Monday, November 24, 2008

TATTOOED HITMEN ONLINE


In the wake of Bruce Lee's worldwide success came the x-rated violence of Sonny Chiba and more stateside exploitation of Asian action (e.g. Shogun Assassin). It seems there was only one low-brow attempt to cash-in on yakuza films (Schrader's The Yakuza don't count) : TATTOOED HIT MAN! That's Bunta Sugawara brandishing the smoking gun. The original film is the 1974 modern yakuza yarn Yamaguchi-gumi gaiden: Kyushu shinko-sakusen - a mouthfull of a title which as far as I can suss out is along the lines of 'Yamaguchi Gang tale: Invasion of Kyushu.' New Line dubbed it in English and re-named Bunta 'Bud.' It's available on VHS only but you can watch it widescreen on Netflix.The skinny from Patrick Macias is that New Line was actually trying to start a boom off of the Schrader penned film. Sydney Pollack is a respected director but his films were often wincingly trite and stylistically constipated. You'd hope a team of writers like Paul and Leonard Scrader (both deeply invested in yakuza-eiga) and Robert Towne would ensure a compelling film but my memory of it was ho-hum at best. Anyhow, New Line figured they'd go the easy route - what they sort of did with Sonny Chiba's Street Fighter - dub an existing movie in English. This time they got Jack Sholder (who would go on to direct The Hidden and Nightmare on Elm Street 2) to re-write and edit. Apparently they just ditched the whole last reel in which Kyushu is invade. What you do get is a transgressive caricature of a gangster potboiler. Those dubbed voices sound familiar. It's got to be same team that did Street Fighter. Does the guy doing Bunta actually talk like that or is he trying to sound Japanese? Or does he think this is a spaghetti western and he's playing a Mexican revolutionary? The original film itself was a cash-in on Fukasaku's 'true-document' masterpiece Battles Without Honor And Humanity, which is notorious for it's crude foul mouth characters. The dubbing is perfectly primed for the deuce with all the 'motherfuckers' and other insults worthy of a Dolemite game of the dozens. And the way this film looks now (slightly worn, replete with a few jumpy edits, etc.) is exactly what those guys tried to do with that grind house double movie. In essence it's an (unintentional) action comedy that features anarchic thugs, loose women, a VD gag (again, unintentional), misogyny, gunfights, moral bankruptcy, and barely a thread of plot. Nevertheless, most of the Netflix customers who commented gave it bad reviews...And following the previous video nostalgia post, this was released on VHS by Wizard Video.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SLEAZY SEGUE EXTRA: VIDEO NOSTALGIA

The stream of consciousness continues to flow. The previous post's reminiscence of film flotsam such as Firecracker brought back a flood of video rental memories. For instance, speaking of Firecracker, mention must be made of Raw Force, the zombie martial arts movie made in tandem with the former, also featuring the alluring Kesner in the cast alongside B-movie vet Cameron Mitchell (who might deserve his own post) and a bunch of kung fu no names. This one actually had TV commercials! This brings to mind a film that came out around the same time that never made it on video here and remains shrouded in obscurity, despite its incredible title: Karate Killers on Wheels. This was in New York area theaters circa 1980 or 82 and Joe Bob Briggs raved about it. Still, no one else seems to remember it and it doesn't seem easy to find. From what I've sussed out it's a violent biker~martial arts movie made in 1976 by none other than Shaw Brothers, also released as simply Killers on Wheels. The only sign of any video ever being available seems to be in German (sans subs). The Chinese title is "Wu Fa Wu Tian" which means something along the lines of "Totally Unlawful." Celestial Pictures, who now own the Shaw library, have it listed on their website. Wouldn't it be nice if some DVD distributor picks it up? Apparently it features actress Liu Hui Ru, who played 'Princess Dragon Mom' in the incredible Inframan. Back when Sneak Previews was still on channel 13 (public television) and Siskel and Ebert made snarky comments at each other, they did a great 'guilty pleasures' episode on which they featured Van Peebles seminal blaxploitation outcry Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and the Shaw Brothers cash-in on Ultraman, featuring Bruce Lee imitator Bruce Li (Ho Chung Dao) as the titular Inframan. Anyway, the advent of home video in the 80's was the first death knell for grindhouse exploitation pictures. A ripe catalog of juicy taboo-defying genre films made there way into homes. I remember looking at an early video catalog that featured provocative titles such as The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula and The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. The avatars of distribution included major and indie labels, both mirroring the sleazy marketing tactics of exploitation days of yore. Paragon Video remains endearingly carved in the memory for their copious and diverse low-budget fare, big boxes and close to 15 minutes of lurid trailers on every tape. Titles included the gloriously shameless One Armed Executioner, about an Interpol agent on a Death Wish styled mission of vengeance; Lucio Fulci's gratuitously gory The Gates of Hell; Weird run-of-the-mill b-movie fare like Hotwire, a southern fried potboiler about car thieves. Check out this incredible online gallery of vintage VHS box art.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

