Saturday, 20 April 2013

I don't like drugs (but the drugs like movies)

Happy 4/20! I don't do drugs (though I'm still far from being a winner), but plenty of filmmakers either have, or have been inspired by drug-usage to create some perplexing visions. I take a look at four cult films that vary, whether their portrayal of drugs is the cause of, or solution to life's bigger problems.

Reefer Madness, a.k.a. Tell Your Children (USA, 1936)
Director: Louis J. Gasnier

The original anti-drug "educational" film gained a huge cult following in the following decades. Potheads from all over the world, and of all times gathering around to giggle at the stern image this film gives about their culture. There has also been a colorized version of the film which has the added interest in having different-colored pot smoke to come out of different characters, all relying on their mood.

At a local high school, Dr. Carroll (Joseph Forte) narrates a tale to a PTA meeting of how easily the youth can be corrupted. Drug pushers Mae (Thelma White) and Jack (Carleton Young) lure high school students to drop by at Mae's to smoke some "reefer cigarettes". This drug-smoking has various horrifying effects on the teens. One leaves the apartment intoxicated with his car and runs over a pedestrian. A girl is almost raped at a wild drug party. Sex-crazed potheads battle over girls, which causes a gun to go off. Won't somebody please think of the children!

The film is definitely a C-grade product of its time, with which I mean it moves along with a glacier's speed, the acting is hammy and the entire ordeal repetitive and quite boring. The funniest parts involve the straight-out finger pointing, hammering home the message to speak to the kids about the dangers of drugs. Which, of course have been wildly exaggerated and their portrayal hardly based on any empirical evidence. Yet still, you'd probably have to be stoned to enjoy this properly.


Mystery of the Leaping Fish (USA, 1916)
Directors: Christy Cabane, John Emerson

Of course, American attitude over drugs hasn't always been as stern. In the early 20th century you could buy even hard drugs at a pharmacist's. A hilarious relic of this time is this short film, starring Douglas Fairbanks himself. Also appearing is Lupe Velez, best remembered from wanting to have a suicide that would give the press a field time and then dying with her head on the toilet. This comedy features the coke-fiend private detective Coke Ennyday (really!), who actually gets plenty of help to solving a case from chasing the horse. Regular cocaine ingestion also helps his crippling depression.

The Leaping Fish of the title refers to a sort of surfboard / blow-up toy.

There are several quite perplexing visions throughout the film. Ennyday is a sort of an inventor, having several odd inventions in his home, such as a clock on his wall, that tells him when it's time to shoot dope. Money launderers iron out a whole mountain dollar bills. Ennyday's car has the same chess-pattern as his costume. Surfers lie on silly-looking blow-up fish dolls. The movie does run out of steam after a while, which makes it good it's only 25 minutes long. The end twist is a bit dumb, but it gives Fairbanks a chance to really parody his image as a clean-cut hero.

As if taking this role wasn't enough by itself.
The film was co-written by Tod Browning and D.W. Griffith of all people, which makes one ponder how much of their own films were directed under the influence.

★★★ 1/2

Side note: These two older movies are public domain by now, so they can be legally watched all over the internet by now.

Liquid Sky (USA, 1982)
Director: Slava Tsukerman

Aesthetically beautiful, but somewhat incomprehensible plot-wise, this psychedelic epic has truly earned its cult-movie status. Pity it seems director Tsukerman had to return to his home planet in the vastness of space soon after this was finished. This product is truly one of a kind. The film has clearly inspired Gaspar Noe on his work.

Frames tell a lot more about this film than words ever could.

Checking out what it's supposed to be about, microscopic aliens arrive on Earth on a flying dinner plate to seek for the chemical construction that makes heroin. Spying out the hedonistic life of a New York penthouse, the aliens realize that sexual pheromones are a lot more potent drug. A German scientist and an androgynous model follow the aliens and their ordeals nearby.

