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Thursday, December 4, 2008

OKATSU THE FUGITIVE (1969)

This third installment in the LEGENDS OF THE POISONOUS SEDUCTRESS series is a major disappointment after the excellence of its predecessor, QUICK-DRAW OKATSU . It's pretty much a remake of the previous film, even starring Junko Miyazono as a master swordswoman named Okatsu, but not the same character she played before (?); at the end of QUICK-DRAW OKATSU our heroine was a wanted fugitive, so wouldn't you expect a film entitled OKATSU THE FUGITIVE to be a direct sequel, especially since the film that came before it was a hit and the Japanese are not by any means sequel shy?

This new Okatsu is again the blade-proficient daughter of a swordsman, and when her father threatens to expose the vicious corruption of a local magistrate he's tortured in an attempt to get him to reveal the whereabouts of a written document of the magistrate's offenses. When he won't talk, his wife and daughter are hauled in by the bad guys and the wife is thrown to six hardened criminals for a bit of gang rape (which thankfully doesn't occur, but she does get alarmingly manhandled), and after that moment of extreme bad taste dad kills his wife and then himself. Unfortunately Okatsu then falls victim to the evil magistrate and is raped, then thrown into a basement dungeon. With the aid of her sleazy fiancee, she escapes — killing several swordsmen in the process — with the document hidden in her mother's elaborate (and very pointy) hairpin and sets out to avenge her parents, not realizing her fiancee is in league with the bad guys. After that the film becomes a lackluster and very much by the numbers samurai revenge flick that could have been written with little or no effort by anyone who's ever seen one of these things, and ends up a staggeringly generic item that will be forgotten about five minutes after the title that reads "The End." That's a real shame because the level of quality found in QUICK-DRAW OKATSU lead me to expect a hell of a lot more from all involved, and after this I can see why the series stalled out. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

THIS IS ENGLAND (2006)

My man Thomas Turgoose as Shaun, the anti-McLovin.

At the urging of my man in Eastbourne, Chris Weston, I checked out Shane Meadows's THIS IS ENGLAND and now I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

The partly-autobiographical story takes place in England during the summer of 1983 and follows twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a miserable loner whose father was killed the previous year in the ongoing Falklands conflict. Living alone with his shockingly brain-dead mother, Shaun is mercilessly bullied by the older and larger kids at his school, and on the last day before the summer holidays he gets into a fight with an older kid who tormented him over his dad's death, and on the way home he ends up befriended by a gang of local skinheads. The skins are a far cry from the stereotypical neo-Nazis we've come to expect, and in no time flat Shaun looks to them for guidance and acceptance, swiftly adopting the suedehead haircut and braces & boots fashion uniform that mark him as part of the tribe. These older role models are actually quite a nice bunch of kids, and during his early days with them Shaun finds a happiness not felt since before his father's death, even landing the cute and sweet "Smell" (Rosamund Hanson, looking like a cross between a marmoset and a rummage sale) as his overage girlfriend.

But a spanner is thrown into the works when Combo (Stephen Graham), a thirty-two-year-old skin and former leader of the band, returns after a three-and-a-half year prison term, now filled with nationalistic fervor and a mission to turn his younger comrades into racist, Paki-bashing thugs for the National Front. When given a choice of following Combo, most of the skins opt out with no hard feelings, but Shaun stays, seduced by Combo's words about the pointlessness of the war in the Falklands. Thanks to his bitterness over his dad's death, Shaun is a perfect tabula rasa on which Combo can engrave his hateful leanings, and Shaun devolves into a pint-sized hate-monger, willingly accompanying Combo and his mates on missions of defacement and general shakedowns of the local Pakistani population. With the seriously unstable Combo as his new father figure, it's only a matter of time until things spin out of control and Shaun must make up his own mind as to exactly who, and what, he wants to be.

One of the things that always fascinated me about the original British skinhead youth movement was how it was formed with a heavy influence of black culture, especially when it came to the music they listened to. The inner city lower working class skins had a lot in common with their Jamaican immigrant neighbors and they knew it, the two existing together fairly well. But then the British white supremacists came along and many of the disenfranchised youth turned to them in search of something to believe in, spawning the Nazi skinhead, a group that exists to this day and is still exploited by their much smarter political role models and leaders. THIS IS ENGLAND deals with this in no uncertain terms, and before Combo returned there was even a black skinhead in Shaun's group of friends, a dapper lad named Milky (Andrew Shim), but despite Combo's kind and respectful treatment of him, Milky leaves rather than deal with Combo's rabid and, when considering Milky, contradictory nationalism. As the story progresses we learn much about Combo and what made him what he is, but the most revealing and tragic revelations about him come implicitly rather than explicitly during a moment of bonding with Milky while the two are stoned off their asses; it's an old-school skinhead love-fest until Combo loses control, an act that galvanizes Shaun's reality check and makes the viewer want to personally foot the bill for Combo's much-needed regimen of anger management and psychotherapy.

