The Positive, the Negative, and the Questionable Attribute

Some might say that the cowboy genre is a distinctly American genre with its familiar motifs and archetypes. Oh, they’d be right. Sure enough. But consider the masterworks of Italian filmmakers of Crobucci  and Leone and the great era of spaghetti westerns. And if Europeans can tell tall tales of gunslinging outlaws in the lawless wild frontier, then why not Asian filmmakers as well?

Asian cinema and American wild west cowboy flicks have had a fun history together. When John Sturges made the classic Magnificent Seven in 1960 American audiences got a taste of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) without even knowing it.  Wisit Sasanatieng relocated the wild west to his native Thailand with Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a super saturated tribute and parody to American westerns and melodramas. Jackie Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for the kung-fu cowboy comedy Shanghai Noon (2000), and cult weirdo Japanese director Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007.


Speaking of Sergio Leone and Asian cowboy movies, I think this might be a good segue into today’s film; Ji-woon Kim’s revamp and retelling of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) with the South Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).

A few of Kim’s earlier films might be known to western audiences. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) became The Uninvited (2009)—another in a slew of foreign horror films to be remade in America—and Kim’s first film, The Quiet Family (1998) was remade into Takashi Miike’s wild musical cult classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).

The Good, the Bad, the Weird features many of the familiar character types and settings of its original spaghetti western counterpart, but where Sergio Leone lingers and builds tension and atmosphere, Ji-woon Kim is chiefly preoccupied in what will propel the action, and thus is not quite as rich of a film. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a masterpiece (and for my money, it is) then The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a modest success, but it has enough fun tricks up its sleeve to make for an enjoyable action comic chase movie.


Leone’s film was an epic, lyrical saga about three individualistic men (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the scene-stealing Eli Wallach) searching for buried treasure in the sun-parched wild west (actually filmed in Spain) while the horrors of greed, lawless violence, and the encroachment of the Civil War keep getting in the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a great and subtle anti-war movie, and considering Leone’s feelings about World War II, it is a safe guess to presume that it was quite deliberately referencing fascism, occupation, and (in one scene) the death camps. It was Leone’s most epic and expansive film up until that time and it beautifully represents the struggles of three tiny men who are swept up in the broader scale of the intrusive and rather impersonal force of war.

Kim attempts bits of this. There is mention of troubles in Korea and Japanese occupation is a central element to the setting, but it’s never handled as seriously or consistently as in Leone’s film. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria with a strange treasure map stolen from a Chinese banker aboard a train. The setting, tempo, and clothing give it an immediate Indiana Jones type feel. Many private parties become very interested in the missing map, but it ultimately falls into the hands of the Weird two-bit train robber, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song from The Host and Thirst). The Bad hitman, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee from Three Extremes and Hero), the Good bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a rabble of Manchurian bandits, and the entire Imperial Japanese Army are soon all in hot pursuit of this one rather odd misfit thief. Nobody actually knows what the map leads to, but everybody seems to agree it is worth the senseless slaughter of countless lives. Like Clint teaming up with Eli Wallach, the sharp-shooting bounty hunter catches up with Yoo Tae-goo and they develop an uneasy alliance…occasionally.

The gears now in motion, the plot can finally evaporate.


We don’t know much about Park Do-won (the Good) and he is a fairly stagnate character with little interesting to do if it’s not action-oriented. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) has a bit more of a back-story, but mostly he’s just dead-eye glares affixed to a metrosexually be-togged swagger. Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) takes on the bulk of the film’s intrigue and his character is a lot fun. Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco may have stolen the show in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Van Cleef and Eastwood were still fascinating characters with compelling inner turmoil. The new Korean take on things is decidedly thinner. For a while it bothered me that this South Korean re-imagining of one of the greatest western movies of all time was far more shallow than its source material, but I can treat it more as a sly homage that is merely trying to be a good rough and tumble rollick through brothels, black markets, and deserts. If that is all it is trying to be then I can forgive any lack of comparative richness and appreciate The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a fun stylish shoot ‘em up. And, boy, is it stylish.


