Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Knights (2015)

Welcome to a deeply unspecific, randomly multi-cultural feudal fantasy world.

Evil crazy minister Gezza mott (Aksel Hennie) achieves a particularly nasty revenge on feudal lord Bartok (saintly Morgan Freeman) for a snub, leaving Bartok’s son-like retainer Raiden (Clive Owen) to execute his beloved master, dissolving the whole Bartok clan and “disavowing” all his warrior caste knights. Instead of swearing bloody revenge, the former Bartok men fall into lives of menial work and – in Raiden’s case – dissolute drunkenness. Still, it takes years to finally convince even the paranoid Gezza mott (don’t ask me about the names in this one) and his main retainer Ito (Tsuyoshi Ihara) that no revenge is coming from these guys. If only they knew they’re in another adaptation of the Chushingura (or the 47 Ronin, if you prefer), just one that doesn’t bother to mention this pretty damn obvious source.

It’s also not a very good adaptation of said source, and not just because redoing this stuff again means inviting comparison with some of the best jidai geki to come out of Japan, though this surely doesn’t help the film much. Nor is its case improved by the fact it doesn’t really have any new perspective on its material. Which points at one of the film’s main problems, its inability to effectively transplant a story based in a very culturally specific idea of honour and duty (seriously, the philosophical concepts in the samurai code we translate to honour and duty are only very partially related to the way these words are, for example, used in the idealized version of chivalry of the European Middle Ages) into a new environment. In fact, it doesn’t even make much of an effort to do this. Instead of creating a world around the characters where their actions make sense, the film just wildly throws together signifiers of Japanese, Korean and European middle age cultures without ever seeming to spend a thought as to how these things can actually fit together to shape the characters into a form the plot needs. It’s just incredibly superficial, and robs the whole proceedings of any way to anchor its characters emotionally or culturally, and consequently never achieves much of an emotional effect; let’s not even speak of the film making any kind of argument about the things it is supposedly about.

That doesn’t stop Last Knights from making gestures pretending profundity, of course, but if there is anything to find, it is as vague as the world the story takes place in. This superficiality, as well as the hollow pretences of depth, are not exactly a surprise coming from director Kazuaki Kiriya, whose two earlier films both suffered from exactly these problems, as well as from the draggy pace Last Knight shares. Those films also featured surprisingly stilted acting from a theoretically good cast, and this, again, is what you get here from definitely capable actors like Ihara, Owen, and Morgan Freeman, who emote with all the passion of very sleepy old men. Only Aksel Hennie seems to be awake but then, where his on screen partners’ are bored, he’s just terrible; of course, given Kiriya’s dubious success with the other actors, and the atrocious dialogue he has to sprout, I suspect it’s really not his fault.

What did surprise me about Kiriya’s work here is how visually unimpressive the whole film is. Standing quite in contrast to the eye-popping insanity and visual intensity (as I see it, Kiriya’s one possible strength as a director) of Casshern and Goemon this is drab, static and clad in the usual washed-out greyish colours that spare contemporary filmmakers the need to think about the use of colour in their movies, but I spare you, imaginary frequent reader, my usual rant about that this time around.

I’m rather more disappointed with Last Knights than I would have expected, probably because on paper, a multi-cultural (South Korean and Czech production, actors from all over the world, a Japanese director) fantasy version of the Chushingura sounds like a wonderful idea to me. If only the execution weren’t so dispiriting.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In short: Misfire (2014)

Sure, nomen est omen and all that, but apart from ambitions on being honest, I can’t imagine how a film like this really comes into existence. It seems, at least to my eyes, very clear nobody involved here actually wants to have anything to do with it: the actors are sleepwalking, even poor old Gary Daniels doing the “former DEA agent finding things getting personal” bit seems as bored as the film deserves. R. Ellis Frazier’s direction seems about as absent as possible in something that’s supposed to be a finished movie.

I’d talk about the plot, but that would suggest there is any beyond the most perfunctory gestures, or at least that there actually was anything happening, when the only things the film provides are random bits of genre clichés without showing any wish to connect them in any way. In this case, it would even have been an improvement if the whole thing were just a series of mildly craftily connected clichés because that would suggest anyone involved actual cared. Instead, Misfire breathes a heavy air of disinterest and lack of spirit, with the idea of excitement so far beyond it, I found myself drifting away thinking about more interesting things, like tax brackets, while watching it.

Given that this is a direct-to-DVD action movie, one might at least hope for some decent action scenes, but again, nobody involved seems willing or able to provide even the veneer of enthusiasm, and what action theoretically happens stays indeed very theoretical.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Krull (1983)

The Beast, evil ruler of the galaxy, is aiming to add the low-tech, still clinging to the tenets of monarchism, world of Krull to his domain (and probably to push an old, vague prophecy into going his way, which, as pop culture tells us, never ends well). To achieve this lofty goal, our Beast has transported himself and his mobile teleporting fortress of Evil to Krull, and, for all we know, is kicking the planet’s ass.

The planet’s only chance to escape beastly domination is the unification of two – one presumes the biggest? – kingdoms via the marriage of strapping young Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) of Whatever and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) of the other Whatever. Of course, the Beast’s soldiers interrupt the couple’s wedding, kill most everyone except for Colwyn, and abduct Lyssa so the Beast can marry her, and we don’t have to suffer from the possibility of a) an un-kidnapped princess and b) a woman potentially doing anything of import.

