Friday, June 26, 2015

'I Come in Peace!': A retrospective review of Dark Angel (1990)

One badass cop. 
One pencil-pushing FBI agent. 
And an alien drug dealer. 

As someone who has stayed awake through three Dolph Lundgren movies, I can safely say this is the best Dolph Lundgren movie EVER MADE. Dark Angel (aka I Come In Peace) is an unapologetic action flick from people who know how to shoot a dude running across a row of cars while they blow up behind him. 

The plot is really simple. Dolph Lundgren plays a rogue cop who doesn't play by the rules (Zzz). Brian Benben plays an FBI agent who goes by the book (Zzz). Brought together by a bizarre series of murders, they quickly realise their suspect is not of this world...


Sure, it's rock-stupid, occasionally betrays its low budget and takes few risks with its plot or characters, but there is a charm to ICIP (let's just ignore its other title) which keeps it above being just another bland buddy cop film. Part of that has to do with the premise -- an alien drug dealer has come to Earth to steal human adrenaline so he can sell it to the rest of his species. To boost his supply, he steals heroin from his human counterparts and uses it to juice up his victims. He also says 'I come in peace!' a lot.

Another positive is the dialogue. Script-doctored by a young, uncredited David Koepp (Jurassic Park), the banter between our heroes crackles in a way so many of its ilk do not. Freed from being a monosyllabic lunkhead, Lundgren spits out a strong supply of one liners with aplomb, more than matching his co-star's never-ending patter. And in what could have been an incredibly annoying role as a by-the-book Fed, Brian Benben is a joy. More competent than Lundgren gives him credit for, he quickly gains his new partner's respect as they attempt to hunt down their alien foe while contending with their respective superiors' ulterior motives for the alien.

The final thing in this movie's favour is the direction. A former stuntman, Craig R. Baxley had previously directed the cult film Action Jackson. Pulling in favours from his friends, and experienced with the ins-and-outs of shooting action, Baxley manages to turn out a visually interesting film with dynamic, exciting set pieces that would not look out of place in a bigger film. 

A fun little b-movie in the mould of The Hidden and Lethal Weapon, I Come In Peace is not particularly original, but has the good sense to know exactly what it is and play to its strengths. A good Friday night watch.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

SISTER (2012)


This is my kind of movie. Sure, I've filled this blog with screeds about exploitation flicks, Bond movies, blockbusters and weird genre flicks, but THIS is what I'm about. I cannot really describe 'what' this is, but this movie landed in the same groove as (recently) Prince AvalancheKnife in the Water, and, uh, Dredd: A small group of characters in a limited setting who are forced by circumstance to interact with each other. Sister falls right in that wheelhouse. A Swiss docu-drama, Sister is all about its two characters and their very complex relationship. Warning: There will be spoilers, so if you don't want to know what's what, stop reading now. 

Sister is about a 12 year old boy, Simon, (Kacey Mottet Klein) who is trying to fend for himself and his wayward older sister, Louise, (Lea Seydoux). Set at the base of a mountain which plays host to a ski resort for wealthy foreigners, Simon and Louise live in a nearby apartment building where the poor residents scrape by and watch the tourists at play. The pair survive on the money Simon earns by selling winter gear and equipment he steals from unwary tourists. In contrast to Simon, his sister is lazy and childish. Unable to hold down a job or a relationship, Louise appears to be the main cause for Simon's unorthodox behaviour. 

As the story unfolds, we gradually learn the true nature of their relationship. She is actually his mother, and blames him for how her life turned out. This is the extent of the film's revelations. The film does not try to judge Simon and Louise, or offer pat motivations for the way they act. What makes their dynamic so interesting is that both characters are capable of both aiding and undermining the other.

When Louise finally begins to pull herself together and gets a job cleaning chalets, she is fired when Simon (enlisted to help) is caught stealing jewellery. What follows is my favourite scene in the movie, which encapsulates the pair's constantly shifting power dynamic. Enraged, Louise tries to give Simon a beating. However, despite their age gap, she is so short that this show of strength turns into a childish wrestling match with both participants scrabbling around in the dirt. It is hilarious and sad at the same time.

