Sunday, January 14, 2018

Bright (2017)

Los Angeles, in an Urban Fantasy world humanity shares with orc, elves and other typical fantasy creatures, and where some Dark Lord or other did Dark Lord-y things two thousand years ago, with only the orcs taking his side (a decision that has hounded their descendants ever since). Somehow, the place is still the same LA we know from a thousand movies and TV shows – with some very minor changes - but that’s Urban Fantasy, the least imaginative sub-genre concerned with the fantastic for you. Street cop Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is just returning from sick leave following getting shot, and he’s not a happy man. Being partnered up with the first orc managing to become a police officer, Nick Jakoby (the great Joel Edgerton) hadn’t been exactly to Ward’s taste already, but Nick’s inability to apprehend the orc who shot Ward really makes the always pretty grumpy human extra-grumpy.

To be fair to the man, Ward is probably the least orc-racist cop in town. Jakoby for his part doesn’t just have to cope with daily racism by humans but also with the fact that his nature as an “unblooded” orc (even filing down his excellent orc teeth “to fit in”) and a cop makes him anathema to orc society too. But, since this is a buddy cop movie, there will soon come quite a bit of outward pressure to turn the squabbling cops into a proper couple: they stumble onto the trail of a lost magic wand (in this world about as dangerous as an H-bomb), the elf who stole it (Lucy Fry), and the evil sorceress who actually owns it (Noomi Rapace, giving one of her by now patented fun villain performances), among other things. Lots of violence ensues, one-liners are uttered.

I’ve seen Bright described as one of the worst films of 2017 by more than one critic, which rather suggests these guys and gals haven’t seen all that many films during the year, or aren’t able to appreciate David Ayer’s Netflix big budget film for what it is: a pretty traditional buddy cop action movie (with a bit of comedy mixed in, of course) that just happens to include fantasy elements to mix things up a little. As such, it’s not terribly intelligent a movie, and its explorations of racism and police violence are paper thin, but that’s really not what this sort of film is about. Rather, it belongs to a genre all about men who can only express their tender feelings towards one another via squabbling, one-liners, and physical violence, and the quality of whose films is consequently measured by the fun-ness of the squabbling, the hilarity (intentional or un) of the one-liners, and the quality of the action sequences.

And I have to say, the squabbling is pretty fun – in part thanks to the delivery of old squabbling pro Will Smith and the always delightful Joel Edgerton –, the one-liners are cheesy, and the action set pieces are loud, varied, and sometimes downright exciting (turns out evil elves/elfs are pretty much supervillains while our poor heroes are only normally human/orcish, and not even the Batman kind of normal). That Ayer knows how to direct an action sequence was what made the last third of his generally misguided Suicide Squad watchable; here, the action is embedded in a script that may lack in depth but which certainly is much more focused than that of the DC movie (at least it knows what the film at hand is actually supposed to be about), providing Ayers with a much better environment to work to his strengths in this regard, something he does well and repeatedly.


There’s really not much more to Bright, but for my tastes, it ends up a thoroughly entertaining bit of popcorn cinema.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: The Super-Beast Battle of the Century

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958): If there’s any better way to delight one’s inner child than this classic Ray Harryhausen effects spectacular directed by dependable Nathan Juran, I don’t know it. There’s little not to enjoy about this lovely piece of Hollywood Arabian Nights fluff. Harryhausen’s effects are a joy (and would only get better in the future), while also showing the typical variety of his work; from here on out Harryhausen would seldom use one stop motion monster in more than two sequences when he could create another one, and my imagination thanks him for it. Apart from the effects (which are the star, obviously), this is an excellently paced, cracking 50s fantasy adventure with some choice scenery chewing by Torin Thatcher’s most excellent villain with a decent enough hero in Kerwin Mathews, and photography only a fool wouldn’t want to call colourful. Why, even Kathryn Grant’s Princess Parisa does things in the film, not something you’ll encounter often in this time and genre.

Against All Odds (1984): In theory, Taylor Hackford’s neo noir is a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s brilliant Out of the Past, but you wouldn’t really know watching it. Which is all for the better (the older film does still exist after all), for Hackford certainly is not Tourneur. While there’s nothing wrong with his direction – he’s actually perfectly decent in suspense sequences - he does have a tendency for fluffing things up into TV advertising style prettiness that never does anything as interesting as actually contrasting with the supposedly dark script. But then, the script does tend to make little sense - particular Rachel Ward’s Jessie (who never gets around to being an actual femme fatale) seems to act exclusively in service of going where the film wants her to be instead of where she has any kind of (even messed up) reason to be. There’s a superficial quality to the whole production that suggests a film going through certain surface motions of the noir but completely uninterested in the genre’s philosophy. Jeff Bridges and James Woods are fine, as far as the lack of substance lets them, but then, when aren’t they?


Band Aid (2017): Zoe Lister-Jones’s comedy about a permanently squabbling and arguing couple (Lister-Jones herself and Adam Pally) that decide to turn their fights into songs is a very nice surprise. While there are a handful of moments that seem to come directly out of the quirky indie comedy handbook, much of the film delights by being genuinely sweet, thoughtful and funny, only to in the final act turn to a more serious tone. That switch works out as well as it does because Lister-Jones first took her time to create characters and a world a viewer can care for and believe in, and only after that really aims for more obvious depths without ever betraying what was so enjoyable about the film before. Thanks to this careful approach, the film also manages to go from the specificity of the characters’ lives to the more abstract things the writer/director has to say about being a woman in contemporary US society, the life of couples and the emotional strain following a miscarriage. Which is pretty fantastic for a quirky indie comedy.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Colossus of New York (1958)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only the most basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.


When altruistic scientific genius Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is run over by a truck - which is the sort of thing that can happen when you're running onto a street chasing your son's toy plane - his father, genius brain surgeon William (Otto Kruger) takes the personal loss and the loss to humanity extremely badly. Once I had spent some on-screen time with his surviving son, the semi-genius electronics scientist Henry (John Baragrey), I could understand the old man's feelings quite well, for his father's very pronounced preference for Jeremy has turned Henry into a giant prick, and certainly not the son one wants to spend the rest of one’s life with.

So disturbed by Jeremy's loss is William that he uses his own scientific talents to steal and save his son's brain. It's all for the best of humanity, you see, and certainly hasn't anything at all to do with William's inability to face the death of his child. After some SCIENCE(!) using water tanks, electrodes and other very scientific implements, the brain is as good as new. Now it's time to build a new body for Jeremy's brain, and who better to help out there than Henry? Henry has spent the preceding months trying to take his brother's place with Jeremy's wife Anne (Mala Powers) and son Billy (Charles Herbert), but has been met with a polite indifference he has been unable to parse or wear down; Anne is drawn to the (comparatively) least prickish man in the film, Jeremy's former partner in science John Carrington (Robert Hutton), but that's not something Henry realizes. Do I even need to mention the Spenssers don't find it necessary to tell Anne they're playing with her dead husband's brain?

So William and Henry build a huge, lumbering robot body with a face like an expressionist sculpture for Jeremy, because we couldn't have the man look into a mirror and not have a breakdown, right?

Given how his brand new body looks, and that his dear family tells him his wife and son are dead, the newly mechanized Jeremy takes quite well to the whole situation. Sure, he has a complete breakdown and asks his father to destroy him until the old arse convinces him otherwise, but afterwards he starts on his new experiments that are supposed to make the poles usable for food growth, or something of that sort. Science(!), I dare say. All this does obviously take place in William's lab right in the cellar of the house Anne and Billy live in, too, but hey, when Anne hears something like the horrible screams of her husband when he first sees what he's been turned into, the charming Spenssers can just tell her she's hallucinating because of the strain she has been under, right?

But then, in a development nobody could have seen coming, Robo-Jerry develops fantastic ESP powers, like random precognition, hypnosis and later on the ability to shoot death rays out of his eyes, as you do. I'm sure he won't put the mind whammy on his father to be able to visit his own grave on the first anniversary of his death where he surely won't repeat a scene from a Frankenstein movie with his son.

And surely, the knowledge that his father and brother not only haven't bothered to build him a decent robot body but have also lied to him about his wife and kid won't turn our Jerry a wee bit mad! Man, this transplanting brains into robot bodies business really is pretty difficult.

As you know, Jim, art director and production designer Eugene Lourie did occasionally - and quite successfully - dabble in the direction of 50s giant monster movies. The "monster" in The Colossus of New York is, despite what the film's title and marketing tagline ("Towering above the skyline - an indestructible creature whose eyes rain death and destruction!") might suggest, not one of the giant kind trampling New York into tiny pieces, but rather a brother to the misunderstood creature Frankenstein created. Interestingly, Jeremy, with his ability to speak and think coherently and his planned acts of destruction late in the film is closer to the creature of Mary Shelley's original novel than the more childlike creature of the Universal movies, something that I have difficulty to see as an accident in a script as clearly literary as that Thelma Schnee delivered for the movie.

