Thursday, January 17, 2019

Calibre (2018)

Because his fiancée's new pregnancy signals something like the beginning of responsible grown-up life, and realistically for quite a few years less time for swanning off with his friends, to him, Vaughn (Jack Lowden) is going on a weekend trip into the Scottish Highlands with his best friend Marcus (Martin McCann). It’s going to be a hunting trip, no less. Vaughn does not actually have much interest in shooting helpless animals but Marcus insists, and it’s pretty clear the latter man has been the dominant partner in their friendship since they met at boarding school, a place where you’d expect Marcus with his clear rich boy entitlement to have felt rather at home, and Vaughn not so much.

After a night of drinking and flirting with the female populace of the village they have booked rooms for the weekend in, or a bit more than just flirting in Marcus’s case, off to the hunt they go. From now on, things will go very badly indeed, for Vaughn accidentally shoots and kills a little boy. The following confrontation with the child’s desperate father ends up with Marcus killing him, too, in what he clearly honestly believes was the bodily defence of his friend. To the audience, the situation is rather more ambiguous; it’s a clear possibility that Vaughn had managed to talk the man down already when his friend shoots.

In any case, from here on out, Marcus takes control of the situation, with little resistance from the just as shell-shocked Vaughn, and the two start on a series of increasingly horrible, and just plain wrong decisions, starting with the idea of burying the bodies and (badly) pretending nothing happened.

Matt Palmer’s Made for Netflix thriller is a rather wonderful example of intelligent filmmaking, based on a script – also by the director – that particularly impressed me with its measuredness, its ability to escalate a situation yet to find the point to stop before things, characters and situations become too over the top.

So Marcus is certainly a bit of an entitled prick – certainly someone I’d dislike heartily in real life - and Vaughn a bit of a wet blanket, but both are so in believable measures, keeping their friendship a concrete thing between two believable and concrete men instead of an abstract or a cliché only there to drive a movie. And the villagers, as country people in horror films and thrillers are wont to, certainly have their own ways of going about things, but again, the film finds exactly the right spot just before they turn into crazy backwoods folk and portrays their actions as consequence of the things they go through.

In fact, one of the film’s subtle arguments seems to be that part of the situation evolves like it does exactly because our protagonists view these people – even an obvious man of distinction like Logan McClay (Tony Curran, as off-handedly wonderful as usual) – as villagers, these curious humans city people meet when they are on vacation, not quite like us, and therefor not quite evoking the kind of empathy and respect they might afford those they meet in their daily lives. That’s not to say there isn’t resentment coming from the other side, too, though it mostly is the sort of resentment provoked by random outsiders just trampling through your life without even seeming to notice when they do harm.

This kind of thoughtfulness, the willingness to let things and people be complicated runs through every aspect of Calibre’s script. However, it also manages to be just a wonderfully effective genre film, if you like your thrillers quietly tense and subtly tight, that is, for while there is indeed something of a violent climax, much of the immense tension of the film is based on careful observation and consideration of people and situations and seldom built on obvious set pieces. That’s not a criticism, of course, it’s a sign of subtlety, and while I do love loud and visually stylized thrillers, subtlety is not a bad thing, especially if it’s realized so well.
It’s also remarkable how little interest Palmer shows in twists, something that now seems to be a mandatory element of most thriller and horror films, often to their detriment; instead of twists, Calibre has actual organic plot developments, the feeling of a noose pulling tighter, and things deteriorating. I rather prefer that.

I haven’t really said much about the film’s technical aspects. That’s not because they are not worth mentioning, but because Palmer’s direction is so self-assured and at the same time so disinterested in pointing at itself, that the film’s highly effective framing of scenes, the pointed editing, and the often beautiful camera work of DP Márk Györi, as well as the through the bank excellent acting, just become part of the gestalt of Calibre.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

In short: Dislike (2016)

A grab bag of the worstmost popular vloggers in Russia are invited to a sponsored event that’ll see them drinking some dumb energy drink while meeting up in some villa in the middle of snowy nowhere. Nobody of them seems to be the least bit curious about the fact that there’s no actual human being apart from a voice coming from a loudspeaker awaiting them at the villa, so what happens next seems a lot like natural selection in action. They are, of course, going through a Saw (repeatedly mentioned in the film, so we at least can’t blame it for being dishonest) and slasher crossover, with the difference that there are no actually cruel games to win or lose, and there’s something of a lack in torture, so dying and infighting is pretty much all that’s in the cards for the foreseeable future.

