Thursday, July 30, 2015

Agent Red (2000)

For security reasons the Russians want to return a dangerous US-developed virus the Soviets once stole from its rightful, mass-murdering creators. Because that’s the way you do this sort of thing, a US submarine commanded by a skipper on his last mission before retirement is to transport the virus to US shores. Alas, a group of terrorists have infiltrated the sub, murder the crew, and are planning to release the virus on New York via the sub’s missiles, all as part of their protest against weapons of mass destruction. Seriously.

Fortunately, two Americans have survived the attack, and now it is up to them – marine badass Captain Matt Hendricks (Dolph “What, I’m not playing a Russian!?” Lundgren) and his ex-and-soon-to-be-non-ex-again fiancée Lt. Dr. Linda Christian (Meilani Paul who is, to say it politely, the worst actor in a film full of horrible performances) – to save the day. Well, at least Matt’s carrying a rather convenient antidote to the horrible, horrible virus nobody actually understands (or so the film says) around.

Well, sort of beloved Swedish scientist and actor Dolph Lundgren has been in quite a few crap films, but among connoisseurs, this one is generally taken to be the absolute low point in his career, which says something given some of the films he put an appearance in. I mean, that means worse than the The Expendables films, after all.

Going by what the Internet tells me, the original state Agent Red was in when director Damian Lee delivered it was so bad, even producer Andrew Stevens wasn’t willing to put that one out, so, after some useless attempts by one Steve Latshaw to rescue the film without having to do any reshoots, he hired that well-known artist, Jim Wynorski for three days of hasty reshoots that resulted – if I can believe what I read – in 40 minutes of new footage. To nobody’s surprise this, as well as the film’s now rather humungous use of footage taken from slightly higher budget productions Stevens could cannibalize (in a way even I see the continuity errors, like the incredibly shrinking Dolph early on), does not for a very good, or even only a basically coherent film make. Indeed, even by the standards of cheap direct-to-video action the film makes little sense with its lack of coherence even when it comes to very basic things like the way the virus it is all about works on human beings. Needless to say, characterization and plot are rote, yet where other action movies of this type make up for that kind of deficiency with crazy ideas and fun nonsense, Agent Red drags its feet.

Sure, there is the large, large, absurdly large number of dumb one-liners, and sexual innuendo of the most painful type (example: “Ow!” – “That’s what you said the last time I put it in.”), and that’s good for a laugh now and then, but the film commits the most horrible sin a movie of its type can commit: it is just plain boring, with minute upon minute of guys in uniform just talking nonsense at each other, surprisingly little happening for something supposedly being an action film, and little in it that’s actually enjoyable.

What there is of actual action scenes is pretty bad too, thanks to the awesome directorial decision (probably one by Lee, not by Wynorski, who is bad and most probably hates his audience but isn’t quite this stupid a director) to film the action exclusively in shots so close to the actors you see as little of what is going on as if the film were shot in shaky-cam and lightning edit mode. It’s impressive in a way, if impressive means a horribly bad idea executed terribly. Sure, it’s probably an attempt to disguise that the interior of the submarine doesn’t look at all like the interior of a submarine but rather like that one badly lit warehouse set 99 percent of all cheap action movies are shot on, but you know what? It doesn’t work and makes the film a chore to watch, so one can’t say the attempt was successful.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In short: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

Despite looking like a generic slasher movie, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is something rather more peculiar. It’s not really a remake of Charles B. Pierce’s – also peculiar – regional horror classic but more a sequel to the actual murders that film was based on, with Pierce’s original existing in its world and building the base of the copycat murder series (or is it?) this film’s about. Rejoice fans of musical instrument based killing, because that’s in here too.

Anyway, Sundown ‘14 doesn’t go for the whole pseudo documentary angle of the original film, instead in turns opting for generally dreamlike and unreal atmosphere, made of the kind of Americana David Lynch is so fond of as the surface to his abysses, humour I could have lived without, a bit of metafictional business that doesn’t lead anywhere, and a directing style that is pretty much the opposite of Pierce’s, generally choosing conscious strangeness and the crass whenever possible. The murders here a bit slasher-ed up, with the face-sack-wearing killer walking through a lot of windows, and murder scenes staged in ways a death by trombone doesn’t seem particularly outré anymore.

As might already be obvious, I’m not completely sure what to make of the film. On one hand, I’m happy Sundown ‘14 attempts to get into a dialogue with the film it is remaking, and doesn’t just turn it into a standard slasher. On the other hand, I’m not sure where the film is actually going instead: there are moments of satire, the metafictional parts seem rather pointless, there’s a bit of a coming of age story of our heroine Jami (Addison Timlin in a pretty fine performance), there’s comic book violence, all adding up to a film that is certainly peculiar and not just a film made by the numbers. Unfortunately I’m not too sure these things really add up to anything in particular, and while I – as a friend of all films peculiar – had an interesting time letting all this wash over me (sometimes even sucking me in with elements like Timlin’s performance or the very pretty photography), it’s all very meandering and not looking to have any point it wants to get to. Then there’s the “oh what the hell, let’s just have an ending” Scream style final twist that not only makes little sense but also feels even more disconnected from everything else going on. So, to be perfectly honest, I really don’t know, and I’m not so fond of the film’s style of strangeness I’ll be digging into it any further.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In short: Burying the Ex (2014)

Well, this isn’t a complaint you hear from me very often, but what really buries Joe Dante’s newest movie for me is how inherently sexist the whole affair is, showing not a bit of compassion for its zombie returnee (Ashley Greene, whose manic performance once she’s back from dead is to my surprise one of the better elements of the film, and deserving of a better one), and no visible clue that its supposed everyman hero (Anton Yelchin) is a childish, superficial little prick. Of course, the latter isn’t too surprising in a film that seems to believe actual human pair relationships should be between people who are virtually identical, and that can’t seem to ever rise above the lamest of comedy clichés in its characterisation, with Yelchin’s Max the poor beleaguered sod under attack by the oh-so-evil (just look at her ecological fixation, oh noes!), neurotic, dominant shrew back from the dead, even though all he really deserves is Alexandra Daddario’s female other self (just without any actual ego, because clearly, that’s baaad in a woman).

One might hope that at least hilarity ensues, but the film’s jokes are stale, Dante’s usual visual gags and nods in the direction of the tradition of genre cinema are the same old for him, and there’s really not a reason to root for anyone here. Compare this to something like Shaun of the Dead, a film that goes out of its way to show its male main character as a loveable fuck-up but always stays conscious that he is indeed a fuck-up, and what Dante’s film mostly looks like is dated, as if he didn’t learn a thing since his 80s heyday. Well, actually, it’s more like he unlearned quite a few things he knew. It doesn’t help this impression that the film is so clearly struggling with its depiction of contemporary twenty-somethings, using phrases, jokes and characterisation for them that suggest they’re actually living in an old man’s idea of 2004.

Add all this up, and you get yourself a film that actually leaves one somewhat embarrassed for its director. Surely, this can’t be the film Dante was actually aiming to make?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: YOUNG AMERICANS in the SHADOW of DEATH!