Schnee's script is a very interesting effort, managing to surround the silly parts and the plot holes you'd expect (and demand) of a film like The Colossus with more complex characters than you'd generally find in a 50s SF/horror film and some pretty poignant scenes concerning the most dysfunctional family I've seen in a genre movie from the 50s. Quite contrary to the traditions of the time, where acting the dick usually makes you the hero of the piece, The Colossus actually seems to realize how dysfunctional and horrific its characters actually are, and makes their flaws the true reason for the minor catastrophe the film's plot culminates in. Sure, there's a short discussion (acted with great gusto by Kruger, who seems to have quite a bit of fun with his mad scientist role throughout the film) about the soul early on in the film, and some of the mandatory "tampering in god's domain" speechifying at its end, but it's also clear that the film's heart isn't in these explanations. Everything bad that happens here comes from the characters' inability to treat each other like actual, complete human beings, and some choice paternalism.


Of course, a complex, yet heavily flawed (and a bit too short), script like this could be easily ruined by the wrong direction style. I'm pretty happy to report that the script at hand wasn't adapted by a poverty row point and shoot director like - say - William Beaudine, but the clearly more artful Lourie, who had no problem recognizing a Freudianized version of Frankenstein when he saw it and used the opportunity to turn his film into as much of a visual homage to early Universal horror movies as a film set in the New York of the 50s (not that we get to see much of it - most of the film takes place in three rooms and a graveyard) can be. For my tastes, Lourie is very successful at it too - at least so successful that most of his film's theoretical silliness turned out to not feel silly at all while I was watching, because the film's finely developed atmosphere turned most of what it surrounded into something serious and riveting.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Some Random Thoughts About The Grudge (2004)

While it’s certainly not an artistic success, Takashi Shimzu’s repeat-remake of his own movie – already filmed twice by him for the Japanese market - this time around for an US audience apparently thought to be incapable of withstanding looking at a film featuring only Asian faces, is at least an interesting film. Mostly interesting in how it makes one realize how comparatively small changes to a scene can turn it from something creepy into something rote and banal. That happens here again and again with horror sequences Shimizu used to creepiest effect in his Japanese movies. In this remake scenes shot in minimally different ways still lose most of their power.

It is also rather interesting to realize that a higher budget really doesn’t mean a film actually gets better bang for its buck. Just compare the sound design for the ghosts in the originals with the one here, the poor dead things losing half their creep factor despite certainly having cost much more. The increased slickness doesn’t do the film much good either, with houses and offices and so on that look too antiseptic turning what should be lived in, personal spaces for the supernatural to intrude in back into film sets, which obviously decreases the emotional weight for the audience.


Even things changed that are on paper “better” work out for the worse in this one: the narrative’s structure is much clearer but that also means it loses some of the dislocating – and therefore disturbing – effect of the Japanese originals, the film again getting slicker but much less capable of disturbing by it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

In short: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

If you’re looking for a counter-argument to the idea that the big commercial movie universes suppress all individual directorial expression, the Guardians movies are your most obvious starting point, seeing as their tone and style fit exactly into the oeuvre of James Gunn. Witness the way crude and blunt humour sometimes hide the rather more clever jokes the film makes; or just watch how cynical little asides so often glide into moments of actual human emotion that are just as important for the film as the big set pieces and explosions are. And these are pretty damn important to the film, it’s just that Gunn clearly sees no qualitative difference between the loud and the quiet, the goofy and the clever. Blockbuster cinema here means a film that sets out to fulfil all kinds of different expectations, not to be all things to all people, but because being a bit messy and complicated and rich is what this sort of filmmaking should be about.

One might argue that the film’s thematic concerns about families of choice, of blood and of chance are not the most original ones but I suspect very much most members of the film’s audience will have found themselves involved in one or more of these kinds of families, and can certainly connect to some of what’s going on under the loud, beautiful and bonkers surface; which is more than I can say about these “universal”, important films beloved by mid-brow criticism that are inevitably about the sex life of rich people or academics. Plus, Gunn really doubles down when he uses well-worn tropes – one just has to look at the shape, form and dimension the standard “killing of the father” takes on in this film. It’s big in the best way.


But what really does make this such a wonderful film is how much care Gunn takes with the small things. It’s not just the nearly absurd number of throwaway gags going on in the background (and certainly not stopping with the end credits), it’s how tiny dialogue moments from the first Guardians are given greater meaning (and ambiguity) through just as tiny throw-away lines here, how there’s always a little more going on in every scene than the most direct reading of it suggests.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

Belarus – please don’t ask me why they didn’t use a made up country here - dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary “The Russian” Oldman) is standing trial for various counts of mass murder and all that other stuff dictators tend to get up to. Alas, it looks as if he’ll go free to return to his reign of terror, for the eyewitness accounts of his victims are dismissed as “hearsay” (that’s action movie law for you), while other witnesses “mysteriously” disappear or are outright killed by gangs of heavily armed men who totally aren’t working for Dukhovich. Ironically, the only chance of seeing justice done could be the statement of imprisoned professional killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson, motherfuckers), who is obviously much more believable a witness (he wrote, not at all sarcastically).

Kincaid is willing to play ball in exchange for the freedom of his also imprisoned wife Sonia (Salma Hayek in a pretty funny cameo role). Unfortunately, there’s a mole (you’ll never guess who, cough) in Interpol, so the transport supposed to cart Kincaid from England where he is jailed to The Hague is ambushed. Only Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elektra, ahem, Elodie Yung) and Kincaid manage to escape and hole up in a safe house. Roussel is no dummy and knows someone inside of her organization has sold them out, so she sees only one choice to get Kincaid where he’s supposed to go: rope in her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds and all three of his facial expressions). Until an unfortunate incident for whom he makes her responsible for no good reason, Michael was one of the best professional bodyguards in the world, and he’s certainly not corrupt, so he’s Roussel’s best bet of protecting Kincaid.

Surely, the bodyguard and the hitman who attempted to kill twenty or so of his clients will hit it off sooner or later, or after a lot of bickering and sniggering at each other.

The reluctant buddy action comedy is alive and well, apparently. At least, Patrick Hughes’s film is a perfectly fun time if you’re willing to go with a film who puts no thought or work at all into improving on any of the weaknesses of the formula. So its villain is a bizarre, mildly racist caricature (though one played with vigour and enthusiasm by Oldman, who is not one of the type of actors phoning his stuff in just because the film he’s in is rather silly), the plot only makes the vaguest bit of logical sense, the villain’s plan is even worse, and women aren’t even allowed to beat their old, slightly overweight boss  without male help (which also gives one a bit of mental whiplash if one has seen Yung’s performance as Elektra in Netflix’s Daredevil).

Of course, the first three flaws are also parts of the charm of the genre, so I’m not exactly complaining too loudly here, specifically not in a film that features such a funny central performance by Jackson. Why, it’s a performance popping off the screen so well, I hardly even noticed Reynolds and his tendency to just rotate through his book, well pamphlet, well one-sheet, well, tiny little slip, of facial expressions.


I am sounding rather more cynical towards the film than I actually feel about it: this is a slick, wickedly funny, well paced despite its considerable length (for the kind of thing it is), piece of filmmaking featuring increasingly great – and wilfully absurd – action sequences, as well as Samuel L. Jackson in what feels like an excellent mood, calling people motherfuckers left and right. Why, the film even has a heart.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Under Siege (1992)

The US Missouri – a battleship carrying nuclear armaments – is on its final trip before being decommissioned. A bunch of evildoers under the leadership of one William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones dressed like Bruce Springsteen circa 1985) has decided this is the best moment to hijack the ship, steal the missiles and sell them to the highest bidder. Because they have the ship’s XO Commander Krill (Gary Busey) – yes, that’s really his name – on their side, the pirates manage to get on board posing as entertainers for the Captain’s surprise birthday party and are so able to ambush the ship’s crew completely unawares and lock them up quite well.

All of the crew, that is, but chief cook Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal). As it happens, Ryback is not just an apparently great cook and a smug bastard but also a badass marine, so before anyone can say “Die Hard on a battleship”, he’s already teaming up with the playmate (Erika Eleniak) the bad guys brought with them for no good reason whatsoever, and starts to solve the little situation.

Ah, the times when some people in Hollywood thought they could turn Steven Seagal into a big budget action movie carrying star instead of the guy not even cutting it in direct to home video films he turned out to be. The positive side of this foolhardy endeavour for Under Siege is that Seagal is teamed with a whole bunch of people who are actually good at their jobs. While repeat-Seagal director Andrew Davis surely will never be confused with a great artist, he was at the time a more than decent director for this sort of bread and potatoes studio action movie, able to stage convincing and fun action sequences, keeping the explosions in focus, and certainly knowledgeable of enough of the tricks of his trade to make a highly entertaining bit of action cinema that looks and feels slick and flows well.

Add to that Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey apparently trying to outdo each other with their expressions of cheesy action movie villainy, as well as the horrors the costume department comes up for them - Busey outdoing Jones’s Boss-style with a bit of cross-dressing that isn’t embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch at all, oh no - and the fun factor heightens considerably.

Topping off the good parts of the film is an absolutely shameless script whose silliness only begins with having the villains act as undercover entertainers like the good guys in a 70s Bollywood masala infiltrating a villain’s lair. There is also many an absurd dialogue scene to witness (Wallace’s bizarre phone conversations with the prospective buyers of the missiles need to be heard to be believed), more ridiculous plotting than one could reasonably expect from a single movie, and bonus scenes supposedly taking place in the Pentagon so hokey, the 50s are embarrassed.


