Thursday, February 28, 2019

In short: The Chase (2017)

Original title: 반드시 잡는다 (ban-deu-si jab-neun-da)

When first we encounter him, locksmith and owner of a surprising number of small apartments Sim Deok-soo (Baek Yoon-shik) seems to be a typical example of the very unpleasant elderly landlord type, being an asshole to everyone he meets, for reasons and without them. However, he’s not at all as nasty as he pretends to be, so he never actually throws anyone out who is behind on their rent and is really willing to help people in his rough-shod way.

One of Deok-soo’s tenants, former police detective Choi (Son Jong-hak), tells him about a terrible suspicion: he believes a series of accidental and suicidal deaths of elderly, mostly homeless, men happening in their town right now is the work of a serial killer; worse still, it seems to mirror a series of crimes that happened thirty years earlier whose perpetrator worked his way up from weak old men to young women. Deok-soo is sceptical but when he finds Choi dead in a supposed suicide the next day, the whole thing doesn’t sit quite right with him. However, he only becomes truly involved when he encounters Park Pyeong-dal (Sung Dong-il), a former, also retired, colleague of Choi’s who shares the dead man’s theory and drags Deok-soo into his investigation, if the old man wants it or not. Outrageous twists are in their future.

And if I say, outrageous twists, I really mean it, for Kim Hong-seon’s comedic mystery certainly goes in a different direction than any comparable odd-couple mystery not made in South Korea would. There’s one - highly effective and fitting in a film about men of a certain age, mind you – twist in particular in the middle of the movie no American or British film would dare use quite this way, out of a misunderstood sense of good taste and propriety.

Event though this is one of the rare South Korean movies that doesn’t turn from a comedic start to drama or horror later on and stays an action/mystery comedy throughout, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing serious here either. The serial killer is indeed doing horrible things, maggoty corpses make an appearance, and the threat level for the characters is considerable. Kim does make light of certain things but he’s certainly setting up high stakes and danger for life, limb and mind for his characters. The mixture of – often really funny – old men humour, thriller, and mystery is very effective, not wont to let down any one side, and later – this is a movie from Korea after all – also adds quite a bit of melodrama. While this sort of mixture can end up a bit of a mess, Kim is always in control of the disparate elements and weighs them just right.

The performances by Baek Yoon-shik and Sung Dong-il are pretty wonderful too, both projecting the sadness and loneliness that lies behind their respective kinds of bluster very well, but also realizing which parts of that bluster still are pretty damn funny.

I also have to say that for once, I found myself enjoying a very twisty plot a lot, Kim timing theoretically absurd, and often pleasantly surprising, revelations so well, they never seem to be too silly.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

In short: Agonizando en el crimen (1968)

The intense lovebird behaviour of Parisian students of medicine Jean (Juan Logar) and Jaqueline (Annie Sinigalia) is rudely interrupted on their wedding day, when Jaqueline comes down with something the film isn’t ever bothering to name. The surgeon of the following dangerous operation of Jaqueline’s whatever tells Jean to “trust my hands”, yet the poor girl dies anyway.

Eight months later, Jean hasn’t been able to cope with his wife’s death at all. He has broken off his studies, is avoiding his friends, and is generally squabbling with his father. Of course, given that his friends and his father are pretty horrid, we can’t blame him for that. More problematic is how Jean seems to at least half believe that Jaqueline is still alive and is somewhere waiting for him. Worse, he starts to develop the habit of murdering his old student friends (all training to be surgeons), cutting off their hands post mortem, and burying the extremities below Jaqueline’s beloved rose bushes. Oh well.

While all this certainly makes Enrique López Eguiluz’s rather obscure Agonizando en el crimen sound like an interesting Spanish giallo - partly shot in France to be even more international - the truth is the film’s obscurity is mostly deserved. The audience learns early on that Jean is the killer, so any way to have a proper whodunit is blocked, which of course doesn’t mean the film isn’t going to show us filler scenes of pointless police investigation. Alas Agonizando also isn’t trying to set up an interesting cat and mouse game.

Instead, the whole thing meanders through its running time, sometimes attempting to draw something of a psychological portrait of Jean but suffering from the tragic fact that star and writer Logar shows no psychological insight whatsoever. It’s not even the sort of weird giallo ideas about mental illness you’d expect of an early 70s film – Logar’s writing and his on-screen mugging rather suggest we are watching a film made in the 30s, and not a good one.

As an actor, Logar is completely wrong for the role in any case. Psychological subtlety is clearly beyond him but he also doesn’t show any of the charisma he’d need for a proper loud fun mad performance. What we get instead is a lot of sweating and making bug eyes. The whole thing is particularly disappointing because there is indeed an actor in the film who could have played the fun serial killer lead the film cries out for: Paul Naschy, old Waldemar Daninsky himself, has a small role as a nameless police inspector. He’d have played the hell out of this one, certainly never achieving (or trying for) psychological realism, but finding his home in the melodramatic theme of lost love leading to madness, and certainly giving the character the physicality it would have needed.

Eguiluz’s direction is mostly awkward, with little to recommend it beyond the usual clichés of 70s filmmaking, used badly. At its worst, the film doesn’t even seem to understand the concept of suspense. From time to time, usually when it’s murdering time, there is a shot or two that suggests at least an attempt at creating tension, but a couple of seconds of a shadow turning into Jean moodily creeping up a staircase doesn’t save Agonizando.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994)

Somehow, vigilante serial killer Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has ended up with a cosy place in the witness protection program. Even if we don’t ask ourselves if a guy with his body count can belong to the category of “witness”, he sure as hell won’t need any protection, for he has most certainly killed everyone who might be tempted to do him harm for the sins of his past, as well as anyone he could be a witness against in a court of law.

Anyway, even though every woman in his live has been killed off to motivate him to another killing spree, our thick-headed protagonist still hasn’t understood he’s cursed (or he’s happily hoping for an excuse for another spree), and has romanced fashion designer Olivia Regent (Lesley-Anne Down). This one’s even bringing a child for additional dramatic potential! Now, Olivia has an ex-husband who just happens to be a tough Irish gang boss named Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks). Tommy really hasn’t let go of his former wife mentally, and has also insinuated himself into her business as his own private money laundering service. Once she realizes this, encouraged through some moral support by Paul, she’s willing to have a nice little chat or three with the local DA (Saul Rubinek).

Tommy does of course get wind of this, so Olivia first gets her face smashed into a mirror by Tommy’s only vaguely competent henchman (for reasons doing the deed in drag) and killed a couple of scenes later. You know what happens next.

Though, to be fair to Allan A. Goldstein’s only entry into the Death Wish series, which fortunately is also the final film of the series before professional talent void Eli Roth (alas) came along, just might actually surprise you with something. Too bad the surprise is in how boring the director manages to make Bronson’s little killing spree. As regular readers (imaginary or not) will know, I’m not a fan of the first two movies in the franchise, but Michael Winner did at the very least manage a consistent tone of nastiness and unpleasantness with them, whereas Goldstein can’t even shoot a scene of a guy in drag shoving Lesley-Anne Downe’s face repeatedly into a mirror in a way that makes a viewer at least a little queasy. It’s blandness taken to the level of high art.

If that whole scene, or the one where Bronson kills a guy with poisoned cannoli, do suggest to you the general inspired craziness of the very Cannon third or even just the in comparison to this one highly lively fourth Death Wish, you will alas be disappointed too. There’s a quality to Goldstein’s direction that makes even a cannoli-based murder boring to watch.

The director doesn’t get much help from anyone involved in this either: Michael Parks’s big bad and his henchmen are just not terribly interesting; Bronson phones his performance in; and the script by a cast of dozens (including Goldstein again) is disjointed and slow, wasting half of the film on setting up everything even the dumbest audience member understands is coming and is indeed waiting for, until Bronson gets to the – pretty mild – murdering. You’d think that by the fifth movie, at least the reasons for anyone to still watch a Death Wish movie would have been clear to anyone making it, but clearly, I am rather overoptimistic when it comes to the basic sense of some people in the film business.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Cold Ground (2017)

The late 70s. A young couple working for French TV, reporter Melissa (Gala Besson) and cameraman David (Fabrice Pierre) – the film having rightly concluded that waving away the soundman typical for this set-up with a comment about a new-fangled camera with integrated sound gets rid of an unneeded character – come to a town at the French-Swiss border to report on a group of scientists investigating a local bout of cattle mutilation and cattle disappearances.

However, all contact to the scientists’ base on top of a rather inhospitable mountain has broken off a few days ago. Supposedly, there’s nothing to worry about (there is after all nothing dangerous on the mountain, right?). Probably, the radio’s just broken down because of the cold. Nobody really wants to wait for the next supply helicopter run to be sure, though, so Melissa and David are allowed the grand opportunity of a couple of days hiking up a frozen mountain for their interviews, accompanying a local guide, a US cop with his own interest in cattle mutilations (Doug Rand) and a biologist (Maura Tillay). Needless to say, things do not go well on their journey, and the material we see are the digitally cleaned remains of the footage found decades later.

