Movie Reviews 312 – The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

September 7, 2017

About 20 minutes into The 36th Chamber of Shaolin I thought “What’s the big deal?”. I’d heard so much about how this was supposed to be a classic martial arts movie, a fan favorite and consistently ranking in most ‘best of’ or top 10 lists. Sure it stars Chia-Hui Liu (better known as Gordon Liu to English audiences) but the first act of the film is as generic as it gets. Poor villagers being exploited by corrupt rulers. Young man and his friends vainly try to rebel. Wants to learn how to fight. Seen it all a million times.

This movie really begins when the rebellious youngster Yude (Liu) turns to a Shaolin temple hoping to learn Kung Fu only to be initially rebuffed. The Shaolin are a solitary group and shun the outside world, including all the evil that exist beyond their walls. His request is seen as interference from the outside but one of the monks takes pity on him and convinces the others to let him stay on for menial chores. After one year they reassess his situation and, with some dissent, they allow him to train, which is done by progressing through a succession of ‘chambers’, each intended to teach him a skill or impart a piece of wisdom. Eager to learn, Yude, now given the monk name of San Te, requests to start with the hardest. Upon entering the room with encountering nothing more than chanting monks he is befuddled and confused, It is explained that this last chamber requires enlightenment to even comprehend the significance. He must begin at the start.

He soon learns that the lessons to be learned in each of chambers are not necessarily forms of fighting, but a battle of wits, poise, restraint, determination and intelligence. His tasks sometimes seem impossible such as walking across floating tied bamboo bundles to cross a water filled threshold. Or ringing a bell with a weight tied to a long length of stick in synchronization with monks banging wooden bells … with one hand alone. The trials are both fun to watch and often agonizing. Each trial is lead by a tutor who does not tell the students how to accomplish the task, but makes sure they follow the rules within which the task must be completed, rules that are sure to inflict pain and suffering with every misstep.

But with defiant determination, he makes tremendous progress. His final test is against one of the monks who doubts his skills, which San Te tries over and over to conquer. When finally he completes his trials, and the monks present him with the opportunity to become the tutor in any one of the 35 chambers, but he instead makes the audacious request to create a 36th chamber. His request is to bring the Shaolin teachings to the outside world so that good young men can be recruited and learn Kung Fu in order to defend themselves accordingly. Once again he is denied his request, but is nonetheless allowed to leave and go among the people.

He returns to his old village and begins to teach the villagers what he has learned and in doing so, utilizes all the skills he acquired in 35 chambers.

Exhibiting an exceptional display of skills and battles under the choreography of director Chia-Liang Liu, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is indeed a film that every martial arts movie fan must watch. The wraparound storyline in which two generals abuse their powers is just icing on the cake while providing the justification for the Shaolin instruction. While San Te (and Gordon Liu) take a stern approach to the teaching and his goal to help the victims back home, there is just a taste of light comedy to lighten the mood at appropriate moments. This is not just a movie with a  message about good versus evil, but one with many messages and words of wisdom. Thirty-six, to be exact.

Advertisements

Movie Reviews 311 – Django (1966)

August 29, 2017

When people hear the term Spaghetti Western they immediately think of Clint Eastwood in any one of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) which created the genre. But most audiences have no idea of how big that mania was in Italy itself and the hundreds of those westerns that were made between the mid 60’s and 70’s before it sputtered along with the fall of traditional Hollywood westerns. Moreover, the Man with No Name himself was but one of many heroic characters that spawned entire series of films. Those other series included Sabata, and Trinity, and Sartana, the latter being featured in more than a dozen movies alone while the subgenre made stars of Gian Maria Volontè,Tomas Milian, Lee Van Cleef, and for comic relief Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

But without a doubt the next best thing to those Sergio Leone movies was created by another Sergio and close friend of Leone himself. Sergio Corbucci’s Django character, played by Franco Nero began with the self titled Django is by far the heir to the throne behind the Man with No Name.  Recently re-imagined by Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained., the new movie has little to do with the original but Tarantino was wise enough to reuse the famous title track by academy award winner Luis Bacalov and sung with a powerful Elvis flair by Rocky Roberts.

Dragging a coffin which is always at his side, Django is a drifter but one with revenge on his mind. He rescues a prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) who is about to be flogged by a group of outlaws on the outskirts of a ghost town consisting of not much more than a saloon and hotel. In town he learns that the town’s barren status is accountable to two warring factions. On the one hand there is confederate Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) who was responsible for sending his red bandana clad men to kill Maria. They are at odds with an equally vicious Mexican revolutionary named General Hugo Rodríguez (José Bódalo) an old acquaintance of Django.

Django already had a deep grudge against Jackson and now after a deadly confrontation with his men in town he convinces the Rodriguez to help him steal Jackson’s horde of gold being guarded by the Mexican army in a fort. In a daring heist Django successfully empties Jackson’s gold coffers, but then finds Rodriguez hesitant to give him his share. When Django is forced to kill one of Rodriguez’s men pinning for Maria he makes a brazen escape but this time he gets stopped at a crossing bridge where an argument with Maria has the gold fall into a quicksand pit just as Jackson arrives to enact revenge in a final battle.

The battles are all monumental with both theatrics and clever ruses. As is the case delineating spaghetti versus Hollywood westerns, the blood flows freely especially when Django unleashes his favorite weapon. I mentioned that Jackson’s men sported red bandanas in the opening sequence but that red is pervasive for all of Jackson’s henchmen and by that I do mean that some (most!) actually wear red henchmen hoods – eye slits and all. I could not figure out why they would do so – the civil war being between the blue and the grey after all – but it sure made distinguishing his men from others easily.

While the dialog is mostly stilted and flat, there are a few good lip synched one liners, like Django telling Jackson to come back with the rest of his men after their first encounter and Jackson responding with “I will. With all forty-six of them” which is exactly what he does.

Whether it be the Man with No Name, Django or any other of the myriad of spaghetti westerns, the parallels are obvious in that they are often blatant copies of one another. The lone traveler is reserved and low voiced but a crack shot. He is a man onto himself at the beginning and remains so at the end. He will save a woman or two in his journey, but never ends up with one at the end. He has vengeance in his blood, and just a touch of greed himself. Most are already familiar with the Man with No Name, but other spaghetti westerns never got the respect of the Leone movies, which is a shame particularly in the case of Django and a few other spaghetti westerns that deserve better recognition.

But when it comes to spaghetti westerns there is one warning that needs to be heeded. The producers of these films were notorious for cashing in on fads which was why Django and his facsimile brethren were created in the first place. But that does not mean that all scripts were created with those characters in mind. Of the many “Django” titled movies that followed, many were just generic western scripts which miraculously became Django titles overnight – whether there was a Django in it or not. So not all Django’s are – well, Django. Also keep an eye out for the many cross over titles pitting Django, Sartana, and Sabata together.

As for myself, Mama mia, I’m hungry for more.

 

Movie Reviews 310 – With a Friend Like Harry (2000)

August 21, 2017

European films have a distinct esthetic to them that I can’t quite put my finger on but notably always adds another layer to whatever genre, be it horror, drama or mystery being presented. The middle class lifestyle is similar to our North American experience but with subtle differences that make it just that more interesting cinematically. In the case of With a Friend Like Harry that layer is present in a story about one man’s infatuation with another man’s writing. A fascination that has deadly consequences.

While driving his family in a sweltering heat to visit his parents, everyman Michel (Laurent Lucas) makes a roadside pit stop to fill mouths and quiet the kids. In the washroom another man looks at him closely and points out that they went to school together many years ago. Harry (Sergi López) is thrilled to reminisce while Michel confesses that he does not remember Harry at all. But clearly Harry can cite many past events convincing Michel and soon having him and his family join Harry and his girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) for lunch at the rest stop restaurant. After the pleasant meal Harry, seeing that Michel has no air conditioning in the family car, he offers to have the small children and wife ride with him in his luxurious automobile back to Michel’s house despite it being a relatively long drive.

Michel and his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) make ends meet but are trying to fix up their very old and crumbling mountain house. In contrast Harry is living the fine life, boasting how he was a reckless brat growing up but got lucky when his wealthy father passed away. During the evening Harry dominates the conversation reminiscing about old times, having an uncanny memory of Michel’s past. He then and asks Michel whether he is still writing. Stunned, Michel at first doesn’t even know what Harry is talking about until he is reminded that he once wrote stories and poetry for the old high school ‘paper’. Michel laughs it off, but once again Harry surprises him by quoting extended passages of his long forgotten works.

Harry and Plum stay for the night, and the next day when Clair’s car breaks down in town Harry shockingly insists on buying the family a new SUV which both Claire and Michel insist they cannot accept. But all of Harry’s encouragement has an effect on Michel and he starts pondering his old writing and much to Harry’s pleasure, he secretly takes up writing again. But Harry notices that family distractions; wife, kids, parents, and brother all work against Michel and his writing. Distractions that Harry cannot tolerate.

From the moment we first encounter López and his portrayal of Harry, his mannerisms and facial expressions alone spell out trouble. As the central character Harry has many eccentricities which at first only hint of his destructive nature. While Harry obsession of Michel’s pedantic writing is strange enough, observing Harry maneuvering Michel and trying to eliminate the obstacles in his way has Harry getting deeper involved with every step until he crosses the ultimate line. Trying to hide the truth from Michel is sometimes too easy, but there are many close calls and suspicions begin to rise.

It’s a extremely tense film as the audience squirms with Harry’s every move. We’re never quite sure if the first encounter was planned all along and if the meeting with Michel just lit some maniacal nerve in Harry. With everything at his feet already, why is Harry so fixated on Michel and his writing? And Michel himself is a mystery taking up the writing to either get away from his arduous life problems or rekindling a real hidden passion. Either way it comes to an explosive conclusion within thrilling layers of entanglement.

Helix: Plague of Ghouls – Pat Flewwelling (2016)

August 17, 2017

When I completed Blight of Exiles, the first novel in Pat Flewwelling’s Helix trilogy I was just too busy with life events to sit down and write a proper review, much to my regret. But I knew I’d have another crack before long with this, Plague of Ghouls, the second in the series.

The Helix series is based on the lycanthropic Wyrd Council that tries to control and keep secret the existence of contemporary werewolves and other mutants that have sprung up due to some genetic tampering. The shadow group has a hierarchy of sorts and have agents that go on missions to both enlist newfound members and contain rogue brethren.

The first novel introduced our protagonist, Ishmael, who was sacked and thrown onto an abandoned remote resort where both good and evil mutations were pitted against each other, the result of an attempt at a cure gone awry.

This novel is an immediate follow up to the first where the survivors including Ishmael are free again, but somewhat still under the control of the Council. When a series of mysterious deaths occur within short distance of a small town, werewolves are suspected and the Council wants to find out exactly what is going on. Are rogue werewolves scurrying unchecked? If so, any public evidence can undermine the entire secret of their existence which would imperil all members.

We are introduced to a new human character, Hector Two-Trees, an indigenous investigator sent by the Council to probe the murders and determine if one or more of the pack were involved. Meanwhile Ishmael worries if some of his own offspring were involved as well as conspiracy elements within the Council.

Part Horror, part Science Fiction and part Criminal Mystery, the novel is rich with indigenous lore, medical and genetic discourse and good old fashion crime scene investigation. While lycanthropes (and variants) rule there are plenty of other creatures including hyenas, coyotes, wendigo’s and hybrids among them all. It’s all fast paced with characters endlessly transforming or in transitional stages. The interrelationships are complex (as will explain next), with lots of betrayals, back stabbing (literal and otherwise), bad blood (literal and otherwise) and past history among the characters.

My one criticism with the novel is the same problem I had with the first in that it is character heavy. Perhaps it is just a personal peeve but I found there were just too many characters for my liking and trying to remember them all, much less their particular situation or stance at any point in the story was hard to keep track of. Making matters more confusing was the fact that depending on what form some of the characters are in at a particular time, they go by different names and identities. The central characters are well defined which keeps me in the story but I found a number of the minor characters distracting and even intruding on the flow at times. Some of those minor characters were interesting and could have been fleshed out more by paring many of the negligible and less interesting ones.

I found latter half, once everything was more clearly established and the story becomes more focused, to be much more satisfying. So keep with it if you find it a bit slow at first. And do read Blight of Exiles before Plague of Ghouls as you do need most of that background to make sense of the characters despite my still having a few problems in that area.

The ending not only satisfyingly clears up the mystery but does so with a horrific conclusion and cliff hanger that will have me back for the third installment which should be released soon.

