Thursday, December 19, 2019

It's the reddest and greenest time of the year again

so I'm taking time off from the exciting business of rambling about movies to do whatever you, dear imaginary reader, believe I'm getting up to at this time of the year. Normal service will resume on Wednesday, January 8th.

Have a fine holiday of your choice, hug your loved ones, and be kind to strangers. The next year just might be a better one, for once.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The People Who Own the Dark (1976)

Original title: Último deseo

A murder of upper class men – doctors, hunters, military scientists, diplomats and so on – meet up in an old castle for a very special kind of party. It’s a cultish sado-masochist sort of thing, the men (among them characters portrayed by Paul Naschy, Emiliano Redondo and Alberto de Mendoza) putting on rather creepy looking masks, and just starting on business of dubious sexiness with the hostesses (among them characters played by Nadiuska, Teresa Gimpera and Maria Perschy) in the castle’s cellar, when somewhere outside what we’ll soon enough learn is a nuclear bomb explodes. Apparently, it’s World War III.

The castle’s cellar is a fallout shelter, too, so right now, the inhabitants are as well off as possible. One of them also happens to be a physicist involved in the military-industrial complex, so there’s someone to provide helpful exposition and survival tips about how it’s best for them to first get provisions from the nearby village to then hole up in the castle for a couple of weeks or months.

That visit to the village doesn’t turn out terribly well, though. As it turns out, every villager was at a big village fete when the bomb fell, and so every single villager has been blinded by the bomb, now acting rather a lot like blind zombies you might remember from certain other Spanish horror movies. Though, to be fair, the blind are only becoming aggressive once they realize our protagonists – at least one of them – are rather quick to murder people getting in their way of grabbing provisions. Of course, the actual killer is then strangled by one of his peers, who afterwards starts to crawl around in the buff, grunting like a pig, so no harm, no foul, right?

Alas, the blind people must have seen the same horror films we’ve seen, too, getting up to what amounts to a classic zombie siege scenario while the seeing get up the the equally classic – though at the point in time when this film was shot not quite as clichéd – business of ripping each other apart even without help.

The People Who Own the Dark is a weird one. Obviously inspired by the early-ish non-voodoo zombie movies following Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, its director León Klimovsky is also sharing the American’s love of highly metaphorical zombies (okay, blind people). Klimovsky clearly wants to say something about class divisions, as well as the social and emotional pressures of the cold war in an era when it felt to be very close to becoming hot.

He just has a much goofier and weirder way going about that than Romero did, with little grip on even vaguely believable human psychology, but a lot of love for a bit of sleaze and soap operatic dialogue. He also never bothers to explain why everyone here is acting quite as extremely as they do, with everyone willing to murder whoever is available on the slightest provocation, only to turn into a human pig afterwards, or start dropping mutilated corpses through holes. As a portray of humanity under pressure, all of this doesn’t work at all, and if Klimovsky wants to suggest this is meant to be a result of the radiation, he certainly never mentions that despite not shying away from expository monologues anywhere else.

The portrayal of the blind masses is rather bizarre too, not just because the blind apparently turn into a weird mob only waiting for a reason to literally rip people apart at the first opportunity. The film also feels it opportune to have every single one of these blind grab some dark glasses from somewhere (I assume there’s a factory for the things somewhere in the village), as well as useful sticks. And yes, that does indeed lead to siege scenes that look as absurd as one imagines reading this, only turned more so by Klimovsky’s perfectly serious and melodramatic handling of all of it, clearly believing that a mob of regular blind people is one of the most terrifying things any audience could imagine.

When not concerned with SM cults (which will never come up again after the first act, of course) and the blind as zombies, the film is always also still trying its best to be a bleak after the bomb film, so even the characters who survive the blindpocalypse end badly in a couple of scenes that are at once improbable and ridiculous yet also curiously effective thanks to Klimovsky’s use of nearly archetypal shots of an open mass grave, gas, and a surprisingly clever use of the choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Of course, as a whole, The People Who Own the Dark is much too silly a movie to feel truly bleak; its treatment of the anxieties and fears of its time to bizarre to be terribly effective; but as a document of a not untalented exploitation filmmaker like Klimovsky trying to make sense of its time as well as making a buck, it is a very worthwhile film, particular since its general sense of weirdness really never lets up, keeping a viewer at least guessing at what strange idea Klimovsky’s going to put on screen in the next scene.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

In short: Predestination (2014)

Warning: I’m going to keep it very vague, but if you’re up on your classic Science Fiction, even the mention of the Heinlein story this is based on will probably be enough to count as a heavy spoiler in. A plot synopsis is right out anyway, for the best way to learn what this is about is to watch it. Whoa.

I’ve never warmed to any of the other films made by Australian brother director/writer duo The Spierig Brothers. To my eyes, most of them seem glossy yet terribly empty, not having the kind of style as substance gloss that’ll let me be okay with that sort of thing. However, turning their hands at adapating Robert A. Heinlein’s tale of temporal (and other) shenanigans “All You Zombies” seems to have brought out quite different directors in these two. The film’s still very slick – usually, directors don’t unlearn the gloss or the style unless they go the Dario Argento route of working really hard at that – but in this case, the slickness seems completely in service to presenting a complicated and pretty bizarre plot that keeps surprisingly close to the equally bizarre (and great) Heinlein story in a clear and focussed manner.

