Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ninja Wars (1982)


The 1985 video game The Legend of Kage is one of my favorites of all time.  It’s an extremely simple game: You run around forests and castles, killing monks and ninja with your double blades and shuriken until you’re done.  About as basic a video game premise as you’ll ever get.  I don’t think that I would love it as much as I do had I not seen Kosei Saito’s Ninja Wars (aka Iga Ninpocho aka Death of a Ninja aka Black Magic Wars) a few years prior, because the game bears a lot of the touches that make the film interesting.  The Legend of Kage has firebreathing monks with those face-covering, conical straw hats we’ve seen so very many times.  Its main character isn’t dressed like what Americans back then had become used to as the visual idea of a ninja from such magazines as…well…Ninja.  Kage wears a short tunic, and he has long hair and no mask of which to speak.  All the characters can leap almost the entire length and breadth of the screen.  There’s a princess to be rescued from the evil bosses.  There’s a temple that has to be assailed in order to do this.  The game stands out for its uniquely Japanese fantasy elements, in my opinion.  Sure, there were games that had similar components (if there were a video game trope more profligate than musclebound badasses rescuing someone/taking revenge, it was ninja/martial artists rescuing someone/taking revenge), but none harkened back so specifically to Ninja Wars (and bear in mind, up to that moment in time, I was only familiar with the works of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Shaw Bros) in my adolescent brain to the point that I used to believe/fantasize that the game was adapted from the film (which is itself adapted from a 1964 novel by Futaro Yamada).  And still, the film is one I find extremely difficult to both discuss and to love outside of certain facets.    

Try to follow along.  Evil sorcerer/blank-faced cackler/creepy uncle Kashin Koji (Mikio Narita) prophecies to gormless pawn/power-hungry lord/architect(?) Donjo (Akira Nakao) that whosoever wins the heart of the beautiful Ukyodayu (Noriko Watanabe), who is currently married to the even more gormless Lord Miyoshi (Noboru Matsuhashi), will hold the world in his hands.  Easy enough, right?  Kashin gives Donjo five “Devil Monks” (a blind one, a skinny one, a giant one, a woman one, and an acid-spitting (?) one who looks like the Asian Avery Schreiber) to help him achieve this goal by creating a love potion.  Meanwhile, young ninja in love Jotaro (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Kagaribi (Watanabe in a dual role) profess their love for each other and perfect their ninja clan’s Crescent Dagger Technique.  It turns out, Kagaribi is Ukyodayu’s twin sister (separated because she’s Christian[?]), and she’s kidnapped by the monks so they can extract her tears for the potion.  Killing herself by cutting off her own head, the monks take the head from Donjo’s courtesan/wife (?) Isaribi (Jun Miho), plant it on Kagaribi’s body, and rename her Onibi (also Lady Hellfire).  Things escalate from there.

The primary driving force behind Ninja Wars is the conflict between lust and love.  Donjo lusts for power, and thus, he lusts for Ukyodayu (even though she’s gorgeous, we never quite get the feeling that Donjo is interested in her as anything other than a means to an end).  He built Miyoshi’s castle, and that symbol of power and achievement is the chief characteristic of Donjo’s character.  Donjo is allowed to have sex with Onibi like a blowup doll (thankfully, we never see this to my recollection).  The monks are also filled with lust.  One of them rapes Onibi in order to extract her tears for the love potion.  They test out the potion on one of Donjo’s servants who immediately desires the blind monk, exposes her breasts to him, and leads him upstairs for a quick one (he gladly follows along, toying with her boobs the whole way).  The female monk (I think) disguises herself as Ukyodayu (I think) and seduces Miyoshi in order to ensorcell him.  

