Wednesday 30 June 2010

Tommy (1975)

Mention Ken Russell to most people and chances are the movie they’ll think of is Tommy, based on the rock opera of the same name by Pete Townshend of The Who’s. It’s a movie I’ve avoided seeing for years, much as I revere Ken Russell. And it’s definitely a mixed bag.

Tommy is a boy born during the Second World War. His father is a British bomber pilot who is posted as missing in action. After the war his mother finds a new love, at a seaside holiday camp. The father returns and is killed by the mother and her lover. The shock of witnessing the killing renders Tommy deaf, dumb and blind. He suffers various indignities at the hands of an assortment of strange characters - his crazy cousin Kevin, his crazier Uncle Ernie, and is given psychedelic drugs and encounters the Acid Queen.

Tommy eventually discovers an unexpected skill - he becomes the greatest pinball player in the history of the world. He and his family become fabulously rich as a result but pinball is only the start. Tommy will go on to found a major religious cult, and will endure further sufferings.

It’s a story that gave Ken Russell the chance to indulge his visual imagination to the full without having to fret to much about narrative coherence. It’s essentially a string of musical numbers, rather like a linked series of lavish music videos, and the episodic structure offers the opportunity to present a succession of visual set-pieces. Each set-piece has its own visual style, its own mood.

So far so good. But there are some problems. The first problem is that the rock opera as a concept is one of the worst ideas in the history of western civilisation. Don’t get me wrong. I like rock’n’roll and I like opera. But the two should never, ever be mixed. Just as rock musicians should never have been permitted to consort with symphony orchestras.

The second problem is that the music is awful. This is of course a matter of personal taste. I like some of The Who’s early material but they rapidly degenerated into bombastic stadium rock of the worst sort.

The third problem is that Pete Townshend was getting into some serious hippie-dippie territory at the time he wrote Tommy. The combination of the pomposity of rock opera with hippie ideals is enough to make strong men shudder.

The fourth problem is Ann-Margret, who plays Tommy’s mother. Not that her performance is bad. Far from it. She’s just too good. She completely dominates the film and entirely overshadows the central character. She unbalances the movie.

With all these problems the movie still has one big thing in its favour. It has Ken Russell. With Ken Russell’s visual genius you can even ignore the terrible music. The images tell the story quite successfully without the music anyway. Russell was attracted to the theme of false religions and false prophets and has a good deal of fun with it. The Cult of Marilyn might have been an obvious idea, but only Ken Russell would have pushed it so far and made it work. There’s a good deal of Christ imagery as well. The combination of Russell’s Catholicism and Pete Townshend’s new age silliness works better than you might expect.

While Ann-Margret does dominate the movie this is really no bad thing. She’s magnificent. Roger Daltrey is adequate enough as Tommy. Oliver Reed is bizarre but entertaining as Tommy’s stepfather.

A good deal of credit must go Russell’s first wife Shirley. Her costume designs are a major part of the film’s outrageousness. The movie was apparently made on a relatively small budget, demonstrating once again that talent and imagination are so much more important than money and technology when it comes to making visually striking movies.

Everything in this movie is real. That really is Roger Daltrey doing the insanely dangerous stunts. That really is Ann-Margret writhing on the carpet covered from head to toe in baked beans. There are no doubles. And no dubbing of singing voices. When Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson sing, you’re hearing Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson sing.

Ken Russell’s commentary track is well worth the time taken to hear it. He has very fond memories of the film. His admiration for Ann-Margret knows no bounds.

Not a complete success, Tommy remains an extraordinary experience.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Sucker Money (1933)

Willis Kent Productions was one of those movie production companies that was even further down the food chain than the Poverty Row studios. They were involved in some Poverty Row productions but mostly they catered to the exploitation market, making sensationalistic potboilers such as Sucker Money.

Although it came out in 1933 I’m not sure that it actually qualifies as a pre-code movie. Willis Kent movies were the types of movies, in common with other exploitation movies of the period from the 30s to the 50s, that were generally distributed outside the established distribution networks dominated by the major studios. Even when the Production Code came in these tiny companies weren’t bound by its rules anyway.

Although Sucker Money was apparently filmed in the studios of Republic Pictures the studio doesn’t appear to have had any actual involvement. Presumably they just rented out studio space.