Dragonwolf (2013): I quite enjoyed director Raimund Huber's earlier movie Kill 'em All as the kind low budget production not overstaying its welcome and realizing what it can do on its budget, and what not. Dragonwolf on the other hand, is an ill-advised attempt at creating some sort of comic book style martial arts epic. Consequently, the terrible acting becomes a problem, as does the horrible dialogue, the idiotic plot, and the fact that there's barely anything happening on screen that is either stupid or badly executed. Most of the time, it's even both.

Add to this the film's just as ill-advised length of two terrible, painful hours, and find me crying in a corner.

The Cater Street Hangman (1998): This adaptation of Anne Perry's first Inspector Pitt Mystery, on the other hand, knows quite well what it's doing. If I were in a complaining mood, I'd probably argue that director Sarah Helling does overemphasise the source's melodramatic elements a bit, and the script by T.R. Bowen slightly underemphasises some of the book's seedier elements, but the film gets Perry's anger at all kinds of social injustice as right as it does her moments of compassion even with some of the people complicit in these injustices, so I'd be complaining about something very minor here.

Keeley Hawes and Eoin McCarthy make a very fine Charlotte Ellison and Thomas Pitt, respectively, too, so there's little about the film that's not to like.

Direct Contact (2009): And here I thought I had developed a high tolerance for contemporary direct-to-DVD action films. Turns out, it's only a high tolerance for contemporary direct-to-DVD action films that are actually any good. The saddest thing about the Dolph Lundgren vehicle at hand is that it has some production values: there's a helicopter, a tank, and quite a few henchmen wobbling around in diverse locations; there's even a plot that could be vaguely interesting. Unfortunately, director Danny Lerner is rather terrible, managing to make everyone involved look just as terrible: Dolph is as stiff as he hasn't been in decades, Michael Paré looks bored, and the rest of the cast give the impression of people waiting on instructions that just don't come. Worse, for this sort of movie, while Lerner doesn't go for the lame show-off editing and staging style of action I hate with a passion, he demonstrates that you produce just as crappy action scenes while holding the camera still. There's no heft to any of the action, the editing makes everyone look slow, and even worse, it's so sloppily shot there's barely an action scene not ruined by continuity problems that rob the action of all rhythm; the direction’s additional attempts at “style” are just laughable.

Friday, July 24, 2015

On ExB: It Follows (2014)

You know what’s best in life? Certainly not that lamentation of their women stuff. And nope, it’s not when filmmakers (or rather PR people) want me to post about their kickstarters and press releases even though I’m pretty clearly never posting press releases and news, nor recommend kickstarters to anyone but certain long-suffering friends (hi, Inga!), and nope, not even when people want me to write free advertising for their commercial websites (which I wouldn’t even do here if they paid me). It’s when a much-hyped film turns out to be even better than the hype promised.

Case in point is It Follows. It’s not just absolutely innocent of the annoyances I listed, but just happens to be the sort of film I can’t help but see as an instant classic. So prepare to hear me gush over the brilliant, brilliant It Follows in my column at the also press-release free Exploder Button.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

In short: Cold in July (2014)

The life of peaceful Texan family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is turned upside down when he shoots an unarmed burglar in a moment of panic. This being Texas and all, the law doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with that – in fact, much less of a problem than Richard’s conscience has – but the burglar’s ex-con father Russell (Sam Shepard) is a bit of a different case.

Russell performs the expected threatening postures, and he’s clearly out for revenge but the situation will turn out to be quite a bit different from the semi-remake of Cape Fear one might now expect.

And that’s pretty much the point where Jim Mickle’s film turns out to be much more interesting and worthwhile than the extremely competent but unsurprising film it seems to set itself up as initially. It’s also just the first time the plot takes a turn into an unexpected and more interesting direction, always executed without the carnival huckster gestures of the twist-based movie but with a naturalness and matter-of-factness that can’t be easy to pull off, particularly not when played for a genre-savvy audience. It’s not as if each single element of the plot were terribly original in itself – in fact we’ve seen all these elements before in different films – but the way Mickle’s and his usual writing partner’s Nick Damici’s script (and I suppose the Joe R. Lansdale novel the script is based on) put these well-worn elements together feels new and fresh, and Mickle’s direction (working inside the 80s influenced not really retro style that’s popular right now, I suspect in part as a reaction against all movies being yellow and washed out) provides an unshowy and flawless drive to the proceedings. 

At the same time, the film is highly character-based with even the plot’s more dubious moments, as well as the characters’ many ethically questionable decisions, developed as natural results of what these characters here are, or are in the process of becoming. While this is a vigilante movie of a kind, it is, pleasantly, not one that wants or does preach the beauty of taking the law into one’s own hand; as a matter of fact, the film isn’t interested in asking ethical questions in an abstract way but rather in showing what these particular characters do when confronted with their specific ethical problems; and what these characters do isn’t meant to be a manual for the audience’s own lives.

The actors involved here are of course a huge part of this effect, with Hall (who to my eyes is one of the greats right now) and Shepard going the more naturalistic route they’re so damn good at, while Don Johnson uses the larger than life approach that has served him quite well in the last few years. Somehow, these very different acting approaches gel excellently too.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Monster! (1999)

Med student Travis (Tobias Mehler) comes to the charmingly named town of New Purgatory (you think it’s nice and sunny there?) to take care of his grandfather Lloyd Reeves (M. Emmet Walsh). When he was younger, Lloyd starred in a long series of local low budget horror movies that are still celebrated with an annual movie festival in town, but in his old age, Lloyd seems to have gotten it into his head these films are actually real, and he has been fighting a monster that returns every three years since 1969. People aren’t just talking about Lloyd, they are starting to think he might be some kind of crazy killer in the making.

After some embarrassing events, the boss of the local psychiatric clinic grudgingly releases Lloyd into Travis’s custody. Lloyd tries to explain the whole problem to Travis as he sees it: there’s not just the monster problem threatening the town, the place is actually getting trapped in the rules and tropes of one of his monster movies too whenever monster time comes around. Not surprisingly, Travis doesn’t believe a single word of this, and when a teenage couple is killed while Lloyd is out and about screeching warnings like a madman while wielding an axe, he even believes the going theory his grandpa is an axe-murdering maniac.

However, Travis will change his tune soon enough, and he, the town doctor’s daughter Jill (Angela Keep), and the white, hip-hop loving youth of town might just take over the town hero job from Lloyd.

The 90s were a particularly bad time for horror TV movies; as a matter of fact they were a pretty bad time for TV movies period. So stumbling about a neat little film like John Lafia’s horror comedy made for the UPN (whatever that is) among the dross is a rather pleasant event. What’s even more pleasant is that this is actually a film that gets the ironic and knowing approach to horror film – or to be precise, old monster movies – right. There’s neither superior smugness that suggests the filmmakers don’t actually like the genre they are working in nor the big gesture of deconstructing the genre further than the film actually does on display. Lafia’s approach is loving, slightly nostalgic, and often actually funny, playing with the elements that make up a monster movie while still allowing the film to be one.

