Saturday, June 30, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Nothing can stop the Killer with a Blood Lust for Ladies - Naked and Dead.

Chang Chen Ghost Stories aka Be Possessed By Ghosts (2015): Xu Zheng-Chao’s mainland Chinese horror is quite the mess. Wildly pivoting from the rotest possible ghost shtick through psychological horror through thriller motives and back again without a care for coherence and believability, the film not only never finds its tone, it also features a plot that makes no sense at all in the possible worst way. The character’s are as bland and one-dimensional as is all too common in mainland China genre films, keeping the interest in anything that may or may not happen to them low, while Xu’s direction overstrains anything he tries to do, be it the simplest shock or the (patently absurd) psychological elements of the film.

Midnight Man (1995): This Lorenzo Lamas vehicle directed by John Weidner is a pretty decent piece of US martial arts action. It’s either not quite silly enough or too silly to make it high onto my list of beloved entries into the genre canon, but it flows pretty well, and the action is at least decent, while the plot is a choice series of clichés done entertaining enough.
Plus, how can you dislike a film that pretends Lamas is Cambodian (as are a slew of Chinese-American and Japanese-American actors), and features an evil member of an ancient warrior cult walk around in a hilarious kit with razor-sharp hems that look suspiciously like aluminium?

Lights Out (2016): And then there’s this curious film: a James Wan produced contemporary mainstream horror film that actually features a supernatural threat that has thematic coherence and abilities and works as a metaphor for mental illness (which you can, depending on your tastes, read as pretty offensive or as pretty insightful), uses not only jump scares, lacks an idiotic plot twist right at the end, and features expectedly great (Maria Bello) to good (Teresa Palmer and non-annoying kid actor Gabriel Bateman) acting.

It’s pleasantly small scale, quite atmospheric, and has a pleasant air of simplicity, Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and David F. Sandberg’s direction concentrating on a handful of characters and a single supernatural threat (that also isn’t a demon). A fun time is had by all, unless one is hit by the less kind interpretation of the film’s ideas about mental illness, which will leave one rather cranky.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Santo Vs. Las Lobas (1976)

aka Santo vs the She-Wolfs

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Santo's (El Santo!) sweet life of wrestling fools in the ring and getting kissed by the White Wolf Queen of the lycanthropes  (something that will not be important later on) is rudely interrupted by a sleazy private eye who tells our hero some random stuff about lycanthropy and hands him an envelope containing place and time for a meeting with a certain Cesar Harker (Rodolfo de Anda), werewolf hunter. Santo, after having fought every supernatural creature you'd care to name, and some others too, is still the great sceptic at heart, poo-pooing the whole lycanthropy idea and shrugging that strange visit off. One imagines Santo gets visits like that so often he has learned to be choosy whom to believe.

His opinion changes when our sceptical hero is repeatedly attacked by a pack of dogs with the awesome abilities to a) make the great El Santo very very afraid, and b) to disappear into thin air. Clearly, something supernatural is going on here, so the luchador decides that meeting up with Cesar will be just the thing to do.

At their very leisurely meeting (it's still the 70s) Cesar explains to Santo that the Harkers have a long tradition of werewolf hunting, helped by their freakish immunity to the curse of lycanthropy; quite unlike Santo, who will - thanks to his "dog" bites - have to do something against the lycanthropy problem or turn into a lycanthrope himself before the next Great Red Moon (whatever that is) rises. Fortunately, there's an old prophecy foretelling either the end of the world through a lycanthropocalypse or the end to the hairy menace by the hand of a legend or symbol of silver. That latter symbol, Cesar is pretty sure, would be Santo.

Practically, Cesar knows the lycanthropes are based quite close to the small village (still with its own doctor and chief of police) he and his family are living in, so he invites Santo to his home. After dispatching one of the incredibly ineffective lycanthrope assassins who seem to hound Cesar's every step (a random flashback shows he can't even play a relaxing round of golf without being attacked), Santo agrees. But being the responsible chap that he is, the luchador is first going to fulfil his contractual obligations and have a wrestling match; he'll be with Cesar a bit later. After all, possibly turning into a wolf person in the near future is no reason for the idol of the masses to not show up to a fight. My protestant work ethic is ecstatic.

The situation will be quite changed once Santo arrives in Cesar's home village, though. The werewolf hunter and the White Queen have killed each other off, leaving behind some very angry lycanthropes in need of a new queen, Cesar's twin brother Eric (Rodolfo de Anda without glasses), and various women and children who will soon enough be in peril. I'm sure there's nothing untoward in the crate that arrives from Transylvania the same night Santo does, like, for example, the King of Lycanthropes Licar.

The whole affair could become too much even for a hero like Santo, but Eric, a bare-chested, waxed, vest-wearer named Gitano (Carlos Suárez looking like a man who has a lot of fun here), and various armed villagers (when they're not trying to kill Santo for no reason I managed to discern) are there to pinch in.

