Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Also seen

The Imp (1981)

Ah Keung has been out of luck for quite some time now. He's always losing his job and his young marriage isn't too happy either. His life isn't getting much better when a malevolent spirit tries to be reincarnated in the body of his unborn son.

The Imp is placed somewhere between the truly outrageous examples of Hong Kong horror and a more psychological approach. It's a pleasant enough watch, but lacks either the transgressiveness and plain lunacy of its more extreme brethren or the moodiness needed for the subtler form.


Chandu the Magician (1932)

A fun little piece of serial style entertainment, featuring the silly British Yogi Chandu fighting power-mad Bela Lugosi for possession of a death ray. Bela is in top form, Chandu's magic is silly fun, the rest of the acting is wooden. What more can you want?


Monday, September 29, 2008

In short (and ranting): Roma A Mano Armata (1976)

Usually, I as left-wing, pacifist fan of very violent movies can find excuses or creative interpretations to defend those movies in front of myself. Even the notoriously proto-fascist Italian cop movie does not look all that fascist to me. Leave it to Umberto Lenzi to make a film in the genre I find morally repugnant.

Raving, violent psychopath Leonardo Tanzi (Maurizio Merli) is a lucky guy. His police badge is a fine thing to hide behind when he's smashing bones and torturing people. It even affords him a beautiful moral high horse: The evil gangsters you see, are protected by the way too lenient law (you know, the lenience that affords himself to torture and kill people without getting more than a demotion).

He reserves special hatred for the gang of a certain Savelli (Biagio Pelligra), that seems to be lead by the hunchbacked Moretto (Tomas Milian). But Tanzi can't proof anything and the evil, unfair law doesn't allow him to just grab people off the street and incarcerate them forever. What a letdown! Of course his inability to get the gang has nothing to do with the fact we never see Tanzi do any legal and actual police work.

And, you know what? I am much too irritated by the tone of the movie to get deeper into the quagmire it calls its plot. You know how films like this always go, anyway. Just picture the usual with added right-wing ranting and more gangsters who are let on the streets again to do the vilest crimes imaginable.


What gets to me most here is the terrible self-righteousness the film exudes. Unlike in other films of this genre, there is not single thing the hero does the movie itself doesn't seem to applaud; I never had the feeling anyone involved in the production even had the slightest thought about the similarity between our so-called hero and the people he is trying to capture.

There's also the problem of Tanzi's character. Most "cops on the edge" get a final and very personal nudge to finally snap. Tanzi is a brutal thug right from the start. The film even includes an attack on his girlfriend that would be quite a nice motive for an escalation in his violent tendencies, unfortunately subtleties of this kind are beyond Lenzi and writer Dardano Sacchetti in this film. Actually, every element to make Tanzi (and the film's morals) more complex is there, Lenzi just seems to have more fun showing us the next atrocity one of those e-vol gangsters commit.

Which leads me to a more technical problem: The plotting is extremely weak, even if you, like me, don't expect all that much coherence from an Italian movie. There's just no dramatic arc to speak of, it's just one damn thing after another with not much more than Tanzi connecting them.

The action is quite great and Merli and Milian are imbuing the little they have to do with a lot of intensity, but really, what's the use?


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)

Six months pregnant Evie (Prunella Ransome) and her husband Tom (Lewis Fiander) use the time before the birth of their third child for a final holiday before the times of too little sleep start again.

Tom is intent on spending most of the time on the island of Alcanzor, a small, quiet place he had visited years before, instead of the annoyingly touristy Benarez. Both don't recognize the importance of the bodies of two murdered women that wash up on the beach in Benarez for their future fate. And why should they? After all, people are getting killed all the time. Even children do. So it's no reason to lose one's sleep over it.

When the couple arrives at their destination, they're greeted by the idyllic picture of playing children. Well, the children are surprisingly silent and their stares are a little discomforting, but they're just children, right?

When they enter the small town that is Alcanzor's only settlement, they find it deserted. Houses and businesses look as if they had suddenly been left by their occupants. Tom says he thinks the townsfolk are on the other side of the island, having a yearly fiesta, but he looks just as worried as his wife does. One could think he doesn't really believe what he says.

Since they just have a long ride on their boat behind them, both decide to first rest up a little before they decide what to do next. So Evie settles down in a small restaurant while Tom visits the grocery shop to get some food. He'll leave money for the things he took, of course. The trouble is, the place just doesn't feel right. Of course, Tom isn't going to say a thing like that out loud - his movements and the looks he casts around are speaking a different language, though.

Unfortunately he throws said looks into the wrong direction, or he would have seen the dead body hidden in the grocery shop.

At the same time, the old-fashioned phone in the restaurant is ringing. There doesn't seem to be someone on the other end of the line, at least no one who wants to speak to Evie. But she gets some company in the form of a young girl who doesn't say much and, if you ask me, has quite a disturbing stare. In the end, she just seems to be one of those baby belly grabbers, always on the look-out for pregnant women whose privacy can be disturbed without greater social consequences. Afterwards, the girl runs away.

This is not the last strange thing that will happen. After Tom has returned, the telephone is ringing again. There's a young woman on the line. She tries to tell him something in a language he just can't understand.

Evie and Tom decide to go to the hotel they were planning to stay in. The pregnant woman really needs some more rest in a cool place and Tom is still seemingly adamant in his conviction that the villagers will soon return.

He won't stay this way very long anymore. While he is looking through the hotel for traces of people (after all, the call must have come from somewhere), Evie sees an old man with a cane walking down the street. When Tom goes to investigate he witnesses a girl running up and killing the man with his own cane. Afterwards the girl runs away. Tom, in shocked disbelief trying to spare his wife from the truth, hides the dead man in a barn. As soon as he has left the building, he hears strange noises from inside. He turns and looks inside, just to watch a group of "playing" with the dead man's corpse. Those dead people make great playthings for traditional Spanish games, I tell you.

Now Tom is starting to panic. All is well with Evie, she just needs some rest.

A little later, they meet a villager who was hiding himself for some time. He tells Tom what has happened. Two nights ago, all the village's children suddenly awoke, screaming and laughing. They divided up into small groups and went from house to house. In each house they visited, terrible screaming started.

Tom, Evie and the man plan to make a run for their boat, but before they can act, the villager's little daughter walks into the room. She tells her father that his wife and her grandmother have been terribly wounded by the "bad children" and begs him to go for their help. He knows very well the girl isn't saying the truth, yet she is his daughter, so what can he do but go with her? The last thing we hear of him is a scream and the laughter of children.


From here on out the film follows the same rules as the apocalyptic zombie movies that are so dear to me, just with children instead of zombies and a script that knows what kind of difference this make and is absolutely fearless to show it.

Who Can Kill A Child? is the type of horror film that could only be made in the Seventies. Films like the Children of the Corn movies look in comparison even more like the timid crap they are. Who'd have thought that making killing children a problem for the main characters would give a film about murderous children a higher impact? No American horror director, that's for sure.

The film isn't even all that bloody. Instead it goes for the greatest emotional impact of the violence that it does show, carried by very fine acting and a slowly building mood of dread, but also the unflinching gaze typical of the best horror films of the era, showing us the most terrible thing imaginable without copping out at the last moment. (This cop-out can take many forms, like hollywoodized sentimentality or the use of an overabundance of over the top gore that makes what is happening too unreal to have much impact.)

Director Narciso Ibanez Serrador shows an incredible sense for the telling detail that lets a seemingly normal place suddenly seem dangerous and just not right. Even better is the fact that he does this in a film that mostly takes place by day in some of the brightest light imaginable; far away from the tradition of the Gothic, painfully modern in its way.


Friday, September 26, 2008

The Nerd Test 2.0

NerdTests.com says I'm a Dorky Nerd God.  What are you?  Click here!


I am sooo proud.



In short: Dracula's Last Rites (1980)

The modern world creates many new problems for its inhabitants, problems earlier generations could hardly have comprehended.

Let's take a look at poor Mr. A. Lucard (Gerald Fielding) as an example. As a vampire, this century hasn't been good to him. A few hundred years earlier he and his fellow creatures of the night were the scourge of humanity, dreaded and feared by everyone; today, their survival depends on keeping their existence hidden and their deeds covered up.

