Sunday 28 November 2010

Gold (1968)

Directors: Bill Deslodge and Bob Levis
Stars: Del Clos, Gary Goodrow, Caroline Parr, Sam Ridge, Orville Schell and Dorothy Schmidt

I was born in England in 1971 so attempting to fathom what was happening in America in 1968 is an impossible task for me. I know enough to know that to understand it you had to have been there, but if you were there you were probably so stoned out of your brain that you didn't notice. I understand a bit more of what was happening to American cinema at the same time: as much change on the screen as was happening off it. The studio monopoly had been dealt a death blow in 1948 and finally rolled over in the mid fifties. The Production Code they adhered to was slowly weakened throughout the sixties until being officially abandoned in 1968. For the next few years the heads of the big studios freely admitted that they didn't have a clue what people wanted any more and, after Easy Rider, just threw money at anyone who seemed like they might have a clue. Most didn't. It wasn't until Jaws gave birth to the blockbuster that things fell back into place.

What this leaves us is a period of time that's full of amazing experimentation, many films being made by visionary artists instead of professional filmmakers. In the right hands, this freedom led to taboo-crushing works of art like Night of the Living Dead, Putney Swope or Two-Lane Blacktop. In the wrong hands, it led to pictures so wildly out of control that they were often never finished. Gold got finished but promptly lost, perhaps because nobody could actually believe anything of substance could have been conjured up out of the filmmaking environment Bob Levis set up for his debut film as a director. He collected together a host of free thinking hippies and took them out into the middle of nowhere to get stoned, get naked and get some footage in the can. Levis is the writer, of sorts, but he didn't have a script. He presumably just stayed a little less stoned than everyone else in order to keep the camera rolling and effectively wrote while editing.

Finally available on DVD, the liner notes clamour about how it was lost for forty years and how it systematically shattered every movie rule, but they're being economical with the truth. It wasn't ever quite that lost, for a start. It saw a theatrical release in England in 1972, but not in the US until 1996, so it's been out there, just not particularly remembered except by fans of rock 'n' roll legends, the MC5, who contributed three long unavailable songs to the soundtrack. Now we can evaluate it without a heady cloud of drugs floating around our heads to distort our thinking and, watched clean, it succeeds in shattering movie rules, but not systematically. It's obvious that nobody had much of a clue what they were doing, so they just kept shooting what felt cool at the time with a vague hope that it would still look cool in the editing room. To be fair, some of it does but only because naked mudpile wrestling is always intrinsically cool.

There is a vague plot, but only just. It's all about The Man and how he keeps everyone down, as you might expect for a 1968 hippie movie. 'You are important,' reads a sign at the beginning, in a set of counterculture images that back the opening credits. They're good photos, to be honest, iconic ones of peace signs and bullets, Vietnam and the Stars and Stripes burning, Martin Luther King both alive and dead. There's pirate radio station Radio Caroline, but perhaps only because its founder, Ronan O'Rahilly, was an executive producer of this film, though he did much better the same year with Girl on a Motorcycle. These iconic images underline just how much this film honestly aimed at being an important cultural artefact, but it succeeded in a strange way. This simply works far better as a portal into the counterculture era than as an actual movie. In other words, it's more important for simply existing than for anything it does on screen.

Perhaps for the only time ever in a movie, The Man is as singular as the epithet suggests. Yeah, the oppressive power of the state is represented here by one man, state police captain Harold Jinks, played by Garry Goodrow. We know he's tough because he tells us he has a black belt and demonstrates by doing something close to a Bob the Builder dance. Really he's a corrupt cop, a corrupt politician and a gangster all in one, as is hammered home relentlessly in every way you can comfortably imagine and then some. When he shoots a man dead he pulls out his pecker to savour the moment. He wants to buy Edward Russ's land but when he discovers that he doesn't own it, even after 18 years of occupancy, he gives him eight hours to get off it. He beats up the opposition during a political election for mayor of a town we never see. He doesn't like free love because if you give it away the whorehouses lose business and he gets a cut from everything.
He also generates our attempt at a story with a dastardly plot to send a bunch of misfit hippies off on the Sierra Railroad to find gold so that he can arrest them for public nudity when they strip off and frolic around in the river. At least I think this is what he's up to, but it's hard to tell when every time we blink he's off doing something else. It doesn't help that it seems like every overtly evil act is accompanied by a distraction. While Jinks beats up his election opponent, he has Little Miss Gold Nugget dance naked on the table. If I could buy that this was deliberate comment on how easily our eyes get diverted from the real issues then there might be value, but it doesn't work as well in the concentration camp scenes later. I think it was merely as subtle as Levis was able to think. When opposition to Jinks is phrased as elegantly as, 'The law is bullshit. The law sucks,' nobody is enticing here. Are the revolutionaries and the establishment all morons?

The only character who may be intended to be enticing is Hawk, a prospector who unfortunately looks rather like Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate, right down to the floppy hat and the huge walking stick. He overhears the shenanigans and so catches the train too, to flit in and out of the story to do bizarre things and fall over a lot. He's played by Del Close, who John Belushi cited as his biggest influence in comedy, but this is hardly his finest moment. He's often regarded as one of the key players in improvisational comedy and it's when he's really called on to think on his feet that he's worth watching. At one point Hawk tries to teach Le Roy Acorn revolution but the man is just too stoned to understand what he's talking about. Effectively Close has to treat his fellow actor as a prop and attempt to create valid humour out of a drugged out idiot. His attempt to teach Acorn how to make a molotov cocktail is hilarious but I'm not sure how intentionally.

Drugged out hippies and molotov cocktails in the Californian wilderness is not a particularly safe combination and there are points where I wondered if someone didn't come back. Why anyone would think it would be a good idea to mix people this unstable with things like bullwhips, pistols and high explosives I really don't know. I'm surprised nobody got hurt. Then again, maybe they did. There's a shot where Close gets taken down hard and the camera followed suit a few times. Wouldn't it be hilarious if there's a lost colony in the woods begun by people who got left behind when the drugs ran out and everyone went home? Maybe they woke up in graves, presumed dead. It wouldn't surprise me here, as no more than a handful of the cast and crew stayed clean and sober throughout. The only reason I believe that anyone did is that the experience ended up on DVD. Someone had staying power but maybe that just came from different drugs.