The directors seem to have realized quite exactly that this particular tale doesn’t need style as distraction, but style as a way to lead an audience through it without things becoming as preposterous as they could otherwise feel, a device to help ask the material’s questions about free will (and the ones about solipsism I don’t believe Heinlein actually noticed, given what I’ve read about his ego) and predestination more clearly. In fact, even if you know where all of this is going – and the film’s close enough to the story you’ll know that pretty early on if you’ve read it – the film is still engrossing because it is so well constructed, playing its game with such verve, one can’t help but get sucked in. Plus, the philosophical questions do of course become quite a bit clearer when you know what they actually are, and how the film is going to frame them in the end.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Sadist of Notre Dame (1975/9)

Original title: El sádico de Notre-Dame

(For the Francophiles among my imaginary readers: this write-up is based on the Spanish language cut of the movie)

A man calling himself Mathis Vogel (Jess Franco) is in a bit of a mental state. A former seminary student who was excommunicated after he developed ideas too “radical” even for the Catholic church in their rampant misogyny and outright gibbering madness, he has spent some years in a mental institution before he escaped. Well, presumably escaped, for the subtitles of the film are rough and my Spanish very basic. He is now haunting the nightly streets of Paris around Notre-Dame, murdering sexually open woman and prostitutes (he’s clearly the kind of guy who can’t see the difference there) while ranting in a mix of self-hatred for his own sexual desires, Christian doctrine gone crazy-violent and egomania, internally styling himself as a new grand inquisitor killing all these devilish women come to tempt him/men.

Obviously, there’s just as much self-hatred as hatred of women involved here, and wouldn’t you know it, Mathis isn’t just a killer, he’s also a voyeur as well as a sexual sadist, punishing people who live out the fantasies he is afraid of. When he’s trying to sell a mildly fictionalized manuscript of his deeds to a would-be posh S&M magazine, he stumbles upon the trace of a group that’s particular irresistible to him: a count and countess and their followers and hangers-on who live a swinging sado-masochistic weekend orgy lifestyle with some elements of – staged – Satanism. Basically, it’s everything Mathis must dream of but could never admit to, making for ideal victims.

From time to time, we also pop in with some cops whose investigation is 99 percent sitting around in an office, bickering.

The Sadist of Notre-Dame is a clear and immediate favourite in the large and obsessive body of work of the great Jess – or Jesús if you want to be too precise – Franco. The director isn’t always interested in character psychology, but he’s written himself quite the role here with a deeply disturbed lead character who is obsessive about a lot of the things the director himself was obsessed with but really functions as a dark mirror of these obsessions turned bad by a certain strain of Christianity that sees all things physical as sinful and the resulting self-hatred projected outward.

This mirroring between Mathis’s desires and that of others happens in the plot of the film regularly, too, the killer sometimes re-staging moments of sexual play he has watched (cue many a close-up of one crazed Franco eye), only with the difference that the only penetration he offers is one with a knife. Where the rest of the characters are wont to get each other off, Mathis can only ever conceive of sex as something that must be punished and purged.

It’s pretty obvious political commentary by Franco, offered with the self-irony that comes when a writer/director also casts himself as the villain of the piece.

Visually, this is an often striking film (though shot in the Franco seats of his pants way, so non-Francophiles should probably adjust their expectations), full of moody shots of nightly Paris and its much less pleasant looking day side, with all of Franco’s favourite ways of framing scenes and his patented camera positions there and accounted for. This is, however, not one of the director’s dreamlike and somewhat woozy films. One might even call it energetic for much of its running time, for there’s a sense of naturalism surrounding parts of the film that doesn’t suggest that we are partaking in parts of the dreams or nightmares of the director this time around but some of the things he sees when he wakes from them. Which obviously still means naked Lina Romay. Fitting to this mood is the absence of a big nightclub and strip sequence. Instead, the film features a short mock-Satanic ritual followed by a little orgy that nearly takes on the quality of sensual dream but never quite gets there; on purpose, if you ask me, for this film, at least in this version, isn’t as much about Franco indulging in his dreams than reflecting on their dark side.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Three Anime Make A Post: They threatened his world. He will destroy theirs.

Kiki's Delivery Service aka 魔女の宅急便 (1989): An easy psychological test for weeding out people with whom something is dangerously wrong is finding out their opinion about Studio Ghibli movies, particularly classic ones like this directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. If one doesn’t like these films they are not to be trusted.

The particular beauty of Kiki is how easily Miyazaki turns what would in lesser hands be a very rote story of growing up with very obvious valuable lessons to learn into a tale that’s not just charming as all get out but also suggests complexities in the character of its (barely) teen witch protagonist as well as in the world around her, never treating the elements that have clear metaphorical uses only as metaphor and never pretending inner or outer life were simple.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower aka メアリと魔女の花 (2017): While also pretty damn charming and imaginative for most of its running time, not quite on the level of classic Ghibli is this Mary Stewart adaptation by former Ghibli director (and owner of a particularly impressive name) Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It is a lovely example of the art of all ages anime, don’t get me wrong, it just becomes somewhat lesser in the direct comparison the very Ghibli-like style of the production can’t help but  invite. The difference here really is a comparative lack of that internal complexity I just praised Kiki for, Mary’s process of growing up never suggesting more than the most superficial internal struggle adding to the outer one, and a world that simply feels a bit flatter and simpler then in the best anime of this style.

Your Name aka 君の名は。(2016): Your Name’s director Makoto Shinkai has made at least one film very much beholden to the Ghibli style, too, to not terribly great effect, if I remember right, but at least this film is not at all interested in that comparison but goes aesthetic and philosophical ways all of its own. On paper, this is a bit of a science fictional romance weepie – and weep indeed I did watching it – so you could accuse it of focussing on emotional manipulation. However, it manipulates the audience’s emotions for good, perfectly encapsulating a feeling of emotionally big young love from afar, while also thinking surprisingly deeply about questions of fate and random chance, the gravity of distance (in a way only possible in the genres of the fantastic) and about the responsibilities of being human. These thematic concerns are  all effectively wrapped in a lot of tear-stained hankies, while also presenting a true sense of awe about the world as well as about  the human heart.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

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.