Conversely, Jotaro and Kagaribi have a very pure, even chaste, love for each other.  After Kagaribi is killed, this love transfers to Ukyodayu in a damsel in distress kind of way.  It’s their love that generates the tension of the story, and their ultimate decision at the film’s finale is the off-center (but still somehow fitting) punctuation to this expression.  Ukyodayu is the center point between Jotaro’s love and Donjo’s lust (let’s never mind that both men more or less use her as a tool to fulfill their own needs, and even though she chooses Jotaro, there’s no real reason for it other than that he’s the good guy).  Between these two extremes is Shinzaemon (Sonny Chiba), master of the Yagyu Clan.  Shinzaemon knows that Kashin is evil, and anything he orchestrates is “wrong.”  He doesn’t lust for anything other than justice, and he is on the side of the young lovers, because they’re virtuous and because their love is “correct.”  The few times Shinzaemon shows up onscreen, it is to save Jotaro and Ukyodayu’s bacon and encourage them to continue along their righteous path.  Thus, anytime the villains are onscreen, we know we’re likely to get something skanky, and anytime the good guys are onscreen, we know we’re going to get something puppy-love-esque.

There is a religious theme running through the film, focusing on the worthiness of Christianity in much the same way as just about every film dealing with Satanism/the occult does.  The monks, and by association Donjo, are either atheists, Satanists, or pagans (maybe all three from the way they act).  They serve the flagitious Kashin, who is portrayed as a quasi-omnipotent demigod, though it’s never stated that he’s anything more than a very powerful human.  The centerpiece of the film takes place at a Buddhist temple, which the monks attack during some ceremony, burning it to the ground (this culminates, in slow motion, with the head of the giant statue of Buddha crashing to the ground).  So, even Buddhism isn’t sufficient to defeat this evil.  Kagaribi (and, consequently, Jotaro) is a Christian, and she wears a crystal crucifix around her neck.  This crucifix inexplicably transfers to Ukyodayu (There may be two crystal crucifixes; Regardless, I thought Ukyodayu wasn’t raised Christian, but all things considered, this could just as easily be a further statement on the power of Christianity in the film).  The crucifix burns Onibi as she attempts to beguile Jotaro.  Ukyodayu winds up on an actual cross set atop a pyre in Kashin’s netherworld/otherworld, ready to sacrifice herself in fire.  Jotaro’s decision to join her is simultaneously an expression of their love and an expression of the messianic dimension of Christianity.  That this act touches Kashin is a testament to the film’s perspective on the subject, in my opinion.

For as much as there is in this film to admire (and the action sequences are sufficiently large scale, well-photographed, and well-choreographed), it really is a hot mess at the end of the day.  This is the sort of film where characters will decide to do something, ostensibly in order to achieve their goals, but really it’s just to have another weird sequence happen.  None of the characters are interesting other than the monks, and even they are only interesting for their peculiarities.  The plot is a massive game of “Hot Potato” that never pays off.  It only exists to bring the characters in proximity to one another.  Ninja Wars is a labyrinth of a film, its convolutions leading to either dead ends or cliff drops.  And like a rat in a lab maze, the viewer is prompted through the movie with the promise of a piece of cheese at the end.  The only problem is that the egress of the maze just leads to another maze, and any cheese there is to be had is picked up, perfectly by happenstance, at random intervals throughout.  So, you still get some rewards, but you’re never fully satisfied when it’s all done.

MVT:  For all its myriad issues, the inventiveness and insanity of Ninja Wars really needs to be seen to be believed.

Make or Break:  The assault on the Buddhist temple, while admittedly a tad overlong, really is wildly impressive on a variety of levels.

Score:  6.75/10

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Escape from Coral Cove (1986)

A corpse is set off to sea while priest Ming (Fung Woo) performs a ceremony that finishes up with the body of the deceased igniting in flames.  Cut to: some nude chick swimming and coming upon a burnt head floating among the coral (for absolutely no reason other than to display some skin and a little grue; hooray!).  Cut to: Alex (Alex Fong) and Chen-Chen (Yin Cheung Joh) cruising up the coast in Alex’s convertible where they are met en route by a helicopter carrying Chen-Chen’s sister San-San (Elsie Chan) and mutual friend Irene (the truly lovely Yuen-Ching Leung).  The quartet head to the titular cove, do some boating, and are “menaced” by a “monster” (Roy Cheung).

