Monday, January 31, 2011

Omni vincit amor (allegedly)

So the first month of this new year draws to a close. Already, fractionally, the evenings are that little bit lighter. February takes her place in the calendar tomorrow. Shop windows are already bedecked with swathes of pink crepe, flowery designs and cuddly toys holding out ersatz roses. Spring is just round the corner and a young man’s thoughts turn to romance.

Well, fuck that shit here on The Agitation of the Mind! Granted, I’m a happily married man and I love Mrs F completely, but I’ve never seen the point of lining the pockets of florists and card shops who have decided to whitewash the fact that February 14th is actually the anniversary of Valentine’s death. He was beaten with clubs, then beheaded. Yeah, put that on a fuckin’ teddy bear!

Valentine, along with St Marius, aided Christians persecuted by Claudius II, and for this he was put to death. He is now the patron saint not only of betrothed couples, happy marriages and lovers (does this mean he’s the patron saint of extra-martial affairs, too? surely a conflict of interest!), but also of epilepsy, fainting, plague, bee-keepers and travellers. I get mixed messages from this. Okay, I can see how swooning ties in with all the hearts and flowers rigmarole, but epilepsy, plague, bee-keepers and travelling? Sounds like a recipe for ‘The Swarm’ by way of ’28 Days Later’ with a dash of ‘The Crazies’ thrown in for good measure.

Here at The Agitation of the Mind, yours truly has not achieved any form of martyrdom and subsequent deification (and having seen Pascal Laugnier’s ‘Martyrs’, I don’t fucking want to, either!), therefore cannot lay claim to the title Patron Saint of Cynicism. Nonetheless, I’m going to indulge in some spectacularly black-hearted programming and populate the fortnight leading up to Valentine’s Day with a series of films skewed towards the darker side of human relationships.

Expect duplicitous dames, femmes fatale, sexual shenanigans, hanky panky and at least one bout of slap and tickle where the slap aspect is definitely predominant over the tickling. Welcome to two weeks, starting from tomorrow, of black valentines.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: The Killer Must Kill Again

Pop quiz.

Question 1: you’re a businessman with a cashflow problem, a rich wife who’s pissed off at you because of your philanderings and a business deal that’s about to go south. Do you:

(a) start seriously making it up to your wife in the hope that she’ll bail you out;

(b) file for bankruptcy and get realistic about the fact that divorcing proceedings are on the horizon;

(c) commit suicide and rid the world of your loathsome presence because you’re basically an incredibly shitty human being; or

(d) have a blazing row with your wife, storm out, and drive to a pay phone near the docks so that you can ring your mistress?

Question 2: while at the docks, you witness a psychotic-looking individual pushing a car containing a dead woman into the water. Do you:

(a) hide;

(b) sprint for your car and get the fuck out of there at top speed;

(c) redial and this time ask to be put through to the police;

(d) approach the gentleman in question and offer your silence re: his corpse-disposal activities in return for killing your wife?

If you answered (d) to either of these questions, you have just demonstrated a mindset akin to that of Giorgio Mainardi (George Hamilton), the cold bastard who sets the events of Luigi Cozzi’s ‘The Killer Must Kill Again’ in motion, and you might want to consider logging off and contacting a mental health professional.

The anonymous killer (Michel Antoine) – a gaunt, gimlet-eyed and utterly emotionless psychopath who could probably kill with his thousand-yard stare , never mind his recourse to strangulation and stabbing – goes along with Maindardi’s request, mainly owing to (a) Mainardi nicking his monogrammed (and therefore identifiable) lighter and (b) Mainardi offering twenty thousand on top of the lighter’s return. The plan goes swimmingly until the killer’s Mercedes – a car as distinctive as his lighter – is nicked by stud muffin Luca (Alessio Orano) in an attempt to impress his hoity-toity girlfriend Laura (Cristina Galbo).

Luca laughs off the fact that he’s just committed grand theft auto, something he wouldn’t be laughing about if he was aware that Mrs Mainardi’s lifeless body was in the trunk. In order to facilitate the removal of said cadaver – as well as to teach these wise-ass kids a lesson (although a murderer getting on his moral high horse about having his car stolen strikes me as a tad hypocritical) – our skull-faced killer goes off in hot pursuit. Something he achieves by stealing a car himself. Hmmm, definite tendencies to hypocrisy here.

Meanwhile, the police turn up at Mainardi’s hideously decorated apartment, led by a tenacious inspector (Eduardo Fajardo) who smells a rat from the off.

All this within the first twenty-five minutes. Excellent, I was thinking, rubbing my hands, the stage is set for a tense game of cat-and-mouse as the killer tracks down Luca and Laura, while Mainardi and the detective dance a verbal pas de deux as the investigation uncovers more inconsistencies and the questions get thornier .Good old-fashioned Italian exploitation shot through with Hitchcockian tension. Yeah, baby!

And there’s no doubt that Cozzi takes his pointers from Hitch. The business with the lighter recalls ‘Strangers on a Train’, as does the almost homoerotic undercurrent between Mainardi and the killer. Luca and Laura’s journey to the coast in the stolen car – specifically in the attention they invite from a suspicious cop – recalls Marion Crane’s flight with the purloined money in ‘Psycho’. The abandoned beachside property Luca is heading for, and at which much of the nasty final act takes place, is a stand in for the Bates Motel, the windmill in ‘Foreign Correspondent’ or the remote farmhouse in ‘Torn Curtain’.

Unfortunately, Cozzi doesn’t pull off his set-pieces with the same brilliance as Sir Alfred (how many directors could?) and a long middle section with the killer following Luca and Laura drains of tension the longer it goes on. The cuts back to Mainardi vs the inspector become increasingly less frequent and the mechanics of the web of deceit Mainardi tries to weave to satisfy his interrogator’s questions is quickly dispensed with.

That Luca and Laura are a fairly unlikeable couple who spend most of their time bickering adds to the tedium, while the genuine bits of suspense or flashes of violence are misogynistic to the hilt. Perhaps more so than the norm even for such a notoriously phallocentric subgenre as the giallo. Cozzi’s harshest directorial decision is to intercut a sleazily eroticized rape scene with a graphic (consensual) sex scene, scoring the whole grubby sequence to an ‘Elvira Madigan’-style tinkling piano theme.