As far as I know, the horror sub-genre of the Internet personality slasher is still waiting for an actually decent film for everyone else working in it to copy; Pavel Ruminov’s Russian version certainly isn’t that one. Though, to be fair, it is neither the worst film in its sub-genre, nor is the rest of the film quite as bad as its first half hour. But then, said first half hour consists mostly of the set-up for the backstory of our mandatory heroine and the online shenanigans of the other six idiots the film will then start to whittle down.

Not unexpectedly, there’s not a single interesting character in the bunch, and the film’s attempts at satire stay completely on the surface level, leaving the audience to go through a film concerning the fate of a bunch of mostly uninteresting (and obviously unlikable) nonentities. While the film shows a certain amount of low budget movie slickness in its presentation, it’s not enough to overcome the core problem of having a cast of characters nobody watching will give a crap about. There are some decent bread and butter kind of horror film moments and some classic red and green lighting in what would be the climax in a better film, but even this Dislike’s muddles up with a double plot twist. The first of these twists is risible, while the second takes about then minutes of build up with the kind of “satire” that isn’t actually more clever than the things it makes fun of, for a pay-off it should have come to in one minute.

Nothing new in the world of movies about Internet people getting slaughtered, then.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

In short: Malicious (2018)

Warning: I’ll have to spoil some of the film’s more interesting ideas!

Notorious city dwellers Lisa (Bojana Novakovic) and Adam Pierce (Josh Stewart) can’t help but move to the country, for Adam has been offered a position as a math professor at a rural college and the position is just too lucrative for someone as early in his academic career as Adam is to pass it up. Why, there’s even a huge house for the couple providing plenty of room for the child Lisa is pregnant with. Further developments will reveal Adam’s position is quite this well paid because many maths professors apparently can’t cope with the fact that their department head, Dr. Clark (Delroy Lindo), is also a parapsychologist (gasp).

That second field of interest will come in handy though, when the Pierces encounter some really rather nasty paranormal phenomena that seem to start at about the time Lisa opens a “fertility box” her wayward sister Becky (Melissa Bolona) has given her. Lisa miscarries under rather mysterious circumstances; whatever has caused the death of her child now seems to have latched onto her in the worst way.

Getting into the spoilers, the entity the Pierces have unwittingly invited into their lives is a thing that kills the unborn children of pregnant women to then take hold of the soul and the future of the child. So both of them have encounters with nasty versions of what would have been their daughter in various stages of development, like a suburban version of maiden, mother and crone. Though the film’s not clever enough to leave it at the traditional forms. Not being quite clever enough really is the problem of Michael Winnick’s movie for most of its running time.

While the basic idea of the film’s Big Bad is rather on the tasteless side, it is also very resonant, theoretically an ideal way to explore all the fears and horrors of young parenthood, as well as a path to giving the protagonists very mixed feelings towards the thing that haunts them. Unfortunately, the film never really goes anywhere interesting with its basic set-up, and seems to use the the four and a half versions of its monster just to provide visual variety, not to get deeper into the characters’ heads. There are some vague gestures towards a weird incestuous thing between the entity and Adam, but again, the film just doesn’t seem to know what to do with this either. Nor does it do much with the way Adam clearly tries to hide his lusting for Becky behind rather impressive amounts of rudeness towards her – there are a couple of moments that nearly go somewhere with this, but then it’ll turn out to be just an excuse to get a breast (or two) on screen.

If all this sounds as if Malicious perhaps sells its potential for psychologically incisive horror for trashy charm, that’s not the case either. Here, too, the film stops halfway, avoiding to become entertainingly crass as much as it avoids to have much depth.

Winnick’s professional but personality-free direction doesn’t do Malicious any favours either – it’s just a tepid film that is neither here nor there.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Inerasable (2015)

Original title: 残穢 -住んではいけない部屋- Zan'e: Sunde wa ikenai heya

Mystery novel writer Ai (Yuko Takeuchi) earns her daily bread by turning true ghost stories her readers send her into a series of newspaper tales. When an architecture student we’ll call Ms. Kubo (Ai Hashimoto) sends her a story about the curious swishing noise of heavy fabric on tatami mats she hears coming from the bedroom of the small apartment she has just moved into, Ai becomes instantly fascinated. Ms. Kubo’s first thought of the noise being the sound of somebody sweeping the floor takes on a more sinister quality soon enough, suggesting the dragging back and forth of a loose kimono sash worn by a hanged woman. Trying to explain what is going on, she makes various inquiries, learning that, even though nobody killed themselves in her apartment as she has begun to assume, the former tenant did kill himself after he moved out. Stranger still, the apartment building has an uncomfortably high turnaround rate in tenants. More research uncovers hers isn’t the only apartment in which strange things happen.

