Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bang Rajan (2000)


Director: Tanit Jitnukul
Starring: Jaran Ngamdee, Winai Kraibutr, Theerayut Pratyabamrung

The story of the village of Bang Rajan is one of the most famous in Thai history, and while it's easy to say the film Bang Rajan was inspired by films like Seven Samurai, it's also easy to guess that Seven Samurai might have found some kernel of inspiration in the true story of Bang Rajan. It was a tiny rural village which, despite being grossly outmatched by Burmese forces possessed of far superior technology, numbers, and training, managed to hold out against onslaught after onslaught, costing the Burmese dearly, not to mention delivering a major blow to Burmese morale before the town finally fell. Bang Rajan the movie takes this story and treats it with an epic feel. There's very little truly original in the film, and every hoary old chestnut of this type of war movie is served up. What makes Bang Rajan fun, however, is how gung-ho it is with its elements. This is formulaic film making but in a way that is like receiving something you really want from your wish list.

Bang Rajan has everything you'd expect in a movie where sassy villagers repel superior forces: the cool and calculating leader, the young hot shot, the drunken lout who will rise Toshiro Mifune style to the heights of glory and honor in battle -- nothing you haven't seen dozens of times before. But that familiarity didn't much matter to me, because Bang Rajan is full of energy and zest, not to mention solid acting, incredible cinematography, and some truly monumental mustaches. The battles are gory, informed obviously by Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan (those two films cast long shadows still), but very effective, and for much of their running time, the director Tanit Jitnukul (who helmed the similar historical battle epics Khunsuk and Khun Pan: Legend of the Warlord) manages to refrain from employing "in the thick of it" shaky cam, allowing us to sit back and enjoy all the shouting, leaping, and general carnage.

The leading cast of men continue the modern Thai tradition of loading their films with hot guys who can actually act. Jaran Ngamdee sports a mustache that would make Rollie Fingers fall down and weep at his feet. I guess it was a fake, but the fact that Thai men ever sported mustaches this fabulous is just one example of the undying flame that enabled them to defy the Burmese army for nearly half a year. Like the other characters, he is exactly what you expect of his character, but all of them are likable. Not every film is character driven after all, and it's perfectly acceptable to present us a stock we instantly recognize, allowing us to get on with the rest of the film. As the drunken, axe-wielding Nai Thongmen, Bin Bunluerit became the crowd favorite (as is always the case with the drunken lout who rises to greatness) and took home a best acting award for that year. He proves that the Toshiro Mifune model can still be fun, exciting, and poignant even if you already know what to expect.


The fact that the film invests time in developing characters and familiarizing you with them, even within he confines of their cliches, makes the finale clash, when you know pretty much everyone has to die, all the more moving. And the scene of Jaran Ngamdee slashing his way across a lush green field littered with corpses, his majestic mustache flowing around him -- man, it's straight out of "dramatic war cinema 101," but it's still extremely effective.

I wouldn't exactly call Bang Rajan a solid historical lesson, but history and folk tales underline everything that goes into the story -- and in fact, that it is so similar to Seven Samurai and countless other war and siege films is a testament to how certain folk tales permeate all cultures, and certain traits and scenarios affect populations across varied cultures and geographies.

My only real gripe about Bang Rajan are a few ill-advised forays into CGI explosions. Placed as they are amid actual actors and sword fighting and stampeding elephants, these clumsily-executed computer effects stick out like a sore thumb. But there are only a couple of them, and that's easy to overlook in the greater scheme of thing. Bang Rajan ends up being one of my favorite things: well-executed, energetic genre formula. You know what you're going to get, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still taste delicious.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Grizzly 2 (1983)

A gigantic (twenty feet tall!) female Grizzly goes on a rampage after watching her cub be gutted by some crummy poacher.  And getting her leg caught in a large bear trap does nothing to sweeten her up, either.  Meanwhile, a big concert is being set up over in nearby Grover Meadow, and no one involved has any idea what’s headed their way (very, very slowly).  So, it’s up to acting Chief (of Park Rangers), Nick (Steve Innwood), Director of Bear Management, Samantha Owens (Deborah Raffin), and mad-as-a-hatter, French Canadian Grizzly hunter, Bouchard (Jonathan Rhys-Davies), to stop the animal before people who actually count start turning up dead.

