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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

CALIGULA (1979)

Here's where this site finally does the world a public service. Despite all you may have heard about the infamous CALIGULA, I'm here to tell you that's it's an overblown testament to across-the-board excess, turgidly dull, and certainly not worth the waste of two-and-a-half hours of your life. It even stars my favorite actor, Malcolm (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) McDowell, and I still can't stand it! I mean, how do you make a movie so absolutely loaded to the gills with extremely graphic gore and hardcore sex — two elements I adore — and still have it turn out so fucking boring?

The film has no real story — no surprise since the script was penned by that pretentious and overrated A-hole Gore (MYRA BRECKENRIDGE) Vidal — and is just an escalating parade of explicit images that seek to titillate the viewer, and as such it could be considered a success, provided you're just looking for entrails and pussy, but the whole in-your-face experience is simply numbing after its all-too-generous running time. The film also famously roped a slew of A-list thesps to appear in what was originally to be an R-rated look at the mad emperor's rule and eventual assassination, but then money man Bob "Penthouse" Guccione, aided by his pal Giancarlo Lui, shot and inserted majorly-explicit sex stuff while the film was in post-production that pissed off many of the cast and alienated many critics, to say nothing of presumably annoying the piss out of the porno audience who wanted to see just the wet shots with no attempt at anything else. I've seen porn audiences who don't care if a given skin flick is shot in a moldy basement while the talent fuck on a stained mattress just as long as there's action, which CALIGULA certainly has, but it's trying to be way too highbrow while also striving to appeal to the trenchcoat brigade, and that's a recipe that just doesn't work.

The only positive things I have to say about the film are few, but they are strong draws to the curious, so let me break it down for you:
  • The sets, costumes, and other related stuff are just as opulent as anything found in the historical epics of decades past, so even if the movie itself is largely boring, you can at least enjoy the pretty images.
  • The film barely goes for two or three minutes without something pornographic or violent happening, and the nudity/sex ranges from simple nekkid chicks to full-blown orgies of flesh featuring scores of humpers, complete with the camera practically shoved up every nearby orifice.
  • One of my favorite actors, Helen (PRIME SUSPECT) Mirren, is in CALIGULA, and she does get nekkid.
Not that she's ever been shy, but I'm just saying. She even has a three-way with Caligula and his sister (that's Helen with the long-assed wig.)

However, I'm only noting that scene because it exists, not because it's all that hot.
  • My man Malcolm McDowell gives perhaps his most over-the-top performance here, and that's really saying something. I love the guy and it's a joy to see him chew the scenery with that patented loony smirk upon his face while wearing an assortment of staggeringly flamboyant togas.
But the one thing, — THE ONE THING!!! — that keeps CALIGULA in my DVD collection is the contribution of Lori Wagner and Anneka di Lorenzo, two lovelies who are featured as regulars in Cal's live-in entourage. These benevolent goddesses make the entire film worth sitting through thanks to what is, in my humble opinion, the greatest hardcore lesbian scene ever committed to celluloid.

Lori and Anneka, sittin' in a tree...

Their scene is interspersed as counterpoint with the aforementioned three-way and in every way their bedroom arabesque blows the competition out of the water. Incredibly sensual, tender, and downright steamy, the sequence is commanded by Anneka di Lorenzo, who claims in the unimaginably boring making-of documentary to have never previously had sex with another woman... Well, all I have to say to that claim is, "Yeah, RIGHT!" The girl eats clam like a goddamned sea otter and it's truly a joy to behold. I usually find lesbian scenes, even the hardcore ones, boring as shit, but this sequence is an exception of unparalleled magnitude.

The greatest scene in motion picture history.

The only thing that stops it from being absolutely perfect is the cutting back and forth to Cal's listless threesome, and its relative brevity. Any fool could have seen that the Wagner-di Lorenzo segment was a winner, so why did Guccione fuck it up with intercut hetero stuff? Surely the man was mad.

So now you know all you need to know about CALIGULA, and you can proceed at your own risk. But I'm tellin' ya, that lesbian scene...WOOF!!!

Yes, this is real.

Monday, October 25, 2010

ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS (1969)

Though I've been a diehard giant monster fan my whole life I can't really say I was a Gamera booster during the formative years of my addiction, despite repeated doses of the character's films on the Tri-State Area's venerable 4:30 MOVIE during the 1970's and early 1980's. Many of my fellow daikaiju addicts absolutely loved the Gamera series at the time, but before moving to Connecticut I had lived in San Francisco and so had been exposed to the charms of ULTRAMAN before seeing Gamera, and while the ULTRAMAN television series was certainly made as a low-budget kid's show, it had a charm and imagination sorely lacking in the Gamera movies. The Gamera films to me seemed like nothing more than cynically-churned-out product to cash in on the success of the contemporary Toho Godzilla films, plus their aggressively kiddie-oriented tone (after the first two films) drove me fucking crazy as a child, especially once the protagonists became precocious kids in those disturbing short pants common to the genre. And as if that weren't bad enough, Gamera itself, once a feared (though rather tatty) city-destroyer, was re-tooled into the ultimate in kid-friendly nausea, namely "Gamera, the Friend of the Children," complete with a jaunty and utterly sickening signature tune sung by a chorus of untranslated Japanese rugrats. Pee-yuke.

