Saturday 25 December 2010

My Name is Bruce (2007)

Director: Bruce Campbell
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Grace Thorsen, Taylor Sharpe and Ted Raimi
We're in the small mining town of Gold Lick, OR (population 333), to hear a folksy song about 1878 and Chinese gods to set up our story. It's very Cat Ballou, but we quickly fast forward to find the connection to the modern day. Jeff Graham drives his friend Clayton to an old Chinese graveyard to meet a couple of chicks, but he's a wuss, falling for the slightest peer pressure. The only time he stands his ground is when Clayton disses on Bruce Campbell, who Jeff idolises. As far as Jeff's concerned, 'You don't like Bruce, you walk.' Given that this is a film that doesn't just star Bruce Campbell, it stars Bruce Campbell as himself, as produced and directed by Bruce Campbell, that's not a bad celebrity crush to have, especially as this is a monster movie. At the cemetery, Jeff takes something from the mine that contains Guan Di, the Chinese god of war and protector of the dead, who promptly emerges to massacre the kids and terrorise the town.

Only Jeff gets away alive and he can only think of one person to save the town from destruction by the vengeful spirit of Guan Di: his idol who is shooting Cavealien 2 not too far away. So off he goes to Bruce Campbell's trailer, and when he gets nowhere telling the truth he bumps him on the head with a baseball bat, throws him in the trunk of his car and hauls him back to Gold Lick to save the day. What makes this lunacy inspired is the fact that Bruce's agent, Mills Toddner, has set up a huge surprise for his birthday and he believes this is it. So he starts playing the hero in this bad monster movie, blissfully unaware that it's not a bad monster movie in the slightest. The townsfolk buy into Jeff's stories about Bruce being a hero and he believes it above all of them, because unlike most vanity movies, Campbell doesn't even remotely try to show himself in a positive light. The Bruce Campbell we see in this movie is a complete asshole.

He's an actor, of course, but this fictionalised version of himself has had something of a career downturn. He's got stuck in the B movie mire, all the way down to Cavealien 2, which looks like a truly awful rubber suit monster movie. He's a drunken loser, one who responds to a bad news report about him by shouting, 'They're trying to make me look pathetic!' as he runs out of booze and starts drinking from the dog's bowl. He's a failed husband, who rings his ex-wife Cheryl at three in the morning to whine at her. When he believes Gold Lick has been set up as a birthday present he acts like a spoiled guest, and when he finally discovers that Guan Di is real, he runs away fast, beginning as a coward and progressively getting worse over a number of scenes that are totally wrong in all the right ways. He's so useless as a hero that when he doesn't show up on the set of Cavealien 2, they just use a dummy instead. Who would notice?
While My Name is Bruce is hardly the greatest movie in the world, it mostly succeeds as the fun ride it aims to be. The genesis for the project was an old time comic book called The Adventures of Alan Ladd, which set the real actor against fictional pirates. Bringing that concept into the modern day, writer Mark Verheiden could only imagine Bruce Campbell in the role and that part of the story works really well. It's a real family affair, with the cast and crew mostly comprised of what seems like everyone Bruce has ever worked with, along with a host of local Oregon actors. The cameraderie is obvious throughout, not just in scenes between long term collaborators like Campbell and Ted Raimi. A good part of the film was shot on a backlot built on Campbell's property, something that helped keep the budget low and the problems lower. This is really a home movie, merely one made by professionals who know precisely what they're doing.

It's a three act play and those acts are hardly subtle. The first follows the standard template for a cheesy horror movie from the eighties and introduces Campbell. The second builds up the jokes because this thrives on the comedy you might expect from a Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell movie: Three Stooges humour, Bruce Campbell one liners, even some more Marx Brothers inspired lunacy. This is where most of the charm of the piece comes from, with Campbell's irreverence a joyous counter to the seriousness inherent in Gold Lick. The biggest successes are most obvious in the initial scenes after his kidnap, as Bruce plays the joker to a whole town of straight men, neatly parallelling the story as a whole, with its real actor placed in a town of fictional characters. This is backed up further by references to real movies like the Evil Dead films, Moontrap and McHale's Navy juxtaposed with fictional movies like Death of the Dead and The Stoogitive.

It's the third act where things fall apart, even as Campbell finds his redemption as a character. It just doesn't have the time to do the film justice, so we have to settle for some cheesy scenes to move us along to the finalé. Had this been a serious movie, the second act would have been full of character building and plot progression, but that would have taken all the fun out of this one, so we're stuck attempting to imagine it was still there. So Bruce's act of cowardice is all that Jeff needs to become a hero and Bruce showing back up to help is all that his mother Kelly needs to fall for the hero. It's really no cheesier than any of the movies it ably spoofs but these scenes are so compressed (sometimes into single lines) that they're about as painfully obvious as can be and actors like Grace Thorsen, who does a solid job as the sassy Kelly Graham, deserve much more definition to their characters than was ever going to be possible here.

I was impressed that Verheiden and Campbell managed to sneak in some subtle notes in what is hardly a subtle movie. When the mayor of Gold Lick explains to Campbell that Guan Di arose out of a mine collapse that killed a hundred Chinese miners, there's a great touch in the story being buried in a tiny paragraph at the bottom of the front page of the Gold Lick newspaper instead of being shouted as a huge headline. It's admirable but hard to notice amongst the blatancy that this film thrives on. Similarly Grace Thorsen acts well but she's lost behind the hams who go all out here on purpose. Ted Raimi is a riot in three roles: as Bruce's sleazy agent, as an Italian sign painter and, best of all, as an old Chinese man called Wing. Of course, Bruce dominates in what is really a glorious send up of himself, on his own dime. If you're not a Bruce Campbell fan, this is so not the picture for you, but if you are this is just another reason to hail to the king, baby.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Zombie Girl: The Movie (2009)

Directors: Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck
In August 2005 the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund granted $1,000 to a filmmaker making a zombie movie in order to aid with the post production work. That's not too surprising, given that everyone and their dog are making zombie movies nowadays, but this particular filmmaker was only twelve years old at the time. She's Emily Hagins, a sixth grade middle school student in Austin, TX, so hardly your average film buff, let alone your average writer/director/editor. The only thing not surprising is that when she progressed at the age of ten from a set of short films to her zombie feature, Pathogen, a team of documentarians made their own film about her. This is that film and it does a reasonably good job of explaining who Emily is and what she's like as both a person and a filmmaker. It succeeds best in capturing the change between the ten year old girl who has the crazy idea of shooting a feature and the thirteen year old premiéring it.

Emily is obviously a bright kid. Between ten and thirteen during this film, she seems older, both physically and mentally. It's reasonably obvious that for her to succeed at something, she needs only to want to succeed and to avoid all the blue fish and keep on track. She does benefit from her environment. Her family moved to Austin, a town of creativity and culture, before she could walk, and she became a regular at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of the legendary cinemas in the US today. Her parents are creative sorts themselves, her mother Meghan being a graphic artist and her father Jerry having obvious musical talent. She has their support too, open support that doesn't require her to be a little version of her parents. It's very apparent that the drive here is Emily's but Meghan is the glue. I get the impression that however gifted and driven Emily is, this film would not have been finished without her mother running herself ragged.

There's a textbook example here of not holding back, something that many of us regret. Many kids are talented and able to achieve but have a mental block keeping them from getting out there and doing. Emily does not have that problem and that fact really paid off. After getting seriously into the first Lord of the Rings film, perhaps because she looks rather like Orlando Bloom as a young girl, she wrote to its director, Peter Jackson. Jackson put her in touch with 'his buddy in Austin', Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. She showed up to his annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival and saw the Aussie zombie movie Undead. At ten years of age. Fortunately she has parents who are willing to provide context because her immediate reaction wasn't to hide behind the sofa but to make her own zombie feature. Knowles put her in touch with Rebecca Elliott, who produces indie films, and next thing we know she's written a fifty page script. Pathogen is born.

This documentary initially seems to focus on Emily's failures rather a lot, but the reason for that is soon made clear: she has a lot of learning to do. Most of the things that she has absolutely no clue about at the beginning of production have become second nature by the end. She doesn't understand basic technical questions asked of her at the outset, she doesn't say cut, she can't wield a clapperboard. These issues are quickly solved but there are other points where she's utterly out of her depth, as if she's, well, a ten year old girl making a movie. Towards the end of the film, there's a heartbreaking moment where she realises that she's accidentally wiped over some of her final day's footage. Now I've met and talked with a lot of low budget filmmakers whose early films detail just how quickly they get over the learning curve. Until now I haven't actually seen that process documented but we watch Emily learn here, big time.

By the time Pathogen is finished, which takes two years and so is far from the quick shoot Emily expects, she's become a filmmaker. Perhaps this is the cinematic equivalent of Jerry Pournelle's idea that to become a writer you have to write a million words. You start and finish pieces and once you've racked up a million words, you're a writer. You can throw away what you've written because most of it will be crap, but you're a writer nonetheless. I've been through that process and vouch for it absolutely. Here Emily makes a feature film with all the bits that go right and all the bits that go horribly wrong. She deals with writing a script and shooting it, with lighting and sound, with props and make up, with reshoots when footage isn't good enough. She spends as much time editing the film as making it. And she admits at the end, when she introduces the film's premiére at the Alamo Drafthouse, that the continuity sucks. But now she's a filmmaker.
This transition from ten year old girl to filmmaker is this documentary's key success but there are a few others worthy of note. In particular it ably captures the energy levels involved, from hyper periods of creativity to complete grinding halt. There are points where everything stops for months at a time, partly because Emily's parents did not allow her homework to suffer and partly because the energy just went away. Emily bounces through it but Meghan noticably deteriorates over two years. Juggling a full time job with being a wife and mother is tough on its own but this movie adds a huge commitment. She's there constantly, not just because Emily can't drive but because she handles the boom mike, does the special effects and goes searching for costumes and props. Late on Emily explains that her mom has been invaluable but she doesn't think she should be involved with her future films. She's outgrown her and that's heartbreaking.

