Saturday, 30 January 2010

Game Review - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

I tend not to write game reviews for a number of reasons. Firstly, game reviews are time critical and I'm usually months, if not years behind the curve. Secondly, my feelings tend not to stray too far from popular opinion. For example, Uncharted 2? Pretty awesome. I wish I could be a fierce video game iconoclast and say "Uncharted 2? More like UnFARTed POO!" but no, I thought it was super good. Sorry.

It begins with an incredible tutorial level as you climb a train car that's dangling over a cliff. It's one of those flash-forward sequences that I usually hate because they give you all your powered-up abilities for a few minutes and then take them all away and make you work for them. The first taste is free, I guess. It's okay here though, because Drake doesn't really gain any abilities during the game. Then when the timeline has caught up you play through it again, so Naughty Dog were either really proud of this level or they think we have the memory of a goldfish. It's a pity that this great opener is followed by a terrible stealth mission that's almost broken due to dodgy enemy AI. A forced stealth mission? In 2009? Luckily it's over with pretty quickly and it's back to the climby-shooty.

There's not a lot to say about the shooting, since it's the standard 3rd person cover-centric template that's the modern equivalent of the side-scrolling platformer. It seems a little more refined than the first game and the only problems I ran into was with the contextual cover/roll/drop/yak petting button, which sometimes had me barrel rolling off a cliff instead of ducking for cover. It also dispenses with the terrible PS3 motion controls for grenade tossing, although the new mechanic requires you to push L1 and L2 simultaneously, which feels weird. The shooting sections are pretty easy though, so I'd recommend playing it on a harder difficulty setting. I haven't played the "Very Easy" mode, but I imagine all the bad guys are armed with flowers and wet noodles.

Like the first game, shooting sections are broken up with some mild platforming, but it's often so easy it's like the game is on autopilot. Jumps are contextual when climbing so Drake is usually unable to make a bad leap and if you do jump with poor aim it's massaged into an appropriate direction. The environments are so detailed that it's sometimes difficult to tell what is climbable, but there are lots of visual clues to help you out, such as Drake leaning out when he can grab something and a hint system to point you in the right direction.

There are also some puzzles, although calling them "puzzles" seems a little overblown. Most of them are simply moving some symbols around to match what's written in your diary. I guess Naughty Dog think we are pants-on-head retarded though, because if you haven't solved it after a few minutes Drake will blurt out an insultingly obvious hint like "It's something to do with the mirrors". Yeah, they are the only interactive item in the whole room. Thanks for the tip. I wish they had included something a little more cerebral but they make a nice, quiet diversion from the action sequences.

What this game does really well are the big action set-pieces. I can think of half a dozen sequences that would pass for a climax in any other game. There's a battle on board a train that spans several stages and contains an amazing sequence with a flipping train carriage that had me leaping off the couch and whooping at the screen like a huge tool. Like any blockbuster action film though, it's definitely a case of diminishing returns. If you die during one of the big chases and replay the last few minutes of gameplay, it loses a lot without the initial "wow" factor. It's incredible while it lasts, though, and it lasts a fair bit longer than the first game with a lot less padding and repetition.

I've heard people say that this game has a really good story. It doesn't, it's trite and perfunctory, but it is exceptionally well told, mostly through cut scenes with superb voice acting and some of the most convincing facial animation I've ever seen. Of course, one of the problems with segregating the gameplay from the story is that it brings all of those pesky game abstractions into focus. Guns might as well fire spitballs for all the damage they do in combat and you have to virtually swallow a grenade for it to kill you, but in a cut scene we're supposed to believe that bullets and explosions are serious bid'ness. Drake is supposed to be the good guy but during the game he kills thousands of people just so he can steal a gemstone from another thief. The only time his body count is mentioned is at the finale when Lazarevic gives his obligatory "you're not so different from me" speech. He says "How many men have you killed? Just today?" Ooh, sick burn.

There's something weirdly amoral about the story too. The game starts with you breaking into a Turkish museum, brutally beating dozens of museum guards so that you can steal an artifact for a wealthy client and then double-cross him. In the first game I went along with it because Nathan Drake was Sir Francis Drake's descendant but here he has no excuse. There's a part where Drake retrieves an artifact from a bad guy and says "This is mine, jerkweed" and I shouted at the screen "No it isn't! You stole it from a tomb, you asshole! It belongs in a museum!" They make the bad guy Lazarevic as evil as possible to compensate. When discussing his role models he namedrops Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. The evil dictator trifecta. He must be evil.

One of my favourite things about the game is all the little custom animations and unprompted dialog that litter the game like delicious sprinkles. There's a great part where you have to carry a guy to safety while you are pursued by a tank and armed guards. Drake constantly reassures him and says things like "All this effort you'd think I'd have known you longer." It goes a long way to flesh out the relationships of the characters. In fact, my favourite part was probably a level where all you do is follow a guy through a gorgeously rendered Tibetan village. I must have spent an hour just wandering around interacting with people and petting yaks.

There's also the addition of multi-player, which seems pretty fun and full-featured although I'm probably not the best person to judge; I rarely play games online since I hate my fellow man. It's got everything the CoD4 kiddies have come to expect: A leveling system, perks and, most importantly, the ability to call strangers a "faggot" over voice chat. I quite like some of the co-operative modes, where you and two other players fight through levels based on sequences from the game or fight off wave after wave of enemies. DLC has been announced but for now it's just multiplayer skins based on characters from games like Resistance and Killzone. You mean I can play the game while looking like awful, bland characters from inferior PS3 exclusives? Wow!

In conclusion Uncharted 2 is both the tits and the shit. The first game was a splash of fun and colour in a genre dominated by brown/grey colour palettes and grim space marines, but it still had gameplay and pacing issues. The sequel takes that game and improves virtually everything about it. If you're one of the seven people with a PS3 then you probably already have it. If not, then what the shit, man? Get it already. If you need money then mortgaging your house, prostituting yourself or selling your kids into slavery are all viable options.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Badi (aka Turkish E.T.) (1983)

"Sorry kid, Reese's Pieces give me gas."

I'm going to be honest here. I don't really like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial all that much. Yeah, I know it's really well made and that all the kids give amazing, naturalistic performances and one of them says "penis breath" (at least until Spielberg's guns-to-walkie-talkies wussification). My parents took me to see it at the drive-in when I was a kid but I promptly fell asleep, so I don't have any fond childhood memories of seeing the film. I guess I came into it too late. Still, if something were to ever make me appreciate the craft of Spielberg's original it would a low-budget Turkish remake. What's that? There is a Turkish remake? And I've already seen it and I'm writing a review of it right now? Huh. Weird.

Rather than focusing on a single boy's relationship with E.T., Badi ups the ante by including two boys. One is a fair-haired kid named Bülent and the other is a dark-haired kid named Ali (thanks imdb). Bülent is an outgoing kid with several siblings who is busy performing science experiments in the attic when he isn't being chased around by his Super-Mario-esque father under the threat of hilarious child abuse. Ali, on the other hand, is a shy only child with a single mother (I think) and a love for animals. So great is his love for the animal kingdom that he is able to communicate with his pet bird using a series of chirps and whistles.

Unfortunately, Ali's friendship with animals takes a rather tragic turn at the beginning of the film. He befriends a stray dog and tries to take it to his school, without success, but the next day he discovers that the dog has been shot by a local policeman. As the corpse was unceremoniously dumped into the back of a truck it became apparent to me that it really was a dead dog, and what's more that it was the same dog as before. I wondered if maybe the dog was just sedated, but that seems unlikely considering the film appears to be shot in a slum with a budget of 67 cents. Nope, they genuinely killed the dog to make this film. I expect this shit from Italian cannibal films, but not copyright-flaunting Turkish kid flicks. For shame.

