Saturday, 12 November 2016

Samurai Reincarnation (Kinji Fukasaka, 1981)


As the camera cranes up from a knotted nettle bush a dense forest of spikes is revealed. This network of spears, each topped with a grey-fleshed human head, is layered between a carpet of thick fog and a hot pink sky. It is the aftermath of the slaughter of an army of Christian rebels and their leader, dressed in ceremonial armour, wanders through this phantasmagorical diorama, swearing vengeance to the skies as they turn from pink to blood red and summoning demons to aid him in his mission of retribution.


Kinji Fukasaka knows how to open a movie. Samurai Reincarnation is a visually arresting movie, showing image after image that are at once fantastical and nightmarish. Unfortunately the narrative, especially in the first half of the movie, doesn't quite match the aesthetic.

The revenge hungry Christian lord spends a good hour of the movie recruiting his army of demons. He summons a betrayed wife from the dead, prolongs the life of  master swordsman, gives a serial killer the promise of fresh victims and turns family members on each other. His band of undead warriors burn across feudal Japan; their ultimate goal to seduce their enemy, curse his people and bring everything he rules over crashing down in flames. At least that is my best guess because the plot isn't entirely clear (though this is as much to do with the weak dubbing as it is the visual storytelling). The recruitment part of this movie is a little sluggish and even when their are spurts of incident they are often not as thrilling as they need to be.


And yet it is difficult to pull ones eyes away even when the movie runs slow. The visuals are stunning and the design, from intricate samurai armour to set dressing, is iconic and stylised. Even costumes that would appear, on paper, to be fairly simplistic are rendered in memorable shapes and textures. Sonny Chiba (yes, Sonny Chiba is the main dude) is instantly iconic in with his wild hair, crazy eye patch and black robes.


There comes a point, about 70 minutes into the movie, where the action on screen catches up with the wild imagery. A sword dual on the beach is thrilling, efficient and brutal while a running battle against an army of warriors in a flaming Tenchu, captured in a series of ambitiously blocked long takes, is worthy of being the climax. Especially considering one of the fighters is played by the Lone Wolf himself, Tomisaburo Wakayama. Wearing a grey wig and playing a slightly frailer swordsman than we are used to he still gets to let rip with a blade, cutting down assailant after assailant. How this will play for those not familiar with the Lone Wolf and Cub series isn't clear, but for a diehard fan like me I was close to cheering.


It isn't the climax though. Oh no. Following this battle we get to see a showdown between Chiba and Wakayama in the burnt out husk of the collapsing Tenchu. The battle doesn't quite live up to the promise, but seeing those two titans of Japanese action cinema clash swords in such an epic surrounding thrills none-the-less.


This movie isn't a home run, but it comes close. The languid pace of the first half, no real characters to root for, the lack of fierce blood sprays synonymous with samurai movies and a bewilderingly abrupt ending makes this a frustratingly difficult movie to go crazy over. It is, however, full of imagery and iconography that are unforgettable. Anyone even attempting another Mortal Kombat movie should watch this movie. Samurai Reincarnation doesn't provide much for the brain or emotions, but feeds your eyes and nerves until they are fit to burst.


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Blue Tigers, American Dragons and Terrible Cops.

The conservative crime and action movies of the 70's and 80's would often see the lives of everyday (white, middle class) americans being intruded upon by some outside force be that a gang, a terrorist, a psychopath, or some other undesirable element. The invasion of this alien element would require violence and right wing ideologies to return the world to the status quo. As the 80s ended these marginalised groups, and their capacity to buy cinema tickets, were being recognised as legitimate subcultures by hollywood in addition to mainstream audiences becoming more interested in their unfamiliar ways. As cultures began to diversify action movies broadened their subject matter and rather than treat these new cultures as an alien interruption they sought to immerse the protagonists, and audience, in their worlds.

One of the worlds that mid-budget action movies seemed to become obsessed with is that of the Yakuza. Clearly obsessed with the strict codes of honour, martial arts intrigue, exotic full body tattoos and the excuse to have those naked women having sushi eaten off them there was an explosion of movies featuring the clash between good old American crime stories and the mysterious rituals and textures of the East. Movies such as American Yakuza and Rising Sun (both 1993) and Blue Tiger (1994) revelled in exploring these fascinating new cultures.