But all that nonsense is irrelevant. This is a steamy, sweaty film for a hot summer night. It's a vibrant, vivid, colorful piece of art that awakens emotions on a larger scale. It's a twisted, dark and sometimes nightmarish movie. The film's synthesizer soundtrack is perhaps even more iconic than the movie itself. The whole ordeal taps into New York City subculture of the times, when punk aesthetics were swept away in the wake of New Wave, and the hedonism and self-centerdness of the 80s was truly setting in. And before the discovery of AIDS, when coke-fiends were banging each other without a care in the world.

Now, since I watched it drunk, the film might have taken place in my fever dreams at least a bit. that's why I hesitate to give it the full ★★★★★ score. But when I get a chance to see it again, it may rise to new heights.


Blue Sunshine (USA, 1978)
Director: Jeff Lieberman

For an even more sinister look at the drug-usage, this sci-fi thriller is fearful of the loss of control connected to drug usage. So much so that it warns the threat to be so vast as to be able to cross even a long period of time. Even worse than acid flashbacks, the users of the form of LSD known as Blue Sunshine, lose their minds years after having taken the drug. They lose their hair and grow an urge to murder. And murder just anyone in their vicinity, family member, random stranger or authority figure. Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King) is falsely accused of a mass murder at a party. On the run, he must gather evidence of the secret behind Blue Sunshine to clear his name and save the life of a presidential candidate.

A plot ripped straight from the headlines!

It's another drug film that's definitely a product of its time. The paranoia and cynicism of the 70s saw that the carefree 60s had caused a lot of dangers to the modern world. These threats would blossom when erstwhile hippies have grown adult and risen to the position where they rule the world. Seedy discos, corrupt politicians and untrustworthy former friends occupy the modern world.

And nobody still thinks of the children!
The film is quite offbeat and bald mass murderers that cross their eyes when flipping out, look quite silly. Still, everything is played out with a straight face, which works better for the threatening athmosphere than a tongue-in-cheek approach would. The film is unevenly paced, with long stretches of time running on empty, and with important scenes, like the climax, taking place in a flick of the wrist. It's a deliberate exercise in tricking the audience's exceptions, but still it causes the film to be quite uneven in interest at times as well. But it's still well worth a check if you fear for the acid flashbacks to come.

★★★ 1/2

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I hear a bell toll.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Review: Evil Dead

I'm guessing everyone reading this is more or less fed up with remakes, especially of classic horror and gore movies. The question isn't that there wouldn't be any material to develop or improve upon. It's that most remakes tend to be Hollywood's most shallow, boring retreads of ideas that were already made to better effect decades ago. But the Evil Dead remake at least was made with a bit more ambition than usual.

Produced by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, the new version doesn't just have the same characters nor the same storyline. The basics are there, but director/screenwriter Fede Alvarez has left plenty of room for the audience to be surprised, too. Which is quite essential when attempting to scare people, to say the least. Thus, instead of a new wise-cracking Ash we have a couple of red herrings leading on who the actual lead might be.

The basics are still the same worn-out story so mocked in The Cabin In The Woods: Five twenty-somethings and their dog drive for a weekend in a secluded cabin. The intention is to make Mia (Jane Levy) get off her drug addiction. Helping her are his stoic, wood-faced brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his boring blonde girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), rock chick Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and the newly started science teacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci).

As if they hadn't enough trouble with Mia's mood swings, caused by the withdrawal effects, it soon dawns to everyone that something else is a lot more wrong in the cabin. Skinned cats are hanging on the cellar ceiling, and there are evidences of a strange ritual having taken place there. Eric finds a leather-bound old book, and makes the mistake of reading it aloud. Soon the evils of the forest catch up with the group, possessing them one by one.

Whereas the original Evil Dead played around a lot with the wrath of nature itself, making the secluded cabin feel a lot more claustrophobic, the horrors in the new one are much more human-based. It takes a while for the characters to notice that something within Mia is unnatural, since they all figure she acts weirdly because of her drug withdrawal. Likewise, girls shedding blood, screaming out, acting moody, crazy or even threatening isn't by itself enough to really freak David nor Eric out. Both of the boys are in a relationship with a woman, after all. There's a bit of a whiff of misogynism here.

