Thursday, December 7, 2023

In short: The Killer (2023)

A professional killer (Michael Fassbender) botches an assassination attempt. After his middle-man sends people to his home that brutalize his partner, the Killer works his way up to his actual employer.

There’s really very little plot or direct characterization to David Fincher’s The Killer. Fassbender’s character is highly self-contained – or empty – except for a monologue that very pointedly does not really analyse or comment on what’s going on, even though it at first appear to do so. Rather, the repetitious monologue in his head is just another method the Killer uses not to have to connect with the world, to “stay in the moment” in the most nihilist way imaginable, just as he uses his own private The Smiths soundtrack for the same thing.

Everything we learn about the man’s actual inner life, or what little there is of it, the film shows us via the breaks in his facades, the physical injuries that begin to roughen up his slickness, and the way his actual deeds often are exactly the opposite of what his inner monologue never stops repeating. That this works as well as it does has a lot to do with focus: like the character at his best/worst (performance/morals), Fincher’s direction here is fastidious, neat and tidy, absolutely focussed on showing the things his main characters is not telling by insinuation, while always keeping up the appearance of this being a simple straightforward thriller.

This contrast between what we’re told we are seeing and what we are actually seeing does lend the film a surprisingly strong thread of humour. It’s a pretty grim sense of humour, of course, but that’s the only fitting kind of humour for this sort of thing – there’s something inherently funny about a guy telling himself quite as many lies as the Killer does, and a film presenting these lies with such a straight face, but murder is still murder. There’s some conceptual humour here as well: the Smiths as the best soundtrack to assassinate people to, the way the Killer’s philosophy mixes crap nihilism (the kind of nihilism only good for excusing one’s own shittiness with the shittiness of the world or universe) with wellness lingo that suggests a future influencer career for the Killer are things that not just work as elements of showing us a character but are also pretty great jokes, when you think about them for a minute.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The Creator (2023)

Some decades in the future. Somehow, humanity has developed genuine AI instead of the predictive language modelling that makes the hearts of our tech bros all a-quiver, and created various types of AI people. Following a nuclear explosion in Los Angeles for which they make AI as a whole responsible, the US have declared war on AI, not just outlawing its use and creation at home but going to war with anyone who isn’t quite this fond of what amounts to genocide. Particularly parts of Asia have become home to various ways of organic and inorganic people coexisting mostly peacefully.

Now, the US is officially winning its “war” thanks to a huge orbital weapons platform called NOMAD that hangs over Southeast Asia like the hammer of doom. In truth, NOMAD is the only thing that’s actually winning anything for anyone here, so desperate measures are called for when the mysterious scientific mastermind behind much of the AIs’ successes has apparently developed some sort of secret weapon against NOMAD.

To get at this weapon, a small strike force invades an Asian country that apparently isn’t Thailand anymore where intelligence believes the weapon is created. Because the US also want to finally get rid of its creator, they drag embittered veteran Joshua (John David Washington, giving a perfect performance) back in for his experiences in the area the attack takes place in. Five years ago, Joshua was undercover with the AI people, married to the scientist’s daughter Maya (Gemma Chan), and clearly teetering on the edge of changing sides for good. A botched attack killed Maya and their unborn child, and left Joshua rather unwilling to take part in much more of this.

Now, the military dangles Maya’s supposed survival in front of Joshua like a carrot. During the incursion into not-Thailand – which consists in large part of the US soldiers slaughtering civilians, AI (which aren’t “real” by their definition) or not – Joshua manages to get at the weapon the military is so wild about. The weapon, it turns out, is an AI that looks like a child. Instead of delivering Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), as Joshua will soon call her, to the Americans, he takes her on the run, in the hope she will lead him to Maya. Obviously, he is now hunted by all sides of the conflict.

For my tastes, Gareth Edwards’s The Creator is a wonder of a big budget science fiction film that squeezes in the mandatory amount of – pretty great – action set pieces but stays thoughtful and focussed on the things it wants to say throughout.

Much of the film’s quality lies in the ability of its director to use the spectacular production design and effects to do much of the world-building heavy lifting. Consequently, all the pretty things we are looking at here are not only meant to look cool – though they certainly do – but also fill out all of the details that turn abstract ideas into a living world.

This fits in nicely with the often hyperrealist direction style Edwards uses, putting less emphasis on a sense of wonder than of the film as showing a lived reality where things that should put the inhabitants of its world to wonder and awe are just parts of an often dirty day to day struggle. Because yes, this is the kind of science fiction that’s not just of its time but very much about its time, using echoes of the Vietnam War and all of those military “police actions” that so seldom seem to achieve what they are supposed to, but leave a lot of innocent people dead, to talk about sometimes surprisingly complex ideas about the nature of violent conflict and imperialism.

We still get a proper Hollywood ending where shit blows up, mind you, just one the film trusts its audience to understand in context; it is also one that doesn’t shy away from showing even such things to have a price. We’re meant to cheer in the end, but we’re also meant to understand what exactly it is we are cheering, and what has been lost for it.

In general, the film trusts its audience rather more than is the fashion right now, not just in us understanding the ending, in understanding the parallels of its world to the here and now, but also in understanding the more subtle elements of its politics and how these are part of the actions of its characters. Thus, even the genocidal military people are allowed to make sense as people, and the film never exactly becomes some triumphant thing about heroic rebels struggling against oppression, but emphasises the price in guilt and violence and loss of even the best of ends.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

In short: Psychic Vision: Jaganrei (1988)

Original title: サイキックビジョン 邪願霊

A small crew is shooting documentary footage about the idol business, specifically the production of the new single of idol Emi, a song with the somewhat curious title of “Love Craft”. There’s something strange about the song, or rather, the music itself, and the production is soon haunted by minor supernatural troubles that seem to be connected to the melody. Nobody seems to really know who wrote the music, or rather, those few who might know seem rather reticent to tell. Our intrepid female lead reporter does eventually finds out the music was written by a woman who committed suicide shortly after she finished the song, which connects in a somewhat disquieting manner to the strange appearance of a ghostly woman in the background of various shots of the documentary.