If Terence Chang’s Escape from Coral Cove (aka Tiu Chut San Woo Hoi) owes a debt to a film other than JAWS, it is Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Primarily, both films deal with a group of people who invade a monster’s territory incurring its wrath.  Further, and more importantly, they both feature a monster who falls in love with a woman in a white bathing suit.  The key difference is that Julie Adams didn’t have Donald Duck on her swimwear.  Actually, the key difference is that the Gillman had some personality, whereas the creature in this film (who is also named Roy, coincidentally) has less than none.  Also, the Gillman is one of the greatest monster designs and costumes in the history of cinema, while Roy is just Roy Cheung ambling around with a blank expression and looking like Roy Cheung.  

At any rate, this film deals heavily with lust and sexuality, and it’s set apart into two groups of three characters in this regard.  Alex, Chen-Chen, and San-San are the libidinous side of this equation.  Even though Alex is dating Chen-Chen, he has eyes for pretty much any female that happens to cross his path.  San-San is a large-bosomed floozy (and the film really, really focuses on that descriptor) who flings herself (in an extraordinarily chaste, cocktease sort of way) at Alex at every available opportunity, regardless of whether her sibling is within line of sight or not.  Chen-Chen just wants to have Alex all to herself, as she practically hangs off him like a feather boa.  The salacious nature of these three characters is the source of great friction.  Their concupiscence is the reason why they’re some fairly unhappy characters at heart.  

By contrast, Irene, Roy, and Dak (Louis Kong), the lowly painter who the group come upon and invite to tag along, are the virginal characters that actually drive what little story the film has.  Irene is always bright and sunny, and she always wears white (read: purity, though it is also a color associated with death and mourning in China, interestingly enough).  Further, she doesn’t spend her every waking moment thinking about or trying to engage in sex.  Likewise, Dak is coded as a virgin.  He is unassuming and awkward, and he has no interest in either of the bimbo sisters (okay, he likes checking out San-San’s bust, but that’s perfectly understandable, and he never acts on this anyway).  Roy was a virgin when he died.  While he kills other characters, he can only stare vacuously at Irene, transfixed by her beauty and stymied by his virginity.  This difference between the two groups is summed up by parallel scenes involving CPR.  Chen-Chen bites Alex’s lip in a fit of jealousy while he administers CPR to her.  This is followed by some testicular trauma.  However, before Dak can lay his lips on Irene later in the film, she comes to.  The lechery of the former trio is a source of turmoil and discontent.  The chastity of the latter group is the emotional core of the film, such as it is.  That Roy would kill to get to Irene is the pure expression of this virtue’s value.

Similarly, Escape from Coral Cove deals with class status to some degree, and again, this is divided up into the same two groups of characters.  Alex’s group is affluent.  He has a nice car.  He has a condo in an exclusive development.  He has a sailboat.  San-San has money enough to have a helicopter fly her to his side (under the guise of doing the nice thing of bringing Irene to see Chen-Chen).  Chen-Chen revels blithely in the luxury that her and Alex’s wealth affords them.  Alex despises just about every other character in the film and is unpleasant to all of them, his air of superiority wafting off his scrawny, yellow-speedo-slung body.  Contrariwise, Irene is posited as the humble friend (in terms of monetary status and demeanor).  She has just come back from a couple of years in Canada.  What she did there, we don’t know, but the idea is that she was divorced from the sisters’ lifestyle, becoming a better person while they became worse.  Dak is a lowly manual laborer, and he is included in the shenanigans on a lark.  Roy was a citizen of the fishing village that existed where the posh development now stands.  He was even buried in the cement that formed its foundation, a victim of the callous apathy of the ruling class.  And yet, all of these characters are lower than the white, ultra-privileged people who also live in (and, we can assume, own) the Cove.  Our protagonists crash a pool party where the elite dine on gourmet hors d'oeuvres and sip champagne.  When a blonde cougar makes a pass at Dak (“Hi, handsome!  Let’s be friends, shall we?”), her snobby, ascot-wearing husband has all of them ejected.  The protagonists are good enough to pay for property in Coral Cove, but they’re still considered undesirable by the people who truly control the wealth and power (and there’s a hint of racism to this, though it’s not emphasized overmuch).

