Saturday, September 30, 2017

Films Make A Post: When the kidding stops...the killing starts!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014): The second and fortunately last of the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films – again directed by Marc Webb – doubles down on most of the flaws of the first film. So there’s a screenplay made out of many bits and pieces that very often go nowhere and bloat the film to a run-time of nearly two and a half hours for no good reason whatsoever, character motivations that egregiously follow the needs of the script, surprisingly mediocre special effects for a film of this type and budget, so many nagging details that either just don’t work or don’t work in the places where the film puts them, too many villains for the thin script or Webb’s personality-deprived direction to handle, and so on and so forth, until the whole thing turns into a confused slog.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014): Doug Liman’s adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s brilliantly titled “All You Need Is Kill” is good enough to satisfy even the needs of a Tom Cruise hater like me. It does help that the old placenta eater is teamed up with the generally and specifically lovely Emily Blunt, as well as that the film early on uses Cruise’s slimy image for its own needs for a bit. Liman also gets a decent performance out of Cruise, even managing to put a lid on the actor’s often distracting vanity (cinematically useless heroic poses usually being to Cruise what vaseline on the camera lens was to aging Joan Crawford).

The script uses the good old time loop (not invented by Groundhog Day, by the way, as much as I like all parts of that film not Andie McDowell) structure for a fun, fast, in the early proceedings darkly funny military SF adventure of highest entertainment value. The old SF reader in me wants to decry the lack of actual substance, and my politics the film’s inability to even think of any way to solve problems but violence. However, that’s really asking of what at its core is a clever and fun adventure movie with CGI monsters to be something it isn’t trying to do while ignoring it is rather brilliant at what it does do.

Atomica (2017): Dagen Merrill’s – nominally SF – thriller is certainly well meant: it is pleasantly serious in tone, obviously believes in character as the basis for plot and clearly tries very hard. Unfortunately, it’s just not very effective at being a thriller. There are few actual surprises, and while the writing certainly is serious and character-based, it is also just not very interesting and never becomes gripping or exciting in any way, shape, or form. Visually, the film suffers from pretty bland warehouse-style sets, and direction that never chooses anything but the most obvious way to shoot any given scene. It’s certainly not a bad film, but I find it hard to find much more than theoretical praise for it either.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos (1971? 1973?)

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.

A horrible monstrosity that looks a lot like a bunch of people crawling around under a tarp or inside of garbage bags kills important leaders of Mexico's industry. It's so very very sad. The tarpster serves a certain Malkosh (Carlos Agosti) who uses his awesome ability to appear on a television in police chief O'Connor's (Marco Antonio Campos) meeting room to try and blackmail Mexico into paying him a lot of money, or else, more "important" people will die.

Fortunately, the police has a not-so-secret weapon: El Santo (El Santo!), the idol of the masses, greatest man on Earth, Blue Demon's secret nemesis (etc.) is on the case before you can even cry out in excitement. One might doubt the great man's technique - getting himself overrun by Malkosh's car after he has already gotten rid of the bad guy's henchmen, and then caught - but his results are great.

So, after winning a little gladiatorial bout against a Roman-style guy with small shield and short sword, then another Roman-style guy with trident and net, and then a not terribly Roman-style guy with a flame thrower, our hero guns down Malkosh and his men with a machine gun. Malkosh's a good loser and informs Santo, while dying very politely, of the origin of the monster. Basically, moon cooties. Malkosh also tells Santo that his former henchman Licur (Juan Gallardo) is planning to use the moon cootie monster to rule the world. I imagine Licur's plan looking something like "1. Control moon cootie monster 2. ???? 3. RULER OF THE WORLD!!!".

Licur seems to need the help of "space scientist" Dr. Bernstein (as played in one of his regular guest appearances by Santo's real-life manager Carlos Suarez) for some parts of that plan, and has already kidnapped him. For some reason, Licur has forgotten to kidnap Bernstein's daughter Karen (Sasha Montenegro) too, but Santo is sure that his new enemy will try to sooner or later, so it's a simple job of protecting the girl, saving the scientist, wrestling Licur and his henchmen into submission and somehow getting rid of the moon cootie monster for our hero.

A meagre plot description like this can hardly do justice to Rubén Galindo's Asesinos De Otros Mundos. Sure, the whole thing might sound goofy, even for a film in a genre about the heroic exploits of masked, evil-smiting wrestlers, but the special beauty of this one lies in its love for loopy details. Galindo has no time for filler scenes (in fact, there isn't even a single one of the obligatory ring fights to bring the film up to length in it), because he has to include not one, but two evil masterminds, one or more (the script doesn't seem to be able to decide how many monsters there actually are - the characters usually speak in singular about it, but if it's only one, it's better at teleporting than a killer in a slasher movie; also, stealth) tarp monsters, and quite a few scenes of Santo heroically running away from said tarp monster(s).

The loopy details Galindo seems to love so well are often of the kind that can only lead to awesome or uncomfortable questions. I mean, why exactly does O'Connor have a replica of Santo's head in a cupboard in his office? Is it like the Bat Signal, but really, really weird? How does Malkosh's TV telephone work? How many monsters are there, exactly? And while I'm asking questions, two gladiators and then a guy with a flame thrower, Malkosh? There's also a lovely moment when Santo realizes that Karen hasn't been kidnapped yet and automatically assumes that Licur will try any moment now; because that's what the daughter of a scientist is for, right?

I have to admit that I'm in love with the randomness of Asesinos's script. Its wild and illogical leaps of imagination may not work as "good writing", but delight my inner child with their sheer comic book/pulp recklessness, and their willingness to just go for badly prepared ideas like the two masterminds business the second of whom is never even hinted at until half of the film is over, or the surprising - to say the least - "Santo turns into the Spider (Master of Men) and shoots everyone" scene. (And yes, I know this is not the only case of Santo using lethal force against an enemy, but he doesn't usually leave behind this many corpses). The only thing that's missing for complete lucha nirvana is a scene with our hero in mask and pyjamas, but he's wearing a very red cape throughout the whole of the film to make up for that lack.

Equally random as the script is Galindo's direction: it's an improbable mixture of the usual point and shoot style of early 70s lucha cinema  and sudden bursts of arty scene framing and camera angles. "Why not pretend it's a film noir for a minute" seems to be Galindo's motto here, and certainly, why not?

I'll probably hardly need to mention it, but the film's already pretty fantastic weirdness is further strengthened by the random jazz soundtrack (supposedly by the excellently named Chucho Zarzosa, but probably a random assemblage of records that were lying around during editing) that jumps from jazz funk, to easy listening, to some awesome atonal stuff, without a single moment where music and action on screen have anything to do with one another.

And then there's the monster. Moon cootie monster is one of those horrible creatures that move so slowly they can only devour their victims when these victims crash their cars, or don't know how to run, or never look around, or dislocate their ankles, but it's also as adorable as three to ten people crawling around under what might be a bunch of garbage bags stitched together can be. I posit that someone who doesn't at least smile when the thing starts crawling around, "threatening" people must be dead inside.

Basically, Asesinos De Otros Mundos is the dream of every twelve year old lucha fan (there are still twelve year old lucha fans, right?), scripted by someone who is writing like a twelve year old himself. In other words, it's lucha perfection, and exactly the sort of film that makes questions of "good" or "bad" absolutely irrelevant. Asesinos De Otros Mundos just is.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

In short: Paterson (2016)

It is difficult to talk about Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson without making it sound like a precious, pretentious and condescending piece of pap, seeing as it concerns itself with the poetry of everyday life and everyday people and the beauty hidden in the quotidian; but that’s mostly because this sort of thing is incredibly difficult to pull off and seems to draw the filmmakers least able to actually do it the most, so there are quite a few terrible films – usually made by the sort of arthouse director who never met an everyday person in his life – sitting around as bad precedents.

Jarmusch, however, pulls this thing off without even looking as if he’s trying. Paterson, mind you, isn’t a “realist” movie, so there’s little in it of the kind of thing that makes one want to kick the world and its collective inhabitants in their stupid heads. Instead, this is a film about the quiet joys of overheard conversations, love that is strong and deep and at least partly based on tolerance instead of being a dramatic kind of love, the small sadnesses and defeats that are just as real as the loud and dramatic ones, and an idea of art that’d find the concept of outsider art deeply confusing because it’s really the insiders making art that stand at a distance to the world as people inhabit it.

Because this is Jarmusch, the film is full of little bits of strangeness - strangeness that in Jarmusch’s view clearly is just as everyday as is driving a bus for the film’s main character – and chance encounters.

Of course, things never really cohere into a plot when the film follows bus driver Paterson (Adam Driver), his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their dog Marvin (Nellie) through a week of their life. It’s not a week in which nothing happens, but it certainly isn’t one dominated by any pressing need to follow a classic dramatic structure. Rather, Jarmusch shows the sort of flow of life that once might have inspired dramatic structures.

The director has by now become highly proficient at this kind of slow exploration of people and places, and where some of his early films had moments where their deliberate slowness felt like the director consciously striking a pose of breaking narrative rules, here (and in quite a few of his other films) the film’s habits and structure are nearly natural expressions of the things it is about. Paterson’s also genuinely funny, but that’s just life if you think about it from a certain angle.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960)

aka Black Cross

Original title: Krzyzacy

The early 15th Century. Poland (or to be more precise what would become the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) still suffers from frequent attacks on supposed pagans as well as trade routes and attempts to grasp the country’s sovereignty by the Teutonic Order (who in real history as well as in the movie were a group unpleasant even by the standards of fighting Christians of the medieval era). Young nobleman Zbysko of Bogdaniec (Mieczylsaw Kalenik) heroically stumbles into the conflict more than he at first chooses to partake in it when he falls in love on first sight with the beautiful (yet frankly completely lacking in any kind of personality) Danusia (Grazyna Stanizewska). Danusia’s main characteristic is being the daughter of one Jurand of Spychow (Andrzej Szalawski). That man never was on anything but violent terms with the Teutonic Order but has become an effective guerrilla fighter and a major thorn in the Germans’ side ever since they horribly – and needlessly – murdered his wife, Danusia’s mother.

