Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Horrible High Heels (1996)

Hey, let’s talk about my feet!  For as long as I can remember, my feet have been grotesquely wide (around a triple E width, if that helps any).  The last pair of normal sneakers I had were Welcome Back Kotter ones when I was a kid (it said, “Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose” and other snazzy bon mots around the sides).  I could never wear Chuck Taylors, because my feet poured out over the tops of the soles (but fuck if I didn’t try).  My first pair of Doc Martens were regular width (because that’s all that anyone sold, and this was before they were available on every street corner in the world, and they were expensive as all hell compared to the shoes I would normally buy), and the breaking-in period was pure hell.  Since then, I’ve discovered companies that that specialize in wide width shoes, but it’s still a crapshoot buying them, because you have to buy them over the internet (the sneakers I have been buying this way have started giving me corns, so now it’s back to the drawing board). 
And then there’s the flatness of my feet.  I’m fairly convinced that I have no arches to speak of, so, of course, I have to wear special arch supports.  The beauty of these babies is that they’re made of plastic, so they tend to give you shin splints until you get used to them.  They also make it sound like you’re walking on ducks, they squeak so much.  To put it simply, footwear and I don’t get along.  I don’t even think the human leather shoes of Wai On Chan, Cheng Chow, and Chiang-Bang Mao’s Horrible High Heels (aka Ren Pi Guo Zheng Xie aka Bloody Shoe) would fit me any better than any others do.  It doesn’t help that I can’t walk for shit in high heels.

Lee Kang (Hung Fung) is the proprietor of a small shoe cobbling business.  He’s also a degenerate gambler of the lowest order, and, after getting knocked out during a row over his habit with young Sherry, he’s skinned alive by a masked lunatic (whose identity is obvious, even before you meet him without the mask).  Lee’s son Tien (Lam Chak-Ming) comes home from university with hoochie mama Wendy (Suen Tong), and he almost seems to give a rat’s ass about finding his missing father.  Wang, one of Sherry’s co-workers, finds a cheap source for fantastically soft leather (have you guessed yet who the murderer is?) and has some dealings with his nephew Ah-Nan (Siu Yuk-Lung), who works for triad boss Kuen (Shing Fui-On), a man very interested in the wholesale of women’s shoes.  Is that enough for you?

This film could have some interesting things to say, and it almost does.  For example, there’s the aspect of mad love going on.  Sherry pines for Tien (why is anyone’s guess, as the man is blanker than a sheet of copy paper and has fewer sides), and the entrance of Wendy makes her go a little crazy (there’s even a nice cat fight just to prove this).  Sherry goes to extreme lengths to get Tien, naturally, because he’s the man she deserves, and she was there first.  Wang pines for Sherry, and he also will go to extreme lengths to have her.  He even has a photo of her at home with her mouth cut out (you don’t have to wonder why; they make it excruciatingly clear in the movie).  I can’t imagine that being in any way satisfying, and I can only cringe at the abrasions one could incur with such a prop.  However, Sherry ultimately rejects Wang, which makes him go even crazier.  But just being in Wang’s presence is enough to infect Sherry with Wang’s insanity.  That she winds up as she does in the end stems not only from her commiseration with this guy but also (and more importantly) from her abuse at the hands of men in general.  Sherry is the embodiment of puppy love turned inside out and gone dark.  

Then, there’s the idea of “skin trades” (and not just in terms of animals, unless you count people as animals, which is fair play) and how fashion feeds into it.  Consumers and vendors love the human leather shoes.  Sherry and her fellow employees love working with the leather, and the money they make off their sales thrills them.  During the first human skinning, the killer exclaims, “I started my fortune with this leather.”  As in films such as Eating Raoul, this guy discovers discover that not only are people as easy to kill and use as animals are but they’re also cheaper and of a higher quality.  It’s just that this movie hasn’t a humorous bone in its body.    