You know the rest: older guy instructing our hero, ragtag band of misfits (including Alun Armstrung and Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson before they were famous but doing pretty hilarious death scenes), various dangers, triumph of Good over Evil thanks to the actual flamethrower-like powers of Love.

Ah, for the heady days of the early 80s, when everyone and their mother was trying to follow the success of the first two Star Wars movies by trying their luck at various doomed big budget Science Fantasy productions in the spirit of the kind of tale you’d have found in Planet Stories decades earlier. Now, unlike that gentleman around the corner who’d poo-poo this choice of spiritual source because he only likes serious Science Fiction (don’t ask him about Stalker), I think that’s a perfectly reasonable approach to the genre if you have money to burn for spectacle. Unfortunately, most of the producers, writers and directors making these movies really had no business making them, showing little to no sense of what’s important in this sort of film, what’s bound to be successful, and what’s just stupid.

Case in point is the UK-lead Krull, directed by Peter Yates who made some fine crime films in the 70s but shows no flair for Krull’s material at all, leading to a film that often gets surprisingly little out of pretty awesome set-ups, and drags terribly in between. Of course, Stanford Sherman’s script doesn’t help there either, confusing the quest approach to a plot the film probably is supposed to take - you know the sort, where every seemingly disconnected encounter on the road actually leads the hero to wisdom and/or talks to us about the thematic concerns of a story and the world it takes place in – with a one damned thing after another approach that could only be really effective when directed with a sense of fun and swashbuckling flair. Both not things Yates shows here at all.

It’s a bit of a shame for Krull, too, because the production’s random and slightly confused approach to science fantasy and all things fantastic also leads to quite a bit of the sort of Weirdness I’d usually be all over. And it’s true, if you take some of the film’s random assemblages of episodes independently, there are worthwhile moments in it at least on the level of a very entertaining and dream-like peplum, like the Changeling attack or the Widow of the Web sequence. Unfortunately, they are also, even when they are supposedly the culmination of character arcs, never used with an eye on their connection to the rest of the film, and stay interesting but isolated from everything else that’s going on here. How badly is Krull disconnected? Why, it doesn’t even get the Evil conquered by the Power of Love stuff right, not because the Love as an actual lance of flame shooting out of somebody’s hand is inherently ridiculous (though it most certainly is) but because the film couldn’t be bothered to even establish the love between the Corwyn and Lyssa properly, in part because these two are as lacking in personality as the romantic leads in a classic Hammer horror film, in part because it just doesn’t seem to do the work necessary. See also Corwyn’s super weapon, the Glaive (confusingly enough, not an actual glaive but a star fish shaped throwing weapon), that is of use for about thirty seconds.

The production design in the spirit of European comics and a bit of the inevitable H.R. Giger when it comes to the Beast’s fortress is worth a look though, and when you’re in the mood for two hours of disconnected, sometimes weird, sometimes boring quest science fantasy that never coheres into an actual movie, you might not be too annoyed by Krull. Plus, if you have a bad memory like me, you’ll watch this thing every five years or so because you remembered the film’s weirdness but not how little it does with it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

In short: Interstellar (2014)

Not to sound like the head of the Christopher Nolan Appreciation Society (again), but then, if the guy continues to direct films I really rather massively appreciate, I hardly have a choice, or do I?

Anyway, a few notes on all the things I loved about this particular example for the fact you can indeed make a high budget mainstream Hollywood SF movie that is neither desperately stupid nor full of dishonest bathos (*cough* Gravity *cough*). Not that Interstellar is afraid of writing its feelings big; it does however put a lot of effort into coming by them the honest way, which is to say, by actually building the characters and themes these emotions spring from with great care, and consequently to great effect.

For my tastes, Interstellar is one among a rather small number of earnest-minded big SF movies that also manage to get the balance right between visionary aspirations, a sober view of the way the universe works, and a deeply human(ist) yearning for humanity to be or become more than just mere cogs in a mechanist system. And although this sort of thing of course always threatens to dissolve into an aspirational speech on how great humanity is because it is capable of love (this is after all a film that posits love as a transcendent force as real and built into the universe itself as gravity), the film doesn’t forget that its humanity also is a highly destructive force, at best straining to follow those impulses that transcend the evolutionary struggle for survival. It’s just not all there is; and – even though I’m philosophically a wee bit more pessimistic about humanity as such or love’s grand place in the universe outside the human heart – I really prefer this to the Cold Equations we use as an excuse not to become any better than we are.

That the film is as convincing as it is does of course also have a lot to do with some excellent and nuanced performances, with Jessica Chastain’s grown-up Murph and Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper being able to carry the film’s more problematic scenes through their difficulties. It’s also difficult to praise Nolan’s direction too much, I think. The organic way the plot’s emphasis shifts from Cooper’s plotline to Murph’s, mirroring the film’s thoughts about the connection between the big Out There and the Down Here, using the parallels between their parts of the plot until they unite again in the best way possible. It’s all excellent stuff.

And of course, it’s pretty needless to even mention the quality of the effects, or Hans Zimmer’s score, and so on, because in these more technical aspects, mainstream Hollywood is always dependable. Yet even in the times of the intelligent superhero movie, it’s still not quite often enough that these technical powers stand in service of a film actually worth the effort and the huge amounts of money thrown at it as to not mention this at all.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In short: Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)

Some rather unglamorous parts of Australia – and possibly the rest of the world – are hit by mysterious meteors that turn most of the population into loud zombies of variable speed with a mean disposition. Some of the laws of physics are hit too, but that’s something the film’s protagonists will learn only later.

