Sunday, March 31, 2019

Shake, Rattle & Roll 2k5 (2005)

aka Shake, Rattle & Roll 7

The Shake, Rattle & Roll films are a long, though not continuously, running series of Filipino horror anthologies produced for the regional market and closely connected to the Manila Film Festival. Because they aren’t really meant for export, it’s not terribly easy to get ahold of all of the films in subtitled form outside of the Philippines, which is a bit of a shame. The films of the series I have seen are by no means perfect and tend to light and rather cartoonish horror but they are also usually fun and bring a unique cultural perspective to their material that is exactly the sort of thing that makes films produced for local markets often so interesting. These are generally standard horror tales, but they are standard horror tales as seen through a specifically Filipino lens, and, if the viewers are really lucky, also featuring monsters from Filipino folklore.

This seventh entry was a return to screens for the series after a break of eight years, and while it’s a sometimes scrappy and imperfect movie, its three tales are also in turns charming, weird, and actually pretty great.

Well, great’s not the word that comes to my mind for the first tale, “Poso”, directed by Uro de la Cruz. It concerns a broadly drawn fake spirit medium’s (comedian Ai-Ai de las Alas) final case at fleecing money out of the gullible through nonsense and special effects. Alas, she and her gang will soon realize that they’ve finally encountered a real ghost – and it is angry. Which, come to think of it, I’d be too if I would mostly manifest as an unconvincing puddle of moving CGI blood. But it’s not the effects alone that make this episode the mandatory dud of the film – the humour has the shrill quality of chalk on cardboard, the pacing is much too slow for a comedy, and the horror bits are not terribly effective, either.

Fortunately, to the rescue rides story number two, “Aquarium”, by Rico Maria Illarde. A married couple with slight marital problems (Ara Mina and Ogie Alcasid), their son (Paul Salas) and their comic relief live-in maid (the perhaps just a wee bit peculiarly named Wilma Doesn’t) move into a new apartment, where they find the titular aquarium, empty apart from a pretty creepy mask. Of course, the ideal way to make one’s son happy is to fill it with goldfish (and water, don’t worry, nature lovers) yet keep that darn mask inside. Not surprisingly, creepy things happen. At first, it’s just an old a bit dead looking woman popping out of nowhere from time to time to warn the wife about the aquarium being cursed (and to later deliver further helpful exposition), but soon, the cursed and also telekinetic aquarium gets water everywhere, murders a plumber and really, really doesn’t like the kid. But hey, fighting it also helps solve these slight marital problems.

Obviously, this second tale is neither the most sensible of stories nor strictly scary, unless you’re hydrophobic or are generally freaked out by aquariums or goldfish. However, it is such peculiar little tale I found myself utterly charmed by it. There’s hardly a scene going by where the aquarium isn’t up to aquatic shenanigans to all kinds of mind-bending and pretty fun effects, the old woman ghost (spoiler?) is somewhat effective, and the climax even delivers on a little latex monster action. Plus, the aquarium is apparently cursed because a father drowned his little daughter in it because “she looked like a goldfish”. It’s pleasantly bonkers, is what I’m saying, and therefor endlessly entertaining.

Shake 2k5 does end on its best tale. “Lihim ng San Joaquin” (which I believe translates into “The Secret of San Joaquin” but please don’t quote me on this) concerns a married couple (Mark Anthony Fernandez and Tanya Garcia) fleeing a crop failure and pushy parents in their home village to San Joaquin, a village way out in the sticks, in hopes of better luck there. She’s visibly in the last months of pregnancy, so I’m not sure the timing is great, but so it goes. Anyway, pregnancy and poverty turn out to be the least of the couple’s problems: their new neighbours seem more than just a little bit strange and debauched (perhaps San Joaquin is pinoy for “Dunwich”?). And what’s to say about their first encounter with the village leader (Noni Buencamino) that sees him telling them the place just had an epidemic which infected eighteen kids, but don’t they worry, they burned them? As a matter of fact, the couple’s new neighbours are Aswang, and we know how these guys and gals feel about babies (hungry).

“San Joaquin” as directed Richard Somes, is the film’s highpoint, winning me over with a tightness and focus the other two episodes lack, telling its simple tale with great assurance and an ability for building up a nice mood of wrongness with simple means. The Aswang themselves are created via traditional make-up effects and the kind of broad and theatrical acting that’s exactly right for this sort of monster. Already rather convincing as backwoods people of threatening behaviour and hygiene, the actors playing them become truly great when they let loose as monsters, and the tiny siege and chase scene that ensues between them and our heroic couple may be small but it’s also effective, making great use of the jungle, darkness, and mud.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Three Films Make A (Decidedly Grumpy) Post: Monsters are real

The Incantation (2018): This thing is an attempt to make some sort of Gothic Horror with Gothic Romance influence. Alas, it lacks the visual flair and thoughtfulness, any sense of mood, the plot or the character depth to pull this off. The script is a badly paced series of clichés, lacking any kind of bite (and of course ends on a stupid plot twist), the acting – apart from Sam Valentine who starts out horrible but actually does her best with what she’s given, and perhaps poor old Dean Cain who deserves better – is execrable. In particular, watch out for the writer/director not going the Hitchcock or Argento cameo route of just popping in but taking on an important role that’s should probably have gone to an actor.

The whole thing left me annoyed and hoping for some sort of Satanic miracle that would make me unsee it.

Day of Reckoning (2016): Also visiting us from the realm of the crappy, the incompetently or lazily written, and the just plain disinterested is Joel Novoa’s Syfy Original about the recurrence of an invasion of a horde of improbably shoddy CGI demons (the people involved in their creation must either have no self-respect when it comes to their work or no intact eyesight). In the film’s only clever idea, the US preparedness for Demon Invasion II is in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security and therefore seems to suck rather badly.

The film doesn’t spend much time on this of course – how could it afford it – but rather goes with the SyFy approved tale of a divorced family fighting off monsters. You can imagine the character arcs there. On the way, the movie drags its feet, hurts the eyeballs via atrocious special effects, and wastes perfectly wonderful actors like Barbara Crampton and Heather McComb by giving them nothing of even the faintest interest to do.

Hooked Up (2013): However, things can always get worse, which brings us to this thing directed by Pablo Larcuen and produced by Jaume Collet-Serra, though you wouldn’t notice. Going by its PR, this is the first feature film completely shot on an iPhone. Consequently, it looks even worse than most other POV horror films, an impression that’s certainly not improved by what looks like the total absence of actual filmmaking skills. The script is even worse, mixing all the ills of bad POV horror (I don’t believe I need to list them anymore) with nonsense that belongs to the film all alone, namely absurd attempts at “psychology” that are so stupid calling them brain dead would be a terrible insult to the comatose.

Add to this a total lack of mood, an inability to stage scenes in any way, shape or form, and much time spent with total idiots on screen, and you’ve got yourself a film nobody should watch.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012)

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 long time ago, a secondary world fantasy continent was kept under the thumb of the exceedingly evil followers of the Book of Vile Darkness, a tome made of bits and pieces of an evil necromancer. This reign of terror ended when a new order of knights, the Order of the New Sun arose, blessed by the powers of the god of light. The knights freed the lands, and, while they didn't manage to destroy the Book, they did force its few remaining followers to split it apart and hide it away.

During the course of the following centuries, with their goal fulfilled, the Order of the New Sun descended in importance and power. At the beginning of the film, none of its knights have been blessed with godly powers for eight hundred years, and the Order has been reduced to a handful of people. Just after young Grayson (Jack Gerges) has been initiated into the Order - of course without any resulting supernatural powers - a band of evildoers slaughters what's left of the order and kidnaps Grayson's father. Our hero doesn't know it, but it's all part of a plan to find the remaining pieces of the Book of Vile Darkness, and create it anew.

Grayson barely makes it out alive, and swears to do anything to rescue his father. "Anything" in this case means the young man goes undercover with a small party of evildoers led by the witch Akordia (Eleanor Gecks) who are out looking for the cover to the Book. Soon, Grayson's virtues are put to the test, his oath of chastity threatened by a certain witch, and he just might realize he carries rather more darkness inside himself than he expected. On the positive side, Akordia grows rather fond of him, which just might become helpful when Grayson's plans start going awry.

It's a bit ironic that the third Dungeons & Dragons movie, which was after all produced for our dear friends of SyFy by the same companies who made the - not quite as horrible as the first one, yet still pretty bad - second D&D film, and even was directed by the very same Gerry Lively, turns out to be rather fun. On paper, made-for-TV movies are a step down even from direct-to-video films, after all, even though the borders between both have begun to dissolve increasingly in the last decade or so.

It's best I'll qualify the word "good" here right at the beginning, for The Book of Vile Darkness is certainly made for an audience willing and able to suspend their disbelief regarding a fantasy world full of characters dressing like (good) LARPers, sometimes cheesy melodramatics that fit the generally melodramatic acting style (which again fits D&D, and I do mean that as a compliment), and dialogue that can be sharp and funny, yet at other times sounds as tinny as an old shellac record. I guess if you can say the film's title three times without giggling or rolling your eyes, you're a) like me and b) perfectly able to actually enjoy this.

Personally, I find myself enjoying the seriously played cheesiness of the whole affair in particular, and see the melodramatics as a way for the film to demonstrate how seriously it takes itself. In fact, I don't think secondary world fantasy can work on the movie screen without a film treating all its sillier elements with dignity and quite as a matter of fact; irony does not build worlds. Why, yes, of course evil people dress in black, have sex (unlike good people), have tattoos and piercings and like long philosophical speeches about the appropriateness of their alignments! And make no mistake here, writer Brian Rudnick does clearly know how D&D's alignment system works and just as clearly realizes how much of a shame it were if he didn't use it. Having respect for one's source material is of utmost importance for a movie like this, even if its source material is not the be all and end all of philosophical thought.

