Tuesday, April 30, 2019

In short: The Granny (1995)

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Critters 3 (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

PSA: A Note of Temporary Absence

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

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Steel Dawn (1987)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: An Avalanche of Thrills!

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019): This is not really a film made with my age bracket in mind at all, but as a family movie that drags a well-worn pop culture character into contemporary times and social mores without going the route of deconstruction, grimdarkness or irony, Katt Shea’s film does fall into my areas of interest. The film is not just highly effective at this but charming as hell, the sort of family film even the childless like me would totally watch with their imaginary demon children and can enjoy without. It’s also excellently paced, silly when it needs to be silly, earnest when it needs to be that, clever and even mildly subversive in an unassuming way that’s easy to miss if you blink too often. Sophia Lillis makes a fantastic contemporary version of Nancy Drew too, projecting just the right mixture of self-assurance, rebellious streak, intelligence, humour and family love a modernized version of the character needs.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999): While it is not quite on its level, Nancy Drew would probably make a great double feature with what may very well be the best teen comedy/teen romance of the second half of the 90s, as directed by Gil Junger and written by the sometimes unassumingly brilliant writing team of Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith. As everybody probably knows, this gives Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” a bit of an update for the late 90s teen set, making nearly all the right decisions about what to keep and what to discard of old Bill for its time and audience, adding some Old Hollywood flow to the dialogue (which always endears a romantic comedy to me), and then proceeds to charm the pants off of anyone watching with a heart and a brain.

The thing this and Nancy Drew share is an unwillingness to pretend a teen audience is dumb, so while it does a very crowd pleasing kind of dance, it also contains subtleties and complexities and isn’t afraid to show and use them, very much in the spirit of Shakespeare, the godfather of great commercial art if ever there was one. That Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger work fantastically together hardly needs mentioning.

Vibes (1988): But why not end this entry on a let-down, namely Ken Kwapis’s sad attempt at doing a romance/adventure movie clearly meant to be in the spirit of Romancing the Stone but with added psychic powers. Jeff Goldblum, Cyndi Lauper (who would have been ordered to drop the accent by any half-competent filmmaker) and Peter Falk do their best with what they are given, but there’s only so much anyone can do with a comedy script whose jokes aren’t funny, nor a romance that doesn’t know how to be romantic.

Particularly when the not terribly funny nor romantic script is then adapted with all the style and panache of a kitchen table (that’s the least stylish and panach-y thing coming to my mind right now, and it’s still funnier than most of the jokes in here), bogged down by leaden pacing and finally killed by a disturbing lack of imagination.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The White Reindeer (1952)

Original title: Valkoinen Peura

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The birth of Pirita stands under a bad star, with her mother  desperately racing through the snows of Lapland to give birth to her in the warmth of somebody's tent, and then dying during birth. The owners of said tent take Pirita in as their own daughter. They may be relatives of her mother, but the film does not explain this, nor why Pyrite's mother wasn't giving birth at her home, nor if she even had one, but the staging of the scenes makes it quite clear that the baby's birth is not exactly accompanied by good omens.

Still, Pirita (now played by co-writer and wife of director Erik Blomberg Mirjami Kuosmanen) grows up into a beautiful and happy young (well, Kuosmanen was close to forty at that point, but that's not really a problem here) woman. She and strapping reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) fall in love and marry. However, as a herder, Aslak is away from home for long stretches, and Pirita misses him painfully. So she goes to visit the local shaman (Arvo Lehesman) to ask him for a love potion.

The shaman agrees to help her, but questioning the spirits doesn't exactly achieve the results anyone would have hoped for. The shaman prophecies Pirita will be irresistible to all men if she sacrifices the first living thing she sees on her return home at an altar, but the shaman also foresees a fate too horrible to speak of. Something - perhaps based on her birth - takes possession of Pirita at that moment, and she is fated to continue the process she has begun, walking through the next scenes like somebody submitting to the inevitable. So even though the first living thing Pirita sees on her return home is a white reindeer calf her husband gave her as a token of his love, she still can't escape sacrificing it.

