Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Vulture (1967)



Being a monster obsessed person for the majority of my youth (I blame King Kong mostly), I was, of course, also obsessed with dinosaurs (again, I blame King Kong).  There wasn’t a book concerning dinosaurs at my local library that I didn’t check out multiple times (including, but not limited to, Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by Darlene Geis and R.F. Peterson, the book brandished by Harry Holcombe in King Kong Versus Godzilla).  Since dinosaurs are real-life monsters, I loved them all to some degree or another, even the goofier ones (come on, Diplodocus, what is up with you, anyway?).  Sure, I enjoyed the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, but I was much more inclined toward something like the Anklyosaurus, with its death-tank-esque build (yes, I know they were herbivores). 

Another of my go-to dinosaurs was the bizarre Archeopteryx.  This beast wasn’t large and menacing like a T-Rex.  It wasn’t built like the proverbial brick shithouse.  It was essentially a small bird with the head of a thunder lizard.  And yet, it fascinated me, perhaps because of the duality of it, the overt evolutionary look of it.  Like with the Mighty Men and Monster Maker drawing toy (look it up) I spent way too much time with (yet somehow never enough), the Archeopteryx was a hodgepodge of lizard and bird, and the dichotomy of its two sides formed something of a gestalt for me.  Sure, this little guy would never dominate the dinosaur world, but it had its own place in the pecking order (sorry), and I think it’s an important one.  It’s the same attraction I had to films like Lawrence Huntington’s The Vulture (a film I was dying to see when it played on late night television back in the day).  However, the gap between expectation and reality with the Archeopteryx is much narrower for me than with this film.

Walking through a cemetery on a dark and stormy night, Ms. Ellen West (Annette Carrell) witnesses the grave of Francis Real open up (which we get to see) and unleash some monstrosity (which we don’t get to see) into the sky, cackling all the way.  The local Vicar (Philip Friend) doles out some convoluted back story about Real, his beloved pet bird (let’s just assume it’s a vulture), and his hatred for the Stroud family (oh, and a cask of gold coins).  Cue Eric Lutens (Robert Hutton), a “nuke-u-lar” scientist who has married into the Stroud family, and has a rather obsessive fascination with solving the mystery of what’s going on (the viewer does not have to strain as much to put this together, I assure you) before his family all wind up dead.

The primary theme this film focuses on is the idea of myths and superstitions.  The film’s opening sequence pretty much nails this home with the bus driver warning Ms. West not to walk across the fields and through the cemetery at night because of all the ghosts.  The story about Real and the Strouds is local folklore, and the people of the community have no problem believing that Real’s vengeance from beyond the grave can and will come to pass.  Eric posits that Real may have visited Easter Island at some point, because the indigenous people there have a myth about a bird man (Manutara, which, from what I was able to gather, is more of a sacred bird of the island than a cool monster/deity); some thin reasoning, to be sure.  What’s kind of interesting is that, for as much of a man of science as Eric claims to be, he’s pretty damned quick to suggest that an experiment must surely have created some monster bird (it is, after all, the most logical explanation; I mean, what else could possibly turn a woman’s hair white overnight?).  Equally interesting is Eric’s desire to find and kill the creature rather than study it (he is, after all, a horror film protagonist in the Sixties).  Some scientist.  But you get the feeling that Eric wants to believe in these things.  Sure, he plays around with “nuke-u-lar” power at his day job, but his heart’s desire is to explore the deeper mysteries of the world (read: monsters).  Tolferro, Cornwall, where the film is set, is to Eric, “where life goes on undisturbed.”  In other words, this is a place where monsters can exist, because pesky things like science aren’t as prevalent there as superstition is, and Eric buys right into it.  In this world, legends not only trump facts; they create reality.

The Vulture is one of those movies that for me brought up the eternal question, “what does the villain do when he is offscreen?”  Has this quandary ever occurred to you?  This is due largely in part to the structure of the narrative.  The antagonist means so little outside of his role as an occasional threat, and his actions are so curiously limited that you really have to wonder what else could possibly be occupying his time?  I mean, why doesn’t the titular monster simply take out the Stroud family in one fell swoop when he has them exposed?  The reason is because the film is segmented into vignettes whose sole purpose is to give us a cheap thrill and pick off characters individually so that the film isn’t just a half an hour long.  Sometimes in films like this, we’re given some specious reasoning as to why the villain doesn’t just slay his enemies all at once (he’s regrouping, he’s injured, he had to file his taxes, whatever).  With a film like this, however, the lack of any explanation sets the viewer’s mind adrift into the realm of pondering.

