Thursday, March 26, 2020

In short: Verotika (2019)

Most of us will understand the impulse of someone pretty good in a certain kind of art wanting to work in a different one because they love it just so damn much, so in theory, I applaud Glenn Danzig’s attempt to add “writer/director” to his roles as (sometimes great) musician and editor of “erotic horror” comics that are neither erotic nor horror, though certainly horrible. Alas, then I make the mistake of actually trying to watch the resulting anthology movie-like object (of course based on some of the comics), and the applause quickly turns not so much into the boos and jeers of most people I’ve seen writing about this thing, but an increasingly intense series of yawns.

I could work with the coterie of porn actresses Danzig has hired mangling every single line of Danzig’s already terrible dialogue; after all, even a master thespian could not get anything better out of it than tears of pain from the audience. I could perhaps live with Danzig’s inability to properly ape the stylish kind of wonderfully illogical European horror movie he (as do I) so obviously admires; though it would have been nice if someone had explained to him how to frame scenes so that the cardboard sets they are taking place in don’t look quite as much like cardboard or at least look like cardboard in interesting ways.


Or rather, I could have done this if the film were at least properly weird. It starts out well enough with a woman suffering from love troubles caused by the fact that she has eyes on her breasts instead of nipples, but these first couple of minutes really are as far as genuine strangeness goes, with every single tale devolving into a series of pointless scenes of a bit of nudity and amateur gore that never go anywhere, have never encountered the idea of mood nor that of plot, and go on and on and on forever (you really can’t imagine how long a scene can go on before you’ve gone through the crucible of this film), until each tale stops without ever having found anything even vaguely amounting to a climax. Insert sex joke here - you can start making your own fun right now, you’re going to need it if you decide to inflict this on yourself. If a viewer makes it that far, the endless blood bathing scenes in the “Drukija Contessa of Blood” (the lack of punctuation is from the film, of course) segment will either finally put them to sleep or make them angry enough to never touch anything with the name of “Glenn Danzig” on it again. After this, I’ve started to rethink my loathing for the body of work of Rob Zombie, for in comparison, that guy’s the Martin Scorsese of horror.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

VFW (2019)

Theoretically, VFW post commander Fred (Stephen Lang) was planning to spend the night of his birthday at the post, getting drunk with his vet buddies (William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt) – well, and the young guy (Tom Williamson) who just came in returning from one of the USA’s fresher wars. However, when the hour gets a little late, a young woman we will later learn goes by the charming moniker of Lizard (Sierra McCormick) runs in, hunted by the henchpeople and drug slaves of drug lord Boz (Travis Hammer). Lizard, you understand, has stolen Boz’s stash in revenge for his murder of her sister.

The elderly vets don’t cotton to a bunch of armed freaks storming into their post trying to murder an unarmed woman, and a couple of wounded vets and dead baddies later, they find they have stumbled into your classic siege scenario, not just attacked by Boz and his actual gang but also a horde of guys and gals in thrall to the particularly nasty version of speed Boz hawks. The police don’t come to this part of town on patrol, and phones don’t work, so the men and Lizard will have to fend for themselves, at least until morning.

Joe Begos’s newest – made for nuFangoria - is very much a film in love with the magic of low budget and direct to DVD cinema of ye olden times (okay, mostly the 80s and John Carpenter’s 70s), but it’s also a film that mixes its influences inventively – sometimes even wildly - enough so that it doesn’t feel like a retro re-tread and more like a love letter. If you take your love letters with rather a lot of gorily mushed heads.

For gorily mushed heads really seem to be Begos’s thing here, with nary a noggin that isn’t smashed, mushed, caved in or otherwise made rather unattractive during the course of the movie. The action is very focused on highly messy melees with improvised weapons, the experienced troupe of actors and a consciously messy looking editing job selling everything as fun yet gruesome in exactly the kind of way old school horror and action fans will like it, often feeling more like a fever dream of near-post-apocalyptic action movies of years past than the way those films actually were.

Begos is rather good with fever dreams, as should be clear from his filmography by now, though the film at hand’s tendency to drench everything in reds and blacks isn’t as fantastically psychedelic as his work in Bliss. This one’s a looser, less deep film that’s focussed on fun violence and a bit of hero worship towards its cast.

But then, these guys are rather wonderful (obviously), and Begos knows it as well as the film’s probable audience (me included) does, so between the moments of carnage, there’s many a scene of the old dudes shooting the shit, revealing their traumata in ways that seem appropriately reticent and grumpy for men their ages, or just hanging around looking tense. And really, for a film that simply could get away with having Lang swinging an axe at punks and Fred Williams slitting throats and punching heads (always the heads!), there’s a pleasantly surprising amount of space for actual characterisation of these old soldiers as portrayed by old soldiering actors, Begos clearly preferring the looser Howard Hawks model of the siege movie to more modern sensibilities of how tight a movie is allowed to be.


VFW is a lovely effort, clearly made on the cheap, but carried by a mixture of filmmaking chops, wonderful aged character and action actors (and a couple of good young ones), and an abiding love for lethal head trauma.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

In short: Braven (2018)

Logging business owner Joe Braven (Jason Momoa) quite accidentally comes up against a group of drug runners with a mostly military background and a tendency to use about thrice as much violence as is appropriate to any given situation who have stashed a lot of drugs in his family’s mountain cabin.

Fortunately, everyone in our hero’s family – except, disappointingly, for the little girl – is really rather great at killing people, so eventually, Joe axes (and shoots and so on) drug runners, his wife (Jill Wagner) shoots them with her trusty sport bow, and Joe’s dad (Stephen Lang) does quite a bit of sniping between his bouts of dementia. Moral of the story: avoid the USA, everyone there is just too murderous to comprehend.

From time to time, you can imagine this made-for-Netflix action film directed by stunt coordinator Lin Oeding to go in one or two interesting directions, either by really doubling down on its family melodrama side (the actors sure would have the chops for that), or turning into a true exploitation movie as the grungy silliness of the plot suggests. Or, you know, simply explain why the Bravens are all quite as ruthless as they are without ever seeming to feel any psychological impact from their counter-rampage, whereas even Rambo has feelings.

Alas, despite a pretty gory final act, what the film mostly turns out to be is curiously bland, never getting into the emotional bits nor into the tasteless bits with the abandon the material suggests, feeling peculiarly toothless for a film this bloody.


Despite his background, Oeding isn’t a terribly remarkable action director, seldom setting the violence or the action up to the best effect, instead giving the action the same sense of bland professionalism of the drama surrounding it. It’s one of those Netflix films that really make me miss a third option between thumbs up and thumbs down: a thumb held perfectly level in a resounding meh.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Porco Rosso (1992)

Original title: 紅の豚, Kurenai no Buta

A somewhat different Italy, though still one ruled by the fascists, between the wars. An anthropomorphic pig and genius pilot usually known as Porco Rosso, not a friend of the fascists, lives half in hiding on an Adriatic island, working as a bounty hunter fighting against the local tribes of pretty goofy sky pirates. Porco is a bit of a standoffish guy, but then, he hasn’t always been a pig person but has been turned into one through some sort of curse or spell, and this sort of thing does tend to make guy a bit reticent. Add to that his experience in World War I, and that the handful of friends who survived it have been dying like flies in the last couple of years or went fascist, and you can see where he’s coming from. There’s also a tragic romance between him and a nightclub singer.

Anyway, his pursuits in the sky have angered the various groups of sky pirates so much, they have hired American ace pilot Curtis – a guy of dubious morals dreaming of a film career as a stepping stone to becoming president of the US – to get rid of Porco for good. Curtis does manage to ambush Porco when our hero is on his way to Milan for repairs and nearly destroys his plane completely. Porco does manage to make his way to Milan and the old mechanic friend he knows there eventually. His old friend tasks his seventeen year old granddaughter Fiona with doing the design and leading the improvement work, something the not exactly feminist Porco at first isn’t terribly happy about – until he sees Fiona’s work and slowly begins to appreciate the young woman’s character too. Together, they might even survive a rematch with Curtis.

Usually, Porco Rosso is treated as one of the odd pigs out among Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli films, so much so that I haven’t even been bothering with the film at all before he went up on Netflix. That turns out to have been rather a large mistake, though, for while the film at hand might not have quite the emotional drawing power of a Spirited Away, it is very much a film filled with the joy of a director playing with many things he is particular enthuasistic about. In this case, these enthusiasms are centred on planes and the Golden Age of Aviation (though the film is actually set rather late for this particular love), and old Hollywood. There is a surprising amount of Casablanca in here, but also quite a few moments that reminded me of the Marx Brothers and Howard Hawks. Miyazaki definitely shares Hawks’s appreciation for professionals doing professional work, but not so typical of Hawks (though not unheard of in that man’s films either), the best demonstrations of this in the film concern women working – Fiona reconstructing Porco’s plane in scenes that suggest what kind of woman this particular late teen will grow up into, and the female members of her family (the men are all gone somewhere else in hopes of paying work) doing the actual manual labour involved.


There’s a sense of delicate melancholy and a bit of a quietly tragic world view hidden away in the movie too, not the chest-beating variety of youth but a calm, accepting one that comes from a certain experience of life and what it entails. It’s not all melancholy, of course, for there’s also a lot of slapstick concerning the very funny pirates, more little lovely side gags than you can shake a pig sticker at, and an aeroplane and adventure plot that glows with enthusiasm, Miyazaki creating a sibling of the tone of his Lupin III films in those scenes.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: The struggle is real.

Witches in the Woods (2019): I can appreciate that this film directed by Jordan Barker does try to use the metaphorical power of witch lore to explore very contemporary ideas about feminism (really, the #metoo movement in this case), class, and race. Unfortunately, the idea is much better than the execution, for Christopher Borelli’s script is about as good at actually writing the characters involved and their relations as the scripts of 80s slasher movies were. Believing that these specific people are supposed to end up in the same SUV looking for hot snowboarding action and have ever been friends is honestly a bridge too much to cross for my ability to believe any damn nonsense a movie tries to sell me. Making matters worse is of course that an 80s slasher could easily get away with this sort of thing because the characters were not really what those films were about.