One of the real joys of lucha cinema is the adaptability of the genre. As long as he stays a hero, a lucha movie doesn't need to interpret its central character as a standard masked crimefighter alone, unlike - for example - US superhero films do, leaving the door wide open for genre hopping of a kind that makes lucha movies surprisingly adaptable.

As is so often the case in the genre, the movies of the great El Santo are a prime example of this. Santo starred in Universal-inspired classic horror films, 60s spy movies, adventure films, unfunny comedies, pulp-y crime films, rancheros and inexplicably weird stuff. Basically, Santo dipped his toes in every genre except romantic comedies (unless you're a fan of the Santo/Blue theory) and melodrama (though there are of course lucha melodramas without Santo), turning every other genre into sub-genres of the great equalizer that is lucha cinema.

By the time Santo shot Santo vs. Los Lobas, the lucha genre had lost much of its popularity, leaving the tenacious wrestler pretty much in the cinematic dregs, seeing him work for producers churning out very silly, often surprisingly boring movies, on budgets that could probably not always buy shoe-strings for everyone involved. So it comes as a bit of a surprise - even more of it when you add Santo's generally family-oriented image - that Las Lobas is a lucha entry into the genre of somewhat bleak, very dream-like 70s horror that does actually set out to be a real movie instead of random reels of Santo, musical numbers, and travelogue footage. Las Lobas also turns out to be one of the weirdest entries in Santo's filmography not produced by Vergara.

What's probably even more surprising is how well this attempt works, with directors Rubén Galindo (last seen here letting Santo fight against garbage bags) and Jaime Jiménez Pons creating an often nightmarish, always illogical, mood out of cramped looking shots taking turns with strange, yet strangely compelling compositions, a gritty looking aesthetic that's always rubbing against the weirdness of the plot and ideas, effectively dim lighting, and editing whose rawness emphasises the strangeness of it all by roughing up the film's flow. I'm not sure Galindo and Pons were planning to make their film quite as strange as it feels, and that its technical peculiarities weren't just based on a mix of budgetary troubles and ineptness on their side, but it's the results that count, and the results are, as my American brethren like to say, awesome.

Among the things about Las Lobas that may be clever or may be just accidents is the film's tendency to portray Santo as a bit more human and fallible than he often is: he's fleeing from his early dog attackers in a very undignified way (what is it with Galindo and letting Santo high-tail it?), actually needs the help of others, and even loses fights without being tricked into losing them. One might think this time around our hero's actually in danger, which is - of course - a pretty clever thing to find in a horror movie.

But really, it's the mood of the film that makes it as special as it is. It's one of those films where the strangeness of the visuals - lycanthropes who look like bearded ladies in fur bikinis carrying torches standing in a circle around their queen, the White Queen laughing a threatening laugh from the roof of a building, a party with circle dancing turning into a minor lycanthrope massacre - and the peculiarities of the script - a main character dying only to be replaced by a twin who is exactly like he was, the character who is built up as the Big Bad dying quite early leaving plot threads and an ancient prophecy dangling, the rules of lycanthropy changing with every second scene, connections between characters never really getting explained - really come together to form something like a fever dream through which the audience drifts; it's just that this fever dream has a masked wrestler in it, too. And, as a wise man once said, everything's better with a masked wrestler.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

In short: Ready Player One (2018)

In the bad future of the 2040s, the world is a greyish brown craphole, so large parts of society escape into the virtual world of Oasis, a random assortment of pop culture and videogame tropes nobody actually playing MMOs today would believe to be successful or not sued into oblivion for copyright infringement. Oasis was apparently mostly built by a cliché tech nerd named Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his only, later bought out, friend Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg, doing to an American accent what he has already done to a Scottish one). For his death a couple of years before the plot sets in, Halliday has hidden away a Big Secret as well as the ownership of Oasis as an Easter egg inside of the virtual world. Until now, nobody has been able to find the secret, despite hordes of fans as well as an Evil Corporation™ trying very hard.

The film follows the meandering adventures of Halliday superfan Wade aka Parzival (Tye Sheridan), his best online bud H (Lena Waithe) and the mysterious Artemis (Olivia Cooke, who actually gets to do more stuff than you’d expect from a female character for this sort of film with this particular guy in the director’s chair) when they actually start to unravel Halliday’s increasingly stupid riddles while fighting off EvilCorps's Saturday morning cartoon goons.

I don’t think the critical mauling of this Steven Spielberg flick based on the insufferable novel by Ernest Cline is completely undeserved, seeing as its first hour or so mostly consists of mediocre animated characters wandering through an ugly and random animated world mostly based on 80s and 90s pop culture – speaking of actual design seems uncalled for – with characterization and dialogue on the level of a YA novel for particularly dense teens (which is still preferable to the smug winking of Cline’s book). Worst of all, it has a joyless feel you don’t usually encounter in a non-serious Spielberg movie.

