To Be With
South Africa 2021
Directed by Jaco Bouwer
Warning: Some largish set up spoilers
found growing from within this review.
Another movie that debuted in the UK at this year’s FrightFest is Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia... and it’s a really great little folk horror film, it has to be said. There was another film out a couple of months ago called In The Earth (which I reviewed here) and this film, which is another kind of folk horror fable (something which seems to be having a bit of a resurgence over the last couple of years), is cut from similar cloth and would make a very good old school Scala Cinema double bill with this movie, I reckon.
Gaia starts off very strongly with two rangers in a jungle-like forest in South Africa - Gabi (played by Monique Rockman) and Winston (played by Anthony Oseyemi) - rowing their small boat down a stream. The film has beautiful cinematography and some of the opening shots as they thread their way down the stream through undergrowth on either side has visual echoes of the opening of The Shining to it, while a modern droning kind of soundtrack plays out (the score by Pierre-Henri Wicomb is incredible and I wish it were available on CD).
When Gabi’s camera drone which is flying ahead of them is taken out by one of two men in the wilderness, who at first are presented to the audience as possibly some kind of indigenous natives, she foolishly splits up from Winston and goes off into the jungle to find it. She falls foul of a trap laid by the two men and gets a big pointy stick through her foot for her trouble. She takes shelter in a cabin which turns out to be the home of the two... Barend (played by Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (played by Alex van Dyk). They dress her wound but she keeps having dreams that she’s closer to the nature of the forest than she thinks and, indeed, it’s not long before flowers and fungi start growing out of her which she keeps removing from her legs.
Meanwhile, as Winston hides from one of several blind, plant people hybrids that seem to have grown in the forest, a spreading tendril of fungus stretches across the bark of a tree and pounces on him... growing him into the tree and effectively turning him into one of the plant men. As Gabi slowly pieces together what is happening in the forest, it becomes clear that a plant like Earth goddess is living under the earth and that it’s almost time for the reckoning of mankind... the polluters of the world.
So I’m not going to say much more about the story because I really don’t want to ruin it for you... suffice to say that Gaia is a really great looking film but it’s not just a triumph of style over substance. It has things to say and it does so with a certain amount of eerie beauty and suspense. At the start of the picture, the sense of uneasiness as Gabi is trying to find her video drone in the forest is almost completely generated by the foreboding and sinister score. By the mid-way mark, however, there is a clear and present danger as tensions and stakes get ratcheted up a notch.
The actors in this are all phenomenal, it has to be said, focusing most of the time on just Gabi, Barend, Stefan and a bunch of fungus faced plant people who are obviously the result of human tissue infected with various off-shoots of nature in this area of the forest. A special shout out has to go to Monique Rockman, who is absolutely amazing in this one... this lady needs to be in more things, for sure.
The special effects are simple but very effective, often creating an almost a psychedelic atmosphere to some of the movie, including in a few unfolding dream sequences which add an even more surrealistic edge to the proceedings. The whole idea that the very Earth itself could be your enemy seems like an idea which would be easy to push in current Covid times so, I could see this film being very popular if it ever gets a wider release in the UK (which, given its release pattern in other countries, I’m sadly not holding my breath for... damn, I would have liked to get a nice Blu Ray of this one).
The one curious stylistic trait which the director seems to be leaning on a few times is to start off shots with the picture framed upside down for a few seconds and then turning the camera back to a normal view. Now, I have to say, I’ve got no idea why he does this so often but he is consistent in using this style in many sequences and, indeed, the opening few shots of the movie also seem to do this. It’s probably alluding to something way more clever than I was able to pick up but at least it’s a consistent visual theme throughout so, no complaints from me.
The ending to the film is very cool too... it’s not totally unexpected but the little epilogue scene gives us an echo of something one of the characters says earlier in the film and it makes you think that the ‘Earth mother’ alluded to in the film’s title is only just getting started, as far as the blight of humanity is concerned. Gaia is one of those movies where science and ritual meet and cross pollinate to make a very trippy kind of horror movie which I absolutely adored... although I’m sure some people will possibly not see this one as a horror film at all, although it certainly uses more than just the tropes and language of the genre to push the story completely into that realm, as far as I’m concerned. I would absolutely love to see this one again but it would need to be released in a physical format for me to get around to it. It’s certainly a lovely looking movie though and I would recommend it to fantasy and horror fans alike.
Tuesday, 31 August 2021
Monday, 30 August 2021
Sound Of Violence
Directed by Alex Noyer
Warning: This one has a fair amount of spoilers.
Screening at FrightFest yesterday, Sound Of Violence is a quite brilliant feature debut from writer/director Alex Noyer. In fact, I’d almost say it’s one of those near perfect movies but I had a couple of little issues with it, which I’ll get to in just a little while.
As the story starts we hear main character Alexis, played by Jasmin Savoy Brown, explaining to the audience about her current, sometimes synaesthetic response to music/sound (where she sees colours thrown up by the sound etc) and she starts off telling us an incident in her childhood, when she was a little girl back in 2002. She was deaf, lost her hearing at an early age and she can just about hear the odd vibration from sound if it’s turned up. We are then taken into a very awkward, family reunion scene where her traumatised combat veteran father has returned home. Later that night, she feels some percussive vibrations coming up through the floor of her upstairs room and goes downstairs to investigate. He father has killed her mother and brother and is currently cutting up her mother with a meat cleaver, making these sounds. The young girl starts seeing the colours thrown up from the sound vibrations for the first time and, when she takes a meat tenderiser to her father’s head, two things happen... her world explodes into a synaesthetic response to that sound and she suddenly has her hearing back.
Jump to the present day and Alexix is a music student/stand-in lecturer experimenting with sound to try and capture the synaesthetic hits, focusing on pain as something which can be recorded and manipulated into something more artistic. However, she’s also sometimes losing her hearing again briefly and in a desperate effort to discover the cause and cure of her condition, she descends into a series of ‘experiments’ where she tortures and kills people in various ways, recording them to try and capture the synaesthetic responses she gets from these acts of violence.
That’s probably all I should reveal about the story because, a) I don’t want to spoil it too much and b) I probably wouldn’t do justice to the abstract, obsessional motivations of the main character (let alone completely understand them myself, which I think is probably okay, actually).
First of all, the acting in this is great. Brown plays the central protagonist/antagonist in a fairly naturalistic way and she has good chemistry with her best friend and room mate (and potential lover) Marie, played by Lili Simmons (who was in the first season of the TV version of The Purge, reviewed here). We know Alexis has a gift for music due to her early childhood trauma and there’s a wonderful scene where she goes into a shop to try out a theremin and can play it straight away (which means, I believe, that the character has perfect pitch... those things aren’t all that easy to play). The other characters are a little sketchier in the way they’re drawn but that’s because you are given all you need to know to make the story work and the actors do their jobs well. Tessa Munro does some very good work as the police inspector who is constantly one step behind Alexis’ murders... as does James Jagger, as Marie’s current boyfriend.
There are also some nice set pieces in the film. A scene where she drugs and then ties up a tramp to a special torture chair she’s constructed to maim and kill him while recording the sounds of his death is a novel idea (at least in cinema, I guess... and an early prototype of this notion which made it into cinema might be the orgasm/death machine in Barbarella). And a dream sequence involving a guy being run over, juxtaposed by the explosion of colour from his death, is a pretty effective scene.
Another interesting moment comes where she hooks up a vocalist with some electrodes plugged into her theremin and overloads him with the sounds until his head explodes. So, yeah, death by theremin is a first in a movie for me, at any rate and, since it’s my favourite musical instrument, I was happy to see this in here.
My favourite scene is where Alexis and Marie go to record the sounds of a dominatrix whipping and flogging her sub with a number of different impact play instruments. Alexis is trying to push the domme to go further but she won’t go past the limits of her sub. I liked this sequence, not because it’s the first real clue we get to the grown up version of Alexis’ obsession to go beyond past the limits of safety but because the practice of BDSM by two professional players - a top and a bottom - is shown to be a safe, sane environment based on sexual preferences and professionalism, not something which is even hinted at as being somehow unhealthy or approaching the bizarre stigma that people who don’t practice that kind of lifestyle seem to want to push onto people they don’t understand. So big applause to the director for pushing that agenda here. He has my undying respect.
However, I did have two slight problems with the movie which I’ll just note here. One is that, Alexis just keeps leaving both the dead bodies and her easily trackable machinery around after the murders. She barely even goes through the motions of trying to hide her gruesome crimes/experiments and, while I appreciate the character is supposed to be somewhat deranged and a little insular, this just seemed beyond stupid to me.
The other thing I had troubles with was the final murder set piece. I don’t want to say what that is but much importance is made of this sequence due to its longevity and focus so you’ll know it when you see it. However, it just felt like a really tame moment in comparison to some of the other murders we’d seen. I’m sure it sounded really grotesque and bleak on paper but, I just don’t think the final practical effect was managed in a way which highlighted the intent... it just felt a bit lightweight of a thing to be happening in what is the final scene of the movie. I didn’t feel like it was something which made good on the promise of the set up.
