Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Xtro (1982)



There seems to me to be some sort of debate in the realm of cryptids and it relates predominately to preference.  A great many people will believe in either Bigfoot (and other hirsute hominids) or in the Loch Ness Monster (and other aquatic beasties) but not in both (we’ll leave things like the Chupacabra and Mothman out of this for now).  The reasoning typically boils down to their thoughts on what sort of organism could exist in what sort of environment and still manage to elude capture all these years.  Personally, I’m open to the possibility that both exist, but I lean more toward the Bigfoot camp (which should come as no shock to anyone).  It’s also been a source of humor that the only photos ever taken of any of these creatures are always blurry, and I think that means something (the blurry photos, not that they’re a source of humor).  When the pictures are clear, they are instantly suspect, as if the photographer got the animals to stop and strike a pose for a moment (and since they’re supposedly not prepared for these encounters, all the more questionable).  Yet, when they are blurry or indistinct, we tend to be more inclined to accept the likelihood of their authenticity.  In the same way that something like the Zapruder Film is true in its grainy, low fi style (it’s true because it actually happened, and this presentation on film reinforces the reality of it) so is the Patterson Film (and there are folks who still believe it to be real almost half a century later, despite the allegations of it being a hoax down through the years).  

In a time when people somehow manage to whip out their phones and take photos and videos of horrifying accidents and acts of violence (you know, rather than helping or doing something useful, but that’s a whole different essay) that can hold up in a court of law, is it only a question of time until somebody posts a video of a Yeti jacking somebody’s car on Instagram or whatever?  Either way, there’s a scene in Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro in which a couple (played by Katherine Best and Robert Pereno) drive by a bizarre alien (played by special effects), and the way it’s filmed is reminiscent of the better cryptid photos (the monster is seen fleetingly in the corner of the screen), and it’s extraordinarily effective, even though it was most likely shot this way in order to not have the makeup look silly or bad.  Interestingly, this idea is mirrored (and I freely admit that I’m making this connection in my own head) in the character of Joe (Danny Brainin), who is a fashion photographer by trade and the ad hoc father figure to Tony (Simon Nash), whose actual dad, Sam (Philip Sayer) was allegedly abducted by a UFO three years ago and has apparently come back now very much a changed…person.  Joe deals in clarity and beauty for a living, and there’s a falseness associated with this (as there is with all businesses that trade in glamour/skin/et cetera) that marks Joe himself as false and unsuitable to ever truly be a father to Tony (and moreso since he is ineffective outside his professional expertise).  By contrast, Sam is sketchy, indistinct (he claims to not remember anything before the morning he appears on Rachel’s [Bernice Stegers] doorstep), especially in his first encounter with humans (mentioned above), and that, to my mind, marks him as authentic, though whether it means he is a positive force is another matter.  Joe is the fantasy of a normal life.  Sam is the fantasy of an extraordinary life.  The two can’t really coexist, and the latter is incredibly bizarre, but still, this is one of the movie’s more intriguing aspects.

In this same way, the film is centered on family in the face of trauma, absentee fathers, and replacement family members.  Tony spends a lot of the first few times he’s on screen sweating and having night terrors.  He even wakes up covered in blood (whose it is, we never find out).  The Phillips family has been decimated by the disappearance of Sam, though the only one who knows the truth of what happened is Tony, and this truth both links him to his father and wreaks a terrible price on the boy’s body.  In the wake of her original, normative family’s disintegration, Rachel has tried to rebuild it with disparate parts.  Joe is supposed to replace Sam, though Joe is never truly vested in that role, and he can’t handle it anyway when push comes to shove.  He cannot fill Sam’s shoes (except possibly in the bedroom).  Analise (Maryam d’Abo) is the live-in housekeeper.  She takes Tony where he needs to go, looks after the house, and so on.  In effect, she is Rachel’s choice to replace herself, since the family proper has been dismantled.  Still and all, Analise cares about Tony only as a job.  Her attention is almost solely on getting laid by her boyfriend, even to the point of doing it while she’s on duty.  That none of these replacement components totally fits and this new family never really works is unsurprising, since the underlying thought I got was that none of this was done out of love, merely out of necessity.  Rachel needed a man to satisfy her, and she needed a woman to maintain the household.  She abrogates her familial responsibility because Sam left, and she is, at heart, a selfish person.  When Sam returns, his focus is on Tony, not Rachel, nonetheless she is willing and able to leave her ad hoc family for the false chance at a new beginning with her old one.  Naturally, this is destined for failure on all fronts (and how; I should also mention that this film isn’t especially nice to women in general).  Sam is punishing Rachel for not carrying the weight that was dropped on her, and she accepts this punishment at every turn.         