However, then, after an hour or an hour and half of boredom, something strange happens: the pop cultural references start to cohere, visual gags sometimes become funny, and Spielberg finally falls back on his talents as popcorn cinema storyteller extraordinaire, suddenly hitting well-worn plot beats with heft and energy, making the up to that point absolutely lifeless film feel vibrant and lively. The plot is still pretty stupid, mind you, but now it is presented with a sense of excitement and fun Ready Player One had before been missing completely. The ending is complete pap, of course, but then, how are you sensibly going to end a film whose final philosophy is “reality is real” (insert sound of your favourite dead philosopher rotating in their grave), that wants to criticize consumer culture, but not so much as to anger any of the myriad of product placers involved in it, and that thinks virtual reality is awesome, but you need to take two days a week off to snog Olivia Cooke?

But hey, there are at least 45 entertaining minutes in here, which is quite a bit more than I’d say about the novel it is based on.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975)

aka Soul Vengeance

Warning: I will repeatedly use words like “penis” in this one.

Charles (Marlo Monte) is a small-time drug pusher working the black community in Los Angeles. He is, inevitably, arrested. Less inevitable is that one of the cops arresting him, Harry (Ben Bigelow), has a particular hatred of black men like Charles because his wife cheats on him with (gasp!) a black man. Harry is in fact such a crazy bundle of racism and neuroses he’s trying to castrate Charles, which, for reasons the film never bothers to explain, doesn’t quite succeed. The crazy cop’s partner, Jim (Stan Kamber) is theoretically less racist and more fair-minded, but when push comes to shove, he enables and covers for his partner despite knowing better. One might argue this makes him even worse than our would-be castrator, for he actually make a decision to be as bad as he is, whereas his partner clearly has no control over his own actions whatsoever. So there’s no word about any attempted castration in Charles’s trial, and a ranting DA and a judge who spends his free time with black prostitutes land him in prison for three years.

Charles’s time must have been pretty nightmarish, the film turning black and white, the camera following a corridor of cells to a solitary box in which he is kept, cutting to still photographs of Charles in distress. When he comes out, our protagonist wants to go clean, but that’s not easy, ex-cons not exactly being high on the list of the employable. HIs girlfriend has left him for his former partner who now treats him like a doormat. There are good things waiting for him too, though. He and the prostitute Carmen (Reatha Grey) fall in love, Charles getting rid of her pimp easily enough.

But still, the guy who tried to castrate Charles is still around, as are the male figures of supposed authority who covered up for him, so Charles goes around, sexually hypnotizes his enemies’ women so they help him against their respective husbands, and proceeds to kill the men with his prehensile, telescopic schlong.

Yeah, well, I didn’t see that one coming either. It’s no wonder one wouldn’t, either, for Jamaa Fanaka’s Welcome Home does little to prepare its audience for what it gets up to in its final twenty-five minutes or so. Sure, Charles’s jail time is pictured as a literal nightmare, but nightmare doesn’t exactly spell “hero grows super penis”. The little exposition scene “explaining” this comes totally after the fact, and doesn’t actually explain anything. Fanaka’s staging of the film’s sudden turn into weirdo exploitation, his disinterest in structuring it in any conventional narrative manner, does fit the rest of the film, however, for while the synopsis above might make the whole affair seem pretty straightforward, this is not a film structured following any of the rules of a typical narrative. There’s a lot of narrative connective tissue left out, Fanaka clearly preferring to follow his own associative logic in getting from scene to scene.

That’s not a bad thing, mind you, for while there are moments when the film feels sloppy and shaggy, there are many more when Fanaka’s approach feels personal and original; at the very least, the strange directorial decisions taken are usually purposeful choices by the director. Often, the film feels as if it were attempting to dissolve the lines between a kind of verité filmmaking very much en vogue with a group of young African American filmmakers in Los Angeles at the time, and a style of the surreal that pictures the same horrors and tragedies more metaphorically and weirdly. I suspect the kind of US black experience the film talks about must sometimes feel surreal to its victims, anyway, so talking about it this way might be only too fitting.

This is, obviously, not a film everyone will enjoy: it is after all, rough and strange, prone to distractions, and not following the narrative shapes it at first seems to suggest. It’s also technically raw, clearly made with talent and (skewed) vision, yet also just as clearly stretching what was possible for the filmmaker at the time. I think this formal and visual rawness adds a lot to the film, providing its slippage into the whacked out in the end with an additional frisson of reality slipping away into what can certainly be read as a revenge fantasy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

In short: Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

One of the reasons – apart from us humans being inherently drawn to the torrid and the unpleasantly spectacular – many of us find the true crime genre so fascinating is its promise of bringing to light the truth about crimes forgotten, unsolved or just ignored.

Then comes along something like Andrew Jarecki’s brilliant, sad and disturbing documentary about a family’s breakdown following the father’s and one of the son’s arrests for an incredible amount of cases of child molestation, and the whole idea of finding the truth, be it criminalistically, journalistically or scientifically becomes doubtful, things turning into a grey muck of doubt.

