Wednesday, July 26, 2017

American Chinatown (1996)

When I lived in Philadelphia, my roommate and I were heavily into Hong Kong cinema (or, at least, we thought we were; there were enthusiasts who eclipsed us, then and now).  The Western world was just getting on the Woo, Lam, etcetera bandwagon, and we were no different.  Of course, we had both seen plenty of martial arts films when we were young (giving us an appreciation and a love for the works of filmmakers like Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-leung, and so on), but these new(er) films were something altogether different.  Sure, the plots and characters were relatively the same.  The difference lay in the technical aspects.  The camerawork was kinetic and inventive, while still clearly telling a story, and the stunt work was on another level.  They felt insane and viscerally real at the same time.

Now, I had heard of Keith Li’s Centipede Horror from one of the grey market VHS catalogs I had sent away for (remember those?), and it seemed right up my alley.  After all, it was a horror movie, no?  It’s right there in the title.  My roommate and I went on down to Chinatown and opened an account at a small, Chinese video/grocery store (around the area of the Trocadero on Arch Street, but I’m not totally clear on the exact location, not that it matters all that much).  The first two tapes we rented that day were Stanley Tong’s Swordsman 2 and Centipede Horror.  We both loved Swordsman 2 (despite those weird scenes of the characters singing like they were doing whip-its all day long), but I don’t think we made it more than thirty minutes (if that) through Centipede Horror before we popped the tape out.  The film was grotty and dumb and made little to no sense.  See, we were used to only a portion of Asian cinema, and this was everything that was not.  Having now immersed myself a bit more in the multitude of Asian cinema offerings, I’ve always meant to revisit Centipede Horror to see if there’s anything redeeming about it.  I do not, however, need to ever rewatch Richard Park’s (aka Woo-sang Park) American Chinatown because I now know how little redemptive value it has.

Lily (Liat Goodson) is the victim of an attempted gang rape, but the cholos attempting it are thwarted and roughed up by Yong (Tae-joon Lee, billed here as simply Taejoon, as if he were Taimak or Gerardo [both apt descriptors]).  As their love sort of blossoms, Yong goes about his gang business under the leadership of fellow one-time orphan (what is with Park and orphans, anyway?) Eric (Robert Z’Dar).  But Yong’s twin paths come into direct conflict with each other, and only one can be followed to happiness (or something, in theory).

Park’s Miami Connection is a film which has recently been rediscovered, resurrected, and regaled by hipsters, cult cinema lovers, and trash junkies the world over.  It’s fun because, even when it’s being serious, there’s a level of naïve optimism (sure, the members of Dragon Sound were all “orpans,” but they were also the members of Dragon Sound, a band whose enthusiasm and subject matter make The Wiggles look like G.G. Allin) that’s infectious.  The same cannot be said for American Chinatown.  This film is self-serious and cloyingly melodramatic while toying with the tropes of badass cinema (most particularly Heroic Bloodshed films) which it doesn’t completely understand.  Yes, there are plenty of fights, and these, at least, are handled well enough in the choreography department.  Park, thankfully, also shoots many of these scenes wide enough to see what’s going on and to appreciate the physical talents of the performers.  Where Park fails is in creating empathy for his characters and in crafting believable (even for a film like this) interpersonal moments and relationships between said characters (not good in a movie which relies upon them so heavily).  Some examples of the choice dialogue.  “You don’t want a guy like me!”  “College frat boys don’t turn you on anymore?”  “Why are you doing this to me?”  “You’re my only hope and dream.”  All of this is delivered with the conviction of a dish rag (though Z’Dar does an admirable job working with nothing, as usual).  I should stop there.  I don’t want people to get the wrong idea and want to see this movie (I suspect there are those who would want to, regardless).

