The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat
Apr. 10th, 2019
11:46 am - For clarity's sake
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(This blog is licensed under a Creative-Commons-Licence).
Mar. 9th, 2014
01:15 pm - Dark of the Sun (1968)
aka The Mercenaries
There’s a Civil War in the Congo (which isn’t completely modelled on the actual situation in the country at the time of the film’s making, at least as far as I understand it, which is never far enough, but seems to be a sort of “worst of” of actual conflicts in post-colonial Africa) between the corrupt, westernized government and equally unpleasant insurgents mixing the worst of the West with the worst of local traditions. To survive, Congo’s president really needs the money and help of a large Belgian (and yeah, the bitter irony of that does definitely not go over this film’s head) company; of course, that help comes with a price tag.
The Belgians want a large amount of diamonds stored at the other end of the country in an area mostly under rebel control; because that sort of thing sells better to a potential public, they also want the president to secure the safety of a number of their employees in that area. It’s clear to everybody involved the people aren’t a priority, of course.
Doing this dirty job falls on the shoulders of mercenary Curry (Rod Taylor) and his Congolese, US-educated friend Ruffo (Jim Brown, my favourite football player turned actor doing good as always). Because it’s that sort of film the operation has to take place with the protagonists travelling through dangerous territory on board of an armed train and with the help of Nazi war criminal (and now officer in the Congolese army) Henlein (Peter Carsten), an alcoholic Doctor (Kenneth More) and a bunch of poor Congolese soldiers the film will in the end do its best to humanize. Not surprisingly, things go neither well nor easy, putting the friendship of the idealistic Ruffo and the professionally cynical Curry to the test, as well as forcing the latter man to take a good long look in the mirror.
In an alternative movie history, Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun has resulted in quite a different kind of mercenary war movies, films that always tried and often succeeded to think about moral, politics, and even a little about the position of race and education in the context of both while still delivering the war movie thrills expected of them, with characters (here in particular Jim Brown’s Ruffo) that are more complicated than props just there to pull triggers. In ours, not many directors or producers seem to have cared much.
However, this still leaves us with Dark of the Sun, a film willing to actually think about what the – brutal, exciting, and increasingly unpleasant – action in it means in the context of the life of real people, a film that is honest enough to demonstrate how most of the violent conflicts in Africa are products of the former colonial rule and still at least in part driven by foreign interests who just don’t give a damn about the lives they destroy as long as there’s money in it. The film seems to suggest the West/North taking responsibility for its own sins as important part of the solution (as exemplified not just by Curry’s acts at the film’s end). We’re mostly still waiting for that one in reality to happen.
The film’s not perfect in this regard, of course. Contemporary viewers will probably feel deeply uncomfortable with the way the rebels do fall into the Black Barbarian smiting civilization category all too well. Though it has to be said that the film sees the Nazi Henlein as a symptom of basically the same problem (perhaps with humanity at large) as the rebels, and even Curry’s final killing of Henlein as coming from the same spirit, and so seems to define “civilization” as the state where you don’t slaughter people. Which is a point I find rather difficult to disagree with. And of course, how many war and in particular mercenary movies do think about these things at all, not to speak of with a degree of nuance?
Now, while this all might sound as if Dark of the Sun were a rather dry and perhaps even preachy movie, it is anything but. Instead, Cardiff takes the moral and political questions, and his characters, and packs it all into as exhilarating a war movie as you can find. It might seem to be a contradictory approach, but then the war movie is as contradictory a genre as possible, and like all exploitation movies of many genres, more often than not interested in having its cake and eating it too.
Mar. 8th, 2014
After he killed his adopted dad, one of the original Gatlin children, Eli (Daniel Cerny), and his adopted brother Joshua (Ron Melendez) are taken into the foster care of Amanda (Nancy Lee Grahn) and William Porter (Jim Metzler) in beautiful Chicago.
Joshua is easily able to fit into the new lifestyle, why, he even makes friends with people of colour like Malcolm (Jon Clair) and Maria Elkman (Mari Morrow), and shows off his basketball skills. Eli, on the other hand, can't let go of the olden ways, so he plants some magical corn in the empty factory building that just happens to be right next door to his new family's home, and slowly proceeds to start up his own new children's cult, while commodities trader William plans to make Super Corn™ popular all around the world. There are also - possibly symbolical - bugs with pernicious influence involved.