After having had to kill his wife and little daughter, Mechanic Barry (Jay Gallagher) makes his way through the zombie-plagued outback in an attempt to reach his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey). Unbeknownst to him, Brooke is in more trouble than just the mere zombie apocalypse, for she has fallen into the hands of a crazy military scientist (Berynn Schwerdt) and his goons who are saving the world via weird experiments. Or something.

I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I’ve gotten a bit tired of zombie apocalypses now. Mostly, I think, because all too many of the films – and don’t even get me started on the books - in the sub-genre we got these last few years have been beholden to genre standards and clichés to a tiresome degree where the best you can hope for as far as imagination goes are increasingly gory and silly ways to dispatch zombies.

Kiah Roache-Turner’s Wyrmwood turns out to be a rather pleasant surprise because it actually shows a lot of imagination, and mixes the genre mainstays with actual ideas of its own. And those ideas are far more than just the instant cult movie thing of zombies as fuel source (though that’s pretty fun too) but a lot of other details about how its zombies work, the surprising, clever and silly ways the rules of zombies are different here. The film presents its ideas with verve and energy, and even knows how and when to wink at its audience while still treating other parts of its zombie apocalypse with a straight face.

Which, pleasantly, at once makes the film’s jokes funnier and its more dramatic scenes more effective.

All this you get presented in a low budget movie style that permanently works around is limitations, making a virtue of its relatively small cast and number of locations without ever feeling too small instead of concentrated. There’s not just never a boring moment but for most of the film, you don’t necessarily know what exactly will happen next; even when Wyrmwood uses old sub-genre mainstays, it puts in enough variations and personality of its own they feel fresh again,

Obviously, I had a lot of fun with the film, and while there’s perhaps not much subtext and substance beyond being imaginative in it, when it comes to a playful and clever approach to making an action-based low budget zombie movie, this is pretty much the film I want.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In short: The Pyramid (2014)

Archaeologist daughter/father team Nora (Ashley Hinshaw) and Holden (Denis O’Hare) have chosen a rather bad year for their dig in Egypt, what with it being 2013, and things being rather dangerous in the country right now. At least they are successful, though, discovering a buried pyramid that’s older (and somewhat differently shaped than) the other pyramids of the country.
Instead of going in, the scientists have their own little Mars Rover to explore the pyramid, but a short chain of unfortunate events does of course still lead our heroine, dad, tech guy and love interest Zahir (Amir K), and the obligatory TV documentary crew (Christa Nicola and James Buckley) inside of the pyramid.

In a completely surprising turn of events, the group quickly find themselves lost, beleaguered by cat monsters, traps, and the horrible (and a bit lame) CGI secret of this specific pyramid.

The Pyramid is one of those semi-POV horror films that mostly consist of the usual fake footage but can’t bring itself to completely buy into its own set-up, so there are ten to twenty percent of the film shot by the usual invisible camera man. Not many of these shots seem actually necessary but then, it is difficult to stay inside the POV style and stay visually interesting at the same time. Of course, The Pyramid still isn’t all that interesting to look at, so I don’t really know what’s the point.

Which, come to think of it, is a question one could raise about the rest of the film too. While there’s clear competence on display from the sides of script, actors, and direction, there’s really not much going on here that’s bound to produce emotions or thoughts in an audience. The film contains its share of competently filmed scenes of people running through the dark, some of said people shouting at each other, a smidgen of gore, and a bit of rejigged Egyptian mythology, but it never rises above these very basics of horror. I was particularly disappointed with what the film does with Egyptian mythology (very little), and particularly that the only thing it finds to do with an actual god buried by its own people because he was a bit too cruel for them is to turn it into a SyFy Channel style CGI monster that does little of interest, and whose connection to actual mythological trappings is tenuous, suggesting a tragic lack of imagination in the filmmakers.

There’s just so little actual content here (emotional, intellectual, or just atmospheric) The Pyramid ends up being empty and without a personality, a generic horror film that wastes all opportunities it has thanks to a complete lack of ambition, and that’s just not good enough at being a generic horror film to be effective in that regard.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

While I liked Hammer’s first Woman in Black movie quite a bit, I find it difficult to come up with much to praise about Tom Harper’s sequel. Oh, it’s not a truly bad movie – it’s obviously made by professionals (it’s the “everything’s technically alright” non-praise) – but it’s painfully uninspired, as slight as a puddle, and without much of an imagination. While the film’s cornucopia of flaws aren’t truly painful, there’s very little it actually does right. Oh, who am I kidding? This thing’s actually pretty dreadful, just in the deeply boring way that comes with technical competence.

At least, it becomes bad quickly once Angel has finished establishing its plot (such as it is) as taking place during 1941 – which is a genuinely good idea a better film could have done a lot with and at least shows the makers didn’t just want to make the first movie again - and concerning the misadventures of two teachers and a group of evacuee children who are for reasons that never will make any damn sense brought to Eel Marsh House and will therefore be threatened by our titular ghost as known from movie number one. Obviously she fixates on the mute traumatised member of the child cast, because having the kid thusly stricken makes the stakes automatically higher without the film actually having to do the hard work of involving its audience through mysterious feats like sharp characterisation.

