Friday, November 27, 2015

Kafka (1991)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 98 minutes

This movie is faithful love letter to Franz Kafka and his works. It is also nearly incomprehensible if you are not familiar with the author's writing. Unlike Naked Lunch, which was also released the same year, that can be watched without any knowledge of  William Burroughs or his work and not asking yourself every fives minutes what is happening. You are asking other questions about the Naked Lunch but you are not struggling for context with that movie.

Kafka's plot is taken from The Castle and The Trial, two unfinished novels by the author, and details from the author's life. The reason for this is because both novels are unfinished and spends more time going into detail about themes that make Franz Kafka's work unique. Themes such as alienation, bureaucratic insanity, and reality reacting to the absurd. So for something to tell a story Kafka's life was used to fill in any gaps.

The story of the movie revolves around Franz Kafka. A insurance clerk for the Kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) by day and a writer by night. He was content with this existence until a co-worker and friend of his is found dead in the river. Kafka starts to look into his co-worker's life and finds that nothing is what it appears to be. On his investigation he runs in to anarchists, artists, other authors, surgically altered people who kill people, and all manner of bureaucratic functionaries. Kafka's inquiries lead him to the go visit the castle and try to put everything back to what passes for normality.

Overall it is a beautiful film, rich in atmosphere, dark humor, and unexplained references to the author's works. This film lead me to hunting down Kafka's works and making him one of my favorite authors. Fans of noir movies and atmospheric cinema worlds will like this movie. The unexplained references can take someone out of the film but there is enough other things in the film to keep ones interest.

MVT: The cast of this movie and the subtle dark humor.

Make or Break: Jeremy Iron's performance in this film.

Score: 8.24 out of 10

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dawn of the Mummy (1981)

In my personal opinion, mummies have not been well used in cinema, generally speaking.  I’m talking about the shambling, bandaged (like a masking-tape-and-shoe-polish-decorated bottle a kid made for a grade school art project) monstrosities here.  When it comes to these creatures, I prefer the kind that stalk over the kind who scheme.  Make no mistake, I adore the hell out of Karloff’s turn as Imhotep in 1932’s The Mummy, but let’s face facts, all of us would have liked to have seen much more of Jack Pierce’s withered and enwrapped makeup in action.  Yet, mummies always seem to get short shrift in the movies.  Rarely are they much more than unstoppable hulks (hypocritical as that may sound based on what I just said), pawns of a more malevolent human with no distinct personalities of their own (part of my problem with some of Universal’s sequels to the Karl Freund film).  Christopher Lee managed to imbue loads of character to his turn as Kharis in Terence Fisher’s 1959 The Mummy, and even here, using only his eyes and body movements, his onscreen rapport with Peter Cushing is evident.  I’m also a sucker for Paul Naschy’s gory portrayal of Amenhotep in 1973’s The Mummy’s Revenge (aka La Venganza de la Momia), though if I really think about it, a lot of that film’s charm on me comes from the divine Helga Line.  But in Fred Dekker’s otherwise fantastic The Monster Squad (a movie I’m always surprised never elicits conversations about the 1976 television series from which it takes its name), the mummy gets a great character makeup which is barely seen at all and then is dispatched almost offhandedly (this pisses me off to this day).  Stephen Sommers’ 1999 The Mummy did try to develop their Imhotep into a more well-rounded character, but the film also undercuts any of the menace of the monster by focusing more on action and spectacle and cramming two pounds of horrid, computer-generated effects into the proverbial one-pound bag (I’m not a fan of these films in the slightest, and don’t even get me started on the same director’s Van Helsing).  Thankfully, the mummy Safiraman in Frank Agrama’s Dawn of the Mummy stays wrapped up and desiccated for the film’s entirety, and he even gives off a fairly creepy, evil vibe.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the film and its participants are so godawful, it detracts massively from the few (very few) good points it possesses.

In 3000 BC Egypt, the sadistic Pharaoh Safiraman is entombed with the curse that if his resting place is disturbed, both he and his army of slaves will rise up and kill.  Cut to the present where jerk/tomb raider Rick (George Peck) busts into said tomb, preparing to rob it of its riches.  What better time than now for a wandering band of fashion models and their photographer to show up and decide to use said tomb for a shooting location?  Needless to say, corpses are disturbed, and murder ensues.

