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).
Nov. 20th, 2014
10:36 pm - Die Tote aus der Themse (1971)
aka Angels of Terror
Royal Opera Ballet ballerina Myrna Ferguson (Lyvia Bauer) has – like some of her colleagues – worked as a drug mule for a not very mysterious trio of drug lords, but she’s now helping Scotland Yard in form of the intrepid Inspector Craig (Hansjörg Felmy) keeping London heroin free by betraying her former friends.
Not surprisingly, particularly since Scotland Yard doesn’t seem to know about the concept of protective custody, Myrna is soon shot dead in a hotel room. In a curious development Myrna’s body disappears before Craig and co. can take a look at it. The very next morning, Myrna’s sister Danny (Uschi Glas) arrives in London from her Australian home – the place where all Edgar Wallace characters who aren’t from London seem to arrive from – for a vacation with her sister.
On learning about her sister’s death, Danny quickly develops ambitions on doing some amateur detective work. However, she really doesn’t seem to be cut out for the job, seeing how prone to being kidnapped and threatened, and in need of Inspector Craig’s assistance she is. Well, she and Craig have a lot in common, really, particularly their lack of talent in the realm of detection. So it is rather nice of a mysterious black gloved figure to shoot various witnesses as well as the heads of the heroin ring quite dead, otherwise, this case would never progress.
At the beginning of the 70s, the Rialto Wallace adaptations were in a bit of an identity crisis: on one hand, Alfred Vohrer’s contributions had become increasingly self-referential and ironic, an approach that works perfectly looked at from today, but must have felt highly unusual for the contemporary German audience, and if there’s one thing that’s archetypically German, it’s to treat the unusual as suspect. On the other hand, the other series directors were attempting to update or change the formula in other ways.
Routine German genre film director (and soon to be TV specialist, the poor man) Harald Philipp’s Die Tote aus der Themse for example tries to unify traditional Wallace film values with visual and stylistic elements taken from the Italian giallos that had artistically and commercially overtaken the krimi by miles at this point, as well as a very German approach to luridness – which is to say a quaint, harmless and a bit lamely conservative approach that I can’t imagine shocking anyone in 1971. At least in the last regard, the film reminds me a bit of 70s Hammer attempts of pretending to be hip.
The traditional Wallace values are represented by series mainstays Siegfried “Sir John” Schürenberg, Werner “I’m a bad guy” Peters and Harry “no idea why he was in so many of these things” Riebauer, and Uschi “hey, at least I’m allowed to do more than Karin Dor” Glas, some mild mysterious villain aspects to the set-up of the heroin dealers, and some utterly bizarre business about the drug smuggling ways of ballerinas. These rub against the film’s more modernist tendencies in curious ways, as if your grandfather suddenly started popping the drug of the week. It’s a very strange mixture of the old-fashioned (by 1971) with approximations of the modern (of 1971) that can only result in an uneven film.
Fortunately, it also results in quite an interesting film, or at least in one where you never really know which of its conflicting instincts it is going to follow in the next scene. To me, this sort of weird and slightly broken thing is endlessly fascinating.
It becomes even more so because Philipp and Rialto Wallace main director of photography Karl Löb are doing some rather good giallo imitations throughout the film, giving it a visual unity the script never reaches. So watch out for people dwarfed by bottles of alcohol (though not J&B, unfortunately), mildly meaningful use of colour that pops out in a way that’ll frighten the blue and teal blues away (Shaw Brothers coloured blood!) and a camera that’s generally mobile and moves in interesting ways. In this context, I at least have to give a friendly nod to Peter Thomas’s score that sees the great man of German weirdo soundtracks going full-on Morricone.
Last but not least, I couldn’t help but enjoy the film’s utterly hideous interior decorations, things so much of their time I’m a bit surprised I’m actually allowed to look at them in this sainted year of perfect taste.
All this doesn’t really add up to anything I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t already seen a dozen or so other Wallace movies, but once you’re through the best part of the canon, a peculiar little number like this is rather nice. And if you enjoy the juxtaposition of things that just don’t belong together you just might like it, too.
Nov. 19th, 2014
Incredibly obnoxious yuppie couple Gwen (Tracy Teague) and Steven (Ken Arnold) have bought up a run-down old house out in the boons to prep it up as a bed and breakfast place, or rather, Gwen bought it and Steven’s supposed to do most of the work because she already provided all the money. Alas, there’s a reason the house came quite as cheap as it did: the realtor’s a weird Joe Estevez thing, the country people around it are crazy, and oh, there was a murder in the house some time ago – after the time when it was used as a Soldiers’ Home for victims of the first World War, with all the suffering that entailed. Consequently, the house is as haunted as all get out, and it doesn’t take long until Gwen and Steven encounter all sorts of bizarre stuff: the realtor just pops up at the most curious times and places saying meaningful things, a couple of female ghosts get rude, and there’s never a quiet moment in the house.
