Thursday, May 28, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: A Story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING Automatics

Locke (2013): Oh Great Cthulhu, save us from the gimmick movies. On one hand, I absolutely appreciate director Steven Knight’s technical inventiveness in making a movie that exclusively takes place in Tom Hardy’s car. On the other hand, I don’t see how the technique is actually useful for the story the film is telling. In fact, the formal reduction of the film seems to me to just emphasise the blandness of its story, and the deep been-there-done-that feeling of a central character who is yet another ultra-competent big shot guy travelling towards emotional redemption with everyone else in his life tools or obstacles to that redemption. This leads to a film that puts enormous technical accomplishment and an inspired lead actor forward to do nothing actually worth any of the effort.

Jupiter Ascending (2015): Look, I’d like there to be more space operas in cinemas as much as the next guy, and I’m perfectly willing to admit a film in the genre doesn’t need to have a clever script or do anything really intelligent, but there’s accepting a degree of stupidity, and then there’s the Wachowski Siblings’ Jupiter Ascending, a film so dumb and apathetically plotted you can feel yourself getting more stupid while watching its deeply uninvolving series of set pieces. And hey, since the film’s whole plot is based on everyone involved, particularly our supposed heroine - as given by Mila Kunis (because the Wachowskis still can’t bring themselves to cast a decent actor instead of a pretty face for their leads, and waste a lot of great talent in the minor parts) - being impressively idiotic, as if the vacuum of space had drifted into their brains, why should the audience be exempt. At least the production design is beautiful, an at times crazy mixture of anime and European SF comic aesthetics that would be a joy to watch in motion if the film it’s in wasn’t so completely lacking in anything else that could actually involve its audience in any way shape or form.

El Xendra (2012): It doesn’t take a quintillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster to bore me, though. When push comes to shove, an overlong, talky would-be episode of the never realized cross-over show between The X-Files and Lost made in Honduras actually does it too. On the other hand, Juan Carlos Fanconi’s film doesn’t make me quite as cranky because it at least seems to be trying much harder than Jupiter. Unfortunately, the film is the usual mix of conspiracy theory, talk about the Maya and non-linear time, and lots and lots of talking about nothing very interesting until indeed actual things are only happening when it’s already much too late to save the film. But hey – I’m not being ironic here – there are some very nice shots of the jungle.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Killer Wore Gloves (1974)

Original title: La muerte llama a las 10

Peggy Foster (Gillian Hills) hasn’t heard from her live-in boyfriend Michael for quite some time, which not only makes her rather nervous, what with him working as a war correspondent in Saigon, but also sees her money running out quickly. So she rents out the upper flat of the double flat she shares with Michael to one John Kirk Lawford (Bruno Corazzari, I think). Shortly after Lawford arrives, a phone call supposedly coming from Michael (though Peggy can’t seem to actually identify her own boyfriend from his voice, so make of this what you will) lures her to the outskirts of London.

There, a glove-wearing would-be killer attempts to shoot Peggy. Our heroine manages to flee, only to find somebody has jumped to his death from her terrace. She just assumes the corpse is Lawford, and then proceeds to pretend to the police she knows nobody and nothing, and where is this anyway? She also tells them nothing about the attempt on her life, because Peggy is obviously not going to do anything sensible during the course of the movie. While two very rude cops – who clearly and correctly believe that Peggy’s a lying liar who lies – are still trying to get any useful information out of her, another guy calling himself John Kirk Lawford arrives (this would be Ángel del Pozo, unless it’s the other way round) for his room. Things proceed in the same tone and style from here on out, with Peggy acting like an absolute idiot while bizarre characters like her crazy and sleazy neighbour Mr Lewis (Carlos Otero) say threatening and ambiguous stuff to her that barely makes sense, people are murdered, and a bag full of money appears.

Well, you really can’t accuse Juan Bosch’s Spanish-lead giallo The Killer Wore Gloves (which indeed the killer does) of making much sense at all, or most of the time of making any sense whatsoever, perfectly fitting into that part of the giallo genre that doesn’t even construct convoluted and hardly believable plots anymore but instead presents a random series of barely coherent scenes filmed with as much style and vigour as director and money can come up with.

The film makes so little sense – and obviously doesn’t care to - I found myself zoning out of its plot quite early on, instead admiring the cheap yet excellent 70s interior design, Marcello Giombini’s derivative yet great score, Peggy’s fashion-sense (though appreciating it with horror might be the better term here), and all the different ways Gillian Hills comes up with when it comes to looks of wide-eyed panic and confusion. The last reactions are of course perfectly appropriate for the film they are in, and reflect my feelings towards Peggy’s actions during the course of the movie so perfectly, I might be just ready to pretend the film is doing this on purpose, instead of being shoddily written.

I suppose, Peggy might be supposed to think she’s protecting Michael somehow from something or someone but since she has as little clue about the truths of matters around her as any of the film’s viewers, this makes as little sense as the eventual explanation of what’s going on. Not surprisingly, given the tone of the rest of this thing, said explanation doesn’t in fact explain much about the wherefore and why of the suspense scenes, the peculiar people, and the curious happening around our heroine. Like: who threw the cat at her? Well, the assistant director, one supposes, but that’s not exactly a great in-movie explanation. What, exactly were the bad guys thinking when they came up with their plan? Did they know everybody else would act idiotic or crazy or both? Was something in the water? Who actually murdered all these people? And so on, and so forth.