Alas, it’s pretty difficult to believe these children would have been brought to a place this much of a ruin, and this isolated from the outside world, and the rest of the film won’t be getting much more logical. It is really less a lack of logic here, I think, but rather one of world building, as if the film assumes it’s enough to make vague gestures towards the horrors of 1941 but never bothers to make the 1941 the characters walk through a fictional reality. There’s a lack of internal coherence here in other regards too that I find rather maddening – the characters’ various traumas never add up to anything more but to an opportunity for one or two scenes of crying, the film’s haunting makes little sense (and not in the way the supernatural is supposed not to make sense), and the finale is just inexplicable in its utter randomness. Actually, come to think of it, I’m being too nice to what really is lazy writing, an unwillingness to examine the formulas used, that just reproduces crap screenwriter Jon Croker (Susan Hill is credited with “story” here, but I don’t think she’s responsible for much more than the setting) saw in other films, loose ends and bad ideas flapping in the wind.

Of course, I’ve praised films with worse scripts and even praised them for their lack of coherence, but Angel does not show any interest in being dream-like or anything of that sort at all, it just prefers to not really make sense and not be very interesting. Harper’s direction doesn’t improve my impression, for while it is basically professional, it is also as uninspired as the rest of the film, with the supposed spooky scenes by numbers stuff, some dubious ideas about how to light scenes (apart from a few nearly effective shots of twilight grey landscape, everything here is either too dark or too bright to a degree it is nearly comical), leaving me with the general feeling of watching a slightly more costly TV movie. Of course, the first TV movie that comes to mind in this case, a certain Woman in Black, was much more atmospherically directed (as well as intelligent, coherent, and emotionally involving), for much less money and made in much less time than this one here.

And of course there are jump scares, too, all just as thought through as the rest of the film, which is to say, not very much.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

From the Dark (2014)

Warning: Spoilers, unavoidable, etc.

Couple Sarah (Niamh Algar) and Mark (Stephen Cromwell) are out on a trip to the country. As it goes in the movies, their car breaks down in the middle of a field road, and city boy Mark trudges to the closest farmhouse to get help. Alas, the inhabitant (Gerry O’Brien) of said farm seems to be in need of help himself, for he has a bite wound on his neck and seems barely conscious. Even if the audience didn’t already know that he was bitten by something humanoid but not human while digging, we’d knew something was up. Mark however just gets back to Sarah and brings her to the farmhouse where they are promptly attacked by the farmer who now acts a bit like a monster; and night has broken as well.

Worse yet, the creature (Ged Murray) that bit the farmer is still around too, and it is even more dangerous than its spawn. The only things our heroes have going for them to survive the night are the creatures’ heavy allergic reactions against light and Sarah’s quickly blooming survival skills.

On paper Conor McMahon’s Irish low budget monster movie From the Dark doesn’t sound all that exciting. Even infrequent horror movie watchers will have seen the set-up or one a lot like it a million times or more before, and the zombie/vampire hybrid nature of its monsters doesn’t exactly come with the approval of the originality fairy. Consequently, the film is a very simple tale. However, it’s a very simple tale told exceedingly well, impeccably paced, with a fine full body final girl performance by Niamh Algar and not a dull second on screen.

I’ll always admire an economically told horror film, and there’s no fat at all in From the Dark’s plot, no distractions, no moments of down-time where they don’t belong. There’s also never that moment when a film stops to turn to the audience and tell it, that yes, this is more than a tale about a woman and a soon to be dead man fighting a couple of creatures as if it were ashamed of itself. That doesn’t mean there’s no emotional core to the story, or there’s nothing going on subtextually, but as the rest of the plot, these things are built on as little as a bit of dialogue at the beginning of the film and a few small gestures and moments later on, with no grand gestures needed or wanted where the small ones do very well. Even better these are exactly the right bits of dialogue and the right gestures, so they fit perfectly to provide the emotional core the film needs.

That’s something the film manages in other respects too: on paper, the suspense scenes are working on a very small scale (this is after all a film taking place in a farmhouse, a barn, and the surrounding fields) and are exceedingly simple. Yet in practice, they become increasingly tense and exciting the longer the film goes on and the smaller Sarah’s places of safety become, as wonderfully embodied through the increasingly improvised and fragile light sources she uses to keep her safe and the way every good plan doesn’t quite work out for her (without the film needing to play the stupid horror movie character card).

Once From the Dark reached its final stretch, I found myself completely involved in Sarah’s fight against the monster, and really didn’t want to see her die or become a monster herself. This, I think, is the greatest compliment you can make a low budget movie this highly concentrated on classic suspense, and McMahon’s film absolutely deserves it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In short: Blade II (2002)

Painfully rude and absurdly egocentric vampire hunter Blade (Wesley Snipes) has to team up with a vampire special forces group initially built to hunt him down to instead destroy a new, even worse kind of vampire strain before the vampocalypse happens. Oh my.

If you ask me, this is the lowest point of house favourite Guillermo del Toro’s career, a film about a bunch of assholes and clowns doing stuff I can’t bring myself to care about to get us to the next – mediocre – action scene. It sure doesn’t help that really everyone in the movie is an arse, Wesley Snipes’s “cool” poses never lose the air quotes, and that David Goyer’s script seems to have no idea what the characters here are even supposed to be all about.