Afterwards, Pirita becomes quite popular with the male population, though she seemed to attract men before she let the spirits put a spell on her quite well already, and Aslak never was anything but in love with her. The truth about the spell is something quite different anyway: by the light of the full moon, Pirita turns into a white reindeer that irresistibly draws men into hunting her, following her alone into the wilderness. Once the animal is alone with them, far from help, it turns back into a Pirita with fangs and claws who kills the man she has drawn away.

In a population as close-knit and full of knowledge of the old ways (it's impossible to call it superstition, for in the context of the movie, it's all true), this sort of situation can't hold up for long, and soon every Lapp in the area knows that the white reindeer is a witch killing men. It's only a question of time until they make spears of cold iron and kill her; and if you know the sort of story this is, you'll already know who will be the man to do it in the end.

I couldn't find out much about the era in the Finnish film industry when Valkoinen Peura was made (there's quite a bit of material online about the 1930s and 40s and then the 90s and onward, but little specifics about the period in between) though I am quite sure that Erik Blomberg's film wasn't typical of the output of the country's three major studios. The film seems too personal and too idiosyncratic for a pure entertainment, yet also seems far away from everything that would later become arthouse movies. If you're from Finland and know better, please correct me.

Stylistically, the film uses two very different approaches to filmmaking. The parts of the film concerned with the day to day life of the Lapps are filmed close to the style of a documentary (Blomberg having made more documentaries than feature films, this isn't exactly a surprise) with a major eye for the telling detail, and the patience to just let things happen on screen in their own time. These scenes make clear that Blomberg is highly interested in a feeling of veracity and authenticity, treating Lapp culture with a respect you don't generally see in films of the 50s for anything or anyone not in the mainstream culture of the country they were made in. If Blomberg got everything right about Lapp culture is quite another question, though not one I'm knowledgeable enough to answer. For the purposes of the film and this review it's probably enough to know that Blomberg strives for and achieves a feeling of veracity.

At first, this documentarian part of the film seems to rub against the way Blomberg stages most of the appearances of the supernatural, with highly expressionist lighting and editing that might just as well have been taken from a German silent movie of the 20s; even the acting tends to a certain wide-eyed and melodramatic style in these scenes, and Blomberg clearly prefers silent actors making expressive faces while dramatic music plays to dialogue - in fact, quite a few scenes seem to be shot without sound at all.

Instead of lending a schizophrenic feel to the film, both stylistic directions are well integrated into each other: all scenes that deal with day to day practicalities are shot in the more mundane documentary style, and the moments that deal with the vagaries of the human heart and the supernatural are made all the more emotionally powerful by being staged quite differently. This is particularly effective when Pirita's curse (really, I'm tempted to use the word "wyrd" here, even though it is culturally inappropriate) begins to infect her daily life with her husband and a scene that would have been shot bright and clear at the film's start, now is full of shadows and ambiguity.

If I were in a blithe mood, I'd call Valkoinen Peura the best movie about a were reindeer you'll ever see, but apart from being, you know, blithe, it would also mean selling the film quite short. There aren't many movies trying to take on the feeling of myth and legend while at the same time attempting to be truthful towards more mundane realities, and even fewer succeeding at it. Blomberg's film absolutely nails the right mood, and tells the right story in just the right way, resulting in a film singing with its own bleak kind of poetry.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

In short: Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre (1959)

aka Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case

The venerable Parisian police inspector Maigret (Jean Gabin) comes to his old hometown in the French countryside to help out the local Comtesse (Valentine Tessier). When Maigret was still a child, his father was the steward of the Comtesse’s estate, and little Maigret had a bit of a crush on the older girl; he’s now in the age where the past takes on the golden glow of nostalgia. So when the Comtesse sends him a letter asking for his help, presenting a threatening letter sent to her stating the time and date of her death, he’s obviously coming.

