Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Men From The Gutter (1983)

In jarring contrast to movie cops everywhere else, Hong Kong policemen have to work more than one case at once, so HK cops Qiu Zhenming (Michael Miu) and Sergeant Zhao (Lo Meng) have to be able to cope with two problems at once. Their life is certainly not made easier by the fact that the two men can't stand each other. Zhao thinks Qiu is too soft, while Qiu takes Zhao to be so ruthless and violent that he does more harm than good. In a bizarre turn towards believability, both men won't learn to respect and love each other.

Not that the cases they are working on are leaving them much time for any of that sort of business. Firstly, there's a luckless group of ex-convicts lead by Wang Guangtai (Parkman Wong) planning an armed assault on a jewellery transport for the policemen to cope with. How luckless are they? Wang shoots a police officer even before they have done anything more illegal than buying weapons.

The second case regards the quite single-minded Zi Jian (Jason Pai Piao), a gangster who has come to Hong Kong to take bloody (and he means bloody) vengeance on gangster boss Xu Wen (Wong Yung) for trying to kill him.

Where Wang and his friends are just your typical losers trying to escape poverty and desperation, Zi Jian is a one-man army, and sure enough, the latter will turn out to be a much larger problem for the police than the former.

In 1983, the Shaw Brothers studios were in the beginning of their death throes. Many of their films of this and the following two years were somewhat desperate seeming attempts at becoming relevant to their audience again, at times leading to confoundingly weird films or, like in the case of Men From The Gutter, to films that neither look nor feel like earlier Shaw Brothers movies at all, even if they are part of genres the studio had a lot of experience in, like the "based on a true story" exploitationer.

The film's director Ngai Kai Lam/Lam Nai-Choi is today better known for his weird-o-fu fantasy film The Seventh Curse and the absurd violent thing that is Story of Ricky, but he also had quite a hand for grim and brutal crime films with a helping of HK New Wave hyper-realism like this one.

Men From The Gutter is related to the ripped-from-the-headlines brutalism that would a few years later become a staple of CATIII cinema and stands in marked aesthetic contrast to the pop sensibility the Shaw Brothers news exploitation movies of the 70s exhibited. Where the old films were all artificial colours and stylish ugliness, Lam's movie goes for a less stylish version of the grimy (that is of course just as artificial as the older model, but puts a lot of its artifice into not showing it), all dirt and grime and beautifully photographed poverty.

The film looks at the people running and shouting and killing before that background with cool, distanced sympathy, taking no sides and making not much of a moral judgement on anyone (except Xu Wen, who is obviously too rich to deserve anything more in characterization than "proper bastard"), be he or she cop or robber, but still shows the carnage everybody's life here descends into with a slight undertone of sadness for humanity. Neither this sympathy nor this sadness let Lam forgot that he is supposed to make an action film here, and so much of the film's running time consists of the sort of sharp, short, fast edited, and quite brutal looking violence the director does so well in those of his films that don't include fights against aliens or Fan Siu-Wong punching through someone's body.

The sense of real physicality surrounding the action here is of course typical for the new wave of Hong Kong action of the time, but Lam's film does not share the slightly chaotic feel which is also part of that tradition. Instead, even the most heated sequence of events here (and especially Zi Jian's final fight is as heated as they come) is shown in a way that seems coolly controlled by the director. Again, the film shows a marked friction between the intensity of the things happening on screen and the distance with which director and film seem to regard them; it's as if Lam would like his audience to feel uncomfortable with what he's showing as much as he wants them to enjoy it in his own version of the classical exploitation dilemma of needing to wallow in what one criticizes.

Men From The Gutter is not at all a film I would have expected as part of the late period Shaw Brothers' output, but it's as nice a surprise as I could have wished for.


From Twitter 08-30-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-29-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-28-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-27-... http://bit.ly/9hEGQE
  • RT @matociquala: New #shadowunit, in which Much Is Revealed: http://shadowunit.org/standard.html
  • New blog post: Music Monday: Happiness on TV Edition: Technorati-Tags: music monday,music,candi staton http://bit.ly/9j7FNb
  • I'm fully committed to funneling the core lunch demographic into my belly.
  • RT @ubuweb: Hanatarash (Yamantaka Eye & Mitsuru Tabata) - 'Hanatarashi' (1985) [MP3]: http://is.gd/4Xnsi (@boa_arts)
  • Whoa, all Age of Wonders coming on DD services!? http://www.ageofwonders.com/ (From one of those comment threads I don't read anymore)
  • Insert the word "games" at an appropriate place, please.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Music Monday: Happiness on TV Edition

From Twitter 08-29-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-28-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-27-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-26-... http://bit.ly/cEdTBh
  • New blog post: The Brotherhood of Satan (1971): Ben (Charles Bateman), his daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl) and his gi... http://bit.ly/9rvk8l
  • So, after "Are games art?" we have now arrived at "Are games mainstream?" & "Can they ever be?". Personally, I go for "Why should I care?".

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

Ben (Charles Bateman), his daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl) and his girlfriend Nicky (Ahna Capri) are on their way to visit K.T.'s grandmother for the child's birthday. Somehow, the family manage to get themselves lost, and are confronted with some slightly peculiar circumstances that culminate in the discovery of a car wreck (with assorted dead bodies) by the side of the road. It looks as if it has been flattened by a tank, which in a sense is exactly what happened to it.

There's a small town nearby, but the help Ben and Nicky might have hoped for there isn't forthcoming. First, the Sheriff (the movie's producer and writer, long-time character actor L.Q. Jones) only asks very peculiar and suspicious questions with just the right hint of fear lying below them, but that's nothing against the reaction the rest of the town's inhabitants shows; there's the promise of mob violence in the air.

Ben does the logical thing and drives away like someone with an angry mob on his family's tail should, but is soon stopped by that old classic, the appearing/then disappearing mysterious robed person on the road that likes to break innocent cars with its trick.

So it's back to town for the family. There, they first sneak into a house where they find more dead bodies. For some reason, they decide to go back to the sheriff. Fortunately, everyone's much more rational now, and some time around now, the sheriff must explain what is actually going on around here (not that the audience is allowed to hear - we have to puzzle everything together for ourselves): families have been brutally slaughtered, their children have disappeared, and some violent power has isolated the town from the rest of the world. Everyone's tired and doesn't know what's going on.

What the townspeople don't know is that a coven of elderly satanists has taken possession of their town and is planning on using the children in a ritual needed to guarantee their immortality, as they seem to have done many times before.

The Brotherhood of Satan is a difficult case, at once frustrating and compelling. The film was directed by TV specialist Bernard McEveety, and is much nicer to look at as well as more thoughtfully directed than you'd expect by someone coming from the small screen. McEveety really knows how to use the wide screen format, and he also knows how to convey a feeling of isolation in wide open spaces. There are some moments of great visual power in the film, especially surrounding the murders, which are committed through a sympathetic magic that lets only half-real, yet very tangible correspondences of children's toys do the killing. McEveety mostly only hints at the way this is happening instead of showing it and so manages to avoid the possible ridiculousness of large animatronic dolls ripping people apart. A single tear rolling down a doll's blank uncaring eye is a lot more disquieting than anything the film could show. Alas, McEveety doesn't go through with this technique for the whole of the film, so late in the game there's one decapitation by knight that is shown much too clearly. Obviously, it doesn't work at all and doesn't fit the film's mood to boot.