The one thing the Gamera series did have going for it was a stable of opposing monsters that gave those found on ULTRAMAN a run for their money when it came to being both laughable and ludicrous. But the thing that distinguished one batch of those monsters from the other was that you laughed with the monsters on ULTRAMAN, while you invariably laughed at those who fought Gamera (then again Gamera itself was a giant, flying, saber-toothed turtle, so I guess I shouldn't have expected anything different). Gamera took on such beasts as Barugon (not to be confused with Toho's Baragon), which was basically a humongous iguana that could emit a death-ray rainbow from its back (???) and wielded a tongue that shot a freeze-ray; the evil space-squid Viras that looked like Gumby on LSD, the super-sonic, death-ray-emitting and vampiric Gyaos, and a couple of others of considerably lesser note, but none of Gamera's opponents was anywhere near as endearingly idiotic as Guiron from ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS. Amazingly silly in concept, Guiron is the one Gamera baddie that absolutely everyone remembers, and its memorable status is helped immeasurably by the film being perhaps the best of the original Gamera series. (NOTE: the Gamera series was given a much needed and completely kickass reboot in the mid-1990's, but that's fodder for a whole post on its own.)

ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS is a study in simplicity. The story involves three kids, Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima), his apparently American friend, Tom (Christopher Murphy), and Akio's younger sister, Tomoko (Miyuki Akiyama), and their adventure when they witness a flying saucer landing nearby. The kids investigate the saucer and the boys enter it, unwittingly finding themselves trapped when the ship takes off, guided by remote control. Poor Tomoko is left behind and tries to tell her assholishly dismissive mother what happened, but she's continually brushed off as having too much imagination and believing in foolishness (this subplot will piss off every right-thinking person on the planet). The only grownup who believes her is local comic relief cop Officer Kondo (Kon Omura), but his belief in her word is little consolation as she worries for her brother and their friend.

The brain-hungry space-chicks get down to business.

The boys' flight beyond the sun is tailed by Gamera but the saucer's propulsion system kicks into overdrive, leaving Gamera sucking fumes, and in no time the boys have crash-landed on a barren alien world (a crash that happens offscreen, presumably to conserve the obviously limited budget). While checking out the abandoned city they landed in, the kids encounter Flobella and Barbella, two space-cuties who seem friendly at first but are soon revealed to be brain-eating cannibals whose people fled their planet when they lost control over the monsters they had created. One such monster, an outer space analog to the Earth's own killed-by-Gamera Gyaos (you can tell it's a "space" version because they spray-painted the leftover Gyaos suit silver), flies aimlessly around the place, blowing shit up with its orally-emitted beams, so since they have nothing better to do, the space-chicks send the remaining monster under their control, Guiron, to kill the Space-Gyaos.

The unforgettable visage of Guiron (or "Knife-Head," as the kids who weren't paying attention liked to call it during my youth).

Guiron's a squat-bodied, dog-like living knife that uses its face as a brutally effective cutting edge, and when that isn't enough it can also launch shuriken (that's "ninja throwing stars" to us gaijin) from sockets located above its eyes. Guiron kicks Space-Gyaos' bargain basement ass in no uncertain terms and, demonstrating an aspect that distinguished Daiei Studios' Gamera flicks from the more upscale Toho efforts featuring Godzilla and pals, uses its blade-face to semi-gorily chop the fallen enemy into several pieces. Beginning with the second Gamera movie, WAR OF THE MONSTERS (1966), Gamera engaged in cartoonishly bloody combat with its foes, even spewing blue/gray monster blood from its own wounds, so this came as no shock to Japanese audiences, but it was quite a surprise to see on American TV in a slot reserved for heavily-sanitized children's programming. Anyway, there's a bunch of mishegoss where the boys try to run away from the cannibalistic aliens, but then Gamera shows up and engages Guiron in some spirited and ridiculous combat before the evil aliens are killed and the boys get to go home (much to the relief of Tomoko, whose tales of a close encounter are satisfyingly vindicated at last). And upon going home, Akio relates that what he's learned from the adventure to another "star" (apparently the screenwriter didn't know or care about the difference between a star and a planetary body), namely that mankind must strive to do better and work to no longer have wars or traffic accidents (the kid is apparently obsessed with traffic accidents since he mentions them at least three times during the film's running time; since his dad is never seen or mentioned, was his father the victim of one such accident?).

The battle between Gamera and Guiron has justly gone down in giant monster history as one that is spectacular and crowd-pleasing in its silliness, and it even includes Gamera executing moves straight out of an Olympic gymnastics routine involving swinging around bodily on the uneven parallel bars (although Gamera uses a singular bar).

No, you are not hallucinating.

