The Haunted Italians, Part Two

Well, life got a little away from me for a bit there. Here I am on the other side, trying, somewhat dazedly, to finish what I started.

hercules-in-the-haunted-world-movie-poster-1964-1020422688Last time, we dealt with Italian cinema’s flirtations with Dante Alighieri’s Inferno – understandable, given the poet’s importance to Italian culture – and, as mentioned, I had intended to cover three movies, until I realized I was going to have to expand it to four.  We’ll get into why in a bit, but for right now we had better get started before events jerk the rug out from under me again.

The next logical movie after L’Inferno and Maciste in Hell, I thought, would be Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, or as this particular copy would have it, Hercules in the Center of the Earth.

Hercules (Reg Park) is, as usual traveling back after some adventures to the love of his life – this time it’s the princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). He and his traveling companion, the womanizing Theseus (George Ardisson) are set upon by some thugs, who would normally be chased away by Hercules employing his party trick, hurling styrofoam boulders at them, but as this is a special Bond-style opening, he instead throws a whole damn wagon. We will eventually find that the thugs were sent by Deianira’s guardian, the regent Lico (Christopher Lee), who neglected to tell his bully boys that the target was Hercules. This seems like mission critical information to me, but what do I know, I’m not an evil regent.

Don't trust him, Hercules - that's Christopher Lee!

Don’t trust him, Hercules – that’s Christopher Lee!

Hercules is shocked to find that Deianira is now somewhat insane, supposedly driven to distraction by the belief that her absent lover has died at sea (no extra points will be awarded for guessing that Lico and his magic are at the root of this problem). Hercules consults the Oracle (a masked Gaia Germani), who cannot reveal too much, due to the “forces of darkness”, but when Hercules sacrifices his immortality to Zeus, the Big Guy allows her to tell Herc that the Stone of Forgetfulness will cure his love. The main problem there is the Stone is deep in the realm of Hades.

Hercules gathers up Theseus and gets saddled with an Odious Comic Relief who is so unfunny I was pretty sure his name was Odioso, but it turns out to be Telemachus (Franco Giacobini). This is a terrible use of the name of Odysseus’s son – Telemachus here is the supposed fiance of the woman Theseus is always snogging (Marisa Bellia), but now hangs around Theseus as, I suppose, the Ultimate Cuck, to use the current idiot jargon.

Can you spot the Odious Comic Relief in this shot?

Can you spot the Odious Comic Relief in this shot?

hercules-in-the-haunted-world-heroism-cult-movies-downloadThese three journey to the island of the Hesperides – usually some nymphs who tend a garden, but here a bunch of ladies under a curse. Herc needs their Golden Apple, which will insure that he can come back from Hades, but it’s at the top of a tree with more deathtraps than a cave leading to the Holy Grail. Hercules, naturally, throws a styrofoam boulder at the apple, knocking it down, and freeing the Hesperides from their curse.

Theseus and Odioso, meantime, have been offered to the rock monster Procrustes (whom Theseus actually fought and vanquished, according to mythology, but here merely breaks his sword on the monster). Hercules arrives in the proverbial nick, throwing Procrustes into a wall, which conveniently enough, was covering the entrance to Hades.

hercules-haunted-world-procrustes-rock-monsterThis sequence is where Bava works his usual magic with a very limited budget, starting with a lovely siren chained to a pillar, an obvious trap for horndog Theseus. They walk through a forest in which is trapped the souls of the damned (thanks Dante!), as they find when Theseus attempts to hack through with his magically restored sword, and the branches bleed while the trees wail. Herc still whacks off enough vines to make a rope that he stretches over a lake of lava (by attaching it to a hurled styrofoam boulder) to get to the Stone. Theseus will try to follow Herc on the rope, but fail, as he is not a demigod, and falls into the lava (another pretty good effect).

ooerJust when we’re trying to figure out how to get Odioso down there to also fall in Hell’s soup bowl, we find that Theseus has somehow miraculously gone through the lake of fire unharmed, and he is being mooned over by some honey (Ida Galli) and, being Theseus, he decides to sneak the girl out of Hell without telling Hercules.

Hercules is glad to see his friend alive, the sap, and the unknown babe hiding in the ship’s hold tells Theseus the only way to get out of the sudden storm buffeting the ship is to toss the Golden Apple overboard.  How does she know about stuff like this? It’s because she’s actually Persephone – in Maciste in Hell, “Pluto’s Second Wife”. In this Americanized version, “Pluto’s favorite daughter”. Did the Italian version thus whitewash the whole abduction of Persephone fable, or was it just for us prudish Yanks? Anyway, Pluto ain’t happy, and now there’s a curse upon the land, which kind of harshes Hercules’ buzz when Deianira is cured by the Stone. Lico is equally put out until his pals with the Forces of Darkness assure him all he has to do is drink Deianira’s blood during the upcoming eclipse and he can be evil for eternity.

hercules-haunted-world-christopher-leeSo Herc has to convince Theseus to give up Persephone and rescue Deianira yet again when Lico abducts her to a nearby hill with a handy sacrificial altar, leaving a bunch of zombies behind to slow Hercules’ roll. Hercules finally catches up, and though you might think he would drop a styrofoam boulder on Lico, he figures nope, I’m not taking chances with Christopher Lee and drops a whole damned standing stone from the surrounding pseudo-Stonehenge on him instead. Fortunately, there are many more Styrofoam stones around for Herc to throw on the approaching herds of zombies until the eclipse is over.

Still not quite the end, as Persephone used the power of the Stone of Forgetfulness to erase her memory from Theseus’ mind, so he goes back to snogging Odioso’s girlfriend, and Odioso throws himself into the ocean to drown, to the cheers of the audience, and the laughter of Hercules and Deianira, the jerks.

vlcsnap-2017-02-18-00h35m42s710

DO IT, ODIOSO! DO IT!!!!!!!

Mario Bava had worked as lighting and cinematographer in the two movies that started the peplum boom, Hercules and Hercules Unchained, so he was working in familiar territory here, but it still has to be granted that the movie profits magnificently from the addition of Bava’s visual sense and overall fascination with gothic imagery. The scene of the zombies rising from stone sarcophagi is so horror movie effective you might think you accidentally switched to another movie. There’s a reason it features so prominently in the trailer below.

You expect Bava’s usual vibrant use of color, but few directors ever got so much variety of use from plain old fogHaunted World‘s low budget is often achingly obvious – Reg Park probably experienced some deja vu when Bava recycled sets from Park’s previous Hercules flick, Captive Women – but the results are rarely less than gorgeous to look at. The vibrant colors even make some iffy miniatures look good.

hercules-haunted-world-mario-bava

When you saw that scene cropped for 4×3 TVs, you never realized that Bava perfectly set up the hill with the standing stones and altar, over to the left.