There are scenes that are interesting to watch, at least for a moment. Shortly into its trip into nowhere (talk about a metaphor for the movie) the train stops to treat us to a psychedelic love scene, shot in black and white with various tints and with music from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. It's like, out there, man: split screen in a number of directions, even diagonal. On drugs it may be a riot, but without them it seems like a random scene thrown in with as much explanation as you might get in a porn film. Both the man and woman involved are naked, but how taboo stretching that was in 1968 with Hair on Broadway, I can't say. As befits a hippie film, the full frontal nudity here is about sexual freedom rather than exploitation, as summed up by the line, 'Inside every clothed person a naked person is trying to get out.' Some of the scenes look more like a nature documentary, merely one where wallowers in mud are human beings not hippapotomi.

What struck me most here, beyond the idea of taking a cast and crew into the wilderness with a copious supply of drugs not being a good one, wasn't the nudity or the lack of any coherence. It was that the counterculture world seems to be just as sexist as the one it aimed to replace. Sure, these hippie chicks are liberated: they take off their clothes, bathe naked, frolic in mud. Some even have short hair, but none talk. There are odd words here and there, but never a complete sentence. You'd think that folks trying to reject their parents' morality would allow women to open their mouths, but not here. For a film where an American cop builds a concentration camp, sexism feels like a strange thing to focus on but it stood out for me and made me wonder both how Bob Levis found these people to take into the wilderness and just how committed they were to this project. I think the lesson is that nobody really was, perhaps not even Levis.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Director: Sakichi Sato
Stars: Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa
It's been entirely too long since I've seen a Tadanobu Asano movie, so one in which he wears an afro seemed like a good choice for a Saturday night. Here the Japanese Johnny Depp plays Pon Fujio, an unlikely hero who works at a fire extinguisher plant in Edogawa, Tokyo. Then again, his co-star, Sho Aikawa, is even more of an unlikely hero as Mitsuo, Fujio's friend and colleague, because he's a bald man apparently afflicted with stomach cancer who sees teaching Fujio the martial art of jujitsu as his last mission in life. And yet, as the title suggests, this is a zombie flick, in its vague way a Japanese take on the previous year's Shaun of the Dead, at least for a while. Halfway through we get an animated interlude, then it turns into a sort of Japanese gameshow version of Metropolis with spiritual overtones. Yeah, that does sound kinda bizarre, huh? Well, if you weren't paying attention, it's a Tadanobu Asano movie. What do you expect?

As befits a film that is hardly your traditional zombie flick, it hardly has a traditional source for its zombie apocalypse. Nearby that fire extinguisher plant is a mountain of garbage called Black Fuji, which looks somewhat like a upturned funnel that scrapes the sky but is comprised of trash of every description, up to and including illicit corpses. Fujio and Mitsuo get the opportunity to bury their own illicit corpse when their boss goes a little nuts over their habit of ignoring work to practice jujitsu. Black Fuji beckons through the window and hey, everyone else is doing it, right? Well, that's just one take on the commentary behind this zombie plague origin, but whatever the environmental subtext, the illicit dead begin to climb out of their illicit graves and Tokyo soon falls. Being a Japanese film, the first victim is Fujio's old home room teacher, a pervert who gets his wedding tackle eaten by a zombie while he's examining a stack of dumped gay porn mags.
Thus far we're not sure what we're watching. It's quintessential Japanese weirdness but there's nothing that really pushes the envelope, which is a little disappointing given that sometimes it seems that pushing the envelope is all that modern Japanese movies do. Sure, it's dark humour but it's generally universal dark humour. The Japanese flavour comes out in a few details, such as when an old man stumbles upon a schoolgirl zombie crashed out on a pile of trash bags and his first impulse is to look up her skirt. Mostly the zombies are pretty sorry creatures, without any real menace or presence. When they arrive at the fire extinguisher plant, they're just props for our heroes to practice jujitsu moves on. At least they provide better zombie lemmings than Resident Evil: Afterlife, and given that that was one of only two positive things in that movie I only need to find a better swathe cut through a zombie horde and its last positive note vanishes.

For the longest time it's just Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa, which is fine because they're both awesome whatever they're in. Perhaps this is so subdued because nothing was likely to outdo Funky Forest: The First Contact, the surreal trip of a movie Asano had made earlier the same year. He got a bit more serious in 2006, making only two movies instead the seven he churned out in 2005, following those up with his take on Genghis Khan in the Russian picture, Mongol. I haven't seen anywhere near as much Sho Aikawa as I have Tadanobu Asano, and with his newly shaven head I didn't recognise him from films like Pulse and Dead or Alive: Final, made at the beginning of the decade. For the longest time I didn't even realise it was the same actor who had shone in the title role of Zebraman for Takashi Miike a year earlier. While it took a while for the filmmakers to persuade this pair to take part, they're well cast in these quirky roles.
Just before the halfway mark we get a third live character, a young lady named Yoko who they rescue from her convenience store robbery going bad. This is after the zombie apocalypse, so civilisation has already fallen but she decides to steal the cash register anyway. I'm sure there's some sort of social comment here but I was too busy looking at the cool outfit she had on to notice. And as soon as she joins the cast, everything changes. To try to keep a semblance of continuity here in synopsis is impossible, so I'm just going to look at Tokyo Zombie as two films that happen to share the same actors. From a subdued zombie comedy, it jumps five years in a single bound and becomes a science fiction yarn that is never comfortable being both serious and wacky at the same time. The wacky parts look out of place but still beat the serious parts to death in the middle of a metal amphitheatre where men fight zombies to satisfy rich old women.

