Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Infra-Man (aka: Zhong Guo Chao Ren)

(1975) Directed by Hua Shan; Written by: Ni Kuang; Starring: Danny Lee, Wang Hsia, Terry Liu; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***½

“Shaw Bros, at the time wanted to film a Kamen Rider type of film for the Hong Kong children. …Although I had watched a few episodes of Kamen Rider on TV and was aware of its popularity, I never expected them to ask me to direct Infra-man.” – Hua Shan (excerpted from interview by Linn Haynes)

When approached by the organizers of The Great VillainBlogathon 2015* to write about a favorite movie foe, my brain shuffled through 100 plus years of cinematic history. With such an enormous sandbox to play in, I was overwhelmed by the countless choices. At the end of the day, one individual stood triumphant: Princess Dragon Mom (aka: Elzebub). Who? Well, dear reader, allow me to elucidate on one of the most dastardly (and admittedly ridiculous) foes to appear on film.

* A hearty thanks to the organizers of this spectacular five-day blogging event, Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows & Satin.

At first glance, viewers might write off Infra-Man (aka: Super Inframan, or Zhong Guo Chao Ren) as a thinly disguised rip-off of Japanese TV shows such as Ultraman and Kamen Rider. The similarities were in fact a deliberate effort on the part of prolific Hong Kong-based filmmakers the Shaw Brothers to reproduce the same type of action show for Hong Kong audiences. While the film certainly owes much to those programs, director Hua Shan and team really make Infra-Man their own, transforming the DNA of its predecessors into an amazing mutant creation.

One of the refreshing things about Infra-Man is how quickly it throws the audience into the action, without wasting a lot of time on the titular’s character’s origins. There’s no time for brooding superheroes, or a Christopher Nolan-style deconstructionist meditation on the nature of revenge, examining how violence begets violence. Nope, the Shaw Brothers don’t have time for that jazz. The world of Infra-Man is divided into good and evil, with nothing in between.

The movie opens with a series of natural disasters, all which can be traced back to Mount Devil (a dragon-shaped mountain that looks suspiciously like Vaal from the old Star Trek episode, “The Apple”) and its nefarious inhabitants. The ringleader for these evildoings is none other than our villain of the hour, the 10-million-year-old demon Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu),* who’s consumed by thoughts of conquering the human world. There’s no mistaking her for some lesser villain, with her distinctive appearance. One hand is a dragon’s claw, while the other is a dragon’s head (what else?).** She struts about her lair, which wouldn’t be out of place in one of the Sid and Marty Krofft shows, cracking a dominatrix whip and ordering her skull-faced henchmen to do her bidding. For the heavy-duty skullduggery, however, she unleashes a horde of special creatures, including a plant monster, spider monster and other nasties.

* Technically, only the English dub refers to her as Princess Dragon Mom. In the original version, her name’s Elzebub, although I must admit I’m partial to her adopted English name.

** Of course, her distinctive appendages beg the question, how does she take care of (ahem) daily functions? (On second thought, the less time devoted to this subject, the better.)

But humanity, being a resilient lot, is not about to take this onslaught lying down. An enigmatic professor (Wang Hsia) and his crackerjack strike team are willing to go mano a mano with the bad guys, and they have an ace up their collective sleeve in the form of a top secret project. Our hero Rayma (Danny Lee) probably takes three seconds to ponder the painful, potentially life-threatening treatments he must endure to become Infra-Man. Through the miracle of cybernetic implants and vaguely explained science, he’s transformed into an ultimate fighting machine, endowed with super-strength and impervious to most weapons. It probably goes without saying he doesn’t stop to grapple with his newly acquired super powers, or endure a long-winded speech about “great power” going with “great responsibility.” Instead, he emerges from his transformation, fully realized, and ready to kick some monster butt.