SLEAZY SEGUE

Following the stream of consciousness from the previous post about Kiss of Death, the mention of Swedish sexpot Christina Lindberg brings us to Sex and Fury, a pinky violence co-opt of the popular Red Peony female gambler series. Sex and Fury (the original title is something like 'Story of delinquent elder sister Ocho') features voluptuous (and shameless) Reiko Ike as the sexy Ocho who is an expert card sharp, pickpocket and kicks ass at nude swordfighting. Speaking of fighting in the nude, does anyone remember Cirio H. Santiago's Firecracker (aka Naked Fist) starring Jillian Kesner? It features a memorable scene in which Kesner's character, a martial arts expert searching for her sister, is assaulted and ends up defending herself while each item of clothing is cut off her body, one by one. Apparently Santiago (a journeyman director of Filipino exploitation cinema who just passed away September 26th) knew this was a good idea when he tried it the first time in TNT Jackson, featuring Jeannie Bell, one of the first African American playmates of the month. Actually, I think Firecracker is a remake of Jackson. ANYWAY, Lindberg appears in SEX & FURY as a foreign gambler put in more than one compromising position during the course of the film's lurid action/comedy/sex combo. S & F is a low-brow good time helmed by legendary Japanese exploitation auteur Norifumi Suzuki. I thought it was a funny coincidence that there's a character with the same name in Japan's domestic blockbuster of a few years back, (the insufferably saccharine) Always: Sunset on Third. To its merit Always does feature a nice recreation of postwar Tokyo, an interesting inversion: artificial design of a setting associated with neo-realism. Nostalgic indeed. Anyway, enough with the digressions. In the 'Japanese Cult, Pulp and Exploitation Cinema' class I've been co-teaching we just screened School of the Holy Beast, a rousing nunsploitation film by Mr. Suzuki. Here's some of the info I provided the students:

School of the Holy Beast (Seiju Gakuen) (1974) director Norifumi Suzuki was a screenwriter first who worked on yakuza, chanbara, karate, exploitation, sexploitation and such genre films. Suzuki wrote some of the Red Peony scripts and directed the second installment, Gambler's Obligation. His niece is none other than Oryu herself Junko Fuji. Suzuki directed his fare share of pinky violence ( a lot of sukeban) films and Sonny Chiba movies. He also directed the popular Truck Yaro (Truck Rascals) series about renegade truck drivers, featuring yakuza eiga stalwart Bunta Sugawara. Suzuki's serial killer film Star of David: Beauty Hunting is even more infamous (and shocking) than his foray into nunsploitation. Suzuki also claims credit for introducing the term 'porno' to Japan (an alternative to the common expression 'pinku').




Holy Beast featured the debut of lovely lead Yumi Takigawa. Takigawa was scouted off the streets of the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. She went on to appear in other genre films such as Graveyard of Honor (yakuza film by Kinji Fukasaku), Bullet Train (Sonny Chiba has to rescue a hijacked bullet train from bomber Ken Takakura), and Karate Bear Fighter. Takigawa also had the honor of reviving the role of scorpion in 1976's New Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701 after Meiko Kaji departed the series. She went on to a successful TV career and forged an image antithetical to that of a pinky violence starlet, enhancing the cult value of Holy Beast (because of her rare risqué performance).


Monday, November 03, 2008

SLEAZE REPORT: POISON WOMAN FROM HONG KONG

At the beginning of the millennium Celestial Pictures acquired the Shaw Brothers film library, or at least a good chunk of it, including lots of classic kung fu, wu xia, and other cool genre stuff. There has since been revival series and foreign region DVD releases as well as Shaw Brothers documentaries on cable TV. In the past few years various titles have been licensed to Dragon Dynasty, Image Entertainment and Media Blasters, allowing a slew of Shaw Brothers titles to pepper the DVD shelves. Image recently released Kiss of Death, a tawdry exploitation film, offering a curious counter to all the standard martial arts fare. Granted this one has martial arts too, but that's not really the focal point of this gruesome venture.

SPOILERS AHEAD - though in this kind of film you pretty much know what's going to happen before it starts...

Kiss of Death is a rape-revenge movie. Ling is a young, attractive and pure factory worker. On her way home from work she is brutally violated by 5 slothering low-life criminals. She makes her way home to the silhouettes of her guardians (not sure if they're her actual parents or aunt and uncle). We only see their shadow through a paper screen as they admonish her for coming home late and say she should work as a bar girl to make more money. Poor traumatized and stigmatized Ling has no one to turn to. The original Chinese title is Du Nu, or "Poison Woman" and it's a double entendre. Soon Ling discovers she's contracted Vietnam Rose, a notorious strain of syphilis (apparently it's also the name of a Phillipino soap opera). For the rest of the movie she suffers occasional attacks of the disease, feeling pain down there and treating it by popping some mysterious pills. It's very random and nonsensical, only adding to the gleefully sleazy exploitative thrills. Without giving the whole thing away (wait, what's there to give away?) Ling ends up working as a bar hostess (just as her uncaring caregivers suggested) in order to seek out her attackers and extract revenge. The gimp but badass bar owner, played by Kung Fu movie stalwart Lo Lieh, becomes her martial arts mentor. The training scenes are pretty entertaining because at first he shows little of that "I don't hit women" attitude, simply knocking her down until she's fierce enough to counter his attacks. Kiss of Death glides along by the numbers at a typically fervent but deliberate Shaw pace. The melodramatic tones are amped-up : lurid colors shrouded in shadows, super-groovy canned music, and last but not least overwrought emotions Chinese style. The villains, plucked from central casting (meaning Hong Kong alleyways), are hopelessly sleazy and evil, chewing up the scenery. There's a great psychedelic club scene where the baddies drug a couple of young co-eds and frame them into being sex workers, while our heroine infiltrates the party on her mission of vengeance. Completely ridiculous and devoid of any metaphorical value, Kiss of Death simultaneously delivers on its promise of (unintentional) high camp and disturbing gritty action. Kiss is not as imaginative as some of those pinky violence films, but in some ways it's actually better than the legendary They Call Her One Eye because that Swedish exploiter is a little too far fetched. It doesn't make sense that the titular One-Eye, played by lovely Lolita Christina Lindberg, is supposed to be an enslaved prostitute, yet is allowed free time (and salary) to go out and hire men to train her in guns and martial arts to wreak vengeance. It dilutes the tension big time. The fascinating thing about They Call Her One Eye though, is that the director, like H.G. Lewis and Dave Friedman did with the gore film, deliberately set out to cash in on a low-budget, taboo-breaking twisted twist on a fairy-tale. And it worked. Seen in its original 42nd street grindhouse context, the impact must've been ten fold more shocking and entertaining. As for Kiss of Death, its tawdriness is di riguer for Hong Kong cinema, particularly at that time. Now I have to get my hands on a DVD of Sexy Killer, the sleazy Hong Kong remake of the Jack Hill helmed Pam Grier vehicle, Coffy. Chen Ping, star of both Kiss of Death and Sexy Killer, boasts a filmography chock full of genre and exploitation titles, from the kung fu spaghetti western The Stranger and the Gunfighter (starring Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh) to The Mighty Peking Man.

