Friday, August 28, 2015

Short Film: Fétiche Mascotte / The Mascot (France, 1933)

After the meta-post-mod CGI extravaganza of last month's Short Film of the Month, Kung Fury, here's some (real) Old School: a pioneering masterpiece written and directed by the sadly underappreciated Władysław Starewicz aka Ladislas Starevich aka Vladislav Starevich aka Владисла́в Алекса́ндрович Старе́вич (8 August 1882 – 26 February 1965).
Despite the short's simplistic plot (a toy dog seeks to fulfil a child's request), The Mascot, with its numerous ape-shit situations and characters that include a horny monkey, a lady of easy virtue, a decapitated clown, the devil and a knife-wielding thief, is definitely not for kiddies. (Though we also wouldn't be surprised were someone at Pixar to one day admit that the short was the original inspiration to Toy Story [1995 / trailer].)
In regards to this roughly 26-minute-long flick, which we stumbled upon rather accidentally and then went on to read about, Terry Gilliam pretty much hits the mail on the head in every way — though he is wrong about the short being the director's last film; Starewicz made many more after The Mascot, including another fours shorts featuring the stuffed dog of this one — in The Guardian article in which he lists "The 10 Best Animated Films of All Time": "[... Ladislas Starevich's] work is absolutely breathtaking, surreal, inventive and extraordinary, encompassing everything that Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk and the Quay Brothers would do subsequently. This is his last film, after The Tale of the Fox from 1930 (full film, while it lasts); it is all right there in this cosmic animation soup. It is important, before you journey through all these mind-bending worlds, to remember that it was all done years ago, by someone most of us have forgotten about now. This is where it all began."
Over at mubi, they offer a valid interpretation of the short: "The protagonist, a puppy, wanders into the Bosch-like landscape inhabited by the relics of a hedonistic society in decay. In its quest to capture an elusive orange, (Starewicz's symbol of virtue) the hapless puppy must contend with an environment that is unrelentingly bleak and threatening." Still, all's well that ends well...

Monday, August 24, 2015

House of Ghosts / Pisaj (Thailand, 2004)