The start of the movie is played out quite seriously, which makes one fear whether the trademarked Evil Dead humor is lost entirely (Yes, even the first one did have comedic sequences, albeit much subtler than the pure slapstick sequels. Watch it again if you don't believe me.). Luckily, splatter humor crawls into the movie slowly, going all out in the final scene. There's no denying that the tone of the movie is spot-on, and the practical gore effects are brilliant. Not a single CGI shot was used in the movie, and it's all for the better. It makes the film more physical, and makes the cringe-worthy scenes really feel in your guts.

The problem then, is that the actual characters aren't very interesting. Even if there's some attempt to flesh them out early on, they never grow on you and subsequently you don't really care what happens to them. Except for Olivia, but then again Jessica Lucas is ungodly hot in this movie. Even if the characters weren't retrieved from stock archives, at least the film could still tighten the terror and hysteria a notch or two. Maybe Alvarez didn't have the heart to torture his cast as much as Sam Raimi did.

The movie does worst when it attempts to recreate the most iconic scenes of the original. For instance the tree-rape is now more graphic, less painful and a lot more unbelievable. In the original one the fast cutting allowed imagination to fill out the most nasty parts (pun unintended, sorry). A similar effect could've worked better in several places here, too.

It's a film made for metal heads as much as anything Rob Zombie has ever produced. This is evidenced by the fact that Evil Dead brings to life several lyrics from Slayer's 1987 magnum opus, Reign In Blood. Like, say 2007's Halloween, however, it is a film that has several inventive, even great parts, but as a whole just can't carry out the legacy of the original. Shame, this one had more promise. But perhaps Alvarez will produce something entirely his own now.


USA, 2013
Language: English
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues Mendez
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Starring: Shiloh Fernandez, Jane Levy, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Michael Winner in Memoriam

It was very saddening to hear the passing of the British director Michael Winner on January 21st. He was aged 77. Since then, a lot of other beloved, interesting movie folk have passed as well. Night Visions Back To Basics -festival this weekend had a special screening of Death Wish 3 in memoriam of Winner, a true sleazy master and creator of a truly unforgettable classic. So, lest we forget the wine- and fancy dinner-loving, punk rocker and poor people -hating renegade, I take a look at the first three Death Wish films, his most popular work.

Death Wish (1974)

The nominal, original vigilantist movie, the film sees a peaceful architect getting pushed too far and starting to solve New York's crime problem by killing off muggers. Winner prides himself of having done ground-breaking work with this film. According to the director, American heroes had not killed other civilians in a modern-set movie before. While not strictly true, it was a new, novel idea on a mainstream film and subsequently this film became a big success.

Korean war veteran Paul Kersey (Bronson) shrugs off the news of New York City's rising crime numbers, thinking they are caused by poverty rather than the corrupted youth. Yet when street punks break into his own apartment, killing his wife and sexually assaulting his daughter, he starts to see the situation differently.

Kersey starts to prowl the streets, waiting to get mugged only to beat up or kill the attacking criminals.
As it happens, Kersey's extreme approach to the problem brings solutions and crime rates start to drop as citizens are inspired by the mysterious vigilante and his actions. Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) must decide whether to capture the vigilante or to raise his hands, allowing him to clean the streets one thug at a time.

The film is suitably gritty and sleazy, a real serious affair. The film is very close of actually being as good and ground-breaking as Winner says, if not for one thing: Charles Bronson. Don't get me wrong, I love the wood-faced lug, but as an actor, he just doesn't have the chops. The film would require a regular man spiral out of control, to have a real-seeming death wish, if you will.

Bronson, however, seems like he's going to murder a couple of punks on his way to the store from the get-go. Even while his character goes through an emotional rollercoaster, Bronson remains kind of stoic and unmoved. Only at the end does he seem to develop a kind of an enjoyment in harassing street punks.

It's an outrageous, entertaining film thats till works quite well on his own. But as it was, Kersey's adventures were far from over.

