Saturday, March 30, 2019


Henri-Georges Clouzot is "the French Hitchcock," a master of the thriller genre best known for his films The Wages of Fear and Diabolique. He started out, however, with a film that on story terms is nearly on the level with the Poverty Row stuff of 1940s Hollywood. "The Murderer Lives at Number 21" is a sequel, or at least in the same series, as a film Clouzot had recently written, Le Dernier de Six. Both are taken from detective novels by the Belgian writer Stanislas-Andre Steeman, who co-wrote the screenplay for L'Assassin. Steeman's detective is Wens Vorobeychik (Pierre Fresnay of Grand Illusion fame), a policeman tasked with capturing the brazen serial killer known as "Monsieur Durand." This Durand leaves a calling card on the bodies of his victims, presumably to taunt the police. We see him at work -- more accurately, we walk in his shoes as he stalks a drunken lottery winner in an early scene made up of a nice tracking shot. Wens is under the typical pressure from higher-ups to crack the case, but he also has to worry about his girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair, still with us at age 101), an aspiring singer-actress who decides to hunt down the killer as some sort of publicity stunt. You've seen her type in many an American film.

Wens gets an important lead when a burglar is arrested with a bunch of Monsieur Durand business cards in his pocket. The crook explains that he stole them from the boarding house at 21 Junot, which must be where the murderer lives. The place is infested with possible suspects or red herrings: a stage magician, a toymaker exploiting the terror by crafting faceless Monsieur Durand dolls, a presumably blind former boxer, etc. Like any great detective, Wens hopes to sort out the suspects by disguising himself as the newest boarder, a Bible-clutching Protestant clergyman. At around the same time, however, the killer starts to strike very close to home. And before long, Mila takes a room as well.

The story may be silly, but Clouzot shows a precocious sure hand with his actors -- I especially like the scene where the magician keeps up a calm, bland conversation with Wens while performing all manner of tricks with his hat -- and keeps his audience hopping with abruptly discovered kills that disrupt the detective's deductions. It actually takes a flash of intuition on Mila's part to get to the bottom of the mystery, though we may be meant to assume that Wens had reached the same conclusion by other means. The climax is simply dumb, spelling the truth out in the most blatant way -- ask yourself why everyone in the scene needs to be there -- and depending on pulp assumptions about criminals' need to boast and explain their methods in order to delay Wens' demise until reinforcements can arrive. To be fair, the film has no real ambition apart from being a goofy comedy-mystery, and it's made with enough panache that you can't really hold its stupidity against it. As a French variation on a Anglo-American potboiler formula it has inherent interest for the cosmopolitan cinephile, as well as flashes of the talent that had masterworks in its future.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

BUYBUST (2018)

 Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has faced international criticism for its draconian drug war as waged by a thuggish, purportedly authoritarian leader. Filmmaker Erik Matti reportedly is a critic of the Duterte government, but his ambitious action film feels like an attempt to have it both ways about the drug war. Both sides, pro and anti-Duterte, can read what they want into it. One side can point to a gruesome orgy of excessive force and the film's peeling away of layers of police duplicity and corruption. The other may find confirmation in the film of a belief that the slum dwellers among whom the drug dealers flourish are little better than rabid animals. The desired effect may well be to call a plague down on both houses, crooks and cops alike.


Basically a cross between The Raid and The Warriors, the film follows an elite police unit into one of the worst slums in an attempt to capture a notorious druglord. New to the team is Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), recently the sole survivor of a bungled earlier raid. In training for her new role she's undisciplined, determined to take the initiative when her instructors insist on her following orders. As you might expect, exactly those qualities the instructors deplore will come in very handy when this raid also falls apart and proves to be a trap set for the cops. Lured into a labyrinthine urban kill-box, the team must undertake a grim anabasis back the way they came, fighting their way through neighborhoods mobilized to kill them. Some of the slum dwellers are clearly drug-crazed; others hope to earn a bounty on the cops; others still simply hate cops for making their communities collateral damage in the drug war. Others yet are plainly terrorized into cooperating, or else too terrified to help the police.

