Sleepy Eyes of Death 7: The Mask of the Princess, Akira Inoue, 1966
While the world around him gets wackier and cartoonier (Inoue basically frames one comic book panel after the other, resulting in a somewhat gimmicky but effective foreground style) with every sequel, Nemuri himself mellows down a bit. This time he even does the unthinkable: when he walks into the sunset in the end he's not alone, but accompanied by a follower he at least tolerates. Despite all of his efforts at alienating the world he's not as lonely as Zatoichi. Or rather: Ichi's loneliness is destiny, his is a choice.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword of Villainy, Kenji Misumi, 1966
Such a big departure from the previous entries, it almost feels as if this started as an independent project and got reassigned to the SLEEPY EYES series late into the production; although its' probably just a case of jidaigeki storytelling running amuck: a complex, often and especially in the beginning completely opaque web of cross and double-cross obliterating everything else, including the series' signature cynicism.
Misumi, of course, is in perfect control of the whole thing throughout and while he mostly rushes through exposition he still manages to come up with both the best full moon cut scene so far and an inventive and pleasantly humane variation on the slashing away women's clothing theme.
The Mad Magician, John Brahm, 1954
Brahm cheerfully working through some of his favorite tropes, proving that, when all is said and done, a film director ends up being the maddest magician every time (because he, in fact, manages to incinerate Vincent Price after all).
Probably closest to THE LODGER, although this time he mostly shies away from the darker implications of the material, mostly opting for light-hearted (and rather nonsensical, even for the standards of the genre) head-chopping. Also rather flat lighting, maybe because "style" was supposed to be provided by the 3d effects this time - all of them classic funfair in your face stuff that probably looked pretty desperate even in 1954. Still, there's an honest and real fascination with deviance and unstable identities that keeps this engaging throughout.
The Snow Woman, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968
You can ever have the woman or the statue, not both. You chose the woman by declining total knowledge which equals accepting total difference. The woman can live with you because she is allowed to keep her secret, which also means: her uniqueness. You chose the statue by claiming total knowledge and thereby eradicating difference. The woman can no longer live with you because her secret has been made available. You are now free to transfer her uniqueness onto the statue, but from now on you will be alone, because the world is empty.
Great folk horror, transforming the simplest of ghost tales into a complex chamberplay of art, love and subjectivity. Tanaka's effect shots are of understated brilliance, often substrative rather than additive: no pyrotechnics, but a stripping away of the framings of the image, an elegant, icy slide into abstraction.
Only Mine, Michael Civille, 2019
Another visit to Stalkerville, USA, a place I'm increasingly fascinated by. Stalker movies really are the new erotic thrillers, and as depressing as this development might be in general, they do offer their share of stimulating weirdness. On the one hand it seems as if "real, decisive, earth-shattering" desire can only be framed of in terms of deviance these days. On the other hand, while this very deviant desire is the center of the film, it also always is embedded in a web of smaller-scale emotions which also become more pronounced when confronted with the stalker threat.
Anyway, this one really is quite radioactive. There's a strange mismatch between Amber Midthunder's natural screen presence (a bit like Aubrey Plaza without the slickness) on the one hand and the director's inability to build a scene that even remotely resembles real life. Most of the lines are awkward, but the pauses between the line are even more awkward, and Brett Zimmerman, the stalker, is the most awkward of them all. Some of his scenes, especially one in which he is supposed to threaten Midthunder with a rake, feel like very rough Alien approximations of human behavior (or maybe also: like live-action versions of the cgi-cutscenes in 90s video games).
Then there's the grotesquely overmodulated score; and the nonsensical interview scenes; and the turn towards the mythic / Native American empowerment toward the end.
Cruella, Craig Gillespie, 2021
Worst when trying to pay tribute to the original, but when it comes to honest to goodness maximalist showmanship misguided ambition is better than no ambition at all, and those showy, stupid sequence shots alone makes this a tiny bit more bearable than some other recent Disney products. Still, loud and unimaginative to an embarrassing degree, you don't even have to go back to DEVIL IN PRADA, even EMILY IN PARIS managed to get much more fun out of a similar premise. Some really bad acting too, especially among the supporting cast. And finally, you might not want to hear this, but Emma Stone really does lack in glamour and should not be allowed to play Cruella.
