Saturday, December 16, 2017

12/16/2017: Reinvented humans

Blind Fury (Phillip Noyce, 1989)
Australian director Phillip Noyce is that dying breed jack-of-all-tradesperson in the Michael Curtiz mold who can successfully work in different genres, budgets, countries, and styles and, more often than not, come up with something worth watching. In a career that started in 1969, Noyce has directed underground short films (Better to Reign in Hell, Castor and Pollux), arty independent dramas (Newsfront, The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence), Hitchcockian thrillers (Dead Calm), mainstream Hollywood action movies and suspense thrillers (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Salt), TV episodes and miniseries (Revenge, Luck, Roots), and a couple of mega-flops (Sliver, The Saint). Then there's Blind Fury. An American remake of the Zatoichi story, Blind Fury is a medium-budget stupid-fun cartoon-violence '80s action B-movie with Rutger Hauer as the blind swordsman, facing a metric shit-ton of bad guys played by an oddball assortment of veteran character actors, up-and-coming character actors, a foreign movie star, and a comedian. This is a ridiculously fun movie that never takes itself seriously or stops to catch its breath, marred only by a couple of cheap early-digital visual effects and an annoying little kid. Hauer is Nick Parker, blinded in action in Vietnam but rescued by some kindly villagers who teach him how to enhance his other senses and kick ass with a sword. Cut to present-day '89, and Nick is wandering the back roads of Florida with his walking stick/sword, living a free-spirited vagabond's life, interrupted only by the occasional alligator and a beatdown he has to dish out to a punk who deliberately pours too much hot sauce on his taco. Nick stops in at the home of an old Army buddy he served with in 'Nam, but finds out his buddy is now divorced and living in Reno. He chats pleasantly with his buddy's ex-wife Lynn (Meg Foster) and annoying son Billy (Brandon Call), but soon finds himself foiling a kidnapping plot and escorting Billy to Reno to reunite him with his dad Frank (Terry O'Quinn) and kick a whole lot of bad-dude ass, assisted by Frank's girlfriend Annie (the late great Lisa Blount, who should have been in twice as many films). Those bad dudes are played by Noble Willingham, Randall "Tex" Cobb, Nick Cassavetes, Sho Kosugi, Charles Cooper, standup comic Rick Overton, and a handful of others. The action sequences are brutal, fun, over-the-top, and take place in such varied locations as cornfields, vans, ski resorts, nightclubs, casino floors, elevators, trams, and hot tubs. Blind Fury also contains my favorite movie credit of all time: "Supervisor of Tram Operations -- Squaw Valley - Phillip F. St. Pierre, Jr."

Alraune (Richard Oswald, 1930)
One of many adaptations of  Hanns Heinz Ewers' novel about the mandrake root, Alraune is a perverse bit of sci-fi/horror/psychosexual drama from the earliest days of German sound film. Albert Bassermann plays Privy Councillor ten Brinken, a scientist and professor who lives in opulence thanks to a wealthy princess who funds his experiments and his lifestyle. Ten Brinken has successfully created rats through artificial insemination, but on a challenge by his nephew, he becomes possessed with the idea of creating a human through the artificial insemination process. Through a bribe, ten Brinken collects the seed of a prisoner about to be executed and then kidnaps a prostitute from a boisterous restaurant/nightclub to carry the artificially inseminated child. I don't know how ten Brinken expects his work to get peer reviewed and accepted as a scientific breakthrough when he achieved it through kidnapping and bribes, but that's his problem. The film then jumps 18 years into the future, and the artificially created woman Alraune (Brigitte Helm, who also plays the prostitute) is a young adult. She believes she is the orphaned niece of ten Brinken, and she has a seductive allure that leads men to their doom. Several plot twists ensue before the film's lyrical conclusion. These early sound films can be pretty rough, thanks to the clunky and primitive early sound equipment, and Alraune suffers from this in its early scenes. Silent film near the end of its 30-year run was a beautifully expressive medium, and much of this innovation and technique was discarded to capture sound. In scenes requiring dialogue, the camera doesn't move (or moves awkwardly and abruptly), the framing is artless and stagy, and the actors sometimes look stiff and uncomfortable. Oswald's approach becomes artier and more expressive as the film progresses, and a scene of driving is punctuated by a highly effective pattern of quick edits and montage. The closeups on actors' faces are beautifully expressive, and the interiors are intricately detailed. Alraune is a fascinating piece of film history.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

