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.