Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Tracking (1986)

Lisa, Stephanie, and Natalie are three teenaged girls left alone in Lisa’s parents’ house.  As they indulge in whatever games suit their fancy, Stephanie relates a story about her dad’s experience in the Algerian War.  Afterwards, a phantom soldier continuously visits the three, menacing and raping them.  

Pierre B Reinhard’s Tracking (aka Ghost Soldier) is a difficult film, not so much because of its subject matter but because of the way it treats it.  The movie, by and large, is about the aftermath of rape, the PTSD suffered by its victims, and the arbitrariness of victimhood.  Each of the girls is attacked at least once, though Lisa seems to get more attention than the other two.  These attacks happen randomly and suddenly.  The Soldier is usually represented via POV handheld camera, and it’s interesting that the faces of all the male characters are never shown clearly.  This ghost is something called forth from the spinning of a tale, which recounts itself in the first present-time attack scene.  Stephanie’s dad used to tell her this story, about how he had sex with a peasant girl in Algeria for a bottle of champagne.  That night, Lisa is assaulted and violated with a champagne bottle.  Importantly, this scene plays out at first as if it were a flashback with the protagonists playing the roles of the peasants.  It boggles the mind that Stephanie’s father would not only relate this story to his daughter (though not his wife) but also tell her how it’s the best memory he had from his time in the military.   

The presentation of this sequence, however, and of the girls themselves, is pure prurience.  Natalie is threatened with a straight razor while in the bathroom.  When Natalie is attacked the first time, she is backed into a shower, which is turned on.  The Soldier then slices her clothes off, and the camera gawps at her exposed breasts and sopping wet lingerie.  When the girls are initially introduced, Lisa is focused on, prancing around in her underwear.  When the three play dress up, Reinhard focuses intensely on their naked bodies as they get changed.  It raises an intriguing question: Do these girls deserve what happens to them (by dint of the fact that the film is so obsessed with their physical attributes, which they show off freely), and if not, how does the viewer’s enjoyment of the attacks (they are, after all, shot from the audience’s perspective) reflect on their own attitudes toward the subject?  Reinhard does not separate the horror of the act from the exploitation of it.  On the one hand, it’s serious about the situation, on the other, it’s serious about turning the viewer on with its kinks.

Another aspect of the film is the maturation of these girls into adulthood or, at the absolute minimum, the desire to do so.  All of their parents are absent.  Lisa’s aunt (?) Christina appears periodically to chastise the girls, plug the telephone back in, and remind them to take birth control.  Yet, Christina is ineffectual in her “guidance,” partly because she’s far too casual about allowing the girls free rein and partly because the girls resent her presence as an authority figure.  The girls, like teenagers everywhere, know everything there is to know about everything, so they don’t need to pay attention to some “old” person who may have been where they are.  In fact, the girls hate Christina so much, they actually try to murder her with a rifle.  As Christina drives up to the house, she is tracked through a set of crosshairs.  As she drives away, Lisa finally takes a shot, blowing out Christina’s car tire.  The teens then lament not being able to kill her on the open road, because some passerby stopped to assist with her car.  The girls play house, having dinner and booze, and they begin to roleplay in an adult (not in the porn sense) fantasy.  Lisa becomes the wife, Stephanie the husband, and Natalie the husband’s mistress.  As the film winds on, the protagonists go so far as to dress their parts in an effort to protect themselves.  Nevertheless, the façade is not enough to deter the attacks.  The maturity the girls attempt to emulate is, more or less, like a beacon for the Soldier, their introduction into “adulthood” a trauma.  It carries an air of “be careful what you wish for” while also bearing a certain statement on the callous treatment of women by men (the reason we never see men’s faces is because they are every man, everywhere).  “Sex is life,” the message left on a mirror by the Soldier, is both honest and ominous.

How the girls deal with their ordeal is also key to the film’s theme.  Both Lisa and Natalie have flashbacks to their assaults when they come in contact with the objects with which they were attacked (a bottle and a straight razor, respectively).  The two have meltdowns, and Lisa even tries to run off into the woods at one point.  Stephanie appears to be (on the surface, at least), the strongest of the three.  She tries to be the masculine defender of her “family.”  She is the one who carries the rifle.  She searches the grounds for the Soldier in an endeavor to confront him, become the hunter not the prey.  She is comforting to Lisa and Natalie, and she continues to put up a brave front when it becomes plain that she will have her turn.  Rather than resist, she offers her body to the ghost, attempts to bargain her sexuality for the removal of the violence which accompanies his attacks.  She figures it would still be unwanted sex (read: rape), but perhaps it can be made less harrowing.  Even she breaks down, however, when her time comes.  She lashes out, shooting the rifle randomly, an impotent venting of rage against something ineffable and unerasable.  The film becomes muddled because it throws cause and effect out the window, but this is also a large portion of its point.  To make it all black and white robs it of any impact it may have.  But still, the grey that the film immerses itself in is just as problematic due to the overt sexualization of its leads.  Ultimately, the girls carry their damage onward, and there is an exorcism of a sort, though its efficacy is in serious doubt.  After all, how do you destroy something so primal in the hearts of men?

