Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Zero Effect (1998)

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is your typical eccentric master detective. When he’s not working on a case, he locks himself in his costly home to cower and whimper and write horrifying songs, only communicating with and through his pitiable assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller, but don’t worry, he’s wasn’t that deeply unfunny “Ben Stiller” persona yet when this was made but rather a serviceable actor). Zero’s not exactly a people person, though once he works a case, he’s pretty good at emulating one, approaching the rest of humanity as something he has studied carefully, yet isn’t a true part of.

Zero is hired by a sleazy business tycoon named Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) to get back some mysterious keys and solve a case of blackmail for him. Stark’s not exactly forthcoming with details, but then, as Arlo explains early on, in the end, Zero will find out everything anyway, including the mandatory dark secrets of the past. Why, he might even find out something about himself thanks to the case and ambulance driver Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) who may or may not be involved in the whole affair.

By now, there’s hardly any cop or detective show running on TV that doesn’t feature some kind of eccentric/mentally ill/supernatural/perfectly idiotic detective, so the basic idea of Jake Kasdan’s Zero Effect doesn’t sound terribly fresh anymore from our benighted age. However, the eccentric Great Detective wasn’t actually invented by 00s television desperate to rip off Columbo (nor by Columbo itself). Even leaving that Great Detective aside, there are many more literary detectives – particularly outside the hardboiled genres – who are dysfunctional in various degrees. A serial character needs a gimmick after all. Going by the intelligent and often very inventive way he uses the genre and what comes with it, I’m reasonably sure Kasdan knows about this tradition rather well, so this is not a case of Hollywood using an old trope thinking it to be new.

Zero is a rather extreme case of dysfunctionality, isolated, pathologically afraid of everything and positioning himself as a complete outside observer of the world of humanity as he is. At first, it’s easy to believe the film will mostly play out as a comedy that’s going to use its protagonist’s eccentricity as an easy way to earn its laughs; the film does after all indeed get quite a few very funny scenes out of Zero’s curious habits and the inspired way Pullman portrays him. However, the longer the film goes on, the clearer it becomes how much more ambitious it is, and the simple comedy turns out to also be a rather well constructed mystery, a romance, a meditation about the nature of the figure of the Great Detective and his relations to the figure we know as The Woman, a poignant and somewhat hopeful film about loneliness and isolation and the way isolation caused by outside forces and the kind that come from inside can go hand in hand, and even a film concerned with questions of morality and justice. While this sounds like rather a lot for a single film to take on, Kasdan manages to do all of these questions and themes justice, seemingly with ease always finding the right thematic point to emphasise – as well as the right question to ask – and using every scene’s potential to its fullest. In the intelligence of the film and how easy Kasdan makes it look to apply his own, this is as good as direction gets; I have honestly no idea how this director ended up doing stuff like Bad Teacher for a living later on.

The film isn’t just clever and thoughtful, it is also emotionally satisfying, handling a romance that might feel like a complete cliché in a very convincing and natural manner. There’s also something pleasantly and effectively hopeful in the film’s emotional core, the idea that isolation can and will end, and that, while there’s not necessarily a glorious happy end waiting for the lonely, there’s hope and life even for those who only ever observe. And the best thing about it? It never feels too easy, dishonest, or disrespectful of its characters while doing it.

I’m not going to end this happy rambling about a wonderful film without giving Pullman a special nod. He does, after all, have the difficult job to not just portray a dysfunctional genius and the embodiment of an archetype and turn him into a human being, but also stands at the core of nearly all of the film’s shifts in tone and theme. He does this while making it look as easy as Kasdan does filmmaking.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In short: The Devil’s Candy (2015)

The Hellmans - Metal-loving artist Jesse (Ethan Embry), his waitress – and main bread winner – wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) move into a house that’s a real bargain thanks to two deaths that happened there recently. Supposedly, the deaths that killed the previous owners were an accident followed by a heart attack, but the audience knows that a rather disturbing looking member of that family – we will later learn he is called Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince) - had quite a bit to do with that, egged on by the Latin whispers he hears in his head.

Jesse will soon hear these whispers too and fall into the habit of creating new art in a trance during proper blackouts. Just as concerning is that Ray feels pulled towards his old home and begins to show an interest in Zooey that doesn’t promise anything good.

Like with director/writer Sean Byrne’s earlier movie, the much praised The Loved Ones, I can’t say I connected with The Devil’s Candy. Visually, Byrne is obviously a hell of a director: the film looks beautiful, the editing is exciting, interesting and clear, and he clearly knows how to get good performances out of his actors.

On the level of storytelling and atmosphere, the film just doesn’t work for me at all, though. I’m not very happy with the film’s depiction of the mentally ill (particularly not after the Loved Ones used the same clichés in the same way), something I can much easier ignore in films less obviously well made because directors who can barely keep their actors in the frame really shouldn’t be made responsible for this sort of thing, whereas the more easily talented filmmakers can and should be. That’s not my main trouble with the film, however. For me, it completely breaks down as a narrative in the final act, with a finale that seems rushed, character development that is so ill prepared I had the feeling someone had just cut out twenty to thirty minutes of character work (the whole deal with the devil subplot for Jesse seems to drop in out of nowhere too), and a final ten minutes or so that basically consist of the film shouting in the audience’s face while supposedly shocking stuff happens very loudly. Said “shocking stuff” unfortunately doesn’t shock me because the film didn’t do the preparation work to actually give me a reason to be shocked by it beyond the most basic “mildly non-mainstream loving family threatened by mentally ill man and Satan”!

The film probably aims for something nightmarish in the Italian tradition here, but for me, it just doesn’t work.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Ambulance (1990)

While mullet-crowned comics artist Josh Baker (Eric Roberts) is accosting some poor woman (Janine Turner) on the street  - though I’m pretty sure he thinks he is flirting, an interpretation of his behaviour even a 70s Bollywood hero would raise an eyebrow at – his victim suddenly breaks down into some kind of fit that may or may not be caused by her diabetes. Very quickly, an absurdly old-fashioned ambulance arrives and carts her away. But hey, at least the woman we now know is called Cheryl asks Josh to come visit her and see if she’s alright. When our hero – you better get used to the idea that this is what Josh is – tries to follow through, he can find Cheryl in no hospital in New York. The thought she might have given him a false name to get rid of him obviously never crosses his mind, so off Josh goes to the police.

Alas, eccentric to outright crazy – with the hospital record to prove it – cop Lt. Spencer (James Earl Jones) thinks Josh is a nut – he’s a comics artist after all! Ironically, later on, Spencer will actually turn out to be one of the more competent cops around.

Josh is not easily dissuaded by little problems when he’s hoping to get into the pants of a really hot woman – the film’s finale really suggests that this is his main or perhaps only motivation for all the crap he’s going to pull from now on – so he starts his own investigation. Soon, his potential breakthrough at Marvel is threatened (and that “just because of a girl”, as Stan Lee repeatedly emphasises – I kid you not), as is his life, and his ability to stay out of a mental institution. On the plus side, he makes friends with the only police in New York actively trying to solve crimes (Meghan Gallagher) – who also happens to be a perfect fit for a replacement girlfriend should his main victim not work out – and an elderly reporter (Red Buttons) from the old muckraker school.

As a thriller, Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance certainly is one of the least successful films of the great New Yorker director but as a character-based comedy that just happens to have a thriller plot, it is insanely enjoyable, at least if you can survive a hero who is quite as much of an asshole – and a casual homophobe to boot - as Josh is in any social interaction not involving him trying to “charm” a woman. Then, he’s outright creepy. He’s basically a Hitchcockian everyman protagonist as written by someone who has actually met everymen; fortunately, as Roberts in one of his most entertaining performances plays Josh, his mouthing off to everyone but Stan Lee and the various ways he gets himself into trouble are incredibly fun to watch.

Roberts is ably – and often hilariously – assisted by a whole bunch of character actors chewing scenery while embodying various New Yorker stereotypes, clearly given leeway for improvisation and farting about. Particularly James Earl Jones – just watch the incredible business with the chewing gum in his death scene – and Red Buttons are a joy to watch. But the minor cop characters – like James Dixon as the cop who really doesn’t like to be compared to Jughead – and the heavies all get their little moments here too, so that the first two thirds of the movie are a series of perfect and absurd vignettes made out of New York, Hitchcock and actors letting loose. Each and every character interaction is a perfect storm of actors, fun dialogue, and the somewhat skeezy charm one expects from a film set in New York in this era.

The final act makes little sense: so why exactly has the evil doctor (Eric Braeden for some probably awesome reason doing his mad scientist as if he were channelling a facial-hair deprived Sam Elliott) put his secret lab into a night club? Is there really a big market in the USA for using kidnapped diabetics in illegal human trials? Why don’t they just shoot Josh? I certainly don’t know. On the other hand, I didn’t find myself actually caring about these questions either, for the final act is still full of awesome and bizarre acting, some decent if absurd action sequences, and whatever it is Roberts does here.

If all this still doesn’t sound wonderful enough to you, imaginary reader: how about the fact that Josh is actually working at Marvel, with Stan Lee in what very well might be his largest acting role, and guys like Larry Hama and Jim Salicrup hanging around. Why, even the great Gene Colan is involved as “artist photo double”! And if that still doesn’t sound quite awesome and fun enough, I  really don’t know what Cohen could have added here.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: All guns. No control.