This one, on the other hand, is supposed to be about the social and the psychological, so not delivering on these things marks complete failure. Even ignoring this, the film’s horror stylings are bland and conventional, and there’s nothing to see here but some pretty young things who probably deserved to be in a better movie.

Tone-Deaf (2019): Keeping with films I didn’t enjoy at all, here’s Richard Bates Jr.’s movie about an intolerably annoying young woman (Amanda Crew) renting a house in the country for a weekend to get over her life being crap and to have a different place to stare at her phone from encountering an equally insufferable old guy (Robert Patrick) with a tendency to break the fourth wall right into the camera who has found the new hobby of murdering people. I have no idea why I should care, or what the film’s permanent shifts between blood, the flattest jokes outside of a pancake, META!, and whatever the director/writer wanted to shove in next are supposed to achieve, but I’m sure everybody involved thinks this one’s really, really clever, given all the smug mugging into the camera the film and the actors do.


Blackhat (2015): On the other hand, I thought Michael Mann’s generally maligned crime and action movie that presses an actual performance out of Chris Hemsworth instead of a star turn is rather good. After the horrors of Miami Vice, Mann has returned to his old tricks – actors doing ACTING in diners, hoisting enough detail into a film to make the silly perfectly believable – and come up with a film that’s about as realistic a portrayal of international hacking shenanigans as Hackers was, but that creates its world with such drive and force, I even found myself buying into the even more improbable finale in which Hemsworth – genius hacker and action movie badass at the same time – does manly shit wearing phone book armour.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Welcome to some vaguely defined medieval fantasy period. Brothers Voltan (Jack Palance) – evil if the name isn’t hint enough – and Hawk (John Terry) – good if his lack of personality isn’t a hint for that – have been feuding for years, ever since Voltan tried to murder Hawk, killed the woman they both loved (Catriona MacColl on flashback duty), and murdered their father (Ferdy Mayne) because dear dad didn’t want to give him the family elf stone that turns a really awkward looking sword into the Mindsword (magical power: something about minds and a bit of telekinesis).

Now, Voltan, his adopted son Drogo (Shane Briant) and their henchpeople involve themselves in kidnapping an abbess for ransom. Though, if that sort of thing should attract Hawk for a bit of fratricide, all the better. Indeed Hawk does become involved. Happily, he’s already in the process of picking up his own team of, ahem, heroes by saving their lives: Ranulf, owner of a repeating crossbow who is also the guy responsible for informing Hawk of Voltan’s misdeeds; Crow (Ray Charleson), the last elf; Baldin (Peter O’Farrell), a not particularly small dwarf; Gort (Bernard Bresslaw), a not particularly large giant; and a blind good witch everyone calls Woman (Patricia Quinn) because name are for men. Together, they fight crime. No, actually, together they assault a band of slavers, murder (which is the word one uses when you kill your enemies when they are already disarmed and helpless, I believe) them and steal their money so the nuns can have some ransom money to hand if our merry band doesn’t manage to conquer Voltan.

Obviously, with our heroes coming up with plans this ethically accomplished, nothing can go wrong.

The British production Hawk the Slayer is a strangely fascinating film. Not because it is any good, mind you. It is, as a matter of fact, actually a pretty terrible movie all around, with shoddy production values, dubious to hilarious acting, and a script that always drifts off into stuff that just doesn’t make sense; why, it even ends throwing open the gates to a sequel that – perhaps thankfully, perhaps sadly if you’re of my somewhat perverse tastes – never came.

However, it is also a film absolutely ahead of its time. This is, after all, a low rent sword and sorcery movie made before any of the films that produced the sword and sorcery wave for the cinemas were completed, seemingly picking up its main influences from Star Wars. At least, Voltan’s helmet and demeanour forcefully suggest a whinier Darth Vader, while the cowled sorcerer or whatever he is supposed to be pulling his strings for reasons the film leaves open for that sequel that never came has a decided Emperor vibe. One might also interpret Hawk’s Mindsword as the low tech version of a light sabre, but then, a magic sword is a magic sword is a magic sword and not necessarily invented by George Lucas.

The film’s other main influence is obviously – at least to my eyes and ears – the Spaghetti Western, with half of the score built out of cues which carry more than just a passing resemblance to certain Ennio Morricone works, and many an early fight scene consisting of stare downs followed by short and rapid action. The latter could of course also be less inspiration by the Italian films as Terry Marcel filming around something he’s not very good at, namely the actual action in action sequences. This idea gets further traction when you keep in mind that Hawk’s two larger set piece battles both take place in conditions of visibility so bad, the audience can only guess at most of what’s actually going on in them, peering through the very artificial fog of the first one, and through what looks a lot like the insides of a slaughtered feather bed in the second one (all thanks to practical witch magic that seems to be based on the idea of movie heroes coping much better with not actually seeing their enemies than villains do, which doesn’t actually work out so hot in what I’m not going to call a nod to realism).

There’s something deeply perverse about directorial decisions like that one. But then a certain perversity fits the film, for there’s a lot about Hawk that’s awkward and dubious in a way that parallels the Italian sword and sorcery films of half a decade later to a degree I can’t help but imagine someone involved in the production was a Doctor Who companion socialized in the 1990s somehow stranded in 1980’s British low rent movie central. Seriously, the parallels are frightening, and there’s little on screen you wouldn’t later see in various Italian films.

Sure, there’s a total lack of nudity (appropriate to the mythical, meaning it being a myth, sexlessness of British culture) but otherwise we have everything I love and hate about Italian sword and sorcery on display here: the ethical flexibility of the heroes (which might obviously also be taken from the Spaghetti Western or even actual sword and sorcery stories); line delivery that suggests a cast of non-native speakers or a really weird bunch of post-dubbing actors giving the characters voice; acting that fluctuates between so dead pan it’s more dead than alive (hello, Hawk and monosyllabic, staring elf dude) and hysterically over-excited (hello, Jack Palance’s visible hunger for the chewing of scenery and possibly other actors, and double hello “Woman”’s loud melodramatic stage whispering of every damn line she speaks); production design that makes little sense culturally and looks in turns shoddy and hypnotically weird; oh so very special effects like the emulation of Crow’s supernaturally fast arrow shooting skills via showing the same shot again and again in quick cuts while adding hilarious sound effects; and last but not least, a script that makes little sense and meanders from one damn thing to another with random abandon. Yup, Hawk truly has it all.


Of course, since time travel doesn’t actually exist apart from the boring linear movement most of us – I’m not sure about certain script writers and filmmakers - suffer under, Hawk being a full-fledged Italian sword and sorcery movie made in the UK before the genre actually existed, might also suggest the big Italian sword and sorcery wave didn’t just try to rip off Conan and Excalibur but was actually heavily influenced by Terry Marcel’s Hawk the Slayer. I’m not sure I’m not preferring the time travel theory, though.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

In short: Camp Cold Brook (2018)

Among the most dangerous professions known to humanity – at least going by the movies I watch – is that of the TV show ghost hunter.

Case in point are the four bits of ghost fodder we encounter here, named Jack (Chad Michael Murray), Angela (Danielle Harris), Kevin (Michael Eric Reid) and Emma (Candice De Visser). Their show is floundering rather badly and won’t see a new season, but production lead Jack hopes that their last ghost adventure will be grand enough to ensure continued employment.

Emma’s found a rather interesting place to look for a haunting, a former summer camp that’s been empty ever since twenty or so kids died there, drugged into killing one another in ritual fashion. From a certain perspective, the team’s in luck, for the place is indeed haunted; from the more practical perspective of survival, things aren’t looking up, alas, for said haunting is highly malevolent and more than just a little murderous.

When you are working in certain horror sub-genres, delivering a solid and not particularly exciting but aggressively un-crap movie can push you right into the upper quality third of that genre. Such is the case with movies about ghost hunters becoming the ghost hunted and Andy Palmer’s Camp Cold Brook. Consequently, the film’s virtues aren’t  great new achievements in horror but a production team that seems to have done the due diligence of looking at what the greatest problems of other movies in their sub-genre are, and then simply worked to avoid them.

This may not sound like a spectacular achievement, but it’s quite the thing to find a ghost hunter movie whose characters are something akin to human beings with actual human motivations instead of total pricks who deserve everything they get. Sure, Jack, for example, doesn’t believe anymore in ever finding a haunting and is playing things up for the camera, but he comes over as a guy exhausted by a lack of success and having doubts of having a future career that would help feed his family rather than the megalomaniac arse the team leader usually is in these films. Why, one might even go as far as not to want him killed by ghosts. The characters aren’t terribly deep, yet at least they are characters.

Neither the film’s backstory nor the hauntings themselves are nail biters, though the backstory isn’t quite as played out as usual, and Palmer does know how to stage a bread and butter haunting competently enough, with perhaps even one or two scenes I’d describe as somewhat creepy; the filmmaking’s cheap yet solid.


There’s not much else to the film, but what there is turns out to be perfectly sufficient for an okay time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Hercules vs. Moloch (1963)

Original title: Ercole contro Moloch

aka The Conquest of Mycene

Once, in semi-mythical ancient Greece. The second version of he city of Mycenae – the first one burned down because of some godly business between the Earth Goddess (never named anything else in the English dub of the film at hand) and the town’s other patron god, the evil Moloch – is striking fear into the hearts of the other city states of Greece. Ruled by the evil queen Demetra (Rosalba Neri with very fetching white streaks in her hair), Mycenae seems militarily unbeatable, pressing the rest of the Greek world for the delivery of hostages. Hostages, mind you, that tend to disappear completely never to be seen again, for Mycenae MKII houses the earthly incarnation of Moloch. It has taken form in Demetra’s son, and living gods need sacrifices, as you know. This particular living god dwells in a cave below the city with “his favourite slave girls”, is fond of Bava colours, torture, and disfiguring beautiful people who aren’t his slave girls. Moloch isn’t exactly well-loved by all of Mycenae's populace, however, and most of the commoners would really rather return to the worship of the less cruel and hands-on Earth Goddess. They’d also rather see young Medea (Alessandra Panaro), daughter of the old king who wanted a life without Moloch for his people and Demetra’s step daughter, sit on the throne, but since the military, the nobility and the priests are all under Demetra’s (and Moloch’s) thumb, there’s little hope for a successful revolution at the moment.

