March 31, 2008

SAKEBI (2006) Kiyoshi Kurosawa's RETRIBUTION

(2006, Japan, SAKEBI)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a notable director of J-horror. His unique visions mean I simply have to see his every film! His The Guard from the Underground, Cure, Charisma, Séance and more recently Loft are all genre movies. They sometimes feel like they’re not just about the story, but the successful shocks and scares are never to be forgotten. Kairo (2001) particularly creeped me out, dropped my jaw wide open, then completely confused me with the climax.

Kairo (or Pulse) is a good reference to compare his latest film with. Retribution (Sakebi) also uses mirrors, translucent curtains, stains and shadows, to deceive the eye and tell the story. In it, the background is as important as what’s upfront.

Detective Yoshioki is working on a series of apparently motiveless murders. As the 18th victim is found, forcibly drowned in a puddle of saltwater, the stress of the case seems to be getting to him. There are even clues that implicate him. Worse than that, he thinks the latest victim, a woman in a red coat, is taking revenge by haunting him. Or is he dreaming? As the murders continue, he starts doubting his sanity and his memory...

Watching this, I was reminded of another story of mental deterioration, Roman Polanski’s classic Repulsion (1965), which Sakebi seems to visually quote when ghostly hands emerge from a fractured wall. The metropolitan backdrop of industrial dockside locations provides a theme of city-wide demolition and reconstruction, as well as the precarious reclamation of land from the sea.

While the visions of the ghost aren't as spine-tinglingly creepy as in Kairo, they are traditionally Japanese. They float along, sometimes with arms outstretched in front – characteristics of the oldest drawings of vengeful spirits. But this sometimes makes her look alternately beautiful, scary or unintentionally comical. She's much more intrusive than the spectres of Kairo, and her red coat reminding me of the child in Don't Look Now (1973, notably set in the waterlogged city of Venice).

Kurosawa is very preoccupied here with reflections, cleverly using mirrors to create very complex scenes. He also challenges the viewer with increasingly intricate possibilities, as each clue shifts suspicion around the suspects, both living and dead. Flashbacks and visions can’t be trusted because they might each have been dreamt or imagined. There's also a growing degree of the surreal as the story unfolds, even the back projection used in the driving scenes gets less and less realistic, as do some of the ghostly antics…

Kurosawa favourite, Koji Yakusho anchors the film as the desperate detective - you might also have seen him in Babel and Memoirs of a Geisha. Joe Odagiri (Mushishi, Shinobi) plays his worried therapist.

Plotwise, I enjoyed this as a complex murder mystery, and a ghost story. Of course I didn't understand everything in it, and like Kairo the ending lost me. But it’s a hypnotic, disorientating, dreamlike and rewarding tale.

The Hong Kong DVD I watched (from Asia Video) only has stereo audio, and the original 1.85 aspect has been slightly zoomed and cropped to fit 16:9. This is only a small change in the framing, but Kurosawa has carefully composed the whole frame, and the change was very noticeable. Hopefully the upcoming region 1 US DVD release will be better presented.

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March 30, 2008

Not on DVD: PHOENIX FIVE (1970) - an Aussie Star Trek!

(1969, Australia)

TV series - 26 x 25 minutes

Since mentioning this obscure Australian sci-fi show two years ago, I've been trying to track down more information. I was a little disappointed to discover that it’s aimed more at children. But here's an updated, expanded article anyway...

(Original 03/08/06 entry)

Wanting to be Star Trek, but with a budget closer to Star Maidens, was this Australian sci-fi adventure that brought us the intrepid interstellar explorers of the spaceship 'Phoenix Five'. The above picture of the crew of three and their computeroid robot (check out its legs) is from the website of Classic Australian TV - it's the first time I've seen anything from the show for nearly thirty years!

I was scouring the web for years until this site turned up a brief history of the show (and its predecessors), an episode guide and some great publicity stills, including images from the theme tune. To help jog your memory and maybe tantalise you further, get on over to
Classic Australian TV.

My own vague memories of Phoenix Five are of it running on ITV in the mid-seventies on Sunday mornings. I loved the theme tune (a groovy cyclical instrumental) and an alien planet surface looking like the Australian desert, but remembered little else - except that I wanted to see it again!

When even the frankly shoddy Star Maidens
is out on DVD, with even a soundtrack CD release, I fully expect other gems like this to resurface... eventually.

(Update - more about the series)
It's not a classic, but it's watchable in a Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo, Double Deckers sort of way. That is to say, this could still be of interest, if you're nostalgic for TV from the seventies, or can have fun watching low budget TV.

That said, it's not nearly as low budget as a lot of children’s TV today – it’s still got costumes, sets, location filming and is shot on film. It would be kinder to say it's over-ambitious - making an interplanetary adventure with three sets and one model. it also lacks logic, scientific accuracy, realistic characters and aims for the sort of fantasy adventure provided by early Doctor Who. If all that isn't a problem (I know that's a lot of ifs) you might still want to see it.

