Movie Reviews 292 – The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

March 25, 2017

While it is hard to pick which one of master stop motion movie creator Ray Harryhausen’s epics is the best – there are so many – The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was certainly a milestone and is representational of the great variety of fantastic creatures he animated. Like other Harryhausen movies, the plot is not what sticks in your memories as much as which particular creations were featured. In the case of the 7th Voyage, it was the cyclops (more than one actually), the shackled giant fire breathing dragon, the enormous two headed eagle chick (and one of it’s irritated parents), and probably the most memorable of all Harryhausen creations, a sabre and shield wielding, fighting skeleton.

Without any setup, Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and his devoted sailors find themselves battling a raging sea storm when they suddenly comes across a mysterious island. Sinbad is transporting princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) to Baghdad not only to marry her, but to sooth relations between her homeland and his own. But as the crew is low on food and water their unscheduled landing is a fortuitous opportunity to replenish resources and do a little exploring.

With supplies restocked and preparing to leave, Sinbad spots a magician fleeing a giant cyclops on the beach shore. While they manage to save the magician, a lamp that he carried was lost and retrieved by the cyclops. The magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) tries to convince Sinbad to turn back to the island to get back his precious lamp but is rebuffed. Sokurah awaits his opportunity back in Baghdad and the eve before the nuptials he shrinks the princess to palm size.

With the princess’ father in a uproar and vowing vengeance to the Caliph of Baghdad, Sinbad reluctantly recruits the magician and a bunch of prisoners to join his crew for a trip back to the island to get one of the ingredients needed for the potion that can turn his princess back to normal and avert a war.

Back on the island fulfilling their quest for the ingredient – the shell from a oversized egg – Sinbad and his sailors have to deal with more cyclopse, two headed monstrosities, the gargantuan dragon, as well as the lure of a treasure trove, all while the nefarious Sokurah’s double-crosses Sinbad and the men. With the help of Barani, the genie in the lamp and a giant crossbow, Sinbad saves the princess, averts the war and live to sail another day.

The first of Harryhausen’s movies to be filmed in colour and featuring the “Dynamation” name for his miniature marvels, the film is also greatly enhanced by a memorable Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) Arabian themed score. This would be the first of three Sinbad movies Harryhausen would go on to make, although other films such as Jason and the Argonauts and his last film Clash of the Titans would also be based on mythological lore, his most imaginative subject matter. Not to disparage his earlier black and white films such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth  or Mighty Joe Young  – created under the tutelage of his mentor Willis O’BrienThe 7th Voyage of Sinbad – remains one of the favorites.

I was fortunate enough to have met him when he appeared for a special screening of Jason and the Argonauts at the Fantasia film festival in 2005. A thrill to shake the hand that crafted and gave life to all those miracles in miniature.

Movie Reviews 291 – Garden of the Dead (1972)

March 17, 2017

If you think that this movie is geared to horticulturalists seeking to prolong the lifespan of their petunias or azaleas, drop your hoe right now. Although manure does figure prominently in my assessment of the film there is a seed of low budget wholesomeness that levitates Garden of the Dead for the bottom of the barrel, but only by a fraction.

Credit DVD distributor Retromedia for including a drawing of a bombshell to create an nontraditional FBI DVD warning, but I had to question the introduction with Ohio horror host “Son of Ghoul’ who lambastes the film before egging Retromedia founder and B movie producer, director Fred Olen Ray to hurl a bowling ball through a TV set before we get to see the opening credits. This was not an option on the DVD mind you but built right into the Play command. Not sure what all that was about but whatever.

A snazzy, catchy Jazz beat gets things rolling with a bunch of prisoners hauling formaldehyde barrels around a worksite, as we cut to some of them hiding from their guards and sniffing the stuff as they plan for their not so great escape.

Clearly divided into groups that want to partake and others that want to know nothing about the impending outbreak, those determined soon make their getaway. With one of bumbling escapees taking in one last whiff of the noxious gas, he soon stumbles, alerting the guards which leads to an inevitable motor chase, the end result of which is the convicts crashing into a graveyard and having formaldehyde spill across the plots.

