Friday, March 31, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Rigor Mortis (2013)

Original title: 殭屍

A depressed, aging actor (Chin Siu-Ho) grieving for his lost family moves into a run-down apartment house somewhere in Hong Kong to hang himself in peace, but is first disturbed by a female ghost, then saved by Yau (Anthony Chan Yau), last in a long line of Taoist exorcists now working as a cook and secret soul of the building’s community.

It is a strange community indeed, for not only seems the world of spirits and ghosts particularly close here, all of the living seem to be lost souls too: there’s Yau and his lost calling, a mentally ill woman named Yeung Feng (Kara Hui) and her white-haired child protected by the building’s lone security guard Yin (Lo Hoi-Pang), an old, dying black magician (Chung Faat, I think), and the elderly couple of Mui (Pau Hei-Ching in a particularly impressive performance) and Tung (Richard Ng Yiu-Hon). All of the living are lost in one way or the other, cast aside by life or having cast their lives aside themselves, living in a sort of companionable stasis.

Things change at the time of the actor’s attempted suicide, though, when Tung dies in a ghost related accident. Mui realizes she can’t live without her husband and makes a gruesome pact with the magician that will bring her husband back to her, at least sort of, in form of a hopping vampire. From here on, the static but peaceful life in the building quickly deteriorates until Yau and the actor take it on themselves to stop what’s going on.

The only thing I had read about Juno Mak’s Takashi Shimizu-produced Rigor Mortis before going in was that it was supposed to be an homage to the classic joys of the Mr Vampire movies. This turns out to be about half true, depending on your definition of what an homage is supposed to be and do. While the film is dominated by actors who had their biggest time in Hong Kong cinemas of the 80s, and particularly in the Mr Vampire films, and Mak clearly loves these movies dearly (as he well should), this is not an exercise in nostalgia or imitation. Instead, the film takes a look at the older films it is inspired by, and proceeds to decide what it can do with some of their elements as well as with the in the last decade or so desperately underused talents of their actors thirty years later; respecting the past but also building its own thing on it. For my tastes, this is a much more productive and dignified approach to bygone eras of filmmaking than mere imitation, and certainly the one that should result in the more individual movies.

In Rigor Mortis’s case this means that this film paying homage to a series of comedy kung fu horror films isn’t a comedy at all, but rather aims for an arthouse approach to horror with a bit of CGI enhanced fighting thrown in at the end; fortunately, this doesn’t come over as an attempt of Mak to grim-and-grittify the hopping vampire movie but feels organic, like the logical place to take the characters the film spends a loving – and not humourless – half hour or so building before things begin to get truly threatening.

Despite some moments of ruthless and even to my jaded eyes rather shocking violence, Rigor Mortis’s horror is character based. The bad things happening here are the painfully logical results of the lives these people have led and of the wounds they took in the process. Even the black magician is a figure of pity or at least compassion to a degree. Evil – such as it is – in this film is the result of good intentions, bad decisions, loneliness and plain bad luck rather than of anyone twirling his or her moustache; consequently, the film’s good guys and the film’s bad guys (if you even want to use these terms) are equally flawed and human, and the film isn’t one to point any fingers of judgment at anyone involved. The true horror of the supernatural escalation is how much it is based on simple human sadness, makes it that much more disturbing than any kind of absolute or externalized evil ever could be.

As if this humanist approach to horror weren’t already enough to praise Mak’s film, there is also the brilliance of the performances. Particularly Pau Hei-Ching (there’s one scene between her and her dead, half-undead husband that’s just heart-breaking), Anthony Chan and Chin Siu-Ho are absolutely fantastic, and also demonstrate the impressive things middle-aged and elderly actresses and actors can do if a film just lets them. The way Mak integrates former roles the actors played into the characters without coasting on their reputations is also quite wonderful.

Mak’s visual approach to the film is atmospheric, moody, and claustrophobic, with many a gliding camera movement through the labyrinthine seeming building all of the film takes place in that provide the proceedings with the feeling of the not quite real, or the not quite unreal, turning the building into a locale on the border between the land of the living and that of the dead, as well as between the realm of logic and ill-logic. It’s the kind of place where the weird and the numinous is part of day to day life in more than one way. Even the film’s monochromatic, colour-drained look makes an aesthetic sense in this context: this building with its occupants whom time has left behind is not a place for colours.

Rigor Mortis also manages the impressive feat of making its hopping vampire (who really is more a unnaturally gliding one) seem horrific and threatening. The monster design very effectively puts emphasis on this creature being the most horrible of things – the corpse of an actual human being that has come to life. It’s particularly effective because the film’s script has shown us everything there is to know about the price that was paid for this thing’s creation, and makes clear what an abomination of the man it was in life it truly is. This is not something most vampire films, hopping or not, are any good at showing at all.

The only minor quibble I have with the film is with the at best mediocre quality of its CGI (the black ghost smoke being a particularly ineffective example), but then it never is so bad it gets in the way of the incredible number of things Rigor Mortis does well, so I’m not all that annoyed by it.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Hitlist (2011)

Corporate engineer Alan Campbell (Cole Hauser) has a very bad day: the gangster he has debts with is getting violently impatient; at his job, the promotion he thought was his is going to a guy who may or may not have stolen his ideas (and who most certainly is an asshat of the highest degree); and when he gets home, he finds his wife (Ginny Weirick) sleeping with his best friend. I’m happy he doesn’t have any pets, or that’d have been a dead doggie, too, I suppose.

Obviously, Alan’s next step after that particular day is to find the next bar and get dead drunk. Alas, at the bar he meets a guy calling himself Jonas (Cuba Gooding Jr.). After giving Alan the cold shoulder for a bit, Jonas offers himself up as just the guy to cry to, which is exactly what Alan does while getting even drunker. At one point in the conversation, Jonas starts berating Alan for being a wet blanket but also offering help. Well, a very particular kind of help.

Jonas explains to Alan he’s a professional killer, and because he’s such a nice guy, he’s going to kill the five people Alan wants to see die the most for free. Alan, drunk, stupid, and believing he’s just venting in a particularly original manner, makes the list. Shortly after that, Jonas disappears.

Alan does think nothing of it – you don’t meet professional killers who give freebies randomly in bars after all – until he goes to work the next day and finds out his boss, the first man on his hit list, has been murdered. And Jonas certainly isn’t going to stop there.

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the best time for the actor himself, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of the phase in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career when he couldn’t find proper Oscar winning actor roles anymore but just kept on working in direct-to-DVD, or so cheap they might as well have been, action films and thrillers. I’m especially fond of these phase because Gooding never seems to approach his work there as if he is doing the films he is in a favour with his presence or as if he is slumming (though he surely is). Instead his performances in these films generally have the dignity of true professionalism, and more often than not, it feels as if Gooding’s contributions push everyone else involve to do better work than they usually do.

The Hitlist’s director William Kaufman doesn’t really need a push. While he has to follow the rules of direct-to-DVD action and so can’t quite ever reach the heights of his fantastic debut feature The Prodigy, at the very least his body of work suggests another dedicated professional in a part of the movie realm that has a few too many guys operating in it who don’t exactly seem to care to make a decent movie as long as they can put the names of Lundgren or Van Damme on a DVD cover, even when these hardly feature in the respective films.

While the budget clearly can’t provide too much actual action in this action movie, the handful of sequences that are there have more than decent stunt work and demonstrate a certain dry flair without Kaufman falling back at whoosh cuts, jump cuts or wildly wavering camera; the stunt crew really doesn’t need this sort of distraction because they, too, are dedicated professionals. The action is generally short and punchy, with a nice climax during which Gooding gets to shoot up a police station, Terminator-style.

Which of course leaves many a minute of running time to fill. That’s the point where quite a few direct-to-DVD action films truly falter, for filling the space between acts of violence seems to overtax quite a few imaginations. The Hit List, fortunately, has an actual plot – even one that makes sense if you are willing to buy into the basic set-up - and while the characters’ psychology isn’t exactly deeply insightful, people here usually have a motivation for what they do, and tend to act in ways that’s appropriate to the situation. Now, this doesn’t exactly sound like a glowing compliment to make for any movie, but in direct-to-DVD action movie land, this demonstrates an uncommon degree of care. It’s also, dare I say it, entertaining to watch, often even thrilling. Additionally, having an actual script doesn’t just give Gooding the opportunity to elegantly underplay (at least for this sort of environment) what could be an annoying scenery chewing maniac but also brings out the best of Cole Hauser. The less semi-famous Hauser, it turns out, is really good at playing our sad sack protagonist, believably going from helpless anger at his life to a very specific kind of courage in the end.

This all adds up to a fine bit of low budget action filmmaking.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Doll From Hell (1996)

Original title: 生贄

A group of criminals under a female boss traipse through a wooded mountain area in search of a former partner carrying a case full of drugs. Some of their activities are witnessed by one of the twin daughters of a doll-maker living in the area. The only answer to that is obviously death. Unfortunately, the idiot thugs kill the wrong daughter, leaving the doll maker bereft. However, the murdered daughter was doomed to die of what I assume to be consumption anyway, so the doll maker has made a life-sized doll that looks kinda-sorta (or in the words of the film: “exactly”) like her. And wouldn’t you know it, he uses the forbidden soul transference spell that has been part of the family tradition for ages to transfer his dead daughter’s soul into the doll, so that she can live on in it, sacrificing his own life in the process.

