Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Think of Chinese kung fu movies and, if you're my age, you think of the stuff that used to play on the local independent channel on weekend afternoons. This was almost always pretty mundane material: dudes punching, kicking, leaping and avenging their masters. You didn't see as much of the swordplay movies, which often got much more fantastical. In part, that's because Chinese folklore and pop culture imagine a "martial world," something like an American comic book "universe" where men and women with amazing superhuman abilities battle one another. American audiences started to get more of a feel for this world as 21st century Chinese filmmakers took advantage of modern CGI to stage their fantasies on a competitively epic scale. But they'd been trying to render those fantasies on film for decades before, and Lu Chin-ku's 1983 extravaganza shows the influence of FX-driven American films like Star Wars and Superman that opened new possibilities for heroic fantasy cinema. Movies like Holy Flame exerted their own influence on global genre cinema. The rapid cutting and frantic, dynamic wirework on display here clearly influenced Sam Raimi's early work, which would exert a further influence of its own. Holy Flame also resembles a Raimi movie in its relentless inventiveness and an overall tone bordering on delirium. It'll often seem absurd, but you won't think it's stupid -- you'll think it's crazy.

The Holy Flame is, at least as far as this film is concerned, the ultimate weapon of the martial world, the one that'll give its owner mastery over all rivals. Naturally, it's coveted by all the major factions of the realm. It's an interesting feature of this film that the Shaolin Temple is presented as just another of these factions, and nowhere near first among equals. The Shaolin grandmaster we see is, like his peers, an egotistical blowhard and a bit of a coward. The exception to the rule is the all-female Taoist order of Erh Mei, or more specifically its grand master Jing Yin (Leanne Lau). She's more ruthless and apparently more powerful than her peers, and she has a balance-tipping ally in lone-wolf menace "Monster" Yu (Jason Pai Piao). They lead the hunt for a heroic young couple who know the "creed" of the Holy Flame -- knowledge of its secret location and how to acquire it. With their infant son and daughter in tow, this pair opens the film on the run, and they are quite doomed. The children survive, however. The son is rescued through the heroic intervention of "The Phantom," aka the "Yama Elder" (Phillip Kwok), who repels Jing Yin and Monster with his overwhelming Holy Laugh. In a good humor he can summon a tempest that can rip you apart from the inside out if it doesn't dash you against some solid object. He might have destroyed the bad guys if he didn't fear harming the baby boy, whom he takes under his wing and trains to avenge his parents on a date set 18 years from now. The baby girl, meanwhile, had been thrown clear when her mother was killed, and is found by Jing Yin, who raises her as a Erh Mei nun who believes that the Phantom killed her parents.

Meet the villains: Jing Yin (Leanne Lau) and Monster Yu (Jason Pai Piao)

After teaching the boy the Holy Laugh, the Phantom sends Wan Tien Sau (Max Mok) on a mission to fetch the Holy Flame, which he'll need to take revenge on the still-more powerful Jing Yin and Monster Yu. A charismatic young minion of Monster is also on the trail of the Flame, but our hero saves his life and earns his friendship while rescuing him from some animated flesh-dissolving ghosts. After Wan gets the Flame after a lengthy battle with giant flying Chinese ideograms, he and his new pal get sidetracked when the lovely daughter of a friendly snake wrangler is kidnapped by the Blood Sucking Clan.

It turns out that too many cartoons are bad for you.

Regrettably, the Hong Kong edition of The Electric Company was cancelled due to excessive violence.

They don't do any blood sucking themselves, apparently, but use the blood of virgins to awaken a green, English-speaking undead whatsit just in time to fight the good guys -- and that's after the clan leader had brought monsters painted on banners to violent life. After much mayhem, the Holy Flame serves as a stake to take out the quasi-vampire. The snake wrangler's daughter (Mary Jean Reimer) ceases to be a helpless damsel once she gets infected by the blood from a snake bladder. As often happens in such cases, she acquires the power to shoot bolts of energy from her infected "Mighty Finger," and Phantom agrees to train her in using her new power.

At the Erh Mei temple, Jing Yin carefully guards her adopted daughter Wan Dan Fung's virginity, in keeping with the order's vows of chastity. Holy Flame is a family film, albeit an extremely violent one; there isn't the least hint of lesbianism within the Erh Mei ranks -- though as if to make up for that the young anti-heroine is befriended by the Peter Pan-like Golden Snake Boy, the resemblance consisting of "his" obvious portrayal by a woman. Dan Fung's virginity is essential because it'll enable her to read the instructions for the other Holy Flame that Jing Yin already has in her possession. The girl will be the abbess's instrument for ruling the martial world and her safeguard against whatever vengeance Phantom is planning. The masters of the other orders still don't realize that Jing Yin already has a Flame and continue to pester her for information. They end up as the comedy relief of the picture, lamely threatening the abbess by running in a circle around her, none of them brave enough to make the first attack. All the while the bored villainess fans herself while her minions complain that the other masters are leaving puddles of sweat on the floor. While this is going on, Monster sends his increasingly conflicted protege to steal Jing Yin's Flame from Dan Fung to give himself more leverage with the abbess. Despite this betrayal, the two villains team up to finally exterminate the other annoying masters.

