Thursday, December 31, 2015

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Directed by: Hark Tsui
Runtime: 134 minutes

This movie is about Doctor Wong Fei Hung. A skilled doctor, skilled martial artist, martial artist instructor, militia leader, and defender of the weak and down trodden. His life and deeds have been the inspiration for numerous films and television programs. So I'm willing to believe that he was able to break the laws of physics, flick a soft lead round hard enough that it can enter someone's skull, and can use a bamboo splinter to turn the human body into high pressure blood fountain. This is the fun madness that is Once Upon a Time in China.

The movie opens in a ship filled harbor somewhere in China in the late 19th century. Wong Fei Hung is an honored guest of the Black Flag army. The Black Flag army was a company of bandits that ended up becoming a celebrated regiment of the Chinese empire. The Black Flag army is about to head out and kick someone's ass so they celebrate by setting off firecrackers and a dragon dance. A near by French ship has it's marines take exception to this celebration and they open fire. This disrupts the celebration and causes all kinds of chaos on the ship.  Luckily Wong Fei Hung is on the ship and fixes the situation.

This is the majority of the conflict and resolution in the film.  There is some sort of problem,  other people try to fix it,  the fixing makes the problem worse,  and Wong Fei Hung shows up to kick ass and fix the problem. I understand that they are trying to put Wong Fei Hung on the biggest pedestal that they can.  But it's done on the backs of characters that historically were as interesting as the main character.

The main plot of the movie revolves around the influx of foreigners and the problems they are creating and a local gang who is enforcing aggressive protection racket. The problems with the foreigners is that locals getting shot because they get too close to foreign ships and the marines on these ships are too trigger happy. Also, a foreign company is exploiting Chinese workers by promising them great wages and a better life. Only to be thrown into slavery and are being worked to death. The gang is extorting stupid amounts of protection money out of the local merchants. This in turn causes the business to go under or fire their staff and in turn they seek out the company that exploits them.

So it is up to Wong Fei Hung to stop the gang and keep his own militia from being arrested. He also has to stop the exploitation of the Chinese people. He also has deal with the awkward romance with his Aunt Yee (or Aunt 13 according to the subtitles).

A lot going on in this movie aside from what I mentioned. All the slice of life in China in the late nineteenth century, the personal lives of the other members Wong Fei Hung's militia, and lots of impressive martial art fight scenes. Overall, a must see for anyone who is a fan of Hong Kong cinema, the Kung Fu genre, and Jet Li.

MVT: The work put into the numerous fight scenes throughout this movie.

Make or Break: The movie assumes that the viewer is well versed in the history of this time period. It can take you out of the movie if you want to know why the story focuses on this person or why the extras collectively loose their bowels because a character walks into scene.

Score: 7.55 out of 10

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

La Residencia (1969)

Young Theresa (Cristina Galbo) is carted off to Mademoiselle Fourneau’s (Lilli Palmer) private school for wayward girls (even though she seems like the most normal person in the place), where hard discipline is the order of the day.  There, Theresa has to contend with the likes of the cruel, manipulative Irene (Mary Maude) as well as learning the politics of the academy.  All this and a mysterious killer who intermittently takes out the occasional girl for diabolical reasons which will soon be made clear in a manner most ghastly.

Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s La Residencia (aka The House That Screamed, the version I watched for this review via Elvira’s Movie Macabre release, so I’m fairly confident that the film was heavily edited, but it still packs a hell of a punch) is a film which is simultaneously semi-classy melodrama and sleazy exploitation/psychothriller.  The cinematography is gorgeous, and the camera moves fluidly throughout scenes, following characters and accentuating the gothic, harsh confines of the school’s estate.  The editing is smooth as silk and on point (maybe just a little too on-the-nose with its metaphoric usage but not distractingly or offputtingly so, in fact quite the opposite).  It’s odd (but somehow fitting for how the film’s scenes form a cumulative effect rather than a singular narrative; it might have been interesting to see this film as directed by the late, great Robert Altman) in how characters who we expect to have some long term significance in the film don’t, and things happen offscreen (but again this could be from the version of the film I saw) only to be referenced later on as if we were given this information (a common enough occurrence in European genre fare).  