There are several great action sequences in this film. The opening train robbery and hijacking is one of them. Not only is it slick, fast, and charmingly violent it also features some of the most memorable music in the whole movie. One thing that made Sergio Leone’s films so great was Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal and innovative iconic scores. Their strange jarring sound effects, twangy guitars, piercing vocals, haunting whistles, and the odd use of Pan flutes and Jew’s harps made them powerful and energetic and really helped establish the mood. The remake’s score (composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang) is pretty good (though perhaps not as memorable as a Morricone piece), but it was those opening shots of the train set to those incredible blaring brass instruments that really set the tempo for the action that was to follow. It carried the spirit and promise of wild west fun in those first few notes. The shootout on the train, Yoon Tae-goo stealing the map, Park Chang-yi stopping the train and going on a shooting spree with his thugs, and Park Do-won finding his bounty is a blast to behold. Another thing Ji-woon Kim does to remind us of classic western flicks is the frequent use of zooms. It is very noticeable, but also very serviceable to the feel of the movie.


There are a few fun shootouts in the Ghost Market (one of which where Tae-goo comically dons a diving bell to protect his head from gunfire) and the three main guys, of course, reenact the brilliant standoff at the end, but perhaps the very best action sequence comes from the big chase before they find where the map leads. Tae-goo speeds across the desert on a clunky motorcycle (complete with sidecar) with the map in his coat. Totally exposed, he is spotted and pursued by the Manchurian bandits, Chang-yi and his goons, and the Imperial Japanese Army. Music going, guns blasting, and dust spewing, the bandits and Chang-yi’s men fire at each other from their puffing steeds and at Tae-goo until the Japanese whip out their Gatling guns and viciously mow down the horsemen from their jeeps. Park Do-won finally shows up and his eagle-eye is no match for any army…as the scene anarchically demonstrates. The scene is pure Indiana Jones and Yoon Tae-goo even skids along the dirt floor on his belly while he hangs on for dear life to a rope coming out of the back of a speeding jeep. This sequence escalates wonderfully and is choreographed exquisitely and there are a lot of explosions.


Naturally it’s tough to hold a candle to a movie as great as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this movie does a respectful job of paying tribute to it in its own way. You still can’t beat that final showdown between Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach. And you can’t really beat the scene where Tuco is beaten by Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and the corrupt Union guys while the band plays a haunting melody just outside in the prison camp. And you just can’t beat the scene where Blondie (Eastwood) ignites the canon with his stubby cigar or when Tuco frantically races through the cemetery looking for the grave with the treasure to Morricone’s fantastic “Ecstasy of Gold.” You can’t beat those. Those scenes are immortal. Those are some of the best scenes in movie history let alone western movie history. So Ji-woon Kim doesn’t attempt to tarnish them. He makes his own western movie in some of the familiar spirits of the 1966 classic. OK, so he does do the standoff, but he makes it different enough that you shouldn’t be too mad.

 

So what did I really think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird? I liked it. It’s a fun and stylish action movie with some great sequences, loads of wild west flavored violence, and a welcome dose of humor (supplied chiefly by the Weird). Essentially it is a movie chiefly populated by loud abrasive explosions and overly elaborate poses. I know I’ve compared it way too much with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this film really should be taken on its own and compared more with contemporary high-octane action movies. Leone’s film is more lugubrious and biting and it’s really more of a character study than an action movie (although it has its fair share of action too). The Good, the Bad, the Weird was South Korea’s most expensive movie so far and you can tell a lot went into it. As a film it’s pretty decent, but when comparing it to modern action flicks it stands well above most of the competition.

Top 10 Reasons to See The Good, the Bad, the Weird:

1. It’s a slick, fast-paced homage to one of the greatest western films of all time.

2. Stuff blows up in it.

3. Kang-ho Song is a joy to watch.

4. Out of all the Asian cowboy movies I’ve seen, this is probably one of the best.

5. It has one of the best chase scenes of recent memory.

6. An old woman is placed inside of a closet.

7. It feels more like how Indiana Jones 4 should have been.

8. It hearkens back to the legendary classic without besmirching the original’s greatness.

9. People fire guns while swinging through the air.

10. It’s got one frenetic pulse that doesn’t let up. Like a good action movie should have.

Originally published by “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 8, 2010.

