The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat
Apr. 10th, 2019
11:46 am - For clarity's sake
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Jul. 10th, 2014
Sometimes it’s still surprising how damned strange 70s revisionist westerns could become, resulting in films like Philip Kaufman’s version of the James-Younger gang myth with Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger and Robert Duvall as Jesse James, a film that really lends itself to the question where the money to make it might have come from.
Surely, even in 1972, the idea of a cinema verité inspired, sometimes magically realist, sometimes ironically naturalistic western that spends its running time demythologizing the old myths about the old west while at the same time working hard to create some all of its own must have been a hard sell to the people holding the purse strings, post-hippie-dom or not. Because it is that sort of movie, Kaufman also finds space in his film for a slapstick baseball match, various digressions to emphasise the point that the USA of the time were country of immigrants (which means a lot of what the movies have taught us the West was about is wrong), satire against the rich and powerful, the absurd, the bizarre, and the lovingly observed quotidian. Kaufman shows such a good eye for the last one, as well as for the telling historical detail (even if it’s made up) that all of Raid’s disparate elements manage to fit together, if not as a narrative (just look at the people on the IMDB complaining about the film’s plot holes, missing the point of the film we’re talking about by miles), but as a strange yet believable world the characters inhabit.
It’s a film I find much easier to watch than to describe, an artefact of its time, trying to talk about its past and its present at once, yet still finding time for human warmth, humour and a sense of place that seems stronger exactly because the place Kaufman describes can’t ever have existed in the way he and his film pretend it has, just as the other, earlier movie idea of The West never existed.
Jul. 9th, 2014
07:32 pm - Ironclad: Battle for Blood (2014)
The Dark Ages. Norman Gilbert De Vesci (David Rintoul) and his wife Joan (Michelle Fairley) are holding a castle in the territory of the Scots clans. A minor raid by Maddog (Predrag Bjelac) and his people ends with De Vesci losing one arm and Maddog’s son losing his life, leaving the Normans without proper leadership and quite a fighter and Maddog with a thirst for vengeance only the destruction of the castle and all who dwell in it will quench.
De Vesci sneaks his decidedly un-macho son Hubert (Tom Rhys Harries) out of the castle to go for his cousin Guy (Tom Austen) – one of the survivors of the siege of Rochester in the first Ironclad film – for help. Alas, Guy has grown up to be a bitter sell sword, and even wants payment for helping out his own family, which Hubert fortunately is able to provide. They grab three random fighters – not exactly mentally healthy murderess Crazy (see?)Mary (Twinnie Lee Moore), executioner Pierrepoint (Andy Beckwith) and Guy’s best buddy Berenger (David Caves), and ride off to help the besieged and frequently attacked castle.
Obviously, most of them don’t look forward to a healthy future, but perhaps something – like the love of De Vesci’s daughter Blanche (Roxanne McKee) – just might at least give Guy reasons for a redemptive character arc. Quite clearly, slaughter and many a slow motion death will ensue before any of that redemption can go down.
Despite the different character of its protagonists’ enemies, returning director/writer John English’s Battle for Blood most of the time doesn’t feel so much like a sequel to Ironclad as much as a remake with a lower budget and accordingly lesser ambitions. So the actors – even the character actors – are a tier lower on the thespian pecking order and on the charisma table than those in the first movie, the script hits a lot of the same plot beats but with less thematic resonance, its main bad guy is less outrageously acted, and the film feels rather more constrained in its locations and sets.
This doesn’t mean Battle for Blood isn’t worth your time, at least if you’re like me and enjoy a good piece of historical pulp adventure, you just can’t go in expecting much depth or a charismatic lead. The best I can say about Tom Austen is that he’s serviceable enough and does know how to strike the right poses during fights, but as he plays him, Guy’s bitterness is as lacking in conviction as is his love interest Blanche in, well, interest. We’re not in the realm of the horrible here, but where better actors gave the film’s clichés a bit more life in the original Ironclad, not all of the guys and girls on screen here ever really manage that, with Danny Webb, Twinnie Lee Moore, Michelle Fairley (who is the most upmarket actor in the film, obviously), and Tom Rhys Harris as the exceptions to that rule. Still, these talking, sword-wielding clichés as such are entertaining enough to watch, and while they never achieve the gravitas some of their death scenes call for, they’re more than enough for the film’s simple siege scenario and redemption tale. As in the first movie, the script also finds some surprising (for a film of this style) space for its female characters beyond Blanche to actually be characters and have a degree of agency; at the very least, Battle for Blood is a film where the existence of warrior women is just a fact of life nobody even finds worth mentioning, and where a gender having less power in general doesn’t mean its members are all damsels in distress.
