Werewolfery – 6WH

You might be tempted to think that I made up the word “Werewolfery” as a way to avoid the rather boring, normal title of “Werewolves” or somesuch, but then you’d be wrong, because one of the movies I watched this week used the term Werewolfery multiple times. Alright, fine, it’s maybe a two birds, one stone situation, but it at least has a basis in what I watched. Of course, the last time this theme showed up during the Six Weeks of Halloween (way back in 2008!), I referred to it as the Lycanthropic Edition, so there is that. Anywho, I caught up with three werewolf movies I hadn’t seen before this week. Werewolfery abound:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2 – Werewolfery

Werewolf of London – A botanist seeking a rare flower in Tibet (or maybe just in Vasquez Rocks) is attacked by a strange animal. Upon the next full moon, he finds himself transforming into a bloodthirsty beast, but the rare flower may hold the transformation at bay…

Werewolf of London

This 1935 monster jam was Universal Studios first attempt at a Werewolf franchise, though it obviously didn’t stick. 1941’s The Wolf Man would be Universal’s much more successful film, which leads to some contrarian takes that the first attempt is better, though I think I come down squarely on team The Wolf Man. There’s certainly lots to like about Werewolf of London. The makeup is pretty neat, and the first transformation sequence, obscured by passing trees, is a clever bit of trick photography. Oh, and this is the origin of the term “Werewolfery” I mentioned above – they use it multiple times, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. The character of Dr. Yogami shows some promise, though it doesn’t really play out that way. A lot of the elements that make a good Universal monster jam are all there, but they’re just slightly… off.

Unfortunately, the protagonist of the film isn’t particularly likeable and is the film’s biggest detriment. To be sure, Henry Hull puts in a fine performance, but the character as conceived and written is a bit of a dullard. It’s particularly deficient when compared to Lon Chaney Jr.’s soulful and empathetic performance in The Wolf Man. Hull isn’t able to pull any sympathy whatsoever, and the picture suffers for it. The sympathetic monster is a key element of why Universal’s monsters work so well, but this movie barely even makes the attempt.

It’s a fascinating movie for those who enjoy tracing the evolution of Universal’s brand of monster movie. Alas, it doesn’t quite work and we don’t even get any perfectly coiffed werewolves drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, as you might expect from the song. Anyway, it’s interesting, but if you’re in the mood for a Universal monster movie about werewolves, The Wolf Man is your best bet. **1/2

The Beast Must Die – A wealthy big game hunter has invited eight guests for a weekend getaway at his lush country estate. Little do they know that their host suspects one of them is a werewolf, and he’s decked out the grounds in cameras and sensors so that he can hunt the biggest game of them all.

This late period Amicus picture is essentially a mashup of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the Werewolf party game. Indeed, the movie informs us early on that we’re going to be asked to guess which character is the werewolf towards the end of the film, and they even put a little clock on screen when the time comes, flashing suspicious shots of each character before the reveals start coming.

The Beast Must Die

It’s a neat little premise, though there are some things that fall down on execution. Most of the film seems to be on autopilot, just going through the motions in the leadup to a guessing game where the audience hasn’t really been provided much in the way of clues. At 93 minutes, it’s not a long movie, but it does feel padded at times (there’s an interminable car chase towards the beginning of the film that goes on far, far too long, for no real reason). Also, and this is a me thing, but our wealthy big game hunter is, perhaps, the worst hunter ever portrayed on screen. The man is just completely incompetent (the “eat the rich” crowd might get a kick out of this sort of thing, but I just find it boring), and that never really works for me.

Still, there are a few surprises here and there that keep things interesting, including the ending, which has a reveal that makes no sense at first, but for which there is an explanation before the ultimate reveal. Along the way, we do get a nice smattering of British character actors ranging from the always entertaining Peter Cushing, to a very young Michael Gambon, to Calvin Lockart, who I know best as King WIllie in that cinematic masterpiece Predator 2.

It’s a great premise, but it doesn’t really deliver much on its potential. It strikes me as the sort of thing that would actually be interesting to see updated and remade (there’s apparently a TV series of the same name, but it doesn’t appear to be a remake or even about werewolves). **

Silver Bullet – The small town of Tarker’s Mill is suffers a series of grisly murders each month during the full moon. A young boy in a wheelchair begins to suspect the murders are the doing of a werewolf, enlisting his sister and insane uncle in the hunt.

Silver Bullet

This is one of those bizarre 80s horror movies that suddenly makes more sense when you realize that it’s based on a Stephen King story. So many things that work well on the page come off as unintentionally hilarious on screen. Or, at least, baffling. Take our main character, a wheelchair bound young boy played by Corey Haim in the movie. His crazy uncle, played by an unhinged Gary Busey, designs a motorcycle powered wheelchair for the kid, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that could play in text, but not visually. It just seems kinda silly on screen. There’s a dozen things like this in the movie. At one point, the werewolf beats someone to death with a baseball bat, instead of, like, doing the usual werewolf shit. Just perplexing stuff.

All that said, the film does at least manage to capture some of King’s narrative drive, and the story progresses naturally with small revelations and events that pull you along (unlike the previous two films in this post). There’s also a decent cast with folks like Terry O’Quinn, Everett McGill, and Lawrence Tierney putting in solid supporting performances. There’s something undeniably corny about the movie, and it’s not strictly good, but there’s some charm to be had here. **1/2

Two weeks down, four to go. Stay tuned for some 50 from 50 action, and next weekend: Exorcism! Plus, much, much more…

Dark Castle – 6WH

Dark Castle Entertainment was formed in 1998 at the hands of Hollywood heavy hitters like super-producer Joel Silver, and (at the time) red-hot director Robert Zemeckis. The name is an obvious reference to B-movie maestro and theatrical gimmick expert William Castle, and indeed, the original goal of the studio was to remake Castle’s films. This strategy lasted a whole two films (which, believe it or not, is pretty good for a specialty studio like this) before the started branching out to other horror properties, and eventually, non-horror projects. I don’t usually think of that late 90s, early aughts time period as having a distinct aesthetic, but you know what: it does, and the two movies I watched recently are a pretty good encapsulation of the time period.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 1.5 – Dark Castle

Thir13en Ghosts – A man inherits his uncle Cyrus’s estate and, having fallen on hard times, decides to move his family into the peculiar glass house with mysterious Latin texts scrawled all over the surface. Surely there’s nothing evil about this house, right? Along for the ride are the man’s children, a lawyer, a ghost hunter and former employee of Cyrus, and a “ghost rights activist.” What could go wrong?

The only thing this movie really has going for it is the winning cast. F. Murray Abraham does his best to channel a villainous Vincent Price, to good effect. Tony Shalhoub also does decent work as the straight laced father and nephew of the nefarious Cyrus. Even Matthew Lillard and Shannon Elizabeth manage to elevate the movie a bit, as their roles play to their strengths (narrow as they may be).

