Wolf (2019)

wolfrating 2.0During the '90s, we went through a long period where many good, well-made independent films were completely overlooked because their posters or - more importantly - their VHS box art and, later, their DVD covers were garbage. Still, we have plenty of classic films with beautiful period movie posters that use some Photoshopped garbage as the cover, instead. But independent films of the past 5 to 10 years have gone hard in the other direction. It's apparently so easy now to find a cheap, creative graphic designer or artist to kick out a great movie poster that even the most low-grade, unwatchable homemade shit is able to fool you into giving it a look. Compared to the other costs associated with making a film, that poster that's going to be seen on any number of streaming sites is worth far more for the money than any actor or cinematographer or set or prop. You can fool people into watching a few minutes of garbage to push up your viewer metrics with a good poster.

Now, I won't say that 2019's Wolf is complete garbage. It does work hard to try to look better than it actually is. And looking at co-writer/director/actor Stuart Brennan's list of credits gives you the impression that he enjoys making films and is trying to get maximum bang for his minimal buck. But the artistry just isn't quite there.

A quick run-down: Wolf is ostensibly about a group of ten Roman soldiers in ancient Britain, sent out to look for four missing scouts, who were apparently sent to the king of the Picts to make peace. This peace was possible because the Picts were struck with some mysterious illness and Rome thought it would be a good time to talk with them and try to bring them into the fold. The soldiers traipse around the forests and are attacked by some sort of beast or some sort of men or... you know, werewolves. If you are a Neil Marshall fan, you're probably thinking "Oh, so they crammed together Centurion with Dog Soldiers?" and I wouldn't say you're entirely wrong, but it isn't even in the same league as either of those films.

I also won't say that the film is ugly. It often looks better than it probably deserves to and you can tell effort was put into the tone and feel of the movie, even if they couldn't quite get it all the way there. They made every effort they seemingly could to visually appeal to the viewer. Well, perhaps with exception of the camera work. On the more nitpicky end of things, there is an overabundance of drone footage. Drone footage is definitely a great tool for filmmakers these days to amp up a low-budget film with some shots that give it more scope. But, for whatever reason, these are the most drone-footage-y drone shots I've ever seen droned. Something about them completely took me out of the movie. Perhaps it was how often they occur early on and fact that they all feel the same; I would have gladly taken a completely still drone shot from directly overhead for once, but it was always just that overly-fast pan across the wilderness from above. But, like I said, that's one of the smallest problems. The real problem for me was poor camera choices, the overuse of shaky handheld shots, the same boring angles over and over instead of showing any inventiveness in filming scenes, and the repetitive shots (or lack thereof) to give the impression of werewolf attacks, but without showing anything. I think that last point becomes the most annoying: again and again you see the naked torso of some man blurrily run by in front of the camera as the soldiers stand in the background, huddled in a circle with their shields raised. By the end, you're getting dozens and dozens of those moments in the course of a couple of minutes. I wasn't even sure anymore if they actually filmed people running in front of the camera or just had a few FX shots of bodies moving by and composited them in front of shots of the soldiers over and over.

It's easy to see why they'd try to hide the "werewolves", as they are. You know pretty early in the film that they're not going to have the effects to back anything up. You can sense it from the unnecessary opening scene of a boy and his dog being attacked by the "wolf", mostly just being the actor running and repeatedly falling down while very mediocre wolf snarl sounds from some cheap audio library are mixed in too loud over the action. That's another trend that will repeat as the film goes on. When the "werewolves" appear, they all look like (and may actually be) the same guy with sort of lank brownish hair and stubble, with some fake claws and some hand make-up, wearing the fakest-looking plastic "fangs" you've seen since a child's vampire costume, plastic tusks sticking out of his face, lopsided, as he pretends to howl. It's really for the best that they show it as little as possible, but the shots they use to cover it up are... well, one shot. There's one trick to hide the monster and it's a bad one.

On the upside, the makeup effects budget was spent on costumes, which look pretty good. Lots of Roman armor and weapons which, though too shiny and clean, lift the quality of the film early on when you're first introduced to the soldiers. That is, until you start to hear the dialogue and plot and quickly lose your optimism.