What this means is that film is almost the McGuffin here because the real story has as much to do with a couple of parents dealing with the fact that they have an incredibly precocious child who they love and cherish but who is rapidly leaving them behind. While Meghan gradually got drawn more and more into the film herself, I get the impression that it really isn't their cup of tea and that they were there only to help their child reach her potential. Perhaps the hardest part is the realisation that they give so much to help Emily only to find that by the end of the film, they have nothing left to give that she needs. Meghan offers technical advice during editing but Emily doesn't need it because by then she knows what she wants and how to get it. I hope the creative process hasn't ended up as a divisive one in the Hagins household. I don't know what it means but it was noticable that Meghan and Jerry were never on screen together.

Where the film falls apart is when it tries to look beyond Emily and Meghan. There is a little insight into film production generally and into the Austin scene, one of the most dynamic in the country, but this is less successful because these things aren't the real focus of the film and there isn't enough time to do either justice. I'm sure Harry Knowles and Tim League and others could make a great documentary on the Alamo Drafthouse and the Austin film scene but this isn't it. There are also a few valid interviews that touch on the progressively decreasing cost of entry into filmmaking and how this is going to change the future of cinema but again this is skimmed over quickly, perhaps because it isn't the primary reason that Emily made Pathogen, merely something that helped her do so. Most of these comments really speak more to YouTube than the discovery of the next Stanley Kubrick, or even the next George Romero.

At the end of the day, this documentary made me eager to watch Pathogen, included on the DVD, even though, as Emily herself warns her premiére audience, it really isn't very good. One local critic wonders about its quality: is it going to be a good film, is it going to be a good film for a twelve year old or is it going to no good at all? Well, it doesn't matter too much because having watched this documentary, it's going to be impossible to separate it from the age of its writer/director. However it's more than just a single film, as Emily has gone on to make two more features, a 2009 ghost story called The Retelling and a vampire comedy due next year called My Sucky Teen Romance, which looks interesting for being perhaps the first teen comedy to be entirely made by teenagers. The span between the release of these three films is only five years but that's over a quarter of her life. It pays to start early and this is an able marker for that start.

7 Down (2010)

Director: Tyler L Schmid
Stars: Raychel Fejfar, Michael Crawford, Adam Flores, Josh Crawford, Sam Sajid, Gaia Foxx, Kenton Masloskie and Tyler L Schmid
Of all places, I met director Tyler Schmid in the line to get our Night of the Creeps remake DVDs signed by scream queen Tiffany Shepis. I was chatting to her husband Sean Tretta because his latest film, The Frankenstein Project, marked my debut on the big screen as an extra. Schmid was in front of me and when he gave Tiffany a copy of his first DVD and I pulled out a business card, he gave me a copy to review. In my eyes, that one event is all the justification I need for printing the things in the first place. Well, that and the Subway coupons I got for throwing one in a fishbowl. Both the beauty and the catch of having films handed to you by strangers in signing lines is that their quality is an utterly unknown factor. On one hand this budding filmmaker could grow up to be the next Nicolas Cage and this could be the work on which he cut his teeth. On the other he could actually have some real talent and this could be a real gem. Which would it be?

Well, it's hard to tell yet. 7 Down is obviously a film made by people who are learning their trade but it avoids most of the usual low budget pitfalls and shows some serious promise. I'm eager to see what growth works its way into later Schmid films like Surviving Dish, The Morning After and Abby Dux Zombie Slayer. 7 Down is obviously a beginning rather than an end but it's also an ambitious one. It's roughly half the length of a feature so has plenty of time to build itself into more than your average debut short and it starts out with a lot of character introduction. As the title suggests we have seven lead characters, plus Schmid himself as an intriguing eighth wheel. Just how much his character has to do with the story to come is open to discussion but I have a feeling he has quite a lot to do with it. These seven characters head out on the road to go to a hayrack ride but they don't make it and the title proves very prophetic indeed.

I wonder just how long Schmid, and his sister Shadlee who co-wrote the script with him, intended this film to be. The introductions are deep, as if they were aimed as the foundations of a ninety minute feature, and initially they have no connection except theme, the theme being addiction. Jools has lost her parents and injects heroin to numb the pain. Salvatore is both her boyfriend and her drug dealer, one who is more than happy to receive sexual favours from his clients in lieu of payment. Seamus suffers from nightmares and talks in his sleep. Craig is the new guy at a fear of the dark meeting. Damien is a drunk bartender, who is promptly fired for drinking with an underage girl. 'Crazy drunk clown' is the apt description we get later when he hangs out with Craig and Seamus. They drink beer but he's out of his skull on vodka. That leaves Mickey, Seamus's sister, and Ted, who share a photography class. They indulge but perhaps not scarily.
These introductions show the biggest flaws of the film and the biggest success. Mostly the flaws are technical, the early scenes being frequently dimly lit and with dialogue occasionally lost in the mix. The success is that this admirable attention to character provides a depth that keeps us interested as the film runs on, something that surprised me given that these are hardly the sort of people I'd want to go anywhere with, let alone with one of them behind the wheel. Craig and Seamus empty an ice chest of beer before they even begin, with only a little help from Ted. Jools and Damien are both drunk when they arrive. Ted gets left behind because they forget he went to the bathroom, so he has to follow on in his car. Only Mickey is sober and she still manages to consistently stay louder than all of them. They're not your usual dumb college students but they are just as annoying. Yet unlike many modern slasher victims, I never stopped watching them.

Part of this is the acting, which is varied but generally solid. Most obviously the actors bounce off each other very well indeed, to the degree that it wouldn't surprise me to find that many of them are friends rather than just actors (two of them even share a surname). Even when shouting at each other there's an obvious connection and that helps the realism, as does the dialogue which is very believable. Characters like Damion and Mickey are annoying but actors Kenton Masloskie and Raychel Fejfar bring them very much to life, any overacting done appropriate for the parts. Gaia Foxx has a free Janis Joplin vibe going for her and both she and Michael Crawford manage to subtly build scenes even when not the focus of them. There are the occasional sneak peeks at the camera and the odd line lost in the background, but that's forgiveable in a film with an obvious low budget. Some of the actors are obviously not actors but they don't spoil the show.

What I didn't have was sympathy and in an obviously carefully written screenplay I wonder just where the Schmids aimed that to come from. Deep characterisation made me interested but it doesn't necessarily make me sympathetic. By the time the clichés begin (and that's not really as negative as it sounds, because I'm not sure it's possible to make a slasher film without clichés any more), I was far more interested in the technical side of proceedings than in the characters being killed off. The camerawork is pretty solid, though it's not surprising to find that there are no less than six credited cameramen. At points it's a little shaky but I was frequently impressed with the composition and choice of shot. This could so easily have descended into handheld hell but it refused to do that. The continuity is also questionable but the more I thought about it, the more appropriate the goofs are to the characters. For once I believed in their idiotic choices.

At the end of the day, this may not be a groundbreaking short film but it's a surprisingly capable one on a number of fronts and it may have a pretty decent feature film inside it waiting to break out. There's story here that we don't see, all the thematic setup about addiction not really going anywhere but wanting to. If my theory about the killer is right, then there's a very subtle setup indeed that cries out for more background hints and back story. When the killings begin they're shot well but very quickly, so the addition of a good effects guy into the crew could easily turn those scenes into something much more memorable. I don't know if the Schmids have any plans to expand this film, but I'd recommend it. 45 minutes is an odd running length, too long to sit in a festival shorts programme but too short to run as a feature. The amount of worthy character building doesn't deserve to be cropped down so building 7 Down up is the best option.

Saturday 11 December 2010

As Good as Dead (2010)

Director: Jonathan Mossek
Stars: Andie MacDowell and Cary Elwes
Debut director Jonathan Mossek obviously has an interest in extremism, as his few credits are on documentaries about Adolf Eichmann and the Black Panthers, and this picture shows its colours quickly. 'In America today it's OK to be a demon,' says Brian Cox in the superbly shot opening scene. He's in priestly garb, preaching his sermon to a flock that seems full of downhome people like Andie MacDowell. It's when the camera pans back that we realise that it's also full of more sinister types that fit the Aryan symbology that plasters the walls around the cross. As the Hon Revd James Kalahan talks about how it only takes one match to burn a forest, one man takes it upon himself to climb onto a bus with a pump action shotgun. Nothing happens yet but there's plenty of implication hanging around. Given the title of the film we can't help but wonder about what sort of scary ride Mossek is going to take us on, but we know it can't be a pleasant one.

The central character is Ethan Belfrage, a New York photojournalist played by Cary Elwes, who for some reason remains one of those faces I never seem to remember, however many films I see him in. I don't just know him from The Princess Bride, I saw him as recently as The Alphabet Killers in 2008, but somehow I still see him for the first time every time. Here he's in for a rough experience, not that he's been having it too great thus far. He's separated and shares custody of his daughter. He's ten weeks into an attempt to quit smoking but he's still on nicotine patches. He's also being pressured to leave his apartment by Seth Rosen, his landlord, who wants to redevelop the entire place, and he assumes that the pressure that starts being brought to bear is at Rosen's instigation. People attempt to knock his door down in the middle of the night. Others look threatening at the dog walking park. Eventually he finds two men hiding in his apartment.

