Friday, December 19, 2014

On ExB: Bram Stoker’s Burial of the Rats (1995)

My final column of the year over at the delightful Exploder Button concerns this little Roger Corman/Mosfilm production about Bram Stoker’s adventures with a cult of sorta feminist, thong and bikini (etc) clad rat women. It’s probably obvious why you might want to click on through.

It’s also my last utterance on here for the rest of this year. So, whatever holidays you may or may not celebrate, I’ll see you on the other side.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In short: Tactical Force (2011)

A quartet of irresponsible meathead LA Swat cops (Steve Austin, Michael Jai White, Lexa Doig and Steve Bacic) earn themselves a bit of a refresher training run in one of those mini complexes of empty warehouses beloved of all cheap-o action films.

Unfortunately, these warehouses are also where a crook named Kenny (Michael Eklund) has hidden a mysterious McGuffin, and where said Kenny now has trouble with two different groups of gangsters, one lead by Russian gangster Demetrius (Michael Shanks), the other by African Italian Lampone (Adrian Holmes). Quickly, our under-armed cops are finding themselves in the middle of a siege situation, with various double-crosses between the gangsters adding a bit more danger and possibility to the situation.

Now, if there’s one thing less promising than a direct-to-DVD action movie starring Steve Austin it must be one that also happens to be a comedy. So colour me surprised when – after a pretty horrible first ten minutes – I found myself mostly amused by Adamo P. Coltraro’s Tactical Force. Sure, Austin is – as always – not very good, what with his generally wooden acting and his for an action hero very stiff physical performance (I suspect the ex-wrestler curse of back damage?), but he’s at least not horrible. Plus, unlike in every other Austin film I’ve seen, this one doesn’t have a scene where he holds an “America, fuck yeah” monologue.

Then there’s the little fact that the rest of the cast is really fun to watch, with Shanks, Holmes and Eklund hamming it up lovingly while White and Doig are their usual dependable likeable selves (so much so I don’t really see much of a reason why White’s and Austin’s roles shouldn’t have been swapped). While the script isn’t exactly full of scintillating dialogue, it does time its bargain basement Tarrantino-isms quite well. Why, I even found myself laughing at some of them!

And even though the film is clearly pretty darn cheaply done, Coltraro does make the most out of his miniscule budget, with some finely timed and decently staged fights, as well as an absurd yet played straight mini car chase on the empty warehouse lot that is much more fun to watch than this sort of thing by all rights should be. Fitting the economical plot, Coltraro’s direction is clean and straightforward in a classical budget style, without too many annoying editing effects, depending on a cast and stunt performers who actually know what they’re doing, and there’s no love for the teal and you know what colour (or rather lack of colour) scheme direct-to-DVD films love even more than their more costly brethren.

While the resulting film isn’t a masterpiece by any means, it delivers much more than you can normally expect of a film like it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: When the angels kiss the demons,... you'd better be ready.

Wolves (2014): I didn’t get the memo, but it turns out we needed another urban fantasy YA coming-of-age movie where a lot of acting talent (poor Stephen McHattie and Jason Momoa! Poor everyone else!) is wasted on a script that has not a single memorable idea, dubious dialogue, characters without all that pesky character, and a story that’s so obvious and by now so overdone even the least imaginative viewer will know and understand everything that’s going on here before the thirty minute mark is reached. Things like subtlety, complexity and ambiguity are of course completely out of the question, following the seeming philosophy of about 50 percent of YA stuff that “young adult” means “stupid”, which I – as a former young adult – find pretty infuriating and patronizing.

After reading various interviews with director/writer/Solid Snake David Hayter that talk up his love for classic monster movies, I’d also have expected this to be, you know, more of a monster movie, and less of a crap superhero origin tale. I’d have taken a good superhero origin tale – which we know Hayter as a writer can do – but that’s not happening in this one either. As a director, Hayter is slick but lacking in style or taste, leaving us with a movie that’s not horrible but intensely forgettable.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014): So, if anyone asked oneself how the Michael Bay empire would react to the fact that the last half decade or so has proven that you can in fact make a blockbuster movie that has a degree of intelligence and personality and still keeps all the explosions, this piece of crap is your answer. Bay and his troupe just don’t care as long as the money keeps coming in, and, going by script and direction of this thing, putting effort in when you might as well get paid without making any is against the Baysian principles. So, yeah, Turtles is still everything that made older Bay productions so hateful, including no effort, no love, no sense of fun and a script so idiotic it’s difficult to believe it was written by actual human beings.

Bigfoot Wars (2014): Speaking of crap, there’s also this concoction of breasts and gore that might sound fun on paper (everyone love’s a bigfoot, even if they seem to be the new zombies after all) but is horrible in all aspects beyond the good old “well, at least the camera’s in focus most of the time”. For some, this might just barely push the so bad it’s good buttons. Me, I found myself annoyed and somewhat bored. The film seems made in the same spirit of not giving a crap as the Bay Turtles, though Bigfoot Wars does at least have the excuse of a tiny budget. Not that this helps much when you actually have to sit down and watch it…

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hercules (2014)

Colour me surprised, for the thing I expected least of this particular Hollywood Hercules movie was for it to actually entertain me. On paper, it has everything going for it to push all the wrong buttons for me: directed by Brett Ratner, usually one of the worst directors working in mainstream cinema, and doing that horrible “telling the true story behind the myth thing” that seems meant for an audience that can’t even suspend its disbelief when it comes to a film about mythical figures of ancient Greece. I can’t help but call that an imaginary audience, going by the popularity of superhero movies and all things fantastic in the mainstream right now.

