Sunday, January 31, 2021

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

For the sequel to a commercially (and even critically) successful superhero blockbuster, this is one strange movie. I, at least, would not have expected the film to not just take place in 1984 but actually emulate some of the tone and structure of late 70’s/early 80’s superhero films  (the few there were at the time).

It’s not exactly a tone I’m particularly fond of, and at first the film does feel somewhat awkward - also thanks to the seeming repetition of the only larger flaw of the first film, taking ages to actually get going (later more on that) – but Jenkins is actually going somewhere with the film’s somewhat peculiar tone between faux-naïf and fairy-tale (which does feel a lot like reading “golden age” comics, minus the bloodthirst of those venerable books of often dubious quality) on a thematic level. It is indeed difficult to imagine a big mainstream film renouncing this bluntly and heavily the values (ha!) of the 80s in the West that eventually brought us neoliberalism and a world of other hurt and doing it in any different tone. Pretending to be harmless and a bit goofy is still a useful disguise for a bit of subversion, apparently, even if one is about as subtle about it as a sledgehammer.

Once the film has hit its stride, and a viewer has adapted to the tone (if one doesn’t, one won’t have any joy with this one, I suspect) it actually becomes quite a lot of fun, with action scenes that share the rest of the film’s complete disinterest in pretending to be naturalistic and instead increasingly live in a space of their own imagination. There’s a cheesy and deeply romantic sense of wonder on display in some of the slower moments in between the blockbuster business, Jenkins milking the tone she has decided upon to wonderful effect, turning what to some critics seems to read as “overindulgent” or just plain silly cliché into pure charm driven by the kind of intelligence that doesn’t need to show off in my eyes.

The performances are broad and big in a manner perfectly appropriate to the surroundings, with Gadot still being pretty much a case of perfect casting, Chris Pine giving the impression of genuinely enjoying playing the second fiddle most other films would have their female leads be, and Pedro Pascal repeatedly hitting just the right spot where caricature and real person meet. The only of the main players I wasn’t particularly fond of was Kristen Wiig, but I suspect her ever mumbling, curiously apathetic acting style is simply so little to my taste, I couldn’t say if the performance is any good on a more objective level or not.

On the surface, the film’s plotting can feel rather messy – particularly in a film world where the scripting ideal seems to be of film as a relentless clockwork automaton – but that’s less an actual weakness (alright, the film really could have lost the prologue on Themyscira) than a sign of a film that’s really trying to do justice to quite a few ideas and needs to take some time to do so. And make no mistake, while the presentation here is often charmingly goofy, the script by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham is neither goofy nor stupid – it’s just not afraid to express its bigger ideas through cheesy dialogue and broad tropes, losing the sort of over-earnest man-face that pushed something like The Joker (aka “ranting arsehole in front of bad versions of all of the director’s favourite Scorsese scenes”) into being a critical darling but winning my heart in the process. Also having a fucking heart itself, which is of course isn’t allowed in proper art.

WW84 is really quite the movie, certainly not an attempt to make the first movie again, but bigger, but the product of filmmakers genuinely exploring the space the superhero genre affords them. That this sort of thing does exist can only be good for what looks to still be the dominant genre of huge Hollywood movies for at least the next half decade to come.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Late night bites.

Ten Minutes to Midnight (2020): Erik Bloomquist’s movie is an interesting bit of mainstream feminist indie horror with Caroline Williams as an aging late night radio DJ to be surprise replaced with a younger model spending her last night on the job – possibly – turning into a vampire. I say possibly, because the film really plays out like a seventy minute or so dream sequence in which Williams’s character loses it, falls into shitty memories, and tries to react to the horrors inflicted on women in the public who dare to get older. For about forty minutes or so, I found this combination of consciously weird performances by everyone not Williams, somewhat disgusted social criticism and dream-like imagery rather interesting; the final half hour turned into a bit of a chore to watch because dream imagery and budget surrealism will take most films only so far, and where an escalation, a deepening or a resolution were needed, the film really only reiterated.

Milford Graves Full Mantis (2018): This documentary by Jake Meginsky and Neil Young (not that Neil Young, alas, even though that would be fantastic) is an exemplary documentary about the great free jazz percussionist Milford Graves, using long monologues of its subject about his philosophy, ideas about music and the world, and music and the heart, as well as the universe, the body and music, shots of Graves’s fantastic garden and other documentary material to make the intellectual and musical world of the man palpable, understanding and explaining him through his ideas (some of which sound highly eccentric, but also make total sense for Graves), his body and his musical practice rather than the historical approach most music documentaries use. Which seems perfectly appropriate to the man’s body of work, and free music as a whole.

Thus the documentary achieves something very rare: deepening the understanding of music that isn’t always easy to understand and letting the viewer leave with the feeling of having a much better grip on what man and music are about without editorializing for a second.

Mirage (1990): Visually and as a mood piece, Bill Crain’s desert-set slasher is a true hidden gem, turning the wide open spaces of the desert into a cold, claustrophobic nightmare land with the best of them, using the shape of the black truck of the killer haunting it and stalking the characters to greatest effect.

On the script level, the film does take a bit too long to get going, attempting somewhat deeper characterisation than typical of the genre, but suffering from an inability to make the characters actually interesting as well as from a mostly indifferent cast that, apart from final girl Jennifer McAllister, barely seem to make it through their lines.

Of course, one doesn’t really go into a slasher for interesting characters, and the mood here’s so strong, I found myself not caring.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Look out, it’s a book recommendation!

The much vaunted historical Sword & Sorcery/Cthulhu Mythos tales featuring Simon of Gitta by Richard L. Tierney have long been out of print in any affordable form, at least as far as I know.

In December, Pickman’s Press has quietly published a new compilation of the stories titled “Sorcery Against Caesar” in paperback as well as eBook format, filling quite a hole for someone of my interests. I haven’t read the book yet, so this really is just a notice for anyone reading this who also had this particular gap in their collection.

Have a handy link.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

In short: Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

New York in the 1950s. Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), the mentor of Tourette’s Syndrome suffering detective Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is murdered while trying to blackmail someone with quite a bit of clout for money.