Overall, women are treated like shit in this film, starting with the anonymous murder victim whose broken body is tossed in the back of a car which in turn is unceremoniously consigned to the deep. Mainardi’s contempt for his wife extends to her continued existence on the planet. Luca compels Laura to expose her breasts to distract an attendant during a gas station robbery. The ditzy blonde (Femi Benussi) whom Luca picks up after an argument with Laura is written in purely to up the sex and violence quota.

If you can get over that – and the draggy middle section – ‘The Killer Must Kill’ again is a decent thriller with good turns from Hilton and, particularly, Antoine. His skeletal visage and unblinking intensity are unforgettable, as much an avatar of the cold and unmerciful workings of fate as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in ‘No Country for Old Men’.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Happy 41st birthday to Heather Graham.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Strait Jacket

Shinji Ushiro’s hectic anime ‘Strait Jacket’ takes a premise that requires a suspension of disbelief plus VAT, welds it to a hefty chunk of mythology and tries to make the whole thing fly with a script that’s this close to having its certificate of airworthiness rescinded.

First things first: the set-up. In an alternative history, an experiment harnesses the power of “mythical magic” (as opposed to what other type?) and brings it into the real world. As a consequence, controlled usage of magic in military, industrial and scientific areas renders the world of 1899 technologically and socially advanced. Cars are commonplace; weaponry is as high-tech as one would expect in the kind of anime where lots of things get blown up; and the standard of living is generally high. Except, of course, for the poor bastards who are in the wrong place at the wrong time when the shit-blowing-up shit goes down. (I’ve got to stop using phrases like that; it’s no wonder I’m not getting that ‘Culture Show’ gig.)

There’s a flipside to magic, though. Uncontrolled applications of it result in the creation of demons. To combat them, the government deploys a counter-terrorismdemonism unit called Black Dog. (Whether or not it’s been a long time since they rock and rolled is something the script leaves unexplored.) Black Dog consists of “tactical sorcerists” (yup, that’s what the film calls them and I can assure you that I was totally unable to type “tactical sorcerists” without sniggering) who use strong magic against the demons. To protect themselves from the negative aspects of the magic, they wear protective suits – the strait jackets of the title – which make them look a bit like Iron Man but without the glossy red paint job.

The exposition of all this rigmarole accounts for more of scant 76-minute running time than is entirely necessary. And that’s before you even take into account the red-herring subplot about a group of insurgents.

Idealistic young operative Nerin Simmonds reluctantly enlists the help of unlicensed tactical sorcerist (nope, still unable to type it with a straight face) Rayotte Steinberg when a particularly nasty demon starts laying waste to a hospital and Black Dog are otherwise engaged. Steinberg’s methods are notoriously destructive to the point of suicidal. He travels with a young witch, Kapel Theta (the script doesn’t make it clear if this is her actual name or just the sorority she belongs to) who holds a grudge against him for the death of her parents.

Isaac Hammond, the clean-cut square-jawed poster boy for Black Dog, also has reason to hate Steinberg. And Steinberg himself, all moody angst and brooding silences, is seeking redemption through death for a guilty act he has been carrying around for over a decade.

Phew! All dramatic stuff, right?

The essential problem with ‘Strait Jacket’ is that it plays like an origin story (how Kapel Theta meets Steinberg; how Nerin meets Steinberg; and why Steinberg’s a miserable bastard) and all but avoids the main narrative thrust of Hammond’s discovery of corruption in high places and Hammond and Steinberg’s inevitable stand-off in its haste to throw Steinberg, Kapel Theta and Nerin together, presumably with the intent of sending them off on myriad thrilling and exotic adventures.

I say presumably, because the end credits roll at this point.

There are other, minor, niggles – such as the lack of specificity vis-à-vis the film’s setting (the backgrounds suggest Victorian London, names like Schumann and Ottoman hint at Germany or Austria, and the cars and the banter between Black Dog squad members come across as distinctly American) – but in the main ‘Strait Jacket’ frustrates purely because it seems like an extended overture, only for the orchestra to pack up their instruments and go home, leaving the audience sitting there perplexed, wondering what happened to the actual opera. Moreover, the point of view flips around without ever fully deciding on who the main character is. It seems like Nerin to begin with; however, she’s sidelined whenever Steinberg does his thing. Then the focus shifts pretty heavily to Hammond in the last third.

‘Strait Jacket’ also frustrates because there’s a sense of squandered potential. Steinberg and Phi Beta Kappa Kapel Theta’s relationship crackles with tension; Nerin has the makings of a headstrong heroine yet the script never gives her her moment of glory; the conspiracy element is abandoned almost arbitrarily without Hammond resolving whether he’s uncovered the full extent (is there an even more sinister eminence grice lurking in the background?); and potentially interesting supporting characters such as seemingly retired tactical sorcerist (damn it; sniggered again!) Filisis Moog are never developed. (And when you’ve got a character called Filisis freakin’ Moog, it ought to be a legal requirement that you give them something interesting to do.)

If anyone knows whether ‘Strait Jacket’ has any sequel, or was developed as a multi-episode manga, please do the comments box thing and let me know. As mildly disappointed as it left me, ‘Strait Jacket’ painted a world I’d like to revisit.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bernd Eichinger

Writer, producer and director Bernd Eichinger passed away on Monday at the age of 61. According to reports, he died of a massive heart attack during a meal with family and friends. Hellish for them – and my heart goes out to them – but if there’s a preferable way to go, then surely it’s surrounded by those you love and care about.

In a career that stretched back to the late ’60s, Eichinger was least prolific as a director – just six titles (and two of those shorts!) with a 23 year hiatus between ‘Ein Weihnachtsmärchen’ in 1973 and the made-for-TV ‘Das Mädchen Rosemarie’ in 1996 – but it’s as a producer that he’ll be remembered.

Switching between Hollywood and his native Germany, Eichinger was behind a body of work that’s almost schizophrenic in its range and aesthetic merit, from prestige literary adaptations such as ‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘Perfume: the Story of a Murderer’ (by way of a low-budget take on Ian MacEwan’s controversy-fest ‘The Cement Garden’) to low-brow popcorn fare like the ‘Fantastic Four’ movies and the ‘Resident Evil’ franchise.

