Monday, May 31, 2010

Music Monday: Fern Knight Edition

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From Twitter 05-30-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-29-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-28-2010: New blog post: On WTF: The Alien F...
  • Huh, I don't usually want the protagonists of wuxias to die in a fast but painful manner, but the whiny princess and the nauseatingly
  • virtuous fisherman-with-a-sword in Sammo Hung's "The Moon Warriors" should.
  • Dear IMDB person, complaining a film is "full of 70s hair and 70s clothes" when that film was made in the 70s just makes you look stupid

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

On the Run (1988)

Ah, marriage. Hong Kong special branch cop Heung Ming (Yuen Biao) and his narcotics cop wife Lo Huan (Ida Chan) may be separated, with their daughter Lin (Chan Cheuk-Yan) living with Heung Min's mum (Lee Heung-Kam), but Lo Huan is still willing to keep their marriage officially running so that her husband will be able to emigrate with her before Hong Kong's reunification with China comes around.

Who knows what Lo's boyfriend, the homicide superintendent Lui (Charlie Chin) thinks about that arrangement? It won't matter in the long run anyway, for Lo has found out that Lui and some of his homicide colleagues have their hands deep in the drug business (of course to buy themselves a way out of Hong Kong), and boyfriend or not, Lo is not the sort of police officer who would stand for that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, Lui finds out what Lo knows about him and decides - instead of confessing his crimes to the higher ups in the force - to hire a pair of professional killers from Thailand to get rid of Lo.

Chui aka Miss Pai (Pat Ha), is the one doing the actual killing while her uncle is responsible for distractions, reconnaissance and the handling of clients. The hit on Lo is not much of a problem: Chui is an excellent shot and the cop does certainly not expect Lui to be this unscrupulous.

Heung Ming is grief-stricken about her death, although it is not clear how much of his grief has to do with the fact that his ticket to the USA is now gone and how much with more proper emotions. He's not the sort of man who can let a thing like this rest in any case, very much to the trouble of Lui. While Lui and his partners in crime are of course the people officially responsible for finding Lo's murder, Heung Ming decides to investigate the case on the side, too. That would not necessarily lead him anywhere, but circumstances help him out.

The uncle half of the killer duo decides to raise the price for the hit. After all, the victim was a cop and nobody found it necessary to mention that to him. Lui and his men, however, think it more convenient to just kill the old and plan on getting rid of Chui too. Too bad for them that they are trying to be subtle getting rid of their victim and so give Heung Ming the opportunity to find out Chui's whereabouts from him too before the old man dies.

Even worse for our bad guys, the honest cop also manages to find the surviving killer first, and he turns out to be more interested in finding out who had his wife killed than taking vengeance on Chui. Soon enough, his colleagues are trying to kill Heung Ming, too, and the only way for him to survive is to ally himself with Chui, who proves to be much more effective in a fight than the cop is.

Heung Ming will need all the help he can get. This being a Hong Kong film, he'll also have to protect his mother and daughter from his enemies, and there's no nice Hollywood cowardice to guarantee a child's safety.

Alfred Cheung is usually known as a director of comedies, but he also made a small handful of very accomplished crime and action films. On the Run is probably the best of that bunch, and it really is quite an achievement.

The film is grim and intense, features some relatively short but sweet action scenes but impresses especially through its peculiar sense of sobriety, not something you find all that often in Hong Kong movies, and certainly not in those from the apex of the heroic bloodshed genre. This does not mean that Cheung's film is not exciting or tense, but rather that its action scenes and its melodrama aren't feeling as over the top as is typical of Hong Kong films of the time. The shoot-outs seem to be a bit more down to earth in their contents than usual, and Cheung films them in a differently stylized way than many of his contemporaries. Where the Woo school tends to go for a more operatic feel to the killing proceedings, Cheung's action is more tight than broad and more deadly than bloody. This lends the action a colder and less playful feel.

As it is with the action, so it is with On the Run's emotional content. Outside of the three big emotional core scenes, the characters' feelings are seething below a cool surface and only truly come up when the characters reach their breaking points. There's a scene in which Chui moves the corners of her mouth up a bit, and Heung Ming shows himself unironically surprised that Chui is "suddenly all smiles" that I found characteristic for the film's handling of emotions; it is underplayed without playing the characters so cool as to be inhuman. Cheung also never drives it too far: everyone in the film has a breaking point, and everyone reaches it. Afterwards, there's no room for being controlled anymore. The only exception to that rule is Chui, who does not break as clearly as Heung Ming or Lui do, but instead subtly softens around her edges, which fits (the movie idea of) a professional killer nicely.

That this aspect of the movie works as well as it does is very much the responsibility of the actors. Yuen Biao is not typically someone I connect with subtle acting or interesting work outside of martial arts films (although he has successfully dabbled in other types of roles for most of his career), but he shows himself to be capable of more than I expected of him. His Heung Ming is note-perfect as a man fastly losing everything he ever had, with Yuen projecting a seething anger below his cool that just seems to explode out of him in the film's grim finale.

Pat Ha is equally great, at once projecting the distance and coldness under fire I've grown to expect from professional killers in the movies and a core of human decency that makes her helping of Heung Ming even when it isn't necessarily in her best interest anymore believable.

On the Run is one of the hidden treasures of Hong Kong cinema, tense, tight, unflinching and sometimes cruel - everything I love about the city's films.


From Twitter 05-29-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-28-2010: New blog post: On WTF: The Alien Factor (1978): I might have mentioned my ...
  • New blog post: In short: Den-Sen (2004): A mysterious DVD is sent to a very small (three people) content provider ...
  • Wow, The Magic Crane really is something.
  • Damn, this month is no good. RIP Dennis Hopper.
  • Thank you very much to the idiot on Livejournal who spoiled the new Who episode for me. Does sound like Moffat's first big misstep too.
  • Turns out I didn't mind the Bad Idea much. Chibnall's writing style's the problem here. But oh well.
  • Of course, why a show runner would let Chibnall write anything important for the meta-plot is beyond me.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

In short: Den-Sen (2004)

A mysterious DVD is sent to a very small (three people) content provider for cable TV. The sender is the sister of a young man who committed suicide after watching the contents of the DVD. She is convinced that the disc has something to do with her brother's death, and well, it's cover purports that it is suicide-inducing.

The production company usually doesn't do segments of the supernatural panic type, but their boss thinks it's a nice idea to give the thing to his young, female assistant director so she can make a training segment about it on her own.

Of course, the poor girl watches the DVD and of course she commits suicide directly after.

The two surviving members of the team are plagued by a guilty conscience and begin to investigate the DVD. They recruit the original sender of the DVD for the project, but their early investigations seem to lead nowhere. So of course they decide to watch the DVD. But, strangely, nothing happens to them. Turns out that the DVD doesn't contain much more than a warning and a long-ish shot of a non-descript building, filmed from the roof of another building. Nothing to worry about, it seems.

Not willing to give up, the trio decides to find the building the movie was shot on. This leads them a bit further, to rumours about a company that might just be a religious cult and might just have something to do with the strangeness surrounding the case.

I would have expected Shozin Fukui's first film project after eight years to be a wee bit more exciting/excited and a lot weirder than Den-Sen turned out to be. Fukui is, after all, the director of the two classics of Japanese weirdo cinema, 964 Pinocchio and Rubber's Lover, both films as peculiar as they come.