It's simply something you have to see to believe, and I defy you to keep a straight face or not exclaim "You've gotta be fucking kidding me!" when you see it for the first time. But while that bit may stop audiences dead in their tracks, the scene that made me scream "No way!!!" at age eight was when Gamera picks up the flying saucer after it had been sliced in twain by Guiron and spot-welds it with his flame-breath into good enough shape to comfortably support the boys as he carries the saucer back to the earth.

Apparently Gamera is expert at impromptu body work.

So when all is said and done, ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS is a fun way to spend roughly eighty minutes, and even the kid characters in it are tolerable (for once). And long after the days when it ran in after-school time slots, the film resurfaced in a pointlessly and terribly re-dubbed version when it (and apparently the rest of the original series Gamera films) fell into the hands of TV producer and film distributor Sandy Frank and was re-titled GAMERA VS GUIRON for VHS release. The movie would probably have gathered moss on the nation's home video retailer's shelves had it not been scooped up for an epic session of verbal abuse in a 1991 installment of the frequently hilarious cult TV showcase for truly awful movies, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

As seen on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

If you ask me, the other Gamera films were the ones that really needed the MST3K treatment to make them bearable, especially the turgid GAMERA VS BARUGON, but the MST3K handling of GAMERA VS GUIRON makes the most of a film that is both silly as hell and entertaining, so it was a win/win. But it was good to see the film in its initial American version again and it was well worth the five bucks it cost to add it to my library of giant monster movies.

And I have to ask: why the fuck did Sandy Frank feel the need to re-dub all the Gamera movies that fell under his company's banner? The new dubbing is truly appalling, far worse than even some of the most poorly-dubbed kung fu films I've seen (it's worse than the dubbing found in SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE, and that's really saying something), so does anyone out there have an answer s to why it was done? Please write in and let me know!

DESTROY ALL PLANETS (1968)

For the first time in about thirty years I once again saw former 4:30 MOVIE "Monster Week" mainstay DESTROY ALL PLANETS, and again I was reminded of exactly why I hated Daei's Gamera series, even when I was of the age the films were targeted to, yet at the same time also appreciated them for some occasionally very inspired ideas for monsters.

As we all know — or at least as we who are giant monster movie-junkies know — , gigantic flying (?) turtle Gamera is the "friend of all children" and protector of Japan (and by association the entire Earth), and woe to any tatty rubber-suited foe who offered threat to either. That was the formula for the majority of the films in the series — the lone exception being the initial installment, in which Gamera was itself a destructive threat — and in some cases Gamera's monster adversaries were more fun and interesting than our ostensible hero. A perfect case in point is DESTROY ALL PLANETS' bizarro antagonist, Viras, a technologically advanced kinda/sorta space-squid with designs on conquering the Earth with the aid of some henchmen who look like beret-wearing, besmocked elementary school art teachers.

Evil space-squid Viras: Cthulhu by way of Sid & Marty Kroft.

Viras is cooler than penguin shit, but rather than fully concentrate the narrative on him and his inter-galactic evil, the filmmakers once again give us annoying kid protagonists, this time a pair of boy scouts, one a precocious Japanese genius and the other apparently an American (making the film potentially more lucrative in the non-domestic market). The boys steal an experimental mini-submarine and require rescuing by Gamera and once the rescue is accomplished, Viras' spaceship scans Gamera's mind to learn exactly what kind of creature offers such fierce opposition to its tentacled world-conquering.

Viras' beach ball-like spcecraft.

That mind-scan leads to the most egregious example of one of the flaws that the Gamera series is justly infamous for, namely padding out the running time (and saving on budgetary expenditures) with stock footage from previous films. DESTROY ALL PLANETS was the fourth Gamera flick, so the filmmakers had three previous movies to cherry-pick from, culling twenty solid minutes (!!!) of monster fight footage that brings the film to a complete halt as the audience is forced to sit through tons of low-budget stuff they'd most likely seen in the theater during the earlier films' original releases. There's no attempt at editing the stock footage in such a way as to make it exciting or even interesting, to say nothing of trying to hide the fact that the first film was in black & white, and when the stock footage parade finally ends, Viras puts Gamera under mind-control, which leads to...more stock footage from the first two films, again not giving a fuck about some of it being in black & white. (At least no one can complain about the film lacking in tons of monsters and scenes of destruction, whether or not it's stock footage.) Anyway, Gamera is eventually freed from Viras's thrall and sets about kicking ass in earnest. To counter this, Viras surrealistically beheads its followers and absorbs their bodies into its own, causing it to grow to a size comparable to Gamera's.

Viras emibiggens itself.

The rest of the movie thankfully more or less forgets about those irritating kids and lets fly with some impressive and fun giant monster ass-whuppery, merrily displaying the one thing Daei's flicks had over Toho's Godzilla series: mildly graphic gore! In Gamera's battles, serious injuries were commonplace, both for the hero and the villain, replete with spewing (blue) blood and the occasional maiming or dismemberment. This time around, it's Gamera who gets the worst of it, especially once Viras folds its head up into what amounts to a spear and damned near succeeds in putting it all the way through the heroic turtle's chest. And it looks like it really hurts!

