Sunday, September 23, 2018

It's that time again

when the leaves turn even more yellow than they did during the heat and the drought, and I take a bit of time off from the blog to do whatever eldritch abominations do the week before they turn even more eldritch.

Normal service will resume on Friday, the 5th October.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Past Passion. Past Terror. Past Murder.

A Little Trip to Heaven (2005): At first, Baltasar Kormákur’s deeply Icelandic (for a film set in the US, at least) movie seems to be a bit of a Fargo-alike, but the longer it runs, the more it becomes clear this has somewhat different sensibilities. It is a bit less concerned with futility than the Coen Brothers film, and even allows Forest Whitaker’s character to take a half successful redemptive action and end up in a curious sort of heaven as his reward. That’s despite the film being just as clear about the darkness in the hearts of men, particularly those who think they are much brighter than they actually are. It just seems to have a bit more compassion with its characters than the Coens sometimes show.

Apart from Whitaker (who is always great even if he flaunts as dubious an accent as he does here), the film also contains fine work by Julia Stiles and a particularly good performance by Jeremy Renner.

Out of Thin Air (2017): Staying in Iceland (though this is a British film), this documentary by Dylan Howitt about two suspected murders in the country and the people the police apparently tortured into believing to have committed them, without any physical evidence (like corpses) whatsoever coming up, seems to me an exemplary piece of true crime filmmaking that tells its tale calmly, not feeling the need to construct or spout outrage because the facts of what happened, and what the audience can suspect happened really don’t need to be made more dramatic than they actually were. It’s not as if the film pretends to have no position on the case, mind you, it is just intelligent enough to assume it doesn’t have to speechify at its audience about its thoughts.

There’s also a quiet, philosophical undercurrent to the endeavour, suggesting a construction of selfhood through human memory that’s all too fragile, leaving self and truth as things always in doubt.

Jane Eyre (2011): Give me the Brontë sisters and their sense of the Gothic and the dramatic over Jane Austen’s ever so ironic tales of the marriage market any day. So it’s no surprise that I enjoyed Cary Joji Fukunaga’s version of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre quite a bit, particular as it is based on a Moira Buffini script that uses the proto-feminist elements of the novel in excellent ways, drawing Jane as a woman not quite fitting into her time because she as a matter of course takes the promises of humanist philosophy as belonging to her as a woman too. And all that with dialogue often very close to the book. I wish the film had done something about the madwoman in the attic, but honestly, I wouldn’t know how to go about that without rewriting half of the book either.

Fukunaga’s direction makes excellent use of bleak but exciting (to me, at least) landscape, period interiors that are claustrophobic or pretty depending on what’s appropriate, never trying to pop the film up too much nor letting get things too BBC stuffy.

Mia Wasikowska – whom I’ve still have to see in anything amounting to a weak performance – is expectedly wonderful, fully realizing the fragilities, the immense strength, the mix of wisdom won through pain and the naivety of the not terribly worldly Jane. Michael Fassbender is fine, too, though the film does focus quite a bit more on Jane – and rightly so.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Agon (1964)

aka Giant Phantom Monster Agon

aka Agon: Atomic Dragon

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.

Agon is a series consisting of four twenty-five minute episodes that make up two storylines which are distinctive enough in tone and substance to not treat the short series as a traditional four part mini series, but rather as an aborted attempt at a continuing kaiju show.

In the series' first half, atom bomb explosions awaken and mutate a prehistoric monster and hobby Godzilla impersonator soon to be dubbed Agon (that's a Japanese English short form for "Atomic Dragon"). Agon has the munchies, so it soon attacks an important nuclear research facility that comes complete with its own nuclear reactor to get at all that tasty, tasty uranium. While its at it, Agon also causes a nuclear explosion, but thanks to this being the 60s, there are no repercussions to that at all.

Anyhoo, Professor of SCIENCE(!) Ukyo (Nobuhiko Shima), shaving-impaired cop Yamato (Asao Matsumoto), roving reporter Goro (Shinji Hirota) and professional professorial assistant Satsuki (Akemi Sawa) are taking on the case of the hungry kaiju. Well, actually, after an unsuccessful fight between Agon and library footage of the JDF, they just lure Agon back into the sea with more tasty morsels of uranium. The End.

Of course, Agon returns in the second storyline to walk into a plotline about two yakuza and a suitcase full of drugs that soon finds the still hungry monster walking around with a small fishing boat and a little boy in its mouth, while vaguely stomping on a small industrial town. Fortunately, our heroes contrive to poison Agon with the suitcase full of drugs, a fantastic plan that at least drives the monster back into the sea. The End again.

Agon surely is not one of the high points of kaiju film making, but at least the show has an interesting story behind it. I have to admit to certain doubts about how the official story explains why the Fuji TV series was only broadcast in 1968, four years after it was made. Officially, Toho complained that the film's monster was resembling their very own Godzilla too closely, seemingly not knowing that the monster was designed by an apprentice of their very own Godzilla-creator Eiji Tsuburaya and the much superior first two episodes were written by the frequent Toho kaiju writer Shinichi Sekizawa. Supposedly, when Toho learned of that fact four years later, they suddenly had a change of heart and allowed Fuji TV to go ahead with the broadcasting.

I can't say that story makes much sense to me, especially when we have the much easier explanation of the utter crapness of its last two episodes for Agon's absence from the screen. The Sekizawa episodes, both directed by Norio Mine (says Wikipedia), are actually pretty decent stuff as far as ultra-generic kaiju romps go. There's nothing about it anyone hadn't seen in the genre by 1968, but it's decently enough paced, and rather cleverly written around the problems of a TV budget.

It also helps the series' starting case that Mine does some quite decent work, too, using clever editing and well-chosen camera angles to let the few extras he has look as much as panicking crowds as possible, and using shots of modernist buildings and models of modernist buildings to get the proper pop art city-smashing mood going even though he doesn't actually have a city for his monster to smash. The slightly pop art-y mood is further enhanced by the strange sepia-toned black and white stock the series is shot on, which, I assume, is the best way to colour-code things when you can't afford to actually colour-code your sets. Then there's Wataru Saito's strange little score that consists of some jazzy beats and a lot of weird synthesizer warbling that suggest a Japanese version of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop and really help to pull the first two episodes into the realm of the cheap yet formally interesting.

The special effects themselves are all over the place; there are some very fine model shots, but there are also horrible moments like the one where a very bad Agon doll just stands in a pool of water standing in for the monster appearing out of the sea: The Agon suit itself does look good enough from a certain angle, but there's a lack of detail in its face and an immobility about its whole head - especially the eyes - that's never convincing, but is survivable as long as Mine shoots around it.

Unfortunately, Fuminori Ohashi, the director of the final two episodes does not keep up with these minor aesthetic achievements at all. The director instead opts for a bland point and shoot style that seems ready-made to show off all the worst sides of the series' effects work, with Agon walking around with a boat model crammed into its mouth for about twenty minutes being one of the most embarrassing - though of course pretty funny - things I've ever seen in a kaiju picture; and I've watched all of the original Gamera movies by now. For some reason, Saito's music isn't put to any decent use at all anymore, either, warbling around ineffectively and utterly divorced from what's going on on screen. It's difficult to watch these final two episodes and not think nobody involved in the production actually gave a damn about what they were doing.

Apart from Agon's boating trip, the so crap it's funny part of the later episodes also includes long shots of the monster standing around not moving a muscle (one suspects the suit actor was on holiday), and one of the more undignified methods of getting rid of a kaiju I've ever had the dubious luck to witness. Don't do drugs, giant monsters, okay?