Supernatural anger will to come to a head on a production run though for the “Love Craft” music video.

Jaganrei, directed by Teruyoshi Ishii, was POV horror of the fake documentary style before that was a defined subgenre, even though of course far from being the first fake documentary. It is astonishingly good at prefiguring much of what came after in its POV horror subgenre. Ishii creates a feeling of real verisimilitude. From the empty business talk of the suits creating Emi and her image, to the girl’s professional sound bites and fake smiles whenever a camera points her way, the film has a wonderful feeling of authenticity that grounds its handful of supernatural events in a very believable world.

These bits of supernatural business already include a bit of the “blink and you’ll miss it, until we repeat it” tactics that would become so important for later Japanese direct-to-DVD (etc) POV horror, and uses that trick effectively, producing tension with simple (and cheap) tactics without feeling simplistic.

It’s a lovely, short forty-nine minutes of period detail and spookiness, and thus highly recommended.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

Warning: spoilers for pretty damn obvious revelations ahead!

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is still going about his very particular kind of vigilante business, now spending time as a Lyft driver to observe humanity, and, this viewer can’t help but think, find either some people in trouble, or people he can sadistically punish for making trouble for others.

Helping out the elderly, breaking the bones of rapists and scaring a kid from the apartment house McCall owns straight doesn’t quite make for the needed action quota – these aren’t the 1970s anymore – so one of McCall’s few genuine friends, CIA analyst Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) is murdered. The deed at first appears to be a break-in gone wrong, but McCall soon enough figures out there’s actually a mildly complex conspiracy involved.

Some people from McCall’s intelligence wet work past are channelling their violence in much worse ways then our vigilante does, and Susan stumbled onto their trail. If you’re surprised that McCall’s former best bud and partner (Pedro Pascal) is one of them, you’ve never seen an action movie or thriller in your life.

I really didn’t get along with the first Equalizer movie, a movie that seemingly doesn’t realize that its hero is more of sadistic serial killer than your typical movie vigilante (who are typically already sadistic and murderous enough), and finds him being cruel incredibly cool. Someone seems to have explained things to director Antoine Fuqua in the meantime, however, for the second Equalizer goes out of its way to emphasise McCall as someone who uses violence as a means of protection much more than one of punishment. There’s still a degree of sadism to the way he goes about things but not more of it than is to be expected from a contemporary action movie, and the film doesn’t seem quite so in love with this aspect of the character as the first one was.

Atypically for a big budget action film made in the last couple of decades, The Equalizer 2 leaves a lot of space for emotion and character development demonstrated through calm and curiously quotidian – at least for the kind of person McCall is – interactions between our protagonist and the various people he encounters, helps out, or brutalizes. This does the film and its main character a world of good, because it builds actual relationships between him and the world he inhabits, and so puts effort into selling the good he does as much as his badassery/violent temper. From time to time, the film does stray in the direction of the Very Special Episode here, but thanks to Washington and a fine supporting cast, it never quite gets there.

This looser structure and calmer pace also demonstrate a side of director Antoine Fuqua I didn’t expect – an ability to focus on the important parts of human interactions and a degree of patience and restraint his filmmaking usually lacks. I really didn’t think this particular director had much beyond “able to get along with Denzel Washington” to offer, but turns out that, given the right material, he can make a genuinely good movie.

Even once the action starts, Fuqua eschews his typical showiness in favour of mostly controlled set-pieces that don’t need overwrought editing or obfuscating camerawork and instead draw much of their power from an ability to put the audience beside the characters in what feel like actual physical places, which to me is still one of the important elements of an effective action sequence.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: Now You Will Believe…

Night Skies (2007): Like Manchester, The X-Files have so much to answer for. To wit, this alien abduction thing about an RV full of unlikeable twats getting molested by aliens while the Phoenix Lights are doing their little dance. Jason Connery also pops in as an ex-marine trucker, because why not.

The script is sluggish and dumb, the characters unlikeable but not interesting, and director Roy Knyrim directs like someone who started their career with an Insane Clown Posse video. Admittedly, the big – theoretically gory - abduction and probing sequence is pretty funny, but digging through this much crap to reach that tiny nugget of comedy gold would be cruel and unusual.

Satanic Hispanics (2022): This anthology movie by Hispanic horror directors starts strong with a wonderfully strange piece by Demián Rugna, but after that it continues through tales of boring competence and ill-timed attempts at doing comedy that want to be Sam Raimi but only ever reach the effect of a bad third generation carbon copy. It’s a particular shame because most of these directors – apart from Rugna, Alejandro Brugués, Mike Mendez, Gigi Saul Guerrero, and Eduardo Sánchez – have made much superior films.

The Equalizer 3 (2023): But hey, it’s not as if the third Equalizer were any better – it just cost much more money to make. The third movie returns to the unexamined sadism of the first one, the unwillingness to take a long, good look at its hypocritical and self-pitying protagonist, and Antoine Fuqua’s all too typical inability to make a stylistically coherent movie.

Not making any of this any better are showy but uncreative action sequences without flow, weight or a sense of fun, so there’s very little to recommend. Even Denzel Washington is letting the side down with a performance so vain and filled with ill-advised actor business (just take a good look at his use of a teabag during one dialogue scenes), this only needed more shots of pointless and heroic poses to reach Tom Cruise levels of embarrassment.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

In short: Paranormal Surveillance Camera 2 (2012)

Narratively and aesthetically, this second entry into the long-running Paranormal Surveillance Camera POV horror series from Japan is quite a step up from the first one. There is of course still an element of that first movie’s supernatural “Where’s Waldo” game involved – I haven’t encountered a film from Japan in this cheap and cheerful style that doesn’t want us to watch something supposedly creepy again in replay – but new director Satoshi Ishii drags this thing as close to an actual narrative as I expect to get from films like it.