So, obviously, The Killer Wore Gloves isn’t exactly a film for anyone who wants their mysteries to make even the minor amount of sense one is used to in one’s giallos, but if you’re willing to just go with it, stare at the pretty people (okay, one or two pretty persons, really, because the rest of the cast isn’t always pretty to look at), bug your eyes at how little this hangs together as a story - in a thematic sense or however else - and enjoy some cheap yet often quite stylish (if less than original) moving pictures, you might have as fun of a time with this as I had.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In short: The Night Crew (2015)

Bounty hunters Wade (Luke Goss), Rose (Luciana Faulhaber), Crenshaw (Bokeem Woodbine) and Ronnie (Paul Sloan) are tasked with getting a certain Mae (Chasty Ballesteros) out of Mexico to the US for bail bonds reasons. For reasons unexplained, that’s supposed to make their partner and boss enough money to be able to avoid being killed by Armenian gangsters.

Unfortunately, the job is a wee bit more complicated than they thought: when first they meet Mae, she’s just about to be killed by some Mexican gangsters working for cartel boss and creep Aguilar (Danny Trejo). Obviously, getting Mae out of the country will pose more of a problem than our heroes expected, seeing as they have to cope with Aguilar’s rather shoot-happy men, a woman who’d really rather not be transported to the US by them, and – worst of all – their own stupidity.

That’s not quite enough to fill a whole film, though, so there’s also the mysterious supernatural secret Mae is carrying around, as well as a love triangle between three of the bounty hunters.

Christian Sesma’s The Night Crew has a lot of the problems endemic to contemporary low budget action movies produced for the home video market: the dialogue’s generally stupid, as is the plot, there’s not much money for decent sets or locations, and visually, you get the usual combination of bleached out colours and a camera that just won’t stop wobbling drunkenly during the action scenes, which – to no one’s surprise – doesn’t exactly make them look any better or more convincing.

Still, I found myself enjoying the thing more than many films of its ilk, mostly for the handful of moments when the usual cheese turns quite fragrant (like the absurd posing in the moment before Sesma decides to not show us the climactic boss fight which you can either explain by the film’s budget not containing a position for “Danny Trejo, action scene” or a sudden interest in being avantgarde), and its honest, sometimes semi-successful attempts at creating a bleak and spooky mood through murky darkness and shady surroundings. I can also only commend the way The Night Crew employs its horror elements – unapologetic, boneheaded and with the gestures of someone who has had a very bad idea, shrugs, and just goes with it. Alright, that  might still doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation but when it comes to direct-to-DVD movies of the moment, I much prefer one like that has a cheesy idea and goes with it to the more usual kind that just doesn’t want to have any ideas – good or bad – at all.

Friday, May 22, 2015

On ExB: Magistrate Toyama: Falcon Magistrate (1957)

If you go by Western cult film web sites like mine, there wasn’t much happening in Japanese genre films before the new wave of samurai and yakuza films of the mid 60s and onwards. That’s of course not true, because the Japanese studios had been churning out genre movies in absurd tempo throughout the 50s, and while these films weren’t generally as rebellious, or crazy, or visually inventive as what would follow, it would be rather bizarre if they were all without merit or interest.

Indeed, once you dive into sub-genres like the jidai geki pulp mystery (insert fancy Japanese genre name here), you’ll quickly find pearls like Magistrate Toyama: Falcon Magistrate, the film my column over at the stately Exploder Button will have to say quite a bit about.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: Crawling, Slimy Things Terror-Bent on Destroying the World!

Preservation (2014): To my surprise, I found myself quite taken with this new variation on the old, old theme of people (in form of the excellent Wrenn Schmidt) having to unleash their inner beast to defend themselves against other people hunting them through the woods. At first, the film seems a bit talky and smug, but soon enough director Christopher Denham demonstrates a nice eye for mood, and all-around inventive yet subtle direction, and the film becomes pleasantly ruthless.

Sure, there’s little that’s new here, but Denham executes particularly the scenes taking place after the hunted has become the hunter™ very suspenseful, always ready to surprise with a minor twist on the formula or just a particularly well executed example of it. That’s really more than enough to keep me happy.

John Wick (2014): Take one painfully miscast lead actor, a bunch of great but underused character actors, dialogue so painfully stupid not laughing seems utterly impossible, some cool action scenes, just as many action scenes that are by far not as cool as they obviously think they are and go on and on and on and on, obnoxious loud music playing obnoxiously loud, and you have Chad Stahelski’s application for the job as the new Neveldine/Taylor or perhaps the new mid period Luc Besson. The resulting film is at times inadvertently funny (seeing as it concerns Keanu Reaves’s bloody vengeance on the Russian mobsters who stole his car and killed the little dog his dead wife gifted him from beyond the grave), at times actually exhilarating if stupid, and at other times painfully annoying in its permanent attempts at overstylizing everything and at overselling Keanu’s supposed badassness.