There is a heavy focus on the interactions between the characters rather than on the murders, and I believe this is because the killings are a symptom of the twisted environment of the school’s interior community.  On its exterior, the school is portrayed as a very proper, very orderly place for “troubled girls” to be molded (by force) to fit back into society.  Naturally, the dark underbelly lying beneath this façade of civilization is more akin to a prison than a school.  Fourneau posits that the activities in which the girls partake (like dance and needlework) “prevent them from indulging in morbid thought” (i.e. sex), but the inner world of the academy revolves around sex and perhaps even moreso around control.  The two go hand-in-hand.  Fourneau sends an obstinate girl to “the Seclusion Room” where she will later be stripped and whipped.  Fourneau’s teenaged son Luis (John Moulder-Brown) spies on the girls at every possible opportunity, but his mother tells him that “none of these girls are any good,” and he needs to be with a woman like her.  She is over-protective to the point of smothering, and her domination combined with the libidinous temptations of all the young female flesh flitting about is toxic.  Irene is a predatory lesbian who blackmails and inveigles girls into doing her bidding (“all you have to do is obey me”) and orchestrates the release of the girls’ pent up sexual energy with regularly scheduled trips to the shed with Henry (Clovis Dave), the strapping wood delivery (in more ways than one) guy.  She abuses the authority granted her by Fourneau in the same way that Fourneau abuses the authority granted her by the people who placed her in charge of their daughters.  As in a prison, these abuses are common knowledge to the “inmates” yet are not spoken of in public.

While La Residencia is a Women in Prison film in spirit, it is also about the curiosity of young people, both sexually and in regards to life in general.  The most obvious example of this is Luis’ antics around the school.  He wants to see the girls shower so badly, that he puts his life at risk to get an eyeful.  He plays boyfriend to some of the young ladies, but it’s with the seeming naiveté of a boy in the throes of puppy love.  This can be seen as a result of how his sexuality is repressed and twisted by his mother (he knows nothing about the physical act of sex, but he desires the bodies of the girls) as well as being an act of defiance (just covertly).  Another prominently defiant character is Catherine (Pauline Challoner) who openly flouts Fourneau’s authority, even though she knows the punishment that will be visited upon her.  Catherine’s actions are those of a self-discovery of her independence, no matter the cost.  And yet, this is not truly viewed as a positive in this cinematic world, more like the nail that sticks up getting hammered down.  Upon her arrival at the school, Theresa notices the signs of Luis following her (a knocked over plant, doors that are left ajar, and so on), and she approaches these with the natural inquisitiveness of a young person investigating the world with both wonder and trepidation (in the same way that she begins to investigate her sexuality).  Nevertheless, the discoveries that Theresa makes about sexuality in general are not ones that could be considered healthy.  Instead, she is shown only about how sex is used as a weapon, a tool, and about how the gaze of people falls on her and other young women without their consent or desire.  Inquisitiveness is not rewarded in this film; it is punished, with murder being arguably the worst of the sanctions.    
I think there are parallels to be drawn between this film and Serrador’s other feature length theatrical film, Who Can Kill a Child?, and the predominant of these lies in the mentality of children/young people that have been twisted and perverted by the actions of the adults around them.  These kids learn from the poor examples they have witnessed, but more than that, they take the lessons learned and go several steps further, turning things around on the adults in an augmented, disproportionately appropriate fashion.  In this sense, both of these movies are in the vein of “as you sow, so shall you reap” morality tales.  Even with our sympathies lying with the kids, however, their actions are still terrifying.  After all, these are monsters that we, that adults, created.  And they are worse than us.

MVT:  The creeping, skanky, gothic atmosphere of the film maintains interest, even during the more talkative sections, and it aids greatly in delivering some powerful moments throughout.

Make or Break:  The first onscreen murder is expertly handled in every way from the moment the killer’s black figure pops up into frame, the use of dissolves, and the lyrical piano score to the fantastic final sonic effect of a record (like a life) winding down.

