Archive for the ‘Martial Arts’ Category

Movie Reviews 434 – Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)

May 15, 2020

To say that there is some violence in Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is like saying Jackie Chan knows a bit about martial arts, an understatement if there ever was one. Based on a Japanese manga and two subsequent animes. I’ve had this DVD for sitting on my shelves for years, but I was always under the impression that this was a ‘straight up’ martial arts film. An error on my part perpetuated by the fact that it had no discernible actor credits, and for that reason it regrettably languished in my pile until this week. The fact that this was something out of the ordinary escaped me as I frankly never noticed the somewhat obscure details on the cover hinting of weirdness, but to be fair the artwork on my DVD (not the poster shown here) looks more like a traditional combat film.

Once the movie begins however, all notions of ‘regular’ fly out the window. Set in the ‘future’ year of 2001 where penal institutions are corporately run (ironically semi-prescient I realize), Ricky (Siu-Wong Fan) is just arriving at a prison to the usual taunts and mistreatment by his new captors. But rather than taking it in stride he immediately lets it be known that he will not be messed with, whether it be at the hands of the corrupt guards or any of the jailbird gangs.

With the warden currently away on vacation the prison is under the command of gluttonous “Cyclops Dan” (Mei Sheng Fan) who has one removable bad eye (containing breath mints) and a double clawed prosthetic hand. From his food filled office with a sizeable collection of pornography videocassettes he directs the three prisoner cell block gang leaders, and more importantly, the illicit drugs they produce within the penitentiary walls.

Through a series of heartwarming flashbacks we learn how Ricky ended up in prison and how those events loosely tie into the gang members he ends up brawling in there. But as bad as it is at first, it is nothing compared to the battle that ensues once the warden himself returns to the prison and learns of this new superhuman prisoner who has destroyed his sideline narcotic operation.

As corny as the action sequences are, Siu-Wong Fan’s physique is impressive. While he is no Bruce Lee by any stretch, he does have the washboard abs and notable upper bulk to carry the part. But the comparisons end there as the fights are poorly staged, relying solely on the outrageousness and the resulting spurting fountains of blood for entertainment value.

It’s non-stop nails to the (obviously rubber) faces, fists through abdomens, exploding heads, popping eyes (I lost count), zapping electrical charges, dismembered limbs, and flying slabs of styrofoam concrete. You get the picture. There is a fleeting semblance of a plot and a hockey backstory explaining Ricky’s superhuman strength, but this is mostly one battle or torture scene to the next. Basically Ricky and the righteous inmates who cheer for him against the warden, Cyclops Dan and the three gang leaders, each of which has a notable combat specialty and who look like discotheque escapees. As an added bonus, all the dubbed dialogue is delivered in 70’s jive talk. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it makes the film just that much more outrageous.

In a nutshell, Riki-Oh is an onslaught of over-the-top fight sequences featuring some of the most blatantly cheesy special effects and doused in gallons of corn syrup blood that will have you grinning more than cringing.

I was hoping that my Media Asia Group DVD would have some extra features with more information on the film itself but it only contained some trailers. The good news was that those trailers for the films (Heroes Shed No Tears, Last Hurrah for Chivalry, Duel to the Death, and Magnificent Butcher in case you were interested) were awesome, each more mind blowing than the last.

 

Movie Reviews 425 – Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler (1972)

February 21, 2020

There is a lot going on in Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler besides the mouthful for a title.

All I knew when I picked up this DVD was that it starred Sonny Chiba which was enough for me to give it a whirl. Little did I know that not only was this not your typical Chiba fight fest, but that I would be seduced by the charms of Meiko Kaji a starlet previously unknown to me yet celebrated and well established, perhaps rivaling the Sister Street Fighter herself, Etsuko “Sue” Shihomi. As it turns out that comparison turned out to be eerily prophetic with more substance than I could have imagined. But more on that later…

I confess that I never saw the original Wandering Ginza Butterfly, but I can dispel the notion that you must see that beforehand in order to enjoy this sequel. While the plot is an offshoot from that film, the story is self contained enough to understand and there are plenty of flashback scenes to put it all into context.

Nami Higuchi (Kaji), orphaned when her father died while she was a still young girl and now a professional gambler, has been searching for her father’s killer. Coincidentally she comes to the aid of a young woman, Hanae (Tamase Mitsukawa), who was sold to a mob ruled Ginza social club for prostitution by her own debt ridden gambler of a father. As luck would have it, Nami bumps into her childhood best friend Mioko (Yukie Kagawa) who is also running a social club and gladly offers to help out and hire Hanae herself. But unknown to Nami, Mioko has taken a different path in life and is now working for a mob boss, and Hanae soon finds herself in the exact situation that Nami tried to save her from. Worse yet, this boss is the very one Nami is seeking.