★★★ 1/2

Death Wish II (1982)

Having been ran put of town at the end of his first vigilantism affair, Paul Kersey has since settled to live in Los Angeles. Which, as everyone must know, is far from being a crime-free city. He takes care of his daughter Carol (Robin Sherwood), who still hasn't quite recovered from the traumas she suffered back in New York. Kersey is also dating a new woman, Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland).

Of course life doesn't hand good cards to Kersey and one bad run-in with a gang of punks leaves them hungry for vengeance. So, they assault his housekeeper, kidnap and rape his daughter, which drives poor Carol to jump out of the window to her death. So, Kersey returns to his old, murderous vigilantist ways. And the cops realize this too, and contact New York and Detective Frank Ochoa.

This part II is one of those sequels that offers little beyond more of the same. There is some more outrageousness in the kills and Winner seethes with even more hatred and distaste in the modern youth and their punk culture. The grittiness and sleaziness has bulged to the point of making the hinges creak. Yet Winner does manage to keep the tone of this still relatively serious, mostly by keeping the pace still quite slow and the action inglorious, fast and ugly.

The film has a cynical ending that's even more open than the previous one. As New York's crime problems seemed to at least have taken a turn for the better, now the only thing at stake is Kersey's personal vengeance. he does get it, doesn't get caught, keeps working as an architect and feels somewhat satisfied at the end. But the film does question whether he actually had any affect in the overall situation, killing criminals out of personal reasons rather than because it is the right thing to do. According to Winner, at least.


Death Wish 3 (1985)

It should be noted that the Finnish name for these films is Väkivallan vihollinen, which means An Enemy of Violence. It does somewhat work on the first one (the title stems from the name of the book the first film was based on, I guess), but gets more ridiculous the further the series goes. None more so than in the third part, since there's not a single enemy of violence in the film. Everyone thinks violence is a reasonable solution to crime problems, from little old ladies to police officers to attorneys. And Kersey is of course a champion of this viewpoint.

At this point it is forgotten that Kersey used to be an architect, as he is now characterized to be more or less a drifter. An old west drifter, to be exact, arriving to areas of unrest to bring Old Testament -style justice to wrongdoers. Now Kersey returns to New York to visit an old war buddy, only to find he has been murdered by a local street gang, led by Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy), keeping a whole neighborhood in terror.

Since the police is also fed up with the gang's reign of terror, they offer Kersey a deal of looking the other way while he does what he does. Kersey sets up in the old apartment of his friend, making friends of his neighbors, and of course ordering the hugest handgun the world has seen to start cleaning up the streets.

Cheerfully fascist, Winner shows every dead punk as a reason for rejoicing. Bronson himself found the film a bit distasteful, maintaining that the idea of the series is that violence stems violence. Indeed, Kersey's actions stem an entire block war, with booby traps and closeted old war relics being brought up to kill as many gang members as possible.

The disregard of human life goes to ridiculous lengths, making this one of the most purely enjoyable of 80's action films. It's not a mean feat, because Bronson himself has grown older, and the scenes which require him to run from gunfire in particular are laughable. But Winner knows he can shoot rotten youngsters getting shot in an infinite way, and gleefully exploits this notion to the point of pure mania. The explosive finale in particular is an incredible idea of a pure creative genius and madness in the same package.


So rest in piece Sir Michael, your films still bring us great amounts of pleasure, as could be seen in the Night Visions screening, with a hooting and applauding audience loving every minute.

The other two Death Wish films were not directed by Winner, so I won't include them here. But fear not, I'll find another way to write something about them as well.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Best of 2012, part 2 - April Fools

I am sorry for keeping you waiting so long for the second installment of my year best list. I wanted to make a list featuring all the good stuff that was left without theatrical release - those that went straight to DVD or only had a limited festival screening. Well, I am all the more proud of the conclusive list made here and now. All of these films are lesser known, but well worth searching and checking out.

10. Thunder Gun Express (USA)
Director: Amos Santo

This low-budget action movie owes a big debt to Wages of Fear as well as William Friedkin's Sorceror. In post-apocalyptic Philadelphia, a shipment of experimental guns to the military gets hassled by a gang of outlaw bikers. Obviously, if the guns got in the wrong hands all hell would break loose. But even more dangerous is that secretly one of the trucks in the convoy contains a casket of highly explosive chemicals that could level off several city blocks.

