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Monday, 30 June 2008

Hellboy: Iron Shoes (2007)

Basically a short, (read: very very short), action sequence where Hellboy takes on a redcap in iron shoes, this one's way too short to actually do anything. Perlman gets a couple of lines and Dan Castellaneta, better known as Homer Simpson, gets to be a cheeky redcap. And then it's over. Did you blink and miss it? I've seen longer outtakes.

Hellboy: Blood and Iron (2007)

We're back for the second animated Hellboy movie and he's waist deep in a labyrinthine sewer fighting a minotaur that can shoot a block out of his hand on the end of a chain. I'm sure he'd like to be somewhere else and it doesn't take too long for that to happen. Life is rarely quiet in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Hellboy's boss/father/mentor, Prof Trevor 'Broom' Bruttenholm picks the place.

Back in 1939 he took out Erzsebet Ondrushko, a vampiric entity who does the sort of bathing in the blood of virgins thing that you'd expect from someone called Erzsebet. There were 613 victims before she was killed, and 400 or so more afterwards. Now it would seem that she's back and the now elderly Broom takes the team to the Hampton House because he has a hunch they're going to be needed. The mission, if it could be called that, is really a publicity stunt: some filthy rich and well-connected guy called Oliver Trombolt wants to turn it into a resort and wants to milk the dubious history of the place. As Broom points out though, just because the mission is a scam doesn't mean that the place isn't riddled with real ghosts.

This one has a more involving story than Sword of Storms, though there's not as much of the interesting folklore. We alternate between a progression of the story in the present and flashbacks to 1939 that intringuly work in reverse order. The sarcasm is better too, mostly courtesy of Hellboy of course. Dry humour is a big part of the Hellboy books and it's not skipped over in Blood and Iron. My biggest problem was that everything worked up until the end when suddenly Mecha-Hecate becomes the bad guy. She seemed very out of place in the rest of the story.

Everyone who matters is back from Sword of Storms: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair and Doug Jones, plus Peri Gilpin as Prof Kate Corrigan. Returning from Hellboy after missing Sword of Storms is John Hurt as Broom. Hurt is an accomplished actor in every regard and voicework isn't missing from his copious resume. His introduction here puts to shame the one from the previous film and he's a welcome return to the cast. There's also a new guy, Sydney Leach, voiced by Rob Paulsen, and he's some sort of human metal detector. I wonder if he'll make it into the new film, given that he completely fails to be the token unknown and soon to be dead crew member.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Hellboy: Sword of Storms (2006)

Given that Hellboy II: The Golden Army looks like being the film of the summer, at least on the basis of a slew of surprisingly promising trailers for Hollywood output, it's definitely time to do some homework. I rewatched Hellboy a week ago and came to the same conclusion I came to the first few times around: it's fun but flawed, and while it does improve with repeat viewings it still isn't what it could be. Given that Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy was involved, and it was made by Guillermo Del Toro, an awesome filmmaker and about as big a fan of the series as could comfortably be imagined, it really should have been something more than it was.

Now that Del Toro has achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim and even Hollywood studio execs have to admit that the man knows precisely what he's doing, my hope is that Hellboy II will end up being what Hellboy should have been. He already has the cast and the understanding of the material and now he has the budget. The potential is huge and I'll be there on the first week for sure. In between Hellboy and Hellboy II came a couple of animated movies and a short. The feature length releases were Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron, and the very short short was Iron Shoes.

Sword of Storms takes Hellboy back to mediaeval Japan, which is pretty cool. Everything ties to a legend about a Daimyu who promises his daughter to the gods of thunder and lightning to end a war, only for her samurai boyfriend to mess things up by defeating them. Honour is lost and so the daughter is sacrificed and the samurai turned to stone, but he is at least given the sword of storms first. Back in the modern day, a professor is possessed by demons to reclaim the sword but the samurai's spirit is still associated with it and fights back.

When Hellboy, investigating the remnants of that battle, picks up the sword of storms he is transferred back to mediaeval Japan where he gets to quest through a bunch of encounters tied to Japanese folklore. I recognise some, from the fox lady on down but not all of them and I miss the explanatory notes that I used to get with Urusei Yatsura videos from Anime Projects. They would have been really useful here.

The film is animated well if basically, with the cinematography, or what passes for it in the animated world, capable if not particularly spectacular. The story doesn't hold up to too much analysis, with the folklore elements most interesting. Most of the main cast from the movie, who were perfect for their roles, reprise those roles here, including Ron Perlman, Selma Blair and Doug Jones. There's no John Hurt but no part for his character: he returns in Blood and Iron. The new character is Prof Kate Corrigan, voiced by Peri Gilpin, best known as Roz in Frasier and she returns for the other animated films also.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Times are hard in rural Australia, it would seem. There's not much money around and not much work, and while the government is obviously trying, it appears that they're not trying hard enough. The small rural town of Paris does its very best to buck the trend, or so it would appear from the many signs pointing to it down a dead end road. They have petrol, they have work available, they have everything. What they also have, but don't advertise, is a quick route to death: the people of Paris make their living off orchestrating car accidents on their dangerous country roads, stripping them of parts and their former owners of possessions to sell second hand.

Writers Peter Weir and Keith Gow had fun with their story and didn't flinch from taking it to logical extremes. We follow the adventures of Arthur Waldo, who has taken the road to Paris with his brother. However instead of dying as he's supposed to, he survives the accident and the mayor takes a shine to him. There are survivors, it seems, but they are generally lobotomised and live in the town's hospital as 'veggies'. Arthur though is salvaged, just like anything else that was in the vehicle at the time. The mayor wants to adopt him, even though he's at least 25. But hey, both the mayor's kids are salvage too: orphaned by what must have been another orchestrated accident.

There are other stories here too, intertwined, most obviously the question of what to do with the youth element. Even in a town where violence is a way of making a living, the youth are disaffected and cause trouble. The youth of Paris are akin to Hell's Angels in cars, given that they have a large and free junkyard to play with. These vehicles are customised junk, like stock cars, and look very cool. On occasion they're highly customised, such as the porcupine car. The use of vehicles and separation from mainstream life seems to be a common theme in Aussie movies, most obviously but not restricted to the Mad Max films.

The stars are John Meillon and Terry Camilleri, and like many actors in Aussie movies, I recognise them but don't recognise their names. Meillon is Walt from the Crocodile Dundee films and I've also seen him in The Blue Lightning with Sam Elliott. Camilleri was Napoleon in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but this was his debut. It was also the debut of director Peter Weir, a native born Australian who became one of a small group of Aussies to grow beyond just a national cinema and become a global name. They were called The Australian New Wave and included Mel Gibson and George Miller, Judy Davis and Gillian Armstrong.

Weir would go on to make a number of very Australian films before heading on out to the rest of the world. This was his feature debut, and he followed it up with Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Gallipoli, all of which have very Aussie stories to tell. He'd go onto great success in the States, and is currently tied with Sidney Lumet for the most Best Director Oscar nominations without a win. He directed Linda Hunt to an Oscar though, in The Year of Living Dangerously and others to nominations in Witness, Fearless, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show. What impresses me most though is the consistency and versatility of his films: they're all over the map as to subject matter but the quality is consistently there.

Privilege (1967)

Steven Shorter is a British pop singer, played by Paul Jones, who was a British pop singer. Given that he was the singer for Manfred Mann and The Blues Band and I know him best as the presenter of the blues show on Radio 2, he certainly didn't warrant the sort of tickertape parade he gets at the start of this film. He's just back from a successful US tour and he goes straight into his show that has made him the most loved entertainer on the planet. It involves being handcuffed and locked in a cage on stage, thus sending all the women in the audience (which is the entire audience, it seems) into hysteria and apparently offering catharsis for all the troubles in the world.

Yes, this is a bizarre musical, and yes, I'm sure that Roger Waters was paying attention. Apparently there's a coalition government who have asked for all entertainers to divert the attention of the youth of Britain away from violence and so there are now 300 Steven Shorter discotheques dedicated to spreading happiness and keeping the youth a long, long way away from politics. Next door is the Steven Shorter Dream Palace, where people can be sure that everything they buy is British and Steven Shorter approved.

All artificial of course, with insane commerciality and exploitation for very deliberate goals. This 1967 film actually says more about the music industry of today than anything else I've seen. The artist is the means by which everything happens, a wide range of people make their living and the powers that be ( get whatever effect on their public is desired, but he's exploited ruthlessly and systematically by all and sundry and nobody gives a monkey's about him. The only person who really seems to care about Steven Shorter is an artist called Vanessa Ritchie, who doesn't really know him at all. However she's interesting beyond her character because she's played by Jean Shrimpton, notable model in her only film appearance.

I particularly enjoyed the scene where Shorter listens to the radio on his wristwatch. It's playing one of his songs, so Ritchie asks him to change the station, which he does twice but all three stations are playing the same song. It sounds just like our modern ClearChannel world. The handcuffs are a great symbol of ownership, restricted contracts and legal inability to go bankrupt. The use of artists as arbiters of political opinion is everywhere now, from political campaigning to Tommy Lee on the Green Channel. The only thing missing is the prosecution of four year olds without computers for downloading mp3s.

The film is outrageous, wild and stunning. The performance at the National Stadium with a burning cross, Nazi salutes and parades of boy scouts doing a take on Triumph of the Will. If Roger Waters hasn't watched this film fifty times I'd be amazed. It then turns into a faith healing ceremony where Steven Shorter gets to heal the sick through the power of his song. It's hardly commercial stuff so isn't widely known, especially as owners Universal are doing a good job at suppressing it. Then again given that it's directed by Peter Watkins, who had already shaken up a lot of people with The War Game, the controversy is hardly surprising.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Killing Fields (1984)

The Killing Fields are sites in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge, during their six year rule of the country, executed vast numbers of people. Those numbers equal at least 200,000 killed outright with an estimated million and a half dead through direct consequence of Khmer Rouge policies. Given that there were only seven million people in the country at the time, those are stunningly large numbers: more than one in five, basically. The reason that people have heard of the Killing Fields is because a Cambodian journalist called Dith Pran escaped them and coined the term, from which this film took its name.