As I mentioned, this is not so much a martial arts film as a more dramatic action film. The story is multi-layered with a number of interesting characters which all mesh together nicely as the story progresses. While Nami is relatively stoic (apparently a trait common in many of Kaji’s roles), Chiba, playing a stutter prone, carefree gambler (uncharacteristic of his usual intense portrayals) balances things out nicely. There are plenty of other enjoyable characters including a gambler that was tasked to cheat Nami but who ends up looking to her to be his mentor. Another is Chiba’s ever smoking partner who also tries to help out and at one point the two men, having rescued all the girls, attempt to give them etiquette lessons including how to use a bidet.

Be forewarned that the first few minutes of the film has plenty of boobs and for a moment I thought that this was going to be one of those Pinky films as this is indeed a Toei studio production, renown for that subgenre. What there is plenty of is gambling. Unfortunately I could not understand anything about the Mahjong tile game in which players also hide a tile under a mat. But it was clear who was winning, who was losing, and who was cheating (which was often the case).

Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill will immediately connect with many aspects aside from the obvious Sonny “Hattori Hanzo” Chiba. Digging into Kaji’s career I was delighted to learn that she was the singer of the “The Flower of Carnage” song on the Kill Bill soundtrack (taken from another one of her films (Lady Snowblood). While the final battle is not as army sized as Uma’s Bride restaurant free for all, there are some similarities including gratuitous amounts of spurting blood, as was a late-night garden battle.

Chiba only brawls during the final battle and using subdued moves compared to his later films moves at that. This is not a film that wows audiences looking for martial arts prowess. But don’t let that deter you from watching it unless that is all you are looking for.

My Synapse Films DVD features an interview with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi who not only directed the Wandering Ginza Butterfly films but was also the director of the Sister Street Fighter franchise and, not surprisingly, a number of Pinky films, although the latter aren’t discussed in the interview.

I will be keeping an eye out for that first Wandering Ginza Butterfly and other Meiko Kaji films to remedy tardiness and delinquency in recognizing this jewel.

January Movie Marathon – 2020 Edition

January 24, 2020

Time for my annual 31 Movies in 31 Days challenge that I’m glad to report was successful with one caveat. In past years these were January challenges where the movies had to be watched during the month alone. Suspecting that I would be a bit busier this year I cheated a bit by shifting the challenge to begin Christmas day,and gave myself 31 days from that point, so ending January 24th (today!), which also made more sense given that those interim days between Christmas and New Years are really prime relaxing viewing days. My suspicions were correct and even with the shift I just made my quota!

Unlike previous years where my movie viewing was across the gamut of genres and eras, my son and I decided to binge rewatch all the Harry Potter movies so the scale is slightly tipped in favour of those eight movies. But I think the others films preent are a nice variety regarding content and quality. In the order in which I watched them, here are my short reviews.

#1 – Dead Snow (2009) My second viewing of this Norwegian Nazi Zombie film was not as memorable as the first time I watched it at the Fantasia film fest years ago. A bunch of young adults shack up in a remote cabin for a few days of skiing the slopes when (surprise!) World War II era SS troops led by recalcitrant commandant disturb their snow bound vacation. Some fairly funny bits and I did love the Nazis popping out of the snow like Whack-a-Moles at and arcade.

#2 – The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)  As are all the Roger Corman Poe adaptations, this one is a very loose interpretation of the source material. But with Vincent Price and Barbara Steele headlining you really can’t go wrong. And damned if there really isn’t a pit and a giant human slicing pendulum in it and other interesting devices in a torture chamber.

#3 – Christmas with the Kranks (2004) Well I had to watch at least one Holiday film for this list, didn’t I? Sadly, there are a lot better than this one. Even Jamie Lee Curtis as the wife of a couple who decided to forego Christmas for a cruise couldn’t really raise my interest above “Meh.” Should have gone with other Christman movie standards like Die Hard, Gremlins, (Yes, those last two are Christmas movies!), A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life. I guess you could say this one left me Kranky.

#4 – Mommie Dearest (1981) The legacy of silver screen diva Joan Crawford is not so much her films as the events described in the tell-all book “Mommie Dearest” (adapted here) by her daughter after her death in which she revealed that her troubled childhood included beatings with coat hangers. It made headlines at the time and I can’t get it out of my mind that arch enemy Bette Davis must have loved every minute of it. Faye Dunaway nails it as Joan. (Disclaimer: No Nails were used in the beating of the children.)

#5 – Ransom (1996) Mel Gibson turns the cards on Gary Sinise, his son’s kidnapper by putting a ransom on his head rather than paying one, much to the surprise of his own wife (Rene Russo). A decent thriller although Mel is over the top at times as is the entire premise. Much better Gibson/Russo chemistry in Lethal Weapon 3 and Gibson is crazier in that one as well.

#6 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) It’s been a long time since I watched the Harry Potter series. The first movie about the boy wizard, introduces us to Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Snape, McGonagall, those other meddling kids (Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley), a few muggles and not to forget: Quidditch!