Friday, October 31, 2008

TURKISH DEATH WISH!?!

After all those posts on revenge movies look what I find...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

TRAILER FLASH

Here is the trailer for the new Japanese low budget indie Bakabakance. The title roughly means stupid dance. Baka (stupid) is a great overused Japanese word. Apparently the movie's about a road trip a guy takes with his co-worker and the ex-girlfriend who left him for another guy. Read about it at Nippon Cinema.



And here's one with English subtitles for The Good The Bad and the Weird. I mentioned it earlier here.



More trailers here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

MORE REVENGE: CHOP SOCKEY VINDICATION

Kung fu film's wholesale use of vengeance as a plot device borders on self-parody. When the boom first went global in the early 70's vengeance was to wrong the evil doings of greedy oppressors. The Japanese were often targets, painted as the devilish scourge of modern China. Eventually films with higher production values, slightly more complex structures and less racially inspired themes would emerge, largely from the famed Shaw Brothers studios. Vengeance still ran rampant but style and choreography improved hand in hand. Directors like Liu Chia Liang, Chang Che and Chu Yuan defined the sensibilities of the kung fu film goldmine that came out of the 70's and 80's.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978): This is the quintessential kung fu film. Its aboutness is the meaning of kung fu itself. The bare bones political plot was inspired by what would become a preferred storyline in the films of Chang Che and other kung fu period directors: the struggle of native Chinese rebelling against the evil Manchus that ruled over them during the Qing dynasty. The Manchu's kill young would be rebel San Te's father. San Te, on a vengeance fueled quest to depose the Manchu's, escapes to the Shaolin temple to learn martial arts. But the film concentrates on what it means to gain high martial skills and the ideal way those skills should be used. Vengeance is a given, but is superseded by greater principles. The idea of fighting for the good of society as a whole ends up taking precedence over individualistic motives and desires.

5 Superfighters (1978): This enjoyable kung fu yarn is stripped down to its bare elements. An evil kung fu expert comes to town challenging anyone he deems to be of lesser skill. His mission, he claims, is to 'correct bad kung fu.' He beats the hell out of an elder teacher. The teacher's 3 young disciples each find another teacher and learn new techniques to teach the evil kung fu guy a lesson and serve retribution to their master. Minimizing the structures of an already formulaic genre renders 5 Superfighters a trope-driven comic book. Yet it also, believe it or not, offers one of the most existentialist kung fu movies ever made. Every character in this films exists by and for kung fu only. This of course allows for a lot of fun and interesting displays of martial arts. Some highlights include the female kung fu master and the exhibitions of monkey kung fu. The archetypical villain is excellent and defined completely by his pure, immoral, yet principled quest for 'perfect kung fu.'

Monday, May 26, 2008

AN EYE FOR AN EYE: REVENGE FILMS

Vengeance is a primal instinct as well as a philosophically rich source of visceral drama. Revenge works in so many varied milieus, from kung fu and spaghetti westerns to corporate espionage and so on. Part of what makes revenge so fascinating is that it is ultimately futile; a vicious circle that may lead to catharsis, but does not necessarily bring about redemption or justice. Nevertheless, retribution fuels countless thrills throughout cinema. Below is the start of a list of various revenge movies. Think of this as a potential syllabus for a class on revenge cinema or maybe worthy of discussion in a book. Please suggest some of your favorite revenge movies.

Rolling Thunder (1977): This tough film slowly boils over in outrage towards suffering, injustice and the American establishment in the Vietnam era. William Devane plays Major Rane, a returned POW who is honored as a hero by his hometown. However, soon after his homecoming Rane faces horrific tragedy in the face of a gang of greedy lowlifes. Paul Schrader's hardboiled script and John Flyn's taut direction translate angst and anomie into visceral mayhem. Tis a pity there's not an official U.S. DVD available.