The film is stocked with wall-to-wall terrific performances and Thomas Turgoose's turn as Shaun is utterly natural and believable, our hearts breaking as we see him transform from a sad little boy into a vicious, hate-filled follower. And his relationship with Smell is in no way sleazy or offensive; the scene in which they share a kiss in the backyard shed is pretty torrid and would never fly in an American film, but it's clear that when it comes to sex Shaun is pretty clear-headed and wouldn't do anything he wasn't ready for, so his explorations with Smell remain within the PG-13 realm. Smell even goes so far as to tell Shaun that she'd never force him into anything he wasn't comfortable with, and is relieved to find that his opting out of sucking her tits had nothing to do with him not liking her, but was just due to him pacing his experiences with this kind and wonderful girl who he thinks is "lovely." It's really very sweet, and I was glad to see it handled with such good taste.

Stephen Graham's Combo is one of the more memorable antagonists in recent cinema, and despite his horrendous attitudes, he's too well-shaded to be considered an outright villain. I really can't say any more without giving away a major plot point regarding him, so I'll just stop right here.

Stephen Graham as Combo.

Bottom line, THIS IS ENGLAND is an excellent and involving film that, according to my friends in the UK, is an unflinchingly accurate depiction of a specific element of the country's youth back in the bleak days of the early 1980's. It has moments of great charm, but it's also pretty much a downer from frame one, so keep that in mind before renting it thinking it my be the British cousin of a John Hughes teener flick, because it sure as shit ain't that. And whatever you do, keep the subtitles on; I'm good with British accents, but the dialogue in this film was quite regional, and the subtitles helped immensely. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Monday, October 20, 2008

ICE COLD IN ALEX (1958)

Captain Ansen (John Mills) and cohorts ponder the most hard-won cold brews ever.

I'm not all that keen on war movies as a genre, but when Garth Ennis recommends a particular film as one of the all-time best of its kind I feel inclined to give it a look. The film in question is the 1958 adaptation of Christopher Landon's chronicle of some of his experiences in World War II, ICE COLD IN ALEX, and I'm surprised to say that it comes from out of nowhere to establish itself as my favorite war movie.

The story is a model of simplicity: when the British base at Tobruk falls under siege by German forces, the personnel must evacuate and an ambulance (dubbed "Katy" by its original driver) driven by combat-fatigued borderline alcoholic Captain Ansen (John Mills) must make its way to safety after becoming separated from its unit. Also on board for the journey are MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews), a pair of nurses (Sylvia Syms and Diane Clare) and an Afrikaans and German-speaking South African captain (Anthony Quayle) whom they find along the way. The direct route to their destination, Alexandria, is inaccessible since the bridge leading to it was demolished, so the ambulance must traverse a perilous course across over six-hundred miles of desert, where the characters must contend with heavily-armed Nazi patrols, treacherous mine fields, blistering heat, dwindling rations, fraying nerves and the suspicion that one of them may be a Nazi spy (gee, guess which one). When a bullet claims the life of one of the Brits, Ansen swears off drinking until they arrive safely in "Alex" and belly up to a bar that he knows that serves lager in glasses so cold that you can carve the ice off the surface with your fingernail. So, basically, the guy focuses on a beer as his motivator. There have been times when I could totally relate to that, and when you see what these characters go through you'll need a tall, frosty one yourself, especially after the episodes involving traversing a minefield and getting the overheating ambulance over a steep sand dune. That may not sound like much, but I swear you'll see what I mean.

What makes this movie so enjoyable to me is that it's a WWII flick totally devoid of the jingoistic action figure stereotypes that I so utterly loathe in many films of the genre, and is instead about a group of human beings that the viewer can relate to and root for whether you're into the whole war movie thing or not. Theirs is a journey through a crucible in which, for better or worse, the human spirit and will are tested to their utmost, and even the enemy are portrayed as people who happen to be soldiers and not just a bunch of stock goosestepping drones. And the Nazi spy proves to be not only sympathetic but also quite heroic, contributing hugely to helping in the mutual goal of crossing the desert and reaching Alexandria alive.

Everything about this film works and treats the viewer with intelligence, so I urge you to see it if you get the opportunity. It's not available on DVD in the States, but it is easily obtainable for those of you who wisely invested in an all-regions DVD player. TRUST YER BUNCHE and seek out this absolute classic.

Monday, October 13, 2008

MALENA (2000)

Monica Bellucci, as the beautiful and justly-melancholy Malèna Scordia, ignites the fancies of young Sicilian lads in WWII Italy.

NOTE: in a strange bit of serendipitous timing, this review of an Italian movie finds itself being posted on Columbus Day. Fuhgeddaboudit!

I love Italian women. I don't know where that fascination comes from, but I wear my appreciation on my sleeve and appreciate few of the Babes from the Boot the way I do Monica Bellucci. Just say it with me: Mon-ih-kuh Bail-oo-chee. It's a name that brings one's lips and tongue into full, sensual play and is a pleasure to speak, a name utterly befitting of one of, in my own humble opinion, the most beautiful women on this planet. A model turned thesp, Bellucci enthralls me to the point of Yer Bunche being willing to sit through two hours of her reciting the ingredients and nutritional information of side of a box of instant mashed potatoes, so it's a good thing that she sets her sights on projects of loftier content. Sure she was in those lousy sequels to THE MATRIX and the painfully mediocre BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992), but I won't hold that against her as long as she keeps making decent slice-of-life melodramas and the occasional bit of silliness like SHOOT 'EM UP (2007).