Den-Sen, shot on digital with the conceit of it being a fake (and cheap and somewhat desperate) documentary, and its non-ironic use of a bunch of utterly traditional elements of Japanese horror post-Ringu is - apart from its noise/electronica soundtrack - like something made by a completely different director. There's a sense of banality about the proceedings on screen, a feeling that is increased by the film's very slow tempo (again, the direct opposite of Fukui's other films) and the sparseness of what happens on screen. It's even sparse compared to other fake documentaries without an effects budget.

I can't help but think that this is a conscious decision, that Fukui was trying to make a film that is banal and basic and possibly boring. That's of course only a feeling I get watching the film and not anything I'd want to find arguments for. If it is as I think, then Fukui didn't succeed completely in his efforts, for Den-Sen features some strangely disquieting moments, moments exclusively based on letting the viewer wait for something to happen just a bit longer than she is comfortable with, on letting her watch the same people watch something she can't see and describing the same thing they did already describe three times before, until she can't be sure anymore the people aren't lying about what they see.

That I find this aspect of the film exciting rather than boring might of course just be an effect of my excitable nature.


From Twitter 05-28-2010

  • New blog post: On WTF: The Alien Factor (1978): I might have mentioned my unhealthy love for the early films of Do...
  • Mouse smoothing, why does it have to be mouse smoothing?
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Friday, May 28, 2010

On WTF: The Alien Factor (1978)

I might have mentioned my unhealthy love for the early films of Don Dohler from time to time, but I've never gotten around to writing anything about his debut movie, The Alien Factor.

My newest review on WTF-Film changes this sad state of affairs, and tells everything you always wanted to know about The Abominable Stiltman and his friends.


From Twitter 05-27-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-26-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-25-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-24-...
  • New blog post: Ghost of the Well (1957): aka Ghost Story of Broken Dishes at Bancho Mansion Japan during the Shog...
  • German customs services really suck big time, as do book sellers who aren't able to fill out a customs declaration.
  • The typically excellent @botherer skewers that silly "2 hrs of gaming = one line of cocaine" business.
  • First part of an interview with the glorious Robert Forster (the musician, not the actor):
  • Official notice: the Go-Betweens (even ended) are still the best band, well, ever.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ghost of the Well (1957)

aka Ghost Story of Broken Dishes at Bancho Mansion

Japan during the Shogunate. The samurai Aoyama Harima is running with a politically inopportune crowd. When the leader of the political group he belongs to is put under house arrest, and will probably soon be ordered to commit sepukku, it doesn't look too good for the young samurai's future either. The best that can happen is that he Harima will be stripped of his titles and lose his income, becoming another penniless ronin without a future. One of Harima's relatives is able to arrange a way out for him - he'll just have to marry the daughter of a very influential official and all will be forgiven. Harima agrees to the proposal, although his heart is not in it.

The samurai is very much in love with one of his servant girls, Kiku, and she is as much in love with him. Still, a man of Harima's standing can hardly be expected to throw away his honour and title for love, right? Kiku is as understanding as possible in a situation like this, which is to say she is terribly unhappy but knows no way out for herself.

Shortly before the marriage, catastrophe happens. In a moment between a Freudian slip and an accident, Kiku drops and breaks one of the immensely valuable family heirloom plates of the Aoyama, a crime so terrible it can only be paid for through her death. The emotionally very strained Harima and Kiku play a dramatic game of "kill me, beloved!", "I can't" etc, until Harima does in fact kill his beloved. The poor woman ends up falling into the house's well.

Harima doesn't gain much from his deed: the destruction of the plate alone shows him to be completely unfit for the husband role, and so he ends up as a poor ronin without anybody to love anyway.

Until one night, Kiku's ghost rises from the well to forgive him. Of course, a happy end for these two will only be possible when Harima dies, too.

Ghost in the Well is a typical kaidan movie of the late 50s. To the modern, Western eye, films like this play out more like jidai geki (= the proper and civilised type of samurai film) that just happen to have ghosts in them to demonstrate the characters' psychologies than what you'd expect from a "real" horror movie, but if one is able to adjust one's expectations appropriately there is much to love about these films.

With its 45 minutes running time, Ghost in the Well was probably the lesser part of a double- or triple-feature, made on a relatively tight budget but with the know-how and possibilities a studio like Toei could still provide even for its minor films. The movie's running time seems to be just right in any case. There's no filler, no slack, no mood-killing inappropriate comedic relief. Everything is very stark and concentrated, every frame, every gesture is important to the film's narrative.

The visuals are as assured and tight as the film's script. Again, director Toshizaku (or Juichi, depending on which source you want to believe) Kono is not a man for doing anything flashy, but everything we see on screen is at once meaningful and utterly controlled.

Strangely enough (yet again, very typical for a kaidan), this austerity in style is put into the service of a story that is quite melodramatic in tone, at least to modern and Western eyes and ears like mine that can't buy into the movie's concepts of honour and its idea of love as much as would be necessary to feel its full emotional impact. The film is putting a story before its viewers that can only work as it does under the specific moral and social circumstances of pre-modern Japan, it does however accept the temporal mores a bit too much for my tastes.

This is decidedly not a drama based on the idea of someone falsely forsaking love as my sensibilities would expect (or rather demand), but a drama of the destruction that arises from the divide between honour and love. Yet the film never directly criticises the concept of honour itself as responsible for the tragedy it shows, nor does it see Harami as the disgusting coward he is to my eyes. In a film made just five years later, when it became difficult to find films which weren't highly critical with the samurai ethos and all that comes with it, this would probably have gone quite a bit differently.


From Twitter 05-26-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-25-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-24-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-23-...
  • The anglerfish, a story with a moral
  • New blog post: Malabimba (1979): The Karoly are an Italian noble family slowly slipping into poverty. They might s...
  • Uh-oh, it's never a good sign when I sing Weakerthans songs. I might do something risky, like opening a window.
  • That new pay-what-you-want indie games bundle I linked to yesterday? I'd keep away from it, alas.
  • That's the sort of thing that makes me really angry and spits in the face of the indie devs who made the Humble Indie Bundle and did take
  • the charity part seriously.
  • I have to say, I'm also kinda puzzled by developers going into this sort of arrangement with a guy who can barely communicate in English and
  • not feeling the need to make a contract. It's a bit mind-boggling.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Malabimba (1979)

The Karoly are an Italian noble family slowly slipping into poverty. They might still be living in a castle, but it's quite obviously falling into disrepair. The only financially fluent member of the family is Adolfo (Giuseppe Marrocco), and Adolfo is paralyzed and can't speak, and is - to the rest of the family's desperation - married to Nais (Patrizia Webley), who is usually called by names like "whore". Nais is in fact, and understandably, cheating on her husband with her lawyer (for some reason also living in the castle) with whom she has quite an interesting sado-masochistic relationship going on.

Be that as it may, the family matriarch (Pupita Lea) still wants her other son, Andrea (Enzo Fisichella) to marry Nais, so that the family can get their hands on Adolfo's money to help keep their decadent lifestyle up. Andrea isn't too happy with the idea. Firstly, he's a bit disturbed to think of things like this while his brother is still alive, and secondly, he is still not over the death of his wife some years ago. Nais herself wouldn't mind the arrangement and does her best (regularly appearing in Andrea's bedroom in the nude) to help Andrea along.