The plot is as sensationalistic as you could hope for. A newspaperman goes undercover to blow the lid off the operations of a phony psychic. This counterfeit spiritualist claims to be able to contact the spirits of the dead, for a price of course. He has quite an elaborate setup with a team of actors and various technical aids including a movie projector that appears to show his clients scenes of their dead relatives. The dearly departed offer helpful advice, but the advice is usually along the lines of recommending the purchase of shares in speculative mining companies that the phony psychic just happens to own.

The fake psychic’s current target is a wealthy but naïve businessman from a small town in the Midwest. The businessman has an attractive daughter and she provides the love interest for the crusading reporter. The scam starts to go wrong, but the reporter’s cover is also blown and he finds himself held captive while the scammers plan to kidnap the businessman’s daughter.

This is very low-budget film-making indeed, and to describe the plot as creaky would be an act of generosity. The acting is mostly dire, with a particularly wooden hero. The special effects are crude but considering it’s a zero-budget film they’re serviceable enough.

Surprisingly, for an exploitation film, there isn’t much in the way of sex and sin. In fact there isn’t any sex and sin at all, which leads me to believe the movie may have been intended as a very cheap B-feature for theatrical release rather than an exploitation film as such.

It’s a public domain movie and my copy is from Mill Creek’s Dark Crimes boxed set. It’s an awful DVD transfer but it’s the sort of movie that probably only exists in very battered theatrical prints. It’s also a film that’s not likely to be getting a fancy restoration job done on it any time soon.

With all its faults the inherent interest of the subject matter makes it at least moderately entertaining. Especially if love movies about fake spiritualists and con artists with a suggestion of the fascinating and seedy-glamorous worlds of travelling carnivals and sideshows.

Director Dorothy Davenport had been married to silents star Wallace Reid. After he died as a result of drug addiction she directed a number of exploitation movies which she used as a vehicle to warn the public against the evils of moral decay. The movies she directed including the highly entertaining 1934 The Road to Ruin, a delightful mix of sleaze, sin, nudity and moralising.

At just under an hour Sucker Money is a harmless enough time-killer, and it’s an amusing curiosity.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Secrets of a Call Girl (1973)

Secrets of a Call Girl is a movie that has suffered from being stuck with hopelessly inappropriate titles. It’s also been released as Anna, The Pleasure, The Torment and the Italian title Anna, quel particolare piacere (which translates as Anna, a Particular Pleasure) is equally bad. This is most definitely not an erotic movie, nor is it really a crime thriller. It was originally conceived as a romance, and that’s probably the most accurate description.

The basic framework of the plot certainly contains crime thriller elements but it’s perhaps closest in spirit to some of the 1940s Hollywood movies about gangster’s women (the 1950 Joan Crawford vehicle The Damned Don’t Cry being a good example). This is very much a film about a woman.

Edwige Fenech is Anna, a slightly naïve small-town girl working as a cashier in a cafe in Bergamo. Her life changes completely when a mysterious and darkly handsome stranger walks into her cafe. She is swept off her feet but what she doesn’t know is that Guido is a mobster. And a particularly nasty one. She is obsessed and when he offers to take her to Milan with him she jumps at the chance of seeing the bright lights of the big city and sampling the high life.

She does find glamour and wealth in Milan, but at a price. Guido is violent towards her and is quite prepared to force her into working as a part-time call girl to further his ambitions. He and his boss Riccardo Sogliani have a stable of beautiful girls who are used to make connections with rich powerful men. Anna is horrified at having to prostitute herself and she is disturbed by the criminal activities of Guido. But he’s so good-looking, and the sex is great. Anna has a bit of a taste for rough sex and she has difficulty in persuading herself that she really needs to get out of this situation.

Things come to a head when she falls pregnant. Guido knocks her about and demands that she have an abortion. She flees, but once you’re involved with mobsters you’re involved for life. She meets a nice man, a doctor, but her attempts to establish a new life for herself are complicate by the fact that she was a witness to a murder committed by Guido. Guido and Riccardo are not inclined to allow her to escape them.

When this movie was made in 1973 Edwige Fenech was anxious to prove she was more than just a hot body. The role of Anna was her big chance to show she could really act and she does a pretty fair job. Corrado Pani is excellent as Guido. Despite his viciousness he has enough charm, sexiness and glamour to make it entirely understandable that Anna would have fallen for him.

The standout performer though is Richard Conte as mob boss Riccardo. Conte had been a minor star in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. This performance makes it all the more inexplicable that he never became a major star.

Giuliano Carnimeo’s direction is difficult to fault. It was a reasonably big budget movie (as these sorts of movies go) with quite a lot of location shooting. There’s a nice contrast between the provincial innocence of Bergamo on the one hand and the glamour and wickedness of Milan and the world of big-time criminals and gambling on the other.