MVT:  For as scattershot as it makes itself, Reinhard’s approach to the story is admirable in its daring, if not in effectiveness.

Make or Break:  The moment you realize you’re not watching a flashback, and you’re not watching a traditional ghost story.

Score:  6.5/10      

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Wasp Woman (1995)

Directed by: Jim Wynors
Run Time: 84 minutes

Today's review is a remake of  Roger Corman's 1959 The Wasp Woman. Thought the lord of low budget B movies produced this one instead directing , it still has all the cheese one can expect of a B movie. Without further padding on to the review.

The story centers around Janice (Jennifer Rubin), a woman that created a successful cosmetics company, is the CEO of the company she made, and is the model of the product line. However declining sales and nervous investors are forcing her just to step down from being the company's model. Though not all hope is lost as Dr. Zinthorp has a plot convenient solution to Janice's age issue. Dr. Zinthorp, a disgraced medical researcher, has made a breakthrough in anti-aging by sciencing the  hell out of wasp stuff. He also is running low on research funds and is clueless on how to sell the research he has done so far.

This becomes painfully obvious when Janice meets Dr. Zinthorp in person and all he has as a presentation is a lot science jargon and no test results. Not wanting the next big thing in anti-aging to slip through her fingers Janice has Zinthorp test his serum on his cat. A few days later the cat reverts to a kitten and Janice wants to move to testing this serum on herself. A move that has nothing to do with the new young model that was hired to replace Janice. The doctor starts with a small dose to start the human testing phase of this serum. Though Janice may experience feelings of paranoia and have random hallucinations it will make her look younger in two or three months.

Playing it safe is not something Janice is willing to do and sneaks back into lab to increase her dosage.  This does have the effect of making her look like she is in her late twenties. It also makes her think that her boyfriend is romantically involved with other women and that she is turning into a human wasp monster. Back at Dr. Zinthorp's lab, the test kitty has mutated into a killer wasp cat. This monster cat then lures and kill Dr. Zinthorp in a near by service tunnel. Then is promptly forgotten.

Things get worse for Janice as well. Her paranoia has gone from annoying to dialed past eleven. She also starts seducing men that called her old, trying to destroy her business, and who betrayed her trust. This leads to her turning into a human wasp monster with bad nineties CGI effects. Followed by tame but horrific murder of the people in question. The third act see Janice sort of embracing her monstrous nature and forcing a final conflict between herself and the few surviving people left in her life.

At of the end of the day it's fun cheesy monster movie made for cable. Because it was made in the nineties for cable so there is more nudity and the killing is more graphic than the 1959 edition. There is not a lot to this movie outside of it being a fun monster movie. It's a fun movie if there is nothing on, the weather outside is crappy, or you can't sleep. If it shows up on cable or a streaming service give it a watch.

MVT: The monster suit is rather impressive for a low budget production like this.

Make or Break: Every time there was a office scene the background sound track included a nonstop ringing phone. At times it got on my nerves to the point I did yell out "Answer the fucking phone already."

Score: 5.9 out of 10


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Angel on Fire (1995)

Security just ain’t what it used to be.  Sure, technology has advanced to the point that you can lock your doors and view closed circuit video from your cellphone, but the actual strategy of how to go about securing things has gone nowhere.  Part of the reason, possibly, is that honest people don’t or can’t think like a criminal.  Yes, the basics, like locking downstairs windows and so forth, are common sense, and would likely deter a normal smash-and-grab guy or a crackhead looking for a quick score.  But what of the super criminal or professional thief who simply must get their hands on your mint, vintage Star Wars action figure collection?  Here’s a person for whom the challenge is the fun, the reward worth any risk.  Could you prevent such a mastermind from clambering down your chimney like a maleficent Santa Claus with a series of trip wires and snares?  Would you go so far as setting up a web of death-dealing lasers in your living room?  No, most of us wouldn’t, because that would just be too much of a hassle, and, as we so very often delude ourselves, it can never happen to me.  This must be the logic behind the Shaolin monastery’s security at the opening of Philip Ko’s Angel on Fire (aka Die Xue Rou Qing aka Born to Fight 6 aka Only the Strong Survive).  These monks have a relic apparently worth a king’s ransom, and they leave it laying out on a table for people like May (Melanie Marquez) to just waltz in and steal.  Surely, this is the ultimate argument for all Shaolin temples to have more death traps. 

