Sunday, 22 April 2018

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (4½ Stars)

This is the ninth film in the Stuttgart Nights Festival.

This has been called the greatest performance of Vince Vaughn's career. I can see why. Throughout the film he treads a fine line between being a good guy and a bad guy, but he's always credible.

Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a recovering alcoholic who works as a car mechanic. When he's fired there's only one job he can find that pays well enough to support himself and his wife: he delivers drugs for a friend of his. Bradley isn't a dealer, he just carries large sacks of drugs and collects the money.

When a deal goes bad due to the stupidity of his accomplices, Bradley turns against them. He shoots them to stop them killing the police. He's arrested and promised he can be let free if he cooperates by naming names, but he refuses to betray his friend. He's sentenced to seven years in prison.

Shortly after arriving in prison, where he intends to be a model prisoner to be paroled early, he's told that his former drug boss has kidnapped his pregnant wife. She will be killed unless Bradley agrees to assassinate another prisoner.

There are more complications in the plot, but I'll leave it there. This is an ultra-violent psychological thriller. Bradley looks like a monster -- Vince Vaughn is 6'5" and muscular -- but he's really as soft as a baby. All he wants to do is enjoy a happy life with his wife and daughter. However, he's forced to be a violent killer to do this.

The critics love the film. The general public doesn't. This is a rare case where I take the side of the critics. It was released in cinemas in America and England last year, but it did so badly that it won't be released in other countries. Is the film too violent for the public? Or is Vince Vaughn's brooding character too oblique? Whatever the reason is, I recommend "Brawl in Cell Block 99" to all my readers.

The Strangers: Prey at Night (3 Stars)

This is the eighth film in the Stuttgart Nights Festival.

This is a sequel to the film "The Strangers" that was released in 2008. It's not understandable why the writer Bryan Bertino waited so long. The first film ended with a hook to make a new film.

I'll admit that I didn't like the first film very much. I enjoy slasher films if there's a good story behind the slashing, but that didn't seem to be the case. The second film features the same three killers but even less story. When one of the killers (Dollface, on the left in the poster) is asked why she's killing people she answers "Why not?"

If you really want a plot summary, here it is:

A family with two teenage children moves into a trailer park. On their first night three strangers arrive and kill them one by one.

There's nothing else to say. They're not carefully selected victims. They're just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Most of the films shown at the Stuttgart Nights Festival are new films that haven't been shown in the cinema yet. This is an exception. It was released in March in almost every country except for Germany and the UK. The fans obviously disagree with my negative rating. It's already a massive hit which has earned more than five times its budget. Maybe cinema audiences just want to see killing without having to worry why it's happening?

There's one amusing thing that I noticed in the final credits. There was a list of set medics. 14 of them. Why does a film need so many medics? In fact, why does a film need any medics at all? Did something happen that we haven't been told about?

Hagazussa (2 Stars)

This is the seventh film in the Stuttgart Nights Festival.

A woman called Martha lives in the Austrian mountains with her daughter Albrun. The villagers harass her and throw stones at her because she's a witch. Throughout the film I saw no evidence of witchcraft, so why did they call her a witch? She was an independent woman living without a man, and she didn't go to church. That's all the proof that the villagers needed. Witch!

Martha dies, and 15 years later Albrun is living in the same mountain hut with her baby daughter, also called Martha. Like her mother, she's an outcast. She supports herself from selling goat's milk in the village, but nobody likes her. This changes when a young woman called Swinda befriends her. They spend time together, and eventually Swinda invites Albrun to meet her husband.

It was all a ruse. Swinda's husband rapes Albrun while Swinda watches. When Albrun returns to her hut her goats are all gone, either slaughtered or stolen. Albrun decides to take revenge on Swinda and the rest of the village.

The scenery is beautiful, but that's the only good thing I can say about the film. The story is depressing, and there are some very ugly scenes. Some things don't make sense. Why does the village's Catholic Church have a wall built out of skeletons? Something that weird deserves an explanation, but none is given.

I wasn't alone in my opinion. It was the first film in which I saw people walking out. When I spoke with my friends outside none of them had anything good to say about it.

Pyewacket (4½ Stars)

This is the sixth film in the Stuttgart Nights Festival.

This is a Canadian film that was filmed in Ontario, but the story's location is kept vague. It's common for Canadian films to leave it unclear whether they take place in Canada or America. Watching the film today I didn't notice any street signs or other clues that would have unambiguously identified the town.