With his canine chum out of the picture, the scene is set for Ali's heartwarming intergalactic friendship, but first we are introduced to a few other characters. In Spielberg's film the adult characters are largely absent and/or evil, but here a trio of alien-hunting scientists play a much larger role. There is a woman, who befriends a local electronics repairman, some other guy and an old man. Sorry I can't get more specific than that, but the only Turkish I know are the swears and they aren't likely to show up in a kids' flick so I'm out of luck. Judging by the coloured lighting and shocked expressions, they manage to detect Badi's spacecraft when it lands, although they and a mob of pitchfork-wielding townsfolk all fail to find Badi himself.

In the original movie, E.T. was sent to Earth to collect living specimens for research, but before he could get back to the mother ship and fire up the anal probe it left without him. It's an effective scene that taps into a universal childhood fear of abandonment. In this version, however, Badi just waddles off the smoke-and-disco-lights spaceship and the ship takes off. There's no explanation as to what he's doing there, although one look at him suggets they were dumping his ugly ass like a chihuahua the day after Christmas. Sure, E.T. may resemble a freshly laid turd, but Badi looks like something fished out of a dumpster behind a Ferengi abortion clinic. He's a midget in a cheap rubber suit that looks like a dildo with stumpy legs, rubbery gorilla arms and a face that's both ridiculous and a little bit too human. Terrifying.

Of course, following this there's the scene where Ali meets Badi for the first time. In the original it's a great suspenseful scene that's comically defused when E.T. is just as scared of Elliot as Elliot is of him. It's a pretty pathetic recreation here, with Ali turning and running for his life and Badi, lacking any sort of mobility or articulation, performing an awkward about-face and stumbling off in the other direction. They must have liked this scene though, because they do it again later when he is introduced to Bülent.

The next day Badi visits Ali at home while he is feigning illness to stay home from school. Once he's alone Badi telekinetically opens the front door and, I'm not kidding here, shoots a blast of smoke out of his dick. I'm not sure what they were going for but it was a pretty hilarious misfire. Following this there's the obligatory bonding scene. Ali shows Badi his family photo album, while Badi makes a couple of apples levitate and heals Ali's ankle. It differs a little from the original (I'm pretty sure that E.T. never fondled one of Elliot's nudie mags for instance, although I could be wrong) but they do have an analog to the scene where E.T. eats Reece's Pieces. Badi's mask lacks any sort of articulation though, so he instead feeds Ali some sort of Turkish treat (Turkish delight, perhaps?) and in a shot almost as digusting as Badi himself, Ali starts laughing with his mouth full. A few hours on Earth and Badi is already learning bad habits.

After they pull the gag where Ali's mother wanders around the kitchen with Badi hiding in plain sight, Ali introduces Badi to Bülent and the other kids. In E.T. there's a famously improvised line where, upon meeting the alien, Drew Barrymore says "I don't like his feet." If E.T. looked anything like Badi I can only imagine what she might have said, but I'm sure her distaste would have extended well beyond his lower extremities. Indeed, upon meeting him Bülent's younger brother bursts into tears. Later, when Ali goes to sleep, he has a pretty weird dream where he takes Badi to school and everyone starts doing the chicken dance, including the teacher. Yeah sure, whatever.

Eventually Badi gets bored at home and decides to visit Ali and Bülent at their school, surprising a janitor who falls down in shock and cracks his head on the concrete steps. Once Badi enters the classroom they once again pull the gag where the geriatric teacher wanders around, oblivious to Badi's presence, until he finally spots him and keels over from a heart attack. In fact, Badi leaves quite a sizable trail of psychological trauma and busted heart valves in his wake. When Bülent's father spots Badi wandering the halls (he mistakes him for one of his kids and hilariously threatens to beat him) Badi hits him with another blast of dick-smoke, inspiring a Scooby Doo chase sequence and turning Bülent's father into a gibbering basket-case. Even Ali's mother doesn't escape unscathed, spotting Badi and having yet another heart attack.

While the scientists fart about with oscilloscopes and soldering irons, the blonde kid uses his scientific skills to build a communication device for Badi, constructed primarily from an umbrella covered with aluminium foil, a big silver ball and a circular saw blade. They bring it to the local funfair so they can use the ferris wheel to get a good location to transmit. They also bring along all the kids in town, for some reason, so Badi uses his telekinetic powers to activate all the rides in the park. Way to keep a low profile. The film then takes on a weird Lord of the Flies vibe when Ali gives a rousing, fist-pumping speech to all the kids while perched atop a ride car, but soon the kids hear sirens and scatter.

The next day Ali is totally depressed because Badi has gone missing. Luckily, and I could be wrong here, Ali's pet bird tells him that Badi is lying in the boot of their car. How did the bird know this? Why didn't he say so earlier? Why was Badi in here? I have no idea, but Badi is looking pretty ill after his ordeal and to make things worse a squad of riot police and a garden-tool wielding mob come marching down the street looking for him. Luckily all of the neighbourhood kids cause a distraction (read: riot) by donning masks and running through the streets with smoke grenades, dumping marbles all over the ground and shooting toy guns at the police. Not particularly sensible behaviour, especially with police that regularly gun down harmless stray dogs, but it masks their escape long enough for Bülent and Ali to steal a scrap cart from an old man (who appears to be having a stroke) and recreate the famous flying sequence from the original film. It's truly magical, if by magical you mean a cheap green-screen effect.

Thus we say our tearful goodbyes to Badi, the rubbery freak who waddled off his cheap, unconvincing spacecraft and into our hearts. This particular Turkish rip-off probably isn't as much fun as 3 Dev Adam or Turkish Star Wars, but it's worth a look, especially for Badi himself, who makes the protagonists of bottom-of-the-barrel E.T. rip-offs like Nukie look cute and cuddly by comparison. Most importantly of all, this film has filled my heart with childlike wonder. I may have watched this film in Turkish without subtitles, but truly the magical language of Badi is universal.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (1985)

A Vietnam vet deals with a bloodsucking parasite
(he also burns some leeches)

This film was directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini, here credited under his Anglocised pseudonym Michael E. Lemick, and although it's also known as Cannibal Ferox 2, it has little to do with the grisly cannibal cycle of the 70s and 80s. Sure, it has cannibals in it, but it's more of a fun jungle adventure flick and more interested in entertaining you rather than rubbing your nose in human misery. More Indiana Jones, less Cannibal Holocaust. That's not to say it isn't full of gore, sex, misogyny and outright stupidity, but at least you won't be put in the awkward position of explaining to your friends why you are watching animals being mutilated in gratuitous close-up.

The film begins with a paleontology professor and his hot daughter rolling into a small Brazillian town in search of something called the "Valley of the Dinosaurs". As they take in a cockfight in the hotel bar, a French pilot agrees to make a brief stopover there, despite the fact that it's forbidden, cursed and swarming with cannibals. Overhearing their conversation is Kevin Hall, a freelance paleontologist played by the great Michael Sopkiw (2019: After the Fall of New York, Blastfighter). He manages to snag a seat on the flight by chatting up the professor (who is so impressed at his paleontological knowledge that he overlooks the fact that he snuck into their hotel room and peeked at his daughter's goods while she was in the shower) and buying the pilot a case of booze.