Lionel, as brilliant as he is strange, does his best to find the killer, and stumbles into a maze of complicated relations (between people and between communities), conspiracies, lies, dangerous truths and dark secrets of the past.

Edward Norton’s very free adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel has suffered quite the critical drubbing. On one hand, I do understand: visually and stylistically, Norton’s not much of a director, tending to the most conservative and often bland approach of framing any given scene with pacing to match; on the script level, he makes the decision to transfer a very highly regarded (and pretty damn brilliant) book into a historical past none of the original’s plot was actually about. Norton clearly prefers things slow and there’s a labyrinthine quality to his approach to the mystery genre that’ll get into quite a few people’s craw.

For me, this labyrinthine quality is rather one of the film’s strengths, an approach perfectly fitting to the traditional noir private detective in the Chandler tradition (and Essrog as a character fits that tradition wonderfully, too), the film’s way of portraying truth as it plays out in real life between actual people as something that’s much more complex than truth as a philosophical abstraction. I’m also very happy with the movie as a left-wing critique of elements of US culture. Because the reason for Norton’s shifting of the film’s setting back into the 50s is so he can do something like Chinatown for New York, though a Chinatown that’s not nihilist and pessimistic to its core but hopeful to a fault. But, as I’m growing older, I’ve found myself being pretty okay with films that do at least dare to dream that injustices might be made just and the people doing that deserve a happily ever after (or at least until the credits run).

Norton’s script may have its eccentricities, but I found myself drawn into the world it creates and the character that populate this world, going through those moments that don’t quite seem to make sense as anything but noir pastiche the same way you go through a Chandler plot, accepting the messiness because whodunnit really never was the point of the endeavour at all. The pacing, it turns out, isn’t actually as slow as it seems once you get into that spirit, either, rather the proper way to talk about a world and the relations of people in that world.

On the acting side, this is simple great stuff, Norton overacting with great intelligence (and a bit of vanity, to be sure), Gugu Mbatha-Raw adding another impressive outing to a career that seems to become rather full of impressive work in interesting films, Alec Baldwin doing a note perfect horrible “Great Man”, and the rest of the gang acting in style.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Warning: I’m going to spoil one of the very last scenes, because only a saint could not!

It looks like just another mission of mortal danger for the crew of a B-17 during World War II. However, once a last minute guest calling herself Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), coming complete with a British accent and carrying a mysterious package, arrives, things become rather wild, and not just because all the men on board a rampant misogynists whose mouths most guys I know would probably apply bleach to. Our somewhat mysterious protagonist is accidentally locked into a gun emplacement for a while, where she discovers the plane isn’t just in danger from Japanese airplanes, but also from an actual, plane-munching Gremlin.

After that, a series of increasingly idiotic plot twists begins, heroic action heroine deeds are committed, and nothing makes much sense.

For its first fifteen minutes or so, Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud actually seems to be a neatly filmed, low-scale tale of individual horror, but things soon explode into a series of plot twists so increasingly outlandish, nobody involved can have meant most of the script seriously. It’s Liang’s own fault too, for she co-wrote with the never subtle and usually underwhelming Max Landis.

So it’s really important to go into this one with the right mind-set, perhaps a little (or a lot) drunk, accepting this as the kind of preposterous low budget action movie with horror elements it’s clearly meant to be. Once I got into the proper mindset (and had recovered from the whiplash), I actually rather enjoyed myself a lot here. Liang uses her series of improbable but neatly conceived set pieces in combination with middling special effects for the kind of loud and kinetic effect you know and love (or if you’re one of those people, loathe), from things like the Fast and Furious films. The film’s really hitting the spot for preposterous nonsense action.

Moretz seems to enjoy playing the improbable badass a lot, too, throwing herself into the job physically, while always pretending the emotional beats make any actual sense (they don’t). If ever everything unfortunate happens to that woman’s mainstream movie career, she’ll have no problem dominating direct to home video action movies.

Shadow in the Cloud also is an explicitly feminist movie, in a way that doesn’t work well as any kind of reasonable argument for equality (which would be absurd in the context of the plot), but is really a series of “fuck yeah, women” asides that are at once deeply silly and deeply likeable, perfectly keeping in the action movie tradition the director is working in. So this is indeed a film in which what amounts to the male main character (calling him a “lead” would really go much too far) spends most of his on-screen time doing little except for holding a baby (don’t ask) while the female lead (or really, only actual lead character that isn’t a gremlin) gets to do all the cool stuff.

This all culminates in a climax in which Moretz has an escalating melee fight with the (bad) CGI gremlin, and, after winning, swaggers towards the surviving cast, and proceeds to grab the baby and breastfeed it on screen. You really got to see it to believe it, but if you’re like me, that’s the sort of absurd directorial posturing you’ll actually enjoy seeing.

As any kind of argument for feminism, this sort of stuff (and really anything else the film has to say about the matter) is of course completely useless, and probably counter-productive towards convincing the needlessly serious who somehow still haven’t been convinced. Fortunately, I don’t believe the film is trying to make some serious argument meant to convince anybody of the merits of feminism. There should, after all, really be no need for any convincing there anymore, that train having taken everyone on board worth talking to already, one suspects, and so Shadow in the Cloud proceeds to let is action heroine do what the male versions of that type have done for decades: do preposterous, fun things in an absurd yet awesome manner.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

In short: Bangkok 13 Muang Kon Tai (2016)

Ever since she had a ghostly encounter as a little girl, Pim (unfortunately, I haven’t found a useable cast list anywhere, so no actors this time, I’m afraid, and I’m not so sure the subtitles transcribe the character names properly, either) has been able to see ghosts and spirits. They don’t seem to have actively bothered her until now, so there’s that, at least. This is going to change soon, though, for her friend Koi has helped her get an assistant job in the ghost hunting TV show of terrible showman Ryo. This season, they are doing the rounds of Bangkok’s most haunted places. Some of them might even be connected to Pim’s backstory.

Once Ryo realizes that Pim, unlike him, can actually see ghosts, he’s pushing her to the fore with sweet talk and a bit of money, looking for the most dramatic angle possible with any of the hauntings. And what’s more dramatic than crew members actually getting attacked by ghosts that are much more interested in the living when someone's around to see them?