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More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

1e

I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

1c

Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

1a

Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

1d

Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

1b

It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

1c

Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

1f

What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

Star Whores and Other Space Oddities

1I love Star Wars (circa. 1977-1983). For all the grief we give George Lucas for the “Special Edition,” the prequels, TV spinoffs, etc, one cannot downplay how much influence the Star Wars films have had on culture and the art of filmmaking. Not only has Star Wars influenced subsequent science fiction flicks, it has also been copied quite a bit.

There are a few different approaches one can take when it comes to science fiction.

  1. You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
  2. You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
  3. You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
  4. You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
  5. You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
  6. You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
  7. Or (recognizing some of the childishness of space aliens, robots, and super-deluxe-hyper-warp-lightspeed) you can go all-out campy, flashy, trashy like Barbarella (1968).
  8. There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
You've probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

You’ve probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

After the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 there was a huge sci-fi craze. It seemed almost any movie could be made a better or more profitable movie with the institution of a well-placed spaceship. Movies like The Black Hole (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ice Pirates (1984), and Arena (1988) were cranked out by the bushel. Well, some of my personal favorite worst and also lesser known sci-fi movies made in the wake of the space craze are on my mind today so, naturally, I felt compelled to write about them.


First up is Saturn 3 (1980).

This film is actually a bit more of an Alien rip off. There are essentially only three characters and they are played by (check this out!) Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. Before I go any further I must tell you that this film is bad. Really bad. Almost not even so-bad-it’s-kinda-fun-bad. And another thing; I can’t help but feel like the title is even a little oddly derivative of Capricorn 1 (1977).

"I am Spartacus!"

“I am Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life) is Adam, an older guy who’s been stuck up on a surprisingly spacious and roomy space-base floating around Saturn. We also see him naked and, I gotta be honest, 20 years since Spartacus and the man is still in shape. Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run) is Alex, Adam’s blonde, leggy bed-buddy and his only companion. Together Adam and Eve Alex (I get it!) live quietly in space for no apparent reason (it’s something to do with the government or science or something), until the most evil and warped mind in the galaxy comes aboard. This evil and warped mind belongs to a man named Benson.

Seriously. Benson. Benson is the name of the bad guy. Well, actually he only kills a guy named Benson for some inexplicable reason and assumes his identity, but really now. Benson? Benson is a dim-witted manservant, not a malevolent space villain. Anyway, Benson is played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), but it gets better. Evidently the director was not altogether pleased by Mr. Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent and so he Keitel awkwardly dubbed by some other robot-sounding British guy (it reminded me of Andie McDowell’s awkward dubbing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).

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It’s the wacky space adventures of Benson the Sociopath and Hector the Murder-Robot!

Benson is revealed to be mentally imbalanced in the beginning of the film (because suspenselessness) and then, once aboard Saturn 3, he puts a giant suppository filled with brains into an 8-ft tall robot named Hector. He gives the robot his own thoughts and then tries to get in Alex’s pants with the most awkward space-future come-on lines since Demolition Man. Adam gets jealous and they talk about killing Benson because he is weird. Then the robot chops their pet dog in half and tries to rape Alex. The movie is a wreck and actually pretty boring despite the presence of a horny, rampaging robot. Saturn 3 also feels simultaneously unnecessarily dark and unintentionally silly. For instance, there is a scene where Hector, the robot, wears Harvey Keitel’s severed head as a hat as a disguise. A very, very bad disguise.


Next up it’s Starcrash (1978), also known as The Adventures of Stella Star. I actually love this movie. It’s near-nonstop mayhem in the same campy vein as Barbarella. But much, much cheaper.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

The incredibly hot Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) stars as the frequently scantily clad Stella Star—the only hope for the galaxy. This film is more blatant a rip off of Star Wars and it is oh-so-hokey.

Outer space looks like an awkward jumble of bad Christmas decorations hastily assembled by a one-eyed crazy person. Who knew the stars and galaxies were so vibrant and psychedelic? The special effects for the spaceships are actually pretty decent, but again, the colors are more akin to a pinball machine that has lost its mind. The malevolent Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is the bad guy and his hairdo does for evil exactly whatever the name Benson did for evil. He also has his own version of the Death Star, except his is in the shape of a big, evil robot hand that clutches into a fist when it goes into attack mode.