For, yes, Fabien Delage’s Cold Ground is yet another found footage movie/POV horror film containing the last testament of some poor, doomed people. Note to self: never take a camera anywhere, and you will live longer.

Even though the film – unlike Delage’s earlier fake documentary La Rage du Démon - never quite leaves the traditional structures of the POV horror genre behind, it is, however, a worthwhile entry into it, presenting at least a couple of ideas of its own but predominantly recommending itself by going through some of the standard tropes in a thoughtful and convincing manner. Where quite a few POV horror films never really feel as if they have a professionally edited script to work from, Delage actually puts some more than decent work into things like pacing, as well as actually writing characters. These characters aren’t particularly deep, but the writing is deft enough to give the cast something to work with, in turn providing the audience with a stake in their (horrible) fate. And while we generally know how all of this ends, the film does put a lot of effort into getting there in ways that do go from one interesting, even exciting, incident to the next. One might think that’s the sort of thing every genre film aiming to grab its audience would do, but one would be terribly, fatally wrong.

I also found myself rather enjoying how Delage uses and plays with various classical Fortean tropes until the film finally reveals what kind of monster is actually going to murder its poor characters horribly. And yes, we do get a good look or three at the film’s monster, never so good a look that there’s any need to criticize design or effects quality, but enough we get a fine idea of what these things look like.

Cold Ground is a bit gorier than most POV horror films, too, clearly realizing that taking place in 1976 also puts a certain onus of mild ickiness on a film. It’s not gratuitous, mind you, rather the slightly unappetizing are there as often and as much as is needed for what the film is doing.

Speaking of 1976, the film’s fake 70s documentary look is very well realized too, the whole thing looking a lot like actual documentaries shot under difficult circumstances of its time. This is part of the film’s general air of veracity, where the international characters speak with the appropriate accents, wear the right fashions and haircuts, as well as have tastes in music which fit.

So, even though this is probably not going to shock those among my imaginary readers who just loathe all POV horror films into changing their minds, Cold Ground is a worthwhile film for those among us who do like the sub-genre or just well-made small horror movies.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: There are places you should never visit. This is one of them.

Indigenous (2014): Your usual young tourist types visit Panama and go off with a local to tourist up a forbidden waterfall. There, they encounter the Chupacabra. The usual mix of running through the jungle, screeching, and “I’m so sorry”s ensues. Well, you can’t blame Alastair Orr’s film for rampant originality, or pretend it does anything with the characters that’ll make you care for them even the tiniest bit. The whole film is shot competently enough but terribly dull even if you’re like me and okay with generic horror films being generic. There’s just nothing to grab one even a little bit here.

Dollman vs. Demonic Toys (1993): On the other hand, at least Indigenous doesn’t reek of complete loathing for the audience that pays the filmmakers’ bills. This Full Moon abomination, on the other hand, directed by Charles Band himself, does reek so quite a bit. At one hour of running time, at least fifteen minutes of which are taken up by the credits and flashbacks to Dollman, Demonic Toys and Bad Channels, it’s difficult to shake the feeling of watching a really bad clip show episode of a horrible TV show (or Phantasm IV, for that matter). It doesn’t help that the plot of what’s there of actual new footage makes little sense even for a Full Moon film, the jokes are tepid, and most of it feels like filler with little of interest happening whatsoever. Not even Tim Thomerson and Tracy Scoggins reprising their roles from the earlier movies can save anything here, because there’s no attempt on screen to do anything but dupe us suckers paying for Full Moon films into literally buying crap.

Three O’Clock High (1987): Fortunately, this 80s high school comedy rides to the rescue. This is not exactly in my genre of choice but Phil Joanou’s film recommends itself even to people like me with a non-generic story made out of very generic elements and a focussed script that plots comedy nearly as tightly as a good thriller. Which is a good fit for Phil Joanou’s breathless direction that really goes in for the living nightmare elements of the plot, as if this were a Hitchcock film, and Casey Siemaszko one of Hitchcock’s everyman protagonists going accidentally stumbling into a convoluted plot. Just that it takes place in high school, and there are jokes which are actually funny. There’s no boring second here.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Squeeze (1977)

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.

Not to be confused with the surprising number of other films called The Squeeze.

Former Scotland Yard inspector Jim Naboth (Stacy Keach) has just gotten out of what clearly wasn't the first rehab stay after a drunken binge, taken his first drink again, and returned home to his two kids who inexplicably are still in his custody, when he learns from her second husband Foreman (Edward Fox) that his ex-wife Jill (Carol White) and her and Foreman's little daughter Christine (Alison Portes) have disappeared.

Both have been kidnapped by Keith (David Hemmings) and other henchmen of Irish would-be upper class gangster Vic (Stephen Boyd) to use them to blackmail Foreman. Foreman, you see, owns a bank (I think, he may also just own the security business), and Vic and his men are planning to use him to get into one of his security vans that should be loaded with about a million pound sterling, which is nothing to sneeze at by late 70s standards.

Accompanied by his thief friend Teddy (Freddie Starr) - who attempts to keep the ex-cop sober and out of trouble with particular enthusiasm - Naboth drunkenly stumbles through the seedy parts of London looking for Jill and Christine. Naboth's always just one step from one kind of humiliation or the other, but also a surprisingly effective investigator when the alcohol haze gets a bit thinner.

If you ask me, then Michael Apted's The Squeeze is one of the unsung greats of British crime cinema of the 70s. It's not quite on the level of Get Carter or The Long Good Friday, but not quite being one of the best films of its era and genre doesn't mean it's not pretty fantastic.

At this point in his career, before a curious and rough Hollywood career that contains a Bond movie as well as Oscar-baiting melodramas, Apted had predominantly worked for British television with quite a few TV movies under his belt, and one can't help but suspect that he enjoyed going all out with the grime and the violence for the cinema in The Squeeze. Stylistically, Apted's film opts for grainy hyper-realism, showing London as a cesspool of ugliness and poverty that is from time to time lit up by acts of random human kindness. There's a lot of nervy hand camera work (that still is steadier than most of the footage you'd find in a POV horror film from our decade), grain, and locations of a particular shade of grey - with a bit of cheaply garish colour from time to time - on display that make the mood of seediness particularly thick. On the other hand, Apted doesn't lay it on too thick: The Squeeze is a film taking place in locations that are ugly and quite unpleasant yet still feel believably lived in.

It seems like a somewhat curious casting decision to find someone as American as Stacy Keach playing a former London copper, and Keach's ropey accent that seems to come and go as it pleases sure doesn't help there, but once you've watched his performance here for a quarter of an hour or so, you start to ignore the accent, and become impressed by the raw truthfulness of Keach's performance. The actor is clearly channelling some of his own experiences here, and portrays Naboth's vulnerability, his loss of dignity, his lack of responsibility in all their ugliness without ever turning him into a caricature. Paradoxically, Keach's portrayal of Naboth's lack of dignity is so strong it effectively returns that dignity to the character.

The rest of the cast is equally strong, particularly comedian Freddie Starr in a not at all comical role, and Carol White going through some of the film's theoretically most exploitative moments and turning them into the exact opposite.

There is - obviously - a strong gay undercurrent in the relationship between Starr's Teddy and Keach's Naboth (just look at the scenes of Teddy interrupting Keach and his nurse girlfriend during sex), yet the film resists either turning Teddy into a tragic gay or making fun of him. I read this as a deeply ingrained respect for human difference you don't generally expect to find in a violent crime movie, or at least as an expression of the film's disinterest in judging its characters.

That unwillingness of judging characters for anything is particularly interesting and uncommon in a film that pulls as few punches as The Squeeze does. This is a film where violence is inelegant, undignified, and disgusting, and that doesn't flinch from showing even a seemingly sane gangster like Hemmings's Keith having no trouble at all being cruel to children, pressing a woman into a forced striptease with following rape (or at least non-consensual sex, depending on your interpretation of the word), nor with anything else that helps him keep his feeling of control. Consequently, the "bad guys" should be really easy to hate, but Apted's direction doesn't seem interested at all in making the audience hate them or anyone else, really. At the same time, the director clearly has just as little interest in wallowing in the characters' base actions as he in excusing them. He shows them but he sure as hell does neither enjoy them nor want his audience to (and the film's main sympathies in these scenes are always with the victims). It's just that not showing the disgusting details would be dishonest, and The Squeeze is a film all about being truthful to its audience, at least as far as it understands the truth.

At the same time, Apted also avoids the feeling of nihilism that could very easily follow this approach. There's simply too much compassion in every shot and every scene of The Squeeze to call it a nihilist film.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

In short: Overlord (2018)

D-Day. The film follows a small group of soldiers who are parachuted in behind enemy lines to destroy a highly important German radar antenna at a church in a small French village. Hardly anyone survives the drop, and the handful of survivors don’t really seem to be enough to get through all of the Nazis between them and the goal of their mission. Our viewpoint character is Boyce (Jovan Adepo), somewhat looked down upon by most of his peers for being “too soft” (and one, imagines, for the colour of his skin, though the film doesn’t really go there) but who will, not surprisingly, be the film’s moral backbone. Also involved are the cynical and probably PTSD-haunted veteran of the Italian front Ford (Wyatt Russell), the group’s de facto leader after everyone else is dead (Bokeem Woodbine, we hardly knew ye), posturing sniper Tibbet (John Magaro), war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and dude with a Jewish name – that’s all the character he gets - Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite).

At least, they quickly meet the mandatory helpful hot French woman (Mathilde Ollivier). On the negative side, the Nazis don’t just have a radar operation going on in the village church but are also experimenting on the villagers and everyone else they can get their fingers on. Nazi zombie super soldier’s the watch word.

Julius Avery’s Overlord is a pretty peculiar movie. Going in, the film suggests some kind of pulped-up version of The Dirty Dozen with zombies, but the film’s first half turns out to be more of a harsh and ruthless war movie, with moments that feel authentically horrible, and little on screen that suggests any of the kind of brutal heroism you generally get from the more pulpy end of the war movie genre. I’m not complaining, mind you, for Avery is a rather decent hand at this sort of thing, turning out a first third that’s exciting but also not pulling any punches for the audience.

For the film’s middle part, things shift into increasingly less believable directions that feel rather more than the sort of war action movie with horror bits I had expected from Overlord going in, until the film’s final third suddenly turns its horror pulpiness up to eleven (starting with something unpleasant yet utterly silly happening to De Caestecker’s character), pumps its fist at absurd last stands, and goes all-out bonkers pulp war horror on us. The way the film handles this, this doesn’t feel like dramatic escalation but rather like someone taking the script, ripping out the second half (probably while roaring something about Nazis) and just ramming the second half of a completely different film into the director’s face. Fortunately, Avery mostly handles the last third with the right energy for the bizarre nonsense the script cooks up for him, so, even though the film doesn’t manage to be to anything like a coherent whole, what’s there is well-directed, performed by an ensemble that keep their dignity even under greatest duress, and highly entertaining.

Still, I wish I had gotten to see the second half of that ruthless war movie called Overlord, or the first one of the crazy pulp concoction of the same title instead of half of each of them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

North Star (1996)

Nome, Alaska, 1899. When evil mining magnate Sean McLennon (James Caan) isn’t quoting Shakespeare, badly, or babbling the sort of “keep America pure” rhetoric one expects to culminate in him wanting to build a wall around Alaska, he’s doing his best to acquire a monopoly in the local mining business. In a couple of weeks he’s going to dispossess all foreign-born small claim owners, but before that he’s already letting his henchmen Reno (Burt Young) and Smiley (Morten Faldaas) loose to just murder anyone who doesn’t want to sell their claims to him.

One of his prospective victims is half Native American Hudson Saanteek (Christopher “totally Indian” Lambert). In what must have felt like a clever move at the time, Hudson has staked a claim on the holy land of his tribe to keep it out of the hands of prospectors. Alas, this only leads to his grandfather getting shot during his dying ceremony, and Hudson being left for dead by McLennon’s not terribly competent people when they try to murder him.

Hudson’s not going to let this sort of things slide, obviously, but his plan to get to Nome and – one presumes – either unmask McLennon’s evil plans or kill him (the film ain’t telling) somehow ends with him kidnapping McLennon’s girlfriend Sarah (Catherine McCormack) whose main job seems to be to read McLennon to sleep with the works of the Bard. McLennon gets together a small posse, and hunt through the icy wilderness ensues.

The 1990s were, apart from a few exceptions, a very bad decade for the Western, so a British, French, Italian, and Norwegian co-production shot in that snowy twin country of Alaska we know as Norway, directed by a Norwegian with a French actor pretending to be Native American in the lead may even sound like a proposal strange enough to add something to a genre nobody in the 90s had much time for. Particularly when the film in question is directed by Nils Gaup, whose brilliant Pathfinder – not to be confused with the horrid remake that isn’t one – amply demonstrates a sensibility that should work rather well with Western tropes, and most certainly with scenes of people chasing each other through the snow.

Unfortunately, the actual film we got is a complete mess, apparently written by six people, none of whom seems to have had any idea what kind of film they actually wanted to make. So characterisation and motivations shift and twist from scene to scene. One minute, McLennon is a walking-talking criticism of capitalism and racism, the next he’s portrayed as a man with a genuine mental illness, the next he’s a moustache-twirling villain who seems to believe Macbeth is his play’s hero (the last bit played with clear relish by Caan in full scenery-chewing mode); characters are introduced only to then do nothing but hang around in the background of some scenes; Hudson never does anything that makes even a lick of sense; the happy end (“yay, martial law!”, the film cheers) borders on the absurd, and so on and so forth.

Not surprisingly, the pacing is completely off too, with nary a scene that isn’t either too long or too short for what one assumes it is trying to achieve in the plot, if it is trying to achieve anything at all. Things just happen without any palpable thought given to whys and wherefores, as if three or four very different drafts of this thing had just been mashed together by a random intern. It’s rather puzzling, too, for while Norway was probably a cheaper place to shoot in than Alaska, the film clearly wasn’t a seat-of-your-pants production but something made by actual professionals on what must have been a decent budget. It rather feels like a Dino DeLaurentiis production, but Dino was, for once, innocent.

The acting’s all over the place too, which isn’t much of a surprise given the variable characterisation of everyone and everything here. While Caan’s decision to go all out is certainly amusing, it doesn’t help make the film any more coherent either, and though I certainly like Lambert and his minimalist approach to acting, he’s really not the kind of actor able to conjure up an engaging performance out of nothing, which is all the script provides. Young and McCormack are totally wasted here, too.

Particularly puzzling is how little the film shows of Gaup’s talents at snow-bound action; even when it comes to scenes of dog-sleds chasing each other through the ice and snow, the pacing and rhythm of the film is so off, things feel as gripping and dramatic as somebody reading stock market prices aloud.

I have no idea what happened with this production, but the end result is utterly dreadful.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

In short: Rust Creek (2018)

Warning: vague structural spoilers ahead!

On her way driving to a job interview in Washington, college student Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) gets very lost in the woods of Kentucky. Even worse, while trying to get her bearings, she encounters two of the local male populace who clearly have very untoward designs on her. She manages to fight them off, but gets wounded in the process and has to flee into the woods, without any idea on how to get back to civilization or really, just survive. And this will turn out to be only the beginning of her ordeal.

Because, and here come the spoilers, while one might very well expect Jen McGowan’s Rust Creek to be a backwoods horror movie with a survivalist bent, it does turn into a very different film once it has gotten going, partially becoming one of these American rural crime films concerned with criminals who aren’t quite as clever as they think they are and the escalation of violence resulting from their misguided plans. But here, too, McGowan tends to take interesting detours from the genre standards, never completely going down the road of deconstructing the genres she’s working in, but rather inhabiting them in what feels like a more personal way. While she’s certainly no slouch in the thriller-style scenes that start and end the film, McGowan particularly excels in the calmer moments, in the careful eye she has for the unspoken nuances in the developing relationship between Sawyer and her rescuer/kidnapper Lowell (Jay Paulson), or the deft way she slowly reveals what exactly hides behind the simpleton good old boy surface of the local sheriff (Sean O’Bryan).

I also very much appreciate how deeply the film trusts its audience to understand the things it hints at instead of making explicit, like Lowell’s backstory as told through environmental details, a half-sentence and a couple of glances. There’s a self-assured feeling to the whole of Rust Creek, a confidence that’s very much justified by the resulting film.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Killer High (2018)

Somewhat highly strung Sabrina (Kacey Rohl), whose high school life was the absolute high point of her existence, is only too delighted to organize the class of 2008’s ten year anniversary festivities. Thanks to the small town she has grown up in and never left slowly turning into a post-apocalyptic wasteland only waiting for an actual apocalypse to arrive, there’s no place for the reunion to take place in anymore than their old school itself, now waiting to be torn down to make room for a graveyard, apparently.

Her kinda-sorta school friends Margo (Asha Bromfield) and Ronnie (Varun Saranga) – she the nice cheerleader, he the picked-upon nerd who still carries a torch for said cheerleader – are roped into helping her out, and things seem to have worked out well enough once the big evening has arrived. If this continues, Sabrina might even be able to continue her old schoolyard domination of her rival and nemesis Rosario (Humberly González). Let’s just not mention that Rosario’s actual life has turned out rather more interesting than Sabrina’s has. Alas, nobody expected a teenager to dig up the school’s old, cursed warthog mascot costume and turn into a really crappy looking warthog monster, so this might just turn out to be the final reunion of any kind for most of the people involved.