English also gets bonus points for this time around avoiding to mutilate established historical facts for no good reason, and for not only having an eye for the awesome violence but also at least some of its consequences. The latter aspect might have become its own kind of movie cliché by now – the camera walking the battlefield afterwards while mournful music plays, and so on - but it is at least one that’s broadening the emotional impact and provides a film with the opportunity to not have to demonize its antagonists too much.
When it comes to Battle for Blood’s main attraction, the fighting, English uses a bit more shaky cam than in the first film, I think, probably to hide the fact that this time around there are even fewer men fighting the battles, and there’s probably less money for choreography and too many repeats of scenes as well. It works better than I would have expected because English still manages to focus his audience on what’s actually going on in the fights, the shaky cam more often plausibly mirroring the rush of adrenaline and fear going through the characters. It’s not how I like my fight scenes to be shot, but it works reasonably well for the film at hand, particularly in combination with the sense of ferociousness and brutality of the fights. There’s also a high – some might say needless – amount of gore on display making the fights grittier and a bit unpleasant from time to time, as is proper and well in the world of exploitation movie violence.
All this adds up to a very flawed yet highly entertaining bit of pulpy, mildly exploitative entertainment, leaving Ironclad: Battle for Blood a sequel that I don’t think was precisely necessary yet that I wouldn’t mind seeing again now that it exists.
Jul. 8th, 2014
08:37 am - In short: Charley Varrick (1973)
Technically, robbing a tiny small town bank should be a job of easy in, easy out, but a chain of unfortunate circumstances leaves former stunt pilot Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) in quite some trouble. Not only are two of his three partners – one of whom was Charley’s wife – dead but the body count of the robbery also includes a couple or three cops, leading to a rather more enthusiastic hunt for the criminals as Charley had planned on.
Then there’s the fact that Harman (Andrew Robinson), the last surviving partner, is not the most stable of men on his best day, and it certainly isn’t his best day, or week. Even worse, there’s an absurdly large amount of money for such a little bank involved, though most of it doesn’t seem to officially exist, which leads Charley to the conclusion he’s just painted a second target on his back by stealing mafia money.
Charley’s right, too, so soon, not only the police is after him but also sadistic mafia killer Molly (Joe Don Baker). Charley isn’t quite as doomed as you’d assume, though, for his unassuming demeanour hides a pretty effective sociopath with a clever plan to get away with his money, while getting rid of anybody posing a risk to him.
Generally, I’m not the biggest fan of Don Siegel, his films often not quite hitting the spot for me I’d want them to hit. However, there’s really little I could come up with to say against Charley Varrick. Well, there’s one rather embarrassing scene that suggests Walter Matthau to have the sexual magnetism of James Bond, but apart from that peculiar misstep I’ll just write off as a harmless symptom of the director’s inability to cope with female characters (something the rest of the film avoids by not including many women with roles large enough to demand actual characterisation to begin with, of which you can make what you wish), there’s nothing about Charley Varrick that isn’t a lean and decidedly mean crime film.
This film pushes the same buttons of enjoyment that Donald Westlake’s Parker novels did, with a bunch of decidedly unpleasant men fighting it out among another until the least pleasant of them wins in the end, a large part of the pleasure lying exactly in the fact how amoral the whole affair is, with neither Siegel nor Howard Rodman’s and Dean Riesner’s script (based on a novel by John Reese I haven’t read) attempting to make anyone involved look nicer or more heroic than anyone else. Crime, it turns out, is not a game involving the nice.
The film’s plot is pleasant pulpy, containing just the right amount of violence, and is filmed by Siegel in a tight yet laconic manner that isn’t at all interested discussing the ethics or deep psychological reasons of what’s happening on screen, while still finding space to give the characters more dimensions than “is a decidedly unsexy sociopath” or “is a decidedly unsexy psychopath”. The actors are doing the expected fine jobs too, Matthau giving his sociopath bit so well I’m a little disappointed he never got to play Parker, and Joe Don Baker visibly enjoying being the sadistic monster with the mock-polite first impression.