Despite the father Friedman actually being a self-confessed paedophile, some or all of the cases – that seem cartoonishly crass in their description - may not actually have happened, for what the film reveals about the police investigation suggests more of a witch hunt than any attempt at trying to find the truth, done by people with little clue about how to handle child witnesses or how to keep a community from going into hysteria. At least once memories of supposed victims are only revealed under hypnotic regression therapy, their use as actual depictions of facts goes right out of the window. I’m not saying repressed memories of traumatic experiences can’t exist, mind you, it’s just pretty clear that hypnotic regression is going to reveal more about the therapists prejudices and fears than about the patient’s actual experiences.

Yet the film never makes things quite that simple, “just” portraying what might have been a terrible injustice, but also harbouring all kinds of doubts about this idea too. The longer the film’s examination of the Friedman case continues, the more doubtful it seems there’s a way to trust any memory, not even one’s own, nor does there seem to be any road that leads to an actual truth. There’s only possibilities, suppositions and conflicting statements that can’t all be true even though nobody is lying.

At the same time, this is also a harrowing film about a family – imperfect in various ways like most of them are though not always quite this extreme – breaking down under pressure, of a group of people suffering the pain of distrust in ways I sometimes found too intimate to watch comfortably. Which is just a proper reaction to the film, for an audience shouldn’t feel comfortable with or pleasantly excited by this kind of tale. So it is fitting there’s no real resolution to find here apart from the hope that some of the remaining Friedmans may find ways to live with what they went through.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

On the Border (1998)

Warning: I do vaguely discuss some of the film’s plot twists!

A couple of years after an involvement in a bank heist gone wrong, Jake Barnes (Casper Van Dien) is working as a bank guard in a tiny town on the US side of the US/Mexican border. He’s not leading a boring life, though, because he spends his free time having an affair with Rosa (Rochelle Swanson), the wife of his very sweaty boss Ed (Daniel Baldwin). To make matters more interesting, the couple is planning on ripping off the bank in a couple of days, for while there’s usually little worth the risk of robbing it inside, this coming Saturday, there will be a whole load of mafia money locked up in there.

There are – of course – complications. For one, Ed’s gotten the idea Rosa is indeed cheating on him and wants Jake to find out who it is. As it will turn out, Jake and Rosa aren’t the only ones who want that sweet sweet mafia money, either. One Barry Montana (Bryan Brown), probably the guy for whom the phrase “toxic masculinity” was termed, is rather interested in the money too. Barry sics his private slave Kristen (Camilla Overbye Roos) on Jake to seduce him and convince him to partner up for the robbery.

Jake does realize that Kristen’s supposed to be a honey pot, yet he still feels drawn to her, as she seems to be to him. She does, after all, have a probably perfectly true horrible story about her being sold to Barry to tell, and seems to only want to get away from the arsehole and out of the life. Because that’s not trouble enough for one film, Jake’s former partner in the old heist that worked out very badly indeed, a completely crazy person called Sykes (Bentley Mitchum), is lurking around the plot’s edges, trying to get an angle. And here I thought robbing a bank was easy.

Going by the IMDB, Bob Misiorowski’s sleazy, pulpy little neo noir is a TV movie, though going by the filming style and the rather large amount of nudity and sex in it, it must have been made for HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime. It’s a proper neo noir (though one with a genre-atypical ending), however, the sexy bits not being the only important parts of the film, unlike in the neo noir’s sleazier little sister, the erotic cable TV thriller. There is, however, indeed a lot more sex and nudity in this one than it would strictly need for its plot. It is pretty much equal opportunity nudity, though, so there’s quite a bit of Van Dien’s qualities in addition to the female nudity on display, too.

I suspect one’s liking for On the Border will have a lot to do with one’s tolerance for films that attempt to include basically all the tropes and clichés of a given genre, for broad acting, as well as for Caspar Van Dien’s sex face, the last being not pretty. This is not what anyone would call an intelligently constructed thriller, rather it is one that just heaps complications and plot threads on its poor protagonist, half of which will acquire stupid yet also highly entertaining twist in the final ten minutes. It’s the “throw as much as possible at the audience, logic be damned” approach, something which doesn’t generally end in films that make much sense. But then I’m a bit of a sucker for simple stories made absurdly complicated, as I am for film that wallow in genre tropes as much as this one does. Sometimes, it’s simply enjoyable to watch a dance you know by heart even though its steps are obfuscated by a whole load of weird hand gestures and mumbling.

Even better, Misiorowski actually gets around to twisting some of the genre tropes of the neo noir, sometimes even in fun ways. So the horrible fake accent you roll your eyes over does indeed turn out to be fake, one of the film’s two femme fatales (why have one when you can have to in a film, right?) isn’t actually one, and the film’s solution does use the general way movies tend to side-line their Mexican characters for a little surprise. Now, before anyone thinks too much of these elements, they are still embedded in a whole lot of sleaze and violence. As I like it.