Within seconds hands of the living dead are bursting through the soil grabbing ankles amidst a futile shootout with the prison guards. So what do the zombies do? Why they head for the garden tools in the getaway pickup of course as they merrily chant “Destroy the living”. I only mention this since honestly it’s the only tie in to a garden that could explain the title.

The plot includes one ‘good’ prisoner named Paul who has an emotion filled visit from his lascivious lady Carol. After a few zombie battles that take out some of the neighbors and the perpetually gloved warden, those that are still alive, prisoners and guards alike, get holed up in a standoff on the prison grounds. In the end, twas beauty in the guise of Carol that killed the … zombies.

Clocking in at a merciful 58 minutes, this will never make anyone’s top ten zombie movie list. Or top twenty. But I’ve seen far worse so I’ll leave it at that.

One last thing about the Retromedia DVD. The trailer included as the only extra is for the wrong film. But the trailer that was included which was for the co-feature Grave of the Vampire actually looked more interesting than this movie.

Movie Reviews 290 – Shaft (1971)

March 12, 2017

With the highly suggestive name and title, Shaft is the movie that brought the ghetto to the big screen and along the way gave birth to the blaxploitation movie trend that continued for most of 1970’s. While the plot may be fairly light, viewers were seduced by many other factors and it’s those aspects that have made the movie and the name itself classic.

For starters, Richard Roundtree, the embodiment of John Shaft was one cool dude. Slick and trim sporting cunate sideburns and always wearing his trademark long brown leather coat, his looks cemented his ladies man status, but it was his smarts and take no guff attitude that shaped this private investigator.

The tenement buildings and their dilapidated accommodations within. The garbage strewn streets. The smoky corner bars. The rusty cars amid the Manhattan smog. All vividly portray what the Big Apple was really like in it’s darkest days. While not inviting to movie audiences in itself, it did provide realism for a new brand of action packed movie, those catering to African American audiences. But perhaps not surprisingly, those same trappings caught on with audiences across the race spectrum.

The nostalgia oozes from the moment the frames start to roll with glorious Shaft dodging full sized 70’s gas guzzlers in the streets of Harlem, all while Isaac Hayes’ theme song streams in the background. But this is no mere score. One could argue that “The theme from Shaft” is more famous than the movie itself as it pretty much delivers the same essence.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
(Shaft!)
You’re damn right

Who is the man
That would risk his neck for his brother man?
(Shaft!)
Can ya dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about
(Shaft!)
Right on

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother
(Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)
He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
(John Shaft)

Story wise, the pedantic plot does not stray too far from your regular cop drama. While Shaft may have his differences with NYPD Lieutenant Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), theirs is a cooperative and symbiotic relationship. But that friendship gets stressed when a bunch of mobsters start arriving from all parts of the country. Something is brewing and Androzzi wants Shaft to leverage his street savvy to get the lowdown. At just that time Shaft gets hired by a local drug kingpin to find out who kidnapped his teenage daughter. These two pieces are part of a puzzle that on the face of it appear to be a gangland turf war, but because of the particulars of those involved, can develop into citywide race war.

A few car chases, shootouts, fistfights and someone thrown out of a window, all with ample breaks for Shaft to radiate his pearly whites to the fairer sex, and you have Shaft.

Can you dig it? I can.

Movie Reviews 289 – Discopath (2013)

March 3, 2017

DiscopatheWhen the guys from Black Fawn films discussed and ran the trailer for Discopath (original French title Discopathe) at a comic con nearly three years ago I was stoked. Shot mostly in Montreal and featuring a Disco era slasher, the trailer highlighted lofty production values that accurately captured the mid 70’s smoke filled discotheques, funky duds, and gleaming chrome bumpered wheels. I was even kind pissed not being able to get a copy then and there and was only able to buy my DVD from them the following year.

A few DVD synch issues resolved, I finally got around to spinning this disc anticipating a nostalgic reprise of movies like Joe Spinell’s Maniac, or perhaps another musically inclined light horror like Phantom of the Paradise. The premise was rife with possibilities, the trailer looked promising, how could things go wrong? But somewhere along the way a few ‘mis-steps’ were made on this dancefloor and the end result was no chart-topper or even a one-hit-wonder.