If you are okay with watching a bunch of broad yet not unsympathetic walking talking tropes go through a by now pretty well-worn kind of set-up for a horror comedy that doesn’t seem to have either the inclination or the money for having much to offer in the horror part of its genre description, Killer High might be just the film for you. Well, it’s not actually as bad as all that, for while its director Jem Garrard does make some less than effective decisions, like repeatedly going into digital diorama mode (as seen in Age of Ultron) in scenes where we should witness actual action, her direction seems otherwise unspectacular yet effective. At the very least, the pacing is okay, and the comedy, while not surprising in any way shape or form, does not consist of the film winking and nudging in the direction of its audience ad nauseam. When it comes to high school reunion comedies, this certainly ain’t no Grosse Point Blank, but it’s actual character based humour. Why, some of the jokes are even funny, and only very few are actively annoying. It certainly helps that the cast seems to have fun and is generally funny, so the humour is generally delivered with a degree of verve.

This was written by Suzanne Keilly, who is also responsible for the script to Leprechaun Returns, a film that shares this one’s basic character arc of portraying at first inimical young women slowly coming together to conquer a supernatural threat with wit and violence. Though the Leprechaun film is clearly the superior effort, tighter, funnier and bloodier (or rather, better at showing off the blood it can afford than this one is). Now, could somebody hire her for a slightly higher budget affair not beholden to a SyFy Channel budget?

All of which still doesn’t make me sound terribly satisfied with Killer High, when it is indeed a perfectly decent movie to while away ninety minutes with, just not one you’d need to re-watch anytime soon.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: World War III Begins on Your Toy Shelf

Venom (2018): Well-liked at least by the better nerd critics and surprisingly successful, I’m the odd man out who just loathed this thing by Ruben Fleischer. But then, I had no time for the director’s Zombieland either and feel that the two films share the same problems: scripts that never develop any kind of dramatic pull; a lead character who is a whiny self-centred little shit (Tom Hardy of course doing his whiny little shit with an accent) who never learns anything from his mistakes; jokes that never hit for me and supposedly dramatic scenes that make me snigger sarcastically. Add to Venom’s problems Riz Ahmed’s generically boring and unfunny villain and action scenes that are in the lower third of contemporary superhero spectacle, and you really find my puzzled about what I’m supposed to like here? Okay, the film does have more to do for its non-powered female lead than typical and has the good taste to cast Michelle Williams, but that’s all I found to enjoy here. It’s still better than Deadpool, mind you.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018): And the bad mood cinema continues with Sony’s attempt to make the first movie again, but cheaper and worse. So the script is a worse budget version of the first one with less interesting ideas, fewer fun set pieces, and no clever bits at all; Jack Black’s worse; the rest of the cast is so unmemorable, they make the decent one of the first movie look brilliant by comparison; the moral is more treacly; the PG horror more PG and less horrific; and Ari Sandel’s direction shows about as much personality as (please imagine me looking around my apartment for the thing in it with the least personality) a door knob.

Apostle (2018): Compared to the other two films in this entry, Gareth Evans’s worst film, a Netflix production about a man (Dan Stevens) with a laudanum habit going undercover on a cult-owned island to rescue his kidnapped sister and encountering worse things than just cultists, is sheer brilliance. Well, actually, it isn’t, really, but at least it is a film with certain ambitions that more often than not demonstrates actual interest in the art of filmmaking. The acting is generally strong (with Stevens, who is often relegated to clear-cut guys with little personality but can do quite a bit more when he’s allowed to, a fine stand-out), the script provides an interestingly skewed tale of guilt, redemption and responsibility, the cult and what it does turns out to be rather made for the lover of Weird Fiction, and Evans creates a fine mood of dread and paranoia. The film’s big problem is its sluggish pace, with too many scenes reiterating things the audience has already understood, slowing things to a crawl for no good reason on more than one occasion.

It’s still a worthwhile film, mind you, but shave at least twenty minutes of its 130 minute running time, and you might have a great one.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Ironclad (2011)

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.

Warning: if you need the movies you watch not to run roughshod over actual history, you'll probably need to keep away from Ironclad, or die of annoyance.

It's 1215 in the Kingdom of England, and King John (Paul Giamatti chewing scenery like a true champ) is quite displeased by having been pressed into signing the Magna Carta. So displeased, in fact, he imports a group of Danes under their Captain Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich) into the country to help him take the baronies he just made peace with truly back into his loving arms.

But a small part of the former rebels led by Baron William D'Aubigny (Brian Cox) and Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) are willing to even hand the crown of England to the French king Louis to keep John out of power. The French, however, will take their time. Who wants a crown delivered on a silver plate, right? Because of the French dithering, their cause could be lost before it even truly begins if John and the Danes are able to take the strategically important castle of Rochester, which controls access to large parts of England.

Our rebels are a bit low on bodies at the moment, so it falls to D'Aubigny to take a troop of seven men he gathers in the traditional manner of such films, and who are played by people like Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook, to the castle to help protect it together with the minor garrison its actual lord Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) can - not exactly happily - muster. D'Aubigny's trump card, though, will be Templar Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy!), a man who may have been traumatized by the Crusades but who is still the best at what he does (which, as you can assume, isn't very nice).

Soon, John and his Danes arrive at Rochester and a siege ensues. The fighting and screaming and nearly dying of hunger is only interrupted by various discussions about the worth of faith and oaths, as well as the mandatory love story: Marshal and Reginald's wife Isabel (Kate Mara) - a woman too independent to be happy in her time and place - fall for each other hard.

As I already warned, if you go into Jonathan English's (a rather ironic director name taken in this context) Ironclad hoping for respect for historical facts, you'll be struck down with some kind of fit sooner or later; this is, after all, a film taking place in 1215 that ends with the French king Louis (who was actually a prince by the time anyway) holding the crown of England, which is not a thing that happened, and, curiously enough, also not really a historical fact that needed changing for the film's story to work at all. Though it has to be said that the film does, on the other hand, show an interest in a degree of historical veracity beyond historical fact, so the middle ages in Ironclad's England are appropriately poor, cold, muddy, and the populace's education leaves something to be desired. I think the easiest way to ignore the film's historical failings is to treat it as a - rather excellent - sword and sorcery film without the sorcery. Just pretend this takes place in Engelund, and the king's name is Jim, and all problems are solved.

If you are one of those people unable to do that, though, you'll probably also be quite annoyed by the film's treatment of its characters. Everyone's psychology works more or less like that of people in a movie made in 2012, with little regard taken for what we today assume to be the specifics of the medieval mind. Personally, I don't mind this too much. I'm generally doubtful when a film turns historical figures into aliens, because I doubt human psychological and emotional needs have changed all that much during the course of history, but rather our consciousness of them and our way to express them has.

Anyway, the film's rather open approach to history also results in something I find rather believable, and definitely one of the three elements I like most about it. Namely, Ironclad's willingness to treat its female lead as an actual human being with a degree of agency. The film is never confusing Isabel's position and meagre rights in life with her actual inner life and her capabilities. Isabel is still, alas, neither hero nor actual centrepiece of the film, yet Ironclad shows a respect for her and interest in her that can't be taken for granted in this sort of historical adventure movie, particularly not a contemporary one where stating historical veracity often rather seems to mean "putting the women in their places".

The second element of Ironclad I find particularly noteworthy is of course James Purefoy, for James Purefoy is an actor who is evidently improbably awesome in whatever role he is cast in, putting charisma and effort in whether a film and script deserve them or not. What is true in general is also true here. Actually, the rest of the cast of predominantly British character actors are no slouches either (particularly Kate Mara and Paul Giamatti), but, you know, James Purefoy!

Finally, Ironclad is also just very, very good at the main thing it sets out to do, creating gory, exciting and slightly repellent battle scenes which from time to time feature a bit too much of the old shaky cam but make up for that by their sheer blood-spattering power. These scenes are quite a thing to behold and are in fact so convincing they leave no doubt in a viewer's mind that twenty men can hold off one thousand enemies in a siege. Which is exactly the sort of thing I like to take away from my medieval adventure movies. Hail King Louis of England!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

In short: Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

So, it turns out that, if you put the Puppet Master franchise in the hands of people with actual talent, namely here S. Craig Zahler for the script and Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund the direction, and let them make as hog-wild an exploitation movie as they have a mind to make, you actually get that most curious of things – a highly entertaining Puppet Master film. Not surprising in a Fangoria production, this isn’t a film for everyone, but really made for an audience with a love for gory horror and the old-fashioned exploitation values of gore, tits, and wit. Good taste certainly wasn’t invited, instead we get more or less large appearances by the great Barbara Crampton, the Udo Kier, Michael Paré, Matthias Hues (soon to be controlled by Baby Hitler), and so on. Also, a score by Fabio Frizzi.

Puppet and kill-wise, this is much more packed full with incident and murder, also incidents of murder, than most other Puppet Master films, with a small army of the darn little Nazis (and in this version they are definitely Nazis, giving the the film a nice opportunity to have a more diverse cast to kill as well as saying goodbye to any tragic backstory some of the older films had for the master and his puppets) killing people in increasingly outrageous fashion. Apart from Baby Hitler Hues, one of the high points is a completely shameless killing of a pregnant woman and her unborn. Or one of the low points, if you are of a higher moral fibre than I am, probably. That particular scene is the moment that divides the people for whom this film was made from those for whom it wasn’t. If you’re me and find the whole thing funny (if “holy crap, did they just do that?” outrageous), than you’ll enjoy the rest of the film, too, if not, there’s really no shame in missing the rest of this.

