The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat
Apr. 10th, 2019
11:46 am - For clarity's sake
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Dec. 12th, 2013
04:13 pm - SyFy vs The Mynd: Scarecrow (2013)
Detention - it's more dangerous than you think, at least if it's the very special kind of detention teacher Aaron (Robin Dunne) offers his misguided students (among them Chupacabra vs the Alamo's Nicole Munoz). It's off to the supposedly haunted farm just in the process of being sold off by Aaron's ex-girlfriend Kristen (Lacey Chabert) for them to do some good for their community.
Unfortunately, the haunting's not just a supposed one, and soon, Aaron, Kristen, Kristen's other ex-boyfriend and the kids find themselves hunted by a black husk of a thing that really, really likes to kill people in messy ways. There's also a bit of time for awkward moments of teenage romance, and even more awkward moments of grown-up romance for all and sundry but mostly, it's time to run, scream, and die, and for some people to show their most unpleasant sides in the face of death.
Sheldon Wilson is one of those curious directors who are actually doing much better work when working for SyFy than when on their own. Scarecrow isn't quite as great as Wilson's magnum opus Carny but it's such a fine, well-paced piece of low budget horror it's difficult to feel too disappointed.
It's all very traditional in form and set-up, of course, but Wilson has the required pacing for this sort of thing down pat, with little time wasted on filler. Instead, there's a lot of fun monster action, a smidgen of gore, and characterization that is just the decisive bit more interesting than in other movies of this type. Why, before the first hour is over, you can't even play "who dies next" bingo properly because Wilson doesn't follow the very specific order of deaths as closely as you'd expect - Chabert's the obvious final girl of the piece, though. This doesn't sound like a big thing, but really, shaking up traditional genre structures in little ways is a good method to make the well-known interesting again.
It does of course help Scarecrow's case too that the acting's mostly decent and that the design of the not-exactly scarecrow monster is pretty creepy, its abilities not without their surprises. There's also rather well-done feeling of escalation to the plot, and some rather clever use of the characters moving from unsafe looking claustrophobic places to supposedly safer open ones, and back again. Again, it's these little structural changes (generally, horror movie characters move into increasingly claustrophobic places) that help make Scarecrow work as well as it does.
Dec. 11th, 2013
05:14 pm - In short: The Witching (1972)
We who know Bert I. Gordon mostly adore or spurn him as the king of awkward giant monster movies. However, despite a clear preference for very large or very small things, Gordon was a true exploitation director, hopping on any trend that came his way if it suggested a possibility for turning a fast buck.
In 1972, that meant making an occult horror movie about Pamela Franklin getting unwillingly drawn into the influence sphere of an evil satanist cult (or witch cult, the film doesn't differentiate) led by Orson Welles(!) in his bloated and bored phase because Orson needs her secret witch super powers to reanimate his dead little son. Which is one of the better motives for what's going on than these films often prefer. Too bad neither Welles nor Gordon are doing much with that aspect of the movie.
Instead, The Witching is a rollercoaster ride between long, plainly boring scenes of actors who could act but won't mumbling or shouting through slightly loopy versions of early 70s occultism horror clichés and awkward yet strangely effective scenes of delightfully illogical trance states. I did rather expect the first part of the ride from Gordon, his giant monster movies do after all have a tendency to go about things in an awkward and slightly ramshackle manner that has always reminded me of how a middle-aged used car salesman would interpret the idea of giant monsters.
The film's dream-like parts on the other hand did hit me as a surprise. Sure, the adjective of "awkward" still applies to Gordon's direction here, but here, the awkwardness rubs against moments of ambitious camera work and visual ideas that remind me of nothing so much as of Italian gothic horror and giallos. That impression of encountering a bit of pleasant European loopiness where I least expected it, is - at least in the version I watched, which I think, is based on a 1983 version of the film that adds a bit of nudity and surely subtracts other things - still more enhanced by a synth soundtrack very much in the spirit of Goblin (but not as good, not surprisingly).
Consequently, The Witching is at its strongest (or at least at its most charming) when it gives up on real world logic altogether and becomes a free-floating entity made out of strange emotional peaks, sleaze, vague notions of Satanism, Pamela Franklin widening her eyes and a side-ways approach to narrative that emphasises counter-intuitive scenes while treating what should be actual dramatic climaxes with off-handed disinterest. If you're like me, and this sort of thing is exactly what you hope for in your occult 70s horror, the devil's rain will fall on you gently here, particularly in a final half hour that is as glorious an appropriation of the dream state as you'll find in movies.
I never would have thought Bert I. Gordon had it in him.