Because Eli is right and grown-ups are perfectly useless, it falls to Josh to swart his brother's bizarre plans.
Where Children of the Corn 2 (about which I’ll say a few strong words in the near future) really didn't seem to have a clue on how to make the sort of kill scene revue that is late 80s and 90s horror entertaining, Urban Harvest's director James D.R. Hickox doesn't suffer from any such problems, and delivers a series of increasingly grotesque murder scenes in the patented Screaming Mad George style with a lot of panache.
Of course, Urban Harvest's script is stupid as hell, its plot only barely makes sense, and its retcons regarding the original Gatlin murders (like these now having taken place at the beginning of the 60s for no good reason) seem useless except to suggest Eli is more than just a kid – a point most viewers would probably have gotten by watching him use his superpowers. But if that sort of thing is a problem for you, watching 90s low budget horror is probably not a good idea in any case, because crack-brained-ness was one of the time's and of the place's identifying marks. Consequently, I'm not blaming Urban Harvest.
Particularly, I'm not blaming Urban Harvest because it shows us so much idiotic to grotesque good stuff of the sort grand guignol theatre what have loved to be able to show: there's a death head-melting caused by magical lighter flame swallowing, corn tentacle crucifixion, a poor woman whose head explodes from magical bugs, a priest who may or may not have trouble with a hallucinated Virgin Mary in a scene that looks rather edited for censorship to me, and a finale that features the giant monster version of a mutated corn plant(!!!), among other things. It's quite impossible for me to argue with a film featuring Cornzilla, so I'm not going to.
Apart from the crazy, the film also does the very uncommon thing in horror films and treats its (more than one!) black characters as actual characters, instead of as the exotic or hated Other, nor as token signs of diversity or "identity". Not that anyone's characterization here is deep, but the film prefers shorthand to lazy shorthand, which is more than I ask of the second direct-to-video sequel to a not all that well-loved movie.
Mar. 7th, 2014
If you know me, you know how much traditional ghost stories and weird supernatural fiction mean to me, and that I’m all over films that attempt to put these traditionally more literary tales on screen.
This week’s column on Exploder Button is about such a film, and one I find an particularly remarkable example not just of how to do this kind of story right on screen but also of how to do low budget/indie/whatever filmmaking well. So click on through, please!
Mar. 6th, 2014
08:22 am - In short: Enemy Territory (1987)
Unsuccessful insurance salesman Barry (Gary Frank) thinks his luck is finally turning around when his boss is giving him the opportunity for some easy money by closing a life insurance deal with a Mrs Elva Briggs (Frances Foster). Unfortunately, Mrs Briggs is living in one of those nightmarish towers city planners thought were ideal for stacking poor black people in, and Barry quickly falls foul of the local gang, the Vampires, under their fearless leader, The Count (Tony Todd) who does everything in his power to kill Barry.
Despite being trapped in the building, Barry’s not completely out of luck, though: a very helpful Vietnam vet named Will (Ray Parker Jr.), Mrs Briggs and her grandchild Toni (Stacey Dash) are going far beyond the call of basic human decency to help him fight off the Vampires and escape. Also appearing are another, but racist, crazy and wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet (Jan-Michael Vincent), and the proverbial helpful little boy (Deon Richmond).
In 1987, Charles Band and his Empire Pictures wanted a bit of that tasty ghettosploitation money too, and because, one assumes, all actually serious and thrilling variations of this generally problematic genre had already been done, director Peter Manoogian set out to make this humungous piece of cheese that couldn’t even afford an actor to play Will and had to go with Ray Parker Jr.
In its own ridiculous way, Enemy Territory is a pretty fine time, though, at least if you’re the kind of person who finds joy in great moments in film like the scene where Jan-Michael Vincent explains that he’s housing his cat not as a pet but as food taster in case anyone should poison his spam, but that he needs to shoot his cat from time to time and get a new one because cats give people bugs like AIDS. Or the fact that the Vampires might be the least threatening gang ever put on film with their adorable vampire shtick, the least psycho guy called Psycho I’ve seen in a long time, and Tony Todd ranting nonsense towards his very bourgeois (and also quite bored) looking gang members without once breaking down laughing because of the idiocy of its all.