Once Golden Snake "Boy" sets Dan Fung straight about her history, she reacquires the Yin Flame and teams up with her long-lost brother and his Yang Flame for the ultimate 18th anniversary showdown with Jing Yin and Monster. The siblings are going to need all the power they can muster, because the bad guys have developed an immunity to Phantom's Holy Laughter, making them potentially invincible. That may neutralize the old man, but the snake girl and her Mighty Finger are ready to even the odds if the villains try anything funny. The stage is set for climactic minutes of non-stop superpowered mayhem, filmed with the naive enthusiasm of a child throwing his action figures at each other and making up new abilities as he goes along.

Holy Flame powers, activate!

There's a certain childlike joy about the whole film that transcends some of its technical limitations. Wirework wasn't what it would become, and the flying characters often look out of control as they careen about the often-impressive sets. The Holy Flames themselves are very unformidable looking. In fact, they look like plastic paddles with detachable fake diamonds in the middle. But their existence is really just a pretext for special effects that are flung about with infectious glee. Holy Flame has a lot of the inventive nuttiness of more horrific contemporary films like The Boxer's Omen, without anyone vomiting snakes and worms. It also benefits from a cast of committed performers who sustain the story's fairy-tale quality. Leanne Lau, a 23 year old actress playing a middle-aged "hag," makes a great villainess, menacing and amusing at the same time in a Wicked Witch of the West sort of way. She's so charismatic that you're tempted to root for her against the comparatively bland good guys -- the better fantasy movies often leave you this option -- but you don't mind her getting a well-deserved comeuppance. This is the sort of movie that keeps you wondering what the filmmakers will come up with next, and keeps you eager to find out. Arguably a classic of its kind, it's one of the most purely fun movies I've seen in a long time.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


As a movie producer, John Wayne deserves credit for, among other things teaming up Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher and releasing William Wellman's film version of the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, whose The Ox-Bow Incident Wellman had directed a decade earlier. Wellman had made to airborne dramas for and with Wayne, Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, but neither those nor anything else the furiously prolific director had made over more than a quarter-century since Wings really prepares one for the in-your-face aesthetic experimentation he unleashes here. That it bears the Wayne (or Wayne-Fellows) imprimatur is perhaps even more staggering. While one can imagine the Duke taking Randolph Scott's place in Seven Men From Now, the mind reels at the prospect of Wayne playing Robert Mitchum's role in this almost freudian "psychological" western.

On the other hand, Mitchum seems to fit the weird world Wellmen and art director Al Ybarra designed for him like a glove. Something about Mitchum seemed to inspire expressionistic excess in the Fifties; Track of the Cat is one of the few films that looks like it might have taken place on the same planet on which Charles Laughton filmed the legendary Night of the Hunter. There's a deliberate artifice to Wellman's presentation that seems still more stark and more deliberate whenever he cuts from the blatant soundstage where the Bridges family lives to the tremendous, man-dwarfing wintry mountain locations where the "black painter" lurks. Without knowing too much about the production history, I presume that the stagy look of the home scenes is absolutely intentional, highlighting the theatrical exaggeration of the snowbound family drama and contrasting the stunted, stifled fate that threatens the younger Bridges children with the gigantic landscape where Mitchum, as the eldest son, hunts the cat and strives to reaffirm his mastery.

Nurture (above) and nature (below) contrasted in Track of the Cat.

The Bridges are perhaps the most miserable family presented in a Fifties Western. We're told that they're powerful ranchers and landowners, but cooped up at home for the winter they appear petty and pathetic, with only the semi-crippled Indian Joe Sam as a servant and young Gwen Williams (Diana Lynn) as a guest for the season. The paterfamilias is a drunk. The mother is a bible-reading harpy whose only concern seems to be with preserving the ranch intact for Curtis (Mitchum) to inherit. The two younger brothers and their sister seem repressed by the attention given Curtis, while Curt himself seems resentful and spoiled at the same time, lording it over his siblings but preferring to roam the mountains. The rampage of a "painter" becomes a family crisis, as Curt's brothers in turn seek to prove themselves, the youngest, Harold (Tab Hunter) torn between duty to family and desire for Gwen, who sees clearly that he'll be crushed by family pressures if something doesn't give.

A view from the grave: Tab Hunter faces a choice between love and death.

A documentary on Clark on the disc makes the novel sound more symbolically pretentious than it probably is, but the main drama of the movie is clear enough. As a spoiled heir and aggressive hunter and enforcer -- we're told he's driven numerous squatters off the ranch -- Curt has convinced himself that he's the master of his fate and capable of anything on his own. He's become a kind of incubus on the rest of the family, the parents focusing their hopes and his siblings sacrificing theirs for his sake. He intends to prove himself again by killing the cat, and seems contemptuous of brother Arthur, even after Arthur is killed by the "painter." Having borrowed Arthur's coat, Curt finds a copy of John Keats's poetry. The most use Curt finds for the pages is as kindling. He's as stunted as his siblings in some ways, but his tragic flaw is his assumption that, however dependent he's been all along on his family, that he is a lone champion and provider. But when he loses his provisions and faces the prospect of starvation, he breaks quickly, while the surviving brother, Harold, rises against the odds to both crucial occasions of his life: standing up to his mother for Gwen's sake and taking up the hunt for the cat.

The story is a little heavyhanded, portraying Curt perhaps too literally as an incubus whose departure promises to redeem his entire surviving family. But that's the kind of thematic excess that seems to go with the visual excess of Wellman's direction in both directions, from the staginess of the home scenes to the god's-eye view of the winter landscape. Wellman testified that he meant Track to look as much like a black-and-white movie as was possible for a color film. Cannily, he accentuates what he's up to by throwing in isolated bits of blazing color like Curt's red coat or the distant glow of a watchfire. He also jolts us with unexpected moments of pure pictorialism, as when he cuts from the family bringing in Arthur's body to a screen-spanning view of the monochrome quilt on which the body will lay. Cinematographer William H. Clothier does a mighty job realizing Wellman's vision, though contemporary viewers might not have appreciated the experiment.