Now, I can’t say I liked Xtro.  The plot is nonsensical, and what is there is so thin it only has one side.  The acting is acceptable at best (though, to get crass, d’Abo doesn’t really need to show her acting chops off since she’s happy to show off her more physical attributes).  The characters are all a bunch of jerks.  Even the central relationship of the film between Sam and Tony doesn’t completely work, since these two are self-involved in the extreme (another major theme of the film being adolescent wish fulfilment which applies to all the characters, age notwithstanding).  This film lives and dies on (and appears to have been produced solely to showcase) its practical special effects, and they work very well, all things considered.  If nothing else, Davenport and company know how to stage and shoot effects work.  But even the effects have no consistency.  Sam goes through several metamorphoses, none of which are explained, and none of which feel like organic extensions of one another.  These chunks of latex rubber and goop and fake blood look good, and they have impact in terms of being visually memorable in a “did you see that shit?!” fashion, but they don’t resonate with any sort of lasting meaning or play any role in the sense of narrative coherence.  Being a massive fan of effects, I give the film props for its accomplishments in that area.  Nevertheless, in every other area it fails while trying to say something worthwhile, in my opinion.

MVT:  The effects shine throughout.  They are appropriately weird and offbeat, gory and slimy, and wonderful to watch on screen.

Make or Break:  There’s a famous (nay, infamous) scene (once aptly described by Fangoria’s Dr. Cyclops [if memory serves] as a “white knuckler”) involving an unusual birth.  I won’t say more, since it must be seen for oneself to be believed.  But wow.

Score:  5/10

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Wicked City (1987)



Taki (voiced in the American dub by Gregory Snegoff) is hipped to the transience of our world’s tenuous treaty with the Black World (a parallel dimension [?] populated by grotesque monsters) after a near death experience with not-so-hot bar pickup Kanako (Edie Mirman).  A member of the secretive Black Guard who defend humanity from the Black Worlders, he is assigned to protect Giuseppe Mayart (Mike Reynolds), an ancient, pervy old man who is the key to renewing the accord for another five hundred years.  The beauteous Makie (Gaye Kruger), Taki’s opposite number in the Black World, is forced upon our hapless human hero (apologies to Stan Lee), but will tensions flare between this mismatched pair, or will love blossom?  If you guessed neither, you’re not far off.

With some tweaks to the details of the story, one could believe this anime sprang from the mind of someone like David Cronenberg or Clive Barker, but it actually crawled forth from the pen of Hideyuki Kikuchi who created the Wicked City property in 1985 with the first book, Wicked City: Black Guard.  I’m uncertain if the franchise spawned a manga or not, but the anime, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is one of two adaptations of it for motion pictures (though I think this was an OVA [Original Video Animation, i.e. it was produced for and released directly to the home video market], so it never saw theatrical play).  The other was Tai Kit Mak’s 1992 live action take (produced by Tsui Hark), and the only thing I can distinctly remember about that one is that it was an indecipherable mess, visually and narratively.  The anime, while slightly easier to understand, is, in my opinion, just as much of a mess.  The characters are cardboard cutouts without personality (what personality is there is patently unlikable and uninteresting), and their relationships completely fizzle, in part because every line is delivered as if pronounced by somnambulists.  The story is paper thin and been done to death for decades.  That would be all well and good, if there was something else to bolster the retreading, and there is (sex and violence), but, somehow, here it’s just not good enough, even though brief moments do shine quite brightly, which makes it all the more disappointing (and if you want to see an actually good collaboration between Kikuchi and Kawajiri, I would suggest checking out the ultra-fun Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust).  I honestly can’t say I’ve been more bored by something as over the top as Wicked City in a long, long time.   

