Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Val Guest's Quatermass 2 (1957)

Old school science fiction's fun. I have a small magnet on my fridge from a pest control company with a large termite looming in the shadows, Cloverfield-style. I believe the fear that it attempts to instill in me is the severe reduction in value that the little critters will bring to my home in a dwindling economic market, rather than the fear of a large horde of mutated insects coming to destroy my home, my neighborhood, the state, and the world in a quest for world domination. Old school science fiction also has the wonderfully ironic addition of the absence of any modern technology: no cell phones, laptops, fax machines, or readily-accessible and on every street corner, weapons of mass destruction. Almost all technology comes from the imagination: super-groovy radars that monitor the atmosphere for meteors, one-button rocket panels, and Darth Vader-ish radiation outfits. Old school science fiction is full of fear and speculation, primarily of a growing dependence on technology and also of unknown outerspace. In the Nigel Kneale penned and Val Guest directed Quatermass 2 (1957), those fears are real. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) uncovers an alien invasion in the British countryside and attempts to expose the situation and cure it. However, from the local village folk to London, he is met with contempt and derision. Quatermass is seemingly alone in his quest; no one wants to acknowledge that there's a problem and deal with it. I'm so grateful that that problem doesn't exist today. Quatermass 2 is a gem from the early days Hammer studios, based upon Nigel Kneale's BBC serials of the same name.Quatermass 2 opens with a couple rushing to get help. A young woman's beau has been infected by the gas seeping from a rock that fell out the sky. Meanwhile, Quatermass is huffing and puffing with anger: his rocket project funding has been cut off. No trips to outer space for anyone anytime soon. That's okay, because the visitors are coming to Earth and they're taking over with the not-so-subtle use of mind control. An entire village has been reduced to rubble while a large man-made metal structure looms over countryside. Supposedly it's for food production, but Quatermass knows better. His biggest enemy in his quest to save the world from alien invasion is government bureaucracy and local mob mentality. Val Guest's direction is more suitable for the stage rather than the screen, although Quatermass 2 does have its visual flourishes. The large metal outpost is shot effectively as imposing and looming in wide angles. The best scenes are within those walls. When Quatermass is able to convince someone in the government to do an impromptu inspection of the plant, Guest is able to make the modern-looking steelworks appear completely alien. Kneale's screenplay reflects that attitude: humankind's quest to destroy itself through a seriously advanced chronological jump in technology. The local villagers want to keep hush about the situation at the plant, because it's their source of economic viability. It isn't until that it's revealed that the occupants of the plant want to kill them that the villagers are willing to do anything about it.
The performances are all good and predate modern method-acting. The artificiality of the acting and the visual style can be annoying to modern viewers, but I'm quite a fan of cinema of old. I'm also a huge fan of Hammer films, so expect to see more on these pages. Quatermass 2 is certainly campy. John Carpenter channeled this vibe in the eighties with his wonderful They Live (1988) and Prince of Darkness (1987). In fact, if you substituted the seriousness of Quatermass 2 with spoof, then it would become a perfect episode of South Park. However, regardless of the era, Quatermass 2 will always be fun, because good science fiction always says something about humanity. What it says doesn't change, just when we are willing to recognize it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Gianfranco Giagni's Spider Labyrinth (1988)

Professor Alan Whitmore (Roland Wybenga), in CIA black-ops fashion, is summoned by his superiors at his university to make the trek to an Innsmouth-like town in Budapest, where a previous professor was doing important research. Whitmore doesn't know what it is that he is looking for, but when he arrives, Whitmore must find the missing professor, obtain his research, and finish up. Whitmore is greeted by the professor's assistant, Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi), the only friendly face he encounters. The townsfolk are quiet and clannish. Pretty young maid at Whitmore's hotel, Maria (Claudia Muzi), and the old town crazy (William Berger) tell Whitmore to leave. Whitmore delves deeper into the mystery and begins to uncover the town's ancient secrets.Gianfranco Giagni's Spider Labyrinth (1988) shows a strong influence from H.P. Lovecraft and Italian horror maestro, Dario Argento. Giagni employs the wonderful out-dated color scheme of Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), combined with the atmospheric European architecture, to excellent effect. The sleek and slow steadicam is also note-worthy and gives Spider Labyrinth an appropriate ethereal feel. Sergio Stivalleti's special effects show an influence from Rob Bottin's work on John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and his own work from Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1986). It's a terrific blend with horrific results. For a film under ninety minutes, the film never drags and the suspense continually builds.The plot of the film is familiar to any reader of H.P. Lovecraft and its mystery is an old but interesting one. The script's most serious flaw, other than some daft dialogue, is the rendering of the main character, Whitmore. Lovecraft penned some of the most intelligent and resourceful scholars in his literature, but he never penned one this stupid. Whitmore acts like a lost child looking for his toy in most of the scenes. Clues to the mystery are literally shown or handed to him, and it's almost as if H.P. Lovecraft was giving him a supernatural kick to the pants to get him through the mystery. To his credit, Roland Wybenga plays an endearing idiot. Paola Rinaldi, as Genevieve, is not given much to do but take her clothes off, smile, and chew the scenery. Muzi's terrific in her small role as the maid, Maria, and genre stalwart William Berger gives another professional and competent performance. As flawed as the plot and characterizations are, Spider Labyrinth doesn't suffer much: like Argento's work, the viewer can bask in the atmosphere and the scares and leave the brain's legwork to Lovecraft's fiction.
Spider Labyrinth is Giagni's only genre credit, and today, he has moved on to more socially relevant projects. If he ever returns to the genre, then he will be welcomed. Italian horror cinema certainly needs more little gems like this one.