Even just arriving, Maigret realizes there are quite a few dubious characters around his old friend. There’s a melodramatic “secretary” and hobby art columnist, an even more melodramatic priest, and later on, we’ll also meet the Comtesse’s son, a whiny melodramatic alcoholic. Ironically enough, the Comtesse’s son will also turn out to be the murder weapon, more or less, for a fake newspaper article reporting his suicide is what’s going to kill her. Her weak, melodramatic heart, you see?

I did enjoy Jean Delannoy’s first Maigret movie with Jean Gabin, Maigret Sets A Trap quite a bit, but where that film is a psychologically insightful cat and mouse game only very slightly marred by a couple of too melodramatic performances, this one’s the embodiment of everything that was bad about French movies from the 50s, with only very little of all the things that was great about them. So the whole thing mixes a self-important, ponderous tone with finger pointing moralizing, a ridiculous murder method, and performances that consist of theatrical wallowing in badly faked emotion as expressed through stilted dialogue. It’s grating, to say the least, and certainly not improved by the film’s nostalgia for the good old days when everyone still knew their place.

The acting is made even more annoying through the immense contrast to the absurdly wonderful (given his surroundings) Gabin. For Gabin is his usual calm to phlegmatic self, expressing emotions through a slight change of tone, small shifts in his facial expression and posture - an actual actor who has somehow stumbled into a film peopled by idiots played by fools.

Technically, Delannoy’s direction is fine, full of theoretically clever little bits that would most probably be aesthetically satisfying and praiseworthy, if not for the terribly pompous air of it all, an air nothing in the script actually puts the appropriate effort in for at all. If all this sounds as if Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre has annoyed me quite a bit, I have made myself clear.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

In short: Shanghai Express (1986)

Original title: 富貴列車

aka (The) Millionaire(‘)s(‘) Express

A whole bunch of people congregates in and around the Shanghai Express. Everyone wants to stop the train for some reason, be they mountain bandits including Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton trying to rob a group of Japanese spies, a village security chief turned also robber (Eric Tsang Chi-Wai) trying to jump the train to flee from the village he betrayed, or Sammo Hung playing a man who wants to drum up business for the bordello he freshly opened in his old home village to make up for a flooding incident (don’t ask). Because that’s not enough crazy characters and their shenanigans, there are also various plots and subplots involving the village’s new security chief Yuen Biao, a man on the train badly attempting to cheat on his wife, little Fong Sai Yuk and his dad, and probably half a dozen other weirdoes doing something I’ve just forgotten now.

Obviously, Sammo Hung’s Shanghai Express is a decidedly messy film, full of characters – inevitably played by some beloved Hong Kong actor or another - that are only there to fill one joke scene or two, comedy that excitedly jumps all over the place in tone and style, with quite a few scenes whose approach to slapstick is as close to Harold Lloyd as anything you’ll encounter in Hong Kong cinema, which is to say, close as Siamese twins, other scenes that look and feel like spaghetti western comedy, and so on and so forth. This scattershot approach could become annoying rather quickly, but the way Hung does it here, the actual feeling I got from the film was of an excited – and excitable – generosity, the director just running through everything that’s lovely in comedy to him, trying to include everyone he knows in Hong Kong cinema (so basically everyone), giving everyone, including himself, a scene or two to shine while being as silly as possible. For some reason, it’s also a supposed train movie that mostly takes place in a village.

Because this is a Sammo Hung joint, the inevitable martial arts sequences – the final third or so is basically nothing but fighting as it should be – are of the highest calibre, sometimes gimmicky, sometimes straight, frequently hilarious and always effortlessly brilliant. My personal favourite is Sammo’s punch-up with Cynthia Rothrock, but there’s so much to just look at and gawk at here, everyone watching who has a soul will have her own favourite bits and pieces.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

In short: Hackers (1995)

Before YA-oriented cinema was all about the post-apocalypse, it was something like Hackers. That is to say, a well-meaning director approaches youth culture (and we could even argue if it should be about youth culture at all) with genuine interest but little clue of what anything of it actually means, particularly once it gets filtered through the needs of a big movie production meant to really cash in on some buzz words and a love of William Gibson novels, adds in some conspiracy thriller tropes and pretty funny techno babble, and a grab-bag of hot young thing actors (Jonny Lee Miller! Angelina Jolie! Matthew Lillard! Etc!) in improbable yet hot young fashion.

