Friday, 29 June 2012
This year's EKEK festival had to be the toughest ever. Toughest in the sense that it was hard, excruciating and painful to sit all through the night. The festival runs by the principle that no member of the audience has any idea what films they are going to be showing until the film starts. That is also how the organizers are able to totally mess with the audience and their expectations. There's always been such an element to this festival, but this year it came on a little too thick. Then again, as the festival will always be held in the tiny Kino Engel theatre, which was packed as it was, there isn't much room for more audience in the following years. It is a one-of-a-kind experience, but mostly not in a good way. So heed this warning, never go to EKEK festival. Leave it to the professional scum watchers, like me.
Director: Harvey Hart
The festival began promisingly with this satire about all-American bloodthirstiness and paranoia. And the movie actually comes from Canada. As the thing with satire is, even though it can be as broad and heavy-handed as in this, there were several people among the audience who didn't get what the film was aiming for and accused it of being fascist. Which it is certainly not.
A five-men hunting crew, featuring the leader, a tough army Major Rex (Cliff Robertson) his friendly underling Lou (Ernerst Borgnine) and the veterinarian Zeke (Henry Silva) go for a weekend in the woods to find some animals to kill. They can't find any, and talk trash and walk the woods in their boredom. Suddenly, they happen across a river and note another hunting party at the other shore. After a while at looking at each other, the other crew opens fire on them. On the ensuing gun battle, Rex's crew manages to kill one of their attackers, even though one of their own is wounded. Feeling worried that they might be accused of murder, they decide to keep the whole trip a secret. But Rex also starts to worry that the other crew might be out for revenge, and decides it's best to strike at them before they can strike back.
The film uses a lot of time lingering on the paranoia. It is not necessarily a bad thing, since it builds up to the ridiculous overkill that is the film's wonderfully bonkers finale. A ridiculous attack leads to ridiculous paranoia at history repeating itself, it seems. The leisurely time-use also allows the filmmakers to take a good look at how much of the manliness of these characters is defined by guns. When hunting has gone wrong, they abuse their power at their jobs, at training new recruits, at their private investigations, and turn down sex-hungry women who throw themselves at them. When masculinity has failed Rex doesn't seem to have the appetite for sex any more, in or out of his marriage. He also finds himself in the position where he could be interchangeable with his deceased enemy, since the widow would be more than happy to jump his bone.
Most of the characters displayed here are war veterans, which explains why they have the condition to use force and dismiss all other alternatives. The war brings every one of them issues that cause them to have a deep urge for a revanche for a fight that ended more or less in a tie. The only character who tries to speak reason, Lou, is himself on the fence and is horrified of the idea of being shut out of his ring of friends. The others also strip away his masculinity for his attempt to solve problems at other ways than violence. Eventually he will follow their lead, even though he feels it's the wrong thing to do.
The film's punchline may be seen as undermining all of these satirical characterizations. But I see it as a natural end result in relying in eat-or-be-eaten -thinking, war tactics and arms races in places where they don't belong. The fate of one side could have as easily happened to the other as well. After all, both sides are real mirror images of each other.
Risky Business (1983)
Director: Paul Brickman
Another purely American way of thinking is the one of free enterprises and anyone's ability to build a business around the area he knows best. Brickman's film has also some satirical undertones concerning this, but mostly it sees that pimping is just as good a business as any. And the right use of the right kind of pimping gets one ahead in life. I can see the thought process to choosing the young Tom Cruise to play the lead than in a mixture of yuppie sleaziness and whiny rich teenager worried he might get in trouble. The film is mostly remembered for the scene in the very beginning where the Cruiser dances in his underwear to Bob Seger, but the film does offer more. Much, much more.
So awkward teenager Joel Goodsen (Cruise) gets to enjoy a week house sitting while his parents are on vacation. Joel is a bit of a dweeb and his nerdy friends accuse that he can't relax nor have fun. Joel's annoying "friend" Miles (Curtis Armstrong) calls an escort service for a hooker for his pal, and refuses to give Joel the number to cancel the appointment. Since Joel doesn't know how to use the phone's redial button, he is confronted later that night by a 300-pound transvestite. Luckily, the guy's somewhat understanding and while taking off with his food money, he gives Joel the number to a higher class call girl, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). Anxious to pay for booty, Joel hires her, who in turn takes a fancy to Joel's house and it's vast riches. The next morning steals a valuable glass egg (!) which Joel's mother treasures. In order to get it back, Joel promises a safe haven for Lana and her other hooker friends from the abusive pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano). Luckily Joel finds out that many of his loser friends are willing to pay to have crabs and spend 20 seconds of bliss with prostitutes. This makes him toy with the idea of presenting his pimping business at his high school's Young Enterprisers class. High concept 80's filmmaking, everybody!
The cheesy 80's soundtrack and the neon lights make the film seem so cheesy by today's standards, it's quite hard to evaluate whether this was meant to be some sort of a satire about yuppie culture. There seems to be some irony at least in the fact that the driving force during this film, it's MacGuffin, is an item that's basically useless but high in value just because, an expensive glass egg. Everything's for sale, and you can buy the woman of your choice just as much as any status symbol in the superficial 80's world. getting ahead in life is Joel's main concern and he begins to learn that he the vices and desires he has are by no means closing the doors of opportunity but rather open them more widely if he plays his cards right. Phil Collins is played on the background as a subway bum has a drink and watches Joel and Lana getting it on. Better trashing of Michael Mann-like music video aesthetics I haven't come across.
I'm not sure whether Tom Cruise is a good fit to play an awkward teenager that's constantly in a heap of trouble and losing his mind over it. The dude's not much of a comedian. The unlikability of the dumb-but-sleazy lead character, the unsure stance on the satire scale and the overlong length keep this from being a true classic. But that fateful night, it was one of the very best.
...and the fifth horseman is Fear (...a páty jezdec je Strach, 1965)
Director: Zbynek Brynych
Intriguingly, we were offered some genuine European black and white neorealist treats this year. Patrons expecting sheer trash from the festival were surprised. But sadly, it also came at least one movie too late, as it was already around 2 or 3 in the morning. This is the sort of film that requires patience and careful observation. And I slept for the most of it.
But I can still fill in the basics. This is a Czechoslovakian film that deals with the time of the Nazi occupation. A jewish doctor living in a block of flats tries to keep his identity a secret and to get along in an oppressive environment. Thus he is forced to squeal on some of his neighbors who are breaking rules to the Gestapo. Not even so subtly, Brynych likens the past with all their spying on regular people and oppression to the present where Soviet-controlled Communists were in charge of their country. In the final montage, pictures from the 40's switch to the Prague landscape in the 60's. I've since tried to track down the film to do a proper review, but to no avail. I hope I will get another chance to see this film.
Joyful Noise (2012)
Director: Todd Graff
In the WTF-pile was this gospel musical about a church choir trying to keep their home town together even though the evil economy closes down businesses and such. So they must praise God so loud as to win the national competition for the best choreographed church choir in the USA. The film has clearly been made for God-fearing Midwestern Americans, which is why it's actually quite stupid that the leftist liberal European such as me would then make fun of the movie. But let me say that I would've never watched this (unless they paid me of course) if it wasn't for those crooked program planners at this festival. I find it quite unbelievable that this could ever find an audience in Finland, when even The Muppets was denied from our silver screens. For shame.
The choir's journey to the finals is off to a bad start as their leader (Kris Kristofferson has the good sense to leave early and take his paycheck on the way out) kicks the bucket during one of their concerts. This leads to a bitch-fight of leadership over the mother-hen-like sassy mama Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) who wouldn't change a thing with their outdated show, and the rich heiress of the old leader, G.G. Sparrow (Parton). Sparrow's grandson Randy Garrity (Jeremy Jordan) has just come to visit her, and luckily he happens to be an aspiring musician and dancer with some hip ideas for their gospel show. The ideas include replacing old-time Sly Stone with the modern, fresh-faced music of Michael Jackson. Randy is also randy over Vi Rose's hot daughter Olivia, and, GASP, would also be willing to have pre-marital kissing and naked-hugging with her. Vi Rose opposes Randy's involvement fiercely, but since they see the show they are up against, she has no choice but to give the boy a shot.
