Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mutant War (1987)

So anyway, the world has gone to shit yet again, and guys like our protagonist Harry Trent (Matt Mitler) are left to sift through the rubble.  Only problem is the rubble is positively festooned with old magazines (many of which Harry has already read), old bottles of Seagram’s Seven (which he really should have at least wiped the lip of before taking a pull or ten), and giant monsters (hooray!).  After saving young waif Spider (Kristine Waterman) from a “Mook,” Harry decides to help her rescue her sisters from the villainous Reinhart Rex (Cameron Mitchell, earning every penny of his paycheck) and his army of mutants.

Brett Piper’s Mutant War (aka Mutant Men Want Pretty Women) follows the boilerplate postapocalyptic narrative, but it has enough of a sense of humor to make it mildly charming.  Harry is the classic loner character.  He has himself, his harmonica, and his car (replete with a heavy laser gun).  He wastes his time reviewing  the ruins of a world in which he used to take part.  He subsists on the road, with nothing better to do than do nothing.  He also doesn’t want to get involved with humanity anymore.  His worldview has become one of aloof apathy.  And yet, he does get involved when he sees Spider in danger, because his indifference is a façade.  He wants to believe that he’s only out for number one, but he actually desires contact with other people, he desires something more than the cold artifacts of a bygone civilization.  Harry becomes the de facto leader of a ragtag crew of people who have formed themselves into villages, because his time alone has given him an edge they don’t possess.  They only want to live peacefully; Harry knows this is impossible.  He brings the reality of the situation into focus for them, and they, in turn, provide Harry with a sense of purpose.  After all, purpose doesn’t really exist without other people to give it to you.  This is Spider’s role.  She gives Harry a mission, and in this mission she also gives Harry the revelation that he needs to be an active participant in this postapocalyptic world.  She reconnects him to the world.  She also, by dint of her youthful pluck and naiveté, gives Harry a surrogate family to take care of.  He cautions her not to siphon gas with your mouth, even though he’s doing so right in front of her (“It can kill you”).  After Spider is poisoned by a mutant, Harry stays closeby overnight to watch over her as she fights off the infection.  He hugs her and refers to her as “my kid” more than once.  Harry is the quintessential lone gunfighter who trots into town, makes a connection, changes the lives of the people he contacts for the better (mostly), and then trots off (just with more hugging).  But the connection he makes will stay with him, as well.

Another thing the film deals with is the past (as all postapocalyptic films do; they are typically concerned as much with re-establishing the civilizations destroyed in whatever nuclear war/biological outbreak/natural disaster occurred as they are with seeing what those civilizations devolved into after the fall of society).  The filmmakers use voiceover narration for Harry’s inner monologue, and it’s in the style of a hardboiled detective novel; edged, stoic, and weary.  His favorite quote from his favorite book is, “You don’t know me, without you have read my memoirs,” which, as near as I can tell, is actually a paraphrasing of the opening line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (not exactly Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, but what can you do?).  He clings to relics of the past: his car, his harmonica, old magazines, old booze, et cetera.  He mumbles to himself like Popeye.  For as much as he is forced to survive in his current circumstances, he is preoccupied by the way things were.

More than this, the film contains notions about guilt stemming from the sins of the past.  The whole reason the world fell into ruin in the first place is because of a war between humanity and a bunch of “pig-faced” aliens.  But it’s not the war itself that caused the widespread devastation, it’s what the humans did to end it that did.  They created a new weapon, Neutron Ninety bombs, that defeated the aliens but also took mankind with it.  Harry was a soldier in the war, and this reputation gives him a certain notoriety for which he doesn’t particularly care.  He has a combination of survivor’s guilt as well as guilt over his part in the calamity that destroyed the planet.  At least in part, Harry distances himself from other people because that’s his punishment on himself.  His relationship with Spider (someone we can assume, by her youth, wasn’t alive at the time of the war, or, if she were, has no conscious idea of the world as it was, and thus, makes her an innocent in the proceedings) absolves him slightly of this guilt.