No one messes with the do!

No one messes with the do!

There is also an extremely sexually ambiguous sidekick for Stella. His name is Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and he apparently has a new and incredibly convenient super power in each instance of peril. He bravely dies sword-fighting a stop-motion robot when his arm gets grazed and briefly caught on fire. The film also has a bald green dude, and a good robot with a Texas accent (half the film I just wanted to give him a ten-gallon hat to go with his Dr. Phil-esque homespun aphorisms). Starcrash also boasts  lightsabers and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). The costumes are great and I couldn’t help but notice the recurring use of arrows on helmets seemingly pointing to the face of the wearer, and on belt buckles pointing to the crotch.

The movie is crazy and the plot is on crack. We go from an outer space battle to a strange planet to a space jail to the jungle and back into space and then on to another planet with cavemen or amazons and giant robots in like 4 minutes. It’s like the first 60 seconds of the Power Rangers pilot. The film does slow down occasionally. . . for overly long spaceship docking scenes. What you eventually learn is that the film is strategically conditioning you to not care about the characters so you won’t be mad when new characters are randomly introduced and old ones go away or return without rhyme or reason.

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: "Don't worry. I'll live forever."

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: “Don’t worry. I’ll live forever.”

The best part of this movie? It’s a tie between Caroline Munro’s outfits (she dresses like Vampirella) and the great Christopher Plummer’s (The Sound of Music) emotionally detached and disenfranchised line deliveries. You can actually see it in his regretful eyes how much he hates that he’s in this movie. All around the movie is awesomely bad and I highly recommend this frenetically-paced, sexist light show. It’s a great bit of 70′s Italian schlock.


Last and most certainly least is The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is known in its home country, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or as it is most commonly referred to, Turkish Star Wars (1982).

*not Darth Vader

*not Darth Vader

Every time somebody mentions the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) I fire back with Turkish Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so bad it makes you wonder how there was a successful franchise afterward.  Turkish Star Wars is so bad it makes you wonder why God has not destroyed humanity yet. Seriously, have the people who made this ever seen a movie before? It is film heresy. The whole spectacle is a noisy, raucous, incoherent Frankenstein mess of a film. It is a mind-boggling artistic travesty on all fronts. AND I LOVE IT!!!

*not racist

*not racist

A guy and his best pal (Murat and Ali) crash land on an alien desert planet and they meet an impoverished, rock-dwelling civilization that is tormented by a big, nasty, beardy space bad guy, who allegedly is a centuries old wizard who needs a human brain so he can understand stuff and conquer the universe. The two guys decide to help the people and proceed to fight the worst excuses for robots and aliens you will ever see. Toilet-paper mummies, dusty zombies, rubber robots, dudes in skeleton outfits, and great big orange stuffed animals, and even racist-looking (African, Asian, and possibly Jewish or maybe Armenian—it’s Turkey, after all) rubber mask baddies, are only the half of it.

The love story between Murat and woman-who’s-name-escapes-me is also great. You see, occasionally jarringly softer music will play and we get reverse closeups of their eyes as they longingly/indifferently gaze at each other while performing mundane space activities. This unprecedented and clashing change of pace denotes romantic interest. Understand?

*not forced romance

*not awkwardly forced romance based solely on the fact that she is maybe blonde

I’d be kidding if I said I could explain the rest of the plot of this weird movie. There are mentions of the virtues of humanity and the human brain as the key to all things (something the filmmakers ironically refused to use for the production of Turkish Star Wars), and vague references to Islam and other things, but the story is so convoluted and poorly executed that it hardly matters. One minute our protagonists are fighting monsters, the next minute they’re in space jail, then the bad guy has monsters slaughter a cave full of frightened orphan children and he proceeds to drink their blood through a crazy straw, then Murat is wielding a giant, golden Final Fantasy sword [made of cardboard] and melting it in a huge vat and then thrusting his bare fists into the molten gold only to have them emerge with clunky gold space mittens on. Seriously. Tone! You can’t murder children in a film like this. It’s like the naked suicide in Endhiran.