Being a Category III film, Horrible High Heels does its level best to fulfill the promise of that rating.  It opens, for no narrative reason whatsoever, in a slaughterhouse, and we get to see cows being killed and cut up in graphic detail.  That’s about as subtle as this film gets.  There is plenty of rape for everyone, and this is combined with humiliation (as if rape, in and of itself, isn’t humiliating enough).  One victim is micturated on.  Another is stripped, beaten, made to walk on all fours like a dog, and forced to touch herself with amputated body parts.  This isn’t to say that the consensual sex scenes are any more pleasant.  They are as softcore as can be, leaving nothing to the imagination (well, a little), and they are just as skanky as any of the rape scenes.  They have a grimy aura to them, and the participants look dazed and sweaty.  Even when the characters want to be having sex, they still look like they couldn’t be further away.

The greatest fault of Horrible High Heels is that it’s incredibly scattershot to the point that you can completely believe that this thing was made by three directors, because it doesn’t follow any of its storylines coherently.  It also doesn’t really give a shit about what’s going on in any of them.  The human tanning angle is dropped halfway through the film.  The Ah-Nan/triad aspect doesn’t relate to the rest of the film except by the thinnest of threads.  The search for Lee that started this whole thing comes up only sporadically and with as much gusto as a nonagenarian’s exercise routine.  The characters change into completely different personalities at the drop of a hat.  The cops are completely subplot material until the end, when they suddenly become action heroes, just because (as does Tien in one of the more amusing sequences of the film).  With how salacious this movie is, it’s astounding how stultifying it manages to be.  If nothing else, its title at least delivers on two things: There are high heels in the film, and it’s horrible.

MVT:  The gutter-level sleaze.  Come on, you were watching this for some other reason?

Make or Break:  The opening scene in the abattoir may put some off their feed and spoil their libidos.  Then again, it may kickstart others’ engines.

Score:  3/10 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mutant Chronicles (2008)

Directed by: Simon Hunter
Run Time: 111 minutes

Here is a quick background dump on Mutant Chronicles. The Mutant Chronicles is a table top role playing game set in the sort of far future. Governments have been replaced with four multinational mega corporations that strip mined the Earth of anything and anyone of value. As soon as the Earth was made a polluted husk the corporations took off for the inside of Mercury, terraformed Venus and Mars, and the astroid belt outside of Mars. Things for the corporations were going great until the tenth planet was found. Or home to horrible things and the death of every computer in existence.  Which leads to humanity fighting it's self and horde of demonic mutant things for survival.

The movie opens with a world history lesson about how in the distant past a meteorite crashed on Earth and released a hoard of undead mutant things. A group of knights drove the undead mutant things back to the creator they crawled out of, sealed it, an the promptly forgot about the whole incident. Centuries pass, nations give way to corporations, and four mega corporations struggle for control of Earth. Capitol corporation controls North and South America, Bauhaus controls Europe and half of Russia, Imperial controls the UK, Australia and most of Africa, and Mishima that controls Asia and the rest of Russia.

These corporate nations fight each other for everything from resources to which version of football is best. One such fight is taking place right near the creator where humanity sealed a bunch of murderous mutants. The Capitol army had built a defensive trench against the Bauhaus army and are waiting to see who points out the flaws of trench warfare first. This is where we meet Major 'Mitch' Hunter (Thomas Jane), a career solider who sees his job as chance to "fuck things up". He will be the character that the movie uses as it's point of view for the most part.

After a brief tour of how much life in the trenches sucks the Bauhaus army arrives to prove that life can always get worse. During the fighting, an artillery round opens the tomb holding the undead mutant things. Who in turn destroy the two fighting armies and end the corporation's war against each other. The movie then cuts to the other side of the world were the a religious order is listening to radio traffic and learns that the undead mutants are back. Because nothing says guardians of humanity like remote mountain monastery and a ham radio setup. This also the home of Brother Samuel (Ron Pearlman), the keeper of the scrapbook about undead mutants.

With the undead mutants free to kill all of humanity again, it's up to Brother Samuel to recruit eight other people to wield the only weapon that hurt the mutants. Swords. Because swords are the only weapon that can inflict enough damage to kill undead mutants. So Brother Samuel pays a visit to the Capitol CEO (John Malkovich) in the hopes of finding eight suckers are willing to undertake a suicide mission. The CEO produces some get off of Earth tickets as a way to entice some volunteers to help Brother Samuel's quest.

