Tuesday, January 21, 2020

In short: Rambo: Last Blood (2019)

Elderly mass murderer John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), suffering from his usual bouts of PTSD and mumbling about the darkness inside of him, has retired to a horse ranch in Arizona. He has somehow managed to acquire a little replacement family in form of Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). Gabrielle’s mother having died years ago, and her father having disappeared from her life, Rambo has taken on a bit of father role and the official title of “Uncle John”.

He’s also dug an extensive tunnel system below the ranch, just in case he’s ever gonna need it for the action-packed climax of a movie. Let’s just call them Chekhov’s Tunnels.

Secretly, with the help of a rather dubious friend who lives in Mexico, Gabrielle has been searching for the whereabouts of her father. Eventually, she finds his contact address and runs off to visit him. He turns out to be a total prick, but at least, unlike her friend, he isn’t selling her to the Cartels as future drug-addicted prostitute.

As soon as Rambo realizes what has happened, he goes after Gabrielle, but he’s only able to bring her back home dead. He’s no Liam Neeson, apparently. The inevitable revenge killing spree ensues.

Adrian Grünberg’s supposedly final (I believe that when Stallone dies without making another one) entry into the Rambo franchise sits in a rather awkward place, at once trying to be very serious movie doing very serious character stuff and the kind of film that ends in a bit of gory violence, and not surprisingly ending up not succeeding at either one of it. I much prefer John Rambo, which simple wanted to be a brutal little action movie with a guy who looks like a weather-beaten rock formation in the title role, and succeeded at that supposedly simpler goal.

This rather more ambitious film can’t even pace itself right, taking over an hour to do not much more than introduce a handful of characters and get a seventeen year old girl killed, seemingly convinced of the profundity of its character work even though it doesn’t actually do more than other action films manage in an economical fifteen minutes. I’m also not at all happy about the decision to turn the film into a revenge tale in the end, where showing Rambo protecting actual living people would suggest at least some character development beyond the “woe is me! the darkness!” business the film finds so inexplicably interesting. That would also turn the film into something slightly different from the tale of a guy who does the same bloody crap again and again, as well as provide the climax with stakes somewhat higher than the question if Rambo will survive and kill everyone or kill everyone and survive. All of this, of course, wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the film had committed itself to be a blunt action movie – but once you go the road towards a supposed exploration of character, you then need to actually deliver it.

The action movie bits – taking up about fifteen to twenty minutes or so of the running time – are decent enough, rather gory, but presented with bland professionalism that hinders them from becoming exciting. The lack of interesting villains doesn’t help here, either, but then, this version of Rambo isn’t a particularly interesting hero either.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ready or Not (2019)

Grace (Samara Weaving) certainly didn’t expect that marrying into the rich (through board games!), rude and rather eccentric family of Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) would end up with her spending her wedding night quite the way it’s turning out. There’s a family ritual involved everyone marrying into the family must go through, you see, so whosoever becomes part of the family has to draw a card containing the name of a game from a box. That box has been handed down through the generations and comes with a nice little story of what sounds decidedly like a family deal with the devil. Poor Grace, or lucky Grace, depending on one’s point of view, alas, draws the somewhat problematic card of “Hide and Seek”.

Nobody tells her what the special family variant of this single deadly game in the deck entails, and soon, her new family is hunting Grace through the house trying to hobble her with weapons and catch her so they can sacrifice her to Satan. Neither Alex nor his black sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody) are quite in with this particular program, but family is difficult, and rich boys tend to lack backbone. Man, but the rich are different.

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s and Tyler Gillett’s Ready or Not is a pretty great example of what focussed direction, a game cast, and wonderful timing can make out of a very simple basic idea. One could hold it against the horror comedy that its social criticism isn’t terribly complicated and just a bit obvious – a problem it shares with most “the x are terrible” films - but the film does put visible effort not in the basic situation but into why in the hell anyone would take part in this thing – apart from as it will turn out very well justified fear for one’s own life – and so those family members that aren’t total caricatures make actual sense as people doing absurd and violent things for believably shitty people reasons. Which I believe to be quite an achievement to get into a film that is basically one long sequence of chases through a couple of rooms and corridors and a patch of woods with captures and reversals of fortune. It’s fascinating how small the scale of the film actually is when one thinks about it; yet the actual movie never feels small or constrained, but focussed and doing exactly what it sets out to do in the best way possible.

This is also one of the rare horror comedies to always manage to find the right split between the jokes and the suspense, often intermingling both brilliantly. There’s nary a moment where the humour stands in the way of the suspense or vice versa, leaving us with a film that is as exciting as it is funny.

In large part, this is the achievement of the lean and minimal yet very clever script and of a director duo who really make the most of the opportunities that come with this sort of thing. However, there’s also a great cast who can shift between the coarser and subtler moments of the writing with ease, adding dimension without showboating. Samara Weaving is obviously great, throwing herself into every single scene with the kind of controlled abandon that makes a great horror actress, while shifting from dry quipping to actual human emotion and back again with natural ease, but the supporting cast hits every note as wonderfully. Why, even Andie McDowell does not seem to have been made out of wood for once.

In addition to all that, Ready or Not looks rather fantastic too, making as much of wood-panelled walls and soft light as any horror film I can remember. It’s a joy to watch from start to finish, even avoiding the lame twist ending that some horror filmmakers now seem to think is mandated by law in the genre, simply wrapping up its plot in a fitting manner.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: The Price Is Blood

Climax (2018): Leave it to very French director Gaspar Noé to make a film about a group of dancers getting dosed with LSD and going on a shared trip of dance, sex, violence and death that can feel excessive and abstract at the same time, breaking taboos without getting smug about it. Stylistically, it goes through the sort of intensities of colour, movement and behaviour a viewer will by now expect of the director – an audience not okay with strobe lights and a lot of shrieking need not apply – yet the film never feels to be the wrong kind of self-indulgent, Noé always getting to a point eventually even if his films seem to be meandering. Style in this director’s case is still an important part of the substance of his movies.

Under the Silver Lake (2018): This, the film writer/director David Robert Mitchell made after the brilliant It Follows, on the other hand is very self-indulgent indeed. It’s yet another one of those LA movies apparently made explicitly so that filmmakers existing in their LA bubble can wink and smile smugly at the other inhabitants of said bubble watching, full of in-jokes only the LA-obsessed will tolerate and apparently vacant of any wish to communicate with the rest of the world. Add to this general air of group masturbation a pie made out of badly digested Pynchon and Lynch, and you have a film I want to punch in the face rather badly, even though I’ve only got a tiny non-punching guy’s fist available, and am not into punching on general principle anyway.

There’s certainly a lot of technically excellent filmmaking on display here, but I’ll wait for that to be applied to something other than a bloated, 140 minute in-joke, thank you very much. Though, given how different this one is from Mitchell’s other two features, and those from one another, I might not have too long to wait; at least, one can’t blame the man for simply repeating himself.

Breaking Away (1979): Rather better at using an actual place – in this case the somewhat unglamorous and therefor infinite more interesting Bloomington, Indiana – to actually speak about something of interest to people not living there is this coming-of-age comedy by Peter Yates (also a man of very different films). It treats the feelings of young working class men of not belonging into the world of their parents but also being blocked from participating in the world the people born rich or richer seem to enjoy so much with delicacy, dignity, and a sense of whimsy, not going the poverty porn route of painting everyone and everything in the bleakest possible way yet also not looking away from shit.

Yates’s treatment of the material is so clear-eyed and even-handed, he even sells a climactic cycling event as meaningful and exciting to a guy like me who could care less about people riding bikes in circles (even though it’s a nice metaphor for the human condition). There’s also brilliant, idiosyncratic use of classical music in a context where most movies would go for Springsteen or would-be Springsteen, and great performances by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, a tiny Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Das finstere Tal (2014)

aka The Dark Valley

Some time in the 19th century. A stranger calling himself Greider (Sam Riley) rides into an isolated mountain valley in the Alps harbouring a small village. The man says he wants to stay for the winter that is soon to come when the snow will make it impossible to leave the valley. He pays for his stay in American gold coins and buys a bit of goodwill with the early photography equipment he carries.

The rulers of the town, the nearly confined to his bed Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his sons (Tobias Moretti, Helmuth Häusler, Martin Leutgeb, Johannes Nikolussi, Clemens Schick and Florian Brückner), send Greider to live with a widow and her daughter, Luzi (Paula Beer). Even if the two women wanted, there’s clearly no way to say no to the things Brenner demands, if one wants to stay alive, particularly as a woman. Fortunately, despite a great deal of reserve in his manner, Greider’s a mostly pleasant guest.

Luzi is to marry her boyfriend Lukas (Thomas Schubert) soon, but what would be cause for happiness for most loving couples (and there’s no question these two are very much in love), is cause for a good deal of terror in this place. For Brenner and his boys have invented their own special version of the droit du seigneur (something which probably didn’t even actually exist during the middle ages, as far as I understand), only that it’s more the right of gang raping women until they get pregnant in their case. People who revolt against the Brenners’ ways don’t tend to live long, and after all, parts of the silence of the villagers insinuate, aren’t they keeping the place safe and prosperous?