There has been some debate over whether or not this cartoon should be considered hentai (for the sake of simplicity and expediency, think “tentacle porn”), and even though I’m not anime guru enough to fully debate the issue, pro or con, I can say definitively that there is some explicit stuff going on here.  There is a vagina dentata (of a sort) on display.  There is a woman’s body that opens up like a giant, diseased vagina (shades of Videodrome).  There is a woman being involuntarily fingered by a former friend/lover.  There is a penis-snake-like monster that fucks a woman’s mouth.  There is a gang rape.  Sex in the world of Wicked City is dangerous, whether you want to have it or not.  It should be noted that a lot of this sexual violation and violence happens to the same woman, so it’s difficult to believe that there isn’t some kind of dislike for her going on under the surface (okay, it’s right there in front of your face; there’s nothing subtle about it).  

Compare that to the men in the film.   They are consummate womanizers.  Giuseppe lusts after Makie and blatantly grabs her ass as well as rubs her legs while she tries to ignore him.  Taki wins a bet with his bartender pal when he scores with Kanako.  Giuseppe loves his porn (he even tries to get Makie to watch some with him; what woman could resist?) and is simply dying to get his rocks off with a prostitute.  Bearing this in mind, the men get to have voluntary, pleasant enough sex with women before being attacked by whatever monster into which the woman will transform (and this setup where all of the women that the human men have sex with are literally horrors is telling; women clearly can’t be trusted in the slightest, and the men are dolts for not being able to choose their lays better).  Further, the monster women seem intent on eating the men (or some vital aspect of them), and not in the foreplay sense of the word.  The males are violently consumed by the females, the females are violently penetrated by the males.  Naturally, neither turn of events is especially desirable, but the latter has an innate sense of sleazy misogyny to it that’s rough going.  However, it’s the choice the characters get to make before the violence that makes the difference, and the women don’t really get a choice at all.  Although it doesn’t particularly bother me in the context of the film and its universe, the sexual politics of the anime will turn some people off, just as it will turn others on, so you’re aware.

 Like so very, very many mismatched action partners (Riggs and Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon films, Sykes and Francisco from Alien Nation, Gallagher and Beck from The Hidden, ad infinitum), Wicked City has a duo that is diametrically opposed but is forced to work together.  Well, that’s something of an overstatement, actually.  Makie and Taki don’t really have anything against each other beside their dislike and distrust for the other’s “country” of origin.  They don’t bicker and argue, they don’t have any physical altercations with each other (that I can recall), and there is no begrudging respect that builds between the two.  The instant they meet, Taki refers to Makie as “disgustingly perfect” (what a honeydripper!), and you know it’s basically a waiting game until the two are in bed together (and it’s not a very exciting waiting game at that).  Sparks do not fly, because none of the emotion the filmmakers are trying to convey is earned, and even if they did earn it (which, I maintain, they didn’t), it feels hollow and false, because these characters are merely sacks of meat going through the motions with other sacks of meat.  The anime is loaded from stem to stern with bodies displayed inside and out, but none of them is filled with anything I would call a heart.

MVT:  Sex and violence is the name of the game, and the film delivers the goods in these regards.  It just doesn’t deliver anything else that’s all that interesting or involving.

Make or Break:  The opening scene (you’ve likely seen a fairly famous still from it if you’ve ever searched for this movie on the internet) sets up the world and the type of characters who inhabit it handily.  It also forewarns of the film’s problems early on, so if you’re not all in by the end of this scene, you never will be.

