Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Flash! Future Kung Fu (1983)

Fascism litters the landscape of dystopian cinema.  Everything from 1984 to 1990: The Bronx Warriors deals with government agencies seeking to control every aspect of a country’s economy and populace.  Fascist governments tell us what to do, where to work, how much we get paid, with whom we can associate, what we can do for leisure, etcetera.  This is a fear most people have deep down in their guts, because we recognize that, ultimately, no matter what form of government we say we have, there is always the faint possibility that the leaders of same will suddenly decide that they know what’s good for us better than we do (I mean, obviously, this never happens in real life).  This plays with the concept that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, something with which I do agree.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a future-set story where the government is actually peopled with civil servants who genuinely care about the citizens under them, but the common people still live in a dystopian society (there probably is one somewhere; WALL-E comes close, I guess)?  Of course, we don’t see this because it goes against the simple, black and white, cause and effect we anticipate in a post-apocalyptic/future world.  A beneficent, well-meaning government would only produce a beneficent, prosperous society and vice versa, right?  The old saw of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions rarely rears its unwanted head in these scenarios, and maybe casual audiences (and filmmakers) just don’t want to try to deal with the complexities involved in such a narrative.  Thankfully, Kirk Wong’s Flash! Future Kung Fu (aka Health Warning aka Digital Master aka Da Lui Toi) sticks to the accepted script and gives us a future which is not only dystopian but also one in which the Nazi party has actually made a successful comeback (flags and all).

Yes, the Nazis are in power again, and Kung Fu students like Killer (Lung Wei Wang) constantly train, either at their Kung Fu schools or in “Black Boxing” matches (think: underground fight tournaments), to fight them.  After meeting Monique and Fever, two femmes fatale who extol the virtues of doing drugs and living life like today was your last, Killer must choose between his Master Lau’s (Eddy Ko) naturalistic teachings and getting some.  And maybe beating up some Nazis.

Homoeroticism is alive and well in Flash! Future Kung Fu.  Lau’s students love to hang out together and shower together.  Men are constantly rubbing each other to relieve sore muscles and/or to bring them back to health after getting beaten or overdosing on drugs.  The Nazis seem to have a true fascination with navy blue briefs, because just about every male in their group prances around in them.  Master Lau commands Killer to burn his collection of Playboys (which may not seem that farfetched, but considering the context of the rest of the film…).  The arcade where Monique and Fever hang out features muscle boys posing all over the place.  When Monique offers to give Killer a rubdown, he demurs, then he yells at his buddy for letting her almost see him naked.  When a male character actually has sex with a woman (involuntarily, might I add) it leads directly to his death.  What’s interesting about all this is that it isn’t presented as the Nazis being against homosexuality and the Kung Fu students being for it.  They all seem to embrace it equally.  It’s accepted as just a way of life (it reminds me just a bit of Matt Wagner’s short-lived comic The Aerialist, which posits a world where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is deviant), and it leads directly into one of the other major aspects of the movie.

The main ideological conflict of the film is between the world of science versus the world of traditions.  Seemingly, Monique and Fever were grown in a Nazi lab (there’s no true explanation, as in so very, very much of this film).  The Nazis do drugs constantly, relying on scientific breakthroughs to bring them to new highs (and when that doesn’t work, they’re perfectly fine with pumping carbon monoxide directly into their own cars).  When Killer is shot up with rabies, Master Lau is offered the antidote, but he turns it away, saying it’s “a blasphemy against nature.”  Lau then takes Killer to some herbal medicine guy to get healed.  This healing process, however, is almost as barbaric as the disease and its delivery system.  Killer is rubbed with a fresh, open chicken carcass.  He beheads a snake and drinks its still-pumping blood.  He is bludgeoned with all manner of implements to harden his body.  Lau and company hold that “all-natural” is how everything should be done.  In fact, Lau sends Killer out to knock trees down with an ax as part of his training.  Theoretically, this breaks the opposing sides down further to being body versus mind.  The Nazis believe in strengthening (and enjoying) the body through science/drugs, whereas the students believe in strength through the power of the mind, their force of will.  Unfortunately, this is a distinction which is nebulous in the film, except when the head Nazi declares, “The power of the body is superior to the power of the mind.”  So there.

If my analysis of Flash! Future Kung Fu’s facets appears muddled, that’s because the film itself portrays them in muddled fashion.  Now, from what I understand, the original version of this movie was something much more elaborate and cogent.  It’s also, to the best of my knowledge, considered something of a lost film (which is not all that shocking considering China’s track record on film preservation).  More’s the pity, because this could have been something special.  As it stands, and in the only format I was able to see it (a crappy, pan and scan VHS copy), the film is a mess.  There’s no plot, no characterization, no reasons for why things happen.  In its current form, the movie simply sets you adrift in a succession of scenes, none of which matter, because we have no frame of reference for any of it.  Scenarios and interactions we expect to have some significance go nowhere and mean nothing.  The final twenty-two or so minutes are okay, because it busts out some nice imagery and moments (in a race to prevent something nonsensical which we couldn’t possibly give a shit about because it hasn’t been built up in any way, shape, or form), but it can’t save this puddle from itself.  Here’s a flash: this film is mostly junk.

MVT:  There is some decent production value on screen.  But it’s wasted on this thing.

Make or Break:  The finale.

Score:  4/10         

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bigfoot (1969)

Jasper Hawks (John Carradine) and his feckless poltroon of a partner Elmer (John Mitchum, brother of Robert) tool the backwoods area of (let’s assume) the Pacific Northwest with their carload of tchotchkes and junk.  Meanwhile, Joi (Joi Lansing) is a pilot whose plane crashes in the same mountainous area where she is summarily captured by a Bigfoot.  Also meanwhile, motorcycle enthusiast Rick’s (Chris Mitchum, son of Robert) girlfriend Chris (the fulsomely bestowed, beauteous Judith Jordan) is likewise kidnapped by a Bigfoot.  Chris and Joi are held captive while everyone else does a lot of talking and walking in their search for them.

Robert F Slatzer’s Bigfoot does its damnedest to capitalize on the then-recently released Patterson-Gimlin footage of a Bigfoot sloping around Bluff Creek in Northern California.  Admittedly, the country had gone Bigfoot Crazy, and the beast (and regional variations thereof) swiftly became as much a pop culture icon as it was a figure of myth and speculation (this carries through to today, though in far more cynical fashion).  The first thing that struck me while watching this film was how much it reminded me of 1972’s The Curse of Bigfoot.  The resemblance is not so much in narrative content aside from the subject matter.  While I haven’t seen Curse probably since I was a kid, I clearly recall three things about it.  One, its finale (monster movie endings back then were straightforward).  Two, the monster was discovered wrapped like a mummy in a Native American burial mound.  Three, the monster makeup looked like a giant meatball that someone had dropped into a pile of dog hair and rolled around for a bit, then slapped eyes and fangs on it (and it had a habit of walking directly at the camera as a sort of transitional device).  

Bigfoot shares two of these traits, specifically.  First, the monster makeup is horrible (though, in fairness, better than that in Curse), consisting of an immobile rubber mask and an ill-fitting fur suit.  The kid Bigfoot simply has some black stage makeup around his eyes and nose.  It’s almost sad, really, these yearnings for more Pakuni-esque makeup effects that this thing evokes.  Second, is the creature’s ties to Native American culture and its own tribal structure.  The characters come upon what they take to be an Indian burial ground, but they find a dead Bigfoot in a shallow grave.  Later, a Native American woman, upon hearing of the monster, utters the word “Sasquatch,” thus giving the film a bit of cultural diversity (no, not really).  The Bigfeet are dying off, the same as the Native American tribes had been for a long, long time but had somehow only around this era really become a topic of discussion in pop culture and media in general.  Like the Stick Indians (the more maladjusted version of the Bigfoot legend in Native American mythology), these Bigfeet steal women in order to breed with them.  In essence, they play the role of savages that Native Americans occupied in many a Western.  Of course, all of this takes a back seat to the rip-roaring excitement of walking and talking or getting the latest on Sheriff Cyrus’ (James Craig) love life with Nellie (Dorothy Keller) down at the local store.