Asano is an able slacker as the Fujio of the first half of the picture and he's an able fighter as the Fujio of the second, but there he suffers from not having much Aikawa to bounce quirkiness off. Erika Okuda looks great in her debut picture as Yoko, but her character is too frickin' annoying to pay too much attention to. She doesn't get much to do in the entire film, just annoy us and look good while doing so. Even her silent screen daughter gets a punchline. Director Sakichi Sato saw this as the most untouchable work of Yusaku Hanakuma, who wrote the source manga, and I don't think he managed to overcome that hurdle. Watching the extras I got the feeling that he never expected to actually make the picture at all, but a somewhat misguided producer kept the film alive and he saw it through. That doesn't always work out and usually for good reason. Producers are good at getting films made, they're not good at picking the right ones to make.

It's obvious that Sato tried to make something out of the source material but the task proved too much. He'd already demonstrated his skill as a scriptwriter, having written two highly popular Takashi Miike movies, Ichi the Killer and Gozu, and he obviously impressed the stars of those films as they came to work for him here. Playing the psychotic yakuza in Ichi the Killer was one of Tadanobu Asano's many finest hours and Sho Aikawa got a particularly complex lead role in Gozu. They both have a ball here with their strange hair, or lack of it, and they play the film dry and straight. They're both great fun to watch, but unfortunately we really just watch them rather than what they're doing within a larger story. The inconsistency and lack of any real focus may work better in the manga, but in and amongst the slaves to Calpis and wrestler zombies in monkey masks, we're just taking the opportunity to watch Aikawa bald and Asano in an afro.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Demeking the Sea Monster (2009)

Director: Kôtarô Terauchi
Stars: Takeshi Nadagi and Kouhei Kiyasu

I'm not entirely convinced that when the Japanese get up in the morning, they immediately think that the day would be so much better if only someone would make a giant monster movie. There are so many daikaiju in Japan that, even with the mighty Gojira on hiatus since his last outing in Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004, you still can't move without tripping over one. Admittedly, Tokyo must be the best place in the world to work in construction because whenever any building gets finished, something stomps on it so you can start over, but you'd think that everyone else would have been there, done that. Yet here comes another daikaiju movie, made as late in the day as 2009, but this one turns out to be more than a little different: it's a giant monster movie without a giant monster. Yes, you should read that sentence again. To be fair, Demeking does turn up for an awesome five minute dream sequence halfway through, but that's it.

I know that's a spoiler but it's a necessary one. If you're a fan of giant monsters and you see this DVD you might be tempted to buy it, but you should read the rest of this review first or you're likely to be sorely disappointed. It isn't just that Demeking isn't a sea monster, because he isn't: he's from space. It's that this movie really isn't about Demeking and there's no way for you to know that by looking at the DVD or by reading the various publicity articles on websites by folks who haven't seen the film. Presumably over in Japan, audiences have a head start on us because the film is based on a popular 1991 manga by Takashi Imashiro and so hasn't just appeared out of the ether. The film is well made and it kept my attention throughout, but a daikaiju movie it isn't. It's worthy of comparison less to the Godzilla series and more to The Goonies, with plenty of Stand By Me thrown in there too. And if that doesn't confuse you, I don't know what will.

The opening scene is traditional: an electric meteor hurtling dangerously towards the camera, which neatly sidesteps out of the way at the last minute. Demeking is on the move and we wait eagerly for him to crush Bruce Willis and any other pesky Earthlings who might get in his way. But no, he promptly disappears and we find ourselves in 1970 in a coastal Japanese town called Akinohama City, where we meet the real characters of the story, Hachiya and Kameoka. They're quirky characters, because this is a Japanese movie, but they're played straight without any of the usual parody or outright surrealistic insanity that the Japanese are well known for. There is quite a bit of humour but it's gentle humour that arrives through character definition rather than wild situation comedy, and while we are reminded a few times that Demeking is on his way, the story is all about the people waiting for him rather than the monster himself.
Kameoka is apparently a student at Tanoura Middle School even though he's old enough to have a bald spot. He quits judo classes because his parents want him to study, but all he really wants to do is hang around with three much younger kids who comprise the Tanoura Youth Exploration Group. He draws cartoons and tells stories and gets bullied, but they all dream of adventure and that's what leads them to discover a full samurai outfit on a supposed ghost ship, and get caught by the owner, the mysterious Hachiya. While he sells grilled squid from a stall at the Mamahama Marine Park, he also rides around on his motorbike in a long red and white knitted scarf and a helmet with 'Genius' painted on it. A complete loner, he doesn't seem to understand what sex is, though an older widow at the park obviously fancies him. He has a purpose though, outlined to him in a vision and he eventually reveals it to Kameoka and his gang through a treasure hunt.

What we see in the opening half of the film is what shapes these characters. We don't see their parents but we do see them bored with the uneventful coastal life that Akinohama City exudes. Even the marine park is consistently quiet and restrained, the ferris wheel revolving lazily as if nobody would ever want excitement. Hachiya, Kameoka and the three junior partners in his exploration group are apparently the only exceptions, frustrated by the pace of the town and wanting something more. Even when these folks all meet, they seem unable to spark anything. Hachiya explains to the others that he's destined to fight Demeking, but with the air of someone who can't believe that anyone else in the town has an imagination. He asks them, 'You want adventure?' They reply, 'Yes.' So he gets on his motorbike and rides away. Yet this eventually becomes the treasure hunt and a revelation of what Hachiya's connection to Demeking really is.