Score:  5/10

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ninja III: The Domination



They say that confession is good for the soul, so here it goes.  I don’t get nearly as excited for new movies as I used to.  Oh, there are still releases that I look forward to from filmmakers whose work I respect, but in the main it’s difficult for me to get all fired up over a lot of what hits my local cinema.  The last part of that last sentence is much of the problem.  Very little of what I consider to be of value (read: worth paying more than a rental fee) ever actually makes it onto one of the ten screens at my local theater.  They are too booked up having the latest bland pseudo-comedy drivel or massively over-produced, ultra-homogenized blockbuster play on multiple screens to make room for more low key or artistic fare.  Bear in mind, this is from someone who considers himself to be a fan of both drivel and blockbusters (and if you ask me nicely, I’ll gladly cry on your shoulder about the demise of the Hollywood Independents era and bemoan the apparent ignorance of the vast majority of studio executives currently in power who have likely never seen, nor care to see, a film produced before the day they were born), and not that more artistic fare imbues it with an innate superiority, but the lack of choice becomes a frustration, particularly when one hears about the myriad films being released for which your only choice of viewing is waiting for it to hit video and watching it at home.  This is the second part of the problem, to my mind.  There is a difference between experiencing something in a movie theater and experiencing something at home, and it’s not simply the size of the screen that counts.  Film watching is intended as a communal affair (yes, modern audiences seem to have lost all sense of common courtesy when it comes to behavior in public, but we only have so much space here to get into that whole thing [not entirely true; we actually have all the space in the world, but I only have so much time, as I’m sure you do as well]).  Some piece of humor which may leave you cold while watching from your sofa may be uproariously hilarious when in the company of fellow moviegoers.  Also, watching everything at home takes a certain specialness away from these films, in my opinion.  They become little more than something else on your television, complete with the level of control to which we’ve become accustomed to wielding in that regard.  You can pause a movie to go to the bathroom, rewind to inspect some detail or decipher some bit of dialogue, do chores as a film unspools (and I’ve done all of the above, so I claim no innocence).  These two main issues have diminished my joy in regards to new cinema, and it’s sad.  Not sad enough that I’ll give up my passion for film, but sad, nonetheless.  Having said all of that, I’m sure there are those reading this who may find it hard to believe that Sam Firstenberg’s Ninja III: The Domination (aka Trancers [no, not that one]) actually played pretty widely in cinemas.  But it did, and more’s the pity that the theatrical distribution of pictures like it is a thing we have to talk about in the past tense.

An evil ninja (David Chung) attacks and kills “a prominent scientist” and his small army of bodyguards before being gunned down by the local police force.  While moribund, he manages to pass his sword on to hot telephone repairwoman Christie (the divine Lucinda Dickey) along with his maleficent spirit which is hellbent on revenge (even though one would think that getting killed is merely an occupational hazard for a professional assassin).  Later, Sho Kosugi shows up and fights some people while wearing an eyepatch.

Like all movies with possession as a subject, the most prominent aspect of Ninja III is one of identity.  Christie blacks out when the ninja takes over; she completely loses herself.  More than this, her physical appearance changes.  Her skin becomes pale and the eyeliner on her eyes becomes more “Asian” (all the better to match the guy-liner on both Chung and Kosugi).  This physical manifestation of a change in personality is something we’ve seen from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Exorcist and everywhere in between, and here there is an implication of sexual assault involved.  When the ninja first grabs Christie, he violently wrestles her to the ground and claws at her, and there is the sense that he is about to rape her (never mind how illogical this would be, considering his situation).  Later, when the strobe lights flash, the fog machine kicks in, and the wind fan threatens to blow everything to Oz (as you get when a spirit possesses your body), Christie is hit with a laser show that plays across her face and neck, and again there is a level of violation at work here, because the way she reacts is sensual, as if she were simultaneously being hypnotized and taking a lover.  The communion between Christie and the ninja is both sexual and violent by nature, and the two are inextricably linked as such by the filmmakers.

In this same way, the film deals with gender roles to some extent (perhaps even more than simple character identities/personalities), although it does treat this element rather problematically.  Christie works as a telephone repair technician, a trade more commonly associated with men.  She owns a cabinet video game (Bouncer), which at the time would be more associated with men (or at least I don’t recall a vast array of hot women at Aladdin’s Castle, one of our local arcades, back in the day).  She becomes a ninja assassin (certainly not a common female role back then).  Christie is hit on by our hirsute romantic lead Billy (Jordan Bennett), one of the cops who we first saw in the film’s beginning, while giving her statement to a detective.  She also doesn’t especially care for cops (we don’t know if this is the ninja’s influence or not) or soft drinks, so she’s rebellious in this sense.  Christie also teaches an aerobics class (since, after all, she’s a riff on Alex Owens from Flashdance thus requiring a tough, working class exterior and a softer, passionate interior along with a plethora of shots leering over her toned body), and she wears Billy down when he attends it with the assumption that it’s easy (after all, if chicks do it…).  Later, Billy dismisses Christie’s “weird” feelings with an air of condescension that’s maddening (and let’s just get this over with: this guy is a Grade-A handjob and a chauvinist pig, and he never fails to irritate every moment his smug character is onscreen).  Billy is a repressive force in Christie’s life, for conformity to traditional gender roles.

After the ninja takes over Christie’s body, she becomes even more masculine (read: aggressive) and more deadly, but she also uses her good looks more to her lethal advantage in this regard.  One of the first things she does with her ninja skills is beat the crap out of a group of musclebound would-be rapists from her gym who accost one of her friends (let’s not question the thought process these guys had, since they’re all gym members attacking another member, and not only in broad daylight but also right outside the gym’s door).  This is all done while Billy (remember, he’s a police officer) stands there gawking, after which he hauls Christie off for another pushy attempt at getting together with her (which works this time, mind-bogglingly enough; cue the legendary V8 [the juice, not the engine] scene).  But it’s Christie (or at the absolute minimum, Christie’s physical body) who is in control of most situations in the film, even when possessed, and this lasts right up until she decides to try and exorcise this spirit.  At that point, the two halves become more divided, and Christie grows from this ordeal, this encounter with the ninja’s masculinity, to a small degree (it can be argued that she should be viewed as a double for the evil ninja from the start [note that her work uniform and the ninja’s uniform are very similar in appearance], and all her possession did was give her an excuse to act out her discontent in the war of the sexes)to the point that she takes a more active part in the finale (though by that point she’s also become something of a background character).  And here’s where the complications arise.  Christie’s adversity if both freeing and repressive.  She gets to act out her aggressions against male society (embodied by the police) while being subjugated by a more powerful male persona personality.  It takes an even stronger male than that to set her free, and then the world she returns to is very traditionalist (possibly even Neanderthal) in its definition of gender roles.  Consequently, Christie does little more than go from the frying pan to the fire, from my perspective.  

I grant you that this film, for all the love it gets (and it gets a lot from me, as well), is essentially hollow.  The romantic relationship completely doesn’t click.  Kosugi seems like a character from another film who just shows up in time to fight the bad ninja and nothing else (they try to give him some pathos with a brief flashback, but it adds zero).  The plot is episodic and undeveloped; the film feels incomplete in some ways, as if they meant to add more and/or connect more of the dots but then didn’t, and there are filler scenes galore as a result.  Yet visually, there is a ton of Eighties flavor and texture, and it’s the collision of pop rock, pop art, aerobics, Ninjitsu, and the supernatural that makes Ninja III stand apart from the pack.

MVT:  See above.  The blending of some of the most disparate elements in the history of cinema makes this little gem shine all the brighter.

Make or Break:  The climactic fight (and it should be said that the action scenes in this film are both extensive and impressive) stands out for being well-shot and kooky in equal measure.  Plus, ninja (I’m pretty certain the plural of which is “ninja,” like the plural of “moose” is “moose”)!

Score:  7.25/10