As for the film itself, it’s impressive for something made on about sixty grand.  Piper tries to keep things visually interesting, and the effort is appreciated.  This is bolstered by the use of matte paintings for backgrounds, the angles of which make for some nice compositions.  They also provide a nice stylistic touch in their flatness (whether this was intentional or not, I don’t know, but I liked it).  There is also the differentiation of styles for different perspectives.  When Harry looks through his spyglass, we get his view as an iris, but what we see is various moments edited together with an odd grain to them (I can’t say if this was from the video’s source, but again, I liked it).  An alien moves around his spaceship’s interior, and we get the view from his perspective with heavy red filtering and handheld camera work.  Later, this same alien meets some humans, and we get his POV once more, but now it’s more pixelated, as if frames were dropped out on purpose.  This perspective also uses a doubling of what he sees with his electric eye in a separate, red-tinted inset frame.  The special effects run the gamut from miniature work to makeup effects to forced perspective shots to stop motion monsters, and I loved it all.  The story moves along well enough, though it does sag and go into some nonsensical territory occasionally (Mitchell goes at the material like a Renaissance Faire Henry VIII with a giant turkey leg).  It also leans into mawkishness more than it should, but its handmade enthusiasm overcomes many of its weaker aspects.  Not shabby for an ambitious director’s third effort.

MVT:  The practical effects nerd in me has to give it to the effects.  I have to admit, I was overjoyed when I saw that some of the creatures were done with stop motion techniques.

Make or Break:  The scene with the alien selling munitions to the humans was great, not only in that it affirms that an extraterrestrial’s costume can include a plain white tee shirt, but also in that it has several humorous moments that actually work quite well.

Score:  6.5/10

Monday, April 25, 2016

Samurai Fiction (1998)

Directed by: Hiroyuki Nakano
Run time: 111 minutes

This is not the usual feudal Japanese samurai movie.It has samurai, yakuza, political intrigue, ninjas, and people getting killed with stylized sword fighting. However, it the tone of the movie is far from a roaring revenge and bloody destruction samurai film. Instead, few people with katanas (samurai swords) are actually good at fighting with them and the movie spends more time preaching it's message and showing a slice of life in seventeenth century Japan.

The movie follows Heishiro, a son of clan counselor and a complete and utter tool.  After the accidental theft of sword given by the ruling family,  Heishiro and his friends decide to chase after the thief and return the sword.  The fact the three of them are know locally as the three stooges does not deter them from this quest. Heishiro's father sends some ninjas as well after the thief so there some competent adults involved as well.

Heishiro and his friends catch up quickly with Rannosuke and learn the hard way that they are no match for Rannosuke. Heishiro and one of his friends only end up being injured in their ill advised fight.  The other friend who had an arranged marriage to look forward to was even less lucky and was out right killed. Heishiro and the remaining friend would have finished off but a ronin (unemployed samurai) called Hanbei intervenes and stops Rannosuke's attack without drawing his sword.

Heishiro is taken to Hanbei's home to heal from his wounds. While there Hanbei tries to impress upon Heishiro the importance of not killing Rannosuke. In a village not too far away  Rannosuke made himself useful to a yakuza gaming parlor. But is finding that being the baddest swordsman in a one horse town is far from what he desires. Also, his confidence in his skill were shaken when Hanbei was able to fight him to a draw without pulling his sword. This doubting of his skills leads Rannosuke to seek out Hanbei to force a duel and resolution.

 The movie itself is beautifully shot and uses the minimal use of colour to impressive effect. The soundtrack is equally impressive. The plot has a tendency to wander quite a bit. It will go along with it's story and it's message of needless leads to suffering for a few minutes and then wanders off to show slice of life feudal Japan. It can be jarring and it took me out of the film a couple of times. Also, the humour does not always translate over to english very well. So there are scenes that are meant to be humourous but if you lack the necessary cultural background the joke just doesn't work.

Overall it is a recommended watch if you want to see Japanese cinematic art that is filmed depicting the seventeenth century.

MVT:  I liked Tomoyasu Hotei's soundtrack for this film. He also did some of the music for Kill Bill and I love the hell out of that soundtrack as well. Yes I am a fan boy.

Make or Break: The humour in the film is very dependent on the viewer's knowledge of Japanese culture. At points in the movie Heishiro gets a nosebleed every time he spends anytime with Hanbei's daughter. If you aren't aware of the Japanese belief that nosebleeds are a sign of sexual arousal it makes no sense why the shot lingers so long on his nosebleed.  

