Friday, May 24, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Legionnaire (1998)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

1925. Thanks to a combination of bad luck and bad planning, boxer Alain's (Jean-Claude Van Damme) attempt to flee to America with the abused girlfriend (Ana Sofrenovic) - who also happens to be the woman Alain once left standing at the altar - of a Parisian gangster ends with Alain's best friend as well as the gangster's right hand man/brother/I'm not sure dead, the girl back in the gangster's hand, and the gangster in a very vengeful mood.

Alain sees joining the French Foreign Legion very very quickly as his only way out, so he soon ends up in beautiful Morocco, going through the usual trials and tribulations of basic training, including malevolent Germans (the film really doesn't seem to like us much), before he can even begin to do imperialism's dirty deeds. During training, Alain grows close to African-American Luther (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man foolishly hoping for less racism in the Legion, former British officer and owner of a gambling problem Mackintosh (Nicholas Farrell), and Italian Guido (Daniel Caltagirone), a character whose propensity to show around a photo of his fiancé whenever he can dooms him from the start.

Together, the friends try to survive incompetent officers, Berber attacks, and the vagaries of their own psychological damages; and these are just the problems they have before some of the gangster's men arrive, at which point betrayal might become an additional problem, though one that might be less important than it seems once our heroes (or what's left of them) have to survive actual military action, something the French Legion - the one of this film at least - does not look particularly well prepared for.

If you go into Peter MacDonald's Legionnaire expecting your typical Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle (not that there's anything wrong with them), you'll probably be sorely disappointed, for the only thing the film at hand shares with one of those apart from Van Damme is its love for the "redemption by having everyone you care about getting slaughtered" plotline, though even this comes in a variation that doesn't care for or about the usually ensuing vengeance of the hero at the end; if you think about it, it's actually a morally superior kind of redemption. What we have here instead is a movie that goes back to style, form, and plot of the legionnaire films of decades earlier, with a lot of emphasis on the melodrama of male friendship, and, this being a JCVD film, our hero's naked ass and buff chest. By now, I'm pretty sure I've seen JCVD's behind as often and closely as the breasts of a lot of female exploitation movie actresses, which, despite my general disinterest in male anatomy, seems like a very good and inclusive thing to me. But I digress.

MacDonald and writer Sheldon Lettich (well, and supposed story co-author Van Damme, but you know how it goes with co-writing and producer credits for lead actors) actually take the old-fashioned sub-genre they are working in here quite seriously, making no attempts to squeeze in ways for Van Damme to do the splits or use THAT KICK that just wouldn't fit into the film at all, but instead take Van Damme seriously as an actor of limited range but some experience and charisma perfectly able to play his role straight without a need to distract us with more than his bum. JCVD uses the opportunity well, turning Alain into a guy to root for, which is all I ever ask of my movies, and is often not what I get from action movies (a genre that still applies to Legionnaire in the broadest sense). He is of course helped by some good performances by Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Farrell and Caltagirone, whose efforts keep him away from the slight stiffness Van Damme's performances often tend to slip into.

Despite neither the characters nor their fates being any kind of surprise, MacDonald manages to interest an audience (well, at least me) by virtue of a natural feel to the clichés they are made from; there's a degree of actual human warmth in the scenes establishing the friendship of the main characters that gives their expected demise a degree of emotional resonance I found rather unexpected. As always, it pays off if a film cares enough about its characters to make its audience care too. It also - always and in this particular case - pays off when a film in the business of dramatizing men throwing their lives away for "honour" interprets "honour" as "acting like a decent human being in situations not conducive to it".

Larger amounts of violence only arrive in the film's final third, once the characters stumble into one of those siege situations you'll nearly always get in a legionnaire movie. Once the action starts, it becomes quite clear that MacDonald (also responsible for Rambo 3, by the way) knows what he's doing in this regard too. While there's no ultra-spectacular set piece, Legionnaire is very good at making its few battles short, chaotic, and violent without confusing its audience about what's going on; these scenes fulfil their function in the plot well, yet are also staged in a way making it clear they are not meant to be the core or heart of the movie they are in.

There is, of course, something deeply problematic about even the movie's slight glorification of an institution like the Foreign Legion, an organization I find practically impossible not to describe with a phrase like "crushing boot of imperialism". The film contains some slight nods towards the idea that, you know, perhaps the "rebelling" Berbers are just protecting themselves from brutal oppression, and even allow them to be the enablers of what little of a happy end there is by virtue of actually having virtues. For most of the time, however, the film is making its life a little too easy for my tastes by just ignoring the politics of the situation and only looking at the personal of its legionnaire heroes without truly connecting both things.

Still, despite these slight misgivings, Legionnaire is not just an excellent example of what Jean-Claude Van Damme is capable of in the right environment but a fruitful and effective exploration of a more melodramatic and emotionally complex style of male friendship based movies (surely, there must be a better word for this than the horrible "bromance"?) than the usual buddy movie style you get in US action films.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

In short: Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

Or as the working title probably went, Low Effort: The Movie. Having spent a whopping whole day recuperating from the ordeal of the first movie, and after the film briefly pretends to have changed protagonists setting things up it isn’t going to touch on again at all with it, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is again trapped in a time loop on her birthday that only ends when she’s killed by a knife wielding killer in a baby mask. But this time, she’s also sucked into an alternative version of her world, so a couple of things are mildly different for her, including the identity of the killer, which will turn out to make even less sense than that in the first one.

You’d think that adding a bit of alternative world travel to the time loop and die set-up of Happy Death Day would automatically include complications or ideas beyond the most functionally obvious, but returning director Christopher Landon – now responsible (I’m using this specific word with purpose) for the script too – clearly doesn’t want to strain his brain or the assumed pea-sized ones of the audience too much. So the alternative world is really only there because the film would otherwise have had to come up with something more interesting for the killer part of the plot, and to get some cheap sentimental kicks in that would have looked trite to old Steve Spielberg in his most sentimental mood.

The new killer’s identity and shenanigans are treated with a perfunctory shrug, the film never even trying to turn them into an actual threat. You could read that as an attempt to not make the same movie again, but if the film really wanted that, it would probably have at least attempted to replace the mock-giallo parts of the first film with anything interesting at all, instead of going through the same rigmarole again, just with obvious disinterest.

Frankly, I don’t have any idea what the film is supposed to be there for beyond cashing in on the first one and turning the whole affair into a franchise with the inevitable mid-credits sequence. There certainly aren’t any new ideas here, or at least old ones recycled with verve. As a matter of fact, I’d say there isn’t even an actual film here, it just looks and sounds like one.

There’s something positive in this whole mess, though: the laziness of the sequel brings into stark contrast how well-constructed and cleverly realized the first one actually was. Reader, I now believe I was too critical in my assessment of the first one!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Slice (2018)

Warning: vague spoilers are still spoilers to some, apparently!

So, the charming town of Kingfisher, USA always has had a large population of ghosts – who in the world of this film work jobs, eat pizza, and act pretty much like the living and only look rather the worse for wear – mostly thanks to part of it having been built on the grounds of an old asylum. Of course.

The town’s mayor Tracy (Chris Parnell) has “solved” the societal tensions that come with this sort of thing by shunting the ghosts off into their little parallel town that at the same time does and does not belong to Kingfisher. You might see some slight parallels to the way things in our world operate, there. Anyway, a mysterious killer starts murdering pizza delivery persons all working for the same pizza place in ghost town. The police’s main suspect is one Dax Lycander (Chance the Rapper), a werewolf who has just recently returned to town. Dax, you understand, was also the main suspect in a series of Chinese food delivery people killings some years ago. And wouldn’t you know it, the pizza place of today is in the same building the Chinese restaurant was in!

However, Dax doesn’t really seem to be the perpetrator, something various people, like reporter Sadie (Rae Gray), and former pizza delivery woman looking for vengeance for a murdered friend Sadie (Zazie Beetz) soon also cop to. Also involved are a political conspiracy that turns out to be an occult one, a cheese-themed drug lord, one werewolf-hating cop and one who doesn’t and just possibly a gateway to hell.

I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if writer and director Austin Vesely’s off-beat urban fantasy horror comedy was pretty much like marmite to most anyone viewing it. It’s a film with a very strong personality, but that personality is also a decidedly peculiar one, feeling like something made by people who are perfectly alright with making a small film by their own rules, without much thought given to it being for everyone potentially going to watch it.

I found myself rather smitten with most of what was going on in the movie, really enjoying the film’s readiness to create a wild genre mix without making any gestures at being wild. For as strange as some of the film’s ideas get from time to time, things feel personable and personal rather than ironically distanced and constructed. The film’s sense of humour is certainly off-beat and won’t be to everyone’s taste (even though I just find it incredibly charming) but it does not seem to have a mean-spirited bone in its body, never going for the cheap way of putting anyone down. Which really fits the idea of community Slice presents, where problems are solved only when people of different social strata and races come together and just try to fix things the best they can.

I also found myself admiring the film’s approach to world-building, taking a silly or slightly goofy idea and then running with it in a serious manner; it is still a very strange world this takes place in, but one whose strangeness feels organic, all of it belonging to the same sort of place, and even making sense if you just look from the right angle. And unlike in many another off-beat comedic film, there’s also an actual constructed plot with quite a few moving parts which in the end do come together sensibly to find here. It’s just that the moving parts do – again – come from a slightly off-beat sensibility.