And here things get nasty, mostly courtesy of Frank Whaley who plays an emotionless sociopath called Aaron. He's one of the two men, the elder of the two, the one with an SS tattoo on his neck and a reluctance to even touch the lesser races, even if it's to get his change from a store clerk. Whaley has something of a Gary Oldman vibe, but without any of the overt flair. The only emotion he shows for the longest time is a mild impatience. The other man is Jake, far younger and far less dedicated to nihilistic violence but still with the determination to do whatever it takes to get a job done. The catch is that Ethan has no idea what they want, as they proceed to beat him up, kill his dog and trash the place while playing Amazing Grace on his piano. They leave him chained inside a fridge with his hands tied together with duct tape; and he escapes only to find a noose strung up waiting for him and himself soon on tiptoes inside that noose.
The initial story is reasonably straightforward and is explained when Andie MacDowall shows up. She's Helen, the Revd Kalahan's wife, and she's looking for vengeance for her husband's murder in 1999 by men in balaclavas who ambushed their car, shot him dead and burned the vehicle with her in it. She survived, with third degree burns over half her body, and she still walks with a crutch. Her young son Jake was pulled to safety and grew up into the young man torturing Ethan. 'An eye for an eye, a life for a life,' he says, as he's pressed for an explanation. Helen tells him the rest while his head is in the noose because she believes he did the deed, fingered by Peter, the last guy they tracked down and tortured to death. The fact that they don't just kill Ethan outright is because she wants him to name the third man involved. They don't hold back either, even stooping to hauling up Amy from downstairs to inject with drugs in front of him.

There are layers here, far beyond a basic revenge story. After all, if he did it, they already have him exactly where they want him; but if he didn't do it, there has to be something else going on. There are a few twists, which are revealed subtly at the appropriate points in time, changing our expectations of the story to a large degree. This subtlety is one of the great successes here, the brutality being rather clinical and the gore surprisingly minimised. Sure, Aaron slices open one of Ethan's eyelids while calmly asking Jake to bring him a caffeine free ice latte, but it doesn't feel remotely like a deleted scene from Reservoir Dogs. This story is all about characters and their motivations, rather than special effects. There's much that could be debated even about the least of the characters, like the pair of cops who visit Ethan or the young lady who watches his daughter be forced back into his building in something that might be kidnapping or might not.
The twists are strong because they don't just slap us round the face with a Shayamalan gesture that breaks a second viewing because now we know what it's all about, they make us reevaluate what we saw and add progressive layers of depth. As we learn about these characters, we come to conclusions about them, not just from emotional response but through confession and fact. Instead of turning everything on its head by explaining how X and Y, these revelations prompt us to reevaluate our own responses. The morality in this film is far from a black and white thing. It isn't about bad people doing bad things for good reasons, all three judgemental adjectives there being played with throughout. It's like a game of 'where would you draw the line', but one where you keep getting asked that question with other background to flavour your answer. The real key to the story may be in a photograph at the end of the film but it could easily be taken a number of ways and I'm still not 100% sure of all the motivations. Maybe it doesn't matter.

There's a hint in the credits through a possible origin to Ethan's surname, but that may be taking subtlety to an extreme. Another oddity in the credits is that Nicole Ansari, who co-produced and took the role of Ethan's wife Kate, is married in real life to Brian Cox, who in the picture plays the man Ethan is accused of murdering. Presumably that's how they landed him for the movie: Cox is truly one of the most underrated actors working today, being the best screen Hannibal Lecktor merely one of his achievements. He's good here but he has little screen time and is not the focal point; others have more intense roles to play. Elwes is excellent as the most complex character, MacDowell decent as the one with the most inherent irony to flesh out. Matt Dallas is capable as Jake, though he's outshone by those around him, especially Frank Whaley, who plays Aaron with surprising realism instead of stylistic flair, befitting a solid character based meditation on revenge.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Serenity (2005)

Director: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz and Chiwetel Ejiofor
I caught the odd episode of Firefly back on its original run. I didn't have a TV at the time but I was flying over to the States a lot and every now and again I saw something other than That 70s Show, which never seemed to be off air. Firefly seemed like a pretty good drama but I didn't have the back story so couldn't really say. What I didn't realise until later is that nobody else did either. Fox have built something of a reputation for screwing up shows on their network but they really did a number on Firefly. They didn't just show the whole thing out of order, they refused to show the feature length pilot first. They interrupted its run for sporting events. They cancelled it before the end of the first season, though creator Joss Whedon had envisaged a seven season story arc. With an eye on the eventual DVD release, he also shot it in widescreen but Fox did a pan and scan job for broadcast. If there was something else they could have done wrong I can't think of it.

When I first saw Serenity, the feature length follow up to Firefly, shot three years later, I was hugely impressed. This was a real science fiction story, one that didn't just have an epic space battle and a cute chick kicking large amounts of ass but actually made us think too. I remember particularly loving the fact that all the technology looked used and reused, like it did in the original Star Wars movie, because back then George Lucas didn't have enough money to make everything artificial gleam that idiotic newer than new gleam that repels dirt and age and reality the way he insists on nowadays. Yet watching afresh, after spending a couple of weeks working through Firefly's entire run in the order Whedon planned, I found that Serenity does have flaws, but perhaps they're inherent. Now I know who these characters are, I wanted to see their story arcs but Whedon was forced to compress six unshot seasons of that into a mere two hours.

Needless to say it doesn't work as well as a single movie as it would over a more leisurely six season exploration, but Whedon does give it a really good try. In fact the way he introduces his universe and the characters that populate it is better than the pilot episode that Fox screwed up. The first scenes unfold to three layers, nothing if not ambitious, but they cover so much. They define the real focus too: River Tam, played by Whedon regular Summer Glau. In Firefly she was a broken character, one who has been experimented on by the Alliance, the people who run this universe, but one who was also rescued by her brother, a doctor named Simon. For those who haven't seen the show, Firefly is the class of ship that they join, initially as passengers but soon as crew. Serenity is the name of the ship and it's run by Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who fought for the Independents, the losing side in the galactic war that consolidated power for the Alliance.

There are many things that made Firefly special and this concept of building a series around the folk who lost a war rather than those who won it is the foundation of them all. Mal and his crew are our heroes because we watch them do good episode after episode, but they're outlaws by trade, people who bend and break plenty of rules every time out. Yet they're not anti-heroes as the setup makes us reevaluate our automatic bias that it's always the good guys that win wars. I love the ambiguity of this universe, where the Alliance are the bad guys but apparently do a lot of good too. Life always seems better on core Alliance planets than those out in the boonies. Yet the Independents have freedom on their side, the ability to go wherever they want and do whatever they like. There's security and stability on one side, freedom and risk on the other. It's fascinating to watch and try to decide where we would place ourselves in this universe.
River Tam was always going to grow as the seasons ran on but here she's thrust to the forefront as the heart of the story. The film begins with her under Alliance control, dreaming while being experimented on to harness her psychic powers and turn her into a weapon. Her dreams become her reality, but she's promptly rescued by her brother, only for us to realise that we're watching a recording that sets our new story in motion. The Alliance are defined here as the bad guys, as brutal and inhuman monsters, but once that's enforced we're thrown a curve by the character watching the recording of River's rescue. He's an unnamed Alliance assassin, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, always a deep actor to watch. Here he does evil deeds and he knows it but he believes in what will grow out of them. He's an idealist, a calm and very dedicated idealist, and the chase is on to bring River back to the Alliance from the ship she's hiding out on, Serenity.

Ejiofor is a heavyweight actor and he's superb here. His character has no name, rank or number. 'Like this facility, I don't exist,' he tells the doctor from whom River escaped, before making him fall on his sword. He's infuriatingly Zen and he's a gem of a character, set up well in a few short scenes. His opponents are the crew of the Serenity who had a whole season of Firefly to grow, but he's a worthy foil. I won't run through all the crew members but all of the regulars from the series are back, reprising their roles. All have a part to play in this story with nobody sidelined too much. We also get another new character, a hacker called Mr Universe, who lives in his own fortified metal castle with the lovebot that he married. Mr Universe is enticing, not least because he's played by David Krumholtz, the year he began as Charlie Eppes in Numb3rs, but he's gone far too quickly. He deserved to grow as a recurring character but doesn't get the opportunity.

The story that unfolds here is a timeless one, coincidentally one getting a lot of exposure on the news at present. There are secrets in this universe that the citizens of the Alliance are not privy to. We already know from the series about what they do to people like River Tam but the crew of the Serenity stumble onto an even bigger secret here that explains far more of the background to the series than it has any right to. A six season explanation wouldn't have had to tie it all up with just one bow. It's still a good secret though and its timeliness today is palpable. It also helps define why Mal and his crew are our heroes, because they show here what heroism is, putting a principle of freedom above their own safety. They make freedom ring too, making us proud of them and wanting to join in their fight. No wonder there are so many dedicated followers today of this mangled series: watching Serenity makes us want to join the Browncoats.
Joss Whedon originally came up with the concept for Firefly after reading Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the book about the battle of Gettysburg that was adapted to film in 1993. He liked the idea of people trying to find their identity after losing a war. It would be easy to compare the Independents like Mal Reynolds to American Confederates but there's a deliberate lack of moral background to allow that to go too far. The take is merely of Confederates during the age of reconstruction, a difficult time for the folks who lost, especially those who still believed in a cause. As expected in such a short running time, there are more obvious comparisons in Serenity to be drawn, like the Jews under the Nazis. It wouldn't be difficult to see the Alliance as Great Britain and Serenity as the American colonists, if they'd lost the war for independence, but what leapt out to me today was Serenity as Wikileaks and the Alliance as the US government.

That would make Capt Reynolds a version of Julian Assange but I doubt the Aussie would cut as dashing a stride as Nathan Fillion in the lead role of this movie. Fillion is an underrated talent, though I've only seen him in Firefly/Serenity and his more recent series Castle. He's not the only one either, his whole crew being populated by talented actors, many of whom have become Joss Whedon regulars, including Alan Tudyk and Summer Glau. Nobody lets the side down, though there's precious little screen time for any of the nine central characters in this film, eleven if you count the additions of Ejiofor and Krumholtz, especially as the story rides over them all with its dynamic message of freedom, as emphatic as Rorschach's final words in Watchmen, that being another obvious comparison to draw. Serenity is Rorschach, merely less black and white, while Ozymandias is both the Alliance and its unnamed assassin.