Dulyasit Niyomgul’s Bangkok 13 is not a film that’s going to make anyone want to rewrite the books on Thai horror. Its structure, packing thirteen haunted locations (and a bonus haunting at Pim’s home) into a ninety minute runtime makes it difficult to go for anything more with the ghosts and spirits than short spurts of well-worn Thai horror tropes, mostly represented by digital special effects. Theses elements are packed particularly tightly, too, because the film does spend more time on characterisation than you’d expect, giving Pim a proper character arc (as well as an horror movie bullshit ending fate) in which she learns a valuable lesson about how to treat ghosts the proper Buddhist way, while also adding quite a few snarky asides about the immorality of the TV business.

Now, I don’t want to complain about a film clearly made on a low budget trying to give us actual characterisation, a moral and a whole host of ghosts, but cutting the thirteen haunted places to six or seven would probably have made these places feel much more meaningful and would have afforded the film time to make its ghost spookier.

Still, having said that, Bangkok 13 is well worth a watch. You don’t get to see actual Thai ghost hunting shows in the West, after all, so racing through some empty buildings in Bangkok is not without interest when you’re not from around there. And even though the plot and Pim’s arc aren’t exactly deep, they do turn this into something at least a bit involved for the willing viewer.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Hanging Woman (1973)

Original title: La orgía de los muertos

Sometime in what I assume to be the late 19th Century. Globe-trotting man of action Serge Chekov (Stelvio Rosi) comes to a small town in backlot Europe for the reading of the will of his recently deceased uncle. What he initially encounters in the village are a population with a hysterical fear of the night, and the corpse of a woman hanging from a tree in front of the graveyard.

The corpse turns out to be his cousin Mary (Aurora de Alba). As Serge soon learns at the reading of the will, Mary would have been his co-inheritor of dear uncle’s wealth, as well his new ward. It’s a bit of an awkward situation, but even the lovingly rude inspector called from the next town over (Pasquale Basile) can’t hang anything on the newcomer, particularly once it turns out that Mary hasn’t actually hanged herself but died of heart failure – out of fright – only to be tossed up the tree later.

This is only the beginning of Serge’s troubles, for his late uncle’s household is a peculiar one: there’s dear uncle’s wife Nadia (Maria Pia Conte), a self-declared black magician who has inherited nothing of use to her (land without serfs, she complains), and seduces Serge as quickly as possible for better prospects; a butler (Carlos Quiney) with anger issues that don’t hold up against our hero’s two-fistedness; Professor Leon Droila (Gérard Tichy), a scientist whose experiments concerning the electrical energies dissolving in death the uncle financed, and who now fears to lose his financing as well as his cellar lab in uncle’s mansion; and Droila’s lovely daughter Doris (Dyanik Zurakowska), obvious good girl love interest. With this cast of characters – also including the great Paul Naschy hanging around the borders of the plot as a necrophiliac grave digger - it’s no surprise that Serge soon has to fight off murderous attacks, does not fight off seductions, sits in on a seances, romances Doris and solves the mysteries surrounding his uncle’s death.

So it’s pretty useful for the film that Serge is a moustachioed Italian 70s macho who is as good at punching people – living and dead – than he is at baring his chest; it’s also a very nice change for a gothic horror movie to have a protagonist so lively, he’d feel right at home in a Eurospy movie instead of the usual stiff-necked pieces of wood who tend to be the least interesting bits of their respective movies. While I never managed to actually like the guy (machismo this large is not one of my favourite character traits, and I’m immune to bared male chests), he’s certainly highly entertaining to watch even when he’s just having a conversation, exuding nervous energy.

I just called José Luis Merino’s The Hanging Woman a gothic horror movie, but apart from that, it is also a macabre mystery whose mystery solving-process is driven much more by Serge’s two-fistedness than too much clever ratiocination. Which isn’t a complaint in a film with as much pulp energy as this one displays.

The pretty wild genre mix works very well for the film in particular because Merino displays a hand for all the genres and tropes he has packed in here. The early scenes of gothic horror as well as the obligatory séance are wonderfully creepy and claustrophobic (with a picturesque graveyard featuring as something as a bonus), the action scenes of Serge doing his Serge stuff are as punchy as they are supposed to be, and the sleaze elements are enhanced by some choice early 70s psychedelia. Who, after all, wouldn’t want the film’s main sex scene to consist of Nadia and Serge rotating on a bed intercut with Naschy’s Igor zooming in on one of his dead sex partners? Well, please don’t answer that one in the comments, come to think of it.

Speaking of sleaze, another high point of the film is the scene in which Nadia dresses up as a corpse to seduce Igor (the film never gets around to telling us what she actually wants from him there), only to be rejected as way too alive for the man’s tastes when she starts moaning a little. Naschy, as Naschy did, really seems to get into this sort of thing, too, providing this creepy dude with feverish intensity. But then, this is one of those sort of gothics where really everyone in the cast seems to enjoy going all out – even Zurakowska’s good girl is not as boring as those usually are, actress and script giving her at least some backbone.

All, this – and some sweet undead make-up – adds up to a film bound to entertain anyone even vaguely interested in 70s European cult cinema and its wild and woolly ways. The Hanging Woman is a keeper.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Like a sudden, terrifying scream… Suspense shatters the Screen!

Foreign Intrigue (1956): Well, suspense certainly didn’t shatter my screen when watching Robert Mitchum’s European vacation as directed by Sheldon Reynolds, what with the total absence of suspense from the film. This certainly wants to be a Hitchcockian or Third Man style type of film, showing Mitchum travelling all over Europe to find out the secret of his deceased employer, but in practice, this is way too comfy an affair for that. Mitchum strolls through Europe amiably, kissing the girls and sometimes punching the guys, but Sheldon never manages to build up much actual suspense. From time to time, the director hits on an atmospheric shot or two, but the script is never bothering with making the mystery Mitchum chases actually interesting, leading to a slow and comfy kind of Eastman Colour chase. For certain moods, there’s something to be said for a leisurely amble, of course, just don’t expect much of an actual movie going in.