*not more realistic than Rocky

*not more realistic than Rocky

One particularly memorable sequence is the training montage where Murat ties boulders to his ankles and goes jogging and then works his fist muscles by slapping big rocks. Instead of the Force, Murat has the amazing power to jump kinda high and karate chop things in half (boulders, stuffed animal monsters, robot heads, *SPOILER ALERT* the bad guy…except that they just black out half the screen and show him on the ground with his eyes closed, and in doing the same for the other half—to truly indicate the pure in-halfedness of our antagonist—the filmmakers also accidentally reveal that both halves apparently have full noses, but I digress). The finale is a jarring, headache-inducing mélange of so much incoherent violence, jumping, and explosions that you will be fighting—and fighting hard—your body’s urge to roll your eyes back in your head and halt all blood-flow to the brain. It’s like Vogon poetry really. Your welcome, Douglas Adams fans.

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

The absolute best part of Turkish Star Wars is how it is edited. I know that sounds nerdy, but let me explain. Not only does nothing make sense, but the film is notorious for ripping actual stolen footage from the real Star Wars—and several other fantasy movies and even a few newsreels—and splicing them into the movie. And the transfers are just terrible, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Best of all, they do it at inappropriate times. For example, to show space travel they film a character with a stupid hat moving a wheel while scenes from the assault on the Death Star play behind him (except the real Star Wars footage keeps cutting to other shots so the backgrounds don’t make any sense). The music is also stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bunch of other popular movies as well.

If this movie weren’t so wonderfully, miserably bad  and hysterically inept it would have been facing an arsenal of lawsuits. People say I’m crazy, but I have actually watched this wretched film at least 5 times. It takes a certain constitution to enjoy bad movies like this. Turkish Star Wars is really more of an endurance test than a film. Are you ready for the challenge?

*not evil stuffed animals

*not evil stuffed animals


There you have it. Saturn 3 you might as well skip as it is the most boring and unimaginative of them all, but it does have a stupid enough plot to keep you with it and the Keitel dub is wondawful. Starcrash is awesome trash and you definitely should see it for Munro’s body and Plummer’s face. Turkish Star Wars you can watch, but this one comes with a warning: it is disorientingly bad and you may not be able to readily relate to people immediately after a viewing, but for Troll 2 and Birdemic fans I must insist you try. At least it’s not After Last Season.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 25, 2011.

Size Matters Not…in the Philippines

Full disclosure: I have a mild obsession with this subject. See my article, “The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow.”

13Several great films have employed little people to play crucial roles. Unfortunately, little people have been largely reduced to playing mythical dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, Oompa Loompas, ewoks, jawas, and various other creatures. It’s not everyday they get to be Time Bandits (1981), take over a mental institution like in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), or act out a whole western a la The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). It is rare that a little actor gets to achieve singular notoriety like Verne Troyer (Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island, The Forbidden Zone), or Warwick Davis (Willow, Leprechaun, Harry Potter, Life’s Too Short), and even more elusive are the serious, juicy roles like Peter Dinklage gets (The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, Game of Thrones).

And how often do little actors get to use kung-fu, slide across the floor, umbrella-parachute out windows, or jet-pack to the rescue? The answer: not often enough.

Hi. Have we met?

Hi. Have we met?

Filipino actor, Weng Weng, got that rare opportunity to star in his own James Bond-style action movie. At 2′ 9″ Weng Weng enjoyed not only playing the shortest super-fly secret agent to ever don a leisure-suit, but he also got to be chased by several women and do a lot of pretty great stunts in the oddball cult classic For Y’ur Height Only (1980). Although most of his films are still unavailable in the United States, this particular little golden nugget can be found on DVD.

OK, so it’s still a bit of a circus role with most of the more interesting plot elements revolving around the fact that the main action star is less than 3 feet tall, but you still gotta respect the little guy.

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Everyone looks so uncomfortable. The transition from the 70s to the 80s was awkward for everyone.

