Thursday, July 31, 2014

In short: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

I didn’t at all expect to like Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie, much less be as delighted by it as I turned out to be, because the fantastic generally seems to bring out the worst in Jarmusch, the old-mannish cultural critique, and the use of metaphors that only ever are metaphors but never feel real as part of the world of a film.

None of these things actually apply here, the cultural critique is wry, the metaphors work on the level of the film’s reality too, and most of what sometimes feels pretentious about Jarmusch’s work is charming and seems perfectly placed in context of a film that follows various ideas of romance, examines diverse concepts of bohemianism and love, digs up echoes of drug culture, and makes a lot of wry jokes about it all; well, expect for the love but then Jarmusch, like me, seems to be the kind of romantic who doesn’t find love very funny - but sometimes life-saving.

Visually, this might be the most attractive Jarmusch film I’ve seen, dominated by a sense of fluid movement, the camera dancing to the film’s (impeccable) soundtrack, and colours of intense expressivity and beauty that belie the idea a film only taking place by night couldn’t make this kind of use of colours, particularly in the times of the orange and teal filters.There’s a sense of romantic poetry about it all, though not the po-faced kind (the film dutifully makes fun of Byron and Shelley) but the one that can and will laugh about itself from time to time. This being a Jarmusch film, there’s not much of a plot – though there’s so much going on on every other level I’m not sure who would mind the absence – and there’s time for the film to just swerve off into various directions and talk about various ideas and things its director/writer is interested in. Though, I would argue, these seeming detours actually belong into the particular argument about the importance of art and science the film also makes, and the film and the argument would be much weakened without them.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are pretty fantastic here, Swinton really playing on the otherworldliness of her looks and her very individual kind of beauty without the cliché using her instead of the other way round; there’s also a nice ironic juxtaposition in the fact she’s actually the more down to earth of our central vampire couple.

And as if all that weren’t enough to make at least me all kinds of happy, John Hurt plays Christopher Marlowe, who is a vampire, and alive, and…but that would be telling what is rather more usefully experienced.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In short: Dead Snow 2 (2014)

aka Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead

If you, like me, were a little afraid Tommy Wirkola’s sequel to his Nazi zombies in the snow comedy Dead Snow would end up retreading the set pieces of the first film, you can happily run out and watch this, for Wirkola goes for escalation in everything but the now piddling amount of snow while still keeping things in dimensions a comparatively low budget can handle. Dead Snow 2 is really putting the emphasis on the action comedy more than the horror comedy, though with huge dollops of pleasantly ridiculous gore, clearly realizing the first film had done everything there was to do with the more claustrophobic set-ups it used. Wirkola is a wonderful director for this sort of madcap, blood-soaked comedy action – he’s got the timing down as well as your favourite director of classic Hong Kong martial arts cinema had, and he knows how to include millions of dumb sight gags in an action scene without distracting too much from the rest of what’s going on in it.

The humour is again of a mostly low-brow, rather ruthless style that will go wherever a gory joke might lead it: if any given scene set-up will result in the question “will the film really go there?” it is most certainly going to.

Quite against my usual tastes, this approach works rather well for me in Dead Snow 2’s case, with hardly a minute going by that doesn’t at least provoke a snort – unless it provokes a groan, or the always lovely combination of both. Because this is that sort of film, there are also movie quotes that turn into inversions of the source material, American zombie hunters who are competent and ridiculous nerds and seem to be written by someone who has never met an actual American nerd in his life, a single tank (I said the budget must still have been rather low), and a climactic brawl between Nazi zombies and Soviet Russian soldiers, like the bloodiest Spencer/Hill film Italian exploitation cinema should have made.

Like everything else directed by Wirkola I’ve seen, Dead Snow 2 is fast, fun, silly and charming as hell, and while I understand why some people really can’t stand his films, I am rather happy I do.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In short: Weird Woman (1944)

When Professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns from a research and book writing year somewhere in “jungles” of what I can only assume isn’t supposed to be Hawaii or Honolulu, even if the little we get to see of it in flashback suggest a really silly Hollywood version of one of these places, with his new wife Paula (Anne Gwynne), his star is on the rise. His book is a huge success, and he seems to be a shoe-in for the post of the department head of sociology. But are his actual achievements the reason for his success, or is it the magic Paula has brought with her from the island, and whose practice she hides from the unpleasantly rationalistic Norman? (Yes, I’m still a laissez-faire atheist and am perfectly alright with the people in my life having different beliefs than myself, Richard Dawkins and his ilk be damned, so Norman’s conniptions about Paula’s activities once he learns about them still make him look like a patronizing ass to me).

Be the working of magic as it may, his new fast-lane career is bound to make Norman some enemies. The worst of them is Illona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), the college librarian he once had a – seemingly quite public – “flirtation” with, and who learned of his marriage only when he and Paula arrived at the party she gave in honour of his return. Illona does her worst to drive Paula out and/or ruin Norman’s life, and given that people on that campus really fall for the most obvious attempts at manipulation, she just might succeed.

Usually, I don’t find it very difficult to separate movie adaptations of books that diverge heftily from their sources in my mind from the novels they don’t do justice to, and can try to appreciate them as their own entities.

In the case of this first adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s “Conjure Wife”, I find this approach a rather difficult one to take. Watching Weird Woman, I spent most of my time groaning about the changes to the book that devalue the supernatural content in a way which also turns a complex treatment of the connections between superstition and rationality, that is also doing ironic work on 40s concepts of marriage, the supposed differences between men and women, and campus politics, into a simple case of a morally and intellectually black and white thriller. Gone are the ambiguities of Leiber’s book, gone are some excellent moments of supernatural menace, and gone is much of the characterization, all to be replaced by a melodramatic thriller about campus politics that goes through a lot of plot beats of the novel while completely ignoring their meaning, simplifying everything for no reason apart from Universal’s mid-40s hatred of anything supernatural.

If I could get over my problems with these weaknesses, I would probably find something good to say about the film. At the very least, its preposterous melodramatic finale is a thing of perfection in its own little way, carried by performances of Ankers and a wildly, effectively, overacting Elizabeth Russell in tandem with blunt, yet wonderful, noir-expressionist editing and camera work. Director Reginald Le Borg does one of his finer jobs here anyway, providing Weird Woman with many a scene of shadowy moodiness, which makes it probably quite the effective film for anyone not as grumpy about Scott Darling’s adaptation of Leiber’s novel as I am. Of course that mood in the service of an actual supernatural tale would have been quite the thing.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fixed Bayonets! (1951)

It’s 1951, and the Korean War is starting up rather nicely (which is to say, unpleasantly). The US forces have to withdraw after a costly battle, and it’s the job of an infantry platoon to hold off the enemy forces at a strategically important mountain pass for nine days while trying to look like a proper rear guard action instead of a suicide mission.

