a giant shark doing giant shark things, and a hideous looking shark shaped piloted robot doing shark shaped piloted robot things.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Deserter

aka Devil’s Backbone

aka Ride to Glory

When US cavalry captain Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) loses his wife in an Apache attack on a catholic mission, he holds his superior Major Brown (Richard Crenna) just as responsible for her death as the people who killed her. So, after an altercation with Brown that just barely ends with Kaleb deciding not to kill his superior, he deserts, going native in the desert bordering Mexico.

There he probably would have stayed, if not for the arrival of General Miles (John Huston) at Brown’s fort. Miles is convinced that the apache war chief Durango (Mimmo Palmara) is staying in the border countries of Mexico preparing an attack that would drench the whole Southwest of the US in blood – Native American and white alike. Of course, Miles can’t just waltz an army over the border of Mexico to try and stop Durango, and has decided on an alternative plan of attack. To fetch Kaleb – a man made for guerrilla war – give him a handful of men, and use him and these men to scout out and perhaps resolve the situation.

So Kaleb soon finds himself working for the US cavalry again, turning the obligatory rag-tag bunch of fighting men – among them his old Native American scout friend Natachai (Ricardo Montalban), British import Crawford (Ian Bannen), explosives-loving chaplain Reynolds (Chuck Connors), big angry black man Jackson (Woody Strode) and professional asshole Schmidt (Albert Salmi) – into an effective guerrilla force. Afterwards, the bloodshed starts.

Burt Kennedy’s The Deserter (going by the IMDB with directorial contributions of Yugoslavian Niksa Fulgosi, but I wouldn’t know) is yet another of those early 70s international co-productions – this time under the auspices of Dino de Laurentiis – that finds itself trying to mimic many elements of the Spaghetti Western, probably on a budget much superior to most anything Italian and Spanish productions companies who didn’t have a leg in Hollywood like Dino did could come up with. At the very least, there was enough money involved to lavish it on quite a cast of actors who mostly never quite made the big time but are – at least in my home – always a pleasure to watch. Bekim Fehmiu was quite the star in his native Yugoslavia and across Eastern Europe, though, and this film was a fruitless attempt to give him a foothold in Hollywood or at least Western Europe.

Of course, this being a de Laurentiis film, it then goes and doesn’t really do much with these actors, using a script that is decidedly one-note in characterisation, with the little character development that is there so underwritten it’s often difficult to make out why the film thinks the characters act like they act, or change when they do. Fortunately, the ensemble consists of men (and this is as much of a sausage assembly as you’ll ever find) quite used to, if they aren’t given much to work with, at least making the little they have count, always giving the impression the viewer is watching quite interesting people, even if there’s never anything visible on screen that would actually make them interesting.

Characterisation really is the weakest point of The Deserter’s script, though it is generally more serviceable than strong, providing a Man’s Adventure style men on a mission western. From time to time, writer Clair Huffaker – who was responsible for quite a few better scripts for westerns – does add some interesting flourishes to the proceedings, though. While the Apaches are the enemy of the day, and not given luxuries like characterisation or names, the film does more than once suggest that their grievances are very much justified. The film even, as much as a film very much in love with its own violence can, the way the conflict between Apache and post-settlers is fought: full of atrocities committed by both sides, one cruelty always leading to the next, with no side seeing itself in the position to ever stop escalating. Men of peace aren’t to be found on both sides anyhow, so the only thing they’ll use to resolve their conflict will be violence. Moral right and wrong don’t ever come into play. In the film’s world, a morally decent action can lead to as horrible consequences as a morally abhorrent one. In the very end, after quite a bit of slaughter, the film does suddenly start to argue doing “the right thing” might be important and worthwhile in itself even when the consequences are dire, but then it’s a bit too underwritten to really convince me of anything more than its good intentions. Which, come to think of it, is more than a lot of films bother with showing, so it’s still a point in The Deserter’s favour.

If you take the film for what it is, though, you can have a good time with it. Even though Kennedy is the archetype of a hired gun director never bringing any visible personal touches to anything he’s working on, he does his job well enough here, pacing things well, often letting the actors’ faces and the impressive landscape of Arispainia speak for themselves, getting the action done in professionally exciting manner. The resulting film is not exactly one of the greatest pseudo-Spaghetti Westerns ever made but it’s an entertaining time, if you can cope with a lot of unpleasant violence in your entertainment.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In short: Escape (2012)

Original title: Flukt

Norway, in 1363. In the aftermath of the black plague, what little there had been of social order is destroyed, leaving the remaining population fighting for their lives or attempting to flee for more prosperous shores.

The family of young Signe (Isabel Christine Andreasen) attempts the latter, but an encounter with a group of bandits under the leadership of a woman named Dagmar (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) leaves everyone except the teenager dead. For Signe, Dagmar has other plans. Dagmar has adopted a girl named Frigg (Milla Olin), and now has ambitions to get her hands on a little sister for her. Trouble is, Dagmar can’t get children, so she decides Signe would make a nice replacement birth mother for a prospective sister, notwithstanding the fact that Signe’s hardly a woman, or minor things like the rape(s) that are necessarily part of this plan.

Frigg isn’t quite at the point where she’s as ruthless as Dagmar yet, though, and frees Signe. Because one of Dagmar’s men witnesses the deed, Frigg flees together with the older girl, which of course does make Dagmar’s resulting attempts to get her “daughter” back rather more enthusiastic than I’d imagine them to have been if they had only been about Signe.

I know Escape’s director Roar Uthaug from the generic competence of the first Cold Prey film, that of course also starred Ingrid Bolsø Berdal though in a rather more pleasant role, so I mostly expected the film at hand to be about the same – competent but lacking in substance or imagination.