The film’s only problem is Seagal. He is, as we all know, a terrible actor with a tendency to exclusively project unfounded smugness, his martial arts skills look worse than anything the actors in the film who don’t pretend they have a martial arts background present, and his line delivery is so wooden as to make Chuck Norris look like an actor. He’s even out-thesped by Eleniak, and the poor woman’s really only in the movie to show off her implants. Seagal just doesn’t work as an actor, an action hero or even just a plain heroic figure, but thanks to the efforts of everyone else involved, he’s not as painful to watch as in most of his other films. Which, given that he’s the nominal lead of the piece, is quite an achievement by Davis and co.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: She's a fabulous, loving, caring mother, who er... ...happens to be a serial killer!

Paper Moon (1973): If you ask me, I’d argue that at the point in time when this was shot, Ryan O’Neal was usually a frightfully wooden actor with a peculiar voidal quality to him. Turns out that Peter Bogdanovich’s choice to cast him alongside his first-time acting little daughter Tatum O’Neal worked absolute wonders on that front, the rapport between the two bringing out Ryan’s personality and easing Tatum into as natural a performance as you could ask of any child actress. Their performances stand at the core of a movie that sometimes seems nostalgic for Depression era America, but never forgets the abject poverty and the other horrors of that time while still somehow managing to still be a comedy. The film carries a deep belief in the ability of people to get through the hardest times with a love it treats without any sentimentality; there’s great sadness at the core of the film, but that sadness is always smaller than the warmth of Alvin Sargent’s script and and that between the O’Neals.

The Spectacular Now (2013): I think I’ve expressed my discomfort with mainstream film critics’ and their love for coming of age films about teenage boys at the cusp of adulthood who learn some lesson or other via an encounter with The Mystery of Femininity™ – or as we here call it “desperately underwritten female characters”. James Ponsoldt’s film belonging to that genre featuring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley does seem to deserve most of the accolades it gets, though, seeing as it never pretends its female main character Aimee is somehow completely unknowable because she’s a girl, or only interesting to the audience because she teaches the male main character Sutter something. The film does centre around Sutter, mind you, but it never forgets that he’s not the centre of the actual world. Otherwise, the film quite precisely explores the influence parents have on their children, the way love and sex and confusion intersect. It always feels honest about its own convictions and more interested in also being honest about its characters than in making a point about them. It’s also beautifully shot, and well acted, so there’s nothing here even for me to complain about.


Bottom of the World (2017): This is another one of these somewhat Twilight Zone-like small films of a type we get four or five a year of at the moment. There’s your typical for the sub-genre tendency to present mild mind-fuck ideas, a use of Americana that reminds a little of a less interesting David Lynch, and a plot resolution that seems a bit too moralizing to be fully satisfying. Douglas Smith and Jena Malone are certainly convincing enough in the main roles, and from time to time, director Richard Sears (apparently the guy who’ll direct the next Transformers film, because that’s how blockbuster cinema rolls at the moment) hits on an interesting, ambiguous element and doesn’t resolve it too clearly. Just as often, the meaning of metaphors is much too on the nose and things are just too clean and simple to make for a truly satisfying film of this sort. Well, at least I’d argue that this sort of film thrives on the elements that aren’t completely resolved and explained. It’s not a bad film, though, it’s just not a terribly satisfying one either.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959)


aka Face of the Frog

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only the most basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

For over a year now, a (rather large) gang under the leadership of the mysterious masked villain only known as the Frog (played by himself, if we can believe the credits), has been terrorizing Britain with a series of robberies and break-ins, blackmail, as well as a bit of murder to make things more interesting, always leaving behind the mark of a frog at the places of their crimes. Why it's so difficult to catch the members of a gang in the habit of branding its own with the sign of the Frog in a pretty visible place I don't know.

On the case is Scotland Yard's Inspector Elk (Siegfried Lowitz, who'd later go on to play another smug and rude cop in the long-running - and pretty damn boring - TV police procedural Der Alte, in popularity only second to Derrick), a man of a smugness and rudeness as great as his success at catching the Frog is small. But even the incompetent must get lucky some time, and Elk's time comes when the Frog takes a carnal interest in a certain Ella Bennet (Eva Anthes). The villain's idea of romance is a bit peculiar: suddenly appearing masked in a lady's room at night and declaring that you'll come again to take her with you another night, whether she wants to come or not is - I think - not what Miss Lonelyhearts recommends. I'm not sure what Miss Lonelyhearts says to blackmailing the lady of your heart by pulling her improbably naive brother (Walter Wilz) into a contrived murder affair, but that's The Frog's Way of Romance™, too. Whatever happened to roses and long walks in the park?

The Frog's rather dubious handling of his romantic situation is good news for Elk, though, for it provides the inspector with ample opportunity to gather clues regarding the plans and identity of his enemy.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Elk's not the only one the case. Cocky millionaire amateur detective (and nephew of Elk's boss) Richard Gordon (Joachim "Blackie" Fuchsberger, some time before his career as a popular TV host, or as we Germans say, "Showmaster") and his competent comic relief butler James (Eddi Arent) are inserting themselves into the investigation. Gordon's pretty damn enthusiastic about his hobby, too, at least once he's met Ella; he's also a bit more competent at the whole romance thing than the Frog.

Now, our heroes will only have to find a traitor inside of Scotland Yard (don't trust the thin 'staches and eyebrows), investigate a dubious night club, survive captivity and wait until so many of the film's human red herrings have been killed off that there's only one guy left who can be the Frog.

Watching the very first of Rialto's Edgar Wallace adaptations (this early in the proceedings still keeping comparatively close to Wallace's novel, I am told), it's becomes clear at once why the cinematic Wallace krimis took Germany by storm. Compared to just about anything else the country's cinema put out at the time, Der Frosch is pure pop cinema: a bit lurid (as lurid as you could possibly be in Germany in 1959, really, which isn't that lurid, but certainly also not coy), a bit silly, delightfully pulpy, taking itself not too seriously, yet not walking into the trap certain later Wallace movies would enter where a film takes itself seriously so little it can be read as self-hatred or as an attempt at self-destruction. It's not the sort of film you'd expect coming from German cinema at all, especially not in 1959 when pop cinema as an idea didn't really exist over here and pop culture itself had entered the slow, sad years between 1959 and 1961 when it looked as if pop itself had only been a fad.

Mainly responsible for the film's energetic (and energizing) effect is Harald Reinl's direction. Though they roughly belonged to the same generation of filmmakers who started out in the biz in the 1930s and were therefore pretty damn old for being "pop", Reinl's style is quite different from that of his Wallace adaptation colleague Alfred Vohrer - until now the only krimi director I've talked about here or over at my home base. Where Vohrer likes his acting melodramatic and his direction zooming in the direction of the surreal, Reinl seems to be going for an updated serial effect, using the much better technical and financial state of his production when compared with a serial to achieve a feeling of dynamism and intensity atypical of the usual ponderous German movie. Reinl uses a lot of separate shots for every scene (pretty much the antithesis of all German filmmaking), loves snappy (ditto) and tight editing and is no friend of scenes going on for too long. The editing is especially effective when it comes to the action scenes. As you probably know, neither the 50s nor Germany are usually praised for their action choreography, but (if you can ignore the minor fact that fists don't actually seem to connect with faces in Wallace land) Reinl and his editor Margot Jahn manage to actually make the action sequences exciting through the cinematic wonders of clever framing and speedy cuts.

Reinl's no slouch in the atmosphere department either. There are some fine examples of moody (studio) night shots to be found whenever appropriate, with some stylish uses of high contrast light and shadow play you can describe as noir-ish without having to stretch things too far.


Ironically, all that visual beauty comes from a director whose filmography shows him as a pure work for hire guy who spent his time directing whatever was thrown at him - Wallace krimis, Heimatfilme, unfunny comedies, Karl May adaptations, some Erich von Däniken "documentaries" or even (later in his career) a would-be Roger Corman Poe adaptation. Directors like Reinl never get a fair shot at being taken seriously outside of our cult movie specialist world, as if the qualities of a director were defined by the commercial situation he works in, and not by what we see on screen. This isn't to say that parts of the director's output aren't pure and simple crap - because man, they sure are – but then we should probably not decide the worth of a life's work by looking at someone's worst films.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

In short: Sleepwalker (2017)

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) is returning to college to be a student after some time away and a personal tragedy. Alas, she suffers from nightmares and increasingly severe bouts of the sort of sleepwalking that finds her out on the streets in her absurdly skimpy nightgown. When she goes to her university’s sleep lab and hottie (don’t ask me, guys all look the same to me, but the script says so) sleep scientist Scott White (Richard Armitage) for help, things become even worse. Details of the world around her as well as her past seem to change, only to change back again some time later. These aren’t just small details but things like her last name, or the way her husband died, or who her roommate is.

Haley Joel Osment pops up from time to time to make crazy-eyes at her too, and so on and so forth. It doesn’t take long until Sarah’s close to losing it completely, if her problems aren’t a sign of mental illness anyway. Well, at least Scott is helpful, what with him having pretty inappropriate feelings towards his patient.

The twist ending to Elliott Lester’s horror/mindfuck thriller didn’t exactly come as a complete surprise to me, but at least this is one of the films with a twist where the twist actually belongs to what we’ve seen before. The second one I’ve watched this week, even. Why, there might be hope for Hollywood still. While I still don’t think it’s a completely satisfying twist – I’d have preferred a bit of ambiguity – the film’s playing fair with its audience throughout.