Not surprisingly, the platoon is slowly whittled down man by man. One of its members, Corporal Denno (Richard Baseheart), has to confront his greatest fear, that of commanding men (or really, one supposes, sending them to their deaths). He’s also not psychologically prepared to kill men in a face-to-face situation, which certainly doesn’t help his other problem any. But at least, Denno’s still outranked by veteran Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), so the responsibility might never get to rest on his shoulders at all.

Fixed Bayonets! is generally seen as the lesser of Samuel Fuller’s two Korean War movies, but if you ignore The Steel Helmet (which is rather easy if you’re like me and haven’t actually seen that movie in a very long time), it’s not at all difficult to concentrate on Fixed Bayonets!’ virtues, particularly since these virtues are rather copious.

On paper, there’s a lot speaking against the film, particularly a budget low enough to see the film produced on an obvious sound stage, going quite against the sense of pseudo-realism war movies made after the end of World War II were usually aiming for. It is indeed at first an odd feeling to find a film whose script and dialogue that tend to the realist end of the spectrum as much as Fuller’s work here does taking place in so obviously fake surroundings. However, the strength of the script and dialogue and Fuller’s tight (there’s no wasted shot here, and the idea of filler seems totally preposterous) and often unexpectedly – for the surroundings not the director – dynamic direction soon help one over the mental disconnect. In fact, Fuller often uses the comparative smallness of his sets for mood building purposes, enhancing the claustrophobia of the characters’ situation with exactly the elements of his film that should hamper its effectiveness the most. Fuller is delivering a film that uses its deceptively simple set-up not just for some very effective scenes of suspense (take for example the mine field scene) made out of shadow, close-ups of actors’ faces and an obvious knowledge of the horrors of war that doesn’t need melodrama (except for some off-screen monologue). Melodrama is something the director sure as hell could indulge in if he just wanted, as more than one of his other movies shows, but I’m glad he chose to go for more psychologically direct approach here.

It’s not only Fuller bringing his best game to the movie, though. Baseheart and Gene Evans – the latter always a much better actor than his relatively minor reputation today might suggest – both give excellent performances that fit Fuller’s tight and focused direction style perfectly. The rest of the cast is equally good.

On the thematic and tonal level, Fixed Bayonets! is not at all interested in flag waving – in fact, the film visually suggests more than once there’s not much of a difference between the protagonists’ Chinese opponents – and its view of the concepts of heroism and courage are complex to say the least. Sure, Baseheart’s character does follow the expected arc from “coward” to “hero”, but the film makes it very clear it knows quite well that the melodramatic ideas of heroics or cowardice many war film directors (yes, that Spielberg guy too) cling to have nothing at all to do with the way human beings behave under pressure, the truths of fear (here seen in many a close-up on the faces of actors), or the moral implications of the “heroic” things people do in war. The film’s clearly conscious of the horror of the fact that Denno has to learn to kill to become a leader of men, and while it doesn’t disapprove of it with pacifist fervour, it lacks any sort of pleasure or satisfaction in it. It’s a film very much about the necessities of war, and with an all too clear idea what these might entail, with a sense of responsibility to others the only reason it can contemplate as even vaguely moral in the situations its characters find themselves in.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

In short: Lobos de Arga (2011)

aka Game of Werewolves

Dorky, unsuccessful writer Tomás (Gorka Otxoa) is invited back into the village he lived in until he was fifteen to be honoured by what must be desperately bored inhabitants. Tomás has decided to use the opportunity to “return to his roots” and write a novel about the experience. Alas, peace and quiet to write his most probably horrible book is hard to find, for his old friend Calixto (Carlos Areces) would really like to renew the acquaintance, his dog Vito (?) is rather unruly, and soon, Tomás’s former publisher Mario (Secun de la Rosa) appears to hide from the police.

Then there’s the other little problem: the rest of the villagers want to sacrifice Tomás to the werewolf that has been locked up for the last forty years underground. The death of Tomás is supposed to be the only way to thwart a curse that lies on the village from turning into a worse curse, the villagers think.

With the help of Calixto, Tomás – and Mario – manage to escape from the werewolf but their flight also frees the monster from its captivity, providing excellent opportunity for a bit of a werewolf rampage. It also turns out that the villagers were quite right about the curse, and the new improved curse does indeed turn out to be worse than the first one. It’ll be the kind of night a man might only survive with the help of his grandma.

While it isn’t exactly bursting with originality, Juan Martínez Moreno’s Lobos de Arga (the English title’s really too stupid to use) is nearly bursting with charm, a state of affairs that certainly more than just kept my interest up for its running time.

There might be little depth to the film (or really, any at all) but Moreno sure knows how to pace a comedy, how to tell jokes of varying degrees of darkness and increasing absurdity without having to escape into plain randomness or frightful “aw, shucks, ain’t I weird, audience!?” posturing (if you need to ask, you probably aren’t very weird, by the way). I wouldn’t exactly call the film’s sense of humour good-natured, but its tone certainly sells even its more cynical moments as something not completely misanthropic. When it looks down on its characters, Lobos does so with the gestures of someone quite conscious of his own imperfections.

Apart from the humour, the film also provides a bit of gore (werewolves are rather cranky bastards, it seems, and like to pop peoples’ heads off), old-fashioned and plain neat wolf people suits, jumping werewolves (for why should rabbits have all the fun?), a bit of cannibalism, jokes about country people and about the kind of people who make jokes about country people, and finely timed escalation of the action. From time to time, there’s even a minor surprise or two on the programme, like the appearance of that least common of horror film characters, a competent cop (played by Luís Zaher, I think) – and one who drops the names of Lovecraft and Poe to boot, though I must have missed the werewolves in the works of these two.

All in all, Lobos de Arga is great fun, unless of course you were expecting a Game of Thrones parody with werewolves or something.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In short: Silent Trigger (1996)

A sniper (Dolph Lundgren) working as an assassin for The Agency and a spotter (Gina Bellman) he once worked with during her first assignment that ended in a right clusterfuck reunite for another assassination in a weird empty apartment building.

While the two are preparing their hit, the film clues the audience in on the way their first bad work together went down via flashbacks. In the present, the sniper and the spotter find themselves facing various problems, namely that one of the building’s security guards (Christopher Heyerdahl) is a cocaine-addled crazy rapist, and the other (Conrad Dunn) is so by the book it becomes slightly surreal, which is not conducive to a good working environment for professional killers. Then there’s the little fact the sniper is sure his own agency is out to get him, and suspects the spotter might just be meant to clean him up after the hit.

Russell Mulcahy’s Silent Trigger is one of the finest films I’ve seen Dolph Lundgren in. It may have a rather thin plot, a weird structure, and only tenuous connections to outside reality, but it’s the sort of film where these are strengths rather than weaknesses; not a film that’s trying to convince its audience of the physical reality of what’s happening in it but rather one working hard to induce a dream-like mental state in a viewer.

This does of course play to Mulcahy’s strengths as a director who traded in a curiously individual video clip inspired aesthetic at least since Razorback, sometimes with great success, sometimes with very little of it. If Mulcahy is good at one thing it’s using bizarre, unreal set design, moody and highly artificial looking lighting and all manner of slo-mo effects to turn everything he touches into a dream.

Consequently, Silent Trigger is all about building a slightly unreal mood where the characters’ archetypal yet ambiguous dance of distrust, attraction and violence can play out in. This also just happens to be pretty much the only environment where I can imagine the script’s experimental (some might think it’s just shoddy but I disagree) start-and-stop structure as well as a pacing that (like the film’s characters) only seems to know standstill and high octane and doesn’t believe in switching slowly between them, actually working. At least, here it does work.

If I step away from the film’s mood for a moment, I also see some real creativity in action scenes that blow-up some very simple set-ups (and at its core very little production values beyond Mulcahy’s aesthetic obsessions) into moments of excitement and disquietude.

You might also be surprised at the quality of the four core performances with Dolph’s typical disillusioned assassin (how often has he played one of these?) seeming quite believable brittle around the edges, and Bellman projecting a confounding mix of sexiness and ambiguity. Or you might hate Silent Trigger for doing weird things to the direct-to-DVD action formula, but then that’s the thing one may love the film for just as much.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Doom (2005)

The (soon to be space) marine squad of Sarge (The Rock), consisting of people will charming nick names like Duke (Razaaq Adoti), Destroyer (Deobia Oparei) and Goat (Ben Daniels), are sent to the Mars science base on a search and destroy mission. You see, something horrible has happened in the genetics lab there, and now hungry things are around you probably wouldn’t want to get back to Earth, nor to the main part of the Mars base.

Odd man out in Sarge’s team is Reaper (Karl Urban), who is basically an intellectual – at least in comparison -l who gave up on these pursuits because of the expected family trauma and is slumming with the psychopaths now. Reaper’s not too happy his estranged sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike) is coming with the group to rescue some research material, but if you think this isn’t the kind of movie that’ll end with a nice bit of family reunion, you’ve never seen a film before.

Of course, before new peace between siblings the gods have put a bunch of genetic mutations that need killing, and the revelation of the fact that mindlessly following orders leads to evil. Go figure.

I know, by all rights, I should be quite set against Andrzej Bartkowiak’s adaptation of First Person Shooter godfather Doom but I do have a heart for Aliens lite movies about shooty guys and monsters running through dark corridors. And that, if you ask yourself this highly important question, is exactly the sort of movie this is.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that Doom keeps away from the insane hell parts of the game series’ basic plot and replaces it with the usual dumb and careless experiments with alien DNA (oh, spoiler), as is the related fact that the more beloved monsters from the game make cameo appearances and most of the monsters our protagonists spend their time fighting are of the usual infected and alien suits type. However, it’s pretty clear something more lavish just wasn’t in the budget, and the film does do its best with the things it can afford, resulting in many a tight action scene, lots of shouting, and a smidgen of blood and goo.

If I say it’s all in good fun, I’m probably again sounding like I’m damning with faint praise, but Doom really is a fine bit of corridor shooter (oh, hi, Doom 3 meet Doom). It’s well paced, and using the genre typical character archetypes well. You wouldn’t exactly call the characters three-dimensional. or the treatment of their types subversive, but they do work well in the context of the film they are in. The script even surprises once or twice by being slightly more clever than strictly necessary. First when it slowly shifts its bad ass protagonist from Sarge to Reaper (a trick that probably worked even better in 2005 when the audience wasn’t used to Karl Urban as a leading man), and a second time when it actually starts to argue that, you know, shooting and explosions is fun and all, but from time to time you should probably think through the ethics of what you’re doing; which isn’t a thing you’d expect to find in this sort of shoot ‘em up film, and is even integrated into the plot well enough it actually works.

I also can’t help but feel sympathetic towards a first person shooter adaptation that includes a perfectly silly and cheesy, yet also intensely loveable, first person shooter sequence; I’m pretty sure Paul W.S. Anderson was quite put out when he saw Doom and realized he could have used over-the-shoulder cam in one of his Resident Evil films (which might explain a certain backwards slow motion scene in one of his RE films as a very particular kind of overcompensation). There’s really something irresistible about a film that uses that sort of scene without really breaking its perfectly straight (if one-liner lined) face for me.

Plus, the violence is fun, fast, and plenty, leaving Doom a much more entertaining piece of cinematic art than I’d been led to believe.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

In short: Tulpa – Perdizioni mortali (2012)

Corporate executive Lisa (Claudia Gerini) takes steam off her daily grind with the membership in one of the more adorable private sex clubs you’d be able to find, a place calling itself Tulpa. The club is a cheesy mix of harmless decadence and mock-Buddhist eso bullshit, and looks a lot like a cross between a Hollywood Buddhist’s bath room and the cover of a German 70s prostitute romance pulp novel (yeah, that’s a thing that exists) – mostly harmless yet with a lot of entertainment value.

Poor Lisa has to take time off from flirting with her boss (Michele Placido), indulging in threesomes, mild lesbian shenanigans and entry level SM, when she realizes that a lot of her sex club sex partners are murdered in long, drawn-out murder scenes by a killer in highly traditional giallo murderer garb. Of course, Lisa can’t go to the – utterly absent from the film – police to explain that connection to them, because clearly her career would be over if people found out she’s indulging in her most harmless sexual fantasies. So it’s up to her to kinda-sorta play detective and in the end accidentally find out who the killer is.

I was no fan at all of director Federico Zampaglione’s last movie, Shadow, so Tulpa came as a pleasant surprise in that I found myself quite entertained by it and appreciated the direction it was coming from. At least, I’m pretty fine with the existence of Italian movies that try to catch the old giallo magic again, and Tulpa is good enough to have been in the lower middle tier of movies made in classic giallo times, which ain’t half bad.

Of course, there are some pretty hefty weaknesses of the kind that could easily dissuade people from enjoying the film, most of them in the script area. The short synopsis should have made clear that this is – quite in the giallo tradition – not a cleverly constructed mystery but really a series of long, stylish (and quite unappetizing) murder sequences broken up by a bit of sex and Claudia Gerini walking around, looking confused and increasingly distressed. I don’t really have it in me to criticize this aspect of the film too much, because Zampaglione makes it clear right from the start that he’s not interested in the killing spree as a mystery, so it seems wrong-headed to expect differently from the film. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to find the film’s ideas about what makes for deviant sexuality a bit adorable.

The things Tulpa gets right are nothing to sneeze at, though: the acting’s fine for the sort of story this is (Gerini in particular is a satisfying giallo heroine), Zampaglione does a nice job with creating a mood of the weird and slightly grotesque that at the very least approaches the dream-like quality of classic European horror, even if it’s perhaps not quite there yet, and the murders are aesthetically pleasing and unpleasant at the same time. Which is more than enough to please me.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Santo: Infraterrestre (2001)

Santo (Hijo del Santo) is unofficially beaten in the ring by the mysterious Blue Panther (Blue Panther) when a bunch of muscled guys wearing black sunglasses jump into the ring to kick the crap out of the idol of the masses.

When Santo reviews the fight on his supercomputer, he realizes his opponent can’t have been a normal human being for somehow, he just shakes off hits that could have killed a normal opponent (making Santo a likely killer in the ring!?) and seems to be able to change his centre of gravity at will. Before he comes to any further conclusions, Santo is called in for his part-time job as police special agent.

There has been a series of mysterious disappearances and kidnappings in Mexico. The only witnesses to the misdeeds are a traumatized boy who just happens to idolize Santo, and a woman the film doesn’t make any use of, so I don’t know why she’s even in the script. What’s a mystery to our hero and the police is common knowledge to the audience for we have long since been informed the kidnappings are the work of the race of alien reptilians living underground who once ruled the Earth.

Consequently, Santo, police child psychologist Dr Alma Monreal (Diana Golden), and a handful of cops are soon crawling through the sewers - and what lies below the sewers – punching bad guys in the face. And would you believe it, Blue Panther is one of these bad guys!

On one hand, it’s difficult for me not to love Héctor Molinar’s attempt at reviving the beloved character of lucha hero El Santo for the movies, with good old Son of Santo playing his dad’s part; on the other, it’s not difficult to admit the resulting film isn’t really as good as one would hope. Of course, I’m still going to recommend it.

However, this is quite a few levels above the worst outings in the original Santo’s film career by sheer virtue of the film actually seeming to try to entertain its audience, with comparatively little foot-dragging, and a script that has some excellent silly ideas. The main problem is Molinar’s direction, the sort of effort that isn’t clever enough to film around the problems of the obviously ultra low budget of the production, using blocking that makes the cramped sets and boring grey walls of dubious origin that represent everything from a police station to sewers to an alien underground dwelling look even more cramped, with seemingly little thought put into the visuals at all. Molinar’s also not very good at filming the – surprisingly numerous, at least – action sequences. The latter is a particular shame because Hijo del Santo (or his stuntman – I don’t want to make the distinction) is actually a fine screen fighter, and the brawl choreography is pretty fun too, so it would have been nice to see the punching and wrestling presented in an appropriate way instead of Molinar’s often badly angled and underlit shots.

Still, as a lucha movie fan, I’ve gotten used to quite worse direction from the late Santo films, generally made worse by an air of apathy Molinar’s film never shows, and while it’s a shoddy little film by any interpretation, it does provide us cursed by the lucha gods with a decent enough bit of fun, good film or not.

Santo: Infraterrestre also includes some excellent additions to the all-around silliness of lucha cinema, providing Santo with a flying car (cue bored looking policemen who don’t react to Santo’s car suddenly flying away as a horrible – yet awesome – CGI effect at all, because clearly, on planet lucha you see this sort of thing every day), his own satellite in space (called PLATA-1, of course), as well as said supercomputer. Furthermore, the film posits the presence of an underground civilization of reptiles that is then basically shrugged off by our hero because he beat the big bad (and his main assistant), and surely, it’s better not to tell anyone we have alien neighbours right under our feet. In further Santo news, the film also teaches us that Santo is the kind of guy who dresses up for a visit to the sewers in his best shirtless cape ensemble, and looks rather freshly oiled too, which really makes Infraterrestre a part of the Santo canon no sane person should miss.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

In short: The Phantom Light (1935)

Experienced lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) is set to replace a colleague in a lighthouse off the coast of a small village in Wales. Once arrived he learns his new lighthouse is supposed to be haunted, a suggestion that would be rather easier to laugh off if members of the lighthouse crew didn’t have the tendency to disappear, and if the boat that’ll take Higgins to his post weren’t bound to take a lighthouse crew member who has gone crazy (with bug-eyes and all the other traditional signs) back to land.

Curiously, not everyone wants to evade the lighthouse and in fact a girl named Alice Bright (Binnie Hale, who will show off her legs during the second half of the film in a way I didn’t expect from a film made in the non-code, yet censorship-prone British cinema of the time, which only goes to show what I know) hailing from some sort of psychical research society, as well as reporter Jim Pearce (Ian Hunter) are doing their – independent – best to get Higgins to take them onto the lighthouse. That sort of thing is against all regulations of course, and Higgins declines.

Yet, also of course, Alice and Jim are still going to end up on the lighthouse, the crazy keeper will have to stay the night for medical reasons, and mysterious things will start to happen.

Before he teamed up with his other half Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell made his first directing experiences doing all kinds of genre films. The Phantom Light is one of these films, and while it’s really just an amusing, fluffy little thriller of the sort that just doesn’t look all that thrilling anymore eighty years later, you can already see quite a bit of the director Powell would become.

The director takes much more visual care than strictly necessary for the material, with often creative framing of scenes, demonstrates a finely developed sense of pacing, and shows off some moments of highly effective editing. Particularly in the early film, Powell also creates the bucolic small town United Kingdom that would appear in some of his later films quite a bit, mixing clichés, some postcard worthy landscapes, and humour that never seems mean-spirited to create a sense of place out of thin air. Even if the created place is just a figment of the imagination, it becomes a reality of its own that helps paste over the silliness of much of The Phantom Light’s plot by grounding it in a reality that feels like more than just a bunch of sets. Powell also demonstrates a sense for telling details that can’t have been easy to achieve on a budget, making the clichés his film consists of the decisively bit more real.

Of course, this is still a basically very silly movie with pretty silly characters doing rather silly things but Powell’s light-handed presentation of it all is so good-natured and charming only the greatest churl could complain about it.

On ExB: Avenging Force (1986)

Is this the magnum opus of Michael-Dudikoff-and-Steve-James-featuring Cannon action despite the absence of ninjas? It sure might be from where I’m looking.

There may be no American ninjas involved this time, but Avenging Force makes up for that sad lack by its sheer power of awesomeness. My column at the venerable Exploder Button does get rather excited, so please click on through, unless you have a very weak heart.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

In short: Night Shadows (1984)

aka Mutant

After a road encounter with the least pleasant human inhabitants of a small rural community, city-slicker brothers Josh (Wings Hauser) and Mike (Lee Montgomery) find themselves a bit stranded there, at least for a night and a day or so. Alas, they’ve picked quite the wrong time for their inadvertent stay, for the toxic waste an Evil Corporation has been dumping in the area is causing a peculiar sickness in many people around. Mike disappears quite early, and soon Josh finds himself teaming up with the local doctor (Jennifer Warren), the alcoholic sheriff (eternal sheriff Bo Hopkins), and romance-ready school teacher Holly (Jody Medford) against a whole bunch of blue-faced zombies with acid-bleeding, blood-sucking hands.

On a good day, Night Shadows’ director John ‘Bud’ Cardos was a perfectly decent man of his profession, filming straightforward plots in a straightforward manner, the unflinching professional of cinema. He had one of those days when he shot the film at hand, and while the result won’t win any originality prizes, it is an entertaining little variation on the eternal Night of the Living Dead shape.

Not surprisingly, this doesn’t have much – if any at all – of the political resonance of Romero’s film, but it goes through most of the expected zombie movie plot beats with a neat sense of pacing, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and generally knows how to be a fun time. Additionally, it features a lot of silly yet pleasing blue-faced zombie make-up, and does from time to time manage a fright scene or two archetypal enough to make the long-suffering horror fan look up with interest. There’s a really surprisingly ruthless mass child zombie scene in here, as well as a neat little monster under the bed variation early on – as long as you don’t stop to think about the practicalities of both of them, of course. But when has the stuff nightmares are made of ever cared about practicality?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ten Little Indians (1974)

aka And Then There Were None

Under various pretexts, the mysterious U.N. Owen invites a group of people (Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Adolfo Celi, Herbert Lom, Gert Fröbe, Maria Rohm, Charles Aznavour, Stéphane Audran, Alberto de Mendoza and Richard Attenborough) into an unused hotel smack dab in the Iranian desert next to some picturesque ruins.

On their first evening, a tape message by the voice of God, or Orson Welles, accuses everyone in the house of being responsible for the death of at least one other person. Usually, that would be quite enough to stop every party, but this one takes until Charles Aznavour sings a song with an invisible band to get antsy; or the sudden nervousness might be on account of his death by poisoning shortly afterwards.

Now, our protagonists find themselves trapped in the Hotel, for the desert seem rather unconquerable, and there are neither cars nor telephones around. Soon, more people die based on a free very interpretation of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme, and people become increasingly paranoid, convinced the killer must be one amongst their ten.

Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians seems to be a book that brings out the best in the people adapting it, perhaps because it lacks a single annoying detective and replaces her or him with a perfect opportunity for a bunch of actors to emote, chew scenery, or something of that kind.

Dubious yet sometimes lucky British producer Harry Alan Towers loved the material so much, he made three adaptations of it, about one every fifteen years. Okay, I suspect he needed to keep making them to keep a license alive, but given that two out of these three films are actually rather good, that’s not the worst that could have happened. As far as I understand, this second Towers version uses much of the dialogue from his first version, but it still retains a character very much of its own thanks to its acting ensemble, its locations, and Peter Collinson’s direction.

Collinson, a man with mediocre as well as quite great films on his CV, clearly saw the opportunities the locations Towers acquired gave him to build a rather macabre mood. His camera finds the inherent threat in the hotel’s interiors where spacious oriental kitsch meets occidental colour-blindness, he uses spectacular staircases for playing games of the audience watching someone watching someone else while he himself is being watched without needing more camera involvement than decidedly clever placement, etc, and so forth.

The film’s visual style seems highly influenced by the giallo, the camera generally being positioned in the more peculiar and telling ways available with no conversation – and this is a very conversation heavy peace – not enhanced by direction that seeks to express the mood inside a room via its own movement and positioning even before the actors do anything at all. Like many a giallo director, Collinson succeeds in leapfrogging an audience’s scepticism towards a faintly – or very – ridiculous plot by creating a mood that suggests dreamscapes and the workings of the subconscious, making it very easy to read the resulting films in a manner where what a film’s plot has to say becomes secondary to what its mood tells us about its characters and the meaning of the world surrounding them.

I am – obviously – very fond of that approach to filmmaking, perhaps even to a fault, but I think this particular Christie novel just calls for it. This is, after all, a film about members of the upperclass and the bourgeoisie having to show and confront the truths behind their masks and the lies they tell themselves to get to sleep at night. Why, two of the more working class characters might even be called innocent, which would probably be more telling in a class-political sense if the other two weren’t just as murderous the bourgeois.

These characters are brought to life in various ways between subtlety, thespian grandstanding, and good old scenery-chewing with most of the involved well able and willing to use all three approaches, depending on what any given scene calls for. It’s all rather lovely to watch, particularly in scenes like the surreal confrontation between Lom and Attenborough with two packs of matches and a billiard table as a prop.

This all adds up to a very fine movie, even if the ending eschews to embrace the darkness of the novel and goes for a rather more normal happy end that only fits the tone of what came before vaguely. Despite the problem of the ending, Ten Little Indians is another exception to my usual “Ugh, Agatha Christie” rule.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

In short: The Human Vapor (1960)

Original title: Gasu ningen dai ichigo

This seems to be one of the lesser loved non-kaiju movies by the great Ishiro Honda, at least in the West (the language barrier makes it pretty impossible for me to guess at its importance in Japan). While I disagree, I’m not really surprised by this.

The film is structured like a police procedural, with the first half nearly completely devoid of visible fantastical elements beyond the basic mystery of how the bank robber (Yoshio Tsuchiya) our cop hero Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) and his surprisingly – for a Japanese film of the era – independent and competent journalist girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) are chasing manages to execute his heists, and what his connection to kabuki dancer/actress Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), a young but old-fashionedly Japanese upperclass lady quite in contrast to Kyoko, might be. It’s the kind of set-up you’d find in many a standard mystery, only there, the weirdness would be explained away “naturally”. I suspect many people going in expecting something more directly science fictional will be quite disappointed, particularly since the film’s subtext concerning the inevitable clash of old and new values in Japan, and the strange and possibly dangerous mixtures that can result, won’t be what everyone is looking for (or is even necessarily noticing).

Personally, I found Honda’s approach here quite fascinating, his handling of the police procedural elements tight, and his easy build-up of character relations that aren’t quite as simple as they appear at first glance captivating, while the kabuki sequences are filmed with enough poetry of the eye to interest even somebody like me who only has a very superficial idea of what’s going on there. I suspect I miss out on even more subtext deepening measures there, but what can you do when you haven’t even really digested the ways of Western opera beyond the baroque?

Anyway, once the film gets around to it, it is also quite fine SF/horror piece that seems pleasantly influenced by The Invisible Man, and ending in drama I actually found quite moving thanks to the surprising emotional complexity the film carries under a simpler surface, with Honda showing a melancholic feeling towards the end (or changing) of Old Japan but also the knowledge of the horrible price that would have to be paid to keep it unchanged beyond all reason. Honda seems quite aware of his own emotional and intellectual contradictions at play here, which enables the film to show its representations of Old Japan as monstrous and beautiful at the same time, a humanist approach that can even find compassion for a would-be mass murderer while still not excusing his deeds.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

In short: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

Sometimes it’s still surprising how damned strange 70s revisionist westerns could become, resulting in films like Philip Kaufman’s version of the James-Younger gang myth with Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger and Robert Duvall as Jesse James, a film that really lends itself to the question where the money to make it might have come from.

Surely, even in 1972, the idea of a cinema verité inspired, sometimes magically realist, sometimes ironically naturalistic western that spends its running time demythologizing the old myths about the old west while at the same time working hard to create some all of its own must have been a hard sell to the people holding the purse strings, post-hippie-dom or not. Because it is that sort of movie, Kaufman also finds space in his film for a slapstick baseball match, various digressions to emphasise the point that the USA of the time were country of immigrants (which means a lot of what the movies have taught us the West was about is wrong), satire against the rich and powerful, the absurd, the bizarre, and the lovingly observed quotidian. Kaufman shows such a good eye for the last one, as well as for the telling historical detail (even if it’s made up) that all of Raid’s disparate elements manage to fit together, if not as a narrative (just look at the people on the IMDB complaining about the film’s plot holes, missing the point of the film we’re talking about by miles), but as a strange yet believable world the characters inhabit.

It’s a film I find much easier to watch than to describe, an artefact of its time, trying to talk about its past and its present at once, yet still finding time for human warmth, humour and a sense of place that seems stronger exactly because the place Kaufman describes can’t ever have existed in the way he and his film pretend it has, just as the other, earlier movie idea of The West never existed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ironclad: Battle for Blood (2014)

The Dark Ages. Norman Gilbert De Vesci (David Rintoul) and his wife Joan (Michelle Fairley) are holding a castle in the territory of the Scots clans. A minor raid by Maddog (Predrag Bjelac) and his people ends with De Vesci losing one arm and Maddog’s son losing his life, leaving the Normans without proper leadership and quite a fighter and Maddog with a thirst for vengeance only the destruction of the castle and all who dwell in it will quench.

De Vesci sneaks his decidedly un-macho son Hubert (Tom Rhys Harries) out of the castle to go for his cousin Guy (Tom Austen) – one of the survivors of the siege of Rochester in the first Ironclad film – for help. Alas, Guy has grown up to be a bitter sell sword, and even wants payment for helping out his own family, which Hubert fortunately is able to provide. They grab three random fighters – not exactly mentally healthy murderess Crazy (see?)Mary (Twinnie Lee Moore), executioner Pierrepoint (Andy Beckwith) and Guy’s best buddy Berenger (David Caves), and ride off to help the besieged and frequently attacked castle.

Obviously, most of them don’t look forward to a healthy future, but perhaps something – like the love of De Vesci’s daughter Blanche (Roxanne McKee) – just might at least give Guy reasons for a redemptive character arc. Quite clearly, slaughter and many a slow motion death will ensue before any of that redemption can go down.

Despite the different character of its protagonists’ enemies, returning director/writer John English’s Battle for Blood most of the time doesn’t feel so much like a sequel to Ironclad as much as a remake with a lower budget and accordingly lesser ambitions. So the actors – even the character actors – are a tier lower on the thespian pecking order and on the charisma table than those in the first movie, the script hits a lot of the same plot beats but with less thematic resonance, its main bad guy is less outrageously acted, and the film feels rather more constrained in its locations and sets.

This doesn’t mean Battle for Blood isn’t worth your time, at least if you’re like me and enjoy a good piece of historical pulp adventure, you just can’t go in expecting much depth or a charismatic lead. The best I can say about Tom Austen is that he’s serviceable enough and does know how to strike the right poses during fights, but as he plays him, Guy’s bitterness is as lacking in conviction as is his love interest Blanche in, well, interest. We’re not in the realm of the horrible here, but where better actors gave the film’s clichés a bit more life in the original Ironclad, not all of the guys and girls on screen here ever really manage that, with Danny Webb, Twinnie Lee Moore, Michelle Fairley (who is the most upmarket actor in the film, obviously), and Tom Rhys Harris as the exceptions to that rule. Still, these talking, sword-wielding clichés as such are entertaining enough to watch, and while they never achieve the gravitas some of their death scenes call for, they’re more than enough for the film’s simple siege scenario and redemption tale. As in the first movie, the script also finds some surprising (for a film of this style) space for its female characters beyond Blanche to actually be characters and have a degree of agency; at the very least, Battle for Blood is a film where the existence of warrior women is just a fact of life nobody even finds worth mentioning, and where a gender having less power in general doesn’t mean its members are all damsels in distress.

English also gets bonus points for this time around avoiding to mutilate established historical facts for no good reason, and for not only having an eye for the awesome violence but also at least some of its consequences. The latter aspect might have become its own kind of movie cliché by now – the camera walking the battlefield afterwards while mournful music plays, and so on - but it is at least one that’s broadening the emotional impact and provides a film with the opportunity to not have to demonize its antagonists too much.

When it comes to Battle for Blood’s main attraction, the fighting, English uses a bit more shaky cam than in the first film, I think, probably to hide the fact that this time around there are even fewer men fighting the battles, and there’s probably less money for choreography and too many repeats of scenes as well. It works better than I would have expected because English still manages to focus his audience on what’s actually going on in the fights, the shaky cam more often plausibly mirroring the rush of adrenaline and fear going through the characters. It’s not how I like my fight scenes to be shot, but it works reasonably well for the film at hand, particularly in combination with the sense of ferociousness and brutality of the fights. There’s also a high – some might say needless – amount of gore on display making the fights grittier and a bit unpleasant from time to time, as is proper and well in the world of exploitation movie violence.

All this adds up to a very flawed yet highly entertaining bit of pulpy, mildly exploitative entertainment, leaving Ironclad: Battle for Blood a sequel that I don’t think was precisely necessary yet that I wouldn’t mind seeing again now that it exists.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In short: Charley Varrick (1973)

Technically, robbing a tiny small town bank should be a job of easy in, easy out, but a chain of unfortunate circumstances leaves former stunt pilot Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) in quite some trouble. Not only are two of his three partners – one of whom was Charley’s wife – dead but the body count of the robbery also includes a couple or three cops, leading to a rather more enthusiastic hunt for the criminals as Charley had planned on.

Then there’s the fact that Harman (Andrew Robinson), the last surviving partner, is not the most stable of men on his best day, and it certainly isn’t his best day, or week. Even worse, there’s an absurdly large amount of money for such a little bank involved, though most of it doesn’t seem to officially exist, which leads Charley to the conclusion he’s just painted a second target on his back by stealing mafia money.

Charley’s right, too, so soon, not only the police is after him but also sadistic mafia killer Molly (Joe Don Baker). Charley isn’t quite as doomed as you’d assume, though, for his unassuming demeanour hides a pretty effective sociopath with a clever plan to get away with his money, while getting rid of anybody posing a risk to him.

