Thursday, January 29, 2015

Foul King (2000)

Director: Kim Jee-woon
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Jang Jin-Young

Song Kang-ho stars as Dae-ho, a stressed-out loan officer who is plagued by two problems at work. First, he's one of the two worst employees in the whole bank. Second, his boss is an abusive, overbearing ass who likes to prove his points about the cutthroat nature of life by sneaking up on Dae-ho and slapping on a vicious headlock. But our beleaguered hero's woes don't end there. The teenage thugs who hang out on his route back home enjoy beating him up and chasing him. His father constantly harasses him about being such a twit, and the co-worker upon whom he has a crush doesn't even realize he's alive, despite the fact he sits only a chair or two down from her. His only solace from the many trials of life comes in the form of watching professional wrestling.

When Dae-ho is thrown out of a meeting for trying to sneak in late, he wanders the streets and ends up outside a run-down gymnasium advertising that it will train professional wrestlers. Dae-ho is interested but too chicken to go in at first. The gym isn't much to look at, and neither are the only two students. Only slightly more impressive is the gym's owner and primary coach, a down on his luck, out of shape has-been who, in his day, had been one of the most popular "heel" wrestlers of all time, Ultra Tiger Mask. Age and bad financial decisions have not been kind to him, however, and he spends his days now slurping instant ramen and drinking cheap beer in the back of the gym.

Dae-ho, however, is undaunted by the shoddy nature of the gym, and begs the coach to take him on as a student, or at least teach him how to get out of a headlock. If he can just learn that, then he'll be able to best his boss, and surely things will turn around for him. The coach, however, is less than impressed with the clumsy, somewhat doughy young man and tells him to get lost. When the coach gets a visit from a big-time promoter on the Korean pro wrestling circuit, things change. The big-time guy represents the hottest young prospect in Korea, Yubiho, who is looking to make a name for himself by breaking into the international big leagues. What Yubiho needs for an upcoming match is a good heel to play off of, a dastardly wrestler who specializes in cheating. The promoter gives the coach the script for the match and tells him he better come up with someone. Knowing that his two current students, Taebaik and Odai are about as useful as a couple sacks of potatoes in the ring, he decided to give Dae-ho a try.

Unfortunately, Dae-ho isn't exactly an in-ring wonder, and they have little time to give him any formal training. The coach's daughter, Min-young, is his principal teacher, which Dae-ho is skeptical of until she throws him to the ground and slaps an excruciating armbar on him. She does the best she can with him, and slowly but surely everyone realizes that Dae-ho's not half bad once he gets the hang of things, especially since his primary function will be to stumble around, cower, and cheat. He makes his in-ring debut at a lo-fi indy event against one of the other students, and things go well up until the point Dae-ho, who is given the ring persona of the Foul King, accidentally grabs a real fork instead of the painted wooden prop fork he's supposed to use.

When Dae-ho discovers the coach's old Ultra Tiger Mask mask, he decides to adopt it as his own. Hoping that it will help him find the same courage outside the ring that he has inside, he dons the mask and hits the streets. His first stop is to soundly kick the asses of the young punks who picked on him earlier. Subsequent efforts to talk to his father while wearing the mask and to his co-worker Miss Jin don't go as well, as both people think he's crazy or drunk. Complicating things is the fact that Dae-ho realizes that he's actually talented enough in the ring to be more than a cheating comedy wrestler. His chance comes the night of his match against Yubiho, a lean, muscular high flyer. It's The Foul King's first match beyond the county fair indy circuit, and even though Yubiho wants to stick to a well-plotted script for the match, Dae-ho is determined to turn it into something more than a showcase for his opponent.