#7 – The Night Strangler (1973) This was the second Kolchak TV movie before the The Night Stalker TV series. (I already watched The Night Strangler  pilot movie which started it all a month earlier). l Always wanted to watch the proto-X Files series and I’m finally getting around now 47 years later.  This one has Kolchak (Darrin McGavin) being aided by an exotic dancer (Jo Ann Pflug) solve the mystery of a recurring murderer popping up every few decades since the civil war.

#8 – Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber (2002) Harry, with the help of Ron, Hermione, Dobby the elf, Moaning Myrtle (not a porn star as you would be led to believe), and a book previously owned by Voldemont himself rescue Ron’s sister from the titular chamber. And of course more Quidditch!

#9 – Halloween (2019) I was very excited to hear that there would be another Halloween reboot after the dismal last entry in Rob Zombie’s reboot. The fact that Jamie Lee Curtis was returning in her original role sealed the deal. Now I have to admit that this was not as good as I had hoped and the slow, predictable start nearly had me give up on it entirely but stick with it to the end, bear some of the sillier aspects, and it does carve out a place for itself in the Halloween pantheon. At least it’s a lot better than some of the others.

#10 – The Rock (1996) When a bunch of uber-patriot elite Marines feel slighted by their country they take over Alcatraz and threaten to launch missiles they’ve set up on the isle of the former prison. Without any accurate blueprints and layout of the compound they ask a current convict Sean Connery who is also being screwed over to help.The plot is as convincing as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but it’s Bad-Ass Connery so who cares?

#11 – Godzilla VS. Hedorah (1971) Read review here.

#12 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Someone is out to kill Harry, Ron’s rat escapes, and there’s a werewolf. If nothing else, this was an excuse to get Gary Oldman into the storyline. And there’s a game of Quidditch against a team with the unlikely name of Hufflepuff.

#13 – The Thirteenth Floor (1999) Twists and turns galore as character’s jack-into a 1930’s virtual world with mols, cops, murder and mystery. Sure the effects are dated (even for that time) but this is all about plot and plotting and the truth is a doozy!

#14 – Red Eye (2005) Nearly the entire film takes place within the confines of an airplane as a hotel manager is coerced by a terrorist (Cillian Murphy) to make particular arrangements for a special guest.

#15 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) Not just any Quidditch but nothing less than the World Cup of Quidditch. And then a Tri-Wizard tournament! Sounds like a lot of fun except for that Voldemort dude killing folks.

#16 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) Harry Potter gets expelled from Hogwarts! Actually one of the better films in the series but (egads!) no Quidditch! Includes one of the most wasted character names in cinematic history: Nymphadora Tonks. Nuff said.

#17 – The Purge (2013) The Purge series of films set in a not too distant future America in which once a year, for 24 hours, people can kill one another to ‘purge’ pent up frustration (the thinking being that it’s somehow better in the long term). This first movie has an upper scale family being safely locked in their home until one of the kids decides to ‘save’ a stranger being hunted. But the stranger ends up being the least of their problems.

#18 – Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009) The ‘blood’ in the title must be indicative of the many fluids in the plot including love potions, poison, liquid luck, and mead. My least favorite of the series and more a setup for the ending in the next installment.

#19 – Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) Read review here.

#20 – First Strike (1996) Jackie Chan dishes out his usual “Chan-anigans” as a Hong Kong cop helping the CIA nab an arms dealer in Australia and meeting up with some Russians. I think they were going for International appeal.

#21 – The House that Dripped Blood (1971) Read review here

#22 – Dead Reckoning (1947) Humphrey Bogart has to track down his best friend and fellow former paratrooper after he ditches at a train stop just before the to are set to receive prestigious war medals in Washington. Following a byzantine set of clues (including a false name to begin with) he finds that his buddy was an accused murder on the run. But why did he suddenly go back to the scene of the crime and them seem to disappear altogether. Bogey has to rely on his buddy’s former gal (Lizbeth Scott) but can he even trust her? (prosecution witness?)

#23 – Duck Soup (1933) You can never go wrong with The Marx Brothers’ vaudevillian humour. Between Groucho’s fire-a-minute witty one liners, Harpo’s voiceless antics, and Chico’s accented haggling and scheming, who needs a plot? But if things like that are important to you, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is sworn in as the new leader of Freedonia to remedy their cash shortage, while his brothers are bumbling infiltrators sent in from a rival country hoping to start a war. I won’t mention Zeppo.

#24 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) Harry and his friends ‘jump the shark’ with this entry in the series. What began as a fun, interesting saga with great characters has transgressed into a dark, repetitive here as they set up the finale in Part 2. And not even one damn Quidditch game (although a Snitch figures prominently in the plot).