Generally, I’m not the biggest fan of Don Siegel, his films often not quite hitting the spot for me I’d want them to hit. However, there’s really little I could come up with to say against Charley Varrick. Well, there’s one rather embarrassing scene that suggests Walter Matthau to have the sexual magnetism of James Bond, but apart from that peculiar misstep I’ll just write off as a harmless symptom of the director’s inability to cope with female characters (something the rest of the film avoids by not including many women with roles large enough to demand actual characterisation to begin with, of which you can make what you wish), there’s nothing about Charley Varrick that isn’t a lean and decidedly mean crime film.

This film pushes the same buttons of enjoyment that Donald Westlake’s Parker novels did, with a bunch of decidedly unpleasant men fighting it out among another until the least pleasant of them wins in the end, a large part of the pleasure lying exactly in the fact how amoral the whole affair is, with neither Siegel nor Howard Rodman’s and Dean Riesner’s script (based on a novel by John Reese I haven’t read) attempting to make anyone involved look nicer or more heroic than anyone else. Crime, it turns out, is not a game involving the nice.

The film’s plot is pleasant pulpy, containing just the right amount of violence, and is filmed by Siegel in a tight yet laconic manner that isn’t at all interested discussing the ethics or deep psychological reasons of what’s happening on screen, while still finding space to give the characters more dimensions than “is a decidedly unsexy sociopath” or “is a decidedly unsexy psychopath”. The actors are doing the expected fine jobs too, Matthau giving his sociopath bit so well I’m a little disappointed he never got to play Parker, and Joe Don Baker visibly enjoying being the sadistic monster with the mock-polite first impression.

It all comes together quite perfectly, the film setting up a situation that seems ideal for another tale of doomed losers trying to make it big, yet using it instead for a tale about monsters trying to survive in a world filled with other monsters.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Brain Eaters (1958)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A curious cone shaped – actually pretty phallic - object appears in the vicinity of a US small town. Shortly after it pops up, murders happen in town, and its mayor disappears. Pompous senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe), the kind of man who likes talking about himself in the third person and is always calling for “action”, sexy young pipe smoking scientist Dr. Kettering (Ed Nelson), the mayor’s son Glenn (Alan Jay Factor) and assorted hangers-on and love interests investigate.

While their investigation of the UFO (or whatever that thing is) is quite inconclusive, the return of the mayor in a half-crazed and rather dangerous state of mind opens new avenues of interest. Our heroes quickly realize the good man is controlled by an alien parasite with pipe filler antennas sitting on his neck. It is of course invasion time by some of those evil communist aliens, though these particular aliens come from a somewhat different direction than usual.

Our heroes (such as they are) will have to fight the alien menace’s attempts to bring peace and understanding to mankind with all the tools the film’s budget leaves them.

Bruno VeSota’s AIP production is quite obviously heftily inspired by (house nemesis) Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, though it lacks the time for the author’s rambling nonsense philosophizing, and was made a good ten years too early get something out of the nudist aspects of the novel. To make up for it, the film uses state of the art needle drop technology to get itself a soundtrack made out of classical music, as happened quite often in AIP films of this era.

That the film is also heavily inspired by a lot of the other secret invasion movies of its time and place hardly needs to be mentioned. It was a natural expression of the anxieties of its time and place, giving expression to the fear of communism and the narrow-minded fear of anything and anyone different that made the 50s such a special time in the USA (and here in Germany too, for that matter).

The Brain Eaters isn’t on the level – neither in quality nor in ambiguity – of a film like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, of course. It does however make quite a lot out of its especially impoverished means. Sure, the acting is mostly pretty dire, with Nelson and sometimes Factor as the only exceptions to the rule, and VeSota’s direction is often quite crude. The latter is at least often crude in an interesting way, trying to build a bit of an atmosphere of menace and dread out of Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups and adorable little parasites (how could I not love those pipe filler antennae?). It’s sort of successful at that, even, building up to a climax that’s weird and archetypal enough to be memorable.

Of course, VeSota has to take short cuts that need a viewer patient with some of the problems typical of shoe-string budget films of its time and place, where there’s just no money available to show some rather important plot developments and narration has to jump in, and where more narration steps in to tell us the things we already see. I’ve seen worse examples of the latter phenomenon, though, and for most of the time, the film’s ambitions aren’t completely outside its grasp.

This all might sound as if I were damning The Brain Eaters with faint praise when in fact I did enjoy myself immensely when watching it. Sure, I’ve seen 50s paranoia done more subtle as well as more cinematically interesting, but VeSota’s film not only has a handful of effective moments but manages to be comparatively fast-moving and fun in between these moments too. From time to time, it even hits on a bit more, like in the scene in which the town’s sheriff fights against the parasite sitting on his back (one of the few moments in SF/horror cinema of the era I know that’s actually interested in how the victim of a mind-controlling parasite must feel). That’s much more than anyone could ever expect from this kind of drive-in quickie, so I find myself quite taken with The Brain Eaters.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: ON THAT DAY... WE ARE DEMON. Hopefully not ironically.

Nightmare (2012) aka 青魇: As happy as I am that Hong Kong exploitation veteran turned more mainstream director Herman Yau is still making movies, I’m not at all happy with this generically titled mix of slight headfuck movie and bland mystery. It’s all nice and glossy looking, but neither the “is this dream or is this reality?” business nor the film’s mystery are very interesting. Worse for a film like this, the solution to the mystery as well as the (boring) explanation of what’s really going on are abominably obvious, which is a bit of a problem in a film that hasn’t anything else to offer beyond a handful of rote jump scares.

Nurse 3D (2013): As regular readers know, there’s little I loathe more than films that excuse their crappiness by being “ironic”, and by “not wanting to be taken seriously”, which nearly always are codes for “we just couldn’t be arsed”. Douglas Aarniokoski’s horror comedy is no exception to the rule. It doesn’t help that I found the film’s sense of humour aggressively unfunny and obvious, its attempts at ironic sexiness and ironic exploitation (seriously, you can do neither “ironically”, that is, without committing) painful to the extreme, and Paz de la Huerta’s central “acting” “performance” (I just gotta use scare quotes here and also ask myself why the production didn’t hire an actress with basic skills and just as willing to drop her clothes, until I remember this crap is based on Huerta pin-up photos, though ironically, I presume) extremely painful yet also very very dull. The whole film is pretty much anathema to everything I want and like in a horror movie, be it a comedy or not.