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, the visionary behind the incredible CINEMA PARADISO, crafted MALENA as a coming of age tale set in Sicily that covers the period of Italy's involvement in WWII and follows 12-year-old Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro) as the percolating hormones of puberty hit him and his equally horny cronies like a sledge hammer. The object of their adolescent yearnings is Malèna Scordia (Monica Bellucci), their incredibly hot new Latin teacher who has just moved to their town with her husband, but when Italy enters the war her spouse leaves for service in the army. Now alone, Malèna endures the leers of the town's men and the not-so-quiet jealous whispers of the women, as well as the sleazy rumors and imaginings of both groups while Renato and his pals follow her around like a pack of hungry puppies. But while nearly every other male in town lusts after Malèna in various degrading ways, Renato's spying upon her reveals the sad and lonely truth behind the goddesslike beauty and lends him a unique perspective on her silent suffering. As the war progresses Malèna receives word that her husband has been killed in battle and her fortunes take a turn for the worse as the town's imaginings about her escalate, eventually resulting in her father (an ageing teacher at the local school) receiving a letter that paints her as a disgraceful slut who has slept with most of the town's men, after which he more or less disowns her. Her father is subsequently killed in a bombing raid and when her money runs out Malèna must become a whore in order to survive, bringing the town's imaginings to stark life. When the Germans arrive, Malèna dyes her hair blonde and begins servicing them, but throughout this spiraling cycle of misery Renato remains her most ardent admirer and worships her from afar, being the only witness to the truth of her existence and secretly avenging her abuse in small ways like pissing into the purse of a vicious gossip or spitting into the drink of a braggart at a men's club.

Renato's love for Malèna goes unexpressed, but some of his fantasies of her are seen in humorous bits that reflect his love of the movies, casting himself and Malèna in the romantic leads in his mind's eye, and when not thinking cinematically he pictures her in seductive situations and clad in sexy outfits or simply nothing at all. His horniness soon boils over into chronic masturbation and leads to some very funny sequences involving his family's horror at his behavior, culminating in his father's no nonsense declaration that his son "needs to fuck." Choosing the obvious solution to this problem, Renato's dad takes him to lose his virginity at a local whorehouse where the lad imagines his first woman to be his adored Malèna. As Renato becomes more of man with each passing day, Malèna's situation worsens and his role as her guardian angel takes a major turn when...

I'd better stop there.

This is not a "great" work of cinema by any means (some critics have even called it "slight"), but it struck a chord in me while watching it and reminded me of the painful years of early adolescence and the sheer frustration thereof with surprising clarity. While Malèna would seem to be the main focus of the story (and the marketing), her suffering and position as an earthily beautiful focus of desire serve to give Renato a sense of purpose that evolves into a clumsy form of the most sincere chivalry, and the viewer learns to love the boy for it. In short, I picked it up so I could sate my Bellucci cravings and ended up with a surprisingly realistic boy-lusts-after-older-woman story that allows the boy's yearnings for his madonna to go unfulfilled. Similar territory has been mined many times previous to MALENA, most notably in the American film SUMMER OF '42 (1971), but what lifts MALENA into the "better than average" category is a solid script, Tornatore's directorial eye and the excellent performance of Giuseppe Sulfaro as Renato. I was totally invested in his story, and thanks to his perspective Malèna's story become compelling and not just a collection of war widow "weepie" clichés. But in comparison with Renato, Malèna herself is less of a character than a lovely walking plot motivator; sure, we care for her as we witness her various struggles, but her real purpose is to be that unattainable goddess who arouses the first feelings of manhood in a callow youth, and Bellucci conveys this quite well in a role that is largely silent. It's Renato's show, so keep that in mind when checking this one out, fellow Bellucci worshippers.

My only real complaint about MALENA comes from knowledge gained after seeing it: the American version of the film heavily trims material deemed too the graphic nature of some scenes involving Renato's fantasies about having sex with Malèna, including the scene in the whorehouse that was apparently much more, er, interesting.

One of the sequences cruelly trimmed by those assholes at the MPAA.

Maybe there was some ludicrous concern that the scenes in question skirted dangerously close to "kiddie porn," which, judging from the rest of the movie, they wouldn't have been. The squeamish MPAA called for similar trimming of Luc Besson's excellent 1994 action masterpiece LEON (released here as THE PROFESSIONAL) involving the twelve-year-old Natalie Portman telling Jean Reneau in no certain terms of her intent to seduce him. That sequence was admittedly a bit disturbing, but that film was dealing with rather disturbing material in the first place so it was not inappropriate in the least, plus there was no trace of nudity and Reneau's character set her straight that it wasn't gonna happen (he'd developed a paternal relationship with the orphaned girl), so I guess the MPAA has issues with such stuff, even when handled tastefully, as was the case in MALENA. Buncha pussies.