Score: 6.5 out of 10

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cruel Jaws (1995)

People get really bent out of shape over movie remakes, especially these days.  Every time a remake is even rumored, the internet practically explodes with people bitching and moaning about how it’s going to suck and about how this is “raping their childhood” (a gripe as invalid as it is overblown).  Personally, I’m of two minds on the subject.  On the one hand, I understand some of the complaints, primarily as they relate to the dearth of ideas in Hollywood.  I would love to see more original material developed, see new characters and franchises for us to love as much as those of the past (and let’s be honest, most of this grousing comes from nostalgia).  That studio execs just don’t get it is frustrating (in much the same way that the thinking that the higher an action film’s budget is, the better a film it is, which is not only patently false but also distressing for how many low- to mid- budget films they could produce with that same money; but this shit makes billions, and money talks).  

Do I feel that a remake of Escape from New York is warranted (and I won’t even touch subjects like the recasting of characters with actors of different races, genders, et cetera here)?  No, but I also have the option of ignoring it and any of the changes it makes to Carpenter’s original.  That’s something that people just don’t seem to get; speak with your dollars.  If you don’t want to see any of these profligate reboots, don’t pay to see them.  Don’t watch them at all.  But more importantly, don’t whinge on endlessly about how offended you are by them.  There’s nothing wrong with voicing your disapproval, but it’s unnecessary and, frankly, boorish to carry on the way many folks do.  And that’s the other side of my thinking.  I have no problems with stating that I’m disinterested in a particular remake, but I don’t dwell on it and overreact about it as if any of this has any concrete impact on the course of my life or the turning of the Earth.  If anything, one of my biggest quibbles anymore is that I now have to clarify which version of a film I’m talking about, and this is becoming more and more frequent.  But it doesn’t kill my love for any of the originals, and I can always go back and watch them instead of a remake.  Try it sometime.  You might find yourself a little happier for it (or at least a little less bitter).

A group of Cuban salvage divers scope out the wreck of the USS Cleveland looking to haul up some major booty.  Of course, there’s a massive shark down there who kills them all.  Cut to: marine biologist Billy (Gregg Hood) and girlfriend Vanessa (Norma J Nesheim), who arrive in Hampton Bay, Florida for vacation (including “disco dancing ‘til dawn,” and this is in 1995, folks).  Visiting pal Dag Sorensen (Richard Dew, who will forever be viewed as a poor man’s Hulk Hogan lookalike) and his family at their little aquarium, Billy becomes enmeshed in Dag’s struggle against greedy land developer Sam Lewis (George Barnes Jr) as well as local sheriff Francis’ (David Luther) quest to rid his waters of this “anomalous” man-eater.

Bruno Mattei’s (hiding out under the William Snyder nom de guerre) Cruel Jaws (aka The Beast aka Jaws 5) is an amazing thing to behold.  Don’t misunderstand, this is as incompetent a film as Mattei has ever turned out (possibly moreso).  The editing is confusing, even when it’s not being used to attempt to fool us into thinking that the shark attack scenes are in any way exciting.  For instance, Francis goes to talk to Mayor Godfrey (who looks like a cross between Trace Beaulieu and the frantic television station manager at the beginning of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) and Sam (why Sam is there at all is anyone’s guess) about closing the beaches, and in the middle of their conversation, they go from standing around Godfrey’s office to standing on a balcony outside.  This particular technique has been used before in many good films, but here it makes no sense.  Their conversation isn’t long enough or in-depth enough to believe that they would continue it outside and at a locale which also gives the impression that these are just bros hanging out (which they’re not).  Some of the shots in the film don’t even give us actual visuals in any sort of continuity (and it’s not as if this is some type of art film…or maybe it is?); they’re just cuts to something and then cut away from.  It’s a hatchet job.

In the grand tradition of Italian genre filmmaking, we also get the inclusion of odd bits of business which we’re supposed to believe are A) of any importance to the story and B) not dumb (often simultaneously).  The perfect example of this is the subplot of Dag’s paraplegic daughter Susie (Kirsten Urso).  She swims with the dolphins at the aquarium and even has a pet seal.  Her aquatic antics are set to the most rodeo-clown-esque, slide-whistle-abusing, offputting music imaginable.  Otherwise, she passes comments about punching sharks which are meant to be cute and endearing.  They’re not, and she’s not.  We also have the subplot of Sam’s douche bag son Ronnie (Carter Collins, a dime store Nick Cassavetes if ever there was one), getting enraged, trying to poison Susie’s dolphins, and generally being an asshole.  There’s the subplot of Dag’s son Bob (Scott Silveria) and Sam’s daughter Gloria (Natasha Etzer) falling in love and emoting in some of the most baldfaced dialogue ever written.  And the capper is the inclusion of Sam’s Italian “business partners” from New York, who come to us by way of Central Casting.  One of the more intriguing elements of the film is the inclusion of Glenda (Sky Palma), a bleached blonde insane woman who just wants to party (including, but not limited to, kneeing a friend in the balls while dancing with him; Jocularity!) and kill sharks.  Does all of this seem like a lot to include in a movie ostensibly about a large fish terrorizing a small coastal town?  You bet.  In fact, the shark and its entire plot barely get any screen time until about the last third.  Consequently, Cruel Jaws is a meandering slog to get through, even after everyone and their brother decide to take a swing at the shark (an editorial decision that only makes the film feel longer than it is), and this kills what dipshitty enjoyment I got from the first third, because it took me that long to realize that this thing was just film being passed through a camera. 

