Movie Reviews 329 – Full Metal Yakuza (1997)

January 19, 2018

As a huge fan of director Takashi Miike, I know that his output can be uneven and that his topics and are as varied as his targeted audiences.  But I felt confident that with a title of Full Metal Yakuza (original title Full Metal Gokudô) that this would be one of his films that are more up my alley than Yatterman for example which was his take on his favorite Japanese kid show growing up. Better known for his explicit horror films like Audition and his violent gang films like Ichi the Killer the title suggested more of an over-the-top blend of the two.

The film features Kensuke Hagane (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), a menial wannabe mobster who starts at the bottom of his adopted Yakuza family, literally washing floors at clan leader Tosa’s (Takeshi Caesar) headquarters. He slowly makes his way up the ladder only to fail miserably with his first tangible assignment as a ‘protection’ collector and then ends back to washing duties. But Kensuke’s humiliation does not end there as his fighting skills fail him when confronted by a gang of youths who beat him to a pulp as well as being constantly derided by his girlfriend for his lackluster lovemaking skills. He does have something close to a friend in his partner when he is on guard duty, but even he tends to mock Kensuke at every opportunity.

After his boss Tosa is incarcerated for a number years for having attacked a group of rivals in broad daylight, Kensuke and he are ambushed on Tosa’s first day of freedom when summoned to a supposed yakuza meeting. Tosa is killed and Kensuke is riddled with bullets and clearly must die due to his injuries. Instead he awakens in a ramshackle lab with his head wired and without any apparent torso. His remains and that of Tosa were stolen by a crazed scientist (Tomorô Taguchi) who salvaged parts of both bodies and then added improved cybernetic elements. The new and improved Kensuke is now a powerful metallic monstrosity.

As Kensuke slowly discovers the powers of his new and improved body – which incidentally includes Tosa’s heart – he goes on to avenge some of his previous exploiters. But soon afterwards he begins to draw into himself, question his life and future, and eventually seeks solitude at a beach. There he meets Tosa’s former girlfriend Yukari (Shoko Nakahara), herself grieving over the loss of her lover. And when Yukari is kidnapped by the rival gang, Kensuke’s rescue is like a high octane homage to Tosa’s battle years ago.

Miike, well known for his egregious use of billowing fountains of squirting blood (later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill) makes good use of this staple here. But this is far from Miike’s best films, while at the same time well rounded providing action, gore, comedy and even a love triangle of sorts. While the special effects are sometimes laughable – particularly in the case of the cybernetic costume – others aren’t as flimsy or dated. It is however more a comedy in many respects but risqué at times such as the when Kensuke inherits Tosu’s apparently bountiful manhood (sadly pixelated on my DVD).

While this is a must see for Miike fans, it may only be a fun curiosity for those who enjoy these Asian mind blowing action movies. Hitting so many notes as it does, you’re bound to enjoy something.

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Movie Reviews 328 – The Tenant (1976)

January 12, 2018

Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a young Polish man seeking an apartment in Paris when he stumbles upon a vacant unit and immediately tries to secure it for himself. He learns what while it is empty, Simone, the current leaseholder, hasn’t technically relinquished it but in fact attempted suicide by jumping out on the windows and is now in the hospital. As he makes arrangements to rent it out his concerns that the former tenant may return are rebuffed by the lethargic concierge (Shelley Winters) and the landlord (Melvyn Douglas) whose only concern seems to be the reputation of his establishment.

Posing as a friend he visits Simone in the hospital in order to determine her true health prospects and finds her in traction, bandaged like a mummy and with evident serious injuries. He also meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani), a vivacious and ravishing woman who is also visiting. In the next few weeks the two strike up a flirtatious relationship while Trelkovsky maintains the pretense of having known Simone.

But all’s not well in his new apartment. The other tenants constantly complain about every bit of noise that Trelkovsky makes. And the one shared bathroom common for all the tenants is actually across the courtyard and every time Trelkovsky looks out his window he can see the other tenants just standing, mesmerized in there. But strangest of all is how Trelkovsky’s life begins mimicking that of Simone who has now passed away. Every time he asks the shopkeeper downstairs for his brand of cigarettes he is told they have run out and is offered another brand, that which Simone used to smoke. The coffee shop insists that he try out a breakfast and snacks formerly favored by her. Drawn into her life, Trelkovsky wavers between trying to stem the influences and drowning ever deeper into Simone’s shadow.