Turns out I was wrong again, for while Escape is certainly a slickly made film, it’s also one with a personality of its own that adds more than enough interesting, even surprising, elements to its basic historical adventure set-up. For the most part, it’s the film’s tight focus that impresses most about it, Uthaug’s ability to tell a tale Hollywood would bloat up to two and a half hours in less than one and a half, without ever losing control or keeping things too superficial. There’s a leanness and sparseness on display that fits Norway’s – quite breathtakingly photographed – landscape as well as it fits the way the characters’ medieval lives are by necessity turning out.

Uthaug is particularly good at providing the film’s main characters with additional dimensions and life in just the same way: Dagmar has a tragic past that explains a lot of what she is doing and why she does it without the film ever feeling the need to excuse her with it, and Signe’s guilt for the death of her family makes perfect sense as the driving factor even for the on paper slightly preposterous (and pretty final girl-like) finale. The film never gets soppy there, nor does it fall into the trap of explaining too much – there’s a clear belief in the audience understanding meaningful gestures even when they are small on display. The actors for their parts do know how deliver these gestures well.

Consequently, the film’s well-filmed genre action is grounded as a tale of actual human beings rather than the adventures of walking and talking tropes, and becomes more meaningful, more effective, and just more human, by it, making Escape a movie well worth watching.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)

A certain Harry Crowel (Charles “Future Emperor Ming” Middleton doing some fine mugging), now preferring to be called after his prison number 39013, has escaped from prison. He’s out for revenge on his former (legal) business partner Granville (Miles Mander) whom he makes responsible for his prison stint.

39013 is quite the evil master mind, so soon Granville’s various business holdings are exploding left and right. One of these attacks kills the little brother of circus performer Gene Townley (Charles Quigley). Together with his performing buddies Tiny Dawson (Bruce Bennett) and Bert Knowles (David Sharpe), and their rather handy dog Tuffie, Gene hires on as a very special security detail for Granville, in the hopes of laying hands on 39013 this way.

Little do they expect that Granville isn’t Granville anymore but 39013 who keeps the real Granville locked up in a hidden cell in his house for regular gloating sessions. Consequently, the daredevils’ missions to thwart 39013 tend to be rather more dangerous than they should be. Fortunately, they’re serial heroes. Additionally, a mysterious shadowy figure our daredevils imaginatively come to call the Red Circle leaves them helpful – yet not too helpful – warning messages under their own red circle symbol.

In general, serials do have a worse reputation now than they actually deserve, and I think much of the blame for it lies in later generations like mine watching the poor things in inappropriate ways. They were, after all, made to be seen in weekly instalments, and neither to be binged on like a TV show made in the 2010s – which makes their repetitive nature annoying – nor to be watched in the often horrible film versions that try to stitch a serial into a narrative that makes sense as a movie – which doesn’t work because the source material was usually just not written that way.

When watched properly (or if you’re like me once a day), perhaps as an appetizer before each film in your own private Bergman retrospective, it becomes far easier to appreciate the serials’ actual strengths, as well as their weaknesses. The latter mostly lie in cardboard characters, sometimes illogical plotting, again repetitiveness, and sometimes pretty horrid racism (in Daredevils represented by the fortunately not very frequent horrifying “comedy” stylings of Fred “Snowflake” Toones, and the horrifying way the rest of the cast treats him, which is to say, worse than the dog). The first three things aren’t much of a problem if you’re watching the episodes with the fact in mind that what you’re seeing was meant to provide a jolt of excitement before the evening’s cinematic main event; the last one is inexcusable, but for me at least (and in this case) easily shrugged of by seeing it as a sign of its times and the people the serials were made for. Everyone’s mileage will of course vary at that point.

What’s good about serials, and the Republic serials of directors John English and William Witney (with English shooting the talky stuff and interiors, and Witney the outside scenes and the action), of which Daredevils is supposed to be one of the best, is the sheer excitement and pacing of the action sequences, with some really imaginative stunts, and as many explosions and destroyed buildings as the budgets could come up with or the directors could special effects magic in. It’s all pleasantly breathless, sometimes uncomfortably dangerous looking, shot with surprising care if you keep the shooting schedules and budgets for these things in mind, and directed with a lot of visual imagination. You can, in fact, watch this and see how Witney (co-)invents not a little of the visual language of action filmmaking; much of it is still used today.

While the acting of our three heroes is at best serviceable, they do have the right sort of physicality for the action, and given that Daredevils expresses all that’s important to it, and all that’s good about it, through its physicality, that’s exactly what the serial needs.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Universal Van Damme: The Order (2001)

Rudy Cafmeyer (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is one of those charming rogues and cat burglars one hears so often about, though with a side-line in kicking people in the face, because he’s JCVD. Rudy’s father Oscar (Vernon Dobtcheff), a professor of archaeology doesn’t approve of his son’s lifestyle, curiously enough.

Right now, Oscar is concerning himself with a mysterious and secret (so secret, we will later learn, they’re on the TV news in Israel) sect. He seems to have found the lost final part of the group’s holy book, so off he goes to Israel where he disappears without a trace.

Of course, Rudy travels to Israel to find his Dad, and soon finds himself chased through Jerusalem by bad people with guns as well as the Israeli police. During the course of his adventures, Rudy will team up with honest cop Dalia (Sofia Milos), watch Charlton Heston die, save his dad, fight crazy cultists, and will just perhaps also save the world from total destruction.