So now, the surveillance camera footage is only the first step in short investigations that always threaten to get heated enough for a twist or an actual plot development but typically peter out with the paranormal investigators shrugging their shoulders and going “I dunno”. In about half of the tales, the film manages an interesting feat, however, in that it seems to tell us fragments of very traditional urban legends we can try to, are even supposed to, puzzle out on our own. It’s a curious sideways approach to narrative, where one or two pieces of a puzzle are supposed to suggest the other ninety or so, or at least creep an audience out with whatever they think might be going on.

It’s very much a parallel idea to never showing the monster. The tale we come up with ourselves will, after all, be more frightening than the one the film could actually afford to tell. Which is at least the theory Ishii seems to be operating from.

In the film’s more involved tales – where, for example, a film of the final breaths of an old man leads to one sad and one creepy revelation – this actually works, at least for me; in its lesser ones, there’s at least the charm of its earnestly dramatic presentation of the most minor “paranormal” events.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

In short: Dark Stories (2020)

This five tale anthology movie is actually a compilation of episodes from a French horror anthology TV show.

In the framing narrative, a woman (Kristanna Loken) staves off death by a particularly crappy looking killer doll by telling the film’s tales until the inevitable “twist” happens. To give the film its due, it’s not “they were dead all along”.

The stories, particularly the first three, tend to have an unfortunate tendency to that kind of “humour” I can’t think about without the quotation marks; they’re also mostly lacking in originality or a decent effects budget.

The first three tales, directed by Guillaume Lubrano, are all, except for the “jokes”, pretty bland and inoffensive stuff, professionally but personality-free in their direction, and perfectly watchable. In the first, monsters the film calls “ghouls” for some reason, draw people into paintings, and supposed hilarity ensues. In the second, a jogger encounters ghosts in a public park and is murdered by a serial killer (spoiler, I guess), the ghosts of earlier victims trying to warn her in the least useful way. Tale number three is some godawful business about a guy who wakes up undead and saves his girlfriend while literally falling to pieces.

Tale number four and five, both directed by François Descraques, are both quite a bit more interesting. One features the travails of a woman who either suffers from sleep paralysis or is haunted by a djinn. This one actually features some effective – if not original - scenes of dream-based horror, flows well to its downer ending and needless shock after, and features some more than decent characterisation to boot.

The final tale, in which the series splurged for Dominique Pinon, is even better. It features Pinon as a farmer who believes that aliens have told him he is the messiah, and the world is going to end soon. He may not be crazy. This one’s actually pretty great, funny (not “funny”) in a dark way as well as demonstrating a degree of imagination in how it uses the messianic elements of UFO lore. It also looks quite a bit better than Lubrano’s tales, and is certainly directed with much more spirit and style.

Which makes this a very mixed anthology. Two great tales, one terrible one, and two blandly boring ones make…a movie that’s made for fast forwarding to the good parts.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

In short: Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023)

Mike (Josh Hutcherson), a fashionably traumatized guy taking care of his neurodivergent sister (Piper Rubio), gets a job as a night-watchman at something called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a half-ruined establishment that still harbours some working weird animatronic more-than-human sized animals. Alas, those somewhat creepy looking things are possessed by the souls of dead children and can get rather murderous.

I’m neither a fan of the FNAF games nor am I part of their – and most probably this film’s – intended audience. This is clearly made with entry level horror viewers or fans of the game franchise in mind, but I do believe the former deserve a more interesting and coherent movie. The film’s script is a total mess, with subplots and characters that often don’t feel as if they were written with kids as an audience in mind but actually written by one – the whole business about Mike’s aunt’s attempts at getting hold of Abby is particularly embarrassing – whereas Mike’s trauma scenes seem to belong into a completely different movie.

Some of the horror scenes are effective enough for what they are – director Emma Tammi can do better as we know – and the animatronic animals look pretty great in motion, but there’s no flow, no character and no personality to either the filmmaking or the film itself, leaving this not just as a product, but as a deeply mediocre product with little of interest to it. Kids deserve a better entry drug.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Music Monday: Every Week Edition

While Google is trying to make the free version of YouTube impossibly annoying to watch I recommend using FreeTube or comparable software and apps to access videos like this.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

The Ninth Gate (1999)

Rich and ruthless collector of books about the Devil Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires sleazy and also pretty ruthless bookhound Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) for a somewhat delicate job: to verify the authenticity of Balkan’s copy of the snappily titled The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. The only other copies still known to be in existence are in the hands of two other collectors, and Balkan is sure that only one of the three copies is actually not a fake – he’s just not sure if his own is the right one.

So Corso is to get access to the other books, find out which of them is the right one, and, if Balkan doesn’t happen to have lucked into the the original, acquire the true Nine Gates by means fair or foul.

Corso is game for a lot of misdeeds, and likes the heap of money Balkan is promising him, so he begins to travel Europe looking for the other copies. On his way, he will get into rather more trouble than he probably expected, stumble upon a number of dead bodies, cultists and dangers to life and limb, and make increasingly immoral decisions, while smoking in the presence of rare books wherever he goes. A Girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) Corso believes to be working for Balkan seems to work as his guardian, ahem, angel, though she has somewhat different plans for him than he initially believes.

Up to this point, I appear not to have written a single word about this meeting of the toxic asshole titans Roman Polanski and Johnny Depp. These men, very much like Corso, are of great talents and dubious personal ethics, which may bother any given viewer a little or very much indeed. Me, I prefer to take the good people like them put into the world while damning them for the bad, but if your mileage varies, I’m not going to blame you.

I like The Ninth Gate rather a lot. In part, I love the chutzpa of turning Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s literary entertainment “The Club Dumas” into the Dennis Wheatley potboiler version of itself, replacing the book’s somewhat mild-mannered mood with a wilder and edgier playfulness.

Yet playfulness this still is. Polanski seems to have a hell of a time going through bits and pieces of Satanic conspiracy thriller tropes, crossing them with elements of hard-boiled detective fiction and watching what pretty sparks fly when you just mash them together like a child with a somewhat destructive idea of fun. This approach lends the film a mood of sardonic humour even before Depp encounters the line of European and American character actors – Jack Taylor and James Russo in one movie! - playing twisted eccentrics who make up most of the cast. This is the noise of a director having fun with his material.