It all comes together quite perfectly, the film setting up a situation that seems ideal for another tale of doomed losers trying to make it big, yet using it instead for a tale about monsters trying to survive in a world filled with other monsters.
Jul. 7th, 2014
Jul. 6th, 2014
05:56 pm - The Brain Eaters (1958)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A curious cone shaped – actually pretty phallic - object appears in the vicinity of a US small town. Shortly after it pops up, murders happen in town, and its mayor disappears. Pompous senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe), the kind of man who likes talking about himself in the third person and is always calling for “action”, sexy young pipe smoking scientist Dr. Kettering (Ed Nelson), the mayor’s son Glenn (Alan Jay Factor) and assorted hangers-on and love interests investigate.
While their investigation of the UFO (or whatever that thing is) is quite inconclusive, the return of the mayor in a half-crazed and rather dangerous state of mind opens new avenues of interest. Our heroes quickly realize the good man is controlled by an alien parasite with pipe filler antennas sitting on his neck. It is of course invasion time by some of those evil communist aliens, though these particular aliens come from a somewhat different direction than usual.
Our heroes (such as they are) will have to fight the alien menace’s attempts to bring peace and understanding to mankind with all the tools the film’s budget leaves them.
Bruno VeSota’s AIP production is quite obviously heftily inspired by (house nemesis) Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, though it lacks the time for the author’s rambling nonsense philosophizing, and was made a good ten years too early get something out of the nudist aspects of the novel. To make up for it, the film uses state of the art needle drop technology to get itself a soundtrack made out of classical music, as happened quite often in AIP films of this era.
That the film is also heavily inspired by a lot of the other secret invasion movies of its time and place hardly needs to be mentioned. It was a natural expression of the anxieties of its time and place, giving expression to the fear of communism and the narrow-minded fear of anything and anyone different that made the 50s such a special time in the USA (and here in Germany too, for that matter).
The Brain Eaters isn’t on the level – neither in quality nor in ambiguity – of a film like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, of course. It does however make quite a lot out of its especially impoverished means. Sure, the acting is mostly pretty dire, with Nelson and sometimes Factor as the only exceptions to the rule, and VeSota’s direction is often quite crude. The latter is at least often crude in an interesting way, trying to build a bit of an atmosphere of menace and dread out of Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups and adorable little parasites (how could I not love those pipe filler antennae?). It’s sort of successful at that, even, building up to a climax that’s weird and archetypal enough to be memorable.
Of course, VeSota has to take short cuts that need a viewer patient with some of the problems typical of shoe-string budget films of its time and place, where there’s just no money available to show some rather important plot developments and narration has to jump in, and where more narration steps in to tell us the things we already see. I’ve seen worse examples of the latter phenomenon, though, and for most of the time, the film’s ambitions aren’t completely outside its grasp.
This all might sound as if I were damning The Brain Eaters with faint praise when in fact I did enjoy myself immensely when watching it. Sure, I’ve seen 50s paranoia done more subtle as well as more cinematically interesting, but VeSota’s film not only has a handful of effective moments but manages to be comparatively fast-moving and fun in between these moments too. From time to time, it even hits on a bit more, like in the scene in which the town’s sheriff fights against the parasite sitting on his back (one of the few moments in SF/horror cinema of the era I know that’s actually interested in how the victim of a mind-controlling parasite must feel). That’s much more than anyone could ever expect from this kind of drive-in quickie, so I find myself quite taken with The Brain Eaters.
Jul. 5th, 2014
Nightmare (2012) aka 青魇: As happy as I am that Hong Kong exploitation veteran turned more mainstream director Herman Yau is still making movies, I’m not at all happy with this generically titled mix of slight headfuck movie and bland mystery. It’s all nice and glossy looking, but neither the “is this dream or is this reality?” business nor the film’s mystery are very interesting. Worse for a film like this, the solution to the mystery as well as the (boring) explanation of what’s really going on are abominably obvious, which is a bit of a problem in a film that hasn’t anything else to offer beyond a handful of rote jump scares.
Nurse 3D (2013): As regular readers know, there’s little I loathe more than films that excuse their crappiness by being “ironic”, and by “not wanting to be taken seriously”, which nearly always are codes for “we just couldn’t be arsed”. Douglas Aarniokoski’s horror comedy is no exception to the rule. It doesn’t help that I found the film’s sense of humour aggressively unfunny and obvious, its attempts at ironic sexiness and ironic exploitation (seriously, you can do neither “ironically”, that is, without committing) painful to the extreme, and Paz de la Huerta’s central “acting” “performance” (I just gotta use scare quotes here and also ask myself why the production didn’t hire an actress with basic skills and just as willing to drop her clothes, until I remember this crap is based on Huerta pin-up photos, though ironically, I presume) extremely painful yet also very very dull. The whole film is pretty much anathema to everything I want and like in a horror movie, be it a comedy or not.
Hell Commandos (1969): José Luis Merino’s Spanish-Italian Euro War movie, on the other hand, is not a very good film either, but it does at least hit the main beats of its particular genre without being ashamed of them, reaching the coveted level of filmic mastership known as “perfectly watchable”. As is typical of its sub-set of war films, the tone fluctuates between sentimentality and cynicism in awkward yet entertaining fashion, while people get killed, the Second World War is won, Nazis are pigs, American soldiers are pigs until they decide to sacrifice themselves for a good cause, and a romantic subplot is a lot like nature in Jurassic Park. From time to time, the film stumbles onto exploitation gold, clearly without noticing, when it explains how French resistance women (well, one at least) can identify American soldiers by the way they kiss, or when just inexplicably weird shit happens for no good reason at all (and definitely without ironic detachment).
There’s also, alas, a bit of a homophobic undercurrent that’s quite difficult to miss, which in its own sad way does fit the film’s romantic politics as a whole well in being deeply unpleasant and ill thought through. On the plus side, it’s not the “ironic” kind of homophobia that leaves the perpetrator an easy way out to explain it away.
Jul. 4th, 2014
11:49 pm - On ExB: The Machine (2013)
Or how a film that takes on much more than it could ever possibly achieve can still be pretty damn interesting and highly recommendable, resulting in words, words, and even more words if you just follow this shiny link.
Jul. 2nd, 2014
08:55 pm - The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
It’s 1943, and people like German general Canaris (Anthony Quayle) already see the writing on the wall. Hitler, on the other hand, still has plans, like, for example, kidnapping Winston Churchill. Himmler (Donald Pleasence, because why not), recognizes a nice way to put one over on the competition and boots the whole stupid project over to Canaris, who in his turn orders his Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall, because really, why not) to at the very least produce a feasibility study.
Ironically, Radl realizes the mad project might actually be feasible, for it just so happens that a German spy in Britain has just radioed in Churchill’s plans for a weekend stay in a small village neighbouring a practically undefended beach. After a bit of political back and forth – one has to blow up the film to a running time of more than two hours after all – Radl acquires the always dangerous help of Himmler for the project and sends out disgraced – like every German not in the SS in the movie, he’s not a real Nazi, you know – paratrooper commando Colonel Steiner (Michael Caine), his men, and Irish revolutionary Liam Devlin (a man so Irish he could only be played by Canadian Donald Sutherland) to do the deed in beautiful Norfolk. The men are disguised as Polish paratroopers and a marsh inspector, respectively, so whatever could go wrong?
If for some mysterious reasons it hasn’t become quite clear already, let me just emphasize that the plot of The Eagle Has Landed (based on a novel by Jack Higgins, which never bodes well), is utterly, preposterously stupid. Not necessarily because it is lacking in historical veracity (which it sure as hell does) but because the script’s (and I very much assume the book’s this is based on) handling of the whole affair just too stupid to bluff its way through. A lot of films get away with a stupid basic idea by thinking the results of that idea through in a logical and coherent manner; The Eagle Has Landed prefers to load stupid idea on improbability on ridiculous nonsense.