Thir13en Ghosts

Unfortunately, the narrative is lazy and nearly nonsensical, and the filmmaking chops are abysmal. Lots of quick cuts and awkward flashes are annoying (that music video aesthetic common to the era, not inherently bad, yet deployed quite annoyingly here), but sometimes manage to hide shots that don’t match. The creature designs are all amped up to the twisted-xtreme™ – some of that works, but some of it just comes off as silly. The set design has some plusses, but the geography of the place is not very well established, and the glass walls aren’t very well deployed. There is one A+ gore gag that’s worth mentioning (the lawyer gets it), and funnily enough, it’s a gag that Ghost Ship will improve upon with its opening (see below).

It’s a bit of a shame, because the original 13 Ghosts is old fashioned and hokey enough to justify a remake, a sentiment I’m not used to expressing. In fact, enough time has probably passed that there’s probably some decent potential to do another remake right now, if you get the right filmmakers involved (and hey, apparently Dark Castle is still a going concern, pretty sure they’ll be able to get the rights). There are lots of common elements here (the ghost hunting uncle leaves his house to his nephew, the ghost glasses, the 12 ghosts with a mysterious 13th ghost to come, etc…) but almost nothing was improved in the remake. I suppose there’s a twist or two that pan out, but it’s not really worth it. *

Ghost Ship – A salvage crew discovers a cruise ship missing since 1962 and decides to lay a claim and tow it to port. Mysterious accidents plague the endeavor, trapping the crew aboard the cruise ship, which appears to be haunted by nefarious ghosts. Because of course it’s haunted.

The first Dark Castle picture to stray from the remake William Castle strategy, there are certainly plenty of “Ghost Ship” movies to pull tropes from here, and this does have the feel of something you’ve seen a million times before. It’s a pretty basic plot, to be sure, but it fares somewhat better than Thir13en Ghosts in that respect, even if it is still a bit lazy. It also has a winning cast, which helps. Gabriel Byrne is probably the biggest name, but you’ve also got Julianna Margulies and even Karl Urban pitching in along with a bevy of character actors you’ll recognize (mostly from TV, but still) and put in sturdy performances.

Ghost Ship

Not particularly well received by critics or audiences at the time, there does seem to be something of an effort to revive its reputation these days. This isn’t a particularly successful effort, as the movie isn’t very good, but the one thing that almost everyone can acknowledge is that the opening few minutes packs an astounding wallop. I won’t spoil it, but it’s the sort of thing you’ve seen before, only it’s done here on a much larger scale. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it, and it’s almost certainly worth watching those first few minutes for that alone. The rest of the movie doesn’t really live up to that sequence, but I had a little more fun with it than I expected.

I dunno, it would make a good double feature with Deep Rising (though that movie is significantly better). While not a Castle remake, it does have the feel of an updated 60s B-movie to it. It sags a little, especially in the second act, but it’s got a nice climactic twist, even if it could probably could have been pulled off better with another pass of the screenplay and a more cinematic director. Not great or anything, but I had a better time with it than Thir13en Ghosts and honestly, that opening sequence is something to behold. **

I’m actually surprised that I never did a full on William Castle theme week before, though he’s shown up (in, for example, a Vincent Price themed week). Might be worth noting for a future 6WH theme. Anywho, its been a pretty good mix for the first full week of the 6WH, stay tuned for some Werewolf movies coming this Sunday…

Six Weeks of Halloween 2023: Mexican Gothic

In Robert Aickman’s short story “Ringing the Changes,” a surreal crowd of townfolk parade through the streets chanting:

The living and the dead dance together.
Now’s the time. Now’s the place. Now’s the weather.

Page 76, Dark Entries by Robert Aikman

When I read that during last year’s Six Weeks of Halloween, something about it just struck me as wonderfully macabre, and a fitting slogan for the Six Weeks of Halloween as a concept. The seasons are changing, a chill is in the air, trees are shedding their leaves to crunch underfoot; soon folks will start breaking out the afghans and sweaters and adorning their household with all manner of mutilated gourds, decorative corpses, plastic spiders, styrofoam gravestones with cute, ironic captions, and of course, the (pumpkin) spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly traditions can mean only one thing: It’s Halloween Season!

Around these parts, we celebrate that Hallowed E’en by watching a veritable plethora of horror movies (and we read some spooky books while we’re at it) for the six weeks leading up to the big day. Why six weeks? Well, it used to be two weeks better than the standard October marathons that a lot of folks do, but these days, it seems there’s been a bit of seasonal creep (literally!), so we’re just sorta conventional now.

It’s traditional to start the marathon off with something that’s at least somewhat more respectable than usual. Which is not to say that it won’t be schlocky fun, just that there will be some element to the theme that might hint towards something a little more classy than expected. Things like silent moviesforeign filmsarthouse flicksclassic anthologies, celebrated studios (and other celebrated studios), and the like. This year, with the help of the physical media peddlers at Vinegar Syndrome, we’ve lined up a trio of Mexican Gothic films from the Duke of Mexican Horror Cinema, Carlos Enrique Taboada.

In the English-speaking world, Taboada does not have much recognition, but he’s apparently quite popular in Mexico, and since the advent of DVD, some of his movies began garnering a following up here in the U.S. Part of his reputation stems from the fact that he didn’t focus on the absurdity of the horror stories that were popular at the time. There are no luchadores or monsters here, just the grand tradition of gothic horror. Here we have three of his better known efforts, and of course Vinegar Syndrome did an excellent job restoring them.

Week 1: Mexican Gothic – The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada

Poison for the Fairies – Young Veronica is an orphan with a penchant for all things witchcraft. She befriends Flavia, a new student at school who is wealthy but lonely. Veronica manages to convince Flavia that she’s a real witch and begins to manipulate her new friend for her own ends. Hijinks ensue!

A cult favorite and probably Taboada’s best known film, it’s easy to see why as the film unfolds. It’s a bit of a slow burn, as Taboada takes his time establishing the two girls and how their doomed relationship slowly develops and becomes more and more coercive. A story that requires heavy use of child actors can sometimes be a bit of a double edged blade, and if the young actresses aren’t up to the challenge, the result can be excruciating, but that’s not the case here. The two young girls give a naturalistic and convincing performance, even as events start to escalate towards the end of the film. Stylistically, Taboada frames nearly every shot in a way that obscures the faces of adults. It’s not quite Peanuts’ style (you can hear them speak clearly), but the effect is the same: you’re thrust entirely into the young girls’ perspective and isolated from any potential steadying influence that adults might provide.