Given that state of affairs, it is little wonder that Zbysko soon finds himself fighting the Teutonic Order too, once he elopes to Danusia to be married and has to cope with the usual problems of heroes in this kind of epic: kidnapped fiancés, intrigues, duels, recurring comic relief characters, and so on and so forth. There is, of course, also another woman, his childhood friend Jagienka Zychówna (Urszula Modrzynska), who is rather more interesting to modern eyes than Danusia’s medieval ideal of womanhood; pleasantly enough, the film seems to agree there too, or at least never criticizes her for being opinionated and capable. The plot culminates in 1410s Battle of Grunwald that started the decline of the Teutonic Order and mostly ended them as a threat for Poland and Lithuania.

As far as I understand it, Aleksander Ford’s historical epic based on the highly influential novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz was something of a blockbuster in Poland, and still is a beloved film. It’s not terribly difficult to see why, for even though it does have its share of problems (I’ll get to them later), it carries has an undeniable power and conviction. It also manages the trick of being a large patriotic epic without becoming unpleasant about its patriotism. That’s a difficult balancing act, but one Ford seems perfectly committed to.

Don’t misunderstand me: the Teutonic Order of the film is a group of horrible German people doing horrible things to the Poles and Poland (as historically Germans – I’d rather not phrase this “we Germans” – alas have repeatedly done), and the film does very consciously let the Order and its practices echo Nazi iconography and ideology. However Ford is also more fair-minded than you’d expect, never dehumanizing the enemy but giving even the worst of them scenes that provide them with depth, a degree of humanity and even moments that understand they are not villains in their own minds; which doesn’t make them less horrible, but more human. This thread of the film pays off particularly well very late in the film when a mutilated Jurand forgives the man responsible for his fate, a sequence that is particularly moving because Jurand’s earlier ordeal at the hands of the Order is a cinematically particularly effective sequence where the film takes on the guise of Gothic horror and brings the desperation and cruelty of the moment to life with near-expressionist sets and lighting.

Jurand, the members of the Teutonic Order and Jagienka are certainly the most interesting characters of the cast. In the tradition of many an epic historic movie, the film’s nominal romantic leads are certainly courageous and virtuous but they are also desperately bland, with nothing in their personalities that’d draw a viewer to care about them. The other definite weakness of Knights – and one I’d be surprised to learn not to be caused by an attempt to press as much of Sienkiewicz’s book into not exactly short three hours running time – is the film’s tendency to the episodic, to introduce scenes and characters that aren’t terribly important for mood, theme or character, and to take the scenic root a bit too often. That’s of course a problem the film shares with many a long historical epic – keep in mind you are reading the opinions of a guy who thinks Laurence of Arabia could lose half an hour or so here – and perhaps just something to be expected of this kind of movie.

However, there are so many inventive, moving and captivating scenes in Knights of the Teutonic Order I’m perfectly okay to have to drag myself through some weak ones, too. As a director, Ford is particularly adept at changing his tone and style for the needs of any given scene, so there’s a real heft and even a sense of sadness to the climactic battle scene, that gothic horror whiff to Jurand’s ordeal, a clean simplicity to the more peaceful moments, and generally the impression of a director who manages to shoot no two scenes in exactly the same way yet still manages to create a film that is an artistic whole.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

In short: Temple (2017)

When it comes to horror sub-genres with dubious returns for the viewer, the old “stupid Americans get themselves killed by visiting the wrong foreign place?” does present a particularly pathetic picture.

Directed by Michael Barrett, and written by Simon Barrett who has written some really good stuff (The Guest comes to mind) in the past, yet is also responsible for some very much less good stuff (Blair Witch and some of the worst segments of the VHS movies), this one finds three young pretty things going to Japan. They are The Girl (Natalia Warner), The Asshole Boyfriend (Brandon Sklenar), and The Girl’s Male Best Friend (Logan Huffman). The last one does of course have a vague history of mental illness that doesn’t at all point to a particularly useless twist ending (no, sir!) and a giant crush on The Girl she somehow manages not just to ignore but not to notice. They are not on vacation but doing some vague stuff concerning Japanese temples having to do with The Girl’s folkloric studies; why someone who doesn’t speak Japanese is doing her work on Japanese themes, we don’t know, or if we are involved here behind the camera, we don’t care about. In one immense twist on the formula, at least Male Best Friend does know the language of the country the idiots are visiting.

Of course, the three fools sooner or later stumble upon the trace of a creepy temple in the country (I’ll spare us all the would-be creepy back and forth to find out about it), a temple, I might add, the next people Male Best Friend encounters in Tokyo just happen to know all about to warn our heroes off. Of course, they still go and encounter some surprisingly lame Japanese ghosties (of course including a creepy little boy) as well as the least fox spirit like fox spirit you can imagine, and go through various personal troubles. Things end on a particularly stupid twist ending that makes no fucking sense at all when seen in connection with the film that came before it.

The sad thing about Temple is that it should have a lot going for it. Unlike many of these tourist horror things, the film was actually co-produced by a Japanese company and shot in Japan, and includes actual Japanese actors speaking actual Japanese. Why, even the effects are made in Japan, so there is at least a degree of authenticity concerning things Japanese. Unfortunately, the Barretts squander the inherent possibilities of their set-up with a generic story about generic people told in a generic way ending in a muddled series of twists that lack any logical coherence. It’s not just that that the film’s final act makes no sense, I can’t even parse what sense the filmmakers are trying to do.

You’d think the filmmakers would at least have the chutzpah to steal from the better Japanese horror films for their shocks, but they can’t even get around to creating a decent creepy little boy (he doesn’t even make cat noises or crawls under anyone’s blanket), while the fox spirit is just a generic CGI monster. There’s just nothing in Temple that could keep anyone’s interest up. Well, at least it’s short.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Creepy (2016)

Original title: クリーピー 偽りの隣人

Warning: there will be copious spoilers!

Some time ago, Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) was one of the few Japanese police investigators well versed in American profiling techniques. After an incident that resulted in the death of several people and grievous injury to himself, Koichi retired from the force, and now works as a university lecturer on criminal psychology. His wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi) and he have just moved into a new house in easier reach for his new job. And, one suspects, also to draw a hard line between the past and the present. The marriage certainly isn’t in the best state, either, both partners performing the roles of a loving couple more than actually living them.

Soon, though, Koichi finds himself falling back into old habits he promised Yasuko to change, poking around a cold case involving the disappearance of three members of a single family who left behind their daughter Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi). Saki’s vague statements concerning the case never made much sense to anyone involved in the investigation, and when a former colleague and friend of Koichi hears of his interest in the case, he asks him to interview the now nearly grown up girl. What he hears from her suggests a very particular and strange kind of serial killer.

At the same time, Yasuko has repeated and increasingly disturbing encounters with one of their neighbours, Mr. Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa). Something is very off about that man as well as his family, and he seems to develop some kind of hold over her.

Of all the directors who came to a degree of international fame during the great J-horror boom, Creepy’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been the one whose films have been the most consistent in quality; by now, I don’t believe Kurosawa is actually able to make a bad or even just a mediocre movie. Among the themes creeping up again and again in the director’s films, alienation is one of the strongest and clearly of great importance to him. In the case of Creepy, Kurosawa concerns himself with the quiet alienation between members of a family, with people who are nominally close going through the motions of personal relations, never even getting up the energy to shout much about their problems – that would, after all, be emotional, and the characters in the film are mostly involved in shutting out their emotions for another until only the outer veneer of them exists.

It’s this gap between what they actually feel and try not to feel, and what they express the film’s serial killer thrives on, dominating family members and playing them against one another by providing them with the opportunity to violently express all the things they leave unsaid as well as with drugs that makes it so much easier for them to keep the emotions they are afraid of at bay. There’s even more to the character, in the way he uses whom he leaves alive of the families he preys on to construct a fake family of his own; in a fitting bit of irony he certainly doesn’t appreciate, a family that is quite a bit more built on lies then the ones he destroys ever were.

A look at Creepy’s basic plot construction might raise a few eyebrows, for Kurosawa asks you to accept that the serial killer Koichi begins to hunt just happens to be his neighbour now and that said serial killer is – apparently without violence - able to turn a reasonable woman like Yasuko into his drug-addled accomplice over the course of a few days. However, I don’t think Kurosawa is actually interested in making the kind of straightforward thriller where this thing would be a problem, for both these narrative problems (if you want to call them such) – as well as some rather more minor ones later on – fit very well into the film’s meaning: Nishino just happens to be the Takakura’s neighbour because, the film suggests, every family is like them, so he might as well be theirs, and Yasuko falls as quickly as she does because she needs exactly the kind of destruction and/or structure (both things seem closely related in the film; see also Nishino’s house that is at once a building site and a well constructed death trap) the killer provides.