"In the midst of world-conquering, romance steals a tender moment": is it just me, or do monster fights sometimes look like the creatures involved are having passionate sex?

Eventually Gamera wins and the Earth is saved. THE END.

DESTROY ALL PLANETS is flawed, to say the very least, but it's a time-waster of a kiddie movie and works well enough as such. But the one thing that sets it apart from the legion of rubber-suited monster opuses unleashed in the 1960's is Viras, a goofy-looking and truly inspired creation that's the first creature fought by Gamera possessing an intelligence above that of an animal (the later Zigra being another). Viras's features bring to mind an unholy fusion of a character from an old Sid & Marty Kroft show, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and a pissed-off Cockatiel, so with those elements factored in and a bunch of flailing rubbery tentacles for accent, what's not to love? Not only is Viras my favorite monster in the original Gamera series, he's also one of my favorite Japanese monsters, period. If you see this film for no other reason, check it out for Viras.

Poster from the original Japanese release. Note how Viras' head is shoved through a crumbling skyscraper. Now that's how you do a movie poster!

IT'S FINALLY OFFICIAL: I'M DONE WITH STAR WARS

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980): the only STAR WARS movie I will ever willingly sit through again.

I don't recall the exact moment when it happened and I guess that isn't really relevant, but at the age of forty-four I have finally had enough of nearly everything that even remotely has to do with STAR WARS, its sequels, its crazy galaxy, its everything. To many people of my age such a statement is nothing short of blasphemy, but it's recently dawned on me that I just don't give a fuck anymore.

The original STAR WARS came out a month before my twelfth birthday and was the best kind of entertainment for a lad like me at that age. This was before the light switch about girls was permanently clicked to the "ON" position in my brain, and the film's dazzling special effects and far-flung alien vistas blew my mind and the minds of damned near every kid of my generation, be they male or female. Fuck the fact that the so-called science fiction film had no relation whatsoever to actual science, physics or logic; the shit was fun and that's all there was to it. It opened imaginations up to all manner of visual and conceptual possibilities, even inspiring one of my classmates to borrow his dad's drafting table and architect's implements so he could create an impressive series of blueprints of the Millennium Falcon, working from no reference other than what he called up from memory after seeing the movie at least twenty times. STAR WARS was a full-blown worldwide phenomenon, missed only perhaps by cannibalistic hunter/gatherers deep within the rain forests of South America, and for better or worse it changed the way we looked at films and turned Hollywood into a factory that seemed to exist for no purpose other than to churn out the next money-raking blockbuster. (Some say that state of affairs began with JAWS in 1975, but it really kicked into high gear with the release and success of STAR WARS.)

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) was the first of the newly-minted franchise's sequels and it did everything in its power to equal and surpass what the fans got from the original. I truly enjoyed THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK for many reasons, but while it remains the only STAR WARS film I'll willingly sit through again I have to admit that the film loses it for me right about when the gang in the Millennium Falcon hit Bespin and get betrayed by Lando Calrissian, a boring non-character thrown in solely to answer complaints about there being no black people in the STAR WARS galaxy. Yeah, I know the reveal about Luke's parentage happens after that but what was somewhat shocking twenty-nine years ago has since become so much a part of the culture that it's frequently been used as a punchline in things that have no relation to STAR WARS, so I don't need to see it again.

Then came 1983's RETURN OF THE JEDI, where George Lucas was now fully in power and all the film had was, as Dante so precisely observed in Kevin Smith's CLERKS (1994), "a bunch of Muppets," and not very good ones at that (Sy Snootles, anyone?). Just about everything in the film ate it bigtime, plus they couldn't even be bothered to give the audience anything new in terms of a "Big Bad" and instead gave us the Death Star again. And do not get me started on those fucking Ewoks; a bunch of low-rent ripoffs of H. Beam Piper's charming Fuzzies, they may be the ultimate example of Lucasfilm's marketing power in that we know the fucking things are called Ewoks but are at no point in the film referred to as such. Seriously, go back and watch it again. They are never once referred to by either individual names or a blanket term for their species, and yet we all know what they are.

Next followed an almost two decade gap between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, and during that time STAR WARS fandom and merchandising exploded like a pandemic of geekishness, burying us beneath an avalanche of products whose sole saving grace was finally giving us decent commercially-available lightsaber toys. There are those who make a strong case for the "Slave Leia" image becoming part of the pantheon of hot sci-fi chicks, but I beg to differ. No offense meant to Carrie Fisher, whose work in the first STAR WARS I liked a lot, but the Princess lost all trace of personality after her first go-round and if I wanted to see a scantily-clad woman in fantasy gear I could simply pick up any art book of paintings by Frank Frazetta. Also the fact of the matter is that Carrie Fisher may be appealing in some respects but is not what I'd call "hot" by any stretch of the imagination, and did not successfully pull off the look as intended (at least not in my opinion). She was no Nancy Culp in a bikini, but you know what I mean.