Dith Pran is one of the lead characters in this story and is played by Haing S Ngor, a doctor hired from an open casting call who won a Best Supporting Oscar for his trouble. While it would be very possible that he won it for political reasons, that doesn't mean he wasn't worthy of the honour. As we open in 1973, he's the translator for Sydney Schanberg, an American foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Schanberg and Pran are covering the war in Vietnam that has spilled over into Cambodia where the government is fighting the Khmer Rouge. As the Khmer Rouge progress, westerners are forced out of the country for safety reasons.

While the hero is American, there's a very notable anti-American bias here. The first major impact scene has to do with the bombing of an entire town by an American B52 that got its coordinates wrong. The second one has to do with the American military covering it up. However soon we jump forward to 1975. The war ends, the Americans leave and the Khmer Rouge take over. Most westerners leave by organised evacuation, but the journalists who stay to cover the situation are corralled and forced out in an organised manner. It's a very tense time for all of them, as the Khmer Rouge are unpredictable, but it's even worse for Pran because he is not a foreigner. The film's real focus is how his friends can get him out of the country, knowing that remaining behind would mean likely death.

Eventually, after an hour and a half, Sydney Schanberg finds himself evacuated and back in the States. Dith Pran remains behind in Cambodia and while Schanberg effectively tortures himself psychologically worrying about his friend, Pran has to avoid torture and death in the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero, when everything starts anew and people disappear often. We switch back to Schanberg in the States on occasion but Ngor carries this half of the film even when he's not on screen.

What impresses here is the scale and the tension. Massive evacuations from Pnomh Penh accompanied by choral music are highly impressive. The killing fields themselves are even better and they can't help but resonate. Scenes when soldiers from the Khmer Rouge pile on the pressure are often astounding, because we have no idea what's going to happen or who is going to die. However scenes with children injured, crying or dressed as soldiers and pointing guns at people are obviously designed to impress but they don't, mostly because there are just so many of them and the whole 'think of the children' concept has been overdone so many times that it becomes just tired. I would expect that it's possible to make a film about a bad situation without making propaganda. I expected a lot more.

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

'It's the Great American Story!' reads the tagline and it's apparently a pretty appropriate one, because it's about baseball and Lou Gehrig, who reached the heights of the game, only to succumb to the disease that bears his name. As a baseball film, it also has the benefit of featuring Babe Ruth, at the other end of his film career to the first film I saw him in: 1920's Headin' Home. In this one, like in most of his films, he plays himself. He's also mentioned quite often too. When we first see Lou Gehrig the kid pick up a baseball bat, it's Babe Ruth the rookie he has as a trading card in his back pocket. When he's at Columbia the newspapers proclaim him the Babe Ruth of the Colleges.

So it's a real American story, one that is hard to not appreciate on a human level even if like me, you're not American and can't understand what the fuss is about baseball. I'm English and I played plenty of games of rounders, the best of which were after the local village school summer fair with kids of all ages and coats for bases. It seems completely bizarre to me that something that's so obviously a game and not a sport would be treated as one in the States, but hey those wacky Americans have a bunch of strange habits and baseball seems to be the top of the list.

I know enough to recognise the opening music as Take Me Out to the Ball Game, but Babe Ruth is the only name I recognise on the lockers he walks past so reverently in the Yankees dressing room mean nothing to me. What surprises most though is just how little baseball there is in this baseball film. At heart baseball here is just one thing that makes a man an American, and from the way the introductory text by Damon Runyan sets us off, he's a hero and a patriot and a perfect example of what an American should be.

He's tall and handsome, he has a winning smile and he treats the girls according to the rules. He's decent, polite and modest. He's a peaceful man but isn't afraid to get into a fight when it's warranted. He does what his mother wants, at least until he has a wife so he can do what she wants instead. He eats a stack of pancakes every morning and heads out to work without fail. He plays baseball in the spring, summer and autumn and talks about it during the winter. And naturally he can hit a home run out of the field whenever anyone's watching. All this philosophy is rooted in American tradition, right down to the poor man living the American dream and achieving everything anyone could ever want. He even chews gum while he's kissing his new bride. He couldn't be any more American if he tried.

I have no idea how much of this is true and how much is Hollywood, but it would seem that the bias is heavily towards the latter. Like most Hollywood biopics, it works roughly like this: write down a bunch of true facts or events on different cards, then rearrange them into something that makes for a better story and fill in any gaps with fiction. It's what prompted George M Cohan to comment on Yankee Doodle Dandy, the biopic of his own life: 'It was a good movie. Who was it about?' I have a feeling this one seems to follow the same trend.

For instance, it would seem to be unlikely that his very first game would prompt so much. The film would suggest that five seconds after being called up to bat for the Yankees for the first time, he trips over a stack of bats and falls flat on his ass. That prompts his future wife who he's never met before who's sitting in the front row to land him with the nickname of Tanglefoot. Twenty seconds later he gets dropped by a baseball to the top of the head. From what I'm reading, these things sort of kinda happened, just at completely different times and in completely different places.

What seem to be the most famous parts of the film are played around with too. The scene with a hospitalised kid called Billy is based on fact, but while Babe Ruth's part in his story looks pretty superficial in the film compared to Gehrig's, the fact was all Babe Ruth. The retirement speech that made the AFI's list of the 100 greatest film quotes of all time with it's 'Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth' line, was pretty much completely rewritten. In the real speech that line came at the beginning, in the film it comes at the end.

It's not a bad film and it's a legendary weeper, but the job it does wouldn't seem to be the job it really ought to be doing. I wouldn't know him from Adam but apparently Lou Gehrig was a true legend in the world of baseball. He set records that sound impressive even though I really don't know exactly what they mean. He's been voted the greatest first baseman of all time by the Baseball Writers' Association, who presumably know what they're talking about. He still holds the record for most career grand slam home runs. His record of 2,130 consecutive games, over 15 seasons from 1925 and 1939, stood until 1995, and the man who took it didn't have to retire because of degenerative neuromuscular disease.

Yet most of this is missing. Those 16 years and all those records go by in a few scrapbook pages and offhand comments. None of it's really explained and the key people in the story, Gehrig included, aren't explained either. We don't get any real motivation for anything that anyone does, just see them go from beginning to end. In fact we probably find out more about Gehrig's mother than we do about anyone else, even Gehrig himself. He's played very aptly by one of the most American of American actors, Gary Cooper, but as he's depicted here I learned almost nothing more about him after over two hours than I did going in. And that was almost nothing.

The Public Enemy (1931)

I love gangster films from the thirties and it surprised me no end to find that when I caught up with the granddaddies of the genre they didn't seem to be that great. I'm talking especially about The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, but they're the films that really broke people like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson and defined what was to come for the next decade and more. So I'll take the opportunity to revisit and see if I was missing something. Well, I guess I wasn't. Cagney is amazing but the film itself contains a lot that's kludgy. It's preparation for what was to come, defining how the genre would work and setting the scene for other films to follow.

The introductory blurb, which meant precisely nothing given that this was 1931 and was therefore just lip service to the Hays Office, talks about how the film is trying to 'honestly depict an environment' rather than 'glorify the hoodlum or the criminal'. Naturally it does plenty of glorifying the hoodlum and the criminal for an hour and a half, with the odd bit of pandering to the environment. I bet there wasn't a single moviegoer in 1931 who left this film wanting to be Donald Cook. They all wanted to be Jimmy Cagney and they weren't thinking about the lines he spoke in the hospital.

He plays Tom Powers, a personification of the public enemy of the title; maybe based on a real gangster ('Little Hymie' Weiss for example), maybe not. He has a family that cares and everyone else in it walks the line, but Tom does nothing except turn to the dark side every chance he gets. There doesn't seem to be any environment causing it beyond a local crook and professional bad influence called Putty Nose and I don't buy into him being the social message of the film.

Back in 1909 Tom's just tripping up his sister. Later he's robbing the Northwestern Fur Trading Company with a gun in hand for the first time and leaving a cop dead on the ground. Then it's up the chain until he's riding high as an enforcer in the bootlegging racket during prohibition. By this point he's the Cagney we remember well: he can only be described as a force of nature, whether his screen brother wants to believe it or not. Mike Powers is played by Donald Cook and because he's the elder brother he gets the opportunity to deck him early on.

Nobody else gets that opportunity, though he gets plenty of opportunity to have a go at others, including the girls. He slaps Mia Marvin after she attempts to blackmail him, and we have that legendary scene with Mae Clarke and a grapefruit. There's also a powerful sequence with Tom Powers, a bunch of bad guys and a rainstorm, not to mention the final shot of the film. These scenes are powerful and awesomely shot and it's not surprising that they turn up so often in collections of film clips that talk about cinema. They're iconic, definitive and memorable, even when they're dated, like the grapefruit scene. That really shook people in 1931 and its real impact can be felt through the realisation that it still has at least some impact even though it shouldn't any more.

The same applies to the film itself. It's still far from a bad film, even though there have been over 75 years worth of gangster movies to take away the spotlight. Cagney is blistering, so much so that Donald Cook and Edward Woods are merely there when he's on screen. Jean Harlow was't great but she was magnetic. She did learn to speak and act and do both well, but that came later: at this point it was all charisma and the essence that made her Jean Harlow. Joan Blondell and Beryl Mercer are fine, which is hardly surprising, but they don't get enough to do. Robert O'Connor is solid as the boss, Paddy Ryan, though he's not as consistent as he could be. Then again this was about writing a textbook, whether they knew they were doing so at the time It's what the film did that resonates, not the film itself.

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2005)

Rather than being a documentary on one of the greatest and most influential songwriters in the history of music, this is mostly a sort of premature book of memorial. There are snippets of interviews with Cohen, and they're interesting, but most of the film consists of other musicians throwing out twenty seconds of adoration and fragments of songs performed at a January 2005 tribute concert in Australia. It's worthwhile but it's ephemera, not really anything of substance. The only substance here comes from the mouth of Cohen himself.

The artists are diverse and inviting: Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, U2, Jarvis Cocker and others. The interpretations are interesting to varying degrees: Nick Cave swings I'm Your Man, Rufus Wainwright sings Everybody Knows like a lazy river. I enjoyed all, and I'm a devotee of cover versions that attempt to truly reinvent their originals, but only a couple of these rank in a collection of such things.

Martha Wainwright, brother of Rufus and daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, impressed me most and I'll be seeking out some of her work. Most intriguing to my mind has to be a vocalist called Antony, partly because he performs If It Be Your Will, possibly Cohen's most beautiful song, without succumbing to the ease in which it can be massacred, and partly because he seems completely other. He doesn't sound like he looks and he doesn't move like he looks either.

The Peach Girl (1931)

While Hollywood had completely converted over to sound by 1929, with Chaplin's City Lights really the only holdout, much of the rest of the world was still making silent movies, notably in Russia, Japan and China. I'm still catching up with a lot of these and this is one that's been high on my list to find, not just because of its renown but because it stars Ruan Lingyu, one of the true icons of Chinese cinema, one later played by Maggie Cheung in Centre Stage aka The Actress. Ruan Lingyu was a legend but like many legends, she died tragically young, of an overdose soon before reaching 25. Therefore the age old question applies: is she a legend because of what she did or because of the perception of what she would have done.

Here she's Miss Lim, a poor young girl whose life is intertwined with that of a peach tree, which was planted by her parents the day she was born. She's born to Loo Chi, a farmer working for Mrs King, who naturally is of a different social station being his boss and his landlady. Mrs King also has a child, a boy called Teh-en who is about the same age, and as the title cards point out to us, class differences don't exist with children. Therefore it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to find that Miss Lim and Teh-en become very close.

We see them meeting as five year olds, getting into a mud throwing battle. Only later, after twenty minutes of buildup, do we see them grown up and in love. Miss Lim is a beautiful young lady, naturally, and Lingyu Ruan plays her with shyness and deference when Teh-en is there, but radiates inner feelings when she isn't. On the face of this performance, it's not particularly surprising that she was a legend, as she is massively expressive, with her body as well as her face. Teh-en is played by Yan Jin, and as a young man he's eager, but naturally the class difference stands like a third character between them, and that's what provides our story.

This film is interesting for more than Ruan Lingyu. There's a fight scene before she even blesses our screen that features Chinese kung fu from 1931 and it's fascinating, all deflection and throwing. Miss Lim's father bests Chang Fee, a cattle thief, by some sort of close wrestling and a throw. The peach tree metaphor is interesting too, given that this is a tragedy of a forbidden love and the introductory text explains the symbolic connection between peach blossoms and human teardrops. An alternate title for the film is Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood.

The Annual Temple Fair could have been more interesting from a cultural perspective but that isn't its purpose, here being entirely to build the connections between the two lead characters. Similarly we get to see little of the city, when Teh-en persuades his mother to let her come back with them for a few days. What we see is the two leads interact, very subtle work for 1931. Most surprisingly for a silent film, there's a great amount of subtle attention given to the supporting characters. There's especial power in the performance of Lili Zhou as Mrs King. She ages wonderfully and builds in a head shaking motion suggesting Parkinson's Disease that's highly believable. I was amazed to see that she only has one more credit to her name, and that as only a female guard in a further Ruan Lingyu film called A Spray of Plum Blossoms.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

In 1985 Dan O'Bannon, who wrote a number of pioneering science fiction films in the seventies, including Dark Star and Alien, shook up the horror world with The Return of the Living Dead. He didn't just write this one though, he directed it too, and it's a riot. It's horrific, it's gory, it's sexy and it's hilarious: precisely what the horror genre needed in 1985. It also brought us Linnea Quigley dancing naked on a tomb, and every film ought to have that.

We open at the Uneeda Medical Supply in Louisville, KY, where new employee Freddy is introduced by his new boss to a bunch of canisters mistakenly delivered to them fourteen years earlier instead of some army base. They contain corpses infected with some sort of bizarre chemicals that apparently were the true inspiration for Night of the Living Dead. Naturally they break a canister and the chemicals escape and reanimate everything in sight, from cadavers to butterflies pinned onto a wall and even half dogs set for delivery to veterinary schools.

Next door at the highly appropriately named Resurrection Cemetery, Freddy's weirdo buddies are partying while waiting for him to finish work, and soon end up part of the action as the chemicals get released into the graveyard. Freddy's girlfriend Tina is the normal one of the bunch, which is pretty obvious given that that the others are named things like Spider, Scuz and Suicide. Linnea Quigley is named Trash and she gets horny and naked thinking about anything associated with death.

The overacting here is stunning, aided by some awesome dialogue that can only inspire stunning overacting. However that's entirely the point. This is no serious horror film, it's a riotous comedy and all that stunning overacting just turns this into even more of a cult classic. There are three types of cult classics out there: seriously awesome movies, films so bad that they become guilty pleasures and innovative movies that become so much fun that you can't help loving them. This one falls into that third category. After all how can you not love a film that has a midget zombie in it?

The Return of the Living Dead brings in plenty of awesome touches. We watch the two dumbass medical supply workers gradually die and go through rigor mortis, while bitching how cold it is. There's a half zombie woman who tells us about how eating brains relieves the pain of rotting. One zombie commits suicide by climbing into a crematorium. How often do you see that in a movie? We watch zombies run, gang up and set traps to acquire food, including effectively ordering it over an ambulance intercom. 'Send more paramedics!' Add the midget zombie, headless zombies, a naked Linnea Quigley zombie. Awesome stuff. Let's watch it again!

Shutter (2004)

After Ong-Bak and a couple of Pen-ek Ratanaruang films, 6ixtynin9 and Last Life in the Universe, I'm more than eager to watch any Thai movie that comes along. That's three hits in a couple of months for me, after what may be an entire lifetime of not seeing any Thai films at all. Definitely time to remedy that situation. And yes, this is yet another eastern film that gets a quick Hollywood remake. While it was made as recently as 2004, there'll be another version this year, and amazingly enough, while it's an American remake, it has Japanese names all over it.

The story follows a young couple, Tun and Jane, who drive home after a drunken meeting with friends and hit a girl on the road at high speed. Jane wants to stop and check to see if she's as dead as we can only expect, but Tun persuades her to drive on, presumably worrying about repercussions given that they must have been over whatever legal limit applies in Thailand. They only receive minor injuries themselves and nobody seems to be looking for killer drivers, in fact there doesn't even seem to be any evidence of a body, but something begins to infiltrate the photographs that Tun takes.

Now Tun knows what he's doing when it comes to photography so something is certainly going on, and it quickly escalates. Soon Tun and Jane see apparations of the dead girl outside of the photos, as if they're being haunted by a vengeful spirit. Given that this is an Asian horror movie, it naturally gets rather freaky. The Japanese don't have a corner on this market any more; freakiness has spread all across Asia like a virus. Visions appear and disappear, in bizarre ways, and it seems as if the girl that they presumably killed has something to say as she haunts them.

The story builds from a decent start, getting better and better the further it gets. As you'd expect, the effectiveness varies, tied often to the shocks. Some of these, especially early on are not that great, though the initial car accident is handled very nicely indeed, but like the story they get better and better. Particularly effective are the scenes with the sink, the side car window, the ceiling and the ladder. The flipbook concept is really cool too and the ending is powerful and unexpected yet very appropriate.

Ananda Everingham and Natthaweeranuch Thongmee are effective leads, but, as is so often the case, it's the girl doing the haunting who proves most memorable. She's played by Achita Sikamana and she has particularly expressive eyes. This was her debut film though she has three subsequent titles to her credit, at least two of which seem to be varied takes on the ghost story: Loveaholic and Ghost Station. The directors are Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Both co-wrote and co-directed and made a further ghost story called Alone.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Trust Sam Fuller to break whatever taboos were in place at any particular point in time. Here it's the one about miscegenation, which had had Hollywood in fits for decades. Even when it was OK for them to cast Asian actors in the lead, which really wasn't very often, they couldn't possibly get into a romantic relationship with a caucasian. Good grief, who could have thought such a thing? So Sam Fuller writes, produces and directs a crime drama featuring a pair of detectives who come from different races but fall for the same woman. And he has other taboos to break too.

That woman is Christine Downs, a painter at the University of Southern California, who is brought into the investigation because she painted the victim. The victim is Sugar Torch, a stripper who escapes a murder attempt in her burlesque house dressing room only to be shot dead on the street instead. The pair of detectives investigating are Det Sgt Charlie Bancroft, a white American played by Glenn Corbett, and Det Joe Kojaku, a nisei or first generation Japanese American, played by James Shigeta. Needless to say as she helps them with their enquiries and they shield her from assassination attempts, they both fall for her.

