Sunday, March 30, 2014

ROCKET ATTACK, U.S.A. (1958/61) - A Review

With both Putin and Kim Jong-Un acting up, it kind of seems like the whole world is suffering from some sort of Cold War nostalgia nightmare. So it seemed like an appropriate time to watch this ultra-low budget Cold War classic from cult director Barry Mahon.
The film is, of course, Rocket Attack, U.S.A., and it was cranked out not long after the Soviet Union launched their famous Sputnik satellite. Mahon was ideally suited to this project because he A) had prior experience directing exploitation films, and B) he had flown combat missions with the Royal Air Force during World War II.
But don't worry that Mahon (who probably also wrote the script) brought too much experience or verisimilitude to this cheapie. Rocket Attack U.S.A. offers all the cheap and ludicrous thrills one could want from a Z-grade exploitation picture.
Our hero, John Manston (Mahon regular John McKay) is clearly and quickly identified to the audience as a top-notch spy guy. How do we know? Because he constantly wears a spy guy trench coat, cinched tight around the waist. Obviously he's just the guy to send undercover to Moscow to get the inside dope on the Soviet's missile capabilities! Once he makes it to Moscow, Manston hooks up with his contact, Tanya (Monica Davis - who also had previous experience with Mahon), a beautiful Russian who happens to be the mistress of the Soviet Secretary of Defense, and who also happens to speak perfect American English.
From there it's a mad whirl of bad dialogue, bad acting, cheap sets and stock footage, all leading up to a climactic gun fight at the most unconvincing launch pad you'll ever see. Then comes the ending - which is pretty downbeat: The Soviets successfully launch a nuclear missile that destroys New York City. Clearly intended (for marketing purposes if nothing else) as a "message" ending, the last image of the film is this:

In my opinion, Rocket Attack U.S.A. is a near-perfect specimen of the "torn from the headlines" school of exploitation filmmaking. Its tone is hysterical, its acting uniformly bad. The plot is jumbled, and moves forward in fits and starts. We're supposed to believe that most of it takes place in the U.S.S.R., but it was filmed in New Jersey. The special effects are some of the cheapest I've ever seen. And it crams all this, and more, into a brief 68 minutes. Crackpot history was never so much fun - or made so little demands on your time.

Barry Mahon is a classic bad movie master, perhaps best known for directing Errol Flynn's last movie, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959). He would go on to gift the world with films like The Dead One (1961), The Adventures of Busty Brown (1964), and The Beast That Killed Women (1965), which combined the horror and nudie genres in a story about an ape loose in a nudist camp. Continuing this somewhat schizophrenic nature of his career until the end, some of Mahon's final films included Fanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico (1969) and the children's film, Jack and the Beanstalk (1970). I haven't seen all of his many, many films, but those I have seen have all been entertaining, to say the least.

Monday, March 17, 2014

One of the things I love about living where I do is having access to the nearby (less than a ten minute walk) university library. Even if you're not a student, you can still use it - a library card for local residents costs all of one dollar.
In passing I should mention that my wife and I have availed ourselves of some of the great DVDs they have it the library - things like East German westerns and sci-fi films from the 1960s - but the focus for me is on all the books there. So many books, so little time! Being that I read non-fiction almost exclusively, this is just about the best recreational resource I could imagine. I can, and do, indulge all my personal obsessions there - I mean, the North Korea section is huge.
In any case, they also have a large and fairly deep film section, one with inherent appeal to a movie geek such as myself. I am slowly working my way through it, shelf by shelf. That's one of the great things about a library - you can take your time, it's probably not going to go out of business, and it doesn't cost anything (other than a little of your time) to take a chance on books that might not seem so interesting at first glance.
So I wanted to share a few thoughts on a few of the books that I've read lately. Like the films I review here, these books are from different periods of time. To me, films are fairly timeless, and therefore so are books about films. A film from 1933, or a book on films from the 1930s, is still current to me.
First up is a book I was a little leery of, but ended up finding very enjoyable. It's Night of the Living Dead by Ben Hervey (2008), and it's part of the BFI Film Classics series. Coming, as it does, out of the British Film Institute, and promising to be an "illuminating study" of Night of the Living Dead (1968), I was initially suspicious that this might be a bit too high brow for such a down and dirty film.
They're coming to get you, Barbara!
And the book does get kind of academic at times, with Cold War connections, Vietnam references, racial messages and all manner of (possible) deeper meanings to be extracted from the film and/or its script. I found these ideas interesting without being conclusive or especially illuminating. Even the film's director, George Romero, was apparently surprised at all the things that people read into the film. To paraphrase - sometimes a zombie is just a zombie, and sometimes a horror film is just a horror film. (Or even just a commercial venture.)
But, as a fan of the film, I found the fairly detailed background on the making of the film, and the people involved, very interesting. There are moments of inspiration, humor, and heartbreak captured here, and I suspect that it's this behind-the-scenes material that would appeal to most readers. As a profile of what was involved in the making of a groundbreaking and iconic horror film, this slim little book really delivers the goods.
Of course, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, and that turned out to be a pivotal year for movies in many ways, especially when it came to onscreen representations of violence. Roger Ebert attended a Saturday children's matinee of NOTLD, and his review captures the sense of how things were changing: "...they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up...This was little girls killing their mothers...Worst of all, even the hero got killed."
This is the bloody end of the line surveyed in Stephen Prince's 2003 book Classical Film Violence - Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968. Prince attempts to both explore and explain the many rules, regulations and "don'ts and be carefuls" that were in place during the period in question, as well as how they all came crumbling down at the end of the 1960s. He goes into the often conflicting desires - artistic, financial and moralistic - that were at play in the Hollywood system prior to 1968.
Bang, bang! Read, read!