It is of course utterly impossible to take any of this shit seriously, but it is rather easy to be very entertained by it. Plus, curious enough for an exploitation film, Enemy Territory seems to lack any mean-spirited bone, resulting in a movie that really just wants to play around for ninety minutes, and then walk off with a friendly smile and the cost of a video rental. That’s alright with me.
Mar. 5th, 2014
08:35 am - Hidden Assassin (1995)
aka The Shooter
(This write-up is based on the shorter US cut of the movie that excises about ten minutes of scenes meant to deepen characterization and make the plot clearer).
US Marshal Michael Dane (Dolph Lundgren), one of those people who abduct foreign nationals from countries the USA don’t have extradition treaties with, is doing a small favour for his old friend, CIA agent Alex Reed (John Ashton) and Reed’s boss Dick Powell (Gavan O’Herlihy). The CIA thinks that professional assassin Simone Rosset (Maruschka Detmers) has already killed a Cuban ambassador for kicks, and is now planning to slaughter the participants of a historic peace conference between the US and Cuba in Prague, so they’d be very thankful if Dane could catch her and bring her to the US.
Catching Simone turns out to be quite difficult for Dane, and catching and keeping her even more so, because she is just the decisive bit more competent at the whole cat and mouse game. Consequently, it takes quite some time and effort, and some rather unpleasant lies to Simone’s girlfriend Marta (Assumpta Serna) for Dane to reach this goal. Not that he’s all that happy about it – he neither likes the CIA way of going about things, nor does he seem to like to morally compromise himself; he has also taken quite a shine to Simone until his head and his penis are pulling into very different directions when it comes to her.
At least on an ethical level, Dane’s life becomes easier when people probably working for the CIA are trying to kill Simone before he can bring her out of the Czech Republic.
Ted Kotcheff’s Hidden Assassin is one of the more surprising vehicles for that loveable lug, Dolph Lundgren. As we all know, while Lundgren is one of the more likeable action specialists of his generation (which automatically puts him in a higher league than Seagal and Norris), his thespian skills have their limits mostly in glowering, looking like the nicest guy ever to bash your head in, and two kinds of smiles, which results in a limited repertoire of roles, so much so that most of his films aren’t even trying to get anything else out of him.
Even though Kotcheff’s film isn’t going against the trend completely, its script (by Yves André Martin) does provide Lundgren with a slightly more complex character than usual, as well as with a backstory that is actually connected to what’s going on in the rest of the film on a thematic level. Given his acting limits, Dolph really does comport himself very well here, not exactly giving a subtle performance but a convincing one; that he’s doing his usual good job in the action sequences is a given anyway.
It’s quite interesting to see how well the script’s slightly slicker execution (why, there’s actually a reason for people to do what they do, and it even makes sense in context) turns your generic Lundgren vehicle into, well, an actual movie, the sort of film where the action becomes more exciting because it carries meaning beyond going through the action movie motions. Not that Kotcheff is bad at directing the action sequences – there are some fun cheap chases through the mean streets of Prague (prettier as Sofia - there, I said it), a simple yet pretty great final rooftop chase, as well as some of the always entertaining train top shenanigans (though none including a motorbike), and other moments of the kind of joyful anti-gravitational nonsense that make action cinema so delightful, all of them done with great competence and providing thrills big enough I’m not even going to call them mandatory thrills.
On the other hand, I don’t want to oversell the script’s depth or perceived depth. This is – at least in the shorter US version – still very much an action movie and not a character study, and certainly also not on the level of the rarefied kind of action movie where the action is part of the character study, too. It just knows how to enable the action better. Plus, there’s no hilariously earnest scene where a hallucinatory George Clooney holds a ridiculous pep talk, so it’s already better than Gravity.