On the visual side of directing Vesely – whose first feature after a couple of videos for Chance the Rapper this is - does seem heavily inspired by right now trendy late-80s/early 90s filmmaking, but he is so in a good way, not actually aiming for a nostalgic feeling at all, at least in my eyes. It looks more as if the director’s personal style is rooted in that era, and he’s neither apologetic nor defensive about it. Plus, the visual artificiality that comes with this approach does lend itself to this sort of low budget affair, helping things look stylish instead of cheap even if they are indeed cheap.

The film – despite in theory containing all the elements of such a thing – never feels like it is aiming for any kind of instant cult appeal either, but rather comes about its actual cult appeal naturally by being the product of minds with sensibilities rather apart from the mainstream. It’s natural strangeness instead of a constructed one, if that makes sense. This organic feeling to on paper disparate elements repeats when it comes to the film’s more or less in-built social commentary concerning only very slightly masked class and race divisions; they are just a part of the world this takes place in, so the film never feels preachy when it acknowledges these things but unwilling to pretend these divisions do not exist, or are not worth talking about.

Most of the cast is playing all of the film’s ideas and their characters absolutely straight, both Beetz and Gray keeping the weirder moments grounded in what feels like actual humanity, while Chance goes about everything charming and relaxed (there are worse things a rapper could build an acting career on) but not Snoop Dogg-relaxed, while only the villains and the dead are really allowed to be a little bit more out there – which makes perfect sense.

As does, curiously enough, most of what’s in this strange and charming little film.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

In short: Robin Hood (2018)

This godawful thing directed by Otto Bathurst is a sad attempt at making the Robin Hood legend “topical”. So expect crusaders in the Middle East carrying their bows as if they were assault rifles while wearing armour that’s meant to look like modern combat armour, our main character wearing a leather hoodie that makes him look rather a lot like the TV version of a certain Robin Hood inspired superhero, and a lot more in the spirit of an idiot’s idea of modernist theatre. Now, this sort of thing can be perfectly interesting – if perhaps not exactly what I’d want from a Robin Hood movie – if written with thought and care, but the responsible parties for the script, Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, treat their conceit with all the thoughtfulness and care of elephants waltzing through a porcelain store, never having encountered a thought they’d be able to actually follow through on.

Because this isn’t bad enough, the film’s plot is, absurdly enough, full of the worst attempts at your typical superhero movie’s narrative beats I’ve seen in quite some time, because obviously, it’s not enough for this one to be a shitty message movie, it also needs to be a really bad medieval superhero movie, too, with dialogue so bad, I started to fondly think about the Daredevil movie with Ben “I can’t do superheroes for the life of me” Affleck as the much superior film.

But hey, at least there’s some spectacle on screen, right? Well, unfortunately not, for Bathurst shoots the whole mess as if it actually were the amateur theatre production its writing reminds me of (probably mumbling something about Brechtian techniques), having never encountered a set he can’t make look like cardboard, and no action scene he can’t turn into nonsense by always choosing the least effective set-up, the worst camera angle, and so on and so forth. It’s honestly astonishing to me how a production that’s made by an actual production company and a director with experience in properly budgeted modern TV can look quite this shoddy. Need I even mention that the actors make the impression of having gotten no direction at all, so their performances meander wildly, with only Jamie Foxx actually giving the impression of playing the same character from scene to scene?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Field Guide to Evil (2018)

As we regular viewers of things like them know, horror anthologies are often a bit of a mixed bag, never more so than when they operate like The Field Guide to Evil does and bring together thematically linked short features from different directors. In The Field Guide’s case, these directors are also from different countries and apparently found themselves tasked with making movies based on the ghosts and ghoulies of local folklore, so the tonal connection is often loose to non-existent.

That’s not much of a problem for me, for a collection of eight interesting short films isn’t anything to sneer at, and giving money to filmmakers that wouldn’t necessarily make shorts anymore is a thing to praise. Stylistically, most of the segments come down on the more artsy side of genre filmmaking, which isn’t much of a surprise given the involvement of directors like Peter Strickland (of Berberian Sound Studio fame), Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure), or Can Evrenol (Baskin). These are not the kind of directors you go to when you want to make a bro horror anthology in the spirit of the VHS films. I’m quite happy with that, though I have to admit this does result in a film that’s very uneven in tone and style, which may be weakness to some viewers but a strength to others.

My personal favourites are the first tale, “Die Trud”, as directed by Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, that recommends itself as a fantastic example of how to do the supernatural as metaphor right, while also hitting my personal sweet spot by being in mood and style a lot like an Austrian version of The Witch, creating a very deft picture of a specific time and place, as well as containing a pretty great looking monster.

Then there’s Can Evrenol’s “Al Karisi” that shares the same nightmarish quality that made his feature Baskin so impressive, expressing a young woman’s anxiety about pregnancy, child rearing, loneliness and loss of identity via a goat-based demon that is as bizarre as it is disturbing.There are, by the way, quite a few goats in the film.

Equally nightmarish is Smoczynska’s “The Kindler and the Virgin”, that takes the more unappetizing elements of a traditional folk tale, puts them into a drily funny (but not comedic) short film, adds some acerbic social commentary and some appropriate imagery and is over so quickly I found myself a bit stunned by it all.

Also lovely in a completely different way is Strickland’s entry “The Cobbler’s Lot”, which takes the most fucked-up version of a traditional fairy-tale (and those can get pretty messed-up if you read beyond children’s books), adds more foot fetishism, shoes made out of human skin and sexuality expressed through dance, and then films it in a mock silent-movie style (with sound effects). It’s the sort of thing that will probably have some people mumbling something about pretentiousness, but to me, style and content fit together here rather more comfortably than I would have expected and are certainly doing right by the Weirdness of folklore and fairy tales.

I didn’t connect as well with the other short films in here – and frankly have no idea what was going on in Yannis Veslemes’s “Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan?” – but that’s probably more on account of personal taste than them being objectively weaker, so I found myself still rather satisfied with the film as a whole. It is, to emphasize it again, really meant for people who enjoy art house horror, so just don’t go in expecting something more mainstream in its sensibilities.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

In short: Nocturno (1974)

On her deathbed, Jelena (Milena Dravic), the deeply beloved wife of Lucio (Rade Serbedzija), promises him to return to him from beyond the veil if only his will and belief are going to be as strong as hers.

At first, Lucio only seems to half belief this promise, but a combination of grief, his diet of Romantic verse and prose and spiritualist-affine philosophy slowly seem to turn desperate hope into conviction, until Jelena indeed appears to him. At first, she’s the proverbial figure in a shroud in a foggy graveyard, but soon, Jelena returns as human, touchable and feeling as she was when she was alive – at least to Lucio. The film does keep the reality of Lucio’s experience ambiguous at first, but soon provides the audience with facts – a piano playing Chopin despite Lucio not being able to play, a diary entry in Jelena’s handwriting made after her death – that become increasingly incontrovertible. Well, not for Lucio’s family doctor, but that’s not going to be the dramatic threat you might imagine it to be.

In fact, Branko Ivanda’s Yugoslavian TV movie is not terribly interested in putting Lucio into real danger of getting thrown into a 19th Century loony bin; these elements of the plot seem mostly to be there to in the end divorce the audience completely from the assumption we are witnessing a man’s grief-drive descent into madness, and to smuggle in some subtle commentary about the destructive force of the need to conform to societal pressures (probably not a good idea to make too obvious in Yugoslavia at the time) under the film’s main drive, discussing the dichotomy between a Romantic world view, belief and hope and a rationalism that here is portrayed mostly through Lucio’s pretty stiff and unkind doctor who is probably meaning well but not really showing much human emotion at all when confronted with the very human troubles in Lucio’s heart before and after the death of Jelena.

Despite some moody moments – the graveyard scene certainly being a highlight there – Ivanda’s film is not really a horror movie, but rather one that uses the fantastical to test out ideas and compare ideologies while grounding its philosophical questions in Serbedzia’s very human portrayal of a grieving man who isn’t quite sure if he’s losing his mind. It’s really a fantasy of hope whose philosophy of a positive irrationality and emotionalism standing against cold and empty rationalism is – like basically all of the handful of Yugoslavian and Polish (mostly TV) movies concerning themselves with the fantastic I’ve managed to see – very indebted to the Romantics, and not just when it cites Schubert, Chopin, and Byron. Of course, if you ask me, the nexus between the Gothic revival and the Romantics is the birth of much of what came after in fantastic literature (and later cinema) in the Western hemisphere, so the call-back is utterly fitting to what the director is doing here.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Horror Rises From The Tomb (1973)

Original title: El espanta surge de la tumba

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

France during the Middle Ages. Warlock Alaric de Marnac (Paul Naschy) and his partner in witchcraft Mabille de Lancré (Helga Liné) are killed for their enthusiasm for various evils, including the drinking of blood and cannibalism, of course. Because that's what you do when you're into the black arts, Alaric and Mabille curse the men responsible for their deaths (one of them Alaric's own brother) and their descendants, promising to one day return to plague them with various horrors.

The time for the charming couple's return finally comes in the 1970s. Alaric's descendant Armand (of course also Naschy), his buddy Maurice Roland (Victor Alcázar) - of course also a witch finder descendant - and their girlfriends poke around in their ancestral legends. One séance with possible supernatural phenomena, and a floating Naschy head later, the quartet decides that the only way to decide if they've been duped by a medium or they really have experienced supernatural shenanigans is for them to travel to the old chateau on the ancestral lands of the de Marnacs, far out in the backwoodsiest part of France, and dig up the head of Alaric (who was decapitated, with body and head buried at different places).