There’s a little problem with the doll being mute, creepy, lacking in any sense of ethical behaviour and only kept alive by somehow sucking peoples’ blood through her fingertips, but fortunately, the thugs’ drugs (this rhyme was provided to you by a glass of wine) end up in the doll maker’s house, so there are somewhat proper blood-sucking targets available. The doll’s twin is hiding away there too, swearing bloody vengeance against the thugs and showing a real talent for causing eye trauma.

Shinobu Murata’s little horror film is not one of the truly brilliant gems of Japanese V-Cinema (that is, direct-to-video etc film). Too frayed and vague is its plot in its first third, too much time is needed for the 75 minute film to actually get going, and too broad is the acting by a lot of people whose faces but not names you’ll know when you’ve seen a few of these films.

Saying a film isn’t brilliant is not the same as saying there’s nothing worthwhile about it, though: it is impossible for me to not find at least a small spot in my heart for a film whose second half commits to lighting every single scene in the traditional colours of Mario Bava and Dario Argento: that red, this green, and yonder purple, turning somewhat bland sets (though at least they are full of manikins) a bit dream-like and a bit strange, though it’s a very cheap kind of dream. The doll sister is pretty creepy too, once she finally gets moving, that is, and while the effects certainly aren’t convincing, they are enthusiastic and presented with a degree of conviction.

The script, once the entertaining second half starts, isn’t completely lacking in interest either, and certainly not in ambition. An example: we learn that one of the yakuza (played by Kazuyoshi Ozawa, I think) was a sculptor in his former life, until he murdered another sculptor out of jealousy for his more beautiful art, and only escaped jail because the girl boss convinced her father (who must probably be a major yakuza boss, movie lore tells me) to safe him, leaving the sculptor now turned yakuza (it obviously works like vampirism) as her property and official (fuck) doll. In the end, he’ll confront the doll sister with his own doll-hood, somewhat convincing her that they both should die because they aren’t actual living human beings anymore. While the scene isn’t terribly well written or acted, it certainly leads to a more interesting and less generic finale for the sort of film this is, with shots of the doll slowly wandering into the nearby lake reaching a certain folkloric beauty. Which is then followed by a silly yet decently realized – and very classic – final shock that does of course fit everything else that has been going on not at all.

Still, the second half absolutely makes Doll From Hell a worthwhile watch if you have the patience to slog through its beginning. This certainly isn’t a film only going through the motions, and given that Murata certainly wasn’t expected by anyone to do more than just that, I mark this down as a win.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In short: Child Eater (2016)

A rather pretty US small town with some pleasantly creepy locations. Sheriff’s daughter Helen (Cait Bliss) is babysitting little Lucas Parker (Colin Critchley). Lucas and his father have just moved into the local bad place, a house that supposedly once belonged to the town’s very own serial killer who went around murdering children (and whoever got in his way), eating their eyes to fend off an eye illness. Jeepers Creepers.

Unlike a lot of urban myths of that sort, the story about the local bogeyman is based on facts, for there really was an eye-eating child murderer once living in the Parkers new home. The more supernatural aspects of the tale will turn out to be true, too, for the arrival of a child with really tasty eyes awakens the Child Eater (I’d call him the Eye Eater, but what do I know?). Helen’s got a very special babysitting night before her.

The first half of so of Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Kickstarter financed horror film based on his own short film is rather strong: the production demonstrates a great eye for finding creepy locations, and the director has a moody style of shooting them; outside of action sequences when it becomes rather generic, the score is atmospheric and dense; character introductions and exposition are handled with speed yet aren’t too superficial, also on account of an acting ensemble that does well throughout; the villain very much sounds like a modern urban myth, and his first kill comes with the ruthlessness of 70s horror, presenting the sort of eye mutilation Lucio Fulci would have enjoyed with the appropriate enthusiasm.

The longer the film goes on, the more obvious a handful of problems become. Firstly, there just isn’t enough plot (or even just events) to fill the full 80 minutes of runtime, so there are some moments of the film awkwardly shuffling its feet, like when it first transports Helen to safety in the hospital, and then returns her to the place of action after a handful of pretty pointless scenes, mumbling something about responsibility (which is supposed to be connected to her being pregnant but really isn’t). Secondly, while the horror scenes are generally effective and well-handled, too many of them feel a bit too much like variations of other scenes from other films rather than scenes belonging organically to Child Eater’s story, with certain elements seemingly happening because this is a horror film and not because they are an intrinsic part of the specific horror film at hand.

This doesn’t mean Child Eater isn’t a worthwhile film. As I said, its first half is very good, and while the second one does leave marked room for improvement, there’s a basic level of visual craftsmanship and a general ability to create mood on display you don’t regularly get in indie horror. It’s the type of film that is too flawed to truly get excited about but that does leave this viewer looking forward to what Thoroddsen’s going to do next.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

In short: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

Our long nightmare is finally over! Well, if you ignore the actual ending of the film that leaves the castle gates wide open for Greeks bringing gifts, direct-to-video sequels, TV shows, or whatever else you can dream up in your nightmares.

Unlike quite a few people, I don’t have any problem with the low-brow nature of the Resident Evil films, their inherent stupidity and their frivolous dumbness. In fact, I remember actually enjoying one of the franchise entries – I believe it was the third one but am much too lazy to look it up and am certainly not going to work through the other films again to find out – and having a bit of fun laughing at some of the others. This purportedly final film however mostly frustrates me. There is so much wasted potential for a fun hundred minutes of post-apocalyptic SF horror action shenanigans, so many ideas that should by all rights be awesome in their own silly ways but never work out being even the tiniest bit entertaining. The problem dragging it all down is franchise director/writer/producer Paul W.S. Anderson when he’s wearing his director’s hat. Despite his bad reputation, I think Anderson started out bright-eyed, talented, and imbued with a lot of love for genre films, making crap movies and some that were nearly very good. Alas, he has become a worse director with every Resident Evil chapter he has inflicted upon us.

This one, he absolutely ruins by overloading nearly every action scene (the final twenty minutes are a bit better, inexplicably) with so many edits, and so many camera positions and shots that for half of the time, you don’t really know what he’s actually trying to show you. To make bad matters worse still, the action in general feels as if it was filmed by an epileptic cameraman while in the throes of an attack. Calling the camera work during the action sequences jittery makes it sound much too calm. If you’re like me and not prone to headaches, you might experience a curious effect – I certainly did – for the camera is so jittery, the editing so fast and random, that there’s really no difference between any of the action scenes at all. Milla Jovovich being chased by zombie horde, Milla Jovovich wrestling with some big grey zombie dude, Milla Jovovich being chased by mutated dogs – it all feels the same, the sort of detail that makes action interesting and exciting to look at is completely lost in Anderson’s fits, until most of the film ends up as a random assortment of flashes and noises up there on the screen, displaying no attempt to connect with the people watching it even on the most basic level. Now that I think about it, it’s a bit of an avantgarde film in that approach.
Too bad it is also an utter failure as the kind of film it is actually supposed to be.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: They trusted no one. Until they had to trust each other.

The Curse (1987): If you think that Lovecraft’s Colour out of Space, one of the best pieces of weird fiction ever written, really needed the addition of blood-spurting tomatoes, killer chicken, and young Wil Wheaton (among other things to curdle the blood), boy do I have the film for you. A US/Italian co-production (among the producers are Ovidio Assonitis and perhaps Lucio Fulci) directed by David Keith, this thing at first shows promising production values, straightforward but competent direction and mostly decent acting, but it grows increasingly dumb the longer it goes on, some of the actors seemingly losing all professional ability once they are supposed to play crazy, while the script appears to aim for Troll 2 levels of crap surrealism without ever really reaching the heights/depths of Fragasso’s work. Depending on one’s state of sobriety and Lovecraft admiration, this can be a hoot in the rather unpleasant point and laugh at the film way, or the sort of thing that really pisses you of. Me? I laughed at the killer chicken, at least. Even though they probably weren’t supposed to be funny.

Spectral (2016): Despite director Nic Mathieu visually making more than expected out of his warehouse sets, I can’t say this variation on the old chestnut of soldiers versus some sort of monster does much for me. There’s a certain antiseptic blandness surrounding the proceedings, with not even the mandatory lip service paid to the hardships of being a soldier even though quite a few of the characters bite the dust. The characters in general lack even the short cut characterisation usually happening in this sort of thing, leaving them as utterly replaceable monkeys with guns about whose destinies I can’t even give enough of a crap to keep awake during the action scenes. On paper, the glowy yet invisible CGI baddies are a good idea, but in practice, it’s just the same not terribly expressive effect used over and over, while the film goes through all the expected notions without ever hitting a note that’s true or exciting, or even just mildly interesting.