Dec. 10th, 2013
05:11 pm - One in the Chamber (2012)
Welcome to beautiful Prague (at least in part played by beautiful Romania)! Ray Carver (Cuba Gooding Jr.) uses the city as base for his work as a professional killer. When Ray is not killing people, he's soliloquizing about his sinfulness, reading the bible, and stalking Janice Knowles (Claudia Bassols), the now grown daughter of one of his earlier victims, driven by a mixture of guilt and plain obsession he sells to himself as his wish to protect her from harm.
Right now, Ray's even doing his work in Prague, because he was hired by the resident Suverov crime family to wipe out the heads of the resident Tavanian crime family in one go. Unfortunately, Ray's strict "no innocent bystanders come to harm" policy gets in the way of his job, leaving the Tavanians with a not completely incompetent underboss in charge, and Prague in the grip of a gang war. Understandably, the Suverov's aren't at all happy with Ray's performance, so they fly in the near mythical hitman Aleksey Andreev aka "The Wolf" (Dolph Lundgren). Aleksey is a rather different kind of killer than Ray, clearly not driven by a guilty conscience, proclaiming his generally violently chipper mood by wearing loud Hawaii shirts, and given to a much more direct approach than Ray, though he does share Ray's ideas about killing civilians.
When Ray and his handler (Billy Murray) hear of the new man in town, they decide to change sides and work for the Tavanians now. Not surprisingly, Ray and Aleksey are headed for a collision course, and Janice just might get right in the middle of it.
One of the more peculiar developments in movies in the last few years is surely Cuba Gooding Jr.'s new career as a direct-to-DVD action hero; perhaps even more peculiar is how good Gooding is good at his new career, showing enough physicality to be basically believable as a man of violence, and obviously bringing more acting chops than he'd strictly need for the job, which pushes the scripts of the films he's in into slightly more complex directions than you find in something starring someone who wasn't even a decent enough actor for professional wrestling. That tends to make the characters Gooding plays more sympathetic than is the rule in direct-to-DVD action outside the body of work of Jean Claude Van Damme, too. It applies even to a character as much as a self-pitying fool as Ray is, the kind of guy who loves to moan about the guilt being a professional killer brings with it, yet never does anything about it, like stopping to murder people for money, for example.
Additionally, Gooding actually stars in the films he's supposed to star in, and doesn't go the slightly prolonged cameo route as Jean Claude Van Damme or his partner in this outing, Dolph Lundgren, often do. Consequently, there's much more Cuba than Dolph in One in the Chamber but the film's script handles the situation appropriately. In fact, it would make little sense if the two leads had more scenes together. When Lundgren is on screen, he takes on the violent and crazy yet likeable persona that he fills in many films at this point in his career. He's grown rather good at it by now, and is one of the few actors in action movies who can make the wholesale slaughter of a dozen other people somehow look good-natured. If that's always a good thing, I'm not always sure about.
It is a bit disappointing that One in the Chamber's script doesn't make as much out of the strange juxtaposition of its two main characters as I would have wished, but then, Cuba and Dolph (sounds like a sitcom title if ever I saw one) would need to interact more for it to work, which clearly was right out for the production. I'm also not really happy about the (non-)solution to the plotline between Ray and Janice, or rather, about the much too easy and straightforward way the film ends it, taking what should be emotionally heavy, and not a little creepy, stuff and trying to just wink it away.
On the positive side, there is enough complexity here to keep the very basic gang war plot lively, and what the script lacks in dramatic unity, it makes up for with a love for small and colourful details that don't exactly make the world it takes place in believable but protects it from feeling like the series of clichés it actually is. Which is more than I ask of this kind of film, and more than enough to keep me entertained throughout.
It helps that director William Kaufman aims for filming the kind of action scenes the human eye can actually comprehend, which also just happens to be the kind of action scene I find actually fun to watch. As a visual extra, Kaufman also doesn't dive too deeply into the colourless colour film rabbit hole, leaving my eyes delighted by the existence of other colours than yellow and blue, or, in the case of Lundgren's shirts, nearly blinded by them.
Dec. 9th, 2013
Dec. 8th, 2013
The agents of M.O.S.S. (yes, we still kind of exist in our own, half-assed manner) are nothing if not timely - or secret sympathizers of the Southern hemisphere - so December seems just like the right time to get down to the beach and find out what we find there.
There's trouble brewing for the people of Boston, British Columbia. Huge, water-y tornados are hitting the city's coastline, but these aren't your grandpa's tornados. Unless your grandpa's tornados spat more rocks than a disaster movie meteor shower (an early victim is the Plymouth Rock, and I'm not talking about the chicken breed), squashing people left and right. And even then, I suspect the rocks of Grandpa's tornados never exploded as the ones in Stonados like to do because of SCIENCE!