Race, and how it's defined on screen, is obviously the focus here, from the very first line: Bancroft and Kojaku open their questioning of Sugar Torch's manager with 'Does she have a Japanese boyfriend?' Kojaku is far from the junior half of the partnership, he's fully half of it, both professionally and as characters with wider interests than just work. Kojaku is a decent pianist, a kendo fighter and a war hero, having deserted a hospital bed to rejoin his outfit during the Korean War, where he won a Silver Star for his service. However Bancroft is no slouch either, having served in the same outfit and being a kendo fighter too.

The approach feels like it's deliberate but not just for the sake of political correctness. This is 1959, after all. It feels like Sam Fuller was pissed off that Asians had a raw deal in Hollywood but rather than deliberately showing how awesome they are, wanted to make the point that they're just people too, and what's more that they're people and friends and co-workers before they're Asians. Race can matter and it can make a difference, but when it does it's usually brought up for the wrong reasons and it can be brought up by any side, not just the ones that are politically correct.

It's really good to see this approach taken back in 1959. Asian Americans comprise many of the good guys in this film but they comprise many of the bad guys too. We see a Japanese nun, very correct in her pronunciation, but nobody points out that she's Japanese. We see part of a Buddhist ritual of remembrance, but it's just somewhere that someone needs to go on the way to somewhere. We visit a military cemetery, where nisei troops are particularly commemorated, but nobody talks about that. From Sam Fuller's perspective, these are just nuns, memorials, places of worship. Who goes there and what race may be involved is really of secondary importance until someone makes it so.

There's also plenty here that has nothing to do with race. Beyond Bancroft, the love interest is white and so is the most memorable supporting character, a drunken but highly incisive painter called Mac who is played with gusto by Anna Lee. Lee was a wonderful actress who I've seen many times. As in many Samuel Fuller movies, the supporting female cast are given many opportunities to steal many scenes and they take them. Corbett and Shigeta are fine in their respective debuts, and Victoria Shaw is fine as the woman they both fall for, but it's Anna Lee I'll remember most, along with Jaclynne Greene and Barbara Hayden in tiny parts. Them and Sam Fuller, who impresses me more and more with every thing I see him do. His importance to American cinema simply cannot be underestimated.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Tremors (1990)

You know, it's amazing how Tremors can pick me up. Get a headache, feel down, get stressed up, watch Tremors, everything's fine. This is my feelgood movie, an affectionate tribute to the monster movies of yesteryear done with style and panache. It's a joy from beginning to end, set in a gorgeous location, populated by wonderful characters and filled with joyous dialogue. It's leisurely and effortless and it's a joy. It's also blissfully down to earth.

We're in Perfection, a tiny and remote Nevada town with a population of 14. That's not a lot of people and the numbers decrease quickly. As odd job men Val and Earl attempt to leave Perfection, they start to discover the residents who aren't resident any more. Edgar climbed a pylon and died of thirst, then old Fred is mostly eaten along with his flock of sheep. The doctor and his wife get sucked down into the ground, station wagon and all. Even a couple of engineers working on the road get taken out and the resulting rockfall blocks the one and only road out.

For a monster movie, there's so much character here. The writers, S S Wilson and Brent Maddock, both of whom worked consistently on what would become the Tremors franchise, created some really great characters that we just plain care about. There's Nancy Sterngood, the single artist mother, and her daughter Mindy, who pogoes her way through life. There's Walter Chang, the market owner who pays Val and Earl $15 for the snakelike creature that wraps itself round their truck's back axle. There's Bert and Heather Gummer, conspiracy theorists and survival nuts who have their own arsenal. There's Nestor and Miguel and even young asshole Melvin, all real people in a very unreal situation.

The cast is first rate, led by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as Val and Earl. Bacon has played a lot of very different roles in a lot of very different movies, but this one is probably the most fun he's ever had. Fred Ward is stunningly underrated as an actor and is perfectly cast here. Michael Gross is an excellent Burt Gummer, and he'd be a consistent fixture in the franchise, returning for all three sequels and the entire 13 episode run of the TV series. He started shooting one day after finishing Family Ties. Country singer Reba McEntire, of all people, is just as solid as his wife Heather, in her first movie as an actress.

I know some of the others from other material, such as Bibi Besch from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Victor Wong from Big Trouble in Little China or Charlotte Stewart from Eraserhead. They're all perfectly cast, as are those I didn't know such as Ariana Richards, who I was surprised went on to be the girl in Jurassic Park, or Finn Carter, after this probably best known for the daytime soap As the World Turns. Here she's the college seismologist who becomes the closest thing to an expert the town has on these monsters, which travel underground, sense movement through vibrations and shoot out snakes from their mouths. They're very cool indeed.

I'm a confirmed Tremors fan and I've seen all of it: this one many times, the sequels, the TV series, the works. The subsequent material is fun, to different degrees, but, as is so often the case, nothing matches the original. Something about this film touches me. Maybe it's the dialogue, which is incredibly quotable without ever being artificially cool. I use the line 'I don't care what they're doing as long as they're doing it way over there,' a lot. It doesn't read like much but it's so memorable the way Kevin Bacon says it and so are so many of the other lines here too. Maybe it's the location, which is magnetic. I could happily move to Perfection myself, if I had a means of income. Maybe it's the cast or the monsters or the timing that everyone has. Mostly though I think it's the humour. I don't know how many times I've seen this film but it's always fresh and it always makes me feel good watching it.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Vital (2004)

This one would seem to be rather appropriate right now, given that my eldest stepson seems to have just lost the last year and a half of his life, but I hope he doesn't end up stuck in some of the same situations as the lead character here. It's a story about an amnesiac medical student called Hiroshi Takagi. His car got hit by a truck and he lost his memory and his girlfriend both. Somehow though while his personal memories are completely gone, he remembers his studies and so finds his way into medical school where he excels.

Soon for us, though three years later for him, Takagi gets into dissection class, in which the students group up and dissect a body for four months. Gradually the man with no personal memory comes to realise that the body he's dissecting, that he's been making very detailed anatomical drawings of, is his dead girlfriend, Ryoko. What he sees aren't necessarily memories, especially as his realisation of time is highly inconsistent. Often what he sees are visions to do with life and death and reality, and the meaning of each.

In these visions Hiroshi and Ryoko indulge in fantasy death play, erotic asphyxiation, getting that high that comes with a proximity to death while always pulling back before it's too late. In the present, he's forged some sort of relationship with a fellow student, Ikumi, but it's obviously to him a pale substitute for what he had with Ryoko. Soon she discovers what Hiroshi has been hiding which only leads her to an even more unsettled state of mind. The colours Shinya Tsukamoto uses are presumably very deliberate and I presume have to do with life and death too: the cold clinical blues of Hiroshi's room, the warm vibrant reds when Ryoko is dancing and the lush greens when the two of them connect.

Tsukamoto's stamp is all over this film. He's not just the director: he wrote, co-produced, edited and did the production design and the cinematography. It's not far off a one man show, presumably something very personal to him. It's a beautifully shot, intriguingly structured theme piece and I'm sure it warrants a number of viewings to fully appreciate. He's never been an easy director to quantify and every film of his I see makes that task harder still.

The other name I know well here is that of the lead actor. Tadanobu Asano seems to be everywhere at the moment. I first saw him in Ichi the Killer and didn't even recognise him when I saw him again in Last Life in the Universe. I started to realise both his versatility and consistency through a Asano double bill at Chandler Cinemas: they gave us a fascinating double punch of Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Survive Style 5+. Since then it's been Gemini and Bright Future and Vital and no doubt more soon.

These are very different movies and Asano gives us very different performances that still show commonality. This may seem strange given that I first saw him as Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, but he underacts very powerfully indeed. I don't think I've ever seen an actor who can say so much while doing so little. He has a habit of just standing there doing nothing, but somehow he manages to convey deep emotion, that varies from scene to scene and film to film. I have no idea how he does it but it's an amazing talent.

Derailroaded (2005)

There are many rock musicians with problems, so many that it often seems to be part of the job description. Wild Man Fischer, prolific outsider musician, is a manic depressive paranoid schizophrenic, whose mother committed him to a mental asylum at sixteen years of age. Needless to say, his music is a little unique. Unlike other prominent outsider musicians, like Wesley Willis or Shooby Taylor, Fischer is often difficult to listen to, but the reasons behind that difficulty are precisely why he's so fascinating. He's raw and brutally honest and that truth is sometimes uncomfortable.

I'm a confirmed fan of outsider music but I've not heard too much Wild Man Fischer, beyond the theme for Rhino Records. This documentary provides some of the music but mostly provides background to Fischer as a person. We're shown who he was in a more lucid era, his heyday being the late sixties when he went from popular street performer hawking original compositions for a dime to recording a legendary double album for Frank Zappa, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer. We're also shown who he is now, often subject to paranoid delusions and alternating between revelling in his own failure and entertaining a small but rabid following. Mostly we're shown how he got from then to now.

Most telling are the stories we hear about him from those who know him well, including people I'm very aware of, including not just Zappa, but outsider chronicler Irwin Chusid, Dr Demento, Weird Al Yankovic and Mark Mothersbaugh. There's a stunning consistency between all these stories, but most telling are those from Barnes and Barnes, famed for songs like Fish Heads and long term fans of and collaborators with Fischer. Barnes and Barnes are Bill Mumy (yes, that Bill Mumy) and Robert Haimer and they're so in tune with who Wild Man Fischer is that I learned plenty about them too.

It's patently obvious that Fischer is a lovable lunatic and a very difficult man to work with, but when he's on what he calls his pep he's magnetic and irresistible. Mothersbaugh described him as a 'force of nature'. In many ways the film is a mirror of Fischer himself: points at which we want to ring the guy up and sing with him and record him and make him known to everyone, and points at which we wonder how anyone could possibly cope being around him. It's raw and it's honest and it's touching, just like him.