When the prequel trilogy finally came about it proved to be a creative cul de sac, offering nothing more than awful self-revisionism (Midi-Chlorians being the chief bone of contention), Jar-Jar Binks, the wretched Annikin Skywalker (both child and young adult), and an endless parade of soulless and uninvolving CGI. Kevin Murphy, the voice of Tom Servo of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 fame, described STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE as "the moment when George Lucas went pants-crapping insane" during his commentary on the film for the RiffTrax version, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The prequel trilogy reveals a filmmaker who has total creative freedom and has no real interest in giving his characters any kind of personality, instead turning his attentions to the films' lavish budgets and the incredible images the techno-wizards at Industrial Light and Magic can generate. They're pretty to look at but totally unsatisfying as entertainment, and I think it says volumes that the only way to enjoy them is by watching the RiffTrax versions and nearly pissing oneself at the merciless commentary that practically writes itself as each sequence unspools.

STAR WARS ran its course and served its purpose many, many years ago and as of now it is dead to me. That makes me very sad because its mythology was once a great comfort, but now I guess I've either simply outgrown it or become too discerning to find it appealing anymore. Considering how much other stuff I enjoy that's total crap I doubt I've become any more discerning, but whatever the case, Adios, STAR WARS. I'm out.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

THE JUNGLE PRINCESS (1936)

Chalk up another one to my ongoing quest to see every jungle girl movie ever made, even the crappy ones. Fortunately for me, this was one of the good ones.

Even though the infamous Hays Code served as Hollywood's stringent organ of self-censorship during much of American cinema's Golden Age, every now and then a movie with what would have then been termed "risque" material managed to sneak past the precursors of today's MPAA and such a film was THE JUNGLE PRINCESS. Though often listed as the debut film of legendary sarong-goddess and frequent collaborator with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the famed ROAD TO (fill in the blank) movies, Dorothy Lamour, the truth is that she'd been kicking around Tinseltown for a few years in bit parts and this movie was her big break. Looking at it even from a distance of seventy-plus years it's easy to see why Lamour became a star overnight after this one.

Overnight sensation Dorthy Lamour as "jungle princess" Ulah.

The story opens with a cute little girl of about four years old spear-fishing in a stream, her only companion an equally cute tiger cub. Before you get into an uproar over this being one of those "tigers...in Africa???" movies, it's soon made clear we're in Malaysia, which also serves to explain how the darkened-up little actress isn't a Negro (not even one of the familiar cork-blackened Hollywood variety). About two minutes into things the poor tyke's village is utterly decimated, trampled into the ground by an inexplicably pissed-off herd of elephants, leaving the girl an orphan, and when the narrative picks up again it's years later and a bunch of "great white hunter" types — British, natch — find themselves in Malaysia for reasons largely irrelevant to the story's main thrust (so to speak), namely the capture of wild animals. We're told by the understandably annoyed native guide that several such attempts have been thwarted by "the tiger who laughs," a potentially dangerous local legend feared by the superstitious guides, porters, and hunters in the British party's employ.

One of the Brits, a very likable sort named Chris (a shockingly young Ray Milland, who would win a well-deserved Oscar for THE LOST WEEKEND nine years later), has no interest in capturing animals and is along for outdoorsy inspiration that will fuel the completion of the book he's working on. Also along for the ride is his spoiled and veddy British high society fiancee, Ava (Molly Lamont), whose father is the head of the expedition. Ava's instantly pegged by viewers as the real plot complication when she brattily rails against Chris' desire to stay behind and finish his book rather than leave for England and be her lap dog, so it's both a blessing and a curse when she fucks off out of the story for a good bit of the proceedings, thus allowing Chris to get jumped by a huge tiger and meet the beast's companion, Ulah (Lamour). Left for dead by the natives when the tiger — named Limao — showed up, Chris not-so-reluctantly finds himself in the tender and friendly care of Ulah, who of course takes quite a shine to the strange white man. Along with Limao and Ulah there's also a chimp who's the film's obvious knockoff of Cheeta from the concurrently-running Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series, and once Chris joins them they all become one happy family in an idyllic jungle paradise.

As Chris acclimates himself with jungle fantasy living, Ulah, who has presumably had no contact with men other than those she harassed with the help of Limao, reveals a sexually aggressive streak that I can't believe got by the Hays people, especially since her behavior toward Chris leaves no doubt whatsoever as to her intentions. Chris, not being an idiot, cannot help but notice Ulah's advances and suffers the tortures of the damned as he agonizingly stays true to his fiancee despite his obvious (and quite understandable) growing affection for the saronged she-Tarzan. While Ava may be the model of upper-crust Britishness, Ulah's charms are many, including exotic beauty, a very sweet and rather girly nature despite her knack for unassisted survival (unless you count Limao, and I kinda do) in a tropical jungle, and an uninhibited kindness that's nothing short of infectious, and for Chris it's pretty much all over when she sings a song to him in Malay that is very obviously an impassioned love song. Unable to take it anymore, Chris quite unwillingly leaves Ulah and sets off to find his party, unaware that Ulah, Limao, and the chimp are hot on his heels. Needless to say, the shit hits the fan once the presumed-deceased Chris returns and is believed by the natives to be a ghost, followed by "the tiger who laughs" and his toothsome mistress, both of whom are perceived as evil forest spirits who must be killed. Then there's the matter of Ava, who's relieved to see Chris is alive and well...until she meets Ulah and knows she's been pretty much kicked to the curb, thus setting in motion a very much one-sided bit of romantic brinksmanship that forces Chris to wake up and fully acknowledge his feelings for Ulah. But just when you think all of this will be settled in a way reminiscent of some tired bedroom face, things get resolved in a violent native uprising that seems to have swung in from another film entirely, complete with shootings, stabbings, spearings, and Ulah being prepped for a pretty nasty bit of ritual sacrifice while the Brits await presumed execution.