Leaving the CEO to be killed by the undead mutants, Brother Samuel manages to recruit Major Hunter and seven other soldiers who have not been developed as characters for the suicide quest. Together this group of soldiers slog their way through the third act and towards a hidden entrance into the undead mutant factory.

Now this might be surprising but this movie is weird and is not sure who it's audience is. To a general movie going audience the movie does a poor job providing bridging material to help the audience suspend their disbelief. Like explaining the World War One look of the film, reasons to like cardboard character cutouts, or how the world got so screwed up between the dark ages to the twenty fifth century. Fans of Mutant Chronicles and War Zone (the miniatures game based on the Mutant Chronicles game) are equally left in the dark by this film. It ignores the fantastic elements of the source material due to budget and takes artistic license as a reason to tell a well worn war story. The end result is a odd film, set in strange place, and telling a familiar story with weird props. If it's a solid rental/streaming movie if you want something strange.

MVP: Seeing John Malkoich preform his cameo while acting like he is coming off a week long Valium bender.

Make or Break: A lot of the run time I found myself yelling at the TV, "Hi, could you talk to the audience instead of being grim and dark while staring your own navel!"

Score: 4.9 out of 10

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

Way down in the lower depths of Jailhouse 41 (it’s not actually called that in the movie), the eponymous Scorpion (aka Matsu, played by Meiko Kaji) lies chained, subject to the sadistic whims of the cycloptic warden Gorda (Fumio Watanabe).  After enduring humiliations from both guards and fellow inmates alike, Matsu and six other prisoners make good their escape.  But their flight to freedom will prove more harrowing than their stay in the penitentiary.

Meiko Kaji is one of those cultural icons revered more for their looks (i.e. the act of looking, not their physical traits, though she is also a striking beauty) than any thespian skills.  This isn’t to say she can’t act, but from what I’ve see, she’s rarely called upon to do more than clench her jaw and glare.  And she does both spectacularly well.  Here in Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (the second entry in this influential series), the entirety of her performance is physical.  She doesn’t speak at all until near the film’s end, and then it’s only two lines of dialogue.  Nonetheless, we know exactly what’s going on in her head at all times (it helps a bit that this generally boils down to three emotions: hatred, suspicion, and pity).  This is Matsu’s strength.  She doesn’t mince words because there’s nothing left to be said.  The ultimate pragmatist, Matsu sees the world for what it is – a merciless, misogynistic shit hole – and deals with it in the same way that it has dealt with her.  All of this is reflected in her eyes.

Speaking of eyes and reflections, Jailhouse 41 is rife with them, and not only from Kaji.  Gorda’s dead, false eye attempts to consume and violate Matsu’s soul.  His eye, Matsu’s eyes, and Oba’s eyes (the contagonist or secondary antagonist, if you wish, played by Kayoko Shiraishi) all give off the same look throughout the film but with different meanings.  Matsu’s deadpan stare is a retreat into herself, a fortification against the external world, and a coiled trap waiting to be sprung.  Her fellow prisoners misread her limp inactivity as acquiescence and apathy, when, in fact, it is anything but.  Gorda’s eye is a metaphoric monster and the ugliness inside the male psyche, the male id unleashed.  He’s a lecher and a brute, not above using his status and his staff to destroy the women in his charge.  When first we meet him, he’s one year into his attempt to drive Matsu insane (it can be argued that he’s wasting his time, because she already is, in a sense).  The blacked-out lens of his glasses reveals for the audience the cruelty and alienation in the man, as we espy the horrors he subjects others to in it.  His false eye, when it’s finally popped out of his head, presents not just a victory but also a portal to an alternate reality, a looking glass world where the events of the narrative never took place (and if you think about it, this shot is similar to the first shots of the film which focus on Matsu’s eyes, and the entire film can be seen as a pure dream/nightmare sequence from her perspective).  Finally, Oba’s gaze is pure bestial fury (she’s even honest enough to admit this – “I know I’m a beast!”).  She hates everyone and everything, a nihilist preferring the solitude of her rage to what sisterhood she may form with the other escapees.  Everyone is an enemy, because they’re different from her, and she’s paranoid enough to believe that this matters (not without some reason).  This comes through crystal clear in her baleful gaze (often cast from under her eyebrows).  