But while watching Hercules, a strange and surprising thing happened: I found myself drawn into the film. While the script really doesn’t accept anything supernatural into its world at all, it’s not at all going for real po-faced realism but the kind of pulp historical adventure I personally find highly enjoyable, populated by one-dimensional yet distinctive and fun to watch characters (on the side of the good guys, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s amazon Atalanta and Rufus Sewell’s Autolycus were the obvious stand-outs for me), doing stuff that isn’t exactly realistic in the sense the word would be used by somebody who is really into mimetic literature. Surprisingly enough, the film puts quite a bit of effort into getting certain historical basics right, actually seeming to have more than just a vague idea of military tactics in ancient Greece, even realizing why and wherefore the phalanx was used. Of course, this being a historical adventure in the pulp style, Hercules is also perfectly willing to let the real and appropriate application of fighting styles rest by the wayside when it wants its heroes to do some actual heroics, aiming for the best of both worlds and – for my highly specific tastes – generally hitting the mark.

I also found myself surprised by how little Hercules turned out to be the grim and gritty version of the Greek myths I expected. Sure, there’s the not exactly unexpected redemption arc for Hercules waiting in the wings (with a truly awkward writing hiccup waiting in the final scenes concerning the sudden appearance of Joseph Fiennes’s character that seems to come from a very different, and decidedly inferior film), most everyone in his little family of mercenaries has some sort of trauma in her or his past, and there are a lot of dead bodies on screen, but tonally, this isn’t a film interested in exploring the dark recesses of humanity when it can instead let its characters make a quip and do something adventurous and probably awesome. And, quite in the tradition of sword and sorcery movies without the sorcery, when the film has to decide between psychological realism and cheesy heroics, it’ll choose the cheesy heroics every time. As would I, particularly when this sort of thing can result in a scene of a ridiculously evil, basically cackling, John Hurt condemning his own daughter to death, provoking Hercules into the traditional breaking of chains by really ill-advised mockery (and evilness). Perhaps to appease old peplum fans like me, the film additionally features a moment of extreme statue toppling, as well as not a single boring moment.

Ratner’s direction this time around turns out to be surprisingly decent, too, with the director showing himself always at least to be competent, staging clear and exciting battle scenes, and turning his not-quite real Greece into a perfectly fitting place for his heroes and villains to inhabit.

Because this is an American movie, it also has a lot of nice things to say about the basic value of showmanship, about the lies people telling others turning into the basic truths about themselves if they only tell them with enough belief, and the redemptive value of pretending to be the son of Zeus. Personally, being European and all, I’m more into winning the day by the power of the actual truth, or clever instead of boisterous lies, but then I’m not toppling any statues over here.

Last but not least, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson deserves his own shout-out here too, turning out a Hercules who is likeable, charismatic, and demonstrating an excellent sense of timing as an actor. If anyone wanted to make an actual Robert E. Howard adaptation instead of whatever that last Conan movie with poor Jason Momoa was supposed to be, Johnson would be the guy to cast, if you ask me. Alas, that’s not going to happen.

However, I’ll always have this excellently fun bit of silly nonsense to enjoy.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In short: Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

Little does Sophie (Stephanie Bennett) expect her little trip to a village down in the boons of Ireland (a place also often known as “the Brown Isle”, at least going by the film’s colour scheme) together with her boring boyfriend, her boring best friend, and her boring best friend’s boring boyfriend to end up as badly as it will.

For the villagers lock the quartet in a hut even more out in the boons so the local Leprechaun can kill them. It’s to make amends for the gold the villagers stole from it, or something along these lines. Turns out these particular tourists aren’t very easy to kill.

So, to ask the most obvious question first, why would you reboot a series of films about a wisecracking magical murderous little person only to turn said little person into a grunting and snarling monster played by some wrestling dude (Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl, whoever he may be, though it’s not important anyhow, because we never get a good look at the monster anyway, and there might really be anybody doing the snarling) that might as well be a rabid dog or a mentally ill leopard, because it attacks everything it sees anyway, gold or no gold, and never does anything that says “Leprechaun” instead of completely random monster? Why would you choose an approach to this particular monster that isn’t just the anti-thesis of what the handful of people who’d actively seek out another Leprechaun film would want to see but also one that is this bland, boring and generic?  Then, why would you design a creature suit you are so ashamed of you never actually show it to the audience in full, in good light, or without adding a digital out of focus effect that also looks really crap?