Monday, September 15, 2008

ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (1958)

It’s funny how one’s perceptions change as one gets older.

I first saw the infamous ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958) when I was about ten years old, already aware of its status as one of the supposedly worst films ever made, and at the time I couldn’t help but agree. The dialogue and acting were ludicrous and overwrought even by 1950’s B-movie standards, several scenes meant to take place at night were clearly shot in broad daylight — a “technique” made immortal in Ed Wood’s masterpiece, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) — the special effects were the polar opposite of anything resembling special, and the awesome gigantress depicted on the poster didn’t go on a city-destroying orgy of destruction. In short, everything that your average kid would find disappointing in a giant-monster-on-the-loose flick.

A blatant example of false advertising.

The film continues to be maligned to this day and in many ways deserves the derision so gleefully heaped upon it for nearly half a century, but having just seen it again last weekend for the first time in over thirty years I have to say that my adult tastes have caught up with its cheapjack charms. I fucking love bad movies, and in every way ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN stands as one of the more intriguing examples of the whole misbegotten genre.

Kind of a WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLFE? by way of THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, the story revolves around boozy heiress Nancy (Allison Hayes) and her flagrant failure of a marriage to equally boozy adulterous douchebag Harry Archer (William Hudson), a nonchalant heel who’s only in it for access to the wife’s fortune. Apparently Nancy's had a history of psychological problems and has recently returned from a stint in the local rubber room, supposedly okay enough to function in society but still a bit nutso around the edges. Her shaky mental state isn't helped in the least by her constant 1950’s-style drunkenness, or her husband’s totally in-her-face affair with the town pump, the gloriously sleazy Honey Parker, played to fantastic bad-girl extremes by the too-hot-to-handle Yvette Vickers.

Honey and Harry, vile 1950's adulterers and gold-diggers of the lowest order.

Harry’s such a prick that he hangs out with Honey in an open booth at Tony’s — apparently the town’s only bar & grill — all the while guzzling from highball glasses brimming with scotch and engaging in public lip-locks that look like the two of them are trying to suck each other’s innards up their necks.

It’s pretty smarmy stuff for the fifties and is still rather torrid even by today’s standards, evoking the feel of cheap bus station pulp fiction paperbacks replete with tough guys getting it on in smoky hotel rooms with easy floozies (an ambiance augmented by a great score that knows when to turn on the swelter).

One night while driving aimlessly (and kind of bombed) about some back roads, Nancy encounters a spherical spacecraft that houses a bald giant who makes a grab for her.

Eat your heart out, ILM!

The famously phony fake hand jiggles and wobbles as it attempts to pick her up, causing Nancy to shriek, abandon her car, and haul ass straight into town. When she arrives she seeks out Harry, but he’s too busy getting a bit of stink-finger so he asks the sheriff’s deputy to cover for him, saying that he wasn’t at Tony’s. An hysterical Nancy then convinces the cops to drive her back to the site of her close encounter, but when they get to her abandoned car there’s no trace whatsoever of a five-story Telly Savalas. Pissed that the cops don’t believe her, Nancy returns home to find comfort in good old booze.

When Harry finally returns home Nancy confronts him about where the fuck he was when she was freaking out, but he simply pours himself a drink, lies about his whereabouts, and slips her a sedative. The drug acts swiftly, coupled as it is with about three stiff drinks, and in no time Nancy’s about to pass out. Harry carries her up the stairs and puts her to bed, undressing her and tucking her in while her altered state of consciousness allows the deep hurt that she feels to roll forth undisguised by anger or false bravado, revealing a wounded and vulnerable woman who admits that she desperately needs Harry. As she fades into unconsciousness, his name pathetically on her lips, he removes her lightbulb-sized diamond, the Star of India, from around her neck, fondles it like it was his own nutsack, and drops it into his pocket. He then calls a doctor to evaluate Nancy’s mental state, the first step in having her re-committed, thereby gaining control of her wealth. After that Harry hightails it back to the bar to face the wrath of his mistress, a fit of pique that immediately cools once she sees the Star of India. The two then plot Nancy’s downfall in earnest before practically fucking the shit out of each other in their favorite booth.

The next day Harry returns the diamond figuring it’ll be his soon enough, and Nancy’s fresh as a daisy (read “sober”), demanding Harry accompany her into the desert to find the giant. He reluctantly obliges, thinking she’s finally gone round the bend, but then they spot the giant’s sphere and pull up to investigate. Beside herself with joy over not being insane, Nancy whoops and hollers, thereby attracting the giant who hauls her into his craft. Harry, after taking a few potshots at the big guy, then turns tail and leaves his wife to her fate. When he returns to town he makes up some story about Nancy’s whereabouts and prepares to run off with Honey, but then Nancy throws a monkey wrench into the works but turning up dazed but alive. Traumatized, Nancy is in no time doped up and imprisoned in her room in a state of utter helplessness while under psychiatric care, in other words the perfect time for Harry to administer an overdose (a tactic charmingly suggested by his floozy).

