Saturday, February 29, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: We'll do it every year..until we get it right

Home for the Holidays (1995): It’s a bit of a shame that Jodie Foster has been doing only a little direction work in her career, for she’s a rather great director, in the unassuming way that treats the job of a director as mainly concerned with helping a script and the actors bringing it to life breathe; there’s really no vanity in her direction here but a lot of focus. The ensemble cast – led by a typically wonderful Holly Hunter – clearly thanks her for it, going through family relations painful, loving, complicated and darkly funny with the same focus. One might say that a film about a holiday bringing together a disparate bourgeois family and letting the cracks show isn’t exactly news (and wasn’t in 1995 either), but Foster is excellent at turning the commonplace and unspecific concept of “bourgeois family” into something very specific. And you know what they say about unhappy families.

The She Beast (1966): This first of three full features in the tragically short career of director Michael Reeves is a bit of a mess, clearly having difficulties deciding if it is a comedy, a gothic horror film, some kind of satire, or a mixture of all of these things. Seen separately, any given scene – particularly those indebted to Italian gothic horror - shows Reeves’s talent, but they never truly cohere into a full film. There are also some peculiar decisions: why hide Barbara Steele, who is basically playing the same kind of role she did in a lot of Italian gothic horror films, under a conceptually creepy but actually pretty crappy looking mask when her possession is really taking hold, when her body of work already shows that she doesn’t have need of this sort of thing? Is the fearless vampire hunter supposed to be a rip-off of Polanski’s film? What is it with witch possession and lakes?

My Neighbour Totoro (1988): This is one of the younger skewing Miyazaki Ghibli films with a couple more moments that seem more childish than childlike than in most of Miyazaki’s work. However, apart from looking pretty damn beautiful, this also features some of the most beautiful depictions of childlike wonder I’ve ever encountered, as well as a deft portrayal of children as actual children. And as with all things Miyazaki, there’s also a knowledge of the sad realities of life in the film. Not one that ever overwhelms it, its wonder, or its child protagonists, but one that very well knows that everything’s eventual, yet beautiful and important because of that. Plus, there’s the cat bus, and how can anyone not love a movie containing that?

Friday, February 28, 2020

Past Misdeeds: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

The end of the first G.I Joe movie left Cobra agent Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) perfectly positioned for further evildoing – and revenge - by leaving him stranded in his new position as the fake President of the US of A (Jonathan Pryce). Consequently, using his awesome presidential powers of ordering illogical death traps and making up non-existent evidence by TV declaration (realism in the land of G.I. Joe!), he leads G.I. Joe into a trap, where most of the team is killed and their good name besmirched with their supposed responsibility for the assassination of the Pakistani president and an attempt to steal the country’s nuclear arsenal. However, among the characters we know and dislike/love from the first film, we only get to see Channing Tatum’s Duke die on screen, so there’s room left for a return of Scarlett and so on in the next sequel, if their actors’ careers are on the needed downward spiral.

However, the only Joes left standing for now – or the only Joes that concern us – are Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and of course super ninja Snake Eyes (still Ray Park) who was off in Japan on ninja business concerning the training of Jinx (Elodie Yung), the non-evil cousin of Snake Eyes’s part-time arch enemy and childhood ninja rival Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee).

While the Joes are picking themselves out of the wreckage, Storm Shadow frees Cobra Commander (now Luke Bracey), who at once proceeds to set in motion a frightfully complicated and silly – which is to say totally normal for him - plan to attain world domination. Fortunately, the surviving G.I. Joe members, Jinx and the original G.I. Joe General Colton (Bruce Willis earning lunch money) are there to save the world by shooting people and blowing stuff up.

Despite the big deforestation manoeuvre the film pulls on the more up-market actors from its predecessor, I actually think Jon M. Chu’s Retaliation is the better movie. At least, I felt myself highly entertained throughout its running time. The things to be said against the first attempt at getting every American middle-aged guy’s favourite toy/comic/cartoon show onto the big screen do of course still apply - namely that it’s stupid and exclusively makes canon changes of highly dubious merit. One might even argue the bad guys’ plans here are even more silly this time around, but to make up for that, the action here is decidedly more fun to watch. Plus, if you don’t want something silly, you’re probably not going to watch a G.I. Joe movie anyhow.

Chu makes good use of the opportunity the film’s two-pronged Snake Eyes & Jinx/Roadblock, Lady Jaye & Flint storyline offers for action diversification, so you get your firefights, your ninja stuff, your ridiculous chases, and your heavy ordnance, with no repetitions in style or content apart from people dying in imaginative manners, things exploding, and no dialogue scene taking longer than a few minutes before people get shot again.

My personal favourite among the action scenes is Snake Eyes’s and Jinx’s fight against Cobra ninjas on a mountain side, including grappling hooks (well actually ninja grappling hook pistols, but who cares), swords, video game inspired gymnastics and a ninja-made avalanche, and if that sounds like your thing, it’s pretty obvious you’ll like the rest of the film too. Stylistically, Chu’s direction of the action sequences is decidedly on the modern and technical side, but there’s the focus and the flow to the action scenes that’s often missing in films that go for the state of the technological art on the direction side.

The whole shebang (with a heavy emphasis on the “bang”) is grounded by an acting ensemble that – like the actors in the last film – does not mind being in a movie with a silly plot pretending to be badasses and weirdoes, with The Rock/Johnson and Palicki making likeable and charismatic heroes. Johnson proves again he’s the one among the current former wrestlers turned actors who actually belongs in front of a camera (or does anyone really prefer “Lukewarm” Steve Austin?), and Palicki recommends herself for all kinds of superhero and ass-kickers roles, if Hollywood would just care. It’s also pretty nice to see a US mainstream action film that actually has competent fighting women on the side of the good guys, none of whom needs to be rescued all of the time, without feeling the need to permanently defend their presence against the assumed idiots in the audience.

Pryce gives a hell of a course in scenery chewing, out-Vosloo-ing Vosloo in the first one, and Willis is Bruce Willis, elderly action hero, the role he was born to play. The only weak point here is Cotrona’s Flint, and I don’t think I should blame the actor for it, for there’s just little reason for him to be in the film at all, with the character doing nothing of dramatic import and not much more on the ass-kicking side. He’s there to make up the numbers and look pretty, I suppose.

This leaves us with a fine example of the slightly more up-market loud, mildly dumb and pleasantly silly US action movie, a genre that seemed dead just a few years ago but now is alive, kicking, and walking away from the explosion in slow motion as is its birthright. Me, I salute it, and liked G.I. Joe: Retaliation so much, I didn’t even include a paragraph here moaning about the RZA cameo despite my dislike for people who got famous in one art form then buying their way into a different one through their popularity, taking roles away from people who can actually act. Oh well, next time.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

In short: Carnage Park (2016)

A very bad day at the small town bank trying to get life-saving money out of an ass turns even worse for farmer’s daughter Vivian (Ashley Bell) when she is taken hostage by Tarantino wash-out gangster “Scorpion” Joe Clay (James Landry Hébert). Joe Clay’s day then gets even worse – though much shorter - than hers when his partner dies from wounds incurred during their little bank heist and he ends up driving them right into the territory of a Vietnam vet serial killer (Pat Healy) with a rifle and a nasty streak.

Of course, it’s Vivian who will have to survive a series of chases and fights against the madman, through the desert, the kind of ramshackle huts all movie killers love, as well as some really unhealthy looking mines. Fortunately, she will turn out to be rather tougher than she looks.

All of the movies of director Mickey Keating seem to be made with a pretty specific model of a different genre and period style in mind. In Carnage Park’s case, we are quite obviously in the land of 70s exploitation horror cinema. Keating, despite production design quite in the proper grimy style, and using a digital colour scheme meant to evoke the yellowing prints many of us have watched movies of the era in, is not a mere imitator either here or in any of his films, always using elements, details in the characterization, and so on that ground his films very much in the decade they are made in instead of going for exclusive retro cool.

Keating’s editing style is certainly of our time, his use of cross-cutting to short flashbacks pretty much the opposite of period approaches to storytelling, his editing making the film’s pacing much faster than typical of the 70s. To my eyes, rather than being retro, the film seems to create a sort of dream-version of 70s horror that mixes some of the best of that decade’s style with some of the best of today’s.

Carnage Park is certainly one of the director’s less abstract movies, really going all-out in telling a traditionally exciting tale, using some of the somewhat psychedelic visual tricks for exploring his female protagonist’s inner life that seem central to his other films, but ending up with a rather more straightforward suspense piece than one might expect going in. That’s not a criticism, mind you, for while I do like my abstract arthouse horror, a rather well-done exercise in suspense by a director usually tending to abstract arthouse horror is a nice thing, too. Particularly since Keating turns out to be rather good at this sort of thing too, adding a more direct sense of tension his other movies tend to lack. Why, he even makes a climax that’s mostly taking place in the dark work as much more than a statement of intent.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

Original title: カメラを止めるな!, Kamera o Tomeru na!