The direct horror elements, and quite a bit of the rest of the movie, do carry a very late-90s kind of cheesiness that actually mixes rather well with the overblown Gothicism of Polanski’s set pieces, especially when set to Wojciech Kilar’s even more overblown – and utterly wonderful – score. There’s an air of deep un-seriousness about the whole affair, yet it is not exactly irony that seems to be the driving force here. Rather, it’s as if the sardonicism of the plot is actually the film’s main philosophy, so that a certain kind of winking sneer is the only appropriate tone for this tale about a pretty horrible little man who either loses the rest of his soul or wins the exact kind of enlightenment that’s appropriate for him.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: When the dead start to walk you'd better start running…

The Dead Pit (1989): Half hokey supernatural slasher, half pocket zombie apocalypse movie, Brett “The Lawnmower Man” Leonard’s feature debut never adds up too much. Between attempts at the nightmare logic of a Fulci and the cheesy one-liners of A Nightmare on Elm Street style slashers at their worst, the film never finds any personality of its own.

The acting is dire, the effects undistinguished, and for every single effective shot, there are three whole scenes that look and feel amateurish. It is a film easy to point and laugh at, if you’re of a mind to, but I never found myself interested enough in The Dead Pit to find much actual joy in doing this.

The Cloned Tyrone (2023): If you can make it through the much too broad first twenty minutes or so, you might find that Juel Taylor’s conspiracy thriller weird pulp comedy has rather more to offer than a handful of obvious jokes – hell, there’s even a good reason why these jokes start off as obvious as they do. The movie manages to apply methods and a comedically heightened version of the style of 70s conspiracy thrillers to the feeling of being black and poor in America, and that role’s truly horrifying and individuality-eating aspects. While it’s at it, it then turns this into the kind of existentialist horror that can make one’s laughter get stuck in one’s throat.

Taylor’s direction is intelligent as well as just clever as a meta-game, increasingly putting emotional weight on characters and situations you wouldn’t have expected to be meant to carry them. That John Boyega, Jamie Foxx and Teyonah Parris make one hell of a core cast doesn’t need mentioning; nor Kiefer Sutherland’s effectiveness as a villain.

The Three Musketeers – Part I: D’Artagnan aka Les trois mousquetaires: D’Artagnan (2023): When in doubt, go back to the classics, as does this umpteenth adaptation of Dumas. This is an update clearly meant for the blockbuster franchise era, so the second half of the film follows in December, there’s a scene in the end credits, and the score is as generically 2023 as you can imagine.

Director Martin Bourboulon is fortunately very good at what he does, mixing modern and original sensibilities effortlessly, keeping close to the same points film adaptations of the Musketeers prefer, while modernising and sexing up the margins. It’s a fun, energetic kind of blockbuster, with a great cast – Eva Green as the Milady, Vicky Krieps as Queen Anne, Vincent Cassel as Athos, and so on – a sense of play as well as one of drama.

Will this be the start of the Musketeeromatic Universe? Will someone eventually adapt “Twenty Years Later/After”? We can only hope/fear.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

In short: Mask of Murder (1988)

Original title: Invastigator

Warning: spoilers ahead, but can you really spoil something this tediously obvious?

A small town in Canada (Sweden). A serial killer with a pillow mask goes around murdering women. On a nightly raid, copper McLaine (Rod Taylor) and his partner Ray (Sam Cook) shoot down a very good suspect whom the audience can indeed identify as the killer, or really, in McLaine’s case, shoot the man when he’s already down. During the course of the firefight, their boss, Chief Superintendent Rich (Christopher Lee) is badly wounded, because Christopher Lee isn’t cheap.

Strangely enough, the murders resume shortly thereafter. Is it a copycat killer? Or has McLaine found out that Ray and his wife (Valerie Perrine) are having an affair and plans a long and boring revenge there’s no possible way for him to get away with?

I’ve liked quite a few films Swedish filmmaker Arne Mattsson made in the 50s and 60s, but this, my first excursion into the handful of entries that make up his filmography during the 80s, is a dire attempt at a return to filmmaking after half a decade’s absence. It aims at mixing elements of the giallo (which makes sense, seeing how Mattsson made films you can see as related to the Italian style decades earlier), the police procedural, and the thriller (non-thrilling division). Alas, the script is flaccid, limping from one badly written scene to the next, with no sense of drama or tension. The supposed surprises feel phoned in, and even a half-awake viewer will see them coming from miles away while the film seems to prefer twiddling its thumbs to causing any excitement in its audience.

The acting, even from the old pros in the cast, is terrible throughout. Most of the cast seem to be sleepwalking – Taylor is particularly bad – and the film is full of painfully dull line readings. Even worse, it is also full of flubbed lines that never should have made it into a finished movie but are left for the audience to gawk at.

But then, Mattsson’s direction feels amateurish more often than not, as well. It is full of bad framing and terrible visual choices, with nothing on screen that would suggest a director with decades of experience in serious popular filmmaking.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Blue Beetle (2023)

Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) has just returned from college to his very quirky, his oh so very very quirky, family in DC’s version of Florida. A college degree means very little apart from student loan when you’re from a brown and poor family – however quirky it may be – so Jaime has a life of crappy servitude to look forward to, like many of us. A series of accidents leads him on the path to Destiny, though, and he’s soon starting in on the superhero business when an ancient alien symbiote chooses him as its new host, turning him into what we’ll just call the Blue Beetle. He certainly has better symbiote luck as his colleagues over at Marvel.

Evil rich white villain Vicoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) wants control over the symbiote to build an army of OMACs – stupidly without the mohawks so important to that role - so Jaime and his oh so very quirky family have a bit of an uphill battle in front of them. On the plus side, Jaime also gets his mandatory love interest in form of Victoria’s niece Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), who, not being white and young and hot, gets a rich but not evil exception.