The excellent NoShame DVD (now sadly out of print since the company went bust) includes interviews with the director and screenwriter as well as star Edwige Fenech (looking every bit as stunning than she did back in the 70s). The movie has been re-released on DVD by Mya DVD but without the extras. Im told their DVD looks pretty good but the NoShame release is obviously the one to go for if you can still find a copy.

This is a movie that works equally well as a crime thriller and as a romantic drama about a woman who has made a terrible mistake and is now desperately trying to extricate herself. Highly recommended.

Friday 25 June 2010

Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia (1977)

Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia was the second of the official sequels to that most notorious of all exploitation movies, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. This time Ilsa is the Colonel in command of one of Stalin’s gulags, although the movie really doesn’t turn out quite the way you might expect.

This was a Canadian production, and more than half of the film actually takes place in Canada. It opens in 1953, with Ilsa trying to break the spirit of a particularly recalcitrant political prisoner, Andrei Chikurin. She has her own mad doctor, an unpleasant character named Leve, who is in charge of the more technological means of persuasion. Prisoners who don’t respond to Leve’s scientific approach can always be dealt with in Ilsa’s favourite manner - they are given to her pet tiger Sasha for dinner.

Ilsa is not lacking for other means of entertainment. Her guards fight each other and engage in epic drinking competitions for the honour of sharing her bed. There are always two winners, one man a night not being enough to satisfy llsa.

Unfortunately 1953 is not going to be a happy year for our heroine (or anti-heroine). The news of Stalin’s death casts a chill over proceedings. Ilsa and her most favoured henchmen decide it might be a good time to leave Russia.

We then cut to Montreal in 1977. A team of Soviet athletes is in Canada, and their coach is none other than Andrei Chikurin, who caused Ilsa considerable inconvenience back in 1953. Two of his athletes are very reluctant to leave Montreal without first visiting Montreal’s most celebrated brothel. Chikuin decides the boys have earned some recreation, and he accompanies them. But he is in for a very nasty shock. The madam of the brothel is, yes you guessed it, it’s Comrade Colonel Ilsa.

She’s not the Comrade Colonel any more, but she is the head of a major crime syndicate. Running into Chikurin is rather a shock for her as well, but she’s always prided herself on he thoroughness. She set out to break Andrei Chikurin fourteen years earlier, and now she’s going to finish the job. And Doctor Leve is still with her, and he’s perfected much more sophisticated methods of destroying people’s minds and bending them to Ilsa’s will. But the Soviet authorities do not take kindly to the news that one of the nation’s top sports officials has disappeared in Canada. Their intelligence services swing into action and once they discover the identity of the criminal behind the kidnapping it becomes a matter of top priority to deal with the rogue one-time Soviet employee.

So this is not really a prison exploitation movie. It starts that way but it develops into a spy thriller. And a spy thriller of an unusual kind, with the Soviet secret services being the good guys. Those crazy Canadians, making a movie in which the Soviet Special Forces will be the heroes!

Of course it’s all rather silly, but it’s supposed to be. This is very much an exercise in intentional camp, and if you accept it as such then it’s pretty entertaining. If you’re expecting a typical Ilsa movie though you may be disappointed, and that undoubtedly accounts for the movie’s rather poor reputation.

Dyanne Thorne is suitably awesome as Ilsa. The other actors are competent enough but she’s more than capable of carrying the movie on her own.

There’s quite a bit of gore, and it’s actually done with a certain mount of imagination and style. Snowmobiles, spears, automatic weapons, ravenous tigers, explosions and electronic torture devices are all deployed in the service of creating mayhem. There are some reasonably well executed stunts and the movie makes very effective use of the snow-covered landscapes of Canada.

There’s sex and nudity of course, in copious quantities. This is an unabashed exploitation flick and it glories in its trashiness. And that’s its greatest strength. You won’t find too much in the way of redeeming social values or artistic merit here. This movie promises sleaze, trash and fun and it delivers them. And Dyanne Thorne on her own is sufficient reason to watch it.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Venom (1981)

Given the title I was expecting Venom to be a horror movie, but it isn’t. It’s a crime thriller, but with venomous snakes included. An odd mix but it kind of works.

This 1981 British production has the kind of cast cult movie fans dream abut - Oliver Reed, Klaus Kinski, Susan George and Michael Gough. With a line-up like that, what could go wrong? And in fact the results are pretty satisfactory.