Speaking of Reg Park, he makes for a terrific Hercules. At the peak of his bodybuilding form, he’s handsome, affable, certainly looks the part, and is a good enough actor to look like he’s putting real effort into hurling those styrofoam boulders. Lico is the sort of role Christopher Lee could have done in his sleep, but as ever, he is completely serious and gives the role more than its due. Now, I know that the studios at Cinecittà were so noisy that all the movies were shot without sound and dubbed later, but I still really resent it when Lee is dubbed by another actor, one without his presence or gravitas, and who was likely being rushed by the ADR director to get it done in one morning, because Godzilla vs the Thing had the studio that afternoon.

Maciste in Hell. Again.That would have wrapped up my original article, but there was something bothering me. I had thought I had seen various parts of Haunted World in my youth (as I said, my mother watched these religiously on the afternoon movie in those pre-Dr. Phil days), and expected a much lengthier trip to the Underworld. When that didn’t materialize, I realized I had seen pieces of a different movie entirely, and there was only one real candidate for that, and it was, ironically enough, Riccardo Freda’s 1962 remake of Maciste in Hell, re-titled, for Maciste-deprived Americans, The Witch’s Curse.

With uncharacteristic swiftness, we get right down to the title fulfillment, as a witch is burned in 1555 Scotland. Marta Gant claims that the Justice condemning her is doing so simply because she turned him down when she was young, and curses the entire village. One hundred years later, the curse is in full effect, women going mad and attempting to commit suicide, usually at a huge dead tree that only flowers when someone succumbs to the curse.

I’m sure The Doctor will set these superstitious villagers straight in a jiffy.

Now, let’s meet a couple of newlyweds, Charlie (Angelo Zanolli) and Marta (Vira Silenti). Marta is a direct descendant of the witch from the first scene – she even has the same name – and as a wedding present, Charlie has bought the old family castle for her. This proves that one should always do one’s due diligence when buying real estate, because the superstitious villagers immediately storm the castle and attempt to lynch Marta while yelling about burning her. Stupid villagers.

Enter – twenty minutes into his own movie – Maciste (Kirk Morris) – who, despite being in 17th century Scotland, is clad in his taditional loincloth and sandals, and probably freezing his nipples off. He saves Marta from the mob, who are probably more cowed by this half-naked madman who can bend iron bars than anything else.

Marta’s ancestor is a real witch-with-a-b because she makes a bible burst into flames when Marta touches it at a trial, guaranteeing she’ll be burned at the stake. The more rational town doctor (Charles Fawcett) shows Maciste the cursed tree, and the muscleman naturally pushes it over and climbs down the well-lit hole into Hell to seek out the witch and save Marta’s life.

The credits helpfully inform you that Hell is being played by the caves of Castellana in Italy, and they are beautiful and quite spacious; after playing tourist for a while and observing a small army of extras being tormented by the occasional day player in a mask (with the required homages to Gustav Doré), Maciste sets to his task of finding the witch. He will be aided in this by Fania (Hélène Chanel), a beautiful woman who, to the surprise of nobody, is actually the witch she is looking for. No getting turned into a demonic sex toy for this Maciste, he is instead hit with a spell of forgetfulness while Fania gets kidnapped by Goliath so Maciste can throw styrofoam boulders at him.

Oh no! A lion puppet!

It seems Maciste was never given an origin to explain his great strength, and this portrayal seems to weigh against any sort of divine descent like Hercules, as Morris has to really strain during his feats of strength, like bending bars or picking up boulders to protect him from sparks falling from above. Normally, I’d say this is for tension, for reinforcing Maciste’s heroism and determination to aid the helpless and overcome all obstacles that rise in his way. Actually, it’s just to pad the running time of the movie, which becomes tediously obvious as we go along.

maciste-in-hell-3Luckily for Marta – whose execution date is fast approaching, Maciste eventually stumbles upon Prometheus, who in accordance with legend, is chained to a rock so a vulture can eat his liver for all eternity (this was because Prometheus gave fire to mankind, in case you had forgotten that the gods are dicks). Prometheus tells Maciste to look into a nearby pool where he sees scenes from his last two movies (Il Trionfo de Maciste and Maciste in the Valley of Woe) and then the beginning of this movie, fer gawd’s sake, to restore his memory.  told you the padding got obvious.

(It was, incidentally, the scene with Prometheus that I remembered from my youth and was hoping to see in Hercules in the Haunted World. I would have liked it better in Bava’s movie, where it likely wouldn’t have been thrown in to reach the 90 minute mark)

Oh no! A vulture puppet!

Well, Fania of course falls in love with Maciste’s innate goodness and lifts the curse, Marta is saved, the whole village praises Maciste and asks him to stay, but he must move on the to the next improbable time period and locale to fight evil. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. You’d think the villagers would have at least bought him a shirt or something, though.

Now, any peplum movie is going to suffer by being seen after something shot by one of the premier genre directors of the period, but I suspect Witch’s Curse would seemed pretty sub-par even as a stand-alone. I’m willing to embrace the concept of Maciste as a sort of cosmic Lone Ranger, journeying from what appears to be Ancient Egypt to Khanate Mongolia to Puritan Scotland, but give me some attempt to reconcile the appearance of a half-dressed madman in the middle of a Mayflower pageant!

Get thee to an ATM, toad!We’re really here to see Hell, aren’t we?  The scenes in Castellana are wonderful to look at, and feature some truly fantastic pyro work. But past the time-wasting grunting scenes, there is also a surprisingly diverse cross-section of wildlife in Hell, and all of them want to wrestle with Maciste. A lion(ess with a bad wig), a couple of snakes, Prometheus’ vulture, a herd of bulls for crying out loud. Most of the times the puppets are pretty well-matched in the close shots, but the snake scene has some of the most egregious grab-the-animal-and-pull-it-to-you attacks I’d seen since Deadly Eyes. This is all underlined by the ancient witch and her similarly damned would-be lover Parris are always looking on, talking about how no one can defeat the Devil, but then the Devil just opens another cage from Hell’s Petting Zoo.

Oh no! Cow puppets!

Kirk Morris was about the only actually Italian bodybuilders in the peplum boom (real name Adriano Bellini), and reportedly Freda didn’t think much of him as an actor – Maciste doesn’t get a single line until he descends into Hell – but he does pretty well, even when asked to really streeeeeeeeeetch out those lifting scenes. He made a bunch of Maciste movies, and even played Hercules several times, including one of my favorites, Hercules, Samson and Ulysses. Here he’s still got a fair amount of youthful charm – think Fabian as a muscleman – and I would probably would have liked him more if the driector hadn’t disliked him. Or he was in a better movie.