Score:  7/10 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Inseminoid (1981)


Some random thoughts/quandaries/gripes for you today.  Why is there never a poster or picture frame manufactured in the size that I need (you would think they would understand that some prints are not  “standard” size; of course, this also helps keep framers in business, but still…)?  Why does Hollywood keep insisting on using CG for absolutely everything, even though it certainly hasn’t driven production costs down and nine-out-of-ten times looks like garbage?  Are “goth” kids the new preppies?  I am horrible at choosing gifts for people.  Horrible.  The reason I don’t have my dream job is because I have too many things I love, none of which I have ever successfully monetized (you’re reading one of them now).  I wonder what will happen to my collection of comics and magazines after I’m dead?  Would they even be worth the price of the paper they’re printed on?  Why couldn’t I have been born rich instead of so good-looking?  Why do people think that walking directly out in front of my car will make it instantly stop?  As a side note, are there more people out there with bodies as dense and tough as steel than I thought?  Are Wal-Marts nexuses of surreal freakishness which are slowly expanding outward in concentric circles, like a rock chucked into a sea of primordial soup (that some jerk dipped his nuts in)?  Why do people enjoy watching “reality shows” that have the same exact “story” and the same exact interactions every single week (and this is coming from someone who has a close relationship with formulaic storytelling)?  

Why all this scattershot navel-gazing in this week’s intro?  Well, because Norman J Warren’s Inseminoid (aka Horror Planet) is a film loaded to the gills with random idiocy.  To wit: Dean (Dominic Jephcott) picks up some weird crystals by hand without using tongs or anything.  The love scene between Mark (Robin Clarke) and Sandy (Judy Geeson) involves them getting naked and hugging while standing upright.  Documentation Officer, Kate (Stephanie Beacham) interviews various crew members like she were a cub reporter (microcassette recorder and all).  She also has no compunction about killing her colleagues when it’s deemed necessary and then kicking back in her underwear while listening to her jams (maybe it’s whale songs or somesuch; who knows?) on her large earphones.  The most expedient way to deal with the major problem at hand is determined to be killing Sandy with explosives.  Doctor Karl (Barrie Houghton) doesn’t want to kill Sandy because she’s pregnant (something about which Mark seemingly has no opinion whatsoever, even though he has no clue whether he’s the father or not).  The crew watches Gail (Rosalind Lloyd) kill herself by opening up her space suit helmet and trying to saw off her leg rather than any of them donning a suit and going out to, you know, help her or something.  Holly (Jennifer Ashley) wields the intimidating “touch burner” (basically a tack welder… in space!) right next to Karl’s head as he wrestles with Sandy (surely, nothing could go wrong here).  You can accuse this film of being dumb (and, let’s face it, it is), but it’s dumb in such arbitrary ways, it creates a certain charm that makes it enjoyable.

The idea of monstrous impregnation rears its head in Inseminoid, and while this is a wholly unoriginal idea (see The Beast Within, Rosemary’s Baby, Demon Seed, ad nauseum), it clearly comes directly from Alien’s face hugger concept.  It does, however, have a couple of twists to it that make it seem a little fresher than it actually may be.  The impregnation process is both creepy and clinical in its depiction.  Sandy is strapped naked to a glowing (metal?) disco table.  The alien inserts his (glass?) penis-thing into her, and we watch as its eggs flow down the tube and into Sandy.  This plays simultaneously on the fear of rape and the fear of medical procedures, which are equivocated here as being invasive and assaultive.  Further, this pregnancy changes Sandy fundamentally, something that many films utilizing this plot point don’t do (they usually deal more with the human angle of the mother dealing melodramatically with the tragic circumstances in which she finds herself, and in Ridley Scott’s film, Kane [John Hurt] doesn’t even know something is wrong until it suddenly, violently, is).  She goes from being a mild-mannered non-entity (in a film whose every character is a non-entity) to a murderous, ghoulish non-entity (she eats a victim to feed her babies).  This riffs on some of the old wives’ tales that revolve around pregnancy, as well as amplifying some of the actualities.  For example, the changes in hormones that come with being pregnant can cause mood swings and/or odd cravings (entrails, for example).  Likewise, there is the myth that female infants steal their mother’s looks (Geeson distorts her face and gurns constantly, and her bulging green eyes are heavily emphasized).  These changes to Sandy can also be viewed as the intensification of a mother’s protective instincts toward her unborn children as well as phobias about the “other” growing in her womb.  Sure, she goes crazy and starts killing off cast members all willy-nilly, but she does it to keep her spawn safe while being equally terrified of what’s transpiring to her body. 