It is worth spoiling the ending, since it does not really give anything away, and is one of the main reasons why I keep revisiting the film. With the resort closing at the end of the season, and having lost both his revenue source and sister, Simon takes his last ride down the mountain in the gondola.  In the final shot, Simon passes Louise in the other gondola, heading toward the resort. Catching sight of each other, they rush to their respective windows as the two gondola pass. The film ends, leaving the viewer to ponder -- now that they are apart, are Louise and Simon finally closer than ever? Or is Simon giving his 'sister' and himself a second chance by leaving the mountain behind?

Or maybe I'm over-thinking it and he'll just wait at the bottom until she comes back down. I dunno. You figure it out.

Funny, sad and at times painfully real, Sister is a great movie. It's not for all tastes -- if you like stories with strong plots and tidy endings, you won't find them here. Sister is a portrait of two very lonely people who are simultaneously too immature and too worldly to survive without each other.

Go watch this movie! 

Q Planes: A small film with a long shadow


Q Planes is a capital 'B' movie featuring Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson in a potboiler involving German spies, missing aircraft and a slam-bang climax involving enough explosions and expendable henchmen to make Rambo jealous. But what does a 1939 quickie have to do with James Bond and The Avengers? Quite a bit actually.

a) The movie's plot was 30 years ahead of its time. As Britain commences a series of secret flying tests of its new aircraft, a foreign power seeks to foil their efforts by using a a disguised ship armed with a primitive EMP to bring down the aircraft. To cover their tracks, they have disguised the ship as a salvage vessel, which allows them to salvage the wreckage and kidnap the crews, leaving no clues for the authorities.

If this plot sounds vaguely familiar it's because you've seen it at least four times since. With modifications, this is the basic template for You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and Tomorrow Never Dies. By extension, not only is Q Planes the inspiration for the most iconic image of James Bond -- as a gadget-happy superman foiling schemes of world domination -- but Austin Powers, Archer, The IncrediblesKingsman: The Secret Service and all the other films and TV shows which have used that icon as a template for parody and homage.

b) This one is fairly obvious. In the role of secret agent Major Hammond, Ralph Richardson is the polar opposite of what you would expect -- an eccentric English gent with a bowler hat and an umbrella. Preferring brains over brawn, and trading romance for the job (there's a running gag involving Hammond's eternally postponed date), it is easy to see the influence of Hammond on the character of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) in the seminal British TV series The Avengers.
I see you Macnee...
c) Jack Whittingham, one of the screenwriters of Q Planes, was later hired by producer Kevin McClory and the author of a semi-popular series of thrillers to help the pair work on an original script based on the author's character. Though the project came to nothing, the author later used the trio's work as the basis for the latest novel to feature his creation: The author's name was Ian Fleming, the character was James Bond and the novel was Thunderball.

Why is this important? Well, Thunderball introduced Bond's most famous and enduring foe, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his organisation SPECTRE. Blofeld and SPECTRE would be the antagonists in all of Bond's cinematic adventures (except Goldfinger) between 1962 and 1971, and provided the inspiration for other films in the franchise. Thunderball's publication unleashed a 50 year legal battle as McClory and Whittingham fought for credit of Blofeld, SPECTRE and the basic story. These legal complications would lead to a rival production in 1983, Never Say Never Again, and more significantly, put an end to the presence of Blofeld and SPECTRE in the official Eon franchise. It would not be until 2013 that the rights to Blofeld and SPECTRE would be re-secured by Eon.

If you are curious, you can check out the film here.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

007 directors who should make a Bond movie

Everyone talks about how Christopher Nolan should direct a Bond movie. Three hours long, over-complicated and no humour? No thanks! Here is a list of directors who will probably never get a shot at the director's chair, but who I would personally like to see direct a future instalment of the franchise.

Ben Wheatley
Known primarily for his crime/headfuck epic Kill List and the super-violent black comedy Sightseers, at first Wheatley might seem too niche to get on the Broccolis' radar. However, he recently directed the first two episodes of the new series of Dr. Who, which is about as far from psycho hitmen and psycho holiday-makers as you can get. After his work on Who, Wheatley might be more willing to dip his toe in the waters of another British franchise. With his penchant for genre-bending, he might be able to jostle the franchise out of its adherence to the formula, and make a few changes that might stick for future instalments. Also, he's experienced with low budgets and works really fast so he could probably make five Bond flicks for about a fifth of the reported 300+ million they're currently shilling out on Spectre.

