Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blood Feast (1963)


You mean you don't know? Ok.. here's the broad strokes. Fuad Ramses (the fuzzy eyebrowed Mal Arnold) is a caterer who, in an attempt to resurrect the Egyptian goddess Ishtar, starts butchering women and stealing their body parts. Ol' Ramses is hired to cater a party for the young Suzette Fremont (Playboy Bunny Connie Mason), who is being wooed by Det. Pete Thornton (William Kerwin) who is hot on Ramses trail. Except not really. Suzette's mom walks in on Ramses attempting to chop her daughter's head off, which sends Thornton chasing after the limping murderer. Attempting to escape in the back of a garbage truck ends up being Ramses' undoing, as he's unconvincingly crushed to death. "He died a fitting end for the garbage he was", says the police captain. So true.


About Blood Feast, director Herschell Gordon Lewis famously said: "I've often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It's no good, but it was the first of its type". And indeed the film was the first to be sold solely on the copious amounts of gore onscreen, setting the stage for most of the exploitation-horror over the next four decades. It's influence can be seen in the work of filmmakers as diverse as John Waters and Eli Roth. It's had tributes and sequels and has been immortalized in the minds of fans of cult and horror cinema, along with other H.G. Lewis classics like 2000 Maniacs, The Wizard Of Gore, and Color Me Blood Red. The impact of the film simply cannot be denied.

But it's certainly no good.

The performance range from passable to pitiful, with Mal Arnold's wild overacting clashing harshly with Connie Mason's mannequin-like performance. William Kerwin is solid in the lead, but is made to look inept and ineffective by a script that seems to have been made up as the creators went along. The direction is pedestrian, and the effects are totally primitive. The film barely has enough action to fill its scant 70 minute run time, and tension and suspense is almost non-existent.

But, frankly, that's not why anyone came to see this film. They went to see copious amounts of violence, and the film certainly delivers that. From the opening scene showing a young lady getting her leg hacked off, we know we're watching something totally different from the nudie pictures popular at the time. All the usual skin and sex is traded for bloodshed, and in fact the film features absolutely no nudity or coarse language. Lewis (and producer David Friedman) figured that they didn't want to give censors any more ammunition than was necessary.

The film remains watchable for a combination of historic importance, and because of its enduring ridiculousness. Everything feels exaggerated in one way or another, with the unconvincing effects preventing the audience from being too disgusted by the whole thing. The final chase scene is particularly laughable, as Ramses limps slowly across a desert but still manages to out-pace the officers running after him.

Of a much higher quality than the rest of the film is Lewis' memorable soundtrack, particularly the pounding drums of the main theme. In the commentary Lewis mentions spending longer on the soundtrack than on the actual film, and it shows. Lewis was an amazingly economical director, and certainly didn't waste time or film in the process of making a feature.

For all the criticisms of the film itself, the DVD from Image Entertainment (and Something Weird Video) is an absolute delight. While its low-budget origins are obvious, the film looks bright and colorful. The full screen transfer is as close to perfect as we're likely to see.

We're also treated to some wonderful (and unique) extra features:

First is the short film "Carving Magic", starring William Kerwin and the late Harvey Korman showing us the proper way to carve a number of different meats. A morbidly appropriate companion piece to the main feature. We also get the original theatrical trailer for Blood Feast, featuring the talking head of Kerwin suggesting parents and children leave the theater while the trailer ran (barf bags were sometimes provided for viewers on the film's original release). Fifty minutes(!) of incredibly rare outtakes round out the video extras, featuring (according to Lewis) almost all of the footage that was shot but not included in the film. While there is no original violence on the outtakes, there are a few shots of nudity that don't appear in the final product.

The DVD also features a second audio track featuring commentary from director H.G. Lewis and producer David Friedman. The commentary is wonderfully informative and full of funny stories from the two men who obviously have a lot of fun looking back at their fascinating careers. They go into detail in regards to the difficulties of releasing such a unique film, as well as the revolutionary way they went about marketing it. At heart, both men are (admitted) carnies, and sometimes still appear to be in awe of the success of their big score.