André SzötsGrizzly 2 (aka Grizzly: The Concert, aka Predator: The Concert, and various other permutations thereof) is an unfinished film, so we do need to adjust our perspective on how we gauge it, if only slightly.  There is a rough (very rough) work print available on Youtube, if you fancy having a watch.  The movie is a sequel to William Girdler’s great 1976 film (which had one of the greatest film climaxes I ever witnessed as a youth), and just like that one was a riff on JAWS, this one is a riff on JAWS 2.  Grizzly 2 is much more youth-oriented and much more improbable outside of the verisimilitude of a crazed Grizzly going on a tear.  From what can be seen of the extant footage, I like to think this would have been a modest hit, but more likely than not it would have been remembered in the same breath with Jaws: The Revenge, all things considered.  The production was troubled from jump street with money issues, script issues, and special effects issues galore.  You can read about it in more detail here:  http://nypost.com/2014/06/29/the-star-studded-film-youll-probably-never-see/.  If anyone mentions the film at all, it is most likely to note that it had early appearances of Charlie Sheen and Laura Dern, as well as being the feature film debut of George Clooney (who?)  Outside of adding to three actors’ celluloid closets, though, (thanks for the nomenclature, Fangoria) they are not nearly the attraction that co-lead Deborah Foreman is to my mind, and from the quality of the video I watched, it took some work on this viewer’s part to recognize the three at all (and all in the same scene, no less).

So, what can you expect from a viewing of Grizzly 2?  Well, the sound is unmixed, and you can clearly hear actors being given dialogue cues from off camera.  This is most interesting (to me, at least) in the performance footage and scenes around the concert in general.  You can actually hear the live voices of some of the musicians (particularly a girl group made up of some fetching lasses), and they are, believe it or not, not terrible.  It would also be a good guess that Szöts or someone near to him was a big fan of Michael Jackson, because several of his tunes are used on the soundtrack in non-performance sequences for temp scoring (and I suspect these songs were played on set during filming to set the mood).   There is no foley track, so scenes that were shot MOS (aka without sync sound) are totally silent as a result.  Blank frames are inserted as placeholders for cutaways, effects shots, and so forth that I assume weren’t yet filmed (and probably never would be).  

Of course, the editing is not slick, as expected, but what can be seen leads me to believe that the story’s structure could use a lot of tightening up (according the New York Post article, the film’s caterer was hired to work on the screenplay late in the game).  In its current state, it feels like three stories that were forced together (or two being forced together by a third, if you like).  You have the odious poachers (including Jack Starrett, Charles Cyphers, and Marc Alaimo) trying to catch the mama bear in order to sell her organs to aphrodisiac merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown while stabbing (or shooting) each other in the back.  These guys really have trust issues.  The other facet, obviously, is the concert story, which involves Chrissy (Foreman) falling for the self-involved frontman of some synth-pop band.  Neither of these moves past what we’re shown the first time the storylines are introduced.  The bear never makes an appearance at the show until the very end of the film, which surprised me since I would have figured that it would have skulked around and picked off a few crew members here and there.  In fact, the bear seems to kill people almost randomly (in other words, with no build up, no payoff, and no sympathy generation), which may work in a real world plausibility way but kind of stinks if you’re making an Animal Attack film.  The element that is supposed to tie these two together is Nick, Sam, and Bouchard’s hunt for the Grizzly, but the only time that anyone from the search shows up at the concert is when Nick appears to fawn over Chrissy, his daughter, and then let her run off to gallivant with skanky music types, and any interaction with the poachers is coincidental.  The separation of the storylines bogs the whole thing down, though it’s intended to keep the pace hopping along.  

While the bear effects were reportedly problematic, I have to say that what I saw was not awful.  There are even some decent animatronic shots of the bear as it approaches the concert grounds.  Sure, you have some laughable shots of Rhys-Davies leaping onto and stabbing a large, hair-covered, formless something, and there’s a shot of a bear arm swatting a character that reminded me distinctly of the Wampa attack from The Empire Strikes Back (and  just a little bit of the Sasquatch attacks from Snowbeast), but all things being equal, I liked what I saw and would give my eye teeth (ha, ha, ha, not really) to get a decent look at the Grizzly’s final repose.  It looks over-the-top enough to match its cinematic predecessor’s demise and original enough to satisfy the sense of wonder you go into a film like this expecting to be satiated.  The malfunctioning creature effects, which helped augment Spielberg’s opus, were very likely used here as an excuse to overdo the bear POV shots.  I find that intriguing, considering the template for how to use disadvantages to a filmmaker’s advantage had already been laid out for Szöts and company.