Things come to a head when Gwen’s best friend Katherine (Julie Price) and her husband Michael (Regen Wilson), who is even more obnoxious than the other human characters, come to help with the renovation: ghosts get nude, hands get grabby, and Jim Shoemaker “from the County” wants to kill two birds with one stone. Two birds; one stone.
One thing I have been missing in the age of indie horror is the propensity of old local horror movies to just be plain, freakishly peculiar. Michael Merino’s The Haunting of Pearson Place jumps into this particular breach with exhilarating enthusiasm. The resulting film isn’t the least bit creepy, spooky, or whatever else you might expect from your haunted house films, but its very peculiar and curiously specific weirdness make up for that little problem with no troubles at all.
Well, at least if you’re like me and love to puzzle out if any given scene is actually meant to be funny, or just becomes funny through the combination of – I might have used that word to describe them before – obnoxiously bickering characters, dialogue that’s always a little (and sometimes very) off, and line deliveries that often leave one staring at the screen with a mixture of puzzlement and delight. For most of the running time, I had no problem understanding what was going on on screen but was utterly unable to explain why The Haunting of Pearson Place was going about showing what’s going on in this highly strange manner. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.
Nov. 18th, 2014
11:16 pm - In short: Stray Dogs (2013)
aka Wild Dogs
Original title: 들개들
Reporter So Yoo-joon (Kim Jeong-hoon) comes to a tiny isolated mountain village that loudly prides itself on being crime free to look for his friend Hyeon-tae (Kim Jae-il). Yoo-joon really needs to talk to him about Hyeon-tae’s wife, with whom Yoo-joon had an affair. An affair she is trying to end but Yoo-joon doesn’t take no for an answer there, and takes consensual as optional in their relationship – in every respect.
The villagers tell our morally challenged protagonist they have not the faintest idea where his friend is, and that would be that if his car didn’t break down, forcing him to stay in the village for a few days. Yoo-joon soon becomes suspicious of the villagers, whose general behaviour seems crazier and more secretive than could be explained by mere eccentricity. Indeed, Yoo-joon soon finds out the leading men of the village are holding a young woman named Kim Eun-hee (Cha Ji-heon) virtually captive, using her night blindness as an opportunity to make their nightly rape expeditions easier. Though she’s traumatized by years of abuse, Eun-hee would still probably have found a way to escape if not for her mother lying ill.
After much hemming and hawing, and probably to his own surprise, Yoo-joon decides to help Eun-hee, and he actually has good timing, because the good people of the village have just decided things are getting too risky for their tastes (as well as the whole crime-free village shtick), so Eun-hee will have to die. The ensuing bloodbath will teach Yoo-joon a valuable lesson, though I’m not really sure what’s it supposed to be.
My main problem with Ha Won-joon’s Stray Dogs is the nature of its protagonist, what with him raping his girlfriend in the first act. He’s not really a pleasant viewpoint character, but what’s more problematic, I don’t really see a reason why he has to be quite as horrible as he is. It would have been perfectly alright if he just had had a sordid affair with his best friend’s wife, but rape is generally the point where I really draw the line. Now, one might assume Ha had chosen this to make some kind of point about the difference or basic sameness between the ways Yoo-joon and the villagers go about badly hiding their true faces, but if he is trying to make such a point, I don’t really see where.
Things become easier to stomach once Eun-hee becomes the factual protagonist of the tale. Her losing control and murdering a bunch of people is at least perfectly understandable in the context of what the men she and Yoo-joon kill have done to her. Alas, the point when she turns from victim and moving plot point to person and perpetrator comes rather late in the movie; and of course, Ha doesn’t do much with this change either. Again, if he’s trying to make any ethical or even just psychological points, I don’t see them.
If you decide to stomach these problems, Stray Dogs turns out to be competent if sordid little thriller, well acted inside the not very complex parameters of its script, tight, and in the final thirty minutes pleasantly brutal. The last comes as a bit of a relief after all the drawn-out and often somewhat unnecessary unpleasantness of what came before; clearly, violence is the answer.
Nov. 16th, 2014
01:09 pm - On ExB: The Shadow (1994)
Russell Mulcahy’s adaptation of the adventures of what was possibly the greatest of the classic pulp heroes (though I’ll always love the insanity of The Spider more) isn’t too well loved by Shadow fans or film critics, but to me, it’s a film that has as many virtues as it has flaws.
Nov. 15th, 2014
04:18 pm - In short: Tough and Deadly (1995)
CIA agent Jack Monk (Billy Blanks) is captured and nearly killed for reasons that will become sort of clear much later. He barely escapes with his life and ends up as an amnesiac John Doe in a hospital bed. Bounty hunter and private dick Elmo Freech (Roddy Piper) stumbles over him in hospital. At first, Elmo only hopes there might be a bounty and therefore profit involved, but when somebody tries to kill his new-found interest, he saves Jack’s life, springs him out of hospital, lets him move in, trains him up again and makes him his new bounty hunting partner under the exciting name of John Portland. Why? I suspect the love that dare not speak its name.
