Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sodoma's Ghost (1988)

Nazis make the perfect monsters.  Steven Spielberg has often said this is the reason why he used them more than once in his Indiana Jones films.  They are the embodiment of cruelty, of hatred, of everything that normal, decent people are against.  Further, they allow for a higher (or lower, perspective depending) level of transgression in narratives.  After all, these are people who tortured and murdered millions of human beings for nothing more than the circumstance of their birth.  Depicting the fictitious shenanigans they can get up to feels somehow grimier while also being far easier to believe because of this.  

Sure, there are films which gave their Nazi characters some nuance, tried to make them, if not sympathetic, then at least more well-rounded.  But Nazis function best when they are pure villains.  Pairing them together with attributes of actual monsters just makes them more intriguing.  This is why films like Shock Waves or Hellboy or Outpost work as well as they do (to whatever degree).  This is not to say that they always work.  There are enough Nazi Monster movies that fall flat to make this sub-genre a truly mixed bag (See Oasis of the Zombies, if you doubt).  It’s rather surprising, considering Italy’s rich tradition of Nazisploitation films that they didn’t churn out more of them that added in supernatural components.  But if Lucio Fulci’s Sodoma’s Ghost (aka The Ghosts of Sodom aka Il Fantasma di Sodoma) is any stick by which to measure, maybe that’s for the best.

Six teen jerks (let’s assume they’re American for the sake of convenience) dick around in the French countryside until they wind up at an old villa.  Holing up there for the night, they soon find more than a few surprises waiting for them, not least of which is the fact that the manse played host to an ill-fated Nazi orgy forty-five years earlier.  And the revelers still want to party.

Roger Ebert’s film glossary defines the Dead Teenager Movie as “a generic term for any film primarily concerned with killing teenagers, without regard for logic, plot, performance, humor, etcetera.”  Part of the genius of the Dead Teenager Movie is that (when done right) it makes us want these kids dead.  We watch for the kills.  This is why the virginal female character is typically the Final Girl.  She is virtuous, nice, even bland, but she is worth more to the human race than the remainder of the characters surrounding her.  The rule of thumb with this sort of film is that, if characters do drugs or have sex, they are marked for death.  I could see going one step further (or maybe just putting a little shading on it).  The reason these kids are lined up for death stems from their sense of entitlement.  The majority of times, these are people who behave like the world owes them something, and, goddammit, they’re gonna take it all.  This is why they indulge their every whim like they do.  They don’t care, because they deserve to be allowed to be reckless (the converse argument can be made that this recklessness is from the natural maturation process, and their slaughter is a stymieing of this, a way for youth to be kept in check, but I like my theory more).  With this in mind, the Ugly Americans of this film break into a house they were not invited into, because they are due a roof over their heads rather than having to rough it for their bad decisions.  They eat food and drink wine that doesn’t belong to them, because it’s available, not because they earned it or even plan to pay for it.  They make themselves at home and snoop through the entirety of the estate, because they have no regard for other people’s stuff.  They are takers.  This is much like the Nazis and their orgy.  The Nazis took advantage of every vice they could get their grubby, little dick-beaters on because they were “The Master Race.”  They were entitled to it.  Both the Nazis and the teenagers in the film are punished for hubristic narcissism far more than for acting on their baser impulses.

It’s well-known that the Nazis had a penchant for documenting, in gruesome detail, all of their atrocities.  This translates into Fulci’s film in two ways.  During the prologue, young, rat-stache-having Nazi, Willy (Robert Egon), stumbles around the party with a film camera, gleefully recording everything around him.  At several points, he aims his camera in direct address to the audience, as if he were filming us.  We are partakers in the orgy.  We are enjoying the flesh, sweat, and depravity as much as the Germans, because this is a part of why we are watching this movie in the first place.  Willy’s film is (magically?) developed and screened for the participants (I assumed that same evening, since there’s no separation of time, direct or indirect).  They watch the things we also watched, while we were also being watched.  Moreover, the teenagers that infest the house also engage in this act of looking and self-reflexivity.  As they are separated and “attacked,” each is shown a mirror through which they see their innermost desires and/or selves revealed while being watched by what’s on the other side (the fact that this is done via mirror goes to my point about narcissism, though far more overtly in this case).  Mark (Joseph Alan Johnson) is horny and inebriated, so he sees a naked woman enticing him to the point that he plays Russian Roulette to get her.  Anne (Teresa Razzaudi) sees Willy and is seduced by the promise of rough sex she would never tell anyone she secretly wants.  Predatory lesbian Maria (Luciana Ottaviani aka Jessica Moore) sees her heart’s desire, Anne, getting hot and heavy with Celine (Maria Concetta Salieri), causing a fit of jealous rage.  Everyone in Sodoma’s Ghost, including the viewer is watching and being watched, partaker and partaken.  