Black and white in color

As a Warner Bros. release, Track of the Cat would have made a fascinating (or infuriating) double feature with another exercise in stylization, Victor Saville's The Silver Chalice. While the adoption of widescreen processes and the hegemony of color drove demand for heightened realism, these films defiantly and recklessly aimed for often alienating pictorial effects. Of the two, Track maintains a steadier balance between style and substance because Wellman is just too good of a classical storyteller to let the film get out of control. In the end, however, style is what makes Track stand out among Fifties westerns. While Boetticher, Mann and Daves strove for naturalistic expressionism, Wellman took the "psychological western" label seriously and tried for the best of both worlds: the abstract aesthetic of the interior world and the turbulent romanticism of western landscape. How well it succeeds is probably a matter of taste for each viewer, but the overall power of Wellman's direction and Mitchum's performance are indisputable.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Library of Classics: UNDEFEATABLE (1993)

It's been more than a year since I checked anything out of the "Library of Classics," so a fresh explanation is probably in order. In the early days of this blog, my main source for exotic movies, apart from my own collection, was the Albany Public Library. My local library has an eclectic selection of popular, classic and foreign films. Sometimes it's selection is very eclectic. The Library of Classics, then, gives recognition to some of the cultural center's more unexpected holdings. Just recently, Albany Public acquired a bunch of martial arts and blaxploitation films (Black Mama, White Mama was one of these that didn't quite, er, merit, the L of C distinction), so we'll probably have more occasions to dip into the stacks. But we'll start the revival with Godfrey Hall's legendary martial arts film from 1993, a film I felt dubious about as soon as I saw the director's name.

Godfrey ... Hall? Directing a cheap, bad martial arts film? Could it be?....

IMDB and Wikipedia confirmed my suspicions. "Godfrey Hall" is a minimal pseudonym concealing the identity of the notorious Godfrey Ho, who lives in infamy for patching together dozens of incoherent Ninja movies during the Eighties and Nineties from stock footage, newly shot cheapo fight scenes with guys in Ninja costumes, and clips of erstwhile Euro star Richard Harrison sitting at a desk. By the standard set by such stuff, Undefeatable is probably Godfrey's magnum opus. That's not saying much for Godfrey.

Undefeatable is set in the martial world of the United States, where the ancient traditions are upheld not by schools, but by street gangs. These gangs wander the mean streets, their leaders challenging one another to single combat. These combats are brokered by men in business suits; their financial interest in the fights is unclear. They seem to do no more than handle the money wagered by the respective gangs, and make no money from spectators. The only people watching these battles -- staged in such venues as alleys and warehouses -- are the gang members themselves or the family and friends of fighters. The rules are simple: if your hand touches the ground, you lose. That makes for quick fights.

Perhaps the most feared of these gang fighters is Kristi Jones (Cynthia Rothrock). After her apparent violent takeover of Erich von Zipper's gang, she fights for money to supplement her income as a waitress and put her sister through college. Undefeatable sets Kristi on a collision course with a higher-echelon fighter, a professional kickboxer nicknamed "Stingray" (Don Niam). Stingray takes his work home with him, regularly beating up his wife until she can't stands no more. Her flight, encouraged by her sexy psychologist, sends the already unstable Stingray over the edge. Already obsessed with the mother who abandoned him in childhood, he now fastens upon any woman who even remotely resembles his wife. He takes them home, chains them, whips them and kills them. Then he collects their eyeballs to decorate his fish tank. As the psychologist attempts to explain later, "It could be part of a ritual."

Arrested for illegal fighting, Kristi is befriended by a cop (John Miller) who knows some martial arts himself, though he makes no money from it. She resumes her fight career, defeating "Bear," a football player who fights while wearing his shoulder pads. If the current NFL lockout continues, expect to see more of this sort of thing. Soon after losing, Bear is killed by Stingray, the madman having taken a fancy to Bear's woman.

The degrees of separation fall away as Stingray decides that Kristi's sister is his wife and kills her. Now Kristi is dedicated to revenge, seeking out any of the master fighters in town who might know the techniques that killed her sister. Meanwhile, the friendly cop pieces together more clues, finally making contact with the psychologist who was Kristi's sister's teacher and the therapist for Stingray's wife. She tips our heroes off to where the killer might be found, and even though she never gives the address in the conversation we hear, the cops manage to get there anyway. Pursuing the investigation on her own, the psychologist falls into Stingray's clutches. With the almost evil cunning of the psychologist, she fights back with her mind against the madman. If he thinks she's his wife, she'll play the role, belittling his suspicions of her cheating. When that doesn't work, knowing his mother fixation, she becomes his mother, ordering him to behave. Miraculously, Stingray meekly complies, but the shrink overplays her hand when she offers to go to the grocery store to buy him dinner. The killer's abandonment anxiety kicks in, so he offers to go to the store instead, chaining "Mommy" up in the meantime. Fortunately, he's left her cell phone in her handbag near her feet. When the phone rings, she's able to reach the bag with her foot, step on it and tell Kristi where she is.