The actual choir shows aren't that bad, but I do prefer the original R&B songs rather than their overacted a cappella God-praising versions. The songs are about sex, dammit! Latifah isn't my cup of tea as a leading lady in any case, and here she's straight up on bitch mode from beginning to end. Dolly Parton on the other hand looks like a frog tied up to two balloons that's had her face replaced with linoleum. Close-ups of her mug fill me with more fear and dread than any horror film I've seen during the last 6 months. So fierce does she look, that her character even has to explain that it's God's will for her to have discount plastic surgeries as much as she wants. The creepiest scene has her looking out the window while another version of her is dancing in the moonlight with the ghost of her dead husband. Yes. That is Christian, all right. While the film is on the very edge of limits to my withstand, luckily there are also some nuggets of insanity to be found among all the unbearable quirkiness and spunky we-love-God attitude.
For one, the heavy-handed way the movie scoops up various issues and tries to win audience sympathy by shaking them at their faces is incredibly pandering. Vi Rose's son Walter has a dilemma of not being able to believe in himself, but the friendship with Randy will help him come out of his shelter and believe in his skills. This worn-out cliché isn't enough by itself, so Walter also has Asperger's syndrome and reminds everyone in every scene how hard that makes life for him. The dialogue is aimed at stupid people, which is why they explain things in a hilarious manner from the ground up. Thus, the actors have to speak out lines such as:
"I'm sure worried about my job at the family hardware store".
The best thing by far in this atrocity is an absolutely hilarious sub-plot about the love life of a divorced overweight black woman Earla (Angela Grovey). She finds new love in the feeble fellow choirmember Mr. Hsu. The problem is that Hsu doesn't manage to survive a single night of passion with Earla, and is found dead in the morning. Cue one of the film's sudden cuts to a funeral service. Earla starts to worry she's never going to find another husband because the reputation of her fucking Asians to their deaths has started to walk around. Also that God hates her because she had premarital sex. But luckily while she's in the bathroom before the final concert, another feeble Asian comes to knock on the door and confess he's been stalking her. He would also want to know her even better. After checking he hasn't any problems with his heart or blood pressure, Earla decides to marry him on the spot. So, the film and my sanity both end in a preposterously odd wedding scene. Good show. Cough.
Return of Bruce (Zhong lie Jing wu men, 1978)
Director: Joseph Velasco
Some all-around average Bruceploitation was thrown in for the small hours in the morning. The funniest thing about this one was that the identity of the movie was left a mystery for the audience even while watching it, since the print had no opening titles in it. The film is also known as My 12 Kung Fu Kicks, which sounds like one of those How to-videos. You can't learn kung fu by watching Bruceploitation movies, silly. But it is easier to replicate the moves in these than trying to learn from the real Bruce Lee, since his moves are often too fast for the cameras to accurately capture.
There's not much to say about this, as it recycles the same basic western plot most of these movies do. Kung fu mastering young man Wong Lung (Bruce Le, starring here inexplicably under the alias Kenneth Rivero) arrives to a town ruled by criminals. In this case it is Manila, the harbor capital of the Philippines (where the film was consequently produced). Wong tries to find work and befriends some natives. In this case it is a fat little boy called Piggy. Wong suffers some hardships and witnesses bullying, but he isn't intimidated by the threatening gangsters and teaches them a lesson or two with his martial arts skillz. Wong just tries to get along, but the furious and vengeful gangsters keep sending worse and worse threats at him. Finally, when the bad guys threaten his friends, Wong must head off to a final showdown to a bamboo house filled with the most deadly martial arts assassins.
The film begins more comedic, and we are treated for instance many jokes at the expense of the cowardly mob captain who runs like a girl and acts as stereotypically homosexual as possible. It is also clear that Wong isn't fit to work in a hotel, as he accidentally assaults guests during his morning yoga routine. The vicious gangsters here are also sex traffickers, so we get plenty of scenes with Wong acting as a knight in shining armour, saving damsels in distress, such as female police officers who can't handle their cases by themselves, and caged women and such. One can't claim this film is progressive in any way, and it rubs the viewer's face with its sexism. As is usual, the final fights are stretched for long and waiting for the movie to end to go to the bathroom is a nightmare. Every time one figures Wong has killed the final boss, another one appears behind the corner. Surprisingly, the film's ending is quite cynical, and, in the case of the clinging and annoying Piggy at least, refreshingly brutal at long last.
The Raven (2012)
Director: James McTeigue
I had hopes of gleeful insanity for this film, but was also not at all surprised to see it tank in the US and being denied a theatrical release (outside this showing) in Finland, although it already had a hefty advertizement campaign. For it is a moronic film that some studio executive might have easily described as Sherlock Holmes (2009) meets Se7en. Yes, it is a film about the poet Edgar Allan Poe trying to catch a serial killer who has been butchering people in the same manners as found in Poe's texts. A suitably dumb high concept, then. But that alone doesn't make a good movie.
The film opens explaining that it will showcase the previously untold final days of the legendary horror author. Poe (played by John Cusack in manners clearly trademarked to Nicolas Cage) is a penniless and washed up nobody in Baltimore. He attempts to cash in on his more famous works by trying to milk a bartender for a free drink and asking for advance payment for the newspaper that's been publishing his work. He also has eyes for the fair young Emily (Alice Eve), even though her father (Brendan Gleeson) not as enthusiastic about him. Poe promises to marry her when he gets the money to do so. But cruel murders and their investigation bring Detective Fields (Luke Evans) and the rest of the Baltimore police to his door. Since the murderer has clearly been inspired by the deaths in Poe's horror stories, Fields clearly needs the author himself in order to think one step ahead of the slasher. But Poe's involvement also means that those close to him are also in danger and Emily gets kidnapped by the mysterious ripper.
Not even Roger Corman was as ungrateful for Poe's texts as the makers of this movie. The fundamental misunderstanding at core here is that Poe's stories are terrifying because they have so much violence, splatter and such in them. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. Because the screenwriters seem to have only read Wikipedia synopsis's of Poe's stories, for instance the pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum goes down in 20 seconds to slice a guy in half. There is no pit around the machine at all. The film clearly isn't much for slowly building tension or inner monologues, and is in effect, just another run-off-the-mill race against time where people spurn exposition while running to the next scene. It doesn't help that all characters save Poe in this film are so bland, the producers must order them by the dozens from the stock character catalogue. There isn't any suspense in who gets killed next and the identity of the killer is a mind-bogglingly dumb and indifferent choice.
The first few minutes of the film with Poe ranting drunkenly at the bar are somewhat entertaining, if only because Cusack is too good an actor for dreck such as this. The rest of the movie, though, he phones it in as hard as he can, and at the same time, all the small bits of character-building for Poe as a character also vanish off. In the end, he becomes just another down-on-his-luck hero who must save the day by solving clues. Yawn.
Novelist (Päätalo, 2008)
Director: Hannu Kahakorpi
The final film of the festival proved to be a little too much even for me, and not only because I had seen it before. Still, I don't think The Novelist is a particularly bad film, just kind of un-noteworthy and aimed at a completely different audience than me. It is a Finnish countryside saga if there ever was one, with a grumpy, little-speaking lead man, some dick jokes and loads and loads of footage from forests and nature. The film is based on popular author Kalle Päätalo's life and books (which are all about his own life), which have been published in 26 volumes, each one hunderds and hundreds of pages long. That is why it's good that the makers had the sense to cut them down to a mere 1,5 hours.
Päätalo (Kai Lehtinen) has been dreaming to become a writer since he was a small boy. Grown up he's a farmer and later a building commissioner that spends his evenings trying to come up with something to say on paper. He has a wife (Susanna Anteroinen) of whom he's very fond. From time to time Päätalo has to go away from his native Taivalkoski to big cities to negotiate about publishing of his books. He starts to suspect his wife is having an affair, but with no evidence backing it up. There's not much more story in this one, but the real-life Päätalo could stretch the story to about a million pages. Basically, it is a film about how low a self-esteem the Finnish man usually has, particularly in the countryside.
The film is intercut with the phase in Finland's history when the agriculture started to give way to urbanization after World War II, and new, humanistic job opportunities began to arise. Countryside and cities are contrasted every time Päätalo goes to a meeting with a publisher in the city. He doesn't fit well in the urban landscape and usually takes off to a restaurant for a drink after the meeting. Problem is, he doesn't seem to fit into the countryside either, which makes him angry. As a Finnish biography movie it is sort of refreshing how little ass-kissing of the subject is on display. Päätalo is a deeply flawed man, on the crossroads of his ambitions and inferiority complexes. Kai Lehtinen does steady good work in bringing a characterization of a basic Finnish male to screen. He's grumpy, talks little, and in his confusion resorts to booze and anger. The main problem is that we Finns have seen these sorts of stories a billion times before and foreign people couldn't care less.