What's most striking about this film is that it is very conventional while at the same time being very subversive in how it handles the conventions. There are plenty of cliches here -- the young hero who is so blinded by his crush on an unobtainable woman that he fails to see the dream girl right under his nose, the washed up coach with one last shot, the big final match. But it's how it handles the conventions that really sets it apart. The film never really gives you the convenience of a nicely wrapped up closure of events. In the end, Dae-ho and Min-young still have not hooked up. His final match is not what's expected from such a film. And his final confrontation with his boss, while hilarious, is not exactly what Dae-ho was hoping for. In this way, the film manages to rise above conventions and deliver something fresh and consistently funny. You know what is supposed to happen in this sort of film, but you never know if what is supposed to happen is what will actually happen.

The movie is a perfect blend of romance, action, and comedy, with all three ingredients well prepared. This is one of the only slapstick films I've seen where slapstick comic violence results in very lifelike bloodshed. It's like watching an episode of the Three Stooges where Shemp would get stuck in the head with a fork, and instead of just yelling "Oww!" a splattering of blood would gush from the wound as he passed out and had to be hauled to the back.

Song Kang-ho is impossible not to like and root for as the goofball loser Dae-ho, especially since he rarely gets what he wants. The supporting characters are well presented, with the abusive boss being the best. He's just over-the-top enough so that you really despise him, but he's not so cartoonish that he becomes simply laughable. He's just a dick, plain and simple, and a very believable one at that, which makes you cheer for Dae-ho all the harder. Min-young and the rest of the down-and-out indy wrestlers are great as well.

Most of the action is, of course, in the ring. For the most part, the wrestling is humorously bad, just as it is supposed to be. Odai and Taebaik look like every out of shape wrestler on the indy circuit who can't even be has-beens because there never were nor will be in the first place. Unlike American movies that focus on the world of professional wrestling, The Foul King is accurate in its portrayal of the seedy, harsh, and often destitute lives most wrestlers endure. While certainly focusing on the comedic aspects of such a life, it never fails to treat the dedication of wrestlers and the wrestling business with anything but respect.

It deftly deals with the fact that being scripted and being trained doesn't mean the wrestling matches don't abuse the wrestlers. Wrestlers -- especially indy wrestlers -- bust their asses, and no matter how well you know how to take a bump, coming off the top rope onto a concrete floor hurts. We go into the match between Foul King and Yubiho knowing it's scripted, like most any wrestling match is, but we also see, in a very accurate way, that the match still involves two dedicated workers getting the unholy hell beaten out of them. It's gritty, bloody, and very true to what lo-fi wrestling is like in real life.

The Foul King is funny, touching, well-crafted, and even brutal at times. Song Kang-ho also refused to use stunt doubles for the wrestling matches, even though it would have been easy to do so since he wore a mask. Instead, he got a serious taste of method acting by going through wrestling training himself and learning to do some pretty high-risk style moves. That's the icing on the cake, really, as this movie, like a slew of other Korean hits, delivers everything I want in a movie.

Make or Break: The wrestling, or more accurately, the fact that the movie handles indy circuit wrestling in a realistic fashion -- as a scripted business that is, never the less, incredibly demanding, brutal, and entertaining.

MVT: Song Kang-ho. The man is golden. Even in lackluster films (and this is by no means a lackluster film), he makes the most of every character, especially when that character is a bit of a sad sack.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Superstition (1982)

**Possible Spoilers Ahead**

There is a fear that I, as a cinephile, have deep down in my heart.  It’s not that the classics will be forgotten, per se.  It’s that the tactility that came with the cinematic experience is becoming outmoded.  There is a visceral connection between a film and a viewer when the grain is noticeable, or when the film goes out of register for a few seconds, or when the ambient hiss of the soundtrack dominates over the image on screen.  Today, digital film is so meticulously perfect it produces a feeling of falseness in the same way that robots who are designed to resemble humans perfectly don’t (aka the uncanny valley).  For the level of control that has been given to filmmakers, I would suggest that not only have they succeeded in producing work less and less distinguishable from each other (pay attention to the way certain types of film genres are color-corrected to within an inch of their lives), but they have also moved further and further away from the illusion of reality film was created to instill (even at its most fantastic, the point of a narrative film is generally to make the watcher believe what they are watching in that moment).  This is not an indictment of modern moviemaking technology nor is it meant to apply as a blanket statement about every filmmaker working and every film made today.  Plus, there will always be those who keep the fires burning for the more obscure movies and methods of exhibition (I’m sure there are audiophiles who live for reel-to-reel, too).  But I do believe that the numbers are shrinking, and eventually physical film will go the way of cuneiform tablets.  