Sleepwalker’s main selling point are the indeed properly dream-like dream sequences, though, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle way Lester (and/or Jack Olsen’s script) shifts not the broad strokes of reality around his heroine but its important details, usually homing in on bits that are truly disquieting, little things like her changing handwriting. For most of its running time, it is an atmosphere of doubt the film thrives on, with Sarah losing her faith not just in her sanity and her memory but in what constitutes her identity.

Sleepwalker does have a bit of a melodramatic streak, particularly in Sarah’s relationship with Scott or a pretty abysmal scene where she suffers the horrors of involuntary commitment into a mental institution in a very loud and fake way (please insert your own digression into the portrayal of mental health professionals in genre movies here, imaginary reader). Now, there’s plot reasons why these elements of the film are how they are, yet an explanation isn’t necessarily an excuse.


However – at least if you like the themes of internal confusions about identity and reality in your movies – Sleepwalker’s strong parts easily make up for its weak bits, leaving a really nice surprise of a movie.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pigs (1973)

aka Daddy’s Deadly Darling

A young, tense woman we will later learn is called Lynn (Toni Lawrence, fittingly enough the actual daughter of director, writer and male lead Marc Lawrence) ends up at the middle of nowhere, rural California, diner of former circus magician Zambrini (Marc Lawrence). As luck will have it, the place is in need of a new waitress, after the old one just up and left one day. The job offer is a bit strange, though, for it doesn’t look at all as if the place actually needs anyone apart from its owner. There is nary a guest in sight, what with the diner placed far from roads anyone actually uses, and Zambrini not being too well loved by anyone living in the area. His elderly closest neighbours for example believe that something is very wrong with Zambrini’s pigs (not to speak of the man himself). According to them, the animals regularly pop up outside of their house making an unpleasant racket. Supposedly, they are man eaters, but a special kind where the pig-eaten corpse somehow becomes a new pig. And let’s not even start on the weird dreams the ladies have about Zambrini.

Ironically enough, Zambrini does indeed feed corpses – some of which he digs up in the local graveyard – to his pigs, and he’s certainly not above murdering and turning the most annoying members of the local community to better use. He does get along rather well with Lynn though. There’s clearly something very wrong with her, too, something having to do with her father and a curious relation to sex. Still, Zambrini and Lynn fit together well, he doing his – creepy-crazy – best to be a father figure and she clearly getting into the role of being a daughter. Zambrini’s and Lynn’s respective dark secrets and that nosy outside world won’t let them end up as a Whedonesque family of choice, though.

Directed by its male lead, long-time character actor Mark Lawrence, Pigs is one of my personal favourites among the strange and lovely breed of US local independent film productions. It was apparently shot on an actual ranch in California, and is consequently set in what at first feels and looks very much like a real place. It’s not as decayed as this sort of creepy horror film rural spot usually is, but certainly looks like it is becoming a bit decrepit, lending the locations a sense of the kind of decay you only ever seem to notice out of the corner of your eye. This provides Pigs with copious amounts of instant atmosphere, as well as an air of reality that just might keep a viewer from realizing how bizarre (in all the best ways) parts of the film actually are.

And it does get bizarre: just look at the curious sequence in which Zambrini visits and threatens his nosy neighbours, dressed in the full regalia of his former magician alter ago The Great Zambrini. It is, most probably, a dream sequence expressing the ladies’ anxiety about their strange neighbour and his pigs, yet Lawrence neither starts nor ends it in any of the ways movies signal dream sequences, and their ends and beginnings to us. Given that the rest of the film is of a more than coherent and competent technical level, Lawrence surely is doing this on purpose, using the breaking of filmic rules to disquiet his audience, suggesting the seemingly naturalistic world the characters live in is deceptive, that madness or something much stranger might be closer to the surface than you’d suspect.

There are in fact quite a few intelligent directorial decisions of this kind throughout the movie, moments when small or big details suggest unsettling things, or when the bizarre (or perhaps even the Weird) nestles in among quotidian detail.

All of which elevates a film that is already a fine example of atmospheric, low budget psycho horror (with two psychos for the price of one) with a couple of scenes for the grindhouse audience, into stranger and higher realms. The main reason why this approach works out so well for the film does lie in its insistence on taking its two main characters seriously, treating what could be two cliché psychos as human beings, first securing this as a film about dysfunctional, enabling father daughter relations in extremis – with a quasi-feminist side-line, even – before adding the more exalted and the bizarre things on top.


Acting-wise, this is a nice showcase for both Lawrences, who manage to sell everything to the audience, actually making this viewer care for its two murderous main characters quite a bit. Poor Lynn at least never seems to have had much of a chance of a happy life thanks to her past as a victim of male abuse. And Zambrini? Well, what’s a guy to do when his pigs develop a taste for human flesh, and nobody leaves him and the girl he wants to protect in peace?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Every year in these strange aeons

I take a time out to go back to the old spawning grounds down in R'lyeh. Since that sort of thing does take up a lot of an eldritch abominations time, I'll take a little break from blogging.
Normal service will return on January, 3rd 2018 - perhaps ringing in a better year than whatever this one thought it was doing.

In any case, for those who want them, have the appropriate seasonal greetings! See you in the future!

Oh, and have a song while you're making your way out:


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Night Angel (1990)

Turns out the biblical Lilith (future German soap opera actress Isa Jank) is still working regularly. During a lunar eclipse, she incarnates on Earth, planning, apparently, to claim the soul of a man in love. After seducing, killing, and driving mad quite a few other men and women (this film is nothing if not inclusive), that is.

Lilith’s other big goal seems to be to get on the cover of fashion magazine “Siren”; to spread her evil influence, we are told. Obviously, the magazine is quickly hit by a series of mysterious deaths and hilarious, I mean horrible, sexual hysteria. Only art director Craig (the void known as Linden Ashby), his very fresh new jewellery designer girlfriend Kirstie (Debra Feuer), and taxi-driving elderly black woman Sadie (Helen Martin) – who has a past with Lilith - stand between the world and a lot of people getting their hearts ripped out during sex.

Erotic horror, as I might have said before, is difficult to realize without making it a bit ridiculous or outright hilarious. I’d wager there’s perhaps half a dozen directors working at any given time who could pull something off in the sub-genre, and hundreds of others who are at least clever enough not to try. Night Angel’s director Dominique Othenin-Girard clearly didn’t belong to either of these groups, so we get this courageous and pretty bad effort.

The film’s problems are manifold. Start with a lead actress who is certainly not unattractive but utterly lacks the very particular kind of presence as well as the acting chops needed to pull off the role of an undying demon all men and women want to screw – even if she only wants them to die for them. There’s a “sexy”, “heated” dance sequence early on that had me in stitches, a scene that completely destroys any hope of anyone watching being able to take our villainess seriously during the rest of the movie. The death scene coming right after is not much of an improvement, for that matter. It doesn’t exactly help here that the film’s idea of sexual obsession – as well as that of sex, eroticism and love as a whole -  seems exclusively schooled on the way people present arousal in softcore porn movies. Othenin-Girard’s main instruction for his actors seems to have been something along the lines of “go big!”. These are not words you say to Karen Black and Doug Jones (who are both in this thing, too), unless you’re making a comedy. On the positive side, the film is pretty funny for most of its running time, though the kind of laughter it causes is strictly on the laughing at not the laughing with side of the equation.


It’s a bit of a shame, really, for Othenin-Girard does show some promise in his treatment of the most important colours of late 80s/early 90s horror – blue and red – and certainly knows how to keep his film moving, if usually in the wrong directions. The special effects involve Howard Berger’s and Steven Johnson’s respective workshops, and are – apart from the crappy looking final version of Lilith that could have found a place in Troll 2 – up to the typical high standards of the two gentlemen. It’s just that a film doesn’t live on a couple of good effects and a bizarre nightclub in hell sequence alone.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A few thoughts about The Lost City of Z (2016)

Unlike a lot of critics, I find little to enjoy about James Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s excellent book about Edwardian explorer Percy Fawcett. In part, my intense dislike of the film is certainly caused by the simplistic way Gray’s script turns the rather complicated Fawcett into a simplistic type we know and hate from a lot of bio pics: the guy who is right about stuff even though most of the world disagrees. The film’s approach to Fawcett’s actual ideas manages to turn a man trapped between progressive (for his time) ideas that came to him through practical experience, typical reactionary thought of his time of the dying British Empire, and romantic craziness into your typical anti-racist 2017 era liberal, which is certainly easier for a (stupid) audience to identify with but is also neither believable, nor does it get at the internal inconsistencies that make Fawcett so interesting and his story – apart from all fantastic adventurous thought and obsession and tragedy – so human.

The film’s Fawcett – as rather indifferently performed by Charlie Hunnam - is a cardboard character, and his ideas are cardboard character ideas without nuance, doubt, and the thing we all as humans share (yes, I mean myself, and you, and so on): being wrong.

All this, I still could accept, if the bad adaptation of a good book would at least work as a decent adventure movie. For that, unfortunately, the film’s pacing is way too leaden and there are too many scenes of Fawcett debating the theories that only vaguely resemble those he actually held, full of the sort of “intelligent people are talking” dialogue screenwriters get up to when they don’t trust their audience’s intelligence to actually understand or be interested in the ideas discussed. I’m not a friend of the phrase “dumbing it down”, but that’s exactly what Gray’s film does to Grann’s book; and it doesn’t even do it well or with charm.