However, this winter, during which Luzi and Lukas are to be married, things just might change. Two of the Brenners die of peculiar accidents. The surviving brothers quickly realize the stranger in their midst must be responsible for the deaths in some way. Why, might he be the child of the proverbial one that got away coming back for vengeance?

As regular readers might have noticed, I have regularly expressed my frustration with the near total absence of quality (or for the most part really any) genre movies from contemporary German language cinema, and particularly the German parts of it. It’s a sad state of affairs caused at least in part by the German bourgeoisie still hanging onto idiotic concepts of “high” and “low” culture, and a curious coalition of cultural conservatives and a just-as-conservative when it comes to culture left owning the purse strings of film subsidy and TV alike. The only exception to the genre rule have been crap comedies, but I don’t dare speculate why that is so. It’s a situation that makes the situation in, for example, the UK look like a paradise for filmmakers in comparison. During the last decade or so, things have changed a little, and a slowly increasing number of films has drifted into the cinemas nobody would have financed just ten years ago.

By now, things have developed into a better direction so much, Andreas Prochaska’s brilliant Das finstere Tal even was co-financed by two TV channels - the German ZDF and the Austrian ORF – and has basically been drowned in German Film Awards, something that gives me hope for a continuing renaissance in genre film for filmmakers who can’t make their films on crowd-funding money.

Apart from these politics, like quite a few of the examples of new German language genre films I have encountered, Prochaska’s film is just very, very good, the sort of film I can’t imagine could have been created without some actual passion for genre movies on the side of the filmmakers. One might even think part of the film’s and its companion movies’ passion is a consequence of the sheer joy of being able to make this sort of thing, long repressed energies asserting themselves. But then, one tends to get overexcited about these things.

Fact is – at least as much as there are facts when looking at art – that Prochaska takes age-old Western clichés, transplants them into a place closer to his own experiences and his purse strings, and brings them to life. Again, we have arrived at one of my regular talking points, namely that using the local and the specific for your film when you can’t – and perhaps even shouldn’t – fight Hollywood on its own terms brings with it enormous artistic opportunities, and a certain freshness and personality you couldn’t buy by filming your movies in LA or the places Hollywood films tend to be filmed. There’s a reason why even Luc Besson tends to set his films in Europe. In Das finstere Tal, the impressive landscapes of the snow-bound Alps and the things people do to one another in them are a perfect fit, nature mirroring humanity in the clearest way possible without the film turning into a display of too obvious metaphor.

Of course, you can make use of the local and the specific and your film can still turn out not worth mentioning or watching if you can’t handle the more archetypal elements of your film well. Prochaska has no problems here, knowing the archetypes of the stranger coming to town, the cowering townsfolk, and the power-mad villains of the piece by heart and not feeling the need to change more about them as the Austrian accents, and the Alps automatically change about them. It would be easy to criticize the film for a lack of originality, but Prochaska’s visual language and the strong acting really do make the old feel quite new, even if a viewer is less convinced than I am that showing age-old stories in front of a different background already changes them enough.

And it’s not as if the specific paths of the Western genre (as far away from Winnetou as one can imagine), paths close to those of certain of the more political Spaghetti Westerns with Corbucci’s equally snow-bound Il Grande Silenzio an obvious yet too bitter example as well as to US Westerns like High Plains Drifter, Das finstere Tal explores aren’t still worth the travel time. Particularly in a film that is as good at building mood as this one is, be it in its treatment of the gothic horror tones of the village’s darkest side (and it really doesn’t get quite darker than this), the horror the film gets you to feel at the size of Greider’s anger even though it – and probably you-the-audience – does share it, or the tense climactic violence. The only flaw I find in Prochaska’s direction is one utterly horrible moment of bad pop song insertion in the worst possible moment of the film’s big shoot-out. It’s a sure-fire way to drag anyone out of one of the film’s tensest scenes. If you have experience with German TV, where Prochaska has been working for most of his career, you’ll recognize the cack-handedness of the moment. In the context of a film this well-composed and calmly atmospheric, it’s a truly puzzling moment that defies taste in a film that manages to even treat the whole gang rape wedding stuff comparatively tasteful.

There is, of course, also a strong political undercurrent to the film, a real anger at power (perhaps even power as a philosophical concept?) and the way it is used, as well as a real sadness for what power does to its victims, particularly women; utter hopelessness, on the other hand, the film leaves to the nihilists where it belongs.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

In short: Sweet Sixteen (1983)

Freshly arrived in a small town in Arizona with her archaeologist father (Patrick Macnee) and a mother (Susan Strasberg) who is actually from the area, Melissa (Aleisa Shirley) has the hearts – and certain other organs – of the local boys all atwitter with her rather provocative behaviour (at least for a fifteen year old as played by an actress who most assuredly isn’t that age anymore), and her strange city ways. Alas, someone is killing off her beaus with a nasty knife, though the otherwise highly conscientious and pretty smart Sheriff Dan Burke (Bo Hopkins) doesn’t really seem to read the murder spree running through his town quite this way.

Dan, sometimes “assisted” (cough) by his murder mystery mad daughter Marci (Dana Kimmell) and his son Hank (Steve Antin), does have quite a mystery to solve. His job isn’t made any easier by the racist element of the town wanting to blame everything on “the Indians” – something that pisses him off righteously – nor by Melissa’s tendency to lie to gain attention.

Marketed and often treated as a slasher online, Jim Sotos’s Sweet Sixteen is in actuality a small town murder mystery with a couple of elements of exploitation cinema added for saleability. In practice, this means the murders are a bit bloodier than in your traditional mystery, and there’s some gratuitous nudity. Otherwise, this is very much a film about a small town sheriff having to find out whodunnit.

It’s not a terribly complicated or convoluted mystery either, but rather the sort of film whose killer is obvious once you’ve copped to the general tone of the whole affair. Which turns out not to have been much of a detriment to my enjoyment of the film, for what it lacks in slasher virtues and a head-scratching mystery, it mostly makes up for in likeability of characters and cast, for most of the time getting by on charm quite well.

Sotos must have understood where the strengths of this project were quite well, for Sweet Sixteen spends nearly as much time in the kitchen of the Burke household as on the case, showing off the charming and often wryly funny interactions of a very nice family, Hopkins as well as Kimmel and Antin actually coming off as a proper family without much of a sense of hysterical melodrama, the kind of people you enjoy spending screen time with even when a given scene doesn’t do much to develop the plot. This tone runs through all of the film’s human interaction, a genuine warmth and sense of humour that is pretty much the opposite of how actual slasher movies do their thing.

Even though this tone dominates most character interactions even outside the Burke family, the film doesn’t pretend small town life to be completely idyllic. It suggests there’s a sense of family in this small town population, but sometimes being part of a family means hitting your racist shithead relation's head against a wall for a bit, or you find yourself becoming the victim of a knife attack. And isn’t that a lovely thought for any film to leave us on?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Slipstream (1989)

Oh look, it’s a post-apocalyptic future, Ma! This time around, possibly man-made natural disasters have turned the world into the playground of a system of heavy winds – or something – known as the Slipstream. There are apparently some more civilized city states still around, but those seem to exist upwind and leave the rest of the world alone to wear all kinds of post-apocalyptic fashion. But instead of dune buggies, everyone has small aircraft, clearly making for the superior post-apocalypse.

Bounty hunter/bum/charming rogue without the charm and about half a brain Matt Owens (Bill Paxton who manages to portray a guy who is by far not as charming as he or the script thinks he is in a very charming manner) drifts around the world in his rundown little plane. When he encounters two police people from one of the city states – the LAPD style psychopath Tasker (Mark Hamill) and the supposedly nicer Belitski (Kitty Aldridge) - who have just caught a murderer in a natty suit (Bob Peck) with a taste for poetry and a talent for healing, he does what every sane man would do, steals the guy he will dub Byron, and flies off trying to bring Byron to wherever it is people pay for Byrons. Obviously, on their way, the odd couple will encounter various groups of the kind populating all post-apocalyptic wastelands (even the picturesque ones), have sex (with women, not one another), and will learn valuable lessons, while avoiding the particularly angry Tasker and the not quite as angry Belitski. It will also turn out that Byron’s right out of a Philip K. Dick novel.

This pretty weird and woolly SF epic by Steven Lisberger, aka the guy who directed Tron, apparently bankrupted its producer on account of finding no audience in Europe and no distribution in the US. Not to kick a dead pig, but I suspect reading the script before putting down any money might have saved someone here.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time with Slipstream. It’s just that an off-beat mix of all kinds of SF and post-apocalyptic clichés presented in the form of a picaresque and with little special effects work beyond the flying sequences in my experience is not exactly the kind of movie that’ll draw in huge audiences, even if you have Mark Hamill doing a nice turn as Evil Future Dirty Harry for a bit.

Predominantly, Lisberger’s film is odd, seemingly going out of its way to turn even theoretically pulpy and exciting sequences weird, presenting what on paper should be its big action sequences with the visual equivalent of a confused shrug, because instead of really making us excited about Matt saving Byron from having been tied to a giant kite by a wind worshipping cult while having to fight off Tasker, it really rather wants to get back to another one of its many pseudo-philosophical dialogue sequences. And boy, are there many of those in the film, all vaguely meandering around confused and confusing attempts to define what makes us human made by an idiot (that would be Matt) and the inevitable android (Byron, obviously, and that’s really not a spoiler here) and the various weirdo mini cultures they encounter (the lumpen proletariat! pirates! rich people! etc). From time to time, the film gets a real bee in its bonnet and does things like Byron doing a Fred Astaire imitation while Matt does some slow-dancing with a pretty Rich Girl who is clearly fascinated enough by that perfectly dumb, most certainly stinky, and rather chauvinist stranger to bed him. Did I mention this thing gets admirably weird more often than not?

