Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One...Two...Three...Four...Five...Deadly Venoms

(This entry is another flashback that originally appeared on my other blog in 2004. It's been modified to make me look like less of a jackass. Enjoy!)
I'd like to take this moment to suggest a change to the Chinese Zodiac...
How many of you remember when they used to have things like Saturday/Sunday morning/afternoon Kung Fu/Martial Arts theater? How many of you watched no matter how bad the dubbing or how incomprehensible the storyline? For the life of me, I can't remember many of the titles for nearly any of these movies. I remember them because of weird fight scenes. I remember them because of wacky weapons. I remember them for being the early times or heyday of an actor who showed up in some action movie more recently. I'm not sure what it is, but there's a certain charm to that.

"First a tune from our favorite Beijing Opera...then to the ass-kicking..."
It's easy to remember Chang Cheh's Five Deadly Venoms ( 五毒, 1978) because of the characters and their fighting styles: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Toad, and The Lizard. The story is a sort of martial arts whodunit, wherein an aging martial arts master sends his final pupil, Yan Tieh, to search out his five former venomous pupils who he fears may using their skills to diabolical ends. And, of course, some of them are. After, all this isn't the Five Friendly Venoms (though that's a wonderfully oxymoronic title).  There's one weensy-teensy catch: the master doesn't know their names or faces. So Yan heads off to the nearest town in order to uncover the Venoms one by one in a plot of treachery, greed and intrigue.  And, a whole lot of fighting in really weird ways.

The fall of my favorite Venom, the Toad (?!?)
Director Chang Cheh was one of the Shaws' most successful and prolific directors, and would go on to make a variety of films with some or all of the stars, who became popularly known as the Five Venoms or Venom Mob. Why am I prefacing this paragraph this way?  Well, like most first efforts or trendsetters, the formula obviously hadn't hit yet. Five Deadly Venoms, overall, is fun and colorful, and while everyone seems to be having a good time, it's a little slow and stilted in places compared to the Venom films that followed.  At the same time, as a first, it certainly deserves its spot on many martial arts movies favorites lists. However, if you enjoy this film, may I suggest popping in another Venoms picture, The Crippled Avengers (1978) for perhaps one of the most over-the-top, bizarre kung fu movies ever committed to celluloid (I may have to return to review that one.). But, back to my original premise with this entry...

Before dancing on ceilings was a glimmer in Lionel Richie's mind...
There's a funny loss with these movies following the restoration of the original language tracks. On the plus side, the lips match the words, and more importantly, for once you appreciate that a lot of these guys can actually act. On the other hand, those of us who grew up with these movies can't help but feel a certain nostalgia for the overdone, hammy, mismatched English dialogue track. It will always be a part of the experience, as that's how we first saw them. The same goes double for Godzilla movies, which, in pop culture consciousness, became synonymous with bad lip synch. For many of the bottom of the barrel kung fu movies, the laughs generated by the dialogue are the only things that make them worth watching. (I'd like to reiterate that Five Deadly Venoms is by no means one of these.)

My first DVD copy of the first Venoms looked as though it was from a 1986 video dub. To be fair, it was released when the movie was still public domain, but it still looked dreadful. For years after digital transfers became the norm, I often wondered - Why if they have a pristine restored digital transfer of something like Carpenter's Escape from New York do they still show the video copy that was made in '86 on TV?  Celestial pictures has re-released many the Shaw Brothers' films cleaned up and unedited on DVD (Though many an on-line forum has seen complaints about changed or missing music amongst other tiffs). The only problem is that they're region coded for Asia.  Miramax eventually made some deal with them, and began releasing many of the bigger hits on DVD under the Dragon Dynasty label for North America; however, many of the more rare titles have never become available in the States...at least, not through conventional means.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"I hate you so much, I think I'm going to die from it."

