Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sherlock Holmes goes over the top

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, and Kelly Reilly
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Downey and Law)track and fight anarchists and Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarity (Harris) across Europe in a desperate bid to stop them from triggering war on a global scale.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" picks up where the Downey and Law's first outing as Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary characters left off and carries forward along the trajectory of that first movie--the action is wilder and well over the top, and the scope of what's at stake if Moriarity bests Holmes has likewise been ratcheted up. Basically, if you hated the first movie because you felt it wasn't "Sherlock Holmes", you're going to hate this one.

Me, I hated the first movie, because director Guy Richie didn't seem able to tell a story, which is odd because he seemed pretty good at it with his early films like "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels". And then there was the moronic way he and the script-writers chose to establish Holmes' prowess as a boxer and thus showed Holmes to be a bit of dolt at the same time--which he possessed in the Doyle stories, as those who paid attention to them rather than old Universal Pictures films or British TV shows would know--and the painful overuse of slow motion action sequences.

While Richie still made an obnoxious overuse of both slow motion and still-frame shots during action sequences, his story-telling was a little less muddled because the story really wasn't all that complicated and he didn't inadvertently paint Holmes as an idiot by having him engage in self-destructive behaviors beyond what we're used to from the Doyle stories and other films.

The acting was serviceable all around, and neither Holmes nor Watson were the exclusive butt of jokes; like the first Downey/Law pairing, one can actually understand why Holmes keeps Watson around... although I did find myself wondering sometimes why Watson puts up with Holmes. The comedy in the film was balanced nicely with action sequences, and it a very entertaining movie over all.

It is, however, an action film and not a mystery movie. There is really no mystery that Holmes is trying to unravel, but he is instead trying to outmaneuver Moriarty and the evil genius' master plan. The exact nature of that plan is hidden for a time, but it's not really relevant what Moriarity is up to when it comes right down to it. All in all, it's a film that is probably more entertaining if you watch it with the attitude you might watch a Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle, or maybe a James Bond movie.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is a rare sequel that's better than the film it follows. But if you want "classic Holmes", you're better off with almost any of the Holmes' films I've written about here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Meat Loaf: I'd Lie for You

I'd Lie for You (And That's the Truth) (1995)
Starring: Meat Loaf, Dana Patrick, Brett Cullen, and Xander Berkley
Director: Howard Greenhalgh
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The music videos I've always enjoyed the most are those that tell a story, and I've only seen a few that have been more enjoyable that this Meatloaf, action-film inspired video for "I'd Lie for You."

When it was first released, it was reportedly criticized as being too complex and over the top. I don't see either complaint as applying to what we have here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

No posts on any of my blogs this week.

I am having really bad eye trouble. Hopefully, tomorrow's trip to the doctor will start to make things better.

I hope you'll check in at some point in the future.

Monday, November 14, 2011

'Sister Street Fighter': The cutest girl to ever kick ass

Sister Street Fighter (1978)
Starring: Sue Shiomi, Masashi Ishibashi, Emi Hayakawa, and Sonny Chiba
Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When her older brother goes missing while on an undercover assignment for the Hong Kong police, teenaged martial arts prodigy Tina Long (Shiomi) travels to Japan where the drug-ring he was investigating is headquartered in the hopes of finding him. Her search brings her into conflict with dozens of martial artists in the employ of the gangsters, including the deadly Hammerhead (Ishibashi), a sworn foe of her brother. One young girl can't possibly prevail against such an array of evil, so she is joined by two Japanese martial artists (Chiba and Hayakawa) who, although belonging to a Karate school that espouses pacifism, kicks ass every bit as efficiently as Tina.

"Sister Street Fighter" is an immensely amusing and entertaining martial arts film. Sue Shiomi is quite possibly the cutest ass-kicker this side of anime. Like most actors in chop-socky movies from this period, she actually knows how to fight... and the extended battle scenes are all the more entertaining for it.

Another aspect of the film I found entertaining was the downright weirdness of it all. Although Tina is on a serious quest and fighting some very deadly enemies, the film has a cartoonish (and later video-gameish) quality to it that starts when she sets foot in Japan and feeds flies she skewers on toothpicks to drunken sailors who harass her, and continues through to the film's final battle royale. We have villains with odd quirks and signature weapons or outfits, we have trap doors that Tina just happens to stand on, we have gravity-defying leaps and martial arts moves, and we have distinct "encounter areas" where Tina faces bad guys that get progressively tougher and more bizarre.

The film also has a very little plot to get in the way of the fight scenes. The reason the bad guys go after Tina is flimsy in the extreme, and the ability she seems to have to pop up where needed (not to mention survive certain death) isn't explained, and the film moves so fast that the viewer doesn't really care. This is one movie where a lack of logic actually works!

This is not to say that the film might at one point featured a more logical, less video-game like story progression. The cut I viewed, which by all accounts is the standard North American release, had been subjected to some fairly obvious editing. Tina's first fight with Hammerhead starts in a forested area by a fence, but one jump-cut later, they are suddenly on cliffs by the sea--a chase or the beginning of the fight is clearly missing. Several gory deaths and a very unpleasant rape scene have also been truncated or completely cut from the film. These clumsy edits have probably gone a long way to making the movie seem as cartoonish as it is. (I suspect Tina's amazing survival after falling from a rope-bridge is actually explained in a version of the film somewhere out there.)

If you want to see one of the cutest martial artists to ever grace the silver screen in her first starring role--and aren't particularly bothered by logical lapses--I recommend checking out this movie.

I do want to caution those of you who might be interested in "Sister Street Fighter" because you believe it to be part of Sonny Chiba's "Street Fighter" series. The title and even the film's credits would lead you to believe that it is... and I've seen more than one online movie reviewer make a similar claim. However, the truth is that this film has nothing to do with Chiba's "Street Fighter" movies. Yes, the share several actors, including Chiba, but Chiba does not play Takuma "Terry" Tsurugi. Further, the tone of this film is completely different than the grittiness found in the Street Fighter movies... they are filled with outlandish violence, but they still feel more down-to-earth than the cartoony vibe that pervades "Sister Street Fighter". (In fact, this film was the first entry in an entirely separate series of martial arts movies that focused on Shiomi as Tina.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

'Challenge of the Lady Ninja' is so bad it's good

Challenge of the Lady Ninja (aka "Never Kiss a Ninja") (1987)
Starring: Elsa Yeung, Kam Yin Fie, Peng Kong, and Chen Kuan-Tai
Director: Tso Nam Lee
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A young Chinese woman (Yeung), trained in the secret ways of Japanese ninja, returns home to China to fight against the Japanese occupiers during World War 2. When she realizes that her one-time betrothed (Kuan-Tai) has turned traitor and is working for the Japanese, she creates a fighting force of other female ninjas to put an end to his evil and to battle her old rival from the Ninja Academy (Kong).

"Challenge of the Lady Ninja" is one of those movies that is observably wretched, yet so very fun to watch. For example, while the film makes a big deal out of being set during World War 2, there is very little attempt to dress characters in period costumes or otherwise make the film look like it takes place in the 1940s. All the fashions, gear, and cars all date from the 1980s.

Then there's the ninja spell that lets a woman transform her bright red ninja suit into a bikini and lets her perform a version of the Dance of the Seven Veils that fills onlookers with distracting lust. Add to this the rampant hatred of Japanese that was so common in Chinese action films through at least the 1980s, and you have a movie that's one that should be reserved for an audience with very specific tastes... or just bad taste.