The last Greek town standing against Mycenae is Tyros. Alas, its king has taken rather too long with a policy of outward appeasement and secret attempts at building an alliance against Mycenae. Eventually, after Tyros’s best potential ally falls, there seems little hope of anything but to also deliver hostages to their enemies. Things aren’t quite as hopeless as they seem, though, for Tyros’s crown prince Glaucus (Gordon Scott) has a plan. It’s not a terribly good plan, mind you, for it mostly consists of him becoming an incognito hostage going by the name of Hercules (so we can get the proper, cash-grabbing name into the film’s title) and trying to see if he can’t find allies in Mycenae while attempting to gain the trust of Demetra.

Fortunately, the Earth Goddess is with the good guys.

I thought I had basically seen all the peplums worth seeing (and quite a few not), but along comes Giorgio Ferroni’s Hercules vs. Moloch to prove me wrong. Not that I’m complaining.

Anyhow, this one’s a pretty great little movie, even though its not-actually-Hercules main character doesn’t do random hearty manly belly laughs and generally leaves pillars in peace to do their thing. Well, at least one has to admire the chutzpa used to get Hercules into the movie’s title.

The film stands at what could be a somewhat awkward point between the more fantastically minded branch of the peplum concerning itself much with mythological beast (that is to say, guys in monster suits and sometimes dubious, sometimes wonderful bigger monsters), gods, and half-gods, and the more mundane business of palace politics and revolutions, spending certainly more time on the latter, less fun part of these films to boot. However, Ferroni actually integrates these elements well, finding reasons for the palace intrigues in the supernatural stuff, solving some of the problems arising during the course of the plot through a very cool moment of literal deus ex machina perfectly appropriate to ancient Greece, all the while making the film’s world convincing as one in which the Gods are actually real. Even though Moloch junior probably isn’t much of a god.

The film turns out to be genuinely good at both sides of the equation, with fights and battle scenes of a quality not always found in peplums. Ferroni must have had a rather high budget for the genre, too, for the battle scenes and fights actually feature a decent amount of combatants and horses (some of which may or may not come from library footage, but if so, it’s excellently integrated) involved in what looks like actual fight choreography. There’s a good amount of sets and locations, too, and while they aren’t exactly lavish, they also never feel cramped and too much like cardboard, the filmmakers demonstrating a good eye for filming around the holes in the illusion.

And even though the Moloch parts of the film are not quite as plenty as I would have liked, the guy is a perfectly creepy Gothic horror type villain, wearing an excellent creepy mask, cackling while he’s disfiguring women and ranting about wanting to destroy all beauty, and living in a most excellent multi-coloured cave full of women pressing themselves against walls looking intense.

At this point in his career, Gordon Scott had become a very capable leading man too, striking the correct righteous poses for the properly righteous dialogue he gets as the most righteous manly man around, going through the usual stylized romance (with Medea, as if I need to tell anyone who has seen even one of these films) with the proper stylized conviction. He’s also a pretty convincing fencer and screen fighter here, making up for the rather low-powered Hercules he is playing by doing the business of people who aren’t half gods with a nice degree of intensity. Rosalba Neri for her part makes a pretty great evil queen, doing the sexy evil glowering, the increased unhingement, and all the other expected bits of business with fun enthusiasm.


All in all, it’s a pretty wonderful achievement, Ferroni and company turning what could have been a complete dud in the wrong hands into a very fun peplum.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

In short: Bloody Chainsaw Girl (2016)

Original title: Chimamire Sukeban Chainsaw (血まみれスケバンチェーンソー)

Giko (Rio Uchida) is just your typical delinquent style middle school girl waiting for a girl boss movie to happen. Well, I say typical, but she does tend to bring the chainsaw that’s the symbol of her family’s business with her to school, which I’ve never seen Meiko Kaji do. However, said chainsaw turns out to be a rather useful survival tool, because Giko has somehow – she honestly has no idea how - pissed off the school’s very own teen mad scientist, one Nero Aoi (Mari Yamachi).

Nero, on a bit of a rampage after being bullied for turning a classmate’s cat into a cyborg zombie kitteh, turns many of their school mates – well, everyone who doesn’t simply flee, really – into one type of cyborg zombie mutant or another, many of which seem to develop a bit of a cultish appreciation for their mistress Nero, and are all too happy to try to murder Giko for whatever Nero thinks she has done to her. Ah, teenagers.

The time when practically every single film of the Japanese bizarro splatter world made it to Western shores are, alas, long over, so whenever a film like Hiroki Yamaguchi’s (of Hellevetor fame) Bloody Chainsaw Girl still does make it here, I do feel a faint tingle of excitement, even though I by now know well that only a few films in this particular genre keep the promises their absurd titles and lurid covers make.

Bloody Chainsaw Girl, to my delight, actually does its job rather well. It’s obviously a pretty low budget affair, but Yamaguchi’s direction keeps things snappy enough you’ll only notice if you really want to. The special effects are cheap but the right kind of cheap, enhancing the charm of the affair by emphasising the absurdity of everything that’s going on onscreen, from the cheerleader with the traditional Japanese thing of shooting rockets from places where rockets should most certainly not be shot from (the film adds an actually pretty funny moment concerning the reloading of this particular device), to the enhanced members of the ninja club (of course this school has a ninja club. Keep up, please!).

It’s all very charming if you’re like me and willing to be charmed by the merry absurdity of proceedings like this. I was also pretty happy that the motivation for the film’s villainess’s hatred for our heroine and the reason for all this carnage does have the pettiness of actual teenage grudges, lacking as much in reason as the less believable parts of the film.

Rio Uchida does the whole snarky teenage delinquent bit rather well (apart from very obviously not being a teenager), making for a surprisingly likeable heroine, whose shrugging, sarcastic, acceptance of every new absurd turn of events did rather endear her to me. Whereas Mari Yamachi’s a decent glowerer and a pretty decent ranter, and what else do you need from the villain of a piece like this?


All of this does obviously add up to a lot of good, clean fun, if you share my loose definition of “clean”, at least.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Strangers in the Night (1944)

Sergeant Johnny Meadows (William Terry) is sent home from the war with a back injury. He’s making his way to the home of Rosemary Blake (Linda Stirling), a woman he fell in love with by letter and through a shared love of “A Shropshire Lad” (you certainly can’t say much against her taste), hoping to finally meet and talk to the woman he plans on marrying.

On the train, Johnny has what would be a meet-cute under different circumstances with Dr Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey). Leslie just happens to be the – scandalously! - female physician who has just taken over the practice in the small town where Rosemary and her family live, so they’ll probably have time to further pretend not to be attracted to one another later on.

When Johnny arrives at the Blake mansion, he is greeted by Rose’s mother Hilda (Helene Thimig) and her live-in friend Ivy Miller (Edith Barrett). Hilda is very happy to meet Johnny, but Rose is apparently away for a couple of days for very vague reasons. Johnny’s very welcome to stay until she returns, though. Which he does, only to become increasingly convinced that something’s not quite right about this whole business. Isn’t Hilda’s behaviour peculiar, even creepy? And why is Ivy so nervous? On the positive side, Leslie is drawn into the affair too and turns out to be a decent amateur detective, and a good woman to have at one’s back.

Which, honestly, is one of the more remarkable elements of the film, symptomatic for the way director Anthony Mann – here very much at the beginning of his career shooting a short programmer for Republic – treats his female lead as a complete character, still fully competent in her job and in life even when she’s falling in love, which is usually the point in movies of this time when a woman turns all damsel-y. Even better, the film portrays the crap a female physician like Leslie has to go through sympathetically, with a couple of scenes of her and her nurse (Frances Morris) rolling their eyes companionably at the world feeling particularly true to life.

As a suspense movie with Gothic elements, Strangers in the Night isn’t completely successful, though. In this case, the brisk 59 minute running time simply isn’t quite enough for everything the film is trying to do, leaving Mann little room to fill out the ghost story without the supernatural, the grown-up reading of a conventional movie romance (which of course makes it pretty unconventional), and the proto Evil Biddy film this turns out to be. Even this early in his career, Mann is a highly efficient storyteller, but even he can’t quite make a viewer ignore that the main characters could really use at least a couple of scenes to flesh out their characters, and that the film simply doesn’t have the space to go further into its more interesting ideas, or to explore its clear interest in portraying nonjudgmentally how World War II has shifted the relationships between women and men in the USA of its time as deeply as the theme deserves.


Still, the film has quite a few effective moments of creepy mood and effective suspense, Mann, aptly supported by DP Reggie Lanning who does quite a bit of John Alton-like work with depth of field and chiaroscuro, turning what would be a cheap little programmer in lesser hands into something that is at the very least always interesting to watch and think about, rather beautiful to look at, and entertaining even more than seventy years later, even though one might wish it to be a bit deeper.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: A Reign Of HORROR... a man-made monster on the loose!