The Devil's Rain (1975)

How can anyone go wrong with a film like this? Before watching it, that is. It's a horror movie directed by Robert Fuest, the man who had already brought us the Dr Phibes movies. The stars are Ernest Borgnine and Eddie Albert. In a horror movie. Backing them up are co-stars William Shatner, Keenan Wynn, Tom Skerritt, Joan Prather and Ida Lupino. That's a stunning and varied clump of actors to which only question would be, 'Who is Joan Prather?' Well she was someone who had appeared with Shatner and Skerritt half a decade earlier in Big Bad Mama, that's who. There's even John Travolta in his film debut, the one he must happily ignore since his next films were Carrie, Saturday Night Fever and Grease. The Hieronymous Bosch paintings and dark choral work backing the opening credits bode well too.

And then it begins. Shatner is Lupino's son and it's raining and the phone's dead and everyone's upset wondering where Shatner's dad is. Then he turns up and literally melts outside ushering dire warnings and praising Satan. Lupino wants Shatner to take The Book to Corbin but Shatner doesn't want to. Then a truck arrives and Shatner races out but it's all a ruse. There's nothing in the truck but a voodoo doll and the thirty seconds while he realises this is enough for the house to get wrecked, the old man get hung upside down and Lupino kidnapped, apparently by people without faces. The Devil's rain is obviously way too much for Shatner's wicker cowboy hat to deal with.

And you won't believe me but that's just the first five minutes. It may go somewhere towards highlighting why this is an amazing movie, and by that I don't necessarily mean any good, merely amazing. Ida Lupino won an award for this film, a Golden Scroll from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Now I think Lupino was a superb actress, a groundbreaking director and one of the most influential women in the history of film, but she must have laughed at that award. I don't think she had a clue what this film was about and she knew it and she doesn't actually get that much to do either.

So Shatner goes to see Corbis at some ghost town called Redstone. Shatner is Mark Preston, one of a whole slew of Prestons in this film, and Corbis is Jonathan Corbis, the leader of a Satanic coven, played by Ernest Borgnine, though far less seriously than Shatner. Amazingly enough, Preston challenges Corbin to some sort of psychic duel and naturally loses, thus causing his brother and his wife to head out to investigate. They're Tom and Julie Preston, played by Skerritt and Prather. They're inolved in some sort of ESP research with Eddie Albert's character Dr Sam Richards. Are you confused yet? You will be.

I get the feeling that this was a four hour mini series that suddenly got turned into an hour and a half movie, and all the dialogue that explained everything was in the two and half hours that got cut out. It's hypnotic viewing but for all the wrong reasons: Lupino in a skin mask, Shatner branded and sacrificed, Eddie Albert as a researcher into parapsychology, Borgnine's facial makeup, Travolta sniffing his way around everywhere. 'Weird, isn't it?' says Skerritt's character, talking about the church in Redstone, which is completely out of place architecturally speaking. He could have been talking about the movie and I bet he said the same line after he saw it.

The sheer weirdness does have an effect. This is a creepy movie, mostly because its journey into weirdness circumvents all the usual cliches we expect it to follow. It leaves us glued to the screen wondering just what the heck the filmmakers are going to do next. The unpredictability is only part of it though, it also has plenty of very cool imagery, some of which seems decades ahead of its time. This is 1975 but some of the movements are reminiscent of J-horror, Japanese horror of the late '90s and early 2000s. The makeup effects look really bad the first time we see them but they get more and more impressive as the film goes on. Borgnine looks great as a goat and the ending of the film must have been truly shocking to 1975 audiences. These are the sort of effects that got films banned as video nasties in England a decade later.

It's not a great film, that's for sure, and it received a highly negative response from critics and viewers but it has every ingredient required to become a cult classic, down to the inclusion of Anton LaVey as a high priest. It has so much that's so watchable for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Roller Boogie (1979)

'Introducing Jim Bray' say the credits, but he went on to precisely nothing else. This is his one and only credit, but he was well and truly qualified for it, being a real life roller skating champion who had won hundreds of awards by the time he made this movie, though they didn't go beyond the national level. He was really only the lead because they couldn't find one so promoted him from stunt double. The rest of the credits unfold to a Cher soundtrack and feature lots of young men and women (read: boys and girls) dancing around on roller skates while trying to keep their very short and very tight shorts or swimsuits intact. This is not particularly distant from soft porn and I felt almost guilty watching it. There must have been more wardrobe malfunctions during the shooting of this film than can be comfortably imagined.

The star is not Jim Bray, it's Linda Blair, who was riding low after 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic, though hadn't quite descended into the exploitational depths she would find in the the eighties. She plays Teresa Barkley, better known as Terry, and she's the centre of two classic stories. There's the rebellious rich girl story, given that there his and hers matching Rolls Royces in the garage, Terry rides a very expensive car (apparently an Excalibur Phaeton) and she's apparently on her way to Juilliard because it's convenient for her parents who can just hop over to the Hamptons to visit, yet all she wants to do is skate down at the local roller rink. The other is the rich girl, poor boy romance, given that Bray plays Bobby James, the best skater on the boardwalk but hardly in her class, gien that he works on a local boardwalk store.

The most believable part of the story is the fact that Terry can skate but not that well and so wants Bobby to teach her, while he just wants to get into her pants. As she tells her mother, she doesn't want to play music, she doesn't want to go to Juilliard and she doesn't want to have anything to do with Franklin Potter, the lecherous boy her parents have set her up with. She just wants to win the local roller boogie contest down on the beach. The rest of the story is stunningly convenient lunacy that doesn't even pretend to make logical sense. In fact this has to be the most blatant display convenience in the history of cinema.

Apparently the skimpy costumes and demonstrations of flash moves on the beach or the rink floor weren't enough, so that writers Irwin Yablans and Barry Schneider had to bring in Mark Goddard, better known as Maj Don West in the original Lost in Space, to be some bad guy tycoon who wants to knock down Jammer's Roller Rink to build a shopping mall. This plot isn't just half baked, they never even started cooking. It's painful and it's embarrassing to watch such blatant nonsense. The worst thing is that it isn't ineptitude, it's literally not caring that it's complete idiocy and doing it anyway. I need to see Gleaming the Cube again. It isn't impossible to make a gimmick movie that doesn't have something to say too.

For my part, this film has no value at all in anything except the awesome dated tech. Everyone uses pay phones, unless you're rich enough to have a phone in your car. Stoney Jackson is a young black guy called Phones who carries a huge cassette deck (read: cassette deck not ghetto blaster) everywhere with massive headphones. Walkie talkies are nearly as big. All this dated tech is great fun for me but it's hardly enough to get most people to watch a movie.

Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005)

Written and directed by Fatih Akin, this really follows the narration and direction of Alexander Hacke, the bass player for Einstürzende Neubauten, a very interesting and influential group from Germany. I first encountered them through their connections with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Blixa Bargeld is a long term member of both), but then found them fascinating on their own terms. They're certainly an avant garde group, often playing custom made instruments, found objects and electronica, and Hacke, a sound engineer, joined at the age of fifteen. He obviously has a firm love of music, as evidenced by his immersion into it here even when he's not playing. He isn't just hearing it, he's obviously feeling it.

The title comes from Istanbul's unique place in the world. As the traditional gateway between east and west, it's a bridge that has been crossed by 72 nations in its long history as one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. It's part of Asia but also part of Europe and the contrast pervades everything about the city: old and new, traditional and revolutionary, beautiful and ugly. The film finds all these contrasts in music also, and it's a very effective documentary: one that both educates but also points us in new directions to continue learning.

The versatility is admirable. We begin with Baba Zula, a psychedelic underground band, then are introduced through some modern rock bands to Erkin Koray, the originator of rock music in Turkey. There's hiphop vocal contortionism from Ceza and others, which connects us to the streets. There we find traditional musicians, of various cultures, and modern buskers who are far from the amateurs I remember from the streets of Halifax. We meet some truly amazing musicians, 'amazing' being a word that comes into play more than once here.

Selim Sesler is an amazing clarinettist and whoever accompanies him on the oud is no less amazing. Aynur Dogan is an amazing Kurdish vocalist. Possibly most surprising is the discovery that famous musicians, those who are cultural icons through appearances in hundreds of movies, can also be seriously talented. It isn't just marketing. Orhan Gencebay and Sezen Aksu are Turkish icons but whatever their acting is like, their musicianship is beyond question. Many of these musicians speak to the soul and 'amazing' is a highly appropriate word.

One of the most obvious comparisons is with Buena Vista Social Club. Not only is it a musical quest made by a man who doesn't write or direct, but is continually part of the music being made (here Alexander Hacke takes Ry Cooder's role as Fatih Akin takes Wim Wenders's), but it delves way below the surface. One easy comparison is through the inclusion of Müzeyyen Senar, a film actress and musician who is now 86 years old and still able to perform admirably, even after 72 years of singing. Buena Vista Social Club was full of musicians of this age still performing with a skill that belies their age.

Most telling for me, like its Cuban comparison this film helps to shake our standard conception of music in the west. One of the street musicians in Siyasiyaband talks about not being understood by a western mentality and he wasn't talking about the style of music he plays. He was talking about music as a commodity, the concept that if something is appreciated, then it should be packaged it up, recorded and sold. It's a business and an industry and it has nothing to do with music, it has to do with money made through making people recognisable. These street musicians, as with many musicians here, make a living but are far from stars and we hear music played, not just on the street but on boats, rooftops and large stages; in tattoo parlours, front rooms and Romany pubs; at weddings and even in an 18th century Turkish spa. It'll be fascinating to see how far western music moves towards this concept as the music industry dies but music itself lives on.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

I Do (1921)

How much chaos can Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis get up to in a 25 minute film? I'd expect the answer to be a heck of a lot, but they start out with an animated wedding ceremony and a huge card reading One Year Later. They have a baby carriage but it's only for means of surreptitiously beating prohibition. However it doesn't take long for them to acquire kids, merely not their own. They belong to the brother-in-law and are credited on the title card not by name but as the Agitation, the Disturbance and the Annoyance. Even without sound, those names are obviously highly appropriate.