So yes, nobody not involved in the production of the movie should be terribly surprised this was not a hit at any box office. However, if you’re of the right age or have read the right books, Slipstream is a very fun time, the movie equivalent of one of those 60s or 70s science fiction novels that were interested in the same sort of things as your Dicks or your LeGuins but not terribly sure about what they actually wanted to say about these things and even less sure how to express it, and so just decided to send their vaguely drawn protagonists travelling through various goofy corners of the imaginary world. If that sounds like a direction you think more science fiction movies should go in, Slipstream’s going to be a great time. Plus, you’re probably me, so congratulations.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

In short: The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

When she was young (and played by Olivia Bond), Francisca’s mother (Diana Agostini) was murdered by a serial killer doing a bit of home invasion business. Her father (Paul Nazak) arrived home just that little bit too late to save his wife, knocking out the killer and imprisoning him in the barn. The clearly traumatized man quickly put the responsibility for the killer on his daughter, who turned the man into her mutilated pet/”friend”.

Ten years or so later, Francisca (now having grown up to be played by Kika Magalhães) is royally screwed up psychologically, seeking human closeness and love in pathetic and unpleasant ways. Cuddling the corpse of her father, having sex with the killer whose still continuing time in the barn has left him hardly more than an animal, and murdering prospective one-night stands who get cold feet are all part of her desperate attempts at relating; baby-kidnapping’s closer than you think.

I am very much of two minds about Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. On one hand, it’s impossible not to admire the great craftsmanship of the film, the way it successfully views material that’s made for an extreme exploitation movie through the stylistic lens of arthouse cinema. Long takes, scarce dialogue, and usually gorgeous compositions are all par for the course here, as is artful handling of the decision to not show the inherent violence of the material but – except for a couple of very specific moments – only its aftermath (or sometimes the noises it produces on the film’s brilliantly realized soundscape). All this is at the very least aesthetically pleasing – not to be confused with pleasant in this particular case, obviously.

However, my problem with the film is that all of these great technical achievements are also ways for the film to distance itself and its audience from its material. Its unwillingness to go to the visible extremes you’d expect from the material certainly avoids any tackiness, or any way anyone could complain the film to ghoulishly wallow in all of the degradation and horror as a proper exploitation movie would, yet it also keeps at least this viewer at arms length from emotionally relating and understanding Francisca as more than an abstract case study that yes, trauma is bad for you, robbing the film of the visceral jolt I believe it needs. Sure, abstractly, all of the stuff in the film is pretty terrible, but it’s all so tastefully realized and abstracted from actual human pain, I found myself looking at it like a sociopath trying to figure out feelings, admiring the form but never connecting to the content.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)

Original title: ゴジラ × メガギラス G消滅作戦

As it goes, this second entry in the short-lived “Millennium” era of Godzilla movies ignores most of the Godzilla films that came before apart from the original first movie. While I’m never completely happy with this approach, at least this one has a reason for it, for the film takes place in some kind of alternative Godzilla timeline as well as an alternative history of Japan. So, Godzilla wasn’t killed in 1954 and instead hit Tokyo so badly the Japanese moved their capitol to Osaka. For some reason, it took another attack a decade later for the country to step away from the nuclear energy Godzilla feeds on. This went well until 1996 when experiments with a new form of energy again provoked a successful Godzilla rampage, despite a military unit charmingly named the “G-Graspers” having had a good thirty years to prepare for it. Obviously, that was it with the new-fangled plasma energy, too.

However, Japan really, really wants to get rid of Godzilla, and by 2001, they are in the final stages of developing a weapon that’s supposed to shoot a miniature black hole at Godzilla from orbit. In a classic “I can’t see what could go wrong there” moment, the first test of the weapon also opens a wormhole. Through that wormhole – that the G-Graspers for some reason don’t bother to monitor – flies some giant prehistoric dragonfly (or a normal one gets mutated, the film’s pretty unclear here), and is never seen again after it pops out an egg. Said egg is found by a little boy, brought to Tokyo, and hatches a bunch of prehistoric cow-sized dragonflies that eat energy, which in turn eventually produce a proper kaiju dubbed Megaguirus. Godzilla more or less to the rescue, only to be murdered afterwards by the very unthankful humans.

Masaaki Tezuka’s entry into the Godzilla canon is certainly not a classic of kaiju cinema, but I have seen worse films, even worse Godzilla films, too. Its main problem is a plot that’s often needlessly convoluted, as exemplified by the egg business. There’s really no reason at all for the egg to simply hatch in the countryside and the film being done with that part of its plot. Instead it fiddles around with plot-lines around the little boy and the egg that have no dramatic reason to exist and only slow things down until we finally, eventually, get to the good stuff. Which, if I really need to say it, are giant monsters. I’m also not terribly sure the film actually needed the alternative history angle after all, for after the turn of events has been established in the film’s beginning, there will turn out to be no discernible difference between this Japan and ours apart from its capital.

I do understand the need to have something, anything to do for the human characters beyond fighting against Godzilla (a fight they can’t win), but the old-fashioned stuff with alien invasions or evil spy agencies most other films of the various Godzilla eras get up to really is the better choice here. Especially compared with a film that turns out to have trouble deciding on the metaphorical meaning of Godzilla, and eventually pretends killing off this force of nature that has just protected humanity against its own folly is some kind of heroic act.

Once and whenever we do get to the monster business, the film markedly improves, with much of the monster stuff demonstrating the imagination most of the rest of the film lacks. I’m particularly fond of the final beat down between Godzilla and Megaguirus that heavily nods in the direction of the sillier kaiju eiga from the 60s and the charming way they provided their monsters with personality. Godzilla’s pissed facial expression after he gets up following Megaguirus’s first attempts at sucking his precious bodily fluids, I mean tasty radiation, is absolutely priceless.

Not terribly well used, but at least interesting in how atypical it is for kaiju cinema is the character of Kiriko Tsujimori (Misatao Tanaka), who plays your typical main rocket jock with a grudge role, not the kind of role you’ll encounter many a Japanese film - and a Japanese kaiju film even less – giving to a woman and playing her straight like it would a male character.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: They Say No One Can Save The World. Meet No One.

6 Underground (2019): Obviously, not being named Rex Reed, I usually talk about movies here I have stayed awake watching throughout, and seen all the way through to the bitter end. However, given the clear disrespect – if not even outright hatred - Michael Bay shows for us poor idiots watching this particular thing, and having inflicted half of it on myself, I think I do deserve at least a little compensation (like a couple of months of free Netflix, the other party responsible for this roaring garbage fire). So, even having only seen half of the film, I can most certainly say that Bay is still completely unable to stage and film action sequences, he’s even worse than he was when he shot the unparsable car chase in The Rock. Today, his action isn’t just over-edited and makes no structural sense, it has also learned to shake and strobe like a Tony Scott movie, adding the epilepsy to the headache. The “script” was written by the guys who brought us Deadpool, Zombieland and Life, so you know it was going to be some smug meta-masturbation at best, but is just probably cocaine-addled and deeply mean-spirited nonsense by writers who are so much less clever than they obviously think they are. Screw, Michael Bay, seriously.

Dog Eat Dog (2016): This Paul Schrader film with Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook as luckless and pretty stupid small time crooks getting themselves killed over their inability to kidnap a baby sort of fits 6 Underground. Not because it’s also one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen but because it is pretty damn mean-spirited and excessive, too, Schrader apparently trying to very belatedly make the kind of black comedy which feels heavily influenced by all those would-be Tarantinos that cropped up after Pulp Fiction. The characters are your typical Schrader troubled males with violent tendencies (or in the case of Dafoe’s aptly named “Mad Dog” more than just tendencies) but drawn with a meanness that turns them into nasty caricatures, something the film, as well as the actors clearly revels in. It’s what you call an “interesting effort” while stroking your chin thoughtfully. Also features Nicolas Cage doing a Bogart imitation, it you’re into that.

Scrooged (1988): I know, Christmas is over, but Richard Donner’s version of the old Dickens number with added media critique that still seems rather fitting today, with Bill Murray despite being in a very bad mood during production actually giving a fantastic performance, fits these other two films rather well in its often very mean-spirited vibe. Unlike the other movies in this post, it is an actual artistic success, though, and does its very best to use said mean-spiritedness to say something to, as well as do something with the audience. Even if it is only to upset us pretty terribly about humanity (our Scrooge stand-in isn’t even the worst person in the movie) and then make up for it by having Murray give a “be kind to one another” speech where he seems to be teetering at the edge of an actual breakdown. Which, I’d argue, is exactly the right way to go here, for what the more polite versions of the material tend to gloss over is that we witness a man whose every belief (nasty as those may be) has just been curb-stomped and who is trying to recreate himself as a human being live on camera.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Back in Action (1993)

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.