Maybe on some level what this all boils down to is a fear of obsolescence, even while embracing parts of newer technologies (a dichotomy, to be sure).  It’s a strong possibility.  If the old cinematic ways can be tossed aside, so can the old cinema lovers.  Nevertheless, there is also the desire of the older set to share their appreciation with the new blood (sometimes to the point of trying to cram it down their throats, I admit).  However, I would argue that people who only ever read digital books will likely never understand the firing in the mind that physical paper’s texture or the smell of print and glue ignites, and similarly, people who only watch digitally produced and exhibited films will likely never understand how physical film’s imperfections form a major part of the attraction.  Just as you can admire the specific look of a particular artist’s brush stroke, each film shot on film stock had a look that was inherent in its materials, before even getting into the stylistic flourishes of individual filmmakers.  All of this is not to say that we need to be slavish to history, to eschew progress at all costs.  It’s possible there were once people bemoaning the waning popularity of the Vitascope.  The point here is to share the longing for a more rounded regard of this form I love so much.  And if the characters in James W. Roberson’s Superstition (aka The Witch) had a better understanding of history, they likely could have avoided a hell of a lot of headaches.

The old house on Mill Road is haunted, and, by all accounts, it has been since the late seventeenth century.  This doesn’t stop youthful minister David (James Houghton) from fixing the place up and moving old alcoholic minister George (Larry Pennell) and his family into the place.  The murders kick off almost immediately, thus giving Inspector Sturgess (Albert Salmi) an excuse to hang out at the house like he were a boarder and dole out both exposition and faux wisdom.  But the real question is, can anyone halt the evil that has been resurrected and stop it from spreading?  Well, can they?!

This is predominantly a Slasher film (we can’t really label it a Dead Teenager film, since there are only four characters that are teenagers, and two of those are only around for the [overlong at ten minutes] introduction scene), and the thing that distinguishes it from others of its type is that the monster is not some hulking, mute slasher murdering kids who just want to get liquored up and bump uglies.  No, what we have here is some hulking, mute witch.  And yet for me, that’s really all it needs, and I think it’s a kind of statement on the Slasher genre in general, when all that’s required for some semblance of individuality is to change the villain’s nature.  There are still all of the norms we’ve come to expect from Slasher films in here.  The kills are inventive, gory, and plentiful (and I have to say that the speed with which they occur is also a mark in the plus column for this movie).  Killer’s POV shots are used fairly often, but they’re also edited with omniscient POV shots in such a way that they do actually generate some tension.  The creature is unmotivated outside of being evil and needing to kill anyone who comes within spitting distance of her.  There are jump scares galore, accompanied by loud musical stings (and yet no cat dancing across a piano keyboard).  The witch is very wisely kept offscreen with the exception of her black, taloned hands, and unlike the Friday the 13th series, we’re never given even a fleeting glimpse of her horrible visage.  But it works, and I think the reason why these things work is because of the other influence on this film.