The film's core character developments are deeply grounded in the alignment system, but they're also constructed flexibly enough to produce Book of Vile Darkness's main message, namely that your "virtue" isn't much of a thing to be proud of if you never had any reason not to be virtuous; it's also a nice change for the fantasy genre in its on screen incarnation that Book does seem to realize not all evil aligned people would be raving maniacs, nor see themselves as "evil" as much as following a violently libertarian philosophy (the jerks!). So, just like real libertarians.

Obviously, Book of Vile Darkness is rather darker than its predecessors, with a hero who will even stoop as low as murder by poison (including a use of a Bag of Holding right out of a slightly out of control table top session) - clearly, he's Chaotic Good at best - and a pleasant sense for the bizarre. The latter is demonstrated via elements like a prehensile eyeball (which is awesome, if I even have to explain that), an - decidedly creepy looking - undead child nourished by negative emotions and evil yet poisoned by love and compassion, or the Book of Vile Darkness (do I love writing the phrase? Yes I do.) needing to be written with the pain of someone with a pure heart. If you have played fewer RPGs than I have, you'll also find scenes like the one where a helpful prostitute brings Grayson (a stupid name for a hero, but what can we do?) into an RPG-typical shop for magic items that is about as mystical as a supermarket rather strange. Yes, I'll take that Bag of Holding, this Ring of Force, and of course that evil looking armour, because I am evil now. It is, as our American brethren would say, awesome.

I was also positively surprised by some of film's effects: the red dragon our evil party of adventurers fights is particularly great for this budget bracket, as is the undead child, but spell effects and digital matte paintings are also much better than I would have expected. There's nothing half-assed about the film in this regard, at the very least.

Nor is there much half-assed to find in The Book of Vile Darkness as a whole. Lively and Rudnick go about their job of creating a low budget sword and sorcery movie with an enthusiasm and a care you don't always find in the genre, turning what could be as perfunctory as the second D&D movie, or as embarrassing as the first one, into a whole lot of fun.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

In short: Rogue Male (1976)

1939. Driven by reasons that’ll become clear during the course of the movie, British aristocrat and sportsman Sir Robert Hunter (Peter O’Toole) nearly manages to assassinate Hitler. Instead, he falls into the hands of the Gestapo, who proceed to torture him, including pulling out his nails. They can’t just kill Hunter, though, for his uncle (Alastair Sim in full-on “demonstration why the aristocracy is a very bad idea” mode once we meet him) has a rather high position in the British government and the Nazis are still trying to draw the British on their side. So it’s best to arrange an accident to befall him.

However, Hunter manages to escape when he’s left for dead and slowly, with luck and talent, reaches British shores. That, one would assume, would be that. However, Nazi agents are still after him; worse, as his uncle explains, his own government (at this point Nazi appeaser Chamberlain still being in office) is very much willing to give him to the Nazis. So Hunter goes underground, fleeing to the countryside. But even living in an actual hole in the ground isn’t quite enough to escape his enemies, specifically another British aristocrat and sportsman, one Major Quive-Smith (John Standing), Nazi hireling.

This BBC production directed by Clive Donner adapts a novel by Geoffrey Household, a great British thriller writer who isn’t terribly known anymore, the destiny of many a writer of popular fiction. It’s a very successful film, apparently shot on something of a higher budget than most BBC productions of the time – why, even the interior scenes are shot on 16mm! – and clearly making good use of every penny, even if Wales has to stand in for Germany. Donner has a good hand for the staging of clear and effective suspense sequences that emphasise clever planning and patience over outright action for the most part and rather purposefully, but also using very simple set-ups to build tension. The scene in the subway, for example, is a prime lecture on how to make much of a simple set-up, eschewing the more involved camera work a theatrical feature would have used for clarity and focus to great effect, thereby turning the film’s nominal weaknesses into virtues.

In general, clarity and focus are some of the film’s main strengths. Its tightness really works wonders for a film in which probably not all that much happens for some contemporary tastes now; the trick is to make the things that do happen important.

O’Toole is obviously perfect casting for the role, playing Hunter as a man of his class and time, with all that entails for good and for bad, but also as a man who has developed empathy through experience unlike others of his class. The films builds a meaningful contrast between him and Quive-Smith here, a man who shares all the same telling signs of Hunter’s class, but none of the insight and empathy the other man has developed through loss and the willingness to try and understand others.

If all that doesn’t sound interesting enough, the film also features a cameo by playwright Harold Pinter as Hunter’s (Jewish) friend Saul Abrahams.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

J.D.’s Revenge (1976)

Between studying law and driving taxi to pay for it, mild-mannered Ike (Glynn Turman) barely has time for much else in his life, certainly not the night life of New Orleans. For one night, however, his girlfriend Christella (Joan Pringle) convinces him to go out on the town with her to celebrate the one year anniversary of their best friends. Why this begins with everybody visiting a strip club is anybody’s guess. Anyway, eventually, the quartet end up in a hypnotism show, with Ike one of the brave hypnosis subjects.

These things never go well in horror cinema, so the little session seems to open a door in Ike’s mind through which the spirit of a decidedly nasty man slips in. Said spirit belonging to one J.D. Walker (played by David McKnight in flashbacks and mirrors) quickly begins to take over Ike’s life, first changing his sartorial tastes to the worse, but soon also bequeathing a tendency to violence, general vileness, rough sex, sadism and macho posturing. All of this increases terribly, until Ike becomes a rapist sadist maniac who dresses like an early 1940s pimp, and there seems to be little left of the man he was before. And whenever he does come back for a stint, J.D.’s sure to return just at the ideal moment to make everything worse. At first, Christella takes the brunt of Walker’s brand of toxic masculinity, but while he is branching out to doing violence to other people, he stumbles into the church of ecstatic preacher Reverend Elija Bliss (Louis Gossett Jr. when he was just Lou, and not so little). Bliss is a curious man who doesn’t seem quite sure if he’s hustling people like his brother Theotis (Fred Pinkard) who runs the church like a gang operation wants him to, or if he really has heard a calling from a higher power.

The thing is, Walker and the Bliss brothers have a past, and once he has laid eyes on Elija, he realizes he has stolen Ike’s body for a reason – vengeance.

Well, I certainly didn’t expect this blaxploitation horror film directed by Arthur Marks, at this point a TV veteran with a couple of directing credits and producer roles in things like “Perry Mason” and most certainly not black, and written by one Jaison Starkes who did little else and nothing of any interest, to be quite as excellent as J.D.’s Revenge turned out to be, even though Marks has two other blaxploitation films, the very interesting Detroit 3000 and Friday Foster in his earlier filmography. But then, I’m not sure I’d even categorize the film as blaxploitation in the strictest sense – it’s really more an intelligent horror film with an African American cast that just happens to be produced by AIP. The “exploitation” content of the formula is really not all that huge, either, there’s a bit of female and a bit of male nudity, but apart from the strip club scene, these things don’t play out as attempts to titillate so much as necessary elements of the story.

There’s one scene of rough sex bordering on non-consensuality and one attempted rape, but the film plays these really not at all as coy attempts at being sexy in an unpleasant way. Particularly the latter scene is staged so the audience witnesses it from the perspective of the female victim of J.D.’s sexual sadism, turning it into something as uncomfortable to watch as a scene where a man tries to rape his own girlfriend should be; this film takes the “horror” bit in its description very seriously indeed. It’s also a scene that’s genuinely important for the film because it emphasises how far gone Ike is at this point, or really, how little of him is left, and what this does to Christella.

Which leads me to another element of the film that works particularly well: the ghostly possession. In this case, the film adds to the general horror of one’s personality being subsumed under that of another until the victim can’t even see there ever was a difference between it and what has taken over, by turning Ike into the total opposite of what he has been before. The kind, sensible and thoughtful man that’s as far away from all the badly posited clichés of how a black man is supposed to be and act as possible is taken over by a sexually sadistic, cruel and violent hustler and pimp who should by all rights come over as a bit of a caricature but is handled so well by the film he is a true figure of terror. It’s as if all the bad versions of what it’s supposed to mean to be a man take Ike over and turn him into someone so vile, he’s hardly even human anymore. Turman is pretty fantastic at portraying the possession, not just taking on the posture and tics of McKnight’s version of J.D. from the flashbacks, but playing them in a way that doesn’t quite seem to fit his face and his body. It’s not just an interesting and thoughtful way to portray a possession but another element of the film that’s just the little bit more disturbing than you’d expect of it.

Another fascinating aspect of J.D.’s Revenge is how willing it is to go into uncomfortable directions. The way Christella eventually returns to Ike/J.D. after he beat her up the first time feels a bit too close to what I know about women in real life abusive relationships, for example.

There’s also the from my perspective horrific scene after that first beating where Ike’s best friend interprets a guy beating up his girlfriend as the dude finally coming out of his shell and stopping to repress his emotions. Women, he explains, do need that sort of thing from time to time. A nice interpretation of this one might read it as some kind of critique of not quite as crazy but still pretty horrible ideas about maleness; it’s certainly a way quite a few men in the 70s – and apparently still today – think, so it’s not pleasant to listen too, but it’s certainly true to the reality of some men being proper shits.