It's not unfair to reach for references as Joss Whedon filled the movie with them, but such detail is only one reason to watch and rewatch. The performances are worthy of that also, but most of all the story is one that resonates and seems to become more resonant over time. The ending is a tough one, but it's appropriate. You don't fight for nothing and you don't all come out intact, but hope says that there's always a future. Throughout Firefly, Whedon made tough choices that others would not, avoiding political correctness and artistic license. It made his universe more real than any other science fiction show I can think of and this feature is a worthy, if inherently flawed, addition to that. Anyone with an attachment to the characters, which is anyone who saw the whole series, will find parts of this film difficult, but that's the point. Firefly and Serenity are about life, all the bits we want to remember and the bits we don't. That's refreshing.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

The Taint (2010)

Directors: Drew Bolduc and Dan Nelson
Stars: Drew Bolduc, Colleen Walsh, Cody Crenshaw and Kenneth Hall
My copy of The Taint arrived neatly wrapped in pink paper, for all the world like it was the latest animated Barbie movie. The title of the film is inscribed on the disk in pink as well, even on the menu page. Yet the concept of this modern underground horror comedy gem is about as un-girly as you can get, even though the taint of the title in this instance is just a chemical that has been introduced into the water supply. When confronted with that title, my wife immediately thought perineum and I thought of the archaic term that IMDb reminds us hasn't been used for a century or so. This chemical carries more than social stigma though, it makes men misogynists, violent and raging misogynists with hobbies like crushing the skulls of women and wandering around with their wedding tackle in full view. Apparently writer Drew Bolduc worked his way through a hundred flesh coloured dildos to make this movie, and you don't hear lines like that every day.

The menu screen of the DVD has a whole slew of them, waving around behind Bolduc's head in a halo formation, as if he's a saintly Medusa being choreographed by John Waters masquerading as Busby Berkeley. It does highlight what we have in store for us, just in case we haven't seen the trailer, which I had. That's done in the worst possible taste and revels in it. What I wondered most after that little gem was how long Bolduc would be able to maintain the pace. After all, as the old joke goes, it may be bad taste to throw underwear at the wall but it's worse taste when it sticks. This film obviously aimed not just to stick, but to smear and leave a smelly residue, but would it keep us interested for an hour and a half? Well, it starts as it means to go on with naked breasts, severed faces and falling excrement, plus a dramatic maniac with a scythe and a lead actor with the same wig that got prominent use in Bad Taste, hardly a bad thing in my book.

At least the vomit waits until after the title credits. And the urination. And the shambling monster with the rock and the ejaculating penis. And the shotgun blast through the skull. And the... well, let's just say this picture doesn't exactly dawdle out of the gate skimping on things to offend us. Amputations, decapitations, head mashings, you name it, along with gloriously off kilter dialogue like, 'Who are you? Who is that large cocked man?' Did I mention the exploding squirrels and the fish decapitations? I'm sure I didn't mention a lot, but eventually I'll get around to the plot. There is one, no doubt contrary to your expectations after reading this introduction. The protagonist is Phil O'Ginny, perhaps the ultimate slacker given that he looks like a 25 year old schoolboy. He has a terrible wig and sunglasses that change with every scene. He has a standard set of replies for every question, ranging from 'What?' through 'Huh?' to just a blank stare.

Most importantly, he's managed to avoid the Taint. Somehow his disconnection from reality has kept him alive for twelve days while the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Maybe he just doesn't drink water, because that's how the Taint is transmitted. Twelve days is a long while to go without a shower but Phil wouldn't know what motivated meant if it kicked him in the balls. Given that he's played by the obviously enthusiastic Bolduc, the man with more roles in and on this ultra-indie than I can count on both hands and both feet put together, I'm guessing he's the antithesis of Bolduc himself. When everyone else does, Phil O'Ginny writes his own excuse note and that finally works out when everyone else touches water and he survives by accident. Soon he meets another survivor, the tough as nails Misandra, who introduces herself by shooting a man in the head with a shotgun. Well, not a man, a zombie with a misogynistic one track mind.
It's with Misandra that we find something else in the picture beyond an endless stream of bashed heads and exploding penises. If the Guinness Book of Records had a record for the number of exploding penises in a single film, this would take all comers, if you pardon the expression. Yet Misandra has a happy past and Bolduc plays up the schmaltz as he shows it to us. Before the Taint, she was flouncing through the fields flying kites and blowing bubbles with her boyfriend. There's a glow following them as if the light is magnetic. It's well shot and we can't help but feel the difference in style, not just the tone but the camera angles and the lighting and all those other technical things that you wouldn't expect to see done right in a film that must have spent about two thirds of the budget on marital aids. Of course, one glass of water later and she has to smash his face in and cradle his brain in her hand as she says goodbye. Sparkly doesn't last.

So this exercise in blatancy, brutality and belligerence has a clever side and that keeps our eyes glued to the screen as much as the expectation of the next taboo to topple. No, this film isn't subtle but it has spots of surprising subtlety buried inside the outrageous material, little nuggets of human interaction that might be phrased as points of discovery at the most unexpected times or as stereotypical discovery moments that carefully omit the discovery at the end. The hand touching scene couldn't have been done better by a pro; the scene where an abuser realises what he's doing came so out of left field that it stunned me but it was absolutely right. People are going to divide on this film, without a doubt, with the dedicated few who love it outnumbered to a scary degree by a mass horde of people who will only be offended. I wonder how many will see the skill in the angles, the colours, the choice use of clichés, not just words but feel.

Much of this has to come from Bolduc, who wrote, produced, directed, starred, edited, filled the teapot, whatever had to be done to get his picture made. He did have collaborators, eager ones beginning with Dan Nelson, who notched up almost as many roles as his co-writer, co-producer, co-director. He graciously described the effort as being balanced Bolduc's way: 'Drew wrote the script and is very much the creative mind behind the whole project,' he said. 'I'm just there to make sure that it all happens without too much going wrong.' Bolduc is just as modest, keen to explain how much Nelson put into the film. He describes an organic partnership, where the pair act almost as two halves of a single whole. 'We kind of just become one entity when working,' he says, explaining how there was no set division of labour, just a pair of colleagues stepping in to ensure that whatever was needed at any moment in time was taken care of.

While Bolduc spent a lot of time on screen in a double role as the leading man and a lesser but still prominent character, Nelson mostly stayed behind the camera to handle the shoot. He did play a couple of characters himself, minor but intriguing ones. Who wouldn't want to start out their acting career playing a Nazi Lieutenant and a Severed Head? Yes, there are Nazis here, but only in an insane penis enhancement commercial done in the style of a Nazi propaganda film. This is only one of a number of pastiches woven into the storyline to keep us on our toes and to allow Bolduc to poke fun at everything from nerdy scientist kids to beefcake workouts. Much of this is actually pretty clever, if you can watch it as something other than a checklist of broken taboos, which would be as dangerous a drinking game as one shot for every exploding wang. Remember this film is a riot even when sober. Drunk, it must be truly insane.
What isn't clever is the acting. This picture was probably made for less than I have in my wallet and I'm not feeling too rich today, but it defies it in every way other than the acting. The camera moves well, the picture is good, the effects are awesome for any price. The actors though really aren't actors. Drew Bolduc is a name to watch behind the camera but not in front of it. I saw a lot of comparisons to Bad Taste here, Peter Jackson's debut film and my favourite movie of all time. Bolduc stars twice in his debut feature, just as Jackson starred twice in his, but it didn't take long for the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to move progressively more offscreen. I expect Bolduc to do the same, as his budgets improve and his ambition grows. Do I expect him to end up with three films in the IMDb Top 10 at some point in his life? No I don't, but then nobody did after Jackson made Bad Taste either. I'm eager to see Bolduc grow and change.

While he's certainly the most obvious bad actor on screen here, he's joined by others, though to be fair they're all as enjoyable as they are bad. Mostly they just chew on every piece of scenery they can find, from Cody Crenshaw as a flaming queen of a high school gym teacher who may or may not still be in the closet in his own mind to Kenneth Hall as the origin of the Taint. Hall is pretty good as the boy scientist but goes completely batshit crazy later in an Oriental mask with cool teeth. He takes lines as utterly banal as 'This is my friend's parents' basement' and turns them into chanted religious discoveries. Did I enjoy both of them? Absolutely. Would I give them an acting award? No siree, Bob. Maybe in something else. The token girl in the picture is perhaps the accomplished, Colleen Walsh being given a stereotype-breaking part with perhaps the most politically incorrect screen exit ever filmed. I don't know if I cringed or laughed more.

At the end of the day, The Taint is a film that can't be ignored. Most people will hate it, many will love it with a passion, but nobody can really ignore it. The title sucks you in and the trailer can't be unseen. By that point you're either horrified beyond words or you're seeking out the picture. I've talked quite a bit on this blog about the boom in local filmmaking talent in Arizona that has come out of the film school at Arizona State University. Bolduc, Nelson and The Taint seem to be part of a similar boom in Richmond, Virginia, centred around Virginia Commonwealth University. It's wonderful to see such scenes growing up and I look forward to more VCU originating auteurs. In the meantime, I need to spread the word about The Taint. The thing is that this film isn't really a film that you tell people about. It's a film that you go round to their house, interrupt their sleep and force them to watch it. That way you can watch it again while watching them too. I miss that.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Gold (1968)

Directors: Bill Deslodge and Bob Levis
Stars: Del Clos, Gary Goodrow, Caroline Parr, Sam Ridge, Orville Schell and Dorothy Schmidt

I was born in England in 1971 so attempting to fathom what was happening in America in 1968 is an impossible task for me. I know enough to know that to understand it you had to have been there, but if you were there you were probably so stoned out of your brain that you didn't notice. I understand a bit more of what was happening to American cinema at the same time: as much change on the screen as was happening off it. The studio monopoly had been dealt a death blow in 1948 and finally rolled over in the mid fifties. The Production Code they adhered to was slowly weakened throughout the sixties until being officially abandoned in 1968. For the next few years the heads of the big studios freely admitted that they didn't have a clue what people wanted any more and, after Easy Rider, just threw money at anyone who seemed like they might have a clue. Most didn't. It wasn't until Jaws gave birth to the blockbuster that things fell back into place.