Post-heist, May meets up with her partner Rocks (Philip Ko), but quickly betrays him and the Syndicate they both work for in order to keep all of the money from the sale of the relic for herself.  Inspector Lee (Waise Lee) sets his two best cops, Wong Li (Pan Pan Yeung) and Mai Lei (Cynthia Khan), on May’s tail.  Action ensues.
Angel on Fire is a film wholly and purely about a MacGuffin.  Not unlike the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly or the statue in The Maltese Falcon, everyone and their brother associated with the Underworld wants this thing, but none of them could probably tell you anything about it outside of its worth (which is also indeterminate).  Consequently, this makes May another MacGuffin, since she holds the relic, and everyone is searching for her like Waldo (she is much easier to spot).  The entire movie, then, is little more than a chase between various factions (the Syndicate, Tony’s [Lee Chun-Wa] gang, and Interpol [which itself is split into two groups who never confer with each other or work together, strangely enough adding a hint of verisimilitude to some ludicrous goings on]).  Every scene revolves around May showing up somewhere, being attacked/pursued, and ditching her assailants.  One might think that in the hands of a good director this could make for an exciting movie.  This film leaves us with the twin dilemma of believing that Ko is not that talented a director and that sometimes even simplicity still needs a bit more detail to be compelling.
May is not only an international super thief but also an international super model (what luck!).  On the surface, this is an interesting idea.  Here’s a woman for whom the glamour of super modeling isn’t enough.  Like a magpie, one of the only non-mammalian animals that can recognize itself in its own reflection, May sees herself reflected in her dual worlds, but those worlds are only a hair apart.  Both worlds require a give and take.  As a model, she gives her image for adulation (and it should be mentioned, we never see her do any modeling; I’m running with the surface concepts here).  As a thief, she gives her skills for a high monetary return.  Both callings also trade on May’s beauty, though, honestly, one of them really shouldn’t.  She is capable, I’m sure, of insinuating herself into certain places because of her physical charms.  Yet, one really has to question the efficacy of making oneself up like they’re just about to shoot a spread for Vogue when infiltrating a monastery (I am not against the thigh-high leather boots she sports, incidentally) or trying to hide from people who want you dead.  I would say that May hides in plain sight, but she makes no effort to hide at all.  I would like you to note how much of May’s capabilities it is left for the viewer to determine.  This is because Ko in no way capitalizes on this aspect of the character.  He simply uses Marquez as a good-looking antagonist, nothing more.  She struts across the screen and does some fighting, and that’s about it.
This wasted potential is the calling card of Angel on Fire in toto, and the reason for this waste has to do with the film’s ambition.  Ko and company set out to craft a wall-to-wall action film.  In fact, the last third of the movie is an extensive series of set piece sequences, including an airplane chase and a great many explosions.  This is all well and good, except for three things.  One, the way the film is shot and edited is sloppy at best.  It is not enough to just keep moving the camera and then cut it all together.  There needs to be a sense of geography and an action/reaction approach to the events onscreen.  Ko gets neither of these right with characters just throwing arms and legs or shooting guns.  There is no connection between these moments, so they’re just action images that keep repeating over and over again.  Even the hand-to-hand fights don’t tie together.  I constantly felt like I had missed just enough between cuts for none of this to match up properly.  Two, the characters are paper thin and uninteresting.  Obviously, we don’t need to know every want or need from these people to find their adventures compelling, but they should be more than just warm bodies.  Mai Lei and her cabbie friend Harry (Ronnie Ricketts) come closest to making this work.  Khan carries it off with her natural beauty and charm, and Harry is the most honest taxi driver in the world (of course, they’d make great partners!).  Third, and worst, is that the film has no story aside from the basic setup.  As I stated, the picture is only concerned with the MacGuffin, and that’s kind of opposite the entire point of a MacGuffin.  Thus, Angel on Fire is nothing other than a collection of scenes, with no development and no purpose besides action (which is not well-handled).  Wong Li is introduced early on then forgotten about for large swaths of the film, occasionally popping up to remind you that she exists (and that you don’t care whether she does or not).  For someone who is hiding out, May is incredibly easy for absolutely everyone to find.  Characters pop up, just because, as if they’re instant coffee spokespeople.  You can watch a collection of film stunts and come away with the same experience as this film.  And the collection of stunts would likely make more narrative sense.
MVT:  Cynthia Khan is cute as all get out.  So, there’s that.
Make or Break:  There is a cab chase which ends with one of the vehicles just breaking down.  This was around the point that my patience did the same.
Score:  4/10           