Basically a distaff ripoff of a Weismuller-era Tarzan movie, THE JUNGLE PRINCESS is very charming and it's easy to see how its steamy parts made it a huge hit for Paramount. The chemistry between Lamour and Milland is far more charming than a potboiler like this deserves, and Lamour is simply perfect as a loving and ultra-feminine schoolboy fantasy figure made flesh. Ulah is gorgeous, sweet, nurturing, fun and funny, and for all I know never has a period, so in short the perfect girl. All she wants to do is love up Chris, and I can only imagine what this movie would have been like if its torrid potential had been allowed to flower in full like the uncut version of the classic TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934), a film neutered upon release by those Hays killjoys and restored decades later. As is, THE JUNGLE PRINCESS is very charming and lively, but the last quarter of the movie seems to be catering to the Tarzan crowd and not to those of us who by that point were more than hooked on the romantic mishegoss. For me the movie was really turned on its ear by the perfunctory action ending — an army of chimps and monkeys, seemingly hundreds of them, come to the rescue, stealing a page from the elephants at the end of most of the MGM Tarzan movies — a move that almost makes it feel like the movie was completed with the final reel of another film altogether.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

HOKUTO NO KEN ZERO: THE LEGEND OF KENSHIRO (2008)

"Remember this...I will always be by your side...And I will fight. This is the will of the heavens."
-Kenshiro, 64th successor to the Hokuto Shinken art of combat

After being greatly disappointed by the four previous entries in the five-film FIST OF THE NORTH STAR re-telling, I'm glad to say the series goes out with a relative bang and it's a damned shame that the series wasn't as much fun as this installment right out of the starting gate.

Kenshiro, the 64th successor of Hokuto Shinken, bestrides the wasteland.

Opening just after Raoh's defeat and Kenshiro's winning of his dying fiancee, Yuria, the story finds the reunited lovers engaging in what mythology scholars call a "sacred marriage," in which they pledge their love without the benefit of a sanctioned officiator. When their vows are made, the narrative goes back in time to just after Kenshiro has had his ass mercilessly kicked by Shin, a former friend and a master of the rival Nanto Seiken fighting art who also abducts Yuria for himself. That act is the event that galvanizes Ken into setting off on an odyssey of vengeance and virtually non-stop bloody martial arts carnage, and in all previous versions of the story it is from there that Ken comes out of the desert, scarred, pissed off and ready to make bad guys blow up real good using the power of his Hokuto Shinken kung fu. What happened to Kenshiro during the time immediately following his surviving the beatdown from Shin and the presumed year or so until the original narrative gets started had never previously been examined and that's just what this movie does, with some intriguing results.

Ken's near-dead and brutalized body is found in the post-apocalyptic wastes by a family of refugees, but moments after they find him and decide to get him some medical attention they're found and captured by a slave-trader and his well-armed minions. Normally such a threat would mean nothing to Ken and the villains would be explosively deceased in the blink of an eye, but he's hurt bad and has expended what little remained of his energy in slaying a pack of wolves who thought he'd be an easy meal. Thus is the weakened hero brought in for potential sale and locked up with the family (one of whom is a fifteen-year-old girl who wisely keeps her gender hidden), along with a mysterious old man who can barely walk. Though still healing, Ken is forced into gladiatorial combat against a gigantic opponent (a commonplace occurrence in this series since Day One), but rather than slay the brute Ken merely renders him unconscious. That sparks the old man to reveal that he is an elder of the Nanto Seiken school and Shin's former instructor, and he is deeply ashamed of his student and how Shin has become a murderous bastard who severed the old man's tendons. He confronts Kenshiro and points out Ken's naivete and selfishness in not realizing that it is his destiny to use Hokuto Shinken to bring order to their lawless world and use his skills as the earthly avatar of the god of death to kill those who so obviously need killing. In the time-honored tradition of old school kung fu movies, Kenshiro stews over his fate and takes a hell of a long time reaching the obvious conclusion, but as an invading army under the command of a Nanto warrior overruns the city where our hero is imprisoned, Kenshiro finally accepts his role as a super-human righter of wrongs and things get martially spectacular.

Kenshiro gets ready to make an entire army seriously dead.

