Monday, September 28, 2009

Antichrist (2009)

The 29th Atlantic Film Festival


Some thoughts on Lars Von Trier's new film, Antichrist, which screened on Friday, September 26th at the Oxford Theatre, Halifax, as part of the 29th Atlantic Film Festival:

About midway through Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, Willem Dafoe (He) runs across a fox, which is in the process of tearing its own guts out. That is one hell of a creepy image, and the audience was notably disturbed. Von Trier follows this up by having the fox turn to the camera and declaring, in its best heavy metal voice, "Chaos Reigns!", at which point the audience burst into laughter. And with good reason; that shit was fucking ridiculous.

Antichrist is a pretty bad movie. Having read several reviews, the closest I've come to being convinced that it's actually a good movie stems from the argument some are making that it's actually a comedy. You're supposed to laugh at the film's heavy-handed symbolism, or the opening idyllic scene that's shot in the same fashion as a De Beers diamond solitaire commercial (or that "arty" Mr. Plow commercial from The Simpsons). That almost had me reconsidering things...until I realized that, even if that were the case, there are a dozen other filmmakers out there making horror-comedies (or action-comedies, or whatever) much, much better.

I'd hate to (merely) rag on a film, so I will say that it at least shows that Von Trier has the chops to make a great film. Some of the images are quite haunting, and one chapter of the film, "Grief", is actually quite good human drama. Much of it is, in fact, very well shot and very well acted; had those talents been used for a much better script, I'd have been happy.

I actually like films that disturb. I even like some films which sole purpose seems to be to disturb. I am less a fan of uneven, puerile films, and I think Antichrist falls into that category. A lot of arthouse hipsters are going to come to the defense of this one, claiming its artistic merit and disparaging the pleebs who can't understand it. And that's kinda funny.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #15: The Dead Live (2006)


"If you want to know how to make films, then just go out and do it." I hear this (or a variation of this) all the time in interviews with established filmmakers, and it's an ethos I strongly agree with. We thankfully live in an age where digital video and editing suites are available to the average person regardless of talent or ambition, and thanks to the distribution options available via the internet there are literally hundreds of films in circulation that are basically training exercises. They are fascinating in their own way, but an interested viewer must keep their expectations in check before delving in. However, there are also times when even these lowered expectations seem to be beyond the filmmakers abilities. I introduce you to The Dead Live, a zombie film that is completely inane, totally wrong-headed, and somehow still completely fascinating.

After a credits sequence over static, we're introduced to our protagonists in one of those awful fake newscasts which have become a regular feature of this collection. Front and centre is Alex Travis, an ambitious female reporter covering a SWAT team hostage situation which ends with a shambling attacker biting one of the SWAT members. Following the story to the local morgue, with a requisite bawdy coroner and some surprising full frontal nudity, Alex and her cameraman are attacked by a corpse and find themselves at the mercy of a group of the living dead.


Now, at this point you may be excused for thinking that this film could actually be fairly entertaining - and you would be right, though certainly not because of the quality of the plot. Literally everything about this production is deeply flawed, from the acting (amateur), sound (alternately quiet or totally incomprehensible), sets (the coroners office is a treat), special effects (sometimes achieved by what appear to be MS Paint filter effects overlayed), and often baffling writing and direction where characters enter and vanish into the plot at random. And all of these, and plenty more, are already evident in the first 15 minutes.

Back to the plot: After her cameraman is bitten, Alex is rescued by Evans (Mike "Joe Joe Little" Jones), an undercover police officer. The two soon run into Lucas (Tom Hughes), a threatening redneck, and the shy Dawn (Brandy Patterson), before the four head toward an abandoned church and hide out in the basement. The group have to make their stand against a rampaging hoard of zombies, while dealing with infighting and a series of secrets amongst them.


Director Darrin Brent Patterson obviously has a love for zombie films, evidenced by rather transparent references to (George) Romero, (Tom) Savini, and (Sam) Raimi, but this reverence unfortunately doesn't stretch to borrowing plot structure or character development from their films, and his work here ranges from barely adequate to bafflingly bad. While i'm sympathetic to the budgetary limitations, the constant issues with sound - which mostly seem to be the result of using the built in camera microphone rather than a boom mic - are simply inexcusable. I had to constantly be changing the volume simply to be able to make out what was being said.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The acting is uniformally terrible, with Mike Jones likely being the best of a bad bunch, though he doesn't make a very convincing police officer. Continuity between shots is a real problem, with clothing and background noise changing on a constant basis. The zombie attacks are often incomprehensible, with choppy editing making the action very difficult to follow.