The Tenant is one of those films in which the viewer has to decide what is real and what may just be in our protagonist’s mind. A world of blurred realities or a descent into madness? And in typical Polanski style, other topics such as xenophobia, sexual perversion and paranoia are touched upon in this dark and atmospheric thriller. Previously a title that I never heard off, it was a delightful viewing although perhaps not as rich as the other two Polanski films of this supposed ‘apartment’ trilogy, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.

Movie Reviews 327 – Phase IV (1974)

January 5, 2018

Phase IV is one of those older science fiction movies that once held a fond place in my heart as it was one of those films that seemed to play over and over in the days of limited local television channels. When I started devouring science fiction literature I was not averse to reading novelizations and was delighted to read noted science fiction author Barry N. Malzberg‘s adaptation of the script. But there was one more compelling reason that I have been wanting to rewatch this film again, one that may surprise even a few friends. It all has to do with the fundamental element of the story: Ants!

Just about a year ago my son developed a keen interest in ants and by that I mean the desire to have living ants as ‘pets’ although as you can imagine this is not an endeavor one can easily satisfy. He, and then I myself did a tremendous amount of reading and also used what is becoming more and more the educational tool of choice; YouTube videos, to learn everything we could. The information out there is astounding especially given that the very multitude in species of ants leads to differing habitats, nourishment requirements and other environmental factors to be considered. Even after devouring all the information we could I tried to temper his expectations as I worried that the hardest part, and the one necessary requirement to even begin, namely that of finding a recently mated fertile queen, may prove to too hard. But I need not have worried as my son demonstrated a keen eye and managed to find not one but six queens of varying species that were soon laying eggs which quickly progressed to larvae, pupae and then workers ants. But enough of our myrmecological ventures. Suffice to say that with all these ants in my head (and in my house) I wanted to revisit this movie not having seen it in thirty odd years.

The plot consists of some celestial event taking place that at first leaves no lasting after effects as far as anyone can tell.  Only after some time has passed does Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) note some odd behaviour in ants, particularly in one desert region. The ants, usually solitary as colonies now seem to be not only cooperating, but exhibiting other unexpected characteristics.

After alerting the authorities a lab is quickly established and Hubbs is sent in with only a mathematical pattern researcher James Lesko (Michael Murphy) as an aide. There they take note of towering smooth surfaced monoliths created by the ants and who have also evidently increased their foraging abilities to now include fully grown livestock.

Impatient to wait for other observable activities Hubbs decides to destroy the monoliths resulting in the ants attacking the lone farm remaining in the area and ending up with the sole survivor, a young girl (Lynne Frederick) being rescued by the scientists. When the scientists try to quell the formic uprising with a yellow chemical agent the surviving ants quickly develop yellow ants that are immune to the mixture. With the battle now in full swing the exhibit ever more sophisticated attacks on the compound while the three isolated occupants try to decipher crude messages received from the ants with the survival of mankind at stake.

The feel of the movie is one that I’ve always felt rivaled that of The Andromeda Strain, another early 70’s science fiction favorite. But alas, seeing it now again the acting feels shoddy and the script is not as rich as I hoped or remembered it to be.

Culminating with a semi-psychedelic ending befitting the era, the movie toys with the question of who is the observer and which species is really under a microscope. The emotional detachment to death exhibited by Hubbs, somewhat crazed, imitates that of the ants themselves. While the plot lacks any real depth and is ambiguous on many fronts (we’re never clear on the global extent of ant uprising for one) the mix of close up ant footage is still remarkable after all these years. I can only imagine how many takes and attempts it took to capture some of the more ‘purposeful’ actions we see them doing. The very solitude nature of colonies and aversion to mingling of species that the plot points out being uncharacteristic is shown on screen, which must have taken great effort and patience to film. They also somehow managed to get symbols neatly placed on the heads of a few ants hinting at either a caste or other distinction (aside from species) but sadly these are never further explored or explained.

One of the real oddities of this film is that it was directed by Saul Bass which may ring a bell, but not for his directorial efforts. Bass, trained as a graphic designer, was the first to define and then master of the concept of sophisticated opening sequences for films. He is much better known for creating some of the most memorable sequences including many for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest) as well as dozens of others and also for many movie poster designs inspired by those sequences.