Breaking with what is the mainstream view of the Production Code restrictions in place, and those who were charged with enforcing them, Prince argues that the people who have been historically viewed as censors were, in fact, much more concerned with helping filmmakers and studios avoid potential troubles with state censorship boards. Thus, those who have been viewed as barriers to artistic expression, were really simply most concerned with the financial wellbeing of the film industry as a whole. It's an interesting view, and one that Prince makes a good case for.
In any case, as a history of Hollywood seen through the prism of permissible violence, this is a pretty thorough and satisfying book. Anyone interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood is likely to find many items of interest here. However, those same film fans would also doubtlessly spot the small but numerous errors throughout the book. As an example: We all know in our dark little noir hearts that Richard Widmark made his screen debut playing Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death. Prince refers to the character throughout the book as Johnny Udo. Errors like this could easily have been avoided by simply checking the iMDB, or any number of film books, and their presence here dulled my enthusiasm for this book a little bit.
Finally, I read the director Edward Dmytryk's 1978 autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living. Written in a frank and straightforward style, this is a filmmaker's autobiography written for those who love movies. Rather than go into great detail about Dmytryk's childhood or upbringing, it pretty much jumps right into the start of his film career, and continues on from there, working in bits and pieces of his youth and background as needed.
Aside from having directed many great, iconic or noteworthy films - such as Behind the Rising Sun (1943), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), The Sniper (1952) and The Caine Mutiny (1954) - Dmytryk will also always be remembered as one of the "Hollywood Ten," the ten Hollywood artists blacklisted due to the efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk was also sent to prison as a result of the HUAC hearings, an experience he also talks about candidly in this book.
Edward Dmytryk made some very fine films.

Laid out essentially in chronological order of his films, and presented in a brisk manner, this may not be the most in-depth autobiography ever produced, but it is a valuable and engaging story of one man's place in both the history of American cinema, and politics. It was a quick read, and one I can recommend without hesitation.
And finally, finally...I also read parts of the Best Film Plays of 1943-1944 (1945), which consists of the shooting scripts of ten films from 1943-44. Some are pretty much forgotten (Wilson), some are now considered racially offensive (Dragon Seed), while some that were financial failures (The Ox-Bow Incident) are now considered classics. I skimmed parts of several scripts, but read the two scripts by Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero) all the way through, with a special interest in the parts in the script that didn't make it into the finished film.
I guess you have to be a pretty hardcore movie geek to do something like that. But if that's your thing, and you can find a copy of this book, have at it. You can make your own photoplay with Eddie Bracken in your head, just like I did.
The sp-sp-spots!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