Why use a script for the film that is so generic even lesser SyFy movies (well, not director Zach Lipovsky’s) have better ideas (and certainly are more fun to watch), that uses no even vaguely interesting mythological ideas whatsoever and does not contain a single fun or clever or just not actively, painfully bland idea or line of dialogue? Why direct a film when you don’t have anything to bring to the table beyond bland competence and a visible disinterest in actually entertaining your audience in any way, shape or form?

And why, last but not least, call this lame concoction of boring boredom from planet bore “Origins”, when it’s neither a prequel nor about your franchise monster hero’s origins?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Breakheart Pass (1975)

An Army train secretly carrying diphtheria medication, a doctor (David Huddleston) and replacement soldiers led by Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) for Fort Humboldt, has to cross the Rocky Mountains. The train also carries US senator Fairchild (Richard Crenna) who accompanies his fiancée Marica (Jill Ireland) to her father, the highest officer of the Fort. Apart from the Doctor and the senator, nobody else on board knows about the diphtheria situation, and that will only change when the train will have reached the point of no return.

On the last stop before that point is reached, the train rather unwillingly picks up Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) who has just rather accidentally caught former doctor, con artist and murderer John Deakin (Charles Bronson). Ironically, Deakin will turn out to be the ideal detective when a series of curious accidents and murders begins to hinder the train’s journey.

Though Tom Gries’s (who was also responsible for the fantastic Will Penny) direction seems a bit perfunctory and TV movie like from time to time, lacking a bit of edge and sometimes even the sense for making the best out of some of the film’s set pieces, Breakheart Pass still turns out to be an excellent film. The script by Alistair MacLean based on his own novel provides a surprisingly clever, and often cleverly surprising mixture of the mystery and the Western genres, both working well together not just because of the relative (there are of course other genres mixtures of its type) novelty of the mix but because MacLean (and perhaps Gries) actually seems to have a very clear idea which parts of the Western genre and which of the mystery film mix well and which don’t.

Some of the film’s better red herrings are more effective if the audience involved has some working knowledge of the Western genre and its clichés and habits because they are at times running against exactly these expectations. Not with a grand gesture of deconstruction or from a position of ironic knowingness, as much as from the more practical kind of view the sort of commercial writer MacLean was for better (in this case) or for worse (in many other cases) comes to reach with experience in his craft, using the expectations of an audience against it not to necessarily to make it think about genre structures and what they might mean but to provide it with the joy of surprise. One might complain that this approach lacks a certain depth, but then one should by all rights be too entertained by the little games MacLean is playing here to care.

I certainly found myself too entertained to complain. Watching Breakheart Pass, I also found myself appreciating many of the little things the film does right: how it introduces the Bronson character as a man focusing on using his brain instead of using his brawn to make the latter scenes when Gries’s depiction of the action becomes more exciting and our hero suddenly does use his brawn a bit surprising and certainly more exciting, while still emphasising the character’s intelligence before his propensity for physical violence; the way Bronson makes tiny little shifts to his at this point well established screen persona that actually make his performance here very convincing; the excellent supporting cast of character actors doing what these people always do in the best, the worst, and the most mediocre films; the moments of witty dialogue that generally come when you least expect it; and how the film implicitly suggests more mysteries should end with a climactic Indian (and these are “Indians”, that is, a bizarre product of unexamined clichés, suppositions and plot functions rather than Native Americans, which are of course various generally mistreated culture groups who have little to nothing to do with Hollywood’s Indians) attack instead of a chunky guy with a fake Belgian accent explaining the plot to people assembled in a room.

All the competence and these minor delights probably don’t turn Breakheart Pass into what people are bound to call a classic, but it’s such a fine example of unassuming yet not stupid genre filmmaking, I can’t say I care if that’s the case or not.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

In short: The Pyramid (2013)

This Italian movie of interconnected episodes by different directors tells the tale of a demonic pyramid that brings death, madness, destruction and infrequent nudity wherever it goes. Starting small, the whole thing culminates in a bit of a no budget apocalypse with fast zombie style possessed and two guys dressed in very silly motorcycle garb (which is to say, very traditional Italian post-apocalypse fashion) fighting them.

And really, as far as no – or nearly no – budget movies that try to walk in the footsteps of Hellraiser, Demoni, Evil Dead and various zombie apocalypses go, The Pyramid is a whole lot of fun. Sure, some of the acting is highly dubious, there’s little of your so-called production values on screen and at least two of the five directors haven’t met a video editing effect they didn’t like, but there’s also a lot of real creativity on display, with many a moment that reminds of a more impoverished version of everything we (meaning I) liked about Italian horror of the past. So there’s an often dream-like aspect to the narrative that isn’t necessarily in play because the writer couldn’t do more “linear” and “clear” but because an incursion of the illogical shouldn’t be logical and coherent; eye mutilation maestro Fulci would have approved of; really weird gory deaths; an approach to narrative that’s more interested in mood than anything else; and the clear feeling you’re in the hands of true enthusiasts here.

Thanks to the episodic structure, not a single idea overstays its welcome, and things move along in the sprightly jumps of an extra-dimensional creature with a sack over its head.What more could I ask of a production like this?