John Michael McDonagh
If you have had the pleasure of watching McDonough's 2011 buddy comedy The Guard, McDonough's penchant for whip-smart comedy and clever inversion of genre archetypes would be perfect for Bond. He could bring the belly laughs, while also maintaining the pathos of the Craig era. He would also probably cast Brendan Gleeson as Bond, which is a good thing. You can never go wrong with more Gleeson.







Jee-woon Kim
Having shown off his talents in a variety of genres (The Good, The Bad & The Weird, I Saw The Devil), this guy could either deliver the best Roger Moore movie of all time, or the darkest, most f***ed-up Dalton movie imaginable. While his Arnie vehicle The Last Stand was a bit of a damp squib, Bond would be the perfect playground for his demented sensibility. If you need a taste of what his Bond might look like, watch A Bittersweet Life. A stylish, violent and blackly comic action film about an emotionally stunted hitman who wears impeccable dark suits, it is basically an audition piece.



Nicolas Winding Refn
The Bond of the books is not known for spouting one liners. He does not really talk at all, to be honest. This dour, monosyllabic characterisation is right in the wheelhouse of Mr. Refn, who has made a career out of chronicling the exploits of dour, monosyllabic killers. Combined with the villains'  penchant for ultra-violence and sexual deviance, Refn might be the perfect choice for a stripped down R-rated take on Bond.








Neveldine/Taylor
If the Broccolis ever lose their minds, they could do worse than hand the reins to these maniacs. Guaranteed to deliver the most racist, sexist and insane movie imaginable, these guys could quite possibly deliver the most faithful version of Ian Fleming's creation ever. While previous filmmakers have moved the character away from his less appealing attributes, Neveldine and Taylor would probably push them to their most cartoonish extreme. They would probably also be onboard for adapting some of the more gonzo sequences and characters from the books, such as Blofeld's Garden of Death (You Live Only Twice) and Dr. No drowning in a landslide of guano.

Shion Sono
If the Broccolis ever lose their minds and then spontaneously combust, Sono might have a shot. Known chiefly for his 4 hour-long epic Love Exposure (2008), Sono is capable of taking a grab bag of seemingly random influences, story threads and themes, and blending them together into a cohesive whole. Since most Bond scripts are a random assemblage of elements, this might be right in Sono's wheelhouse.







The Coen Brothers
This is pie-in-the-sky wish fulfilment. Re-reading the Bond books at the start of this year, I was struck by how Coen-esque Fleming's world was -- the bizarre characters, the random bursts of violence, the moments of surrealism, the screaming fat men -- somehow, I feel like this is the perfect marriage of filmmaker to material. They've already done their ode to Raymond Chandler with The Big Lebowski. They could perform the same magic on Bond. In the books, Bond's consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and Benzedrine (amphetamines) is so excessive, he's basically the Dude without the good vibes.

THE SERVANT: Losey and Pinter take the knives out


Joseph Losey is one of England's most famous, and influential filmmakers. The director of a series of films (including 3 collaborations with Harold Pinter) in which he eviscerated the British class system, Losey created a body of work that would influence decades of films and filmmakers. Ironically, Losey was actually an American.

A victim of the blacklist, Losey had fled Hollywood in the early 50s and set up in the UK, where he began a new career making quota quickies. By the end of the 50s, in films like The Criminal and Blind Date, Losey was gaining a reputation for creating genre movies which took a particularly dark slant on humanity, and the ways in which society (specific English society) crushed those at the bottom and the fringes. The Servant (his first collaboration with Harold Pinter) is where Losey's work evolved toward something darker, and became less based in established genres.

Last time I did one of these Auckland Film Society reviews, the film was Purple Noon. That film has an interesting connection to this week's film: the producers of Purple Noon, the Hakim brothers, later produced Losey's pet project Eva. It was an unhappy collaboration which ended with the Hakims taking the cut out of Losey's hands. Despondent, Losey moved on to his next project: The Servant.