The film's love for hinting instead of showing is at once its great strength and its great comedown. While never telling anything to one's audience directly is certainly helpful in keeping up a mood of uncertainty and slight irreality, there are too many moments here where not explaining things just doesn't make sense. I was never able to understand what the non-Satanist characters were doing and why - their part in the plot seems too passive to be believable. Sure, it is thematically and emotionally fitting (and it's the 70s, too) to show the figures of authority as helpless and ineffectual, but I still suspect that it would have been better if the film showed them doing something and failing at it than to just have them sitting around looking sleepy for most of the time. Their passivity and the fact that the film's plot just seems to stop after the half-hour mark gives Brotherhood of Satan a feeling of stasis that threatens to devolve into simple boredom at any moment. In fact, less patient viewers might be bored very early on and become unwilling to follow the film to its conclusion.

I'm pretty sure my background with watching European horror movies of the 60s and 70s helped me quite a bit with getting through the film and getting something out of it. Although most European films of the period aren't quite as drab as Brotherhood gets, and quite as disinterested in having things happen on screen, the film shows a clear connection to their non-realist sensibilities.

The differences between this and most Italian or French movies of the style is that the European films would try to make their slow bits visually more arresting or put some sleaze or blood in the foreground to distract or hypnotize the audience, both things McEveety's film unfortunately eschews.

Still, I found The Brotherhood of Satan very much worth watching. I won't deny that the movie's boring parts are extraordinarily boring, but its creepy parts are exceptionally creepy, and its strange parts exceedingly strange.


From Twitter 08-28-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-27-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-26-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-25-... http://bit.ly/ci2DX5
  • New blog post: In short: Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die (1968): Bill Kiowa (Brett Halsey) has spent years in jail ... http://bit.ly/ceA81a
  • Why are modern ultra low budget horror movies from the UK so much better than those from the US? Or am I just watching the right ones?
  • The important things in life. http://tinyurl.com/39j2hr9

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

In short: Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die (1968)

Bill Kiowa (Brett Halsey) has spent years in jail for a robbery he didn't commit. He has used his time leveling up his fast-drawing skills, and is now bound for revenge on James Elfego (Tatsuya Nakadai, oh yeah) who framed him and killed his Indian wife.

Kiowa soon learns that his enemy's gang has grown in the intervening years, and decides he'll need help in his vengeance project. So he puts together a team of four excellent gunmen (among them Bud Spencer and William Berger) to assist him.

Elfego for his part does not like to be hunted and tries to change his role from that of the hunted into that of the hunter.

Tonino Cervi's film would probably fall under the large umbrella of solid and entertaining examples of the Spaghetti Western genre I can not find a single word to say about, if not for the excellent stuntcasting of the great Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai as its big bad. Hooray for the Italian/Japanese friendship!

Unfortunately, the script doesn't give Nakadai as much to do as one would hope for (I suspect the language barrier made it difficult to let him do more dialogue-heavy scenes than strictly necessary for the plot), but Nakadai still does some excellent Kinski-style scenery-chewing, making bug eyes like Amrish Puri and looking dangerously mad quite like himself.

Cervi (or co-writer Dario Argento?) also puts in two fight scenes styled after chambara fights in which Nakadai wields a machete as if it were a katana, while the soundtrack pretends to belong to a Japanese movie. It's of course as ridiculous as it is awesome.

It's a bit of a shame the good guys aren't as interesting. While Spencer and Berger at least seem to have fun playing some of their stock characters, Halsey's "Franco Nero as Django" performance put comes over as a bit bland and unexciting instead of the mysterious and dangerous he is probably going for. The other two characters, as well as the bad henchpeople, are so underwritten as to be non-existent.

Today We Kill also starts off much slower than necessary. Once the film hits has hit its stride, though, it's getting exciting - though not original - enough. I'd call the film's finale of cat and mouse games in an atmospheric (and very European looking) forest even very good. Suddenly, Cervi's direction, perhaps inspired by the autumn forest, becomes moody and creative, at times even intense.

Intense enough that I'd recommend the film to non-Spaghetti-completists even without Nakadai's participation.


From Twitter 08-27-2010

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  • New blog post: On WTF: The White Buffalo (1977): There is only a disappointingly small number of Westerns that inc... http://bit.ly/9djjyV
  • Play with your own private Rod Serling! http://tinyurl.com/5kqqp5 (via Nerdcore)
  • Whoever had the idea to let the very dead William Castle do the PR for his NY film retrospective has understood the spirit of the man
  • So that's what they meant with "Hope I die before I get old". http://tinyurl.com/36kavgg

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Friday, August 27, 2010

On WTF: The White Buffalo (1977)

There is only a disappointingly small number of Westerns that incorporate elements of the weird and the fantastic, but from time to time, one stumbles about one of those few in places where one least expected them.

In this case, buried in the filmography of J. Lee Thompson and Charles Bronson and financed by good old mad Dino De Laurentiis.

It's a film about Wild Bill Hickock and Crazy Horse hunting a not completely natural white buffalo, and my write-up on WTF-Film explains why I loved it.


From Twitter 08-26-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-25-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-24-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-23-... http://bit.ly/byXe6Q
  • So, Tom Chick doesn't want people to quote from posts on his forum. Could someone please explain that thing we call "the Internet" to him?
  • Also, he's an arse, but I don't think anyone can help with that.
  • New blog post: Three Films Make A Post: She became the Ravaged Victim of a Century of Revenge!: Instant Numa (2009... http://bit.ly/b4PWXR
  • It's also quite interesting that the same people who usually complain that games journalists are cutting games too much slack when it comes
  • to bugs, are now complaining when PCGamer (and RPS) don't cut "Elemental" slack for being buggy on release.
  • Now, I want to see something less annoying and more positively exciting in my RSS feed, please.
  • Something about Lovecraft, say. Or the fact that the wonderful "Fish Story" is finally out on sub-titled DVD (and nobody told me).
  • Oh, alright, this will do: http://www.awesomenessreminders.com/ (via MeFi)
  • And yes, it was obviously a mistake to begin reading comment threads on gaming sites again.
  • Finally getting around to reading Sarah Langan. I'm really impressed by the first two thirds of "The Keeper" (and hopefully the rest of it).
  • RT @davidkidd: Right Back at Ya, Mr Chick http://ff.im/-pKeaN
  • Really good (and free) country/soul album: http://choosybeggars.bandcamp.com/

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: She became the Ravaged Victim of a Century of Revenge!

Instant Numa (2009): Needs a lot of time to get going, but once it does, this comedy is often quite funny in a good-natured and very Japanese way, though the film's positivity/start-believin' mongering can become a bit annoying. With a running time of 120 minutes, the film is also way too long for its own good. Cut down to 90 or 100 minutes, I'd call it an excellent comedy, as it stands it's just good.

Survivors of director Satoshi Miki's earlier The Insects Unlisted In The Encyclopedia will probably be delighted to hear that there are only one and a half excretion-based jokes, one of 'em even kind of funny.


Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected (2005): This earlier movie by Satoshi about a terminally bored and lonely housewife who escapes her boredom by joining an absurdist spy ring that needs her to live as normal and boring as possible is shorter and more to the point than Instant Numa (and also only contains one excrement joke). A quietly charming Juri Ueno wins me over to a film whose quietly weird humour and good natured mocking of its characters (which seems to be Satoshi's thing outside of Insects) probably would not even have needed her help in that.


Searching For Haizmann (2003): A documentary film crew goes on the search for a centuries old painter who has after a pact with the devil become the Anti-Christ (who knew that adoption is enough in a case like this!), all the while torturing the helpless audience with bad acting of the type that fits the mockumentary format the least, the brightest lighting you'll ever find in a horror film, a painfully stupid and unimaginative script whose conception of evil is on the level of a Scooby Doo cartoon and the worst damn black mass I've ever had the bad luck to see in a movie, while a bunch of down-on-their-luck character actors (poor Tippi Hedren!) pretend to be experts on occultism in intercut interview bits.