This is, after all, a film that finds Sutherland’s character, who is supposed to be some sort of vanguard for the Germans, one supposes, landing in Norfolk and at once romancing Jenny Agutter, in the sort of romance that goes from meeting someone to the willingness to murder for him in the course of about half an hour, or a day in movie time. Even worse, as much as I like Agutter, the subplot really has no business at all to be in the movie, and most certainly not in the completely pointless form it takes. To make matters sillier, there’s improbable crap like that happening in nearly every scene, as if writer Tom Mankiewicz had never heard of concepts like theme, or tonal coherence, or even pacing. For of course the film does stop and start early and often, sometimes meandering from one scene to the next, sometimes drunkenly jumping, leading to a structure you can’t even call episodic because that word suggests that there’s actually something happening, which is not how I’d describe at least The Eagle’s first half.
And still, watching the film I found myself not at all bored but enjoyed myself quite a bit. Not only because I wanted to see what stupid nonsense the film would come up next but because everyone involved not responsible for the script actually put a lot of effort in. Director John Sturges, a man who made much worthier and just plain better films to be sure, doesn’t exactly bring his A-game here, but a Sturges just doing his job (I cannot assume any real personal involvement in the film at hand, at least) is still a director bringing dignity and a degree of style to material that frankly doesn’t deserve it, even managing to turn the script’s absurd ideas about pacing into something that can look like charming distractibility.
The actors, for their part, bring a bunch of underwritten clichés to life in efforts a film that sees a predominantly British and American cast playing Germans speaking English among one another with bad German accents (except for Sutherland, of course, who does a bad Irish accent, and Caine, whose character studied in England and therefore doesn’t have an accent at all, which of course only makes sense if you actually assume these Nazi – and yes, sorry, Wehrmacht soldiers were Nazis too, just ask their victims – are indeed talking English among each other), and who are incapable of pronouncing German names like “Hans” with even minor correctness probably doesn’t even want, far less warrants. Duvall is particularly good here, bringing a mix of irony and subtlety to his role that I’m quite sure wasn’t in the script. The only negative stand-out among the cast is Larry Hagman as a US Colonel in a performance that is actually as bad as the script deserves.
Jul. 1st, 2014
08:32 am - In short: The Professionals (1966)
Oil millionaire Grant (Ralph Bellamy), hires four professionals – former revolutionary Fardan (Lee Marvin), his explosives expert best buddy, the amoral Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), superior scout Jake (Woody Strode) and horse expert Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) – to return his wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) to him who has been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary/bandit Raza (Jack Palance) for a ransom of one hundred thousand dollars.
Raza is an old friend of Fardan’s and Dolworth’s but they still take on the job, first making a dangerous trip through the desert on the US/Mexican border, only to learn their employer just might not have told them the whole truth about the situation, and the kidnapping is anything but; not that this sort of thing matters all that much, one does have a contract with Grant, after all. On the other hand, long forgotten consciences might just be reawakened after a lot of people have died.
Quite a few reviewers on the net call Richard Brooks’s The Professional stuff like “an underseen classic” or even “one of the best westerns ever made” but frankly, I don’t see it. To earn any of these superlatives from me, a film needs a bit more than a slickly professional direction, a bunch of beloved (by me too!) aging tough guy actors going through the typical motions of this sort of thing, or picture postcard pretty photography.
What the film lacks for me are two things, and including just one of them might have been enough to turn this from perfectly watchable to great. Firstly, depth: sure, there’s a bit of moral deliberation about the uses and causes of revolutions and the men who fight in them, but the results the film arrives at aren’t exactly the stringent result of thematic work as they are in Leone’s and Corbucci’s revolutionary themed Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the moral conclusions the film draws aren’t actually convincing results of what happens in it at all, thanks to a script (also by Brooks) that tends to be desperately underwritten and leaves its inspired cast as ciphers. A Cipher, as you know, isn’t anything that does have any character or moral development per definition at all.
Secondly, the film’s very relaxed approach to storytelling does result in a certain lack of drama. Sure, there are shoot-outs, chases and an attack on a bandit fortification, and every single one of them is realized in perfectly competent manner, yet they all lack any sense of actual danger, the film never making a successful effort bringing home the stakes of any given situation.
Having said this, I don’t want to leave anyone reading in the impression I didn’t find watching The Professionals a perfectly enjoyable time; it just seems to lack in any ambition beyond being a pleasant time waster. Unfortunately there’s so much obvious talent before and behind the camera a pleasant time waster does seem like a bit of a waste of other things also.
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