You could of course argue the film treats its material in a rather harmless way, never really delving into how horrible the basic concept of a town regularly trapped in monster movie tropes actually is, with people forgetting the dead afterwards and falling into the character types of low budget movies every three years. It’s as nightmarish as Thomas Ligotti’s philosophical stance, the longer I think about it. But then, it’s probably for the better it’s not me writing these movies, or what is supposed to be a fun, knowing romp would turn into weird cosmicist nightmare without any solution.

Monster! isn’t totally unconscious of these things, though. At least, it makes the very sympathetic attempt to change the role of The Girl into something more active, even suggesting Jill might be the more competent Town Hero, which isn’t at all something I’d expected to find in a TV movie of its time. Why, there might even be hope of the town breaking out of the endless cycle and moving into another movie.

Otherwise, Monster! is very much your typical fun TV monster movie, the sort of thing you might get to see on the SyFy Channel if you’re lucky, with an unconvincing yet cute CGI monster, inexperienced but decent and pretty leads supported by some experienced character actors (Walsh is a total hoot, it’s only too bad he never actually played in many monster movies), and competent direction. I can see this as a feel-good movie for the whole family, if your family is a bit like mine.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Some thoughts about At the Devil’s Door (2014)

aka Home

I’ve gone on record as a big admirer of director Nicholas McCarthy’s first feature, The Pact. However, I’m not as enamoured of this second film of his. It might be the use of particularly tired and tried out material in form of the rather en vogue demonic possession/Christian apocalypse mythology, it might be the film’s curious and interesting but not necessarily effective structure, or most probably a combination of both. So while I found myself appreciating McCarthy’s often highly artful direction, the way he often subverts suburban American values, I never actually felt sucked into the story as such, feeling kept at a distance to the story as well as its protagonists.

The clever shifting of protagonist identities doesn’t exactly help with the latter, and while the shift is certainly interesting and makes sense in the context of the story, it can’t help but distance a viewer further from characters that aren’t very deeply drawn anyway.’ For example, co-protagonist Leigh feels lonely and wants babies because she can’t have them, her artist sister Vera can have babies but distrusts all forms of closeness, probably some stuff to do with their dead parents but that’s really all the film ever tells our shows us about them. It’s particularly curious after a film like The Pact that was all about complex characterisation. What we learn of the characters does of course fit into the film’s argument against suburban values but also turns them into parts of an equation instead of something with breath and life (all efforts of some excellent actresses – men are of practically no import in the film at all – notwithstanding), an approach that actually reminds me of Kubrick, a director whose films – depth, craft and mastership notwithstanding – leave me utterly cold.

On the conceptual level, there’s a lot to appreciate here: the way the film plays pregnancy as the absolute worst thing for one of its characters certainly plays nicely with the assumed audience idea of how women are “supposed” to relate to children. Which might be another reason why I didn’t really connect with the film, because I personally don’t share these assumptions about “motherhood” at all. And, as I have mentioned previously, I think, my atheism does not really help me feeling creeped out by the whole “possessed by the devil”, “the number of the beast” angle. Though, after some consideration, I think it’s fair to say that the most conventional possession horror scenes are At the Devil’s Door’s weakest parts even if you don’t suffer from my specific handicap; they’re just too clichéd right now, like vampire sex or ticking bomb torture scenarios.

Having said all this, McCarthy does still demonstrate an incredible directing talent. Even though I didn’t like the distancing effect of the film’s narrative structure, he still handles it really well on a technical level. One also just has to praise McCarthy’s sense for meaningful scene setting, his use of deep focus as well as background details consciously out of focus, the gliding camera and the highly effective sound design. The more I think about it, the more I think the problem’s really with me and not with At the Devil’s Door. Oh well.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

In short: The Force on Thunder Mountain (1978)

A father – let’s call him Horatio because the film never bothers to give the poor guy a name – (Christopher Cain) takes his son Rick (Todd Dutson) and their dog on a week-long hiking trip for bonding reasons. Because Horatio isn’t the brightest, he decides the perfect place for introducing Rick to wilderness life is the area around and on Thunder Mountain, a supposedly cursed place that is avoided by everyone, and has been avoided since pre-Colonial times.

So, not surprisingly, strange and rather dangerous things happen to the hikers: winds out of nowhere blow their camp away, trees just fall down to smash them, lines are cut, and disembodied voices tell Rick to go away. Dad isn’t too bothered by these occurrences, though, and even when one step in the woods suddenly teleports them into a desert, his reaction afterwards isn’t to grab his son and flee for less creepy places, but to declare they’ll really have to check in with the forestry service and ask about this once they’ve ended their trip. Did I mention that Horatio is an idiot?

Things come to a dramatic head when the grandfatherly alien living on the mountain who is responsible for everything (James Lyle Strong) kidnaps Rick to teach him about the Force (oh yes) and yap a lot (and I mean a lot) of other nonsense. All the while, Horatio is spending days in the wilderness looking for Rick without going for help. Seriously. Well, at least someone will learn a valuable lesson once the alien has taught Rick how to use an all-powerful thought translator, one hopes.

Ah, local US filmmaking, how did I miss your unique ability to bore me to death and astonish me in the same film! I have to admit, though, The Force does quite a bit more boring than astonishing, what with it consisting of about 30 percent of library animal footage complete with Horatio monologuing science facts (which I’m sure has nothing at all to do with the fact that director Peter B. Good was involved in a TV show called “Animal World”), 30 percent footage of our heroes strolling through the woods or singing (shudder), and 30 percent of an elderly alien babbling nonsense. The final ten percent do have their moments though, with the really wonderfully strange scene when our heroes just teleport into the desert, some reasonable cool UFO footage, and even one or two sequences that actually make atmospheric use of the impressive forest in Utah where this was shot.

That’s not exactly much to keep a boy (or girl) awake for 90 minutes, of course, but to me, long and pointless scenes of people slogging through nature do tend to have a degree of attraction only explicable by my being a town boy, so there’s that to be said for the film too. I also found the film’s treatment of the whole alien business somewhat charming in its naive kids (or desperately stupid adults) movie kind of way. And if that still doesn’t sound like I recommend The Force on Thunder Mountain half-heartedly to anyone able to find it and then sit through it, I sure don’t know what to add.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Moontrap (1989)

Aging NASA astronaut Jason Grant (Walter Koenig) and his younger wise-cracking sidekick Ray Tanner (Bruce Campbell) are doing the usual space truck tours that are what a lot of people born too late actually now know as the only kind of spaceflight they ever saw. Though at least the two don’t have to work for commercial operators who can’t even get a supply rocket up into orbit. They stumble (or however you call that in space) on something rather spectacular: the wreck of an ancient space craft, complete with a dead human body that’ll turn out to be 14.000 years old, and a strange egg-like metal thing, Jason picks up.

Back on Earth, NASA determines the ship’s point of origin was on the moon. While the boys and the NASA scientists are still attempting to convince a government big wig that this is not an elaborate hoax they’ve cooked up to get funding, and that they should probably take a look at the place the ship came from (which would also grant Jason his old dream of setting foot on the moon), the egg shaped thing turns out to be a nasty little machine that turns itself into a large, lumbering killer robot via judiciously applied metal pieces and body parts. That moon expedition just might be even more important than everyone expected. If you’re into the whole “survival of the species” thing, that is.