Massacre at Central High (1976): This very strange low budget exploitation exercise concerns the dire consequences of bullying in high school. The universe of the film is self contained and detached; adults are never seen for the most part, while the cast appear to be more in their early 20's then actual teenagers. This isolation adds a stirring sense of claustrophobia. The whole production is off kilter and stilted in a way that makes it effectively disturbing. Director Renee Daalder was a protege of Russ Meyer and through Meyer came to work with The Sex Pistols. Daalder designed the "My Way" sequence of The Great Rock And Roll Swindle. Massacre At Central High is definitely a punk rock movie, if not musically both in spirit and aesthetic.



The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is Akira Kurosawa's take on Hamlet. Set in contemporary Japan with a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the story of a man's climb up the executive ladder unravels a quest for retribution. The links to Hamlet would seem to be patricide, conspiracy, introspection and doom. Kurosawa's always complex construction incorporates some heady social commentary. Apparently some inspiration came from headlines contemporaneous with the production. Kurosawa hits an intensely stirring, bleak tone. Mifune is excellent as always in the vengeance seeking Hamlet role. Kurosawa's sensitivity to human feelings raises complex moral issues. By weaving a tale that transcends the usual physical modes of revenge Kurosawa also defies expectations. The result is a philosophically provocative and cinematically striking thriller.


Do you think director Enzo G. Castellari saw the above Kurosawa film before he made the cheekily inspired spaghetti western Johnny Hamlet (1968)? Apparently it was Sergio Corbucci's idea but he was to busy to realize it into fruition. Therefore Corbucci bequeathed the project onto Castellari. Johnny comes home after fighting in the civil war to find that his father was murdered and his mother married his Uncle Claudio. This is an exploitation film so it is very much about the physical modes of revenge. But so much of the source material is intact, including Hamlet's tortured soul, and, if I remember correctly, he does get visited by his father's ghost. There's an added Gothic tone to the production, wild colors and the like, plus some rowdy fist fights thrown in for macho good measure. The trailer is pretty psychedelic.

Probably the most influential spaghetti western with a revenge plot-line is the Leone masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Haunting theme music enforces the mythical mystique of Charles Bronson's vengeance seeking loner known as 'Harmonica.' And of course Bronson went on to become the icon of revenge for his star turn in the Death Wish films. He publicly denounced the vigilantism of his Death Wish character in the wake of the Bernhard Goetz incident. Death wish director Michael Winner had worked with Bronson 2 years earlier on the revenge tinged action film The Mechanic (1972). The laconic hitman Bronson plays helped seal his on-screen persona of a no-nonsense anti-heroic badass. So the question arises: What is the most identifiable face of revenge floating in our collective consciousness? From the Bronson perspective it would seem to be someone at piece with themselves; someone who understands the meaning of restraint. But circumstances beyond their control exhaust that restraint. In the Mechanic the concept of vengeance is played out more existentially. For Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent's character revenge becomes a game of cat and mouse that defines their lives. Winning the game somehow supersedes the moral and emotional impetus de riguer for the path of vindication.

Perhaps one of the most iconic and beautiful faces of vengeance belongs to the strikingly stoic visage of Kaji Meiko. After establishing herself as an action star in films like Wandering Ginza Butterfly and Nikkatsu's juvenile delinquent Stray Cat Rock series, Ms. Kaji starred in several influential revenge films during the 70's. Lady Snowblood (1973) is an ultra-violent samurai action tale based on an even more violent manga (and was the template for Kill Bill). Perhaps even more impressive (and also based on a manga - Japan has really cultivated comic book ultra-violence) is the Female Convict Scorpion series. These breakthrough women in prison films follow the blood-soaked path of Nami, a woman wronged by the evil and greed of others. They feature some of the wildest, over the top set pieces ever.

Many more coming soon...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

GOLDEN NIGHTS

Friday night out on the town. Well, Williamsburg that is, home of the affected hipster. Dean and I went to Snacky. Jimbo from Uncle Morty's Dub Shack was sitting in the same seat as last time I was there. Maybe he has a share in the place. They were showing the Jackie Chan classic Young Master. We had the Zatoichi special: $4 sake shot with a Tsingtao chaser. Dean, who is the mayor of coolsville ran into about 5 people he knew while we drank and chomped down on fried rice and shoyu ramen. Then we made our way down the street to Trash Bar. We got there just in time for the Imaginary Icons, Tom and Ted's band (I don't know the other two guys). They are reviving a genre that barely ever existed: neo British post punk. Think heavy influences of Wire, Swell Maps, etc. Maybe Mission of Burma was influenced by some of that stuff or had similar sensibilities but they remained fairly original. That was the thing with the first wave of post punk bands: the originality in an era of stale music. By stripping things down those early British bands allowed other complexities to emerge. Imaginary Icons are pretty good, and have interesting parts but I'm still waiting for that one hit song. It does seem like their almost putting on English accents. Maybe it's the familiar phrasing of their vocal lines and arrangements, I'm not sure. The Big Boys "Heartbeat" popped up on my ipod the following day and I realized that they were also playing with weird staccato rhythms while mixing musical genres, though their influences seemed more disparate, namely punk rock and funk/r & b. Next up was The Golden Boys from Austin (pictured above). Don't know how to describe them exactly, somewhere between underground rock, country and a little bit of singer songwriter in a very disheveled sense (that's a good thing). They had a great, chaotic energy but managed to keep everything together despite the lead guitar struggling with his strap through the first two numbers. They had a keyboard player with a curly mustache and all four of the upright musicians assaulted the front of the stage in a happy melee of flailing limbs and twangy sounds while the drummer slammed hard and thrilled the audience at one point with a one armed passage, brandishing a beer in the other hand. I left early so I missed The Spider Bags, who Dean said were great, and the self-proclaimed country rock of Puddin' Tang. So much for me and the scene.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

X VERSUS ZERO

When I first heard about this brand new kaiju Monster X Strikes Back I immediately thought of one of my favorite kaiju movies Invasion of the Astro Monster (1965). In Astro Monster a Japanese and an American astronaut travel to Planet X. The Planet X-ians (caled Xiliens) explain how they want to pit some earth monsters against their own planet's Monster Zero. The space scenes, like the underground chasm where the Planet X folks live, are colorfully psychedelic and totally kitsch mod cool. The monsters are pretty awesome too. Monster Zero is that three headed beast also known as King Gidorah and he ends up fighting Godzilla and Rodan (thus the Japanese title that translates to Kaiju Big Battle or the great monster war). Monster X Strikes Back is directed by Minoru Kawasaki, the man behind Calamari Wrestler and Executive Koala. Wait there's more: the subtitle is "Attack the G Summit" and it also features none other than Beat Takeshi. Monster X's Japanese name is Girara, apparently a 3rd rate monster who was in The X From Outer Space (1967). Guirara looks like a mutant bird crossed with a robot and I imagine was to Kaiju what Sartana was to spaghetti westerns. Hey I love that first Sartana movie but by the time he came along to the genre with his James Bondian gadgetry and other anti-hero cliches it was bordering on self-parody. No wonder when Leone and friends heard the title If you Meet Sartana Pray for your Death they mockingly retorted "If you see Sartana tell him he's an asshole."

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

SEX, VIOLENCE AND WEIRDNESS!

There appears to be exponential irony rampant within the current crop of neo- exploitation films (post-deuce). This is no more evident than in a few recent self-referentially tongue in cheek pre-fab cult films from Asia.

Machine Girl grabbed a lot of attention when its trailer hit Youtube. Did director Noboru Iguchi willfully rip off Rodriguez' potluck pastiche offered up in the Planet Terror half of Grindhouse? Or perhaps the deadly disfigured badass hottie with a gun fever dream has been floating in the ether since the days when They Call Her One Eye enjoyed extended runs in Times Square? This looks like an homage cum send-up of everything from Sukeban Deka to Master of the Flying Guillotine and a barrel of mindless monkey fun at that. Tokyo Shock is releasing the DVD in June. Too bad these sort of films don't get wide theatrical releases anymore. I still have fond memories of seeing a midnight show of Demons.

The team behind Machine Girl already have a new gross-out action epic, Tokyo Gore Police. It's directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura, the effects man from Machine Girl , and stars Eihi Shiina, the sexy sadist from Audition.

Sex as a mantle for ultra-violence can get exhaustive so it's a breath of fresh air to hear about a new neo-spaghetti western by way of Korea. Kim Ji Woon, the director of the excellent modern noir/Hong Kong action homage A Bittersweet Life, the creepy artsy horror Tale of Two Sisters and the wacky cult wrestling comedy The Foul King is behind this one: The Good, The Bad and The Weird!

It takes place in 1930's Manchuria and involves bandits, militants, and a treasure map. Heartthrob Lee Byung Hun from A Bittersweet Life plays the good, Jung Woo Sung from Musa plays the bad, and that funny pudgy underdog from The Host Song Kang Ho plays the weird.

WHERE YA GONNA GO SPEED?

Speed Racer had the kind of chic mod-cool that made it a natural for post-modern immortalization (via MTV and Cartoon Network no less). The new Wachowski Brothers version of the Japanese pop-culture pastiche is indicative of a disconcerting new, post po-mo sensibility. The Wachowski's m.o. is hi-tech. The Matrix proved that their innovative computer based visuals had the potential to distract from a lack of coherent content. But the trance of electronic lights sustains only as long as you submit your brain to autopilot. Speed Racer finds the flashiness turned up to an excruciatingly loud volume. This dispels almost 90% of the potential suspense of the car races. And those are supposed to be the focal point of the film. All those crazy colored lights might induce vomiting ala Pokemon. Although all the characters and basic elements of the original are present and recognizable, the aesthetic represents the modern video game generation. It is perfect for today's 8 year old. It would make yesterday's 8 year old head explode.

My brother and I were part of the second generation Speed Racer audience. We liked G-Force too. The 60's mod aesthetic of the original is close to my heart. The Wachowski's film is injected with an unbearable amount of schmaltzy family cornball sentiments - this is after all, aimed at an American 'family' audience. I don't seem to remember that sort of sugary drama distracting from the oddly off-kilter action of the original. But I'll have to look at it again. The antics with the little kid and the chimp are a good example of how the gags get tired even quicker when transformed to a booming, overproduced live-action milieu. Having said that, I must add that Willy the chimp (as Chim Chim) beats out all the other actors for best performance in this movie. (Unless it was CG enabled).

If I were to remake it I would have gone backward instead of forward. The original source, Maha Go Go Go, was a pioneering manga and anime in its day. But that once modern look now feeds nostalgia for a bold, streamlined, pre-cyber-age , pre-me-generation sense of style. For my version I would look to Russ Meyer, specifically Motor Psycho and Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, a little Mario Bava a la Danger Diabolik, and other great Italian kitsch cool like 10th Victim.


Then maybe the old Roger Corman type race car pictures, like Jack Hill's Pit Stop. No CG. It would be all classic roadsters and speedsters and back projection, cutaways, etc. In addition to the old-school fakery I would stage real races and also look to Italian crime films of the 70's for extra action inspiration. Maybe Castellari's High Crime is a bit too much for a family oriented show, after all, the creator of the original took inspiration for the Mach 5 from the Elvis' vehicle (ha ha) Viva Las Vegas. Considering that point of reference, the Wachoskis did suceed in making their Speed Racer a hallmark of hyper-artificialty. But my artificial aesthetic is closer to old Hollywood (or independent), and self-referentially hokey as opposed to overblown techno eye candy.

Editor's note: originally I wasn't going to write about this. I figured this movie didn't need any extra attention. But then I thought it would be a good chance to talk about more obscure, worthy pop cultural artifacts as well as speak up about a pop media epidemic.

Friday, May 02, 2008

NEW JAPANESE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN

Ichi is part of Sochiku Studio's latest line-up, one of the many films they'll be marketing at Cannes. It's a re-working of the Zatoichi formula, only this time the titular hero is a traveling woman shamisen player. Of course she has a sword hidden inside her walking stick. Sounds cool, but judging by recent Japanese television-inflected big studio productions - perhaps the recent Sanjuro remake starring Yuji Oda of Bayside Shakedown fame is one indication - it might not be that promising. Oh yeah, there's also a recent remake of Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress - yes, the film that provided the plot template for the first Star Wars. Anyhow, Ichi is directed by Fumihiko Sori (Ping Pong, Vexille) and stars an idol , the sexy Haruka Ayase. Who doesn't like sexy badasses and the trailer looks slightly intriguing, but this chick doesn't seem to have that innate stoic demeanor of say Kaji Meiko or Shibasaki Ko (who has been called the Kaji Meiko of her generation). Shibasaki recently starred in the Steven Chow produced Shaolin Girl. I guess there she sheds the scary stoic badass skin and reveals a more athletic, comedic side.

This is not the first Japanese blind swordswoman film.
There was a succesful Shochiku series called the Crimson Bat, starring Yoko Matsuyama, based on a manga by her husband Teruo Tanashita. The original zatoichi is a jidai-geki (period piece) of the chanbara (sword swinging action) genre, though technicaly, because zatoichi is essentially a roving gambler, the films qualify as yakuza eiga. The Crimson Bat gains her sword prowess under the tutelage of a ronin so I suppose it's more samurai than yakuza.According to the synopsis, the heroine in Ichi is at odds with the yakuza, perhaps not unlike the Beat Takeshi Zatoichi.

Monday, April 14, 2008

SHINE SOME LIGHT ON THIS

I'm not rushing to the Ziegfeld to see this new Stones concert movie even if the newest song they played is from Tattoo You and the repertoire goes as far back as 1965's "I'm Free." I recently had the pleasure, however, to see a truly golden moment in their career, the 1973 behind the scenes concert movie Cocksucker Blues, directed by genius photographer and beat collaborator Robert Frank. The Stones themselves were not happy with Frank's candid, elliptical snapshot and forbade him to show the film. Ensuing legal action only granted Frank the right to screen the film five times a year and he has to be present. That doesn't stop copies getting around to Stones fans of course. Frank manges to capture the ennui that comes with being 'the world's greatest rock and roll band' as well as sensational moments such as groupies and roadies getting wild on a plane, folks shooting up, nodding off, Bianca Jagger and Tina Turner domineering the frame, and Mick and Keith hanging out in a juke joint, the one moment they seem slightly happy. Speaking of happy, there's a great sequence where Stevie Wonder plays "Uptight" with the Stones joining in that segues to another scene where the band listens to the single of "Happy" for the first time, which then segues into them playing "Happy" live and then back to the room again. Really cool.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

GENTLEMAN KILLER

Anthony Steffen stars in this third rate spaghetti western from 1967, unearthed from Wild East Productions. Of course third rate in an exploitation film is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary this entry in the 60's Euro-Western boom is extra gritty and mean-spirited. It's derivative in a way that satisfies those genre trope obsessions: lots of action, sleazy moments, amorality and fetishization of the genre itself that are easily and happilly recognizable. This is perhaps most evident in the appropriately rustic production design. The look of the Mexican bandits is particularly effective here, even if the melodramatic elements are played up to a screaming pitch, with all the baddies chewing scenery as they wreak havoc with sinister laughter worthy of Ming the Merciless (or at least as evil as Dr. Klahn from A Fistful of Yen). Eduardo Fajardo stands out as the stereotypically villainous Mexican, Colonel Ferreres. Ferreres gets a great kick out of chiding one of his henchmen, calling him 'muchachita.' Later said henchmen retorts back calling Ferreres Colonel de mierda. The plot is a throwaway: Dastardly Mexican 'soldiers' are dominating a small border town. They are after a shipment of gold or some such treasure. A mysterious gambler, who also happens to be a gentleman, comes to town and messes up their plans. Here's the key point that makes the film thrid rate: the hero is completely bad ass and on the side of the law AND sympathetic to the victims of cruelty. The great conceit of Leone's protagonists was that they were anti-heroes who seemed to care less about feelings. The so called man with no name as well as Mortimer, maintained a super cool-demeanor and were more interested in personal gain or revenge than simply human interest. A superman, one-dimensional do-gooder, such as Gentleman Killer renders the action more comic book-like. Nevertheless it's an enjoyable ride. There are moments reminiscent of the great Django - GK helps and is rescued by a prostitute, he swings around balconies and so forth, and in the third act he is the victim of some crippling torture from the baddies. Alex Cox spoke to me about the whole traumatized prostitute/hero angle, which is straight out of Django. But while in Django the hero is practically maimed, here they borrow a plot device from another great spaghetti, Requiescant: he gets blind drunk. The Mexicans force feed him 2 1/2 bottles of booze in about 30 seconds time. Still, this doesn't prevent him from escaping in an almost acrobatic fashion. I did like the way the film ended, which was a fun twist on a cliche.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A SAMURAI GLIMPSE INTO THE INFINITE ABYSS

Ego's comment on the Dynamite Openings and Knockout Endings post served as a reminder of Sword of Doom, one of the greatest samurai movies ever, which also happens to have an incredible, knockout ending. It is probably the best version of the oft-filmed novel (originally serialized in the newspaper) Dai-Bosatsu Toge (The Great Buddha Pass), about a ronin with daunting, superhuman sword skills who also happens to be evil incarnate. Mr. Evil Badass is not without enough of a moral compass to know just how rotten he is however, allowing director Kihachi Okamoto to explore severe existential dread. Tatsuya Nakadai is incredible as the antihero. This summer there will be a Nakadai retrospective at Japan Society and Film Forum at which Nakadai will make an appearance.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

COCOCOMA


Is that an esoteric band name or am I just out of the loop? Is it one of those tribal chants assimilated into New Orleans r & b or is it some small hamlet in Long Island or Florida? Cococoma is a great contemporary garage punk band from Chicago. They manage to channel those great 60's punk sounds without being simply neo/revival, but instead blend a pastiche of sounds with enough pop sensibility and punk attack to keep it fresh and exciting. Granted that pastiche comes from a specific niche. I hear resemblances of sounds in the vocals and the parts of songs, references remain on the tip of your tongue as you feel like it's comfortably familiar but fresh at the same time. The band was started by a husband and wife, the former on drums and vox and the latter slashing furious on guitar. And for added measure they've got a great keyboard player who manages to integrate both rhytmic dynamics as well as a few slightly melodic twists as well. Check out the cool composure of 'Premonition,' which retains raw charm yet boasts clever structure and catchy hooks. They have some raw singles and an excellent album on Goner Records.

Monday, March 31, 2008

HOODLUM SOLDIER or SADISM MEETS ITS MATCH


Did director Yasuzo Masumura have a personal interest in s & m or did he simply find it metaphorical for the Japanese psyche? Moju (Blind Beast), based on an Edogawa Rampo story, was a cinematic treatise on sado-masochistic desire and its ramifications. Heitai Yakuza (Hoodlum Soldier) (1965) examines Japanese social hierarchy and its s & m leanings through a story of a yakuza serving in the Japanese army, stationed in Manchuria. The yakuza (played by Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro) ends up being a punching bag for almost every senior officer, all who seem to have some kind of chip on their soldier. Because of rank he's not allowed to hit back. But you know that won't last for too long. It must be tough growing up in a country where you always have to answer to someone; where concepts of seniority and superiority are so ingrained in everyday life, from family to school to the workplace and so on, that the subconcious is built for abuse or to dish it out if the chance arises. The screenplay allows Masumura to question this behavior, seemingly di rigeur for the society as a whole (imagine CEOs verbally lambasting sallarymen and senpai - kohai ijime). A subversive voice emerges through the relationship between the yakuza and an idealistic conscientious objector officer that befriends and protects him. There are Lots of beatings and fights, because the yakuza naturally is a real scrapper and takes on several men at the same time. Quite compelling and it spawned several sequels. We can thank Ian Buruma for selecting it for Asia Society's yakuza film series, which you can read more about in my article here. The whole idea of getting beaten on and then fighting back reminds me of that 70's kung fu trailer that had the tag line "he takes a licking and keeps on kicking." And I think the voice over artist on that was Adolph Caeser.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

DYNAMITE OPENINGS KNOCKOUT ENDINGS

The opening and ending of a film are arguably the most crucial moments. They contain the power to express the entirety of the story in a single sequence. There is also a potential for poetry if they merge together symmetrically or harmoniously. Here are some prime examples of great openings:

Midnight Cowboy A nice complex mix of sound and visual design. The opening becomes an intricate visual metaphor for the aboutness of the movie, summed up in about 10 seconds. The sounds of a cowboy & Indians shoot em up give way to the reality of a lonely child amusing himself in an abandoned drive-in.


The Wild Angels Another succinct visual metaphor, which features a kid on a big wheel imprisoned by a white picket fence, while the appearance of motorcycle rebel Peter Fonda signifies the threat of 'otherness.'


Enter the Dragon
Hey, it opens with Bruce Lee cleaning up the mat with Sammo Hung. Ok, Sammo is fat and Bruce is buff but still, Sammo can flip and kick, they're outdoors surrounded by kung fu monks, the music is cool, Bruce is bad-ass - visceral action in its purest form.


Now, without giving too much a way, let's talk about some terrific endings:

The 400 Blows This pretty much sums up pangs of adolescence and juvenile angst to a tee. Nice use of the freeze frame. Sends quivers up my spine every time as Antoine finds himself at the edge of the earth.

Stroszek This is an incredibly powerful blend of documentary and narrative. The finale captures Americana in its most crude and pure form; a moment full of truth, if you consider the New York Chinatown arcade, which for years featured a dancing chicken.
The Harder They Come The visual storytelling in this antihero ballad triumphs over its low budget. All that has passed before in the story of Ivan the outlaw reggae singer comes together in the devastating climax as he asks for one man to come out and draw, a la the Italian western Django.

Two Lane Blacktop Possibly the greatest ending of all. It's metaphoric and incredibly powerful; formally complex and simple at the same time. Sheer genius.


Please suggest more examples...

Now I'm thinking of the greatest opening sequence ever. What is it? First one right gets a prize.

Friday, March 07, 2008

2 manly men, 1 geisha, lots of brooding and a bloody finish


Asia Society kicked off their yakuza film series, Gamblers, Gangsters and other Anti-heroes, with Tomu Uchida's 1968 version of Koyo Ozaki's oft filmed novel Jinsei Gekijo or Theatre of Life. The complete title of this version is Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku to Kiratsune - those are the names of the two protagonists at the end, thus the English translated title of A Tale of Two Yakuza. Series curator Ian Buruma gave an informative introduction, explaining how this was an example of the classical ninkyo yakuza films that were popular in the 60's. He mentioned discovering these films while living in Japan in the 70's and sometimes attending all night yakuza movie marathons. He also related how even the sanctuary seeking audience members who had dozed off would awake at every predictable climactic finale to urge on stars like Ken Takakura. One interesting word of encouragement he said was 'shine' (pronounced 'she nay') or 'die.' These cries weren't fueled by pure blood lust, but since the hero's death was inevitable they wanted him to die beautifully, as Mr. Buruma explained.

The movie is well constructed with meticulous plotting and structural devices, though a little bogged down dramatically. The majority of time is spent on a deliberately paced love triangle. Thankfully there's a stylish explosion of violent action at the end. This is metaphoric and cathartic for the emotional turmoil brought upon the characters by the giri ninjo dilema. Uchida frames interestingly enough on this sound stage production, adding a dash of theatrical and emotional vibrancy while remaining comfortably inside the formula. He also brings out strong performances from the all star cast, which included yakuza film icons Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta in the leads. Junko Fuji, who would go on to her own yakuza star turn in the Red Peony series, plays the geisha of their affections.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Watch out for that fork Lee!


Film Forum is giving this Richard Fleischer b-grade, color heist film, Violent Saturday a week run. Most of the time is spent on suburban soap opera, but all of it with an element of perversion lying beneath a happy Americana exterior. The nebbish bank manager is a peeping tom. When he finally confesses to the hot nurse who he's been spying on while she undresses, she flippantly laughs it off and says with a smile, 'we both learned something. From now on I'll pull down the window shade' . Lee Marvin plays one of the hold-up men and is creepy and sinister with his jittery behavior and obsessive use of a nasal inhaler. J. Carol Naish is another good villainous show-stealer who gets a great line when they rob the bank. He give a meddlesome little kid some candy and says 'put that in your kisser and suck on it.' Victor Mature is likable enough as the near flawless pedestrian hero. In a way this reminded me of Fritz Lang's Big Heat, which also features Lee Marvin - this time as a baddie who finds a sadistic use for hot coffee. The similarities are the balance of cornball Americana background and simmering angst and perversion. Neither film is a total success but each have their moments. And boy does Ernest Borgnine look well-cast as an Amish farmer. Fleishcer directs competently and predictably. Establishing shot, shot/reverse shot, pan in and pan out to emphasize the melodrama, etc. and not too much hysteria from the actors. Great title though. It will go in my festival of provocative titles, though maybe they should have saved this moniker for a more feisty heist film, like Charley Varrick.

The return of Walker


I interviewed Alex Cox on Thursday, 2/28/08. He was very gracious as we talked a lot about spaghetti westerns and the like. He was in town for Film Scoiety of Lincoln Center's Film Comment selects series. The closing night featured a screening of his 1987 political allegory Walker, his latest microfeature Searchers 2.0, and q & a with Alex and also Walker screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. Walker, which was pretty much buried on its initial theatrical release by Universal, has had something of a comeuppance with its recent Criterion DVD. It's a pretty anarchic film with Alex's loony sense of humor underlining the absurdity of the subject matter - imperialism, colonialism, and the random violence that ensues therein. There are some anachronisms thrown in for good measure too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Attack of the rock and roll polar bear?

The Shemps are playing this extravaganza and then one more show after that and POOF! We become a new band. Same members, different group. Weird, huh? So goes the wacky antics of rock and roll. I'm excited to play with my old pals The Candy Snatchers. They're named after an obscure 70's exploitation film and have often been called the most dangerous band alive. In their heyday sets included breaking glass, flying fish, nudity and full throttle, balls out punk rock and roll. They've just recorded a new album and what I've heard so far is awesome, very Stooges inspired.

Candy Snatchers video here.

The Shemps live video here.