Unfortunately the pilot must have opened a few bottles early, because as they are flying over Dinosaur Valley he starts ranting about a curse and the plane crashes for no discernable reason. As a crappy model plane is dragged into some shrubs by visible wires, the passengers, which also include a photographer and his two hot models, plus a Vietnam vet and his shrewish wife, thrash about like they are on the bridge of the Enterprise. The pilot, the professor and a fashion model eat it the crash, but luckily the model had already showed her tatas a couple of times and had an explicit sex scene so at least she fulfilled her obligations to the viewing public before shuffling off her mortal coil.

The Vietnam vet immediately takes charge of the group, convinced that his three tours in 'Nam have adequately prepared him for a face-off with some lousy cannibals. He manages to deal with some giant leeches (which apparently also double as a nutritious snack), but wen the photographer gets his leg eaten to the bone by pirahnas he goes Travis Bickle and runs him through with his machete so he won't give away their position. Kevin isn't happy out this (the vet's wife's outfit presents more of an eye-searing target than the photographer ever could) and gets into a fistfight. Despite the fact that Kevin carries around a shotgun and a bandolier full of shells at all times, he gets his ass beat and tossed over a waterfall.

Kevin survives, of course, but while he faces down the laziest crocodile ever, the rest of the group are separated and attacked by cannibals. The Vietnam vet leaves his wife drowning in a pool of quicksand (when Kevin had him at gunpoint earlier she was excitedly chanting "Kill him!" so you can't really blame him) but the cannibals pelt him with arrows and blowdarts. Most of them are clearly just glued to his jacket, but they still do the trick. As a poshumous insult the cannibal chief cuts out his heart and eats it, although from the looks of his physique he should probably be cutting down on red meat. Meanwhile the two girls are captured and taken back to the cannibal village, where they are stripped naked and made to wear jungle thongs.

Thus attired, they are taken to a sacrificial altar to meet a witch doctor, who is wearing a triceratops skull and matching dollar-store Halloween glove. Kevin is there too, hiding behind some boulders, and although the witch doctor is busy draining blood from one of the girls, Kevin still takes the time to craft a hand grenade from his shotgun shells as a distraction. Not really necessary since his shotgun makes short work of the cannibals all by itself (especially since it's capable of firing twenty shots without reloading) and soon the girls are bouncing and jiggling their way to the getaway canoe.

After they escape a trap down-river and deal with the cannibals once and for all, you may be looking at your watch in confusion as there is still a half-hour to go. Well, hold onto your hats, we are only getting started. While making sexytimes with the professor's daughter, Kevin finds a whole mess of fossilised dinosaur footprints. They aren't fossils, they are clearly just footprints pressed into the sand, but since he keeps all his precious dinosaur bones rattling around in a big wooden crate, I have to take his paleontology credentials with a grain of salt. I hope you don't have your heart set on a dinosaur attack, because instead they run into a big fat slaver who takes them all prisoner.

His name is China (pronounciation switches between Chy-na and Chee-na from scene to scene) and he has put a bunch of locals in a chain gang to work in his mine, so he can't let our heroes go or they'll call the cops. He ties Kevin up in a pig pen and puts the girls at the mercy of a sadistic lesbian henchman for a bit of women-in-prison action. Once the lesbian slaver has had her fun with the fashion model she tells her to make a run for it so that China can gun her down for his own amusement. He is, as Kevin puts it, a "fat, smelly, evil bastard". He also selects the professor's daughter as his personal concubine, so while Kevin is being gnawed on by pigs during the night, she's busy fighting off a sweaty hog of her own.

Kevin manages to escape during the night, and when China's men head off into the jungle to search for him the next morning, he returns to camp for a spear-versus-six-shooter showdown. Kevin turns the tide by tossing a rattlesnake at China, and although he could have easily taken a few steps away from the snake and shot Kevin, he foolishly decides to use his last bullet to blow it's head off, leaving himself open for a spear in the gut. Kevin frees the slaves (who get gunned down by China's men moments later) but leaves the girl, who has just been raped, suspended in a bamboo cage to get shot at until she apologises for yelling at him and he pushes plunger to blow up them up. Haha, what a joker! Then they steal a helicopter and fly into the sunset, Kevin making a terrible joke about their violently swaying Brazillian helicopter having "in-built rhythm".

I don't know, I really enjoyed this film. Production values are very poor and the dubbing is even worse than usual, but it's very high on entertainment value and it piles on the sleaze. It's pretty funny because although we are supposed to be disgusted by the way certain characters shamelessly leer over the girls, the camera ogles their naughty bits far more lavaciously than anyone else in the film. Those expecting your typical Italian cannibal gut-muncher might be disappointed as there is comparatively little gore, PETA-enraging animal violence or beards. Indeed, the cannibal stuff is dispensed with rather quickly to make more room for topless jungle adventuring. As a result it's only as morally bankrupt as most other Italian exploitation films, meaning a marginally sane person might derive some enjoyment from it. Recommended.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Tokyo Gore Police (2008)

It only gets more messed up from here.

Tokyo Gore Police is the follow-up film from the dudes who brought us The Machine Girl, a gory romp about a schoolgirl with a machine gun for an arm. That film was pretty nuts, but this one kicks it in the dick. It has so much blood and gore it makes Ricky-Oh: The Story of Ricky look like A Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story. It has so much queasy sexualisation and body horror it makes Cronenberg look like Spielberg. It has a futuristic dystopia so mean-spirited and cartoonish that Verhoeven would tell you to tone it down. I kind of liked it.

It takes place in the Tokyo... of the future!, where a newly privatised police force wear Samurai-inspired body armour and flood the airwaves with self-promotional PSAs. A special task force led by the sword-wielding Ruka (Eihi Shiina, from Takashi Miike's Audition) is hunting down a serial killer called the Key Man (Itsuji Itao), who uses specially cultured key-shaped tumours to unlock the "mutation potential" of the human body and turn ordinary people into "Engineers". These monsters have the ability to grow weird bio-mechanical weapons from the stumps of severed limbs. Amputate the arm of a chainsaw-wielding serial killer, for instance, and he might just grow an organic chainsaw out of his stump. As Ruka gets closer to the Key Man she finds they might just share a common link to their past and... zzzz... sorry, dozed off for a second there.

Okay, so maybe plot isn't this film's strong point. It's directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura, the makeup supervisor from The Machine Girl, and he is far more concerned with packing every frame with the red stuff. This is the kind of movie where wounds don't just squirt blood, they erupt like a volcano. In one scene Ruka cuts the arms off a pervert, pulls out an umbrella, and walks away in slow motion as the twin geysers of blood rain down on her. Reminds me of a video game, especially the bit where Ruka rocket jumps to the top of a skyscraper. One of the bad guys even uses the director's penchant for arterial blood sprays to his advantage, drinking a potion that causes the blood spraying from his severed leg stumps to increase in intensity until he is flying around on twin blood-jets.

One thing I definitely appreciated was that almost all the effects were done practically, with CG kept to a minimum. Sometimes the latex dummies are less than convincing, but they have a charm and a tangibility than you just can't get with ones and zeroes. It makes it that much more effective when someone gets a chainsaw to the face, drawn and quarted by some police cars or the myriad other ways people are mutilated or dismembered in this film. There's only one fight at the end that uses some less-than-perfect CG, but it's such a cool battle I'll let it slide.