Of course, this is still better than the other two Blade movies, but then, del Toro at his worst is still a more interesting director than anyone I’d care to mention, though nothing he does here has any emotional resonance with me; the adrenaline sure isn’t rising (because who cares about that posing assclown who wears sun glasses at night, or about Kris Kristofferson looking scruffy and using his patented voice saying nothing of interest in the most unironically self-important way imaginable), and intellectually, this isn’t exactly stimulating. In fact, on my recent re-watch I found the film even worse than the first time I saw it - when it was fresh and del Toro hadn’t even shot the first Hellboy film - for now there are just that many more del Toro films following the same obsessions and carrying the same visual signifiers but doing everything better, making spectacle that’s actually spectacular yet providing it with the heart Blade II so painfully lacks.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

In short: The Canal (2014)

Film archivist David (Rupert Evans) leads a seemingly happy life with his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) and his little son Billy (Calum Heath), but cracks start to show. It’s not just that David becomes convinced his wife is cheating on him, nor that Alice disappears – soon to be found dead – just on the night when he finds out she truly is cheating on him and the police then sees him as the logical and obvious suspect. Following a very old crime scene film about his own home he encountered at work, David has become convinced something is very wrong with the family home, and the curious noises and dreams David already had before he saw the film turn into visions and appearances, leading him to the conviction that his house and his family are haunted. Or is David just delusional, and really did kill his wife?

Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal is quite an accomplished and effective psychological ghost story of the type that keeps the truth of its supernatural occurrences ambiguous for a long time, observing its protagonist getting pulled deep into a rabbit hole that might be actual ghosts yet increasingly looks like a more normal kind of madness. Kavanagh – also responsible for the script – never walks into the trap of making this a film that is all about a twist or an explanation, not aiming for these simple effects.

Instead, the way The Canal uses these elements, it’s not truly important if what we see is David’s final psychological unravelling – either through the vagaries of life or ghosts – or just a haunting, because this is a film that actually manages to have it both ways: the supernatural here works just as well as a metaphor for David’s mental state as it does as the real thing.

Kavanagh achieves this through sometimes archetypically nightmarish set-pieces paired with impressively horrible images throughout, a highly capable cast, often brilliant sound design, and a script that is intelligent enough to keep things open for as long as it works, even managing a twist-y ending that seems fair and in tone with the rest of the movie we just saw. The Canal is also particularly good at drawing its minor characters, so while it does concentrate on David and his plight, the people around him and the way they react to him feels plausible and real, greatly helping ground the film in emotions that feel raw, messy, and believable.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: He Was On the Side of Law and Order. He Was On the Side of Crime and Chaos. He Was On Any Side That Would Have Him.

Annabelle (2014): If you’re the potential audience for John R. Leonetti’s prequel to The Conjuring, you must have been burning to learn the origin story of that film’s evil doll. Here it is, and it’s all your fault, potential audience for Annabelle. The tragic thing, as with so many of these new mainstream horror films, is that this really isn’t a bad film as much as one that’s utterly lacking in personality and anything you might want to call an interesting idea. While most of what we see here is on a high technical level, my main impression while watching was a feeling of boredom, as if I had seen every fright scene here before in films that did the difficult work of making these scenes more than just short shocks, giving them meaning, resonance, or personality. But whenever the opportunity arises to put forth something more interesting than “boo!” and “waaa, demons!” (turns out “demons!” does not an interesting mythology make) Annabelle comes up with absolutely nothing, having its non-entities of main characters go through meaningless motions we all have seen before. In other words, there’s an absence here where a good – or even a more interesting mediocre – film carries stuff like themes and ideas, and little personality to make up for it.

Jessabelle (2014): In most aspects, Kevin Greutert’s Southern Gothic ghost story is much superior to Annabelle. Its main character (as played by Sarah Snook) has an actual personality, it takes place in a place and time that feels real enough, and it does make use of these mildly advanced elements of the filmmaking art like a theme, a coherent visual style. Why, most probably it even has an idea what kind of story it wants to tell.

Unfortunately, at least for me all these pleasant and worthwhile elements are completely let down by a supernatural element that is again just as generic as all get out, with none of the supernatural shenanigans an organic part of the film’s thematic concerns but the usual series of haunted appliances, a screaming woman ghost and so on. None of them feels like a stringent part of the film they appear in and the story its telling, and to my eyes are completely interchangeable with all other ghostly shenanigans in all other mainstream horror movies about ghosts. This leaves the rest of the film without the glue it needs to keep together as a whole. Things aren’t improved by a rather crappy ending either, but then, I’ve gotten so used to those, I’d probably still be positively surprised by Jessabelle if it had only understood that hauntings need to be specific and individual things or they lose all meaning.

Ouija (2014): Speaking of recent horror films that aren’t great, here’s Stiles White’s ultra-generic attempt at the old ouija board horror tale, a film I find only worth mentioning because it manages to avoid jump scare overkill as well as yet still does not contain a single memorable moment. Even if you can live with nothing going on intellectually under its hood at all (in fact, it feels as if the film is going out of its way to contain nothing anybody could confuse for a thought or – god help us! – an idea), there’s also the little problem that there’s really nothing creepy, atmospheric or disturbing about it. Which is a wee bit of a problem in a horror film, or so I’ve heard.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A short rant about Open Windows (2014)

While I’m usually all for weirdness, Nacho Vigalondo’s hacker bullshit/unlucky stalking thriller really does little for me except to cause annoyance. Vigalondo films the whole affair with a showy real time/everything we see takes place on a laptop monitor POV gimmick that would probably work better if it were a) used in a script that seems less like it was written by a hyperactive kid that needs a twist a second, never mind if said twist makes sense or actually fits what the film has been about for the last five minutes, and b) would stay at least vaguely in the realm of the believable (no need to drag out the possible for me but even I have my standards).