The Servant of the title is Barrett played by Dirk Bogarde. Finally free of his matinee idol status (and restrictive Rank contract), The Servant was one of several challenging roles Bogarde took on in the early 60s. As the deliciously malicious manservant, Bogarde dominates the film from the moment he steps onscreen. He completely outclasses poor James Fox who, in the role of Tony, Barrett's wealthy, entitled employer, is never more than adequate. Perhaps that was the filmmakers' intention -- Fox is so stuffy and young in comparison to Bogarde that he looks completely out of his depth.

 Taking place largely in the confines of Tony's comfortable townhouse, this space becomes a gilded cage for its owner as Barrett proceeds to take over the place, corrupting Tony with drink and women (including Barrett's ostensible girlfriend, played by Sarah Miles), and expelling his suspicious fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig).

Mixing dark comedy with a heavy dose of absurdity, The Servant is a claustrophobic little pressure cooker of a film in which the viewer is forced to endure the spectacle of watching four rather nasty people tearing each other to metaphorical shreds. Douglas Slocombe's black and white photography is superb, the set design balances a sense of a real place with gothic touches (Losey loves his mirrors) that turn Tony's rather square home into a bacchanalian cesspit. 

While Barrett could be viewed as some kind of villain, his victims sow the seeds of their own destruction -- Tony is an emotionally stunted man who has inherited his money, and is waiting to hear  back from a potential backer about a mad scheme to build cities in the Brazilian jungle. Susan is a cold, class-conscious woman who treats Barrett as a serf. She sees the servant as a threat to her authority, and despises the access he has to her beau. When Tony turns into an infantile alcoholic and Susan flees the house, there is a certain degree of satisfaction to their loss of power.

Final thoughts: It's been three days since I saw The Servant and I'm still thinking about it. Though this is the first time I've seen it, The Servant feels like a film that rewards repeat viewings. Rich with ambiguity (the implicit homoeroticism of Barrett and Tony's dynamic is worth a blog post in itself), the film is filled with potential readings. It loses a little steam in the third act, but as a whole The Servant lives up to its reputation as a classic of British cinema. Check it out.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Peter R. Hunt: The secret auteur of the James Bond series



The editor of every Bond film between 1962 and 1967, Hunt's stamp on the series is as indelible as Ken Adam's production design and John Barry's music. 

Hunt is credited with developing a new style of editing for action pictures. Before Hunt, the accepted wisdom was that you do not cut on action. Recognising the Bond films' potential for a new kind of visceral experience, Hunt became the first editor to cut on action during action scenes, adding a sense of pace and punch to Bond's adventures that set the films apart from other genre films of the period. In this way, Hunt is at least partially responsible for laying the foundation for the increasingly frenetic style of today's blockbusters.

Hunt had a reputation for saving movies, and the Bond series was inarguably rescued on more than one occasion by his leaps of brilliance. In 1963, with the release date nearing, From Russia With Love required major reshoots to clean up story problems. However the main unit had run seriously over budget on location which left the production team with few options to fix the film.  Hunt came up with a series of simple solutions which saved the film (including filling coverage gaps by simply flipping footage to make it look like alternative angles). The best example from this production is how Hunt figured out how to fix the film's pivotal exposition sequence. Rather than reconstructing the villain's lair set, Hunt took already shot footage of actress Lotte Lenya (Rosa Klebb) then used it as a back-projection plate. The director then filmed the actress in front of her back-projected image so that she could complete her side of the sequence with the 'set' behind her. From Russia With Love is now regarded by many Bond fans as the best Bond film. 


Hunt went on to perform similar duties on Goldfinger (reportedly re-constructing Guy Hamilton's coverage of the iconic car chase after his footage was judged unworkable), Thunderball (he had to cut down a three hour director's cut) and You Only Live Twice (for which he performed double duty as second unit director). His skills were so valued that when Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman was in production on The Ipcress File, he brought Hunt in to advise him on director Sidney J. Furie's rushes. According to the excellent commentary track, Saltzman was unimpressed with Furie's idiosyncratic approach, and felt it would be impossible to cut together into a commercial film. Hunt thought otherwise. With his masterful work editing the film, Furie contends that Hunt saved his career.