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956): This is a rather heavily Hitchock-indebted thriller by – sometimes brilliant – journeyman director Henry Hathaway, taking place in a London that is traditionally dark, foggy and rainy. Blind playwright and champion in self-pity Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) overhears a curious, potentially sinister, conversation in a pub and becomes rather obsessed with solving what increasingly looks like a case (though not to the police). The film doesn’t quite have the psychological resonance of the best films of its sub-genre, and Johnson tends to overplay his character so desperately I wanted to punch the guy to shut up the melodramatic outbreaks more often than I found myself rooting for him. However, Hathaway knows how to stage a suspense scene as well as any director of his generation, the script – based on a novel by Philip MacDonald - is clever and twisty in the best way, and Milton Krasner’s photography is as pretty to look at as it is atmospheric, the film making excellent use of a London (even when parts of it are actually the Fox studios) that is still marked by World War II.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): Taika Waititi’s wonderful New Zealand movie is about a kid (Julian Dennison in a drily witty performance that never becomes precocious or annoying) kinda-sorta absconding into the bush with his decidedly grumpy foster father (Sam Neill, decidedly grumpy and wonderful) after the death of the foster mother, the ensuing manhunt and the pair’s sometimes funny sometimes sad adventures. It’s a film that comes by the description of being “heart-warming” as fairly as the director’s What We Do in the Shadows, creating a slightly off-kilter world but putting characters into it one can’t help but care about. There’s an astonishing amount of whit, wisdom and imagination in the film, often wickedly funny humour, and New Zealand looks rather spiffy too.

Nightwing (1979): I don’t know why you’d want to hire Arthur Hiller, never a man known for his grip on action, of all possible candidates to direct your nature strikes back project based on a Martin Cruz Smith novel I suspect to be rather more tightly plotted than the film at hand, but the ways of Hollywood are wild and mysterious. One wouldn’t usually cast Nick Mancuso as a native American sheriff either. Not surprising anyone, the film is a bit of a mess, with generally competent bat attack scenes followed by brain dead 70s paranoia bits, and some mock-native American mythology stuff ripped right out of a 30s pulp tale, and therefore rather cringeworthy, though at least not meant in bad faith. David Warner takes on Robert Shaw’s mantel from Jaws to take a big bite out of a lot of scenery, Kathryn Harold is attractively frightened, and Stephen Macht is an evil rich guy, so while nobody would confuse Nightwing with a good movie, it most certainly is never a boring one.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Krysar (1986)

a.k.a. The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The people living in the medieval town of Hamelin are full of perverse industriousness, greed in all of its forms, and narrow-minded cruelty. It's probably not an accident that the town is hit by a plague of rats hell-bent on taking away the only things the people of Hamelin love - food, money and jewels. There seems to be no way to stop the hairy plague once it has begun, so it looks as if it will be only a question of time until Hamelin's inhabitants will either all go mad (or rather even more mad than they already were in the beginning) or will have to leave their once prosperous town.

Until a stranger arrives in town. The man pulls out a pipe, and once he begins playing his instrument, the rats are compelled to follow him. He leads the animals onto the city walls from where they jump down into the surrounding moat to drown.

Afterwards, the inhabitants of the town begin anew exactly where they left off, breaking probably every religious and moral law you can imagine in the process, or at least as many of them as the movie's theoretical status as a children's movie allows. One especially unpleasant member of the town's upperclass tries to seduce the only uncorrupted girl (as easily identifiable by her puppet not looking like a nightmarish freak) in town with money and trinkets, and twice only the timely arrival of the piper saves her virtue.

The piper (or so I suppose) is not very amused by the townspeople's actions, and presents the town council with his invoice. Not surprisingly, the townies are quite unwilling to pay him, and - being not just unpleasant, but also a bit dumb - even mock their saviour openly by throwing a button at him for payment. As if that weren't enough to make anyone with magical powers pretty pissed off, the especially unpleasant man and some of his cronies have raped and murdered the innocent girl while the piper was away.

Finding the girl dead is the straw that breaks the camel's back, and the piper takes horrible vengeance, though, interestingly enough, vengeance that is quite a bit more fair to modern sensibilities than that in the original legend this is based on.

As should be clear by now, Czechoslovakian director Jiri Barta's Kysar is rather loosely based on the old German legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (or "Der Rattenfänger von Hameln", as we say around here), taking much of the initial set-up and structure of the legend, but using it for different purposes. As should also be clear, one of these different purposes is - alas - to turn the - less morally uplifting than some people assume - original into a very clear and straight moral allegory.

If you know me, you know that if there's one thing I can't abide in my art it's allegory, because allegory is nearly always a cheap and easy way for an artist to score points on the scales of "usefulness" and "moral uprightness" that only the truly bourgeois find important in their art. All too often, allegory simplifies everything and everyone. Artists using it all too often betray "minor" things like truthfulness or the knowledge of how complicated the world or people really are or the multi-dimensionality of their characters so everything can fit neatly into their allegorical (and ideological) system.

Having said that, it might come as a minor surprise when I say that I find Barta's film to be absolutely fantastic. It's not that I've suddenly discovered my love for way too simple morals (would you be surprised to hear that people aren't just absolutely good or bad? Well, Barta seems to be), but what the director does here visually and atmospherically is so convincing (and - at times - incredibly creepy) that I can accept - or at least ignore - the lazy moralizing for it.

As far as I know, there aren't that many stop motion animated movies starring deformed, angular wooden puppets and a bunch of rats (some alive and - I think - some puppets too) acting on backgrounds of angular, non-Euclidean houses that - depending on one's temperament - might make one slightly queasy with a feeling of total wrongness/weirdness (in the "weird tale" sense) that makes me wish Barta had put his talents to adapting Lovecraft. Whatever I think of the film's allegorical content, it would be pretty dishonest not to admit how impressed I was by how completely Barta's design (the director also signs responsible for the art direction) fits what he wants to say - not just on an intellectual and interpretative level, but also, more importantly, on the level of the film's emotional impact.

It's one thing to design a "boohoo, materialistic people are bad" allegory, but it is quite another one to really make a viewer see and feel one's allegory in every aspect of one's movie, be it character design, music, the decision to not have the film's character's speak in any natural language but in a disquieting gibberish (except for the pure girl, of course, who sings beautifully) or the use of disturbing camera angles. Barta is so successful at what he does here that I take his film to be a major achievement even though I feel deeply uncomfortable with the ascetic elements of its ideology (never had much of a problem with a good bit of capitalism bashing); which is something Barta has in common with some of my favourite artists (hello Mister Lovecraft, Mister Howard).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

In short: Scherzo Diabolico (2015)

aka Evil Games

Warning: I’ll have to include some rather large spoilers

On first sight, Aram (Francisco Barreiro) seems to be a kind of high-functioning, well adapted coward: he’s the sort of guy who is the first in the office and the last one to leave, too timid to ask for a raise and accepting the fact that his boss reaps the harvest of his own work. At home, he finds himself berated by his wife in a loveless marriage. The rest of his private life isn’t much happier either.

However, Aram actually has come up with a way to change his fate; he has been planning to kidnap a female teenager (Daniela Soto Vell) for some time now, and the film will indeed see him go through with this plan, and reap the particular rewards that come with the identity of the girl, revealing that he’s not just a kidnapper but also a total asshole in the process. Of course, things will still not work out as he had hoped in the end, and things will escalate violently.

After a directing stint in the USA, the always interesting Adrián García Bogliano’s latest film was made in Mexico again. It’s obviously a low budget affair but no backyard filmmaking, a state of affair the director clearly knows how to work with. Unlike his last couple of films, Scherzo Diabolico doesn’t have any supernatural elements but lives rather more on the thriller side of the horror genre, interpreting it as a close relation to the conte cruel. Cruelty really becomes the film’s watchword after it has gone through a couple of twist, with the last twenty minutes or so working out badly for everyone involved in the plot, the guilty as well as the (more or less) innocent. In fact, one of the film’s biggest twists to me was how merciless it becomes in the end. The first revelations about Aram’s true nature come as a shock because the film – and Barreiro’s performance – convince the viewer of his basic humanity and seem to establish him as your typical movie loser who develops a misguided plan to go over to the winning side, which then turns out to be a much too friendly interpretation of the man.

However, Bogliano then doesn’t give his audience the out to be able to simply enjoy seeing Aram suffer for his sins but portrays the vengeance of his victim as just as unlikeable, seeing how not just he but quite a few innocents suffer a terrible fate only because they just happen to be his loved ones, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not a pleasant view of the world for sure, and not exactly enjoyable to watch, but I do find it pretty admirable how consciously and effectively Bogliano twists the viewer’s genre expectations in ways that can’t help but make one think why and how one morally approves enough of violent acts in a movie to enjoy them, and when the joke stops being funny. Reaching this point in a film that isn’t even particularly gory for a low budget horror film makes the whole thing even more effective.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Restraint (2008)

Rural Australia. Violent to crazed criminal Ron (Travis Fimmel) and his stripper girlfriend Dale (Teresa Palmer), whose job in the relationship seems to be getting him out of trouble and/or provoking him via her sexuality, though things will turn out to be rather more complicated than just that, are out and about on your typical road trip crime spree. They have a corpse in their car trunk, and Ron sees fit to shoot a gas station owner dead when Dale pays for gas with a hand job, so the police is on their backs rather quickly.