Black Friday (1940): Arthur Lubin’s gangster brain transplant movie with Boris Karloff as a rather mad scientist and Stanley Ridges as a mild mannered English literature professor who gets parts of a gangster’s brains grafted on to save his life (and Karloff’s ego) with the expected results seems a bit like an attempt by Universal to poach on Warner’s territory. The mix of gangster film and mad science yarn doesn’t exactly play to Universal's strengths as a studio, though, curiously enough, it’s not the gangster movie parts that don’t work but the mad science. Lubin shows a decent eye for the former and very little flair for the latter. Karloff’s as good as always and Ridges works his double role rather well. Bela Lugosi pops in for a couple of scenes too but doesn’t really have much to do here. Otherwise, this is exactly the movie you’ll expect it to be, for better or for worse.

The Song Keepers (2017): I was a little disappointed by Naina Sen’s documentary about the history of Aboriginal Women’s Choirs singing German Lutheran hymns translated (and wonderfully and wondrously changed) into their respective languages and one contemporary choir’s travel to Germany to perform these hymns there. It’s the kind of film you really want to like - it’s about people who more than deserve their moments, fascinating (and pretty beautiful) music, and the messiness of colonial history, after all. But its execution is rough, with way too many scenes of everyone complimenting everyone else on their awesomeness, scenes that seem to belong into a private holiday video more than into a documentary, intercut with interviews that reach from the bland, to the informative, to the sort of thing that’ll make every sane person cry, all mixed with little focus or artistry in a manner that often borders on the random. It’s a shame, really, because these women and their stories are much more interesting and important than the film’s presentation makes them out to be.


I Know Where I’m Going (1945): One of the strengths of The Archers – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – was to make films that combined a sense of place and landscape – here the coast of Scotland – and a naturalistic feel set apart from the stagey predilections of much of British cinema of their time with a sense of mood and metaphor that was (and still is) anything but naturalistic. This is the sort of artistry that never feels contrived and artificial even if it by all rights should, so a film like this which puts its critique on a very specific type of materialism into the form of a romance of slow self-discovery with heavy folkloric undertones seems perfectly logical and natural, and not at all contrived. It’s also a film about the very British interpretation of the connection between people and landscapes, a love of rural communities that never becomes that sickly kind of love that tends to end in pogroms, about superstition and folk belief, and the dangers of straight lines.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Alien Warrior (1986)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

aka KING OF THE STREETS

Okay, so, here’s a plot, such as it is: in an alien dimension peopled by men with excellent – and better – facial hair live a martial artist-philosopher-messiah-future-cult-leader guy we will come to know and (certainly not) love as Buddy (Brett Clark) and his Dad (Norman Budd). Well, actually, we never get to see anyone apart from Buddy and Dad there, but since Buddy’s supposed to become king, I can only assume he has some people to crush under the boot heels of monarchist oppression. Before Buddy (his Dad actually called him Ragnar until he realized Buddy wouldn’t make a decent Viking, or I might be making this up thanks to the intoxicating powers of Alien Warrior) can take his rightful place, he has to go somewhere to smite (alas, smiting isn’t really part of the film’s dialogue, though it’s ace – as in transcendentally stupid - otherwise) some Great Evil. And what better place for that sort of thing than the rough streets of Los Angeles circa 1985?

Once he’s beamed to LA, Buddy does show himself less shite than we thought and soon saves women from rape – specifically, angelic Lora (Pamela Saunders, I think), a woman not only imbued with the power of making the most absurd facial expressions unimaginable but also the will to bring the beauty of reading to the inner city with what we might call a community centre if it weren’t a warehouse with a random assortment of bookshelves in it. Because Buddy is a bit of a messiah (or cult leader), Lora’s reading warehouse becomes quite the success thanks to our hero’s awesome power of getting in the head of would-be rapists, finding out that their wicked ways started when their mum called them stupid once, and curing them in a way certainly not at all inspired by a certain cult founded by a SF writer who once wrote about how a good way of getting rich would be to found a religion.

Soon, graffiti artists in the place are writing awesome new slogans like “BE TEMPERATE” on walls, Buddy and a helpful homeless alcoholic build a sports car out of scrap metal, and protection money rackets are stopped by slow motion shouting. Somewhere on the way, Buddy makes an enemy, though, in form of frequently pretty much naked pimp and drug dealer Mr. One (Reggie De Morton), owner of an even better car than Buddy’s.

Oh, and he’s – not much of a surprise given his choice of career – totally evil, perhaps even the Great Evil Buddy has come to conquer? Unfortunately, Mr. One is also prepared, and has – in a series of sleazy sexual interludes – gotten a lot of dirt on all three members of LA’s police force, who are now working for him, because who wouldn’t murder so the photos of one’s dalliance with a girl with large breasts won’t fall into the wrong hands?

So, Buddy’s got his job cut out for him, or he would have, if he’d actually be any good at the conquering Great Evil bit or at being a Messiah.

On first encounter with Ed Hunt’s brilliantly bizarre Alien Warrior, the sane viewer will ask herself what exactly she has gotten herself into: perhaps an afterschool special that wants to show us how awesome cult leaders are? The film’s politics and philosophy at least support that theory, what with the rampant naivety the film shows towards the thoughts, actions, and reasons for the actions of human beings, the absurd psycho-babble Buddy sprouts at every opportune moment, bonkers moments like the one where Buddy rubs the hands of a comatose little girl against his beard to successfully revive her, and the whole thing where our expressionless lead with the emotionless voice brainwashes idiots into being good by turning them against their mums (who were right, because these guys truly are idiots). On the other hand, there’s the film’s other half, consisting of about four scenes of attempted rape, some choice gratuitous violence, more nudity than you can throw your facial locks at, and many a scene of Reggie De Morton being a bit vile and/or underdressed.

And did I mention the bad martial arts fights, the slow-motion to end all slow motions (because, where slow-motion in other films slows down actual movement, slow-motion here is mostly used to slow down shots of people not actually moving much) or the moments that concentrate on Mr. One like a very cheap, very late, and very bad blaxploitation movie? It’s a puzzling, and perhaps a little frightening, mix of incongruous elements that gives a film that is already chockfull of utterly bizarre nonsense a kick in the direction of the true classic.
Of course, Alien Warrior does carry all the other virtues of true bizarro filmmaking too. There’s the acting, with De Morton strutting around as if he owns the place (even when he’s wearing only his undies and a submachine gun, and yes, that happens too), Saunders (I hope it’s her, or I’m making fun of the wrong woman and apologize) doing things with her face human faces aren’t meant to do, and Clark giving a frighteningly effective impression of a walking-talking manikin.

Hunt’s direction is static and absurdly in love with his very special concept of slow motion. Scenes are framed in strange and awkward ways and the film’s storytelling is disjointed, jumping from one idea (I’m using the term loosely, of course) to the next without much of a logical connection. In other words, it’s brilliant, and it’s not difficult to imagine this to be a film Buddy himself has made. Which would actually explain the ending too, where Buddy, after having fucked up so completely large parts of the guys whose lives he supposedly improved are now dead, and his nemesis having been shot by one of the few survivors (who’ll spend the rest of his life in jail, probably), and leaving Lora behind with the dubious excuse that time and space are an illusion so they’ll therefore be together forever, returns home, and is congratulated by his father on his awesome skills of conquering Great Evil. Well, at least it sort of fits with Buddy’s philosophy of making peoples’ lives better by having them close their eyes and imagine everything they wish for is coming true and everything’s perfect.


Come to think of it, that philosophy is also the only way I can come up with to explain the existence of Alien Warrior, so I can’t even say the film isn’t practicing what it preaches.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

In short: Extreme Job (2019)

Original title: 극한직업

Following what is apparently only the most recent in a series of operational mishaps with sees a bus instead of a cop making the arrest of a perp , the merry narcotics division team of long-suffering veteran police captain Go (Ryu Seung-ryong) seem bound for whatever the opposite of glory is for a South Korean cop. It’s not that these guys and gal are particularly mean-spirited or terribly incompetent, much worse, they are a little incompetent and very luckless.

A much younger colleague and arch enemy (obviously coming with a boy band looking team) offers Go what amounts to a final chance to not end up finishing his last years on the job behind a desk (a fate to terrible to contemplate for the man). A well-known felon and probably mid-tier associate of a very big meth dealer has just come out of prison and is now hanging around a place with a bunch of thugs doing nothing. Surely, there’s something going on there that can provide an in into some sort of big criminal operation.

But planning a long-form observation of guys doing not much of anything is a rather difficult thing for these particular cops, so they eventually end up buying the fried chicken restaurant across the (potential) bad guys’ place and do some undercover fry cooking. Turns out these cops are rather better at their pretend job than their actual one, and suddenly the undercover work turns into actual lucrative work. Why, even Go’s wife is now showering when he gets home!

Will our heroes follow the lure of business or keep their cop values intact? Will they accidentally become part of a money laundering business (because clearly, someone here has seen “Breaking Bad”)?

I’ve heard Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job described as an action comedy, but honestly, the film’s  action stays right at the start and the finish of the movie. The largest part of it is concerned with heaping the horrors of sudden unwanted and very unfamiliar success on the broadly drawn but generally fun characters and watching them squirm, while also suggesting that these guys and gals are even unlucky in their successes.

There are a couple of hints at darker elements – Go’s half-beaten personality seems to be the consequence of PTSD following being knifed for example – but the film isn’t interesting in exploring any of this through humour but really prefers to hang around with its characters and tease them a little. So the comedy isn’t particularly deep and incisive, but Extreme Job gets by very well indeed on Lee’s ability to keep the pace up and come up with some new silly business for the characters to scrape against as well as quite a few good jokes about the parallels and differences between the police and the food business with each new scene.


Unlike most comedies involving cops, the whole affair further recommends itself by its general lack of mean-spiritedness, clearly liking its characters too much to be too cruel to them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Gemini Man (2019)

Over the years, government-owned killer Henry Brogan (Will Smith) has slowly developed (or regained) that most inopportune thing for his job: a conscience. He now simply wants to retire and try being human again. Alas, someone among the people he has been working for all this time (spoiler: it’s Clay Verris as played by house favourite Clive Owen) is trying to kill him. Well, not just him, but basically everyone he has been in contact with for the last couple of weeks or so, including Danny Zakarweski (played by another house favourite, Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the agent sent by another part of Henry’s former organization to simply keep an eye on him and make sure he behaves in his retirement.