Dark Summer (2015): About half of Paul Solet’s film is a fine, subtle ghost story centring on ideas about love, desire, and the inability to get these things to work in a way that isn’t messy among teenagers, with two excellent lead performances by Keir Gilchrist and Stella Maeve and direction that makes a virtue of the film’s limited means. Alas, the other half – at times running in parallel to the good parts - is working hard to undo that good work with way too much stuff about black magic, eyebrow-raising twists, and the sort of scenes you put in your film when you don’t trust your audience to stay awake if you don’t shout at it “look, I’m a horror movie!” from time to time. Needless to say, it doesn’t work out too well for the film as a whole.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

In short: Nailbiter (2013)

Despite an acute tornado warning, Janet Maguire (Erin McGrane) packs her daughters Jennifer (Meg Saricks), Alice (Emily Boresow) and Sally (Sally Spurgeon) into a car to make the long drive through the countryside to reach the airport where her husband will come back from one of the USA’s many wars against brown people.

Alas, the tornado warning is only all too correct, and the family just barely manages to find shelter in the storm cellar of a farm on the outskirts of some godforsaken small town on their way to the airport. Turns out it would probably have been healthier for everyone involved if they’d have tried the tornado, for there’s some thing prowling outside that doesn’t want the family to leave. Even worse, there’s also someone boarding the cellar up from the outside, leaving the Maguires trapped even once the storm has passed. They’ll need quite a bit of determination to survive the ordeal in front of them, and even then, they might not all survive.

Patrick Rea’s Nailbiter is a wonderful little film that uses a variation on a classic monster that should be more than just a little bit silly but which works – at least in parts – well because the film doesn’t treat that variation as something silly at all, leaving the ironic winking to others. This doesn’t mean the film doesn’t possess a sense of humour; rather, it prefers to be sardonic but really focuses on other things, using all the tricks in the suspense book to keep its audience excited. Even better, Rea is actually quite great at this.

Consequently, Nailbiter, like all tight and exciting low budget monster movies convinces by using its necessarily small cast and small (yet not warehouse-bound) number of locations as the ideal way to focus on a pacy and exciting execution, with a plot that escalates a bad situation into a horrifying one with very precise steps, just revealing enough of its mythology to make its audience nervous for its characters. It’s exceedingly well done, executed with a decided lack of fat, with no scene after the simple yet effective introduction of its characters that isn’t driving things forward and making the situation of the protagonists more precarious.

In a way, Nailbiter is a decidedly simple movie, but it is a simplicity based on clear decisions about what the film is supposed to be about, and what it is supposed to do with its audience, leaving a film that does exactly what it sets out to do, and does so very well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In short: Gone Girl (2014)

I rather want to opt out of the discussion if this film is horribly misogynist and David Fincher consequently a monster or if it is actually a feminist movie (the former interpretation needs one to ignore the actual tone of large parts of the movie, the latter that Amy is a sociopath, just a more effective one than the creeps around her), mostly because I could write a short piece about the film arguing either way but also because I really read this as a film about how horrible people at large are, a cynical and rather bitter attack on the institution of marriage, romance, the contemporary media circus, and the horrors of a culture based on lies and appearances and the horrid shapes people might grow into through it inside.

This is a film where nearly every single character is so heavily flawed he or she tends to the monstrous, the disgusting, or the plain creepy (with Kim Dickens’s Detective Boney and Carrie Coon’s Margo the obvious exceptions that very pointedly aren’t able to do much about anything here). Which might have gotten rather tiresome over 150 minutes of running time if not for Gillian Flynn’s pitch-perfect, intelligent and involving script that never does something boring and nice when it can do something clever and nasty and that is also pretty damn funny in its own dark way, Fincher’s in this case atypically undemonstrative yet highly effective direction, and so much good acting the concept of Oscar nominations actually makes total sense for once. Why, even Ben Affleck (who is quite perfectly cast) gives an nuanced performance here, though of course, Rosamund Pike’s the true stand-out, turning Amy into what I think may be the most frightening sociopath I’ve seen on screen while still acknowledging she’s an actual human being, just one on the borders of what we tell ourselves human beings are supposed to be.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mercy (2014)

Following a violent incident, young George’s (Chandler Riggs) beloved grandmother Mercy (Shirley Knight) has been brought into a care home for the elderly, because George, his brother Buddy (Joel Courtney), and his mother Rebecca (Frances O’Connor) live toe far away from the Appalachian family home to care for her.

Things have to change a year later, though, when various “incidents” get Mercy thrown out of the home. So, Rebecca and her sons move into the old family home Rebecca left (or is it fled?) when she was eighteen to take care of a Mercy who is barely more than a vegetable following a stroke, bad care by George’s uncle Lanning (Mark Duplass), and the dubious decision of the home to keep the old lady drugged up to the gills.

However, something just isn’t right at all with Mercy. Slowly, George unravels hints and suggestions of the family’s past - the curious suicide by axe of his grandfather, the honeymoon camping trip of his aunt that left her husband dead and hers raving mad, and the strangely two-faced nature of Mercy, whom George felt closer to than his own mother when she was still well, but who showed cruelty and perhaps even worse things towards others he never noticed when he was younger. So, it might not be the best idea when George replaces his grandma’s knock-out drugs with saline solution.