Let me take a moment to discuss the film's special effects and make-up, which reach a new depth of incompetence. Zombies range from having a few minor appliances (with blood around their mouths), Halloween masks, or often no make-up at all. There are a few identifiable zombies, including a cheerleader and schoolgirl, but they exist almost totally outside the plot. Gunshots are produced by obviously superimposed muzzle flashes, and head-shots are done in a similarly unconvincing way, or out of frame. One attempt to create a car explosion is just ridiculous.

After the film's closing credits there is, in my opinion, a rather tasteless and pretentious dedication to those who died in the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001. Yes, it's a zombie film - from 2006 no less - dedicated to the victims of a horrific terrorist attack, with a rather unfortunate comparison of the zombies to the terrorist attackers. I'm sure the motivations were admirable, but it's baffling in practice.


Coming from a DV source, the film shows a surprising amount of artifacting, particularly when there is any significant movement onscreen. Even the opening credits are garbled by the movement of the static, though I doubt that blame should go toward the filmmakers in this instance. There are also dropped frames and other various video problems which make watching the production an extended chore.

I can only imagine that Darrin Brent Patterson learned a ton in the making of this truly awful film that would hopefully help him in any future film productions. There are so many gaffes, weaknesses, and mistakes that his next effort, if it ever comes, would have to be infinitely better. If that's the case, then good luck to him in the future. I would hate to have The Dead Live be his final word on film.


The Invention of Lying (2009)

The 29th Atlantic Film Festival


Some thoughts on Matthew Robinson and Ricky Gervais' new film, The Invention of Lying, which screened on Wednesday, September 24th at the Oxford Theatre, Halifax, as part of the 29th Atlantic Film Festival:

So, you've probably seen the ads; Mark Bellison, an acknowledged loser, lives in a world not unlike our own, except on this particular Earth, everyone tells the truth. There's no such thing as the word "truth" or the word "lie," since these concepts don't really exist. Through some sort of genetic freak, Mark discovers that he is capable of "saying what isn't," and soon profits from it. But introducing Mark's world to lying has ramifications he couldn't dream of...

I'm a big Ricky Gervais fan. I think The Office and Extras are two of the best comedies to be on TV in quite some time. The Invention of Lying, while quite funny, just isn't on par with those.

Obviously the main source of humor, at the beginning of the film, is the radical honesty of the film's characters. While it's pretty funny to hear what people think, spoken plainly, it gets a little tedious after a while, since seemingly 80% of what qualifies as "the truth" is just people telling Mark that he's fat and a loser, which can only illicit chuckles for so long. After Mark invents lying, much of the humor shifts to laughing at how anyone would believe what Mark says (but there's still lots of insults thrown at Mark for good measure).

Fortunately, before things start to drag, the film takes a pretty dramatic shift, one which isn't spoiled by the preview, so I won't give it away. Let's just say that the film explores the connection between lies and fiction, in Mark's job in the film industry (films are just people reading non-fiction scripts based on history). From there, the film moves on to the invention of some more important fictions.

Gervais plays the character he's famous for (well, the only character who isn't specifically David Brent). Jennifer Garner is, well, Jennifer Garner. To help things along, you get half a dozen or so cameos, which I'm sure you could spoil for yourself if you went to IMDB, but I'd caution against it. Part of the fun was being surprised when a certain actor popped up.

It's tempting to reveal some of the best gags, but I won't. I will say that some of the funniest stuff comes from the titles of things, which tend to be a lot more literal than in our world.