The rapid decrease in quality is a bit sad, really, for while the script of the show's first storyline doesn't have an original bone in its body, its execution speaks of enthusiasm and creativity behind the camera, and it's not difficult to imagine the show the first two episodes promise to be a lot of fun to watch.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

In short: Ouija House (2018)

Warning: I need to spoil some of the best bits!

Graduate student – we dare not ask of what – Laurie (Carly Schroeder) decides to bring a handful of friends to a supposedly haunted house in the woods her family has somewhat mysterious connections to. It’s all in the hopes of furthering her research so she can graduate, sell her thesis to a publisher who is interested in it, and make enough money to help her mother (Dee Wallace) buy back the family home she just lost. Yeah, I don’t know either, and the film’s explanation for the whole publisher business later on actually makes less sense than what I have just written. But I digress.

Laurie’s aunt Samantha (Mischa Barton) is coming too, for she is fluent in the house’s and her family’s backstory concerning a good and an evil witch cult, baby sacrifice and a bit of nudity. The plan is to hold a traditional séance in the house, but when Laurie finds a ouija board, they just use that. Surprising nobody but the characters, this turns out to be a very bad idea.

For its first half hour or so, Ben Demaree’s Ouija House has all the  hallmarks of mediocre low budget horror made in the 2010s. There are the small and tiny appearances by more or less “name” actors – besides Wallace and Barton, there are also Chris Mulkey, Tiffany Shepis and Tara Reid putting a half day of work or less in –, the boringly generic set-up, and seemingly no interest in trying to lure an audience in with atmosphere and intrigue. However, once the plot gets going, Ouija House becomes a prime example of how a film that’s really not good in a way most people would use the word becomes really rather awesome (in all senses of that word) by throwing all kinds of crazy shit at the audience while keeping a completely straight face. The film gets outright 70s/80s Italian in this regard, therefore charming me to a considerable degree.

Ouija House’s title, you see, is to be taken literally, it turns out, with the letter of a ouija board hidden away behind the titular house’s wallpaper until a possessed member of the crew (very enthusiastically played by Grace Demarco) rips the wallpaper covers off. As you may or may not imagine, there are scenes of a possessed young woman in a state of undress groping and hissing towards the letters painted on the walls, and one of the film’s dramatic highpoints sees the characters desperately trying to duct tape paper over the letters. It’s glorious. Also appearing are a young woman’s upper body (she’s wearing a bra to prove this isn’t actually an Italian film from the 80s) being used as a ouija board, an idea to which the other characters react with shrugs of “why not?”, a moebius strip road, Dee Wallace’s possessed face, and…the black guy surviving(!). It’s absurd, it’s certainly not thought through with even a bit of real world logic in mind, but damn, is Ouija House’s second half entertaining, if you like your ideas strange, and their presentation straight-faced.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Open House (2018)

Because the accidental death of their husband and father leaves Naomi Wallace (Piercey Dalton) and her son Logan (Dylan Minnette) in dire financial straits, they have to move into the mountain house of her stinking rich sister. That means Logan gets pulled out of school before his graduation – there’s never any talk of him, you know, changing schools so he can actually graduate, for reasons the script never bothers to come up with, so he can spend his time running and moping. He also doesn’t seem to have any friends at all, at least him missing anyone or using some of that new-fangled communication stuff you hear so much about these days never comes up. Naomi for her part doesn’t actually seem to look for work, which is also a thing that can be helpful when you’ve got no money, again without the script actually giving us any reasons for that.

Anyway, on the positive side, that mountain house is really rather more of a mountain palace. Less positive is that every Sunday an open house event takes place there and our protagonists have to leave for the whole of the day, because the sister and her husband want to sell the place. Don’t ask me why they don’t pause the open house stuff as long as they have relatives living there, I didn’t write this crap.

If you’ve heard any urban legends or read creepypasta, you can probably imagine what happens next. There’s a strange elderly neighbour (whose strange behaviour the script doesn’t bother to explain, obviously), and their time in the house is haunted by a series of mildly strange occurrences: food disappears, glasses disappear and appear again, and the hot water tends to cut out whenever Naomi is in the shower. It’s a little as if…there’s a murderous psychopath with them in the house!

On various technical levels, the Netflix opus The Open House directed and written by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote isn’t a bad little movie. The directors certainly do have a hand for pretty, competently generic visuals, and while they really rather overdo the whole “camera glides through the house while loud dramatic music plays” thing, I won’t deny the film even to be somewhat stylish, if strictly in a slickly professional rather than an artistically interesting way.

The acting is pretty okay too, or rather, the two leads do what they can with the little the film’s great weakness, the needlessly sloppy script, provides them with. There is, for example, a big fight in the between the two when Naomi suddenly assumes Logan is responsible for the strange things that have been happening, and Dalton and Minnette do their best to make this feel like a really bad falling out between actual human beings. Unfortunately, the whole scene is completely preposterous because Logan is absurdly easy-going for a teenager who has seen his father die in front of his eyes and has then been dragged away from home by his mother to escape threatening poverty, and the tensions between his mother and him have been so absurdly mild given the situation the scene rings completely wrong.

This is absolutely indicative of the script’s main problem. It sets up a situation, comes up with a couple of big scenes related to that situation but doesn’t bother to fill in the blanks that would emotionally and thematically connect any of it. For most of the time, this feels like a film written by people who can’t even imagine how their characters might feel in any given situation and so just choose not to write any reactions for them at all. Consequently, little of what anyone does here is based on anything an actual human being would feel or do. From this perspective, it’s really no surprise Logan has no friends he is missing, and that Naomi doesn’t have a single person to call when shit gets weird – when the police doesn’t help, Logan eventually calls in what must be the only other person in the neighbouring town, a salesperson who has been randomly flirting with his Ma, in a particularly absurd turn.

Now, if this were a film about social isolation and poverty, and the resulting helplessness expressed through the horror form, some of this would even make thematic sense, but it’s really the result of a script that doesn’t even begin to think the situation it puts its characters in, and the characters themselves, through, instead going through a bunch of well worn standard horror thriller plot beats without giving any of these beats a reason to exist at all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

In short: Posse (1993)

Instead of dead as their evil commander Colonel Graham (Billy Zane) had hoped, a group of African American soldiers (Charles Lane, Tiny Lister, and Tone Loc, plus !bonus Stephen Baldwin) under the leadership of Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles) escape the Spanish-American war very much alive and in possession of the rather large amount of gold the good Colonel wanted them to steal and then kill them for. The group leaves the Colonel behind for dead after a fight, but he and a group of gunmen will start to follow our protagonists’ every move soon enough.

As if having these particular hellhounds on their trails isn’t bad enough, Jesse Lee, prone to random flashbacks only missing the harmonica, has some vengeance to seek in and around his hometown, which isn’t conducive to anyone’s health.

As likeable as I find the attempt of the group of filmmakers around people like Posse’s director Mario Van Peebles and the Hughes Brothers to create a new African American genre cinema with a degree of social consciousness on decent budgets, as frustrating I usually find the resulting films. As is typically the case with this group of movies, it’s not the film’s cast, consisting of a whole bunch of good younger actors and a plethora of veterans and heroes of cinema like Pam Grier or Mario Van Peebles’s father Melvin, at fault here, nor are the production values the problem. It is rather the combination of a pretty terrible script, one so unfocused you seem to drift from one film to the next while making your way through Posse, and a director heavily in love with all kinds of pointless visual stylization taken in equal parts from Leone and video clips without much of an idea of how to put all the camera and post-production tricks into the service of the film instead of the other way round. I do suspect most of the time the reason for all the film’s visual busyness is the assumption it looks cool, no matter if it actually does anything useful for the film at all.