Now, I'm not going to say that the acting is bad; most of the cast is good enough for the type of film they're in. They're not the most skilled actors in the world, but they're doing something they enjoy, they're not unbelievable, they're not poorly delivering lines, they're not wooden. At worst, you can accuse them of being boring, as they don't have too much to work with. I honestly couldn't tell most of the male characters apart, which is fine because all the nondescript ones die off quickly, leaving the ones that you can at least differentiate - mostly the writers and their buddies. (Maybe that's a flaw of the screenwriting, as they only made the characters that were going to be there for most of the run... well, characters.) Also, you could perhaps complain about the accents a bit too. But, like I said, they're trying their best, they're getting paid, they're doing what I assume they love, and they don't look too bad doing it.

The real problem here is the writing. The writers act in the film as well (and, as I said, one of them also directed it), so they obviously are passionate about their little low-budget films. There's nothing wrong with churning out some fun, not-necessarily-great movies to make with your friends. But if I have to watch it, I'm going to treat it like every other thing I see. And the script is sloppy. You're told later on that all these men volunteered out of honor, duty, and the goodness of their hearts to track down their missing brethren. And, yet, the opening scenes are spent with them arguing and acting like annoyed pricks who can't believe they're stuck doing the thing they volunteered to do. Also, they don't really act like soldiers, particularly well-trained ones in the Roman army, considered to be one of the best-trained fighting forces in history. I won't delve too much into the historicity of a movie about werewolves or debate whether the multi-ethnic array of Roman soldiers and slaves would be grouped up, as well as mixing genders. But it does seem stupid, on its face, that the Roman soldiers are so dumb, so alternatively cowardly then hellbent on killing themselves and everyone around them to save people that are obviously already lost, so quick to argue and ignore orders from their leader, so obsessed with constant infighting and blame, so incapable of attempting any tactic to defend themselves from attack. Except for standing in a loose circle with their shields pointed outward and waiting to be attacked, they don't show any semblance of military training. When they realize they're being followed and, by nightfall, they'll be attacked again, they don't spend the day finding a good location to stand their ground and fortifying it. They just attempt to run back to Hadrian's Wall as quickly as possible, while being pursued, picked off, and allowing members of the group to wander off without ever stopping to wonder what happened to them with any more interest than "They're on their own now."

It's all a sloppy excuse to have the whole group slowly picked off until the women are left and... they escape, I guess? It implies that they're safe (as there was apparently only two werewolves tracking them) and they'll take knowledge that silver can kill the creatures back to the legions, who will be ready for the eventual confrontation. (I won't even comment on the dumb bullshit ending for poor Ima, ignominiously booted from the movie in its final moments in a confusing manner. The shortest of shrift for her.) It obviously doesn't really work, overall.

While it may have been a fun project for them, it isn't a fun watch for us. It's not good, it's very dumb, the actors can't do much with it (unless what you want them to do is vomit baby food out of their mouth over and over as they begin to "turn into werewolves"), it's poorly-written and compares badly to the things it feels like it lifted ideas from, it's not well-shot, the effects aren't good, the editing needs work... I could go on like this for a while. But, importantly, at least it's short.


The Zero Theorem

the zero theoremrating 3.5I'm not sure I'd call myself a Terry Gilliam fan. I think I've seen all but two of the films he's directed, but I don't have strong feelings about most of them. I'm somewhere between being indifferent to his work and enjoying his films but mostly forgetting they exist. I don't list him as a beloved filmmaker or think about his movies often. I think the film of his that I've been the most attached to is 12 Monkeys and I'm not sure I've watched that in 20 years. That said, I at least feel well-versed enough with his traits and foibles to compare the experience when watching one of his new films. And I've been putting off The Zero Theorem for about 6 years, so I decided to finally rectify that.