All that said, Escape from Coral Cove is neither a very good nor a very enjoyable film.  Discounting the fact that Roy is unimpressive in both his lackluster “ugly” form and his “regular guy” form, the film is little more than home movies chronicling the vacation of people who are, by turns, unappealing and not compelling.  So much of this film is concerned with showing the one-dimensional characters doing beach/seashore activities, one gets the distinct impression that it not only doesn’t give a shit about its supposed monster premise, but also that the whole production was nothing more than an excuse for the cast and crew to go to the beach for a few days and get paid.  Fair play, if you can get away with it, but if you’re going to fuck off at work, you should at least try to make it look like you’re doing your job.

MVT:  Leung has a magnetism about her, and she’s certainly easy on the eye.

Make or Break:  The first glimpse of Roy is prosaic and immediately disheartening.  It’s not enough that he will transform later into a handsome man to make up for how much of a letdown this indifferent makeup is.

Score:  4.5/10

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1982)

Down in Jamaica, Club Elysium hosts an assortment of “characters,” all soaking up the sun and getting into mischief while waiting for the annual Grunion fish fry.  Scuba instructor Ann Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil) loses one of her students to and becomes entangled in a fight against unnatural, flying piranha.  Her husband (Divorced?  Separated?) Steve (Lance Henriksen) is the local police chief who divides his time between investigating the recent rash of grisly deaths and harassing various residents and visitors.  Their son Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin) is a horny teen (I’m of the thinking that the unhorny variety is as rare as hen’s teeth).  And that’s pretty much all you need to know.

Producer/uncredited co-director/co-writer (under the guise of H. A. Milton, along with credited director James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee) Ovidio G. Assonitis had a penchant for ripoffs (and some more original, unique fare; The Visitor, anyone?) that were cheesy as all hell but still had a certain air of legitimacy, because they included genuinely talented Hollywood luminaries onscreen who seemed to have no problems delivering some genuinely godawful dialogue.  Folks like Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, and John Huston would saunter into an Assonitis film, seem to stick around for slightly longer than they actually do (courtesy of some relatively slick editing and pacing), and saunter back out.  In an interview (if I recall, it was in an issue of Fangoria), Assonitis was asked how he got such great actors to appear in his less than auspicious efforts.  The Greek maverick’s response was as honest and forthright (but most importantly, simple) as any of the unabashedly imitative celluloid he produced: “I paid them.”  

Naturally, since he couldn’t afford someone like Fonda for an entire shoot to take on the protagonist role (and the advanced age of some of these actors would have been a little prohibitive considering the physical requirements), that responsibility would fall to younger folks like Henriksen, Bo Hopkins, et al.  What’s interesting in Piranha Part Two is that Henriksen really isn’t the star of the show, as one might expect from his Chief-Brody-esque character.  Ann is the main character here, and she’s actually a fairly strong female protagonist, which I credit to Cameron’s contributions to the screenplay (the man does self-assured, headstrong women better than most).  She’s single-ish, raising and supporting Chris by herself (yeah, Steve makes time for his son, but it’s mostly just checking in with him and being proud that he might be getting laid by the aloofly coquettish Alison [Leslie Graves]).  Ann’s job is one of some authority, requiring both technical knowledge and solid instincts.  Ann propels the plot forward; when she states to Steve that there’s something fishy going on (sorry), he doesn’t believe her, causing her to seek out answers for herself.  She isn’t defined by the men in her life, but she’s still a sexual being, and she sleeps with whom she chooses.  In a genre mostly ruled by Everyman heroes (think: Doug McClure in films like Humanoids from the Deep, and I’m pro Doug McClure), it’s rather refreshing at this point in cinema history to have an Everywoman capable of defeating the Big Bad who isn’t just a Final Girl.

