Sunday, May 30, 2010

Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi's El perro (1976)

Jason Miller gave, unequivocally, one of the best performances in the 1970s as Father Damien Karras in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). Also an accomplished playwright, Miller won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for his play, That Championship Season, in 1973. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards for his role as Karras. Following The Exorcist, Miller starred in Robert Mulligan's truly-underrated and excellent The Nickel Ride (1974). A brilliant actor, capable of generating both emotional intensity and true emotional vulnerability, his subsequent roles in cinema never truly reached the heights of his debut character. Nonetheless, whenever an opportunity to view the actor in a film, it should be seized upon heartily. In 1976, Miller appeared in a Spanish production, El perro, directed by Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi of Summertime Killer (1972) fame. (All objective facts within about Jason Miller are from here and here.)
Miller is Aristides Ungria, a mathematician and intellectual and political prisoner, in a South American jail. The country is run by a military dictatorship, and Aristides is privy to important information: he holds a mental list of the country's rebel conspirators with whom he is also a participant. Under auspicious circumstances, Aristides and the chain gang are being transported to a work site when their truck gets stuck near the top of a hill. The guard orders all the prisoners to push to free the truck. Aristides is chained to a fellow prisoner who gets his arm wedged under the truck's wheel. The guard pulls a machete and cuts the prisoner's arm off. Aristide is now free and takes the opportunity to dash. He heads into the country's marshland and escapes. A couple of days later, Aristides is found by the prison's tracker and his dog. Miller's character manages to kill the tracker, but with his dying breath, the tracker commands the dog to kill Aristides. The chase begins.The set-up for El perro has all of the potential for an at-least interesting action/exploitation film. Subsequent to his escape from the tracker and the dog, Aristides wanders into a rebel camp where he is welcomed and fed. The rebels are met by a helicopter troop of soldiers, and a firefight plays out, ending with the helicopter's explosion. Aristides continues and for the rest of the first act, El perro remains firmly rooted in exploitation territory. Taking the opportunity to bathe in a lagoon, Aristides has his clothes and weaponry on the shore. The dog tracks him down and makes a mad dash into the lagoon to kill. A nude Jason Miller and a ferocious dog engage in a fist-to-paw/claws/jagged-toothed-jaw battle in and out of the lake. Aristides subdues the animal, only to lose his weapons and his clothes. He continues on foot, butt-naked, into the arms of a gorgeous farmer whose husband is away. "How long were you locked up?" she asks. Miller's Aristides looks intensely yet sweetly (in Miller's signature style) and says, "A very long time." She gives him a very good rogering before clothing and feeding him. The dog arrives to attack the farm, only after Miller's character has gratefully been shagged, clothed, and fed. Aristides escapes, again.

The exploitation elements of El perro are strong and familiar and well-rendered by Isasi-Isasmendi who from time to time drops a subjective p.o.v. shot from the dog. With the cross-cutting, it appears from the first act that El perro will play out with two parallel storylines of the film's opponents who meet for battle at intersecting opportunities. Isasi-Isasmendi does not abandon this narrative technique but widely increases the scope of the story. Aristides takes a journey leading him all the way to the country's capital where he reunites with the rebels. As Isai-Isasmendi widens his scope, the story focuses more on drama, and El perro becomes more than an exploitation picture yet still retaining its action roots. Aristide's information is highly valuable to the rebels yet understandingly, he wants to see Muriel (Lea Massari) his long-lost love. She's been put up financially by the government (to keep tabs on her), and in an effective sequence, Aristides and Muriel meet for a risky rendezvous. Miller and Massari are quite good together, as they appear as two lovers who are going to spend their short time together as intensely as possible. Unsurprisingly, the sequence is endearing and a nice touch.
El perro is in the capital, too, and it takes its own journey. Unsurprisingly, here, this storyline is either far-fetched or truly amazing. It is still a killer and at times, a powerful symbol to both Aristides and the film. This schism in the narrative, and the schism in tone between the three acts may have contributed to El perro's obscurity. All expectations of the film should lead to a simple exploitation film but Isasi-Isasamendi does not stay in that realm exclusively, so the film appears disjointed. If this is a flaw to most viewers, then it is a flaw here and perhaps a glaring one. Miller gives a fantastic performance, because he is Jason Miller. The very handsome, charismatic, and talented Antonio Mayans (aka Robert Foster) appears in a small yet very pivotal role as does the very beautiful, charismatic, and talented Marisa Paredes. El perro is available on DVD as part of the Tales of Voodoo, Vol. 5, under the title "A Dog Called Vengeance." It is a terrible VHS fullscreen transfer.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