J.D.’s Revenge generally also recommends itself by allowing everyone in it a degree of complexity. After all, even horrible J.D. does indeed have an understandable reason for wanting to take revenge, he’s just going about it the way a guy just one step removed from a serial killer would do, making your usual vengeance seeking movie character look downright nice in the process. Or take the ambivalence the film has about the Bliss brothers: how much of Elija’s showy faith is indeed show, how much him starting to believe the things he performs, how much is simply genuine? And how about the way he just accepts Theotis acting the gangster even when he’s organizing his church? It’s messy and complicated, and the film isn’t providing clear answers because these things are messy and complicated in real life too.

On the visual side, there’s little too remarkable about the film. Marks with his TV background clearly doesn’t bring much of a sense of visual experimentalism with him; he does, however, know how to tell the film’s story economically and effectively, doing an excellent script and the wonderful cast justice.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

In short: The Pact (2018)

Original title: El pacto

Clara (Mireia Oriol), the daughter of divorced lawyer Mónica (Belén Rueda) and policeman Álex (Darío Grandinetti), is found in a diabetic coma after she has disappeared for some hours. It turns out on of Clara’s classmates locked her in his car in a deserted place with the aim of killing her. The kid couldn’t quite go through with it, though, so he dropped her off where she would be found before she was truly dead. Apparently, he believes he has made some kind of supernatural pact exchanging Clara’s life for that of his mother who is very much in the process of dying. He does die under mysterious circumstances himself soon enough, and his mother did indeed come back to life after a fall she really couldn’t have survived, so there might be a point to his tale.

Mónica is willing to believe it, at least, once it becomes clear her daughter might never wake up from her coma. She finds out how and where the kid made the pact rather easily, and soon her daughter’s hale and hearty again, and Mónice really rather needs to find someone to kill, or face the consequences.

Unfortunately, while David Victori’s El Pacto has a fine set-up for all kinds of interesting thoughts about guilt, responsibility and love causing horrible deeds, it doesn’t really do terribly much with these things. Given the set-up, there’s a surprising amount of horror by numbers scenes, particularly in the film’s second half, and a script (by Victori and Jordi Vallejo) that becomes increasingly contrived, always looking for the next “surprising” plot development when it would have been better to actually explore the situation it has set up in more depth. It also doesn’t help that this is another one of those films that first set up clear rules for its supernatural shenanigans only to then break them in nonsensical ways that never feel like the film is expanding on what it had presented to this point but rather lazily seeking the easiest way to the next plot twist.

It’s too bad, really, for the actors would certainly have been able to do more, and Victori’s direction is slick and competent enough I can’t help but believe he’d have been able to make a film actually exploring the dark things it sets ups, and still make it exciting on a visceral level.

As it stands, this is perfectly watchable, and completely forgettable.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Some Thoughts On Suspiria (2018)

Now finally having seen it, I am a bit confused by the lukewarm critical reception Luca Guadagnino’s “remake” (really, it’s a film that uses some motives and character names and does its very own thing with them) of one of Dario Argento’s masterpieces got. Sure, the “this isn’t real horror” brigade, I can understand, even if I disagree, but the other critical main tenor about this being “self-indulgent” and difficult to understand? Nope. Although the film’s two and a half hour running time isn’t for the faint of heart. And for the kind of viewer that can’t cope with films eschewing irony and winking self-consciousness, a film taking itself and what it is doing quite as seriously as this one does even though a lot of what it is doing is inherently strange will not be the thing they’ll be able to appreciate. So, now that I think about it, I indeed do understand the reception, I just don’t share it.

The thing is, this view of Suspiria feels so alien a reaction to the absolutely riveting, aesthetically thoughtful and intelligent, and thematically rich film I’ve seen, I find myself shaking my head a little. This isn’t really an attempt of a deep dive into the film at hand at all, for I believe this one’s really better off seen without too many preconceptions and a willingness to go where it leads.

So, let me just gush a little about some things I loved about the film. There is, for one, Dakota Johnson’s intense, physical performance at the film’s human core that finds ways to express states of mind and personality and intensity through body language even in a film as heavily stylized and aestheticized as this one; she also keeps up with Tilda Swinton in wonderful form, without ever letting any strain show. Speaking of Swinton, in one of the film’s seemingly more eccentric decisions, she is playing – one under heavy make-up – both parts of the film’s inimical witch cult leaders, as well as pseudonymously that of grieving old psychiatrist Klemperer. I say seemingly because on the film’s metaphorical and occult level, a single actress portraying the three poles of the film’s thematic discussion concerning guilt, innocence, the kind of dances you can dance after Auschwitz (to paraphrase Adorno now surely rotating in his grave), and change and the manner in which to achieve it, is actually a brilliant decision.

Also rather brilliant is Guadagnino’s handling of the film’s setting in Berlin, 1977, which at first seems like a gimmick but quickly turns out to be deeply important for the concerns I just mentioned. Guadagnino quite correctly understands divided Berlin and West Germany in this stage of RAF terrorism as still lying under the shadow of Nazism, the political state of the times still a consequence of World War II. In fact, the division in the film’s coven and what is happening in the Berlin surrounding it are very much coming from the same place, still working through the same things, which to me is a huge part of the film’s point.

All of this and quite a few things more concerning female awakening in sexual, political and spiritual ways the film expresses through an often brilliant visual language that, when taking place outside of the dance academy has a wonderful grip on how to present a time and place in telling detail without overindulging in said detail, and when taking place inside uses crosscuts, gliding camera work and moments of sudden surrealism to create a nightmare mirror of the outside world. It is, and I suspect very much on purpose, a bit of an as above, so below approach to speaking of the world, though I leave it to any given viewer to decide what here is above and what below.

And if that sounds like the sort of thing that will float your boat, you owe it to yourself to run, not walk, and watch Suspiria.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: The Legend You Know. The Story You Don’t.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018): This musical is a terribly charming throwback to 50s Hollywood entries into the genre, updated with light but sure hand by its director Rob Marshall. There are a plethora of adorable little moments, scenes that understand to milk magic out of the very artificiality of the musical as a form, and lovely performances by Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda (as a cockney lamplighter, obviously).

Despite all these charms, it never comes quite together as anything but a series of deeply charming and fun vignettes. The thematic throughline is weak (even for a musical), and there’s really not enough substance to justify the running time of 130 minutes. Of course, I do understand why Marshall didn’t cut two or three musical numbers – they are all so very lovely, and would have been darlings particularly difficult to kill. But then, that’s what directors are sometimes supposed to do.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018): This perfectly deserved Academy Award winner by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, on the other hand, demonstrates how to make a film full of wonderful little moments and details and more ideas than your typical Hollywood director will have in a lifetime, and still let it come out as a perfect whole, full of life, intelligence and love, carried by what feels like love for and excitement about all things Spider-Man. There are so many little nods to artists and writers that worked on these characters and version of these characters before, so many different animations styles and ideas but they are all perfectly weighed parts of the whole, important to the film’s understanding of the kind of heroism the webslinger is supposed to be about (something the Andrew Garfield Spidey movies generally missed by a mile).

That the film is also perfectly joyful (even in its sad and knowing moments), and inclusive in that way that embraces everybody who wants to be embraced, just make the whole thing more wonderful and more fun.

Aquaman (2018): Also very fun (though not on the level of Into the Spider-Verse), is watching DC finally stumbling onto the insight that superhero films are indeed allowed to be goofy, silly, and imaginative. That James Wan of all people is the guy who gets this is a bit of a surprise if you’re me and basically hated everything he made in horror movies, but get it, he clearly does, so his film – after the mandatory bad first twenty minutes even Wonder Woman and this are apparently mandated to have by the gods of DC themselves – turns into a series of four-colour incidents permanently fluctuating between the silly, the absurd, the semi-operatic, and the colourfully strange. Which is so much better than another attempt at making superheroes so grimdark the whole hero bit falls by the wayside (which is not a problem Marvel Studios ever had, even when their films get dark).

Friday, March 22, 2019

Past Misdeeds: 6 Bullets (2012)

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.

MMA fighter Andrew Fayden (Joe Flanigan), his wife Monica (Anna-Louise Plowman) and their daughter Becky (Charlotte Beaumont) have barely arrived in Bucharest in preparation for Andrew's big comeback fight when Becky is snatched by criminals. What exactly they want with the kid is unclear: the kidnappers don't ask for a ransom, but the case seems dangerously high profile for "just" selling Becky into child prostitution.

Because the local police don't find their daughter in about a day, the Faydens ask the US embassy for help. Someone at the embassy who will later turn out to be Selwyn Gaul (Jean-Claude Van Damme's real-life son Kristopher Van Varenberg playing Jean-Claude Van Damme's on-screen son), sends them to former French Foreign Legionnaire Samson Gaul (Jean-Claude Van Damme) for help. At the moment, Gaul is an alcoholic hallucinating dead children in his butcher shop, but just a few months ago, he was specialized in finding and rescuing kidnapped children by slaughtering child slavers left and right; until he made a terrible mistake caused by his love of explosions which cost the life of four kids. Cue his hallucinations.

At first, Gaul - perhaps quite realistically - doesn't want to take on the Faydens' job; only, if he doesn't try to help them, who will, and is his guilty conscience not in dire need of some redemptive action? Gaul just barely changes his mind fast enough to save Andrew, who starts to try and find his daughter on his own, from a possibly deadly beating. Unfortunately, while Gaul is really, really good at the violent part in "violent investigation", his own lack of subtlety does lead to turns of event that look rather catastrophic, particularly since the whole kidnapping affair is a bit more complicated than anyone could have expected, even involving a part of the Romanian government.

