Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Men From The Gutter (1983)



Pre-digital Hong Kong genre cinema holds a great fascination for me, not so much for the technical achievements, the jaw-dropping stuntwork, or the bonkers ideas they throw around, but for the ambience of their visuals.  They can look beautifully garish as in many of the set bound Shaw Bros martial arts films or dirt-lickingly grotty as in some of the sleazier Category III films.  They even manage to mix the two from time to time.  The way Hong Kong is often portrayed is as alternately glamorous as it is dangerous.  Decked out nightclubs with gorgeous women and men in white suits are a staple.  Conversely, blown out ratholes where people in jeans and cheap tee shirts are forced to live provide the flip side.  

It’s not so much that this dichotomy exists, it’s that these films give the impression that these two strata of society exist essentially on top of one another.  There is the distinct sense that if a character opened the wrong door in a discotheque, they’d be met with a sweaty, stabby, rapey nightmare to set the old spine a-tingling.  It’s as if everyone is trapped within the city, like a real-life Escape from New York, and some denizens have merely managed to crawl to the top and accumulate wealth which only further buffers them from the dregs beneath them (or so they hope).  

Now, I’m no expert on Hong Kong films, and I’ll admit I haven’t seen nearly as many as others have, but the one thing which partly defines a lot of them from my perspective (particularly in the Crime arena) is this idea of the callous villainy of the wealthy versus the desperate ambition of the poor.  This is reinforced for me through the texture of the visuals.  The more realistic Hong Kong films have a certain grainy, desaturated look, and the worlds created are often filled with box-strewn warehouses, cluttered streets, and clogged up piers.  I can’t say how close to reality any of this is (and that’s really not the point anyway), but from films like Lam Nai-Choi’s Men from the Gutter (aka An Qu), I would suggest that my theories only gather more support. 

In his lousy tenement apartment, Wang (Parkman Wong Pak-Man) climbs out of bed in the middle of the night, crushes the cockroaches scuttling on his lunch, and ventures out to meet his ex-con pals Long (Lung Tin-Sang) and Brainless (Billy Lau Nam-Kwong) to discuss their big plan to get rich.  But the police are onto Wang, and an officer is killed while trying to apprehend him, sending Sgt. Zhao (Venom Clan alumnus Lo Meng) into a frenzy.  Meanwhile, fellow policeman Qiu (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai) is investigating the murder of Zeng Cai (Lee Hoi-Sang), bodyguard of criminal kingpin Xu Wen (Wong Yung), by Zi Jian (Jason Pai Piao) and their ties to each other.  Complicated stuff.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Men from the Gutter is that it is, on its surface, two separate crime stories the only linkage between which is the police officers.  Nonetheless, I would offer up that Lam and company are treating the Crime genre in a metaphorical way (while still delivering a cracking good Action film) and attempting to look at more than one side of the lower echelons of society in relation to crime.  Zi Jian’s motivations are revenge and honor.  He has no real avaricious goals in mind.  Wang’s motivation is one hundred percent monetary.  He gets very upset every time he thinks about all that  he doesn’t have.  He believes that money will solve all his problems.  As the title suggests, then, Zi Jian is coming out of the gutter to get at Xu Wen, to drag him back down into the gutter.  Wang is in the gutter struggling to get out by any means necessary.  Zhao and Qiu are the forces of order, standing in the gutter up to their waists, trying to maintain control while not going under.  In the gutter, a person has to do what’s necessary, but there is always the element of choice, and the end goal (personified by a freighter and its captain) is not guaranteed.  From this viewpoint, the film begins to take focus as more than the sum of its parts, even though it may not appear obvious at first glance.

The film is also loaded with images of characters watching and being watched, predominantly in the narrative of Zi Jian and Xu Wen.  Photos are taken of Xu Wen at a restaurant with Zi Jian in the background.  After being questioned by Qiu, Xu Wen looks at himself in a mirror while crime scene photographers snap pictures.  Zi Jian is shown making love to a prostitute in the reflection from his eyeglass lenses.  Later, he takes a slingshot and a metal ball and shoots the image of himself in his hotel mirror.  He checks his teeth in reflections in a store front window as well as in a fitness club mirror.  Point of view shots play into this as well.  At the gym, Zi Jian sneaks up on an unsuspecting guy (in POV) and knocks him out for his clothes.  Later, there is a POV shot following Zi Jian (and in which he again checks himself out in a mirror).  If these are just stylistic affectations or character quirks, they are lingered on longer and are more numerous than one might expect.  I tend to think that the reflections are how the characters remove themselves from their world.  By engaging with a mirror, staring into oneself, they are disengaging from reality and fortifying themselves for what lies ahead.  Similarly, POV shots like those herein tend to disengage the viewer from the film’s reality (we don’t share what’s in the minds of the characters through whose eyes we see), targeting where they’re headed rather than what surrounds them in the moment.  The characters are watchers and watched, within and without themselves, and a similar affinity is reached with the film’s viewer through these visual choices of the filmmakers.   