Posse is a meandering mess, wasting a bunch of great actors and a genuinely great initial idea for nothing much.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dead Curse (1985)

Original title: 猛鬼迫人

A couple of years ago, Inspector Ma prevented a witch (Angela Yu Chien) leading a Kali (or Carla, as the subtitles insist, leading to inspiring moments like the witch shouting “Carla, give me strength!”) cult from sacrificing a child, killing the witch and her assistants (witches in training?) in the process. With her last breath, the witch cursed the inspector and his family.

Now, four years later, Ma is sitting in a wheelchair, his wife is gone, and since it is July, ghost month, there’s nasty stuff in store for him and his family - his little daughter, his reporter sister Mimi (probably Elaine Kam Yin-Ling) and Mimi’s fiancée, cop Ah Chiu (Poon Chun-Wai). Particularly Mimi will turn out to have to fight off the brunt of the witch’s ire. Not that the family as a whole has it easy: little ghost children try to drown and then hang Mimi’s niece, the witch regularly appears to have a good laugh, the witch’s dead assistants attempt to throw Ma from his balcony – it’s quite the July for these people. And that’s before we come to the bit later on when Ah Chiu has a bit of ghost sex (or humps the witch’s coffin, if you can’t see ghosts) and becomes possessed afterwards, speaking in the witch’s voice.

Another female friend or family member – as it often goes with the more obscure Hong Kong films from this era, the burnt-in subtitles aren’t particularly clear so your guess is as good as mine – does have contact to a sifu named Kwan (Kwan Hoi-San), so spiritual help will be forthcoming eventually, but Kwan isn’t the most impressive example of his kind, so it’s not at all sure he will actually be able to beat the witch and her Carla-given powers.

As I said, Dead Curse – directed by one-timer Chong Biu Man and actor Gu Sam-Lam - is a reasonably obscure bit of Hong Kong horror of its time, but it’s a fun example of the style nonetheless.

Now, even though it was rated CAT III at the time, this isn’t as extreme and crass a film as one might hope or fear. There’s no centipede eating or puking action at all, and the supernatural elements are relatively conservative, featuring a lot of dry ice and green light and little that’s icky in any way, shape or form. In fact, the make-up for the ghost children is as traditional as they come, suggesting a film that sees itself standing at least with one foot in the less crazy Hong Kong horror of the 50s and 60s (and of course earlier). Its other foot, however, certainly stands in modern (80s) times. It’s not just the ghost sex scene or how the climax evolves into a magical battle between the Sifu, five elemental guardians he has conjured and the flying witch who can shoot a red laser beam out of her finger now. Rather, camera set-ups, movement, editing and general pacing do completely belong to its own time, things hopping merrily along with little time for film or characters to drag their heels between mild yet fun stunts, general spookery and moments of classic HK 80s goofiness (where else would the encounter between a threatened little girl and two ghost children come to murder her in a somewhat complicated manner include a running gag about ET?).

It’s certainly not a film that’ll leave a contemporary viewer in awe, disgust or terrible suspense, but Dead Curse’s forward momentum, its diligence in delivering at least one horror set piece every five minutes, its moments of craziness, its masses of dry ice fog and green light, its perfectly likeable leads and its general sense of fun do make for a very enjoyable time for a viewer with any kind of interest in Hong Kong horror of this time. I have no idea what anyone who doesn’t would make of this one, though I would assume that a flying witch shooting a red laser beam at a kung fu guy fighting her with a wooden coffin is of interest to any human being with taste and style.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Some mysteries should not be unlocked

Not of This Earth (1988): This Roger Corman-produced remake of a Corman joint is directed by the dread Jim Wynorski pretty early in his career of tits and boredom, so it is indeed full of female nudity (though not quite as much as in later Wynorski epics, you gotta decide for yourself if that’s for better or worse) and a metric crapton of boredom (just as much as in later stage Wynorski).

The film’s main feature is the copious amount of footage taken from a load of other Corman productions, usually used for no good reason but to get the film up to length, of course, a far cry from the clever secondary usage in something from Corman’s glory days like Targets, but comparing Bogdanovich and Wynorski is really rather unfair of me. Otherwise, poor Traci Lords seems to be the only person on screen even vaguely conscious of that thing known as “acting”, little happens, horrible jokes of a sort that makes Scary Movie look funny are made, and my eyes are getting heavy just thinking about this one again.

The Body Tree (2017): Following a Wynorski film that doesn’t even seem to have the ambition to entertain, this Russian-Spanish-US coproduction directed by Thomas Dunn about a group of young horror movie characters travelling to Siberia to take part in a ritual meant to calm the spirit of a murdered friend but alas provoking a demon feels like pure cinematic gold. At least, it clearly has ambitions to be a bit more than the spam in a cabin movie you’d expect from the set-up.

Unfortunately, the film’s attempts at psychological depth come up against writing that’s just not sharp and insightful enough to sustain many, many scenes of characters arguing, and arguing, and then arguing some more, performances that mostly can’t cope with these attempts at psychological depth, and the plain fact that about half of these characters are such unpleasant assholes I just didn’t want to hear them shouting at one another for what felt like hours. But at least The Body Tree fails while actually trying.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003): Let’s finish this on a high note, though, with Andrew Douglas’s attempt at capturing something like the heart of the weird, white American South in a sort of road trip following singer-songwriter and, ahem, “eccentric” Jim White through poverty, bars, various examples of what looks like horrifying religious mania to my atheist eyes, and sometimes awkwardly staged encounters with various alt.Country musicians from David Eugene Edwards, over Lee Sexton, over the Handsome Family, to Johnny Dowd (ironically, about half of these musicians were probably better known here in Germany than in the US at the time the film was made). The great writer Harry Crews pops in for a bit too.

I’m not terribly sure anyone will understand this South any better after watching the film, but it surely should convince one to try.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Hundra (1983)

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.

One day, while their best warrior Hundra (Laurene Landon) is away hunting, a generally peaceful village of amazons is attacked and eradicated by a band of ugly, hairy men riding under the sign of the bull. When all is over, a returning Hundra dispatches a horde of the aggressors in a drawn-out fight, but that still leaves her people quite dead.

Our heroine then makes her way to the only remaining elder of her kind, who for some inexplicable reason dwells among a horde of really rude little people. Though after hearing the sage's glorious plan for the revivification of her people, I'm not surprised by anything about her, for she declares Hundra to now be solely responsible for the survival of the tribe. Our poor, bedraggled heroine shall go down to the land of the men praying to the bull, and get herself pregnant stat.

But Hundra's first attempt at getting pregnant only teaches her one thing: she still has certain standards, and won't tolerate the attentions of hairy, unwashed guys who'll even turn consensual sex into rape. So, after showing off her wrestling skills and sneering at less feminist women than herself (she'd get along well with a certain type of Internet feminists), off she rides to what goes under the term of "city" in sword and sorcery land.

There she will get into trouble with the ruling cabal of religious male chauvinist pigs whose religion is orgies, meet a man who doesn't stink and isn't a jerk, learn the womanly arts, teach the warrior arts to her teacher of womanly arts, and be somewhat responsible for a death by sitting on a face.