So, is Jean-Claude Van Damme now some kind of reborn Sho Kosugi, providing acting roles for his family wherever he goes? 6 Bullets certainly suggests it, what with the involvement of JCVD's son Kristopher as well as his daughter Bianca Bree (here as Bianca Van Varenberg, for nothing is better for an acting career than using a different name in each movie one is in). Both aren't exactly brilliant thespians but perfectly serviceable for direct-to-DVD action cinema and quite easy on the eyes, so at least in that regard Van Damme's nepotism is a step up from Kosugi's.

Anyway, 6 Bullets is a bit too good to follow cynical lines of thought for too long, so let's talk about something beyond the Van Damme family business. Ernie Barbarash's film hits most of the beats of contemporary direct-to-DVD cinema, though it does avoid the cheap irony popularized by The Expendables and so does take itself quite seriously throughout. Barbarash's action direction is on the steady side, which is to say, you can actually tell what's going on and see enough to realize the choreography of the action sequences is on the more exciting side of competence. Van Damme - fitting for his increasing age - isn't involved in too many hand-to-hand fights anymore, though the ones he is in are pretty cool, and lets guns do most of the violence. This may disappoint major fans of THAT KICK, but I find this approach much more dignified than the magic editing that keeps someone like Steven Seagal alive as if he were the last martial arts fighting whale in sunglasses. Not to worry: unlike Seagal, Van Damme does look like a very fit middle-aged man (fitter than I ever imagined to look, at least), and also isn't involved in nauseating right-wing politics as far as I know. Please don’t tell me otherwise.

Chad and Evan Law's script provides Van Damme with more than enough opportunity to show off his acting talents, too. Now, I know, we all have made fun of young Jean-Claude some time or the other, but at this stage, JCVD has learned to use his limited acting range really well. If it comes to depressed brooding or really disquieting staring into cameras, Van Damme is the action actor you want to cast, and films like 6 Bullets know this and use it to their advantage, giving their killing machine a human dimension, even understandable human motivations.

The Laws' script is rather good and definitely interesting in other regards too. It does contain its share of cheap tricks and silly action movie shortcuts in its plotting, yet it also takes its time to actually build characters, dares to make its plot slightly more complicated than strictly necessary, and even surprises with slight twists on certain genre standards.

I'm particularly glad about 6 Bullets' interest in its female characters. Monica and Becky are at the very least given more character and more lines than usual in direct-to-DVD action films. In a particularly surprising turn of events, the girls in the victim roles - as well as Monica, whose role in a movie like this would normally be to cry and then cry some more - do generally have a larger degree of agency here than you'd expect. Not typical for an exploitation movie (with a plot like this you can't actually avoid exploiting at least the concept of child prostitution), 6 Bullets seems to go out of its way to treat women and children with the same respect as its male characters, without making a big thing out of it.

Combined with Barbarash's steady direction, the solid acting, and the fun violence, this makes 6 Bullets a worthwhile addition to Van Damme's body of work, the kind of film that doesn't need to be all self-ironic about genre tropes because it prefers to do something about the ones it doesn't care for, at least to a degree.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

In short: The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018)

An incident that left her partner dead resulted in young police officer Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) slipping into addiction. She has been clean again now for some time, and is starting a new job as the night shift intake assistant for an urban hospital’s morgue. Because nothing is better to improve a woman’s mental health than working nights with horribly mutilated dead people and little other human contact, apparently.

And that’s before the cadaver of one Hannah Grace (Kirby Johnson) comes in on Megan’s second night. Hannah, as the audience knows from the film’s prologue, was possessed by a demon even the Mighty Catholic Church™ couldn’t exorcise. Even now, after having been murdered by her own father, Hannah’s corpse and its guest are rather sprightly and active, providing Megan with a great night on the new job.

Diederik Van Rooijen’s Hannah Grace is a rather frustrating film. There are quite a few elements in its backstory – like Megan’s guilt and addiction, and the whole “guy murders his own daughter” thing – that could make for a dark and deep film in which the demon inside of the corpse puts increasing psychological pressure on the characters, a nice way to explore their states of mind.

Unfortunately, that’s not the direction in which the film is going at all. Instead it’s the usual carnival ride body count number with a demon who likes to levitate people to murder them while the camera jitters pointlessly, and nods to Megan’s backstory that go nowhere but the most obvious places. But then Brian Sieve’s script is just full of dubious decisions, so this is only par for the course for the film. Take the whole needless prologue showing us that Hannah was indeed possessed, which means that Megan’s mental state is never really in doubt to the audience, and that turns the slow process of her finding out what the audience has been knowing for ages tedious and pretty pointless. But oh well, let’s put more jump scares in, so nobody will notice.

The few times when the film is not shouting boo every minute or confusing exciting horror sequences with shaking the camera, Van Rooijen does display some good instincts. There are some effective shots of the empty morgue that suggest something much more interesting than just the next jump scare, and the play with light and darkness often works well enough. Too bad there’s so little in the film that makes use of these talents and so much that’s generic in the worst possible way.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Once, Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) was a secret service agent who took a bullet for the president. Today, he’s a washed-up, alcoholic private eye with a marriage on the rocks, a mad-on for the senator who fired him, and a love for potty-mouthed witticisms minus the wit, because this was written by Shane Black. The plot will throw him together with younger, yet still washed-up, former American Football pro Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), who shares his love for talking crap, if little else. When they are not flirting with each other and verbally comparing their dick sizes, they are set against a really complicated plot to legalize gambling with the help of a little assassination and a bit of the old ultra violence that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Which honestly is not much of a problem for this Tony Scott directed big, loud, expensive US mainstream action buddy movie, because nobody expects the evil plans in a film like it to be probable or believable. As long as an evil plot is fun and a helpful framework to hang various action sequences on, it’s all good in this genre. In this particular case, more sensible villains with a sensible plot would just not fit scenes like the one in the finale where Wayans, riding through a football stadium on horseback, throws a ball to catch a bullet meant for the assassination target (who, dramatic irony alarm, is the guy responsible for Hallenbeck being fired from his old Secret Service job). And really, who’d want to miss out on that?

I’m actually a bit surprised how much I wouldn’t have wanted to miss anything happening in the film, seeing that I usually have quite a few problems with its director and often at least some problems with its main scriptwriter. Both men, though pretty maligned by quite a few people at their height, are by now highly beloved by a certain type of middle-aged, male American nerd movie critic (all things that apply to me too, apart from the being American thing), often to my bewilderment. Scott to me always was the prime example of a director with obvious technical chops who tended to put these chops in service of not very much – well, there was that one time when he made a feature-length ad for the US Airforce, but that’s not the thing to endear anyone to me, either. To my eyes, Scott mostly made films in genres I usually enjoy that slicked away all the rough edges, the grit and the strangeness I love about these genres, leaving something that feels much more like “product” than any Marvel movie I’ve seen.

And Shane Black? Can write a good one-liner, sometimes even a dozen, but can just as often annoy me endlessly with his fixation on male asshole characters he clearly admires for being violent pieces of shit and therefore mostly never allows to truly change or learn from their experiences (at their core, his assholes are always right), sprinkled with a bit of casual misogyny, the kind of lame cynicism most of us grow out of once we get into our twenties, and the belief that having characters say fuck (etc) a lot makes your writing somehow “edgy” instead of going for the most obvious, and least shocking, kind of shock value. To be fair, if we ignore The Predator, he is genuinely great at plotting abstruse narratives with great conviction, has quite the hand for pacing, and more often than not manages to deliver a script that still makes for a fun (sometimes even good or great) movie.

Truthfully, all these criticism can be applied to The Last Boy Scout too, but through some weird kind of alchemy, the combination of Scott’s soulless slickness and Black’s try-hard yet certainly not soulless edginess somehow turns all the flaws into sources of great fun, an amusement ride of a movie that uses its director’s and writer’s respective shticks (and tics), and a metric fuckton (to keep in the vernacular) of explosions, to bludgeon all the critical faculties of a viewer’s brain into blissful submission.

Is it a good movie? Well, it’s certainly one made with the highest level of craftsmanship, diving joyfully into all sorts of excess, and featuring a whole lot of awesome violence, so definitely yes.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

In short: The Unfolding (2016)

While the world has stumbled into an international political crisis that seems bound to end in a nuclear war unless people start acting in their own best interests (tough chance), Tom (Lachlan Nieboer) is taking his girlfriend Rose (Lisa Kerr) on a little trip to the country. They’re not just going to walk the moors of Dartmoor, though. Tom is very interested in the paranormal and has managed to let them stay in a supposedly very haunted house.

When they arrive at the place, the owners are just in the process of fleeing it. It’s not quite clear how much of the flight is caused by the political situation and how much by the haunting, but given the things that are going to happen to Rose and Tom inside the house, nuclear war might not be the worst alternative.

As a fair warning, Eugene McGing’s clearly very low budget The Unfolding is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s another POV horror piece, so the visuals tend to be grainy, or shaky, and generally never feel terribly sharp, the sound mix is often less than ideal – it’s very much seat-of-your-pants filmmaking. However, The Unfolding is also a film of big ideas, the script showing the influence of a cerebral British style of horror, with the spirits of Nigel Kneale and Third Doctor/early Fourth Doctor era Doctor Who hanging over the film. If a viewer is willing to be a bit patient, she may very well find that McGing is doing some rather interesting things with what at first seems like a very standard POV ghost story set-up, using the haunting, among other things as a mirror for humanity’s drive to self-destruction.

And make no mistake, the nuclear threat hanging over the proceedings isn’t only an homage to 70s British SF/horror. The way the inner threat and the outer threat of the haunting relate to one another (it’s our old friend, “as above, so below” again), and the clever and disquieting way the film handles this relation is remarkably intelligent and effective.