Speaking of the film’s humour, this is very much a throwback to fun 80s and 90s style gore where everyone involved doesn’t take things terribly seriously but isn’t really interested in the post-Scream plague of “irony”, instead providing said fun by skirting (and overstepping) various lines. I would call it dumb fun, but there’s also so much obvious intelligence in the film’s staging, and so much energy and love put into propping up minor characters with neat details before killing them off in Zahler’s script, the “dumb” word doesn’t really apply.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Tiger in the Smoke (1956)

It’s a very foggy night in post-war London. Someone has been sending Meg Elgin (Muriel Pavlow) a series of newspaper clips from the past couple of months with photos showing her husband in the background, the final one containing the time and date for a meeting at a train station on the back. The problem: the man in the photos just can’t be Meg’s husband, for he went missing during the war, presumed death, and really wasn’t the type of man who’d just disappear only to reappear quite this mysteriously. Being engaged to be married to one Geoffrey Leavitt (Donald Sinden) now, Meg went to the police with this, and when we first encounter these characters, Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Luke (Christopher Rhodes) and company have accompanied her to that train station, as has her fiancée.

Indeed, a man looking a lot like Meg’s husband appears, but once grabbed by the police, he turns out to be an impostor wearing a false moustache and a jacket that once belonged to Meg’s husband. Because they don’t have anything on him, the police let him go.

While Leavitt starts an investigation in the man all of his own, other characters drift through the fog – a street band of dubious moral character, a freshly escaped killer with the delectable name of Jack Havoc (Tony Wright), a nasty middle-aged woman named Lucy Cash (Beatrice Varley) – all looking for each other and something that’s somehow connected to Meg’s dead husband.

In theory, this fine British post-war thriller is an adaptation of a Margery Allingham novel. Since my reading in non-noir, non-pulp crime literature is rather spotty (and my tastes in the genre not as broad as in others), I can’t say if it is a terribly close adaptation; it certainly does not feature Albert Campion, the lead series character in the novel.

As some of the Allingham novels I actually have read, the film does find the sweet spot between being a British mystery interested in crime literature as a way of portraying its contemporary society and the psychological motivations of its characters, and the sort of post-war thriller quite a few British writers excelled at. The mystery here is very deftly constructed, managing to be at once complicated enough not to be obvious but also not so contrived it escapes believable motivation. The latter, of course, is also the case because the script’s just as deft at creating broad yet not shallow characters that come to particular life through perfectly timed revelations, marrying plot development to character depth rather wonderfully.

Staying on the script level, the film does quite a few very interesting things. Havoc, for example, is at first portrayed as someone akin to today’s media’s ultra-competent serial killer, a murderous shadow with near superhuman abilities the policeman hunting him talks about in near mythological terms of evil. Yet once the film actually starts showing us the character, this mythology breaks down quickly, for while Havoc is certainly utterly ruthless, a killer, and very dangerous to everyone he meets, he’s not an Evil Monster, but a man as broken by the war and an inability to fit into the “normal” world afterwards as at least half of the street band, who has deluded himself into believing he is now fated to find the treasure everyone in the film ends up hunting. While the film never turns Havoc into an anti-hero in anything but his own mind (which would be all wrong anyway), it does treat him and most of the other characters from the poor side of the tracks with more empathy than you’d expect from a British film of its era. All of this does of course also turn Tiger in the Smoke into as true a post-war film as many American noirs, examining the social fallout of the war by way of a crime story, with rather existential ideas about life lurking only a small way below the its surface.

Among the film’s other clever flourishes is the rather dry recognition that the word “priceless” might just mean something very different to men from different classes – as it turns out to the detriment of quite a few people who could still be alive and somewhat happier if more precise language had been used. No British film, after all, is ever not about class on at least some level.

While Tiger in the Smoke’s director Roy Ward Baker (here working as “Roy Baker”) has made more than a few excellent films, I often found him to be strong at telling a story effectively but very conservative in the ways he deigned to tell it. Here, his direction is not at all conservative. Sure, there are workmanlike, relatively static dialogue-scenes, but more often, there are rapid, and highly effective, shifts in the editing rhythm and the amount of camera movement as a whole, the calm scenes always threatening to break out into expressionist close-ups of character actors’ faces, shifting to Dutch angles with the shift of a scene’s mood, or moments the when the camera takes a run through the dense fog. Baker’s really fantastic in using that fog too. Particularly the film’s early scenes take on a slightly phantasmagorical quality that suggests everything can happen in a London buried in this kind of white shifting mass, and any kind of danger could hide in it.

Which makes the shift from foggy London not to bright Brittany and broad daylight for the final couple of scenes particularly effective, on a practical level but also on the more metaphorical one of everything finally being revealed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

In short: Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959)

A group of drag-racing youth has founded a hot rod club with pretty square sounding rules forbidding all the illegal fun stuff. Which is for the better, though, for the film’s budget doesn’t allow for more than one scene of drag-racing; on the positive side, it’s a girl-on-girl race, which is symptomatic for the way the film really doesn’t seem to have any problem with young women being allowed the same very mild rebellion young guys are.

Eventually, after many a scene of “humour” (more about that shortly), and much dancing to the hot hits exclusively on AIP’s American International Records, a friendly middle-aged journalist, and a middle-aged eccentric (even for this film) lady played by stalwart Dorothy Neumann with a pet parrot and an English accent gift them an old, supposedly haunted house for a club house (we never see any garages there, alas), for they just can’t pay for their normal one anymore. Ghostly shenanigans ensue, as well as more dancing to the hot hits (etc), a semi-climactic off-screen race between our heroine (Jody Fair) and the bad girl from the mandatory bad drag-racing group, and general stuff.

If there’s one thing William (J.) Hole (Jr.)’s Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow doesn’t have, it’s a real plot. Certainly, there are elements here – like the whole new club house business, the fake haunting, the drag-racer rivalry, some romance – that in most other films would accrue to become something of a plot, but this very special film approaches all these elements on the same level as it does comedy skits, the hot hits (etc), a talking parrot of seemingly human intelligence, a weird meta-gag about Paul Blaisdell “explaining” the haunting, a talking robot car (with a mouth), or bizarre would-be hipster speak, which is to say, as stuff to just throw on screen without any particular emphasis on anything. If you’re of that mind set, you might say this makes Dragstrip a film rather true to life, seeing as it too shows a deplorable lack of dramatic finesse and a tendency to random rambling. Why, clearly, Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow is a bit of an art film just pretending to be an AIP exploitation number trying to sell teenagers an image of themselves fractured through the minds of a bunch of grown-up weirdoes and fools!

If you’re not into a mildly ironic reinterpretation of drag-racing movies that can’t afford drag-racing, you might still enjoy this as an example of exploitation filmmaking that turns weird at a moment’s notice, or perhaps a visit to a past where bad flute playing and a parrot with a hepcat tendency were the height of humour and where all nerds (nerdier than the other drag-racers, even) wore Clark Kent glasses. As someone not easily bored by films that just do bizarre stuff instead of coming to any kind of point, I enjoyed Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow immensely.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Halloween (2018)

Given the blockbuster success of David Gordon Green’s sequel to the original first Halloween, I’m rather surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. It’s not that I dislike big movies (frequent readers will remember me getting pretty excited about most Marvel movies, for example), but the mainstream horror movie franchises with the most mainstream success right now – The Conjuring and Insidious come to mind – really don’t do it for me.

Plotwise, like many of us probably like to do in our heads, too, the filmmakers pretend there were no Halloween movies made in between Carpenter’s original Halloween and this one, so there’s no idiotic non-mythology to cope with, no relation between Laurie Strode and Michel Myers, and certainly no Rob Zombie stripper-related backstory (hooray). Which, obviously, is the first thing about the film at hand that endears it to me.

As you can probably imagine, the encounter with Myers in the first movie and the ensuing trauma very much ruined Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) life, leaving her paranoid, suffering from PTSD and over prepared for every possible danger even decades after the fact. She somehow managed to get married and have a child despite all of this, but her crazy survivalist parenting style and her just being horribly difficult to live with because of how damaged she is have left the relationship between her and her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) in tatters.  Karen is having a teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), herself now, and she’s obviously trying to not be her mother to a fault. Allyson has apparently turned out pretty alright despite all of this, and is doing her best to bridge the gap between her mother and her grandmother.

Which might even work out, if Michael, who has been kept in a picturesquely creepy and totally absurd movie mental “health” facility that seems to follow the Arkham Asylum rule book of patient treatment, didn’t use the opportunity offered by a transportation to what is apparently supposed to be an even worse facility, to break out and start right in with the killing again. This time, however, he seems purposefully drawn towards Laurie and her family.