Of course that was part of the problem. Although this was indeed an attempt to engage with cultural shifts beyond "weird ethnic thug" these movies treated these new worlds as if they were mythological realms found in a Tolkien book. The main reason is that ultimately these films presented a white guy's interpretation of these other cultures and as such everyone not white and American were treated as strange, mystical and "the other'.

What is most interesting about revisiting some of these movies is what we actually learn about the American characters, especially when looking at the fusion of Yakuza thriller and buddy cop movie. Part of this cultural broadening often saw the conservative cop partnered with someone from the same cultural origin as the bad guys but what was particularly noticeable about the cops in some of the Yakuza movies I watched is that they were all fucking awful at their job. Either flat out incompetent or criminally negligible.

That's not to say that any action movie featuring cops presents an ethically idealised image of how policing should be (check out an earlier article on this) but all three of the movies I watched prior to writing this featured such shockingly bad policework I became enthralled by their negligence; way more than the crazy devotion it takes to lop a pinky off by way of apology.

Take Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989): We are introduced to Nick Conklin, or Michael Douglas dressed in his best 80's cop halloween outfit (or it might be Faith era George Michael, I can't quite tell) as he is under investigation by internal affairs for his involvement with another cop who might be on the take. In addition we are shown up front that he likes to illegally street race for money. He hates his superiors, despises the very nerve of I.A. investigating crooked cops and generally acts like a massively petulant bellend. It's like someone has stuck a wig, aviators and fake stubble on a two-year old in the middle of gargantuan strop.


Conklin witnesses a Yakuza execution and is sent to Japan to retrieve the fleeing perp. His character goes through the checklist of trying out Japanese food, telling them about American sayings, getting pissy with the Japanese Police for not letting him run the streets with a gun and being partnered with a Japanese Detective who, despite clearly being a good cop, he berates for getting in his way for most of the film. While in Japan the only bit of real policing he does is that he steals money from a crime scene because he reckons it is counterfeit. Despite this clearly being against regulations and getting his new partner proper in the shit his hunch turns out to be right and so the Japanese police have to re-think their entire methodology. Of course they do.

Oh, and it turns out not only was Conklin's partner on the take, so was he. He was skimming money out of the evidence locker to pay for his divorce because he is clearly a shitty husband as well as a shitty cop.


His final act of bringing ruination to the good Japanese cop's career is to convince him to tool up and join him on a mega off-the-books assassination of the Yakuza boss he's been trying to track. Conklin is corrupt, arrogant and only succeeds at his job though breaking the rules and relying on sheer bloody luck.

Nearly ten years later American Dragons (Ralph Hemecker, 1998) pulls a switcheroo. This time it is Korean cop Kim, played by Jooong-Hoon Park, who travels to the US to be teamed up with Michael Biehn's Tony Luca to track down a Yakuza hitman. They begin by investigating the CEO of a respectable Japanese company only for Kim to start wailing on one of his assistants. He literally starts a brawl in this guy's office, complete with hard rock soundtrack. This happens quite a lot and the two even have a They Live style punch-up in an alley because they won't share information with each other. Luca, by comparison, is actually a pretty good cop who seems to play by the rules (mostly) and who seems to get on with the other cops, even his captain.


Both American Dragons and Black Rain share similar stylistic problems. Despite Black Rain being of a higher pedigree it is still a run of the mill police action movie. Scott's visual edge means the film looks gorgeous and has all the grit and texture of a French Connection-style procedural. The subject matter, though, is more fitting for your average Stallone blast 'em up and this means it is never serious enough to feel like a real cop drama and a couple of exciting motorcycle chases aside it is never exciting enough to be a full-on action film. Likewise American Dragons' arty lighting and slow-motion make it look far more evocative than most straight to video cop movies and although the action fares better (slow motion and squibby shoot-outs are rarely boring to watch) it plods along when it should rocket through its running time. It does, however, kill its bad guys in a really awesome way. It would be my favourite moment of all these movies if it hadn't been almost immediately trumped by...