A sick rich kid lives with his American parents and his grandfather in one of the more luxurious parts of London. The kid collects animals and has an impressive little menagerie. His grandfather used to be an explorer and keep the boy entertained with his takes of thrills and adventure on safari in Africa.

This idyllic life is shattered when the boy is kidnapped by a criminal gang. The gang is led by a shadowy European criminal type (Klaus Kinski). The household’s chauffeur Dave (Oliver Reed) and the maid (Susan George) are also in on the plot. What they don’t know is that when the boy went to the pet store that afternoon to collect his new pet, a harmless African house snake, he was given the wrong snake. He was given a black mamba by mistake. Not just possibly the world’s deadliest snake, but an outrageously aggressive species as well.

The kidnapping is already starting to go badly wrong even before the black mamba escapes. That just adds to the chaos. And it adds to the headaches of the policeman (played by Nicol Williamson) assigned to deal with what has now become a major hostage drama. He has some assistance from a toxicology expert, Dr Marion Stowe (Sarah Miles) but that all goes badly wrong as well and he has to call in a snake expert from London Zoo (played by Michael Gough).

For an 80s movie it’s quite light on violence, despite the subject matter. And what violence there is is fairly non-graphic. Aside from the wild card of the deadly snake it’s a straighforward but very competent thriller relying more on suspense and the very strong cast rather than lots of blood.

Kinski and Oliver Reed make a great movie criminal team. They’re both totally out of control, but in different ways. Reed is jumpy and out of his depth, inclined to be trigger-happy due to his nervousness but at the same time he’d really prefer not to hurt anyone. Apart from the cops. He doesn’t like cops. Kinski is just as wired but much more ruthless and with a more obvious enjoyment in terrorising people. Kinski doesn’t go over-the-top, but being Klaus Kinski he doesn’t need to. He’s quite capable of giving the impression of being a dangerous and unbalanced crazy without needing to do anything too overt.

One of my few criticisms of the film is that Susan George doesn’t get enough screen time. But while she is onscreen she gets to play a sexy villainess, which is why she should have been given more screen time. Nicol Williamson is surprisingly effective as the tough cop. He’s tough and ruthless but in a low-key way.

The original director was Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper but he was replaced after production had started by Piers Haggard. Which was probably a good thing. Haggard had a solid track record in movies and TV and he does a very professional job here.

The Region 4 DVD includes no extras whatsoever but it’s an acceptable transfer.

Not a great movie, but an entertaining one that succeeds in what it sets out to achieve.

Monday 21 June 2010

Burnt Offerings (1976)

Burnt Offerings is a 1976 horror movie that stars Oliver Reed, Karen Black an Bette Davis. Now is that a dream cast for a horror movie or what? And did I mention Burgess Meredith plays a supporting role? With a cast like that you can be sure that scenery will get chewed.

Marian (Karen Black) and Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed) are a nice couple with a 12-year-old son named Davy. They’re looking for a house to rent for the summer and when they find one it almost seems to good to be true (always a dangerous thing when you’re a character in a horror movie). The house is huge, old and gorgeous. And the slightly dotty brother and sister, Arnold and Roz Allardyce, who own it are asking for a ridiculously low rental. The only thing is their elderly mother won’t leave the house so they’ll have to share it with her but they assure the Rolfs that she’s really no trouble at all. They’ll hardly even know she’s there. There’ll be plenty of room for the Rolfs and for Ben’s aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) who lives with them.

Marian has fallen hopelessly in love with the house already, although Ben is a little suspicious. When they move in they find the brother and sister gone. They don’t actually see the old lady. Everything seems fine though. Although one or two odd incidents do occur. The house suddenly looks slightly different. And some rough-housing in the pool between Ben and Davy gets out of hand. In fact Davy is almost drowned.

Ben eventually decides that perhaps it would be better if they left. But Marian (who has changed both her hairstyle as well as her style of dress) will not leave, even after further rather frightening incidents. She spends an inordinate amount of time upstairs in old Mrs Allardyce’s room. Ben still hasn’t set eyes on the old lady. He is increasingly worried. What is to become of them?

Burnt Offerings looks good. The house is terrific. Dan Curtis’s direction is workmanlike but reasonably effective. The big problem is the script, by Curtis and William F. Nolan. The ideas have potential but they don’t really do much with them. And at 116 minutes the film is just a touch too long and just a little on the slow side.