I have to say, I enjoyed the film’s first half, even with its lack of monster sightings (outside of some humongous prop bird legs) and its mountains of inane chatter.  There’s something about a film taking its time, trying to build a story and a sense of expectation for seeing its creature, that I enjoy immensely (even when the characters act like idiots).  That said, the endless dialogue scenes which leap to such far gone conclusions and are repeated so often in this film eventually wear thin.  Add to this the fact that there is absolutely no mystery as to who the monster is (this despite one of the reddest red herrings in the history of cinema which goes absolutely nowhere), and you’re left with nothing but the slog to finally see the fiend.  The kicker is that even when we do see him, we still don’t, and the overall effect is simultaneously weak and ridiculous (this in a film built upon ridiculousness).  The climax is anticlimactic enough (it just sort of happens), but what the characters do afterward in the film’s denouement is pretty baffling, even while the characters continue to talk and talk and dispense even more exposition.  And then the film just ends.  For as much as the film tries to do, it simply doesn’t pull it off, and yet, I still found myself okay with the vast majority of it.  Figure that one out.

MVT:  I really like the idea of an oddball monster like this one created through science and myth.  It’s an intriguing concept that provides the vast majority of The Vulture’s charm.

Make or Break:  In line with the MVT, I like the opening sequence for what it does while showing us almost nothing.  Had the rest of the movie been as clever (or at least less concerned with talking), it could have been something special.

Score:  6.25/10

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mutant War (1987)



So anyway, the world has gone to shit yet again, and guys like our protagonist Harry Trent (Matt Mitler) are left to sift through the rubble.  Only problem is the rubble is positively festooned with old magazines (many of which Harry has already read), old bottles of Seagram’s Seven (which he really should have at least wiped the lip of before taking a pull or ten), and giant monsters (hooray!).  After saving young waif Spider (Kristine Waterman) from a “Mook,” Harry decides to help her rescue her sisters from the villainous Reinhart Rex (Cameron Mitchell, earning every penny of his paycheck) and his army of mutants.

Brett Piper’s Mutant War (aka Mutant Men Want Pretty Women) follows the boilerplate postapocalyptic narrative, but it has enough of a sense of humor to make it mildly charming.  Harry is the classic loner character.  He has himself, his harmonica, and his car (replete with a heavy laser gun).  He wastes his time reviewing  the ruins of a world in which he used to take part.  He subsists on the road, with nothing better to do than do nothing.  He also doesn’t want to get involved with humanity anymore.  His worldview has become one of aloof apathy.  And yet, he does get involved when he sees Spider in danger, because his indifference is a façade.  He wants to believe that he’s only out for number one, but he actually desires contact with other people, he desires something more than the cold artifacts of a bygone civilization.  Harry becomes the de facto leader of a ragtag crew of people who have formed themselves into villages, because his time alone has given him an edge they don’t possess.  They only want to live peacefully; Harry knows this is impossible.  He brings the reality of the situation into focus for them, and they, in turn, provide Harry with a sense of purpose.  After all, purpose doesn’t really exist without other people to give it to you.  This is Spider’s role.  She gives Harry a mission, and in this mission she also gives Harry the revelation that he needs to be an active participant in this postapocalyptic world.  She reconnects him to the world.  She also, by dint of her youthful pluck and naiveté, gives Harry a surrogate family to take care of.  He cautions her not to siphon gas with your mouth, even though he’s doing so right in front of her (“It can kill you”).  After Spider is poisoned by a mutant, Harry stays closeby overnight to watch over her as she fights off the infection.  He hugs her and refers to her as “my kid” more than once.  Harry is the quintessential lone gunfighter who trots into town, makes a connection, changes the lives of the people he contacts for the better (mostly), and then trots off (just with more hugging).  But the connection he makes will stay with him, as well.