A lot of Open Windows is a series of missed chances: a plot that could say interesting things about the idea of celebrity in the Internet age, or about obsession, or about fandom really contents itself with functioning as a random twist delivery machine; a director with huge technical chops and a decent acting ensemble preferring to make a film that isn’t actually about anything, because TWISTS, and so on, and so forth, in a truly dispiriting presentation of emotional and intellectual emptiness by people who could oh so very obviously do so much better.

Now, as regular readers will know, I’d be all too willing to overlook a lot of Open Windows’ problems and enjoy its implausible plot, ignore the fact that nobody involved seems to have any idea about how hacking works (or really technology at large), or the entertainment industry (which is absurd, given that this is a product of said industry, but there you have it), or internet fandom, or human psychology, or even just windows on what must be the most humungous laptop screen known to humanity. If, and there’s the rub, there were anything about the film apart from empty posturing, like some core of obsession, or an attempt to get at truths you couldn’t get at with a more realist or believable approach, or even just weirdness that doesn’t just feel as if it were in the movie because it would take effort to actually come up with plot twists that make sense.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Blood River (1967)

aka God Forgives…I Don’t!

Original title: Dio perdona…Io no!

When a train full of gold is robbed by a gang of bandits that don’t leave any survivors behind as witnesses, adventurer Hutch Bessy (Bud Spencer), working for the insurance company responsible for making up for the losses, starts investigating the case. Hutch is convinced the way the heist was planned and executed can only point to one man as the responsible brains of the operation - his old acquaintance, the highly intelligent but psychopathic Bill St. Antonio (Frank Wolff). Problem is, Bill has been killed by Hutch’s and his old friend/enemy Pretty Face (Terence Hill) – or Cat Stevens, if you’re a script writer who has probably taken the name right out of the new album releases column of a newspaper – if under rather questionable circumstances.

When Hutch seeks out Cat to have a little chat about his theory and about what truly happened on the day of Bill’s death, the two of course do not decide to team up and find out what’s up, but do the old Spaghetti Western dance where they express their mutual sympathy by trying to put one over on each other at every possible juncture. To no one’s surprise, Bill will turn out to be quite alive and even crazier than ever, and Hutch and Cat just might have to work together one way or the other if they want to find the gold and survive against Bill and his gang.

Giuseppe Colizzi’s Spaghetti Western was made a couple of years before the dynamic duo of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer turned into the dubious but childhood-approved pair of punching comedians we hate and/or love or hate/love to love/hate, and really is your typical earnest and violent Italian western. In its structure God Forgives is clearly indebted to Leone’s second Dollar movie, though it is – like most of the films coming in the wake of Leone and Corbucci – somewhat simpler and certainly less loaded with philosophical and political undercurrents.

Visually, most Spaghetti Westerns tend to orient themselves more on Corbucci inventive yet rougher style than on Leone, most probably because Leone’s approach would take quite a bit more effort, time, and perhaps even money to copy, all things in short supply when you made an Italian genre film meant to cash in on the latest fad. Colizzi, though, actually does use quite a few of Leone’s techniques – most obvious the long shots, yet the film’s pacing tends to the stately too, and the framing of some scenes looks damn familiar, too. To my surprise, the resulting film actually works as more than an attempt to blankly imitate Leone’s style, its surface indeed carrying meaning. At least, the film gives the struggle of its to varying degrees unpleasant protagonists (all of them men, as usual in the genre) the proper atmosphere, and while the political and psychological subtext is pretty much Spaghetti Western by numbers, the film never feels so derivative it becomes annoying.

Rather, it’s another entertaining Spaghetti Western that looks better than some of its brethren, recommends itself by many a shot of men squinting at each other as well as by one of Wolff’s more exalted performances, and presents its typical tale of violence, betrayal, sweat, and more violence with enough style to keep it interesting even if you’re like me and have seen what I suspect is nearly every film in the genre ever made.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In short: Asmodexia (2014)

It’s the December of 2012 and the Spain is hit by an incredible, unnatural heat wave. Strange cults and sects are flaring up throughout the world too, so things do feel a bit like the proverbial End Times. Eloy (Lluís Marco) and his granddaughter Alba (Clàudia Pons) are travelling the country, exorcising people.

All the while, Alba’s aunt, police inspector Diana (Marta Belmonte) follows the traces of her sister – Alba’s mother – Ona (Irene Montalà), who has spent the last fifteen years in a psychiatric hospital, as well as trying to pick up Eloy’s and Alba’s traces.

And that’s really all I can sensibly say about Marc Carreté’s Asmodexia without spoiling the joy of a film that not only subverts certain audience expectations when it comes to exorcism horror movies rather wonderfully but that also takes great pains to construct its backstory and the reasons for its plot in a way that induces the audience to slowly put them together for themselves. Well, unless you’re writing for the Village Voice, it seems. This approach actually reminds me of some of the weird tales of M.R. James, in particular those in his later collections, stories which are as much mysteries and puzzles as they are horror stories, and that need an audience willing to put some thought and imagination, and possibly even knowledge, in to get something out of them.