Nearly every scene in American Chinatown could (and maybe should) start with a title card reading, “Suddenly…!”  The movie opens like a case of whiplash with the three cholos (I kept thinking of Mike Muir from Suicidal Tendencies; Sorry, Mike) already well into their assault on Lily.  Suddenly…!  Yong appears out of nowhere to save the day.  Suddenly…!  Yong battles two urban samurai types and a kabuki guy.  For no reason I could discern and with no impetus for this encounter.  Yong is stabbed in the guts.  Suddenly…!  He’s living on a boat somewhere, and God only knows how much time has passed.  Yong beats villain Wong (Sung-Ki Jun).  Suddenly…!  He’s attacked by two other henchmen (this is not the order in which things are done, Mr. Park), who may be the samurai guys he fought before, maybe not.  The entirety of this film is just pieces thrown together like this.  But if I want to watch random stuff for a couple of hours, I can go on Youtube.  At least there I could get suggestions for other videos that might be of interest.

The males in this film are very, very male, indeed.  Yong always kicks first, asks questions later.  He always wears sunglasses, indoors and out, day or night.  He’s meant to be a real cool cat, but he comes off like a flipping jerk.  Eric talks and acts like a kid playing at tough guy.  He’s also wishy-washy, though this isn’t because he’s volatile; the writing is just bad.  Wong and his goons are as unmemorable as you can get.  They show up every few minutes for a fight scene, and that’s it.  Jim (Bobby Kim) comes close to having something to do as a mentor to Yong and a foil for Eric, but he, too, ultimately plays like just another sad sack.  And then there’s poor Lily.  Jane (Kathy Collier) in Miami Connection was an ancillary character (think the Daphne to Dragon Sound’s Scooby Gang), but she was still a more active part of that film than Lily is here.  Lily exists solely to look good, be sexually assaulted by men, and be saved by Yong.  There’s one excruciatingly implausible “subplot” involving her “sisterly” relationship with Eric (and how in the hell do Yong and Lily not realize that they both know Eric if they’re both supposed to be so goddamned close to him?), but it blows in the wind like everything else interesting in this film might have done but didn’t.  It’s tough for me to decide what’s worse, watching American Chinatown or watching a mouthful of centipedes spew out of people’s mouths.  But I definitely know which way I’m leaning.

MVT:  The fight scenes are okay.  And plentiful.

Make or Break:  The opening scene is jarring, confusing (at first), and surreal in the suddenness with which everything happens.

Score:  4/10

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Diary of a Lady Killer (1969)


I tried to keep a diary for a while, way back when (men call them “journals,” damn it!).  It was, essentially, a five-subject notebook, not the sort of leather-bound, classy tomes you see in films like Ko Nakahira’s Diary of a Lady Killer (aka Lie Ren aka The Seductive Accounts of a Hunter aka My Amorousness Ruins My Life).  The thoughts I had at that time were what you would expect from a guy in his early twenties.  That is, a couple of interesting insights/ideas and then a whole lot of grousing, garbage, and emotionalizing.  Re-reading it, even then, it was painful, and I completely don’t regret shredding the whole damned thing.  Sometimes, one’s musings are better left in one’s head, to come and go like a prostitute’s trick (a crass analogy, yes, but apropos, nonetheless).  Sometimes, what you have on your mind is mundane and only interesting to you in the moment because you’re exorcising some tiresome demon.  Sometimes, keeping a diary will only help get you convicted of a crime, as is the case in this film. 

Lin Qiuhua, at the end of her rope (insert rimshot here), flings herself from her upper floor apartment to a spectacular dummy death on the pavement below.  Her sister, Lin Hongzhu (Ha Yee-Chau), suspects foul play, since Qiuhua was six months pregnant at the time of her death, and she had only slept with one stranger six months back.  Enter said stranger, Zhou Guoxiong (Han Chin), a womanizer engaged to Su Xiulan (Fang Ying), a society deb recently returned from Japan.  And then there’s Li Donghai (Wu Fung), an associate of Zhou’s who pines for Su just to complicate matters as Zhou’s former flings start turning up dead.