Men from the Gutter is surprisingly non-exploitative, as well.  Aside from one shot and a scene with some bare breasts, there’s no sex (consensual or non-consensual).  There is a decent amount of violence and blood, but not nearly to the levels of gore showcased in some of the Shaw Bros both at this point in time and in the past.  Outside of the film’s outstandingly heightened climactic sequence, the film is rooted firmly in reality.  That said, the final set piece does contain acrobatics and nigh-superheroic levels of stamina.  It also has a huge (and I mean that both literally and figuratively) concluding moment that will truly make your jaw drop.  But the film never goes off the rails, and it does a very admirable job of balancing its elements.  If you’re an Action film fan, and you haven’t seen this film, you need to (it’s available with subtitles on Youtube).

MVT:  I love the character of Zi Jian, especially as brought to life by Jason Pai Piao.  He’s odd and colorful, clearly dangerous, but also with a noble air about him.

Make or Break:  The heist scene is marvelously orchestrated.  It’s complex, gritty, and clearly blocked and edited.  I think that, in some ways at least, it encompasses all of the emotional heart of the film as well as the thematic points.

Score:  7/10   

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Odds and Evens (1978)

I’ve never been a huge gambler.  It’s not that I hate it.  Put me at a blackjack table, and I’ll have some fun (until the jerk sitting next to me starts acting like I’m playing with his money; more on this later).  Same with video poker machines.  They’re entertaining in small doses, and I’m not above buying a Powerball ticket or playing an occasional scratch off game.  But I could never be the type who takes a bus trip to a casino every weekend.  I could never be the person who stands in front of me at the convenience store with an envelope stuffed full of cash looking to get their (clearly un) lucky numbers for some lottery drawing (or worse, the guy who buys a scratch off, plays it right there at the counter in front of me, and then cashes it in [and keeps this cycle going] rather than doing the polite thing and moving off to the side so others can get their business done).  I think that’s what I find so unattractive about degenerate gamblers; their personalities are so self-involved, so Gollum-esque, they’re basically little more than raw nerve endings that have to take piss breaks every now and then.  This is why I visited Las Vegas exactly one time (same with Atlantic City) even though I had family living there.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that every single person I came into proximity with was eyeballing me with either suspicion or maleficence.  It’s almost like they share a perniciously hedonistic streak, and it frankly puts me off.  Still and all, I don’t mind watching gambling series and films (Casino, Luck, et cetera), and that certainly puts Sergio Corbucci’s Odds and Evens (aka Pari e Dispari, aka Trinity: Gambling for High Stakes) in my wheelhouse.

Johnny (Terence Hill) is an avid athlete as well as a lieutenant in the Navy who gets assigned to locate the big Syndicate honcho, Mr. Parapolis (Luciano Catenacci), whose illegal bookmaking and strongarm tactics are just ruining everything for the legit Florida venues.  Johnny is ordered to coerce the assistance of Charlie Firpo (Bud Spencer), a professional-gambler-turned-career-trucker who just so happens to also be Johnny’s brother, in this matter.  Needless to say, Charlie is reluctant, but that’s okay, because Johnny is devious.

When Corbucci’s name is mentioned, it is typically in the same breath with either the original Django or the superlative The Great Silence, two Spaghetti Westerns that simultaneously set standards and broke molds.  But a lot of people don’t realize that he actually did quite a few comedies, like this, Super Fuzz (an early pay cable staple), Three Tigers Against Three Tigers, and so forth.  What I find interesting is that, at the time Odds and Evens was made, this was the brand of comedy that was fashionable in America (an international pop culture equivocation that I’m of the opinion occurs far less than one might think).  This is the kind of film that Hal Needham would be proud to have his name attached to.  Its characters and situations are broad, it’s not above dressing up its stars in silly outfits for a chuckle, its bad guys are bumbling and oafish, and there is plentiful violence (primarily directed at the same bumbling, oafish bad guys).  Said violence, however, is of the slapstick variety.  The action is often undercranked for comedic effect (something that never works, if you ask me), and even though characters get bludgeoned and thrown around to the point where a normal human being would be hospitalized or dead, they all appear in the very next scenes with nary a bruise.  They bounce back like Wile E. Coyote, always ready to take another licking and never, ever learning a single thing from their bad experiences.  