Mulan (2020): Of course, there’s slow and kinda likeably boring like that old Mitchum vehicle, and then there’s this remake of the Disney animation based on the Chinese tale as directed by Niki Caro. It’s slow, lacking in charm and visual imagination and does nothing better, or even just as well, as even a proper Chinese, Taiwanese or Hong Kong wuxia from the third line of that genre (let’s not even speak of the good ones), wasting Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li, and so on and so forth on things they could do in their sleep.

This is also a good example that simply throwing money at your blockbuster doesn’t necessarily make it watchable. Even in the highly commercial arena of the big loud film for international audiences, you need creative vision. If you don’t have that, you get a very loud version of what my brain does when my feet are falling asleep, or, as Disney called it, Mulan.

Congo (1995): Let’s not end this trilogy of films of dubious quality on a positive note this time around. Instead, let’s talk about Frank Marshall’s supposed love letter to the classic adventure movie and its serial siblings based on the insufferable Michael Crichton. It’s got a talking ape in it, and I’m half convinced it was also written by one (sorry to all talented writing gorillas out there). What it doesn’t have is dramatic tension, a script that’s more than a long string of nonsense, action sequences worth their name, or any enjoyment factor. I do appreciate that somebody involved in the production at some point (this is one of those films with a million script versions by dozens of writers, none of whom is in the credits, because US unions are weird about crediting the people doing the actual work) tried to update some classic adventure tropes, giving us Ernie Hudson as a tough and at least semi-competent leader, and Laura Linney getting to be a two-fisted adventurer.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is still terrible, featuring mawkish sentimentality next to badly staged action sequences and dialogue I can only ascribe to a gorilla.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

In short: The Craft: Legacy (2020)

As a middle-aged guy from Germany, I’m really not part of this film’s core audience of woke teenage girls, so take what I have to say about it with a grain of salt, if you are. Having uttered that warning, I have to say that I found the film to be a frustrating experience, not because of the age and gender gap, but because of structural concerns that weaken the film decidedly.

On the one hand, Zoe Lister-Jones’s film has a much better idea of what it thinks about feminism and the life of young women today than the original The Craft (of which it turns out to be one of those weird sequels that want to work as a remake at the same time) ever had. It has a good grip on how to say it too, turning these ideas into a narrative well enough (and certainly well supported by the young lead actresses around Cailee Spaeny).

However, while doing this, the film does little to nothing to really set up the stakes for its final act, vaguely hand-waving important motivations and connections between characters in favour of the most superficial thing it can come up with, never even seeming to attempt to suggest that anyone is actually in danger of losing the fight against David Duchovny’s evil magic-stealing patriarch (or is he supposed to be an actual demon?), or even having to fight very hard. That’s not terribly helpful for the film’s metaphorical level, either, suggesting you can resolve huge societal problems in two or three minutes without anyone having to pay any price for it (dudes writing books about “hallowed masculinity” who are possibly demons really don’t count here). There’s something bloodless and bland about too much of the film too, magic never actually feeling dangerous or difficult to control, or a terribly interesting thing, frankly. Witches would have it easy if not for the easily dispatched David Duchovnys of this world, apparently, which is a nice thought, but not one that makes for a particularly gripping movie. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

When a Stranger Calls Back (1993)

Warning: I am going to spoil some details about the killer, because only a saint couldn’t!

Having survived the strange attack of a serial killer during a babysitting gig during which the children she was watching disappeared without a trace, Julia (Jill Schoelen) is still suffering from the psychological fallout five years later.

She’s in college now, after some extensive stays in mental hospitals, but the poor kid still can’t catch a break. She is convinced that somebody, perhaps the killer from the night five years ago, is targeting her by breaking into her apartment and making little changes to her living space only somebody with the PTSD-born need to control her environment like she has would notice. Eventually, Julia is going to the police, but the (inevitably male) detectives are all too willing to laugh her off as crazy.

Fortunately, they have to call in counsellor Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), too. And Jill, having survived her own peculiar serial killer in the original When a Stranger Calls, knows a little about trauma and weird killers and is willing to believe Julia. She calls still-retired cop turned private eye and vigilante for money John Clifford (Charles Durning) for help, and together, they might just solve this increasingly strange case.

Fred Walton’s made for Showtime sequel to his classic When a Stranger Calls is a much weirder film than you’d expect from a TV movie serial killer sequel. It starts out with a wonderfully tense cold open that builds an incredible amount of tension out of one and a half performances, a couple of rooms, and most importantly a door, artfully creating a sense of suspense and of dread out of this minimalist set-up that suggests Walton is thriving on the limited funds a TV gig offers rather than suffering from it.

After, that, once we’ve witnessed Julia’s first ordeal, the film makes one of its many shifts in tone and genre, leaving the thriller for a stay in the land of TV PTSD melodrama, only to leave that place for a bit of slow police procedural action, which it in turn will leave for the realm of the weird-ass thriller, where retired cops are saying stuff like “This is gonna sound crazy, but…we’re looking for a ventriloquist!”. It’s late period CSI bizarre, at the very least.

Being the kind of viewer I am, it’s that last part of the film I found most interesting, even though the cold open is certainly its objectively best part (indeed, keeping with the tradition of the first movie, that one’s so good, the film would have been worth wading through the police procedural bits for it alone). I am constitutionally bound never to even try and resist when a film decides the best direction to take when it is revealing the style and methods of its serial killer is to make him a ventriloquist. A ventriloquist who is working strip joints with the sort of mock-existentialist act that’s actively setting parts of his audience on the run, at that. Even better/more bizarre (which is pretty much the same thing in this context), he’ll also turn out to be a master at camouflaging body paint, becoming your wall with the best of ‘em. That, as well as a pretty great climax in which Carol Kane (well, her stunt double) goes all Buffy on the guy’s behind before Durning kills a wall, is more than enough to endear any movie to me.