Among the many, many films jumping on the bandwagon created by John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, Hundra is one of the most unique in that it isn't slavishly copying all of its predecessor's story beats and aping its philosophy, but actually having a head of its own. Admittedly, Hundra's head just might be as much full of nonsense as it is of clever ideas, but I find it difficult to disagree with a film that is clearly having so much fun. Plus, you can say the same about the Milius movie, too.

Still, having fun or not, Hundra is at times a film sending very mixed messages. Tonally, it's just very inconsistent, with scenes of really unpleasant slow-motion violence like the destruction of Hundra's village (ending - especially tasteful - with the rape of Hundra's teenage-at-best sister) and sequences of Hundra romping through the city and kicking guards in the balls (one of her favourite fighting moves) standing in strange contrast to each other, quite as if half of the film were made by a low-rent Sam Peckinpah and the other half by the director of one of the later Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies. I suspect part of this curious mixture is just director Matt Cimber (a man with a career so curious someone should write a book about him, as he did Hundra as well as Pia-Zadorasploitation) fulfilling his quota of exploitational values, just that in this film, violence towards women after the big village destruction usually leads to Hundra giving the respective prick a kick in the respective balls. It's a bit like a woman in prison film where all the male bad guys are dispatched before the grand climax, and therefore don't have enough time to get really sadistic.

At times, when it's not spending its time having strange plot holes (so, the main bad guys are all about seeing Hundra “tamed”, but then they somehow don't realize when she's pregnant?) or making jokes about Hundra's cowardly male dog, Hundra actually becomes a somewhat clever inversion of the classic sword and sorcery tale, where the storyteller suddenly realizes that treating women like objects isn't alright at all, and sends out a female version of Conan to sort things out with men. The film plays with a lot of traditional sword and sorcery elements this way, turning what begins like the usual tale of vengeance into the story of a woman who learns that a lot of men are indeed shits, but not all of them, and that consensual sex is a-okay if both partners want to have it. And in a really surprising turn of events, this does not lead to our heroine giving up on her curious destiny and only ever living for her man from then on, but just sees her psychologically better prepared for it. Of course, her male love interest here is just as bland as the female love interest in sword and sorcery movies with a male hero often is, so it's not too much of a surprise she can leave him (at least for a time - the film actually is all about choice on that level).

These clever bits are surrounded by an Ennio-Morricone-scored shot in Spain series of fights, brawls and slow-motion attacks (with a bit of nudity), bad jokes, good jokes, male characters so vile I'm sure they don't wash, and Spanish actors speaking English with heavy accents. It's a bit of mess, really, but so much of the film is riding on a wave of fun, with a lead actress who may not be all that great at, well, acting, but sure seems to have as much of a blast in her slightly awkward action scenes as her character has. That sort of thing always goes a long way in turning awkward action scenes into loveable awkward action scenes. And once a film is like Hundra and mixes its loveable awkward action scenes with kinda sorta feminism that would make John Milius (and Robert E. Howard, for that matter) cry, there isn't really anything anyone could do to remove it from the warm place it has found in my heart.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

In short: Crush the Skull (2015)

After what was supposed to be their last job goes rather badly awry, highly accomplished burglar couple Blair (Katie Savoy) and Ollie (Chris Dinh, also the film’s co-writer) find themselves in debt to a rather nasty gangster. If they don’t want to lose any of their precious body parts, they have to find a new object to rob fast.

Fortunately, Blair’s brother Connor (Chris Riedell) is just in the very last stages of planning a lucrative heist (as he prefers to call it instead of the too pedestrian “burglary”) on a house somewhere out in the boons. There are a couple of problems with this, though. Firstly, Connor and Ollie hate each other with a passion, Ollie taking Connor to be a dangerously irresponsible amateur responsible for landing him in prison twice, and Connor thinking himself to be a criminal mastermind. Secondly, Ollie is absolutely right about Connor, and much of what they believe about the job will turn out to be badly wrong thanks to Connor not doing his research properly.

Which is to say, the trio and Connor’s partner Riley (Tim Chiou) break into the murder castle of a serial killer and soon find themselves locked in and on the menu as they guy’s next victims.

Indie horror comedies seldom work for me. Their scripts are all too often supposedly funny instead of actually funny, filled with jokes that are tedious instead of, you know, funny, and actors who lack in comical timing. So colour me happily surprised and impressed that Viet Nguyen’s Crush the Skull is a rather wonderful small (in the sense of a film that knows exactly on which scale it can best operate) movie.

Most – I’d say eighty-five percent, which is an insanely great quota for me and humour – jokes here actually hit their mark as they are written, and they are delivered with great comical timing by actors who clearly understand why what they are saying is supposed to be funny and how to emphasize it. But even when we leave the quality of the jokes aside, the script by Dinh and Nguyen is pretty great, understanding that a film needs more than just admittedly funny lines to actually work as a whole. Characterisation is probably the film’s greatest strength. For my taste, it is relatively unusual when a couple in a movie feels like any of the actual couples I know, but Ollie and Blair work wonderfully well. It’s not just that there’s chemistry in the writing and the acting between Savoy and Dinh, it’s that they show the right kind of closeness. The film avoids being demonstrative about the relationships between its characters and instead shows us how they act together and with each other in ways that feel organic and fun. And fun these characters are, fun enough, I’d watch them doing very little at all (or, you know, wish for some further adventures for them).

As it stands, the film’s whole serial killer plot is actually more of a set up to show how these characters interact than the film’s main concern. It is, however, imaginative and clever enough when it needs to be to hold the jokes and the characters together and give them something to work against. I did mention Crush the Skull is rather wonderful, didn’t I?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Along Came the Devil (2018)

aka Tell Me Your Name

After a childhood dominated by an abusive father who liked to cram his two daughters into a wardrobe while he was having sex, Ashley (Sydney Sweeney) has just moved in with her aunt Tonya (Jessica Barth) – or Tanya as the IMDB lists her. Ashley’s sister is off to study somewhere, apparently, and will not appear on screen again despite the film’s prologue – not to speak of the page of absolutely pointless explanatory text that came before - suggesting the relationship between the sisters to be an important concern. It’s that kind of script. No idea what happened to the father either, by the way.

Anyhow, Ashley soon has a number of paranormal experiences of the usual sort, leading her to the assumption her dead mother is trying to contact her from beyond the grave. Of course – see title of the movie - it’s actually a demon, and soon (more or less) we go through the usual demonic possession rigmarole. Ashley’s only chance are the Worst Exorcist Evah (Bruce Davison) and his junior partner Pastor John (Matt Dallas) of the creepy soulless smile (alas not a plot point).

Now, I’d really like to spoil how exactly things turn out for the poor kid, but alas, Jason DeVan’s film doesn’t bother with nonsense like having an actual ending, finishing on Tonya calling in Ashley’s sister who will never arrive on screen, and the Worst Exorcist showing off the little prison he keeps in the church cellar for all the people he didn’t manage to exorcise in the past, including Ashley’s mother. I’m not sure if this ending is a demonstration of pretty astonishing incompetence or the film angling for a sequel but it sure doesn’t help a script that is all over the place anyway.