Showdown in Little Tokyo (Mark L. Lester, 1991) has the same Director, heart and wanton disregard for integrity as action masterpiece Commando. It has, by the looks of things, only a fraction of the budget. What it lacks in overblown absurdity it more than makes up for with terrible policework.
The nice twist here is that that the US cop, played by Dolph Lundgren in what appears to be perpetual
forced perspective (he looks as tall as Gandalf does to the Hobbits), is the one with all the cultural know-how relating to Japan and the Yakuza while his partner, Brandon Lee playing Japanese, has grown up in the US and knows nothing of his ancestry. Of course this nice little switch serves little to no purpose and is soon dispensed to get on with some really objectionable law enforcement.

Lundgren has an axe to grind with the big bad Yakuza (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa - who appears in so many of these films it's unreal) and despite giving Lee's character a proper talking to about respect tries to shoot him the moment his giant's eyes spot him. Later they bust into a public bath house to hassle Tagawa and his henchmen while they bathe in tiny thongs. This turns into a fist fight ending with a sumo-like thug getting knifed to death by one of our "heroes". Lundgren and Lee of course have to flee the scene when cops arrive because it is absolutely clear to everyone that what they are doing is completely illegal.

Lundgren's cop just lumbers his way through every scene like Frankenstein in denim. At one point he has to rescue Tia Carrere's showgirl from Tagawa's mansion. He just walks in shooting every bodyguard dead, grabs Carrere and casually walks through a patio window, tips a car over and blows it up. He then takes her back to his place to sleep with her despite the fact Tagawa's crime boss had sexually abused her the night before to the extent she was willing to commit sepeku moments before Lundgren showed up.

Despite this clear lack of poise, skill and ethics Lundgren's Chris Kenner is depicted as the perfect human. Not only is he a giant of a man with a perfectly sculpted body we are told he has access to an endless well of abilities. In the opening scene he drops from the skylight of a warehouse into the ring of an illegal kickboxing tournament and announces that he is arresting everyone. The two expert kickboxers decide to take him on but, you guessed it, Kenner can out-kickbox two kickboxers at once. When he takes Carrere back to his icky sex den - a beautiful japanese hut with an outside hot tub and shit - she asks him where he found such a lovely place. "I built it" is his reply, sounding like something Statham's Spy character would say. And of course there in the infamous compliment from Lee's character, who tells Kenner he has "the biggest dick I've ever seen on a man". The dude can even wear this outfit...


...for the whole finale and not reduce his enemies to fits of laughter. And yet every time we are told he is amazing he just demonstrates more and more awful policing. This culminates in the American Dragons-trumping final moments where Lundgren tracks down Tagawa in a nearby parade and engages him in one on one combat. After a bloody blade duel Tagawa is impaled and flung like a dart onto a giant Catherine wheel that lights up and spins around. It is a beautiful moment and one that lead to me to lose my drink through my nostrils.


As Tagawa spins in the background Lundgren, Lee and Carrere high-five and walk off into the distance seemingly oblivious to the fact they have just ruined a fucking parade and cut a man to death with a samurai sword in front of children. What a trio of massive bastards.

After watching these movies I don't feel I've learned anything I didn't know about Japan or their organised crime but I did learn that the kind of cops normally sent to tackle them are sloppy, corrupt, incompetent, unnecessarily brutal, petty and oblivious to the collateral damage, emotional or otherwise, they cause.





Saturday, 5 November 2016

Evil of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1974)


Evil of Dracula is the third in Toho's Bloodthirsty Trilogy which also includes Legacy of Dracula (AKA Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll) and Lake of Dracula. I have not seen Legacy and Lake has some nice moments but is ultimately a little slow moving, saving its major Dracula action up for the final 15 mins. Evil of Dracula, however, is far more rich in gothic imagery and classic horror iconography.

Plot-wise it is fairly routine: A Teacher begins working at a remote boarding school for girls only to find a number of strange occurrences and ailments have befallen the pupils there and before long he begins to suspect the principle.

Over the past twenty years Bram Stoker's monstrous creation has been somewhat neutered. In the book he is a persuasive but full-blooded evil doer; a vile creature hell-bent on inflicting misery to sustain his own miserable life. Early incarnations, from Lugosi to Lee, amped up the seductive elements but remained powerful, imposing and frightening. Gary Oldman's performance introduced a romantic tragedy to the character and although it works in Coppola's flamboyant horror pantomime the many movies that tried to build on this particular element ended up turing the fearsome monster into a lovesick fop. There are endless portrayals of Dracula, and other vampires, who are mopey, broken-hearted wimps with awful haircuts and punchable faces. The culmination of this was Richard Roxburgh's energetic rendering of the dread count as a flapping, wailing, emotionally wounded, wannabe Father who can also turn into a giant bat monster in Van Helsing. It's mad and it is clearly an attempt to bring all the various incarnations of Dracula into one performance that ends up looking like a bunch of flailing and warbling - like a performing arts student in a washing machine. Still, better than Blade 3's tree-trunk in a cape I guess.