None of this is to say that this film couldn’t have been pulled together into a workable (and more importantly to its investors, bankable) film.  Nonetheless, any enjoyment to be gleaned from what is out there now is going to rely more on nostalgia than anything else (aerobics/calisthenics workouts for the concert employees, great character actors sinking their choppers into their one-dimensional roles and letting the blood drip down their chins, the Eighties pop music, the classic man-versus-monster finale that made movies of this ilk such a pure source of joy both in my childhood and now).  However, what the rough cut of Grizzly 2 does rather well is it gives people interested in the process of filmmaking a look at a portion of how a movie can be shaped.  It’s like being able to watch Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa.  Okay, it’s more like watching a local starving artist paint a bowl of fruit, but I believe that we can learn from all the things we see, be they good, bad, or middling.  How we use that knowledge is what counts.

MVT:  As I said, I have a major weakness for the concert scenes and the feelings of nostalgia they give me.  I miss the Eighties.  There.  I said it.

Make or Break:  The finale, where the bear finally hits the concert works better than any other section of the film, even in this lumpy version.

Score:  5.5/10 as a viewing experience, 6.75/10 as a learning experience.          

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bruce Lee and Chinese Gods (1976)

AKA: Pang shen feng; Story of Chinese Gods
Director: Chih Hui Chang

I don't even know where to begin with this one, as the size of this film's weirdness makes it nearly impossible to get a hold of. Should I start with ancient Chinese gods and their motorcycle clouds? Or the frequent dismemberment, charring, and other acts of insane violence? How about the fact that, when all else fails, the ancient gods of China have to call on the ultimate supernatural guardian of the East, Bruce Lee (sporting a cool third eye in the center of his forehead)?

There is an evil warlord who is oppressing the people of his province. His wife is a fox spirit, and although they are sexy, fox spirits are always deceitful and naughty. Disgusted by the ruler's evil deeds, the gods, one of whom can make his eyes extend way far out of his head, send a wise demigod type fellow down to Earth to talk sense to the despot. In accordance with the behavior you would expect from a ruler who murders his most loyal advisors and burns lots of people alive for the hell of it, he doesn't really see the error of his ways. Angered and frustrated, the demigod whips up a tornado that carries many of the peasants to a neighboring province, where the ruler is benevolent and honest.

The evil ruler decides to declare war on the good leader, but when his assassins fail to carry out their job, the fox spirit suggests that the evil ruler enlist the aid of the dark forces, who are pretty good at such things. In turn, the wise demigod enlists the aid of his pals up in the heavens and all out supernatural war ensues. Evil Taoist priests, monsters and demons of every possible shape and size, and god riding around on clouds that make motorcycle noises are all part of the fun. When the forces of evil send in the Three Kings of Hell as their coup de gras, the good gods summon up Bruce Lee. Yep. When God himself can't solve a problem, he calls on Bruce Lee. Wouldn't you? Bruce Lee, complete with his official silly fighting noises, materializes to kick some King of Hell ass. Bruce can do kungfu and shape shift into a stoned (not stone) dragon, among other powers he never used in his other movies but we always suspected he had in real life.

I'm not sure exactly how accurate the mythology on display is. As best I can tell, the reason Bruce Lee is no longer with us is because he had to travel back in time to like the Han Dynasty or something in order to assume his role as the ultimate god of China. He brought with him his knowledge of motorcycles and applied to it some clouds for his buddies. So, like, 90% culturally accurate.

I've really only scratched the surface of how insane this cartoon gets. This movie has more craziness packed into each of its artfully drawn but poorly animated cels than most any other film around. Was this for kids? Surely not. It shows people being chopped in half and burned at the stake, flailing and shrieking as the melt. It has demons ripping people apart and eating their limbs. I mean, sure it's the kind of movie I watched as a kid, but these kids these days are made of more tender meat. Kid friendly or not, Chinese Gods really is one of the most unbelievably fun and inexplicable things I've seen. It makes me feel a bit light-headed. The animation is not great, but you have to overlook the cheap animation and enjoy the delirium. And you can also admire the artwork, if not the outcome of trying to make it move.