By luck, they stumble upon a large country house where agoraphobic, rich upperclass layabout Andrew (Stephen Moyer) lives alone. His girlfriend is apparently visiting Europe. Once Ron has gotten over his plan to just rob Andrew and murder him, they decide to lay low in the house for a while. Andrew can’t go anywhere, after all, and there are certainly no neighbours, so this seems like as good a place to wait out trouble as possible. After a time, Andrew makes the couple an offer to pay for his life – he receives regular payments from a trust fund he can’t pick up himself thanks to his condition, so if Dale would pretend to be his fiancée, she should easily be able to pick the money up. They just can’t take all at once but have to get half the money from the bank the next day, the other half the day after, for reasons that sound reasonable enough to the couple. Still, it’s questionable everyone involved will actually live that long, for Ron’s always just a wrong word away from an outbreak of violence (usually involving the sort of homophobe undertones that do suggest he’s rather unsure of his own sexuality, though you probably shouldn’t tell him), Dale is slowly realizing what she’s truly gotten herself into, and Andrew… Well, there’s certainly something off about him too, and it’s not just the way he tends to look at Dale.

David Denneen’s Restraint is an excellent psychological thriller, dense, intelligent, clever, and effective even with those twists in the plot you rather see coming. The film bases its tension not just on the basic hostage situation, but on the fissures between and inside the characters it presents. It’s a film that’s not just interested in letting power shifts and mistrust produce a nice bit of tension for its audience (although it is pretty great at that too) but also – sometimes subtly, sometimes not – demonstrates how these ever-shifting alliances between characters are based on personalities, psychology, class and gender. In fact, one of the film’s clearest themes is how the way class works in Australia has poisoned the inner lives of its characters, trapped them in patterns of violent behaviour and obsessions they don’t really comprehend and apparently left them no way out but violence or picking exactly the wrong person to put their trust into. This, interestingly enough, goes for all classes in the film, the system destroying at least the inner lives of the rulers as much as that of the ruled, the difference being that the former are allowed to get away with things others can barely imagine.

In this context, it would have been very easy for the film to leave its three main characters as archetypes and stand-ins for their respective class. Restraint, however, opts for using actual humans, which makes its examination of power and class much less abstract and turns it into a more exciting thriller too by making the audience care about the characters. Denneen has help there from three excellent performances too: Teresa Palmer is generally brilliant even in terrible movies, and in a good one like this even more so, shifting audience perceptions of what Dale is actually about as a person with small and large gestures. Travis Fimmel is in turns threatening, charming, frightening and pathetic (sometimes at the same time), and Moyer – not an actor I’m terribly fond of – here manages to be fragile, helpless and somewhat sinister at the same time, keeping parts of Andrew hidden from the audience in a way that feels absolutely right for the character instead of merely in service of the plot. A plot that, by the way, finishes with one of the calmly nastiest endings I’ve encountered, an ending the less pleasant the longer one thinks about it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

In short: Anabel (2015)

Warning: I wouldn’t know how to talk about this one without a certain degree of spoilers!

Students Cris (Ana de Armas) and Sandra (Rocío León) are looking for a roommate to share their rent with after something has happened to their former roommate Anabel. Somehow, they end up sharing with an elderly gentleman named Lucio (Enrique Villén) who comes complete with a sob story about losing his job and his home and having no real place to go anymore.

Despite being as different as two young women can be, Cris and Sandra have grown close living together. But something changes with Lucio’s arrival. At first, he’s rather like a new, polite roommate and their own private washing, cooking and cleaning service rolled into one, but something about him and the way he treats the friends slowly drives a wedge between them. More curious still: things tiny and big seem to start going wrong for them. Why, it’s as if there was witchcraft involved.

Antonio Trashorras’s Anabel is a nice example of contemporary arthouse horror (which I’m never going to call by the bizarre moniker of “post-horror” some critics have grown to insist on). It’s shot in black and white, slow, ambiguous and generally lacking in the kind of obvious thrills we know and love/hate from horror movies. In other words, it’s going to piss some viewers off with its insistence on not going into more overtly violent directions; others might be bored with it. That’s neither a failing of these viewers nor of the film, really – this is not an approach to horror that’ll fit everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, the film’s slow and thoughtful style, with its non-linear storytelling and ambiguous dream sequences, did rather click with me. At least, I found the film’s portrayal of subtle emotional violence, and its emphasis on the fragility of human relationships fascinating and sometimes creepy. The witchcraft elements – particularly the way they might be exclusively metaphorical or not – I could take or leave, but as a study of guilt, alienation and a particular kind of loneliness, as well as a very low-key revenge flick, Anabel works rather well, thanks to a fine trio of performances and Trashorras’s sharp and cold direction.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Mummy (2017)

Warning: this one’s gonna be particularly grumpy, snarky, and perhaps even downright rude!

I have to say, before watching this abomination, I felt a little for poor Universal. After all, the company is so late out of the gate for its own movie universe (which is called “Dark Universe” for good reason, seeing as how much the film at hand disapproves of using colours or light), all the good talent in front and behind the camera willing to invest their time and abilities into a concept this corporate has already been grabbed by the competition, so seemingly the only creatives still for hire are those without the talent or conviction to make anything of their own or to get hired by anyone but Universal. Apologies to the people involved who weren’t actually responsible because they were mind-controlled by alien wasps or something in that line.

That’s at least how I explain The Mummy to myself; it is definitely not explicable as anything the people involved put even a tiny bit of their hearts and minds in, resulting in a film as bland and drab as this sort of blockbuster can possibly get. Why, I’d even prefer a Michael Bay movie – those things are at least loud, tacky and dumb, whereas The Mummy really can’t find enough enthusiasm to even be any of that.

The writing – an effort that took at least the six credited minds, apparently – is bland, perfunctory and not just assumes the audience to be stupid but thinks we are actual zombies. How else to explain the film’s tendency to repeat certain micro flashbacks again and again, never mind it is flashing back to scenes that happened only fifteen minutes earlier, or that it’ll use the same flashbacks again in another twenty. “Remember that dagger we told you about ten minutes ago, and thirty minutes ago, and forty minutes ago, monkeys? I’m sure you don’t, so let me reiterate via micro flashback!”. It’s not just an offensive, exasperating and tedious way to tell – or rather repeatedly exposit about – a  story, it also again and again stops the film in its tracks when it threatens to actually start going.

Then there’s of course the little problem that the script is supposedly about a charming rogue finding redemption through an act of sacrifice but never actually manages to establish him as anything but an asshole, or rather, believes that giving a woman in a crashing plane a parachute is a clear sign of his buried humanity, or that falling in love is. Cough, Eva Braun, cough. Let’s not even talk about that self-sacrifice which isn’t even one, or about the way the romantic triangle is written. Or rather, not written. Or about the weird plot omissions, the rather important plot elements a film this exposition heavy somehow still doesn’t explain (probably because it’s too concerned with repeating crap even a Hollywood director would understand four or five times for its oh so stupid audience).

On the side of just strange – instead of mind-numbingly bad – things about the script, there is a bunch of borrowings, throw-backs or downright idea theft (depending on a viewer’s tolerance for this sort of thing) from other, much superior, movies, particularly Tobe Hooper’s wonderful Lifeforce and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. I have no idea what to make of that; but then, I have no idea how anyone involved in the movie can have thought anything about it was a good idea.

Not that there’s much spectacle going around to distract one from the script’s failings, either. The big action set pieces lack any imagination, are indifferently staged, blandly directed by Alex Kurtzmann (whom I now have under suspicion of being a robot, so mechanical is his work here, though the rumour mill suggests Tom Cruise steamrolled him with good old fashioned box office magnet power and is in fact responsible for this crap), and edited with a nearly absurd lack of style and enthusiasm. Given the budget involved, you’d at least expect a visible degree of craftsmanship, but there’s little sign of where the 125 to 150 million dollar budget actually went. Even the lighting and the music are bland and drab like ugly, grey little table cloths.

Well, a not inconsiderable part of the budget certainly went into the pockets of Tom Cruise, giving his worst performance of the last ten years or so. Cruise’s outing consists of GIF-worthy grimaces, wooden dialogue delivery (admittedly, the dialogue is pretty wretched anyway, so even an actor couldn’t have improved on it much), and an astonishing lack of screen presence. Cruise also doesn’t have the tiniest bit of chemistry with his female co-actors, which is a bit of a problem that’s supposed to be some sort of supernatural love triangle. To be fair to the old man, Annabelle Wallis’s performance is nearly as bad as Cruise’s – she’s just not grimacing as much – just barely less wooden as whatever it was Bryce Dallas Howard did in Jurassic World. Russell Crowe (as Jekyll and Hyde) for his part waddles through his scenes clearly in search of his pay check so that he can finally leave the set. The only thespian on screen who is actually putting effort in is Sofia Boutella as our titular mummy but she suffers from the fact that the film as a whole doesn’t really seem to have much of an idea what to do with her, and the need to interact with the living void Cruise. She’s a good villain in desperate search of a better film, or really, any film at all.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: They couldn't leave dead enough alone.

Hombre (1967): I know I’m pretty much alone with this opinion, but to me Martin Ritt’s sort-of revisionist Western is the exact opposite of a success. I’m perfectly okay with message Westerns (and pretty much on board with the message here) but in this case, the message seems to overwhelm the Western and the characters, with everyone seeming to act the way they do because they need to for the film to make its point instead for reasons of character psychology. The acting is consequently once removed from the characters and much too consciously “acting” for my tastes, everyone (except Diane Cilento) tending to stiffly declare the film’s too-clever (as in, “more interested in being quoted and admired than in being dialogue, or actually all that clever”) lines. Add Ritt’s direction with its lack of dynamic bordering on leadenness, and you have a film that does not work for me at all.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011): Speaking of films where my low opinion is less than the majority vote, here’s George Nolfi’s romance based on a Philip K. Dick story featuring Matt Damon as a character directly out of a Frank Capra film (complete with vague pseudo-politics and Salt of the Earth bullshit) and Emily Blunt as a woman who never gets the slightest bit of agency from a movie that’s all about more or less sinister forces robbing Damon’s character of all agency (and no, the film clearly doesn’t see the irony there). There’s a true deus ex machina ending that doesn’t fit anything that came before philosophically, a lot of exposition of relatively simple ideas, bog standard romance bits I’ve seen done much better in films that pretend to be much less ambitious, and quite a bit of running around. It’s certainly not a horrible film, but if you want to see a romance actually keeping in spirit with the best of Dick, you’re much better off watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, even though that one is not actually based on a Dick story.