Fortunately for Boston, former volcanologist and storm chaser turned science teacher Joe (Paul Johansson), his former storm chasing buddy turned weekend replacement TV weather forecaster Lee (Sebastian Spence), and Joe's cop sister Maddy (Miranda Frigon) are there to help. Unfortunately, The Authorities represented by the Oceanic Blah-Blah Agency of Tara Laykin (Thea Gill) don't think a series of absurd tornados building over the open see and spitting exploding rocks are anything more than "freak weather", and want to see proof. No idea proof of what, really, but there you have it.
So, before the Government will provide our heroes with the bomb they'll need to blow the bad weather up - a time-honoured SyFy Channel way to get rid of all kinds of bad weather be it Ston- or Shark-nado - there's an ill-fated regatta to save and some sort of sports game (taking place in "the stadium", so the kind of sport is anyone's guess, though I suspect a film this pretend all-American will mean baseball) ending in catastrophe. Of course widower Joe's not quite happy kids need saving, of course Lee and Maddy will finally get around to doing something about their twenty years of affection disguised as bickering, and of course Laykin will die right when she's making her "oh Doctor Joe, you were so right and I'm so sorry" speech.
Obviously, and not surprisingly, there's nothing new going on in SyFy Channel disaster movie land, though Jason Bourque's film goes through the usual motions with enough élan to keep simple-minded folks like me entertained throughout. The film's tone, mostly treating the ridiculous bomb-throwing storm idea it has been cursed with by a marketing department in desperate search of stupid movie titles seriously but not treating it too po-faced either, works pretty well for the material, helping to distinguish it from Sharknado whose very American ideas about getting rid of tornados it shares.
The special effects aren't half bad this time around either, and they are surprisingly numerous too. I suspect it helps that the effects houses working on SyFy's projects have by now made so many films with giant tornadoes in them the people involved probably do tornados (particularly exploding tornados) in their sleep.
On the acting and characterization front this is perfectly decent though I couldn't escape the impression Bourque races through the character bits to get to the next piece of destruction, which, to be perfectly honest, is a bit more interesting than watching another US white core family get together again. I'd rather love to see a film showing one of these core families growing quickly apart again after the chupacabras are dead, the storms are gone, and the ice age prevented, but then I might be a mite cynical about these things.
Stonados earns itself bonus points by including a handful of scenes featuring William B. Davis as Boston's lighthouse keeper, having a chat with his bird, talking on the radio with the film's actual protagonists, and in the end getting crushed by his lighthouse.
So Stonados is a fun enough time at the beach, if you don't mind the exploding rocks.
Dec. 7th, 2013
Du rififi à Paname aka The Upper Hand (1966): Denys de La Patellière's crime movie is a sort of retirement home for tired looking old and middle aged actors (Jean Gabin! Gert Fröbe! Nadja Tiller! Claudio Brook! George Raft!), the kind of film that thinks just letting the actors turn their faces in the direction of the camera equals acting performances. What's actually going on is that no one in front of the camera seems even the least bit interested in the film they are involved in, which is somewhat understandable given the been there done that nature of the film's crime plot, and the script's insistence on not developing the plot's few interesting elements in any direction worth following. De La Patellière manages to make the film pretty, but doesn't provide any sense of tension or drama, and also seems to delight in the kind of "witty" dialogue only very few films can get away with. Most of those films have actors actually doing more than coasting on their mere existence, though.
An American Ghost Story aka Revenant (2012): Derek Cole's film could be a fine, low-key ghost story, if a highly derivative one. At least, the core performances by scriptwriter and male lead Stephen Twardokus and Liesel Kopp are never less than decent, often even quite good, the camera work is atmospheric, and the film has a nice, concentrated flow to it. Unfortunately American Ghost Story suffers from a case of Advanced Jump Scare Syndrome that borders on the ridiculous. There's no quietly effective scene of the supernatural the film doesn't ruin by making inappropriate loud noises at the audience in moments that aren't at all meant to be jump scares, no scene that doesn't end up destroying its own effectiveness by shouting "boo". It's nearly like a parody of other films who like their jump scares a bit too much, and feels as if the film were afraid to just let the creepy mood it so desperately tries to build work on its audience, permanently losing faith in its own ability to function without VERY LOUD NOISES. While this technique doesn't work at all to actually make the film scarier, it ruins any mood it actually builds quite effectively, dragging the whole effort down from the at least decent to the nearly insufferable.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): I'm more than just a little surprised that this one is the film of these three I actually like, but then surprising me is what J.J. Abrams's movie did more than once: by feeling much more like a Stark Trek movie than the first one, by not just fixing the first film's dubious politics but actually consciously having and using political themes and coherent morals, by actually doing some rather great (or at the very least fun) things with the Star Trek movie it is playing with/off, and by this time around actually having something (though still not enough by far) to do for its female cast members. If the last trend continues, the next Star Trek movie might even see Zoe Saldana's Uhura as an actual female lead instead of a relatively large supporting role for Pine's and Quinto's perfectly entertaining boy's club.