There are important plot developments only alluded to in passing (what exactly happened at Ashley’s school, just to take an obvious example not already mentioned), completely pointless scenes like Ashley’s visit to a psychiatrist we’ll never see again, a complicated backstory about an abusive father and a possessed mother the film does bugger all with and either should have cut or better have made the core of the film instead of the exorcism movie 101 yawn fest it instead uses. The characters that don’t just pointlessly come and go are right out of the exorcism horror cliché grab bag, and of course the film doesn’t put a single actual thought of its own into why demons exist in its world and what their motivations might be beyond making teens first want to have sex (clearly, the existence of the teenage sex drive can only be explained by demons), speak in foreign languages (education is demons, I suppose), and then start to stink and badly imitate scenes from The Exorcist (a film, by the way, which really did put thought into its theology, even though I never liked it much). Extra minus points go for the physical portrayal of the demon as a huge guy with horns and glowing red eyes, making it inappropriately cartoonish – and frankly rather hilarious - in a film that clearly wants to be taken seriously.

Given the state of the script, it’s no surprise the pacing can’t be anything but off, the film crawling away until there’s only enough time left to pack the possibly interesting stuff into the final twenty-five minutes.

The acting’s solid, and the photography – an overuse of lens flare that’d blind J.J. Abrams excepted – is fine, but that can’t save Along Came the Devil from its so-called script.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In short: Ghost Stories (2017)

Warning: I need to discuss the film’s ending during the course of the post, so if you want to pretend to be surprised, better don’t read on!

Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman) is a professional debunker of psychics and psychic phenomena with a lot of personal baggage. Because that sort of thing always happens to people like him in the movies, his big role model Charles Cameron - now elderly, clearly dying and living in a trailer – invites him to his home, such as it is, to berate him and to give him an envelope containing the three cases that convinced him his and Goodman’s respective life’s works were misguided. Much of the film consists of Goodman following up on these stories, and getting them told via flashback in your typical ghost anthology style.

However, there’s something rather different going on here than it first appears to be.

Given all the excited reviews by people whose tastes I generally appreciate I’ve read about Ghost Stories, I went into Jeremy Dyson’s and Andy Nyman’s movie based on their (equally well received) stage play expecting to feel a bit of excitement myself, but as it stands, much of the film leaves me cold, while a certain amount of it just plain annoys me.

I certainly have mentioned it here over the years from time to time, but if there’s one style of ending I particularly loathe in a piece of supernatural horror, it is the old “it was all a dream, a coma fantasy or the hallucinations of people who are already dead” cop out, something that has been sucking meaning, joy and effect out of films for more than a hundred years now. To be fair to the filmmakers, in the case of Ghost Stories, this ending is not supposed to be a cop out but rather the actual point of the film. The tales we are told and their surroundings are meant to mirror the psychological state and the details of comatose Goodman’s surroundings, with even the presence of women in the tales only as ghosts and shadows being a point made about the man’s life, and nearly everything we see actually meaningful. Unfortunately, meaningful doesn’t necessarily mean interesting, and while the ghost stories themselves are loaded with connections to Goodman’s traumata and hang-ups, they are only very basic as ghost stories, though stuffed with many allusions to other movies and books, with little happening in them any viewer won’t have seen a thousand times before. They are meant to be pretty bland, I believe, but the boringness of a film’s elements being purposeful doesn’t actually make them less boring.

I’d probably be quite a bit more tolerant of the film being all metaphorical about everything if I ever got the impression Goodman’s actually interesting enough of a character to spend a whole movie in his coma fantasies, but as far as it goes, his psychology seems terribly generic to me, the supernatural as metaphor not enhancing our view into his mind as much as it should but rather working as a way for the film to avoid actual psychological insight. Bergman this is not.

All this is a particular shame since the level of filmmaking craft on display here is considerable, genre knowledge and a technical eye for detail standing in service of a film that is not as deep as it seems to think it is.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Requiem (2018)

Warning: I won’t spell things out completely, but there are certainly some spoilers towards the nature of the series and its ending in here!

Things are going swell for cellist Matilda (Lydia Wilson) and her musical partner – who is more of a further appearing kind of guy in their promo materials – Hal (Joel Fry). They seem to be hitting the big time as much as a chamber music duo can today, with a big London show coming up and important American tour dates in their future.

However, directly before the start of said big show, Lydia witnesses her mother Janice (Joanna Scanlan) committing suicide by cutting her own throat right in front of her. There weren’t any warning signs at all, and Matilda is very distraught. Sadness and pain mixes with confusion when she finds a shoebox on her mother’s bed. It is full of photos – apparently shot stalker-style – of people Matilda doesn’t know, newspaper clips and a videotape with TV news features about the disappearance of a small girl named Carys in a Welsh village twenty years ago. Thinking about what these things mean is like an itch she can’t stop scratching for Matilda, so she and Hal make their way to Wales, where their questions open up old wounds and suggest increasingly more occult explanations for what has happened to the girl and what all of this has to do with Matilda.

This six part BBC/Netflix series is a mix of mystery and supernatural tale, written in most part by its creator Kris Mrksa and directed by Mahalia Belo, both with TV experience – Mrksa a lot of it - but with not much else coming up on IMDB. It’s a genuinely excellent mixture, using the parallels between modern mystery and crime tales about cold cases and what at first seems to be a ghost story, but ending up in a somewhat different direction than you’d at first expect, the ghost story rather elegantly escalating into an occult conspiracy story.

The writing is not above using clichés, but this is more the case of the piece using well-worn tropes because they fit its needs, not because it can’t come up with something better. Even the crime standard of the lost child isn’t the easy emotional in for the audience it sometimes tends to be but an intrinsic part of this tale, for the story is indeed about it instead of using it as an easy way to grab the viewer. The mystery is well enough constructed that even once I had figured out the shape of the story relatively early on (subjective thousand years of genre cinema and literature consumption will do that to you), it was a pleasure to follow the series into the details, the obvious ones and the less so. The characters are interesting throughout, usually starting from a point a viewer will have a handle of as a cliché, but eventually showing more complexity and facets that turn them into people. Very often, the characters feel more like they are the people on whom the clichés were based, rather than clichés.

I did find myself somewhat exasperated by Matilda’s approach to, well, anything, (while still rooting for her) in part because of the socially anxious person’s discomfort at someone being quite this direct and immune to what strangers might think of her, but also because Requiem makes very believable how someone genuinely hurt by her past and recent events might end up bursting through human niceties, proprieties and other people’s lives in a way that can only lead to something very bad for everyone involved. In fact, I wouldn’t see things ending much better for our protagonist if there were nothing supernatural involved here at all. At the same time, the way Wilson portrays her, she never becomes a caricature, but a pained and sometimes frustrating human being that really deserves better.

Speaking of the supernatural, one of the most pleasant surprises for me was the actual nature of the beings involved, the clever way the show portrays and uses them, basing them on a certain historical magician and his beliefs and practices, without either getting too much into the minutiae of occult practices nor ending up with people in robes muttering about Satan. Obviously, used and portrayed as present but mysterious and not truly understandable but us humans, these beings are rather disturbing not just because they are involved in spookiness, but because of the ideas about the cosmos they represent.

Belo’s direction is generally of the slick, contemporary TV style that may not have as much money to work with as a blockbuster, but that never feels cheap and suggests not the classic picture of some work-for-hire hack quickly shooting away at a script she doesn’t care about. The direction is as composed and thought through as you’d wish from every director worth your time as a viewer.

Some of the horror sequences will not be exactly new to the discerning viewer of this sort of thing, but Belo’s handling of Matilda’s shifting states of consciousness, and the intersection between the more visible horror effects and those that are just in her mind or might just be in other characters’ minds is flawless, and often wonderfully creepy without ever only wanting to creep you out. However, this is not the kind of tale that cops out on the supernatural in the end. As a matter of fact, the ending, while elegantly not showing a lot things, is consequent and rather brutal in this regard, while also keeping with what the series has set up about its supernatural world before.