The Invention of Lying is good fun, but I wish that Gervais had explored the concept of the lie-free world a bit more. For instance, at one point Mark is called a "fag," and all I could think of is how there'd be no such thing as "the closet" in the film's world. No cheating on your spouse or significant other, either--at least, not without coming clean about it. And would the stock market still work without deception? Howabout politics? There was a lot of stuff that Gervais could have examined, but I suppose he wanted to keep the film simple.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

The 29th Atlantic Film Festival


Some (quick) thoughts on Terry Gilliam's new (and Heath Ledger's last) film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which screened last Saturday at the Oxford Theatre, Halifax, as part of the 29th Atlantic Film Festival:

The plot, in brief: Doctor Parnassus, once a monk, has made a deal with the Devil, in the form of Mr. Nick. Using his magic mirror, Parnassus brings people into a fantastic world, where they're confronted with a choice. This choice is between the easy way, or the hard way; the brave way, or the way of the coward. More often than not, people choose the wrong path, the path that brings them to Mr. Nick. At stake in this game is Valentina, Doctor Parnassus' daughter. It seems like Parnassus is destined to lose, when Mr. Nick offers him another bet: the first to five souls in the next three days, wins. The bet is complicated by the appearance of Tony, a young man found hanging on the underside of a bridge. Doctor Parnassus' troupe (Anton, Valentina, and the tiny Percy) save Tony, even though his mysterious past threatens all they hold dear...

I was immediately pleased by how much this looked like a Terry Gilliam film. After the abysmal The Brothers Grimm and the overlooked and misunderstood Tideland, many were wondering if Gilliam's slump would continue. When Parnassus starts, it immediately looks like one of his older films: the street scenes in London bring to mind, for instance, the street scenes (complete with Red Knight) in The Fisher King.

To bring to life the director's vision of the mystic storyteller Doctor Parnassus, whose 1000 year-old dealings with the devil ("Mr. Nick") are drawing to a close (or are they?), Gilliam assembled a fantastic ensemble. Helmed by Canada's finest thespian, Sir (but not really) Christopher Plummer, Parnassus features what might be break-out performances by Andrew Garfield as Anton (think Tim from The Office, if he was a traveling magician) and Lily Cole as Valentina, the daughter of the good Doctor. Cole seems to be a fine actress, but her looks are certainly what's most striking about her: when made up in her Imaginarium costume, she looks like a living China doll.

Of course, most attention will be paid to Heath Ledger, playing the role of Tony. And that's fine; three other actors play Tony as well (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law), and Ledger blows them all away. It is quite sad to see that Ledger passed away when he was so clearly in top form.

That being said, Tom Waits steals the fucking show. "Mr. Nick" is the Devil as a gravel-voiced hep cat, a gleefully wicked being that isn't really evil, just sort of playful and naughty. Waits' smooth, whisper-like delivery of every line is so completely counter to what you expect from films these days that it's almost a jolting experience, to begin with. Once you get used to it, all you can do is wait for Mr. Nick to show up again.

Jeez, these "quick thoughts" haven't been quick, have they? Anyhow, Doctor Parnassus feels right at home in Gilliam's oeuvre, though I'd be lying if I said that it was up to snuff with his best work. The untimely death of Ledger hurts the film more than Gilliam would like to let on: the narrative seems somewhat broken. However, it's far from incomprehensible, and the other actors are written-in in a very believable fashion. Still, you can feel the change in the film at right about the half-way point, when the filmmakers had to scramble to finish it. A lot of things remain unclear, and it certainly feels like some scenes between Ledger and the rest of the cast would have been necessary to really make the film feel complete. That said, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fun film, and a must-see for fans of the director.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Return Of The Streetfighter (aka Satsujin ken 2) (1974)


A padded retread of the first film in many ways, Return of The Streetfighter still features all of the elements which made the first film such a bloody blast to watch. There's still the funky score and outrageous visuals, we still get copious amounts of ultraviolence, and Sonny Chiba brings bucket-loads of charisma to the party. It's a shame then that the already scant 80 minute run time is stretched by some lengthy superfluous flashbacks to the first film. Fans will find plenty to love here, but if you didn't care for the original film there's little here that will change your mind.

Filmed almost immediately after the first film, director Shigehiro Ozawa starts this one off with a bang: Hired to kill a man in police custody, Takuma Tsurugi (Chiba) decides to get himself intentionally arrested by driving his motorcycle at ridiculous speeds and beating up on a bunch of cops. Once in the police station, Tsurugi finds his target and proceeds to pierce his vocal cords with his fingers before taking on the entire station and escaping out the window, all while wearing handcuffs! He escapes with the help of his new plucky, beat-talking sidekick: Pin Boke ("Kitty" in the english dub). This sequence is one of the best of the series, so it's a minor disappointment when the plot starts cover a lot of the same territory as the first film. Takuma has been hired by Isamu Otaguro, who runs a local karate dojo but is suspected (rightfully) of working with the mafia. After refusing to kill Kendo Masaoka (who Tsurugi tangled with in the first film) who has threatened to turn Otaguro in, Tsurugi soon becomes a target of Otaguro and his hired goons.