Even though The Unfolding’s best qualities lie in its ideas, and you really can’t expect any big set-pieces on its budget, most of the supernatural manifestations are effective too, McGing doing much with letting his – always at least good, often better – actors react to things the audience can’t quite see, and suggesting more through sound and shadow.

For my taste, The Unfolding is really worth coping with its rough edges, as it demonstrates that intelligence can go a long way.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Mrs K (2017)

Mrs K (Kara Hui) lives what looks like a peaceful life with her gynaecologist husband (Wu Bai) and her daughter (Li Xuan Siow). Though, as a couple of very unlucky would-be robbers learn early in the film, Mrs K clearly has some experience with the gangster life and is a bit of a badass, when she needs to.

However, the good old shadows of the past come knocking, killing some of Mrs K former associates in violent and effective ways. As it turns out, a man (Simon Yam) our protagonist left for dead when she left the life (naturally with a whole lot of stolen money) wants his revenge, and he’s nearly crazy and broken enough for a Batman villain.

Evidently, Mrs K’s director Ho Yu-Hang looks back fondly at Hong Kong genre cinema of decades past. Since quite a few actresses and actors who had their heyday in the 70s to 90s are still working away admirably, it’s a pretty obvious thing to make a movie with them. Ho certainly isn’t the first director who went back to this particular well of talent – and who would blame him? – but he’s just as obviously not aiming at making a normal nostalgia throwback kind of movie. This is rather a more idiosyncratic film that shifts shape and form despite always just keeping inside of the borders of genre tradition.

So there are only a couple of action scenes in what one would on first encounter expect to be either a martial arts version of Taken or a traditional if belated heroic bloodshed film. Instead, the film shifts from a slasher-like beginning that shows Yam’s character killing Mrs K’s old associates to moments of sometimes calm, sometimes playful domestic content, goes to psychological tension, a bit of torture, some comedy, keeping what sounds like disparate elements as parts of a whole, while also demonstrating an air of playfulness. There’s even a scene where the ghosts of her old companions appear to Mrs K to the sound of a rousing Spaghetti Western trumpet to get her back into the fight.

In part, the film’s success as a whole instead as a series of disjointed scenes has a lot to do with an acting ensemble that portrays the different tone of any given scene as aspects of one story and one group of characters, understanding the way human identity shifts depending on the company we are in, and even more so how Mrs K’s identity must shift even more to be who she was and who she has become. The film as a whole seems very concerned with the concept of identity, particularly the shifts in identity brought by violence and trauma. Simon Yam’s villain was once a cop who ran with robbers to betray them to the cops but also betrayed the cops for money, has lost his identity and his memory once shot by Mrs, starts to live a new life as the member of a ship crew that becomes his family, only to lose this new family to violence that gives him back his memory as well as a lust for vengeance and that great changer of identity, insomnia. As with Mrs K, he might have built a new identity, but the old one, or really, old ones, are always just below the surface waiting for a reason to return. That Yam’s fantastic as this sort of thing should be a given.

It is an absolute joy to watch Kara Hui as the main character of a movie again, and her ability to project warmth, good humour, competence and a steely determination in desperate moments alone would be reason enough for that; she also seems to present a healthier alternative of learning to live with one’s past self than Yam does. Or perhaps, when you look at it from his perspective, she’s just been too lucky before he came back.

So, even though, or really rather because, Mrs K is not a nostalgia fest as much as a film that appreciates the very real talents of the people working in front of its camera and trusts them to not just repeat the things they always did (unlike the characters they play, perhaps), it should be of highest interest for anyone interested in Hong Kong's cinema past, present and future (even though this is – depending on the source – a Malaysian film or a Malaysian/Hong Kong/Russian co-production).

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Working here can be murder.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): In another example to disprove the curiously much-vaunted nonsense that Marvel’s superhero movies don’t leave space for their directors to express their individuality, Taiki Waititi’s Thor movie is very much a Taiki Waititi Thor movie, featuring exactly the style and tone of humour you’d expect from the director. While I would have preferred someone to actually succeed at a Thor movie going for the big and operatic tone the best of the source material tends to have and actually succeed with it, I take a fun, fast and brilliant to look at SF action comedy with pleasure, even though I don’t enjoy it quite as much as James Gunn’s Marvel SF action comedies, which feel just a bit warmer to me. Which is to say that I had a lot of fun with Ragnarok’s loving and silly plundering of Greg Pak’s fine Hulk and Walt Simonson’s transcendentally brilliant Thor runs.

The Cradle Will Fall (1983): In a very different time, medium, and budget bracket, often great TV director John Llewellyn Moxey shot this adaptation of a Mary Higgins Clark potboiler about a brilliant assistant DA with tragic past-based commitment issues (Lauren Hutton) coming head to head with a mad scientist doctor (James Farentino). This certainly isn’t one of Moxey’s best movies, mostly thanks to a script that never quite seems to be able to hold tone and focus, a problem that’s further exacerbated by the need to shoe-horn various character from the soap “Guiding Light” into minor roles. From time to time, Moxey gets the opportunity for one of his patented classical suspense scenes, but much of the film seems fixated on the elements of the plot that are the most conventional and least interesting. Despite a spunky turn by Hutton and some joyful scenery chewing by Farentino, the whole thing never really comes together as a suspenseful narrative.

The World Beyond (1979): Staying in US TV movie land, this is the second of two abortive TV pilots about the adventures of Paul Taylor (the brilliantly named Granville Van Dusen), who is commanded by visions of dead people to protect the victim of the week (here portrayed by JoBeth Williams) from supernatural forces.

The plot sees Van Dusen and Williams fighting a mud golem on an island off the coast of main. Director Noel Black does some pleasantly atmospheric work with the locations, and seems to enjoy the sort of macabre little events that warm my heart too, so you bet there’s a mud golem hand staying active after having been cut off, an occult dabbler causing the whole affair, and some simple yet pleasant moments of classic suspense. There’s no depth to it, of course, but as an hour of spooky entertainment, even in the badly looking version recorded from TV and dubbed from what I suspect to be an EP VHS tape that’s the only way it is making the rounds, is well worth one’s time.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Outfit (1973)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts 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.

At just about the same time when professional robber Earle Macklin (Robert Duvall) is released from jail, his brother Eddie is murdered by killers working for the Outfit (the artists formerly known as The Syndicate). Turns out a bank Earle, Eddie and their partner Cody (Joe Don Baker) robbed belonged to the Outfit, and when there's one thing you don't do, it's stealing from them, at least if you ask Outfit boss Mailer (Robert Ryan).

Eddie's not the only one Mailer wants to see dead, but hits on Earle and Cody fail. Once he understands what's going on, Earle decides the best way to stay alive is to go on the offense. From now on he, sort of joined by his girlfriend Bett (Karen Black), and a bit later on by Cody, robs every Outfit establishment he can find. They're pretty easy marks, too, for the unspoken "don't touch the Outfit" rule among professional criminals has resulted in rather lax security measures in the organizations' establishments.

Mailer could make his new problem go away peacefully if his organization would only be willing to pay Macklin $250,000, and leave him in peace afterwards. Not surprisingly, that's not a deal he's willing to make; instead he intensifies his attempts killing Earle and Cody, until they see no choice but to come after him. Not that this wasn't their preferred outcome all along, given their actions.

The Outfit is an adaptation of one of Donald E. Westlake's/Richard Stark's Parker novels (one of my favourites in the series to boot), and as always one that does star Parker neither in name nor character. As far as I know, that's because Westlake didn't want the Parker name used unless an actor agreed to an actual series of films, which sounds rather like avoiding finding more readers for one's books to me, but then I'm not the pulp-y paperback writing master here.

Duvall's Macklin is nearly as ruthless as the character he's based on, but clearly still has more regular human feelings than the empathy-less sociopath Parker. Consequently - and wouldn't Parker just love this as proof for his usual thesis that emotions are bad for his business anyhow - Macklin may be nearly as brutal as Parker but does tend to sometimes let his emotions get in the way of his planning abilities. He even has actual feelings for Bett beyond her use as an object to relieve his sex drive with.

Of course, it is much easier for a viewer to relate to Macklin than to a more closely adapted Parker. Emotional shorthand does, after all, work better with characters that do have emotions their audience can relate to; and once we can relate to something on that level, we do tend to excuse little things like mass robberies and a lot of dead bodies much easier. Duvall as an actor is at the height of his powers here, providing just enough glimpses of the emotional intensity and rage working under Macklin's cold and professional surface to breathe life into his character.

I also appreciate how Flynn attempts to provide a somewhat more sympathetic view of women in his film than you'd ever find in a Stark novel, obviously having caught up with the scientific news that women are actual human beings, just like men; early on in the film I even dared hope he'd give Karen Black's Bett just as much room for development as his male characters. That hope, alas, isn't really fulfilled, despite Black's - an actress I love but not for anything that has anything to do with subtlety - surprisingly subtle performance. In the end, The Outfit trades Stark's borderline misogyny for that common cliché of the female character having to die to motivate the male lead to his climactic violent act. However, Flynn does go through these motions at least with a bit more interest in Bett than typical, and really, compared to Stark's treatment of women in the books, he's golden.

It's also difficult for me to mind this flaw much in a film that does nearly everything else right. I love how Flynn's script adapts the novel, leaving most of its set pieces intact while imagining a different, more human character like Macklin (without two novels before as the set-up for certain scenes) going through them. A lot stays as it is in the novel, yet there are little shifts in meaning and emphasis that aren't just caused by the necessity of filmic language; they are also products of a director with a slightly different philosophy than Stark's, replacing cynicism that at least borders on nihilism with the laconic, strangely sympathetic fatalism so typical of US crime movies of the era. In The Outfit and other movies like it, everybody is a sinner and everybody is most probably doomed, but there's still room for small, defiant gestures of humanity, even if these gestures are violent and morally dubious.