To everyone's surprise, this idea turns out to be a rather large mistake. Soon, Alaric's bodyless, redly lit head (excellent "Naschy in a box with his head sticking out effect there") puts mind control whammies on various members of the cast, murders are committed, hearts are eaten, heads and bodies reunited, Linés revived, and the future of all humanity threatened by two very cranky dead witches. Only the hammer symbol of Thor(!?) and a vague monster destroying manual might possibly save the day.

Carlos Aured's brilliantly, and rather truthfully, titled Horror Rises From The Tomb shows the great Paul Naschy at his most bizarre, with nary a thought given to plot logic or emotional believability but very many thoughts to showing off a series of increasingly weird supernatural occurrences. This time around, Naschy (as so often in his career also the man responsible for the script) and Aured get the required dream-logic particularly right, resulting in a film that uses elements of Naschy's beloved Gothic horror, 70s horror movie bleakness, and curious ideas as if it were out to reconstruct a particularly vivid fever dream.

Aured shows himself to be one of Naschy's more aesthetically conscious directing partners, making use of some excellently shot bleak landscapes, Bava-like coloured lighting, and a lot of cheap red blood to create an atmosphere somewhere between a carnival sideshow, a cheaper version of a Hammer horror movie, and that dream you had where Paul Naschy's head hypnotized you into catching various scantily clad women for him to eat. From time to time, the film's curiously naive, and certainly idiosyncratic, approach to horror even produces not just dream-like and strange, but actually nightmarish sequences, like the one in which some of the dead of the film rise again from the local marsh to do the surviving protagonists harm.

The sense of bleakness so typical for horror from the 70s that characterizes that sequence, as well as a surprising character death by shotgun and the mood of Horror Rises From The Tomb's ending, are part of a recurring negative view on humanity and life itself which would become ever stronger in Naschy's body of work during the second half of the decade and the first half of the 80s until  pessimism finally sometimes turned into downright nihilism. This philosophic approach always does mark a strange contrast between Naschy's films and those of the more innocent horror eras he most admired, and often rubs against the sheer loopiness that has always been part of the charm of his films. In this particular case, silly head movie fun and the inevitable doom of everyone involved for no fault of their own go hand in hand, as if they were contrasting impulses in the auteur's personality fighting it out live on screen; the winner is inconclusive.

Even some of Horror Rises From The Tomb's nominal weaknesses turn into surprising strengths. I found it, for example, exceedingly difficult to distinguish between the various female characters in the movie (which is the thing that happens when three of the film's four human female characters are very similar looking attractive brunettes without any character traits), turning the not exactly sharply drawn relationships between the characters diffuse, confusing and ever more dream-like.

Even the old Naschy-ism of pretending his own characters to be virtually irresistible to all women is put to good use here, giving the film an even more surreal feeling. In the case of evil Naschy it's the result of hypnotism anyhow; and really, in the context of everything else going on in the movie, it's not a surprise that Naschy suddenly appearing in a woman's bedroom is answered by instant excited writhing. Evil Naschy, by the way, is the sort of fiend who wears absolutely nothing under his cape, as does Helga Liné who for her part has the rather curious ability of killing men by raking her nails across their backs. On paper, it's all just a way to show off a bit of nudity, of course, but the film's execution turns even standard sleaze material like this into dream-like/nightmarish eroticism of a sort not generally found outside of European horror films of the 70s (more’s the pity).

Horror Rises From The Tomb really is Naschy at his most concentrated, showing off his virtues and faults particularly clearly. This also means that, if you can't stand European horror movies of the non-realistic persuasion, this is not a film for you. If, on the other hand, it's exactly the strange and the weird you're looking for from your horror, you just might find a new favourite movie of the hour.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

In short: Jurassic Park (1993)

It is somewhat ironic that a film containing quite a bit of Michael Crichton’s typical technophobe babble is really as lovely as it is in large part to its director, one Steven Spielberg (whoever that is), grabbing the newest digital special effects wizardry of his time and using it to create awe and wonder. To me, this is the last gasp of the man as director of brilliantly paced and structured thrill-rides full of joy and wonder (soon to be replaced by one who mostly makes worthy but deeply uninteresting films only ever asking the easy questions, and disappointing returns to old stomping grounds), and you already have quite the fun film.

There are more virtues to praise still, like Spielberg’s intuitive understanding of how much CGI he can actually show and in what way, being as maximalist as possible with the dinosaurs (that is, after all, what we came to see), but restraining himself when it comes to the things the technology of this time can’t achieve. Consequently, the dinosaurs still look fabulous and believable for most of the film, where other films from the same era of digital technology whose directors were not looking at the effects with the same critical eye (nor the knowledge that it is okay to not show those things you can’t show convincingly) can feel rather dated today.

The script, on the other hand, has its problems. It’s not just that Crichton has less understanding of chaos theory than I do and still feels competent to write a scientist in the field, or that “life will find a way” here seems to mean “life will find a way to break the basic laws of nature”. I’m also perpetually irritated by how nonsensically bad the security efforts at the dino park actually are, full of things that make no sense whatsoever, so that what the film argues is human hubris leading to catastrophe never feels like anything but absurd incompetence resulting in a script. On the plus side, Jeff Goldblum.

It’s really a bit of a wonder the film actually is as effective as it is, but Spielberg’s as good at the suspense as he is at the awe and wonder, so it’s not difficult to acknowledge much of the film’s set-up as dumb but still be thrilled by it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Rock (1996)

General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris) has had enough of the guv’mint not acknowledging the service of his black ops soldiers and not even paying their dependents any money when they get killed! Clearly, the best and most obvious way to change this once all official recourse has failed is to get together a gang of other military idiots, steal a chemical agent and a bunch of rockets, take hostages from a tourist tour on Alcatraz, hole up there and threaten San Francisco with a chemical holocaust. What would you have done, gone to the press!? This is a perfectly sensible plan, really.

Fortunately, the powers that be have kept former SAS man John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery) secretly locked up for stealing the microfilms that contain stuff like the truth about Roswell and who shot JFK (that is seriously in the script), and Mason is the only man who ever escaped from Alcatraz. After a lot of farting around and the worst car chase ever, a team of soldiers accompanied by Mason and FBI biochemist Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), who ain’t a slow man it seems, infiltrate Alcatraz only to be slaughtered by Hummel’s men. Well, you know who doesn’t get slaughtered, so now it’s on Mason and the not terribly excellent at violence Goodspeed to play Die Hard on Alcatraz.

Whenever a certain type of film fan wants to make a case for Michael Bay once having made non-horrible films, they dig up this Jerry Bruckheimer production, as well as Bad Boys II, which I’m not going to touch with a ten foot pole.

In The Rock’s case, I don’t believe these people are completely wrong. Sure, the film is dumb as a rock (tee-hee), and all attempts to try and sell me on Harris’s character as an action movie villain who isn’t an actual villain but more of a tragic figure really dies with me needing to believe in a character who actually expects this plan wouldn’t end with a lot of dead people and nothing else, his unwillingness to actually fire the rockets notwithstanding. Not that Harris doesn’t do his best (and that’s, him being the great Ed Harris, a lot) to sell this nonsense. There’s a lot of exciting tense staring, glowering and quoting Thomas Jefferson, and some really great dramatic shouting in Harris’s repertoire here, and while the script is just too dumb to actually pull this off, Harris is certainly providing a highly entertaining performance that is as close to a human being as anyone in the film.

Speaking of human beings or not, apart from an army of fine character actors (David Morse, William Forsythe, Tony Todd, and so on, and so forth), there’s a pretty embarrassing outing by Sean Connery on display who counteracts Harris’s acting by just barely bothering to show up and coasting on being Sean Connery. Which makes a hilarious contrast to the actor he’s interacting most, Nicolas Cage. Cage, as always when he’s in the hand of a director who doesn’t know how to direct actors that don’t do it themselves like Harris, goes completely insane, delivering line after line of the inane dialogue he’s cursed with with wild abandon, bizarre emphasis and all physical, bug-eyed tics he can come up with. It’s pretty awesome, actually, particularly in a film where an actor really needs to shout to be heard over all the explosions and what may very well be Hans Zimmer’s worst score, seeing as it consists exclusively of musical clichés. Though, come to think of it, that might actually be Zimmer making a comment on the rest of the film.

Fortunately for my poor beleaguered brain, the film’s explosions and stunts are mostly pretty great, and it’s here where we can indeed see a younger, more competent Michael Bay. Sure, he’s never heard of the concept of holding a shot, and he really rather cuts than moves the camera in any sensible direction, but most of the action is much more readable than is typical for later Bay. And when you can actually see the fast, loud, and slickly bombastic action, it becomes really rather entertaining. There is, however, a scene that already encapsulates everything that makes later Michael Bay films so unwatchable: the early car chase is a completely unparsable mess of shot-cut-shot-cut-shot-cut-cut where it’s never clear how the cars chasing each other are positioned, what obstacles they are actually facing, or why shit around them explodes. Actually, I’m convinced the car chase consists of random shots of cars, explosions, people in wheelchairs, the scrunched up faces of Cage and Connery just hacked together for no good reason.