11/18/2017: "The work of pathological weirdos"

Where East Is East (Tod Browning, 1929)
I yield to no one in my love for the films of Tod Browning, but Where East Is East shares some unfortunate racial stereotyping with Browning's previous film, West of Zanzibar, along with the additional negative of casting white and Latina women as Asians. Fortunately, the film contains the same vitality, weirdness, visual invention, and depth of character as the rest of the Browning canon. Less of a horror film than most of his other work, Where East Is East dials down the macabre until the end, concentrating instead on an offbeat love story and the deception and intrigue of a third party who turns the pair into a triangle. The great Lon Chaney stars as Tiger Haynes, a heavily scarred American animal trapper living in Indochina. He traps tigers for circuses and has a pet gorilla. He's a little scary, but he's a single father with a heart of gold who dotes on his adult daughter Toyo, played by the great Lupe Velez. Toyo has fallen in love with Bobby (Lloyd Hughes), another American living in the Orient. Tiger is skeptical and gives Bobby a hard time until Bobby saves Toyo from a trapped tiger that escaped from its cage. Now on Team Bobby, Tiger takes his future son-in-law with him on a boat trip to unload some tigers on a circus owner. On the boat, Bobby meets Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor) and is instantly smitten, powerless against her lady-of-the-Orient charms. Tiger recognizes what's going on and has his own dark past with the woman. She insinuates herself into their lives, causing much havoc, and Tiger fights to keep his daughter's relationship together and get Bobby back on the right track. Things get messy. The approach to race leaves a lot to be desired, but the performances from Chaney, Velez, and Taylor are pure movie pleasure, the three charismatic actors bringing a camera-seducing life and history to their characters' faces and physical presences. Browning is an inventive and unusual creator of images, and even his few films that are tarnished with his era's stupidities have many worthwhile moments.

Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987)
Jackie Kong's most well-known cult movie, Blood Diner, an homage to H.G. Lewis's Blood Feast, is 90 minutes of nonstop insanity. I'm a big fan of Kong's first film, The Being, and Blood Diner captures some of the drive-in horror movie fun of that film with an additional 18 buckets of blood, guts, and vomit and a breakneck Three Stooges-meets-comic-book feel. The story of two brothers who run a vegetarian diner and resurrect their murderer uncle from the dead in order to bring an Egyptian goddess back to life and control the world, Blood Diner is a celebration of freakazoid gonzo excess. This is a film that has room for a talking brain in a tank, a restaurant owner who never goes anywhere without his ventriloquist dummy, punk rock zombies, a resurrected Egyptian goddess with gleaming fangs and a stomach-mouth who can shoot lasers from her eyes and fingertips, a pro wrestling match that pits a main character against Little Jimmy Hitler, a guy in a Reagan mask machine-gunning a room full of nude Aerobicizers, a naked woman karate-chopping a killer inside a cave, a pair of detectives who play by different sets of rules but get results, a biker who gets run over by a van 12 times to a loud calypso soundtrack but is just mildly inconvenienced, cannibalism, beheadings, eyeballs knocked out with shovels, a grocery list that begins with "6 dog dicks," two of the weirdest musical performances I've ever seen, and the following line of dialogue: "This is the best friggin' veggie burger I've had in a son-of-a-bitchin' long time!" What else can I tell you about this thing that won't be superfluous? The screenplay by B-movie actor Michael Sonye fills every moment with bizarre set-pieces and one-liners, and Kong finds a way to make it all happen visually. I'm glad something this weird exists, and I hope Kong finds a way to make another movie someday. Her films are a blast.