Winter’s Tale (2014): Akiva Goldsman’s film manages about half the time to reach the mythical exaltation its needs to sell the hypocritical bullshit world view of the Mark Helprin novel it adapts. The other half is good old classical Hollywood kitsch. It’s a competently realized kind of kitsch, mind you, with quite a bit of money thrown at it, so the film certainly is effective to the degree one is willing or able to go with it. Personally, I felt a bit nauseated by the vague feelgood ideas stated that have little to do with what actually happens in the plot, the bizarre yapping about a loving universe that again is the exact opposite of what the film actually shows, and the film’s conviction that being held in perpetual stasis is a happy end. Screw that.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Rider on a Dead Horse (1962)

Before you can even say “wow, a black person in a western made after the race pictures era and before ‘68”, gold prospector and all-around villain Barney Senn (Bruce Gordon) murders his black partner Sam to provide for a more satisfying share of their new-found riches for himself. His other partner, the morally slightly less disgusting Hayden (John Vivyan), Senn keeps alive because he needs the experienced frontiersman to lead him through the territory of a really cranky tribe of Apache. Despite being a bit of a racist prick himself, Hayden didn’t like Sam’s murder much at all and is obviously quite certain his “partner” will kill him once his usefulness comes to an end, but there’s little he seems to be able or willing to do about it.

So Hayden isn’t surprised when, soon after the partners have hidden their gold away on Apache territory to get away with their lives in the hopes of returning to fetch it later, Senn shoots him and leaves him in the wilderness. Hayden’s a tough customer, though, and manages to make his way to the neighbourhood of a Chinese railroad labourer camp, where the camp boss’s private prostitute Ming Kwai (Lisa Lu) takes care of him. Ming Kwai decides they will go to San Francisco together, though with a detour to get the riches Hayden quickly tells her about. Too bad Hayden has racist problems with Ming Kwai’s obvious carnal interest in him.

Unfortunately for the project of getting the gold, Senn has thought up an interesting insurance against his former partner and tells the local greedy bounty hunter Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen) a tall tale about Hayden having murdered Sam. Since the law in the area promises a thousand dollars to anyone bringing in any random murderer, and scruples aren’t a concept he’s heard of, Fry doesn’t take much convincing.

Eventually, the whole cast, and the Apaches, will end up stumbling through the wilderness, looking for the gold and trying to kill one another.

What a highly peculiar film this is. I at least didn’t expect to ever see a US western made in the early 60s with a script as much a proto-Spaghetti western script as this one has, nor would I have expected this film to have been directed by 50s low budget monster movie (of wildly varying quality) veteran and part-time TV guy Herbert L. Strock. It’s quite remarkable how close the film’s tone of laconic cynicism is to many a second tier Spaghetti, and how many scenes in it seem to prefigure specific moments you will find Italian westerns repeat again and again.

To drive the resemblance even further, Rider is, quite in style, exclusively populated by characters who are either outright crazy like Senn, or driven by greed and various other unpleasant traits and who tend to fall into the same character types the Spaghetti westerns would explore most often. Even our nominal hero is a racist – and, to my surprise, the film actually seems to have at least a faint idea that being a racist isn’t a great thing, and gives our guy a bit of a turn in a better direction, though not so much of one anyone could call this a redemption plot for him. There’s a strain of pessimism towards the human condition underlying the whole of the film that also came as a surprise to me. In part, this is of course just an element films about people scrounging against each other for gold share in general, but Rider seems particularly vicious about it, putting on a sneer when looking at a heap of dead Apaches, and not really seeming to put much stock in any of the characters changing much for the better because of what they went through. Sure, Hayden is somewhat redeemed through the love of a good woman, but that good woman also happens to be an Asian prostitute who likes to wield a knife (though she never gets to actually kill anyone with it), which is about as far from what you’d expect to see in a US western of the era, while also surprisingly accepting of facts of life Hollywood in general wasn’t quite willing to face again at this point, not even in the often emotionally and socially often quite progressive low budget westerns.

I was rather surprised and happy by Hayden and Ming Kwai actually ending up together, instead of her dying a death that somehow redeems him so our white hero doesn’t end up with an Asian girlfriend (oh noes!), as I was by the fact that the film decides to show its sole female character as its moral centre, despite the whole prostitute thing. At the very least, Ming Kwai is the only character on screen who doesn’t take convincing to be interested in anything beyond her monetary advancement. It’s all quite peculiar and unexpected.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to praise a film from this era that actually takes it as a matter of course that there weren’t just white people and white people dressed up as Indians (Native American really isn’t the appropriate term here) in the old west but also black people (though the poor man’s few lines are pretty cringeworthy) and Chinese, and even casts its central Chinese character with an actual Chinese woman instead of a white actress in yellowface.

The film’s problems are lying in its budget and its director. Strock does make a visible effort to shoot around his budgetary limitations that leave him with limited locations, some particularly shabby movie Apaches, and not exactly masses of well-trained horses and stuntmen with a style that from time to time reaches a somewhat hallucinatory quality by the virtue of mild oddness. However, as often as Strock succeeds at shots and scenes that are at least interesting to look at, off and odd in ways that again seem to pre-sage second tier Spaghetti Westerns (just watch the various sequences of people stumbling through the desert/wilderness, or think about the way Fry’s love for dynamite is portrayed), at other times, he misses so badly any given scene can easily drift off in the direction of the needlessly cheap looking and boring. I also can’t help but think Strock didn’t quite realize how uncommon and interesting the script he was working from was, and therefore put the emphasis on the more standard western elements whenever possible, where he should have gone really crazy. The film also gets a bit sluggish once everyone’s stumbling through the desert/wilderness.

On the other hand, there aren’t exactly many westerns made in 1962 or before with a mixed race relationship (even with sex – as a weird and uncomfortable pre-coital scene between Hayden and Ming Kwai very clearly demonstrates) this explicit and accepted, or with a script you wouldn’t have any trouble believing as the basis for an Italian western not made by someone called Sergio.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973)

Warning: there will be spoilers for this more than forty years old movie

Child of divorce Richie (Scott Sealey) is spending a nice weekend with his Dad Robert (Kerwin Mathews) somewhere in a cabin in the country. Under the light of the full moon, they are attacked by a classically styled wolfman (also known as the “dog-faced boy” type). Robert manages to fight the monster off and kill it so that it turns into a dead human but he is bitten in the process. Robert convinces himself they have been attacked by a maniac. It’s a variation of the sort of interesting delusion all characters in the film will share, for everyone here laying eyes on a werewolf in form of a human with a dog’s head walking on two legs and wearing clothes will say they have seen an animal. Which is rather peculiar, unless the wildlife of the USA have seen some rather interesting developments nobody told the rest of the world about.

Well, all characters will talk that sort of nonsense except for Richie, who will always insist on werewolves being werewolves, a fact that won’t bring much happiness to him and his family once Robert starts turning into one too. Not a great development to happen just at the point in Robert’s life where plying his ex-wife Sandy (Elaine Devry) with chauvinist nagging and alcohol seems to start having an effect on her. Not the one consisting of applying boot to ex-husband genital you might wish for, alas, so perhaps lycanthropy actually is for the better.

Sometimes, a film just stumbles upon a way to talk about a lot of the anxieties of its time and space without seeming to actually notice. The Boy Who Cried Werewolf most certainly is such a film, and while it’s not terribly effective as a horror movie, it is such a capsule of early 70s white US middle class anxieties it is worth watching if only to point and gawk at how unfiltered a lot of this stuff here is.

There’s the whole D.I.V.O.R.C.E. angle, Robert’s honestly confused and slightly bitter reaction to his ex-wife having a career that’s just as important to her as his own is to him and being able to handle that and being a good mother too (the film pleasantly never playing the card of making Sandy crap at raising spawn). That’s just the beginning of the sheer 70s insanity. Little Richie, for example, apparently has his own psychiatrist despite seemingly coping well with the divorce and not showing any other signs of mental illness; a psychiatrist, I might add, who believes in werewolves and talks about the occult a lot. Then there’s a sub-plot about the shenanigans of a band of Jesus hippies (“Freaked out on Jesus!”) being threatening, ridiculous and dishonest in turns, random psycho babble and other bits and bobs that must have looked like a good idea at the time.

All these bubbles of random anxiety somewhat overshadow how bleak of a film this would be if it only were emotionally involving. This is after all a movie where a little boy’s father turns into a raving monster that’ll even try to kill his ex-wife, and ends up killed by a torch-less mob in the end - but not before he can bite the little boy. The bleakness as well as the obvious metaphorical reading of the main plot don’t come as much to the surface as one might hope, though. I can’t help but think veteran director Nathan Juran – not exactly a child of the 70s – didn’t terribly care for that sort of thing.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In short: The City of Lost Children (1995)

Original title: La cité des enfants perdus

A strongman named One (Ron Perlman) tries to rescue his little adoptive brother who first ends up in the hands of a pair of Siamese twins who have a very Dickensian idea of the kind of work orphans are to be put to, and then in that of rather fittingly named mad scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) – Krank meaning “sick” or “ill” in German. Krank steals the dreams of children while hiding away with his clones (all played by Dominique Pinon), a woman of short stature and a brain in a tank on an oil platform. One finds help in the clear preference of this particular cinematic universe for helping out the kind hearted in the end, as well as in the form of Miette (Judith Vittet), one of the twins’ orphan pick pockets.