Gope T. Samtani's Hell Raiders (1985)

Gope T. Samtani's Hell Raiders (1985) is about the Indonesian independence from the Dutch. The central characters of the film are the Dutch soldiers, who are arrogant and relentless, and the Indonesian rebels, from the recently-wed to the recently-fled to petty thieves and hard-nosed revolutionaries. No one central hero or villain emerges amongst the cast, even with the inclusion of Indonesian stars Eva Arnaz and Barry Prima. Samtani's film is a portrait of his country's struggle and it's made with a lot of heart. I can only imagine what it would have been like sitting in a theatre in Jakarta during this film's premiere. Hell Raiders is Samtani's only directorial credit and it's a doozy: epic in scale and length with no shortage of machine-gun action with numerous explosions and as many blood-squibs blown. As a kid in the 80s, I lived on a steady diet of action films, direct-to-video horror, and pee-wee football. While watching Stallone in Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982), Norris in Joseph Zito's Missing in Action (1984), or Schwarzenegger in Mark Lester's Commando (1985), for example, I never thought about any of the political over- or undertones of the films. I was too wrapped up in the soldier action, feasting my eyes on one-man killing machines. Big explosions and big guns were symbols of 80s action movies, but now as an adult looking back, I realize that some of those films had something to say. However, those films were also spectacular--the filmmakers were going to die trying to entertain the viewer, as well.Hell Raiders is a film of that elk, as its English title conveys. Samtani shoots his film for coverage, sacrificing the slick shot to show as much as possible within the frame. Raiders lives and breathes with its action scenes, as soon as one ends, another starts up. The final thirty minutes of the film is a Dutch massacre of an Indonesian village followed by the Indonesian rebels retaliation at Dutch headquarters. Plenty of bullets are shot, and many squibs explode. The squibs are slick, but the blood is thin. Most characters look as if they spilled their Cherry Kool-Aid all down the front of their clothes. I did that a lot too in the 80s, so I know. As such, the budget looks tight for this epic of a film. What Samtani lacks in money, he most certainly makes up with emotion. It's hard not to love these characters and follow their quest for independence. Hell Raiders is also two hours of rousing 80s action. Take your pick...or take both.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stelvio Massi's Black Angel (1989)