#25 – Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) A greedy cop (Gary Oldman) earns a little extra side income by tipping off the mob on informant hideout information but things start to go wrong when they take out an informant about to spill their secrets but also take a few cops with them in their assault. Not only can he not back out of their little deal, but he is now being forced to take out one of those informants on his own. But Mona (Lena Olin) is no mere informant, but a mob hitwoman who took out the previous informant and a roomful of cops. Intense, action packed, saucy and sentimental.

#26 – Forbidden Planet (1956) Read review next week here!

#27 – The Money Pit (1986) Mid-eighties rom-com where a young couple (Shelley Long and Tom Hanks) are suddenly in need of a place to stay and chance upon a mansion that needs a little work but is surprisingly within their limited means. But as all “too good to be true” parables their fortunate find ends up putting a strain on their relationship as their dream house begins to crumble before their very eyes. Corny but fun.

#28 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) I must admit that my disappointment with part one of this finale was fully redeemed with this satisfying ending. All the questions, some looming since the very beginning, are answered here although not always to fan’s hopes. Which is as is should be. My one complaint was that a lot of scenes seemed to be pilfered directly from other blockbusters including Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. How many times must we see hordes of evil creatures descending on an isolated hamlet backstopping the forces of good? How many times must we see the two most powerful characters, good vs evil, deploy mystical weapons against each other, streaming in mid air (conveniently in different colors), to determine which is stronger?

#29 – Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) One of nearly fifty movies featuring the illustrious pulp-era Chinese sleuth (the first few being silent era films and many of the others now lost). Hard to believe that it’s been nearly 40 years since the last, loosely based on a real life Hawaiian detective of Chinese descent. Scored ten DVDs last week so I’ll be enjoying a few more. This one even has Stepin Fetchit who only adds to negative stereotypes depicted in these films. (The DVDs even include a warning lest some be offended.)

#30 – Watching the Detectives (2007) Not the Elvis Costello song but a film about a versed film buff (Cillian Murphy) who owns and runs a low key video rental store whose life gets turned around when he meets quirky Violet (Lucy Liu) who lives her life on the edge, moment by moment while playing sophisticated, agonizing pranks on him. Some pacing irritants but the characters make up for it. I must confess that I just loved all the movie references bantered between all the video store employees although the message of the film is to abandon viewing and start to live instead. Disingenuous as had I done that I wouldn’t have watched this film.

#31 – Fury (1936) This was Fritz Lang’s first American film after escaping an increasingly Nazi led Germany. Spencer Tracy is a hardworking, honest man saving every penny so that he can get married to the love of his life. But life throws him a curveball just as he has finally saved up enough and is on his way to meet his fiance when he is thrown in jail suspected of being a member of a group of kidnappers that have taken a child. As word of the capture spreads across the grapevine, the overzealous townsfolk have made up their mind and storm the jailhouse which is soon engulfed in flames. Miraculously managing to escape the inferno, the innocent man, now out for blood himself, decides to lay low as a number of the lynch mob are put on trial for his murder having established that they had the wrong man. Great suspense and pathos.

Movie Reviews 415 – Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

November 28, 2019

A dying martial arts teacher confides to his last remaining student Yang the tale of the five former students he once taught, now collectively called the Poison Clan. Knowing that these five students – the titular Five Deadly Venoms  (AKA The Five Venoms) – have been using their specialised Kung Fu skills for nefarious deeds, he asks his last student to track them down and end their ongoing evil exploits. But there is a catch. As these students trained under the master, they each wore a mask hiding their true identity. The master can offer but one equally mysterious lead. Yun, a former fellow teacher of the dying master has amassed a small fortune that the Poison Clan are scheming to get there hands on. By finding Yun, Yang can determine the identities of the Poison Clan and end their reign. Yang is told that he alone cannot win over the superior Poison Clan members should he take them on individually. But one among them is actually respectable and if Yang can determine which, their combined abilities can overcome those of the evil ones.

The five Poison Clan members have each specialized in a specific form of fighting technique.  Comprised of the Centipede, the Snake, the Scorpion, the Lizard, and the Toad, we get a glimpse of each masked fighter in flashbacks as the teacher tells his tale. The teacher also counsels Yang on a few bits of knowledge relating to the five members (actually often referred to as “Number 1”, “Number Two”, etc. during the film) that may help him find the Poison gang.  To wit, the first two knew each other, and four and five knew each other, while the third, the Scorpion, was a mystery to everyone.

Yang departs on his mission and begins to observe the ongoings in the nearest town. Sure enough, he begins to suspect a few people after observing some deft use of hands and odd interactions on the street. But before he can find him, members of the gang kill Yun and his family leaving Yang to figure out “Who’s Who” on his own. As Yang continues his mission, the clan members themselves are battling one another (often with the aid of corrupt officials) and try to figure out their respective identities among themselves.

Most of the intrigue is playing along with the guessing game as pieces of the puzzle are slowly sorted out until the final reveal of the most mysterious member, Number 3 as well as which of the five will come to Yang’s aide. But I confess that for a renowned wuxia film, the fighting, while admirable, does not live up to the sophistication of the best films of the era. I do have to admit that among some torture scenes the use of an actual Iron Maiden was both a surprise and a standout.