Up to now we've been wondering just what the purpose of this film is, but the treasure hunt that Hachiya sends them on reminds us of The Goonies. They cycle on from clue to clue, surrounded by banal reality but end up discovering that the adventure they sought isn't remotely like what they expected. While the journey is all The Goonies, the discovery is more Stand By Me because it's grounded, a lesson in life that they didn't expect. At the end of this is the Demeking dream sequence before we continue on, wondering afresh what the story is trying to tell us but realising in the end that it's just life. These kids wonder what's next too as, with youthful impatience, they couldn't see past the end of their quest. It's all about the journey, not the destination, but life carries on and they have to find a way to relate to it, to be part of it but without ever losing the magic of childhood imagination. It's subtle coming of age stuff with surprising depth.
Unfolding at a sedate pace, with scenes that linger just a little longer than you expect, like Dead Man or much of the work of Wim Wenders, there's very little soundtrack to distract us from the story. Everything is designed to draw us in to the lead characters and the little things that build their personalities and their outlooks on life. We're not even sure quite how Kenji, Hiro and little Masaru, the three kids Kameoka hangs out with, tie to anything. Are they friends, fellow misfits, or are they siblings? We don't know. They're just there, more a part of a story conjured up within Hachiya's treasure hunt than part of the town. It could even be that they don't exist at all, only imaginary friends, there for Kameoka to feel a part of something and to bounce his ideas off. I don't think that's true but it would work just as well. This puts it vaguely into Amélie territory, as he discovers not just a connection to the world but the magic inside rather than just outside.

And while this is emphatically not a daikaiju movie, I have to return to the monster of the title to point out how frickin' cool he is. Demeking only gets five minutes of stomping time in a dream sequence because he hadn't arrived in 1970 and hasn't arrived yet, but it's five minutes of great stomping time. Visual effects artist Tsuyoshi Kazuno is best known for insane Japanese riots of imagination for directors like Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura: outrageous films like Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl and RoboGeisha. His filmography also highlights titles I hadn't heard of but will now have to seek out, like Gothic & Lolita Psycho, At the Mercy of the Darkness: Ayano's Bizarre Delusions and The One-Armed Machine Girl, not to mention The Big Tits Dragon: Hot Spring Zombies vs Strippers 5. In comparison to these, Demeking is tame beyond belief, but the monster looks like Anguirus with a very expressive snail head.

Of course now I want to see a real movie about Demeking but for that, we'll presumably have to wait not just for his electric meteor to actually arrive but also for the characters to grow up and write one for us. I get the impression that this is an autobiographical story, where Kameoka is a fictional version of Takashi Imashiro, who wrote the source manga. If I'd ever finished learning how to read Japanese, I might be able to confirm that but for now, the reality of the background is lost in a foreign language and perhaps in my head. If the manga aimed to spark imagination, in Imashiro and in those who read his work, the film could do likewise. The more I think about Demeking, the better it gets and the more resonant it becomes. I'm sure I'll return to it, but with a realistic expectation of what I'll see. The biggest problem the film has is that nobody outside Japan is going to have that on first viewing. Expect Godzilla and he won't be pissed. You will be.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Miyuki (2007)

Directors: Immanuel Martin
Stars: Yuri Nanami, Barclay Iversen, Joe Amos, Linden Young and Karl Heinz-Teuber

Miyuki is currently the only feature written and directed by Immanuel Martin, surprising because he obviously has both talent and something to say and because this was released back in 2007. It's far from your usual horror movie as it doesn't follow any of the usual genre conventions, but it's all the more creepy for not swimming in blood or setting us up with paper thin monsters. The choice to slip into Japanese with subtitles on occasion is rare for an American film, like the choice of giving the lead role to a young Japanese lady who has not acted before or since. Neither is likely to make a mainstream audience happy but I get the impression that Martin isn't looking for a big hit with Miyuki and both these choices add to the realism and help to ground his film. It begins deceptively quietly with countryside that's as pleasant as Saiko Nakamura's minimalistic score and it stays deliberately quiet and slow throughout.

We're in the scenic San Francisco hills at the home of Wayne and Natalie McKenzie, who take in a Japanese student called Miyuki Kageyama. She's come to the States to study English at the Golden Gate Language Institute and in the hands of Yuri Nanami, she's as politely unsure of her new situation and her new hosts as you might expect. Obviously inexperienced as an actress, Nanami really nails the part. She's thoroughly believable as a stranger in a strange land, lonelier and lonelier as time goes by, as befits a character who has never really belonged anywhere and simply wants to. She's resigned to being a fish out of water in a foreign country because that's entirely the point of immersion learning, but she obviously has a hope that this will be a happy place for her. 'Please don't worry. They are kind to me,' she tells the photo of her family that she's brought with her, a family who she doesn't talk about to anyone.
While there's obviously a story behind her own family, which we soon learn, there's obviously a story behind the McKenzies too. They do their level best to be a welcoming influence but cracks soon show in their facade. There's dysfunction at every connection, between Wayne and Natalie and between both of them and their teenage son Ryan. He's played by Barclay Iversen, again an inexperienced actor but one who finds the depth in his character well. As much as Miyuki wants to be part of the McKenzie household, he doesn't. He wants out badly, but in keeping with the subtlety that pervades the film, he wouldn't be good on The Jerry Springer Show. Rather than being antagonistic, he just doesn't communicate: he doesn't answer their questions, he stays out as long as he can and he doesn't address the issues he has with his parents, at least not with anyone who can help. Even his punk friends think that he doesn't appreciate what he has.

So while he seethes quietly, Miyuki helps out. It's hardly deliberate, but the more he stays out, the more she begins to fill the obvious gap he creates and the whole family dynamic begins to shift. Natalie starts relying on Miyuki constantly, even though she keeps messing up. Everything Miyuki does is right, even when it's wrong; everything Ryan does is wrong, even when it's right. Now, at this point you might be wondering what sort of horror movie this is, that concerns itself with such subtleties, instead of slapping us in the forehead with a scary shock moment, but the text displayed before the title provides us with a background to ponder as we watch. A little girl was killed in 1609, during the Sengoku, or Warring States, period, and her body lay undisturbed in a Hirosaki temple until 1948. 'Some things', we're told, 'should never be disturbed.' This may sound like a routine J-horror flick but the component parts are treated very differently.
I really enjoyed Miyuki, which succeeds far beyond the limitations imposed by the slight budget and the lack of experience of those involved. For the most part, it's well written and engaging, avoiding all the J-horror stereotypes and even providing a fascinating metaphor for the postwar relationship between the US and Japan. Immanuel Martin, who wrote and directed, deserves a lot of kudos for his work and that's only more evident on a second viewing, as we see precisely how he set us up to assume things that are later revealed to be something else entirely. And this is why it seems really strange to find three scenes that are the epitome of clumsiness and which stand out all the more for being surrounded by such subtlety. It feels like the sort of thing you get in Hollywood when the studio requires something dumb for reasons of their own and trumps the filmmaker's integrity. Yet this can't remotely be mistaken for Hollywood.