So, Requiem is a rather lovely piece of work.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Seduction. Submission. Murder. Tonight . . . evil goes over the edge

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): Despite being a friend of the darker kinds of humour, I often find myself nonplussed with comedies when they become too cynical, or rather, when they seem to dislike their own characters so much they can’t seem to find any shared emotional ground with them. Consequently, I have a complicated relationship with Shane Black’s stuff as a writer as well as a director. Here, at the start of the man’s career in the latter role, I find myself rather taken with what he produces. While the characters are certainly not all around loveable, Black doesn’t only wallow in their misfortunes, and his tendency to fourth wall breaking and ironic distance is very controlled and indeed responsible for many of the film’s funniest scenes. It’s also remarkable how good Black here is at scenes that are at once playing with genre conventions in funny ways and actually highly effective expressions of genre.

Add to that charming performances by Robert Downey Jr., Michelle Monaghan and Val Kilmer, and a lovingly absurd mystery plot kinda-sorta based on a Brett Halliday story, and you’ll find me with very uncomplicated feelings towards this particular Shane Black film.

The Big Sick (2017): Staying with comedies for a bit, Michael Showalter’s film based on a script by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon that’s based on their own early relationship, with Nanjiani playing himself and eternal indie romance heroine Zoe Kazan as Emily should by all rights be a mess of a film, or a terrible tear-jerker. As a matter of fact, it is anything but, and rather ends up being a highly successful quirky romantic comedy where that “quirky” isn’t code for “too twee”, a film about the specific problems of the children of immigrants, a sometimes drama about family, and a film that may on paper sound like a bit of an ego trip but that’s very much about people not called Kumail Nanjiani too, showing every character as complex and complicated trying to manoeuvre through the messes of life, love and so on.

It’s a fantastic film. The script is funny and moving and clever and so well plotted it feels completely natural, the acting (with people like Holly Hunter and Anupam Kher giving support) is great, and Showalter’s direction is all brilliant pacing and timing, so much so you might forget it’s there – which is an art to achieve.

The Guard (2011): And while I’m at it, why not finish up on another comedy, this time around John Michael McDonagh’s very Irish homage to buddy cop movies – or is it his answer to 80s action movies as a whole? Anyway, the film’s a showcase for the copious talents of Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle and others, and feels like a bit of an ode to the virtues that might be hidden under very dubious surfaces, with some excursions into actual tragedy (the scenes between Gleeson’s character Gerry Boyle and his dying mother played by Fionnula Flannagan are absolutely heart-breaking; also funny), realpolitik, and the sad fact that in some places, the abrasive, politically un-correct man of dubious morals in little things might just be the only moral guy in big things around.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Zemlya Sannikova (1973)

aka The Sannikov Land

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.

During the later stages of the existence of tsarist Russia. His - most probably revolutionary - politics have brought geographer Ilyin (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) into exile in a town near the polar circle. Ilyin dreams of being the first man to set foot onto Sannikov Land, an area north of the polar ice that is green and fecund instead of icy and barren. Some pretty talk about gold that might be found there with the local evil (as he does of course not actually intend to share the gold with the geographer) capitalist earns Ilyin, who is clearly much less interested in gold than exploration as a goal in itself, the funding for an expedition into the white north.

The expedition isn't exactly large: Ilyin, the local manly man/drunk/singer of horrible pop songs and fan of the Tsar Evgeniy Krestovskiy (Oleg Dal), and the capitalist's beleaguered right-hand man and odious comic relief Ignatiy (Georgi Vitsin) - who also seems to stand in for the oppressed working classes from time to time - make up the whole of the expedition, until revolutionary and doctor Gubin (Yuri Nazarov) sneaks on board the ship carrying the trio northwards. Gubin has escaped from prison, and is initially planning to hijack the ship to sail to America, but since he and Ilyin just happen to be old friends, and Ilyin really is quite convincing in his ardour to reach Sannikov Land, he becomes part of the expedition and the trio turns into a quartet.

Once they have set foot on icy land, the expedition doesn't go too well at first. The corpses of an earlier expedition also looking for Sannikov Land are something of a bad omen, and the Inuit our expedition has hired as guides while the camera wasn't looking turn back halfway, taking the dog sleds of the expedition with them (note to self: if you ever go on a polar expedition, bring your own dogs and sleds).

Just when all seems lost and our heroes start with the infighting and the dying, they reach Sannikov Land. It turns out the place is a valley kept warm by volcanic activity (uh oh), and really as green and pleasant as Ilyin had hoped. It's also populated by a tribe of phenotypically very diverse natives (from Caucasians in slight brown-face to a lot of Asians with blond and red wigs) called the Onkilon. While the Onkilon aren't as threatening as their demeanour initially suggests, their chief does not want anyone in the outside world to learn of the existence of their home. He's not a bad guy, though, for he is perfectly willing to provide the strangers with places among his tribe and (how romantic!) women of their own - as long as they never leave again.

This could be the beginning of a somewhat wonderful friendship (if one doesn't mind the imprisonment and shotgun wedding aspect), but alas, the tribe's shaman (Makhmud Esambayev in a performance somewhere between Iggy Pop and the worst Hollywood Indian you can imagine) has a different opinion. He sees that the strangers are threatening his power over the tribe and decides he needs to get rid of them; and while he's at it, he might get rid of that darn liberal chief for good measure.

Zemlya Sannikova is based on a novel in the Lost World mold by early Russian SF writer and man with a highly interesting life (just look at his Wikipedia page!) Vladimir Obruchev, and - as far as I can tell - is still something of a classic in the former Soviet Union. This is another indication (as if we needed more) that people at their core really are the same all over the world, political and cultural differences notwithstanding, for Zemlya Sannikova is exactly the sometimes cheesy, sometimes silly, sometimes awe-inspiringly beautiful kind of adventure movie people all over the world would love, featuring manly, bearded and morally upright heroes (except for the Tsarist, who just happens to be a bit of a prick), an insane shaman, various daring deeds, beautiful women in horrible clothing, and a basic idea that should make everyone's inner twelve year old gleefully happy. Naturally, there are a few differences in the movie's stereotypes when compared to western movies - the capitalist is evil in a slightly different way than capitalists in western movies are, for example. The film's ideology also is a bit different than one is used to from other adventure movies - the film ends on the heroes planning a rescue expedition for the threatened tribe instead of killing them all and taking their stuff, for Marx's sake! - though I think this internationalist streak is rather refreshing. Still, below these surface differences waits the archetype of the adventure story.

Often, the film is very good at what it does: Zemlya Sannikova's early stages not only convey the romance and pathos the kind of expedition our heroes go on carrries, but also a subtle sense of melancholia that will return in the film's final scenes; there's something desperate and beautiful in the history of human exploration of the world, and the early parts of Zemlya Sannikova really want to make that clear. Of course, that feeling of melancholia (already broken by two really quite horrible pop songs early on) soon enough makes room for one of slight insanity once the focus shifts from the exploration to the natives. For while the film tries its hardest to talk about some serious themes when it comes to the Onkilon, its treatment of everything surrounding the tribe is deeply cheesy and silly as is tradition in all Lost World type films. It's not just the fact that these "natives" are dressed up in ridiculous wigs and costumes no actual human being would ever have worn in any kind of wilderness, nor just that their culture - as far as we see it - does not make the slightest bit of sense (we're in full grown "they are big children, Jean-Jacques" territory here), nor is it the combination of these factors alone. Rather it's that their treatment as being the ultimate naïfs seems even more naive than they themselves are supposed to be, as if the film's only idea of how hunter and collector societies work came from a third grade version of Rousseau and Marx.

The latter gentleman truly comes in once we take a look at the film's main bad guy, the shaman, who is clearly supposed to be an example of the destructive power of religion (opium of the people, etc) - more evil than capitalism! - as a way to control the minds of a people. Of course, I can't say I disagree all that much with the film's views of organized religion, it's just that Zemlya Sannikova is simplifying a complex web of human wishes and desires until it turns into a ridiculous farce. That matter sure isn't helped by Esambayev's - a professional dancer who shows his talent in here in adorably ridiculous ways - hilarious performance. Even if one ignores the ideological aspect, it's pretty difficult to take a villain seriously who spends as much time shimmying, wobbling, shaking, hip-swinging and doing the funky chicken while chewing scenery as Esambayev does. On the other hand, while the man's performance might destroy any semblance of seriousness the film had until he appeared, he sure as hell is perfectly entertaining to watch.

Add to that elements like a soundtrack by Aleksandr Zatsepin that reaches from the (still horrible) pop songs to weird, moody synth noodling to Peter Thomas like psychedelic lounge electronica, or ideas like the marriage rites of the Onkilon (basically, they're playing catch), and you have a film as strange as one could hope for. All the silliness (and the sad, scientifically correct absence of dinosaurs and monstrous animals every lost world is supposed to contain) and the many scenes that are just as cheesy as those in a comparable Hollywood adventure movie would be come together into something highly diverting, if not exactly the film I had expected going in.

Directors Albert S. Mkrtchyan (last seen here directing the excellent Priskosnoveniye) and Leonid Popov manage this strange mixture of the earnest, the bizarre, the dogmatic and the plain fun with aplomb, using - often impressively beautiful - nature shots as the best special effect of them all, and treat every aspect of the film with dignity, never mind if the aspect at hand actually deserves any dignity. It might be a cliché, but there's just never a dull moment on screen in Zemlya Sannikova.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

In short: Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (2013)

aka Witching and Bitching

I do remember a time, once in the long ago, when Álex de la Iglesia’s transgressive horror comedies were actually transgressive. Not that I liked them much, mind you, because they always had the whiff of watching films made by who did not give much of a throught about who the targets of his humour were as long as his films got someone outraged, and convinced someone else to defend him for reasons of art (seldom of, you know, substance to that art, alas). I always thought his films lacked any actual conviction, or anger, or bitterness, or love that would direct where he pointed his humour at.

This time around, it’s especially difficult not to see the lack of an actual edge in this tired sequence of mild misogyny and bored homophobia. I’m sure, parts of outrage culture will still be outraged (that’s what it lives off, after all, be it in the guise of right-wing guardians of public morals and freedom or of identity politically moved guarding the very same thing) but I couldn’t help but find myself bored by the tiredness of it all, yawning through much of the film, and finding my patience tried not by any moral apprehensions but by how little the film actually works at shocking – or entertaining, for that matter – its audience, as if shouting some shitty nonsense about women would even be worthy of notice. Being a prick who only spouts lame clichés, it turns out, isn’t all that transgressive in my book, just vaguely unpleasant, like the proverbial racist uncle one pointedly doesn’t talk to once a year yet who never seems worth the effort to actually get angry.

It doesn’t help the film as a horror comedy that it’s often quite sluggishly paced and needs nearly an hour to actually get going, but then, why should that part of the movie suggest any more intellectual or emotional involvement than anything else in it?

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Revenge (2017)

Wealthy Richard (Kevin Janssens) has taken his young mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz in what will turn out to be quite the tour de force physical performance) to his modernist holiday home so deep in a desert they get flown in. The plan is for a bit of bump and grind with the young and somewhat naive woman, and then to have her fly out again before his friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) will come in for their yearly hunting get-together.

Alas, the guys come in a bit earlier than planned. These, as it will surprise nobody, are not the type of men a woman wants to be alone with. Leering and what one might just barely get away with calling sexual tension turns into rape when Richard is out to take care of their hunting licenses. When Jen rejects Richard’s offer to pay her off to forget the whole thing, he just pushes her off a mountain. Where rapist Stan and all-around shit Dimitri are still baseline human monsters, Richard turns out to be an honest to gawd sociopath.

It takes some time until these prime examples of upper class manhood realize that Jen has somehow survived the fall and crawled away to some hiding spot. Since these guys clearly live their lives following the question “What would a serial killer do?”, they, well, Richard decides - the others follow with more or less grumbling - to hunt Jen down and murder her again. They’ve got weapons, transport and equipment, after all, and Jen doesn’t even have water. Jen is by far not going to be the easy victim they are expecting, though.

Coralie Fargeat’s rape revenge film with the catchy title is rather special, not just because the director/writer being a woman leads to her approaching some of the well-worn plot beats of the subgenre somewhat – though not as extremely as one might expect - differently from most of the male directed brethren her film shares its genre with; not only because the film doesn’t stop at being somewhat more honestly feminist than is typical of a genre that often dances ambiguously between titillation and condemnation, without being didactic. It’s Fargeat’s ability to take, twist and shape genre standards and make them her own, staging everything from the rape scene, to action sequences to dream sequences and making it look easy.

Fargeat’s clearly perfectly okay with the implausibility of some of what happens in the film. In fact, there’s a line of dark, sardonic humour running through it that seems to luxuriate in the ability of a movie to be more than real. Things never devolve into outright comedy, though, the violence – while as over the top bloody as is the French style – always feels weighty and unpleasant, and the characters – the film even gives its trio of rapist shits a bit of depth and believable character relations which doesn’t make them more likeable but definitely more believable beyond “evil” – may be broadly drawn but are also exactly the type you might imagine would inhabit Revenge’s visual world.

Said visual world is rather spectacular too, Fargeat turning the desert and the house into playgrounds of colours, using directorial choices that hint at pop art and video clips yet which in her hands don’t feel tacky and distracting but fiercely focused. Just that this focus isn’t always exactly where you’d expect it to be – which is a good thing, obviously. There’s an air of the more-than-real/not-quite-real about Fargeat’s staging that turns the film from the decent genre programmer its plot might promise into something riveting, intense and dreamlike. At the same time, the director isn’t slave to her stylishness – the rape, the following violence, and so on, never feel lessened in impact or meaning by the way they are shot, but, as it should be, strengthened.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

In short: Boar (2017)

A nice Australian family, with Bill Moseley playing the married-in stepdad from the US, have chosen a pretty bad time to visit giant – probably mutant - brother Bernie (Nathan Jones, apparently once a professional strongman known as “Megaman” to which there is nothing to add) in his outback home. For there’s a – most certainly mutant – giant boar roaming this particular stretch of the big Australian nothing, destroying fences, cars, cattle, and killing and sometimes just kidnapping people for its larder.

Why, the thing even murders good old John Jarratt, despite the man for once not playing a serial killer but a stand-up guy. Well, and it will murder large parts of the rest of the cast, too. Obviously.

Well, Razorback Chris Sun’s Boar clearly ain’t. There are certainly no ambitions visible on screen for this to be artistic or deep. This is very consciously built to be just a really fun monster flick without pretensions but also – thankfully - with little irony concerning its own genre.

Even though I wouldn’t exactly call Boar a comedy, the film has quite a few consciously goofy elements, scenes that are probably in it because they’re good fun instead of there to do much for either the plot or the characters. But then, once you encounter the scene where Nathan Jones rides around the countryside while rapping to that, ahem, classic “Ice Ice Baby”, you just might be like me and stop wanting it any other way. The film does take most of the violence and the boar attacks seriously enough, though, or as seriously as a film including something like the dramatic scene in which Jones has a knife fight with the mangy giant thing can get.

Otherwise, the film has quite a bit of fun with presenting many an outback dweller cliché, but with a twist, so everyone’s entertainingly and somewhat hilariously foul mouthed, bar owners solve the problem of grabby customers by kicking their ass, and so on and so forth. These scenes are generally so entertaining, they don’t ever feel like the filler they actually are, but rather like the film having its fun just letting the characters interact with one another and that this is indeed how rural Australia rolls.

The boar– a mixture of practical effects and CGI I believe – is looking rather impressive too for most of the time, coming over as an actual physical presence in most of its scenes, and certainly as a dire threat to life and limb of the characters. In general, Sun is as competent a hand at the action scenes as he is at the funny character bits, so there’s little at all to stand in the way of what seems to be the Boar’s main goal: being a fun movie about very Australian Australians fighting a big ass boar.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Slaughter of the Innocents (1993)

Warning: some spoilers ahead because there are a couple of moments late in the movie I need to mention, for I am only human!

Top FBI agent Stephen Broderick (Scott Glenn) seems to have rather a lot of leeway with the Bureau. At least, it seems to be par for the course for him, when it is not going to be dangerous, to take his crime obsessed boy genius son Jesse (Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus) with him. Apparently, Broderick appreciates his help analysing cases of serial killing, rape and so on and so forth. It is very possible that Jesse is supposed to be somewhere on the Autism spectrum, but then this is a film where a little kid habitually helps his FBI father solve crimes, so its ideas what is neurotypical and what not may differ rather a lot from most anybody else’s.

With Jesse’s help, Stephen nearly – the local prison warden is alas an ass - manages to save the life of a young mentally ill guy on death row in Utah for a murder and kidnapping he certainly did not commit. The crime fighting duo also finds out that this case is part of a whole series of related crimes committed by a disorganized killer if ever you’ve seen one.

Will Jesse make his way to Utah on his own and get into great danger when his dad decides things are getting too dangerous for him? You betcha.

Even James Glickenhaus amateurs like me know that the director/writer/producer was generally all about movies about cops and vigilantes made and set in grubby Koch era New York. But what’s an exploitation filmmaker to do when suddenly, post Silence of the Lambs, nobody wants to see unwashed men shooting drug dealers while rats skitter through blue lit streets? Not making any films at all is no solution for any working director, so a film about an FBI guy hunting a serial killer it was for Glickenhaus. And while one is at it, why not add a weird kid as assistant, gate to the wonders of modern technology and object to be threatened in the end? Films with kids always go down well, right? And hey, when you can cast your own son, it’s going to be a cheap kid too.

Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus, as becomes obvious rather quickly, is not one of the great child actors, and his Jesse certainly isn’t a believable kid at all, but then, given that he’s not written as one, it’s unfair to lay the blame on the poor kid. As a matter of fact, if you go into Slaughter of the Innocents expecting anything or anyone in it to be describable with the word “believable”, you’re absolutely out of luck. This is the serial killer thriller at its most absurd, with a finale that sees Jesse finding the killer’s secret cave in the desert, which is a place where our antagonist has built a new ark and dressed it up with rotting human corpses, as well as taxidermied animals, including a giraffe. The giraffe is, obviously, a plot point that leads the kid there. As it will turn out, it is also particularly annoying to the killer that his god still hasn’t gotten around to a new flood despite him having brought a giraffe to his ark. This, mind you, is not played for comedic effect at all (or Glickenhaus’s humour is drier than the desert), but follows a scene of an increasingly traumatized child stumbling through the killer’s Cave o’Corpses that wouldn’t feel out of place in particularly crass slasher.

Crassness really is a large part of Slaughter of the Innocents special charms. There’s also the discovery of the bloody corpse of a little girl early on, as well as a grim and overheated portrayal of an execution, and other moments in the same style. Glickenhaus is not quite wallowing in this sort of thing enough to make the hardened exploitation viewer queasy, but clearly has no shame at all in doing things in an unpleasant way even when it isn’t strictly necessary. This crassness, the willingness to go there is paired with the nearly comical absurdity of the whole plot – the killer makes no sense, his background makes no sense, the clue trail includes a stolen giraffe – as well as with an effective sense of the grotesque. The killer’s home, for example, isn’t just crass, but it also looks absolutely like the product of a perverted religious imagination that is to equal parts based on kitsch and violence, so while it is absurd, it also provides the right kind of frisson.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: BIG MEETS BIGGER

The Maus (2017): Using genre cinema and elements of the fantastical strictly for parable and allegory is usually the best way for a genre film to get friendly nods from critics who prefer their movies Serious and Meaningful. As Yayo Herrero’s film demonstrates, there is an easy trap to fall in with this approach, asking an audience to somehow connect with a film whose characters aren’t people – aren’t even supposed to be people – but stand-ins for groups of thousands or more individuals and/or mouthpieces for ideas.

Consequently, here, the two Serbian characters are human monsters, the Bosnian woman traumatized into violently striking back, and her German boyfriend just not able to understand because nobody murdered his family. A series of clichés which I believe amply demonstrates how shallowly this film that’s supposed to be about ideas approaches its historical target, turning a complex and horrifying part of recent history into something that’s pat and easily understandable, not reduced to its basics but simplified until the whole noble gesture of this being a Meaningful movie about Serious things seems rather dubious. Why, I can’t help but think if the film had been about specific people instead, it might have been able to actually say more about the world they inhabit and the forces that shaped them.

Habit (2017): Staying in the realm of not terribly convincing genre filmmaking, how about this poverty porn/horror movie by Simeon Halligan? If you went and told me a film concerning a cannibal sex cult running nightclubs and bordellos could be quite as bland and bloodless as this one, I wouldn’t have believed it. Alas, bland and bloodless it is, selling its argument that life as a modern city poor, the inevitable emptiness only lightened by drunken debauchery (don’t tell filmmakers not all of us lower class people are self-destructive alcoholics), can easily push one into enjoying the supposed feeling of life that comes with being a cannibal (the film tells yet doesn’t show that feeling, obviously), with all the energy and depth of an empty battery.

There’s absolutely an exciting, insightful film to be made out of the basic set-up and its basic interests, but that film would have some life to it, and would probably have a point its actually trying to get across beyond: being poor is really bad for your mental health. Who’d have thunk?

Thoroughbreds (2017): Fortunately, I can end this post on a satisfying note, namely with this nasty black comedy about the friendship between two teenage female upperclass sociopaths (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy in performances that are in turn disturbing, sad, and funny). The film recommends itself not only through the performances of its wonderful leads, but also through its sardonic portrayal of the young women’s upperclass world, the kind of privilege that seems bound to create sociopaths while only willing to notice them when they are acting out a little. It’s the old ditty about the terrors lurking beneath the surface of a supposedly normal world given a large twist of class consciousness, and presented with dry wit.

Director Cory Finley’s clinical style of direction will not be to everyone’s taste but to my eyes, it seems the perfect approach to telling the tale of two people who only ever perform emotions.