The original Thai title, Pisaj, which translates into "Ghost", is perhaps the more fitting title, for though there is more than one ghost in the movie and in the house, House of Ghosts concentrates for the most part on a singular ghost, that of a former hired girl prone (both when alive and dead) to sadistically mistreat a young boy named Arm.
The movie, which seems to be the directorial and screenplay début of Chookiat Sakveerakul is both atmospheric and at times effective, but in the end it is more interesting for its setting in and reflection of contemporary Thai working class culture than it is as a solid slice of horror. But face it, sometimes it's simply fun to watch a film, no matter how flawed, in which the prelude to a scary scene is the directive "Clean up my Buddha room" and not "Take this up to the attic / down to the basement."
One of the strongest visual shots is the film's opening, where we see the daily activities of what seems to be a successful Thai print shop: in the distance, at the shop's entrance, we eventually see a slight figure of a female with a suitcase appear at the door, and long does she stand there before she finally enters. The lonely, timid figure turns out to be Oui (Pumwaree Yodkamol, also found in Ong Bak [2003 / trailer]), a young woman who looks more like a young teenager than a young adult, and who, alone in the world after experiencing the double shooting of both her parents, has turned up at the doorstep of the print shop run by her aloof and severe Aunt Bua (Ammara Assawanon, also seen somewhere in The Ghost of Mae Nak [2005 / German trailer]). Aunt Bua takes Oui in, perhaps less due to familial love or responsibility than the need for someone to care for her grandson, Arm (Alexander Rendell), a young boy who, to put it simply, sees dead people...
For the most part, House of Ghosts pursues a subtle path, raising the tension primarily through bangs in the dark, reflections in glass, Arm's obvious fear of the night (or aversion to specific foods), the mystery of the deserted top floor and the disappearance of the previous woman who took care of Arm, the tales of the print-house workers who seem almost amazed that Oui is still there every morning, or Aunt Bua's distant attitude, piercing eyes, and supplementary position as a medium. This subtle approach is occasionally pushed to the side for a bloody hallucination or two (which Oui suffers as a result of the death of her parents), and then jettisoned at the end, to mixed results, when the director and narrative descends into a confusion of killer apparitions and a crazed, seemingly unstoppable Aunt Bua out for blood, before the movie almost peters out with a somewhat open-ended, overly rational final scene that leaves the future corporal fate of the three survivors rather unresolved.
House of Ghosts intrigues through its foreignness and characters, and does manage to build a certain sense of dread and unavoidable fate, but the script reveals a slight lack of clear direction and not only tosses in a bit too much but also fails is in its inability to tie all the loose strings together. Who are all the ghosts and why are they there? And where do they all go to when the shit hits the fan? In the end — at least until an unexpected revelation in the final scene — it appears that the only ghost truly out for blood is that of the sadistic former house girl. (Perhaps the second strongest scene in the movie is when she appears in Arm's hiding place under the sink and begins crawling towards the terrified young boy.) The whole bit about Oui's hallucinations is also a bit out of place, for since the viewers never truly doubt that the ghosts are real, the hallucinations come across as unneeded; likewise, while Oui's hallucinations might be good for a nasty scene or two, they also confuse — at one point, one hallucination even briefly leaves the viewer unsure whether or not Oui might not actually be dead and not know it, much like the daughter in season one of American Horror Story [2011 / trailer]).
It also seriously annoys when the character of Mai (Theeranai Suwanhom of Headshot [2011 / trailer] and Happy Inn [2005 / trailer]), the deus ex machina of the grand finale, has absolutely no problem getting into the house (after it's made more than clear that it is locked up and Oui & Arm are trapped in it), but subsequently cannot get out. At least Aunt Bua's sudden conversion from a distant and unfriendly old woman into a blood-thirsty wacko with almost Terminator-like unstoppableness is slightly foreshadowed — the question "Where are the Buddhas?" actually does portend a lot — and is then revealed to have precedence, but why she should even return home in the first place is one of many natural questions that never get answered.
More interesting than good, House of Ghosts has atmosphere and a decidedly leisurely pace until the havoc explodes at the end — and then the mayhem ends almost as quickly as it begins, with the movie tapering off with a final that is particularly prosaic and open (what happens to everybody thereafter?). We recommend it with reservations.
Director/scriptwriter Chookiat Sakveerakul, by the way, went on to do the screenplay to the far more consistent if ridiculous [and entertaining] action flick Chocolate (2008 / trailer).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Route 666 (USA, 2002)