As an actual portray of a place and time this is pretty dubious is what I’m saying. However, if you approach it with a bit of openness (unless you have nostalgia for the film anyway, than that’s not needed), Hackers is actually a genuinely likeable film that does its damndest to create its somewhat improbable and slightly silly world with genuine care, putting actual effort into making its style and the world view of its characters coherent; while it is certainly highly interested in being marketable to its teen audience, it doesn’t want to do that by talking down to it.

Director Iain Softley is your typical mid-90s slick stylist, but unlike quite a few of his peers, he’s in full control of his style and not the other way round and mostly avoids your typical 90s mainstream filmmaking excess by virtue of focus. Commendably, he also trusts his audience to enjoy a bit of world building, so the actual plot of the film sets in slowly; which is all the better because the world of the film is quite a bit more interesting than its plot. The plot’s perfectly serviceable for what it is, mind you, it’s just that Softley has definitely put the emphasis on the script’s – and perhaps his own – strengths.

Seen in the right mood, this is a really fun movie even nearly twenty-five years later (I’m so very, very old), feeling genuine even in its goofiest moments. Additional bonus points for an organically diverse cast when that wasn’t as much of a thing as it is today, and a teen romance between hot young things that contains actual moments of awkwardness like a romance between actual teens would

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987)

Nick Randall (Rutger Hauer), for unfathomable reasons the descendant of Steve McQueen’s character in the old TV show “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, is also working as a bounty hunter like is great-granddad (or whatever). He also has a thing for playing harmonica, badly, whenever he has reason to mope. Nick’s actually a former CIA operative, but that particular business got to unpleasant for him, especially when he worked against terrorist Malak Al Rahim (Gene Simmons). Despite being a bit of a loner, Nick has found happiness with his new girlfriend Terry (Mel Harris), and his best buddy, the cop Danny Quintz (William Russ).

Unfortunately, that happiness won’t last when Nick agrees to help out his old (and only) CIA pal Philmore Walker (Robert Guillaume) with a terrorist cell that seems to plan something big, a cell working under the recently arrived Malak Al Rahim. Now, Nick turns out to be well able to help Walker out, but unfortunately, a different old CIA acquaintance named John Lipton (Jerry Hardin, The X-Files’ Deep Throat himself) has rather different plans with Nick, which will eventually lead to various terrorist attacks that really had no need to happen at all, among other things. The film never gets around to actually explaining what Lipton thinks he’s doing beyond making Nick’s life harder as a form of vengeance.

Gary Sherman’s Wanted is a weird one, consisting of various disparate elements that never quite gel enough to become a whole but still make the film an always interesting watch. The main problem is how incongruous the film’s impulses are. On one hand – be warned, this is a film with more than just two hands – there’s the whole call-back to the old TV show that really has no function in the film apart from looking at an audience that has come for a very different film and saying “remember that?”.

On the next one, there’s the nature of the film’s bad guys, who are strictly US late 80’s action movie “Arabian” terrorists, the kind of terrorists that don’t have an actual ideology beyond being evil, and whose leader is played by rock star who can’t act and tries to get away with just not moving his face. Said rock star, to make matters really weird, is also the son of Hungarian Jewish parents. Adding another element of what the heck to this whole business is the fact that Al Rahim enters the US cosplaying as an orthodox Jew. I got nothing.

Hand number three is the way the film handles its very 80s action movie set-up – with the thoughtful slowness of 70s cinema, giving much more space to the characterisation of Nick and his family of choice than any 80s film about an action hero fighting terrorists is supposed to do. As a matter of fact, it’s this part of the film that makes watching it worthwhile, Sherman giving his actors and their characters enough room to breathe. Why, I found myself actually beginning to care about what happens to them. Consequently the entirely expected scene when Terry and Danny are killed off acquires a bit of emotional weight, particularly since Hauer plays the moment as if his character were an actual human being who has just seen the people he loves die. There’s more sadness and desperation than rage in that scene from him, and the film for a moment seems to teeter on the edge of not going the way of all 80s action films but go someplace more interesting.