As is traditional, tough cop Frank Rossi’s (Roddy Piper) partner is slaughtered by one of the psychopathic goons of drug lord Kasajian (Nigel Bennett chewing the scenery like any good low budget action villain, and getting a rather funny acupuncture scene later on, because evil people like needles) during a fake drug meet that turns into a giant shoot-out, leaving Rossi with a giant hate-on for Kasajian and his guys.

The cop’s not the only one who really doesn’t like this particular bad guy. Former special forces operative and shirt-hater Billy (Billy Blanks) was at the scene of the shoot-out to drag his sister Tara (Kai Soremekun) away from her really rather stupid drug dealer boyfriend (Damon D’Oliveira, I think), the kind of guy who thinks it’s a brilliant idea to take his girlfriend out on a big drug deal. Alas, nobody really notices Billy dragging away Tara, so Kasajian and co decide she’s clearly responsible for the appearance of the cops. So, even though this makes not a lick of sense in context of what happened, Tara has to die.

Thanks to his adeptness at all kinds of violence, Billy’s quite good at protecting his sister from harm – there must after all be an upside to his type of Neanderthal sister-parenting – but Tara’s just as adept at running away from him in an attempt to reunite with her boyfriend and then run away with him, a plan I couldn’t help but sympathize with, given Billy’s style. This situation does of course give the film many an opportunity for everything we come for in an action film. Soon, the increasingly unhinged and bloodthirsty Rossi and the already unhinged and probably bloodthirsty Billy meet, punch each other in the face in a scene that just happens to look like a much shortened version of the big punch-out in They Live, and team-up. Rossi’s TV reporter on-again off-again girlfriend Helen (Bobbie Phillips) involves herself in the case, too, adding a second female character to get kidnapped, hooray.

Do I even need to mention that explosions, bloodshed, shoot-outs and many a shot of angry man faces with bugging eyes will occur before the situation can be put to rights, if by “put to rights” you mean all the bad guys readied for burial?

The thing is, despite the most generic plot imaginable, and the usual nasty “hooray for vigilantism” subtext, Steve DiMarco’s (with an IMDB-suggested assist by future SyFy movie maestro Paul Ziller I so much want to believe is true) Back in Action (please don’t ask what the title has to do with anything) is a fantastic example of what’s good about 90s US low budget action movies, with a smidgen of martial arts provided by the mummy-faced Blanks.

The director(s) do a straightforward yet really effectively dynamic job, with not too many attempts at flashy editing tricks, so you can see what’s going on with the violence without many problems, yet enough of an actual visual concept there’s no question there’s more going on with the film than just people pointing the camera at stuntmen; it’s the best of both worlds, really. Why, even the copious amounts of slow-motion make sense enough to only very seldom become ridiculous; even better, I never got the impression the director(s) was out to senselessly ape John Woo with its use. The effect is action that feels exhilarating instead of as cheap as it actually is, with fine stunt work and two male leads who are great screen fighters in any situation the film throws at them. Back in Action also has a spirited approach to the expected genre clichés, with villains that seem to enjoy their own evilness hugely, a cop on the edge versus boss shouting-match of great entertainment value, and other kinds of idiocy presented with the sort of enthusiasm that can’t help but turn them awesome.

Piper and Blanks have pretty good chemistry going as well, with Piper for my tastes the definitely more likeable of the pair, as well as the slightly better actor, but Blanks very ably using his physicality to make up for his problems with the finer parts of the acting job. And really, it’s not as if Blanks were bad, particularly not when you keep in mind how good he looks kicking people in the face here, which is the more important part of acting anyhow.

I was positively surprised by the comparatively – for its genre and time - un-annoying way Back in Action handles its female characters. Sure, they’re there to get kidnapped and wear short skirts, but the film does give them a little agency and even some involvement in the finale beyond the getting kidnapped part, with enough of a sense that Helen and Tara are persons there’s no need to gnash your teeth at the film. Sure, they both act pretty stupid at times, but that’s no difference at all to the film’s supposed heroes or its villains, because nobody involved here thinks anything through for even a second.

It’s better this way, too, for if even half of the film’s characters had any brains at all, there’d be no opportunity for all the shoot-outs, punch-ups and explosions, no face-kicking and probably not even a single scene of Rowdy Roddy Piper winning a fight but looking like he really got a work-over after it (which is a thing I like in my action heroes). In short, there’d be no opportunity at all for Back in Action to become the piece of choice entertainment that it is.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

In short: Rattlesnake (2019)

Driving away from never too clearly defined troubles towards her mother’s home, Katrina Ridgeway (Carmen Ejogo in a fine portrait of the kind of desperation that leads to terrible acts) and her little daughter Clara (Apollonia Pratt) make their way through the great state of Texas. Pausing in the desert, Clara is bitten by a rattlesnake. Very suddenly, a trailer seems to appear nearby, inhabited by a somewhat creepy woman (Debrianna Mansini) who apparently knows her way around rattlesnake bites. In her panic, Katrina doesn’t really register something the woman says about discussing payment later, and since she disappears more or less into thin air, as does Clara’s snakebite, surely, there’s nothing to be concerned about here at all.

Well, our heroine will soon enough learn that she has made an implicit pact with some kind of nasty supernatural power, and that she has only until sundown to deliver a soul for its saving of a soul to it. A bit of research suggests that this sort of thing happens rather often in the area, small as the desert town she ends up in is, but that’s not exactly helping her any; nor does the supernatural power appearing in the form of its former victims to mock her.

So eventually, Katrina decides to go through with the murder asked of her. On the plus side, she does encounter the kind of guy (Theo Rossi) even someone with a conscience might find rather easier to kill in cold blood than others.

I found myself pleasantly surprised by this Netflix production directed by Zak Hilditch. Sure, it’s a bit of a longer Twilight Zone episode with a somewhat harder edge of a very late 2010s kind of desperation, but to my mind, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Particularly not since Hilditch has the plot well under control, never adding too many contrived additional hoops for Katrina to jump through yet still increasing the stakes and the suspense of the situation continuously. The script is also not quite as straightforward as it seems. So for example Rossi’s Billy is indeed a despicable human being, yet the film still plays him as a human being, not simply absolving Katrina nor cheering her on, despite clearly being on her side, and finding Billy pretty vile; one can’t help but think the supernatural force really trades two souls for the one it saves here.

The film also handles the supernatural elements of the film well, not falling into the trap of wanting to explain the whys and wherefores of the situation, just setting it up, suggesting a few things about it, and letting a viewer’s imagination do the rest of the work. There are a couple of really interestingly strange moments here too, scenes where Katrina interacts with supposedly normal people that are staged in a way that makes them feel just slightly off, as if she (and we the audience) were just one step away from reaching outside of the world we know, but never quite making that step. In contrast, Katrina’s encounters with the dead are short, simple, and effective exactly because they are that way.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Long Hair of Death (1965)

Original title: I lunghi capelli della morte

The 15th Century. Adele Karnstein, the mother of Helen (Barbara Steele) and her kid sister Lisabeth, is accused of witchcraft thanks to the machinations of Kurt von Humboldt (George Ardisson), the son of the local ruler, Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli). Helen is willing to pay the rather steep price of sleeping with the count if that should set her mother free, but the Count’s apparently not a man to pay what he owes afterwards, so Adele is still getting burned. The woman, certainly no witch before that, curses the Humboldts, their descendants and their lands.

Helen finds herself dying in an “accident” a short time later, too. However, perhaps bitten by a slight case of conscience, Humboldt does take little Lisabeth in to raise her as what amounts to a daughter - and since we never see or hear about the two girls’ father, we might get some additional thoughts about what kind of a man the good Count is.

Ten years or so later, Lisabeth has grown up to be played by Halina Zalewska. Her mother’s curse seems to come true, for the land is plagued by drought and pestilence, turning the Count into a very bitter and angry old man. Kurt has developed what goes as a romantic interest for the kind of guy the is in Lisabeth. The girl wants nothing to do with him whatsoever, but once the Count dies mid-rant, she is in no position anymore to say no to his “proposal” of marriage.

Some time later, things have not improved for the Humboldt lands. Lisabeth, while not having grown to love Kurt for obvious reasons, has grown somewhat possessive of him, finding it difficult to reconcile this feeling with her hatred for her husband as a Humboldt as well as an individual. On the night of a terrible storm, Helen – in a fantastic sequence - rises from her grave and turns up in the Humboldt’s chapel. Kurt, who, like everyone else who knew Helen, doesn’t recognize her at all, quickly falls in terrible lust with the woman who now calls herself Mary, breaking whatever the emotional bonds between him and his wife may be, and soon starts to plan her murder. From there on out, things begin to go very badly indeed for the man, madness and much worse awaiting.

The Long Hair of Death is certainly not the best of the gothic horror films of house favourite Antonio Margheriti (as usual, working under his nom de plum of Anthony Dawson in most parts of the world), it being paced a bit too leisurely even for its genre and time and not quite delivering the dramatic tension of Horror Castle and Castle of Blood. However, it perfectly encapsulates the tone of morbidity and perversity always lurking under the surface of its genre, and every positive human feeling is perverted into its worst form.