This - to my European eyes - very particularly American way of looking at the world of the early 70s takes place before a background of unspectacular ugliness: a brown world of mud, dark bars, motel rooms and houses that look as if they could crash down on the characters any minute now. The Outfit's USA are a place far from small town romance or the supposed sexiness of the big city - not that we ever get to see anything that looks like you'd imagine the Big City (Flynn retools a short dialogue between Parker/Macklin and Handy/Cody about the shittiness of cities quite wonderfully in that regard). Obviously, the American Dream is not impervious to mud.

Flynn is also simply a great director of semi-realistic action sequences. Everybody, their amount of professionalism in the cause of violence notwithstanding, is somewhat awkward in these scenes, and even when clearly used to the violence they are committing, still caught up in the little failures and stumbles that come with the chaos surrounding them. Despite the conscious decision to use awkwardness and the sudden chaos of real-world violence, Flynn also manages to keep the action exciting and tight. This way, whatever else one may look for and find in The Outfit, it's also a great, exciting 70s crime film.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Virtuosity (1995)

Welcome to the weird and wacky near future of yesterday. Former cop Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) is serving a lengthy prison term for not only killing the terrorist and gang who had just murdered his wife and child but accidentally blowing away a couple of reporters too – and all this while missing an arm. I mention the arm so you don’t forget he now has a bionic arm he alas never uses like the Six Million Dollar Man did, but which will come in handy when the film’s climax needs to handwave away a bomb. Also, so you fully understand we are in the times of extra badass Denzel Washington here. Take that, Bruce Willis.

Anyway, Barnes has made a deal to shorten his sentence which results in him getting strapped into a VR machine thingy for some SCIENCE(!) business. In the VR world, he is pitted against evil AI SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe). SID isn’t just a sharp dresser in primary colours, we will later learn that his virtual brain is also fashioned after a couple hundred of history’s greatest mass murders and serial killers. Would you believe the guy who killed Barnes’s family is one of them? Now, you might ask yourself: what’s the point of the experiment at all? Why purposefully create an AI that’s basically The Joker? I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t know either.

But I digress into the realm of logic and sanity. At the same time, in the world of the movie, SID convinces his creator (I think, again, I’m not sure the film knows) to trick a hapless tech geek into building SID a body made of nanites so he can escape from Planet VR into the real world. Poor tech geek believes he is helping create a body for the sexy virtual chess program he is rather, ahem, fond of, by the way.

Obviously, SID really gets a body and manages to escape and goes on a bit of a rampage, composing a sampler symphony out of the screams of his victims. This is not a metaphor. Clearly, Barnes is the only one who can stop SID. Why? I have no idea, and neither has the script. Be that as it may, Barnes, for reasons unknown teamed up with psychologist Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch), is indeed promised his freedom if he manages to find and destroy SID.

Quickly, the film decides that it’s best that SID starts fixating on Barnes because the personality of the guy who killed Barnes’s family surfaces, and a duel of wits (I kid), guns and explosions ensues. There’s also a particularly idiotic subplot where SID successfully frames Barnes for murder, kidnapped children, and other assorted nonsense to witness.

Nominally, Brett Leonard’s Virtuosity wasn’t written by a drunken monkey, but looking at this assortment of plot holes so gigantic they are basically their own movie trilogy, ideas so stupid you’d be embarrassed to have come up with them, and a plot so plain idiotic I’m suddenly feeling rather good about myself, it’s probably best to pretend it actually was. Now, I love to go and on about the craziness of the Italian exploitation movie factories in the 70s and 80s, but Virtuosity is another proof that batshit crazy ideas were alive and well in mid-90s US mainstream action and (sort of) SF cinema, too.

In fact, Virtuosity’s sheer bizarre dumbness, the total insistence on having not a single scene or character that does make even a lick of sense during the whole course of this thing, would get it a proud place in the pantheon of Italian bullshit filmmaking. Only that comparable Italian productions would never have had the obvious nice and cosy budget this one cam throw at the screen, or been able to afford young Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, just on the cusp of biggest stardom.

Speaking of Washington, one of the best, and actually most insane, elements of the film is how much the man treats the whole mess of noise and nonsense surrounding him with utmost seriousness, apparently approaching this thing with the same sense of professionalism and style he’d use on a film with an actual script parsable by humans. There’s certainly no phoning in from Washington, which makes a delicious contrast to the total wackiness of his surroundings. Which nicely brings us to Crowe, also not phoning it in but actually chewing the scenery, the script and probably the air itself in a version of cartoonish evil murderous villainy that really would have suggested the man as a pretty great Joker for a Batman movie. It’s really a joy to watch these guys doing their very contrasting respective things, putting effort into every dumb thing the script throws at them.

They are assisted in this effort by a cast of a dozen or so character actors and cult film favourites like Lynch, William Forsythe, Louise Fletcher, William Fichtner, and so on and so forth, all of whom are of course game for any stupid shit.

So, despite being dumber than a rock, Virtuosity is just great fun to watch, its wacky and wrong ideas flying at you without pause, with a good handful of highly professionally and effectively realized action sequences adding even more joy to the affair. It’s always very clear the film did have a decent budget, too, so its misguided and improbable ideas about the near future, humanity, the way anything in real life works, and life itself, are realized in lovely sharp colours, shot with style and edited with verve. And of course, the contrast between the batshit craziness of it all and the slickness of its surface adds another layer of charm to Virtuosity, turning this into quite the experience.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Out of the Dark (1988)

Life at the LA phone sex, I am sorry “phone fantasy”, hotline of Ruth Wilson (Karen Black) is good: Ruth is genuinely nice to her girls, business is buzzing, and the girls seem to be having quite a time making fun of their customers. That is, until a madman in a clown costume calling himself Bobo starts to kill them off in bizarre and increasingly improbable ways. Unfortunately, the cop concerned with the serial killings isn’t the glorious Detective Langella (Divine in a pretty funny cameo in full film detective regalia including a moustache) but the rather less exalted Lt. Meyers (Tracey Walter) who is bad at his job even by horror movie cop standards. Just wait until he manages to come up with a stake-out that gets a woman and one of his cops killed!

Meyers starts suspecting photographer Kevin Silvers (Cameron Dye) – tasked to make glamour shots of the phone sex ladies for a magazine article for some reason - early on, but he’s of course more into threatening his suspects and ranting at them instead of committing to anything like an actual investigation, so this guy’s not gonna find out either way. The photographer at least insists on his innocence, roping his phone sex worker girlfriend Kristi (Lynn Danielson-Rosenthal) into various attempts to prove other peoples’ guilt. And it’s not as if there aren’t a variety of sleazebags and weirdoes around who might dress up as a murderous clown. Geoffrey Lewis, Bud Cort – there are character actors aplenty for this sort of thing around.

Even if it weren’t as entertaining as it is, Michael Schroeder’s Out of the Dark would still be a very interesting film, seeing as it seems to stand at a point just before the Cinemax-style “erotic thriller” truly happened, clearly demonstrating quite a few of that genre’s sleazy sensibilities. However, where a lot of the later erotic thrillers mostly put the off-screen sex of the noir on the screen and ramp it up until it buries everything else under silicone breasts, to my feeling, Out of the Dark comes to its sleaze and nudity by way of the giallo while integrating a nice slab of slasher elements as well as a sense of genuine fun.

That kinship to the giallo brings with it quite a bit of visual style; this is never blandly shot but full of clever little flourishes in the use of light (often artificial and blue, of course), clever little moments of suspense, and so on. The plot and most of the kills are absolutely preposterous, mind you, but then, they are not supposed to be anything but. In fact, the film often shows quite a bit of glee over its own weirdness, with Bobo not just wearing the clown mask but actually putting all kinds of efforts into being a decidedly evil clown. Particularly joyful is the scene in which Bobo is finally unmasked, granting us great put-down lines like “No extra business in Bobo’s act!” (which happens not to work as useful armour against a shotgun blast), as well as useful musings about what they do to killer clowns.

In general, the film seems to have a blast with its cast of weirdoes, sex workers, and thriller movie cliché characters. Better still, and not terribly typical for a genre that’s very much about showing tits and dead female bodies, Out of the Dark seems to genuinely like its female characters, and enjoy the humour they use to distance themselves from what must be a pretty dispiriting job. There’s no moralizing bone in the film’s body. Of course, the killings are still filmed to be enjoyable – it is supposed to be a fun, sleazy horror flick after all - but this one very clearly isn’t working off anybody’s problems with women.

The cast of character actors, soap opera actresses and playmates is a joy to watch, providing good natured humour, choice overacting (I’m particularly partial to Divine’s cameo, as well as the scene where the killer finally shows their true colours) and generally likeable presences even when blouses and shirts stay on. Even when the plot isn’t particularly riveting, it’s always fun to spend time with the characters and whatever the film comes up with for them to do or say next.

So, if you’re not afraid of a bit of sleaze, you just might find yourself enjoying Out of the Dark as much as I did.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Dead in the Water (2018)

The all-female crew (Nikohl Boosheri, Nicole Fortuin, Bianca Simone Mannie, Skye Russell, Tanya van Graan, Christia Visser and Amy Louise Wilson) of a rust bucket of a ship is attempting to stop the illegal fishing practices of some Chinese trawler. That’s going to be their smallest problem soon enough, for when they rescue a man drifting half-dead in the water, they invite rather more direct trouble in.