Nishimura manages to come up with all sorts of creative and grotesque character designs for the Engineers. It's a rare film indeed that a prostitute in a schoolgirl uniform with a razor blade for an arm and acid-spraying boobs counts as one of the more mundane elements. There's a quadruple amputee in fetish gear that the police chief leads around like a dog. There's a woman who gets the bottom half of her torso severed and grows one hell of a vagina dentata. There's even a guy who gets his penis severed and grows an eight-foot, bullet proof penis cannon in it's place. Let's see your "herbal supplements" do that, spammers. One of my favourite parts was an extremely disturbing scene in a fetish club, where an audience applauds over successively freakish body mutations, culminating in a living chair made of flesh pissing all over them as they gasp in delight.

Despite all this craziness, the film feels a little less campy than The Machine Girl. In a nice Verhoeven-inspired touch, the movie is ocassionally interrupted for hilarious advertisements. These include anti-hara-kiri PSAs, a Wii-type family game where you murder serial killers with a sword and an ad for the police force that ends with small boys playing soccer with a severed head. My favourite one was an ad where a "kawaii" razor made specifically for self mutilation is marketed to teenage girls. They aren't a particularly original idea, but they are funny and go a long way in setting the tone of the movie.

Naturally this isn't a perfect movie. The plot is generic and pacing is way off. Exposition is dished out in dull, indigestible chunks and at 109 minutes it's a little overlong. Shiina, who I loved in Audition, is wasted here. I don't think she changes expression in the entire film. Still, it's a lot of fun as a portrait of a weird, wild dystopia and a catalogue of gory perversity. The ending promises a sequel with more gore and a girl with machine guns instead of limbs. I can't wait. I guess I've got a thing for amputees with gun-limbs.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Eaten Alive (aka Mangiati Vivi) (1980)

Nice melons!

Eaten Alive
, not to be confused with Tobe Hooper's 1977 film of the same name, is one of Umberto Lenzi's three entries into the Italian cannibal cycle. It's fair to say that Lenzi kicked off the subgenre with 1972's Deep River Savages and pushed it further than the viewing public were able to stomach with 1982's Cannibal Ferox. Eaten Alive is like the awkward middle child, neither groundbreaking nor extreme enough to separate it from the pack, but it does throw a Jim Jones style death cult into the mix. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

The film starts in Niagara falls, a first for cannibal films I believe, where a middle aged man cops an earful of poisonous blowdart and drops dead. Cut to the streets of New York, complete with groovy disco music, and two more guys get killed in the same way. By now this blowdart rampage is building up a deliciously surreal momentum and I was pretty excited to see where it leads, but unfortunately the primitive assassin fails to heed the traffic signs (fucking tourists) and gets flattened by a passing truck.

Shiela Morris (Janet Agren, City of the Living Dead) arrives at a New York police station after traveling all the way from Alabama with nothing but a pimptastic fur coat and a laughable Southern accent. For some reason the blowdart-happy native had a 8mm film reel on him that shows her missing sister Diana palling around in cannibal country with some off-brand Jim Jones named Jonas. Shiela shows the film to a history professor (Mel Ferrer, Nightmare City) which is mostly an excuse for Lenzi to squeeze in some Mondo footage, and he identifies the ritual as that of the fanatical Purification Sect of New Guinea. Talking to a bunch of hippies about Jonas proves to be a dead end, so it looks like Shiela is on the next flight to New Guinea.

Once she's arrived, Shiela knows that the best place to find a guide is the local dive bar, where some grizzled Vietnam veteran will no doubt be engaged in a violent competitive sport. In this case it's Mark Butler, performing a variation on arm-wrestling where the loser gets his hand impaled on a knife. He is wearing a Deer-Hunter-esque yellow headband, I guess to symbolise the fact that he's a cowardly Vietnam deserter. Mark is played by Robert Kerman (Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox) although you might know him better as R. Bolla, a name under which he performed in a hundred other films, from classics like Great Sexpectations to the remarkably frank Men Who Love Huge Boobs.

Mark agrees to help Shiela find her sister for 20K, but I'm not sure what she's paying him for exactly. He seems hopelessly lost without a few native guides to do his job for him and his plan seems to be to wander aimlessly through the jungle and hope they find the death cult before they are eaten by cannibals. After a run-in with a crazy old man they head down river in a canoe, but one of their guides gets his arm bitten off by a crocodile, stranding them deep in cannibal country. When they come across some cannibals gang-raping and then eating a native woman (haven't these guys heard of the golden rule: don't fuck what you eat) Shiela insists that Mark kills her if that's going to happen to her. Mark slaps her and I guess she's into that because they totally do it. The next day they are discovered by cannibals, but luckily they are rescued by the cultists and taken back to Jonas' "Purification Village".

They are welcomed byJonas (Ivan Rassimov in a bright orange muu-muu), who is every bit as crazy as you'd expect. They then spot Diana at a funeral service, one of a number of topless women who parade around while they burn the body, while Jonas gives a sermon to the tune of Bach's Toccata and fugue in D minor. Who is getting cremated here? Dracula? Once the body has been reduced to ashes, the widow strips naked, lies on the extinguished funeral pyre, and then all her brother-in-laws take turns boning her. Shit, as if dealing with the in-laws wasn't awkward enough. Mark is unfazed, quipping "Nice, keeps it in the family."

When they finally get Diana alone she reveals that she's there against her will and that Jonas is brainwashing people with drugged-up jungle juice. Despite being aware of this fact, Shiela gulps down anything Jonas puts in front of her, and soon he's raping her with a primitive dildo dipped in snake blood or painting her gold (not sure why, although it does look pretty cool) and whipping her sister right in front of her. Meanwhile Mark escapes the village, but after being attacked by cannibals he figures he's better off with the cultists and pulls the old "Yeah, I'm totes a big believer in your cult now. I'm not just pretending to drink your jungle juice, honest."

Eventually Diana, Shiela and Mark escape with the help of a native woman (played by Me Me Lai). Unfortunately Diana and the native woman don't make it; Diana gets raped by Jonas' chief enforcer and then they are both captured and eaten by cannibals. Shiela nearly gives their position away to the cannibals but luckily Mark punches her right in the face before she could scream. Or maybe he was just frustrated that their mission was a collosal failure and they are both doomed. Luckily some helicopters just so happen to spot them and the Purification Village, prompting Jonas and his followers to drink the grape kool-aid and head to the cannibal-infested jungle in the sky.

If you've seen a few other Italian cannibal films, watching Eaten Alive is an experience in deja vu. Not only are there are many familiar faces to veterans of the subgenre (notably Me Me Lai, Ivan Rassimov and Robert Kerman), Lenzi commits the cardinal sin of exploitation cinema and flat-out steals the money shots from other cannibal films. From Sergio Martino's Slave of the Cannibal God we have the forementioned crocodile attack, some natives eating an iguana and a snake eating a monkey. From Ruggero Deodato's Jungle Holocaust we have Me Me Lai's death sequence, a crocodile being slaughtered and some cannibals eating snakes and cutting off a guy's wanger. It's pretty obvious too, since Lenzi doesn't make much attempt to preserve continuity in the costumes or film stock.

This is disappointing as Lenzi is usually capapble of crafting some mind-bogglingly entertaining trash. I did appreciate the cult's strict "showing off the goods" policy, having women either topless or in sheer robes at all times. Even when Diana manages to escape the village she's wearing a cleavage-baring top, daisy dukes and hooker boots. That is not appropriate jungle wear, Diana. I'm sure Shiela has another khaki pantsuit you can borrow. There's a lot of that clumsy, poorly-dubbed dialog we demand from our Italian trash cinema, such as Jonas' explanation that the cannibals' "idea of lunch is fresh, hot entrails soaked in blood" or the professor joking to some cops that "instead of buying meat from the supermarket, they get it fresh from people like you." Consequently you'll probably get a few laughs out of it, although I'd recommend watching any of the cannibal films Lenzi has pilfered to make this one.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Exterminator 2 (1984)

"To responsible drinking!"