It’s this cartoon nature that is embraced equally in the relationship between Charlie and Johnny (and it should be said that, while I have not seen tons of Hill/Spencer buddy pictures, my understanding is that this is the relationship they typically presented).  One of the main things I got from this film was the Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck rapport of the leads.  Nonetheless, neither Charlie nor Johnny is wholly Bugs or Daffy.  They commingle traits of both.  Charlie just wants to be left the hell alone (which is normally a Bugs trait) to drive his truck and help Sister Suzanne (Marisa Laurito) and her orphanage.  Johnny plays against Charlie’s obvious weaknesses to get him to do what Johnny wants (also a Bugs trait, especially in relation to Daffy), the results of which Johnny relishes (more of a Daffy trait but arguable).  Charlie dislikes Johnny, but when the two find a reason to work together, they handily take care of the Syndicate goons (a collective Elmer Fudd).  By keeping this in mind, I think a viewer will get far more out of this film than would normally be anticipated.

Another of this film’s strengths is in the way that it captures not only a time and place but the feel of that time and place.  The late Seventies were awash in eye-searingly garish clothing alongside couture so shabbily unspectacular, you could easily envision Archie Bunker wearing them to go out with Edith for an evening.  For as glamorous as people liked to feel and behave, I’m still amazed at the color schemes used in some of the popular hot spots (although cocaine may account for a lot).  Earth tones were in in a big way, and it would be rare to enter a building without some form of brown and/or orange splashed around the joint, simultaneously assaulting your senses and covering up various unsightly stains.  Corbucci and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller do a brilliant job of showcasing Florida and a certain attractive lifestyle that this geographic area was associated with in the public mind (in the same way that De Palma’s Scarface would be five years later and resonating for much, much longer).  It’s a freewheeling, high energy glimpse into a culture many would love to dive into, and the fascination is a large part of the reason why television shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous were so well-received.  Of course, it’s still manufactured like most, if not all, glamor is.  That the filmmakers are able to get their audience to go with it, to float along with it, to buy into the fantasy of it, is a massive credit to their efforts (and I don’t think that the material alone is enough to do the same; presentation is a large part of it).  Your life will never be enriched by Odds and Evens (unless you’re the type whose life could be enriched by it), but you’ll finish watching it with a big, dumb grin on your face, and that’s perfectly fine, too.

MVT:  The easygoing ambience and the quasi-antagonistic groove between Hill and Spencer is the heart of how this film succeeds.

Make or Break:  The scene where Charlie gets dressed up (one of a couple) and roughhouses with some thugs was the clincher for me.  Up until then, the film was certainly fun, but at this point it becomes clear just how far Corbucci and company are willing to go to make you smile.

Score:  7/10     

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Spookies (1986)

For the longest time, I thought Richard Corben was European (most likely French, but throw a dart, you know?).  The reason for this was twofold.  One, I had become familiar with his work like Den in the pages of Heavy Metal, a comic magazine which mixed sex and blood and sex and Science Fiction and sex and Noir and sex and Horror in a more unfettered fashion than was produced in America in the pages of books like Creepy or Nightmare.  The magazine was loaded with work by Europeans such as Moebius, Guido Crepax, and Milo Manara, making it more guilt by association than anything else in this regard.  Corben’s style was also unlike anything a kid raised on the likes of John Byrne or Jose Luis Garcia Lopez would be used to.  His figures very often had thick, bold outlines, and their features were often exaggerated.  Yet, his shading and detail work was smooth and realistic.  You could never be sure if his finished work was done in ink or pencil or a combination of the two (my understanding is that he uses models that he makes as reference for his art).  His art is deceptively simple-looking, a wildly successful mashup of “bigfoot” and “photorealistic” cartooning.  

This dichotomy is present in the poster art Corben produced for Eugenie Joseph’s (and Thomas Doran & Brendan Faulkner’s) Spookies.  The large image of villainous Kreon’s (Felix Ward) head is startlingly lifelike, while the figure of Isabelle (Maria Pechukas) is pure pulp comic book splendor.  So imagine my shock and awe when I discovered that Richard Corben was about as European as Benjamin Franklin, hailing from Missouri of all places.  The man, now in his seventies, is still working, with a miniseries titled Rat God due out this year.  The point of it all is that, if you’re given the opportunity between watching Spookies or staring at the poster art for ninety minutes, choose the latter.  That way, at least you won’t be disappointed.