José Bénazéraf's Le concerto de la peur (1962)

Two kidnappings: one by Sacha (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) of Fred (Marcel Champel) whose brother is Eric (Hans Verner), a blind trumpet player and Sascha's rival crime boss and the other victim is Nora (Yvonne Monlaur), unwittingly wrangled into the scenario and housed at Eric's maison. An inevitable exchange will take place in the final act of José Bénazéraf's Le concerto de la peur (1962) which no one, the director, the characters, nor the viewer, is in a hurry to reach. Chet Baker again provided a score for Bénazéraf and perhaps unintentionally provided also the tempo. In fact, if the amazingly-talented Baker made the score up impulsively, then Bénazéraf found a fine bedfellow to score his film. Le concerto de la peur is a beautiful Bénazéraf film which pushes the limits of being languid, only because there is so much energy under its surface. The imagery, from a film maker whose work is a search for images, is gorgeous.
Nora spends her captive time in Eric's maison being tended at bedside by Vanda (Regine Rumen) who doesn't particularly care for Nora's presence. They have little to say to each other, and little to do. Vanda brings her a cup of tea or pours a bowl of soup on her, and the two have a fight. Bénazéraf wants to capture these two actresses, however, with his camera. (Rumen apparently was a famous dancer at the time in Paris. I found a few pieces of evidence corroborating this with the strongest piece here. According to that source, she died tragically a few short years after Le concerto.) Eric's sparsely-furnished home is cold, as it is evident in later scenes with the actors with their breath chillingly coming from their lips. Despite this cold, Bénazéraf clothes Rumen's Vanda in seemingly only a black raincoat and her stockings. Rumen is also strikingly beautiful with very hypnotic eyes that certainly entranced Bénazéraf. "So I started to direct movies as a 'boutade'--you know what that is?" asks Bénazéraf to an interviewer. "A whim?" responds the interviewer. "Yes, OK. So I started making movies as a whim. I liked pretty girls--which is a male reaction, but completely simple and elementary. So I started making movies with pretty girls in them. And, making movies with pretty girls, I found I put some erotic scenes in because it was quite...exciting, let's use the word. But every step of it was completely by accident." (from Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, St. Martin's Griffin Press, New York, 1995.) Eric's second, played by Michel Lemoine, visits a nightclub later in Le concerto to rendezvous with a contact. Not surprisingly, neither Lemoine nor his contact are focal in any composition. Rather the lady dancers are focal in the scene. It is a blatant opportunity for Bénazéraf to capture some images.The American version of Le concerto de la peur was released as Night of Lust. "[Dick Randall] was representing a guy in Los Angeles who was more or less a gangster (Bob Cresse). He wanted to buy a little film of mine called Concerto de la peur. To me it was new selling to the Americans. Be he paid me cash--10 or 15 thousand dollars. Not a lot of money but it was only a couple of weeks shooting. I made my films quickly even in those days. I asked him if he wanted a contract and he said, 'No--why bother?' He had a big success with that film in the States. It was called Night of Lust over there." (from Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, St. Martin's Griffin Press, New York, 1995.) According to Immoral Tales's authors, Cresse recut the film with R. Lee Frost shooting new footage. Night of Lust runs about twelve to fifteen minutes shorter than Le concerto with little dubbing of the French audio. The majority of the scenes have English voice-over narration describing the action with the occasional commentary. Cresse and company were going for the expose of the seedier side of Paris. The new footage is primarily every opportunity to provide a striptease, and Bénazéraf's loose narrative fueled the scenarios. Two very different films: one quiet, the other not.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hal Ashby's 8 Million Ways to Die (1986)

8 Million Ways to Die (1986) is Hal Ashby's final major motion picture. Jeff Bridges is Matt Scudder, an ex-L.A. County Sheriff's detective who has to resign from his position because of his alcoholism. His wife and daughter cannot take his alcoholism any more either, so Scudder's now alone and attempting to recover from his addiction. Six months without a drink, a fellow member of A.A. asks Scudder for a mysterious favor: could you help this person?