Sure, I could have lived with less of the police procedural business (it just isn’t my genre on most days), but even that is made tolerable by Durning’s and Schoelen’s capable and likeable performances and the off-beat air Kane brings to her role, with all the slightly atypical body language and line delivery most other police procedurals alas lack.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

In short: Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight (2020)

Original title: W lesie dzis nie zasnie nikt

It’s time for another round in the eternal fight between teenagers and cellar dwelling backwoods mutants. In Bartosz M. Kowalski’s Polish version of the tale, the teens are part of a techno-addict offline hiking camp, an idea the film doesn’t use for anything but to explain the absence of cell phones, though why someone leading a three day hike with a group of teens wouldn’t still have some way to contact the outside world is kept unexplained. The mutants are huge, and icky, smell bad and have just escaped their mum’s cellar. A bit of the old ultra-violence, Polish style, ensues.

While it’s more a competently made horror film than a deeply exciting one, Nobody Sleeps is at the very least entertaining throughout. It’s decently paced and effectively written, which is quite a bit more than most filmmakers believe they can get away with when making another backwoods slasher.

But then, there are a couple of elements here not completely typical for this sub-genre. Kowalski is pretty good at shifting the film’s tone repeatedly, and uses this to go from satire on the state of Poland (he doesn’t seem impressed), to bread and butter backwoods slasher stuff, to that very peculiar style of dark humour you often encounter in Polish films, and back again.

The film also has the interesting habit of dragging its teen characters back from being one note slasher movie clichés a scene or two before it kills them off, providing the young actors with a little bit to get their teeth in, and giving the curious impression of actually liking its characters (not a thing slashers do very often) yet still showing no compunction against getting rid of them with a nasty gore gag or two.

It’s certainly a mixture that does keep a viewer on their toes.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

May the Devil Take You: Chapter 2 (2020)

Original title: Sebelum Iblis Menjemput: Ayat Dua

aka May the Devil Take You Too

Two years after the demonic family massacre fun of the first film, Alfie (Chelsea Islan) is keeping the mental demons of the past at bay with pills and attitude, taking care of her step sister Nara (Hidijah Shahab) despite things being exceedingly difficult emotionally, psychologically and financially for the two.

Time doesn’t get a chance to provide further healing, because a group of masked people knock them both out and kidnap them (Alfie’s putting up quite the fight, obviously). When Alfie wakes up again, she finds herself in a dilapidated former orphanage in the country. Apparently, hers and Nara’s kidnapping is the best way a group of young women and men in their twenties could come up with to ask her for help, because who’s talking to people anymore, right? You see, the group grew up together in this orphanage. Quite happily, even, until the wife of orphanage head Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) died and he became an abusive demon worshipper planning to sacrifice them, as you do. The kids did manage to save themselves by burning him alive, but he cursed them in the process. It looks as if that curse has really begun to hit hard the last couple of months.

Fortunately, the group have found a solution to lift the curse. They just need someone who has fought off demons before to read a spell from Lesmana’s old grimoire, and the thing should be done. And who just happened to be in the news a couple of years ago with a wild story about demons? Despite everything, Alfie eventually does agree to help out the nitwits thinking a kidnapping to be the proper way to ask for help, but her reading of the spell doesn’t lift the curse, and instead starts another night of horror. Well, at least Alfie has some practice in these things now.

It is difficult not to compare May the Devil 2 to director/writer Timo Tjahjanto’s former filmmaking partner Kimo Stamboel’s sort-of remake of Queen of Black Magic. After all, they both take place in an orphanage and concern the demonic misadventures of its former abused inhabitants. However, the film at hand feels somewhat nicer (if you can use that word for something with so much gore and goop as this one has), less interested in its horrors as a metaphor for cycles of abuse and more in making something for an audience to have a loud and creepy good time with; also one with far fewer centipedes, I can happily report. There’s still some depth to the film’s treatment of traumatic childhoods and its consequences, but that’s not really its point. To my eyes, both approaches to horror are perfectly valid, and I’m happy to have two films that could have been carbon copies of each other turn out so differently.

In style and tone, this one’s, like the first May the Devil Take You - which I never wrote up for reasons lost to time and the bad memory of a middle-aged guy, but which I enjoyed quite a bit – clearly made with at least one eye on the first two Evil Dead movies. A couple of moments directly quote Raimi’s films, quite a few more simple suggest the influence, and there’s quite a bit in Tjahjanto’s wild and wildly creative camera work hinting at that influence as well. However, the director then goes and mixes these by now classic US horror film moves with monsters and concepts about devil worship very specifically Indonesian, using Raimi’s early style to tell a story the US director could never have told this exact way. It’s a great example of how an artist can use their influences to build their own thing out of them, and keeps Tjahjanto far away from any accusation of using his clearly encyclopaedic knowledge of the Western horror tradition for mere copyism. Which, don’t get me wrong, can lead to perfectly fine films too, particularly when it’s non-Western directors copying Western ones (the other way round, things often become rather embarrassing).

While I’m still comparing, I do prefer Alfie quite a bit to Ash, what with her being much less of an asshole, and actively trying to protect the people around her and not just herself. Islan’s performance manages to make her courageous in the better meaning of the word (as in, a person fighting through her fear instead of one not having any), and she’s great at suggesting how Alfie uses her rough attitude as a survival mechanism.

There are obviously some plot problems here – mainly, why don’t the idiots ask before they kidnap and why do they dump Nara in the haunted house too? – but watching May the Devil Take You 2, I found myself much more interested in the next weird transformation or bloody mess the film would come up with than poking at its script.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

In short: Vabank II, czyli riposta (1985)

aka Point of No Return

Warsaw, 1936. After two years of jail time, ex-bank owner and still scumbag Kramer (Leonard Pietraszak) escapes with the help of former prison mate Edek Sztyc (Bronislaw Wroclawski) and his associates. He still has a nice Swiss bank account to pay for this sort of thing, it turns out. While Sztyc would really rather make his way to Switzerland with Kramer as quickly as possible, his new employer won’t leave Poland until he has taken his revenge on safe cracker and criminal mastermind Henryk Kwinto (Jan Machulski), who tricked him into prison in the first movie.