For all its quirks and faults, the film is a lot of fun. The ninja hi-jinx are as silly as anything you'll find in a Joseph Lai/Godfrey Ho production, but they are fully integrated into the film's story and generally make more sense. It's also action packed, with a fight or a chase breaking out every five or so minutes, and each one as energetic as the one that came before.

The main selling point with this film is cute ninja babes kicking butt, and that it delivers in spades. The extended final showdown between our red-clad ninja heroine and the film's main baddie is well worth waiting for.

If you like goofy martial arts pictures, and especially if you enjoyed a film like "Sister Street Fighter", "Challenge of the Lady Ninja" will brighten your day. It would be a great addition to any Girl Power- or martial arts-themed Bad Movie Night. Just turn your brain off before you turn the DVD player on.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Nine Days of the Ninja:
The Mystery of 'Ninja Death'

"Ninja Death" is a film and/or movie trilogy as mysterious as the ninja themselves.

Although I've done the same level of research that CNN does when vetting submitted questions for a Republican YouTube debate, I've been unable to discover much information about "Ninja Death". I've been able to identify a very small number of the actors in the film, I have no idea who directed it, originally produced it, or if it was even ever finished and released in its original homeland of China (or maybe Taiwan).

What I do know is that the "Ninja Death" trilogy was originally a REALLY long movie that was broken into three parts. Although a credit sequence was filmed--with ninja and each principal actor doing a couple of martial arts tricks and poses, no credits are listed on screen. The English dubbing seems to have run into financial difficulties, as the voice actors change a couple of different times throughout the movies--most noticably in "Ninja Death I" when the American/Australian voice actors are suddenly replaced by a bunch of British actors who all sound like they just got back from the Gay Pride Parade--so the lack of credits might be a result of the film being abandoned in the middle of the localization/export process.

Another theory I have is that the film wasn't even finished and released in its country of origin. It could be that the bloated running time of a little over four hours is where the film stood after its first cut by the now-anonymous director and editor... and that further editing would have taken place, but they never got to it. (There's an entire subplot with a farmer and his daugther that probably would have been cut if another editing pass has been done on the film when it was to be a single work.)

Whatever the case, "Ninja Death" was a production in trouble and it ran out of money at least once, perhaps even twice, and no one bothered to spend any money to completely finish it. Abandoned, and chopped into a "trilogy" it's now available in budget collections like the "Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack" (which is where I came by it/them). If anyone out there knows more about the history of the "Ninja Death" film/films, I'd love to hear from you. In the meantime, here's my take on the three movies.

But first... important facts learned in "Ninja Death": Ninjas vote Republican, and nothing says romance like somnambu-rape.

(By the way, the films has a very catchy main theme. As I'm typing these words, I'm finding myself whistling it. Of course, the movie also strangely uses random James Bond themes and possibly music from other sources I'm not familiar with, so it could be that the "Ninja Death Theme" I'm humming is also originally from somewhere else.)

Ninja Death I (1979? 1983? 1999?)
Starring: Lo Yiu, Luk Yee Fung, and Alexander Lou (based on web research; no names on film)
Director: None credited
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The happy-go-lucky bouncer at a small-town Chinese brothel, Tiger (Lou), finds his life turned upside-down when secrets known only to his Kung Fu master (Fong) bring the Master and his hoard of fanatical, bloodthirsty ninja to town. As the ninjas are butchering beggars and prostitutes left and right, Tiger struggles to unlock his own mighty Ninja Power that lurks within his breast. But will he manage to do so in time, or will Ninja Death II" feature an all-new cast?

"Ninja Death I" is an example of what happens when a film project runs out of money and is abandoned. Not only do the voice actors change completely halfway through (suddenly, everyone in the film developes British accents, and the voice actor portraying Tiger goes from American and moderately talented to British and totally talent free), but no one even bothered placing English language credits over the extensive opening sequence or even to add a "To Be Continued" over the spinning Bad Guy at the abrupt end of the film. (And there's no doubt the film was made to have credits, becauze each major character gets to do goofy ninja stuff against a red background and then pose at the point the actor's name and the character he or she portrays should appear).

Speaking of Goofy Ninja Stuff... this film has it in spades! This is the kind of movie I was hoping to come across when I decared November Ninja Month. The film features an Evil Ninja Cult Leader (the "Grand Master") who has come to town with his band of black-clad ninjas, a red-clad, masked madman who is unleashed by the playing of a flute, and a band of prostitutes who are going to help him in his quest... which is to find a man with a plum flower tattooed on his chest. (And what better way to get a look at beefcake than to have an abundance of Japanese prostitutes on hand?)

And the ninjas are exactly the kind of ninjas you'd expect. They are creeping around in the forest and attacking people. They are running with tiny steps and in single file while holding their swords at awkward angles. They are killing Japanese lords while they are having sex. They are wiping out entire households. They are scamperring up ropes while barely hanging onto them. They are leaping into treetops from a standing start. They are performing acrobat tumbles for absolutely no reason. They are hiding deep, dark secrets. They are infiltrating the citizenry and each other's ranks, just because they can. They are killing beggars and whores just because they can. AND they are appearing and dissapearing under the cover of smoke boms! Ah, joy... Goofy Ninja Stuff in abundance!

In addition to the Goofy Ninja Stuff, this film has lots of silly and extreme martial arts training techniques and nonsensical "wisdom" from the martial arts master, not to mention lots of really badly translated dialogue that is made even funnier by the questionable talent of the voice actors.

On the downside, "Ninja Death I" is unnecessarily crude at times. I'm by no means a prude, but the unmotivated sex scenes and sexually charged behavior and language from some characters was more irritating than entertaining. (The extended sex scene during the explanation of "what is a ninja" was particularly obnoxious and dull. If you're going to put crap in your movie in search of an R or X rating, at least make it entertaining.)

"Ninja Death I" is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. It's not even that good a movie, but there are some nifty martial arts fight scenes and much silly Ninja Stuff! (Plus, this is the film that proves the statement "Ninjas Vote Republican". Why else would they kill all the beggars and Chinese prostitutes in the town?)

Ninja Death II (1979? 1983? 1999?)
Starring: Alexander Lou and Fei Meng (I think; no credits on film)
Director: Someone whose name was left off the credits
Steve's Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A young martial artist-in-training named Tiger (Lou) is being stalked by Evil Ninja. After his master and adopted father is defeated by Ninjas, almost killed, and then commits suicide by punching himself in the head for God-only-knows-what-reason as he hadn't finished telling telling everything he needed to know about his past, the deadly Masked Ninja, and why the Grand Master's Evil Ninja Cult that's out to kill him, Tiger continues to study the Art of the Ninja under new masters, including a pair of double-agents among the Grand Master's own ranks. But will he survive when he chooses to confront the Grand Master before his training is complete?

"Ninja Death II" is the middle part of a looong Chinese martial arts film that was divided into three seperate movies for export, and it feels like the middle of a long movie. Very little actually happens in the "film" and about 20 minutes are actually repeated footage from "Ninja Death I". (Oddly, these flashbacks don't do a whole lot to explain who the various players in the movie's plot are, so they're included more for padding than to catch up those who haven't seen the first installment in this trilogy.)

"Ninja Death II" also repeats the credit-less opening and closing sequences that were featured on the first film, but the voice actors (which suddenly became British halfway through "Ninja Death I") are back to being American. As a result, our hero, Tiger, is back to sounding like a doofus instead of a Gay Pride icon.