The force is winnowed down to two as we near the climax: Manigan and the hulking, Diesel-esque and almost indestructible Yatco (Brandon Michael Vera). They fight with increasing savagery even when repeated stabs and slashes should have worn or bled them out. However implausibly, Manigan outlasts the valiant Yatco and against all odds manages to capture the druglord. Her confrontation with Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde) leads to a perhaps-predictable all-you-thought-you-knew-was-wrong moment when the gangster informs on Manigan's superiors, who prove all too eager to silence Biggie and possibly Manigan as well. Meanwhile, the news media reports thirteen killed in the raid when audiences might find ten times that number a conservative estimate.

Whatever critical intent Matti had is probably undermined by his heroine's almost cartoonish resilience and her slightly unconvincing prowess as a killing machine -- Anne Curtis is a pop singer and variety-show hostess in real life, but then again Takeshi Kitano was a game show host once upon a time -- and also by his arbitrary, inconsistent treatment of the slum dwellers. He wants them to be seen as victims as monsters at the same time, but since we presumably want Manigan, who is not corrupt, to survive we presumably root for her to annihilate all the obstacles in her path. The violence goes way over the top at times as Yatco decapitates a female attacker with garden shears after smacking her in the face with a cactus and he and Manigan escape a mob thanks to a mass electrocution. If over-the-top action is all you're looking for then I can recommend BuyBust as a compelling compendium of carnage enhanced by excellent cinematography by Neil Derrick Bion. But as a commentary on the Duterte drug war it's too enthusiastic about its ghoulish work and too easily tempted to dehumanize the actual victims of the story to say anything meaningful beyond the obvious. Something is clearly very wrong in that country, but BuyBust may be more a symptom than a diagnosis.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


Aspiring North Carolina auteur Dave A. Adams reportedly wrote and directed his first film, originally called "Hostages," in 1975. It took two years for him to find an exploitation angle, but in late 1977 Adams anointed his film's killer Another Son of Sam. All it took was to preface the picture with a lineage of killers starting with Jack the Ripper and concluding with the then still active Hillside Strangler. It might not inspire confidence to see Adams attribute fourteen victims to the Ripper, but a friend tells me that many Ripperologists at least tentatively credit Jack with more than the canonical five killings. Whether Adams knew this is unclear, bur you'd be right anyway not to have confidence in him. For what it's worth, his original concept arguably owes more to another killer in Adams' list, Richard Speck, since Adams' killer spends much of his time in a girls' dormitory. This killer, Harvey, escapes from the hospital after a round of electroshock therapy and heavy sedation, despite being put in a straitjacket. He strangles one guard with a telephone cord, then impales another with a coat rack. Through all of this, we haven't seen the man's face, but we get repeated close-ups of his actually quite inexpressive eyes. No madness seethes there, nor does depravity glisten in them. Nevertheless, these repeated shots of his eyes are this film's equivalent of Bela Lugosi spreading his cape in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Despite his murderous ways, Harvey is satisfied merely to knock his doctor unconscious. We're told that she's in a coma, but suffering more from shock than anything else. That's enough to enrage the doctor's husband, a plainclothes detective, though rage seems to be beyond the actor's emotional range. He's given a backstory that consumes the first reel of the picture and consists of speedboating and the patronage of a nightclub where Johnny Charro, a stereotypical hairy-chested real-life local lounge singer, performs. Charro's awful ballad, "I Never Said Goodbye," is a local hit, receiving radio airplay in at least one scene, and counts as the Love Theme from Another Son of Sam. As for the police detective, the most that can be said for our hero is that he's probably the most competent member of the Belmont police force. Once you see the picture, however, you'll realize that I'm not giving him much credit.

After he evades some cops in an urban park, Harvey follows two college students to their dorm. The girls' chatter introduces the major subplot of the picture, which is that one of them has stolen some money to finance an abortion. That this is implicitly obvious without abortion being mentioned is the one bit of cleverness in Adams' script. Harvey wanders through the building and for all I know is under the bed where the two girls have another chat, in order to justify more cut-ins of those evil eyes. We get a fake scare when one of the girls opens a closet door to fetch her pet mouse's cage, but instead of Harvey a large plush dog falls on her. Harvey will get his chance later.