That being said though, these are perhaps minor points and I really liked Sound Of Violence. It’s a little different to some of the things I’ve seen done (at least in a motion picture format), it’s well acted, well shot and has an appropriately meticulous sound design which helps provide the right tone on some of the scenes. I had a lot of fun with this one and I’ll be first in line for the Blu Ray if we are lucky enough to get the film released in this format. This is definitely one to take a look at.
Sunday, 29 August 2021
The Power Of
VR Compels You
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Warning: Okay, this one will have some mild spoilers.
Well it finally happened. I finally found a Neill Blomkamp movie which I didn’t mind. In fact, mostly I quite liked this one. I thought I might from the trailer of this one, which looks exactly like what it is... a kind of cross between old school exorcism movies and early David Cronenberg films.
Demonic was the opening UK premiere of this year’s FrightFest and the film centres on Carly, played by Carly Pope, who is still bombarded with nightmares from a time a decade or more previous, when her mother Angela, played by Nathalie Boltt, killed a lot of people as an expression of her personal psychosis. Then, one day, she is contacted by someone who went through her experiences with her, who she was trying to forget. Martin, played by Chris William Martin, tells her he was almost roped into some research at a medical facility, who had taken her mother, now in a coma, to have a part in it. He warns her not to get involved but it’s not long before the people in the shady clinic hone in on her and have her taking part in their experiments.
The experiments being a virtual reality style interface into her mum’s mind (a bit like the set up in The Cell) which allows people to communicate with her when they are asleep and hooked up, in a construct based on her mum’s memories. However, when Carly goes in there, it’s not just her mother who is in there but a demonic entity possessing her soul, which is the thing which has been making her behave in a psychotic manner all these years.
Carly doesn’t want to stay involved, especially after a demon manages to slice up her arm in a very specific way during a VR session. However, her dreams and nightmares follow her home and, when her best friend Sam, played by Kandyse McClure, somehow comes under threat by whatever is in the VR, it’s down to Carly and Martin to go find her and rescue her in a specific building and area from an incident in her mother’s past. Except, the people from the hospital are... while not exactly as shady as you might think... certainly not what they seem.
And I’ll leave it there in terms of plot because I don’t want to spoil it for any potential viewers. But, like I said, I found this a much more watchable and engaging movie experience from Blomkamp and I certainly wasn’t expecting that. Now, I have to warn potential viewers that this one is... well it’s not all that scary. There was one genuinely eerie set piece during one of the dream sequences about halfway through the movie which was actually unsettling, when Sam wants to show Carly something but... don’t go into this one expecting fast and furious jump scares because you may be a little disappointed.
However, that being said, not all horror films are scary and, as you know, I’m a big believer in comfort horror films and, judging from my twitter feed these days, I don’t think I’d be alone in that. And this one has all the hallmarks of something you would put on for a comfort hit on a weekend evening to relax to with a couple of drinks. It’s definitely got that old school horror vibe to it and I appreciated it, for sure. I mean, when a character hands her a ‘Holy lance’ which you just know is this film’s homage to the famous Spear Of Destiny, you just know you’re in good hands.
My biggest disappointment here were the three VR scenes in the movie. They’re pixilated with lots of artefacts and dropouts on the rendering and at first I thought the director was going down that old cliché route of showing all computer aided renderings in a terrible way to constantly remind the audience that they are watching... well... something electronically simulated. But then, as the film unfolded, I got to thinking this visual shorthand could be used to really pull the rug out from under the audience, if the quality of the virtual realm kept getting better and more realistic as the central character revisited each time, then surely you could switch it and immerse the viewer into an artificial reality identical to the way the real world is rendered for the characters and then use it to surprise or scare the audience at a key moment towards the end of the picture. Alas, this wasn’t to be and, at the end of the day, it turns out it really was just the on screen trick to clearly show the difference between the virtual and real worlds on screen. So that was a shame.
However, not a problem as even that added to the archaic, legacy feel of the material so, in a way, it just kind of elevates and maintains that nostalgic feeling. So, all in all, I would say that Demonic is the best Blomkamp movie I’ve seen and this looks way better, in terms of cinematography, to any of the previous works of his. If you’re into early 1970s horror movies and want another easy watch to add to the pile, then this movie is definitely for you. And, well... this may just turn out to be the first Blomkamp I pick up on Blu Ray when it (hopefully) comes out on that format. Catch this one if you can.
Thursday, 26 August 2021
The Purge TV Show
Sept 4th - Nov 6th 2018 - 10 episodes
Oct 15th - Dec 17th 2019 10 episodes
Warning: Very mild spoilers.
Okay, so I quite like the majority of The Purge movies because the old school sci-fi concept is sound and they manage to do something a little different with each one. In terms of turning this film series of sci-fi thrillers into a TV show goes... I was not optimistic. Not all but, most TV adaptations of successful movies are generally soaped up, pale shades of their source material but, I figured I’d maybe give the first episode of The Purge TV show a go just in case.
Well, I was so surprised by this. Not only are both series absolutely brilliant and just as scary as the movies, they also manage to do something slightly different from each other and I really loved this show. Both seasons are connected only by the concept of The Purge and Dermot Mulroney pops up in both as a DJ presenter, pumping up his listeners to go out into the streets to purge. And the main cast of characters on each season is completely different from the other, with no other connects and with very different storylines.
The first season does more or less what you think it will do and it mostly takes place on a purge night (both seasons are set somewhere between the second and third movie). This one sets up a few major character strands...
So most of the first episode is set within a few hours before the Annual Purge. We have Jessica Garza as Penelope. She has sent her ex-marine brother a note, basically saying good bye as she is part of a religious cult who drive around on purge night in a bus, giving themselves to purgers as a sacrifice (and, of course, you know her mindset on that issue is going to change once she is in the thick of it and discovers the corruption and real motive behind the cult). Then we have her brother Miguel, played by Gabriel Chavarria, who is it on the streets trying to track down his sister before she gets killed.
We next have a young couple played by Hannah Emily Anderson and Colin Woodell, who are invited to a purge party by the National Founding Fathers (the NFF, a political power who created and implement the annual purge) and they accept because they need to get money for their company from the man running the party. They once had an awkward sexual threesome with a girl played by Lili Simmons, who they think is in another country but she’s not, she’s at the party... and she’s the daughter of the man they are depending on for financing.
And then there’s a young, ambitious office worker played by Amanda Warren, who is working with her colleagues in a locked down office building on purge night but who has arranged a ‘hit by proxy’ on her boss (played by William Baldwin). Something she now regrets and wants to prevent.
Finally, there’s a guy called Joe, played by Lee Tergesen. He is fully kitted out for purge night and is going around rescuing various people on his special list and taking them to safety... including, it turns out, all of the characters I’ve mentioned so far. However, as you might expect, he has a slightly more sinister motivation for his actions and, by the final couple of episodes, it turns out he’s an even bigger threat than some of the horrendous, violent individuals the other come into contact with throughout the night.
So, yeah, the next nine episodes of series one are basically playing out like a Purge movie except there’s more time to explore various concepts like a ‘kill carnival’, a raid on a ‘purge party’ and a sexualised trap for women etc. The cinematography and lighting is all great and, yeah, it feels dangerous. My only real problem with the first season was the constant flashbacks to the sexual threesome because, bizarrely, everyone is naked but you don’t actually see anybody’s sexual organs. It just looks unnatural and wrong and I wish they had just alluded to it instead of pretending to show it because, yeah, this is how not to do a sex scene in a TV show or movie. The violence is pretty gruesome though, it has to be said, possibly more so than the movies, if you're into that element of it.
As you would expect, some of these characters survive the purge, others don’t and, after a brief wind up so that you can see what any survivors are doing in the wake of the purge followed by a quick lead in showing what two of them are up to for the next purge, the show ends. And its brilliant but, rather than continuing with these surviving characters, the second show does something different again.
Okay, so three quarters of the first episode of season two takes place over the last two hours of purge night, where the main characters are initially set up...
There’s Esme, played by Paola Nuñez. She is part of a government group who monitors the purge from an office of screens to ensure nothing illegal (well, more illegal) takes place and nothing goes against the accepted rules. However, she sees something amiss which ultimately leads to finding information that the NFF are basically killing people ‘off-purge’ because of certain psychological findings about the national holiday and she ends up as America’s most wanted fugitive for her trouble. With all her surveillance equipment and her paranoia, it starts off in similar territory to Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation before, turning into something far more worrying.
Then we have Joel Allen who is out on purge when he doesn’t want to be, is left behind by his college room mate and almost gets killed. However, killing his assailant leads to an addiction to violence and he becomes an off-purge serial killer for the rest of the series.
We have Marcus, played by Derek Luke and his wife. Someone has put a ‘purge bounty’ out on Marcus but, will he find out who and somehow be able to get it removed before the next annual purge?