The Station Agent (2003): This film by Tom McCarthy on the other hand is a wonderful example of US independent filmmaking. A quiet and unassuming film about loneliness and the walls someone has to build around himself because he’s born slightly different, and too many people suck, this never loses itself in nihilism or kitsch. Instead, there’s sadness that feels like the sadness of actual people, a wry, warm humour tempering quiet desperation, and a deeply human sense of hope. All this is created through McCarthy’s calm and thoughtful direction and writing as well as through brilliant performances by Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale. Well, and through the shared knowledge that trains are indeed awesome.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Prikosnoveniye (1992)

aka (The) Contact

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Olga Nikolayevna kills her little son Kolya and then herself. Andrey (Aleksandr Zuyev), the most laid-back and friendly cop in Russia, gets on the case. His investigation leads the policeman to Olga's lover. At first, the man - who has an undefeatable alibi - tries to warn Andrey off from any further enquiries, but when the cop persists and waves off any danger, the man explains that he knows well why Olga and Kolya died: Olga's father had convinced her that the afterlife needed her, life on Earth being no good anyhow, and after a long time of pushing and prodding, she agreed. The most troubling part of that story is the fact that Olga's father has been dead for twelve years. Supposedly, the father's shrouded ghost had been visiting his daughter regularly for years.

Shortly after their talk, Andrey's witness hangs himself.

Not surprisingly, the policeman doesn't buy the dead man's story completely, but since his own theory is that a group of mobster uses hypnosis and psychological tricks to drive people to suicide, one can't exactly call him a sceptic. Andrey's further investigations lead him to Olga's sister Marina (Maryana Polteva). Marina, too, says she is regularly visited by her dead father, and has now also had a little visit by her sister and nephew. Her father, she explains, belongs to a class of creatures called the Forzy. These "Forzy" are ghosts who spend their time driving good people to suicide because these people are supposedly needed in the afterlife and not on Earth. Consequently, Marina's dad has been haranguing her to be a good girl and kill herself for years now.

Andrey's relative scepticism soon enough dissolves, because he too witnesses things he can't explain in any natural way. One suspects that Andrey falling in love with Marina also quickens his growing belief in the supernatural.

When the rude dead people try to kill Marina's little daughter to make her mother more susceptible to suicidal thoughts, Andrey tries to make a pact with Marina's dead father. He will stop being a good person if the dead guy will only leave him, the two people he already sees as his family and his beloved dog in peace. That pact is easier made then held, though, for these are ghosts that can already be angered by hearing Andrey's catchphrase "life is amazing and beautiful", which is a bit of an overreaction to sentimentality if you ask me.

There's way too little information about Russian genre movies of the early 90s online in any language I can understand, so I have to treat a movie like Prikosnoveniye as an artefact of a time and place for filmmaking that is somewhat strange and impenetrable.

What is clear is that Albert S. Mkrtchyan's movie was produced on a pretty low budget. Special effects - even when they would be useful to further the film's cause - are few and far between, and what there is of them is of the kind that gets the idea of what they are supposed to represent across, but not much more. Fortunately, Mkrtchyan was obviously conscious of this problem, and so decided to trust his audience's imagination and just don't show much of the supernatural for large parts of the film, instead using hints and ambiguity. The best demonstration of the director's technique in this regard is surely the scene in which Andrey makes his pact with the dead man. Andrey talks to the unmoving picture of his enemy on a gravestone, and is answered (or is he?) via announcements over the speaker of a railway station that is situated close-by. It's a wonderfully budget-conscious way to connect the supernatural and everyday life. Because Prikosnoveniye is even stranger at heart than that, the scene's end finds Andrey suddenly in Kiev, far from the graveyard he has been in before, without the faintest idea how he got there.

The budgetary problems only become visible as problems once the movie has reached its final act and an action sequence and a collapsing building are called for. The former is staged incredibly awkwardly, while the latter is frankly a bit crap. Both sequences fit the dramatic escalation of the plot, but are tonally at odds with the slow sly cleverness of the rest of the movie.

Which is a bit of a problem seeing as how the movie's rather philosophical tone in its first two thirds is its greatest strength. Said tone is - at least for eyes like mine not terribly accustomed to the way Russian and Soviet films works - strange in the best meaning of the word. Formally and visually, Mkrtchan's film has a feeling of dry, sometimes even bland, realism, full of scenes that go on slightly too long and that put more observational energy on the quotidian (watch Andrey play with his dog, watch Andrey's colleague make dinner while they discuss stuff the audience already knows, etc.) than is usual even in horror films that are about the break-in of the exceptional into the quotidian. Even the scenes where Andrey and Marina discuss the ghostly conspiracy are filmed in this way, giving them a veneer of normality the patently outrageous ideas expressed in them should have nothing to do with.

Under the film's seemingly bland and calm surface, though, lies an undertone of true strangeness and a world view that borders on the nihilist. The film never comes right out and says if it agrees with the ghosts, and never defines if they are malevolent or on the level with their disgust for life as we know it, but that makes the philosophical horror behind it them more effective than a more direct Liggottian statement about the absurdity of life would have done.

Beside its nihilist side and its distressed realism, the film has even more to offer. There's another underlying level where Prikosnoveniye also uses the structure of a fairy tale for its purposes - the relative easiness with which everyone accepts the supernatural, the pact with the dead and the ruination of the pact through the repeated (of course thrice) utterance of a very specific phrase all belong into the realm of the fairy tale, and seem to dance a very peculiar dance with the film's surface blandness as well as with its philosophical horrors.

What Prikosnoveniye isn't, is a horror movie that does much (or, if you're only used to horror films of the last few decades, anything) that's horrifying on its surface level. That's no problem at all for me, but if your tastes run to films more directly scary, this will most probably not be your cup of tea.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

In short: The Last Case of August T. Harrison (2015)

Venice, California. When his son Jason (Eric Gorlow) asks retired private detective August T. Harrison (Jerry Lacy, who apparently in younger years played another private detective on supernatural soap “Dark Shadows”, among other roles) to help out an acquaintance of his with an investigation, the old gent soon finds himself confronted with rather more cosmic mysteries than he could have expected.

That acquaintance, Eleanora Williams (Maggie Wagner), asks August to find a former associate of hers named Drake Johnson (Max Landwirth) who has disappeared; or rather, she wants August to find some film footage Drake apparently absconded with. At first, the elderly detective’s investigation seems to lead nowhere, but eventually, he’ll learn a bit more about the true nature of the universe than can strictly be good for anyone, and will have to try and prevent the end of the world as we know it. He might even meet one Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Nathan Wilson), deceased yet rather sprightly.

Lovecraftian microbudget horror is something of a sub-genre all of its own. As it goes with microbudget horror, a lot of the films in the sub-genre aren’t terribly good, but then, that’s inevitable with any kind of human expression, and most certainly with the sort of things made by semi-professionals and amateurs in their spare time. Just look at the blog you’re reading! In the last few years, I’ve increasingly avoided writing about the examples of the style I’ve seen and didn’t like; it’s generally neither fun nor useful for anyone to get grumpy about other people’s labours of love, and if I feel the need to get cranky about movies, there’s crap not made by human beings like the Tom Cruise Mummy to maul.

However, Ansel Faraj’s The Last Case of August T. Harrison isn’t one of those Lovecraftian microbudget films that make appreciating them difficult. Sure, it does bear the marks of its budget. It is sometimes rough around the edges of framing and staging, but for every awkward moment, there are two that are clever, atmospheric or simply effective. The acting feels generally more natural than it does in many a microbudget film, with dialogue (and dialogue direction) that flows nicely where you’d usually expect a stop and start affair full of awkward pauses and strange performance decisions. As a whole, Faraj’s script is one of the film’s greatest virtues. It is well paced, well plotted, clever in its allusions to Lovecraft without making them overbearing, and full of neat little ideas the film then goes on to execute well.

I also found the way August’s private troubles and the cosmic ones intersected very effective. Entwining the emotional and human side with the cosmic actually is something a lot of cosmic horror in the movies struggles more than a little with, either by laying it on too thick or by ignoring human affairs completely, so the thoughtful approach here is appreciated.

And of course, there’s the fine core performance by Jerry Lacy that provides the film with grounding as well as an emotional core.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Belko Experiment (2016)

The office drones of the US company Belko Industries working in an office block rather far outside of Bogotá in Colombia are looking forward to another boring day doing the sort of vaguely defined human resources work whose use the people actually involved can barely comprehend. Their day begins rather peculiar, though, for there’s a new, heavily armed troop of guards securing the place, turning away all non-American employees at the gate for “security reasons”.