In this context, it will come as no surprise that the dangers Fawcett faces in the rainforest are rather more appetizing than a lot of those the actual Fawcett’s expeditions suffered from. The real life body horror element isn’t completely absent in the movie, but the film’s still pretty squeamish when it comes to the icky details and really rather prefers dangers out of traditional adventure movies – it’s not terribly adequate at making these exciting either, though.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sleight (2016)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Without parents, any visible family, or a decent system of social care – particularly for poor and black people like them - available, young Bo (Jacob Latimore) has to take care of his sister Tina (Storm Reid) all by himself. So he works as a street magician by day, and sells drugs for the seemingly personable – as far as it goes in this business - drug lord Angelo (Dulé Hill) by night. Bo has secrets, though. For one, he does what amounts to actual magic with the help of a home made electromagnet device he has implanted in his arm, like a low key junior gadgeteer superhero. Secondly, and much worse, he is skimming off Angelo’s drugs in an attempt to scratch together to take Tina and leave Los Angeles for somewhere where they can live the life of normal people. That’s particularly unfortunate since Angelo would really rather pull Bo deeper into the Life, doing his best to involve him in more than just dealing, and so has a rather more careful eye on him.

So, at about the same time as Bo’s life changes for the better when he meets and falls in – reciprocated – love with Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), a young woman who we will later learn to have a high tolerance for pretty shitty secrets in her boyfriend, thanks to the difficulties in her own life, things with Angelo start to unravel. Soon, Tina’s and Holly’s lives are threatened, and Bo’s only way out might be to turn his invention for letting coins float into a weapon.

So yes, and obviously, J.D. Dillard’s Sleight can very easily be read as a low key superhero origin story, just one that concentrates on the kinds of people contemporary big budget superhero films still tend to ignore or short-change. This is a film about black, poor people who feel forced to do some pretty shitty things to survive; indeed, some viewers might find Bo “unsympathetic”. He sure as hell does a lot of morally inexcusable things, but like any good film about someone seeking some form of (in this case non-mystical) transcendence, Sleight needs to show what their protagonist has to transcend. And that he does indeed manage to transcend a situation resonant with the way many people actually have to live in one way or the other rather seems to be the film’s core concern to me, a very classical use of the fantastic as a means as well as a symbol for the wish to change and to escape.

As for me, I can’t say I actually ever found Bo unlikeable or unrelatable, but then, there but for the grace of mere chance go I, or really, everyone, so who am I to judge? It does of course help that Latimore’s performance is as warm as it is conflicted, portraying Bo as a guy who thinks he does the best he can in his situation, and who is in the end willing to risk himself for others, and achieving actual change for others and himself in the end.


Formally, Sleight as an entry into the growing number of US films of the fantastic by black directors is very much a contemporary indie (the sort with a budget, but not riches) movie. It is carefully staged, deliberately paced, with a sometimes carefully hidden sense of poetry next to a much more obvious idea of realism, demonstrating a willingness to work with genre elements in ways that’ll annoy some viewers because it makes so little of a thing of them, but which delight me because their use feels so personal and individual and through this, actually meaningful.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: What was once in the deep is now in the shallows

Terra Formars (2016): When he isn’t making fantastic remakes of classic samurai films, or doing some really off-beat movie that harkens back to his really wild times as a director, Takashi Miike somehow finds time in his insane schedule to direct stuff like this big budget adaptation of a popular anime and manga series. Because this is Miike, the thing absolutely feels like a live action manga, so except acting so broad you could fit Gamera through it, absurd hair, special effects that really don’t care if they look “realistic” or not, a plot that manages to be straightforward and linear yet also difficult to parse to anyone who has no idea what this Terra Formars business is about (like me), insane moments of gore, kitsch, a Kane Kosugi cameo, Rinko Kikuchi, insect super powers, and a tone so chipper it becomes absurd. It all comes together – as far as this stuff even can come together – into the sort of film I can  joyfully let wash over me, be pleasantly entertained and only mildly freaked out, and love Miike for making this sort of pop art nonsense in between more serious, and (even) more weird and personal stuff, treating all these different types of filmmaking with the same vigour.

Hard Eight (1996): Paul Thomas Anderson’s Reno-set debut feature length film is a gambling movie, a film about guilt, a film about lies, a film about people who are all a lot more dysfunctional than they seem at first look, and a film about people trying to live in the backwaters of Americana,so it’s basically laying the foundation for every film Anderson made after. This one’s a comparatively small movie, concentrating on a handful of characters – played wonderfully by Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson, and a few moments in their lives. While he knows how to organize large swathes of characters, Anderson has always been just as good at more intimate portrays of the lost and the lonely, so there’s great richness, depth and texture to these characters and their relations as well as to the unglamorous (Reno is basically Las Vegas without the pretence of class, right?) places they inhabit.


Les glaneurs et la glaneuse aka The Gleaners and I (2000): It is educational to compare great Nouvelle Vague director Agnès Varda’s late career documentaries with those of her lesser peer (sorry, Godard admirers, I’m half joking) Jean Luc Godard. Where Godard’s documentary work is formal and abstract, Varda’s philosophical approach concentrates on the personal and the concrete, treating ideas through their connection to people and seeking truth(s) about the large in the small. Consequently, this digitally shot – often playful in the best of ways - documentary about gleaners and gleaning (very much in the sense of people who pick what is left), their connection to art and the role of the artist – particularly Varda - as gleaner is full of a warm interest for the experience of people – particularly the poor, the destitute and the somewhat damaged who aren’t usually allowed to speak for themselves (even the people honestly fighting for their rights prefer to speak about them and rather prefer to treat them as abstracts).

Friday, December 15, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Garo: Red Requiem (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.


Makai Knight Kouga (Ryosei Konishi) is still protecting his part of Japan from the incursions of extra-dimensional evil beings known as Horrors. This time around, our hero has left his home city for some other unnamed Japanese city to hunt the particularly loathsome "Lord" (who just happens to quite clearly be a Lady) Karma (Saori Hara voiced by Kouga's TV show love interest Mika Hijii, for some reason). Karma resides inside of a mirror which can only be entered by others under very specific circumstances, and uses her victims' hidden desires (and a couple of freakish henchpeople owning a goth club) to lure them in.

The city in which Kouga is seeking Karma has its own protectors already: the experienced Makai Priest Akaza (Yosuke Saito) and his assistant Shiguto (Masahiro Kuranuki). For once,  both residents seem pretty okay with letting Kouga do his heroic loner thing. That's not the reaction of another Makai Priest, Rekka (Mary Matsuyama), who arrives just when Kouga does, with a chip on her shoulder and obvious hatred towards Karma in her heart. Rekka wants to kill Karma herself, the fact that she isn't bonded to a magical armour (it's not allowed for girls, you know, I suspect because of girl cooties) notwithstanding, and really, given that we'll later learn that Karma ate Rekka's father, it's a reasonable wish.

Obviously, Kouga and Rekka will come to blows, and it will take a series of cheesy speeches to convince the priestess that it's the job of all female characters in tokusatsu to cast spells (or - as in this case - play magic flute) at the main baddie from the side-lines while a rude, arrogant man with a very large sword does the main fighting, even when she has been shown to be quite good - though not so good as to embarrass the main character - at kicking peoples' asses.

Anyway, Karma is powerful enough for Kouga he actually needs the magical help, so it is a good thing that he's upgraded his interpersonal skills from "insufferable" to "just not a people person".

Despite my problems with its use of its female lead character, the (3D, but who cares?) theatrical feature following the "mature" (and pretty damn great) tokusatsu show Garo is an at times very entertaining piece of work, at least if you're willing to go with it.

Now, when you hear "theatrical feature", don't imagine the film's budget to be visibly higher than that of the TV show. The rather humble number of locations, the shooting style and the quality of the special effects should make the low budget nature of the endeavour quite obvious.

Fortunately, Red Requiem is still as much Keita Amemiya's baby as the original show was, and Amemiya is a director and creature designer with a great talent for milking low budgets for all the spectacle they are worth. After all, he's the guy who once used re-jigged cuckoo clocks as gigantic war machines in a movie, and it kinda-sorta worked.

Whether you thinks the quality of the CG effects helps or hinders Amemiya in his creative efforts will depend on your tolerance for extremely cheap looking CG.

I have made my peace with unnatural looking digital effects by now, as long as I like the concepts and ideas that are being put on screen with their help. Given my predilections, it would be pretty difficult for me to dislike the aesthetic the digital tech is trying to bring to life in Red Requiem's case. It's a strange, sometimes silly, sometimes cheesy, always very Japanese visual world, where classically Japanese style meets Western kitsch, mock-Gothic trappings, hack and slash videogame choreography and the free-form bizarre, until it becomes pretty difficult to decide on the appropriate reaction to it all. One could of course be an art snob and snort derisively, but it's just as fair a reaction to be charmed by the combination of the childlike and naive, the exploitative and the imaginative on display. (And yeah, there are some of Amemiya's trademark mime-alike monsters and someone with white wings, too).