It would be terribly remiss of me if I ended this without mentioning On the Border’s fine bunch of caricature villains. I can’t imagine living a life where one wouldn’t enjoy a pretty paunchy Daniel Baldwin sweating and being sleazy towards his wife and prostitutes and babbling nonsense about simple being stupid. Or Bryan Brown’s lovely portrayal of a perfect caricature of a vile man (without the Australian accent, I’d put a Trump joke right here). Or how Bentley Mitchum’s minor villain is all twitchiness, verbal tics and drug-fuelled craziness, just one step away from becoming a circus geek.

On the Border is the neo noir interpreted as a sleazy, fun low budget movie, and even though that is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, it sure is mine.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: The miller is coming for you

The Night Watchman (2016): This is not the sort of thing anyone will hear me say often, but I wish Miguel Ángel Jiménez’s US-set Spanish movie had not been a horror film. There’s some fine acting and excellent photography propping up a good poverty porn-style drama that wouldn’t need the horror elements to make it more interesting to an audience. As a metaphor, our particular monster doesn’t really add to what’s going on either, the drama and the horror film never productively coming together, particularly since the horror film – unlike the drama – is rather on the tacky side.

F aka The Expelled (2010): Johannes Roberts’s school-set slasher suffers from various problems: there’s its use of ripped from the tabloid headlines hoodie-wearing teenagers as its villains – this time around with hilarious acrobatics superpowers like low-grade Spider-Man villains Stan Lee would have dubbed the Monkey Menace or something in that style – a trope that’s pure classist resentment; the ass-ugly and pretty boring colour scheme consisting of sickly green and then more sickly green; some by-the-numbers writing; and a score that so desperately tries to emulate Goblin I felt faintly embarrassed.

On the plus side, Roberts does manage to film the slash and stalk sequences and gloopy gore effectively, and the acting is much better than the script deserves, resulting in a film that is pretty watchable if you cut it some slack.

Fender Bender (2016): The best and worst thing I can say about Mark Pavia’s thriller cum teenage slasher is that it’s absolutely inoffensive and perfectly generic, containing not a single scene I haven’t seen done better in better films yet still doing these scenes perfectly alright. The cast is okay, the film’s look is okay, the script uses horror movie logic too often yet still is okay; excitement, surprises and tension, on the other hand, live elsewhere, as do memorable scenes, interesting ideas (well, ideas of any kind), theme, meaning and fun.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Darna! Ang Pagbabalik (1994)

aka Darna: The Return

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

If you want to know more about Mars Ravelo's Wonder Woman inspired yet supremely Filipino superheroine Darna and her different on-screen incarnations, head on over to my fellow agent of M.O.S.S. Todd of Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill, who has spent a lot more time watching and thinking about Darna movies than I have.

The home province of everyone's favourite rural superheroine Darna (Anjanette Abayari) is flooded in a villain-caused (yet not exactly explained by the film) catastrophe. Worse, a large woman clad in green and wearing a turban accosts our heroine in her non-superheroic form as country girl Narda while she's distracted by a snake and clobbers her from behind. The villainess then proceeds to steal the stone Narda needs to swallow to transform into Darna, leaving our heroine for dead and in the rather undignified position of having to be rescued from the rising flood by her Grandma and her little brother Ding (Lester Llansang).

Either the clobbering, the loss of the stone, or the trauma of the natural catastrophe leaves Nards rather addled in the brain, and she spends the following escape of her family to Manila - as well as her first days there - as a happy, mute, loon, though somewhat threatened by various unpleasant males who find her mental state all too inviting and don’t seem to take to the concept of consent. Still, it's like a super hero vacation.

Once arrived in Manila, the family takes shelter in the hovel of Pol (Rustom Padilla), who may or may not be a distant relative, but who in any case once left their country home for the big city.

After various adventures - among them a meeting with local gangster chief Magnum (Bong Alvarez) - a sort of plot develops. It turns out that Darna's arch nemesis, the snake-haired Valentina (Pilita Corrales), is responsible for the loss of Darna's stone. She needs it to keep herself from turning into an - probably ill smelling - heap of goo, it seems.

Apart from that Valentina has bigger plans too. Her - also snake-haired - daughter Valentine aka Dr. Aden (Cherie Gil) has founded a millennial cult playing on the fears of the poor parts of society, promising her followers that Manila will rise into the skies to save them all from the coming destruction of the Philippines by floods, if they just pray hard enough. Valentine's crazy preacher TV programme (she has interpretative background dancers) puts the mind-whammy on Grandma, who soon spends all her time praying and furnishing Pol's hovel with plants. Which is actually an improvement, but hey - evil!

Anyway, while he's out and about sniffing around the cult's lair (why? you got me there), Ding manages to steal Darna's stone back, and soon enough, our heroine is fighting evil-doers again, getting into a romantic triangle with Pol and a cop named Max (Edu Manzano), and saving the Philippines from the snake family's evil plans.