Encountering certain movies at the wrong time in your life can paint a director in a very wrong light for years to come. Case in point for me is Jean-Pierre Jeunet (here partnered with Marc Caro as co-director). After an early grumpy encounter with Delicatessen I had the man pegged as a perpetrator of films of shrill yet pointless weirdness, and boy, was I wrong. Not that Jeunet’s films – with or without Caro – aren’t weird and sometimes indeed a bit shrill, but his is very much a weirdness with a point and a personality, born from an aesthetic sensibility that takes elements of the grotesque (always a main strand of the fantastic here in Europe, and particularly in France), poetic realism (not even I can watch this film without being reminded of certain parts of Marcel Carné’s aesthetic though seen through the sideways lens of Jeunet’s and Caro’s world view), pulp, fairy tale and proto-steampunk and mutates them into an organic whole.

The City is a film that consciously uses artificiality and artifice not to distance the viewer from itself but to put her in a heightened state of responsiveness necessary to really share into its vision. Cinema as a form of hypnosis is a bit of an old cliché, of course, but that’s the kind of magic Jeunet and Caro are aiming for here, an idea of cinema as something that sucks its viewer completely into a world of its own.

Because the film does this so well, it can tell a story full of improbable coincidence that is really fate having its say without looking embarrassed. The whole affair takes place in a world where everything and everyone is more or less visibly skewed (unlike our world where these things are often a bit better hidden) but where kindness and graciousness can dwell in the grotesque and the strange, too (which also might provide a bit of hope for our world).

Among the way, there are moments only a fool wouldn’t describe as poetic, of strange ideas turned strangely beautiful, and of the beautiful turned strange. While they are at it, the directors seed more than just a tiny bit of thematic work about families (chosen, fated, or just accidental) and the way they can form, deform or reform their members without ever falling into the deadliest trap for the cinema of the fantastic where the fantastic is only a metaphor.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Don’t Kill It (2016)

Like it happens to all peaceful, unpleasantly religious small towns in the USA on screen, a peaceful, unpleasantly religious small town (indeed situated in the USA) is hit by a series of very curious murders, or rather a kind of relay killing spree, where the person who shoots the killer in self defence then continues the murders. And what’s with the black eyes and the strange shouty noises the killers make?
Well, it’s a demon, of course, possessing the person who killed its last host. The FBI sends Agent Evelyn Pierce (Kristina Klebe) to town to make sure this isn’t a case of domestic terrorism. She’s quite familiar with the place, because she spent part of her childhood there, earning herself the charming and not particularly fitting nickname of “Evil Lynn”.

Evelyn will quickly team up with the only guy (and he is such a guy) who knows what’s actually going on in town: demon hunter Jebediah Woodley (Dolph Lundgren, totally a Jebediah). Together, they not only fight crime, they just might have a chance at getting rid of an enemy you really shouldn’t kill lest you become him. Or is it he becomes you? Boy, identity is difficult.

Mike Mendez’s Don’t Kill It is the sort of film you’ll either loathe completely or enjoy quite a bit. I don’t think there’s any middle ground of vague detachment when it comes to appreciating its bloody comedy and its comical violence. I had a heck of a time watching it, starting with the gleefully bloody intro, continuing with Jebediah’s introduction via a pretty damn hilarious (and rather violent, would you believe?) lecture about consent in a bar (hopefully coming to a YouTube near you soon), and so on and so forth to the bloody finale.

Mendez certainly is a director who knows how to make the best out of a small budget, shooting - and particularly editing - the action sequences with verve, style and imagination. The pleasantly – and sometimes hilariously – bloody effects courtesy of Robert Kurtzman’s shop are a fine mix of the practical and the digital (only whenever that makes more sense), and have a wonderful gleeful kid in a candy store made of intestines vibe. This is very clearly a film that approaches cartoonishly exaggerated violence with glee and a sense of fun, and I for one found myself rather infected by both while watching it.

Don’t Kill It is also excellently paced, keeping the running time at lean eighty minutes that prevent the film from ever overstaying its welcome. Exposition happens quick and fast, the character moments are better written than you’d usually find them in a gory comedy – though certainly not original – and before things can ever become boring, the next bit of carnage or genuinely funny business happens.

Klebe turns out to be a perfect straight woman, while Lundgren really lets out the dry sardonic comedian a lot of his semi-cameo action movie appearances in the last decade or so have suggested, showing excellent timing saying absurd things with a very straight face - which, admittedly, is the only facial expression he has.

All this leaves Don’t Kill It as a film that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish and how, and then proceeds to do it to the joy and delight of everyone who likes their horror comedy bloody yet sardonic.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Prodigy (2005)

Warning: there will be spoilers

His boss sends criminal enforcer Truman (Holt Boggs) to find the guy who kidnapped the boss’s favourite nephew. Well, most of the nephew, really, for he left an eye as well as a cryptic scrawled message behind. Some old-fashioned detective work suggests the kidnapper is a professional killer so legendary, he’s basically the bogeyman of the underworld. The killer myth likes to work under the moniker of Claude Rains, as befitting a man who has never been seen (by anyone he didn’t kill). That doesn’t explain what Rains wants with the nephew, though, for there doesn’t seem to be any connection between him Truman’s boss at all.

Indeed, it will turn out that Rains is interested in Truman himself, and that Truman has already met him during a violent incident that ended with a warehouse full of dead people, with the first among the handful of people Truman is close to one of the corpses there.

William Kaufman’s The Prodigy is that very rare thing, a locally produced direct-to-DVD action movie with a brain that completely transcends most of its limitations.

Kaufman has gone on to the (probably) greener pastures of regular direct-to-DVD action by now, and is certainly one of the good directors working in that world of Lundgren “starring” roles which take up ten minutes of running time and Cuba Gooding Jr. earning his rent money like a trouper. The Prodigy, though, isn’t merely a decent film made under difficult circumstances, it is a rather special film. One that unites action movie tropes with modern serial killer plot elements and a bit of post-Tarantino crime film in a way that feels organic and logical, an action film with only a handful of action sequences that still doesn’t contain filler, and just an all-around fine movie that often makes clever use of its production constraints.

Case in point is how the first and the last big action set pieces both take place in the same warehouse. This sort of thing is usually the kiss of death for excitement in an action film but Kaufman explicitly has the first and the last acts of violence in the film mirroring each other, the end logically taking place where things started, and what should look lazy or cheap suddenly feels consequential and meaningful.

Kaufman shows himself particularly adept at realizing genre standards convincingly. The Prodigy certainly isn’t the first film containing a serial killer (which Rains in effect is) wanting to turn his adversary into a mirror image of himself by cutting all his ties to humanity, for example, but the plotting is intricate enough and the characterisations (even that of the killer, a guy we never really meet as a person) so strong, the old hat becomes interesting and riveting again.

The film’s storytelling in general is so strong, the way the film tells its tale can even surprise – and most certainly does excite – the more jaded viewer of cheap genre movies. After nearly thirty years of the the whole mythical serial killer thing I have to admit I am somewhat over the trope, finding myself rolling my eyes at the usual Nietzsche quote (not to be found here, happily) and all that comes with it. Nonetheless, the way the old chestnut flows in Kaufman’s film turned it exciting for me again, suggesting that a careful script containing just the right amount of tiny twists to a formula can still go a long way even with the most tired of ideas.

Holt Boggs’s (who also co-wrote the script) performance as Truman is another point in the film’s favour, keeping the guy sympathetic enough to care about what happens to him but never suggesting that he’s just a misunderstood nice guy who just happens to murder people quite adeptly. There’s clearly something missing in Truman, and finding out how much exactly is part of the point of the film.

Kaufman’s direction is very effective, working as well in tightly edited action scenes as in the detective bits, when we are listening to the gangsters’ urban myths about Rains, or when we watch Truman at home with his girlfriend. Unlike a lot of action directors, Kaufman seems quite at home in scenes where nobody gets killed, treating verbal character interaction with the same care he uses for shoot-outs, instead of treating the talking as shit to just get over with to get back to the killing. Kaufman has a careful eye for the mood of any given scene, and seems to approach them all with a clear idea of their respective meaning in the film as a whole.

And that’s really the best thing about The Prodigy: this is not just an excellent low budget action flick, but an excellent low budget action flick that actually has a story to tell.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

In short: The Fifth Element (1997)

Original title: Le cinquième élément

It’s easy and often enjoyable to make fun of Luc Besson and his obsession with films not making any logical sense whatsoever, his loathing for the laws of physics even when a scene has no need to ignore them, and his painful, weaponized idea of humour. However, when the man is on as a director, he is on, while still keeping all of these weaknesses alive.

The Fifth Element might very well be Besson’s magnum opus (though I’m more partial to his Jacques Tardi adaptation about the adventure of Adèle Blanc-Sec because there, Besson seems to have had more control over his most grating obsessions, though this one is certainly the more pure dose of Besson), a film that adds the love for French science fiction comics and Bruce Willis to a mix I find at once exhilarating and incredibly annoying. It certainly isn’t a film to watch when you have a migraine, for most of its running time consists of Besson using all his considerable visual powers and a very French concept of weirdness to screech nonsense into your ears while throwing the most incredible candy coloured lysergic images at your eyes. At its best, this means the film very authentically portrays a preposterous yet utterly beautiful looking future where clearly everybody has been driven completely insane by their surroundings; at its worst, this means Chris Tucker playing a guy named Ruby Rhod making high pitched noises forever.