It's quite fortunate that the family has their own nun-in-training, Sofia (Mariangela Giordano) to care for Adolfo, or the poor man would die of hunger between all these people distracted by sexual innuendo.

At least Andrea has his daughter Bimba (Katell Laennec) to brighten his days, a charming, sixteen year old innocent. Innocent, that is, until the family has a séance, and the nasty spirit of one of the family ancestors takes her over. Lukrezia, as the ghost is called, seems to be quite a typical member of her family, as she is mostly interested in sex, cursing, and sex, and won't stop at minor things like trying to seduce her host's father.

People will probably look at me strange when I say this, but I think that Andrea Bianchi's Malabimba is a) the director's best film, b) the most watchable Italian rip-off of The Exorcist, and c) as good as hardcore porn horror films get.

The a) is obviously an easy accomplishment when you look at the rest of the director's filmography, (and the b also not too surprising when you have seen the other Italian Exorcists), but I think Bianchi does a truly swell job here of grounding the pornography in the psychology of his characters and vice versa.

Malabimba lives on its over-heated, utterly sexualized ambiance, where really nothing anyone does has no connection to a sexual hang-up. Even without a possessed teenager, the film is filled with characters completely driven by a sexuality that is (in the tradition of each and every film about the decaying rich, just more explicitly) barely held in control by weird ideas of propriety. So far, so porn, but what's most interesting is how much care (and that's not something one expects to say about anything Bianchi has done) has been put into providing an amount of logical motivation for the characters' sex-obsession. There really is no need for Bianchi or his scriptwriter Piero Regnoli to give reasons for anyone dropping their clothes at all, yet still they do, and thereby manage to make their film much more interesting (and possibly much more erotic) than they needed to. This does not mean that the characters act like you expect regular people to act, but as representations of people fallen prey to their urges they work quite brilliantly.

It also helps that Malabimba's actors are all quite good, properly overacting as it fits their characters.

The main reason for the film's existence is of course not to comment on the lifestyle of the idle not-rich-anymore, but to throw as much sleazy sex on screen as possible. Here, too, Bianchi excels (as he does - surprisingly - at providing moody set-ups). There's a palpable enthusiasm at breaking every taboo possible oozing from the screen, and it is surprising what a film can pack into 90 minutes when it is trying to. Really, there should be something in the film to offend (or delight) anyone. The film features the rampant sexualisation of a teenager, teddy bear masturbation (which I think is also a nice metaphor for sexual awakening, but what do I know), incest, the seduction of a nun, sado-masochism, sexual abuse of the handicapped - fun times. Basically everything apart from necrophilia and goat sex is somewhere in here; to find the latter two elements in a decent film, you'll probably have to look at Japanese cinema.

If the thought of all these things fills you with moral disgust or ethical panic, you'd probably best avoid Malabimba, but if you're like me and can appreciate a serving of sleaze, this comes highly recommended.


From Twitter 05-25-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-24-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-23-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-22-...
  • New blog post: In short: La Horde (2009): Three men walk into a bar, but suddenly, it's the zombie apocalypse. No,...
  • Someone want to bet against my conviction they are going the male Shepard route with the movie?
  • Another give-what-you-want-with-charity indie gaming bundle:
  • Looks like this could become a very interesting project of fiction using the Web.
  • RT @vivoandando: end of the story RT: @fabiocostello: - Douglas Adams himself explains why "42". Happy towel day!

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In short: La Horde (2009)

Three men walk into a bar, but suddenly, it's the zombie apocalypse. No, wait, that's not the plot of the movie. In fact, it goes a little something like this: four heavily armed cops-on-the-edge walk into a decrepit, nearly empty high rise on the edge of Paris to bloodily avenge the death of a colleague, but suddenly, it's the zombie apocalypse.

Now the would-be avengers and their would-be victims have to try to work together to escape the high rise, because the hundreds of zombies who have suddenly teleported in around it look like a too inviting party to miss.

Of course, surviving the squabbling among each other will be nearly as difficult as surviving the loud and fast menace.

Oh look, it's just another zombie film, only that this one is from France and tries to be more of an action film than a piece of horror. Unfortunately, most of the film consists of lots of scenes of people running around through dark and/or grey corridors, which is not something I find particularly exciting. The small handful of action set-pieces themselves are edited in a rather confusing shaky cam style that is probably meant to be exciting and visceral, but mostly manages to not show the things the film wants its audience to be excited about.

The character bits aren't anything to get excited about either. Although the actors are doing their best, the script doesn't give them much to do. All conflicts between the characters seem to be done by the book; once you have been introduced to them, you will know exactly what will happen between them. That would be alright by me if the characters were more sympathetic or just more vulnerable, and not the bunch of armed super-fighter arseholes the film delivers. As it stands, the movie just doesn't give me any reason to care.

La Horde is certainly not a bad film, alas it has nothing but basic, boring competence to distinguish it from the dozen other zombie films which came out last month. And that just isn't enough in a sub-genre that is as omnipresent as stories about the zombie apocalypse are right now.


From Twitter 05-24-2010

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Music Monday: Classics Edition

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From Twitter 05-23-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-22-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-21-2010: Posting your own press releases on...
  • RT @HowardLovecraft: #hperotica The cyclopean monolisk stood rigid and terrible before the pungent ichor of freakishly cavernous depths.
  • New blog post: Yoroi: The Samurai Zombie (2008): (This write-up concerns the regular version of the movie. The IMD...
  • Ah, Chris Chibnall still writes like it was last season; not bad for an RTD-Who episode, not good enough for Moffat-Who.
  • Though the episode reminds me more of Chibnall's own Torchwood, what with everyone being totally incompetent.
  • RT @lewisdenby: This is the best bug I've ever seen in a game: (via @Pentadact)

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Yoroi: The Samurai Zombie (2008)

(This write-up concerns the regular version of the movie. The IMDB claims the existence of a longer director's cut of the film. Perhaps it does exist and does not suck as hard as the regular cut. I somehow doubt it.)

A Japanese family goes on vacation. While they are driving through a foggy, damp forest, the family's car is attacked by a gangster in white, who is at once shot by a young thug and his girlfriend. Those two mumble something about the living dead and take the family hostage and force them drive who knows where. Then, the young thug decides to send the family's father out on foot to do who knows what. Father runs a bit, cuts his throat in an old graveyard and awakens the local samurai zombie.

Said samurai zombie then attacks the rest of the cast, who flee into an abandoned village. The dead gangster comes back to live and makes a bit of trouble, two cops enter the abandoned village for no good reason whatsoever and finally the samurai zombie attacks again.

As any even mildly experienced viewer of cult cinema will tell you, there's not much of a probability that a film with an awesome sounding title like The Samurai Zombie can be anything but boring. By the natural laws of bad moviedom, all of the creative energy available has already gone into the title, and nothing at all will be left for the movie. Unfortunately, this isn't the miracle film that will break this universal law.