During all of this mishegoss, the sheriff and Nancy’s gay Lurch of a butler retrace her path and locate the spaceship. There they find the Star of India amidst a hodgepodge of dime store-acquired “futuristic” gizmos and deduce that the alien wasn’t after Nancy, just her enormous bling-bling to serve as a power source for his sphere. The also figure out that while on board the spaceship she was exposed to high doses of some unknown radiation, and since this is the 1950’s you know what that means…

Finally working up the nerve to poison Nancy, Harry climbs the stairs, hypodermic at the ready, when he opens the door and finds Nancy has turned into — what else? — a gigantic mutant.

NOTE: we’re supposed to believe she’s about fifty feet tall, as per the flick’s title, but her body still somehow fits into her bedroom. But that’s unimportant since we never see any part of her while indoors except for the huge rubber hand that once represented the giant spaceman, now free of hair so it looks more feminine.

Now drugged out of her mind and chained to her bed, Nancy languishes while her husband continues to sloppily cavort with Honey. Then she has the decency to awaken, flail her huge hand about the place while bellowing “HARRY!!!” and demolish her house.

Still screaming for her unfaithful husband, Nancy strides in all her bikini-clad glory into town, rips the roof off of Tony’s — which coincidentally causes chunks of masonry to topple and crush Honey — grabs Harry (or more accurately the actor walks into the giant rubber hand and wraps its fingers about himself), hauls an obviously mis-scaled doll of him through the ceiling, drops him to his death, and then commits suicide by grabbing some live power cables (the same way out chosen in WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST). THE END.

If ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN sounds schlocky, it certainly is, but it only gets labeled as one of the all-time worst movies ever made for its admittedly horrendous special defects. The core story, space-giant notwithstanding, is a solid fifties B-picture about a fucked-up marriage, a heartless husband, and a wife’s pain over her spouse’s towering assholism. The three actors who bring life to the tawdry triangle give entertaining, professional performances in spite of a script that does everything short of shooting them in the head at point blank range to sabotage them, with Yvette Vickers owning the movie as a husband-stealing archetype.

Yvette Vickers, rockin' at the road house.

And the fifty-foot woman herself, Allison Hayes, was no slouch either, chewing the scenery as Nancy and having looks and attitude that remind me of Mariska Hargitay's earthy beauty with a touch of the porn-years Traci Lords poutiness.

I particularly like her in the scene where the looped Nancy pours her heart out to Harry and he feigns tenderness while undressing her. It’s a one-sided moment of tragic need where we see just how sad Nancy is, and how Harry couldn't possibly care less about her heartfelt entreaties for love. A small moment of realism in what is otherwise a soap opera with a couple of fantastic elements thrown in, the scene resonates to anyone who has ever been in a relationship where their lover is a taker who will just use them until they are all used up.

One-sided intimacy at its saddest.

It’s also a bit erotic, reminding me of the times I’ve returned home with a woman after some hard partying, and she wants nothing more than to go to sleep, trusting me to gently help her out of her clothes and usher her off to dreamland unmolested (we can always make osh-osh after she’s well-rested); the times that I’ve done this I quite enjoyed it, savoring the intimate trust of caring for someone who’s nearly helpless thanks to inebriation, and enjoying the slow, sensuous peeling off of clothing until all that’s left is curvy, womanly skin…

Sorry. I got a little distracted.

So now I see ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN in a totally new light, an understanding made possible by knowing all too well about alcoholic excesses and the agony of a broken heart. Sure it’s cheesy, but it’s a lot better than you’ve been led to believe.

TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Monday, May 19, 2008

BARBARELLA (1968)

Poster from the original theatrical release.

"What's that screaming? A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming..."
-Barbarella

The death of
John Phillip Law last week, as well as ominous reports of a remake being in the works, got me to thinking about BARBARELLA for the first time in quite a while, and those thoughts were very pleasant indeed.

Back in the days when VCRs were not common to just about every household and DVD didn’t even exist, it wasn’t so easy to see certain cult films unless you were lucky enough to have a movie theater near you that ran such fare on a regular basis, and luckily for me I lived a town over from Norwalk, Connecticut’s legendary Sono Cinema (“Sono” being short for “South Norwalk”). Many a night of my high school and college years were spent in the dark there, experiencing classic and not-so-classic motion pictures on a dinky screen in a smallish setting that brought to mind the intimacy of a homemade, basement screening room, each celluloid treasure accented with often hilarious commentary from the audience and the inevitable contact high achieved from the simple act of breathing the theater's atmosphere. More often than not, the films were run as double or triple features, usually in genre groupings of horror films, rockumentaries — there was a particularly amusing evening featuring THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME that’s great fodder for a post of its own —, and sci-fi flicks, and the oft-run sci-fi sets were guaranteed to feature at least one of the following films: THE ROAD WARRIOR, A BOY AND HIS DOG, DEATH RACE 2000, and BARBARELLA, each with a loyal following that guaranteed a sizable crowd. Being a regular attendee of these shows I saw all of those films several times, but these days the only one I keep going back to when I need a “feel good” movie is BARBARELLA.

