Outpost 11

Outpost 11

Outpost 11

Steampunk is a genre that has been done a bit of a disservice in cinema. While there are a number of steampunk novels that are at least half decent; apart from the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films and the disappointing Franklyn it’s hard to think of any films that are worth the price of entry. Partially this is because it’s a movement which, well, is a bit naff anyway – it only really works if treated with a sense of humour or as a kind of surrealistic intellectual enterprise (much like the Heath Robinson illustrations which anticipated much of what steampunk tries to do). But now, with Outpost 11, there is at least one film which really does the genre proud. In fact, Outpost 11 is one of those films that comes out of nowhere, is made for a handful of spare coppers and completely outstrips any expectations that you really should have for it. Along with Lord of Tears, it stands as one of the best British genre films I’ve seen in 2014.

It’s an alternate 1950s where the First World War has never finished and three men are stuck in a small Arctic base with the job of monitoring enemy transmissions and looking after the mysterious ‘Omega Machine’. They are the relaxed Commander Mason (Luke Healy), uptight career soldier Corporal Graham (Billy Clarke) and conscripted novice Albert (Joshua Mayes-Cooper). The tedium of their life is interrupted when a red warning light goes off, which is only supposed to happen if they’re under attack; but as there’s no sign of enemy activity so they decide its a technical error. Then they receive a coded message from the war Office saying ‘God has forsaken us. Abandon all hope.’ In the meantime they’re starting to experience strange hallucinations and becoming increasingly paranoid. When Mason goes to make contact with a neighbouring base he finds that the soldiers there have all killed each other (or themselves).

This really is a decent little film. Unsurprisingly it suffers from the usual problems of low budget filmmaking, most particularly the variable performances. But on the whole it makes a virtue of its limited means: as with Lord of Tears it is set in one or two locations and features just two or three characters. This is less poetic than Tears, looking more to David Cronenberg than M.R. James, with a dash of David Lynch thrown in for good measure. As such there are some scenes which border on the ridiculous (the video messages from headquarters presented by a stuffy old general with an enormous walrus moustache), some curious anachronisms (the game Connect 4 is very visible, which was only first sold in 1974) and a lot which is never explained or makes any sense (what is Graham’s past? What is the Omega machine? Why are those Arctic hares exploding?)

Because of this it’s unlikely to appeal to hardened horror fans, who will be expecting a little more blood and guts; the main monsters here are some plasticine spiders and it’s most definitely not in the style of The Thing, despite the publicity. But it tries something different, it’s well shot and the art direction – given the low budget – is really quite impressive; I look forward to seeing what writer / director Anthony Woodley comes up with next.

Luke Healy in Outpost 11

Luke Healy in Outpost 11

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Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

Aka Agente z55 Mission, Mission Deseperee (France), Z55 Mision Deseperada (Spain)
1966
A Cineproduzioni Associate (Roma), P.C. Balcazar (Barcelona) & Les Films Copernic (Paris) co-production.
Director: Robert M White [Roberto Bianchi Montero]
Script: Ray Calloway [Alfonso Balcazar], Roberto Montero
Photography: Ken Foster
Music: Francesco De Masi {Nazionalmusic}
Editor: Jordan B Matthews {Bruno Mattei]
Sets: Mary Jo Lewis
Original running time: 90 mins
Exteriors shot in Hong Kong
Cast: German Cobos (Robert Manning), Susan Baker (Sally), Yoko Tani (Su Ling), Gianni Rizzo (The Baron), Milton Reid (Cheng), Paco Sanz (Professor Larsen), Leontine May, Anthony Blade, Florence Simpson, George Chow, Audrey Rosales, Alfred Ngo
Uncredited: Giovanni Cianfriglia (The Baron’s henchman with woollen hat), Romano Puppo (?Thug in cinema?)

After a rather dull first hour, this evolves into something much grittier than is normally to be found within the genre. With an onus on night-time photography (that often makes things rather difficult to make out), a preponderance of hard-hitting fistfights and a particularly nasty face-burning scene, it all leaves one with the (ultimately misguided) feeling of being a rather sombre affair. It definitely seems to lack the glamorous ambience that pervades the majority of its peers. However, that doesn’t mean it’s any better than average, and at several points this hapless reviewer found himself in need of a swift raspberry collins to offset the dangerous onset of sleep.