Anyone who hears the name Lucio Fulci in association with this movie might get a little excited to check out one of his lesser known works.  Don’t be.  This film is a mess from front to back, technically, stylistically, and logically (I realize few people watch Fulci’s films for their logic, but the best of them have some internal sense of it that they follow to some extent or another).  The use of handheld camera is out of control and sloppy, even when it’s motivated.  The editing is disjointed (the best example of this is a sexual rendezvous between two characters that ends abruptly and is followed by a scene where one of the characters despairs that his sex partner turned into a monster, which we are deprived of seeing entirely; I get that there was no budget for this thing, but come on).  Outside of the grating characters, the shit dialogue, the turgid melodrama, the plank-like acting, is the ultimate discovery that there is absolutely nothing threatening about anything that happens (with one exception), and these grabassers just spent eighty-four very long minutes of YOUR life learning diddly-shit other than that they should just continue with their tour of France as if all of this never happened.  I guarantee you, if you watch Sodoma’s Ghost, you’ll wish you could continue with your life as if it never happened, as well.

MVT:  It’s the obvious co-winners of the copious female nudity and some decent gross-out effects.

Make or Break:  The finale and denouement are just infuriatingly unsatisfying.

Score:  2/10

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Death Before Dishonor (1987)

There is no way in Hell I can talk about Terry Leonard’s Death Before Dishonor without discussing the greatness that is Stephen J Cannell’s Hunter (I know, so jejune, right?).  Back when cop/private dick shows were fun, more than a little exploitive, and downright formulaic, Hunter hit an eleven-year-old me right in the kisser.  The true beauty of the show (outside of Cannell’s stylistic thumbprints) was the dual charm of its leads.  Stepfanie (I still can’t get used to that spelling of her name) Kramer was fiery brunette Dee Dee McCall who launched a thousand pubescent you-know-whats.  She was equal parts feminine and steely, sexy and flinty.  To this day, she is one of my all-time favorite female cop leads, and not simply because of her sex appeal (Mitzi Kapture, I’m also looking at you).  Of course, as befits this specific review, the other half of this dynamic duo was Fred Dryer as Detective Rick Hunter.  The character is a total Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry pastiche, but Hunter had a bigger heart and even, perish the thought, just a bit more charisma than Callahan.  Dryer, a former defensive end in the NFL, had a gruff but endearing (apologies for the cliché) magnetism that translated well to the screen.  I watched this show religiously, something I couldn’t say about Cannell programs like Riptide or Hardcastle & McCormick (though I definitely could for Stingray, 21 Jump Street, and Wiseguy).  Hunter had some harsh storylines, and the characters got put through their paces.  The episode I loved the most was “Dead or Alive,” which starred Wings Hauser as a cowboy-outfitted bounty hunter with a nasty streak wider than Hunter and McCall’s combined.  I recall it distinctly because it may very well have been the first time I saw a “good guy” kill a villain on a television show (I may be misremembering this, but I don’t believe so, otherwise it may not have been as impactful).  I’m truly surprised that Dryer’s acting career never really took off like some of his contemporaries (maybe he came into the action genre just a little too late, who knows?), though films like this one give plenty of evidence that even an actor as likable as Dryer can only raise some material up to a certain level.

Dryer plays the gruff but endearing (I am going to run this motherfucker into the ground now) Gunnery Sergeant Burns, an old Devil Dog trying to teach his young pups some new tricks.  Burns is picked by his mentor Colonel Halloran (Brian Keith) to lead his security detail in the (fictitious) Middle Eastern country of Jemal, where they run afoul of “Freedom Fighter” Abu Jihad (Rockne Tarkington, Black Samson himself) and his army of terrorists.

These types of action setups can be tricky to pull off.  Burns is a career SNCO (Staff Non-Commissioned Officer), and this doesn’t naturally lend itself to a film that needs to be cartoonish for the sake of the genre’s fans.  What this means is that Burns will have to go rogue at some point, all the more to satisfy the audience, but the script seems to not want to let him go full Rambo/Braddock/etcetera.  The filmmakers eventually let him cut loose, but he is, always and forever, a starched shirt (one could argue that this is an example of how “We” are superior to “They”).  The sort of antagonist in the picture also needs some distinction, because terrorists tend to be faceless masses until they distinguish themselves individually.  While the caricature-esque Jihad (literally “Holy War”) provides a nice physical threat for the towering Dryer, the true villains of the piece, the spotlight hogs, are the Teutonic Maude Winter (Kasey Walker) and Gavril (Mohammad Bakri).  Both are icy in demeanor, reptilian in their methods, and as hand-wringingly arch as Snidely Whiplash ever was.  Nothing that comes out of their mouths isn’t laced with menace.  They have a purpose.  They believe in what they do.  But they are also totally mercenary about it.  Of the two, the real attractant (sort of like Dee Dee McCall, minus any nuance) is Winter, with her pixie haircut, leather jacket, and oh-so-suggestively holstered pack of smokes.  The instant she shows up in the film, you want to know more about her.  Needless to say, we’re not given much more than superficial flourishes, but, I will admit, that was enough for me here.  I would strenuously argue that the characters of Simon Gruber and Katya in John McTiernan’s Die Hard with a Vengeance are taken directly from Death Before Dishonor’s contemptible couple but given far more shading.  Regardless, in juxtaposition to Gavril and Winter, how could our True-Blue heroes possibly measure up?

