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).
Sep. 23rd, 2014
07:24 pm - Godzilla (2014)
I was rather hopeful about this second Hollywood attempt to make a Godzilla movie given how much I enjoyed director Gareth Edwards’s fantastic Monsters. But then, Edwards wouldn’t have been the first director who had a hard time going from low budget cinema to mainstream blockbusters, and that’s before all the inevitable troubles of making a studio movie are taken into account.
Fortunately, this US Godzilla is at least as good as optimism could could convince one to hope for, doing very little wrong in the difficult job of making a blockbuster kaiju film. Because I am like that, let’s start off with the film’s downsides, namely the script’s – understandable – insistence on keeping its protagonist Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) close to nearly every central development in the plot, going through quite a few contrivances to get him there. I know, it’s meant to provide dramatic unity and give that part of the audience always in need of having somebody to “identify” with their due, but I honestly think you could have achieved the same goal with half a dozen characters taking on smaller individual roles in the tapestry of what’s going on; perhaps even characters of different gender and skin colour? It doesn’t exactly help that Taylor-Johnson seems to be another one of these extremely bland young male actors the last few years have brought up in Hollywood, all pretty indistinguishable from one another, serviceable actors, yet rather vacuous presences; which to me seems particularly ironic in a generation that has so many extremely talented actresses yet still too often finds little for them to do. Which neatly fits into the film’s next problem, namely that Godzilla has fuck all for Ford’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) to do.
Still, having said all this, it’s surprising how well Godzilla works in practice, its heavy emphasis on the human side of the story not feeling distracting – or as artificial and Hollywood-like – at all, and while I’m not really happy with concentrating all the humanity on one bland guy who just happens to be the son of the not-so crazy Bryan Cranston character, as well as a military bomb disarming expert, as well as the father of a family that just happens to live exactly in the monsters’ way, the film executes this problematic idea as good as humanly possible. Mostly, I think, because a lot of the reaction to the monsters we see from Brody (very much standing in for the way the film sees its monsters) is awe, a mixture of wonder and fear Edwards already managed to evoke – for much less money and on a more private level – quite wonderfully in Monsters. Awe seems to me the only proper feeling towards the sort of forces of Nature the monsters here are, accepting the beauty and the horror as different sides of the same coin.
I think it is this sense of awe in its treatment of its kaiju that grants this Godzilla its sense of gravitas, its characters witnessing occurrences they are barely able to comprehend, the attempts to resolve the situation through the rules and regulations that already don’t help in normal human existence (when in doubt, nuke it) bound to fail and possibly to make the situation worse. The film would be nearly Lovecraftian if you look at it from that angle, if not for the moments when the film insists – and that’s Hollywood to you – that human actions do matter, at least when it comes to inadvertently helping out Godzilla with a distraction. Of course, there’s a degree of irony in the fact that what’s a distraction to the film’s monsters is not done to distract them by the film’s characters, and that a desperate heroic deed by a human is only ever a short distraction for a monster/nature/whatever you want it to stand for.
Another thing Godzilla does that works out as a plus for it against what you’d expect (or well, against what I would have expected) is how coy it is about showing its monsters at work before the final grand – which it truly is - throw-down, the film only ever showing bits and pieces of what’s going on literally above characters’ heads, yet never looking away from the destruction caused, nor its aftermath. Edwards uses this technique not to deny his audience the big destruction set-pieces it came to see but rather to put the monster action in the right perspective, which is to say, put the audience in the perspective of ants staring at a mountain, an effect not even Shusuke Kaneko in his classic Gamera trilogy strove for quite this hard.
So, despite my misgivings, I found myself quite riveted by Godzilla, enjoying – if you can call it that – its moments of awe and carnage, appreciating its philosophical level (there’s also some obvious political allegory here, if you prefer that sort of thing), and ending up convinced this is not just a US Godzilla better than the last attempt but one that can see eye to eye with many of the better kaiju eiga.