These three viewpoints form a worldview of how these women (all seven of them, but, by extension, all women) are seen and treated.  In one of several fantasy sequences, the crimes of the escapees are described.  The women kneel, dressed in matching outfits (like their batik prison uniforms, this unifies them) before a field of blackness.  The camera glides past each as a narrator (in, I’m guessing here, Noh Theatre style) sings of their sins.  While they are all guilty of their individual crimes, it is stressed that all of these women were driven to commit them by men.  This tableau is presided over by an old woman.  She was found, alone and deranged and clutching a knife in a death grip, in an abandoned village.  She, too, has been cast off by the world of men, and it has destroyed her.  She is a portent of what will happen to all of the protagonists, but it’s Matsu who refuses to accept this fate.  Later, we see a reenactment of Oba’s crime.  In it, the local villagers surround her, net her, and beat her.  Oba transforms into each of the escapees, tormented by the people who put she and them in this position.  Again, it’s Matsu who stands up defiant, the ideal of feminine individuality in the film.

Jailhouse 41 is as gorgeous and carefully crafted as any film from Japan at this time (it does bear some stylistic clichés of the era, but they fit for the nightmare quality of the picture) while being as enthralling as any exploitation movie made.  For as sleazy as it is, however, the tone is grim.  This isn’t light fare, though it certainly has heightened moments.  Its exploitation elements are more condemnatory than titillating.  The film is designed to provoke some thought, not erections (or at least I found nothing sexy here).  What I did find was excellent filmmaking for any level of budget or genre constraints.

This will likely be the only film from the Arrow bluray box set that I review.  This is not because I don’t like the others in the series (they’re all fantastic in their own ways), but they do tend toward a certain formula (this one being the exception) which would make further reviews redundant.  Then again, who knows?  Maybe I’ll come back and want to dip my toes and pen in these waters somewhere down the road.  Anyway, the set is outstanding, packed with the usual quality supplements in which Arrow excels.  There has been talk about the color timing on these films, and I have to say that the level of blue in this film is noticeable, but I also feel that it adds to the atmosphere of the piece.  I also know that Arrow stated that this coloring is due to the level of restoration they performed on the original materials, so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

MVT:  Ito displays a deft hand, stylishly and narratively.

Make or Break:  The scene where the prisoners are punished for an attempted riot proves their breaking point, and it may be the viewer’s, as well.

Score:  8/10 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Tough and Deadly (1995)

Most people into genre cinema know and love James Karen for his role as Frank in Dan O’Bannon’s zombie masterpiece, Return of the Living Dead.  I first came to know him as the affable, always suited shill for Pathmark Supermarkets.  His commercials touting that week’s specials popped up on New York/New Jersey stations, and since I was watching those channels on Saturday afternoons for Kung Fu and Horror movies, he became a welcome sight.  He seemed like a nice guy.  When I finally saw Return, I had one of those “Hey, I know that guy!” moments.  It’s similar to how I used to see Zohra Lampert selling Goya beans (“Oh boy-a!”), and it wasn’t until I saw her on an episode of Law and Order that it occurred to me that she did other things (including working with John Cassavetes in Opening Night).  It’s ironic with Karen that I hadn’t heard of him before either the commercials or the movies, since he was born about twenty miles away from me.  Ah, well.  It was nice, then, to see him pop up in Steve Cohen’s Tough and Deadly (and it should be noted that Cohen directed an episode of Law and Order, though neither Karen nor Lampert appeared in it), doing what he does best: selling what he’s got. 