Warning: Structural spoilers are really unavoidable here!

A director (Takayuki Hamatsu) is shooting an extremely low budget zombie movie in this sort of thing’s natural environs, an abandoned industrial building. He’s clearly just a wee bit shy of a complete violent breakdown, which will certainly turn out well once the zombie movie shoot is inevitably attacked by actual zombies (whose appearance will turn out to be his fault, of course).

After 35 minutes or so of great, slightly weird, and often pretty funny and inventive shoestring budget zombie movie fun, the film cuts back one month to reveal that what we have just seen is the product of an insane offer made to mild-mannered director, who prides himself on his averageness to boot, Takayuki Higurashi (hey, it’s Takayuki Hamatsu again!). The newly minted Zombie Channel wants the director to make a short zombie movie to be broadcast live and filmed with only one camera without any edits. Higurashi isn’t really the guy who takes creative risks, but since his relationship to his daughter Mao (Mao) is a bit strained, and her favourite hot young actor of the moment (Kazuaki Nagaya as Kazuaki Kamiya) is going to be cast as the male lead, he is willing to, for once in his life. All kinds of craziness ensues.

Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead isn’t just that most rare of things, a funny zombie comedy, it is also that even rarer thing, a film about filmmaking that doesn’t disappear down its own ass. In fact, one of the greatest and most riveting things about this utterly brilliant piece of filmmaking is how little it tries to praise the lonesome auteur out to make some art (or “real cinema” as suddenly grumpy old man Marty Scorsese would probably say) but is interested in the creative craziness of art that can just happen when hired hands, bystanders roped into important roles, and people just trying to do their jobs as well as they can come together, not in a purposeful gesture to create something for the ages, but while trying to just get something together that hopefully doesn’t suck, somehow falling in love with it and the process of making it.

And really, unlike all those very serious films about filmmaking you’ll encounter in most “best films of all times” lists, One Cut is a much more successful and believable argument for filmmaking as a thing of pain (half of its jokes are based on things going very wrong indeed, after all) and of great joy, a paean to the creative spark that is utterly convincing exactly because it doesn’t want to convince us of anything. It just is.

For a film that is as much about spontaneous craziness as this one, it is also brilliantly constructed, setting up jokes in the first five minutes that’ll pay off wonderfully an hour later, and not afraid to follow the exhilarating zombie movie inside of the movie with what feels like a very slow series of sequences that introduce the characters and their foibles. A series of sequences that will turn out to be completely indispensible for what follows, not just setting up further jokes down the line (and there are so, so many utterly hilarious jokes in here) but also creating compassionate and pretty damn heart-warming character arcs I really wouldn’t have expected from this sort of project at all. For One Cut is also that rare kind of comedy that truly seems to love its characters, prepared to let them suffer indignities but also always genuinely on their side.

Add to all this Ueda’s great inventiveness when it comes to physical comedy as well as to the somewhat more cerebral kinds, and you’ll end up with a film that’s as perfect as anything I’ve ever seen. That the whole thing apparently only cost the yen equivalent of $25,000 to make is really just the cherry on top. Or the camera on the human pyramid, in this case.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In short: After Midnight (1989)

College students Allison (Jillian McWhirter) and her friend Cheryl (Pamela Segall) are taking part in a brand-new class about “The Psychology of Fear”. Allison does have a curious aversion to the course and its subject, yet still she goes. Their professor, one Edward Derek (Ramy Zada), is a bit of an odd duck, apparently believing that threatening a student with a gun until he wets himself, and then committing pretend suicide, is how one teaches a psychology course. To nobody’s surprise, the college’s higher ups frown upon this sort of thing, at least a little, so Derek has to go by the book from the next day on. He does, however, invite his students to come visit him at his home for a deeper exploration of his theme. For some reason (I can only suspect drugs are involved), a handful of idiots including our protagonists follow that invitation.

At Derek’s home, he incites them to tell horror stories in the vein of the least interesting urban legends, so we end up with a tale of a birthday surprise that ends in decapitation, another one of four girls getting into trouble with a rather angry guy and his dogs in the bad part of town, and one about a telephone messaging operator having to deal with a psychopath, until the framing story is wrapped up in a perfectly silly, as well as circular, manner.

As the regulars among my imaginary readers know, I, like many horror fans, do love an anthology movie, and can usually find entertainment even in the weaker ones. Case in point is After Midnight, directed by Ken and Jim Wheat, a film consisting of three and a half stories that start obvious and also finish there, made watchable by a perfectly decent cast and just as decent filmmaking. The film looks rather slick in a very typical late 80s manner. If you’re now imagining a specific look, it’s exactly that one.

One might suggest that the kind of non-supernatural horror plots it tells could have been more effective with a somewhat grimier look and feel, a bit more of the actual emotions of fear and terror. But then, this would be a more interesting kind of movie instead of the decent time waster it actually is.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

In short: Kidan Piece of Darkness (2015/16)

This is an anthology movie with ten short horror stories by six Japanese directors (and no, of course I have found nothing on the Net to help identify who did which segment), among them the three house favourites Koji Shiraishi, Yoshihiro Nakamura and Mari Asato, as well as Eisuke Naito, Hiroki Iwasawa and Hajime Ohata. Apparently, this is “based on Fuyumi Ono’s bestselling books”, but I can’t tell you if it’s the same Fuyumi Ono known for their manga and fantasy work, though I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m a source of great information today.

Given the number of segments in a 100 minute running time, it’ll probably surprise nobody that the stories are comparatively simple – though not necessarily straightforward – and based on or directly inspired by contemporary Japanese urban legends and/or early Japanese creepypasta (the borders between these realms have become rather vague once the Internet hit it big), so even if you’re like me and have no clue about Ono’s work, you’ll recognize the structures, beats and quite a few of the creatures haunting the tales. That’s not, however, much of a problem to me, for there’s always a place for the kind of short horror that understands itself as a form of folklore in my heart, particularly when it is as well realized as this one.

There are quite a few projects with a similar approach to this dribbling in from Japan, and most of them are rather enjoyable, but they do tend to have a rather cheap look and feel, whereas Kidan seems definitely more upmarket. Not the big cinema kind of upmarket, but the one where things don’t look actively cheap and impoverished. The experienced and highly capable group of directors helps there too, of course, milking every ounce of atmosphere they can out of the handful of scenes every story has to work with, building tension and a surprising amount of creepiness out of the well-known tropes involved.

There’s an eerie kind of weirdness surrounding most of these tales, the convictions of talented storytellers that help make some of the more preposterous ideas here disturbing and even somewhat horrifying, never giving a viewer the space and time to look at things and sneer. It’s lovely work, really.

The film turns out to be a bit more cleverly structured than typical of this sort of project, starting out with pretty traditional urban legends and becoming stranger with each episode, culminating in a final trio of stories that are so quietly strange as to delight my old hard heart quite immensely. Atypical of anthology movies, there’s no bad middle tale here, either, every director bringing full focus to their little story or stories, making a small project feel rather impressive.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Band Together

Bandslam (2009): In part, Todd Graff’s film is of course your typical teen music comedy drama with a bit of a conventional streak, but since I’m not usually complaining about this sort of thing when it comes to other genres, it would be weird to suddenly start with that sort of thing here. Particularly since the film may be typical to some degree, it’s also a great example of the form, certainly not lacking in imagination on how to fill out the genre format it inhabits, and charming as a level 20 bard. Its portrayal of a certain type of teenage alienation isn’t quite as paper-thin as it seems, either, it’s just treating those parts of its tale with a very light hand, so it can enable the proper hopeful happy ending where most everything is set right with the world without needing to pretend the world is perfect.

You Were Never Really Here (2017): From a bit of a different planet comes the great Lynne Ramsay’s movie about a mercenary vigilante (and PTSD sufferer) portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in an un-showy and therefore brilliant mood, who is specialized in hitting people with a hammer while finding kidnapped girls. The film’s really not interested at all in fulfilling any genre expectations, instead using the loose genre framework to draw a portray of a deeply alienated personality in a way that must be consciously chosen to alienate most viewers at least a little. The film’s approach is somewhere between the dreamlike and the oblique, editing out actions and only showing us their consequences, divorcing acts from those committing them. The film’s not called like it’s called by chance or committee.