Poison for the Fairies

There’s some basic witchcraft window dressing on display, but it’s clear that Veronica is conning Flavia for the entire runtime. While there might not be anything supernatural going on, young Flavia believes there is, and Taboada treats us to some visual representations of such that are quite effective. Indeed, it’s probably the best looking film of the three I watched this weekend, with lots of great compositions and some stylistically adventurous shots.

I don’t want to spoil or oversell the ending, but what felt like a slow, grounded character piece takes some rather serious turns by the end, with tragic consequences. It really sold me on the film in a way that Taboada couldn’t quite replicate with the other two films I watched this weekend. ***

Blacker Than the Night – A woman inherits her aunt’s spooky house and moves in with her friends. The only condition of the inheritance: they must take care of the dead aunt’s beloved black cat, Bequer. Spoiler alert: they don’t care for Bequer very well and yes, hijinks ensue.

Another slow burn, this one really takes its time to get its engine revving, and that’s a flaw that might be hard to overcome. There’s some goofy stuff in the first hour that are almost laughable too. For instance, when we learn that they will only inherit the house on condition that they care for the black cat, and the women are packing and one of them has a pet canary, I literally laughed out loud. Obviously Bequer does what cats do to birdies like that, and three of the women take a bit of revenge on him, after which the spooky bumps in the night start to become more substantial, and (eventually) people start dying.

Blacker Than the Night

To its credit, this is a film that eschews shock tactics, gore, or stingers, instead relying on atmosphere and “what you don’t see” for its thrills, and Taboata employs some visually effective shots to bring it home. There’s a flashback sequence that’s shown in a vivid, exaggerated red color scheme that’s quite evocative. Unfortunately, it takes far, far too long for all this stuff to develop into something meaningful, and even then, I didn’t really care enough about the characters to be impacted as much as I should. I suppose there is something here about generational conflict between the two sets of women here. Made in 1975, the younger women were demonstrating a certain independence (ranging from fashions to careers to divorce, all featured prominently amongst the younger women) that the ghostly aunt (not to mention the creepy old housekeeper) never managed. In any case, the first death (not counting Bequer or the canary) happens more than an hour into the movie, and the ghostly revenge progresses rather conventionally from that point. I kept expecting some sort of twist or surprise, but the only real twist here was that Bequer’s death wasn’t the accident it was initially portrayed as (which, like, we already knew and could see coming from the opening minutes of the film).

Your mileage may vary. It’s tempting to fault movies for what you want them to be, rather than what they actually are, and I may be engaging in a bit of that here. There is a lot to like about this film, but I just fell off the bandwagon early on and when things heat up in the last 25 minutes, I never really got fully back on board. Great final shots though. **

Rapiña – Two impoverished lumberjacks discover the wreckage of a plane that has crashed at the top of the mountains and decide to steal the belongings for themselves, with predictable hijinks ensuing. Not exactly a “horror” movie, but an excellent take on the Gold Fever trope; a story as old as time. Or, at least, dating back to Greek myth and present through every period of human storytelling. Cinematically, this reminded me of movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Shallow Grave, and especially A Simple Plan.


Despite the common tropes and other prominent examples, this manages to carve out an identity of its own. It’s partly just the rural setting in Mexico, which provides ample desire for escape for our Gold-fever infected protagonist, who just wants to provide a better childhood for his expectant child. As with the previous two films in this post, this is also a slow burn, but it’s very well calibrated and there are natural stairsteps as our protagonist’s attempts to retain the treasure corrupt his soul and grow increasingly desperate and frenzied.

So it’s a common story and it progresses like you’d expect, but something about this just works much better than, say, the conventional parts of Blacker Than the Night. The ending isn’t exactly uplifting, but man, Taboada really knows how to end his films with great shots. ***

A great way to kick off the Six Weeks of Halloween for 2023, stay tuned for more: we’ve got some Dark Castle movies, a few werewolf pictures, the Insidious sequels, and a 6WH themed recap of 50 from 50 movies… Also, just a note when it comes to the physical media release here. Two of the above films are currently streaming on Shudder, but not really anywhere else, and the smaller physical media boutiques like Vinegar Syndrome tend to do limited runs. This is something that will come up again during this year’s marathon, but it bears repeating: if you see something from one of these places that interests you, you should buy it then. This goes double for special editions with fancy packaging like the VS set I’m referencing here has – they often show up on ebay at double the price, if not more.

50 From 50 – Part VII

Continuing my way through a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries this year (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) I’m currently at 37 movies, which exactly on track, but I’ve only covered 28 on the blog. The gap will continue to narrow with this post and one of the remainder will be covered during the 6 Weeks of Halloween (which will, naturally, have at least 6 of its own entries). Alrighty, let’s get to it! More 50 From 50: [Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI]

Iceland Arctic – Mads Mikkelsen plays a man stranded in the arctic wilderness. Resourceful and clever, he has settled into a routine of survival. Things change when a potential rescue is spoiled and time becomes a factor. This nearly dialogue-free film is basically an acting showcase for Mikkelsen and fortunately, he’s up to the challenge. He carries this movie on his back, and most of what’s communicated to the audience happens wordlessly. Just a few flickers of emotion in Mikkelsen’s face are enough to sell whatever’s happening.

Mads Mikkelsen in Arctic

Early on, inured by his routine, there’s not much to see but a calm demeanor and competent actions. But there’s a moment when it looks like he might be rescued by a helicopter… which then succumbs to the windy arctic weather and crashes. The sequence of emotions rolling across Mikkelsen’s face are a sight to behold. Shock, surprise, dashed hopes, and something that could be indecision but could just as easily be a calm, level-headed recognition of what he’ll need to do next.

This is writer/director Joe Penna’s debut film, and he shows a steady hand. It’s clear he knows how to use Mikkelsen, and he does an excellent job depicting the desolation of the arctic landscape. It’s a gorgeous film with well composed images and movements. Of course, the strengths of the film also point to the one potential weakness: we don’t really know anything about the characters. Penna relies on the universally relatable premise of being stranded in the wilderness, amongst other dangers, to make you care for the characters. This was certainly enough for me, and Mikkelsen’s performance adds enough heft, but your mileage may vary. (Note: I swear when I looked at this initially, the country was listed solely as Iceland – but now it also shows USA. I guess this is a bit of a cheat, but it was clearly made in Iceland, so I’m going to keep it on the list. Who knows, I might hit 51 films to make up for this, but I figured it was an interesting enough movie to recap.) Available on Netflix. ***

Malaysia Wira – After a stint in the Army, a man returns to his hometown and vows to take on the local gangster in order to protect his family. Naturally, the gangster runs an underground MMA tournament, and our hero is uniquely suited to compete. Basically a bog standard plot that’s a thinly veiled excuse to cram a bunch of action sequences into the runtime.