A gang of four white men wearing blackface raids a village somewhere in the jungles of Africa – a part of Africa that seems to still lie under British colonial rule. While stealing some crates of explosives, the assailants also show no compunction against killing two men.

The deed happened in the territory where Tarzan (Gordon Scott) makes his home, and the fur-shorted one follows the men upriver to enact the Law of the Jungle on them. To add a bit of piquancy, the leader of the criminals, Slade (Anthony Quayle), is an old enemy of Tarzan’s (“I would have killed him, if not for the Law of Man”), and a bit of a brutal crazy thrill-seeker. Tarzan’s hunting job is complicated when he saves tough-talking Angie (Sara Shane) from a plane crash she suffers when she’s trying to impress him, and while Angie isn’t exactly the proverbial damsel in distress, she’s also not Sheena. Though she does appreciate a good nearly naked barbarian like Tarzan when she meets him.

With Tarzan ever closing in behind him, Slade has his own problems. He needed the explosives he stole to work an illegal diamond mine he has discovered, but his men – Irish thug O’Bannion (Sean “The Irishman” Connery), river boat captain Dino (Al Mulock) and diamond miner Krieger (Niall McGinnis) – and his girlfriend Toni (Scilla Gabel) are a rather problematic bunch that does half of his work for Tarzan. Shouldn’t you start on the infighting only after you’ve actually acquired your loot? These people disagree, and it’s quite probable they’d kill each other off quite without Tarzan’s help.

I’ve not been seeking out any of the Tarzan movies during these last few decades, for in my memory, I had the films pegged as more or less exclusively family friendly fare containing more chimpanzee shenanigans than jungle variations of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and seldom taking on the Lost Race stories and general strangeness of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books. John Guillermin’s fifth film of the Gordon Scott-starring Tarzan series turns out to be a noirish adventure movie rather than chimpanzee action, however, and of highly doubtful family friendliness, particularly for the time it was made in. To drive the point home, there’s an early scene where Tarzan leaves Cheetah behind at home that is an early signal (well, after the murders) what kind of film this is going to be.

Tarzan here is less the noble savage than a man who spends his life living a particular style of barbarism by choice. The film seems not completely sure if Tarzan’s brand of barbarism is really all that much different from the more civilized forms of barbarism Slade and his men stand for. It does, at least, not seem very satisfied when Tarzan finally conquers Slade, and quite dubious about the act’s morals, and looks equally askance at his rejection (after they quite obviously had sex, though) of Angie.

It’s only fitting in a film that spends about half of its running time on Tarzan’s antagonists, sure-handedly and effectively hitting all the beats of hard-boiled movies about small groups of criminals coming to blows, until the jungle, or Tarzan (this is probably the only film I’ll ever see where Sean Connery is killed with bow and arrow by Tarzan), or one of their own partners kills them. The film is really rather ruthless in its set-ups here, repeatedly demonstrating a hard edge that makes it impossible to not see this as the hard-boiled adventure film it was meant to be.

Guillermin isn’t only particularly good at directing his very competent cast in their scenes of infighting, he also gives the action itself a much harder edge than I would have expected from a Tarzan film. It’s not just that people actually bleed here, but the violence seems more brutish than you’d expect from any late 50s adventure movie, with a handful of moments I found rather astonishing in their directness. Guillermin really understands how to stage the action too, keeping a film that takes place in a mix of actual location shots and obvious sound stages quite dynamic, with much more movement than you’d usually see in the often stiff low budget adventure movies of this time and age.

Angie’s role in the film also comes as a bit of a surprise. While she does need rescuing by Tarzan from time to time, she isn’t a helpless, whining doll, with most of the dangers she gets herself into being the kind of thing someone who isn’t used to jungle survival would believably wander into, the film never suggesting she gets in trouble because she’s a woman. For someone who is basically an “adventuress”, to keep with the parlance of the time, the film treats her quite sympathetic too, even subtly suggesting that a woman with actual experiences of life would make a good partner – in the actual meaning of the word – for Tarzan, and mildly shaking his head at him for pushing her away to continue a jungle life the film is already dubious about too.

For how different is Tarzan truly from a violent thrill seeker like Quayle, once you get to counting the bodies either man leaves behind? Guillermin emphasises this question with some interesting variations on classical Tarzan elements. Here, Tarzan’s trademark yodel is not a quaint gimmick, but an expression of the wildness that lies at the core of the character, used just once at a dramatic moment that makes it that much more memorable and, if you think about it, even rather horrifying. Which, come to think of it, is not something I ever expected to write about a yodel, or in the context of a Tarzan movie.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

In short: High Spirits (1988)

Knowing the varied, sometimes highly peculiar, body of work of director Neil Jordan, it’s actually not that much of a surprise he once made a comedy in which Steve Guttenberg romances an “Irish” ghost played by Daryl Hannah while a bunch of more interesting actors like the great Peter O’Toole (as a castle owner who turns to faking ghostly encounter badly to keep the lights on, only to cause the rather rambunctious real ghosts to start doing a bit too much of their thing), Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Tilly, Peter Gallagher and a practically baby-faced Liam Neeson as a toxically masculine ghost with freakishly large hands, are involved in sometimes funny but always loud shenanigans.