Adding to this, there are also all kinds of nice little touches giving Hidden Assassin a distinct personality of its own. I particularly enjoyed Gavan O’Herlihy’s and some of the minor actors’ shameless scenery chewing, as if they had drunkenly stumbled in from one of Lundgren’s later direct-to-DVD films; or how much more competent at the whole action hero business Detmers’s Simone seems to be, at least until the film feels the need to get out the refrigerator.
Mar. 4th, 2014
08:25 am - In short: Gravity (2013)
(I wrote this little rant before the film’s expected Academy Awards wins, which only goes to show that obvious things are obvious).
I’m not as enamoured with Alfonso Cuarón’s SF film as mainstream critics seem to be, but let’s start with the good first.
On the level of technical craft, Gravity will be difficult to beat, with brilliant photography, realistic feeling yet subtly spectacular production design, and a for the most part highly effective soundtrack (including sound design) that all bring together effortlessness with a tight focus on their roles in telling the film’s particular story well. Consequently, Gravity contains its fair share of rousing suspense moments and has a visual rhythm that seems hard to beat in its perfection.
Unfortunately, this perfection is marred by some painfully sentimental moments in the script, the sort of pap Hollywood films use when they’re too cowardly to show actual human emotions and instead prefer to go for the self-important representation of sentimentality as humanity, or even humanism. In some scenes – particular the embarrassing bit of dialogue where Sandra Bullock’s character tells dead, absent George Clooney to say hello to her dead daughter in the afterlife, or the film’s plain stupid final shot – this drags the film down considerably. It might as well jump up and shout “gimme an Oscar” at these points, for all the emotional effect this stuff has on me. Of course, actual raw human emotion would just not be pretty enough; somebody in the audience might feel uncomfortable instead of uplifted by intense fakeness pretending to be a deep understanding of the human condition.
I’m also not very happy with the film’s decision to cast stars instead of actors, though Sandra Bullock does an alright job for a woman who can’t change her facial expression anymore thanks to the entertainment industry’s obsession with turning perfectly attractive middle-aged people into plastic doll monstrosities.
Given these problems, I found myself quite frustrating watching Gravity, with the way its technical prowess collides with its emotional dishonesty, and its intellectual emptiness, the way heroic gestures stand in for the much messier human truth, and actual heroism. But then, you can hardly expect anything else watching a movie so clearly aimed at hitting the safe spot that gets one an Academy Award or ten. If you want to see this sort of thing done less hypocritical by a new-ish Science Fiction movie, I’d recommend Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report instead.
Mar. 3rd, 2014
07:42 am - Music Monday: False Alarm Edition
Mar. 2nd, 2014
12:46 pm - American Gothic (1988)
Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) has just been released from hospital after a breakdown following the accidental death of her baby. The baby’s father, her boyfriend Jeff (Mark Erickson), thinks it’s a good idea to fly her camping on an island somewhere in the American North-West. Their friends Terri (Caroline Barclay), Rob (Mark Lindsay Chapman), Lynn (Fiona Hutchison), and Paul (Stephen Shellen) accompany the couple, but what was supposed to be a relaxing time ends up rather differently for everyone involved.
The private plane the friends are flying in has some sort of problems and has to go down on a different island than planned. At first, the friends assume the new island is uninhabited, the house they find on it empty, but eventually, they meet the island’s inhabitants, a rather eccentric older couple who only want to go by the handles of Ma (Yvonne De Carlo) and Pa (Rod Steiger). They’re somewhat welcoming, if you ignore that they seem to think it’s still the 1920s, Pa likes himself some fire and brimstone religion, as well as overlook an increasing series of other things that turn from eccentricity to outright craziness.
One by one, Ma’s and Pa’s physically grown-up children pop up, too. There’s Fanny (Janet Wright), a middle-aged woman who thinks she’s eleven years old and takes care of her very own mummified baby, as well as her brothers Woody (Michael J. Pollard) and Teddy (William Hootkins), both also not acting their age. Not surprisingly, the family will soon turn out not just to be outright crazy but also rather murderous in various unpleasant ways.