That sets up the first climactic fight scene, a brawl with fists, kicks and swords that pauses for a sublime moment when Stingray accidentally tosses a box full of packing peanuts into the air. He and Kristi strike poses as the peanuts rain down like confetti before they resume their combat. The cop arrives to save the day after Kristi injures her arm, but Stingray escapes. The second climactic fight scene takes place in the hospital, where Stingray disguises himself as a doctor in order to finish off the psychologist. He's intercepted by the cop, setting up the moment seen by millions on YouTube and acclaimed by many as "the worst martial arts fight ever filmed."

The thing to bear in mind is that that may have been the best fight scene in the movie. For an alleged martial-arts specialist, Godfrey is actually quite inept at staging fights. In one scene, Rothrock throws a kick and clearly misses her target by a country mile. But in the next shot, the opponent sells the kick and takes a wicked bump. The idiotic fight format doesn't help things, since the street fights can't help but be short. Kristi presumably knows the format by heart, but in the opening bout, when she's momentarily in peril, one of her minions has to warn her not to touch the ground (since no one else will explain the rules for us), yelling "No! No! You lose! You lose!") as if Kristi had never fought this way before. Every fight in the film is full of awkward moments; Undefeatbale is one of the least graceful martial arts movies you'll ever see. The acting is just as awkward. Rothrock is not without personality, but she's completely implausible as a street fighter.

Don Niam has become a legendary figure in some quarters for his performance as Stingray, but I found him overrated. He doesn't give enough for his to be counted among the great bad performances. He really does little but bug his eyes, flare his nostrils, flex and yell. His ultimate fight with John Miller is pretty hilarious, but that's as much to Miller's "credit" as Niam's. It wouldn't be the same if only one of them were ripping his shirt and yelling, after all. It takes two to tangle, and there's something practically musical to the way they go at one another with echoing ejaculations of rage. That they upstage Rothrock, who has to settle for a late run-in (though she does get the better of two lame one-liners) as a final indignity of many in this project.

Cynthia Rothrock became a star in Hong Kong in the 1980s and tried to cross over in the tried and true manner, under the directorial tutelage of Robert (Enter the Dragon) Clouse in China O'Brien. She never graduated from the straight-to-video ranks, her highlights including two films with Corey Haim, to give an idea of the level she attained. She may have been a decade or so ahead of her time, or she may never have had the charisma needed to turn her talents into real stardom. It's probably unfair to her that Undefeatable threatens to become her best-known film, but them's the breaks. At least she was never in a Godfrey Ho movie that I know of. This one is bad enough -- yet not bad enough to truly memorable. The Niam-Miller fight is not my cup of bad, but if it's yours, Undefeatable is a thermosful for you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wendigo Meets VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)

If there was ever a "lost" Hammer vampire film, it'd probably be Robert Young's effort, which stands apart from both the Dracula and Karnstein series. I can't recall it ever being on TV when I was a kid, but my friend Wendigo managed to see it about 30 years ago on one of the New York movie stations from the good old days of cable TV. As a vampire buff young Wendigo went out of his way to make sure he saw it after he saw it listed in the TV guide. He presumes that he knew about it from Famous Monsters of Filmland, which he was reading long before I ever bought a cult-movie mag. His sources told him that it was actually one of the better Hammer films, and definitely better than the studio's other Seventies vampire films. Thirty years on, before we sat down to watch it on Netflix, he remembered a woman being made to run a gauntlet; a vampire staked early and revived late; and not much else. He remembers being disappointed with a lack of "importance" due to Dracula's absence and confused by some apparent bending of the vampire rules. He recalls some ambivalence, neither liking it well nor hating it much, but now that he has a greater appreciation for the diversity of vampire lore he was ready to give Circus a fresh look.

Director Young sends us back to Hammerland, opening with a woman presenting a child as an offering to the local vampire, Count Mitterhaus. After drinking his fill, the Count declares, "One lust awakens another" and takes the woman to bed. Aroused in a different way by the girl's disappearance, the villagers, including the woman's schoolteacher husband, overcome their fear of aristocracy and storm the Mitterhaus castle with torches and barrels of gunpowder. After a struggle, they manage to stake Mitterhaus. Since he's not obliged to disintegrate or explode instantly, the aggrieved Count has time to curse his killers, vowing that their children would die to give him new life. Anna, the vampire's lover, is made to run the gauntlet as a presumed prelude to lynching, but her husband can't stand to see her suffer, despite everything. But he can't stop her from running into the castle as it burns, apparently to her death. Bleeding from her wounds, she manages to make Mitterhaus stir long enough to instruct her to seek out his cousin, who'll arrange for the vengeance.

Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) and a youthful victim.

Fifteen years pass. Given that our town is suffering from a plague and quarantine, you might not blame folks for thinking that Mitterhausen's prophecy was coming true. On the other hand, the circus is coming to town! Somehow the Circus of Nights ("A hundred delights!") has made it through the military cordon thrown around the community to provide the plagued villagers with the solace of wholesome family entertainment. It has all you can ask for: a dwarf, a strong man (David "Darth Vader" Prowse), a gypsy animal trainer, a naked dancing girl in reptile make-up (or is she supposed to be feline?), a panther that turns into a man, and twin acrobats (including Lalla "Romana" Ward) who turn into bats in broad daylight. You might think that superstitious villagers might tear a circus apart that sported bat-tropic performers, but it's a circus, so it must be some sort of carny magic, right? But you know better, don't you?...

See! The Circus of Nights!

See! The Ssssnaked Woman!