Make or Break: The violence. Ostensibly made for children, this movie isn't afraid to revel in everything from people being burned alive to people being chopped to bits.

MVT: Bruce Lee's boobs. Seriously, man. It's like he hangs out with Kate Upton.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Episode #320: Only Lovers Left Alive

Welcome to the GGtMC!!!

This week Sammy and Will couldn't get together due to scheduling difficulties so we are blessed to have great friends of the show, Scott and Kat from Married with Clickers podcast, fill in for us!!! They are bringing you a review of the Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive (2014).

Thanks again to Scott and Kat and make sure to check out Married with Clickers!!!

Direct download: ggtmc_320.mp3

Emails to midnitecinema@gmail.com

Adios!!!


Episode #319: The Long Thieves

Welcome to another episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week we are sponsored by diabolikdvd.com, so head over and buy some discs and tell them the GGtMC sent you over!!! It was Large William's turn to program and he chose two Robert Altman films, The Long Goodbye (1973) starring Elliot Gould and Thieves Like Us (1974) starring Keith Carradine!!!

Direct download: ggtmc_319.mp3

Emails to midnitecinema@gmail.com

Adios!!!



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Heavenly Bodies (1984)



A lot of people are reticent to talk on the internet about the ideas they have for businesses, stories, products, and so on.  You can’t blame them.  If the public in general are opportunistic, self-serving backstabbers offline, just imagine what a bigger playground and a veil of anonymity grants them.  But since what I’m about to talk about involves characters I will never have the rights to use anyway, and I have absolutely zero interest in developing the concept with characters I made up myself, I’m just going to let the chips fall where they may.  That out of the way, this is my open letter/pitch to whomever at Marvel Studios or Twentieth Century Fox, or elsewhere who owns the rights to The New Mutants or just has a passing interest in reading this drivel.  

The year is 1984. “Professor” Charles Xavier's (hopeful casting would be Lucinda Dickey) Rec Center has been a hangout and haven for the kids of the community for years (likely Los Angeles, but I’m flexible. Aside from the usual activities the center sponsors, there is also a video arcade lovingly dubbed “The Danger Room.” A group of teens (Codenames/street names: Karma, Sunspot, Wolfsbane, Mirage, and Cannonball) who frequent the center also just happen to have a breakdancing team (guess what their name is). They take their skills to the streets to raise extra funds for the center as well as to find youths in trouble and rescue them. This is how they run across Illyana Rasputin and Doug Ramsey and bring these new recruits into the fold. Naturally, they're all superpowered mutants, as well (a nice, little analogy for teenaged awkwardness all by itself).  Often, the kids run afoul of the ultra-aggressive students of the Frost Academy, nicknamed the Hellions (also mutants, in case you needed to be told). Their mentor Ms. Emma Frost wants to expand her academy, and Professor X's Rec Center is the ideal location to do it.  The first film in the trilogy would focus on this conflict.  At the end, as all the kids are breaking and having a good time, Illyana is upstairs summoning up demons.  The second film would introduce Magma and be about both Illyana’s trip to Limbo/transformation into Magik as well as Mirage and the rest of the kids’ struggle with the Demon Bear.  The third film would bring alien techno-organism Warlock into the mix, develop his relationship with Doug/Cypher, and set the team against Warlock’s dad, The Magus.  That’s the basics.  Superpowered battles, teen angst, mesh half-shirts, and breakdancing, all in one franchise. Who could resist?  Pass the word along.

Samantha Blair (Cynthia Dale) is a wage slave in a steno pool (remember those?) for The Man, but she has a dream.  Along with friends KC (Patricia Idlette) and Patty (Pam Henry), she scrapes up enough bread to rent out a warehouse, renovate it, and start up her own aerobics studio (the titular one, no less).  As her client list expands due to her “unorthodox,” people-friendly approach, Sam sets her eyes on a second career as host of a morning exercise show.   But her success is ill-met by jerkweed Debbie (Laura Henry) and her boyfriend Jack (Walter George Alton, far better known as the eponymous Pumaman), who also owns Sam’s main competition.  Can a young dancer balance love with a football player (Steve, as essayed by Richard Rebiere), life with a child (Joel, as essayed by Stuart Stone), and aerobicizing all on her own?  The mind boggles.