Based on my experience, I feel like the closest analog to The Zero Theorem is Brazil. Another film about a dystopian future society awash in bureaucracy and consumerism, a lead character whose reality and dreams come into stark opposition, a growing obsession with a strange woman, events spiraling and leading to a confrontation with those in power, and dark endings for the protagonist, who ends up mentally locked-away. Though Gilliam didn't write the film (though he did rewrite the ending from happy to dark, in a nice reverse of the Brazil situation), it still carries many of the earmarks of his previous work.

It has a different feel than his '80s films. Brazil has a certain grain to the look that ties it to Time Bandits and Jabberwocky and The Meaning Of Life. This film is clean; pure Gilliam but smoothed out and modern. It may be one of the most mature things he's made. He may not have crafted it from the beginning like most of his films, but that may have actually improved his vision.

The cast he chose obviously did a lot of the heavy lifting. Christoph Waltz has shown an incredible aptitude for compelling characters and was the best possible choice for the role. His sad-sack character, devoid of pleasure or meaning in life, could have been an annoyance if played badly. He feels understandable and believable. I had only seen Melanie Thierry in Babylon A.D., where she was good, though not overly likable. She shows range here in a way I didn't expect. If Billy Bob Thornton and Jessica Biel has been cast, which almost happened years before, it would have been a disaster. The movie is pretty much grounded in the actors making it work.

It's hard to say too much without just explaining the movie or talking about the ending. There is a bit of interpretation to the finale, but it's not really worth discussing. But this is a film absolutely worthy of your examination. I'm sure, like other Gilliam films, it'll drift away from my mind soon enough, but there's something here worth holding onto.



nekromantikrating 1.0I think I first heard of Nekromantik in the '90s, mentioned in whispers in the same breath as Salo or any number of other rare and forbidden films. I didn't think much about the film again until I heard director Jörg Buttgereit was doing some sort of effects for Skinny Puppy's live reunion at a festival two decades ago. I was left to wonder what he really had to contribute and what he was really capable of in the first place. I was more interested in watching documentaries about the West German underground scene from the '80s instead of this, but figured it might behoove me to actually see the movie before hearing others talk about or with Buttgereit. It probably wasn't worth the trouble.

Many go to great lengths to try to paint this film as satirical and transgressive art, making a social commentary about German society, but that seems like a combination of self-delusion and working backwards from the answer to find the problem. Nekromantik feels neither transgressive or as shocking as those that banned it or spoke about it in hushed whispers ever implied. It's a tawdry, weak, poorly-made, badly-edited student film writ large. One of the main reasons I watched the movie was because I needed to go to bed, so looked at the shortest films I had available to watch. At a paltry hour and a quarter, you can barely even call Nekromantik a movie. And, yet, every one of those 75 minutes felt like three. I could have watched Branaugh's Hamlet or Wyatt Earp or the entire fucking MCU catalog gladly in what felt like less time, but watching this "film" was an absolute chore. By the end of the movie, the beginning felt so distant and disconnected that I felt like I had watched it on a different day. How could the sub-Manos opening driving scene and absurd crime scene cleanup have taken place in the same timeline as the endless scenes of nothing, birds flying, people sitting, terrible movies-within-movies, dream sequences, the camera never cutting for 30 seconds after any reasonable editor would have moved on?

I'm sure there's cretins out there whose gorehound nostalgia or devil's advocate art pretensions will fight for the honor of this shitty, lame, boring little movie. I'm sure there are plenty of those who are still raising their skirts and jumping onto chairs as the mention of this horrifying ordeal. This is a world where people find Megan Is Missing to be life-altering and compelling, after all. There are plenty of dull, fragile white-bread individuals whose psyche can't stand up to the very notion of necrophilia, much less any attempted visualization of it. There's plenty of people freaking out about the actual footage of the killing, skinning, and dressing of a rabbit in this film. (Don't ever think about where you food comes from, you first world pussies.) Meanwhile, there's probably many that give this movie credence exactly because it causes those reactions. It is unworthy of them all.

It is ugly. It is boring. It is exceptionally poorly-written, badly-filmed, mindlessly-edited, and painful to watch for all the same reasons that someone's unabbreviated vacation footage is. You have to be unbelievably dim or relentlessly censorious to have a reaction for this sub-movie. There are homemade movies filmed on VHS with no lighting, bad sound, and no professional (or amateur) actors floating around on Amazon right now that you should be more entertained by. And if you really need to see a movie that deals specifically with necrophilia in a more mature, less incompetent way, watch Deadgirl or something. Just don't bother adding to the legend of this waste of everyone's time.


Hamlet Goes Business

hamlet goes businessrating 2.0I can't begin to imagine how many times and in how many versions I've watched "Hamlet" performed. I was probably shown the Mel Gibson version in school. Eventually, I saw Branaugh's Hamlet in the theater and have watched it probably a dozen time since, along with a variety of other versions of the play. Depending on how abridged the play may be, it can range any amount of time upwards of five hours. Last night, I got through a more modern "adaptation" in a mere hour and a half.

Hamlet Goes Business is a 1987 black & white Finnish adaptation of the play, like a dull noir film filtered through David Lynch, but without any charm. I've seen it referred to as "surreal" or a "black comedy". I don't think either is accurate. You really have to question the Finnish sense of humor if anything in the film was supposed to come across as humorous. The lead was apparently best known for years of sketch comedy work, but he was completely devoid of personality in this particular movie. I'm not sure if something is lost in translation, but there's absolutely nothing interesting about the film.

Most of it is a somewhat faithful adaptation of the play, severely excising details and moving it to the '80s. Hamlet comes from a rich dynasty of sawmill owners and everything in the film revolves around the business. His father's business associate Klaus is the poisoner who marries his mother. Polonius is a company manager whose conniving daughter Ophilia denies sex to Hamlet in hopes of forcing him into marriage. Most of the movie is a tedious, slightly skewed retelling of the play while supposedly young men that look like they're in their forties deal with their parents and elders who appear to be in their fifties. Everyone is ugly. Everything is dull. Nothing is meaningful.

I constantly awaited some major revelation for why the film existed. The changes were vaguely odd but completely unfunny in every way. I assume humor was their intention, but who can be sure? The sawmills and shipyard will be sold to some would-be Fortinbras who will, in exchange, give them a rubber duck manufacturing business. Is that supposed to be comedy? I didn't even realize it was considered a comedy until reading about it later. I could perhaps see some very slim '80s social satire, particularly regarding class structure, but the whole thing is very thin.

In a very weird departure, the ending is totally rewritten. Ultimately, Hamlet kills Polonius' son and Klaus, framing them for killing each other. He walks away, scot-free, to run the business. He calls in his butler/chauffeur to unburden himself about the events of the movie, admitting that he's the one who killed his father, not Klaus. He's going one step farther than Klaus, selling everything to a competitor and walking away with the money. His butler, working for the union to prevent the loss of the shipyard, poisons Hamlet and leaves with the cook to start a new life. So that was certainly... something.

This was really just a waste of time. The director has nothing but contempt for the source material, only reading it a few days before writing the script and starting filming. The only people that seem to like it are moronic, navel-gazing dickheads that think the movie is "funny" or transgressive because it bastardizes Shakespeare . It's a dire indictment of the Finns, at very least. But this is definitely a litmus test as to how much of a snobby, garbage, cinephile shitheel you are.


The Outfit

the outfitrating 2.5It probably changes my opinions about this film substantially that I've read the novel "The Outfit", as well as close to a dozen of (Donald E. Westlake as) Richard Stark's other Parker novels. Most people may be familiar with Parker through a few of the other adaptations of Richard Stark's novels. "The Hunter" was adapted into 1967's Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) and 1999's Payback (with Mel Gibson). The Gibson film is the most accurate story-wise, at least in Brian Helgeland's director's cut of the film that was eventually released. Though it's a very modern adaptation, the 2013 Parker at least gets credit for being the only Parker film to not change Parker's name. Also, it does a good job of capturing the feel of the Parker novels, often revolving around Parker committing a well-planned crime of some kind, getting double-crossed, and then seeking revenge to retrieve what he's owed.