In fact, Samurai Zombie is even worse than I had expected. If you think that the plot synopsis above is rather abstract and feels somewhat lacking by virtue of the absence of explanations, character motivations or character names in it, you're absolutely right. I'm not usually someone who cries out for exposition or plot or any of the other luxuries proper movies are supposed to provide, but there's a point where a film has to give its audience something, some narrative basics, give them at least a slight reason to care about it. Otherwise, why should anyone watch this thing?

Responsible for the film's non-script is the horrible Ryuhei Kitamura (aka the last person who should be allowed to write scripts), still recycling his only watchable film, Versus, still failing utterly at it. As in all Kitamura films, non-action scenes are only there to demonstrate Kitamura's knowledge of the same three or four pop-cultural references he already went through in each of his other films, the dialogue is boring, the pacing is slow and the jokes are stale and mostly repeats of the same jokes that already weren't funny in Kitamura's other films. The action itself is just not very interesting to look at. Director Tak Sakaguchi (also working as actor and stuntman) isn't exactly doing sloppy and shoddy work (that would probably be more interesting to watch than what is delivered here), but he also does nothing that's actually interesting. Words like "kinetic" or "intense" to describe the action are right out.

My biggest problem with the film is its complete lack of imagination, though. Sure, hacked off heads make a champagne bottle noise, but that's the most exciting or creative thing going on here. Where other action and gore films - especially those from Japan - try to outdo each other in the grotesqueness of their monsters and bizarreness of their violence, Samurai Zombie coasts on a decapitation here, a bit-off penis there, never committing to the gross-out or the nastily whacky. That wouldn't be much of a problem in a film with anything else to offer, but this is a movie without a narrative, without characters (I know, I know, Kitamura probably goes for "archetypes", but there's a difference between an archetype and a void), and - I suspect - without anyone behind the camera actually giving a shit beyond getting their pay checks.

And if the people making the movie don't care, I see no reason why I should.


From Twitter 05-22-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-21-2010: Posting your own press releases on your private blog is probably not such ...
  • New blog post: Three Films Make A Grump: Spewed from intergalactic space to clutch the planet earth in its...TERRO...
  • So, bringing your game exclusively to one digital download shop seems to be the new thing with game publishers. Will they ever learn?
  • I'm joking, of course. I know they won't.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Three Films Make A Grump: Spewed from intergalactic space to clutch the planet earth in its...TERROR TENTACLES!

Legendary Panty Mask (1991): Surprisingly mild Go Nagai adaptation about a panty mask wearing, mock-Injun-bikini garbed heroine lacklusterly fighting the evil nuns dominating an all-female town and protecting a cross-dressing boy. Sounds fun enough, but lacks the commitment to sleaze (the film does not even contain the slightest nudity) and/or insanity I have come to expect from this kind of thing. There are a few moments of delight to be had in the film's dreadful musical numbers (especially the renditions of "classics" like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and "Ten Little Indians" in perfect Jenglish), but the whole affair is just too timid to be truly interesting.


The Ultimate Warrior (1975): Director Robert Clouse's rampant mediocrity strikes again and manages to make a post-apocalyptic movie about a frequently topless Yul Brunner protecting a group of relatively sane and peaceful people in the ruins of New York against their nasty neighbours until Max von Sydow convinces him to crawl through the Underground kind of boring. The script is fittingly cynical and doesn't shy away from dead babies and humanity showing its worst side, but Clouse is never able to sell it right.

If this was an Italian movie, it would probably be saved through insanity and incomprehensibility, alas, Clouse is too classy (read "boring") for anything fun like that.


The Wolfman (2010): This film is as divided in its personality as its titular character is. Visually, there's a lot to like here, especially when the film concentrates on building mood through the glorious artificiality of its production design. It is much less successful - and more than just slightly ridiculous - when it goes for scenes of gory monster rampage.

The script is quite a mess. Themes of classical gothic horror, some clever modernisation, much more stupid "modernisation" and a lot of even more stupid Freudian psycho-nonsense (good old father complexes) are randomly thrown together with any old stuff that must have come to mind while writing the film, seemingly without any thought for what it all is supposed to be about. What business, for example, has Inspector Abberline (the man who hunted Jack the Ripper) in this film? Why overload what is at its heart a very simple story with so much baggage that doesn't have any pay-off, neither textually nor subtextually?

The film's permanent shifts in tone, its unfocused and disconnected jumping from scene to scene are the final nails in its coffin. Well, unless Anthony Hopkins' usual "I am so sinister" performance has that dubious honour.

I liked this a lot better when it was Ang Lee's Hulk.


From Twitter 05-21-2010

  • Posting your own press releases on your private blog is probably not such a hot idea: suddenly, you sound like one of those guys talking
  • about themselves in the third person. And in PRnese to boot.
  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-20-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 05-19-2010: How to identify a viral video: whe...
  • Foreign movies. RT @FOURDK: "So, what kind of movies do you like?", asked the casual acquaintance. How do I respond?
  • It's a very special movie. RT @WtfFilm: New at WtfFilm - Birdemic: Shock and Terror:
  • New blog post: On WTF: Mr. Sardonicus (1961): Please imagine me grinning and chomping on a cigar. Find out what h...
  • I really wish the French Wild Side label would put English subtitles on their DVDs of awesome Japanese films.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

On WTF: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Please imagine me grinning and chomping on a cigar.

Find out what happened when the lovely William Castle was trying to catch some of that Corman gothic magic - alas without Vincent Price - in my review of Castle's Mr. Sardonicus on WTF-Film!


From Twitter 05-20-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 05-19-2010: How to identify a viral video: when the creator of the video has to call i...
  • New blog post: In short: Vigilante (1983): Industrial electrician Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) is your typical mi...
  • The full text of Samuel R. Delany's essay "Racism and SF" (vie The World SF News Blog)
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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Binding Silence, a neat Lovecraftian short

Binding Silence from Ray Zablocki on Vimeo.

(via Video Junkie)


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In short: Vigilante (1983)

Industrial electrician Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) is your typical mild-mannered family man, until a gang more or less randomly hurts his wife and kills his little son. Although his colleague Nick (Fred Williamson) tries to recruit Eddie for his own little vigilante crusade, the man decides to let the justice system run its course.

Of course, this being a movie called Vigilante and all, "the system" is totally corrupt, and the only gang member that is indicted at all comes away with a suspended sentence of two years. The only one actually landing in jail is Eddie himself for his violently displeased conduct in the court room. With the help of a randomly helpful Woody Strode, Eddie survives his thirty days in jail.

All the while, the film has kept the audience up to date on the dubious achievement of Nick and his merry band of thugs. They seem quite adept at torturing and killing people. It's the American Way, I know.

When Eddie is released, he at once goes to Nick and asks the chief vigilante for some help in a little murder spree of his own.

William Lustig's Vigilante is a technically well done version of your typical vigilante film, with all the usual problems of the genre, especially an annoying tendency to bore the viewer with long self-righteous speeches that are supposed to convince the viewer of the rightness of going on private killing sprees, but mostly succeed in dragging down the movie's pace and insulting me through their stupidity.

Vigilante isn't all stupid all the time though. The film has a lot of small moments and gestures that strongly hint at a discomfort with the actions of its supposed heroes, suggesting that Nick and Eddie are as violently unhinged as the people they are going after. Which they are. These moments make a strange contrast with Nick's speeches and the emotionally manipulative way Lustig sets up the court session. It feels as if one half of the film is cheerleading for vigilantism and the other, less loud half, is convinced of its utter uselessness.

What the film features in any case are very strong appearances of its lead actors. Forster and Williamson and their all-cult-movie-star supporting cast are giving the sort of shaded performances that hint at disquieting depths and breaking-points in the characters they are playing. This aspect puts Vigilante more in the tradition of Italian cop and vigilante movies of the 70s, and I wouldn't be surprised if Lustig had planned his film as an homage to those films.

Unfortunately, Lustig is no Enzo G. Castellari, and although the film's action is appropriately dry and mean, the American just isn't as good at handling the dramatic parts of the movie, even though the actors are doing everything possible to hand them to him on a silver platter. At times, the film seems to be too interested in bloviating about the evils of "the system", instead of basing its violence on the inner lives of characters who would provide ample opportunity for it.

The pacing of the non-violent scenes is just a little bit off, too, throwing the film out of its rhythm repeatedly by going on just a little too long to keep the film's momentum going.

Lustig's movie is not bad, it's just not as good as the movies it seems to base itself on.


From Twitter 05-19-2010

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Passport For A Corpse (1962)

Four war veterans raid a money transport. Although one of the men, Walter (Erno Crisa), has spent months planning the assault, something goes very wrong, and all of the men except for one are killed by the police. The survivor, whose name is Maurice (or Marco in the mutilated English dub of the film; he is in any case played by Alberto Lupo), is able to grab some of the money he and his friends were after and manages to flee. Maurice is positive that the police know who he is and are now after him, but he has to make one final visit with his girlfriend, the weird-early-60s-film-stripper Helene (Helene Chanel).

Helene didn't know about her boyfriend's mad plan beforehand, and at first tries her best to convince him to give himself up to the police, but when Maurice makes it clear to her that he'd have no hope ever getting out of jail again, she decides to go with his plan of escape. Helene herself just needs to cross the border to France and wait there for Maurice, but the man can't risk crossing the border in the normal, legal way. Maurice knows an old smuggler's route through the mountains, but he isn't exactly lucky.

That's not much of a surprise, especially since Maurice has already repeatedly met a mysterious woman (Linda Christian?). Her name might be Destiny or it might be Death, and there's just no escaping her gaze.

When Maurice's first plan for crossing the border doesn't work out, he spontaneously hides inside a coffin that is bound for France, but his ride has to turn round and he soon finds himself locked inside a cooler inside a morgue - the same morgue, it turns out, where the bodies of the robber's dead friends are waiting for their burial. This is not going to be Destiny's last joke on Maurice.

Mario Gariazzo's Passport for a Corpse is clearly influenced by the most bleak and pessimist arm of noir cinema, at least when it comes to its thematic interests and its outlook on life and death. It's a film about the world as an existential hell-hole, and without the personification of Destiny Gariazzo uses, the film would certainly deserve to be called intensely nihilist - but where there are metaphors walking around, there's no true nihilism to be found. Of course, living in a consciously cruel universe isn't much of an improvement over living in an utterly meaningless universe ruled by entropy, and doesn't make the film any less bleak.

While Passport for a Corpse is ideologically (and emotionally) close to the wellspring of noir, it is only from time to time visually comparable to its mother genre. Gariazzo doesn't use his black and white camera for much fancy (and thematically fitting) shadow play or any of the other visual extravagances that noir cinema used to step away from naturalism and to show its characters' inner turmoil on screen. Gariazzo's visual style is relatively static. The camera never puts itself actively into the viewer's consciousness, but it is this minimal and underplayed aspect of the film that is especially important in demonstrating that Maurice/Marco is caught in a trap even before he and his friends are setting their plan into motion. The camera always stays close to Marco, caging him in the minimalist (or cheap) interior sets from the very beginning. His ordeal in the coffin and the morgue are only an escalation of a situation that must have started before the viewers have laid eyes on him. Even the (decidedly non-staged) natural locations give no respite from claustrophobia. Nature is a cage build of mountains and a whiteness of snow that crushes visibility and hope.

It doesn't come as a surprise in a film like this that the acting and dialogue/internal monologue tend a bit to the melodramatic side. One could argue that the acting is decidedly fake, but I don't think "realism" is one of Gariazzo's goals here. Lupo and Chanel's rather exalted performances are not meant to portray psychologically deep characters, but to intensify the thematic pressure on the film's audience. This is not a film about people, but a film about concepts like desperation and futility, and Gariazzo is making damn sure that even the slower members of the audience will realize it. And if the acting and the dialogue still aren't enough to achieve that goal, you can always hit your audience over the head with a walking, mockingly laughing metaphor.

This sledgehammer quality of the film is at once its biggest strength (this certainly is a film that knows what it wants) and its biggest weakness. I found Passport for a Corpse's complete lack of subtlety quite distancing on an emotional level - which I don't think is what Gariazzo was going for -, but was still able to appreciate the film on the level of craft.

There's something to be said for the film's power of hysterical negativity.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Örümcek (1972)

aka Spider

aka Turkish Spider-Man (although it has not much to do with the Marvel hero)

The gang of bald-headed, cigar-chomping bad guy Renzo is searching for a bunch of jewels and a golden statue of the Buddha that are hidden away somewhere underground. The closest they have gotten to the booty was curiously enough when Renzo sent his lawyer out to find it. The poor guy would have gotten to the treasure if he hadn't been attacked by members of the competing gang lead by a certain Yesim. Then the helmeted vigilante known as "Spider" (Hüseyin Zan) appeared, and every henchman ended up dead.

The rest of the film concerns itself with Spider's attempts at bringing Renzo's gang to justice (which is to say, kill them dead), Spider using his secret identity, scrapyard monkey Erol (warning: you have just been spoiled out of a last minute revelation for the very dumb), to get close to the gangsters and Erol falling in love with the lawyer's daughter, exceedingly pretty night club singer Ayfer. There's also time for some gang-internal double-crossings and Erol having fun with the sex-positive Yesim.

Ayfer is also quite prone to nearly getting raped or really getting kidnapped by Renzo's men, so our masked hero has some extra work cut out for him. It's Erol's own fault, however. Surely, you don't let the odious comic relief protect your girlfriend when you're out gangster-bashing and gangster-leader-sexing and expect everything to be alright when you return?

By the standards of Turkish pop cinema, Örümcek is a surprisingly sedate film. There are even two stretches of about ten minutes each where nobody is shooting, hitting or kissing anyone. The film also adds two nightclub numbers in its first third, all of which adds up to a comparatively slow pace.

Fortunately, what is slow for a Turkish film of this era is still fast like a meth-addicted monkey for most of the rest of cinematic history, and so Örümcek's director Taner Oguz still squeezes half a dozen action scenes, three or four making-out sessions and lots of scenery-chewing declarations into the direction of the camera into a very short running time. All these scenes fit into the 66 minutes of running time so easily because Oguz - like everyone else in Turkish pop cinema - did not believe in transitional scenes at all. The logic behind it is perfectly clear: an audience doesn't come into a film like this looking for explanations or a plot, but to experience as much thrills as it can give them. That's a lesson I wish the directors of the dumber Hollywood blockbusters would finally learn and cut out all that badly written melodrama they love to put between explosions. But I digress.