When Cannon films decided to make a sequel to the gritty 1980 vigilante film The Exterminator, I'm pretty sure they had only glanced at the box cover. It features a guy (the Exterminator, I guess) in a motorcycle helmet brandishing a flamethrower. It's a cool image, but it's a little misleading. He only uses a flamethrower in one scene (he doesn't even torch anyone) and the only time he wears the helmet is when he's riding a motorcycle that he steals much later in the film. They must have really liked the cover though, because this film is structured entirely around the idea of a masked vigilante roasting criminals with a flamethrower.

The Exterminator may have opened with an explosion, but the opening shot of the sequel is pretty good as well. Crazed Vietnam vet turned vigilante John Eastman (Robert Ginty), dubbed the Exterminator by the media, walks into frame wearing a welding mask and army uniform, and shoots a flamethrower at the camera. FWOOSH! The first criminal scumbags to taste his napalm are four young punks who rob a "mom and pop" convenience store, brutally murdering the elderly owners (they even call eachother "mama" and "papa"). When they run giggling into the street they come face to face with the Exterminator, who incinerates them. This is pretty creepy because it seems like he could have intervened a bit earlier but didn't. One of the surviving gang members even says that "it's like he was waiting for us."

These punks are from a The Warriors style street gang lead by 'X' (Mario Van Peebles). X likes to make rambling, incoherent speeches about "owning the streets" while wearing weird, post-apocalytpic outfits and a Grace Jones flat-top (which changes from scene to scene) and his racially-diverse gang live in an abandoned subway station with a huge stash of machine guns. They commit all sorts of terrible crimes, such as stabbing random women to death and laughing about the look on their faces, or kidnapping them off the street to use as guinea pigs for their drug supply. This is one of those movies that tries to extrapolate gang culture and street crime into something nightmarish, but it just comes off as cheesy and cartoonish.

X's gang start their "war on the city" by robbing an armoured van and blowing up a police helicopter, laughing at the pilot as he burns alive in the cockpit. They carry the armoured truck driver to their underground hideout (a scene which inexplicably takes several minutes) where X, wearing suspenders with no shirt, spray paints a big "X" on the driver's chest and ties him to the railway tracks like Snidely Whiplash. If he had a moustache he'd probably twirl it, but since he is clean shaven he dramatically puts his arms in a big "X" until a passing train pancakes the guy. After all this has happened, the Exterminator shows up near the subway entrance and torches one of X's treetop lookouts, but he doesn't actually go into the subway tunnels to look for them. Maybe he was just passing by.

A lot of the second act is devoted to John Eastman's daily life, which sucks because it's poorly written and boring. In the first film he went completely Taxi Driver nuts, but here his double life as the Exterminator seems to have little impact on his day-to-day life. He befriends a garbage truck driver named Be Gee (Frankie Faison) and gets a day job as a garbage man, and gets into a relationship with a pseudo-stripper named Caroline (Deborah Geffner). She has dreams of Broadway but works in a crappy, Flashdance-style bar. I don't know why anyone would go there to watch a fully-clothed woman dance around to terrible synthesiser music, but according to a sign behind the bar they have "FREE BEER", so I guess that explains why it's so busy.

This is a Golan Globus movie, so naturally there's a lot of breakdancing, but in this film breakin' is something scary and evil, practised only by vicious street punks. Many of X's crew spontaneously pop-and-lock while committing crimes, and one of his henchman even conducts a drug deal under the guise of a roller-skating dance performance. I guess all these breakdancing street punks have made the Exterminator prejudiced against b-boys, because when they come across a harmless dance crew during a walk the park he looks disgusted and tries to call her away from them. Hey Eastman, b-boys are people too.

From the moment we see Caroline it's clear that she's going to suffer and/or die at the hands of X and his goons, and sure enough they chase her down and beat her during their walk in the park. Caroline is crippled in the attack, destroying her dancing career and sending her into a deep depression. I'm not really sure why they put this attack in the film, other than to check a box on the vigilante movie checklist. It's not like John needed any extra motivation to take out these scumbags, he's been gunning for them since the very beginning. Not that it matters anyway since she is later killed by X as a further act of revenge.

It seems that X's plans to dominate the city hinge on a drug deal with some cartoon mobsters, so Be Gee turns his garbage truck into an armoured combat vehicle so they can storm the big drug deal and steal his dope. Be Gee is killed in the process, so in preparation for the final showdown John further pimps out his garbage truck with more armour and some remote controlled machine guns. When X's gang storm the warehouse it's a pretty decent battle. So far the film has been surprisingly light on flamethrower action, so I appreciated the bit where X's gang stand around like morons as the Exterminator dumps a barrel of flammable liquid on them and sets them alight. It would have been cool if he'd used his signature flamethrower on X, but instead they play a game of cat-and-mouse along the warehouse catwalks until the Exterminator tricks him with a bag of explosives.

Exterminator 2 is directed by the producer of the first film, John Buntzman, and while the first film had a queasily realism about it, the sequel takes the plunge directly into camp. Less sleazy, more cheesy. Everyone's performance seems awkward and improvised, even Ginty, and Mario Van Peebles's scenery chewing makes it clear he's the only one aware of how stupid it all is. It should also be noted that this film features the worst soundtrack ever made. It's nothing but repetitive synthesiser music the whole way (except for an awful love song during a similarly awful sex scene). Nothing sucks the tension out of a scene like someone plinking away on a Casio. I think some people might get a few laughs out of this one, but it's nowhere near as good as the original.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Dragon Wars (2007)

Dragons with rocket launchers! So awesome.
That dragon on the right is like: "Can you believe this shit?!"

Dragon Wars
is a Korean film, but the American cast and locations make it clear that it was tailor-made for international distribution. It's budget was purportedly 75 million, making it the most expensive Korean film of all time. Although it was a hit in it's native country, it was a major flop overseas (renamed D-Wars in the US, because why would you want to let people know there are dragons in your stupid dragon movie about dragons?) It was directed by Hyung Rae-Shim, who also made the Korean monster movie Yonggary but is best known for comedies. Dragon Wars is pretty funny too, but probably not for the reasons he intended.

Dragon Wars begins with a clusterfuck of clunky exposition, dream sequences and nested flashbacks attempting to explain the film's simple yet convoluted mythology. Of course there's the opening monologue, the most shameless exposition device this side of a text crawl, where a soothing female voice assures us that "the time of dragons has only just begun." It goes on to explain that every 500 years, a woman is born with a spirit power, the ability to turn an 800 foot serpent, an Imoogi or lesser dragon, into a Celestial Dragon. Keep up, there will be test later.

TV news reporter Ethan (Jason Behr), or as I like to call him, Blandy McBlanderson, reports from what I thought was an archeological dig but is actually the aftermath of some horrific disaster in LA. He sees some FBI types uncovering a reptilian scale, which triggers a flashback to his childhood. Young Ethan and his father enter an antiques store owned by Jack (Robert Forster, showing up only long enough to collect a fistful of won). While Ethan's father attempts to pawn a family heirloom, Ethan stumbles across a box containing a mysterious scale that bathes him in bright light. Jack feigns a heart attack so that he can talk to the boy alone, triggering a flashback-within-a-flashback to ancient Korea, further fleshing out the mythology.