What this leaves us is a period of time that's full of amazing experimentation, many films being made by visionary artists instead of professional filmmakers. In the right hands, this freedom led to taboo-crushing works of art like Night of the Living Dead, Putney Swope or Two-Lane Blacktop. In the wrong hands, it led to pictures so wildly out of control that they were often never finished. Gold got finished but promptly lost, perhaps because nobody could actually believe anything of substance could have been conjured up out of the filmmaking environment Bob Levis set up for his debut film as a director. He collected together a host of free thinking hippies and took them out into the middle of nowhere to get stoned, get naked and get some footage in the can. Levis is the writer, of sorts, but he didn't have a script. He presumably just stayed a little less stoned than everyone else in order to keep the camera rolling and effectively wrote while editing.

Finally available on DVD, the liner notes clamour about how it was lost for forty years and how it systematically shattered every movie rule, but they're being economical with the truth. It wasn't ever quite that lost, for a start. It saw a theatrical release in England in 1972, but not in the US until 1996, so it's been out there, just not particularly remembered except by fans of rock 'n' roll legends, the MC5, who contributed three long unavailable songs to the soundtrack. Now we can evaluate it without a heady cloud of drugs floating around our heads to distort our thinking and, watched clean, it succeeds in shattering movie rules, but not systematically. It's obvious that nobody had much of a clue what they were doing, so they just kept shooting what felt cool at the time with a vague hope that it would still look cool in the editing room. To be fair, some of it does but only because naked mudpile wrestling is always intrinsically cool.

There is a vague plot, but only just. It's all about The Man and how he keeps everyone down, as you might expect for a 1968 hippie movie. 'You are important,' reads a sign at the beginning, in a set of counterculture images that back the opening credits. They're good photos, to be honest, iconic ones of peace signs and bullets, Vietnam and the Stars and Stripes burning, Martin Luther King both alive and dead. There's pirate radio station Radio Caroline, but perhaps only because its founder, Ronan O'Rahilly, was an executive producer of this film, though he did much better the same year with Girl on a Motorcycle. These iconic images underline just how much this film honestly aimed at being an important cultural artefact, but it succeeded in a strange way. This simply works far better as a portal into the counterculture era than as an actual movie. In other words, it's more important for simply existing than for anything it does on screen.

Perhaps for the only time ever in a movie, The Man is as singular as the epithet suggests. Yeah, the oppressive power of the state is represented here by one man, state police captain Harold Jinks, played by Garry Goodrow. We know he's tough because he tells us he has a black belt and demonstrates by doing something close to a Bob the Builder dance. Really he's a corrupt cop, a corrupt politician and a gangster all in one, as is hammered home relentlessly in every way you can comfortably imagine and then some. When he shoots a man dead he pulls out his pecker to savour the moment. He wants to buy Edward Russ's land but when he discovers that he doesn't own it, even after 18 years of occupancy, he gives him eight hours to get off it. He beats up the opposition during a political election for mayor of a town we never see. He doesn't like free love because if you give it away the whorehouses lose business and he gets a cut from everything.
He also generates our attempt at a story with a dastardly plot to send a bunch of misfit hippies off on the Sierra Railroad to find gold so that he can arrest them for public nudity when they strip off and frolic around in the river. At least I think this is what he's up to, but it's hard to tell when every time we blink he's off doing something else. It doesn't help that it seems like every overtly evil act is accompanied by a distraction. While Jinks beats up his election opponent, he has Little Miss Gold Nugget dance naked on the table. If I could buy that this was deliberate comment on how easily our eyes get diverted from the real issues then there might be value, but it doesn't work as well in the concentration camp scenes later. I think it was merely as subtle as Levis was able to think. When opposition to Jinks is phrased as elegantly as, 'The law is bullshit. The law sucks,' nobody is enticing here. Are the revolutionaries and the establishment all morons?

The only character who may be intended to be enticing is Hawk, a prospector who unfortunately looks rather like Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate, right down to the floppy hat and the huge walking stick. He overhears the shenanigans and so catches the train too, to flit in and out of the story to do bizarre things and fall over a lot. He's played by Del Close, who John Belushi cited as his biggest influence in comedy, but this is hardly his finest moment. He's often regarded as one of the key players in improvisational comedy and it's when he's really called on to think on his feet that he's worth watching. At one point Hawk tries to teach Le Roy Acorn revolution but the man is just too stoned to understand what he's talking about. Effectively Close has to treat his fellow actor as a prop and attempt to create valid humour out of a drugged out idiot. His attempt to teach Acorn how to make a molotov cocktail is hilarious but I'm not sure how intentionally.

Drugged out hippies and molotov cocktails in the Californian wilderness is not a particularly safe combination and there are points where I wondered if someone didn't come back. Why anyone would think it would be a good idea to mix people this unstable with things like bullwhips, pistols and high explosives I really don't know. I'm surprised nobody got hurt. Then again, maybe they did. There's a shot where Close gets taken down hard and the camera followed suit a few times. Wouldn't it be hilarious if there's a lost colony in the woods begun by people who got left behind when the drugs ran out and everyone went home? Maybe they woke up in graves, presumed dead. It wouldn't surprise me here, as no more than a handful of the cast and crew stayed clean and sober throughout. The only reason I believe that anyone did is that the experience ended up on DVD. Someone had staying power but maybe that just came from different drugs.

There are scenes that are interesting to watch, at least for a moment. Shortly into its trip into nowhere (talk about a metaphor for the movie) the train stops to treat us to a psychedelic love scene, shot in black and white with various tints and with music from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. It's like, out there, man: split screen in a number of directions, even diagonal. On drugs it may be a riot, but without them it seems like a random scene thrown in with as much explanation as you might get in a porn film. Both the man and woman involved are naked, but how taboo stretching that was in 1968 with Hair on Broadway, I can't say. As befits a hippie film, the full frontal nudity here is about sexual freedom rather than exploitation, as summed up by the line, 'Inside every clothed person a naked person is trying to get out.' Some of the scenes look more like a nature documentary, merely one where wallowers in mud are human beings not hippapotomi.

What struck me most here, beyond the idea of taking a cast and crew into the wilderness with a copious supply of drugs not being a good one, wasn't the nudity or the lack of any coherence. It was that the counterculture world seems to be just as sexist as the one it aimed to replace. Sure, these hippie chicks are liberated: they take off their clothes, bathe naked, frolic in mud. Some even have short hair, but none talk. There are odd words here and there, but never a complete sentence. You'd think that folks trying to reject their parents' morality would allow women to open their mouths, but not here. For a film where an American cop builds a concentration camp, sexism feels like a strange thing to focus on but it stood out for me and made me wonder both how Bob Levis found these people to take into the wilderness and just how committed they were to this project. I think the lesson is that nobody really was, perhaps not even Levis.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Director: Sakichi Sato
Stars: Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa
It's been entirely too long since I've seen a Tadanobu Asano movie, so one in which he wears an afro seemed like a good choice for a Saturday night. Here the Japanese Johnny Depp plays Pon Fujio, an unlikely hero who works at a fire extinguisher plant in Edogawa, Tokyo. Then again, his co-star, Sho Aikawa, is even more of an unlikely hero as Mitsuo, Fujio's friend and colleague, because he's a bald man apparently afflicted with stomach cancer who sees teaching Fujio the martial art of jujitsu as his last mission in life. And yet, as the title suggests, this is a zombie flick, in its vague way a Japanese take on the previous year's Shaun of the Dead, at least for a while. Halfway through we get an animated interlude, then it turns into a sort of Japanese gameshow version of Metropolis with spiritual overtones. Yeah, that does sound kinda bizarre, huh? Well, if you weren't paying attention, it's a Tadanobu Asano movie. What do you expect?

As befits a film that is hardly your traditional zombie flick, it hardly has a traditional source for its zombie apocalypse. Nearby that fire extinguisher plant is a mountain of garbage called Black Fuji, which looks somewhat like a upturned funnel that scrapes the sky but is comprised of trash of every description, up to and including illicit corpses. Fujio and Mitsuo get the opportunity to bury their own illicit corpse when their boss goes a little nuts over their habit of ignoring work to practice jujitsu. Black Fuji beckons through the window and hey, everyone else is doing it, right? Well, that's just one take on the commentary behind this zombie plague origin, but whatever the environmental subtext, the illicit dead begin to climb out of their illicit graves and Tokyo soon falls. Being a Japanese film, the first victim is Fujio's old home room teacher, a pervert who gets his wedding tackle eaten by a zombie while he's examining a stack of dumped gay porn mags.
Thus far we're not sure what we're watching. It's quintessential Japanese weirdness but there's nothing that really pushes the envelope, which is a little disappointing given that sometimes it seems that pushing the envelope is all that modern Japanese movies do. Sure, it's dark humour but it's generally universal dark humour. The Japanese flavour comes out in a few details, such as when an old man stumbles upon a schoolgirl zombie crashed out on a pile of trash bags and his first impulse is to look up her skirt. Mostly the zombies are pretty sorry creatures, without any real menace or presence. When they arrive at the fire extinguisher plant, they're just props for our heroes to practice jujitsu moves on. At least they provide better zombie lemmings than Resident Evil: Afterlife, and given that that was one of only two positive things in that movie I only need to find a better swathe cut through a zombie horde and its last positive note vanishes.

For the longest time it's just Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa, which is fine because they're both awesome whatever they're in. Perhaps this is so subdued because nothing was likely to outdo Funky Forest: The First Contact, the surreal trip of a movie Asano had made earlier the same year. He got a bit more serious in 2006, making only two movies instead the seven he churned out in 2005, following those up with his take on Genghis Khan in the Russian picture, Mongol. I haven't seen anywhere near as much Sho Aikawa as I have Tadanobu Asano, and with his newly shaven head I didn't recognise him from films like Pulse and Dead or Alive: Final, made at the beginning of the decade. For the longest time I didn't even realise it was the same actor who had shone in the title role of Zebraman for Takashi Miike a year earlier. While it took a while for the filmmakers to persuade this pair to take part, they're well cast in these quirky roles.
Just before the halfway mark we get a third live character, a young lady named Yoko who they rescue from her convenience store robbery going bad. This is after the zombie apocalypse, so civilisation has already fallen but she decides to steal the cash register anyway. I'm sure there's some sort of social comment here but I was too busy looking at the cool outfit she had on to notice. And as soon as she joins the cast, everything changes. To try to keep a semblance of continuity here in synopsis is impossible, so I'm just going to look at Tokyo Zombie as two films that happen to share the same actors. From a subdued zombie comedy, it jumps five years in a single bound and becomes a science fiction yarn that is never comfortable being both serious and wacky at the same time. The wacky parts look out of place but still beat the serious parts to death in the middle of a metal amphitheatre where men fight zombies to satisfy rich old women.