Love in particular as portrayed here is a terrible power for the worst, but then, all love in the film is twisted in some way, shape or form. This is exemplified in Kurt’s desire for Lisabeth, a feeling that never rises above the wish to possess her in whatever way possible. The kind of love that eventually arises in Lisabeth in response, however, is just as terrible in its own way, mirroring his sense of possession where hatred would seem the much healthier alternative. And let’s not even think about what exactly is going on between her and her dead sister, supernatural vengeance perverting this relationship too until it is only a tool for destruction. Clearly, there is something very wrong in the lands of the Humboldt’s.

Margheriti’s goes all out in emphasising the way all the central human relationships here seem perverted and twisted, apart from a handful of genuinely human gestures between Lisabeth and the lady Grumalda (Laura Nucci). But then, Grumalda’s motherly love for Lisabeth will also make her complicit in the vengeance plan from beyond the grave, paying back Kurt’s cruelty with just as much of their own.

All of this is clad in an increasingly nightmarish mood of stark contrasts between shadow and light. The decrepit corridors of the castle becoming ever more labyrinth-like, and the paths the characters take through them increasingly draw them downwards towards the castle’s crypts (and death). It’s morbid in a very precise way.

On the acting side, Steele, not surprisingly, dominates proceedings with sheer charisma (technique really isn’t something of much use for an actress or actor in Italian horror of this time), which is only fit and proper since Helen as Mary does dominate the other characters one way or the other, too.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

It's the reddest and greenest time of the year again

so I'm taking time off from the exciting business of rambling about movies to do whatever you, dear imaginary reader, believe I'm getting up to at this time of the year. Normal service will resume on Wednesday, January 8th.

Have a fine holiday of your choice, hug your loved ones, and be kind to strangers. The next year just might be a better one, for once.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The People Who Own the Dark (1976)

Original title: Último deseo

A murder of upper class men – doctors, hunters, military scientists, diplomats and so on – meet up in an old castle for a very special kind of party. It’s a cultish sado-masochist sort of thing, the men (among them characters portrayed by Paul Naschy, Emiliano Redondo and Alberto de Mendoza) putting on rather creepy looking masks, and just starting on business of dubious sexiness with the hostesses (among them characters played by Nadiuska, Teresa Gimpera and Maria Perschy) in the castle’s cellar, when somewhere outside what we’ll soon enough learn is a nuclear bomb explodes. Apparently, it’s World War III.

The castle’s cellar is a fallout shelter, too, so right now, the inhabitants are as well off as possible. One of them also happens to be a physicist involved in the military-industrial complex, so there’s someone to provide helpful exposition and survival tips about how it’s best for them to first get provisions from the nearby village to then hole up in the castle for a couple of weeks or months.

That visit to the village doesn’t turn out terribly well, though. As it turns out, every villager was at a big village fete when the bomb fell, and so every single villager has been blinded by the bomb, now acting rather a lot like blind zombies you might remember from certain other Spanish horror movies. Though, to be fair, the blind are only becoming aggressive once they realize our protagonists – at least one of them – are rather quick to murder people getting in their way of grabbing provisions. Of course, the actual killer is then strangled by one of his peers, who afterwards starts to crawl around in the buff, grunting like a pig, so no harm, no foul, right?

Alas, the blind people must have seen the same horror films we’ve seen, too, getting up to what amounts to a classic zombie siege scenario while the seeing get up the the equally classic – though at the point in time when this film was shot not quite as clichéd – business of ripping each other apart even without help.

The People Who Own the Dark is a weird one. Obviously inspired by the early-ish non-voodoo zombie movies following Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, its director León Klimovsky is also sharing the American’s love of highly metaphorical zombies (okay, blind people). Klimovsky clearly wants to say something about class divisions, as well as the social and emotional pressures of the cold war in an era when it felt to be very close to becoming hot.

He just has a much goofier and weirder way going about that than Romero did, with little grip on even vaguely believable human psychology, but a lot of love for a bit of sleaze and soap operatic dialogue. He also never bothers to explain why everyone here is acting quite as extremely as they do, with everyone willing to murder whoever is available on the slightest provocation, only to turn into a human pig afterwards, or start dropping mutilated corpses through holes. As a portray of humanity under pressure, all of this doesn’t work at all, and if Klimovsky wants to suggest this is meant to be a result of the radiation, he certainly never mentions that despite not shying away from expository monologues anywhere else.

The portrayal of the blind masses is rather bizarre too, not just because the blind apparently turn into a weird mob only waiting for a reason to literally rip people apart at the first opportunity. The film also feels it opportune to have every single one of these blind grab some dark glasses from somewhere (I assume there’s a factory for the things somewhere in the village), as well as useful sticks. And yes, that does indeed lead to siege scenes that look as absurd as one imagines reading this, only turned more so by Klimovsky’s perfectly serious and melodramatic handling of all of it, clearly believing that a mob of regular blind people is one of the most terrifying things any audience could imagine.

When not concerned with SM cults (which will never come up again after the first act, of course) and the blind as zombies, the film is always also still trying its best to be a bleak after the bomb film, so even the characters who survive the blindpocalypse end badly in a couple of scenes that are at once improbable and ridiculous yet also curiously effective thanks to Klimovsky’s use of nearly archetypal shots of an open mass grave, gas, and a surprisingly clever use of the choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Of course, as a whole, The People Who Own the Dark is much too silly a movie to feel truly bleak; its treatment of the anxieties and fears of its time to bizarre to be terribly effective; but as a document of a not untalented exploitation filmmaker like Klimovsky trying to make sense of its time as well as making a buck, it is a very worthwhile film, particular since its general sense of weirdness really never lets up, keeping a viewer at least guessing at what strange idea Klimovsky’s going to put on screen in the next scene.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

In short: Predestination (2014)

Warning: I’m going to keep it very vague, but if you’re up on your classic Science Fiction, even the mention of the Heinlein story this is based on will probably be enough to count as a heavy spoiler in. A plot synopsis is right out anyway, for the best way to learn what this is about is to watch it. Whoa.

I’ve never warmed to any of the other films made by Australian brother director/writer duo The Spierig Brothers. To my eyes, most of them seem glossy yet terribly empty, not having the kind of style as substance gloss that’ll let me be okay with that sort of thing. However, turning their hands at adapating Robert A. Heinlein’s tale of temporal (and other) shenanigans “All You Zombies” seems to have brought out quite different directors in these two. The film’s still very slick – usually, directors don’t unlearn the gloss or the style unless they go the Dario Argento route of working really hard at that – but in this case, the slickness seems completely in service to presenting a complicated and pretty bizarre plot that keeps surprisingly close to the equally bizarre (and great) Heinlein story in a clear and focussed manner.

The directors seem to have realized quite exactly that this particular tale doesn’t need style as distraction, but style as a way to lead an audience through it without things becoming as preposterous as they could otherwise feel, a device to help ask the material’s questions about free will (and the ones about solipsism I don’t believe Heinlein actually noticed, given what I’ve read about his ego) and predestination more clearly. In fact, even if you know where all of this is going – and the film’s close enough to the story you’ll know that pretty early on if you’ve read it – the film is still engrossing because it is so well constructed, playing its game with such verve, one can’t help but get sucked in. Plus, the philosophical questions do of course become quite a bit clearer when you know what they actually are, and how the film is going to frame them in the end.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Sadist of Notre Dame (1975/9)

Original title: El sádico de Notre-Dame

(For the Francophiles among my imaginary readers: this write-up is based on the Spanish language cut of the movie)

A man calling himself Mathis Vogel (Jess Franco) is in a bit of a mental state. A former seminary student who was excommunicated after he developed ideas too “radical” even for the Catholic church in their rampant misogyny and outright gibbering madness, he has spent some years in a mental institution before he escaped. Well, presumably escaped, for the subtitles of the film are rough and my Spanish very basic. He is now haunting the nightly streets of Paris around Notre-Dame, murdering sexually open woman and prostitutes (he’s clearly the kind of guy who can’t see the difference there) while ranting in a mix of self-hatred for his own sexual desires, Christian doctrine gone crazy-violent and egomania, internally styling himself as a new grand inquisitor killing all these devilish women come to tempt him/men.

Obviously, there’s just as much self-hatred as hatred of women involved here, and wouldn’t you know it, Mathis isn’t just a killer, he’s also a voyeur as well as a sexual sadist, punishing people who live out the fantasies he is afraid of. When he’s trying to sell a mildly fictionalized manuscript of his deeds to a would-be posh S&M magazine, he stumbles upon the trace of a group that’s particular irresistible to him: a count and countess and their followers and hangers-on who live a swinging sado-masochistic weekend orgy lifestyle with some elements of – staged – Satanism. Basically, it’s everything Mathis must dream of but could never admit to, making for ideal victims.

From time to time, we also pop in with some cops whose investigation is 99 percent sitting around in an office, bickering.

The Sadist of Notre-Dame is a clear and immediate favourite in the large and obsessive body of work of the great Jess – or Jesús if you want to be too precise – Franco. The director isn’t always interested in character psychology, but he’s written himself quite the role here with a deeply disturbed lead character who is obsessive about a lot of the things the director himself was obsessed with but really functions as a dark mirror of these obsessions turned bad by a certain strain of Christianity that sees all things physical as sinful and the resulting self-hatred projected outward.

This mirroring between Mathis’s desires and that of others happens in the plot of the film regularly, too, the killer sometimes re-staging moments of sexual play he has watched (cue many a close-up of one crazed Franco eye), only with the difference that the only penetration he offers is one with a knife. Where the rest of the characters are wont to get each other off, Mathis can only ever conceive of sex as something that must be punished and purged.