HOKUTO NO KEN ZERO is certainly an improvement over every previous attempt at a series reboot, but it does have a few problems, some of which will not be apparent to newcomers, and I'm guessing that's probably who this movie is aimed at. Let's break down the good and the bad:
  • An examination of what motivated Kenshiro following his defeat at the razor-sharp hands of Shin is utterly irrelevant. The fact that he got his ass mulched and survived, plus his desire to retrieve Yuria, was all the motivation he needed, and his acceptance of his eventual destiny was a lesson learned during his long journey of seemingly-endless killing, which was one of the source manga's main themes. Having Ken twig to his career's course so early negates much of what is to come in his development. (This stuff ain't exactly the most nuanced work of literature, but you get what I mean.)
  • Having Ken fight and decimate Nanto would-be-conqueror Jugai also undermines the previously-established narrative's early thrust, namely Ken fighting his way up an escalating scale of opponents on his way to besting Shin. Ken's mettle had to be tested and his resolve and confidence as a warrior grew with each victory, so if he was able to defeat a full-blown Nanto master right at the very start, how could any of Shin's subordinates have proven much of a challenge at all?
  • Ken's status as the post-nuke messiah is rendered ridiculously explicit when he is captured by a minor villain and crucified while still weak. It's a major eye-roller.
  • The film is once again very light on the fighting and violence that made this series a landmark of 1980's manga and anime, but when it does get going it's among the best visualizations of Ken's signature skills yet rendered onscreen.
The "God of Death" gets down to business.

It's worth sitting through the entire film to get to the battle at the film's climax, in which Kenshiro single-handedly takes on Jugai's army, kills each and every one of them, and then takes the fight to their leader. The most striking bit involves Jugai advancing on Ken and finding himself in the midst of the famous Hokuto Hyakuretsu-ken technique — the "North Star Hundred Cracks Fist," which unleashes a hundred super-powered punches that essentially reduce an opponent's internal organs and bones to so much chutney — at which point the animators play with the frame's depth of field to produce a near-3-D effect in which Jugai is surrounded by fists that seem to occupy every direction.

The fury of Hokuto Hyakurestu-Ken. Translation: "That's your ass."

That whole battle sequence gets underway as Kenshiro catches and redirects a hail of arrows right back at the archers who fired them, and that moment of balls-out awesomeness sent a chill up my spine as I yelled out, "YEAAAAAAAH!!!" Compounding this was the familiar "You Wa Shock" theme song from the old anime series, a triumph of early anime-metal that is deservedly a classic, and it made me feel like I hadn't felt about FIST OF THE NORTH STAR since the episode in 1986 where Ken won a hard-fought and brutal showdown with the phoenix-powered despot Souther. That's the feeling I keep hoping to recapture each time I check out a new FIST OF THE NORTH STAR installment, and I wish the current run had given me more than what amounts to perhaps five minutes of the kind of ass-whuppin' I long ago came to expect.

So if you're an old school fan like me, you could certainly do a lot worse than to check this out if you can get your hands on a subtitled copy (and the subs on the version I watched were the best I've ever seen done for FOTNS). It's more of a Shaw Brothers-style old school kung fu film in animated form than a balls-out bloodbath like back in the days, and that's definitely a step up from the turgid, unnecessary retconning seen in recent years. RECOMMENDED (for those who care).

"Omae wa mo shinderu." Words to die by.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

DEATH KAPPA

The lunatics behind THE MACHINE GIRL and TOKYO GORE POLICE have struck again and this time they've set their sights on Japan's signature take on the monster genre.

Pretty young Kanako (Misato Hirata) returns to her rural hometown after her attempt at a J-pop music career in Tokyo tanks, and we immediately realize that she occupies a place existing between the mundane world of man and the bizarre realm of the yokai, creatures from classical Japanese myth and legend. The few townspeople we see appear as creatures straight out of old block prints, only transposed into the modern day and holding down everyday jobs, and Kanako does not bat an eye at their strangeness, what with having lived among them her whole life. While walking home from the train station, Kanako sees her kindly old grandmother (played by Hiroko Sakurai, beloved to tokusatsu junkies as Fuji from the original ULTRAMAN series) struck and killed by a speeding car driven by an assortment of drunken joyriders.

Kanako's ill-fated grandmother, played by legendary tokusatsu actress Hiroko Sakurai, aka Fuji from ULTRAMAN.

Hiroko Sakurai and the rest of the Science Patrol from ULTRAMAN (1966)

Taking her dying grandmother's wishes to heart, Kanako accepts her family's mantle as a Shinto priestess and vows to take care of the family's shrine dedicated to the kappa, a legendary creature deeply connected to her ancestors.

Kanako in her priestess' formalwear.

One unexpected side effect of the drunken joyriders' rampage is the knocking of the sacred kappa shrine into the ocean, where the statue comes to life. The kappa soon makes its presence known when it appears in Kanako's yard and happily dances to one of her cheesy (and failed) pop songs.

An adorable and friendly monster, the kappa befriends Kanako and two of her buddies (presumably old friends but the translation does not really make that clear since it's really unimportant to the story) and they all spend a brief time playing games and having fun in the idyllic Japanese countryside.