Scudder knows no facts beyond the first name of the person he is to help: Sunny (Alexandra Paul). For whatever reason, Scudder accepts to help and shows at a fancy mansion where Sunny is revealed to be a high-price prostitute in the middle of a party. The guest list includes Sunny's "pimp," Chance (Randy Brooks), a fellow call-girl, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), and debonair and wealthy Angel (Andy Garcia). Sunny wants Scudder's help but will not say why. As she awkwardly tries to manipulate him into helping him, even poorly trying to seduce him, eventually Scudder asks her what she wants. This direct question she is able to answer: help me escape. To the airport. Tomorrow. A drive to the airport is not an arduous task for Scudder. Scudder takes Sunny to the bank and notes to her that most folks do not keep their airline ticket in a safe-deposit box. One more stop before the airport, but Sunny doesn't make it: she is kidnapped and killed. Scudder gets drunk and blacks out.

From a story from two novels by Lawrence Block, 8 Million Ways to Die and A Stab in the Dark, and an adapted screenplay by Oliver Stone, 8 Million Ways to Die is anything but traditional and conventional. While the narrative is a mystery with Bridges's Scudder as sleuth, 8 Million Ways to Die is an ironically-titled film, as there is really only one way to die in this film: if Scudder has one more drink, as the nurse on the detox ward tells him, he is going to die. The film is a portrait of an alcoholic who really wants to drink and believes he is able to help himself by helping the memory of a dead woman and by trying to rescue another woman who wants help but is reluctant to ask for it. The film keys in on this theme and is quite sensitive to Scudder's true struggle. Like a sobering alcoholic, it appears to Scudder that alcohol is everywhere: Scudder's apartment is behind a dive bar; the circles in which Scudder frequents during his investigation everyone is having a drink; and when he tries to question someone, like Sarah, Scudder sees only the drink tray making the rounds and not the myriad guests walking around. So if it were to seem ridiculous that Scudder would help someone he does not know and risk his life for it (as it is revealed some of the folks in Sunny's circle are some dangerous criminals), Scudder has no choice: helping some one else, any one, is the only way that he is going to help himself.

Stephen H. Burum's photography with Hal Ashby's compositions are often striking. The opening title sequence of the film shot over Los Angeles from presumably a helicopter follow the myriad freeways of the city. In an interesting move, the shots move from downward captures of the city to a slow-camera shift which shows the freeways moving up and down, as if the motorists are climbing into the sky or down into the city's depths. 8 Million Ways to Die, despite its history and legacy, is another human Ashby film; and his compositions emphasize this primarily: as it is a film about characters, Ashby lets his characters be. In a fantastic dialogue sequence, Arquette's Sarah has gotten drunk the night before in front of Bridges's Scudder. Scudder had every opportunity to get drunk with her, as well, but resists. She vomits on him and passes out. In the morning, she sweetly cleans up Scudder's small apartment and this endearing gesture allows her to open up to Scudder. He, unsurprisingly, opens up to her. The camera appears to be capturing this scene from the viewpoint of the counter top over which the two are talking. In the out-of-focus background, there is a picture of Scudder's daughter, just behind him.

Garcia's Angel and Scudder have a really interesting confrontation over shaved-ice and flavored treats (the "Snow Cone.") The scene is multi-layered as so much is going on. Ashby plays with the camera and floats in and out, not erratically, as the two men talk with charged emotion. The scene is really two fantastic actors giving accompanying performances, and Ashby is just ever-so slightly helping them along. In another interesting sequence, Scudder confronts Chance in a park while he is jogging. Ashby's initial composition of the confrontation looks like an arbitrary composition from Pasolini; yet when Chance's bodyguard (Tommy "Tiny" Lister) makes an entrance into frame, the scene is revealed as meticulous and calculated. Very nice.

Stone's original screenplay for the film did not survive the filming process nor did Ashby. He was fired by the producers after the principal photography, so there is no Ashby final cut. The best source of learning about the production history of 8 Million Ways to Die is from Nick Dawson's biography, Being Hal Ashby (the link also serves as one for purchase and reference, as any and all objective facts in this review are derived from it.) I would refer any one interested to Dawson's book, as it is far more detailed in facts (which, interestingly, calls for more questions). To say in a very understated manner, the production was a fiasco, and the film did poorly commercially and critically. Seemingly, most criticism derives from the film's narrative: crime thriller or character portrait? As a plot-driven film, it does oscillate. I find, however, narratives in films their most least-interesting aspect, so my take will undeniably be different from the majority. Bridges, Brooks, Arquette, Garcia, and Paul give excellent performances. From all my searching, 8 Million Ways to Die appears absent from Region-One DVD. A shame, as any film from Ashby well merits a viewing, as he was a true artist.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Herman Yau's Lethal Ninja (2006)