For his services on the previous entries, Hunt was rewarded with directing the next Bond epic: On Her Majesty's Secret Service. His direction of OHMSS sees the Hunt 'style' reach its peak. For expert testimony, here's an excerpt from Steven Soderbergh's recent blog post on OHMSS:


"it’s like Peter Hunt [...] took all the ideas of the French new wave and blended them with Eisenstein in a Cuisinart to create a grammar that still tops today’s how fast can you cut aesthetic, because the difference here is that each of the shots—no matter how short—are real shots, not just additional coverage from the hosing-it-down school of action, so there is a unification of the aesthetic of the first unit and the second unit that doesn’t exist in any other Bond film. "- See more at: http://extension765.com/sdr/2-most-irrelevant-no-1#sthash.OAsRBlXx.dpuf

Check out the fight on the beach (at 4:11), which is a great example of Hunt's style. If you look closely, you'll note that Hunt cuts from one major piece of action to another without showing the in-between moments. Characters go from fighting by a boat to the middle of the surf with no shot to show the distance covered. It's a jarring effect, but because Hunt, as Soderbergh notes, makes sure that each shot is perfectly framed to capture the action, the viewer gets a sense of visceral movement without a confusion about the geography or the position of the characters in relation to each other. It's a high-impact, impressionistic style that Hunt carries through the rest of the film.

As a new director with a novice leading man, Hunt did not have the massive budgets of the previous entries. What he did have was a book with a solid dramatic core, a more emotionally involving story that would require the character of Bond to actually change. With less leeway to go for the gadgets, and without Connery, Hunt and his team had to work hard to make a film that could stand up without the Scotsman. Even critics who hate Lazenby will admit that the film, in terms of its cast, script, photography, stunts and music, is far better than most of the films which followed it. With his talents for rescuing faltering productions, Hunt was up to the herculean task in front of him, and his experience with the established production team ensured that OHMSS wound up as one of the best films in the series. It is a testament to Hunt's skills that, despite Lazenby, the film still packs an emotional resonance lacking in the series. 

Hunt's association with the Bond franchise ended with OHMSS. When the film (and Lazenby) failed to break out, the producers made the decision to clean the slate and did not ask Hunt to return. Hunt would go onto become a jobbing director in the 70s and 80s, but never regained the kind of success he had achieved as an editor. Hunt lived long enough to experience OHMSS's critical re-evaluation in the 90s, before dying at the age of 77 in 2002.

While his association with the Bond films was relatively short, Hunt's influence endures. During the making of OHMSS, he brought on editor John Glen, who would go on to edit Roger Moore's late 70s entries and was in charge of the second-unit for one or two iconic scenes. He would go on to direct all of the 80s films, continuing Hunt's frenetic style and returning to the gritty realism of OHMSS with his two entries starring Timothy Dalton. In this way, Hunt, via Glen, is a major influence on the style and substance of the Daniel Craig era. 

POSTSCRIPT: Beyond Bond, Hunt's work, especially on OHMSS, has inspired several now-famous directors. I have already mentioned Soderbergh, but the biggest fan of Hunt's work is Christopher Nolan. A big Bond fan, most famously Nolan used OHMSS as inspiration for the ice fortress dream sequence at the end of Inception. While he may not have the name recognition of Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Peter R. Hunt's contribution to the series cannot be ignored.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

'That creature is no girl': A look back at Lifeforce (1985)

 

Here it is. The one review you have all been waiting for. And by waiting for, I mean you have heard me rant about this movie for the last 5 years. Life-force, the magnum opus of the Cannon Group, the 80s studio known for making breakdancing exposes, Chuck Norris action flicks and Sly Stallone arm-wrestling epics. What makes Lifeforce so special is that it is the one movie where Cannon actually spent money on it (to the tune of $25 million), and hired a talented creative team (director Tobe 'Poltergeist' Hooper, screenwriter Dan 'Alien' O'Bannon and effects maestro John 'Star Wars' Dykstra) to realise it. 

How much do I love Lifeforce? I own the Blu-ray, the soundtrack AND a copy of the novel it is based on with the movie tie-in cover. This movie is like a smorgasbord of other movies. You like vampires? Aliens? Zombies? Naked chicks? Patrick Stewart? All are present and accounted for.