Where the hell was I? Oh, yes... so with a bunch of pretty shitty Dracula's to choose from it was nice to discover another Dracula that is more my kind of thing. Here he is powerful without looking huge, pale-faced and ethereal but monstrous and solid and capable of at one moment being intense, intelligent and magnetic and another a hissing monster, mouth stretching to hold its rows of fangs. He doesn't get to say much and screen time is limited, but every scene he is in we are treated to a proper fucking Dracula.


There is plenty going on when Dracula isn't on screen. This is one of those all-girls schools that has women as pupils and although it is, by Hammer's standards, quite chaste it has been noticeably sexed up from the previous movie. The business of trying to work out what is wrong with the pupils is handled well so that you are not just waiting for another one to succumb to the Prince of Darkness.


The last half hour, however, really amps up the horror elements. The imagery gets even more gothic, the gore levels are raised significantly due to a nicely unsettling literal de-facing sequence and the final confrontation between hero and vampire is a nicely escalating fight sequence. Dracula's melty-faced end is fun as well - I really miss those dissolve into skeleton effects.

Evil of Dracula doesn't come close to Hammer's Dracula movies (nor even Paul Naschy's gothic horrors) but it's nice to know that even Japan had a crack at this kind of thing. This is a solid, atmospheric and classical depiction of Dracula and if, like me, you're sick of whiney fops in face paint then it might be worth checking this out.



Total Cults Total Tabletop: X-Wing

Overview


Hop into the cockpit of an X-Wing or a Tie-Fighter and take to the skies in daring dogfights in an attempt to out-manoeuvre and out-shoot your opponents.




Table Play


Most tabletop war games can be arduous affairs with constant measuring and rule checking but X-
Wing is a quick to pick-up and simple to play skirmish game. In the basic set you pick either an X-Wing fighter or two Tie-Fighters, select your pilots and add upgrade cards (droids, torpedoes, strategies, etc) and deploy them in battle. Skirmishes are played over a series of rounds with each round having three phases. Phase one sees you planning your next move. Each play takes the movement dial and secretly selects their ship's trajectory. The options on the dial correspond with the movements rulers provided with the game. Once everyone has chosen their next move and placed their dials face down on the play area the second phase begins. The pilot with the lowest skill level reveals their movement first. They take the movement ruler they have selected on their dial, places it in front of their ship then moves to their ship to the end of the ruler. The remaining players do the same in order. Phase three is combat. The range ruler is used to check which ships can be hit by others. A number of red attack dice are rolled by the attacking ship, while the defending ships rolls green dice. Every evade symbol rolled on green cancels out a hit on red. Any hits left are taken off the ships total. Play continues until all enemy ships are destroyed.




Above the Table


This game is played almost entirely on the table yet a number of additional rules and strategies add depth rather than complexity to the game. At the end of the activation phase actions can be played depending on what are available on the pilots' info cards. These actions can include last minute emergency manoeuvres, award tokens that allow you to alter the results of die rolls and target locks to bring torpedoes and other missiles into play. Pilots each have unique skills and upgrade cards can add strategies alongside weapons. This means that some pilots work well with others while some ships work well in formation. Ultimately a lot of the strategising happens when you are establishing your squadron.




Craft


It's Fantasy Flight again, so you can rely on a well made game. As usual there are an abundance of firm and well designed tokens, cards with excellent artwork and nicely laid out rulebooks. The main draw, however, is the ships. Accurately rendered, fully painted and with no assembly needed save the bases these are excellent and worthy of collecting in their own right. The basic set, as I have said, comes with two Tie-Fighters and an X-Wing but pretty much every starfighter from the original trilogy and expanded universe you can imagine are available as expansions. Then there are bigger ships, like Slave-1 and the Millenium Falcon and even super large ships like the Tantive. All ships come with more pilot and upgrade cards and in some cases new rules meaning they aren't just good to look at but add to the game in meaningful ways.