Just to point up the schizophrenia of his CV, try watching ‘The Neverending Story’ and ‘Body of Evidence’ on a double bill. Or ‘House of Spirits’ followed by ‘DOA: Dead or Alive’. Yup, he produced ’em all.

But it’s probably with ‘Downfall’ that Eichinger’s name will most readily be associated in all future histories of cinema. A powerhouse, unflinchingly brave account of what was arguably his country’s darkest hour, ‘Downfall’ was the first German production to depict Hitler; moreover, it depicted him with neither sympathy nor apology; it dared to show the monster as a man.

Eichinger made another foray into Germany’s politically charged history with ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’. As with ‘Downfall’ and ‘Perfume: the Story of a Murderer’, he also wrote the script.

I can’t help but think that with the hefty one-two punch of ‘Downfall’ and ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’, Eichinger was on his way to forging a new era of German cinema, one that dared to take a long hard look at the recent past and report, harshly and without sentiment, on what it saw.

i.m. Bernd Eichinger, 11 April 1949 – 24 January 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nina's Heavenly Delights

After the angst-ridden lesbian coming of age drama ‘Lost and Delirious’, reviewed yesterday, here’s a lesbian drama that’s virtually angst free. In fact it’s closer in tone to a rom-com than a drama. And there are no coming of age heartaches either. There is, however, a cookery competition.

Following her father’s death, Scottish-Asian Nina (Shelley Conn) returns to her native Glasgow after fleeing from an arranged marriage three years previously. She discovers her mother pining for an old flame, her siblings guarding secrets they’re convinced said matriarch will disapprove of, and the family-owned restaurant under threat from rival chef Raj (Art Malik). Resistant to her family’s initial antagonism and determined to keep her father’s spirit alive, Nina teams up with her brother’s is-she-isn’t-she girlfriend Lisa (Laura Fraser) to reopen the business and enter a culinary competition that could save them from Raj’s take-over. Although romance is the last thing on Nina’s mind, the chemistry between her and Lisa is too strong to ignore.

I made the mistake of watching ‘Nina’s Heavenly Delights’ two days before payday, with just £1.13 in the bank and not a chance in hell of getting a takeaway let alone trolling up to a restaurant, casing out the menu and ordering the works. I sat through 91 minutes of pure feelgood fuzziness, DoP Simon Dennis framing the food as gorgeously as he frames the smouldering looks between the never-beaten-with-the-ugly-stick leads, with my stomach rumbling and my saliva glands working overtime.

As a food film, I’d put ‘Nina’s Heavenly Delights’ up there with ‘Ratatouille’ and ‘Big Night’, both of which necessitated me going directly from the cinema to a restaurant. (Unlike ‘La Grande Bouffe’ and ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’, both of which rendered me a poster boy for Weight Watchers for several days afterwards.)

As a romantic drama, it’s not as overpoweringly passionate as ‘Desert Hearts’ or as quirkily entertaining as ‘Better than Chocolate’. Its more humorous elements lack the self-aware smarts of ‘Kissing Jessica Stein’. And yet, for all its hokeyness, Pratibha Parmar’s film is as lovingly created as its heroine’s cuisine.

On paper, it comes across a lesbian romance with a foodie subplot; in actuality, the cookery competition is the narrative be-all-and-end-all, with Nina and Lisa’s falling in love simmering away (pardon the pun) in the background. This actually turns out to be the film’s strong point. With Nina and Lisa ostensibly straight at the outset and facing up not only to their feelings but their sexuality, the potential for angst and/or navel-gazing could have been significant. Parmar, however, focuses on the competition/underdog aspect (‘Nina’s Heavenly Delights’ probably has more in common with ‘Rocky’ than ‘Desert Hearts’) and lets things develop organically between Nina and Lisa.

Conn and Fraser are eminently likeable and convincing in the lead roles. The supporting cast nail it, with a “man of the match” award going to Ronny Jhutti as Nina’s camp best mate Bobbi, leader of a transvestite dance troupe. The finale is as predictable as a join-the-dots puzzle, but no less enjoyable for all that. To further the obvious analogy, ‘Nina’s Heavenly Delights’ is a modest little film – more an entrée than a banquet – but it’s a delicious treat.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lost and Delirious

Posted to coincide with Mischa Barton’s 25th birthday.

In an ideal world, ‘Lost and Delirious’ would have been made in the ’50s, shot in sumptuous and utterly artifical Technicolor and been directed by Douglas Sirk. It would have been implicit but bubbling with repression. It would have starred twenty-something actresses in pigtails passing themselves off as teenagers. There wouldn’t have been a softcore sex scene of the Zalman King school. It would have been 100 minutes of gorgeous, borderline hilarious melodrama.

As it is, though, ‘Lost and Delirious’ was made in 2004, filmed in an autumnal palette and directed by Leà Pool. The only implicit thing about it is what actual purpose the supposedly main character serves. It stars Piper Perabo, Jessica Paré and Mischa Barton (summat about their ages). And there’s a softcore sex scene between two of the leads that’s all close ups of breasts and thighs and intertwined legs. I mention this to point up the comparison; any increase in my blog traffic is purely coincidental.

The first scene has our heroine and intermittent narrator Mary (Barton) driven to a boarding school by her emotionally distant father and his emotionally not-there-at-all new wife. Mary is depressed at the prospect of living away from home and by her inability, on occasions, to remember her late mother’s face. At the boarding school – which seems to be stuck in a ’50s time-warp with its perky gels and matronly staff members (if someone had said “good-o” or “jolly hockey sticks”, I wouldn’t have been surprised) – Mary finds herself sharing a room with the popular Victoria (Paré) and rebellious free spirit Paulie (Perabo).

A lot of time is spent on Mary finding her feet, bonding with her new friends, having her mind and emotions piqued by education (for the first twenty minutes or so, I was convinced I was watching a mash-up of ‘Mr Holland’s Opus’ and ‘Desert Hearts’ – and wondered when they were going to get cracking with the good bits from ‘Desert Hearts’) and forming a tentative friendship with avuncular gardener Joe (Graham Greene), whose horticultural talents remind Mary of her mother and who becomes an ersatz parental figure, imparting wise homilies and yada yada yada.