Deborah (Tinì Cansino) is a tad overexcited. Her husband, Frank (Francesco Casale), is a writer bound to a wheelchair. On their wedding day while driving, Frank becomes excited by Deborah, and they crash. Frank becomes disabled, and Deborah is desperate. She goes one evening to an underground sex club, where she nearly gets kidnapped to become a sex slave before a police raid happens. A police officer rapes Deborah before she can speedily exit and steals her purse. The following morning, the same police officer arrives at her home and demands that Deborah do the deed. Deborah's willing and with Frank watching, Deborah kills the police officer. Frank will cover the crime up: in fact, he wants Deborah to continue her sexual escapades. Frank will use them as fodder for his novel, and as an added plus, a killer is following (?) Deborah, leaving no lover standing. That's okay for Frank, too: his novel's heroine will be the Black Angel.
Director Stelvio Massi, like Joe D'Amato, began cinematic life as a cinematographer before moving into directing. Massi never gave up being a cinematographer, and often his photographic talent exceeded the budgets of the films on which he worked. His films are notable, because like a bandit, each film captures a series of small shots that reveal a clever and crafty artist behind the camera. A genre legend, he made some of the best Eurocrime movies of the 70s, my favorites being the Marc the Narc trilogy with Franco Gasparri. He made a number of films with Maurizio Merli with Fearless Fuzz (1977) being a standout. His eighties work includes Black Cobra (1987) with Fred Williamson and Hell's Heroes (1987) with Miles O'Keefe and Williamson and this one, Black Angel (1989). Massi adopts the gialli eye for Black Angel, e.g. the voyeur. Not an inch of flesh is spared of sexy Tinì Cansino, whose role appears her last. The camera eye roves over her body continually, often in subjective shots of the killer. The sensational scenes, especially the scene of Deborah cruising the strip for male hustlers, are wildly atmospheric, and the police procedural scenes are handled perfunctorily, as in the numerous Eurocrime films Massi helmed before. As such, the plot ain't new nor is it really that exciting. Anyone familiar with late-80s, late-nite Skin-emax flicks have seen this one coming way before Paul Verhoeven blew the lid off in Basic Instinct (1992). Black Angel is seething with sexuality, from the sex scenes to the murders to Frank's relationship with his live-in mother, Marta (genre legend Evelyn Stewart, ne Ida Galli). Black Angel is straight-up sexy sleaze, no chaser. I've never seen Massi plumb the depths as he does in Black Angel. Not even Snake Plissken in John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981) found this much sleaze in the underground, but for the willing, Massi puts it down there for the curious to find.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Kyun-dong Yeo's The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan (2008)

Kyun-dong Yeo's The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan (2008) is set in 1724, based upon an actual event. The film is about Thunder (Jung-jae Lee), a layabout fighter, past his prime, residing in a local brothel. Thunder is immediately besmirched by Dishy (Ok-bin Kim) (as in dish washing, Thunder's given nickname), a beautiful and sassy courtesan. Dishy's time with Thunder is brief: her real destination is with local crime boss, Man-deuk (Suk-hoon Kim), but it's too late for Thunder. Mistake or not, he's not forgetting about her. Man-deuk's rival crime boss, Odd Ears, arrives in the area and challenges Thunder to a fight. Thunder may be crude and absent-minded but he's a helluva street brawler and wins. Now Thunder's journey begins: become the new crime boss, bring down Man-deuk, and win the heart of Dishy. Lickety-split.
Jung-jae Lee is a wonderful actor with a very expressionistic face. He plays Thunder as a reluctant leader who doesn't think before he speaks. Although he's a great fighter, trash talking is about ninety percent of his game. "Don't call Big Gun, Man-deuk," Thunder is told, "or there will be bloodshed." At a meeting of the crime bosses, Thunder drops Man-deuk's name, not once but twice. Suk-hoon Kim is stellar as the flamboyant Man-deuk and his comedy is a terrific foil to Jung-jae Lee's performance. Not least of all Ok-bin Kim, as Dishy, steals nearly every scene that she's in and her performance runs the dramatic range, from sexy to funny to quiet to sad. She performs a dance at the crime boss meeting where she dips her soles in paint and steps on to a white tarp. With lithe, balletic movements, her dance is beautiful to watch, and the painting it produces is beautiful as well. The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan is a light film. Although, there is some bloodshed towards the end, it's overall very funny and exciting. Accidental Gangster is sentimental, escapist cinema, which is always welcome. The visuals are incredible: Kyun-dong Yeo's film is totally slick and well-paced. The few fight scenes are brilliant, especially the fight at the end (two guesses and you'll know the participants). I thought this film was total fun and pure popcorn.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Takuji Kitamura's Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge (2007)