This movie is a glorious mess, in which talented people were given too much money, too much Coke and too much freedom. Every idea the filmmakers had appears to have been pasted on a big cork board and then put on screen. The movie's title could have been Kitchen SinkOne of the things I like most about Lifeforce is that it does not feel like one story. It seems to jump from one story to another, and from one genre to another, until it all comes together in complete incoherence at the end. It really feels like four different movies. In the spirit of the movie, I'm going to review Life-force as four different movies. Like its inspiration, this approach might be a complete failure. Ah well, here goes...

MOVIE ONE: Space vampires!

Summary: The Anglo-American space shuttle Churchill is on a mission to study Hailey's Comet as it passes Earth. What they discover is a massive alien ghost spaceship, containing a long dead race of giant bat-like aliens. They also discover a womb-like chamber containing three human-like figures in glass cases, which they then bring back to the Churchill. One astronaut in particular,  the leader of the mission, Carlsen (Steve Railsback) is suddenly affected by the discovery of these bodies, and begins to experience an overpowering sense of lust toward the female specimen. 
Review: Whatever its other narrative deficiencies, Lifeforce starts with a bang. The acting is solid, the visuals spectacular and the ghost space ship is a fascinating, eerie concept. As soon as Railsback locks eyes with Mathilda May's comatose alien, you know something is about to go very, very wrong. 
Best bit: The moment when the astronauts enter the womb-like space ship to discover hundreds of dead aliens suspended in mid-air. It is the best evocation of Lovecraftian horror since the original Alien.
Worst bit: The science is naff, but that's about it. 
Score: 9/10

MOVIE TWO: Killer Boobs from Outer Space!

Summary: Months later, the Churchill returns to Earth. Ground control is perturbed by the lack of communication from the shuttle and a rescue mission is launched to investigate. Inside, they discover the crew dead, the cabin burned in a massive fire, and the three glass coffins, which, bizarrely, have remained completely unaffected by the blaze. The coffins are taken off the Churchill to the London HQ of the European Space Research Centre, where Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) struggles to figure out what is going on. That night, the Space Girl awakens from her coffin and drains a security guard of his 'lifeforce'. She then escapes from the facility into the night. 
Review: At this point we are still in the 'sane' part of the film, and what started out as a space adventure takes a welcome shift into full-on erotic horror with the introduction of Mathilda May's Space Girl. Regaining consciousness back on Earth, she proceeds to do a 'terminator' and just walk out of the facility, buck naked and packing (literal) heat. While the obvious approach would be to highlight the physical attributes of his star, Hooper shrouds May's nudity in shadow and throws in a little blue filter to heighten her otherworldliness. Hooper's approach pays off, because the sequence would have come off as completely ridiculous and exploitive if shot more conventionally. What is sad is that Hooper sets the Space Girl up so well to be a great villain (she's basically an intergalactic Dracula), and then forgets about her for the rest of the movie. 
Best bit: Shot by Hooper with an emphasis on atmosphere and slowly escalating tension, the sequence where the Space Girl escapes captivity is the closest the film comes to approximating genuine horror. Mathilda May's silent, tightly controlled performance (she was a former ballerina) makes the Space Girl a truly otherworldly presence. 
Worst bit: As the Space Girl walks past a terrified guard, Tobe Hooper frames her like a 50s monster movie -- as a silhouette crossing the frame, with the shadow of her bust crossing the terrified guard's face. It's hilarious. 
Score: 8/10