Then the filmmakers remember that this is a lesbian coming of age drama and throw in a softcore sex scene of the Zalman King school to demonstrate that Victoria and Paulie are more than just room-mates. They also like to make out in voluptuous close up. (To anyone arriving at this site having Googled “lesbian coming of age drama”, “intertwined legs” or “make out in voluptuous close up”: welcome. I post film reviews. There are sometimes screengrabs of a salacious nature. Like the one below.)

So: the coming-of-age/Mary’s enlightenment plot strand segues without so much as a by-your-leave into a romantic drama in which Victoria and Paulie’s relationship plays out against Victoria’s struggle with the social and academic requirements her nouveau riche family have placed upon her – a set of circumstances alien to the couldn’t-care-less Paulie. But before this aspect of the film can develop, Victoria’s prissy younger sister discovers them together and Victoria, fearing pariah-hood at school and worse from her parents, not only backs off from Paulie but makes a pretence at a torrid relationship with a boy from a neighbouring school, talking up her avowedly heterosexual exploits in front of the other girls as a face-saving exercise.

There’s an incredibly powerful scene – in fact, the last poignant scene the film offers before it hares off into melodrama – where Victoria tries to keep it together while she strives to convince her sister that there’s nothing between her and Paulie. After several excruciating minutes, her sister buys it and promises to smooth everything over with her friends (effectively quelling any nascent rumour-mongering), at which point Victoria turns and walks away, her face crumpling, tears springing to her eyes.

The tragedy is that Paulie never witnesses this. All Paulie knows is that Victoria suddenly drops her like the proverbial hot potato. As a forty minute short and the end credits rolling after this scene, ‘Lost and Delirious’ would have made an understated but devastatingly effective point about social convention, familial expectation and petty bigotry and how all of these things are just so much bullshit. Unfortunately, the film continues for another hour , painting Victoria as the villain, Paulie as the victim and Mary as the poor dumb schmuck caught inbetween.

And for a short while, it seems like even this turn of events might be effective. Victoria confides in Mary and counsels her that Paulie will need her support to carry on. Paulie, however, takes Victoria’s rejection as a call to arms and is prepared to go any distance to get her back, calling upon Mary to assist her. Okay, I was thinking at this point, so we’re into ‘The Go-Between’ territory, but with a Sapphic twist. Fair enough.

Except that ‘Lost and Delirious’ then becomes a study in Paulie’s mental instability as her behaviour grows increasingly unpredictable and self-destructive. Come the last reel, we’ve been treated to not just one but two squirmily embarrassing scenes of Paulie publicly declaring her affections and this is before we’ve even got to the SPOILER ALERT duel/immediate aftermath SPOILERS END.

Which is where we came in. ‘Lost and Delirious’ plunges into such hyper-emotional realms that it demands the Douglas Sirk treatment. Pool, however, shoots the whole thing in such low-key fashion that the narrative developments of the last third come across as risible and unconvincing. A subplot involving Paulie’s nursing back to health of an injured raptor provides a metaphor so bluntly hammered home as to be rendered facile.

So why am I writing about ‘Lost and Delirious’? Why have I expended almost 1,000 words on it already? Two reasons: (i) even in today’s post-‘Brokeback Mountain’ era, films with an LGBT focus are still relegated to the arthouse circuit, therefore even a flawed or moderately successful example is worth shouting about; and (ii) the leads acquit themselves very well.

Paré excels despite the script painting her as a bitch plus VAT for the latter stages of the film. Perabo, who is incrementally establishing herself as a damn good actress despite having ‘Coyote Ugly’ on her CV, gives it her all as the live-for-the-now outsider. Barton’s role is utterly thankless – ‘Lost and Delirious’ was adapted from a novel but without the realisation that an entirely passive narrator, though a highly effective literary device, is a bad move cinematically – and yet she aces it, capturing every nuance of Mary’s confusion, frustration (let’s face it, her peregrinations between Paulie and Victoria are a no-win situation) and basic humanity.

Paré and Perabo, then, get the showy roles. But it’s Mischa Barton who ties the whole thing together.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Diane Lane was the star of the inaugural Something For The Weekend gallery. A return engagement at The Agitation of the Mind today in celebration of her birthday.

Streets of Fire

Lady Beware

Priceless Beauty

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ginger Snaps Back

The ‘Ginger Snaps’ sequel and prequel were apparently filmed back to back, albeit from scripts by different writers and with different directors at the helm. I’m not sure at which point during pre-production someone said, “Hey, let’s make ‘Unleashed’ a gritty, institutional movie and ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ a costume drama,” but I wish I’d been a fly on the wall. I’d love to know how that idea got sold.

‘Ginger Snaps Back’ is a prequel in the way that Neal Stephenson’s ‘System of the World’ trilogy is a prequel to ‘Cryptonomicon’. There’s a thematic connection, but the two works are set centuries apart.

It’s some time in the 19th century and a depleted retinue of traders and British troops, along with their native Indian guide, are holed up in a fort besieged by – you got it! – werewolves. They’re awaiting the non-return of a party dispatched to secure provisions. No prizes for guessing that these poor unfortunates became provisions for the lycanthropes. Into their midst, seeking shelter and confused by the ramblings of a shaman they meet en route, come Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins).

Retaining the character names from the original was pretty much a given (they had to get the words “ginger” and “snaps” into the title, after all); however, this saddles ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ from the off with the stigma of being little more than an historically transplanted remake. Maybe this is why it gets the least love out of the whole trilogy. I have read precious few good things about ‘Ginger Snaps Back’. The general consensus is that ‘Unleashed’ is a decent stab at a sequel, while ‘Back’ is all but superfluous.

Good job, then, that I’m not afraid to take a minority opinion. For my money, ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ is a terrific little movie. A couple of flaws, sure – mostly notably in the occasional slide into contemporary dialogue and attitudes that belie the period setting – but a definite improvement on ‘Unleashed’ and worthy to keep the company of the original.