As it turns out, the man is carrying something nasty an evil oil company brought up while making illegal preparations for starting on the exploitation of the Mariana Trench. Soon, paranoia and outright violence set in – their main engineer’s particularly murderous disposition certainly doesn’t help there – but fighting against the thing (cough) that got onto their ship with the stranger will eventually turn out to be more important then fighting each other.

Dead in the Water’s writer/director Sheldon Wilson is still the guy responsible for my favourite SyFy Original, Carny. While the quite considerable number of films he made for SyFy in-between hasn’t always held up to this gold standard, he is still one of the better choices when it comes to making traditional TV genre fare that isn’t infected with the cancer of “irony”. Consequently, this concoction made out of slightly rejiggered bits and pieces of infection horror and The Thing is a neat little movie, unless you turn to SyFy Originals to be blown away by their originality instead of their hopefully deft handling of well-known bits and bobs.

This one’s main claim to originality is obviously its diverse, all female except for a couple of bit parts, cast, the sort of thing that’ll have a certain type of nerd demonstrating their particular brand of heterosexual manliness by running to the hills of movies without girl cooties, or go review-bomb something like real mencowards. The rest of us will happily realize how well Wilson handles this, mainly by not making a thing at all out of his characters’ gender, letting them fulfil the functions in this genre plot in pretty much the same way male characters would. So everyone here is as competent, incompetent, emotional, calm, or violent as in pretty much every other genre film of the same style. Why, it’s as if Wilson believes women are simply people who work like other people! The cast, though not exactly full of well-known faces, handle themselves very well, which is to say, they go through the genre standards they have to handle with competence, dignity, and the calm demeanour of professionals doing their jobs.

The script is just as calm and professional as these performances, hitting the right plot beats at the right moment, and making do with what clearly must have been a tiny budget even for a SyFy Original. Production wise, this is very much “Bottle Episode: The Movie”, with a handful of sets, special effects that barely get the job done, and a pretty impoverished air.

Still, Wilson’s by now so experienced in handling this sort of thing, the resulting film is actually thoroughly entertaining, and generally suspenseful. It’s certainly not an overlooked masterpiece or anything of that sort, but it’s a fine example of straightforward genre filmmaking that’s perfectly alright with being just that.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Mortal Engines (2018)

Welcome to yet another version of the post-apocalypse. This time around, the post-apocalyptic wastelands are roamed not by new wave biker gangs but by, huh…moving cities who consume each other in what looks to me like a rather dubious use of resources. Well, there is a country with a Chinese name with a rather international population “in the East” that does think the same and guards against the aggressive cities via a big ass armed wall.

Anyway, the film starts in the moving city of London that has made its way to what was once continental Europe to grab resources where only tiny citylets roam. Or that’s the official version, but if you think whatever kindly archaeologist/engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is building in St. Paul’s isn’t some kind of super weapon, I have something for you to rub on the soft parts of your neck. And indeed, the newest eaten city brings with its influx of newbies – hats off to New London for not murdering the population of the cities they eat - one glowering young adult named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Her manifold kinds of glowers and her tendency of hiding a decorative scar under a fetching red scarf clearly mark her out as our heroine; and her first act of business upon arriving on London is to attempt to kill Valentine who has apparently murdered her mother. Inigo Montoya understands. That murder attempt does of course go pear-shaped (else this would be a rather short movie), not the least thanks to the intervention of one Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a young historian of the underclass. Tom then proceeds to chase Hester through the innards of London; at the end of the chase, she lets drop some details about Valentine’s evilness before she falls through, well, the literal ass end of London. Which is where Valentine pushes Tom through too, for he can’t have anyone knowing he’s an evil mad scientist.

Fortunately, our young heroes have the survival abilities of cartoon characters, so all is set up for the two first learning to grudgingly respect one another, then to love. All the while, they are traversing the bizarre post-apocalyptic earth. Also appearing are slavers in absurd giant vehicles (because everything in this world is ten times as large as it makes sense for it to be); a spy/revolutionary with awesome anime hair (Jihae), a robot undead named Shrike (Stephen Lang); awesome airships with awesome roguish captains of various races and genders; a base in the clouds; and other goofy yet awesome crap. From time to time, we also pop in to Valentine being evil and scenes of his boring daughter (Leila George) and some equally boring guy (who cares) finding out that the guy the audience know is evil is indeed evil.

If all this sounds to you rather implausible and goofy even for the standards of a big fat blockbuster based on a popular YA novel, you are absolutely right. The film also suffers from an overload of standard big fat blockbuster clichés coming thick, heavy and often rather pointlessly (why is the “I am your father” bit even in there, for example!?), and a script so mechanical, you can hear its clockwork ticking so loudly it is impossible to ignore. It’s a pretty inefficient clockwork too: is it really necessary to cut away from our heroes having awesome adventures and our villain being villainous to Valentine’s daughter so the film can be sure we remember her later on when she has the important plot function of braking a city?

For a film as goofy as it is, Mortal Engines also is surprisingly, often nearly absurdly, po-faced, taking itself so seriously, treating the most obvious dramatic clichés as if they were really clever and hot shit. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a film based on a script by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (and Philippa Boyens), who certainly aren’t afraid of standard tropes and clichés but have quite a bit of experience in selling them convincingly.

Here’s the thing however: seeing all these weaknesses, I found myself enjoying Mortal Engines immensely. In part, the film’s insistence on rote clichés and ultra-traditional plotting told in an overly earnest manner might be stupid and ill-advised, but it is also charming as hell, rather like listening to an overenthusiastic kid telling us all about this awesome adventure story she has just come up with. Consequently, as long the film follows either Weaving’s patented villainy or the likeable couple of Hilmar (who really has an astonishing number of different glowers in her repertoire; I’d recommend her for a role as the masked vigilante of your choice) and Sheehan and their crazy adventures, I found myself grinning about this dumb nonsense like a loon. Only the handful of scenes with Valentine Jr. let down the film here, but there’s not too much of that to suffer through.

Then there’s the film’s other strength. Director Christian River’s was apparently Peter Jackson’s storyboard editor (though he also directed the short film Feeder (see Minutes Past Midnight), and clearly brings with him a great ability to put the film’s impressive, absurd, and clearly anime/manga/French language SF comic inspired production design front and centre. So while few of the contraptions and places we see make much sense once you start thinking about them, they are so impressive and beautiful, realized with so much imaginative detail, their silliness just makes them all the more beautiful. Because that’s what movies are there for too: showing us things we haven’t seen or imagined before just because they are wonderful (in the sense of “full of wonder”) not because they have to make sense. Rivers is also pretty good at actually using all the beautiful stuff in the action sequences, so all of it isn’t just a pretty backdrop but the heart and soul of the action.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: The lucky ones freeze to death.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011): One of the many fascinating aspects of Sean Durkin’s film about a woman, Martha, (Elizabeth Olsen) who has freshly escaped from a cult to the home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) is how it manages to be enigmatic and precise at the same time. But then, it uses its precision exactly to (re)create the imprecision of memory, inducing in its audience the same confusing floating sense of reality, identity and memory its titular character is existing in. There’s great clarity to Durkin’s portrayal of things not being clear at all, so to speak.

Beetlejuice (1988): Ah, remember the time when Tim Burton was young, his aesthetic still fresh to the audience’s eyes, and critics weren’t complaining this auteur was exactly doing what auteur theory asks of him? This is very much prime Burton, in the weirdness of his preoccupations as well as in the sweetness of said preoccupations (Burton always being the nicest weirdo in any given room), as it is in the accomplished and peculiar way the director presents them here. Sometimes, I do believe that his falling out of critical favour has less to do with his films as with their general lack of cynicism. These are films made by a guy who loves the macabre, but who also wants the characters in his movies to end up happy (as a rule).

If we just forget about Ed Wood for a second, Beetlejuice may very well be the director’s best film, with nary a second on screen that isn’t meant to still pop eyes and open minds, or turn the viewer into a child again.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018): Speaking of sweetness, Peyton Reed’s lovely bit of Marvel superhero comedy is a prime example of how far a film can get on a mix of likeableness and technical accomplishment. Very much directly into my heart, that is.

There’s nothing at all world-changing about this entry into the Marvel universe, but the chemistry between the actors, the light touch of the script (and if you’re a comics nerd like me, also the clever way it uses elements from actual comics), and the general joyfulness and imagination of the film’s shrinking and growing business come together into the perfect shape of a popcorn movie that may theoretically only be made to take your money, but is really working very very hard to make you smile.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Guardian (1990)

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.

Chicago Marketing guy Phil (Dwier Brown) and his interior architect wife Kate (Carey Lowell) are on their way up, living the bourgeois dream, such as it is. Phil has just scored a choice new position in Los Angeles, and Kate's pregnant with their first child.

The couple's son Jake is born shortly after they move to LA into a fine house in some kind of comparatively rural looking suburb (any LA experts reading this may hit me, if necessary), and now they're looking for a nanny to take care of the child while Phil's out marketinging (that's the technical term) and Kate decorates interiors. They find a British woman named Camilla (Jenny Seagrove) who seems perfectly suited to the job. Camilla's not even the couple's first choice, but their initial candidate (Theresa Randle) dies in a curious and unfortunate accident.

Outwardly, things go well with Camilla. In truth, strangeness enters the house with her: Phil feels attracted to her in a way that - to his honour - rather seems to creep him out, and he begins to develop insomnia and peculiar dreams circling around babies, a tree and Camilla. Which is only fitting, seeing as Camilla is an evil tree spirit's supernatural druid guardian out to offer little Jake to her tree, like she did many times before with other babies. These generally unspoken of dangers of parenthood really are enough to disabuse one of the thought of ever having children of one's own.