Obviously, a violent rampage then follows anyway, and as all action sequences in the film, it seems to stand halfway between the way 70s cinema had approached its violence and the gung ho action style of the 80s. It’s not a great place to stand for action scenes, frankly, because it feels less than Sherman trying to split the difference between two eras but rather more as if he simply doesn’t want to commit to one.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Three Films Make a Post: Turning eighteen is going to be hell.

Book of Monsters (2018): Calling a horror comedy inoffensive is not exactly the highest praise, but then, Stewart Sparke’s female-centric film is one of those horror comedies that seems terribly nice and friendly even though quite a few people get ripped to shreds in it. It’s just that the characters we are supposed to like all make it, so there’s a certain lack of tension running through the whole affair. The jokes are all over the place, some are exactly the ones you’ll expect going in, some are not quite as obvious. Generally, this is a likeable film though, using its clearly not terribly high budget as well as possible to provide its audience with a good time, and while I never got terribly excited watching this, I did enjoy myself with it more than I didn’t.

Bumblebee (2018): Given that it is comedic, YA-ish, likeable and female-centric, Travis Knight’s entry into the Michael-Bay-haunted Transformers franchise feels a bit like the big sister of Book of Monsters. Just that big sis has all the money in the world to make things as slick and streamlined as possible, where its low budget sibling has to fight for every scene to come together on a simple technical level.

While it isn’t exactly deep, unlike the other Transformers films, this one actually understands little things like character arcs, human feelings, and even has thoughts about what growing up means for a young woman still mourning the loss of her father. Knight is able to put all this into a slick and mainstream compatible movie featuring a very charming Hailee Steinfeld that also includes fun robot fights, explosions and some really rather cool chase sequences. Basically, this is the first Transformers movie that actually seems to be made by people with a degree of respect for their audience and their characters, who also happen to be really good craftsmen. It’s not a deep exploration of grief and loss, obviously, but it is a really entertaining film that’s not utterly brain dead in a franchise known for the exact opposite. Also, the robots have different colours.

Cold Skin (2017): Xavier Gens’s adaptation of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel must be an excellent one, seeing as it left me with pretty much the same feelings as the book did, the impression of having watched/read a very competently and eloquently realized story that never quite gets around to saying as much of interest about the human condition, colonialism or just the human heart as it seems to set out to. Curiously enough, for something taking place in 1914, the film (as the book) seems to be held back by too great a love for the narrative and philosophical habits of 19th (instead of 20th) century fiction, never really reaching the point where it should take a good long look at its own assumptions about how to speak about the things it is clearly most interested in.

As a horror adventure story, it is rather convincing, though, even though its fish people design is disappointingly derivative and conservative. It mostly disappoints because it seems so desperate to be something more.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Black Room (1935)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The olden tymes, in an Austria situated right next to the countries of Universal's backlot gothic Europe, where various accents, curious costumes and customs, and dubious temporality take on the appearance of a dream of the past. An old prophecy pronounces that the house of the de Berghmans will fall when the younger of two twins will kill his brother in the Black Room of their ancestral castle, repeating the founding sin of the house.

Consequently, reigning Baron de Berghman (Henry Kolker) is full of pronouncements of doom when his wife gives birth to twins. On suggestion of Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall), one of those movie military members who never actually do anything military, de Berghman seals up the Black Room so that the prophecy will never be fulfilled.

Twenty years later, with the elder de Berghmans dead, the older of the twins, Gregor (Boris Karloff), is now the Baron. He's not exactly well-loved by the local populace, what with his habit to indulge in his darkest impulses, and the surprising number of disappeared peasant daughters last seen with him. Gregor has also found a secret door to the Black Room, where he now hides the rotting proof of his indiscretions, but that particular of his vices remains unknown to everyone.