What the period setting achieves is a negation of the suspension of disbelief required to introduce a werewolf into a suburban Canadian milieu in ‘Ginger Snaps’. Folklore and superstition are writ large here. Ginger, in particular, is presented as a Little Red Riding Hood figure. Although the innocence associated with that fairytale character is soon savagely subverted. Ginger and Brigitte are warned by a shaman they encounter in the wilds to “Kill the child, save the sister”. Their next encounter is with a tracker (Nathaniel Arcand) in the pay of the British; a man seemingly at one with the natural world.

At the fort, an atmosphere of mistrust and a knife-edge tension prevail. The commanding officer barely retains command, while his right-hand-man presents as a human time bomb already down to the last few seconds. The surgeon, Murphy (Matthew Walker) devises a test to determine whether outsiders are infected with lycanthropy (which makes for a couple of tense moments reminiscent of the infected blood/heat experiment in ‘The Thing’), whereas the Reverend Gilbert (Hugh Dillon) revels in each new attack or loss of life, giving it some “judgement of the Lord” hyperbole with the hellfire and brimstone turned up to 11 at every available opportunity.

The Murphy/Gilbert science/religion schism recalls the science/animalism angle of the first movie (Brigitte painstakingly attempting to find a cure/Ginger embracing her newfound feral instincts), while the confined locale compares with the clinic setting of ‘Unleashed’. It’s pushing it a bit to suggest that ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ offers a synthesis of the two preceding films, but it certainly has a lot going on for a low-budget 90-minute horror film.

It also looks good for a low-budget production. Director Grant Harvey exploits the claustrophobic setting effectively, the slow-burn establishing of conflict in the traders’ and soldiers’ interrelationships makes for a powder-keg atmosphere, and the inevitable lupine attack is tensely built up to and impressively staged. Perkins’ characterization is much more interesting and watchable than the sullen, grungy anti-heroine that slouched through ‘Unleashed’ and it pretty much goes without saying that having Isabelle back in the spotlight helps things immeasurably.

As with ‘Unleashed’, the major sin that ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ commits is simply following on from such an accomplished and ballsy film as the original. Naturally it’s not as good as ‘Ginger Snaps’. How many sequels better the originals? Precious few once you’ve got ‘The Godfather Part II’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ out of the way. How many third instalments manage to keep the material interesting and seem essential in their own right rather than just part of a franchise? Precious few once you’ve got ‘Toy Story 3’ out of the way.

‘Ginger Snaps Back’ is a sadly overlooked and underrated movie. It’s ripe for rediscovery.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ginger Snaps Unleashed

When I reviewed ‘Ginger Snaps’ as part of the “13 for Halloween” project back in October, my buddy Aaron – formerly of The Death Rattle, now happily raising hell again at The Bone Throne, and a contributor to Italian Film Review and The Gentleman’s Blog To Midnight Cinema – asked if I’d be reviewing the sequel and prequel. I said I probably would. I had the chance to watch them recently, pretty much back-to-back. I’ll be reviewing ‘Ginger Snaps Unleashed’ tonight and ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ tomorrow.

(Elements of both films contain SPOILERS if you’ve never seen the original. And if you haven’t, stop reading now and go rent it – it’s a belter!)

‘Ginger Snaps Unleashed’ is, on paper at least, about as linear as sequels get, continuing the story very shortly after ‘Ginger Snaps’ left off: Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) is dead and Brigitte (Emily Perkins), having deliberately infected herself at the end of the first movie, is using the serum with which she hoped to save her sister. Only it’s keeping the lycanthropy in check rather than actually curing it. Added to this, having left the parental home and living a low-key existence in the big city, Brigitte is plagued with visions of Ginger – a mocking, accusatory, spiteful version of her sister who is either a ghost or a projection of Brigitte’s guilt complex.

Oh yeah, and there’s another werewolf hunting her down. Just in case the girl didn’t have enough problems.

When said werewolf attacks a sympathetic student who tries to help her, Brigitte is wounded. The serum is found on her person. There are track marks on her arm. Brigitte is put under custody at an addict’s clinic. Operating at near bankruptcy, the clinic also treats private long-term patients, such as the elderly woman mummified in bandages after suffering extreme burn injuries, whose precocious granddaughter (Tatiana Maslany) – nicknamed Ghost by the staff – keeps a comic-book reading vigil and enjoys free run of the clinic.

Brigitte doesn’t respond well to life here. The bitchy cliques of the other girls (most of whom seem to have wandered in from the casting call for ‘Sorority Row’), the ministrations of the male orderly who trades narcotics for blow-jobs, and the whiny self-aggrandizement of the therapy sessions doesn’t go down well with her.

When the werewolf shows up, finds a way into the building and starts decimating all and sundry, it’s the final straw and Brigitte reluctantly enlists Ghost’s help in an all-or-nothing escape attempt.

‘Ginger Snaps Unleashed’ is a strange but eminently watchable piece of work. The opening credits are a headfuck in the vein of ‘Seven’. Early scenes suggest a character piece: Brigitte alone. The extended clinic sequence, occupying the middle third, edges into ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ territory by way of ‘Girl, Interrupted’, and offers us a lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-addiction scenario that serves as a counterpoint to, and development of, its predecessor’s lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-sexual-development subtext. The constant threat of Brigitte’s lupine nemesis brings the horror genre requirements.

Then things start going off the scale. The turning point is a therapy session that jolts Brigitte back to the erstwhile sex/lycanthropy subtext; while thematically valid, the scene plays out like an irony-free remake of the Eric Prydz ‘Call on Me’ video. Later, Brigitte and Ghost escape the clinic and hole up at Ghost’s grandmother’s place where it quickly becomes apparent that Brigitte’s young benefactress has a few skeletons of her own in the family closet.

As much as I enjoyed ‘Ginger Snaps Unleashed’, it felt as if the filmmakers were congenitally unsure what kind of film they wanted to make, what aspect of the admittedly interesting cluster of ideas sprinkled throughout the script they wanted to focus on, and what they wanted to achieve in the tense but stylistically schizophrenic finale. The closing shot, in particular, seems to belong to another film entirely. It’s inspired and darkly satirical, but things have deviated so far at this point from the carefully constructed and socially/geographically grounded world of ‘Ginger Snaps’ that it’s hard not to feel a tinge of disappointment.