For at least the first half of its running time, Van Damme veteran Sheldon Lettich’s The Order is a pretty family friendly action adventure with broad comedic touches, the kind of film you could imagine watching with your imaginary children, at least if you are a desensitised monster like I am. Tonally, it’s an attempt to fuse classic Van Damme-isms like That Kick with elements of the post-Indiana Jones adventure movie and a bit of daft yet pleasant Da Vinci code historical conspiracy nonsense (which did exist long before Dan Brown descended from his spaceship).

The film does grow increasingly strange and a bit more violent the longer it goes on, though, with many a minor character dying while the whole affair’s tone – which started out quite comic-book like anyway – shifts into full-out, yet cost-conscious craziness, with a pretty stupid coup d'état among the sectarians that leaves Brian Thompson in charge to fulfil a dubious prophecy even after he knows the dubious prophecy is actually false, and stupid main henchmen Ben Cross deciding that he’ll still have use for money on his Swiss bank account after he has helped his boss start World War III, and all sorts of off-handed craziness.

The film’s strangest – and potentially offensive to the easily offended, which is to say at least half of the inhabitants of the Internet – part comes quite a bit earlier though, when Jean-Claude disguises himself as a Hasidic Jew to escape police attention only to end up in a prolonged chase sequence full of other dubious national stereotypes (also to be found in the curiously upmarket Pino Donaggio soundtrack) and some Jackie-Chan-lite choreography.

What all this adds up to is certainly not what Serious People will call a good film, but, as somebody perhaps not all that serious, I found myself rather charmed and certainly entertained by The Order’s comic book nonsense, the hammy acting (Jean-Claude is the most subdued actor on screen!), and the all-around cheap professionalism of the production.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

In short: Guru, the Mad Monk (1970)

Thanks to the generosity of Vinegar Syndrome, now you too can delight in one of Andy Milligan’s movies in beautiful high definition without having to pay a price, or rather, without having to pay a monetary price, for watching a Milligan movie takes its psychological toll on most of us. In fact, a viewer of any given Milligan movie might never be the same afterwards. Just look at your once mild-mannered blogger who is now, just like Milligan himself, quite hateful of everyone (yes, even you!).

Guru concerns the shenanigans medieval priest Father Guru (Neil Flanagan) gets up to in his position as the head of the Church’s island death camp. Bodysnatching, vampirism, torture and a guy in a particularly horrible hunchback costume ensue. Given the film’s Milligan-typical claustrophobically cramped sets, the school play costumes and the sub school play acting, it should be as easy – if boring – to make fun of this as of any film by the director, but as it is always the case with Milligan films and me, Guru is no laughing matter but a film making me decidedly uncomfortable.

The at times absurdly cramped sets and the even more claustrophobia-inducing blocking Milligan prefers take on oppressive hues, with people not so much standing beside one another but crawling into each other’s faces, often times shouting their decidedly angry dialogue at one another with all the enthusiasm their very basic acting talents can manage. Hardly a scene goes by where someone doesn’t do or say something deeply unpleasant while the camera looks on unmoving and most probably unmoved by human empathy, gleeful in its unwillingness to engage beyond The Swirl.

Milligan, his films convince me again and again, hates me, not just in my function as his audience, but also as a member of the human race, and while he can’t hurt me physically (one hopes, for one does not believe in life after death), he sure as hell can hurl his hate for humanity in my face in film form again and again, which he does quite effectively in Guru.

There’s an unbelievably unpleasant, brutal, undertone to the film – as to Milligan’s whole body of work – the sort of feeling that turns what should be nothing more than MST3K-style fodder for cheap laughs into something quite different, a very personal outburst of loathing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Battle of the Last Panzer (1969)

Original title: La batalla del último Panzer

During the Allied invasion of France, at a point when Germany has been beaten back far enough that more than one soldier of their side knows which way the winds blows regarding the whole master race thing, a single Tiger tank finds itself caught behind enemy lines, and worse for the handful of soldiers involved, commanded by a Lieutenant (Stelvio Rosi) who is still a gung ho Nazi out to win a war that’s already lost.

Not surprisingly given these circumstances, the handful of soldiers decreases in numbers fastly, what with the good Lieutenant’s unwillingness to just surrender to someone. There are encounters with the French resistance, a village repeatedly in need to change the flag congratulating their newest conqueror/liberator, an innkeeper’s wife (Erna Schurer) with a bad taste in men to live out her existential crisis with, and much interpersonal wrangling. And that’s before the Americans get wind of the German tanks loose behind their lines and send in Guy Madison (as well as a dubious plan). It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that things will end badly.

If you are one of these sad people populating even sadder parts of the Internet demanding historical accuracy from your cheap Spanish war movies, and get in a tizzy when an on-screen Tiger isn’t an actual Tiger, or when soldiers wear the wrong helmets, or really, if you’re the kind of person who cares about the helmets people wear in a war movie instead of what any given film has to say about the people wearing those helmets, you’ll probably probably die of a heart attack watching this. Me, I’m made of sterner stuff when it comes to films that aren’t documentaries, and really don’t think the helmet makes the movie, though it is of course nice when a film can afford the money and care to find the right ones.

Really, José Luis Merino’s Battle of the Last Panzer is worth a bit of tolerance, seeing as it features a handful of moments of clever filmmaking and a script with some ideas of its own you don’t find in every World War II film - though generally more often in those made in Europe, because the filmmakers will approach the theme from a different direction, and perhaps with more mixed sympathies.