Once the work day has actually started, a voice over the building’s intercom calmly demands of the employees to kill two among their number, or more of them will be killed instead. What sounds like a sick joke becomes rather more disturbing when the building is completely sealed off from the outside by automated metal shutters. And that’s before our protagonists learn that the tracking devices implanted into their necks to dissuade the local gangs from kidnappings are actually explosives built to make a nasty mess out of one’s head.

Not surprisingly, panic and general human shittiness ensues, with people generally tending to one of two factions: one, let’s call them the ones with souls, kinda-sorta lead by Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) want to try and find some way to escape or seek help. The other group, very much dominated by the company’s local ex-military COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn), is set to break into the security guard’s armoury and decide whom to murder to satisfy the disembodied voice very, very quickly. Barry does the expected mumbling about hard choices all men in power begin when it is time to sacrifice others for their interests, so everything is set up for a bit of a massacre, or “just another day at the office”, like we called it in one of my former places of employ.

Watching The Belko Experiment, one might start speculating that its writer James Gunn has developed a bit of a hankering for the more drastic films he made before he started working for Marvel on the (decidedly beloved by me, as well as millions) Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Directed by Australian Greg McLean in his usually efficient and effective manner, The Belko Experiment is a film with an angry, gory streak, full of the kind of black humour I find difficult not to read as a product of frustration with the world and the people inhabiting it right now.

In its bloody, fast and furious way, McLean’s film is really rather fun, as bizarre as that sounds as a description of a film in which nearly eighty people die in exceedingly bloody ways, quite a few of them deftly drawn as human beings by Gunn’s script and a bunch of talented actors. Even the characters that are outright psychopaths or sociopaths (including a memorably intense and brutal performance by John C. McGinley) have reasons – well, excuses, if we’re being honest – for what they do, so there’s a feeling of actual stakes to the action and the carnage.

In spirit, The Belko Experiment reminds me of certain violently satiric and angry movies produced by Roger Corman in the late 70s and early 80s (Death Race 2000 certainly comes to mind), despite its decided lack of camp appeal. There’s a comparable degree of honest anger and frustration under the artfully polished surface, at least, that makes the film more effective than many comparable movies about people locked in somewhere having to play sadistic games, as well as a rather clear-eyed idea of how fascism works in practice.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

In short: Mona Lisa (1986)

Small time gangster George (Bob Hoskins) is released from prison. His stay has - apart from years of his life - cost him the relationship with his daughter. His marriage was already broken before. Mortwell (Michael Caine in full-on delightful scenery chewing mode), the man for whom George went to prison, didn’t hold up his part of the usual bargain either, so no money and protection went to George or his family.

Now that George is released and asking to get what is his, Mortwell – not in person, mind you, he’s now clearly to posh to personally talk to the Georges of this world, unless he wants something from them, of course – does apparently try to make up for his failings a little by arranging a job for him. George is going to drive and protect high class independent call-girl Simone (Cathy Tyson) on her job working the West End hotels. At first, the two don’t exactly hit it off, clashing in class, race and personality, but they do develop a rapport and a degree of trust. Or at least, George falls in love with Simone while she asks him to help her out with the trouble that really drives her – finding a girl she was working with when she was still a street prostitute, and, perhaps rescuing her.

In my experience, Neil Jordan’s movies are either brilliant or completely unwatchable, and the relation seems to be about sixty to forty for the brilliance. The man’s work is certainly not predictable. Mona Lisa is definitely one of the brilliant ones, mixing elements and structure of British crime film with a sharp look at the way sexual exploitation is embedded in class structures, and adds an examination of the anxieties and blind spots coming with a particular kind of working class maleness, particularly when confronted with a woman like Simone who doesn’t fit quite so easily into any of the roles anyone wants to ascribe to her.

Instead of treating these things in as abstract a way as this sounds, though, Jordan truly looks at them through his characters. These, he treats with a compassionate gaze that doesn’t excuse the characters’ failings or absolve them of responsibility for their actions but understands how much of what they do follows the roads society has prescribed for them, and precisely how their life experiences shape their reactions, too. At the same time, Mona Lisa is also a cracking good crime film, one which deeply and intelligently argues with/against the noir idea of the femme fatale, a film about the vagaries of love, a stylish prime example of late 80s filmmaking that swings between the gritty, the slick and even the mildly whimsical, as well as an acting showcase for Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson who both give highly nuanced – and not at all showy - performances that are career highlights in careers rich in those.

I generally don’t like to use words like “masterpiece” at all (owing to my general dislike for the canon as a concept as well as for the idea of objectivity when thinking about art) but then, how else should one call a film that does everything perfectly right?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

The old West. A pair of drifters and murderers (David Arquette and good old Sid Haig) accidentally desecrate the burial ground belonging to a group of cannibalistic troglodytes. Sid Haig gets himself murdered right quick, but Arquette’s character manages to escape to a nearby town where he raises the interest of local Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) enough to get himself shot in the leg.

Hunt calls in Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the unofficial yet highly competent actual town doctor without a degree - not to be confused with the alcoholic official town doctor we never get to see. The sheriff leaves her to tend to the prisoner under the care of his deputy, and calls it a night. The next morning, he finds a stable boy dead, and Lili, the deputy, the drifter and a bunch of horses gone. The murderers and abductors were of course the troglodytes the drifter accidentally led into town; at first, the Sheriff suggests it must have been an Indian attack, but as a quickly called in Native American diagnoses in a scene that feels a lot like the film holding up a placard with “See, we’re not racist against Native Americans” written on it, these weren’t actual Indians but members of a tribe of a degenerate and cannibalistic monster people dwelling in caves, though they might look like Indians to the unenlightened white people. See, it’s totally okay the film’s not going to give these guys even a single human trait, because the Indian said it’s alright.

Anyway, the Sheriff, his elderly reserve deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), so racist even the Old West characters around him don’t approve John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Lili’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who is suffering from a pretty debilitating leg wound since falling from a roof trying to be manly, are all the posse this town gets together to follow the troglodytes to their lair to save the abducted. Things won’t exactly go to plan.

So, did anyone ever really miss the cannibal movie? 2015 finally brought us the return of films about inhuman brown people eating white people nobody asked for, though at least without the real animal violence, because that really wouldn’t cut it today. I very much hope one day one of them will get around to perhaps do at least as much as Cannibal Holocaust did when examining its own assumptions – or, you know, just replace their cannibals with actual monsters and be done with it.

S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk isn’t that film; it is, in fact, not interested in facing the problem at the core of this particular sub-genre head on at all, therefore we get the scene described above, which really seems like an attempt at creating an easy out to me. On the other hand, the scene also suggests the film isn’t really interested in this sort of discussion of race at all and really rather sees its cannibals as representations of the dark heart of humanity, dehumanizing violence and so on and so forth. That’s of course problematic in contemporary parlance, but I’m generally trying to take on films on their own terms, and so am willing to appreciate the film is actually quite clear about its terms early on, giving me the opportunity to take them or leave them. Given how adept the film is at what it actually wants to do, I took them.

Once and if you do, you might just be surprised by the first one and a half hours of film you actually get, because while the troglodytes are introduced early on, for the longest time the film belongs to the calm and unhurried kind of modern western, with dialogue that at first seems to be a bit too indebted to Quentin Tarantino but then turns out to carry a different kind of emphasis and emotional weight that seems specific to Zahler (at least when you’ve read some of the man’s novels which I can highly recommend), and some spectacularly moody landscape shots that stand in strong contrast to the somewhat bland looking scenes taking place in town. There’s very little – though just enough – plot in these first two thirds of the film. Instead, Zahler puts all his considerable talent into creating a sense of a place and its dislocating brutality yet also into making the characters feel deeply human and complicated, even Fox’s vile racist whom most films would turn into an easy target for their audience’s hatred or give a too easy shot at redemption. There’s an honesty to the characterisation that feels special and personal, rooted in certain genre conventions but given space to breathe and live by dialogue that only seems self-indulgent on first contact, and based on a bunch of excellent acting performances.

This does of course make things emotionally harder to stomach when the film finally gets its cannibal movie on; I at least had grown rather fond of the characters and didn’t really want to see them getting ripped to pieces in horrible ways. So in that regard, the film too is quite the success, with one or two scenes that leave you squirming not just because they are unpleasant to watch but because they actually mean something.

Combine that with how uncomfortable I still am with the whole not-really-native-American cannibals, and you have, well, a film I find effective, moving, and meaningful yet also find myself struggling with loving unreservedly not because it’s a bad movie – it is indeed a very fine one – but because I wish it were different in a single aspect I found difficult to overlook in a film made today (well, or 2015).

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: When it's red you're dead.

Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No (2015): Yeah, well, I kinda could have lived without this one. It’s not just that the sharknado jokes have grown kinda stale this time around (though I have to give the film points for actually going for sharknado Earth worldbuilding), it’s the addition of endless celebrity and politician cameos that drag this thing down, as well as the scenes that make a dubious advert for Universal’s stupid amusement park down in Florida. There’s also just only so many ways you can show Ian Ziering chainsaw a flying shark, alas.

Knock Knock (2015): I don’t think I’m ever going to get into the films of Eli Roth, and at this point, I don’t believe it’s my fault anymore. It is, in any case, a bit of a shame, for I don’t doubt there’s the talent in Roth to actually make great, or at least good movies. Visually, the man’s films are always slick, often inventive, and the man clearly has the basic’s of horror film and thriller structures down flat. The problem is he’s putting all these powers in service of films that are generally obnoxious, waste opportunities for depth by the dozen, and too often have the basic vibe of a visit to the world view and mind of a total asshat. So, as usual, this one consists of nasty things happening to characters the film never gives me a reason to care about, avoids all opportunities to say something interesting (or coherent) about class and gender wars while making pretentious gestures suggesting otherwise, and just isn’t compelling enough as a pure horror film to make it possible to ignore its vacuity.