The cast and crew are almost unknown, but they do tremendous work here. The film isn't afraid to experiment with your fast-paced action movie storytelling quite a bit. We see the anguish in people's faces in close ups in the midst of fighting, and surprisingly also spend quite a lot of time to view the ordeal from the biker's point of view. Mark my words, director Amos Santo will make it big one of these days.

9. Octopus Slime (Indonesia)
Director: Patar Lando

Okay, I admit that this is not a good film as such. But this so-called "horror" movie is hilarious in its own right. The Indonesian tradition of making the most hilariously outrageous and madcap exploitation movies truly still lives large today. This cheesefest concerns a nuclear power plant disaster releasing fallout to the sea, which of course makes the octopuses sprout legs and learn to walk on land and prey on the flesh of the people. Not to spoil too much of the story, but it manages to tie together robot butlers, evil clowns and a scientist who saves the day with a power drill. Laughed myself silly.

8. Oliver's Arrow (Surinam)
Director: Roo Okinagabe

African film industry is rising and many countries have started to produce intriguing films based on their native legends and stories. Case in point is this film from Suriname, which updates an old folk tale. A small child travels the African plains, handing the animals their jobs in the circle of life. As he arrives to the mountainside, he finds reaching the mountain-dwelling animals troublesome. On the way, he falls in love with an eagle, that sometimes takes the form of a young girl.

I like the world-view where there is no clear good and evil, and characters are either attempting to do their duties or dismissing them because of their own personal reasons. All the talking animals are animated traditionally, while humans are portrayed by actors, Roger Rabbit-style. The story brings to mind the Kirikou movies, and this proves to be as stylish as they are.

7. Space Orcs (Orkusu spaisu, Japan)
Director: Isagawa Oni

This Japanese splatter has a surprisingly heavy athmosphere. It's a bit too much to compare it to Alien, when more suitable comparisons would be Sunshine or Dante 01. Cross-bred with Braindead. A cargo shuttle finds out that a mysterious breed of yes, Space Orcs, is on their tail. Initially seeming like an odd alien race, there's a lot more sinister secret behind the monsters.

Violence is inventive, gruesome and very, very silly at the same time. The CGI shots are reserved to outerior shots of spaceships and the vastness of space. The titular monsters are done with good old-fashioned rubber masks. Which is good that they hid mostly in shadows, hiding the clunkiness of that departement. This is a really rare breed, a convincing sci-fi story that forces you to think, yet serves our most primal blood-hunger and makes us laugh at the same time. A future cult movie.

6. Prognosis: Negative (Israel)
Director: Lamar Fuleh

A talkative spy thriller from the Middle East showcases much of the daily routines of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency. Agent Avi Azulai (Rami Fortis) discovers his partner is a traitor. In order to determine how he has been infiltrated he has to go through old files, and at the same time goes through his own history in the agency. His mission is to set up a trap to the enemies, but instead he finds out he might have not been on the side of the good so firmly as he has believed.

Naturally, this is on Israel's side of the Palestinian conflict, but that doesn't stop it from questioning the nation's policies. Morally, it's set on a grey area, questioning a lot of Israel's status of free speech, right to religion and even the power of the government. This is told mostly in dialogue scenes, with only a few outside shots. It's captivating stuff to watch. This would make a good double feature with The Gatekeepers.

5. Boyfight 2 (Luta meninos 2, Brazil)
Director: Fender Lasco

The first in this series of Brazilian crime action was brutal, the second one delves a lot deeper. Drug cartels kidnap children in the slums, forcing them to fight for money. In the first one, a full-grown former fighter Del (City of God's Leandro Firmino) rose to a battle against his mob overlords, reflecting Spartacus in a modern-day environment. Now, Del has risen to a public campaigner for having raids to stop the illegal fighting rings. Yet dirty politicians attempt to keep the slums isolated and quiet, particularly since Rio's tourist season is approaching. Del must fight on two fronts.