520 years ago to the day, back when martial arts masters could perform wire-assisted stuntwork with the greatest of ease, a Korean princess was born with a red dragon tattoo on her shoulder. This marked her as the Yuh-Yi-Joo, the girl with the aforementioned ability to transform an Imoogi into a Celestial Dragon on her 20th birthday. Two Imoogi vie for control over her power. There is the Good Imoogi, who is protected by a martial arts master named Bochun, and the Evil Buraki, who has an army of orc wannabes called the Atrox.

On the princess' 20th birthday, the Atrox army attack the town in search of the Yuh-Yi-Joo. They've even got a whole bunch of dragons, and although they are the crappy, non-Celestial models they are still pretty cool. There are rideable dragons, flying dragons, even dragons with rocket launchers mounted on their backs. Unfortunately Good Imoogi doesn't have an army, just Bochun and some guy named Haram who is destined to protect the Yuh-Yi-Joo from Baraki. How does he protect her? By grabbing her hand and leaping off a fucking cliff together. Thanks, guy.

So cut back to the present day, ie 20 years ago, and Jack tells him that he is the reincarnation of Bochun and Ethan is the new Haram. Ethan is given a medallion and the awesome responsibility of finding and protecting the Yuh-Yi-Joo, who has been reborn into a girl named Sarah. Back to the present-day present day, and although Ethan is still wearing the ugly medallion, he's almost forgotten the Yuh-Yi-Joo's name or even that he's supposed to find her until now. He enlists the help of his stereotypical black friend to try and find her, but since she's a 19 year old girl in LA with a dragon tattoo on her shoulder, he doesn't get very far.

Sarah turns out to be a similarly bland hot girl played by Amanda Brooks, and despite being unaware of her destiny she is scared by Ethan's news report on the disaster and surrounds herself with bunch of protective Buddhist scriptures that she keeps in her kitchen drawer for some reason. Later she is attacked by some thugs, but Jack shows up, fights them off and disappears. Then Ethan has a run-in with the leader of the Atrox army in Jack's antique store, but it turns out to be a dream sequence. Then Sarah has a run-in with him in an abandoned car-park but it turns out to be another dream sequence. Then her best friend has a run-in with him in her backyard and gets eaten by Buraki, an 800 foot snake that nobody else notices. This is not a dream sequence. Eventually Ethan finds her at the hospital, outruns the pursuing Buraki and explains what is going on. "None of this makes any sense!" gasps Sarah. You're telling me.

All of these boring characters, strangely stealthy giant snakes and half-assed storytelling reminds me of Sci-Fi Original movies such as Boa Vs. Python or Komodo Vs. Cobra, but unlike those films, which rarely live up to the promise of their titles, Dragon Wars delivers both dragons and wars in copious amounts. This reaches a giddy climax when the Atrox army descend on LA in an orgy of CG destruction. The special effects are pretty good and it's not every day you see a flying dragon taking down a helicopter or tanks facing off against dragons with rocket launchers. Meanwhile Sarah and Ethan are captured by some FBI agents who want to kill them, making the Yuh-Yi-Joo a problem for the folks in 2507. They escape, but end up being captured but the Atrox army anyway.

They both wake up in front of a massive fortress in the middle of an endless desert. Ethan is tied to a pillar and Sarah is strapped to a sacrificial altar. It looks bad, but luckily Ethan's medallion releases a shockwave that destroys the Atrox army and summons the Good Imoogi to fight the Evil Buraki. Nothing gets the blood pumping like a climactic sequence that requires no intervention from our hero. Sarah does her Yuh-Yi-Joo thing and tranforms the Good Imoogi into a Celestial Dragon using one of those dragon orb thingies, which also kills her. The Good Imoogi whips ass (although since it's two reptiles fighting against a dark and stormy background it isn't really clear) and flies into the sky, leaving Ethan to walk home from Mordor or wherever the fuck he is supposed to be.

This movie ranks up there with Michael Bay in terms of incomprehensible storytelling, but unlike a Bay film it's only 70 minutes long (also, no rapping robots). As a result, the sheer preposterousness of it all doesn't outstay it's welcome, leaving you gasping in bewilderment right up until the final frame. If you expect your films to make sense on any level however, you may feel an uncontrollable urge to kick Hyung Rae-Shim in the dragon balls.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Day of the Animals (1977)

I never thought I'd see a glistening, shirtless
Leslie Neilsen... except in my dreams

So much of the global warming literature focuses around animals as victims. Fish going belly up due to rising sea temperatures. Polar bears clinging desperately to melting ice floes. Dogs dying in hot cars. Boo hoo, lets all pity the poor, helpless animals. They seem to ignore the far more terrifying alternative; What if animals get really pissed off with mankind's carbon spewing ways and decide to team up and attack us? This is the outcome explored by William Girdler's Day of the Animals, and although it focuses on the more 70s centric issue of ozone depletion (a preachy opening crawl claims that "this motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen IF we do nothing to stop this damage to Nature's protective shield for life on this planet") it's central message of "bear-wrestling is awesome" is still relevant today.

Steve Buckner (Christopher George again) is a nature expert who takes groups of inexperienced hikers on guided tours of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In true disaster movie fashion, his latest group are an improbably varied bunch. There's a weird-looking boy and his annoying, over-protective mother, a sexy reporter (Linda Day George), a college professor (Richard Jaeckel), an ad executive (Leslie Neilsen), a former athlete with cancer and some random young couples. There's also a Native American named Santee (Michael Ansara), but I'm not sure what he's doing there since he's clearly an experienced outdoorsman. I guess they need someone to give vaguely ominous warnings and say things like "it's too quiet". A helicopter takes them all to the top of a mountain and they will spend the next few days hiking back to civilisation.

One of side effects of animal UV over-exposure seems to be a tendency to stare at humans. Birds, wolves, even tarantulas, all watching the hikers. I guess they are suggesting that the animals are planning an attack together, but since every animal is in a different shot it just looks like a shitload spliced in stock footage. Just when I was about to shout "for fucks sake, just do something", one of the hikers gets mauled by a wolf during the night. The next morning Steve sends the woman and her husband to the nearest ranger station alone. Two inexperienced hikers, one badly injured, hiking alone through mountainous terrain? What could go wrong? Well, they could get attacked by a swarm of buzzards, that's what. The woman gets brutally pecked and over the cliff she goes, suffering death by terrible green-screen effect. Interestingly enough, she is played by Susan Backlinie, the woman who was killed in the opening scene of Jaws. She is first to die here and if I remember correctly, she was originally cast to play the same role in Girdler's previous film Grizzly.

Back in town, the sherriff is forced to evacuate the area after he goes downstairs for a midnight snack and gets attacked by rats, by which I mean some poor stagehand throws handfuls of live rats at him. Even the locals' pet dogs have turned feral. His explanation for the crisis? “God sent a plague down on us because we’re just a bunch of no-good fellas.” Our group of hikers get word of some strange goings-on and something about dangerous levels of UV radiation, but their only link to the outside world is severed when the boy's mother tosses his radio into the river because she's a crazy bitch. When they find their food supplies ravaged by wild animals the stress cracks begin to show in the group, but considering they are such touchy, argumentative morons it doesn't take a lot.