It's at this point where the film becomes a series of impressive set pieces with Tsurugi being attacked while skiing (which leads to a completely ridiculous eye-popping scene), at a massage parlor, and by his old nemesis Junjo (featuring an electronic voice box to replace the one torn out by Tsurugi in the first film). The confrontation with Junjo ends badly, and a despondent Pin Boke has to nurse him back to health before he goes off and kicks the ass of everyone left alive. No promises this time, but another sequel (again made in 1974!) was soon on its way.

We're all here to see Chiba (Viva Chiba!), and his character here is slightly softened and sympathetic compared to his sell-women-into-slavery ways in the first film. He's still an unrepentant prick with a chip on his shoulder, but he's a little more fun and even gets to crack a smile during a ridiculous conversation with a self proclaimed karate expert (who manages to severely burn himself on some sauna rocks). Chiba is still in top form with his karate skills, and may even show off a bit more acrobatics than the first film, and the film is as vicious and violent as ever - though only the eye-popping reaches the dizzying heights of the x-ray head smash from the first film.


Shigehiro Ozawa keeps the action under control while capturing every grimace and snarl from Chiba, and there's a nice touch where titles are presented to identify Japanese weapons being used in the early scenes. While these scenes feel a bit more like padding (and i'm unsure if they are included in the original Japanese version), seeing these weapons in action are always a lot of fun (and gave me Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flashbacks) - though not all actually come into play in the film.

Once again the secondary characters are a bit weak, and Kitty's jive talking must have seemed dated even when the film was related, but they get beaten senseless quite effectively. Bringing back Junjo was a nice touch, and the addition of the robotic voice-box adds a proper comic-book touch, though he doesn't get to show off his abilities like he did in the first film.


Image quality is a little rougher than for the first Streetfighter, but it's still a quite clean, apparently uncut print that is easily available because of its public domain status. The dubbing is a little rougher as well, and the habit of anglicizing names continues with Takuma once again referred to as "Terry". Sound is perfectly fine, with Toshiaki Tsushima's awesome funky soundtrack coming through loud and clear. I worried that we would be denied the awesome Streetfighter theme music, but it's saved for Tsurugi's climactic recovery and it is appropriately awesome.


While a step down from the revelation that is The Streetfighter, Return is still required viewing for fans of martial arts films, of Sonny Chiba, or for fans of scenes where characters appear astounded that their eyeballs have been punched out of their skulls. Almost all of the elements that made the original great return here, and you can watch the whole thing right here. After this film the series produced diminishing returns, but there's no excuse to not check this one out.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Streetfighter (aka Gekitotsu! Satsujin ken) (1974)


To see the impact that the arrival of Sonny Chiba had upon American audiences in the 1970s, you need only watch the trailer for his 1976 film The Bodyguard. A rising chant of "Viva Chiba!" accompanies images of Sonny doing various bad-ass things until the chorus raises into a frenzy. At the time Chiba was (along with many, many others) being touted as the spiritual successor to Bruce Lee - despite being Japanese - but his films showed off a very different kind of appeal. Chiba was later deified by Quentin Tarantino in his script for True Romance, as well as casting him in Kill Bill, but it's the bloody, brutal The Streetfighter where most had their first taste of the genre legend.

Chiba is Takuma (Terry) Tsurugi, a Karate expert and mercenary who we first meet busting a criminal out of prison, before killing the prisoner's brother and selling his sister into slavery when they are unable to pay their bill. It's about at this point where viewers will realize that Tsurugi is an unconventional hero, and it speaks to Chiba's brooding charisma that it's diffcult to not root for him even when he's being dispicable. Anyway, after refusing to do a kidnapping job for the.. uh.. Chinese Yakuza (Tsurugi has an issue with the Chinese) they agree to kill him off, so he decides to protect the potential kidnapping victim (Sarai, an oil heiress) as revenge. He does this by killing everyone who comes near him in increasingly brutal ways - including eye plucking, spine snapping, and the requisite testical ripping. Things wrap up surprisingly neatly at the end with a promise of more Street Fighter action to come.