The film does seem to overplay Rio's crime problems a bit, but since director Lasco offers some of the most jaw-dropping action scenes of recent years, one can forgive a little jump into fiction. After all, the film shines light on how corrupt the society is that doesn't even bother to check into something as horrifying as boyfighting. The style is kept gritty and Firmino is as good as ever.

4. The Bonar Law Story (UK)
Director: Ollie Islington

Based on an old script written by none other than Monty Python's John Cleese back in the 1970's, it's no wonder this surreal comedy took this long to make. For one, the release of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and the discussion in Britain afterwards eerily seemed to echo a lot of Cleese's text. Later, a lot of his lawyer character here was rewritten for Archie Leach in A Fish Called Wanda. This is a pitch-black satire on the reception of art and entertainment. It concerns the trial of a filmmaker whose latest experimental film has had a series of rather peculiar effects on the audience. Or the rag-tag team of bullies and higher-ups just finds to blame an already down-on-his luck man for their own crimes.

The film's biggest surprise, as well as it's strength, is it's odd turn to surrealism in the third act. In contrast, modern technology is better suited for visions such as people growing a billion years old in seconds. The risque sex sequences would have been hard to get through the censors back in the day. The film seethes with the good, old-time John Cleese wit and comedy, both physical as well as banter and keeping up appearances. Comedian Islington is a worthy successor and makes the lofty Python satisfied with his vivid storytelling skills, even if Cleese had denounced the script before the project started.

3. Harvest of the Blood Oranges (India/USA)
Director: Oren R. Peli

Who could've known that the director of Paranormal Activity actually had the chops to make a good horror movie? It helps that the funding comes from his native India, even if the film is in English. Bollywood superstar (and True Lies villain) Art Malik makes an early appearance that essentially casts him in the role of Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea.

In a vast Indian orange farm, foul play is afoot. The battle for the inheritance of the farm makes a jealous uncle summon shadow demons from the netherworlds. They lurk within the trees, day or night. As most horror films are used to having jump-scares in the dark, Peli manages to bring the genre to light and somehow use the heat of Indian Summer in his advantage. The film feels sweaty, uncomfortable and, crucially scary. Well done, Mr. Peli! Now, please stay where you are.

2. Ponce De Leon (The Netherlands)
Director: Len Paulaner

The Dutch adventure film of a famous explorer who may or may not have discovered the fountain of youth. Ponce (Derek De Lint) is a conquistador attempting to prove that there are mystical Inca treasures hidden in the jungle, but have his expedition cut short as all the other members keep dying. nevertheless, he presses forward. In a double role, De Lint also plays a 1930's explorer Paul Lindtmann that has similar obsessions of the jungle. Is he a reincarnation or even Ponce himself having survived for so long?

There's a real Indiana Jones-like quality with the adventure here, with a lot of native mysticism, raw willpower and cliffhanger-like situations. The flashback-like cutting style is familiar to anyone who has watched Lost. Unlike that series, however, this film raises a lot of questions but doesn't bother to give a left-handed explanation to even the major ones. There's a real mindfuck ending that makes one want to return to the jungles with Ponce again and again.

1. Changing Season (Canada)
Director: Sally Avril

Blue Valentine and Take This Waltz meet Terrence Malick. This out-of-sequence story of a marriage crumbling down is exhilaratingly sad and visually stunning. Lenny (Edwin Autridge) is happily married to Anna (Katharine Isabelle), but when he meets a new business partner Brett (David Lawrence), he seems to start to question his sexuality. We don't know what becomes of the men, but we cut forward to the following winter when Anna is alone, her life crumbled and afraid to trust anyone.

Much like life in general, the film tends to have a soft focus around its story. Director Avril plays a lot with symbolism and intercuts the personal drama with a lot of breathtaking nature scenes. In a sort of Lynchian manner, several scenes are also done with crude stop-motion animation. While heartbreaking, it's also inventive, surprising and more than a bit odd. There's only so many relationship stories one can tell, but this film proves that the number of how they can be told are endless.


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