The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat
Apr. 10th, 2019
11:46 am - For clarity's sake
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Jul. 2nd, 2015
09:59 pm - American Ninja (1985)
Mysterious private Joe T. Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) has just barely arrived at an US Army base on the Philippines, and already gets into a whole load of trouble. First, he uses his mysterious (he’s a childhood amnesiac, of course) ninjitsu training to save Patricia (Judie Aronson), the daughter of the base’s commander, and perhaps the most insipid creature on Earth, from being kidnapped by the ninjas supporting a mysterious group of rebels, leading to everyone around, including said commanding officer, being very angry with him in a way every twelve year old will understand. Then more ninjas try to kill Joe T., a romance develops between Patricia and our hero, and after that, even more ninjas try to kill him, his co-soldier Corporal Jackson (Steve James) needs to be kicked by him until they become fast friends, and yet still more ninjas attempt the killing. Why, it’s as if nefarious things were going on in the Philippines.
I have to admit, I consciously left out the whole angle of what the bad guys in Sam Firstenberg’s American Ninja are all about here during the synopsis, and even that one of them is called The Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita), but the film itself seems so disinterested in giving its bad guys a plan that’s vaguely sensible even for action movie plans, I’m just finishing what the film starts. Sure, there’s also the thing where Joe finds out why he has ninja super powers, but that is dramatically so disconnected from the rest of the plot it’s not all that interesting to learn that John Fujioka taught him.
Of course – and fortunately, seeing as how little the film cares about these other things – this is one of the core texts of not only the not so short infatuation of Western filmmakers with ninjas – preferably Caucasian ones, unless they are called Sho Kosugi – but also of Golan, Globus and Cannon Films, and as such it just isn’t about giving a damn about its plot. If there’s some interest to find in the plot of a Cannon production, that’s more of a happy accident. What it is obviously all about is the action (yes, I’m a genius, why do you ask, dear reader?), and Firstenberg’s film delivers quite a lot of that here. Well, the fights are rather slow when you’ve seen comparable Asian films from decades earlier, a comparison that is rather inevitable when you encounter a film containing as many ninjas as this one does, the choreography is not particularly inspired, and while Michael Dudikoff isn’t as improbable a ninja as Franco Nero, nor is wearing a headband declaring him to be a ninja, he’s also not as convincing as one would like.
Dudikoff isn’t much of an actor here, either, mumbling his dialogue, emoting awkwardly, and more often than not making the impression he’s not at all happy being in front of the camera. Even though he never really became a great on-screen charismatic, it’s rather astonishing when you see him here and then compare with his efforts in 1986’s Dudikoff/James/Firstenberg film Avenging Force, where he has very quickly gotten a lot more present and willing. That film is actually superior to American Ninja in pretty much every aspect, now that I think about it – the action is tighter and more interesting, the acting better, Steve James shirtlesser, the villains more interesting and lively, and there’s even something of a plot.
But I digress, quite badly even, particularly since, having said all these mean and nasty things about basically every aspect of American Ninja, I also have to note that I still had a blast watching it, because all the awkwardness and the cheese on display don’t feel like signs of incompetence at all but rather as if this were a much scrappier production than it is, of pretty insane enthusiasm, which is quite a feat for a film so clearly cashing in on various fads. True or not, competent or not, the way the film throws ninjas and slightly wonky action sequences at its audience feels a lot like kids playing with the stuff they feel is awesome, and there’s an excitement here surrounding even the most stupid moments that makes the film very much worth watching. Even if a lot about American Ninja is wrong, it just feels so right to the twelve year old inside me (and that’s its target audience anyhow).
Jul. 1st, 2015
09:30 pm - In short: Darkside Witches (2015)
Strange things are happening in a small Italian mountain village. Men disappear, silly CGI creatures roam, and porn scenes turn towards penis mutilation. It’s the vengeance of six innocent white witches lead by one Sibilla (Barbara Bouchet) whose death by burning during the middle ages has actually put them onto the path they were burned for, and who are now out to open a gate to hell.
Fortunately, Vatican exorcist Don Gabriele (director/writer/producer/etc Gerard Diefenthal adding male lead to the list) just happens to stroll into the village because the place’s main priest once was his mentor. Even though Gabriele is in a bit of a crisis of faith, he soon starts fighting the good fight again, later on with his excellent cartoonish support group.
I miss Bruno Mattei, I truly do, so an Italian film like Darkside Witches gives me all fuzzy feelings with its weirdly constructed plot, its bizarre dialogue post-dubbed by people with heavy accents of unknown origins, its absolute willingness to become tasteless whenever it might be (in)appropriate and the ACTING(!!!) style acting. It’s – as the Mattei comparison probably makes clear – not the kind of film people who care about that sort of thing will ever call “good”, but it sure as hell has a lot of fun being the preposterous and pretty awesome exploitation monstrosity it is.