As it stands, the film is still nearly up there with the Avengers or the last Batman or Pacific Rim as a film that fulfils all blockbuster demands on spectacle, yet still has the time and space for human things of one kind of the other. Most of the time, it even remembers the spectacle is there to dramatize the humanity and not the other way around.
Dec. 6th, 2013
09:16 pm - On ExB: The Crone (2013)
The last few Japanese low budget horror films I watched left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, as well as with a degree of pessimism towards the state of the genre in the country.
A film like The Crone, flawed yet made with obvious dedication and intelligence as it is, can't help but bring me around to optimism again. I'll explain why in my column over at Exploder Button.
Dec. 5th, 2013
05:35 pm - In short: Red Water (2003)
Before the SyFy Original movie really came into its own, before Mansquito was a blink in Tibor Takács eye, the icky sounding Turner Broadcasting System aired Charles Robert Carner's Red Water, a film you could sell to me as part of the SyFy cycle any time. It has everything you'd expect from this sort of film: two likeable leads given by two actors whose faces we all know but who never really got a big break - in this case Lou Diamond Phillips and Kristy Swanson; a killer shark; non-rapper, non-actor Coolio non-acting and at least not attempting to rap; Cajun clichés; gangsters; ex-husband and ex-wife getting back together thanks to the magic of animal attacks; as many explosions as the budget can take, so not very many; evil oil business and evil banks. In other words, there's not a single original idea in the whole film. Instead Red Water tries to become somewhat memorable by at least mixing the clichés of a few different genres.
As with the SyFy films whose cousin Red Water is, there's a lot of fun to be had with it if you're willing to accept the lack of originality for what it is instead treating it as an insult to all of humanity, don't expect something spectacular, and just go with the film's flow. Carner makes that easy enough, for while there are no spectacular stylistic achievements visible on screen, the director does present his plot in a clear straightforward style that fits the clear straightforward story just fine. While there is no really clever moment in the film, there certainly aren't many dull ones, so if you're in the mood for a highly traditional yet effective mix of sharksploitation and thriller that aims to entertain the simple-minded like me, Red Water will scratch that itch nicely without letting you wade through too much idiocy, and without ever trying to bore you. Plus, I don't think I've ever seen a movie monster shark killed in quite this way before.
Dec. 4th, 2013
02:20 pm - In short: Kill 'Em All (2012)
Again, a maniac kidnaps a bunch of people, stuffs them into a decrepit warehouse, and plays games with them. Only this time around, the kidnapper will later turn out to be played by Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, his victims are all successful professional killers with martial arts skills (with Ammara Siripong, Johnny Messner and Tim Man as the central characters), and the only game Gordon likes - apart from gloating - is seeing them fight one-on-one to the death, promising survival to the last one standing.
Some of our killers (maybe the ones whose actors I named!?) are not quite as gullible as poor Gordon Liu may hope, though, and may find the brains to team up and take the fight into more warehouse rooms, and to their captor and his army of stunt people playing crazy dress-up.
If you've got to make a warehouse-bound martial arts/action movie, you can do much worse than decide what Kill 'Em All's Raimund Huber did and take your most basic set-up (sort of) from Saw but replace all semi-sadistic games and stupid plot twists with martial arts fights. Thusly, Kill 'Em All may not exactly win any prizes for originality, but it sure is a film trying to make the most of its miniscule budget and to deliver what its potential audience will probably really come to see - a lot of fights.
While there's nothing spectacular about Tim Man's choreography or Huber's way of shooting it, it's solid and dependable with some bursts of actual energy and - particular in the final fights - a nicely presented sense of brutality that befits a film whose heroes are professional killers. I'm also quite happy to report that Huber shoots the fights straight, with editing rhythms and camera angles meant to show off the actors' (all of whom have more martial arts and/or stunt experience than acting experience) skills, which seems to be a style that slowly replaces the micro-editing and camera-shaking that has marred low budget action movies in the last fifteen years or so again. Generally, martial arts is something I actually like to see in a martial arts movie, so I'm all for it.
There is little else to say about Kill 'Em All. Its level of writing and acting are about where you expect them to be in this kind of production - good enough for what the film is, probably horrifying if you're the sort of person who goes into a film called Kill 'Em All expecting much depth in these regards. The rest is silly bad guy talk, one rather funny joke about ninjas, and a lot of fun scenes of people beating each other up. I call that a highly satisfying evening's entertainment.
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