One intriguing aspect of the film which is almost entirely abandoned after being initially brought up is the idea of twins and myths.  The space crew are archaeologists excavating an alien planet, and some of the space hieroglyphics discovered tell, according to linguist (?) Mitch (Trevor Thomas), of mythical twins who once ruled the planet.  It’s postulated that this fixation may have come from the planet’s dual suns.  It’s also speculated that the planet’s previous inhabitants were self-destructive (of course, this is solely put out there to play into the film’s horror narrative).  But the idea of twins goes totally unexplored, until the twin aliens are born in the film’s third act (you can view their conception as occurring between a god and a mortal, a scenario with which mythology is rife).  There is no depth given to what could have been a complex (without being complicated) concept of duality.  These two are not Romulus and Remus.  They are not Cassandra and Helenus.  Hell, they’re not even Tomax and Xamot.  Inseminoid’s xeno-babies are strictly used like the infants from the It’s Alive series (and please don’t ever confuse the Larry Cohen film with the identically-titled Larry Buchanan film in that regard, because they are worlds apart), but even in the latter movies the creatures had a modicum of personality.  Sandy’s children are gruesome, vicious hand puppets that are in the film for exactly three reasons.  One, they embody the fears of motherhood.  Two, they give the film an un-shocking “shock” ending.  And three, they raise the body count by a couple of corpses.  In a film which is simple to the point of being simplistic, you really can’t expect much more, though, can you?

MVT:  Inseminoid has a sleazy, eerie atmosphere about it that augments its bleak outlook.  It also looks damned slick for a film made on a shoestring.

Make or Break:  As obvious (and mayhap just a bit crass) as it may be to name it, the Make on this one is the alien rape/impregnation scene.  It’s visually striking while still being pretty freaky in its own right.

Score:  6.75/10 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Blood Beach (1981)

**Here There Be SPOILERS**

The Beach Bum is a cinematic protagonist which is, I believe, uniquely American as well as being, sadly or not, no longer seen all that much these days.  This is the guy whose whole life revolves around being ultra-casual (almost hippie-esque) and spending as much time just kicking it around the beach (in between battling monsters or somesuch), picking up chicks, and generally being as useless as is humanly possible.  Sure, there are lazy character types in other countries, but the sun and surf world of the Beach Bum belongs exclusively to the United States, because it has a flavor specific to our coasts (though generally associated more with the West Coast than the East, I feel).  What the Beach Bum’s role is, outside of catching some rays (and even occasionally spouting “sage wisdom”), is to be wish fulfillment for the audience.  The Beach Bum has the life people want in a place many people only get to visit on vacations (or weekends), even while they kind of resent him for not only being able to live this way but also for taking advantage of the situation to its maximum potential (which none of us would surely do if placed in the same position).  As the catalytic Ruth (Harriet Medin) states to Harbor Patrol cop Harry (David Huffman) in Jeffrey Bloom’s Blood Beach, he’s the only person she knows who literally swims to work.  For Harry, every day is a perfect, sunny, balmy day in California.  It just sucks that a monster under the sand had to show up and bum out this Beach Bum’s life.

After the aforementioned Ruth goes missing, Harry kinda sorta teams up with the levelheaded Lieutenant Piantadosi (The Clones Otis Young) and the gruffly plainspoken Sergeant Royko (the unrelated Burt Young) to solve the mystery.  Ruth’s daughter Catherine (Messiah of Evil’s Marianna Hill), who also just so happens to be one of Harry’s (many, I’m sure) exes, shows up to throw a total monkey wrench into Harry’s love life (but not really).  Meanwhile, the likelihood that the perpetrator of these recent murders and mutilations is not human becomes more and more evident (actually, it’s evident after the second, very public, attack).