Angel Manuel Soto’s Blue Beetle is a sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating and generally pretty likeable attempt at a superhero movie, never to be followed up by DC of course. I really do appreciate that it tries to add a bit of talk about class to its typically US-centric thinking about race, and how much it lacks mean-spiritedness even when talking about the groups it is okay to be rather essentialist about when one is in the trenches of the US culture wars. Of course, part of its use of class fantasizes about some inherent goodness and solidarity of the poor amongst one another, which is about as kitschy and untruthful a portrayal of the actual experience of being poor as possible. Fun fact: a lot of poor people suck as much as most rich people, they just don’t have the power to express that as destructively.

On the other hand, I’m now complaining that a superhero movie’s politics are lacking in subtlety; newsflash for me: superheroes aren’t subtle, aren’t meant to be subtle, and should be praised for actually putting some effort into politics beyond mere representation, so Blue Beetle certainly deserves that.

Rather more easy for me to appreciate about the film is its total aesthetic focus on garish neon colours, where nothing isn’t made better by glowing. There’s a verve and energy to the visual style that certainly helps provide the action set pieces with a very individual look and some personality.

Part of that personality is somewhat goofy, but then, one of the script’s main problems is that it wants to be funny more often than it actually is, a problem that isn’t helped by a tendency to repeat jokes in slightly revised form sometimes three scenes after another.

Timing is a bit of a problem for the film in general: some dialogue lines seem curiously misplaced, coming a scene or thirty seconds too early or too late for full effect. There’s a sloppiness here that surprises on this budget level. If this sloppiness is caused by the script or by the film’s editing is anyone’s guess. It’s a bit of a shame, too, for despite my gripes, there’s quite bit of fun to be had with Blue Beetle. If it were a bit tighter, it would probably even be a whole lot of that.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

In short: Fire in the Sky (1993)

This is a dramatization of one of UFOdom’s favourite incidents, when Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), a member of a group of loggers in Arizona disappears in the wilderness. His returning colleagues – as led by Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick) and numbering characters played by mainstays like Peter Berg, Craig Sheffer and Henry Thomas – get back into town only to tell the somewhat unbelievable tale of how Travis was sucked into the sky by a UFO. Police person in charge Frank Watters (James Garner) believes he smells a rat, but he’s not thinking hoax, but rather more ambitiously, murder.

What follows for Mike and his buddies is a bit of a nightmare of press hysteria, public outrage, Watters’s weird ratiocinations, lie detector tests and marriage crises. Until a naked and traumatized Travis appears, apparently without any memory of what happened to him.

Robert Lieberman’s film, long missing from home video until a short time ago, has a bit of a reputation among the cognoscenti. That reputation is mostly built on two scenes – Travis’s abduction and his late movie flashback to his experience with some truly frightening and traumatizing versions of the good old greys. Those scenes are indeed as great as their reputation suggests. Lieberman’s tight direction, a perfect use of some of horror’s favourite colours and note perfect production design come together to form two truly nighmarish moments. The slight variation on the typical Grey design alone would be enough to make the experiment scene great, but as Lieberman shoots it, there’s a special quality of suggested horrors about it that’s indelible.

The rest of the film, on the other hand, is a somewhat sober portrait of a handful of working class men under outside pressures they have no control over, mostly shown via, still very well directed and acted, dialogue scenes. It’s not a bad approach to the material in any way, shape or form, but it certainly isn’t the one you’d expect to encounter in a movie with two scenes like those. If this makes Fire in the Sky a better movie or a worse one will depend on any given viewer’s expectations more than on anything else, I believe. Me, I would have loved to see more of Lieberman’s SF horror stylings, but found myself rather hit by the drama.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

A Haunting in Venice (2023)

Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot has retired from the detection biz to become a sad, rich guy with ridiculous facial hair and very specific culinary obsessions in Venice. He’s more than a little depressed, yet also very unwilling to step back into his old life. However when Poirot’s old friend, the writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) who based her serial detective on him, drags him out of his new private life to partake in a Halloween séance in the supposedly haunted palazzo of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), he can’t quite resist.

Poirot very quickly reveals that the medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) and her two assistants are frauds, as he expected, but he’s rather more troubled by the murders that, also as expected, happen afterwards. During the course of the night, locked in with a good handful of horrible rich people and the hired help with reasons to hate them, Poirot will have experiences that not only put his own abilities in doubt, but also the rational world view he prides himself on.

Though it certainly is not a spoiler to say that Kenneth Branagh’s third Hercule Poirot film will explain the supernatural away in the end, and will reinstate Poirot’s belief in himself on the way as well. Like Death on the Nile, this film is interested in asking questions about the role of the Great Detective, not so much doubts about his abilities or the use and abuse of a very classically humanist idea of rationality but rather the practical use such abilities and principles should be put to. In Branagh’s view, Poirot’s weakness appears to be the detective’s tendency to drift into that realm of pure rationality where the knowledge gained isn’t tempered by compassion, and where Poirot’s attainment of this knowledge doesn’t actually help anyone. So all three of Branagh’s Poirot films see the man confronted with murders not committed out of reasons of pure evil or greed but as result of human tragedies. The cases thus become not only about the Great Detective’s use of his powers of ratiocination, but about how he learns to use them in the cause of justice more than that of the law.

It’s not a very Agatha Christie approach to the formula, if you ask me. As most writers of traditional crime in the “Golden Age” (ha!) style, she showed little emotional investment in the compassionate approach to human tragedy leading to crime (especially when committed by the lower classes), or really, little interest in the murder mystery as more than a neat puzzle.

Clearly, this is not an approach Branagh is interested in, so Poirot ends this third movie as a man with a degree of moral authority, and a degree of humility that’s based on compassion more than anything else. Like any good superhero, he’s getting back to the business of making the life of others perhaps just a little bit better. To me, that’s a rather more interesting approach than mere puzzle solving, but I’ve been known not to be the greatest fan of Christie and her stylistic sisters and brothers, so others might very well be annoyed by this instead of enthused.