Of course, John’s/Jack’s enemies are soon on his trail again. As luck will have it, the mysterious traitorous CIA agent (Phil Morris) after Jack’s life just happens to be in business with Elmo’s old nemesis, mafia boss Milan (Sal Landi), which will most probably raise the body count a bit.
After they turned out to be a rather effective duo in 1993’s Back in Action Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks reunited again – and unfortunately for the last time – for this little lark. Directed by Steve Cohen, Tough and Deadly features your typical Direct-to-DVD movie script, where nobody’s motivations, not to speak of plans, make much sense, but where bone crunching kicks happen every five minutes; mostly to bad guys’ faces. Though, to give the script credit where credit is due, it is well-paced - aka contains only scenes of male friendship my brain can’t help as parse as romance, a few one-liners, and ass-kicking of varying and increasing brutality, and nothing else to slow it down any – and clearly knows what its viewers will want out of their low budget US action flicks.
I for one can hardly resist the siren song of crunching bones, gun shots, and very minor explosions set to a synthesizer soundtrack possibly even more generic than Tough and Deadly’s title, particularly not when all the cheap yet cool carnage is committed by a martial artist and fitness guru who is a neutral actor (so good enough for this sort of thing) and a pretty fantastic, if showy, screen fighter, and by everyone’s favourite unmasked wrestler-turned-actor easily getting by on regular Joe charisma, a shit-eating grin, who is also a pretty fantastic - and completely different - screen fighter.
As a buddy action movie couple Piper and Blanks work quite well too, with many a tender look between the two, speaking dialogue that is at worst so unfunny it becomes funny again, at best quite purposefully funny, and tending more to the latter. As always, it’s a bit of a shame the romance between the two is never consumed on screen but I suspect action cinema won’t be ready to make its obviously yet unspoken gay characters just gay until 2025; I’d be glad to be proven wrong, particularly because certain critics can then stop pretending every tender male friendship on screen is a sign of repressed homosexuality, and instead concentrate on praising those that actually are, like the one here.
Anyway, Tough and Deadly is another fine outing for Blanks and Piper, and while it didn’t make me think, watching it made me pretty happy.
Nov. 13th, 2014
Fast Company (1938): I know, Edward Buzzell’s film is only an attempt to launch another detective couple like The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles, but I really like the resulting mystery comedy a lot. Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice as our central couple have highly enjoyable chemistry, the dialogue’s fast and very funny, and the mystery plot goes by sprightly and without major hindrances to the enjoyment of the dialogue, so there’s little about the film that isn’t enjoyable and charming. It is not quite on the same level as the first Thin Man yet who’s making comparisons while he’s charmed?
As an added bonus for the bookish like me (and hopefully you), our heroes work as rare book traders and part-time book detectives, a fact I would probably make more of in my imagined remake where she is the more action oriented and he the one who stays behind, but it’s still the sort of thing that helps the movie become something a bit more than just an easy attempt to jump on a bandwagon.
Cut-Throat Struggle for an Invaluable Treasure aka 塞外奪寶 (1982): Despite beginning with a massacre of Shaolin monks and the ensuing theft of the Buddha’s teeth, this Hong Kong martial arts film directed by Hui Sin and Leung Wing-Tai is more of a comedy than anything else, if a comedy not prone to the outer heights and depths of martial arts slapstick. In its choreography, its sense of humour and its needle-dropped score, this is pretty much a typical second tier film of its time, and like a lot of these films, it’s damn entertaining while doing what it does with professionalism and style.
The fights are pleasantly varied in style and form, their execution is fine, and the film has a nice flow to it, even if the plot is just going through the motions to get from one fight to the next. As an added, and unexpected, pleasure, Cut-Throat Struggle is also full of very pretty location shots for its characters to fight in, adding the cheapest of all special effects.
Seraphim Falls (2006): David Von Ancken’s fascinating film starts as what looks like the final act of a modernist Western, but gradually turns into something much more surreal, the film’s outer landscapes mirroring those of the protagonists, until the difference between the metaphorical and the real becomes diffuse; people who like connections coming from Abrahamic religions will have particular fun here. In its own, peculiar way, Seraphim Falls does tell a very Western-like redemption story, even if it at first pretends to be more of a Spaghetti Western-like tale of vengeance; it’s just that the film’s concept of redemption is a bit different from that of many movies in the genre that came before it. While it is going on its way to redemption, the film plays with various audience expectations (like who the hero of the tale might be), and gives Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, as well as a bunch of excellently cast minor characters, much space for performances that are at once real and as idiosyncratic as the film needs them to be.