Peter Cornwell’s adaptation of a Stephen King story (with a bit of Lovecraftian terminology – though Mythos fans might be a bit perturbed by the curious choice of Mythos god for the function it has in the plot - as well as quite a bit more Appalachian folklore thrown in that reminded me of the way Manly Wade Wellman used these things) is a pleasantly straight-forward piece of horror, telling a simple story focussed on theme, mood, and character, and eschewing showiness for most of the film’s running time. It’s not at all what I would have expected from the director of Haunting in Connecticut, seeing as it lacks all the annoying trends I loathe most in contemporary mainstream horror – the fixation on loud noises, the useless jump scares and so on – opting for an emphasis on mood and characterisation instead, letting a fine acting ensemble, calm direction, and meaningful landscape shots do a lot of the work of creeping the audience out.

Cornwell’s direction isn’t without style,  but it’s a style used to emphasise the story and the film’s thematic interests in family and love as the cause of emotional turmoil as well as a safe haven from these things, and the point where both sides of the equation become ambiguous. With this approach Cornwell manages to sell even the more preposterous plot developments during the last third of the film, convincing at least this viewer to take on a bit of George’s still child-like view of reality. In this context, I also think it’s very much in the film’s favour – making it more convincing as well as more effective - how easily it manages to portray George as intelligent, resourceful – as well as in possession of an imaginary friend who just might be a dead girl or perhaps something a little different - yet really a child, with all the lack of direct power and agency as well as information about the more sordid parts of his family history this implies, making his situation all the worse because he really can’t expect anyone to believe the nature of what’s going on, nor be sure he has the information he should have to survive.

Once the proverbial shit hits the fan, Cornwell also shows himself to be quite adept at classic suspense techniques, as well as totally unafraid to show and do things that sound silly on paper but feel completely right for the world of the film, where everything that goes bump in the night truly exists: cursed books, evil powers of the outer dark, sin-hunting haints, pacts with horrid forces and ghosts are all part of the film’s world, without the whole affair ever feeling just a bit too much. There is, of course, an obvious parallel to fairy tales and a child’s view of the world, and who am I to disagree with a film that mixes these particular ways to look at and explain the world with a sober perspective on the horrors and pleasures of family and love, and the way these are all too often intermingled?

Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)

Some years after the first Monsters, the zones of alien invasive species have grown. The US have started another invasion into “the Middle East” (and yes, the film never bothers to name an actual, you know, country, because who cares how the brown people call the places they live, right?) to bomb the wandering giant monsters back into the stone age. Or something.

Anyway, the usual combination of imperialism and “collateral damage” does of course lead to resistance among the local population, and so the US military forces find themselves more involved in warring with the people they are supposedly helping than killing any of those “monsters”. The film follows the tragic misadventures of a quartet of freshly shipped in young guys from Detroit whose first tour under the experienced, competent and damaged Sergeant Frater (Johnny Harris) will also be the last one for most of them. (Hint: the African Americans die first). Things start out bad, and turn into a complete clusterfuck on a rescue mission deep in alien infested and “insurgent” dominated country.

You know what I really, really wanted out of the sequel of one of the best SF movies of the past decade? The Hurt Locker 2! No, wait, I actually didn’t want that at all, but that’s what Tom Green’s film no doubt is. In fact, the titular “monsters” are so unimportant for the film beyond a couple scenes where they act as a random natural force that could have been replaced by anything you’d care to name, I am tempted to suspect the film’s script started as just your typical contemporary war film and got turned into part of the Monsters franchise for reasons only movie producers would understand. Why anyone would think this would be a good idea is beyond me. But hey, if you pretend your mediocre war film is a sequel to a film people dearly loved, you don’t have to wonder about the exceedingly negative reactions by the people who loved it and find nothing of what made that film great in it, and really deserve all the bile you get.

So, what we have here is a film that doesn’t care about its titular monsters, provides nothing of the sense of awe and wonder the first film was suffused with, doesn’t do any of the clever worldbuilding via small details (because you can only do that if you actually care about the aliens) it did, and replaces an interesting world with, sorry I have to repeat myself, The Hurt Locker, but worse.

Even if I pretend this isn’t in any way connected to the first film, Dark Continent is still not a very good film. It suffers from all the problems the Hurt Locker school of war/anti-war film has: firstly the inability to actually show the other side of the conflict as human beings in a way that often more than just borders on racism. Nameless and mostly faceless enemies who talk in a language the protagonists don’t understand and are only in the film to be killed by them, kill them, or make them feel bad things just are not a good idea in a film that seems to want say something about actual armed conflicts happening right now. Sure, the US grunts we usually follow – even in a UK production like this, curiously enough - in these films are not in an ideal position to provide a perspective on their enemies but then who says all war movie scripts have to be so desperately centred around them?

Which leads us directly to secondly: the films’ - and this film’s specifically - inability to actually decide what it wants to say about wars, the soldiers fighting in them, and the painful messiness the last dozen US wars have been. It’s certainly not going to criticize the white people taking part in them for taking part in them, but then it’s also not at all interested in analysing the structural reasons for young, uneducated men to become professional soldiers. Dark Continent sure seems to think that war is hell, but since the film also manages to avoid any talk about actual politics and steadfastly doesn’t take any actual concrete position regarding anything itself, it treats war as a sort of vague natural tragedy, not a thing that is the fault of people in power and those people who follow them (which would be the combatants, oops, but you can’t say that because soldiers are “heroes”), and so not a thing anyone has any control over. Which I have a hard time interpreting as anything but hypocrisy or stupidity on the parts of the filmmakers; take your pick.