Outside of being Canadian, Superstition could very easily fit into the Eurohorror genre alongside such films as Dario Argento’s Suspiria or Michele Soavi’s The Church or Lamberto Bava’s Demons.  There is a definite ambience in the film, combining gothic and modern aesthetics.  For as much as this is a Slasher film, it’s a Haunted House film, to boot.  Still, there is so much under and undeveloped material, it could make your head spin.  The story is as simple as simple gets with leaps in logic no sober person would ever take.  The characters are as flat as pancakes and just as interesting to watch as the actors struggle to not bring them to life.  There are, thankfully, no characters who are safe in this filmic universe, whether they be men, women, or children.  What we would assume would be major narrative aspects are brought up and then forgotten about entirely.  For example, daughter Sheryl (Maylo McCaslin) has major problems with her souse dad.  Mute simpleton Arlen (Joshua Cadman) was somehow made thrall of the witch at some point in the past.  David takes a shine to Sheryl after catching an eyeful of her in a bikini.  Notice how none of these goes any further than one quick sentence?  That’s because they don’t go any further in the film either.  When I said earlier that Inspector Sturgess just hangs around the house, I wasn’t kidding.  The man is actively investigating disappearances and murders, but he’s as blasé about it as someone waiting in line at the local Department of Motor Vehicles.  The film is disconnected from reality in many of the same ways as the aforementioned Eurohorror titles, but if it mirrors any movie specifically, it would have to be Lucio Fulci’s master class in what-the-fuckery, The House By The Cemetery, a movie about a diabolical monster literally living and performing horrific experiments in a family’s basement (yes, really), as if they would have discovered him had they simply bothered to look behind that old chaise lounge chair in the corner.  Superstition is dumb in that same way.  It is also equally entertaining in that same way.  If you like that one, I highly doubt you won’t like this one.

MVT:  The kills are the name of the game, and when they happen, they are brutal and eyebrow-raising.  The film delivers what it promises in this respect.

Make or Break:  There is a scene involving an improbable circular saw blade that is utterly astonishing in what happens and in how this is received by the other characters.

Score:  6.5/10                      

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bang Rajan (2000)

Director: Tanit Jitnukul
Starring: Jaran Ngamdee, Winai Kraibutr, Theerayut Pratyabamrung

The story of the village of Bang Rajan is one of the most famous in Thai history, and while it's easy to say the film Bang Rajan was inspired by films like Seven Samurai, it's also easy to guess that Seven Samurai might have found some kernel of inspiration in the true story of Bang Rajan. It was a tiny rural village which, despite being grossly outmatched by Burmese forces possessed of far superior technology, numbers, and training, managed to hold out against onslaught after onslaught, costing the Burmese dearly, not to mention delivering a major blow to Burmese morale before the town finally fell. Bang Rajan the movie takes this story and treats it with an epic feel. There's very little truly original in the film, and every hoary old chestnut of this type of war movie is served up. What makes Bang Rajan fun, however, is how gung-ho it is with its elements. This is formulaic film making but in a way that is like receiving something you really want from your wish list.

Bang Rajan has everything you'd expect in a movie where sassy villagers repel superior forces: the cool and calculating leader, the young hot shot, the drunken lout who will rise Toshiro Mifune style to the heights of glory and honor in battle -- nothing you haven't seen dozens of times before. But that familiarity didn't much matter to me, because Bang Rajan is full of energy and zest, not to mention solid acting, incredible cinematography, and some truly monumental mustaches. The battles are gory, informed obviously by Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan (those two films cast long shadows still), but very effective, and for much of their running time, the director Tanit Jitnukul (who helmed the similar historical battle epics Khunsuk and Khun Pan: Legend of the Warlord) manages to refrain from employing "in the thick of it" shaky cam, allowing us to sit back and enjoy all the shouting, leaping, and general carnage.

The leading cast of men continue the modern Thai tradition of loading their films with hot guys who can actually act. Jaran Ngamdee sports a mustache that would make Rollie Fingers fall down and weep at his feet. I guess it was a fake, but the fact that Thai men ever sported mustaches this fabulous is just one example of the undying flame that enabled them to defy the Burmese army for nearly half a year. Like the other characters, he is exactly what you expect of his character, but all of them are likable. Not every film is character driven after all, and it's perfectly acceptable to present us a stock we instantly recognize, allowing us to get on with the rest of the film. As the drunken, axe-wielding Nai Thongmen, Bin Bunluerit became the crowd favorite (as is always the case with the drunken lout who rises to greatness) and took home a best acting award for that year. He proves that the Toshiro Mifune model can still be fun, exciting, and poignant even if you already know what to expect.