It’s pretty obvious political commentary by Franco, offered with the self-irony that comes when a writer/director also casts himself as the villain of the piece.

Visually, this is an often striking film (though shot in the Franco seats of his pants way, so non-Francophiles should probably adjust their expectations), full of moody shots of nightly Paris and its much less pleasant looking day side, with all of Franco’s favourite ways of framing scenes and his patented camera positions there and accounted for. This is, however, not one of the director’s dreamlike and somewhat woozy films. One might even call it energetic for much of its running time, for there’s a sense of naturalism surrounding parts of the film that doesn’t suggest that we are partaking in parts of the dreams or nightmares of the director this time around but some of the things he sees when he wakes from them. Which obviously still means naked Lina Romay. Fitting to this mood is the absence of a big nightclub and strip sequence. Instead, the film features a short mock-Satanic ritual followed by a little orgy that nearly takes on the quality of sensual dream but never quite gets there; on purpose, if you ask me, for this film, at least in this version, isn’t as much about Franco indulging in his dreams than reflecting on their dark side.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Three Anime Make A Post: They threatened his world. He will destroy theirs.

Kiki's Delivery Service aka 魔女の宅急便 (1989): An easy psychological test for weeding out people with whom something is dangerously wrong is finding out their opinion about Studio Ghibli movies, particularly classic ones like this directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. If one doesn’t like these films they are not to be trusted.

The particular beauty of Kiki is how easily Miyazaki turns what would in lesser hands be a very rote story of growing up with very obvious valuable lessons to learn into a tale that’s not just charming as all get out but also suggests complexities in the character of its (barely) teen witch protagonist as well as in the world around her, never treating the elements that have clear metaphorical uses only as metaphor and never pretending inner or outer life were simple.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower aka メアリと魔女の花 (2017): While also pretty damn charming and imaginative for most of its running time, not quite on the level of classic Ghibli is this Mary Stewart adaptation by former Ghibli director (and owner of a particularly impressive name) Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It is a lovely example of the art of all ages anime, don’t get me wrong, it just becomes somewhat lesser in the direct comparison the very Ghibli-like style of the production can’t help but  invite. The difference here really is a comparative lack of that internal complexity I just praised Kiki for, Mary’s process of growing up never suggesting more than the most superficial internal struggle adding to the outer one, and a world that simply feels a bit flatter and simpler then in the best anime of this style.

Your Name aka 君の名は。(2016): Your Name’s director Makoto Shinkai has made at least one film very much beholden to the Ghibli style, too, to not terribly great effect, if I remember right, but at least this film is not at all interested in that comparison but goes aesthetic and philosophical ways all of its own. On paper, this is a bit of a science fictional romance weepie – and weep indeed I did watching it – so you could accuse it of focussing on emotional manipulation. However, it manipulates the audience’s emotions for good, perfectly encapsulating a feeling of emotionally big young love from afar, while also thinking surprisingly deeply about questions of fate and random chance, the gravity of distance (in a way only possible in the genres of the fantastic) and about the responsibilities of being human. These thematic concerns are  all effectively wrapped in a lot of tear-stained hankies, while also presenting a true sense of awe about the world as well as about  the human heart.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

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 gang of four white men wearing blackface raids a village somewhere in the jungles of Africa – a part of Africa that seems to still lie under British colonial rule. While stealing some crates of explosives, the assailants also show no compunction against killing two men.

The deed happened in the territory where Tarzan (Gordon Scott) makes his home, and the fur-shorted one follows the men upriver to enact the Law of the Jungle on them. To add a bit of piquancy, the leader of the criminals, Slade (Anthony Quayle), is an old enemy of Tarzan’s (“I would have killed him, if not for the Law of Man”), and a bit of a brutal crazy thrill-seeker. Tarzan’s hunting job is complicated when he saves tough-talking Angie (Sara Shane) from a plane crash she suffers when she’s trying to impress him, and while Angie isn’t exactly the proverbial damsel in distress, she’s also not Sheena. Though she does appreciate a good nearly naked barbarian like Tarzan when she meets him.

With Tarzan ever closing in behind him, Slade has his own problems. He needed the explosives he stole to work an illegal diamond mine he has discovered, but his men – Irish thug O’Bannion (Sean “The Irishman” Connery), river boat captain Dino (Al Mulock) and diamond miner Krieger (Niall McGinnis) – and his girlfriend Toni (Scilla Gabel) are a rather problematic bunch that does half of his work for Tarzan. Shouldn’t you start on the infighting only after you’ve actually acquired your loot? These people disagree, and it’s quite probable they’d kill each other off quite without Tarzan’s help.

I’ve not been seeking out any of the Tarzan movies during these last few decades, for in my memory, I had the films pegged as more or less exclusively family friendly fare containing more chimpanzee shenanigans than jungle variations of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and seldom taking on the Lost Race stories and general strangeness of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books. John Guillermin’s fifth film of the Gordon Scott-starring Tarzan series turns out to be a noirish adventure movie rather than chimpanzee action, however, and of highly doubtful family friendliness, particularly for the time it was made in. To drive the point home, there’s an early scene where Tarzan leaves Cheetah behind at home that is an early signal (well, after the murders) what kind of film this is going to be.

Tarzan here is less the noble savage than a man who spends his life living a particular style of barbarism by choice. The film seems not completely sure if Tarzan’s brand of barbarism is really all that much different from the more civilized forms of barbarism Slade and his men stand for. It does, at least, not seem very satisfied when Tarzan finally conquers Slade, and quite dubious about the act’s morals, and looks equally askance at his rejection (after they quite obviously had sex, though) of Angie.

It’s only fitting in a film that spends about half of its running time on Tarzan’s antagonists, sure-handedly and effectively hitting all the beats of hard-boiled movies about small groups of criminals coming to blows, until the jungle, or Tarzan (this is probably the only film I’ll ever see where Sean Connery is killed with bow and arrow by Tarzan), or one of their own partners kills them. The film is really rather ruthless in its set-ups here, repeatedly demonstrating a hard edge that makes it impossible to not see this as the hard-boiled adventure film it was meant to be.

Guillermin isn’t only particularly good at directing his very competent cast in their scenes of infighting, he also gives the action itself a much harder edge than I would have expected from a Tarzan film. It’s not just that people actually bleed here, but the violence seems more brutish than you’d expect from any late 50s adventure movie, with a handful of moments I found rather astonishing in their directness. Guillermin really understands how to stage the action too, keeping a film that takes place in a mix of actual location shots and obvious sound stages quite dynamic, with much more movement than you’d usually see in the often stiff low budget adventure movies of this time and age.

Angie’s role in the film also comes as a bit of a surprise. While she does need rescuing by Tarzan from time to time, she isn’t a helpless, whining doll, with most of the dangers she gets herself into being the kind of thing someone who isn’t used to jungle survival would believably wander into, the film never suggesting she gets in trouble because she’s a woman. For someone who is basically an “adventuress”, to keep with the parlance of the time, the film treats her quite sympathetic too, even subtly suggesting that a woman with actual experiences of life would make a good partner – in the actual meaning of the word – for Tarzan, and mildly shaking his head at him for pushing her away to continue a jungle life the film is already dubious about too.

For how different is Tarzan truly from a violent thrill seeker like Quayle, once you get to counting the bodies either man leaves behind? Guillermin emphasises this question with some interesting variations on classical Tarzan elements. Here, Tarzan’s trademark yodel is not a quaint gimmick, but an expression of the wildness that lies at the core of the character, used just once at a dramatic moment that makes it that much more memorable and, if you think about it, even rather horrifying. Which, come to think of it, is not something I ever expected to write about a yodel, or in the context of a Tarzan movie.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

In short: High Spirits (1988)

Knowing the varied, sometimes highly peculiar, body of work of director Neil Jordan, it’s actually not that much of a surprise he once made a comedy in which Steve Guttenberg romances an “Irish” ghost played by Daryl Hannah while a bunch of more interesting actors like the great Peter O’Toole (as a castle owner who turns to faking ghostly encounter badly to keep the lights on, only to cause the rather rambunctious real ghosts to start doing a bit too much of their thing), Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Tilly, Peter Gallagher and a practically baby-faced Liam Neeson as a toxically masculine ghost with freakishly large hands, are involved in sometimes funny but always loud shenanigans.

Knowing Jordan, it should also not come as a surprise to anyone the whole thing’s intensely aestheticized to a degree you don’t usually encounter in pretty slapstick heavy comedy like this. It also should come as not much of a surprise that all of Jordan’s intense camera work, aggressive production design tastes, and love for an ultra-obvious score often seem like the worst possible fit for material that could use quite a bit more subtlety, and a looser rhythm that leaves the comedy as well as the actors room to breathe. Not here, though, for Jordan has everything turned up to eleven all of the time.

As in practically any movie he’s in, O’Toole seems to have the time of his life, but when does a great scenery-chewer like himself have the opportunity to work with a director who’d never tell anyone to tone it down? And honestly, while O’Toole turned to eleven might not be too good for the film, he’s certainly fun if you like him; which only a monster wouldn’t.

On the other acting hand, Steve Guttenberg’s so boring, he’s completely steamrolled by all the business going on around him. His only saving grace is that he’s partnered with Hannah in what I believe is the worst performance of her career, so lifeless that anyone who’d fall in love with her would also romance a blow-up doll, and doing the most atrocious Irish accent imaginable.

As should be clear by now, I’m not a particular fan of this example of Neil Jordan being Neil Jordan – it’s still better than In Dreams, though – but even I have to admit the film does have its moments, mostly when it calms down a little and doesn’t attempt to make four jokes at the same time, and stops with the incessant shouting and jumping around. That’s not really enough to call this a successful movie, but it’s very typical for a bad Jordan movie. For the director’s bad films like High Spirits never fail because they are lazy and disinterested but because they are busy risking and trying a lot, which just doesn’t always work out but is still much preferable to by-the-numbers filmmaking any day.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

OSS 117 Murder for Sale (1968)

Original title: Niente rose per OSS 117

aka OSS 117: Double Agent

aka No Roses for OSS 117

An organization cleverly known as The Organization is successfully committing a good number of high profile political assassinations. US secret agent OSS 117 (John Gavin), Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath to his friends, decides to do something against it. He does the logical thing and gets some plastic surgery to look like the most wanted international killer of them all, sleeps with a random beautiful woman so she can rat him out to the police, and then awaits rescue by The Organization. Which somehow really does work, so our hero – such as he is – ends up in the palazzo and headquarters of The Organization’s boss, The Major (Curd Jürgens hamming it up lovingly). Situated there, 117 has a fine opportunity to get bored by classical music (philistine!), bed the place’s doctor (Luciana Paluzzi), make enemies with the Major’s right hand man Karas (George Eastman in all his hairy glory), and spy a bit. Eventually, he is sent on a mission, during which he will be poisoned by Robert Hossein, have more sex (this time around with Margaret Lee), come up with plans that make no sense at all, and get involved in fisticuffs and mild car chases.

André Hunebelle’s Murder for Sale is the only time John Gavin was playing the title role in a film about agent OSS 117 (based on a long running series of French pulpy spy novels), and I’m not terribly surprised by it. Now, unlike your serious John Le Carré-style espionage material, Eurospy movies of the sillier Bond-affine variety – to which the film at hand absolutely belongs – don’t live or die on the merits of their lead actors. These guys are mostly there to punch uglier guys and look good in a suit, so basically any more or less handsome visage will do. However, Gavin’s not a terribly convincing puncher, while his acting approach here seems like an attempt to channel Alain Delon’s patented icy coolness, perhaps with an added wink from time to time, which might have sounded like a good idea at the time but mostly results in this OSS 117 feeling very bland rather than cool.

Fortunately, that’s not terribly important, and the rest of the film is a perfectly entertaining example of its style, and one that doesn’t have the slapdash feel of many a Eurospy movie either. Hunebelle had quite a bit of experience with genre movies of all types, and he manages to take the very silly script, pump up the right bits of silly business yet also provide all the minor thrills of face-punching, car chasing and perfectly awkward sexiness one comes for in these films.

The director keeps the pacing up admirably even when there’s no action happening, too. He seems to have particular fun with all the side business that makes a Eurospy movie, like The Major’s version of the dancing troupe you find in so many villain lairs: a string quartet playing Schubert. One can’t help but think that’s quite good for the lair’s security too, for while you can man-dance your way through a Bollywood dance number (just look at Sonny Deol), no vengeful hero’s going to take the time and study the cello to infiltrate your base. And hey, The Major even has a neat self-destruct device for the place, though he doesn’t quite manage to use it, alas.

Not terribly typical for the genre is the film’s aesthetic emphasis not on the pop art culture much more common in Eurospy films but what I can’t help but call posh art – there’s the Schubert, the somewhat tacky old school rich people beauty of the Major’s lair, and a general tendency of everyone furnishing a home here to go for mock Greek statuary to behold. It makes for a nice change from other films of the genre, and must certainly have jibed well with director Hunebelle’s experience with swashbucklers.

It’s all rather lovely to look at, particularly since the director is also rather good with pretty postcard shots for cars to mid-tempo chase one another in and dubious heroes to strut around in front of, nicely leaning into the travelogue aspects so many Eurospy films feature.

Obviously, there’s no depth at all to anything here – unless you make like George Eastman and drop from a roof, of course – and the film’s sexual and social politics are a bit dubious to modern eyes, but for light action and very pretty pictures, Murder for Sale is an excellent choice.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

In short: Sweetheart (2019)

Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) is washed ashore an, apparently tropical, small island together with a dying friend who’s just alive long enough to at least provide us with the name of our protagonist. Jenn turns out to be a bit of a natural when it comes to wilderness survival, going about the required business of fishing and foraging with considerable intelligence and foresight. So she could most probably survive until an eventual rescue without too much actual danger for her life, if there weren’t a pretty big problem.

Every night, a monster (one of those person-shaped amphibian/fish monsters, it will turn out) comes to the island from its underwater lair to hunt, with clear ambitions of adding Jenn to its diet.

I already thought J.D. Dillard’s first movie, the sort of black superhero origin story Sleight, was a considerable achievement, and an excellent example of how an intelligent script and careful direction can turn a low budget genre affair like it into a truly excellent film. So Sweetheart’s particular excellence doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, seeing how it shares exactly these virtues. Sure, given the Blumhouse involvement, the budget must have grown from miniscule to tiny for the director this time around, but the film still does need exactly these virtues to work.

And work it does wonderfully, the small amount of dialogue giving Clemons enough space to draw Jenn’s character through body language and glances alone, an opportunity she uses very well. There’s no ball she’s speaking to to make things easier on the actress, either, and once dialogue does set in, the film uses this to quietly point out the difference between the audience’s perception of Jenn, and the way others see her and make her see herself. It’s very cleverly done, adding thematic resonance about Jenn’s life as a young black woman without disturbing the fine balance of the monster movie.

For Sweetheart is a great survivalist monster movie indeed, one of those examples of the form where a filmmaker understands the needs coming from his budget, like not being able to afford many shots of convincing full-body monster action, and always seems to draw just the right consequences, using one of the oldest solutions to this problem in the book, only showing the creature in silhouette, in part or in short glances, but making all of these partial impressions count.

Sweetheart is a quietly excellent film, Dillard having excised all of the needless guff that makes a movie like, say, Crawl so bloated and ineffective, to really focus on the core of its sub-genre, his lead actress, and the shadow of a monster drawing near.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mr. Brooks (2007)

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a beloved family man, a respected businessman, and also a feared serial killer. He’s not been killing anyone for two years now, thanks to the wonders of the twelve step program (I wonder how that making amends part worked in his case). However, his second personality, one Marshall (William Hurt), representing director Bruce A. Evans’s fear of letting Kevin Costner simply act a man with two very different sides to his personality, does talk him into beginning another murder spree. Alas, some idiot, let’s call him Mr Smith (Dane Cook), has photographed Earl doing the deed through a window and is now blackmailing the serial killer into killing a random person with him, for Mr Smith desperately wants to know how that feels. And that would probably be the plot for an at least half sane movie, but since this thing’s about as deranged as its protagonist, there are various sub- and side plots awaiting your pleasure, apart from the Dexter-style dubious joy of seeing how Earl’s going to get away with it all.

So, we also spend quite a bit of time with the Detective hunting Earl, one Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore); we spend even more time with the divorce troubles her greedy husband – she’s not just a cop, she’s also a rich heiress, you see – gets her into. And then there’s the killer couple who is trying to take vengeance on her. And her breaking all the rules. Earl is going to involve himself in all of this business, because why the hell not?

Because that’s clearly still not enough PLOT for a single movie, meet Earl’s daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker). Jane has left college for reasons she isn’t willing to explain, and now wants to work for Daddy. Turns out she is pregnant (and we learn that serial killer Earl is against abortion). Then it turns out she has probably murdered someone at school with a hatchet, and Earl has to worry that she has inherited some of his little mental problems, and try to fix her little problem without her noticing.

Also also, Earl might want to commit suicide in the most complicated manner ever devised, or perhaps not. Who knows?

I believe these are more or less all of the sub and side plots Mr. Brooks throws at its audience. If all of this sounds like total nonsense to you, you’ve got the film right. Obviously, it’s trying to milk the automatic respect a lot of people have for actors like Costner playing a bad guy for all it is worth, but it is permanently undercutting this by having so much plot business to take care of, Costner has little time to do any actual character work. That’s certainly not helped by the idiotic decision to give him another half portrayed by a different actor, which turns what should be an internal struggle into lots of expository dialogue, or scenes of the film gloating at how people not Costner can’t see William Hurt!

The funniest thing about the whole affair is that director/co-writer Evans presents all this bullshit with the grand gesture of somebody making a deep and thoughtful film about a terrible human being, wilfully pretending that this is not a cartoon, and that we learn a lot about the human condition here. Of course, if you watch the film as the cartoon about a bedraggled serial killer haunted by the horrors of plotting it actually is, it becomes rather brilliant, with stupid twists and idiotic new sub-plots coming so fast and furious, it’s impossible for me to watch this (or just think about it), and not fall into rather regular fits of the giggles. The film’s educational, too, in so far as we learn that there’s no genre that can’t be made hilarious by the simple application of all the plots ever.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Evil Lives Just Beneath the Surface

Mary (2019): Michael Goi’s movie about a haunted ship that ruins a family should by all rights be much better than it is: a ghost on a ship is doubly creepy, seeing as it adds isolation to a vengeful supernatural force; terrible things happening to perfectly likeable people are my kind of horror; and lastly, the film has Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer, and they don’t look bored. Alas, everything that could be wrong with the film is wrong, starting with the needlessly awkward narrative structure of having Mortimer’s character tell the tale to a cop (cue internal groaning about plot twists at once) instead of the film simply telling the damn story, characterisation that does neither know how to do shorthand (don’t even think about actual depth) nor how to properly utilize the abilities of a great cast.
As for the film’s horror business, Goi – despite a perfectly promising background in TV genre work – seems completely incapable to construct even a single creepy scene properly. The framing of scenes is random and uninvolving, and there’s not a moment of the appropriate atmosphere on display.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014): I must have mentioned my immense dislike for Mark Millar’s brand of industrialised cynicism here before; curiously enough, I don’t hate all adaptations of his crap body of comics work quite as much. Case in point is Matthew Vaughn’s (co-written by Vaughn with the great Jane Goldman) super spy movie at hand. The movie’s humour is acerbic and generally aims a bit low for my tastes, but at least it does tend to aim for the lower parts of the people on top. Why, there’s even a bit of thinking about class in here that seems…honest. The film also has a lot of fun with the whole super spy business, putting imaginative twists on all kinds of standard tropes. The action is generally loud and abrasive but well-structured, and for most of the time, the film’s on the right side of being cynical. It also features Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson in great form.

The final act does become decidedly weaker, though, suffering under the really Millar-ian idea that mass murder is inherently hilarious, at the same time it is trying to milk it for laughs, also trying to use it as the base for suspense. Which, no surprise, doesn’t work out terribly well, but doesn’t end up so bad it ruins what is a surprisingly fun time.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017): Aaaaand, I don’t know what happened here. Same director, same writers, basically the same cast, but the film is a bloated mess, lacking the satiric edge of the first film, landing hardly any joke. It was apparently made under the impression that what this sequel really needed were about a dozen sub-plots, none of which is terribly interesting, and so spends more time tediously juggling all the bits and pieces of what feels like at least half a dozen different scripts in place of having an actual narrative.

It doesn’t help at all that the action sequences follow the way of the plot, becoming more and louder but less interesting, certainly going through the motions of how a contemporary big budget movie action sequence is supposed to look and feel, but never making much of an impact.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Avenging Force (1986)

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.

Former intelligence agent Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff) packs in his family - consisting of his grandfather (Rick Boyle) and his little sister Sarah (Allison Gereighty) - to visit his old secret ops partner Larry Richards (Steve James) and his family in New Orleans. Larry’s retired too, but apart from being a family man, he’s also running for senate, clearly on the sort of humanist platform that’ll get you labelled as a communist by quite a few people, particularly when the politician in question is a gentleman of colour like Larry.

So, despite being rather awesome, Larry has made enemies, in particular a secret society of rich fascists around Professor (who knows of what, though further proceedings suggest it has something to do with being evil) Elliott “Hitler was right” (actual quote) Glastenbury (John P. Ryan), who add to their evilness by having stolen their name from the seminal British folk rock band (The) Pentangle. Because Nazis are assholes, some of the groups’ henchmen attack a Mardi Gras parade Larry, Matt and their families take part in, murdering one of Larry’s children in the process.

Things don’t become more pleasant from there on in, and various attacks on our heroes eventually leave only Matt and Sarah alive. The Pentangle’s leaders have a hobby quite befitting their politics, and love to hunt The Most Dangerous Game™, so they “invite” Matt to take part in one of these hunts as their chosen victim. Which must have seemed like a good idea at the time; one suspects the Professor ignored the decidedly un-Aryan subject of hubris in his studies.

Quite surprising for the generally exploitative way Cannon and Golan-Globus chose their movies, they didn’t immediately follow up the success of American Ninja with a direct sequel. Instead, they put American Ninja’s leads Steve James and Michael Dudikoff and its director Sam Firstenberg to work on a film that does not contain any ninjas at all, but which otherwise does include pretty much everything else you’d expect from a low budget (though not that low budget) action film, except exploding huts. For reasons I don’t even want to ponder, this seems also to be meant as some sort of sequel to the Chuck Norris vehicle Invasion U.S.A., despite the only connection I can make out without having to watch a Chuck Norris (tied with Seagal as my least favourite US action movie lead) film, being Dudikoff’s character name, his job, and dead parents. And since all action movie heroes from the 80s are basically the same guy anyway, that’s not really enough to think of this as a sequel at all.

Instead of the ninjas, you get a film that works very, very hard to establish its heroes as the most awesome thing since sliced bread and its villains as the scum of the Earth, people who aren’t just Nazis (and just listen to how exactly the film actually hits the complete idiocy of right-wing “intellectuals” in Glastenbury’s speeches, probably without even having to try terribly hard), people who hunt others for sport, child killers, and probably puppy eaters, but also the kinds of guys who plan to sell Matt’s twelve year old sister into prostitution. Speaking of Nazis, it’s always a particular joy to find an 80s US action movie that uses them as its big bads instead of the more typical “Asian enemy of the day”, or “the Russians”, and I really appreciate the extra miles the film goes to turn its Nazis into proper cartoon villains while still keeping them perfectly in the correct spirit.

Of course, it would have been rather nice when, with the film’s heart placed on the left as it is, it would have made another step and not killed off James in your typical “black best friend in an action movie” style, particular since Steve James really is more charismatic, a less stiff actor, and also nicer to look at than Dudikoff, but then, we really can’t ask everything of what is only meant as basic action fodder.

Speaking of action, Firstenberg  was one of Cannon’s more dependable directors, not flashy but often able to rise above mere basic competence into the realm of the highly entertaining. In Avenging Force’s case this means there’s hardly a boring second on screen. Whenever nobody gets shot, spiked, strangled or otherwise killed, there’s a car chase, or a scene between Dudikoff and his sister that turns the emotional hysteria up to eleven (see also the imaginary chapter in my imaginary book about the action film as melodrama even when it doesn’t come from Hong Kong), or Steve James losing his shirt, with little that happens on screen having anything much to do with that pesky reality business, and instead everything aiming for the same kind of awesome kids of all ages get out of Power Metal. Best of all is that Firstenberg’s not just aiming at but hitting the mark in every scene, sometimes through the varied style of the action sequences, sometimes through the addition of little silly bits and pieces (a chase scene becomes something different once the chased bad guy puts on a straw hat, it turns out), clever application of atmospheric New Orleans and bayou locations (some of which were of course situated in LA), or outright ridiculous cheese like the costumes the Pentangle like to don during their chases. My favourite among the last is of course the wrestler gimp outfit.

On a more direct level of craft, I’m quite impressed with Firstenberg’s handling of escalation here. Instead of ever louder, higher in body count, and explosive, the action in Avenging Force becomes increasingly up close and personal, with shoot-outs and car chases in the end making place for grimy and dirty hand to hand struggles in the mud and the (excellently used) rain.

It’s all pretty inspiring stuff, really, at least as far as dumb yet affectionate entertainment goes; which is pretty far with me.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

In short: Fast Color (2018)

Warning: I have to spoil one late plot point

The USA in a near future where a complete lack of rain has caused a huge economic downturn, though things like police and the government are apparently still rocking, more or less. Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is travelling through the semi-apocalyptic not-quite wasteland, running from what we will soon enough learn is the evil government™, trying to suppress fits during which she unloads huge amounts of psychokinetic energy, enough to cause minor earthquakes.

Ruth is running towards home, a mother (Loraine Toussaint) she left years ago, and a daughter (Saniyya Sidney) she dropped off with her years ago. Psychic powers do run in the family, but unlike Ruth, the other women in the family can dissolve objects into their separate molecules and put them back together again (but not change them). Still, once she arrives home (or “home”) she might have more to do than just try to reconnect with her closest relations, for she just might lead the evil government™ right to the people she still loves.

Julia Hart’s Fast Color is a rather frustrating film in that there’s much to like about it, but all its great elements never quite come together well enough to form a satisfying whole instead of a patchwork of good bits.

The film’s obvious strength and emphasis is on its portrayal of three generations of black women, attempting (and often succeeding) at being honest about the flaws and virtues of all three of them, effectively portraying the way people can oversteer to avoid well-known troubles but also evoking a feeling of genuine kinship despite everything wrong between the three. The film goes about this business slowly, but methodically, with patience and an eye for the telling detail, well-served by three excellent leading ladies.

The problem is that the film doesn’t trust a bit of SF enabling a family drama to be enough, so it adds the semi-apocalypse, random superhero tropes, and that godawful nonsensical evil government™ subplot that only works when a viewer accepts that a government not wanting to have someone causing earthquakes running around inadvertently destroying motels must be evil. Of course, the film really doesn’t think about that bit at all, but rather goes for the government realizing that Ruth’s powers can probably be used to let it rain again, and therefore, instead of simply offering her a job as their designated rain maker, go the whole “hunting a young woman to do vaguely defined experiments on her”.

While the special effects for this part of the film do end up looking rather beautiful, the rest of these plot elements add very little to the film, and too often get in the way of the its actual strengths.