Parts of Besson’s decisions are as bizarre as ever. Let’s just look at the cast: Bruce Willis as air taxi driver and space marine certainly makes sense (particularly since the guy never had much of problem making light of his own hard ass image), but why cast Milla Jovovich who can’t act her way out of a paper bag instead of a just as attractive actress who can (wait for it) act? Is the short guffaw of seeing Tiny Lister as The President (we are never quite sure of what exactly) really worth the fact that he’s going to be pretty bad in what is a considerably larger role than a cameo? Why Chris Tucker? No, seriously, why Chris Tucker of all the unfunny professional funnymen on Earth? And what’s up with Gary Oldman’s accent?

And on it goes with one bizarre decision after the next. The funny thing is, at least every second time I watch The Fifth Element I’m having a wonderful time with it, falling into its mix of beauty and nonsense like into…well, whatever piece of furniture is very loud and annoying yet awesome. It’s certainly not a film for every opportunity (but which one is?) - it is much too idiosyncratic, annoying and strange for that, but when the opportunity for it arises, it is glorious.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Iceland. A very international group of future murder victims (oops, spoiler) goes on a whale watching tour. All seems well - though some of the tourists are a bit annoying - but in truth the more unpleasant parts of the trip are already starting with the only sailor on board beside the ship's captain (Gunnar "Leatherface" Hansen) raping one of the female tourists in his cabin. Things don't exactly improve when a freak accident with a poky stick and a flying drunk Frenchman lethally wounds the captain. Seeing the mess, sailor Rape jumps into the emergency boat and flees, leaving the tourists to their fate.

It seems like a fortunate occurrence when a boat with a friendly enough acting rescuer on board appears only a little bit later. The tourists are getting somewhat nervous when their helper doesn't ferry them into the next harbour, but instead transports them to a rusty old whaling ship, where they meet his son and wife. It doesn't take five minutes until the charming family members show their true face and gorily dispatch of tourist number one. People living on a ship need to eat too, it seems, and what could be more tasty than other people when you're not allowed to slaughter whales anymore?

Instead of using their superior numbers, the tourists flee the location of the first murder in panic, heading in all directions, all the easier to be picked off one by one. Who will survive, and what will be left of them?

Julius Kemp's Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre is a more interesting case than a title that screams "generic Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off", or worse "generic slasher but on a ship", promises. Sure enough, the movie is full of allusions to TCM and every other film about hairy people with bad bodily hygiene hunting tourists for food (and it also throws in a non-zombie bit of Night of the Living Dead for good measure later on), but Kemp seems more interested in playing with - perhaps even subverting - the genre(s) his film belongs to than he is in just reproducing its generic parts.

How successful the film's attempts in this direction are for a given viewer will depend on a few things. Firstly, it will depend on a viewer's ability to enjoy the film's plain and very European weirdness. It's weirdness of the sort that had left (the little there was of) European horror filmmaking during the 90s only to return again with a vengeance in the new century. RWWM makes no attempts at masking its anti-realistic proclivities at all, which leads to a handful of fantastically strange and eerie scenes like the one where the raped woman begins to sing "It's Oh So Quiet" over the whale watching boat's PA while the captain lies in his death throes, the other tourists staring on in horror. Or the fact that the film's bad guys are whalers who have  - now that they can't kill whales - anymore switched to hunting whale watchers (which is of course also an allusion to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

This does lead us of course to the "secondly" that has to follow each "firstly". As it is often the case, the film's highly developed sense of the weird has its price in a script (by Sjon Sigurdsson) whose plotting is just all over the place. Not much of what is happening holds up to even the most cursory logical scrutiny, some of it is even just plain stupid. To go for the most obvious example for the latter case - why do the cannibal whalers (who are supposed to have been doing their thing for quite some time now) attack a tourist group this large in a way that just has to lead to some of them escaping and making trouble later on? There's really no reason I (or the script) could think of. You'd also think professional cannibals like this would secure their boat when they have victims running around their home so that their victims will at least not be able to escape. And don't get me started about the times when the film decides to be just plain stupid and jokily throws in a random orca attack just for the hell of it where it really doesn't belong.

Another problem on the scripting side is a sub-plot about a Japanese tourist (Nae, last seen by me in Takashi Miike's MPD Psycho TV adaptation) who just might be even more dangerous than the Icelandic cannibals, but whose part in the proceedings is in desperate need of a bit of exposition or cutting. She's probably supposed to represent a contrasting evil to the evil of the cannibals, but that whole aspect of the movie is too underdeveloped for me to be sure.

All of the film's other character's are (keeping within the traditions of its sub-genre) quite underdeveloped too, with so little background to them the audience isn't even made privy of most of their names. Quite often, however, RWWM does something clever with this dearth of information, using it to let its characters act in ways unexpected for their assumed character types without looking like it's lying to its audience about them for cheap effect. This causes a certain unpredictability that I quite liked about the movie, as if not defining the characters clearly had created the possibility to not completely shackle them to the expected horror film stereotypes, leaving us with a film where the expected final girl isn't really the final girl (or at least only in a very roundabout way) and where the most competent and sane character is a gay black man (played by Terence Anderson); the latter of course even decades after Romero did the groundwork nearly unseen in our genre.

For me, a lot of clever, (possibly) subversive bits and a big old heaping of The Weird are enough to clearly put Kemp's Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre into the camp of imperfect films well worth watching. If plot logic and coherence is more important to you than it is to me, you just might disagree there.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: SEE!...The nightmares that fill the world of the psycho!

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): Charles Crichton’s very funny and fast comedy featuring Alec Guiness and Stanley Holloway is pretty typical of what I’ve seen of the comedic side of the output of British Ealing Studios, in that it is made with an off-handed classiness, still funny quite a few decades later, and not completely lacking in the subversiveness stakes (even though the films’ criminals always have to end up in the arms of the law). I’m pretty sure it is also the sort of thing that had young British filmmakers in the 60s raging as the French new wave raged against most of their elders. With distance, this sort of thing does become rather irrelevant, which leaves the viewer of today with more great films to watch.

Biest (2014): This is fine, relatively short Austrian horror movie recommends itself with some moody landscape photography, good acting by Paul Hassler and Stephanie Lexer even in those parts of the film that have nothing whatsoever to do with monsters, and expert pacing. Fine, small monster movies aren’t at all the kind of film you’d expect coming from any German language country nowadays, but director Stefan Müller does deliver enough traditional genre goods here, you might very well believe there still is an actual tradition for genre movies around the German speaking parts. In a somewhat disappointing move, the film goes with the old “monster fighting heals all relationship troubles” trope, but this is a pleasantly unassuming movie so not being terribly original might be seen as part of its considerable charm.

Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005): For my taste, director Mary Lambert never truly got her dues, so eventually her way lead her to directing TV movies and stuff like this direct to DVD sequel in name only (fortunately) to the Urban Legends franchise that often looks and feels like a cable TV movie too. It’s not a bad film, mind you. The script, co-written by Michael “Trick’R’Treat” Dougherty and his frequent writing partner Dan Harris, flows well enough and features some details that make it slightly less generic than your typical supernatural slasher, the kills suffer from pretty lame CGI but are conceptually fun, Kate Mara (in the mandatory horror role any actress has to have before hitting the big time, or the minor time for that matter) makes for a likeable heroine, and Lambert clearly doesn’t believe in filler.

The film probably won’t strike anyone as a hidden genre gem but it does provide an entertaining ninety minutes, which, given what it is, is more than you’d expect of it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Late teen Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and her best friend - who’d rather like to be more than that - Alex (Dylan Minnette) try to escape the poverty of their Detroit surroundings via burglary jobs. Money’s the stupid asshole one who’ll become a proper professional criminal one day, Rocky the most desperate to get money to be able to flee her terrible home life together with her little sister, and Alex is the thoughtful one more in it for Rocky than the money.

Their next heist just might give them the break that’ll provide Rocky and Money with enough money to leave town - rather to the shock of Alex who is clearly still hoping that Rocky will drop Money and notice and reciprocate his own feelings for her. Their mark is the house of a blind war veteran living in a dilapidated house in an otherwise uninhabited street. Supposedly, he has quite a lot of money stashed away there with him. In fact it will turn out it’s even more money than the trio could ever have expected.

However, the Blind Man (Stephen Lang) is also rather more dangerous than anyone would have expected. Making the situation more dangerous for everyone involved is the little fact the he’s not just richer, but also a much worse guy than any of the teen thieves could have imagined, harbouring a terrible secret locked up in his cellar, a secret he’s all too willing to kill to protect. And despite being blind, he’s more than capable when it comes to violence. Thanks to the specific type of security his secret needs, the Blind Man’s house will be rather more difficult to break out of than it was to break into.

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is pretty much a perfect thriller. Its set up is simple, its plot escalates beautifully, regularly snatching victory out of the characters’ hands in the worst possible way but without ever feeling too predictable in the ways it does it. Even though the character constellation sounds rather typical for this sort of affair, Alvarez makes the teen burglars (well, perhaps not Money), characters who could have been insufferable in lesser hands, three-dimensional and easy to root for without pretending they are better than they actually are, all the better for the audience to sympathize with the gauntlet of horrors they go through. At the same time, the piece’s villain does have an actual motivation, just one that drives him to deeply twisted acts compared to which a burglary truly is nothing of moral import. You get where he’s coming from, and loathe where he’s going with it.