And finally we have Ryan, played by Max Martini. He and his ex-cop colleagues are bank robbers (they don’t want to kill but want to legally steal as much money as they can each purge). Something goes wrong in the first episode for them, which leads to an elabourate plan that takes the next year to finesse, ostensibly to get the haul of their lives but, there are other complications too.
And it’s another humdinger of a show. Unlike the first season, where all the character strands converge for the final two episodes, this one has the different strands often rubbing together and crossing paths but never quite all at the same time... although the aftermath of a tragic event where my two favourite characters are killed in the last episode certainly joins up a lot of them and their surrounding co-stars.
The real difference of the second season, though, is that most of the episodes take place in the year between two purges. So after the climax of one purge, it’s not actually until right at the end of episode seven that the next one commences, leaving the last two installments to play out like a standard purge movie but with all the background of the characters developed before hand. And, once again, it shows us different aspects of the purge and what people do when they’re not purging, such as elaborate purge themed game booths where you can virtually kill people or hiring animals to slaughter to vent your violent tendencies between the annual holidays.
Another nice thing about the second season is that each starts off with a pre-credits scene which has nothing to do with the main story and shows us a different aspect of The Purge. For the first one, for example, the lady who provides the regular voice-over ‘yearly introductory warning’ to the event is seen auditioning for the voice role and questioning her lines. Another one in the last episode, set just before the first purge, has a nice little cameo from Ethan Hawke, reprising the ill fated character he played in the first movie. And generally, most of these intro sequences come off like the satirical scenes in the first Robocop movie (the original, not the stupid remake) and give the show a little more of a dark edge, shot through with some very cynical humour.
And, yeah, that’s me done with The Purge TV show. I wish this show hadn’t been cancelled because it’s just as good as the movies (and in the case of the first and fourth movies, this show is way better). This is something which really does go hand in hand with the film series and, to boot, has the time to explore some of the concepts it brings to the table in a little more detail than the films are able to do. This one had me gripped from the start and, certainly, if you like the movies then I would recommend you take a look at the series too.
Wednesday, 25 August 2021
In The Middle
Altitude Film Entertainment UK 2021
Directed by Michael Sarnoski
There have been a lot of great movies at the tail end of the current ‘phase’ of the coronavirus pandemic... as everyone is trying to pretend we are more or less out of it and I suppose it makes sense that there is a backlog of good movies at the moment. I’m glad these things are getting released before the government is forced into a corner by the plague again, at least.
Pig, a new film by Michael Sarnoski is no exception. It’s a truly beautiful and moving film which reminds us just how good ‘quiet cinema’ can be, in an age of superhero blockbusters and roaring rampages of revenge. I’d have to say that Pig, happily, falls into neither category and, in terms of the second one, I was quite surprised by that. And also surprised by the fact that this movie is so good it doesn’t matter.
The film is split up into three chapters: Part One - Rustic Mushroom Tart, Part Two - Mum’s French Toast & Deconstructed Scallops and Part Three - A Bird, A Bottle & A Salted Baguette. They actually do, now I come to think of it, have some meaning in terms of the content of the chapters but they’re really more of a distraction and just used as a kind of rest break punctuation to give the audience time for pause.
Pig stars Nicolas Cage as a man who exchanges truffles found by him and his constant companion, the pig of the title, for basic food etc. The young man who transacts these deals with him is Amir, played by Alex Wolff. The basic plot... and this is really all I am going to reveal about the story content because you are not going to want spoilers... is that Cage’s best and only friend, the pig, is stolen by thugs one night and so he makes the trek from his cabin in the woods of Oregon to the nearest village (in a moment reminiscent perhaps of Stallone’s entrance in the small town at the start of First Blood) and finds Amir, who takes him into the city on the trail of the pig. And on the way, bonds are formed, character’s backgrounds are revealed and the movie really doesn’t follow through in the ways you’d expect. This is not a formulaic movie of any kind and, perhaps because of this, it makes for a very satisfying experience.
Cage and Wolff, playing two unlikely companions who begin by having practically no bond of respect between them at first (although I think Amir obviously cares enough about Cage’ character to go the extra mile for him, from his viewpoint), absolutely knock it out of the park in this one. Both of them really bring home the bacon, so to speak, in terms of their performances and you certainly couldn’t accuse either of them of hamming it up (okay, my apologies but I had to get that out of my system).
I knew I was in good hands from the director and cinematographer right from the start. There’s a wonderful shot from inside the main protagonist’s cabin with the open door looking out into the wilderness (a bit like that famous shot in The Searchers, I guess). The pig goes out to greet it’s owner as Cage walks into the view of the opening of the doorway and the two are framed, along with the title of the film, in that thin wedge taking up about a fifth of the centre of the frame. It’s a beautiful composition but I was even more impressed by the next shot. It’s a simple view of a river with the largest area of it at the bottom of the frame and then coming in diagonally from those two corners and tapering into the centre, with forest either side of it. A simple shot for sure but I was impressed because the placement of the river moving into the centre of the frame is exactly where the eyes would have been focused on from the previous shot, inhabiting where the door frame was. This is absolutely what directors and editors should be doing with a widescreen frame, to stop popping people out of the experience and it’s just the right way to compose for a film in a rectangular ratio. A beautiful transition point.
A similar shot looking out from an open doorway in the centre of the frame crops up at least twice more in the movie that I clocked and it’s almost a visual theme for the way the story is viewed. Once, when Cage’s character goes to visit his old house and he sits in the doorway talking to a child and then, much more prominently, later in the film where a diagonal composition of people based on height... of Cage, Wolff and another character played by Adam Arkin... is shown within a centre slab of an open door. It’s a great moment and it seems right, due to the emotional gravitas of the scene (which I won’t spoil for you here), that the director revisits this kind of frame design.
And that’s me done with Pig. It’s an absolutely wonderful movie and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who enjoys the art of the cinema. It’s an absolutely captivating piece and a reminder of just how good the medium can be as a platform for great art. It’s also not as predictable as you think it might be and takes its time to get where it’s going (even though an hour or more was cut from the original assembly, before it reached its final cut). Don’t miss out on this one.
Tuesday, 24 August 2021
by Richard Glenn Schmidt
Create Space Publications
Doomed Moviethon is the third of Richard Glenn Schmidt’s print version spin offs of his web site... being about the author, his wife and the occasional friend binge watching various long stretches of movies over a weekend... linked sometimes quite tenuously by a common theme. You can read my reviews of his two previous tomes, Giallo Meltdown - A Moviethon Diary (right here) and Cinema Somnambulist (right here) and this one, if you’re a newcomer to these books, is very much a case of the author’s enthusiastic but somewhat sardonic style being an acquired taste... something which I acquired about a third of the way through the first book I read of his. Certainly, once I’d gotten into his first volume, I’ve not looked back since... which is a handy tip I would reserve for most readers actually... don’t look back while you’re reading these things or you’ll never be able to see the book you’re holding and quite possibly get dizzy trying to read just dead air. Instead, look forwards so the book is fully in view for best results.
If you can get past the fact that some of the English language used here is mangled and realise, as I did fairly early on with these books, that these are often incidents of deliberate linguistic sabotage on the part of the author for the sake of being silly and entertaining - not to mention the confidence of not explaining the jokes, you’ll either get them or you won't depending on your prior experience of certain films at hand... then you should have as good a time as I do with these books. Especially once you realise that all normal rules of engagement pertaining to critical discourse about these movies are out the window. Richard does completely his own thing here and these are movie responses and reactions to the bizarre and mostly silly films he manages to pick out for his moviethons and, not something which is going to inform you too much about the actual motion picture art in question... although I have to say, I do learn things from his books too.
Once again the book is split into chapters, with each of the 18 chapters covering a specific viewing bonanza. This one also has a little introduction covering the birth of the ‘moviethon’ with the author watching video rentals with his best friend as a kid. There are clear chapters for moviethons dedicated to various of the hot names which a lot of genre fans will happily embrace... such as chapters entitled Argentophobia, Bavadoom, Franco Friday and Video Naschy... as well as chapters which wouldn’t personally appeal to me... like three on American Slashers, which I mostly hate as a genre, give me an Italian giallo any day of the week and I’ll be happy. However, the author’s sense of fun and enthusiasm for even the movies he absolutely hates is infectious and makes each and every chapter a delight.
There are also some nice points which he and I share in common and which gave me a warm feeling in the brain when I read his wisdom on certain things. For instance, I was pleased that he singled out the “punk rock stripper chick with the bullwhip” in Norman J. Warren’s Terror as I also mentioned her in my recent review of the film (right here). Similarly, some of the sessions are obviously throwbacks from quite a while ago as he touches on how difficult it was to get a decent looking bootleg of Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet to watch. Ah, yes, I remember those dark days when the film in question was almost impossible to get hold of and each new bootleg edition was a slight improvement on the previous one... I think I now have five or six different versions now on DVD and Blu Ray and... hooray... the Grey Velvetless days are finally over.