Gregor's younger brother Anton (of course also Karloff) has spent the last fifteen years or so away from home, trying to put distance between himself and the family curse story, and living an actual life. But now, Gregor has begged for Anton's return, and Anton - the nicest guy ever prophesied to become a murderer - can't help himself but return.

Unfortunately, Anton's return home is only the first step in the elder brother's fiendish plan to get the increasingly lynch-mob-y peasants off his back, take Anton's place, and marry a particularly boring girl named Thea (Marian Marsh), who just happens to be Hassel's daughter. One hopes the prophecy will still come to pass one way or the other.

In his thirty year career, The Black Room's director Roy William Neill made a lot of movies for the b-movie (in the initial sense of the word) arms of various studios. Going by the parts of his filmography I'm acquainted with, Neill was a particularly deft hand at squeezing a lot of gothic mood out of comparatively little resources (not so little when compared to what directors working for something like PRC had available to them, obviously). Some years after the movie at hand, Neill would go on to direct most of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies which were at their best whenever the director indulged in the unholy cross of gothic and pulp sensibilities (something that happened quite a lot in print in the pulps at the time as well).

Unlike the Holmes movies, The Black Room has no Nigel Bruce as the worst Watson on screen (or imaginable) ruining everything. In fact, there's not bumbling comic relief in the movie at all; if there's any laughter to be had here, then it's of the grim sardonic kind that appreciates the subtle humour of the way Karloff plays Gregor impersonating his good brother Anton.

In tone, The Black Room is pure gothic melodrama with a hint of the supernatural but also more than just a small hint of the idea that prophecies of murder of the kind presented in it could really turn out to be rather self-fulfilling. The script by Arthur Strawn and Henry Myers adds an additional flourish to its suggestions of psychological pressure shaping children's minds by turning Anton, the twin who would actually have a reason to envy his brother and is prophesied to become a murderer, into the socially acceptable brother of the two, yet also hinting that knowledge of the looming prophecy itself is at least in part responsible for Gregor's nasty turn of character.

The film never discusses this theme, or the tension between the idea of fate as a an actual working power (in this case, the hand of fate is a dog, by the way) and the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies overtly. However, I think it is this tension that gives the film's intensely melodramatic tone actual power, for without it, this would just be the usual gothic tale of fate (or rather Fate) indulging in its ironies.
On the visual front, Neill, in often inventive ways, emphasises the idea of twins being mirror images of each through the frequent use of mirrors. The titular Black Room's walls, for example, are made of - now dusty - polished obsidian, heavily suggesting that Gregor very literally kills his better half in the Room, yet also that he is showing his full, corrupt self only there.

In The Black Room, mirrors are not only a way of seeing one's true self (like in the scene where Gregor, shortly before his wedding, indulges in his old self for a moment in front of a mirror), they are also objects revealing one's true self to others (see the earlier scene where Hassel realizes Gregor-impersonating-Anton isn't Anton by accidentally watching him in a mirror). That's pretty interesting and complex for what probably was a quickly shot entertainment without open aspirations to artistic merit.

On the other hand, Neill is rather good at that "entertainment" bit as well, turning out one of the faster paced gothic melodramas I know, a film where not a single second seems wasted on anything not pertinent to plot, theme, or mood - characters are of course archetypes. It's quite an achievement in a genre tending to the slow and ponderous, and in an era of filmmaking where scenes of odious comic relief "breaking the tension" (why would you want that?) were nearly mandatory.

Neill - and everyone else behind the camera - does get quite some help with his efforts by Karloff - I can't help but add "of course". At first, the great man's performance seems rather too on the nose, the brothers a bit too good or evil, respectively, even when you keep the very different ideas the 30s had about acting in mind, but further study reveals a layer of subtlety below the obvious that enables various elements the script only touches on, and gives these gothic stock characters dimensions beyond excellent scenery-chewing, suggesting some degree of psychological depths in the archetypes.