See! The Twins of Ev-- sorry, that's another picture.

Wendigo tells me that folklore often makes circuses out to be dangerous affairs, infested with faerie folk, vampires and other menaces. You see the gimmick in movies too, as recently as The Vampire's Apprentice. Vampires and circuses are a natural match somehow, since travelling players were always an object of suspicion as well as fascination and fantasy. Vampire Circus stresses the circus part of the equation, pausing the action to show off its specialty artists. While not all the performers are vampires, Wendigo claims that the circus as a whole has a mesmeric effect on audiences, breaking down their resistance and enticing them into traps. The problem with the film, however, is that the circus folk seem so sinister and suspicious from the beginning that it doesn't make sense for the villagers to let their guard down so easily. But I guess you can't have the Count's revenge otherwise. The circus gimmick also left Wendigo wondering what was in it for the non-vampire performers. The dwarf, strongman and snake-girl are human, but are they slaves or willing allies of Emil the were-panther vampire, the older and vengeful Anna, and her vampire twins? The fact that the vampires eventually drain the snake-girl and her partner really left us scratching our heads, but explaining their strange careers would probably require a different movie altogether.

Put all the circus stuff aside, of course, and you have a familiar Hammer vampire's-revenge storyline with an also-familiar generation-gap spin on it. Circus doesn't really do much new with these ideas, and its young romantic hero and heroine are pretty dull, but it's the sort of story that can be done over and over. If anything, this movie seems to vindicate intolerance, since the circus clearly shouldn't have been welcomed to town, and for that matter, everyone would have been better off had Anna's husband let her be lynched at the start of the picture. The only intolerance that gets refuted is the hero's initial refusal to recognize the supernatural at work. Circus can be seen as a reactionary picture if you interpret the circus itself as symbolic of the counterculture or alternate lifestyles. Sometimes, though, a vampire is just a vampire.

The power of Christ doesn't compel everybody.

In some ways, Vampire Circus is ahead of its time in its diversity of vampire powers. Cousin Emil may have been unique up to that time as a vampire who turns into a panther, while the Mitterhaus twins, as noted, can do their bat tricks during the day. If any of this seems "wrong" to a vampire buff, Wendigo says: too bad. Critics often go overboard classifying things and insisting that a thing can't be what it is if it doesn't fit their made-up categories. Folklore is more fluid, and if anything, the eccentric elements of Circus make it a more folkloric-feeling vampire film than many other Hammer films. But some things stay the same.

In Hammer films the cross is invincible -- except in the meaty paw of Dave Prowse -- even if it's just a light-reflecting crosspiece of a crossbow. Circus adds a more unusual but folklorically sound turning method when the vampires are repelled by the ringing of church bells. Being a late Hammer, Circus also sports more nudity and much more gore than earlier films. The snake-girl dances about quite nude, albeit in body paint, and the actress playing young Anna is ardently naked for her master vampire. The gore highlight, if you please, is a shot of the ripped-up, maggot-ridden remains of a panther attack on an entire family, while the highlight for pure cartoonish violence is the moment when the heroine drops a huge cross from a church ceiling to impale poor Lalla Ward. As for effects, both bats and fangs are usually adequate, though the teeth effects are erratic (especially when it comes to length) depending on the mouth employed.

Wendigo now feels that Vampire Circus is one of Hammer's good ones, and one of the best of its Seventies vampire films along with Twins of Evil. I'm not quite as impressed with it, since its pretty simple stuff apart from the novelty, but the novelty itself is enough to raise Circus a little above the Hammer average. Difference is its virtue compared to the anemic Dracula films, and for Wendigo the difference includes the film's look at a circus tradition far different from what he's used to from Ringling Bros. In any event, Wendigo doesn't propose to wait another thirty years before seeing it again, and now that it's finally been released on DVD in the U.S., Vampire Circus will most likely earn a spot in his permanent collection.

SynapseFilms released the DVD, and they've uploaded the trailer to YouTube.

On the Small Screen: TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011)

At the heart, almost at the literal center of Curtis Hanson's ensemble-piece history play for HBO is a piece of exposition that renders much of Hanson's talking-head, men-in-crisis drama redundant. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt) and his staff sit down and spell out exactly what led to the mortgage crisis of 2008 to help their media rep prepare a briefing for the media. Their account may not convince everyone -- it probably places too much blame on greedy bankers and not enough on government social-engineering to please some ideologues -- but it left me feeling that the process they described, the commodification of mortgages; the growing pressure from banks themselves to lend to less capable borrowers so that mortgages could be bundled and sold elsewhere; the meteoric rise of credit default swaps and an industry of default insurance that exposed firms to risks they refused to imagine -- was what should have been dramatized rather than the labors of bureaucrats to bail out the banks. We can't really appreciate how precipitate the fall was unless we've seen the rise, but Hanson opens in mid-fall, with Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers (James Woods) struggling to survive while denying the scope of the crisis. Too Big To Fail would have been better off with a scene -- made up if necessary -- showing Fuld and his fellow bankers in their glory before the fall and introducing as many of our other cast members as could plausibly fit. Throughout, Hanson's film gives proof that his writers, perhaps intimidated by their proximity to historic events, haven't made enough effort to dramatize the story. The events are dramatic enough to keep the movie moving fairly smartly, but its scope always seems a little off. If Paulson is to be the principal character, he should be developed more, maybe taking him back to his appointment to Treasury. For that matter, the absence of George W. Bush as a dramatic character (the real man is shown in news clips) seems to leave a big hole in the story, especially when we get occasional reminders of the political pressures Paulson labors under. It's also strange to see John McCain reduced to the back of an actor's head as if we were back in the days when you couldn't show FDR on screen while he lived and ruled, when Ed Harris will play McCain for HBO later this year. Sometimes the film seems too narrow in scope, and sometimes it seems to be trying to do too much at once. We would have been better off with more longer scenes like the one I described earlier; a film like this shouldn't fear exposition -- it is practically all exposition, after all -- when its purpose is to explain a complex process to us. But few scenes are allowed to run as long as they might need to for clarity or character development. A whole film might have been made of any number of scenes in this brisk exercise of little more than 90 minutes, and any of those theoretical films could have made the same points Too Big To Fail did in more effectively dramatic fashion if writers were committed to dramatizing them properly. What I'm saying is that this story had the makings of a great film, while Hanson gave us one that is only effective in a workmanlike way. It does drive one point home very effectively: something is terribly wrong with a social order that obliges the government and taxpayers to bail out largely unrepentant bankers on their own terms in order to prevent their collapse from wiping out multitudes in the economic tsunami that would follow. The banking system may be "too big to fail" but no individual banker should be. If HBO and Curtis Hanson expected anger from their audience, then despite all I've said, we ought to count Too Big To Fail a success -- but that still depends on the audience.