Released by the illustrious Shaw Brothers studios this classic was produced by Runme Shaw and ironically released the same year as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which I consider one of their finest. This is yet another one of those films often reference in media, most notably in Kill Bill as the five assassins of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

Sadly, my DVD viewing experience from a dreadful Saturn Productions DVD left much to be desired. The godawful transfer looked like black and white at times, suffered from poor dubbing and I had the distinct feeling that this was an incomplete cut with missing and/or displaced scenes. I do recommend seeking this film out, but do so with one of the many remastered/restored versions available. I hope to get another copy myself to fully enjoy this next time I watch it.

 

Movie Reviews 391 – Five Fingers of Death (1972)

May 9, 2019

What can I say about a movie with a title like Five Fingers of Death? Anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with Kung Fu movies of the 70’s have already memorized the tropes and repetitive plot threads that were plucked and strung together by the Hong Kong studios churning out these films to milk the Kung Fu craze at the time.

In the case of Five Fingers of Death the items from that checklist case includes:

  1. A superior martial arts school run by the disciplined and respectful ‘good guys’
  2. A competing inferior fighting school run by the law breaking thug ‘bad guys’ who are clearly jealous of (1) above.
  3. A wise elderly martial arts master hoping to pass on his skill to a young protégé.
  4. A ‘Big Championship Competition’ coming up in which the ‘bad guys’ hope to finally usurp the ‘good guys’(usually by cheating).
  5. A rarely used but powerful fighting technique known only to the sagest masters that is only to be used judiciously and for admirable causes.
  6. Last but not least, a budding young fighter must prove his worth to be admitted to ‘good’ school and win the heart of a lovely woman.

Without going into any overly detailed plot description beyond the above, our protagonist is Chao Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) who joins Sun Hsin-Pei’s (Mien Fang) illustrious martial arts school (entry level dishwasher to start) after his mentor’s daughter Ying Ying (Wang Ping) is accosted by the goons of the local bully Meng Tung-Shun (Tien Feng). Once there, Chin-Hao soon reigns over his peer fighters and is soon proclaimed as the school representative in the upcoming championship. This make him the target of of the rival school which, not surprisingly, is run by Tung-Shun himself.

The varied battles and brawls throughout the film are enhanced by a trio of Japanese assassins brought in by the bad guys, a huge muscular Mongolian taking on anyone willing to wager a battle (the unmistakable Bolo Yeung as featured in JCVD’s Bloodsport), and a travelling singer who tries to charm Chih-Hao. Further drama is provided by another student who turns traitor when Chih-Hao takes his place as the school’s best fighter.

And what’s with those Five Fingers in the title? That represents the all powerful “Iron Fist” technique that Chih-Hao learns in which his hands glow bright red and basically makes him invincible. There seems to have been a thing for the quintet slanted title as other films like Five Deadly Venoms and Five Element Ninjas were part of a trend. (Although clearly both of his hands glow so if you ask me Ten Fingers of Death, would have been more apropos, n’est-ce pas?)

Produced by the great Run Run Shaw, this was indeed a Shaw Brothers release however it predates those that featured the iconic gong ring clip and the shield SB logo so familiar from their later films. While the SB style is not as evident, the use of multiple titles was already an established game, as alternate titles for this film include King Boxer and The Invincible Boxer, and likely a handful of others.

While not as impressive today (although still an exceptional movie) it was one of the forerunners that started the North American Kung Fu Mania well before the emergence of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon which really opened the floodgates and had kids flailing homemade nunchucks. Going back to that list above, what makes Five Fingers of Death truly remarkable was that the filmmakers were not necessarily recycling those tropes, they were creating of them!

January Movie Marathon – 2019 Edition

February 1, 2019

My annual tradition of cramming in (at least) 31 movie viewings during the month of January continued this year. It was a closer call getting in the required viewing (only one film over the target this time) mainly due to all that excess snow this year having me out shoveling instead of watching. Here’s a brief review of what I watched this year.

1) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Jimmy Stewart plays the small town lawyer hired to defend what is supposed to be an ‘open and shut’ murder case. Dealing with the evidence and facts isn’t as hard as dealing with the accused’s lovely wife. If all that wasn’t odd enough, consider that this is a comedy by director Otto Preminger.

2) Comic Book Confidential (1988) – A great documentary featuring the radical independent comic creators of the time. Lots of legendary creators (Crumb, Miller, Pekar,  Kurtzman, Eisner) with other not so familiar names. The best part is MAD’s Bill Gaines reminiscing about the pre-code EC days.

3) The Day the Fish Came Out (1967) – (see full review here)

4) Lifeboat (1944) – Only Alfred Hitchcock can get away with an entire movie set on a lifeboat adrift at sea after a Nazi U-boat attack. Of course he also manages to throw in a murder. Dazzling portrayal of the self centered journalist by Tallulah Bankhead (dahling!). It’s Hitch. It’s great.