I highly enjoy how playful and knowledgeable the film’s use of Christian mythology is, in a way that is much more lively and interesting than you’ll generally find in exorcism horror. But then, calling Asmodexia “exorcism horror” isn’t quite fair or right, seeing as how the exorcisms aren’t the film’s main thrust but only elements it needs to tell its tale.

In fact, the most visible moments of direct supernatural battles are the film’s weakest points, moments when the intelligent and atmospheric threatens to drift off into the silly. As a director, Carreté seems much more at home with the insinuated and with the ambiguous, so some of the film’s strongest moments happen just off screen, the director leaving the unpleasant details to the imagination of his audience, like in the olden times.

That’s a thing Carreté can very easily get away with because he’s preparing for these moments of not quite getting explicit by slowly – this is for the most part a calm and deliberate film - building a palpable mood of dread and oppression, showing a Spanish countryside of wide open spaces and modern ruins that seems nearly depopulated, getting a lot of of threatening atmosphere out of daylight and openness – the opposite of your typical horror approach of darkness and enclosure. It is also an approach films use so seldom it can’t help but feel fresh, particularly when taken by a director with such a wonderful eye for making things oppressive.

And that’s really all I can say about Asmodexia without spoiling some of its best first-time viewing moments, which would be irresponsible in a film I enjoyed this much.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

In short: Remember Me (2014)

From a German perspective, it’s pretty easy to be jealous of the quality of British TV. Sure, it’s as full of the “reality” TV curse as ours around here, but there’s still room for something like this, a TV three part ghost story that is utterly earnest and utterly unapologetic about what it is. And while, if you know your supernatural tales, it won’t exactly surprise you with anything you haven’t seen before, Gwyneth Hughes’s script knows quite well how to use some of the ghost story’s more well-worn tropes, how to fuse them in interesting ways, and how to let careful characterisation and a fine acting ensemble (with Jodie Comer, Mark Addy and Michael Palin in a rare serious role all doing excellent work).

Not all of the film’s supernatural attacks are quite as effective as I would have wished for, sometimes falling into the obvious jump scare trap, but the ones that do work – and there are more of the good moments here than of the bad – are really fine work even if you know where the film is going with them early on in a scene. The same goes for the direction – a few scenes aren’t realized as subtly as they should be, but the show is moody and creepy more often than it is not, and the missteps are never so major as to become a problem.

Plus, how often do you see a ghost story on your TV that has as much time and patience for its characters as this one – and includes a ghost-laying version of “Scarborough Fair”?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

In short: The Revengers (1972)

Daniel Mann’s western attempts the – by 1972 well-worn – tale of a man (William Holden) driven by vengeance turning into something quite close to the man he is hunting, yet perhaps finding his old self again through the love of a Good Woman™. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about how to tell that kind of story effectively or believably.

Yet it starts out well enough, with Holden’s John Benedict driven to assemble a bunch of convicts (Woody Strode as the nicest of the bunch! Ernest Borgnine! Roger Hanin! Reinhard Kolldehoff, Jorge Luke and Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) to find and kill the man responsible for the slaughter of his family, telling that part of the tale with sparse gestures and economy. That keeps up until the first big shoot-out is over, when the film decides it can’t be bothered to show how Holden’s understandable search for vengeance slowly turns bitter but only lets us in at the end of that process, which not only leaves the impression the film is taking lazy shortcuts but also lets the whole redemption angle come quite out of nowhere by leaving out the part where Holden’s character actually becomes someone in need of redemption and just bluntly states certain things happened. While it’s at it, the film also never bothers to explain why half of Holden’s gang have stayed with him for what must have been years. It can’t certainly have been the money.

And don’t even start me up about the redemptive love Mann handles with all the subtlety, and none of the timing, of a bad daytime soap opera (most of which would actually be ashamed to use a plot ploy like the one involved here to get their characters to meet their romantic partners) with little about it that feels authentic to the characters involved. It’s really not a good sign for the quality of a western script’s central character when even William Holden can’t bring him to life.

Other problems the film’s second half suffers from are spotty pacing, and an ending that’s basically Mann (or writer Wendell Mayes who was involved in more than one better western) shrugging his shoulders and pasting “The End” on screen, not resolving any of the thematic questions the film purportedly asks. But then, that would have involved thinking the film through instead of throwing elements of and actors from better films on screen and hoping the audience doesn’t see the difference between them and the half-heartedness of what The Revengers has to offer.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

On ExB: Fatal Frame (2014)

Original title: Gekijô-ban: Zero

Ah, Japanese horror. When you work, and we westerners actually get to see your best anymore, you can still be a sublime experience.
Case in point is Mari Asato’s Fatal Frame, a film that doesn’t use being (sort of) a videogame adaptation as an excuse to be bad, and that is actually a melancholic and intelligent meditation on the process of growing from a girl into a woman – with ghosts.

If you want to know more (and can stand to hear me gushing for a bit longer), just click on through to the girlishly giggling Exploder Button.

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Friday, April 3, 2015

In short: Ofelas (1987)

aka Pathfinder

Unlike the moving heavy metal album cover that is its later remake (and “remake” in this case really only means “film carrying the same title supposedly based on this one”), Nils Gaup’s medieval tale about a young Sami finding his family murdered at the hands of a band of marauding Chudes and kinda sorta trying to take revenge, is a thoughtful, considerate tale that spends as much time trying to reconstruct Sami life around the year 1000 or so than it does on its plot.