All this adds up to a film that’s a complete mess, dumb as all hell but entertaining on that basic level that lets you waste your life in front of a TV drinking beer and belching rhythmically to the noises of explosions. I’m pretty happy contemporary blockbusters are actually made by thinking human beings now.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

In short: Mercy Black (2019)

Fifteen years ago, Marina Hess (growing up to be played by Daniella Pineda) and her friend Rebecca stabbed their other friend Lily in an attempt to invoke a being they named Mercy Black as some sort of horrible guardian angel.

Not surprisingly, Marina has spent the time since in a psychiatric institution in the – for once from a movie psychiatrist - supportive and professional care of Dr. Ward (Janeane Garofalo). Marina’s all better now, though, and so she can return to her old home to live there with her sister Alice (Elle LaMont) and Alice’s little son Bryce (Miles Emmons). As you’d expect from a horror film, Marina doesn’t seem to have gotten away from the shadow of Mercy Black very well, and curious things begin to happen, things that not only concentrate on Marina but seem to be aimed at Bryce just as much.

Owen Egerton’s Mercy Black is a rather frustrating effort, even if you can cope with the film’s deeply unpleasant decision of exploiting an actual, rather fresh murder case for cheap and shoddy thrills without showing even an ounce of the grace and depth you’d need to make this work without the people involved behind the camera coming over as complete twats.

To be fair, there are quite a few moments that demonstrate the writer/director’s ability to create effective suspense and horror sequences that don’t exclusively work via jump scares – the scene in which Bryce does attempt something very nasty with a bullying classmate is a good example – but these sequences never cohere to form an effective whole. Part of the film’s problems apart from a complete lack of ethics is that it feels unfocussed: there isn’t really anything wrong with the idea of Mercy Black threatening Marina and her nephew, but the way it plays out, it feels less than a connected double threat than two different films not quite coming together.

Another problem is the Mandatory Third Act Twist that not only makes the supernatural threat rather more quotidian (though not in a completely illogical way, at least) than I prefer but is also based on the film having kept away important information from the audience by being vague about what exactly happened in Marina’s past, supposedly letting us share the vagueness of our protagonist’s memory but in practice just making things a bit too convenient for the film. And let’s not even talk about this element of the film in relation to the victim of the actual crime this is getting its kicks off.

Thematically, there’s some nearly interesting stuff about mental illness, guilt and family in the film but like everything here, it never quite gels with anything else on screen and is too wrapped up in the film’s exploitative core. Truthfully, everything in the film that’s not making me angry, including the Mercy Black special effect in the end, seems nearly interesting but never quite realized with the thought and care it would need to at least get a decent horror flick out of the whole mess.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Still Crazy (1998)

Tony Costello (Stephen Rea) the keyboarder and sane member of 70s also-ran, nearly great rock band “Strange Fruit”, the kind of band that never quite “made” it, tries to get the old gang back together. It’s easy enough roping their old manager, greatest fan and emotional and professional anchor - also the actual protagonist of the movie - Karen Knowles (Juliet Aubrey) back in again, for the “normal” life clearly bores her shitless by now, but it will take some doing to get the rest of the guys in. They aren’t exactly the best of friends, after all. There is the lure of never fulfilled dreams though. Sure, bass player Les (Jimmy Nail) has managed to build a half-way successful roofing business but where’s the fun in that? And drummer Beano (Timothy Spall) – well, he’s a drummer. The toughest nut to crack will be singer Ray (Bill Nighy). Ray, you see, was only ever the replacement for their first singer - the brother of their now vanished guitar player – who died of a drug overdose, and even apart from that, nobody really liked him, seeing as he is a bit of a pretentious twat. On the positive side, his huge-ass mansion is for sale, so a successful reunion tour just might be exactly what he needs. Of course, even if Karen and Tony will manage to get the band back together, touring life might just break them up again.

Brian Gibson’s Still Crazy is a rather lovely film that uses a lot of well-worn rock and music movie tropes and clichés to talk about what it means to grow older when one hasn’t quite got rid of or perhaps never even wanted to get rid of, those pesky dreams. In the process, the film is at once making fun of many a myth of rock (and 70s rock in particular) and very much showing itself to be in love with these myths.

This seems only fitting for a film whose tone fluctuates between comedy and bittersweet drama, and which will repeatedly show the sad parts of a character it makes the butt of a joke often enough. The director mostly manages to do right by both sides of his film, too, making fun of his characters from a position of understanding and probably even love. I’ve never been fond of comedy that’s based on hatred and superiority towards one’s characters, so this sort of approach resonates well with me. It also presents a more complex view of humanity than you’d expect of a film that does after all end on exactly the sort of all-including and forgiving rock number on stage you’d imagine it to end on. Sometimes, the film clearly believes, you’re the joke, and sometimes you’re the one telling it, and sometimes you’re the asshole without even noticing, and nobody is perfect. Which may not be deep insights, but still deeper ones than those quite a few of us seem to live by.

The film’s also frequently as hilarious as it is supposed to be, thanks to a cast that’s highly capable of the dramatic parts of the film but also joyfully jumping into the moments of greatest silliness. So if you ever wanted to see Stephen Rea look for his nest egg, a tooth Jimi Hendrix lost in a bar fight, this film is for you. Best in class here, it has to be said, is Bill Nighy as Ray, on stage going through an inspired cross of the performance habits of Robert Plant and Ozzy Osbourne (with a bit of early Peter Gabriel thrown in when he’s in a particularly troublesome mood), and off stage portraying him as a guy trying to hide his very thin hide and his lack of confidence behind a mix of prickliness and pretentiousness, all the while keeping the man weirdly likeable for someone who should be all rights be completely insufferable.

As I said, it’s all rather lovely.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Devil’s Flute (1979)

Original title: Akuma ga kitarite fue o fuku

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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 early years of post-war Japan. Private detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Toshiyuki Nishida) is asked to take a look at the curious affairs of the Tsubaki/Tamamushi family, whose upper class life is taking a turn for the worse. Eisuke Tsubaki (Noboru Nakaya) was the main suspect in a nasty poison murder and robbery affair, but after his name had already been cleared his body was found dead of suicide.

Curiously, nobody seems to have told Tsubaki he's dead, and various members of his family see him appearing at the theatre, and in the windows of the family mansion. It's gotten so disturbing, the family - not exactly a hotbed of sanity in at the best of times - decide to hold a séance. Despite Kindaichi sitting in, there are even more curious things happening during the séance. Some of these, at least, look very much like products of human agency - ghosts, after all, are generally not wont to play records of their very favourite flute pieces when they could do some ghostly fluting of their own.

While Kindaichi seems rather at a loss to explain what and why is going on, someone (or is it something?) kills the doddering family gramps (Eitaro Ozawa), locked room style. With that, a series of unfortunate events gets rolling. Kindaichi starts on an investigation digging up family secrets and hidden sins, all the while trying to protect young, innocent, and pretty Miyako Tsubaki (Tomoko Saito) from the worst fall-out of the confounding affair.

Mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo's character Kosuke Kindaichi has proven so popular in his native Japan that there's a rather impressive number of movie and TV adaptations of the tales, with the detective so ingrained in parts of the popular imagination there's even a rather popular anime, manga etc. cycle about the adventures of his grandson (the latter, it seems, pleasantly unauthorized by the author's heirs).

Yokomizo is often (at least in the few parts of the English language internet talking about him at all) called "the Japanese John Dickson Carr", and going by the Yokomizo adaptations I've seen - the translation situation of the writer's novels into English or German being as bad as typical of nearly all Japanese writers of popular fiction before the advent of the light (that is to say, generally not very interesting) novel - this is one time when that sort of description actually fits. It's not just that Yokomizo is as inordinately fond of locked room mysteries and impossible crimes as Carr, there's a real kinship in the type of impossible crime the writers prefer, with many a well-researched accoutrement of the gothic, the occult, the supernatural and the macabre used in a way that situates these mysteries well inside of the realm of the Weird, resulting in mysteries that need awe-inspiringly (and very often inspired) contrived solutions to be explained as natural instead of supernatural. Personally, I'm not much of an admirer of the "murder as a puzzle" approach of so-called "Golden Age” mysteries, but when that approach is enhanced by copious amounts of séances, ghosts, vampirism, witchcraft and everything else that makes life worth living, I actually turn into something of a fan of the form, particularly when created by the kind of wit and imagination Carr and (again, going by the movie adaptations) Yokomizo brought to the table. Uncommon for the style, the "rational" explanations for the surely supernatural are generally not disappointing with these writers, for their use of sheer, overwrought yet often perfectly well thought out contrivances often reaches a point where their "rationality" seems even stranger than the supernatural would be.

Devil's Flute's director Kosei Saito (that is at least his name when you follow the IMDB - the rather dubious subtitles call him Mitsumasa Saito, and I'm not fluent in Japan apart from knowing how to shout "Help! Ghost!", so take your pick) does some rather extraordinary work with these nearly supernatural aspects of the plot, turning the parts of the movie concerning them into a Japanese approach to the Gothic, reaching intensity through artificiality, theatricality and dark and stormy nights. That aspect of the movie is - not exactly typical for the parts of this kind of film where the "rational" is supposed to assert itself - even strengthened once the identity and motivation of the killer become clear, for their reasons are completely founded on themes and ideas you'd look for in a Gothic novel. This impression is further enhanced by Saito's decision to let his actors - apart from Nishida's Kindaichi, who stands like a rock of basic human decency, understanding, compassion and rationality among the waves of melodramatic insanity surrounding him, undeniably close to Chandler's idea of the private detective as a modern knight - go all out on their melodramatics, with emotional lives that seemingly start at being turned to eleven (and really, what less melodramatic human being would kill for this kind of bullshit, and in that way?), and no stops to be pulled out even in sight.