Likewise, the film calls back hard to 1933’s seminal King Kong as well as 1740’s Beauty and the Beast (to which Kong also calls back).  In the opening credits, the creature is billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” just like Kong.  After the film’s climax, Jasper laments that “It was Beauty killed the Beast.”  This wouldn’t be so egregious if it weren’t so wrongheaded.  Certainly, comparisons can be made between Jasper and Carl Denham, but the Carradine character is portrayed as avaricious and opportunistic to an almost villainous degree (plus, he’s really mean to Elmer).  Denham, at least as played by Robert Armstrong, had a fatherly, caretaking connection to Ann Darrow, motivating his sometimes-selfless acts in the efforts to rescue her.  Yes, he could be myopic in his lust for fame and fortune, but he wasn’t a total jerk.

What’s intriguing in this movie is the idea of bestiality and sex in general which it puts at the forefront.  Joi and Chris are being held specifically to have sex with the male Bigfoot and carry on its bloodline (Joi somehow intuits this as if she were Jane Goodall).  Further than this, the two actresses’ pulchritude is prominently on display throughout.  By 1969, depictions of sex on screen had become much more graphic, yet Slatzer and company never go the extra mile into pure exploitation.  It feels as though they wanted to have just enough salacious teasing for the teenagers in the audience (which also explains the “biker” angle, and yes, that word should be in quotes with regard to this film) while also being chaste enough that parents could take their families to see it.  Like the beasts in the movie, the audience is allowed to get fired up about the possibilities available for sex in the film but will ultimately be denied the experience, even vicariously.  Add to this the fact that the Bigfeet have no discernible personalities.  They are pure animals, acting on vicious instinct, and this robs the film of any empathy we may have about their plight.  Unlike Kong or the Beast, who formed connections with their captives and made us care about the deep emotions that undo them, the Bigfeet are the proverbial pack of rabid dogs in need of putting down.  But, then, to expect more from this movie is to not understand it.

Slatzer varies scenes shot on location with scenes shot on stage sets.  The country store is perhaps the best lit (in a fake sense) one of its kind ever put on screen.  These staged scenes serve to give the movie the feeling of something made for television.  One can understand this, as indoor sets are far easier to control from a technical perspective, but their insertion here undermines (or augments, depending on your point of view) any of the low budget charm this film could have had.  It’s too sterile, too unnatural.  I can guess why the filmmakers chose to shoot so much filler of people ambling through forests or motorcycling through forests or chatting in forests.  It’s cheap and easy.  But I would surmise that most people would want to see this thing for a little bit of skin (a very little bit) and some Bigfoot action.  Watching actors (even the great Carradine) spout variations on the same theme over and over again with the occasional glimpse of what you’re anticipating feels more like a carny cheat (and maybe Slatzer worked in carnivals, I don’t know) than the buildup and payoff that an audience would actually want.  At least the Patterson-Gimlin footage got it right.  It’s roughly two minutes of what people desire: to have their sense of awe and wonder stoked.  Bigfoot is the equivalent of roughly ninety minutes of moving furniture, and who desires that?

MVT:  The idea isn’t bad.  It just never lives up to the come-on of its advertising.

Make or Break:  The extended scene of Cyrus and Nellie discussing the local goings-on in their neck of the woods about which no viewer in their right mind would give even the slightest shit.

Score:  3/10      

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Neon City (1991)

Man, you never hear anyone talk about the depletion of the Ozone Layer anymore, do you?  Back in the late Seventies through the mid-Eighties, all you heard about was how humans were accelerating its destruction through our love of chlorofluorocarbons (I remember fast food joints like McDonald’s being particularly lambasted for their use of Styrofoam containers for their delicious burgers; And why have they not brought back the McDLT?  That’s right, because it was useless).  Everyone was petrified that the holes in the Ozone Layer were going to kill us all like the Eye of God opening wide to annihilate us and our evil ways.  But these days, almost no one ever brings it up.  Maybe this is because the erosion has slowed because we changed our ecological policies (though someone please tell me how mandating that all lightbulbs be replaced with ones that contain mercury gas was a good idea [yes, I know that some of them don’t have it, but how many people do you know who actually read the packaging before buying them?]).  Maybe it’s because we’re all caught up with Global Warming as the eco-disaster du jour, and the Ozone Layer just gets swept into this bin.  Or maybe it’s because Monte Markham’s Neon City has already shown us what the Ozone’s obliteration would actually be like, and we’re mostly okay with that.