As these things go, this is rock solid stuff. The fight choreography recalls films like The Raid or The Night Comes for Us, but without the blood, guts, and gore. Depending on what you’re looking for, this could be a good thing, but I’d also say those two films are better than Wira. Still, the action is perfectly cromulent, the pacing is solid, and the villain works well enough. Hairul Azreen plays the lead and has the martial arts chops to sell it, and Yayan Ruhian (best known as Mad Dog from The Raid movies, but also has a prominent role in John Wick 3) is a great villainous henchman.

It’s not breaking new ground and there are better examples of this sort of thing, but it’s a reasonably well executed version of the story that’s well worth watching if this is your type of thing. **1/2

Turkey Lionman (aka The Sword and the Claw) – When a king is betrayed and murdered, his infant son is hidden in a forest whereupon he is discovered and raised by a pride of lions, thus imbuing him with beastly lion-based powers. As an adult, he learns of his heritage and vows to take on the new king. A potent blend of exploitation tropes ranging from baffling music cues to chaotic, trampoline-based action to the requisite awful dubbing.

The action choreography doesn’t exactly compare with traditional martial arts stuff, and it does have a truly off-kilter feel to it, but it also doesn’t exactly make any sense. The plot has a flavor of old folklore that I’m not familiar with at all (so who knows), but which seems to provide enough of a backbone to story and keep the pace moving quickly and efficiently through several familiar tropes. There are obvious creative and budgetary limitations on display here, but that just makes it more endearing. The homemade low-fi aesthetic is perfectly matched to the silly story played completely straight.


It’s certainly an odd movie from the start, but it doesn’t really get bonkers until the finale, when our hero gets his trademark metal lion claw glove thingies and takes on an army. Pure schlock, almost accidentally charming; certainly not for everyone, but I found it quite entertaining. Available on Tubi. **1/2

Ukraine Once Upon a Time in Ukraine – A chaotic imitation of Tarantino imitating a Samurai/Western mashup. The plot is kinda beside the point, but it involves a plot to sell Ukrainian slaves to the Japanese. A Ukranian/Japanese samurai seeks revenge, and runs across a Ukrainian peasant whose wife was enslaved. Along the way, we’ve got samurai swordfights, six-shooters, and some light anti-semitism.

Once Upon a Time in Ukraine

Again there’s some cultural references that are probably lost on me. For instance, the Ukrainian peasant is named Taras Shevchenko, a reference to a famous poet, writer, artist, and political figure of the same name. Pretty sure the historical figure didn’t fight with samurai swords though. Treating the serious topics as a popcorn flick is a bit of a stretch, and there’s some questionable stuff thrown out there, but it’s a tight 90 minutes and pretty well paced.

Despite budgetary constraints, it’s visually energetic and the effects actually look pretty good. As a surface-level imitation of Tarantino, it’s not bad visually. But the writing certainly falls far short of Tarantino. Plus, I feel like Tarantino has always been more patient than this is. That being said, it’s an interesting, entertaining little film that I’m glad I watched. Available on Amazon Prime. **1/2

Chile Mandrill – A drug lord murders a child’s parents, but the child escapes. He grows up to become an assassin hellbent on revenge. But when he finally finds the killer, he falls in love with the killer’s daughter and starts to have conflicting emotions. Or something. It’s a silly, melodramatic plot that isn’t anywhere near as cool as it wants to be. Some of the “witty” dialogue comes off as laughable at best, and the hammy references to a Bond like action hero (named here “John Colt”) are almost embarrassingly bad.

That being said, the protagonist is played by Marko Zaror, a Chilean martial artist who seemingly specializes in aerial spin kicks of some sort that are actually quite impressive. The action choreography is quick and fluid and I appreciate the clarity, though it does come off as perhaps a bit rehearsed (or contrived to allow for Zaror’s acrobatics). Zaror has actually shown up in John Wick: Chapter 4; it’s like the Wick folks are just scouring the glob for martial artists to pit against Wick. Anyway, this isn’t a particularly good film because of the plot and dialogue (and there’s far, far too much of that stuff), but the action redeems it a bit and makes it watchable (and you get some unintentional comedy with the plot, for what that’s worth).

Director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza has had several collaborations with Zaror that seem to have better reputations than this one and I probably should have sought them out rather than jumping on the first one I found. This would only be worth it for obsessives or completists, but I don’t hate that I watched it. The Amazon Prime version is badly distorted (something wrong with the aspect ratio), but it’s also available on Tubi, Pluto TV, and Plex. **

So I’ve now covered 33 films. A few of the remaining will have to wait until after the 6 Weeks of Halloween (which starts next week!) and I’m probably on track to finish off the 50 films in early December…

Weird Movie of the Week: Narco Shark

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we got stuck in a porta potty. This time, we’ve got the greatest action movie never made: Narco Shark

Narco Shark Poster

In 1989, mexican direct to video superstar Ricky Valente was in line to write and direct NARCO SHARK, a wild and ambitious film about a Detective/Saxophonist who battles the Mexican Yakuza and a cocaine fueled Killer Shark while trying to save his marriage from falling apart and helping his awkwardly shy but sexually depraved brother in law learn some breakdancing moves.

Sadly, the film was never made… until now.

Of course, this is all just made up. The effort is the brainchild of Gerardo Preciado, a musician who made a name for himself by making music soundtracks to imaginary movies (notable examples include Terrore! and My Little Slasher). This is the first time his little hobby has expanded to include actually making the film in question. Inspired by the likes of low-budget 80s/90s trash like Miami Connection and Samurai Cop, Narco Shark is shaping up to be a rather odd little Sharksploitation/Mexploitation flick. In an interview with Fangoria, he speaks more about his inspirations:

As I do with the soundtracks, I become what the film asks me to become. I’m not trying to be a great director (there will be time for that in the next project), I have to become a director that needs things fast and cheap! Turns out that if you want to make your film look like the filmmakers had no budget and no time, the best way to get that is to make your film with no money and no time!

Even though it’s a “sharksploitation” film, there are a lot of other influences and inspirations, from ’90s Spanish cinema (Alex de La Iglesia’s Accion Mutante, Santiago Segura’s Torrente) to art-house cinema (I want to make the Twin Peaks of sharksploitation films!) and even some Italian dream logic (à la Fulci).

The latest update indicates that production is nearing completion, but who knows when it will really see the light of day. The trailer looks pretty silly (even as these things go) and I’m usually skeptical of people self-consciously aping bad filmmaking aesthetics, but I’ll probably watch this thing.