By 1988, the slasher genre was dead as a teenager having sex, with increasingly cheaper films that were at best trying to mask their increasing lack of any ideas of their own with ever increasing amounts of gore and/or nudity. Nobody seems to have told veteran British director John Hough about that, though, and so American Gothic turns out to be anything but lacking in ideas of its own.
Sure, the film’s basic structure is that of your classic slasher movie, but right from the start, the film prefers to use slasher clichés as a starting point from which to wander off in its own directions. These directions rather often tend to end up in the realm of the grotesque, as if every cliché about evil backwoods clans had grown into a thing as monstrous as it is comical – if you’ve got the appropriate sense of humour for it. In this context, I can’t say I’m surprised one of the film’s two writers, Burt Wetanson, only other writing credits beyond American Gothic are in the realm of children’s animation, because the feel of the violent parts of American Gothic is very often that of children’s animation gone bad, with the film’s crazy family and their brand of carnage (death by swing!) having something disturbingly and comically childlike.
The film does other clever things too, like making the film’s meat locker of characters not quite as young, and certainly not as vile, as typical of slasher movies, and providing the killer family with many an interesting character trait that again feeds the mood of the macabre and grotesque, instead of keeping them blank. American Gothic also sets up its final girl sequence in a very original manner, using its own (and still darkly funny) grotesqueness as the basis and effect of it. Saying more about this part of the film would go into unnecessary spoiler territory, I think, so let’s just say that it’s a very clever way to come to the final girl carnage that fits the film’s tone perfectly, and nicely plays with genre conventions.
American Gothic’s series of increasingly grotesque, funny, and hysterical set pieces does fit John Hough’s direction style nicely, too. Hough uses the same over-blown tone he also preferred in its much loved by others, much maligned by me Legend of Hell House. Only in American Gothic, the campy craziness/grotesqueness (depending on your interpretation of these terms) is actually the point of the film and not the director missing the point of how to make a haunted house movie.
The cast is clearly in on the joke too, with the veteran actors playing the insane family pumping up the scenery chewing to the proverbial eleven, and enjoying it (or so I can’t help but assume). The younger actors playing their victims aren’t quite as nuanced about their scenery chewing, but the film’s staunchly un-naturalist approach to everything but its locations (those look budget-consciously real, and appropriately moody) does wonders to make their performances work too.
Boy, they really don’t make movies like this anymore.
Mar. 1st, 2014
10:32 am - In short: Open Grave (2013)
This one is not treated to a full, detailed write-up with one or two mad theories about subtext (and stuff) of my own thrown in only because I don't want to risk spoiling the rather deliciously confusing/confused first thirty minutes that do that loathsome and tired "people without a memory meet at some place or other" shtick so good I quit complaining about it after about ten seconds for anyone. It's not so much about protecting the film's plot twist, for the audience will realize much earlier than the characters at least the shape of what's truly going on (well, at least a genre movie savvy audience will do), and the film seems to know and accept that. Rather, I don't want to spoil the shape in which the story develops which does make it impossible to discuss some rather interesting details.
Fortunately, there are no spoilers in suggesting that Open Grave features an excellent acting ensemble in the form of Sharlto Copley, Erin Richards, Josie Ho, Thomas Kretschmann - who seems to attempt to be in every movie right now like some kind of Udo Kier return’d –, Joseph Morgan and Max Wrottesley, that as an ensemble proves itself to be really great at doing the unsubtle stuff parts of the film ask for as well as things like subtly suggesting the way their characters remember parts of their relationships not as the visual way film by necessity understands memories, but like muscle memory and the faint echoes of things.
It's also not a spoiler, though will certainly come as a surprise to some, that director Gonzalo López-Gallego (him of the much hated Apollo 18 which I'm going to seek out post haste) turns out to be rather great at everything he attempts here, too. López-Gallego demonstrates a deft sense of pacing that pastes over all of the script's minor problems (like the lack of charade abilities for a certain character). He also understands how to build up a scene's nightmarish qualities without seeming to be trying too hard, among many other things great and small. The director also does the unthinkable and actually uses colour(s) in thematically appropriate ways. Why there's even daylight that looks like a more intense version of actual daylight (all the better for things in it to turn not quite so pleasant)!
So yeah, it's all good here. Really.
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