Another thing the film deals with is the past (as all postapocalyptic films do; they are typically concerned as much with re-establishing the civilizations destroyed in whatever nuclear war/biological outbreak/natural disaster occurred as they are with seeing what those civilizations devolved into after the fall of society).  The filmmakers use voiceover narration for Harry’s inner monologue, and it’s in the style of a hardboiled detective novel; edged, stoic, and weary.  His favorite quote from his favorite book is, “You don’t know me, without you have read my memoirs,” which, as near as I can tell, is actually a paraphrasing of the opening line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (not exactly Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, but what can you do?).  He clings to relics of the past: his car, his harmonica, old magazines, old booze, et cetera.  He mumbles to himself like Popeye.  For as much as he is forced to survive in his current circumstances, he is preoccupied by the way things were.

More than this, the film contains notions about guilt stemming from the sins of the past.  The whole reason the world fell into ruin in the first place is because of a war between humanity and a bunch of “pig-faced” aliens.  But it’s not the war itself that caused the widespread devastation, it’s what the humans did to end it that did.  They created a new weapon, Neutron Ninety bombs, that defeated the aliens but also took mankind with it.  Harry was a soldier in the war, and this reputation gives him a certain notoriety for which he doesn’t particularly care.  He has a combination of survivor’s guilt as well as guilt over his part in the calamity that destroyed the planet.  At least in part, Harry distances himself from other people because that’s his punishment on himself.  His relationship with Spider (someone we can assume, by her youth, wasn’t alive at the time of the war, or, if she were, has no conscious idea of the world as it was, and thus, makes her an innocent in the proceedings) absolves him slightly of this guilt.

As for the film itself, it’s impressive for something made on about sixty grand.  Piper tries to keep things visually interesting, and the effort is appreciated.  This is bolstered by the use of matte paintings for backgrounds, the angles of which make for some nice compositions.  They also provide a nice stylistic touch in their flatness (whether this was intentional or not, I don’t know, but I liked it).  There is also the differentiation of styles for different perspectives.  When Harry looks through his spyglass, we get his view as an iris, but what we see is various moments edited together with an odd grain to them (I can’t say if this was from the video’s source, but again, I liked it).  An alien moves around his spaceship’s interior, and we get the view from his perspective with heavy red filtering and handheld camera work.  Later, this same alien meets some humans, and we get his POV once more, but now it’s more pixelated, as if frames were dropped out on purpose.  This perspective also uses a doubling of what he sees with his electric eye in a separate, red-tinted inset frame.  The special effects run the gamut from miniature work to makeup effects to forced perspective shots to stop motion monsters, and I loved it all.  The story moves along well enough, though it does sag and go into some nonsensical territory occasionally (Mitchell goes at the material like a Renaissance Faire Henry VIII with a giant turkey leg).  It also leans into mawkishness more than it should, but its handmade enthusiasm overcomes many of its weaker aspects.  Not shabby for an ambitious director’s third effort.

MVT:  The practical effects nerd in me has to give it to the effects.  I have to admit, I was overjoyed when I saw that some of the creatures were done with stop motion techniques.

Make or Break:  The scene with the alien selling munitions to the humans was great, not only in that it affirms that an extraterrestrial’s costume can include a plain white tee shirt, but also in that it has several humorous moments that actually work quite well.

Score:  6.5/10

Monday, April 25, 2016

Samurai Fiction (1998)






Directed by: Hiroyuki Nakano
Run time: 111 minutes

This is not the usual feudal Japanese samurai movie.It has samurai, yakuza, political intrigue, ninjas, and people getting killed with stylized sword fighting. However, it the tone of the movie is far from a roaring revenge and bloody destruction samurai film. Instead, few people with katanas (samurai swords) are actually good at fighting with them and the movie spends more time preaching it's message and showing a slice of life in seventeenth century Japan.

The movie follows Heishiro, a son of clan counselor and a complete and utter tool.  After the accidental theft of sword given by the ruling family,  Heishiro and his friends decide to chase after the thief and return the sword.  The fact the three of them are know locally as the three stooges does not deter them from this quest. Heishiro's father sends some ninjas as well after the thief so there some competent adults involved as well.

Heishiro and his friends catch up quickly with Rannosuke and learn the hard way that they are no match for Rannosuke. Heishiro and one of his friends only end up being injured in their ill advised fight.  The other friend who had an arranged marriage to look forward to was even less lucky and was out right killed. Heishiro and the remaining friend would have finished off but a ronin (unemployed samurai) called Hanbei intervenes and stops Rannosuke's attack without drawing his sword.