Burning aka 버닝 (2018): Speaking of alienation, that’s a core concern of Lee Chang-dong’s film, too. Here, though, like in many South Korean films made in the second half of the 2010s, it’s an alienation mainly caused by class divides and by poverty and all the pains and indignities and deepening of certain personal traumas and flaws that come with it. This is also a pretty oblique film, slowly exploring the world of its main characters, circling themes and ideas through careful, detailed observation but never quite turning into the thriller some of its plot elements suggest,  keeping a distanced and observant poise throughout. It also teaches that you can’t really be an effective thriller protagonist when you call yourself a writer of fiction but really don’t get when somebody talks to you in metaphors, or that it is a very bad sign when (the same) somebody tells you he has never cried in his life and doesn’t know if he’d recognize sadness if he felt it.

But seriously, it’s a great film if you don’t go in expecting it to eventually turn into a tight South Korean thriller and are fine with it staying the slow but thematically rich character and social portrait it starts as.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Guest (2014)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

The Peterson family – mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), father Spencer (Leland Orser), nearly of age daughter (who’d be of age for nearly three years in my country, and legally drinking beer for nearly five) Anna (Maika Monroe) and teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) – are still grieving for the death of their eldest son in combat in one of America’s recent wars. One day, a stranger calling himself David (Dan Stevens) shows up at their door, introducing himself as a war buddy of the son come to pay his respects and give them a final message of love from him.

David might feel just a little bit off, but he’s also charming, attractive, attentive and seems honestly interested in each family member and their respective problems, calming the mother, buddying up to the father, half-charming the more sceptical Anna, and helping Luke out with his bully problems. Quickly, a short stay for a night or two turns into an unspoken and indefinite agreement about his staying on as a live-in family friend. However, further developments might just reveal that David’s more than he pretends to be, and perhaps even a danger to everyone he comes into contact with, in particular those people towards whom he has good intentions.

After my general dislike for You’re Next and my honest puzzlement about the critical cheering – at least in horror circles – Adam Wingard’s film got where less smug movies suffered a polite shrug, I did not expect anything much to my tastes going into his next film The Guest. What I got, however, is a truly excellent film that not just avoids nearly everything I found problematic or pretty damn annoying about its predecessor but turns it around and into an asset.

So Wingard still demonstrates an encyclopaedic knowledge of genre film history, but where demonstrating it felt like a pointless, and rather smug, gesture to me in You’re Next (So you’ve seen a lot of movies? So have I. So what?), The Guest seems to be all about actually learning from the movies that came before and then applying that knowledge to improve the film at hand and turn it into a more effective piece and telling its story better. Thus making an understanding of early John Carpenter, the same neon 80s aesthetic that dominated Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, and all those thrillers about mentally ill people worming themselves into bourgeois families, a natural part of the film’s language.

While Wingard keeps being interested in a subversion of genre expectations, his approach here goes far beyond “ironic” quotes or making a handful of obvious changes to the formula that play better with an contemporary audience, leaving The Guest not as a film about older movies (or even a critique of them) but a thing standing on its own that organically uses those techniques and effects that will best serve its purpose to tell a story of its own. A story I have consciously been quite vague about here because I don’t want to rob anyone of the experience of just watching this particular film for the first time without much more than the expectations you’ll have about a genre film with its particular set-up. Now, fortunately, this does not mean The Guest is a film that’s all about one big plot twist, but only that all its little twists and turns are perfectly worth experiencing on one’s own for the first time. All too often, a film having plot twists means it will make grand, dramatic gestures about developments that have little logical or thematic connection to what came before in a story, whereas here, these things all feel like natural developments and are perfectly in the flow of what came before.

It’s this flow, an organic feel, that impresses me particularly about The Guest, a feeling that each single element in plot, design, direction and acting truly feeds into the film as a whole, leaving one with the feeling of having watched something of perfect inner logic, with no single element that could disabuse one of that notion hogging the spotlight for a second too long. So this is a film with a wonderful cast – Monroe, Stevens and Meyer are particular high points – tight direction, often very inventive camera work and editing, as well as a script that is much cleverer than it pretends to be, where again all these single elements just feed into the movie as a whole. It is quite difficult to single out any one of these elements as particularly remarkable, not because of their quality or lack of such but because the film is so much of one piece, looking at the single parts it is made off seems to be completely beside the point, unless you have an academic interest in talking about film.

Of course, in theory, that’s how all films are supposed to work. However films where things come together quite this way and that still make it look easy and natural, without artifice exactly thanks to their high degree of artistry (which is by nature artificiality) aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Again, the early John Carpenter comes to my mind the most, and that’s really how The Guest feels to me: a movie so great it deserves comparison to the best.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Musallat (2007)

Freshly married Suat (Burak Özçivit) has left his new wife Nurcan (Bigkem Karavus) behind in the small village in Turkey they both come from and has come to Berlin to earn the kind of money you just can’t make in a place like his home. He’s suffering rather badly under the separation from wife and home, as well as his isolation in a strange and xenophobic country whose language he doesn’t speak, with his childhood friend Metin (Ibrahim Can) his only real human contact. So it’s not much of a surprise that he falls into a deep depression.

There’s more than “just” psychological toil brewing for him, or rather, parts of this toil are caused by some kind of supernatural agency that brings with it visions and illusions, dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams and which seems to set out to further his inner and outer isolation. Eventually, things become so bad, Metin accompanies Suat to Istanbul where they seek the help of mystic (if any Turkish reader should have a better term for the man’s role, I’d be only too happy to be enlightened) Haci Burhan Kasavi (Kurtulus Sakiragaoglu). Things don’t work out terribly well for anyone involved, but at least a pretty classic Weird Tales kind of turn of events will enlighten the audience about what has been really going on here.

On a technical level, Musallat, Alper Mestçi’s first of quite a number of horror movies he has directed by now is not a terribly impressive film. It’s clearly made on a bit of a shoestring budget, cutting visual corners wherever it can, so camera work, lighting, production design and special effects tend to look cheap for most of the film’s running time, though there are a couple of pretty effective moments when it comes to the scarier stuff.

The script, however, is the good kind of interesting, much more interested in telling an actually story in a semi-twisty way than in delivering a series of shocks. This leads to a somewhat cumbersome structure with the truth of the matter taking up half an hour of the film’s running time in the end, not exactly helping make the film dramatic, yet it also provides Musallat the time to talk about some themes I haven’t seen often – if at all – treated in a horror movie before. Particularly the inclusion of Suat’s very specific to “foreigners” in Germany kind of culture shock and isolation is not something you’ll find shown in cinema, genre or not, very often and Musallat really manages to connect his feeling of having stepped into a different and crueller world very well to the supernatural shenanigans on a thematic as well as on an emotional level.

Obviously, I’m also rather fond of the film’s cultural specificity. Given that most possession movies we get to see around here feature the same (pop) cultural exorcism tropes of an Evangelical or Catholic bend, I’m all on board with learning what genre movie Ifrit are getting up to. How much or how little the film’s depiction has to do with actual Muslim and Turkish thought, practice, religion, or folklore, I’m not really in a position to judge (all my knowledge of jinn lore coming from a couple of blog posts or perhaps a Fortean Times article or two), but that it’s simply more interesting and new from my chair in Germany, I most certainly can say.

Musallat gets additional love from me for use of that much-loved (by me) and certainly well-worn trope of the tale we are watching being written down by a man in the process of bleeding out, something Lovecraft would have approved of rather a lot. Some things are clearly international.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

I See You (2019)

Warning: I’m not going to spoil the very twist-heavy film completely, but I will at least discuss the horror sub-genre it will turn out to use the most, which is a rather major spoiler in this case!

The Harper family does suffer from rather a lot of inter-familiar tensions right now. Mother Jackie (Helen Hunt) has apparently cheated on her husband Greg (Jon Tenney), causing rifts to open not just between herself and him but also their teenage son Connor (Judah Lewis) who clearly also has a lot of other teenage issues independent from this to work through. Jackie’s clearly trying to make up for her error but the men don’t exactly seem willing to forgive; or really, not even willing to give up on rubbing salt in everyone’s wounds. Well, at least they have a house so big, you’d usually house four or more families their size in it, thanks to Jackie coming from money (which Greg of course doesn’t cope terribly well with because of some macho bullshit or other).

The tension isn’t going to decrease with Greg’s new case. Kids in the area are disappearing and later turning up dead. Some evidence suggests it’s a sequel to a series of kidnappings and murders of children a couple of years earlier. The problem is that Greg’s partner Spitzky (Gregory Alan Williams) was working the earlier case, and he is absolutely convinced the man they arrested then was indeed responsible for the murders.

While all this is going on, peculiar and disturbing things happen in the Harper home. At first, it’s only minor things, a cup not being where Jackie put it, and things like that, but the situation escalates rather quickly, the occurrences turning threatening in very intimate ways, suggesting an movement towards something much worse. Given the state of relations between the Harpers, it’s not surprising that everyone acts a little paranoid, not exactly thinking the other members of the family carry any responsibility for what’s going on, yet also not quite trusting each other not to have been responsible. Of course, things are much worse than that.