Thursday, 21 June 2012
Here in Finland, we Finns gather to celebrate Midsummer this weekend. Most of us nature-loving people go to remote locations, such as summer cottages by forest lakes. This celebration goes all the way back to the times of pagan rituals, and still today, there is a number of folk magic one can do on the Longest Night of the year. One tradition involves burning a bonfire. I don't know if there are some pagans actually for real believing in this stuff still living today. If there are, they are probably some lame "alternative" teenagers or hippies using the excuse to get stoned and laid. But I'd like to think these communities would be much like the village of Summerisle in a certain beloved British horror classic. The Wicker Man films, of which there are already three, are set on the 1st of May. But since we Finns rather drink hard and wreck up our towns on that day*, it seems more fitting for Midsummer, which is a celebration filled with magic and mystery. So come along!
The Wicker Man (UK, 1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
One of the greatest films to ever come out of Great Britain was, like The Devils before it, maltreated terribly by puritan assholes and uptight censors. A number of minutes depicting pagan rituals and unconventional behavior were cut from the print and, according to legend, buried underneath a highway pavement. We will never have those minutes back, but at least the versions we have, both Theatrical and the longest-possible Director's Cut, feel like complete films and not torsos where there's something important missing.
It is a very peculiar horror film in that it doesn't start at all like a horror film and very rarely has to rely on any kind of horror tropes or scares during its course. The tension builds up very slowly and only at the end it's taken to its horrific extremes. The result is a film which probably won't wash away from memory ever once one has watched it. Even acclaimed actor and star Christopher Lee considers it as one of the strongest pieces of cinema he ever was attached to. I'd say the same thing is true concerning also the late, great Edward Woodward who plays the lead role.
|And Britt Ekland has also never been sexier.|
The film hits a bullseye while dealing with its themes. It was made right in the middle of the hangover from the late 1960's hippie movements and their obsession with native and New Age religions "more close to the nature", and the apocalyptic, religious climate of the 1970's. The decade would see a number of horror films rise about fears of abandoning God and turning to the devil after the release of The Exorcist that same year.
It's hard to put a finger around what makes Wicker Man's atmosphere seem so threatening. The film is shot mostly at daylight and while the villages might seem a bit loony, they act like decent, friendly individuals. The horror, perhaps, then stems from a fear that such facades hide blood-thirsty thoughts. Also chilling is the thought that one can't reason with a group of like-minded people due to them being more concerned with their strong belief in ancient native religions are seen here as malignant. Hardy combines these primal fears with notable confidence and small gestures, that bring them into flesh. This is a real gem of a film.
Wicker Man (USA, 2006)
Director: Neil LaBute
The American remake of British classic seemed to be in good hands with the acclaimed art director LaBute and the eccentric, but reliable (when directed by someone talented) lead actor Nicolas Cage. But that was not to be. In fact, the remake turned into the basic model of how not to remake classic films in Hollywood, and as such, almost a parody of every shitty remake we have had to endure during the Noughties. The YouTube crowd took the film as its own, and the worst parts of the film have been continuously played out in compilation clips. Sadly, those give out the idea that this film would be so-bad-it's-funny, when in fact it is just boring and tedious for the first 75 minutes and features that one YouTube clips worth of joyous insanity at the very end.
Sheriff Edward Malus (Cage) has recurring nightmares of failing to save a small girl and her mother from a car accident when he was a highway patrol man years ago. His former fiancée Willow Woodward (Kate Beahan) sends him a letter asking him to find her missing daughter Rowan. Willow lives now in a remote island Summer's Isle, where an odd religious cult grows honey in large fields filled with beehives. The leader of the cult is the enigmatic Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn). Malus isn't concerned about the religion practiced there, he only wants to find the girl and solve why they burn puppets and wear silly masks. The main plot of the cultists here is needlessly complicated and elaborate to the point of stupidity. The same goes for their religious rituals. The original Wicker Man rose horror from the opening scene's texts that hinted that the way of the pagans on present there could be based on actual research on cults. The only research used to produce this thing here was Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage checking their bank account numbers for the studio.
As I mentioned, it is a pure example of how Hollywood's studio committees ruin even good stories. First of all, everything even close to controversy gets toned down reasonably. That's why the main character can't be a devoutly Christian, but flawed person, who's facing an unknown but well-organized and balanced heathen community. The hero should be a brave and bland everyman who's facing a cult of pure evil and madness. No shades of grey here, the film only has a black-and-white worldview. Also out the door is are all kinds of underlying sexual threats and any nudity. I do kind of appreciate the change of the cult to a matriarchy, but it is not used in any way cleverly. The end result just makes the film oddly sexist and misogynist.
Second, everything has to always be about a family, so connections are made between characters even though the story wouldn't need them. Cage's motivation to find Rowan is that he is her father. Third, not understanding subtlety, everything must be explained to even the stupidest audience members by the clearest way possible. Which usually means characters spurning exposition for no other reason. Fourth, or really a continuation of the last point of misunderstanding the original, all the hard directing tricks such as atmosphere-creating, slowly rising suspense, have to go in the way of horror clichés. People pay to see a horror movie, so the film has to remind people that it is one, which means ghostly visions, found mutilated bodies and creepy giggling witches and little children at every turn. The only connection to the original that the bigwigs care about is one or two famous visuals or lines that can easily be used in marketing. Fuck all that. I won't recommend a shitty horror remake to anyone, but rather to save some time and watch some of Nicolas Cage's finest freakouts on YouTube. It's faster, and free, and no money from it goes to funding any more of these sort of abominations.
The Wicker Tree (UK, 2010)
Director: Robin Hardy
Unhappy with the way the license for the title of Wicker Man was used to produce the dumbed-down below-average remake, Hardy decided to direct an indirect sequel while in his 80s. Wicker Tree is only Hardy's third theatrical film, and it has also had quite a difficult making process. The filming took almost two years due to the project running out of funding. Hardy also saw how difficult his brand of subtle horror was to sell for distributors. The film was shelved for another two years. Only this year has seen it arrive on DVD in the UK. The film is based on Hardy's own 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ, which already tells a little bit on how Hardy developes the themes and ideas of the original film.
Two American missionaries, Beth (Brittania Nicol) and Steve (Henry Garrett) are devout evangelic Christians, engaged to be married, and adamant in staying virgins before that happens. They go around Scotland singing songs about reforming and turning to Christ, to little avail. But then they are spotted by the wealthy landowners Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), who invite them to visit their remote village of Tressock. The pair lives at the Morrison's mansion and wait for an opportunity to preach to the community, while their generous hosts plan to have some use for them in their upcoming May Day celebrations.
Unfortunately, Hardy has lost touch on how to build the tension. He attempts a similar approach to his original classic, as much time is dwelled on the villagers in their seemingly innocent routines and such, with suggestions to foul play becoming more and more apparent as time goes on. The problem is that this time he isn't afraid to use one or two horror tropes, blood and cannibalism. It seems clear that nowadays you probably can't do a serious horror film without a drop of blood in it, but Hardy's way of delivering the more gory scenes is frankly ludicrous and breaks the strong illusion of reality so carefully implanted in its predecessor. Furthermore, the scenes depicting villagers talking this and that are quite poorly scripted and cheaply shot, making it resemble one of those British countryside dramas that air during the middle of the day on state-funded TV channels, as no one watches them except sock-knitting grannies.
Hardy also deals with Southern State Americans and their religious ways way too crudely. It isn't helping that Beth and Steve aren't really that interesting or likeable to be able to carry the movie in the same way that Woodward, brilliantly presenting all his character's flaws, could.
The film has a few elements of black comedy, particularly in the finale. Since the film mostly isn't very funny, it has to be said that it's themes aren't consistent. But occasional scenes do still flash the same brilliant mind that made a genuine classic all those years ago. Pity he can't replicate the success, but at least we shall always have the original.
* Midsummer is by contrast usually celebrated by drinking hard and wrecking up a countryside cottage.
Saturday, 16 June 2012
Finally, here is the latter part of my report on this year's Night Visions festival. I also saw two additional films, The Raid: Redemption and Ninja Turf, which I won't be reviewing here because this has been a big effort otherwise as well, and I also did reviews of them for the web site Elitisti. If you don't speak Finnish, rest assured, I will come back to talking about The Raid at least. It's the most kick-ass action film of the year, and I'm quite sure it has guaranteed a spot on my top 10 list of this year. But let's go into the films I have reviewed.
The Cabin in the Woods (USA 2011)
Director: Drew Goddard
Is there a more boring horror trope than a group of teens going to a remote cabin for a weekend to party only to end up being killed one by one by a mysterious evil force, serial killer or a bloodthirsty monster? Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard seem to think there isn't, which is why their madcap horror-comedy may be seen as a cry for originality in the horror genre. And from a very clichéd setting they themselves end up making something quite original indeed. But much of the film's originality is determined by its ability to surprise. So I although I won't go too deep into the plot, I'd still advice to skip the next paragraphs and you to go see the movie as unspoiled as possible.
The strong-minded, but lovelorn Dana (Kristen Connolly), the book-smart jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his happy-go-lucky girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchinson) and nice guy Marty (Fran Krantz) are all persons that have more than one dimension, and reasons for acting the way they act. The most hedonistic of them, the stoner Holden (Jesse Williams) is the exception. The pot-head is only interested in weed and various conspiracy theories. Once the teens arrive at the cabin (owned by Curt's cousin), however, they all start to show more goal-oriented and simple-minded characteristics. Unbeknownst to them, they are also being monitored by the mysterious middle-aged suited men Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) in some sort of a secret high-tech base. They await eagerly for a some sort kind of a monster to appear and to kill the more and more like the teen archetypes in these sort of films.
I feared this would be the sort of film that would steer too closely into Scream-type self-conscious postmodernism. Although poking fun at horror clichés brings much of the comedy here, it's not too in-your-face or cute about it. The characters inside the film aren't intertextually savvy, and can't compare what they are going through with some handy references to other horror films. Paradoxically Sitterson and Hadley then act like a couple of horror aficionados watching a new film. They make bets on who will die first and what the story's monster will be. With such a scattershot approach, it's great that the third act can distance itself from the tropes and throw a few very tasty bones to both fans of classic horror flicks and goofy comedy. The film also manages to tie the old tropes into some other ones, more familiar in books than on film. That's why it almost interwovens a whole new universe of horror, where every horror story you have ever heard could be true. The film also questions what is the greater good, and turns the tables on its protagonists. As the plot reveals itself, we viewers start to root for a different party. The ending is quite good too (if the final shot is a bit too much), as the film practically guarantees there can never be a sequel. Even though this has been a very successful yarn.
Ronal the Barbarian (Ronal Barbaren, Denmark 2011)
Directors: Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjørn Christoffersen, Philip Einstein Lipski
Barbarian films aren't actually known to be the smartest of the subgenres. I know, shocking, right. That's why as far as parody is concerned, it is quite an easy target. Nevertheless, a raunchy Danish animation on the subject might have been a good idea in the right hands. Unfortunately, Ronal is way too nice and shy about the subject. To properly make fun of barbarians, one should up the sex and violence ante, but the film resorts to just allude to both of those things and titter while doing it.
Ronal is the weakest young barbarian in his village. His foster-uncle attempts to train him to at least have the warrior's code of courage (and also the sort of weird nobility I myself have a hard time figuring barbarians to possess). Neverthless, the timid and feeble Ronal fails to warn his villagers in time when the vengeful warlord Volcazar and his troops do a surprise attack on the village. Crushing the barbarians is one step in Volcazar's evil plans to use ancient magic take over the world. Several barbarians are taken as slaves and it's up to Ronal to rescue them. On the way, he gets help from the eager young troubadour Alibert, the fierce bounty hunter Zandra, and the fruity and pompous elf Elric.
Ronal goes through the basic clichés of sword-and-sorcery fantasy like a checklist without having much funny or insightful to say about anything. The aim is for heavy-metal loving teenagers, even though the film comes at least 25 years too late to appeal to Manowar's biggest fans. The animation is quite good, however. It's not super-accurate Pixar quality, but good enough to forget at times it was all zeroes and ones. The characters' faces are express in almost Brad Bird-style vividness. The only problem may be in several scenes where the pre-rendered background and the characters don't seem to quite fit. The film's attempts at humor are practically pitiful, and the bland message of courage and believing in yourself is familiar from countless Disney films and their knockoffs. On the positive side, Zandra is, for once, a strong female character that's not over-sexualized (although she has some emotional baggage). The way her Red Sonja-like logic is utilized in the film may be the best part in the film, until the final reel when she becomes another damsel in need of a stronger male to save her.
In Search of Dracula (Vem var Dracula?; Sweden/France/USA 1975)
Director: Calvin Floyd
This Swedish TV documentary benefits of having no lesser man than Christopher Lee at narrating duties. The attempt is to go to the bottom of the myth about vampires, the history of Vlad Dracul Tepes of Romania, and of course, the roots of Bram Stoker's classic novel. The film's narrative is flimsy at best, jumping back and forth between topics. Some areas that don't connect to Dracula are also covered, such as the history of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
The film crew has visited the real places in which events have happened, such as Transilvania, Hungary and the Lake Geneve. In some parts Lee's narration is pictured with him in role costume. But these inserts don't tell much and seem to be nothing but filler. As Vlad Tepes, for instance, Lee merely takes a stroll through a forest back to his castle in a costume that looks more like a native American hippie than the iron-handed prince who enjoyed watching his enemies impaled. The film's major problem is that it scarcely offers any new information to horror buffs. The clips in which Lee plays Dracula are taken from some of the lesser Hammer vampire films, such as Scars of Dracula. The film is worth watching if one doesn't know too much about the subject. For curiosity's sake there is a curiously staged scene where an actual vampire bat attacks a guinea pig.
Some Guy Who Kills People (USA 2011)
Director: Jack Perez
This film sells itself with its posters and such to be an outrageously cartoonish splatter comedy. The comedy is quite black, but there's very little blood and gore in this thing. Comedy, too, as this is more a story of a psychopath trying to come into terms with his world. It's a dark film, reaching all the way to its cinematography. Scenes seem to be set at night more and more as it progresses. The titular character, the 34-year-old Ken Boyd (Kevin Corrigan) is released from the mental institution. The timid young man can't seem to get his life straight, living with his mother (horrifyingly botoxed Karen Black) and working as a mascot for an ice-cream parlor. He has been picked on and made fun of all his life. When bullies harass him at his new work, he decides to get rid of everyone who has made his life a misery.
The gruesomely murdered bodies seem to be killed fast, and with scarcely any link between them. It will take the local sheriff Walt Fuller (Barry goddamn Botswick!) all his mental power to get on Ken's tail. The plot is further complicated as Ken's 11-year-old daughter Amy (Ariel Gade) comes into his life. The smart little girl starts to dig into his dad's past and doesn't like everything she finds. The resulting film is a navel-gazing feel-bad movie that goes into the psyche of the serial killer and questions his rights in the same way that the hit TV series Dexter has been doing. Unfortunately the plot develops glacially and there lacks some sort of a carrot to keep the viewer interested in all these shenanigans. I prefer James Gunn's Super which could deliver the laughs and the colorful imagery as well as the despair and the gloom of a lost individual.
Fight For Your Life (USA 1977)
Director: Robert A. Endelson
This 1970's exploitation flick works as a sort of commentary on the social changes of that time. And then again, just as a nasty retread of mean thrillers of that time such as The Hills Have Eyes. Three psychopath criminals are on the run from the law, and take shelter in the house of the Turners, a middle-class African-American family. Particularly their leader Kane (William Sanderson) finds nothing but contempt for the Turner's race, and is willing to say it out loud too. It is hinted he doesn't treat his Mexican and Asian comrades equally either, but they stay along for the ride because the job allows them to do some good looting and pillaging, and the occasional murder. Kane finds pleasure in humiliating the Turner family members, particularly family head Ted (Robert Judd). The worry for his family makes even the proudest, most progressive man take all sorts of mental punishments. But when the shoe switches to another foot and the Turners have the advantage over the thugs, the sound in the bell switches.
Even though it's obvious the film is heading towards a final confrontation of good and evil, or black and white, the film has quite a few surprises in its bag on how it will get there. Some plot threads, such as the 10-year-old boy's blood oath to protect each other, are started just to be shockingly and abruptly ended. The film does good job in building up suspense and pressure to its characters. By the final reel it truly feels as if they all have their backs against the wall, and thus the way they act is the only reason. The film doesn't symphatize psychotic rednecks one bit. They are just as bad and perhaps even more trigger-happy and unremorseful of all the lives they take or the sorrow they cause. There's also a healthy dose of black humor laced all through the film.
In the end, the film doesn't say anything particular about racial politics or social conditions or anything that deep. It's just a tough, uncompromizing exploitation flick, good for catharctic viewing of those inner-city black youths at that time that felt white people treated them like trash. This film doesn't emphasize the view, as it has positive white characters in as well. But it shows that even the most meek of ministers must be prepared to, yes, Fight For Your Right.
Tokyo Emmanuelle (Japan 1975)
Director: Akira Kato
I had a strong feeling before this movie that I wouldn't last through it without falling asleep. Erotic films in the small hours of the morning usually mean sleepy Night Visions attendees. But as it happens, the film was one of the craziest of the whole festival and well worth keeping one's eyes open. From the surface it just looks like one of the many, many cash-ins of the famous French softcore erotica that was so popular around the world in the early 70's. The heroine in this isn't even called Emmanuelle, and the title is used to tell audiences that yes, they have bare boobs and softcore sex on show here.
The heroine Kyoko (the decidedly European-looking Kumi Taguchi) is unhappily married to a French diplomat in Paris. When her husband hasn't shown up and eased her sexual urges for four days straight, she decides to travel back home to Tokyo. The city reminds her of the tragic love affair with a race car driver, when they used to have sex in the bushes during races (He did come to the finish line in another way, then. HEY-AWWW!) The sister of her ex blames her for his consequent death, which haunts Kyoko somewhat in between her intercourses with the locals and naked trips to the gym and dolphinarium. She also goes to see a famed sex therapist, who preaches that sex between two people is so normal as to be boring. The real pleasure should come from unnatural, kinky stuff, and attaining this pleasure should be the only reason for living. Kyoko takes this message to her heart (and bangs the therapist in several odd ways). But her trying to patch things up with her ex's family and seeing a sex therapist there is just an excuse to loosely hinge together a group of scenes of Kyoko having sex with various men, women, groups, and possibly even animals (!).
Let's say it bluntly, the movie is bugshit insane and possibly one of the most misogynistic I've ever come across. The film's director Akira Kato has stated that he was influenced a lot by the ancient Roman erotica. One must ask what purpose could there be to bring such old fantasies to screen, particularly as plenty of the things in it are either illegal or immoral nowadays. The film features not only several rape and gangbang scenes which show the woman liking and wanting it, but also the use of (underage) rape as a way to solve social problems. But this was in fact released in Europe uncut, for no matter how sleazy and disgusting the film's world view is, there actually isn't any graphic imagery. Basically you can't see more than a nipple or two. This just goes to show how wrong censors most often were than not.
The end of this review could go on describing various sleazy scenes from the film. Early in the movie we have a troublingly long scene where Kyoko watches a woman eating a popsicle lovingly and slowly, which makes her think of oral sex, which is visualized as bluntly as possible. Another scene sees her in a ski lift with three men. Two of them ogle her from the moment she gets in. Once the lift takes off the ground, they proceed to attack, grope and rape her. The third man in the lift seems terribly uneasy about having to watch this this. Once the two other men have had their go, #3's encouraged to try some himself, which he reluctantly accepts and has a quickie rape with Kyoko. Nevertheless, Kyoko seems totally at peace after all of this and is seen in the next scene driving a bicycle. I did fall asleep once during the movie, only to wake up having to see naked Kyoko having sex with two men (one in the back, one in the front) while they're all riding a horse on the beach. The film ends at Kyoko's attempts to build bridge between herself and her ex-fiancée's sister. She accomplishes this by drugging her, taking advantage of her, and then allowing her boyfriend to rape her.
One simply cannot defend the world view this film offers, which is frankly disgusting. But it's improbably and sleazy scenes do have a certain weirdness factor in it, which make the film worth gasping at during those weird hours in the morning when you can't tell what is real and what is a dream any more.
The Room (USA 2003)
Director: Tommy Wiseau
Night Visions usually doesn't fail with the choices for their final film, and this time around Finnish audiences were treated to the country's premiere of a thoroughbred cult film. That's not to say, of course, that anyone attending hadn't seen it before, of course. There were plenty of aficionados of The Room present in the audience, and they had the film memorized and had a string of comments to throw in each part. Usually I don't like this sort of behavior, but now this made the whole thing seem like a true cult classic screening, which I've experienced way too few during my lifetime. And the comments were quite funny, too, pointing some extra flaws within the ludicrous film that wouldn't be apparent to first time viewers concentrating on its obvious mistakes and odd choices.
The Room is a melodrama about the extended family of a successful San Fransisco broker Johnny (Wiseau) and his fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Their penthouse door is always open for their friends to pop by. Johnny is not only bringing in the dough for his wife-to-be, he is also a happy-go-lucky fellow who's super nice to his friends. The repetitive scenes emphasizing his lovability make it seem like Wiseau is compensating for something. Lisa eventually gets bored with Johnny, and decides to want to start an affair with his best friend Mark (Greg Serestro). The initially reluctant Mark finally agrees to this. Elsewhere, also other of Tommy's friends and family are having troubles, and his world view comes crashing down.
|You're tearing me apart, Lisa!|
The most loved thing about the film is the frankly ludicrous dialogue, spoken either robotically stupidly or with such hammy overacting, Calculon would take note. Characters come and go through the apartement door constantly, but Wiseau never fails to greet them. "Oh hai Mark!"
Then there are the sex scenes. As if one scene where disgusted audiences have to look at Wiseau's wrinkled butt and veiny arms isn't enough, after another 10 minutes the exact same sex scene is shown again! All in all, it is quite clear why this has become such a huge cult hit. There is the lingering suspicion that Wiseau may have some sort of a mental syndrome or slowness. That's why I feel a little guilty about laughing at him and his film, which he has clearly put a lot of effort in. But at least audiences do love what he's come up with, and with a passion that's rarely reserved for any other film.
★ or ★★★★★
Sunday, 10 June 2012
About two months ago, I was privileged to take part of another Night Visions Back to Basics festival. The intimacy of classic festival years has been paved in way of attendance records, and accordingly, the festival has become bigger and bigger each year. Just because there's such a big number of films to cover, this festival report comes in so late. But as most good genre films are timeless, one should be able read reviews of them anytime. Let's remind ourselves how much fun we had, eh?
Haywire (USA, 2012)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
The festival kicked off with Steven Soderbergh's love letter to ultimate fighter Gina Carano. I've long held the stand that Soderbergh is a competent director with plenty of good ideas in each of his films. However, it seems that he's unwilling to concentrate to do them properly, instead opting to direct two films each year. Subsequently, he has a huge back catalogue of films no one has seen, and even his high profile films lack in substance. Even though it's admirable that such a big director is willing to make a straight action film that unashamedly is built on people getting their asses kicked, it would've paid to stay a bit longer in the screenwriter's room.
As it is, Haywire is a blandly clichéd agent thriller. Carano's agent Mallory Kane is on the run from her former employer. The agency and the consequent womanhunt seem to be led by Ewan McGregor's Kenneth. Unlinear timeline shows flashes from before and after Kane was betrayed. Her mission to rescue a hostage in Barcelona went, as in the movie's title, haywire. In her subsequent job in Dublin her contact person (Michael Fassbender) turns out to be a double-crosser. In current time, somewhere in the American midwest, she confides in the regular-seeming Aaron (Channing Tatum) to borrow his car.
Like said, there are plenty of things to enjoy here, from surprisingly good performances (Carano in particular shows unexpected acting abilities) to several good action scenes. A backwards car chase in the middle of the woods is one for the ages, and Soderbergh can stage a fight between Carano and an A-list actor like a mofo. Pity that in some instances he attempts to do a really distracting editing style that's more an experiment than a service to storytelling (or ass-kicking). I would've liked to see more famous actors get their asses kicked by Carano, with Michael Douglas and Tatum in particular being sad to be left out. But ultimately, as the viewer can't be bothered to care about any of the supposedly-clever twists and turns of the plot, and any scene without any action causes big yawns. Ultimately, the film doesn't amount to anything above average.