"If you've got to fight.. fight dirty!" bellowed the posters for The Streetfighter upon its initial U.S. release, but audiences used to the comparitively tame martial arts flicks of the time must have been shocked at the levels of violence and nastiness on display. Originally hit with an X rating, the film sticks closer to the Yakuza flicks of the 60s or the exploitation Samurai films of the 70s with a morally questionable protagonist that lives by a specific code of honor that allows the audience (and often characters in the film) to give them grudging respect. That Tsurugi can back up his eqo with his karate ability, while showing little affection or respect for anyone or anything besides his comical man-servant Rakuda/Ratnose, makes him a perfect antihero for the time it was released.

And Chiba fills this role with gusto, grimacing constantly while conveniently dispatching anyone who looks at him sideways. Totally believable as an ass-kicker, it's no wonder that audiences were drawn to him. Director Shigehiro Ozawa (who also helmed the sequels) obviously knew he had something special, and effectively structures the film to get maximum use out of this over-the-top character. Ozawa keeps the colorfuls action moving and uses little stylistic touches - particularly the infamous x-ray punch - which add to the comic book atmosphere.


Credit must be given to Koji Takada & Motohiro Torii's tight script, which neatly balances Terry's dickishness with flashes of humanity, while briefly touching on his past and his instilled sense of honor, to make him slightly more sympathetic. By the time we get to the final confrontation, both characters involved have a right to seek revenge which makes the final result slightly bittersweet.

The supporting cast are all game, but this is Chiba's show and he brings bright red blood with every swing. Veteran composer Toshiaki Tsushima (The Green Slime, The Yakuza Papers) provides an energetic score, which includes the awesome Streetfighter theme music which will stick in your brain for days after hearing it.


If you haven't seen The Streetfighter.. well, why not? A terrific uncut & widescreen print of the film is, for some reason, in the public domain and has become widely available on DVD and online from a variety of distributors. Though this is a dubbed version the translation, aside from some difficulty with a few of the Japanese names, is pretty servicable. A subtitled version is also available from the UK, but try the free version first.

The version in the Millcreek 50 Movie Pack is, indeed, the widescreen print and I would be surprised if any other films in the collection match up to it in terms of image and sound quality. This (and its sequel, also available in the public domain) is a welcome respite from the general sketchy quality in the collection as a whole.


Some viewers may have difficulty rooting for such a heel, but if you give in to the magnetism of Sonny Chiba it's near impossible to not enjoy The Streetfighter. It moves at a lightning pace, and is packed with enough violence and exploitation to placate the most rabid film fan. Everyone should see this one. Viva Chiba!


Saturday, September 12, 2009

T.N.T. Jackson (1974)


The combination of kung-fu and blaxploitation elements seems like an obvious blending, seeing as that the two genres came to prominance in the U.S. at around the same time period (early to mid 70s) and both types of films had wide appeal to an urban audience. There were attempts to meld the two styles, particularly after the success of Enter The Dragon, but it would be expensive to fly your production to China, or to fly in Chinese talent, so generally homegrown talent (like Jim Kelly) was used instead.

TNT Jackson is a low-rent version of Kelly's Black Belt Jones, with a bit of Foxy Brown thrown in for good measure. Director Cirio H. Santiago at least attempted to add a bit of legitimacy by setting the film in Hong Kong (though actually lensed in the Phillipines) and casting asian actors in secondary roles, though the results are a mixed bag.


October 1969 Playboy centerfold Jeannie Bell stars as Diana 'T.N.T.' Jackson, who travels to the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong in search of clues to the whereabouts of her brother. After kicking the butt of some random attackers, she finds helps from the kind-hearted Joe (Chiquito) as well as requisite baddies Charlie (Stan Shaw), Ming and Heroin dealer Sid (co-writer Ken Metcalf) who may be involved with her brother's disappearance. TNT uses her spine shattering, bone blasting kung-fu skills to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Co-written by Roger Corman veteren Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood, Gremlins), T.N.T. Jackson's greatest pleasures (and limitations) come directly from its star. Jeannie Bell is attractive, but her fighting skills consist mostly of swinging her arms around until extras conveniently run into her fist. Occasionally she's doubled by someone (with a surprisingly manly figure) to show off with some flips, but mostly it's just her doing a weak impression of someone with actual martial arts skill. To cover this, Santiago speeds up the action by removing frames, making the fights look like outtakes from The Human Tornado (or Benny Hill).


Thankfully, Bell is supported by an able cast - particularly Stan Shaw (The Monster Squad!), who gets to show off both his huge afro and some generally convincing moves in his fight scenes. Chiquito, who was a massive star in The Phillipines, has to do most of the heavy lifting in the kung-fu department, and while the choreography (and direction) leave a lot to be desired, he's a lot of fun. The rest of the bad guys are pretty bland, though Pat Anderson as Sid's girl (with a secret) has some enjoyable bitchy interplay with T.N.T.

The film moves at a brisk pace, the brief 70 minute run-time working in its favor. Santiago, a veteren of exploitation films, knows how to keep things moving and throws in fights and a sprinkling of sex into mix when the pace threatens to slow down. Most memorably in a scene where Bell takes on a bevy of baddies topless, apparently having the advantage because the lights are off ("You want it black? You got it black."). Things come to a rather abrupt ending, and occasionally there seems to be some material missing, but the plot is thin enough that it's unlikely you'll ever be confused.


As per usual in the Millcreek 50 Kung-Fu film collection, T.N.T. Jackson is presented in a rough full frame transfer featuring plenty of print damage and grain throughout, though for once it feels appropriate. Sound is tinny and hollow sounding, but dialogue comes through clearly. You'll never forget the film's low budget origins, but it's watchable.

Like all of the films in the collection, the only extras are (four random) chapter selections. Hooray!


A lot of fun, T.N.T. Jackson may have risen above its meager ambitions with a more charismatic star in the lead (such as Pam Grier, who starred in Santiago's film Women In Cages), but as is it still provides a lot of entertainment value (and plenty of unintentional laughs). Definitely worth checking out - particularly since it's apparently in the public domain - but it's not one you're likely to return to, unless you're a sucker for topless kung-fu. Like me.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Black Godfather (1974)


Bury any thoughts of Francis Ford Coppola's films before dipping into this enjoyable but minor effort anchored by a strong lead performance from Rod Perry (S.W.A.T.). The Black Godfather is a fairly average blaxploitation production with some strong acting and a fun synth score rescuing it from total mediocrity. While the efforts at making this a "message" film are admirable, the heavy handed moralizing becomes a bit difficult to swallow by the film's end.

Perry stars as J.J., a small time thief rescued by local crime boss Nate Williams (blues musician Jimmy Witherspoon) after a robbery goes wrong. Soon (as in, after the opening credits) J.J. is the Black Godfather, though we don't actually see him commit any crimes. Instead, ol' Nate tries to run all of the heroin dealers out of town, as well as the white mobsters who put them there. Tony Burton (Don Chastain, hamming it up), doesn't take kindly to being leaned on, and soon he's all up in JJ's area. Will is all come down to a gunfight in a hospital basement? You bet it will.


I do have to give director John Evans credit for trying something a little different, and a little less exploitive, with his film. While the message of black solidarity and freedom from white oppression is conveyed through lots of talky dialogue scenes, at least the message comes through clearly and is made palatable through some occasionally sharp writing and charismatic performances. It's never subtle, but it's also rarely boring.

But more of the credit has to go to Rod Perry who shows off his chops and makes an appealing lead, even if you have to wonder when he gets a chance to commit actual crimes between personal crusades. As his mentor Jimmy Witherspoon won't be winning any awards, but his presence brings gravitas to the role. Better is Tony Burton (Apollo Creed's trainer in the Rocky films) who is a lot of fun as Nate's surly bodyguard. Don Chastain is required to be white and a douchebag, and does both very well.


As with most 70s blaxploitation films, this one comes equipped with a hip soul music soundtrack. The original songs by Martin Yarborough are a bit cheeseball, but the synth & bongos score goes over well and brings a little fun to what is an often humorless production. Though, there's plenty of humor to be found in the decor and clothing choices. Expect lots of frills and plaid.

Once again taken from the Millcreek 50 Kung-Fu Film collection, the fullscreen image is dark and murky. Thankfully, most of the film takes place during the day, though the night scenes - particularly a climactic airplane explosion - are a little hard to make out. The film appears to have been transferred from a VHS source, with occasional tracking lines. Audio is equally shaky, but dialogue isn't hard to make out.


Thanks to some strong performances The Black Godfather mostly overcomes a slow pace and preachy script. It's light on action, but worth the time for fans of blaxploitation and "take back the street" pictures.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lie Tou (aka The Headhunter) (1982)


Not one of Chow Yun-Fat's proudest moments, Lie Tou (aka The Headhunter/The Long Goodbye) is a fairly average Hong Kong action thriller which is sunk by some atrocious dubbing and a talky, confusing script. Patient viewers (and fans of Chow's future work with John Woo and Ringo Lam) will enjoy the occasional fun action scene, but there's little here to hint at the superstar that Yun-Fat would become in the following decades.

Chow stars as Nguyen (or, in the English dub.. Andy!), a former soldier and Vietnam immigrant now living in Hong Kong as a film special effects technician - and part time assassin! Nguyen is, as usual, a killer with a conscience and is haunted by his experiences in the war, wishing only to pay for his family to join him so he can stop the killing. After falling for a beautiful TV reporter (Rosamund Kwan), the two discover that the film company that Nguyen works for has been manufacturing chemical weapons for the US. Eventually, Nguyen's past comes back to haunt him (in the form of Kim Tai-Yung, a fellow soldier out to murder him for abandoning him during the war), and someone eventually gets their head chopped off. Who will it be? You'll have to tune in!


Is the Headhunter a meditation on the long term effects of those traumatized by the Vietnam war? Or, is it simply a reaction to the dozens of "Vietnam Vet goes apeshit" movies coming out in the early 80s? While there are hints of a higher purpose, we're a long way from Taxi Driver and the story being told simply doesn't feel significant. The actors generally aquit themselves admirably, particularly Philip Chan as the unhinged Kim Tai-yung, but the dubbing negates most of the famous charisma that Yun-Fat brings to the table, and the reporter sub-plot is predictable. They even pull out the old gag of the reporter looking to make the big reveal to the police, only to find her evidence suspiciously missing.

It's in the unfortunately rare action scenes things do spring to life a bit, particularly during a string of assassinations early in the film. There are a few moments of actual martial arts action as well, though these are fleeting and sometimes hard to make out because of the dark photography. Director Shing Hon Lau shows some talent for building tension during these scenes, but generally his style is flat and uninvolving.


Part of the Millcreek 50 Martial Arts movie pack, The Headhunter is surprisingly presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and appears to be uncut. There are various cuts of the film floating around - the one retitled The Long Goodbye is significantly shorter - but thankfully this version is complete. Despite that good news, the image quality is a mess with washed out color, grain, and the image sometimes being so dark to be almost unwatchable. The score seems to be patched together from library music, which actually is enjoyable when you recognize the music from other sources. Cult movie fans will definitely recognize a piece from the original Dawn of the Dead.

While likely dull even in subtitled form, the dubbing here is appalling, making the long scenes of dialogue embarrasing. This is particularly crippling later in the film when (thanks to some not-so-shocking deaths) the film takes a turn for the melodramatic.


What might have been a solid entry in the slate of Vietnam themed exploitation films in the early 80s, The Headhunter is sunk by an unfortunate focus on the love story which takes focus away from the more enjoyable exploitation elements. These faults are compounded by the weak dub-job and unfortunate image quality. Unless you're a rabid Chow Yun-Fat fan this film and presentation simply isn't worth your time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ran (1985)


Kurosawa. As directors go there are few that receive more reverence. And rightly so, with a cabal of films that defined action cinema for decades, including such classics as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Incredibly prolific throughout the 50s and 60s, in the twilight of his career Kurosawa sadly had more difficulty finding financing for his projects. Always a perfectionist, the director was more and more unwilling to compromise his epic vision, which meant that his film Ran was in development for a decade before it was finally brought to the screen. Dealing with failing health (and eyesight) and the untimely death of his wife, the director still managed to create a beautiful and heartfelt Shakespeare adaptation which touched on some of his favorite subjects - honor, loyalty and revenge.

The plot follows King Lear rather faithfully in parts, while diverging in some key details. After a rattling dream, Lord Hidetora decides to bestow his kingdom to his three sons - Taro, Jiro and Saburo. While Taro and Jiro accept their new positions with glee, Saburo warns his father that the unity of their family will not remain strong. Angered, Hidetora banishes Saburo. Soon, Saburo's predictions come to pass, as Hidetora is abandoned by his sons who eventually even try to murder him and his men when they take refuge in the kingdom's third castle. Stripped of his family and title, Hidetora is brought to the brink of madness as his keepers try and find Saburo to help regain the family throne.


Kurosawa was no stranger to Shakespeare and Shakespearean themes going into the production of Ran, having translated both Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and Hamlet (The Bad Sleep Well) previously. Transplanting these works into Feudal Japan wasn't particularly unique, especially considering Kurosawa's own work The Seven Samurai was adapted into The Magnificent Seven, proving that these stories were strong enough to endure many levels of interpretation. However, despite the Elizabethan origins, Ran feels entirely like Kurosawa working at his peak. Huge battle scenes, breath-taking photography, and an attention to detail that borders on obsessive.

The film's centerpiece (literally) is the attack and burning of the Third Castle which required the construction of an actual building on the slopes of Mount Fuji. The fire raining down on Hidetora as he descends the steps is all very real, and Kurosawa directs the scene with a master's touch. Even in the age where computer effects make even the most fantastical things possible, it doesn't take knowing what you're seeing is real to be impressed.


This scope of action carries onto the battle scenes, where Kurosawa makes his 1400 extras look like ten times that many. The colorful costumes mark each soldier's designation, making things much easier to follow when the soldiers begin to clash. And Kurosawa doesn't shy from the horrors of war, with the bloodshed being both graphic and plentiful. He leaves his most strikingly violent image, however, for a memorable decapitation scene near the end of the film.

Part of what makes Ran so rewarding to watch is the level of character development afforded to secondary characters. Lady Kaede (played with sometimes shocking passion by Mieko Harada) is not merely playing a variation on Lady Macbeth, but is also setting her own plans of revenge into motion. Kyoami is not just a jester, but also comments on the action while showing frustration at his station and having to care for Hidetora out of loyalty. He also brings such much needed comic relief to material that sometimes edges towards melodrama. But it's Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora who is really the star here, bringing an otherworldly quality to the anguish his character through reflected by the dramatic (and intentionally obvious) make-up changes his character goes through. While some have pondered what Toshiro Mifune may have brought to the role, Nakadai pours himself totally into the performance and he's excellent here. It's difficult to not see Kurosawa himself reflected in the character of Hidetora, abandoned by his children and being haunted by the actions of his past.


I viewed the Masterworks Edition of Ran released by Fox Lorder after some negative response to their initial DVD of the film. I should mention that there has also been a Criterion release of Ran that would likely be the definitive release up to this point. Video quality is good, preserving the carefully constructed 1:85 ratio compositions (though the image appears slightly cropped and sometimes soft) and containing a great deal of detail. There is a short feature on the DVD dealing with the restoration of the image, comparing it to previous versions, and the difference is dramatic. The soundtrack by Tôru Takemitsu is outstanding, forgoing the bombast of usual epic soundtracks for a more contemplative and eerie score.

The DVD includes the film's trailer, but the real treat is a pair of commentaries, each focusing on a different aspect of production. The first by Stephen Prince is a real treat, exploring the thematic concerns of the film, the similarities and differences from King Lear, and other fascinating (though, often rather scholarly) points. It remains screen specific, and packs an incredible amount of information into the running time. The second commentary is by Peter Grilli who gives a much more anecdotal commentary, speaking about his experiences with Kurosawa and being on the set of Ran during filming. While plagued by long gaps, and rarely referring to what is actually occurring onscreen, it remains a terrific counterpoint to Prince's commentary. We also get a couple of trailers and the restoration video.


Akira Kurosawa's final masterpiece, Ran is a beautiful film which ended up benefitting greatly from its extended development time. Despite the epic 160 minute run time, there is hardly a wasted frame or line of dialogue in the film and when the battle begins to rage in the final half hour, the groundwork has been adequately laid for the tragic and dramatic ending.