Alvarez handles nearly everything in the film (except for some too on the nose metaphorical business about a lady bug, but that’s about a minute of film) with the same thought and care, turning even his cruder ideas effectively horrifying by not treating any of them as sleazy gimmicks, timing the sort of fake-outs that make many a thriller look too constructed and built for effect (which they of course are – a viewer shouldn’t notice that though) so well they feel incredibly exciting. The camera work goes from gliding to jittery to claustrophobic at the drop of a hat, further strengthening the intensity of the whole affair.

Additionally, the film’s final third becomes remarkably horrific not through blood and gore but because the film treats the basically grotesque truth of what the Blind Man is up to with full seriousness. Alvarez is here certainly helped selling it all through the strong performances of Levy and Lang.

It’s truly a perfect little film, one that literally (and I mean literally)  had me at the edge of my seat for much of its running time, finally turning that particular cliché into truth.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

In short: Speed (1994)

Hilariously growly voiced cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) are instrumental in thwarting evil-crazy bomber Howard Payne’s (Dennis Hopper) plan of blackmailing the city of Los Angeles into paying him three million dollars lest he blow up an elevator full of people. After said thwarting, Payne is presumed dead, but of course, he’s still alive, and has a new, even more idiotic, plan: he has installed a very special bomb in a bus that’ll activate when the bus’s speed falls below the limit of 50 miles per hour.

Cars will be destroyed, stuff will explode and Jack will find sweet, sweet love (until the sequel, that is) with bus passenger turned inadvertent driver Annie (Sandra Bullock when she still mostly looked like a human being, decades before a frightening, unmoveable botox face won her an Academy Award). Well, and Harry will die, of course.

Occasional director Jan de Bont’s (also known as the man we still curse on each first full moon after Christmas for his abominable remake of The Haunting around here) magnum opus is rather good fun as the big, stupid, silly action movie it is. Sure, Payne’s plan is idiotic, the laws of physics don’t apply to anything happening in it, Dennis Hopper overacts in a disappointingly joyless manner, and Keanu Reeves is our hero, but there’s also quite a bit to like here.

The script might take place on planet action movie, but you can’t say it doesn’t know how to escalate things excellently, or that the resulting film doesn’t take its title seriously, going from one increasingly absurd stunt to the next with aplomb while actually keeping up the tension throughout. I’d even go so far as to say that the film does have at least some clever ideas, if not intelligent ones: locating it in Los Angeles with its bizarre assortment of Freeways (that still look like science fictional spaces to certain European eyes like mine) is pretty much perfect, and having Payne apparently spy on the characters via cable news live chase coverage is even mildly subversive. The dialogue’s often (one suspects thanks to an uncredited Joss Whedon doing a thorough re-write) funny in a knowingly cheesy way, and in general, the film’s rather good at providing the necessary card board characterisation in a very efficient manner. And how many action movies have you seen where the hero cop’s doomed partner makes it quite this far into the film?

While de Bont’s direction has all the grace and elegance of a sledgehammer, he is very good at the car chases and explosions aspect that makes up ninety nine percent of what’s on screen here, and even though I personally prefer my action directors to have a bit more of an eye for the poetry of violence and carnage, de Bont’s doing just fine here, perhaps for the only time in his side-career as a director.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Star Knight (1985)

Original title: El caballero del dragón

There’s trouble afoot in the realm (consisting of his castle and one measly village, apparently) of the Count of Rue (José Vivó). His main henchperson, the ironically named Klever (Harvey Keitel, apparently having come to medieval times via New York, dubbing himself and therefore thee-ing and thou-ing with a Brooklyn accent that won’t leave a dry eye in the house) is overly ambitious and permanently annoys him with his wish to be knighted as well as with his painful attempts at wooing the count’s daughter, Princess (medieval titles work rather strangely around here it seems) Alba (Maria Lamor). Alba for her part can’t stop going on about wanting to find true romantic love – but please not Klever’s. To make the poor count’s life even more miserable, his priest Lupo (Fernando Rey) and his alchemist (Klaus Kinski as…a nice guy) don’t get along, either. Oh, and his vassals don’t love him either, which might have something to do with him being a bit of a tool and – being a member of the ruling classes – a parasite.

Things become really complicated when an UFO the populace takes for a dragon lands at a place charmingly dubbed “the Mouth of Hell”. Soon, Alba is abducted for a bit by its pilot, one Ix (Miguel Bosé), while she is sneaking out of the castle for a bit of gratuitous skinny dipping, and falls in love with him. Alas, interspecies romances are difficult, particularly since Lupo sees the devil everywhere it’ll get him ahead and Klever would really like to improve his place in life by a bit of dragon slaying.

I have no idea how Fernando Colomo’s deeply peculiar SF comedy came about, or how he managed to cast Kinski, Keitel and Rey, and I’m not too sure about what this thing is actually supposed to be about. exactly. I do know I rather enjoyed my time watching a dubbed PD print – with all the potential for cuts, the heart-breaking full screen image, and the generally mediocre visual quality that comes with this sort of thing - of it.

The film’s comedy is broad but not beholden to slapstick. Instead, is consists of a series of asides against church, state and authority figures that somehow take up most of the running time, some running gags like the regular appearance of a Green Knight who has a hell of time with his inability guarding a bridge or the local peasantry regularly having to dye their single piece of clothing a different colour depending on their count’s mood of the week, and a smidgen of perfectly undramatic yet somehow charming plot.

One really shouldn’t go into this one expecting excitement brought by narrative or storytelling. The joy – and I for one found a lot of joy hidden away here – is all in watching Keitel pretending to be a very stupid would-be knight or Kinski being benign, or just in being held in pleasant anticipation of the peculiar or goofy thing Colomo will come up next. That last bit is a surprising source of funny, silly and pleasing moments of the sort that will keep a slight pleased grin on the face of any viewer as childlike as I like to be when watching a movie.

As a surprising bonus, the production design – particularly Ix’s space ship – isn’t half bad, the castle looks homely enough, and even the bad print can’t hide that the photography is nice to look at too. That’s quite a lot of pleasing and enjoyable nonsense for one’s fifty cents.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In short: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Two months or so before D-Day. Deeply impolitic Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) is given the mission to quickly turn a dozen men convicted to death or decades of hard labour into a small commando unit that will parachute behind enemy lines on the day of the Allied invasion and attack a castle full of high-ranking Wehrmacht officers on R&R. All in exchange for the possibility of a commuted sentence. Reisman’s men (among them characters played by Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Clint Walker) range from the unlucky over the socially maladjusted, to guys who shouldn’t be in any army even at wartime, and the downright homicidally maniacal, so he has his work cut out for him turning them into some kind of team.

Because that and the suicide mission just aren’t enough to fill two and a half hours of movie, Reisman also has to cope with the obstructionism of the excellently named Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan).

Given how many Italian, Japanese, and other movies I’ve seen that operate on this film’s basic plot - though they are usually an hour shorter and more focussed on the climactic mission - it’s a bit of a surprise I have only now come around to watching Robert Aldrich’s original “men of dubious moral fibre on a suicide mission” film. Well, it does make a degree of sense to keep something good for last.

And say what you want about The Dirty Dozen, it’s impossible not to at least call it a good film. I’d even go with excellent, but then I have a weakness for quite this well-developed machismo.
The cast is of course brilliant, and they turn what could be a bunch of boring clichés into a lively crew of misfits whose interactions are generally a joy to watch, even in the handful of moments when the film goes off for a bit of unfunny humour (of a sort that is certainly not improved by the score just barely avoiding slide whistles after each joke). These are the only moments in the film that do feel like filler, otherwise this two and a half hour movie feels much shorter, and rather more personal than epic.

Among the film’s other pleasures are a deep disregard for authority and generals not played by Ernest Borgnine, a cynical view on war as well the self-consciousness to know that the mission the audience wants their heroes to fulfil is indeed brutal and rather horrible. Aldrich does manage to make us root for the characters without pretending the things they heroically do are in itself heroic or all of them are particularly nice people.

Which is pretty much the holy grail of action movies and films about cool violence, a having its cake and eating it too that shouldn’t work at all but does so rather brilliantly. It’s a film that tells a war adventure story without wanting to lie too much about what a war adventure actually entails.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The archaeologist father (John Van Pelt) of a gal named Betty Marsh (Mary Russell) has disappeared on an expedition to find a lost Indian city in the American South West. Just when Betty and a few friends of her father's - all Professors of something or other, it seems - are beginning to set out on a search expedition for him, Professor Marsh's partner in archaeology stumbles in and gasps something about having located and hidden (read: stolen from the native people it belongs to) a gold treasure guarded by "the whistling skull", and him and Marsh having been captured by a "cult of Indians". Before the man can get into more details, somebody extinguishes the lights in the windowless room all this has taken place in and knifes him in the back with a sacrificial dagger. Looks like not everyone in the room is a friend of Professor Marsh. But hey, at least the dead guy was carrying a coded map to the good Professor's place of captivity.