Of course, this also affords Branagh with his acting hat on to actually do something with Poirot beyond the always fun preening. In his context Poirot is allowed to doubt and stumble and actually be involved with the people he has come to judge, an opportunity he certainly doesn’t let pass by. In general, A Haunting in Venice feels very much like a film built to give its whole cast something interesting or fun in their characters to work with, and as is usually the case with films that do, everybody puts effort into mildly theatrical and pretty wonderful performances that bring all these flawed rich arseholes with dark secrets to life.

And because this is a Halloween movie, Branagh the director spends much of the film using every traditional – say from the expressionist era to late 40s Universal with perhaps a little visit to Robert Wise’s The Haunting – visual trick of the spooky trade. The shadows are dark and deep, the light of dubious use for visibility but of the greatest for atmosphere, and there’s hardly a minute going by without a perfectly applied Dutch angle. I’d love to see Branagh try his hand at an actual ghost story in this manner, but I’m perfectly happy with the half of one we get here.

So call me an Branagh Poirot apologist, but I do love this third of the man’s Poirot movies just as much as I did the first two.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: Human blood is only the beginning…

Detour aka Snarveien (2009): A Norwegian couple on a booze run in weird and peculiar Sweden (gasp!) end up stranded in a forest, encountering one strange situation after the next. Violent men in gimp suits, a disturbing backwoods family and a cop of dubious trustworthiness are only parts of a very bad night.

Severin Eskeland’s shortish horror-leaning thriller is pretty silly and improbable in its set-up, and obvious in many of its twists. Yet it is also well-directed and effectively paced, and dominated by a handful of very solidly structured and shot suspense scenes, as well as helped along by quite a few fun performances. That’s more than enough to make for a pleasant time of thrills and a bit of violence.

Vampire Virus (2020): This entry into the ever-growing filmography of the apparently indefatigable Charlie Steeds mixes elements of the Lesbian Vampire film with very 80s horror lighting (and a perfectly fitting synth score by Matt Akers), a bit of a male gay romance, some subtext about vampirism as a metaphor for all kinds of societal outsiders, and a bit of blood and gloop. All the while, it keeps to a handful of locations and sets – as typical for Steeds, all looking better than you’d expect or fear, which also always goes for his filmmaking – and has one eye pointed in the direction of proper low budget cheesiness.

It’s pretty great for what it is, even though you won’t confuse Steeds with Rollin, Larraz or Franco.

Impulse (1984): After a pretty shocking call from her mother during which the good lady first berates her and then shoots herself, Jennifer (Meg Tilly) and her boyfriends Stuart (Tim Matheson) return to her small town home. There’s something not at all right in the place: her family – played by people like John Karlen and Bill Paxton – and the rest of the population act very strangely indeed. It seems as if they have lost some of their impulse control, doing whatever comes to mind, whenever they please.

Director Graham Baker portrays the ensuing chaos with a nice eye for the creepy in the familiar and some suspenseful set pieces. There’s a feeling of creeping dread running especially through those parts of the film during which little happens on a surface level.

The film also looks fantastic in a very specific early 80s way that would be lost to films just a year or two later. The only real minus is the conspiracist coda that adds little to the film at hand.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

In short: Skinwalker Ranch (2018)

Most people interested in Fortean phenomena in one way or the other will have heard of the “Skinwalker Ranch”, a property in Utah located in what appears to be located in a hotbed of all manner of strange activity from Navajo-style skin-walkers to poltergeists over UFOs through cattle mutilation – if it’s High Strangeness, people seem to experience it there. If you’ve never heard of the place, have a Wikipedia page.

The place is also known for various attempts to gather data about the occurring phenomena in a scientific manner. Of course, if you believe the people involved – some of which you’ll encounter in Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell’s documentary – the phenomena seemed to purposefully (and rather conveniently, one can’t help but feel) avoid camera lenses and all attempts to measure and understand them, as is such phenomena’s wont.

The documentary itself is a thing of two halves. Large parts of it consist of often very interesting and atmospheric material from a never finished documentary by George Knapp about the place and the surrounding phenomena. These parts are actually wonderful filmmaking, including some rather suggestive material, and while they don’t exactly convince me of the theories of the parties involved, they do certainly convince me that a lot of people have indeed experienced very strange things in the area.

Unfortunately, Knapp’s material, that seems more in the spirit of the better Fortean documentaries of the 70s, is intercut with amateurishly shot footage of the Utah desert in “suggestive” camera angles with Corbell rambling on and on about nothing through a cheap microphone, a couple of interviews that go nowhere at great length, some conspiracy bullshit, and a sit-in on the ranch with its new owner who wants to hide his identity while pontificating about having “a large empire of business interests”, and showing off his watch. Well, and a random cameo by crap pop star Robbie Williams, who, we learn, believes. If you’d cut these scenes out, the whole affair would be 90 minutes of modern folkloric bliss, as it stands, you gotta work for the good stuff here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

In short: The Hands of Orlac (1960)

Original title: Les mains d'Orlac

Self-important but brilliant pianist Stephen Orlac (Mel Ferrer) is on his way to his fiancée Louise Cochrane (Lucile Saint-Simon) when his plane crashes. His hands are destroyed in the crash. Louise convinces genius surgeon Professor Volchett (Donald Wolfit) to save Stephen’s hands. The experimental operation that may or may not be a complete transplant succeeds.

In the following weeks, Stephen turns from his old pomposity to a whiny kind of anguish that quickly turns into paranoia. He believes that something’s not right with his hands. He can’t play piano as well as before anymore, a week after his hands were completely destroyed, so clearly, his hands aren’t his own anymore! Just as clearly, his new hands are those of a strangler who was executed at about the same time of his operation! Why, he suddenly feels the need to strangle the gardener! When his hands get the wrong kind of naughty with Louise, Stephen storms off and rents a room somewhere in shadytown. There, he falls in with magician’s assistant/prostitute Li-Lang (Dany Carrel) and her always nattily dressed magician/pimp Nero (Christopher Lee).

Nero has plans for Orlac, obviously, and for reasons only known to itself, the film is rather more interested in this part of the narrative than the whole strangler’s hands business.