The special features are rounded off with a gallery of exploitation art, featuring various newspaper ads for the film as well as stills and poster art. It finishes with a nice photo of the cast and crew.

Blood Feast is essential viewing for those interested in the history of exploitation, gore or horror film-making. It quite literally changed the way films were made and marketed, and its influence is still felt. While time hasn't been kind to the effects and performances, there are still some unintentional laughs to be had, and the great DVD package by Something Weird makes the whole thing go down smoothly.

See it to say you've seen it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Third Man (1949) - 50th Anniversary Edition

In Peter Bogdanovich's introduction to the Criterion DVD of Carol Reed's The Third Man, he relates a conversation with Orson Welles where Welles calls his role in the film the greatest "star part" ever written. What he meant was that the entire first half of the film is comprised of characters talking about Harry Lime, so when he finally appears the audience almost can't help but feel a certain sense of awe. However, while the build-up to his debut is sublime (thanks in great part to Graham Greene's tension mounting script), it's Welles presence and charisma which finally makes the final quarter of the film work. Harry Lime is an amazingly complicated creature, morally reprehensible but appealingly free and relaxed about his place in the world. A lesser actor could be swallowed up by such an ambiguous part.

Much has been written about The Third Man, but what really struck me as a viewer was how everyone involved seemed to be working just a little bit harder to make something special. From Reed's direction, to the actors (who are uniformly excellent), to the unforgettable music, this is one of those rare instances in film where all of these wonderful separate elements create a cohesive whole.

Joseph Cotton stars as Holly Martins, a hack writer who finds himself alone in post-World War II Vienna when he arrives to find his friend Lime (who had promised him a job) dead. Running afoul of the local law enforcement (who believe Lime to be mixed up in any number of criminal deeds), Martins decides to find out the truth about Harry's death, finding a barely willing partner in Anna (Alida Valli), Lime's girlfriend before his death. As Martins uncovers more about his friend's strange death he begins to question the image of his good-natured partner, and soon begins to wonder if Harry Lime is really dead at all.

Post war Vienna is almost a character in the film, the stone streets and cracked steps transporting Holly Martins into a very different world than he is used to, and far away from the caricatures that populate his pulp novels. Director Reed films the city as an expressionistic nightmare with a ghostly mix of light and shadow, where even a balloon salesman towers threateningly, and dutch angles create a sense of other-worldliness and psychological uneasiness.

Cotton gives a typically strong performance in the lead. His Holly Martins is a boozing romantic, caught up in the black and white morality of his stories and faced with some rather severe touches of gray. Alida Valli is sedate and forlorn as the female lead, totally devoted to Lime even as Martins fruitlessly tries to gain her affection. Welles is as strong as expected, and Trevor Howard is tremendous as the cautiously sympathetic Major Calloway.

The fine folks at Criterion have once again gone above and beyond in presenting a film that has had a rather troubled history of release. We begin with an insightful introduction by director (and film historian) Peter Bogdanovich which gives a fine summary of some of the elements which have contributed to the film's reputation.

Fans of the film will also be delighted by the inclusion of an abridged reading of Graham Greene's treatment for the film. The well-regarded writer composed the first draft of the film (which was later published as a novelette) in prose, and a second audio track is devoted to a reading of this work by actor Richard Clarke. This version features a number of differences from the final product, and is a fascinating companion piece to the film.

As expected, we are also treated to some in-depth supplements, starting with two radio pieces. After the success of The Third Man, there was a radio series demonstrating the early adventures of anti-hero Harry Lime. An episode of this series, written by Welles and called "A Ticket To Tangiers" is included here and shows a fascinating softening of the character we see in the film. Also included is a Lux Radio Theatre presentation of a dramatization of The Third Man which runs an hour and features Joseph Cotton, Evelyn Keyes, Ben Wright and Ted de Corsia in the lead roles.