The film's action scenes are particularly nice. Erol/Örümcek is quite the enemy of gravity, flipping, flopping and cartwheeling around between shooting henchmen to death as if he had been bitten by a radioactive gymnast. The film's big finish features a very dangerous looking motorcycle stunt, very much the sort of thing you won't see coming from a more controlled movie industry than the Turkish in the 70s - and for good reasons.

On the cinematic madness scale, Örümcek is scoring pretty low. Everything on screen seems pretty normal to me, nobody and nothing is all that outrageous.

Of course, I'm at a point in my movie watching career where a film whose hero is a guy dressed in a motorcycle cop outfit with spider regalia who always appears to the dulcet sounds of the needle-dropped Iron Butterfly non-classic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is just another day at the (imaginary) office for me and where the absence of bile-puking midgets in a film seems downright quaint. However, this doesn't mean Örümcek isn't a lot of fun. Oguz has an excellent eye for the hysterical punch-up and shoot-out, drops the needle creatively and even seems somewhat in control of his material. What more could I want from my pop and pulp cinema?


From Twitter 05-17-2010

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  • Battle Royale 3D. Because randomly adding the fad of the minute to innocent movies is always such a good idea. See also, colorization.
  • Am now awaiting the 3D version of Murnau's "Nosferatu".
  • Ban this sick filth!

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Music Monday: Buried (In False Starts) Edition

From Twitter 05-16-2010

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Doctor Strain The Body Snatcher (1991)

How does a nice boy like Jesse (Carmine Puccio) end up in an institution for the criminally insane (if that in fact is what the empty cellar room on screen is supposed to be)?

It all begins when the freshly graduated youngster decides to go and work for his uncle Doctor Strain (David Winkler), who - like all truly great scientists - works alone in little house in the middle of nowhere.

Strain is developing a method to induce cell regeneration, but a never explained incident has infected him with his own invention, and now he is beginning to take on the features of overripe cheese.

The scientist convinces his nephew to help him find a cure for his problem. Obviously, the way to Strain's rescue lies in the reanimation of the bodies of dead criminals who will be needed components for some soul transfer magic. Unfortunately, Strain and Jesse have to cope with repeated setbacks of an unfathomable nature, until the good Doctor decides that enough is enough. It would be much more pleasant to send his soul into Jesse's body.

As sound as this plan might be, Strain has not expected that his creator has watched Re-Animator.

Oh, Doctor Strain, where do you come from and why are you here? Wait, don't tell me, or you'll ruin your mystique!

Before I start gushing, let me warn people of class and taste. Doctor Strain is a true backyard production, most probably made by a couple of friends and acquaintances without much (practical or theoretical) knowledge of filmmaking, and looks, sounds and smells that way. The script is bad, the acting worse, and every technical aspect of the film is deeply flawed. So, if you expect an actual movie, this is not for you.

I for my part never expect to find an actual movie when I peer into my box of dubious cinematic treasures, so I can wallow in the special beauty that only a non-movie like Doctor Strain can provide. This film is a true treasure trove of the inexplicable, with so much to love. First and foremost, there's the acting. Winkler and Puccio stumble, ramble and mumble through their lines, reach beyond mere bad acting into a special place only a few dare touch. There is not a single line reading that sounds natural, or human, not a single sentence that isn't drawn out for what seems like minutes. Especially Winkler is wondrously weird, pausing after every third word as if he has forgotten where he is or what he's supposed to be doing. It's a very special performance I'm bound not to forget.

Of course, the script gives the actors fantastic stuff to work with. Winkler is graced with one of the longest and most monotone mad scientist monologues this side of Ed Wood (that's a compliment, folks), with sentences like "Man science is of no avail to us here! We must use GAWD science!" only the beginning of glorious nonsensicality. Later on, he also has a very long magical ritual to stumble through. It's quite perfect.

The puzzling effect of the dialogue and the acting is further strengthened by the bad audio. Much of the dialogue seems to be squeezed onto one audio channel, while the other one is reserved for white noise and the film's score. Said score is just as fantastically bizarre as the rest of the film. I suspect that it is the product of a one-handed, deaf man and his casio keyboard, or, really, someone programming a synthesizer (with beat box) to make random, rhythmic noises. Say what you want, but that's the perfect fit for the things happening on screen.

Although I'll have to admit there isn't much happening on screen. Action highpoints are a zombie who seems to have ice cream on his face wrestling lacklusterly with Jesse, another zombie (this one green-faced) lying on his back in an open grave and shaking his arms like a particularly hopeless beetle, and Strain's soul transference ritual, which for some reason includes a slowly moving skeleton with large earthworms in its eyes.

Apart from that, there's much slow and confused talking, a long and loveable scene of split screen science and an off-screen explosion, until everything climaxes in a very slow chase sequence between Strain (by now dressed like the Invisible Man and played by a different actor) and Jesse. In a moment of rampant avantgardism (I'm sure it can't be stupidity, incompetence or bad luck), the film's two (think about that) directors decide not to show us the end of the chase, leaving the audience forever disturbed by the uncertainty of destiny. Well, that, or staring at the screen with a puzzled expression.


From Twitter 05-15-2010

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

In short: La Maldicion De La Momia Azteca (1957)

Now that mildly evil mad scientist Dr. Krupp aka The Bat (Luis Aceves Castaneda) has been caught by the police, and the Aztec Mummy (Angel Di Stefani) is merrily sleeping with his beloved magic doodads again, the life of the family of Doctor Almada (Ramon Gay) should go back to normal again.

Alas, some of Dr. Krupp's henchmen are still at large and are freeing their master from the hands of the police faster than most people would think possible. Not even the intervention of the masked wrestler El Angel (not to be confused with El Santo, whose movie adventures would only start in 1961, and who was still "only" an exceedingly popular luchador at the time) can prevent the evil mastermind's escape. The rest of the film will make clear that El Angel's intervention won't prevent anything at all - he's basically a masked punching bag.

The freshly freed Dr. Krupp has a plan. He still wants the Aztec treasure to finance his dastardly experiments, but he knows that only the mummy's magical doodads can take him there and that only Alamada's fiancé Flor (Rosa Arenas) can lead him to them - notwithstanding the fact that it were Almada and his cowardly assistant Pinacate (Crox Alvarado) who returned the objects to their place of origin. We don't call the guy a mastermind because he's clever.

Be that as it may, Krupp decides that it is best to kidnap Flor, hypnotize her, get the girl to tell him where the doodads are hidden, fetch the doodads, then kidnap Alamada, get Alamada to translate the writing on the doodads that leads to the treasure, fetch the treasure, and not get killed by a rampaging mummy.

I don't see how anything could go wrong for him.

Rafael Portillo's La Malidicion De La Momia Azteca drops any pretensions the first Aztec Mummy film, La Momia Azteka, had of being a horror film and concentrates on the pulpy serial elements of its plot, completely sidelining the titular mummy until the final fifteen minutes, but adding an early (although not, as some people seem to believe, the first) appearance of that mainstay of Mexican pop cinema, the masked, heroic luchador. It's just too bad that El Angel is so utterly useless, only winning one of his various fights - characteristically the one where he has the assistance of a teenage boy and attacks his enemy from behind - and doing nothing actually heroic whatsoever. At least, the demasking scene explains the "hero"'s crapness, and thereby gives the whole masked man episode a weird streak of realism in a film that is about as divorced from reality as my dreams of becoming the Emperor of America. It is probably best to see El Angel as another baby step on the way to the true lucha hero, that is, a masked guy who is not overshadowed by a middle-aged archaeologist.