After the first hit on Henry fails – and of course causes him and Danny to team up for the rest of the movie – things become rather stranger than our protagonist had expected, for Verris is now sending his best man, well, really rather “kid”, after Henry. Junior (digitally rejuvenated Will Smith), as Verris calls him, turns out to be a clone of Henry, supposedly programmed to be a better killer and soldier.

I don’t hate Ang Lee’s Gemini Man as much as many others seem to do, but that’s probably more because I like the cast a lot, appreciate certain elements of the film, and find the direction it seems to want to take its slab of  big mainstream action cinema somewhat interesting as well as rather sympathetic.

So let’s start out with the good (that I like Winstead and Owen a lot wherever they appear and certainly mind today’s Smith much less than many other actors in his price class needs no repeating, I believe). While the set-up and some of the marketing certainly suggest this to be a film all about having Smith fight digitally youthful Smith to the death, Lee really rather wants to treat this as a drama than a shoot ‘em up, in reality having made a film about a guy who has learned some rather disturbing things about himself and eventually sets out to save a younger man from making these mistakes at all. Which is not just surprisingly un-cynical, but also a kind of direction I’d like more action movies to go in. Another nice element of the film is its treatment of Danny, keeping her away from becoming a love interest (it always feels like a breath of fresh air when men and women are allowed to be friends in cinema), and going out of its way to actually let her do things in the movie. Which would of course work better in a film whose plot doesn’t need to focus as hard as this one on its male main character, but in big budget movies, you take what you can get. And even though it’s not terribly well realized, I also appreciate how the film goes all in with its happy end, really only missing a twist to somehow resurrect Benedict Wong’s character, again lacking the cynicism that’s de rigueur in anything but superhero cinema on the biggest screens right now.


Alas, these well-meant and good ideas and moments never come quite together, Lee seeming curiously unable to put all this into the proper kind of spectacle, instead filming locations, acrobatic action scenes and theoretically insane chases that should suck an audience in to then deliver the other things the film has to say to them with a bland distance I certainly never would have thought Lee even capable of. The film’s look tends to the curiously bland, too, as if all the visual focus had been on making digitally young Will Smith look like an actual human being (which the film achieves excellently), and nothing whatsoever into making the world he moves through feel exciting and dangerous.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

In short: I Was a Teenage Zombie (1987)

Somewhere in Brooklyn. After having been sold bad weed by a muscleman with the less than trust-inspiring name of Mussolini (Steve McCoy), a gaggle of high school kids really rather want their money back. Alas, when they go about their customer relations business in a somewhat violent manner, Mussolini accidentally gets killed, or so they believe. It’s the usual business where the victim of an accident who is believed dead wakes up just before their killers want to throw them into a body of water or bury them and really gets killed in the ensuing struggle, of course. Though Mussolini doesn’t stay dead then, either, for the kids have dumped him in a radioactive body of water that turns him into a vengeful undead. Since he’s talking and fully conscious, I wouldn’t call him a zombie but rather an undead super asshole.

Anyway, he starts killing his way through the kids and some random victims until the survivors dump one of their dead in the radioactive waters too. Before he gets to fight Mussolini, the poor teen will learn that zombiefication is not terribly great for one’s romantic life.

John Elias Michalakis’s I Was a Teenage Zombie is another ultra low budget 80s horror comedy that is in turns anarchic, goofy, annoying and charming, driven by what feels a lot like the same spirit that gave us punk rock, similarly replacing slickness with nervous energy and the willingness to just make art even if one’s abilities or lack of experience would usually keep one away from being allowed to make it. It’s a filmmaking ethos I’m unable to dislike, even if I’m not always excited about the resulting films.

Like most movies made in this spirit, IWaTZ is all over the place in tone and style, sometimes feeling like a low rent version of Porky’s and the like, sometimes becoming the kind of movie that believes a zombie rape scene is ever a good idea, sometimes making fun of all kinds of teen movie tropes of its time, sometimes going for that awesome home-made gore. More often than not, the undisciplined tone and the rawness of the filmmaking do work wonders for the film, turning its theoretical flaws into charming virtues, suggesting that the you’re watching the result of a bunch of young gals and guys having a hell of a time and wanting you to share in it, too.


Somehow, the film also managed to acquire a pretty nice soundtrack featuring music from the likes of the Violent Femmes, Los Lobos and Alex Chilton, which perfectly fits the tone of proceedings. What’s not to like?

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Phoenix (2014)

Germany, in the earliest days after World War II. Former singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) has just barely survived the Holocaust, ending up with a disfiguring headshot wound. Saved by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) and brought to a hospital in Berlin, Nelly undergoes reconstructive surgery that looks rather successful for the era but leaves her with a face only resembling her old self, furthering the alienation caused by the trauma inflicted by the KZ and the particular horror of surviving what so many – among them quite a lot of people she knew and loved – did not. The only thing that really seems to keep Nelly functional is an increasing obsession with finding her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), even if it is by roaming the at this point desperately dangerous streets of Berlin at night.

Lene, just as stricken by the experience of the Holocaust as Nelly is, but trying to channel her pain into anger at the betrayal (or the many betrayals) the Germans committed on the Jews, as well as into attempts of convincing Nelly to go to Israel with her, is less than happy with Nelly’s attempts at finding Johnny. Lene is convinced that Johnny betrayed Nelly to the Nazis, and that Nelly is losing herself in the past when the only way to go on after what she has been through is to find a future as far away from that past as possible.

Eventually, Nelly does indeed find Johnny, but Johnny doesn’t recognize her anymore. In an ironically cruel twist of fate, he only sees her as a stranger with a huge resemblance to his wife, a resemblance he decides to make use of to get his hands on Nelly’s money, presenting a living “fake” Nelly being the only way to do that for a guy everyone believes to have sold his wife out to the Nazis. Nelly decides to agree to his plan, dazed by trauma, love and perhaps an awakening wish to understand what Johnny actually did (or did not) do to her.

As the regulars among my imaginary readers know, I’m generally rather down on the way genre cinema that isn’t insipid comedy has been treated in Germany, historically. Unlike in other countries, most filmmakers from the artsy side of town don’t seem to have any interest of working with genre tropes and forms either, probably fearing the dirt of popular culture getting on their opera gloves (nothing against the opera – opera gloves on the other hand…).

As always, there are exceptions to that rule, and one of them, perhaps the most interesting and certainly one of the most important ones, is Christian Petzold, a man who has never made exactly what I’d call a straight genre movie even in his TV work inside of genre series, but has been using elements of genre, combined with a precise visual language put into service of portraying very complex people and situations, and the usual foot in the German Autorenkino, to make some of most interesting German language films in the last decades, often using the considerable acting talents of Nina Hoss.

Petzold seems particularly interested in putting his fingers on very specific German wounds, the important historical or personal moments Germans try their utmost to avoid of actually engaging with outside of school and outside the sort of historical documentaries that are putting as many walls as possible between a viewer and the actual experience of those having suffered through this history. So it was really only a question of time until he engaged the Holocaust, or really, the experiences of Jews having survived the Holocaust encountering a Germany that does its damndest to pretend nothing worth talking about happened, a pretence at normality that more than just borders on the unreal in a Berlin still in ruins.

To do this, Phoenix uses elements of the noir and the melodrama, both genres built for exploring alienation, the unwanted and the shadows between memory and reality. While the film’s surface seems as calm and slow as is typical of “respectable” contemporary German filmmaking, there’s a simmering intensity to the film, the impression that the three main characters are barely holding it together and might just break down completely at any given moment, Hoss’s Nelly having been robbed in the KZ of all belief in herself, barely able to look even Lene directly in the face, shaking and stiffening when going through Johnny’s reconstruction of the wife he believes dead through her; Johnny projecting a desperate kind of hunger between what’s left of what must have been a considerable amount of charm and joie de vivre; and Lene trying to bury all her sorrow and pain under caring for Nelly, taking care of practical things and dreaming about vengeance and security. That this film’s climax isn’t a scene of wild accusation and tears but one of Nelly singing “Speak Low” to Johnny’s piano playing, and revealing everything that has been unsaid by her up to that point, is just par for the course for the film’s tone.


This isn’t all Phoenix does, though. Petzold is also exploring the question of revenge and forgiveness in this specific historical moment and specifically which of the two might be more conducive to actually living a life afterwards for the victims of atrocity; and the murkiness of truth and identity. There’s also a lot more going on in the relationship between Nelly and Lene here, but then, Petzold really does manage to put quite a bit more resonance and complexity into any given scene than seems probable without overloading things with meaning. In fact, if there’s one thing I admire most about Phoenix, it is the clarity and preciseness with which it speaks about all those things that are not clear and precise to talk about.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Two bad people are about to meet two worse people.

Some Kind of Hate (2015): Whereas I thought that director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s follow-up film Daniel Isn’t Real (perhaps later more about that one on a later date) was a brilliant horror film about mental illness and the idea of “normality”, this, Mortimer’s first feature really doesn’t work at all. This one’s about the trauma of bullying and an undead girl taking vengeance on bullies and taking things rather too far. Apart from obvious structural problems like terrible pacing and way too much repetition, what this one suffers under most is a certain heart on its sleeve quality that suggests filmmakers a bit too close to the theme they want to talk about and therefor unable to step away from it enough to turn it into functioning art. A couple of the kills are pretty cleverly staged and imagined, at least, but it’s clear throughout that the film has much greater ambitions than being a slash fest it simply can’t fulfil.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010): Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist (post-revisionist?) Western on the other hand seems to be able to fulfil all of its ambitions easily, but then the comparison between a debut horror movie by a young guy just starting out and an experienced director like Reichardt at the top of her game is completely unfair of me, probably to both films. Anyway, Reichardt’s ambitions here are many: at once to show a naturalistic, detail-focussed tale of settlers on the Oregon trail but also to sip from the mythic well that has been built over the bones of such settlers; talking about America today by talking about its past; facing the complexities of societal misogyny and racism head-on. She’s doing all that in a film shot with some of the starker values of post 2000s US indie cinema – the very digital camerawork, the realistic sound (though leave it to Reichardt to make it a highly constructed realistic sound clearly designed), the paucity of a classical dramatic plot, the slow pacing. Which shouldn’t work terribly well at all, but in practice, the whole film has a nearly magical quality of slowly growing intensity and will eventually feel at once naturalistic and utterly not of this world.