But what’s worst about Dark Continent – except for the whole thing where they take out everything that was great about the first film and replace it with something not at all worthwhile or even just interesting – is that it’s not even a very good example of the type of war/anti-war-but-not-really film it wants to be: the acting is generally okay, but the dialogue, particularly during the first act, is often inadvertently funny tough guy speak right out of a bad pulp novel, the characters are flat and clichéd, and the film is about an hour too long for what it is.

One could get rather angry about the whole thing, but I can’t honestly say I expected Monsters: Dark Continent to be anything but bad; I just expected it to be bad in a slightly different way than it turned out to be.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: Enter the mutant

Blackwood (2014): I found Adam Wimpenny’s film immensely frustrating. On one hand, I really appreciate the efforts it makes to do something different with the most clichéd haunted house movie set-up you can get right now (psychologically troubled man, wife and kid move to a lone house in the country to retry the whole family thing; spookiness ensues), as well as Wimpenny’s eye for landscape and the fine cast (including Ed Stoppard, Sophia Myles and Russell Tovey). On the other hand, for a film that is completely character based, the characters never really come to life, with most of the character development that happens feeling more like a contrivance to keep the plot going. And then there’s the whole climax that’s just a big heap of your usual horror movie bullshit that pretty much managed to sour me on the film completely. Filmmakers don’t seem to know, but it’s actually legal to end a supernatural tale in a quiet way.

Housebound (2014): Gerad Johnstone’s horror comedy on the other hand, is neither frustrating nor prone to tone deafness, but rather a joy from beginning to end, starting with the central performances by Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata and Glen-Paul Waru, a flawless pace, and a sure sense for how to shift the tone around between the silly, the macabre, and the pleasantly grotesque while never betraying one’s characters and ending with some joyfully clever subversions of various genre clichés. This one would really deserve a longer piece instead of being sandwiched between two films I’ll never want to see again but how many words do you really need to call a film brilliant?

A Dandy in Aspic (1968): When it came out, this final film of the great Anthony Mann (finished by its leading man, Laurence Harvey) got roundly trounced by critics; by now, there’s a bit of a critical renaissance for it. Frankly, though, I think the old guard was absolutely right about this one. At the very least, the film’s a terrible mess, permanently fluctuating between the more greyish realist elements of the spy film and the kind of psychedelia you get when a director of 60 years tries to make a movie for the kids (which is to say, people under fifty) without the psychedelic elements ever making sense in the context of the film. Add to that an incredible annoying performance by Mia Farrow as a 60s manic pixie dream girl, and Harvey’s typical lack of affect, and you can count me among the displeased.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In the Electric Mist (2009)

(This short write-up is based on the shorter US cut of the film. I haven’t seen the longer European one, so I can’t possibly comment on the differences between the two versions.)

Former New Orleans, now rural Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) is drawn into two separate cases: a serial killing of prostitutes, and the discovery of the body of a murdered African American who must have died during the 60s in what looks a lot like a lynching. In both cases, Dave searches and ponders and might just find some hints pointing him towards the truth of the matters. Somebody seems to think so, at least, because even before the hints and the hunches Dave follows can cohere into a concrete picture, he finds himself first drugged with LSD that induces a series of visions of talks with a very dead confederate General (Levon Helm), and later implicated in a wrongful shooting. Even worse things are still to come.

As members of various secret societies all around the world know, every major (or at least somewhat bigger) French director is promised by law the right to make at least one US film, preferably some kind of genre movie. That film, the US audience will then ignore while a handful of - predominantly French – critics  will praise it to the high heavens. If you have my blessed taste, you’ll probably rather want to agree with the latter than the former. In the case of Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation of James Lee Burke’s sixth Dave Robicheaux crime novel, agreeing with the French is not a particular difficult proposition to me, for it is a pretty brilliant mystery, though one that will need very specific sensibilities to appreciate, exactly the kind of sensibilities that tend to not make a film much of a hit with a larger audience.

For In the Electric Mist is a film that trusts its audience to work with it, and persevere with it, to accept its calm, unhurried yet involved tone as the mirror of the way its central character tries to approach the world, to understand the film’s crime plot without it ever explaining anything in a detailed way. After all, we have experienced what Dave experienced, we witness his reactions to it, we see the conclusions he draws, so – in Tavernier’s mind as well as in mine – there’s no need to have the characters then explicitly tell us what’s going on.

For me, this approach to crime film and mystery seems pretty natural, but going by various online reactions I’ve seen, it’s also one quite a few people just seem to loathe, so what I think is one of In the Electric Mist’s greatest strengths to them make it nigh unwatchable and certainly impenetrable. It certainly isn’t an easy film to grasp in all details, with its philosophical approach to the world, and it’s ambiguous way to present its characters. In particular the way Tavernier never shows Dave’s emotional turmoil all that directly or dramatically beyond through the sheer, quietly sad presence of Tommy Lee Jones (who gives another wonderful performance in a late career full of these performances) might not be too easy to relate to for everyone, though I felt it carries quite an emotional heft more outward emotional explosions might not have produced. And it’s not as if Dave doesn’t get violent and does some morally highly doubtful things, he just does them in ways lacking outward signs of melodrama. This is of course quite fitting for a character who keeps much of what is going on inside him closed up deep inside, and finds a kind of philosophical clarity in talks with the vision/hallucination/ghost of a dead confederate general.