5) Rock ‘n’ Roll Frankenstein (1999) – Greedy record producer decides he can make the greatest Rock star ever by piecing together the parts of legendary dead artists. The plot sounds a lot better than it is.

6) The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Will Smith plays the ‘down on his luck’ portable bone-density scanner salesman who earns a shot as a stockbroker intern, but has to live on the streets with his son in order to possibly get the job. The usual Smith goody-goody, “live your dreams” stuff.

7) Columbo: Double Exposure (1973) – Hey I’m slowly going through all the Columbo TV movies! Columbo nabs murderer Robert Culp, a motivational researcher, by using the same subliminal image video technique he learned from the perpetrator himself.

8) The Children (2008) – Not as frolicky fun as “Girls Gone Wild” but this horror is basically “Kids Gone Wild”. Lots of bad shooting choices makes one wonder where this movie is going for most of it (not in a good way) and the payoff just isn’t there at the end.

9) Lords of Dogtown (2005) – Docudrama capturing the birth of the competitive skateboarding scene on the beaches of Venice California in the mid 70’s. Don’t let the subject matter deter you if you’re not into that scene. Between all the Ollies and Halfpipes, this one packs a punch. Gnarly!

10) This Gun for Hire (1942) – One of the few Veronica Lake – Hollywood’s peek-a-boo girl – films I’ve seen. Not Film Noir at it’s finest to say the least. Lake is embroiled in a murder mystery centered on a chemical formula and WW2 traitors.

11) The Head (1959) – (see full review here)

12) Dead Poets Society (1989) – Robin Williams is the marquee star but this movie is clearly about the young boys in his class at an Ivy League seeding school who learn to “Seize the Day” against all odds. Carpe Diem!

13) 12 Days of Terror (2004) – Drama depicting the summer of 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that supposedly were and inspiration for Peter Benchley to write Jaws. Enough of a bite to watch, but it is a TV movie so keep those expectations in line.

14) Ice Station Zebra (1968) – The cold war goes frigid when a crucial satellite component ends up in the frozen Arctic and both the East and the West race towards Ice Station Zebra to recover it. The good guys can only get there by submarine but, as expected, not everyone on board are who they appear to be.

15) Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) – This fourth installment in the series of movies in which the story of household spooks activities are conveyed purely via the video feeds of home monitoring systems is the one where they ‘Jumped the Shark’. Really nothing new here despite it being something of a sequel to PA3.

16) Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – (see full review here)

17) Billy Elliot (2000) – Little Billy discovers that his interests lay not in the proud boxing tradition of his family, but in ballet, much to the chagrin of his father who is in the midst of England’s notorious coal miners strike just trying to keep the family together.

18) The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) – What is the secret of Santa Vittoria? Millions of bottles of wine. Anthony Quinn is the bumbling, reluctant mayor of the little Italian town who must hide their horde from the encroaching Nazis during WWII.

19) The Giant Behemoth (1959) – Even Britain was getting in on the Giant Monster kick of the 1950’s. While they did not use rear-projection footage of pet lizards and the stop motion animatronic was not much better.

20) 13 Going on 30 (2004) – Jennifer Garner plays the girl/woman who wakes up one day to discover that she has gone from a pubescent teen to a grown woman overnight. Honestly Tom Hanks did it better in Big in the 80’s.

21) Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964) – Goofy Godzilla goodness in which Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra (larval form as the original Moth died in the previous movie) take on the new bad boy on the block King Ghidorah. In preparation for the return of Ghidorah in this year’s May release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters

22) House of Strangers (1949) – Edward G. Robinson plays the family patriarch who works all his life to build a successful local bank but his overbearing ways has taken a toll on his family, the and nearly costs his favored and most devoted son everything.

23) Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) – This was the first of two Dr Who films made by Amicus which starred the great Peter Cushing and the world’s first chance to see Daleks in color. Who and crew take the TARDIS on its first voyage to a far future post-apocalyptic Earth where the last few remaining Daleks are still fighting the handful of humans.

24) The Bodyguard from Beijing (1994) – Your typical “feds have to bodyguard a witness to a mob murder” plot where Jet Li is the all-business master protector and Christy Chung is the beautiful, rich, overbearing damsel he has to keep alive. And of course at the end they are in love.

25) The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) – (see full review here)

26) The Jerk (1979) –  Steve Martin’s first feature film where he took his brash, daring stand-up comedy and came up with a dimwitted man on a rags-to-riches-to-rags journey to find himself. I still get a kick of him discovering his ‘special purpose’. Silly but still funny.

27) Hellboy (2004) – I hear that there will be another Hellboy movie coming out this year. But without Ron Perlman, John Hurt, or director Guillermo del Toro. No chance in Hell it’s as good as this original.