Actually, I’m cheating a bit with this plot description, for I’m really describing the core of the Halloween sequel that intelligently uses ideas about Laurie from Halloween H20 but with more insight and less need to be a clever 90s style slasher, leaving out all the subplots and characters that the film grows around this core like weed. The script – credited to Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride and Green though I suspect remains of a dozen other scripts and treatments being buried in it too – is messy to say the least, starting subplots that just stop when Michael needs to get another kill in, or dropping characters and their storyline half-way through the film when they’ve done their duty by, say, destroying Allyson’s handy. There are a few too many moments when the mechanics of the plot are really showing, too. Other elements included are just plain inexplicable, like the idiotic and pretty damn pointless evil mad psychiatrist subplot that seems to belong into Halloween V or thereabouts. Don’t even begin to think about why there’s a weird would-be Tarantino skit between two cops later on in the film.

These distractions also take valuable time away from the film’s examination of the way Laurie’s encounter with Myers has not only destroyed her possibly bright future but has indirectly made the life of three generations of women worse, with the youngest appropriately trying to fix the damage Myers has done. It’s easy to read this as a timely bit of #metoo commentary, yet it works just as well as something somewhat less beholden to contemporary politics and speaking to all kinds of trauma that have troubled all kinds of people for – one fears – as long as humanity has done horrible things to each other.

Given how often the film distracts from this part of its plot, it’s actually a bit of a surprise it does indeed work as well as it does, but the script isn’t just messy and peculiarly loaded with subplots, it also does its best – very much in the spirit of the original Halloween - to turn at least half of Michael’s victims into likeable or semi-likeable human beings we don’t actually want to see killed in the pleasantly horrible ways Michael uses here, lending much of the body count actual impact beyond a bit of the old red stuff.

As a director Green is genuinely great at setting up suspense scenes, sometimes using the audience’s knowledge of genre conventions against us, and often demonstrating a talent for visual storytelling that rubs weirdly against the often confused narrative of the script. In fact, Green’s direction is strong enough, and the emotional core surrounding the Strode women so involving, I find the film’s flaws much greater in theory than they are in practice.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Clean. Fast. Professional.

I, Tonya (2017): Ah, the underclass, what’s easier to make fun of, and get loads of film price nominations in the process? After all, it would be way too much effort to do something interesting and instead of pointing and laughing at the poor, the uneducated, and those who never had much of a chance, perhaps use one’s powers of mockery to point and laugh at a society that produces them exactly so that they can point and laugh at them and look down on them.

In other words, this piece of crap directed by Craig Gillespie (also responsible for the bad Fright Night remake that interestingly enough shows the same lack of empathy and understanding) really got my goat. Classism is alive and well.

Josie (2018): This thriller about a high school girl (Sophie Turner) coming to a US small town in the South and provoking obsession in a lonely, broken middle-aged man (Dylan McDermott) and a teenager Marcus (Jack Kilmer) as directed by Eric England on the other hand doesn’t really result in much emotional turmoil, good or bad, in this viewer. There are all the elements of a really good neo noir or a sleazy trash film in here – the actors are certainly game – but as England plays it, the most interesting aspects of the plot are never explored much, if at all, and all the dangerous and/or uncomfortable ideas it could have or directions it could take are underplayed at best, ignored at worst. It’s the kind of psychological thriller that balks from actually diving too deep into its characters’ psychology, and consequently, there’s little more to it than decent actors, a slick look, and the inevitable plot twist a lot of viewers (me included) will have seen coming from miles away.

I Kill Giants (2017): I’m a bit underwhelmed with Anders Walters adaptation of Joe Kelly’s and J.M. Ken Niimura’s comic (as scripted by Kelly himself) too, but at least here I’m being underwhelmed on a high level. The film looks great, is well designed, well paced, the acting – particular by kid actors Madison Wolfe and Sydney Wade though Zoe Saldana turns out to be no slouch at all when she’s cast for her acting chops more than for her looks – is spot on, and the script does clearly know what it wants and why.

My problem with the film is that where it does want to go and what it has to say about the connection between fantasy and bitter reality, and about the way people have to cope with grief and pain in real life is as banal as possible. “You’re stronger than you think!” and “You have to face reality!” is as far as the film’s meagre philosophy gets. Which is not very far given all the build for it.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Flame and the Arrow (1950)

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.

It's the 12th Century and the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations under Emperor Friedrich I. (aka Barbarossa) controls large parts of Europe, among them the Lombardy in what we now know as Italy. The Lombards are less than enthused about their new masters, and a resistance movement that seems to concentrate on throwing grim glances and urging people to join their cause without ever acting for said cause has come into existence.

Lombard and hunter Dardo (Burt Lancaster) is not into that whole revolution thing, though. The man prefers rugged individualism and sexual promiscuity as long as no feelings are involved (I'm being a bit more straightforward about the latter element of his character than the film can be, but it's as unsubtle about things as a film made in 1950 can be) to social responsibility, though he does take good care of his son Rudi (the atrocious Gordon Gebert) and is the sort of rugged individualist who still has friends like his childhood friend, the mute smith Piccolo (Nick Cravat who was Lancaster's real life partner as a circus acrobat as well as in the movies, and has pretty wonderful chemistry with him). Ironically, Dardo has more reason to hate the Germans than most, for the local potentate, Count Ulrich aka "The Hawk" (Frank Allenby) took Dardo's (consenting) wife as his concubine five years ago, leaving Dardo alone with his son and certain trust issues when it comes to women that do explain his sexual and emotional habits.

Things between Ulrich and Dardo finally come to a head when the hunter quite purposefully shoots one of Ulrich's hunting hawks. In retribution, Ulrich decides that it's best to take Rudi away from his father into his castle to live with his mother. Dardo disapproves of the idea quite violently, but all that gets him is a crossbow bolt in the back and a new status as an outlaw; at least he also learns that he has quite a few friends willing to become outlaws themselves to help him.

The rest of the movie does of course consist of various Robin Hood-like deeds, the difficult romance between Dardo and Ulrich's niece, the much more agreeable Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo). Important lessons are learned by the rugged individualist (the social sphere exists and can't and shouldn't be ignored unless you are a total jerk or a hermit) as well as by the lazy revolutionaries (you actually need to get off your ass when you want to get rid of Evil) alike.

Everyone reading this surely knows Jacques Tourneur as a master of subtle horror as well as the film noir, what with little, totally unknown movies like Cat People and Out of the Past on his résumé. As someone working inside the studio system for most of his career, Tourneur did of course direct films in various other genres too. With The Flame and the Arrow, the director created a fine (and pleasantly Technicolor) adventure movie/trapezoidal swashbuckler that isn't quite as deep in the Robin Hood mold as one would expect. Sure, many of the expected elements are there and accounted for, but blacklist victim Waldo Salt's script and Tourneur's sense of style give most of these standard tropes small twists and turns that keep the film more lively and surprising than expected. My description of the movie's "rugged individualism versus social responsibility" theme may sound rather sarcastic, but the film actually does interesting things with it, never forgetting that its characters are supposed to be people and not walking metaphors, which leads to more complexity in the characterisation of especially Dardo and Anne than you'd need in an adventure movie or a film arguing philosophy. As an additional bonus, Salt's script also shows a degree of class consciousness that is more than just a little useful when you want to talk about the Middle Ages yet always comes as a surprise in a US movie. One could even read the whole film as one about class struggle, if one had the intention to do so.

Because Tourneur knows what he's doing, he also never steps into the trap of forgetting The Flame's identity as an adventure movie above its various subtexts. This may be a film that wants to talk about the problems and attractions of rugged individualism but it's also one that wants to show off particularly acrobatic (at this point in his career, certainly still more of a reason why a studio would hire the former acrobat Burt Lancaster than not, as you will know) swashbuckling (historically speaking, it's of course not swashbuckling, but you know what I mean) fights, bad guys acting dastardly, good guys being clever and charming, and women having a mind of their own, in a good-natured and brilliant manner. In Tourneur's hands, this still leaves room for the philosophizing as well as for sudden bouts of directorial brilliance like a certain swordfight taking place in a very Tourneur darkness. Even better, it's a film that knows perfectly well how to do this, how to let its subtext sing and its surface action shine, probably leaving every thinkable audience with as big a smile on its face as it did with me.

My Bollywood-loving friends will perhaps be interested and surely just as delighted as I was to learn The Flame and the Arrow also contains a scene where Lancaster and Cravat disguise themselves as members of a circus troupe to enter Ulrich's castle, with all the non-existing subtlety of disguise you'd see in a Manmohan Desai film. It's a glorious thing even without a musical number. Good taste in plot tropes is obviously as timeless as it is international.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

In short: The Perfect Host: A Southern Gothic Tale (2018)

Single mom Julie (Suilma Rodgriguez) and her little daughter Ellie (Andersyn Van Kuren) have returned to the small Southern town she grew up in and left after some sort of minor public melodrama to tie up the affairs of her newly dead grandmother. The relation they were initially supposed to stay at throws them out the evening after the funeral, and Julie really doesn’t want to spend the night in her grandma’s old house. Fortuitously, Julie has just met an elderly lady named Frances (Janis Duley) at her grandmother’s grave (in the middle of the night). Frances was an old friend of her grandmother’s, and she would be just too happy to have Julie and Ellie sharing her mansion until Julie’s business is sorted.