Lawrence Dane’s Heavenly Bodies (incidentally co-produced by Playboy Enterprises) is much like any other of the various Chasing Your Dream films of the Eighties.  It centers on a young woman with a particular skill set.  She has had to (and still has to during the course of the film) struggle against forces both economic and sexist.  She has supportive, nonentity friends (seriously, why did KC want in on this business if she never does aerobics?), but she shines above even them because she has a special talent that just aches to be discovered.  What it does that’s interesting is twofold.  First, it makes Sam a single mother, and this shapes the core of her character.  While she does love her son (she even explains to him what orgies are), it’s clear that she had to put her life on hold for some time in order to earn the money to support the two of them, and her relationship with Joel’s father was formative in how Sam views new romantic prospects.  Second (and related to the first), is that her relationship with Steve is actually compelling and a little more realistic than we’re used to seeing in this sort of movie.  Their meet cute kicks off with the burly pigskinner (I’m just going to own that word) dressed in quasi-drag (replete with Daisy cup breasts and pig tails), mocking Sam and her job.  After earning his respect via the most erotic push-up contest in cinema history, she still rejects his advances.  Granted, it doesn’t take tons for her to relent, but the romance come from a place of mutual respect, and the fact that Steve quickly takes a shine to Joel strengthens the bond between Steve and Sam and the audience.  

The film also emphasizes watching and television (and television watching) as elements that shape Sam’s world.  She gets her own show, and though it feels mutually exclusive from her aerobics studio work in terms of popularity (we’re never really shown a direct correlation), it still makes her a media personality with a modicum of celebrity as well as providing an object of desire for some.  It also gives her the power to stand up for her cause that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Further, the finale of the film is a televised “workout marathon,” and whether or not Sam and her team win, that it is being broadcast to homes all over Canada (I’m assuming, since that’s where it was filmed) means that she will be judged by the public at large.  Not only does she stand to lose her business space, she stands to lose her entire livelihood, and if none of this was being filmed for an audience, there would likely never have even been a showdown.  Also of note is a scene where Sam acclimates herself to the set of her television program, and this scene harkens back to the “You Were Meant For Me” sequence in Singin’ In The Rain; from the prominent placement of a tall, white ladder, to the background color scheme, to the self-reflexive environment including lights, fans, and cameras, to the point that Sam names Gene Kelly as having a major impact on her life.  Of course, there’s also a sequence that directly apes this film’s biggest influence, Flashdance, but the first one feels just a hair more heartfelt, in my opinion.

Any film whose main point of interest involves sweaty female bodies can’t really be blamed for having the camera emphasize same, and this one certainly does its damnedest to raise shots of women’s crotches clad in tight, bright lycra to an artform.  However, I believe that this prioritization does the film a disservice in the long run, not because of what it wants to deliver to its audience but because of its overkill in doing so (I won’t get into the multitudinous plot holes in this thing because we’d be here all day).  This film is montage crazy (and these are obviously heavily influenced by the style of music videos, themselves montages in their disconnectedness from linear time and space), and it’s quite clear from only a few minutes in that this is the way things are going to be.  The opening title sequence encompasses the girls and their quest to kickstart Heavenly Bodies.  This is almost immediately followed by another montage as Sam’s client base expands.  Montages are often intended to cover a long period of time and move a story into its next phase, but this film is so smitten with them that the narrative is given no room to develop of its own accord (whether because its producers had no faith in it by itself or simply couldn’t care less about it, I’ll leave to you to decide).  I would wager that Heavenly Bodies is eighty-five percent aerobics montages and fifteen percent actual story.  And again, that’s all well and fine, if all you’re interested in is watching women exercise.  But if that’s the sum total of your desire in watching this movie, why not just watch any one of the profusion of aerobics shows that you can watch for free (and in less time) on television?       

MVT:  Cynthia Dale may not light the world on fire with her acting chops, but the woman has a plethora of heart, and it’s all on display here.

Make or Break:  The marathon at the end is what it’s all about (like the big tournament in almost every movie like this, including The Karate Kid, released the same year), and it works.  Nevertheless, the filmmakers emphasized so many similar scenes before it, that it robs the climax of a good deal of its power.  So, I guess that’s kind of damning with faint praise.

Score:  6.5/10