Heishiro is taken to Hanbei's home to heal from his wounds. While there Hanbei tries to impress upon Heishiro the importance of not killing Rannosuke. In a village not too far away  Rannosuke made himself useful to a yakuza gaming parlor. But is finding that being the baddest swordsman in a one horse town is far from what he desires. Also, his confidence in his skill were shaken when Hanbei was able to fight him to a draw without pulling his sword. This doubting of his skills leads Rannosuke to seek out Hanbei to force a duel and resolution.

 The movie itself is beautifully shot and uses the minimal use of colour to impressive effect. The soundtrack is equally impressive. The plot has a tendency to wander quite a bit. It will go along with it's story and it's message of needless leads to suffering for a few minutes and then wanders off to show slice of life feudal Japan. It can be jarring and it took me out of the film a couple of times. Also, the humour does not always translate over to english very well. So there are scenes that are meant to be humourous but if you lack the necessary cultural background the joke just doesn't work.

Overall it is a recommended watch if you want to see Japanese cinematic art that is filmed depicting the seventeenth century.

MVT:  I liked Tomoyasu Hotei's soundtrack for this film. He also did some of the music for Kill Bill and I love the hell out of that soundtrack as well. Yes I am a fan boy.

Make or Break: The humour in the film is very dependent on the viewer's knowledge of Japanese culture. At points in the movie Heishiro gets a nosebleed every time he spends anytime with Hanbei's daughter. If you aren't aware of the Japanese belief that nosebleeds are a sign of sexual arousal it makes no sense why the shot lingers so long on his nosebleed.  

Score: 6.5 out of 10

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cruel Jaws (1995)



People get really bent out of shape over movie remakes, especially these days.  Every time a remake is even rumored, the internet practically explodes with people bitching and moaning about how it’s going to suck and about how this is “raping their childhood” (a gripe as invalid as it is overblown).  Personally, I’m of two minds on the subject.  On the one hand, I understand some of the complaints, primarily as they relate to the dearth of ideas in Hollywood.  I would love to see more original material developed, see new characters and franchises for us to love as much as those of the past (and let’s be honest, most of this grousing comes from nostalgia).  That studio execs just don’t get it is frustrating (in much the same way that the thinking that the higher an action film’s budget is, the better a film it is, which is not only patently false but also distressing for how many low- to mid- budget films they could produce with that same money; but this shit makes billions, and money talks).  

Do I feel that a remake of Escape from New York is warranted (and I won’t even touch subjects like the recasting of characters with actors of different races, genders, et cetera here)?  No, but I also have the option of ignoring it and any of the changes it makes to Carpenter’s original.  That’s something that people just don’t seem to get; speak with your dollars.  If you don’t want to see any of these profligate reboots, don’t pay to see them.  Don’t watch them at all.  But more importantly, don’t whinge on endlessly about how offended you are by them.  There’s nothing wrong with voicing your disapproval, but it’s unnecessary and, frankly, boorish to carry on the way many folks do.  And that’s the other side of my thinking.  I have no problems with stating that I’m disinterested in a particular remake, but I don’t dwell on it and overreact about it as if any of this has any concrete impact on the course of my life or the turning of the Earth.  If anything, one of my biggest quibbles anymore is that I now have to clarify which version of a film I’m talking about, and this is becoming more and more frequent.  But it doesn’t kill my love for any of the originals, and I can always go back and watch them instead of a remake.  Try it sometime.  You might find yourself a little happier for it (or at least a little less bitter).

A group of Cuban salvage divers scope out the wreck of the USS Cleveland looking to haul up some major booty.  Of course, there’s a massive shark down there who kills them all.  Cut to: marine biologist Billy (Gregg Hood) and girlfriend Vanessa (Norma J Nesheim), who arrive in Hampton Bay, Florida for vacation (including “disco dancing ‘til dawn,” and this is in 1995, folks).  Visiting pal Dag Sorensen (Richard Dew, who will forever be viewed as a poor man’s Hulk Hogan lookalike) and his family at their little aquarium, Billy becomes enmeshed in Dag’s struggle against greedy land developer Sam Lewis (George Barnes Jr) as well as local sheriff Francis’ (David Luther) quest to rid his waters of this “anomalous” man-eater.