Nov. 12th, 2014
09:53 pm - In short: The Hot Rock (1972)
At the time this was made, director Peter Yates was on something of a roll with various types of crime films, all rather great in one way or the other, and all absolutely typical of 70s filmmaking in all the best ways. The Hot Rock is an adaptation of one of Donald E. Westlakes’s comedic crime novels about the perpetually unlucky thief Dortmunder (here played by Robert Redford who, whatever you may think of the casting for this particular character is a really great actor for this kind of comedic heist/caper movie), who is basically Westlake’s Stark without the murderous intentions and the sociopathy. Here, Dortmunder and co (George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand) are attempting to steal a very special diamond for the UN representative of an African nation (done with perfect deadpan by Moses Gunn), and then have to steal it again, and again, and etc, while double-crosses and various inopportune events destroy their best laid plans. Repeatedly.
While the film becomes increasingly funny and bizarre in excellent style, Yates also gets at the other core of many of Westlake’s comedic novels: these are books – and a film - about characters stumbling through a universe as set against – or at best uncaring of - humanity as that of Lovecraft’s stories or the Parker novels, just that this particular uncaring or cruel universe doesn’t crush its victims but instead prefers to play cruel jokes on them, and that in the Dortmunder universe, some of the characters have the ability to play the tricks right back.
Of course, it’s not all the universe’s fault here, for the characters here, comedy or not, are quite fine with doing unpleasant things to one another quite without help and don’t exactly need it to ruin their respective days; it’s just funnier when their bad intentions and those of the universe meet.
Nov. 11th, 2014
As if working for a crazy idiot mayor (Todd Jensen) weren’t enough for one man, sheriff Bradley (Kevin Sorbo) of the charming US small town of Roscoe, Bulgaria, has to cope with a sudden increase in weirdness surrounding his home.
First, a highly peculiar lightning storm cuts a car in half that is carrying a woman we will later learn is called Nancy (Annabel Wright) and her teenage son, then gets up to chasing them, sucking both of them into another dimension whose sole inhabitant electrocutes the boy before dropping the two back on Earth where Nancy will spend the next half hour of the film unconscious until the plot calls her.
Then, glowering lightning-obsessed stranger Donovan (David Schofield) appears in town being all mysterious and gloomy, soon followed by meteorology professor and lightning research scientist )that’s a thing, right?) Conners (Jeff Harding) and his entourage (Robyn Addison and Tom Harper). Both men are on the hunt for exactly the kind of freak lightning that attacked Nancy and her son, and both are sure lightning is going to strike again in Roscoe quite soon. Conners wants to find out what kind of phenomenon this lightning actually is, while Donovan is out to destroy an Ancient Evil™ that once took his son from him, while it made himself immune against lightning in the process. Of course, this being a very traditional kind of SF/horror film, Donovan’s totally right, and Conners will be punished for his fiendish attempt to understand how the world surrounding him actually works.
Talking of “very traditional”, further problems will ensue when the mayor throws all warnings to evacuate the town before it’s too late in the wind because he won’t close down the annual pumpkin festival (which would make two potential German investors nervous). Let’s hope he’s going to be struck by lightning too, and soon, because he’s really annoying.
So, obviously, Gary Jones’s Lightning Strikes prefers, as so many SyFy movies do, the more traditional values of SF/horror, where the pseudo-mythological approach of ranting mania is somehow more worthwhile than to look at the world mildly more scientifically, but I’m not really down on the film for that, because bizarre ranting fits the outright silliness of the threat (however many slightly icky looking corpses the film may hold into the camera) better than any attempts at seriousness.
As with two thirds of all SyFy movies, it’s best to leave one’s brain out of the door while taking in Lightning Strikes, or at least those parts of one’s brain that get easily annoyed by mild silliness and outright stupidity. By now, my brain, is such a highly evolved organ it actually runs on this sort of thing. Or does so at least when the whole mess is presented, as it is here, with enough enthusiasm. Lightning Strikes throws bits of old SF/horror, some elements that might have come from a minor X-Files episode and a not particularly talented but fun cast at a script (co-written by David A. Prior himself!) that may not be much when it comes to the little things in filmmaking, like the drama and the sense, yet that does find its pleasure in building its own silly mythology (Erich von Däniken is surely disappointed he didn’t come up with it) on bits of actual mythology and packing it in your typical monster of the week shtick. For my tastes, it’s a fun little thing to watch on a Sunday morning. It’s not providing much intellectual fodder, but not every film needs to do that for me.
Of course, if you really want to put this much thought into the film, it is a bit disappointing how little the script makes of the fact that three of its major characters have all lost a close family member in a tragic manner, but really, it’s healthier to only ever be pleasantly surprised when these films do think this much than to be disappointed when they don’t.
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