(Spoilers.) OK, we'll admit it: the only reason why watched Route 666 is because many, many years ago, when we were but a young spud — so long before this flick was even made — we sort of found Lou Diamond Phillips hunkadelic. So when we stumbled upon this obscure flick, which also heralds the eternally eccentric Lori Petty (of Tank Girl [1995]) as co-star, we figured it might be worthwhile to catch a gander of the kind of flick two interesting thespians make when their respective careers have landed firmly in a slump.*
* Although, in truth, even if their projects might not be as notable as the ones that initially brought them fame — La Bamba (1987 / trailer) and A League of Their Own (1992 / trailer), respectively — as both have remained in steady employment since they first entered the biz, and neither has suffered an unending nadir like that of someone like, say, Richard Grieco (Webs [2003 / scene in Spanish] and Raiders of the Damned [2005 / trailer]), perhaps it is unjust to say their careers were ever truly in a slump. 
Contrary to what one might think, considering how tainted the number 666 is in the Western world, there have been and are a variety of Route 666s in the US. (There is even a Route 13 out there, but we'll skip that tangent.) The Route 666 of this movie, however, is clearly derived from what is now Route 491 (it was renamed in 2003), a north-south US highway that originally started at a turnoff on Route 66 in Gallup, NM, and enjoyed the nickname of "Devil's Highway" due to its numeration and the supposed (former) high fatality rate of certain segments. In the movie, however, Route 666 is an old, condemned highway running more-or-less parallel to Route 66 that the characters end up taking as an out-of-the-way shortcut to California.
And why do they need the shortcut? Well, though a horror film, Route 666 also utilizes the tropes of the traditional action film: the basic plot involves a group of government agents that capture a government witness on the run, Fred "Rabbit" Smith (Steven Williams), and to get him to court on time and alive — there are hitmen at work — they take the forgotten by-way, whereupon the flick goes horror and they are confronted not only by the killer ghosts of four murdered chain-gang convicts, but kill-happy police officers led by the one who killed the convicts in the first place (character actor L.Q. Jones of The Brotherhood of Satan [1971 / trailer] and The Beast Within [1982 / trailer]) as Sheriff Bob Conaway).
If you get down to it, it is easy to understand why director/screenwriter William Wesley (born Jose Rolando Rodriguez) hasn't been the most active of filmmakers. He seems to be a one trick pony, and his trick isn't all that memorable. Route 666, his second and at the moment still last project, made 13 years after his first, Scarecrows (1998 / trailer), is basically a rehash of his first film in a new setting. (In Scarecrows, you have criminals caught in a graveyard surrounded by killer scarecrows, while in Route 666 you have 7 marshals & a smart-mouthed criminal trapped on a road haunted by killer convicts.) Unluckily, it is also in no way better.
Route 666 begins pleasantly enough, once you get through the oddly annoying and overly long credits sequence, in that the great Dick Miller (of The Terror [1963] and much, much more) appears for all of 5 minutes in the opening bar scene. He quickly disappears, and the movie goes downhill real quickly. The badly staged and shot shootout that soon follows is truly indicative of all that is to come: half-assed, nonsensical, and sort of dull. Aside from the fact that the whole scene is so typical of the typical movie shootouts in which hundreds of bullets fly as people run for cover and never get hit, the viewer is actually subjected to Agent La Roca [Phillips] suffering augural visions of the ghostly convicts — despite being miles from Route 666. (He gets a lot of visions along the way because — Well, wouldn't you just know it! — his long-lost daddy is one of the four undead.) And then the agents hit the road without a map and only an old tourist guide at hand for directions, which is how they end up on Route 666. (We can't help but wonder what kind of guidebook bothers to tell where condemned highways lead.)
To point out what's good in Route 666: Fred "Rabbit" Smith (Steven Williams of The Fear Chamber [2009 / trailer]) has a lot of good lines, including one meta-reference to The X-Files (1993-2002), whence most people know him; the acting is more than adequate, occasionally even good; aside from the opening shootout, the blood and violence ain't Miller Lite; the drive-in theater set is sort of groovy; and... and... and... OK, guess that was it.
In turn, if we were to point out every flaw of the flick, we'd have a novelette-length review here, so we'll keep to the main ones: Lori Petty is totally wasted and sometimes even looks lost; every time the chain gang attacks or violence hits, the cinematographer develops epilepsy and the camera jumps all over the place like a spastic sitting on a vibrator — not good; the editing gets a little confusing now and then, especially around the time the overweight shaman (Gary Farmer of Dead Man [1995 / trailer]) shows up; at one point in the movie, La Roca drinks peyote tea and basically stands up and walks away ready for action; La Roca actually says "Father" to one of the killer ghosts, who in turn becomes the deus ex machina that saves the butt of the final good guys; and — ah, shit: basically the whole story is all over the place, predictable but for one kill, doesn't hold any water at all, and falls apart by the end. Worse, it has no atmosphere — not even a sun-burnt one — and isn't even scary.
Over at imdb, William Wesley is quoted at saying "I like my horror real scary and I like to lose a lot of sleep when I see a horror film. It's a really hard thing to accomplish." The fact of the matter is, he didn't accomplish it in Route 666, which, in the end, is truly one of those films that justly deserve their obscurity. Totally unessential viewing, Route 666 makes it easy to understand why William Wesley has so few directorial projects to his name.
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