Most of the not-so-digital action and the wire fu is quite good too. Konishi and Matsuyama are convincing at striking the appropriate poses, and Amemiya is still a friend of staging action sequences so that the audience is actually able to see what's going on. There are two or three moments of too obvious stuntman substitution, but I take a scene that's so clearly staged I can identify someone as a stuntman over one where I don't see what's supposed to be going on at all any time.

The acting's about like you would expect from a project like this. Konishi still doesn't move a facial muscle to do anything but scowl, but he is pretty fantastic at scowling by now, and everybody else plays his or her role a bit broader than contemporary Western tastes in acting styles would suggest (though Konishi would fit right in). However, the characters the actors are playing are pretty broad archetypes too, so I can't help but find these performances fitting. Certain characters are not meant to be portrayed naturalistically.

On the writing side, Red Requiem is clearly a step back from the comparative thematic richness of the show that spawned it, back into the safer territories of overlong speeches about heroism that take turns with emotional cheese. Still, I can't say I found myself getting too annoyed by it all, because there's nothing cynical about this aspect of the film, never a feeling that Red Requiem is going through the motions when it sprouts its not very clever philosophy. It's all honest heart-on-its-sleeve goodliness that takes itself terribly seriously, and while it seems proper to giggle about that, I won't blame it for being good-natured, silly and a bit dumb. See also, "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding".


So, while I would have loved to watch a Garo movie that kept closer to the clever (or the exceedingly strange) parts of the show it came from, I had my fun with what Red Requiem has to offer, especially in its final third, when Amemiya seems to pull out all the stops and begins to bring anything on screen he could imagine and somehow squeeze in.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

In short: Wonder Woman (2017)

Given the way DC’s movie universe has developed, I wasn’t as hopeful concerning Wonder Woman as some parts of the internet were. It is wonderful to finally have a superhero movie concentrating on a woman, but a female-lead film can of course be just as terrible as one featuring a man. However, only a fool would think a movie’s automatically terrible because it features a woman.

The first twenty to thirty minutes of the film are certainly not promising. They are slow going, with reams of exposition broken up by short action sequences and then even more exposition, with a bunch of fine actresses having basically nothing of interest to do – poor, awesome Robin Wright could as well have been replaced by a computer animation, for all the film does with her. The worst about this: much of the exposition is absolutely pointless, going into needless detail about things the audience could easily learn on the go later on. Most of the important stuff could have been condensed into five minutes.

However, once exposition time is finally over – when the main characters arrive in London, to be precise – Wonder Woman transforms from something deeply mediocre in the typically over explaining way today’s Hollywood is so fond of into a fantastic film that will from now on hardly do anything wrong (apart from some way too naive and on the nose dialogue during the final fight that says out loud what the film already told us in other ways and the random design of the Big Bad). Gal Gadot turns out to be a wonder, not just looking the part but much more importantly projecting it right, not just wearing the costume but embodying what (this interpretation of) the character is actually about - arguably the most important thing for superhero cinema. Compare with Ben Affleck’s Batman who never feels like anything but an overpaid actor in a silly costume striking poses, and you’ll feel the difference. The film’s feminism hits the spot where it is consistently part of the film’s meaning but never feels preachy – this one’s not telling us, it’s showing us, which is always more convincing. In general, the film’s politics are an organic part of it, and indeed of the story it tells.

The action is a wonderful cross of old pulp/serial style high adventure and modern cinematic superhero action, comparable to the first Captain America movie (which I still hold to be absolutely fantastic, sorry Inga) in all the best ways.

Apart from mostly doing a bang-up job with the action sequences, director Patty Jenkins is also great at evoking a sense of place and time. Now, obviously, this is not meant to be a realistic depiction of the Great War but the film’s version of it seems like a place its characters belong in (you could argue Chris Pine’s character would probably have been a lot more sexist in the real world, but then, who wants to see a contemporary version of Wonder Woman going through that sort of shit for the sake of “realism”?) and not just a series of CGI creations.


It’s rather a great film.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Shiri (1999)

Original title: 쉬리

Yu Jong-won (Han Seok-Kyu) and his partner and best friend Park Mu-young (Choi Min-sik when he was rather sleek and well groomed) are working for the South Korean security services, fighting the dastardly plans of Northern spies, mostly successfully. Some years ago, though, a female assassin named Lee Bang-hee managed to paint quite the trail of blood through various officials, ending her series of murders once things got to hot with a goodbye note written on the corpse of spy colleague of Jong-won and Mu-young. Needless to say, this thing still smarts, particularly the more melodramatically inclined Jong-won.

Now, just when Jong-won is planning the wedding date with his fiancée Lee Mying-hyun (Kim Yoon-jin), Bang-hee is becoming active again. Her murders have apparently something to do with the North’s attempts to acquire a basically magical new liquid explosive, though that will turn out to only be the first step in a much bigger and deadlier project.

Formally and stylistically, Kang Je-gyu’s brilliant South Korean action film Shiri is a big sloppy kiss for Hong Kong’s Heroic Bloodshed genre, so it’ll come as no surprise that the film is as much interested in portraying the melodramatically elevated emotional states of its characters through its action as it is in showing fun explosions. For the first forty minutes or so, the film’s attempts in this direction don’t feel to work out quite well enough. The action is certainly kinetic and fast, but its emotional underpinnings don’t quite seem to hit the mark. However, this curious feeling of tepidness isn’t the film failing to hold up to its role models as one might expect, but director Kang Je-gyu playing a longer game, slowly (for the genre, this is still a fast mover in anyone’s book) and expertly revealing greater dramatic and emotional complexity so that it can hit the audience all the better over the head with it. And before a viewer can think “hey, that’s a rather cleverly thought up and well realized way to use these old tropes”, suddenly, personal and emotional stakes have become as big as the action – which is pretty damn big.

Kang doesn’t stop there, though: there’s also the way main protagonist and antagonist are paralleling one another, both also consciously mirroring the separation between the North and South of Korea; and how an at first pretty jingoistic seeming action movie turns into a film that very consciously uses the spectacular shoot-outs and the tears (oh, the tears!) to also talk about the psychological toll the state of affairs between the two Koreas has on the people trying to live their lives there. The film shows a heart-on-its-sleeve sort of pain about the relationship between the Koreas, hiding things South Korean cinema usually tries to avoid even looking at under cover of its awesome spectacle. In other words, unlike a lot of films inspired by the Heroic Bloodshed genre, Shiri doesn’t just take the genre’s cool surface elements (though there’s nothing wrong with that, of course) but actually looks closely at its techniques to then apply them to themes and ideas close to the heart of its director.


This slowly developing depth and complexity is of course only half of the reason why Shiri is quite as wonderful an example of action cinema as it is. There’s also the action itself: it’s kinetic, fast, and varied, but also keeps in mind the importance of some standards of its genre. Glass needs to be broken, cars explode, partners need to die heroically, and happy ends aren’t really in the cards in a world where nobody can survive while being only one person instead of fragmented parts (again mirroring the Koreas).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In short: Blood Money (2017)

The new film by Lucky McKee finds three horrible people who aren’t actually friends (but whatever, one imagines the script writers to think) and who don’t seem to have a single redeeming quality between them stumbling over a whole lot of money during a camping trip, which they at once proceed to steal.

Faster than you can think “Gee, what assholes!”, they begin trying to fuck each other over in varying combinations, with little success. The criminal whose money these tools have stolen turns out to be a very tired and cranky looking John Cusack, dressed in the weird rags he’s started wearing in nearly all of his roles ever since he has come down to movies like this one, plus a bandana to make the outfit even more absurd. He then proceeds to go after the vile idiots, somehow managing to keep up with the relatively fit looking trio despite looking like Cusack looks in 2017.

What could be a nice combination of a survivalist chase thriller and Treasure of the Sierra Madre style existentialism breaks down thanks to the seeming unwillingness of everyone involved to actually apply themselves. McKee has made one to four (depending on one’s tastes) good to brilliant movies, but this one could have been directed by anybody: there’s no sense of place, no dramatic rhythm, and the photography is only excellent at making a patch of theoretically attractive semi-wilderness look as bland and nondescript as possible. The action sequences lack in focus and a sense of physicality. One hesitates to even call this “direction”, it feels more like the product of someone just showing up and going through the motions.

Which is more than can be said of Cusack’s performance here. He seems to try and beat Ben Kingsley at his game of showing up in low budget fare, cashing his cheque and doing nothing at all a guy randomly grabbed from the street couldn’t have done cheaper. It’s pretty sad to witness, really, for when he bothers, he still can be a focused, charismatic actor.


The rest of the cast is decent enough, I guess, but they can’t really do much about a script that confuses exploring the dark sides of supposedly normal people with giving us a trio of characters who are so horrible in every single interaction I’m honestly confused why I should care about anything that happens to them. This is not a story of people who show their darkest, deepest secrets when confronted with temptation but one of assholes that are assholes throughout, doing asshole things being hunted by another asshole; and not even interesting assholes at that.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Execution Game (1979)

Original title: 処刑遊戯 (Shokei yugi)

With the help of a Woman who doesn’t even move her mouth in the proper moments when singing playback in a bar, a mysterious group lures everyone’s favourite asshole professional killer Shohei Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) into a trap. They knock him out, kidnap him and them torture him a bit. Afterwards, they stage a fake escape, apparently to test his murder skills in practice, for what these guys truly want from Narumi is to hire him for a hit. Why you’d first torture him and finish the fake escape opportunity with shooting his gun hand is beyond me, but I am after all not a member of this highly professional and mysterious group.