The film’s script is quite loosely structured, only escaping the description of “episodic” by not having all that much happen in it at all. However, the stretches of little happening with an undercurrent of watching psychological damaged people getting close to their breaking points, followed by violence, followed by little action again, which make up the film’s structure seem to fit the nature of the war as its German protagonists experience it quite well. Now, I’m not necessarily saying the script uses this structure on purpose, however, the impression while watching stays the same in any case. What I definitely am saying is that the film is more interested in the psychological pressure of the situation and exploring the strain of people in a situation built to crush them than in clever plotting. This approach works quite well for the film, too. It has its share of boring scenes, but also a cast of characters that is as a rule more complicated than you’ll find in most war movies.

The complicated relationship between Erna Schurer’s Jeanette and her husband, as well as the thing going on between her and the Lieutenant come to mind at once, or the fact that the Lieutenant is not just a deeply unpleasant Nazi thug (though he is that, too) but also shows moments of kindness. He also suffers from PTSD, something films generally seem to think is ennobling, and therefore only inflict on whomsoever they deign to be the good guy in any given situation, as if history (and hey, even World War II) wouldn’t make quite clear that monstrosity and vulnerability are both very human traits, and both traits can appear in the same person, perhaps even one entwined with the other so much it becomes difficult to tell which is which.

The violence here is generally not of the fun and adventurous sort, yet also keeping away from the kind of gruesomeness that produces a visceral reaction in its audience (one suspects there wasn’t a budget for the latter). It stays in a middle ground where violence is a bad thing, and war is hell, but there’s nothing spectacular or emotionally disturbing shown. There is, though, one blunt yet clever directorial trick in a scene that would have been a big (or biggish, with the budget involved here) violent action set piece in most films but turns it into something quite different, and arguably more interesting, here. When the Lieutenant and his surviving crew slaughter the French resistance members, Merino films the action through a simple red filter, turning what we see of the violence surreal and strange, and echoing the estrangement, and what I’ve read described as the tunnel vision of battle, of the men involved.

It’s difficult to disapprove of a film that exchanges a sure-fire moment of outward excitement for something like this, and for me, this scene is emblematic of Battle of the Last Panzer’s ambition as well as of its strengths. Not a bad thing for a cheap exploitation movie.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Live by the gun. Die by the gun. Come back for more...

Machete Kills (2013): Objectively, there's not much of a difference between this one and the first adventure of mythical superman Danny Trejo. Subjectively, I didn't enjoy the second film nearly as much as the first one, or really, enjoyed it at all. It might be because some jokes don't get funnier by repetition, or because director Roberto Rodriguez has now completely fallen under the spell of urine-based colour schemes, and I never liked the colour yellow all that much, and certainly not to the exclusion of all other colours in the spectrum, or just because Machete really wasn't a film screaming for a sequel. In the end, I just didn't find much to enjoy in the film.

King Kong (1933): One thing I always forget about the Merian C. Cooper's and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong - probably because of its status as a "classic" - is how hard the film is working for its audience's enthusiasm. Willis O'Brien's special effects work is not just pioneering, it's also still overwhelming in the sheer number of effects and the pace with which they rain down on the audience after a necessarily slow first half hour. Once the film's middle is reached, the film’s sheer speed becomes so exhilarating, most of our blockbusters right now can only dream of it. Just a few of King Kong's contemporaries outside the musical genre managed to feel this alive, the film seemingly breathing pure energy and sheer enthusiasm for filmmaking as a visceral thing. Even after eighty years, it's still glorious.

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (1999): We don't know what happened to Children of the Corn films 6 to 665 but if they are anything like this outing, I'm rather glad they don't exist, for Kari Skogland's direct-to-video anti-epic is more than enough to convince me to keep away from films with the words "children" and "corn" in the title for the next few hundred years. I do appreciate that this film actually is a sequel to the earlier films, but its continuity is confused to say the least. Bizarrely, someone involved in the production decided to leave out the more interesting parts of the series' mythology, so there's little fun with creepy kids or cornfield-dwelling supernatural entities to be had (and what we get to learn about said cornfield-dwelling entity is so lame I would have preferred a complete absence). Instead we get, well, a lot of nothing consisting of some lame pseudo-shocks, many a non-surprising surprise, and the only visible effort to keep the prospective audience awake consisting of featuring Stacy Keach and Nancy Allen in roles that - again - amount to nothing of interest in a film beyond even trying to be vaguely entertaining.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Man Called Noon (1973)

aka Un hombre llamado Noon

A man (Richard Crenna) is nearly assassinated while making what looks like preparations for a classic western showdown. He barely manages to escape with his life and – after a somewhat nightmarish chase – finds himself sharing a hobo-style train ride with the surprisingly friendly outlaw Rimes (Stephen Boyd). The man does need all the help he can get, it seems, for a grazing shot to the head has left him without memory; he only remembers that his name is Jonas, and that someone named Janish was involved in the attack on him, but apart from that he has no idea what’s going on with him whatsoever.

Rimes takes Jonas with him to the ranch of Fan Davidge (Rosanna Schiaffino), which just happens to be a place a certain Janish has turned into a safe house for his bandit gang - without Fan’s consent. Janish isn’t on the ranch right now, but various dangerous developments suggest that Jonas is actually a gunman called Noon. At the very least, he has very practical experience with meting out brutal violence, and is certainly a ruthless man.

Both traits will come in handy once various people start trying to kill Noon while he’s trying to solve the mystery of his own identity; a gold treasure is involved too.

Peter Collinson’s British-Italian-Spanish co-production (of course shot in Spain) The Man Called Noon is quite an interesting film. An adaptation of a Louis L’Amour novel, the film stands with one foot in the realm of the psychological western as made in the United States during the 50s, with the other – particular when it comes to its depiction of violence - in the world of the Spaghetti western. Collinson made quite a few fine genre films that often seem to straddle eras and sub-genres the way Noon does, never quite reaching the heights that give one posthumous cult status as a director, but generally turning out films at least worth watching.