Richard Pryor once said, "Girls will get you killed." Indeed. Nothing brings out the faux cool in the fellas, like the presence of a pretty girl. From waiting for an hour outside of a building to get a glimpse of her walking out to jumping off the top of a multistory building, Jackass-style, men have done (and will continue to do) some of the most ridiculous and insane acts to attract the attention of women. So, one evening while coming home Yosuke (Hayato Ichihara) sees pretty Eri (Megumi Seki) sitting alone in a playground--only to be subsequently attacked by a chainsaw-wielding phantom falling out of the sky. Yosuke has two options: go sit with Charlie Brown and obsess over the little red-headed girl or jump in and save her. Eri can take care of herself (she's got superpowers), but Yosuke's in love: he'll help her, primarily as a liability, night after night, until she's defeated the monster. This is the deceiving and fantastic premise of Takuji Kitamura's Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge (2007).
Based on a novel by popular Tatsuhiko Takimoto, Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge is more akin to Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001, which also stars Hayato Ichihara) than to Noboru Iguchi's Machine Girl (2008). A sentimental film, no doubt, with often sensitive criticism of culture, especially the profound disconnect of youth to the culture-at-large and the adults who populate it. Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge isn't mindless juvenile fun: it's a lot deeper in substance. That's not to say, there is not a tremendous amount of fun to it all, because there is. Yosuke's mourning the loss of one of his best friends, who always called him "gutless" and Yosuke is continuing his friend's opinion of him: he no longer cares about anything and thinks the world is set to self-destruct. He's a prankster and a clown but is not ready to take any real risks in life. Eri is mourning a loss, as well, and if it weren't for her supernatural battles (or really Yosuke), she would be wandering, too. The two bond over the most bizarre circumstances and blossom into a wonderful romance. I enjoyed both performances as the two leads had great chemistry, comedic timing, and dramatic resonance. The mixture of the fantastic and the mundane in Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge has the feel of Magic Realism to it, like Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes (2007). The characters accept and recognize the fantastic or supernatural aspects, and when the storyteller blends the two elements successfully, the viewer is able to accept the fantastic elements as well. First-time director, Takuji Kitamura does very well. The story moves seamlessly and is continuously entertaining. He balances the comedy, the action sequences, and the serious drama adeptly. One of the best scenes in the film is the discussion Yosuke has with his teacher in an empty classroom. The teacher opens up to his student in an effort to understand him. The scene comes off as moving and genuine. In another, Yousuke's giving a birthday gift to Eri is quite sweet and tender. Finally, the actual battle scenes are terrific but are truly collateral to the film. I grew up on John Hughes's films, and if you could imagine Weird Science (1985) and its vibe being channeled today, then you would have something like Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Geoffrey Wright's Macbeth (2006)

William Shakespeare has composed some of the most beautiful poetry that the English language will ever see. Take for example, this famous speech from Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.

It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Now add to this witches' brew, some sex, drugs, and quite a bit of bloody violence, and you have Geoffrey Wright's
Wright has a strong love for disaffected youth: Romper Stomper (1992), Metal Skin (1994) and Cherry Falls (2000). In some ways, he continues this theme with Macbeth, starring Sam Worthington as Macbeth and Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth, who also co-wrote and co-produced. The relationship between the two leads is Wright's central focus, and Shakespeare's play becomes not a tale of ambition but answers the question: where else are we supposed to go? This film is one hundred and eighty degrees different from fellow countryman, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet (1996). Modern Macbeth is set in the criminal underworld. Worthington's Macbeth looks as if he shares a closet with Kakihara from Miike's Ichi the Killer (2001) and at times, Hill's Lady Macbeth looks eerily like Amy Winehouse. Shot on digital video, Macbeth has a strong resemblance to a music video. The colors range the technicolor spectrum with no shortage of red blood. The violence is amazingly brutal and frequent. Worthington and Hill's performances contain the deserved reverence for the Bard's language and as such their performances are quite good. Wright also shows the same reverence, for when any character begins to speak, the camera becomes still and its focus is the face of the speaker. The flourishes are saved for the action or in a particularly interesting touch, the scenes with the witches. Wright imagines them as figments of Macbeth's mind in the form of three red-headed schoolgirls. These scenes are indulgent and sexy and often counterbalance the seriousness of the subject matter. Macbeth is the very definition of a divisive film: either it comes of as crass and commercial or brave and interesting. Either way that it's viewed, it is indisputable that Macbeth is a quintessential Wright film. And Wright is making some of the most interesting cinema today.

Roman Prygunov's Solitude of Blood (2002)