Monday, May 23, 2011


The typical yakuza story deals with someone just out of prison. He went up the river for his boss and his clan but usually finds things changed for the worse once he's free again. Disillusionment is the order of the day, and the protagonist's dilemma is whether to continue living up to the old code or to change with the times and survive. He usually ends up changing because the old code is meaningless without someone worthy of your loyalty -- or else he upholds the code through a redemptive slaughter of his gang's or his own enemies.

Bunta Sugawara seems like the ideal actor for this sort of role, just as Kinji Fukasaku is the ideal director. I often equate the 1970s yakuza films of Japan's Toei studio with the work of Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s, and in that context Sugawara is Toei's Humphrey Bogart (their Cagney being Sonny Chiba) for the brooding, world-weary quality he brings to so many films while remaining capable of fearsome violence. Sugawara was the star of Fukasaku's five-film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-4), packaged in the U.S. for the DVD market as The Yakuza Papers. Fukasaku plowed straight ahead with more yakuza films, including the classics released here as Cops vs. Thugs and Yakuza Graveyard. But Toei wanted literal sequels to the Battles epic, and Fukasaku obliged with a "New" series of three films in which many of the original cast took on new roles in the same general time period. For some reason, despite the obvious exploitation angle, the "New" trilogy is less widely known in the U.S. A small company called Kurotokagi Gumi has released the first two films, along with many other Toei items, with decent English subtitles, while the larger companies who've released other Fukasakus steered clear. I presume that's because the "New" films are considered inferior work, but the first New Battles film finds Fukasaku and Sugawara near their top form.

You can always depend on Fukasaku for a unique angle on yakuza action

Sugawara plays Makio Miyoshi, who we first see carrying out a bungled hit while disguised as a crippled war veteran. Right away, we're immersed in the familiar maelstrom of Fukasaku's yakuza films as the director films violent action with a handheld camera that seems to be buffeted by the mayhem like a leaf in a storm. He consistently creates the illusion of cinema verite, and the key to that is that he stages chaotic action. His street battles may be elaborately planned, but they lack any glamorizing choreography. Things never seem to happen quite as planned, leaving attackers, victims and bystanders alike confused and panicked. Fukasaku quite deliberately takes the opposite approach from the lethal elegance of the samurai film, but the effect is just as much the product of master craftsmanship as the most stylized sword duels.

Makio belongs to the Yamamori crime family, and his boss is a coward and a crybaby. It occurred to me while watching this how often that seems to be the case in crime films around the world. From the original Scarface forward rising young thugs are up against weak, cowardly or complacent kingpins who leave you wondering how men like that ever rose to the top. From the beginning here, Makio is shown being loyal to unworthy people, and Sugawara plays him just dumb enough not to know better. Needless to say, a hungry challenger arises within the clan while Makio sits in stir. This is Aoki (Tomasaburo Wakiyama), against whom Boss Yamamori hopes to use Makio as a weapon when our hapless hero gets free. Even before he's out, the boss and his wife are offering him money and other favors if he'll take care of Aoki for them. In turn, Aoki will seek his support in his own bid for power. But the story of the film is Makio's reluctance to take sides, his forlorn hope that the clan won't fall apart and impose a choice on him. Why can't everyone just get along the way they used to? Inexorably, a choice is forced upon him; as long as each side sees him as a pawn in play, there are only more reasons to try and take him off the board. Ultimately, Makio has to choose to save himself, whether that means taking a side or playing the sides against each other while he gets out of the way.

Sugawara and Wakiyama give strong performances here, but what impressed me most about New Battles 1 is the attention Fukasaku pays to the sociability of yakuza life, the lifestyle Makio enjoys and the feud within the clan endangers. Our hero drifts from dinner with the boss to nights on the town with Aoki, skating on the thin ice of camaraderie with violence just below the surface. Festivity can turn into frightening conflict at any moment, and subside just as suddenly. To make that point, Fukasaku focuses on the fringe details, letting an actress steal a scene from the stars. A suddenly enraged Aoki has just flung a drink at Makio, and for the rest of the scene, while the two men affect reconciliation, Aoki's shaken girlfriend tries to wipe up the mess he's made, barely restraining sobs in the process. She expresses openly the anxiety the men also feel. You see their fear in a tense scene after Makio escapes from a hit Aoki had set up on him. Vowing to kill Aoki himself, he pays a call and finds his antagonist on a futon sweating under a blanket, a humidifier and several bodyguards nearby. They subtly maneuver props around their boss as an abruptly less bold Makio proposes that Aoki pay him to leave town. Aoki orders a man to give Makio a wad of cash, then agrees to add to it. When Makio leaves, Aoki pulls a gun out from under the blanket with a sigh of relief.