MOVIE THREE: Body jumper!
Summary: Carlsen re-appears, having escaped the Churchill as it entered Earth orbit. After explaining the Space Girl's origin, he joins SAS Colonel Caine (Spooks bigwig Peter Firth) in tracking down the alien menace. After discovering that Carlsen has developed a mental link with the Space Girl, the duo use it to track her to a mental institution for the criminally insane. Eventually they discover that the Space Girl has possessed the head of the facility, Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart) and capture him. After an attempted interrogation proves useless (and fatal to certain indiscriminate supporting players), Carlsen and Caine attempt to take the possessed Armstrong back to London. However, the Space Girl escapes Armstrong's body and vanishes. It is then that Caine learns what really happened on the Churchill -- obsessed with the Space Girl, Carlsen had woken and freed her. This allowed the Space Girl to then use his crew as a food source. Coming to his senses, Carlsen had set fire to the interior of the Churchill and escaped.  
Review: And this is where the movie goes off a cliff. Sure, there are a few weird things in the first half, but once our heroes head after the Space Girl, the movie takes a sharp turn into crazy town. Suddenly characters are having visions about the Space Girl's intentions, the Space Girl starts possessing random people for no real purpose, and it all climaxes with a deranged Railsback making out with a possessed Patrick Stewart while the room around them erupts in electrical discharges.
Best bit: The Space Girl's escape from the helicopter is fantastically weird -- blood free flows out of the possessed captives' bodies to coagulate into a massive blood clot that quickly forms the body of the Space Girl.
Worst bit: Oh god, the entire asylum sequence is such a buzz killer -- it just drags on forever and adds absolutely nothing. And then there's this piece of gold.
Score: 2/10

MOVIE FOUR: Zombie apocalypse!
Summary: Carlsen and Caine return to London to find it completely overrun by hordes of zombified citizens and balls of blue light which just seem to fly through the city and occasionally blow up a building. While Carlsen goes off to confront the Space Girl, the derelict alien ship makes its way towards Earth, where it begins to store the life-forces of the people that the Space Girl's undead army have killed. In the end, Carlsen sacrifices himself by impaling both himself and the Space Girl on an ancient sword (don't ask), which ends the apocalypse and leaves Caine to watch the re-energised alien ship about face and head off back toward Hailey's Comet.
Review: While I like the overall idea of London succumbing to a city-wide plague, the execution leaves something to be desired. For one thing, it comes out of nowhere. Carlsen and Caine do not even hear about it until they are flying over the city. Now I have no idea how long it would take for this disease to spread, but it appears to have happened in about 5 minutes. Either that, or nobody heard about it at the asylum. The other thing I have a problem with is that the 'zombies' look almost nothing like the shrivelled corpses from earlier. While I am sure this is the result of the limits of make-up and special effects circa 1985, their look is so much more evocative of traditional zombies than what we have been lead to expect. 
Best bit: Catching sight of the infected British Prime Minister draining his secretary of her life-force, Carlsen and Caine calmly make their escape from Whitehall while the disease rapidly spreads through the MPs and soldiers around them.
Worst bit: I still have no idea what the ending means. After impaling himself and the Space Girl, Carlsen and his true love/worst enemy are beamed up to the space ship where their appearance appears to reenergise the entire ship and then it flies off into deep space. Credits. What?
Score: 5/10

Final verdict: While it is not a great movie, Lifeforce is far from the outright turkey it is accused of being. It also has something missing from today's blockbusters: a sense of fun. While the trend now is for big movies to be either post-modern and glib, or completely serious and somewhat grim, Lifeforce, whatever its faults, has an appealingly earnest approach toward its genre tropes. Space vampires, zombies and naked Space Girls are inherently silly, but the filmmakers seem to recognise this quality and don't try to hide the hokeyness or make fun of it. They know that the cheese is half the fun. 
However there is no denying that Lifeforce is deeply, hilariously flawed. The opening space sequence is great, Mathilda May is a knockout, the special effects are fine, and Henry Mancini's memorable score still stands up. Everything else is varying degrees of WTF. The actors appear to be acting in different movies, the dialogue is insane, and the second half of the movie just appears to be an assemblage of random ideas. There are moments which are genuinely exciting, and moments which are contenders for the worst scenes in movie history. Oscillating on the border between 'good' and 'bad' movies (sometimes within the same scene),  Lifeforce is a strange, one-of-a-kind experience that I cannot recommend enough. 

Post-script: http://deadline.com/2015/05/chiller-original-series-slasher-2015-1201421018/

Friday, June 5, 2015

Poetic exploitation: Jean Rollin's 'Lips of Blood'


Jean Rollin is the marmite of 70s exploitation cinema. His films exist on the boundary between the grind house and the art house. Rollin's movies generally fall into the horror genre, and most of his horror output is concerned with vampirism. With his funereal pacing and dream logic, his movies do not fit the profile for cheap and cheerful vampire flicks. On the other hand, his films have too much nudity and violence to be considered art house.