Sep. 22nd, 2014
Sep. 21st, 2014
Trinity is Still My Name aka Continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità (1971): I didn’t enjoy Enzo Barboni’s quickly shot seque to the first Trinity movie as much as its predecessor but it still is a fun little movie, if already suffering from the ever increasing childishness of the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedy pairings. This one’s still having a lot of fun with Spaghetti Western conventions but it’s also working pretty hard at repeating the favourite beats of the first film without just repeating itself – mostly with success, even. The sequel’s problem really isn’t so much that it isn’t a funny, well-made movie, it sure is funny and well-made movie, as that it’s just not quite as funny and well-made as the one it follows up on. It’s a bit of a luxury problem to have for a film, but there you have it.
Willow Creek (2013): Even though I am not quite as enamoured with Bobcat Goldthwait’s unexpected turn towards the bigfoot POV movie as some of my peers are, this is still a fine little film. I particularly love how Goldthwait doesn’t overdo the amateurishness of the footage, the carefully thought through shorthand he uses for the characterisation, and the film’s use of humour.
Willow Creek does take quite some time to get going, though, but once it does, it culminates in two of the most effective examples of “people frightened in their tent” and “people panicking in the dark woods” scenes I’ve seen in a POV horror film. Particularly the former, basically consisting of a single, fifteen minute shot of lead actors Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson looking frightened while creepy noises play, is quite an achievement because it takes a set-up that should be a guarantee for boredom and actually makes it work.
Sledztwo aka The Investigation (1974): I always find myself rather surprised by the comparatively high number of Stanislaw Lem adaptations. While often intellectually quite delightful, the comparative disinterest in plot and character displayed in Lem’s body of work doesn’t exactly lend itself to screen adaptations. Despite that, most Lem adaptations not only exist but are also also tend to be rather good.
Case in point is this TV movie directed by Marek Piestrak with a directness that still leaves room for visual mood-building as well as a degree of playfulness, all the while following Lem’s philosophical ideas. It’s quite wonderful to behold in its way.
Sep. 20th, 2014
01:37 pm - In short: St. Ives (1976)
Former crime reporter, now hapless professional writer who doesn’t get his book done and recreational gambler who can’t win, Raymond St. Ives (Charles Bronson) is hired by the eccentric rich Abner Procane (John Houseman) to work as his middle man in re-acquiring Procane’s stolen journals. Rather curiously, the thieves asked for St. Ives by name, but Procane doesn’t seem all that distrustful about it, and St. Ives acts as if this sort of thing happened to him every day. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much his reaction to everything.
Unflappability is a useful trait to have for St. Ives, too, for the handover of the money the thieves demand for Procane’s precious diaries goes very wrong indeed, and dead bodies start to pop up around our hero with a certain disturbing regularity. Instead of getting dissuaded by this minor piling up of bodies, the intense interest of dumb cops Deal (Harry Guardino) and Oller (Harris Yulin), and the friendly persuasions of his old cop friend Blunt (Dana Elcar), or by various attempts on his own life, St. Ives allows himself to be drawn into the situation further and further, teaming up with Procane, his live-in assistant Janet (Jacqueline Bisset), and his pet psychiatrist Dr. Constable (Maximilian Schell) for some rather dubious plans.
Frequent Bronson director J. Lee Thompson does his best to help the actor transition into a somewhat different persona than his usual kind, the kind of charming rogue with morals you’d find Roger Moore overplay and have turn out as an insufferable smart-ass. Bronson is certainly willing (who wouldn’t be, in his case) but I don’t think he’s actually convincing in a role that demands more smiling and a very particular kind of swagger instead of dead-eyed glaring and quite a different kind of swagger. That could have been quite a problem in a more involved film but this Ross Thomas adaptation does hold deeper human emotions at arms length for most of the time and can therefore live with the central performance that is more trying to be convincing than it is actually convincing.
In fact, part of the film’s semi-comedic charm lies in the sense of old-fashioned stylization with a big nod to Old Hollywood Thompson tries to maintain, and often manages rather successfully to build, turning the film into one giant homage to film’s of an earlier time. And, while Bronson isn’t looking too convincing with his new persona, he still is fun to watch, enough so that I think it’s a bit of shame he only got to let loose this way very seldom during the rest of his career; I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more films of pseudo-Saint shenanigans had turned Bronson into as much of a pro in this kind of role as he seems have to been in doing his usual shtick.