Ai and Ms. Kubo continue the research, increasingly teaming up in person, where they only talked via email before, discovering one terrible and disquieting thing after the next.

Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Inerasable is a wonderful film, telling its tale of a series of interconnected hauntings, or the tales about these hauntings in the calmest and most gentle of voices which belies the actual horror lurking behind them. Nakamura, as the director of the wonderful Fish Story, has more than just a bit of experience with shaggy dog tale structures, and uses his considerable control about this format here wonderfully. Unlike in Fish Story, the shaggy dog here is more of a shaggy abyss, of course.

One of the film’s great strengths is its ability to create a sense of place and of community, digging backwards into the lives and times of a specific building lot, implying the mores and characters of the people populating it over time with just the right, short, strokes, while at the same time creating lively characters out of our two heroines, their increasing entourage of helpers, and all the people that tell them their stories, or more often the stories they heard from others, in the process. On this level the film not only tells creepy stories but also explores how communities create stories out of their lives. Nakamura does all this with a very impressive eye for the telling detail that brings a character to life, putting the rest in the hands of a capable cast of Japanese character actors of all generations.

As a shock-delivering device, The Inerasable isn’t terribly great. The handful of direct horror sequences suffer a bit from Nakamura’s insistence on some rather bad looking CGI effects, and sound design that’s – apart from the really creepy swishing – too generic to be effective. However, the actual manifestation of the supernatural isn’t really where the film’s terror lies. Rather, this core lies in the way every ghost story its two main protagonists uncover is in fact just the result of another, even more terrible one, that itself covers a different one and grows tendrils of other just as terrible stories. If you’re just looking long and hard enough, and peel off enough layers, the film suggests, every place is haunted, and all hauntings seem to be connected to something terrible in the end. Which does of course fit nicely into the Japanese style curse the film concerns itself which tend to operate like a supernatural or spiritual virus. Unlike me, Nakamura and his film suggest all this in a gentle thoughtful tone, probably offering you tea next; it’s quite wonderful, reminding me not so much directly of M.R. James but of the mild, ironic tone James framed his ghost stories with so often.

So, if you like your ghost stories gentle but not at all harmless, told with a deep feeling for the humanity of all characters you encounter but not looking away from terrible implications (even when the characters try), this one’s for you.

Saturday, January 12, 2019


Warning: this trilogy of crap movies isn’t for the faint of heart!

Dracula 3000 (2004): Not to come over as excessively negative, but this German/South African co-production directed (in a rather generous interpretation of the term) by one Darrell Roodt must be one of the most joylessly bad films ever made. At the very least, it’s one of the most joylessly bad films I have seen in a long career of trying to find the entertainment value in things of generally dubious quality. There’s a theoretically okay enough cheapo cast including Casper van Dien, Tiny Lister and at least two minutes of Udo Kier, but the combination of Roodt’s clueless yet boring direction, the industrial building this was shot in nobody even tried to dress up as space ship interiors, and a script that includes lines like “I wanna watch my anaconda spit all over your snow white ass” and deems them funny come together to produce the perfect piece of shit.

To be avoided at all cost.

L’immortel aka 22 Bullets (2010): I’m more often than not criticizing the films that Luc Besson’s Europacorp crap out for their blatant stupidity but at least, they don’t have pretensions of artistic class and do their best to entertain their audience, quite unlike this particular Europacorp film. Richard Berry’s L’immortel plays out as a painful attempt at cramming as many gangster movie clichés into nearly two hours of running time as possible, filming them in an overbearing way that’s so pseudo-artistic it becomes tackier than anything Olivier Megaton has ever done, and hoping the audience hasn’t seen the dozens of better movies using these clichés to much better effect. Poor Jean Reno does his best as our honourable hero gangster boss (he’s against drugs, saves prostitutes etc) but not even he can save this particular film.

Repo Men (2010): And yet, the Berry film is still more watchable than Miguel Sapochnik’s dystopian SF action comedy monstrosity that takes a perfectly serviceable anti-capitalist idea and turns it into a series of scenes that are by turns unfunny, puzzling in their use for the film, would-be transgressive, or painfully generic. As is the custom for films like it, it also features way too many scenes where it winks into the camera while clapping itself on the shoulder for how clever and subversive it is, never actually finding the time to be clever or subversive.

As an action film, it also suffers more than a little from the fact its hero is the kind of asshole who has no problems with murdering people for money until his head is on the table, and never demonstrates anything even vaguely resembling a change of heart. Which is of course unavoidable in a film whose characters never resemble actual human beings, either.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Uninvited (1944)

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.

While out in the country on vacation, music critic and composer Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) stumble over a house they immediately fall in love with as it reminds them very much of their childhood home. Pamela's more open about it, so she's the one to decide she and Rod will attempt to buy the house and leave their London life behind.