Altergeist (2014): I actually found it a lot easier to squeeze a bit of enjoyment out of Tedi Sarafian’s (of those Sarafians) directorial debut. Not just because it’s easier to overlook the flaws in a first film but because this film – while not containing any more depth than Roth’s – does not pretend it’s any more than it is: a slick looking film about young, pretty internet ghost hunters getting very much out of their depth in a haunted winery and dying. That is, until the film’s final thirty minutes or so pull a different fortean rabbit out of the hat, and the ghosts become a mere sideshow to the true monsters. It’s all very silly, of course, but here, at least, I found myself having fun instead of becoming increasingly annoyed.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (2010)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

China in the 7th Century, during the Tang Dynasty. To commemorate her crowning as the first (and, unfortunately, last) Empress of China, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) has commissioned the building of an unpleasantly gigantic statue of the Buddha pretty much next to her palace grounds. Her rather dictatorial policies have earned the Empress a lot of enemies, so it doesn't come as much of a surprise when trouble hits her construction project.

Two of the people responsible for the building of the Godzilla-large statue are killed. More surprising than the fact of their death is the way the men die - spontaneous combustion. The deaths may very well have been caused by the victims' moving of some magical pieces of script hanging inside of the statue, but the Empress is only prone to superstition when it suits her, and stays sceptical. After her chief chaplain (as the not exactly trustworthy subtitles call him) visits her in form of a talking deer and mutters an imprecise prophecy, the Empress decides that the stars ask her to put the mystery into the hands of Judge Dee (Andy Lau).

Dee isn't exactly the biggest fan of the ruler himself, what with him having spent the last eight years in one of her prisons for acts of rebellion, but he still takes on the job she wants him to do. I suspect the man just loves to solve riddles.

With the help of the Empress's closest servant Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bing-Bing), whose job it is to keep the good Judge in line, and albinotic secret police man Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), Dee begins to investigate. Despite his fabulous knowledge of martial arts and his very big brain, Dee will need all the help he can get, because he'll not only have to thwart a secret conspiracy, but will also have to escape the metaphorical pitfalls of politics and morals, as well as various pointy and sharp objects various shadowy figures want to poke him with.

One (among only a very few) positive developments in Hong Kong based movie-making of the last few years has been the return of directors like Tsui Hark and John Woo to Hong Kong and China to make decent movies again. The way their careers in the US were going, Hark and Woo would probably have had to direct Steven Seagal movies next, so their return to making actual films with actual actors again is something to make an old fan like me pretty happy.

Not that Detective Dee's director Tsui Hark - whose return to his native grounds came quite a bit earlier than that of Woo - has made much of the comparatively better working environment in Hong Kong in the last few years. Before Dee Hark's best efforts of this century have been rather pedestrian, very much giving me the impression of being the products of a man who has too many technical chops to make truly abysmal films outside of Hollywood, but who has lost the inspiration and energy of his youth without finding a suitable replacement for these traits.

This first Detective Dee movie by Hark (at least a second one will soon follow) - based on a historical character who had been a hero of legends and novels in China and was later used in Western detective novels, too - is a big step in the right direction for the director.

The film is a martial arts fantasy mystery (so at least genre-wise quite a bit like Tsui's debut movie, The Butterfly Murders) that just barely (and with more than just one unspoken yet clear "but") manages the required, undignified kowtow to the imperialist ideals of contemporary China in its final five minutes, but is really more interested in the things many of the director's best films are interested in: flying people, weird fu, the grey areas where duty and personal feelings collide, a bit of gender-bending, and Andy Lau punching out attacking CGI-deer. Not unexpectedly, this is the sort of film that might take place in a precisely located historical era, yet that only cares about the actual morals, technology and feel of its era when it's convenient or interesting, which, if you ask me, is as it should be in a pulp adventure. Plus, this approach makes the addition of various steampunk elements possible.

As a Hong Kong pulp adventure movie, Detective Dee is a lot of fun. Once the narrative gets going, Tsui basically moves from one interesting and/or fun action set piece to the next, with only a few stops for characterization, moral deliberation, and detection in the mix. It's clear that the director knows what an audience wants from its pulpy adventure movies and is all too happy to provide it.

However, it has to be said that the choreography of the action scenes (by good old Sammo Hung, no less) isn't quite up to the highest standards of martial arts cinema. While the action is certainly professionally realized and exciting, there aren't many moments here that let one gasp with excitement or be startled by the film's beauty. The action - like Tsui's direction itself - tends a bit to the safe and professional where I'd have wished for the strange or ambitious. Of course, Detective Dee's type of "safe and professional" still beats many comparable Hollywood movies - as well as far too many Hong Kong films of the last decade - in this regard, even without breaking a sweat.

Acting-wise, the film is on just about the same level, though Andy Lau and Li Bing-Bing have no chemistry at all, which doesn't help the non-fighty bits of the movie much.

Clearly, when the worst thing I can say about a new film by Tsui Hark is that it's merely very good instead of great, I'm only complaining because the film's quality shows that the director still has a great film in him and not just a pretty great one, and just hasn't delivered quite what he's capable of here.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

In short: Tonight She Comes (2016)

Various people – postman James (Nathan Eswine), college drunks Ashley (Larissa White) and Lyndsey (Cameisha Cotton) mainly -converge on your proverbial cabin in the woods. They’ve got friends missing, but since this is a horror movie, they find the time for a bit of alcohol and sex. That is until Kristy (Dal Nicole), one of the missing, returns. She’s clearly not well, what with her new tendency to stare disquietingly and murder people. One potentially possessed woman isn’t quite enough for a whole film, so the kids will also have to deal with a family of classic horror movie hillbillies who seem to have conjured up the problem. Hilarity and gore ensues.

Matt Stuertz’s Tonight She Comes is one of those films I can’t really blame people for disliking. Not because it is a bad movie but because it reassembles elements any viewer may know and love from other cheap horror flicks in generally slightly skewed, sometimes too silly, and always peculiar ways. That’s not the sort of thing that’ll go down well with anyone actually looking forward to a standard slasher, but even if any given viewer is okay with general peculiarity, she still needs to connect with Stuertz’s sense of humour as well as cope with a films that often has the somewhat lumbering quality of something stitched together out of different body parts by a hunchback named Igor. In other words, the film has its charms, but these charms are rather specific.

After a rather rough start – I find scenes of the worst postman in the world farting around with a friend and two girls getting drunk and bitching not exactly riveting – I turned out to be rather taken with the film. While there’s hardly a horror cliché left out, Stuertz tends to do fun things with them, and while only about half of the jokes in the film work for me (there’s a bit too much demonstrative transgressiveness going on), that’s still a lot of jokes, sight gags and dubious uses of tampons to enjoy. Add generally decent, sometimes even moody, photography and lighting, serviceable acting, and a general air of enthusiasm, and you’ll hear me talking about a good time.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sam Was Here (2016)

Warning: if you can talk about this one without using spoilers, you are a better person than I am.

The late 90s. Salesman Sam (Rusty Joiner) is supposed to acquire new clients in the Mojave desert, of all places. Something’s not right at all with the region he’s visiting, though: everything – private homes, motels, whatever – is deserted. It’s not so much as if nobody’s home but rather feels as if he’d just stepped into a place right after everyone decided to leave. The only sign of actual humanity is a strange call-in radio show where people let off steam. The moderator – a certain Eddy – talks about a serial killer who seems to be roaming the area, to which Eddy regularly adds further vague and rather surreal details.

Sam increasingly loses it, holding circular monologues about his coming back home soon for “the little one’s” birthday into his wife’s phone mail box as well as his boss’s without ever hearing back from anyone. All the while, Eddy becomes increasingly aggressive towards the killer whom he soon identifies as a certain “Sam”, seemingly suggesting a lynch mob as well as the police waiting for him. So, when Sam finally does encounter someone, things turn violent.

Christophe Deroo’s Sam Was Here is a film that’ll certainly annoy at least half of its viewers because it absolutely denies its audience any final and definite explanations to what’s going on around and with Sam: there are suggestions he might be in some kind of purgatory or hell for something he has done; or that he might suffer from paranoid delusions; or that our old friends, John A. Keel style transdimensionals might be involved (Eddy would certainly fit well into the final third of Keel’s “The Mothman Prophecies”); one might certainly come up with other ideas, too. Your guess is as good as mine there, for the film doesn’t really deliver enough clues to be solved like a puzzle box, perhaps because it tries to touch the truly weird and disquieting by denying us an explanation, or rather by giving us more than one explanation none of which completely fits what we see.

I have a high tolerance for this sort of ambiguity, though even I am not completely convinced the film doesn’t lack a clearer meaning because the filmmaker just thought some scenes were a cool idea, coherence be damned. Which, come to think of it, isn’t a terrible reason to put something into a film, and even seems a bit refreshing in a time when the most fashionable scriptwriting rules are particularly prescriptive, and therefor a bit boring. Boring, Deroo’s film certainly isn’t.

On a somewhat more concrete level, the director demonstrates a finely developed sense for picturing the creepiness of large, empty spaces, as well as for the disquieting effect of places that should be populated by humans but are mysteriously empty. Deroo puts Emmanuel Bernard’s slick photography to excellent, atmospheric use there.