I’m fond of many parts of the movie: Diefenthal’s earnest performance, Barbara Bouchet doing the bad main witch for quite a few more scenes than you’d expect, the shameless CGI blood, the way Gabriele’s friends act a lot like an RPG party (or really crap X-Men), the random gratuitous nudity, the plastic synth soundtrack, the tacky and often absurd costumes, and so on. This, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t a film in any way interested to stick to your ideas of good taste or good filmmaking. Instead, Darkside Witches wants to put everything on screen it thinks awesome. That it can’t really afford everything it wants to show, and so has to make do with increasingly dubious and home-made psychedelic looking CGI and a few not very good practical effects, that its ideas of structure are rather no ideas at all is utterly beside the point, because Diefenthal’s film is putting it all on screen anyway, even if “all” is made out of digital fog and goes from making little sense to making no sense at all, but with inter-dimensional travel.
And no, this doesn’t mean Darkside Witches is so bad it is good – rather, the film just doesn’t care about your (or my, for that matter) ideas of “good movies” and “bad movies” at all, doing its own thing in a way I find totally irresistible, and for which I can only salute Diefenthal. May he make more movies soon.
Jun. 30th, 2015
09:19 pm - Night of the Serpent (1969)
Original title: La notte dei serpenti
aka Nest of Vipers
Alcoholic gringo Luke (Luke Askew) has been taken in by one of the archetypal gangs of bandits/revolutionaries that dominate Italian Mexico and the border regions of the US to Mexico. The charming people use Luke as their mascot and punching bag. The band’s leader is not completely without morals – even if it’s the sort that’ll not hinder him from killing quite ruthlessly – yet he’s not above lending Luke out as the perfect scapegoat and one-time killer for the plans of the police chief (which means he is his own kind of little violent potentate) of a neighbouring village. That man (Luigi Pistilli) has gotten in on reaping the fruits of a semi-accidental killing, and he and his not quite so willing co-conspirators just need somebody like Luke to either kill a child, or at least take the fall for the deed.
Turns out they couldn’t have chosen a worse alcoholic, for Luke’s mandatory trauma is just the right one to get him to leave off the tequila, take up his gun, and do some very practical things to assuage his guilt.
Just when I thought I finally truly had seen all the good films the Spaghetti Western had to offer and was basically down to Demofilo Fidano films (a fate as worse as death, and probably more painful than most deaths), along comes Giulio Petroni’s Night of the Serpent. I shouldn’t be too surprised, really, because Petroni’s handful of westerns is always at least interesting.
As a director Petroni here fluctuates between competently regurgitating stylistic elements of the genre he’s working in (his fast eye zooms are particularly dangerous there) and breaking them up or in with moments reminding me of completely different things. There are, for example, a handful of scenes staged as if they belonged into an old west gothic, or perhaps an atypical giallo. Particularly the initial murder-by-accident comes to mind here, but there are bits and pieces of this sort sprinkled throughout the film, turning it at times into something stranger or perhaps more personal than your typical Spaghetti Western.
Petroni also adds quite a few other strange moments to the film – there’s for example the mildly perverse subplot about two of the conspirators – the local priest and the local prostitute – and the rather unhealthy thing that’s going on between them. These moments give the film a peculiar mood and demonstrate a good degree of disgust towards your typical bourgeois, towards minor authority figures (and the film is good at emphasising how tiny these people’s authority is in the large run of things) who only ever misuse their little power and then whine about the consequences.
Consequently, the film’s positive figures are a self-destructive loser with something to feel as guilty about as his enemies, the local female shaman peyote popper, and a kid who explains he likes a certain of his relations best because that one doesn’t hit him as hard when he beats him up. Oh, it really is 1969, isn’t it?
Night isn’t quite as cynical (I’m tempted to say noirish, given the philosophical outlook) as some other Spaghetti Westerns, so it finds a kind of happy ending that might actually see the surviving characters grown through the violent proceedings. In another fine twist, it does so not in the traditional manner but by breaking up the climactic show-down through some surprising business I’m unwilling to spoil. Petroni is again playing with the expected formula here and at the very least deserves a smile and a bit of praise for that, as well as for turning what could have been a bog standard example of its genre into something a little different, without ever leaving the formula too far behind.
Jun. 29th, 2015
Jun. 28th, 2015
09:21 pm - In short: Spring (2014)
Following the cancer death of his mother and a handful of fuck-ups, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) flees from his native US into a random direction – Italy, as it happens. There, he drifts to a town in Apulia, finds (illegal) work with a farmer, and meets and falls in love with Louise (Nadia Hilker). Louise reciprocates his feelings but she has secrets of the dark, ancient and strange kind that can become quite the problem in a relationship.
For the second time, I find myself very much excited about/by a film directed by the duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead yet also very unwilling to actually write too much about the brilliant film I’m so excited about. It’s not so much the fear of spoiling plot points for my – possibly fictional anyway – readership, for this isn’t a film going for the big twist, in fact one putting its cards quite clearly on the table, but of spoiling that perfect moment of coming into a film like this without too much baggage, and me not wanting to get in the way of anyone just watching the film and letting it unfold.
So, I’m just going to say I think Spring is as perfect a movie as I’ve encountered, a romance with fantasy and horror elements (that one of the main characters would most certainly rather call science fiction, and oh how I love the film for which of the two it is) with wonderful acting by Pucci, Hilker and Francesco Carnelutti, directed in a style that starts out as your typical indie realism yet becomes increasingly poetic in simple yet decidedly poetic ways.