Asano is an able slacker as the Fujio of the first half of the picture and he's an able fighter as the Fujio of the second, but there he suffers from not having much Aikawa to bounce quirkiness off. Erika Okuda looks great in her debut picture as Yoko, but her character is too frickin' annoying to pay too much attention to. She doesn't get much to do in the entire film, just annoy us and look good while doing so. Even her silent screen daughter gets a punchline. Director Sakichi Sato saw this as the most untouchable work of Yusaku Hanakuma, who wrote the source manga, and I don't think he managed to overcome that hurdle. Watching the extras I got the feeling that he never expected to actually make the picture at all, but a somewhat misguided producer kept the film alive and he saw it through. That doesn't always work out and usually for good reason. Producers are good at getting films made, they're not good at picking the right ones to make.

It's obvious that Sato tried to make something out of the source material but the task proved too much. He'd already demonstrated his skill as a scriptwriter, having written two highly popular Takashi Miike movies, Ichi the Killer and Gozu, and he obviously impressed the stars of those films as they came to work for him here. Playing the psychotic yakuza in Ichi the Killer was one of Tadanobu Asano's many finest hours and Sho Aikawa got a particularly complex lead role in Gozu. They both have a ball here with their strange hair, or lack of it, and they play the film dry and straight. They're both great fun to watch, but unfortunately we really just watch them rather than what they're doing within a larger story. The inconsistency and lack of any real focus may work better in the manga, but in and amongst the slaves to Calpis and wrestler zombies in monkey masks, we're just taking the opportunity to watch Aikawa bald and Asano in an afro.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Demeking the Sea Monster (2009)

Director: Kôtarô Terauchi
Stars: Takeshi Nadagi and Kouhei Kiyasu

I'm not entirely convinced that when the Japanese get up in the morning, they immediately think that the day would be so much better if only someone would make a giant monster movie. There are so many daikaiju in Japan that, even with the mighty Gojira on hiatus since his last outing in Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004, you still can't move without tripping over one. Admittedly, Tokyo must be the best place in the world to work in construction because whenever any building gets finished, something stomps on it so you can start over, but you'd think that everyone else would have been there, done that. Yet here comes another daikaiju movie, made as late in the day as 2009, but this one turns out to be more than a little different: it's a giant monster movie without a giant monster. Yes, you should read that sentence again. To be fair, Demeking does turn up for an awesome five minute dream sequence halfway through, but that's it.

I know that's a spoiler but it's a necessary one. If you're a fan of giant monsters and you see this DVD you might be tempted to buy it, but you should read the rest of this review first or you're likely to be sorely disappointed. It isn't just that Demeking isn't a sea monster, because he isn't: he's from space. It's that this movie really isn't about Demeking and there's no way for you to know that by looking at the DVD or by reading the various publicity articles on websites by folks who haven't seen the film. Presumably over in Japan, audiences have a head start on us because the film is based on a popular 1991 manga by Takashi Imashiro and so hasn't just appeared out of the ether. The film is well made and it kept my attention throughout, but a daikaiju movie it isn't. It's worthy of comparison less to the Godzilla series and more to The Goonies, with plenty of Stand By Me thrown in there too. And if that doesn't confuse you, I don't know what will.

The opening scene is traditional: an electric meteor hurtling dangerously towards the camera, which neatly sidesteps out of the way at the last minute. Demeking is on the move and we wait eagerly for him to crush Bruce Willis and any other pesky Earthlings who might get in his way. But no, he promptly disappears and we find ourselves in 1970 in a coastal Japanese town called Akinohama City, where we meet the real characters of the story, Hachiya and Kameoka. They're quirky characters, because this is a Japanese movie, but they're played straight without any of the usual parody or outright surrealistic insanity that the Japanese are well known for. There is quite a bit of humour but it's gentle humour that arrives through character definition rather than wild situation comedy, and while we are reminded a few times that Demeking is on his way, the story is all about the people waiting for him rather than the monster himself.
Kameoka is apparently a student at Tanoura Middle School even though he's old enough to have a bald spot. He quits judo classes because his parents want him to study, but all he really wants to do is hang around with three much younger kids who comprise the Tanoura Youth Exploration Group. He draws cartoons and tells stories and gets bullied, but they all dream of adventure and that's what leads them to discover a full samurai outfit on a supposed ghost ship, and get caught by the owner, the mysterious Hachiya. While he sells grilled squid from a stall at the Mamahama Marine Park, he also rides around on his motorbike in a long red and white knitted scarf and a helmet with 'Genius' painted on it. A complete loner, he doesn't seem to understand what sex is, though an older widow at the park obviously fancies him. He has a purpose though, outlined to him in a vision and he eventually reveals it to Kameoka and his gang through a treasure hunt.

What we see in the opening half of the film is what shapes these characters. We don't see their parents but we do see them bored with the uneventful coastal life that Akinohama City exudes. Even the marine park is consistently quiet and restrained, the ferris wheel revolving lazily as if nobody would ever want excitement. Hachiya, Kameoka and the three junior partners in his exploration group are apparently the only exceptions, frustrated by the pace of the town and wanting something more. Even when these folks all meet, they seem unable to spark anything. Hachiya explains to the others that he's destined to fight Demeking, but with the air of someone who can't believe that anyone else in the town has an imagination. He asks them, 'You want adventure?' They reply, 'Yes.' So he gets on his motorbike and rides away. Yet this eventually becomes the treasure hunt and a revelation of what Hachiya's connection to Demeking really is.

Up to now we've been wondering just what the purpose of this film is, but the treasure hunt that Hachiya sends them on reminds us of The Goonies. They cycle on from clue to clue, surrounded by banal reality but end up discovering that the adventure they sought isn't remotely like what they expected. While the journey is all The Goonies, the discovery is more Stand By Me because it's grounded, a lesson in life that they didn't expect. At the end of this is the Demeking dream sequence before we continue on, wondering afresh what the story is trying to tell us but realising in the end that it's just life. These kids wonder what's next too as, with youthful impatience, they couldn't see past the end of their quest. It's all about the journey, not the destination, but life carries on and they have to find a way to relate to it, to be part of it but without ever losing the magic of childhood imagination. It's subtle coming of age stuff with surprising depth.
Unfolding at a sedate pace, with scenes that linger just a little longer than you expect, like Dead Man or much of the work of Wim Wenders, there's very little soundtrack to distract us from the story. Everything is designed to draw us in to the lead characters and the little things that build their personalities and their outlooks on life. We're not even sure quite how Kenji, Hiro and little Masaru, the three kids Kameoka hangs out with, tie to anything. Are they friends, fellow misfits, or are they siblings? We don't know. They're just there, more a part of a story conjured up within Hachiya's treasure hunt than part of the town. It could even be that they don't exist at all, only imaginary friends, there for Kameoka to feel a part of something and to bounce his ideas off. I don't think that's true but it would work just as well. This puts it vaguely into Amélie territory, as he discovers not just a connection to the world but the magic inside rather than just outside.

And while this is emphatically not a daikaiju movie, I have to return to the monster of the title to point out how frickin' cool he is. Demeking only gets five minutes of stomping time in a dream sequence because he hadn't arrived in 1970 and hasn't arrived yet, but it's five minutes of great stomping time. Visual effects artist Tsuyoshi Kazuno is best known for insane Japanese riots of imagination for directors like Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura: outrageous films like Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl and RoboGeisha. His filmography also highlights titles I hadn't heard of but will now have to seek out, like Gothic & Lolita Psycho, At the Mercy of the Darkness: Ayano's Bizarre Delusions and The One-Armed Machine Girl, not to mention The Big Tits Dragon: Hot Spring Zombies vs Strippers 5. In comparison to these, Demeking is tame beyond belief, but the monster looks like Anguirus with a very expressive snail head.

Of course now I want to see a real movie about Demeking but for that, we'll presumably have to wait not just for his electric meteor to actually arrive but also for the characters to grow up and write one for us. I get the impression that this is an autobiographical story, where Kameoka is a fictional version of Takashi Imashiro, who wrote the source manga. If I'd ever finished learning how to read Japanese, I might be able to confirm that but for now, the reality of the background is lost in a foreign language and perhaps in my head. If the manga aimed to spark imagination, in Imashiro and in those who read his work, the film could do likewise. The more I think about Demeking, the better it gets and the more resonant it becomes. I'm sure I'll return to it, but with a realistic expectation of what I'll see. The biggest problem the film has is that nobody outside Japan is going to have that on first viewing. Expect Godzilla and he won't be pissed. You will be.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Miyuki (2007)

Directors: Immanuel Martin
Stars: Yuri Nanami, Barclay Iversen, Joe Amos, Linden Young and Karl Heinz-Teuber

Miyuki is currently the only feature written and directed by Immanuel Martin, surprising because he obviously has both talent and something to say and because this was released back in 2007. It's far from your usual horror movie as it doesn't follow any of the usual genre conventions, but it's all the more creepy for not swimming in blood or setting us up with paper thin monsters. The choice to slip into Japanese with subtitles on occasion is rare for an American film, like the choice of giving the lead role to a young Japanese lady who has not acted before or since. Neither is likely to make a mainstream audience happy but I get the impression that Martin isn't looking for a big hit with Miyuki and both these choices add to the realism and help to ground his film. It begins deceptively quietly with countryside that's as pleasant as Saiko Nakamura's minimalistic score and it stays deliberately quiet and slow throughout.