The Ladykillers (1955): And now for something completely different, a classic British black comedy about criminals and old ladies by Alexander Mackendrick (made for Ealing Studios who had a bit of form for this sort of thing) that’s about as subversive about society, to be precise about how a classist society reads social cues and roles and the way this twists even the people who think themselves clever enough to use this for their own profit, as can be.


It’s classically stylish British comedy cinema of this type, with actors like Alec Guiness, Katie Johnson, Cecil Parker, a young Peter Sellers, or Herbert Lom treating their roles with an arch humour that never can quite disguise the actual humanity behind characters that aren’t treated terribly compassionately by the film they are in.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Past Misdeeds: La vendetta di Lady Morgan (1965)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Warning: spoilers haunt this write-up with adorable puffs of smoke!

Despite her rather uninviting name, 19th Century (or thereabouts, we’re in Gothic Horror time here) noble Susan Blackhouse (Barbara Nelli) leads a bit of a charmed life: not only will she very soon inherit one of the greatest fortunes in the country but she has also found love in the hunky shape of French architect Pierre Brissac (Michel Forain). Even better, when Susan declares her love and her determination to marry Pierre, neither her uncle Neville (Carlo Kechler) nor the man she was actually supposed to marry, Sir Harold Morgan (Paul Muller) put up even a bit of a fight.

So, once Pierre will return from a quick trip to Paris, a-marrying they will go. Alas, someone with the same haircut and general body shape as Harold’s manservant Roger (Gordon Mitchell) throws Pierre off the ferry to France, breaking Susan’s heart in the process.

Some time later, and for no explicable reason seeing as nobody was actually trying to push her into it, Susan decides to marry Harold. It’s going to be a bit of a curious marriage, though, for she, her uncle and her husband have made a pact to have her leave the country and stay with Neville right after the wedding ceremony until such a time as she will be actually willing and able to love Harold. We can only assume the patron saint of good plans was on holiday.

While this melodramatic brouhaha is going on, the audience learn that Pierre did actually survive his involuntary swimming lesson. Of course, and to nobody’s surprise given the rest of the plot, he’s suffering from amnesia that’ll only lift when it’s opportune for further developments, that is to say, the film needs a warm body to be threatened by vampire ghosts.

Again some time later, Susan decides she’s willing to move in with her husband who has been living in her ancestral home while she was shacking up with Uncle Neville. But how curious! Harold has let go all of her trusted servants but one, and so the house staff now consists of the not-at-all-murderous Roger, Susan’s least favourite maid, and one Lillian (Erika Blanc), a woman with quite the habit of grim staring. Or is it even…hypnotic staring? So now it’s time for the gaslighting part of the film. However, to give Lady Morgan its due, only few gaslight plots work with the help of a female hypnotist who whispers through a connection between her and her victim’s bed room, nor do many of them succeed in what amounts to the space of two or three nights.

By now, I’ve grown quite used to the fact that even the best Italian Gothic Horror films tend to have plots that only make sense when looked at as products of dream states or as walking and talking metaphors but even in this exalted realm Massimo Pupillo’s La vendetta di Lady Morgan is quite remarkable; it also isn’t a film to which the word “best” applies. However, Pupillo’s film is bad in all the right ways, and I don’t think it’s possible to be bored by it, or not come away from it liking this dubious piece of work that it is quite a bit.

It’s not just that the film’s narrative content is – quite keeping in the style of the original gothic novels, of course, though I doubt that’s on purpose – pretty darn stupid, dominated by coincidences and really bad plans that only work because everybody involved is an idiot, it’s also that Pupillo pretends the nonsense to be very very serious in the most hysterically melodramatic tones he can afford, with no line of dialogue that isn’t commented on by cloying and dominant music, and come to think of it, no line of dialogue that shouldn’t be ended with at least one or two exclamation points.

I can’t help but admire the film for it, though, for there really are few Gothics – quite independent of the country they were made in – whose tone is as consistently shrill; there are also only very few films where the main character has a major freak-out because she’s convinced her husband’s manservant has ONLY PRETENDED TO POUR WINE FOR HER (insert DRAMATIC MUSIC and ZOOMS ZOOMS ZOOMS here!), which honestly is the point where our dear Susan gets her first big breakdown. Who’d have thunk Erika Blanc staring at a girl really hard and whispering “You’re crazy! You’re crazy!”, and a guy not pouring wine could be this effective?

The acting is on par with the writing too (is that artistic unity, or what?), with Nelli portraying Susan as a gibbering emotional wreck on the slightest provocation, Muller making all the evil faces a career of playing the bad guy had provided him with, Blanc looking really, really annoyed – unless when she’s rubbing a man’s face and shoulders, which is this film’s apex of eroticism and her face turns to looking slightly less annoyed – and Gordon Mitchell. Well, and we all know how Gordon Mitchell gets when a director tells him to really let loose with his acting, don’t we?

And this all happens before the film’s final twenty-five minutes or so hit, and the titular vengeance of Lady Morgan finally starts. You see, right at the moment when the evil conspirators have managed to drive Susan to death (spoiler, I guess), Pierre suddenly remembers everything, and promptly returns to Susan’s ancestral home where he and Susan’s ghost proceed to have face and shoulder-rubbing ghost sex, after which she tells him how she spooked her murderers into killing one another with her awesome powers of blowing out candles, turning whiskey into water, letting little smoke explosions off, blowing up a vase, stealing shoes, and whispering. Said conspirators of course treat all this as if it were the height of the scare; well, and reason to kill one another, of course. Oh, and afterwards our now dead bad guys have turned into some kind of ghost vampires keeping themselves undead with the blood of Uncle Neville, whom they had stashed in the cellar when they were still alive to give Gordon Mitchell somebody to whip. Nope, I got nothing.


What I do have is a healthy respect for the grand gestures Pupillo uses to treat the piddling and harmless supernatural phenomena he’s got in his budget, trying and failing merrily to turn that bloody exploding vase into a real event, pretending that all that screaming and shouting through a very limited number of generally overly lit sets were actually utterly horrifying. And really, if I have to watch some third row Italian Gothic made by people who were neither named Bava, Freda or Margheriti, or just plain crazy, I rather prefer a film like this that’s desperate to provide me with all the entertainment it can afford.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

In short: Wild Tales (2014)

Original title: Relatos salvajes

This anthology movie directed by Damián Szifron tells six tales in which mostly members of the upper bourgeoisie (or the stinking rich, as we cell ‘em around here) encounter extreme events that often drive them to rather extreme behaviour. For example one of the tales sees a woman (and the only poor protagonist) encounter the man who drove her father to suicide, her problematically helpful colleague suggesting she might want to apply some rat poison to his meal. Another concerns an architect and expert for the demolition of buildings getting really angry about…having to pay his parking tickets. Another one tells of the highly complicated business negotiations needed to buy one’s son out of hit-and-run trouble.

In tone, these stories tend to the highly sardonically and blackly humorous, usually leading the protagonists through a short series of escalating suspense set pieces of a cynical yet usually exciting bend Hitchcock would probably have approved of (and wished to have made his films in a time and place where he could have gotten away with some of this stuff). Szifron is technically highly accomplished, using the sort of slick direction you could imagine in a high class car commercial, quite consciously making the cynical and harshly satirical plots look sexy, which does at the very least produce the pretty satisfying frisson of a very well told, though pretty bitter, joke.

There is, quite obviously, rather a lot of critique of the bourgeoisie in the modern world involved, though the film’s cynical approach to the matter does leave this critique rather on the surface level, putting too much distance between audience and characters to get much more than entertained sneers as a reaction.

For my taste, the second half of the film is a bit weaker than the first one, the stories there going on a bit longer than the earlier ones in ways their set-ups can’t necessarily carry. Particularly the parking ticket episode is weak, chaining the viewer to a whiny, self-centred asshole for what feels like hours for way too little pay-off.


Wild Tales is still a fine, fun, film, at least on one of those days when one feels rather more misanthropic than usual.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

OSS 117 - Mission for a Killer (1965)

Original title: Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117

Everyone’s favourite secret Cajun agent, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Frederick Stafford) aka OSS 117 finds his R&R in the Alps rudely interrupted by another mission. Apparently, the number of terrorist attacks on Important People™ has risen considerably in the last couple of months. Responsible for all the – mostly suicidal – attacks are perfectly common people without any radical political backgrounds or histories of violence. 117’s higher ups have found out that the killers have been mind-controlled with the help of some sort of drug, and have traced that drug’s production to Brazil, and of send our hero there.

In Brazil, OSS is first to contact his local colleague, gather information and go villain hunting according to whatever this information may suggest. Unfortunately, said colleague turns out to have been nearly killed in the sort of “accident” that can happen when somebody blows your car up with a grenade, and the villains of the piece are rather keen on scratching the “nearly” from this sentence. While they are at it, they’re also trying to murder 117, which turns out to be rather more difficult than they seem to have expected.

Our hero for his part clearly follows the standard eurospy movie agent tactics of punching guys and flirting with women, knowing full well that this will eventually lead him where he wants to go, as the genre conventions prescribe.