Bloody Pit of Horror (Il boia scarlatto, Italy/USA 1965)
Director: Massimo Pupillo
But wait, actually Night Visions opened a bit earlier than that, at least unofficially. In the Bar Molotow there was a sunday evening showing of two past NV movies followed by reminiscing of the 15-year-old history of the festival. I catched the later one of the flicks, a delicious Italian exploitation flick supposedly based on the writings of none other than Marquis de Sade.
The Castle of the Crimson Executioner was where a notorious madman butchered heaps of people back in the 17th century. A modern-day photographer decides that the castle's the perfect milieu to shoot sexy pictures for covers of horror novels. So, a group of hot model girls and technical people arrive at the castle that they think is empty. However, the castle is owned by the former actor Travis Anderson (Mickey Hargitay) who lives there with his two bodyguards. The model Edith (Luisa Baratto) used to date Travis, so they are allowed to stay. But then the model crew starts to disappear one by one. The spirit of The Crimson Executioner seems to be bent on revenge and to torture each and every one of them to death.
So all of the (pretty formulaic) plot exists solely as an excuse to show several torture devices and death traps. Having sex-hungry models in your film also allows for some steamy nudity. The budget hasn't really stretched too far, as the violence doesn't seem too realistic and the other special effects are frankly ludicrous. The unconvincing giant spider threatening a girl in her web, only to be tossed away like an American football by the rescuing Adonis, is probably the most memorable of these.
The main bad guy runs around in red tights and generally dresses like the pulp comic hero The Phantom, but without a shirt on, which is also a plus in my book. But the film also has a somehow twisted atmosphere where almost anything can happen. Like all good exploitation, it seems to exist in a delirious border between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. Even though the end result is lame, it is quite inventive and the actors seem to be having fun with it.
★ or ★★★★★
Red Tears (a.k.a. Monster Killer; Red tears - kôrui, Japan 2011)
Director: Takanori Tsujimoto
Each Night Visions seems to need to have a new Japanese gore flick in its program. This time, for a change, it doesn't come courtesy of Sushi Typhoon. But still it shares pretty much the regular quality of these flicks, which is that they have a couple of amusing splatter scenes but the flimsy plot and the overacted characters are usually quite dire.
Red Tears is both a detective story and a love story as well as a monster-hunting action film. A bunch of policemen try to figure out who has murdered a large number of people by decapitating them and sucking the corpses dry from blood. The young policeman Tetsuo Nojima (Yuma Ishigaki) falls for the shy, beautiful girl Sayoko (Natsuki Kato) who takes care of her elderly mother. But the more efficient and determined elder detective Genjiro Mishima (Yasuaki Kurata) soon starts to suspect that the women have some sort of connection to these monstrous crimes.
The plot develeopment is slow as snail nailed to the ground. Sudden shocks of the plot suddenly thrushing forward wake the viewer up, but can't manage to maintain interest for long. The unrelenting, bloody fight scenes towards the end do a little better job, but rely way too much on bad CGI effects. But the film also has a very black sense of humor which makes some body mutilation jokes quite funny in a Braindead sort of way. Kurata is also awesome. Still, by no means essential viewing.
The Innkeepers (USA 2011)
Director: Ti West
Ti West has an unique vision among modern American horror directors, which is why his films feel like they're a lot better than they actually are. He doesn't dwell on violence, postmodernist irony, jokes, effects or gore like so many of his peers. West's films build very slowly and give a lot of room for character development. It's a shame, then, that his films are so clichéd. One would almost wish he wouldn't write his own scripts, but rather use his directing talent to better someone else's fresher ideas. After the quite good House of the Devil, West has decided to show others how a Haunted House thriller should be made.
Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) work at a rundown hotel that's about to get closed. There aren't that many customers so they try to find some ways to keep themselves entertained during long shifts at the reception. They both are interested in the hotel's history, which includes a young bride hanging herself after her fiancée left her at the altar. As amateur ghost hunters they attempt to capture some evidence that the bride's ghost still lurks in the hotel. During the hotel's last weekend they get an old actress Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis) as a guest. She promises Claire she can get in touch with the hotel's spirits. But Sara soon finds out she got more than she bargained for.
The Innkeepers starts off relatively mild, almost comedy-like as Claire and Luke talk trash with each other and ward off boredom. What first seem like stock-clearence horror movie characters turn out to be kind of multidimensional in that they have several motivations, background and thoughts going on. The viewer allowing him-(or her-)self to get entangled in their lives and to learn to care for what's happening to them, finds the film more rewarding as a result. The suspense builds up very slowly, and supernatural elements are almost crept in a film that in the beginning seemed very down-to-earth. Even usually cheesy shocker points feel a lot creepier than in your average cheap jump-scarer. But once the final chase and shock-train starts, it all falls to very familiar horror tropes, like going to a dark basement to get trapped. West should work more to keep his film's climaxes worthy of such long buildup. Nevertheless, it's always a joy to see a horror film crafted well and with care. I hope West's next film won't disappoint.
War of the Dead – Stone's War (Lithaunia/Italy/Finland/USA, 2012)
Director: Marko Mäkilaakso
Here's another fresh new genre film that stems from Finnish mindpower but is actually a multinational production. Mäkilaakso's film is about zombies in the Finnish Winter War (1939-40) and has been on production (shelved) for so long that zombies have gone out of fashion thanks to overexposure in pop culture. But actually I got a real kick out of this film, I liked it a lot better than the more in-your-face, you-should-be-laughing-now -styled Iron Sky. Whether that was the intent of the filmmakers, I honestly can't say.
The American soldier Stone (Andrew Tiernan) fights on the Karelian frontier against the attacking Soviet army, alongside a small group of Finnish soldiers. When suddenly the killed soldiers can't stay dead and keep coming for their flesh, the ragtag group realizes that more sinister powers than the sheer fear of Stalinist gulags is driving the zombie soldiers. The group picks up a Russian soldier Kolya (Samuli Vauramo) on their way to get as far away from the armies of the undead and perhaps also solve the mystery. (Hint: It's because of occultist Nazi experiments)
The film is shot in a dark forest at night, and the editing is so sloppy, it's hard to make out what's happening in the most intense scenes. In the end set in a vast underground bunker system, the editing problems ease out. But by then the film looks like just another amateur zombie film shot in a basement or bomb shelter. The film's flimsy "plot" consists mostly of running away, with some frankly ludicrous character building scenes filling out the time between. But none of those problems matter, because the acting is so goddamn hilarious. The film's Finns have thick accents, reminding the production of some of Mats Helge's finest Swedish ninja flicks. This is probably a conscious choice as Finnish war veterans aren't very well known for their abilities to speak foreign languages. But then again it just raises further questions as to why the hell are they even talking in English anyway. Stone's reasons to fight in Finland's own war are familiar to anyone that has read some cheap Boy's Own war comics. Come to think of it, the plot altogether doesn't probably have a single fresh idea in it (save for one zombie horse/car chase). But it's all made with such deadpan seriousness, that the film tricks the audience into laughing at it's ineptdness. The funniest joke is the one where you can't be sure whether the one telling you it is joking or not. Frankly, I don't want to know whether they were serious or not making this, which is why I skipped the Q&A with the makers after the screening. I remain more satisfied that way.
★ or ★★★★★
The Brides of Fu Manchu (UK/West Germany 1965)
Director: Don Sharp
Christopher Lee was not only known as Dracula in the 1960's. He's also one of the most profilic actors to play Sax Rohmer's fiendish supervillain Dr. Fu Manchu, having done the role five times in his career. Night Visions presented the second one of these adventure flicks, with Douglas Wilmer's Sir Dennis Nayland Smith having to match wits against a nefarious plot to conquer the world once again. Because this is a sequel, the film starts with a frankly baffling (for newcomers at least) and explosive scene set on some Asian mountains where the previous film's ending is undone to release Fu Manchu into the world once again.
This time his plot relies on kidnapping daughters of scientists around the world and locking them in a cage in his secret underground lair. Then he blackmails the scientists to build him the technology he wants, the most sinister being a death ray capable of destroying Great Britain's most notable tourist attractions (and the home of some monarchs as well). He keeps the scientists at bay with his hypnotism skills, which can make even the sweetest of scientist daughters the most ruthless of assassins. Smith and the Scotland Yard must find clues and deduce where on Earth Fu Manchu is hiding before his plans come into fruition.