Leah is a teenage girl who lives in a small town. It's a year since her father died. Since then her mother has turned to alcohol for comfort. This, in turn, has made Leah despise her mother. Leah too is suffering and needs support, but her mother is a wreck and can't help her.

Leah's mother makes the worst possible decision she can make. She thinks that the family home is the problem. It feels like a tomb since her husband passed away, so she decides to move into a new home an hour's drive north. Leah will have to change school at the end of the school year, but until then her mother will drive her to and from school every day. This will separate Leah from her friends, who were the only small amount of support she was receiving.

Added to this, the new house is isolated in the middle of the woods, a long distance away from whatever the new town is. When Leah gets home after school she's sad and lonely, with only the mother that she despises so much for company.

With the help of occult books Leah casts a spell to kill her mother. If you're a sceptic you'll say that's better than simply bashing her mother's head in with a baseball bat, but you're wrong. Leah has summoned a demon called Pyewacket. She contacts an author of occult literature online who tells her that evil spells always have a price. The demon will first do what he's been summoned to do, and after completing his task he'll torture the one who summoned him. Leah has to undo the spell before her mother dies.

This is a chilling story which fascinated me from beginning to end. The conversations between the children in Leah's school (probably aged 15 to 16) brought up some interesting questions. It's said that children should respect their parents, but what if parents don't live a life that earns their respect? A person doesn't automatically become a figure of authority when he has a child. A weak person doesn't become strong overnight.

Some parents need as much help from their children as their children do from them. Obviously children can offer nothing when they're four or five years old, but as they grow older they can slowly grow into their responsibility. Some children can do that, some can't. If I remember correctly, I first began to become a companion for my mother when I was 12. I used to sit with her for hours talking about her problems. My sister was different. She only thought about herself and never did anything to help her mother, at least not when she was young. It wasn't until after my sister's divorce -- her marriage only lasted six months -- that she and her mother grew close. She turned to her mother for help, but the relationship became mutual and she offered help in return.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Revenge (4 Stars)

This is the third film in the Stuttgart Nights Festival.

This is a Canadian rape and revenge film with a minimal cast of only four actors.

Richard goes on a hunting trip every year with his friends Stan and Dimitri. (All three are French Canadians). He has a luxurious house in the middle of the desert. The film doesn't make the location clear. It was filmed in Morocco, but my guess is that the film is supposed to take place somewhere in South America.

Richard arrives a few days early to spend some time with his American girlfriend Jen. It's just a casual affair. He has no intention of leaving his wife. Their love nest is disturbed when Stan and Dimitri arrive earlier than expected.

The next day Richard has to drive to the next town to get supplies. While he's away Stan rapes Jen. Dimitri sees it happening but ignores it. When Richard returns he's angry with Jen for making such a fuss about it. He offers her money and says he never wants to see her again. She makes a scene, so the men throw her off the side of a canyon. They think she's dead, but she comes back to take revenge.

It's a very good film, but I think that the violence is overdone. I don't mean that it's too much to watch, I mean that it's too much to be taken seriously. All of the characters, Jen especially, suffer injuries which would kill a normal person, but somehow they stand up and carry on fighting. Judging by the audience reactions I don't think the film achieved the desired effect. Whenever someone was shot or stabbed the audience laughed. It wasn't intended to the funny, but the audience was thinking "Not again! Isn't he/she dead yet?"

I'm interested to hear the opinion of my readers, if you get a chance to see it.

The Cured (3½ Stars)

This is the second film in the Stuttgart Nights Festival.

This is an Irish zombie film. Even though I wasn't overwhelmed by it, I have to praise it for introducing new ideas to the genre.

The film's premise is that there has been a zombie epidemic raging in Europe, including Ireland, for five years. Now a cure has been found for the infection. People who were formerly zombies can live normal lives again. However, they retain their memories of what they did as zombies. About 75% of the former zombies have been cured. The other 25% are locked up and will be destroyed in the next two weeks.

The problem is that the people who were never zombies are prejudiced against the cured zombies. They think that they should be executed for their crimes, not pardoned as guiltless sick people.

The film concentrates on two former zombies, Seenan and Conor. Seenan goes to live with his sister-in-law, who fully accepts him, but there are problems with the intolerant neighbours. Seenan does his best to fit back in to society, and he gets a job as the assistant for a doctor working to find a cure for the other 25% of the zombies. Conor is more rebellious. Before he became a zombie he was a lawyer, but now the only job he's allowed to do is a street cleaner.