Despite the film’s basically heady and earnest nature, Tavernier does include some lighter elements too, so there are the not always so tiny roles for musicians like Levon Helm and Buddy Guy, or great US independent director and writer John Sayles (of course playing a director), as well as a lot of little strange details – particularly surrounding John Goodman’s mafioso Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni – that break up things a little without breaking them. I’m actually somewhat tempted to call the film’s tone magical realist – at least, the way the naturalistic, the poetic and the philosophical meet one another here seems to come from a kindred direction to the genre, as does our dead confederate general.

Speaking of poetry, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bruno de Keyzer’s cinematography, the way he and Tavernier shoot beautiful landscape after beautiful (and possibly meaningful) landscape without ever overindulging in it so it would get in the way of their movie. There’s a love on display here, for a place and its people, that doesn’t come as a complete surprise from Tavernier, whose interest in the American South goes back quite some time, yet which can’t be taken for granted either. Even though I’m sure the South of In the Electric Mist isn’t a documentarian depiction (though how could I know from Germany?), in the film it’s as real and as unreal as any place you might inhabit, and what more could I ask of a movie to create?

In short: El Callejón (2011)

Blind Alley (2011)

During an insomniac night before the audition that might mean her big break as a dancer and finish her career as a cleaning lady, Rosa (Ana de Armas) ends up in her corner washing salon. There, she meet-cutes a charming if slightly strange young man called Gabriel (Diego Cadavid), and things would be all set for a bit of romance, if this were a romantic comedy that is, and not a horror film with a bit of a sense of humour. So, inevitably and rather unfortunately, all may not be as it seems with Gabriel – most men I know at least don’t spend their night washing bloody women’s clothing – and Rosa’s night just might get exciting in a rather different way than the set-up suggests.

Antonio Trashorras’s Spanish/Colombian co-production is a simple, clever, sometimes ironic and pretty stylish piece of suspense horror that – as many a good low budget film does for obvious reasons – concentrates on a handful of actors (mostly Ana de Armas and Diego Cadavid, really) and locations and a straightforward plot. There are no distractions, and no attempts at doing things it’s not actually possible for the film to achieve, yet I never had the impression the film is any poorer for it. In fact, if El Callejón is anything, even in its little moments of humorous asides, it’s a film made by someone in control of his material, and very much willing and able to turn the simple set-up into an old-fashioned (as in 80s and early 90s horror, not as in Karloff) fun little horror film without pretensions that knows “unpretentious” doesn’t have to mean dumb.

Trashorras’s direction is dynamic (there’s even some fun use of that weirdest of traditional techniques, split screen), his use of colour moody and oh-so-un-2011 (which is to say, colours exist and might even mean something!), and the film never stops for breath once it’s got going. Add to this a charming performance by Ana de Armas, and there’s nothing to stop me from calling El Callejón a fun not-so-little romp.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: Evil Gets An Upgrade

Nightbreed Director’s Cut (1990): What surprised me most on watching Clive Barker’s preferred version of the film is how small the differences between this and the film’s initial version truly are, with little about them that’s fundamentally different. At least, the film still has all the flaws that always made it difficult for me to love it. So, while there’s certainly more to see of them now, the Nightbreed as a whole still feel more like alternative circus performers than any sort of ancient tribe of “monsters”, and they are still a pretty boring culture that seems based on all the least interesting clichés about oppressed groups you’ll encounter. Boone and Lori – the theoretical protagonists – are still complete non-entities, with no character traits beyond “being madly in love” and deeply stupid I could make out, which is a bit of a problem in a film that aims so clearly for the mythical and the archetypal, which might be simple but generally isn’t flat. But then, the Nightbreed probably got the destroyer/saviour there that fits them.

Faust: Love of the Damned (2000): This is Brian Yuzna at his least interesting, wallowing in the grotesque and the dubious of taste (which should be a good thing), but never really managing to actually do or say or think through it (which is a bad thing). There’s certainly a degree of joy to be found in the grotesque for the grotesque’s sake but the decisive something that would make me feel anything about the grotesquery I am seeing is missing here. The film isn’t exactly improved by lines and lines of horrible (and just awfully dumb) dialogue and a lead in Mark Frost who is certainly trying for the over the top approach that is the only reasonable one for this material but is more often than not ending up looking and sounding like a clown in a bad costume; and clown’s aren’t that frightening.

The Pact II (2014): I liked the first film of what I hope won’t become a long franchise a lot, and sequel directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath did make an interesting film before this in Entrance but – apart from the pointlessness of constructing a sequel to a film that really did tell the whole story by making the same film again while adding random clichés – this sequel just isn’t very good at all. Where the first film’s characterization was sharp and surprisingly deep, this one’s is trite, the characters never becoming more than actors saying words they learned from a script. Worse, some of the acting is truly atrocious (particularly Patrick Fischler is dreadful, though other performances by him I’ve seen suggest that he’s doing exactly what the directors want from him, for whatever reason), and where the first film was full of elegant and inventive moments of horror absolutely based in its characters, this one’s are mostly trite, or just jump-scaring up better set-ups from the original film.