We're in the scenic San Francisco hills at the home of Wayne and Natalie McKenzie, who take in a Japanese student called Miyuki Kageyama. She's come to the States to study English at the Golden Gate Language Institute and in the hands of Yuri Nanami, she's as politely unsure of her new situation and her new hosts as you might expect. Obviously inexperienced as an actress, Nanami really nails the part. She's thoroughly believable as a stranger in a strange land, lonelier and lonelier as time goes by, as befits a character who has never really belonged anywhere and simply wants to. She's resigned to being a fish out of water in a foreign country because that's entirely the point of immersion learning, but she obviously has a hope that this will be a happy place for her. 'Please don't worry. They are kind to me,' she tells the photo of her family that she's brought with her, a family who she doesn't talk about to anyone.
While there's obviously a story behind her own family, which we soon learn, there's obviously a story behind the McKenzies too. They do their level best to be a welcoming influence but cracks soon show in their facade. There's dysfunction at every connection, between Wayne and Natalie and between both of them and their teenage son Ryan. He's played by Barclay Iversen, again an inexperienced actor but one who finds the depth in his character well. As much as Miyuki wants to be part of the McKenzie household, he doesn't. He wants out badly, but in keeping with the subtlety that pervades the film, he wouldn't be good on The Jerry Springer Show. Rather than being antagonistic, he just doesn't communicate: he doesn't answer their questions, he stays out as long as he can and he doesn't address the issues he has with his parents, at least not with anyone who can help. Even his punk friends think that he doesn't appreciate what he has.

So while he seethes quietly, Miyuki helps out. It's hardly deliberate, but the more he stays out, the more she begins to fill the obvious gap he creates and the whole family dynamic begins to shift. Natalie starts relying on Miyuki constantly, even though she keeps messing up. Everything Miyuki does is right, even when it's wrong; everything Ryan does is wrong, even when it's right. Now, at this point you might be wondering what sort of horror movie this is, that concerns itself with such subtleties, instead of slapping us in the forehead with a scary shock moment, but the text displayed before the title provides us with a background to ponder as we watch. A little girl was killed in 1609, during the Sengoku, or Warring States, period, and her body lay undisturbed in a Hirosaki temple until 1948. 'Some things', we're told, 'should never be disturbed.' This may sound like a routine J-horror flick but the component parts are treated very differently.
I really enjoyed Miyuki, which succeeds far beyond the limitations imposed by the slight budget and the lack of experience of those involved. For the most part, it's well written and engaging, avoiding all the J-horror stereotypes and even providing a fascinating metaphor for the postwar relationship between the US and Japan. Immanuel Martin, who wrote and directed, deserves a lot of kudos for his work and that's only more evident on a second viewing, as we see precisely how he set us up to assume things that are later revealed to be something else entirely. And this is why it seems really strange to find three scenes that are the epitome of clumsiness and which stand out all the more for being surrounded by such subtlety. It feels like the sort of thing you get in Hollywood when the studio requires something dumb for reasons of their own and trumps the filmmaker's integrity. Yet this can't remotely be mistaken for Hollywood.

What's most unfortunate is that one of the bad scenes is the heart of the finalé, a horrible scene in every way that is followed by another that is good only in comparison. After that, it returns to quality and subtlety again, leaving us shocked for all the wrong reasons at why such a solid film had to die horribly for a few minutes. The third offender has Dr Grunewald talk to himself so we can learn some detail, and such clumsiness is out of place here. Grunewald is a quirky choice of English professor, given that it means Miyuki travels from Japan to the US to learn English from a German, but I like the quirkiness. Actor Karl-Heinz Teuber began his film career with Amadeus (both as a wig salesman and a makeup assistant) but has found himself playing Mr Weiner in Psychic Puppeteer Hair Stylist #1: The Sex Change Operation. He gets two scenes alone in his office: one painful and one superb. That one has him talk on the phone in excellent Japanese.

Miyuki looks very good, courtesy of cinematographer Sasha Popove who even manages to frame inexperienced actors well; they all find their spots and meet their cues. Mostly everything feels down to earth, possibly because it is. The actors are natural, the sets are probably real people's homes and it's obvious that many of the folks in bit parts knew each other well. There's even a minor celebrity, Jim Wierzba, playing Ryan's uncle Harold. He's a Hulk Hogan impersonator and it's great to see him do something unrelated to that. There are little details that don't work, like the McKenzies' baby daughter being not remotely close to her supposed age of nine months or the police headquarters looking like the lobby of a dentist's office with a wanted poster on the wall, but mostly they're ignorable. To me they just highlight why filmmakers with obvious vision can't always work miracles without the money to pay for them. I hope Immanuel Martin gets the financing he needs for his next film, which I'll be looking forward to.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy (1958)

Director: Rafael Portillo
Stars: Ramón Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado, Luis Aceves Castañeda and Jorge Mondragón
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

What makes The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy so utterly unique is that it's a bizarre example of compound insanity, a convergence of two strange filmmaking choices. The first is that all three entries in the Aztec Mummy trilogy were shot back to back in 1957, a money saving concept that Roger Corman would later employ frequently, often following the usual process to make one film but then shooting a second on the same sets. Sometimes he would even reuse leftover sets from bigger budget productions to lend an air of class to his cheaper films. Mexican producer Pedro Calderón had successfully pioneered the back to back concept in 1956, turning out three musical comedies with the same cast and crew in less than a month, so a year later, Calderón's brother Guillermo decided to do the same thing, hiring director Rafael Portillo to shoot Attack of the Aztec Mummy, Curse of the Aztec Mummy and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy back to back.

The second, far more surprising choice was for each of the films to have precisely the same story yet do so catering to different genre conventions. Attack of the Aztec Mummy is a horror movie, including reincarnation, past life regression and an ancient curse in addition to its title monster. Yet Curse of the Aztec Mummy and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy adds a masked luchador (or Mexican wrestler) to the mix and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy ventures into science fiction territory with its radium powered robot. To add to the chaos, these three films told the same story in a different way using an increasing amount of footage from predecessors, because the filmmakers shot about two pictures worth of material but released three movies. The second film includes scenes lifted directly from the first, while the third in turn lifted from both the first and the second, potentially as well as footage that the second had lifted from the first. Are you confused yet? Well, you soon will be.

Now, by necessity, I'm going to have to do something similar in building this review, because so much footage was reused that this becomes a review of the trilogy as much a single picture. The first film ran 80 minutes with all new material. The second ran 63, most of which was also new. It begins and progresses like a sequel, only venturing back to old footage when the villain explains to his minions what they'll be doing and why, filling in background after being put conveniently in the right place to learn it. This third film, however, runs 65 minutes but contains 45 minutes of recap and only 20 minutes of new story. It tells the story of the trilogy in shorthand, so watching this first then venturing backwards to the other films has the effect of allowing us to breathe, as events don't unfold at the breakneck speed the compressed recap versions do here. Building a film mostly out of recap also means a truly insane amount of dialogue.

So, taking a deep breath, here goes, noting that I'll be able to explain much that this film doesn't because the filmmakers didn't see fit to include all the necessary facts in their choice of recycled material. Like most viewers, I saw The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy long before its predecessors, as it is generally more readily available through K Gordon Murray's dubbed English version, so I initially puzzled about who a bunch of characters were, why they appeared out of nowhere and why the rest of the characters knew who they were but apparently didn't want to tell me. So you, my readers, can take the roles of Dr Diaz and Dr Estelle, arriving at my lavish Mexican casa after the opening credits, and I can be Dr Eduardo Almada, your humble host, to explain in flashbacks within flashbacks about the Aztec breastplate and bracelet which are now once more of concern as serious events are about to unfold. 'Allow me to go back in time...'

Five years ago, in the first film that Mexican audiences at the time saw a few months earlier, the first Congress on Neuropsychiatric Investigation didn't go too well for Dr Almada, who was there to present a paper on regression to past lives through hypnosis. It's worth noting here that in the original film, there's much more about why they rejected him outright before he could present anything. Science is a strange beast in the Aztec Mummy movies! Dr Almada went to a scientific congress, the fiancé of the daughter of the president of that congress, to present a paper about some theories he had that he'd never managed to actually try out, as nobody had proved willing to submit to hypnosis for him to experiment on, perhaps because he explained how dangerous it all was. So after this failure, his fiancée Flor promptly volunteers, without any reason given as to why she had never done so before. From that decision spun the first picture.
Now, the congress didn't reject him because he had never actually experimented on his theories, they rejected him because the concept of reincarnation was beyond the pale for these scientists. You might agree with that call but these are the same scientists who later in that film explained how important ancient curses were because, and I quote verbatim, 'in the realm of the dead, the secondary malignant spirits are always ready to follow the orders of the ruler of darkness.' I saw that as notable: astral powers taking advantage of curses, perfectly scientific, but reincarnation, nonsense. Anyway Almada hypnotised his fiancée that night, with the aid of Dr Sepulveda (Flor's father) and his own assistant, Pinacate, who, and I kid you not, was a rank coward during the first film, fainting after the experiment at the shock of it all, only to become the costumed superhero of the second as the luchador El Angel, precisely none of which is mentioned in the third.

Hypnosis unveiled that in a previous life, Flor was Xochi, an Aztec girl destined from birth to be sacrificed as a virgin to the god Tezkatlipoka. She's resigned to her fate, even though she loves a great warrior called Popoca unconditionally, but he entreats her to run away with him instead. Before she can even think about an answer, the priests come and take them to the lower temple of Tenoxtitlan to be punished. Popoca was buried alive, cursed for all eternity, while Xocha was sacrificed after all, wearing a breastplate and bracelet that indicate where the Aztec treasure is buried. You know, like you do. At least she gets a good sendoff, with an exotic singer, primitive flute and drum accompaniment and a flower dance. There's much more of this in the first film, highlighting just how poor the choreography really was. The costumes, especially headdresses, are awesome though, explaining the high ceilings. I really wish I could have seen these in colour.