Seenan discovers that the zombies he works with are friendly towards him. They see him as one of them. The conclusion he draws is that the cured are all still zombies; the "cure" has only removed the symptoms, but they're still the same inside. Conor goes one step further. He says that the uncured zombies are his own people, so they shouldn't be killed, they should be freed.

This is a fascinating film, but it's obviously a parable of the religious conflicts in Ireland. The clean and the cured represent the Protestants and the Catholics respectively.

Control [2017] (4 Stars)

This is the first film in the Stuttgart Nights Festival.

This year's Stuttgart Nights Festival kicked off with a crime thriller, an adaptation of the 1990 novel "Double Face" by the Belgian author Jef Geeraerts. He wrote a series of books about the police detectives Eric Vincke und Freddy Verstuyft, and this is the third of the novels to be filmed. Eric Vincke (on the right in the picture above) is an efficient policeman who does everything by the book. Freddy Verstuyft (on the left) relies on his instincts to solve cases, cutting corners when he thinks the rule book is holding him back. Which method of police work is more efficient? I don't think it's a spoiler for me to tell you that criminal cases need a combination of the two. That's why Eric and Freddy are partners, even if they're constantly arguing about what to do next.

The film takes place in a town in the Dutch-speaking area of Belgium. Six dead women are found buried close to one another near the woods. They're all naked, and all of their heads have been removed. The bodies were buried over a period of about two years. Further investigation shows that there was a similar unsolved case in Germany: three headless bodies were found near Cologne (Köln) that had been buried between 1981 and 1983. The detectives concentrate their investigations on people who had lived in Cologne before moving to Belgium.

Eric, working by the book, calls in a distinguished psychological profiler from Holland to help determine what sort of killer they are dealing with. Freddy ridicules the opinions of the profiler. He's more interested in a woman found hiding naked in the bushes near the woods. She seems to have been drugged and is suffering from partial memory loss. Freddy thinks that she should have been the next victim, but the killer let her go when he was disturbed by the digging in the woods. Eric thinks she has nothing to do with the case and tells Freddy to stop investigating her.

I'm not a big fan of crime thrillers, but this is a very good film. I'd like to see the other two films starring the detectives Vincke and Verstuyft.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Killing Car (4 Stars)

When I reviewed this film seven years ago I said that I couldn't recommend it because it's so unlike any of Jean Rollin's other films. Yesterday I read that it's considered to be a cult film, so I decided to give it another chance. I've never understood who gets to pick what's a cult film and what isn't, but obviously someone likes this film.

The film follows an unnamed woman who kills people and leaves a miniature car on their bodies. Her victims are seemingly unrelated: a junkyard owner, art thieves, a photographer and a nightclub owner. The police who investigate think they're random killings and label her as a psychopath. We, the viewers, see that the victims are carefully selected. The woman even invites the photographer to Paris from America, just so she can kill her. For the viewers the mystery is to figure out what the connection between the victims is.

What complicates the case for the police is the large number of victims who die as collateral damage. In the first scene the only person she intends to kill is the junkyard owner, but she doesn't hesitate to kill four prostitutes who were standing nearby and could possibly have identified her.

It's true, the film is unlike Jean Rollin's other films, in different ways. The typical beautiful scenery is missing. We don't have castles and beautiful meadows, we have junkyards, industrial dockyards and rundown areas in the Paris suburbs. Many scenes take place at night, which is unusual for Jean Rollin. There are no vampires or any other supernatural creatures in this film. It's almost a detective story, except that the viewers are told from the beginning who the killer is.

That doesn't make it a bad film. It just means it's not a Rollinesque film. My relatively poor rating in my last review was the result of me comparing it with Jean Rollin's other films. I penalised it for being too dissimilar to his earlier films. I was wrong. I should have praised him for having the courage to try something new.

My readers are probably wondering who the hauntingly beautiful woman is who plays the savage serial killer. I'm wondering the same thing. Her name is Tiki Tsang. She was born in Australia in 1968 and emigrated to France when she was 18 to become a model. "Killing Car" was her first ever film. She was given the leading role, which looked like the beginning of a big career. No, it wasn't to be. She never acted again. It was her first and last film. I'm sure there's an untold story somewhere.

Ghostbusters [2016 version] (4½ Stars)

Two years ago I said I would write a lot more about this film when I own it on disc. Guess what? I lied. You'll have to make do with a few screenshots instead.

And in case you're wondering who the four lovely ladies are, here are their names.

Don't they say that a picture is worth a thousand words? In that case this post is more than 8000 words long. That's my excuse for being lazy this morning.