50 From 50 – Part VI

Continuing my way through a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries this year (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) I’m currently at 33 movies, which exactly on track, but I’ve only covered 23 on the blog. We’ve been narrowing that gap and should be in good shape going into the 6 Weeks of Halloween (which will, no doubt, see at least 6 movies from previously unseen countries). Alrighty, let’s get to it! More 50 From 50: [Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V]

NorwayNokas – This movie tells the story of “the greatest bank robbery in Norwegian history” and only that story. There are people in this movie, but the only real character is the bank robbery. From the outside, the way this movie is described makes it sound like the bank robbery scene from Heat stretched out to 90 minutes, but of course, that’s not what’s happening here. This is not a documentary, but the filmmakers employ cinéma vérité to an extreme level, almost like the world’s greatest reenactment. This makes for fascinating viewing, though the ultra-realism is nowhere near as bombastic or exciting as you might expect from descriptions (or general genre tropes).


The robbers had a decent plan and the pieces start to fall into place as events unfold onscreen (rather than through awkward exposition) in an almost real-time fashion. Not everything goes to plan, including, amusingly, the point of ingress at a stubbornly tough window. But other aspects of the plan are clever and effective. The realistic approach also takes advantage of a sorta fog-of-war effect, as viewers and characters alike don’t necessarily know what’s going on in all locations (or even the general layout of some areas). Indeed, there’s an air of mordant humor towards the end of the movie as oblivious pedestrians casually walk through the climactic gunfight as if nothing is happening.

Again, the vérité approach is effective and interesting, but there’s nothing thrilling or exciting about any of this (which is the point). I suppose there is a sort of tension created by the realism though, and it’s effective in a very specific way. A fascinating movie, but it’s not hard to see why it’s difficult to track down a copy (I had to source this through… methods.) If you’re of a certain mindset, this is worth the effort to track down a copy. ***

SwitzerlandMad Heidi – A strange updating of the famous Swiss novel Heidi, with the titular character being a little older and kicking way more ass. Billed as the first “Swissploitation” movie ever created, this has all the hallmarks of a self-conscious effort to be wacky and irreverent, to middling success. Taking a famous Swiss children’s story like Heidi and pitting her against fascists bent on world domination through cheese is a premise that has its charms, and if you are the type of person who can still enjoy cheese puns even after hearing 90 minutes of them, this is the movie for you.

This sort of crass production rides a few lines reasonably well, and if you’re a fan of (literal) cheesy puns, gory violence, and over-the-top performances, you’ll get a kick out of it, but it’s not exactly a new classic, and the self-conscious way in which this is all employed is noticeable and sometimes awkward. In any case, I actually managed to catch this one in the theater (in what turned out to be a Fathom events showing) and the pure luck involved in stumbling onto this meant I had to make the time to get to the one showing. I’m guessing this will be the only foreign film I’ll have the opportunity to see in the theater for this 50 from 50 resolution, and it was a fun time at the theater. (Available to rent in lots of places) **1/2

Bulgaria & KazakhstanBullets of Justice – This is probably the most batshit insane movie I will watch for 50 from 50, which is saying something after having just covered Mad Heidi. During World War III, Americans created hybrid humans/pigs in a project called “Army Bacon.” 25 years later, and these hybrid “Muzzles” have taken over the world and enslaved humanity. Naturally, our hero is part of the resistance, attempting to tear down the Muzzle empire. Or something. It’s all just an excuse of tasteless jokes, full frontal on both men and women, over-the-top gore, gross makeup, and lots of other nonsense. Again, this might be catnip for a very specific audience, and I had some fun with it, but it can’t quite keep momentum even during the blessedly short 76 minute runtime, and it ends with a bit of a copout (though it’s about as good as you could expect from a movie that’s aiming to be this trashy). Not without its charms, but its appeal is limited. Available on Tubi. **

NigeriaJuju Stories – An anthology film with three segments, all surrounding the nebulous concept of Juju magic. In Love Potion, a young woman uses the eponymous love potion to make a man fall in love with her, with no so great results. A concept we’ve all seen before and it’s a fine telling of the story, but it never really goes for the jugular and it doesn’t quite lean into the sense of irony the best love potion stories can invoke.

The second segment, titled Yam, is certainly the oddest and as a result, most memorable segment. It has something to do with young street urchins picking up money off the roadside… and turning into yams. Having discovered that someone turned into a yam, another person decides to cook and eat the yam, which is the obvious course of action. Naturally, he goes insane. Again, memorable, but probably quite divisive.

The third segment is called Suffer the Witch, and tells the story of a witch and her obsession with friendship and love and their cousin, jealousy. Again, nothing especially new here, but a reasonably well done telling of something you’ve probably seen before.

It’s clear the filmmakers love cinema, and make several cinematic references to filmmakers like Kubrick and Wong Kar Wai, but the script is heavy on exposition and could perhaps use another pass, and the budget is clearly too low to accomplish some of what they’re trying. With the exception of Yam’s unpredictable nature, the stories are pretty standard tellings of well trodden territory, but I enjoyed it well enough. Available on Amazon Prime. **

IranThis Is Not a Film – Jafar Panahi is one of the famous Iranian directors that film nerds praise to high heaven, and for whatever reason, I have never seen one of his films. This one always appealed to me though, as the story behind the film is the film. Panahi received a 6-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking and conducting interviews with foreign press due to his open support for the opposition party in Iran’s 2009 election. This non-film documents Panahi’s daily routine under house-arrest as he appeals his sentence. It was shot in secret by Panahi’s friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and smuggled into France on a USB stick concealed inside a cake for a last-minute submission to the Cannes film festival (and eventually made its way to other festivals and releases).

We often talk about artists bravely exploring taboo subjects or controversial topics, but the sort of staggering defiance on display in this non-film (a self-described effort) is quite rare. The presence of Panahi’s friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb cleverly exonerates Panahi from the Iranian government’s strictures, even if it’s clear that this film would not be made without Panahi’s direction.

The events of the film range from the mundane and presumably spontaneous (thrill to the sight of Panahi… eating breakfast! Talking on the phone! Watching DVDs!) to the more formal attempts to circumvent the rules, as when Panahi talks us through his most recent rejected screenplay, utilizing masking tape to establish the setting, and reading from the script to describe what’s going on. It’s a doomed effort from the start, but in trying to bring it to life, you get a real feel for Panahi’s restless frustration.

This is not a film

If the film sometimes bogs down into something superficially slow or boring, that’s actually not a problem because there’s so much to think about here, and the film puts you in the shoes of a stifled artist. This sort of suppression and censorship should be a clear warning to those who don’t appreciate our own country’s freedoms, but then, I suspect the people who most need to see this have not and/or will not. If you care about movies, indeed, if you care about artistic expression of any kind, you should watch This is Not a Film. Available on Kanopy. ***1/2

Only five films behind at this point, and I should be able to catch up in the next few weeks. Of course, by then, I will have watched a few more films, but it’ll all work out in the end. Stay tuned, we’ve got a lot of trashy genre fare coming in the next few recaps (which will take us through the 6 Weeks of Halloween)…

SF Book Review – Part 40: Expeditionary Force and More

It’s been a while since once of these. This is partly due to covering some books in Tasting Notes style posts or Vintage SF Month posts, but mostly because I’ve been reading less SF. Or maybe not, but what I have been reading has been part of a single series (which I’ll cover below). Anywho, I thought it was time to catch up and clear the baffles before the Six Weeks of Halloween gets started in September.