This recent comedy, co-written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, and starring Gervais, continues to fascinate me. It's a simple concept, and an imperfect film, and yet...
Let's start with the concept. Invention presents a world exactly like our own, except for one thing: The human race has never developed the ability to lie. Everyone tells the truth about everything at all times. This goes for both the spoken dialogue (a waiter, assessing Gervais and his date says "She's way out of your league.") and for the world we see in the background (Gervais visits his elderly mother in building labeled "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People").
Needless to say, this one change in human behavior has created other interpersonal and societal changes - most of them seemingly bad. Many of the characters seem a little emotionally flat; others are relentlessly cruel. Though played for laughs - which it gets - this film paints a pretty grim picture of a world without lies.
Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a sad sack writer for "Lecture Films," a company that produces feature films of people lecturing about historical events. (It's a clever idea; since no one can lie, films produced for entertainment have to be based on real people and events, and can't include any dialogue that isn't 100% historically accurate. Thus, we get Christopher Guest appearing periodically as Nathan Goldfrappe, doing stuffy readings that are sure fire snoozers.) The plot, such as it is, kicks into gear when Bellison is fired and faces a personal and financial crisis.
With no job, and his landlord threatening to evict him Bellison has a sort of biological epiphany when he goes to the bank, and, as he later tells his friend Greg (Louis C.K.), "I said something that wasn't," and gets $800 for his rent, rather than the $300 that his account actually contains. Given that no one lies, the teller assumes the discrepancy in numbers must be due to a computer error on the part of the bank. Have a nice day!

Leaving the bank with his rent money in his pocket, Mark realizes what this new development can mean. Then, in a very general sense, the film sets about making the case for lying as a good thing in human interactions. This leads to some memorable and remarkable scenes, all of which somewhat fizzles out in a less than satisfying conclusion.
But the good parts are very good. When Mark gets the word that his mother is dying, and he rushes to see her one last time, he finds her agitated and afraid, fearing the impending "eternity of nothingness." Though crying and upset himself, Mark spins a tale for her of what happens after you die - an afterlife of eternal happiness surrounded by all the people you love, and in a place where "everyone gets a mansion," and there's no pain, only love. These are the last words his mother hears, and she is clearly comforted by them. Of course, Mark's speech is also heard by some of the hospital staff, who are in awe, and want to know how he knows all this. It's a remarkable scene, one that simultaneously makes it clear that religions are based on lies, while at the same time making the case that those lies can be good things when they bring people comfort in times of trouble.
Afterwards, Mark is beset by the press and his fellow citizens, all wanting to know where he got this information. With the pressure on, Mark concocts a story about "the man in the sky" who controls everything, and tries his best to lay out a coherent proto-theology to get people off his back. But every answer he gives only leads to more questions, trapping Mark in the role of the Chosen One whether he likes it or not.
In an attempt to get on with his life, Mark uses his new power to get his job back, and to try and win Anna (Jennifer Garner), the woman of his dreams. But satisfaction with his new life remains elusive.
It's the subplot with Anna where the film is at its weakest. Mark is clearly smitten with her and then some, and near the end of the film he makes an impassioned speech about how she's the loveliest, nicest, kindest woman he's ever met. The only trouble is, as presented in the film up to that point, she has come across as incredibly shallow and vain, rejecting Mark despite his money, fame and intelligence because he doesn't measure up to her standards for looks. (She repeatedly proclaims she doesn't want to have short, fat kids with snub noses - her thumbnail sketch of Mark physically.) So it's hard to see why Mark would be so head over heels in love with such a self-centered and not-very-nice-at-all person.
Also of note on the negative side: This film contains at least half a dozen montages set to peppy (and lousy) pop songs. I can't recall ever seeing a film with so many montages, especially since they're all so similar. I can't say whether it's lazy filmmaking, or the result of pressures to have more songs on the soundtrack, or what. But whatever it is, it just doesn't work.
Still, this film continues to fascinate me. It's a film, it's a philosophy, it's a question. What would life be like without lies? I think few of us would miss the Big Lies, the kind associated with politicians and other questionable characters. But what about the little lies, the white lies, the lies of omission? Are those bad things, or are they a kind of social and emotional lubricant? Yes, this is a silly comedy with a poop joke or two, but it also offers a lot of things to think about. Taken as it is, with its weaknesses and all, I would say it's probably two-thirds of a great film. And since most films would struggle to get to even one-third greatness, I mean that as a compliment.

Clearly the script spoke to a great many creative people, since the supporting cast is filled with familiar faces doing small bits. Rob Lowe is great as a vain romantic rival of Mark's, who has a huge ego and a flat affect. Jeffrey Tambor is very good as Mark's insecure boss. Edward Norton has a nice scene as a tightly-wound motorcycle cop. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Jim the Bartender. Other people taking small parts include Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jonah Hill (inexplicably third-billed) and John Hodgman. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

VIOLENT FIRE (2002) - A Review
Where to start? This film was directed by Takashi Miike. This fact alone was enough to excite me when I found this DVD at an AIDS charity thrift shop in Berkeley. (The fact that it was only a buck was also pleasing.) If you've ever seen one of Miike's films, you know he's a wild, eclectic and talented director. Whatever genre he works in, he manages to put his own distinctive spin on it.
This film, from 2002, is his take on a Yakuza crime film - though you'd be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of insane martial arts-crime-horror-comedy combo if all you saw was the opening five minutes. (See video embedded above. WARNING: It is violent, and crazy.) Sadly, the rest of the movie is not as over the top gonzo great as this opening sequence, but it does manage to maintain an atmosphere of artful confusion throughout the entire film.

Story somewhat takes a backseat to style here, but, in a nutshell, Violent Fire is about Kunisada (Riki Takeuchi), a young man with an extremely short fuse who gleefully takes part in a gang war in order to get revenge against the men who killed his Yakuza mentor. In the end, crime does not pay for Kunisada either, but in the meantime, he's a crazy cyclone of vengeance tearing through the Japanese underworld.

But because this is a Miike film, said vengeance is interspersed with scenes of gangsters having noodles, Kunisada bleaching his hair, a half-spoken, half-sung exposition scene, and other incongruous things. Hey, is that Sonny Chiba I see? Yes it is. Like the opening sequence, this film is jammed full with characters, ideas and images, all colliding and, most of the time, cohering into something resembling a plotline.

Apparently Miike edited the movie to the album Satori (1971) by the Japanese prog-rock band Flower Traveling Band. (They can be heard on the clip above.) Why not, right? And hey, it works. A couple of the guys from the band are also in the movie. Miike's editing here is unusual; sometimes the music drops out from shot to shot, or overlaps the next scene a great deal. Once or twice, the screen went black and silent long enough that we wondered if the film was just abruptly over. Again, style is the thing here. Revenge plots are a dime a dozen, but few are laid out in the cockeyed way this one is. And Takeuchi is just about perfect as the hellbent headcase out for blood.

Other than saying that I've found things to admire, enjoy and be astonished at in all his films I've seen, there's no real blueprint for a Takashi Miike movie. His international hit Audition (1999) is half lonely guy romance, half full-on horror. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) is a comedy about a family that owns a rural inn - and comes complete with singing and dancing zombies and an animated volcano. It's usually a cliché, but with Miike it's true: Expect the unexpected.

So if you're in the mood for something different, or want to see how the creativity of Japanese filmmakers easily eclipses 99% of American film product, you might want to check this out - or check out Miike's work in general. In the meantime, I'm gonna be looking for a copy of the Flower Traveling Band's album.

Friday, February 28, 2014

NON-STOP (2014) - A Review
I suppose people go to the movies for all sorts of reasons. This weekend, my wife and I wanted to go to see a movie to celebrate living in a town with three different multi-screen theaters. The town we previously lived in will be closing their only theater this weekend, and we are so grateful to be in a place where we have cinema options.

And that is how we wound up on a plane with Liam Neeson today. Non-Stop was the only new movie in town that was of much interest to either of us, and so we were off to fly the not-so-friendly skies.
The set-up is pretty straightforward here: Neeson is flight marshal Bill Marks, onboard a transatlantic flight. Soon after the plane lifts off, he starts getting threatening text messages on the airline's closed network. The mystery texter promises that a passenger on the plane will die every 20 minutes until $150 million is wired to a bank account - an account that is in Marks' name. Complications - and a death every 20 minutes - ensue.

This is a popcorn movie in the best sense. Given that Marks doesn't know who is sending the texts, the film starts right in with introducing his fellow passengers in the most suspicious of ways. From the get-go, everyone seems at least potentially a little questionable, both to the audience and to Marks, and the filmmakers manage to keep both the plane and the mystery up in the air until the end. Neeson, a hulking man and a capable actor, is very good as the man-with-a-past Marks who is in even more of a jam than Keanu Reeves was in Speed (1994) - at least he wasn't 20,000 feet in the air.
Of the reviews I've read of this film, almost all have said that when the identity and motives of the texter is revealed it's unbelievable and somehow not up to snuff. I disagree. Without going into who it is, or why they're doing it, my wife and I found it to be all too plausible. In any case, the reveal comes very near the end, so even if you found it a buzz killer, well, the movie is almost over anyway. (The closest thing to this film is 2005's Red Eye, which in my opinion very much does fall apart in its last quarter. Thus, Non-Stop emerges the better movie-you'll-never-ever-ever-see-on-a-plane.)
I also appreciated that, from my perspective, most of this film was pretty plausible, and that there were no painful or embarrassing "make my day" lines in the script. (There are, however, a few maudlin moments to give us the emotional backstory for Bill Marks.) Another thing of note, especially for an American action film, is the real lack of gunplay here. Yes, Neeson's character has a gun, but being that most of the movie is spent in a pressurized airplane at 20,000 feet, there would be real consequences for being fast and loose with his handgun. By the time there is some gunfire, near the very end of the film, there are already other, bigger problems for everyone onboard to deal with.
Some might say that Neeson, Julianne Moore, and current Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o are slumming, but I see nothing wrong with a well done, satisfying and not insultingly stupid thriller. Good action films are a rare breed these days, and this is a good one. That's nothing to be ashamed of in my book.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."
Dean Vernon Wormer, Animal House
Dying is easy; comedy is hard. Harold Ramis did the hard part first.
R.I.P. Harold Ramis
1944 - 2014

Sunday, February 23, 2014

HUO SHAO SHAO LIN SI (1976) - A Review
One of the DVDs we picked up in San Francisco recently was this mid-70s Hong Kong martial arts period piece, The Blazing Temple. I'd never heard of it, but it was brand new, the cover art looked promising, and it was only a couple of bucks. So why not?

I'm glad we took a chance, because this movie is a lot of fun, has plenty of action, and features high production values throughout. Both my wife and I enjoyed it very much.
The plot is fairly standard: An Evil Emperor is out to destroy the Shaolin school of martial arts, because they're the only ones who might possibly be able to oppose his evil (of course) plans. He sends a huge battalion of soldiers with cannons to destroy the Shaolin Temple and the monks who live there. The temple burns, hence the title, and most of the monks are killed. The handful who survive want to rebuild their school - but first, they'll have to get some getback on the Emperor. Their efforts are made more difficult by a traitor in their midst, but, in the end, which is wonderfully abrupt, the (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) Evil Emperor finally gets his head lopped off. END!
This was one of four films that director Joseph Kuo turned out in 1976, and it seems to possibly have a tie-in to his The 18 Bronzemen (parts one and two), since the bronze men make an appearance here too. Given the somewhat fractured nature of the subtitles, I'm still not quite sure what exactly the bronzemen are - men in gold paint? Spirits? In any case, they are one of many nice visual touches here.
Though the actual blazing temple is clearly a model - a very good model, to be sure - all the other sets, locations and effects are top-notch. Several scenes feature hundreds of costumed extras, so it looks like some money was spent on this production. The acting is generally good, there are touches of humor at times, and good use is made of a number of outdoor locations. Several shots show meditating monks in the lotus position being calmly engulfed by flames as the temple burns, an image that's clearly meant to evoke the monks who had recently emolliated themselves to protest the Vietnam war. I don't know if the filmmakers were trying to draw any parallels between recent events and their story, but whatever the meaning, the images are pretty eerie.
But, of course, the action is what movies like this are really all about, and The Blazing Temple does not skimp on that commodity. It wouldn't be accurate to say this film has non-stop action, but it is spread liberally throughout the entire story. Things start with a young woman challenging and fighting the Emperor's personal guards, and ends (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) with the same woman suddenly reappearing and decapitating the Emperor. END!
In between, there are numerous well-staged martial arts scenes - both between individuals and with larger groups. There is kicking, there is sword fighting, there is all manner of jumping, spinning and acrobatics. There's a sword-proof vest, and a bracelet that shoots poison darts. The fight scenes are varied in style and content, and all uniformly well done. I can't imagine action fans wouldn't be pleased with this movie.
There are also some wonderfully garbled subtitles at times. After one battle, the character Fung is badly, badly beaten, obviously nearly dead. One of his comrades tells him, "Fung, cheer up." Needless to say, Fung is way past simply cheering up.

I'm not going to pretend to know how much of this story is based on any sort of historical facts, or to know a lot about the cast or crew of this film. I don't. All I do know is that I'm glad we gambled a couple of bucks on this DVD, because it turned out to be pretty great entertainment. Now I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for more films directed by Kuo, and/or featuring Ling Chia (AKA Jia Ling) or Barry Chan (AKA too many names to list here).