As luck will have it, Winward House, as it is called, is indeed for sale. Its owner, one Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), offers the siblings a surprisingly low price, even though his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), is quite set against selling the house at all.

As so many horror movie characters before and after them, Rod and Pam soon learn that a cheap new home can only mean one thing: said new home is haunted. Consequently, there are curious occurrences in the house. Its studio room where Stella's father once painted her mother, is colder and more damp than it should be and has a certain air of dread about it. Pets don't approve of the house's upper floor, and some nights, just before dawn, a woman's voice coming from nowhere can be heard crying.

On the positive side, after first misgivings, Roderick and Stella begin to fall in love. The Commander is dead set against this, but it's not so much the romance he seems to disapprove of, as the thought of Stella putting even a single foot into Winward House. Given what actually happens once Stella does step into the house, the Commander's fears aren't exactly unfounded.

In the end, if Roderick and Pamela want to have a nice, spook-less home, help Stella grow independent of the shadows of a past she doesn't even remember, and get a bit of romance in trade, they'll have to delve into Winward House's and the girl's past, and thwart not only a supernatural menace but also a rather more worldly (yet thematically appropriate) threat.

Lewis Allen's The Uninvited is that most curious of things, a 40s horror movie made by a major studio that doesn't explain its ghosts away with some evil uncle in a gorilla costume. Apart from taking its supernatural menace seriously, the film also talks rather directly about some things films made under the iron rod of the production code did not usually dare talk about that way. It's as if the film were made by grown-ups with a grown-up audience in mind and just didn't feel the need to coddle anyone.

Not that The Uninvited sets itself so apart from the film mores of its time that it's afraid of a bit of deeply Hollywood-like sentimentality, especially since it is not only a horror movie but also a romance that transplants a handful of Gothic tropes into the contemporary 1940s, with a deft understanding of how to use them properly in this context. The characters here are after all modern people, so their reactions to the things going on should be modern too, however old-fashioned the tropes these dangers are based on are. In a really curious development, the merging of the gothically inclined romance and the ghost story elements works perfectly, with both sides of the genre equation strengthening each other, and nary a moment when the horror lover will gasp "oh no, they're romancing again" nor one for the romance lover to sigh "now with the ghosts again". This isn't a film of two genres grafted together like Frankenstein's Monster (or Bob, as I call him), but one that happens to belong to both and would make little sense - emotionally, thematically, or otherwise - if it restricted itself to just one of them.

While the script's (based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle I now really want to read, and not just to see how large the differences between original and adaptation are) fusion of ghost story and romance is very strong, a strong script alone does not always make a good movie. Hauntings can easily become ridiculous instead of haunting, and romances cloying instead of charming. Fortunately, Allen is quite capable of handling both sides of the film with equal verve. Allen is in general quite an interesting director. Once the mid-50s came around, he began a nearly absurdly fruitful career as a TV director, but among the films he made before that and - somehow - in between are some fine examples of filmmaking in various genres. It's this adaptability Allen makes great use of here, still very early in his career, showing a fine sense of how to develop a haunting mood through shadow and sparse light, and especially noise, as well as a knowledge of how to be romantic without turning kitsch.

Allen makes particularly good and subtle use of his actors to deepen the feeling of the house's haunting, with many a scene where Milland and Hussey are trying to joke away their fears (they are modern people living in the modern world, after all) yet their faces show how out of sorts they really are. It's always wonderful to witness the young dapper Milland in films of this age, when a guy who'd later turn into the perpetual old grump in front of the camera was allowed to bring the type of charming, slightly roguish characters to life that can become so annoying in the wrong hands but are really rather loveable when done right.

Thematically, this is of course a rather romantic (in various meanings of the word) film about a dapper young man who - with the help of his very competent sister who'll win herself her own grown-up romance in the process - has to rescue his lady from the shadows of the past, shadows that in this particular case haven't quite allowed her to grow up or to reach her full potential as a person, which in turn will probably help him with the same problem for himself. Despite the whole set-up not exactly providing Stella with much agency, the film also makes it clear that Roderick wants to help Stella not just because it's difficult to marry a dead woman but also to help her to actually grow up and reach that potential. We can argue about how progressive this can be when Rod is the one party of the relationship actually active here (though I'd really rather not), but we can hardly argue that a guy applying himself to help his romantic partner become a whole person instead of a pretty cipher isn't romantic in concept.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Xtro (1982)

Little Tony’s (Simon Nash) father Sam (Philip Sayer) has disappeared three years ago while they were out playing in the country. Tony has been telling a story about his Dad disappearing in a blinding light that’s obviously connected to a UFO, but his mother Rachel (Bernice Stegers) and the rest of the world clearly assume Sam has simply run off and left his family behind.

Now, one night, another UFO appears, dropping off something unpleasant. Said unpleasant thing roams the countryside for a bit, killing and, well, sucking dry a couple and then impregnating a woman in a highly improper manner, which somehow leads to a very short pregnancy that ends with a full-grown Sam bursting out of his poor new “mother’s” belly.

Sam (or whatever he/it is) soon turns up at his wife’s place, and tries to continue their family life where he left off, claiming amnesia. Never mind Rachel is now living with another man (Danny Brainin), and their au pair Analise (Maryam d’Abo, clearly only in here to provide the film with more opportunity for nudity). Well, Sam has rather different plans than Rachel could have expected, and soon, he has pumped little Tony full of alien juice that gives the kid reality bending powers.

Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro is not exactly what anyone who went into the cinema to see it at the time must have expected. Sure, there are obvious attempts at ripping off Alien and the works of David Cronenberg, but there’s also quite a bit of The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” in here, as well as all kinds of exploitative tactics to shock the squares. The intriguing thing about Xtro is that it goes about its business of ripping stuff off and stitching it together again in as weird a manner as possible. It’s not just Davenport’s strange idea of how to pace a film where all scenes are either too short or too long, but every single variation the film makes on its predecessors turns stuff peculiar. The result is often unpleasant and usually feels wrong, overloaded with the sort of stuff that’ll give a Freudian a field day. Leaving out the outrageous (and awesome) birthing scene, just take a look at the way Sam puts the alien into his own son, basically by giving him a super hickey that seems to make the little boy rather too ecstatic for most viewers’ comfort; or even just the glance these two share when they decide to turn Analise into their alien egg-laying machine.

All these elements – while certainly not partaking of that “good taste” you might have heard about – do at least somewhat fit together on a thematic level, but what are we then to make of the inclusion of Tony’s new reality-bending powers, that will result in an nasty old neighbour lady getting killed by a life-sized toy soldier? Or of the shenanigans Tony gets up to with the evil little person clown (!) he manifests? I have no idea, and I very much suspect neither had anyone involved in this production. And let’s not even try to make sense of the endings. And yes, of course this thing has more than one.

Obviously, if you’re like me and can go into a film enjoying it as a series of scenes of increasingly bizarre fucked up shit (that’s the professional term), Xtro is certainly the film for you. If not, running away screaming seems the proper reaction.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Silent Partner (1978)

Bank teller Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) is in the throes of a malaise very specific to old-style American white middle class people of his time. Still secure he’s going to be secure in his job and position for the rest of his life, it is exactly this security that seems to haunt him: it is obvious he believes he is doomed to spend the rest of his days doing a boring, mind-numbing job, the highlights of his life being his aquarium and ineffectively flirting with his favourite colleague Julie Carver (Susannah York), who clearly finds him terribly boring. Julie, by the way, clearly suffers from the same trouble as Miles, just that she’s actively trying to relieve her existential boredom by having an affair with their married boss. And here you thought life in the bourgeoisie was satisfying.

Miles is going to relieve his own ennui soon enough, too, in rather more radical ways than Julie. For when he accidentally stumbles upon the plan of one Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) to rob the bank – while dressed as Santa Clause – he doesn’t alarm his superiors but sets in motion a plan that finds him waiting on the robbery to steal most of the bank’s money in his hands himself, while handing only a fraction of it to Reikle. It’s something of an awakening for Miles; he’s clearly never felt as alive as he does now.

Unfortunately for him, when Reikle hears on the news how much he is supposed to have stolen from the bank, he rather quickly cops to the fact he had a very silent partner. Reikle isn’t the kind of guy you want to be angry at you, but the newly alive Miles turns out to have repressed quite a bit of criminal energy, as well as personal charm towards the ladies, himself, so a cat and mouse game between the two men ensues that grows increasingly violent and dangerous.

Daryl Duke’s relatively obscure Canadian tax shelter movie The Silent Partner is quite a pleasant surprise. Given the cast, you’d certainly expect this to be the showcase for the considerable talents of its two male leads it is, but it is also an effective thriller with more than just a hint of Chabrol-style pondering of the mental state of the bourgeoisie. It’s not as refined a treatment of the theme as you’d get from the French, but on the other hand, Duke’s film does work better at being thrilling and tense than most of Chabrol’s films do.

Gould’s performance is just as good as you’d expect him to be in this sort of material. He wears his usual scruffy, somewhat goofy, surface charm, and certainly keeps Miles sympathetic, but his performance also makes clear he knows exactly that Miles’s awakening isn’t all roses. As Gould portrays him, the more alive Miles is certainly more charming, more lively and more fun to watch, but Gould also makes clear that there’s an unpleasant smugness and a ruthlessness to the man now that was held in check by societal convention until he started to break these rules. I’m not sure the film always realizes this; at times, it feels as if it were treating this really rather dubious character a bit too much like its hero than just its protagonist. On the other hand, his antagonist in Plummer’s Reikle is certainly much worse – where Miles is merely callous, Reikle’s a murderous sadist; where Miles uses people in what seems a not completely conscious manner, Reikle uses them and delights in crushing them afterwards. There’s a really nasty scene where he kills his former girlfriend who has thrown in with Miles that makes this very clear. Speaking of delight, Plummer really seems to revel in the nastiness of the character, smashing places and people up, and glowering icily to great effect. Though, watching the film, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Reikle may very well have started out like Miles, the difference between them just being one of degrees that may very well get smaller in the coming years.

Of course, the film does end on what plays like a conventional happy end, so I suspect that’s my interpretation of the characters and not the one of the film, itself, though I wouldn’t put this sort of thing totally past scriptwriter Curtis Hanson. Apart from the rich thematic resonance of the whole film, Hanson’s script also is just a really inventive, sometimes more ruthless than you’d at first expect, example of classic American-style thriller writing, wonderfully paced, and clever in all the best meanings of that word.

I haven’t said much at all about Duke’s direction, but then, there’s really nothing spectacular about it. It’s standard, professional 70s-style work, nothing more, nothing less. But then, given the script and the performances, not trying to be too stylish or extravagant seems to me rather the right directorial choice. This is a case where the director’s job really is to show off the work of actors and writer, getting out of their way and letting them do what they do best.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

In short: The Predator (2018)

One of the more puzzling phenomena in mainstream genre cinema is the inexplicable inability of all sorts of filmmakers to understand the core draw of the Predator as very clearly laid out in the first, and hell, even the second movie of what alas has become a franchise of ever repeating mediocrity. If you don’t know (which would make you a Hollywood screenwriter, I guess), the core of the Predator is that he’s hunting the most deadly prey available – usually competent violent action movie machos - while being invisible, creepy, and mysterious, destroying the hubris of competent violent machos even if they should survive the movie at hand.

What Shane Black’s Predator is all about: umm, wacky comedy crazy people, autism as “the next step in human evolution” (because everyone on the Spectrum is a genius Hollywood kid I suppose – insert the sound of a head hitting a desk repeatedly here), some evil government conspiracy whose actions make little sense in connection with their supposed goals, and competent violent machos kicking Predator ass without learning a single thing, even though most of them die. Because it goes with the territory, Black just can’t resist giving the aliens more backstory than they already have, destroying every possibility of them being, you know, alien, or mysterious, or threatening instead of just another CGI monster, while adding some random noise about global warming that has of course no actual point in the script at hand.

Otherwise, the film is all the worst parts of Black’s usual shtick without the good one’s. So everyone speaks exactly the same, which of course is like a potty-mouthed naughty twelve-year old boy who thinks he’s particularly clever, the characters are too thin even for the SF action film with heavy emphasis on the action this is supposed to be, and the plot and its solution are clearly of little interest to anyone involved (or they might have come up with a decent climax or an ending that doesn’t promise the next movie to be Super Sentai Predator). It’s all so perfunctorily done I can’t even enjoy it as cheap pulp SF like Aliens vs Predator.

In short, it’s crap. Let’s not even talk about the charisma free zone that is the film’s so-called “ensemble” of actors, or Black’s bland direction. Sure, the action sequences are competent, but in a film on this budget level, technical competence surely isn’t an achievement deserving praise?

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Primal Rage (2018)

Ashley Carr (Casey Gagliardi) is picking her husband Max (Andrew Joseph Montgomery) up from a one-year prison stint. During this time apparently both of them have kicked their respective drug habit. Going by the row they get into in the car about five seconds after they’ve said hello, it’s not quite clear if things would have ended in a shouting match or a motel bed between these two. As it happens, their drive home through the Pacific Northwest towards home and their child puts a stop to whatever could have happened when they crash into an already deadly wounded man in some of those traditional lonely wooded parts. Before you can say “Bigfoot victim”, they are attacked too, and eventually find themselves half-naked and lost in the woods, stalked by something very big and hairy.

The local sheriff (Eloy Casados) is for once actually competent, but he just might have to reconcile with the beliefs of his native American forebears he is rather shying away from like your typical lapsed Catholic, before he can be any help to anyone.

Patrick Magee’s Primal Rage is that most curious of things, a bigfoot movie that isn’t completely like all other bigfoot movies you have seen before. It’s not that all of the film’s constituent elements are strikingly original, but Magee puts them together in ways I haven’t quite seen done this way before, mixing and matching elements of other sub-genres in interesting ways, and certainly shifting its tone for the final act in rather unexpected ways.

The first interesting thing about the film is how much it treats its creature – often wearing bark armour and a creepy bark mask for better woodland stealth – more like a monstrous person than the animal or monster you usually get in your bigfoot movies. This version of bigfoot – that’s actually a corrupted warrior from native American mythology tasked to guard the borders between the wild and the places inhabited by humans, now having lost itself to mindless violence and cruelty – is a tool user, and a thinker, and spends the middle part of the film acting a lot like the slasher in a backwoods slasher movie. Alas this also includes the old “bigfoot wants to rape our women trope”, though the film does its best to treat this element comparatively tastefully; it certainly helps that Ashley is generally portrayed as a tough woman who copes well with things that’ll let soft people like me or you break down. Until the end, that is, when the film wavers rather inelegantly between going the old, lame, man versus bigfoot fighting for the girl route and trying to keep treating her as a person rather than an object. Of course, how many other low budget horror movies with a rapey bigfoot would even try?

Despite this problem, the final act is rather interesting, shifting the tone from something between survival horror and backwoods slasher into the realm of fantasy, with the Sheriff and Max getting help by a wood-dwelling witch whose inspired make-up makes her look exactly like a storybook witch, a thing from folklore and fairy tale, automatically shifting the tone into somewhat more fantastic realms that stand in fascinating contrast to the naturalistic way the film draws its characters and their interactions. Apparently, these woods really are a liminal space where people can shift – or be dragged - into the realm of mythology. Which is just such a wonderfully unexpected and cool direction to go into for the film.

If you’re into the bloody stuff, you’ll be in luck here, too, for this creature certainly does like to inflict all kinds of unappetizing wounds on its victims that, not exactly a surprise given Magee’s experience as make-up effects designer, look pretty damn great. Add to that the effective performances by the ensemble and Magee’s just as effective direction, and you have one fine bigfoot film.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Takes a killer to make one

Ocean’s Eight (2018): As with the Soderbergh Ocean’s films, this all-female spin-off directed by Gary Ross is a technically very accomplished heist movie. It also suffers from the same main problem as its brother movies: it’s not as smart as it clearly thinks it is and never stops congratulating itself for it. Turns out Soderbergh’s smugness is infectious.

However, what this one mostly made me think of are the horrors of Hollywood’s obsession with youth as beauty, particularly in women, and its habit to push aging actresses into what borders on self-mutilation based on the insane assumption that not being able to move her face anymore while looking like some sort of moving doll on the wrong side of the uncanny valley is a lesser problem for an actress than having a couple of wrinkles like actual human beings do. I’m also pretty miffed that all the all-female Ocean’s film is able to is make me think of the way its protagonists look.

Proxy Killer (2018): But enough of that. How about a perfectly fine low budget thriller instead? Scott (Charlie Babcock) survived an encounter with a serial killer his wife didn’t. Making his first step into self-help groups, he meets the mysterious O (Mandy Amano) who easily draws out the killer in him. Even though it is easy enough even early on to see where Kyle Downes’s film is going, the focussed presentation and convincing performances by Babcock and Amano keep things going effectively until the pleasantly logical conclusion.

Look Away (2018): Less focussed and less consequent is Assaf Bernstein’s tale about bullied eighteen-year old Maria (India Eisley) coping with an emotionally abusive family by trading places with her much more confident but alas evil mirror image. Thematically and visually, there’s a lot to like here, and India Eisley’s, as well as Mira Sorvino’s and Jason Isaacs’s performances are fine. The execution, however, flounders repeatedly, first making Maria’s environment just a little too horrible to credit, and then expecting the audience to care when Maria’s mirror image provides these nasty caricatures torturing our heroine with their comeuppance. A bit more subtlety, and a couple of human traits for everyone involved would probably have worked wonders there.

The film also suffers under the contemporary obsession with giving everything a backstory, so Maria’s mirror personality is of course not just a supernatural or psychological projection of her desires but the spirit of her dead twin her father apparently killed directly after their birth because she was deformed. See what I meant about subtlety and the lack thereof?

Friday, January 4, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Bullet Vanishes (2012)

aka Ghost Bullets

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.