Footage of Anton Karas playing the film's famous main theme on a zither, a short piece on the security force which patrolled Vienna's sewers, a comparison of the US and UK releases of the film (the US version featuring alternative narration from the original, whose opening narration is provided by the director), both the original and re-release trailers, and a production history essay (featuring some great behind the scenes photos) round out the supplements.

Finally, we have an astounding example of the restoration process for the film, as well as the usual Criterion color bars.

The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and it's very likely it hasn't looked this good since its original release. The black & white image is sharp, and film damage is barely noticeable. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and is clear throughout. For those who have only seen the film in grainy television broadcasts, you are in for a definite treat.

An amazing piece of cinema that resonates nearly 60 years later, The Third Man defies easy categorization. Stylish, but with a recognition of sadness and loss, it finds itself worthy of the lofty praise that has been heaped onto it and deserving of a spot in any film lover's collection.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

[.REC] (2007)

When it comes to horror films, I've always been a big fan of the "found footage" subgenre. Whether it be Cannibal Holocaust or Cloverfield, there is something inherently sinister about a piece of work that is fundamentally fictional, yet by viewing events in the actual first person instead of the omnipotent first person found in conventional cinema, our wilful suspension of disbelief is immediately challenged.

If we're eyewitnesses, then the terrible events unfolding right before our eyes must be true, correct?

The "found footage" film gives us a snapshot in time. It casts aside conventional cinematic mechanics such as character development because we're dropped in the middle of real people living real life. Do we honestly need life stories, detailed expositions, or flowery soliloquies to help us find spritual linkages with our fellow man? Isn't the merest measure of human compassion enough?

The individuals around us are not cardboard cutouts nor are they metaphors.

They are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, family.. everyone..

And then all at once, something indescribably brutal happens to them..

And maybe, just maybe..

We are next..

In [.REC], we're transported to a fire station located somewhere in Barcelona, Spain. In no time flat, we meet perky and pixie cute telejournalist, Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), and her trusty cameraman, Pablo (co-director, Paco Plaza). We never get to see Pablo's face but his role is arguably the most important one in the film as Pablo serves as the eyes and ears of the audience.

Ángela is the anchorperson for a serio-documentary series entitled "While You Slept": a television program focusing on the various social services that keep things running while we're all in bed.

Immediately we can tell that poor Ángela is frustrated not only with this particular assignment, but perhaps with her job in general. Being the hostess for a humdrum public affairs program that no one is awake to watch doesn't exactly put you on the fast track to fame and fortune. Professional to a fault, Ángela does her best to spice her report up but nothing seems to work. There are limits to the amount of excitement you can add to a story if absolutely nothing is going on.

As fate would have it, the fire station receives a call and the team Ángela is assigned to follow heads off to respond to a medical emergency at a small apartment building.

Apparently the tenants there are concerned about an elderly woman that suddenly erupted into a fit of screaming and then fell ominously silent. As the investigation progresses, the tension mounts towards a fever pitch and once the dying starts, the safety catch and all bets are officially off.

There is something both courageous and wicked in the way that Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza generate scares.

Unlike the continuous dropping of the f-bomb and hysterical shrieking that passed for plot progression during the lengthy downtime segments of The Blair Witch Project, [.REC] gives up just enough information to answer some of the questions in your head and generate other questions.

However, before you have time to process this information you're once again on the edge of your seat at the mercy of the durability of Pablo's camera.

If Pablo can't see, then neither can you.

Terrible still is the overwhelming, "George Romero zombie virus"-inspired notion that no one is safe. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) is either potential victim or a potential monster.

At a shade over ninety minutes, the narrative and the action in [.REC] are kept so tight that they threaten to lash out; not totally unlike the creatures lurking in the shadows.

However, the pacing of [.REC] is also somewhat problematic. Balagueró and Plaza blatantly shotgun a couple of plot holes and a highly puzzling, genre-busting story development right by you and they know that because of the nature of the "found footage" subgenre, you're forced to accept whatever you're offered as undeniable fact.

After all, the camera doesn't lie, does it?