Later on, the film also adds a bit of paranoia, and a bit of the old ultra-violence, with a nice side-line in the grotesque. It’s not just that Sam’s isolation via emptiness is shifted onto the different kind of isolation which comes with the territory of being hunted by the few people he encounters, it’s also that these people all act not quite right, not like vigilantes as much as a mirror world idea of what vigilantes are, as if filtered through a mind that isn’t quite clear about the way actual humans act. The effect is disquieting, as is the half-accidental and increasingly violent way in which Sam strikes back.

Rusty Joiner’s performance as Sam is very fine too, starting as your typical everyman, a bit down on his luck, a bit frustrated but increasingly showing cracks that suggests abysses to his characters rather than depths.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In short: Death Note (2017)

It is rather interesting to compare Adam Wingard’s manga adaptation for Netflix with the Japanese live action version. Where the Japanese movies were apparently trying to copy the complete plot structure and include every pointless bit of minutiae from the (very good, for those who don’t know it) original manga without any thought for the needs of a different medium, and therefore ended up slow as molasses and very much on the tedious side, Wingard’s adaptation takes great liberties with the source material but races through the plot beats and characters it keeps with wild abandon. It’s enough to give anyone whiplash, so much so that the movie often feels not so much like an actual movie but like an attempt to cut the material of one or two whole seasons of a TV show into a film-like thing.

Consequently, everything about the film is superficial: there’s no time for characterisation, certainly nothing of the depth of ethical discussions of the manga (how much thought can you put into the thirty seconds you have before you need to race to the next plot point, after all?), and scenes that should have emotional impact never hit because the film never takes the time it would need to build an emotional (or intellectual) connection with the viewer.

Emotional connections aren’t the only things Death Note doesn’t bother to build: there’s no atmosphere because you’d need to spend time on building it; no suspense because again, you’d need to build it up; and no tension not based on characters acting like tropes instead of people because, surprise, the film never takes its time to establish anything about them beyond the barest clichés – and that of course as quickly as possible.

I’d criticize the acting, as well, but then, there isn’t anything in the script that gives the actors much to work with, and there’s – of course – no space in the film to let them breathe a little anyway. Only Lakeith Stanfield as L leaves any impression at all, and that’s more because the film keeps many of the behavioural tics and visual cues of the original character, which at least makes him interesting to look at, than on account of much actual acting; not his fault, obviously.

As a whole, the film doesn’t so much feel like a narrative but like the summary of one, and lacks any kind of tension, or any drive beyond hurtling from plot beat to plot beat to plot beat for no reason at all. Death Note is pretty to look at, at least, but if ever a film deserved the old cliché about nothing waiting beyond the pretty surface, it’s this one.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Surviving the Game (1994)

Jack Mason (Ice-T) has hit rock bottom. He is homeless, and making his life even more difficult by torturing himself for something pretty damn traumatic that happened in his past. When his only friend, an elderly white guy, dies, Jack gives up completely and tries to kill himself by walking into traffic. He’s rescued – or at least dissuaded – by Walter Cole (Charles S. Dutton) who works at the local food bank and thinks Jack is just the right man to work for him and his partner as a wilderness guide, even though the only external wilderness Jack knows is on the streets (or probably the Streets).

Alas, once Jack has gone through a curious encounter/job interview with Walter’s partner Thomas Burns (Rutger Hauer in his best creep mode), and he ends up with Thomas, Walter and a group of clients in the wilderness, things turn out to be less empowering for our hero than he thought. In fact, Jack isn’t there to help some rich idiots hunt, but rather to be the human prey of former CIA men and assorted perverts – the most dangerous game, you know the drill. Co-hunting Jack are psychiatrist Doc Hawkins (Gary Busey in a short, surprisingly nuanced and creepy performance), cowboy John Griffin (John C. McGinley), and rich people supremacist Wolfe (F. Murray Abraham) who has brought his son Derek (William McNamara) to make him a real man by making him complicit in sadistic murder. Turns out this amount of injustice and cruelty is just the therapy Jack needed, and soon, he’s rather effectively striking back at his tormentors.

Among the group of rappers gone genre actors, for my taste Ice-T has always been the best one, probably because he usually makes efforts to act his characters instead of exclusively performing his standard persona. So it is no surprise that Ice-T in a film directed by undervalued (most probably because he’s black, if we’re being honest) Ernest R. Dickerson makes a rather fine action hero; and he is the more interesting kind of US action hero to boot – the one with troubles, who isn’t a perfect killing machine. In fact, the film makes rather a point out of our hero not being a killer by nature or inclination but a guy who defends himself with as much force as necessary and who is even willing to give the worst people imaginable a choice and a chance to walk away. Which is certainly more than they did for him.

Another obvious point in Surviving the Game’s favour is its cast of a host of great character actors, all with copious experience at being entertaining Bad People. They all can chew as much scenery as is needed but also don’t chew more than they should this time around. Not that the characters are exactly subtle, mind you: each and every one of them does after all represent something that is very wrong with (white, powerful) America and its structures turned up to eleven. Still, Dickerson treats these crazy freaks at times much more seriously than you’d expect, giving even the worst of them some depth beyond their inherent horribleness. Which doesn’t make them better people or people we as an audience don’t want to see killed or maimed (preferably both) by Ice-T, but sure turns them into much more interesting action movie villains. Obviously this also gives the film’s political arguments about the intersections of race and class in the USA further heft.

Mind you, this is not first and foremost a deep analysis of US society but a great (perhaps the greatest, depending on the day you ask me) action movie version of The Most Dangerous Game that just doesn’t see why it shouldn’t also consciously comment on the world around it; its makers are after all living in it and had to live through part of it.

As US style action director, Dickerson here is as fine as they come, delivering many a tense scene, a handful of pleasantly absurd ones, and nary a moment after the very effective set-up that isn’t exciting. He also really knows how to get the best out of his actors – which isn’t always typical of directors good at action – by leaving them space to work. There’s an incredible monologue by Busey’s character about his fucked up childhood in the film’s big dinner scene that alone would be worth the price of admission but in this film it’s just one of many great scenes, some of them delightfully and cleverly cheesy, some just clever.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Three Spectacular Films Make a Post: Dive Beneath The Surface

The Lure aka Córki dangingu (2015): Apart from the bare facts, Agnieszka Smoczynska’s film is one of those films which should be watched rather than written up. Fortunately, the basic facts should make this one enticing to exactly the sort of people who will enjoy it. So let’s just say this is a modern Polish retelling of the tale of the little mermaid as a musical taking place in a sleazy nightclub, with some fantastic musical numbers, eye-popping and often deep production design, some gore, nudity both sexy and grotesque, incredible acting particularly by mermaids Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olsuanska, one eye for the tragic and the other eye for the comical, feminist undertones carried by a director who somehow makes this stuff look like an aesthetic whole. If that sounds like the sort of thing you like, this is going to be a thing you adore. I, at least, found myself like that living cliché – the viewer glued to the screen.

The Love Witch (2016): Anna Biller’s rather more obviously feminist film using the perfectly emulated and enhanced ideal of late 60s/early 70s exploitation movies to explore concepts of love, desire, the male and female gaze in practice, and the pressures of societal expectations on women via the murderous adventures of one Elaine (Samantha Robinson) and her habit to first magically seduce and then murder men when they can’t live up to her (or really, her society’s) ideals of love or manliness would probably make a fantastic double feature, seeing as it shares The Lure’s deep aesthetic unity, though its aesthetics are very different ones. Both films also share the fact that they’re pretty incredible in a every respect.

I say the film emulates and enhances the ideal of the exploitation movies whose model it uses, but really, no actual exploitation movie ever looked this consciously constructed, seldom this intense in their use of colours, this intoxicatingly beautiful. Nor did these films usually use their slightly off acting styles as intelligent as lead Samantha Robinson and the rest of the cast do here. If that (and some of the reception) make the film sound insufferably camp – it isn’t insufferable all. There’s irony, there’s distance, but this is a film that is serious about its aesthetics and its message even though it also can see the joke in the former; it’s just not actually joking about it.

All the President’s Men (1976): Saying that the most famous film of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy is a timely film to watch is so obvious I’m a bit embarrassed to even have mentioned it. However, it stands to mention how downright optimistic the film looks from today, seeing as it does suggest people in power will actually eventually be held accountable one way or the other, and features at least parts of the free press actually interested in truth more than access to the political feedings trough.

On the filmmaking side, it’s a brilliant film, calmly told, with an undertone of dread under the surface of an investigative tale that meets its audience at eye level and clearly has no doubt viewers will be able to follow it, without feeling the need to exposit or over-explain, or to add much overt drama to the proceedings, because all that’s in the story if you care to look closely. Add performances of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (who wins at reaction shots) in their prime and a delightful turn by Jason Robards and you have a pretty damn perfect film.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

aka The Spiritualist

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Stinking rich widow Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) lost her beloved husband Paul (Donald Curtis) two years ago in the sort of car crash that can only be described with the adjective "fiery". Though Chris has a new beloved in form of the horrifically boring and prosaic district attorney Martin Abbott (Richard "Wooden" Carlson), and a marriage proposal is in the air, she hasn't really come to grips with Paul's death. So it's not that much of a surprise when Chris one night thinks she hears a voice that might very well be Paul's calling out her name - or maybe it was just the sound of the waves hitting the beach close to her villa. On the beach, she doesn't find Paul's ghost, but rather a smarmy guy calling himself Alexis (Turhan Bey) who works on her with a highly practiced psychic spiel full of things no stranger could know about the woman.