Now to put this to bed because a fifth movie is reaaaally tempting me.

Buy Hercules in the Haunted World on Amazon

Buy The Witch’s Curse on Amazon (good luck, it’s Alpha Video)

 

The Haunted Italians, Part One

My life is ruled by synchronicity. I get a chance to watch a movie, closely followed by another movie that has some loose connection, and I realize that another movie I was planning to watch has a similar enough connection to warrant further examination. This either speaks to 1) Incredible luck (in an area which does me no good whatsoever); 2) Possible mental derangement on my part; 3) The fact that there are only so many ideas floating around in the ether; 4) All of the above.

linferno_1911_filmAnd so it was that an opportunity to watch a classic Italian silent movie turned into three four Italian movies, each with its own charms, strengths, shortcomings, and history.

What kicked off this mad train of cinematic thought was the 1911 film L’Inferno, based on the Hell sections of The Divine Comedy by the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri – possibly based more significantly on the famous Gustav Doré illustrations of same. I admit I haven’t read The Inferno since college, but the movie seems a pretty fair approximation of the high points, with Dante lost in the woods, then taken on a guided tour of the Nine Circles of Hell, and the celebrities within (which included some of Dante’s enemies – my professor took special delight in pointing those out).

linferno-1911-river-of-filth-flatterersThere’s some laudable special effects employed for the more fantastic scenes involving the damned and the various princes and monsters of Hell, admittedly many of which Georges Méliès had been doing for years at that point. 1902’s Trip to the Moon is only 13 effects-packed minutes long, and L’Inferno is three times that length, and uses every one of those trick to realize its spectacle.

Dante gets to interview a couple of the imprisoned souls about how they wound up in that particular circle, leading to vignettes illustrating their tales of woe. The major setback to the modern eye can be leveled at practically any motion picture of that era: it is essentially stagebound, every shot is wide, the camera nailed down. This is perfect for the spectacle being paraded before us, but this may require more than a bit of patience from a viewer waiting for a close-up (there is one… sort of… as the camera gets a bit closer to the gigantic Lucifer).

00_22_462013-06-12-16h02m16s117L’Inferno deserves respect not just for its ambition, but for being the first full-length movie produced in Italy (The Australians apparently beat them to the punch for the first in 1906 – but in Italy’s defense, it reportedly took three years to shoot this). That they succeeded in their ambition with the grand scale of spectacle on display is admirable. You might look at me a bit askance for mentioning patience earlier, when the running time is listed at a mere 68 minutes, but that running time was considered almost unthinkable at the time – longer films were traditionally broken down for serialized viewing, and this seemingly lengthy epic certainly lead to higher ticket prices. A contemporary account of a viewing mentions two intermissions to help the audience get through it. You have to wonder what that diarist would have thought of Birth of a Nation’s runtime of 2 hours and 45 minutes, only four years later.

YouTube has the beautiful restoration that I saw, though unfortunately not with English intertitles. Maybe you can read Italian, or maybe you also read The Inferno in college and can muddle along. Or maybe the words are mostly superfluous and we are here to see pretty pictures:

90583-maciste-in-hell-0-230-0-345-cropThen, oddly, the next movie to fall into my sphere was also silent and Italian and involved the Other Place: Maciste in Hell. Now, like most Americans, I had been kept largely ignorant of Maciste. The character had been introduced in 1914’s Cabiria (yes, silent and Italian), which was one of those movies I had always intended to watch back when I could afford Netflix Instant, yet never did. Maciste is likely the longest running recurring character in cinema, appearing in over fifty movies, over half of which are silent, and starring muscular actor Bartolomeo Pagnano. The other half were shot in the peplum boom of the early 60s, but those imported to American shores were re-named with the more familiar Hercules (or his Son), Samson (or his son), Atlas or even Goliath. My mother was addicted to watching the damned things on the afternoon movie slot in the late 60s, and I was really confused when the occasional reference to Maciste slipped through.

Bartolomeo Pagnano, quite winning as Maciste.

Bartolomeo Pagnano, quite winning as Maciste.

The silent Maciste movies seem to cover a lot of time periods – In Hell seems to take place in the 19th century, and it was a little bewildering to see the muscle man in a nice suit. Barbariccia (Franz Sala), a Lieutenant of Hell, comes to Earth with a few of his cohorts to spread corruption, but Barbariccia’s main target seems to be the virtuous Maciste (Pagnano). Changing from his demonic form to a more traditionally evil cape, top hat and elegant moustachio, the Lieutenant first tempts Maciste in person, then steals away the baby of Maciste’s neighbor Graziella (Pauline Polaire) moving her to blaspheme and become his rightful prey, and she is saved only by a traveling holy man.

maciste-in-hell-1925-stillThe neighbor bit is part of a major subplot where we get to see our hero be a proactive muscle man, as that baby is also the child of a local prince (Dominico Serra, I think), born out of wedlock. Maciste visits the palace, womps up on some powdered wig-wearing footmen, and talks some sense into the young prince, who sees the error of his ways, and promises to wed Graziella. On his way back home, Maciste discovers the kidnapped baby abandoned in the woods, and rescues it; afterwards, he confronts Barbariccia, and the devil carries him down to Hell.

After the expected scenes of Maciste taking on the hordes of Hell – the scene where he grabs a demon by the tail and proceeds to swing it around like a wrecking ball is especially sweet – Maciste is ushered into the throne room of Pluto (Umberto Guarracino), King of Hell.

Lucifer. You were totally lied to by your album covers.

Lucifer. You were totally lied to by your album covers.

This gets almost as confusing as Maciste in semi-modern dress: as contemporary posters claim, this is “Based on Dante’s Inferno”, and to be sure, there’s the giant Lucifer, presiding over the icy expanse of the Ninth Circle, Caiaphas is still crucified to the ground (though no longer trodden underfoot by hypocrites wearing heavy cloaks of lead), and quite a few torments of the damned are familiar if you’d just watched the 1911 version. But we’re still mixing in some questionable Greek mythology.  Proserpina (or as we know her, Persephone) (Elena Sangro) is identified as “Pluto’s second wife” though I don’t recall any others, and Pluto even has a daughter, Lucerfina (Lucia Zanussi). Prosperpina has her sights set on Maciste, and so does Lucerfina, though in her case it’s because Maciste thinks nothing of tossing demons over cliffs and rescuing the tormented, which she finds utterly refreshing.

maciste-classicAccording to “the latest rules of Hell”, no living man can stay in Hell more than three days unless he is kissed by a she-demon, and though Lucerfina tries to warn him of this, our musclehead kisses Proserpina, which turns him into a demon. That doesn’t seem to bother him too much, as he settles down to non-stop offscreen debauchery with her, until the jealous Barbariccia leads an army of revolt against Pluto. Maciste, who is now even stronger because he’s a demon, routs the revolution single-handedly, and in gratitude, Pluto turns him back into a human and releases him back to the real world. Proserpina, however, double-crosses him and has him chained to a rock, returned to his demon form, forever her sex toy.