Diary of a Lady Killer is, first and foremost, Shaw Bros’ stab at a Hitchcockian thriller, and it has all the basic ingredients for this and then some.  There is a slow build of components (perhaps a bit too slow) that are revealed to drop another puzzle piece into place (in a puzzle that is fully assembled to start off).  There is a level of misogyny at play, and Nakahira delivers on some skin as Hitchcock wouldn’t be able (but really, really always wanted) to do until Frenzy in 1972.  There are shots laying out the machinations going on against Zhou, attempting to ratchet up tension.  Most importantly, there is the Wrong Man trope in which Hitchcock specialized.  Zhou is being set up for a fall, and it’s intriguing to watch the aligning of these elements against him (most clever is a bit where a straw broom drops onto his face, scratching his cheek like a woman’s fingernails would).  This being said, Zhou is also a patsy in the most reactive way possible.  These things happen to him, he knows they’re happening, but he does nothing to stop/prevent them, and he’s taken out of the narrative for much of the back third so Su can try to exonerate him.  This wouldn’t be so bad, in and of itself, if any attention had been paid to Su up to this point.  Instead, the film focuses primarily on Zhou and his horndogging escapades, none of which cast him in even a slightly sympathetic light.  Consequently, one couldn’t care less whether he’s railroaded by a false accusation and sent to prison.  I suppose in some way this is meant to be his penance for the way he treats women, but it’s difficult to give a shit whether or not this character is redeemed.  

Yes, as we all know, men are pigs, and this film does its level best to underline this while simultaneously playing to the men in the audience and tickle their libidos.  The opening credits are a series of women in colorfully stylish boudoir settings and various states of undress.  When these women aren’t posing seductively for the camera, the camera is focusing on different naked (sometimes even tastefully photographed) body parts of theirs (alongside frisky kittens; surely, not a metaphor for anything).  When Zhou can’t get Su to give it up for him (she’s waiting for marriage), he instantly dumps her, heads off to a bowling alley, and picks up the first single woman he sees there (totally not skanky).  These flings are manipulations for Zhou.  He claims to have physical needs that MUST be satiated.  Fair play, but he also treats these women like things because things are all they are to him (any port in a perpetually raging storm, so to speak).  Thus, he lies to all of them, giving each a different name or occupation.  When they say they would like to see him again, he agrees and then blows them off (at least once actually showing up to see if the woman is gullible enough to wait for him).  Zhou’s life, what we’re shown of it, is little more than a quest for power fueled by lust.  This could be interesting if any of this had consequences outside of how it fucks over Zhou’s life, but the women in these scenes are merely warm (soon to be cold) bodies, and the scenes don’t build as anything other than a daisy chain of conquests repeated over and over for the express purpose of trying to be a little sleazy.  The film simply spends far too much time detailing these filler encounters (skirting close to being porn without the porn).  While they are important to the main point of the movie (narratively and exploitatively), they swiftly become repetitive, and the viewer is left only with the desire for the plot to move the hell along, already. 

Zhou and Li, the two main males in the film are sociopaths.  They ritually display callous indifference for others throughout the film.  But they have an excuse, and her name is Su.  In Zhou’s diary, aside from depicting the various chicks he’s laid, he includes a statement intended specifically for his fiancée.  Basically, he says that, gosh, he really does love Su and wants to spend his life with her, but her reticence to bang him is what forced him to find other outlets for his concupiscence.  Sure, love is all about spirituality between two people, but it’s also about physical enjoyment, and clearly, the latter trumps the former.  It’s such a dickheaded rationalization for dickheaded behavior, but, naturally, Su buys it lock, stock, and barrel, because the film doesn’t actually give a shit about her.  Likewise, Li looms around Su constantly, desperate to pick up Zhou’s scraps and eager to profess his more earnest love for her.  It’s no surprise, then, when he just can’t help trying to take advantage of a drunken Su after Zhou has been taken out of the way.  Li and Zhou are two sides of the same shitty coin, the only difference between them being that Zhou will fuck anything that moves while waiting for Su to come around, while Li will kill (it’s insanely obvious who the bad guys in the film are from the outset) anything that Zhou fucks while waiting for Su to come around.  And that’s what Diary of a Lady Killer is: killing time waiting for some fucking satisfaction.

MVT:  The film’s premise is solid.  It’s just poorly handled.

Make or Break:  By Zhou’s second pickup, it becomes clear that the film is more interested in these fantasies than it is in what story it has.

Score:  3/10        

Monday, July 17, 2017

Two Undercover Angels (1969)

Directed by: Jesus Franco
Run Time: 78 minutes

Acid jazz, a werewolf, 60's pop art, dead models, incompetent cops,  and a pair of beautiful and deadly private investigators. Welcome to weird world of Jesus Franco and his equally weird movie Two Undercover Angels. Without further stalling let's dive into the weird world of Jesus Franco and his out there creation.