Her husband Harold (Thomas Herod Jr.) clearly sees things a little differently, and if looks could kill, Julie’d probably fall down dead the minute she meets him. However, Harold might be vocal, yet he’s clearly not having a say in the matter.

The house is certainly big and beautiful, but it’s also eerie. Particularly at night when strange noises and drafts occur on a regular basis, but even by day, the place feels and acts, well, haunted. But that’s not the worst about the new living situation, for the longer Julie and Ellie stay, the more Julie suspects that Frances has something sinister in mind for her daughter.

Usually, I am a friend of movies that take their time to build characters, place and mood before things like a plot develop. Derrick Sims’s The Perfect Host certainly is such a film, but it never convinces me that all its quietness and slowness really go anywhere that needs quite as much build-up. The climax, despite concerning some theoretically shocking things is terribly underplayed, seemingly going out of its way to not feel too threatening or emotionally big, which isn’t really an approach I connect with the Southern Gothic as a style and genre. I don’t argue the film’s Southern-ness (at least not from the very different part of the world where I’m living), but the Gothic really needs elements that are bigger than life rather than the naturalistic small town malaise the film delivers.

In fact, the best scenes here all concern Julie’s attempts to avoid her past, and her fraught connection with her former boyfriend Jonathan (Chase Ryan Jeffery), who may or may not be Ellie’s father. It’s the small day-to-day stuff where the film’s strengths lie, where its quietness and slowness seem appropriate and meaningful, and where Sims demonstrates a great talent for the minutiae of human interaction. The (perhaps) supernatural elements feel more like an afterthought that is neither effective nor seems terribly well connected to the naturalistic elements of the film, and I’m honestly unsure why this isn’t simply a film about Julie coming to terms with her past.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

BuyBust (2018)

The Manila police has caught a mid-level drug dealer and “convinces” him to help them arrange a drug buy with his boss, one Biggie Chen. A squad of militarized “war on drugs” police are supposed to keep the situation under control, but things go wrong from the get-go. Chen moves the buy at the last minute into a claustrophobic slum he clearly has much tighter control over than anyone has expected. Turns out the whole thing is a trap managed by a traitor inside the police force going by the original code name of “Judas”, and soon half of the police team is dead and the other half, cut off from all support, begins a desperate fight for survival. Not just against Chen’s men but also against much of an enraged local populace who hate the gangsters and the police to pretty much the same degree, thanks to nobody involved on either side giving a crap about their lives or security.

Erik Matti’s Filipino action movie BuyBust is a highly impressive effort driven by some fantastic work in front of and behind the screen and what feels like genuine anger about the Filipino War on Drugs.

As an action film, this at times feels like a horizontal play on Gareth Evans’s The Raid: Redemption. The action here isn’t quite as fast and furious as in the Indonesian-Welsh production, but that’s because Matti clearly has his own ideas about the rhythms of an action movie. While the violence certainly escalate from somewhat naturalistic into something properly outrageous with an insane body count as is action cinema’s wont, for large parts of its running time BuyBust thrives on a stop/start, quiet/loud structure whose forward drive consequently feels a bit different from the way much of action cinema works. It’s a difficult trick to play in this genre, pacing-wise, but this approach provides BuyBust with quite a bit of individuality even for those among its viewership, like me, who have seen a lot of fictional people knifed, shot, etc in a lot of different ways, providing it with a feel fresh even though it tells an old story. One could argue that the film is a bit too long, and I certainly could see it losing ten to fifteen minutes somewhere around the middle, but then, a lot of great movies could.

The film prefers its action scenes up close and personal, even in gunfights, with its characters trapped in the claustrophobic environs of the slum, then trapped again by a lot of bodies trying to kill them, or the fights taking place in small enclosed spaces and so on and so fort. This gives some of the action a peculiarly intimate feeling even when the protagonists are fighting that most anonymous of enemies, action movie henchmen. But then, thanks to this intimacy, these henchmen feel a bit more like dying, bleeding and killing people than usual in the genre, consciously providing some of the violence here with more of a bad aftertaste than one might be used to, and fitting into the film’s political anger quite well.

And make no mistake, even though this is a movie that has a lot of fun with violence, it is also one that’s utterly, bitterly pissed off about the War on Drugs, arguing that its only use is to get many people dead and a few people – both on the side of the “law” and the drug runners – very rich indeed. In this view, people like our protagonist Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), who truly believe they are doing something to change the world, are just exactly the good footsoldiers and cannon fodder this sort of thing needs. In this regard, the film’s somewhat open ending that sees Manigan coming to an understanding of the world she’s living in and attempting to do something about it, yet then concluding before she can finish more than the most direct business (with even more violence, of course) is as far as optimism can reach.

Curtis turns out to be a wonderful physical actress, going through her action scenes with so much intensity of poise it’s not at all important she’s actually not quite as good a screen fighter as most of the rest of the cast (Brandon Vera is particularly great at pretend violence); acting, it turns out, beats being particularly good at hitting people in the face, at least in this case.

I found myself nearly as enamoured with Matti’s direction. There is a lot to love about it: be it his masterful treatment of localized sound (there’s some wonderful use of the contrast between diegetic and non-diegetic sound here), the way he uses a mix of the traditional green and red light and rain to emphasize the claustrophobia of the places the characters run through while still keeping in mind that these are actually people’s homes, the often extremely inventive changes in pacing – it doesn’t just feel good (action movies are, as you know, all about making you feel good about movement), it’s also clearly highly conceptualized and thought through.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Couple of Remarks About Superman (1978)

For a long time, Richard Donner’s film and its sequel were the best contenders for superhero movies that successfully took their material somewhat seriously and were able to make an actual emotional impact on their audience.

Seen today, it is a weirdly paced movie, going through about three prologues (including the set-up for the sequel!) featuring a lot more Marlon Brando than it strictly needs before something like a plot develops, but it also does the difficult job of getting Superman right. It does this by accepting the cornball elements of the character, realizing the dignity of its core ideals (and as with Captain America that “American Way” in his motto doesn’t mean the practice of America, but instead the dream of it) but also giving him, with large assistant from Christopher Reeve’s lifetime best performance, a humanity the character can easily lack. The film’s main flaw is that its Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is basically a long-winded (unfunny) comedy routine instead of a proper villain. It’s a curious decision in a film full of thoughtful and good ones, and Hackman’s performance stands out like a sore thumb between Reeve’s mixture of earnestness as Superman and twinkling eyes when he’s Clark Kent, and Margot Kidder’s note perfect Lois Lane.

However, I’m not sure the film as it stands even needed a big villain at all, seeing how much of its genuine impact is driven by the childlike (not childish, mind you) sense of wonder that may be the best way to treat its main character at all. This guy’s just not meant to be grimdark, and the film realizes this much better than most attempts at Superman that came after. I do understand what later filmmakers (and comics writers) attempted to do with acquainting Superman with the Dark Side, or just making him less powerful. An all-good and all-powerful being is, after all, pretty difficult to relate to, not exactly an obvious engine for dramatic conflict, and unless you’re Grant Morrison, perhaps not even all that easy to like – or rather, not someone where “liking” is a concept that really applies.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

SyFy vs the Mynd: Leprechaun Returns (2018)

Warning: there will be spoilers for parts of the final act!

The members of a newly minted sorority in what I assume to be the tiniest college town in the US have decided to turn a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere into their sorority house. It’s supposed to be an eco paradise, self-supplying with electricity and all other needs of the modern young woman. Alas, said cabin is the place where another group of young ‘uns had managed to trap the murderous Leprechaun (now played by Linden Porco), and soon, the tiny menace is quipping, murdering, and looking for his gold; also, having a car chase while riding on a drone.

As luck will have it, the newest sorority sister, Lila (Taylor Spreitler) is the daughter of what I assume was Jennifer Anniston’s character in the first Leprechaun, and the town eccentric Ozzie (Mark Holton) is another survivor of that particular epic. So Lila might just be the best bet the rest of her sorority (as played by Pepi Sonuga, Sai Bennett, Emily Reid and two random male hangers-on we can ignore) has for survival. At least once she’s copped to the fact that her mother’s tales of a tiny monster weren’t the ravings of a madwoman. Man, horror movies can be tough on off-screen survivors.

Now, if you’re like me, you weren’t screaming for any kind of sequel to any movie in the Leprechaun franchise, but perhaps you’ll be like me too in that you’ll actually come away from Steven Kostanski’s film with a big grin on your face (if, that is, you happen to have a face). How Kostanski has gotten from Manborg, Father’s Day and The Void to a Leprechaun sequel for the SyFy Channel is anybody's guess, but his film suggests a degree of sympathy for the franchise, a talent for enjoyable goofy nonsense, and a director who is perfectly willing and able to make fun low-brow stuff without a condescending tone or giving the impression he doesn’t actually want to entertain his audience.

As the plot description suggests, like the new Halloween film, this one’s pretending all other sequels in the franchise don’t exist, and seeing that these count among their number the Leprechaun’s adventures in space and in “da Hood”, that’s something we all should be thankful for; these are, after all, all films I wish I hadn’t seen. Also ignored is that terrible WWE reboot that turned the ole gnome into a most generic 00’s monster. Hurray.

Now, I’d be lying if I knew if there are any or many continuity problems between the first film and this one. Turns out the Leprechaun and the Wishmaster movies have turned into some kind of generic goo (probably only waiting for the proper dose of radioactivity to turn into a monster) in my brain. However, one really doesn’t need to have a degree in leprechaunology to understand the film. All one truly does need is an appreciation for a handful of (partially practical) gore effects, the lust for listening to horrible puns and quips that clearly know how horrible they are yet are still delivered without any winking and nudging at the audience (the film understanding we do get it without help), and the general temperament to enjoy all-out silliness. How silly does the film get? Well, apart from the Leprechaun riding a drone, there’s also the scene where it seems the nasty little person with the gold problem and the allergy against clover has been beaten by our surviving heroines, but begins to revive as a small army of tiny leprechauns. And a scene where Lila suggests to a semi-corporeal ghost that the judicious application of plastic wrap might make the guts hanging out of his belly (the Leprechaun got reborn thusly, you understand, or perhaps do not understand) more manageable. Also…but you see what I’m getting at here.

If this sort of thing sounds even the tiniest bit fun to you, imaginary reader, you will be pleased to hear that Kostanski and writers Mark Jones and Suzanne Keilly deliver the parade of jokes and the handful (we’re on a tight budget here) of character deaths with relish and a great sense of timing, and without ever going all Sharknado on us by explaining that yes, that joke was indeed a joke, aren’t I the clever one, and so on. Which is of course exactly the approach that makes Leprechaun Returns fun.

As an added bonus, you get an ensemble of likeable – mostly, this isn’t a film that wants us to want to see them die - young actresses who get into their theoretically thin roles with a sense of fun and indeed comical timing. That’s more than anyone could expect from a direct-to-TV sequel to a horror franchise that never was terribly good to begin with.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: They faced death......and found life.

The ABC Murders (2018): Or as I like to call it “Poirot: The Grimdark Years”, seeing as this BBC mini-series directed by Alex Gabassi and written by Sarah Phelps goes down the road of all bad grimdark stuff of presenting a worldview and view of people so bleak it becomes more than just faintly ridiculous. In this film’s world, everyone is horrible 24/7, then murdered by a horrid person who in turn is hunted by a past his prime Poirot (John Malkovich doing his best with a crap script) haunted by the shadows of an of course sordid past. Thing is, once your portrayal of humankind becomes as one-note negative as the one presented here, an actual complex and complicated human being watching it does tend to lose the emotional connection to the oh so dark caricatures grimly making their way through one’s field of view. There is, needless to say, quite a bit of scowling involved, as well as the expected scenes of the killer (Eamon Farren) throwing “creepy” poses for the camera.

Need I mention that the main colours in the production are poison green and piss yellow as if this were exactly the low rent copy of a David Fincher production it indeed is?

The Dead Room (2018): As a matter of fact, this half-an-hour ghost story for Christmas written and directed by Mark Gatiss, is just as dark as that Poirot thing. Here, though, it’s a darkness that comes from an actual exploration of character and guilt of the piece’s lead character, radio horror narrator Aubrey Judd (wonderfully performed by Simon Callow). Where The ABC Murders only knows how to strike poses, this one derives its strength and its darkness from an understanding of human complexity rather than from turning humans into caricatures that only know how to be shitty.

Because Gatiss must have been in a hell of a form when he did this, the short film also deftly creates a sense of place and of time having passed, all the while demonstrating – as expected – the writer/director’s love for the classic British ghost story. Quite an achievement for half an hour of television.

Christopher Robin (2018): Despite today’s complaints against a particular style of grimdarkness, I am still a bit too cynical to enjoy the particular style of all ages personal improvement feelgood cinema of most films like Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin. However, in this particular case, I found myself rather spell-bound by the whole affair. In part, it’s certainly an effect of the nostalgia towards Winnie the Pooh et al, but there’s also the fact that the film is quite serious about its portrayal of a very specific post-war malaise that sees Christopher Robin (a fine turn by Ewan McGregor) losing himself in the surrounding greyness of 50s England (despite being married to the most certainly not grey Hayley Atwell). Also bound to win my heart is the portrayal of Christopher’s former friends around Pooh as childlike and gently, yet utterly weird living plush toys. Well, expect for Tigger, who is hilariously deranged and not at all gentle. Really, the only thing that isn’t enjoyable about this one is that it doesn’t solve the problem of alienation in a capitalist society it posits and instead has McGregor inventing paid leave, but I may be asking just a tiny bit much.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Mutant Species (1995)

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.

A very special forces team under two guys named Hollinger (Leo Rossi) and Trotter (Ted Prior, director David A. Prior's brother and frequent leading man) is dispatched to salvage a mysterious something from an unmanned rocket that was bound for the moon but crashed down in the woods of Georgia. The special forces men don't actually know where they are dropped, nor what the actual goal of their mission might be, which, if you ask me, seems not very practical.

Soon, said mysterious something turns out to be a bio weapon in form of "mutant, virulent DNA" developed on behest of evil spy Frost (Powers Boothe). Secretly, Frost has ordered Hollinger to kill his troop once the bio weapon is secured, which he does, or rather attempts, for Trotter and a guy who might as well be called Deadman escape. Unfortunately for Trotter and his red shirt buddy, their kill-happy former colleague isn't just out to kill them but has also been infected with the DNA, which is the sort of thing that tends to happen when you just grab biohazard materials without protective measures. The stuff gives Hollinger awesome sniffing abilities but also makes him pretty difficult to kill and slowly but surely turns him into a guy in a rubber monster suit with a particularly large doglike head.

As if that weren't enough trouble for one protagonist, Trotter also has to survive the interest of a troop of goons sent in by Frost to just kill everyone in the woods. Help comes in form of a squatter (Denise Crosby) and her survivalist kid brother (Grant Gelt), as well as - on the home front - from General Devereaux (Wilford Brimley), Trotter's commanding officer, who does not like Frost's way to go about things at all. Let's just hope Trotter can kill the monster before someone nukes the place from orbit.

Mutant Species' director David A. Prior - whom you might know from his director/producer/writer role with Action International Pictures - was involved in quite a few attempts to transfer the local production model for the creation of independent genre movies from the times of the drive-in movie into that of the direct-to-video and direct-to-DVD-era. Prior's films usually have a distinctly Southern US flair, with no attempts made to hide the "local" in local talent. For a time, Prior and his Alabama-based gang must even have been financially successful, because - local cheap filmmaking or not - you don't get to direct more than twenty movies during the course of ten years without bringing in any money.

The film at hand was made right at the end of Prior's directing spree. I'd suspect a changing video market to be the reason for Prior's following (mostly) lack of productivity. Fortunately for people with dubious tastes (like me), the mid 2000s brought him back to making even cheaper movies, so the Prior story even has a kind of happy end, but that's not really relevant when talking about Mutant Species.

What is relevant is that by 1995, Prior had turned into quite an adept director of this type of low budget genre mishmash, a development his earliest films (see Sledgehammer), which were as odd as that duck Americans are always going on about, don't naturally suggest. Here, Prior has turned into the kind of director who knows how to pace a film, how to get the most out of fine yet limited locations, how to make things explode, and how much of a sense of self-irony a low budget movie can bear without becoming a self parody.

There's a sharp sense of (very odd) humour running through the proceedings, particularly the dialogue and the spirited casting of Wilford Brimley of all people as the grumpy general in the eye-killing shirt. The surprisingly effective self-consciousness of the script actually reminds me of the sort of thing John Sayles would have written for Roger Corman fifteen years earlier, though nothing here is quite as sharp or clever as in a Sayles script, and the politics are rather more Southern.

Prior also gets some fine performances out of his actors. Brother Ted (what is it with directors and their actor brothers named Ted, by the way?) is surprisingly laid back compared to the scenery-chewing madness I like and know him best for, but his bland semi-action hero good guy underacts to leave enough room for basically everyone else. For as long as he's on screen Leo Rossi really throws himself into the role of a guy slowly turning into a slimy dog monster dude, with all the sniffing (there is one of the great sniffing sequences in cinema in Mutant Species) yet not much of the howling that suggests; even without any howling, however, Rossi's approach to his role seems appropriately insane. Powers Boothe gives the very mid-90s evil guy in a black suit trading in secrets and evil with real glee, as you'd wish for from a bad guy whose master plan includes developing a method to turn his own soldiers into killer mutants that don't care who they kill, and attempting to let his creation run wild in the woods of Georgia, because what could possibly go wrong? Wilford Brimley plays exactly the same role he always plays, just that his grumpy yet kind-hearted grandfather guy just happens to be a gruff general. That's what I call inspired casting.

Of course, I basically eat this sort of thing up, so the mileage sane people can get out of Mutant Species and other Prior movies will most probably be quite a bit less joyfully overwhelming than my experience with the film. As usually, sane people miss out on the best things.