For my tastes, William Friedkin's The Guardian has a reputation among many horror film fans that is decidedly too low. I believe it's The Exorcist's fault. That certified classic is generally seen as the best of the director's few horror films, if not as his best film, period, and any other genre film he directed always will have to compete with it; which is of course patently unfair, but then such is life. To me, The Exorcist never mattered much. I can appreciate the film as a technical achievement but I have no emotional connection to its plot, nor do I find it particularly interesting or frightening, so I'm in a great position to not judge a movie for not being The Exorcist.

However, The Guardian has to jump a different hurdle with me, for it belongs to that dreaded group of movies from the late 80s and early 90s that shows educated rich people living the good life getting betrayed (and hopefully murdered) by the hired help who never heard of the sanctity of family and so on and so forth. I do enjoy some films in this particular sub-genre, but in general, I find its mixture of classism and reactionary thought particularly distasteful.

In this particular case, there's not too much for me to hate about the film's politics, though. Friedkin's approach doesn't seem interested in class as a concept at all, and doesn't do much of the "sacred family" nonsense either; we are rather in the "most parents want to protect their babies" territory that is as innocent as these things go. Additionally, it is rather difficult to feel any actual loathing towards this film's rich couple, or get annoyed at them, for Phil and Kate may be two of the blandest people alive, barely showing themselves able to scratch together enough character traits of any kind for even one person between the two of them. They're also the kind of people progressive enough to hire a nanny who is as coldly creepy as Seagrove's Camilla, so they may be difficult to love but they're not the kind of horror film main characters I'd enjoy seeing suffer.

All this - and I haven't even mentioned how uninspired the film's plotting is - rather sounds as if I am actually sharing the general opinion about The Guardian, but there's one major thing the film does so very well I feel bound to forgive it for any and all flaws it has. The film does weird (or even Weird) just wonderfully right, treating Camilla as a force from an Outside that opens doors to that Outside for everyone she touches. Plus, there's even the suggestion of tree sex.

Where too many US mainstream horror movies (then and now) absolutely try to avoid anything supernatural that can't be systematized and explained, Friedkin's film – I very much suspect thanks to its very British screenwriter, the great Stephen Volk - is very much in the spirit of European horror, thriving on certain elements being illogical, treating its supernatural threat as something turning the rational, sunny world of its protagonists into something stranger and more ambiguous.

Friedkin (and Volk) particularly use images and ideas out of fairy tale and myth here - from the wolf pack that protects the tree and Camilla, to the doom of our heroes' architect neighbour beginning with him watching Camilla bathing in a brook in the woods. The woods themselves (are there even such woods in real-world LA?) do of course belong into the realm of the same kind of imagery, particularly the way even a small detour from a road leads the film's characters from civilization and the rational world they know into the realm of nightmare and fairy-tale.

To use this kind of approach to horror in a film does naturally carry some specific risks beyond just annoying the people who like their attacks of the irrational on the rational more logical. It is, in particular, very easy to land in the realm of the unintentionally funny when one goes for the capital-W Weird. The Guardian's climax with its body painted Camilla with an effects-laden voice, and its heroic fight against a bleeding tree is probably a moment where a lot of people will start to giggle or roll their eyes, and I really can't blame anyone for that; I, on the other hand, am much too delighted by a film actually going to such a peculiar place in its finale to laugh at it

Thursday, March 7, 2019

In short: Bird Box (2018)

To nobody’s surprise, it’s the end of the world again. This time around, some apparently rather terrifying things are racing around the world driving most people who see them to suicide. We will later learn that they also drive a small number of people into hunting down the people who somehow have avoided looking at them. Because being down on the mentally ill is always okay (he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm), the film also suggests it is people with mental illnesses thusly susceptible.

We learn all this via flashbacks while following a woman named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two little kids apparently named Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) on a blindfolded voyage down a river towards what may or may not be our usual post-apocalyptic sanctuary. So when we don’t have dramatic boating adventures, we witness how the usual rag-tag bunch of survivors (including Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson and Jacki Weaver) get slowly whittled down to the trio we are flashbacking from.

Turns out, Netflix can make this sort of “serious” Hollywood genre fare as well as the major studios, ending up with a film so riskless and obvious, yet technically very competent, it would have been the lone Oscar nominated movie a couple of years ago, before the Academy realized you might as well nominate good and interesting films beside those trying to be “worthy”. One of the best things among many wonderful things about Black Panther is that it’s not a film designed for Academy nods.

Don’t let my somewhat disgusted tone steer you wrong: director Susanne Bier’s post-apocalyptic horror film is in all regards perfectly decent or better, and absolutely worth a watch. She’s certainly a very competent filmmaker, and I’d love to see something by her with a more ambitious script. What we get instead is Eric Heisserer using the perfectly wonderful and weird basic idea of the apocalypse from Josh Malerman’s novel for a post-apocalypse by numbers film, with characters only more lively than stock because the cast is really rather good (even Bullock does great work, especially for a woman who can’t move half of her face anymore), and so full of aggressive attempts to make its audience feel feelings I found myself less moved the more the film went out of its way to touch me.

That last aspect of the film is not at all improved by the its treatment of Bullock’s character arc. Not terribly great parenting has apparently caused her to be so emotionally distanced she can’t even (gasp!) look forward to having a child; fortunately, the apocalypse comes along and teaches her the value of motherhood and not giving your children names like “Boy” and “Girl”. The ending’s pretty ridiculous too, with a pat little happy end that fits not at all into what we’ve seen before. Does she name the children when she arrives in Happyland? You betcha! The Babadook, this certainly isn’t.

But honestly, Bird Box is a perfectly watchable, extremely well made film, with a couple of fine suspense sequences, it’s just annoying me righteously with all its gesturing towards a supposed depth it doesn’t actually have.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Crow (1994)

Some time in a hell-hole version of Detroit that makes today’s actual Detroit look downright genteel. Why even the one in Robocop looks charming and a bit quaint in comparison. It is what was once just the night before Halloween and has now come to be called “Devil’s Night” on account of the mass cases of arson committed by the crazed, the violent and the insane. It is also the night before the wedding of Shelly (Sofia Shinas) and her rock musician fiancée Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), and the last night of their respective lives, for the couple are brutally killed and – in Shelley’s case – raped. This is apparently what happens in Detroit when you’re fighting an eviction notice from the inventor of Devil’s Night, one Top Dollar (Michael Wincott).

Exactly one year later, Eric comes back from the dead accompanied by a crow psychopomp that looks a lot like a raven to me, driven to take vengeance on Shelley’s and his tormentors, sit on a rooftop and dramatically play guitar, and fix the life of a little girl named Sarah (Rochelle Davis) they were friends with. Fortunately, Eric is now more or less unkillable, being dead already and all that, and has also acquired a small variety of psychopomp-based superpowers.

Because everybody reading this will already know, I’m not going to get into the death of Brandon Lee during the filming of the movie.

Fortunately, Alex Proyas’s film does have more going for it than real-life tragedy. Or rather, it has if you can look at a film that is quite as much of its time and place as this one is and just go with it and accept it; or perhaps do as I do and find particular joy in exactly how much and how loudly The Crow screams 1994.

Of course, if you’re one of those people who just can’t cope with the film’s gothpunk/grunge/post-industrial aesthetic of burning (there’s a lot of burning in this one) dirty city streets, Hot Topic wear and Poe-quoting, or only find this sort of thing kind of silly, there will be no joy for you to be found here. Me, I’m not always quite as into all of these things as the film is, and tend to put down many a film going for this aesthetic as made by poseurs (though you can rip my The Cure mp3s out of my cold dead…hard drives, I suppose). In The Crow’s case, making an exception comes rather easily to me, though, for there’s nothing of the poser in the film at all. All the Poe-quoting, romantic desperation comes to the film quite naturally, and there’s a genuineness to the its romantic despair that turns much in it what should by all rights be silly and overwrought into something that feels as if it comes from the hearts of the filmmakers.

And it’s not as if the purveyors of this sort of aesthetic don’t have a sense of humour; at the very least, screenwriters (and quite well-known writer-writers, too) David J. Schow and John Shirley sure as hell have one, so the film also regularly demonstrates a sense of humour that counteracts any threat of the film falling into po-faced caricature that might have been left.

Proyas, coming, as is rather typical for a filmmaker of his generation, to his second feature film – after the pretty obscure Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds made half a decade earlier - via a successful stint as a music video director, brought with him the expected sense of visual slickness and polish, but at this point in his career (which alas already went downhill fast after his next cult hit, Dark City), the man also knew how to utilize his technical skill to create a film that is an aesthetic and thematic whole where the stylish visuals do indeed carry meaning, and are not used to distract from the human elements of his film but rather to enhance them. That he’s also wonderful at creating atmosphere and a sense of place, even if that place is decidedly unreal (or perhaps hyper-real) is pretty obvious too, so it’s no surprise that this made him a bit of rising star, if one that soon enough would only get to make soulless crap like I, Robot and Gods of Egypt.

Adding the cherry on top is a cast of character and weirdo actor stalwarts from Wincott to Ernie Hudson (as the only good cop in town), from Anna Thomson over David Patrick Kelly to Tony Todd and Bai Ling, all doing their respective things with great aplomb. And Brandon Lee? He’s pretty brilliant, obviously selling the physicality of his character easily but also believably portraying the revenant version of Eric as a guy who is broken, with parts of him missing, and others turned slightly grotesque.

So, The Crow turns out to be one of the films that impress you when you’re eighteen or nineteen and still hold up twenty-five years later without needing the warm glow of nostalgia or the special enthusiasm of youth to survive.