The disquieting ripples begin with the first scene where we find Duane (Jérémie Earp-Lavergne) chatting with Valerie (Katherine Cleland) in full roller skating regalia. The wardrobes are perfect but the ‘New Yawk’ accents are grating. The two are chatting in what is obviously a modern day cement sloped skateboard park because back in the 70’s no such public parks existed for roller skaters. Valerie becomes Duane’s first victim that night at the local discotheque which befuddles the NYPD officer Paul Stevens (Ivan Freud) as the case remains unsolved.

Leap ahead five years later to a religious all girl residential school in Montreal  where Duane, now using an assumed name is handyman. When two of the girls sneak back into the dorm as all the other students head home for a long weekend, the music they play on their rickety 45 RPM record player touches off Duane’s memory of his father being electrocuted by his HI FI stereo system when he was a child. Transfixed by the traumatic sonic memory, Duane viciously slaughters the girls, and miraculously the news reaches the ears of detective Stevens who must plead with his supervisor to allow him to revisit the cold case on his own dime.

By the time Stevens arrives in Montreal to work with local inspector Sirois (François Aubin), Duane has nabbed one of the teachers, Francine (Sandrine Bisson), that has caught Duane’s eye. Unknown to all, the sultry and flashy Francine was also having an affair with Sister Mirielle (Ingrid Falaise), the straight laced and bun coiffed head teacher. After a car crunching and body strewn car chase, Duane finally gets cornered for a Dyno-O-Mite denouement.

While the film has a lot going for it, it does suffers from a ridiculous script, lame acting by lead Earp-Lavergne, and other factors that could have been easily addressed. From a plot point of view the worst assault is the fact that Stevens takes the merest of hints that his original killer was triggered by music – music was playing in the background – and then links it to another murder in another country five years later simply because the killer diced victims with 45’s. As for the acting one could argue that the role of Duane is arguably impassive when in a semi-trance state committing his crimes, but Earp-Lavergne’s portrayal is as rigid as a vinyl disc throughout.

An example of the nuisance factor are the choices made for the score. You’d think that with a disco themed film the musical selection would be pretty obvious. Expecting only an original soundtrack reminiscent of the disco sound, I was a bit surprised that the budget even allowed for procuring the rights to one or two bona fide hit songs of the time. Hearing K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m your boogie man” was fine, but was totally stumped as to why the main featured track ended up being Kiss’ “I was made for lovin you”. Great sound mind you, a huge hit, but hardly disco.

One the positive side, both Mirielle and Francine are credible and downright appealing as they coo and tease over the phone about their clandestine lesbian affair while Sirois is great playing the cop with just the right touch of humour. The costumes reign with period clothing featuring wide collars, tank tops and skin tight gym shorts. Aside from the aforementioned ‘Death by 45’s’ there is also an appropriate strobe lit kill and other fair carnage effects, some done notably by Rémi Couture, who gained notoriety for having so vivid artwork he was prosecuted.

With apologies to my disco trotting friends the final verdict is the same as that applied to the disco music of that era. Disco(path) sucks.

The Zap Gun – Philip K. Dick (1964)

February 25, 2017

the-zap-gunAs a long time fan of Philip K. Dick I’ve always enjoyed the lunacy of his novels, even some of those that are not as endearing as his classics like The Man in the High Castle or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (A.K.A. Blade Runner). Some of the fondest on mys hselves have been his quirkier novels like Dr. Bloodmoney and Clans of the Alphane Moon. Based on past experience I thought that a novel about a world which features ersatz psychic weapon designers that jeopardize the Earth when faced with an alien invasion would be a sure bet. But The Zap Gun, while encapsulating the usual Dick staples of conspiracy theories and paranoia, was a bit of slog and took it’s sweet time to get to the expected insanity.

Reflective of the then contemporary Cold War divided world, Dick posits a similar East and West disunity, but with more convoluted hierarchies. Under the surface both sides have suppressed the arms race by having the populace (or ‘parsups’) believe that they have supreme weapons designers that have been continually receiving new designs in trancelike dreams for some unknown higher being. But instead of building the weapons ‘imagined’, the designs are studied (understood?) and then ‘plowshared’ into inert common use devices.