Taking home the gold in the asshole olympics is Leslie Neilsen as ad execute Paul Jenson. He comes up with derogatory nicknames for the people he doesn't like, which is everyone, sarcastically calls Steve "hotshot", and insults Santee with every Native American slur he can think of. Eventually the group splits into two, Jenson heading off with the boy, his mother and a be-flanneled young couple. I have no idea why they would choose to follow Jenson, who is clearly a world-class asshat, but I'll bet they regret the decision as he goes completely Lord of the Flies in about five minutes flat. Soon he's stumbling around with a spear and no shirt, shouting lines like "You lily-livered punk! I'm running this camping trip!" He beats up on the boy, calls his mother a bitch (accurate but still rude) and even tries to molest the young woman, stabbing her husband to death when he attempts to intervene.

The highlight of the whole film occurs later that evening, the three terrified campers cower around a sputtering campfire in the rain as Jenson shakes his fist to the heavens and makes a crazy speech denouncing God. "Our father who art in Heaven, you made a jackass out of me for years! It's never been you for me! Melville's God, that's the god for me! You see what you want and you take it!" Of course by "take" he means "rape" and by "it" he means the hot flannel girl, but luckily he is interrupted by an angry bear and quickly learns that a pointed stick and anarchic self interest will only get you so far.

Meanwhile, Buckner's group find an abandoned camp and get attacked by a pack of German Shepherds. I mean a lot of German Shepherds. In fact, the survivors of Jenson's meltdown find themselves trapped in a crashed helicopter and surrounded by wild German Shepherds as well. I guess there is a breeder in the area. Most of Buckner's group manage to escape by turning a wooden pier into a makeshift raft, but unfortunately they forgot that dogs can swim too.

One thing I haven't mentioned is a subplot about Backlinie's husband who, crazed with grief after his wife's death and wearing what appears to be Freddy Krueger's sweater, stumbles across an orphaned little girl and spends the rest of the film trying to shepherd her to safety. He wanders into town but finds it evacuated and gets taken out by a dog/snake tag-team as the terrified little girl looks on. Sucks to be him. Don't worry though, she, along with the rest of the survivors, gets rescued the next morning by scientists in tin foil hazmat suits. Seems all the crazed animals were killed by a virus facilitated by UV over-exposure. Convenient!

Sadly, Day of the Animals was Girdler's penultimate film. He went on to make the Native American possession film The Manitou before dying in a helicopter crash during a location scouting flight in the Phillipines. After Grizzly, I guess Day of the Animals seemed like a sure thing. Same cast and crew, similar theme. If a movie about a killer bear is fun, then a movie about killer bears, rats, dogs, snakes etc. must be several times more fun, right? Well, not really. The animal attack scenes are far too brief and infrequent, and the ecological message is quickly discarded after the opening crawl. This probably isn't the finest example of 70s eco-horror but any film that features Leslie Neilsen as a half-naked, bear-wrestling rapist can't be a complete write-off.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Grandmaster Ip Man (2008)

Compensating for something?

When I saw the title to this film I assumed it was about a corporate lawyer dealing with the vagaries of intellectual property legislation. Turns out it's about some kung fu guy. What a rip off. This is one of those big-budget period kung fu biopics and although I've never heard of the subject he was apparently the first guy to start openingly teaching Wing Chun kung fu. He also taught Bruce Lee. Twenty years ago it would probably be about Wong Fei Hung, but the combined runtime of Wong Fei Hung films probably surpasses his lifetime several times over, so they've had to resort to other historical figures.

Too often the heroes in action movies are complete assholes, especially these days where they are usually amoral career criminals (see: Statham, Jason). Kung fu masters like Ip Man, on the other hand, are unfailingly polite and righteous. Okay, sometimes they use that politeness a little facetiously (like when a rival martial artist challenges him to duel, loses terribly and is then thanked for holding back) but you know they are always going to treat their opponent with respect (like Ip Man not telling anyone about his rival's humiliating defeat). They are the action movie protagonists you would take home to see your mother.

He's also surprisingly progressive about gender equality. When a bunch of cocky Northerners roll into town and start beating up all the local kung fu masters, Ip Man refuses to accept their challenge until his wife gives him her blessing. His wooden dummy even has a sign on it saying "the wife is the boss". There is a subplot of about Ip Man neglecting his wife and son due to his kung fu training, but by the end of the film his wife realises that kung fu is awesome and she should support him. This is handy because I would much rather watch Ip Man fighting people rather than sitting around with his wife and son, even though she's pretty hot.

In 1936 the Japanese show up and turf Ip Man and his family onto the street. Ip Man, never having worked a day in his life, is forced to take up a job shovelling coal along with all the other displaced kung fu masters. They've all given up on martial arts as outdated and useless, until General Miura (Hiroyushi Ikeuchi) starts rounding them all up to fight in private matches against Japanese karate experts. Ip Man refuses to fight at first as he's too busy providing for his family, but then he is inspired when one off his fellow martial artists is murdered by the Japanese after a match. Ip Man takes his winnings (a small bag of rice) to his widow, but he doesn't even wash the blood off first. Poetic maybe, but surprisingly insensitive.

Ip Man also uses his kung fu to teach some factory workers how to fight back against people who try to exploit them (those cocky Northerners from earlier, now turned to thievery). What I like is that Ip Man's training doesn't instantly turn them into fighting machines. They kind of suck actually. What it does do is give them is the confidence to stand up to the gangsters next time they try to shake them down, or at least for long enough for Ip Man to show up and start kicking ass. Probably a good thing he showed up too, since the gangsters pull out a bunch of hatchets. Things could've gotten pretty messy. Also, there's a pretty cool scene where he defends against two attackers by using a long wooden pole.

As a martial artist, Ip Man is untouchable. The bad guys can have axes, swords, even guns. Doesn't matter. Bring it on, motherfucker. His trademark move is to knock the guy to the ground and them whale on him with a flurry of rapid-fire punches. Even the final battle is one sided to almost Seagalian proportions, and ends with Ip Man pounding on Miura like he's a wooden practice dummy. All of the fights are choreographed by Sammo Hung, so of course they excellent, with a wide variety of weapons and different styles of martial arts. Donnie Yen did a lot of Wing Chun training to prepare for the role, and it shows. Probably his best acting performace too, which is great to see since I always thought he had what it takes to be a leading man.

This has a lot in common with other kung fu period films like Once Upon a Time in China or Fearless, but what it mostly reminds me of is Fist of Legend. It's set during the same period of Chinese history, and it's similarly based around the Japanese occupation and the downtrodden Chinese using kung fu as a unifying force and a source of fierce national pride. The fights probably aren't as good as that one but everything else is much better. Sometimes they lay on the melodrama a little thick, but it's good enough that it would seem like a real movie even if it wasn't full of awesome fight scenes. Although then I probably wouldn't have watched it.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Exterminator (1980)

You know, they really shouldn't make meat
grinders that big. It's just asking for trouble.

KA-BOOM! That's how The Exterminator starts. No title screen, no establishing shot, the very first frame is a man being flung through the air by a fiery explosion. This is a movie that doesn't fuck around. It seems we're stuck in the middle of a Vietnam flashback, and soon a trio of American soldiers find themselves at the mercy of the VC. John (Robert Ginty) is forced to watch as his friend suffers a graphic decapitation (a fantastic Stan Winston special effect), but Mike (Steve James) manages to wrestle a gun from one of their captors and mow everyone down. This is kind of movie where gunfire causes people to randomly burst into flames (ie my kind of movie).

Years later the two have found work at some sort of produce packing plant in New York. A steady diet of vigilante films has taught me that being mugged and/or raped was a regular occurance in late 70s New York, a daily nuisance akin to bad traffic or stepping on gum, and sure enough Mike stumbles across a street gang called the Ghetto Ghouls stealing a few crates of beer from the warehouse. Fueled by 'Nam-flashback induced rage, Mike and John confront the gang and beat the shit out of them. They destroy a few crates of beer in the process too, but it's just Rheingold, so whatever.