Fukasaku doesn't stint on the gunplay and bloodshed this time -- Aoki's last stand is a broad-daylight deathmarch capped by a thunderous reprise of Toshiaki Tsushima's famous Battles fanfare -- but New Battles 1 is in a lower key than its five predecessors overall, more memorable for its subtler details that for its obligatory battles. Fukasaku is quoted on the box cover saying that he meant to take a "deeper look" at his gangsters in the new series. While this opener isn't necessarily superior to the original Battles, I think that he succeeded in his purpose nevertheless.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


How could you go wrong with a women-in-prison film with Pam Grier in the Philippines -- especially when you've got violent revolutionary action, plenty of naked shower action and lesbian innuendo, Vic Diaz and Sid Haig as gangsters, and the all-important gimmick of Grier and blonde fellow-amazon Margaret Markov chained together on the lam in a distaff variation on The Defiant Ones? Here's how.

Problem number one is that, if you're going to do Defiant Ones in drag, you've got to do some race-baiting. But by making the white prisoner Karen a left-wing revolutionary director Eddie Romero and a story team that included the young Jonathan Demme pretty much throw away any opportunity to stir up intense conflict between the chained women. The script tries to make class an issue for one scene as black prisoner Lee mocks Karen's revolutionary commitment as the playacting of a spoiled rich girl, but this movie never unleashes the all-out hate or the bonding personal revelations the Defiant Ones gimmick needs to work. The most we get once the defiant duo break loose is that Karen wants to go one way to reunite with her revolutionary comrades (and boyfriend Ernesto) who ambushed their prison van in mid-transfer in the first place, while Lee wants to go where the $40,000 she stole from sleazy pimp Vic (Diaz) is stashed. It's okay that they end up going Lee's way, since you're probably anticipating that the money is going to end up with the cash-starved revolutionaries thanks to some political awakening on Lee's part. But a lot of stuff that you might expect to see happen here -- just because in many cases it's the obvious play for an exploitation film -- doesn't.

Romero's movie smacks of having been put together ad hoc of parts that don't quite fit together, right down to the trailer whose narrator clearly thinks that he's promoting a movie called "Women in Chains." Black Mama spends its first reels setting up the sapphic hell of a prison to which Lee and Karen are condemned. The warden (Laurie Burton) and head matron (Lynn Borden) are clearly lovers, but the warden's lust is too voracious for one woman. She has a peephole to observer her charges showering while she masturbates. She offers the more attractive prisoners privileges in return for sexual favors. Lee turns her down ("I just don't like to be forced.") while Karen accepts (off-screen) out of revolutionary necessity. That creates resentment in Lee (if not jealousy; the two newbies seemed to be checking each other out as they arrived) because when Karen gets taken off a work detail it means more work for Lee. And that leads to their first battle, a feeble food fight that unfortunately sets the tone for their struggles throughout the picture.

Romero has no clue how to make these two big girls seem powerful. He has Pam Grier at his disposal and makes her look weak. Neither of the women -- who would soon be cast together as gladiators, for crying out loud -- seems capable her of much more than impotent slapping and scratching. Romero seems not to have gotten the news that he was in the 1970s, the era of the superwoman, and his cluelessness cripples Black Mama, White Mama. He should have Grier and Markov running amok through the island, fighting each other and all comers, but once they are set loose by Ernesto's bungled rescue attempt (during which our heroines kill the warden and the rebels kill the matron) Romero seems to go out of his way to find distractions from the stars' story.

It's okay to introduce Vic and his gangsters, since it's his money Lee is after and Diaz's scenes hit just the right note of sleaze. Diaz, the international face of Filipino exploitation, actually rules it quite nicely as he calmly supervises the electrode torture of a prostitute while receiving a pedicure from a topless floozy. To clarify what I mean by sleaze: if a woman takes off her top in a scene, it's erotic; if she starts the scene topless, it's sleaze. Anyway, we expect to see Vic's men on a collision course with Ernesto's rebels, but in mid-film Romero introduces more characters, not to complicate things, but to pad out the movie. We get some Filipino cops who are out to get Vic's money if not Vic himself -- but to keep a low profile they subcontract the pursuit of the escaped women to Ruben (Sid Haig), an American criminal and all-around cowboy-for-hire who ends up being, along with the cops, the comedy relief of the picture.

The funniest thing about Haig here, however, are his costumes. Still, you might be interested in what might happen when Ruben catches up with the girls -- but remember what I wrote above about what you expect to happen. Ruben and the cops largely exist in their own closed-off universe within the main film. They mostly interact with each other, as when Ruben catches the cops tailing him and forces them to drop trou so he can (for some reason) inspect their penises. The only character from the main story whom Ruben encounters is Ernesto, and the rebels kill him and his men in a fight over bloodhounds before Ruben comes anywhere close to Lee and Karen. Haig's presence comes across as a big waste of our time.