Movie Reviews 326 – Nightmare City (1980)

December 29, 2017

Released in North America as City of the Walking Dead, Nightmare City or Incubo Sulla Città Contaminata if you prefer the original Italian title, is the zombie movie that isn’t a zombie movie. Directed by Umberto Lenzi who just passed away in October of this year, it was one of many films, many from Italy, that rode the zombie wave after the success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and it’s sequels. But unlike the Italian triumvirate of horror directors (Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci) Lenzi was not yet an established creator, just coming into his peak period here as a matter of fact, and as such he had a much smaller budget was forced make concessions to producers that would hurt this film in particular.

This film is about some mysterious accident at a nuclear lab and TV reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) decides to pop by the airport to try to get an interview with a scientist scheduled to arrive to help with the situation. As he waits for the scientist at the airport a plane comes zooming in without responding to air traffic controllers. Once landed and at a stop on the airstrip and with a small army ready and waiting, the communications silence continues until the door bursts open and a horde of zombie like people, including the scientist, burst out and attack everyone in sight.

Dean barely makes a getaway but the contagion quickly spreads as those bitten come back alive to join the throng and his only concern at that point is getting to his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) a surgeon at the local hospital. Once reunited the couple make their way across the countryside while the requisite bumbling military led by General (Mel Ferrer) consistently underestimate the situation.

The trial and tribulations of both Dean and his wife along with the military attempts to quell the outbreak are punctuated by some marvelous and blood and gore which is the only thing that eases the pain of the acting throughout. Well that and cutbacks to the TV station which seems to broadcast nothing but an around the clock Disco Dancing show until the leotard and legging clad bosomed dancers get mauled when the demon swarms arrive.

The extras on my DVD included a marvelous short documentary in which Lenzi explains how producers saddled him with Stiglitz when he wanted Franco Nero or John Saxon among other more talented actors. He also explains how he did not want this to be yet another zombie flick per se and considered the infected ones as radiated victims, a notion which is sometimes supported by the burnt and exposed flesh makeup. But even back then it was impossible to avoid the zombie classification and the deal is sealed when even the script points out the fact you’ve got to “aim for the head”.

Often maligned in the pantheon of zombie flicks of the era, one does have to endure a lot of silliness to get through this one. But I felt the spectacle was worth it given the few scenes and shots that do work. It’s more that a fair splatterfest with sliced, diced and exploding heads. Mind you, with movies like this my barometer of excellence isn’t much higher than the IQ of those Walking Dea… I mean nuclear victim. Whatever.

A shout out to Jeff and Chris, the boys at the “Really Awful Movies” podcast for using the opening newscast dialog in the intro of their own show. “Top of the news this evening is speculation concerning the real facts behind the department of health announcement about a radioactive spill supposed to have occurred yesterday at the state nuclear plant.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Movie Reviews 325 – The Elia Kazan Collection

December 22, 2017

Invoke the name Elia Kazan within film circles and you’ll get two distinct first impressions. It will either be the plaudit of “Great director” or the condemnation as “The man who named names.”

The history of the US House of Representatives “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC) trials that razed Hollywood (and later similarly tinged Kefauver hearings on the comic industry) has always fascinated me. Senator Eugene McCarthy ushered in the “McCarthy Era” post World War II red scare targeting Hollywood elite to rat out on any anyone in the industry that were either sympathizers or card carrying members of the communist party. While most of those called to testify defied the committee, including Kazan himself when he first appeared, others did comply. But when called a second time Kazan did the unthinkable. He gave names. And to make matters worse and what probably cemented this act was him taking out a full page ad in the New York times the following day to rationalize his actions. His infamous testimony was an act that haunted him for the rest of his life.

I’ve associated Kazan with HUAC nearly as long as I have known of his directorial career. But as one who found myself condemning his actions, I’ve learned over the years that as all things in life and politics, the situation was not as simple as some make it out to be. For one thing he was not the only one to name names, but certainly one of the few to have faced the brunt of retribution. Even Tinseltown nobility the likes of Edward G. Robinson seemed to thrive unscathed despite doing the very same thing. The stigma remained for the rest of his life including when he finally received a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Academy Awards when a number of those in attendance silently sat through the ceremony while others stood and clapped.

But let’s get back to his directorial efforts. Unlike Kazan’s name eliciting different reactions from a sociopolitical point of view, any discussion of his cinematic achievements are unanimously complimentary. His films have garnered a slew Oscar wins and nominations that few other creators can claim. Moments like Marlon Brando’s tortured soul crying at the top of his lungs “Stella! Stelllaaah!” in A Streetcar Named Desire or Brando lamenting his missed opportunities in life in On the Waterfront are some of the most recognized moments in cinema history.