Of course, no conversation about this film can take place without mention of its stunning appropriation of not only the footage from several Jaws films (as well as some from L’ultimo Squalo and Deep Blood, as I’ve read) but also their plot points and even their dialogue.  In fact, most of my notes on this thing are just notations of moments stolen from that other franchise.  Witness: Gloria taunts Bob with the line, “Do you always do what your dad tells you to do?” (Jaws 2).  Billy expounds about how all sharks do is “swim, eat, and make baby sharks” (Jaws).  Francis says that their shark is “a perfect machine” (Jaws).  There is the prank played on a couple necking in the water by their pals, which involves a megaphone and the impersonation of authority figures (Jaws 3D).  A character inexplicably lifts an open can of gas over their head just before the idiot next to them fires off a flare gun, causing their boat to explode (Jaws 2).  These are just a few instances in a film positively littered with direct lifts.  The filmmakers throw in some horse shit about the origin of the shark (which, incidentally, is a tiger shark, not a great white, but even this is taken from the original Jaws and its famous “A whaaat?” scene), but no matter which way you cut it, Cruel Jaws is a hot mess trying to disguise itself as a movie in much the same way that the Land Shark from the classic Saturday Night Live skit tried to disguise itself as a plumber.  

MVT:  For all its deficiencies, I did enjoy watching Glenda be unhinged and eat up every shred of scenery around her.  It doesn’t hurt any that Palma’s pretty cute.

Make or Break:  The Break for me was the moment Susie showed up aqua-dancing with her dolphin friends.  I knew at that point that she was going to be cloyingly saccharine and involved in way more of the film than she should be.

Score:  5.75/10

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Crystalbrain (1970)

Sir Cliffton Reynolds (or maybe Reynold Cliffton according to the subtitles I had, but either way he’s played by Eduardo Fajardo) is a London judge plagued with intense headaches of late.  Dr. Chalmers (Frank Wolff) tells Cliff that he has about six months left to live, but the good doctor also has a possible solution.  Chalmers suggests that what Cliff needs is a new brain, comparing his proposed procedure to the transplanting of primate hearts into humans.  Cue Ginetto Lamberti (Simón Andreu), a working man who currently lies dying in the street, but whose brain is in perfect (this is subjective) working order.  But will this transplant prove to be a transmigration of Ginetto’s soul, or just an excuse for Cliff to go insane?

Juan Logar’s Crystalbrain (aka L’uomo Dal Cervello Di Cristallo aka Trasplante De Un Cerebro) is an amalgamation of genres.  It owes as much to gialli as it does to science fiction, as it does to psychothrillers, as it does to horror.  What it harks back specifically to, however, is the classic The Hands of Orlac and its profligate progeny.  The earlier story concerns a pianist who has the hands of a murderer grafted onto his arms, and the “influence” the hands begin to exert on his psyche.  This conceit, that a foreign body part introduced onto/into a “normal” person having a deleterious effect, is an intriguing one.  It plays both as a straight horror paradigm and as an investigation of pure human nature.  Most people like to think that they are, at heart, good.  But what if you were given an excuse to unleash your id, to behave in a way antithetical to your public personality?  Characters in these types of stories believe so deeply that their transplants have power, they allow their personae to transform, and rarely for the better.  Their darkest aspects rise to the forefront.  Many times, they become obsessed with discovering why their transplant died or with taking revenge on those who killed them.  Who, then, is the true personality?  The one who existed before the operation or the one who was created afterward?  Was one just masking the other?  Cliff appears to be a decent person before his procedure.  He believes that “justice balances right and wrong.”  He loves his wife Susan (Nuria Torray) and his brother Peter (Angel del Pozo).  While he doesn’t turn evil after the transplant, Cliff certainly becomes more than a little unhinged.  One way to look at the ensuing events in his life is that his sense of morality intensifies and drives him to find closure in the name of Ginetto by appropriating the Italian fisherman’s psyche.