The choice of target doesn’t seem promising either: it’s an old pro in the professional killing business, and the former favourite killer of the group, not something that should seem to be terribly promising for Narumi’s own future. Later, we will also discover that the old killer was seduced into working for the group by the same woman who pulled in Narumi. Eventually, Narumi agrees to the hit, but of course, the old hitman is not going to be the only one our protagonist will murder.

I’ve decided not to write up The Killing Game, the second film of Toru Murakawa’s second film in his “Game” trilogy about the bloody adventures of professional killer – and perhaps professional asshole too – Shohei Narumi, because what I wrote about the first film in the series, The Most Dangerous Game, also applies to film number two, just that the later movie adds some pretty horrible comic relief and doubles down on the misogynism of the first film.

The third, and for my taste by far the best, entry in the series cuts most of these elements down completely. There’s no comedy at all anymore in the film, we never see Narumi taking on his off-day lazy guy persona, and while the film’s portrayal of its two female characters isn’t exactly progressive, they are much closer to actual people than in the first two films, and given how pared down the characterisation has become here, that’s just as close as the men. In fact, the Woman isn’t quite your standard femme fatale. She certainly works for very violent men and is responsible for luring others into their hands, but she’s also clearly trapped in a world she never chose for herself, looking for outs – be it fleeing with the old killer or begging Narumi to kill her too after she has set the older killer up for his death – she knows won’t save her.

Narumi’s relationship to women has changed too. While nothing of this is ever spoken aloud – as a matter of fact, the film’s characters speak about everything not related to killing only in vague allusions and ellipses – Matsuda’s posture and some of Narumi’s actions make clear that this time around, he isn’t dominating a woman with his “awesome” (actually really unpleasant, of course) masculinity, but can actually fall in love like a real human being. His other contact is a young watch repairwoman who clearly takes a shine to him, and whom he will in the end reject, telling her not to put her trust in strangers too fast; one never knows how dangerous they could be. This might also be the most moral, perhaps kindest, act, Narumi commits in the whole of the series.

Ironically, this increasing depth of the protagonist’s emotional life happens in a film that strips down all clear emotional expression not happening through violence even further than the first two did, Narumi hiding what might be going on in his head behind a stoic pose and under his perpetual sun glasses. However, Matsuda manages to embody greater emotional depth by doing less obvious acting here; while his Narumi still acts cool and likes to pose with his gun in front of a mirror, the coolness does seem very much like armour this time around, Matsuda suggesting with small gestures and changes in his body language quite a few of the things neither his character not the film would ever outright state.

In this context, it is pretty clear that the Woman (whose name I never noticed if the film ever actually uses it) isn’t the only one trapped in a violent world she isn’t allowed to leave here; despite all his capabilities and his talent for violence, this time around Narumi seems just as trapped in his world as she is, his macho coolness a shield that seems the more cracked the less he lets the cracks show.

On the directing side, Murakawa is doing an inspired instead of a routine job for once. Here, every shot seems absolutely focussed on creating a very specific mood of alienation, the framing often trapping characters in their surroundings or keeping them separate and far from each other. From time to time, the film’s generally naturalistic (in a 70s grimy sense) style and colour scheme is replaced by splotches of intense tones of blue or red, suggesting a wrongness to some of the film’s most violent moments in the series typical scenes of Narumi systematically gunning down a whole gang of enemies. In general, The Execution Game’s action tends more to the systematic than the loudly spectacular, an approach that fits Narumi’s profession as it does the film’s more complex context.


So, quite unexpectedly, I found myself riveted by the final film in the “Game” trilogy, fascinated by its cold aesthetic, interested by the way it frames its tale of alienation, as well as surprised by the clear evidence that Matsuda is a much better actor than I had given him credit for. That’s a pretty fantastic way to end a little franchise.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: For Ruth, the last straw was a spoon.

The Hunter (2011): Daniel Nettheim’s Tasmania set eco thriller is not at all what I’d have expected from a director whose work otherwise is centred on dependable TV jobs (which I’m not going to knock, for there’s nothing at all wrong with craftsmanship under tight restrictions). It’s a slow, thoughtful film whose direction lacks all vanity and pretention in the best way, focusing instead on the landscape and quite wonderful acting by Willem Dafoe and Frances O’Connor, and specifically their interaction (with a bit of Sam Neill and two good child actors thrown in the mix, too). The film turns out to be a rather complicated redemption film that in the end sees our protagonist do something that is at once very, very right and very, very wrong – and unlike quite a lot of films about violent men finding redemption, The Hunter is quite conscious of this ambivalence.

The Sandman (1995): The thing with me and the films of (US indie horror pioneer) J.R. Bookwalter is that I like the man’s films and respect what he’s going for with them, but that I generally wouldn’t recommend them to many people. It’s not just the roughness that comes with making films with little money and not exactly a horde of experienced crew members involved that makes his films difficult to recommend - the ambition that makes Bookwalter’s films so interesting to me is what will kill them for a lot of viewers. If one is willing and able to look past the cheap costumes, the often amateurish acting, and so on and so forth and see the ideas they are supposed to stand in for rather than their inevitably imperfect reality, then one can be charmed and delighted by Bookwalters films; if one can’t, then one will only see something cheap and amateurish - though usually somewhat better shot and edited than one would expect. I’m not saying one of these ways to look at Bookwalter’s work – or that of filmmakers like him - is wrong, or right; I just happen to enjoy them, and this variation on the “dream demon” concept in particular.


Two Lovers and a Bear (2016): Not at all like a J.R. Bookwalter film is Kim Nguyen’s magical realist tale about, well, two lovers and a bear, or rather the imperfect and doomed (or not doomed, depending on one’s perspective) attempt of two lovers to overcome the pasts that defined and broke them. I found the film captivating, interesting, and infuriating to about the same degree. There’s gorgeous (and meaningful) photography of the Great White North (which is the sort of thing that’ll half sell me on any movie), fine performances by Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany, and quite a lot of passion in the way Nguyen treats his characters; but I also found the way the ending seems to treat the characters’ brokenness as something that can’t be mended (or relieved) by anything but death unconvincing – quite literally in the sense that the film didn’t convince me of it, leading to an ending that to me felt as hollow and conventional as a classic Hollywood happy end.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Der Todesrächer von Soho (1972)

aka The Corpse Packs His Bags

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.

A murderer with a very peculiar modus operandi haunts London. Concentrating on people visiting the fair city, he first packs his victims' bags, then kills them with an incredibly precise knife throw. As you do.

Inspector Ruppert Redford (Fred Williams) - oh, the hilarity! - of Scotland Yard has quite a bit of trouble solving the case. I'm sure his trouble has nothing at all to do with him being a typical early 70s smartass playboy who just loves to let civilians do his job for him, like the (weirdly competent, obviously odious) comic relief photographer Andy Pickwick (Luis Morris) or his personal friend, the crime writer Charles Barton (Horst Tappert).

To be fair to Redford, one has to admit the case is rather complicated, seeing as it not only involves the strange murders, but also a shady doctor (Siegfried Schürenberg) with more than just one secret, his lovely assistant (Elisa Montés) with another secret all her own, a drug ring peddling a drug thrice as potent as heroin, various bombings, one or more revenge plots, and Barton's secret. Not unlike Redford (who will solve his case by going where Pickwick tells him to, and being obnoxious), I lost track of the plot about halfway through the movie, and never was quite sure what was going on in some of the plot lines, so it's difficult to blame him.

Say what you will about German producer impresario Artur "Atze" Brauner's attempts at jumping on the successful Edgar Wallace adaptation wagon by making a contract with Wallace's son Bryan Edgar Wallace that allowed him to use the younger Wallace's name and the often very fine titles of the man's books and make completely unrelated films out of them, but the man did show good taste when it came to the international co-operations late in his Wallace Junior cycle. After having co-produced Argento's Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Brauner hired beloved auteur Jess Franco for his next Bryan Wallace movie, Brauner's second version of Wallace's Death Packs A Suitcase.

Now, I have gone on record saying that I generally prefer Franco's more personal films - at least when we're talking about his work of the 60s and 70s - to his attempts at making more conventional genre movies, but Der Todesrächer von Soho (which translates as "the death-avenger of Soho", and no, the word "Todesrächer" does exist in German as little as "death-avenger" does in English - it's just a lovely case of the sort of random composite noun the German language loves so dearly) turns out to be an exception to the rule, and may in fact be one of my personal favourites among Franco's films. It's probably because Franco might not have been allowed to indulge in his erotic obsessions as heavily as his fans are used to - well, beyond a very short nightclub sequence and a lot of women wearing boots, anyway - but does indulge heavily in his love of pulp and a visual and narrative style that have come down through the serials (on the visual side of course combined with the man's usual tics and enthusiasms).

While Der Todesrächer doesn't work at all as a straight pulpy narrative (what with it having a plot so byzantine my first viewing didn't even leave me with an understanding of the knife-thrower's motives, even though I guessed his identity without much trouble with his first appearance on screen), it's a virtual feast of classic pulp, serial, and krimi clichés as seen through the slightly skewed but loving perspective of Franco. The whole film is basically Franco shooting classic poses of the genres he's working in from his favourite weird perspectives and through glass tables while a pretty hip soundtrack by Rolf Kühn (with some contributions by Franco himself, apparently) plays, pretty obviously having a lot of fun with it and for once not even trying to achieve transcendence through boredom. In fact (and genre-appropriately), Der Todesrächer is as fast-paced and sprightly as a Franco movie gets, with nary a minute where nothing exciting or at least interesting is happening on screen, making this one a Franco movie that's much easier to appreciate for the amateur than his more self-indulgent films. How could I not appreciate Franco having fun in this way?

As much as I love the director, I usually do not use the word "exciting" to describe any of his films, but Der Todesrächer von Soho is an exception to that rule too, working as a timely reminder that Franco could be versatile if a given project interested him enough.


German viewers will probably have another reason to look fondly, or even with mild astonishment, at the film, for its use of Horst Tappert is quite an eye-opener. Here in Germany, Tappert is primarily known today as the star of the long-running (I thought about eighty years, Internet sources speak of only twenty-four) cop show Derrick. The show's complete run of 281 episodes was written by Herbert Reinecker whom you also might know as one of the core writers of Rialto Film's Edgar Wallace cycle (and yes, Tappert was in some of those too, and quite lively at that). Unfortunately, Reinecker's attempts at a more psychological crime show only resulted in a show as visually dead, emotionally and intellectually dull, and politically conservative as anything I'd care - or rather not care - to imagine, and drove Tappert to performances that would be cruel to call "wooden", for even pieces of wood have feelings that can be hurt. Having grown up with Derrick, and somewhat forgotten Tappert's part in the earlier Wallace movies, it came as a real shock to watch the actor here, about two years before he started on the show that was to make/end him, smiling, acting, even over-acting, and possessing an actual physical presence like, well, an actual human being, outplaying the film's cop character with effortless charisma. It's quite a thing to behold, though not enough for me to ever want to revisit Derrick.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

In short: Hounds of Love (2016)

Quite a few people who are probably much cleverer than I am and whose opinions I respect have written rather highly of Ben Young’s Australian horror film about a couple (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) who kidnap and torture a mildly wayward teenager (Ashleigh Cummings). The film certainly has a lot going for it: the acting is bordering on the brilliant, the writing manages to go into theoretically highly exploitative places without ever feeling exploitative while also avoiding an impression of harmlessness, and the direction is mostly stylish and clearly knows what it wants.

Well, Young does have a tendency to overuse slow-motion montages, which is certainly effective the first two times, but by the next four or five (I lost count) uses I found myself raising my eyebrows (yes, both) at the movie. I – and I’m saying this as not a particular fan of the police as an organization - also wasn’t terribly fond of the ridiculous way the film portrays the police. Now, I understand that the plot wouldn’t work if these guys would even vaguely be interested in doing their job of at least starting to look for a disappeared white teenage middle case girl (which generally is a race, class and gender combination to get the police all hot and bothered) when the parents and boyfriend of the girl poke a piece of paper into their faces that tells them where to look, but I’ve grown a bit tired of this particular cliché, particularly when there are a myriad better ways to write oneself out of this sort of situation.


I’ve also grown a bit tired of the whole kidnapping and torturing sub-genre, I have to admit, and I think it is this more than the film’s relatively minor failings that resulted in my feeling exactly nothing about or for the characters in it, and therefore not feeling much tension, excitement or interest for what was going on.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Walking Tall (1973)

To get away from a business where he’s always told what to do, to please his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), and to provide a steadier home for their children, the delightfully named Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) retires from wrestling to the small Southern town where he grew up in and that parts of his family still call home.

The place has changed, though, and not necessarily for the better. It has grown its own little vice district, and while the things going on there look pretty damn harmless to my eyes, Buford seems rather shocked on his first encounter. When he makes a fuss about the local casino cheating one of his old buddies – who clearly isn’t the most intelligent or mentally healthy to boot – the owners of the place react absurdly violent, not just beating Buford to an inch of his life, but also cutting him up with knives and leaving him somewhere by the side of the road to die. Our hero’s made from stern stuff, though, and survives his ordeal. Afterwards he doesn’t just learn the bastards also stole his station wagon but that the local sheriff’s not willing to do a damn thing about the people who nearly murdered him. Consequently, once he has recovered, he makes himself a very big stick and goes out for some vigilante justice, combining brutally beating up his would-be killers with having them pay an invoice for his damages. Him, the Sheriff does arrest, but the ensuing trial sees Buford giving a rousing speech and getting of scot free.

Next step in his project to clean up town is to run for Sheriff himself. Clearly, there’s a demand for an honest man in the role, even if he’s an amateur like Buford. Before and after he becomes Sheriff, Buford has to cope with various attacks on his life, family troubles, and the general corruption of parts of the charming little town.

Walking Tall is the first of the two films at the end of his career veteran director Phil Karlson made with Joe Don Baker, and it is generally considered to be the slightly superior one. Personally, in a cinch, I’d probably go with Framed as the slightly superior film, but that has more to do with that film’s shorter running time, tighter structure and more controlled sentimentality than with anything Walking Tall does terribly wrong. This is just a differently shaped film, telling a story of a greater scope in time and vaguely basing itself on actual events concerning the real Buford Pusser. To which degree, I don’t know, and frankly, I’m not sure I want to.

In theory, this could be one of those films whose too loud love for vigilante justice and dislike for stuff like the actual rule of law or the separation of power between judicative and executive could sour me on it too much to have fun with it. In practice, the film does use these latter bits also to portray the degree of Pusser’s naivety when it comes to the things needed beside a moral compass to do his new job properly.

In other regards, this is just a simple joy to watch: Joe Don does the Joe Don Baker swagger, inhabiting his role in a way which makes questions of “acting” seem pointless, Karlson uses his direct but effective style to the best, and most entertaining effect, and the whole thing has a wonderful sense of place. Of course, that place is a made-up sort of South made of idealisations, clichés and truth in probably equal parts but it feels alive and real on film.

Speaking of the US South, I do find it interesting to point out that both of the Baker/Karlson films feature one major black character as a friend of Joe Don’s respective character who isn’t a caricature, with actual things to do in the plot, and positioned in a way to give the film some opportunity to talk about racism in its specific Southern variety, in scenes that suggest someone involved in the production had some practical experience with these matters beyond the burning crosses and knew how this sort of thing played out in real life in smaller – but not less painful – ways at this time and place. It’s also just pretty cool to have a film showing a guy like Joe Don actively trying not being a racist prick, and even apologizing when parts of his socialisation make him act like a prick.


If you don’t care about that sort of thing and only come to see Joe Don Baker smite evildoers with his big stick, you’re well provided by Walking Tall, too.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The 39 Steps (1935)

Canadian in London Richard Hannay’s (Robert Donat) life is quickly becoming very interesting. When the mysterious Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) picks him up in a music hall and asks to go home with him, he soon finds himself involved as an amateur in the spy business. For Miss Smith, as she explains, is a freelance agent, at the moment working against a foreign government (boo, hiss) whose spies have got their hands on some sort of secret concerning British Air Defence, and plan to get it out of the country soon. Miss Smith would rather sell their secret back to the British. Unfortunately, the enemy spies are onto her, and her little visit with Hannay is an attempt to beat them through the power of sheer randomness.

As it stands, she’s soon knifed in the back by someone. Hannay is of course framed as her murderer. Trying to save the secret from the foreign power himself seems the only way of proving his innocence. Alas, our protagonist’s only clues are the name of a village in Scotland and the phrase “The 39 Steps”. Soon he’s chased by the police, the enemy agents, and god knows who else; not exactly the situation an amateur whose main skill seems to be flirting wants to find himself in.

Even in 1935, when he was still working in the UK, Alfred Hitchcock was riding his hobby horses hard, so it’s not a surprise to realize this John Buchan adaptation is a film about a supposed everyman (who just happens to look and sound like a movie star) hunted by incompetent and untrustworthy authorities, shadowy figures, and untrustworthy shadowy authority figures while chasing after a McGuffin. I’m not complaining, of course, for this set-up plays to many of the directors strength, delivering the perfect scaffold to hang episodes with highly memorable side characters (personal favourite: the crofter and his too young, romantic wife who both suggest a whole movie of their own Hannay’s just an episodic encounter in), the typically cleverly constructed suspense sequences, and a bit of quick banter on. Even only ten years into his long career as a director, Hitchcock was fantastic at this sort of thing, providing the film with an exciting sense of flow, and demonstrating an unwillingness to ever be stagey that was still not par for the course at this stage in the development of cinema. To modern eyes, some of the directors efforts may look a bit commonplace now, but that’s not so much Hitchcock doing much of anything wrong, it’s an effect of the immense influence his films had on more than one genre.

The film does also contain in embryonic form another Hitchcock standard trope, the cool blonde woman who is “tamed” (shudder) by his protagonist by treating her pretty rudely at best. In this case, the victim’s Madeleine Carroll, but The 39 Steps doesn’t drive this particular element terribly far – neither to be annoying or to be interesting - and stays closer to the “bickering means love” cliché beloved of popular culture even in the 30s.


The most important thing about The 39 Steps, though, is this: it is just a great, at its core straightforward - though Hitchcock obfuscates there quite a bit - story told in a way so accomplished it is still exciting and fun to watch more than eighty years after it was made – and not just for viewers specialized in films from the 30s and 40s.