Be that as it may, the film at hand is a sometimes charming, sometimes very 70s, piece of old-fashioned entertainment, the sort of thing I’d call “diverting” if that did not sound quite as damning with faint praise when what it actually means is that St. Ives fulfils its function as an escapist piece of entertainment excellently, and there’s never any shame at all in that.
Sep. 19th, 2014
09:10 pm - On ExB: Das finstere Tal (2014)
Being a German genre movie fan is often a bit of a frustrating experience, not just because Germany just loves to practice a form of censorship that likes to pretend it’s all about protecting the youth from nefarious things like blood squibs, but also because genre filmmaking of any kind hardly exists around here.
Sep. 18th, 2014
10:08 pm - In short: Open Range (2003)
There’s always a risk with a film as deeply informed by the traditions of the genre it is working in as Kevin Costner’s Open Range is it will become a mere nostalgia fest. And indeed, the film is full of dozens of little nods to classic (and not so classic) Westerns but these nods aren’t there as the film’s only reason for being, but rather as a way to position the film in the history of its genre.
There is, too, actual nostalgia in the film, yet it’s one broken by a script honest enough to know that the real places and times we are nostalgic for never were what our dreams – and particularly the shared dreams of cinema – pretend they were. So, for every moment of sheer beauty, of the wry smile about a simpler past, there’s knowledge about violence and its cost – and how big in a place and time where violence was omnipresent that cost is – as well as the understanding that the simpler past always was as complicated as the present, if probably complicated in different ways.
Another huge achievement of the film is its ability to tell a story that is actually very small scale and personal, meaning the world to just the people of one little town and four herders riding through it, in a grand and sweeping tone without losing its human core. The way Open Range treats them, historically small lives mean the world.
From time to time, Costner with his director’s hat on may go for a bit too much Hollywood pathos here, yet the film also finds more than enough room for treating middle-age love story between Costner’s Charley and Annette Bening’s Sue Barlow with a more truthful kind of tenderness, and contains many a moment that prefers honesty to pathos.
While handling all this rather beautifully for the most part, Open Range also likes to reverse, perhaps even subvert, all kinds of little genre expectations; this is the kind of film where the big climactic showdown takes place after the big storm, and where the part of the central shoot-out that had an emphatic build-up is finished the fastest. Speaking of the climactic showdown, it’s long, and complex, and interesting, again slightly subverting genre expectations, and putting the emphasis on the chaos of large scale violence, particularly in a time and place where everyone and his mother owned a gun, which still made most of them amateurs and chaotic actors in a situation that could only be ordered and controlled to a small degree anyhow.
Sep. 17th, 2014
09:17 pm - Thale (2012)
Elvis (Erlend Nervold) is helping out his friend Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) with a (legal) job cleaning the site of a death in a house out in the woods (proverbial and real). While Leo seems completely unflappable, Elvis isn’t really cut out for this particular part of the cleaning business - not just because of his propensity for vomiting when brushing away people parts but also because he’s rather nosy.
Consequently, it’s Elvis who stumbles upon the house’s hidden cellar, a place full of jury-rigged medical equipment and cassette tapes with ambiguous monologues of a male voice (Roland Astrand) which suggest there has been something at least very strange, if not highly untoward going on down there. However, the ambiance still doesn’t prepare the men for what they eventually find: a young naked woman (Silje Reinåmo) submerged in tub full of a milky fluid.
The woman seems to be mute, as well as rather confused and wild, and it’s a fair bet she has been going through some rather harsh things down in that cellar. Instead of calling an ambulance and the police, Leo and Elvis call their boss, who will certainly appear some time. So they wait with the girl, step by step realizing what happened in the cellar might not have been what they suspected had happened, and that the girl, let’s call her Thale, perhaps isn’t exactly human. However, the humanity of the young woman might not be their greatest problem (if it is a problem at all). Rather, opening the cellar door might have been a bad idea not because of what they find inside, but because of who might now find their way in.