CIA agent Monk (Billy Blanks) drives all the way out to the middle of nowhere in “France” to talk to Austrian intel broker Reichtman (Ronald House) and be attacked by Richard Norton and his crack team.  After a car accident puts Monk in the hospital and makes him amnesiac, he attracts the attention of skip tracer Elmo Freech (Roddy Piper) as a possible bounty.  The two team up to take down crooks and figure out Monk’s past (but mostly the former), which also involves taking down more crooks, just not for money.

Tough and Deadly follows in the long tradition of action films that pair a couple of characters who are disparate on the surface but essentially the same underneath.  Also like so many action films down through the ages, the main characters are either lawmen or ex-lawmen.  Elmo was a cop who punched a superior officer out (for not the greatest reason in the world), and now he’s a bounty hunter/private dick.  He still hunts down bad guys, he just does it on his terms.  Like so many private eyes, Elmo also has issues with cash flow, always behind on bills and always hustling for a way to make a buck.  He has a sassy secretary/assistant, Moe (played by Lisa Stahl), who acts like she doesn’t care, but really, she does.  Monk works within the system.  In fact, he’s so deep in the system, he’s been removed from it.  He’s legally dead and doesn’t exist on paper.  Monk’s sole purpose in life is also to hunt down the bad guys, but there has to be something more personal in it for him.  That’s the only reason he would allow his identity to be wiped out.  By teaming up, the two experience law enforcement from a different perspective.  Elmo gets to feel like a real cop again.  Monk gets to do his job without the restraints the system placed on him.

This plays into the film’s issues of identity.  Monk loses his memory.  He becomes the more literal ghost (just not in the supernatural sense) he was while working for the CIA.  He needs to re-discover the man he was, and this leads him to the man he will become (a resurrection, if you will).  Elmo helps by bringing him into a world similar to the one he already knew.  Elmo also gives Monk a name (John Portland) in true Elmo Freech fashion (he throws a knife at a map).  Monk’s name doesn’t matter for his identity (he has three: Monk, John Portland, and Quicksilver), but the multiplicity of them points to the identity crisis through which he has to work.  The thing about the film is that Monk’s memory recovery doesn’t tie in with the film’s plot.  He just remembers things, and then they move on.  There’s no direct connection between the two story threads as they progress, which is surprising, as that’s the typical template for storylines like this one (and its lack proves why it’s the standard).  The story ties together by happenstance.  I can’t say that it’s a subversion of a trope in this case.  It simply feels like the filmmakers didn’t do it.  No reason.

It's with that in mind that I want to address the film’s story.  From the set up, the audience expects Elmo and Monk to embroil themselves in the case which robbed Monk of his memories.  Nope.  What we get instead is Monk and Elmo bounty hunting, rough housing, working out, and so on.  It’s purely coincidental that any of this leads back to Monk’s origin and the film’s inciting incident.  In fact, the film is loaded with coincidences to the point that the whole thing is just implausible (some scuzzy little jerk the guys pick up just so happens to be related to the drug kingpin who just so happens to be tied in with Monk’s and Elmo’s past).  Further, the story is a straight line with no twists, turns, or big reveals to any of it.  I would suspect that this (some would call it) simplicity is because the producers (this was one of the final efforts from the Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment gang) just wanted enough story to get us from one action scene to the next.  On that level, it works.  On just about every other, not so much.  We never really care whether Monk remembers anything, because there’s nothing to the character before, during, or after his amnesia.  We’re given a hint that Moe and Elmo may have unspoken feelings for each other, but the moment passes after about a second with no follow up.  The CIA, for all its hand wringing over what Monk’s up to, makes a half-assed effort to get him and then just kind of lets him go do his thing.  The action itself is okay.  Honestly, I expected it to be pulled off slicker and more clearly than it is.  The use of handheld camera and some sketchy editing truly detracts from the only thing that makes the film worthwhile.  Both Piper and Blanks do what they do well enough, but that’s pretty much the sum total of Tough and Deadly: well enough.

MVT:  Piper brings what charms he has to the film, and the man knew how to sell a fight for the camera.

Make or Break:  The training montage (aside from being difficult to swallow based on where in the movie it happens) gives the audience a glimpse at the chemistry that Blanks and Piper could have had onscreen but don’t quite.  

Score:  6.25/10