Kwinto has actually retired now and moved to the country with Marta (Ewa Szykulska) and her little daughter, but when Kramer and his associates begin trying to kill him and his old associates – who have now gone into the movie business – something has to be done. That this something will eventually turn into a rather complicated yet fun plot to thwart Kramer shouldn’t surprise anyone.

I don’t love the second Vabank movie – again directed by Juliusz Machulski and bringing back the complete main cast of the first film - quite as much as the first one. That’s mostly a question of pacing here: despite actually being ten minutes or so shorter Vabank II feels quite a bit slower and includes, mostly in its first half, a couple scenes that simply slow things down too much for my taste. Particularly the black face (yeah, I don’t know either) musical number with the title song performed by Jacek Chmielnik seems to be completely useless to the film and could be excised for pace as well as good taste, but generally, the film does simply take a bit too long to get going.

However, once it does, Vabank II does come into its own rather well. This is not one of those sequels that simply try to copy the first movie but really stands in dialogue with it, mirroring and commenting on the first film but going its own way when it wants and needs to. The cast is still very fun to watch, and Kwinto’s eventual plot is still constructed with wit and a light hand, with funny and clever little ideas coming up with nice regularity. The only people who die here are still professional killers, everyone else gets their comeuppance in other, perfectly appropriate ways, and things wrap up with a grin by middle-aged men who aren’t arseholes. The film even takes care to give its characters an actual happy end, which isn’t that easy in a movie set in Poland this close to the Nazi invasion, but which I appreciated quite a bit.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Pleasing terrors

One of the surprise ray of lights in the (nameless) void of last year was the decision of great M.R. James, H.G. Wells and so on performer Robert Lloyd Parry to do a nearly weekly live stream of "rehearsed readings" streamed and archived (for those of us who always miss streams) on his YouTube channel, making me rather happy in the process.

These are pleasantly low tech affairs done by a master, so anyone interested in late Victorian/Edwardian ghost stories, science fiction, and weird fiction really should take a look at what Mister Lloyd Parry has been doing (and perhaps put some money his way, too, if available).

I'll embed two readings here, but there's so much more available.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

In short: Resurrection (1999)

Homicide detective John Prudhomme (Christopher Lambert), once a Cajun working in New Orleans (Cajun accents are like French Canadian ones, right?), has been working in Chicago (mostly portrayed by Toronto) for some time now. His pretty abrasive character caused by the usual dead kid trauma leaves the man rather unloved by his peers. Only his long-suffering partner Hollinsworth (Leland Orser) takes to him. Everybody has to agree, though, that John’s a hell of a detective. So it’s not a big surprise that it’s him and Hollinsworth who’ll take the lead on a particularly nasty series of serial killings, the sort of combination of mutilations and murder that’ll leave even more stable men than our protagonist disturbed.

Eventually, it’ll turn out the killer is building his own personal Jesus out of stolen body parts, in hopes of achieving the second coming via serial killing. I’m not sure from which part of the bible he’s taken that idea.

Following the success of their first work together in Highlander, both director Russell Mulcahy and his lead Christopher Lambert did have rather complicated careers, often missing the luck more than the ability to catch lightning in a bottle again. In 1999, they re-teamed for this shameless Seven rip-off that rethinks Fincher’s original as an exploitation movie - ickier and bloodier, and with more cop movie clichés. The story was apparently co-written by Lambert, so we know who to blame here.

But seriously, while the moments when the film is trying to ape Seven but with less intelligence and style can become a bit much, this is actually one of the more watchable Seven-alikes. In part, that’s thanks to Mulcahy, who may be quite a few years away from his stylish prime, but still knows how to keep a film flowing very nicely indeed. And while the film is certainly rather stupid, it’s not one that ever pretends to be terribly intelligent; rather it is using its clichés honestly, simply trying to provide an audience with a good time full of mutilated bodies and Lambert staring hauntedly in the distance. Works for me.

From time to time, the film does provide something more: scenes like the discovery of the killer’s nearly finished rotting Jesus are milked for as much gross-out as you can get away with while still keeping an R-rating (there’s a rumoured harder cut, but nobody outside of the filmmakers seems to have seen it), and the climax contains a bit of baby juggling you really got to see to believe. Plus, does Seven have a pretty peculiar cameo of David Cronenberg as the hero’s priest?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Steel and Lace (1991)

Warning: there will be spoilers all over, but that’s okay, the film’s not making terribly much sense anyway!

When, after years of court sessions, the lies of his accomplice cronies help acquit Daniel Emerson (Michael Cerveris) of the rape of classical pianist Gaily Morton (Clare Wren) he did indeed commit, she kills herself by jumping from the roof of the court building.

Years later, Daniel and co have turned being human garbage into their actual professions, working as developers who still do their own thugging. So nary a teardrop will fall from the audience when these charming gentlemen are killed off – going by the sequence in which they committed perjury in Gaily’s case, no less – by a very interesting woman wearing many different faces, kitted out with useful tools like a giant drill in the middle of her chest. Underneath said faces is that of Gaily, though, for her clearly very talented and equally crazy brother Albert (Bruce Davison) has built a robot based on her, or turned her corpse into a cyborg, or something.

While that’s going on, the film also spends time with former courtroom artist turned fine artist Alison (Stacy Haiduk), who is revisiting some of her old courtroom drawings for a “then and now” project. She also happens to be the ex-girlfriend of the cop trying to solve the murders, one “Clippy” (don’t call him Clippy) Dunn (David Naughton), so she gets absurdly involved.

Ernest D. Farino’s sci-fi horror rape revenge movie is a complete mess, as if someone had taken about three movies with a similar plot but very different protagonists and tones, taken their favourite scenes, stitched them together, and called them a movie.

So expect a seriously played, if weird, scene between Gaily-bot and Albert concerning the nature of guilt, grief and revenge to be followed by a bit of exploitational horror in which a masked (that is, played by a different actress) Gaily first seduces one of her victims to then dispatch him in a ridiculous and gory manner, followed by the misadventures of Alison. That last part of the movie seems mostly made to provide the audience with more exposition than even the dumbest of us could ever need, and bring it to length without straining the budget.