The story for this B-grade critter is incredibly thin. Bad guys—who (at least in the English dubbed version) readily acknowledge their negative roles and openly declare that they are opposed to all that is good—are hiding bags of drugs in loaves of bread. The good guys (really just a guy in an office, but I guess it’s implied he works for some benevolent government agency) send not-so-secret* Agent 00 (Weng Weng) to stop the bad guys. It’s as simple and awkwardly handled as that and really it’s already more than it ever needed to be. Most of the plot is fairly incomprehensible and ludicrous, but if you are a true connoisseur of schlock cinema and/or bizarro entertainment then none of its quirks or foibles can deter you and you know it!

Sometimes I like my movies to look and feel like they were made by babies.

If you enjoy kung-fu movies and James Bond movies, you already know it’s not about the story. It’s about the action and mayhem and, I gotta say, For Y’ur Height Only delivers. Perhaps its the unfamiliar novelty of seeing a man knee-high to R2-D2 scaling walls and fighting guys and wooing chicks, but this film takes the throwaway rip-off concept that might have otherwise been forgettable and makes it something unique. Because Agent 00 is so small the action has to be choreographed with a bit of imagination…and some upper body strength on the part of the people attacking him (as Agent 00 frequently flips over them).

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Jet pack! Don’t look at the string.

Weng Weng uses his small stature to his advantage by sneaking between people’s legs, sliding on the floor whilst firing his gun, hiding in crevices, and, as I have aforementioned, umbrella-parachuting out windows.

One of my favorite things this movie does is incorporate the 007 Q gadget exchange, but instead of specific instructions, this Q gives the vaguest guidance and seems astoundingly oblivious. 00 gets an amulet thing for correspondence with the agency’s plant and a solid gold ring that can detect any poison. There’s also a pen that shoots poison darts or something, an Oddjob murder-hat (only remotely controlled), and, yes, a jet-pack. By far the greatest gift bestowed upon Agent 00 by ripoff Q are the giant sunglasses that allows the wearer to see people with their clothes off.

The action isn’t exactly at Bruce Lee status, but it is pretty great. Perhaps a bit gratuitous on the kicks to the groin, but it’s all in good fun. And the outfits are spectacular. You will never see more obnoxious combinations of plaid blazers, pastel neck scarves, pinky rings, and super big collars. No style of combat is out of place in this movie. Guns, swords, darts, martial arts, murder-hat, and even a scary one-on-one fistfight with a slightly larger dwarf are all featured.

Mr. Big

Mr. Big

The women, both established characters and random walk-ons enjoy copious amounts of smooching from the pint-sized hero. Weng Weng, although painted extra silly by way of the hilariously abysmal dubbing, demonstrates a playfully mischievous aura throughout the film. The absurd size juxtapositions and the twinkle in Weng Weng’s eye make this a lot more fun than your average Bond knockoff. One thing this movie really taught me was that putting drugs in bread is worse than killing scores upon scores of people. 00 absolutely destroys these guys. The bad guys kill maybe 2 or 3 people, while hero 00 straight up murders at least 100 dudes. The whole spectacle is about as odd and awful as lunch at Jollibee’s,** only way more aimless and much more fun.

Kamusta, baby?

Kamusta, baby?

The acting is not good, the dialogue is about as clever and articulate as a 3 year old telling a story, the dubbing is terrible (seriously, worse than any Godzilla movie), the logic and physics of bullet trajectories is psychotically ill-informed, and it’s all absolutely wonderful. And what if watching a dusky dwarf wearing a plastic sparkler-spewing jet-pack suspended over rocks by a clearly visible wire is my idea of entertainment? What then? I liked the silly action and how the nonsensical plotline sort of meandered about waiting for the feature-length mark. You really have to like your cinema to be out there to appreciate this thing. Revisiting this movie for the first time after several years was a truly special treat for me.

See the advantage? No crouching.

See the advantage? No crouching.

So maybe you might blast movies of this ilk for their cheap production quality and dismissive character development, but you know what else was filmed in the Philippines because it was cheaper there? Apocalypse Now. Boom. Chew on that. God help me, I love this movie. For Y’ur Height Only is a masterpiece of strange. Check it out and see the amazing Weng Weng in his natural habitat: in hand to hand combat and necking ladies.