On paper this is not even contemporary US independent horror at its worst, but I think the slight competence on display in aspects like editing, framing or audio make the film an even less pleasant experience than your typical rough backyard production is. Those films can at least surprise me (even if it is only through especially painful incompetence). Searching's only surprise is that it reminded my of the old Sonic Youth song "Satan is Boring".

I'd suggest that even my most hardened readers avoid this thing.


From Twitter 08-25-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-24-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-23-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-22-... http://bit.ly/9aCoLX
  • Brad Wardell doesn't want me to buy his game? Alright, Brad, I'm going to put the money I planned on spending on it next month to better use
  • Oh, the snark's about this: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010/08/25/stardock-rescind-own-bill-of-rights/
  • (And it's really too bad - I was kind of excited about the game)
  • Yeah I know, too many zombies already etc, but in this case, I don't think I care: http://tinyurl.com/2wky447
  • What did I do to deserve this movie? Surely I'm not _that_ bad a guy.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Echo Murders (1945)

James Duncan (Julien Mitchell), the irascible owner of a mine in Cornwall, is in a lot of trouble. Shadowy gentlemen are trying to buy his mine off of him, and his reluctance to sell only leads to a (probably a little tense) visit by an out-of-town tough guy and dynamite attacks on Duncan's mine. As if this wasn't enough of a problem, the mine owner's secretary Rainsford (Dennis Arundell) is also trying to blackmail him into selling off the mine, sharing the proceeds with him and giving him the hand of Duncan's (secretly adopted) daughter Stella (Pamela Stirling) who is right now quite close to Dick Warren (Dennis Price), one of Duncan's employees. Of course, if Duncan hadn't murdered Stella's true father in an act of rage many years ago and put it down in a practical letter that has found its way into Rainsford's possession, he wouldn't be in a position to be blackmailed, so there's no need to cry for the capitalist.

Still, Duncan is clever enough to understand he needs help, and so sends a wax cylinder with a plea to a famous detective residing in Baker Street in London. Nope, it's not Sherlock Holmes, but Sexton Blake (David Farrar). Unfortunately, sending out his message is the last thing Duncan is going to do, because he is shot directly afterwards.

When Blake arrives in the mining town, his enquiries soon lead him to the health cult of a man named Beales (Kynaston Reeves). Though seemingly mild-mannered and even rather wimpy, Beales just might be a Nazi agent trying to prepare Duncan's mine as the first foothold for an invasion force. Blake has a taxing job before him, and can look forward to being knocked out and captured by dastardly Nazi agents more than once.

As you know, Jim, Sexton Blake was a popular part of UK pulp culture for decades. As far as I know (and I can't say I'm much of an expert on Blake), Sexton Blake started out as a literary Sherlock Holmes knock-off, but soon developed into something quite a bit more action-oriented, probably comparable (and a forerunner) to the characters in the US hero pulps, complete with silly sidekicks and evil masterminds.

Blake was well-loved enough by the public to be the star of a short movie as early as 1909 and to feature in three different series of movies, but his success on screen can't have been too great, or the respective series would have been longer. The Echo Murders (the second Blake movie of the 40s) also wouldn't have been the last screen treatment the character would see before a BBC TV show of the late 60s and early 70s (that has been nearly completely destroyed in one of the BBC's idiotic archive purges) revived him.

The Echo Murders is good fun in the pulpy style of movies like the US Bulldog Drummond series, perhaps with a little less action but with a very satisfying lack of comic relief and a very British looking love for drinking tea.

It's certainly quite a low budget production, but director John Harlow makes the best out of what he has to work with. Thanks to Harlow's efforts, the movie doesn't feel as stagy as comparable Poverty Row productions made at the same time usually felt. Although most of the interior scenes are taking place on sets, there are quite a lot of them, and they seem to be large enough to afford the camera room to move a little, which always helps to make a set feel more like an actual place and is quite helpful when it comes to make a fast-moving storyline such as this feel dynamic and lively.

Mostly, The Echo Murders is how one expects a film like it to be. It's full of fisticuffs, some mild stunts, an evil plan that doesn't make much sense and stars a dapper detective who does classic two-fisted detecting without straining his brain too much. Basically, The Echo Murders is a fine Sunday morning diversion.


From Twitter 08-24-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-23-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-22-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-21-... http://bit.ly/dgnKuq
  • Apple is always worse than one could imagine. http://tinyurl.com/2eamsqx
  • New blog post: In short: Big Boobs Buster (1990): Japanese school girl Masako (Harumi Kai) is rejected by her drea... http://bit.ly/bQYibP
  • Not happy that the new Neverwinter Night's going to be a multiplayer/co-op thing without relevant singleplayer elements.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In short: Big Boobs Buster (1990)

Japanese school girl Masako (Harumi Kai) is rejected by her dream boy Bando, because her flat-chested-ness doesn't fit into his breast-fetishist picture of womanhood (that only includes skills like sewing; he wants his grandmother, but with tits, I suspect). Masako does the logical thing, that is she dresses up in a superhero unitard (complete with bolstered breasts), calls herself "Big Boobs Buster", steals a database of the local girls with larger breasts from an old pervert (Eisei Amamoto - yes, that Eisei Amamoto) and begins to assault the girls one after the other, taking moulds of their breasts. I'm not sure it was part of her plan that her victims enjoy the process as much as they do, but what can you do? Highpoint in her breast-stealing adventures is her fight against Bando's new girlfriend and her metal bra.

Her next victim is less easily conquered, though, and manages to press Masako into the track team by threatening her with lesbian sex. In the track team the girl learns that you can win races through training and determination, and that body building and milk are good for breast growth. On the plus side, Masako also learns that there's no need to waste one's time on guys who are only interested in one's tits and sewing abilities.

So, who put the sports mini-movie including a terrible training montage into my pervy weird Japanese short film? It's not that I hate sports movies and their obsession with winning and physical fitness above all else…oh, wait, I do hate them, and I hate them especially when elements of their mirthless existence turn up in a film like this that begins as a slightly less sleazy variation on Kekko Kamen and initially promises to get weirder the longer it runs.

Unfortunately, all that training and babbling about determination and the goddamn positive message about growing up the film feels the need to include break that promise with a vengeance. It's a shame, really, because the direction is enthusiastic and contrasts its bonkers moments neatly with the everyday locations they take place in, the acting's good enough and the film completely lacks in the mean-spiritedness is theme could suggest. Even some of the jokes are funny.

Of course, complaining that ten minutes out of a forty minute trifle aren't exactly what my poor perverted tastes were hoping for isn't really fair. Big Boobs Buster is still a fair enough time.


From Twitter 08-23-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-22-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-21-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-20-... http://bit.ly/c2W6s1
  • New blog post: Music Monday: They Might Be Laughing, But They're Still Clowns Edition: Technorati-Tags: music mo... http://bit.ly/c3kTvQ
  • It's only okay to shoot at pixels that represent brown people, says UK Defence Secretary. http://tinyurl.com/3yr56ee
  • Of course, he prefers it when actual human beings are shot instead of representations of them.
  • Ah, sometimes I wish I'd taken French in school instead of Latin. Mostly when I see something Japanese that's only been translated to French
  • 1.) Be a zombie 2.) Get arrested on spurious grounds 3.) Profit! http://tinyurl.com/37opb8o

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Music Monday: They Might Be Laughing, But They're Still Clowns Edition

From Twitter 08-22-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-21-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-20-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-19-... http://bit.ly/dkkYMK
  • New blog post: Ghosts (2002): A small group of doctors and nurses has been ordered to set up an emergency hospital... http://bit.ly/ae9doM
  • "I brought you a cup of herbal chocolate!"