The next morning Mike is on his way to grab a few beers with John after dropping his kids off at school (I guess they are starting early) when the gang members jump him and break his neck, turning him into a quadraplegic. In a normal vigilante film there would be a bit of build-up here, maybe where John visits Mike in hospital and promises to set things right, but The Exterminator cuts straight to John torturing one of the gang members for information. Again, no fucking around. Armed with an M16, he heads to the Ghouls' rathole apartment (where they are dancing around to The Trammps 1976 hit, Disco Inferno, making them an incredibly lame street gang) and blows one of them away. He ties up the other two beneath the building until the rats gnaw off their faces.

So, job done, right? Movie over. Well, not exactly. Their packing plant is being shaken down by the mafia, so John figures that robbing the gangsters would be a good way to provide for Mike's family. He runs this by Mike at the hospital, but Mike can only move his eyes, so for all we know he could be thinking "Holy shit, this guy is fucking nuts." He kidnaps the mafia boss, takes him back to the plant and suspends him above a huge industrial meat grinder until he gives John his house keys and the combination to his safe. John says "If you're lying, I'll be back", but when he gets to the mafioso's house he is attacked by a guard dog and is forced to kill it with an electric carving knife. True to his word, John heads straight back to the warehouse and, without a word, lowers the mafia boss into the mincer, turning him into hamburger. Mmm, that's a spicy meatball!

By now John's vigilante rampage is totally out of control. He is inspired to go on a Taxi-Driver-esque rescue mission when a run-in with a young hooker in bright red booty shorts uncovers a ring of pedophile rapists/child abusers. He comes back later, setting the ringleader on fire and shooting one of their clients, a greasy fat pervert who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a New Jersey State Senator. It doesn't state his party affiliation but I'm assuming he's a Republican. John also chases down and murders a trio of muggers after they beat and rob an old lady. Between all this he finds the time to euthanise his buddy (with his blessing, of course) and then go and inform his wife of his death. Kind of a dick move if you ask me.

Every vigilante movie needs a hard-bitten cop who is trying to capture the vigilante but deep down respects the way he cuts through red tape, violates human rights etc. Here's he's played by Christopher George. No, I'm not on a Christopher George marathon or anything (note to self: plan Christopher George marathon), it just so happens that he's in every film ever made. There's a lot of screen time devoted to a relationship between him and a doctor played by Samantha Eggar. It doesn't really amount to anything, although it does lead to a scene where George stops in at the hospital for a quickie and unknowingly meets the Exterminator (who informs him that his fly is open).

Eventually George is approached by some CIA types who feel that the vigilante is making them look incompetent. They want the Exterminator "out of the way", if you know what I mean (ie murdered). This doesn't sit well with George, because on some level he identifies with the vigilante. For instance, they are both Vietname vets and they both have a stash of machine guns packed into foam-rubber-lined suitcases. Also, George likes to cook his hotdogs with a couple of forks wired to an electrical outlet at his desk and the Exterminator likes into inject mercury into his .45 rounds for a bit of extra kick, so the two of them share the same spirit of DIY ingenuity. George leads the Exterminator into a trap, and although I won't tell you how it ends, you should know that 'splosions will be involved.

I'm a sucker for gritty, sleazy genre films like this, so it's surprising that I managed to avoid this one for so long. Performances are pretty good, especially Robert Ginty, and I liked that he doesn't look like your typical tough-guy vigilante hero. He looks like he could be Mark Hamill's stunt double. It's written and directed by James Glickenhaus, who made a few action movies before starting a production company that brought us a few cult films including Maniac Cop, Frankenhooker and both Basket Case sequels. This one is pretty raw and cheap, but it does a good job of capturing the sleazy side of late 70s/early 80s New York that is fetishised by movie nerds who aren't old enough to remember it and would never have gone there if they were. It's pretty good stuff.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

When I saw the trailer for this film I laughed and laughed. The editing, the explosions, the slow motion martial arts; it was pretty much a perfect parody of a Hollywood adaptation. Add that to the phrase "Directed by Guy Ritchie", and the whole enterprise seems tailor-made to make Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle fans go apoplectic. I didn't really want to see it all that bad but a few months later I somehow found myself in a movie theater watching it. Pretty strange. I think aliens might have been involved.

A lot of the appeal of this film comes down to the casting of Robert Downey Jr, who is so good at playing smug assholes he should receive an Academy Award for Excellence in the Field of Smug Assholery. He's a natural fit for Holmes, who is far more of a rude asshole in Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's books than most interpretations are willing to admit. Jude Law plays straight-man Dr. Watson, who does his best to stop Holmes from spiralling into a pit of self-destruction. It never really occured to me how much of a natural fit Sherlock Holmes was for a buddy-cop action movie. It's pretty much Lethal Weapon with less noodly white-guy saxophone music. In fact a great deal of the movie revolves around Watson's impending engagement, a clear case of "getting too old for this shit".

The two of them are helped/hindered by professional thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who plays the Catwoman to Holmes's Batman. She's American, since US audiences tend to get bit antsy if there isn't someone on-screen with a similar accent to theirs. There is some pretty good chemistry between the three of them, although the banter probably isn't as polished as I would like. Surprisingly they don't use this setup for any sitcom-style gay panic jokes between Holmes and Watson, although no doubt they are saving that comedy gold for the inevitable sequel.

The plot revolves around Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a devil-worshipping sorceror who is executed for the sacrificial murder of five young women. The next day he appears to have risen from the grave, so it's up to Holmes and Watson to determine whether he truly has black magic powers or is simply good with a chemistry set (guess which). Everything moves so quickly that there's hardly any time for mulling over the facts, with Holmes deductive reasoning limited to the discovery of a tiny clue that points them to the next punch-up or fiery explosion. Eventually they uncover Blackwoods plan to take of Britain and re-colonise America (again, American audiences) with the help of a steampunk Rube Goldberg machine.

I never would have guessed that Guy Ritchie might have a talent for directing this kind of bloated Hollywood blockbuster, but he does pretty well at reigning in his usual stylistic flourishes and treading the fine line of blockbuster-stupidity without stumbling into Michael Bay territory. For instance, there's only one farting dog joke. The script only ocassionally succumbs to obvious thriller cliches such as the pattern of killings on the map pointing to the location of the next crime or the exotic drug that induces a death-like coma. One of the cleverest, most action-friendly ways they integrated Holmes's skills was when the film would go into slow motion as he deduces the series of blows that would most efficiently incapacitate his opponent, complete with damage assessment and estimated recovery time. Basil Rathbone never did that shit.

Most of the fights are shot in the modern blockbuster style, which means I've got my usual complaints about the action being over-edited and choppy, but I suppose I should resign myself to the fact that being able to tell what the fuck is going on in an action scene is for old people and squares. There are a few big CG setpieces including a fight at a shipyard and atop an unfinished suspension bridge, and they also manage to work in a surprising amount of pyrotechnics. One scene is filled with magical Hollywood explosions that only cause minor contusions even when they go off point blank in your face.

A lot of people are going to hate this film and that's fair enough. It's true to the characters of the novels in many ways, but it's still a dumb, loud blockbuster. It could have been a lot worse, though. See the National Treasure series for a few examples of this kind of movie done badly. As far as Hollywood gangrape of classic literature goes, it's pretty good.