Lips of Blood (1975) is Rollin's masterpiece. If you are an entry level viewer, you are better off watching Fascination (in which a thief breaks into a house occupied by a vampire coven; shit goes wrong) or The Grapes of Death (bad wine turns a farming community into the living dead). They have stronger plots and cater more toward fulfilling genre expectations. However, if you enjoy Rollin's work, and can get into the groove, Lips of Blood rewards the patient viewer. His purest artistic vision, Lips of Blood was financed by a wealthy fan who gave Rollin carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted. Free of commercial constraints (or the need for coherence) Rollin was able to use his favourite ideas and locations to craft a loose narrative of long lost love

The story is very simple. A young man goes on the hunt for a beautiful young woman he remembers from his childhood who he begins to see in a series of visions. His mother tries to keep him from finding her, while a pair of eerie vampire twins go about on their own mysterious mission that may have something to do with the young man's quest.  It all ends with the young man and his undead love floating out to sea in her coffin.

Pacing is the sound barrier for enjoying Rollin's films. The plot is barebones, and the characters are nothing more than archetypes. While there is a little bit of violence and nudity, there is not enough of either to make Lips of Blood enjoyable as simple genre fodder. What makes Rollin's movies so mesmerising is Rollin's talent for producing strange, haunting images. While undeniably arresting, Rollin tends to linger on his compositions -- images of bloody lips, blank eyes, and semi-nude undead beauties drifting through the ruins of France's past -- which results in a hypnotising, dream-like effect. This is very true of Lips of Blood, which works as a 'greatest hits' compilation of Rollin's favorited themes, images and locations. With its limited dialogue and simple characterisation, Lips of Blood feels more like a silent film than a 70s horror movie.

For those interested in 70s horror movies, niche directors or weird kinky French flicks, the filmography of Jean Rollin is worth a look, and Lips of Blood is the jewel in the crown.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

PURPLE NOON: The Talented Mr Ripley checks in

In the next few months, I'm going to be reviewing a few of the movie screenings that the Auckland Film Society is hosting at the Academy theatre. The first is Rene Clement's 1960 thriller Purple Noon (Plein Soleil), a blackly comic, scintillating thriller featuring the first cinematic appearance of Patricia Highsmith's sociopathic anti-hero Tom Ripley. Full disclosure: I have not seen any of the other movies featuring Tom Ripley, nor have I read any of the books. My exposure to Highsmith is limited to Strangers on a Train and the short story collection Little Tales of Misogyny. 

French heartthrob Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley, a poor young man who has wrangled his way into the inner circle of Phillippe Greenleaf (Maurice Renot), an errant rich kid who is wondering aimlessly through the Med with his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforet). Tom has been tasked by Greenleaf's father with bringing him home to America to take over the family business. That cover story is dispatched as quickly as Greenleaf, as Tom kills him and then proceeds to steal his identity, his money and Marge.

With his ridiculous good looks, Alain Delon looks the part of a shallow narcissist to a T. In his early 20s at the time of production, Delon's youth adds a bizarre sense of naïveté to Ripley -- as he screws up and makes mistakes, it feels like Ripley is learning how to become a criminal mastermind. At the same time Delon manages to convey the vacuum behind Ripley's eyes. An alien without real human emotions, Ripley is constantly searching for a new identity that can replace his own. There is a sliver of pathos to Delon's Ripley -- in a way his schemes of wealth and status are a way for him to connect with other human beings.

On its own merits, Purple Noon is truly exceptional. The performances are superb, the Eastmancolor photography is beautiful, and director Clement manages the perfect balance between suspense and comedy in a way that manages to evoke the mordant tone of Highsmith's work. One sequence especially, in which Ripley tries to carry a corpse out of his apartment building without attracting the attention of his neighbours, is equal parts Buster Keaton and Alfred Hitchcock.

A fine companion piece to Alfred Hitchcock's superlative adaptation of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, Purple Noon is the kind of sophisticated adult entertainment they do not make any more.