In the backyard boneyard of a decrepit estate (I assume off Long Island) lies a tomb with a chained, breathing gravestone.  Beneath this,  Kreon fritters about, fawning over youthful bride Isabelle, counting off the seconds until they are reunited in eternal life.  Meanwhile, his catman-pirate-cowboy-servant-thing (Dan Scott) prowls around the grounds, preying on unsuspecting dolts like little Billy (Alec Nemser) who has run away from home because his parents forgot his birthday.  Enter two cars full of jerks, led by pleather-clad imbecile Duke (Nick Gionta) who just so happen to come upon Kreon’s old abode.  Needless to say, they enter against all logic, all hell breaks loose, et cetera, et cetera.

Without getting too involved in the behind the scenes story, Spookies actually began life as Twisted Souls under the guidance of Doran and Faulkner.  Theirs are the more wild, monster mash scenes and the narrative involving Duke, his improbable pal Peter (Peter Dain, who looks like he should be playing Duke’s father), and the rest of the partygoers’ misadventures in the house.  The film was taken from the duo and given to Joseph, who added the Kreon plot and all that entails.  You can read more about it here: https://thedissolve.com/features/oral-history/788-the-strange-saga-of-spookies/.  

I’m unsure what the producer thought he was doing by handing the film over, not from a dollars and cents angle, but from a common sense angle.  The scenes with Duke and company are grating, especially when anyone tries to act (and most especially when amateur puppet comic Rich [Peter Iasillo Jr] tries to be funny), but it’s no more formulaic or nonsensical than any bargain bin Slasher film.  The characters get split up and encounter gruesome ends.  What Doran and Faulkner do right is keep things lively with the variety of fiends.  There are Muck Men (who menace and fart simultaneously), a Grim Reaper statue that comes to life, snake-oid creatures that resemble the old Stretch Monster toy I had as a kid, and so forth.  The scenes inserted by Joseph not only don’t mesh well with the other footage (they are a bit more mean-spirited and skincrawling in tone), but they also serve to confuse the whole affair rather than providing a throughline on which to hang the disparate monster attacks.  Add to that the fact that the Kreon/Isabelle story gets dropped for stretches, making it stand out like the proverbial sore thumb whenever it’s rejoined.  Further, the Kreon/Isabelle plot has no seeming structure, so whenever it is cut to, you’re never quite sure what is supposed to be going on, why, or how much of a difference any of this makes (and that last part is its ultimate downfall, since the answer continuously comes back a resounding “none”).

The one interesting thing that the Kreon facet brings up is ideas about eternity and decay.  Kreon has kept Isabelle in the crypt for at least seventy years (that we’re told of), but whereas she has remained young and beautiful, Kreon is middle-aged and hideous.  His skin is a pasty blue-grey and a large vein pulsates in the middle of his head (I have something similar over my temples that throb when I get irritated).  The questions arise, has Kreon remained in this state since Isabelle went to sleep?  Was he once youthful and attractive like her, or was he always repulsive?  Nonetheless, if Kreon was never young, why did Isabelle marry him and have a son by him (A. J. Lowenthal), and if she did voluntarily wed Kreon and spawn his scion, why does she reject him so thoroughly and immediately when she awakens?  Also, if she saw her son before dying/whatever, did she not notice that he was monstrous in appearance?  Is that why she wound up in a coffin for seven decades in the first place?  There’s no real answer in the narrative, so the audience is left to construct its own history, but rather than giving a viewer something to mull over, to grow in their own mind, all of this only serves to confound and irritate.  What is even more dumbfounding is why something so incongruous from the entire rest of the film was allowed to be shot and then be shoehorned in.  I can understand wanting a return on investment, but what could the filmmakers have been thinking to put this out in its present state?  Did they expect no one to pick up on its sloppiness?  The more I think on it, the more I go from just being ambivalent on Spookies to actively disliking it.

MVT:  The monster effects are fun, in an amateur funhouse kind of way.  They make for some interesting visuals, so credit where it’s due on that.

Make or Break:  Any scene featuring Duke is guaranteed to either have you throwing things at your television or attempting to drown yourself in spaghetti sauce.  He’s that galling.

Score:  4/10