And, yes, if you’re wondering, Schmidt is very up front about where and how he sources his ‘viewing copies’. If he’s watching a muddy, dark DVDR transfer converted from a VHS copy of dubious quality, he will let you know about it and I find this both this honesty and his level of commitment to watching what he needs to watch, whether it’s been released commercially or not, a refreshing attitude in today's bizarrely PC and ‘corporate obsequious’ world. Like me, I suspect he’s happy to go down the bootleg route if it means he can see films before such a time when cartoonists would be able to legitimately draw pictures of him with little crosses where the eyes should be, instead of healthy, living dots.
As usual with this writer’s books, there’s a huge amount of humour and I did find myself entertained, especially when his sentiments reminded me of my own dad’s reaction to certain things. For instance, when he’s talking about Karl Malden in Dario Argento’s Cat O Nine Tails, he gives us the ‘fun fact’* that Malden’s nose got separate billing and its own trailer. And moments like this or when, for example, he will refer to the vampires in Paul Naschy’s Night Of The Werewolf and Werewolf Shadow as “God damn grandstanding bloodsucking undead attention-whores”, really give a reader a good time and a certain accessibility where some more respected critics might lose out in credibility points (and it also helps if you know the movies too, of course, to see the kernel of truth behind some of Schmidt’s words).
Also, how many critics will make a point on counting the number of bosoms and penises that pop up in the viewing experience and give you a running count at the end of a ‘thon? Not many I’m sure. And I’m pretty sure no other grand appreciator of movies has ever written the phrase “Oh man, we just got De Palma’d right in the Hitchcock!” before either.
I should probably mention the fearlessness of the author too, when it comes to watching something he calls Disco Of Death (spoiler... no films with actual death in them but how he got through these terrible movies I’ll never know). And also, that strange combination of both bravery and total insanity in the chapter entitled, Elvis Is My CoPilot because, well seriously, who would attempt to watch a movie with Elvis in it, let alone the amount of them he endures here? This is serious dedication to going to new lows in movie watching as far as I’m concerned. Although, I did learn the interesting fact that Barbara Steele was replaced by Barbara Eden of I Dream Of Jeannie fame in one Elvis movie. And extra credit has to go to the writer here for managing to write about Barbara Eden without once mentioning her bellybutton. Strangely, no navel warfare is on display in his shenanigans here but I was okay with that.
And the book is full of surprises too. Is it a spoiler to say that you’ll turn the page and find two photographs of his constant companions, his cats Crisco and Sparkles? Maybe but they’re adorable and another lure to buy the book in my opinion. And I say this being a dog person myself, Schmidt is obviously a cat person. But, when I say that, I mean he just likes cats and is not, in fact, an escaped experiment from the island of Dr. Moreau.
Doomed Moviethon is an absolute blast and I’m sure you can probably tell I had a good time with it. Once again, his other constant companion, his wife LeEtta, has done the cover art and I have to say it’s my absolute favourite of the three covers she’s done for her husband. A more minimalistic approach with a colour wash leading down to Richard, LeEtta and the two cats on a sofa... and also a wonderful back cover illustration which is the exact reverse of that, where we are looking at them from behind and see some of the items on the wall where the TV they are watching is. Yeah, this is a really great cover and, as I said, a really great book full of humorous commentary about a whole bunch of films, some of which you’ll probably be familiar with and some... maybe not so much. This one is as good a jumping on point as either of the other two (I don’ think these moviethons are strictly chronologically presented and probably interpenetrate around viewing sessions in other books) and all are worth a look if you are into things like horror, giallo and exploitation films... among others. Also, anybody who loves Josie And The Pussycats as much as I (it’s one of the greatest movies of its decade) really deserves huge sales for going on record and defending that magnificent and mostly misunderstood movie in print. Definitely give this guy some of your time and money and also look him up at http://www.doomedmoviethon.com and also https://doomedmoviethon.blogspot.com.
*not a fact.
Monday, 23 August 2021
Warner Brothers USA 2021
Directed by Lisa Joy
You know, I suspect this movie is probably going to invite comparisons to Blade Runner from some critics and, thinking about it, I wouldn’t blame them if they do. Written and directed by Lisa Joy, Reminiscence is a beautiful, beautiful film which has exactly the kind of soft science fiction concept at its heart that was the speciality of the literary giant Philip K. Dick. And, added to this, the writer has built a nearish future world, shot in a convincing and breathtaking way, feeding directly into the viewers imaginations and then done the cool 1980s thing, by using the concept and the world to tell a classic 1940s style film noir thriller. Complete with a voice-over running narrative provided by the main protagonist, no less.
The film is set mostly in Miami (with a dash of New Orleans thrown into the mix) in a future where the water levels of the Earth have risen significantly... which brought a war along with it as humanity tried to cope with the new way of living. The post-war result, beautifully rendered in the film, are cities which live on top of water. The levels of the water sloshing around on the walkable streets are also used to suggest the distinction with the class divisions in this future... with the super rich actually living in ‘dry lands’... city complexes protected by huge damns to keep the water out. It all looks fantastic and quite gorgeously inspiring, like the worlds built in movies like the aforementioned Blade Runner (reviewed here) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (reviewed here).
The film stars the brilliant Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister who, along with his business partner, ex-army buddy Watts, played by equally brilliant Thandiwe Newton, is a memory broker of some kind. That is to say, he uses a special tank and a mixture of chemicals to allow people to revisit past moments in their lives, for a price. The special pods they use were originally designed for interrogation in the war and so the two are also employed sometimes by the city’s DA, to churn up memories to help acquit or convict various suspects in legal cases.
Then one day, in the best film noir tradition, a femme fatale called Mae, played by the always amazing Rebecca Ferguson, walks into Nick’s life on the pretext of needing a quick memory fix to locate some misplaced keys she can’t remember losing that morning and then, well, I don’t want to give the terribly convoluted and, thankfully, fairly impenetrable and surprising plot twists away but it’s a wonderful noir concoction which manages to juggle a bleak outlook with stunning cityscapes in a convincing and addicting manner.
Not content to let the central concept kick start and guide the impetus of the story, the writer/director has the confidence to use the memory trips of various characters to shape the context of the viewpoint of the story and to use as reveals in certain places in the narrative structure. There is absolutely no lazy writing in this one and it really is one of the best modern noirs I can think of. It’s first rate science fiction which stretches back to movie genre ancestors such as Soylent Green through to recent genre successes like Hotel Artemis (reviewed here). It certainly holds up to its predecessors and possibly is more successful than some of those classics, even.
The special effects are flawless and so are the actors here. Rounding out the cast is a ‘bent cop turned freelance villain’, so to speak, played by Cliff Curtis... who appeared, like Rebecca Ferguson, in the big screen adaptation of Doctor Sleep. He’s playing a much more ruthless and unforgiving character than I’m used to seeing him playing here though. The actors manage to keep their character’s secrets until the reveals and, this perhaps says as much about their performances here as it does about the writing.
Another nice element of the world depicted here, which certainly highlights and maintains the ‘film noir’ atmosphere in which the story line marinates, is the fact that in the future depicted here, the days have become much too hot to do much of anything. So mankind’s solution is to flip their lifestyles to suit the new globally warmed planet. People sleep during the day and work by night, for the majority of the time. It’s a neat trick to have all the action take place in an intriguing world of wispy, smoky colours and shadows and it certainly works a treat. Ramin Djawadi’s score which is, alas, unavailable on CD at time of writing, is just another element which merges perfectly with the shadow world depicted here.
Reminiscence is definitely one of those films where all of the elements seem to come together in the best way possible to serve the story (including the quite beautiful sentiment behind it) and wrap everything up in a wonderful package. If you are a fan of science fiction, especially the kind of ideas you’d find in the softer areas explored by writers in the 1950s to 1970s, then you should really go and check this one out. I hope this one comes out on Blu Ray before Christmas as I would love to show it to the people I love.
Sunday, 22 August 2021
Vertigo UK 2021
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond
Warning: Very minor spoilers but nothing
that should truly ruin the movie for you.
Censor is the debut feature length movie of Prano Bailey-Bond and it’s a bit special for people who lived in the UK at a certain time and remember the atmosphere and bizarre newspaper/TV reportage of the, frankly ridiculous, UK Video Nasty panic of the early to mid-1980s... a time I talk about in my reviews of two documentaries about the subject here and here.
Indeed, the film is set during these times and, after a nicely done set of pre-movie logos presented as static tinged 4:3 video versions of themselves, we are briefly introduced to the character of Enid before going into a title sequence that plays out some of the violent scenes of some of the films on the government list (most but, not quite all, of the films which were banned and ended up with people being prosecuted and jailed for renting and selling these films at the time are now available over here in the UK in uncut form, of course... with the exception of such gems as Cannibal Holocaust and The New York Ripper, which you would be best advised as importing from other countries rather than watch them in a mutilated, UK version).