In the past few years, I've noticed that every cinephile, including myself, has a number of omissions, often embarrassing to the rabid movie goer in question, of films they'd always meant to see or should've seen, but, for whatever reason, had just never gotten around to. In a recent casual movie trivia contest, one friend admitted that he'd never seen The Blues Brothers (1980), so to help him cover his shame I replied that I'd only recent gotten around to seeing The Sting (1973).  So every now and again, when I think about it, I try to make a conscious effort to try and fill in some of these gaps.

You can never see them all, but you can always try to tick one or two more off the never ending checklist.

From the "Formerly Socially Acceptable" File
So I sat down with 1946's Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, and George Macready. If memory serves, this was the first Rita Hayworth vehicle I've watched.  This forces me to admit that Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai is another of these gaps on my list. Ford I had just seen in Fritz Lang's excellent noir The Big Heat, which also starred a very young, and very vicious Lee Marvin as the lead villain. In fact, I had almost forgotten that Ford played a key part in one of my childhood favorites as Pa Kent in the first Christopher Reeve Superman (1978).  The distinctly voiced and distinctly scarred Macready is one of those character actors that even if you don't know him, you know him. Much like Peter Lorre or Erich Von Stroheim, Macready's villainous portrayals have somehow transcended into pop culture consciousness. The movie's director, Charles Vidor (née Károly Vidor), a Hungarian by birth, was yet another of the long list of European filmmakers who immigrated to Hollywood as the Nazis rose to eminence before the second World War.

"Hey, I didn't get a 'hubba hubba' out of that guy!"
The film's story is narrated by Johnny Farrell (Ford), a down on his luck gambler newly arrived in Argentina, who's saved from a mugging by the erudite Bailin Mundson (Macready). Johnny finds work at Mundson's illegal casino, rising through the ranks to quickly become the floor manager, but while he rules the casino, he's kept at arm's length from Mundson's other interests which involve a tungsten mine, some patents, and a shady group of Germans. When he's introduced to Mundson's wife, Gilda (Hayworth) it's all too apparent that Johnny and Gilda share a past that is tantalizingly kept in permanent secrecy. The heat gets turned up as Johnny's forced to babysit his former flame as she lives it up with a host of handsome suitors while her husband's nefarious interests go south. The cork is truly popped once Mundson is forced to flee the authorities, faking his own death, which leaves Gilda in control of his fortune and Johnny as the his executor of both his estate and his illicit affairs.

The alluring scent of cheeks...
Gilda is frequently considered a noir, and it is in ways. I found it had more in common with a movie like Casablanca (1942), wherein a seedy cast of characters make their way through a plot of entanglements, romantic and otherwise, in an exotic locale. In any event, it's an excellent potboiler wherein the danger and the emotions get cranked up step by step, and it becomes harder to tell whether the explosion's going to come from pent up emotions or from the pistols floating about. The film's only misstep is the lengthy loss of Mundson in the film's final third. The dynamic between the film's main trio is electrifying, and when Mundson's taken out of the plot, it also robs some of the fire in the love/hate inferno between Johnny and Gilda.

And, I must confess, despite Hayworth's absolute radiance and appeal, there were a few too many lengthy musical numbers toward the end that began to grate on me just a hair. (Though not nearly as much as Dino and Ricky Nelson's last minute musical entry at the end of Rio Bravo (1959).)

...v. the irresistible pull of the pin-stripe.
Nevertheless, Gilda creates one of those excellent fictional worlds that attracted me so deeply to film in the first place. The fact that the setting is Argentina is inconsequential. It could've been Morocco or Japan or anywhere on a globe. It's a movie world. The sets are striking. The clothing is sharp and sumptuous. And the dialogue can crack like a whip. It's an inviting and immersive world of classically styled romance and intrigue...with, yes, that old Hollywood hint of sexual aberration. It's one of those old, black & white movies that is perfect to win over people who hate old, black & white movies. Simply put, if you can't find something to enjoy about this movie, it suggests that there's more wrong with you than with this all too enjoyable film.

Stand out line: Johnny Farrel: "Statistics show that there are more women in the world than anything else...except insects."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Final Escapade

A friend recently brought up his love for Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder, which led to a discussion of its progenitor, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce's story was the grandaddy of all "life flashing before one's eyes" stories, a sort of subset of the "it was all a dream" motif. Much like Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" and Hammett's Red Harvest, "Owl Creek Bridge" has seen its basic tenets hashed and rehashed in numberless stories since its publication.

So it was a sort of odd coincidence that I should happen to throw on Claude Chabrol's Alice ou la dernière fugue (aka. Alice or The Last Escapade, 1977). The film is the tale of Alice Carroll, played by Sylvia Kristel, the Dutch actress best known for her portrayal of the infamously sensual Emmanuelle, who leaves her husband into a torrential downpour in the French countryside. Forced to stop by a cracked windshield, she finds herself welcomed into an old chateau, wherein she has a bizarre series of encounters among the denizens of the grounds while discovering that she can't seem to leave her rest stop. There's no real way to say SPOILER ALERT at this point, but if you look back to the first paragraph, you might just be able to tell where this story goes from there.

As I mentioned, most cineastes and literary fiends are all too familiar with the Bierce plot to experience any sort of surprise at the twist to this particular tale. It makes for unfair bias when looking back to a time before the plot device had become a touch on the hackneyed side. So how does the rest of the film hold up despite that?  That's harder to say. More scholarly critics than myself saw a great depth to this film that I felt it lacked. It's definitely made by the steady, controlled hand of a master: it's beautifully shot, makes fantastic use of its location, has wonderful atmosphere, and was remarkably compelling for how little interaction there is between Kristel and the film's other characters.

However, while it makes stabs at depth, it never seems to make it past an entry level course on philosophy. For fantastic films of possible afterlives, I was instantly reminded of Cocteau's Orpheus films, which I found to have a more artful approach to the material as well a more relatable thoughtfulness about them. I could follow the progression of Chabrol's film, but never felt terribly engaged with the discussion.  Furthermore, the film is also an allusion to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which it also never quite plumbed to any real depth, so that what little tie there was to the celebrated Victorian tale seemed trite. In all, a gorgeous but unsatisfying film...but perhaps, my wondering if it's not I that's missing something says quite a bit in and of itself.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

From the Vault: The Weekend in Movies

(This is an updated and modified post from March 2004 off of my previous blog. ENJOY!)

On Friday, I half watched The Storm Riders (1998, HK), starring Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng. I say half because I was doing other things, and I've already seen the movie a dozen times or so. In the movie, two young men, Wind and Cloud, are raised by Conqueror (the great Sonny Chiba), the man who killed each of their fathers during his ongoing struggle to rule the world. Unfortunately for Conqueror, the Mud Budha has prophecied that Conqueror will be invincible for the first half of this life, but in the second half, Wind and Cloud will be his undoing. Naturally, Conqueror doesn't believe it, and fate takes care of the rest.

Believe me, despite that literally being the story and literally how they talk about it in the dialogue, it's not as silly somehow while watching it. If you've never seen it, I don't necessarily recommend rushing out to grab it now. The special effects, at the time for Hong Kong, were strong and inventive, but were still behind Hollywood and now behind for both. I can handle movies that have cheeseball effects or that look dated, but I know that a lot of folks just can't. I do, however, harbor a soft spot for it. It's a pretty strongly realized fantasy martial arts film that tells a far more developed story than most.

On Saturday night, I talked several friends into rewatching Hero (2002, China, d. Zhang Yimou). Hero concerns a county official who is brought before the emperor after vanquishing three of his most dreaded foes. Through the emperor's close cross examination of his savior's tale, the true story slowly emerges.