As the more frequent visitors among my imaginary readers know, I don’t generally enjoy movies that are heavily based on twists, mostly because these films tend to subsume what I find rather more interesting in a narrative – mood, theme and character – under the needs of plot affordances. So it can initially come as a bit of a surprise how much I think of Adam Randall’s I See You.

There are a couple of reasons for that, however. Firstly, while plot certainly is the most important element of the film, it just scarcely beats my old friend mood. For much of the first act here isn’t just used to bring all the pieces for the twist chess game onto the board but also create a mood of dread, mostly with techniques that reminded me, particularly in combination with the astonishingly creepy score by one William Arcane (which must be pseudonym, right?), quite a bit of Hereditary, not quite as a brilliantly realized, but highly effective nonetheless. And though the film’s structure doesn’t really lend itself to very deep characterisation, what is there is excellently played and written (script by Devon Graye), suggesting a lot of backstory instead of spelling it out. Unlike most twist movies, I See You also seems to understand the importance of fitting the twists and the characters to each other, so you never get the feeling the twists contradict what we have learned about these people but instead deepen and complicate it.

Returning to the importance of mood, the film changes its early tone of dread rather effectively with the mid-act reveal, at the same time changing genre and stepping from what felt like the start of highly disturbing supernatural horror into the usually less exalted area of the home invasion movie, and so promising a very rational explanation for what’s going on. We do indeed get that explanation, eventually, but not before the movie has assumed another form again, returning to the feeling of dread without the involvement of anything possibly supernatural.

The home invasion element seem to me particularly interesting on a thematic level. My problem with the home invasion film in general – certain examples of it are of course quite different – is the one of its class politics: these are usually films about rich people (and yeah, they’re going to call themselves middle class, but they are indeed rich to anyone who isn’t) being threatened by that most horrible of things, people from the lower classes who clearly haven no reason at all to be angry, no sir, the films all too often aiming for total identification with the rich people fighting off the monstrous poor. For someone coming from a line of people cleaning up other people’s messes, this sort of thing is pretty damn distasteful to me. So I found myself rather delighted that I See You doesn’t actually use the home invasion scenario this way. Instead, it turns out to be a film not about a threat coming from outside violating the innocent bourgeoisie, but the outside force invading the rich family’s privacy (secretly in this case) is actually there to witness and reveal all the horrors and dangers that have been lurking under the veneer of normalcy all along, the true danger coming from the inside and not the outside. And no, this isn’t so crudely done as to make everyone in the family cannibals or in fact even a horrible person; the film does prefer a bit more complexity. Which also turns I See You’s formal trickery and at least most of its twists into methods to enhance its thematic pull, using its narrative form as part of its argument.

Throughout, the film is also simply an engaging piece of horror cinema, breathing an air of the creepy and the wrong, going through its twists like they actually mean something. And sure, since the film is playing fair, I did see quite a few of the twists beyond the genre shift coming before the actual dramatic reveal; I just found the rest of I See You so engaging on other levels, this felt like a minor problem in a film that does so very much right.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

In short: The Iron Rose (1973)

Original title: La Rose de Fer

A man (Hugues Quester) and a woman (Françoise Pascal) meet cute at a wedding reception. He charms her with reciting poetry to the room, as you do. They have a rendezvous at the railway station of a country town, there’s biking, picnicking, and making out. On a lark, they enter a huge, decrepit graveyard to take a stroll and talk like French people in the movies talk. More making out follows, indeed, so much making out in a crypt, it suddenly turns dark on them while they’re otherwise occupied. Now they are lost in the graveyard, wandering around and reaching metaphorical and psychological extremes. More French movie talk is involved, too, of course.

With its total absence of vampires, La Rose de Fer was a bit of a change in the body of work of Jean Rollin at the time; though there is a random (perhaps allegorical) clown appearance, don’t you worry. It has never been one of my favourites in the singular director’s body of work, not because of the absence of vampires but because the film feels a lot more indulgent than most of Rollin’s other films to me. On an objective level, that’s probably not even true, for all of Rollin’s movies not made for a quick buck are perfectly self-indulgent and I do indeed love them for it. It’s just that Rollin indulges in exactly those parts of his work I find the least interesting here, particularly the poetic and philosophical dialogue that in the film at hand often seems too often would-be poetic and  would-be philosophical than anything else. But then, I also think that about the dialogue in the films of Eric Rohmer, and every Serious Film Critic just loves those as deep beyond measure, so perhaps I’m just not tuned into something specifically French here other writers are.

Be it as it may, this is not meant to say that La Rose isn’t worth seeing at all. There is many a lovely shot of the striking graveyard, by day and by night to gawk at, treated with Rollin’s customary eye for painterly composition on a budget, and sometimes, the film feels as if it were indeed teetering on the edge of some profound insight into the nature of life, death, or women and men. It’s just not as good and as convincing at drawing me in as most of Rollin’s other films are.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Girl in the Fog (2017)

Original title: La ragazza nella nebbia

One December, 23rd, teenager Anna Lou disappears from a secluded little town in the Italian Alps. Big city investigator Vogel (Toni Servillo) is called in to take care of the case. On the outside, Vogel is the picture of a serious, professional and competent policeman, but the direction he takes in his investigation soon makes clear that he sees himself not as a seeker of truth or justice but as the man brought in to give the public what it wants. Truth, justice or the actual well-being of a victim and their family, or the actual guilt of the people he accuses of a crime  hardly even register on his compass. In fact, the film does suggest he’s one of those famous high-functioning sociopaths, though it does so subtly and ambiguously.

So when Vogel latches on on some vague, highly circumstantial evidence pointing in the direction of local school teacher Loris Martini (Alessio Boni), he spends most of his time manipulating the press against the man, and very little on actual investigative work whatsoever. Consequently, the rather complicated truth of the matter is going to elude him for quite some time.

As far as twisty, psychologically motivated crime thrillers go, Donato Carrisi’s film based on his own novel is certainly right up there with the cream of the crop. It’s a film that hardly makes a misstep, easily convincing its audience even of the really much too complicated villainous plan that has way too many moments that’ll only work when total strangers act exactly as the perpetrator wants this will eventually to have been about on the plot-level.

Carrisi achieves this through a calm, focussed presentation that may not be as cold as his protagonists are but lacks any love for melodrama, calmly observing private catastrophes where other films would aim straight for the audience’s adrenal glands, making a deeper emotional impact exactly by not straining so hard for it on a surface level. Even though I am not a fan of the twisty thriller format in general, the director/writer’s calm and sure hand works wonders to convince even of slight implausibilities, mostly because there’s never any doubt the film knows where it wants to go and how to get there; it’s also playing fair with its audience, providing us all the clues we need to understand what’s really going on, but subtly enough to not stick our noses into it.

The film’s rather economical that way too, with scenes often taking on a kind of double-meaning – one looked when looked at straightforwardly, one with a cynical eye – so that even something a simple as a framing device in which Vogel has a little nightly chat with a psychiatrist (Jean Reno) is used for more than just straightforward narrative purposes. At the same time, the plot doesn’t feel overloaded, its intricate construction presented as if all of this were very straightforward and perfectly natural.

On a philosophical level, this is so cynical I’m tempted to call it a neo noir, even though its actual DNA seems closer to contemporary thrillers and – eventually – highly constructed mysteries. It’s not just that every single one of the authority figures (except for the female head of the local police, who doesn’t have much actual authority here, though) in a so-called respectable job in the film turns out to be utterly untrustworthy, at best fixated on giving the public appearance of doing their duty and making money through it, but never interested in what that duty is actually supposed to mean. The The Girl in the Fog clearly argues that this is indeed the way the world works. If there is any kind of crude justice actually happening (the film keeps this act off-screen, of course), it’s not actual justice but only the result of Vogel’s aggrieved vanity.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: The Phoenix Will Rise!

The Marshes (2018): This Australian horror movie by Roger Scott about three biologists encountering something or someone pretty nasty in some marshland right out in the middle of nowhere brings me back to my old favourite concept of “boring competence”. There’s nothing really wrong with the film at all: it is competently structured, competently written (though lacking in any originality), competently staged and competently acted. Yet, despite the film’s worst sin being the pretty harmless tendency to keep the cameras close to the characters in scenes where showing a bit more of the landscape would actually be more threatening and claustrophobic, it all adds up to a film I find much less enjoyable than all this competence would suggest. There’s just a total lack of any adventurous spirit on display here I find rather dispiriting.