Knowing Jordan, it should also not come as a surprise to anyone the whole thing’s intensely aestheticized to a degree you don’t usually encounter in pretty slapstick heavy comedy like this. It also should come as not much of a surprise that all of Jordan’s intense camera work, aggressive production design tastes, and love for an ultra-obvious score often seem like the worst possible fit for material that could use quite a bit more subtlety, and a looser rhythm that leaves the comedy as well as the actors room to breathe. Not here, though, for Jordan has everything turned up to eleven all of the time.

As in practically any movie he’s in, O’Toole seems to have the time of his life, but when does a great scenery-chewer like himself have the opportunity to work with a director who’d never tell anyone to tone it down? And honestly, while O’Toole turned to eleven might not be too good for the film, he’s certainly fun if you like him; which only a monster wouldn’t.

On the other acting hand, Steve Guttenberg’s so boring, he’s completely steamrolled by all the business going on around him. His only saving grace is that he’s partnered with Hannah in what I believe is the worst performance of her career, so lifeless that anyone who’d fall in love with her would also romance a blow-up doll, and doing the most atrocious Irish accent imaginable.

As should be clear by now, I’m not a particular fan of this example of Neil Jordan being Neil Jordan – it’s still better than In Dreams, though – but even I have to admit the film does have its moments, mostly when it calms down a little and doesn’t attempt to make four jokes at the same time, and stops with the incessant shouting and jumping around. That’s not really enough to call this a successful movie, but it’s very typical for a bad Jordan movie. For the director’s bad films like High Spirits never fail because they are lazy and disinterested but because they are busy risking and trying a lot, which just doesn’t always work out but is still much preferable to by-the-numbers filmmaking any day.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

OSS 117 Murder for Sale (1968)

Original title: Niente rose per OSS 117

aka OSS 117: Double Agent

aka No Roses for OSS 117

An organization cleverly known as The Organization is successfully committing a good number of high profile political assassinations. US secret agent OSS 117 (John Gavin), Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath to his friends, decides to do something against it. He does the logical thing and gets some plastic surgery to look like the most wanted international killer of them all, sleeps with a random beautiful woman so she can rat him out to the police, and then awaits rescue by The Organization. Which somehow really does work, so our hero – such as he is – ends up in the palazzo and headquarters of The Organization’s boss, The Major (Curd Jürgens hamming it up lovingly). Situated there, 117 has a fine opportunity to get bored by classical music (philistine!), bed the place’s doctor (Luciana Paluzzi), make enemies with the Major’s right hand man Karas (George Eastman in all his hairy glory), and spy a bit. Eventually, he is sent on a mission, during which he will be poisoned by Robert Hossein, have more sex (this time around with Margaret Lee), come up with plans that make no sense at all, and get involved in fisticuffs and mild car chases.

André Hunebelle’s Murder for Sale is the only time John Gavin was playing the title role in a film about agent OSS 117 (based on a long running series of French pulpy spy novels), and I’m not terribly surprised by it. Now, unlike your serious John Le Carré-style espionage material, Eurospy movies of the sillier Bond-affine variety – to which the film at hand absolutely belongs – don’t live or die on the merits of their lead actors. These guys are mostly there to punch uglier guys and look good in a suit, so basically any more or less handsome visage will do. However, Gavin’s not a terribly convincing puncher, while his acting approach here seems like an attempt to channel Alain Delon’s patented icy coolness, perhaps with an added wink from time to time, which might have sounded like a good idea at the time but mostly results in this OSS 117 feeling very bland rather than cool.

Fortunately, that’s not terribly important, and the rest of the film is a perfectly entertaining example of its style, and one that doesn’t have the slapdash feel of many a Eurospy movie either. Hunebelle had quite a bit of experience with genre movies of all types, and he manages to take the very silly script, pump up the right bits of silly business yet also provide all the minor thrills of face-punching, car chasing and perfectly awkward sexiness one comes for in these films.

The director keeps the pacing up admirably even when there’s no action happening, too. He seems to have particular fun with all the side business that makes a Eurospy movie, like The Major’s version of the dancing troupe you find in so many villain lairs: a string quartet playing Schubert. One can’t help but think that’s quite good for the lair’s security too, for while you can man-dance your way through a Bollywood dance number (just look at Sonny Deol), no vengeful hero’s going to take the time and study the cello to infiltrate your base. And hey, The Major even has a neat self-destruct device for the place, though he doesn’t quite manage to use it, alas.

Not terribly typical for the genre is the film’s aesthetic emphasis not on the pop art culture much more common in Eurospy films but what I can’t help but call posh art – there’s the Schubert, the somewhat tacky old school rich people beauty of the Major’s lair, and a general tendency of everyone furnishing a home here to go for mock Greek statuary to behold. It makes for a nice change from other films of the genre, and must certainly have jibed well with director Hunebelle’s experience with swashbucklers.

It’s all rather lovely to look at, particularly since the director is also rather good with pretty postcard shots for cars to mid-tempo chase one another in and dubious heroes to strut around in front of, nicely leaning into the travelogue aspects so many Eurospy films feature.

Obviously, there’s no depth at all to anything here – unless you make like George Eastman and drop from a roof, of course – and the film’s sexual and social politics are a bit dubious to modern eyes, but for light action and very pretty pictures, Murder for Sale is an excellent choice.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

In short: Sweetheart (2019)

Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) is washed ashore an, apparently tropical, small island together with a dying friend who’s just alive long enough to at least provide us with the name of our protagonist. Jenn turns out to be a bit of a natural when it comes to wilderness survival, going about the required business of fishing and foraging with considerable intelligence and foresight. So she could most probably survive until an eventual rescue without too much actual danger for her life, if there weren’t a pretty big problem.

Every night, a monster (one of those person-shaped amphibian/fish monsters, it will turn out) comes to the island from its underwater lair to hunt, with clear ambitions of adding Jenn to its diet.