Movies of this ilk can be seen as jingoistic, or they can be seen as simply a sign of their time and enjoyed on their generic merits.  Or both.  The protagonists and antagonists are depicted as zealots on both sides.  The difference lies in their cause.  Burns and his men are about brotherhood, even more than they are about a love of their country.  During training for the newest recruits, the young men are hazed by chugging helmets full of beer.  They are then inducted as Brothers of the Golden Wing.  Dryer takes a golden pair of Force Recon wings and jams the pins directly into the newbies’ chests.  Then each soldier in the platoon takes a turn punching the wings until crimson blots their tee shirts.  These men are now united as brothers-in-arms, baptized in blood.  They stand up for each other, and their deaths mean something to their fellow Marines.  They have earned respect.  Jihad and company are religious fanatics, and this is easily comparable to patriotism.  However, the filmmakers clearly place the former over the latter in terms of nobility.  The terrorists also haze their recruits.  Young jihadi Amin (Daniel Chodos) is held in a headlock during a bomb training exercise, watching in terror as the lit fuse burns down.  Unlike the Americans’ hazing, this is no fun.  The contradistinction is further illumined in a couple of interrogation scenes.  In the first, Amin is intimidated (dare I say terrorized?) by Burns.  You can see he has been roughed up a little, but he’s far from crippled.  There is no music in this sequence.  In the second, Sergeant Ramirez (Joseph Gian) has had the living crap kicked out of him by the terrorists.  He is bloody, brutalized, and the score looms ominously.  We’re meant to give a shit about Ramirez.  Amin is just a gormless youth.  Further to this is the idea of sacrifice, again shown by these two characters.  Both give their lives for their beliefs, but Amin’s is senseless, destructive, and the boy has been manipulated through his convictions into this fate.  Ramirez’s sacrifice is in service of his superior officer, his country, and his brothers.  It is honorable, and it is his choice, made with eyes wide open.  It is obvious which of these has the moral high ground in the film.  

Leonard, being primarily a stunt man (this is his only directing credit), naturally handles the action in the film very well.  The big car chase, admittedly, is standard, but just about everything else is gratifying enough.  The script by John Gatliff (this is his only screenwriting credit) puts forth a nice amount of effort, and there are a couple of reveals that twist nicely.  But the film’s biggest detriment is the general banality of its protagonists.  Granted, they are meant to identify to a certain segment, but they are dry, even when they strain halfheartedly to be colorful.  While hardly a standout of the action genre from any decade, Death Before Dishonor certainly can’t be called dishonorable.  More like undistinguished.

MVT:  As much as I like Dryer, I have to give it to Leonard and his able-bodied handling of a mostly solid action film.

Make or Break:  The finale cuts loose just enough and finishes with a moment that almost lives up to the promise of its premise.

Score:  6.75/10   

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Burning Paradise (1994)

As God is my witness, it had nothing to do with Ed Kowalczyk.  The erstwhile singer for Live used to have a largely shaved head with a long, braided ponytail.  This was something I wanted to do with my hair.  This was also back when I was initially going bald and fought tooth and nail against this by growing what hair I had long (I’m slightly ashamed to say that, yes, Virginia, there was a skullet).  I wanted to just have a small patch of hair growing from the back of my head and a wicked long tail forming from it.  The difference between Mr. Kowalczyk and myself (I assume) is that I was inspired by a lifelong love of martial arts films.  It was to the point that I actually wanted to dye this thing white like the great, old, cinematic Kung Fu masters of old (the better to toss over my shoulder and cackle malevolently).  Thing is, not only was I going bald (something I swiftly learned to accept and let go of fairly gracefully), but what hair I had was insanely curly, so, no matter what length I grew my tresses out to, they wound up being about down to my shoulder once the follicles dried after a shower.  This was in no way like my idiotic attempt to mimic Kurt Harland of Information Society’s locks (a tale I told in a previous review; track it down, if you dare).  This was more like…I hesitate to use the word “serendipity.”  More like dumb luck or shitty coincidence.  Either way, every single time I watch a film like Ringo Lam’s Burning Paradise (aka Huo Shao Hong Lian Si aka Destruction of the Red Lotus Temple aka Rape of the Red Temple), I’m reminded of this ignoble chapter of my life.  Thank Christ, I went completely bald before I was able to get this thing off the ground (but, sadly, before bald was considered sexy).