The opening title sequence (currently here on YouTube) may very well be the highlight of the entire series. Tightly edited scenes to a fantastic sixties track (see below for CD news). I noticed that the background music includes ‘library’ tracks (ready made music that has to be edited to fit your action - cheaper than getting a composer to write music to fit your action). Stranger still, it also uses tracks composed by Peter Thomas for the German TV sci-fi Raumpatrouille (1966, yet another show called Space Patrol).

The crew of the Phoenix Five consists of the unbearably smug Captain Roke and his crew of two cadets and a robot. The control room looks like the bridge of the USS Enterprise crammed into a broom cupboard. Ensign Adam and Cadet Tina sometimes act more like naughty kids, and are forever being scolded or patronised by the Captain.

They spend much of their time flying around in space trying to thwart an evil opponent, usually a guy in fancy dress talking to an unfunny computer. Bizarrely, the baddie's computer is the only one with an Australian accent, everyone else sounds very English.

Even more British is the commander at Space Control, only glimpsed on the viewscreen, notably lampooned in MTV's short-lived X-rated puppet series, the Super Adventure Team.

Despite the Star Trek uniforms, ther's very little space to be seen. Most of the action is described rather than shown. Even if anything happens on their viewscreens, we hardly ever see it – we just see the actors in their little sets describing what’s going on.

The modelwork is very basic but the spaceship sets are more interesting. The better episodes are the ones out on location, on outback desert planets.

Not essential, but not available either. Thanks very much to Peter for some invaluable material in learning more about the elusive Phoenix Five.

New update 02/02/09
There's now a whole episode of Phoenix Five on YouTube, with links to other 1960s Australian sci-fi shows.

New update 26/03/09
Thanks to Joe McIntyre's comment (below), I've finally (after thirty years of yearning) got the full track used for the theme tune on CD. It's called 'Strange Galaxy' and is on this Jack Arel CD, celebrating this French master of lounge music (another of his tracks was used in the final episode of The Prisoner!), with remixes of 'Strange Galaxy' on the bonus CD! It's available from Amazon, but I got mine from MovieGrooves. Result!

March 26, 2008

SURVIVE! (1976) - an exploitation nightmare

(1976, Mexico, Supervivientes de los Andes)

A true story more famous than the films

There’s always been an appetite for movies based on real events, especially gruesome ones. It’s now common to see reconstructions of fresh, shocking crimes in TV documentaries, like the Columbine shootings, but it used to be more of a taboo, usually out of respect for the families of the deceased. In the 1970's it was usually exploitation movies that moved in too soon, despite protests. TV movies were only beginning to gain spectacular ratings with dramatisations such as Helter Skelter (1976), that focused on the Charles Manson family killings. But the events in Survive! were too strong for TV.

Other seventies horror movies that tried to gain attention by announcing they were based on truth were The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Amityville Horror (1979), and even The Exorcist (1973), though their connection with facts were all found to be extremely tenuous.

Survive! told a story that I knew to be true. I’d read the story in the Sunday supplements and seen colour photographs of the survivors trapped high in the Andes, after a small commercial flight crashed, way off course. When all hope of rescue seemed lost, they faced months of being snowbound, without any food. The only way they could survive was to eat the dead…

I ventured to the cinema to see what couldn’t be shown in the papers, even though I was too young to see an X certificate at the time (over 18’s only). Before home video, it was much easier to prevent the under-aged from accessing adult movies. It felt like a much bigger deal than it is now.

I saw Survive! at the end of 1976, on an unsuitable double-bill with an Alistair MacLean thriller, Fear is the Key. The posters and publicity were mercilessly playing up the cannibalism angle. Survive! played in my local 'grindhouse' cinema, Studio 7, which always had the dodgiest films and the lowest-budget horrors. I steeled myself – I was new to gore on the big screen…

But what I got was a low-budget Mexican film that had been dubbed into English. Little did I know, Robert Stigwood and Alan Carr had picked this up cheap and marketed it for a wider English-speaking audience, making themselves millions of dollars in the process. Perhaps Survive! helped finance their movie blockbuster Grease? Strangely, Survive! is missing from both Stigwood and Carr’s resumes on IMDB.

Mid-1970’s, this story was a timely gift to cinema – it fitted both the disaster movie and horror genre. Instead of Hollywood having to brave the protests against making a bad taste movie, they simply had to revoice the Mexican film to make a pile of money, one of Paramount Studio’s biggest hits of 1976. Though the news stories had already sold it for them, the marketing didn’t pull its punches. The posters showing the scene of a naked body being pulled through the snow, the trailers freeze-framing on the shot where flesh is cut from a corpse. Tasteful. (…and also on youTube).

I haven’t seen many Mexican movies, but I’m impressed with Survive! The plane crash is well-mounted for the time, and the snow-bound set looks just about convincing. But because they’re sticking fairly closely to the facts (despite changing the names of all the characters), the camera keeps its distance and you never get to know any of the characters very well. The rescue mission is similarly covered almost like a news story, in a very dry, uninvolving manner. For such an emotional story, there’s only ever real feeling when someone loses a relative.

For most of the time, it's a straightforward telling of real events in an unambitious TV movie style, but things suddenly get gruesome for the initial scenes of cannibalism. Flesh being flayed and a couple of half-eaten corpses are both shock effects more suited to Italian horror. Although the scenes are intact in the UK home video, I certainly didn’t see them like that in the cinema (they were mostly censored out). Seeing these brief scenes for the first time on video, I was shocked at how far they went at the time.