In fact, while Harold Lloyd is perfectly fine here and runs through his gags with aplomb, many of those gags involve one of the three kids. It's unfair to say that they steal the show but most slapstick gags work best through anticipation and the kids are integral to the anticipation here. Either they're already doing something horrendous to cause the gag or their reaction to what Lloyd does is the punchline.

It's not a bad film, it's just not as great as usual, partly because of the focus away from Lloyd even when he's on the screen and partly because some of the gags are so routine. There's also little to connect them, unlike most Lloyd shorts. Definitely a weaker Lloyd, especially for 1921. I've seen almost of his films from the twenties and this ties with 1924's Girl Shy as the weakest of them.

Save the Green Planet! (2003)

Ha-kyun Shin definitely plays some interesting characters. The first time I saw him was in Chan-wook Park's JSA: Joint Security Area as a North Korean soldier in a far more strange situation than just sentry duty in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. That was in 2000 but he was back two years later in another Chan-wook Park movie, as the green haired deaf and dumb guy in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, selling his kidney to try to save his sister. This time out he appears to be a demented loon, who believes that he's the only man who can save the planet from an imminent alien invasion from Andromeda.

He's Lee Byeong-gu and he believes that Man-shik Kang, the CEO of Yuje Chemicals and the son-in-law of the chief of police, is the leader of the alien conspiracy, the only one with royal genetic DNA code. At the next lunar eclipse, the alien prince will come from Andromeda, and that's only seven days away. Before that happens, he has to take him down to avoid a huge disaster and save the planet, so he kidnaps him. However this is hardly a ransom situation, Lee has his own motives and they're fashioned out of the logic of the truly insane.

What makes the kidnap situation so fascinating is that there develops a really strong dynamic between the kidnapper and the victim that really breaks new ground. We have no hero or villain here, but we do develop sympathy for both characters at different points on the story. Amazingly that sympathy moves back and forth with each unexpected twist, of which there are many. Sometimes we have sympathy for the young man whose life has gone from one horrific tragedy to another. Sometimes it's for the kidnap victim who is an arrogant and vicious man but a tough cookie that fights for everything he gets and has the intelligence to counter this insanity on its own terms.

There are other characters in the story too, though it's these two who dominate. Lee has a girlfriend who is a larger than life assistant and tightrope walker. He also has a dog called Earth who he feeds the remains of his victims. There are also two detectives investigating the disappearance of Man-shik Kang. Like so many films, there's the young and dedicated newbie and the old and established cop who knows it all. However this plays a little away from the cliches by making the newbie ignored and his mentor discredited and mostly gone. And the victim does so much of the work himself anyway.

The story is truly astounding, making leaps forward and sideways that we can't predict but always following some sort of logic. Somehow like the characters, this twisted plot refuses to die and it never ceases to amaze. This is astonishing cinema, that literally puts everything around it into a completely different perspective. Ha-kyun Shun is now firmly on my must track down list, and Yun-shik Baek has joined that list too. He plays a man who we initially believe to be a victim, but who steadfastly refuses to be such a thing, and he was wonderful as both halves of the character. How can you prepare for a part like this!?

Many of these actors have made very few films which presumably makes it easier to track down an entire career but more annoying because those careers add up to far too short a life's screen time. Lee's girlfriend Sooni is Jeong-min Hwang, who is a highly unlikely female lead and all the better for that fact and that she carries off her character joyously. This is one of only two films that she's made of hopefully many more to come. Jae-yong Lee impresses as the elder detective in one third of his three film career. As if to make this a series, Ju-hyeon Lee as the younger detective has made four.

The other name that really warrants huge attention though, along with Ha-kyun Shin and Yun-shik Baek, is Joon-Hwan Jang who wrote and directed this unique film. Just like both the kidnapper and the victim in this story refuse to play the roles they're given, neither does anything else. Everything breaks so far through the cliche barrier it leaves most of the rest of cinema way behind. This is stunning, awe inspiring stuff and I want to see more. However like most of his cast, Jang has a tiny filmography. Beyond writing and directing this film, he has a writing credit on a 1999 film called Phantom: The Submarine, with Joon-ho Bong, hardly a minor name. That's it. And that's a crime.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Hellboy (2004)

In 1944 the Nazis were desperate and they started playing with all sorts of bizarre stuff. We know that but graphic novelist Mike Mignola took it a step further. He had the Nazis visit the ruins of Trondheim Abbey in Scotland with Grigori Rasputin, so that he can hook up a bunch of cool machinery and summon the seven gods of chaos from the outer spaces. It's on an intersection of leylines, you see, so works great as a portal to the beyond. Also present, among the general Nazi rabble, are Rasputin's Nazi officer girlfriend and servant, Ilsa Haupstein, and Hitler's top assassin, Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, who looks very cool indeed with his black metal mask and bizarre swordplay.

Watching is Trevor Bruttenholm, better known as Broom, an English paranormal researcher who has arrived with the Americans. They fight it out with the Germans and close the portal but by the time they do, Rasputin has gone over to the other side and something else has come over to ours. He's small and red, he has horns and a tail and a huge club for a right hand. The Americans make him something of a secret mascot and Broom effectively adopts him. They call him Hellboy and in the form of Ron Perlman, he's very very cool indeed.

Back in New Jersey in the present day, there's a building that says it belongs to some Waste Management Services company. Underneath it though is the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, where Broom and Hellboy live and work, saving the world from the bad guys and that sort of stuff. Hellboy is now 6' 5" tall, has a thing for cats and Baby Ruths, smokes cigars and files down his horns to fit in. It's a heck of a place to fit in, given that they have things like the Spear of Longinus and Abe Sapien, a hyperintelligent fish creature discovered the day Abraham Lincoln died, who reads four books at once, eats rotten eggs and can pick up past and future from objects.

All this is naturally something of a shock for new boy, John Myers, hand picked from the FBI by Broom, who knows he's dying. Broom tells him, 'There are things that go bump in the night and we are the ones who bump back.' Soon there's a lot of bumping going on because Rasputin is back, having been resurrected by in the Birgau Pass in Moldavia by Haupstein and Kroenen, and he promptly releases Samael the Hellhound in a local museum to piss them all off. There's purpose to it all, of course, and it's up to Hellboy and the Bureau to stop Rasputin.

I watched this film for the first time in 2004, its year of release, after having read and loved many of the original graphic novels. I was, shall we say underwhelmed and was surprised to be underwhelmed. At that point the only Guillermo del Toro film I'd seen was Blade II, which I didn't know then was literally nothing but an audition for Hellboy. Then, after having caught up with Cronos and Pan's Labyrinth, I watched it again in 2007. It had grown on me but still left me somewhat dry. My review is here. Now in 2008 I haven't seen anything new except the trailer for Hellboy II which looks frickin' awesome, so it's definitely time for another viewing.

I'm happy to say that it seems to get better with every viewing. Some of it makes no sense, some (note: only some) of the effects are a little flaky, Ilsa is an overacted pain in the ass, some of the locations defy all the laws of physics and the ending is surprisingly disappointing. However the film holds together much better than I remembered, the characters were always impeccably cool and many of the references follow right behind. It's going to be very interesting indeed to see what a post Pan's Labyrinth del Toro can give us. Perlman will be back of course, as del Toro wouldn't make it without him, and there looks like much more. I'll be in the theatres in the first week, that's for sure.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Ask Father (1919)

In 1919 Harold Lloyd and his co-star Bebe Daniels were a romantic item, but I'm guessing that the real Lloyd didn't have the problems his character here has. The boy, as such he was usually credited when he wasn't Lonesome Luke, is deeply in love but her response to his protestations of love is always the same: ask father. The catch is that her father is an important man who is almost impossible to see.

Given that this is a slapstick era comedy that means that he has a conveyor belt on the floor of his office that escorts people out unceremoniously and a trapdoor in his floor as a backup. Half his office is comprised of thugs that do nothing except throw people out. Yet the boy doesn't give up. This is Harold Lloyd, after all. The comedy naturally has nothing to do with the girl and all about the lengths he takes to get into the man's office to ask father.

It's only 1919 but this is the Harold Lloyd we know well and he's fun to watch. I really must track down some of the Lonesome Luke films, which were a different Lloyd, one very much trying to jump on the little tramp's bandwagon, apparently. The earliest I've seen him was in 1917's All Aboard, which comes right at the tail end of the Lonesome Luke era but he'd made a hundred or so films in the five years before then. Backing him up here is not just Bebe Daniels, but a very recognisable Snub Pollard and apparently Charley Chase, in an unconfirmed role, though I couldn't find him.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Cyclo (1995)

A cyclo is a three wheeled Vietamese bicycle taxi and Cyclo in our film (we never hear another name) rides one of these for a living. It's a hard life and it doesn't pay very much but it's work. Maybe that's why lead actor Le Van Loc doesn't seem to have a lot of charisma in the early scenes: he's knackered all the time. His parents are dead and the rest of the family works: his elderly grandfather repairs tyres, his elder delivers water to the market and his much younger sister shines shoes. Yet they're still notably poor and looking for a way out of poverty. Then again so is everyone else, it seems. There are commonalities running throughout this film, especially the opening: everyone works hard but doesn't earn much and everything is really crowded.