While Creepy is sometimes unwilling to play to the standard rules of the thriller, it still uses many a trope and many a visual concept from the genre. Kurosawa is colliding these with the earnest Japanese domestic drama most beloved by western critics when it comes to the country’s movie output (and one he has worked in as well) explores what happens during and after the collision, quite literally finding the horror beneath the calm bourgeois surface in the wreckage. And Creepy is truly a horror film, too, full of moments of expectant dread when another character steps into Nishino’s house, a place nobody leaves unchanged (and few alive); culminating in various acts of violence that are as haunting as they are not just because of Kurosawa’s unflinching depiction of them, but because of the natures of the perpetrators, and what this means.

The acting is spectacular throughout, with Teruyuki Kagawa’s indeed very creepy performance certainly a stand-out, but also nuanced work by Takeuchi (who easily convinces the viewer of things that should be difficult to swallow) and Nishijima.

It’s all held together by moments of incredible filmmaking. Just watch the way the scene becomes darker and darker, and the rooms closer and closer in Koichi’s interview with Saki Honda, and that’s just one perfectly staged and imagined scene among dozens. Kurosawa is equally adept at the moments of horror and dread as he is at the domestic drama (with echoes of very classic Japanese cinema in the last one, not surprisingly), but more importantly, he easily keeps a film under control that would in lesser hands burst under the pressure of too much meaning, too many genres colliding, and too many improbabilities, and so proves that all these elements do indeed belong together in Creepy.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: This Dogg's got a bone to pick.

Amusement (2008): This sort of slasher by John Simpson is rather irritating. It looks really fantastic, it is slickly directed, and Katheryn Winnick is a fine final girl, but the script (by Jake Wade Wall, apparently otherwise one of the go to guys for pointless remakes) is one of those efforts that tries to be a clever twisty thriller but ignores even the mildest bit of plausibility. Its central killer and abductor (Keir O’Donnell) – apparently going by “The Laugh” – prefers plans ripped from creepypasta which aren’t just absurd and only work when everyone involved is an idiot but could only work in a universe with an interventionist god who has taken quite a shine to the killer, so based on mere chance are they; characters don’t just act like idiots but like idiots following a script dumber than them; there’s a backstory between the killer and his victims that is so underdeveloped your random late 80s slasher has more depth. And so on, and so forth, the people involved clearly believing that there’s no need to put any effort into anything about a horror film or thriller beyond a slick look.

Shojo Tsubaki aka The Camellia Girl (2016): Torico’s adaptation of the Suehiro Maruo manga with Risa Nakamura in the title role is a pretty incredible mix of candy colours, proper kitsch, twisted kitsch, cruelty, feminism, perversion, anti-feminism, star cult critique, pathos and just plain weird shit, and ends with the sort of meta blast that just might make you interpret what you’ve just seen completely differently from what you thought three minutes earlier, or it might confuse you completely; probably – and rightfully so – both. It is pretty mind-blowing, in any case.

Visually, Torico delivers a particularly fine example of classic Weird Japan that uses artificiality in a way like Hausu did in the olden times (and looks great and aesthetically stringent); in sensibility, its use of kitsch and irony without loathing or posturing feels close to Anna Biller’s grand The Love Witch – just with a very Japanese sensibility.

American Friends (1991): Last but not least, this romance (with some comedic elements) about an Oxford don (played by Michael Palin who also co-wrote the script based on the travel diaries of his great-grandfather) who finds love – or really life – through a young American woman (Trini Alvarado) – who very much finds in him what she needs too – doesn’t look or sound like terribly much. Tristram Powell’s direction is a bit conservative at times – though it is neither cheap nor stupid – but the stars here are the acting - with Palin, Alvarado and Connie Booth as Alvarado’s adoptive mother/aunt putting turning out moving performances without histrionics – and a script that understands the past and its people and their respective flaws and mostly treats them with mild irony, a degree of sadness and much love; it looks upon our common humanity and treats these people gently, with the understanding that everyone looks like a fool (or worse) seen from the future (that eternal know-it-all).

Friday, September 22, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Contagion (1987)

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.

Real estate agent Mark (John Doyle) is driving through the Australian bush when he sees a woman being kidnapped by your typical rape-hungry backwoods person. The following rather timid rescue attempt doesn't work out too well for Mark, for the backwoods guy isn't alone. A few minutes later, Mark finds himself stretched over his own car's hood and raped by a guy who dresses up in a mouse mask for the occasion.

Afterwards (we don't get to see the rape in detail), the backwoodsies (that's the technical term, I think) take Mark and the girl to their camp. In a surprising twist of fate, Mark manages to escape after a time and even stumbles into killing one of his tormentors. Next thing he knows, Mark finds himself - still in the bush - breaking down in front of an aggressively blasé woman named Cleo (Nathalie Gaffney). Unimpressed by the backwoods rapist threat he mumbles about, Cleo takes Mark to a mansion where she lives with another girl called Helen (Pamela Hawkesford) and an older guy with an upperclass accent and Hugh Hefner's dress sense (that is, none) called Rupert (Ray Barrett).

Rupert likes to expostulate about the classical 80s yuppie talking points - power and money - and something called the threefold path. Mark seems instantly smitten by the blather and the two girls, so he's quite happy when they invite him to return whenever he likes. Which he will do, once he's fled from the hospital he'll soon enough find himself in after his ordeal.

On his second visit, Rupert invites Mark to become one of them ("ONE OF US! ONE OF US!") - filthy rich, spouting nonsense, and so on. He just has to prove to Rupert he really has "the right stuff" for that role.

It's pretty clear to Mark that you demonstrate your talent for being a rich bastard by killing people, so he first gets rid of one of his real estate colleagues, and then strangles his girlfriend Cheryl (Nicola Bartlett) a bit. Surely, that would impress even Gordon Gecko, and Rupert does in fact accept Mark as one of his own, while Cleo and Helen reward him with sex.

Cheryl's not the sort of person who is dissuaded from a man by a bit of strangulation, however. She decides to find out what the hell happened to Mark. That probably won't end well for her. But honestly, what is happening to Mark? Is he hallucinating? Or has he stumbled onto haunted ground that has infected him with some kind of evil?

There are quite a few things the films of the ozploitation wave of the 70s and 80s have in common with the US local indie productions of the same era - generally (yes, this is a shoe that does not fit every film) both styles of film were done on low, sometimes very low, budgets; they were distinguished by not hiding their specific regionalities but using them (consciously or unconsciously) to give themselves a grounding in the local that could reach nearly documentarian levels; they were often not afraid to be terribly weird - sometimes because their makers didn't actually know how to do "normal", sometimes because their makers were willing to take risks the mainstream would never take, sometimes both; and they were often made by directors who only had a single movie in them, or were the single strange outings by the kind of work-for-hire director you'd never expect to have something weird, or even just interesting in him.

Contagion's Karl Zwicky is one of those latter directors. Before and after this particular films, Zwicky was working on about every Australian TV show ever made (warning: I may be exaggerating here). While Zwicky would also go on to direct an episode of Farscape (as you know one of the notoriously weirdest SF shows ever made), most of his TV work was on the sort of show that does not thrive on creative direction or a talent for the bizarre. Contagion pretty much makes up for that lack of strangeness in its director’s filmography by being as weird an experience as a film made outside of Taiwan can possibly be.

Now, parts of the Internet call the film a supernatural slasher, and it's hard to disagree with that interpretation completely - there are, after all, various murders, and the film's ending suggests that the supernatural agency that was kept ambiguous until then is in fact real. However, calling Contagion a supernatural slasher leaves out a few other genres it's part of, like 80s yuppie satire (rich people are evil, and proud of it, use computers, and love to talk gloating nonsense, don't you know?), classic backwoods horror (even going into the male rape direction most films of that genre - beyond Deliverance - don't dare touch), films about pacts with evil entities, and so on. Most importantly, calling this a supernatural slasher just doesn't at all prepare somebody willing to watch it for the air of utter strangeness it breathes.

Mainly responsible for this air of the bizarre is Zwicky's direction. I don't think the director applies a single camera angle here you'd call straight. When a scene is not dominated by improbable blue light like in a Tsui Hark movie gone mad, it's filmed from below, or with a camera tilted sideways, or Zwicky just applies a judicious amount of peculiar camera movement. It's a style quite unlike anything I'd have expected from a TV guy of this era. It's also a style that could easily step into the trap of being weird for weirdness' sake (not that I'd necessarily have a problem with that), but it fits the tone of the film's script - raving lunacy - perfectly.

In a different movie, the acting - especially John Doyle's wide-eyed mugging - could be seen as unpleasantly broad, in Contagion's case this broadness is needed to not let the actors' work be drowned out by all the things Zwicky's visuals are throwing at the audience, and to strengthen the mood of the unreal. That mood's pretty necessary too, seeing as some of what's going on in the film is in fact not real at all (just don't ask me which parts).

Although the film's general execution has an remarkably artificial feel (that's a compliment, mind you), it stands in marked contrast to the localities it takes place in - there's a fantastic friction between the very real and naturally moody locations it takes place in and the strangeness and absurdity of what happens in these locations.

Contagion shows not a weird slowly seeping into reality as is normal in the horror genre, but the weird having a shouting match with reality until one of them falls down dead.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

In short: Robocop (2014)

Well, for the remake of a much-loved classic, José Padilha’s re-do of Verhoeven’s magnum opus isn’t too horrible. At least it gets the most important basic for any remake of this kind right and doesn’t try to be exactly like the original but newer, and so really needn’t be held up to a direct comparison.