I still remember I was pretty bored by it when I first watched Robert Dyke’s Moontrap as a kid, despite the lovely casting of the main heroes and the film’s cheap but fine killer robots. Today, I’m rather more fond of the film, even though some of its flaws are undeniable.

There’s for one the at times surprisingly sluggish pace of proceedings in a film where on paper a lot of stuff is happening; the problem is that Dyke’s direction is very dry, presenting a good eye for shooting cheap special effects so they don’t look quite as cheap but nearly completely missing a sense for drama and tension. Then there’s the lack of depth or thought put into the script, leading to things like a complete lack of explanation as to what the killer robots actually want. Okay, they use humans as spare parts, but why are they stranded on the moon, and why does it take them 14.000 years to build a spacecraft to get from the Moon to Earth?, and so on. And don’t even get me started on the character of Mera (Leigh Lombardi) whose why and wherefore in the film opens up dozens of questions the film doesn’t even seem to ponder asking. Now, I’m not expecting too many believable answers from my pulp science fiction, but I’d really rather prefer it to put a bit of effort into the film’s supposed female main character beyond using her as an opportunity to shove in another pair of naked breasts and threaten us with a Walter Koenig sex scene.

Yet still, Moontrap does have an undeniable charm, even though I’m not completely able to explain it. Perhaps it’s the visible love put into the film’s not very probable robots and past future tech? Or perhaps the general lived-in feel of the film’s universe, and its willingness to let that collide with pure pulp SF? Or it might just be I’m a sucker for cheap SF movies with groovy death scenes that don’t really manage to project how existentially horrifying some of its basic ideas actually are?

Friday, July 17, 2015


Infini (2015): As you know, Jim, I do love me some SF horror, so this Australian low budget film directed by Shane Abbess already has one thing going for it. It also has sparse yet convincing production design (in the Alien tradition of grubby, lived-in looking spaces – in space), a calm and effective soundtrack, decent acting, and a script that actually knows what it wants to do and isn’t willing to throw everything away for a dumb final twist, going for it. Sure, the film does perhaps feature a few too many scenes of crazed people bellowing at each other while the camera shakes and the editing finger wobbles, and its first two thirds do follow the genre expectations perhaps a bit too closely. However, it also has an unexpected and emotionally (perhaps even philosophically) resonant ending that’s not at all par for the course in its sub-genre, and is a film that really makes its low budget work, as well as a plot that actually works without everyone involved being an idiot.

Let Us Prey (2014): Despite clearly being a film made with great conviction and technical acumen, and far above your James Wan produced mainstream horror piece or your amateur gore movie, I didn’t really warm to Brian O’Malley’s film. It’s a temperamental thing, I think, an incompatibility between me and a film that, whenever it has to decide between a subtle and an unsubtle way to go about things, always takes the loud approach (quite effectively one has to say), which leads to something I surely can appreciate and respect but not really love. It may be I’m not its ideal audience in other regards either, the film’s exclusive interest in old testament based religion more than just a little suspect to this liberal atheist. The ending’s a bit problematic too, seeing as Liam Cunningham’s character calling themselves a mere observer is utter nonsense, unless you want to believe small towns on the British Isles have a psychopathic killer percentage of about eighty percent of the population, making the final decision of lead character Pollyanna MacIntosh really difficult to swallow. It might just be me, though.

Cowboys vs Dinosaurs aka Jurassic Attack (2015): Here, on the other hand, it’s most definitely not me, because everything about this thing is bad: the acting, the irony, the special effects, the score – you name it, it’s terrible. Which of course still leaves the decades old space for a movie about cowboys fighting dinosaurs that’s actually any good wide open. Though honestly, after having gone through this thing, I’ve finally developed much more of an appreciation for the fine filmmaking art and the love that went into The Valley of Gwangi.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Anomaly (2014)

It’s the near future, when cells and tablets will be semi-transparent and people really love blueish glowing things. PTSD-suffering ex-soldier Ryan (Noel Clarke) suddenly finds himself in a van next to a shackled boy (Art Parkinson) who tells him something about having been kidnapped by men in red masks. Ryan unshackles the boy and flees with him, the kidnappers in hot pursuit. However, it’s clear something more strange than “just” lost time is going on with our protagonist. For one, one of the kidnappers (Ian Somerhalder) seems to have Ryan’s cell number, and for two, there’s a red mask in his pocket.

Before things can become any clearer, Ryan loses consciousness and again awakes in circumstances he can’t explain, again close to the kidnapper with whom he seems to be on very friendly terms, and clearly after enough time has passed for him to grow a beard. That’s not the last time this sort of thing will happen to our hero, and it will take a bit until he – as well as the audience – will find his bearings. It is, not to get all spoiler-y, not a good situation he’s in, and it’ll take quite a few desperate acts for him to get out of it again. Maybe he’ll even have to go into the world saving business.

By now, it’s pretty obvious that Noel Clarke – The Anomaly’s director, lead, and writer of “additional material” whatever that means – has ambitions to be a bit more than the guy who played a semi-companion on Doctor Who and did minor to medium parts in various indie and genre productions afterwards. I suspect a part of the motivation here might be that it’s still difficult for actors of colour who aren’t very very lucky or incredibly talented – if not both - to get actual straight up leading parts, and a good way to change that is to make films of one’s own where the degree of creative control is certainly higher than for an actor without too much clout. Which sounds like a good plan to me. Unfortunately, until now, I wasn’t convinced I as a viewer would get any movies I find actually worth seeing out of it.

That’s changed with the film at hand. Sure, The Anomaly is a pretty typical low budget SF/action film with quite a few of the expected clichés – the improbably helpful prostitute, the evil rich men, the Ugly American spies, and so on – but it’s a generally well made one that uses its set-up in clever and inventive ways, taking the conceit of Ryan only ever having about ten minutes time to get anything done and his foes realizing this and working against it to keep the pacing well up, with no wasted second. Consequently, the film feels very tight, keeping to the rules it has set up for itself and then making the most out of the opportunity to make a movie where all connections between scenes have to be made by audience and main character alike through inference. I’m actually not sure this approach would work with less generic characters than those we encounter here, for the film’s main gimmick just doesn’t lend itself to this complexity in characterisation, and instead of a film about a man acting quite heroically in a highly stressful situation and punching and shooting other people a lot we’d get one about a guy looking around confusedly while barely comprehensible things happen around him.

And though that could go down well with the art house crowd – and on a patient day, with me – that way perhaps an interesting SF film about the nature of identity and memory lies, yet also complete commercial disaster. So instead, we have a film that fits the “clever low budget genre movie” description to a T, and that’s fine with me too.

Apart from its general cleverness and tightness – and that would be more than enough for me to appreciate and recommend The Anomaly – there are other elements here I find worth praising. First and foremost, I love the economical way Clarke presents the near future this takes place in as the near future, putting exactly as much FUTURE SCIENCE in as his budget allows, with a good understanding of the appropriate signifiers (see-through stuff! blue glowing stuff! a freakish skyline!) and no attempt to do more than he can actually afford to show.