What's most unfortunate is that one of the bad scenes is the heart of the finalé, a horrible scene in every way that is followed by another that is good only in comparison. After that, it returns to quality and subtlety again, leaving us shocked for all the wrong reasons at why such a solid film had to die horribly for a few minutes. The third offender has Dr Grunewald talk to himself so we can learn some detail, and such clumsiness is out of place here. Grunewald is a quirky choice of English professor, given that it means Miyuki travels from Japan to the US to learn English from a German, but I like the quirkiness. Actor Karl-Heinz Teuber began his film career with Amadeus (both as a wig salesman and a makeup assistant) but has found himself playing Mr Weiner in Psychic Puppeteer Hair Stylist #1: The Sex Change Operation. He gets two scenes alone in his office: one painful and one superb. That one has him talk on the phone in excellent Japanese.

Miyuki looks very good, courtesy of cinematographer Sasha Popove who even manages to frame inexperienced actors well; they all find their spots and meet their cues. Mostly everything feels down to earth, possibly because it is. The actors are natural, the sets are probably real people's homes and it's obvious that many of the folks in bit parts knew each other well. There's even a minor celebrity, Jim Wierzba, playing Ryan's uncle Harold. He's a Hulk Hogan impersonator and it's great to see him do something unrelated to that. There are little details that don't work, like the McKenzies' baby daughter being not remotely close to her supposed age of nine months or the police headquarters looking like the lobby of a dentist's office with a wanted poster on the wall, but mostly they're ignorable. To me they just highlight why filmmakers with obvious vision can't always work miracles without the money to pay for them. I hope Immanuel Martin gets the financing he needs for his next film, which I'll be looking forward to.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy (1958)

Director: Rafael Portillo
Stars: Ramón Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado, Luis Aceves Castañeda and Jorge Mondragón
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

What makes The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy so utterly unique is that it's a bizarre example of compound insanity, a convergence of two strange filmmaking choices. The first is that all three entries in the Aztec Mummy trilogy were shot back to back in 1957, a money saving concept that Roger Corman would later employ frequently, often following the usual process to make one film but then shooting a second on the same sets. Sometimes he would even reuse leftover sets from bigger budget productions to lend an air of class to his cheaper films. Mexican producer Pedro Calderón had successfully pioneered the back to back concept in 1956, turning out three musical comedies with the same cast and crew in less than a month, so a year later, Calderón's brother Guillermo decided to do the same thing, hiring director Rafael Portillo to shoot Attack of the Aztec Mummy, Curse of the Aztec Mummy and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy back to back.

The second, far more surprising choice was for each of the films to have precisely the same story yet do so catering to different genre conventions. Attack of the Aztec Mummy is a horror movie, including reincarnation, past life regression and an ancient curse in addition to its title monster. Yet Curse of the Aztec Mummy and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy adds a masked luchador (or Mexican wrestler) to the mix and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy ventures into science fiction territory with its radium powered robot. To add to the chaos, these three films told the same story in a different way using an increasing amount of footage from predecessors, because the filmmakers shot about two pictures worth of material but released three movies. The second film includes scenes lifted directly from the first, while the third in turn lifted from both the first and the second, potentially as well as footage that the second had lifted from the first. Are you confused yet? Well, you soon will be.

Now, by necessity, I'm going to have to do something similar in building this review, because so much footage was reused that this becomes a review of the trilogy as much a single picture. The first film ran 80 minutes with all new material. The second ran 63, most of which was also new. It begins and progresses like a sequel, only venturing back to old footage when the villain explains to his minions what they'll be doing and why, filling in background after being put conveniently in the right place to learn it. This third film, however, runs 65 minutes but contains 45 minutes of recap and only 20 minutes of new story. It tells the story of the trilogy in shorthand, so watching this first then venturing backwards to the other films has the effect of allowing us to breathe, as events don't unfold at the breakneck speed the compressed recap versions do here. Building a film mostly out of recap also means a truly insane amount of dialogue.

So, taking a deep breath, here goes, noting that I'll be able to explain much that this film doesn't because the filmmakers didn't see fit to include all the necessary facts in their choice of recycled material. Like most viewers, I saw The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy long before its predecessors, as it is generally more readily available through K Gordon Murray's dubbed English version, so I initially puzzled about who a bunch of characters were, why they appeared out of nowhere and why the rest of the characters knew who they were but apparently didn't want to tell me. So you, my readers, can take the roles of Dr Diaz and Dr Estelle, arriving at my lavish Mexican casa after the opening credits, and I can be Dr Eduardo Almada, your humble host, to explain in flashbacks within flashbacks about the Aztec breastplate and bracelet which are now once more of concern as serious events are about to unfold. 'Allow me to go back in time...'

Five years ago, in the first film that Mexican audiences at the time saw a few months earlier, the first Congress on Neuropsychiatric Investigation didn't go too well for Dr Almada, who was there to present a paper on regression to past lives through hypnosis. It's worth noting here that in the original film, there's much more about why they rejected him outright before he could present anything. Science is a strange beast in the Aztec Mummy movies! Dr Almada went to a scientific congress, the fiancé of the daughter of the president of that congress, to present a paper about some theories he had that he'd never managed to actually try out, as nobody had proved willing to submit to hypnosis for him to experiment on, perhaps because he explained how dangerous it all was. So after this failure, his fiancée Flor promptly volunteers, without any reason given as to why she had never done so before. From that decision spun the first picture.
Now, the congress didn't reject him because he had never actually experimented on his theories, they rejected him because the concept of reincarnation was beyond the pale for these scientists. You might agree with that call but these are the same scientists who later in that film explained how important ancient curses were because, and I quote verbatim, 'in the realm of the dead, the secondary malignant spirits are always ready to follow the orders of the ruler of darkness.' I saw that as notable: astral powers taking advantage of curses, perfectly scientific, but reincarnation, nonsense. Anyway Almada hypnotised his fiancée that night, with the aid of Dr Sepulveda (Flor's father) and his own assistant, Pinacate, who, and I kid you not, was a rank coward during the first film, fainting after the experiment at the shock of it all, only to become the costumed superhero of the second as the luchador El Angel, precisely none of which is mentioned in the third.

Hypnosis unveiled that in a previous life, Flor was Xochi, an Aztec girl destined from birth to be sacrificed as a virgin to the god Tezkatlipoka. She's resigned to her fate, even though she loves a great warrior called Popoca unconditionally, but he entreats her to run away with him instead. Before she can even think about an answer, the priests come and take them to the lower temple of Tenoxtitlan to be punished. Popoca was buried alive, cursed for all eternity, while Xocha was sacrificed after all, wearing a breastplate and bracelet that indicate where the Aztec treasure is buried. You know, like you do. At least she gets a good sendoff, with an exotic singer, primitive flute and drum accompaniment and a flower dance. There's much more of this in the first film, highlighting just how poor the choreography really was. The costumes, especially headdresses, are awesome though, explaining the high ceilings. I really wish I could have seen these in colour.

Now, just in case you're getting a feel for the tone of this film, rightly suspecting that Popoca the great warrior will become the cursed mummy of the title, protecting the breastplate and bracelet worn by his beloved while she was sacrificed and so also protecting the Aztec treasure, yaddah yaddah yaddah, the tone promptly changes. Dr Krupp, a famous scientist who has only been in a single frame thus far in the entire film, at the congress that rejected Dr Almada, is revealed to be a terrible bandit named the Bat, the villain of all three films in the trilogy. He was conveniently at Almada's house to listen to the entire experiment and thus hear about Aztec treasure. Why was he there at such a convenient time? Well he was conveniently there snooping when Flor decided to volunteer too, so naturally was able to conveniently be there when the experiment happened. How recursive do you want to get? Let's just add that nobody noticed him in his pulp Bat outfit.

While everyone believes the results of the experiment immediately, Almada realises that nobody else will unless he can provide proof, so off they trek to Flor's lead to find that proof in the ruins of the pyramid of Teotihuacan, in the form of the breastplate and bracelet. Nobody suggests that such artefacts wouldn't be proof anyway, because Almada could always have found them first in a hidden temple in a ruin or at a Mexican thrift store and then conjured up a story around them afterwards, but no, the detractors all believed the moment they saw gold. Scientists, remember! I should also explain about the young boy who is inexplicably part of the Almada party working their way through the spiderwebs and secret tunnels to the lower temple. I initially assumed he was some sort of lackey, there to carry the picks and shovels so Dr Almada can be a tomb raider, but the first film explains it's his younger brother Pepe who can't keep his nose out of anything.

In the end they discover the skeleton of Xochi, which is mysteriously intact, having not collapsed into the expected heap of bones over the pressure of centuries. It is worth mentioning though that this, by far the worst in the trilogy, did at least cut out some of the idiocy of its forebears. For instance, the Aztec mummy appears quickly here, almost as quickly as Almada removes the breastplate from Xochi's bones. In the original film, this wasn't the case. Almada had got all the way back to his house with it, even proved his case to the scoffing scientists that rejected him at the congress, only to realise that he had left the bracelet behind. It's like Indiana Jones taking the tablet with commandments one to five on it but leaving six to ten behind for another trip. Scientists, you know. So it was on the return trip to collect the bracelet that the mummy showed up, shuffling in from the darkness like Frankenstein's monster and moaning rather like him too.
It's worth mentioning that the Aztec mummy doesn't look remotely like the mummy that Boris Karloff immortalised in the 1932 Universal film. Obviously he isn't swathed in bandages because he isn't Egyptian, but he has long ragged hair and actually looks like he had been buried alive. It's an effective look, but what's really interesting is what his actions suggest as inspiration. It isn't just the footsteps and moans that remind of Frankenstein's monster, he also reacts to light in much the same way. Yet, and I haven't quite figured this one out yet, he also cringes from the Christian cross, Dr Sepulveda apparently forgetting that he's a mummy not a vampire and the newly resurrected Popoca being too rusty after his centuries of entombment to realise that Aztec mummies cursed in Aztec ceremonies really ought not to care about foreign religious imagery. Strangely this mummy thus seems to be a hybrid of vampire and Frankenstein's monster.

While Popoca is the movie's monster, Dr Krupp is the villain of the piece. Don't forget that this is no straight horror picture, it's a construct of horror, sci-fi and luchador genres with a grounding in pulp crime, so the Bat has to be back soon. The Bat is rumbled at the end of the first film and the ensuing press not only about his identification, but his arrest, escape and eventual demise in his own death chamber, means that nobody in Mexico could possibly have been ignorant of Dr Krupp being the Bat. So naturally it's a complete surprise to Dr Diaz and Dr Estelle, two of his former colleagues, when Almada lets them in on the secret. You know, I respect the concept of shooting all three films in a trilogy back to back but writers really ought to pay attention to the basic logistics of the world they create. Perhaps the reason the Bat has stayed at large for five years is that he had a mysterious ray to wipe the memory of everyone in Mexico. It would fit.

Now we're fully a third of the way in, Dr Almada's recaps finally make it through the first movie to start on the second, with a wealth of missing explanations. Sure, Almada explains that Krupp, in possession of the artefacts, blackmails him into translating the hieroglyphics, but on my first viewing I couldn't help but wonder why Pinacate was dressed in a wrestling outfit and how the mummy knew to throw the Bat into his chamber of death. These visuals come out of nowhere and are quickly forgotten. Instead we have to figure out how the Bat, who naturally is slated to be the villain here as in the other films, manages to survive his own snake infested chamber of death. Even if you're willing to believe everything else I've thrown at you thus far, surely you won't believe that he escapes by opening the previously non-existent door in the back wall of the chamber. Who the hell puts an escape hatch in the wall of a chamber of death?

Maybe the same sort of master criminal who collects his men and then goes straight to Almada's house to summon Flor by remote control hypnosis, that's who. This one came completely out of the blue too but in fairness, the Bat did kidnap and hypnotise Flor in the second film so that she could lead him to the lower temple just as she had her husband in the first. How that grants him remote control ability I have no idea, just as I have no idea how his next act is supposed to work. 'I order you to pick up the mind waves of the Aztec mummy,' he tells her, 'and tell us if you can lead us to it.' She does, so presumably once you've been regressed to a past life by hypnosis, you magically acquire a homing beacon to your love of that life through some sort of telepathy. Does this make any sense to you? Me neither. Anyway, because we've been shown how Popoca is afraid of crosses, naturally he's camping out in a cemetery full of them.

While we all collapse into despair, let me point out that the completely insane plot aside, there's much to enjoy. Most obviously the sets look great, especially Almada's house which I'd certainly buy for a peso. Most of the picture was filmed at the CLASA studios, home to the earliest classic Mexican horror movies, shortly before it went out of business. The budget was low, especially if you factor in how little new footage there was and how the cast and crew was already in place, but it looks better than a B movie, let alone a Mexican B movie. Comparisons to Universal horror go far beyond just the monsters and further reexploration of the Frankenstein story. I should add a caveat here about the robot, because he hasn't shown up yet and so we are blissfully unaware as yet about how frickin' low budget he's going to look. Robots in Republic serials looked better than this, which goes as far into school fair cliché as to have light bulbs stuck to his head.
The acting is hardly Oscar worthy but it's far from cringeworthy too, with Ramón Gay proving as capable as any low budget lead of the day. He comes across like a more generic Vincent Price, a cultured man with a cultured voice who was popular with the ladies. After a long apprenticeship that saw him appear in over forty films in six the years from 1946 to 1951, he found success in a string of horror movies, also including The Witch, Cry of the Bewitched and The Curse of the Doll People. His last film was Jerry Warren's Face of the Screaming Werewolf, released posthumously as he had been shot dead in 1960 by the estranged husband of a Mexican actress, Evangelina Elizondo. For my part I couldn't stop watching Luis Aceves Castañeda, who plays Dr Krupp with notable relish. He doesn't remotely have to exert himself to be villainous because he's rather like Orson Welles as Mephistopheles, so would look villainous getting out of bed in the morning.

Technically, there's little to complain about. Lighting and sound are capable throughout: we can see and hear everything without a stretch, though there were a few scenes in the Teotihuacan pyramid in the first two films that were so dark that it was difficult to fathom what was going on. Even the cinematography is solid, though the camerawork shines mostly by staying remarkably unobtrusive. Really the problems with this film come from the strange circumstances that led to its creation and the consistently awful decisions taken when putting it together. Given that the recaps of the first film that we see in the second make complete sense, it's all the more amazing how wrong everything goes here. Even the character decisions are nonsense. Pinacate is wasted here, merely wandering around graveyards in a bow tie and Clark Kent glasses like a gentleman TV presenter. I didn't enjoy him in the other films but at least he did something!

You might also remember that this movie is called The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy. Technically, if you translate the Spanish, it's The Aztec Mummy vs The Human Robot, to highlight the relative importance of the two characters, but the same question arises. We've had a bunch of scenes with the Aztec mummy, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of a robot and we're two thirds of the way through the film. Nobody has even mentioned one. In fact the first slight hint at such a thing doesn't arrive until twenty minutes from the end, when Almada finally gets to the point. The Bat has reappeared after five years and has stolen a corpse, a brain and some radium. Almada and Pinacate have tracked down his lair in two days and they aim to go and stop the Bat from doing whatever he plans to do. The doctors now have the story to take to the police if they don't return which turns out to be a good idea because they get caught in less than five seconds. No kidding.

And so, finally with fifteen minutes to go until the end credits, we really begin with the new story, which as you can imagine is hardly going to be in depth. The tagline of the film translates to 'See the relentless machine battle the gruesome corpse,' but we have the conventions of a host of genres to cater to first, so we can be sure there isn't going to be a heck of a lot of battling. We have to watch Krupp in his Bat cape outlining his plans like a James Bond villain. He must emote like a mad scientist and laugh insanely. They have to tell him he's meddling in God's realms. It's like every cliché is here, in a weird Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, Scarface, James Bond, Robot movie. The only thing missing was zombies. And with five minutes to go, the robot sets out on its quest to give the film's title some validation, stumbling around the cemetery with difficulty, as if the man in the suit has trouble moving without falling over, given that its legs don't bend.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for this movie. It's so schizophrenic that it's surreal, utter lunacy from beginning to end but utter lunacy in an unpredictable manner. We're kept on our toes wondering just what they're going to throw into the mix next. Most of the dialogue is as out there as the unfolding events, though unfortunately the finalé is restricted to a few screams, but there are also gems to relish. I could see Ed Wood leaning forward in his chair mouthing some of them, like what Dr Almada comes up with when first entering the lower temple. 'We are the first to enter in here,' he orates. 'A world that has slept for centuries awakens with our arrival. Finally we will know the truth.' Technically more consistent than its predecessors, in every other way it's a jumble of epic proportions, a picture that had no reason to exist other than to allow Guillermo Calderón to match his brother's achievement in shooting three films at once. That isn't enough.

Wasting Away (2007)

Directors: Matthew Kohnen
Stars: Matthew Davis, Juliana Robinson, Michael Terry, Betsy Beutler, Colby French, Joel McCrary, Jack Orend, Richard Riehle and Tracey Walter

OK, so how seriously are we supposed to take a movie called Aaah! Zombies!!? Well, not very seriously at all, but co-writer/director Matthew Kohnen had to retitle it to persuade a distributor to release it Stateside so we'll allow him some leeway. Originally the film was named Wasting Away, a neat title which explains a few clever nuances in the story, and indeed that's what it was released as in Europe back in 2007, but apparently that name was too subtle for US audiences, thus the change. Kohnen isn't complaining though because it almost guarantees his film will top any alphabetical list of zombie films you can conjure up. It deserves to be noticed too, not for being a great film (it falls apart soon after halfway) but because it comes up with something new and cool that has every possibility of influencing the genre more than any of the other new and cool concepts zombie flicks tend to come up with every time I blink. Only time will tell, I guess.

We begin traditionally with obvious nods to the film's two chief influences. The setup is notably similar to Return of the Living Dead, the zombie apocalypse unleashed through the accidental release of a chemical used in a failed military experiment. Collected up in barrels labelled 'Bulk Infant Formula: Perishable', Serum XT1258 is driven off to be dumped but one of those barrels shakes loose and ends up outside Kingpins bowling alley where it seeps into some Happy Times ice cream base. However it all looks more like Night of the Living Dead, with zombies shambling along in black and white, though with the addition of the toxic chemical coloured green in the same selective way the girl's coat in Schindler's List was coloured red. The real story is hinted at in the title graphics, which suggest that zombies might be the next step in our evolutionary path. It's just surprising that we stay in black and white (and green) for a while after that.

We stay there to be introduced to our lead characters, four of them. They're friends who waste their lives at Kingpins, though I'm not sure how many actually work there. Mike is the life of the party sort, played by Matthew Davis from The Vampire Diaries. He firmly believes that he's 'destined for greatness' but is content to just sit back and wait for it to be thrust upon him. Given that he sat back long enough for his cellphone to be cut off suggests it isn't too likely. Vanessa, his ex-girlfriend, is much more of a go getter, but while she's sure she's going places she hasn't gone there yet. Tim has worked his way up to being a Kingpins assistant manager, though he's just a soft hearted wuss. That endears him to Cindy though, who should have been his girlfriend ten years ago but somehow neither of them quite made it happen. She's a bleeding heart who thinks that glue traps are inhumane to rats. Someone should introduce her to Corey Feldman.
It's only after they eat some of Mike's beer flavoured ice cream, so ingesting some of the toxic zombiefying serum, dying horribly shaky deaths and being promptly resurrected from the dead that the film takes the leap into colour. The key to it all is perspective. In black and white, they're the standard zombie menace, moaning and stumbling like any respectable undead horde, with the military hunting them down to restore peace and order. In colour though, they don't have the slightest clue what's happened to them. They think they're fine. They can talk happily among themselves. Their feelings to one another don't change, though some of their drives do evolve: suddenly eating brains just seems natural. They merely can't interact with anyone or anything else, at least not very well. It's like reality unfolds at a different pace. People run away really fast and they talk like Donald Duck on speed.

The first clues of their new status come when they meet Nick Steele, dedicated American soldier. He's one of them and he has a motorcycle handlebar stuck through his chest to prove it. He sees the problem at hand as being due to 'toxic leftovers from a misguided military project', but like our four wasted heroes, he sees himself as normal. It's everyone else who's infected and he's out to save the day. Colby French plays him very much as John Goodman would, perhaps partly because we're set around a bowling alley. He overplays everything. He's all about the integrity and honour of the military, deadly serious in intent but accidentally hilarious. 'I'm well trained for espionage,' he says, putting on a sombrero to go undercover as a Mexican waiter, to inevitable failure. 'There is a code,' he repeats, 'the mission over the man.' With the zombie apocalypse, he finally finds the opportunity to be a hero, not realising that he's a hero on the wrong side.

But then the magic of this setup is that there are no right and wrong sides. This is the movie that really highlights that zombies might just be people too, even more than shorts like Gay Zombie, Cupcake: A Zombie Lesbian Musical or Rising Up: The Story of the Zombie Rights Movement. Our four main zombies are a glorious counterpart to Steele's lone wolf routine. They group hug. They don't know what ASAP means. They make brain margaritas. Yet it's by being turned into zombies that they actually find themselves. Suddenly they're what Steele labels super soldiers and they wonder what the downside is, as they start achieving as the undead what they couldn't achieve as living human beings. And all this is great fun to watch. It's well written, funny and astute, with a quirky new ZombieVision concept that makes us think. It's capably shot, despite what was not much of a budget, though the filmmakers won't reveal just how low it went.
For just over half the running time, it runs on like a little gem of an indie, and we haven't even seen Tracey Walter yet. There are names here, albeit not huge ones. Matthew Davis is the star, having made the odd quality picture in and amongst things like Pearl Harbor, BloodRayne and S Darko, the unwanted Donnie Darko sequel, and he's decent here. Michael Grant Terry and Betsy Beutler are capable as Tim and Cindy. I've enjoyed his work on Bones for the last couple of years and you may have seen her on The Black Donnellys or Scrubs and its spinoff. More experienced names like Richard Riehle and Tracey Walter are spot on in parts that are too small to relish. Yet Julianna Robinson outshines them all, without any real experience to speak of. As Vanessa, she has little to do, but she impresses nonetheless with a calm confidence that serves as the real grounding for all the lead characters. I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

Unfortunately, Aaah! Zombies!! can't keep up to the standard it sets itself early on. While there are some decent scenes in the second half, like the one where Nick Steele is confronted with the reality he doesn't want to see, mostly it just falls apart. Matthew Kohnen and his brother Sean, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, seem to forget what they had that made it special and become content to merely spoof other films instead, apparently at random. It doesn't take long for us to lose track of what's going on: one moment we're in a college comedy version of The Big Lebowski, then we begin heading off into a rather strange episode of The A-Team, only to find ourselves in, of all things, Exodus instead. Worst of all, the logistics are utterly forgotten and plot inconsistencies begin to proliferate like the zombie menace itself. Colby French stops being John Goodman and morphs into John Belushi. It's all too confusing for words and it just doesn't seem to care. At least the first half was consistent and if you pick this one up, that's what you'll enjoy.