In this third movie in the 60s version of the adventures of OSS 117, and also the third directed by André Hunebelle, Frederick Stafford replaces Kerwin Matthews in the title role, and I rather liked him in this one. Sure, I doubt, as with nearly all eurospy heroes, that his flirtatious moments would charm anyone (call me the eternal optimist), but he’s really rather convincing at portraying the more ruthless man of action side of the character, while looking good enough in a suit to still work in the kind of society spies move in this sort of film.

Mission for a Killer, like most of the OSS 117 series, belongs to the relatively classy arm of Eurospy movies that can’t keep up with the budget of a James Bond outing but clearly aren’t made out of cardboard and spit. There are actual production values, like partial location shoots in Brazil, and a script that has problems but is generally coherent and sane inside of the rules and regulations of the non-realist spy film. Hunebelle, despite not being one of the revered French masters, was a pretty great genre director, when it came to swashbucklers and action-based spy movies at least, staging all sorts of inventive action scenes between rough punch-outs and somewhat ambitious semi-mass fights. He is particularly great at using the locations as actual physical spaces, demonstrating an eye for verticality that is often curiously lacking in directors (or not so curiously when a film simply can’t afford to use it).

Plot-wise, this is pretty much bread and butter Eurospy business, with the usual reversals and betrayals, the obligatory capture of the hero, and so on and so forth, but it’s all well-paced and carefully enough constructed if you are willing to buy into the basics of how espionage works in Eurospy films (and if you don’t, you’re probably not exactly the audience for this write-up or the film), and makes for a fine time when combined with Hunebelle’s skills and a glass of wine or two.


Politically, there is of course something a bit dubious about a film that has its hero fighting off revolutionaries against the Brazilian government, including a bunch of paratroopers landing to rousing music, just the year after a coup d’état in the real country that replaced a democratically voted-in government with what would become a twenty year military dictatorship. However, the novel this is based on was written in 1955, and I don’t really think the filmmakers were trying to do propaganda work here, and more being a bit careless with the real world their film has very little to do with anyway. In this context, the portrayal of the revolutionaries is actually rather fitting, and pretty damn funny, for the film seems to go out of its way to not give them an actual political stance while still using the popular version of revolutionary iconography with them. So there’s not a single actual political statement made by any of these guys. Instead, we get vague speeches about The Revolution that completely leave out for what and against what they are fighting in what I can only see as a truly awkward attempt by the filmmakers to have their cake and eat it, too.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

In short: Bliss (2019)

Painter Dezzy (Dora Madison) is suffering from a bad case of artist’s block that has left her unable to paint anything for quite some time now, which in turn leaves her unable to pay her bills. Dezzy’s life is a huge mess, and she’s clearly one of those artists who believe that good art can only come from the ecstasy of self-ruination, so what better way to recapture her creative spirit than go on a giant bender.

Once she tries a new drug called “bliss”, things get a bit weirder than on your usual drug bender, though, and she is plagued by intense hallucinations, even more aggressive mood swings than seem typical for her anyway, as well as a violent lust for blood that makes a woman’s social life rather problematic. On the positive side, her creativity is rekindled.

After the pretty great The Mind’s Eye and its attempt to make something like Cronenberg’s Scanners but more ecstatic and more like an old school VHS cover, Bliss with its intense, colour-drenched phantasmagorical bad drug trip visuals must have seemed like the logical next step to take for director Joe Begos. For my tastes at least, the way the film visually and acoustically assaults the viewer with colours and noises as if it were directed by Gaspar Noé’s more unhinged brother is quite the success, turning the resulting film into something very special indeed.

As a blood-drenched meditation (if you can call something that screams in your face for eighty minutes a “meditation”) on the vagaries of art and the joys and horrors of self-destruction, and the kind of vampirism that’s nasty like cannibalism instead of sexy like a teen vampire, this is quite the film, throwing itself at an audience with the same abandon as Dezzy at drugs or a throat, and Madison at her role, for that matter. I’m not generally a big fan of the “artists need to suffer” theory of art, but one doesn’t have to be to find something of interest in the film, for Dezzy is neither being shown as a role model nor as a clear cautionary tale. Bliss is simply conveying intensities, moods and ideas concerning this theme and letting the battered viewer sort it out all for themselves.


With this the film may rub quite a few viewers the wrong way, I imagine, presenting pretty much the opposite of slow horror yet also spitting blood in the face of fun horror only out for “scares”, and probably also alienating quite a few viewers through its sheer aesthetic abandon. But then, I really cannot see how else Begos could have told this particular tale quite this effectively without going all out in all kinds of ways. I’m very happy he did.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Door Lock (2018)

Original title: 도어락

Kyeong-min (Gong Hyo-jin), working the white collar version of a menial job as a bank clerk, has rather as sad existence. She seems beaten down by all the small and large indignities of being among the working poor and being a woman, with little of a life outside of a job she clearly doesn’t enjoy. As far as we’ll ever learn, her much more assertive colleague Hyo-joo (Kim Ye-won) is her only friend. And a rather good one at that, as the course of the movie will show. These days, Kyeong-min is feeling even worse than usual. Each morning, she wakes up with a headache, and a dizzy feeling that won’t go away until her working day has progressed quite a bit. Something about her home isn’t quite right either. The electronic door lock to her apartment is acting up, objects sometimes seem to be not quite where she thinks she left them - small things that will eventually add up to a rather nasty bigger picture.

We the audience do at this point know a little more about Kyeong-min’s situation already. Some male creep has somehow acquired the code to her door lock, hiding under her bed when she comes home, drugging her, putting her to bed and jumping in, naked, beside her after a good long shower, in a crazy way pretending she is his girlfriend.

Kyeong-min doesn’t quite realize all of this, but a lot of those small, wrong, details do add up to the idea that someone is stalking her – someone who somehow has access to her place. The police, sadly not surprisingly, aren’t initially much help to her (and will for a time later become another group of shitty men who make trouble for her), but as lacking in confidence as Kyeong-min is, she – with the help of Hyoo-joo – starts to investigate for herself what’s actually going on when push comes to shove. Things will get much worse before there’s any hope for them to get better, however.

Nominally a South Korean remake of Jaume Balagueró’s Sleep Tight, Lee Kwon’s film is really a completely different film only sharing the very basics of some of its set-up and the job of the villain of the piece. Its structure is completely different, shifting the audience’s viewpoint character from the stalker and serial killer to his newest victim, and then using this shift to turn a tale where we watch a creepy man being very creepy indeed into a thriller about a woman finding a degree of independence fighting for her life not just against a creepy man but all the other shitty men populating her world.

Obviously, the film fits rather nicely into the ideological zeitgeist in the times of #metoo, but there’s nothing cynical about Kwon’s film. Rather, it genuinely sets out to create empathy for Kyeong-min and her travails, as well as perhaps a broader understanding of where they come from using a the thriller format with its need for heightened emotion. It’s not a propaganda style affair (which always does tend to smell of ideology more than actual human insight), but one where a basic plot, a director’s (and co-writer with Park Jeong-hee) world view and a genre structure come together to organically say something about the state of the world, making an audience understand injustice and indignity by showing it how these things feel, but also demonstrating practically how they can shape people – for better or worse. In this way, the killer’s not really the thematic point of the film but rather a symptom of the whole situation its heroine is in.

Because all of this happens so organically, Door Lock does also have the opportunity to be a rather fantastic example of the thriller form, Lee using pretty much every trick in the genre book to ratchet up the tension, and to dramatically escalate our heroine’s situation whenever she seems to find a degree of security. There are a handful of true showstopper sequences, with Kyeong-min’s and Hyo-joo’s discovery of the killer’s lair as well as the finale in an empty hotel out in the country being particular highlights among many. Obviously, you can take the usual high standards of acting and general filmmaking in South Korean cinema as a given here, too.


All of this adds up to one of my favourite thrillers of the last decade, and a great example of how to fuse a social and political message with very exciting genre business.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: We'll do it every year..until we get it right

Home for the Holidays (1995): It’s a bit of a shame that Jodie Foster has been doing only a little direction work in her career, for she’s a rather great director, in the unassuming way that treats the job of a director as mainly concerned with helping a script and the actors bringing it to life breathe; there’s really no vanity in her direction here but a lot of focus. The ensemble cast – led by a typically wonderful Holly Hunter – clearly thanks her for it, going through family relations painful, loving, complicated and darkly funny with the same focus. One might say that a film about a holiday bringing together a disparate bourgeois family and letting the cracks show isn’t exactly news (and wasn’t in 1995 either), but Foster is excellent at turning the commonplace and unspecific concept of “bourgeois family” into something very specific. And you know what they say about unhappy families.

The She Beast (1966): This first of three full features in the tragically short career of director Michael Reeves is a bit of a mess, clearly having difficulties deciding if it is a comedy, a gothic horror film, some kind of satire, or a mixture of all of these things. Seen separately, any given scene – particularly those indebted to Italian gothic horror - shows Reeves’s talent, but they never truly cohere into a full film. There are also some peculiar decisions: why hide Barbara Steele, who is basically playing the same kind of role she did in a lot of Italian gothic horror films, under a conceptually creepy but actually pretty crappy looking mask when her possession is really taking hold, when her body of work already shows that she doesn’t have need of this sort of thing? Is the fearless vampire hunter supposed to be a rip-off of Polanski’s film? What is it with witch possession and lakes?


My Neighbour Totoro (1988): This is one of the younger skewing Miyazaki Ghibli films with a couple more moments that seem more childish than childlike than in most of Miyazaki’s work. However, apart from looking pretty damn beautiful, this also features some of the most beautiful depictions of childlike wonder I’ve ever encountered, as well as a deft portrayal of children as actual children. And as with all things Miyazaki, there’s also a knowledge of the sad realities of life in the film. Not one that ever overwhelms it, its wonder, or its child protagonists, but one that very well knows that everything’s eventual, yet beautiful and important because of that. Plus, there’s the cat bus, and how can anyone not love a movie containing that?