Noon certainly is, despite being marred by a slightly overcooked finale that contains more melodramatic posturing than the rest of the film together. Outside of the finale, the film is tight, yet often growing unreal and dream-like. Particular some of the scenes of violence are filmed with stylistic methods you can often see connected with dream sequences, suggesting its action taking place in Noon’s (to leave it at that name) mind as much as in the outside world.

Even outside the action scenes, Collins tends to position his camera at peculiar angles, shooting very traditional western scenes in uncommon ways that turn the often seen into something a bit stranger. I suspect it’s an attempt to let the audience share some of Noon’s confusion, the befuddlement of someone who still knows the rituals of his job and genre by instinct, but doesn’t know what they’re actually meant for. From time to time, Collinson overdoes this a bit and things threaten to feel a bit silly, but the largest part of the film expresses a peculiar mood of alienation very much its own, with Noon stumbling through a fun house mirror world quite like a noir protagonist who isn’t at all sure anymore if he’ll want to find the truth about himself. Although, it has to be said, Noon lets its main character off quite lightly in the end.

Richard Crenna does a good job on the acting side, believably embodying Noon’s state of confusion and basic decency as well as the coldness and ruthlessness he only still remembers as reflexes. Crenna’s performance even suggests another dimension the script doesn’t really seem to be interested in: that forgetting parts of what he was is exactly what enables Noon to change and possibly find a future, his loss of memory helping him regain some buried part of his humanity (while killing a lot of people, of course).

As a fan of European genre cinema of the era, I’m also happy with the rest of the film’s cast, the well-known faces of Farley Granger, Rosanna Schiaffino, Aldo Sambrell and last but not least Patty Shepard, who gives a pretty unhinged performance as capital-e evil Peg Cullane. Why, Shepard’s so evil, she even owns an adorable black cowboy outfit she wears when she’s out doing evil!

And if that doesn’t sound like a recommendation, I don’t know what does.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In short: Tom yum goong 2 (2013)

Kham’s (Tony Jaa) peaceful country life is disturbed when another gang of evildoers steals his elephant. This time around, the bad guys around a certain LC (RZA, because why hire an actor and martial artist when you can get a rapper who can’t act and is shit in his action scenes presumably for free because he’s an – admirably – big martial arts fan) want to use the poor elephant to blow up some foreign politicians. The elephant bomb is not the most stupid thing in the movie.

If you expected Tom yum goong 2 to be a return to form for Tony Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed, for it’s rather overly polite to call the film not very good. It’s not just that RZA – whose love for martial arts movies, it turns out, doesn’t make up for him being crap in them - makes a horrible main bad guy. There’s also the fact that for every fun stupid action movie idea, the film has three ideas that are just stupid, the trouble the films plot has to even connect the action scenes decently, and that Pinkaew’s direction seems rather disinterested.

The action itself fluctuates between the by now routine Thai choreography style, badly integrated CGI, and too many moments that are clearly meant to impress the audience with their stupid awesomeness (I’ll just say burning feet) but mostly feel like acts of a filmmaker trying way too hard and embarrassing himself with it. It’s a shame too, for there are a handful of moments in the fights that still show the brilliance early Pinkaew/Jaa had. Unfortunately, these moments are never where any given scene stops, because each and every fight here goes on way past its welcome, editing things down looking like a lost art.

Last and worst, if you were hoping that the casting of JeeJa Yanin beside Jaa would lead to either some awesome team-ups or awesome fights between the two, like I did in my naiveté, you will also be disappointed, for JeeJa spends most of her fights being everyone’s punching bags in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to make Jaa look more impressive. Well, at least it fits the film’s series of other wasted opportunities.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On ExB: Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)

I’m really not watching enough US westerns, despite the genre offering many obvious treasures I still haven’t encountered yet. On the positive side, this does mean that when I do watch one, I more often than not get to see very fine films like Gordon Douglas’s Gold of the Seven Saints, a film that finds Roger Moore doing a horrible Irish accent, yet still turns out to be quite fantastic, for the very first time.

What makes the film at hand particularly fine I explain in this week’s column over at Exploder Button, so just click on through, ahem, pardner!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Salt in the Wound (1969)

aka The Liberators

aka War Fever

Original title: Il dito nella piaga

World War II, somewhere in Italy. Lieutenant Michael Sheppard (George Hilton), freshly arrived at the front from West Point, manages to bring himself into quite a bit of trouble on his very first mission, getting the shooting squadron he commands killed by sheer obstinacy, and ending up having to team up with the two men he was supposed to have being shot – Corporal Brian Haskins (Klaus Kinski) and Private John Grayson (Ray Saunders).

After various violent misadventures the not exactly loving trio ends up “liberating” a small Italian village. Here, the cynical Haskins learns he still has love, though probably not much decency, in his heart, and Grayson finds himself protecting a little boy, while Sheppard just might learn something about the realities of the lives of people not born into the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, the soldiers’ new found self-realizations and the peaceful village life that makes them feel like human beings again might not amount to much for them in the long run, for a German combined arms unit is closing in to “liberate” the village right back.

Salt in the Wound is one of the clear highpoints in the storied career of Italian genre film director Tonino Ricci. Ricci was one of those low budget filmmakers who could turn out pretty horrible crap, but when provided with an interesting script, actors actually there to act (if only a little), and a smidgen of money, his films ended up rather interesting, or even – as in this particular case – pretty damn great. Ricci, going by the resulting films, was putting as much visible effort into his films as the budgets allowed, with many a beautiful shot of unbeautiful things, and much clever – if not exactly subtle – editing. Competence (and more) in the required action scenes is pretty much a given in this context anyway.