Hell Commandos (1969): José Luis Merino’s Spanish-Italian Euro War movie, on the other hand, is not a very good film either, but it does at least hit the main beats of its particular genre without being ashamed of them, reaching the coveted level of filmic mastership known as “perfectly watchable”. As is typical of its sub-set of war films, the tone fluctuates between sentimentality and cynicism in awkward yet entertaining fashion, while people get killed, the Second World War is won, Nazis are pigs, American soldiers are pigs until they decide to sacrifice themselves for a good cause, and a romantic subplot is a lot like nature in Jurassic Park. From time to time, the film stumbles onto exploitation gold, clearly without noticing, when it explains how French resistance women (well, one at least) can identify American soldiers by the way they kiss, or when just inexplicably weird shit happens for no good reason at all (and definitely without ironic detachment).

There’s also, alas, a bit of a homophobic undercurrent that’s quite difficult to miss, which in its own sad way does fit the film’s romantic politics as a whole well in being deeply unpleasant and ill thought through. On the plus side, it’s not the “ironic” kind of homophobia that leaves the perpetrator an easy way out to explain it away.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

It’s 1943, and people like German general Canaris (Anthony Quayle) already see the writing on the wall. Hitler, on the other hand, still has plans, like, for example, kidnapping Winston Churchill. Himmler (Donald Pleasence, because why not), recognizes a nice way to put one over on the competition and boots the whole stupid project over to Canaris, who in his turn orders his Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall, because really, why not) to at the very least produce a feasibility study.

Ironically, Radl realizes the mad project might actually be feasible, for it just so happens that a German spy in Britain has just radioed in Churchill’s plans for a weekend stay in a small village neighbouring a practically undefended beach. After a bit of political back and forth – one has to blow up the film to a running time of more than two hours after all – Radl acquires the always dangerous help of Himmler for the project and sends out disgraced – like every German not in the SS in the movie, he’s not a real Nazi, you know – paratrooper commando Colonel Steiner (Michael Caine), his men, and Irish revolutionary Liam Devlin (a man so Irish he could only be played by Canadian Donald Sutherland) to do the deed in beautiful Norfolk. The men are disguised as Polish paratroopers and a marsh inspector, respectively, so whatever could go wrong?

If for some mysterious reasons it hasn’t become quite clear already, let me just emphasize that the plot of The Eagle Has Landed (based on a novel by Jack Higgins, which never bodes well), is utterly, preposterously stupid. Not necessarily because it is lacking in historical veracity (which it sure as hell does) but because the script’s (and I very much assume the book’s this is based on) handling of the whole affair just too stupid to bluff its way through. A lot of films get away with a stupid basic idea by thinking the results of that idea through in a logical and coherent manner; The Eagle Has Landed prefers to load stupid idea on improbability on ridiculous nonsense.

This is, after all, a film that finds Sutherland’s character, who is supposed to be some sort of vanguard for the Germans, one supposes, landing in Norfolk and at once romancing Jenny Agutter, in the sort of romance that goes from meeting someone to the willingness to murder for him in the course of about half an hour, or a day in movie time. Even worse, as much as I like Agutter, the subplot really has no business at all to be in the movie, and most certainly not in the completely pointless form it takes. To make matters sillier, there’s improbable crap like that happening in nearly every scene, as if writer Tom Mankiewicz had never heard of concepts like theme, or tonal coherence, or even pacing. For of course the film does stop and start early and often, sometimes meandering from one scene to the next, sometimes drunkenly jumping, leading to a structure you can’t even call episodic because that word suggests that there’s actually something happening, which is not how I’d describe at least The Eagle’s first half.

And still, watching the film I found myself not at all bored but enjoyed myself quite a bit. Not only because I wanted to see what stupid nonsense the film would come up next but because everyone involved not responsible for the script actually put a lot of effort in. Director John Sturges, a man who made much worthier and just plain better films to be sure, doesn’t exactly bring his A-game here, but a Sturges just doing his job (I cannot assume any real personal involvement in the film at hand, at least) is still a director bringing dignity and a degree of style to material that frankly doesn’t deserve it, even managing to turn the script’s absurd ideas about pacing into something that can look like charming distractibility.

The actors, for their part, bring a bunch of underwritten clichés to life in efforts a film that sees a predominantly British and American cast playing Germans speaking English among one another with bad German accents (except for Sutherland, of course, who does a bad Irish accent, and Caine, whose character studied in England and therefore doesn’t have an accent at all, which of course only makes sense if you actually assume these Nazi – and yes, sorry, Wehrmacht soldiers were Nazis too, just ask their victims – are indeed talking English among each other), and who are incapable of pronouncing German names like “Hans” with even minor correctness probably doesn’t even want, far less warrants. Duvall is particularly good here, bringing a mix of irony and subtlety to his role that I’m quite sure wasn’t in the script. The only negative stand-out among the cast is Larry Hagman as a US Colonel in a performance that is actually as bad as the script deserves.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In short: The Professionals (1966)

Oil millionaire Grant (Ralph Bellamy), hires four professionals – former revolutionary Fardan (Lee Marvin), his explosives expert best buddy, the amoral Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), superior scout Jake (Woody Strode) and horse expert Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) – to return his wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) to him who has been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary/bandit Raza (Jack Palance) for a ransom of one hundred thousand dollars.

Raza is an old friend of Fardan’s and Dolworth’s but they still take on the job, first making a dangerous trip through the desert on the US/Mexican border, only to learn their employer just might not have told them the whole truth about the situation, and the kidnapping is anything but; not that this sort of thing matters all that much, one does have a contract with Grant, after all. On the other hand, long forgotten consciences might just be reawakened after a lot of people have died.

Quite a few reviewers on the net call Richard Brooks’s The Professional stuff like “an underseen classic” or even “one of the best westerns ever made” but frankly, I don’t see it. To earn any of these superlatives from me, a film needs a bit more than a slickly professional direction, a bunch of beloved (by me too!) aging tough guy actors going through the typical motions of this sort of thing, or picture postcard pretty photography.

What the film lacks for me are two things, and including just one of them might have been enough to turn this from perfectly watchable to great. Firstly, depth: sure, there’s a bit of moral deliberation about the uses and causes of revolutions and the men who fight in them, but the results the film arrives at aren’t exactly the stringent result of thematic work as they are in Leone’s and Corbucci’s revolutionary themed Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the moral conclusions the film draws aren’t actually convincing results of what happens in it at all, thanks to a script (also by Brooks) that tends to be desperately underwritten and leaves its inspired cast as ciphers. A Cipher, as you know, isn’t anything that does have any character or moral development per definition at all.

Secondly, the film’s very relaxed approach to storytelling does result in a certain lack of drama. Sure, there are shoot-outs, chases and an attack on a bandit fortification, and every single one of them is realized in perfectly competent manner, yet they all lack any sense of actual danger, the film never making a successful effort bringing home the stakes of any given situation.

Having said this, I don’t want to leave anyone reading in the impression I didn’t find watching The Professionals a perfectly enjoyable time; it just seems to lack in any ambition beyond being a pleasant time waster. Unfortunately there’s so much obvious talent before and behind the camera a pleasant time waster does seem like a bit of a waste of other things also.