In this installment of the series, we are treated to boring, overlong sequences with Tiger trying to master the fighting style of Ninjas (which, in this film's conception is the "royal style" of Japan's nobility), we learn a few secrets about Tiger's history, and we have Tiger rape yet another girl while sleeping. (His first somnambu-rape was of a ninja call-girl in "Ninja Death I". Here, he forces himself upon an innocent peasant girl while dreaming about his first victim. And, just like the ninja call-girl, the peasant woman seems to fall in love with Tiger after being raped. Those wacky Chinese....) The only interesting plot developments occur when the Grand Master--who's the only Oriental villain with worse fashion sense than Fu Manchu--discovers the traitors in his ranks and sends his Ninja after them, and the Masked Ninja escapes and ends up on a fatal collision course with Tiger, who, unbeknownst to him, is the son of the Masked Ninja.

As for the fight scenes and Ninja Death Action that made "Ninja Death I" entertaining, we don't even get much of that here. With the exception of a fight where the Grand Master shows that he has big balls (in both senses of that), everything else in "Ninja Death II" is subplot material, filler material, and tasteless somnambu-rape scenes.

Speaking of rape.... For some reason, the filmmakers used James Bond theme music in both scenes involved forced sexual encounters. The first scene was in a Japanese household where the theme from "You Only Live Twice" is heard as a drunkard rapes the adopted mother of three boys as they watch. Then, we hear the theme from "Man With the Golden Gun" as Tiger rapes the peasant girl. And it's not downbeat or suspense-oriented versions of the tunes either... it's quiet, romantic renditions. Nothing says romance like somnambu-rape!)

Ninja Death III (1979? 1983? 1999?)
Starring: Alexander Lou, Fei Meng, and a buch of other actors whose names aren't on the credits
Director: Someone whose name was left off the credits
Steve's Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In the third installment of this epic tale of revenge, Tiger (Lou) discovers he's the son of the Japanese emporer's sister, completes his training in the martial arts style of the Imperial Japanese (and some other obscure fighting style that comes from who-knows-where), and joins his allies-- a blind Kung Fu master, three monks who live in barrels, a samurai, and a brother/sister pair of ninja--in a final battle to the death against the evil Grand Master and his cult of murderous Evil Ninja.

"Ninja Death III" is all about Kung Fu fighter and ninja killing. There's some plot here--including the soap operatic elements of Tiger and his mother being reunited--but it's so nonsensical and badly motivated that you're better off pretending it doesn't exist. The confusing isn't help any by the fact the characters are speaking lines so badly translated into English that in some places it's hard to grasp their meaning. (If you watch this film and can figure out why the Blind Master and Sakura, Tiger's Ninja Squeeze, decide to play a game of cross and double-cross with the Grand Master, drop me a line. It makes absolutely no sense to me.)

Although a step up from "Ninja Death II"--and it starts promisingly with a brief and useful recap of the previous films--this closing chapter dissapoints more than it entertains, despte the good fight scenes (where many of the bizarre excersizes Tiger's ninja trainer back in the first film subjected him to come in handy). The biggest dissapointment is the Masked Ninja. He is unleashed yet again, but we get very little payoff action- or storywise for all the buildup.

"Ninja Death III" is as full of goofiness as the first two chapters in the series, but I am hard-pressed to describe it as "good", or even recommend it for a Bad Movie Night; it's a little too stupid and some parts feel padded. (The best thing I can say about the film is that Tiger gets through it without raping a single girl in his sleep.)

I wonder, though, if this film couldn't be salvaged with better dubbing/translation and extensive editing. The creditless credit sequences seem to show that this film was abandoned while in process (at least as far as the exporting of it went), and I wonder if there is a single 95-minute good movie lurking within the 260-minute running time of the current the three installments.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Robert Wagner surprises in 'A Kiss Before Dying'

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)
Starring: Robert Wagner, Joanne Woodward, Virginia Leith, Jeffrey Hunter, George Macready, and Mary Astor
Director: Gerd Oswald
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sociopath Bud Corliss (Wagner) murders his girlfriend (Woodward) after she becomes pregnant and threatens his plans to gain access to her father's wealth. But when her sister (Leith) begins to investigate, Corliss finds that one murder is not enough if he is to obtain his dream.

"A Kiss Before Dying" is a mystery in the "Columbo" vein, as its more about a killer plotting and covering his tracks than about detectives trying to catch him. It starts out like a relatively straight-forward thriller about a downright evil man on a cheating-, lying-, and killing-spree in pursuit of wealth and domination over others, but there is a twist at about the halfway mark that really makes the film and that will engage all but the most jaded of viewers. It adds a whole new level of nastiness to the already vile character of Bud Corliss.

I've never seen Robert Wagner in a role like this before, and he's great in it. In fact, this is true of the entire cast. Joanne Woodward, as the girl whose pregnancy seals her fate is also remarkable, because her naive, starry-eyed character could so easily have been annoying if portrayed by a lesser actress. Instead, we have sympathy for her almost from outset, because it's clear that she is going to suffer a very nasty fate... and that she will never see it coming.

If you're in the mood for a classic thriller, "A Kiss Before Dying" is 95 minutes well spent.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'Blackbeard' is an okay pirate yarn

Blackbeard (2006)
Starring: Angus McFadyen, Marc Umbers, Jessica Chastain, Anthony Green, Richard Chamberlain, and Rachel Ward
Director: Kevin Connor
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Lt. Robert Maynard of British Royal Naval (Umbers) is dispatched to the Caribbean on a secret mission to hunt the feared and murderous pirate Blackbeard (McFadyen). His mission and burgeoning romance with the lovely Charlotte Ormand (Chastain) is disrupted when the corrupt colonial governor and ally of Blackbeard (Chamberlain) attempts to assassinate Maynard. Through a chain of misunderstandings, the officer finds himself accepted into Blackbeard's crew and ends up helping the pirate with his obsessive search for the legendary lost treasure of Captain Kidd.

If you're looking for a fun traditional pirate adventure tale that you can watch with the whole family, "Blackbeard" is a good choice. Originally made for the Hallmark Channel as a two-part miniseries, it has a well-paced script with just the right mix of action, romance, intrigue, cannon-fire, and swashbuckling pirate antics to please just about any viewer. The cast is also excellent, with Angus McFadyen in particular excelling as the ruthless title character. The even mix of fictional events and historical facts might make it dangerous if you're trying to use it as a shortcut for a school paper, but as a piece of entertainment is pretty good.

Although a good deal of money and effort went into the sets and costuming, this is one area where the film slips a little. Everything and everyone is just a little too clean and fresh. A little more time should have been spent on "aging" costumes and sets, and the actors should have been a little grimier and sweatier than any of them are. The lower-budgeted pirate films from Hammer Studios forty years earlier and even Alfred Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" from more than sixty years earlier did a better job at creating a believable 18th century environment than the production designers, costumers, and set-dressers on "Blackbeard" managed to do.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

'The Specialist' isn't very special

The Specialist (1975)
Starring: Adam West, John Anderson, Ahna Capri, Marlene Schmidt, Howard Avedis, Harvey Jason, and Alvy Moore
Director: Hikmet Avedis
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A small-town attorney/political strongman (Anderson) sets out to discredit and crush a young attorney (West) who has not only set up practice in "his town," but has also stolen away one of his clients. His plan involves framing him for jury tampering using an out-of-town "specialist" (Capri)... whose specialty is seducing men.