One could argue that Saito lays this sort of thing on a little too thick from time to time, but I'm not sure Devil's Flute's plot would work at all if the director treated his characters' emotional lives with a more naturalistic approach. It's also quite obvious that Saito is able to enact a little less breathless melodramatic intensity when he wants to, for the film's main emotional set pieces are broken up by scenes that create a very believable post-war Japan, a land of broken people standing right between utterly different approaches to looking at life and reality, and of utterly non-artificial landscape shots, embedding the Gothic melodrama of the film's main plot in a much more conventionally bitter reality.

Friday, May 10, 2019

In short: Top Knot Detective (2017)

At first, it appears as if this Australian fake documentary directed by Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce about the history of a lost weird Japanese samurai show made by mad genius/talentless hack Takashi Takomoto (Toshi Okuaki) which only still exists on VHS taken from its single Australian TV broadcast, is making it somewhat easy on itself by wallowing in the old “whacky and weird Japanese” tropes. However, once it gets going it becomes clear that many of its jokes may be based on weird and whacky Japanese-ness, but it is highly specific exaggeration based on elements and behaviours perfectly in line with things that exist in actual Japanese pop culture, only more so.

So we get things like a variety interview show whose shtick is that the interviewees are surrounded by a bunch of adorable kittens, or a tokusatsu character named Timestryker who mixes the logical ingredients of baseball bats and time travel – I can’t help but imagine someone working for Toei/Bandai watching this and getting really rather angry they didn’t come up with that one first. The film is also having its way with the corporatism of this part of Japanese pop culture (in reality a degree of corporatism that makes the American entertainment industry look downright amateurish – and nice), while coming up with at least one wonderful and bizarre thing a second. But the film is more ambitious still, also making fun of the documentary format it is faking in various ways, and adding something of a plot as well as a not completely resolved murder mystery (Takamoto was framed, I tell you!) to proceedings. Add to this the perfect tone of the mock-crappy bits of Takamoto’s show we are allowed to see that’s clearly made with great love for genius shoddy film and TV making, and the surprisingly deft characterisation of the talking heads telling us this tale, and there’s basically nothing not to like here.

Top Knot Detective would be a lovely film already if it only were full of the mostly pretty great jokes it contains, but it also works as a love letter to the kind of things in pop culture I – and most probably at least half of my ten readers  - love, too.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

In short: Paranormal Investigation (2018)

A very short ouija session apparently still manages to get a young man possessed by an evil spirit. For once, it’s at least not a demon but will turn out to be a well-known murdering Nazi bastard (nobody ever gets possessed by a random murdering Nazi bastard).

Instead of looking for proper help, the guy’s family eventually calls in Andrei (Andrei Indreies), a paranormal investigator with a lot of cameras and not much else going for him. Will anything vaguely interesting happen before the audience falls asleep?

Well, not really. But honestly, this French POV horror film directed by Franck Phelizon isn’t worse than your typical mediocre POV horror film from the country of your choice. It’s just not any better either, and once you’ve seen enough mediocre films in a certain sub-genre repeat the same errors all of its mediocre predecessors have made, and go through only the slightest variations of the same horror set-ups, mediocrity suddenly looks rather bad.

This one, by the way, is, as the title suggests, more on the Paranormal Activity than the Blair Witch side of the POV equation, leaving the woods well enough alone and replacing them with really boring interiors. Apart from its replacement of demons with a ghost (but don’t worry, there’s still an exorcism in your future if you choose to watch this, though one committed by the slowest priest in cinema), there’s nothing original for the sub-genre at all to see here. The acting’s mostly okay, at least.

The plot, though, doesn’t only suffer from being imitative, but also from a bad case of Horror Movie Character syndrome, where nobody ever calls in the authorities before it is much too late, where any sign of mental illness screams “possession”, where priests don’t actually use proper exorcism rites (or bother to even speak to the victim’s family!) but don’t do any cool/interesting shit involving pigs either, and where the heroic ghost hunter decides he probably should sleep in the house where terrible things happen at night instead of just racing over whenever someone calls him to explain that yes, there is indeed something terrible happening there right now, when the film is more than half over.

Other script problems involve way too many pointless transitions, and a complete lack of characterization. Still, it’s not a terrible movie, it’s just derivative, rather boring, and really, really wants to waste your time.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

School Tales (2017)

Warning: I’ll need to spoil some of the film’s central conceits and its solution to ghostly problems!

The members of a Thai high school marching band spend much of their nights not sleeping but staying at school to prepare for The Competition where their true marching band mettle will be tested. There are the usual tensions, love triangles and low-key bullying among the teens, but things get really tense when the kids take some time out from making music to play around with the ghost legends surrounding their school.

Needless to say, that’s not at all the sort of thing you should do in a horror film, and soon enough, the kids are beleaguered from all sides by some rather freakish looking supernatural nasties that haunt them in daily more unpleasant ways. Fortunately, band member Pun (Ranida Techasit) is a bit of an expert in things ghostly, and band leader Ohm/Ome (Sedthawut Anusit) will demonstrate quite a bit more heart and guts than he himself must have expected he has.

At first, Pass Patthanakumjon’s Thai teen horror film School Tales looks and feels like a pretty generic entry into the annals of Thai ghost horror movies and mostly seems to spend its time having its characters race through a series of spook house style scares without much point beyond going “boo”. However, it soon becomes clear there’s quite a bit more going on with the film.

First and foremost, Patthanakumjon by far doesn’t stop with having his three ghosts spook the hell out of the teens but rather goes on to explore some actual, clever ideas through them. These, it turns out, are not exactly the spirits of dead school kids and teachers, but rather, they are the spirits of the dead twisted into the shapes of the schoolyard legends that have accrued around them. Consequently, the first step the teens need to take when it comes to fighting them is to learn about the basis of the ghostly tales and then making amends to the ghosts not based on the stories told about them but their actual fates. So, while there’s more than enough spooky stuff going on in it to satisfy, this is a film about a group of teens fighting sensationalized legends by acknowledging the sad truths behind them, and then trying to demonstrate what they learned by doing the right thing, all the while examining how tragic truth can turn into lurid legend rather quickly.

Even though this is certainly clever and not exactly an old hat approach to ghosts, the film could easily have ended up a moralizing tale more than a moral one if handled badly. However, Patthanakumjon manages to arrive at the latter approach with elegance and ease, putting the emphasis not on preaching about things but exploring them through characters and plot without speechifying or making things too easy and clear cut. We’re certainly meant to take away a moral lesson here, but this isn’t a film that puts its lessons before being a well-told tale with actual ideas, nor before being a horror movie. There is, in particular, a twist later in the tale that at once makes clever use of what the film has established about the nature of the ghosts, and the character of some of the teens which also works to make the film’s moral stance a bit more complicated, suggesting that not everything can be simply forgiven, and that doing the right thing will not automatically solve all problems or save everyone. That’s actually a bit of a ballsy move in a teen-centric film like this one, where solutions tend to be clean and absolute and sadness is something that just goes away in the end.

Now, the teens are relatively broadly characterized, and their problems sometimes not too far from a soap opera, but there’s an earnestness in the way the film and the actors portray the material that makes it involving and interesting even though we’ve encountered characters very much like these before rather often. The film treats its stereotypes more as archetypes through which it is easier to explore what it wants to talk about, yet it also knows the right moments when to treat them as people.

On the more direct horror front, there’s quite a bit to enjoy here too. Not only do I like the film’s approach to its school legends as tales that influence the perceived reality of the characters, the resulting ghosts are just flat-out creepy, created with the sense of corpse-like physicality and deformity mirroring either their deaths or their characters that is typical of the approach to ghosts in Thai horror. They are also just plain great practical effects used in scare sequences that feel more classicist than clichéd thanks to the great care Patthanakumjon puts into using just the right lighting, clever editing rhythms, and so on and so forth.

In general, while keeping with the surface slickness useful in all teen-centric horror, Patthanakumjon does put a lot of original and clever little flourishes into the moments that are not meant to be scary – my favourite moment is early on when the film’s title music turns out to be diegetic and played by our marching band (who will most certainly win The Competition if that’s what they get up to on a regular basis).

Craftsmanship, a thoughtful and intelligent script, a good idea of how to use clichés and when to drop them, and a capable young cast really come together into something special and effective in School Tales.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

In short: The Glimmer Man (1996)

Sometimes, a boy just needs to remind himself of how much he hates Steven Seagal’s movies in general (and isn’t too hot on the man himself either). At least, that’s how I explain to myself why I watched this Seagal vehicle as directed by John Gray. The film falls into Seagal’s “Buddhist” phase, so his character, police lieutenant Jack Cole (who will turn out to once have been a badass black ops killer for the CIA), isn’t just a bigoted asshole bully shithead like all Seagal characters, he’s a Buddhist bigoted asshole bully shithead, and therefore also a total hypocrite, given that he’s murdering people with weaponized credit cards, his one facial expression, or shitty martial arts on the tiniest of provocations.