Burning Paradise is yet another in the long list of films about the legendary Wuxia hero Fong Sai Yuk (here played by Willie Chi).  He and his Shaolin brothers oppose the vicious Manchus, and, while escaping from their clutches, he and his elder Chi-Nun (Kuei Li) meet the lovely Tou-Tou (Carman Lee).  Needless to say, the Manchus clutches are, in fact, inescapable, and our protagonists find themselves prisoners of the reptilian Lord Kung (Kam-Kong Wong), warden of the Red Lotus Temple.  Much martial arts mayhem ensues.

I am in no way an expert on the character of Fong Sai Yuk, and, frankly, I simply don’t have the time to correct this.  I do know that he is an extremely popular character (I’m still confused whether or not he was an actual person, but that’s neither here nor there when discussing films like this one).  The picture’s scenario is one we’ve seen many times before.  Fong is young, highly skilled, and a staunch opponent of a totalitarian government.  This is nothing new in the Wuxia genre.  Truly, a great many movies from a great many countries center on this type of struggle.  The two cinematic genres that best capture this conflict, to my mind, are martial arts films and science fiction films.  This is because it is more palatable to a mass audience to augment the totalitarianism on display to encompass wild flights of fantasy.  It entertains while making a point, one that needs no true reinforcement since most people empathize, on some level, with the notion that their own government is not on their side.  Or worse, they are apathetic to the common folks’ plight (as people love to wryly exclaim, it can never happen here, right?).  What Lam and company do with this movie, and this is something that one could argue that the vast majority of martial arts films do, is play with elements of the western.  It is set in the desert.  The house at the beginning of the film is straight out of the American Southwest (I kept thinking of Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch whenever it was on screen).  The characters are more hands-on versions of gunfighters, their skills being continually challenged until a final duel settles all scores.  The heroes come into a situation where they are required to free a “town” (okay, here a prison full of Shaolin devotees) from a gang of “outlaws” (here an entire government; the major difference between the two genres being this dichotomy).  The heroes are attempting to civilize a savage land (here through their Shaolin beliefs and practices).  The dynamics are essentially the same despite the divergences in the details.  I would argue that Lam understood this connection, because he not only embraces it but also borrows (as just about every filmmaker in existence has, consciously or unconsciously; just ask Orson Welles) from the visual vocabulary of John Ford.  Burning Paradise is littered with frames within frames, and there is even a direct reference to Ford’s famous doorway shot from The Searchers.  This, layered on top of some classic Hong Kong action stylings helps push this film into the top tier of the genre, in my opinion.

The film also centers heavily on the idea of passions.  Fong is passionate about his fight against the Manchus.  He is passionate about how he finds his Shaolin brother Hong (Yamson Domingo) in the temple prison.  He is passionate about Tou-Tou, and not just physically.  Similarly, characters like Boroke (Chun Lam), Kung’s right hand, have passions outside the martial world.  She craves the touch of a man, allowing her feelings to sway her professional decisions.  Tou-Tou is a former brothel worker, a place where passion is rented, yet she cares enough about Fong to sacrifice her freedom for him.  The setting for the film is a metaphor for Hell, its inhabitants working constantly at blazing forges, shaping weapons for their enemies to use against the prisoners’ friends and families.  Perhaps the most significant symbol of passion is the villain Kung.  In public, he is aloof, can’t be bothered with these gnats that pester him so.  In private is another matter.  When he goes to Tou-Tou for the first time, he wants her to resist, to fight back, to give him some sense that he’s still alive.  His bigger passion, however, is art.  He paints throughout the film, dark, ominous images, reflective of his soul.  He even incorporates art into his Kung Fu style, using paper like flying daggers and paint droplets like bullets.  

Burning Paradise is as kinetic, inventive, and awe-inspiring as any Hong Kong action film I can think of (perhaps even moreso than many).  Lam marries the darker elements (and there are some pretty dark elements in this thing) with fast-moving action with bouts of gore with some great humor beats (that are refreshingly un-cringeworthy and mesh nicely into the rhythm).  It does all of this while giving its characters some depth and compelling us to want to follow the villains as much as the heroes.

MVT:  Lam’s near-flawless union of the variegated components.

Make or Break:  The bedroom scene between Kung and Tou-Tou is simultaneously scary, insightful, and melancholy.

Score:  8/10