Columbus Day, by Craig Alanson – Expeditionary Force Series – Aliens choose the thematically appropriate Columbus Day to invade. Sergeant Joe Bishop organizes a small counteroffensive, and eventually ends up joining with different aliens who come to Earth’s rescue. Now he’s headed offworld to fight the invaders. But is he fighting for the right side?

Expeditionary Force Book 1: Columbus Day

I’m eliding a lot of things because the plot here is almost besides the point. This is straight-down-the-middle military science fiction comfort food. The defining characteristics of the series don’t really take hold until about halfway through the first book, when (spoiler alert, I guess) Skippy the Magnificent arrives. Skippy is an ancient and powerful AI that decides to help out lowly monkeys humans in their quest to not be wiped out by various warring factions in the galaxy.

Whether or not the series will work for you depends greatly upon how much you like the bro-ey bickering between Skippy and Joe Bishop, dad jokes, military slang, and pew-pew style action, as well as the general problem solving patterns that represent the bulk of the series. Even if you do like those things (and I enjoy them well enough), the series gets extremely repetitive, and while Alanson never takes it easy on our protagonists and forces them to come up with workable solutions, they do sometimes rely a bit too heavily on Skippy’s almost magical powers. And there’s this whole thing where Skippy is a genius but can’t ever seem to think up the basic schemes that Bishop proposes. Skippy’s frustration at this sort of thing gets old fast, but the series eventually outgrows it as Skippy and Joe (and the rest of the crew) establish a more meaningful rapport.

There are fifteen books in the Expeditionary Force series (and a couple of spinoff books called Mavericks) and I’m about two-thirds of the way finished, so obviously this works for me. I won’t call it mindblowing and it’s not especially filled with the sense-of-wonder that populates the best SF, but it’s entertaining and fun and absolutely perfect audiobook fodder. It helps that the audiobook narrator, R.C. Bray, is excellent. What’s the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner? That’s what this series is.

Alanson does a good job exploring various dynamics of the universe he set up, from the differing alien factions to the technology and other worldbuilding, and as mentioned earlier, he never takes it easy on our protagonists, who always encounter problems on top of problems. It does get repetitive, and sometimes the story bogs down into minutiae of a specific operation that, in the grand scheme of things, probably isn’t that important. This leads to the books feeling a bit samey and repetitive (hence I’m reviewing the entire series here, not individual entries). Alanson’s good at that sort of problem solving stuff, and his strategic outlook on the galaxy’s various forces works. Interpersonal relationships are perhaps not as successful; the professional military stuff works very well, the more romantic stuff a bit less so. Pretty much par for the course there.

There’s some semblance of a larger background story surrounding Skippy’s past and the Elder race that supposedly “transcended” eons ago, but that stuff is super slowly explored (like, don’t get your hopes up, even when it seems like progress is being made). I’m assuming this stuff will come into play as the series comes to a close (though I’m guessing that Alanson could keep this sort of thing going indefinitely), which could be interesting. All in all, I’m enjoying the series. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much of Skippy and the treading-of-water inherent in these stories you can tolerate at any given time.

Paradox Bound, by Peter Clines – Eli has a few encounters with a mysterious woman who wears a tri-corn hat, drives a steampunk version of a Model-A Ford, and is being chased by… something. So Eli and the woman go on the road, but this is a road through time and history. So yeah, this is a sorta goofy Mystery Box style time travel story. It’s not exactly rigorous, but there’s some clever twists and turns and the villains are suitably creepy.

It’s perhaps not as good as 14 or The Fold, but Clines is good at turning pages (or the audio equivalent; this is another good audobook presentation) and has decent storytelling instincts. This isn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s fun and interesting and worth a look if you’re into American History or simple time travel stories with a hint of horror lurking in the background.

The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke – An engineer seeks to build a space elevator, but runs into challenges ranging from the technical, to the geographic, to the political, to the religious. The concept of a space elevator had been around for a while, but Clarke was among the first to portray such a thing, and he does so in a fairly thorough fashion.

The potential sites for such a project are limited, and the most promising site is in a fictionalized version of Sri Lanka. As our engineer works through various obstacles, we also get a series of flashbacks to thousands of years earlier as a Sri Lankan king builds a palace (complete with a pleasure garden and functioning fountains) high on the mountain top. The parallels between the two projects are well established and provide some themetic heft and characterization that is atypical of Clarke’s oeuvre.

It’s a short novel that nevertheless covers a lot of ground, but still hews to a lot of Clarke’s common themes and subjects, particularly once you get towards the ending (which I will not spoil!) This won a Hugo award in 1980, and it’s easy to see why, even if it’s not Clarke’s most propulsive or exciting effort.

Slow Time Between the Stars, by John Scalzi – Short story about an AI sent out into space on a desperate mission to find a new home for humanity. Of course, space is big, so it takes a long time to traverse, and that gives the AI plenty of time to think about it’s place in the universe, what it was built to do, and more importantly, what it should do. There’s a few nuggets of a good idea here, and this functions just fine as a short story, but it’s not breaking new ground and it comes off as somewhat preachy and condescending on Scalzi’s part. Still, he’s a good writer and this is a snappy little story with some interesting notions.

I’m finishing off some mystery/crime books I’ve been exploring of late, and then I have several horror books I’m looking forward to during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but I’ve got a few SF books on tap for later in the year.

Link Dump

The usual link dump of interesting stuffs from the depths of ye olde internets:

  • Project 4K77 – Fans attempting to rescue the original Star Wars movie by doing a 4K scan of an original 1977 35mm Technicolor release print. We all know about the special edition changes and edits like Han shooting first and whatnot, but one thing that becomes glaringly obvious is that recent official releases have also darkened the screen considerably. This sort of digital color correction is a recent trend in cinematography and seems to be bleeding over into home video releases of older stuff as well. I cannot wait for this to end – they make everything look like muted, murky sludge.
  • Steven Seagal’s “Strut” – Seagal released an album in 2004 in which he sings in a fake Jamaican accent. His first line in the song “Strut” is “me wan da poonani.”
  • The LLMentalist Effect – Are AI language models demonstrations of actual intelligence, or are they just replicating the mechanisms of the psychic’s con?
  • Coin Boys – Teacher complains of students’ new thing. Good for them.

The newest thing here is a flock of self-proclaimed “coin boys” who carry a quarter on hand at all times and constantly flip it. They have their entire personality revolve around coins, coin flips, and chance. When we went around doing an ice breaker, 4 or 5 of the kids said some variation of “I live by the coin and die by the coin” as their fact.

Just about an hour ago, when I assigned the first assignment of the school year, one of the coin boys was bold enough to say “heads I do it, tails I don’t.” I told him if he flipped the coin he would be getting a call home on the first week of HS. He flipped it anyway and it came up heads (thank god for that at least).

But then the other coin boy in that class flipped his coin and it came up tails. He said the coin has spoken and he’s not doing it.

  • An Interview With Wanksy – An English guy starting putting graffiti around potholes so that the city council would clear them up faster. He calls himself “wanksy” because his graffiti looks like a penis.
  • John Neal – A 19th century author most famous for coining the phrase “son-of-a-bitch”, which he did in an 1823 novel called Seventy-Six (about the American Revolution). Naturally, the novel was criticized at the time for its profanity.
  • Jaws Bath Bomb – Japan has all the fun toys.

That’s all for now…

50 From 50 – Part V

Continuing my way through a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries this year (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) I’m currently at 30 movies, which is a little ahead of the game, but I’ve only covered 18 on the blog, so I am still behind on the reviews, which is why we’re all here now. More 50 From 50: [Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV]

IndiaLagaan: Once Upon a Time in India – You wouldn’t think that a nearly four hour long Bollywood musical about cricket and the agricultural taxes imposed by colonialism could be this riveting, but this movie would prove you wrong. Sure, it is somewhat leisurely at times, but it’s never boring and it gets stronger as it builds towards a rousing climax.

I saw someone on Letterboxd describe it as Seven Samurai meets The Bad News Bears, which is surprisingly apt, though obviously a bit reductive. That said, the underdog sports tropes are all present and accounted for, even if I still don’t really know much of how Cricket functions. Recruiting the team, learning the sport, training montages, discovering talents, finding unexpected allies, experiencing cruel betrayals, and underhanded villains, it’s all there. And because it’s Bollywood, there are musical numbers sprinkled throughout. I’m not a huge musical fan, but something about this worked a lot better than usual.


I’m sure the Indian cast is full of stars, but my relative lack of exposure to Indian cinema prevents any detailed rundown. That said, Aamir Khan plays the lead well, both as the defiant kid challenging British colonials and as the clueless love interest for a rather odd love triangle (er, quadrangle?) Westerners like myself will no doubt recognize Paul Blackthorne, a consummate “that guy” you’ve probably seen in a dozen tv shows and movies. Here he plays the smarmy British captain who challenges the poor Indian farmers to a game of Cricket – if they win, no taxes for two years; if they lose, triple taxes (the title of the movie, Lagaan, essentially translates to “agricultural tax”). A suitable sports movie villain for sure. The movie looks great too, fantastic cinematography and landscapes, plus it captures the action of Cricket pretty well (even if you don’t know the sport, you can follow along pretty well).

It still a very long movie, but it genuinely doesn’t feel as long as it is (though I did end up having to watch in two sessions, as I didn’t realize it was going to be quite so long) and it’s a very well told story. Available on Netflix. ***1/2

Poland Ashes and Diamonds – On the eve of victory in World War II, various factions struggle to secure their vision for the future of Poland. We mostly follow a couple of rebels set to assassinate a local Communist leader. When their initial attempt fails, the leader becomes suspicious while our rebels try to figure out a backup plan. Along the way, they find themselves wrestling with their actions and potential futures.

An arthouse flick that certainly leans into that wrestling with morality and purpose more than the action or violence at the heart of the story. On the other hand, the aesthetics almost resemble film noir. Stark black and white photography, meticulous compositions, and crisp camera movements all contribute to that noir-esque feel. Of course, the subject matter and Polish origins are atypical for this sort of thing, and this film leans much more heavily into the crises-of-conscience and self-reflection of our heroes than the violence they inflict or the inevitable tragedy they endure.

Ashes and Diamonds

The symbolism is perhaps a little heavy handed (there’s a famous shot in an old bombed-out church involving an inverted crucifix) and the romance that prompts soul searching is perhaps a bit rushed and cliched, but it all comports itself well enough as these sorts of things go. Your mileage may vary, and it requires some context, but it’s quite well done for what it is. Available on Max and Criterion. **1/2

BelgiumMan Bites Dog – I distinctly remember visiting my brother’s dorm room in college once and seeing the poster for this movie. No idea if they still do this sort of thing now, but there was always a sorta decoration sale the first week of school where you could buy stuff to hang up in your dorm room, and a popular choice was movie posters or, in this case, post-card sized movie posters. No one had actually seen this movie, but it’s a striking and memorable poster for sure:

Man Bites Dog Poster

Now, decades later, I’m finally watching it… This movie takes the form of a mockumentary, with a film crew following around a professional serial killer named Ben. As things escalate, the film crew start to participate in the antics themselves. Made in 1992, it’s an early example of the form, and it’s going for an arthouse vibe with shock value thrown in for good measure.

Man Bites Dog

Alas, it comes off as insufferably smug, or, at least, the main subject of the film does. He’s almost immediately unlikeable, and not just because he’s murdering people left and right. Even when he’s eating dinner and quoting poetry, he’s just miserable to be around. This is the point, of course, and watching him drone on and on about banal subjects, you can’t help but wonder why he (or the film crew) thinks this is worthy of documenting. Indeed, you get the feeling that he thinks his inane musings are more important than the murder shenanigans. This sort of thing takes on added meaning in the age of social media, with everyone putting their narcissisms on full display all the time, so perhaps there is something a little prescient about this movie. (Naturally, there is some irony in the fact that I’m writing this here, and indeed, this blog is a testament to my banality, but I’m not a murderer and hopefully not that much of a bore either.)

The film crew’s complicity and participation in the mayhem also remains quite relevant, if not even moreso. Their actions start small, but gradually become more and more flagrant. So there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here and lots to talk about, but the actual process of watching it is a bit dull. There’s a few genuine surprises and shocks, but despite the short 96 minute runtime, it feels a lot longer. I don’t love this and find it hard to recommend, but it’s got interesting subtext and could be of interest to people with the right mindset. Available on Max and Criterion. **1/2

Brazil Elite Squad – When I went to Fantastic Fest (sheesh, well over a decade ago), I actually caught the sequel to this film, but never went back to watch the original. Like the sequel, this film is about police corruption in Brazil as told through the eyes of a burned out captain in BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion – basically the eponymous Elite Squad). He’s on the verge of starting a family and seeking a replacement that he can promote into the role, but the pickins are slim, and the intractable corruption of the various police and political institutions aren’t helping. Add in a visit by the Pope that will necessitate increased police presence in cartel-controlled slums, and a new recruit who gets mixed up in a charitable organization with ties to the cartel, and you’ve got a interesting soup of elements to sip from.

Like the sequel, this film might raise your political hackles at times. The film doesn’t leave anyone out of its crosshairs though. The liberal-coded students and charity workers are portrayed as hopelessly naive and ill-informed, while the police themselves are portrayed in the grip of a deeply corrosive corruption emerging from police leadership, government, and cartel influence. This is all a simplification and it does raise some suspicions (the film doesn’t truly present any solutions, though you could argue one way or the other), but it’s clear that this film is fed up with the status quo.

The film features stylistically effective use of handheld cameras during the action sequences, and well established geography of the various slums contributes to the effectiveness. The use of voiceover and intercut narratives is perhaps a bit less successful, and there are times when the tone feels a bit inconsistent, it ultimately manages to harness it all into an effective package.

Director José Padilha would go on to make his Hollywood debut with an ill-advised remake of RoboCop. After revisiting this Elite Squad series, I do find that Padilha is a rather interesting choice for the task, even if it was doomed to failure before it even started. This is certainly not a perfect film, but it’s thought provoking and well made nonetheless. Watched on Amazon Prime. ***

Finland Nokia Mobile: We Were Connecting People – This is a documentary about the rise and fall of Finish cell-phone maker Nokia. It’s mostly just a talking heads documentary with some archival footage mixed in, but the story is an interesting one that remains relevant to this day. A small technology company experiences sudden, massive success and struggles to maintain its success-creating culture in the shadow of growing pains and calcified leadership. As one of the commentators puts it, “no conspiracy, just business.”

The most eye-opening bit came when a Finnish inventor shows his touchscreen phone, made several years before the iPhone. The elements of the iPhone were all there years earlier, but never really caught on, perhaps due to Nokia being addicted to maintaining their success, or some such. Perfectly cromulent documentary that doesn’t exactly break new ground, but covers an interesting subject. There’s apparently a 60 minute cut that aired on the BBC, but the one on Tubi is the fill 91 minute cut. **1/2

So there you have it, I’m now only 7 movies behind in terms of reviews, and we should be able to close that gap soon enough…

50 From 50 – Part IV

Continuing my way through a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) I’m currently at 29 movies, which is a little ahead of the game, but I’ve only actually covered 13 on the blog, so I am way behind on the reviews. Let’s rectify that, shall we? More 50 From 50: [Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III]

SpainWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Pedro Almodóvar represents an embarrassing blind spot for me, so this was the perfect opportunity to rectify that situation. A woman, upset when her lover leaves her, whips up a batch of sleeping-pill-laced gazpacho and resolves to kill herself. It’s a comedy! And despite the dark premise (which is more subtext than I’m making it sound), it actually is funny.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

It takes some time setting up the various players and it doesn’t hit madcap levels until the midway point, it’s quite satisfying when the seemingly chaotic series of melodramatic events starts to converge. Excellent performances all around, including frequent Almodóvar collaborator Carmen Maura and a very young Antonio Banderas. The usage of the drugged gazpacho as a sorta Hitchockian time bomb (i.e. the audience knows about the sleeping pills, but most of the characters do not) is a neat trick.

Comedy is one of those things that sometimes doesn’t translate well across cultures, and there might be some of that lost-in-translation stuff here, but it actually worked pretty well for me. A nice balancing act going on here, and it gets stronger as it goes. Available on Freevee. ***

IsraelBig Bad Wolves – A police detective who doesn’t play by anyone’s rules but his own (and sometimes not even those) and a suspected child murderer cross paths with a grieving father of one of the victims out for revenge. It’s also a comedy! Indeed, this is one of those movies whose subject matter is so dark that it’s hard to believe how funny it becomes.

Big Bad Wolves

Another balancing act, this movie really rides the razor’s edge. The comedy keeps it from feeling oppressive while somehow not minimizing the tragedy at the heart of the story. Great performances from the three leads and careful framing and blocking certainly help maintain the tonal balance required to make a bleak farce like this work so well. It’s not for the faint of heart (especially with that ending), but it surprised the hell out of me and I loved it. Available on Amazon Prime. ***1/2

ChinaCliff Walkers – Director Zhang Yimou takes on a twisty espionage thriller about four Communist Party agents trained in the Soviet Union coming back to Japan-occupied China during World War II. It’s the sort of government-friendly story that allows for a bigger budget, but doesn’t feel entirely like slick propaganda either. Impeccably appointed, meticulously crafted, and incredibly convoluted, this isn’t a Bond-esque action flick, but it’s not quite a staid, talky John le Carré type story either. It has its lurid action or torture sequences, betrayals and double crosses, and so on, but it never feels over-the-top.

Cliff Walkers

You will need to pay attention and puzzle out some of the various plot machinations, but I like that sort of thing in a spy movie (your mileage may vary). The snowy backdrops provide plenty of contrast for Zhang’s visual prowess, which is on full display here, and the film looks gorgeous. It’s sometimes hard to track down Zhang Yimou movies, but they’ve been showing up again on various streaming rental services and this one is actually on Freevee (as is Raise the Red Lantern, which is also highly recommended). Someday one of those enterprising physical media companies will give his filmography a nice HD or 4K upgrade, and I’m here for that. ***

MexicoTigers Are Not Afraid – A modern fairy tale about street kids surviving amidst drug cartels and a generally unforgiving world. This is not a comedy! Which is not to say that there is no levity here, just that it’s mostly a bleak experience. Featured on The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder, I’m glad it got the added attention and Joe Bob’s commentary provides insightful background.

Tigers Are Not Afraid

A movie like this really depends heavily on child actors, which can sometimes be a kiss of death, but the kids are amazing here. Naturalistic and entirely believable, it’s not just the performances but also the writing, which is allegorical but sharp. Another deft balancing act going on here, this is recommended. Available on Shudder (with or without Joe Bob). ***

PhilippinesThe Muthers – The second part of a Last Drive-In double feature with Tigers Are Not Afraid, this blacksploitation flick about pirates rescuing women from a coffee plantation has some unusual qualities. Don’t get me wrong, this is totally trashy, lots of cheap action and silliness, but it feels like there’s at least something simmering underneath the surface. It’s hard to apply labels like “feminist” to this given its trashy nature, but there’s absolutely something transgressive about a group of black women rescuing their sisters from a plantation prison while consistently thwarting male advances from every direction.

The Muthers

I don’t know, maybe I’m making too much of that, because this is more exploitation than anything else. We’ve actually seen director Cirio Santiago before during the 1978 Project, as he directed a bonkers flick called Death Force. The Muthers perhaps has more subtext, but they’re both trashy exploitation to their core, and worth watching if that’s your thing. **1/2

Progress! Still far behind in reviews, but I should be able to catch up soon enough.