Kazan’s films are, with few exceptions, emotion filled stories of human angst and turmoil. Whether it be love, justice, or politics the character centric stories are gut wrenching with few respites if any at all. Not surprisingly given that Kazan also has the distinction of being one of the creators of the New York’s Famed Actors Studio and it was he that actually brought in Lee Strasberg, the name usually associated with the group and who I’ve always assumed was responsible for its creation.

The Elia Kazan Collection reviewed here is a magnificent box set representing the very best of Kazan’s illustrious career. Released in 2010 by Fox Studios it presents fifteen great films on eighteen discs as they were released chronologically.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

The first film in the set which immediately became one of my favorites without having seen the others. A great portent of things to come. An early turn of the century story of how the matriarch of a family endures every hardship thrown at her. Also a tale that draws upon the pros and cons of those living the artistic carefree lifestyle opposed to those in constant worry and full of responsibility.

 

Boomerang (1947)

A delightful murder case courtroom drama with political influence undertones. Now a staple plot in many movies, this was one of the innovators on that theme and a decent one at that. Apparently most of the story is based on an actual case. This is one of the least enjoyable films in the set for my personal tastes but that is only because the other films were so strong in comparison.

 

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

This must have been considered a very daring movie on release, tackling anti-semitism head on and not merely using analogy to present the issue. And having Gregory Peck as the jew certainly helped Kazan getting his first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars and seven nominations in total.

 

Pinky (1949)

Another movie that broke taboos and barriers, this time the story of a lighter toned African American woman (Jeanne Crain) who can ‘pass’ for white. The film deftly address the different attitudes by having the woman return to her southern home after living up north while earning a degree in nursing and falling in love with a white man. The usual bigotry by the townsfolk is not however the central story as the woman, at the behest of her mother, is asked to tend to the elderly white neighbor (Ethel Barrymore).

 

Panic in the Streets (1950)

When an outbreak of a pulmonary plague breaks out in the rat infested shipyards of New Orleans, an officer of the US Health department (Richard Widmark) works alongside local detectives to trace the origin and infectious carrier. But the rats aren’t limited to the four legged vermin, and the wharf has just as many shady characters to fit the profile. One of the few Kazan movies that does not focus on human emotions and works just as well as a pure action flick. Another Oscar winner, but this time for the writing. Ironically actor and comic Zero Mostel who plays one of the hapless gangsters would himself be blacklisted by HUAC two years after this film. But no, Kazan was not the one the named hiw to the committee

 

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

One of Kazan’s classics and where he first makes use of the talents of both Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, calibre actors that he would return to often and for whom they would give some of the best performances of their lives. Vivien Leigh plays southern belle Blanche DuBois who having fallen on hard times visits her sister (Kim Hunter) and brother in-law (Brando) who are just scraping by while she maintains the pretense of wealth. Known for the aforementioned wailing “Stella! Stelllaaah!” segment, the film has so much more. This is the movie that made Brando and swept the Oscars but ironically both Kazan and Brando did not win in their respective categories.

 

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Another film starring Brando, this time as the real life Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who along with Pancho Villa fought for reform and justice. The film explores Zapata’s disillusionment when after the rebellion he finds that not much has changed and having to endure seeing his own brother (Anthony Quinn) complicit with the continued corruption.

 

Man on a Tightrope (1953)

Another film based largely on actual events in post war Czechoslovakia. Fredric March stars as Cernik, the current operator of a travelling circus that was created and owned by his family but that was then nationalized by the communist government. Aside from corrupt officials constantly harassing him, spousal infidelity and an uncontrollable daughter, Cernik has to deal with a spy within his troupe. This all intertwines, culminating in a mad dash to escape the Iron Curtain. Another great surprise for myself as I’d never even heard of this gem before.

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

A Hollywood classic known for Brando’s backseat diatribe to his brother (Rod Steiger) exclaiming “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Brando as Malloy, a once promising boxer but now an enforcer for a mob boss (Lee J. Cobb). He is unintentionally involved in the murder of a man about to snitch on the mobster and then falls for the murdered man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) looking for answers. As dock workers are threatened and exploited they reluctantly turn to the local priest (Karl Malden) who is as hard pressed for answers are is Malloy. Simply a fantastic film with stellar acting by everyone that swept the Oscars with eleven nominations and eight wins.