The theft-abortion subplot provides an excuse for cops to be in the dorm when Harvey takes his first victim. A desultory siege ensues in which Harvey displays ninja skills relative to his inept police pursuers. At last a SWAT team is called in as Harvey menaces two of the girls we've already seen. He takes his time menacing them while the SWAT officer gingerly rappels into position, with orders to simply nose his rifle through an open window, part the curtain, and fire. One of the girls impatiently charges Harvey with one of those fraternity/sorority paddles, and at first it's unclear whether the madman has killed or merely kayoed her when she hits the mattress with blood trickling from her mouth. Meanwhile, the other girl makes her way to the window and tentatively parts the curtain. BANG! Score one for the cops. Then, another cop charges into the room, and for all his specialized training is immediately mowed down by Harvey. By this time the unconscious girl has come to, and she takes the carnage playing out around her with remarkable, almost inhuman calm.

Finally, Harvey's mother is brought to the dorm to talk him into surrendering. She tells a sob story, blaming herself for his going bad, and promises him on the cops' behalf that he won't be harmed if he turns himself in. Harvey, represented by the camera, steps into the hallway and stands in front of her, apparently staring at her handbag. The cops immediately open fire and it's as if the old lady has disappeared as Harvey, his face finally shown in mortal agony, is riddled with bullets. By way of an epilogue, the final girl from the dorm room gets the bad news from a doctor that her friend never regained consciousness, and she takes it with a great pout. We're left with no real insight into the homicidal mind, few quotably bad lines (though our hero's response to a false report of Harvey's capture, "There's a college girl here who would disagree with you -- if she could talk," is probably the 'best.') and nagging questions about the director's habit of freeze-framing the action while the dialogue continues. You might even ask whether this film every played in theaters, but as this was the Seventies, I'm sure that some drive-in or grindhouse did take it. Another Son of Sam isn't one of the laughably crazy bad films that provide genuine entertainment on some level, but if you'll settle for laughably inept it might still entertain you a little.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

THE TASTE OF VIOLENCE (Le goût de la ..., 1961)

In 1969 Robert Hossein directed and starred in one of the great spaghetti westerns, Cemetery Without Crosses. It turns out that Hossein had a head start on most European auteurs, having made his first western almost a decade earlier, before there was a phenomenon to label. To be more precise, Taste of Violence is a black and white precursor of the spaghetti subgenre commonly called the "Zapata western," those films set in Mexico or some place much like it during the early 20th century revolutionary period. Hossein's film is set in an unnamed and thus for all intents and purposes fictional country experiencing a revolt against an unpopular president. The film opens with a rebel band led by Perez (Hossein) having scored a great coup by capturing the president's daughter, Maria (Giovanna Ralli). The rebels celebrate by executing the soldiers who'd been escorting her before Perez and two others set out to deliver the young woman to their commander. Perez hopes for a hostage exchange, getting numerous rebel prisoners freed in return for his prize. But in a volatile landscape there are many who would take Maria off his hands -- including his own comrade, Chamaco (Mario Adorf) -- for personal gain.

A perilous journey ensues. The little band has to burn their way through a cornfield to escape a village of pursuers, but Chamaco remains the real threat, thanks in part to his influence over the youngster of the band, Chico (Hans H. Neubart). Circumstances keep Chamaco from carrying out his own schemes until Maria shows her own ruthlessness. Recognizing Chico's infatuation with her, she persuades him to escort her to safety, only to be intercepted by Perez and Chamaco, the latter of whom kills Chico. Later, Maria gets the drop on the two survivors, only to surrender to Perez after he kills Chamaco to keep him from shooting her. The romance between Maria and Perez seems implausible, as does Giovanna Ralli's somehow immaculate makeup, but rest assured that Hossein isn't too much of a romantic.