But! On Christmas Eve, the baby Maciste saved, now a toddler, prays for him, and it’s apparently one of those “latest rules of Hell” that such an act can save a cursed soul, and Maciste is released, The end.

HellThe biggest contrast between Maciste in Hell and L’Inferno will be that the visual language of cinema has been largely developed, and movies in 1925 no longer resembled filmed stage plays – in fact there’s been a case made for Italian director Giovanni Pastrone, who made the aforementioned Cabiria, inventing some of the innovations generally credited to D.W. Griffith, most notably the tracking shot. Guido Brignone directed in Hell and several other Maciste movies, and was directing films right up until his death in ’59. And Maciste in Hell is a really good movie with a cracking pace and some impressive spectacle – especially a shot of a flock of devils circling the infernal skies straight out of Doré, and some effective dissolves done with time-reversed smoke and fire.

The original running time of Maciste in Hell is given as 95 minutes or so, though the version i watched was only 65, which may explain that cracking pace, but I didn’t sense any break in the story. Given how many silents have completely vanished, we should be happy that we still have this essentially (somewhat) complete version. If you’re a fan of early cinema or silents, or even a little curious, Maciste in Hell makes for a fun watch.

Now, this little post has been kicking around for a while, getting longer and longer, even when work and personal pressures kept me from physically typing it out. The breaking point was when I realized I needed to see yet a fourth movie for this line of inquiry, and it was while I was tracking down a copy of that movie that I realized that this beast could actually be presented in two parts, and finally get something up in this dang blog.

So see you soon, I hope. Before I realize a fifth movie is needed.

(I’m a little jealous. My version of the movie is 10 minutes longer somehow, but the picture quality on this one is superb.)

Or you can buy Maciste in Hell from Amazon.

 

 

 

Remember Me?

hi-you-may-remember-me-from-the-alphabetStill here. Still alive. Paid my money to be here another year – even slapped down the extra gelt to remove the ads from the bottom of each post (you’re welcome). If that’s not a statement that I intend to be in this space for the foreseeable, I don’t know what is.

December was remarkably quiet. In the acting end of my life, it’s usually full of holiday parties. Not 2016, though. Then, surprisingly, January opened full throttle; I think we had more shows in the first two weeks of January than we had in the entire month of December. Some believe this is because people figured out the world wasn’t actually going to end (immediately) and were relaxing. They pointed to the Stock Market, among other things.

It seemed to me that this is more like the parties held the night before the final battle in Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven, but what do I know? I’m just an American citizen of no celebrity, with no stock portfolio, and therefore no worth.

The other side of my employment situation cranked up, too: extra City Meetings, some previously scheduled, some not. This week starts my weekly stories. At some point this semester I am going to have to pretend once more that I don’t despise sports.

In all this, I actually have been working on a post, which is only two-thirds finished and about 1500 words. I hope to have that up in the next few days, but don’t lay any money on that, ‘kay? Stay tuned. Like I said, another year. Which is, oddly enough, the length of time I expect my current health insurance to exist.

Yeah, I’m just a bowl of happy candy today, ain’t I?

 

Yay, the First Rant of the Year

There is a point somewhere in this post, and I’ll get to it eventually. but first we are going to have to visit an old friend.

battle_of_dragonsWay back in the days of The Bad Movie Report, I reviewed The Magic Serpent, which prompted several “This movie isn’t that bad” e-mails (You may have noticed I’ve moved to much less specific branding in my golden years). It was an AIP-TV import I had first encountered when somebody who was programming Kung Fu Theatre either didn’t know or didn’t care that this wasn’t their typical Chinese chop-socky material. Optimist that I am, I hope that whoever got stuck running control on that weekend thought, “Screw it, I want to see this,” and slapped it in.

The Magic Serpent is not even remotely a martial arts movie; it’s an action fantasy fairy tale, and in these modern times it is possible to track down the movie in its original widescreen format and language, which is when you discover that its real title is Battle of the Dragons. Given that one of the dragons is a fire-breathing toad, you can easily visualize some polyester suit in a projection room grumbling “Dat ain’t no dragon! Dat’s a toad!” and changing the title on behalf of us poor, easily confused Americans.

Basically, villainous Yuuki Daijo (Amatsu Bin) kills the virtuous Lord Ogata with the aid of evil wizard-type Orochi-Maru (Otomo Ryutaro), and takes over his kingdom. Ogata’s son Ikazuchi (Matsukata Hiroki) is rescued by the wizard Dojin (Kaneko Nobuo) and trained to one day return to his rightful position. Naturally, Orochi-Maru was Dojin’s former student gone bad, and he returns to kill his old master and Ikazuchi, succeeding with the former, but not the latter. Ikazuchi will be joined in his quest by a young lady named Sunate (Ogawa Tomoko), who is looking for her long-lost father, and I’m sure you’ve already figured out who that is.

tmserp00010It’s a fun movie. What really attracted me in the first place is its desire to wow the viewer with its fantasy elements, using 1966 technology. Flying people? Don’t use wires, use rear projection. When Ikazuchi wins a fight by getting his head cut off (really) we get to see some really bad matte lines.

There’s lots of camera trickery involving still photos and double exposure, tricks that were being employed up into the 90s. By the time we get to the final battle, between Ikazuchi’s fire-breathing giant toad and Orochi-Maru’s water-breathing dragon, we’re at least into more familiar FX ground, guys in rubber suits trashing miniature buildings. Here’s the TV version:

These are all things critics will decry as “cheesy special effects”. But I was thrilled that Toei even attempted to do something like this, and my thoughts were, “Man, if only the technology and budget were better…”

Well, now it’s 50 years later (like it or not), the technology and budgets are better, and people are still bitching about “cheesy special effects”, even if the FX guys who worked on Battle of the Dragons would have given certain body parts to achieve even one second of what is on display in our next offering, 2016’s League of Gods.

league-of-gods-posterLeague of Gods is based on yet another million-page 16th century novel, The Investiture of the Gods. Like its better-known (in the West, anyway) brother, Journey to the West, it is a work of shenmo, or “gods and demons” literature, and after the success of several Monkey King movies, it was likely thought that a big budget, FX-heavy movie version was a good bet.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Investiture of the Gods, it is a “romanticised retelling of the overthrow of King Zhòu, the last ruler of the Shang dynasty“. If the accepted author of the novel, Xu Zhonglin, were able to watch this movie, he would claim his version was absolutely realistic in comparison. Now, the Shang Dynasty fell in 1046 BC, but accept that the first image you will see is a flyover of the land, showing mystic floating warships besieging Lord of the Rings-style walled cities. (You’re also going to find out that there are three suns, so there’s a distinct possibility we are not in Kansas anymore).

As in the novel, King Zhou (Tony Leung!) seems unduly influenced by his concubine, Daji (Fan Bingbing) who is in reality the demon Nine-Tailed Fox. In the novel, her true identity was masked from Zhou, but here she is quite open about it, since we will eventually find out that Zhou, as a child king, was so obsessed with owning the world that he allowed himself to be possessed by the Black Dragon. Of a piece with those strange floating warships is Daji’s tails, which seemed to have been made by an ancestor of Dr. Otto Octavius, all sinuous segmented metal, with an eye and rows of teeth at the end.

9tail-foxThen we meet some of our heroes from the opposing city of Xiqi, Lei (Jacky Heung), the last mystic warrior of the Wing Tribe, and Xiqi’s prince Ji Fa (Andy On), riding with their soldiers in a cart drawn by rhinosceri. Their goal is to rescue the last members of another mystic tribe Zhou is attempting to exterminate, The Invisibles. This group of Xiqi guerillas is visited by the wizard Jiang (Jet Li!), who tells them that when the three suns converge, the Black Dragon will descend, causing an era of darkness for the next 18,000 years – and only the Grand Elder of the Invisible Tribe knows how to kill the Black Dragon.

Dudes, this is all in the first seven minutes of the movie. Try to keep up.

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-23h45m27s223Of course, the rescue attempt doesn’t go as planned, winding up in a battle between Jiang and the Nine-Tailed Fox, with the Grand Elder of the Invisibles sacrificing himself so Jiang and the rest can escape – though Jiang is hit with “reverse aging” curse, so that every time he uses his powers, he gets younger. One of the Elder’s eyes holds the secret, though: The Sword of Light must be found, so Lei heads out on a pilgrimage of discovery and hope. Jiang gives him three bags that he will need on his journey, and here is where the movie will lose a lot of people.

Their first alarm bell is going to go off when Jiang summons the first of Lei’s companions from the Pool of Light, and it turns out to be Naza, a greedy magical waif who is also totally CGI. The first bag is for Lei himself, and it contains a magical plant, onion-headed, cyclopic and one of the poorest examples of CGI in the movie. Well, not that poor, I guess, but the choice was made somewhere to make it deliberately cartoonish, which leads to a sequence involving Lei, Naza, the plant and a giant desert centipede which would not be out of place in a Looney Tune.

vlcsnap-2017-01-15-16h44m06s003The second bag is a undersea dragon prince that Naza once kidnapped from his kingdom, and though Naza likes to torment him, he can also breathe a gas at the CGI runt that puts him to sleep and turns him into an adult (the always-welcome Wen Zhang). The second encounter is with a geomancy-hurling warrior named Yang Jian (Huang Xiaoming), the third bag being his long-lost dog, Sky Howler. Naza keeps whinging about his lost fire wheels, Jian splits to find his golden armor, and Lei continues to look for the Sword of Light. Complicating matters is that the villainous General Panther (Louis Koo!) has animated a life-size marionette (Angelababy) to spy on Lei. Panther steals her memory every sunrise, giving Lei an opportunity to help her retain her memory, and thus get this spy on his side.

Naza takes an extended side trip to that undersea kingdom (he’s a CGI baby again at this point), where he once more takes on the undersea kingdom, which is aching for a return match (and the King wants his son back, too). If you made it past the CGI Weed and the Wile E. Coyote Desert Centipede chase, this is the second place where the movie might lose you, played for extremely broad comedy. The breaking point might be where Naza pulls out his ultimate attacks, which involve a near-infinite stream of piss and literally explosive farts. It’s another sequence for the kids in the audience. Be patient, it will soon be over.

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-23h41m42s914All roads lead to Xiqi, as it were; Lei finds the Sword of Light, meets up with Naza and Jian (who both have grudges against Nine-tailed Fox and are spoiling for a fight) as the three suns are beginning to converge, and Zhou’s warships are descending on Xiqi. At this point, Jiang, in attempting to defend his city, has used so much power and gotten so young he forgets all his magic. Big battle scene, especially when the fallen General Panther is resurrected by Fox as a gigantic Macfarlane action figure, and our three superpowered warriors must take him on.

I look at this scene and I think, I would have totally bought those action figures.

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-23h46m36s474Ji Fa activates the power of the Sword of Light, becoming the Golden Dragon, and now it’s time to take the battle to King Zhou!

And then the movie ends.

Or, actually, there is a Marvel-style fancy credit sequence, then a Marvel-style teaser scene, then the final credits.

The first thing I did after the cliffhanger end was to visit IMDb and assure myself that there was a sequel coming – that end, straight out of the Desolation of Smaug playbook, certainly pointed toward it. And that’s when I started seeing the opinions of my fellow amateur critics. The complaining about the CGI. The guy who saw Jet Li had star billing, and was disappointed there was no punchity-punch. This is the guy who in those pre-Internet days would have called up the UHF station during The Magic Serpent to demand they should have run The Master Killer for the third time that month instead.

nazaLeague of Gods has its flaws, but a lack of action is not one of them. If you’re allergic to CGI, stay away – I doubt there is one frame in this movie that is 100% real. It may be one of the most West-friendly Chinese action movies I’ve seen in a while, from the Marvel flourishes to plentiful use of bullet time effects (and I love bullet time). It’s the comedy sections that are going to put your typical action movie bro off. “Oh fuck, it’s Jar Jar, and this time he’s a baby!”

In my About page, I lay out my movie watching philosophy, and it’s pretty simple.

Now, I have a very simple approach to movies. The movie presumes to entertain me, and I agree to be entertained. I don’t necessarily need to be edified, or educated, or uplifted; if those happen, that’s gravy, I appreciate that. But honestly, that’s all I ask: to be entertained. To be taken somewhere else for a while. That’s all. It’s not hard.

I find movies like this, the Monkey King movies, and Jupiter Ascending tremendously entertaining. The so-called “peak visual” movies. These are artistic visions, layered onto the screen, depicting other worlds and possibilities. That we have managed to come to this point technically is astounding and satisfying. There is a reason I chose these two movies for a compare-and-contrast. Motion picture technology has come this far in my lifetime. I won’t be able to see what’s possible in 50 more, but that’s exciting to contemplate. What hasn’t changed in 50 years is people’s attitudes toward these movies. That a scene that doesn’t live up to expectations taints the entire movie. And that dissatisfaction with a movie is somehow equal to the heat death of the universe.

If you don’t like these movies, that’s okay. There plenty of other movies out there for you. But don’t come round here trying to tell me they’re the worst movies ever made. That’s stupid, and only shows you haven’t seen near enough movies.

This is where I’d normally tell you to put some pennies in my pocket
at Amazon to buy the movies, but I guess we just

can’t have nice things.

The Son of Bad Movie Report

It feels so much better to be typing on a full keyboard again. That tiny Anker bluetooth keyboard I use with the iPad mini on the road is nice to have in a pinch – but it’s surprisingly slow, even given my middling typing speed. I’m happier using it to edit a post already largely written, not creating from scratch. So now that I’m back in my comfort zone in many ways, let’s see if I can recall what I meant to write about but didn’t in my post-lengthy-drive haze.

The first thing will be best prefaced by what happened after my return, namely this tweet:

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Yeah, this is the sort of insipid crap I put up on my Twitter, and probably the reason I will never have a Patreon. This was followed by the equally risible

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Mort knows better, of course, but this is how Internet rumors get started, so I’d better quash this before I find myself in some sort of faux Joan/Christina kerfuffle. Of course he knows about Forever Evil. He grew up in a house with a framed movie poster in his living room. He’s just never seen it, probably at his mother’s insistence more than mine. I think she was trying to cover his eyes during the scary parts of movies up into his teens.

But he’s 18 now, and can watch whatever he wants. To his credit, he asked to watch The Seven Samurai before heading out to college last summer. But then, while he was home this Christmas, he let slip that this existed. And Ol’ Dad still knows a thing or two about finding stuff on the Interwebs:

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Truthfully, I would expect no less from my son. Except that right after the slip, he mentioned “Some Mexican movie with a werewolf” and I asked if it starred Lon Chaney Jr. and he replied “I don’t really know actors” and I disowned him. Also, he seems to be unattracted to kung fu movies, so there is obviously no relation to me whatsoever.

Well, I couldn’t let this guy claiming to be my son go back to college with just his Christmas swag (which was considerable), so I burned him a copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special to inflict on his friends. Then I realized I had been given a ton of blank DVDs in spite of the fact that I don’t use them a heck of a lot anymore, and a lot of burning of horrific stuff in my collection ensued. I felt this was a necessary thing for the son of the guy who used to write The Bad Movie Report. So I had apparently forgiven him his transgressions by that point.

The only thing he specifically asked for was Theodore Rex – for which I will eternally blame Chris Holland. Max used to be able to use YouTube to torment people with it, but benevolent powers the forces of evil scrubbed it from there and practically everywhere else on the Interwebs. But as I said, Dad is pretty good at finding stuff. In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss the most expensive movie ever to be released straight to video:

That was the point at which things started getting crazy, because I realized the kid only thinks he’s seen bad. So Science Crazed and Things went into the box, as did our new pal The Rider of the Skulls. There was a whole substratum of bad kiddie movies he had not experienced – Red Riding Hood and the Monsters, the New Orleans Worst Film Festival “favorite”, Seven Dwarfs to the Rescue (which Krull totally ripped off, in my estimation) (well, except for this scene:)

And I found a copy of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny at archive.org, God help us all. That’s like finding a rusty nail-festooned ball of plutonium nestled among dog-eared copies of Architecture Today. I had been asked if I was doing the RiffTrax version of it and The Holiday Special, but no. 2016 had made me hard. If these kids are ever going to survive, they have to learn to build their own riffs, like me and mine used to do back in the day, begorrah.

And yes, I also made sure he had his own copy of Forever Evil, making sure it also had the audio commentary made by myself and director Roger Evans. I did this in the spirit of hoping he learns from my mistakes, and does not try to duplicate them.

I’ve tried to continue past that last sentence, but the result is lacking; it seems a perfect sentiment to end upon. A hopeful thought for this New Year, despite all my suspicions to the contrary. Happy New Year to all, and be excellent to each other.

And please God, let those movies be the worst thing that happens to my boy this year.

Goodbye, You Damned Year

So here I am, sedentary as a rock – in fact, I generally ask rocks “What’s the hurry?” – yet here I am, in a motel room on New Year’s Eve, several hundred miles away from home. There should now be a record scratch and a freeze frame so I can say “I guess you’re wondering how I got here.”

It’s remarkably boring. 2016’s last Ahabian spitting from the heart of Hell, as many if you know, was the placement of its last two major holidays on weekends. His classes start again on Monday the 2nd. (I, also, return to work on Monday) It’s not actually cheaper to drive him up here, but it means Mom gets to hold onto him for another 24 hours.

This is an interesting change of pace (or place). It was perhaps five years ago or so that my theater group stopped doing New Years show, so I’m accustomed to having my cheap champagne at home, kissing my wife, and walking outside to watch the illegal fireworks in my neighborhood. I am, at least with my family. The cheap champagne is in the small fridge next to this desk. I have no idea what I’ll do for illegal fireworks. I am a stranger in a strange land.

An appropriately unsettling ending to an unsettling year, I suppose. Yes, I am aware that years are not sentient, and 2016 was not deliberately seeking out and murdering people who had been an inspiration and comfort to me across my life, and fuck you for interrupting my mourning with that bit of news.

That was bad enough. Then enough of my fellow citizens decided I wasn’t disappointed in them enough, enough to give an unqualified con man and profiteer an Electoral College victory.

I am really tired of living in interesting times.

So.  Besides putting on a beret and joining the American Resistance, or wondering if the next Tweet is going to cause World War III, I need to make some plans for the next year that assume just a bit of normalcy.

Hope.  Is.  Important.

So. I get a bit of fan mail during the annual Hubrisween event (and some new followers). Some hope for the return of The Bad Movie Report. By this I assume I should cover more marginal movies here. Maybe?

This is at odds with the other task I set myself in 2017, which is to watch all the Tarkovsky films I’ve not yet seen.

Well, it’s going to be a long year – very long, by all indications- I’m sure there’ll be room for everybody.

So enough to tapping away at this tiny, unresponsive keyboard tethered to an iPad Mini (I am so 2009). Have a safe, Happy New Year. And I sincerely pray for the Safe and Happy parts.

Have a Kung Fu Christmas

lee-santa-1In an effort to save my fragile sanity, I binged on Asian movies for several weeks. I do feel a bit better now, but I’ve also been spectacularly lazy in writing about these flicks. So here we go. I’m going to try to clear out that backlog by covering six movies.

Hold my beer and watch this.

The movies I watched can be divided equally between two genres: fantasy adventures, and wuxia films. Let’s take the wuxia first:

We can even pare this down even further, as I was specializing in movies directed by Chor Yuen from scripts by Ku Long, starring Ti Lung. Those names may not mean much to you, but if they do, you know where I’m coming from. Yuen movies are a pleasant departure from a steady diet of the more popular Chang Cheh blood-and-thunder testosterone epics; the plots are never straightforward and are in fact often more than slightly fantastic, thanks to Ku Long, who also wrote a series of pulpy wuxia novels with vivid characters. Ti Lung was a powerhouse in the Shaw Brothers repertory company, excellent in action scenes and a far more versatile actor than he was often given credit for. Together, these guys made some pretty fabulous movies.

jadetiger1977-144-bSo of course let’s start with the one I didn’t like so much, Jade Tiger (1977). Lung is Chao Wu-chi, son of the head of his clan, whose wedding day is interrupted by the beheading of Dad by his own right-hand man, apparently under the direction of the rival Tang Clan, infamous for their poisoned weapons. Chao must of course ride the vengeance trail to avenge his father, and this trail is going to be full of deceptions, betrayals, double and triple crosses, and lots and lots of tragedy. If you’re looking for an overall metaphor for the plot, it’s the fact that practically every weapon used conceals hidden weapons within, down three layers.

The plot is overly-convoluted (even for a Ku Long script) and darker than jet-blackest Shakespeare, with an equal body count. Chao is going to lose every friend he has and two lady loves. When one of the final fight scenes, between Chao and a Tang who earlier saved his life, has dialogue to the effect of “Why are we fighting?” “I have no idea.” you get the range of  bitterness in this conflict. This is a feuding clans wuxia taken to its extremes, and wasn’t quite the escapist fiction I was looking for, but it is a nice vehicle for Ti Lung, proving him more than an action star.

It also skimps on the other thing I love about the Yuen/Long collaborations, the offbeat characters. I wanted to see more of The Red Kid, but I did appreciate The Night Watchman, who is blind, but his glass eyes are really bombs. Still not sure how that works.

returnofthesentimentalswordsman1981-73-bMuch more to my liking was The Return of the Sentimental Swordsman (1982), which is, unsurprisingly, a sequel to 1977’s The Sentimental Swordsman.  Ti Lung reprises his role as Li Chin Huan, ranked third in the World of Martial Arts, but who has retired from that world after the tragic events of the first movie (well, that and he is suffering from consumption). The dude in charge of making that ranked list urges him to come back, because, as usual, some evil bastard is trying to take over the World of Martial Arts. This time it is the head of the Money Clan, Shangguan Jinhong and his prime weapon is Ching Wu-ming, “The Left-Handed Sacred Knife” (Alexander Fu Sheng). Li must find his old friend, An Fei, who has similarly retired, but is under the power of a seductive, evil woman Lin Xianher (Kara Hui) who is slowly turning him into an alcoholic.

Lin winds up seducing just about everybody in the villain cast (for some reason this does not count for ranking in the world of martial arts), further ruining An Fei and driving him deeper into drink; he finally sobers up when he realizes Li is going to face Shangguan and Ching Wu-ming alone, and goes to stand with his friend in the final battle. The whole cast is really great here; Fu Sheng shows off why he was going to be a superstar before his untimely death in a car wreck in 1983. Lo Lieh has a memorable extended cameo as mercenary beggar Hu Gu, a charming rogue.

returnThat ranked list of martial artists is quite important to the plot’s unfolding, as fighters test each other and try to increase their postings, resulting in plentiful fight scenes. Li, as number three, is such a badass that he goes into battle with only his fan, administering the final blow with deadly accurate throwing knives. Shangguan is, of course, number two. Have eight minutes of swordplay:

perils-of-the-sentimental-sworsman-posterNow, just to confuse things, let’s move on to Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman. This is confusing because it is not a sequel to the two Sentimental Swordsman movies, but a sequel to Killer Clans and Clans of Intrigue. Ti Lung this time is Chu Liu-chang (as he was in those two Clans movies), aiding the marketing department by once more just carrying a fan into battle. Gone are Li Chin Huan’s throwing knives and tubercular cough – if Chu needs a weapon, he just takes it from whoever he’s fighting.

As usual, there is a convoluted fake-out plot to frame Chu for attempted murder, so he can get into the Ghostly Village, a sort of martial arts El Rey where fighters on the lam hide out. The Village is run by the mysterious Old Hawk, who is always masked and surrounded by five fighters dressed like him; one of the things Chu must discover is his identity. The other is what exactly the Old Hawk might be planning, and it is, of course, taking over the world of Martial Arts, using the combined might of the Village’s current inhabitants.

There’s the usual switcheroos and complications. Lo Lieh is in the mix, and since it’s Lo Lieh, you can be pretty sure he’s not what he first appears to be. And if nothing else, you have the line, “You’re a slut just like your sister, but her kung fu was better.” Overall, an entertaining time. Of these three movies, Return was my clear favorite, though Perils does have its charms.

The other subgenre I mentioned was fantasy adventure, and here once more I find that I need to lay out a bit of pontification.

There was an intriguing phrase/criticism of Jupiter Ascending I read months before actually watching the movie: “We’ve hit peak FX.” This may indeed be true, and I wasn’t sure why that should be considered a bad thing. We’re always going to have simple, straightforward, realistic movies – they are cheap to produce, and they fulfill a deep-seated need to see ourselves in stories unfurling before us, stories that might actually happen. But I rejoice that we are finally approaching the point where artists can actually put what is in their minds onscreen with a fair amount of accuracy, budget allowing.

jupiter-ascending-scenerySo you can bitch all you want about bad CGI. It exists, to be sure, but to employ a metaphor calling back to one of my former loves, comics, I seem to be able to regard it as more like the difference between a page drawn by Don Heck and a page drawn by John Severin. One is more realistic than the other, more detailed and to my liking – but both are valid expressions. I can usually overlook obvious CGI if the story is engaging.

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Now, having laid that down, let’s start with a movie that’s been on my watchlist for some time, The Sorcerer and the White Snake. First, let’s point out that there is no actual sorcerer in the movie, it’s Jet Li as Fahei, the Abbot of a nearby temple who is heavily into kicking demon ass and imprisoning them in a mirror to hopefully contemplate and reform their wicked ways. The White Snake is played by Eva Huang, a Snake Demon who rescues a herbalist, Xian Xu (Raymond Lam) from a mean-spirited prank by her sister Green Snake (Charlene Choi). White becomes obsessed with Xian, assuming human form and eventually falling in love and even marrying him, much to the disgust of Green.

At this point there are two parallel story lines, but you can be pretty sure that eventually the streams will cross. Fahei’s apprentice, Ren (Wen Zhang) has a meet cute with Green in her human form while he’s hunting for a Bat Demon at a village festival. Ren makes short work of the demon’s assistants, but the Bat itself is too powerful and bites Ren before Fahei vanquishes it. Ren starts becoming a bat demon himself, with the result that Green can no longer totally dismiss White’s love for Xian, because she’s falling for the morphing monk.

the-sorcerer-and-the-white-snake-downloadA plague later hits the village, and Xian works himself nearly to death trying to find a cure for it. Fahei knows the plague is carried by fox demons which he captures in short order, and meantime White is supplementing Xian’s medicine with her own vital essence to renew the villagers’ strength. It is this act which causes Fahei to let her go when he inevitably tracks her down, but he warns her to leave Xian and return to the world of demons – which of course she will not do. There is a confrontation during which Xian unwittingly mortally wounds her in her snake form, and must steal the legendary Spirit Root from the Abbey to cure her – but the Spirit Root powers the Mirror Prison, and all the trapped demons possess Xian.

Cured, White and Green stage an attack on the Abbey, refusing to believe Fahei and the monks are trying to exorcise and save Xian. The ensuing battle is suitably cataclysmic and fantastic, and the end satisfyingly bittersweet.

jetfightReally, the worst thing you can say about Sorcerer and the White Snake is that the movie is completely schizophrenic, alternating between tender love story and ass-kicking Jet Li movie. The good news is that both those sides of the movie are really good, and if one is not to your liking, the other will be back around in a few minutes. Director Ching Siu Tung we already knew could handle the action scenes. It’s gratifying to know he can handle a love story sensitively, too. Jet Li apparently didn’t enjoy making this movie, having first been told there was minimal fighting in it (there’s not) and then in most of the fights he was up against people with no training and had to hold back while they went all out – very tiring. As ever, though, he’s amazing and the movie is frequently beautiful.

the-monkey-king-xi-you-ji-da-nao-tian-gong-21550And now let us speak of The Monkey King. I have a fascination with the Chinese epic Journey to the West and its many filmic interpretations, ever since a chance viewing of Alakazam the Great when I was a child. Stephen Chow’s 2013 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was one of my favorite movies that year, and I threw a bunch of people into chairs to make them watch it. The Japanese Adventures of Super Monkey/Monkey Magic is also tons of goofy fun, and I drag it out every few months for my own entertainment.

The last few years have seen a ton of Journey movies besides Chow’s, and it was way past time to watch two of them, I decided, especially since the first one, The Monkey King, has Donnie Yen in the title role – Sun Wukong, The Monkey King.

the-monkey-kingUnlike a lot of the Journey movies, which start with Wukong’s partnership with the monk Sha Seng,  Monkey King is truly an origin story, showing how Wukong was born in a magic crystal left over after a war between the Demons (led by Bull Demon Aaron Kwok) and the Celestial City ruled by the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun Fat). As Wukong grows up, he is mentored by Master Puti (Hai Yitian), who finds him a powerful but undisciplined and unfocused student. Meanwhile the Bull Demon is scheming with a dissatisfied Captain of the Celestial City (Peter Ho) to once again attack the Heavenly Palace and overthrow the Jade Emperor – but he needs the power of Sun Wukong, and so begins a plan to beguile and trick the vain, silly monkey.

The Uproar In Heaven, which will eventually cause Wukong to be imprisoned in a mountain for 500 years by the Buddha to meditate and improve himself, is usually glossed over, but here it is front and center, as the Bull Demon convinces Sun Wukong the Jade Emperor killed all his monkey subjects and his best friend, a fox demon (Xia Zetong). It’s a pretty amazing sequence, actually living up to its buildup.

And oh yeah, Chow Yun Fat turns into an eff'in dragon

And oh yeah, Chow Yun Fat turns into an eff’in dragon

This is one of the movies where people are going to bitch endlessly about the CGI, and phooey on them. A lot of this is like a children’s storybook come to magical life, and I don’t expect photorealism from that. Hell, I have no idea what a dragon horse really looks like, and neither do any of the people complaining.

Donnie Yen of course absolutely rocks the action scenes, but he also puts in sterling work on the lighter side of the character. He is a playful, cheeky, often utterly infuriating but still endearing Sun Wukong. The movie is apparently pretty faithful to the opening chapters of the source material, so I’ll forgive it the slow spots.

themonkeyking2The Monkey King 2, however, is a different creature. Sun Wukong is freed by the monk Sha Seng (Him Law) and tasked to aid him on his journey. Those 500 years under the mountain have changed Sun Wukong – for one thing, Donnie Yen was booked and he is now played by Aaron Kwok (ironic considering his role in the last movie). He’s a lot surlier, too. We do miss the sillier aspects of Yen’s portrayal.

In short order, we have also added river demon Tang Seng (William Feng) and pig demon Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shen Yang). Wukong has the power of the “fiery gaze”, which allows him to see through demons’ disguises (which results in him beating the hell out of his two future comrades). That’s going to prove handy as they approach a city where they are told the White Bone Demon (Gong Li, luminous as ever) is stealing away children. It’s going to turn out to be not as simple as that, but it doesn’t change the fact that the demon wants to eat Sha Seng, which will make her immortal.

fiery-gazeThe story backs over itself annoyingly a few times, the worst offense being White Bone using her shapechanging powers to drive a wedge between Sha Seng and Wukong, using the same trick twice. The others can’t see demons as he can, and assume he’s just a murder monkey, eventually causing Sha Seng to send him away. The Monkey King is gone perhaps five seconds before White Bone carries the monk away from the comparatively ineffectual river and pig demons.

Nevertheless, Tang and Zhu will mount a brave attempt to rescue Sha Seng – eventually joined by Wukong, of course – as the FX kick into high gear. Dave and I used to think that the Giant Flying Skull Made of Hundreds of Regular-Sized Flying Skulls in Legend of Zu was the Ultimate Metal Effect, but this time we will get a Giant Skeleton Made of Hundreds of Skeletons. It would make many stoners say “Duuuuuuuuuuude” if they ever got this far.

monkey-king-2-bHonestly, most of the time I spent watching this I was thinking, “This is the movie Snow White and the Huntsman wanted to be, but couldn’t manage.” It maintains a nice storybook reality, and the FX are excellent and in service to the story.

So this “short piece” is approaching 3000 words, and I want to get it online so I can concentrate on the holidays without guilt. Please have the Happy Holiday of your choice, and though I probably won’t see you until next year, have a happy new one, and above all: Have a Kung Fu Christmas.

Buy Jade Tiger on Amazon

Buy Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman on Amazon

Buy The Sorcerer and the White Snake on Amazon

Buy The Monkey King on Amazon

Buy The Monkey King 2 on Amazon

The Retrun of the Sentimental Swordsman  is available on Amazon Video
– free if you’re a Prime subscriber!