Movie Reviews 309 – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

August 4, 2017

Recovering from the shock that her young boy-toy has just asphyxiated himself in a ‘peroxide accident’, a middle aged transsexual reluctantly accepts the offer from her best friend to join a lip-synching drag queen roadshow driving across the Australian outback to get to a gig at a remote resort. Filled with sequined gowns, vehicle breakdowns, a constant stream of bitchy prattle and cat calling, Bernadette (Terence Stamp), Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and third wheel Felicia (Guy Pearce) have the journey of a lifetime.

Endlessly forlorn and dour faced, Bernadette is the transsexual that slowly comes to terms with her recent loss and relationship anxieties. When she gets the call from Mitzi (also called “Tick”) to go on tour she mistakenly believes it will be just the two old friends only to learn that arch-nemesis Felicia will be joining them. Buying a broken down bus for the trip the trio depart for what will be a raucous, tumultuous odyssey.

From the very start Bernadette and Felicia are constantly at one’s throats and on one another’s nerves, the biggest point of contention being their staunch opposite respective views on ABBA songs. Things turn for the worse when Mitzi takes them on a shortcut across the desert where we learn secrets of his past and the real reason for taking on that particular job. When their bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere and a potential rescuer flees in shock they are finally helped by aborigines they come across celebrating a night festival in the wilderness.

The aborigines lead then to a small town where they meet ‘Bob’ (Bill Hunter) who not only comes to their rescue with his mechanic skills but is so thrilled with the girls that he convinces them to put on an impromptu show at the local bar. But the show reception is not what the girls expect and they are upstaged by Bob’s wife who puts on one of the most amazing burlesque performances you can imagine. Initially Bob had her locked down in their home as the show began, declaring that she was banned to enter the bar for some past indiscretion. She is shown screaming and battering her front door hoping to join the festivities. I could not fathom why she seemed euphoric when she stumbled across a horde of hidden ping pong balls but suffice to say that it was a pivotal moment and the resulting turbulence has Bob joining the trio for the rest of the trip.

The humour is ecstatic from the endless name calling to the modified tranny version of the road song staple “100 bottles of beer on the wall”. But while the comedy is paramount this movie doesn’t shun away from the darker side faced by those living alternative lifestyles. The presence of bigotry, ranging from nuanced to overt violence are addressed in the film’s more serious scenes. Equally discoursed are the interrelationship challenges and heartaches facing the girls because of their orientation.

Fantastic story and writing aside, the picturesque canyon vistas and sunsets are second only to the colorful flamboyant wardrobe – including a flip-flop shoe dress – and all the extravagance of Vegas showgirls. I could go on and on about the many odd scenes, memorable one liners and quirky nature of the film but honestly seeing Terence Stamp in drag is worth the watch alone.

Movie Reviews 308 – Welcome to Blood City (1977)

July 28, 2017

When four men and a woman wake up in a desolate and remote region without knowing one another or any idea of where they are, how they got there or even why they are there, all they have for a clue is a slip of paper in each of their pockets telling them they are murderers and how many people they have killed in the past.  Picking a random direction in search of answers they encounter two mangy frontiersmen who kill one of the men and rape the woman before being rescued (sort of) by a black shirted sheriff wearing a conspicuously large Red Cross patch with a sewn in ID number.

Thus begins Welcome to Blood City as sheriff Frendlander (Jack Palance) leads the ragtag group to the outskirts of the titular frontier town in which similar black shirted ‘citizens’ run the show, Frendlander being the so called top gun. The others in the town are either hired security men or, like the new arrivals, basic slaves that do all the work. We soon learn that the working framework of this society is based on a brutal scoring system in which one’s place in the hierarchy is based on the number of kills they make. The protagonist among the new arrivals is Lewis (Keir Dullea) who is soon ‘provoked’ (a code word meaning coerced) into a battle with one of the citizens looking to get another point. But when Lewis ends up winning against those stacked odds he learns that he basically takes the place of his attacker and is now not only a ‘citizen’ but the town dentist, having inherited the losers possessions.

But Lewis is more interested in helping out his original acquaintances,especially Martine (Hollis McLaren) the woman in that group who is now held in the town jail for her own protection as she has a number of citizens hoping to claim her, either by rights or other means.

Almost as soon as we’ve grasped the inner workings of this new world we’re lurched to a scene depicting a modern (make that 1970’s contemporary) electronics and computer laden control room with two white robed scientists peering into monitor screens and overseeing the events unfolding in Blood City. In the background we see a slabbed body wired to apparatus and other scientists muddling about. The twerking body is that of Lewis, reacting to his immersed state in Blood City. Meanwhile the male operator is berating his co worker Katherine (Samantha Eggar) for having inserted a simile of herself into the ‘game’ and as she smiles and counters his arguments while watching her doppelganger ‘citizen’ perched on a horse, both observing and hinting Lewis.

It’s never made exactly clear the nature or reasons behind this game although the operators are briefed for updates by some administrator/politician (Barry Morse) with some sense of urgency to the overall mission at hand discussing possible ‘Termination’ at some points. Lewis and the others also suffer from momentary flashbacks to their past, more tranquil days prior to their current predicament.

The film begs comparison to Westworld with the similar blend of Science Fiction which incorporates a virtualized wild west world despite the visitors being convicts instead of vacationers. But were Westworld excels in presenting a cohesive and believable scenario Blood City tumbles trying to be too smart for itself as a even a tenuous scrutiny of the plot reveals glaring holes in logic. As a pairing of political and science fiction thriller it also fails on both accounts. There was no political intrigue at all presenting only a veiled suggestion of what the project overseers we’re trying to achieve with the experiment and how this would fit in some worldwide order. Based on the administrators (Morse) character I even had doubts as to whether we were watching good guys or bad guys. Was it normal and lawful to have murderers treated as they were or was this some rogue underground operation? As for the science it too was only hinted at and never fully explained. Were only one or two of the residents in Blood City being tested or were they all? Katharine’s role within the game is nothing more than a tease instead of being some sort of bridge between the real and virtual that would have been beneficial to the bereft plot.

What made this an especially tough viewing for me was the dreadful state of the video transfer on my DVD (a double feature DVD paired with a movie called God Said to Cain and with this movie simply titled on the cover as Blood City). It was bad enough that it was a ‘pan and scan’ 4:3 formatted transfer but it was also muddy as hell and obviously had some other cropping done since it contained a lot of scenes where the characters heads were at the utmost top of the frame and in some scenes even had the heads lopped off completely. Perhaps some well meaning editor was trying to warn me that this was going to be a brainless movie. Honestly the Youtube clips for this movie look better than this particular DVD release.

I didn’t feel particularly welcome, it was a small town not a city and despite all the killing there was no blood. Time to rewatch Westworld to remind myself how a well made Sci-Fi Western can be entertaining.

Movie Reviews 307 – The Val Lewton Collection

July 22, 2017

When we praise a set of movies by the creative talent behind them, we usually identify them by either the actors or directors involved as they are the ones that have the most significant contribution to the works in question. But as a producer Val Lewton had as much influence on his films than the directors he hired. So much so that when referencing any of the films he had a hand in, his name is recalled as much as that of the director or stars. This high regard for his films has earned him something no other producer has been accorded, a DVD box set of his own. The Val Lewton Collection released in 2005 is a five DVD set featuring nine movies and a documentary on Lewton’s career.

Lewton’s films can easy be characterized by his cerebral approach in providing psychological horror instead in lieu of physical and creature scares. The nine films in this set, all created in the 1940’s at RKO, are – with one notable exception – fine examples of chilling stories primarily directed by three directors. Jacques Tourneur basically made his reputation on the very films he created for Lewton, while Mark Robson and Robert Wise both started their illustrious careers with these films.

Here is a rundown of the set with the exception of the documentary Shadows in the Dark, which ashamedly, I have yet found the time to watch.