As the film nears its conclusion the tide has clearly turned against the rebels. In a bookend to the execution scene at the start, Perez and Maria enter a city where rebels are hanging by the neck practically door to door. In the end, after a brief rest break at his sister's house, Perez learns that his faction has been decisively defeated; there's no one left to whom to deliver Maria. Then he finds that the government forces have burned his sister's house to the ground and most likely killed her entire family. Maria is all he has left now -- except for one thing. This might be the point where another filmmaker would have Maria run off with Perez to make a fresh start somewhere. Instead, Hossein has his hero and heroine go their separate ways, Perez to carry on in one-man rebellion, quite consciously hopeless. Maria doesn't love him that much. The closing shot shows two tiny figures riding off in opposite directions across a vast, bleak landscape. Unlike the "zapatas" that came later, Hossein isn't interested in violent catharsis, ending his prototype film on a note of tragic futility that makes it something more than a genre picture. See this and Cemetery Without Crosses and you'll regret that Hossein -- still with us at age 91 but apparently retired -- didn't make more westerns with his exceptional sensibility.

Saturday, March 9, 2019


By Marvel Studios standards Captain Marvel is relatively non-linear, which may be why it feels a little rough early on. We're immediately immersed in the adventures of some sort of space special-forces unit of the Kree empire, an entity moviegoers first encountered in Guardians of the Galaxy. The Kree are battling their traditional enemies, the shape-shifting Skrulls. One of the Kree team, a woman named "Veers" (Bree Larson) is the special protege of her commanding officer (Jude Law). Something about his team may give viewers pause, however; one of them is somebody (Djimon Hounsou) we've seen as a bad guy in Guardians. This is a minor detail compared to Veers' flashbacks, which focus on a middle-aged female (Annette Bening) who is also the form Veers sees when she communes with the Kree "Supreme Intelligence," which in comics is represented by a giant green blob-face. For each Kree, the Supreme Intelligence takes the form of someone familiar, but Veers has no idea who the woman is. Over the course of the film, she comes to realize there's a lot she doesn't know about herself. In fact, if I recall right, this is the first time Marvel has gone the "everything you thought you knew is wrong" route so familiar in genre fiction in general these days. The comics audience, of course, anticipates this, because they know that Veers is really Carol Danvers, the much-revamped heroine once known as Ms. Marvel, who was most recently upgraded into "Earth's Mightiest Hero. Watching the first half of Captain Marvel is a matter of waiting for Carol to rediscover the truth about herself, and that may explain why the early action has a somewhat perfunctory feel. There's nothing spectacularly original about the alien environment Veers works in; Hala, the Kree homeworld, looks pretty much like every other Marvel megalopolis, and there's little truly alien in a sci-fi sense about the Kree or the Skrulls, apart from the latters' morphing abilities. For a while, and maybe all the way through for some viewers, this film (directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck from a story and script from theirs and many other hands) feels like it might be the most generic, by-the-numbers Marvel movie of all apart from the title character's (who never uses that title) relatively nonlinear character arc.

It doesn't help that, when Veers goes crashing onto planet C-53 (i.e., Earth), it's the year of our lord 1995. In other words, cue the oldies soundtrack! Maybe I let this familiar marketing ploy bother me too much, since making movies out of Marvel Comics themselves is mere moneygrubbing from one point of view, but one might ask whether this film had to be set in the past at all, unless it's to market an oldies soundtrack. To be fair, also, this is far from the most cynical or implausible deployment of oldies (that would be Spider-Man: Homecoming). Still, there's something pandering about it that always leaves a bad taste in a killjoy mouth, but this will be just about my last complaint about Captain Marvel.