 

East of Eden (1954)

Not being much of fan of James Dean no matter how big an icon he is supposed to be, it took me while to warm up to this tale of a lost young man trying to satisfy his devout father (Raymond Massey), establish a relationship with his wayward mother (Joan Van Fleet) all in the face of sibling rivalry. I was more impressed by the cinematography than the story, but it does have its moments. No sign of Brando here but one can see that Dean was groomed for the same type of tragic character.

 

Baby Doll (1956)

Archie (Karl Malden), an older, lecherous and failed cotton gin owner marries the barely legal “Baby Doll” (Carroll Baker) and then anxiously and perversely awaits the approach of her twentieth birthday, the day until which he promised the girl’s father he would abstain from consummating the marriage. As the households furniture is repossessed, and with Baby Doll threatening to leave, Archie compounds his troubles by setting fire to the gin of his main competitor, the business savvy Italian Vacarro (Eli Wallach). But when Vacarro pokes around  Archie’s premises looking for proof of the vandalism he finds his opportunity for revenge lies with  Baby Doll in more ways than one.

 

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

If the only perception you have of Andy Griffith is his role as the soft spoken sheriff in Mayberry you’ll have a complete revelation here are he portrays a boisterous, womanizing southern con who uses his guitar and preach worthy voice and lyrics to entrance the nation as well as the reporter who discovers him (Patricia Neal). Behind the simple minded entertainer lurks a demon with more than simple fame within his sights. A rare film with Walter Matthau in a minor role, this one was another appreciated surprise for me.

 

Wild River (1960)

The monumental Tennessee Valley Authority that was created manage the multi state land and water reforms after the great depression and the mass flooding of Tennessee river meant there would be a significant impact for anyone within the affected areas . The burden of dealing with the handcuffed landowners results in one particular manager throwing in the towel and giving opportunity to an eager replacement (Montgomery Clift). Coming in with nothing but the best intentions he is sent in to convince the last holdout of a farm that will be sunk by the rising ( waters. But the stubborn matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) cannot be persuaded even as her own daughter (Lee Remick) falls for bureaucrat.

 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

If you believed as I did that Natalie Wood was an overrated actress this one will change your mind. On the other hand it also reinforced my contention that laconic Warren Beatty can be a dullard at times.. But it’s a solid story about following one’s dreams and not caving into parental plans.

 

America America (1963)

His most personal film, a semi-biographical depicting his family history as immigrants from Turkey via Greece, adapted from Kazan’s own book. Casting mostly unknown actors including that of the lead, it takes a bit of getting used to, but at the same time does have its charms.

 

The DVD box set also includes a disc with Martin Scorsese’s American Masters tribute A Letter to Elia (2010) which made for a nice retrospective of Kazan’s career from the very evident adoration and personal admiration of Scorsese, a great director in his own right and the man chosen to give Kazan that last Oscar.

I do have to mention a few other things about this particular box set for those that are considering buying it. The set contains two books, the first being a landscape 100 page hardcover on Kazan and his movies and the second a book containing the DVDs along with a short synopsis of each film.  Even before I bought mine (fairly cheaply I might add) I’d heard that some other owners had issues with some of the discs operating correctly. The individual DVDs are placed in ‘pockets’ on thick cardboard pages within the DVD book. Some have speculated that the discs may have gotten scratched when inserting or removing the discs. I had no such issues and my set was a used one so I assume the discs were all used at least once before I got the set. But it is something you may want to check out if getting the set second hand.

If you’re looking for a poignant story with great characters you really can’t go wrong with any of these, whether the be the blockbusters everyone is familiar with or any of the lesser known titles. It time to move on from the controversy and recognize without hesitation this true master film maker.

Movie Reviews 324 – From Beyond (1986)

December 15, 2017

Brian Yuzna had a hit on his hands when he co-produced with Charles Band the adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator teaming director Stuart Gordon with actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. So successful was this cult favorite that it really cemented the careers of all three. Daring to see if they could strike lighting again the entire ensemble reunited and brought us The Beyond, another Lovecraft short story. Lets just say that the bolts flew.