The problems un-life brings about notwithstanding, Lucard has adapted to modern times quite well. His genius has lead him to a method for acquiring new victims that is as elegant in its simplicity as his pseudonym. What better life could there be for a modern vampire than life as owner of a funeral home in New Jersey? One only needs to get his minions in key positions like Sheriff, physician and ambulance driver and soon a nigh unstoppable flood of nearly dead victims will stream into one's arms. The doctor just needs to declare someone who is still alive dead, and everyone's next meal is secured.

It wouldn't be reasonable to let every victim rise as a new vampire again, of course, but a stake through the heart solves the problem nicely.

All goes well for Lucard and his vampire conspiracy, until they feed on the mother of Marie Fonda (Patricia Hammond). Would you believe that her husband Ted (Michael Lally) talks her into wanting her dead mother back from the funeral home, to hold the wake in her living room!? After Lucard has already bitten the old woman, but before he has been able to stake her!

There's not much that can be done, except for sending out a minion to break into the Fonda place and steal the corpse. But Ted turns out to be a very energetic man when confronted with a burglar, so the poor minion ends up staked on a white wooden fence.

Even worse, later that night Ted's mother in law awakens as a vampire and goes on the lam.

Lucard's problems suddenly start to mount. Besides a roaming grandmother, he also has to cope with Ted's nosiness that rapidly leads to knowledge of the facts of vampirism and some very badly behaved minions. And Ted is a natural born vampire hunter.


All this might sound rather silly, but Dracula's Last Rites is in fact one of the better examples of very low budget filmmaking. Acting and plotting are perfectly alright, the photography is even quite good, if someone would just have looked up and seen what I saw in many, many scenes: the point where set ends and studio wall begins. Still, the film achieves a few creepy scenes and moody shots. Which is a lot more than I usually hope for from a film like this.


In short: Colombian Connection aka The Hard Way (1987)

A Central American drug kingpin rules his part of the rain forest with the help of an impressive mercenary army, lead by Henry Silva.

A small American commando unit sneaks into the country to assassinate him, but the tables soon turn and the three men (including Miles O'Keeffe who for once does an adequate acting job due to the fact he hasn't got to do any acting) have to flee through the jungle.

Being tough-minded professionals, they soon decide to attack the enemy camp and accomplish their initial mission at any cost.

The Hard Way (directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini) is the non-silly Italian Eighties action film condensed to its essence. After the initial exposition there is barely anything else than lots and lots and lots of explosions, shoot-outs and brawls, spiced up with people running through the jungle, cheap synthie music and Henry Silva.

Personally, I prefer the less tight and lean and more idiotic type of Italian action films, but if you have your mind set on seeing a lot of explosions, you'll certainly have a fine time with this.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In short: Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

A stranger comes to the Old Western town of Nevada (at least that's what the subtitles tell us the Japanese town sign says). He is as Japanese as everyone around him, but do not be afraid, person too dumb to read sub-titles! He and everyone else (even the cameoing Quentin Tarantino) speaks English, sort of. Most of the time it's even comprehensible.

Nevada the town has a problem, well make that two problems, in form of two hostile clans, the Genji (aka "The Red") and the Heitei (aka "The White"), both graced with leaders madder than the proverbial hatter, both with an unhealthy love for color-coded Western/Mad Max chic. These groups are both on the lookout for a legendary gold treasure that is said to be hidden somewhere in the area.

But we all know what happens when a lone stranger rides into a town like this, so there's no need for me to tell you.


I don't know how Takashi Miike does this stuff, but he does. What should by all rights be a silly, badly tied together knot of clichés, played by actors who had to learn their dialogue phonetically, turns out to be one of Miike's best films.

Sukiyaki Western Django is as much a homage to the Italian Western as it is a loving parody (sometimes even critique) of its clichés and blind spots. It is one of the films that shows so much love for its chosen genre one has to have a heart of stone not to love the film back for it. Every element of the films of the two Sergios (Leone and Corbucci) is lovingly reproduced, sometimes to be twisted, sometimes to be broken and sometimes to be laughed at; often all three things at once. Amazingly, most of those elements suddenly feel new and vibrant again when they are used by someone from a very different culture than they initially came from. In this way, Miike does with the Italian Western what the Italian Western did with the American Western; looking at things from a perspective they haven't been looked at from in quite this way (the influence Chanbara and Italian Western had on each other notwithstanding).

Of course the film is also extremely silly and loose, while still keeping more coherence than Miike sometimes bothers with.

One of the most loveable aspects of Miike's work for me has always been his ability to be at once absurd, gruesome, silly, cliched and emotionally poignant; Sukiyaki Western Django is no exception.

Plus, there's lots of shooting, you know.


Santo Y Blue Demon Contra Los Monstruos (1969)

This is the sad and tragic story of the epic struggle between brothers; the tale of how their division touches the life of others, nearly ruining those poor victims in the process.

Or, you know, it could be the daft yet lovable tale of El Santo and Blue Demon fighting a bunch of monsters.

Otto Halder (Jorge Rado) was a classic mad scientist with the usual nefarious plans concerning dead bodies, other people's brains and world domination. Alas his - surely benevolent in the long run - plans were thwarted through the combined forces of his brother Bruno (Carlos Ancira), the Idol of the Masses El Santo (El Santo!) and his chipper little side-kick Blue Demon. Now Otto is quite dead. All this and more must have happened in the imaginary prequel to ...Contra Los Monstruos - unfortunately we don't get to hear many details. Be that as it may, Otto's story does not end with his death.

His assistant really wants his master back! I suppose life as a hunchbacked dwarf (and what a glorious combination that is!) isn't easy without a cackling madman around. So the good, ahem, fiendishly evil man grabs himself a bunch of his master's green-faced mind-controlled zombie slaves (!bonus monsters) and steals Otto's dead body, which he'll have revived faster than you can say "Igor".

But fret not! Blue Demon is on the case and soon breaks through the gate of the evil doers' castle ruin (which has an interior that looks very much like a bad cave set, but oh well) and...gets caught by the zombie brigade.

This is quite a happy coincidence for Otto, who can finally try out his newest invention, the  evil-doppelganger-o-matic 2000. It turns out the machine works perfectly and Blue Demon has reached another chapter in the disconcerting saga of his being mind controlled, copied or hypnotized to do evil things like hitting poor Santo.

The mad Doctor Halder is of course not a big fan of Santo's or his own brother and takes the first step in his campaign to kill the luchador and kidnap and mistreat his brother and niece.

The innocent victim is all the while occupied with the other Doctor Halder's daughter Gloria (Hedy Blue) who seems to be more than willing to try out a few kinky escapades with a masked man. A snogging cruise in Santo's swell cabriolet is suddenly interrupted by Evil Blue Demon and the zombie cohort. The following hoedown does not end too well for the forces of evil. Santo is still alive and well. Furthermore Gloria stays very much not kidnapped.

While Santo and the good Doctor Halder puzzle over the reason for Blue Demon's sudden attack (the Doctor proposes it to be a natural consequence of their rivalry in the ring - Freud would be so proud), the evil Doctor Halder sends his minions out to capture him some reinforcements. After some searching and a few minutes in his mind-control-o-mat, Halder's Army of Evil has grown to new size and quality through the addition of: a mummy (Hollywood variant), a bearded guy with silly teeth everybody just calls The Wolfman, Franquestain (who should be Franquestain's monster, but oh well), the cyclops we last saw in the epic "sexually irresistible Mexican singing cowboy versus aliens" flick La Nave De Los Monstruos (the big brained guy from that movie is also inexplicably and unexplained part of this masterpiece, just standing around in the lab, obviously the brains of the operation; !bonus monster number two) and last but certainly not least the Vampire, a skinny dude with bat ears, usually wearing a cylinder that miraculously disappears from shot to shot, who'll mostly proceed to hang on walls and be unable to catch Gloria for the rest of the movie, as much as he will run around with opened cape or jump like the kangaroo version of a Chinese hopping vampire (I heard revered horror icon Christopher "Dracula" Lee wasn't amused).

This army of evil now starts to attack random people in the countryside, until Santo's masterly detective work (don't ask) leads him to a lagoon and a little punch-out with the Cyclops (from the Blue Lagoon), ending with Santo's famed finishing move, the stake-through-chest rumble. The Cyclops escapes anyway and survives thanks to his master's surgical talents.

A little later the monster army attacks the good Halder's mansion. Santo is able to defeat the whole bunch who also fails in kidnapping Gloria again, thanks to a cross-shaped gravestone that just stands there in the mansion's garden. Revered horror icon Christopher Lee again does not approve.

Besides fighting evil, Santo has of course another job to do. There is a new wrestling sensation in town who challenges Santo to a match. His name is El Vampiro. Might this be a cunning plan of Santo's enemies? I can't blame Santo for falling for the trick - the Vampire's wrestling double doesn't look at all like the spindly guy whose playing the silly bugger the rest of the time.

When it looks like Santo would get a few very unattractive new puncture marks, Gloria's deus ex machina necklace with crucifix medallion comes to the rescue. Revered horror icon Christopher Lee doesn't even know what to say anymore.

The Vampire has brought his monster friends, though, and we are treated to a too short moment of the other attending wrestlers jumping into the ring and helping Santo out.

The monsters escape again, but Santo and potential kidnap victim number one are still alive and well.

In his copious free time, the vampire has created two attractive female vampires. The next evening (if evening is a time when the sun is standing as high as if it were noon, but everyone says "good evening") one of them waits for Santo in his swank car. He does not look very surprised, and why should he? Things like that happen to him every day, and he knows exactly what to do - drive the half naked woman into the next patch of wood and proceed to kiss her maskedly. Gloria certainly won't mind. Queue the next monster attack that again ends with a very much alive Santo. Revered horror icon Christopher Lee for his part has left the building.

We have now reached the point where some readers may ask themselves if this will never stop. Don't be afraid! There is just one more scene of Santo, Gloria, and her father staring blankly at hilariously bad fitting stock footage of a painful dance number, another monster attack in which the monsters finally manage to abduct Gloria and her father and then the glorious finale. Santo has cunningly managed to attach a tracker to Franquestain's jacket, and while Doctor Halder rants evilly at Gloria and his brother, our hero defeats Evil Blue Demon in a decisive beat-down and revives the real Blue Demon.

Together, the two punch back the monster army, set the castle on fire and walk into the sunset with the rescued Halder family.

Santo Y Blue Demon Contra Los Monstruos is the kind of film that nearly defies belief. It was obviously made by a bunch of cackling twelve year old mad-men that just didn't care about stupid things like facts. I'm speaking of the fact that they really, absolutely didn't have the budget for even a single good monster costume. Or the fact that their budget wasn't high enough for sets or locations that weren't some of the ugliest I have seen in a film. Or the fact that their movie's script lets the films of my personal nemesis of boredom where none should exist, Paul Naschy, look like art (and positively intelligent).

And you know what? They were right about ignoring these facts (and logic...and good taste...and my ability to know the difference between day and night)! There is not much in this world that beats the combination of stupidity and inappropriate enthusiasm ...Contra Los Monstruos just bombards you with every single moment of its running time. I was giggling like a loon while watching it, screaming things like "You can't do that! That's absolutely idiotic!" at the screen (and here I am wondering why I suffer from Insomnia), feeling like the stupid kid I never really was again. It was glorious.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In short: Deaf Mute Heroine (1971)

This is the second film directed by Hong Kong all-round talent Wu Ma (he acts! he directs! he sings! he choreographs action sequences! he writes!). It's a low-budget high-intensity wuxia about the titular Deaf Mute Heroine (played with grim determination by Helen Ma) whose hobby is to kill off the local bandit population and steal their ill-gotten gains.

When she kills Shirley Wong's brother, the bandit leader, gambling house boss and poison expert swears vengeance.

The Heroine survives the first of Wong's traps, but is wounded by a poisoned throwing dart. A simple dyer finds her and nurses her back to health. Of course, they fall in love. But when he can't borrow enough money for their wedding (and is too stupid to even tell his future wife about the problem), he lets himself get talked into some very ill-advised things by a colleague, leading his fiancé into another trap.

Deaf Mute Heroine is a film with an undeserved life as an obscurity that's hard to find in any form at all; even more difficult in a watchable form. It's worth every hoop you have to jump through to see it, though. Its production values may lie somewhere below the cost of a sandwich, but it makes up for what it lacks in well-built sets and costly props with a roughness and energy that's quite exhilarating. Nowhere is this more clear than in the fight scenes. Sure, I have seen much prettier choreography, but the rawness these scenes have fits the surprising amount of spurting blood and the basic brutality of the fights perfectly. Wu Ma certainly didn't lack ideas how to make the violence more interesting. The neat moments begin with our heroine being blinded by the sun reflected on enemy shields and instead using her foe's shadow to fight him and end with some creatively absurd sword jump moves in the grand finale.

Aesthetically the film has a grimy and dirty look that works well with Wu Ma's heavy use of handheld camera, zooms and every other technique mainstream film critics hate; all this makes for a very energetic film.

The acting doesn't let the viewer down either. Especially Helen Ma and Shirley Wong give their not very thoroughly developed roles depth through sheer presence. Not a small feat when you keep in mind that Ma doesn't even have any dialogue. Even the cliched love story works well and seems to be based on a natural attraction between two people who aren't used to be treated well by others.


In short: Kakashi (2001)

Kaoru's (Maho Nonami) brother Tsuyoshi has disappeared. Having no living relatives anymore the young woman and her brother are especially close to one another, so his leaving without any explanation is very disturbing for her. The only clue to his whereabouts is a letter that Kaoru finds in his apartment. It is from Izumi, who once was Kaoru's best friend and unhappily in love with Tsuyoshi. In it Izumi begs him to come to the village she is now living in.

Of course Kaoru drives to the village that can only be reached through a long dark tunnel (might it be a metaphor!?). Just a few feet before the tunnel ends, her car breaks down, so she has to make her way on foot, past an unhelpful worker loading scarecrows (kakashis) on a truck and a weird older lady who treats a small kakashi as if it were a baby. The other villagers she meets project disapproval like the mean old maths teacher of my nightmares.

Her welcome upon arrival at Izumi's parents' house isn't much of an improvement. Izumi's mother seems to blame Kaori for something, while the father is a little more friendly, but wants to get rid of Kaori as soon as possible.

They tell her that her brother hasn't been there anyway and Izumi is being treated in a clinic close by.

The father is at least willing to let Kaoru spend a night in the house, so she can leave the village in a hopefully fixed car the next day.

By night, Kaoru has a strange dream about Izumi, her brother and kakashis; if it wasn't more than just a dream.

Everything seems to point to the kakashi festival that will take place in two days time as something more sinister than just a rural ritual.


Kakashi is a fine little movie based on a manga by the great Junji Ito that hasn't been translated (not even scanslated) into English yet, so I can't say anything about its quality as an adaptation.

Its quality standing on its own on the other hand is something tastes will be divided about. If you are looking for a typical scarecrow revenge horror flick (there are enough films in this vein to build a sub-genre of their own, I think), you have come to the wrong movie. In fact, the living and walking scarecrows are the weak point of the film. They are mostly looking rather ridiculous and are used in a quite lackluster fashion.

Fortunately, Kakashi belongs to the type of psychological horror in which the supernatural is a way to talk more clearly about a theme, in this case the complex structure guilt, love and death can build in the mind of the surviving. The film does this very effective and evades easy answers, instead aiming for the ambiguities of emotion most of us can relate to.


Monday, September 22, 2008

In short: The Killing of Satan (1983)

Satan (Charlie Davao). You've probably heard of the guy. What you haven't heard about him, you'll learn from this Filipino movie. Namely, that he's quite a good looking fellow in his black suit, which makes a nice contrast to his red skin, his wee little hornies and his trident. Still, he can't find a bride. Fortunately, he has a servant, the Prince of Magic, who is, when he is not interrupting the sado-masochistic variant of Christianity we have heard so much about and bullying people, on the look-out for fresh brides.

The younger those turn out to be, the better. Virginity is of course a given. Their newest victim is young enough to lead to the uncomfortable question: Is Satan a pederast?

Well, we'll never get the answer to that one in this film, because the girl's father, a denim jacket clad, mustachioed MAN called Lando (Ramon Revilla), is going to kick Satan's ass. After he has stumbled through an endless cave system, fought snakes that turn into naked people & naked girls that turn into animals, met God (best guest star ever), multiplied himself to beat the equally multiplied Prince of Magic and has shot a lot of scribbled-in energy blasts from his elbow and The Mighty Staff of Blasting +10 God gave to him, that is.

Unfortunately The Killing of Satan isn't as awesome as I make it sound here. Its insanity factor is kept lower than one would like by a relatively sane and sedate first half that provides just enough moments of WTF to keep one awake for the much more entertaining second half.

But you won't hear me complaining too loudly about a film guest starring God, no Sir! I don't want Him to send Lando to smite me.


In short: Indio (1989)

A typically evil big money corporation is just dying to build a road through the rainforest. If there's a village in the way, it's getting wiped out. If the villagers are making trouble, they are wiped out, too.

The man who's doing the dirty work is ex-marine Colonel Whytaker (Brian Dennehy, making his role a little more human than expected).

His life isn't going to get easier when Daniel Morell (Francesco Quinn, ideally equipped for a role like this that only requires action and determined stares), the son of an American and a local chief returns home from his stint at the marines. The corrupt authorities can't dissuade him from seeking justice for his people. When his father is crushed by an excavator, he starts his own little guerilla war against Whytaker and his men. Soon exploding coconuts are flying and helicopters are hit by tree catapults. Whatever Whytaker tries to stop Daniel doesn't work, not even flying the young man's old Sergeant Jake (Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Yes, that's his name. I am sorry to inform you that his name is the only marvelous thing he has.) in to have a little talk with his student.

If nothing else, this is another proof that Antonio Margheriti was even very late in his career still able to make an entertaining film out of next to nothing.

I doubt that Margheriti had much more money to spend on it than Tonino Ricci had when making Raiders of the Magic Ivory; Indio still looks so much better that Raiders feels even more like the (surprisingly funny) joke it is.

The difference here is Margheriti's talent to let things look a lot more interesting than they have any right to be. Even the silliest moments almost magically work, there is no filler to be found and the action is inventive enough to satisfy. Even the acting is mostly alright (in Dennehy's case even a lot better than alright), with the exception of Hagler who has never met a line he couldn't butcher.

And come on, there are exploding coconuts.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

In short: Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959)

A group of scientists (at first I took them to be archaeologists, but later developments show them to be of the fabulous two-fisted all-round scientist persuasion I highly approve of) explores some Mayan ruins to finally answer the question why the Mayans one day just up and left their cities to settle in a far away region.

After some rumblings of the local volcano open a hole in the wall of a ruin, they discover a hidden temple to the terrible god Caltiki and the answer to their question. Caltiki was a very real being, a gigantic monocellular organism with a healthy appetite for just about everything. When a radioactive comet came close to Earth, it turned out that Caltiki thrived on radioactivity and reacted with nigh unstoppable growth. Hence the Mayans' flight. But Caltiki is still very much alive.

Fortunately for the expedition, their leader Dr. John Fielding (John Merrivale) is a man of action who knows what to do with a giant monster and truck full of gasoline.

Less fortunate is the fact that the expedition takes a piece of Caltiki with them. And wouldn't you know, the radioactive comet is coming around again soon...


Most of the things I read about Caltiki let me expect this to be a typical middling Fifties monster movie, with the direction of Riccardo Freda and photography, effects and parts of the direction by Mario Bava as its only interesting features.

After having seen it in all its glory, I declare Caltiki to be one of the best monster movies of the Fifties. Sure, it has the usual silly science and standard plot points, but presents everything with a lot of verve and tempo. It helps a lot that the b-plot isn't the usual unromantic romance but the story of one of the expedition's survivors going mad and complicating the work of our heroes. It's a nice way to keep the level of interest up.

The special effects are cheap but fine. Caltiki (of the formless, pulsating mass variety) is a great monster and to my mind even a little Lovecraftian in type as a creature that just grows and grows and eats, while it never acts or thinks or plans still destroying everything that surrounds it through its mere presence.

Finally the film just looks gorgeous. Freda and Bava provide mood-building framing, great looking sets, a surprising amount of gore and every lighting trick known in black and white pictures, all the while keeping the movie dynamic; the last point being something that is often painfully absent from monster films of the era.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Sword (1980)

This is going to get a wee bit complicated. A swordsman called Li Mak-Yin (Adam Cheng) is looking for a man named Wah (or Fa, in any case played by Feng Tien) who is supposed to be the greatest swordsman of the age. Li Mak-Yin has the ambition to claim that title for himself. Finding Wah isn't easy, though, because the man has retired and hides away from the masses of minor swordsmen that want to fight him to prove their worth.

After searching for ten years, Li Mak-Yin finally finds the older swordsman's trail. A trader in information sells him a map to Wah's supposed home. Unfortunately it turns out to be lying in ruin. Only another searcher for Wah dwells there. He is quite mad and attacks Li Mak-Yin, whom he thinks to be Wah. After a short but intense fight, the mad man's head flies into the sunset. Our designated hero decides to rest in the empty ruins.

In the middle of the night a young woman (Jade Hsu) suddenly jumps through his window and into his bed. As this is something that happens to wuxia heroes regularly, his reaction is quite blasé. So blasé as to irritate the young lady enough to jump annoyed out of the room. She prefers dealing with the guy she's trying to escape from to the sudden smell of male smugness her would-be rescuer exudes. My, my, is she falling in love with him?

Li can't let the whole affair just jump away and follows the fleeing girl and her enemy, until he finally wounds the man and drives him away.

Alas, the woman does not show much gratitude and storms away. As luck will have it (a phrase you'll hear quite a bit in the following), both seem to be heading in the same direction and soon a heavy rainfall forces them to seek shelter in the same place. After a few shenanigans with food and drink, the two befriend each other and decide to make their way to the next town together.

When they come upon an inn, Li suddenly starts to act very distant. As luck will have it, a woman who arrives at the exact same moment as the two is Yin Siu-Hyu (Qiqi Chen), the love of his youth whom he left to pursue the elusive Wah.

Their meeting is full of repressed emotions and dutiful recognition of their social responsibilities. Nonetheless another window jumper suddenly attacks Li only to be called back by Yin Siu-Hyu's arriving husband Lin Wan (Norman Chu). He seems to be a nice enough fellow; a little too fearful for his wife's security perhaps. Li finds the situation kind of awkward anyway and excuses himself as fast as possible only to find that his other girlfriend has run off in a fit of jealousy.

While he follows her, we learn that Lin Wan isn't as nice as we thought. When his wife defends Li a little too eagerly for his taste, he hits her. As luck will have it, Lin Wan is also looking for Wah and does not like competition. So he sends his main henchman out to kill Li, while he himself takes care of the information trader.

Being a designated hero, Li is not that easy to kill. The fight ends inconclusive, with Li seriously hurt.

Fortunately a woman named Yeun Kai (Chau Wa Ngai) finds him and tends to his wounds. When he is well again, his rescuer receives a letter concerning an old friend of hers, a master swordsman whose enemies have kidnapped his daughter to press him into dueling them. Yeun Kai asks Li to rescue said daughter, something he does gladly when he reads that her father's name is (as luck will have it) Wah. His host even gives him a sword Wan once gave to her, although without knowing that it is an evil sword that will bring only suffering to the one who wields it (and obviously the ones hit by it).

Li is able to rescue Wah's daughter. She is, as luck will have it, the same girl he befriended before. She gladly takes him to her father who is very grateful for Li's deed. Grateful enough to grant the younger man his wish for a duel (which pisses off Ying-Chi royally).

Since we are still far from the end of the movie, Li wins the duel while wounding Wah only slightly.

Li is quite dissatisfied with the way things turned out. It's not as fulfilling to be the best than he always thought it would be. Well, he shouldn't fret, the film has a few more bad surprises for him, starting with Lin killing the recuperating Wah by deepening the wound he already received from Lin, so that Ying-Chi swears vengeance on Li while Lin steals what he really wanted - not fame for the killing of Wah, but the man's  sword; and, now that he really thinks about it, Li's sword would be nice, too.

How will Li escape these cunning plans? How many of the three women will survive the final reel? Will there be more destined twists of fate?

As you can see, The Sword's plot is quite complicated even for a wuxia and relies even more heavily on luck  than many masalas. That's not a big problem when one is able to accept the concept of fate or destiny as the base of the film's intellectual and especially moral world, as one just accepts faster than light travel in a space opera.

More problematic is that the film feels like a very uneasy marriage of different styles that director Patrick Tam can't fuse well enough to form a film that's a complete artistic success. Firstly we have a stiffened variation of classic wuxia melodrama that's just a little bit more slow-going than those elements usually are - unfortunately this "little bit" is the important bit that drags the film down and makes it feel a lot longer than the lean 85 minutes it really is.

Secondly we have a few moments of much more real (in an art house sense) human emotions, two of them bound to short bursts of violence that aren't as bloody but much more shocking than a decapitation. In themselves, these are highly successful scenes, but they don't fit into the same world as the action sequences or the melodrama.

Thirdly there is a handful of great to brilliant action scenes directed by Ching Siu-Tung, that are - except for the final fight - not as over the top as some of his later directorial works, but are reason enough to slog even through the most dishonest of melodramatic scenes. The use of the color red in the last few scenes is especially striking and in a few minutes does a lot more to connect the melodrama to the fighting than the rest of the film did in an hour.

A reason for the strange schizophrenia The Sword shows could be the awkward historical place it takes. In 1980, the traditional swordplay film was more or less dead (if you ignore the works of Chor Yuen, who either didn't or wouldn't care), first replaced by the kung fu film, then by the new wave of kung fu; it would take a few years more until people like Ching Siu-Tung and Tsui Hark would renew the genre (in a way unthinkable without the films of Chor Yuen, but that's really another story). I take films like this or Hark's artistically more successful Butterfly Murders as first steps on the way to the new wuxia. Unfortunately, first steps aren't always satisfying.

Further complicating the matter is the future career path of Patrick Tam which soon lead him to much more art house oriented films that agreed a lot more with his sensibilities.

All in all, The Sword isn't the kind of film I'd recommend to people who haven't watched a lot of wuxia movies, but for those of us who have, it's an interesting object of study with the added bonus of a handful of brilliant scenes.


In short: Wiedzmin aka The Hexer (2001)

The Hexer is a fix-up of a Polish TV show that adapts some of Andrzej Sapkowski's stories and novels about the witcher (as the English translations of the books and the videogame call it now) Geralt of Rivia (played by Michal Zebrowski). Sapkowski's books are modern Sword & Sorcery, in part quite cynical, but also very much possessed of a dry humor I'd call typical Eastern European.

Unfortunately the film doesn't keep much of this humor, but it's not often that one gets to see much Sword & Sorcery on the screen at all, especially the non-terrible version of the genre, so the exclusion of this aspect of the books isn't as bad as it may sound.

Witchers are magic-using fighters who work as monster hunters, though it's part of their codex to kill only creatures out to harm people. Nonetheless we will see Geralt not using a lot of magic, nor killing many monsters. After I had seen some of the monsters that do appear on screen, I wasn't surprised about that anymore - the effects are either bad CGI or equally dubious physical effects, very incongruous with the dark and earnest tone the film strives for.

The fights against human enemies are pretty fine, although there is a lot more talking than fighting in the film. Surprisingly enough, that's not an issue for me. Geralt's world has a more medieval slant than we are used to in much fantasy, while still being clearly fantastic, and it's quite a joy to see more of it than just the fighting.

More troubling is the way the episodes of the TV show are cut together to build a film - there are obviously some very important scenes and exposition missing. At least the movie draws heavily on one of the already translated books, so it wasn't difficult for me to understand what was missing. Other viewer's mileage will of course vary.

Also, don't expect lavish sets or costumes. Polish TV budgets aren't all that high and it shows. Fortunately a lot of what we see is shot on location in some very beautiful landscapes and some very authentic ruins, so there's enough visual splendor for the patient.

All this doesn't let the movie sound all that good I suppose. In truth, I enjoyed the film thoroughly as it uses slightly different traditions and - more importantly - slightly different ways to look at these traditions and is not ashamed to be not like its Hollywood brethren.


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In short: The Guard From Underground (1992)

I don't think art expert Akiko Narushima (Makiko Kuno) has pictured her new job in an only slightly older department of a Japanese firm this way: her boss Kurume (Ren Osugi, once more supporting my theory that he is in every single Japanese movie made in the last twenty years) is a leering creep and ineffective sexual harasser, the rest of her colleagues has not the slightest clue about art (which could be a problem in the art trade, I think), the Human Resources manager Hyodo (Hatsunori Hasegawa) is by turns weird and asleep. But the brand new security guard Fujimaru (Yutaka Matsushige) soon turns out to be even more strange than everyone else. At first, the giant only kills people his colleague in the security office has problems with, but he soon develops a slight fixation on Akiko and a very strong dislike for everyone else.

One night, he and his trusty iron pole begin to lower their employer's overtime costs.

The Guard From Underground is part of the early phase of its director's Kiyoshi Kurosawa's career. As such it is quite different from, although not a lot more commercial than, his later works. We can already see the beginning of the framing techniques that became so important for Kurosawa's films later on, as well as his interest in/obsession with alienation in modern (Japanese) society and the life of incurably sad people. The plot may belong to much more of a thriller than we are used to in Kurosawa films, yet the way the film is told seems quite disinterested in it being thrilling.

Much of the film is carried by the strange, surrealist (or is it just non-realist?) kind of humor you may remember from Doppelganger or even Charisma, while never really leading into the disturbing or near-incomprehensible areas those films touched. That of course is Guard's problem - it is already too far away from the standard horror film its script wants it to be and has at the same time not arrived at the crossing of genre and art house its director's later films inhabit better than just anybody else's.

Still, Guard is a kind of treasure trove for Kurosawa nerds like me, as long as one doesn't expect it to be a masterpiece or a very effective thriller.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Music friends of taste need to hear this

An absolutely incredible recording of a Robert Forster gig two days ago in New York.

Go there at once to find the download link!

Honestly, it's an absolutely brilliant show that makes me miss the Go-Betweens a little less.


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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Raiders of the Magic Ivory (1989)

Vietnam-vets-turned-mercenaries Sugar (James Mitchum, looking in his paunch-fitting fishing vest like the typical shotgun-wielding tourist) and Mark (Chris Ahrens, looking so unremarkable that I couldn't tell you how he looks five minutes after watching the film) are hired by a certain Li Cheng to retrieve an ivory tablet (that won't look like ivory, but rather like plastic it is) from a temple (or, as we call it, cave) in a part of the jungle on the Vietnamese-Cambodian jungle. I don't think it's cause for alarm that it's called "The Hell From Which No One Returns". But the mission is a little more difficult than expected. Firstly, there is the local military who don't like heavily armed Americans in their jungle, but have never heard much about the concept of "taking cover", so that works out just fine for our heroes. Secondly, there is the group of black magician monks and their white-bearded leader guarding the tablet. These guys not only look swell in their sacks and the white painted Halloween gorilla masks, they are also slightly more difficult to kill thanks to their tendency to get up again...and again...and again...and again. White-beard also has some tricks up his sleeve, like waving his arms menacingly, teleporting to safety and superimposing flying Halloween devil masks on the picture that...do nothing (or to quote our heroes: "Some kind of bullshit man, come on." - "Yeah.").

But even when Sugar and Mark have reached their goal, there might be a little surprise waiting for them. Is someone here who likes to bet if Li Cheng betrays them to use the ivory tablet to RULE THE WORLD?

First things first: Raiders of the Magic Ivory is a pretty bad movie. It also is a damn entertaining one. It's what happens when you give a filmmaker like Tonino Ricci fivethousand dollar, fly him (not first class, of course) and the handful of people this sum can buy out into a jungle somewhere and wait what he'll do. After cursing quite a bit, he'll grab a scrip out of Dardano Sacchetti's trash (no, I don't know why Sacchetti's trash lies around in the jungle; just roll with me here), add a "hell", "shit" or "bastard" to every line of dialogue and just film the damn thing. Fortunately for us, everyone else will be very amused by Ricci's moment of cursing ecstasy and try to do him one better by trotting through the film with facial expressions that tell us that even James Mitchum can find things that are way too silly to not move a muscle.

One would think that a few stupidly silly ideas, lots of green, a few firefights mostly consisting of faceless and nameless henchmen lining up to be shot, bemused acting and lots and lots of curses aren't enough to keep one awake for ninety minutes. One would be underestimating the entertainment value of real undiluted Z-filmmaking quite a lot.

And just wait for the moment when James "Sugar" Mitchum is declared "Sacred Keeper of the Celestial Peace"! I mean, it's not completely wrong. It will be very peaceful after he has killed everyone, but what's with the cursing?


Monday, September 15, 2008

In short: Ram Shastra (1995)

The brothers Donga are the scourge of an unnamed Indian city. Well, Satpal (Mukesh Rishi) and Donga the Great (Anupam Kher) are. Their youngest brother still has to be properly initiated into the world of senseless killing. His great day is to be the killing of the only honest police commissioner alive (Dara Singh). The assassination attempt (with biggest brother and a whole entourage of henchmen) goes well, until an innocent bystander (Jackie Shroff) grabs himself a gun and starts decimating the evildoers, killing the youngest Donga brother. The man's name is Ram Sinha, a pennyless orphan of 38 years in search of a job. The commissioner is filled with enthusiasm for the youth's (at least the DVD back cover calls him that) spine, calls him his son and gives him a police job.

Trying to murder a police man is not a very serious crime in India, so the Great Donga is only sentenced to five years of prison. He swears to wait and then kill Ram Sinha like the dog he is. Puppy-hater!

Ram is one of those untouchable super cops who are all swagger and breach of law. What are these "rights" you speak of?

But all will change when the Great Donga's time is up and his fiendish revenge scheme starts.

Oh Ram Shastra why must you tease me so!? You start out with the interesting family rites of the brothers Donga, continue with a fine shoot-out and completely endear yourself to me with the first appearance of Ram Sinha in his new job. Our hero enters a gangster bar, thrashes a few gangster and furniture, gets invited to a drink, drinks, but does not swallow, instead uses his lighter to spit flames at a poor victim, thrashes some more furniture, steals someone's leg prothesis (used as a drug depot, of course), meets the love of his life (Manisha Koirala), does the silly special effect dance, then first dates & kisses & becomes father in a single musical number and then...very little happens in the following hour. The sense of fun leaves the film forever and is replaced by a deadly combination of Jagdeep and Johnny Lever, mostly boring musical numbers and really not very exciting drama.

The final half hour at least is somewhat entertaining again, in a cheap but effective action film kind of way (even with child throwing!), it's just very difficult to get excited again for a film that tried to bore one to tears.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Daddy, Daddy! Are Italian comics

just as batshit insane as Italian movies?"

"Of course they are, little darling."


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Jungle Raiders (1985)

Malaysia, 1938. Duke Howard (Christopher Connelly) also known under the delightful moniker of Captain Yankee pays is bills by conning Western millionaires into financing not all that dangerous adventurous expeditions full of events Disney World would be proud of. As the Captain sees it, nobody gets hurt: the rich have the adventures of their lives and himself, his friend Gin Fizz (Luciano Pigozzi; a better alcoholic Scot than that Connery guy could ever dream of) and a local tribe that plays the evil howling natives for them make a nice living. Alas wonderful arrangements like that don't last forever. Just back, he helps a woman called Maria Janez (Marina Costa) escape a handful of crooks that tries to kidnap her (queue fruit cart and cardboard box destroying car chase here), only to be brushed off when she hears his name. He doesn't know yet that she is a) the woman of his dreams and b) working for a museum in search of the mythical Ruby of Gloom. He also doesn't know that she is the person his friend Warren (Lee van Cleef) has just blackmailed him into playing the guide for in a real adventure.

How adventurous, you ask? Well, there are a few other groups interested in the Ruby - the usual types, like the hidden guardians every artifact must have and the Borneo Pirates under their leader Tiger, who plans on using the Ruby to help him get crowned as king of Malaysia (nope, I don't know why he needs the ruby for that) and who has bought the help of the local weapon smuggler Da Silva and a group of quite unimpressive mercenaries. I see lots of explosions in Captain Yankee's future.

Antonio Margheriti has a big place in my personal pantheon of Italian B-movie directors. A film like this doesn't make this place smaller. In part an Indiana Jones rip-off, a comedy that has a lot of fun with some genre clichés and a series of explosions (yeah, the Ruby is buried under a volcano), Jungle Raiders certainly is a lot of fun. The actors seem to be having a lot of fun, the tone stays mostly on the light side and the humor is (to my great surprise) actually funny. Margheriti's usage of genre standards is actually a lot more interesting than what the gentlemen Spielberg and Lucas did; especially when some of the racist underpinnings the Indiana Jones films just repeat are nicely deconstructed.

This being an Italian action movie, there are of course moments of pure idiotic genius, most of them backloaded into the last third of the movie. Personal favorites here are the caterpillar/tank with flamethrower approved embrasures and Lassie the cobra who gives Wonder Dog Moti a run for his money (and gets to slither into the sunset with a lady cobra, oh yes!).

And the best thing? This isn't even Margheriti's best adventure movie.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dead Waves (2005)

Utsui is a director working on segments for a TV show that shows paranormal phenomena in as sensational a way as possible. Utsui himself is rather sceptic concerning his work. He doesn't believe in the ghosts the people he meets are supposed to be possessed by. Instead he is convinced that his "victims" are mostly severely mentally ill. He learned something about mental illness himself when his girlfriend started to suffer under a clinical depression. A week after the clinic she stayed in released her as stable, she committed suicide, right in front of Utsui, whose last words to her were something in the manner of "We talk later, gotta work".

Since then his work has started to trouble him - isn't he responsible for using ill people to further his career?

His newest project doesn't help his conscience at all. The brother of a young woman called Runa claims his sister to be possessed by ghosts and agrees to letting Utsui and his crew performing and filming an exorcism on her. Utsui doesn't believe the story about the ghosts. Runa's behavior reminds him too much of his dead girlfriend and he is sure the woman is heavily depressive. So everything is set up for a nice way to redemption for the director. There is just the small problem that there really is something supernatural going on around Runa.

What is it Utsui's sound technician met in the siblings' house? Has the mould that starts to grow on Utsui's wall and also on Utsui's hand something to do with it? Shouldn't someone try to stop the transmission of Runa's show segment before something terrible happens?


Dead Waves is a film that is a lot better than I suspected when I first heard about it. Its script may take some elements from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo and the British TV production Deathwatch, but what it does with them is independent enough from its predecessors to be interesting. I found the way Utsui's feelings of guilt push him in exactly the wrong direction concerning Runa surprisingly well set up. It's just a shame that not one of the actors is good enough to use the full potential the script shows. Mostly, there are a lot of vacant looks and bored looking performances.

Director and script writer Yoichiro Hayama does his best to adapt to the non-style of his actors. The first forty minutes of Dead Waves consist of the kind of static shots someone like Hideo Nakata can imbue with meaning and a brooding sense of doom, but that often just feel boring in lesser hands like Hayama's. Luckily, the last half hour of the film suddenly gets a lot more dynamic and interesting, as if someone behind the camera had decided to awaken from a deep sleep.

For all its flaws Dead Waves is still a watchable movie that starts to develop some original ideas of its own.


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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ghutan (2007)

Two young, samey looking men are entering an old, dilapidated graveyard by night. They carry a coffin and the body of a woman with a badly cut face who soon opens her eyes to protest being buried with them. It seems her captors - one of whom is her husband -thought her to be dead. The logical course of action is to just bury her alive. Of course. Even though she begs to be first killed and then buried, the two mean bastards (a word the subtitles charmingly translate as "scoundrel") proceed to nail her coffin shut, bury it in a very shallow grave and put a heavy paper cross on top.

When he returns home, the husband is in a self-pitying mood. I nearly cried my heart out for the jerk, I tell you. He starts to reminisce about his road to becoming a killer. It was only yesterday...

Ravi Kapoor (Aryan Vaid) is one heck of a guy: he married Catherine (Heena Tasleem - absolutely brilliant in her overacting ways) for her money and probably a little bit of sex, and now that they are man and wife he spends his time as the manager of Catherine's fashion business. That is to say when he is not cavorting around at parties, womanizing, spending his wife's money or wasting his time with his jerky friends. The worst of them is Jaggi (Tarun Arora). He and Ravi are inseperable. They even share Ravi's "personal secretary". And wouldn't you know? Ravi really needs a new one, the last one has gotten herself pregnant, and it's all Jaggi's fault (queue jackassy male laughter here). Jaggi, as Ravi's best friend and personal pimp has already found a suitable candidate for the position in Priya (Pooja Bharti). On her first working day she has to accompany Ravi to an important business meeting (also known as a "party"). To Ravi's friends' puzzlement his drunken groping doesn't go over to well with his secretary, who is of the outlandish opinion he should rather be groping his wife.

Speaking of Catherine, while Ravi is having fun, she drowns her pain in wildly melodramatic piano playing (with picturesquely wind-touched hair) and alcohol. Yes, her husband's charming ways have driven her to the bottle and even her loyal servant Nancy can't keep her away from it.

When Catherine cannot cope any longer, she makes a drunken call to her loving spouse. She threatens to kill herself if he doesn't come home right now. He tells her where he put the sleeping pills. Marriage is a wonderful thing. Confronted with so much warmth and love, Catherine flees to the only person she still trusts: her catholic priest. She couldn't have asked for a better person to help out with her marriage troubles than a man who has sworn never to marry or have sex, of course. The Father's advice is as helpful as was to be expected. Catherine just has to stay calm. Ravi will come around some day. In her saddened state of mind, the poor woman translates this as: "dress up in your best negligee and seduce your own husband".

The latter part turns out to be far easier said than done when one's husband only loves one's money and himself, so their nightly meeting culminates in another family discussion. He calls her a bitch (in subtitlespeak "idiot"), she calls him a bastard (still "scoundrel"). When she calls him impotent, Ravi hits her. Of course, she explains (winning me over completely), this only proves his impotence.

The next day at the company doesn't go too well for Ravi, either. Catherine has cut off his money supply, so it could get a little difficult for him to pay the bills.

Fortunately, dear Jago Jaggi is there to help. He probably has a plan, I'm just not too sure what it is. The jerk of jerks seems to be trying to get Catherine as drunk as possible to 1) leer at her and grope a little 2) get her to pay Ravi's bills. The leering part goes swell, but right at the moment when she is crying her heart out and he is starting to take advantage of her state, Ravi enters and gets really, really angry with both of them. After he has punched Jaggi and driven him to flight, he starts arguing with Catherine. The argument gets physical and a husbandly throw leads to Catherine's near death. Jaggi returns soon enough and together they get on their way to the already described graveyard scene, not before threatening to kill Nancy, who has witnessed some of the niceties, if she tells anybody what Ravi has done. If asked, she is to explain that Catherine has left her husband and has fled to her uncle Tom (yeah, I know) in Goa.

Later, back in Catherine's coffin, she manages to punch a hole into her cage and crawl back to the surface in a very effective scene. Obviously her way leads her directly to her priest, whom she begs for help. He declines. Being a catholic priest he is of course an intensely skilled expert in the supernatural and has at once recognized Catherine as what she is now - not the living body, but Catherine's soul that is not rising up to Heaven thanks to her terrible death. Her body is still inside the coffin! He further warns her against reuniting with her body, which would be a sinful thing to do and turn her "into an Evil. A LIVING DEAD!". The still rightly pissed Catherine doesn't mind becoming one of the Living Dead as long as this means vengeance on her murderous hubby.

From now on, undead Catherine is going to devote all of her considerable power and her growing mad hatred to make Ravi's life a living hell, as suffocating as her death has been.

There's not much the Living Dead can't do, it seems, starting with evil cackling and diabolical screaming, looking a little like grown-up possessed Linda Blair, and absolutely not ending with some fine poltergeist style redecoration.

Until the film is over, Catherine also treats us to dead priests (as if the bastard, um, I meant scoundrel didn't ask for it), fun at a seance, possession, a flying and exploding bed, more melodramatic piano playing, many eye colors and quite a bit of flying (are we in Hong Kong now, Dorothy?).

We will also meet uncle Tom and the weirdest non-comedic relief police inspector Bollywood's and are witness to Ravi's interesting way of reassuring Priya by telling her that she is the victim of a misconception. He didn't kill his wife, no. She was still alive when they got to the graveyard, he just buried her alive. Yeah, that should work out fine.


After spending some time with his brother on doing a cable TV show called "The Zee Horror Show", one half of the terrific (or was that infamous?) Ramsay Brothers, Shyam Ramsay, returned to the world of cinema with the critically hated Dhund: The Fog in 2003. Ghutan is - as far as I know - his first new film after that comeback and the critics seem too hate this film as well.

I can understand it: The film is crass, unsubtle, cheap, absurdly overacted, artificial, lacking in musical numbers and not very original. These are not really qualities most critics admire.

But the film is all this without any shame, with a crass, unsubtle, and artificial style all its own, with so much energy and verve that it is a lot of fun to watch.

Shyam Ramsay's motto must be "more is more", yet where Western directors mostly mean "more money" when they say more, Ramsay screams (and I picture an Indian mad scientist here): "More blue light! No, not only on the graveyard, in the houses, too! More lightning! When we can have one after each sentence I damn well will use one lightning after each sentence! Scream more hysterical, Nancy! Be more of a slimy jerk, Ravi - oh sorry, be more of a slimy and jerky piece of wood, Ravi! Wait, I have an idea! Let's let Ravi's flying wife break through the cross-shaped gravestone he is trying to smack her with! And we must find a way for him to rip his shirt off before that! We must think of the women as well! Wouldn't it be great if Priya would wear a tiny bikini when Ravi confesses to her! I am so full of ideas! Mwahahaha!"

It's absolutely shameless, but I love it.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

In short: Golden Swallow (1987)

The penniless, wimpy but kind-hearted scholar Lo Chih-Chiuh (Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming - not a born actor) stumbles through life like all young scholars in this kind of movie do. He stumbles into a place known as the Black Mountains where he meets two slightly nuts taoist swordsmen/monks (Eric Tsang & Richard Ng) who haven't much useful to contribute to world peace besides bickering with each other and fighting inconclusive duels. He befriends them, more or less with their swords on his throat.

The dubious duo proves useful when bandits attack the travelers. The taoists are a little overzealous, and let Lo Chih-Chiuh find (or in his case: not find) his way around alone while they chase the surviving bandits.

Of course the scholar soon finds himself under attack from some of said bandits. Fortunately, a friendly girl demon (Cherie Chung - not a born actor either, whatever her millions of fans may say) rescues him, and even protects him from her mistress (Ivy Ling Po). This can only end one way. The two fall madly in love and even the returning taoists cannot convince the the scholar to leave well enough alone. Not even when they try to kill his new girlfriend does he listen!

Together the young lovers flee to Cherie's demon lair and have a few days and nights of musical montage love. The chief demoness learns all too soon of the affair, but shows herself mercyful. If the lovers part and Lo Chih-Chiuh swears on his life never to divulge anything of his adventures to anyone, no one has to die. The lovers can't do much else and agree (whatever became of a romantic lovers' death together?).

In the not so far future the scholar will meet "another" woman whom he will marry and even have a child with. What happens next will surprise only the slowest of us...

After it has finished riffing on A Chinese Ghost Story, Golden Swallow comes into its own as a not very spectacular but nice and enjoyable wuxia. Our leads aren't strong actors, but make a likeable enough pair. Their stiffness would be a lot more troublesome in a modern setting, in Olde Fantasy China such stiffness is something I have come to expect from star-crossed lovers.

Direction, comic relief and so on are all solid, if unremarkable, leading to a film that should make for an enjoyable time if you like mid-80s wuxia (as I of course, do). Novices to the genre should probably go with one of the classics of the genre.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Satan's Black Wedding (1975)

A young woman (who knows who plays her?) has weird dreams that seem to drive her into cutting up her arms and moaning. While a very hairy mustache-wearer with cheap plastic fangs looks on, she dies of her wounds.

We now learn that she is the sister of a young actor called Mark (Greg Braddock, looking for all the world like someone who mistakenly thinks he looks like Elvis himself). What do you know, the priest on her funeral is the same guy we saw earlier on!

When Mark arrives back at the home of his sister, a cop tells him that her supposed suicide was not a suicide at all, but something much darker and stranger. Her body was found bloodless and missing a finger (how exactly this was ruled a suicide is beyond me, but what do I know of police work?). Next, we are in a dark and dank crypt, where Dakin, the priest, mumbles the usual stuff about Satan to make the sister's first minutes as a vampire as unpleasant as possible. He also informs us (she does know this already, so that's very nice of him) that it is her first duty to kill all her living relatives to "fulfill the satanic covenant" or something like that.

As luck would have it, Mark is just visiting their sick aunt. He is not just concerned about her health, he wants to ask her if she knows where the manuscript of the novel his sister was working could be found. She has it and hands him his very own copy.

He goes back home to read it. Now a very strange phenomenon occurs. We see him at home, reading the manuscript by daylight, intercut with his dear sister slaughtering auntie and her maid (which takes the definition of family quite far, thank you very much) by night. It must be a time paradoxon.

Let's make the rest of the film short: Mark meets his ex-girlfriend, who helped his sister write the book, they leave town to escape being killed, have sex, are being watched by sis. Mark leaves ex-girlfriend alone to do whatever, cop has fun in the crypt, sis vamps ex-girlfriend, ex-girlfriend leads Mark into a trap, vampires hunt Mark, Satan marries vampire-sis and zombie-Mark to produce a child. Makes sense, doesn't it?

Ah, Mid-Seventies inadvertent anti-realism, how I love you! There is not much that is more beautiful than the strange transformation of pure incompetence into a kind of parallel cinema of the slightly demented mind.

Satan's Black Wedding has all the hallmarks of its special sub-genre: The seemingly drugged, completely (e)motionless zombie-like acting; camera set-ups that stay static as much as possible - moving the camera around is awfully costly, after all; the cut and the slightly skewed camera angle as main feature of visual style; a happy ignorance of continuity that sometimes transcends the concept of continuity itself and becomes what I like to call anti-continuity (see also: anti-life equation, the); a script full of the wrong transitions, non-sequiturs and lacking a semblance of logic.

All this and more many-named director Nick Millard achieves absolutely effortlessly. What develops (slowly, oh so very slowly) is a special and precious film, absolutely hypnotic in its own way and of the beauty one can find only in movies and junkyards.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

In short: Wonder Seven (1994)

I am a pretty big admirer of director Ching Siu-Tung's films, so I am biased in favor of this film, but really, what's not to like in a classic Hong Kong action film of the lighter and friendlier sort?

There is some kind of plot. A group of seven grown-up orphans works in Hong Kong as a crack top secret police team for the Chinese government (which would also make them something of secret agents, I suppose). Top secret as they may be, their style is about as subtle as you expect from seven people living on a houseboat when not flying through the air on or off their motorbikes while shooting wildly.

Would you believe that their newest case will lead them into a confrontation with mad villains, traitorous superiors, their old trainer and an incredible number of nameless henchmen?

There is lots of jumping, exploding, shooting, flying and completely ignoring those pesky laws of physics of course. As an additional bonus, Ching Siu-Tung also packs in some of his favorite colors, a love sub-plot with Michelle Yeoh as redemptive villainess (who really knows how to wear a scarf), and a Viking burial on a motorcycle.

I really don't know what more one could ask for.


Book Report: Lavie Tidhar - Hebrew Punk

Lavie Tidhar should hopefully be one of the up and coming younger authors of fantastic literature. By now, there are a few fine stories of his scattered about the Web, most of them worth seeking out.

Hebrew Punk (published by Apex Publications, whose now free web magazine Apex Digest I also highly recommend) is a small collection of four longer stories of the author, connected by characters of Jewish myth - The Rabbi, The Rat and The Tzaddik.

Tidhar treats these characters as heroes of a more literary pulp adventure story, all three roaming a half-world of gangsters, vampires and colonial myth and truth. Not all four stories are equally effective at this. The first entry in the collection, "The Heist", is by far the weakest of the four (whatever became of the idea to put the strongest tale first?). As the tale of a break-in into a highly secured blood-bank it's entertaining enough, it just lacks the subtextual punch the other three stories have.

By far the strongest tale is "Uganda" (also to be found in a slightly different version online here), which blends colonial adventure story, Zionism and bits of utopian SF into a fascinating whole.

In other words: You should really read this.


In short: Antarctic Journal (2005)

A small self-funded expedition tries to reach the Point of Inaccessibility - the point farthest from the coastline - of Antarctica.

It won't come as a surprise that the expedition is doomed. Strange occurrences, accidents that become ever more dangerous and an expedition leader (Kang-ho Song, as good an actor as ever) whose mind slowly deteriorates are just some of the problems the expedition has to face. From time to time they find traces of the lost British expedition of 1922 that must have had an equally hard time.

It looks as if the greatest trouble the men will have to face are ghosts - those that roam Antarctica and those they have brought with them.

After watching Hansel & Gretel I felt the need to acquire director Pil-Sung Yim's debut feature as fast as possible. As it turns out, this was one of my better ideas.

Antarctic Journal is as much of a mood piece as the director's second film. Again, much of film's emotional strength stems from the sure grasp it has on the beauty and terror of nature. Of course one would be hard pressed to make a film taking place in the Antarctic and not make impressive use of nature. Finding the point where it is hard to decide where beauty begins and terror ends as Antarctic Journal does is quite another achievement.

The appeal of nature alone does not a good film make, though. Fortunately, the acting is strong as well, if maybe a little subdued for some Western viewers. For me, this helps to give the characters a grounding in reality that makes a fine contrast to the growing unreality of their surroundings.

The script is fine as well. I was especially happy about its ambiguity. It's left to our own interpretation or imagination if the ghosts are real or just hallucinations of men under heavy strain.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hansel & Gretel (2007)

"Don't talk on your cellphone and drive!" is one of the things Eun-soo's (Jeong-Myeong Cheon) mother never told her son. While he is driving through the South Korean countryside and trying his hardest to convince his girlfriend that, no, she shouldn't abort their baby, because, yes, he is willing to take responsibility, he has an accident and loses consciousness.

When he awakes, it is dark and he is stumbling through a deep forest. Soon he falls unconscious again. When he comes to this time, a girl, whom we will later get to know as Young-Hee (Eun-Kyung Sim), looks down at him. She leads him to her family home still deeper in the woods, where she lives with her little sister, her brother Man-Bok (Won-Jae Eun), and her parents.

The family home is a truly strange place - a big, friendly house from the outside and a nightmare of Fifties-looking candy-colors on the the inside. The family itself is friendly enough, even if the parents are looking rather tense and everyone prefers candy to more wholesome food. Unfortunately, their telephone hasn't been working for a few days now. But they agree to let Eun-Soo spend the night and help him get out of the woods the next morning.

Alas getting out is not as easy as it seems. Not one of his hosts is willing to accompany the young man on his way, so he has to follow a set of directions that don't seem to lead him where he wants to go. It's no help the sun goes down in these woods rather early - at noon, to be precise.

After wandering and wandering for a long time, Eun-Soo arrives back at the family home. His strange hosts are still friendly and have no problem letting him stay for another night. Later, Eun-Soo awakes from the sounds of an argument in the next room. The parents seem not to be able to stand something much longer. Eun-Soo can't make out what exactly it is that disturbs them, though.

He has strange dreams through the rest of the night, and what awaits him downstairs in the living room isn't less strange, either. The parents are gone, and have left a note for him, asking him to stay and care for the children for a time.

He is of course bewildered and still tries to get away; again without success.

The next time he arrives back at the house, the children have brought even more guests - a nice and friendly pair that just might turn out to be something different than what they appear to be.

Will Eun-soo ever be able to get out of the woods? Why is the attic larger than the house itself? And what is the secret the children share? Most of these questions will be answered during the course of the film, even if the logic standing behind those answers will be fittingly child-like.

Hansel & Gretel (it should be "Hänsel", by the way) is a very fine film. As is the case with most South Korean films, all technical aspects are of the highest quality, be it camera work, lighting or the few, but effective special effects. Now that I think about it, I have never seen a really badly acted film from there, either, so we can take solid -and in the case of the child actors even excellent- acting as another given.

What made the film a very interesting experience for me was something different, though. I am always fascinated by the way Asian filmmakers treat elements of European folklore and fairy tales in their movies. There is much less of a feeling of those traditions as baggage than in Western films and a much more interesting look at what those traditions can be used to.

The film does a great job of disassembling and recombining the elements of fairy tales (and a certain Twilight Zone episode) without giving up some of the conceits of fairy tales - some of the background story and the characterization is a little too crass to be realistic, but fits into the mood of the film perfectly.

Atmosphere and mood are the main achievements of director Pil-Sung Yim here; the film always finds the right point between dream and reality, so much that I didn't even mind that I saw where the film was going very early on.

In the end, we all know where a fairy tale will lead us.