[.REC] is without a doubt the most frightening film I've seen since The Descent and like The Descent, I can easily overlook a minor flaw or two in celebration of what this movie represents. Someone somewhere still loves the horror genre enough to continue to crank out quality fright fests, and I will eternally be a happy camper as long as the scares keep on coming.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Hollywood has already gotten their hooks into this. On October the tenth, Screen Gems will release the Jennifer Carpenter vehicle, Quarantine, which I've gathered is a near shot-for-shot remake of [.REC].

One suspects that the overproduced Tinseltown translation probably won't generate the gut-level reactions that [.REC] does, but secretly I hope that Quarantine is successful if only to kill the perpetuation of the sin that is the complete lack of a DVD or theatrical release of [.REC] here in North America.

[.REC] deserves a bigger audience and wider acclaim. If Quarantine is a necessary step to achieve that goal, then so be it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

College (1927) (/w The Electric House (1922), Hard Luck (1921) and The Blacksmith (1922))

After the unfortunate box office for his masterpiece The General, Buster Keaton retreated to a more traditional framework for his followup. College proves to be a fun collection of gags based on Keaton's ineptness at sports, but feels a bit slight compared to his more accomplished works. That said, we're still treated to the comedian's trademark physicality, and it's interesting to think how robust the college comedy has remained. From Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925) to today's usual sex-romps, the genre has proven a strong one on which to anchor comedy.

Ronald (Buster Keaton) is a studious young man who rallies against athleticism in his High School graduation speech (while also dealing with a rapidly shrinking suit). Having alienated his girl Mary (Anne Cornwall), he decides to work himself through college while also proving himself in athletics. His hilariously failed attempts at Baseball, Track & Field and rowing make up the crux of the film, until Ronald proves himself when saving Mary from his rival, Jeff Brown (Harold Goodwin).

While this short (66 Minutes) silent feature begins with a series of sight gags, it soon becomes a showcase for Keaton's famous pratfalls. His attempts at Baseball are a highlight, as he attempts to bat simultaneously with another player, ineptly plays third base, and painfully accordians himself in a misguided attempt to slide into home-plate. The final segment has Buster rapidly running, jumping and (memorably) pole vaulting into Mary's dorm room. The pole vault was actually performed by Olympic Pole-Vaulter Lee Barnes, but this doesn't take away from the physical feats performed by Keaton.

In order to afford college, Ronald works a number of jobs. First as a soda jerk (Keaton's attempts to mimic his fellow employees glass-flipping theatrics is a highlight), and then as a waiter in a "colored" restaurant. This crude example of black-face humor is tame compared to other films of the time, but still proves to be patently offensive to a modern viewer. Otherwise, the film is fun and fast-paced, though obviously a step backward from The General.

This Kino release also features three shorter Keaton films:

The Electric House (1922 - 23 Minutes) is a gadget-filled romp focusing more on props and sight-gags than physical feats. Buster (a botany graduate) is mistakenly hired to wire a new home. When the owner returns home, he finds it filled with fanciful gadgets like an escalator staircase, an automatic pool table, and a model train that delivers food to the dinner table. Buster's rival (and actual electrical engineer) sabotages the devices which wreak havoc with the owners.

The Blacksmith (1922 - 21 Minutes) is also prop and gadget based and features Buster as a blacksmith's apprentice forced into running the shop after the brutish owner is imprisoned. Keaton's ingenuity keeps him in business temporarily, but he eventually botches things quite convincingly.

Hard Luck (1921) is the most interesting short film here, starting with a distraught Buster attempting to commit suicide. After accidentally ingesting whiskey he signs up to capture an armadillo, only to run into the outlaw Lizard Lip Luke (Keaton regularJoe Roberts) and saving the day (and the girl). While uneven, and originally thought lost, the film is best known for its final gag. Realizing he can't have the girl, Keaton climbs to the top of a high dive and jumps off, missing the swimming pool and crashing through the earth. The film then originally ended with what Keaton called the biggest laugh of his career, featuring him climbing out of the earth with a Chinese wife and children.