A large part of Salt’s effectiveness does of course rest on its acting ensemble, with fine, multi-dimensional performances by Hilton and Saunders and a Kinski palpably enjoying to be allowed to show other emotions in a genre film beyond craziness; though Klaus does of course do craziness here too, and even particularly fine. That’s probably because the film actually gives him (as well as Saunders) opportunity to show where all the violence he expresses comes from. Having said that, I suspect people not fond of the ways of Italian genre cinema will not be satisfied with even these performances, for while the film has some interesting ideas of its own, and its characters are more multi-dimensional than in a shoot ‘em up style war film, it shows these things in the most unsubtle ways possible, with many an opportunity for melodramatics for everyone involved. For me, this approach fits the themes involved well. I also don’t believe war movies are a very good place for emotional subtlety (not to be confused with psychological subtlety), with melodrama’s heightened emotional states rather more fitting to the experiences the characters in these films go through.

Watching Salt, I found particularly impressive how little this film with a traditional “redemption through violence” plot actually believes in violence as being redemptive, eschewing that idea not only in the final scene when the film’s last survivor of our protagonists puts his new medal unto the grave of an unknown soldier (who just might have been one of our other protagonists). For a film of its style, Salt seems honestly and deeply bothered by the cost of violence, not just as a melodramatic gesture but at its actual emotional core. It is hardly a sign one can misinterpret that the film’s most directly redemptive moment for any of its characters is when Saunders breathes life back into a little boy, a thing that – in a film from a very Catholic country that starts quoting from the bible and sees Saunders character struggling with the difference between his religious belief and the way the world is – is hardly an accident, and is pretty much the opposite of redemption through violence.

It’s also rather uncommon in the genre to not just show bad men (or rather “bad men”) redeem themselves in dubious manner, but for a film in it to actually show why these men probably weren’t quite right even before the war began. Again, it’s all very melodramatically realized, but it’s also effective and thoughtful.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In short: C.I.D. Raju (1971????)

This film can and should be watched on YouTube right now. I don’t know about the legality of the whole affair, but then if some company subtitled this and brought it out on DVD or BluRay (one can dream, right?), I’d buy the hell out of it.

I only write up films I watched in a language I don’t speak without the help of subtitles in very special cases, but a thing as inspired as this Telugu effort by K.S.R. Doss does deserve a mention as well as a YouTube link, so I’ll drop a few words that’ll hopefully entice some of you to give the film a shot. Even though I didn’t have a clue about what was going on in C.I.D. Raju for most of its running time (and neither did my watchalong partner, the ever inspiring Beth of Beth Loves Bollywood), Doss’s hyperkinetic direction that at times reminded me of Eisenstein or Universal horror (or perhaps their over-enthusiastic Indian brother) and sure loves swirling more than sainted Andy Milligan, keeps things decidedly exciting even if you don’t speak the language. The film’s series of serial-like but even more hectic and pleasantly ridiculous fight scenes, copious moments of bug eyes, all-around pleasant insanity and bizarre stuff that certainly wouldn’t be any less bizarre once I understood why it’s happening, speak the international language of Awesome anyhow. Or really, in the case of a film this enthusiastic and unafraid to be loud, shrill, and melodramatic, I should probably speak of shouting rather than speaking.

If you enter Doss’s wondrous world, you will – hopefully - be delighted by things like the film’s ass kicking heroine (where’s Die Danger Die Die Kill’s Todd to tell me what her name is when I need him?) kicking ass in improbable yet inspiring ways (which are always the best ways), turning into a ghost with not one, but two, musical numbers, many guys with huge pompadours, a main bad guy who dresses like a cowboy (for reasons I hope the film never explains), a monster looking through very large holes in a way Alfred Vohrer would highly approve of (and mauling people in also improbable yet inspiring ways), national stereotyping only the most po-faced could be outraged by, a soundtrack that of course includes a bit that sounds a lot like the James Bond theme but also includes surf guitar and a farfisa organ, and only very few seconds in which the camera holds still, leading to two-and-a-half-hour movie that just blasts by while you’re having fun.

Monday, April 7, 2014

On Fist of B-List: Night of the Kickfighters (1988)

In the spirit of jolly cooperation that dominates M.O.S.S., today finds me reciprocating Karl Brezdin’s piece about Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard with a post of my own over at the glorious Fist of B-List.

So if you want to learn what happens during the Night of the Kickfighters – and it is inspirational indeed – please follow this handy link.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Three Steps in the Dark (1953)

Horrible old man Arnold Burgoyne (Nicholas Hannen) summons his family to his mansion for a charming family dinner, or rather, to ruin as much of their lives as he can, and not for the first time. Some of them, like mystery novel writer Sophy (Greta Gynt) are independent enough of the old bastard to be able to assume the position of annoyed bystanders, but people like Arnold’s nephew Henry (John van Eyssen) are in the rather more unlucky position to actually need Arnold’s approval and money.

Consequently, Arnold quite disapproves of Henry’s marriage plans with former stage dancer/actress with another secret Esme (Hélène Cordet) in the most frightful manner and does his very worst to ruin the relationship with monetary threats. Why, he has his lawyer right there to change his will if Henry doesn’t behave.