Like so many movies based on fragmented narratives or dissenting perspectives, Hero certainly owes a debt to Rashomon in its style of storytelling. But, Rashomon is based on three different people's understanding of the same story. Hero, however, is based on a lie, and the combing over of the story elements slowly unravels the various tendrils of fabrication. This film has a breathtaking production design and a skillful use of vibrant color and texture. At the same time, it's painterly tendencies to maintain style sometimes leaves it a little cold and distancing.

Miramax is supposed to release Hero in the U.S., but don't be surprised if it is chopped up and dubbed. In fine Hollywood form, they are apparently suing a man for supplying links to websites carrying original versions of these foreign films. There's a weird conundrum to the whole thing: The majority of people who see these movies are hardcore movie people who want the original version, but the studio butchers them for a broad audience that likely won't go see them anyway. Go figure. (ed. note: Luckily, perhaps having learned a lesson from Shaolin Soccer, Hero was released in its original form in Mandarin.)

Spread between Sunday morning and Sunday evening in two viewings was Battle Royale II (2003, Japan). (Am I pushing it with the Asian cinema?) Boy oh boy...whoa nelly...and by golly. This movie seemed like it wanted to say a hundred things at the same time, and didn't say any of them well. A modern day techno-version of Lord of the Flies, the first Battle Royale was the story of a near future law that tries to reign in rioting children by picking a random class of ninth graders and flying them to a remote spot where they are forced to eliminate one another. Battle Royale II revolves around the terrorist movement created by the survivors of the first movie in an effort to free the children of the world from adult oppression. The tie-in is a new game which sends the random class of 9th graders to the terrorist base where they must infiltrate and kill the terrorist leader.

The most basic failure was really managing to drum up sympathy for any of the characters. The first movie almost suffered from this problem, but two things almost consistently worked for it: early victims got a sympathy vote for looking like helpless children before being killed in nasty ways, while the later victims had some character defining action or backstory to flesh them out during the course of the game. The second film had little to give the new kids or the terrorist children other than a horrific death that because of their anonymity failed to drum up much emotion. This isn't to say the movie was without emotion. Depending on your political leanings, there are certain things in this film that I would hope would speak to anyone, but the whole movie keeps picking up and falling apart around them.

I can't really go through the other problems in the film without doing a point by point breakdown, which would be a lot like the second half of the film: endless.  After long jags of scattershot pacing, the film kept gearing up to end and would then keep going (I almost felt like I was watching AI again. The horror. The horror.). Most of this I ascribe to the directionlessness (that has to be a word if it isn't) of the whole thing. If you don't know where you're going, how do you know that you're there? It should be said that the director Kinji Fukasaku passed away during the film's making, and so it was passed on to his son, Kenta. From that vantage, dissection of what made it to the screen becomes a battle of what if's concerning Kenta's capabilities, or whether Kinji would have held the project together better.

The movie's in the can. It just happens to be a thoughtful mess in a can.

The final viewing which took place late Friday night, and finished early on Saturday was Sergio Corbucci's second western, Minnesota Clay (1965, Italy). Minnesota Clay is the story of gunslinger who escapes from prison in order to save his town and his daughter from rival gangs, one of which is led by the man who could prove his innoncence. Clay's primary difficulty is that his skills with a pistol are being lost to the blindness taking over his eyes.

Not bad, not bad at all. The quality of the DVD was surpisingly good. Corbucci, of course, didn't hit stride with westerns until Django, a spaghetti masterpiece. (I think Corbucci was truly the master of what is thought of as the spaghetti western. Leone's films were in a whole other bigger ball park . They just happened to be Euro-westerns.) Minnesota Clay is definitely of that early mold of spaghetti where they conformed highly to Hollywood standards and stories, but it isn't bad in terms of either. Cameron Mitchel is well cast as the aging and ailing gunslinger who's still got more than enough steely-eyed vengeance in him. My primary complaint, as with many of these films, some of the dubbed dialogue (and all of them were, whether in Italian or not) gets laughable just to make sure the character says something when his mouth is open.

Anyhow, not my favorite spaghetti, but a worthy entry into the genre.