Overall, Black Mama, White Mama is a case of too many cooks and not enough confidence in the stars or the main story of the film. Too often, Lee and Karen's adventures are played for laughs, as when they mug a couple of nuns and somehow (while still shackled together) manage to don their habits for a reel or so. Eddie Romero has made some interesting horror films, but he seems like the wrong man for the job this time, when a Jack Hill or (to use local talent) a Cirio H. Santiago would have gone for the jugular every time. This is a film I've wanted to see for a long time, and now that the Albany Public Library has acquired it in a stash of blaxploitation pictures it proves to be a big disappointment. Some of my regular readers may feel that a film like this was hopeless from the start, but I want to make clear that what disappoints me most about Black Mama, White Mama is that it fails as an exploitation film. It should have been more violent and more sleazy as well as more feminist and more coherent. Just about everyone involved has done better, and I feel a need now to find the proof of that.

And here's the trailer for Women in Ch-- I mean Black Mama, White Mama, uploaded to YouTube by oldiestrailers.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Without claiming to be an expert on Jean-Luc Godard, I had a feeling watching this film about French youth captivated by the Maoist mystique that it held a key to what the definitive New Wave director is all about. I've seen about ten of his movies over the years and I find his work both fascinating and frustrating. He's always seemed to be at odds with his own cinematic vocation because of his insistence on verbality. He wants desperately to communicate ideas cinematically and engage audiences philosophically, but his efforts often boil down to characters reading from books or reciting texts. It sometimes seems like he's leaving words hanging in dead air. While La Chinoise is a satire of infatuated youth -- an ironic one given that, infatuated with youth and ideology, Godard himself would shortly succumb to the youths' own infatuation -- but it's also arguably -- and appropriately, given the Maoist context -- an act of self-criticism, the young revolutionaries serving as metaphors for Godard's own revolutionary ambitions for cinema and illustrating the pitfalls and limitations of his approach.

What makes La Chinoise a key film for Godard, I think, is that in his Maoists he's found characters through whom the director can express his own concerns about our ability to communicate ideas without the dialogue seeming artificial or forced. The characters are the five members of a Maoist cell -- three guys and two girls -- who share an apartment. Anticipating "reality TV," Godard shows us interviews of the kids conducted by a documentary film crew intercut with their daily activities, which consist mostly of reading aloud from Marxist and Maoist texts, lecturing each other on theory and application, and drawing slogans on the apartment walls. Seeking to revolutionize the world, or at least France, they create for themselves a universe made of words. Godard illustrates this more abstractly by having the characters speak sentences collectively, each uttering one word at a time. When the time comes to kill a visiting Soviet dignitary (the Soviets being hated "revisionists"), they pick the assigned killer the way kids decide who's "it;" one of them reads a sentence from Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book," pointing a finger at each of the others for each word spoken. The characters tell parables and relate dreams about changing the meaning of words. It'd be a nightmare if the girls (Anne Wiazemsky and Juliet Berto) weren't pretty or the sets (shot by cinematographer Raoul Coutard) weren't pop-art primary colorful like a Little Red Romper Room -- or if Godard himself didn't feel that their efforts, however hapless, were still somehow necessary.

In this moment of clarity before he himself took the Maoist plunge, Godard has no idealism about his characters. Veronique, the ringleader, tells the interviewer that she's had no real contact with the working class because of her privileged background -- she's the daughter of a banker. Her solution to that problem is not to join the working class, but to study harder. She has no vision of a post-revolutionary future beyond propaganda platitudes, but that's alright as long as it's her generation's mission simply to destroy the existing order. This knucklehead isn't liberating jack, but Godard can't help empathizing with what he saw as Maoists' total commitment to total revolution, their desire to learn and share their findings, to find a common language of commitment. If it sounds like so much sloganeering, we already live in an environment of slogans. The challenge is to find a form of expression that is meaningful to you and whoever hears you, and that challenge is the constant drama of Godard's films. That's why his films have such long conversations and scenes of people reading aloud and words and sentences flashing on the screen. We shouldn't see these moments as Godard attempting to ram his own ideas down our throats -- no matter how tempted I am, sometimes -- but as illustrations of the difficulty anyone has communicating ideas, whether it's two characters on screen or the director and the audience. Godard could have made mondo-style essay films like Fellini did, and said, "Here's how I, Godard, see the world," but instead, at least in the films I've seen, he chose to dramatize his issues, and that must have been because he saw the problem of communication as social and universal, not merely a personal challenge. In La Chinoise, Godard saw the Maoists' project as his; in time, he would see his project as theirs, and the nature of his films, the story goes, would change.

If I haven't said much about the actual content of the students' ideology, that's because it's really less relevant to this picture than it would be, presumably, to those later films of Godard the true believer. Here, Maoist ideology is as much a part of the pop-art landscape as the figures of Batman and Captain America that appear in one montage. It's even the stuff of pop music like that earwig of a theme song, "Mao Mao" (pronounced Ma-Oh Ma-Oh) that runs through the picture. In La Chinoise Godard isn't yet fully convinced that the Maoists have found the way, but they have his sympathy because, like him, they're searching for a way. Some say that the ideology dates this film, but as long as people still feel that we need a new way, and not just to communicate with each other, this film, especially now in light of its proto-"reality" gimmick, will still feel relevant whether the ideology is or not.

If I can't get "Mao Mao" out of my head, why should you? Watch the trailer uploaded to YouTube by DVD distributor KochLorber at your own risk.