I already thought J.D. Dillard’s first movie, the sort of black superhero origin story Sleight, was a considerable achievement, and an excellent example of how an intelligent script and careful direction can turn a low budget genre affair like it into a truly excellent film. So Sweetheart’s particular excellence doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, seeing how it shares exactly these virtues. Sure, given the Blumhouse involvement, the budget must have grown from miniscule to tiny for the director this time around, but the film still does need exactly these virtues to work.

And work it does wonderfully, the small amount of dialogue giving Clemons enough space to draw Jenn’s character through body language and glances alone, an opportunity she uses very well. There’s no ball she’s speaking to to make things easier on the actress, either, and once dialogue does set in, the film uses this to quietly point out the difference between the audience’s perception of Jenn, and the way others see her and make her see herself. It’s very cleverly done, adding thematic resonance about Jenn’s life as a young black woman without disturbing the fine balance of the monster movie.

For Sweetheart is a great survivalist monster movie indeed, one of those examples of the form where a filmmaker understands the needs coming from his budget, like not being able to afford many shots of convincing full-body monster action, and always seems to draw just the right consequences, using one of the oldest solutions to this problem in the book, only showing the creature in silhouette, in part or in short glances, but making all of these partial impressions count.

Sweetheart is a quietly excellent film, Dillard having excised all of the needless guff that makes a movie like, say, Crawl so bloated and ineffective, to really focus on the core of its sub-genre, his lead actress, and the shadow of a monster drawing near.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mr. Brooks (2007)

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a beloved family man, a respected businessman, and also a feared serial killer. He’s not been killing anyone for two years now, thanks to the wonders of the twelve step program (I wonder how that making amends part worked in his case). However, his second personality, one Marshall (William Hurt), representing director Bruce A. Evans’s fear of letting Kevin Costner simply act a man with two very different sides to his personality, does talk him into beginning another murder spree. Alas, some idiot, let’s call him Mr Smith (Dane Cook), has photographed Earl doing the deed through a window and is now blackmailing the serial killer into killing a random person with him, for Mr Smith desperately wants to know how that feels. And that would probably be the plot for an at least half sane movie, but since this thing’s about as deranged as its protagonist, there are various sub- and side plots awaiting your pleasure, apart from the Dexter-style dubious joy of seeing how Earl’s going to get away with it all.

So, we also spend quite a bit of time with the Detective hunting Earl, one Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore); we spend even more time with the divorce troubles her greedy husband – she’s not just a cop, she’s also a rich heiress, you see – gets her into. And then there’s the killer couple who is trying to take vengeance on her. And her breaking all the rules. Earl is going to involve himself in all of this business, because why the hell not?

Because that’s clearly still not enough PLOT for a single movie, meet Earl’s daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker). Jane has left college for reasons she isn’t willing to explain, and now wants to work for Daddy. Turns out she is pregnant (and we learn that serial killer Earl is against abortion). Then it turns out she has probably murdered someone at school with a hatchet, and Earl has to worry that she has inherited some of his little mental problems, and try to fix her little problem without her noticing.

Also also, Earl might want to commit suicide in the most complicated manner ever devised, or perhaps not. Who knows?

I believe these are more or less all of the sub and side plots Mr. Brooks throws at its audience. If all of this sounds like total nonsense to you, you’ve got the film right. Obviously, it’s trying to milk the automatic respect a lot of people have for actors like Costner playing a bad guy for all it is worth, but it is permanently undercutting this by having so much plot business to take care of, Costner has little time to do any actual character work. That’s certainly not helped by the idiotic decision to give him another half portrayed by a different actor, which turns what should be an internal struggle into lots of expository dialogue, or scenes of the film gloating at how people not Costner can’t see William Hurt!

The funniest thing about the whole affair is that director/co-writer Evans presents all this bullshit with the grand gesture of somebody making a deep and thoughtful film about a terrible human being, wilfully pretending that this is not a cartoon, and that we learn a lot about the human condition here. Of course, if you watch the film as the cartoon about a bedraggled serial killer haunted by the horrors of plotting it actually is, it becomes rather brilliant, with stupid twists and idiotic new sub-plots coming so fast and furious, it’s impossible for me to watch this (or just think about it), and not fall into rather regular fits of the giggles. The film’s educational, too, in so far as we learn that there’s no genre that can’t be made hilarious by the simple application of all the plots ever.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Evil Lives Just Beneath the Surface

Mary (2019): Michael Goi’s movie about a haunted ship that ruins a family should by all rights be much better than it is: a ghost on a ship is doubly creepy, seeing as it adds isolation to a vengeful supernatural force; terrible things happening to perfectly likeable people are my kind of horror; and lastly, the film has Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer, and they don’t look bored. Alas, everything that could be wrong with the film is wrong, starting with the needlessly awkward narrative structure of having Mortimer’s character tell the tale to a cop (cue internal groaning about plot twists at once) instead of the film simply telling the damn story, characterisation that does neither know how to do shorthand (don’t even think about actual depth) nor how to properly utilize the abilities of a great cast.
As for the film’s horror business, Goi – despite a perfectly promising background in TV genre work – seems completely incapable to construct even a single creepy scene properly. The framing of scenes is random and uninvolving, and there’s not a moment of the appropriate atmosphere on display.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014): I must have mentioned my immense dislike for Mark Millar’s brand of industrialised cynicism here before; curiously enough, I don’t hate all adaptations of his crap body of comics work quite as much. Case in point is Matthew Vaughn’s (co-written by Vaughn with the great Jane Goldman) super spy movie at hand. The movie’s humour is acerbic and generally aims a bit low for my tastes, but at least it does tend to aim for the lower parts of the people on top. Why, there’s even a bit of thinking about class in here that seems…honest. The film also has a lot of fun with the whole super spy business, putting imaginative twists on all kinds of standard tropes. The action is generally loud and abrasive but well-structured, and for most of the time, the film’s on the right side of being cynical. It also features Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson in great form.