The ending of the short was thought lost forever, with the still photo above being the only remaining segment of either the dive or the subsequent climbing from the earth. The Kino release leaves the ending unshown, but recently the ending has been found again and i've included it here:

College features well above average video quality. However, there are several scenes throughout the film which show a dramatic quality loss, obviously taken from different prints of the film in order to give the viewer the most complete version available.

The video quality in the three shorts vary, with Hard Luck suffering the worst and The Blacksmith holding up surprisingly well. The Electric House is watchable, but shows significant signs of its age.

A fine collection of work from Buster Keaton's most prolific and enjoyable period, Kino's release of College shows his work from this period to be wonderfully entertaining, though these particular films do not match up to his masterpieces.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Machine Girl (aka Kataude mashin gâru) (2008)

Over the past decade there have been dozens of films that have intentionally courted a cult fan-base. Often presented as tributes to the exploitation films of the past, the comparative low cost of producing DVD has meant that video rental stores are packed with low-budget off-the-wall films reveling in explicit sex and violence in an attempt to capture this specific segment of movie-goers.

This is nothing new. Troma has focused on this audience for decades. But in recent years; particularly in light of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse collaboration; things have taken a turn for the silly. More influenced by splatter comedies like Evil Dead II and Bad Taste than the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Machine Girl appeals to the basest desires of fans of cult cinema. It's loud, ridiculous, and incredibly excessively violent.

It should be noted that Machine Girl was at least partially financed and distributed by Tokyo Shock, and was obviously designed to capture the audience that enjoys the films released through that label such as the early films of Takeshi Miike and The Story Of Ricky (Machine Girl's closest cousin in terms of content and style).

The ridiculous gore is fastened to an only slightly less ridiculous plot. Ami Hyuga (Minase Yashiro) is an average student, raising her slightly younger brother Yu (Ryôsuke Kawamura) who finds himself (and his friend) terrorized by some rather sadistic bullies. The head bully is Sho Kimura (Nobuhiro Nishihara), the son of a Yakuza, and after Yu is unable to placate the bullies with money, his friend and him are murdered. Ami decides to get herself some bloody revenge, which ends with her being captured by the Yakuza family and her arm severed. Taking refuge with the parents of her brother's friend, they fashion an ARM MACHINE GUN(!) which she uses against junior-high aged ninjas(!) before heading out for some old fashioned ass kicking. And also there is Tempura Arm, and a drill bra, and sushi fingers, and a guy gets all of his skin shot off. Oh, and there's a flying guillotine!

Ok. So, that plot summary gives you a sense of what you're in for here. Lots of Japanese women (often in school uniforms) kicking ass, and rivers of fake blood shooting out in every direction. The characters in the film are not human beings as much as they are highly pressurized blood cannons, a severed arm leading to gallons of the red stuff pouring out. But, the mega-gore of the film comes at a price.. the effects are often quite shoddy. While there are mountains of severings and beheadings, they are never close to convincing, and the gunfire is often distractingly fake looking. While a necessary evil in a film such as this, it can't help but become a bit exhausting by the film's end. The choreography of the film's fighting is also quite poor, though is almost always immediately followed by some incredibly graphic special effect that makes you forget about it.

The direction (by Noboru Iguchi) is quite stylish and kinetic considering what must have been an incredibly low budget. There are, however, some blatant continuity errors that take away from the fun. The opening scene features our one-armed-heroine jumping into the air and revealing both of her arms intact, and landing to show her missing an appendage. The soundtrack to the film is also distractingly sparse and non-descript.

The acting is a mixed bag, but generally quite good. Minase Yashiro acquits herself admirably in her first film role, and she's required to act fairly straight compared to the over-the-top madness of the Yakuza baddies. Porn Star Asami (as the mother of Yu's friend) is particularly impressive, and seems to revel in the excess on display.