Cheap foreign midgetsploitation James Bond knockoffs don’t come much better than this.

The DVD distributed by Mondo Macabro also features knockoff Bruce Lee star, Bruce Le, in the ludicrous kung-fu flick Challenge of the Tiger. Longest scene in the movie: Bruce Le fighting a bull with his hands.

Thumbs up!

Thumbs up!

*He tells everyone he’s a secret agent.

**Maybe it’s because I’m not Filipino, but I never found Jollibee’s eclectic menu particularly appetizing. It gleefully includes spaghetti and yam boba.

Top 10 Reason to See For Y’ur Height Only

1. What’s up with that title? For “y’ur”? “Your”?

2. Two words: jet-pack.

3. How many movies are Filipino James Bond knockoffs with little people?

4. Two more words: murder-hat.

5. In one scene Weng Weng is affectionately compared to (and I kid you not) a potato.

6. He pulls his body over a gun to flip-kick a guy in the face and then proceeds to pummel him with the butt of the gun.

7. Two more words: umbrella-parachute.

8. “There’s a lot of dough in this dough: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker…” actual line muttered by a bad guy in reference to the drugs hidden in the bread.

9. You’ll wanna dress your baby up in a leisure suit.

10. Two final words: Weng Weng

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 4, 2011

I Spy Something Cold

I really enjoyed the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). It was well crafted, brilliantly acted, and stylish. I may personally prefer the 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson, but it was good. And it did remind me of what a good spy movie can look like.

As a fan of espionage flicks I feel it only necessary to trumpet a great little Cold War spy film by the name of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). If you are a fan of the long-running James Bond series or films like Ministry of Fear (1944) or the new-found Jean-Pierre Melville flick Army of Shadows (1969), and early Alfred Hitchcock films such as The 39 Steps then I’d say it’s time to experience Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. This bleak and gritty spy story is smart, slick, and quite satisfying.

1Based on John le Carre’s novel, Ritt’s movie sets a burnt-out British agent against a harsh European backdrop steeped in Cold War anxieties and paranoia. The British agent is Alec Leamas, played with tough cynicism by Shakespearean titan, Richard Burton (Night of the Iguana). Leamas is a grizzled spy who just wants another mission. And maybe a drink. Leamas appears down and out—and out of favor—with his British superiors and is placed on a lower rung of the agency where he is obliged to drink himself into depression . . . in actuality the whole thing is a carefully orchestrated set up by intelligence maestro, George Smiley (Rupert Davies) to infiltrate Communist intelligence. Leamas now resembles an ideal candidate for a Communist defector. A malcontented agent with inside information, Leamas is irresistible to the East German Communists and is quickly wooed and promised ample compensation for his defection and subsequent reveal of British secrets.

6Things get complicated when he falls in love with English Communist activist, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom, Crimes and Misdemeanors), but he soon removes himself from her (or so he thinks) so as to advance up the ladder of Communist bigwigs and deeper into double-agent intrigue. The target is Communist head, Fiedler (Oskar Werner, Jules and Jim), but Leamas must successfully impress and fool several Red agents and pass from tier to tier to even come close to the target. As with all great espionage flicks there are several twists and if I were to explain anything after Fiedler’s introduction it would be a major spoiler alert…so you will simply have to see the movie for yourself.

A humorous running gag of note is that each Communist agent he meets acts like the head honcho until he is rudely dismissed by his superior. Such is the life in a hierarchy of equals.

4For one to fully comprehend all that is at work in this story, one must put themselves back in a time of fear. The Berlin Wall is up; there is barbed wire and hushed whispers conveying political secrets being murmured in darkened rooms. The Russians are coming! the Russians are coming! Like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) which tapped into the extreme paranoia surrounding what could be happening on the other side of the world and John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990) which dealt with the delicateness of defection to any side and the deathly, fearful rage it would inspire, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold places all this anxiety on the shoulders of one small, flawed man. Alec Leamas is the lone warrior sent to slay the beast, but he is placed in the dark about several important details of his mission to protect the mission. At times like this, governments cannot afford the consistency of one man and so Leamas is manipulated about as if a pawn in some sinister game of chess and these Reds are not simply after “moose and squirrel”. Secrets and information is more important than the lives of individuals.