This is one of those films (much like the previously-reviewed Maya) where the Ugly American characters are so insanely overblown, you can’t wait for them to die.  Gary (John Salvo) is a narcissistic pothead.  Bill (Barry Sattels) is a narcissistic slave driver/boss.  Melinda (Ellen Faison) is a narcissistic horndog.  June (Diane Beatty) is just a plain, old narcissist.  They push their way into the tomb and immediately set about desecrating every inch of the place in pursuit of their commercial interests.  Watching the photo shoots set against the musty crypt nails home the feeling of crassness these characters depict.  Their prioritizing of glamour and surface beauty only highlights their shallowness (especially considering how one-dimensional they all are), and this (more than Rick and his thieving cohorts) is what sets Safiraman off on his rampage, in my opinion.  The Americans bring with them nothing but abrasive self-involvement, and this deserves death in the film.  Worse, the Americans’ effect on the local community marks those innocents for death as well in a “guilt by association” way.

There are a couple of interesting things going on in the film aside from this aforementioned theme, but they are predominantly from a technical standpoint.  The shot where Safiraman rises is extremely effective, and, as stated, the makeup and performance for the monster create a mildly intimidating aura whenever he’s around.  Additionally, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a mummy film where the villain isn’t pining for some long lost love who just so happens to bear a striking resemblance to the female lead (yeah, it’s meant to give some depth to the character, but some on, the trope is way overused).  The scene of the undead army (let’s just call them zombies, since they behave like zombies of the Italian variety in every conceivable way, shape, and form) rising up is loaded with atmosphere.  There is a nicely edited sequence which intercuts zombies attacking and eating people and revelers dancing and partying at a wedding (the inconsequential character whose nuptials these are is given an inordinate amount of time in the story).  The gore is disgusting in the best possible way, and the score by Shuki Levy strikes a nice balance between traditional orchestration and funky pop.  

Nonetheless, there’s far, far more in the film to warrant passing on it (unless you truly savor garbage and can stay awake for the duration).  A lot of this comes from the thespian skills of the cast which vary from moribund (funny enough, this criticism doesn’t include the mummy and his army) to Renfield-ian (in purest Arte Johnson mode).  In fact, I would be hard-pressed to choose only one winner for the Robert Marius Award in this movie, because the entire cast is truly worthy.  Everyone seems to be mugging like Harpo Marx at almost every instant, and when they’re not doing that, they’re grinning inappropriately at each other like they’re wasted out of their minds (and hey, maybe they were).  It gives the film an unhinged quality, but it stinks more of incompetence rather than planned cinematic texturing.

And then there are the things which simply boggled my mind.  For instance, how do set lights make a mummy’s body melt and wake him from his eternal rest?  How did the models pack all of the shit they have with them on two horses and a jeep?  If Safiraman’s slaves were originally killed in his burial chamber, why are there no remains when the tomb is opened, and why are the zombies rising up out of the desert rather than from the sepulcher?  Why does some random Egyptian guy take to Gary and invite him to his wedding just because Gary shows up to smoke some weed at this guy’s café?  Why does Rick wake Melinda up in the middle of the night to get some after she’s fainted from stress a very short while ago (okay, this one I could kind of understand, but it’s placement in the film is just odd)?  Why does Rick allow Bill and the models to boss him around when he could merely kill them all and bury them in the desert (or let the scavengers pick them apart, which also brings up the question of how a Bedouin’s decapitated head managed to last as long as it did without being gnawed at or buried in the shifting sands)?  It’s not so much that the film raises questions like this in a viewer’s mind; it’s that these questions become more intriguing (and distracting) than the film itself.  If you can answer any of these questions, or if you’re okay with what they conjure in your mind, this might be the movie for you.  Everyone else can leave this one buried.

MVT:  The untethered property of the film certainly makes it stand out as an oddity, for sure.

Make or Break:  By about the second or third scene involving Rick and his gang, I realized that the way these people were acting was intentional.

Score:  3/10      

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hammerhead (1987)

Even if you’re into Speedos, those tiny, skin tight swimming briefs that have become synonymous with Eurotrash and body-type-to-Speedo-size inverse proportionality, there is simply no way in Hell you can defend the invention and implementation of the banana hammock.  Like the Speedo, men who really shouldn’t wear banana hammocks seem to wear them more than other people do.  The other side of the coin is that they’re a favorite undergarment of men in the porn industry (not that I would know anything about that), who are usually fit enough to pull them off (pardon the pun).  These types of under clothing simultaneously scream “vanity” and “I couldn’t give a fuck.”  I’ve personally never met a single person who could take a banana hammock seriously, which is why they are typically employed in films to tickle the funny bone (pardon the pun, again).  There’s nothing more hilarious for some people than seeing a thin swath of cotton (or lamé) barely covering a man’s giblets while either their flyspeck-follicled gut and thighs strain to envelope the briefs and/or snap the waistband or the whole pathetic affair sags limply off a some scrawny stronzo’s nethers like soft bread dough stretching from your hand to the kitchen table, threatening a sneak peek between the gaps at any moment.  The latter is sadly the case with “comedy relief” sidekick Jose (Jorge Gil) while improbably romancing the delicious Julia (Donna Rosea, who actually can pull off the French cut bikini look) in Enzo G. Castellari’s Hammerhead (aka Cobra Revenger aka Special Agent Hammer aka Hammer).  At least a viewer’s confoundment at this scenario is paid off later in the film (you really should be able to guess how from the get-go, but that’s neither here nor there), so there’s that.

Hammer (Daniel Greene) is a Miami cop who loves to sleep in late with his dog, and doesn’t play by the rules.  Greg (Jeff Moldovan), an old buddy from Hammer’s days in Jamaica, is killed after coming to the flinty cop for help with some ruffians who are after him.  Hammer heads back to the island to find out who killed his pal and bring them to justice.  And did I mention he doesn’t play by the rules?  Because he doesn’t.

Two things running through this film are ideas of friendship and loyalty.  Hammer, Greg, Jose, and Carlos (Antoni Corone) used to form a team (of cops, criminals, or simply mercenaries, we never know completely) called the Storm Riders.  They are men bonded through violence and machismo, and their influence for the better on Jamaica was widespread, as we learn from some interspersed dialogue.  Together as a team, they were able to enact a positive force.  We never learn why the team broke up (or if we did, I must have missed it), but we know that when the team fell apart, it allowed for flagitious forces to rise up and corrupt the island.  The Storm Riders’ bond, their loyalty to each other, is implied as the core of what they were able to accomplish.  As their leader, Hammer was the obvious lynchpin.  The others took their cues in “proper” behavior from him.  Jose maintains this loyalty into the present to the point that he is almost a lapdog for Hammer.  It’s difficult to take Jose seriously as a man of action for the majority of the film, as he’s played largely as a horny trickster character, though he does prove himself in the back stretch to, in fact, have the qualities that earn respect and prove that Hammer’s ideology is the correct one.  Sans Hammer, the other three Storm Riders don’t measure up.  Without getting into any plot twists, Greg gets in above his head; he can’t deal with his adversity, and he has to come to Hammer for aid.  Carlos is nowhere to be found when Hammer first returns to Jamaica.  Whether dead or crawled into a hole or worse, we don’t find out until further into the runtime (did you guess which yet?).  Jose has become a taxi driver, has eschewed his violent life, and become a “lesser” man for it, a lifeless soul trudging through his days.  Reuniting with Hammer reignites Jose’s zest for a life of conflict, a life of meaning.  Hammer needs to redeem himself for his irresponsibility in leaving the island by returning and once again demonstrating his loyalty to this place and his friends (including, significantly, his ex-girlfriend Marta [the gorgeous Melonee Rodgers] and the daughter he didn’t know he had).

Hammerhead also deals with the past, its mistakes being revisited on the present, and the idea of fate as it affects the protagonist.  Greg comes out of Hammer’s past to remind him of his former life.  His current life is normalized (a dog, a steady job, a boss he butts heads with on a regular basis [we can assume, since, you know, he’s a cop who doesn’t play by the rules and all]).  Realizing that he is obligated by his ties to Jamaica, he returns to a place he once called home, and it’s there that he discovers that he cannot get away from this former life and his responsibilities as a man simply by moving away from them.  Hammer was meant for Jamaica, and Jamaica needs Hammer.  Without him there, the island and his friends fell apart (more or less, or at least were less fulfilled than when he was there).  Hammer’s past is not done with him, and we have the understanding that if it hadn’t been Greg who came to Hammer, someone else would have at some point to reveal his place in this world (after all, without this siren song/call to duty, we wouldn’t have a film at all), and Hammer is man enough to comprehend his destiny and own up to it.

This film is largely unpolished, however it is entertaining up to a point (one thing that can be said about Castellari is that his films [from my experience] never forget that they exist to bring enjoyment).  The filmmakers use a lot of dolly shots and even more slow motion photography, and both bring with them a certain amount of style, to be sure.  The action scenes work, for the most part, because they maintain both a high quality/theatrical flair in the stuntwork and a kinetic dynamism (read: everything is amped up to eleven) in the interpersonal sequences.  This is, unfortunately, undercut by a seeming lack of proper coverage or possibly poor editing choices which give the film a scattershot ambience throughout.  The script is, of course, insanely predictable and loaded with scenes and dialogue untethered from actuality (discounting the heightened reality of the action pieces).  If I had to guess, I would have to say that Castellari wanted to go to Jamaica for a vacation, so he set a film there, shot whatever he felt he needed to shoot there, and then spent the rest of the time kicking back with some fruity drinks on a beach somewhere.  Bear in mind, I’m not against this, but it makes for a slight product that knows all the numbers it needs to hit, knows that we know all the numbers it needs to hit, barely hits them, and then just walks away from it.  Kind of like how Hammer walked away from Jamaica in the first place.

MVT:  The action scenes are good.  I can’t say much more about them than that, honestly.

Make or Break:  The first action set piece includes a motorcycle jumping not one but two cars as well as a car going up on two wheels for a bit.  It’s zany enough to be fun, but not far enough above middling to be all that memorable aside from a couple of individual images.

Score:  6.25/10           

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Swamp Thing (1982)

Directed by: Wes Craven
Runtime: 88 minutes

This movie is weird fiction, comic book super heroes, light touch of horror, and stupid fun all mashed into one strange and fun movie. The movie is based on the DC comics written by Len Wein. His comic run deals Doctor Alec Holland, a scientist who is making a formula to get plants to grow anywhere but agents of evil want this formula and Dr Holland ends up covered in burning chemicals and jumping into the swamp. This accident turns the doctor into the Swamp Thing, a human plant elemental being. Enough with the background and on to the movie.

Deep in the swamps of South Carolina, the U.S. department of Agriculture is running a secret black operation. So secret that they required to id badges at all times so that no one knows that there is a secret government black operation being carried out in the swamp. The reason for all this security is that Arcane may or may not be alive and after the research they are doing there. Who is Arcane? Why does Arcane want the research data?  These questions will never be answered.

Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is brought in to replace another security tech who just can't stand being in the swamp. She will be one of three people who can open the lab that is home to brother and sister Doctors Linda and Alec Holland. Cable meets the doctors and Alec immediately realizes that Cable is meant to be his love interest. So Alec and Cable have a romantic trip in the swamp to check a security pod sensor thing.

Back at the lab, Linda has created the formula and shares the good news with her brother when he and Cable return. However, Arcane's men attacked the compound and are hiding the bodies when Cable leaves the lab to tell her boss that the doctors had succeeded in making the formula.  But Arcane's men find her, make her open the door to the lab, and knock her out. In a surprise twist Arcane reveals himself to the doctors. He had been masquerading as the head of security to keep an eye on the progress of the formula. This leads to all hell breaking loose as Linda tries to run of with the lab notes and gets killed, Alec pours the formula on himself and sets himself on fire, and Cable wakes up in time to steal the notes with how the formula is made.

The majority of the second act of this movie is the same thing happening over and over again with the plot sort of advancing after every cycle. It happens like this, Cable wanders around and finds a plot point, Arcane's men show up, Cable is forced to run, and the Swamp Thing shows up to save the day. To make it more entertaining you could speed up most of the second act footage, replaced the audio with Yakety Sax (that song from Benny Hill), and it would be much more watchable. Arcane read ahead in the script and finds a way to capture Cable, Swamp Thing, and the missing formula notes.

This leads to Arcane holding a formal dinner victory party with strippers in the background. Apparently Arcane wants this formula because it can be used  to transform people into a creature based on the character of the person of question. In Arcane's case he turn into the picture below.

While Arcane is turning into a crime against nature, the Swamp Thing has gotten over being caught by Arcane and has freed himself and Cable. Which means that the third act final fight is about to happen. To sum up quickly, Swamp Thing wins the battle and kills Arcane. Then leaves Cable because she is safe and it is time for him to wander the swamp until someone needs him.

The tone of this movie is all over the place. It tries for a horror feel for the first ten minutes or so and then the movie gives up, grabs a bottle of whiskey, and goes all over the place. The best example of this is at the start of the film Arcane's men use a poisonous to kill one of the government agents and laugh as he staggers away dying. These same men later on behave like Keystone cops with military weapons and force the audience to marvel at the fact that they haven't shot each other yet. Despite all that, it is a fun film and if it shows up on cable or a streaming service it is worth a watch that way.

MVT: A tie between the actor who played Jude and the cinematography. Reggie Batts was hired as a local actor and is one of the best characters in the movie but is a minor character which is why I am talking about him now. There are a lot of beautiful shots of the swamp in this film.

Make or Break: The Cable character goes from being able to look out for herself to tripping every chance she can get in the hope that a six foot tall swamp human hybrid thing will be there to save her. I know this is a thirty plus year old film but it is kind of jarring.

Score: 5.25 out of 10