In a turn of events that doesn’t surprise anyone, some benefactor of humanity shoots Arnold before he actually can change his will. This, together with some thin circumstantial evidence, does turn Henry into the main suspect of Scotland Yard inspector Forbes (Alastair Hunter). Sophy, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in the theory at all and puts all her powers of deduction to work to counteract the policeman’s theories. Given the kind of person her uncle was, Sophy isn’t so much interested in finding the true killer as in protecting her family, but she’ll find out the truth anyway.

On more than one level, Daniel Birt’s Three Steps in the Dark is your typical British B-movie (in the actual sense of the term) of the early post-war years, with an old fashioned mystery plot, generally decent acting, taking place in slightly cramped sets and containing a rather obvious mystery that is solved quite unspectacularly too. Birt’s direction isn’t much to write home about either, showing few stylistic flourishes or much visual imagination. At least, there’s no feet dragging, though, and the director does keep things moving, which is a feat in a film as talky as this one.

It’s really the talk that’s most interesting about Three Steps, or rather, the tone of the talk is. For while the dialogue isn’t exactly scintillating, it is snarky and sarcastic nearly throughout the whole film, with characters being politely rude to each other more often than not. It’s quite fun to watch and to listen to, particularly when it is delivered with the clear delight of Greta Gynt (who has grown to be one of my favourites among British actresses in this kind of B-movie) who is even allowed to combine a sharp tongue with the sharpest mind of all characters on screen without having to assume the role of the femme fatale nor falling into the sensuously neutral Miss Marple role.

The film’s rather amoral tone is quite remarkable too, with only very little – and very possibly only polite – disapproval shown for the murder of Arnold, and quite a bit more excitement for the less savoury parts of the lifestyles of the rich and idle than strictly nice. In fact, given the strictness of the British censorship regime of the time, I can’t help but imagine that the film would really rather like to be like one of the later Italian giallos of the sub-type that was all about the joys of loudly disapproving of the lifestyle of the rich while getting off on it at the same time, if only the times had allowed for actually showing any of the really fun stuff. As it stood, Three Steps just had to make do with what it could, and showed a bunch of not unsympathetic characters being snarky and not caring too much about a murder beyond questions of convenience.

Turns out that’s more than enough to entertain at least me for an hour of running time, even sixty years after Three Steps in the Dark was shot, which is surely more than the people involved in the film ever had ambitions for.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

In short: The Internecine Project (1974)

Professor Robert Elliot (James Coburn) is an up and coming star of the military-industrial complex, soon to be promoted into a highly influential US government position. Unfortunately his overlords (represented by Keenan Wynn) need him to get rid of the four people in London who helped him with his own personal, and highly effective, mix of espionage, industrial espionage (in a clever nod to realism, the film doesn’t treat these two things as independent of each other) and good old blackmail.

Elliot, true believer in his own superiority that he is, decides the best way to get rid of his soon to be former associates is a complicated plan that will result in all of them killing one another in a single night with not a trace pointing to Elliot himself. As it goes with these plans, things go well until they don’t go well anymore.

Ken Hughes’s British/German co-production turns your typical 70s paranoia into a crime procedural very much like a nastier heist movie. For most of the time, the result is a deeply focused film, perhaps at times even too deeply focused, with only limited space to get an actual feel for James Coburn’s character.

The film’s only actual detour is Elliot’s relationship with his former girlfriend, journalist Jean Robertson (Lee Grant) but instead of revealing much about Elliot, or even just humanizing him, the scenes between the two don’t add much more than a distraction. I honestly don’t know what the writers were trying to achieve with the subplot. As it stands, it mostly seems there to deflate the tension every twenty minutes or so.

Which really is a bit of a shame, for the rest of the movie is very tense indeed, with Hughes using simple yet effective traditional thriller tricks to string the audience along while not keeping anything about Elliot’s plan secret. I don’t think contemporary thriller writers could even conceive of keeping tension without holding things back or adding twists to a plot, so if nothing else, The Internecine Project’s clearer approach does feel novel again in a movie, at least from the perspective of 2014.

The only real twist here is how Elliot gets his comeuppance in the end. Given when this was made, I was actually a bit surprised things didn’t end well for him, how ever much I was hoping for an ignominious result to his exploits.

The film’s politics are of course 70s standard fare of the type you could still use in a movie today without anyone complaining it to be too far fetched. Alas or fortunately – depending on your tastes – the politics here aren’t explored very deeply, and are only ever used to enable the plot. Which is perfectly alright in a film as effectively plotted as The Internecine Project is.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

In short: Avengers from Hell (1981)

Original title: 鬼域

Avengers from Hell is a three story omnibus Shaw Brothers feature directed by Lee Pooi-Kuen from the studio’s decadent late period, though this one’s really more competent and routine than decadent.

The first story concerns a rookie beat cop’s (Alex Man Chi-Leung) intense obsession with a haunted house and the resident ghost of a murdered woman (Lee Yin-Yin), the sort of thing that will need an intervention by his girlfriend (JoJo Chan Kei-Kei) sooner or later.

The second one is another tale of a philandering Hong Kong business man (Phillip Chan Yan-Kin) cheating on his pregnant wife on foreign soil (though it’s the Philippines for a change), killing his mistress (Lily Chan Lee-Lee) over a pregnancy, and soon having to fend off a pissed off ghost you’d probably root for over him if it hadn’t nasty plans for his wife too.

The third one is the comedic close-off of the whole affair with the tale of luckless elderly gentleman Liang Jiu (Lau Hak-Suen) who finds a pair of glasses that brings him in contact with a ghost who will finally help him win at gambling for once. Hot mah-jongg action is of course to follow.