The other problem with ‘Unleashed’ is that it relegates Katharine Isabelle to a glorified cameo and puts the entire film on Emily Perkins’s shoulders. ‘Ginger Snaps’ worked so brilliantly because it focused on the sisters’ relationship; the chemistry between Isabelle and Perkins was natural and immediate. ‘Unleashed’ suffers from the (necessary) sidelining of Isabelle.

‘Ginger Snaps Back’ restores the filial dynamic. But is it the better movie? Find out tomorrow …

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Saints and Soldiers

The ‘Saints and Soldiers’ DVD case trumpets its status as Best Picture winner at seven different film festivals. The font is small and the white typeface kind of blends in with the snowy cover image, but if you squint hard enough, you make it out: Marco Island Film Festival, Ojal Festival, Heartland Film Festival, Winslow Film Festival, San Diego Film Festival, Sacramento Festival of Cinema and Long Beach International Film Festival.

Nah, I’ve never heard of half of them either.

Knowing little about the film other than that most of the cast are affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I sat down to watch it with a vague sense of trepidation. Would it prove a genuine cinematic achievement or a theological propaganda piece?

The religious elements, to my relief (the soldiers might have been in foxholes, but I wasn’t, so my atheism remained intact), were synthesized into the story and given a moral/humanist context rather than rendering ‘Saints and Soldiers’ the cinematic equivalent of a couple of way too neatly turned-out Jehovah’s witnesses turning up on your doorstep on a Saturday morning when you’re nursing a hangover and just wanting some peace and quiet.

But what of its cinematic achievements? On the whole, it’s a fairly well realized piece of filmmaking given its small budget (three quarters of a million) and the fact that, as a result, Utah had to stand in for the Ardennes. Directed with a keen eye by Ryan Little (he was also cinematographer), generally well acted and unexpectedly tense during its closing scenes, it’s a decent movie that might have been a damn good one but for a couple of flaws. Only a couple, mind, but they’re jarring enough to be significant.

The opening scene, based on the Malmedy massacre in 1944, is very well done, establishing its cast of beleaguered American soldiers as everyday guys just trying to survive and presenting the Germans as more than mere rent-a-Kraut clichés. One moment of panic leads to bloodshed and our four mismatched survivors – guilt-ridden Christian Corporal Nathan “Deacon” Greer (Corbin Allred), pragmatic Staff Sergeant Gordon Gunnerson (Peter Holden), cynical medic Steven Gould (Alexander Niver) and lugubrious Private Shirl Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby) – plunge into the Ardennes forest and desperately try to evade German patrols.

So far so good: a seldom-mentioned wartime event as backdrop, some neatly seeded visual hints as to the source of Deacon’s guilt, and a personality clash between Gould and Deacon shaping up tensely. Plus Little’s ability to conjure images of wintry desolation that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Ivan’s Childhood’.

About a third of the way in, however, Little and scripters Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker seem to lose faith in the dramatic potential of their survival-behind-enemy-lines narrative and throw in a downed British flyer, Oberon Winley (Kirby Heyborne), in possession of critical information that could change the course of etc etc etc. The sudden lurch into against-the-clock thrilleramics never quite convinces.

Nor does Heyborne’s performance. Quite apart from the only British character in the movie being called Oberon Winley (which is about as facile as if they’d called one of the Germans Fritz Wienerschnitzel), Heyborne’s attempt at an English accent is so bad it tips the whole thing into parody. Particularly when he’s served with an already fuck-awful line like “Well, you chaps have been super, but I must be off” and it comes out as “Weyell, yeeew chips hiv bayn soopah, but Eyh mist be orf.” Every time the guy opens his mouth, it’s ‘Goon Show’ territory. And unfortunately he opens his mouth a lot during the last two-thirds of the film.

As a thirty minute short without the comedy Brit and the naff top-secret info MacGuffin, ‘Saints and Soldiers’ could have been world-class. At feature length, it’s something of a noble failure. Still, it went over big at Marco Island and Ojal.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Piranha or Piranha? You decide

My thanks to my good friend Paul Rowe for the following article.

In all albeit belated adjunct to the recent(ish) exploitation cinema series found on these very ... pages (?), I recently watched the re-make of 'Piranha' and it made me think. (Is ‘pages’ the correct noun for an online blog? Am I alone in my obsessive and intransigent avoidance of Kindle? Will anyone else miss holding a real paper book in bed, literally unfolding the story page by page and then slipping a marker between the two opposing sections – read and un-read – before turning off the light, gently farting and then spending a pleasant, optimistic couple of minutes investigating whether your other-half is indeed, too far into sleep to interest in a brief and perfunctory bout of that type of sex where you have to think quite hard the next morning whether it had been a dream or not, before accepting that she is and then trying to doze off with an erection.)

Hold on; where was I? I haven’t even started yet. Focus.

So, anyway; after that viewing, and further to a conversation with your good host, misterneil himself, I did what any self-important film obsessive with an overblown sense of righteous indignation would do: I bought the original from Amazon to prove my suspicions correct.

What makes an exploitation film an exploitation film? Gratuitous gore and nudity? No. It needs both of those elements, but their presence doesn’t fundamentally make it what it is. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m afraid the days of the true exploitation movie are over – it’s impossible to make a genuine exploitation flick in the 21st century. Why? Because they need innocence, contradiction in terms though that sounds. Irony is off-limits and films which attempt to push the boundaries of taste these days are simply too knowing. Who to blame? Perhaps Wes Craven, whose Scream series deconstructed and subverted the horror movie in a supposed affectionate parody. It could be said, however, that this was more a case of biting the hand from which Mr. Craven had fed for a long, long time. In the subsequent fifteen years or so, it seems that every genre film-maker is more intent on showing the audience that they ‘get it’ and are savvy, than employing the techniques they’ve learned to thrill said audience. We’re therefore presented with a never-ending series of ‘knowing’ or ‘tongue-in-cheek’ homages to the films we used to love.

There are two major problems with this:

1) Nothing original is produced.

2) We shouldn’t want to raise a superior eyebrow to these films, we should want to buy into them like we used to.

Shouldn’t we?