28) Born to Kill (1947) – Film Noir great Lawrence Tierney in a movie in which the title says it all. He’s a lowly con man who wants it all and doesn’t blink an eye snuffing out anyone who crosses him or just rubs him the wrong way.

29) Black Snake Moan (2006) – Odd film in which a weathered black man (Samuel Jackson) takes in a battered promiscuous young white woman (Christina Ricci) to get both her and himself back on the right track of life.  (I hope to have a full review in the coming days.)

30) Timecop (1994) – Jean Claude Van Damme at his barely comprehensible thespian best. Which isn’t a whole lot. Well at least it’s a Science Fiction time travel story which JCVD mumbles through.

31) The Right Stuff (1983) – I decided to revisit this movie about the original Mercury astronauts on the 50th anniversary of the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Great film but if you have a chance read Tom Wolfe’s book that was the source for the script

32) The Spirit of St-Louis (1957) – I started with Jimmy Stewart and it was only fitting that I ended this month long blitz with another of his films. Aside from the fact that Stewart was nearly twice the age playing Charles Lindbergh, the story of the first solo transatlantic flight remains a classic.

 

 

Movie Reviews 371 – Billy Jack (1971)

November 30, 2018

Billy Jack was something of cult favorite film that was made by political activist and auteur Tom Laughlin after him seeing firsthand the treatment and plight of American First Nations. Made on a shoestring budget and bandied about across a number of studios over a lengthy production period, the film would eventually be released as an independent film by the writer, director and star Laughlin himself. While the film ended up being a great success from a return point of view, sadly the realities depicted by the subject matter in the film still hold true today.

The film has Billy Jack (Laughlin), a half indian, Vietnam veteran Green Beret as the self imposed defender of a progressive “Freedom School” being run by his girlfriend Jean (Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s real life wife) against redneck mustang poachers from the nearby town. The poachers are led by Stuart Posner, the town heavy who has most of the town council in his pockets but even worse than the elder Posner is his son Bernard (David Roya) who despises the natives even more than he hates his own father.

The troubles really begin when the free living daughter of a Sheriff’s deputy – a man working on the side for Posner – gets pregnant and, after a violent confrontation with her father, seeks refuge at the school. While the law and town council suspect the natives of harbouring the girl their searches prove fruitless. Meanwhile Billy, as protector of the school, has run-ins with Stuart, his henchmen, and son Bernard on several occasions.

But when Bernard crosses the line and commits atrocious crimes against a number of people connect with the school including Jean, Billy’s rage gets the best of him and he deals with Bernard such that he will never be a problem again. This leads to a standoff with Billy held at the school while surrounded by law officials. But Billy is not one to give up easily and as the minutes tick by he serious weighs the idea of going out in a final blaze of glory instead of being imprisoned for years to come at the hands of a corrupt system.

To be fair this movie is really rough around the edges which makes watching cringe worthy at times. The largely young cast provide mostly painful cardboard cutout acting. Several scenes are just the kids acting out nearly incomprehensible skits (including a very young Howard Hesseman) which are not only boring but excruciatingly long. While Laughlin himself is not that bad, even his character is remains fairly unidimensional. More troubling is the oft cited mixed messages dispensed by the film. Jean is the die-hard pacifist at odds with Billy whose good intentions are backed up by high flying kicks and the agility to take on mobs of assailants. One of the few respectable town residents is none other than the sheriff, who is indeed a laudable lawman, but in the end he too is forced stand against Billy. Even the detestable Bernard is first introduced as a gun wary boy who is one of the few willing to confront to his forceful father, only to become worse than him. While the film intends to side with the kids (the school in fact been portrayed as a hippie commune that were popular in the day), they sometimes come off as obnoxious and biased as the rednecks.

But there is plenty of good stuff to enjoy as well. The motorcycle riding Billy shows off some remarkable (if exaggerated) combat skills that captured audiences that had yet to be exposed to the martial arts films that would soon flood the market – mainly thanks to the talents of Bruce Lee – and give rise to the Kung Fu mania that followed. The scene where Billy confronts Stuart Posner – declaring “I’m going to take this right foot and I’m going to whup that side of your face. And you know something? There’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” – and then doing exactly what he said, is a pure classic. There is also a memorable scene when Billy takes some time out for a ritual which entails going head to head with a rattler and having to endure it’s bites in order to become ‘brother of the snake’.

Technically, this is a sequel to Laughlin’s film The Born Losers in which the Billy Jack character first appeared and the success of this one also led to the inferior The Trial of Billy Jack. It’s hard for me to say that this is still a must see film for either those interested counterculture media or martial arts devotees. But I certainly got a kick out of it. Many, many kicks to sure.