The ninja. In terms of Western culture, there was an era when the legendary stealthy assassins were quite popular. This era being the 1980s during the Ronald Regan empire. Especially popular with young boys of whom I was one, the concept of the ninja borne dangerous gear, such as ninja outfits, throwing stars, nunchucks, and swords (substituting for toys); magazines on newsstands which catered to this niche culture; a short-lived television show entitled "The Master" (1984), starring Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten; and of course, movies starring super-cool Sho Kosugi, such as Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Ninja III: The Domination (1984), for example. (Apparently Kosugi also makes an appearance in the recent Ninja Assassin (2009). Who knows if the ninja will rise again in popular culture?) As the 80s ended, so did the ninja trend in cinema--not really ending but returning appropriately to the shadows to resurface from time to time. To make a ninja film in this era is fairly bold, and to modify the term ninja with the adjective "lethal" in the film's title potentially sparks wonder, nostalgia, and enthusiasm. Lethal Ninja (2006) from one of Hong Kong's best directors, Herman Yau, is promising.
Dr. Kikuchi is in the back of his car and is being chased by ninjas. He holds a crimson box which he is guarding with his life. These ninjas are led by Tora Daisuke (Masato) under the employ of evil Brian (Waise Lee). Kikuchi is killed, and Daisuke delivers the box to Brian. Unfortunately, the box cannot be opened. Only one person holds the key (and not a literal one). This dude is named Copy (Chi Wah Wong) and he is a subway musician. His axe is a flute. He doesn't make a dime with his tunes with the passersby and has no friends. Copy prefers to be alone, anyway: he's a drunk who doesn't think that anyone understands his music. Here come the ninjas.

Conceptually, Lethal Ninja has a lot to offer: a hidden village populated by ninjas who wish to be free of the violence of warring factions; a super-cute ninja donning red in black spandex named Hibiki (Hisako Shirata); the wonderful Eddy Ko as the wise master Basho; fantastic Waise Lee as the evil villain (who gives a performance which always looks as if he is about to cry); and a confrontational finale where ninjas go full force with many a frisson delivered as they fight on the side of a high-rise building.

In execution, Lethal Ninja is not that great. The biggest problem being the keystone character, Copy (rimshot). Immediate sympathy is drawn to him for being reluctantly drawn into the drama. However, as his character begins to interact with others, it is hard to watch him. Like most drunks, Copy is self-absorbed and obnoxious. The proverbial hole into which he has crawled , most would prefer to leave him there. If his character were somewhat witty or engaging, then some fun could be had. Copy prefers to whine; and despite the fact that the other super-cute ninja, Xiao Ling (Eva Huang) is assigned to protect him and is growing quite fond of him, Copy just wants to hit the bottle and wallow in self-pity. Loosening this character up just a little would have cast a whole other complexion over the film.
Beyond the weak main character, Lethal Ninja is extremely mechanical and categorized. Hibiki and Daisuke are from rival clans and share a forbidden secret. The secret ninja village is like something sweet which should be filled with hobbits and elves, as Xiao Ling jumps from limb to limb of trees collecting leaves for Master Basho's potions. Waise Lee's Brian has a hideout equal to all super-villains, surrounded by machine-gun-toting henchman and ninjas, high-tech gear, and mad-scientist lab equipment. A little romance, intrigue, light humor, adventure, and action. These ingredients might provide a successful film; however with Lethal Ninja, it is not it. Yau's films are always the best when less thought goes into structure and more energy goes into execution. His visual style becomes the film's creative highlight while the themes move seamlessly in and out. Yau also has a flair for darker material and intensity. When these are absent, the films, like Lethal Ninja, are average and mediocre.To the film's credit, the ninja action in the final act is nostalgic. The ninjas execute ninja magic, super stealth moves, and bring a lot of fun weapons along. Herman Yau has action-scene directing embedded in his DNA, so even average sequences, as most are in Lethal Ninja, are exciting. Lethal Ninja is ultimately too formal to be successful. Like a ninja, there is a great film hidden somewhere underneath it all.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taylor Wong & Herman Yau's No More Love No More Death (1993)