In this same way, there is the notion that transplants actually do have power over the transplantee.  In these cases, the fantastic element raises issues of identity and loss of same, perhaps even more than looking at it through a purely psychological lens.  The introduction of organs not our own suggests an invasion of our body (in fact, that’s exactly what it is), an attack on who we are.  The invader is usually malignant in nature and more powerful than the host body.  The transplant typically proceeds in wreaking havoc on the transplantee’s life and loved ones, and there is nothing the weaker of the two can do because, through the process of the transplant, they are, by definition, no longer wholly themselves.  Their identity is no longer their own because their bodies are no longer their own, strictly speaking.  In Crystalbrain, this idea is a bit easier to believe because the human brain is the whole of our conscious being.  Our hands may be adept at a certain skill, but that’s because our mind has trained them to be so.  Naturally, this trope also implies in some way that muscle memory goes further than being the unconscious ability to perform constantly repeated tasks.  Here, pieces of the donor contain the active personality (or aspects of the personality) of the donor.  The transplantee, being in a weakened state, is possessed through these parts.  It’s a bit like The Thing in that every piece of a donor contains the whole of him/herself.  

We, as an audience, may or may not buy any of this under normal circumstances.  A hand or a kidney is truly nothing more than a machine (or a part of a machine) without a power source.  Nonetheless, the big question that comes up in this film is how does Chalmers not consider that Cliff’s personality would be completely changed by his operation?  When questioned about this (“Do you think it’s morally responsible to destroy a soul to heal a body?”), he simply states that doctors have to stave off death whenever they can.  But he’s not saving Cliff’s life.  If anything, he’s saving Ginetto’s life by giving him Cliff’s body.  What the hell kind of medical professional do you have to be to not understand that?  The only way to explain it is that Chalmers believes that our psyche (or here, our “soul”) resides in our whole body, not just in our skulls (and he’s supposedly a man of science).  Frankly, he never should have been given a medical license, but what can you do?  

Logar and company deal with the disparate personalities of Cliff and Ginetto in a stylistically interesting way.  During Cliff’s surgery, he flashes back to the many people on whom he has passed judgment, and they each appear in double exposure alongside Cliff as he pronounces sentence.  They are voiceless; Cliff is in power, and his sense of justice is secure.  Later, when Cliff visits the cemetery where Ginetto’s body is buried, he envisions a series of people who are directly in his and Ginetto’s lives (Chalmers, Susan, Ginetto himself, et cetera), again in double exposure, and they all call out to him.  They are now tormenting Cliff.  He is no longer in control of his life or his being, but justice must still be served.  The duality of Cliff and Ginetto is tied together in this simple way, and I felt it was fairly successful.  

The editing of the film is also fragmented.  Time and space change in a heartbeat with little to no establishment of what’s going on or when these events take place.  Like the Crystalbrain of the title, not only is Cliff’s mind fragile, ready to be shattered, but the cinematic world these characters inhabit is equally splintered.  It’s an off-kilter approach, and it reflects what Cliff is going through.  He’s uncertain of who he is (right up until he’s certain, yet even then…).  His mind is unreliable, and the film’s construction is equally untrustworthy (although, as with so many foreign films of this ilk and time period, we can’t be completely certain how many editors’ hands this passed through), forcing us to fill in blanks and play catch up; essentially placing us in the protagonist’s shoes to some small degree or another.  Admittedly, the film is headscratching in its logic, and Cliff acts in a manner easy to disbelieve, even with all that’s happening to him.  It treats its supporting characters like props more than people, and I think this robs the film of the impact it may have had.  Even at eighty-five minutes, the story is not particularly well-paced, either.  And yet, it stands out among its peers, even if only as a curiosity rather than a revelation.

MVT:  The approach to the narrative is distinctive and interesting, and I would guess that the filmmakers at least tried to tell their story in a unique fashion.

Make or Break:  The scene in the cemetery, where Cliff (or Ginetto, depending on your perspective) hallucinates (or does he?).

Score:  6.5/10