Betty isn't too impressed by one little murder and decides to go through with her search expedition anyway. She also has found some steadfast friends to help her through any physical troubles, three upright - or as upright as a group of people that includes a guy traveling with a ventriloquist doll can be - cowboys known as the Three Mesquiteers (Robert Livingston, Ray Corrigan, Max Terhune). Now, there's only the knifing traitor among the expedition and the small problem of the evil cult to deal with.

I'm not too experienced with the B-westerns of the 30s, so you'll have to find someone else to put the brilliantly titled Riders of the Whistling Skull into the broader context of its genre at the time, or explain to you who the hell the Three Mesquiteers were besides the heroes of a series of (popular, it seems) Republic western movies, or why one of them is moonlighting as a ventriloquist. What I am experienced with are genre mash-ups that try to make up for their low budgets by enthusiastically throwing elements of different genres (here: Western, adventure and weird menace) together to give an audience in search for cheap thrills - usually the best sort - their money's worth. After all, I have seen my share of lucha movies. Fortunately, Riders is exactly a genre mash-up of the sort that Mexican popular cinema would roll with a few decades later. If they'd replaced the three cowboys with Mil Mascaras wearing an astonishing assortment of eye-gouging fashion, this could be part of any of my favourite series of lucha films.

As the lucha movies I'll just imagine it has inspired, Riders suffers from some typical b-movie problems. The unthinking racism of the culture of its time in the portrayal of the Indians is quite annoying (all Indians are evil, "half-bloods" even more so, etc.), and just applying a little thought will also let one realize that the heroes of the piece are morally in the wrong, stealing other people's gold treasures and all. I can't take this sort of thing too seriously in a film like Riders that isn't really arguing for racism as much as unthinkingly reproducing the morals of its time, though, and so have no problems just letting these evils slide, which is probably one of the luxuries of not being a Native American myself.

Furthermore, the acting - especially of the minor characters - is rather stiff, with some of the assorted Professors being the worst offenders. To my complete surprise, none of said Professors is used for comic relief; Riders has other characters to do this dirty work, and they are as unfunny as every comic relief character in the history of cinema, ever. On the positive side, the film is so short - with a running time of just 53 minutes - that its comical interludes are never longer than thirty seconds in a row. The "comedy" is still causing quite a lot of pain.

However, that's all the negative aspects I can find in the movie. Everything else is golden, at least if one is willing and able to make one's peace with the clichés and traditions of popular cinema of a bygone era. If you are at least willing to try - I obviously do - you might find in Riders of the Whistling Skull a film that is trying its darndest to make liking it easy for you.
The film's sprightly pace makes it easy to overlook its not always logical plotting. There is hardly a minute going by in which nothing with entertainment value is happening, be it shoot-outs, energetic bouts of fisticuffs or the sort of "weird ritual" you can stage on a five dollar budget. I'm quite fond of director Mack V. Wright's use of some fine dusty canyons, mountains and hills. The landscape is well enough photographed to make a cheap movie look that much more impressive. Sure, these locations might be for minor westerns of the 30s what Bronson Canyon is for cheap horror films of the 50s, but I haven't seen enough of the former to have much of a problem with that.

Cheap and fast entertainment is what Riders of the Whistling Skull promises, and cheap and fast thrills is what the viewer gets. Honestly, what more could one ask of a film like it?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Cruel, devious, pure as venom. All hell's broken loose.

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain aka Amélie (2001): Keeping up a sense of romantic whimsy for nearly two hours of running time without either falling into the pits of treacly hypocritical mock naivety or just knocking it all over with a cynical snarl at the end is a difficult proposition, but Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film makes it look so easy. He’s got the perfect foil for his project in his lead Audrey Tautou who inhabits her slightly skewed world with so much charm it is astonishing the whole thing doesn’t become sheer kitsch; but there are layers (not to confuse with hundreds of sight gags, which are also in it) to the film, its script and her performance that make kitsch impossible, accepting the existence of darker tides while rejecting them. From there stems actual sympathy for the sad, the slightly lonely and the mildly strange characters that dominate a film that never gives up on its hard-won romanticism in the moments when darker realities are obvious.

Incarnate (2016): While it’s certainly not the most exciting horror movie around, at least director Brad Peyton’s film does have more ideas of its own than your typical possession movie – or rather, ideas it borrowed from Dreamscape, Inception and so on. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do terribly much with the idea of having its exorcising protagonist entering the dreams of the possessed, mostly avoiding surrealism and only going for a very mild bit of mindfuckery late in the game. I’m not sure if the budget or a lack of imagination were the problem there, though the presence of Aaron Eckhart and Carice van Houten among the cast suggests this had decent resources. It’s certainly entertaining enough for what it is, but with a bit more ambition (and perhaps an ending that doesn’t ignore all the rules the film has set up before) the film might have been rather more than that.

Havenhurst (2016): I keep things underwhelming with this thriller by Andrew C. Erin. It looks fine, it’s certainly done with a degree of competence, it features a solid lead performance by Julie Benz, yet the plot is obvious, the ideas in it used a thousand times before, often in better films. For a thriller, there’s just too little tension, and while the film does attempt to pair its more outré horrors with themes like child abuse, drug abuse and alcohol abuse, it doesn’t have anything to say about any of them that does read like actual insight, turning them into plot devices. And plot devices, are just not terrible interesting by themselves.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

In short: Split Second (1992)

I don’t know how a film about a hilariously overacting Rutger Hauer chasing a serial killer who is actually a monster through a half-flooded London in the far flung future of 2008 can get quite this boring, but there you have it.

Well, actually, I have a rather good idea how Split Second manages to get quite this boring. Just show none of the monster attacks in a misguided attempt at creating suspense through the power of loud heartbeat noises on the soundtrack and music that’s perpetually swelling for little reason at all. Hire a bunch of actors who either – understandably so – hate the script so much and – deplorably so - have so little professional dignity they just flat out refuse to actually act or drug them with valium before the shoot.

Pretend what an audience really wants from a film about Rutger Hauer hunting a Predator-style (or maybe its supposed to be Alien) monster is to witness lots and lots of scenes of people getting in and out of cars, walking in and out of a police station, strolling through corridors (and then some more corridors) and from time to time talking to each other in the sort of zingers a writer will come up with when a producer runs into his home brandishing a gun and shouts “Joke! Now!” at him.

Because that’s still not good (well, bad) enough, add murky photography, and an embarrassing amount of pointless borrowing from movies that aren’t a horrible pain to watch to the rancid stew of bad filmmaking.

What you have now is Tony Maylam’s Split Second, the perfect antidote for insomnia.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Mythica: A Quest for Heroes (2014) & Mythica: The Darkspore (2015)

Somewhere in your typical post-D&D secondary world fantasy land. Slave girl Marek (Melanie Stone) has a bad leg, a penchant for magic and a good heart as well as big dreams of freedom and adventure. Soon, she finds herself heading for the nearest adventurers’ tavern, and involves herself in a mission to rescue the priestess sister of priestess Teela (Nicola Posener) and a magic stone from a group of orcs (and the ogre Teela rather not wants to mention). Despite bad pay and a total lack of experience by anyone involved Marek manages to rope in warrior Thane (Adam Johnson) and thief Dagen (Jake Stormoen) and suddenly, she’s the head of your classical travelling adventurer party. However, Marek can’t expect the typical boring life of an adventurer, for something darker than normal magic dwells inside her, which just happens to neatly fit into the reason for the kidnapping of Teela’s sister and what follows.

Microbudget fantasy epics – the Mythica series has just gone into a fifth and apparently final part – are a dangerous proposition, and if you’re a cynic, it’s easy to fall into the “filmed LARP session” route when talking about them. I certainly have done that once or twice. It’s not a fair approach to these films, though, especially not to these two films directed by Anne K. Black, for while they certainly are straining against their miniscule budgets (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people involved indeed had LARP and table top RPG experience, but so have I), they are just as clearly created with a degree of enthusiasm and love that in this case does project very well onto the viewer.

Sure, some viewers just might find at least some of the enthusiasm misguided, seeing as it translates into a film whose idea of fantasy is based on concepts from Dungeons & Dragons, and 80s Big Fat Fantasy novels and therefore full of clichés the regular fantasy reader has encountered a million times before. I find myself happy to encounter these clichés, for there aren’t really all that many films that contain them, and even fewer presenting them with as much conviction as Black’s do, eschewing irony and distance for earnestness paired with the sense of fun of films playing in their makers’ favourite sandbox. From time to time, that earnestness leads to some rather too stiff dialogue (especially Teela’s priestesshood doth verily sound pompous) but it never gets so much to ruin the films even a little, if a viewer is willing to just roll with them.

The second film isn’t quite successful at incorporating a bit more humour but we’re not talking Odious Comic Relief characters or anything else too horrific here.

In fact, the scripts are among the films’ advantages, seeing as they merrily skip around filler, use exposition only as much as strictly necessary (to be delivered by five minute per film guest star Kevin Sorbo), and actually do know how to find the middle ground between episodic questing and an actual plot. Why, the films even manage to have satisfying plots of their own while still driving the main narrative of the series forward.

Black’s direction is fine low budget work, filming around the budgetary problems without seeming to cut any corners unnecessarily, using some fine outside locations to best advantage and keeping things flowing quite wonderfully. Most of the action scenes – be they between people and people in orc costumes or people and CGI – are handled very well too. The special effects are generally fine too, with a few weaker moments, of course, but they generally work, unless you’re one of those people who believe a low budget film’s effects need to look as impressive as those of films whose effects budgets alone are tens of times as high as the total budget of the smaller film, and can’t just enjoy good work for what it is. The same goes for the production design, really.