Barbarella, as seen in the 1962 source comics. Unfortunately, her romp with Diktor the robot doesn't make the transition to the movie.

One of the weirdest variations on Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey template and based on a 1962 French comic book by Jean-Claude Forest, the 1968 adaptation of BARBARELLA is very much a product of its time, being a campy and lysergic live-action cartoon, a WIZARD OF OZ-style quest story for grownups that revels in the “free love” ethos of the late 1960’s.




Jane Fonda as Barbarella: ready and waiting for her next close encounter.

A thirty-year-old and painfully hot Jane Fonda stars as Barbarella, a more-or-less space-cop of the year 40,000, on assignment to locate missing scientist Durand Durand (pronounced “Duran Duran,” and yes, it’s where the ‘80’s pop group got their name) on the mysterious and balls-out bizarre planet Lythion. But after crash-landing her cheesy-looking birdhouse/party balloon spaceship on the strange world, our heroine finds herself bounced from one crazy and perilous situation to another, running afoul of homicidal children, hollow soldiers made from leather, and a lesbian/dominatrix queen of a city that makes Mos Eisley seem wholesome in comparison.
Barbarella lost in Sogo, one of the sleaziest cities in sci-fi history.

Along the way she also discovers the joys of flesh-to-flesh sexual encounters, a form of contact lost centuries ago in favor of palm-to-palm transference/psychic melding with the aid of pills, and Barbarella takes to Osh-Osh like a duck to water, eagerly jumping at every chance to get her hump on with various available males.


Barbarella makes a new friend.

It’s the sex angle that really earned BARBARELLA its place in film history and in the hearts of moviegoers everywhere, but don’t think for a second that it’s pornographic or prurient in any way; Barbarella herself is a capable woman who happens to be an innocent whose elation upon her sexual awakening is a joyous thing that she’s happy to share as often as possible, and there’s something charmingly sweet about that. She’s definitely a male fantasy of a kindly and beautiful sex goddess, pure of soul and utterly unashamed of her frequent states of nudity and partial undress, rounded with a goofily cartoonish, wide-eyed quality that’s positively endearing, and I honestly can’t think of anyone other than Jane Fonda who could have made her work. People tend to make note of Fonda’s more serious work, but when she’s given a solid comedic role she always makes to most of it — even in the horrendous MONSTER-IN-LAW — and she’s seldom been funnier than in her played-totally-straight turn as Barbarella. But while there’s skin on display, there are no “pickle and donut” shots, making for one of the most sexuality-friendly films ever made. One never feels there’s “dirty” intent in the film — even though some overly-sensitive and PC souls might find the film a bit exploitative — but the fact that it’s Jane Fonda in the part, and clearly in on the joke, elevates the material above its Euro-nudie brethren. Sexy? Hell, yeah! Dirty? I've seen dirtier episodes of TWO AND A HALF MEN, and that show follows nearly forty years after BARBARELLA.

A disappointed Barbarella, just after burning out a torture device designed to kill its victims via orgasms. No, seriously.

The film’s attitude is tongue-in-cheek from the first frame to the last, with not a trace of seriousness in its head, coming off as a slightly risqué parody of the Buster Crabbe FLASH GORDON serials, and its sweet-faced, fun-filled vibe brings a smile to my face every time I see it. I enjoy all of the characters, and the movie is chock-a-block with memorable sequences featuring wild costumes and strange sets, kind of like the insane, knockabout LOST IN SPACE television series if it had somewhat of a budget and weren’t geared toward the kiddies, but had been crafted specifically for hippie stoners instead of merely being enjoyed by them. I mean, check out these images from Barbarella's dreamy-eyed zero-G striptease as the animated opening credits join her in her floating undulations (click on the images to enlarge):

BARBARELLA could almost be described as an underground comic book brought to life, only thankfully minus the off-putting misogynistic rape and violence found in many such works, and director Roger Vadim should be congratulated for making what could easily have been a complete mess work as well as it does, with the contributions of Fonda — whom he married during shooting — being impossible to overestimate. It’s by no means a “great” film, but it’s definitely worth checking out at least once and as anyone who’s seen it can tell you, it has a way of ensnaring you again and again if it turns up on cable. It’s a film that radiates positive feelings, and I’ll take as much of that as I can get.
Poster from the post-STAR WARS re-release, painted by famed fantasy illustrator Boris Vallejo. Question: why is Pygar the angel, the guy in the diaper with a gun, depicted without his wings?

The film was even re-released during the sci-fi craze brought on by STAR WARS (1977), with the stupid poster and promo title of BARBARELLA: QUEEN OF THE GALAXY (which is sadly how it's been known ever since), and re-rated from an R to a PG despite no trimming of its blessed nudity, and I wonder what it would get if reissued today; PG-13 movies have allowed for a certain amount of gore and violence, but that rating is rather stingy when it comes to skin, once more bolstering the idiotic theory that it's okay for the youth of this country to see scads of carnage and harm, but not tasteful depictions of sexuality. I say it's all a matter of context; I wouldn't want my kids to see porno because, with rare exceptions, it's not about a loving, sharing experience between individuals and focuses on closeups of genitalia that John Waters famously likened to "footage of open-heart surgery," but I wouldn't have a problem with them seeing BARBARELLA, especially provided that I was there to responsibly answer any questions they may have (I'd say it's most suitable for anyone ten and up, but that's just my opinion). And as for the announced remake, I'm very curious to see how a story like Barbarella's will be retooled to be acceptable in contemporary America's hypocritically sex-negative climate, especially when she'll most likely be played by one of those nauseating, under-nourished, factory-issued "starlets" with zero talent that currently infest the screen. Mark my words, even with the reported involvement of Robert (PLANET TERROR) Rodriguez at the helm, I have no faith in it. We're sadly past the peace-and-love sentiment of the sixties, much of it killed by post-Viet Nam-era cynicism and the rise of AIDS, so I don't see how a BARBARELLA remake can possibly work work now. Thank Zoad that the original's still out there.

Oh, and here's a bonus for you fellow Barbarella die-hards out there:


From the 1977 graphic novel BARBARELLA AND THE MOON CHILD, Barb and her son, Little Foxy. Hey, with all the "sharing" Barbarella got up to, a kid was inevitable.

And two designs by Jean-Claude Forest from the proposed 1980's Nelvana animated series that never got off the ground:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

GE GE GE NO KITARO (2007)

In recent years the Japanese film industry has rebooted many of the classic manga properties as live action features, especially now that special effects technology has caught up with the wild imaginings of the comics' creators. Unfortunately the majority of the reboots are turgid, uninvolving bores that amount to nothing more than something that could be used as a studio's FX resume reel, and that's a major disappointment when one considers just how awesome projects like DEVILMAN and TETSUJIN #28 (better known to us western barbarians as GIGANTOR) could have been if they had scripts that lived up to the visuals; DEVILMAN was especially trying since the studio opted to attract a larger audience by making Go Nagai's famously gory and ultra-violent story more teen-friendly, consequently cutting the balls off of a genre classic. In fact, if you ask me the only genuinely good and thoroughly entertaining classic manga reboot was the charmingly goofy CUTIE HONEY from 2004, based on another Go Nagai classic and also cleaned up for a larger audience. Or should I say it was the only good manga reboot until now?

Considering that it's a product of a culture with one of the world's richest myth-bases, it was only a matter of time until the venerable GE GE GE NO KITARO (loose translation: "Kitaro of Ge Ge Ge Forest") got the live action treatment. For a decent overview of this manga and anime landmark, check in over at the Wikipedia, but the short version is that creator Shigeru Mizuki's stories revolve around Kitaro, a spirit — or yokai — boy who lives in creepy Ge Ge Ge forest with his equally supernatural family and friends, a wild assortment of creatures culled from Japanese myths and legends. Kitaro is something of a nexus between the human and yokai realms, coming to the aid of humans who fall afoul of the more sinister of his brethren, and much humor and magical mayhem ensues.

Kitaro and friends, as seen in the manga.

Kitaro and friends have been animated several times, both for television and the movies, and I love them without reservation. There have been countless international takes on the whole supernatural co-existing alongside our mundane existence thing — BEWITCHED and Harry Potter being the two examples that spring immediately to mind — but none have the charm and sheer fun found in Mizuki's works, and I'm very happy to say that none of it is lost in the translation to live action.

German-American/Japanese pop star Eiji Wentz as Kitaro.

As "progress" causes the forests of Japan to dwindle, the indigenous spirits are being driven from their ancestral homes and they're none too happy about it. A bunch of Kitsune, powerfully magical and ancient fox creatures, seek to drive out the inhabitants of the housing developments going up over what used to be their forest by any means necessary, and hire the disreputable Rat Man (Yo Oizumi) and his gang of monsters-for-hire to get the job done. Tired of being (harmlessly) terrorized by the unruly yokai, a little boy who dwells in the development sends a letter — via the supernatural mailbox located deep in a nearby forest — to good guy yokai Kitaro in hope that the spirit can get the other monsters to knock off their nightly harassment, and Kitaro soon puts things right. But that's just the first ten minutes of the film, which leaves plenty of time for world-class asshole Rat Man, the yokai answer to Eric Cartman, to get up to more self-serving mischief, namely stealing a magical gem of incredible power from the Kitsune so he can hock it at a human gem dealer's shop. (NOTE: humans know that monsters exist, so this isn't that big of a deal, although some humans still need a bit of convincing.)

Yo Oizumi as the amusingly offensive Rat Man: if ever there was a towering douchebag who just doesn't give a fuck, it's this guy. And, God help me, I love him.

This theft sets all manner of mishegoss into motion and it's up to Kitaro and his bizarro group of friends to save the day, lest an angry Kitsune lord destroy the human world and rebuild things under his own rule.

GE GE GE NO KITARO is a hell of a lot of fun and a visual feast featuring a who's who of mythological critters, seamless CGI and makeup effects, a yokai nightclub that you'll want to hang out at, and the latest rendition of the famous and infectious Kitaro theme tune, a song familiar to native anime fans since the 1960's and heard in every filming of the series since. I can hear it even now: "Ge...Ge...Ge Ge Ge no Ge..." (And you can too if you click here for a link to three of the animated series openings, ranging from the B&W sixties intro through the current TV version.) Plus there's a doomed romance between immortal Kitaro and a human girl thrown in for good measure; Kitaro's dad warns him against getting involved with a mortal female because humans can die, something of which he is only too painfully and personally aware. And while the movie is based on a children's comic, what may fly as suitable entertainment for kids in Japan doesn't necessarily work over here insomuch as the look of the monsters and some of the effects could be perceived as scary by the very little ones in the audience, so know your tyke's limitations before throwing this one into the DVD player. I'd say this is safe for the six-and-olders, but I'm going to give a shot to sitting my four-year-old niece Cleo through this (the subtitles may pose a bit of a problem, but I'll fill her in on what's going on).

Bottom line: if you're unfamiliar with the monsters of Japanese myths and legends, creatures as well-known over there as Dracula, Frankenstein, Jason, and Freddy are to us, TRUST YER BUNCHE and immediately rent GE GE GE NO KITARO. It's out on DVD in the States under the title KITARO, and for more yokai fun I also recommend — though not as strongly — YOKAI MONSTERS: 100 MONSTERS (1968), YOKAI MONSTERS: SPOOK WARFARE (1968, the best of this series), YOKAI MONSTERS: ALONG WITH GHOSTS (1969), and THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (2005). And keep your eyes open for the upcoming sequel, GE GE GE NO KITARO: SONG OF THE THOUSAND-YEAR CURSE, which is allegedly aimed at an older audience, so expect some effed-up scares as only the Japanese can bring them!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

FEMALE DEMON OHYAKU (1968)

After having seen QUICK-DRAW OKATSU and OKATSU THE FUGITIVE (both from 1969), I finally got around to the movie that launched the LEGENDS OF THE POISONOUS SEDUCTRESS trilogy and it was certainly worth the wait.

Junko Miyazono stars as Ohyaku, an entertainer who performs for the drunken dregs of society when not scamming rich men with her possibly gay M.C. pal. Ohyaku’s position as a denizen of the seedy borderline underworld was ensured when her prostitute mother committed suicide and Ohyaku fell into the care of a manager/pimp who whored her out as she grew up. But now she’s an adult and has had enough of being used by all and sundry, and finds love with a rebellious and sensitive young ronin who plans to rob the local mint as a “fuck you” to the rich assholes who don’t care about the poor.

But, as often happens in chambara flicks, the ronin is betrayed and tortured into revealing the whereabouts of the gold and once that secret is divulged the ronin is beheaded in an impressive black-and-white display of grand guignol-style gore. As a preamble to this, Ohyaku is raped by the requisite evil magistrate, but when she refuses to be his concubine he sentences her to hard labor on a penal colony/gold mine, making her the only female on an island of very hardened and very horny thieves and murderers. But it could have been worse; Ohyaku catches the eye of the warden’s bisexual tattoo artist wife, and, after a failed lesbian pass, the artist instead expresses her lusts and passion by inking a huge demon’s head on Ohyaku’s back (which eventually leads to a fairly tame lesbian scene).

After that, it’s a symphony of underhanded strategy as Ohyaku uses her feminine wiles to pit several of the characters against each other — including a vile official who wants the tattoo artist to use her needle skills to kill Ohyaku via a secret pressure point technique so he can fuck her corpse (!!!) — and escape back to the mainland so she can avenge her lover.

Aided by a kindly gang boss (Tomisaburo Wakayama, about three years away from kicking more ass than is humanly countable as Lone Wolf in the “Babycart” series) and a couple of loyal helpers, Ohyaku metes out horrible retribution upon the asshole magistrate in a scene of surprising cruelty, involving the magistrate’s completely innocent girlfriend getting used as a by-the-hair counterweight to a huge guillotine blade.

I really enjoyed this one and was surprised to see how little it relied on swordplay to keep the viewer involved. Miyazono is one of the most three-dimensional heroines ever to grace a samurai picture, and you feel for Ohyaku’s plight from the moment she hits the screen. Unlike the women Miyazono essays in the sequels, Ohyaku is not a trained warrior, but is instead able to draw on a well of strength forged by a lifetime of misery and living by her skills and wits. Sure, she picks up a couple of bladed weapons when the story calls for it, but Ohyaku exhibits the kind of deadliness found in a majorly pissed-off woman who’s been fucked over by an abusive husband and has picked up the nearest sharp object so she can take care of business, rather than the martial superiority on display in the immediate followup, QUICK-DRAW OKATSU. The whole thing’s believable, engrossing, and heart wrenching, so TRUST YER BUNCHE and shake up your next chick-flick get-together with an actually classy exploitation offering.

The original 1968 theatrical release poster.