Isle of the Dead (1945): Boris Karloff stars in a tale of the mythical Vorvolaka of Grecian folklore. After setting out for a desolate island with a war reporter, a cold-blooded general discovers that fears that a plague is rampant and therefore he must quarantine the island in order to prevent spreading of the disease to the mainland. But is it just a medical contagion at work or something more sinister?  [Dir. Mark Robson]

Bedlam (1946):  A young socialite trying to better the forgotten social castaways of the wards in the Bedlam asylum suddenly finds herself committed within its very walls by the evil master (Boris Karloff) running the institution. A testament to how politics and the powers that be could eliminate social reformers as well as a glimpse into how mental illness was dealt with before scientific and medical advancements even touted the notion of it being a treatable disease. [Dir. Mark Robson]

The Leopard Man (1943): When the manager of a dancer at a nightclub decides to give her a live leopard in order to rouse the jealousy of a rival dancer, the leopard escapes and begins a killing spree in the New Mexico town. But signs point to something else. This film was a early example of how horrors unseen and only hinted at could be as effective, if not be even better, than visual depictions. Aside from the silly dancer names, KiKi and Clo-Clo, the movie posits both the possibility of a real escaped leopard as the culprit or the more sinister option. [Dir. Jacques Tourneur]

The Ghost Ship (1943): A newly arrived third officer on a merchant ship finds that the authoritarian captain has gone crazy. But despite the captain killing of members of the crew, they are all loyal to him when the officer tries to sound the alarm he soon finds himself captive on the ship at sea and without any means to get help. The film is actually much better than the simplistic plot as the two play a game of cat-and-mouse as the tension mounts throughout the officer’s ever growing dire predicament. [Dir. Mark Robson]

Cat People (1942): Probably the best known movie in the lot and also reknown for the 1982 remake with Nastassja Kinski. When Irina a Serbian woman who believes she is cursed falls in love she tries to rebuff the man fearing that she will turn into a ferocious feline and kill him. But she succumbs to his advances and  thereafter battles her own beliefs amid a spree of murders. Another great example of how hints and symbolism replace actual displays of horror, but just as or even more effective. [Dir. Jacques Tourneur]

The Curse of the Cat People (1944): A direct sequel to Cat People, this one takes the odd perspective of a young girl who can communicate with the ghost of the Irina character in Cat People while her parents struggle to comprehend their child’s fantasies. Not necessarily a bad film but more fantasy than horror or even thriller and so different from Cat People with only the most tenuous of links that most will be disappointed. [Dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise]

I Walked with a Zombie (1943): This is ‘old school’ zombie as in Caribbean voodoo somnambule walking dead. A nurse living in frigid Ottawa, Canada (yay!) is hired as a caretaker for a patient the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. When she gets there she suspects that the mental state of her charge may be cured by the locals and their traditional rituals. Her problems stem from the dysfunctional family and having to deal with sibling rivalry and of course falling in love. The only scares are from the native, stalking bug-eyed Zombie guard but that is more than enough. [Dir. Jacques Tourneur]

The Body Snatcher (1945): Not to the be confused with Invasion of the Body Snatchers this horror with both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi delves into the age old question of moral ethics and medical research. When a young paralysed girl is refused treatment by the arrogant but learned Dr. MacFarlane, his young student and lab assistant Donald, who has just learned that a grave robber is supplying the doctor’s cadavers, makes a deal in which he will keep the secret as long as MacFarlane treats the girl. When Donald discovers that the robber isn’t bothering to wait for people to die naturally, his conscience is torn before he learns an even darker secret about MacFarlane. Karloff is at his best as the grave robber in this film which both references the real life case of grave robbers Burke and Hare who killed 18 people and essentially is a retelling of those events. [Dir. Robert Wise]

The Seventh Victim (1943): A very strange mystery in which a woman, Mary (Kim Hunter), goes looking for her older sister Jacqueline who has gone missing. Tracing back Jacqueline’s last business which she seems to have purposely abandoned, Mary discovers that her sister rented out a room in which she keeps only a chair and a hangman’s noose. With the help of some of Jacqueline’s acquaintances (some who have secretes of their own), Mary pieces together her sister’s involvement with a Satanic cult. But even the evil worshiping cult abides by a strange ‘non-violent’ pledge which proves problematic.  [Dir. Mark Robson]

Movie Reviews 306 – The China Syndrome (1979)

July 14, 2017

We can all laugh now after watching those old 1950’s instructional videos of school kids being told to ‘Duck and Cover’ in the event of a nuclear war.- like hiding under a school desk was going to offer any protection for a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb dropping out of the sky. Growing up in the Cold War 70’s we were still living with the threat of a thermonuclear war breaking out any second but we still managed to add another nuclear wrinkle to our worries; home grown nuclear accidents from the growing number of local nuclear power plants. Hollywood films sensationalized the threat of nuclear war in numerous films – Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, and War Games to name just a few – but it wasn’t until The China Syndrome that the fear of a nuclear meltdown was tackled head on.