The acting is generally much better than expected, with little of the stilted acting that mars quite a few genre films made on very little money. Like with everything else in these two films, everyone involved just seems to go out of his or her way to do their best, which pays off really well. Lead Melanie Stone, for her part, I can’t help but describe as awesome, effortlessly selling Marek as likeable and capable heroine with oversized problems, and looking good in a cloak.

Both films are just great fun as straightforward fantasy adventures, and there are not too many films around you can say that about.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

In short: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Some time in the late Victorian or early Edwardian age. In theory, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is a member of the illustrious noble D’Ascoyne family (all of them independent of gender and age to be played by Alec Guiness), eight people away from a dukedom. Unfortunately, he is the product of a (shudder) marriage of love, his blue-blooded mother having married an Italian opera singer and consequently having found herself struck from the family books. Dear mother never really let Louis forget his oh so noble heritage, and the British class system certainly doesn’t help a boy of meagre means to feel valued. So when she dies and the family even refuses her last wish to be interred in the family crypt, Louis decides to take vengeance by somehow killing every single family member, who just happen to also stand in the way of his becoming a duke.

As it turns out, Louis has quite the knack for this sort of thing.

The very, very black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the most beloved films of the UK’s posh Ealing Studios most beloved films, and even from a position of not being British and nearly 70 years later, it’s not difficult at all to see why. This is one of those perfectly acted, perfectly scripted, perfectly paced films with perfect production design and perfect direction (by Robert Hamer) of the style that is never so crass as to ever hint at its own existence. In other words, its a bit of chore to actually write the film up because “everything’s perfect” might be a big compliment for a film (and one that happens to be a rather good description of Kind Hearts and Coronets), but it’s not really the sort of thing you want to read a blog post for.

Fortunately, the British class system is coming to the rescue here, for, while the film isn’t out to call anyone to revolution and really hedges its bets a bit by placing its plot in the past, its comedy can very easily be read as a deeply acerbic commentary on a society that poisons every human interaction with the concept of class, wasting talent, minds and lives while an absurd class of inbreds who never need show any merits as actual human beings lords it over everyone else. As the film presents it, it’s the kind of world where Louis’s patient campaign of murder seems perfectly logical and reasonable, even if it is in actuality just a different expression of the values demonstrated by the the world around it. The basic tenets of society being utterly absurd, it lends itself wonderfully to comedy.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Swamp of the Ravens (1974)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

By day, scientist Dr. Frosta (Ramiro Oliveros) works a boring, mechanical research job under a boss who seems to hate him. In the evenings, Frosta visits a woman named Simone (Marcia Bichette) with whom he has an unhealthy, borderline abusive relationship ever since he stole her away from her American lounge singer boyfriend Richard by staring at her very hard. At night, he works in his hidden lab hut in the swamps on experiments meant to explore the boundaries between life and death - sometimes even successfully, going by the abused biological robot working as his assistant. For his work, Frosta needs bodies that have been dead for less than eight minutes, so the only reasonable way for an upstanding mad scientist to get his research material is to decimate the local population of pan-flute playing homeless lepers. The scientist also steals drugs he needs for the experiments from his day job.

Alas, many of the good doctor's experiments tend to fail, and now the swamp in front of his house is full of dead people who pop their heads out of the water from time to time. Despite nature's useful garbage can, the Doctor's dead assistant still manages to lose body parts where others can find them from time to time, so that the police is slowly getting wise to the fact that something's not right in their beautiful city.

As if that weren't troubles enough for one mad scientist, Frosta's life is additionally complicated by Simone slowly falling out of whatever it is between them with him and plans on leaving. Things come to a head when Richard returns, now singing sweet songs about dismembering women who are his robots to a manikin that looks quite a bit like Simone. "What could be better for a girl than to run from one maniac to the next?" thinks our heroine, gets back together with Richard and attempts to leave the country with him to escape Frosta's influence (and, I suspect, get murdered by Richard a few weeks later).

But just before the lovers (or whatever they are) can escape by plane, Frosta snatches Simone from the airport, kills her and starts to regularly replace her body's blood with that of prostitutes he is now beginning to slaughter in addition to the homeless so that he can make sweet sweet love to her undead body. Oh dear.

The Swamp of the Ravens is a Spanish Ecuadorian co-production shot in Ecuador, directed by Manuel Cano whom you might remember as the director of the equally bizarre Voodoo Black Exorcist. Unlike that other film - which is known to contain neither voodoo nor an exorcist - Swamp does in fact feature the things its title promises, namely a swamp full of ravens. Said swamp is the film's secret weapon. Whenever the plot gets too confused, or a murder scene has to be omitted for lack of funds for special effects, Cano just points his camera at the swamp, lets the birds loose and is instantly rewarded with scenes oozing a perfectly repugnant atmosphere.

The swamp here, you see, isn't just any old swamp, it is the Platonic Ideal of a horror movie swamp, looking so naturally bizarre/bizarrely natural that the whole film could consist only of shots of it without anything happening at all and I'd still love Swamp the movie for showing me swamp the (un)natural wonder.

Fortunately, there's no need to be negative about the rest of Cano's film at all. If the swamp's not enough for you (and what in Cthulhu's name is wrong with you?), the film follows the dear European horror tradition of throwing more weird stuff at its audience in a single minute than less enlightened films do in their whole running time. Whatever of the bizarre, creepy and tasteless one's heart might desire, Caño does everything in his power to provide. The unhealthy love triangle between Frosta, Simone and Richard, hell, even the necrophiliac sex scene set to improbable easy listening on the soundtrack, is really just the tip of the iceberg. Further joys can be found in everything, be it the sweaty sleazy chief of police ("Sheriff" the dub says) and his powers of teleporting out of a room by looking at a ceiling ventilator, or the mad science rants Frosta so dearly loves. Swamp is chock-full of peculiar details that make no logical, linear sense (as it is with the plot), but work together to give the film its macabre and off-beat charm.

Hidden among the merely insane mad science stuff are moments of surprisingly effective horror that show Caño to be very adept at turning his weird sensibilities towards the truly creepy. The scenes of the unsmiling, unblinking heads of Frosta's victims, their bodies hidden away in the swamp, staring out over the water's surface at Frosta without attacking are singularly disquieting.

Equally disquieting, if less delightful, is the inclusion of what looks like a real autopsy as the backdrop for a dialogue scene. As such things go, the scene is quite coyly filmed, and not as disgusting as the animal torture in Italian cannibal movies (the guy's already dead, after all), but it is one of these moments that might understandably be a bit too much for a viewer's tastes or morals. I'd love to assume Caño's trying to take a stand for the taboo breaking aspects of horror film here, pushing boundaries, etc and so forth, but the truth of the matter is probably that he could pay off a guy working in a morgue with less money than the special effects would have cost him.

Still, the siren song of the swamps - and basically every other element of the movie - makes it impossible for me not to love The Swamp of the Ravens as the sleazy, weird, cheap and dubiously filmed concoction it is.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

In short: The Way of the Gun (2000)

Two intellectually stunted small time criminals (Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillippe) accidentally overhear a telephone call that suggests to them – not beholden to The Way of the Brain(s) – a brilliant plan: kidnap the surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) of some rich guy’s (whose name they don’t even know nor attempt to find out) baby during the latest stage of her pregnancy and blackmail said rich guy into paying them a fortune. Turns out things go wrong in any which way they can, for the mysterious rich guy (Scott Wilson) is indeed highly involved in organized crime, so our idiot protagonists soon have problems with the surrogate mother’s surviving bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) and rich guy’s chief bagman Joe “The director named me after the master of psychological softcore movies for no discernible reason” Sarno (James Caan).

And to drag a simple plot out into a two hour movie, every single damn character involved (plus a few I haven’t even mentioned) has his or her own private agenda, too, leading to the usual twists and turns.

Which to me is the core problem of Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun: the way the film is set up, every single character on screen needs to function as a plot device, too, so most of them don’t act like people grasping for the things they want but rather like walking talking clichés who do what they do to complicate the plot. In theory, most of the characters do have motivations for what they do, but for some reason (might be the titular way of the gun, or a self-destructive attempt at making every twist a surprise, even though there’s little surprising for anyone vaguely savvy concerning films about guys with guns), McQuarrie decides to present most of them as ciphers and clichés, never actually letting them express any of the emotions or thoughts that are supposedly driving them. This leads to a film full of characters about whose bloody deaths one can’t bring oneself to care even the tiniest bit, not because they are very bad people (which they surely are), but because nobody would ever confuse these two-dimensional beings with people at all.

Adding insult to injury, the film actually features a cast of fine actors (well, and Ryan Phillippe, but what can you do?). Alas, it is a cast of fine actors who aren’t allowed to do more than just go through the motions in service of the over-plotted abomination of a script they’re trapped in.

Visually, McQuarrie’s film is rather on the beautiful side, slick and bloody and pretty and technically accomplished – and just as empty and meaningless as its script. There’s just nothing there not in a nihilistic sense, mind you, but following the Way of the Undernourished Script.