Movie Reviews 364 – Bloodsport (1988)

October 5, 2018

I dread watching Jean-Claude Van Damme (or simply JCVD as he has come to be known*) films with a passion. While the man has undisputable martial arts credentials, when it comes to thespian capabilities the cardboard Belgian actor with the curdling English accent has less credible emotion than a waffle. But there was one particular film of his, Bloodsport, that acquaintances had sworn was not only marginally better but actually used the word “good” which was enough to persuade me to give it a spin.

As a non-Asian adopted into a family that had earned respectability as martial arts fighters in the annual secret Kumite tournament, Frank Dux (JCVD) is forced to represent the family and his father’s honour when his adoptive brother dies and the legacy is threatened. His commitment is such that he temporarily deserts his post in the US army to attend the underground tournament. There he must contend with those skeptical of his skills and most of all the hulking reigning champion Chong Li (Bolo Yeung) who will win at all costs.

But Frank is not alone as he quickly makes friends with dim witted but towering American Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb) a fellow competitor, and reporter Janice Kent (Leah Ayres) who is trying to crack the secretive ritual for headlines. And tailing Frank throughout are Helmer and Rawlins (Forest Whitaker), bumbling officers trying to nab the AWOL army captain and hoping to prevent him from fighting in the tournament.

Now you’d think that the fighting sequences would be the highlights of the film but anyone who is even remotely familiar with martial arts films will be thoroughly unimpressed here as the array of international gladiators take to the mat in hand to hand combat. But I have to admit that some of JVCD’s moves and even practice rituals were impressive. But what I found most entertaining in all the melees was the charismatic Chong Li as his impressive build was used to pound opponent after opponent while having the betting crowd chant his name with every victory.

The melodrama is as sappy and artificial as the fights and in many scenes its JCVD that is the weakest link making watching this barely tolerable. When I heard that Frank’s last name was “Dux” and pronounced “Dukes” I groaned at what I thought was silly faux pugilist name being used to match the character. But as I watched the trailing credits and Blu-ray extra features I learned that this was in fact a film based on a real Frank Dux as incredulous as it sounds.

So do the few good parts make it worthwhile you watching this film? My answer is JCVD. Just Can’t Vouch for this Dreck.

*Enter JCVD into the Wikipedia search bar in it’ll bring you directly to his entry!

Movie Reviews 346 – Fearless (2006)

May 24, 2018

While Jet Li has always been a fair actor with martial arts skills to match the movies he has performed in have been decidedly mixed in terms of quality as well as varied in terms of roles he has played. That range includes prominent roles such as the silent captive in Unleashed to his less than  inspirational government bred super soldier in Black Mask. Now that I have finally come around to watching Fearless I can easily say that  this is by far my favorite Li film, both from the point of view of the story and in particular his multi-faceted role.

As a youngster Huo Yuanjia (Li) diligently watched his father teaching martial arts in his private school. Despite being beaten at school constantly by bullies his father refused to teach Huo himself how to fight due to his asthmatic condition. Unfazed and with the help of his more level headed best friend Jinsun (Dong Yong) he manages to steal a textbook so that he can teach himself how to fight. His inclination to learn becomes all encompassing the day he watches his father die in a ‘Death Challenge’ after having been victorious in a string of prior challenges. His father’s death is all the more perplexing to Huo as he had the upper hand in the battle but failed to deliver the fatal blow after having taken down the opponent.

Now a young family man, Huo racks up a string of victories just as his father did, until he becomes reigning champion of the region. But Huo arrogantly flaunts his status as his followers and students party incessantly. When a visiting rival fighter, Qin Lei, beats up one of Huo’s students he immediately goes to a family feast being hosted by Qin in his old friend Jinsun’s establishment. There Huo publicly challenges Qin, disrupting the festivities. Jinsun warns Huo that he is being reckless, but Huo will have none of it, and severing his friendship with Jinsun soundly beats Qin in battle. It is only after Qin dies overnight as a result of his injuries that Huo learns that he did not have the full story. But in retaliation Qin’s nephew has meted out his own justice, killing Huo’s family including his beloved young daughter.

A shattered man, Huo leaves town and becomes a wandering vagrant saved from drowning one day by old woman. The woman brings him home to heal at the hands of her blind daughter Yueci (Sun Li). In their village Toiling in the rice fields Huo learn about humility, patience, and finally love as he falls for Yueci. But Huo is compelled to return to his home to make amends for his past, and once there he is again lured to the battle arena. But this is a new Huo, and his fate will be dictated by his newfound wisdom.

While Fearless does have action sequences – one a particular standout battle atop a high scaffold arena – this is not an action packed film like most of Li’s other films. This film has a split personality that mimics the transition of Huo’s character growth. Edgy at first, then flowing into a somber and humble pace. The message of the film is one of personal ambition clashing with family values, morals and personal integrity while throwing in a dash of anti-colonialism. The end of kind of a mixed bag with Huo finding his inner peace but at a coming with price nonetheless.

If your looking for an action movie there are plenty of better choices, but if you want a well rounded martial arts film this will suit the bill and is definitely recommended.

 

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.