Anyway, it's 1995 and Veers crash-lands in a strip-mall Blockbuster Video, and who should be called onto the case but a young -- well, a younger Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who was a much less serious person a quarter-century ago. He also, understandably, had much smoother skin, and the CGI wizards deserve some credit for the job they did on him, though their treatment of Clark (Agent Coulson) Gregg leaves a lot more to be desired. A nice detail about this film, which stands at the brink of the end-of-an-era Avengers: Endgame, is that it brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe just about to full circle by showing us that his encounter with Carol, the Kree and the Skrulls provoked Fury to launch what he initially calls the Protector Initiative before Danvers gives him one more inspiration. Nevertheless, it's an odd turn from Jackson, most memorable for Fury's misplaced affection for a precocious cat, though again you can argue that it's this experience that made him more serious about things. Anyway, with him as tag-along, Carol rediscovers her past by tracking down her best friend and fellow jet pilot (Lashana Lynch), whose daughter may turn up in a future, present-day film as yet another Captain Marvel. It's a long story and I'll save it for when I need it.

Meanwhile, as noted, Carol learns that a lot of what she thought she knew was wrong -- and one cute thing the film does to make some of this surprising is to exploit the recent typecasting of Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One, Robin Hood ...). He plays a Skrull agent who's taken the form of a S.H.I.E.L.D. commander in order to get at Veers, who has subconscious knowledge of an important science project the Annette Bening mystery woman was working on. But everything you thought you knew about Ben Mendelsohn is wrong! In this particular variation on the Kree-Skrull conflict, the green, waffle-chinned shapeshifters are the good guys, while the Kree are exploiting Carol Danvers by suppressing her memories of Earth as well as her full potential as a superbeing -- which once unleashed could be limitless. Since last year, Marvel has teased that Captain Marvel is the hero who can tip Thanos' precious balance, and watching her pull off Superman-style stunts like blowing up starships by flying through them may make more people believers. The directing team aren't really the most visionary or even efficient storytellers, but they do succeed at making Carol's realization of her full power, intercut with her memories of a lifetime of rising from adversity, an exhilarating moment, an ultimate comic-book power fantasy brought to cinematic life. While overall Captain Marvel is at best a mid-level Marvel movie, if its main purpose is to get people even more interested in Endgame, it probably should count as an unqualified success.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

ESCAPE FROM PATAGONIA (Fuga de la Patagonia, 2016)

Javier Zevallos' screenplay, co-directed with Francisco D'Eufemia, has been described for American audiences as a "gaucho western," but it struck me more as an Argentine variation on The Naked Prey, only with less nakedness. It's based on a real-life exploit of Francisco Moreno, a 19th century explorer of Argentina's Patagonia region. Moreno (Pablo Ragoni, in the left foreground above) was captured by a hostile tribe but escaped just before he was scheduled to be put to death. In the film, as presumably in life, he has two helpers, a white man, and a civilized native, each more worldly than the scholarly Moreno in some respects. It seems for a while as if Zevallos means for these characters to articulate contrasting viewpoints relevant to the story (and to Argentine history) as a whole, but about halfway through the picture Moreno is separated from them when the trio come under fire from some hostile whites. Whether these men are outlaws or merely settlers is left unclear. In any event, Moreno is shot in the shoulder, falls into a river and is carried downstream. Now, concerned lest his wound grow infected under primitive conditions, he has to make his way back to his friends or to the nearest fort, whichever might come first. Starting over, he encounters an army deserter who may or may not have murdered a family of natives. The one constant, of which Moreno is unaware until the end, is a native pursuer, his own godson (Gustavo Rodriguez), who has come (after a history related in flashbacks) to realize that while Moreno himself may be a man of good intentions, his work mapping the region is too useful to the more dangerous whites from Buenos Aires for him to be allowed to continue.

It's really a simple survival story told with admirable brevity, coming in at only 80 minutes. Apart from Ragoni, the real star is the Patgonian landscape, often showcased in a way that reduces Moreno and his various friends and pursuers to tiny figures whose movements remain legible thanks to Lucio Bonelli's cinematography. The number of tracking and following shots suggest that Terrence Malick's The New World was a big influence on the directors, and that strikes me as a good choice of influence. More modest in its ambitions than the American film, Escape From Patagonia is an engaging window into an area of world history still largely unexplored by American moviegoers.