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Imp (1981)

Children can be a real handful.  I neither have nor want any, myself, and I suppose, to some people, this makes me a bad person.  It’s not that I don’t like kids (some would say that I act like one).  Some of them I get along with like gangbusters.  But in the main, I prefer them in small doses.  Cinema has done nothing to disparage this perspective.  For every Gordie Lachance, there’s one or more Clifford Danielses.  I think the problem lies in the fact that most screenwriters simply don’t quite get writing child characters.  This is funny, because at one point or another in life, we’ve all been one.  These characters tend to be either tooth-achingly sweet or misanthropically self-centered.  Even giving them a reason for their bad behavior doesn’t discount their actions.  Further, children are more often than not written to be little adults, unreasonably wise beyond their years, because, you know, making mud pies is beneath them (or, at the very least, makes for bad movie watching).  When kids are given supernatural powers, they get even worse, most especially when they’re already dead.  This is a mainstay of Asian ghost stories, where children who died horrible deaths come back to take vengeance on adults who didn’t even have anything to do with their demises.  Such is the case with Dennis Yu’s The Imp (aka Xiong Bang).

Keung (Charlie Chin) can’t get hired for anything.  It’s not that he doesn’t put in the effort.  The whole universe just seems to be against him.  With a baby on the way, he finally lands a job as a security guard in a large building complex.  But the titular entity has plans for Keung, his friends, and his family, and none of them are very good.

The Imp takes its horror concept and posits it in everyday life.  Keung and his wife Lan (Dorothy Yu) are low-income people struggling to make ends meet.  The pressure of their impending bundle of joy crushes down on them.  They are normal folks with real-world issues.  This is compounded by Keung’s inability to find work.  His familial responsibilities weigh heavily on him, but he keeps trying.  Chin does a great job of encompassing both the sad sack and Everyman aspects of his character.  At work, Keung is surrounded by character types, all of them just grounded enough to be believable.  Han (Chan Shen) is the elder of the group, the leader.  He’s an old hand and accepting of Keung.  Fatty (Kent Cheng) is, no surprise, the fat guy, but the film doesn’t define him by his weight, ironically enough.  He’s not some slob constantly stuffing food into his face.  These two are the most important in Keung’s story, because they are the ones most eager to help Keung out (Fatty even transports Lan to her pre-natal appointments).  Yet, Han considers firing Keung when the fatalities start piling up.  He’s not above letting superstition guide his actions, though his decisions may be in the best interest of all involved, save Keung.  The other two that we are introduced to, Ting (Hui Bing-Sam) and Mr. Hong Kong (Wong Ching), are more peripheral.  Ting is a bookworm with very little interaction with Keung.  Mr. Hong Kong is a bit of a boorish dolt who doesn’t really care for dogs.  Yu gives all of the characters just enough personality to distinguish one from another, and they are compelling enough to get us involved in their fates.  Even when all Hell breaks loose, the film maintains a certain sense of grounding.  This is a world where the supernatural reigns, but the characters still have to get up and go to work every day.

The mystical elements of the film focus strongly on predestination, especially as it pertains to the concept of Yin and Yang.  Keung was born under the strongest possible Yin signage (being both sinister and feminine, this points to not only Keung’s fate but also a character weakness that makes him a bit of a pushover).  Under the tutelage of Master Chiu (Yueh Hua), a Taoist (?) priest, Keung attempts to defy his destiny.  They post amulets in places of power, they fix the Feng Shui in Keung’s apartment, and so on.  But the ghost always comes out on top.  There is a sense of desperation at play in the film, even when the characters are going through a ceremony that they believe has to work.  It’s this struggle to thwart fate which drives the horror of the film.  The characters believe in the use of magic to aid their cause, and the film accepts that these things exist.  Yet, it never goes so far as making them feel outlandish.  They’re simply another component of this world.  

Yu and company take their story very seriously.  There is little to no humor in the film, as might be expected in a Hong Kong film of this vintage.  Fatty, the clear, viable target for derision is treated like an ordinary guy who just happens to be overweight.  He doesn’t do pratfalls, he doesn’t make a pig of himself.  Keung is fighting for his life and soul as well as that of his family, and hope is threadbare.  It’s this grim earnestness that makes The Imp such an affecting experience and one worthy of praise.

MVT:  The film’s tone strikes just the right amount of dread.

Make or Break:  The finale is tense and serious, and it brings home the message.

Score:  7/10