Lars is the preeminent Wes-bloc ‘Weapon Designer” who has been in a funk largely due to a case of conscious regarding his fraudulent role. The one thing that does interest him is finding out more about his Peep-East counterpart, one Lilo Topchev. But elusive miss Topchev remains nothing more than a blurred picture provided by Western intelligence.

All that changes when a satellite shows up in the sky one day, the first salvo in an invasion by  Sirius. The two planetary alliance’s only hope is to combine Lars and Lilo’s talents together in the hope that their trances can produce an actual viable weapon.

Mostly political intrigue, navigating the machinations and echelons of bureaucracy, this is largely Lars’ story. His interest in Lilo, his relationship with a mistress, and his few friends who are the manufacturers of his ‘weapons’. The invasion itself is just a plot device and the ‘war’ is simply described in a sentence here and there as cities disappearing under a veil.

Perhaps a case of going to the trough once too often, the story did not really pique my interest until things got really crazy mid way like finding out that Lars’ and Lilo’s trance productions were coming from the mind of a South Ghanaian comic strip writer of “The Blue Cephalopod Man from Titan“. If that wasn’t wacky enough, the ultimate solution to the Alien invasion is nothing short of genius, and involves a toy.

So if you’re a fan of P.K.D, stick with this one and you’ll be rewarded. For those not acquainted with the man, it is (eventually) another example of the warped mind of the late, great author. That cover insane painting is more apropos than you would be led to believe.

Movie Reviews 288 – Ichi (2008)

February 17, 2017

ichiNot to be confused with Ichi the Killer, director Takashi Miike’s ultra-violent yakuza thriller, this Ichi is yet another variant entry of the Japanese Blind Swordsman lore known as Zatoichi. In this case the blind sword wielder is a lonely and depressed young woman whose day to day meanderings are driven by one solitary goal.

As a blind orphan, Ichi (Haruka Ayase) was rescued and trained by Zatoichi to master the sword. Unable to care for her himself he sent her to become a member of a goze – a term used for visually impaired women who have taken on jobs as musicians for hire – but left her with a little ‘calling’ bell with a promise to visit when rung to comfort her.  After being forced upon by a goze patron and accidentally killing him, Ichi is banished from the goze and began travelling the land in search of the lost Zatoichi.

On the road she meets Toma Fujihira (Takao Ohsawa) – a hapless samurai who cannot remove his saber from its sheathing, guilt ridden due to an accident he had as a child while playing with it.  Their journey brings them to a small resort, or “Inn” village ruled by a benevolent Yakuza known as the Shirakawa clan but now being held under siege by Banki (Shidô Nakamura), the scar faced gang leader of the Banki-to with a snivelling laugh.

That night, Toma decides to do some gambling at the local parlor and with the help of Ichi’s acute hearing Toma wins handsomely while the Banki-to participating in the game loose.  As Toma, Ichi and Shirakawa boy who has started clinging to Ichi depart into the night, the flustered Banki-to follow to reclaim their lost wagers. As Toma once again stammers with his sword, Ichi springs into action and slices to shreds the outskilled Banki-to. Moments after the battle, Toraji (Yosuke Kubozuka), the son of the reigning Shirakawa comes across the fallen Banki-to and, mistaking Toma as the adept swordsman, hires him to protect the Shirakawa and help rid the village from Banki’s oppression.

His secret now out having frozen in action when confronted by the Banki-to in the presence of the Shirakawa, Toma is beaten and berated. But when the elder Shirakawa is slain by Banki, Toraji decides that enough is enough and that the Shirakawa will finally stand up to Banki with a final, all out battle. Scorned by the Shirakawa members, Toraji lets Toma join the fight, goading him to act becoming of a samurai.

The direction is a bit uneven especially in the beginning as transitions between light comedy and poignant drama are somewhat awkward and untimely. But once they arrive in the village the story finds its footing. There are also plenty of solemn and introspective points, either with Ichi distancing herself from Toma, and when Ichi is briefly held captive by Banki. The battles are decent and bloody but don’t expect the usual acrobatics or gimmicks.