There's a great sequence of shots sped up beyond normal speed that begin with a long shot of a high rise building. It's dark but all the rooms are lit and it looks like a wall of TV screens. I wasn't so keen on the editing though and some of the hand held camerawork, though there are many effective and interesting approaches to camera setups, including a staccato strobe shot at a nightclub, a passenger who looks like he's praying to God but is really holding a sheet of glass, a vertical shot of Cyclo that looks like it's horizontal and another one vice versa, and a few great uses for a fishtank. There's one especially surreal sequence with an American helicopter falling off a truck going round a roundabout.

Anyway life wasn't good for Cyclo to start with but then a group of young thugs beat him up, steal his cyclo and leave him curled up in the middle of the road. If I understood the story right, because this is a little fragmented, he works for a boss lady and her partner who suck him into the underbelly of their work, through subterfuge. They organise the theft of his cyclo then have him work off the cost running odd jobs like starting arson attacks against the competition. They also have him hidden away while they whore his sister out on fetish duty.

This is a fascinating film lent massive flavour from the cinematography and claustrophobia of the film, which has Hanoi (or Ho Chi Minh City) as a supporting character. While the editing and the way the story is laid out makes it notably fragmented and hard to follow, with long scenes that can only be described as poetry, and the lack of a name for anyone in the entire story doesn't help, the character of the city seeps through the film. It's a dark underbelly but it's lush and we feel the colours, textures, sounds, tones, fragrances of the city.

These characters are living and dying and we're right along with them, sucked into the screen. It's a vampiric picture in that respect, subtly throwing in extreme images of violence and perversion, but almost never treating them like they were extreme. The implication is that they're everyday occurrences and are treated as such and no more. The result is startling but amazingly not for the reasons that would make most films startling. In many ways it's the mundane that that amazes rather than the extreme. There's a long crane shot at the end that tells us so much without words. It's an amazing film, in strong parts amazing for not being amazing for what we'd expect to be amazing.

Le Van Loc is subtle in the lead. I get the impression that he's not really an actor and he was hired for the realism he could bring to the role. That's backed up by this being his only film credit. The other male lead is Tony Leung Chiu Wai, a year after Chungking Express and far enough into his career for him to be able to pick interesting roles. I've seen him in quite a few truly awesome roles, from Days of Being Wild to Hard Boiled to Infernal Affairs, and this is a solid addition to a fascinating career of often brooding introspection. I still have a number of key ones left to find, including a number of Wong Kar Wai movies that are high on my list.

The female lead as Cyclo's sister is Tran Nu Yen-Khe, who I've never heard of but who promises much with a versatile performance. She came to this from a major film made two years earlier, The Scent of Green Papaya, made by the same writer/director as Cyclo, Anh Hung Tran. It had enough international attention to be Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film but it lost out amongst strong Asian competition including Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, to a Spanish comedy called Belle Epoque. Tran Nu Yen-Khe (I have no idea which is the first or last name) would be back working for Anh Hung Tran (ditto) in another highly regarded film, 2000's The Vertical Ray of the Sun.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Negotiator (1998)

Tom Bower is one of those actors that everyone recognises but nobody knows. In a way it's a serious compliment: he's instantly recognisable as a powerful supporting actor but nobody knows his name. Here he opens the film as an ex-Marine who is holding his daughter hostage with a shotgun at her head. The negotiator of the title, Lt Danny Roman, gets her out alive. Soon thereafter Roman's partner, Nathan Roenick, is shot dead in a park and Roman is the first and only suspect on the list.

Someone has been embezzling the disability fund, Roenick's on his trail and his informant reckons that it's cops, even internal affairs, that are doing the embezzling. Roman is on the funds committee, is found at the scene and the gun used was the only one of three involved on a previous case that Roman didn't recover. What's more, offshore bank account statements are found in Roman's house. The implication though is that Roman is a good guy and he's being set up. Roenick is played by Paul Guilfoyle, the cop in CSI, and that makes two heavyweight supporting actors in the first ten minutes who have small parts and aren't even credited. That's a heck of a way to start.

Well Danny Roman is played by Samuel L Jackson and it would seem that he's one of the very best negotiators in the business. Needless to say he's pissed at the fact that he's about to be arrested for the murder of his partner and best friend and he goes in to Internal Affairs to confront the people he feels are doing this to him. Circumstances quickly turn into a hostage situation, with the negotiator as the hostage taker. He wants justice and he's the least likely man anyone could ever talk out of it. He has some major hostages: an internal affairs agent played by J T Walsh; Siobhan Fallon as his assistant; Paul Giamatti as a rat; and Ron Rifkin as Roman's own boss.

The one thing he asks for is to talk to Chris Sabian, another negotiator that he knows only by reputation because he doesn't know which of his friends he can trust, and Sabian is played by Kevin Spacey. As he proved in a number of films, not least Se7en and K-Pax, Spacey is able to say anything he damn well pleases and seem believable if not downright angelic while he's lying at you. His casting decision is no surprise whatsoever and it's also no surprise that he's very good at what he does. This becomes a very clever cat and mouse game with a lot of factors in play all at once.

F Gary Gray directed (the F is for Felix, hence F Gary), early in his career while he was still known as a hip hop video director. However this film sure goes a long way to explain why he got given the chance to remake The Italian Job. The writers are James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, but I'm not up on too many writers. DeMonaco had only two writing credits before this one, but I've seen some of what he's done since. He'll get his first chance in the directorial chair this year, with Staten Island, currently in post-production. Fox is even greener, with precisely nothing before this one and very little since. I wonder why. Between them they fashioned a film that is way more talky than the standard action film but way more action filled than the standard drama. I like that balance.

While the script shines, it's hard to focus away from Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey though, with able support from David Morse, J T Walsh and others. J T Walsh was in the last year of his career, in which he died of a heart attack in February. No less than five films released soon afterwards were dedicated to his memory, including this one, and in an even more telling tribute, Jack Nicholson dedicated his Oscar win for As Good as It Gets to Walsh too. I've seen a lot of his films over the years, and he was pretty prolific for someone with only a sixteen year career. He was always memorable and fun to watch, even if he was usually the bad guy.

Monday, 16 June 2008

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

When you're the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, having something like 'Friedkin's finest hour' plastered on front of one of your DVD's really promises a lot. However this one isn't just an empty promise, even though it's a new DVD and it cost a measly $4.99. This doesn't just have William Friedkin as the director, he wrote the screenplay too, and the cast pits William Petersen against Willem Dafoe, with people like John Turturro and Dean Stockwell in support.

Petersen excels in his debut film lead as Richard Chance, a Secret Service agent who crosses over the line in his quest to catch the man who killed his partner. His partner is Jimmy Hart, three days from retirement, and he's shot dead and left in a dumpster by a counterfeiter by the name of Rick Masters two days before Christmas Eve. Hart isn't just Chance's partner, he's his best friend, and Chance is a hot blooded young adrenaline junkie who knows precisely who did it and wants revenge. This is a long way back for Petersen, a year before Manhunter and with only one credit to his name before this as a bit part bartender in Michael Mann's Thief. Talk about making a name for himself.

Rick Masters is played by Willem Dafoe, early for him too though he was a little more established than Petersen at the time. He hadn't done anything as major as this before but he'd played a few leads in films like The Loveless and Roadhouse 66. He's dynamic here though, as if he'd been playing leads all his life. He's an artist, not just as a counterfeiter but in a more conventional manner too, but he's also a nasty piece of work, completely without scruples. He's also very aware of how to keep himself safe and covered. At one point he burns a huge amount of money, purely because the trail is compromised. At another he orders a hit on one of his own men, because he can't get him out of jail.

What makes this so rivetting is the fact that this very quickly ceases to have anything to do with good guys and bad guys. Masters is the bad guy but he's very good at what he does. Chance is the good guy but he's so far over the line that he becomes indistinguishable from a bad guy. At one point he says outright, 'I can do whatever I want' and we know full well that he believes it. He stoops as low as blackmail, theft and some truly awesomely reckless driving. The car chase here is memorable and powerful, with Chance at one point driving at speed down the wrong side of a freeway causing a mass traffic accident. Friedkin breaks a few rules here, some of which I'm absolutely not going to tell you about. This is one of those movies that is absolutely not afraid to slap you in the face and not feel a moment remorse for it.

No, this isn't The Exorcist, but it's a powerful film nonetheless and it impressed me more than The French Connection, not least because the car chase in that one has gone down in cinematic legend and this one carried far more of a punch.

Dirty Harry (1971)

Another of those classic films from the seventies that I've seen, more than once, but never as it should be seen: in full 2:35 widescreen on a large screen. I wonder how I ever got by watching films taped off TV on a tiny little screen at the end of my bed. The current generation is spoiled, that's for sure. But beyond seeing far more of San Francisco than I ever did on TV, what else is new?

Well the truth is I can't tell because it must be so long that I've forgotten almost everything about the film. I remember Dirty Harry Callaghan himself, but then I've seen all five films and Clint Eastwood's portrayal is hardly something to forget. He's tough, he's quick with his gun and he hates everybody equally. He's a perfect hero for the dirty world that was the early seventies. I remember some of the dialogue of course, but then so does everyone who hasn't seen this film. Those of who have seen it merely remember the line as it was spoken not as it's passed down into our cultural heritage.

I remember Scorpio, the serial killer who threatens to kill a person a day until the city pays him $100,000. Yes, there are only six digits there; yes, this was before Austin Powers and yes, it was still serious money in 1971. Scorpio is played by Andy Robinson in his film debut who would go on to a versatile career including the lead role in Hellraiser and a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His character in that show, Elim Garak, was intended to be a one time character but Robinson impressed so much that it became a long running, even pivotal character, and that's not surprising given his depth.