Experience Level


Purists might want to by the original set however I went with the Force Awakens version because the tutorial play was a little better laid out (and it has some non-skirmish based missions in there too). Rather than reading and then trying to work it all out you play as you go meaning we were playing in about 10 minutes of opening the box. The basic play is really simply and accessible by various ages and skill levels. The bolt on advanced rules add depth and running time and might require a bit more of an experienced player but its a game you can learn to play as you go. It really is as accessible a tabletop wargame as you could want. It can be played on any flat surface although playmats (like the one pictured) can be purchased to add a little extra immersion to the experience.




Overall


I can't remember a time when I was so quickly impressed by a game. Simple, well built and with seemingly limitless potential to expand this really is a class A tabletop experience and at only £20 - £30 (depending on your outlet) for the basic set it is incredibly value for money. Seriously, you should just go and buy this thing. It's awesome.






Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Inanimate AKA Harbinger Down (Alec Gillis, 2015)


B-movies of old would often piggyback on the successes of bigger movies and produce films that would make up for the lack of production value with bizarro choices and a lack of regard for taste. Unfortunately nowadays when you go to the lower budget end of genre movies whatever promise is offered by an interesting concept or DVD cover is often squandered with piss-weak digital work and a sickly glaze of what we are told is irony while treating Zack Snyder and Paul W.S. Anderson like they're grandmasters of cinema. Inanimate suffers from some similar issues but is a step above the rest by virtue of ripping off a better class of movie.

A University professor and his student assistant hop on board a crabbing boat as it travels into the icy tundra of Alaska on a whale tracking project only to find a sinister organism buried in the ice that escapes and dispatches with the crew in a variety of slimy ways.


If you hadn't guessed already writer/director (and visual effects artist) Gillis clearly loves The Thing and god bless him he's done what everyone would want: instead of remaking or rebooting it he's gone and made his own version. So although it is extremely derivative it does at least feel new and separate from Carpenter's masterpiece. And thank Christ because although at times fun this movie isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, a masterpiece.

The movie's opening scenes can trick you into thinking your watching another Asylum-level production. Although Gillis' insistence of mimicking Carpenter means he at least gets some atmosphere on screen it feels very cheap and anaemic. I'm never going to hold a low budget against a movie (look at the rest of my shit) but this particular texture of cheapness sets off a muscle memory of sorts that forewarns me of imminent digital wankery or Hasslehoff cameos. There are some practical symptoms of low funds as well: There are few wide shots in the opening scenes, partly due to not being able to reveal larger sets but possibly also because some of the film was shot on a real ship and there was little room for camera equipment. As such this means that most of the cast are not often seen on screen in more than a two-shot and this, coupled with an inconsistent range of acting ability and some clunky dialogue, means it is hard to warm to the group of characters we are going to spend time with. So in a weird reverse the low budget impacts more on the drama than the production value.

As wobbly as this makes the opening half hour of the movie the monster action, when it surfaces, is far more exciting. Gillis is a well established effects artist with a real passion for practical work and so this film's big draw is that save for a few shots here and there it is almost all practical. The weird monsters that emerge out of the monstrous goo are again based on The Thing. These pink, slimy beasties come in all shapes and sizes and although the budgetary restraints still show at times they are infinitely more satisfying then the flaccid CGI of most of Asylum's back catalogue. The crab woman is especially wonderful. Alas Gillis employs the dreaded shakey-cam whenever a monster appears and so we never get to inspect these wonderful creatures for long. What we do see is superb though.


And did I mention Lance Henriksen is in this? It's almost unfair to drop a bunch of only mostly capable actors in with a guy who just eats through every scene even when not trying to. Henriksen even delivers the line "we're going to need a bigger bucket" like it's not the overused to the point of groan-inducing homage that it is.


Gillis doesn't really know how to build tension and the dialogue and characterisation are fairly grim. The plotting, however, is pretty good and there is always something going and its nice to see this kind of level of production taking it's cues from movies like The Thing rather than Grindhouse or the Dawn of the Dead remake. It doesn't come close to the movie it idolises but there is enough here to enjoy and it gets a pass from me just for being earnest rather than smug, self-referential and laden with CGI wank.