Harry Stark (Michael Ironside) is an ex-Ranger-turned-bounty-hunter who scours the Outlands picking up and picking off perps.  Capturing super-wanted criminal Reno (Vanity), Stark is forced to escort her up North to the titular metropolis aboard Bulk’s (Lyle Alzado) camper-turned-transport.  Alongside a microcosm of characters, Stark weathers the travails of the post-apocalyptic world, but what’s waiting for them in Neon City may not be what they expected (but it mostly is).

As the film opens, it feels like a typical post-apocalyptic movie.  The land is barren.  Everyone dresses like a Tusken Raider auditioning for Duran Duran’s “Union of the Snake” video.  People have been reduced to their basest needs for survival.  Once Stark and Reno get to Jericho Station, however, Neon City becomes a remake of John Ford’s Stagecoach.  This is no real surprise.  Stagecoach has been remade and stolen from a nigh-infinite amount of times.  I know that Neon City is compared to the Mad Max films, but that’s a tenuous connection in my mind and the default comparison for post-apocalyptic movies.  No, this is Stagecoach.  Granted, the characters don’t fit one-to-one between the two films, but they’re certainly similar enough.  So, Stark and Reno, together, are the Ringo Kid character.  Stark is the antihero, and Reno is the outlaw being taken to face justice in Lordsburg.  Further, Stark has a grudge he needs to settle once he reaches his destination.  Sandy (Valerie Wildman) is the hooker with the heart of gold a la Dallas, though she isn’t ostracized.  She also has a past with Stark that illuminates how she got where she is.  Twink (Juliet Landau) is the Lucy character, and if anyone is treated rather coolly in the group it is her, due to her moneyed status (she has a book [by Agatha Christie], a rarity in this world).  Bulk is, naturally, Buck, and Alzado plays it with almost enough charm to at least get his feet inside of Andy Devine’s shoes.  The other three characters, Dickie (Richard Sanders), Dr. Tom (Nick Klar), and Wing (Sonny Trinidad) have aspects of the remaining Stagecoach characters in them.  Markham gives them all some distinction and adds in original touches of back story and motivation, though they don’t feel nearly as solid as in Ford’s film.  Instead, they feel like characters.  Oddly, it’s enough for this film.

One could ask the question, “why neon?”  Cinema depicting the future is rife with the stuff, because it looks futuristic (never mind that neon signs were basically invented circa 1917).  More than this, however, is that it is bright, colorful.  In the context of this film, it is upbeat.  It symbolizes hope, and hope is something which the vast majority of post-apocalyptic films embrace.  After all, the worst has already supposedly happened, so the struggle for survival against the brutality of this new world has to lead to some kind of positive.  Even when the protagonists of such films can’t (or won’t) partake in this hope (Snake Plissken in Escape from New York or Max in the Mad Max films [who, more often than not, plays the role of Moses, leading a persecuted people to safety but is not allowed to enter the Promised Land himself]), even when they act aloof and self-serving, they will always do the right thing and protect others.  Stark does his damnedest to be disassociated, but the script keeps giving him feelings.  While he takes charge, he trusts in Reno enough to uncuff her.  His past with Sandy is an open wound about which he doesn’t mind playing passive-aggressive.  He strikes up a romantic relationship culminating in a gentle love scene.  The problem is that, for this kind of film and this kind of character, it works better for them not to say anything.  Ironside can certainly act well enough that he shouldn’t need to do and say the things he does, but the filmmakers either didn’t trust in their talent or their audience enough to take that risk.  

This goes across the board for the film.  It wants to give depth to its characters, but it wants to do it in nothing but broad, melodramatic strokes.  It wants to give us action, but it doesn’t know how to block, shoot, and edit it in a dynamic, organic fashion (this, more than anything else, really lets its budget show through).  Its pacing is uneven, with dramatic sequences stretching on far too long and action sequences stacked one on top of another, so they bleed into each other and feel contrived and forced.  It wants to show us that this world is fucked, but it wants to give its heroes a smiley ending.  I think that Neon City is better than its reputation would lead you to believe (assuming it has much of a reputation outside of IMDb user reviews), but I also think that its flaws keep it from being a diamond in the rough.  More like a seed in the fertilizer.

MVT:  The cast is solid, and they do what they can with the material.

Make or Break:  The scene where the transport passes through a Bright (see the movie, if you want to get the reference).  It is one of the few well-balanced beats in the whole movie and proof of what this could have been.

Score:  6/10