Admirer and acolyte of Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel), Crawford Tillinghast (Combs) concentrates his research activities on their shared theory on the existence of an interdimension coexisting with our own. He diligently helps Pretorius build a ‘resonator’ within the attic of their house laboratory while ignoring Pretorius’ late night proclivities in his sadomasochistic dungeon room. When Crawford finally manages to get it working one night he immediately realizes the unforeseen consequence of the breakthrough. While the device allows Crawford to see and interact with the various life forms in this new dimension it reciprocally allows those creatures to interact with this plane of existence And they are not a friendly. Luckily, while Crawford does get assaulted by them, he does barely manage to turn off the device in time suffering only minor wounds.

But once Pretorius hears that the resonator is functional he dismisses Crawford’s cautionary approach, an overconfidence that ends in Pretorius’ demise. But the state of the attic after the untimely death can only be explained as Crawford being responsible for Pretorius’ fate. Now in a mental institution, Crawford finds a believer in his extraordinary tale in Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton) after she finds abnormalities in his pineal gland which corroborate his story. With the aid of Bubba (Ken Foree) a detective still working on the Pretorius case, she gets permission to bring Crawford back to the scene of the crime to help piece out the more abnormal aspects of the mystery. There they find Pretorius alive, but far from well. Having traversed to the other side, Pretorius now wants to fully consume everything in his former dimension and for that he needs to keep the resonator turned on.

The adoption of the pineal gland as a plot device is not accidental as its bodily function  introduces a sexual context to the story. And with the added presence of the sultry Crampton you can bet that the script makes ample use of Pretorius’ dungeon and all the accoutrements therein. Almost shockingly, those scenes aren’t even the standouts in this film as the special effects crew deliver a bevy of fantastic creatures, makeup and animatronics. The only critical aspects are some of the now very dated CGI, but thankfully those are used to a much smaller degree than the live action props.

The third act deals with the spectre of Pretorius making the resonator almost sentient and adopting a self-survival instinct countering the efforts of Katherine and Bubba all while Crawford battles his ever growing pineal gland extruding his forehead. All gruesome stuff combining brain matter, electroshock, and flesh eating ooze.

Anyone who enjoyed Re-Animator will be right at home with this one. The third installment that this same team of creators reunited for one last time to create the final entry of this Lovecraft trilogy is 1995’s Castle Freak. As I’ve never seen it I cannot comment but from what I understand it is a much more serious adaptation so it would depend on particular tastes as to how fans of the first two films will react to that one.

People like myself who sieve through most of the credits will pick up that comic creator Neal Adams worked on the visuals for this film although to what extent I cannot say. But the visual are a feast which deserves kudos for the effects artists who unfortunately are obscure given that most of the movie was filmed in Italy and he mostly Italian crew included those effects artists.

Movie Reviews 323 – The Crying Game (1992)

December 8, 2017

Many movies have defining moments, ones that change the direction or perspective of the story. Other movies have memorable scenes where either great acting or dialogue have become quintessential moments of cinematic history. But I can only think of one movie, The Crying Game, where one particular scene not only changes perspectives, but defines what the movie is really all about. The jolt not only changes the entire plot but also the very nature of the film. And in this film, what a scene it is!

I will begin by making it clear that I will not divulge that surprise for those that have not seen the film and have managed to not having it spoiled by the media or other means. But the scene in question is so dynamic that any discussion of the film pretty much begins with that one scene. In a way those people who still don’t know about it are to be envied the shock that awaits them.

Set sometime in the 1980’s during North Ireland’s “Troubles” the film begins as a typical political thriller with the IRA capturing and holding Jody (Forest Whitaker), an off duty British soldier. Fergus (Stephen Rea), one of the more reluctant abductors, befriends his captive much to the chagrin of his more militant IRA peers (Miranda Richardson and Adrian Dunbar). The narrative settles on that friendship and the threat of Jody’s death lest the demands of the abductors not be met. Indeed the growing bond between the two could have been the entire plot and it would have been satisfying enough. But the circumstances on how the kidnapping ends has Fergus seeking Jody’s former girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson) without telling her of his former connection to Jody.

Whether the initial interest was simply guilt laden or some other unknown reason, once Fergus injects himself into Dil’s world the attraction between the two grows despite each having reservations at first. Fergus’ reluctance is understood given the real connection to Dil but she too is hesitant just when commitment seems evident. What Dil eventually reveals stuns both Fergus and the audience. To say that it changes everything is an understatement. Dealing with that revelation elicits soul searching and uncertainty between the characters, and I suspect the audience just as much. As confusing as it is for Fergus he is them confronted by the return of some of his old IRA peers who have perilous plans for him.