The Mexican version is 26 minutes longer than the English version that played in the UK and US, much more of the attempted rescue mission is shown. It was directed by veteran Rene Cardona, who was 70 at the time! Cardona was no stranger to Santo wrestling movies or Mexican horror, such as the infamous Night of the Bloody Apes.

The English version adds a photographic montage at the start and end, and lays on even more documentary-style voiceover. Obviously all the actors are dubbed, fairly loosely, into English, but this was a standard practice for foreign films in the seventies.

Besides cutting out large chunks of the story and tightening up many scenes, the order of events is changed in the English cut, like the timing of the discovery of the tail-section of the plane. A re-ordering of the facts to suit the flow of the narrative. But the most noticeable change is the addition of almost wall-to-wall music, a score by TV composer Gerald Fried. The Mexican version hardly has any music in it, giving it a more realistic feel, but the English version sounds like a TV movie, with many musical themes sounding far too upbeat. When the rescuers are out looking for the missing plane, they get a jaunty adventure theme, despite the fact that they are about to give up all hope.

Some credit is due though. The moment when the survivors decide to eat their dead colleagues and go out to their frozen graves, has a suitably nightmarish accompaniment, that reminded me of a cue from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Poltergeist II.

I can’t imagine what the relatives thought of this film coming out so soon after the crash ordeal. The publicity from the news stories must have been upsetting enough. The story never really went away either. Hollywood eventually filmed their own version of the story as Alive (1993), a respectful twenty years after the crash. But despite the bigger budget and location filming, it’s hardly any different from Survive! It's the same story, but this time with English-speaking actors. The film peaks very early with the horrifying plane crash. But the cannibalism is only slightly less exploitative, the bodies in the snow now barely recognisable as human. There’s a bit more action as the survivor's attempt to reach the outside world, to tilt it towards the adventure genre. Alive felt less gritty than Survive! and concentrates more on melodrama, which the young cast barely carries off.

The best way to learn about these events is through a documentary. Both movies end with their rescue, but the story was really only half over - the survivors then had to face the press as the world learned that they had eaten human flesh. Joy at their survival was replaced with angrier reactions, opinions divided by moral and religious concerns.

Only recently have all the survivors felt comfortable talking about their ordeal in front of cameras, and they even revisit the crash site in a new feature-length documentary, Stranded! The Andes Plane Crash Survivors (2007), also called Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains. Besides recalling their experiences, a camera found in the wreckage documented some of their story. Then the final moment when they were rescued was of course filmed by a news crew - a wonderful moment to see.

Watching the new documentary, hearing what they were thinking at the time is a completely different experience to seeing recreations of what they were driven to do. The various versions of this story through the years demonstrate how perceptions change.

Of course, if you still want to see it, there are only two ways to see the original Survive! at the moment. The Mexican version is on DVD as Survive: Supervivientes de los Andes and runs at 111 mins - there's a Mexican trailer included, and good English subtitles. (Available here from CD Universe.)

The shorter English version is rarer, on a long out-of-print VHS. But they still sell for low prices on eBay. Strangely the VHS (released by Thorn-EMI) was from a far better-looking print than the current DVD. The colours are more vibrant and the grading brighter. The VHS runs just under 82 minutes and is uncensored. The end credits cheekily list everyone who helped redub the film, but only mentions six members of the original cast!

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March 22, 2008

INNOCENCE (2004) a beautiful mystery

(2004, France/Belgium, L'Ecole)

One of several films called Innocence, this was rather fascinating.

Iris, an infant, gradually learns the rules of her new school when she arrives in a beautiful walled garden. As she is let out of a coffin and greeted by the other girls, she’s given a specifically coded colour ribbon for her hair, which means she is one of the youngest pupils. Inside the huge garden is a schoolhouse and five dormitories – this is now her new home.

Confused, I paid close attention to every comment from the older girls, and the reactions of the two teachers, as I tried to work out was going on in this elaborate, enclosed community of very young girls. Paying strict attention, I was slowly fed clues about the possible fate of these children, and largely left in the dark so as to fear the worst…

Film students well-versed in unravelling elaborate sub-texts may make completely different conclusions than me, but I took the story at face value and found it intriguing. When is it set? What is outside the garden walls? Have they been kidnapped? What’s going to happen to them all? Why are the adults worried? Where does Bianca go in the middle of the night? Teased by views of mysterious rooms and a stone cellar, I was ready for this to turn into gothic horror at any moment.

The idyllic location in the huge walled forest is beautifully observed, and portrayed as full of vivid colour and alive with nature. But there are rules and warnings about going into the woods at night, straying off the garden path or ever trying to escape.

Not until the end did I realise that this was intended as more of an allegory than a coherent mystery. The oblique ending isn't really a climax, and the mystery-riddled story reminded me of Hotel (2004, Germany), also a beautiful and gloomy film, with more questions than answers.

Seeing innocent young children playing together in a protected environment is rather unusual in cinema. Often schools are only shown when there’s danger or mischief. The girls appear to be carefree and protected from the worries of the world, totally unlike children in Hollywood comedies, where 'kids' are wise before their time, interested in growing up too fast, violent, cynical, greedy or prematurely obsessed with sex.