Now, just in case you're getting a feel for the tone of this film, rightly suspecting that Popoca the great warrior will become the cursed mummy of the title, protecting the breastplate and bracelet worn by his beloved while she was sacrificed and so also protecting the Aztec treasure, yaddah yaddah yaddah, the tone promptly changes. Dr Krupp, a famous scientist who has only been in a single frame thus far in the entire film, at the congress that rejected Dr Almada, is revealed to be a terrible bandit named the Bat, the villain of all three films in the trilogy. He was conveniently at Almada's house to listen to the entire experiment and thus hear about Aztec treasure. Why was he there at such a convenient time? Well he was conveniently there snooping when Flor decided to volunteer too, so naturally was able to conveniently be there when the experiment happened. How recursive do you want to get? Let's just add that nobody noticed him in his pulp Bat outfit.

While everyone believes the results of the experiment immediately, Almada realises that nobody else will unless he can provide proof, so off they trek to Flor's lead to find that proof in the ruins of the pyramid of Teotihuacan, in the form of the breastplate and bracelet. Nobody suggests that such artefacts wouldn't be proof anyway, because Almada could always have found them first in a hidden temple in a ruin or at a Mexican thrift store and then conjured up a story around them afterwards, but no, the detractors all believed the moment they saw gold. Scientists, remember! I should also explain about the young boy who is inexplicably part of the Almada party working their way through the spiderwebs and secret tunnels to the lower temple. I initially assumed he was some sort of lackey, there to carry the picks and shovels so Dr Almada can be a tomb raider, but the first film explains it's his younger brother Pepe who can't keep his nose out of anything.

In the end they discover the skeleton of Xochi, which is mysteriously intact, having not collapsed into the expected heap of bones over the pressure of centuries. It is worth mentioning though that this, by far the worst in the trilogy, did at least cut out some of the idiocy of its forebears. For instance, the Aztec mummy appears quickly here, almost as quickly as Almada removes the breastplate from Xochi's bones. In the original film, this wasn't the case. Almada had got all the way back to his house with it, even proved his case to the scoffing scientists that rejected him at the congress, only to realise that he had left the bracelet behind. It's like Indiana Jones taking the tablet with commandments one to five on it but leaving six to ten behind for another trip. Scientists, you know. So it was on the return trip to collect the bracelet that the mummy showed up, shuffling in from the darkness like Frankenstein's monster and moaning rather like him too.
It's worth mentioning that the Aztec mummy doesn't look remotely like the mummy that Boris Karloff immortalised in the 1932 Universal film. Obviously he isn't swathed in bandages because he isn't Egyptian, but he has long ragged hair and actually looks like he had been buried alive. It's an effective look, but what's really interesting is what his actions suggest as inspiration. It isn't just the footsteps and moans that remind of Frankenstein's monster, he also reacts to light in much the same way. Yet, and I haven't quite figured this one out yet, he also cringes from the Christian cross, Dr Sepulveda apparently forgetting that he's a mummy not a vampire and the newly resurrected Popoca being too rusty after his centuries of entombment to realise that Aztec mummies cursed in Aztec ceremonies really ought not to care about foreign religious imagery. Strangely this mummy thus seems to be a hybrid of vampire and Frankenstein's monster.

While Popoca is the movie's monster, Dr Krupp is the villain of the piece. Don't forget that this is no straight horror picture, it's a construct of horror, sci-fi and luchador genres with a grounding in pulp crime, so the Bat has to be back soon. The Bat is rumbled at the end of the first film and the ensuing press not only about his identification, but his arrest, escape and eventual demise in his own death chamber, means that nobody in Mexico could possibly have been ignorant of Dr Krupp being the Bat. So naturally it's a complete surprise to Dr Diaz and Dr Estelle, two of his former colleagues, when Almada lets them in on the secret. You know, I respect the concept of shooting all three films in a trilogy back to back but writers really ought to pay attention to the basic logistics of the world they create. Perhaps the reason the Bat has stayed at large for five years is that he had a mysterious ray to wipe the memory of everyone in Mexico. It would fit.

Now we're fully a third of the way in, Dr Almada's recaps finally make it through the first movie to start on the second, with a wealth of missing explanations. Sure, Almada explains that Krupp, in possession of the artefacts, blackmails him into translating the hieroglyphics, but on my first viewing I couldn't help but wonder why Pinacate was dressed in a wrestling outfit and how the mummy knew to throw the Bat into his chamber of death. These visuals come out of nowhere and are quickly forgotten. Instead we have to figure out how the Bat, who naturally is slated to be the villain here as in the other films, manages to survive his own snake infested chamber of death. Even if you're willing to believe everything else I've thrown at you thus far, surely you won't believe that he escapes by opening the previously non-existent door in the back wall of the chamber. Who the hell puts an escape hatch in the wall of a chamber of death?

Maybe the same sort of master criminal who collects his men and then goes straight to Almada's house to summon Flor by remote control hypnosis, that's who. This one came completely out of the blue too but in fairness, the Bat did kidnap and hypnotise Flor in the second film so that she could lead him to the lower temple just as she had her husband in the first. How that grants him remote control ability I have no idea, just as I have no idea how his next act is supposed to work. 'I order you to pick up the mind waves of the Aztec mummy,' he tells her, 'and tell us if you can lead us to it.' She does, so presumably once you've been regressed to a past life by hypnosis, you magically acquire a homing beacon to your love of that life through some sort of telepathy. Does this make any sense to you? Me neither. Anyway, because we've been shown how Popoca is afraid of crosses, naturally he's camping out in a cemetery full of them.

While we all collapse into despair, let me point out that the completely insane plot aside, there's much to enjoy. Most obviously the sets look great, especially Almada's house which I'd certainly buy for a peso. Most of the picture was filmed at the CLASA studios, home to the earliest classic Mexican horror movies, shortly before it went out of business. The budget was low, especially if you factor in how little new footage there was and how the cast and crew was already in place, but it looks better than a B movie, let alone a Mexican B movie. Comparisons to Universal horror go far beyond just the monsters and further reexploration of the Frankenstein story. I should add a caveat here about the robot, because he hasn't shown up yet and so we are blissfully unaware as yet about how frickin' low budget he's going to look. Robots in Republic serials looked better than this, which goes as far into school fair cliché as to have light bulbs stuck to his head.
The acting is hardly Oscar worthy but it's far from cringeworthy too, with Ramón Gay proving as capable as any low budget lead of the day. He comes across like a more generic Vincent Price, a cultured man with a cultured voice who was popular with the ladies. After a long apprenticeship that saw him appear in over forty films in six the years from 1946 to 1951, he found success in a string of horror movies, also including The Witch, Cry of the Bewitched and The Curse of the Doll People. His last film was Jerry Warren's Face of the Screaming Werewolf, released posthumously as he had been shot dead in 1960 by the estranged husband of a Mexican actress, Evangelina Elizondo. For my part I couldn't stop watching Luis Aceves Castañeda, who plays Dr Krupp with notable relish. He doesn't remotely have to exert himself to be villainous because he's rather like Orson Welles as Mephistopheles, so would look villainous getting out of bed in the morning.

Technically, there's little to complain about. Lighting and sound are capable throughout: we can see and hear everything without a stretch, though there were a few scenes in the Teotihuacan pyramid in the first two films that were so dark that it was difficult to fathom what was going on. Even the cinematography is solid, though the camerawork shines mostly by staying remarkably unobtrusive. Really the problems with this film come from the strange circumstances that led to its creation and the consistently awful decisions taken when putting it together. Given that the recaps of the first film that we see in the second make complete sense, it's all the more amazing how wrong everything goes here. Even the character decisions are nonsense. Pinacate is wasted here, merely wandering around graveyards in a bow tie and Clark Kent glasses like a gentleman TV presenter. I didn't enjoy him in the other films but at least he did something!

You might also remember that this movie is called The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy. Technically, if you translate the Spanish, it's The Aztec Mummy vs The Human Robot, to highlight the relative importance of the two characters, but the same question arises. We've had a bunch of scenes with the Aztec mummy, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of a robot and we're two thirds of the way through the film. Nobody has even mentioned one. In fact the first slight hint at such a thing doesn't arrive until twenty minutes from the end, when Almada finally gets to the point. The Bat has reappeared after five years and has stolen a corpse, a brain and some radium. Almada and Pinacate have tracked down his lair in two days and they aim to go and stop the Bat from doing whatever he plans to do. The doctors now have the story to take to the police if they don't return which turns out to be a good idea because they get caught in less than five seconds. No kidding.

And so, finally with fifteen minutes to go until the end credits, we really begin with the new story, which as you can imagine is hardly going to be in depth. The tagline of the film translates to 'See the relentless machine battle the gruesome corpse,' but we have the conventions of a host of genres to cater to first, so we can be sure there isn't going to be a heck of a lot of battling. We have to watch Krupp in his Bat cape outlining his plans like a James Bond villain. He must emote like a mad scientist and laugh insanely. They have to tell him he's meddling in God's realms. It's like every cliché is here, in a weird Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, Scarface, James Bond, Robot movie. The only thing missing was zombies. And with five minutes to go, the robot sets out on its quest to give the film's title some validation, stumbling around the cemetery with difficulty, as if the man in the suit has trouble moving without falling over, given that its legs don't bend.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for this movie. It's so schizophrenic that it's surreal, utter lunacy from beginning to end but utter lunacy in an unpredictable manner. We're kept on our toes wondering just what they're going to throw into the mix next. Most of the dialogue is as out there as the unfolding events, though unfortunately the finalé is restricted to a few screams, but there are also gems to relish. I could see Ed Wood leaning forward in his chair mouthing some of them, like what Dr Almada comes up with when first entering the lower temple. 'We are the first to enter in here,' he orates. 'A world that has slept for centuries awakens with our arrival. Finally we will know the truth.' Technically more consistent than its predecessors, in every other way it's a jumble of epic proportions, a picture that had no reason to exist other than to allow Guillermo Calderón to match his brother's achievement in shooting three films at once. That isn't enough.