Well, say what you will against the at times plodding pace of this outing of the ever-popular Filipino heroine Darna, but it's still packed full of stuff, some of it interesting, some puzzling, some just plain weird. My plot synopsis has left out various side plots, "comic" distractions and characters - like Ding's female friend Pia (Jemanine Campanilla) - the movie decides to forget halfway through, but really, this is not the kind of film that's interested in a finely crafted dramatic arc. The film's structure is - like in most other films meant for a more rural Filipino audience I've seen - episodic and distractible, and often reminded me of the way 70s Bollywood tried and succeeded to be everything to every viewer. Despite the absence of musical numbers, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik truly squeezes everything and the kitchen sink into its 100 minutes of running time: cute children, low-brow humour, superheroic throw-downs, romance, a bit of horror, some excellent South-East Asian weirdness like freaky snake person transformation effects and an exploding villainess, a bit of social melodrama, and even a bit of religion (not terribly surprising in a Filipino movie, really).

This kind of approach does of course threaten a film's coherence and always risks to annoy a given viewer by spending too much time on the elements she isn't interested in. As a German viewer, I'm certainly not part of the film's core audience, seeing as it is clearly produced with a Filipino audience of the early 90s in mind, playing with and against the anxieties - poverty, religious mania, natural catastrophes - of its time and place. If you look at a film like this as an outsider, you need to bring a bit of patience and a willingness to just accept a slightly different view of the world than you're used to; in this regard, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik is just like a Ramsay Brothers movie or the body of work of Sompote Sands, though certainly more good-natured than the works of the former, and far less painful than those of the latter.

Fortunately, the film - co-directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes - does have more than a few elements that make getting into it quite easy for somebody of my tastes, and, I suspect, the discerning tastes of the typical reader of this column. If there's one thing that speaks a true international language, after all, then it's scenes of a statuesque and likeable beauty in a skimpy yet curiously not sleazy outfit flying around punching evil-doers and monsters. Abayari may not be the greatest of actresses (especially when playing trauma clown Narda), but she's likeable (you seldom see a US superhero grin this much, as if it were an actual joy being a hero, flying and saving people, instead of a pain in the ass), has the right physique for her role and manages to wear a skimpy costume with a degree of dignity that shouldn't be taken for granted.

But even when it isn't clobbering time, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik has more than enough enjoyable, or at least interesting moments. Some of the scenes surrounding the snake women's cult are actually somewhat disturbing in their portrayal of religious mania - those that aren't pretty goofy, that is - and the whole plot line of Grandma turning into one of the cult members is not exactly realistically handled, but quite effective as a play on the fear of losing a lost one to malevolent influences without having the power to do anything about it.

These scenes are pretty dark for what is at its core a family movie, and would be quite unthinkable in a Hollywood family movie (just as the semi-realistic portrayal of poverty and desperation), which is, of course something I do approve of.

And even though Darna! (you gotta love that exclamation mark there) Ang Pagbabalik isn't meant for me, it still made me glad to watch it.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

In short: Dead Presidents (1995)

The film follows young, black New Yorker Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) from shortly before he volunteers for the Marine Corps in 1969, through his time in a recon unit in the Vietnam War, his return to the USA, the social and financial dead end he finds himself in there, and finally his pretty damn amateurish and bloody attempt at a banking van heist. I’d go into more detail, but frankly, everything you imagine will happen does happen here in the way you expect.

And of course, at least in part, that is part of the point of this film by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, for our protagonist is supposed to stand in for the experience of the black Vietnam vet as a whole. Unfortunately, this also leads to a film whose protagonist lacks actual specificity, missing the details that would bring him to life. For example, we never learn much about what he’s actually thinking about the world, what he enjoys, what he dislikes apart from the things needed to keep the plot moving, which in turn robs the film of the feeling of having an actual person at its core instead of a representation of ideas about a type of person. The film’s historical specificity suffers in a comparable way. There is certainly the right music playing on the radio (there’s particularly a lot of Curtis Mayfield, which is never a bad choice), the people wear sort of the right clothes, the historical dates fit, but there’s no real life to the presentation of the late 60s/early 70s. The Vietnam sequences suffer from the same problem: they are a series of moments that feel abstracted and constructed to make an equally abstract point instead of lived experience for the protagonist and his peers.

It’s a shame, really, for the cast is fine – apart from the execrable Chris Tucker who hasn’t met a line of dialogue he isn’t going to slaughter – and the Hughes Brothers so clearly have the highest technical abilities and obviously very much care about the political meaning of the story they are telling. It’s just that Dead Presidents never seems to make much effort to make the audience care also.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Corpse Party (2015)

Original title: コープスパーティ

During a nightly cleaning session, a group of classmates (among them Rina Ikoma, Ryosuke Ikeoka and Nozomi Maeda) from the last term of a Japanese high school decide to perform a ritual called “Sachiko Happily Ever After”. Apparently, a couple of decades ago, the high school was a primary school shaken by a series of murders (with a bit of mutilation on the dead bodies) of little girls committed by its janitor. Said Sachiko is the only of the killer’s supposed victims whose body was never found. Rumour holds it she is now the building’s protective spirit.