Because of the idyllic lifestyle inside the school garden, the girls are carefree and unbothered about occasionally being half-naked. While the camera and the direction is unexploitative of the situation, some critics have been overly concerned about these scenes. This hasn’t been diffused by the rather coy poster focussing on a girl’s legs in a very short skirt. The poster is unrepresentative of the tone, themes and imagery in the film. Though the viewer is certainly lead to worry that some dark reality is going to interrupt at any moment.

A far clumsier take on the story came the following year with a film using the author’s more ungainly original title, The Fine Art Of Love - Mine Ha-Ha. This raised the schoolgirls’ ages and added a lesbian storyline, but is apparently a less subtle, far less successful film.

Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic has cleverly adapted this story by Frank Wedekind, better known for writing Pandora’s Box, which was made into one of the finest silent films in 1927. She’s presented innocence as a fascinating all-woman society of mostly young girls, all years away from impending puberty. I was also reminded of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), which also used fantasy to explore the interests and behaviour of young girls in a simplified world.

Marion Cotillard plays one of the few adults in the school, a rather sensitive teacher. She has since become world-famous as an Oscar winner (for La Vie en Rose), though you might also have seen her in Luc Besson’s Taxi, Taxi 2, Taxi 3 or Tim Burton’s Big Fish.

Innocence is available on DVD in the UK.

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BLACK LIZARD (1968) - a Japanese gem, not on DVD

(1968, Japan, Kurotokage)

Entertaining comic strip crime thriller with a cross-dressed villainess…

I recently rewatched Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and thought I should see the famous writer in one of his acting roles. Though he’s only in Black Lizard for a brief cameo, there's plenty else to enjoy.

The atmosphere is very ‘Mishima’ throughout, with it’s overly poetic dialogue and death/beauty obsessed characters. The script is based on his stage adaption of an Edgar Rampo novel. Rampo was a potent source for cinema adaption, and his work is still of high interest. The 1968 film of his Horror of Malformed Men has finally been released on DVD this year in the US, as has Blind Beast vs Dwarf and Rampo Noir. One of Shinya Tsukamoto's best films, Gemini (1999) is also from a Rampo novel.

The story of Black Lizard features his regular hero, Detective Akechi, one of Japan’s favourite sleuths (who was pitted against his fictional rival Kindaichi in a recent Japanese TV movie). Kogoro Akechi is more of a Humphrey Bogart private dick, unafraid to slum it in the sleazier corners of the big city.

Master Detective Akechi’s chief adversary is the bloodthirsty Black Lizard, a woman who’ll do anything to get what she wants. The twist is, the character is expertly played by a female impersonator. The opening titles hint at the unusual, by using illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, which also decorate the Black Lizard’s nightclub (psychedelically lit like a sixties Batman episode). But while Beardsley represents debauchery and adventurous sexuality, the cross-dressing actor is still meant to be playing a woman, and not a character in drag.

This makes most of the film extraordinary, with Akihiro Maruyama delivering an excellent though exaggerated performance as a power-crazed woman. While it’s definitely camp, it’s restrained enough to also qualify as realism. The illusion seems to have been enhanced by using an actress to ‘loop’ the actors dialogue.

The Black Lizard’s crime capers are more James Bond than profit-orientated. If she wants something, she goes after it using kidnap, faked suicides and brute force, in outlandish schemes reminiscent of Danger: Diabolik (released in Italy the same year). The action is very pulpy, with plot holes everywhere, but the melodrama and the style is more important. Black Lizard designs elaborate schemes to foil Detective Akechi, who she also loves. But to escape with her heist, she really should kill him...

The director is the prolific Kinji Fukasaku, who many of us first encountered on his last ever film – Battle Royale. But back in the sixties, he was already courting controversy, though I don't know whether this film was designed to spoof the earlier 1962 movie adaption of the same novel.

The lush 2.35 widescreen camerawork is fluid but expertly executed, with a precise and jazzy use of the zoom lens. The unique cast and colour palette all combine to create a visual style that all the money in Fort Knox couldn't possibly recreate now.

With the talent involved here, it’s a shame this isn’t on DVD. Perhaps there are rights issues with the Mishima estate? If this ever becomes available, it can still easily be enjoyed today.

The C I N E B E A T S flickr site has a trove of screengrabs to whet your appetites.

UPDATE: October 2007
Cinebeats later published an informative and fully illustrated backstory to the film - though my browser has a slight problem loading her page properly.

One compensation is that Fukusaku's 1969 follow-up to Black Lizard, called Black Rose Mansion, is available on DVD in the US. I think Tartan were about to bring this out in the UK when the company folded. With a smaller, almost house-bound story, most of the action takes place inside a gentlemen's club. But when the house entertainer is played by the unique Akihiro Maruyama, it's still a hypnotic and entertaining melodrama.

Black Rose Mansion was on release singly and in a Fukusaku triple-bill with two more freewheeling sixties movies Blackmail Is My Life and If You Were Young: Rage. More details here on DVD Times.