This is a film that is a failure in almost every way. It's got a weak script that keeps drifting between being comedy to being courtroom drama to being suspense to half-assed attempts at soft-core porn, and failing utterly to succeed even in the slightest way at any of those genres. It's also indifferently filmed and flatly directed, with techniques that seem to emphasize the cheapness of the production rather than gloss over it.

But neither of those are really what damns this film to a low Three Rating, although they certainly play a part. No, it's the performance, as well as the character portrayed, by Ahna Capri, a buxom actress who enjoyed a long and successful career as a supporting player on television shows from age 13 in 1956 through her retirement from the profession in 1979. Simply put, while Capri is unquestionably beautiful, she doesn't have the screen presence to make one believe that a happily married, extremely intelligent, and extremely canny lawyer would be so dazzled by her charms to risk marriage and career just because she batted her eyes at him. While Capri certainly is attractive enough to be a "specialist" in the arena where "every body has a price" (to quote the film's tagline), the situation in this film is so unbelievable--or maybe just poorly and thinly written--that even the most willing suspension of disbelief can't make it work.

And then there's the fact it has one of the worst endings I've ever been subjected to. While it's kinda-sorta set up earlier in the film, it still feels completely unsatisfying and so badly motivated that one wonders if it didn't come about by Adam West saying, "Look, my contract says I'm DONE with this shoot in 20 minutes... and believe me, I am going to be DONE and all of you are going to be in my review mirror in 25 minutes!"

I guess it says something about the film's watchability that I got to the end, but the only reasons for that was a hope that it was about to get better every time it shifted genres, the fact that Adam West is almost always entertaining, and a rather nice bit of acting from former Miss Germany Marlene Schmidt as West's fiercely devoted wife. Schmidt was like a shining light in the darkness whenever she appeared on screen, giving a far better performance than this film deserved.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

'Four Robbers' is a worth stealing
(but only worth paying for if its cheap)

Four Robbers (1987)
Starring: Charlie Cho, Feng Ku, and Hon Shek
Director: Gam Loi Sung
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Four ruthless criminals from the Chinese mainland make it big in Hong Kong by violently robbing organized crime figures. They are soon find themselves in a maze of deceit and betrayal, as both the underworld and the law hunt them.

"Four Robbers" has the makings of a decent low-budget action film with several nicely staged gun battles. However, it is done in by the director's seeming inability to know when to end a scene; there are very few in the film that don't so much end as drag to painful conclusions. The plot is also somewhat over-complicated with one major development being completely nonsensical and the very definition of "doing something the hard way".

There are also several elements give rise to unintended comedy, first and foremost of these being the humorless, sanctimonious leader of the four robbers who frequently prattles on about responsibility, honor and paying his own debts while planning robberies and murders. This character would be utterly laughable if not for the fact that the actor who plays him is the only performer in the film who displays any real screen presence and for the way that he follows through on his prattle when he has to rescue his fellow robbers from the Thai police. (Even if that rescue becomes unintentionally funny as well.)

And then there's the dubbing. It's actually rather well done as far as the lines matching the action and making some degree of sense, but many of the voices are so goofy that one has to wonder what the director of the voice actors must have been thinking. (My guess is, "let's cover the fact that we've got three male actors and one woman doing voices for 10-15 recurring characters." The voices for the Thai police officers are especially hilarious.)

"Four Robbers" may be one of hundreds of mediocre Hong Kong action films, and as such, it's one you can probably safely ignore. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD anywhere but in the "Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack", and when taken as part of that package, it's inoffensive filler. In fact, for the right buyer, it might even be a plus, as it's got just the right mix of flaws, unintended comedy, and silly voice acting to make it a good candidate for a Bad Movie Night.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

'Infernal Street' is not worth visiting

Infernal Street (1973)
Starring: Yui Tin-Lung and Feng Chang
Director: Chiang Shen
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a doctor in rural northern China starts a program at his health clinic to help opium addicts kick the habit, the local Japanese crime syndicate decides to shut him down. They didn't count on his hotheadeded young assistant (who also happens to be a kick-ass martial artist) who hates drugs as much as he hates the Japanese.

"Infernal Street" is an obscure martial arts flick that is deserving of obscurity. It's got a badly conceived script with bad guys who love violence as much as they love nonsensical, overly complicated schemes (like the one where they frame Our Hero for murder, only to have fake cops arrest him and take him to their headquarters). The terrible voice actors in the dubbed version included in the "Martial Arts" pack only make an already bad film worse.

The only two things "Infernal Street" has going for it are the decent martial arts fights and a fairly charismatic male lead who is interesting to watch. These elements keep the film from sinking to a rating of 3, but only just. This film is nothing but filler in this set, and it's one you can save until after you've watched the good ones.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hitman Double-feature with John Cusack

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Starring: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, and Dan Aykroyd
Director: George Armitage
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Martin Blank (Cusack) is a professional hitman who has grown disenchanted with his career choice. When he attends his 10-year high school reunion and reconnects with roots and childhood sweetheart, Debi (Driver), he decides to quit the life for good. But he first has to deal with some loose ends, such as Grocer (Ackroyd), a rival hitman who wants Blank to join the hitman union he's organizing; a killer out to avenge a dead hunting dog; and the last job that will let him start his new life.

"Grosse Pointe Blank" is a hilarious black comedy that constrast internationally renowned assassins with common everyday events and people--Blank's secretary and business manager sums up the film nicely when she explains why she finds the invite to his 10th high school reunion funny, because it shows that he "came from somewhere."

While the movie does confirm the adage "you can never go home again"--like when Blank discovers his childhood home is gone and replaced by a mini-mart--it does give a nice message about second chances and that it's never too late to pick a new and better path in life. This running thread gives both the film and the character of Martin Blank a dimension that many films being made decade plus are lacking, because they either all seem to present a world that is hopeless or one of easy answers; while "Grosse Pointe Blank" is ultimately about hope and positive change, it also makes a clear point that there are no easy solutions to life's big problems.

All the actors give great performances, the dialogue is sharp and funny; and the technical aspects are all pretty close to perfect, including the music soundtrack (although I'm sure some may complain that a realistic fight scene between Blank and an assassin stalking him is "lame"). The upbeat, casual atmosphere that permeates the fllm is also something that adds to the overall amusing quality, given what Martin Blank and many of the other characters to do a living.

I recommend this film highly to anyone who enjoys dark comedies that rely on wit over gross-outs.

War, Inc. (2008)
Starring: John Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff, Joan Cusack, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, and Montel Williams
Director: Joshua Seftel
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A high-priced hitman (Cusack) finds himself strangely bothered by his conscience when a job in wartorn Turaqistan brings him in contact with a troubled Turaqi pop idol (Duff) and a crusading reporter (Tomei).

"War, Inc." is a satire dealing with everything that's wrong with the way America has been waging war over the past decade or so while also taking jabs at the lazy media and the hypocrites on all sides of the "clash of cultures" between the Western world and that dominated by followers of Islam.

The film is an unofficial sequel to "Grosse Pointe Blank", with John Cusack and Joan Cusack reprising their characters from that film--even if they are going by different names. The Walt Disney Company which owns the rights to "Grosse Point Blank", would not allow the filmmakers to use the characters from the original film, so they renamed everyone... but Martin Blank is still Martin Blank, even if it's 20 years later and he's going by a different name.