Well, the charming little folk ritual doesn’t work out as lovely and friendly as hoped, for once it is finished, the ground opens up beneath the feet of the kids and their one lone teacher, and transports them into an in-between realm that looks like a ruined and lost version of the original primary school. It is – of course – a haunted place, and soon the kids have to fight off the undead janitor and his trusty axe and a couple of angry child ghosts. You know how kids get when they can’t find their tongues.

One of the pleasant peculiarities of Japanese pop culture is its willingness to prop surprising things up into becoming multi-media franchises, apparently without a filter that only allows the most corporate cultural artefacts to spawn dozens of children. Case in point is the Corpse Party live action movie here, whose franchise got going with a doujin videogame (a Japanese indie game, basically) made as old-school as it gets by a single guy (hopefully in his bedroom), and now spans half a dozen different games, two live action movies, an anime show and who knows what else. Now, because this sort of thing in Japan isn’t exclusively a big mainstream concern like US superheroes, the resulting products aren’t all glossy high budget projects.

Masafumi Yamada’s neat little horror film was clearly shot on the cheap, with only the most basic locations (helped along by the fact the whole tale takes place in a single haunted school), young and probably cheap actors, and the general air of a low budget affair.

This isn’t a work of cerebral horror, but rather a fun macabre romp that mostly lives from Yamada’s ability to always move the plot along nicely, and the perfect lack of shame the film shows when it comes to the gruesome and the goofily macabre. Characterisations are basic - they are in fact less complex than in the game this is based on – but not quite without substance thanks to the way Yamada handles them. Apart from the ghosts, the kids are of course also victims of their hormones and the way those tend to make messy situations even messier. Even though none of the character development resulting is exactly deep, thematically rich, or original, the film’s minimalist style actually makes it more convincing, keeping things clear and simple instead simple-minded or too twisty. The main actors are pretty okay, too, particularly once the worst actors have been killed off early.

The film’s approach to horror is interesting: this is certainly not a Ringu or Ju-On-style film mixing the subtle with some pants-wettingly horrifying set pieces, but a more modest endeavour that really isn’t too involved in horror exploring the human condition but in macabre fun. Unexpectedly, though, this doesn’t mean Corpse Party is only a series of jump scares. Masafumi goes for a broader approach, with some ridiculous yet awesome gore (Japanese teenagers in the movie’s world apparently pop like really mushy grapes) as well as classic creepy child behaviour and proper macabre Japanese horror weirdness. A personal favourite among the last is the moment when one of the male kids creepily starts photographing the mushed up mass hanging on a wall that once was one of his friends (already maggotty after five minutes, of course) and then gets a call from her in which she tells him to stop looking at her insides.

Despite this at its core being a film about a handful of characters in various pairings wandering through an empty school building, encountering various supernatural stuff and freaking out, watching it, I never had the feeling of watching a film wasting my time on non-existent production values. Yamada has always something of interest happening, keeping a degree of suspense going, from time to time surprising an old horror hand like myself with which old trope he’s going to dig up next, and generally turning Corpse Party into a fun macabre time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In short: Chandler (1971)

Embittered and depressed private detective Chandler (Warren Oates) gets back into the game when an old acquaintance working for some kind of government agency asks him to shadow the moves of one Katherine Creighton (Leslie Caron) for reasons as vague as what Chandler is actually supposed to do.

The viewer knows this is all part of a plan to bring down a highly positioned member of a large criminal organization by another member of said organization. Katherine, you see, was the lover of the former man, but has grown tired of the violence and him (one supposes, the film’s pretty vague about this as well) and has used a vaguely defined opportunity subtly provided by the latter man to flee. The whole conspiracy is built on Katherine’s ex-lover following her to the West Coast where he is supposed to be easier to kill (for reasons the film never makes clear, of course). Chandler is, we are told, meant to be a decoy, but for whom, the film never bothers to make clear.

Be that as it may, Chandler does what everyone expects of him and tries to protect Katherine from the conspirators who are repeatedly trying to kidnap her because…honestly, you got me there. I also have no clue why the bad guys are using Chandler at all.

Which, as the vagueness and illogic of this plot synopsis hopefully already has suggested, brings us right to the core problem of Paul Magwood’s Chandler: it makes no lick of sense whatsoever, and not in the way of, say, a Raymond Chandler novel, as the too clever idea of naming the hero Chandler might suggest, where the plot is only a method to move the protagonist from one interesting encounter to the next, but in that of a film made by people who hire Warren Oates to play an old school private dick moving through the early 70s and are too dense to make good use of that.

The problem isn’t just that the plot makes no sense, the script as a whole is a complete mess. The dialogue consists of one third total non sequiturs, one third of the villains gloating in mock-educated manner (in scenes which are probably supposed to fit into a typical 70s conspiratorial mind set but are in actuality stupid, tedious and slowing the film down for no reason), and one third horrible clichés presented without charm and conviction. There are more ellipses in the dialogue than in a manga from the 90s.