The film has not aged particularly well and multiple things in it look quite silly from today's perspective. First of all, Fu Manchu as a racial stereotype seems quite un-PC, even if this film doesn't make a big scene out of his heritage, making the villain interested in mythology from all over the world. Second, the film relies quite heavily on technology, which by today's standards looks quite primitive. The limited budget has caused many of the most impressive machinery to be described, rather than shown. Manchu's ninja minions working in a computer room also looks quite stupid. And then thirdly, for a film that's set in the modern times of 1960's, some of the threats and perils the film present seem quite out of their sell-by-date, too. Fu Manchu's greatest death trap is a snake pit, which features a couple of quite friendly-looking pythons. If someone is dropped there, the film soon cuts to the pythons squirming amongst a plastic skeleton. But nevertheless these flaws, it is always a joy to see Lee in a villainous role (even so subdued as here), and the international game of cat-and-mouse is, for the most part, fun enough to follow.
Star Pilot (a.k.a. 2+5: Missione Hydra; Italy, 1966)
Director: Pietro Francisci
This goofy Italian sci-fi gem owns its logo and title to the Star Wars craze, but it was actually made over a decade before George Lucas' Big Ideas, and re-released during that space craze. In actuality it owes a lot more to the Space Race going on during that time, and American 50's sci-fi movies, which often featured a professor, a couple of quarterbacks and the cute and useless girl exploring brave new worlds.
The plot jumps all over the place. We begin in the 18th century, when a spaceship crash lands in Sardinia. There's really no good reason why this sequence needed to be shown. "Why the heck not" seems to be a recurring motif with a lot of things about this film's plot. In the modern day professor Solmi (Roland Lesaffre), his assistants, and his ravishingly beautiful, but ditzy daughter Luisa (Leontine May) are investigating some strange natural phenomena. They find the crashed spaceship inside a cave, but soon find out that they have been followed by chinese communist spies. But no matter, as they all have to witness the attack and subsequent shut-down of the ship's robots (?!). There are also other ones alive inside the ship, and the whole crew is soon kidnapped by Captain Kaena (Leonora Ruffo). They all are kidnapped and flown out of Earth to fix her race's spaceships and find their way back home.
One really can't say that Star Pilot is a non-stop thrill ride, as there are plenty of frustratingly slow-moving scenes in the film. The incredibly slow-moving spacewalk scenes in particular seem to last for ages. But it still offers such large quantities of cheesy dialogue, baffling plot points and groovy 60's era space fashion (with large boob-windows for the gals), that it's impossible to not love this thing. A woman's place is to fix coffee for the working men, whether they want to drink it or go to bed instead. In the last 10 minutes of the film, there are so many plot twists and turns that the film borders on incomprehensible. But it has a strong anti-nuke message to the world - all the more impressive when considered that it was made before the likes of Planet of the Apes.
★ or ★★★★★
Redneck (Senza ragione, Italy 1973)
Director: Silvio Narizzano
The Italian title of this crime/on-the-run flick means Without reason, which would have been a more fitting. Both titles refer to the mentally ill bank robber Memphis (Telly Savalas), who seemingly portrays some of the most crude stereotypic habits (and the thick accent) of gentlemen from the American Bible Belt. He is also prone to killing a whole lot of people just because he feels like it. Hence, without reason.
Memphis has two partners at a big gig, Mosquito (Franco Nero) and his girlfriend Maria (Ely Galleani). But they botch the jewel shop heist operation bad (particularly because they allow Maria to drive the getaway car). While switching to another car, they don't realize a small boy, Lennox Duncan (Mark Lester), is hiding in the back seat. When they find out, they decide to kidnap him. It turns out that they didn't get much money from their heist after all, which sends Memphis into lunatic rage. Mosquito attempts to save the boy from Memphis's wrath, which makes Lennox idolize him and see him as a sort of a father figure. But since law is on their tail, they need to also trust the murderous Memphis until they can get across the border.
Redneck is as cynical and nasty as Italian flicks come. The attitude towards women is quite misogynistic (just look for the scene where Memphis attempts to hire hookers) and dismissive. It's the sort of film that will show happy German children dancing around the tree and the next moment drown them in a sinking trailer. The film's humor is quite black, is what I'm saying. And a bit odd, too. Mosquito spends time shaving naked in front of a mirror, with Lennox looking admiringly. When Mosquito leaves, Lennox checks whether his penis is as big. The film goes all the way with its craziest ideas, which is also why particularly Savalas' scenery-chewing overacting as a total maniac tends to get tiring. But it's a tough, hard flick with very unexpected plot developments and as such it's very much worth a look.
Dragon on Fire (Guai quan guai zhao, Hong Kong 1981)
Director: Joseph Velasco
The most hilarious moments I've ever had in Night Visions (or really, anywhere else for that matter) have been with several incredibly stupid bruceploitation flicks. It's been a few years since we saw Bruce Lee clones at the festival, which makes it all the merrier that the first full night ended with a flick with no fewer than three of them! Yes, Bruce Li, Bruce Lei and Dragon lee all star in this bonkers kung fu epic. Pity that they are never on screen together.
This is the sort of bargain bin martial arts film that has been created by stitching together leftover pieces from previous films. Or at least that's what some friends with expertize on these films figured. That's why it makes little to no sense and trying to sum the plot reasonably is a fool's errand. There are several Bruce Lee-looking martial arts masters arriving to a small village to save it from ruthless gangsters. Plenty of hijinks ensue. The first half of the film in particular has multiple comedic subplots from running away from the landlord in fast-motion and whatnot.
It doesn't seem to be enough that all the lead actors look like Bruce Lee, the film also deliberately tries to confuse the audience with them. That's why one of the protagonists is named Dragon Young and the other Dragon Hung, which is mentioned in the dialogue over and over again. The third Bruce is Hung's brother and creatively named Bruce Hung. While the first two fight gangsters, he spends most of his time arguing with a Buddhist monk about whether it's OK to beat criminals to death. Surprisingly, the monk seems quite liberal on the subject. My whole view of Buddhism has been shattered! I like how the film is completely unapologetic in its shamelessness and extremely un-PC. Bolo Young makes an appearance and is being called "a large body with a very retarded mind." The fights aren't as bad as the storytelling and the goofy comedy in this one, but aren't that spectacular either.
But these kind of films can only be rated on whether they are boring or not. Dragon on Fire is not boring. In fact, even though the plot makes no sense, people appear and disappear to various locations with odd cuts and it's generally a very stupid basic western plot, the film can pace its humor, action and general insanity in suitable doses and thus it never frustrates the viewer. The end fight does take 20 minutes, but the best tricks are saved for it, and with cross-cutting two fights, the thing works quite well, too. Even if it could use even a little trimming. Talk about finding gold in the trash can.
★ or ★★★★★
Saturday, 2 June 2012
Today is the world premiere date of the highly anticipated new Ridley Scott film Prometheus. Unless I'm much mistaken, it will make a mint at the box office. And in Hollywood, success means sequels! But fortunately, since I'm currently traveling through time, I had the good chance to see actually four different sequels to Prometheus, each directed by a well-known name! So keep your eyes peeled because I have a feeling we haven't heard the last from the universe of Prometheus yet!
Director: Ridley Scott
OK, time to come clean. The link-bait that I am, I actually took on to review the Alien saga as "Aliens" is one of the most regular search results that has brought visitors here. And like Ridley Scott has taught us before, those strange and wonderful visitors are something we should fear, if we are to keep our virginal faces intact.
With the rate it's been parodied, remade, homaged and flat-out stolen (it seems, by Ridley Scott himself as well), it's hard to believe there is still someone who doesn't know the story of the film. The mining ship Nostromo lands on a distant planet to look for the sender of a distress signal. They find the planet deserted and the distress signal to be ancient. But one of the crew members, Kane (John Hurt), has an unfortunate run-in with a creature described as a "face-hugger", that latches itself in his face and won't let go. A day passes and the hugger drops dead. But Kane and the others have some all new worries, as an infant alien creature bursts through his belly. it's up to the other crew members to find the alien, hiding somewhere in the Nostromo, before it kills again.