Although the film is a little too gentle with most of the targets it skewers, it's well acted, well filmed and well paced. It's also very funny--except perhaps to journalists, self-serving politicians, international businessmen, self-important people from any country that ends in -stan, and trade show organizers. The rest of us will have an okay time, even if we will often find ourselves wondering why the filmmakers didn't push that joke a little further or why they seem timid when firing at certain targets.

It's not a perfect film, but it deserves more attention that it's gotten. It certainly didn't deserve to crash as hard financially as it did.

"War Inc." reportedly cost $10 million to make, but it barely cleared $500,000 during its run in theaters and it hasn't done much better on DVD. Given the many craptacular films with similar themes that preceded it in theaters at the time--anti-American propaganda garbage and hamfisted anti-war films like "Redacted" and "Lions for Lambs"--I'm not surprised no one bothered with this fun and clever movie, myself included.

If you liked "Grosse Pointe Blank" or if you're a fan of John Cusack and/or Marisa Tomei, you need to seek this movie out before it falls into complete obscurity. You won't regret it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Another little something of interest to RPG'ers....

I've just released another "Modern Advances" booklet over at RPGNow, "Alien Abductee"!

If you're playing d20 Modern or another game that's compatible with Modern OGL, I think you'll find this advanced class and associated feats and Talent Tree useful and amusing.

Click here to read more and to see the listing at RPGNow.

(And what do you think of my Photoshop/Canvas skills? I'm a master, ain't I?!)

Monday, July 11, 2011

The way to do a pirate movie
when you can't afford a ship!

Pirates of Blood River (1962)
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Christopher Lee, Glenn Corbitt, Peter Arne, Michael Ripper, Andrew Keir, Marla Landi, and Oliver Reid
Director: John Gilling
Stars: Seven of Ten Stars

An outcast from an isolated religious settlement in the Caribbean (Mathews) is tricked by pirates into leading them to the community. While Captain LaRouche (Lee) and his chief henchmen (Arne and Ripper) lead a campaign of terror against the settlers, and the outcast tries to convince his father (Keir) to reveal where the secret treasure the pirates are after is hidden, his best friend (Corbitt) and sister (Landi) are planning a guerilla war against the invaders.

"Pirates of Blood River" is a unique film first and foremost because the budget was so small that there are no exterior scenes on board sailing ships, no ship-to-ship combat... none of the overt Age of Sail action that we expect from a movie with the word "Pirates" in the title. That's not to say that there isn't a pirate movie made where a significant portion doesn't take place on land, it's just that the lack of ocean is conspicuous in its absence here.

Instead, we have a film that has the feels like a precursor of the Spaghetti Western, with evil banditos laying siege to and menacing innocent farmers. The settlement is even protected by a palisade that looks a little bit like an old west fort.

These similarities, however, are overwhelmed by the iconic performances given by Christopher Lee, as the hardbitten pirate captain driven by a mysterious obsession that makes him want this particular treasure, no matter what the cost; fading matinee idol Kerwin Mathews, and up-and-coming leading man Glenn Corbitt as the square-jawed, purehearted thorns in his side; and Peter Arne and Michael Ripper as two of the vilest, villainous sidekicks you'll ever want to see get their just desserts.

In fact, Lee and Ripper both give exception performances in this film, with each given far more to do than they are usually called upon. Lee presents a character that keeps everyone and everything at arms length, a secretive man with the tales of what cost him his eye and his arm, and why he is fixated on the treasure possessed by the settlers, remaining secrets known only to him. Lee's every word, gesture, and action are but a hint at the depths within this character and this makes for fascinating viewing.

While not as fascinating and nowhere near as deep, Ripper provides a great and boisterous show as an obnoxious pirate, one of the few times where he got to do something other than a bit-part. This character is so much a love-to-hate figure that I wish even more strongly now that Ripper had received a greater selection of larger, meatier roles during his career; he was a great character actor who probably never got to show everything he was capable of.

In addition to some great performances, "Pirates of Blood River" features a fast-moving story that features so much shooting, fighting, and swashbuckling that you ultimately won't care that the closet thing we get to a ship in the film is a makeshift raft the pirates make to float down said Blood River. A trek through the swamp--where the beleaguered villagers turn the pirates from predators into prey--and the final showdown between heroes and villains are among some of the most satisfying sequences in any movie released by Hammer Films... and even any pirate movie you might see.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Something of interest to old-school gamers....

As you may or may not be aware, I used to make my living full-time writing roleplaying games. It's a field I'm edging back toward, so if you're hiring, I'm available for work! :)

At any rate, I am offering up a few fun RPG items through pdf retailer RPGNOW, the latest of which is a booklet rules material and a couple of characters intended for OGL Modern/d20 Modern and similar campaigns, "Modern Advances: The Hardcore Activist & The Masked Avenger". Check it out by clicking here!

(Even if you're not a d20 Modern player, you might be entertained by reading the character descriptions in the product preview.)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

'Law Abiding Citizen' is fun in a pulp fiction way

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerald Butler, Colm Meany, Bruce McGill, and Leslie Bibb
Director: F. Gary Gray
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Ten years after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered, a man (Butler) embarks on a flashy killing spree to extract vengeance not only on the killers, but also on the ambitious district attorney who let his concern over conviction rates supersede the pursuit of justice (Foxx) and on the entire court system. However, even after he has been caught and put in isolation in a maximum security prison, the murders continue in ever-more brutal and elaborate ways.

"Law Abiding Citizen" has its starting point in a world that feels like it could be the one just outside your window and across town where the lawyers hang out. The place where movies like "Runaway Jury", "The Star Chamber" and "Presumed Innocent" takes place. As the film progresses, its world evolves into that inhabited by the characters of Liam Neeson and Jean Claude Van Damme movies. As the film is making its transition from a courtroom-dramaesque movie into a full-blown, pulp fiction-flavored thriller with a mysterious, unstoppable killer bent on taking out the city's leading citizens, it feels a bit shaky and it becomes hard to suspend one's disbelief, but once you're in the world of remote control murders, the film is fun again.

An interesting aspect of the film is that the character we're supposed to be sympathetic toward really isn't such a nice guy. Much of the mayhem in the film comes about because he was more concerned about his career prospects as advancing as a prosecutor than seeing justice done for the brutal rape and murder of a man's wife and little daughter. Jamie Foxx's character clearly accepted a plea bargain for one of the killer/rapists primarily because he was concerned first and foremost about his conviction rate. It's hard to like this character within the context of the movie... especially when he constantly comes across as a sanctimonious hypocrite without much to balance that out. Similarly, the other character for whom we might be able to feel some sympathy toward. the widower father who feels the system has let him down, is psychopathic terrorist who is ultimately far worse than the scum who took away his family. When it comes right down to it, this is a film where our sympathies lie with the poor saps getting mowed down as a result of what these two men do. That is another reason the film feels unstable and directionless in the middle, because without a clear set of genre conventions to guide our expectations, and without a main character to root for and/or hate more than the opposing force arrayed against him, one can't help but feel there might be better ways to spend your time.

Ultimately, once the film settles into its cartoonish universe of self-centered prosecutors (who somehow still manage to not neglect their families much) and vigilante terrorists with not only the desire but also the means and skill to threaten the political and judicial class of a major American city, it turns out to be fun ride, with a far-fetched mystery plot to work out as it progresses.