The Sonata (2018): In comparison, Andrew Desmond’s film about a violinist (Freya Tingley) finding an unpublished violin sonata in her estranged father’s (flashback late great Rutger Hauer) estate and the somewhat devilish consequences thereof should actually be a lesser movie. At least, its direction – while hitting some great moments of modern gothic atmosphere – is less slick, the film’s budgetary constraints are quite a bit more visible (don’t mention the CGI Devil). However, the film tells its old-fashioned tale of music and the devil with much more conviction, as well as an organic sense for the proper atmosphere the Australian movie lacks despite its higher technical values.

Captive State (2019): Completely unrelated to any of this is Rupert Wyatt’s film about a secret resistance operating in a post alien invasion USA (as is tradition in these films, it doesn’t care about the rest of the world) whose new alien overlords have taken rather a lot from the playbook of the contemporary demagogue. It’s a fantastic, dark, and moody piece for as long as Wyatt is following a great cast (counting among its numbers John Goodman, Ashton Sanders and Vera Farmiga and other fine actresses and actors) to explore this brave new world. There’s a nice eye for the telling and weird detail and a general sense of calmness and control to Wyatt’s direction in these parts of the film that make the slow progression of things enormously convincing. Alas, once the PLOT truly rears its ugly head, all of this gets subsumed by one of these contemporary Hollywood “clever” plans which can only work if everyone involved acts exactly like the planner expected – and often not in terribly convincing or psychologically sound ways either.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Past Misdeeds: (The) Shepherd (1999)

aka Cybercity

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

It’s after the end of the world (again and again and again). This time the sweet one-two punch of World War III and an ecological catastrophe has turned our blue planet brown, so humanity has fled underground. There, our descendants dwell in what looks surprisingly like often pretty foggy warehouse sets, suffer from a lack of decent lighting that can only cause depression and off-screen monologues, and are dominated by various competing religious cults and sects.

Our hero of the evening, one properly action movie monikered guy known as Boris Dakota (C. Thomas Howell) works as a Shepherd – an enforcer/killer – for Miles (Roddy Piper) whose religion seems to be what happens when an Evangelical TV preacher goes worse. Miles’s guys (and it’s only guys) seem to be – as far as I parse the intensely vague world building of the film – one of the big two crazy cults in the underground world. Right now, Miles’s guys are living in a truce with the other big cult, the skimpy leather-clad girls of Lilith (Heidi von Palleske), keeping the apocalypse after the apocalypse at bay by not killing each other in public. Or something.

Dakota for his part isn’t much of a believer in anything anymore, since he suffers from the classical action hero traumatic past of a murdered wife and son, and now spends the time he doesn’t kill people for Miles and his old friend Lyndon (Mackenzie Gray) growling off-screen monologues about how much humanity sucks, and watching virtual low-res memories and screen savers of his family on what looks suspiciously like sun glasses, an awesome invention the film never even bothers to name but that will have excellent uses when it comes to hurting the audience’s eyes, as well as for exposition, and other random stuff.

However, when Dakota is assigned a new and - as he hopes and Miles will make sure - last target, something you might at first confuse with a plot surfaces, for said target, one Sophia (Marina Anderson) just happens to have a son right of the age Dakota’s kid was when he was murdered. So obviously, Dakota saves Sophia and the child from other assassins instead of killing her and attempts to take on the role of their protector. At first, Sophia isn’t all too keen on Dakota but after enough lackluster attacks on them, she surely will come around.

As you might suspect after this meandering synopsis of not much of a plot, if you go looking into this Roger Corman production directed by Peter Hayman expecting much of an actual movie as people generally understand the term, you might be a mite disappointed. The plot – such as it is – is really just a series of lamely reproduced clichés presented with all the enthusiasm and coherence of a late period Santo movie (which, if you don’t know your lucha cinema, means none whatsoever), with character actions and motivations that often don’t even make sense in the very broad interpretation of the word we use when talking about post-apocalyptic action cinema, underground (aka “we can’t afford to shoot outside, and Bronson Canyon’s too far away”) division. I, at least, can make neither heads nor tails out of the whole conspiracy angle between Miles and Lilith’s cults. If indeed there even is such an angle. I think it says everything about the quality of the writing here I’m not sure either way. Or, to take another example, why exactly does Lyndon act as he does in the final scenes? How the hell should the script know?

Obviously, things like suspense or excitement are right out in Shepherd, particularly since the action scenes are of the just barely competent type that neither wants to be creative nor exciting and just hovers around words like “there”. And nope, we don’t even get to see a titanic throw-down between Howell and Piper, which is probably for the better seeing how slowly Howell moves here.

However, while Shepherd is barely watchable as a serious piece of post-apocalyptic action film, it is a pretty brilliant lump of utter, inexplicable nonsense, and what creativity was involved behind the camera was clearly concentrated on a) providing various actors with as many opportunities for scenery chewing as possible, and b) adding absolutely pointless yet awesome nonsense/stuff/random insanity to as many scenes as possible. So Shepherd gifts us with great moments in cinema like Roddy Piper living in his own memory glasses world where he does the whole sub-Jesus thing, bare-chested and carrying around a humongous crucifix on his back (shades of Philip K. Dick there, also, obviously). Roddy also dreams of hitting people with one of those crosses-on-a-stick (that’s the technical term, right, religious readers?) bishops and the like carry around, literally likes to kick his henchmen when they are down, and spends most of his screen time angrily ranting and raving in sentences that can’t be meant to make sense. Truly, that part of the film is a thing to behold. And while Howell didn’t get the message about the scenery chewing beyond “do a manly growly voice, dude”, von Palleske and Lyndon in particular really join in the fun with gusto.

Other joys here are the random appearance of a cannibalistic punk (this is not a film who could afford a gang of them, sorry) who leads our hero back to the boy with his awesome power of smelling little boys (seriously), a just as random Roddy Piper crucifixion, and last but not least a cameo by good old David Carradine.

Carradine is not a man to be trifled with in the finding nothing undignified sweepstakes, so his character is only listed as “Ventriloquist” in the credits. And indeed, David is one, and because this film is very special indeed, David Carradine isn’t just a ventriloquist but has his star turn here drugging C. Thomas Howell, then straddling him while good old C. Thomas dreams of having sex with a woman quite clearly not David Carradine, and proceeding to strangle our hero with his ventriloquist’s doll. A doll, that, for reasons I don’t even want to think about, also seems to be trans.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, should really answer anyone’s questions about whether Shepherd is worth watching.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

In short: Gone with the Pope (197x/2010)

After coming out of prison and doing a bit of professional killing for the mob, sad and sleazy gangster Paul (Duke Mitchell), unwilling to live off his rich girlfriend, decides to grab his three best buddies with equally bible appropriate first names from prison and go on a boating trip with them on said girlfriend’s yacht to make them and him feel better. Well, that’s what he tells them and his girlfriend. In reality, Paul has decided they are going to kidnap the Pope (Lorenzo Dardado) and ransom him for the tidy sum of one dollar from every Catholic in the world. Paul does let himself talk down from that last bit, though, and only goes for 50 cents pC (that’s the official acronym) in the end.

The popenapping goes through without a hitch. But with the Pope come problems. Namely, despite some awkward (yet very funny) rants by Paul about the old theological chestnut of the absence of god in the face of evil, the holy dude conquers his friends’ hearts, and basically adopts them, so that Paul has to let everyone go be holy and sails off into the sunset himself alone. The rousing spiritual bit is followed by a bit more violence, sex, and some glowing Catholic iconography in the film’s meaningful end.

Shot in the mid-70’s by writer/director/star and producer Duke Mitchell, this pretty bizarre and damn brilliant piece of cinematic strangeness was only finished long after Mitchell’s death, based on a work print, the negatives and Mitchell’s notes, which has been quite the service to mankind. The very best thing about the film as it now stands is how little it feels like anyone involved in its post-production is treating it ironically. Instead, they are clearly trying to realize Mitchell’s vision with all the respect it is due.

Well, one could argue with much more respect than it is actually due, but that would make one a bit boring as well as a heartless bastard, so I’m not going to. As it stands, said vision is certainly pretty singular, answering the call of mid-70s high profile mafia movies with a mixture of sleaze and exploitational values, theological concerns expressed with the sort of wide-eyed naivety you wouldn’t expect from a guy who looks – well, indeed was – an over the hill night club act, through scenes of hetero men buddying up rather more physically than you ever get to see around where I live, and being pulled back to Earth via some gob-smacking casual racism.

While acting and production values are certainly on the dubious side – though only ever boring in about the first five minutes of boring mafia table talk – there’s also a beguiling sense of authenticity to them. Sure, my brain told me, these guys can’t actually act, and this dialogue is absurd (though again, never boring), but boy, do I believe this is more like actual mid-70s gangsters acted, looked and felt like anyone in The Godfather, and looks much more like the world of shady bars and hotel rooms they lived in. It’s an astonishing film.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Taste of Fear (1961)

aka Scream of Fear

Not having seen her father for nearly ten years after her parents’ divorce, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) travels to his coastal villa in France, following a somewhat surprising invitation. Penny’s father is away on business, so Penny is greeted by her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd). Jane makes quite an effort to make her feel welcome, as awkward as the situation between a young woman and the second wife of her father she’s never met before is at its core.