Infra-Man isn’t the sort of movie that you nitpick. The filmmakers recycle Rayma’s transformation sequence multiple times. The effects, even by 1975 standards, are decidedly low-fi, mostly consisting of people in monster suits duking it out. It’s a simple, but winning formula that’s familiar, yet fresh. Some movies exist to entertain, and this flick does it in spades. Unlike many modern superhero movies that fumble for profundity, Infra-Man isn’t afraid to embrace its goofy side. Infra-Man doesn’t elevate the genre, it celebrates it. I was fortunate enough to watch this a few years back with the ideal audience, a theater packed with families, at one of the Kids Club Saturday matinees at Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. You don’t need to watch it with kids to have a good time, though. Just kick back with some good friends, shut your brain off, and soak in the nutty action sequences and sheer lunacy. Princess Dragon Mom aside, the fact this film never spawned a series of Infra-Man adventures is the only real evil.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Kung Fu Hustle

(2004) Directed by Stephen Chow; Written by: Man Keung Chan, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo and Kan-Cheung Tsang; Starring: Stephen Chow, Chi Chung Lam, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen and Siu-Lung Leung, Danny Chan and  Eva Huang; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“…for me, kung fu means something more…the spirit of Chinese kung fu. You learn how to fight, then you don’t have to.” – Stephen Chow (from 2005 interview with Ric Meyers)

I decided to kick off Hong Kong Month (Get it? “Kick” off? …Oh, kill me now.) with one of my favorite films from recent years, star/director/co-writer Stephen Chow’s audacious Kung Fu Hustle. Okay, truth be told, Kung Fu Hustle isn’t a pure Hong Kong production, but a Hong Kong-Chinese co-production, filmed in Shanghai, but Chow hails from Hong Kong, and the film has all the trappings of a Hong Kong production, so that’s good enough for me.

In the opening scene, set in 1940s Canton, we’re introduced to the brutal members of the Axe Gang, clad in black suits, huge top hats, and brandishing their signature weapon. They’re led by the sadistic Brother Sum (Danny Chan), who kills a rival gang leader and his girlfriend in front of the ineffectual police department, establishing himself as the undisputed kingpin. Sum meets unexpected resistance, however, from the residents of a local slum known as Pig Sty Alley. He soon realizes he must resort to other methods if he wishes to retain his stranglehold on the city.  

Chow plays Sing, a regular schlub who wants to join the Axe Gang at any cost. He’s accompanied by his portly sidekick Bone (Chi Chung Lam), who gamely tries to support Sing and his pathetic attempts to convince others he’s a badass. Unfortunately for Sing, all of his schemes backfire miserably. In one scene, Sing and his companion are beaten up by an accountant on a trolley. In another scene, he tries to assassinate the troublesome landlady (Qiu Yuen) of Pig Sty Alley, but only ends up injuring himself.

Sing seems an unlikely candidate for a protagonist, but you just know at some point he’ll see the light. In a flashback, we witness young Sing being suckered by an ersatz wise man into spending his life savings on a cheap pamphlet that promises to teach him the secret of the legendary Buddhist Palm Technique. Armed with this “knowledge,” along with high-minded ideals of fighting for world peace and defending the innocent, he encounters his first real test, but is trounced by a bully. At that point, Sing figures nice guys finish last. Years later, he runs into the mute girl (Eva Huang) he once tried to protect, and responds to her kindness with cruelty. But despite Sing’s best efforts to convince the world he’s a criminal to be reckoned with, being a bad guy doesn’t really suit him. We soon learn that his destiny lies in a nobler path.

One of the recurrent themes in Kung Fu Hustle is that appearances are often deceptive. The gruff landlady and her lecherous husband are unlikable at first, but grow on you as the film progresses. We learn that she has valid reasons for disliking heroes and heroic deeds. When we first set eyes on the number one killer, known only as The Beast (Siu-Lung Leung), he’s an unassuming, balding, middle-aged man seemingly incapable of hurting a fly. But he quickly proves to a formidable adversary. Another key theme is that someone can transcend his or her station to become something greater. In a particularly prophetic moment, one character sagely observes, “You can’t escape your destiny.”