Nothing here is terribly brilliant writing-, directing- or cinematography-wise, the most engaging performances are actually provided by the supporting cast--if this wasn't the case, perhaps I would have felt more for the main characters than I did--and the ending will only work for you if you were able to follow the movie from a grounded world to one of criminal masterminds and super spies. Otherwise, you will probably have something of a sour taste in your mouth as the end credits start to roll, and you will find yourself wondering if anyone knew what point they were trying to make with this movie.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Yesterday Van Damme... today Seagal!

This is a hilarious short film that sells beer while having Steven Seagal poke fun at the fact that for years has been playing parts that he hasn't been fit for in years. ("Are you the only 26 year old who has never lied?" his idiot friend asks him at one point.) And the plot isn't any more far-fetched than some of those in Seagal's real movies.

This ad ranks among Seagal's best work in years. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for "Sheep Impact".

Craig: "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Seagal: "No, I'm thinking normal human thoughts."

Friday, June 17, 2011

How cold and refreshing was it, JCVD?

"Most interesting man in the world, my frost-bitten Belgian ass!"

Friday, June 3, 2011

'Andy Barker, P.I.' was a cute detective comedy

Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series (2007)
Starring: Andy Richter, Tony Hale, Harve Presnell, Clea Lewis, and Marshall Manesh
Director: Jason Ensler
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

In the Spring of 2007, NBC aired six episodes of a Conan O'Brien created and produced half-hour comedy series centered around an accountant who starts working as a detective on the side when people come to his office in search of its former occupant, a hardboiled detective who retired.

Starring Andy Richter as Andy Barker, the show's comedy was generated to a large extent by the fact that Andy was a perfectly typical small business owner--with a lovely wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs--who enjoyed working in the accounting profession. He only reluctantly gets involved in detective work, and not because he is interested in excitement or danger, but because he is interested in helping people. Unlike most lead characters in detective shows, Andy Barker's main goal is not to be a detective or a crime fighter or even famous. He's happy being a anonymous but solidly reliable accountant. As he says in one episode, "I've never filed a tax return late in my life, and I'm not going to start now!"

Much of the show's humor grows out of the contrast between the straighter-than-straight arrow Andy, the criminal element he comes in contact with, and the crazy people he meets in the course of his detective work and by just renting an office in the strip mall. The character of Andy's wife, played by a perfectly cast Clea Lewis, also brings a few laughs as she is down-to-earth enough to be a believable companion for Andy but just odd enough to be a source of humor.

Each episode of the short-lived series sees Andy dragged into a storyline that could (and probably has) been featured in any straight detective show you care to mention. Crooked cops, Russian gangsters, identity thieves, racketeers... Andy squares off against all of these, baffling and ultimately defeating them with a lot of common decency and a little dash of common sense.

The visual style of the episodes feels like the detective shows of the 1980s and 1990s, although the characters and stories are completely grounded in today. There are also numerous subtle references to classic mystery films, with Hitchcock fans in particularly finding touches to giggle at. Not so subtle mystery spoofs are also present in the form of aforementioned Lew Staziak, who is an aging tough guy private eye ripped from the pages of a dimestore novel with more than a slight touch of senile dementia.

The characters that made "Andy Barker, P.I." so much fun (left to right):
Simon (Tony Hale), Wally (Marshall Manesh), Andy & Jenny Barker
(Andy Richter and Clea Lewis), and Lew Staziak, (Harv Presnell).

The episodes break down like this:

Episode One: Andy Barker, P.I.
Andy opens his own accounting firm, taking offices on the second floor of a suburban strip mall. A woman comes to his door and, mistaking him for the former tenant, private detective Lew Staziak, begs him to find her missing husband. Andy discovers that the same sort of research talents and attention to detail that let him solve even the most baffling accounting puzzles lend themselves just as well to solving mysteries. Unfortunately, the woman who hired him was not really the man's wife, and Andy ends up leading violent criminals to the hiding place of an anti-crime crusading politician.

Episode Two: Fairway, My Lovely
When one of Andy's accounting clients drops dead on the golf course, he and the coroner write it off as natural causes, because this was a guy who liked to think of himself as "44% NOT body fat" and who put the morbid in morbidly obese. When the decedent's wife pleads Andy to look into the case, because she is certain he was murdered, Andy is confronted with two puzzles: Who killed him, and why the heck did every woman find him so attractive (including Andy's own wife). [This is arguably the funniest episode in the bunch. The storyline is also a clever mystery spoof with an ending that I'm sure you won't see coming.]

Episode Three: Three Days of the Chicken
Wally, the America-loving Afghani owner of the fast food restaurant downstairs from Andy's office, is threatened by an unscrupulous chicken distribution cartel that is forcing him to buy substandard meat. Against the advice of Lew Staziak, Andy decides to intervene... and finds himself confronted with some really fowl dealings by corrupt and deadly characters.

Episode Four: Dial M for Laptop
When Lew Staziak decides to get back into the P.I. business as Andy's partner, he forgets to tell Andy. As a result, a group of identity thieves Lew was trying to entrap steal Andy's laptop instead of the dummy laptop Andy was to give them. In less than 24 hours, Andy must locate the identity thieves not only to save Lew's client, but to also preserve his own reputation and self-respect; his father-in-law's tax return was on that laptop, unfiled, and if Andy can't retrieve he'll miss the IRS filing deadline!

Episode Five: The Big No Sleep
When Andy's baby girl loses her favorite stuffed toy, Snowball, at a charity benefit, she keeps Andy and his wife up all night crying. His search for the toy becomes complicated when he discovers that the sick woman for whom the benefit was being held was faking her illness, and that her doctor may be in on the fraud. And that doesn't even take into account the Albanian gangsters.

Episode Six: The Lady Varnishes
When Andy is called upon to clear an old girlfriend of Lew Staziak of a 50 year-old murder, the true murderer--Lew's old partner--sets out to stop him from succeeding. [Ed Asner guest-stars in this episode, presenting a hilarious character who, like Lew, seems like he just warped in from from a 1947 crime movie... and who is every bit as crazy as Lew. But more evil. James Hong and Amy Sedaris also appear in hilarious supporting roles.]

The stars and creators of "Andy Barker, P.I" had deep affection for the show, and they are of one mind that it had the potential to be a long-lived series. I'm not sure; as good as these six episodes are, I think the inherent shallowness in the half-hour format would have quickly forced the show into territory that was either repetitive or so far fetched and screwball that the charm of these first six episodes would have evaporated. However, we will never know. Although the show was moderately popular, NBC didn't think the ratings warranted its continuation.

The entire series has been released on DVD by Shout Factory. The collection features some very interesting interviews with the writers, producers, stars, and director of the series, as well as some highly informative and entertaining commentary on the episodes from the same. They really are a cut above the usual standards on these collections, and they add much value to this already worth-owning set.

You can also watch the series for free at IMBD.com, by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not terribly good, but still compelling

The Kidnapping of the President (1980)
Starring: William Shatner, Hal Holbrook, Miguel Fernandes, and Van Johnson
Director: George Mendeluk
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

The President of the United States (Holbrook) is kidnapped by a psychotic South American professional revolutionary (Fernandes) and held for ransom inside an booby-trapped armored truck full of explosives. It's up to a gun-shy Secret Service agent (Shatner), haunted by the memory of the Kennedy assassination, to figure out a way to save him.