Movie Reviews 287 – Les Diaboliques (1955)

February 10, 2017

les-diaboliquesFrench director Henri-Georges Clouzot was probably the one director that could compete on equal footing with the great Alfred Hitchcock. And while not as prolific, Les Diaboliques “The Devils”, although it is universally distributed under the original French title – not only ranks as good as Hitch’s best, but in some ways even surpasses the master.

Right from the start we are confronted by the strange trinity between the headmaster of the Delassalle boarding school for boys, his wife and his mistress, both teachers there. Headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse) openly both seduces and torments his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), while at the same time she befriends and consoles his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot). Christina, weak and ashen-faced and who actually owns the school is constantly bullied, dehumanized and degraded by Michel in front of everyone. As the school enters into a three day weekend holiday, Nicole convinces Christina to help her with a plan to murder Michel. Christina wavers, as she desperately wants to divorce Michel, yet is held back by her religious convictions. Meticulously planned and with deceptively crafted alibis in place, the women execute their scheme in which the last step is to place the body in the stagnant swimming pool at the school and then wait for someone to stumble across the remains.

They wait out for the anticipated discovery with ever increasing nerves until they all but order the emptying of the pool, only to be shocked that no body is to be found. But subtle clues and a body washed up on a nearby shore have the women scrambling. As they mount excuses and lies to cover their search for the body Christina is approached by a retired Police detective to help her find her ‘missing’ husband.  In a truly an unforgettable ending, the truth is more shocking than anything viewers can anticipate and fitting the diabolical title.

What make this film so great is the sustained tension, from beginning to end and so thick you can cut it with a knife. Christina (and sadly Véra herself in real life ) is further strained by a heart condition throughout the ordeal of the murder and the following turmoil. What we believe are just minute artistic nuances in the filming end up being perfectly fitting the character motivations that support the twist ending. Even then, with the very last scene after the big ‘reveal’, we are left with a sense that once again there is just a little be more to the story.

If that weren’t enough, the shot compositions are magnificently framed and there are plenty of subtle subtext devices throughout. I honestly want to watch it again now that I know the outcome. It is both an art film and a film that can be enjoyed by the masses. Filmmaking at it’s finest. I’m now looking forward to someday finding The Wages of Fear, another Clouzot film held in high regard.

My Criterion DVD contained excellent extra features that provided a background on both the director and the film itself which I highly recommend. The only bad news is that those features implied that Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a film I already stated I was looking forward to, is essentially retelling of the Diabolique plot.

Les Diaboliques? C’est Magnifique!

Movie Reviews 286 – Battlefield Earth (2000)

February 4, 2017

Battlefield EarthMaligned by the masses. Ridiculed by the critics. As certain as I felt it would provide little entertainment or satisfaction, Battlefield Earth, the adaptation of Scientologist founder L. Ron. Hubbard’s novel has always been a scab that I knew I would have to peel back at some point in my life. That time has come.

As implied by its full title, Battlefield Earth: A saga of the year 3000, a millennium in the future Earth has been invaded by aliens who are mining the planet for gold. The Psychlos are nine feet tall, natty dreadlock haired, warrior like invaders that have decimated the human population on the planet. Of the few humans that remain, those that have not been captured by the Psychlos are now living in isolated tribes far from the Psychlos having regressed to a primitive state. The free humans have only the legends of gods that made their presence known to their civilization and are now punishing them for their sins. One savage among them, Jonnie (Barry Pepper), defies the tribe elder to forage for better resources and also answers to his questions about those reputed gods.

Jonnie is soon captured by the Psychlos and is brought to their massive enclosed base city in which there are many human captives. The Psychlos need a breathing apparatus when not in their base as exposure to Earth’s atmosphere can be deadly and reciprocally the humans need a similar filter while imprisoned there. The Earth is just a resource colony for the Psychlo home planet and ruthless head of security Terl (John Travolta) finds himself continually denied a return home because of some past indiscretion. When he discovers that his underling Ker (Forest Whitaker) had planned to keep a newfound gold deposit to himself he takes over the operation himself. But Terl cannot mine the deposit himself. He realizes that the recent captive Jonnie is smarter than the other vermin humans and subjects him to ‘learning machine’ hoping to get information out of him. To Terl’s surprise, Jonnie learns the Psychlos’ language and convinces Terl that he can lead a band of humans to mine the gold deposit for Terl without arousing suspicion from the Psychlos’ leader But Jonnie uses the opportunity to work outside to mount a rebellion with both the free humans still roaming about and the current captives.