Now, I have to say, I did thoroughly enjoy the movie but I did have just a couple of little problems with it, which I’ll outline when I get to them. However, the basic idea is that the main protagonist Enid, played in a quite deliberately stifled/muffled way by actress Niamh Algar, is a censor working for the BBFC. Many years before the time period of the film, her sister Nina went missing in Hertfordshire under mysterious circumstances. Enid was with her sister when it happened but she hasn’t been able to remember anything about it... nor indeed accept the fact that her sister is probably dead. One of the films within the film that she passes, albeit with severe cuts, allegedly sparks a copycat murder where a guy eats his wife’s face before shooting his two children. He’s dubbed the amnesiac killer because he doesn’t remember doing it and, actually, the idea that killers are being programmed by remote control (almost) is explored a little way into the story, although it’s halted when it turns out later that the killer has never even seen the film. Which is a nice little dig at the superfluous nature of imposed censorship and the BBFC in general, I would have to say.
Anyway, while all this is going on, Enid gets a new movie screened for her to suggest cuts on, brought in by a producer played by the brilliant Michael Smiley and called Don’t Go In The Church. The film is more than a little reminiscent of the night when she lost her sister and so she goes to an ‘under the counter’ style video store (there was a lot of that back in the day) to seek out more of this producer and director’s work. And that’s all I’m saying about the story here because I really don’t want to spoil things for the reader.
But the film has a lot to offer and one of the avenues it explores is the way the brain edits out certain events after a psychological trauma such as Enid possibly experienced as a child, with the dialogue regarding this spoken by one of the characters, a fellow censor in Enid’s workplace, being an implicit metaphor for the editing out of scenes from a movie. The other thing which the writer/director and her screenwriting collaborator get into here is the deterioration of reality and, with Enid, the mind confuses reality for the nature of her obsession, in this case the rickety old VHS format which we all loved as kids back in the 1980s and 1990s. To this end, apart from the lighting very occasionally falling into Argento/Bava territory, we have two things happening... the degrading of the stock at points, in addition to some surreal, dreamlike sequences which deliberately blur the boundaries for the viewer (and for Enid) as to just what we are watching and, from about 20 minutes before the end, a very, very slow and subtle but gradual shrinking of the frame, going from a widescreen towards the old, 4:3 format screens on which those old videos would have been watched in their downgraded, pan and scan versions (pretty much the only way to see these things unless you were a 16mm film collector or owned an expensive laserdisc player at the time).
And what the various ideas explored culminate in is a point at which the viewer no longer knows if Enid maybe didn’t murder her sister herself or if she is, as one character remarks at some point, just losing the plot. But it is handled in an interesting manner and, frankly, the director completely had me on her side during a sequence near the end which I felt almost reminiscent of certain scenes towards the end of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil... the obvious goal post of a censor being the complete eradication of video nasties, leading to a zero crime rate! It’s a nice, sarcastic nod towards the institutions who insist on being the moral guardians of others because they can’t deal with their own insecurities tied to the subject.
Now, I have to say, I had two slight problems with the film which, while they didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the movie in any fashion, did make me a little apprehensive of fully buying into certain aspects. Number one was the fact that I couldn’t in any way, shape or form sympathise with the main protagonist. I mean, she’s a censor, one of the lowest forms of life on the planet. You can see exactly the kind of job she does on these films throughout the movie and as summed up on her handwritten notes near the beginning of the movie... “Eye gouging must go.” However, to be fair, I don’t think I’m totally supposed to like this character... the amount of gory carnage and the attitude depicted in the movie to the kinds of people who do these kinds of jobs seem to make it clear that the director’s heart is in the right place. However, as a counter to that, because I couldn’t identify with the character, no matter how brilliant the performance is by Niamh Algar (and she does do a fantastic job here, you really feel the void between her and her parents... not to mention her coworkers), then I wasn’t rooting for her either. I didn’t care if she found what she’s looking for (her sister) or lived or died because, basically, a censor is a censor and I have no sympathies for those who commit crimes against filmanity.
The other problem I had was with the ending. When the frame starts to almost imperceptibly begin to shrink on the approach, I think we’re at the point where we need more disclosure from the writers as to where the film is ending... not necessarily wrapped up in a neat package, just something more where we are progressing to with the character. The only thing which seems spelled out, however, is the ambiguity of the mental state of Enid and the relationship between the story as it plays out and the similarity to the act of the audience watching this film in the same way Enid watches her films to censor. But, around 20 minutes before the end, although it gets fun... there is no real progression. It’s like the film just ends but then plays around in its own entrails for a while before letting the audience go with no actual punchline to the film other than the voyeuristic nature of the audience.
That being said, I certainly had fun with Censor (especially a wonderful, visually ironic death scene around about two thirds of the way through for one of the characters) and for people of my age who actually remember living through these terrible times, it’s a nice reminder and feels like the director is standing in judgement with her arms crossed, glaring down at the BBFC with the intention of, quite rightly, shaming them for their actions. It also has a wonderful jump scare involving Enid's mother which concludes one of the more surrealistic sequences of the film which is so simply done and yet so effective. Loved that moment, I have to say. So, yeah, I’ll certainly be on this one when it gets a Blu Ray edition for sure and I think it’s one of the more interesting movies to get released in the UK this year. Definitely worth a look.
Thursday, 19 August 2021
More Hippy, Less Kaji
Stray Cat Rock - Beat '71
aka Nora-neko rokku -
Bôsô shûdan '71
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
Nikkatsu/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock Dual Edition Set
Warning: Spoilers included in this review.
Okay so... Beat ‘71 is the fifth and final of the short, barely tied together, five film series of Stray Cat Rock movies. It’s also the second one by the director of the most disappointing of the five, Wild Jumbo (reviewed here). Well, most disappointing until I’d seen this one, that is... this is not the best way to end the series, to be honest. Going out on a low rather than a high, it seems to me. I find it hard to believe that this is the same director who would go on to direct the two, classic Lady Snowblood movies but... well, there you are.
This one has all the problems of the second movie in that the camerawork, editing and presentation are all pretty good... but they’re not outstanding like in the first and fourth (and to a certain extent the third) films in the series. There’s also not the same attitude from the main protagonists in this one either, although it does start off in ‘gang’ territory and ends up there for the finale, to be fair. But there’s no girl gang involved and the star of the series, Meiko Kaji (this time playing a girl called Furiko), is certainly not the leader of the small band of hippies who make up the main players in the movie.
The plot is simple. A hippy guy named Takaaki (played by Takeo Chii) forces himself on hippy gal Furiko in a field and she somehow instantly falls in love with him for a few moments before a gang, employed by Takaaki’s respectable father, beat him up to ‘straighten him up’ and take him home... but not before Takaaki manages to stab one of them. They knock Furikoo unconscious and leave her to take the rap for the guys murder before returning with Takaaki.
When Furiko escapes from the local Remand Centre two months later with her sister, she travels to Takaaki’s home town. Her sister tells her hippy friends and after much umming and ahhhing (and a ‘disgraceful hippy orgy’ staged for the press on a broken down bus to grab some money, they go off on their tandem and accompanying bicycles to try and catch up with Furiko, to see she doesn’t get into trouble. However, Furiko is also kidnapped by the father, for fear she will expose his son as a murderer and the hippies have to stage protests outside his mansion in an effort to get her back. Alas, they eventually have to steal Takaaki to hold him for an exchange but he goes back to his father. Meanwhile, the police break up the ‘dangerous hippies’ and the majority of them go and hide in a nearby Wild West Town set, where some film studios used to shoot Westerns.
Things come to a head when Furiko is about to be killed by one of Takaaki’s father’s aides. The two escape and head towards the Western Town and then, as you would expect from the Stray Cat Rock films, the whole thing ends in tragedy for three of the main protagonists (and a couple of the antagonists) when the gang and some other’s of the father’s company go there for a showdown on their motorcycles and a bulldozer, as the hippy kids try and defend themselves with their limited weapons, plus some handy dynamite they just happened to find laying around in the abandoned Wild West Town set (okay... how did this get there? Perhaps I missed a plot point somewhere.).
One of the things about the movie to note is that the star of the series (by now), Meiko Kaji, is hardly in it (although the plot does at least revolve around her). She’s in the first ten minutes, comes back for a couple of short scenes in the middle (and sings a few bars of a song in one) and then returns for the last ten minutes or so... just in time to be killed while she is trying to avenge the death of Takaaki. Looking at her CV, she was in seven films just in 1971 alone and the years before and after were similarly cluttered.. they obviously worked their contracted workers hard at Nikkatsu and it must have been exhausting for them. My guess is she was probably, as she had on the second and third films of this series, shooting two films simultaneously... possibly even the previous Stray Cat Rock film, at the same time. She also doesn’t have the trademark big floppy hat and look of her characters from the Sex Hunter and Machine Animal films in the series but I’m pretty sure she uses this in some of her successful Female Prisoner Scorpion movies too, if memory serves.