On ExB: Der Mann mit dem Glasauge (1969)

They can’t all be hits, and so Alfred Vohrer’s final Edgar Wallace adaptation isn’t exactly his best work.
Yet, despite some major flaws, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the film, as you will see when you click on through to the sugar-ingesting Exploder Button.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

In short: Hollows Grove (2014)

It would be pretty easy to dismiss Craig Efros’s Hollows Grove as just another piece of POV horror about one of these fake ghost hunting reality shows for once encountering the actual supernatural, one of the more improbable sub-genres in existence. As a matter of fact, originality isn’t he film’s forte, nor is it the drawing of interesting or at least easy to empathize with characters: the people we encounter are an incredibly annoying group of asshats and jokers, so I spent the the film’s first half hoping for their fast and painful demise.

On the other hand, if you don’t get too distracted by the characters’ general hatefulness and look at what’s actually going on around them, you will not just see a good choice in cameos in Mykelti Williamson and the always lovely Lance Henriksen but perhaps appreciate Hollow Grove’s general level of competence when it comes to filmmaking basics like decent blocking, effective pacing, and so on. Now, this might sound like damning with faint praise, but I’d argue that keeping your film clear and competent while still selling it as something at best semi-professionally shot is not an easy thing to do. A lot of pretty ugly POV horror movie support my argument here.

There are also a final twenty minutes – the point when the characters have realized they are trapped, out of their depth and probably doomed – that go from competent to actually good, with some creatively imagined character deaths, and at least two and a half fright scenes that were actually more than just a little effective, with one clichéd yet inspired bonus moment happening after the credits. It’s not enough to get me raving about a film, but certainly more than enough to convince the hardened horror movie fan he didn’t waste his time watching it.

Basically, this is – not stylistically, mind you – a lot like many SyFy original movies: a pleasant enough time when you want to watch something undemanding, and clearly putting effort into being enjoyable for its target audience, which just happens to include me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

In short: The Bad Pack (1997)

A small, mostly Mexican-populated Texan village is oppressed by the neighbouring right wing militia of one Lamont Sperry (Marshall R. Teague) who are robbing, stealing, and murdering. It’s a curious way to demonstrate one’s supposed superiority, but then moral superiority is something these types usually miss out on claiming, unless it’s about sex.

Anyway, of course the village sends out two of their own to hire themselves some mercenaries. After a bit of back and forth that surely comes cheaper than an actual action scene does, the guys stumble on Confederate cap wearing badass McQue (Robert Davi) whose politics seem rather confusing to me, seeing as he lets himself be hired by brown people and treats everyone politely. As this is another Seven Samurai variation (perhaps with a bit of the A-Team thrown in), McQue gets together a team of specialists consisting of a driver (Roddy Piper), the brawny one (Ralf Moeller), a sharpshooting woman (Shawn Hutt), the obligatory African American who won’t stop talking (Larry B. Scott), and some crazy explosives guy (Patrick Dollaghan, I think). Together, they’re going to kick militia ass, at least as much as the budget allows.

Which, I’m sad to say, doesn’t seem to be much. At least, Brent Huff’s kinda-sorta action movie prefers talk to actual action to a suspicious degree. Now, Seven Samurai variants are generally a bit more talky than their genre brethren, but that’s usually because they’re interested in actually doing a bit of character work, taking cliché types and letting them breathe a little. Unfortunately, The Bad Pack really doesn’t do much of interest in that direction, and doesn’t put the copious amount of dialogue scenes to good use, or, in fact, any use at all except prolonging the film, with little said I’d actually want to remember, or will in fact be remembering for more than an hour or so.

The action’s not much to write home about either. There’s not only too little of it but what there is doesn’t show much energy, or creativity. Huff’s (who also plays a perfectly forgettable role as an actor here) action direction reminds me in a bad way of how 80s TV shows more often than not handled these kinds of sense. In other words, the action is not horrible but neither exciting nor ridiculous in a fun way - it’s just there.

“It’s just there” seems to me the perfect description for the whole of The Bad Pack, and, at least tonight, that’s just not enough for me.

In short: The Intruders (2015)

Warning: spoilers are a fact of life!

I have a terrible confession to make: I don’t loathe PG-13 horror movies and thrillers and their sisters and brothers with the burning fire of a thousand suns as all good horror fans are supposed to do. In fact, I not just don’t mind them; some of them, I even downright enjoy. Of course, there’s a bit of the quality of an assumed taste to this particular genre. Or rather, these films, dear long-time horror fan, aren’t actually made for an audience with a lot of genre sophistication – and neither for one that can’t live without huge amounts of blood and gore or metaphorical depth. These films, I suggest, are really the replacement of the classic TV horror movie, at least that part of the canon of classic TV horror nostalgic horror fans do not like to speak rather highly of – horror films and thrillers one might be able to watch with one’s grandma and genre films parents of a nervous disposition might allow their teenage kids to watch. Now, if this kind of audience actually still exists today (are there really people who don’t know the most basic genre tropes?) is a different question, but I didn’t make my market research roll, so I don’t have an answer to that one.