At first, Chris is still wavering between fascination and scepticism, but a horrible nightmare, or rather a vision full of barely disguised wedding anxiety (which seems perfectly natural when one is to wed Richard Carlson), puts Chris over the edge, so she decides to visit Alexis in his "professional" capacity. A few tricks later, Chris is a regular customer of the psychic, a fact neither Martin nor her younger sister Janet (Cathy O'Donnell) are too happy with once they find out.

Martin and Chris seek out the help of a detective specialized in debunking phony psychics. Unfortunately, he recommends that Janet pay an pseudonymous visit to Alexis too to make clear that the man's a phony. That would be well and good if not for the fact that Alexis is quite the diligent professional and that Janet is improbably stupid. So now Chris and her sister are completely under the psychics' spell, as if they were a Texan sheriff's department.

Even worse, the psychic's wish for money isn't the biggest problem the sisters have; someone else is playing another game with them for even higher stakes.

The Amazing Mr. X is that most curious of animals, a fake psychic movie whose script is actually carefully constructed so that the supposedly supernatural occurrences are all accounted for and explained through more than just some cop shouting "phony psychic!" and some hand-waving in the film's final five minutes. Instead, the film's two scriptwriters explain what's going on early and often, and it's quite obvious that they have actually put some thought into the way a con like this would work in the real world. Then, because it would be a bit boring and obvious otherwise, they add a second, much more lethal con that sometimes crosses over with the first one to confuse matters and add moments of actual physical menace to the film.

It's a very effective combination based on honesty towards the film's audience and shows a belief in the usefulness of suspense to carry a movie that still wasn't all that common at that point in time. The Amazing Mr. X is pretty much what happens when the fake psychic movie is kidnapped by the early thriller.

The film's weaknesses are all on the acting side: while Turhan Bey and Lynn Bari work their respective melodramatic acting styles very well and quite nuanced, Richard Carlson is the sort of non-entity US movies of the 40s, 50s and 60s just loved to inflict on their audiences as their supposed heroes. Charmless, humourless and with the personality of a very boring robot, the best thing I can say about Carlson's performance is that he's not on screen all that often. The other problem child is Cathy O'Donnell's Janet Burke. Parts of her acting troubles are probably caused by the script’s indecisiveness on the question if Janet's the younger sister who has always mothered her older sibling, or an especially stupid twelve year old in the body of a twenty year old. O'Donnell's performance suggests she doesn't have an idea about that either, which results in her acting like a time-displaced moe character in 40s clothes. Unfortunately, she's much more important to the success or failure of the movie than Carlson is.

Getting back to the more positive aspects of The Amazing Mr. X, future blacklist victim Bernard Vorhaus's direction is often quite inventive. Even if the rest of the film were completely without merit, the staging of Chris's nightmare sequence and her near death in the final part of the movie alone would be worth watching; the former is as fine an example of the psychoanalytically influenced dream sequence so beloved of noir and its sister genres as you will find, while the latter is a wonderful example of how to make a difficult to stage scene look natural.

Vorhaus had excellent help in making his film moody and impressive too. His director of cinematography was John Alton, one of the DoPs of noir cinema. Alton brought much of the non-genre's visual trappings with him to films like this which most people wouldn't exactly call noirs (for my definition, The Amazing Mr. X lacks the nihilist streak of the "true" noir, but your mileage and definition will vary). There are moments of great visual beauty to be found throughout the film, beauty that lies in the expected atmospheric play of shadows as well as in Alton's often stunning use of light on reflecting surfaces that turns the film's world into a place where light and shadow are at once less real and more real than in our world.

Come to think of it, that's pretty much what Alexis makes his money with in the movie, too, which makes it an exceptionally clever addition to an exceptionally clever film.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In short: Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

Sophie (Florence Hartigan) returns to her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona to make a documentary about the disappearance of her brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) twenty years earlier. Fascinated by the Phoenix Lights, Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), his friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews) took a camera and went off into the desert to film a possible return of the lights. Their camera and the car were easily found, untouched, but neither the kids nor their bodies were ever seen again.

Of course, Sophie’s documentary – this being a POV horror film of the fake personal documentary type – contains copious amounts of the footage Josh shot until his disappearance, together with various interviews. Her research will finally lead Sophie to discover a second camera with a second tape of rather disturbing footage.

Cynics and bitter people may want to Insert their own usual intro about the tiredness of the POV horror style here – or not – but I found myself rather taken with this one. Of course, director Justin Barber did have an actual budget to work with (the 2.8 million dollars the IMDB suggests aren’t getting you far in blockbuster land, but the sum is at this time a proper mainstream horror movie budget), so some of the film’s virtues are simply thanks to it not being shot by amateurs on their weekends. You can expect proper acting - the performances are generally good without feeling too polished for the POV style –, shots that are lined up professionally even when they are supposed to be made by amateurs (but not idiots), and a decent sense of pacing.

There’s a nice flow to the tale, too. The film is using the narrative form of a dramatic personal documentary effectively, and generally feels convincing enough as an actual artefact. I also rather enjoyed the way it slots the actual Phoenix Lights into its plot, giving the whole affair an added feeling of veracity or at least delights the friend of forteana. The plot itself doesn’t diverge terribly from typical UFO mythology – there’s a reason why Josh has a “I WANT TO BELIEVE” poster on his wall – but it does tell its tale well while evoking a friendly feeling of nostalgia for those of us who have lived through the late 90s.

The characterisations are also stronger than typical of the sub-genre, and even though they aren’t exactly deep, they are enabling enough of an emotional connection to the characters to make one care about their fates.

All in all, this is a neat little film that probably won’t make anyone‘s list of new genre classics but that does use its well-worn elements effectively enough to be worthy of one’s time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Citizen X (1995)

The early 80s in Soviet Russia. Policemen stumble upon a number of corpses in the woods. Most of the dead are children and teenagers, who have been stabbed, mutilated and raped before and after death. Nobody seems to care too much, but newly appointed forensics scientist Viktor Burakov doesn’t just care, he is convinced these are the victims of a serial killer (Jeffrey DeMunn) who picks out his victims from the young and the destitute in railway stations. He is even be able to convince his direct superior, Colonel Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) of the truth of his conclusion, so Fetisov makes Burakov an actual policeman and gives the case to him. However, this being the Soviet bureaucracy in its worst phase, Fetisov has other bureaucrats to appease. It doesn’t help that Burakov has somehow managed not to learn some basic techniques of survival, like never saying what one truly thinks to hard-line bureaucrats, so he early on actively antagonizes exactly the sort of people who’ll go out of their way to put stones in his way for the next decade, a mounting pile of bodies be damned.

Then there’s the little problem that serial killers are obviously a product of the decadent Western lifestyle and just don’t exist in the USSR, so there’s no infrastructure at all to deal with a case like this, even if the bureaucracy were able to accept it. Instead, Burakov is ordered to round up “known homosexuals” and has to listen to complaints about investigating party members in good standing. Despite a heavy psychological and personal toll, the hatred of his superiors except Fetisov - who increasingly becomes his ally and friend - and little resources, Burakov keeps on the case over years, until the dawning of perestroika makes it possible for him to take steps that can lead to the apprehension of the killer.

(Freely) based on the actual case of the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo and the men who tried to catch him, Chris Gerolmo’s HBO TV movie is an exceptional film. Well, except for the absurd – and given the high standards of the rest of the production patently ridiculous – decision to have the actors play their roles with fake Russian accents, the sort of thing that’s okay – yet still stupid – in a pulp fantasy context but that’s tonally completely out of whack with a film like this.

For the film plays out as a dark, earnest, character-based police procedural without action scenes and little on-screen violence, with the wrinkle that in its historical context, quite a bit of the procedural aspect is political in nature and concerned with Burakov’s first surprised, then angry and later depressed attempts to get the Soviet bureaucracy to see reason, something no bureaucracy tends to be well equipped for at the best of times and in the best of places – and the USSR in the 80s certainly was not the best of much. Through Burakov’s eyes, the film paints a picture of the USSR of the time as a place of quiet desperation where the greyness of the surroundings seems to wash into the minds of people who mostly seem beaten and bruised far before the end of the Soviet Union, living as they do in a country that seems a lot like a corpse that just hasn’t realized it is dead. Obviously, this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to a specific time and place, and it is therefor not difficult at all to also apply the film’s view to other times and places – and not just under strictly totalitarian systems – where a culture of not seeing, not speaking, and scapegoating dominates; not always as obviously and heavily as in the film, but “not as bad as a utopian dream gone bad” isn’t much of a compliment.

However, despite its bleak portrayal of Soviet life, Citizen X isn’t a hopeless film. It also shows how Burakov’s tenacity and passion (and how Communist is the idea of this guy spending his whole life to improve that of his community?) slowly burns through Fetisov’s detached cynicism and turns that effective functionary into a human being again; and in the end, it also shows them catching Chikatilo.

Its treatment of Chikatilo – with whom we spend a few scenes from time to time during the investigation – is very typical of the film. Instead of going through melodramatic contortions and portraying him as a monster with the usual eye-rolling and “quid pro quo, Clarice”-ing, the film and DeMunn characterize him in a much more disturbing way: as a small, sad, pathetic man committing monstrous acts for reasons he clearly can’t fully comprehend, inadvertently enabled by a time and place that can’t even find enough passion to care about dozens of murdered children.

The acting is generally excellent, with half a dozen brilliant performances, all lacking in showiness yet full of nuance and a feeling of human veracity so strong, after twenty minutes or so I didn’t even hear the stupid accents anymore because I was too engrossed in what the characters were saying, what they could only express through their body languages, and why.