Sure, we’re older now, and it takes more to scare us, but for God’s sake, don’t give up! We don’t have to believe vampires and werewolves and genetically mutated piranha exist, but for an hour and a half we can pretend we do. And isn’t that what makes cinema what it is: make believe? Have we become that cynical as a race that we’ve lost the power to make believe? Of course, what scared me thirty years ago will wring barely a snort of bored indulgence from my kids, which is the basic problem, in that genre film-makers recognise our levels of tolerance to gore and violence are now off the scale – nothing shocks us anymore.

Which brings us to culprit number one: the internet.

Whatever our personal weaknesses are, we can fire up the old PC and find a website to suit our own ... how can I say? Peccadilloes. And everything on said website can be as graphic as we want it to be, again; depending on our tastes. And so the gauntlet to film-makers wishing to thrill and surprise has been thrown down. As a result, it appears they’ve thrown in the towel with regards to horror (I’ll try and get another couple of “thrown” analogies in later) and turned to sex.

So; the exploitation films of the seventies and eighties used sex gratuitously, but somehow - like 'Carry-On' films, I suppose - they managed to retain an innocence of sorts, whereas the sex employed in the 'Piranha' re-make feels seedy, as though it has ass-pirations (sorry; couldn’t resist) to be internet porn, but daren’t quite make the leap. The heroine’s son is repeatedly caught surfing porn in a running ‘joke,’ one of the main plot lines is that of a seedy pornographer making a skin-flick on his boat (his dying words are, “wet t-shirt ... wet ... t-shirt”) and almost every female victim is disrobed immediately prior to, or during, her death scene. The viewer is left with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that we’re sitting at home on the internet listening out for our parents’ or partner’s approaching footfalls. The horror element of the piece – whilst admittedly creative in the make-up and effects departments – seems more like an add-on to the sexuality, not the other way around, as it surely should be (and always used to be).

Joe Dante’s 1978 version, however, whilst cheap, derivative and badly dated in parts, boasts a drum-tight script by John Sayles encompassing government experimentation and musings on Vietnam, and characterisation which prompts genuine empathy. The action is driven, creating tension as the two main protagonists race to shut off the river’s water supply before it reaches a children’s summer camp and – finally – the teenagers’ revelries. This last section which provides the climax to the original (extending to only the final twenty minutes), serves as the entire plot of Alexandre Aja’s remake – horny teenagers take off their clothes and become lunch for big fish with sharp teeth. Any semblance of narrative or characterisation is dispensed with immediately in favour of an unimaginative series of boobs / gore / boobs-gore / gory-boobs set pieces.

An act of heroism in the original performed by a previously unsympathetic summer camp leader, is at once touching as he stands waist-deep in the broiling waters, lifting his charges, one by one, to safety, where a similar scene in the re-make – Ving Rhames and a boat-propeller – has little of the same impact, as the character means nothing to the audience.

Who am I to preach, what do I know? Though consider this: you won’t shock the kids of today with gore. But remember: it wasn’t gore that scared audiences in the first place, it was suspense. And suspense is timeless.

What does exploitation mean? Is it our (the viewers) emotions being exploited? I like to think so, and if that’s the case, then we’re happy to go along for the ride; we don’t need to be in on the joke.

Make it cheap by all means, we’ve not signed up to watch Oscar winning acting, and don’t worry if the production values aren’t top-notch, it doesn’t matter. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a low-budget is another pre-requisite for a true exploitation flick. But low-grade or not, we have the right to demand at least a decent narrative, a modicum of wit and invention, and characters to root for.

It may be the 21st century, but exploitation cinema should be more than just boob-a-rama and massive leg trauma.

by Paul Rowe

Monday, January 17, 2011


About 30 minutes into Michele Soavi’s ‘The Church’, theologian/librarian Evan (Thomas Arana) delivers a whole screed of expositional dialogue vis-à-vis a group of Knights-Templar-alikes who were assigned to safeguarding the passage of crusaders but became a little too hardcore in their affinity for witch-hunting, punishing the ungodly and putting peaceful villages to the torch. Now, whether the dubbing was particularly poor in the first place or the sound was just dodgy in the print I watched, I had some difficulty in divining whether Evan referred to them as “teutonic knights” or “satanic knights”. I suspect the former, as there’d be no other reason for an Italian-made English-dubbed movie to be set in Germany (not that you’d know it apart from the occasional signboard in the background and a couple of characters called Heinrich and Lotte). But part of me would just love it if in fact it was the latter. The crusaders being protected by an outfit called the satanic knights. Awesome! That’s like a 12-step programme billing itself “the Budweiser temperance society”. Or the ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ crew providing a secure car parking service.

But I digress.

Evan’s monologue is slightly unnecessary (and probably the only dull part in an otherwise breathlessly active movie) given that a 10-minute prologue has already showed us exactly what this bunch of knights – teutonic or satanic – get up to in the name of the Lord. They ride into town like the Wild Bunch with tin-can helmets (dig those crucifix shaped eye-slits!) …

… decide that a young woman with a cross-shaped wound on her foot is an emissary of Satan and next thing you know it’s swords and lances a-go-go and the lime pit they dig to inter all the bodies in is big enough to provide the foundations for a bloody big church.

Then it’s flash forward to the here and now (well, 1989 at least) and guess where the rest of the movie takes place? You know, the movie called ‘The Church’. Yup, you guessed right.

Soavi – a protégé of Dario Argento (who produced and co-wrote ‘The Church’) – quickly establishes the main characters: the aforementioned Evan, fresco-restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), grumpy sacristan Hermann (Roberto Corbiletto), his rebellious teenager daughter Lotte (Asia Argento), a stern Reverend* (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and the radical forward-thinking Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie). You want to know how forward-thinking and radical Father Gus is? His hobby is archery and he uses the expression “goddamned” as an intensifier. That’s how goddamned radical!

Storywise, things get underway when Lisa discovers a fragment of parchment during restoration works in the cellar and takes it to Evan. It peaks their respective professional interests and they go back to Lisa’s pad to decode it and have sex. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s how perfunctory the romantic subplot truly is.