Knowing how much one can do on a budget and what the important elements are one needs to show or suggest to keep the plot – and a film’s future - convincing for what one wants and needs it to do is particularly important in a film like this. In fact, I’m convinced what kills a lot of budget SF action movies isn’t so much that they are a bit generic, but that they don’t seem to understand when and where they need to put telling details into their worlds to make them look just convincing and living enough. Nobody, well, nobody who actually likes movies like The Anomaly, expects a realistically believable future – what we expect is a future we can believe in as the background to whatever punching and shooting the film has to offer. If there’s a bit more to it, like it is here, that’s just all the better.

However, before I oversell The Anomaly, I have to point out its biggest weakness. Although Clarke is generally a competent contemporary director (that is, a director who knows and uses comparatively state of the art tricks but doesn’t overdo them so as to not make his film unwatchable with all the shaking, the whooshing and the yellow and teal), he is at his weakest in the action scenes, as a director as well as an actor. In most of the melee fights, he utterly overdoes that thing where a movie stops for second or so to then speed up a little, supposedly to help the audience appreciate the physical impact of a punch (or in this case, of every third punch anyone lands), and to hide that nobody involved is a very practiced screen fighter. In practice, it just looks a bit tacky, and instead of hiding the lack of screen fighting prowess of Clarke and Somerhalder, it rather emphasises it. Whatever happened to stuntmen? It’s not catastrophically bad, but it does drag the film down from what could be excellent to good, leaving a curious bit of incompetence in a film that is anything but otherwise.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In short: Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (2015)

This tale of a trio of local TV news people (Alexandra Breckenridge, Chris Marquette and Jake McDorman) drawing the rather unwanted attention of a mysterious suit-wearing entity (Doug Jones) that will draw them into a nightmare is vaguely based on the mythology of Marble Hornets, a web series that quickly turned from a bit of slender man horror into something more individual. The creative connections are pretty loose, though – neither director James Moran nor writer Ian Shorr seem to be involved in the web series, and there are a nods in the direction of the series instead of an attempt to truly interconnect the two.

I’m not quite sure why that is, really, for I suspect Marble Hornets fans (which I’m not really, though I have seen about half of the series) will be disappointed by the looseness of the connection while audience members not clued in will probably be puzzled by the whole Marble Hornets thing.

Looked at independently, Always Watching is a competent bit of POV horror with somewhat more interesting characterization than usual in the sub-genre but also made out of a lot of the same beats and tropes most films of the sub-genre are made of. Moran’s perfectly capable of making a threatening little suspense scene now and then, but never manages to really do something with a central monster that is basically an infectious meme you can only see – and be seen back by it, the film suggests – through the lens of some kind of camera. This central idea isn’t just inherently creepy but could also be meta as hell, with the audience watching recorded scenes of characters watching recorded scenes, yet the film never does anything with this. Nor does it use the obvious possibilities for some kind of social commentary inherent in the omnipresence of cameras and the idea of a thing acting through them, as if the film went out of its way to only be a competent POV horror film like dozens of others, even when the opportunities for more are so obvious.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

In short: The Accursed (1957)

aka The Traitor

A former German resistance group against the Nazis (among them Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee and Jane Griffiths) annually meet at the British country home of their second leader, Colonel Price (Donald Wolfit) to commemorate the murder of their first leader Gerhardt by fascist hands. This year, though, Price has gotten the disquieting information from someone in his employ that one member of the group had betrayed Gerhardt to the Nazis. Who exactly the traitor was is apparently the sort of thing one can’t mention on the phone, so Price’s man will make a personal appearance at the reunion.

Alas, once he arrives, someone knifes the spy in the back before he can tell Price much, so now everyone in the Colonel’s old dark house is under suspicion. Things become mildly more complicated when a British intelligence officer of no consequence and US Major Shane (Robert Bray, the usual third rate American actor this sort of British production hired to be able to sell overseas, for Americans always were constitutionally unable to stomach films not containing Americans, it seems) arrive under a thin pretext. Soon, everyone emotes melodramatically, Shane barks questions, and, if the audience is really lucky, somebody else is going to get murdered.

So yes, it’s another Old Dark House mystery, though one without a gorilla, instead making an attempt to give the usual tale of a bunch of character actors under suspicion of murder in a conveniently small number of sets a bit of a grounding in at the time still very near history. One would be tempted to say “to give it a twist”, but that would afford a more interesting script than the one director Michael McCarthy delivered - you know, one that is actually interested in exploring what the times they had to live throw did with its characters instead of one just using it for a bit of melodramatic shouting.

What we get instead is a competent yet deeply unexciting parade of character actors having the usual melodramatic outbursts, taking on silly accents if they’re not actually continental Europeans, and suffering from being terribly underwritten and just not very interesting. There’s some good lingering by Lee, and Diffring does his usual neurotic shtick, but there’s little of substance in the film for them to get their teeth into. The plot moves slow as molasses, and I found myself drifting away while the film went through 70 long minutes of motions I’ve seen made with more conviction in many earlier films.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

As Above, So Below (2014)

With her combination of academic degrees and more practical adventuring talents, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) makes a rather good pulp heroine (and probably thinks guns are for amateurs). She’s seeking the Philosopher’s Stone supposedly hidden in Nicholas Flamel’s secret crypt, to finish the work her father began before he committed suicide.

After a short intro visit to Iran to acquire some information needed to decode Flamel’s gravestone, Scarlett grabs her rogue clockwork repairman friend and expert in Aramaic George (Ben Feldman) and follows the hints Flamel laid into the Catacombs of Paris, with a group of Parisian urban explorers led by one Papillon (François Civil) as their native guides. They are accompanied by Benji (Edwin Hodge), who makes a documentary about Scarlett’s search, because why not? As it goes with things alchemical, the search becomes rather more dangerous and more metaphorical than anyone could have expected.

After a start that suggests director writer John Erick Dowdle will do a sort-of Dan Brown-ish, Indiana Jones and horror-influenced bit of POV catacomb running, As Above, So Below’s second half makes clear that he and his co-writer Drew Dowdle do have a working knowledge of various interpretations of the meaning of the alchemists’ search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Given the literacy level in filmmaking circles, this comes as a pleasant surprise, yet also, alas, leads to the part of the film more than one professional film critic professed to not understand, even though the film’s ending should be quite clear to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of what it is about. I’d wager even a visit to the Wikipedia page about the Philosopher’s Stone should educate anyone enough to understand a film that isn’t exactly cryptic and only avoids to explain itself with a sledgehammer. But what do the film and I want, film critics who either have an education or are willing to put in five minutes of Internet time to understand something quite simple? Absurd, clearly.

Anyway, before I really get to ranting, let’s say nice things about a film that is pretty much ready-made to be enjoyed by me, seeing as it combines an ass-kicking (okay, living statue-bashing) heroine in the pulp mode played with what looks like a sense of fun, a treasure hunt full of dubious clues, distortions of time and space, people having to face their own demons in a very concrete way, silliness, utter silliness, and some surprisingly well-thought out parts into a fast and generally fun bit of genre mashing that probably would have felt at home in pulps like Weird Tales or Adventure in one of its more free-wheeling phases. Sure, Dowdle’s direction never really manages to make the Catacombs and the places below it feel as claustrophobic as they should, but then this is in feel more an adventure than a horror film, though one with a mild psychological and metaphysical angle.