The story open at a fashion show were one of the runway models is being encouraged to spend some time with a generous patron, a Mister Radeck. The model thinks this request while changing out of the wedding dress she was modeling.  Unfortunately for her she loses track of time and finds herself alone at the venue. Things get worse when she comes across the henchman Morpho. Morpho is mute and rocking a Lon Chaney Jr. wolf man look. He molests and kidnaps the model for his boss, the mysterious homicidal artist Klaus Thriller, who photographs her last moments of life while Morpho violently kills her.

The focus shifts to an eclectic art gallery were the murdered model has been painted as garish pop art portrait. The gallery owner, Napoleon Bolivard (Jesus Franco), is investigating the noise from his gallery. He get knocked out by a woman dressed as a dominatrix and she finishes stealing the garish portrait. This is Diana, one half of the Red Lips private investigators criminal  enterprise. Currently they are investigating the rash of dancers and models who  have disappeared mysteriously for two clients. The first client being a pair of inept police officers who  need their help and who also want to arrest them. The second client is Mr Radeck, who is desperate to know the fate of the model from the beginning of the movie.

The women's investigating strategy consists of trying to get Thriller's artwork and talking about how to  solve the mystery before them while wearing lingerie or bikinis. Overall the duo are successful in getting the portrait and a statue of a woman that also  looks similar to one of the missing women. However this leads to Napoleon and another gallery employee being killed by Thriller. On the grounds that Thriller wants his homicidal art available for all to see.

With another session of talking out what to do next in their bikinis it's decided that Diana should go to one of the bars were dancers have disappeared from. Through the power of plot contrivance, Dianna meets Thriller and makes the stupid mistake of going to his place. If not for Regina, Dianna's partner in crime, Dianna would have been Thriller's next masterpiece. Later back at their headquarters and no clue how to advance the investigation, our heroines get into their thinking bikinis. However the plot has other ideas and delivers a bouquet of flowers with a bomb in it. Acting quickly the deadly bouquet is thrown in the pool just in time for the drive by shooting to happen. Avoiding being shot at, our heroines go to Morocco to get a tan and solve the case.

The movie has weird fever dream logic to it. Unlike some of his other films, this one has a plot that can be followed with a few needless tangents. Franco's different views on women, power, and sexuality are on display in this movie but no where as extreme as in Blue Rita or The Girl From Rio. In short, if you are looking for a crazy cinematic ride this is a good movie to start that journey on. The movie is available on DVD and Blu Ray.

MVT: This clip even made the trailer, that how insane it is. The two detectives book a hotel room using the name James Bond. The rational behind this is their names would make them sound like cops but booking a room under the name of the world's most dangerous ornithologist would allow them to blend in.

Make or Break: The only acid jazz go go bar in Spain scene made this movie for me. Mostly because the idea of splicing in Austin Powers would be funny and not change the tone of the film any.

Score: 5.3 out of 10

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Free Hand for a Tough Cop (1976)

Notorious hood Brescianelli (Henry Silva) kidnaps a young girl with a kidney problem, and the eponymous tough cop, Antonio (Claudio Cassinelli), is given the titular free hand to track him down.  To that end, he busts former Brescianelli associate Sergio Marazzi (Tomas Milian), also known as Garbage Can/Monnezza, out of prison.  In turn, the duo enlists the help of three other hardened criminals, Calabrese (Biagio Pelligra), Vallelunga (Giuseppe Castellano), and Mario (Claudio Undari).  Time is running out.

