Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Man from Hong Kong




(1975) Written and directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith; Starring: Yu Wang, George Lazenby, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Roger Ward and Rosalind Speirs; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“It’s a convention for these kind of movies that five or six guys will attack the hero and he’ll just punch each of them in turn, then they’ll all get up again, and the trick is not to have people apparently waiting their turn too long.” – Brian Trenchard-Smith (from the DVD commentary)


Exploitation Month continues with a special category of film peculiar to the land down under, Ozploitation. If you want a quick and dirty primer on the weird and wild world of Australian exploitation, I heartily recommend the amazing documentary Not Quite Hollywood. One of the filmmakers featured in the documentary, Brian Trenchard-Smith,* helped define the new wave of Aussie exploitation cinema with his brand of explosive, take-no-prisoners filmmaking, starting with The Man from Hong Kong (aka: Dragon Flies). The Australian-Hong Kong (Golden Harvest) co-production, made on a budget of approximately $550,000 (Australian), manages to do a whole lot with very little. Of course, anyone familiar with the Golden Harvest martial arts films know they’re in for a golden harvest of whoop-ass, and boy does The Man from Hong Kong deliver.

* You owe it to yourself to seek out Trenchard-Smith’s fun and insightful trailer commentaries on Trailers from Hell. Each one is a mini-seminar in low budget filmmaking.


With Ayers Rock as a distinctive backdrop, two cops (played by Trenchard-Smith regular Roger Ward and Hugh Keays-Byrne)* track down and apprehend a drug runner (played by a 22-year-old Sammo Hung). In the space of a few minutes, we’re treated to an elaborate fight scene on top of the Australian landmark, and a fiery (literally) car chase sequence.** When the Aussie cops discover their suspect doesn’t speak English, they call in an overseas police inspector (Yu Wang) for help, thus providing our title.

* Fun fact: Ward and Keys-Byrne both appeared as opposite sides of the law in Mad Max (1979). Of course, the latter actor is probably best known for his role in the sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road, as Immortan Joe.

** Another Fun fact: In the ensuing explosion, a car door flies off toward the camera. In his DVD commentary, Trenchard-Smith noted that the door missed the crew by only a couple of feet.


The Man from Hong Kong unabashedly displays its influences, with a strong James Bond vibe running throughout. It’s a master stroke of casting that the villain is played by none other than one-time 007 George Lazenby. Lazenby seems to enjoy his role as the ruthless kingpin, Jack Wilton, who controls an extensive network of drug and prostitution rings. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, but not above stacking the deck in his favor.


As a protagonist, Fang Sing Leng (Yu Wang) is lacking, just slightly less amoral than Wilton. He’s equally misogynistic, and almost sociopathic in his thirst for vengeance (arguably the same deficits lobbed at the character’s famous British counterpart). One of his sexual conquests, Angelica (Rebecca Gilling), nurses him back to health, and enjoys a brief, torrid romance (told through an obligatory cheesy montage), only to be discarded when she’s no longer essential to the plot. Then again, it’s easy to argue Fang Sing Leng’s casual violence and sexism is a conscious effort to simultaneously spoof the modern action hero archetype and pay homage to the genre.


The Man from Hong Kong has enough over-the-top stunts and supercharged action scenes for ten other movies. Action’s the main attraction, with one spectacular sequence after another: the aforementioned opening scene, hang gliding over Hong Kong and Sydney, an octane-fueled car chase, and our hero taking on an entire karate dojo.* Fans of Aussie action flicks will likely recognize actor/stuntman Grant Page** as an assassin (he also appeared in Road Games, which was covered here a couple of months back). Page provided many of the stunts, doubling for Jimmy Wang Yu in a climbing scene (without a harness), and the film’s hang gliding sequences.

* Watch for the director in a cameo, appearing as the karate studio manager. He gets beaten up and thrown through a glass window by Yu Wang, and for good measure, is beaten up again on the roof of an elevator. Trenchard-Smith remarked that his star didn’t pull his punches in their scenes together, a likely byproduct of their often contentious working relationship.