To be fair, Haiduk plays her part in the boring bits of the movie with great intensity, an effort that stays in marked contrast with Naughton, who is looking so bored you’d expect him to drift off and pick his nose any second now.

The serious dramatic bits aren’t working out terribly well, either. Wren’s and Davidson’s performances are – to nobody’s surprise -perfectly fine, but the film never manages to distract from the enormous silliness of the whole cyborg affair, the sleazy way the Gaily-bot is kitted out, and so on, enough to make the melodrama actually work.

So, really, it’s the exploitational horror elements here that are memorable, be it Gaily-bot making a hug extra-special with her giant ass drill, Gaily-bot gender-confusing a guy before she decapitates him by impersonating a very weird and on first look male FBI agent with breasts, Gaily-bot castrating a guy (one assumes with the cutting vagina her totally stable brother must have built into her), and so on. These scenes are all pretty awesome tasteless fun, but they don’t jibe terribly well with the rape revenge motives. In a film with an actual brain in its head and something to say, you just might get away with a victim of rape seducing her victimisers before she kills them, but it feels less than pleasant in a movie that’s mostly about the cheap thrills. In this context, I can’t help but notice that this is a rape revenge movie where the victim doesn’t even get actual agency in her revenge, for she’s literally programmed by her brother to do what she does, and has no choice one way or the other.

A better movie might even have done something with this in combination with the glee Albert seems to feel watching Gaily’s kill footage – this one just lets these elements stand, with little idea what to do with them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

In short: Danur 2: Maddah (2018)

A year or so after the first Danur movie, college age medium Risa (Prilly Latuconsina) is still taking care of her sister Riri (Sandrinna Michelle) in lieu of their perpetually absent parents. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the next movie used their parents having been dead all along as a plot twist, so absent are they. But hey, Risa still has her trio of ghost kid friends, who – awesomely - only make a mess when they invite some of their ghost kid friends over anymore. And right now, the sisters are living close enough to Risa’s aunt Tina (Sophia Latjuba) and uncle Ahmad (Bucek), so there are some grown-ups around when the kids need them.

However, something is very wrong in the house of Tina and Ahmad. Risa’s uncle has started to act very peculiarly, spending most of the day and night in the guest house he uses as his study, and when he is home, he is creepily zoned out, apathetic, and generally useless, doing little more than filling his home with tuberoses. At first, Risa believes he is simply cheating on his wife, very badly indeed, but soon enough, the place is plagued by other supernatural occurrences as well, and not the sort of things that suggest friendly child ghosts who might occasionally suggest suicide, but the prayer-disrupting, insanity-causing kind of haunting.

Risa will need all her of courage, as well as the help of her dead friends, to put the family back in order.

Whereas I found Awi Suryadi’s first Danur movie often moody and entertaining but perhaps also a bit lightweight, its sequel ups the ante in mostly all the right ways: the stakes feel higher (even though objectively, they weren’t terribly low in the first one, either), and the mood of hauntedness is evoked more regularly as well as more consequently.

The film is also a bit more jump scare heavy than the first one, but it’s still not exclusively about jump scares. Suryadi’s main interest really seems to be building up a creepy and spooky mood through all visual tricks he can come up with, evoking a kind of Indonesian sister of the European gothic very well indeed, including the shadows of a buried past attempting to repeat themselves with the living of today and (at least implied) the sins of colonialism coming back to haunt the place.

The ghost actress this time around, Carolina Passoni Fattori, isn’t as impressive as Shareefa Daanish was in the first one, but the ghost isn’t interacting with most of the living as directly as in the first one, working more as an evil presence than a character this time around. Which makes quite a bit of sense in a film that’s as big on mood-building between the set pieces as this one is. And make no mistake, there are some very fine set pieces here, my favourites being some mildly disorienting business concerning a prayer, a ghost, and a mirror, and Risa’s big possession scene, in which Latuconsina lets loose quite wonderfully.

It’s a lovely piece of work, really, a very traditional kind of ghost story effectively told for a mass market audience nobody involved seems to be looking down on, suggesting a director totally in control of clichés and genre traditions alike.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994)

Veronica (Angela Featherstone), a young demon, is more than just somewhat unhappy with her life in hell. Hell, it turns out, is pretty boring for a young woman not satisfied with her place in the underworld. Her father Hellikin (Nicholas Worth) is sweaty and abusive, treating here dream visions of ascending to the overworld with his fists and a lot of shouting.

Eventually, Veronica, accompanied by her “beast” (or as we call them around here, German Shepard Dog) Hellraiser (Heros), flees to the overworld. Once there she falls in with and for a young physician (Daniel Markel), and spends her nights smiting evil-doers, for in this interpretation of demons and hell, Veronica’s kind is definitely doing the dirty work for heaven. She will need some time – and some heavenly “encouragement” – to learn about concepts like punishments being meant to be appropriate to the heaviness of the crime. Before that, she’s all about ripping muggers’ and would be rapists’ spines out and feeding their flesh to her dog as well as to her unwitting new boyfriend. Veronica’s not only going after the small fry, though. Having early on identified the city’s right-wing mayor as “evil incarnate”, she is planning to do something about him.

I have no idea where Linda Hassani’s (whose magnum opus this is) Dark Angel: The Ascent has hidden from me all of my life, but I’m certainly very happy that we have finally found each other. This was made in the early Romanian phase of Charles Band’s Full Moon, at a point in time when the budgets were still workable, and Band and company still seem to have been interested in making proper low budget movies instead of mostly focussing on very slow moving in-jokes about puppets and dolls.

Hassani makes a lot out of what Band gives her, turning the Romanian sets as lively as possible through the powers of inventive lighting and genuinely great camerawork by veteran Romanian DP Vivi Dragan Vasile. The film starts with a really cleverly realized low budget hell, containing the proper titbits of the more violent versions of Christianity and quite a few good jokes and continues in that mode when Veronica arrives in New York, Hassani selling fake America with the best of them.