As I said, it’s not the most technically innovative film in the series by a long shot but there is a nice moment where she confronts semi-regular Stray Cat Rock star Bunjaku Han (who has even less screen time than Kaji in this) at a petrol station and the director uses the upper part of Kaji’s body in the foreground as a vertical shape to split up the frame into two sections. So that’s nice.
There are no cuts back to any kind of nightclub in this though so, almost to make up for this, when the hippies are demonstrating outside the mayor’s manor (Takaaki’s father is the mayor, it turns out), a wandering pop group suddenly turn up out of the blue from nowhere and sing a song for the crowd off the back of their truck. There’s also, as I said, a brief musical interlude from Kaji as she sings a song in her cell, a little later on in the film (but nowhere near as ‘spot lit’ as the songs she sang previously in the series).
And... okay, Stray Cat Rock - Beat ‘71 is a fun film which, once again, gives us a portrayal of ‘doomed youth’ but, like I said, it’s not nearly as punchy as even the previous weakest link in the series, Wild Jumbo and, like that one, it doesn’t really feel like it belongs with the other three. However, it’s still an interesting film when you don’t compare it to the others and Arrow’s Blu Ray set of the Stray Cat Rock films is surely an essential purchase for lovers of a certain vibrant era of Japanese cinema, for sure.
Wednesday, 18 August 2021
Stray Cat Rock -
aka Nora-neko rokku -
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
Nikkatsu/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock Dual Edition Set
Warning: Yep... this one has spoilers.
Well this is more like it. Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal is Yasuharu Hasebe’s third and final entry into the loose series of Stray Cat Rock movies following the first, Delinquent Girl Boss (reviewed here) and the third, Sex Hunter (reviewed here). This is the fourth in the series and I have to say, he’s really on form here, capturing a lot of the mood and directorial style of his series debut in a way that both Toshiya Fujita’s Wild Jumbo (reviewed here) and his own Sex Hunter failed to do.
The film opens strongly with a low down shot looking up from some train tracks as characters are introduced scattershot by a title sequence which, apart from the title song, also has the dialogue and the actors starting the story straight away, as a girl gang headed up once again by the inimitable Meiko Kaji deal with two rapists and the rapid cuts and completely changing frames of the titles, due to constantly splitting and masking various areas of the screen off. It looks and feels like an explosive, crazy pop art comic strip brought to life and really makes an impression.
We then see the girls giving an aggressive but ultimately non-physical welcome to a couple of drifters whose car has broken down. These characters and their friend are in town to try and get a boat out of Japan... it transpires a little later in the plot... and they have 500 capsules of LSD (I know absolutely nothing about drugs and didn’t even know LSD came in capsules)that they need to sell, to buy passage on a boat out of there. The reason being that their naive young friend Charlie, is basically deserting from the war in Vietnam, so they are all set to grab a new life in Sweden.
Meiko Kaji is playing a different character again, Maya, who is fairly interchangeable with most of her other roles in the series it has to be said. For the second time in the series and, following on from Sex Hunter, she is wearing the trademark black floppy hat pitched against a white outfit. She certainly has a hard boiled delinquent presence about her which is quite hypnotic and is the character the eyes seem to go for when she’s in a shot.
As usual, the film is scattered with scenes in the girl gangs regular night club hangout with the live, wild and trendy pop songs playing to give the youthful atmosphere the Nikkatsu suits probably insisted on but, it has a level of coolness that fits the characters well. Also as usual, most of the ‘alley cats’ or ‘stray cats’ in the movies all seem to be played by the same actresses as previous installments.
As the film progresses and it’s discovered the three guys looking to get out of Japan have drugs, everybody seems to want the drugs... especially Maya’s mob. They manage to successfully steal the three friends’ car and drugs but, when they catch up with them one of them, Nobo (played by Tatsuya Fuji), appeals to their better judgement when he tells them the truth of why they need the money to get out of Japan... and so Maya and her clique decide to help them instead and, because they damaged their car so much, put them up in their secret dockland lair while Maya finds a buyer for the drugs. She also become’s Nobo’s ‘almost lover’ and the film almost becomes a musical when Maya sings a song to signal to the audience her desire for Nobo. And, if you’re wondering... Nobo is short for Nobody. So take that Terence Hill, this character’s name really is Nobody.
Maya’s buyers are the local friendly male group known as the Dragon Gang. However, they double cross her and steal the drugs back for themselves and from then on, it’s various chases, fights and hostage exchanges... including a scene where the likeable Charlie is shot in the leg by the military police and ‘taken away’. The film isn’t over yet though but, like the previous four movies, ends as you would expect... in tragedy... although, similar to the last film, at least two of the people you want to survive manage to come through the film fairly unscathed.
There’s also another late part of the plot which involves the ‘real’ and somewhat nefarious boss of The Dragons being the girl Yuri, played by Bunraku Han from two of the previous films. In this she’s in a wheelchair due to an accident and she lives in a wonderful looking apartment which, in terms of the furniture, drapes and wallpaper... are all purple. Another brilliant stylish decision from the director which enlivens the look and feel of the film.
And like I said earlier, the various ‘in your face’ stylistic flourishes are back in full swing in this one. A striking example is when four of the girls steal Nobo’s car. As they drive off the director crosscuts two shots, one of the back of the car driving off and one of the girls inside. The two shots are rapidly cut together to create a kind of discernible visual strobe and then, when it finally resettles on the back of the car which is speeding off into the distance, away from the camera in the middle of the shot, the next shot enters quite slowly but simultaneously from both sides of the screen in a double wipe, reminiscent of a gatefold sleeve album cover, coming together to give us all of the information. This is then followed up straight away by a series of split screen shots contrasting the three guys on foot, running around and looking for the car with various shots of the speeding car itself. It’s a slick, sophisticated visual language the director is peddling here and, because of the youth and vibrance of the target audience being exploited, he can get away with it too. It fits the attitude of the characters and the situations they get in and it makes for a great cinematic experience, not to mention reminding the audience that film is a major art form.
There’s a curious scene later in the film where the girl gang of anti heroes are chasing the Dragon Gang and the girls all steal Honda bikes out of a Honda showroom following Meiko Kaji’s outcry that... “We need Hondas!” It’s a bizarre and suspiciously unnecessary scene which completely seems like it must be a bit of product placement from the company in question... which seems a bit odd since they are therefore associating their product with a gang of girl delinquents who regularly consume booze and drugs and threaten people with their knives. Also strange is that, for this one chase scene only, so far that I can remember in a Stray Cat Rock film, the girls have all taken time to grab a proper motorcycle helmet and, they certainly look the opposite of ‘cool’ in this scene. One wonders if the helmets were a stipulation of whatever contract that the studio signed with Honda, if that is indeed the case (if you know the answer to this, please let me know in the comments below).
And that’s Stray Cat Rock - Machine Animal done and dusted, other than to say... just like Wild Jumbo and Sex Hunter, I have absolutely no idea what Machine Animal is supposed to be referring to. There are no real machines present (other than the odd motorcycle) and no animals in the mix either... I mean, it kinda sounds cool but, yeah, I’ve got no idea. Answers on a postcard please. Apart from that, though, this is easily the second best of the Stray Cat Rock films I’ve seen, next to the first installment, so this one gets another solid recommendation from me, as does Arrow’s superb Stray Cat Rock dual Blu Ray/DVD boxed edition. And I hope to be watching the fifth and final entry into the series very soon.
Tuesday, 17 August 2021
Stray Cat Rock -
aka Nora-neko rokku -
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
Nikkatsu/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock Dual Edition Set
Warning: More damn spoilerage!
Fresh off his truly brilliant first entry into what became the loose series of Stray Cat Rock movies, Delinquent Girl Boss (reviewed here), director Yasuharu Hasebe returns with his third entry in the series, Stray Cat Rock - Sex Hunter. This film once again toplines Meiko Kaji, who was, apparently, simultaneously shooting the second movie in the series, Wild Jumbo (reviewed here). Now, it has to be said that the film certainly isn’t as stylistically aggressive as the first movie and, that’s actually to this films detriment. Hasebe does do some interesting stuff in it, though, which puts the film making on display here head and shoulders against the first follow up and, I’ll talk about a few of those things soon.
This time around, Meiko Kaji plays Mako, the boss of another all-female, delinquent gang and she has a wonderful entrance shot which kicks off the movie and acts as a nice bookend moment to the film. Basically, she has her head down to the camera so all we can see is the top of her hat, before bringing her head up so we get her face in close up and see that she’s wearing one of those big floppy hats (if not the exact same floppy hat) that is almost iconic to her early roles and which she would also wear again for her next big series running character, Female Prisoner Scorpion. She also, in combination with this, wears a big, loose, white shirt, black waistcoat and carries this awkward looking cane around with her for most of the movie (one year before Malcolm McDowell was using a big cane as the head of his gang of droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange).