Evan figures out what the parchment means and becomes consumed with the idea that the church could be built above the resting place of one of the tablets from the Ark of the Covenant. “Shades of Indiana Jones?” Lisa comments archly, but Evan’s deadly serious. So, it turns out, is the malignant force he unleashes during his after-hours treasure hunt in the bowels of the church. Soon enough – SPOILER ALERT – Evan has been possessed, weird shit is happening and it turns out that the psycho teutonic/satanic tin-can-helmet-wearing knights might actually have been right about all that witchcraft guff in the first place. END SPOILERS.

It’s just over an hour into a 100-minute film before Soavi really lets rip with the supernatural hokum and the inventive death scenes, and even then he’s still manically introducing new characters: a bickering teenage couple stranded on their way to a concert; a bickering OAP couple on the tourist trail; a bunch of school kids on a field trip; a narcissistic model, her entourage and a photographer shooting a bridal wear spread at the church. But Soavi’s camera has barely stayed still for that entire hour. ‘The Church’ was his second feature film as director (following the late-in-the-day giallo ‘Stage Fright’**) and his first with any real budget. The guy made the most of the opportunity. ‘The Church’ looks fabulous. The camera prowls and glides and serves up as many subjective POVs as anything in Argento’s filmography. Compositions are striking, sometimes deceptively so and sometimes aggressively off-kilter. There’s barely a single frame that isn’t in some way visually interesting.

This is Soavi’s great strength in ‘The Church’. Which is good, because its flaws are manifold. The narrative isn’t particularly original or engaging and there’s probably only 45 minutes’ worth of actual story if you boil it down. The acting veers between adequate and hammy, with only the 14-year-old Asia Argento showing any star quality.

The dialogue is utilitarian. Characterization? Haphazard, with the most sympathetic character – Father Gus – never being fleshed out into a genuine protagonist. The lack of chemistry between Arana and Cupisti doesn’t help either. Also on the minus list, the effects are rubbery at best, with the fish demon that leaps out at someone from a font leaving me wondering as to whether the ghost of Ed Wood had been summoned at a production-office séance, and the column of writhing figures emerging from the depths at the end less like a Hadean version of Gustav Vigelund’s Monolith than an out-take from Brian Yuzna’s deliberately cheesy ‘Society’.

I first saw ‘The Church’ on VHS in, I think, 1991 or 1992. Last night was only my second viewing. But it reminded me why I’d enjoyed it back then, in my late teens. Firstly, visually it’s as cool as fuck and back than I was even more of a sucker for iconography than I am now. Secondly, it dispenses with coherence and delivers what I wanted from a horror movie back then: hidden secrets, demonic curses, gothic imagery, dark rituals, imaginative gore and a bit of nudity. I’m pleased to report that ‘The Church’ hit all those same notes for me twenty years later. Maybe more so. Because it also provided a nice little nostalgia trip back to a pre-torture-porn era when it was okay for horror movies to be fun.

*If he was referred to as anything other than “your grace”, I missed it.

**Which has nothing to do with the Hitchcock movie. Mainly by dint of Hitch not including a psychotic killer with a bird mask and a chainsaw in his movie.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: Blood and Black Lace

As a die-hard and unapologetic lover of gialli, I have as much reason to shout out a big “thank you” to Mario Bava as a Bond movie aficionado has to Guy Hamilton for ‘Goldfinger’.

You see, ‘Blood and Black Lace’ is the ‘Goldfinger’ of gialli. Yes, it was the earlier ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ that pretty much kicked off the whole giallo movement (just as ‘Dr No’ lit the fuse on 007’s fifty-year blockbusting history) but it was ‘Blood and Black Lace’ that pretty much established the formula.

Just as ‘Goldfinger’ gave us the gadgets, the one-liners, the Aston Martin DB5 and a kick-ass pre-credits sequence, ‘Blood and Black Lace’ gave us a masked, gloved and trenchcoated killer, a fashion house populated by glamorous women, a cluster of operatic death scenes, baroque set design and opulent, hyper-stylized cinematography. Slightly off-kilter compositions, spatial distortions, mannequins that are almost as creepy and unsettling as the murderer.

It gave us, in short, images like these:

The plot kicks off with the murder of Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), a model for haute couture firm Christian. Inspector Sylvester (Thomas Reiner) is soon on the scene, and finds that his presence is making everyone at Christian – from owner Countess Cristina (Eva Bartok) and manager Max (Cameron Mitchell) to the luckless Isabella’s fellow models Peggy (Mary Arden), Nicole (Ariana Gorini) and Tao-Li (Claude Dantes) – distinctly nervous.

And with good reason. Everyone at Christian has something to hide, and it quickly transpires that Isabella kept a diary documenting all the seedy secrets, dirty dealings and guilty goings-on. Retrieval of said journal becomes a matter of priority, but the killer – in true giallo style – always seems to be one step ahead.

Of course, it doesn’t have all the giallo tropes – that would be too much to hope for in a single movie. It would run the risk of marking that movie out as the last word in gialli and thereby make redundant my ongoing quest to track down as many of these weird and wonderful movies as possible. ‘Blood and Black Lace’ doesn’t, for instance, feature any bottles of J&B; nor is the tenacious Inspector Sylvester your standard-issue useless copper. (Although Bava does throw in an excellent and mordantly amusing scene where an ID parade degenerates into a free-for-all, leaving him with even more suspects instead of a cast-iron identification.)

It doesn’t have Edwige Fenech, either, but this is a minor quibble given the sheer amount of eye-candy on display. Bartok, in particular, ticks all the boxes as the haughty brunette with skeletons in the closet than Burke and Hare with a shared wardrobe.

Ultimately, ‘Blood and Black Lace’ looks gorgeous in the way that only Bava and Argento (at his best) could make a film look gorgeous. Deep, rich colours. The kind of set design that makes your average Pedro Almodovar outing look as austere as a Carl Dreyer film.

A twisty, turny mystery at its heart; beautiful people getting offed in various ways; a genuine capacity for suspense underpinning the gorier business (check out the montage of reaction shots when Isabella’s diary is first mentioned – Bava demonstrates real bravura!); and set-pieces which wrote the rule-book for four and a half decades of stalk ‘n’ slash. One of the first, one of the best and impossible not to love.

Thank you, Mario Bava!