Well, actually, I’m not completely surprised about that, for Carrel and Lee are certainly the two actors in Edmond T. Gréville’s remake of two much superior films – Orlac’s Hände and Mad Love – who seem awake and willing to apply themselves to their roles. Particularly Lee, not an actor given to put much effort into things he deems beneath him but perfectly willing to take a pay check nonetheless, seems to be enjoying himself for a change, and so steals every scene he is in. Perhaps it’s the fantastic fashion sense of the character that kept him on board?

Of course, stealing scenes from Ferrer here is a lot like taking candy away from a baby, for his performance as Orlac is whiny, melodramatic and ineffectual as a portrait of a pianist losing his hands as well as that of a man slowly losing his grip on reality. He somehow manages to never elicit any sympathy for a character that should elicit hardly anything but.

To be fair, the script with its insistence on not making explicit important details and ignoring character motivations whenever possible, is not terribly helpful to him or anyone.

Add to this Gréville’s bland direction, the often sluggish pace and the film’s curious emphasis on its least interesting elements, and you’ll mostly wish to have watched the earlier versions of the material. I certainly did.

On the plus side, there are only few films whose happy end is based on the news that a man executed as a serial killer was innocent.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

In short: She Came From the Woods (2022)

1987. It’s the last day of summer camp in picturesque Camp Briarbrook for the year. While the kids are carted away in a bus that won’t make it far (spoiler?), the counsellors have the usual nightly get-together of teen melodrama, horniness (this being a movie from the 2020s and not the 1980s, little comes of that), spooky stories about the local urban (woodsy?) legend, and, um, a blood-letting meant to conjure said legend up.

That little ritual works out rather well, and soon the counsellors are beset by possession, an invisible, dangerous force, those kids that didn’t make it far, and whatever else the film wants to “homage”.

And with “homage”, I mean rip off without much of a creative direction beyond fandom, for yes, She Came from the Woods is yet another throwback 80s affair whose only independent ideas seem to be to add some diversity to the cast without actually doing anything with that diversity, sprinkle in lots of gratingly unfunny humour, and just copy stuff from better movies.

Among the film’s other problems is a cast of characters that’s much too big to provide space for anyone to become interesting. Because this is the self-conscious kind of throwback, there’s no possibility for the film just accepting or wallowing in the characters’ inherent tropiness either; yet it’s not substantial enough to do anything better.

The script suffers from a much too complicated backstory that gets exposition dumped at the dramaturgically worst possible moment, and is neither clever nor weird enough to need to be that complicated. The plot really only consists of set-up and characters stumbling around stupidly, broken up by occasional murder, so there’s very little here that seems worth of anyone’s time.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Black Castle (1952)

Sometime in the 18th (17th?) Century. Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene), just returned from the business of imperialism in Africa, learns that two of his closest friends have disappeared in the Black Forest.

The place they were last seen is suspiciously close to the estate of one Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Von Bruno is an enemy of Burton and his friends from their colonial adventures, and would have good reason to want to take vengeance on them; he certainly has the lack of scruples to make any such vengeance very cruel indeed. He has, however, never laid eyes on Burton, so Burton decides to pull political strings to go undercover as a hunting guest at the Count’s castle, in the hopes of finding out what happened to his friends, and to hopefully save them from a dire fate.

He gets into rather more trouble than he initially expected, but is helped by his rather egalitarian ways with the lower classes as well as his quick fencing arm. Burton will need all the help he can get, for his motivations are quickly shifting from those of the investigator and possible revenger to a man very much in love with von Bruno’s wife, Elga (Paula Corday). Elga reciprocates very much, for she was married off to her hated husband for political reasons – one can’t help but assume blackmail to have been involved given how much of a villain the guy is. Other complications involve a mute strongman who hates all Englishmen (Lon Chaney Jr.), the mysterious and somewhat sinister Dr Meissen (Boris Karloff), as well as a (non-metaphorical) pit full of crocodiles.

Nathan Juran’s mix of swashbuckling adventure and gothic non-supernatural horror tropes The Black Castle is rather a lot of fun even eighty years later. The script by Jerry Sackheim builds a highly enjoyable castle of tropes that provides opportunity for physical derring-do as well as for gothic melodrama (there’s even some Romeo and Juliet style coma draught business) while Juran – not always the most exciting director – puts a lot of effort into finding the point where the lighter style of the historical adventure movie and gothic horror in the Universal manner meet visually. His use of light and shadow certainly often creates a pleasantly creepy mood that’s very effectively intercut with the handful of scenes where Burton demonstrates his physical abilities. Some very fine sets add to the effect.

The cast is in fine fettle, as well. Greene makes for a believable, rather human, hero, while McNally, Michael Pate as his main henchman and Chaney Jr. milk the possibilities of the gothic swashbuckler villain for all it is worth.

Another of the film’s strengths is its willingness to give its character a second dimension, so von Bruno’s hatred of Burton isn’t completely without reason, and some characters who would usually just do what their evil boss says are allowed to have agency and moral complexity of their own. I was particularly taken with Karloff’s first sinister but increasingly troubled Dr Meissen. Karloff was always able to do sympathetic villains particularly well, and does wonders when he is allowed to play an actual human being like here.

So The Black Castle ends up being a rather wonderful mix of two related but seldom mixed genres that turn out to be as close to my heart in blended form as they are separated.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

In short: Natty Knocks (2023)

A trio of kids and their babysitter (Charlotte Fountain-Jardim), become targets of a small town serial killer (Bill Moseley). His murders are connected to the local urban legend of one Natty knocking nine times, as well as the horrible death of a B-movie actress.

If there’s one thing about the contemporary movie landscape that can get me to whining like one of those silly “superhero movies are the doom of all human culture!” people, it’s that there’s little room for the competent journeyman director anymore, apart from mid-level TV and streaming show work with little creative influence whatsoever. So actually getting a proper new feature film by someone like Dwight “Halloween IV” H. Little is a bit of a treat.

At least on paper it is, for the actual film often feels as if it were held together by sheer willpower more than skill. Little clearly cashes in quite a few cheques from old contacts, thus the decently sized and pleasantly energetic appearances by Danielle Harris and Robert Englund.

