Friday, November 17, 2017

The Wasp Woman (1995)

Directed by: Jim Wynors
Run Time: 84 minutes

Today's review is a remake of  Roger Corman's 1959 The Wasp Woman. Thought the lord of low budget B movies produced this one instead directing , it still has all the cheese one can expect of a B movie. Without further padding on to the review.

The story centers around Janice (Jennifer Rubin), a woman that created a successful cosmetics company, is the CEO of the company she made, and is the model of the product line. However declining sales and nervous investors are forcing her just to step down from being the company's model. Though not all hope is lost as Dr. Zinthorp has a plot convenient solution to Janice's age issue. Dr. Zinthorp, a disgraced medical researcher, has made a breakthrough in anti-aging by sciencing the  hell out of wasp stuff. He also is running low on research funds and is clueless on how to sell the research he has done so far.

This becomes painfully obvious when Janice meets Dr. Zinthorp in person and all he has as a presentation is a lot science jargon and no test results. Not wanting the next big thing in anti-aging to slip through her fingers Janice has Zinthorp test his serum on his cat. A few days later the cat reverts to a kitten and Janice wants to move to testing this serum on herself. A move that has nothing to do with the new young model that was hired to replace Janice. The doctor starts with a small dose to start the human testing phase of this serum. Though Janice may experience feelings of paranoia and have random hallucinations it will make her look younger in two or three months.

Playing it safe is not something Janice is willing to do and sneaks back into lab to increase her dosage.  This does have the effect of making her look like she is in her late twenties. It also makes her think that her boyfriend is romantically involved with other women and that she is turning into a human wasp monster. Back at Dr. Zinthorp's lab, the test kitty has mutated into a killer wasp cat. This monster cat then lures and kill Dr. Zinthorp in a near by service tunnel. Then is promptly forgotten.

Things get worse for Janice as well. Her paranoia has gone from annoying to dialed past eleven. She also starts seducing men that called her old, trying to destroy her business, and who betrayed her trust. This leads to her turning into a human wasp monster with bad nineties CGI effects. Followed by tame but horrific murder of the people in question. The third act see Janice sort of embracing her monstrous nature and forcing a final conflict between herself and the few surviving people left in her life.

At of the end of the day it's fun cheesy monster movie made for cable. Because it was made in the nineties for cable so there is more nudity and the killing is more graphic than the 1959 edition. There is not a lot to this movie outside of it being a fun monster movie. It's a fun movie if there is nothing on, the weather outside is crappy, or you can't sleep. If it shows up on cable or a streaming service give it a watch.

MVT: The monster suit is rather impressive for a low budget production like this.

Make or Break: Every time there was a office scene the background sound track included a nonstop ringing phone. At times it got on my nerves to the point I did yell out "Answer the fucking phone already."

Score: 5.9 out of 10


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Angel on Fire (1995)

Security just ain’t what it used to be.  Sure, technology has advanced to the point that you can lock your doors and view closed circuit video from your cellphone, but the actual strategy of how to go about securing things has gone nowhere.  Part of the reason, possibly, is that honest people don’t or can’t think like a criminal.  Yes, the basics, like locking downstairs windows and so forth, are common sense, and would likely deter a normal smash-and-grab guy or a crackhead looking for a quick score.  But what of the super criminal or professional thief who simply must get their hands on your mint, vintage Star Wars action figure collection?  Here’s a person for whom the challenge is the fun, the reward worth any risk.  Could you prevent such a mastermind from clambering down your chimney like a maleficent Santa Claus with a series of trip wires and snares?  Would you go so far as setting up a web of death-dealing lasers in your living room?  No, most of us wouldn’t, because that would just be too much of a hassle, and, as we so very often delude ourselves, it can never happen to me.  This must be the logic behind the Shaolin monastery’s security at the opening of Philip Ko’s Angel on Fire (aka Die Xue Rou Qing aka Born to Fight 6 aka Only the Strong Survive).  These monks have a relic apparently worth a king’s ransom, and they leave it laying out on a table for people like May (Melanie Marquez) to just waltz in and steal.  Surely, this is the ultimate argument for all Shaolin temples to have more death traps. 