However, something is very wrong at the villa. Starting on the very first night of her stay, Penny repeatedly encounters what looks a lot like the corpse of her father propped up in macabre manner. Of course, when Penny’s trying to show the corpse to Jane or hunky chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis), the thing disappears. Very quickly, Jane starts mumbling about the “neurotic tendencies” Penny has supposedly displayed in childhood. The doctor Jane calls in, supposedly a friend of Penny’s father, the very rude Dr Pierre Gerrard (Christopher “Frenchman” Lee), does love to go on in the same manner, making dinners with him rather a strain on everyone’s nerves. At least Robert – just call him “Bob” – is a lot of help, sharing some of the doubts Penny is developing.

Despite the great success (particularly for such a small company) of their horror films, beloved Hammer Studios weren’t exclusively making horror films in the sixties. Following the success of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Jimmy Sangster wrote about five or six (depending on which ones you count) twisty thrillers clearly influenced and encouraged by that film, yet never simply copying it. Rather, Sangster takes some of Psycho’s formal inventions, its play with the audience and its expectations, and thinks them further for his own purposes.

Case in point is the first film of this group, as directed by Seth Holt, using the viewer’s knowledge of the structure of a gaslighting-type film against them to pull off quite some clever things not just once but twice. The film doesn’t only use the audience’s assumptions about genre and characters, though – the characters themselves repeatedly fall into the same trap of taking what’s on the surface of others on very literal face value. Treating people as types and tropes is a dangerous thing, as it turns out. I’m not actually going to spoil the twists here despite the film’s age, because when a plot twist is as well constructed and wonderfully timed as those here are, its writer deserves the respect no to have it spoiled.

Despite not really being a horror film, Taste does feature some wonderfully macabre moments, too. The business with Penny’s father’s corpse is effectively creepy, Holt shooting these scenes as expressionistically influenced nightmares that stand in fine contrast to the many scenes of black and white sunlight surrounding them. And the final destiny of one of the film’s villains – in a move typical for the film probably the lesser one – has a sense of dreadful yet deserved irony many a horror twist ending strives for.

Holt does some grand work in other regards too, staging scenes in ways that make them feel so intimate, the film’s threats seem all the more personal. Generally, Holt as well as Sangster’s script like to keep events and emotions tightly controlled, in fact enhancing their impact by not overplaying them like many another film would. In lesser hands, the plot, where nobody involved, if still alive, will end up any happier than before, would be material for shrill melodrama, but Holt and Sangster let their audience figure out for themselves how much of a parade of broken people doing broken things we are actually witnessing.

Young Susan Strasberg is a great casting choice, too, projecting vulnerability and confusion yet also a hidden reservoir – clearly unexpected to the rest of the world – of strength and determination she desperately needs. The rest of the cast is up to the same fine standards – with the exception of Lee’s “French” accent – though this is really Strasberg’s show.

Really, said accent is the only thing I can find fault with in Taste of Fear, and if a bit of a ropey accent is the worst thing a film has to offer, nobody can fault me if I call it a little masterpiece.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

In short: The Courier (2019)

A nameless black market courier (Olga Kurylenko) working in London is supposed to deliver some technical doodad needed for the secure off-site statement of one Nick Murch (Amit Shah) against crazy evil rich mastermind Ezekiel Manning (Gary Oldman). Turns out what she actually unwittingly delivers is a packet full of cyanide gas meant to kill Nick as well as those of his protectors not on Manning’s payroll and frame her for the killing. Fortunately, the good woman is a deserted Russian wet work specialist and really doesn’t like to be fucked with in this way, so she saves Nick and begins a game of “Die Hard in a Parking Garage” with Manning’s henchpeople.

Zackary Adler’s The Courier is a great example of the problems of many contemporary direct to home video action films, or really, the problems these things often have becoming actual movies (you gotta ask Martin Scorsese if that would make them “cinema”) instead of strange patchwork concoctions.

One of the biggest hurdles standing between a low budget action movie of this type and becoming good is the desperate need to get some name actors in. Sure, getting a couple of scenes of Gary Oldman looks good in the press material, and he’s certainly not phoning his stuff in here, but there’s also not enough Gary Oldman to sell him as the main villain of the piece – that he is never interacting with the The Courier’s heroine certainly doesn’t help with that either. So the film needs additional villains hanging on the phone with each other a lot, our villain’s daughter whose function in the plot is exactly zero, and whatever other filler it can come up with (like an insipidly written court scene), permanently cutting away from the actual business of survival in the parking lot at hand to things and scenes irrelevant or boring, repeatedly sabotaging its own potential at momentum. Frankly, as much as I love Oldman, and as much fun as he has chewing the scenery, as little has what he does to do with the rest of the movie. He could have been replaced by a voice on the telephone shouting commands without the film losing anything of import to its quality as a movie; its quality as a saleable product would probably suffer, but as a viewer I want a watchable movie much more than a saleable product.

Of course, given the amount of other filler, I’m not terribly sure the film could actually afford Kurylenko and Shah for more shooting days, which is a particular shame since Kurylenko is fully applying herself even in her worst movies, and Shah’s only one good role away from a really decent career.

All of this is particularly disappointing – again all too typical for this kind of action movie - because whenever the film gets around to Kurylenko doing her Bruce Willis bit (with Shah in a nice twist consigned to the kind of role action movies traditionally cast with women), Adler turns out to be a pretty fine director of action in a minimalist setting, finding a surprising amount of action set-ups for a rather small space, and using the always game Kurylenko well, too.

Alas, forty minutes of fun and sixty minutes of filler do not a (good) movie make.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Satan’s School for Girls (1973)

When her sister commits suicide under – as the audience witnesses in the prologue – very mysterious circumstances while on premises belonging to the private school for girls she goes to, Elizabeth Sayers (Pamela Franklin), travels to the school in Salem herself, enrolling under an assumed name for some undercover investigation. Liz’s new classmates seem friendly enough, if sometimes a bit high-strung, but that’s probably just college life.

Further investigation does suggest something sinister going on there, though. There are strange noises in the night, a secret room in the cellar, and the rate of death through misadventure or suicide among the girls becomes rather high for a place quite this small. Is the headmistress (Jo Van Fleet) – generally called “the Dragon” – somehow involved? And what about the clearly deranged psychology teacher (Lloyd Bochner) and his obsession with rats in mazes? Is perhaps the not at all suspiciously hip and (supposedly) hunky Mr Clampett (Roy Thinnes) quite a bit more sinister than he pretends to be? And where was Satan when the girls died?

Well, if you haven’t figured the answers to these questions out in about a third of the time Elizabeth does, I really don’t know what to say. Of course, the obviousness of its plot doesn’t actually detract from the virtues of David Lowell Rich’s Aaron Spelling-produced bit of 70s TV horror. And really, can we blame a sensible young woman for not figuring out one of her teachers is actually Satan trying to recruit a coven of eight late teenage witches by charming and cajoling them into collective suicide?

So, yes, the plot is really rather on the silly side but it’s the good kind of silly that sees a witch and/or Satan under every rock, distrusts all authority (because Satan is the ultimate seducer of headmistresses, it turns out), and would really have a cover of a girl in a white nightgown running away from an old mansion if it only could get away with it, and were a novel. Thusly, even if you’re like me and find Thinnes’s supposed charm here rather smarmy and obvious, and peg him as a clear creep, the film’s charm is always obvious as well. All of this places the film somewhere in the realm of the gothic romance revival and the least extreme stories in contemporary, code approved, horror comics. I’d probably live there if I could.

Of course, if you’re of a mind to, you can interpret certain elements of the film as a commentary on actual 70s cults but the film’s just too old-fashioned and cheesy to really be read that way unless one is an academic looking for something to over-interpret.

Rich turns out to be one among the extremely competent TV horror directors here, showing a certain flair for the use of limited light sources – resulting in some lovely atmospheric scenes of Elizabeth sneaking through the house at night – and adding a couple of scenes that hint at a darker underside to supernatural things than most of what we actually see. There’s the honestly creepy scene where Satan breaks the already pretty cracked headmistress completely, and about as menacing a murder scene as you can get when you can’t show blood involving a man, a body of water, and some wooden poles brandished by rather merciless teens. And, eventually, there are also the sweet, sweet tones of horrible betrayal. Even the ending’s pretty nasty for a TV movie.

All of which does certainly put Satan’s School for Girls into the highest tier of 70s US TV horror, as I’m sure our old buddy Satan will agree.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.