The Outfit takes an end-run around Parker entirely to reuse many of the scenes and setpieces from the novel without actually using the character at all. Those of you who've seen any of the other films may remember the lead as a tough, stoic professional, whose only interest is in the job, followed by placid semi-retirement until the money runs out. He does not suffer people who don't pull their weight, he avoids violence when it's unnecessary but will apply it absolutely when called for, and doesn't let women or personal relationships distract him from his work. He's an anti-James Bond.

The lead in The Outfit is Robert Duvall as Earl Macklin. Eschewing Parker's personal financial war on The Outfit (that those of you who have seen Payback should remember) until he receives what he's owed (the money Mal Resnick stole from their score to buy his way into the organization), Macklin leaves prison only to find his brother has been murdered by hitmen. He's picked up from prison by his young girlfriend, Bett Harrow, who takes him to a motel on his way to his brother's house. She breaks down and admits there that she was tortured by an Outfit mobster and gave up Macklin and his brother. A hitman is on his way to the motel to end his life as well. He gets the drop on the hired gun and finds out that the bank he and his crew robbed several years before was a front for the Outfit. Therefore, they all have to be made an example of. Macklin decides to exact his revenge by robbing Outfit targets until they pay him a quarter million dollars for his trouble.

While the monetary exchange as a matter of closure rings true to Parker as a character, not much else does. Macklin was a family man with a wife and kids who don't speak to him anymore. Parker wouldn't be hanging around a young, unstable floozy like Bett. Duvall's Macklin isn't stern or self-assured enough to be Parker. Parker is cold confidence. Macklin is often easy-going and convivial. Statham and Gibson at least managed to get to the heart of the character, a man that is all serious business. The notion of shoving a side-story with the girlfriend was exceptionally irritating to me, as well as just generally detracting from the flow of the movie.

It should be noted that I do enjoy a good 70s crime drama: I'm fond of Matthau in Charley Varrick or The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three or The Laughing Policeman or Hopscotch; I've been through any number of films like The Long GoodbyeChinatownThe French Connection, and any number of other crime movies of the period; I've even got Night Moves and The Friends Of Eddie Coyle also lined up to watch soon. So, I've experienced quite a few of varying levels of quality and interest. While The Outfit is dead-standard for the writing and plot, despite Stark's groundwork, the movie itself should be noted for its bland ugliness. It's just a step above an episode of "Columbo". And even that may be giving it too much credit, as I'm sure there are plenty of episodes of "Columbo" with much more inventive uses of the camera, managing to make things look less shitty and bland. It's surprisingly artless for a period that making an art out of this kind of film. The writer/director would go on to make Rolling ThunderOut For Justice, and Brainscan, so I'm guessing he wasn't hiding an abundance of unused talent somewhere.

The acting, for what it's worth, is mostly fine. Joe Don Baker shows off why he used to actually get cast in films as Macklin's sidekick (something Parker definitely wouldn't have had). The rest of the cast is mostly filled with lesser-name character actors as the mafiosos and screen beauties of the '40s and '50s as the female characters. The one stand-out is Karen Black, a name that used to carry some weight but has mostly been forgotten. From the example set here, it's for good fucking reason. Her character was irksome, to say the least, and her portrayal did nothing to lessen that. I can't imagine a single upside to her performance. One of the only good moments featuring her - which was much more Parker than Macklin - was when, after wanting to go home to her family and breaking down into hysterics, throws Macklin's gun (which he is cleaning) into a motel room wall, he calms her down by slapping the shit out of her, repeatedly. When she eventually dies, Macklin doesn't really show any emotion and the story moves on, so I'm not sure why she even existed through most of the script. She could have died back at the motel when the assassin came for Macklin. She served no purpose except to get in the way of plot.

Ultimately, it was a movie. It filled time, but didn't do anything exceptional. It also did nothing to translate Richard Stark's work to a wider audience. Maybe someone will someday give Parker the "Justified" treatment that Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens received. Because Earl Macklin is no Parker. And this is no The Outfit.