Approached from that direction, it becomes easier to appreciate the film’s tempo, the way it pushes its characters ever downward into deeper trouble, never giving them much space to think. It also explains the horror atypical ending which – spoiler! – actually sees some of the characters surviving and psychologically (and potentially morally) strengthened.

But clearly, given the hatred poured out over this little film, your mileage may very well vary (but please don’t tell me if it does).

Friday, July 10, 2015

On ExB: Late Phases (2014)

I don’t know what your doctor recommends against the troubles of old age, but mine suggests a bit of werewolf hunting now and then.

So it’s quite a happy coincidence that Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases has quite a bit to say about old age and werewolves. You can find my thoughts on the movie over at the sort of hairy looking Exploder Button.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Time Runner (1993)

Remember the alien invasion in the year 2022? Oh right, hasn’t happened yet. Which is perfectly alright with me, because we will be losing, badly. A bunch of scientists has a daring plan to turn things around: Send heroic astronaut Michael Raynor (Mark Hamill) through a wormhole, which might land him in the past - or not - where he might do something - or whatever. Yes, it’s one of those plans where step two is “?????” and step three “SUCCESS!”. For once, the movie characters seem to realize this too, for the scientists are also attempting to launch some long forgotten former Soviet nuclear rockets at the alien mothership. Things don’t proceed well on that front.

Fortunately, Raynor’s wormhole trip actually lands him in the far flung past of 1992. Alas, our typical, though rather more violent, government Men in Black (not wearing black) are on our hero’s trail, and clearly out to do him harm. Lucky for him, nice scientist (Wo)Man in Black Karen Donaldson (Raw Dawn Chong) has a case of the conscience and attempts to help him evade his pursuers. There’s some rubbish about the need to get back his flight recorder to enable more action scenes, more or less daring escapes, alien infiltration, an inexplicably helpful (and inexplicable) janitor who is frightfully good with guns (Gordon Tipple), Mark Hamill having visions of the near future thanks to wormhole magic, and a lot of of silly-awesome stuff going on, until Raynor decides to go to the future president of the world for help.

Seeing as that guy is played by Brion James, that might not have been the best idea a time traveller ever had.

Yes, yes, yes, earnest looking person there in the front row, Michael “Crackerjack” Mazo’s Time Runner, a comparatively early (which is to say, not boring) Lloyd A. Simandl production, is utter nonsense, cheap as a cheap thing, doesn’t look very good, and makes only little sense. You are, however, very wrong in the assumption that most of these points are a bad thing for the film at hand, even if they might make it a “bad” film.

In fact, I propose that someone going into Time Runner and not getting at least a tiny bit of enjoyment out of it is doing something very wrong in her life, for this is the sort of cheap crap that just glows with the kind of sheer insanity people generally won’t dare put into a serious film. So, in this context, of course going through a wormhole not only lets you go back in time but also gives you shareable flash-forwards with a cute wormhole effect, as well as the ability to change the future in such a way that…well, to be honest, I’m not sure what exactly happens in the last scene (though intimate knowledge of Doctor Who gives me obvious solutions), but it has Mark Hamill badly yet enthusiastically pretending to be in pain, vaporizing into his own past baby self, and the film calling it a wrap. It’s timey-whimey stuff, for sure.

Speaking of Hamill, when let loose, the man in parts of his post Star Wars (which is now also pre-Star Wars in a turn of event Time Runner would just love to have used) “career” was a scenery-chewing force to be reckoned with, leaving no eye unbugged and no opportunity for the wildest emoting un-emoted. It’s joyful to watch, the kind of thing that can’t help but make me like an actor for the sheer willingness to take on a role in a really stupid film and jump into it with great force. Add to this Brion James as the creepiest US presidential candidate this side of Ronald Reagan, talking about peace (yuck, says the film) and an end to suffering (evil alien commie bastard liar, grunts the film excitedly), and you have yourself an ACTING(!!!) bonanza of exciting dimension, with Rae Dawn Chong as the straight woman for the insanity.

Do I sound slightly unhinged? Am I rambling? Well, you go and watch Time Runner while the temperatures rise above 30 degrees Celsius and you might too! Yes, that’s a recommendation, and I’m not sorry about it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Faults (2014)

Going by the fashion, the film takes place at the end of the 70s, beginning 80s, though one could imagine the sort of mildly sleazy decay of the interior decoration existing for quite a bit longer than that in the right/wrong place. Some time ago, Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) was a successful cult expert and deprogrammer, with his own TV show as well as a successful book, and if you don’t think that makes him sound like a sleazy kind of guy taking advantage of the people he is supposedly helping? He surely was, and you’re a much more optimistic person than I, imaginary reader.

After a catastrophic failure, Ansel’s life went down the crapper. He lost his show, his wife, his money, and his self respect. A second, self-published book nobody wants to buy has left him with debts to his dubious agent (Jon Gries). Ansel’s still trying to hawk the book by holding seminars in less than respectable hotels for the excellent price of a bed and a meal, but his agent’s getting antsy about getting his money back, sending a very threatening man (Lance Reddick) to put the fear into him.

So, despite his understandable and well founded reluctance to do this sort of thing ever again, Ansel agrees when a middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) ask him to kidnap and deprogram their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is involved in a cult known under the catchy name of Faults. Given Ansel’s own mental state, outside influences, and certain things he doesn’t know about, the project doesn’t go well, and it becomes ever more difficult to decide who is (de)programming whom.

The plot synopsis doesn’t really show how deeply strange – or truly Weird – writer/director Riley Stearns’s (who also just happens to be the husband of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, which is the sort of nepotism I can really get behind if it leads to films like this) uncategorizable Faults is. There’s that special sort of clever artificiality surrounding much of the production – the early 80s interior design, the smuttiness of the places, even the acting – that on first contact looks like naturalism but, once one looks at it closer, begins to feel slightly off, even absurd. It becomes increasingly difficult to decide what here is to be treated at face value; what as irony, and what as metaphor, the film becoming a world where all, any, or none of these things might be true about any given element. Even the early, clearly darkly comedic or absurd scenes in the film that establish how deeply fucked up Ansel’s existence is look different in hindsight – there’s sadness and a vague threat in there too, if you look at them from a different angle, and shifting perspectives and transforming roles are quite important in Faults.

One might be tempted to call this approach to movie reality Lynchian, if that weren’t by now a cliché in itself when not used to describe the actual works of David Lynch, and if it didn’t suggest a film that tries (and fails) to copy Lynch, when the film at hand is in fact very much something with a personality and a style all its own. Stearns direction is calm and assured, with just the right amount of surrealism when it is needed, and a wonderful (or horrifying, depending on one’s tastes) dead pan way of showing the strange and the difficult to explain.