Uneasy allies are nothing new in cinema, especially in the realm of Poliziotteschi.  Having them be cops and criminals is perhaps the clearest way of juxtaposing their differences and generating instant tension.  Likewise, it’s also the most expedient way of emphasizing their similarities.  Antonio is a cop in the Dirty Harry mold.  He was transferred to Sardinia because he’s so rough in performing his duties.  He’s brought back to Rome specifically for this case because he’s such a hardass.  The police can’t handle the situation playing strictly by the book.  In his first meeting with Monnezza, Antonio knocks the man out and kidnaps him.  Antonio is quick with his gun and his fists.  Procedure does not suit him.  He cajoles the trio of train robbers into helping him (he doesn’t tell them he’s a cop at first, and when he does, their commonalities make it almost a non-issue).  He allows a couple of jerks to rob a movie theater, with Vallelunga stating they’re “just kids having fun” (don’t worry, Antonio catches up to them later).  He also has no misgivings about letting Calabrese and his boys tote guns around Rome, shooting the place up and brutalizing everyone in their path.  At one point, Antonio leaves the sleazy Mario alone with a housekeeper, and the baddie is knee deep in raping her before Antonio stops him (and even this is practically accidental).  Further, he’s angrier with Mario for killing a person of interest than for attempting to rape an innocent woman.  Antonio is, in effect, the same as the crooks with whom he aligns himself.  Both sets are doing what they do, and they do it without hesitation, and what they do is basically the same (earn a living being thugs).  The only separation between guys like Antonio and worse criminals like Brescianelli is that Brescianelli is completely heartless.  Yes, all of them are willing to kill to get what they want, but only Brescianelli and his crew would stoop to endangering a child.  Everything else is fair game.

Monnezza is the outlier in the group.  He wants nothing to do with any of them, constantly complaining about the situation in which he finds himself.  Nevertheless, he’s also the hero of the piece, moreso than Antonio.  It’s Monnezza who finally finds the girl and prevents her death at Brescianelli’s hands.  Monnezza is a trickster character, a performer who lulls everyone around him into a state of ease.  His role as an actor is accentuated by his appearance or, I should say, appearances.  His hair is a massive afro, in combination with his scraggly beard, making him look like a bum.  He wears guy liner (or Milian just has incredibly dark, lush eyelashes), giving him a flamboyant air.  Monnezza also loves to appear in costume to deceive his enemies.  He dresses up like a telegram delivery boy, a priest, and a shepherd, to name just three, so he can either gain entry or information from people.  But underneath this, Monnezza is most assuredly a schemer and a man to be taken seriously.  After his brother is unsuccessfully targeted by Brescianelli, Monnezza pays a late night visit to the man who fingered him.  He plays a game with the guy, offering him two glasses of milk, one regular, one poisoned.  Yet even this is a pretense by Monnezza.  Outwardly playing the boisterous clown, he is shrewder than all the other characters in the film put together.

What I think marks Umberto Lenzi’s Free Hand for a Tough Cop (aka Il Trucido e lo Sbirro) as a superior Poliziotteschi is its self-consciousness.  People who don’t know better will think they have accidentally sat down for a Spaghetti Western, as the film opens with scenes from one (to the best of my knowledge, neither directed by Lenzi nor starring Milian, funny enough).  The film’s soundtrack even blares out a Spaghetti Western theme, and the title credits font is pure Spaghetti Western.  Only after a little over a minute of cowboys blazing hellbent for leather through Monument Valley are we shown that this is actually a film being shown to a bunch of convicts.  There is a shot of the film projector itself which holds for several seconds.  What Lenzi is saying, in other words, is that the crime story you’re about to watch is as much of a fantasy as the romantic, mythologized Old West of the cinema.  To that end, the characters and plot are generic (with the exception of Monnezza, the only one who understands that this is all a story, all bullshit, and unimportant except for his role to play in it).  By this time, audiences had seen enough Clint Eastwoods and Charles Bronsons and Maurizio Merlis to get the shoot first, ask questions later method of street justice with which this film is saturated.  This is also the reason why Silva’s Brescianelli is such a rattlesnake-mean son of a bitch.  The very act of casting Silva, having appeared in plenty of Eurocrime films by this point, is sufficient to flesh out anything and everything an audience needs to understand the character.  Free Hand for a Tough Cop is a puppet show, its genre being the stage, its characters the puppets.  But it’s Monnezza who pulls their strings, and it’s Lenzi who pulls Monnezza’s.

MVT:  The film’s self-awareness is its distinguishing factor.

Make or Break:  The full flavor of the film is captured within its opening minutes.  It is equal parts disorienting and engaging.

Score:  7.5/10