Professor Larsen, a prominent nuclear scientist, is freed from a Chinese prison camp by a group of Japanese judo experts. They take him to Hong Kong, where he can await in hiding whilst transportation to America is arranged. However, his main contact, Agent Z51, is killed before anything can be finalised. Knowing the delicacy of matters, the US Secret Service send in their best agent, Robert Manning, aka Z55 (German Cobos). His mission: to both relocate the AWOL academic and avenge his murdered associate.

It’s not long before Manning discovers that a disparate group of individuals are taking a close interest in his activities. There’s a suspicious pair of ‘bodyguards’ (Milton Reid and Yoko Tani) who persist in trying to pay him to work for them, not to mention an annoying blonde, Sally (Susan Baker), and her camp chum, The Baron (Gianni Rizzo). Now every good camp villain should have a pet – in Bond films, these ranged from piranhas to sharks to, err, a cat. Unfortunately, the Baron was dealt a rather duff card in the vicious fauna stakes; his particular mammalian sidekick is… an armadillo (‘an animal that’s quite affectionate, despite it’s rude exterior’)! Now there’s nothing that quite so diminishes the tension of a scene as much as having a goddamned armadillo wandering around in the background. Sometimes I’d swear that these Italian filmmakers just threw in such outrageously absurd elements just to completely confuse the unsuspecting viewer, stumbling across their long forgotten works after thirty-five years of total obscurity.

Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

Anyway, Mr Z55 is soon wandering around an assortment of Judo clubs, hoping to locate the one handed black-belt who had been working with his predecessor. He also manages to visit an assortment of swanky drinking establishments, hoping to find a long-stemmed glass full of a well-mixed martini (and who wouldn’t). It doesn’t take him too long to locate The Professor, but that’s only the beginning of his troubles…

Desperate Mission has a few things in its favour. There’s a great title sequence, faultlessly blending animation, loungecore vibes and shooting silhouettes, that conjures up memories of The Avengers. Francesco De Masi’s soundtrack is very enjoyable, and there’s a nice supporting cast, including a couple of unexpected performers. Milton Reid was a familiar face in British films, often appearing as a mute butler or bodyguard (see Adventures of a Private Eye, Au Pair Girls, Dr Phibes Rises Again and Dr. No amongst others). He’s not a great actor, for sure, but has a formidable presence and a bad complexion. Yoko Tani was a French actress who appeared in many Euro productions as a token oriental (ie giggling regularly, looking demure, trying to kill people) before her death in 1999.

Apart from that, though, it’s pretty much a motley assortment of the usual clichés: stupid passwords, hat-wearing villains, stilted ‘suave’ dialogue (‘what kind of chicken are you, Mr. Manning?’). Unfortunately things aren’t helped along too much by rather stodgy direction, with the exception of a good shoot-out in a cinema, from the usually reliable Roberto Montero. Lead actor German Cobos certainly looks like Sean Connery, and acts in a much more vicious way than is expected, but fails to really engage.

Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

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The End

The End, aka Fin

The End, aka Fin

The 2012 Spanish film The End has a remarkably similar story to The Wall, the Austrian film made in the same year. They are, however, very different propositions: whereas that was sparse and cerebral, this is an entertaining sci fi thriller. The Wall was slow moving and, quite frankly, rather boring; this has a comparatively packed plot which includes rampaging deer, a dog attack and more. It came from Antena 3 films, who were previously behind productions such as The Body (one of the best films of 2012), Intruders (2011), Julia’s Eyes (2010) and The Last Days (2013), so they have some prior history in the field.

A group of friends have a reunion in the very same cabin they were last all gathered together some twenty years beforehand. Most of them have very respectable and comfortable lives, despite the inevitable rocky marriages and concerns about careers. Apart from Ángel, aka The Prophet, who suffered from schizophrenia, a condition which degenerated further due to the actions of his former friends. But something weird happens: there’s strange lightning in the distance, the electricity cuts off and cars stop working. They decide that rather than waiting to see what happens they should walk to the nearest town. But everywhere seems strangely isolated… and then they start disappearing.

This is an interesting film which foregoes gore and shock effects in favour of a slow building atmosphere and sense of unease. As with The Wall, it uses the disappearances as a means of examining the isolation and existential crises of the characters, all of whom are merely putting off their fate and don’t appear any the happier for it. There are no answers provided and quite what the role of The Prophet is is never answered. Added to this are the crisp cinematography, beautiful landscapes and decent performances, all of which makes it yet another undeservedly obscure Spanish gem.

The end of the world, Spanish style...

The end of the world, Spanish style…

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Arrivederci amore, ciao

Arrivederci amore, ciao

Arrivederci amore, ciao

Director: Michele Soavi
Writers: Massimo Carlotto (novel “Arrivederci amore, ciao”), Marco Colli (screenplay), Lorenzo Favella, Franco Ferrini, Heidrun Schleef, Michele Soavi, Luigi Ventriglia
Stars: Alessio Boni, Michele Placido, Isabella Ferrari

Michele Soavi is a director best known for the brief series of horror films he made between 1987 and 1994, namely Stagefright (87), The Church (89), The Sect (91) and Cemetery Man (94). After a few lean years he then reinvented himself as an extremely capable maker of television poliziotteschi such as Una bianca and Il testimone (both 2001). Sticking in the same territory he then made the theatrical Arrivederci amore, ciao (2006), which is sometimes known as The Goodbye Kiss, a hard boiled noir which mixes politics and gunplay in a similar way to other popular releases of the time, most notably Romanzo criminale (2005), which was directed by Michele Placido, who co-stars here.

Giorgio Pellegrini (Alessio Boni) is the son of a writer and left wing activist who drifts into terrorism in the 1970s. After planting a bomb which accidentally kills a security guard he has is forced to go into hiding, fighting revolutionary causes in Central America. Fifteen years later he has lost his faith in the idea of the revolution and frankly just wants to go home. However, he’s a wanted man, and he only manages to avoid a lengthy spell in prison by striking a deal with a dodgy cop called Anedda (Placido) and shopping most of his old comrades.

After a two year spell in jail he finds it hard to adjust to living a normal life but manages to secure a job working in a strip club / brothel for an old cell-mate called Vesuviano (Riccardo Zinna). Vesuviano has a sideline in cocaine smuggling, and Giorgio hatches a plan to double cross him and make off with a briefcase full of cash, for which he turns to Anedda to help him. More schemes follow, most particularly the violent robbery of a security van, and eventually Giorgio has enough cash to go straight, open a restaurant and start a relationship with a rather naive girl, Roberto (Alina Nedelea). But the events of the past can never be erased.

Alessio Boni in Arrivederci amore, ciao

Alessio Boni in Arrivederci amore, ciao

This is a fast paced and slick production which is perhaps most notable for having one of the least sympathetic protagonists to be found in modern cinema. Giorgio is, to put it bluntly, a psychopath, a man who doesn’t hesitate to kill his friends (or anyone he’s close to) if it is advantageous to him in some way. As played by the handsome, impenetrable Alessio Boni (The Best of Youth, Don’t Tell) he veers from cowardice to petty minded vindictiveness at the drop of a hat, and is one of the most memorable monsters of modern cinema.

The film itself isn’t so memorable, mainly because it loses focus as the running time progresses. It starts of as a tale of disillusioned revolutionaries turned criminals (Giorgio’s collaborators include both Spanish Marxists and Serbian fascists) before turning into a heist movie and then a psycho thriller. Whereas most films go on way too long, this one feels as though it’s only telling half the story because several plot lines drift away without any real sense of conclusion. But the central ironic joke – that the more despicably Giorgio behaves the closer he closer he gets to his achieving his stated ambition of becoming a ‘respectable citizen’ – is well worked and suitably cynical.

Soavi directs it all with great skill, investing it with an appropriate eighties sensibility (although it’s never explicitly stated when the story is set) and coaxing excellent performances from most of the cast, in particular the excellently sleazy Placido. He went on to direct a war drama called Blood of the Losers in 2008 before returning to television.

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Lord of Tears

Lord of Tears

Lord of Tears

Ooh, I like this. A no-budget film that was distributed via the internet, Lord of Tears does suffer from its lack of resources but if you can forgive the occasional lapses in pacing and sometimes variable acting (which if you’re being positive could be described as having a naturalistic feel which isn’t that far from what you get in Mike Leigh or Ben Wheatley films) it’s really a quite astonishing achievement.

James (Euan Douglas) inherits an old manor house called Baldurrock in the middle of the Scottish Highlands from his estranged mother. He hasn’t been back since spending his childhood there, during which his mother was suffering from a serious illness and he was plagued by nightmares about a sinister ‘owl man’ who nobody else could see. Despite his lingering fears he returns to try and discover what had happened back then, because he feels that there was something going on which he couldn’t quite understand at the time. Upon arrival he is met by the housekeeper Evie (Lexy Hulme) and the two of them strike up a firm friendship. But the owl man is also back, there is a locked basement that nobody can get into and it becomes increasingly clear that the secret of Baldurrock might not be one that should be discovered.

This has been compared to old fashioned Hammer Horror movies, but that’s not quite right: it’s not as theatrical as Hammer films and less reliant on identifiable monsters. In fact it’s a lot more like those old MR James adaptations that used to be on TV in the seventies, with a touch of Kill List and The Wicker Man thrown in for good luck. The narrative is sparse and sometimes predictable but it maintains its sense of mystery and takes some care with its characters. But what’s best about Lord of Tears is it’s sense of atmosphere: with its regular inserts of insects and glimpses of the owl man (which despite being a dude in a suit with an owl head and some immobile talons is a really eye catching creation) it sucks you in and never lets you go. And the best that can be said about it is that it’s one of those rare films that sticks with you for some time after its conclusion. Very impressive.

The Owlman in Lord of Tears

The Owlman in Lord of Tears

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Stalled

Stalled

Stalled

What if the apocalypse came and, well, you were stuck in the lav? That’s the silly, amusing premise of Stalled, the 2013 follow-up to the cult comedy horror Freak Out. Freak Out made up for its minimal budget with its left field humour and sensible film-making and Stalled carries on in much the same fashion. The best way to save money is to use limited sets and so this uses just about the most limited set possible: a toilet cubicle.

Dan Palmer (who also wrote) plays a lowly janitor who is called to repair the ladies toiled during a tacky office Christmas party. When a couple of girls come in and start indulging in a spot of drunken snogging he takes refuge in one of the three cubicles, which proves to be a pretty sensible place to be when one of them suddenly bites a chunk out of the other and it turns out that just about everyone else in the office has become a flesh eating zombie. After a few hours of understandable panic, less understandable drug taking and striking up a conversation with a fellow survivor in one of the other cubicles, he begins to devise a way by which they can escape.

This might be yet another in the endless stream of zombie films that seem to be coming out of the UK at the moment but it is at least – like Harold’s Going Stiff – one which is distinguished by a degree of intelligence and wit. Often laugh out loud funny (the fate of ‘Jeff from IT’ is particularly amusing) it’s one of the few films that can authentically claim to give Simon Pegg and Nick Frost a run for their money, although the key influence here is most likely Sam Raimi and his The Evil Dead films. But the writing also displays a degree of skill in the way it develops characters and the simple narrative, while Palmer makes for a strangely sympathetic downtrodden hero.

The end of the world comes with a flush...

The end of the world comes with a flush…

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Sawney – Flesh of Man

Sawney Flesh of Man

Sawney Flesh of Man

There’s undoubtedly a good film to be made out of the legend of the Sawney Bean, the semi-mythical head of a clan of murderous cannibals who lived in a cave and allegedly feasted on the bodies of over 1,000 victims in the 15th or 16th century. Unfortunately, Sawney, Flesh of Man isn’t it. A low budget British production from 2012, it does its best to update the story to a modern day setting, but this unfortunately has the effect of making it seem all the more like a rip-off of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (or Alexandre Aja’s remake), which was itself loosely based on the Sawney Bean story.

Sawney here is played by David Hayman, a familiar face from TV, the latest head of the ancestral clan and just about the only one of them who isn’t a gibbering maniac. They have relocated to a system of old caves deep in the Scottish Highlands and, rather than snatching passers by, they pluck their victims from the streets of Glasgow before taking them home to torment and eventually butcher. But a reporter (Samuel Feeney) and cop (Gavin Mitchell) are looking into the numerous disappearances in the area and don’t take long to figure that a serial killer (or killers) is responsible.

This has some good aspects to it: the Scottish scenery is amazing; the scenes in which the Bean ‘children’ (who have an animalistic athleticism) stalk their victims are well realised; and in David Hayman they have a protagonist who both commands the attention and seems to be relishing every minute. Unfortunately the story that has been constructed around the titular character is mundane and rather silly, and the acting from some of the younger performers is really quite terrible. It’s extremely violent and gruesome and it looks good enough, but that can’t make up for the tangible lack of tension and the rudimentary writing.

David Hayman in Sawney Flesh of Man

David Hayman in Sawney Flesh of Man

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