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Thursday, 19 April 2018

Tragedy Girls (5 Stars)

"Tragedy Girls" has everything that you would expect from a teen slasher movie: pretty girls, cheerleaders, a high school prom and a triple-digit body count. In theory, anyone who throws these elements together could make a teen slasher movie. Many have tried, and the results have been bland. "Tragedy Girls" succeeds where all the other films have failed. It has originality that turns the whole genre on its head, making it the best slasher film of the 21st Century. It would take a lot to beat it. Maybe "Tragedy Girls 2"? If a film has ever begged for a sequel, this is it.

Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) are two stereotypical shallow in-girls, the type you see in any high school drama. Together they have a Twitter page called Tragedy Girls, in which they report the latest killings in their town. They have trouble gaining more than a few hundred followers for the simple reason that there aren't enough murders. There's only one solution: they have to kill people themselves. This has the added perk that they can provide inside information and exclusive photos for all of the murders.

Brianna Hildebrand.

Alexandra Shipp.

Both actresses are members of the X-Men, but they haven't yet appeared together in the same film. Brianna Hildebrand played Negasonic Teenage Warhead in "Deadpool". Alexandra Schipp played Storm (Ororo Munroe) in "X-Men: Apocalypse". There are just too many X-Men to go around.

Illicit Desires (4½ Stars)

I've been waiting for this film for a long time. Usually Retromedia releases their films on DVD shortly after they're first shown on television. In this case they waited more than a year. The catalogue number is REG 2207, which means it's older than the four most recent films I have. Yes, I buy every film directed by Dean McKendrick. Is there any reason why I shouldn't?

What I didn't know until I watched the film today is that "Illicit Desires" is the biggest film of August Ames' career. In all the other films I've watched she had a small or moderately significant role, but this time she played the lead role. There won't be a bigger film for her now. She committed suicide by hanging herself in a park last December.

The film opens as does "Basic Instinct". A man is having sex with a dominant woman. His satisfaction is short-lived. She walks away leaving him dead. As in "Basic Instinct", the woman is unrecognisable. Supposedly. She's wearing a mask, but it was easy for me to recognise August even without seeing her face. I've seen her naked often enough to know her body. The dead man isn't named, but it's the actor Andy Long. The scene is only inserted to let us know it's a murder story.

From then on we see August without her mask. She plays Bridget, an intern in an advertising company called M3. Her colleague Garrett, about whom she suspiciously knows much too much, is struggling to create a new advertising campaign for dildos. Maybe a woman should have been given the job. How can he promote something he's never used? Bridget comes to his assistance. She makes an extremely sexual promotional video which impresses his bosses, but they say he has to tone it down a bit.

Video number two is made, but Bridget exchanges the flash drive before he takes it to work. It's a video of Garrett and Bridget having sex. As a result Garrett is fired. Bridget claims she's punishing him because he only wanted her for sex, but by this time we already know she's crazy. It was her who seduced him, not the other way round. We know there will be more dead bodies, and the next is one of Garrett's younger ex-colleagues, found in an alley with Garrett's letter-opener in his chest.

This is the best erotic thriller made by Dean McKendrick so far. He's way too modest. He says that his priority is to make films as quickly as possible -- usually within one day -- so if a film turns out well it's just luck. I almost said that this time he was lucky, but that would be an insult. He obviously knows what he's doing. The only thing I can fault him on his is sound editing. In "Model for Murder" the dialogue is drowned out by the sound of the waves at the beach.

I enjoyed the film greatly, but as I sat afterwards my emotions were of sadness. What a waste of a young life! August died less than a year after this film was made. The cyberbullies who drove her to suicide still haven't apologised, as far as I know. They still think that it was her fault for being too sensitive when they told her to kill herself.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Incredibly Strange Creatures who stopped living and became Mixed-Up Zombies (3 Stars)

Alongside "The Room" and "Plan 9 from Outer Space" this is supposed to be one of the worst films ever made. It's difficult to compare it with the other two films for practical reasons. "The Room" and "Plan 9" are both well preserved, whereas "The Incredibly Strange Creatures" has pop and crackle on almost every frame. Even the 40th anniversary version that I'm holding in my hand shows no sign of having been even partially restored. Nobody cares about it.