I suppose the film is attempting to make some clever comment on the Chandler style private eye – a product of a different decade – colliding with the 70s and existentially suffering under it. Unfortunately, nobody involved in this production seems to have had any clue how to actually go about this, beyond casting the perfect actor for the main role, so what we actually get are ninety very tedious minutes of pointless movie. It’s not even interesting enough to call it pretentious.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Finally, a break!

I'm taking a little blogging break. Normal service will return on Monday, the 18th of June.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Pirates of Blood River (1962)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

At the end of the 17th century, a group of Huguenots fled France and settled on the tropical, piranha-infested Isle of Devon somewhere in the tropics. Now, two generations later, what once was supposed to be a colony providing freedom from persecution has become the tyranny of a handful of older men with impressive facial hair under the leadership of Jason Standing (Andrew Keir, as intense as always, even though the script doesn't provide him with much to work with here). The bible-wielding elders sentence people to death or life in their own little penal colony for breaking that obscure set of religious laws known as "the ten commandments" (or something of that sort). The less bearded classes aren't too happy with the political state of affairs, yet they're still too respectful of their elders and their elders' leather-vested henchmen to openly rebel.

Standing's own son Jonathon (Kerwin Mathews, one of the better romantic leads for this sort of film) is especially dissatisfied with life on the island, thinking his father lets himself be manipulated into a cruelty that is quite against his nature by his colleagues. Rather lacking in holiness himself, Jonathon's also in love with a married woman who is mistreated by her husband, and plans on fleeing the place together with her. Alas, before the couple can realize their plans, the elders are catching them in the act of rubbing their cheeks together, provoking the poor woman into running into a river full of piranhas.

Graciously, the elders don't sentence Jonathon to death for his unbiblical behaviour, but rather to spend some time in the colony's penal colony, which, as it turns out, is just as much of a death sentence, just a slower one.

Things at the colony are rough, and Jonathon's background makes him not exactly well-liked by the warden, but eventually, the young man escapes. Only to run right into the arms of the pirate band of Captain LaRoche (Christopher "I'm French, no, really" Lee) which counts among its members some beloved Hammer mainstays like young Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper. For a pirate, the Captain seems civilized enough, and claims to be willing to help Jonathon out with peacefully getting rid of the rule of the elders if the younger man only agrees to let the pirates stay in the Huguenot village for rest and recuperation whenever they need it.

In a turn of events that only surprises Jonathon, the pirates are really in it for the raping and the pillaging. LaRoche is convinced that the founders of the colony have hidden away a treasure of gold somewhere (he might even be right), and he's willing to do absolutely anything to get it. Of course, hoping for gold and actually finding it are two things, especially when some of the Huguenots turn out to be quite competent guerrilla fighters.

John Gilling's The Pirates of Blood River is the least among Hammer Film's handful of seafaring averse pirate movies, slightly hampered by a script that sets up conflicts for its first thirty minutes it will then not bother to resolve later on by anything else but hand-waving.

The whole religious oppression angle is very much side-lined - except for two or three wavering dialogue scenes - once the pirates arrive at the colony, and is only ever resolved by the fact that LaRoche kills off the elders one by one, which sure is a solution, but not one that's thematically satisfying. On the positive side, pirates.

Said pirates are a bit sillier than in the other Hammer pirate movies, too, for some genius (Gilling? Anthony Keys? Jimmy Sangster?) decided it would be a bright idea not just to camp up their appearance, but also to let them all - except for Michael Ripper, whose dialogue instead tests out how often a man can use the pirate-appropriate word "matey" without giggling - speak with painfully fake accents. Reed - in an unfortunately minor role - and Lee - doing his evil glowering shtick with some enthusiasm and thanks to that to very good effect - seem to be trying to outdo each other in the badness of their "French" accents. Though this aspect of the movie clearly has camp value (too bad for me I abhor the concept), it's standing in stark opposition to the film's earnest dramatic tone and makes it quite a bit more difficult to take certain scenes seriously.

This isn't to suggest there's nothing enjoyable at all about the movie if you're not into pointing at especially silly pirates; this is, after all a Hammer production made in the early 60s, a time when the high professional standards of the studio and the people working for it made it quite impossible for them to produce a bad movie. Gilling - who directed two of my favourites among the studio's non-series horror movies with The Reptile and Revolt of the Zombies - may have his problems with the film's pacing in the early scenes, but once the final half hour arrives, he milks a lot of excitement out of the guerrilla warfare between the Huguenots and the pirates trying to get away with their ill gotten gains. At that point, there's little left of the silliness of the film's earlier scenes. High camp is replaced by a certain grimness that makes up for a lot of what came before.

My true disappointment isn't so much with the film's problems at the beginning anyway but rather with the idea how fantastic the film could have been if it had been quite as good as those last scenes right from the start. As it stands, the sympathetic viewer needs a bit of patience and the ability to ignore a problematic set-up to enjoy The Pirates of Blood River, but with that patience, the film is still very much worth seeing.