So it’s not really much of a surprise that he himself is quickly the favourite suspect for a serial killer he is hunting. After all, he’s apparently killing at least half a dozen people a day anyway, so him from time to time going out and murdering and then crucifying married couples seems pretty plausible. That’s my reasoning, not the film’s, mind you – the film’s is much less plausible. But don’t you worry, this is a Steven Seagal movie, so there’s never a moment where he actually seems to be about to lose a fight, his life, or his smug facial expression.

Which, as I’ve explained in the past, is pretty much the core problem with all things Seagal – he’s always treated as so clearly superior to all of his adversaries there’s no way for dramatic tension to exist in his world, no feeling of peril at all, and Seagal’s characters aren’t heroes conquering the odds but bullies beating up the physically inferior. This particular film goes so far as to even have Seagal mock the big bad during their supposedly climactic fight in a way films made by people who know what they are doing leave to the villains of an action movie.

But even if you’re a better person than I and can cope with the sheer Seagal-ness of this all, The Glimmer Man suffers from many other problems. Oh, who am I kidding, most of them still involve Seagal, because nothing in a Seagal film doesn’t. Take the way it tries to hide Seagal’s inferior screen fighting skills behind lots of vague and fast edits, so that most fights look like a Seagal-shaped form just barely visible bitch-slapping people and kicking them in the balls, which isn’t fun to watch independent of what you think about the lead. Or Seagal’s “clever” acting choice to have Cole speak in a voice somewhere between “totally stoned” and “incredibly offensive parody of a gay man” to make clear to the audience that he is an eccentric man of peace (who just happens to work in an extremely violent profession), but which mostly makes one wish somebody would punch him in the face. It’s just one atrocity after the next here, and even worse, they never seem to be committed in good fun but with a nasty sneer.

As you can see, I’m probably not the best guy to talk about Seagal movies, so hopefully, I’ll remember that and avoid them again for the next decade or so.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

A couple of years ago, Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) was found with amnesia. Today, she’s a mild-mannered school teacher, a suburban wife and mother, and seems very happy with her lot.

Alas, a couple of things happening at now put a stop to her happiness. Her old personality starts to surface after she gets a good hit on her head in an accident, and her old self clearly wasn’t a very nice person, trained in all the arts of the movie spy assassin. Which turns out to have been exactly what she was when her old associates start trying to kill her after having seen her on TV in a small town Christmas parade (as you know, all Shane Black films are bound by law to take place around Christmas). At the same time, the last private detective Samantha hired to find out who she was before her amnesia, the decidedly shady Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L. Jackson), finds some actual clues to her past. After Samantha, who is in truth called Charly, has fought off a first assassination attempt, she and Mitch go on a road trip together that will culminate in a lot of violence but will make clear who Samantha really was.

Put two lovers of excess in cinema like director Renny Harlin and writer Shane Black together, and you do indeed get a pretty excessive film. There’s violence I was really surprised a mainstream action film in the mid-90s got away with, there are explosions, there are so many people killed by our protagonist it’s difficult to describe this aspect of the film as anything but cartoonish. However, all this excess is based on what is to my mind probably Black’s most interesting script. It does of course contain his usual shtick about how horrible life and people are, but he’s exploring these ideas through an at first and outside of the action scenes very noir-ish and clever set-up that also concerns not just Samantha’s search for identity but also asks questions about what “identity” might even mean, and how fluent what we call our personalities are even when amnesia doesn’t come into play. Where did “Samantha”’s ethics come from exactly when she was birthed from the brain of a ruthless killer? This intersection of identity and ethics is also of interest to the film when it comes to Henessey, a guy who is as much of a con-artist as he is a private eye now, but who finds himself drifting back towards the better man he once was at the same time Samantha is going back towards the worse woman she was.

That exploring this through a big loud American action movie with conspiracy elements actually works as well as it does is a little wonder. But then, it also happens to be a fun and highly accomplished big loud American action movie delivered with all the excessive panache Renny Harlin (at this time still the second-best Hollywood mainstream action movie director after John McTiernan) is best at. But, perhaps because Harlin happened to be married to Davis at the time and really wanted to let her show off her considerable abilities after their curious pirate movie flop together, and clearly respected Jackson’s perfect rendition of the struggling private dick, he’s also giving the actors ample space to shine even when they are not murdering anyone. Add the horde of well-known faces and character actors (honestly too many to count) and you have yourself quite a bit of substance beside the explosions.

Really, my only actual caveat when it comes to The Long Kiss Goodbye is the set-up of a couple of its final action scenes where the wheels of the plot mechanics become so visible, it’s impossible not use the word “lazy” to describe the construction there. Fortunately, you’re not going to be able to hear me complain over the sound of stuff exploding.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

In short: Hard Rain (1998)

A violent storm is raging over a US small town. The nearby levee is bound to break rather sooner than later, and most of the people have already been evacuated apart from local sheriff – soon to be a civilian because the populace has voted him out - Mike Collins (Randy Quaid) and his two men, a couple of elderly holdouts (Betty White and Richard Dysart), and Karen (Minnie Driver) who tries to save some church windows.

Close by, an armoured truck transporting three million dollars is halted by four amateur robbers lead by Jim (Morgan Freeman). Despite anyone getting killed certainly not being part of the plan, the youngest, dumbest, member of the robbers shoots one of the security guards (oh, no, it was Edward Asner!). The other guard, Tom (Christian Slater), manages to escape with the money and hides it in the graveyard of the flooding town. A cat and mouse game between him and the robbers ensues, but the locals are going to get involved soon enough. Turns out a sheriff who got the boot might very well be willing to murder a few strangers when it comes to a million dollar prize, so Tom and Jim – as the least murderous people on screen – will eventually find themselves on the same side.

I know, Mikael Salomon’s Hard Rain is not a terribly well loved film, but I do think it is a pretty great film that uses elements of 90s US action cinema, neo noir and disaster movie rather well. The script by Graham Yost is the sort of simple looking thing that can’t be all that simple to realize, creating characters out of a handful of pithy lines and situations, trusting in an audience to understand motivations and the implications of the characters’ actions and then letting these people loose on the simple but not stupid plot. Adding to this particular joy of a straightforward genre tale told with craftsmanship and intelligence is how many different set-pieces the film manages to create from a single flooded town without repeating itself.

Unlike most US action films of this era, Hard Rain doesn’t have much of an air of excess surrounding it, preferring to base the action on characters instead of explosions. This doesn’t mean the action isn’t larger than life and a bit improbable – it’s just the kind of largeness and improbability that feels grounded in something human, in this case humanity as presented by a bunch of fine actors doing fine work despite being soaked to the bone in every single shot.

Even though a lot of what Salomon does here visually is pretty much to the standards of professional filmmaking in 1998, he uses these standard set-ups to create a mood of…well, wetness, bringing the drowning town to life as exactly the sort of place where the natures of people like the Sheriff, Jim and Tom (I’m not mentioning Driver’s Karen much because she just doesn’t get much to do beyond turning on the Driver charm on command, except for a pretty badass moment where she saves Tom from drowning) will be revealed.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Night of the Eagle (1962)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Young, dynamic academic Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) teaches soft sciences at a British medical school. Despite him and his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) being relative newcomers at the school, Norman is something of a rising star of the faculty, despite largely unspoken resentments towards the modern young couple coming from parts of Norman's colleagues. Most of his students love him (some perhaps a bit too much), and his teaching is so successful he is already one of the possible candidates for becoming the new chair of the Sociology Department. Why, it's as if Norman leads a charmed life!

The life of the Taylors becomes rather less charmed when Norman discovers the secret Tansy has been keeping from him ever since their research trip to Jamaica two years ago when she began to believe in things Norman can't abide anyone taking seriously: Tansy is a witch, completely, and rather intensely, convinced their good fortune is the product of her magic rituals; furthermore, Tansy is just as convinced that someone in the faculty is so displeased by the newcomers he or she tries to inflict malign influences on them, and it is only Tansy's protective charms keeping them healthy and happy.

Norman, being an early 60s husband, at once diagnoses Tansy as “a neurotic”, and coerces her to burn all charms and protections and stop with the nonsense in the kind of tone which should by all rights earn him a kick in the unmentionables. Right after the charms are destroyed, Norman's luck starts to turn. A student (Margaret Abbott), who was heavily crushing on him already, suddenly becomes rather more aggressive, and, when that doesn't get her anywhere, starts telling his bosses about the affair they supposedly had (in truth, Norman isn't that sort of a jerk), with vague insinuations of rape.

That's just part of the very bad, no good Monday Norman has. It seems as if all the little and all the large things that always went his way now turn against him. And that's before somebody sends him a tape of one of his (sceptical) lectures that has been turned into a death curse Tansy will use a very desperate way to counter. It looks as if Norman will have to rethink his position regarding witchcraft and the religion of his wife, or die.

Night of the Eagle is the second movie based on (house favourite) Fritz Leiber's fine, if not completely unproblematic in its gender politics, novel Conjure Wife (well, it may be based on the original 1943 novella version of the story for all I know), with a script written by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt. Given the pedigree of the writers, it doesn't come as a surprise that this script is quite a complex one that features a rather sardonic - though probably quite true - view on campus politics, suggests complexities in its characters with quick and sure strokes, and isn't afraid to have ideas without feeling the need to explain them to the last detail. For the last part, it probably helps it was not written in this century when everyone in the movie business seems convinced no audience is able to understand anything without a film spelling it out.