Shinobi no mono 8, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1966
Three years before his death Raizo Ichikawa still had his youthful looks and pulls off a much younger apprentice ninja in this prequel without any problems. There are many nice touches, including long training sequences and funny ninja stop tricks, but all in all this never quite came together for me. While the historical plot line and Raizo's revenge story are nicely intertwined on paper, this double structure once again results in way too much exposition. In the end, neither Raizo nor the colorful villains have enough breathing room... and like in most entries, all female characters remain mere afterthoughts.
Sette scialli di seta gialla, Sergio Pastore, 1972
Patchwork giallo, some bits and pieces here and there, never quite coalescing into a unified vision, but who knows, maybe it's the world that's broken. Funky wallpaper and glimmering shards, a dull lead easily outshone by glamorous sad junkie cat lady Giovanna Lenzi, a white ghost roaming the streets of a surprisingly baroque Kopenhagen.
The murder scenes, meanwhile, are mostly murky and vague, not even trying to transform an obviously rather lethargic black cat into a credible deadly weapon... until the bluntest of PSYCHO hommages arrives, literalizing every single one of the master's gestures of filmic violence.
SDU: Sex Duties Unit, Gary Mak, 2013
Even in the 2010s, Hong Kong cinema once in a while manages to make films that are better than they have any right to be. A gross-out comedy detailing a cop bro trip to the brothel, complete with pedophilia and zoophilia jokes, while still trying to sell the whole experience as an at least somewhat benign experience, a catalyst of personal growth... and still this somehow ends up being, for the most part, genuinely funny and engaging, thanks to a good cast (only Shawn Yue is a bust) and an almost empathetic interest in the inner workings of Macao's sex work scene.
No Place Like Home, Kaila York, 2019
Pretty great as a film about female friendships, or more specifically, three different examples of female friendship, each channeling a different set of projection, jealousy and power play and also different levels of expressivity, from crumbling movie-star glamour (Stacy Haiduk), passive-aggressive lethargy (Kelly Kruger), campy excess (Anne Leighton, Beth Littleford). Not at all great in its attempt to transform all of this into a conventional psychothriller.
Still, even the botched suspense scenes are kind of fascinating, because what else to do with material like this? Is there even another filmic vessel out there for the less than benign (=not at all empowering) aspects of female friendship than making just another trashy low-budget thriller about a murderous psycho bitch?
The Witches of Eastwick, George Miller, 1987
Miller's direction is inspired and at times downright bold, although he never quite manages to hand over the film as completely to his magnificent cast as he should in order to counterbalance what I suspect is a rather obnoxious John Updike novel ... I might be wrong, but the whole thing feels a bit calculated to me in its mixture of inverted wish fulfillment and the sort of feminism that strictly stays within the limits of subjectivity.
Others probably will call Nicholson's performance dated if they haven't already. I don't, he's a force of nature and a gift to humanity.
Pretty Little Stalker, Sam Irvin, 2018
So it turns out my tolerance for stupidity has limits, even when it comes to trashy stalker films. Doesn't help that Nicky Whelan doesn't seem to have a single idea about what to do with the lead role, while Ashley Rickards as the pretty little stalker has a few decent lines but never rises above a poor woman's Kat Dennings. An extra half star for the pool party slow-motion in the end, though.
A Flash of Green, Victor Nunez, 1984
Paradise is always already lost and now we're scrambling along. Although on the other hand, there's enough of the old, slow Florida left here to mourn its demise. At the center of it: a magnificent Ed Harris performance, which makes this sort of a companion piece to Romero's KNIGHTRIDERS. In both films he plays characters stuck in the past and faced with the challenges of an increasingly streamlined present. In the Romero film he chooses obstinate opposition and therefore romantic fantasy, here he chooses overidentification with the aggressor and therefore the melodrama of self-denial.
Deviant Love, Michael Feifer, 2019
Another one that didn't work for me. Amie Bell is lively enough, but soon defeated by the relentless accumulation of stupidity surrounding her. I guess in theory it's interesting that this time around the master manipulator buys into his own bullshit and with a more charismatic male lead this might even have worked. Unfortunately, dating Nick Ballard comes across as maybe even duller than spending one's evenings on Qanon websites.