The movie makes constant use and references to the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog which ponders the nature of man and whether one can change that nature, perfectly capturing the essence of this film.

For a real 1990’s throwback enjoy Boy George (remember him?) singing the title theme song which had actually been around long before the movie. The song selection in the score contains a few other choice tunes reflective of the plot and all I’ll say is that this is all apropos once you see this movie.

Movie Reviews 322 – Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

December 1, 2017

I’m not sure how I ended up deciding to buy my Beyond the Black Rainbow DVD from my deep discount supplier, but even for the measly $1.50 I paid I feel I was robbed. I knew nothing about the film except perhaps from its brief IMDB description and rating which was enticing enough, but now I feel that perhaps a more thorough search was warranted. As is usually the case, I cannot say this movie was 100% bad, but the few good things were nowhere near enough to make up for the bad, and also as usual I need to explain a few things.

Let’s be clear right from the start on one point. This is an art film. That in itself is not a problem for me although I confess I prefer conventional films with linear plots, fleshed out characters and a modicum of a decent story. This film fails on all three accounts. I enjoy art films in small doses like Bunũel’s Un Chien Andalou, or more rounded art films like a Bergman or a Fellini. Give me a Kurosawa, Truffaut or Lynch any day. But the plot here can basically summed up in two seconds and the rest is all non-verbal contemplation and visual razzle-dazzle.

What little there is of story consists of a scientist/preacher creating the Arboria Institute, a human nirvana of sedated happiness and joy. Now elderly and heavily sedated himself, Dr. Arboria is under the control of Barry (Michael Rogers), a man obsessed with Elena (Eva Allen) Arboria’s sole catatonic occupant. Elena manages to escape to discover the lush, green world awaiting outside. Add about five minutes of dialogue, a space-suited, laser touting guard, phone conversations with metalic grinding sounds, and a giant self lit plastic pyramid in a room to what I’ve described and Tadah! Cue the end credits.To give you a sense of what you’re in for, the dialog is so infrequent we only get to hear a third person speak at the 30 minute mark, and that is one of the Elena one of the two main characters.

I did say there was some good didn’t I? The one thing that was at times appealing were the visuals which the filmmakers obviously put a lot of effort into. While the aesthetics are often barren and empty much like THX-1138, the cinematography also often employed a neon palette with futuristic implements. The varied angles and extensive use of mirrors and mirror effects on glass panes and flooring resulted in simulated split image layouts. This would have been fine for a short film, but in a feature with little else to offer it too became repetitive and bland.

On thing that was clear was that director Panos Cosmatos must be a huge fan of the late, great Stanley Kubrick as he drops references and even outright steals lines from 2001 A Space Odyssey. So evident was this reverence that he even stole the zero gravity room rotation bit. I wish the director actually had paid more attention as to how Kubrick made great films since the HAL 9000 computer had more personality than anyone in this film. I was just waiting for an embryo closeup scene and I swear there is even a near swipe on that. Homage is one thing, mimicking and copying are another.

I have to say that this was one tough movie to watch. I rarely cut out on a movie despite it being not to my liking, being an optimistic viewer who patiently waits and hopes that a film will turn a corner and deliver. Under normal circumstances I think I would have bailed out on this one but I really hoped to do a review thinking this was an entirely different type of film. As my hopes dimmed in the first few minutes I began thinking about swapping discs with Scorsese’s Mean Streets, one of the few of Marty’s I have yet to watch. A few minutes later, any Film Noir sounded good. Things got a little more desperate at the twenty minute mark as I began to wonder about those early Jackie Chan films sitting on my shelves. But by the half hour mark even a Pauly Shore flick was starting to sound good to me. How low could I go? But I toughed it out for this review. Not sure if it was worth it but the way I figure it you readers owe me one!

Movie Reviews 321 – Parasite (1982)

November 25, 2017

While lesser known that B Movie maven Roger Corman, Charles Band has made as much of an impact with nearly 300 producer and more than 50 directing credits since the 70’s and he’s still going strong today. His many movie series include Puppet Master (a dozen films and another on the way), Trancers, Gingerbread Man, Evil Bong (yes Evil Bong is a series) and Demonic Toys. And just like Corman his films range between the remarkably original and fun to the mind numbing ‘What the hell was that I just watched?’. Parasite is one of those films that falls somewhere in between those extremes with glaring flaws but teetering on approval for the little things that do work.