If you combine the flaccid acting, moth-eaten dialogue, and cavernous plot holes, you begin to get a sense of the fiasco at hand. As I haven’t read the 1000 plus page novel (I guess we can no longer apply the ‘phonebook’ adjective as those are relics of the past), I can’t comments on how the adaptation adheres to the source or the quality of the source for that matter. But the journey from novel to film does shed some light. I refer to this film as Barbarino’s Folly, as Travolta, a devout Scientologist, was the one who flogged this movie to the movie studios for years, only to finally make a deal with Franchise Pictures, then a ‘studio of last resort’ catering to such vanity projects and also with him footing some of the bill as one of the producers.

Not quite making the ‘so bad it’s good’ list, the movie does have the cool looking Psychlos, and while the effect is not done perfectly, the oversized aliens set against normal sized humans does work at times. But the groan moments are to numerous and head slap inducing – what the hell was an actor as fine Forest Whitaker doing in this mess – for me to recommend even one mock viewing. I have no idea if the movie espouses Scientology doctrine as I suspect was Travolta’s goal in making it. But if that were the case I’m sure the list of people wanting their money back was longer than any new recruits to the cult.

Movie Reviews 285 – Clan of the White Lotus (1980)

January 26, 2017

Clan of the White LotusFor martial arts movie aficionados, what could be better than watching a battle featuring the great Pai Mei as the opening credits roll to begin a movie? Right from the first frame of Clan of the White Lotus we are treated to an awesome battle pitting two young men, Hu Ah-Biao (King Chu Lee) and Hung Wen-Ting (Chia-Hui Liu a.k.a the great Gordon Liu) battling the silver haired and lighting quick master. With dazzling acrobatics and breakneck speed the two determined antagonists finally overcome their seasoned foe and mete a final winning blow.

As the scene cuts to an emissary reading out a declaration from the emperor, a narrator explains that all prisoners that were followers of the Shaolin temple including Ah-Biao have been pardoned and are to be released. But the White Lotus Pai Mei (Lieh Lo who also directed the movie) does not take the news well and sends out his thug army to kill all of the prisoners that were released with the primary goal being to kill Ah-Biao, Wen-Ting seeming to have avoided incarceration. While the ambush is a slaughter for the newly freed Shaolin disciples marching their way home, Ah-Biao himself is spared having left the group earlier. But the clan of the White Lotus, eventually track him at his home where his pregnant wife Mei-Hsiao (Kara Hui), Wen-Ting the equally deft fighter Tsing-Tsing are welcoming the warrior back home.

No sooner does Ah-Biao settle in for a long awaited home cooked meal with his beloved and good friends does Pai Mei’s conscript’s arrive to settle the score with Ah-Biao and his his companions. But the two couples, each highly skilled fighters in their own right, put up an effective but eventual losing battle. Wen-Ting and Mei-Hsiao flee, leaving Ah-Biao and Tsing-Tsing to suffer the ultimate fate at the hands of Pai Mei.

The two take refuge with a relative of Mei-Hsiao, where she soon has her baby and as Wen-Ting endeavors to enhance his fighting skills so that he may one day enact revenge on the seemingly unbeatable master, so named after his bushy white eyebrows. Wen-Ting believes that the answer lies in combining Crane style and Tiger style fight manoeuvres, but every time he pits himself in battle against the silver haired Pai Mei, he still proves to be no match. Practicing against paper clothed bamboo mannequins, it is Mei-Hsiao that diagnoses his problem. His over aggressive, full force styles of conflict must be tempered with a soft touch. She teaches him that his Crane and Tiger stances must be abetted with tender, woman like strokes like that of threading a needle in order to have a comprehensive and effective fighting arsenal. The solution is further improved when Wen-Ting discovers acupuncture as a means of ‘threading the needle’. With that newfound technique in hand he takes one last stab (pun intended) at the villainous master.