I have read complaints the plot of the film is rather predictable but I think this only applies if you’re looking at it in its most basic form. Indeed, the general direction the film is going to take is quite clear early on, but this really isn’t a film that wants to be a twisty thriller, and the way the film gets where it ends up and what is shows in between is clearly more important to it than being surprising. And, to be honest, when it comes to the strange, telling, and very possibly metaphorical detail, Faults is often very surprising, if not necessarily easy to grasp. Which is not a problem for me in movies in general, and most certainly not in one that is quite this hypnotic in its individual strangeness and strangenesses.

Faults is a also a wonderfully acted movie with a fine cast even in the more minor roles, and just great performances by Orser - who makes someone who isn’t exactly easy to like relatable without turning him into someone clearly made to be relatable - and Winstead - who goes from fragile to enigmatic to just plain creepy and back again with an ease and a naturalness that is a bit disturbing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

aka The Taking

Mia (Michelle Ang) and her duo of a film crew (Jeremy DeCarlos and Brett Gentile) are shooting a documentary on Alzheimer’s patient Deborah Logan (Jill Larson), and the way caring for her influences her daughter Sarah (Anne Ramsay). And yes, the film we are about to see consists of the footage they are shooting, so welcome to POV horror land again.

At first, Deb seems to be in the early stages of her illness but her condition deteriorates horribly quickly during the first few days the camera crew is with her. She quickly turns from an older woman who is infrequently phasing out a little to someone more often than not bound up in screaming fits of anger and self-mutilation. There’s something even more insidious going on with her than just the total collapse of her mental faculties, though, for last time anyone checked, levitation, raving in a language one doesn’t know and telekinesis aren’t exactly part of Alzheimer’s symptoms. The more horrific occurrences the Sarah and the film crew witness, the more sure they become something supernatural is happening. Research leads them to a series of murders several decades ago that seem to be connected to a very old, and very nasty ritual.

At first, Adam Robitel’s The Taking looks quite a bit like your run of the mill 2010s POV possession horror movie. Things, however, leave the realm of the generic pretty quickly for something rather more specific and individual, and therefore more effective and horrifying, until the film it culminates in a finale that may use certain very well worn POV horror mainstays but also puts some things on screen I actually have never seen done in another film quite this way.

Most certainly, I haven’t seen them done this effectively, for not only does Robitel’s film use what looks like a coherent mythology to construct the film’s supernatural menace, it also demonstrates a fine sense for the timing of its escalation as well as for the various revelations of what’s going on, early on fruitfully using audience expectations about possession horror and the horrors of Alzheimer’s, but going its own way once playing around with generics would weaken the film. There’s also a much firmer sense of characterisation on display than you’ll find in most POV horror pieces (despite its appearance of intimacy, the form really doesn’t lend itself to depth in this regard), with at least Sarah coming off as an actual complex person. On the character front, it’s also worth mentioning how well The Taking does inclusivity, using characters who are lesbian, or Asian, or black, or white without the need for big gestures or explanations, just quite matter-of-factly showing people of all shapes and forms as normal parts of the world. Which, to me, seems like the best way to go about these things. This also fits in well with another of the film’s strengths, its eye for details that make its situations just the decisive bit more believable, even if a detail is just the shaking hands of an anthropologists who has just watched a video of Deb not being herself anymore at all. (As an aside, it’s also typical of the film’s approach to genre tropes that the anthropologist is quite a bit more helpful than a priest Sarah tries to ask for help).

And in the end, The Taking of Deborah Logan is also just a highly effective and often imaginative horror film that grounds itself in the very quotidian – and all the more disturbing for it - horror of Alzheimer’s to go from there to some inspired moments of less quotidian horror and even that most curious of things, a kicker ending that actually does work with what came before because it is the logical conclusion to what we’ve seen.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: Entombed for eons - turned to stone - seeking women, women, women!

Her (2013): The really surprising thing about Spike Jonze’s film for me is how little of the simplistic “oh noes, the modern world is so alienated” piece its set-up might threaten is actually in it; this is not beholden to any cult of authenticity apart from that of human feeling. It’s also a perfect portray of loneliness, and longing, and sadness, and oh, by the way, it’s also a mainstream (in the broader sense of the word) SF film that isn’t ashamed of having more than two brain cells to rub together, not exactly expanding on what written SF has thought about its themes and props but putting it on a human level as good as anything I’ve seen or read in a long time.

There’s also a pervading sense of joy as well as of quotidian strangeness running through the film, some fine performances in particular by Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams, and an absolutely perfect score. Why, the film’s so good I’m even pretending not to notice it doesn’t seem to know what an OS is.

Cutie Honey (2004): Between remaking Neon Genesis Evangelion again and again and again, Hideaki Anno somehow found the time to direct this live action version of Go Nagai’s sleazy yet wondrous magical girl manga/anime, turning down the sleaze quite a bit in the process – leaving only a lot of coy and pretty good-natured shots of Eriko Sato’s shapely behind – and surprising me by how enjoyable the result is when it should by all rights annoy me to kingdom come.

Anno manages to turn elements of the original into a crazy mix of pop-art, kitsch, the grotesque and goofy humour, somehow finding just the right mixture ratio to make the film work as something beyond mere camp. There’s a sense of fun, often actually funny humour and an exuberance surrounding the proceedings that does curious things with the film’s crazy and grotesque side, turning the whole affair into one of the more charming pictures you’ll see in whatever week you watch it.

The Serpent’s Egg (1977): This is generally treated as Ingmar Bergman’s Big Failure (yes, with capital letters) but I don’t agree with that assessment at all. To me, the film seems to do exactly what it sets out to do, show the Weimarer Republik as a sort of hellish state of mind, filled with increasingly bizarre elements like the onset of the insanity that would become the so-called Third Reich. The people in the film can hardly communicate with one another, their actors only given the choice to emote either with very emphatic lacks of expression or through over-heated hysteria, which is of course no communication at all.

The film’s an often unpleasant experience, slowly dragging itself along like any good economic crisis does, only waking up for moments of ever increasing unpleasantness, sometimes bordering on the sort of thing that the exploitation movies I talk about more often would indulge in, yet filmed with a palpable sense of revulsion those films can’t afford. Nobody ever said films about people getting crushed by the wheels of history should be a pleasant experience.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

In short: Arsene Lupin Returns (1938)

Someone attempts to steal a particularly valuable emerald necklace from the de Grissac family just when they’ve come to the USA to sell it, yet only manages to steal a copy of it. The would-be jewel thief leaves all the hallmarks of the famed Arsène Lupin behind, if you ignore the fact he’d never by so unstylish in his approach as he’s shown to be here, would hardly confuse a copy with the original, and that he’s supposed to be dead.

Of course, Lupin (this time around Melvyn Douglas) is still around and kicking (see the first film from six years earlier), having settled down in the guise of gentleman farmer Rene Farrand. Ironically, Lupin/Farrand is attempting to woo de Grissac’s niece Lorrain (Virginia Bruce), despite her being the most boring character alive. So quite naturally, former lamplight addicted FBI agent, now insurance security man, Steve Emerson (Warren William), quickly gets it into his head that not only is Farrand Lupin but also trying to steal the necklace. At least he’s half right. I’m sure the fact that Emerson also has taken an interest in Lorraine has nothing at all to do with his ideas.