Love: Tai Zi (Jacky Cheung) is driving in his convertible sportscar at night while the sweetly innocuous score plays over. He's dressed slickly and with his sunglasses on at night. His eyes are taken with a poster of a model/dancer, Chen (Rosamund Kwan), inside of a storefront display. Tai Zi stops abruptly and gazes obsessively at the photo. He pulls his scoped magnum revolver from the inside of his jacket and fires a platinum bullet at the glass. It breaks, and he removes the poster to take it home.
Love?: Tai Zi is raised by Bai Hu (Chan Yuen), a crime boss. Bai Hu has a poor heart and is a paraplegic yet is full of emotion. He puts young Tai Zi on his knee to tell him the story of his mother who is no longer around--Quing Lung (Wai-man Chan) took care of her. Bai Hu cages a mouse and forces his son to pour boiling water upon it. Later, Tai Zi, now a young man, walks in upon his father who is being pleasured by a kneeling woman. Bai Hu tells Tai Zi to take the woman's body yet never take anything else from her. In La Femme Nikita fashion, Bai Hu after a fancy dinner meal tells Tai Zi to kill one of the patrons (a henchman of his rival). Reluctantly, Tai Zi complies and is haunted by the incident in his dreams. Bai Hu rolls into his bedroom with a final birthday gift--a cake which opens to reveal Jing Jing (Carina Lau) who becomes Tai Zi's literal gift. Jing Jing becomes Tai Zi's devoted lover and accomplice: Tai Zi's the top killer and Quing Long is back in town. Long is Tai Zi's next target, yet beautiful Chen becomes Tai Zi's biggest obsession.John Woo left an indelible mark on Hong Kong cinema with A Better Tomorrow (1986) up to his Hard Boiled (1992) before leaving for Hollywood. Not only did Woo's cinema create a legacy but it also created a market where Taylor Wong and Herman Yau's No More Love No More Death (1993) is undeniably spawned. No More Love No More Death is a sociopath of a film: utterly charming, mimicking Woo's soft light with occasionally slow-motion shots, stickily-sweet music score, and lots of sunglasses, raincoats, big guns, and languid posing; yet there is a complete undercurrent of sick and twisted behavior and happenings. Woo's "balletic operatic gunplay" films were certainly romantic: lots of bullets spent and lots of blood spilled while characters frequently fell in love and poured over in emotion. Woo never reached the heights of schism: his HK gunplay films were always sentimental. Wong and Yau's film goes for Woo romanticism in execution (by adopting many a motif from all of his films), yet the end result of No More Love No More Death is a Woo-inspired film, unchecked and unhinged.Lau's Jing Jing, objectively, should be resentful: people should not be given as "gifts" to others, and her character would be quite justified if she began to show some rebellion. This is not the case, however, as No More Love wants to keep its Woo romanticism at all costs. Jing Jing does become resentful, but her resentment stems from Tai Zi's love for Chen and Tai Zi's total absence of romantic love towards her. Her unrequited love fuels her loyalty towards Tai Zi towards the film's violent and would-be tragic ending. Kwan's Miss Chen is free to fall in love with whomever she desires; however, when a scoped magnum with platinum bullets is pointed in her face, one would intuitively think that its holder is probably not a suitable candidate for a relationship. Miss Chen is willing to look past this behavior with Tai Zi and uncover the real person deep down inside of him. Finally, this jewel of a character, Tai Zi, has a fondness for a "lonely heart" radio program where lovers write into the show. Their letters are read aloud by the DJ and their stories are heartbreaking about lost love. Tai Zi actually writes a letter to this show, and its substance is jaw-dropping. No More Love No More Death is filled with characters with some serious personality disorders. The overwhelming desire by Wong and Yau to inject the film with romanticism to cash in on the immediate market made by John Woo's cinema failed to capture the sentimentalism of his successes. It is almost as if the more romantic Wong and Yau attempted to make the film, then the more disturbing it became. It is doubtful that this was intentional, but No More Love is undeniably compelling. There is such a grandeur to its excesses and incredulous beauty. Cheung, Kwan, and especially Lau (three of Hong Kong's biggest actors) deserve a lot of praise: like their characters, these actors believe in their performances and execute accordingly. The effective performances only enhance the disturbing nature of the film: like sociopaths, truly believing in their delusional behavior gives the film an energy and a resonance yet reinforcing how dysfunctional the whole proceedings are. Not to forget to mention that the majority of No More Love's characters are violent people: the only irony, here, is in watching it and being grateful these folks only exist in cinema. What a phenomenal train wreck. God bless Wong and Yau.