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Filled with smart, subtle, and brooding performances and filmed in beautifully cold black and white, this wonderful film has our steely-eyed protagonist guide the audience through the perils of underground European intrigue at the height of the Cold War. No one can be trusted and as the plot unfolds we begin to realize how complicated the mission truly is and what is actually at stake for the British, the Communists, Fiedler, Nan, and Leamas. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a clever and stylish story with plenty of twists and double-agent double-cross. If you like spy movies, or think you like spy moves—heck, if you hate spy movies—give this Cold War drama a whirl. It’s a harsh, grim world as chilled as its title would suggest. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is first-class espionage entertainment. Enjoy.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 20, 2010

Of Mills and Crosses

Films depict historical events, great works of literature, flippant works of pulp, true life accounts, biographies, and so on. How often do we get a film based on a painting? Maybe not often enough. Tarkovsky sort of did that in Andrei Rublev (1966), Svankmajer made some bizarre shorts in the style of Arcimbaldo, and Ivan Ivanov-Vano accomplished a truly staggering feat in his short The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971). All this to say that it can be done and it has proven to be a fascinating experiment when it is done. Why are not more paintings adapted to the big screen? After all, Fantasia (1940) and Allegro non Troppo (1976) are based on classical music compositions.

The Mill and the Cross (2011) was directed by Lech Majewski to cinematically represent Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary, painted in 1564. Rutger Hauer (Ladyhawke, Blade Runner) plays Bruegel and Charlotte Rampling (The Verdict, Melancholia) and Michael York (The Three Musketeers, Austin Powers) costar. This is a strange sort of film. It doesn’t really flow like a conventional plot with readily understandable characters. It is less of a movie and more of a tranquil lingering in every beautifully realized square inch of the painting that inspired it.

We gradually move from one detail to another as we explore Bruegel’s work through different angles, richer context, and multi-historical meanings. It is as much a depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition as it is a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This is a tough sell. It’s masquerading as a film, but really what Majewski is doing is forcing an audience to pay attention to the details. How many people wander a vast art museum, approach a great work, gaze at it for a few moments, take note of the artist, date, and materials used, and then simply move on? How many of us take the time to seriously consider and interact with seemingly trivial details in great works of art? The Way to Calvary is one of those biblical accounts where the people still look like they are living in the Renaissance or Medieval times. This could be for a few reasons. One might be that widespread knowledge of the fashions and architecture of bible times was not available. Another might be from the simple fact that Majewski seems to be saying that Bruegel might have been comparing the passion account with his own contemporary world.

It is a beautiful film. Many special effects shots are used to integrate the rich beauty of the Bruegel painting into the film. The film very much resembles a painting. Many shots even appear to composite actual elements of the original painting into the background. This gives The Mill and the Cross a very distinct look and feel. In addition to looking great, the film takes its time. As I’ve said, this movie likes to linger on subtle, strange imagery and just let the moving pieces perform their bottled dance. There is minimal dialogue and it moves slowly and deliberately and does not explain everything right away. You have to stick with it and trust Mejewski. I, for one, was never bored by this smooth and impressively visual film.

Watching it, I realize it will probably not be for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it and I think it is a noble experiment that leads one to appreciate art more and think differently about it. It is also a fine pseudo-account of the crucifixion narrative. I cannot tell if this is a better spiritual film or historical film…or maybe it is merely meant to be an art film. Whatever it is, it makes Bruegel’s painting come to life and delves deep into its obvious meanings and its more elusive symbolism along with carefully containing the era in which Bruegel lived. The Mill and the Cross truly teaches us that there is more in a grand old painting than what meets the eye in the first few moments one encounters it. There is much sophistication and beauty and pain and history. It’s a bold film no matter how you look at it and I think one that will be hard to forget.

For those with a keen eye for artistic imagery and a patience for the arts this is a must see. The Mill and the Cross is a pleasing art history lesson.