At it's core, Alien is a serious remake of John Carpenter's Dark Star, co-written by Dan O'Bannon. O'Bannon had a lot of fun with blue-collar space workers with Carpenter's film, and it featured them searching for a deadly alien on board their spaceship. In that case, the alien was a red beach ball with some tentacles. Scott wisely elected for something more sinister and went to the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger for designs. Suitably for a film that concerns sexual subtexts, the main alien was to look like a combination of a huge penis and vagina dentata.
Scott's film is a seminal ponderous 70's sci-fi film, and that is why it moves along quite slowly. Viewers accustomed to the faster pace of the sequels might well forget that. But we also get to hang around with the crew quite a lot, and see that the future isn't as glamorous and fabled as it's seen in most other sci-fi epics. They still need working class slobs to do the heavy work. One of the theses of the film is as to how far are these poor souls expendable for company's gains. The person representing these views is in fact discovered to not even be human, but an artificial copy. The maternal spaceship computer also shows HAL-like qualities while being completely true to her actual mission. These ideas are quite progressive to be found on a film made in an age before the neo-liberal profit-before-everything-else agenda has poisoned all businesses and politics.
The other major subtext, as I mentioned, is sexuality. Scott made sure as to write every character as asexual before casting the actors. The alien presents the primordial sexual fears of penetration and castration at the same time. Rape and pregnancy are fears here for the both sexes, and the aftermath of them both are bloody. There are no clear romances between the crewmen aboard, so there's no cheap teen slasher flick moralizing. At the time the film was made it was very progressive to see who would in the end turn out to be the strongest-minded and the one person able to destroy the sexual threat. But there is a sense of exploitation and stripping down just for the hell of it to get asses into seats.
Alien is an impressive work, but for me at least, impossible to look nowadays without seeing the legacy it left behind, which wasn't for smart thrillers, sci-fi, or horror movies with subtext to emerge, but to bring back the monster movie, and try to duplicate everything on display here as cheap as possible.
Director: James Cameron
The sequel, on the other hand, kicks unholy ass. James Cameron didn't rely on making as subtext-heavy sequel, but had enough gravy to make the beef tastier. This is an action film about the war traumas of Vietnam and the mentality of an American soldier (or rather, space marine).
Ripley's (Sigourney Weaver) escape capsule is found 57 years after floating in space in suspended animation. When finally rescued and awoken, Ripley finds out that no one knows of the Alien threat. In fact, the planet Nostromo's crewmembers found facehugger eggs on, has been colonized. Contact with the colony has also recently been abruptly ended. A team of hard-assed space marines are sent to investigate and to rescue the survivors, with Ripley working on a consultant should they run into Aliens. And they do.
|Image courtesy of Rob Clifford.|
Newt (Carrie Henn) is a ten-year-old that has been the sole survivor of the Alien attack. Ripley shows her responsibility by taking her under her wing. By the end that also means she has to go out her way to protect her. Ripley embraces he motherhood instincts she didn't have the chance to with her own daughter 57 years ago, as she was far away, mining planets. Ripley also manages to find a suitable suitor (altough this is only implied) with Michael Biehn's Cpl. Hicks. He's the only man level-headed enough to survive, while others are prone to be over-confidently macho (William Hope's Lt. Gorman) dumb, or too whining and immasculine (Bill Paxton's Pvt. Hudson).
The men break their true character when they, for the first time, see war as a chaotic battle with no means of control. The American idea of going in headfirst and just shooting everything that moves is not such a good idea against a hidden, organized enemy that knows their surroundings better than the invaders. Unlike Vietcong, Aliens can also move underneath the floorboards and have acid for blood. The loss of control and attempts at gaining them are core issues here, as is rooting for the underdogs to survive while the jocks can't figure out what to do. And all the while it is ridiculously entertaining to watch it. Aliens is truly one of the very best action films of the 80's, a big dose of both masculinity and critique of it.
Aliens proved to be at least as influential as the film that preceded it. And not just in movies, but in videogames. Space marines fighting off huge hoards of disgusting alien monsters has become a haystay of the medium ever since, and probably will stay that way.
Director: David Fincher
If a franchise has spawned two genre-defining classics, then it should be hard work to get the second sequel off the ground. Sadly, more often than not the makers just embarrass themselves, Godfather III style. The third Alien movie went through years of development hell. 20th Century Fox couldn't even come to terms on what exactly should be the main setting or the main hook. Some ideas were quite interesting (a wooden monk planet directed by Paul Schrader), while some seemed doomed to fail (Renny Harlin directing an even bigger action film set on Earth). What was clear that in many aspects, the ending of Aliens had to be undone.
So, our hard-luck heroine still couldn't get rid of all those pesky xenomorphs. A face-hugger crept into their ship at the end of Aliens and caused it to crash. Hicks and Newt die, and Bishop is junk metal. Ripley wakes up to find she's the sole woman on a prison planet. A new xenomorph is born out of a dog (or a slaughtered ox depending on which version you are watching), and runs amok on the planet.
I'm prepared to admit I'm a little extra bitter about the film just because it so willfully destroys my beloved Aliens. On the one hand, I appreciate that the film is willing to distance it so much with a very well-loved genre film. These days with internet fanboy outrage it probably couldn't be done. But, as with every other good idea the filmmakers may have had making this film, they don't manage to take the idea anywhere. The result is that the film repeats the early scenes of Aliens, with Ripley disoriented feeling the loss of her family and seeing only the future of dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed. Also, Alien^3 doesn't get going as fast as Cameron could, but lingers on the melancholia and sadness. I'm all for cynicality if it is based on some insight. Here, it just works to remind that the world is bad and the people are rotten. The film's sex-hungry prisoners are so bad, they even have two Y chromosomes (this is a joke, right?). The faux-british accents and horrible dialogue don't do any favors. Even they are saints when compared to their self-obsessed wardens.
One can see at embryonic states some ideas that Fincher came to develop in Se7en, such as a "pregnant" soon-to-be-mother having doubts whether the world is too rotten to raise a child. Here, of course, the baby is a xenomorph, and the people in the film are worse than they are. The worst thing about the film is that it's so goddamn boring. It's easy to see where it is heading at each time, so it won't come as a surprise that everyone else dies, except Ripley and that she decides to do the ultimate sacrifice instead of allowing the xenomorphs be exploited by the Weyland-Yutani corporation. The imagery is once again stark, creepy and beautiful, particularly in the Special Edition, where Fincher is allowed to linger on them for a little more. That cut is a vast improvement otherwise, too, with some of the stupidest scenes removed from the film. But there really isn't that much interesting stuff to replace it with, either. The thing doesn't develop the characters, or the situation, enough for it to be in any way worth watching, whatever the cut is.
Theatrical Cut: ★ 1/2
Special Edition: ★★
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
The most maligned of all the sequels is Amélie and Delicatessen director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's attempt to revitalize the genre. The film does have a huge share of flaws, but at least it attempts to break some new ground and the end result is more watchable than Alien^3 in every way. I only have very few films that I feel a bit guilty about liking, but this is so hated, it is definitely in my short list of actual guilty pleasures.
200 years after the events of Alien^3, Ripley and the Alien queen inside her are cloned. The Queen is successfully removed from her body, but the cloning process has given them both some qualities from the other. Ripley is all, "here we go again", and "you gonna die, boyeee". And she's right, because soon the Aliens attack the Resurrection ship and it's passengers. Some of whom are Space Pirates for some reason.
|Pirates need water to survive!|
But in any way, the film captures the zeitgeist of the 90's much in the same way the first two films did. The film concerns itself with the problems of genetic engineering and cloning. The most telling scene about this is the one where Ripley meets an incomplete clone of herself that begs to be killed. What rights to the dead have to be cloned? Are people the property of their genetic code holders? The military complex's biological warfare has developed a whole new layer of evil. And also the sexual undertones of the Alien films are taken to grotesque new levels, with disturbing imagery that's borderline pornographic. Jeunet also knows how to handle the visual side, and the dark, technical spaceship interiors feel familiar and brand new at the same time.
There are plenty of thrilling scenes, the underwater dive with Facehugger eggs on the surface is easily the most exciting and well-executed. But then, they had to spoil the whole thing with the unbelievably stupid last twenty minutes with one of the worst monsters in motion picture history. I would like to think Kevin Smith got the inspiration for the Golgatan in Dogma from this Newborn creature. Still, the film is a lot better than Delicatessen co-director Marc Caro's attempt at sci-fi Dante 01, so Jeunet should be proud.