Among the movie's most interesting decisions is the early characterisation of Norman as a complete jerk who reacts to his conviction that his wife might be mentally ill with throwing a hissy fit at her, and as the kind of guy who thinks that believing in witchcraft automatically makes one mentally ill, prefiguring what I like to call the arsehole atheism of people like Richard Dawkins, a thing quite horrible to this (hopefully) non-arsehole atheist. While the way Norman treats his wife seems pretty much in tune with the mainstream ways of US white middle class people of the era, the script really doesn't agree with him there, seeing as he is after all absolutely wrong in all of his assumptions about Tansy and about life. In fact, it's not difficult to read the whole movie as a critique of a way of life that turns the union of two people on equal footing into something loveless and self-destructive by the mere power of convention.

To make matters even more interesting, the film also goes out of its way to demonstrate that at heart, Norman loves Tansy just as much as she loves him (and she's willing to die to protect him!), he just needs to re-learn how to express it; the film repeatedly suggests that it is societal constraints and Norman's willingness to follow them that's the core of the problem here.

Stylistically, Night of the Eagle attempts to follow in the footsteps of the subtle, stylish horror of Val Lewton productions, with many more horrors suggested than are ever shown. Unfortunately, director Sidney Hayers isn't quite on the level of Robert Wise or Jacques Tourneur, and for every moody, ambiguous scene, there's another one where Hayers is basically standing next to the viewer and shouting "Look! this is a visual metaphor! See! This scene is dark and brooding!". It's never so bad as to ruin the film but Hayers's inability to be as subtle as his script does needlessly undermine some of his film's power.

Janet Blair's performance, unfortunately, falls very much into the same trap, with no possible emotion she doesn't shoutily mug into the camera with wild stares and a peculiar habit of dramatically rubbing her own face. This approach to acting is quite grating, particularly since it stands in complete contrast to Wyngarde's rather more subtle and naturalistic performance. It really is a shame, for it's not difficult to imagine how great Night of the Eagle would have turned out with a female lead working on the same level, or a director who is consistently subtle and ambiguous.

Still, despite these flaws, Night of the Eagle is generally a fine attempt at following in the footsteps of Lewton; it might not be as good as it could be, but it still is a plenty moody and intelligent movie standing in a small yet proud tradition of slightly different horror filmmaking.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

In short: Glass (2018)

Warning: I’ll spoil some elements of the film; I’d argue there’s not much to actually spoil here, though, for the idea of spoilers does suggest the existence of dramatic tension to be spoiled.

After the nearly good Split, I, the eternal optimist, was hoping its sequel, Glass, might just be that curious beast – a second M. Night Shyamalan movie making good on the great genre director The Sixth Sense had once promised.

What I then watched was pretty much the opposite: a slow and tedious crawl playing out like a bad bottle episode of a TV show that takes more than two hours to get through what’s at best a thirty minute plot (which often seems barely to exist at all anyway). You’d hope the film would at least enhance this non-experience via the mysterious arts of characterisation and mood-building, but the little personality anyone on screen shows belongs to a cast just a little too good to feel quite as empty as they are written. Why you’d cast Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy and Bruce Willis and then have them proceed to basically do no acting whatsoever, or why you’d let James McAvoy double down on his obnoxious performance in the first movie is anyone’s guess. But then, this one was written by someone (cough) who seems to believe he is - in a superhero movie in 2018 - doing something cleverly deconstructive by pointing out tropes the audience by now knows quite well from film where things are actually happening to keep them from falling asleep, and by doing a plot twist (that’s barely even a twitch) that consists of the film saying “Gotcha! You thought it was this standard ending trope! Instead I’m using this different yet even more standard ending trope! And I’m doing it as slowly and dramatically awkward as possible”!

Dramatically awkward is the watchword for the whole film. Glass is full of scenes that are slow (so slow) while having no apparent function in the narrative at all, going on for what feels like an eternity, pretending to do something immensely deep and clever the audience needs time to grasp while actually presenting not much at all. It doesn’t help here that Shyamalan seems to have lost every bit of dramatic instinct he once had. Take the triple “tragic” death scene before the end that gives two of the main characters and about a hundred of McAvoy’s personalities and their respective supporting characters way too much time to die (oh so slowly), drawing things out until even the last possibility of reacting to this nonsense with anything but laughter or eye-rolling disappears. I honestly have no idea what the filmmaker was thinking with these scenes. But then, I have no idea what he was thinking with the rest of the movie either.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Split (2016)

Three high school girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) are kidnapped by a mysterious man (James McAvoy). It soon becomes clear that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder – which may or may not exist in real life – and tries to hit the world record with 23 different personalities. Some of them – called “The Horde” by their peers even though a trio does not a horde make – have enough of everybody but their psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) not believing their disorder actually exists, and are trying to bring forth a 24th personality, known as The Beast.

The Beast, it will turn out, is a super-powered cannibal who follows some bizarre pseudo-philosophy positing that people who haven’t suffered severe enough traumata in their life are only good to be eaten because they’ll never be able to acquire super powers. Seriously.

I know, I know, I’m writing about an M. Night Shyamalan movie again, even though it’s clear by now that the man’s sensibilities work like the noise of chalk on board on me. However, Split turns out to be one of his more palatable movies for me. I wouldn’t call it a good film, mind you, but at least this one is just a handful of better directorial decisions, a minor re-write, and losing about twenty minutes of runtime away from being one. It’s what I’d call an interesting effort, and one that’s nearly on to something with its attempt to examine the connection between trauma and superpowers quite a bit of superhero comics do indeed suggest. It’s just too bad the film mostly does said examination through a very slow and even more obvious series of flashbacks concerning Taylor-Joy’s character, incessant insane ranting by McAvoy, and some pseudo-scientific warbling from the psychiatrist.

Visually, this is one of Shyamalan’s successful efforts. His films usually look slick, but here (as at the beginning of his career), the slickness goes hand in hand with an ability to craft at least decent suspense sequences and even the creation of a nice atmosphere of doom. That last one is certainly helpful when it comes to building up to the appearance of The Beast, nearly convincing one that something of apocalyptic important is going to manifest. Unfortunately, The Beast manifest is just James McAvoy mugging into the camera.

Which brings me to the film’s most surprising weakness, an inexplicably terrible performance by a really fine actor, one which becomes even worse in contrast to the measured and thoughtful ones by the always wonderful Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley. But then, going all Nicolas Cage on us when asked to play a guy with dissociative identity disorder whose main on-screen personalities are going to be a nine-year-old, a gay fashion designer, some mumbly psycho, a woman (sorry, that’s her defining character trait apart from being evil too), and a superpowered cannibal with a messiah (well anti-Christ, because this is a Shyamalan joint) complex, is an understandable acting choice. It’s also the completely wrong one, because it stretches the suspension of disbelief asked of the audience beyond breaking point by showing off how contrived and absurd the whole thing is instead of giving it the humanity a proper acting job instead of a circus show might have provided. Of course, it usually is the director’s job to realize this sort of thing and influence an actor accordingly, last time I checked, so I suppose that’s, alas, how Shyamalan wanted it.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

In short: The Granny (1995)

An intensely horrible old woman we will only ever call Granny (Stella Stevens who really brings life to her horrid character) lives in her creaky old mansion, and is cared for by her apparently saintly (yet born out of wedlock – gasp!) granddaughter Kelly (Shannon Whirry).

The rest of Granny’s intensely hateable family pops in for a supposed (hateful) family visit, but in actuality, they are there to poison the old bat so they can finally grab their inheritance. As it happens, the poisoning plan proceeds with difficulty yet ends with a dead Granny. However, before her death, some random guy pops in to give Granny a potion of immortality, because she secretly gave a lot of money to charity and must therefore be secretly good instead of a hateful old bat and deserves to live forever. The immortality elixir comes with rules, very much like a Gizmo, but Granny does of course neither meditate on her universal love (fat chance) nor keep the elixir out of the sunlight as she is asked, so after her death, she comes back to life as an even more demonic version of herself to murder her family and try to make Kelly her successor.

Luca “Ghoulies” Bercovici’s The Granny is a lot like an overlong episode of “Tales from the Crypt”, just without the Hollywood stars, the great director behind the camera, and minus economical storytelling. I’m okay with the whole nonsensical immortality elixir business, but the script suffers rather badly under a need to reiterate how comically horrible everyone on screen is again and again to fill the running time. Once, these slimy molluscs pretending to be people are fun to watch, twice, they are still a bit funny, but once the film gets around to make the fifth variation on the same three jokes, it does begin to strain the patience. I do genuinely like the random weirdness it sometimes gets up to, like everyone in the film (except the bringer of the elixir) pretending softcore specialist Whirry is ugly as hell, or the sequence where one of the women is murdered by the revived sad little animal heads the most perverse of the fur lovers like to keep on the dead animals they wear.

In fact, the final act is generally goofy and absurd but really rather fun in its cheap nonsense horror way, it’s just not all that easy to slog through the mire of repeated jokes (perhaps even The Mire of Repeated Jokes) in the middle.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Critters 3 (1991)

A bunch of eggs of the furry, ball-shaped, hungry and mildly evil titular aliens hitch a ride with teenager Annie (Aimee Brooks), her father Clifford (John Calvin) and her little brother Johnny (Christian and Joseph Cousins) to the small city apartment building they live in with a bunch of other working poor.