At times, Natty Knocks has a pleasantly old-school Stephen King style US horror vibe, using 80s references without actually taking place in the 80s, because this sort of thing comes natural to filmmakers who’ve lived through them; at other times, the script seems to go out of its way to tell a very straightforward, semi-supernatural slasher tale in as overcomplicated a manner as possible. Too many characters need to be kept involved, so there’s too much running back and forth between what’s basically the same scenes from different perspectives for the film ever to feel suspenseful or tight.

From time to time, Little hits on a nice moment of suspense or two, and his straightforwardly, intensely competent style of direction never lets the pace get so slack the film actually becomes boring. Still, there’s a lack of focus here that stands in the way of this ever becoming anything more than decently watchable. Admittedly, this has one of the more fun horror movie bullshit endings I’ve seen; also admittedly, if Natty Knocks had actually been the film to fit this ending, this would have been rather more interesting.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

In short: The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968)

Original title: Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma

Young Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) has spent most of her life in an orphanage. Not a Dickensian one, mind you, but a rather pleasant place with grown-ups who actually are positive attachment figures for her.

Nonetheless, Sayuri is both confused and excited when her long lost family finds her and takes her home. It is not an ideal home, to say the least. Mom’s crazy, herpetologist Dad zips off on an expedition the same day Sayuri arrives, only leaving his snake collection, and Sayuri’s secret sister? Is usually hidden away in an attic room and looks a lot like a snake person. She loves to peep at Sayuri through a hole in the ceiling of our heroine’s room and makes her life a living hell. So much so, the kid is also starting to be plagued by surrealist nightmares.

And because all of that isn’t quite a bad enough time for the girl, there’s also a silver-haired witch haunting the borders of the movie, and some murders to look forward to.

This Daiei horror movie is strictly aimed at kids and adapts some tales by the great mangaka Kazuo Umezu, from the phase of his career when he was involved in creating horror shojo manga (that is horror manga aimed at a teen female audience).

Director Noriaki Yuasa – also the guy responsible for most of the Gamera films of the time – often achieves the proper movie version of the manic, hysterical energy of Umezu’s girls’ horror work. As is tradition in this genre, our virtuous heroine is confronted with indignities, injustices and child-sized horrors and mainly comes through them by keeping her chin up and the innate goodness of her heart intact.

The horrors are certainly not something to disturb a contemporary grown-up, yet there’s an inherent weirdness to the whole tale that makes the film a fascinating and fun experience even for us, the elderly. There’s nary a scene going by where Yuasa doesn’t take the crazier way to portray something as long as he can keep to a beautifully crisp black and white aesthetic at the same time. The dream sequences, looking like Dali meeting Umezu, fittingly enough, are particularly great, suggesting that the really rather square Sayuri must have a more interesting side buried under all her straightforward goodness. They also look not quite like anything I’ve seen before, even actual Dali dream sequences.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

In short: Project Eerie (2023)

Two bored teenagers livestream breaking into a deserted government installation. They find a bundle of secret documents as well as a compilation disc of found footage shorts. The stream of the shorts makes up the largest part of the film. The tales involve a strange incident at a camping ground, some low budget apocalyptica, and some hidden camera fun in a haunted Amish house.

We’re deep in “POV horror as a filmmaking style invented for creative indie filmmakers without money but a – probably long-suffering - family willing to provide houses and backlots as locations” territory. Apparently this is already the fourth movie in this spirit director/writer/producer (/etc) Ricky Umberger has made, and there’s certainly quite a bit to like here.

While the stories aren’t exactly substantial, they are fun little horror stories in a straightforward campfire tale/creepypasta style that never overstay their welcome, escalate cleanly and nicely and feel energetic throughout. Particularly that last bit is certainly thanks to Umberger’s editing style, which never breaks the found footage/POV horror rules but does tend to avoid the tedious bits of set-up and maintenance indie found footage can often lose itself as well as this viewer’s interest in.

Every tale here does have at least one truly creepy (not necessarily eerie, but who’s counting) moment, and at least one clever idea, which is more than enough to carry the somewhat basic narratives to satisfying conclusions.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

In short: Macabre (1980)

Original title: Macabro

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Bad luck apparently comes in twos to Jane Baker (Bernice Stegers). After her lover is decapitated in a car accident and her little son is drowned by his sister Lucy (Veronica Zinny) in the bathtub – though everyone believes that to be an accident as well – Jane spends some time in a mental institution.

When she is released, she moves into a room in the mansion of blind Robert Duval (Stanko Molnar). Robert is attracted to his new tenant, though, surprisingly enough, only in a mildly creepy way. Jane seems to come on to him regularly as well, but generally in ways that suggest she doesn’t understand the concept of “blindness”. However, whenever intimacy seems to threaten, Lucy is visited by a mysterious man who invokes the loudest sex noises imaginable from her. Of course, we the audience have also witnessed her masturbating with the same wattage, so we will not be quite as surprised as Robert when we eventually learn the mysterious lover is actually the head of her dead lover she keeps in her icebox.

Things come to a head (tee-hee) because Lucy can’t stop torturing her mother.

Lamberto Bava’s first effort as a feature director after years of experience as an assistant director for his father, the great Mario Bava, and the great Dario Argento, is a bit of a mixed bag. It is certainly an at times stylish giallo, but not stylish enough to cover up how little is actually happening in much of its first acts. Everything and everyone seems to at least be established twice, so that things move at the slowest possible pace at any given moment.

The final act is a different thing: here, Bava junior very suddenly loses all inhibition. Not only is the narrative suddenly moving like a freight train crashing down a cliff, the film now leaves sense and good taste so far behind, they are somewhere in another dimension. It’s impressive, so much so I can’t even fault the first two acts too much anymore. Their slowness still isn’t necessary, mind you, but the contrast between them and the final act feels like one of those Insidious ghosts suddenly jumping out and screaming in your face turned into a movie.

To skew my critical faculties even more in Macabre’s favour, it ends on a final shot so ludicrous and awesome its existence could be justified by it alone.