He has a lot of fun with his role here too as an indiscriminate killer. Scorpio is bright and he's a good shot but he's more than a little on the crazy side. We see He's almost gleeful following victim number two through his sniper scope and almost heartbroken when he loses him. He's mostly in control early on but gradually loses it as the film progresses. It's a powerful performance and an impressive one. I'll certainly pay some attention to what else he's done since, though that doesn't include a lot of films.

And now we're well into territory I don't remember. There are further victims but this doesn't focus on the progression like most serial killer films. It's far more about character than you'd expect and far less fascistic than you'd expect too, given the negative view that may have taken in succeeding years. Harry is certainly not averse to bending the rules but he does so in good faith and it's not blatant disregard for the law, even though he has a healthy disregard for those running it.

He has a short timeframe to catch Scorpio before a 14 year girl he's kidnapped suffocates to death and he catches him in time, though it turns out the girl was long dead anyway. However what he does technically counts as illegal entry and torture, so Scorpio is free as a bird. The real story comes in catching him again and doing so in such a way that he won't get away again. The theme of the film is all about the difference between what law enforcement did and what Harry Callaghan did. Law enforcement was all about that: the law. Callaghan was about justice. What Dirty Harry proved to the satisfaction of the moviegoing public was that the two don't necessarily match and often don't.

There are other people in the film besides Harry and Scorpio. Reni Santoni plays his partner, Insp Chico Gonzalez, who I'd forgotten entirely, but on the police side of things, it's very much Dirty Harry's show. There's John Vernon as the Mayor of San Francisco, in another of those memorable John Vernon roles, one that he would effectively reprise in the pilot episode of Sledge Hammer!, which after all was a very deliberate comedic take on Dirty Harry. There's Robert Mitchum's brother, John Mitchum, as a fellow cop called Frank DiGiorgio.

Really though it boils down to three things: Harry, Scorpio and the law, but behind it is a lot of style. Harry and his .45 magnum have style, regardless of how wild Eastwood's hair got. He got a lot of the best shots too, shots in the sense of camera shots not gun shots, including some very stylish camerawork that is almost out of place in a film like this. There's a great shot of him standing on the bridge at the end waiting for the bus, but best of all is the awesomely long pull back shot away from Harry and Scorpio in the middle of the football ground. It seems strange to bring up odd camera shots when the film's impact came in very different ways. Every cop played in a movie since owes something to Dirty Harry, not just the obvious takes on the role but in franchises like the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon films or pretty much every Arnold Schwarzenegger role. They're all Harry Callaghan with a little twist.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

This was my Christmas present from my good wife in 2005 and we watched very shortly thereafter. Two and a half years, though, is far too long to go without seeing such a unique piece of filmmaking so we pulled out the DVD again. The story is H P Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu, written in 1928 and long considered unfilmable because of the way it leaps around in its narrative, but Andrew Leman of the H P Lovecraft Historical Society took on the challenge and made the film according to the style that wold have been appropriate for the time of the story's publication.

Now the silent era in the US officially ended in 1931 with Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, which itself had been an anomaly in an industry that had taken the first steps into the world of sound in 1927 and had almost entirely switched over by 1929. The rest of the world took longer, notably in the far east where the Russians, Chinese and Japanese continued to make silent films throughout the thirties. The highly definitive Silent Era website 'firmly judge Modern Times to be a mute sound film', and I'll trust them. However I've long wondered why people hadn't gone back and used the silent style later. Well Leman did precisely that. This is meant to appear like a silent film made in 1928, as far as was humanly possible.

We open with a man in an asylum finishing a jigsaw puzzle and talking about what drove him mad. He explains about how he looked through the papers of his late great-uncle and discovered a large collection of bizarre notes. We then follow the great-uncle's investigation in a collection of nested flashbacks. It begins with Henry Wilcox, a man who wrote down and painted the contents of his dreams, full of strange cities and weird sounds, during a long mad month of March 1925.

It meant plenty to the man's great-uncle because it tied closely to the narrative of Inspector Lagrasse, a New Orleans police inspector, made 17 years earlier. He had told his story of dark voodoo rituals in the Louisiana swamps to a gathering of archaeologists in 1908 at Saint Louis University. One archaeologist there tied the story back to the 1870s in Eskimo country. The final piece of the puzzle comes through a chance newspaper story about the Alert, an fishing trawler found abandoned in the South Pacific. Only one man survived the Alert and the investigation into its abandonment, and so the great-uncle follows his trail, which takes him from Boston to New Zealand to Australia to Norway, only to find the man that he seeks is dead. However his journal survives and on the story runs.

Some of the graphics are pretty poor, notably the shots of scale at dread Rl'yeh with sailors looking up or down at either ends of huge stone structures. A few shots of boats are obviously models. Then again this is effectively an amateur film, made by devotees of the material rather than by professional filmmakers with something even approaching a budget. Given the lack of resources, the work done here is astounding, including the claymation Cthulhu. The acting is variable but because of the sheer size of the cast very few of the actors get much screen time to build any character. This is a film very driven by story and this isn't just Lovecraft, it's one of the key pieces in the foundation of the Cthulhu mythos, something that became massively important to the Weird Tales crowd and which grows larger every year.

Leman patently isn't F W Murnau or Fritz Lang but he's a talented filmmaker who has both vision and guts to follow an approach that could hardly be described as mainstream or commercially viable. I hope he makes his money back and I hope he makes more. I feel sure that this will be one of what will become many such cinematic time capsules as the cost of filmmaking shrinks and the means of distribution becomes cheaper and easier. I know thing's like Pickman's Model or The Rats in the Walls would be high on my list of films to make if I ever buy a HD camcorder. Silent and in black and white, of course.

Game of Death (1978)

The opening credits include clips not of Game of Death but of Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon. This is because Bruce Lee died during the making of this film in 1972 leaving only 54 minutes of footage. Six years later Robert Clouse, who had 'directed' Enter the Dragon took that footage and made a new film out of it, rewriting the entire script, adding in stock footage and hiring a lot of new actors. Dan Inosanto is apparently the only actor who appeared in what would have been the 1973 film and what became the 1978 film.

It would appear that Bruce Lee plays a martial arts actor called Billy Lo, who starts off the film fighting Chuck Norris in the Colisseum. Yep, that's the fight that provided the finale to Way of the Dragon and it's followed by an 'accident' on set. Yes, Billy Lo's life is threatened and for precisely the same reasons that Bruce Lee's life was apparently taken. Lo is an international martial arts star and he's planning to start up his own production company, thus seriously upsetting the bad guys in the syndicate who want to run everyone and everything, so he fakes his own death to get away from them.

The exploitation quotient is huge here, to almost unparalleled levels. Other than being a Bruce Lee film that Bruce Lee never made, it capitalises ruthlessly on similarities to the real Bruce Lee too. Naturally without him, director Robert Clouse got to play all those tricks that Ed Wood got to play in Plan 9 from Outer Space with his star, Bela Lugosi, dead. There's no vampire cape to use but early on we have a lot of shots where the hero of our story is cunningly obscured, such as filming him from the back seat of a car when he's in the front facing the other way with sunglasses on. Worst of all is a cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee's head transposed onto the body of someone else.

We also have various standins for Lee, including Kim Tai Chung and Yuen Biao. They do try, I'll give them that, and they even attempt the famous animal noises during fights, but not one of them is believable as Bruce Lee in the slightest. To get around much of this, we get the classic facial reconstruction by plastic surgery angle, explaining why Billy Lo doesn't look like Billy Lo any more. This is prompted by an amazing set of sequences that turn the final scene in Fist of Fury into a mirror image of the death of Lee's son Brandon 14 years later during shooting of The Crow.

The gory detail of such exploitation by premonition leaves a bad taste in the mouth but at least the filmmakers couldn't have known at the time. However they were happy to use stock footage of Bruce Lee's real funeral in the scenes that follow, including a shot into the casket itself, as a cover story. While Billy Lo goes through his reconstructive surgery, he's officially dead with a prominent funeral to prove it. It's not surprising that the cast are different, the original cast probably didn't want anything to do with it. In fact basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a student of Bruce Lee's, refused to appear, so while the stock footage of him fighting Lee is real, any other appearances of his character is not. Chuck Norris only appears in archive footage and threatened legal action because of the inclusion of his name in the credits.

So what else do we have here? There's some sort of karate world championship fight between Lo-Chen and Karl 'Killer' Miller, but it's complete lunacy. It plays out like WWE would produce such a thing, merely without any steel chairs. We have a couple of Oscar winning actors, including Dean Jagger and Gig Young, who may have picked up on some of the sleaze here. During filming, the 65 year old Young married a 21 year old German actress, and three weeks later shot her and then himself in a murder/suicide. We have the famous yellow tracksuit that Uma Thurman would take on for Kill Bill, though he doesn't get to wear this until 75 minutes into the film.

And finally, we have the game of death itself, a pagoda which Billy must fight his way up one level at a time. In the original Game of Death, the pagoda was the central point of the story. Five martial artists, including Lee and regular costar James Tien, would face different opponents at each level, and between them they would tell the philosophical story of Jeet Kune Do. Thus it was a very personal story and one which does not make it onto the screen here. It apparently has far more prominence in a couple of 2000 releases: the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey and the reconstruction Bruce Lee in GOD: Shibôteki yûgi.

In this film don't even think about looking for anything remotely Bruce Lee until about 80 minutes in and then the transition can only be jarring. This is really not anything worth watching in itself. It's only worth anything for odd reasons: the final Bruce Lee footage, the famous fight against 7' 2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sammo Hung as Lo-Chen in that karate world championship fight. And the exploitation insanity. Lots of exploitation insanity. But at the end of the day the outtakes on this DVD from the real Game of Death are far more entertaining than Robert Clouse's film.