Karloff's performance is emblematic for The Black Room as a film where much more is going on below a highly polished surface than it at first seems.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

In short: Impossible Horror (2017)

Indie filmmaker Lily (Haley Walker) is reeling from the end of long-term relationship. Unable to work, she is spending her insomniac nights watching VHS tapes of what look like home movie interpretations of genre films. To add insult to injury, her apartment is also haunted by a presence that goes through all the typical small scale spookery one can expect from any low grade example of its type. Then there’s the Scream (capital letter properly deserved) coming from outside which usually seems to happen around the same time of the night.

One night, when the haunting gets too bad and a horror movie sensibly suggests flight when encountering the supernatural, Lily leaves her apartment only to encounter a woman with a mutilated face and other assorted troubles. She also meets Hannah (Creedance Wright) a young, apparently homeless woman prone to violence obsessed with following and understanding the Scream; she’s particularly driven by a loss we’ll only learn about later. She and Lily team up eventually, racing through the nights following the Scream and a series of objects it seems to leave behind, while growing increasingly less sane.

This scrappy little film directed by Justin Decloux is certainly not going to be for everyone, even everyone who likes the more odd side of movie street. The movie itself makes some wry comments about film school projects, and at times, its use of every filmic technique it can afford (plus the kitchen sink, of course), the very earnest presentation of some of its ideas, the sometimes awkward yet always fully involved acting and even its specific sense of irony do indeed smell of the film school quite a bit.

On the plus side, there’s really nothing wrong at all with young filmmakers making exactly this sort of low budget indie, experimenting with forms, styles and genres, while – at least it feels very much that way to me – having quite a bit of fun doing so. There’s always time to become middle-aged and cynical later on.

It sure helps the film’s case that its inclusion of all kinds of techniques, even bits in the style of experimental cinema, also results in something that has no single boring shot in it – there’s at the very least always something interesting to look at. And why not throw in a random martial arts fight foreshadowed by one of Lily’s videos too?

Even better, quite often, said interesting thing you’re looking at does make sense in the film’s tale of, well, an impossible horror that’s just a couple of changes away from my beloved cosmic horror. The Scream and what it does to artists types is very much in the tradition, as is the film’s love for portraying weird changes in the way the world, physics and people work. On a metaphorical level, there’s some not always successful yet also not terribly unsuccessful business about artists becoming horrible human beings for their art, which I can take or leave.

Still, even in these moments, there’s a sense of excitement surrounding what’s going on on screen, a giddy “We! Are! Making! A! Film! Now!” that’s more than just a little infectious, and makes me really curious about what the people in front and behind the camera are going to do next.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Heavy Trip (2018)

Orginal title: Hevi reissu

Friends Turo (Johannes Holopainen), Jynkky (Antti Heikkinen), Pasi (Max Ovaska) and Lotvonen (Samuli Jaskio) live in a small Finnish village whose only claim to fame seems to be reindeer farming (ranching?). The only thing that’s breaking up the boredom is the guys’ shared love for metal. They’ve been a practicing death metal act for a good twelve years now, as a matter of fact. You need to take that practicing part literally, by the way, for the band has never had a gig, does not have a single self-written song in their repertoire, goes without a name, and has only ever played in the basement of the farm of Lotvonen’s parents. But things start to change: dreaming of fame, fortune, and the heart of local flower shop gal Miia (Minka Kuustonen) motivates Turo to really get serious about the whole being a band thing. Why, they even manage write their first own song.

Things become intense when a guy (Rune Temte) running a Norwegian metal festival comes to the farm to buy reindeer blood, as you do. After accidentally dousing him in blood, they give him their demo tape. Clearly, they are a shoe-in for the festival! Once Turo uses the fantasy gig to show off to Miia, the whole village that formerly treated them as shitty dudes with too long hair is cheering them on. So it is rather unfortunate there’s actually no space for them at the festival. But as you know, crazy dreams can come true in the world of metal. Insert devil horns here.

What you really don’t expect going into a film about a Finnish backwoods death metal band is to encounter something as sweet and heart-warming as this one turns out to be. Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren’s movie really doesn’t have a nasty bone in its body, treating characters like its protagonists whom most films would play as sad sacks to laugh about as incredibly nice, if perfectly weird, young men you can’t help but root for in any crisis. Even Turo’s nemesis, the sleazy lounge singer and used car salesman Jouni Tulkku (Ville Tiihonen) is only treated with mild derision, a reaction that actually fits his character’s failings more than going to extremes.