Ray Dennis Steckler is the undoubted king of micro-budget films. He boasted that he could make any film for $500. He starred in the films himself -- that's him holding a knife in the poster -- with his family and friends filling the supporting roles. He would hire anyone who was prepared to work for free. He never asked for permits when filming in public, he just looked over his shoulder to make sure the police weren't nearby. He went into nightclubs and filmed performances, as long as he didn't have to pay for them. He had a pyramid method of releasing films: first he sent the master tape to a nearby drive-in theatre; with the money he earned he made copies which he sent to another few local theatres; with the money from them he made more copies, and so on, until he had enough copies for a national release. That explains why the film has been so badly preserved.

The film's plot is so jumbled that a brief summary hardly does it justice. There are numerous unrelated sub-plots that I have to leave out. You need to watch the film for yourself to figure it out for yourself.

Jerry, played by Ray Dennis Steckler, goes to a fun fair, where the main acts are a fortune teller, Estrella, and her sister Carmelita, an exotic dancer. After watching Carmelita she invites him to her dressing room. She hypnotises him, and he goes into a wild rage, killing two people in a nearby nightclub. The next day he doesn't remember what he's done.

If you think Carmelita is evil, Estrella is far worse. She throws acid on the face of men who visit her tent, then locks them in cages. She hypnotises them to make them mindless killers. In the film they're called zombies, but they're not like the zombies in any other films you might have seen.

Jerry suspects something evil is happening at the fair, but when he returns to investigate the two sisters team up against him.

There are various musical numbers in the film, leading Ray Dennis Steckler to call the film a monster musical, but that's going too far. Most of the songs and dances are unrelated to the story, so they look suspiciously like padding to fill out a film that's too short. If they were removed the film would only have been about 30 minutes long.

I said at the beginning of this review that he could make films for $500. That was later on. "The Incredibly Strange Creatures" was only his second film, made when he was 25. He wasn't as experienced back then. He spent a whopping $38,000 on the film, the biggest budget of his career. I wonder what he spent it on.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Romy (4 Stars)

"I spent most of my money on men, alcohol and clothes. I wasted the rest" (Romy Schneider).

I reviewed this biographical film in great detail four years ago. I don't want to repeat everything, so please click here to read it.

Romy Schneider is often called the greatest German actress since World War Two, even though most of her films were made in France. I can't judge it, because the only films I've seen are the Sissi trilogy, which she made as a teenager. Others say that she was a great actress who wasted her career making bad films, but I find that doubtful because three of her films have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe that's German prejudice? Germans look down on the French film industry. It was a slap in the face when Romy turned her back on Germany and emigrated to France in 1958.

Romy movied back to Germany after marrying the German director Harry Meyen in 1966, but she still went to France to make films. She said that German films offered no roles that were good enough to her. She wanted to appear in films written by Heinrich Böll, especially "The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum". She wrote to him repeatedly, imploring him to recommend her for the film adaptation of this novel, but he never replied. Why not? Didn't he think she was good enough? Or didn't he like her image with the constant scandals? Either way, it was downright rude to ignore her.

I feel like that not having watched more of Romy Schneider's films is a lack in my film education. I need to watch some of her films, especially her French films. I checked Netflix, and as expected not one of her 63 films is listed. If you're interested in culture, Netflix isn't the place to find it. Amazon Prime has two of her films. That's better than nothing. It's a good place to start.

I found the circumstances surrounding Romy's last film heartbreaking. It was about a woman whose son was a musical prodigy. Romy's 14-year-old son David was selected to play her son in the film, his first role as an actor. Before the filming began David suffered an accidental death. But business is business, life has to go on. Romy made the film. When she turned up to start filming the new actor was a young blond-haired boy who looked uncannily similar to her son. That was terrible.

Monday, 16 April 2018

A Quiet Place (5 Stars)

This film is still in the cinemas in most countries, so if you want to see it on the big screen please hurry. It's a film that's best experienced in a large cinema. You'll understand what I mean after seeing it yourself.

In the near future the Earth has been overrun by savage alien creatures. They're sightless, but they have very sensitive hearing. If anyone makes a sound they can hear it from a long distance, and they're fast enough to catch people before they can move. In order to survive humanity has had to stop speaking and use sign language.

The Abbott family, Lee and Emily, live on a small isolated farm with their three children. As far as they know there are three of the creatures living nearby, so they live in constant fear. Sometimes the creatures pass them, so they have to be completely silent. Don't breathe!

This is one of the scariest horror films that I've seen for years. There's occasional background music, but most of the scenes are totally silent apart from slight background noises like the wind. It wasn't just the film's eerie suspense that thrilled me; it was the atmosphere in the cinema, where the whole audience sat in silence. Nobody dared to open a sweet wrapper or crunch popcorn.