Maria is beginning a serious depression. Her husband, Victor, has been gone for three weeks, and Maria is really feeling his loss ("I thought I didn't need friends with Victor around, and now that he's gone, my friends have decided the same thing."). Maria is neglecting her work--she is the inventor of an experimental female fertility drug, and her colleague, Vladimir, is picking up the slack. Vladimir is also willing to replace any other missing facets of her life, if Maria will let him in. Maria lives day by day, slowly floating away from reality. As Maria's drama unfolds, a black-gloved killer is roaming around the city, targeting young women.Roman Prygunov's Solitude of Blood (2002) is a thriller which has as its main protagonist a beautiful, intelligent, and obsessive female character at the helm. Ingeborga Dapkunaite, as Maria, joins fellow actresses, Nanako Matsushima in Hideo Nakata's Ring (1998); Lorenza Indovina in Alex Infascelli's Almost Blue (2000); Naomi Watts in Gore Verbinski's The Ring (2002); and Stefania Rocca in Dario Argento's The Card Player (2004). While the quality of those films varies, all of the films, Solitude included, have strong performances from the female leads. Often the lead performance is the saving grace of the film. Prygunov's film has quite a few additional strong points. However, Dapukunaite's performance is the highlight. In Solitude, the viewer accompanies Maria as she wanders the streets or spends time in her apartment, doing the day-to-day things of life. Prygunov shoots all the scenes with harsh light, giving the surroundings an air of artificiality. Nothing looks real any more, not even at her workplace, where Maria's work involves the creation of life. The use of green hue is a perfect touch. Green is a color synonymous with sickness and its judicious use works. In one of the film's best green scenes, Maria awakens to enter the bathroom. She removes bandages from previous wounds (from a car accident earlier in the film) and begins to cut open her stitches with a straight razor. Maria pulls tape from all of her wounds and completely soaked in blood, she makes a makeshift cassette with an eerie message.The murders in the film and the would-be subplot involving a conspiracy at the lab take a backseat to Maria's decline into depression and madness. Maria eventually uncovers the identity of the killer, but by that time, she has fallen away. The murder scenes are filmed in a very giallo-esque fashion and quite stylish. Although the film is around a hundred minutes, Solitude moves at a leisurely pace, to say the least. At times, this is a strength of the film and at others, a serious weakness. The screenwriter, Pavel Ruminov, pens a very interesting but uneven story. He would go on to write and direct Dead Daughters (2007) to some acclaim. Prygunov constructs some terrific visuals with some simple haunting audio. Above all, this film is worth seeing for Ingeborga Dapkunaite's performance. The closeness that the viewer gets to this character is refreshing, even though it is a descent into madness

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008)

A very big thank you goes out to Large William, co-host of the podcast, The Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema, for sending me a copy of the Canadian DVD release of Martyrs. William and Rick the Samurai host a spectacular and addictive podcast--check them out. I attempted to keep this review as vague and spoiler-free as possible.
Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008) is the story of Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), a child survivor of horrendous abuse, who comes into the arms of maternal Anna (Morjana Alaoui). Traumatized Lucie bonds with Anna, and when the two become adults, they embark on an act of revenge against Lucie's captors.
Meticulously-crafted Martyrs comes off as a fable for the modern age. Laugier's imagery is quite beautiful, and the performances by Jampanoi and Alaoui are something else. Jampanoi bears a strong resemblance to Isabelle Adjani, and like Adjani, she has wonderfully haunting eyes which convey strong emotions. The eyes are a powerful symbol in Martyrs, as Alaoui's Anna reveals by the end of the film. Alaoui gives a powerful performance, like Jampanoi, and both performances rely heavily on the facial expressions of both actresses. Laugier's film flows from Lucie and Anna's emotions.
The first hour of Martyrs reflects the impulsive actions of Lucie and Anna. Overcome with anger and revenge, Lucie make a series of actions with unforeseen consequences, as they also encounter unforeseen characters and events. The film is quite kinetic and fast-moving; however, I never forgot while watching that there was an undercurrent of something premeditated and calculated relating to the why Lucie and Anna were reacting and acting the way that they were. The film is rife with dark material and themes. The subject of child abuse is shown as it is, completely reprehensible. However, Laugier's imagery is shown with very bright and clinical light--almost nothing is hidden in shadows. If something is hidden, it's usually revealed as quite hideous. Also, the plot feels totally alien and unreal, but the brutal violence is shown with a visceral realism. Victims are shown emaciated, like mutated monsters, while the perpetrators, the true monsters, look like everyone else.

As such, the first two-thirds of Martyrs are nearly perfect. There is minimal exposition and the film has nearly no substantive dialogue. Laugier is able to tell his story with the images and the juxtapositions which he creates. However, when the first real dialogue appears after the first hour, Martyrs loses momentum and takes another thematic shift, which left me cold. The film becomes slower and more methodical, and it comes off as manipulative. The lesson or the essence of the film, tied into the title, seems contrived and forced. I think it would have been a stronger film if Laugier would have kept the captors' intentions ambiguous and allowed the viewer to speculate as to their philosophy.
I was also fortunate to have avoided reading any reviews or learning really anything of the plot before viewing Martyrs. The biggest killer of horror movies is hype, and Martyrs received some high praise which produced undoubtedly some high expectations. The violence of this film is exceedingly brutal and nasty, and those with weak stomachs should be forewarned. Martyrs is an imperfect film but an interesting one for the modern age.