That’s not a bad thing, mind you, for the film is obviously a true labour of love for Gaup and his Sami actors, bringing their culture alive with an eye for grounding it in the experiences of actual people. Gaup shows us even the stranger (to the eyes of someone not a Sami of that time) ideas and customs as part of the way actual people live(d), treating them neither with the distance of a museum exhibit nor the glorifying gestures of someone who has something to prove. This film’s look at the past does very much want to show it as alive and human, hitting more universal human truths exactly through its specificity because truths aren’t generic but specific. Quite surprisingly – I at least wouldn’t have blamed the director or his film much if it had been otherwise – Ofelas even manages to sell its more spiritual side to this hardened sceptic, showing the way the mythic and the spiritual/supernatural were a part of the these people’s way of life without either poo-pooing it with Dawkinsian (and isn’t it sad that this once great popularizing scientist is by now better known as someone whose legacy is a demonstration that we atheists can be just as shitty as the worst of the religious people?) fervour nor holding it up as the one true way everyone should follow. It’s just the way the characters here relate to their world – judgement doesn’t really come into it at all. The film makes clear it is necessary to understand the spiritual life of its characters to understand them or the time and place they live in, something you can’t really do when you’re looking down on them.

Visually, Ofelas is of course dominated by its stark yet beautiful locations that - at least from my perspective – take on the clarity of the mythic under the light of the winter sun. As it so often is with things that look very simple to achieve, I’m quite sure Gaup must have worked hard on achieving this effect, but watching the film, I found myself much more concerned with being in its every moment than admiring the directors’ art; this being a particularly fine sort of artfulness.

There’s much else to like here too – the clear and natural performances of the cast, the way the film’s plot avoids the typical structure of a revenge tale (because philosophically, revenge really isn’t its point at all), the characters’ reactions to violence which would be coded as cowardly in most other films you’ll encounter but which Ofelas accepts at what they are – normal, and not the things that decide a human being’s worth.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Faster (2010)

Freshly released from prison, a man (Dwayne “The Rock Johnson”) – let’s call him Driver – starts killing the people who stole the loot and killed his partners after a successful bank robbery. Driver not actually being a professional criminal, his thirst for vengeance has nothing at all to do with money but with the little fact that one of his murdered partners was his brother, and his murder, as much as the others, absolutely unnecessary. Because Driver’s way of killing people is pretty damn straightforward, the police – in form of a straight professional (Carla Gugino) and drug addicted trouble magnet (Billy Bob Thornton) – are soon on his case. To make things more difficult, there’s also a pretentious hitman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) hired by whoever was actually responsible for the death of Driver’s brother on Driver’s case.

I found George Tillman Jr.’s Faster a somewhat frustrating viewing experience, not because it is a bad movie but because it is indeed a very good movie that suffers from one or two serious missteps that keep it away from being actually brilliant; missteps which seem utterly pointless, too.

First and foremost, there’s the sub-plot about Jackson-Cohen’s killer and his girlfriend (professional daughter and girlfriend) Maggie Grace that seems to have no business being in the movie at all. As characters, the couple seems to come directly out of one of those horrible would-be Tarantino movies (you know, the kind that doesn’t actually get how and why Tarantino's films and characters work, or are too lazy to put the work in). Worse, the hitman and his character arc have little – if any at all – business in a film about vengeance, redemption and forgiveness, seeing as he never does anything redemptive, doesn’t forgive, and isn’t involved in any vengeance. Plus, despite time spent on the killer couple that could have been used more fruitfully on characters that actually have fuck all to do with the rest of the film, the characters stay flat, unbelievable and just painfully uninteresting.

Which is particularly irritating in a film that otherwise shows a particular ability of drawing its minor characters with a strong hand, building on clichés instead of just using them, and easily showing everything you could want to know about a character in a five minute confrontation with Driver. The film’s protagonist is a a vehicle to reveal something about the nature of guilt, and the complexity of it, in others as well as in himself, here.

It does of course help that this is a film that casts actors like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje or Jennifer Carpenter for these small but extremely important roles, actors willing and able to actually go beyond the cliché and suggest complexities in their characters the film then doesn’t need to explain in excruciating detail and flashbacks.

Speaking of acting, Johnson also shows himself to be perfectly capable of more than just looking angry or tense (though he’s really good at that) but actually gives his characters nuance through body language and looks. While I had already come to the conclusion he’s a better screen presence than most other acting wrestlers, his performance here is convincing enough I can’t help but see him as an actor from here on out, and not a wrestler playing at acting.

Tillman’s direction for its part, while suffering a bit from a case of The Yellow, is tight, focused, and, when it doesn’t waste time on the hitman, decidedly on the intelligent side, giving the shoot-outs and the violence the right amount of excitement but really emphasising characters, and the emotional and moral impact of vengeance.

And while you might think there’s not much new or interesting to say about vengeance, redemption, or the decision to forgive, Faster actually does. Or rather, the film actually places these things in a much better and more complex context than most films concerned with these things do, realizing the deed that drives one character to vengeance will be what turns the life of one or more of the people who had committed that deed around, also realizing that this doesn’t undo anything yet also understanding that undoing horrible things is neither the point of vengeance nor that of forgiveness. And while it’s at it, Faster also does subtle, clever things like insinuating that the guy who ruined your life might just be another poor, weak asshole who can’t seem to make the right decision.

Which is quite a bit of interesting stuff to find in a film that might have turned out to be just another flick about some beefed-up dude taking vengeance on bad guys.