Kung Fu Hustle includes multiple references to Hong Kong and Hollywood movies. One of the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a tailor who’s also a kung fu master, wields steel rings on his arms, mimicking Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Chow references his previous film, Shaolin Soccer, as his character unceremoniously stomps on a child’s soccer ball and proclaims “No more soccer” (A not-so-gentle reminder that this won’t simply be a follow up to his previous film). Even if you’re not a kung fu aficionado, you’ll find plenty of references to western flicks as well, including Reservoir Dogs, The Shining, Spider-Man, and perhaps most notable, the Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons (which figures in a spirited chase scene).

Among the many joys of the film is the magnificent production design by Oliver Wong. He masterfully evokes another time and place, from neon-drenched streets, to the garish abode of the Axe Gang, to the filthy slum of Pig Sty Alley. The characters come alive, thanks to inspired costumes by Shirley Chan, which alternately reflect the era and provide a fanciful touch. Composer Raymond Wong provides a stirring score to accompany the action and larger-than-life imagery.

Kung Fu Hustle is a love letter to Hong Kong cinema, told with panache and authority by Stephen Chow. Those looking for a straight martial arts film with gritty, realistic fight scenes amidst historically accurate settings will likely be disappointed by this fantastical approach. Filmgoers seeking an experience outside the norm will be rewarded by this exciting, surprisingly touching, and frequently hilarious movie.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Versatile Blogger

Much like the fairies in Peter Pan, I only have the capacity for one emotion at a time. Usually, it’s exasperation or some form of self-loathing, built on the premise that no one’s paying attention to my little blog, and I’m simply writing into a void. The notion that I would be acknowledged by any peers for my cinematic scribblings is an alien concept. With that in mind, you can likely imagine the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I learned about my recent nomination for the Versatile Blogger Award by Jason (aka: Vern) of The Vern’s Video Vortex. I’ve been an ardent follower of Vern since his Video Vanguard days, and have admired his consistent support of independent filmmakers, musicians and fellow bloggers. I’ve never met him in person, but he’s definitely one of the good guys (and not in a Chucky sort of way).

What’s a versatile blogger? I’m guessing the definition means different things to different folks, but I like to think of Cinematic Catharsis as the Swiss Army Knife of blogs. I might review a silent classic one week and a schlock favorite the next. I don’t adhere to a strict schedule or follow a bunch of arbitrary lists from so-called experts, but let my taste (or lack thereof) be my guide.

Speaking of rules, or their omission, there are no specific guidelines for this award, but I wanted to pass this nomination along to 10 more Versatile Bloggers you really should know:

Brandon Early of Movies at Dog Farm

Kristina Dijan of Speakeasy

Dan Lashley of Wide Weird World of Cult Films

Frisco Kid at the Movies

Stabford Deathrage of Stabford Deathrage Shoots His Mouth Off

Erin V. of Kill Panda Kill

Kerry Fristoe of Prowler Needs a Jump

John Harmon of Tales from the Freakboy Zone

Victor De Leon of Vic’s Movie Den

10 Things you might not know about me:

  1. I’m originally from the Los Angeles area, but I’ve lived in the Texas Hill Country (home of the Alamo Drafthouse) for nearly a decade. If anyone told my younger self I would one day reside in Texas, I’d probably think they were crazy. Just in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t share the prevailing politics or ideologies… and that’s about as political as I care to get.

  1. I recently celebrated my 22nd anniversary with my wife Nancy, who also shares my borderline misanthropic tendencies. We have a 16-year-old son, Matt, and 10-year-old daughter, Sierra.

  1. I hold bachelor’s degrees in English and Psychology, along with a master’s degree in Counseling, and currently work at a Major University to Remain Nameless.

  1. I’m a roller coaster junkie. Sadly, my wife and kids don’t quite have the same fervor, but they’re generally good sports about it.

  1. My dream is to one day travel to Japan and visit the Studio Ghibli Museum and Tokyo Disneyland.

  1. Horror and Science Fiction are my favorite film genres, although it’s tough to find good ones out there. I tend to favor classic horror, or newer tales of the macabre that are more psychological in nature. I don’t like horror movies that dwell on sadism or involve cruelty to animals.