Still, El Angel's uselessness aside, La Maldicion is quite a fun film if you are inclined to like straightforwardly directed films with overacting bad guys with silly plans and randomly placed snake pits, enthusiastic (non-choreographed in a serial style) brawls, wild and woolly plots, snazzily dressed gangsters and, um, well, that's about all there is to see here, really. But it's fast and fun enough to provide an entertaining time.

From Twitter 05-14-2010

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Roningai no kaoyaku (1963)

aka A Brave Ronin

aka Street of Wandering Men

The freshly minted ronin Tsugumi (Utaemon Ichikawa) has just arrived in Edo and is already following his perfectly developed sense of being a good guy into trouble. He helps hide a Geisha named Somekichi from a group of yakuza who are trying to catch her. It seems Somekichi has learned a bit too much about the plans of the Hanya yakuza during her professional duties, but what exactly it is she knows the audience will learn only much later.

Both Tsugumo and Somekichi need a cheap and inconspicuous place to stay, and become neighbours in a low-rent boarding house frequented by down-on-their-luck ronin. Obviously, it will not be the samurai's only run-in with the Hanya. Even when - after some altercations with the yakuza - Somekichi is seemingly safe, Tsugumi still manages to get into the gangsters' way.

Without knowing of a connection to the gang, he helps another ronin, the sad alcoholic Fujimura, to get his sister back from the clutches of corrupt, lecherous officials. Fujimura has basically sold his virginal sister to the morally deviant ones, but has an awakening of conscience before anything truly bad can happen to her. Unfortunately, the sad little man lacks the imposing character needed to get her back. Tsugumi has that type of character in spades, and has no problems bringing the girl back home. Ironically, this again disturbs the plan of his least favourite yakuza clan, for they had wanted to use Fujimura's sister as a very special bribe. At least, everyone not a yakuza is happy.

Most people not Tsugumi or his new-found group of friends would probably flee the area and move into the turf of a different yakuza group, but Tsugumi is not going to go the easy way.

Formally, Rojingai no kaoyaku is quite a conservative film and must already have looked a bit old-fashioned to eyes witnessing the explosion in creativity that had just begun to drive the various sub-genres of the samurai film into fascinating visual and political directions, an explosion that wouldn't stop until the beginning of the 80s (the most dreadful decade in Japanese genre film, if you ask me). Compared with the films of this beginning new wave, Rojingai isn't much too look at - director Yasushi Sasaki tries his best to not let his set-bound film look too stagey, but even though the camera is moving, there's a stiffness and staticness to the film's look that lets it feel older than it actually is. Sasaki still manages to stage quite a dramatic climax, although the absence of cutting sound effects and visible blood looks a bit quaint to eyes used to the bloodier and louder side of the samurai film.

The predominant acting style is similarly old-fashioned, again a bit stagey, a bit stiff, yet working perfectly nice if one is able to accept the rules it works by. Naturalism certainly isn't the only effect acting can be trying to achieve.

Ichikawa is undeniably charismatic, and his Tsugumi is likeable and surprisingly understanding of other people's weaknesses for one not prone to being openly weak himself. Films with morally upright main characters often tend to overlook how annoying - and, frankly, inhuman - preachy heroes who look down on everyone who isn't as perfect as they are can become, so it is nice to find a film that understands that it is helpful to make one's superhuman hero still feel human. Tsugumi doesn't help people because he feels superior to them, but because he can (and is driven to out of a sense of duty more interested in serving a community than a lord he doesn't have anymore). It seems like quite a humanist view for a film that looks this old-fashioned, but I haven't seen enough chambara or jidai geki films made before 1962 to tell if this humanism is based on a connection to more progressive ways of thinking particular to the film, or its director or star, or if it is typical for the state of the genre. If someone more knowledgeable could enlighten me regarding this point, I would be more than thankful.

Watching the film, I at times had the feeling of witnessing a less bourgeois Japanese Frank Capra movie with sword fights. The film is full of the belief that a group of the poor, the weak, and the disenfranchised can stand up to the mighty and corrupt and win against them through the virtue of the goodness of their hearts, which mirrors the basic goodness of the universe. On one level, this is of course incredibly naive and baselessly optimistic, yet I for one am not going to criticize a film for having a positive outlook on the possibility of change from below, even if it can show us this change only through a heroic figure standing out from and inspiring the masses with the quality of his character. I'd love to compare the film's world view to the one of the novel it is based on, or to that of the half a dozen other movie adaptations of it, but, again, I'm coming up empty by virtue of not having a clue (and don't just want to copy stuff I read on the 'net and pretend to know what I'm talking about).

So, while Roningai no kaoyaku is not too much to look at, it still is a very enjoyable film; a feelgood chambara.


From Twitter 05-13-2010

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  • You know that Portal is free for the next eleven days? But everyone owns the game already, right?
  • New blog post: In short: Forgotten Silver (1995): So, what do you do after you have created some of the core texts...
  • In the civilized part of the world, it's self-evident that making fun of someone's cancer is despicable, whatever you think of his politics
  • or his movie critics. US "conservatives" are of course beyond civilization or basic human decency.
  • (And by critics, I mean criticism. Blast you, second language!)
  • Singer/songwriter Jane Siberry has freed her whole catalogue:
  • You know what? I don't think fan-funding was invented to make the life of major labels easier.
  • The always worth reading @Paulineagain about a pirate monk:
  • Dario Argento's "Dracula in 3D"? I can't possible comment on that.
  • Or possibly, even. Sorry, Twitter, I can't spell anymore.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

In short: Forgotten Silver (1995)

So, what do you do after you have created some of the core texts of the splatter comedy sub-genre out of next to no money and a lot of passion and have finished directing your first film with something of an actual budget? Peter Jackson (and his partner in crime Costa Botes) decided to make a fake documentary about the very fictitious filmmaking pioneer Colin McKenzie (Thomas Robins), a luckless genius if ever there was one.

New Zealander McKenzie invented every basic element of modern filmmaking before everyone else did, from sound film to colour film to the tracking shot to the close-up, but was hindered in his artistic endeavours by one disaster after the next, not even able to finish his magnum opus, a decades-in-the-making version of "Salome".

Forgotten Silver is often seen as an inventive parody of documentary films, but to me, it functions more as a Tall Tale about the early days of filmmaking, the early history of the last century interfering with the life of people, and people on the margins staying marginalized. Sure, Jackson and Botes also make fun of the absurd assumption that something told in the tone of a documentary must be true, even if the tale it tells is patently absurd, but this doesn't seem to be the film's main gist to me (and really, if something is as self-evident as the untrustworthiness of documentary films, there's no need to spend an hour-long movie demonstrating it).