Thematically, Spring concerns itself very much with those things you’d expect of a film with a title like this that sends a young man to Italy - love and decay, death and rebirth, loss and finiteness and love again, treating its themes with clarity, humanity, a feeling of sadness and a feeling of joy, as it should be.
Jun. 26th, 2015
I know, I know, I’ve said, written and thought some rude things about John Woo’s American phase but now that I’ve settled into zen-like middle-age, maaaan, I’m so relaxed I’m willing to revise this kind of opinion.
So listen to my aged wisdom and click on through to this week’s column over on Exploder Button, where I’ll go deeper into that time when John Woo met Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Jun. 24th, 2015
09:11 pm - In short: Demonic (2015)
A handful of young ghost hunters break into a dilapidated old house where a séance once resulted in a bit of demonic possession (I’d say spoiler, but then, this thing is called Demonic) and axe murdering with only one survivor. And hey, one of our young ghost hunters (Dustin Milligan) is the only son of said survivor, so I can’t see what possibly could go wrong here.
The whole she-bang is told in flashbacks that are part of an interview police psychologist Dr Elizabeth Klein (Maria Bello) leads with what might be the lone survivor of the ghost hunters right at the scene of the crime. Why there? Because taking him somewhere else would break the plot. Anyway, terrible secrets, the same old jump scares you have in every James Wan production, and a mildly stupid plot twist follow.
By now, James Wan productions are mostly their own little genre of mainstream horror films, I think. They’re distinguished by generally moody photography, clever lighting, usually decent or better acting, and a complete unwillingness to go outside a very small comfort zone of what a horror movie is supposed to be and to do. So, expect Wan production Demonic (actually directed by one Will Canon) to be slick, expect it to be professional, but also expect it to never do anything unexpected, to never really explore psychological or metaphorical depths or to feature very interesting characters. However, you can expect that jump scare based on a face seen only via camera popping out, that scene with an invisible force dragging a person around, and some lame poppycock about demons that never actually attempts to properly build a mythology around them or make them characters, because this would actually involve using some creative energy instead of genre short hand of the more boring kind.
I wouldn’t exactly call this approach lazy (I’m actually pretty sure the people involved here are putting effort in), but it certainly does result in films that are all pretty much the same, and even though they are certainly slick and professional, they’re not quite slick enough to make me forget how much they lack in creative spirit. I’m nearly tempted to use the word “soulless” here.
Canon’s film does at least mildly mix things up structurally, and in the film’s first hour or so, I found myself quite enjoying the mystery-style approach to the plot, particularly with Maria Bello giving a fine outing as what seems the only competent character in the film. The longer the film went, the clearer it became it wouldn’t use its structure for anything beyond setting up the mandatory boring plot twist. In the final tally, little actually distinguishes this one from half a dozen other Wan-horror films.
This doesn’t mean Demonic is awful. Like nearly all of these films, it’s mildly diverting (or, if you have seen fewer of these films and haven’t seen all of their tricks a dozen times or so, perhaps even mildly exciting), and a perfect film to watch when your brain isn’t up to anything with ambitions beyond being the most generic horror film possible.
Jun. 23rd, 2015
Nightlight (2015): The cast isn’t bad, the direction has its moments, yet Scott Beck’s and Bryan Woods’s film is still another POV horror film about pretty young people getting lost in haunted woods. Not surprisingly, the film lacks the vague, yet weird and disquieting mythology of that one big predecessor whose name I don’t need mention, and doesn’t really have much of its own to replace it with. There’s an attempt at characterization through classic teenage angst but whenever I actually started to believe in the characters and cared a little about what happened to them, they began to act not like frightened people but like horror movie characters, and there all caring must stop.
There are a few okay scares in here, but most of the film is of the sort of middling okay-ness that annoys me more than a truly bad movie ever does.
13 Ghosts (1960): For my taste, this is one of William Castle’s lesser efforts at gimmick – the GHOST VIEWER! – horror but I suspect that’s in large part because it’s too much of a family movie for my tastes, with not enough of the sardonic and very dark humour that makes House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler so much fun.
As all Castle films, it’s not a bad movie in any way, but I didn’t find myself exactly glued to the screen watching it, most likely because 50s (and the film still belongs very much into that decade) horror comedy is anathema to my sensibilities.
Route 666 (2001): Who’d have thunk a film about Lou Diamond Phillips fighting an undead chain gang on a by-road of Route 66 called Route 666 could be this boring? Dumb, sure; badly directed by William Wesley (director of not much beyond this and the lightyears better Scarecrows), yes, but boring? Alas, it truly is, thanks to the snail’s pace the plot happens (or not) in, the meandering tone containing much odious comic relief, the less than engaging way the undead attacks are filmed in, and the many, many scenes that could have been cut out of this thing without anyone in the audience noticing before the film would end an hour earlier than is usual. It’s a dire effort.
Jun. 22nd, 2015
08:49 pm - Music Monday: Believable Edition
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