Young Adult (2011): On one hand, I have complete respect for Jason Reitman’s willingness to make a film about a woman hitting a tough spot and returning to her small town home that doesn’t espouse small town virtues as the be all and end all of “true” life and adulthood. On the other hand, the resulting film is then - quite consequently – about a character who experiences things but never learns anything from them, who doesn’t change for better or for worse, the only point seeming that some people can’t change, even if they are shitty and broken enough to need it, which is neither news nor particularly interesting to me. Sure, there is a lot to be said against all those movies about the cleansing power of returning home, but replacing hope with nothing isn’t a terrible convincing proposition either, however well Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt are selling this (Patrick Wilson is his usual nonentity, which might be a purposeful casting decision here).

Prince Avalanche (2013): Also not exactly to my tastes is this one, directed by David Gordon Green, in which Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch at least do make something out of their experience of doing – sometimes – road work on a godforsaken road. I’m not terribly convinced by the tone of the affair, though, Green desperately trying to elevate the pretty bare script into something universal but never quite succeeding for me. But then, I usually have the problem with Green’s more serious-minded films of not seeing that he’s actually saying those as much about life, love and the rest he seems to think his films do. That might just be me, though.

Freaks (2018): Let’s finish on this film by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein (of Leprechaun: Origins “fame”) which first casts what turns out to be a really bad X-Men movie as an intriguing and atmospheric mystery about a little girl (Lexy Kolker) building the wrong picture of a complicated world her father (hey, it’s Emile Hirsch again) doesn’t bother even attempting to explain to her. The more the film explains about what is actually going on with and in the world here, the more stupid it gets, though, reaching a sort of apex of awkward dialogue, bizarre writing choices and characters who will do any damn shit because it is in the script in a climax that has to be seen to be believed. And to think that much of what’s happened could have been avoided if any of the grown-ups here had at least attempted to explain the world to Chloe, the kid character, something like “some of us have special powers, bad people hunt those with special powers; we have special powers, therefor we must hide, yes, even from ice cream vans and the lady next door”.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Babadook (2014)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Amelia (Essie Davis), widowed and quite isolated from the rest of the world ever since her husband died in an accident while driving her to the hospital when she was in labour, lives alone with her little son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Even more than six years after her husband’s death, Amelia has still not managed to really cope with it, finding herself alone and with a difficult child, her main human contacts being a pretty horrible rich girl friend, her elderly neighbour, and a colleague at work whose obvious interest in her she can’t or won’t notice. Her situation certainly isn’t improved by a shit job as a nurse for the sick and elderly, by the fact that Samuel has major behavioural problems nobody seems to bother to actually treat (his school’s only answer to the problems is wanting to pull him out of class and into one-to-one-tutoring, as if the concepts of child psychiatry and psychology had never been invented), and by Amelia’s own untreated mental health problems.

Right now, things are bad, and the cracks in Amelia’s and Samuel’s life are beginning to grow too large to just ignore, but the true downward spiral starts when Amelia reads a children’s pop-up picture book she doesn’t remember buying at all to the always over-anxious and over-imaginative Samuel . “The Babadook” as it is called, frightens Samuel to death. He becomes convinced the book’s titular monster is lurking in their home, meaning them ill. This does of course make his behavioural troubles even worse, which in turn worsens Amelia’s psychological deterioration, until she too begins to encounter strange and inexplicable things. It might be a shared delusion, it might be a big fat metaphor for child abuse, or it might be that something truly horrible has stepped into lives that weren’t all that happy to begin with.

There’s really little else I can do when confronted with as individual, clever, ambiguous and strange a horror movie as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook than lavish it with praise. Sure, from time to time, if you want to, you can see the film’s probably miniscule budget showing. However that’s really only something that applies when you look for the signs of it, for The Babadook is a film finely focused on what it can do instead of attempting those things it can’t afford to.

So it only features a handful of actors, but all of them are great – with Essie Davis giving an absolutely outstanding tour de force performance that is utterly convincing even in her most violent mood swings and never ever feels like the actress just showing off, and Noah Wiseman really managing to at once make his Samuel so believably exhausting it’s no wonder Amelia has difficulties coping even ignoring her copious other problems, yet also making believable the boy’s joy, his love for his mother and his sadness, turning what could be caricatures in lesser hands into people.

Kent does some fantastic things with her basic set-up, not only keeping the outward truth of what we see in the film ambiguous but also making its supernatural (or not) elements so meaningful and expressive of a lot of things – like the kind of negative feelings towards their children parents aren’t allowed to admit, the slowly growing resentment coming from a life that went off the rails one day and never got back there, with little visible opportunity for things turning around, the fear of losing one’s child as well as that of losing one’s mind, and so on - their actual reality inside the film’s real world seems to be beside the point. And we’re not talking about the horrors of allegory here, where everything has to have a specific meaning and no thought needs to be put into establishing the world surrounding the allegory as believable, but the point where a film’s constructed reality becomes so easy to accept, several completely divergent interpretations of what’s going on in it can be true at the same time, characters locking their horrors up in the cellar and feeding it worms being real and a metaphor at the same time, one way of looking at it actually strengthening the other.

Kent never makes a false step throughout the whole of the movie, neither on the directing nor on the writing side, presenting the illogical and the strange as a (un)natural part of the film’s world, setting up terrific moments of suspense and executing them just as brilliantly, as if this were the easiest thing in the world. Even more impressive, Kent, in her first feature film, already has a visual language all her own, most probably based on a deep knowledge of the horror films that came before, but feeling characteristic, personal, and completely disinterested in using the horror film techniques that are in fashion when they don’t fit the situation at all. Consequently, jump scares are replaced with a creeping dread, and mood and suspense become supremely important.

I’m also very, very fond of The Babadook’s clever use of special effects that is - not just in the monster design - influenced by the expressionist silent films it very expressly champions (as well as by Edward Gorey, I suspect). And how often can you say a phrase like this about a film and not mean “Tim Burton Gothic” (not that I have much against Burton, traitor against opinions I’m supposed to have that I am) but – again – something that seems much more to be part of a personal vision?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

In short: Ad Astra (2019)

A relatively near future where everyone is heavily tranquilized (or all actors are drugged, who knows for sure?). Energy surges apparently coming from Neptune blast through our solar system. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) and his daddy issues very slowly make their way towards the planet to perhaps do something about the situation as well as said issues.

I’m not one to blame a science fiction movie for not being a colourful adventure full of talking trees and raccoons with PTSD (though, actually…), but if you want to make a less adventuresome science fiction movie, please don’t end up like James Gray’s po-faced epic here, telling a tiny, clichéd story over two hours that feel more like years.

The film’s main problem is that it is desperately trying to be a movie about human psychology but clearly has no clue how to go about it. So we get stuff like the ridiculous scene in which Pitt’s character is attacked by a monkey (in space, nobody can hear you fling poo), quickly followed by another one of his endless “psych evaluations” in which he talks about his unexpressed anger. It’s as if the monkey is some kind of…metaphor!? Whoa. This is symptomatic for a film that clearly can’t imagine an audience that has Pitt’s character arc from the white middle-aged dude who is repressing his feelings to the white middle-aged dude who isn’t anymore because he wrestled his father (in space!) figured out after the first ten minutes or so, and so dooms us to twiddle our thumbs watching Pitt not express feelings until the film gets up to speed too. And if you still don’t get it, let’s add a mumbled, pointless, and monotone monologue by Pitt that tells us exclusively things we either already understand or that the film should show us instead of mumble at us, as per the cinematic rule of “show, don’t mumble!”.

All of which is a particular problem since that’s all there is to the film: its world building is perfunctory and vague, the acting is bland and impersonal (with Pitt, usually a guy who works well within the parameters of his limited abilities, clearly out of his depth), and it consciously rejects all visionary elements and concepts of science fiction (what I’d call the good and important stuff), aiming for a philosophy of tending one’s own garden instead, perhaps mumbling of awe and wonder but certainly never showing them.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

It’s Halloween, 1968. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a horror-loving outsider with the ambition of becoming a writer, convinces her two friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) to visit the spooky old Bellows mansion at the edge of town, a place connected to more than just one story of a haunting. Well, they’ll have to visits the place after they’ve played a prank on town bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), and have had to hide in the car of hot teenage drifter Ramón (Michael Garza).

That visit to the house, now accompanied by Ramón, who rather hits it off with Stella, doesn’t go too well, and not just because Tommy locks them into the cellar. Turns out the place is at least as haunted as everyone says; and while the kids escape the thing that goes bump in that particular night, things only become worse in the following days and nights, for Stella took a book of handwritten stories from the house, stories that now turn into reality on her and her friends.