The Tokyo Shock DVD features the film in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image is often quite grainy and shows a great deal of noise, though this may be a stylistic choice on the director's part (or simply reflective of the budget). Audio is available in both an English Dub as well as the original Japanese with English subtitles.

The film has surprisingly few extras, though a ten minute behind-the-scenes featurette is a lot of fun and shows the significant amount of work the (often inexperienced) actors and actresses had to put into the production. We're also treated to trailers for The Machine Girl, the Shaw Brother's classic Heroes Two, Death Trance, Zebraman, and the Lone Wolf & Cub television series.

A flawed exercise in cultish excess, Machine Girl will delight fans of gory classics like Braindead, but too often is let down by it's limited budget and meager story. Still, a perfect party film to be paired with The Story Of Ricky.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Legend Of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II/Jui kuen II) (1994)

Wong Fei Hung is certainly the most visible "character" in all of martial arts films, though his portrayal varies widely and often take great liberties with what is known about the man. Still, his influence is far-reaching, and many of the great martial arts classics, from Once Upon A Time In China to Fist Of Legend to Magnificent Butcher, have shown massive influence from Fei Hung. It was 1978's Drunken Master that added drunken boxing to the martial arts master's repertoire, and paved the way for Jackie Chan becoming one of the biggest stars in the world.

Fourteen years (and many massive hits) later, Jackie decided to return to the character that made him famous and, along with director Chia-Liang Liu (a martial arts legend in his own right), decided to take martial arts film-making to a new level. The depth of choreography and physicality on display has rarely been rivaled, and Drunken Master II remains what many (including myself) consider Jackie Chan's peak as an actor and martial artist.

And perhaps as filmmaker...

It's often suggested that Jackie Chan had a large part to play in the direction of the film, and Chia-Liang Liu's disappointing Drunken Master III would certainly support this theory. That said, Chia-Liang Liu deserves credit for his contribution both as director and for his role as General Fu Wen-Chi and his incredible fight with Jackie under the train near the beginning of the film.

Speaking of incredible fights, one would have difficulty finding a fight in this film that is not memorable. Fei-hung and General Fu Wen-Chi vs The Axe Gang, Fei-hung drunkenly fending off purse snatchers, and the legendary climactic fight between Fei-Hung and John (played by Jackie's real-life bodyguard, the high kicking Ken Lo) are just some of the memorable encounters. The fights are hard hitting, acrobatic, original and include some jaw-dropping choreography.

Thankfully there's also a servicable (though fiercely nationalistic) story to go along with the action set pieces. The "young" Fei-hung (played by the then 40 year old Chan) accidentally finds himself caught up in the smuggling of Chinese artifacts out of the country when he attempts to sneak some Ginseng in the luggage of some wealthy foreigners. It seems the British are stealing Chinese history, and on top of that are just generally snooty and dickish. Who knew?

The snooty brits also have some Chinese on their side in the form of Henry (Ho Sung Pak) and the bespectled John (Ken Lo), who are hired to track down Fei-hung and retrieve the accidentally stolen museum pieces. They do this through extreme violence, and persecuting innocent Chinese steel workers. One memorable scene has the steel workers leaving for the day when Henry orders them back to work. When they attempt to leave anyway, he beats them all senseless! So much for power in a union.

Oh, and luckily Fei-hung is master of the Drunken Boxing fighting style, and is actually a more relaxed (and nigh invulnerable) fighter when intoxicated. This comes in handy in all sorts of ways, particularly in the final scene where he battles the traitorous chinese smugglers in the steel mill.

Only three years before the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, the apparent British pilfering of Chinese culture was obviously reflected in the plot of this film. While dealing in some rather blatant stereotypes, it's still nice to see a kung-fu film reach for loftier goals than the usual stitched together plot, and it's appropriate material for a folk hero like Fei-hung to appear. Luckily, the plot never gets bogged down in the sometimes serious subject manner.

Some mention should be made of the late, wonderful Anita Mui as Fei-hung's Step-Mother. Serving as more than just comic relief, she steals a number of the scenes she appears in, and gets to show off some impressive kung-fu skills. Lung Ti as Wong's father Wong Kei-ying is also appropriately stern, with enough fatherly love to keep him sympathetic.