Right away, we know this particular gang are edgier and dirtier than the pseudo-gang in Wild Jumbo. After relinquishing an alleged pervert of his wallet, Mako gets into a night time duel with one of her girls and we are soon treated to a ‘knives and flashlights’ fight. After this, Mako meets and falls for a drifter called Kazuma, played by Rikiya Yasuoka. In another scene, a local ‘friendly’ male gang called The Eagles, lead by The Baron (played by Tatsuya Fuji) have an orgiastic ‘drug party’ with Mako’s gang. Here, the main crux of the film is explored as one of the Baron’s men is jealous of one of the girls, who is dating a ‘half-breed’ (in their words). They go to beat the guy to within an inch of his life and force him out of town. We then get treated to a bizarre, sepia tinted flashback with blood splashed over the frame, to an incident from when The Baron was a little boy and his sister (or someone close to him) was raped by black soldiers. A switch goes off in The Baron’s brain and his race hate comes to the fore... which is later coupled with his impotence and love of hunting black people and hence, therefore, but I admit it’s a bit of a stretch, we get the title Sex Hunter (well, that’s as good an explanation as I’ve found anyway).
And then we get shenanigans of a much more hard hitting kind as various ‘half breeds’ are beaten up and thrown out of town and The Baron wants the one who has stolen the heart of his gal, the drifter Kazuma who is looking for his long lost sister. His sister is, in fact, one of Mako’s gang but she doesn’t want to acknowledge him because, that reveals her as a notorious ‘half breed’. Indeed, when The Baron’s men do find out, they gang rape her... apart from one of The Baron’s men. In another proof of his underlying psychotic nature, The Baron guns down his right hand man, mostly for not taking part in the raping but also because he reveals his own, problematic (to The Baron), parental heritage.
The whole thing ends in tragedy after Mako rides a stolen motorbike to the rescue and breaks up The Baron’s special ‘rape party’ for the girls with a bunch of Molotov cocktails fashioned from Coke bottles. Yes folks, ‘it’s the real thing’ alright, in the most explosive way. This all leads up to Mako and Kazuma holing up in a little watch tower with a rifle and The Baron’s men surrounding them. When The Baron enters the tower, he and Kazuma fill each other with a gazillion bullets and die... but not before Kazuma also manages to shoot his own sister dead for some strange reason known only to himself. The last shot of the film is of Meiko Kaji, who has astonishingly had a character survive the end of a Stray Cat Rock film for the first time, looking into camera with the disappointment and heartbreak etched into her hardening face, putting on her big floppy hat and then looking down, in an exact reverse of the opening scene.
And it’s quite entertaining... although the racial discrimination elements seem a little less subtle and more disturbing as the world has moved on since 1970. The director doesn’t use as many fast flowing, energetic camera movements or short edits as in Delinquent Girl Boss but he does go in this direction on occasion. For example, the knife fight at the start of the film is put together with long shots of either very smooth camera movements or static shots... however, intercut with these are the close ups of the fight with the camera getting in close with the girls and those shots are used in the more traditional shorthand of chaotic, hand held camera takes.
Something he does do to pull it back to the style of the first film in, presumably, an attempt to hold the interest of the teen market, is to have the psychedelic nightclub, the Go Go Spot... with various bands performing in multiple, cross-cut primary colour palettes... something the girls are always coming back to (I actually have the soundtrack CD for this one and it’s a fun spin, for sure).
Another thing he does is change the shape of the aspect ratio when he wants to. The technique is nowhere near as varied or interesting (it has to be said) as the stuff in his first Stray Cat Rock movie but, on a number of occasions in this one, he will pull a whole sequence into a 4:3 ratio in the middle of a frame to focus the audience attention in on just what he wants them to notice... which also serves to give those highlighted sequences a more intimate feel.
There’s also a moment of nice experimentation a lot more reminiscent of what the director was doing in his previous, more ground breaking movie in the scene when The Baron guns down one of his own men. When he pulls the trigger way more times than he would normally have bullet capacity for in his automatic, the editor goes crazy and we flash to and from The Baron and his victim on different parts of the screen like a rapid firing, 'almost too fast for the eye to follow' art collage. It certainly hammers home the tonal weight the director is trying for with the scene and sets it up as an event which, should you incredibly have any doubts by this point anyway, will leave you in no difficulties understanding who the real villain of the piece here is.
And that’s me done on Stray Cat Rock - Sex Hunter, I think. This was the only one of the Stray Cat Rock pictures which I’ve managed to see at a cinema (when the BFI did a ‘one off’ screening a decade or two ago) and the only one I also already had on DVD. Although it isn’t as impactful as Delinquent Girl Boss, this film is still very entertaining and Meiko Kaji certainly lives up to her rising star... with the iconic look I always think of her in, pretty much complete here. Curiously, although her character actually survives to the end of this film, she’s once again playing a totally different character in the next Stray Cat Rock movie, which is the next thing I’ll review here.
Monday, 16 August 2021
Stray Cat Rock -
aka Nora-neko rokku -
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
Nikkatsu/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock Dual Edition Set
Warning: Full on spoilerage.
First of all... I have to say I have no idea what the phrase Wild Jumbo means. I have tried to find out if it’s anything which has any kind of significance in Japanese and, well, I’ve come back empty handed. However, I will assure you that no elephants were harmed in the making of this movie. In fact, there aren’t even any elephants anywhere in the movie so... yeah... no idea.
Stray Cat Rock - Wild Jumbo is the second of the five, very loosely thematically linked Stray Cat Rock films that Nikkatsu churned out at great speed to have four releases in 1970 and the fifth released in 1971. Indeed, I read that the Alley Cats (or Stray Cats cast) were making the third movie in the series, Sex Hunter, simultaneous to this one and that the Alley Cats were being driven between sets. However, I’m not so sure of the source on that one because, in terms of the two female cast members, this film only has Meiko Kaji in common so... yeah, maybe and maybe not. Don’t know.
The five films all featured rising superstar Kaji but always playing a different character in a different set up. Here, she is still part of a ‘gang’, “The Pelican Club”, but she’s the only female member, C-Ko... sharing the screen with the other members played by Takeo Chii, (Takeo) Tatsuya Fuji (Ganishin), Yûsuke Natsu (Jirô) and Sôichirô Maeno (Debo)... all playing stereotypical characters associated with leadership, strength, stupidity etc. When Takeo, the leader, falls for a ‘girl with a mission’, the playful group get involved in a daring heist to rob a major religious group of 30 million yen for the second half of the movie. The girl with a mission is striking actress Bunjaku Han, playing a character called Asako here.
Now, it has to be said, this film isn’t a patch on the last one. it doesn’t have many of the stylistic flashes and pacing of the previous director’s movie in the run and even the attitude of the main characters, who are all pretty much a lovable bunch, adds to the tone of the film being a little ‘old fashioned’ rather than something which is capturing the edginess of the first movie. Indeed, while the inevitable ‘rival gang’ does indeed inflict some damage to the characters, it’s not as violent and full on as the gang warfare in the other pictures (at least not the ones I’ve seen and nor does it compare to the delinquent girl gang movies I’ve seen put out by other studios).
It does have a few brief moments of stylistic bravado though. For example, the moment in the title sequence, superimposed over a montage of four of the gang having a playful time by a river, has some nice shots cut out of circles of just their feet as they walk past some tubes (presumably that’s what that sequence of shots is supposed to represent). This sequence also features a foreshadowing moment when Ganishin pushes Jirô into a deep drop into water. As Jirô’s body falls, the film does a deliberate stutter, freezing the frame just briefly, twice, before he hits the water and the title card comes up. It means nothing at this point but, right near the end of the movie, when Jirô is shot dead by the police and he takes a tumble off the side of a bridge into water, the director similarly stutters his downward descent with the same technique. Ganishin falls to the floor with a similar stutter too when he’s taken out by a police sniper a little later on.
Other stylistic flourishes such as static shot montages showing American tourists snapping pictures of their holiday and sped up footage of the gang fixing a burst tyre, seem a little lame and out of keeping with the frenetic, kinetic, high speed pace of Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss (reviewed here). One moment, where a rival gang are introduced with comic book bubbles instead of sounds almost won me over but... no, it was a nice idea but it didn’t quite make it.
That being said, it’s not a bad film... I had a good time with it but, its not great to compare this one to the first entry in the series, I think. There are nice moments like Charles Bronson’s face advertising Mandom Cologne on a poster used as a visual metaphor for Ganishin’s personality and appearance, at one point. There’s an interesting diversion where Debo is digging up holes around a school at midnight over a series of nights which has a nice pay off... kinda tying into the fatal craziness of the end of the picture. There’s even a cameo appearance of the night club footage of Akiko Wada singing from the first film tracked in (I think) as a cross cut audio commentary on the state of Takeo’s mind at one point... although it’s a bit bizarre to have this character just suddenly turn up as a non-sequiter like this. Actually, I can’t find confirmation anywhere on the internet but I’m pretty sure she has a very small cameo at the start of the movie too... as the ‘cop’ who breaks up the other gang from beating up Takeo at the start. If anyone could confirm it in the comments section below, that would be nice.