While this is a film about music very often all about burning the world down and dancing in the ruins, it does understand that it, as well as the music is champions, is also about the joy of playacting, of using a pose to become larger-than-life to play music that’s larger than life, too. So our protagonists are, at heart, just really nice guys who want to finally fulfil their dreams and a have a bit of an adventure in the process instead of mythic rock gods. And while all this obviously leads to funny situations for the characters, the film never makes fun of their dreams or their having dreams, presenting itself as a nice antidote to the South Park and Deadpool schools of humour whose makers hate dreams, hopes, and their characters too much to ever make a joke I’d find funny.

And funny Heavy Trip is basically non-stop, with good enough comical timing that even projectile vomiting becomes pretty hilarious. Among other highlights are Pasi’s black metal face paint, which makes him look like the sad clown of metal, the scene where Jouni sells the gang a horrible van by dressing it up as The Van of Death with many murders and accidents connected to it, Turo’s, ahem, encounter with his spirit animal (who, we can assume, is the best at what it does, but what it does isn’t very nice), the acquisition of a replacement drummer by kidnapping of a black Laplander (Chike Ohanwe) from the mental institution where Turo works as a particularly nice nurse (it’s funnier than it sounds, really), and so on and so forth.

It’s a brilliant movie, the sort of comedy you go out of not just having laughed parts of your anatomy off (which is pretty metal, right?), but also with a big smile of actual joy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

In short: The Prey (1984)

A group of – alas tent-less as well as brainless – campers make their way to a place called North Point. There, after long, long, long, long, long scenes of doing nothing and an even longer campfire tale flashback abomination, the traditional lone slasher starts killing them off.

Edwin Brown’s The Prey exists in at least two different cuts, as taken from Japanese or US home video. The US version has generally a bit more blood and even longer(!) scenes, but a much more digestible campfire sequence, whereas the Japanese is generally a bit shorter, but has a campfire tale flashback about “gypsies” and the people who burn them including several (!) longish sex scenes that is so long and so pointless, falling asleep or thoughts of strangling the filmmakers (or both) may happen to you too. However, whichever version you find – perhaps even the fan composite that is even more boring than both of the others because it is the longest possible version, including every single drab second any film in existence has ever contained – you will possibly find that it’s just too damn long in any shape you encounter it.

For the film’s most terrible as well as most bizarre feature is how not a single scene here is ever not too long. Well, quite a few of the scenes don’t have much of a function for the plot, so they are too long whichever way you look at them. That’s not my point here, however. Rather, the filmmakers seem absolutely unable to ever have a scene end, prolonging everything further by a love for parallel cutting that would usually be used to increase suspense, but never manages this here because cutting between pointless scenes where nothing is happening, as well as various close-ups of animals (so many of them, so many!) is not how suspense works on planet Earth. Actually, it is rather fascinating, for the filmmakers clearly have heard about suspense and have a vague theoretical idea of how to build it, but they seem never to have seen a film by, say Hitchcock, or John Carpenter, for that matter, to just copy. Instead, the couple of more standard suspense set-ups here are ruined by just going on too damn long, or forever.

The sex scenes here are a bit more involved than you’ll usually find in a slasher, going on so intensely and (surprise!) so long, I was basically waiting for the money shot. As it happens, most of the rest of Brown’s filmography consists of porn, so this area was clearly where his interests were.

Of course, you can look at The Prey from a different perspective and actually admire the depth of its boredom, the sheer bloody-mindedness that results in all that intercutting between equally boring scenes, the (“meaningful”) shots of oh so many animals, the perfectly unsexy sex scenes, the generally ineffective kills, and so on, and so forth. It can’t be easy to make a film that is quite as bad at being a slasher movie while still keeping most – there’s no actual final girl here – of its consistent parts, either.