Lupin, particularly once someone pretending to be him is still trying to steal the necklace when everyone is back in France and even that unstylish crime known as murder happens, has to take on the unfamiliar role of detective, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with Emerson and wooing Lorraine.

George Fitzmaurice’s Arsene Lupin Returns is quite an example of how stupid the production code holding Hollywood back for a few decades actually was, with its gentleman thief (in the first, pre-code film still very much that) not being allowed to be an actual thief anymore (no charming people stealing from the rich for you, America!), and instead having reformed and doing the whole amateur detective bit. It would be a thing easily to get annoyed about, but the film at hand doesn’t actually deserve anyone’s ire.

It is, indeed, quite a fun little flick, with Douglas and William both doing different variations on the suave detective character, fighting each other over a cause and a woman with such enthusiasm and camaraderie it’s always clear these guys are doing what they do because they enjoy themselves so much. On the negative side, this leaves Lorraine as not much more than a trophy and a prop, and a particularly boring one at that. But then, criticizing this means applying deeper thought than the film actually merits.

This, after all, is meant to be slight, slick diversion that makes you smile (and probably swoon) about its smart leads while being entertained and a bit excited by their plotting and counterplotting, and at that Arsene Lupin Returns is quite adept indeed.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

American Ninja (1985)

Mysterious private Joe T. Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) has just barely arrived at an US Army base on the Philippines, and already gets into a whole load of trouble. First, he uses his mysterious (he’s a childhood amnesiac, of course) ninjitsu training to save Patricia (Judie Aronson), the daughter of the base’s commander, and perhaps the most insipid creature on Earth, from being kidnapped by the ninjas supporting a mysterious group of rebels, leading to everyone around, including said commanding officer, being very angry with him in a way every twelve year old will understand. Then more ninjas try to kill Joe T., a romance develops between Patricia and our hero, and after that, even more ninjas try to kill him, his co-soldier Corporal Jackson (Steve James) needs to be kicked by him until they become fast friends, and yet still more ninjas attempt the killing. Why, it’s as if nefarious things were going on in the Philippines.

I have to admit, I consciously left out the whole angle of what the bad guys in Sam Firstenberg’s American Ninja are all about here during the synopsis, and even that one of them is called The Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), but the film itself seems so disinterested in giving its bad guys a plan that’s vaguely sensible even for action movie plans, I’m just finishing what the film starts. Sure, there’s also the thing where Joe finds out why he has ninja super powers, but that is dramatically so disconnected from the rest of the plot it’s not all that interesting to learn that John Fujioka taught him.

Of course – and fortunately, seeing as how little the film cares about these other things – this is one of the core texts of not only the not so short infatuation of Western filmmakers with ninjas – preferably Caucasian ones, unless they are called Sho Kosugi – but also of Golan, Globus and Cannon Films, and as such it just isn’t about giving a damn about its plot. If there’s some interest to find in the plot of a Cannon production, that’s more of a happy accident. What it is obviously all about is the action (yes, I’m a genius, why do you ask, dear reader?), and Firstenberg’s film delivers quite a lot of that here. Well, the fights are rather slow when you’ve seen comparable Asian films from decades earlier, a comparison that is rather inevitable when you encounter a film containing as many ninjas as this one does, the choreography is not particularly inspired, and while Michael Dudikoff isn’t as improbable a ninja as Franco Nero, nor is wearing a headband declaring him to be a ninja, he’s also not as convincing as one would like.

Dudikoff isn’t much of an actor here, either, mumbling his dialogue, emoting awkwardly, and more often than not making the impression he’s not at all happy being in front of the camera. Even though he never really became a great on-screen charismatic, it’s rather astonishing when you see him here and then compare with his efforts in 1986’s Dudikoff/James/Firstenberg film Avenging Force, where he has very quickly gotten a lot more present and willing. That film is actually superior to American Ninja in pretty much every aspect, now that I think about it – the action is tighter and more interesting, the acting better, Steve James shirtlesser, the villains more interesting and lively, and there’s even something of a plot.

But I digress, quite badly even, particularly since, having said all these mean and nasty things about basically every aspect of American Ninja, I also have to note that I still had a blast watching it, because all the awkwardness and the cheese on display don’t feel like signs of incompetence at all but rather as if this were a much scrappier production than it is, of pretty insane enthusiasm, which is quite a feat for a film so clearly cashing in on various fads. True or not, competent or not, the way the film throws ninjas and slightly wonky action sequences at its audience feels a lot like kids playing with the stuff they feel is awesome, and there’s an excitement here surrounding even the most stupid moments that makes the film very much worth watching. Even if a lot about American Ninja is wrong, it just feels so right to the twelve year old inside me (and that’s its target audience anyhow).

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In short: Darkside Witches (2015)

Strange things are happening in a small Italian mountain village. Men disappear, silly CGI creatures roam, and porn scenes turn towards penis mutilation. It’s the vengeance of six innocent white witches lead by one Sibilla (Barbara Bouchet) whose death by burning during the middle ages has actually put them onto the path they were burned for, and who are now out to open a gate to hell.

Fortunately, Vatican exorcist Don Gabriele (director/writer/producer/etc Gerard Diefenthal adding male lead to the list) just happens to stroll into the village because the place’s main priest once was his mentor. Even though Gabriele is in a bit of a crisis of faith, he soon starts fighting the good fight again, later on with his excellent cartoonish support group.

I miss Bruno Mattei, I truly do, so an Italian film like Darkside Witches gives me all fuzzy feelings with its weirdly constructed plot, its bizarre dialogue post-dubbed by people with heavy accents of unknown origins, its absolute willingness to become tasteless whenever it might be (in)appropriate and the ACTING(!!!) style acting. It’s – as the Mattei comparison probably makes clear – not the kind of film people who care about that sort of thing will ever call “good”, but it sure as hell has a lot of fun being the preposterous and pretty awesome exploitation monstrosity it is.

I’m fond of many parts of the movie: Diefenthal’s earnest performance, Barbara Bouchet doing the bad main witch for quite a few more scenes than you’d expect, the shameless CGI blood, the way Gabriele’s friends act a lot like an RPG party (or really crap X-Men), the random gratuitous nudity, the plastic synth soundtrack, the tacky and often absurd costumes, and so on. This, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t a film in any way interested to stick to your ideas of good taste or good filmmaking. Instead, Darkside Witches wants to put everything on screen it thinks awesome. That it can’t really afford everything it wants to show, and so has to make do with increasingly dubious and home-made psychedelic looking CGI and a few not very good practical effects, that its ideas of structure are rather no ideas at all is utterly beside the point, because Diefenthal’s film is putting it all on screen anyway, even if “all” is made out of digital fog and goes from making little sense to making no sense at all, but with inter-dimensional travel.

And no, this doesn’t mean Darkside Witches is so bad it is good – rather, the film just doesn’t care about your (or my, for that matter) ideas of “good movies” and “bad movies” at all, doing its own thing in a way I find totally irresistible, and for which I can only salute Diefenthal. May he make more movies soon.