Tonally, the film is a curious mixture of actually pretty coherent (if not exactly real-world canonical) theology, straight-faced jokes, some well done violence, quite the dollop of goofiness, and just as much seriousness. The script by Matthew Bright (who wrote quite a bit of interesting stuff like this and Freeway) clearly has a lot of fun with the sillier elements of the plot, but the filmmakers do present jokes and silliness with as straight a face as possible, as do the actors, who avoid all winking into the camera even in moments when most anyone would have been tempted to do some of it. Of course, the film’s jokes are all the funnier because they are presented with that straight a face and never get in the way of the film’s serious side of right wing bashing, light feminism, romance and fun violence. There’s a lot of actual intelligence in the writing and the staging of the film, Hassani and Bright clearly understanding that having fun and being silly does not mean you can’t also take your film seriously at the same time.

In its own wonderfully eccentric way, Dark Angel does fit snugly in between other 90s (mostly low budget) attempts at making dark superhero/urban vigilante movies, mostly getting around the problem a lot of these films had with understanding the differences between the superhero and urban vigilante genres thanks to its violent religious angle. Grimdark superheroes and visitors from hell do ponder comparable moral conundrums, it turns out, just in rather a different language. The film’s really interesting when it comes to its portrayal of Veronica’s little bits of slaughter, too, or rather, it repeatedly portrays the people she rescues as being genuinely afraid of her and disturbed by her methods, going very much against the grain of typical vigilante movies who’d never dare suggest a victim of a crime might react with anything else but a high five to being rescued in the most violent way possible. It’s interesting, and really important to the very specific kind of redemption tale the film is telling.

But before I leave anyone with the impression that this is a totally serious movie for totally serious people, let me quote my favourite scene to you. Veronica has just disrupted two police officers beating up a gentleman for the crime of walking through the streets at night while being black (and yes, the lack of improvement between then and now in this regard is pretty damn depressing). Non-plussed by a slight young woman with very big feet (that’s a plot point) talking grim-faced biblical vengeance at them (Featherstone’s pretty great at that particular note in most of her scenes), one of the cops says “How would you like to spend the night in jail – on a prostitution charge?”. To which our heroine replies “How would you like to die in a state of mortal sin?” before dispatching the cops rather easily. Which may very well be the best line a movie vigilante has ever said to someone.

The hopeful viewer can also look forward to a first date at a porn cinema (Taxi Driver was certainly not lost on the filmmakers), a floating angel lady right out of a Christian kitsch postcard, and various comments on the mores of Hell and Earth.

I honestly have no idea what more anyone could ask of any movie.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

In short: Green Rush (2020)

Some stupid violent assholes assault the legal marihuana farm of some stupid violent assholes. Betrayal and idiot ploys to make a cheap buck are of course involved too.

To me, films like Gerard Roxburgh’s Green Rush feel like the poor misguided children of neo noir, throwing themselves into various nihilist poses but never actually managing to tell stories that seem to come by their nihilism by anything but overplotting. This particular example of the form is convinced humans are just animals, donchaknow, so everyone and everything in it is absurdly horrible. Which might at least be fun to watch if not for the fact that every single character here is not just a murderous, violent asshole, but also so stupid I have my doubts anyone here can open a door without help. There’s an unspoken rule in movies that assholes are great fun (or at least interesting) as long as they are competent or better brilliant at what they do; and fools are best served with a good heart. Here, alas, is a movie full of characters that are neither likeable nor interesting whose stupidity makes them actively annoying. A handful of filmmakers on the level of the Coen Brothers can still make this sort of thing work, but that’s far beyond Green Rush.

Despite a more than decent cast (Mike Foy, Paul Telfer, Kriss Dozal et al are all doing their best with the material they are given) Green Rush falls into this particular trap of nihilism as a pretty damn annoying form of poser-dom particularly awkwardly, believing some particularly groan-inducing late movie plot developments prove its point when they only prove that overwriting and overplotting to badly make a point is much worse than any sin committed by a film made only to entertain.

It’s all particularly frustrating because technically, at least on the visual front, there’s a lot of talent on display, but these talent in dire need of either a better argued nihilism, empathy for its characters, or a more interesting philosophy.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Some music and a change

Since I've run out of posts for my Friday repost schedule now, Friday is going to be a skip day around here in some weeks. In others, I'm going to post some kind of popcultural ephemera.
In this case, it's a tiny, little playlist with some of my favourite music of 2020. I'm so very sorry.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

In short: Freaky (2020)

Some days, I feel like half of what I do around here is complaining about films a lot of other viewers seem to like quite a bit. So how about Christopher “Happy Death Day” Landon’s newest effort, that continues his series of gimmicky, self-conscious romps. Well, at least in this case, I’m really complaining about a film that I found very entertaining throughout.

It’s a body swap movie between a slasher (Vince Vaughn) and a teenage girl named Millie (Kathryn Newton) and the usual attempts by the girl in the old guy’s body to reverse the swap before it becomes permanent, while the killer first proves that he has a better sense of style and knows how to apply make-up properly, before he kills his way through a few people.

We don’t really have to be too sorry about anyone the slasher kills in our heroine’s body, though, for he’s managing quite well to only kill the bullies and assholes in her life, if with very satisfying amounts of gore. He also, conveniently, never does his thing in any way that’ll get Millie in trouble if and when she returns to her own body.

Which, on one hand, is a perfectly logical direction to take for a film, but it’s also a very safe direction that leads to a film that never can be anything more complex than a violent romp because it doesn’t dare to create true emotional and physical stakes, nobody the film actually cares about ever being believably at risk either in body or in mind, or in future college prospects. It’s a bit like an ultra-violent version of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who in this way, risk-averse to a nearly ridiculous amount.

If you can adjust your expectations accordingly (something I sort of managed while doing a bit of internal grumbling), though, Freaky does have quite a few charms. It certainly is never anything less than a fun, fast, sometimes funny romp, with some good gore gags, expert pacing, and just about the right amount of self-consciousness, looking slick but not too slick.

Vaughn and Newton give lovely performances throughout (Vaughn probably now having to fight it out with Jack Black when it comes to who is the best older guy playing a body-swapped teen girl), as does the organically diverse supporting cast (Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich being the obvious stand-outs).

So, while not exactly getting the film I would have wanted, I can’t blame Freaky for being what it is.