Not surprisingly, the Critters go on a rampage soon enough, but because the film clearly balks from them eating any of the nice people living there, the building also has an evil landlord and an evil super trying to get them out of the building by any means necessary. Because it is that kind of night for the people in the building, the human bad guys have chosen exactly the time of the Critter rampage to cut off the building’s phone lines and electricity.

Fortunately, a certain teenager turns out to be rather useful in an alien fighting situation, and the non-evil grown up people are no total slouches either. Plus, remember the incredibly annoying Charlie (Don Opper) from the first two movies? He’s coming to the rescue, too. Hooray?

Directed by pretty much completely overlooked but often very interesting female genre director Kristine Peterson, Critters 3 was scripted by splatterpunk scribe David J. Schow. How Schow came to be scripting a PG-13 horror comedy that is quite as nice to its characters as this one is, I don’t know (and would rather keep an enticing mystery to me by not googling). It certainly isn’t a film suggesting any of Schow’s generally rather more grim and leather-clad sensibilities, nor those of the usually quite a bit more hard-edged Peterson either.

However, the filmmakers stepping out of their comfort zone a little does actually work out well enough for the film. It’s not so much that Critters 3 is a great film – though it is certainly quite a bit more entertaining than the second one in the franchise if you ask me – but it is a thoroughly likeable one that seems to enjoy spending time with its slight but not badly drawn working class characters rather more than it does on too much Critters action. One can’t help but suspect the film also couldn’t afford very much Critters action – otherwise the most anarchic bit of their rampage would probably not have been laying waste to an apartment kitchen – but at least it looks for a way around that little problem and finds it. Or at least enough of a way to keep things rolling along entertainingly enough if you go into the film with small expectation. Plus, the Critters dolls (created by the Chiodos you may know from a little film called Killer Klowns from Outer Space) are great to look at, even though they seem to be even more, ahem, inspired by the Gremlins this time around.

Direction-wise, Peterson does a pretty straightforward job, with a couple of moody scenes that suggest a tenser film, always keeping the thing running smoothly and pleasantly, which is the correct approach for a film like this, I believe.

And that’s really all there is to Critters 3: a couple of talented people make a nice and friendly film in an okay franchise. Oh, and there’s the added bonus of a pre teenage heartthrob – and rather freakish looking as if to hint at the middle-aged man – Leonardo DiCaprio as the step son of the evil landlord for those of us who enjoy watching future big time stars in the horror movies they made early in their careers and now are embarrassed to mention.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: They dare to climb a terrifying new peak in suspense... all the way up to hell!

Where Eagles Dare (1968): For quite a few people, this war adventure directed by Brian G. Hutton and written by Alistair MacLean is a bit of a classic of men’s adventure cinema. I’ve never seen that in the film, and a recent re-watch unfortunately did not improve my impression. Mostly, the film feels bloated beyond all comprehension, taking up two and a half hours of one’s time for a series of plot twists and improbable plans that makes the most of our contemporary blockbusters look downright sane. Brian G. Hutton’s direction is bland, wasting many a theoretically cool set piece through tedious pacing, the script just goes on and on about everything, and the cast, well…This is as bland a performance as you’ll encounter by Clint Eastwood, and Richard Burton does his usual Richard Burton slumming thing that just doesn’t do it for me, just longer, in this case.

Falcon’s Gold aka Robbers of the Sacred Mountain (1982): I have a lot of room in my heart for Indiana Jones knock-offs (particularly of the Italian persuasion) but this cable TV movie – ergo, breasts – which is the understandably only directing credit for one Bob Schulz, really doesn’t even seem to try to grasp for an adventuring crown forever out of its reach. Instead of cheap thrills and silly ideas, we get Simon MacCorkindale making rubber faces that must go for human expressions on his planet, atrocious editing that ruins the few moments of theoretical excitement the film has on offer, and a script that doesn’t actually manage to hit even the simplest adventure movie tropes decently but does find space to include a pretty problematic “romance” between MacCorkindale and a character we first meet wearing her school uniform. Though, to be fair to the nudity does come not from her.

Romancing the Stone (1984): It is of course a bit unfair to compare a cheap TV movie to a decently budgeted studio production like Robert Zemeckis’s adventure romance with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, but still, this one shows how to trot classical adventure movie paths well. And thanks to its organic mix of slightly updated romance tropes and a lot of very well done adventure stuff, it doesn’t feel like much of an attempt to catch that Indiana Jones money at all, but rather like what it is: a film inspired by many of the same sources as Lucas and Spielberg that goes its own, frequently funny, always crowd-pleasing and very fun way from there. Diane Thomas’s script mostly manages the difficult task of having her heroine grow and finding that big roguish love without the latter destroying the former fantastically well; that Turner and Douglas where both in a phase where they could do little wrong certainly helps here too.

The film is also perfectly paced, looks and just feels fantastic thanks to Zemeckis and photography by the great Dean Cundey. Sure, one might complain this is film as candy, but when it’s as good as any candy you’ll get your hands on, who’s going to?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

PSA: A Note of Temporary Absence

There will be no new posts for a couple of days. But don't despair, imaginary readers, normal service of blathering (sometimes frothing) about movies good, bad, and dubious will resume on April, 27th.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Steel Dawn (1987)

We’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic world, though, taking the handful of hints the film drops about the world before, perhaps not a post-apocalyptic Earth. So much is clear: there was some kind of war, and eternal winds have turned the world, or at least the part of it we get to see, into a windy wasteland.

Our protagonist is a nameless wanderer (Patrick Swayze) and former high-ranking soldier spending his time wandering the wastelands, meditating while standing on his head and fighting off the only mutants the film bothers with including; all to deal with his PTSD, one supposes. However, when he meets his old teacher (John Fujioka) only to witness him being murdered by professional assassin Sho (Christopher Neame wearing a very excited looking hairpiece), he ambles after the killers, eventually ending up on the farm of Kasha (Lisa Niemi), where he hires on as a farmhand.

He’s at exactly the right place, too, for Sho is the preferred hired assassin of local bad guy Damnil (Anthony Zerbe) who is in the classic bad guy business of trying to take over a small community with violence. And that’s without Damnil knowing Kasha’s secret: her lands include a secret underground source of clean water. Clean water, mind you, she plans to provide to the whole community for free soon enough. Looks like Shane, ahem, Swayze, will have to use his powers of violence for good while also falling for Kasha, and playing replacement dad for her son.

As post-apocalyptic westerns – and this really is a thinly veiled variation on Shane and other films where a violent stranger arrives in a little town, finds peace for a short time and then has to solve bad guy troubles with his old violent ways only to drift away again afterwards – go, Steel Dawn is a pretty good one. As a friend of the goofier side of the post-apocalyptic divide, one can be a little disappointed that the sand-digging mutants in the film’s prologue are the only truly Italian-apocalypse-style weird bit Steel Dawn delivers, but the film’s straighter soul works out fairly well for it. And hey, straighter doesn’t mean there’s anybody here not dressing either in weird rags or in weird rags with leather pauldrons and of course other assorted Duran Duran music video leather bits, nor do we have to miss men wearing mop-shaped things where we humans have hair (best in class here is obviously Neame’s hair-thing even the less imaginative will suspect of one day just packing up its bags and crawling away, leaving a bald man behind). In fact, the lack of mutants – as well as firearms and even bows for some reason – does clearly convince the film to replace other post-apocalyptic mainstays as well. So no dune buggies this time around but wind-powered dune buggies that move so slow you’d think people would rather walk – there’s still even a race of a sort – and suggestions of the rests of a bizarre warrior culture in this place’s military that has nothing whatsoever to do with the one in our world. Also, Brion James is playing a good guy.

Lance Hool’s direction isn’t anything to write home about, competently plugging away at Doug Lefler’s script without demonstrating much style but also showing himself to be just competent enough to handle things decently, as well as clever enough to understand that a good desert shot means instant atmosphere. The script is mostly competent too, with a couple of fun ideas, a couple genre standards executed well, and with some curious moments like the randomly appearing and disappearing dog Swayze befriends that has no function at all in the film except to suggest that our hero, probably, doesn’t eat dogs but shares his food with them. Or the fact that it can’t seem to decide if Sho is an honourable assassin or not, and so has him jumping merrily from honourable to dishonourable while Neame is chewing the scenery just as merrily.

The action scenes are fun, making good use of the fact that Swayze’s dancer background makes him a natural for screen fighting (I’d argue dancers are better basic material than many non-screen/stage trained martial artists for this). We’re not talking Hong Kong levels of choreography here, obviously, but the fights are much better than clean punch-ups.

At this point in his career, Swayze is in full sway of his soft macho persona, generally selling the softer parts of his character a bit better than the machismo. Though on the machismo side, he has a note-perfect scene where he encounters Damnil and his henchmen while bathing and very naked that gives extra tough guy points. Swayze certainly makes a more convincing romantic actor than most guys you’ll see playing the lead in action movies of any era, so the romance part of the film actually feels like more than a beat the plot has to hit. Throw Swayze into a pool of character actors for every other role like Steel Dawn does, and he certainly gets my seal of approval.

Honestly, what more could I ask of a post-apocalyptic western without guns?