The final act does become decidedly weaker, though, suffering under the really Millar-ian idea that mass murder is inherently hilarious, at the same time it is trying to milk it for laughs, also trying to use it as the base for suspense. Which, no surprise, doesn’t work out terribly well, but doesn’t end up so bad it ruins what is a surprisingly fun time.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017): Aaaaand, I don’t know what happened here. Same director, same writers, basically the same cast, but the film is a bloated mess, lacking the satiric edge of the first film, landing hardly any joke. It was apparently made under the impression that what this sequel really needed were about a dozen sub-plots, none of which is terribly interesting, and so spends more time tediously juggling all the bits and pieces of what feels like at least half a dozen different scripts in place of having an actual narrative.

It doesn’t help at all that the action sequences follow the way of the plot, becoming more and louder but less interesting, certainly going through the motions of how a contemporary big budget movie action sequence is supposed to look and feel, but never making much of an impact.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Avenging Force (1986)

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.

Former intelligence agent Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff) packs in his family - consisting of his grandfather (Rick Boyle) and his little sister Sarah (Allison Gereighty) - to visit his old secret ops partner Larry Richards (Steve James) and his family in New Orleans. Larry’s retired too, but apart from being a family man, he’s also running for senate, clearly on the sort of humanist platform that’ll get you labelled as a communist by quite a few people, particularly when the politician in question is a gentleman of colour like Larry.

So, despite being rather awesome, Larry has made enemies, in particular a secret society of rich fascists around Professor (who knows of what, though further proceedings suggest it has something to do with being evil) Elliott “Hitler was right” (actual quote) Glastenbury (John P. Ryan), who add to their evilness by having stolen their name from the seminal British folk rock band (The) Pentangle. Because Nazis are assholes, some of the groups’ henchmen attack a Mardi Gras parade Larry, Matt and their families take part in, murdering one of Larry’s children in the process.

Things don’t become more pleasant from there on in, and various attacks on our heroes eventually leave only Matt and Sarah alive. The Pentangle’s leaders have a hobby quite befitting their politics, and love to hunt The Most Dangerous Game™, so they “invite” Matt to take part in one of these hunts as their chosen victim. Which must have seemed like a good idea at the time; one suspects the Professor ignored the decidedly un-Aryan subject of hubris in his studies.

Quite surprising for the generally exploitative way Cannon and Golan-Globus chose their movies, they didn’t immediately follow up the success of American Ninja with a direct sequel. Instead, they put American Ninja’s leads Steve James and Michael Dudikoff and its director Sam Firstenberg to work on a film that does not contain any ninjas at all, but which otherwise does include pretty much everything else you’d expect from a low budget (though not that low budget) action film, except exploding huts. For reasons I don’t even want to ponder, this seems also to be meant as some sort of sequel to the Chuck Norris vehicle Invasion U.S.A., despite the only connection I can make out without having to watch a Chuck Norris (tied with Seagal as my least favourite US action movie lead) film, being Dudikoff’s character name, his job, and dead parents. And since all action movie heroes from the 80s are basically the same guy anyway, that’s not really enough to think of this as a sequel at all.

Instead of the ninjas, you get a film that works very, very hard to establish its heroes as the most awesome thing since sliced bread and its villains as the scum of the Earth, people who aren’t just Nazis (and just listen to how exactly the film actually hits the complete idiocy of right-wing “intellectuals” in Glastenbury’s speeches, probably without even having to try terribly hard), people who hunt others for sport, child killers, and probably puppy eaters, but also the kinds of guys who plan to sell Matt’s twelve year old sister into prostitution. Speaking of Nazis, it’s always a particular joy to find an 80s US action movie that uses them as its big bads instead of the more typical “Asian enemy of the day”, or “the Russians”, and I really appreciate the extra miles the film goes to turn its Nazis into proper cartoon villains while still keeping them perfectly in the correct spirit.

Of course, it would have been rather nice when, with the film’s heart placed on the left as it is, it would have made another step and not killed off James in your typical “black best friend in an action movie” style, particular since Steve James really is more charismatic, a less stiff actor, and also nicer to look at than Dudikoff, but then, we really can’t ask everything of what is only meant as basic action fodder.

Speaking of action, Firstenberg  was one of Cannon’s more dependable directors, not flashy but often able to rise above mere basic competence into the realm of the highly entertaining. In Avenging Force’s case this means there’s hardly a boring second on screen. Whenever nobody gets shot, spiked, strangled or otherwise killed, there’s a car chase, or a scene between Dudikoff and his sister that turns the emotional hysteria up to eleven (see also the imaginary chapter in my imaginary book about the action film as melodrama even when it doesn’t come from Hong Kong), or Steve James losing his shirt, with little that happens on screen having anything much to do with that pesky reality business, and instead everything aiming for the same kind of awesome kids of all ages get out of Power Metal. Best of all is that Firstenberg’s not just aiming at but hitting the mark in every scene, sometimes through the varied style of the action sequences, sometimes through the addition of little silly bits and pieces (a chase scene becomes something different once the chased bad guy puts on a straw hat, it turns out), clever application of atmospheric New Orleans and bayou locations (some of which were of course situated in LA), or outright ridiculous cheese like the costumes the Pentangle like to don during their chases. My favourite among the last is of course the wrestler gimp outfit.

On a more direct level of craft, I’m quite impressed with Firstenberg’s handling of escalation here. Instead of ever louder, higher in body count, and explosive, the action in Avenging Force becomes increasingly up close and personal, with shoot-outs and car chases in the end making place for grimy and dirty hand to hand struggles in the mud and the (excellently used) rain.

It’s all pretty inspiring stuff, really, at least as far as dumb yet affectionate entertainment goes; which is pretty far with me.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

In short: Fast Color (2018)

Warning: I have to spoil one late plot point

The USA in a near future where a complete lack of rain has caused a huge economic downturn, though things like police and the government are apparently still rocking, more or less. Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is travelling through the semi-apocalyptic not-quite wasteland, running from what we will soon enough learn is the evil government™, trying to suppress fits during which she unloads huge amounts of psychokinetic energy, enough to cause minor earthquakes.

Ruth is running towards home, a mother (Loraine Toussaint) she left years ago, and a daughter (Saniyya Sidney) she dropped off with her years ago. Psychic powers do run in the family, but unlike Ruth, the other women in the family can dissolve objects into their separate molecules and put them back together again (but not change them). Still, once she arrives home (or “home”) she might have more to do than just try to reconnect with her closest relations, for she just might lead the evil government™ right to the people she still loves.

Julia Hart’s Fast Color is a rather frustrating film in that there’s much to like about it, but all its great elements never quite come together well enough to form a satisfying whole instead of a patchwork of good bits.

The film’s obvious strength and emphasis is on its portrayal of three generations of black women, attempting (and often succeeding) at being honest about the flaws and virtues of all three of them, effectively portraying the way people can oversteer to avoid well-known troubles but also evoking a feeling of genuine kinship despite everything wrong between the three. The film goes about this business slowly, but methodically, with patience and an eye for the telling detail, well-served by three excellent leading ladies.

The problem is that the film doesn’t trust a bit of SF enabling a family drama to be enough, so it adds the semi-apocalypse, random superhero tropes, and that godawful nonsensical evil government™ subplot that only works when a viewer accepts that a government not wanting to have someone causing earthquakes running around inadvertently destroying motels must be evil. Of course, the film really doesn’t think about that bit at all, but rather goes for the government realizing that Ruth’s powers can probably be used to let it rain again, and therefore, instead of simply offering her a job as their designated rain maker, go the whole “hunting a young woman to do vaguely defined experiments on her”.

While the special effects for this part of the film do end up looking rather beautiful, the rest of these plot elements add very little to the film, and too often get in the way of the its actual strengths.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Eli (2019)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the devil out of the final act twist!

Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini) have clearly grown desperate about the rather peculiar auto-immune disease of their little son Eli (Charlie Shotwell). That at least seems to be the only rational explanation for their decision to pack him, his little bubble boy tent and his little hazmat suit, and take him to the very special clinic of what we can only assume (because the film certainly isn’t saying) to be rogue immunologist Dr Horn (Lili Taylor). “Rogue”, because what proper clinic would be an old creepy mansion out in the boons, staffed only by the doctor and two nurses and only ever keeping one patient at a time. Once the treatments start and Eli looks increasingly worse for wear, one also can’t help but ask oneself if one shouldn’t replace the “rogue immunologist” simply with “mad scientist”.

When he’s not getting tortured by the good doctor, Eli does encounter various strangenesses. For one there’s the sarcastic girl (Sadie Sink overacting for all she is worth) outside he has regular chats with through a closed terrace door, and who seems to hint at something not being quite right at the clinic. Worse than mockery, however, are the ghosts. At first, Eli believes these entities want to do him harm, but as he will eventually discover, they are the spirits of Horn’s former patients, all deceased thanks to her treatments, attempting to warn him and help him escape.

The problem is that his parents are more or less in on the dangers of the whole affair – his dad more so than his mum – but then, and here comes the plot twist, Eli is  not actually there to be treated for an auto-immune disease, but because he’s a son of the devil. I’m not speaking metaphorically here, mumsy really banged the devil. Of course, “Doctor” Horn and her nurses aren’t medical people either, but what I can only assume to be renegade nuns – child murder not generally being a terribly accepted part of Christian doctrine – pumping him full of Holy Water in the hopes that it cures him or kills him and saves his soul.

When Eli figures this nonsense out, he gets a bit angry, so I hope you like the idea of a hilarious/dramatic confrontation between mother and son that’s surrounded by a little circle of floating, upside-down (because SATAN) crucified nuns who will of course eventually catch fire.

Now, if you’re asking yourself if Ciaran Foy’s Made-for-Netflix horror movie really is quite as stupid as all of this sounds, I can assure you that yes, it indeed is. On a technical level, Foy is a perfectly capable director, but he is not able (or not willing) to turn the film into the sort of dream-like phantasmagoria needed to make a plot quite this dumb and contrived work. Instead, much of the film is spent on the usual contemporary mainstream horror business of jump scares and people creeping through badly lit corridors.

The film’s structure doesn’t help make up for its dubious big idea either, for the reliance on the one big twist does mean that everything that comes before looks and feels terribly implausible. Neither Eli’s illness, nor the way his parents treat him, nor Horn’s therapy make sense as anything but either a writerly inability to understand the basics of reality or the long, long wind-up to a Big Twist. Alas not in any way that might intrigue a viewer; it’s rather like having to listen to a storyteller who never comes to the frigging point, instead dragging things out endlessly.

Of course, once the point came, I did find myself surprised by its extravagant stupidity as well as by the filmmakers’ apparent conviction that this nonsense somehow makes up for their film feeling patently ridiculous throughout. Foy, despite a soundtrack that becomes increasingly (one might say desperately) dramatic and actors giving their all melodramatically pulling their hair out, simply can’t sell any of it, playing as highly shocking and horrifying what actually comes out schlocky and intensely hilarious.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

In short: The Severed Arm (1973)

One fine day, Jeff Ashton (David G. Cannon) has a rather awkward package in his mail. It contains a severed arm. Most people would be taken aback by this sort of thing, but Jeff has an additional reason to panic a little: some years ago, he and a group of friends were visiting an old mine, where they got trapped in a cave-in. After a couple of weeks, starvation set in. Jeff manages to convince most of the gang that cannibalism was the solution to their problem, but because they weren’t barbarians, his plan was to cut off one extremity of everyone in turn. Ted (Ray Dannis), drew the short straw and lost an arm. Only moments later, rescue came. The others pretended Ted lost his arm in the initial cave-in, and the now one-armed guy has been bopping in and out of mental health care facilities ever since.

So it’s no surprise that Jeff assumes this very special package to be a sign of Ted now seeking revenge on his former friends. Indeed, one after the other of them get an arm hacked off, the mysterious one-armed perpetrator seemingly not caring if they live or die in the process, as long as the killer gets their arm.

Tom Alderman’s The Severed Arm is one of those local/regional US movies of the 70s that I find rather more effective than it should be on paper. The budget is obviously low (as the seat of one’s pants); half of the actors are the sort of people who have long careers in mostly very minor parts, the other half only have one or two credits; the script has obvious logical flaws (like nobody noticing that Ted’s arm was cut off just a minute ago instead of several weeks as the friends tell); and director Alderman – whose last of two films this is – is clearly inexperienced.

However, most everyone involved seems to have put quite a bit of effort in. Thus the actors apply themselves to the material much more than most name actors would in the situation, and Alderman does his utmost to avoid the nailed-on camera and bland staging not atypical of this sort of film. In fact, the director puts a lot of imagination particularly into the staging of the suspense scenes, using chiaroscuro effects, Dutch angles and every other play of light and darkness he can come up with, often achieving a feeling of aesthetic intensity that’s at least related to the giallo or early US slashers. You could certainly argue that this is a proto-slasher, at least on an aesthetic level.

An additional charm are the film’s – very 70s – little eccentricities like placing one of the victim’s as a low rent “comedy” radio DJ going by the nom de plum of  Mad Man Herman (played by Marvin Kaplan as the unfunny Marx Brother). And then there’s the obligatory 70s downer ending that involves an improbable plot twist, dubious acting, and a horrible fate for everyone, turning this into a film I find physically impossible not to love a little.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Ravenous (2017)

Original title: Les affamés

It’s the end of the world, as always. This time around, we witness the last twitches of humanity in a forested area in Northern Quebec. It’s a sort of zombie apocalypse, with fast infected type zombies that do like to scream – horribly, actually – but also have phases where they just stand there, staring creepily. We follow the trail of what will become a small group of survivors (eventually Marc-André Grondin, Monia Chokri, Charlotte St-Martin, Micheline Lanctôt, Marie-Ginette Guay, Brigitte Poupart, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier and Luc Proulx) who eventually have to make their way through the countryside in the direction of a bunker that may promise shelter.

On paper, Robin Aubert’s French-Canadian production is your typical latter day infected zombie movie. Most of the usual and expected tropes are there and accounted for, but the director treats them with clear knowledge of his audience’s experience with these tropes. So there’s no time wasted on a long introduction of the why and wherefore of the zombies – the differences in how they work will be shown and suggested instead of exposited – and the film in general clearly has no illusions that we know how this will work out for most everyone involved.

Yet still – and I’m rather sure that’s the point where the film will lose quite a few people – Ravenous does take its time, slowly revealing not the world the characters barely survive in but what the state of the world has done to them, not via dramatic dialogue or grand gestures, but through the small stuff – glances, shifts in postures, the tone of someone’s voice. At this stage, the film seems to suggest, everyone still alive has lost all capacity for being emotionally loud. Which often leads to scenes where the characters’ behaviour mirrors that of the silent moments of the infected, as if whatever destroyed humanity also changed the way people can still relate in the world, to the world, and to each other.

It’s all very impressively done, providing the film with an air modern zombie movies – who are now typically out to talk metaphorical politics or to show how awesome the end of the world is when you finally can shoot your stupid assault rifles without consequence – seldom carry, a sense of quiet sadness and loss, actually treating the end of humanity as something to be sad about, despite everything.

But what about the actual horror movie stuff, people with curious priorities might ask? It’s slow, and quiet, for the most part, yet also not shying away from getting fast and a bit louder for a while in a couple of very impressive larger scale zombie attacks, not feeling the need to show every bit of gore but also not shying away from it when it is necessary. The stuff’s there, and the film isn’t afraid or ashamed of it (suck that, “elevated horror”) but it’s not the only thing the film’s about.

The film also has at least a toe in the realm of the weird, not just because the infected are strange and inexplicable to a handful of survivors who simply have no idea what caused the end of everything they knew, but also because they do strange things, standing around in fields, building pyramids out of chairs and furniture that rise towards the sky (or in one of the film’s more heart-breaking shots, tiny kid sized pyramids out of children’s toys and furniture), suggesting something’s still happening inside their brains beyond hunger and aggression, but also insinuating it’s something that makes them genuinely different from humanity as we knew it. Another neat bit of filmmaking is how Aubert overlays beautiful moody nature shots with the bloodcurdling screams (the sound design is fantastic here) of the infected, not just emphasizing the threat for the human characters and making clear their new role in the food chain but also contrasting them with nature as many of us prefer it, less red in tooth and claw.