Bruno Mattei’s (hiding out under the William Snyder nom de guerre) Cruel Jaws (aka The Beast aka Jaws 5) is an amazing thing to behold.  Don’t misunderstand, this is as incompetent a film as Mattei has ever turned out (possibly moreso).  The editing is confusing, even when it’s not being used to attempt to fool us into thinking that the shark attack scenes are in any way exciting.  For instance, Francis goes to talk to Mayor Godfrey (who looks like a cross between Trace Beaulieu and the frantic television station manager at the beginning of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) and Sam (why Sam is there at all is anyone’s guess) about closing the beaches, and in the middle of their conversation, they go from standing around Godfrey’s office to standing on a balcony outside.  This particular technique has been used before in many good films, but here it makes no sense.  Their conversation isn’t long enough or in-depth enough to believe that they would continue it outside and at a locale which also gives the impression that these are just bros hanging out (which they’re not).  Some of the shots in the film don’t even give us actual visuals in any sort of continuity (and it’s not as if this is some type of art film…or maybe it is?); they’re just cuts to something and then cut away from.  It’s a hatchet job.

In the grand tradition of Italian genre filmmaking, we also get the inclusion of odd bits of business which we’re supposed to believe are A) of any importance to the story and B) not dumb (often simultaneously).  The perfect example of this is the subplot of Dag’s paraplegic daughter Susie (Kirsten Urso).  She swims with the dolphins at the aquarium and even has a pet seal.  Her aquatic antics are set to the most rodeo-clown-esque, slide-whistle-abusing, offputting music imaginable.  Otherwise, she passes comments about punching sharks which are meant to be cute and endearing.  They’re not, and she’s not.  We also have the subplot of Sam’s douche bag son Ronnie (Carter Collins, a dime store Nick Cassavetes if ever there was one), getting enraged, trying to poison Susie’s dolphins, and generally being an asshole.  There’s the subplot of Dag’s son Bob (Scott Silveria) and Sam’s daughter Gloria (Natasha Etzer) falling in love and emoting in some of the most baldfaced dialogue ever written.  And the capper is the inclusion of Sam’s Italian “business partners” from New York, who come to us by way of Central Casting.  One of the more intriguing elements of the film is the inclusion of Glenda (Sky Palma), a bleached blonde insane woman who just wants to party (including, but not limited to, kneeing a friend in the balls while dancing with him; Jocularity!) and kill sharks.  Does all of this seem like a lot to include in a movie ostensibly about a large fish terrorizing a small coastal town?  You bet.  In fact, the shark and its entire plot barely get any screen time until about the last third.  Consequently, Cruel Jaws is a meandering slog to get through, even after everyone and their brother decide to take a swing at the shark (an editorial decision that only makes the film feel longer than it is), and this kills what dipshitty enjoyment I got from the first third, because it took me that long to realize that this thing was just film being passed through a camera. 

Of course, no conversation about this film can take place without mention of its stunning appropriation of not only the footage from several Jaws films (as well as some from L’ultimo Squalo and Deep Blood, as I’ve read) but also their plot points and even their dialogue.  In fact, most of my notes on this thing are just notations of moments stolen from that other franchise.  Witness: Gloria taunts Bob with the line, “Do you always do what your dad tells you to do?” (Jaws 2).  Billy expounds about how all sharks do is “swim, eat, and make baby sharks” (Jaws).  Francis says that their shark is “a perfect machine” (Jaws).  There is the prank played on a couple necking in the water by their pals, which involves a megaphone and the impersonation of authority figures (Jaws 3D).  A character inexplicably lifts an open can of gas over their head just before the idiot next to them fires off a flare gun, causing their boat to explode (Jaws 2).  These are just a few instances in a film positively littered with direct lifts.  The filmmakers throw in some horse shit about the origin of the shark (which, incidentally, is a tiger shark, not a great white, but even this is taken from the original Jaws and its famous “A whaaat?” scene), but no matter which way you cut it, Cruel Jaws is a hot mess trying to disguise itself as a movie in much the same way that the Land Shark from the classic Saturday Night Live skit tried to disguise itself as a plumber.  

MVT:  For all its deficiencies, I did enjoy watching Glenda be unhinged and eat up every shred of scenery around her.  It doesn’t hurt any that Palma’s pretty cute.

Make or Break:  The Break for me was the moment Susie showed up aqua-dancing with her dolphin friends.  I knew at that point that she was going to be cloyingly saccharine and involved in way more of the film than she should be.

Score:  5.75/10