Adam Massey’s Canadian produced The Intruders is a case in point for what these films tend to be: a former Disney kid (Miranda Cosgrove, who is not unexpectedly a perfectly decent actress) in the lead, character actors like Donal Logue and Tom Sizemore in supporting roles, and a script that really seems to be written for an audience that has no clue about the old “He’s been inside the house all along” trope, setting up red herrings so obvious my grandmother (and yeah, I really tested it) doesn’t fall for them, making some decently melodramatic noises about mental illness and loss (oh, if only that part of the film and the rest of the plot were connected by more than the mere concept of mental illness), and constructing serviceable thriller scenes.

Not surprisingly, the whole affair feels decidedly on the cozy side to me, which is a bit strange when you keep in mind that the whole idea of a (crazy, murderous) stranger living secretly in your home with you is just plain creepy however you put it, but is most probably a result of the film’s inherent PG-13-ness, where you can be sure that things will turn out alright for everyone, and where nobody involved is actually ever aiming for hitting its audience where it hurts.

And if you go into The Intruders expecting not more than some very traditional scares – though I have to commend the film for the nearly complete absence of jump scares – and just as well-worn thriller tropes, I honestly think there’s fun to be had here. At the very least, there’s quite a bit of filmmaking competence on display, and while that may sound like I’m damning with faint praise again, it’s just the right thing for those times in life when you don’t actually want to be too disturbed or very excited by a film.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

In short: Excessive Force (1993)

Generic cop on the edge Terry McCain (Thomas Ian Griffith) and his partners Frankie (Tony Todd), and guy who dies too early for me to actually write down his name (Mister X) follow Terry’s vendetta against mob boss Sal DiMarco (Burt Young) into a drug deal between some of DiMarco’s men and members of the Irish mob, provoking the devolution from deal into shoot-out. Thanks to McCain’s use of torture on a suspect afterwards, DiMarco escapes another court indictment, leaving Terry quite angry and without shouldering any of the responsibility for something that is absolutely his fault all the way, of course. What only DiMarco and his men know is that three million dollars went missing during the bust, and DiMarco quickly pegs the cops as the responsible party.

Soon, the quite three-million-dollar-less Terry is the only of the three cops alive, and finds himself framed for murder and hunted by cops and gangsters alike. Why, you could think there’s some sort of conspiracy is going on.

Excessive Force’s excessively generic action movie title actually hides a generic cop movie featuring and written by lead Thomas Ian Griffith himself. The script for the whole affair is so bland, obvious and been-there, done-that clichéd even an actor could write it, so excitement, interesting ideas or even just somewhat involving execution of tired old ideas is right out. If anyone goes into this looking for even the tiniest bit of interesting characterization, she’ll be quite out of look, and neither Griffith’s script nor Jon Hess’s competent yet bland direction have much to add to the experience, particularly since neither the action scenes nor the dialogue are delivered with any sort of flair.

The latter is particularly sad in a film with such a fine cast of character actors that doesn’t just include Todd and Young but also features James Earl Jones and house favourite Lance Henriksen. Unfortunately, that’s Jones and and Henriksen phoning it in, Young biting the bullet very early on, and Todd only featuring in a few scenes, so we spend most of our time with Thomas Ian Griffith being as boring and obvious as his script, and Charlotte Lewis being pretty. Even though I do approve of Mother Nature’s work on Miss Lewis, that’s really not enough to keep me awake during a film.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Bermuda Tentacles (2014): Nick Lyon’s SyFy Original starts out as an entertaining enough dumb giant monster movie with a lot of bad looking yet most excellent CGI tentacles, a very budget-conscious deep sea dive, and Linda Hamilton, but by its final act descends in so much jingoistic “Yay! Let’s sacrifice a lot of people for the Greater Good™!” bullshit it leaves me with a very bad taste in my mouth.

Further weaknesses are the fact that leads Trevor Donovan and Mya can’t act their way out of a paper bag, and that the script really seems to think that it can out-Independence-Day the Emmerich film on a SyFy budget.

The Art of the Steal (2013): This, on the other hand, is a wonderful little caper movie that lacks the showiness of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films but has decidedly more heart. Instead of show-off casting, Jonathan Sobol’s film has a more organic feeling ensemble, with particularly wonderful turns by Kurt Russell and Terence Stamp.

It’s also consistently funny in a rather self-deprecating manner, treating its characters’ losses with unexpected dignity, and loving to go off into little flights of fancy. The film is also excellently paced and has a fun little central con that may or may not pass closer scrutiny. I sure don’t know because I was enjoying myself too much to care.

Sky Riders (1976): I can’t help but admire director Douglas Hickox’ approach to the somewhat bizarre task of making a James Coburn and (somewhat) Robert Culp vehicle about a bunch of terrorists (with a curiously more-dimensional performance by Werner Pochath) kidnapping the heroes’ ex-wife/wife and children, and having to be taken down with the help of a bunch of hang glider riders under the leadership of John Beck: he just pretends the gimmicky basic idea is perfectly reasonable, and treats it like he would every other plot element in a 70s action thriller.

And Hickox was a perfectly good director of this kind of thing, too, delivering nothing spectacular, but tight enough basic thriller stuff, and an increasingly loud (and somewhat strange) series of action set-pieces. That’s nothing to win any film overmuch praise, but it sure as hell is more than enough to keep me entertained for the film’s running time.

Additionally, I really appreciate how toothy this film is, with Culp doing his patented gritted teeth grimace and Coburn doing that really frightening thing with his teeth he likes so much. Fortunately, they never do it at one another, or bite marks would be inevitable.