** Page suffered a wardrobe malfunction in a restaurant fight scene, splitting his pants. It didn’t deter Grant or the crew from continuing to film the scene.


Not all of the movie’s elements have aged well, with some casual racism and xenophobic remarks. The dialogue hits a low point when one of the white policemen cracks a “yellow peril” joke. Nevertheless, you have to give the film credit where it’s due, with an attempt to tip the scales in the favor of the hero. Trenchard-Smith stated that he wanted to make a statement of sorts by staging love scenes between an Asian man and Caucasian woman, something that was against the grain for movies from this era.


As an action flick, The Man from Hong Kong is beyond reproach, boasting excellent fight scenes, fast-paced car chases and a stellar cast. It’s just a shame some of the previously noted trespasses bring it down a notch. With only a few reservations, however, this Bond-on-a-budget movie does a damn fine job of keeping us entertained.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cinematic Dregs: Nude on the Moon




(1960) Directed by Doris Wishman (credited as Raymond Phelan); Written by Raymond Phelan   and Doris Wishman; Starring: Marietta, William Mayer and Lester Brown;
Available on DVD

Rating: *½

“Don’t you understand? I’m in love. For the first time in my life, I care for someone. It’s strange, but it’s wonderful.” – Dr. Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown)

Science!

Time sure flies in the movie blogging world (Are we having fun yet?). It’s been nearly a year since my previous edition of Cinematic Dregs, and what better choice for my exploration of cinema’s worst, than Nude on the Moon,* from infamous cheapie Florida-based sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman? Ms. Wishman started out with the “nudie cuties” (including today’s specimen), which were strictly look-but-don’t-touch affairs between the characters, and eventually graduated to the “roughies,” featuring graphic sex and violence (such as Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell). When the “roughie” became passé, Wishman and her contemporaries branched out into horror and hardcore sex films – but I’m jumping ahead. Nude on the Moon belongs to a more innocent time, when audiences (consisting predominantly of lonely men, I’d wager) didn’t expect much more than a little jiggling flesh. By these admittedly low standards, Nude on the Moon delivers – sort of. As Michael Weldon pointed out in his Pyschotronic Video Guide, the film’s title is a bit of a misnomer. A more accurate title would have been Topless on the Moon, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

* Because I must have a masochistic streak, I asked my dear Twitter followers to help me decide which film I would inflict upon myself for Exploitation Month.

 Sometimes, a rocket is just a rocket.

The paper-thin plot concerns two scientists, Professor Nichols (William Mayer) and Dr. Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown) who decide they don’t need any stinkin’ NASA, and plan a DIY moon mission. Nichols wants his colleague to settle down, but Huntley is all work, proclaiming, “science is my life, and nothing else” (It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to guess the moon won’t be the only heavenly body that attracts his attention before the movie’s over.). Thanks to a convenient $3 million* inheritance, the scientists build their own rocket and arrive safely on the lunar surface, which looks an awful lot like Florida. They proceed to record their observations, and by “record their observations,” I mean ogle various moon women (Or moon people, or whatever the heck they call ‘em. My brain hurts.) cavorting about their “moon” compound. And that’s about it, for two thirds of the movie. Although it’s a scant 70 minutes, you’d swear you were watching a four-hour extended cut.** If nothing else, Wishman vindicates Einstein’s theory that time is relative to the observer.

* Quite a bargain, considering NASA’s Apollo program cost $25.4 billion in 1973 dollars.

** Note: No such cut exists. If it does, I don’t want to know about it, because it would almost certainly violate the Geneva Convention guidelines regarding torture.

 
The first third of the film isn’t any better, consisting of boring conversations between the two scientists. In a half-assed nod to scientific accuracy, we’re treated to a serious discussion about the temperature range on the moon, but I wonder why they bothered at all. Considering everything that follows, all bets are off. Wishman and her crew spared every expense to ensure any shred of veracity was eliminated. When the two scientists board their rocket, it’s obviously just a conventional airplane. The frolicking moon denizens sport a set of antennae on a head band, which resemble a first grade craft project. The space suits worn by the two men look like they were cobbled together from a dime store. They communicate to each other through radios, although their helmets are open to the air.


Nude on the Moon’s one claim to fame is that it was shot at the famous Coral Castle near Miami, Florida, a remarkable assortment of enormous sculptures, created by one man over the course of 28 years. Alas, the story behind the monument’s construction, long shrouded in mystery, would have been much more compelling than anything in this movie.


It helps to have the proper perspective when watching Nude on the Moon, although that probably won’t stop you from experiencing crippling boredom. It’s the product of a bygone era when watching nearly naked women frolic in a natural setting was more than enough for the early ‘60s trenchcoat crowd to get their jollies. Nothing like it was being produced by the major film companies of the time, so for those who actually paid admission, it was the proverbial forbidden fruit. As a modern-day film watching experience, however, it’s an exercise in tedium. Your enjoyment depends largely on how much kitsch you can stand. Those looking for the more prurient aspects will probably be disappointed.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Blacula




(1972) Directed by William Crain; Written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig; Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Thalmus Rasulala and Gordon Pinsent; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“Well, we can’t ignore what the world characterizes as the black arts, now can we? I think that there’s some truth to all of it.” – Mamuwalde (William Marshall)

“Tina, this isn’t some nut from a Halloween party, that man is the real thing.” – Michelle (Denise Nicholas)


I owe a debt of gratitude to the cinematic hosts with the most, Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings, and Karen of Shadows & Satin for organizing the latest iteration of The Great Villain Blogathon. Be sure to check out the other entries for this massive five-day event. Today’s post is a 2-for-1 deal of sorts (Who doesn’t like a bargain?). Technically, Exploitation Month isn’t until next month, but I’m kicking it off a couple of days early, because the opportunity to discuss the eponymous villain was too enticing to pass up.


Blacula falls into the thriving Blaxploitation era of the 1970s, a loose mélange of low-budget films in multiple genres, focusing on African American characters and urban settings. It emerged as an answer to cinema dominated by white characters, albeit often featuring less than flattering portrayals (hence, the exploitation factor). But many of the films also played with stereotypes, serving as a platform for social satire. Blacula helped pave the way for a small but significant wave of black-themed horror films, including Blackenstein (1973), Abby (1974), and Sugar Hill (1974). But you need to look no further than the original film for one of the finest villains of the era.


In the film’s prologue, set in Transylvania, circa 1780, Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) is host to Mamuwalde (William Marshall), an African prince, who’s traveled to Eastern Europe to protest the slave trade. Relations turn sour in a hurry when Dracula offers to purchase Mamuwalde’s wife Luva (Yep, not only is Dracula a demonic nocturnal bloodsucker, he’s also a flippin’ racist!), played by Vonetta McGee. Naturally, this doesn’t sit very well with Dracula’s guest, and a fight breaks out. Unfortunately, they’re subdued by Dracula’s minions, and the vampire count bites Mamuwalde, thus starting his transformation into one of the undead. Before the transformation is complete, the sadistic count seals the African prince in a coffin, while his wife is left to die, locked away in a dungeon.


Nearly 200 years later, a pair of gay interior designers (Nope, this movie didn’t win any GLAAD awards) end up in Dracula’s castle. Spotting a potential to make a proverbial killing, they purchase the furnishings for cheap, along with Mamuwalde’s coffin. The whole lot is shipped back home to a Los Angeles warehouse, and while the men proceed to catalog the items, the coffin is opened, inadvertently reviving Mamuwalde (aka: Blacula). Being locked away for two centuries tends to builds up a powerful thirst, and Mamuwalde makes up for lost time by draining his two unwitting benefactors and a cabdriver of their blood. As he enjoys his new-found freedom, he becomes fixated on Tina (also played by McGee), a woman who happens to be the spitting image of his wife from yesteryear. He concludes that Tina is Luva, in reincarnated form (similar to Mina in Bram Stoker’s story).


With his deep voice, commanding stature, and handsome looks, Marshall rises above the admittedly shaky material, creating a believable, intimidating presence. An essential element for any good villain is that he must be relatable on some level, and Mamulwalde is no exception. Although he kills anyone who stands in the way, there’s a part of me that wanted him to succeed. In his tragic past, the love of his life was ripped away from him, and all he wants is to re-establish that bond. Besides, life as a vampire really doesn’t seem that bad, if you can put up with the atrocious ‘70s fashions.**

* If his voice sounds familiar, you might remember Marshall from another memorable, but more benign role, as the amiable King of Cartoons on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

** Seriously, even he can’t believe the size of this dude’s collar.

Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) stands in for the Van Helsing role. He’s a true believer in a world of cynics, fighting the good fight on his own. After he discovers the same distinctive bite marks on two corpses, he begins to formulate a hypothesis about who (or what) is perpetrating the bizarre murders. His biggest hurdle, however, is trying to convince a skeptical police department and his girlfriend Michelle (Denise Nicholas) that something supernatural is afoot. Thomas is a formidable opponent to Mamuwalde, and has good chemistry with Michelle (and I’m not just referring to the fact that they work together in a lab). In addition to Rasulala’s good supporting performance, classic movie buffs will appreciate the nice little role by veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. (sporting a hook hand) as Sam, a county coroner.


Considering the army of the undead Mamuwalde has assembled, they’re dispatched far too easily. The vampires go up in flames without much fuss (Then again, it was the ‘70s, when fire-retardant clothing wasn’t much of a priority). Of course, you’re barking up the wrong tree if you’re looking for a subtle script or anything that isn’t told in broad strokes, but what Blacula does, it does quite well. If you’re searching for an entry level film into the wild, weird and wonderful world of Blaxploitation, or its horror variant, look no further than Blacula, which is elevated, in no small part, by Marshall, who treats schlock like a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s an ideal choice for B-movie night. Try it. I think you’ll be surprised. Just tell ‘em Barry sent ya.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Classics Revisited: Five Easy Pieces




(1970) Directed by Bob Rafelson; Written by Adrien Joyce (aka: Carole Eastman); Story by Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman; Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Toni Basil, Lois Smith and Susan Anspach; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“…I felt that the character that I was trying to write the movie about should be about a man who’s condemned to search for the meaning of his life, and it’s not a very happy search at that.” – Bob Rafelson (from Criterion DVD commentary)

“I move around a lot. Not because I’m looking for anything really, but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.” – Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson)


A great big thanks to Gill Jacob of Realweegiemidget Reviews for inviting me to participate in the Here’s Jack Blogathon 2017, honoring Mr. Nicholson’s 80th birthday. The word “iconic” is thrown around so often these days, it’s almost ceased to have meaning. In Jack Nicholson’s case, however, calling his cinematic presence iconic isn’t mere hyperbole, it’s the truth. Among the many great Nicholson performances to choose from, the one that’s resonated with me the most is Bobby Dupea from Five Easy Pieces. Director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman construct a character study that’s simply told, naturalistic and personal.


Jack Nicholson paints a complex portrait as Bobby Dupea. Bobby drifts through an aimless existence as an oil rigger in a desolate California town,* where he lives with Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), his girlfriend of the moment and hangs around with his ne’er do well pal Elton (Billy Green Bush). He’s groundless, without a moral compass or discernible purpose. Propelled by his id, he says what he likes, does what he wants, and acts on sheer impulse, with little regard for the consequences. But as we soon discover, Bobby is much more than he appears. His lifestyle is by choice, not out of necessity. He resides in self-imposed exile from a comfortable upbringing, where he showed boundless promise as a classical pianist. He’s a man who’s no wiser by the film’s conclusion, fated to repeat the same maladaptive behavior ad infinitum. It’s a testament to Nicholson’s acting skills that he portrays such an amoral, self-centered, callous individual, yet still manages to hold our attention, and yes, gain our sympathies.

* Fun fact: The first half of the film was shot in Taft, California. The second half was filmed on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

 
Eastman’s script takes some detours, which don’t necessarily contribute to the plot but provide some much-needed humor and color to Bobby Dupea’s universe. When Bobby and Elton become stuck in a traffic jam, Bobby suddenly engages in an impromptu piano recital on the back of on open truck. On the road to see his family in the northwest, he picks up a pair of Alaska-bound hitchhikers (Toni Basil and Helena Kallianiotes). Basil is hilarious in her deadpan role, spouting a diatribe on man’s penchant for “crap” and “filth.” In the film’s most famous scene (much to Rafelson’s chagrin), Bobby deals with a surly waitress, attempting to talk his way around the restaurant’s “no substitutions” policy, and failing in spectacular fasion.* But in my favorite scene, which always makes me cheer, Bobby puts a pedantic intellectual and her pretentious cronies in their place (something most of us would never have the chutzpah to do, but wish we could).

* Another fun fact: In the DVD commentary, Rafelson explained that the genesis of the scene came from his tendency to make substitutions when he dines out, and the subsequent friction from restaurant servers. Additionally, Eastman incorporated a volatile real-life incident involving Nicholson, when he swept a table’s contents onto the floor at a Hollywood-area restaurant.


Compared to the blue collar world of the oil fields, Bobby’s family might as well be from another planet. We glimpse the seeds of his discord in the family house, and panned shot of portraits, a sterile environment where music – the family trade – is valued over individuality. He’s stifled by the prospect of being yet another classical musician in a long line of professional musicians. The film’s most poignant moment occurs when Bobby speaks with his mute, wheelchair-bound father (William Challee). As the result of a massive stroke, the once powerful family patriarch is a shadow of his former self, and a captive audience to his estranged son. The scene packs an emotional wallop because it’s one of the few moments when Bobby lets down his guard, and permits himself to reflect on the empty shell he’s become. At once, we see his self-reflection on a wasted life and unwillingness to change. We get the impression Bobby could still pick up where he left off, with his budding music career, but he’s a victim of his hubris, unable to stop this pointless, self-destructive trajectory.


Everyone Bobby touches seems to get hurt in one way or another. The most pathetic of the bunch is Rayette,* who hopes to tame his wilder tendencies and settle down. She can’t seem to grasp that he’s incapable of reciprocating her affection, or that, in Bobby’s mind, she’s reaching her expiration date. Their oil and water relationship is brought to the surface when she unexpectedly drops in on Bobby and his family. He enjoys a brief tryst with his brother’s wife Catherine (Susan Anspach), who sees Bobby for what he is – good for a few laughs, but incapable of establishing or sustaining a meaningful relationship. She agrees to be complicit in Bobby’s sexual conquest because he’s everything her husband Carl (Ralph Waite) isn’t – impish, playful and unstable. By far, the most functional relationship is the one Bobby shares with his sister Partita (Lois Smith). They share an unspoken bond, free from judgment or disdain.

* (SPOILER ALERT) According to Rafelson, screenwriter Eastman originally had a very different ending in mind for Bobby and Rayette. When they have their final squabble in the car, their vehicle veers off the road and sinks into a body of water, with Rayette the sole survivor.


Five Easy Pieces is one of the rare films that rewards with subsequent re-viewings, to reveal different layers of meaning. The film resonates on a personal level, as well. Having once occupied the role of black sheep in the family I can identify with Bobby’s dissociation from his family of origin. Unlike my personal narrative, however, there’s no respite or redemption for Bobby; we can only presume he’ll continue to alienate his family and make the same mistakes, leaving a trail of fractured relationships and a life without direction or purpose. We’ve all probably known someone like Bobby Dupea at one point or another, and can understand the damage he’s inflicted. A serious character study with surprising moments of levity, Five Easy Pieces is a great American tragedy.