For the first hour or so, I even thought the film’s political and social ideas were rather interesting and actually contemporary, but the final third sees things breaking down more or less completely, with nothing of what’s going on making any sense at all: thematically, the film completely loses its way (or rather, seems to have lost any wish to talk about anything interesting anymore), character-wise nothing anyone but Murphy does has any connection to the things they supposedly want, and instead follows the old rule of “Why? It’s in the script!”. Dramatically, it becomes all very confused and generic. It certainly doesn’t help here that the finale is understandably – this being a big budget Hollywood movie - action-heavy, and action really isn’t the film’s strong suit throughout its running time. The action may be fast and very very loud but it also isn’t terribly interesting or exciting to watch, because it’s – like the production design – so shiny and glossy and slick I found myself more involved in thinking about the number of people who must have been working hard putting in all these digital reflections, and how many cleaning people every public and private building in this world must employ, than in feeling much adrenaline flowing. Which isn’t exactly what you want from a SF action film, particularly not once it has stopped thinking because it is too busy shooting.

The solid first hour – also full of really good big acting by Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson – is absolutely worth watching, but I think watching only that and making up one’s own ending is the best way to go with Robocop.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Zero Effect (1998)

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is your typical eccentric master detective. When he’s not working on a case, he locks himself in his costly home to cower and whimper and write horrifying songs, only communicating with and through his pitiable assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller, but don’t worry, he’s wasn’t that deeply unfunny “Ben Stiller” persona yet when this was made but rather a serviceable actor). Zero’s not exactly a people person, though once he works a case, he’s pretty good at emulating one, approaching the rest of humanity as something he has studied carefully, yet isn’t a true part of.

Zero is hired by a sleazy business tycoon named Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) to get back some mysterious keys and solve a case of blackmail for him. Stark’s not exactly forthcoming with details, but then, as Arlo explains early on, in the end, Zero will find out everything anyway, including the mandatory dark secrets of the past. Why, he might even find out something about himself thanks to the case and ambulance driver Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) who may or may not be involved in the whole affair.

By now, there’s hardly any cop or detective show running on TV that doesn’t feature some kind of eccentric/mentally ill/supernatural/perfectly idiotic detective, so the basic idea of Jake Kasdan’s Zero Effect doesn’t sound terribly fresh anymore from our benighted age. However, the eccentric Great Detective wasn’t actually invented by 00s television desperate to rip off Columbo (nor by Columbo itself). Even leaving that Great Detective aside, there are many more literary detectives – particularly outside the hardboiled genres – who are dysfunctional in various degrees. A serial character needs a gimmick after all. Going by the intelligent and often very inventive way he uses the genre and what comes with it, I’m reasonably sure Kasdan knows about this tradition rather well, so this is not a case of Hollywood using an old trope thinking it to be new.

Zero is a rather extreme case of dysfunctionality, isolated, pathologically afraid of everything and positioning himself as a complete outside observer of the world of humanity as he is. At first, it’s easy to believe the film will mostly play out as a comedy that’s going to use its protagonist’s eccentricity as an easy way to earn its laughs; the film does after all indeed get quite a few very funny scenes out of Zero’s curious habits and the inspired way Pullman portrays him. However, the longer the film goes on, the clearer it becomes how much more ambitious it is, and the simple comedy turns out to also be a rather well constructed mystery, a romance, a meditation about the nature of the figure of the Great Detective and his relations to the figure we know as The Woman, a poignant and somewhat hopeful film about loneliness and isolation and the way isolation caused by outside forces and the kind that come from inside can go hand in hand, and even a film concerned with questions of morality and justice. While this sounds like rather a lot for a single film to take on, Kasdan manages to do all of these questions and themes justice, seemingly with ease always finding the right thematic point to emphasise – as well as the right question to ask – and using every scene’s potential to its fullest. In the intelligence of the film and how easy Kasdan makes it look to apply his own, this is as good as direction gets; I have honestly no idea how this director ended up doing stuff like Bad Teacher for a living later on.

The film isn’t just clever and thoughtful, it is also emotionally satisfying, handling a romance that might feel like a complete cliché in a very convincing and natural manner. There’s also something pleasantly and effectively hopeful in the film’s emotional core, the idea that isolation can and will end, and that, while there’s not necessarily a glorious happy end waiting for the lonely, there’s hope and life even for those who only ever observe. And the best thing about it? It never feels too easy, dishonest, or disrespectful of its characters while doing it.

I’m not going to end this happy rambling about a wonderful film without giving Pullman a special nod. He does, after all, have the difficult job to not just portray a dysfunctional genius and the embodiment of an archetype and turn him into a human being, but also stands at the core of nearly all of the film’s shifts in tone and theme. He does this while making it look as easy as Kasdan does filmmaking.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In short: The Devil’s Candy (2015)

The Hellmans - Metal-loving artist Jesse (Ethan Embry), his waitress – and main bread winner – wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) move into a house that’s a real bargain thanks to two deaths that happened there recently. Supposedly, the deaths that killed the previous owners were an accident followed by a heart attack, but the audience knows that a rather disturbing looking member of that family – we will later learn he is called Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince) - had quite a bit to do with that, egged on by the Latin whispers he hears in his head.

Jesse will soon hear these whispers too and fall into the habit of creating new art in a trance during proper blackouts. Just as concerning is that Ray feels pulled towards his old home and begins to show an interest in Zooey that doesn’t promise anything good.

Like with director/writer Sean Byrne’s earlier movie, the much praised The Loved Ones, I can’t say I connected with The Devil’s Candy. Visually, Byrne is obviously a hell of a director: the film looks beautiful, the editing is exciting, interesting and clear, and he clearly knows how to get good performances out of his actors.

On the level of storytelling and atmosphere, the film just doesn’t work for me at all, though. I’m not very happy with the film’s depiction of the mentally ill (particularly not after the Loved Ones used the same clichés in the same way), something I can much easier ignore in films less obviously well made because directors who can barely keep their actors in the frame really shouldn’t be made responsible for this sort of thing, whereas the more easily talented filmmakers can and should be. That’s not my main trouble with the film, however. For me, it completely breaks down as a narrative in the final act, with a finale that seems rushed, character development that is so ill prepared I had the feeling someone had just cut out twenty to thirty minutes of character work (the whole deal with the devil subplot for Jesse seems to drop in out of nowhere too), and a final ten minutes or so that basically consist of the film shouting in the audience’s face while supposedly shocking stuff happens very loudly. Said “shocking stuff” unfortunately doesn’t shock me because the film didn’t do the preparation work to actually give me a reason to be shocked by it beyond the most basic “mildly non-mainstream loving family threatened by mentally ill man and Satan”!

The film probably aims for something nightmarish in the Italian tradition here, but for me, it just doesn’t work.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Ambulance (1990)

While mullet-crowned comics artist Josh Baker (Eric Roberts) is accosting some poor woman (Janine Turner) on the street  - though I’m pretty sure he thinks he is flirting, an interpretation of his behaviour even a 70s Bollywood hero would raise an eyebrow at – his victim suddenly breaks down into some kind of fit that may or may not be caused by her diabetes. Very quickly, an absurdly old-fashioned ambulance arrives and carts her away. But hey, at least the woman we now know is called Cheryl asks Josh to come visit her and see if she’s alright. When our hero – you better get used to the idea that this is what Josh is – tries to follow through, he can find Cheryl in no hospital in New York. The thought she might have given him a false name to get rid of him obviously never crosses his mind, so off Josh goes to the police.

Alas, eccentric to outright crazy – with the hospital record to prove it – cop Lt. Spencer (James Earl Jones) thinks Josh is a nut – he’s a comics artist after all! Ironically, later on, Spencer will actually turn out to be one of the more competent cops around.

Josh is not easily dissuaded by little problems when he’s hoping to get into the pants of a really hot woman – the film’s finale really suggests that this is his main or perhaps only motivation for all the crap he’s going to pull from now on – so he starts his own investigation. Soon, his potential breakthrough at Marvel is threatened (and that “just because of a girl”, as Stan Lee repeatedly emphasises – I kid you not), as is his life, and his ability to stay out of a mental institution. On the plus side, he makes friends with the only police in New York actively trying to solve crimes (Meghan Gallagher) – who also happens to be a perfect fit for a replacement girlfriend should his main victim not work out – and an elderly reporter (Red Buttons) from the old muckraker school.

As a thriller, Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance certainly is one of the least successful films of the great New Yorker director but as a character-based comedy that just happens to have a thriller plot, it is insanely enjoyable, at least if you can survive a hero who is quite as much of an asshole – and a casual homophobe to boot - as Josh is in any social interaction not involving him trying to “charm” a woman. Then, he’s outright creepy. He’s basically a Hitchcockian everyman protagonist as written by someone who has actually met everymen; fortunately, as Roberts in one of his most entertaining performances plays Josh, his mouthing off to everyone but Stan Lee and the various ways he gets himself into trouble are incredibly fun to watch.

Roberts is ably – and often hilariously – assisted by a whole bunch of character actors chewing scenery while embodying various New Yorker stereotypes, clearly given leeway for improvisation and farting about. Particularly James Earl Jones – just watch the incredible business with the chewing gum in his death scene – and Red Buttons are a joy to watch. But the minor cop characters – like James Dixon as the cop who really doesn’t like to be compared to Jughead – and the heavies all get their little moments here too, so that the first two thirds of the movie are a series of perfect and absurd vignettes made out of New York, Hitchcock and actors letting loose. Each and every character interaction is a perfect storm of actors, fun dialogue, and the somewhat skeezy charm one expects from a film set in New York in this era.

The final act makes little sense: so why exactly has the evil doctor (Eric Braeden for some probably awesome reason doing his mad scientist as if he were channelling a facial-hair deprived Sam Elliott) put his secret lab into a night club? Is there really a big market in the USA for using kidnapped diabetics in illegal human trials? Why don’t they just shoot Josh? I certainly don’t know. On the other hand, I didn’t find myself actually caring about these questions either, for the final act is still full of awesome and bizarre acting, some decent if absurd action sequences, and whatever it is Roberts does here.

If all this still doesn’t sound wonderful enough to you, imaginary reader: how about the fact that Josh is actually working at Marvel, with Stan Lee in what very well might be his largest acting role, and guys like Larry Hama and Jim Salicrup hanging around. Why, even the great Gene Colan is involved as “artist photo double”! And if that still doesn’t sound quite awesome and fun enough, I  really don’t know what Cohen could have added here.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: All guns. No control.

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956): This is a rather heavily Hitchock-indebted thriller by – sometimes brilliant – journeyman director Henry Hathaway, taking place in a London that is traditionally dark, foggy and rainy. Blind playwright and champion in self-pity Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) overhears a curious, potentially sinister, conversation in a pub and becomes rather obsessed with solving what increasingly looks like a case (though not to the police). The film doesn’t quite have the psychological resonance of the best films of its sub-genre, and Johnson tends to overplay his character so desperately I wanted to punch the guy to shut up the melodramatic outbreaks more often than I found myself rooting for him. However, Hathaway knows how to stage a suspense scene as well as any director of his generation, the script – based on a novel by Philip MacDonald - is clever and twisty in the best way, and Milton Krasner’s photography is as pretty to look at as it is atmospheric, the film making excellent use of a London (even when parts of it are actually the Fox studios) that is still marked by World War II.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): Taika Waititi’s wonderful New Zealand movie is about a kid (Julian Dennison in a drily witty performance that never becomes precocious or annoying) kinda-sorta absconding into the bush with his decidedly grumpy foster father (Sam Neill, decidedly grumpy and wonderful) after the death of the foster mother, the ensuing manhunt and the pair’s sometimes funny sometimes sad adventures. It’s a film that comes by the description of being “heart-warming” as fairly as the director’s What We Do in the Shadows, creating a slightly off-kilter world but putting characters into it one can’t help but care about. There’s an astonishing amount of whit, wisdom and imagination in the film, often wickedly funny humour, and New Zealand looks rather spiffy too.

Nightwing (1979): I don’t know why you’d want to hire Arthur Hiller, never a man known for his grip on action, of all possible candidates to direct your nature strikes back project based on a Martin Cruz Smith novel I suspect to be rather more tightly plotted than the film at hand, but the ways of Hollywood are wild and mysterious. One wouldn’t usually cast Nick Mancuso as a native American sheriff either. Not surprising anyone, the film is a bit of a mess, with generally competent bat attack scenes followed by brain dead 70s paranoia bits, and some mock-native American mythology stuff ripped right out of a 30s pulp tale, and therefore rather cringeworthy, though at least not meant in bad faith. David Warner takes on Robert Shaw’s mantel from Jaws to take a big bite out of a lot of scenery, Kathryn Harold is attractively frightened, and Stephen Macht is an evil rich guy, so while nobody would confuse Nightwing with a good movie, it most certainly is never a boring one.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Krysar (1986)

a.k.a. The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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 people living in the medieval town of Hamelin are full of perverse industriousness, greed in all of its forms, and narrow-minded cruelty. It's probably not an accident that the town is hit by a plague of rats hell-bent on taking away the only things the people of Hamelin love - food, money and jewels. There seems to be no way to stop the hairy plague once it has begun, so it looks as if it will be only a question of time until Hamelin's inhabitants will either all go mad (or rather even more mad than they already were in the beginning) or will have to leave their once prosperous town.

Until a stranger arrives in town. The man pulls out a pipe, and once he begins playing his instrument, the rats are compelled to follow him. He leads the animals onto the city walls from where they jump down into the surrounding moat to drown.

Afterwards, the inhabitants of the town begin anew exactly where they left off, breaking probably every religious and moral law you can imagine in the process, or at least as many of them as the movie's theoretical status as a children's movie allows. One especially unpleasant member of the town's upperclass tries to seduce the only uncorrupted girl (as easily identifiable by her puppet not looking like a nightmarish freak) in town with money and trinkets, and twice only the timely arrival of the piper saves her virtue.

The piper (or so I suppose) is not very amused by the townspeople's actions, and presents the town council with his invoice. Not surprisingly, the townies are quite unwilling to pay him, and - being not just unpleasant, but also a bit dumb - even mock their saviour openly by throwing a button at him for payment. As if that weren't enough to make anyone with magical powers pretty pissed off, the especially unpleasant man and some of his cronies have raped and murdered the innocent girl while the piper was away.

Finding the girl dead is the straw that breaks the camel's back, and the piper takes horrible vengeance, though, interestingly enough, vengeance that is quite a bit more fair to modern sensibilities than that in the original legend this is based on.

As should be clear by now, Czechoslovakian director Jiri Barta's Kysar is rather loosely based on the old German legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (or "Der Rattenfänger von Hameln", as we say around here), taking much of the initial set-up and structure of the legend, but using it for different purposes. As should also be clear, one of these different purposes is - alas - to turn the - less morally uplifting than some people assume - original into a very clear and straight moral allegory.

If you know me, you know that if there's one thing I can't abide in my art it's allegory, because allegory is nearly always a cheap and easy way for an artist to score points on the scales of "usefulness" and "moral uprightness" that only the truly bourgeois find important in their art. All too often, allegory simplifies everything and everyone. Artists using it all too often betray "minor" things like truthfulness or the knowledge of how complicated the world or people really are or the multi-dimensionality of their characters so everything can fit neatly into their allegorical (and ideological) system.

Having said that, it might come as a minor surprise when I say that I find Barta's film to be absolutely fantastic. It's not that I've suddenly discovered my love for way too simple morals (would you be surprised to hear that people aren't just absolutely good or bad? Well, Barta seems to be), but what the director does here visually and atmospherically is so convincing (and - at times - incredibly creepy) that I can accept - or at least ignore - the lazy moralizing for it.

As far as I know, there aren't that many stop motion animated movies starring deformed, angular wooden puppets and a bunch of rats (some alive and - I think - some puppets too) acting on backgrounds of angular, non-Euclidean houses that - depending on one's temperament - might make one slightly queasy with a feeling of total wrongness/weirdness (in the "weird tale" sense) that makes me wish Barta had put his talents to adapting Lovecraft. Whatever I think of the film's allegorical content, it would be pretty dishonest not to admit how impressed I was by how completely Barta's design (the director also signs responsible for the art direction) fits what he wants to say - not just on an intellectual and interpretative level, but also, more importantly, on the level of the film's emotional impact.

It's one thing to design a "boohoo, materialistic people are bad" allegory, but it is quite another one to really make a viewer see and feel one's allegory in every aspect of one's movie, be it character design, music, the decision to not have the film's character's speak in any natural language but in a disquieting gibberish (except for the pure girl, of course, who sings beautifully) or the use of disturbing camera angles. Barta is so successful at what he does here that I take his film to be a major achievement even though I feel deeply uncomfortable with the ascetic elements of its ideology (never had much of a problem with a good bit of capitalism bashing); which is something Barta has in common with some of my favourite artists (hello Mister Lovecraft, Mister Howard).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

In short: Scherzo Diabolico (2015)

aka Evil Games

Warning: I’ll have to include some rather large spoilers

On first sight, Aram (Francisco Barreiro) seems to be a kind of high-functioning, well adapted coward: he’s the sort of guy who is the first in the office and the last one to leave, too timid to ask for a raise and accepting the fact that his boss reaps the harvest of his own work. At home, he finds himself berated by his wife in a loveless marriage. The rest of his private life isn’t much happier either.

However, Aram actually has come up with a way to change his fate; he has been planning to kidnap a female teenager (Daniela Soto Vell) for some time now, and the film will indeed see him go through with this plan, and reap the particular rewards that come with the identity of the girl, revealing that he’s not just a kidnapper but also a total asshole in the process. Of course, things will still not work out as he had hoped in the end, and things will escalate violently.

After a directing stint in the USA, the always interesting Adrián García Bogliano’s latest film was made in Mexico again. It’s obviously a low budget affair but no backyard filmmaking, a state of affair the director clearly knows how to work with. Unlike his last couple of films, Scherzo Diabolico doesn’t have any supernatural elements but lives rather more on the thriller side of the horror genre, interpreting it as a close relation to the conte cruel. Cruelty really becomes the film’s watchword after it has gone through a couple of twist, with the last twenty minutes or so working out badly for everyone involved in the plot, the guilty as well as the (more or less) innocent. In fact, one of the film’s biggest twists to me was how merciless it becomes in the end. The first revelations about Aram’s true nature come as a shock because the film – and Barreiro’s performance – convince the viewer of his basic humanity and seem to establish him as your typical movie loser who develops a misguided plan to go over to the winning side, which then turns out to be a much too friendly interpretation of the man.

However, Bogliano then doesn’t give his audience the out to be able to simply enjoy seeing Aram suffer for his sins but portrays the vengeance of his victim as just as unlikeable, seeing how not just he but quite a few innocents suffer a terrible fate only because they just happen to be his loved ones, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not a pleasant view of the world for sure, and not exactly enjoyable to watch, but I do find it pretty admirable how consciously and effectively Bogliano twists the viewer’s genre expectations in ways that can’t help but make one think why and how one morally approves enough of violent acts in a movie to enjoy them, and when the joke stops being funny. Reaching this point in a film that isn’t even particularly gory for a low budget horror film makes the whole thing even more effective.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Restraint (2008)

Rural Australia. Violent to crazed criminal Ron (Travis Fimmel) and his stripper girlfriend Dale (Teresa Palmer), whose job in the relationship seems to be getting him out of trouble and/or provoking him via her sexuality, though things will turn out to be rather more complicated than just that, are out and about on your typical road trip crime spree. They have a corpse in their car trunk, and Ron sees fit to shoot a gas station owner dead when Dale pays for gas with a hand job, so the police is on their backs rather quickly.

By luck, they stumble upon a large country house where agoraphobic, rich upperclass layabout Andrew (Stephen Moyer) lives alone. His girlfriend is apparently visiting Europe. Once Ron has gotten over his plan to just rob Andrew and murder him, they decide to lay low in the house for a while. Andrew can’t go anywhere, after all, and there are certainly no neighbours, so this seems like as good a place to wait out trouble as possible. After a time, Andrew makes the couple an offer to pay for his life – he receives regular payments from a trust fund he can’t pick up himself thanks to his condition, so if Dale would pretend to be his fiancée, she should easily be able to pick the money up. They just can’t take all at once but have to get half the money from the bank the next day, the other half the day after, for reasons that sound reasonable enough to the couple. Still, it’s questionable everyone involved will actually live that long, for Ron’s always just a wrong word away from an outbreak of violence (usually involving the sort of homophobe undertones that do suggest he’s rather unsure of his own sexuality, though you probably shouldn’t tell him), Dale is slowly realizing what she’s truly gotten herself into, and Andrew… Well, there’s certainly something off about him too, and it’s not just the way he tends to look at Dale.

David Denneen’s Restraint is an excellent psychological thriller, dense, intelligent, clever, and effective even with those twists in the plot you rather see coming. The film bases its tension not just on the basic hostage situation, but on the fissures between and inside the characters it presents. It’s a film that’s not just interested in letting power shifts and mistrust produce a nice bit of tension for its audience (although it is pretty great at that too) but also – sometimes subtly, sometimes not – demonstrates how these ever-shifting alliances between characters are based on personalities, psychology, class and gender. In fact, one of the film’s clearest themes is how the way class works in Australia has poisoned the inner lives of its characters, trapped them in patterns of violent behaviour and obsessions they don’t really comprehend and apparently left them no way out but violence or picking exactly the wrong person to put their trust into. This, interestingly enough, goes for all classes in the film, the system destroying at least the inner lives of the rulers as much as that of the ruled, the difference being that the former are allowed to get away with things others can barely imagine.

In this context, it would have been very easy for the film to leave its three main characters as archetypes and stand-ins for their respective class. Restraint, however, opts for using actual humans, which makes its examination of power and class much less abstract and turns it into a more exciting thriller too by making the audience care about the characters. Denneen has help there from three excellent performances too: Teresa Palmer is generally brilliant even in terrible movies, and in a good one like this even more so, shifting audience perceptions of what Dale is actually about as a person with small and large gestures. Travis Fimmel is in turns threatening, charming, frightening and pathetic (sometimes at the same time), and Moyer – not an actor I’m terribly fond of – here manages to be fragile, helpless and somewhat sinister at the same time, keeping parts of Andrew hidden from the audience in a way that feels absolutely right for the character instead of merely in service of the plot. A plot that, by the way, finishes with one of the calmly nastiest endings I’ve encountered, an ending the less pleasant the longer one thinks about it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

In short: Anabel (2015)

Warning: I wouldn’t know how to talk about this one without a certain degree of spoilers!

Students Cris (Ana de Armas) and Sandra (Rocío León) are looking for a roommate to share their rent with after something has happened to their former roommate Anabel. Somehow, they end up sharing with an elderly gentleman named Lucio (Enrique Villén) who comes complete with a sob story about losing his job and his home and having no real place to go anymore.

Despite being as different as two young women can be, Cris and Sandra have grown close living together. But something changes with Lucio’s arrival. At first, he’s rather like a new, polite roommate and their own private washing, cooking and cleaning service rolled into one, but something about him and the way he treats the friends slowly drives a wedge between them. More curious still: things tiny and big seem to start going wrong for them. Why, it’s as if there was witchcraft involved.

Antonio Trashorras’s Anabel is a nice example of contemporary arthouse horror (which I’m never going to call by the bizarre moniker of “post-horror” some critics have grown to insist on). It’s shot in black and white, slow, ambiguous and generally lacking in the kind of obvious thrills we know and love/hate from horror movies. In other words, it’s going to piss some viewers off with its insistence on not going into more overtly violent directions; others might be bored with it. That’s neither a failing of these viewers nor of the film, really – this is not an approach to horror that’ll fit everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, the film’s slow and thoughtful style, with its non-linear storytelling and ambiguous dream sequences, did rather click with me. At least, I found the film’s portrayal of subtle emotional violence, and its emphasis on the fragility of human relationships fascinating and sometimes creepy. The witchcraft elements – particularly the way they might be exclusively metaphorical or not – I could take or leave, but as a study of guilt, alienation and a particular kind of loneliness, as well as a very low-key revenge flick, Anabel works rather well, thanks to a fine trio of performances and Trashorras’s sharp and cold direction.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Mummy (2017)

Warning: this one’s gonna be particularly grumpy, snarky, and perhaps even downright rude!

I have to say, before watching this abomination, I felt a little for poor Universal. After all, the company is so late out of the gate for its own movie universe (which is called “Dark Universe” for good reason, seeing as how much the film at hand disapproves of using colours or light), all the good talent in front and behind the camera willing to invest their time and abilities into a concept this corporate has already been grabbed by the competition, so seemingly the only creatives still for hire are those without the talent or conviction to make anything of their own or to get hired by anyone but Universal. Apologies to the people involved who weren’t actually responsible because they were mind-controlled by alien wasps or something in that line.

That’s at least how I explain The Mummy to myself; it is definitely not explicable as anything the people involved put even a tiny bit of their hearts and minds in, resulting in a film as bland and drab as this sort of blockbuster can possibly get. Why, I’d even prefer a Michael Bay movie – those things are at least loud, tacky and dumb, whereas The Mummy really can’t find enough enthusiasm to even be any of that.

The writing – an effort that took at least the six credited minds, apparently – is bland, perfunctory and not just assumes the audience to be stupid but thinks we are actual zombies. How else to explain the film’s tendency to repeat certain micro flashbacks again and again, never mind it is flashing back to scenes that happened only fifteen minutes earlier, or that it’ll use the same flashbacks again in another twenty. “Remember that dagger we told you about ten minutes ago, and thirty minutes ago, and forty minutes ago, monkeys? I’m sure you don’t, so let me reiterate via micro flashback!”. It’s not just an offensive, exasperating and tedious way to tell – or rather repeatedly exposit about – a  story, it also again and again stops the film in its tracks when it threatens to actually start going.

Then there’s of course the little problem that the script is supposedly about a charming rogue finding redemption through an act of sacrifice but never actually manages to establish him as anything but an asshole, or rather, believes that giving a woman in a crashing plane a parachute is a clear sign of his buried humanity, or that falling in love is. Cough, Eva Braun, cough. Let’s not even talk about that self-sacrifice which isn’t even one, or about the way the romantic triangle is written. Or rather, not written. Or about the weird plot omissions, the rather important plot elements a film this exposition heavy somehow still doesn’t explain (probably because it’s too concerned with repeating crap even a Hollywood director would understand four or five times for its oh so stupid audience).

On the side of just strange – instead of mind-numbingly bad – things about the script, there is a bunch of borrowings, throw-backs or downright idea theft (depending on a viewer’s tolerance for this sort of thing) from other, much superior, movies, particularly Tobe Hooper’s wonderful Lifeforce and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. I have no idea what to make of that; but then, I have no idea how anyone involved in the movie can have thought anything about it was a good idea.

Not that there’s much spectacle going around to distract one from the script’s failings, either. The big action set pieces lack any imagination, are indifferently staged, blandly directed by Alex Kurtzmann (whom I now have under suspicion of being a robot, so mechanical is his work here, though the rumour mill suggests Tom Cruise steamrolled him with good old fashioned box office magnet power and is in fact responsible for this crap), and edited with a nearly absurd lack of style and enthusiasm. Given the budget involved, you’d at least expect a visible degree of craftsmanship, but there’s little sign of where the 125 to 150 million dollar budget actually went. Even the lighting and the music are bland and drab like ugly, grey little table cloths.

Well, a not inconsiderable part of the budget certainly went into the pockets of Tom Cruise, giving his worst performance of the last ten years or so. Cruise’s outing consists of GIF-worthy grimaces, wooden dialogue delivery (admittedly, the dialogue is pretty wretched anyway, so even an actor couldn’t have improved on it much), and an astonishing lack of screen presence. Cruise also doesn’t have the tiniest bit of chemistry with his female co-actors, which is a bit of a problem that’s supposed to be some sort of supernatural love triangle. To be fair to the old man, Annabelle Wallis’s performance is nearly as bad as Cruise’s – she’s just not grimacing as much – just barely less wooden as whatever it was Bryce Dallas Howard did in Jurassic World. Russell Crowe (as Jekyll and Hyde) for his part waddles through his scenes clearly in search of his pay check so that he can finally leave the set. The only thespian on screen who is actually putting effort in is Sofia Boutella as our titular mummy but she suffers from the fact that the film as a whole doesn’t really seem to have much of an idea what to do with her, and the need to interact with the living void Cruise. She’s a good villain in desperate search of a better film, or really, any film at all.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: They couldn't leave dead enough alone.

Hombre (1967): I know I’m pretty much alone with this opinion, but to me Martin Ritt’s sort-of revisionist Western is the exact opposite of a success. I’m perfectly okay with message Westerns (and pretty much on board with the message here) but in this case, the message seems to overwhelm the Western and the characters, with everyone seeming to act the way they do because they need to for the film to make its point instead for reasons of character psychology. The acting is consequently once removed from the characters and much too consciously “acting” for my tastes, everyone (except Diane Cilento) tending to stiffly declare the film’s too-clever (as in, “more interested in being quoted and admired than in being dialogue, or actually all that clever”) lines. Add Ritt’s direction with its lack of dynamic bordering on leadenness, and you have a film that does not work for me at all.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011): Speaking of films where my low opinion is less than the majority vote, here’s George Nolfi’s romance based on a Philip K. Dick story featuring Matt Damon as a character directly out of a Frank Capra film (complete with vague pseudo-politics and Salt of the Earth bullshit) and Emily Blunt as a woman who never gets the slightest bit of agency from a movie that’s all about more or less sinister forces robbing Damon’s character of all agency (and no, the film clearly doesn’t see the irony there). There’s a true deus ex machina ending that doesn’t fit anything that came before philosophically, a lot of exposition of relatively simple ideas, bog standard romance bits I’ve seen done much better in films that pretend to be much less ambitious, and quite a bit of running around. It’s certainly not a horrible film, but if you want to see a romance actually keeping in spirit with the best of Dick, you’re much better off watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, even though that one is not actually based on a Dick story.

The Station Agent (2003): This film by Tom McCarthy on the other hand is a wonderful example of US independent filmmaking. A quiet and unassuming film about loneliness and the walls someone has to build around himself because he’s born slightly different, and too many people suck, this never loses itself in nihilism or kitsch. Instead, there’s sadness that feels like the sadness of actual people, a wry, warm humour tempering quiet desperation, and a deeply human sense of hope. All this is created through McCarthy’s calm and thoughtful direction and writing as well as through brilliant performances by Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale. Well, and through the shared knowledge that trains are indeed awesome.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Prikosnoveniye (1992)

aka (The) Contact

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.

Olga Nikolayevna kills her little son Kolya and then herself. Andrey (Aleksandr Zuyev), the most laid-back and friendly cop in Russia, gets on the case. His investigation leads the policeman to Olga's lover. At first, the man - who has an undefeatable alibi - tries to warn Andrey off from any further enquiries, but when the cop persists and waves off any danger, the man explains that he knows well why Olga and Kolya died: Olga's father had convinced her that the afterlife needed her, life on Earth being no good anyhow, and after a long time of pushing and prodding, she agreed. The most troubling part of that story is the fact that Olga's father has been dead for twelve years. Supposedly, the father's shrouded ghost had been visiting his daughter regularly for years.

Shortly after their talk, Andrey's witness hangs himself.

Not surprisingly, the policeman doesn't buy the dead man's story completely, but since his own theory is that a group of mobster uses hypnosis and psychological tricks to drive people to suicide, one can't exactly call him a sceptic. Andrey's further investigations lead him to Olga's sister Marina (Maryana Polteva). Marina, too, says she is regularly visited by her dead father, and has now also had a little visit by her sister and nephew. Her father, she explains, belongs to a class of creatures called the Forzy. These "Forzy" are ghosts who spend their time driving good people to suicide because these people are supposedly needed in the afterlife and not on Earth. Consequently, Marina's dad has been haranguing her to be a good girl and kill herself for years now.

Andrey's relative scepticism soon enough dissolves, because he too witnesses things he can't explain in any natural way. One suspects that Andrey falling in love with Marina also quickens his growing belief in the supernatural.

When the rude dead people try to kill Marina's little daughter to make her mother more susceptible to suicidal thoughts, Andrey tries to make a pact with Marina's dead father. He will stop being a good person if the dead guy will only leave him, the two people he already sees as his family and his beloved dog in peace. That pact is easier made then held, though, for these are ghosts that can already be angered by hearing Andrey's catchphrase "life is amazing and beautiful", which is a bit of an overreaction to sentimentality if you ask me.

There's way too little information about Russian genre movies of the early 90s online in any language I can understand, so I have to treat a movie like Prikosnoveniye as an artefact of a time and place for filmmaking that is somewhat strange and impenetrable.

What is clear is that Albert S. Mkrtchyan's movie was produced on a pretty low budget. Special effects - even when they would be useful to further the film's cause - are few and far between, and what there is of them is of the kind that gets the idea of what they are supposed to represent across, but not much more. Fortunately, Mkrtchyan was obviously conscious of this problem, and so decided to trust his audience's imagination and just don't show much of the supernatural for large parts of the film, instead using hints and ambiguity. The best demonstration of the director's technique in this regard is surely the scene in which Andrey makes his pact with the dead man. Andrey talks to the unmoving picture of his enemy on a gravestone, and is answered (or is he?) via announcements over the speaker of a railway station that is situated close-by. It's a wonderfully budget-conscious way to connect the supernatural and everyday life. Because Prikosnoveniye is even stranger at heart than that, the scene's end finds Andrey suddenly in Kiev, far from the graveyard he has been in before, without the faintest idea how he got there.

The budgetary problems only become visible as problems once the movie has reached its final act and an action sequence and a collapsing building are called for. The former is staged incredibly awkwardly, while the latter is frankly a bit crap. Both sequences fit the dramatic escalation of the plot, but are tonally at odds with the slow sly cleverness of the rest of the movie.

Which is a bit of a problem seeing as how the movie's rather philosophical tone in its first two thirds is its greatest strength. Said tone is - at least for eyes like mine not terribly accustomed to the way Russian and Soviet films works - strange in the best meaning of the word. Formally and visually, Mkrtchan's film has a feeling of dry, sometimes even bland, realism, full of scenes that go on slightly too long and that put more observational energy on the quotidian (watch Andrey play with his dog, watch Andrey's colleague make dinner while they discuss stuff the audience already knows, etc.) than is usual even in horror films that are about the break-in of the exceptional into the quotidian. Even the scenes where Andrey and Marina discuss the ghostly conspiracy are filmed in this way, giving them a veneer of normality the patently outrageous ideas expressed in them should have nothing to do with.

Under the film's seemingly bland and calm surface, though, lies an undertone of true strangeness and a world view that borders on the nihilist. The film never comes right out and says if it agrees with the ghosts, and never defines if they are malevolent or on the level with their disgust for life as we know it, but that makes the philosophical horror behind it them more effective than a more direct Liggottian statement about the absurdity of life would have done.

Beside its nihilist side and its distressed realism, the film has even more to offer. There's another underlying level where Prikosnoveniye also uses the structure of a fairy tale for its purposes - the relative easiness with which everyone accepts the supernatural, the pact with the dead and the ruination of the pact through the repeated (of course thrice) utterance of a very specific phrase all belong into the realm of the fairy tale, and seem to dance a very peculiar dance with the film's surface blandness as well as with its philosophical horrors.

What Prikosnoveniye isn't, is a horror movie that does much (or, if you're only used to horror films of the last few decades, anything) that's horrifying on its surface level. That's no problem at all for me, but if your tastes run to films more directly scary, this will most probably not be your cup of tea.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

In short: The Last Case of August T. Harrison (2015)

Venice, California. When his son Jason (Eric Gorlow) asks retired private detective August T. Harrison (Jerry Lacy, who apparently in younger years played another private detective on supernatural soap “Dark Shadows”, among other roles) to help out an acquaintance of his with an investigation, the old gent soon finds himself confronted with rather more cosmic mysteries than he could have expected.

That acquaintance, Eleanora Williams (Maggie Wagner), asks August to find a former associate of hers named Drake Johnson (Max Landwirth) who has disappeared; or rather, she wants August to find some film footage Drake apparently absconded with. At first, the elderly detective’s investigation seems to lead nowhere, but eventually, he’ll learn a bit more about the true nature of the universe than can strictly be good for anyone, and will have to try and prevent the end of the world as we know it. He might even meet one Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Nathan Wilson), deceased yet rather sprightly.

Lovecraftian microbudget horror is something of a sub-genre all of its own. As it goes with microbudget horror, a lot of the films in the sub-genre aren’t terribly good, but then, that’s inevitable with any kind of human expression, and most certainly with the sort of things made by semi-professionals and amateurs in their spare time. Just look at the blog you’re reading! In the last few years, I’ve increasingly avoided writing about the examples of the style I’ve seen and didn’t like; it’s generally neither fun nor useful for anyone to get grumpy about other people’s labours of love, and if I feel the need to get cranky about movies, there’s crap not made by human beings like the Tom Cruise Mummy to maul.

However, Ansel Faraj’s The Last Case of August T. Harrison isn’t one of those Lovecraftian microbudget films that make appreciating them difficult. Sure, it does bear the marks of its budget. It is sometimes rough around the edges of framing and staging, but for every awkward moment, there are two that are clever, atmospheric or simply effective. The acting feels generally more natural than it does in many a microbudget film, with dialogue (and dialogue direction) that flows nicely where you’d usually expect a stop and start affair full of awkward pauses and strange performance decisions. As a whole, Faraj’s script is one of the film’s greatest virtues. It is well paced, well plotted, clever in its allusions to Lovecraft without making them overbearing, and full of neat little ideas the film then goes on to execute well.

I also found the way August’s private troubles and the cosmic ones intersected very effective. Entwining the emotional and human side with the cosmic actually is something a lot of cosmic horror in the movies struggles more than a little with, either by laying it on too thick or by ignoring human affairs completely, so the thoughtful approach here is appreciated.

And of course, there’s the fine core performance by Jerry Lacy that provides the film with grounding as well as an emotional core.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Belko Experiment (2016)

The office drones of the US company Belko Industries working in an office block rather far outside of Bogotá in Colombia are looking forward to another boring day doing the sort of vaguely defined human resources work whose use the people actually involved can barely comprehend. Their day begins rather peculiar, though, for there’s a new, heavily armed troop of guards securing the place, turning away all non-American employees at the gate for “security reasons”.

Once the work day has actually started, a voice over the building’s intercom calmly demands of the employees to kill two among their number, or more of them will be killed instead. What sounds like a sick joke becomes rather more disturbing when the building is completely sealed off from the outside by automated metal shutters. And that’s before our protagonists learn that the tracking devices implanted into their necks to dissuade the local gangs from kidnappings are actually explosives built to make a nasty mess out of one’s head.

Not surprisingly, panic and general human shittiness ensues, with people generally tending to one of two factions: one, let’s call them the ones with souls, kinda-sorta lead by Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) want to try and find some way to escape or seek help. The other group, very much dominated by the company’s local ex-military COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn), is set to break into the security guard’s armoury and decide whom to murder to satisfy the disembodied voice very, very quickly. Barry does the expected mumbling about hard choices all men in power begin when it is time to sacrifice others for their interests, so everything is set up for a bit of a massacre, or “just another day at the office”, like we called it in one of my former places of employ.

Watching The Belko Experiment, one might start speculating that its writer James Gunn has developed a bit of a hankering for the more drastic films he made before he started working for Marvel on the (decidedly beloved by me, as well as millions) Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Directed by Australian Greg McLean in his usually efficient and effective manner, The Belko Experiment is a film with an angry, gory streak, full of the kind of black humour I find difficult not to read as a product of frustration with the world and the people inhabiting it right now.

In its bloody, fast and furious way, McLean’s film is really rather fun, as bizarre as that sounds as a description of a film in which nearly eighty people die in exceedingly bloody ways, quite a few of them deftly drawn as human beings by Gunn’s script and a bunch of talented actors. Even the characters that are outright psychopaths or sociopaths (including a memorably intense and brutal performance by John C. McGinley) have reasons – well, excuses, if we’re being honest – for what they do, so there’s a feeling of actual stakes to the action and the carnage.

In spirit, The Belko Experiment reminds me of certain violently satiric and angry movies produced by Roger Corman in the late 70s and early 80s (Death Race 2000 certainly comes to mind), despite its decided lack of camp appeal. There’s a comparable degree of honest anger and frustration under the artfully polished surface, at least, that makes the film more effective than many comparable movies about people locked in somewhere having to play sadistic games, as well as a rather clear-eyed idea of how fascism works in practice.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

In short: Mona Lisa (1986)

Small time gangster George (Bob Hoskins) is released from prison. His stay has - apart from years of his life - cost him the relationship with his daughter. His marriage was already broken before. Mortwell (Michael Caine in full-on delightful scenery chewing mode), the man for whom George went to prison, didn’t hold up his part of the usual bargain either, so no money and protection went to George or his family.

Now that George is released and asking to get what is his, Mortwell – not in person, mind you, he’s now clearly to posh to personally talk to the Georges of this world, unless he wants something from them, of course – does apparently try to make up for his failings a little by arranging a job for him. George is going to drive and protect high class independent call-girl Simone (Cathy Tyson) on her job working the West End hotels. At first, the two don’t exactly hit it off, clashing in class, race and personality, but they do develop a rapport and a degree of trust. Or at least, George falls in love with Simone while she asks him to help her out with the trouble that really drives her – finding a girl she was working with when she was still a street prostitute, and, perhaps rescuing her.

In my experience, Neil Jordan’s movies are either brilliant or completely unwatchable, and the relation seems to be about sixty to forty for the brilliance. The man’s work is certainly not predictable. Mona Lisa is definitely one of the brilliant ones, mixing elements and structure of British crime film with a sharp look at the way sexual exploitation is embedded in class structures, and adds an examination of the anxieties and blind spots coming with a particular kind of working class maleness, particularly when confronted with a woman like Simone who doesn’t fit quite so easily into any of the roles anyone wants to ascribe to her.

Instead of treating these things in as abstract a way as this sounds, though, Jordan truly looks at them through his characters. These, he treats with a compassionate gaze that doesn’t excuse the characters’ failings or absolve them of responsibility for their actions but understands how much of what they do follows the roads society has prescribed for them, and precisely how their life experiences shape their reactions, too. At the same time, Mona Lisa is also a cracking good crime film, one which deeply and intelligently argues with/against the noir idea of the femme fatale, a film about the vagaries of love, a stylish prime example of late 80s filmmaking that swings between the gritty, the slick and even the mildly whimsical, as well as an acting showcase for Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson who both give highly nuanced – and not at all showy - performances that are career highlights in careers rich in those.

I generally don’t like to use words like “masterpiece” at all (owing to my general dislike for the canon as a concept as well as for the idea of objectivity when thinking about art) but then, how else should one call a film that does everything perfectly right?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

The old West. A pair of drifters and murderers (David Arquette and good old Sid Haig) accidentally desecrate the burial ground belonging to a group of cannibalistic troglodytes. Sid Haig gets himself murdered right quick, but Arquette’s character manages to escape to a nearby town where he raises the interest of local Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) enough to get himself shot in the leg.

Hunt calls in Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the unofficial yet highly competent actual town doctor without a degree - not to be confused with the alcoholic official town doctor we never get to see. The sheriff leaves her to tend to the prisoner under the care of his deputy, and calls it a night. The next morning, he finds a stable boy dead, and Lili, the deputy, the drifter and a bunch of horses gone. The murderers and abductors were of course the troglodytes the drifter accidentally led into town; at first, the Sheriff suggests it must have been an Indian attack, but as a quickly called in Native American diagnoses in a scene that feels a lot like the film holding up a placard with “See, we’re not racist against Native Americans” written on it, these weren’t actual Indians but members of a tribe of a degenerate and cannibalistic monster people dwelling in caves, though they might look like Indians to the unenlightened white people. See, it’s totally okay the film’s not going to give these guys even a single human trait, because the Indian said it’s alright.

Anyway, the Sheriff, his elderly reserve deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), so racist even the Old West characters around him don’t approve John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Lili’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who is suffering from a pretty debilitating leg wound since falling from a roof trying to be manly, are all the posse this town gets together to follow the troglodytes to their lair to save the abducted. Things won’t exactly go to plan.

So, did anyone ever really miss the cannibal movie? 2015 finally brought us the return of films about inhuman brown people eating white people nobody asked for, though at least without the real animal violence, because that really wouldn’t cut it today. I very much hope one day one of them will get around to perhaps do at least as much as Cannibal Holocaust did when examining its own assumptions – or, you know, just replace their cannibals with actual monsters and be done with it.

S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk isn’t that film; it is, in fact, not interested in facing the problem at the core of this particular sub-genre head on at all, therefore we get the scene described above, which really seems like an attempt at creating an easy out to me. On the other hand, the scene also suggests the film isn’t really interested in this sort of discussion of race at all and really rather sees its cannibals as representations of the dark heart of humanity, dehumanizing violence and so on and so forth. That’s of course problematic in contemporary parlance, but I’m generally trying to take on films on their own terms, and so am willing to appreciate the film is actually quite clear about its terms early on, giving me the opportunity to take them or leave them. Given how adept the film is at what it actually wants to do, I took them.

Once and if you do, you might just be surprised by the first one and a half hours of film you actually get, because while the troglodytes are introduced early on, for the longest time the film belongs to the calm and unhurried kind of modern western, with dialogue that at first seems to be a bit too indebted to Quentin Tarantino but then turns out to carry a different kind of emphasis and emotional weight that seems specific to Zahler (at least when you’ve read some of the man’s novels which I can highly recommend), and some spectacularly moody landscape shots that stand in strong contrast to the somewhat bland looking scenes taking place in town. There’s very little – though just enough – plot in these first two thirds of the film. Instead, Zahler puts all his considerable talent into creating a sense of a place and its dislocating brutality yet also into making the characters feel deeply human and complicated, even Fox’s vile racist whom most films would turn into an easy target for their audience’s hatred or give a too easy shot at redemption. There’s an honesty to the characterisation that feels special and personal, rooted in certain genre conventions but given space to breathe and live by dialogue that only seems self-indulgent on first contact, and based on a bunch of excellent acting performances.

This does of course make things emotionally harder to stomach when the film finally gets its cannibal movie on; I at least had grown rather fond of the characters and didn’t really want to see them getting ripped to pieces in horrible ways. So in that regard, the film too is quite the success, with one or two scenes that leave you squirming not just because they are unpleasant to watch but because they actually mean something.

Combine that with how uncomfortable I still am with the whole not-really-native-American cannibals, and you have, well, a film I find effective, moving, and meaningful yet also find myself struggling with loving unreservedly not because it’s a bad movie – it is indeed a very fine one – but because I wish it were different in a single aspect I found difficult to overlook in a film made today (well, or 2015).