Jackson and Botes dive into the fabulist aspect of their film with wild abandon, starting out with absurd ideas like a steam-driven film projector and don't seem willing or able to stop themselves from getting stranger from there. Even though some of the ideas or jokes by necessity fall a little flat, there's no arguing with the enthusiasm with which the directors tell their story, or moments of utter genius where love for film and filmmaking seem to give the film a warm glow. The film's final ten minutes, which consist of a condensed version of McKenzie's unfinished "Salome", the imaginary film (besides "The King in Yellow") I'd most like to see, are especially lovely in this respect.

Love seems to be Forgotten Silver's central emotion to me: it is there in the tragic love story (of course there is one) between McKenzie and his Salome May Belle (Sarah McLeod), the obvious affection for the visionaries and intellectual outlaws that were the early filmmakers (the anti-thesis to the passionless canon-building self-important middle-aged white men of today's professional film criticism), love for New Zealand, and the love for telling an outrageous made-up story for other people to fall in love with.


From Twitter 05-12-2010

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  • Let me just note that the new China Mieville novel is probably his best yet.
  • New blog post: King of Kings (1969): Warning! Not a film about the Sweet Baby Jesus! We are in old, martial world...
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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

King of Kings (1969)

Warning! Not a film about the Sweet Baby Jesus!

We are in old, martial world China. A high up government person holds a tourney to bequeath the winner with the position of "county escort". It looks like the swordsman Shin is the winner, but when he is just in the process of being officially pronounced the new escort, a rather rude and impetuous guy with a face hidden by his insanely large hat who calls himself Thunder Sword jumps into the arena and demands a fight. A fight he gets.

Thunder Sword wins the duel, leaving Shin dying on the ground, to the despair of Shin's wife and children who witness everything. Instead of taking the position that is now rightfully his, Thunder Sword rides away, muttering something about only having wanted to test his mettle. Mrs Shin dies shortly thereafter of melodramatic shock, leaving her son and daughter penniless orphans. Both swear vengeance, and after a lot of crying each of the children is taken in by a different martial arts master.

Years later, the boy has grown up into Ku Chung, a fighter with the charming nickname of Man Killer (Peter Yang Kwan). He deserves the name too, for he spends his time roaming the country randomly killing everyone who just might be Thunder Sword. He really isn't very particular and follows a "better safe than sorry rule". Going by his state of mind, it won't take long until Ku Chung will lose it completely and become the first true serial killer of the martial world. Fortunately, Man Killer needs his sword sharpened and just happens to stumble into the abode of a certain Devil Blacksmith (Ma Kei?). The blacksmith isn't sharpening swords for just anyone, though, and begins to teach the murderous young man moral philosophy.

At first, it doesn't seem to take, but some dead bodies later, Ku Chung has a break-down. He begins to practice non-lethal forms of ass-kickery and tries to be a much nicer guy, largely with success. Alas, Ku Chung can't stop thinking about the vengeance he swore to take. He wants Thunder Sword to be the last person he will ever kill. The final confrontation with his elusive enemy will include a reunion with his sister (Cheung Ching-Ching) - also in the revenge biz - and two very dramatic revelations.

I mostly know King of Kings' director Joseph Kuo as the man responsible for countless Carter Wong (the most boring man in martial arts cinema, if you ask me) vehicles, but a closer look at his filmography shows a director active since the end of the 50s who had already made every sort of film, from melodrama to wuxia, before Wong was even born. Watching this film, you wouldn't believe how experienced a director Kuo already was, though. It's not that the direction is truly bad or incompetent, but the film does not show anything amounting to a stylistic personality. The way King of Kings looks is absolutely typical of Taiwanese wuxia of its time and place and could easily be confused with any film made by anyone at the time and place. If you are looking for visual excitement, you are in the wrong place.

The film is rather roughly plotted and filmed (and the print I saw is missing bits and pieces here and there), never developing a rhythm of its own. On the other hand, the genre standard scenes are done perfectly competent, and if you like bog-standard wuxia as much as I do, they make for pleasant enough viewing.

Kuo isn't completely ambitionless either. The "vengeance is bad and makes people to monsters" morals are used quite consequently, and treated with as much importance as the fighting and the jumping. The film doesn't even have a climactic battle, but can instead be proud of a climactic dialogue scene with lots of crying, a turn of events you don't see every day in martial arts cinema. Unfortunately, Kuo is no King Hu, and King of Kings isn't A Touch of Zen, and so what should be a tragedy drifts away into the realm of stiff melodrama. Still, Kuo is trying something different with the ethics of his film where many of his peers didn't bother, and that deserves a little respect, even if, as is the case with King of Kings, his trying doesn't amount to too much in the end.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In short: Hate Thy Neighbour (1968)

Bandit leader Gary Stevens (George Eastman) and his gang kill a guy named Bill Dakota and his wife, accidentally leaving the couple's little son Pat (Claudio Castellani) alive.

When Bill's brother Ken (Spiros Focas) hears of the affair, he is rather displeased. After a bit of fisticuffs to punish the local sheriff for not helping his brother against Stevens (the film's forgetting this plot element after the brawl, so there's no need for me to get into it any further), Ken grabs the comic relief funeral home owner and hobby musician Duke (Roberto Risso) and rides off to Mexico, where Stevens is supposed to hide out.

It turns out that Stevens killed Bill to acquire a map leading to a hidden goldmine, and that the bandit has a partner - Malone (Horst Frank in his usual sadistic rich guy in a white suit role), a big shot in Mexico. Not that Ken does anything with that information once he has it…

Stevens and Malone soon don't see eye to eye anymore, and so Malone puts his old buddy into a death trap (elements: rope, snake pit, rope-gnawing rats). In an intensely un-Spaghetti Western scene, Ken frees Stevens and drags him in front of a judge who does in fact sentence the bad guy to death by hanging.

Of course, that's not the end of it all. Malone frees Stevens, Stevens kidnaps Pat and Ken finally has to get off his arse to do something more lethal.

Abstractly, Ferdinando Baldi's Hate Thy Neighbour is a well-made film. It's beautifully photographed (nice locations, some clever framing) by Enzo Serafin (in the business since 1941), well edited, in short just plain nice to look at and technically excellent.

Unfortunately, its visual slickness can't hide the film's lack of substance or excitement. The script just seems to go through the motions, working through Spaghetti Western tropes without truly making use of them. The film drops each and every interesting idea it has after about five minutes, never to mention it again, reminding me of the main character in Memento, but without the tattoos.

The characters are neither developed nor used as archetypes. It's a little as if they all were just standing around in front of the cameras because they had nothing better to do. Even dependable character actors like Horst Frank and George Eastman aren't projecting much of their usual charisma here.

Worse, Spiros Focas might be the most boring Spaghetti Western hero I have ever seen. I'm now terribly sorry for ever having made fun of Dean Reed. I couldn't mention even a single character trait, or a gimmick, or anything memorable about Hate Thy Neighbour's supposed central character. Even his clothes are boring.

You'd think that Ken's insistence on bringing Stevens to court instead of killing the man himself would give him at least a little bit of depth, but the film and Focas present this moment in so flat a way that there is just not the slightest bit of resonance to the scene. Like everything else in the film, it seems only to be there to fill out the running time with something, anything, as long as it just wastes another five minutes of the viewer's life.

Somehow, I don't think that's what a genre movie should do.