A Quiet Place Part II, John Krasinski, 2020
Invested in suspense mechanics and nothing else. Well made for what it is, I guess, but I got bored with the gameplay dramaturgy pretty quickly. Pretty obvious, too, that "family" in this film is nothing but a cheap narrative device used to keep complexity in check and reduce everyone involved to a limited set of emotional beats from the start. Could all still work for me with a more adventurous script and more engaging actors - really the only thing that makes an impact here is Millicent Simmonds fascinatingly obstinate face, a face that hopefully will start popping up in more interesting movies soon.
Fatal Affair, Peter Sullivan, 2020
This film is on fire, if only because during one particularly heated exchange, taking place in a restaurant, a chef can be seen flambeing a dish in the background. Quality filmmaking and a great cast, especially Omar Epps as a soft and fluffy kind of stalker.
365 Days, Barbara Bialowas & Tomasz Mandes, 2020
Once again: one is always well advised to show restraint when judging people's fantasies... and this is marked as fantasy and nothing but fantasy as clearly as just about any film, real of imaginable, could possibly be. Of course it's also extremely obscene in just about any sense of the word and often extremely ugly on top of it, but in the end one maybe just should accept that female sex fantasies, too, have every right to take their aesthetic cues from pornhub and the worst kind of rap videos instead of from more reputable sources.
Also, ridiculous as he may be, Massimo is at least a more distinctive fantasy object than Christian in 50 SHADES, while on the other hand Sieklucka unfortunately has much less scope than Dakota Johnson. A net minus for me, but mileage will vary.
To me, the whole thing is way too stupid to come across as anything other than a fascinating if mostly opaque monstrosity. Still, as an honest attempt at mainstream erotica it's automatically much more valid than the majority of hot air festival filmmaking. So, stay tuned for the sequel, I guess. Will he fuck her even harder?
Sleepy Eyes of Death 9, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1967
Sometimes it takes nine trials to get it right. This one finally hits all the sweet spots, by counterbalancing Nemuri's cynicism with the absurdity of the world around him, resulting in a blissfully fractured narrative that also finally clearly differentiates itself from the more expansive Zatoichi films. A film of constant small-scale inventiveness, basically just Nemuri stoically moving along, stumbling into a series of adult swim shorts triggered by a satanistic sex cult gone, well, crazy.
A Quiet Place, John Krasinski, 2018
A bit better than the sequel, because naturally there's a bit more world building, the family stuff makes more sense (and is even touching at times, when old basic family rituals suddenly feel like playacting) and the monsters are much more interesting as a threatening absence than as an extremely one-note presence. On the other hand there's less of Millicent Simmonds and she's not yet as much in control of her performance. In the end the differences don't amount to much and both films end up the same brand of technocratic, positivist horror cinema (see also: James Wan) I just don't much care for.
Maria Mafiosi, Jule Ronstedt, 2017
A halfway decent performance here and there though unfortunately all in all a pretty major embarrassment for everyone involved. How can one even write a character as cringy as Rocco? I mean, Serkan Kaya is completely miscast, too, but he never even had a chance.
Zatoichi's Cane Sword, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1967
Yasuda's best entry so far, by far. His direction still lacks the poetic flourishes of Misumi and Tanaka, but this time he manages to sustain a somber, muted mood throughout. In the autumnal prologue, Ichi senses a bad omen, which later on manifests itself as him getting in too deep, way too entangled into what slowly reveals itself as a twisted family drama fueled by a woman's deep-seated feeling of inadequacy. He really seems to be at a loss this time, confronted with a problem he seemingly can't slice his way out off. When in the end he does it anyway, it feels like an eruption more than a release.
The scene with the barrel is one of the greatest action set pieces I've seen in a while.
Zatoichi the Outlaw, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1967
Zatoichi as a social actor. Doesn't suit him all that well in my opinion, and there are a few other missteps, like the at times overblown score. On the other hand Yamamoto's less stringent storytelling leaves room for welcome bits of folksy humor that enrich the series quite a bit, like the very nice hangout scenes with the horny blind masseurs.
92 in the Shade, Thomas McGuane, 1975
Peter Fonda following a fish, Warren Oates wearing tight shirts and trying to find an inner reason not to kill Fonda, the wind in Margot Kidder's hair. Only every other scene works, but as a record of a time, place and state of mind, both of a post studio era genre cinema searching for a new rhythm, a new beat to dance to and the Florida Keys before their definite touristic utilization this is quite touching.
Zatoichi Challenged, Kenji Misumi, 1967
Zatoichi versus the anti-porn brigade. Very well made if not as original as Misumi's other entries. The snow scenes are indeed magnificent.