March 16, 2008

DRAGON WARS (2007) and Korean monster movies

or D-War
(2007, South Korea)

The Host and Dragon Wars are both South Korean films, both monster movies. They are however completely different experiences, with vastly alternate methods of gaining international attention.

Downtown Los Angeles under attack from duelling giant monsters and a demon army. Tanks on the streets, chopper chases through the skyscrapers...

Dragon Wars finally landed after years in production, also known under the less catchy title of D-War. It had a huge marketing push in the US, leading to a nationwide 1500 screen opening in cinemas. Is this the way for other non-English speaking countries to make it big in movies?

D-War starts with a confusing flashback/flashforward within a flashback structure to set up the story, an obviously condensed section of narrative. There's an ancient monster trying to find one woman, who has the power to make the giant lizard (that looks like a snake) even more powerful - enough to destroy the world…

There's an impressive early battle scene (one of the few actually shot in South Korea) but the film fails to entertain again until the centrepiece showdown, which is almost as much fun as the climax of Michael Bay's Transformers. Los Angeles gets a thorough trashing as a monster army faces off against the police and the army, while two dragons fight over the girl, chasing her around and up the skyscrapers.

The only parts of the film sections that made sense to me were the action scenes, due to the mind-bogglingly bad dialogue and story logic. If it wasn't for the monster scale of the action, this would also look dangerously similar to those Anaconda movies. While the city battle is realistic enough, the effects falter again at the climax, in a low resolution Lord of the Rings fantasy dreamscape, with matching low-res dragons.

I'd have gladly sacrificed the CGI effects budget for the baffling 'monster army' subplot (and its repetitive walk-cycle), in order to finance a better script. If the forces of evil have their own dragon, why do they also need an army?

Besides the US locations are a mostly US cast. Jason Behr (Roswell, The Grudge) chooses one expression and sticks with it for the entire film, though he deserves an award for looking relaxed and happy in front of D-War posters at the publicity junkets. Robert Forster (Alligator, Medium Cool) gets lumbered with a loooong initial stretch of exposition about what Imoogi and Buraki are (don't ask), while hoping a Black Hole will once again swallow him up.

The FX action is the only reason to see this, as the monster wades through some impressively destroyed buildings, while chasing our heros. But strangely, all the CGI shots appear to be severely cropped, top and bottom. The 2.35 letterbox makes the composition of these shots look like mistakes, where the dragons' eyes are repeatedly lost out of the top of the frame, and their bellies running along the ground (crucial for integrating a non-existent object into its surroundings) is often missing from bottom of frame.

Though largely shot round Los Angeles, D-War is a South Korean film. Written and directed by Hyung-rae Shim (who graced us with Reptilian, an obvious dry run). The CGI visual effects were all created in a new facility in South Korea.

The film has bent over backwards to get success in the US. It's from a strange cyclical urge for the country to try and make money from giant movie monsters. While D-War is less of a train wreck than earlier Korean quasi-kaiju (see below), it still can't match any average standard of film-making. Nor can it hope to match the quality of the The Host, a far cheaper film, also from South Korea, also hoping for international attention. But D-War is a fascinating demonstration of the furthest extent of compromise in international cinema.

Even with exceptionally poor reviews, Dragon Wars huge marketing push has encouraged so many to see it, that it's far better known and even considered more fun than The Host. This recent unexpected reaction has left me baffled. So expect to see more enjoyably bad big budget movies from other countries, all shot in English.

The west generates enough mindless entertainment like this already. I enjoy Korean cinema for the culture, actors I've not seen before, new ideas, new locations... I don’t need more movies shot in L.A., where practically every TV show and movie is shot. They even went to Bronson Canyon, a cliched location for Hollywood even back in the fifties! I honestly thought D-War would at least strike a balance and keep more of it in Korea.

The Host succeeded in breaking away from monster movie cliches by focusing on the human characters. Before the beast arrives, we're already involved in the dysfunctional family. It defies the genre by working in drama, humour, political satire, and presenting an overview of life in big city Korea. The Host also features some of Korea's top acting talent. If you want a strong story, actual acting, characters, humour, consistent special effects and even a little subtext, The Host is the only South Korean monster movie on the map.

Either way, fans of both The Host and D-War may soon be rewarded with sequels. The battle continues…

Dragon Wars is out on on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Other bad Korean monster movies:

As Japan made an industry out of watchable giant monster movies, South Korea jealously tried to make it's own...

Yongary (1967)
The name of Yongary has long been regarded as the worst of the Asian giant monsters... (Black Hole review here).

Pulgasari (1985)
...until North Korea came up with this. Kim Song Il kidnapped South Korean director, Sang-ok Shin, to make this tale of a man in a monster suit pretending to be the evils of capitalism. Rarely seen till now, it's best that way. Black Hole review here.

Reptilian (2000)
Inspired by America's 1998 makeover of Godzilla, South Korea resurrected Yonggary with CGI. D-Wars’ director Hyung-rae Shim's took an early crack at the American market in 2000, with Reptilian, wisely changing the movie's name. Like D-War, Reptilian also had an all-American cast, CGI monsters, and flaming car wrecks being dropped near fleeing stuntmen.

Serious monster fans may have wisely missed Reptilian, reviews certainly recommended them to. The shoddy CGI monster, well-designed but extremely low on resolution, let's down the live-action work, which offers impressive explosions and modelwork that would have integrated nicely with suitmation and not dated as harshly.

The awful story, acting and other details are barely compensated for by the one original scene in the movie - when soldiers attack using flying jetpacks and a rocket launcher!

March 15, 2008

FIDO (2006) another marvellous rom-zom-com

(2006, USA/Canada)

After seeing the poster with a little boy leading a pet zombie on a leash, I hoped I was going to love this one. I do!

I wasn’t expecting it to be set in square-jawed suburban fifties America, where picket fence neighbourhood communities are protected by a ring of steel and omnipresent firepower. The riff is that radiation has caused the dead to rise again, but instead of treating it like something new, the story picks up as if the entire George Romero trilogy timeline has already taken place – zombies have almost over-run society but been beaten back in the zombie wars (that Romero wanted to depict in the original Day of the Dead).

Also following on from that film, the zombies have started to regain their original memories and skills. In Fido, this means that they are now ripe for domestication, as long as they wear electronic collars to curb their craving for human flesh.

To me, this is a natural progression on from Day of the Dead (1985). It could be a sequel that Romero never made. Zombie competition is hot at the moment, mostly trying to rekindle the thrills of the gory seventies, but Fido attempts something new with the mythos and gives us a sort of comedy version of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes!

Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix trilogy) is superb as an uptight housewife who gets a zombie just to keep up with the neighbours. Her husband, played by Dylan Baker (Happiness, The Cell), is more interested in golf than raising his son. While Timmy is struggling to understand the principles of zombie slavery at school, but keeps ignoring the rules to see what happens. Well, if you’re not careful with your pet zombie, it’s likely that there’ll be a local scandal, disapproving looks, flesh-eating, and creeping outbreak of serial zombification…

While the story is inventive and rewarding, with a host of enjoyable character actors really enjoying the fifties surroundings. The movie pulls its punches on gore, shocks, belly-laughs and even zombie sex, resulting almost in a kids movie largely centred around the neighbourhood children. But with regular scenes of flesh-eating and some splattery head wounds, it’s hard to recommend to the early teens.

Several dramatic themes are built up but left open-ended, and at times the story seems to rush past plot points between scenes, making it look like a shortened version of the intended story.

But it’s good-natured, with everyone playing it straight and ignoring the bizarreness of the premise. It’s blackly humourless without being grim and makes few political points with such a heavily loaded scenario.

The beautiful metallic cars and primary colours contrast with the miserable zombies’ grey pallour, yet there’s still could be a place for them in middle America, if there can be zombie integration.

K’Sun Ray as Timmy, holds the film on track whenever Carrie-Anne Moss isn’t around. Tim Blake Nelson (spectacularly stupid in the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?) has a great part as an eccentric neighbour with a zombie playmate. Fido himself is played by an unrecognisable Billy Connolly, who builds on the classic portrayal of zombie Bub (Sherman Howard) also from the first Day of the Dead. Well, there aren’t many other performances of zombies with dawning self-awareness around to study.

The usually bearded actor/comedian is hugely popular in the UK, where this still hasn’t been released. It’s a cult movie - come on, you’ll make money!

Fido can be tracked down on DVD in the US (from Lionsgate) and around Europe (but not the UK).

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March 09, 2008

CUTIE HONEY - THE LIVE (2007) new TV action series

(2007, Japan)

Tokyo TV - 25 x 25 minute episodes

his is a new live-action TV series, based on the classic anime and manga, but following up the recent success of the live-action movie, which was even released on DVD in the US. Although the new series isn’t as futuristic as the movie, and also lacks Erika Sato (The Slit-Mouthed Woman) in the lead, it still provides sexed-up Kamen Rider thrills with huge buckets of humour.

Cutie Honey, a ditzy do-gooding android, even manages to work her bust into the weekly kickboxing fights with the enemy hordes. There's also some brief topless nudity, indicating that this was aired later at night.

Honey is usually chirpy and naïve in her many undercover disguises, though of course she's hiding on Earth disguised as a schoolgirl. She saves up her aggression and skills for her transformations into a one-woman fighting machine. Mikie Hara appears to be doing many of the complex fighting scenes herself.

The story concerns the evil organisation Panther Claw's six-pronged attack on law-abiding society, including the use of alien nano-technology to turn humans into bio-weapons and mobile phones into swords!

Only Honey Kisaragi can physically stop them, but as usual she still needs help. Besides her usual dapper, private eye, sidekick Seiji Hayami (Syouma Yamamoto), she befriends the surprisingly informative occupants of a riverside shanty village (now a common sight with so many homeless people in Japan's big cities). Also, it appears that she's not the only super-android in the neighbourhood...

Cutie Honey is a perfect chance to dress up a beautiful actress in a wild variety of sexy wish-fulfilment outfits, catering for an ogling audience. Though it's treated in a cheeky way, rather than laciviously. The good-natured, infantile, slapstick humour alternates with the fairly nasty antics of the invading aliens. It's a uniquely bizarre comedy superhero adventure that you can only find on televisions far, far away.

Cutie Honey has appeared in many anime series that are just now appearing on DVD in the USA. Whether or not Cutie Honey - The Live will follow up these and the movie, remains to be seen.

Volume 1 of a non-subtitled DVD release is imminent in Japan. Available, for instance, here from CD Japan.

The Japanese website for the series can be found here.

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March 08, 2008

PERSONA (2000) - Chiaki Kuriyama - behind the mask

(2000, Japan, Kamen Gakuen)

No, no, not the one by Ingmar Bergman

Need mystique and allure? Who ya gonna call? Time for another Chiaki movie...

A schoolboy arrives in class wearing a featureless mask. He says it’s to disguise himself from bullies. As other students start wearing masks, the ploy works because he’s no longer recognised. As masks begin to catch on around the city, pushed by an influential fashion guru, one schoolgirl sets out to investigate who’s making the masks and why. She even finds a secret society clubhouse hosting a type of Eyes Wide Shut masqued orgy. But, when a mask burns someone’s face off, she teams up with a reporter to solve the mystery of the masks.

From the downbeat opening, I was hoping for a supernatural thriller. But this strangely turns into a typical Japanese mystery movie (like any of the Kindaichi series). It starts off teasing that something spooky is afoot, but in fact there’s a more Scooby Doo explanation. Which is a shame, because the film starts powerfully and mysteriously, exploring themes of identity, invisibility, and even anonymous sex (though the teenage orgy gets no more racy than open-mouthed kissing).

There are still some early startling mask scares, certainly enough to send mask-o-phobes behind the sofa. But halfway through, it settles into a dot-the-dot Murder She Wrote mystery among some 80’s style fashion shows. Surely curly perms and new romantic make-up weren’t still around Japan in 2000?

Although this is directed by Takashi Komatsu, who made the interesting Kidan, I really wanted to see this for Chiaki Kuriyama. She only has a small role, but it’s good to see her alongside Tatsuya Fujiwara just before they were in Battle Royale together.

Though this almost looks like a two-part TV special, with a critical shift in tone in the second half, the perky lead, Maya Kurosu, manages to hold it all together. The potential of the story could have been explored more thoroughly - what if Hachigatsu could remake the second half…

Persona seems to be a rare title on DVD outside of Europe. I watched the UK region 2 PAL release from Terra.

If you want more Chiaki Kuriyama, this obsessive website is scarily thorough...

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March 05, 2008

SHIVER (2003) - Seven meets The Ring in Hong Kong

(2003, Hong Kong, Sam Hon)

A unsteady balance between Hong Kong thriller and horror

There's currently little in my Hong Kong section, here in the Black Hole, because I like my horror free of slapstick and kung-fu, (Mr Vampire is of course an exception). Serious HK horror is relatively thin on the ground, though I’m still digging around. Even if I include the Pang brothers, who don’t exclusively get funded by Hong Kong, but rather as multi-territory co-productions - for example, The Eye is listed as Hong Kong/Singapore and was mostly shot in Thailand.

Now that China, Hong Kong’s major new market, has again banned horror films, things are looking serious for horror there. Recently, I tried out Andrew Lau's Haunted School which was pretty poor. I now take a look at Shiver, which looks like it was made in the early nineties, with basic filmaking techniques, flat lighting and live sound.

Chen Ming (Francis Ng) and Sum-Yi’s marriage is in trouble. Things are so bad, even their divorce is in trouble! Stuck in traffic, they get caught in a shoot out and Sum-Yi (Athena Chu) gets hit in the head. She survives, but finds that she can see ghosts… and predict serial murders. It’s handy that she's married to a cop.

As her visions get scarier, and her behaviour gets more hazardous, hubbie is closing in the serial killer. Though it’s hard to identify with Chen when Sum-Yi’s doctor, Ko Chun (Nick Cheung) is a far more compassionate character.

Like Chen’s driving, the movie veers wildly around between good and bad. The script mixes up the genres and throws in some good twists, aiming to please serial killer and horror fans, with police shootouts and car chases thrown in. I was also shocked to see full-frontal male nudity, on a corpse with its legs sawn off by chainsaw. There’s something you don’t see every day.

But many scenes have serious drawbacks, which I'll credit to the low budget rather than inexperience – director Siu-Hung Chung’s track record is certainly long enough. There’s a good enough cast, but they’re made to look bad by slack, unflinching editing during the harshest emotional scenes. There’s also a multiple car crash which is haltingly edited. Add to that some rather dated make-up effects. If you want actors to look stressed, don’t paint them green. If you want corpses to look like they're out of Seven, don’t use plastic.

The action gets really confusing towards the end, when inexplicable motivations really pile up. In short, our hero the cop is a really lousy detective, a lousy shot, and a lousy medic. Plus, we get to hear way too much of his annoying mobile ringtone.

Finally, one of the minor characters is called Kitty Chow. Is that a brand name of catfood in the US?

In some scenes, I started getting into Shiver - the drama worked, the tension worked, but then something really cheap or stupid happened. Shiver is almost good, it just needed a bit more care in the execution.

Added to the dated production values, is this old-style HK DVD from Universe Video, before they improved their releases. There are poorly-translated subtitles in mangled English, a non-anamorphic widescreen picture, and it's from a soft print that jumps at all the edits.

I'll keep looking for Hong Kong horrors that match the quality achieved by the Pang brothers. I also have high hopes for the live-action BLOOD THE LAST VAMPIRE, being made there at the moment.

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GOLDFRAPP - SEVENTH TREE - thank goodness

I don't talk about music much here, because the chances we all like the same movies and all like the same music are pretty slim. But when one of your favourite bands release a new album when you're having a shit week, I feel that some sort of thanks are in order.

Goldfrapp have released a new album. It takes a different direction from their previous Supernature by being gentler but still delicious. They seem to have returned, almost but not quite, to Felt Mountain territory. In one track, Alison's vocals stray up into the ether, where only The Cocteau Twins used to dwell.

The promo video for the first single A&E shows how the band are determined not to repeat themselves or follow any trends. It's also still good to see a video when you think "how did they do that?". There's also a short film included in the special edition release of the album and one of the A&E
single releases, that talks about the new album while showing us footage from their new animal-oriented photoshoots, intercut with random super-8 gorgeousness.

More about Goldfrapp here and here...

Thank you.

(But please release a compilation of all your promo videos on DVD. And a DVD of your Supernature concert. I know you recorded it on HD, I was in the audience that night...)

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March 01, 2008

FUNNY GAMES (2008) an anti-horror movie

(2008, USA)

Movie audiences get a battering

I've tried Funny Games before. I tried Funny Games again. This time, I'm still recovering.

As the onscreen title (Funny Games U.S.) pointedly reminds us, it's a remake. Of the 1997 Austrian film Funny Games. And it’s by the same director. After the success of Hidden (Cache), Michael Haneke has seized the opportunity to bring the experience of Funny Games to the originally intended audience, the American public.

Two overly polite young psychos use the flimsiest of excuses to wreak a prolonged and savage attack on a nice middle-class family, who are on vacation in a remote beauty spot by a boating lake. We’re initially presented with a couple and their young son. They have an expensive car, their own boat, two sets of golf clubs, and a rather dull taste in opera CDs. The two cheeky psychotics on the other hand enjoy speed metal music. They are more likely to represent a typical movie audience - anti-establishment anti-heroes looking for new thrills. What they’re interested in is violence, and almost unthinkingly, vicious psychological torture.

But this convincingly portrayed story is a stealthy set-up. A trap for fans of screen violence and mayhem. It’s from the genre of violent films that are about violence, a traditionally tricky genre that can easily backfire. Witness the double-edged reaction to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Oliver Stone’s Naural Born Killers. Funny Games U.S. avoids the usual pitfalls and succeeds at making the audience react realistically to violent situations, without exploiting them. Turning death and torture around from being entertainment, back to being repellent.

When violence happens it’s painful and prolonged, accompanied by screams of agony and the tortured reactions of loved ones. The effect is intensified by the reality of the situation – there’s no background music, and the camera often holds a fixed gaze on the situation as we see it play out without cutaways, as it would for real. If pain and death are going to be used to sell tickets, let’s be reminded of what it’s actually like.

I don't disagree that we should get reality checks like this. Last House on the Left had a similar sobering effect on me, making me question exactly what it is I get out of horror films. It’s timely that we should get some perspective on the current craze for ‘torture porn’.

A few years ago, I didn't ‘get’ the first Funny Games. I tried watching it, but didn’t get emotionally involved with the characters. With this new version, in a cinema, with a cast I like, I got it. This time it was an experience. I was in a constant state of dread about what was going to happen next. The violence hurt. The screaming was unbearable.

This isn’t to say that every technique the director used was successful. I didn’t understand the film’s most blatant communications with the audience, but I’m intrigued enough to see more of Haneke’s films and what he’s about.

The two wild jokers in the story taunt the audience that they are giving us what we want. We’re teased with some facetious details about why they’re like this, but it’s irrelevant. The audience are more interested in the action than the motive. The bloody infantile games they play are why we’re watching.

The hoodlums echo the amoral duos from Rope and Compulsion, both based on real-life murder cases. They’re played by former teen heart-throbs Michael Pitt (Dawson's Creek, The Dreamers) and Brady Corbet (Mysterious Skin, Thirteen) who aren’t totally successful in portraying the ‘wily and dim’ double act of the original. But Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, The Ring and Tim Roth (ironically from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) are intensely good in gruelling roles.

I’ve not seen many interviews with the director, or figured out his precise views. But he’s obviously very keen that this story reaches a wide audience that thrives on movie violence for entertainment. Rather than pick on the omnipresent serial killer genre or slasher films, he’s used the ‘home invasion’ scenario. This has previously been used to supposedly analyse violence in society, while crassly exploiting it – like in Straw Dogs and Death Wish - though these films are now obscure targets.

Without referencing a specific genre, Funny Games ably rallies against the exploitation of pain, with a typical nightmare premise filmed in a very different way, questioning how we watch atrocities that have been presented as entertainment.

Funny Games U.S. is constructed to lure all of us naughty horror fans in and try and teach us a valuable lesson. Though a mainstream audience may not get the point.

It's on release in
the USA mid-March and in the UK from April 4th.
The official UK website is here...

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