Despite having read quite a bit about Aleksander Nordaas’s Thale before watching it, I found myself pleasantly surprised by parts of it. I wasn’t expecting this to be a fantasy film using Norwegian folklore around the hulder together with light horror influences, black humour, a light-handed sense of poetry and a believable feeling of compassion and respect for all things Other, rather than a more typical straight horror piece.
The film’s approach to the fantastic seems to be influenced by “hard fantasy” concepts, that is, establishing something magical (at least one of the things Thale does can hardly be explained otherwise), and then thinking its implications through with logic and coherence. At its worst, this approach can suck all the magic out of the supernatural, but when it is used with care and a sense of poetry like it is here, it gives a film the opportunity to ground the fantastic without destroying it. Of course, the implications of Thale’s existence the film suggest are not very original, seeing as they concern the human propensity to destroy and use everything that’s beautiful and/or different and potentially useful. But then, humanity at large hasn’t exactly shown itself very original on this point either.
Thale doesn’t treat this aspect with unremitting bleakness, though, and instead demonstrates a belief in the possibility of kindness, redemption and love; not through grand gestures – in fact, the film avoids showing one particular moment a comparable Hollywood production would have milked for ten tear-jerking minutes completely – that can turn humanism to kitsch so easily, but with a laconic matter-of-factness that works curiously well with the film’s sense of wonder. It’s always pleasant to find a film that acknowledges humanity’s darkest impulses without ending up in nihilism or cynicism.
That Nordaas achieves all this with only a handful of locations and actors and what I can only assume must have been a pretty low budget is a particular delight, as well as a demonstration that there’s still room for ambitious yet small movies hiding surprising complexities under their simplicity of means. Sure, if I’d be out to nitpick, I could criticize the few CGI effects as cheap-looking and not convincing in their physicality but with the Thale I’ve seen, that’s just not a point I care enough about to turn it into an actual problem.
Sep. 16th, 2014
Gentleman thief and adventurer Simon Templar (George Sanders), aka “The Saint”, comes to beautiful Philadelphia to visit his old teacher, Professor Bitts (Thomas W. Ross) and his old flame, Bitts’s daughter (Helene Whitney).
However, there’s another man walking around with the Saint’s face, leaving Templar’s typical calling card on dead bodies. Murder is not a thing Templar approves of, so he jumps right into a rather convoluted and even more silly plot of doubles, peculiar traps, and cops and robbers with a decided lack in gray matter. Frightening stupidity (is it a virus!?) rules everyone except The Saint himself and Templar’s old friend and theoretical nemesis Inspector Fernack (Jonathan Hale), who just happens to be on vacation in Philadelphia too. Fernack, however, does really rather like Templar and his tendency for needlessly complicated shenanigans.
I can’t pretend to know much of or about the various incarnations of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint beyond vague memories of the Moore show and one or two books I must have read ages ago. Consequently, placing The Saint’s Double Trouble into the context of its series would consist of me repeating stuff anyone can read up on on Wikipedia, so I might just as well not pretend.
What I do know a bit about by now is the kind of programmer Jack Hively’s film is, a light concoction of convoluted plotting, a charming rogue protagonist doing charming rogue things, some action, and some moments of the film just playing around to fill out the running time. So I am quite able to identify The Saint’s Double Trouble as an entertaining example of its kind, pleasantly paced, shot straightforwardly but not without care, and acted by an ensemble that knows what its doing, and, particularly in the cases of Sanders and Hale, seems to have fun with it.
The film does of course need an audience tolerant of the contrived plot, Templar’s even more contrived manoeuvring to thwart it, the general silly stupidity of everyone involved, and the crimes’ basic improbability but then, it is charming enough to deserve this tolerance, and at least from me, had no trouble acquiring it.
The only thing I found rather disappointing was the waste of a perfectly fine Bela Lugosi in a forgettable role as The Partner (caps mandatory) of Templar’s evil double, but at least he isn’t playing a sinister butler.
Sep. 15th, 2014
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