And other than that... yeah, Stray Cat Rock - Wild Jumbo is a fine film and entertaining enough but it’s not compulsive like the first one. I’d watch it again though... it just feels like a strange fit and change of pace for the series. I don’t remember too much about Stray Cat Rock - Sex Hunter (even though I’ve seen it at least twice, once at the cinema) but it has the same director as the first movie and I’ll be rewatching that one next. Review coming soon to this very blog.
Sunday, 15 August 2021
Delinquent We Stand
Stray Cat Rock -
Delinquent Girl Boss
aka Nora-neko rokku:
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
Nikkatsu/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock Dual Edition Set
I’ve only ever been able to see the third of the five Stray Cat Rock movies over here in the UK, previously. I have an old Region 1 DVD copy of Stray Cat Rock - Sex Hunter which I loved and, a few years after I bought that, the NFT showed the same one as part of a festival of Japanese cinema they had programmed (I was luck enough to see one of the early Zatoichi movies on a big screen in that season too), so I went to see it on the kind of screen it was shot for. But, for some reason, I’d never come across subtitled copies of the whole series before Arrow released this lovely Blu Ray set a few years ago... which I’ve now finally got around to cracking open. I have to say, this is a real treat.
First things first... I have to give appreciation to Jasper Sharp, a man I have come to respect as somewhat of an authority on the art of Japanese cinema over the years (and also slime moulds and fungi but, that’s another story). He wrote the accompanying booklet in this set and it alerted me to the fact that, since I’d only ever seen the third, that while the films retain some of the same actors throughout... most notably the young ‘superstar on the rise’ Meiko Kaji, receiving only second billing here... there are no running characters and so it’s a series really only in terms of it focuses on youth culture and ‘girl gangs ‘ of the period. I mean, I would have figured out the abstract nature of the idea of a series by the end of this picture because of something which happens (and I won’t spoil that for you here)... but it’s nice to be forewarned sometimes, at any rate. So, loosely connected or otherwise, Nikkatsu (a studio I always tend to associate with crime and action cinema by the likes of Seijun Suzuki), must have really worked their actors hard in those days. The first four Stray Cat Rock movies all came out in the same year with the fifth and final one coming out the following year. I’ve seen a few of these ‘girl gang delinquent’ style films over the years, most notably in a top notch Panik House box set release, The Pinky Violence Collection, from a couple of decades ago (which needs a Blu Ray release please folks) but, I have to say, this first movie of this series, Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss, is probably one of the most amazingly gobsmacking films of this genre I’ve seen.
Now, for the record, I don’t think the ‘good gal’ girl gang in this one are called Stray Cats or even Alley Cats (as in some English translations) so I’m really not sure what the collective title means on this series. However, my best guess is it’s a female equivalent of terms like Stray Dog or Lone Wolf which tend to be used as a metaphor in Japanese films for a kind of maverick, roaming character and this one certainly has that in the form of the actress who actually does have lone status (and top billing above Kaji) in the film and joins in the action as a peripheral to the gang... Akiko Wada as Ako.
Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss must have been one in a whole raft of movies at the time in Japan which were a blast of fresh air on the cinematic climate. I was bowled over when I watched this and I can only assume it had a, perhaps more muted but somewhat similar effect on audiences (especially since they grouped five of these films together under one binding title).
The film starts off with a blue wash of colour and a circle cut out from this reveals the screen, a lone biker, Ako played by Wada, riding up front and centre of the circle which heralds the title card of the movie. She gets into an altercation with a guy in a beach buggy and his gang of bikers, as he rear ends her but, instead of getting in a fight, they just drive off. These are the notorious ‘black shirts’, the thuggish gang employed by a crime syndicate in the city. She speeds after them without ever catching them but the credits as we follow her on the bike are absolutely amazing with the Stray Cat title song pitched against high speed shots rapidly cut together in a way that makes the whole thing just very exciting without once being confusing. Great stuff.
The director makes some really wild stylistic choices on this film about two rival gangs getting into conflicts, after the boyfriend of gang leader Meiko Kaji fails to successfully rig a boxing match for the criminal organisation he works for, losing them a lot of money and potentially his life. There are the usual rivalries between the gangs and also the syndicate as the girls alternatively hide and do battle in a not overly bloody but decidedly nasty series of incidents as everyone crosses paths. It’s well acted but standard stuff in terms of story content but, as I said, it’s not shot in a standard way and it’s an absolute joy to watch.
For starters, the director will suddenly black out portions of the screen artificially to make new shapes. A moment during the titles, for example, has the credits staying where they are but the picture content is further narrowed down to a horizontal slat from the 2.35:1 aspect ratio it is already framed as. And he’ll do things like this to highlight different things at different points. Such as, in one scene, suddenly bringing the sides of the frame in so just the character who is the main subject of the shot is in his own, vertical slice so we can focus on his facial expressions. There’s even a point later on in the film, at the end of the boxing match which is so central to the plot, where he’ll just put washes of different bright colours filled in crudely around characters to isolate them within the frame. It’s not subtle but the rock and roll sensibility of the film and the aggressive editing we’re already used to... not to mention the groovy, psychedelic night club where the girls hang out and listen to the local rock group do their thing... means that the sudden introduction of techniques like this don’t feel in any way out of place with the tone of the movie. They just seem like a natural fit somehow.
Another thing he does, which is far from subtle, is to announce the time stamps in the film in a very ‘in your face’ way. The opening time check is the numbers reversed out of a big, green wash that flashes alternatively against the picture for a second or so and, similarly, he does this throughout with subsequent cards such as Saturday Night flashing out of pink, Sunday Morning (heralding the moment when the rival gang bikes to the hiding place of our heroes, armed to the teeth) in orange, the denouement of Sunday Night flashing in crimson... perhaps to foreshadow the bloodiness of the fate of some of the characters... and Monday Morning flashing up out of magenta, for the final aftermath and farewell scene. They’re a bit like those rapid cuts Dennis Hopper uses in Easy Rider but with a time fix and it’s a great way for the director to burn the ‘documentary’ detail of the information (an old trick to add a certain weight to a fiction) into the audience’s collective retina and to make sure we don’t miss it.
I was just in awe of the way this film looks, to be quite honest, especially for the first two thirds. There’s a wonderful moment where Meiko Kaji follows her boyfriend into a street to talk to him. They are only about six feet apart but the director suddenly goes into a split screen and, rather than to show us two separate, simultaneous incidents, the director uses it to dislocate the space of the conversation from our perceptions and focus us on different perspectives. So the boyfriend is in the left half of the screen in long shot, more or less in profile, looking back over his shoulder at his girlfriend but, Kaji is in close up at a different angle dominating the right of the screen... it’s fantastic stuff and a really arresting way of staging the conversation. Then Hasebe reverses it so the boyfriend is in a close up and Kaji is shot from a longer distance. It’s just incredible stuff.
Even the action scenes, such as the fights with the fluid but fast camera movements which will then pull right back to give you a shot of the action all taking place at once as several ‘girl versus girl’ combat scenes are happening simultaneously, makes the whole film completely enthralling. It’s like watching a rock video (the soundtrack to this is cool although, some of the night club songs lose their edge a little) and it’s one of those films you can watch with your toes tapping all the time.
And as if this wasn’t enough... the acting and chemistry from the actors, many of whom I’ve seen in other films (I just can’t put names to faces here) is just amazing. I mean, Meiko Kaji is always great to watch and the tough attitude she conveys coupled with her strong screen presence means you’re always onto a winner (even this early on in her career). However, as brilliant as she is here... and she is... she’s kind of playing second fiddle to the wonderful, attitude filled, tough gal role of Akiko Wada’s lone wolf... err... stray cat kind of character, charming all the girls here who revel in her coolness in a way which almost brings a sapphic admiration to the front (which I’m sure was probably a deliberate move on the part of the director but it’s not spelled out too much here). She’s pretty amazing in this and she and Kaji make a rip roaring pair of main protagonists to get behind on this kaleidoscopic whirlwind of a movie (kaleidoscopic to the point where the director even rotates the frame 360 degrees in one club scene).
With all this plus an unusual beach buggy versus motorcycle chase, this film is an absolute wonder and, despite some warnings in the back of the booklet about the ‘rawness’ of certain aspects and why they’ve made the restoration decisions they have (bearing in mind I don’t think Arrow restored these themselves, possibly), the film looks absolutely brilliant with a very clear transfer and no picture damage that I could see. Literally, my one grumble was that I wish they’d subtitled one or two more of the Japanese language songs sung by the random groups in the film but, it doesn’t detract from the movie in any way and, frankly, I just loved this first entry in the series. I’m not sure the second one can live up to it but I’ll find out very soon. I’d recommend this to pretty much anyone who wants to see how brilliant the aesthetic visual language of cinema can be utilised to tell even a basic story and capture the imagination. Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss is a real assault on the senses but, you know, not in a bad way and I can’t wait to see what’s in store next (although this director doesn’t return to the series until the third film).