  1. I’m sort of a recluse. Despite the fact I work with the public on a daily basis, I contend with social anxiety issues. Paradoxically, I’m willing to suspend my inherent social awkwardness and disdain for crowds to attend movie theaters and amusement parks. My idea of a relaxing weekend, however, is to de-stress from the week, stay inside, and watch movies or listen to music.

  1. I’m an incurable night owl. During the week, I work a normal 8 to 5 work week, but during the weekend, I revert to my nocturnal schedule. Big pet peeve: chipper morning people.

  1. I enjoy coffee in all its myriad forms (Except for decaf. What’s up with that?). Oddly enough, I only started drinking it 12 years ago, when I lived briefly in Seattle.

  1. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I worked for a now defunct video store in the San Fernando Valley, where I picked up the habit of looking for more obscure movie titles.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March Quick Picks and Pans

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) Director/co-writer’s Isao Takahata’s latest effort features gorgeous animation reminiscent of watercolor paintings, accompanied by an affecting score by Studio Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi. The story is derived from the classic Japanese folk tale “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter,” about a childless middle-aged bamboo cutter and his wife who discover a baby girl in a bamboo stalk and raise her as one of their own. Like the plant she originated from, the baby grows at an accelerated rate, maturing into a young woman within a few years. The bamboo forest yields gold and silk, which provide the means for them to move to the city, where their adopted daughter can live as a princess. Takahata tells his story with grace and gentle humor, tempered with an underlying melancholic tone. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is life affirming, but never saccharine with its sentiment. We’re reminded that life is ephemeral, but also beautiful. I’m saddened that this might be one of the last films to come from Studio Ghibli, but they couldn’t have asked for a better epitaph than this.

Rating: *****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Come and See (1985) Director Elem Klimov presents an unflinching depiction of wartime atrocities through the eyes of Florya, an adolescent boy (Aleksey Kravchenko) struggling to survive during the Nazi occupation of Belarus. We watch him visibly age throughout the film, as the weight of his experiences takes its toll on his mind and body. It’s extremely difficult to watch at times, especially when a village and its residents are burned to the ground by Nazi invaders, but it’s always engaging. Come and See is essential viewing for anyone interested in an alternative perspective of World War II, free from Hollywood gloss.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Visitor (1979) This Italian production, filmed in Atlanta, is a bizarre hodge-podge of mystical and science fiction elements, with a classic fight between good and evil. The introduction (which could have been concocted by L. Ron Hubbard) attempts to explain the extraterrestrial back-story, involving an eternal struggle between good and evil. Seemingly random elements are thrown in to keep the viewer disconcerted.

Lance Henriksen (in an early role), stars as Raymond Armstead, owner of a professional basketball team, and the pawn of a shadowy organization. His girlfriend has an 8-year-old daughter Katy (Paige Conner) with supernatural powers and sociopathic tendencies (think a female version of The Omen). The girl is pursued by a galactic cop (John Huston), who’s accompanied by a Christ-like figure and his bald child disciples. The impressive cast also features Glenn Ford as a police detective, and Shelley Winters as an eccentric, astrology-obsessed housekeeper. But wait, there’s more… oh, so much more. I’m not sure how this ever got made, but I’m kind of glad someone gave it the green light. The Visitor might make you question your sanity, but if you’re up to taking a dive into the deep end of weird cinema, this might just be the ticket. Don’t let the bad IMDB rating sway you. Give it a try, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) This documentary-style film from director Adam Robitel (who co-wrote the script with Gavin Heffernan) starts off on a promising note, with its story about a PhD student (Michelle Ang) conducting a case study on Alzheimer’s sufferer Deborah Logan. The film is notable for some fine performances, especially Jill Larson as the elderly title character, and Anne Ramsay as her middle-aged daughter Sarah. There’s a good dynamic between the two actors that really sells their relationship. In fact, the first two thirds are so compelling that it’s disappointing when the last third devolves into familiar territory with jump scares, “shaky cam” footage and doctoral students running around doing stupid things. If you forget the latter part of the film, it’s a quite effective family drama about a mother and daughter coping with the real-life horrors of a debilitating illness. It’s too bad it doesn’t quite work as the horror it was marketed as.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming