That Movie a Year Thing

So the current Twitter game is listing a movie for every year you’ve been alive. The default seems to be toward “favorite” rather than “best”, which is going to explain quite a few of the entries on this list. This exercise puts you into Tough Choice mode – how to choose between Andrei Rublev, Chimes at Midnight and To Kill A Mockingbird? Well, what movie have you voluntarily watched the most times? Fantastic Voyage for 1966 it is, then.

It intrigues me that I did this as a Letterboxd list two years ago. I called it “A Life in Movies“, and the list I came up with last night has only a few variations. I contemplated updating that list, then decided against it – let it stand as a document of where I was then.

So this is where I am now:

1957 – The Seventh Seal
1958 – Touch of Evil
1959 – Sleeping Beauty
1960 – Psycho
1961 – Yojimbo
1962 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
1963 – Jason and the Argonauts
1964 – I Am Cuba
1965 – Help!
1966 – Fantastic Voyage
1967 – In the Heat of the Night
1968 – Yellow Submarine
1969 – The Wild Bunch
1970 – Tora! Tora! Tora!
1971 – They Might Be Giants
1972 – The Godfather
1973 – The Holy Mountain
1974 – Blazing Saddles
1975 – Death Race 2000
1976 – Master of the Flying Guillotine
1977 – Star Wars
1978 – Dawn of the Dead
1979 – Alien
1980 – Altered States
1981 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 – The Thing
1983 – Videodrome
1984 – Ghostbusters
1985 – Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
1986 – Aliens
1987 – Evil Dead II
1988 – Powaqqatsi
1989 – Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
1990 – Tremors
1991 – The Fisher King
1992 – Baraka
1993 – Matinee
1994 – Pulp Fiction
1995 – The Quick and the Dead
1996 – The Wind in the Willows
1997 – Men in Black
1998 – Ringu
1999 – The Iron Giant
2000 – Memento
2001 – The Fellowship of the Ring
2002 – The Two Towers
2003 – Kill Bill Pt. 1
2004 – Primer
2005 – Constantine
2006 – The Prestige
2007 – Shoot ‘Em Up
2008 – The Dark Knight
2009 – Black Dynamite
2010 – Scott Pilgrim vs The World
2011 – Samsara
2012 – The Avengers
2013 – Gravity
2014 – Guardians of the Galaxy
2015 – The Force Awakens
2016 – Arrival

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

56634212201109291202243862381888332_004.jpg

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!

The Kung Fu Movies Will Continue Until Morale Improves

As I said earlier, I’ve been binging on my spiritual celluloid comfort food, martial arts movies. Last time I went in-depth on one of the more… um, remarkable ones (boy howdy did I make remarks), now let’s see how many I can sort-of-briefly talk about until I once again get sick of my own voice.

825_dvd_box_348x490_originalThis all started with Criterion’s blu-ray release of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which I had seen perhaps twenty years ago, when I was actually starting to take my education on Asian action films seriously. In those olden days, online information was sparse (and really, so was “online”), and you had to make do with what you could find, and all I had to go on was some passing references to Zen as an important movie. I slapped it on my Netflix queue (remember those?) and did, in fact, get pretty impressed. It was split over two sides of a flipper disc, so yeah, it’s a long movie – but it’s also deservedly considered a masterpiece.

Hsu Feng is Yang, a scholar who is content eking out a living with his paintings and calligraphy in a small trading village built around an abandoned fort. A young lady, Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun) moves in to the fort, but resists the attempts of Yang’s mother to matchmake between the two. There have also been an odd assortment of people wandering through the village, inordinately interested in the young lady, and some other merchants…

criterion-touch-of-zen-2We’ll eventually find out that she’s the daughter of a lord who was disgraced, tortured and killed several years before by an evil eunuch running The Eastern Chamber (reliable villains in wuxia films). She and her general have spent the last couple of years training in martial arts at a nearby monastery, and are hoping to use them to achieve their vengeance. Yang may not be a warrior, but he has spent his life studying military strategy, and is delighted that he can help his newfound love with his knowledge. He accurately predicts what the various movements of the enemy mean, and constructs an intricate trap at the fort, building on its reputation for being haunted, allowing the outnumbered forces of good to successfully take on a small army.

Hsu FengKing Hu’s visual storytelling game is obviously strong from the beginning; it is almost five minutes before we see a human being (he always made fruitful use of the varying landscape of Taiwan), and there are perhaps two dozen lines of dialogue in the first thirty minutes. Everything else is shown – almost pure cinema. The literal centerpiece of the movie is a fight scene in a bamboo forest (inspiration for countless battles in years to come), which must have been an absolute bear to film, but the camera moves – with stalks of bamboo in the foreground providing an exhilarating sense of dimensionality and movement – make that trouble worth it.

toz_1At three hours, timorous studio executives (of course) felt it too long and at first split it up into two movies, with that fight scene ending the first and reprised at the beginning of the second. Small wonder, as our two good guys – Sheng-zhai and her retainer, General Shi (Bai Ying) are over-matched by their two adversaries, and must pull off a desperate measure that would become rather expected in later movies but leaves Yang and the other non-combatant (and the audience) gawping in amazement.

Based on Lu Song-ping’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, the movie somewhat bizarrely – to Western viewers, anyway – comes to a successful, bittersweet conclusion, only to switch protagonists and continue for another half-hour, with a new, even more powerful villain, a development that always surprises me. It’s practically another mini-movie in itself.

Two years in production, most of which was building that fort and letting the grass grow to a realistic height. Now restored and beautiful, A Touch of Zen is highly recommended. This trailer for the UK Masters of Cinema edition:

Dammit Criterion, just take my money.

Dammit Criterion, just take my money.

Watching this reminded me that I still hadn’t seen the previous King Hu movie, Dragon Inn, though I’ve seen practically every other movie playing off it’s pedigree, like New Dragon Gate Inn and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn in 3-D. I note that Letterboxd has a poster similar in style to Criterion’s Touch of Zen, which hopefully means a blu-ray from them at some point. Right now I just have to deal with this plain old primitive DVD.

This is going to sound familiar, but a decent lord is persecuted, prosecuted and executed by an evil eunuch of the Eastern Chamber, and his family is exiled to Dragon Gate, on the outskirts of civilization. Attempts are made to murder them on the way, thwarted by folks still aligned with the dead lord. The isolated Dragon Inn is run by a former retainer, and it becomes the central point for both factions as the family gets closer and closer.

Watching Dragon Inn after A Touch of Zen is instructive in many ways, especially in the casting. Shih Chun is once again the badass swordwoman, though this time dressed like a man so that, in the way of Shakespeare and wuxia films, it is automatically assumed she is a man. Hsu Feng this time is playing the kung fu hero who is so damned good he usually only carries his umbrella into battle. Ray Chiao, who played the near-invincible monk in Zen is also against that type as Shih’s brother, a decent enough fighter, but a hothead.

dragon-gate-innThe fights are plentiful, varied and interesting. King’s combat aesthetic was heavily influenced by Peking Opera, so the swordplay remains pretty realistic, except for the fact that there seem to be plentiful mini-trampolines scattered about for some unrealistic jumps. Dragon Inn is just short of two hours, and it does seem a little stretched out in the final act, but it does have a more solid throughline than Zen. If you’re a wuxia fan, you’ve probably already seen it. If not, you should.

Deep ThrustAll this means that I need to go back and re-watch the movie that made King’s career take off, Come Drink With Me, which is a movie I had given up on ever seeing until Celestial started putting out remastered movies from the Shaw Brothers vault in the early part of the century. It was one of their very first DVDs, and my first overseas purchase.

Though not yet. After a conversation about the brevity and relative sedateness of Polly Kwan’s fights (not her fault) in Kung Fu Halloween, I felt the need for a more fearsome female fighter, so helloooo Angela Mao Ying in Lady Whirlwind, which was re-titled – rather risibly, to capitalize on a certain porn movie that was making waves at the time – Deep Thrust.

The first thing you’re going to notice about that trailer is that there is not enough Angela in it. When you watch the movie, you will see that is a complaint that can also be applied to the movie itself. Angela plays Miss Tien, who is looking for the guy who’s the centerpiece in the other fight scenes, Ling (Chang Yi). He opens the movie by being beaten up and left for dead, which will be a continuing motif for the next hour. Tien is looking for him because he abandoned her pregnant sister, who then committed suicide. There is some intimation that the Chief Bad Guy having his thugs leave him for dead was the cause of this abandonment, but the story moves forward rather too quickly to ever elucidate on this – Ling, who’s been practicing his kung fu, begs Tien to leave off killing him until after he has his vengeance.

lady-whirlwind-1972-movie-pic5Thing is, the bad guy has a new henchman who’s a 6th degree red belt in karate, and he makes short work of Ling. Tien rescues him from being buried alive, and while Ling is wandering around dazed after that, he helps a old Korean herbalist, who in gratitude teaches him the Tai Chi Palm, which will finally allow him to win a fight. Meanwhile, that karate creep everybody is afraid of? Tien finishes him off without much of a sweat.

Oh, Fatty, you are about to enter the Kingdom of Hurt.

Oh, Fatty, you are about to enter the Kingdom of Hurt.

Exactly why the hell Mao Ying isn’t the actual main character of a movie called Lady Whirlwind  will be puzzling scholars into the next few centuries. She easily dominates every scene she’s in, and she’s never onscreen for any length of time before some scumbag is flying through the air and screaming ai-yaaaah. She was an actual black belt in Hapkido, and her sureness of motion and controlled energy demonstrates that. I am never going to stop believing her talents were criminally wasted in Enter the Dragon, but then I also have to admit that is likely the only one of her movies most Western moviegoers have seen.

The quality of this rip is not great, but you can at least tell that the guy in brown is a very young Sammo Hung, at this point in his career basically just a villainous punching bag for Angela, a role which he assayed often and very well:

Though it’s never going to be considered an art film like King Hu’s entries, Lady Whirlwind is very entertaining, even if you spend several fight scenes drumming your fingers, waiting for Ling to get beaten down again so Angela can take center stage once more.

riseofthelegend_teaserposter_01I had thought that three movies would be my limit this week, but now that I’ve brought up Sammo, I have to go on to a movie from the other end of his career, the 2015 Rise of the Legend. This may mean this gets posted a day later than planned – my apologies.

Rise of the Legend is another attempt to restart the Wong Fei-hung franchise, and this is going to confuse people like myself who mainly know the character from the Once Upon a Time in China movies or Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master flicks, because this is apparently the Zack Snyder version of Master Wong. Through the opening and into the first, say, ten minutes I wasn’t sure if the character I was watching was actually Wong Fei-hung, not because he is taking on all comers in a massive alley fight, but because he’s pretty matter-of-factly killing thugs. Jet Li and Jackie didn’t hesitate to put the hurt on people who were asking for it, but we are definitely dealing with a meaner version here. Dare I say… “grittier”.

rise-of-the-legend-2014-chinese-movieFei-hung (Eddie Peng), we will find out in subsequent flashbacks, was orphaned when his father (Hi, Tony Leung!) roughed up a scumbag slaver who kidnapped and sold one of the orphans kind-hearted dad had been taking care of. His clinic was torched by the scumbag’s gang, and Dad died getting the kids out. The adolescent Fei-hung and his close friend Fiery (Jing Boran) sought revenge, only to find the gang was killed by another gang. They are carried away by a monk who teaches them kung fu and does his best to quell their bloodthirsty fires of vengeance.

The plan they hatch in a calmer maturity involves Fiery organizing a gang called the Orphan Gang (including some of the kids Dad Wong was caring for) while Fei-hung works his way up the hierarchy of the Black Tiger Gang, which is consolidating its hold over the docks, opium dens, and crime in general. That’s where we start in media res: Fei-hung literally fetching the head of a rival gang, ingratiating himself to the leader of the Black Tigers, who is the reason we’re doing one more movie… Sammo Hung.

rise1-625x416Sammo has come full circle in a long and excellent career. These days I only see him in villain roles, but he’s nobody’s punching bag anymore. Fei-hung becomes the fourth of the sub-bosses under Sammo, and then his and Fiery’s plan kicks into gear.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews trash this movie, but I have to admit it kept me interested for a little over two hours. I doubt its validity as a Wong Fei-hung story, but as a Yojimbo-esque crime drama, it’s pretty good. As we head into the third act, the story stumbles a bit – there’s one sacrifice too many for cheap emotion, one turncoat that’s a little too easy, but I did appreciate the way the overall plot was teased out.

punch!A lot of rancor goes toward the fight scenes, which I also find unfair – Corey Yuen is the fight coordinator, and I had no complaints except for (you were waiting for the “except for”, weren’t you?) the final showdown between Sammo and Peng, which is technically pretty, but emotionally vacant, and accordingly unsatisfying.

The rest of the movie I have no complaints about – it’s quite handsomely mounted, with a soundtrack that at several point evokes Morricone, and that’s a good thing. But let’s just pretend that the main character’s name is just a coincidence, okay, and go watch Once Upon a Time in China again.

Buy A Touch of Zen on Amazon

Buy Lady Whirlwind on Amazon

Buy Rise of the Legend on Amazon

Y: 28 Days Later… (2002)

Hubrisween 4Hubrisween Central  ♠  Letterboxd Page

28-days-later-postersYes, it’s the second Blank Tile dropped in two days. I left this one until today so I could point out that it’s “20 DaYs Later” when the Twitter intelligentsia get tired of making rape and death threats and decide this is a good hill to die on.

Dystopic horror movies can put you in a really bad mood.

Some animal rights activists break into a lab, determined to free the chimpanzees that are confined there as test subjects. The trouble being that these chimps are all infected with something called the Rage virus, which is pretty much the primary symptom, it seems. They pay the price of their misguided altruism rather quickly and messily.

Then, as the movie helpfully informs us,  28 Days Later Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes from a coma in a hospital. It seems Jim was a bike courier who was hit by a car, and as he wanders about a deserted London, he discovers he has slept through the Apocalypse. And then he finds out that London is not quite so deserted at night, which is when the Infected come out.

28-days-later-2002-image-3The Rage virus has spread far and wide, and Jim falls in with Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). Jim is the first uninfected human they’ve seen in nearly a week. Eventually our heroes will meet up with Frank (Brendan Gleeson), a bluff taxi driver, and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns); Frank’s done his best in an abandoned tower flat, fortified it well. But there has been no rain in ten days, and they’re running out of water. Frank, however, has a hand-cranked radio, and has found a recorded, repeating message from a military base urging survivors to come to them.

Don't get used to it, folks.

Don’t get used to it, folks.

So we have a road trip during a zombie apocalypse: sometimes terrifying, sometimes lovely. The base is found, in an isolated mansion. A small garrison of troops, led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) has made full use of land mines, razorwire and generators to keep their version of civilization alive. West has a vision of rebuilding civilization from this base, and he has gone about organizing with that aim. The major problem for our heroes is that plan requires women, and they’ve just brought two of them. And these soldiers are more than willing to kill any obstructions to their Utopia.

I’d had 28 Days Later recommended to me as wondrous new twist on the zombie movie, the freshest concept in ages, a shot in the arm to the genre, blah blah blah because this was released right after I signed off on zombie movies for ten years, even the good ones. And make no mistake about it, 28 Days Later is a very good movie.

28-days-later-red-eyesWriter Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle set out to make a different kind of zombie movie, and in some ways succeeded: an argument can be made for this as one of the very first “fast zombie” movies, for one – before this, the Re-Animator movies and Return of the Living Dead seemed like outliers. The Infected aren’t interested in eating your guts or your brains. The Rage virus seems to be just that, a lot of people wandering around looking for people to hurt, to vomit blood on them and infect them. Even when they’re set on fire they don’t slow down. Ebola was used as a basis for the virus’ spread, but Ebola isn’t terribly successful as a virus: it tends to kill its victim before they can spread the disease. Rage is much more successful in that respect. Major West keeps one of his troops who got infected chained in a courtyard to a very grim purpose: he wants to find out how long it will take the Infected outside his walls to starve to death.

kinopoisk.ru

For attempting to carve out a novel approach to the zombie picture, it’s surprising that 20 Day Later still pays tribute to them very openly. Though it’s not a zombie picture, Jim’s awakening in the hospital is straight out of Day of the Triffids. The movie manages to encapsulate all three of Romero’s classic Dead trilogy: the improvised strongholds from Night, the scavenging from deserted stores and not-so-deserted building next to a source of gasoline from Dawn (right down to the child zombie), and the last half of the picture is a more pastoral yet venal riff on Day, right down to its own version of Bub the zombie. Garland and Boyle are extremely open about this, and the approach is different enough to make it appreciative homage rather than naked appropriation. We’ve seen way too much of that.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

This is also one of the first feature films to be recorded digitally, which allowed Boyle to capture those eerie scenes of empty London far more quickly than using the standard film camera would have allowed (which probably made him very popular with the Police). That lends an intriguing look to the movie, especially where the Infected are concerned – their jittery movement caused by increasing the framerate in the camera. On film that would result in slow motion; in a digital camera, it seems to pull out frames.

So what you have here is a good-looking zombie movie with good actors and a good director, with a story that takes its characters through changes more complex than what’s on the inside suddenly coming outside. Yes, I should have gotten over myself in 2002 and watched it, but I am so much better equipped to appreciate it now, for what it is.

Good filmmaking.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/c7ynwAgQlDQ}

Buy 28 Days Later on Amazon

X: The 7th Victim (1943)

Hubrisween 4Hubrisween Central  ♠  Letterboxd Page

seventh-victim-poster-2It may be unnecessary, but I feel I need to point out the Blank Tile Rules for Hubrisween, which was developed precisely for pesky letters like Q, Y… and X. One can substitute a movie from either of the letters bracketing the misbehaving majuscule, or a movie with a number in its title. Hence, tonight’s offering for X (and tomorrow’s for Y, but that would be telling).

 Young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her film debut) leaves her private girl’s school when she is told her last remaining relative, her older sister, has vanished. She journeys to New York City, where she finds that her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, eventually) sold her successful beauty company eight months before; she finds she had rented an apartment above an Italian restaurant, and when she convinces the restaurant owners to let her in that apartment, she finds only a single chair, sitting beneath a waiting hangman’s noose.

sv4There’s more: though there’s no sign of Jacqueline ever being at the City Morgue, it does lead her to handsome lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont!), who is also looking for her. Ward is then visited by a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who knows where Jacqueline is, but refuses to tell anyone.

The 7th Victim has a twisty plot, even for a Val Lewton movie, and it is certainly the most noir-inflected of his eleven movies for RKO. Mary navigates the mean streets of the Village with a growing cadre of helpers: Ward and Judd, a failed poet (Erford Gage) who fancies himself Cyrano de Bergerac, and the owners of the restaurant (Margarita Sylva and the real-life Chef Milani). It has a rich cast of characters for a unexpectedly complex story.

seventhvictim2One of the people coming to our waifish heroine’s aid is a weasely private investigator (William Halligan), who takes up the case of the missing sister because he’s warned not to… a contrary urge that will cause his eventual death, in one of the most effective, tense sequences in the movie.

The 7th Victim is almost 75 years old, and has been written about by much smarter people than myself, so I don’t think I am giving anything away by revealing that Jacqueline – ever “the sensationalist”, according to Dr. Judd – joined a cult of “devil worshippers”, seeking excitement and happiness, and when those did not materialize, went to Judd for her depression – and the cult considers this revelation a betrayal to their secrecy, which demands her death.

seventhvictim1But. This cult is also (rather bewilderingly) sworn to non-violence, so they have to convince her to kill herself. This non-violence thing is certainly novel, and an odd choice; rather than making the cult evil and frightening, it makes them merely selfish and self-interested to an extreme, and this fifteen years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged. This one fairly outlandish detail perversely makes our devil cult seem more realistic.

Jaqueline, we will find out, spent several weeks imprisoned at her former beauty salon, and has been in hiding since her escape. Once Mary, Ward and the Poet convince Judd to finally reveal her hiding place, Jacqueline is convinced to go to the Police. Disastrously, our band of heroes decide to let her rest for a day, which is just enough time for the Satanists to find her. Honestly, the plotting of the movie so far, in an attempt to be misleading and surprising, is a bit of a mess, but its 70 minute running time doesn’t leave much opportunity for audience cries of “Now wait just a minute…”

seventh_victim__the_001_758_426_81_s_c1Jacqueline will resist the peer pressure to drink a glass of poison, leading to one of the Lewton standards: a tension-racked walk through shadowy streets, where any patch of darkness can hide doom – in this case, one of the Satanists who has been tasked with forsaking non-violence to end Jacqueline. It can’t be overstated that RKO had come close to closing its doors after the disastrous box office of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but it had kept almost all the craftsmen who had worked on those pictures, to RKO’s ultimate benefit. After his successful string of low-budget features, it was felt that Lewton deserved a shot at an “A” picture, which was to be the original version of The 7th Victim (which apparently actually had 6 prior victims in its story). But to do this, he would have had to abandon director Mark Robson. Lewton was extremely loyal to his co-workers, and refused, relegating this movie back to a “B” budget – and this sequence alone, if nothing else, justifies why Lewton felt that way.

Lewton was also notoriously death-obsessed, and it shows in his movies; for so many of his characters, it is, to quote Hamlet, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” In the closing minutes of The 7th Victim, Jacqueline meets a character we’ve seen only once, at the apartments over the restaurant – Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying prostitute straight out of La Boheme. “I’m quiet and I rest and Death keeps coming closer, all the time.”

“And you don’t want to die, answers Jacqueline. “I’ve always wanted to die. Always.”

seventhvictimmorgueAnd there it is, right there, bang. Lewton’s health deteriorated steadily through the 40s – probably not aided a bit by the hellacious work hours he set for himself – and he passed away in 1951 at the age of 46. 46! He once said, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, that the message of Isle of the Dead was “Death is good.” But that moment in this movie, that one line, is a moment that hits like a freight train… especially if you’ve ever felt that way. If you’ve felt too keenly the crushing weight of life, if you’ve listened to the lies of depression that tell you that you’d be better off, that everyone would be better off.

Don’t worry. I’m on medication now.

Mimi dresses up and goes out for one last fling before her demise. Jacqueline – quietly retires to her room, with the noose and the chair.

It is possibly one of the bleakest endings in all horror or noir, two genres not known for their uplifting qualities. And that is probably the true horror of The 7th Victim – that it touches so easily a darkened corner that lurks within us all.

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