The story takes place sometime in the future but aside from the use a laser weapons and the absurd acrylic pyramids placed above the 60’s era gas pumps you wouldn’t know it wasn’t contemporary. I think the use of a black Ferrari by the antagonist  was also supposed to deliver that futuristic feel, but … come on … it’s a Ferrari.

Dr. Paul Dean (Robert Glaudini) is on the run from laser armed uniformed men as he makes a dash across a desert. When he manages to elude his initial pursuers who are after some thermos sized container he takes up a room in a remote, nearly vacant town. We then learn that he escaped from some conglomerate lab where he had developed a parasitic lifeform for which he is now trying to find a cure. His quest is both altruistic in saving humanity but at the same time personal as he himself has parasite now growing under his abdominal skin. And time is running out fast.

The townfolk include a lone barkeeper, a rowdy group of young adults, an elderly glamour obsessed inn keeper and a young woman trying to maintain some level civilization (Demi Moore in only her second feature). Dean has to contend with the youths who are determined to find out what is in the cannister as well the Ferrari driving Wolf, a the top tier hunter from the conglomerate intent on stopping Dean from finding a cure. Although the exact reasoning behind the logic is never made clear the parasites are supposedly keeping mankind in check and under the control of the conglomerate. But when the youths finally get their hands on the cannister and unleash its contents, Dean’s plan unravels and everyone in town are in immediate danger.

The awful pretense of the futuristic setting aside as that could simply be lumped with budgetary woes, the film just does not make sense in so many ways. Why would any conglomerate care about perpetuating a parasite on a world already on the edge of dying? Are we to assume that this desolate backdrop is not the norm everywhere else? If that was the case why do the handful of residents stay there? There is talk and even evidence of dealing with nuclear fallout but if anything that even diminishes the argument that the conglomerate need those parasites.

But if you can put up with all the plot holes story does have a few interesting characters and those parasites, well the one unleashed from the canister anyhow, goes a long way to deliver the so fun scares. The slithering mass goes through several growth stages and it’s ever bigger chompers manages to get hold of people in some neat effects scenes.

One thing worth mentioning is that was originally filmed as a 3D movie so you can expect some weird camera angles and seemingly nonsensical zooming into objects during viewing in plain old 2D. And if you’re in the Charles Band bandwagon, you’ll feel right at home.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006)

November 17, 2017

Pulitzer prizes handed out to genre works are rarer than hen’s teeth, the excellent alternate world The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Art Spiegelman’s anthropomorphic  holocaust graphic novel Maus being exceptions. While I’d read some rave reviews in horror magazines (primarily in Rue Morgue) I was surprised to learn that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a Pulitzer recipient, but that was enough to seal the deal and add it to my read pile.

While not strictly a genre novel, the account of a man and his young son wandering a dystopian ravaged Earth can be considered a science fiction novel despite no mention of what exactly occurred to render our planet one vast desolate wasteland. On the other hand some of the gut wrenching abominable acts found within could easily categorize this as horror. But it is speculative fiction regardless.

While I have never read anything else by McCarthy, I was immediately taken by the writing style which bent a number of grammar rules. But after reading a bit further I understood that the occasional dropped apostrophe was symbolic of the similar yet irreparably changed world. Cormac also extends bleakness of the situation by some of literary choices. The novel is nameless, timeless, even chapterless, continuity breaks only denoted by asterisks. There is sparse use of spoken words and the third person perspective also diminishes the reader’s insight into the character’s frame of mind and thoughts.

There is no grand, overarching plot. The sole goal for the two characters are to reach the coast hoping that there is something better. You would think that this novel would rely on encounters with other characters but there are hardly any and even those few are always brief and often distant. Despite all that the drama is constant and the protagonists are always just one step away from death or some life threatening predicament.The desolation within their souls as evident as the desolation of the road.

I did find that the author took a few liberties with some near incredulous luck being bestowed on the journey, but as addressed within the novel ‘luck’ is relative and survival under such circumstances may not even be considered lucky at all. But overall the novel is fantastically riveting and poignant and while addressing such a bitter story.

I’ll be honest in stating that I didn’t even know a movie was already made in 2009 which evidently slipped my radar. From what I gather from my limited reading of reviews it appears to be a fairly accurate adaptation and I do hope to watch it before too long.