Languishing as a budding TV news reporter relegated to providing the daily upbeat local event stories, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) sees an opportunity to advance her career while working on a story about the inner workings at the local nuclear plant. The visit is purely an instructional promo piece for the hosting power plant authorities until an incident is surreptitiously captured on camera by her spirited and rebellious cameraman friend Richard (Michael Douglas). The soundless images capture control room personnel trying to address what begins as a routine alarm and then growing increasingly nervous as supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) fixates his eye on one particular ominous sensor reading. After an interminable few minutes of concerned gazing the event ends with shouts of relief, smiles and claps of approval. But exactly what happened in those few minutes?

While Kimberly and Richard are not sure of the exact nature of what transpired, they know they have something and don’t believe the official press releases downplaying the event with jargon. When attempts to air the footage are scuttled by station management Richard steals the footage, intent on having experts examine the evidence while Kimberly prods Jack who initially tries to allay fears claiming that ‘the system worked’. But Jack himself has other doubts having sensed minor tremors within the plant leading up to the incident. Digging into the technical specifications, architecture drawings and component testing results he uncovers a darker truth that has him scared.One that the plant operators will go to extremes to bury and enough to push Jack over the edge.

Part techno thriller, part dystopian warning, the movie addressed a palpable horror that the world glimpse a mere 12 days after this movie’s release with the first recorded nuclear facility at Three Mile Island and which we’ve sadly gotten closer to with Chernobyl and again in Fukushima.

I have to admit that for myself the inclusion of Jack Lemmon in the cast is enough of a reason to watch this movie (he did earn an Oscar nomination for his role as did Fonda) but this movie has a lot more bite than just good performances. Some of the plot is overly dramatic in a few places but in general the film has stood the test of time. And the warning remains as relevant as ever.

Movie Reviews 305 – Onechambara: Bikini Samurai Squad (2008)

July 8, 2017

The problem with making movies based on video games is that the games have to have a fairly deep and layered story to begin with if anything of relevance is to be culled from the source, which of course is not usually the case.  If you are going to attempt to make a film based on a “hack and slash” video game, as is was the case with Onechambara here, the only hope is that the writer stretched their imagination way beyond the gameplay to deliver a cohesive well plotted and most importantly, interesting story.

While the movie does make an effort to have at least a semblance of a plot, this is as threadbare and predictable as they come. For the most part I felt like I was watching a game as much as I was watching a movie. That said, as one would expect there are some interesting visuals and I’m not only referring to “Bikini Samurai Squad” subtitle.

Set in the year 20XX (That’s not a typo or me just forgetting the exact year, that’s exactly how they define the time period in the intro text), the postapocalyptic world is overrun by zombies that were unleashed by a rogue scientist from the D3 corporation – D3 being the name of the company that created the original game of course. Our bikini wearing, katana wielding heroine is Aya who glumly roams the land accompanied by her chubby sidekick Katsuji. She’s on a mission to avenge the death of her father at the hands of her own sister while Katsuji hopes to find his own little sister Saki who he abandoned long ago. Along their journey they meet leather clad, motorcycle mama Reiko, intent finding the scientist responsible for the zombie mess.

The backstory of how Aya’s sister was jealous of her fighting abilities since they were toddlers is played out as the trio battle one zombie horde after another until they find the evil Dr. Sugita who is still madly churning out the walkers with now with Aya’s sister at his side.

The CG effects when not outright laughable are annoying, with blood spurts that break the 4th wall between the set and the viewing audience as droplets on the screen. I was tired of this the second time they used the effect and just plain indignant as it continued well into the film. Aya is as short on words as she is in fighting prowess. As many martial arts movies as I’ve watched, there is usually at least one or two attempts at a novel fighting move but you will find all of these here repetitive and even boring. The finale battle introduces a facsimile of chain whip brandishing Gogo Yubari from Tarantino’s Kill Bill that is somehow supposed to entertain us when she is neither original nor combat worthy like Gogo. And before anyone points out that Tarantino himself based Gogo on a character in Battle Royale the difference is that he gave depth to Gogo and kick ass fight moves and did not just blatantly create a carbon copy image.