Good times with good friends. Too bad it can't last...

But while all of these good vibes are happening, mysterious figures are seen lurking about at night. Something strange and mostly unseen emerges from the ocean and kills the male joyriders, while saving the females for some sinister purpose overseen by uniformed men...

Up until this point, the film seems like it's going to be something along the lines of DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959) or THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (1994), wherein we have the mundane existing alongside the fantastic in a way that blends the charming and the wistful. Well, this is a modern Japanese concoction from the makers of films that go out of their way to be balls-out insane, and any hope of sanity is irrevocably dashed when the kappa and Kanako are captured by the mysterious men in uniform and the film veers straight into left field, becoming perhaps the funniest parody of Japanese giant monster movie tropes thus far to hit the screen. It's important to note that sometimes Asian humor does not travel well past its own borders, but the comedic intent of DEATH KAPPA is universally outrageous and silly, even Pythonesque in some respects, and can easily be grokked by anyone who's ever seen any of the classic Godzilla or Gamera films, or even old reruns of ULTRAMAN.

When Kanako regains consciousness, she finds that she and her kappa pal are at the mercy of a troop of modern day supporters of the WWII-style Japanese imperialism who intend to lift their nation from decades of postwar decadence and pussification by creating an army of weaponized fish-men, a plan concocted during WWII by a discredited (read "mad") scientist whose tits-out loony grand-daughter has continued his experiments and now only needs cells from the innocent kappa to give her army of fish-men (which totals three) that extra "oomph."

The modern day mad scientist and the corpse of her beloved and equally-insane grandfather, which she wheels around in a wheelchair. Yeah, that's normal...

It is swiftly revealed that the female joyriders were kidnapped to be turned into distaff members of the fish-army and Kanako is next in line for conversion, but kappa comes to the rescue, proving his skill at sumo (a sport attributed to the kappa in legends) and other forms of martial badassery.

Kappa came here to do two things: kick ass and chew bubblegum. And right now he's all out of bubblegum.

After kappa soundly kicks the collective ass of the imperialism revivalists and the fish-men,

the mad scientist chick exposes the fetish gear beneath her lab coat and opens up with a machine gun before blowing the lab to kingdom come with a leftover atomic bomb.

Now that's what I call mad science!

Once the (very bogus) smoke clears and everybody is apparently blasted to smithereens, a random giant monster called Hangyolas appears from out of nowhere and immediately makes with the urban renewal boogie.

The coming of Hangyolas.

Looking like a bizarre fusion of your garden variety Godzilla flick rampage or an episode of ULTRAMAN as filtered through MAD TV, Hangyolas destroys intentionally-fake buildings by the buttload as he also contends with wobbly toy tanks and hobby shop airplanes suspended on wires that are all-too-visible.

Like a throwaway detail out of a Mad Magazine parody of the genre, one of the defending aircraft is even piloted by an apparent drag queen, complete with makeup and a kicky scarf.

The balls-out rampage even includes a number of those atomic heat-ray tanks like those seen in MOTHRA (1961) and many other Toho city-stompers,

and we even get scenes from the sidelines where people whose homes have been destroyed sit by and watch the news reports of the destruction. Among the refugees is some knitting dude in a pink wig and schoolgirl's sailor suit uniform who's supposed to be a woman and is even given a dubbed female voice.

Then you get the expected hyperactive and suicidal news reporters, one of whom dies on the receiving end of Hangyolas' fiery breath, which would have been horrifying if not for the newscaster's screaming burning body being depicted with a stiff G.I. Joe-style doll.

When all hope seems lost, the kappa suddenly returns, only now he's several hundred feet tall and ready to engage Hangyolas in much building-smashing combat, some of which involves the kappa showing off his impressive martial arts skills, including cobbling together and using a pair of makeshift 'chucks.

No, you are not hallucinating.

After defeating Hangyolas, kappa becomes evil for no apparent reason and launches into his own wave of city-stomping and fire-breathing, leaving it up to an also-not-dead Kanako to save the day by placating him with water for his skull plate and the dulcet tones of her lousy pop song.

When all is said and done, the calmed kappa is once again a good guy and he is last seen swimming away into the horizon, an ending seen in countless Japanese giant monster flicks.

When the film's shift in tone occurs, it's as though a completely different movie featuring the same characters takes over and goes completely nuts, wallowing in damned near every trope found in the entire daikaiju cinema catalog. 2008's MONSTER X STRIKES BACK: ATTACK THE G8 SUMMIT mined similar territory and was also quite funny for those familiar with this kind of thing, but DEATH KAPPA has it beat by a mile for sheer lunacy and willingness to be as visually and conceptually crazy as possible. It takes a little while to get going and even seems rather treacly at first, but all of that serves to get you ready for a completely different type of film and then it violently pulls the rug out from under you, figuratively sending you tumbling down eight flights of stairs and resulting in considerable brain damage. Needless to say, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Poster from the film's brief American theatrical run.