The Dimension release of The Legend Of Drunken Master is presented in its original Anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The print shows occasional damage, particularly in the first ten minutes, but after that things calm down and the image quality is a lot better than the VHS bootlegs of the film I remember from the early 90s. Unfortunately (and quite non-sensically) this release only includes an English dub of the film, though Jackie does dub his own voice and it is generally well done. Still, the original audio track would have been welcomed.

It should also be mentioned that compared to other releases of Drunken Master II, The Legend Of Drunken Master is slightly edited, includes a new score, and some sound effects have been changed. It doesn't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of the film, but purists are certainly aware of these things.

The DVD release features a short interview with Jackie that touches on his experiences making the film. Jackie's broken english is quite endearing, but the bits shown are just your usual fluff piece EPK segments. Rounding things off are trailers for Shanghai Noon, Project A, Supercop, Supercop 2, Twin Dragons, Armor Of God, Operation Condor, Fist Of Legend, Twin Warriors, The Enforcer, The Legend, and Crime Story.

Featuring Jackie Chan at the height of his abilities, and a strong story that connects some of the most amazing fights ever put on film, The Legend Of Drunken Master is as good as martial arts films get. The outtakes over the closing credits reveal some of the dangers while filming, but the incredible technique on display will have fans returning to this film again and again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Fall (2006)


I should point out now that I loved this film. Objectivity isn’t going to come into play here.

In 2000, Tarsem Singh (known professionally as just Tarsem) released The Cell, a Jennifer Lopez vehicle that was mostly worth watching for the intense, nightmarish visuals crafted by the first-time director. Too bad it starred Jennifer Lopez. With The Fall, Tarsem’s 2006 follow-up (released on DVD in 2008), the director has come up with a film that focuses entirely on his strengths. The result is a film that is a marvel to behold--probably the most visually stunning film I’ve ever seen.


The Fall revolves around two characters: a stuntman named Roy (played by Lee Pace) and a little girl named Alexandria, played by newcomer Catinca Untaru. Alexandria has come to the hospital for her arm, which she broke while picking oranges. There, she meets Roy, who has recently been invalided on the job--the direct aftermath of which is shown in the opening credits. Roy befriends the precocious child, and begins to tell her a fantastic story about six heroes: The Bandit, the Indian, Luigi (the bomb expert), Otta Benga (the ex-slave), Charles Darwin (and his monkey sidekick), and the Mystic. These six heroes are united in their hatred of General Odious, a sinister politician whom all of them have vowed to kill.


In exchange for his story, Roy wants something from Alexandria: he wants her to steal morphine from the medicine cabinet. Roy has it in mind to do away with himself, considering his situation, and the fact that his beloved has left him for another. Alexandria, ignorant of Roy’s grand design, agrees.

The sequences depicting Roy’s story seem to take place in Alexandria’s head, so that misunderstandings she has show up as fact. These scenes are literally breathtaking--I caught my mouth hanging open during at least a couple of times. The colours are vibrant, the scale is massive, and Tarsem shows a genius for composition that’s probably unmatched in contemporary film. Perhaps the most impressive scenes revolve around the Mystic: his birth, rebirth, and death are all quite a sight to behold.


I can understand the complaints some critics have made (and some viewers may well have): that the film looks too much like a music video, that if the visual alone was important then a book of The Fall pictures would be just as worthwhile as the film. However, these complaints ignore the power (and nature) of film as a primarily visual medium. This is a film for those who enjoying the actual act of watching a film--and it‘s probably best seen on a big screen.

The film is also a testament to the power of storytelling and the imagination. Roy’s story becomes so important to Alexandria that it becomes the driving force in her life, and her imagination gives the story life for us, the viewer. Even when bad things happen in real life, they serve as distractions from Roy’s colourful tale. The story simply takes over.


Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru have a chemistry that is fascinating to watch. Supposedly (or at least according to IMDB), Untaru thought that Pace really was paraplegic, which may have helped. They seem really close, and their dialogue almost seems adlibbed, but in truth Untaru couldn’t really speak English, and she’d learned all of her lines phonetically. Her bad English is a help, though, and not a hindrance, somehow adding to the reality of each scene. Plus, she’s charming as hell.

The Fall is presented by David Fincher and Spike Jonze, and that duo alone should make you interested in seeing it. The DVD comes from Columbia/Tristar, and is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ration. The extras include some deleted scenes, a couple of commentaries, and two “behind-the-scenes” featurettes. Unfortunately the featurettes are not narrated, and appear to be nothing more than video production journals. Still, even a bare-bones DVD of The Fall would be worth going out of your way to see.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Deathwatch (2002)

A while back I reviewed the K-Horror / Military Horror offering, R-Point, for our beloved blog. This inspired me to track down some of the other war-related horror material out there and to my dismay, I found that the genre is really lacking in content.

Some of the more familiar titles most horror buffs will quickly identify are The Keep and Below, as well as the obvious ones such as Dog Soldiers and Aliens.

I've managed to track down a couple of the more obscure war / horror movies out there and to my dismay, found out that there is quite a sliding scale between the good, the bad, and the ugly titles of this particular genre.

Deathwatch takes place during World War I somewhere on the Western Front and drops us off smackdab in the middle of "everybattle." We're hastily introduced to Pte. Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell) and seven more British soldiers in the near ritualized process of girding their courage and preparing their souls for the coming assault on German machine gun nests.

The battle is as bloody as one could imagine, and then inexplicably the shooting stops and night turns into day. The members of Y Company soon find themselves behind enemy lines, only to discover that everyone is dead save for two German soldiers. In their haste, the Brits kill the Germans despite the fact that the Germans are clearly trying to warn the British that something bad is going on.

But, horror movies wouldn't be horror movies if people actually listened to cautionary advice.

Like R-Point, the assault on the soldiers is dual in nature.

Not only is Y Company in physical peril from supernatural forces, but the stress accompanied by trying to comprehend something they're unable to understand and destroy something that they're unable to kill pushes the unfortunate soldiers beyond the limits of their mental and physical endurance.

The fate of these eight men is to either perish or go insane.

On the DVD commentary, director Michael Bassett sheepishly admits that Deathwatch was his first motion picture and the film definitely suffers more than its share of freshman gaffes.

The soldiers wander aimlessly around an apparently endless trench towards predictable encounters with the unknown but even when things become tense, neither the tempo of the musical score nor the pacing of the action speeds up all that much.

It's almost as if this is a stage play or a spoken word version of a Wilfred Owen poem masquerading as a movie.

To his credit, Bassett does his best to save the best stuff for last but once again, the pacing is so deliberate that there are more "war is hell" philosophical blows to the back of your head than there are actual shocks to your system. In the attempt to follow the "never show the monster" rule of thumb, Bassett only succeeds in playing his hand too early rather than adding a sense of dread.

The ending is very clever but thanks to the aforemention deliberate pacing coupled with a morality play focus, it is totally expected.

If there is anything that this film gets spot on, it is the scenery. Absolutely everything and everyone is covered in mud, leaving you no doubt that you are in the middle of some dairy pasture turned hellhole somewhere in France. The "Trench" seems a bit stagy at first but that quickly turns into a non-issue. As events unfold, you quickly realize that the "Trench" is less of a place and more of a metaphor.

The themes Deathwatch explores are universal and relevant, but not presented in such a holier than thou manner as to make the movie unwatchable.

If you're worried about the directorial future of Michael Bassett, fear not. Mr. Bassett certainly learned from the shortcomings of this movie, because I've seen his second film entitled Wilderness (2005), and it is quite the effective, mean-spirited thriller.

This leaves me hopeful that Bassett's next project, a full-blown screen presentation of Conan creator Robert E Howard's lesser known pulp icon, Solomon Kane, will be even better.