While perhaps not as revered as other Kung Fu movies of it’s era, the Shaw Brothers studios’ Clan of the White Lotus (also known as both Fist of the White Lotus and Fists of the White Lotus) is the epitome of the genre. Superb and agile action sequences framing a quasi-realistic and passionate story line. The fighting and practice scenes are both streamlined and intricate along with a dollop of comic relief in the guise of a lazy relative and a few cliché Kung Fu grips such as the seven second death touch.

If some of the above seems familiar (as it should), the character of Pai Mei was more recently brought back into the spotlight in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, and played by Gordon Liu for an ironic role reversal. Tarantino being a longtime fan of 70’s martial art films, often uses both characters and actors from the heyday of the genre and Clan of the White Lotus was obviously an influence.

While the English transfer does suffer some hiccups and slightly confusing bits (the exact nature of the opening sequence being one) presumably due to poor translation or actual scene omissions, the end result is still more than satisfying.This masterwork is not to be missed.

Red Planet Blues – Robert J. Sawyer (2013)

January 13, 2017

red-planet-bluesAuthor Robert J. Sawyer is obviously a film noir buff based on the many references, both overt and surreptitious in his novel Red Planet Blues. The noted science fiction author is no stranger to mystery fiction as several of his novels focus on courtroom drama as plot elements but here he takes it up a notch as his protagonist is an old school gumshoe who has to solve several enigmas on Mars starting off with a good old fashioned murder.

The cover of the novel states that it contains Sawyer’s highly lauded novella “Identity Theft” which I had not read prior. But reading the plot arc of the first few chapters it was clear that that first section was the novella, which I found to be both a source of great pleasure and at the same time a mild annoyance as I’ll explain.

In the not too distant future after a pair of explorers discovered fossils of ancient life on the planet, Mars now sports a dome city of New Klondike that operates much like the Dawson City which once rose from the ashes of the Gold Rush. Like gold, the commodity of highly valued fossils is now a scarce resource of riches – meaning that New Klondike and it’s denizen have seen better times. With transformance technology available to those rich enough to afford it people can discard their frail and eventual terminal bodies and migrate their consciousness into android bodies. These so called Transfers are not only durable and stronger and may have optional specialized upgrades, but they can also be manufactured to look like anyone. Some opt to look like their former selves – perhaps with a few esthetic ‘touches’ – or they can be any celebrity, or just a complete redesigned human.

When a woman enters Alex Lomax’s dingy detective agency seeking help to find her missing husband we may as well be seeing Ingrid Bergman meeting Humphrey Bogart but without the cigarettes. The simple case turns out to be much more complex as Lomax learns that a physical Transfer can really have any former person within the new shell.

But once past the “Identity Theft” plot arc the novel takes up where the novella left off and delivers a much more complex story regarding the rediscovery of the long lost ‘mother lode’ of fossils which created the initial frenzy. From there we get many twist and turns to secure that knowledge, a bevy of new characters – both human and transfer, good and evil – all vying for different personal goals. This extension of the original storyline, while not altogether inadequate is not as intriguing. Like any good mystery it does have a number curves in the plot and and does tackle some new ground, but at the same time it does stretch elements to the point of incredulity.

The “Identity Theft” portion is a great tale, full of suspense and serves a great plot twist at the end. As a standalone whodunit story it is easy to see how it garnered both Hugo and Nebula nominations and is worth the price alone of the book. As for the rest, it’s interesting but certainly not Sawyer’s best. The character of Lomax was really what kept me going on as he certainly was a likeable yet imperfect character that perfectly fits the film noir mold and one I hope Sawyer gets back to him at some point.

Last but not least, the novel has many notable ‘nods’ that I always find enjoyable. The brief ‘tip of the hat’ include one to Ray Bradbury, and even the oft forgotten Raymond Z. Gallun. More interesting is naming one of the spaceships Katherine Dennings which makes me wonder if Sawyer is a fan of the actress (not that that is a problem as I’m a fan myself). And finally, Planet of the Apes fan, Sawyer being an avid one, will be sure to get a particular short descriptive sector that certainly had me smiling.

Here’s looking at you Rob, as I tip my fedora until the next adventure.