A pointless cash grab aimed at the enthusiasts of the video game, this has nothing to offer to those ignorant of the game, and probably stung worse for those fans who wanted to see a live action version of their dear franchise.

When it comes to this film I want my quarter back and I was never happier to see the “Game Over” ending.

Movie Reviews 304 – Night of the Living Dorks (2004)

June 24, 2017

The Germans were at the vanguard of horror movies in the silent era of the early 1920’s and even the cinema industry as a whole until Hollywood took over. Turning out classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and The Golem, they trailblazed the path for future horrormeisters to follow. But after that seminal spurt and soon preoccupied with other irritants like inciting World Wars, the Germans contributions fell silent as others moved the stakes. It took until the turn of the century and the Zombie revival craze to bring them back into game with the surprise comedy Night of the Living Dorks (original title “Die Nacht der lebenden Loser”).

The story begins with a Haitian family besieged by a stalking zombie which gets sizzled by the torch wielding mother. The family are about to inter the zombies ashes when the burial urn is snatched and we follow it being exchanged from one trader’s hands to another as it makes it’s way to Europe.

There we are introduced to three dorks, Philip Fleischhacker (Tino Mewes), Weenie (Manuel Cortez) and Konrad (Thomas Schmieder), part of the ‘out’ crowd at their high school. Konrad is the most pitiful of the trio, keeping a valise full of spare eyeglasses as they get broken so often by bullies. He also keeps a detailed diary recording of every person who has harassed him over the years. Weenie is the chemically unbalanced and horny one who pilots a stolen van. And then there is our protagonist Philip, the common everyman who is infatuated by the high school princess Uschi (Nadine Germann) and clueless that his longtime friend and neighbor Rebecca (Collien Fernandes) – now hanging out with the Goth crowd – is secretly harboring a mad crush on him.

Desperate to get Uschi to go to the prom with him, Philip asks Rebecca and her Goth friends if they have any mystical love potion that can help him. As it so happens Rebecca and her Satan worshiping friends had a cemetery ceremony planned for that evening having gotten their hands on a urn (yeah, that one) and were planning on reviving the spirit of Kurt Cobain. But when the dorksome trio arrive at the graveyard that night they find that Rebecca’s friends Gunther and Frederik are more hopeless than themselves and the ashes wind up being blown onto the dorks entire bodies.

The next thing the boys know is that they are waking up in a morgue but chalk it up to being a dream or prank. When the boys finally realize that they are in fact now ‘living dead’ they first have a little fun with their newfound strength and abilities. But soon body parts start falling off and they get busy with staple machines keeping them together as Philip tries to get them out of the mess. Konrad on the other hand has decided that revenge can be sweet when you’re a zombie and after a falling out with the others begins tracking down all his former tormentors. Eventually Rebecca’s Necronomicon-like spell book gives them hope for a cure but for that to happen the boys have to handle hurdles that include Philip’s parents coming home, Uschi’s boyfriend and getting Konrad back.

The social media reviewers and ratings have not been kind to this film for some reason, but having seen scores of these ‘Zombedies’ myself (including Shaun of the Dead, the yardstick by which all such movies are compared to) I put it way ahead of most of those peers. While some of the sequences are predictable I found most of the gags to be genuinely funny and with a lot of originality as well. The goofy Goths are hilarious as they take Satanic ceremony shortcuts. The zombified dorks end up hosting an impromptu house party as Weenie lusts over a MILF teacher who incessantly brings up her past drug-fueled orgies. Philip is constantly harassed by Wolfe, Uschi’s jock boyfriend, and then there are his parents to deal with, a straight laced, stern father and a mom who wants Philip to get laid as long as it’s with Rebecca.

I also found there were a number of ‘easter egg’ type of gags such as Philip’s family name being Fleischhacker (Fleisch is German for meat), his friend being call “Weenie” but in the original German version his name is “Wurst” which means sausage (hence the English translation to Weenie). And I got a good laugh reading the sign for the school gym, the “Friedrich Nietzsche Gymnasium”.

Don’t let the ratings fool you, this one is worth watching.

To all my German cinefiles I say “Ich bin ein Zombie”!