Post-heist, May meets up with her partner Rocks (Philip Ko), but quickly betrays him and the Syndicate they both work for in order to keep all of the money from the sale of the relic for herself.  Inspector Lee (Waise Lee) sets his two best cops, Wong Li (Pan Pan Yeung) and Mai Lei (Cynthia Khan), on May’s tail.  Action ensues.
Angel on Fire is a film wholly and purely about a MacGuffin.  Not unlike the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly or the statue in The Maltese Falcon, everyone and their brother associated with the Underworld wants this thing, but none of them could probably tell you anything about it outside of its worth (which is also indeterminate).  Consequently, this makes May another MacGuffin, since she holds the relic, and everyone is searching for her like Waldo (she is much easier to spot).  The entire movie, then, is little more than a chase between various factions (the Syndicate, Tony’s [Lee Chun-Wa] gang, and Interpol [which itself is split into two groups who never confer with each other or work together, strangely enough adding a hint of verisimilitude to some ludicrous goings on]).  Every scene revolves around May showing up somewhere, being attacked/pursued, and ditching her assailants.  One might think that in the hands of a good director this could make for an exciting movie.  This film leaves us with the twin dilemma of believing that Ko is not that talented a director and that sometimes even simplicity still needs a bit more detail to be compelling.
May is not only an international super thief but also an international super model (what luck!).  On the surface, this is an interesting idea.  Here’s a woman for whom the glamour of super modeling isn’t enough.  Like a magpie, one of the only non-mammalian animals that can recognize itself in its own reflection, May sees herself reflected in her dual worlds, but those worlds are only a hair apart.  Both worlds require a give and take.  As a model, she gives her image for adulation (and it should be mentioned, we never see her do any modeling; I’m running with the surface concepts here).  As a thief, she gives her skills for a high monetary return.  Both callings also trade on May’s beauty, though, honestly, one of them really shouldn’t.  She is capable, I’m sure, of insinuating herself into certain places because of her physical charms.  Yet, one really has to question the efficacy of making oneself up like they’re just about to shoot a spread for Vogue when infiltrating a monastery (I am not against the thigh-high leather boots she sports, incidentally) or trying to hide from people who want you dead.  I would say that May hides in plain sight, but she makes no effort to hide at all.  I would like you to note how much of May’s capabilities it is left for the viewer to determine.  This is because Ko in no way capitalizes on this aspect of the character.  He simply uses Marquez as a good-looking antagonist, nothing more.  She struts across the screen and does some fighting, and that’s about it.
This wasted potential is the calling card of Angel on Fire in toto, and the reason for this waste has to do with the film’s ambition.  Ko and company set out to craft a wall-to-wall action film.  In fact, the last third of the movie is an extensive series of set piece sequences, including an airplane chase and a great many explosions.  This is all well and good, except for three things.  One, the way the film is shot and edited is sloppy at best.  It is not enough to just keep moving the camera and then cut it all together.  There needs to be a sense of geography and an action/reaction approach to the events onscreen.  Ko gets neither of these right with characters just throwing arms and legs or shooting guns.  There is no connection between these moments, so they’re just action images that keep repeating over and over again.  Even the hand-to-hand fights don’t tie together.  I constantly felt like I had missed just enough between cuts for none of this to match up properly.  Two, the characters are paper thin and uninteresting.  Obviously, we don’t need to know every want or need from these people to find their adventures compelling, but they should be more than just warm bodies.  Mai Lei and her cabbie friend Harry (Ronnie Ricketts) come closest to making this work.  Khan carries it off with her natural beauty and charm, and Harry is the most honest taxi driver in the world (of course, they’d make great partners!).  Third, and worst, is that the film has no story aside from the basic setup.  As I stated, the picture is only concerned with the MacGuffin, and that’s kind of opposite the entire point of a MacGuffin.  Thus, Angel on Fire is nothing other than a collection of scenes, with no development and no purpose besides action (which is not well-handled).  Wong Li is introduced early on then forgotten about for large swaths of the film, occasionally popping up to remind you that she exists (and that you don’t care whether she does or not).  For someone who is hiding out, May is incredibly easy for absolutely everyone to find.  Characters pop up, just because, as if they’re instant coffee spokespeople.  You can watch a collection of film stunts and come away with the same experience as this film.  And the collection of stunts would likely make more narrative sense.
MVT:  Cynthia Khan is cute as all get out.  So, there’s that.
Make or Break:  There is a cab chase which ends with one of the vehicles just breaking down.  This was around the point that my patience did the same.
Score:  4/10           

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Imp (1981)

Children can be a real handful.  I neither have nor want any, myself, and I suppose, to some people, this makes me a bad person.  It’s not that I don’t like kids (some would say that I act like one).  Some of them I get along with like gangbusters.  But in the main, I prefer them in small doses.  Cinema has done nothing to disparage this perspective.  For every Gordie Lachance, there’s one or more Clifford Danielses.  I think the problem lies in the fact that most screenwriters simply don’t quite get writing child characters.  This is funny, because at one point or another in life, we’ve all been one.  These characters tend to be either tooth-achingly sweet or misanthropically self-centered.  Even giving them a reason for their bad behavior doesn’t discount their actions.  Further, children are more often than not written to be little adults, unreasonably wise beyond their years, because, you know, making mud pies is beneath them (or, at the very least, makes for bad movie watching).  When kids are given supernatural powers, they get even worse, most especially when they’re already dead.  This is a mainstay of Asian ghost stories, where children who died horrible deaths come back to take vengeance on adults who didn’t even have anything to do with their demises.  Such is the case with Dennis Yu’s The Imp (aka Xiong Bang).

Keung (Charlie Chin) can’t get hired for anything.  It’s not that he doesn’t put in the effort.  The whole universe just seems to be against him.  With a baby on the way, he finally lands a job as a security guard in a large building complex.  But the titular entity has plans for Keung, his friends, and his family, and none of them are very good.

The Imp takes its horror concept and posits it in everyday life.  Keung and his wife Lan (Dorothy Yu) are low-income people struggling to make ends meet.  The pressure of their impending bundle of joy crushes down on them.  They are normal folks with real-world issues.  This is compounded by Keung’s inability to find work.  His familial responsibilities weigh heavily on him, but he keeps trying.  Chin does a great job of encompassing both the sad sack and Everyman aspects of his character.  At work, Keung is surrounded by character types, all of them just grounded enough to be believable.  Han (Chan Shen) is the elder of the group, the leader.  He’s an old hand and accepting of Keung.  Fatty (Kent Cheng) is, no surprise, the fat guy, but the film doesn’t define him by his weight, ironically enough.  He’s not some slob constantly stuffing food into his face.  These two are the most important in Keung’s story, because they are the ones most eager to help Keung out (Fatty even transports Lan to her pre-natal appointments).  Yet, Han considers firing Keung when the fatalities start piling up.  He’s not above letting superstition guide his actions, though his decisions may be in the best interest of all involved, save Keung.  The other two that we are introduced to, Ting (Hui Bing-Sam) and Mr. Hong Kong (Wong Ching), are more peripheral.  Ting is a bookworm with very little interaction with Keung.  Mr. Hong Kong is a bit of a boorish dolt who doesn’t really care for dogs.  Yu gives all of the characters just enough personality to distinguish one from another, and they are compelling enough to get us involved in their fates.  Even when all Hell breaks loose, the film maintains a certain sense of grounding.  This is a world where the supernatural reigns, but the characters still have to get up and go to work every day.

The mystical elements of the film focus strongly on predestination, especially as it pertains to the concept of Yin and Yang.  Keung was born under the strongest possible Yin signage (being both sinister and feminine, this points to not only Keung’s fate but also a character weakness that makes him a bit of a pushover).  Under the tutelage of Master Chiu (Yueh Hua), a Taoist (?) priest, Keung attempts to defy his destiny.  They post amulets in places of power, they fix the Feng Shui in Keung’s apartment, and so on.  But the ghost always comes out on top.  There is a sense of desperation at play in the film, even when the characters are going through a ceremony that they believe has to work.  It’s this struggle to thwart fate which drives the horror of the film.  The characters believe in the use of magic to aid their cause, and the film accepts that these things exist.  Yet, it never goes so far as making them feel outlandish.  They’re simply another component of this world.  

Yu and company take their story very seriously.  There is little to no humor in the film, as might be expected in a Hong Kong film of this vintage.  Fatty, the clear, viable target for derision is treated like an ordinary guy who just happens to be overweight.  He doesn’t do pratfalls, he doesn’t make a pig of himself.  Keung is fighting for his life and soul as well as that of his family, and hope is threadbare.  It’s this grim earnestness that makes The Imp such an affecting experience and one worthy of praise.

MVT:  The film’s tone strikes just the right amount of dread.

Make or Break:  The finale is tense and serious, and it brings home the message.

Score:  7/10      

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Death Falls Lightly (1972)

People love anti-heroes (the archetype, not necessarily the band).  People love regular heroes.  People love superheroes.  But the antihero, at least from my perspective, seems to top most people’s lists.  Folks complain that these protagonists in cinema are often unlikable.  I believe this is a specious criticism.  I believe that what people actually mean when they say this is that they find the characters uncompelling, and since they do things which are immoral, illegal, whatever, they are therefore “unlikable.”  Thing is, anti-heroes are supposed to be unlikable.  Snake Plissken in Escape from New York is not a nice, personable guy.  Leon from The Professional is a hired killer.  Tony Montana in Scarface is a drug dealer and a murderer.  Nevertheless, audiences want to follow what happens to them and even (wrongheadedly) model their lifestyles after them.  In part, this is because the lives of anti-heroes are abnormal to our own experiences.  They are heightened beyond humanity, they are calm under pressure, they are (sometimes) more glamorous than our everyday mundanity.  They are fantasies of how cool we wish we were.  This is despite the very clear drawbacks of their lives (getting shot at, murdered, etcetera).  

The other part, and I think the more important part, is that there is something about them that we do connect to.  This may not be a redemptive value (like Leon’s rule of no women, no kids and his caring for a child in peril), but it has to be a human value.  We get the ultimate emptiness of Montana’s naked ambition, and we sympathize for this man because he got what he wanted but not what he needed.  The best anti-heroes are flawed (often deeply), but there is something of ourselves that we discern in them, an honesty, no matter how oblique.  This is why we want to follow Giorgio (Stelio Candelli) in Leopoldo Savona’s Death Falls Lightly (aka La Morte Scende Leggera).  He’s a drug trafficker, but he’s also unjustly persecuted (or thinks he will be, not unreasonably), and this is something most people have felt at one time or another (just maybe not for homicide).

Returning from Milan, our protagonist discovers his wife murdered.  Exploiting his political connections, he and his girlfriend Liz (Patrizia Viotti, a beauty who died far too young) are whisked off to a purportedly empty hotel while his friends concoct an alibi for him.  Things take a turn for the weird when the couple’s isolation really kicks in.

Savona’s film depicts a cynical world.  Giorgio thinks nothing of the life he leads.  He thinks nothing of cheating on his wife (despite his later declaration that he was divorcing her), stating that, “Marriage is a mistake,” as if that applies to all marriages.  He drags Liz along with him, not because he craves her specific companionship (he does say he loves her, and maybe he even means it), but so that he has someone to fuck when he gets bored.  His friends aren’t friends at all.  In fact, they don’t even like each other when Giorgio isn’t around.  They are people using each other for their own ends.  This is illustrated at several points in the film with voiceovers of the various characters’ thoughts, and all of them are essentially the same (everyone else is a son of a bitch and a degenerate, but not me, and I’ll fix them).  The drugs that Giorgio traffics in are used to fuel political careers so power can be attained and maintained.  They are vampires, draining the life’s blood of the people they pretend to serve (something limited to Italian politicians, surely).  Liz is the audience perspective character, outside of Giorgio and company’s world, but still willing to go along with all of it, thus conflating her with the rest of these people.  In a particularly telling sequence, she and Giorgio watch a porn film as they have sex.  While their lovemaking is passionate, it also feels empty, because it’s fueled by the prurience reflected off the movie screen rather than any feelings they should have for each other.  Even the police are disenchanted (likely from seeing the worst in people every single day), and they are not above manipulation of (assumedly) innocent people, even to the point that putting their lives in peril is okay, so long as the case gets solved (this is nothing new in Italian genre cinema).
Death Falls Lightly is different from many gialli, while keeping some of the things that define the genre.  It has a mystery killer, represented by POV camera shots (alas, no black gloves).  It has a lurid quality to it, mostly delivered by Viotti and her willingness to get naked.  It has a few final twists which are both ridiculous and satisfying.  But, at its heart, the film is an Old Dark House story filled with bizarre scenarios.  The hotel is a large, empty space.  The dining room looks like it was abandoned mid-celebration rather than shut down.  The place houses the ghosts of better times sent crashing and burning down to Earth.  Giorgio and Liz are shut in, not allowed to even open a window and look outside.  Thus, they have to deal with each other in a more intimate way than they likely have before (see Giorgio’s distaste for marriage and its implications).  Rather than coming together spiritually, the vacuity of the hotel only exacerbates the couple’s frictions.  Enter the “spectres.”  It seems the hotel is not so empty as Giorgio was led to believe, as evidenced by the appearance of the Owner (Antonio Anelli).  He has killed his wife so he can be with his mistress Marisa (Rosella Bergamonti).  Sound familiar?  Immediately, the Owner enlists Giorgio in removing and burying her body, and this he does without putting up much fuss.  This leads to the appearance of the owner’s daughter Adele (Veronika Korosec) and some strange encounters, like when she takes a bubble bath while a monkey swings around a portable clothes rack, or when she stabs herself (or does she?) as a part of some arcane ceremony.  What happens after these folks show up is a swift descent into Hell and insanity for Giorgio.  This is also the point in the film where Savona ratchets up the psychedelic trappings, with all manner of odd angles, handheld shots, jump cuts, and so forth.  Giorgio is never certain of what he’s seeing or how to act in response, but he always finds himself going along (just like the viewer).  These scenarios are manifestations of his life and situation (directly and indirectly), and by forcing Giorgio to confront these things, he is forced to confront himself.  This isn’t to say that the resolution he comes to is positive, but it is, ironically, more honest than the world in which he had been living.
MVT:  The fever dream/experimental elements are macabre and intriguing.
Make or Break:   The arrival of the Owner takes a tense, freak out situation and spins it into surreality.
Score:  6.75/10