The fact that the film invests time in developing characters and familiarizing you with them, even within he confines of their cliches, makes the finale clash, when you know pretty much everyone has to die, all the more moving. And the scene of Jaran Ngamdee slashing his way across a lush green field littered with corpses, his majestic mustache flowing around him -- man, it's straight out of "dramatic war cinema 101," but it's still extremely effective.

I wouldn't exactly call Bang Rajan a solid historical lesson, but history and folk tales underline everything that goes into the story -- and in fact, that it is so similar to Seven Samurai and countless other war and siege films is a testament to how certain folk tales permeate all cultures, and certain traits and scenarios affect populations across varied cultures and geographies.

My only real gripe about Bang Rajan are a few ill-advised forays into CGI explosions. Placed as they are amid actual actors and sword fighting and stampeding elephants, these clumsily-executed computer effects stick out like a sore thumb. But there are only a couple of them, and that's easy to overlook in the greater scheme of thing. Bang Rajan ends up being one of my favorite things: well-executed, energetic genre formula. You know what you're going to get, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still taste delicious.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Grizzly 2 (1983)

A gigantic (twenty feet tall!) female Grizzly goes on a rampage after watching her cub be gutted by some crummy poacher.  And getting her leg caught in a large bear trap does nothing to sweeten her up, either.  Meanwhile, a big concert is being set up over in nearby Grover Meadow, and no one involved has any idea what’s headed their way (very, very slowly).  So, it’s up to acting Chief (of Park Rangers), Nick (Steve Innwood), Director of Bear Management, Samantha Owens (Deborah Raffin), and mad-as-a-hatter, French Canadian Grizzly hunter, Bouchard (Jonathan Rhys-Davies), to stop the animal before people who actually count start turning up dead.

André SzötsGrizzly 2 (aka Grizzly: The Concert, aka Predator: The Concert, and various other permutations thereof) is an unfinished film, so we do need to adjust our perspective on how we gauge it, if only slightly.  There is a rough (very rough) work print available on Youtube, if you fancy having a watch.  The movie is a sequel to William Girdler’s great 1976 film (which had one of the greatest film climaxes I ever witnessed as a youth), and just like that one was a riff on JAWS, this one is a riff on JAWS 2.  Grizzly 2 is much more youth-oriented and much more improbable outside of the verisimilitude of a crazed Grizzly going on a tear.  From what can be seen of the extant footage, I like to think this would have been a modest hit, but more likely than not it would have been remembered in the same breath with Jaws: The Revenge, all things considered.  The production was troubled from jump street with money issues, script issues, and special effects issues galore.  You can read about it in more detail here:  If anyone mentions the film at all, it is most likely to note that it had early appearances of Charlie Sheen and Laura Dern, as well as being the feature film debut of George Clooney (who?)  Outside of adding to three actors’ celluloid closets, though, (thanks for the nomenclature, Fangoria) they are not nearly the attraction that co-lead Deborah Foreman is to my mind, and from the quality of the video I watched, it took some work on this viewer’s part to recognize the three at all (and all in the same scene, no less).

So, what can you expect from a viewing of Grizzly 2?  Well, the sound is unmixed, and you can clearly hear actors being given dialogue cues from off camera.  This is most interesting (to me, at least) in the performance footage and scenes around the concert in general.  You can actually hear the live voices of some of the musicians (particularly a girl group made up of some fetching lasses), and they are, believe it or not, not terrible.  It would also be a good guess that Szöts or someone near to him was a big fan of Michael Jackson, because several of his tunes are used on the soundtrack in non-performance sequences for temp scoring (and I suspect these songs were played on set during filming to set the mood).   There is no foley track, so scenes that were shot MOS (aka without sync sound) are totally silent as a result.  Blank frames are inserted as placeholders for cutaways, effects shots, and so forth that I assume weren’t yet filmed (and probably never would be).  