In case it’s not clear from the film’s advertising campaign (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water – you can’t get to it,” a line repeated verbatim by the casually hardassed Captain Pearson [John Saxon]), its setting, its protagonist, and its attacks which don’t show the creature, Blood Beach is a JAWS clone that strains itself to the breaking point trying to come up with a different enough angle to not incur litigation.  Be that as it may, the film does manage to be its own thing, despite its disparate elements (romantic melodrama, monster movie, police procedural, et cetera).  It’s just that the thing it manages to be isn’t all that great.  Don’t misunderstand; I enjoy Blood Beach for what it is, and, I will admit, for the massive nostalgia I feel for films constructed like it (as well as for the remembrances of family vacations to the seashore it evokes; a place I haven’t been to for years now), but I can certainly understand any vitriol it garners.  

The film relies heavily on what Roger Ebert dubbed an Idiot Plot (“Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots”).  Even after sunbathers have been attacked while covered in sand and in full view of a crowd, there is still the speculation that the murderer may be human.  Further to this, not only do people still go to this beach (it’s “still the best beach” according to one Beach Bunny [the female equivalent of the Beach Bum] whose friend was attacked), but it takes forever for officials to close the beach (this takes place offscreen and is handled in an offhand bit of dialogue; we’re never shown the beach with no one on it, likely because the filmmakers could never get people to stay off the beach long enough to shoot it).  It’s never stated or even hypothesized on exactly how this massive creature moves under the sand; it just does.  It takes an unlikely amount of time for Harry to pipe up about a probable locale for the monster’s lair.  The film uses these dumb leaps of logic to bolster up its horror film plot with some shaky supports, while focusing far more on the uninteresting, borderline creepy relationship between Harry and Catherine.

Which brings me to my specious theorizing on the actual role of the film’s monster.  Outside of its being a kind of punishment from the past visited on the contemporary, self-indulgent lifestyle embodied by beachgoers (it lives under an old, abandoned amusement pier; Doctor Dimitrios [Stefan Gierasch], who never met a conclusion he couldn’t leap to, posits that it may be a creature in a state of evolution, moving from sea [the birthplace of life on Earth] to land; its stalking ground is very specifically tied to people’s recreation and a certain cult of vanity [bikini babes and hardbodied boys and so forth]), the beast in Blood Beach appears to have a much more singular purpose to its existence.  It is, one could argue, a monstrous matchmaker.  Everything it does is designed to bring Harry and Catherine together.  Its lair is a place the two used to hang out at in their youth (another callback to the idea of the past).  The monster never attacks Harry (who, if you recall, walks down the beach to get to the ocean every single morning) or Catherine (who is more menaced by grungy bag lady Mrs. Selden [Eleanor Zee], who also lives under the dilapidated pier and is another symbol for a past which has been forsaken, than anything else).  The monster kills Catherine’s mother, Catherine’s mother’s dog (whose death scene is intriguingly intercut with a sex scene between Harry and Marie ([Lena Pousette], Harry’s stewardess semi-girlfriend who also gets killed by the monster, linking the two, foreshadowing Marie’s fate, and painting Harry in a somewhat unflattering light [because he’s enjoying sex while a dog is being slaughtered right outside his place]; though it’s not totally surprising an editorial decision, since the film was co-produced by Sir Run Shaw who never had a problem combining sex and violence in many of his films under the legendary Shaw Bros banner [a fact borne out again later on in the film]), and anyone who may possibly stand between Harry and Catherine hooking up.  In fact, Marie’s demise, more than anything else, leads directly to the union between Harry and Catherine.  Not thinking for one second that Marie’s not showing up at his place may be a cause for concern (because she’s stood him up before he claims, and thus adds another notch to the film’s Idiot Plot belt), Harry shows up at Catherine’s with the wine and food he was going to have with Marie.  Because Catherine’s marriage is on its way toward divorce, and her estranged husband didn’t come back home with her, there are no other obstacles in her life to keep Catherine away.  I’m almost surprised that there was never a television series teaming the monster and Harry up as moonlighting matchmakers.  Hollywood, make it happen.

MVT:  Even though I love cheesy monster effects (and the monster in Blood Beach is exceedingly cheesy), Burt Young’s coarse, Chicago-loving Royko steals the show in more ways than one.

Make or Break:  There’s a scene involving superfluous secondary character Hoagy’s (Darrell Fetty) girlfriend (Marleta Giles) which is both very satisfying and very ridiculous simultaneously.

Score:  6.25/10