The Devonsville Terror, Ulli Lommel, 1983
The Devonsville Terror in the 17th century: Direct action, figures of pure light sculpted out of an all-encompassing dark, women as objects of pure, scandalous visibility, hunted down with forks and torches and swine while other, human swine watch impassively, bound to wheels and finally burned, vanishing in the light they were born from in the first place.
The Devonsville Terror in the 20th century: An opaque web of creepy gestures, dark visions, fever-dreams, random murders, malicious rumors, knowing gazes set against the both overbearing and picturesque rural upper midwest. An ingrown kind of terror, ingrained in furniture, hairdos, sweaters, the terror of americana gone sour, triggered by the arrival of a sole redhead way too agile for a place like this. She's supposed to be part of a team of three witches, though the other two rarely even make an appearance. What's left are isolated acts of masculine evil seemingly separate but in fact part of a whole (a whole that makes no sense), like mushrooms connected by invisible fibers. The men, in one last act of resistance against modernity, long for the purity of 17th century misogyny, but when they try to recreate it, the magic of cinema, which in the end always takes the side of the witches, makes an appearance.
Zatoichi and the Fugitives, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1968
What can I say, I love this one, too. A more modern feel, a standard Zatoichi setup slowly turning into a all that sophisticated but pretty bloody massacre of truncated limbs and blades threatening baby skin. Unusual soundtrack, too, almost abstract at times.
The real highlight is Yumiko Nogawa, the original Carmen from Kawachi, as one of the most memorable women of the series, curiously stalking Zatoichi, her sassy nose and white features not easily impressed even when knifes are thrown her way. Also a nice collection of evil, ugly badasses, like right out of an American backwood horror film. Takashi Shimizu tries to introduce some respectability, but mostly to no avail. The barbarians have taken over, and Ichi, too, has to invest a bit more of his own flesh, this time around.
September Song, Ulli Lommel, 2001
Still no idea what this even is ... really feels like something that took the form of a narrative feature film only accidentally, with Lommel somehow ending up inventing a new way of making bilingual cinema along the way: just let the actors speak every sentence in two languages, consecutively. The detail that fascinated me most this time: the grungy no future air of the son's two nazi buddies who keep hanging around at the dinner table without having anything to do in the whole film.
Samaritan Zatoichi, Kenji Misumi, 1968
And again a woman's face is the center of it all. This time it's Yoshiko Mita's, sculpted and inherently tragic, a mask-like elegance like something from an older, more static but also more noble age. In the end this might be mostly about the difference between this one passive, insisting face, a face that demands commitment on a spiritual level, and the quirky, dynamic, evasive textures Misumi's extremely inventive direction establishes.
The most versatile Zatoichi Mise-en-scene yet. Still all decisive and clear-cut, each framing an analysis of space by way of (graphic) subdivision and (depth) scaling, but there are just more variables this times, greater degrees of freedom, starting with the color cascade in the beginning. This is also one of the funniest entries, though the humor, too, is formalistic rather than earthbound, a caustic pop-art giddiness that, however, never for a moment manages to take hold in Yoshiko Mita's face.
All in all, a masterpiece. Might even be my favorite yet.
Cocaine Cowboys, Ulli Lommel, 1979
New adventures in boredom. Proof, in fact, that boredom is as rich an aesthetic category as any other. In a way this feels like a Franco film: Just some people, most of them fucked up in one way or the other, hanging out in a rather spectacular location and shooting a film not because they have to, but because this feels like the natural thing to do in a situation like this.
It's just that here they shoot not for psychedelic hangout erotica but for a real, bona-fide sex (ok, not really), drugs (a little bit in front of, probably much more behind the camera) and rock'n roll (way too much) thriller, in other words, something that would require the kind of effort obviously no one here is prepared to muster. So we get remnants of a story, unfinished gestures, stumbling attempts at hard-boiled smoothness, lots of bad music that never quite crosses over into sublime cheesiness, quite a bit of aimless Jack Palance enthusiasm and random bits of weirdness, most of them centered around a guy who looks a bit like a very young, blond Woody Allen. On the other hand, now that I'm writing it down: do we really have the right to demand even more?
Sleepy Eyes of Death 10, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968
After two (each of them in completely different ways) exceptional entries, this once again settles for more muddled, minor charms. Basically a random clan warfare plot that only distinguishes itself by turning the misogyny up to eleven - and while some of the scenes of women trying to kill Nemuri by seducing him reach hallucinogenic heights, the shtick does wear out its welcome this time rather soon. When, as expected, one woman falls for him and repents her evil ways, the film's attempts at bittersweet romance only make clear that the Manichaean world of the series forecloses even the possibility of true melodrama.
Tanaka, meanwhile, doesn't seem to connect much with the material, although he does find a few extremely atmospheric images and also manages to film the most beautiful full moon cut scene yet.
Jodeln is ka Sünd, Ulli Lommel, 1974
Mr. Witte already wrote everything that needed to be written about this. The only thing I can add is my docile admiration for Katharina Herberg's unhinged performance, a tour de force of enthusiastic overacting exploring modes of subjectivity previously and since unknown to mankind. For 70 glorious minutes we are in the presence of a folksy, rustic sex alien who manages to laugh, cry and fuck with an intensity that seems to be inversely proportional to the "objective" humorous, emotional and erotic stimuli she is presented with.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 11, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1968
Fully embracing the pulpier aspects of its mythology, i.e. buying into one's own bullshit is always the way to go with the SLEEPY EYES series, and Yasuda does so enthusiastically here. A bonkers plot filled with high-strung women whose complete existence seems to be taken up by their Nemuri Kyoshiro obsession: Will we be able to corrupt him by making him entertain the possibility of a woman's inherent worth as something different from a sex object? Or will his charms get to us and defile the purity of our evilness?
Some pretty out there visuals, too, almost approaching 70s grindhouse territory.
Black Dahlia, Ulli Lommel, 2006
The Lionsgate digital horror phase is still the part of Lommel's filmography I'm least eager to enthusiastically embrace. To me, these films still make more sense as an accidental conceptual art piece about the Fordist underpinnings of both the cultural industry and modern-day violence (a series of films about serial killers, each of them unfolding as a series of killing scenes and not much more), or even as an expert piece of cinematic trolling than as distinct aesthetic objects.
And still, as ugly as most of this looks, it's not completely without merit. I guess the most interesting aspect of it is how the individuality of the wannabe actresses is actually heightened by the fact that all of them are being subjected to the exact same murder mechanics. On the other hand, Eckhart Schmidt's HOLLYWOOD FLING has treaded (very) similar waters with much more elegance and inspiration.
Weißbier im Blut, Jörg Graser, 2021
Surprisingly dark. Sigi Zimmerschied is excellent and if one is willing to cope with some extremely bad acting from some of his colleagues one can find one or two desperate drinking scenes with great lighting that actually might stand the test of time. Still, is it really that hard to find enough true dialect speakers to stack a not exactly overcrowded provinzkrimi?
Fabian, Dominik Graf, 2021
Into the night. In spirit sequel to MÜNCHEN - GEHEIMNISSE EINER STADT.
5 Centimeters per Second, Makoto Shinkai, 2007
Gorgeous, yes, but in desperate need of a sensibility less streamlined than Shinkai's. While he might be able to get away with grand opera once in a while, the beauty of chamber music is way beyond his reach.
Fabian, Wolf Gremm, 1980
A film almost overeager to confirm one's prejudices against New German Cinema's dog years: self-important costumed boredom, burdened with historical and literary "significance" while shying away from political or aesthetic risks of all kinds. Especially the lack of imagination: This film's version of swinging Berlin debauchery looks and feels almost exactly like a 1970s game show on German public television (ok: what I imagine a 1970s game show on German public television might have looked like - maybe something like "Dalli Dalli - Bordello Edition").
And still, with adjusted expectations, certain hidden beauties emerge. Fabian's sex scene with a prostitute towards the end is strangely touching, especially the focus on his face, the search for sexual satisfaction in a male face beyond simpleminded notions like "release", the sudden realization that we actually don't have a lot of images for that. And also some of the scenes with Fabian and Cornelia, for example the one in the bathtub. The way people used to be comfortably naked together in 70s cinema. A lost paradise that not even Graf, the sensualist, quite manages to reclaim.
Mortal Kombat, Paul W.S. Anderson, 1995
Design without architecture, a lot of beautiful singularities that do not aspire towards integration. The island, as well as the premise, is not explored but emptied out, like a box filled with awesome toys which in theory could be assembled into a coherent whole but someone misplaced the manual and anyway, wouldn't it be really cool if we throw the red-haired guy into a red-tinted underworld and if the older Asian guy could freeze people to death? Also: When in doubt, always cut to Christopher Lambert!
How I miss the days when CGI was just that awesome new thing to play around with.
Event Horizon, Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997
An ALIEN rip-off that might actually be better than ALIEN because it comes closer to pinning down the fundamental metaphysical loneliness that is the center of all space-horror. In the sky the world does not see us anymore. All we got is a limited, closed-off man-made environment - the true terror results from the fact, that up here, the map really is the territory.
Anderson's cinema, of course, loves to roam spaces like this. Usually, though, they're not thought of as absolutes, but rather as part of a larger modular arrangement, with the dramatic conflict springing more or less directly from the internal, architectural complexities and contradictions of worldbuilding. Here, however, and unlike in later PWSA films, the enemy is not a proliferation of structure, but its absolute absence, and no one, neither the characters nor the film itself, really is prepared to deal with this. So this is about a secular, constructionist cinema encountering its other.
An extremely powerful premise, as it turns out, precisely because the characters do not have neither a sensorium for the sublime nor an inner richness to fall back on. So they can neither get lost in space nor retreat into themselves. (Those shoddy flashbacks, never even beginning to coalesce into complete psycho-signatures. Biography is shot to bits and pieces from the start and every attempt to regain it only pushes one closer to the brink.)
All that they can do is make use of what is at hand: all those shiny, glittering gangways, ravenous patterned doorways, safety mechanisms that basically work like iris shutters (one of the great last shots of action cinema!). Anderson works overtime to transform outer space into the most exciting adventure playground... but still, all that hustle can't quite escape the knowledge that every action, every single gesture is tainted by the notion of nothingness, of pure negativity, looming just beyond the frame.
(Makes me wonder what a PWSA Lovecraft film would look like.)
Soldier, Paul W.S. Anderson, 1998
As if someone forced Tim Burton to direct a military sci-fi epos. Meaning very strange and clearly at odds with itself but not without merits. On the one hand, PWSA never manages to transform the garbage planet setting into the kind of structured environment he revels in; on the other hand, he clearly knows that his biggest and maybe only real asset is Kurt Russel's face. Those excessive close-ups lend the film individuality, and at least a few scenes, like the one where he hides away in the ceiling, like the phantom of the opera, are genuinely touching.
Olivia, Ulli Lomme, 1983
Hitchcock and De Palma, yes, but also WATERLOO BRIDGE and THE GHOST GOES WEST. European medieval violence invading sunny capitalist Arizona. Put on your sunglasses, especially at night.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 12, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1969
While Nemuri can hardly be called a feminist in this one, in a way this might be viewed as an attempt to atone for at least some of the misogyny plaguing the series from the start, given that the plot is largely concerned with laying open that the whole political system of feudal Japan is based on controlling women's bodies, with whatever means necessary.
While the film never quite recreates the manic drive of Ikehiro's previous entries, it makes up for it in inventiveness. The bird costume dance sequence is the most out there 5 minutes in the whole series and a fitting farewell to poor, innocent Raizo Ichikawa.
Wachtmeister Rahn, Ulli Lommel, 1974
Unusually controlled Lommel film, set on the cold streets of the German 70s, where laying one's self open to a stranger, even for a mere moment, will lead straight into disaster. One can only hope that a better transfer will turn up some day, if only for all those gloriously dreary streetscapes.
Resident Evil, Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002
Horror of space vs horror in space. The latter mostly takes over once the zombies attack, and that's also the point when the film loses part of its steam - the camera no longer directly indicating the forces of pure, antihuman geometry, but hinting at something else, something (still) organic hidden inside the geometry. Space once again retreating into being a mere container. From now on, only Alice has access to the more primal horror of unhinged spatiality. Set apart from the rest her team, she explores The Hive not like a hostile environment, but like an unknown part of her body.
Admittedly, Milla is still very much in pure eye candy mode here, basically a nerd's wet dream, and yet, PWSA manages to install the strictly feminine foundation the rest of the series is based on: Milla as the perceptive center of RE, and Michelle Rodriguez as its emotional core. The latter is a blast from beginning to end, really one of the best natural actresses of her generation. Of course, she's the most awesome zombie imaginable, too.
The Man from Tumbleweed, Joseph H. Lewis, 1940
The one with the triangle. Not as distinctive as BORDER WOLVES (less wagon wheels, too), but much better made, basically one tight action framing after the next. Clean cut Bill Elliott as the bland lead is the main limiting factor, I guess, while Iris Meredith and Ernie Adams in a good supporting role provide some personality.
Monster Hunter, Paul W.S. Anderson, 2020
Didn't realize the first time around how big a switch this is conceptually: the first PWSA film that is not primarily about action / mastery of space, but about perception / construction of space. Not in the old, phenomenological / analog way, of course, there's no empirical world imprinting on empirical subjects here, but rather a structuring of sensual stimuli (sand vs stone, light vs dark, spikes vs caves) written on the blank canvas / consciousness of the digital. Therefore it totally makes sense that Milla's crew just vanishes without any real trace soon after the jump, without any real effort to at least milk this dramaturgically: We're no longer in action adventure territory, the stratifications along the lines of gender, race, attitude etc this mode of storytelling is based on just don't make sense when facing the desert of pure s(t)imulation.
There have been some comments here and elsewhere on the special status of Milla's relationship with Tony Jaa, and I guess this too really is something PWSA never tried before, because they're not defined by common or opposing goals, but by different levels / modes of adaptation. They run the program differently.
A film that longs to make the code palpable.
Terror at London Bridge, E.W. Swackhamer, 1985
David Hasselhoff might just be the most Brechtian actor ever to roam American screens.
Resident Evil: Afterlife, Paul W.S. Anderson, 2010
Always great to see a favorite hold up, especially one that seemed to be tied to a special time and place. This was a big promise back then, pointing towards a future of liquid stereoscopic action mayhem that never quite materialized, safe for at best half a dozen films ... and this one definitely still is one of them, even when seen, this time around, in 2D.
This also was Anderson's last big leap (MONSTER HUNTER may turn out to be another one, we'll see): it's no longer about engaging a single space, but about a constellation of spaces. More precisely it's about different spaces unfolding onto each other in non-intuitive ways, like in the end, when the drabness of the deserted boat suddenly makes way for the abstract whiteness of the finale.
Even the clumsy narration, with ungainly chunks of exposition dumped all over the place, kind of makes sense: we're lost in the no-man's land of mid-franchise storytelling from the start, with no solid anchor available to tie us to a consistent set of spatiotemporal elements. Is Arcadia in Alsaka or just outside the shores of LA? And why is the prison, of all places, leaking to all sides?
And finally Ali Larter's slightly high-strung sexiness, balancing out Milla's new-found Zen. What a beautiful film.
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, Kihachi Okamoto 1970
I guess I liked this quite a bit more the first time around, but then again I only really remembered the finale, which indeed is by far the best part, with all the drab conflicts finally blowing up in a carnivalesque spectacle. Before that, everything's dragging terribly, there's really no reason why this is a full half hour longer than almost every other Ichi film. The darker tones were intriguing at first but at some point I started wondering if this might be a case of a bad digital transfer. Those interiors just cannot be meant to look that murky.
Also, Yojimbo really doesn't own his co-title-credit here. Mifune's performance feels phoned in, and Ayako Wakao, too, hardly makes an impression.
Resident Evil: Retribution, Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012
I guess I still prefer AFTERLIFE because the stereoscopic action choreography just feels a bit fresher there, the richness of a new language, a new territory; but of course this one is his most complete vision, not just a series of intricate frescos but the whole Sistine Chapel of CGI-powered pulp cinema: A film about a series of simulations (stacked with unselfconscious automatons) that have to provide just enough details, texture and coherence to sustain their own illusion for a "sequence" that "rarely lasts more than an hour". Or at least under 90 minutes when excluding the credits...
On the other hand, though, these "sequences" aren't even the main attraction - just something to "make it through". In fact, when immersed into those touristic moving-image wallpaper backdrops, Anderson's cinema is very much not at home, but rather an uneasy visitor, always already looking for a way out. RETRIBUTION is a film that knows that true simulation cannot be content with similitude, but has to control all the parameters. So the real action takes place in the gangways between the interactive movie sets. In the realm of the digital, stage and backstage have switched places. The props and effects of make-believe have become completely disposable, while the control room holds at least the promise of true spectacle.