Of course, the editing is not slick, as expected, but what can be seen leads me to believe that the story’s structure could use a lot of tightening up (according the New York Post article, the film’s caterer was hired to work on the screenplay late in the game).  In its current state, it feels like three stories that were forced together (or two being forced together by a third, if you like).  You have the odious poachers (including Jack Starrett, Charles Cyphers, and Marc Alaimo) trying to catch the mama bear in order to sell her organs to aphrodisiac merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown while stabbing (or shooting) each other in the back.  These guys really have trust issues.  The other facet, obviously, is the concert story, which involves Chrissy (Foreman) falling for the self-involved frontman of some synth-pop band.  Neither of these moves past what we’re shown the first time the storylines are introduced.  The bear never makes an appearance at the show until the very end of the film, which surprised me since I would have figured that it would have skulked around and picked off a few crew members here and there.  In fact, the bear seems to kill people almost randomly (in other words, with no build up, no payoff, and no sympathy generation), which may work in a real world plausibility way but kind of stinks if you’re making an Animal Attack film.  The element that is supposed to tie these two together is Nick, Sam, and Bouchard’s hunt for the Grizzly, but the only time that anyone from the search shows up at the concert is when Nick appears to fawn over Chrissy, his daughter, and then let her run off to gallivant with skanky music types, and any interaction with the poachers is coincidental.  The separation of the storylines bogs the whole thing down, though it’s intended to keep the pace hopping along.  

While the bear effects were reportedly problematic, I have to say that what I saw was not awful.  There are even some decent animatronic shots of the bear as it approaches the concert grounds.  Sure, you have some laughable shots of Rhys-Davies leaping onto and stabbing a large, hair-covered, formless something, and there’s a shot of a bear arm swatting a character that reminded me distinctly of the Wampa attack from The Empire Strikes Back (and  just a little bit of the Sasquatch attacks from Snowbeast), but all things being equal, I liked what I saw and would give my eye teeth (ha, ha, ha, not really) to get a decent look at the Grizzly’s final repose.  It looks over-the-top enough to match its cinematic predecessor’s demise and original enough to satisfy the sense of wonder you go into a film like this expecting to be satiated.  The malfunctioning creature effects, which helped augment Spielberg’s opus, were very likely used here as an excuse to overdo the bear POV shots.  I find that intriguing, considering the template for how to use disadvantages to a filmmaker’s advantage had already been laid out for Szöts and company.

None of this is to say that this film couldn’t have been pulled together into a workable (and more importantly to its investors, bankable) film.  Nonetheless, any enjoyment to be gleaned from what is out there now is going to rely more on nostalgia than anything else (aerobics/calisthenics workouts for the concert employees, great character actors sinking their choppers into their one-dimensional roles and letting the blood drip down their chins, the Eighties pop music, the classic man-versus-monster finale that made movies of this ilk such a pure source of joy both in my childhood and now).  However, what the rough cut of Grizzly 2 does rather well is it gives people interested in the process of filmmaking a look at a portion of how a movie can be shaped.  It’s like being able to watch Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa.  Okay, it’s more like watching a local starving artist paint a bowl of fruit, but I believe that we can learn from all the things we see, be they good, bad, or middling.  How we use that knowledge is what counts.

MVT:  As I said, I have a major weakness for the concert scenes and the feelings of nostalgia they give me.  I miss the Eighties.  There.  I said it.

Make or Break:  The finale, where the bear finally hits the concert works better than any other section of the film, even in this lumpy version.

Score:  5.5/10 as a viewing experience, 6.75/10 as a learning experience.