Friday, February 28, 2020

Past Misdeeds: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

The end of the first G.I Joe movie left Cobra agent Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) perfectly positioned for further evildoing – and revenge - by leaving him stranded in his new position as the fake President of the US of A (Jonathan Pryce). Consequently, using his awesome presidential powers of ordering illogical death traps and making up non-existent evidence by TV declaration (realism in the land of G.I. Joe!), he leads G.I. Joe into a trap, where most of the team is killed and their good name besmirched with their supposed responsibility for the assassination of the Pakistani president and an attempt to steal the country’s nuclear arsenal. However, among the characters we know and dislike/love from the first film, we only get to see Channing Tatum’s Duke die on screen, so there’s room left for a return of Scarlett and so on in the next sequel, if their actors’ careers are on the needed downward spiral.

However, the only Joes left standing for now – or the only Joes that concern us – are Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and of course super ninja Snake Eyes (still Ray Park) who was off in Japan on ninja business concerning the training of Jinx (Elodie Yung), the non-evil cousin of Snake Eyes’s part-time arch enemy and childhood ninja rival Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee).

While the Joes are picking themselves out of the wreckage, Storm Shadow frees Cobra Commander (now Luke Bracey), who at once proceeds to set in motion a frightfully complicated and silly – which is to say totally normal for him - plan to attain world domination. Fortunately, the surviving G.I. Joe members, Jinx and the original G.I. Joe General Colton (Bruce Willis earning lunch money) are there to save the world by shooting people and blowing stuff up.

Despite the big deforestation manoeuvre the film pulls on the more up-market actors from its predecessor, I actually think Jon M. Chu’s Retaliation is the better movie. At least, I felt myself highly entertained throughout its running time. The things to be said against the first attempt at getting every American middle-aged guy’s favourite toy/comic/cartoon show onto the big screen do of course still apply - namely that it’s stupid and exclusively makes canon changes of highly dubious merit. One might even argue the bad guys’ plans here are even more silly this time around, but to make up for that, the action here is decidedly more fun to watch. Plus, if you don’t want something silly, you’re probably not going to watch a G.I. Joe movie anyhow.

Chu makes good use of the opportunity the film’s two-pronged Snake Eyes & Jinx/Roadblock, Lady Jaye & Flint storyline offers for action diversification, so you get your firefights, your ninja stuff, your ridiculous chases, and your heavy ordnance, with no repetitions in style or content apart from people dying in imaginative manners, things exploding, and no dialogue scene taking longer than a few minutes before people get shot again.

My personal favourite among the action scenes is Snake Eyes’s and Jinx’s fight against Cobra ninjas on a mountain side, including grappling hooks (well actually ninja grappling hook pistols, but who cares), swords, video game inspired gymnastics and a ninja-made avalanche, and if that sounds like your thing, it’s pretty obvious you’ll like the rest of the film too. Stylistically, Chu’s direction of the action sequences is decidedly on the modern and technical side, but there’s the focus and the flow to the action scenes that’s often missing in films that go for the state of the technological art on the direction side.

The whole shebang (with a heavy emphasis on the “bang”) is grounded by an acting ensemble that – like the actors in the last film – does not mind being in a movie with a silly plot pretending to be badasses and weirdoes, with The Rock/Johnson and Palicki making likeable and charismatic heroes. Johnson proves again he’s the one among the current former wrestlers turned actors who actually belongs in front of a camera (or does anyone really prefer “Lukewarm” Steve Austin?), and Palicki recommends herself for all kinds of superhero and ass-kickers roles, if Hollywood would just care. It’s also pretty nice to see a US mainstream action film that actually has competent fighting women on the side of the good guys, none of whom needs to be rescued all of the time, without feeling the need to permanently defend their presence against the assumed idiots in the audience.

Pryce gives a hell of a course in scenery chewing, out-Vosloo-ing Vosloo in the first one, and Willis is Bruce Willis, elderly action hero, the role he was born to play. The only weak point here is Cotrona’s Flint, and I don’t think I should blame the actor for it, for there’s just little reason for him to be in the film at all, with the character doing nothing of dramatic import and not much more on the ass-kicking side. He’s there to make up the numbers and look pretty, I suppose.


This leaves us with a fine example of the slightly more up-market loud, mildly dumb and pleasantly silly US action movie, a genre that seemed dead just a few years ago but now is alive, kicking, and walking away from the explosion in slow motion as is its birthright. Me, I salute it, and liked G.I. Joe: Retaliation so much, I didn’t even include a paragraph here moaning about the RZA cameo despite my dislike for people who got famous in one art form then buying their way into a different one through their popularity, taking roles away from people who can actually act. Oh well, next time.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

In short: Carnage Park (2016)

A very bad day at the small town bank trying to get life-saving money out of an ass turns even worse for farmer’s daughter Vivian (Ashley Bell) when she is taken hostage by Tarantino wash-out gangster “Scorpion” Joe Clay (James Landry Hébert). Joe Clay’s day then gets even worse – though much shorter - than hers when his partner dies from wounds incurred during their little bank heist and he ends up driving them right into the territory of a Vietnam vet serial killer (Pat Healy) with a rifle and a nasty streak.

Of course, it’s Vivian who will have to survive a series of chases and fights against the madman, through the desert, the kind of ramshackle huts all movie killers love, as well as some really unhealthy looking mines. Fortunately, she will turn out to be rather tougher than she looks.

All of the movies of director Mickey Keating seem to be made with a pretty specific model of a different genre and period style in mind. In Carnage Park’s case, we are quite obviously in the land of 70s exploitation horror cinema. Keating, despite production design quite in the proper grimy style, and using a digital colour scheme meant to evoke the yellowing prints many of us have watched movies of the era in, is not a mere imitator either here or in any of his films, always using elements, details in the characterization, and so on that ground his films very much in the decade they are made in instead of going for exclusive retro cool.

Keating’s editing style is certainly of our time, his use of cross-cutting to short flashbacks pretty much the opposite of period approaches to storytelling, his editing making the film’s pacing much faster than typical of the 70s. To my eyes, rather than being retro, the film seems to create a sort of dream-version of 70s horror that mixes some of the best of that decade’s style with some of the best of today’s.


Carnage Park is certainly one of the director’s less abstract movies, really going all-out in telling a traditionally exciting tale, using some of the somewhat psychedelic visual tricks for exploring his female protagonist’s inner life that seem central to his other films, but ending up with a rather more straightforward suspense piece than one might expect going in. That’s not a criticism, mind you, for while I do like my abstract arthouse horror, a rather well-done exercise in suspense by a director usually tending to abstract arthouse horror is a nice thing, too. Particularly since Keating turns out to be rather good at this sort of thing too, adding a more direct sense of tension his other movies tend to lack. Why, he even makes a climax that’s mostly taking place in the dark work as much more than a statement of intent.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

Original title: カメラを止めるな!, Kamera o Tomeru na!

Warning: Structural spoilers are really unavoidable here!

A director (Takayuki Hamatsu) is shooting an extremely low budget zombie movie in this sort of thing’s natural environs, an abandoned industrial building. He’s clearly just a wee bit shy of a complete violent breakdown, which will certainly turn out well once the zombie movie shoot is inevitably attacked by actual zombies (whose appearance will turn out to be his fault, of course).

After 35 minutes or so of great, slightly weird, and often pretty funny and inventive shoestring budget zombie movie fun, the film cuts back one month to reveal that what we have just seen is the product of an insane offer made to mild-mannered director, who prides himself on his averageness to boot, Takayuki Higurashi (hey, it’s Takayuki Hamatsu again!). The newly minted Zombie Channel wants the director to make a short zombie movie to be broadcast live and filmed with only one camera without any edits. Higurashi isn’t really the guy who takes creative risks, but since his relationship to his daughter Mao (Mao) is a bit strained, and her favourite hot young actor of the moment (Kazuaki Nagaya as Kazuaki Kamiya) is going to be cast as the male lead, he is willing to, for once in his life. All kinds of craziness ensues.

Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead isn’t just that most rare of things, a funny zombie comedy, it is also that even rarer thing, a film about filmmaking that doesn’t disappear down its own ass. In fact, one of the greatest and most riveting things about this utterly brilliant piece of filmmaking is how little it tries to praise the lonesome auteur out to make some art (or “real cinema” as suddenly grumpy old man Marty Scorsese would probably say) but is interested in the creative craziness of art that can just happen when hired hands, bystanders roped into important roles, and people just trying to do their jobs as well as they can come together, not in a purposeful gesture to create something for the ages, but while trying to just get something together that hopefully doesn’t suck, somehow falling in love with it and the process of making it.

And really, unlike all those very serious films about filmmaking you’ll encounter in most “best films of all times” lists, One Cut is a much more successful and believable argument for filmmaking as a thing of pain (half of its jokes are based on things going very wrong indeed, after all) and of great joy, a paean to the creative spark that is utterly convincing exactly because it doesn’t want to convince us of anything. It just is.

For a film that is as much about spontaneous craziness as this one, it is also brilliantly constructed, setting up jokes in the first five minutes that’ll pay off wonderfully an hour later, and not afraid to follow the exhilarating zombie movie inside of the movie with what feels like a very slow series of sequences that introduce the characters and their foibles. A series of sequences that will turn out to be completely indispensible for what follows, not just setting up further jokes down the line (and there are so, so many utterly hilarious jokes in here) but also creating compassionate and pretty damn heart-warming character arcs I really wouldn’t have expected from this sort of project at all. For One Cut is also that rare kind of comedy that truly seems to love its characters, prepared to let them suffer indignities but also always genuinely on their side.


Add to all this Ueda’s great inventiveness when it comes to physical comedy as well as to the somewhat more cerebral kinds, and you’ll end up with a film that’s as perfect as anything I’ve ever seen. That the whole thing apparently only cost the yen equivalent of $25,000 to make is really just the cherry on top. Or the camera on the human pyramid, in this case.