Also, that beautiful musical structure: A prelude suspended in mid-air, between the sea and the sky, amidst malleable projectiles; the main movements underground, in an antirealist antiworld; and a coda on thin ice, with sharkified zombies lurking a few inches below. Traversing all states of matter, except solid ground. (Yes, I know, that stupid White House scene in the end ... well, Anderson's cinema never aspires towards purity, the show must go on.)
Good Michelle Rodriguez marches against the NRA, bad Michelle Rodriguez shoots bullets out of her fingers.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Alexander Witt, 2004
Maybe not quite the bottom-of-the-barrel-atrocity I remembered, but still very, very bad. Once in a while, there's true enthusiasm shining through the chaos, mostly when Milla is forced into a one-on-one fight. Also, Milla has great hair and among the abundance of bad acting on display, Sienna Guillory's sometimes reaches almost sublime heights - like something from a beta version that accidentally made the final cut.
Also, whenever Witt manages to hold onto a shot for more than half a second, it turns out that the sets and especially the lighting aren't half bad. Really a shame that the only RE with an urban setting fell into the wrong hands. Even a mediocre journeyman director might've been able to turn the whole thing into a tight, appealing piece of early 80s throwback neon noir zombie mayhem.
Witt, though, never manages to sustain any kind of continuity (graphic, spatial, emotional) for more than two seconds. Really hard to believe how ineffective especially the zombie scenes are - these creatures are inherently cinematic, and even no-budget backyard amateur filmmakers usually manage to get some kind of mileage out of them. Here, though, the gaze is never allowed to linger on them even in passing, since Witt always finds a reason to cut to another stupid angle that indicates nothing but a desperate search for unspecific awesomeness. No wonder the guy after this retreated into second unit again, where this brand of glitzy visual noise might sometimes even serve a purpose. (Although, when looking at his imdb-page: not really all that often.)
Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, Kenji Misumi, 1970
After the disappointing summit with Yojimbo, this is the film that really takes Ichi into a new decade. The plot mostly vanishes into thin air, while new kinds of attractions compete for our attention: nudity (including a naked bathouse fight that would've made Cronenberg proud), psychedelic imagery, crude body-focused humor, villains with bizarre physiognomy. Put it another way, it's almost as if Zatoichi has been taken over by the SLEEPY EYES series! There's even a honey trap storyline ... although Ichi, of course, treats the seductress with more respect.
Pretty awesome overall, although there's no denying that the series now, finally, approaches the kind of baroque late style that is no longer infinitely sustainable.
Resident Evil: Extinction, Russell Mulcahy, 2007
Quite interesting structurally with its bifurcated narrative: the series' post-humanist mythology running wild in the underdeveloped Dr. Isaacs storyline, while its action-adventure element are translated into a somewhat more realist register. Both strands look for older, pre-digital forms: The Dr. Isaacs scenes are basically a Frankenstein plot with the monster and its creator collapsing into each other, while the Nevada stuff indulges in the kind of b-movie sci-fi imagery the series normally sidelines. Indeed this is the only film that even tries to imagine something like a new normalcy during the apocalypse: America reverting back to settler crossing deserts in covered wagons. Unfortunately, this unusual focus on people just spending time together also further emphasizes the series' (and I guess PWSA's in general) tendency to cast extremely dull male leads...
Also, hard to take the Vegas zombie attack seriously after ARMY OF THE DEAD: this place just cries out for vulgar Snyderian maximalism, not for Mulcahy's otherwise enjoyable pulp economy (just dump a container full of zombies in the sand and then open the door). Those signature 3D-modelling shots, too, aren't much more than empty gestures in Mulcahy's hand, and, finally, except for the beautiful burning sky scene, supernatural Alice, including the "prophetic" headscarf look, is mostly a disappointment.
Come to think of it, though, these are all minor, petty grievances that shouldn't be allowed to cover up the solid and at times surprisingly graceful feel of this (Clouser's ambienty score works extremely well, too, especially in contrast to the mindless audiotrash of APOCALYPSE). I will always love lean and dusty b-movies, and in the end I'm just glad Alice headed for the desert. Hanging out there for a while, with bigger things looming on the horizon.
The Boogeyman, Ulli Lommel, 1980
Rural dirtbag americana first invaded and then blown to pieces by demented psychotronic mirror horror mechanics. Not as effective as THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR or OLIVIA, but the fact that it makes even less (in fact, much, much less) sense is worth something, too. The kiss of death scene is a small masterpiece of, if there is such a thing, accidental understated madcap romanticism.