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ghosts (2002)

A small group of doctors and nurses has been ordered to set up an emergency hospital in the most blue-coloured and Gothic part of China to ward off a not clearly defined plague of some sort (whose effects the film never shows, by the way).

Obviously, the best place to set up a hospital is a Catholic monastery that isn't exactly full of monks anymore. Still, there's Manfred Wong (Niu Piao), the abbot(?) and at least two other monks and a mute maid (Wu Meng-Meng). The film is as unclear about the population of the abbey and their positions in their order as it is about a lot of other things, so don't expect anything to make much sense.

Anyway, Manfred turns out to be the ex-boyfriend of the chief doctor, Angel (Li Xiao-Ran), and also to be quite in the grip of religious mania, supposedly charismatically ranting and raving a lot about his little talks with god. Manny also likes to hang himself on a cross and get whipped. Angel's fiancée or husband Ben (Nie Yuan), a psychologist, isn't too keen on Manny or his religion. He and the other members of the medical team don't like the abbot(?) any more when they learn that he has driven the local villagers into the belief that only God and not science can save them from the plague. Of course, they aren't willing to accept medical help now; a fact the film only tells us, instead of showing it.

So the doctors don't have much to do besides committing an overabundance of practical jokes and making fun of Manny's religion. Until, that is, a guy in a ghost mask begins to murder people. Oh my, whoever might he be?

Ghosts is one of the few mainland Chinese horror films I have been able to see, but I can't say it's a very good ad for mainland China's films of any genre.

Director Agan has made quite a schizophrenic concoction. The film tries to be at once a generic and clichéd slasher film, a Gothic melodrama and a propaganda film warning against the evils of Catholicism. Alas, it only succeeds in the first part and its dubious promises of illogically acting characters getting killed by some masked dude or the other.

Visually, Ghosts is really quite fantastic, at least if one likes slickly filmed and very blue Chinese variations on classic Gothic filmmaking, photographed with class and style. It is quite unfortunate that not much else about the film is slick or well done. The main problem is Ghosts' terrible script that seems to have been written with the new-fangled principle of "tell, don't show" in mind.

A truly absurd number of important plot points are just talked about instead of shown. Outside of one (rather lame) religious ritual, the film never shows us any of the villagers our heroes are supposed to save, making it quite difficult to care about their refusal to get treatment or the supposedly bad hygiene of the place.

Also only assumed but never shown is Manfred's incredible charisma. The film tells us early and often how magnetic he is supposed to be, but looking at Niu Piao doing his ranting and sweating schizophrenic bit and believing him to be charismatic are very different things. His growing influence on Angel is another aspect of the film that just doesn't work - there's just not the sort of chemistry between the actors to make it believable, and the script isn't setting their relationship up in any emotionally or logically believable way, again preferring telling to actually showing.

And then there's the anti-Catholicism. Now, I'm personally neither the biggest fan of religion at large or Catholicism specifically, but I was still quite annoyed by the direction the film took in this respect. When a movie is trying to demonstrate the evils of religion it should probably bother to either use the actual dogma of a given religion instead of random made-up shit or at least try to understand what its enemy is about, instead of basically doing a variation on the "Jews are poisoning wells" technique that has come down from the Dark Ages to Hitler. There is of course also always the possibility to just make up something batshit insane, but that's for movies that don't take their anti-religious stance as seriously as this one does.

There are only a few things apart from the visual slickness which recommend Ghosts, mostly short bursts of random strangeness (for example in Angel's short dream of a ridiculously winged Manfred) that always promise to take the film into a more creative direction, but which are never followed up on.


From Twitter 08-21-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-20-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-19-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-18-... http://bit.ly/a0LHXQ
  • New blog post: In short: Sex Medusa (2001): A masked, flame-thrower using group of Hong Kong snake exterminators t... http://bit.ly/bkW7ks
  • Why is it always "Population 421"? Sure, there's a 42 in there, but what's wrong with, say, "Population 6742"?
  • Whoa, no cellphone service on that island? I am so surprised.
  • And if these aren't the Bitch, the Nerd, the Boyfriend and the Final Girl, I don't know who is. And we couldn't have that, surely.
  • Stupid horror movie protagonists are stupid; obvious horror movie script is obvious.
  • Killed while having sex, huh? Never saw that one coming.
  • I give up, life's too short for this amount of generic-ness. Genericity?

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

In short: Sex Medusa (2001)

A masked, flame-thrower using group of Hong Kong snake exterminators terminates a nest of their chosen victims (including exceedingly large eggs) in the city's sewers.

While her peers burn in an unnecessary case of real animal violence, a CGI snake escapes and transforms into a naked girl (Nomoto Miho), who will later be christened Fong. The traumatized snake woman falls asleep right in front of the house of Cheung Yung-Choi (Elvis Tsui). Cheung thinks Fong is an illegal immigrant from the mainland, and decides to put her up. Soon, tender bonds of love begin to develop between the two, but the universe doesn't smile on their sweet, sweet interspecies love, and disturbs their relationship through various problems.

Firstly, Cheung feels guilty for the accidental death of his wife and has been impotent and deathly afraid of cats ever since, while Fong needs to procreate to help her species survive, which leads to great awkwardness. At least she's a snake woman and not a cat woman. Secondly, Cheung's cousin Marco (Vincent Wan) has made debts with a loan shark to finance his gambling debts and his girlfriend's (Carrie Ng) research into some gland stuff that will help destroy "vermin" like snakes once and for all. Marco is Cheung's sole heir and is even willing to kill his only relative to pay off the debt.

So it doesn't look good for love or the survival of Earth's eco system.

Despite a title that promises sleazy sex and violence, CAT III style, Tommy Law's Sex Medusa is a bit dull and harmless, except for a handful of moments of real animal violence which are bad enough to watch, yet not that extreme for the standard of Hong Kong movies featuring snakes. In fact, online sources are divided if this is a HK movie at all, the HKMDB says it's Taiwanese, which would explain why it is this low on exploitational values, while the IMDB thinks it's from Hong Kong. Sex Medusa also isn't a CAT III film, and turns out to be a comparatively slow fantasy melodrama with a bit of horror and sex mixed in.

The film's main problem is how lackluster it is. It has all elements set up for an entertaining ninety minutes, but then doesn't make enough use of them. An interspecies love between a snake woman and an impotent man should be entertaining (or at least very very funny) even without buckets of gore or other bodily fluids, but the love story part never really goes anywhere. The thriller elements for their part only appear too late in the movie and are - again - just not developed enough.

As is the "sex medusa" element of Fong's characters. It seems as if having one sex scene in which two CGI snakes poke out of a woman's hair is nowadays enough for a film to make titular promises it just isn't going to hold up. When I was younger, we still knew what a real sex medusa looked like. 

However, Sex Medusa has a few things going for it: Nomoto Miho is nice enough to look at and has that expressionless stare of a good snake done pat. I also found it quite nice to see Elvis Tsui playing completely against his usual character type of "sleazy sex maniac". That guy's got range! He's also hilarious when frightened to death by a very cute cat. Happily, he doesn't have to live to witness the cat infestation known as the Internets.

I also approve of the idiotic science Ng sprouts and of the rainbow coloured clown snake style Nomoto has when she's fully snaked out.

It's not much, but it was enough to get me through the whole film without falling asleep or having to turn it off. That's certainly something.


From Twitter 08-20-2010

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Friday, August 20, 2010

On WTF: Blood Massacre (1988? 1991? Yesterday?)

This was the last movie the wonderful Don Dohler made in the 20th Century, and it is as good a way to say goodbye to a century a bit early as any.

It's Dohler's belated love letter to 70s horror, and - as should be obvious to regular readers - I'll love it to bits in my write-up on WTF-Film.


From Twitter 08-19-2010

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

In short: The Secret Invasion (1964)

1943. The British Major Richard Mace (Stewart Granger) is tasked with freeing the former commander of the Italian troops in the Balkans, General Quadri (Enzo Fiermonte) from German captivity in Dubrovnik, in the hopes that the general will be able to rouse his loyal troops into changing allegiances and fighting the Germans.

To achieve this goal, Mace is provided with various prisoners of dubious talents as a commando troop. They are Roberto Rocca (Raf Vallone), an Italian with excellent talent for operational planning who would in peace times probably be the wise middle-aged boss in a caper movie; Terence Scanlon (Mickey Rooney, as dreadful as is to be expected), an "Irish" terrorist/freedom fighter and demolitions expert; Simon Fell (Edd Byrnes, even more dreadful than Rooney), forger and whiner; John Durrell (Henry Silva), a silent and reserved professional killer; and Jean Saval (William Campbell), the guy they took on because Tony Curtis wasn't available professional thief and man-with-a-thousand-faces-and-badly-plucked-eyebrows.

The group only has to get to Yugoslavia, meet up with the local partisans, and break into the German headquarters in Dubrovnik to get their man. Whatever could go wrong?

The Secret Invasion is one of Roger Corman's higher budgeted (different sources talk about $500,000 to $750,000) efforts, and Corman seems to have made the most out of it by shooting the film in Yugoslavia. For the sort of movie I'm usually talking about here, it's sensational to have a film mostly taking place in Dubrovnik that was actually shot there instead of a random studio backlot. Corman seems to have relished this opportunity. At least, he's using the attractive landscape and the city as much as possible, to quite satisfying effect.

On the negative side, Corman with a high-ish budget isn't Corman at his most daring, and so much of the film plays out exactly as one would expect from a war movie of this type, if a very competently done one featuring equally competent actors (except for Rooney and Byrnes, obviously) - or in the case of Silva and Vallone, competent actors being casually much better than anyone else on screen.

There are, however, two moments in The Secret Invasion that don't fit into the "war as a nice adventure for boys mould" it slavishly follows at all. First, there's the scene in which Silva accidentally smothers a baby to death while hiding out from German soldiers, breaks down into a crying fit and is comforted by the dead child's (partisan) mother. This sort of existential grimness isn't something you can expect to find, well, anywhere apart from 70s horror films, and feels like a secret invasion of actual human pain and suffering of a film that just doesn't deal with that sort of thing.

The other moment of equal import is The Secret Invasion's incredibly cynical ending, in which the good guys win, but achieve their victory in such a way that only the most thoughtless audience member will be able to cheer for it. Like the baby sequence, it doesn't fit the rest of the film's tone too well, but it's these two little shocks of a less easily digestible idea of what a war movie might be that make this movie worth watching, and not the routine and the competence.


From Twitter 08-18-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-17-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-16-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-15-... http://bit.ly/ckUE4c
  • Ah, the music industry, always good for a laugh. http://tinyurl.com/2aag36b
  • Sorry, what did you say? I stopped listening when you said "massive(ly) multiplayer".
  • Hm, they seemed to have renamed the "Heroes of Might & Magic" series into "Might & Magic Heroes". And here I thought the old title was bad.
  • Holy whatever, when these South Korean ladies and/or gentlemen made this bowl of cup noodles, they meant the "hot & spicy"!
  • There's no need to make jokes about the RIAA, there doing their own satire already. http://tinyurl.com/26bdzy7?
  • Friends of the electric Miles Davis (aka people of taste) will probably want to have a look here: http://killedincars.com/post/973480743
  • Heartwarming. http://laughingsquid.com/i-want-to-believe-the-alien-version/

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Johnsons (1992)

Anthropology professor Keller (Kenneth Herdigein) is roped into doing a contract job for a secret branch of the Dutch ministry of education (no to be confused with the secret branch of the ministry of transport most anthropologists work for once or twice in their lives). He's brought to a secret prison lying hidden away in the marshlands that's maintained to keep seven particularly weird murderers out of circulation. Theirs is not a typical case, that much is sure. The men are the first septuplets born in the Netherlands, and have ritually slaughtered the rest of the inhabitants of the orphanage they were living in at the time when they were just seven years old, leaving strange rituals markings in blood on the walls. Right now, Keller doesn't have too much of a clue what all this means, but the peculiarly timed find of the records of a doomed expedition into the South American jungles will soon clue him in that the sign used by the seven boys belongs to the embryo-shaped godhood Xangadix an obscure indigenous tribe was keeping imprisoned. Like every ancient evil, the god comes with a prophecy of doom, too. One day, seven brothers in the service of the god will rape their own sister and the resulting avatar of Xangadix will destroy the world. Seven, huh?

While Keller is doing his research and fastly transforms from a sarcastic sceptic into a true believer, the audience has already made the acquaintance of teenager Emalee Lucas (Esmée de la Bretoniere) and her mother, the photographer Victoria (Monique van de Ven).

Emalee has been having violent and disturbing nightmares for some time now, but a helpful psychiatrist has convinced her that they are a product of her anxiety about not having had her period yet although she's soon to turn fifteen. That's too bad, really, since one of the girl's nightmares contains visions of seven children, lots of blood and the sign of Xangadix, while another sees her raped by seven men wearing clay masks exactly like those used in rites surrounding Xangadix, so there just might be something more going on with the girl than teenage anxieties.

Out of the blue, Victoria is offered the job to make some shots of an obscure bird that just happens to live in the same region the secret ministry of education prison is situated in. Spontaneously, Emalee decides to accompany her mom. You can imagine that there are no problems at all waiting for mother and daughter on their little camping trip.

Hopefully, the machete of Emalee's dad the film repeatedly points out and Professor Keller will be of some help in their future of fighting off seven cultish maniacs with supernatural powers.

Looking at The Johnson's plot, one can't help but see how utterly ridiculous it all sounds (and I have left out bits like Professor Keller's father being a shaman - alas sometimes a comic relief shaman - who tries to destroy the expedition records his son is working on), but despite this, for most of its running time the film does work surprisingly well. Director Rudolf van den Berg doles out the information about the film's mythology piece by piece, well-timed to let the audience put it together for themselves. This doesn't just reduce the need for too much expositional dialogue, but also makes good use of the fact that most viewers will be quite a bit more tolerant regarding preposterous theories they made up themselves than they would be to theories the film just flat-out tells them to believe in.

The film's mythology shows an obvious and welcome influence of the weird tale sub-genre of fantastic literature, and does make sense inside of its own parameters (for most of the film, that is); Xangadix surely is the sort of evil world-destroying god you'd hope for after Lovecraft and (being a giant embryo and all) automatically more interesting than the usual anti-christ business would have been. Really, the least believable part of the movie's background is the existence of the secret branch of the ministry of education with its own secret prisons and enough power to hide slaughtered orphanages from the public eye. Fortunately, the film puts less emphasis on it than I do here.

Apart from his nice sense for doling out just the right amount of information, van den Berg also has quite a bit of directorial style. The marshlands, Emalee's dreams, and the secret prison evoke a wonderful mood of dread and doom, with just the right amount of archetypical seeming images. Van den Berg has an excellent grip on the creepy effect of small details like the shaved heads of the septuplets that make them look at once more like actual septuplets, strangely baby-like (like the god they worship) and less human. It's very obvious that a lot of love and thought has been put into these aspects of the film. Even the city the film takes place in is in the grip of a garbage collector's strike, making the mostly empty streets parts of the film take place in that much more inhospitable and unreal.

Alas, the film begins to falter once all information has been doled out and all pieces are in place for the finale. Slowly, but surely, The Johnson's transforms into your usual, slightly comedic series of small action/thriller set pieces with a bit more gore than would be necessary and a feeling of utter conventionality that ruins the mood of mythical doom the film's first hour has spent so much care on building up. Don't get me wrong, it's all very competently done and makes good use of a probably very slight budget, but still feels incredibly anti-climactic to me.

The film begins to dare being weird again for its final five minutes, yet also ignores the rules of the mythology it has created. I understand that van den Berg is trying to get something more exciting on screen than just killing off the last of the brothers for his film's grand finale, but lots of white light and a floating embryo puppet aren't really it.

Still, I can recommend the The Johnsons as one of the more interesting and peculiar European horror films of the 90s. Its final act might be disappointing, it is however still competently done, and much of what has come before is quite excellent.


From Twitter 08-17-2010

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In short: Dawn of the Mummy (1981)

An obsessed fashion photographer drags a group of stupid models out into the Egyptian desert, far away from the usual tourist centres. There, they stumble into the territory of three stupid grave robbers hard at work plundering the hidden tomb of an especially nasty mummy.

How stupid are those grave robbers? So stupid that they can't prevent a fashion shoot from taking place in the tomb they're working in. Why a fashion photographer would want to shoot in the shabby thing is beyond me anyway. My thoughts about the art of fashion photography notwithstanding, there will be photographing.

The opening of the tomb had already woken up the mummy guy, but he's getting more active as soon as more potential victims arrive.

I don't think the mummy likes fashion photography. At least, it is always oozing stinky looking fluids when the shoots (and those take days) take place, possibly in an allergic reaction to the stupidity cooties floating all around it.

Anyway, after hours and hours, the mummy begins its mandatory killing spree, teleporting hither and yon. And it is not alone - it has a small army of (also teleporting) zombies in its service who are very useful when the time comes to attack a nice, Egyptian village.

Dawn of the Mummy belongs to the especially dreadful type of movie that is intensely boring and uninteresting for much of its running time, but jolts a awake for short bouts of excitement. It's neither a very useful film to sleep by, nor one that's bound to keep enthralled and excited.

Most of the film belongs to the (very 80s) scenes of a boring guy photographing bored looking women who can't act, said boring persons who still can't act emoting some relationship stuff most soap operas would realize in a more exciting way and good Cthulhu, is this stuff tedious! Then, when you think you can just pop the DVD out again and watch the Weather Channel instead, the mummy dispatches of someone in a gory and ridiculous way while its victim makes some of the loudest, yet most preposterous sounding dying noises ever committed to screen or tape, after which it's back to the soap operatics for the quarter of an hour.

And suddenly, for the last fifteen minutes or so, the movie transforms into a ridiculous but neat zombie attack. First they drop in on a wedding and then visit a whole village in scenes full of spirited gut-munching, more screeching, and dynamite-throwing models. In other words, Dawn of the Mummy becomes absolutely fabulous, as if director Frank Agrama had suddenly remembered that he a) has quite an (un)healthy macabre imagination or b) can steal ideas from other, better movies to make his own less sleep-inducing.

Oh yeah, the zombie and mummy make-up looks quite neat, too.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Music Monday: Very Monday Morning Edition

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From Twitter 08-15-2010

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

From Twitter 08-14-2010

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

From Twitter 08-13-2010

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Friday, August 13, 2010

No Posts This Weekend From Me

because R'lyeh has been attacked by hordes of machine gun toting apes and their unicorn allies.

Normal service will resume on Monday, after we have digested our attackers.

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From Twitter 08-12-2010

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  • About 40 minutes of video shot during Alex Chilton's "Like Flies On Sherbert" sessions. http://vimeo.com/10266927
  • New blog post: Cöl (1983): aka The Desert aka Turkish Jaws (though it really, truly, is not) Unfortunately, this... http://bit.ly/9sS6KS
  • That's the one I was proud of yesterday.
  • Too much Heinlein on tor.com. It's like PCGamer's site the week before Starcraft , just less pleasant.
  • Bioshock 3? I feel unexcited.
  • Now I've read the RPS preview and am decidedly exciting. Apart from the fact that it's still a shooter, but that's major publishers for you
  • Alright, I admit it, I might be more excited than exciting in this case. Or always.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cöl (1983)

aka The Desert

aka Turkish Jaws (though it really, truly, is not)

Unfortunately, this film isn't available in subtitled form and my Turkish is still non-existent, so I won't be able to go into the intricacies of its plot. Fortunately, my experience with Turkish pop cinema tells me that there might not be any intricacies to go into or if they do indeed exist, understanding the dialogue might not help comprehending them at all. And really, what's more important in the end - plot or Cüneyt Arkin kicking people in places politeness doesn't allow me to mention?

What I do understand of the plot is the following: Cüneyt Arkin is the manliest man on Earth and goes around a Turkish coastal town, killing bad people. He's quite excellent at it, too. When he's not murdering people left and right, Arkin plays with his sunglasses like the cooler brother of David Caruso in that TV show about fascist killer commandos in Miami.

After some more killing and punching, Arkin hides out on a ship that is anchored close to the coast and belongs to an older friend of his and that friend's son(?). There, he has time to rest and have flashback nightmares to the terrible things the bad guys have done to him, namely torturing him, killing his mother and/or wife and separating him from his dog. Unless the boy in the flashbacks isn't supposed to be a young Arkin. In that case, they also did something terrible to his son.

In the present, our hero also finds time to romance Emel Tümer, who likes to stand on rocks, wearing a bikini with great talent.

But Arkin can't have too much peace, so his captain friends betrays him. For money, it looks like. Yet not even being tied to a piece of wood and being set adrift on the ocean can keep a real man from his vengeance, even when he has to fight an adorable plastic shark to get to it.

Cetin Inanc-directed films featuring Turkey's action hero number one Cüneyt Arkin are the movie version of having a mad guy from the street break into your flat and shout at you for seventy minutes while an old-fashioned boom box screams someone's favourite music at you. From time to time a car races through your living room. It might be a bit frightening at first, but it sure doesn't lack in excitement.

The four things Inanc likes most in life are low-angled shots, uncomfortably close close-ups, shaking his camera in the air like he just don't care and Arkin punching/kicking the camera. That doesn't mean the director has no eye for emotionally meaningful framing and composition at all. He just prefers to use outlandish yet clever ways to shoot a scene, as long as the set-up is quickly done and cheap enough to be do-able in five minutes and with no equipment to speak of. This lends Cöl the hysterically dynamic feel typical of the better part of Turkish popular cinema of this era, a style of filmmaking that isn't so much "point and shoot on amphetamines" as in the 70s anymore as it is "scream and shake and sometimes pretend you're an arthouse movie on amphetamines".

Apart from the screaming (and a bit of shooting, and car stunts), the film also delivers some of the most ridiculously awesome sped-up non-Kung Fu fights with asynchronous sound effects ever committed to celluloid. It looks like all the energy missing from boring US martial arts movies has landed in Turkey and won't leave until Cüneyt Arkin has rammed a piece of wood he's carrying in his mouth through someone's throat. That's not a metaphor, by the way.

Of course, the violent exploits of Arkin aren't all that Cöl excites with. There's also some expert, yet random low-angled bikini booty shaking at the camera by Tümer. But don't worry, the camera is shaking too; I suspect out of sheer exuberance about having! a! woman! (actually even two)! in! its! view!. And there are also at least five continuous minutes in which our hero doesn't shoot, kick or hit anyone and instead has his camera-shaking nightmares of the terrible things the bad guys did to him and his family before he can go and kill a few more people or a poor helpless plastic shark, so there are sped-up attempts at character depth too.

No Turkish movie made before the 90s would of course be complete without needle-dropped music. This time, it's a bit of the soundtracks of various Jaws movies, some rockin' guitar music and a whole lot of Eye of the Tiger. The film uses its stolen soundtrack in a way that seems at once cool and utterly ridiculous, without a care about cheesiness, copyright laws or good taste.

In this, as in a lot of other aspects, Cöl reminds me heavily of the music of Thin Lizzy. That is to say, it is at once idiotically macho and completely conscious of how much of its machismo is a lie and a ridiculous, untenable-in-real-life pose, yet can still revel in it without getting all campy and ironic on its audience.


From Twitter 08-11-2010

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  • New webmagazines without RSS in the morning make me grumpy. I'm looking at you, "Games?".
  • New blog post: Neon City (1991): As is so often the case on this blog, it's the end of the world. This time though... http://bit.ly/bCBUww
  • Unrest (the good one) live session 2010 http://tinyurl.com/3834bp4 (via MeFi)
  • Intensely satisfied with what I just wrote. That never happens!

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Neon City (1991)

As is so often the case on this blog, it's the end of the world. This time though, it's a combination of various ecological catastrophes and holes in the ozone layer caused by a scientific experiment gone wrong that has turned North America (and that's the only place that's important, surely) to crap.

At least, there's still some sort of government trying to uphold a certain amount of order among the few survivors huddling together in the handful of population centres, but its idea of order, containing the murder of "mutants" and enforced sterilizations, isn't necessarily one distinguishable from barbarism. The country between settlements isn't better off though. It's controlled by half-mad bands of roaming bandits and full of the strange new environmental dangers of this grungy new world.

The ex-ranger (in this case "ranger" means a mix of cop, soldier, and fascist bootlicker) - now bounty hunter - Stark (Michael Ironside) finds himself convinced to do a bit of work for his former bosses, namely transporting the murderer Reno (Vanity), whom he has just caught, on a passenger transport through the dangerous outlands to a place called Neon City (the Paris of the wastelands?). On board are a merry company of characters. There's Stark's ex-wife Sandy (Valerie Wildman) who shares a rather traumatic past including a dead baby with him, the driver Bulk (Lyle Alzado) who was a friend of Stark's before Stark arrested him for murder, a doctor of medicine with a dark secret (Nick Klar), a debutante who spent most of her life in Switzerland (Juliet Landau), an elderly scientist with another dark secret (Arsenio "Sonny" Trinidad) and Dickie Devine (Richard Sanders), bad professional comedian and trader in suicide drugs.

With these people on board and the bandit raiders on the transport's track, there will be never a dull moment on the journey.

The word that comes to mind first when thinking about Neon City (which I'd rather have called The Road to Neon City, but of course nobody ever asks me stuff like that) is "solid". In fact, the film might be the textbook definition of the description, or of that other frightening word, "competent". Usually, I prefer my movies "clever" or "terrible" or "mind-wrecking", but complaining that a film like this is neither very good nor so terrible that it becomes interesting again seems a little unfair.

Neon City seems to have been made with all the best intentions of creating a solid (there's the word again), cheap little post-apocalyptic variation on Westerns like Stagecoach or El Dorado/Rio Bravo in a vehicle, with a truck standing in for a stage coach (or a sheriff's bureau) and post-apocalyptic bandits standing in for the "Indians" (or for pre-apocalyptic bandits). It's the sort of idea John Carpenter would have loved to use, I'm sure, and I'm equally sure that Carpenter's version of this film would either have been pretty great or pretty terrible, definitely not solid. But I digress, which is understandable given that the film is as all-around solid as it is, and therefore not inducive to much analysis, ranting or bad jokes.

Director Monte Markham (probably better known as an actor) points and shoots nicely and makes what he has to work with (barren, slightly snowy landscapes, grubbiness) look as interesting as possible; the script isn't brilliant, but puts the character types it includes to enough use not to annoy, lets the expected plot move forward without pretensions of greatness and is not completely without moments of cleverness in its worldbuilding; the actors as well as the ex-NFL pros embody these characters with professional vigour; Michael Ironside is for once allowed to be the (grumpy, bad-tempered, yet golden-hearted) good guy. And that's more or less the film - a solidly made cheapo in the tradition of classic character-type based B-movies that isn't ever going to be a "classic" of any kind itself, yet manages to achieve its goal to entertain for ninety minutes if a viewer is willing to let herself be entertained.

That's perfectly fine by me. Of course, I tend to like the sort of movie Neon City is based on quite a bit,too.


From Twitter 08-10-2010

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  • The Theory of Relativity as a liberal conspiracy. One can never be sure if the Conservapedia is a joke. http://tinyurl.com/2aynh5w
  • I'm sure Norman Spinrad's own"publishing death spiral" has nothing to do with his novels having gotten continuously worse over the years
  • New blog post: The Mad Magician (1954): After having spent the last few years of his working life making props for... http://bit.ly/9JSdGd
  • One of the best pieces of writing about games I've ever read. Plus, fact-checking Yakuza! http://tinyurl.com/362v2a4
  • Is today the official Day of Excellent Games Writing? Here's Laura Michet on Creatures 3 http://tinyurl.com/3yyhmom
  • RT @vivoandando: RT @ichc Dr. Who Gets Simpsonized! http://bit.ly/bgL7W1

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Mad Magician (1954)

After having spent the last few years of his working life making props for other people's stage shows in the employment of the rather nasty Mister Ormond (Donald Randolph), Don Gallico (Vincent Price) is finally beginning to make his life's dream of a career as a stage magician come true. He's got a charming assistant in Karen Lee (Mary Murphy), a gimmick imitating famous other magicians built on his ability to make life-like masks, and a thrilling new trick called "The Lady and the Buzzsaw", so nothing can go wrong.

Unfortunately, Don isn't much of a businessman and doesn't realized that whatever he creates while still in the employ of Ormond - say a sensational new trick - belongs to Ormond. Ormond, being the nice chap he is, waits with telling this to Don until right before the saw is supposed to buzz.

After that fiasco, Don continues to work for Ormond until they get into an argument that goes into a few more of the very peculiar problems between the two men, like the fact that Ormond stole Don's wife (Eva Gabor) years ago and is now unhappily married to her. One might ask why Don is still working for the guy, but that would mean putting much more thought into the film than the people making it did.

Anyway, two men are having a row, there's a convenient buzzsaw nearby, so of course Don uses it to kill Ormond. And of course this won't be the magician's only murder. He does, after all, have a tendency to do rather silly things like lose Ormond's head, and walks around masked as the people he has killed, making himself much more problems this way as he would have if his victims just disappeared. Still, it takes the combined intellects of Karen, her cop boyfriend (Patrick O'Neal) and the mystery writer Mrs Prentiss (Lenita Lane) - into whose pension he has moved in in his Ormond disguise for no good reason at all - to catch Don.

If you have seen Vincent Price in 1953's much superior House of Wax, you can imagine what kind of thoughts must have led to the creation of The Mad Magician. These movies would of course be the inspirations for a long row of films about mild-mannered artiste types losing their minds and getting bloodthirsty to which beloved hero of the house Vincent Price lent his remarkable talents.

Alas, The Mad Magician is neither a House of Wax nor an Abominable Doctor Phibes. Old workhorse John Brahm's direction is just a bit too pedestrian, with nary a flourish of creativity on display. Brahm doesn't even attempt to built the Gothic mood of dread and doom the film would require to work, and instead goes for a style that probably could have worked for a script that was more of an actual mystery instead of the random conglomeration of nonsense the one for the film turns out to be.

Not much in that script makes any sense at all. Gallico's masquerading as his dead victims isn't even explained as an attempt to distract from their being dead, and most of the plotting and characterisation just come over as lazy (even in the context of a cheap early 50s horror film), quite as if writer Crane Wilbur had had to deliver three set pieces and didn't care at all about putting any thought into connecting them.

Given how shoddy and underdeveloped much of the writing feels, I still have to give Wilbur and Brahm credit for the amount of agency and competence the female characters - or at least Karen and Mrs. Prentiss, Claire being the usual femme fatale - are allowed to have. It is, after all, they who solve the murders and even safe cop boyfriend's life during the final punch-out, something that just wasn't done in US movies of the 50s. Men in the film are either morally corrupt, mad, or utterly ineffectual. I vaguely remember the gender roles in the also Wilbur-written The Bat (also with Price as the bad guy) to have been similar, which could make Wilbur's work as a director and writer something worthy of further exploration for me.

Then there is Vincent. Price is in his element in a role like this and does his typical ultra-nuanced over-acting, even if the script doesn't give him as much to work with here as one would wish for. He builds up his character's softer side as much as possible and makes him as sympathetic as he is able to, and then goes into his (few) mad outbreaks with true relish, like a kettle that finally blows. It is even a bit creepy (in a feel that decidedly lacks in creepiness in every other aspect) to watch how Gallico's confidence grows with every murder he commits, as if growing strength of character and growing moral abhorrence were intrinsically entwined in his case. That idea doesn't seem so much to be part of the script as something Price develops alone through his performance. It's quite a thing to watch.

Alas, to get at the core of Price's performance, the surprising female characters, or the handful of moments of acceptable silliness, one has to slog through many a pedestrian sequence. It was still worth it for me, but less patient viewer's mileage will vary.


From Twitter 08-09-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-08-2010: New blog post: From Twitter 08-07-2010: Looking forward to Tsui Hark's Det... http://bit.ly/ayCBT9
  • New blog post: Music Monday: Roses Edition: Technorati-Tags: music monday,music,laura cantrell http://bit.ly/doF21Y
  • RT @wordwill: Make #KennethHite a trending topic on Twitter and he will join Twitter. It's either that or more #JustinBieber
  • Yeah, the 3rd Sherlock ep was a lot better than the 2nd one, though not as good as the 1st. Though M reminded me unpleasantly of the last
  • incarnation of the Master from Doctor Who.
  • RT @hopelarson: Folks! The Lulu Awards are not dead! http://bit.ly/9mbOhW Please go nominate some rad women cartoonists!
  • RT @kevindart: awesome unreleased B-side "Waves" from the last @Metric album - http://youtu.be/0udJc_iMlAU
  • Why didn't I hear about this earlier. Some very favourite songwriters (mostly of the alt.folk/country/whatever type) are doing a podcast
  • right here: http://radiofreesongclub.com/ The internet giveth.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Music Monday: Roses Edition

From Twitter 08-08-2010

  • New blog post: From Twitter 08-07-2010: Looking forward to Tsui Hark's Detective Dee probably sets me up for a dis... http://bit.ly/aAqhqF
  • Civilization 5 influenced by Grim Fandango! http://tinyurl.com/2wfd9bo
  • New blog post: Beyond Atlantis (1973): The Philippines. A fisher with the excellent name of Manuel the Barracuda (... http://bit.ly/9xecW4
  • Sean Penn and Wyclef Jean. The Thunderdome. Just a suggestion.
  • It's strangely satisfying blocking racists from following me.

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Beyond Atlantis (1973)

The Philippines. A fisher with the excellent name of Manuel the Barracuda (Vic Diaz) sells some extremely valuable pearls to pimp and all-around tough guy East Eddie (Sid Haig). Eddie isn't stupid, and soon mounts an expedition to find out where exactly Manuel gets his pearls from and then grab them for himself.

Apart from bringing some well-armed goons, Eddie partners up with the shady gambler Logan (John Ashley) and the expert diver Vic Mathias (Patrick Wayne, lesser known brother of Bruce), the latter our supposed hero of the evening. "Scientist" Katherine Vernon (Lenore Stevens) overhears some of the negotiations between Logan and Vic and talks her way onto the expedition to find out what she can about a mysterious tribe spurious ideas lead her to conclude is connected with the pearls.

After smacking poor Manuel around, our "heroes" learn that he acquires his pearls from a mysterious woman - later named Syrene - (Leigh Christian) as payment for using his boat as a taxi between the hidden island she's living on and the nearest supermarket.

So off to her island the expedition goes. There, they soon meet up with the very Caucasian looking Syrene and her mysterious tribe. Except for her and her pompous father Nereus (George Nader), every member of the tribe suffers from a bad case of Ping Pong Ball Eye Syndrome (and is decidedly non-Caucasian, but there will be an implied explanation for that difference later on). To make up for their eye problems, they can breathe underwater.

Katherine theorizes that these are descendents of the inhabitants of Atlantis, but this part of the story never goes anywhere. Instead, there's a lot of diving and two mysterious accidents to witness. Oh, and Nereus wants his daughter to "mate" with Vic to improve the island's gene pool. That poor girl!

This is one of the billion of movies Eddie Romero produced in his native Philippines mostly for the US market, and like a lot of them, Beyond Atlantis is first and foremost intensely boring. It's an adventure movie without all that much adventure (unless Sid Haig falling into a pit full of crabs counts as "adventure") and many long and tiresome diving sequences that don't make up for that lack.

It's too bad, really, because the movie starts out promising enough, with quite a bit of sharp yet silly dialogue, some choice scenery chewing by a very enthusiastic Sid Haig and a character set-up that hints at a Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like plot full of cynical people betraying each other.

Alas, that promised film never manages to materialize. Worse, once the expedition has reached the island of the Atlantides, the plot more or less stops dead in its tracks, and the film develops into a sleep-inducing series of diving sequences, followed by Lenore Stevens walking around with a frowny-face (I suppose that means she's thinking?) until someone tells her she's not allowed to be where she's going, followed by more diving sequences.

I'd be perfectly fine with a film about people wandering around an island (though not so much with the endless diving) if the island were filled with anything of interest, or if someone had a character arc, or if something would happen from time to time, but Beyond Atlantis only traipses and dives from filler to filler.

It doesn't help that the film it is utterly unlike other Filipino movies for the US market made in that era in that it is nearly completely lacking in exploitational values like violence or sex and so gives off the very unpleasant whiff of a film made in 1953, not 1973. Internet rumours tell me that having nothing that could offend anyone in the film was the only way for Romero to get Patrick Wayne to play the lead; as if his role couldn't have been filled by a tree someone painted in skin-tones.

Even the underwater seduction scene between Syrene and Vic is played out fully clothed! It leaves one to wonder how a girl "mates" with a man while he's wearing a wetsuit. I suspect just swimming around him won't get anyone pregnant, but what do I know about the way strange creatures like Patrick Wayne reproduce?

It might sound cruel, but I just don't think that showing me some people with ball-bug-eyes, Sid Haig, wetsuited non-sex and one mildly exciting shoot-out in the end is enough exciting content for a ninety minute film like this. As a short film, it would probably work out, but in this form, even I can't stand the content to diving ratio.