Much like in the first Piranha, the idea of evolution is at play.  In that one, the killer fish were engineered to withstand the cold waters of the rivers of Vietnam.  Here, they’re engineered to fly.  Why?  Because flying piranha.  Though said evolution is man-made like something the Marvel Comics’ character The High Evolutionary might do, it’s still purpose progression (and piranha that can fly certainly have that many more options for dinner).  This notion of evolution branches off into the realm of mating, being (as far as this non-scientist writer knows) the actual course that evolution takes.  There’s the Grunion spawning at the resort, wherein the female tastily-named fish flop themselves up onto the beach to lay their eggs and become inseminated by the males.  Meanwhile, we have such human characters in pursuit of sex as Beverly, the ditzy, soon-to-be-corn-rowed bimbo who desperately flings herself at dorky Leo as soon as she hears that he’s a doctor (those survival instincts kicking in).  Mal, the stuttering chef at the club, gets hoodwinked into feeding co-floozies Loretta and Jai based on the promise of a strenuous ménage à trois.  Ann beds down with scuba student (and possibly more?) Tyler (Steve Marachuk), and Chris, of course, gets a bit of trim from Alison.  Then there is the nameless, faceless couple who get interrupted just prior to bumping uglies as the film opens.  You can argue that the sex in this film has nothing to do with mating or advancing and propagating the species, that in Piranha Part Two, it’s all principally for pleasure (both the audience’s and the characters’), and you would be correct, but like Sinatra crooned, you can’t have one without the other, and this is where it starts.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about this film is that it succeeds despite its one-dimensionality.  Aside from Ann, none of the characters are all that compelling.  The people in films like this are typically set up to be fodder, and that rule remains in effect here.  Cameron and company give us no reason to feel anything when any of them bites it (or gets bitten by it, take your pick).  Where Joe Dante’s original film gave us satirical caricatures, Piranha Part Two simply gives us cartoons, but it still wants us to care about their fates.  The rich boat “captain” that Chris works for is a gormless snob.  Chris and Alison are just hot young hormones on parade (fair enough on that one).  Jai and Loretta are cruel, duplicitous opportunists.  Beverly and Leo are spastic geek.  The hotel manager (in the coveted Larry Vaughn role) is just venal enough to be a dick but not enough to stress what the annual fish fry really, really means for his business.  Gabby (Ancile Gloudon) and his son are local fishermen who ply their trade with dynamite (we know they’re okay, because Steve lets them off for, what I would take to be, a rather serious safety violation).  We get a couple scenes where they show up, but aside from being what I assume is the sole source of dynamite within a twenty-mile radius, they mean nothing to the story despite the death of one of them, which is intended to be solemn and carry some emotional weight (it doesn’t).  Which brings us to Steve, who should have some kind of development in regards to his relationship with his family.  Yet, all Steve does in the story is be somewhat of a condescending asshole to Ann and pat Chris on the head.  Yes, he takes part in the big climax, but honestly, for all that came before with his character, it could have been any one of the others doing what he does.  Nevertheless, Piranha Part Two still manages to be enjoyable up to a point, regardless of its vacuity, partly because it’s well paced, partly because it’s just cockamamie enough for a lark, and partly because it does have Ann as the one shining point around which the rest of it congeals.  It’s not a standout of the Horror/Animals Amok genre/subgenre, but it fits the bill as a harmless diversion.

MVT:  Ann is smart, and sexy, and adept, and O’Neil’s performance sells what could have been rather foolish in the wrong hands.

Make or Break:  The finale is nicely edited, intercutting multiple events and building tension competently.  An abrupt ending undercuts it slightly, but not enough to totally ruin it.

Score:  6.75/10