China during the Warlords Era. Policeman Song Donglu (Lau Ching-Wan, doing his crazy detective bit with all the verve and charisma I expect from what might be my favourite living Chinese actor) may work in a prison, but he's a nearly superhumanly able investigator. He spends his time actually talking to the prisoners, clearing up wrongful convictions through his powers of deduction - not that this frees anyone, mind you - and learning what he can about human psychology from the inmates. Donglu may be a cop in a dirty system, but he's as humanist a man as one could imagine.

The numerous letters regarding the wrongful convictions he has written must have earned him the respect or supreme annoyance of somebody somewhere, for he is transferred to the city of Tiancheng to work on the local police force's corruption problem.

Not a man to be discouraged by little things like getting an office in the file archive in the cellar, Donglu quickly inserts himself into an interesting case, the kind of mystery he developed his talents for. A peculiar series of murders has begun in the munitions factory of a certain Mr Ding (Liu Kai-Chi, in a horribly over-done performance that doesn't jive at all with anything everyone else on screen is doing). The victims are shot by some unknown and unseen person, but the bullets are nowhere to be found. It's as if they were disappearing into thin air. So it's no wonder the workforce - held in virtual slavery by Ding - believes the killer to be the vengeful ghost of a killed worker girl who died in a game of Russian Roulette dressed up as "asking the heavens" for a verdict on a supposed crime by Ding.

Donglu, working with cop Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse, as neutral as always acting-wise), the fastest gun in Tiancheng, and clearly a policeman nearly as clever and as interested in the cause of actual justice as Donglu is, soon realizes that Ding is the kind of guy who would cheat in a game of Russian Roulette, and that whoever commits the murders certainly does so in connection with crimes Ding committed himself. But realizing this and finding out and then proving what is actually going on are different things. Things that can be dangerous once one finds out that the local chief of police is in Ding's pocket, and there aren't many people an honest cop can trust.

At first, it's easy to assume The Bullet Vanishes to be a Hong Kong clone of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies, seeing as how the films share an eccentric and brilliant detective, some techniques of demonstrating said detective's brilliance, and a soundtrack style. However, once the film gets going it becomes clear that director Law Chi-Leung was certainly taking inspiration from the modern Holmes movies yet is wise enough to be doing very much his own thing with it. Which, as much as I enjoy Ritchie's pulp action mysteries, really is as it should be.

Law's film keeps inside the genre lines of the pulp mystery, with the mandatory - and excitingly done - chases and shoot-outs, the contrived murder method that can only be understood through just as contrived and very entertaining investigation techniques, and a damn boring romance sub-plot between Nicholas "I may win prizes for best actor but you sure wouldn't notice" Tse and Yang Mi as terribly cute fake soothsayer Little Lark (some women really know how to wear a 2012 idea of a 1920s hair cut is all I'm saying) who unfortunately share not an ounce of chemistry.

Despite the very uninvolving romance that feels shoe-horned in from a "blockbuster writing 101" checklist, I'd be perfectly satisfied with The Bullet if it did only repeat the expected genre beats in its own enthusiastic and accomplished fashion. However, Law is a more ambitious filmmaker than that. Consequently, Bullets goes through some mood shifts reminiscent of a style of Hong Kong film made thirty years ago, with tragedy and serious discussions of ethics as much on the program as detecting, shooting and a bit of silliness. The more po-faced aspects of the movie didn't work quite as well as I would have wished for, with some of the more melodramatic moments feeling not quite as well built up to as they should have been, and the discussion of political ethics coming somewhat out of the blue. However, I prefer a film like this that attempts to add something more to genre formula filmmaking and not quite achieves it to the more harmless and riskless kind of movie; at least when the not quite achieved ambition does not ruin the rest of the movie, which it doesn't here. Plus, it's nice to see a Hong Kong film that doesn't shy away from agreeing with a humanist view of people even though it is willing to respect other perspectives. There's none of the unpleasant respect even for corrupt authority that is en vogue in Hong Kong cinema since the Takeover to be found in the film, either - after all, these bad guys are Warlord Era capitalists, so there's surely no connection to contemporary China (or America, or Germany) here, right, Mister Censor?

While I and many of my Hong Kong cinema loving peers have written many sad words about the descent of Hong Kong cinema already, if you watch the right movies, the old lady still has some life in it beyond whatever Johnnie To directs in a given year. More importantly, there still seem to be filmmakers like Law Chi-Leung willing to do interesting and at least somewhat ambitious things inside of very commercial genres without looking down on them or their audience. The wild years of Hong Kong cinema may be long over, but films like The Bullet Vanishes are proof that there's a good chance that the second decade of the slick years of the city's cinema can still produce films very much worth watching and thinking about. Like Lau Ching-Wan's character in the movie, I choose to remain hopeful.