Apparently, not everyone loved André Øvredal’s adaptation (as produced and co-written by the great Guillermo del Toro) of the beloved collections of horrific American and British folk tales as retold by Alvin Schwartz as much as I did, but I can’t find any flaw with the film at all, unless one thinks it strictly needed to be an anthology movie. I do appreciate most everything in the film at hand, not just that it is teen-oriented horror that doesn’t try to be so cool it can only ever end up uncool, but that it actually tries to speak to very precise anxieties of very specific kids, using some clichés in the character set-up but from then on out developing these characters and what they are afraid of with all seriousness.

At the same time, the film also grounds the horror in a very specific place and time, as well as the social realities of the characters – including the daily casual racism facing Ramón even from those people who are otherwise not horrible human beings (something that pop-cultural portrayals of racism often avoids showing) – not as the main thrust of the film but as something that can’t help but define parts of a person’s world.

Stories are, after all, connected to the reality they are told in, and the film is all about stories, obviously specifically horror stories, why we tell them, how we tell them, but also, particularly fitting in a film based on folklore retellings, how stories shape our interpretation of the world around us, and may very well shape the world around us in turn, and not always in the best way, as well as the way a creepy story can mask some horrors of the real world instead of revealing them.

But even ignoring this part of the film – even if I’m not sure I’d want to – Scary Stories is pretty wonderful, Øvredal handling the macabre tales in the movie with his usual good timing and sense for creating a creepy mood (turns out that works from Norwegian fjords, to morgues, to Midwestern small towns for him), and a flair for showing just the right amount of the weird stuff. I found myself particularly intrigued by the film’s use of colour, often using traditionally warm colours in connection with the supernatural and the creepy, perhaps suggesting how much more real and alive a story can feel than drab reality.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

In short: Blinded by the Light (2019)

Sometimes, you read about the basic idea of a film, and can’t imagine not liking it. Case in point is Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, the tale of 1987 Pakistani Brit Javed (Viveik Kalra), who learns to understand himself, his family, and his town, as well as how to go out of his shell, become a writer and fall in love for the first time through the music of Bruce Springsteen. What’s not to like, right? Unfortunately, while the idea of the film at hand is rather lovely, inclusive, heart-warming and well meant, the execution of that idea is at once so harmless and so on the nose, I found myself cringing more than enjoying myself or learning something about anyone’s actual experiences of life.

There are two main problems with the film. The first one is the script’s inability to express emotions through anything but the Springsteen quotes (and about a third of the dialogue truly consists of Kalra declaiming Springsteen, which is not what song lyrics are made for, as much as I love Bruce) or bland statements of fact like “I don’t really get along with my father”, the whole deal about “show, don’t tell” you might have heard about clearly not having made its way to Luton. This approach may give the film a certain heart on its sleeve sort of charm if you’re much less cynical than I am, but reads to me as a complete inability to talk about feelings, Kalra’s identity, or the world beyond anything but the most superficial level.

Which brings me directly to the film’s other problem, its harmlessness that does acknowledge things like the horrible racism its protagonist has to suffer under, as well as the alienated cultural position Javed as the son of immigrants finds himself in, but never dare look at these things in anything but the blandest, most superficial manner, clearly deathly afraid that if it would portray actual emotions and thoughts instead of gestures pointing towards them, it would lose its whole feelgood appeal. Of course, the exact opposite is true: what the film needs is a less bland and streamlined emotional and intellectual landscape to earn that feelgood appeal. Something Bruce Springsteen would understand.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Le Silencieux (1973)

aka The Silent One

aka Escape to Nowhere

When a delegation of Soviet nuclear physicists concerned with nuclear fusion visit London, one among their number, one Anton Haliakov (Lino Ventura) apparently dies under rather dubious circumstances. In truth, MI5 is faking the man’s death, for they believe he is actually the French nuclear physicist Clément Tibère, who has supposedly killed but in truth kidnapped by the Soviets some sixteen years ago. That turns out to be quite true, but Tibère’s not at all happy for his unasked for rescue. It’s not that he’s much of a believer in the communist cause as interpreted by Soviet Russia, he’s just convinced that the KGB’s going to find and kill him sooner or later, and he rather likes being not dead.

His scepticism is certainly not unfounded, for the British spies, in classically cynical fashion, are really not at all interested in his well-being. They only want some information about who the Soviet spies among their own nuclear physicists are. Tibère’s just meant to tell them and then go on his merry way, with a bit of money and without any promises of protection as his prize. Eventually, after some threats and a bit of torture, Tibère gives the British what they want, and they do indeed lift hardly a finger to at least get the man out of London alive. Fortunately – it would be a short film otherwise – Tibère did work for allied intelligence during World War II, and so does know some tradecraft, managing to evade the KGB agents who are quickly on his trail, at least for a time. He decides that if he’s going to be killed anyway, he might as well be killed at home in France, and proceeds to make his way there. Perhaps he’s even going to find a way to save his life in the end?

Claude Pinoteau’s Le Silencieux belongs to the earnest kind of spy film, far from James Bond and Eurospy shenanigans, aiming for a serious treatment of espionage, and demonstrating quite a bit of the melancholy and philosophical thought in the existentialist manner that dwell on this branch of the spy movie tree.

Of course, being a serious film made in a very serious manner, I can’t help but nitpick a little at one of its central conceits, namely, that MI5 would just set Tibère loose after squeezing a small, if important, amount of information out of him. I’m not suggesting they’d have too many ethical concerns here to let him go to his doom, but given that Tibère has been part of the Soviet nuclear program for sixteen years, seems to have been trusted enough to be taken to the West, and is a frigging nuclear physicist, you’d think they’d find other informational and practical uses for him. But then we wouldn’t have a film whose main thrust is showing Ventura making his unsmiling way through Europe, chased by spies through various gritty suspense and low-key action sequences, so I do understand the actual reason for this ever so slight oversight.

Said suspense and action sequences are fine enough: nobody would ever confuse Pinoteau with John Frankenheimer, but he shows a more than decent understanding of the creation of a fictional space that feels as if characters were actually moving through real spaces which is so important for scenes of chase and evasion. The director also makes effective use of urban as well as – rather attractive – rural locations, showing Ventura’s character isolated and alone, with the stiff back of somebody hunted, either dwarfed by empty spaces or caged in by people and architecture. In a clever move, the film doesn’t put any efforts into individualizing or characterising Tibère’s hunters, adding a paranoid layer by keeping them basically faceless and utterly impersonal.

The film’s also rather effective in the quieter moments when Tibère slowly and gravely re-discovers a half-buried past he had to work hard to forget once he found himself in the USSR. That Ventura is as utterly convincing in these scenes as he is running for his life hardly needs mention.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: When 400,000 men couldn't get home, home came for them.

Dunkirk (2017): Of the couple of reviews that don’t heap praise on Christopher Nolan’s somewhat different war film – a genre that’s not generally about retreat even if it is set against war as such – the ones that don’t complain about its lack of diversity - which I understand but personally don’t find relevant as a criterion for the quality of a film as a film - criticize its sentimentality. That one, I really don’t get, for if the film has one stark and obvious virtue to me apart from an incredible realization on a technical level, it is how much it avoids sentimentality in its treatment of material that could all too easily fall into that trap. Instead, it explores the humanity of defeat and humanity in defeat in a manner I find deeply compassionate, using Nolan’s huge technical acumen to get to a very human core of emotions the characters don’t ever precisely state because they cannot be precisely stated but only demonstrated. Which the film does as well as any film I’d care to mention.

Alice in Earnestland (2014): Where I find the core of Nolan’s film pretty easy to grasp and understand, I have a bit more trouble with Ahn Gook-jin’s dark comedy. It does fit nicely into the large number of contemporary South Korean films about class divisions and the shittiness of being one of the working poor, but having watched it, I’m not terribly sure what it is trying to say about this. The quirky structure it shares with many a film from Korea doesn’t make an attempt to understand what this one’s actually about on more than a plot level more difficult too. Some of the film’s weirdness and humour is certainly attractive, and some of it unattractive in a highly entertaining way bordering on splatstick (not to be confused with slapstick); I’m just not confident it adds up to much beyond that.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940): And here’s the point where I unmask as a total barbarian, for I do not prefer Ernst Lubitsch’s original version of the “a couple who hate each other in real life are unknowingly in love in letters” set-up to its later versions. It’s not just because I would have preferred the later movies’ emphasis on the romantic parts of the tale (though I certainly would) in this first version, too, I also don’t find the depiction of the social aquarium of the titular shop it puts in the romance’s place all that riveting. Of course, there are moments where the film delights with precise insight and a good joke or three, but there’s also a lot of restating of things the film has said just a couple of scenes before, and some truly obnoxious character work by William Tracy. Add to that the tragic fact that I’m not actually very fond of James Stewart in this stage of his career, and you might understand why I don’t find this classic all that classic.