As the basic plots of the film’s segments suggest, Avengers from Hell isn’t a long lost classic of Shaw Brothers horror but rather the sort of quickly shot, competently made film the studio’s exploitation arm excelled at this late in its existence (one could argue throughout it); it’s also the sort of film nobody involved took for anything more than another job to fill some cinema slots when nothing more profitable came around.

Fortunately, everyone involved was at least a professional, so the film might not be all that original, but it is neither lackluster nor boring nor seems too disinterested. Director Lee Pooi-Kuen provides some pleasant moments of lurid fun – although this isn’t the sort of Hong Kong horror film that becomes more than mildly unpleasant and never gets really icky at all -  and keeps everything moving along nicely and not without a degree of visual style.

All the while, the thirty minute segments never overstay the welcome of their basic set-ups, so while it is rather difficult to become very excited about Avengers from Hell, or find hidden depths in it, it’s also rather difficult to not be entertained by it on the basic level it wants to entertain.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mysterious yet orderly guest post: Black Lizard (1968)

Every member of The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit is grand in her or his specific way, so for March (or for slow pokes like me, April) we decided to invite other members of that glorious organization to do a guest stint in our respective endeavours. So today, I'm proud to present to you Karl Brezdin of the wonderful Fist of B-List (the place for all your low budget martial arts needs). Take it away, Karl:

It’s been said many times that a hero is only as good as his or her villain. While cliché, this is proven and provable! The films that brought us Skywalker-Vader, Creed-Balboa, and Matrix-Bennett are all examples of how contrasting characteristics bring balance to the relationships between protagonists and antagonists. The characters headlining Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 crime film Black Lizard may or may not have chairs at the same table as the aforementioned duos, but they are definitely in the same restaurant. In news that will surprise no one, the food and cocktail pairings are really good there.

Kurosawa regular Isao Kimura plays Detective Akechi, a stern but clever everyman drawn into a strange plot after he’s hired by a wealthy jeweler named Iwase (Junya Usami) to protect his daughter, Sanae, (Kikko Matsuoka) from being kidnapped. The paranoid father also expects that Akechi, Japan’s “number one detective,” will also identify and apprehend the person behind numerous threatening letters to Iwase about the impending kidnapping. He suspects that someone is trying to extort him out of the Star of Egypt, a spectacular jewel that enhances everything from strapless ball gowns to replica basketball jerseys.

The source of the letters is a vivacious nightclub owner named Ms. Midorikawa (Akihiro Miwa) who moonlights as a criminal mastermind known as Black Lizard. She “acquires” precious stones and dresses to the nines at all times. Obsessed with the impermanence of human beauty, she laments the effects of anxiety and “spiritual weakness” on outer appearance; this neurosis is manifested in her secret collection of taxidermied lovers and cohorts from years past. Shes inevitably crosses paths with Akechi, and what follows is the cinematic 1960s Japanese crime-mystery equivalent of a H.O.R.S.E. game between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. (Virtually everyone else in the story is a prop or a pawn). Their perspectives on criminal behavior are near-perfect mirror images, the dialogue underpinning their one-upsmanship crackles, and their adversarial dynamic evolves into something romantic.

Based on a screenplay by literary icon Yukio Mishima (itself based on the novel by Edogawa Rampo), Black Lizard was an engaging cinematic departure for this reviewer when considering the wider body of Fukasaku’s work. While the film is categorized as a comedy on several prominent websites -- none bigger than IMDb -- I’m not sure that label adhesive really has any sticking power after a critical viewing. There’s a certain visual campiness between the gaudy vibe of the Black Lizard’s island lair and her garish naked-and-neon nightclub, for sure. However, I found that neither the characters nor the dialogue necessarily suggested farce. The Black Lizard’s obsessions are shallow and creepy, and her tactics are usually brutal.

To that point, Akihiro Miwa is an absolute powerhouse as the titular Black Lizard. A drag queen icon in his native Japan, Miwa brings both elegant beauty and criminal calculation to a very dynamic role. His costumes are fantastic -- at one point looking like a ruffle-shirted clone of Purple Rain-era Prince -- and his line delivery is wonderfully over-the-top. This might be grating for some, but I thought it worked well opposite Kimura’s delivery of Akechi’s lines, which were a bit more downbeat, and I daresay dull. There’s a lot of voice-over monologue in this film too, but it’s thankfully more contemplative than expository. At one point, Fukasaku weaves his main characters’ separate thoughts together to make a more cohesive whole. The symbiotic relationship between Akechi and the Black Lizard is well-illustrated in both the narrative elements and the technical ones.

Those watching this film for signs of Fukasaku’s directorial trademarks might be a bit disappointed. The handheld technique on display in his Yakuza Papers films is mostly absent here, save for a lone scene of first-person perspective as a camera bobs down a long and colorful nightclub corridor. Beyond a colorful car chase and Sanae falling victim to an ether rag on more than one occasion, there’s very little choreographed action, and even less on-screen violence. Though this film is largely character-driven, we’re still left with a visually engaging piece of work. Fukasaku uses full and smart compositions in his shots, and balances the darkness of this criminal underworld with bright colors quite well. His idea of a coroner’s office is a little curious -- Akechi goes fact-finding in a dissection room containing what appears to be a bubbling hot tub of dead bodies that goes unacknowledged -- but the locations are varied and materials are put to good use. As is the case with a lot of Sherlockian and James Bondish films, some of the hijinx and convenient circumstances require a willfull suspension of disbelief from the audience, but they were consistent with the wild overall tone of the film.

One can only hope that Black Lizard’s growing cult status will help propel it towards a proper DVD release, and I’m not alone in thinking it would benefit greatly from a high-definition remastering by a prestigious label.

-- Karl Brezdin