"The Kidnapping of the President" is one of those movies that's saved by its cast. The plot is forced, the dialogue is universally awful, and the ending is all but spoiled by the director trying to ring some forced and very artificial suspense out of the final few moments.

Despite all the flaws, this is a film you watch because the actors in it as so likable and good. Hal Holbrook takes the character of President Adam Scott, who is written like an arrogant blow-hard, and gives him charm and likability. Shatner takes the Secret Service agent Jerry O'Conner, who is written like a borderline whiner, and infuses him with an air of resolve and toughness. Because of the performances by these two actors, the film's flaws seem to fade and you become interested in seeing how it will all turn out.

Van Johnson and Eva Gardner also do their best to bring life to a pointless subplot involving the corrupt Vice President and his shrewish wife. For what they had to work with, they do a decent job, but it really is an element the that added very little to the film. (They got this part of the political thriller aspect right in "Air Force One", another "the president is kidnapped by terrorists" movie... and perhaps one that learned from the mistakes of those that came before? Instead of delving into the background of the Vice President and his questionable morals and henpecked homelife, the filmmakers should have focused on the political mechanisms that kick in when the President is under threat.

If you like light-weight political thrillers, especially if you're a fan of William Shatner or Hal Holbrook, this is a movie worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A great cast is weighed down by a weak script

Backdraft (1991)
Starring: William Baldwin, Kurt Russell, Robert DeNiro, Jason Gedrick, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Scott Glenn
Director: Ron Howard
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A green-horn arson investigator (Baldwin), analyzing information about a series of bizarre fires provided to him by a pyromaniac arsonist (Sutherland), comes to believe there is a fire-bug within the ranks of the city's fire department... within the very company commanded by his estranged older brother (Russell).

"Backdraft" is a movie with some spectacular stunt and scenes involving supposedly raging fires. It's a bit unbelievable how Russell's character constantly charges into burning buildings without proper equipment (even while every other firefighter around him is properly suited up), but the story and characters are interesting enough that ends up being a minor complaint.

What is somewhat more damning is the fact the movie seems to meander a bit, as Howard insists on a dull and distracting subplot about Stephen's failed marriage. The film would have seemed a lot more suspenseful if the building drama hadn't been interrupted three times for interludes with Stephen trying to recapture what is already gone. (All Howard needed was the scene where Brian goes to Stephen's home, only to be told he doesn't live there anymore.)

The mystery portion of the film (the who, how, and why of the artful fires) works very well, and, as mentioned, the fire-related scenes are all spectacular... "Backdraft" can truly be said to have a fiery climax!

Of the actors, Donald Sutherland deserves special mention. His part is fairly small, but he definitely puts on an interesting show as the batshit-crazy arsonist who wants to burn down the whole world, and who believes fire is a living beast that must be loved and fed. (DeNiro and he are arch-enemies, and DeNiro's otherwise bland character becomes more interesting because of the one Sutherland so brilliantly plays... because both men seem to think of fire in the same way.)

"Backdraft" is a movie I think is worth seeing at least once. It's a shame that Howard and the script writers didn't see fit to serve up a more streamlined final product... that probably would have resulted in this good movie being a great one.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'Submerged' shouldn't have been allowed to rise

Submerged (2005)
Starring: Steven Seagal and Christine Adams
Director: Anthony Hickox
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Commander Cody (Seagal) and his misfit Special Forces submarine crew are released from a Navy brig so they can assault the stronghold of an international criminal who has somehow managed to assassinate a U.S. ambassador. Treachery is piled upon treachery, and Cody and his crew find themselves fighting against a foe who can turn even the firmest friend into an enemy through a flawless brainwashing technique.

There are some movies that are just plain bad, and "Submerged" is one of them. It's got a nonsensical script that is so badly paced and so flimsy in its motivations that it manages to sap even unintentional humor from the notion of a collection of action movie stock characters who conduct secret missions that rely on stealing submarines to be successfully concluded. The most remarkable thing about the movie is how pathetic the submarine sets are, given how central the submarine is to the first half of the movie (which, by the way, has virtually nothing to do with the second half). I would very much like to have the hour-and-a-half I wasted on thismovie back.

On the other hand, I should have realized that any film we're expected to take seriously by writers with so little self-respect and producers and directors so dumb that they'd let the main character be named Commander Cody couldn't possibly be any good. It's too bad really. There was a time when Seagal starred in fun cheesy movies instead of awful ones.

Monday, May 2, 2011

One of Bruce Lee's best efforts

The Chinese Connection (aka "Fist of Fury") (1972)
Starring: Bruce Lee, James Tien, Nora Miao, and Riki Hashimoto
Director: Lo Wei
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A martial arts student (Lee) goes on a murderous rampage against a corrupt Japanese martial arts dojo to avenge the death of his teacher and the loss of honor to his school.

"The Chinese Connection" is one of the best martial arts movies and revenge flicks ever made. There is no Wire Fu, no trick photography, and no stunt doubles standing in for the lead actor. Also, while the viewer shares in the hero's brutal revenge against the Japanese scum-dogs, there is never any doubt throughout the picture that Bruce Lee's character Chen is giving up his soul and lowering himself to the level of those he has set out to destroy. When Chen's quest for revenge reaches its inevitable conclusion--with the destruction not only of his enemies but also himself--we've been treated to a well-crafted polemic against racism and cycles of revenge and violence.

Like so many Chinese movies of its day, this one features Japanese villains of the darkest and most vile sort, but unlike most of the others, this movie takes a more complex stand than just "Japanese Bad and Perverted, Chinese Good and Virtuous". And this makes it an imminently watchable movie, even in this day and age of overly hysterical attitudes toward portrayals of racism and bigotry in fiction and movies.

The superior quality of the story and the great acting performances not only from Bruce Lee but every single member of the cast are such that they can even overcome one of the very worst dubbing jobs I've experienced since renting my first Kung Fu movies with friends from the local grocery store some 30 years ago. Not only was the English tortured in many cases, but the entire cast was dubbed by what may have been one single actor. Lee's voice characterized as laughably deep, and he did the women by speaking in a high-pitched falsetto, while everyone in between sounded roughly similar to one another.

But, even with the eccentric dubbing, this was a very entertaining film. The fight scenes are cool and fast-moving, and Lee's methods for stalking and killing the students and hirelings of the Japanese dojo were amusing and a little scary at the same time. But always, ultimately mercilessly brutal.

"The Chinese Connection" was Bruce Lee's second feature film, and it rightly solidified him as an international superstar. If he had continued to involve himself with such high quality projects as this one, he would have gone onto becoming a movie legend of a stature that not even Jackie Chan managed to achieve. Action movie lovers truly lost out when an allergic relation to an over-the-counter medication killed Lee in 1973, but at least he left us with a small number of great films. Including this one, which is so great that not even pathetic dubbing can ruin it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Diabolik' is lots of fun, despite its excesses

Danger: Diabolik (aka "Diabolik") (1968)
Starring: John Phillip Law, Marissa Mell, Michel Piccoli, and Aldolfo Celi
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In "Danger: Diabolik", the long-standing rivalry between the mysterious supertheif Diabolik (Law) and police inspector Ginko (Piccoli) becomes personal when Ginko forces a top gangster (Celi) to take action against his foe and the love of Diabolik's life, Eva (Mell) is caught in the middle.

I read maybe a couple dozen of the "Diabolik" comics when I was a kid, and two I have the fondest memories of is the one where Diabolik and Ginko team up to rescue their wives from a crook who has kidnapped them, and another where they are both on a cruise ship that gets taken over by terrorists, forcing a sort-of team-up between the two.

As portrayed in "Danger: Diabolik", such cooperation would never have taken place--the two men appear to dislike each other entiely too much, even if the respect they have for one another in the comic books still seems to be present to some degree--but aside from this small "failing", I think this film mostly conveys the essense of its source material better than most other comic book movies out there. It's not quite as dark as I remember "Diabolik" being, but it's entertaining enough.

Star John Phillip Law and the costume designers even took pains to match the physical appearance of Diabolik from the comics. There is no arbitrary "re-imagining" for its own sake in this film, as everyone seemed comfortable with and knowledgeable of the source material ot the point where they could do a faithful adaptation. (Even the musical score captures the simultaneous playfulness and grim intensity that were the hallmarks of the "Diabolik" comic.

There's further icing on this cake, as there literally isn't a single scene in this film that isn't staged in a visually arresting fashion. Director/cinematographer Mario Bava manage to fully bring a comic-book feel to the screen, presenting the sort of motion and three-dimensionality that the illustrators of the "Diabolik" comic are attempting to achieve with the many chase scenes and close calls the characters execute in those pages.

Bava also manages to bring a comic book feel in subtle and visually creative ways. Many scenes have the sense of being panels in motion, with action being framed in various ways, sometimes even feeling like "inset panels", like where Diabolik and Eva are staking out a break-in target, and we see their faces in the review mirror, framed before the building they are watching. The most impressive of the many instances of this in the film is a conference of gangsters that is viewed through a lattice, with characters positioned around the room and isolated in their own frames while speaking.

While the creative cinemagrapy is a joy to behold, some of the sets and mat-paintings are equally impressive. Diabolik's secret hideout, with its many security precautionsand gadgets is the sort of thing James Bond's nemisis Blofeld wishes he could have. Lex Luthor probably has lair-envy as well. (Although neither Blofeld nor Luthor would know what do to with Diabolik's huge rotating bed where he and Eva have wild sex while coverd in millions of dollars....)[/left]

As much as I admire the visuals and the sets, I think these also end up being counted among its weaknesses, despite their beauty (or perhaps becaome of it). Director Bava also seems to have been aware that he and his crew had made a very special movie here, and he is just a little too proud of their work and he shows off the sets and the matpaintings just a little too much. On more than one occassion, he spends so much time dwelling on them that the movie starts to sputter and stall--the worst of these is the scene of Diabolik and Eva making love, while visually cool, goes on for so long that it becomes downright boring. It always recovers thanks to even more great visuals and a script that is jam-packed with action, but the film could have been so much better if some of the scenes have been trimmed a bit.

Speaking of the script, this film would also have been alot better if its creators had known when to quit. There is a perfect ending for the filmd, and even a suitable denoument, but it continues well beyond that point and even gets a bit repetitious.

I'm certain the intent was to include a truly impossible crime in the film--to push it completely over the top--but the end result is a feeling that two different major heists and two different endings had been contemplated for the script (each with its own impossible escape for Diabolik) and in the end it was decided to use both of them. The result is that viewers will start feeling a little impatient during the film's final 10-15 minutes, but because we've already sat through something that's thematically identical and that brought the story to a satisfying close.

"Danger: Diabolik" is an mostly well-done, light-hearted action flick, and it's definately underrated and under-appreciated. I recommend you purchase or rent this flick. If it didn't keep going past the point where it should have ended, and if it had been a little more like the actual comics, it would have been perfect.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

'Red Riding' is a moody mystery

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, Anthony Flanagan, Sean Bean, David Morrissey, and John Henshaw
Director: Julian Jarrold
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A rookie crime beat reporter (Garfield) tries to discover the identity of a serial killer preying on little girls in Yorkshire, but in the process runs headlong into a dangerous and far-reaching conspiracy involving corrupt police officers, a ruthless real estate developer (Bean), and perhaps even the mother of one of the victims (Hall).

Rarely have so many great performances been featured in a film so intense and stylish added up to so little. By the time the 100 minutes of "Red Riding" have run their course, you'll have witnessed one of film history's most incompetent journalist-detectives blunder his way through a twisted maze of perversion and corruption, solve the case, kinda-sorta see justice done... and you'll find yourself wondering, "Is that it?"

Given that this is the first part in a three-part series based on a true story of a serial killer that terrorized Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s--and some conspiracy theorists hold that the killer may still be at large.

Based on this movie, one can easily buy into that conspiracy as the Yorkshire in "Red Riding" makes Chicago look like Mayberry by comparison. Everyone with the smallest scrap of power is tied to a corrupt political machine, and anyone who tries to challenge that machine ends up discredited or dead. In the end, it's a somewhat depressing movie, because the over-arcing message is that "evil always wins".

Part of why evil wins in this film is because good is so damn stupid. The erstwhile hero of the film is both cowardly and lazy, which makes him a very realistic character but it also makes for frustrating viewing. He makes the wrong choice at every single opportunity and ultimately becomes part of the very cover-up he is trying to unravel. Although it's probably a good thing for the series of movies that he--if not for the real-life victims of the Yorkshire Ripper--because the corrupt cops and politicians and business people in this film aren't much smarter. With the way they carry on in this film, and the messes they leave behind, their goose would have been cooked long before whatever ultimate solution will be offered to the central mystery of this film in the third film, "Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983". Unless, of course, Yorkshire really does make Chicago look like Mayberry by comparison.

While you may feel a little frustration at the stupidity of the reporter hero of this film, it is worth watching for the great acting. Sean Bean in particular puts on a good show as a menacing real estate tycoon who may or may not entertain himself on the weekends by kidnapping and murdering little girls and sewing swan wings on their backs.

At the very least, the film serves as a nice stage-setting for the next chapter in the series, which I will be watching and reviewing shortly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

'The Heist' isn't worth stealing

The Heist (aka "Unlawful Force") (1997)
Starring: Cynthia Geary, Andrew McCarthy, Wolf Larson, Peter Hanlon, Hannes Jaenicke, Brent Stait, and Janice Simmons
Director: Michael Kennedy
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A retired police officer (Geary) turned security company dispatcher engages in a battle of nerves and wits with the leader of a gang that is staging a robbery (McCarthy).

"The Heist" is a made-for-TV movie that screams "cheap" from every single frame. From its limited locations (all of the interior spaces were probably on the same sound stage and all the exteriors feel like they were probably filmed around the same rundown industrial park) to the run-down vehicles used throughout the picture, this is a movie with a budget so low it can't conceal it.

It doesn't help matters that the script is predictable in every way but one (I guessed wrong when it came to the identity of the "mole" in the security company that was, but I called every other plot development long before it made its way onto the screen, and anyone who has seen more than two or three crime dramas will easily do the same.

It's not a particularly bad movie--it's paced decently, no one in the cast embarrasses themselves or their co-stars with bad performances, and stars McCarthy and Geary are as good as one expects them to be, based on work that came both before and after this film--but it's also not particularly good. "Bland" is the perfect adjective to describe it.

This is a film that deserved to fade into TV oblivion, but someone acquired the DVD rights cheaply enough to put it out there for rent and purchase. Unless you're the world's biggest fan of Andrew McCarthy or Cynthia Geary, or unless you've set yourself the goal of watching every single heist movie ever made in North American, it isn't even worth shoplifting.