But all is not necessarily lost. All it needs is a couple of outrageously over-the-top performances and it can still work. And that’s where Karen and Ollie come in. Can they produce sufficiently over-the-top performances to save the movie? You bet they can.

Karen Black is superb. A lesser actress would have played Marian as a perfectly ordinary woman who slowly gets drawn into the weirdness of this house. But Karen Black’s acting, even when she’s not playing psychos, always bristles with manic nervous energy and suppressed hysteria. And that makes her particularly effective in this role because it overcomes the suspension of disbelief problem. You don’t have any trouble believing that this is a woman who is going to be sensitive to any weirdness in her environment. And black gives the character a vulnerability that ensures that she never loses our sympathy.

Oliver Reed is just as good. His big asset is that he’s Oliver Reed. He could always do subtle and restrained acting if that was what was called for, being being Oliver Reed you know that at any minute that restraint could be throw out the window.

Bette Davis lands the most thankless role. Her character is underwritten and doesn’t serve all that much purpose. She has her moments, but she’s completely overshadowed by the two leads.

Not a great movie but if (like me) you’re a big fan of Oliver Reed and Karen Black then it’s definitely worth a look.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Daniella By Night (1961)

Daniella By Night (De quoi tu te mêles Daniela!) is an odd little film. It’s a spy thriller that often seems to veer more towards romance or even romantic comedy. At the time it was notable as being the film that made Elke Sommer a star.

Directed by Max Pécas, who had an interesting career making low-budget movies that a steadily increasing emphasis on sex, Daniella By Night combines two equally glamorous worlds - that of high fashion, and of espionage.

Daniella (Elke Sommer) is a young German model newly arrived in Paris. She is to take the place of another model who recently met with an unfortunate (and fatal) accident. She soon catches the eye of the middle-aged and very wealthy boss, Count Castellani, and in doing so arouses the enmity of his current girlfriend. When Daniella starts getting the most desirable modelling assignments this enmity increases even further. Daniella has also made the acquaintance of a handsome young journalist named Karl.

Karl is interested in the Count as well, and we soon discover why. The Count’s fashion house is a cover for an espionage operation. Daniella finds herself unwittingly drawn into the world of spies. There is a microfilm containing top-secret information. The movie wisely doesn’t bore us with any details since all we need to know is that several foreign governments want the microfilm while the French government is equally anxious to buy back this information. The microfilm is concealed within a lipstick.

Poor Daniella is soon involved in more than just espionage - murder is added to the mix as well. She doesn’t know who to trust. Daniella is a bold and resourceful young woman and she’s not prepared to be merely an innocent bystander. If she’s going to be embroiled n international intrigue she’s going to be an active participant.

This movie is representative of what might be called the first wave of eurospy movies. The second wave was heavily influenced by the enormous success of the British James Bond movies and these later films boasted the kinds of gadgetry and outlandish diabolical criminal masterminds that the Bond movies introduced to the world of spy films. The earlier eurospy movies of the 50s and early 60s were a different breed. The most successful were the French Lemmy Caution movies. They lacked the spectacular action sequences and the gadgets borrowed from the Bond movies but they have charm of their own.

These movies are mostly fairly low-key with a visual style owing a great deal to American film noir, but with an essentially light-hearted tongue-in-cheek approach. They’re unashamedly B-movies but they’re stylish and entertaining B-movies.

And of course they have glamorous women, often reminiscent of the classic femme fatal of the film noir, and an aura of danger combined with sexiness. Elke Sommer provides most of the glamour in Daniella By Night and with her natural charm and likeability she’s a heroine who will have little trouble engaging the sympathies of the audience.

The movie’s biggest selling point at the time was that it boasted a nude scene featuring Elke Sommer, which was in fact the only time she ever appeared nude on film. If you’re going to insert gratuitous nudity you should at least do it with a certain amount of style, and that’s what Pécas does. Daniella is strip-searched by the bad guys on stage in front of a night-club audience who think it’s all part of the floor show. It’s done with wit and imagination, quite sort from the inherent appeal of Ms Sommer sans clothing.

It’s a movie that is best approached without excessively high expectations. It’s no cinematic masterpiece but if you accept it as a B-movie it’s a fairly entertaining mix of intrigue, romance and classy sexiness.

The jazz soundtrack is a plus. It’s also a treat for anyone with a taste for early 60s fashions and hairstyles. Lots of beehive hairdos! And Elke Sommer looks rather striking, with some rather bold eye make-up.

Elke’s next movie for Max Pécas, Douce violence (Sweet Violence), is a more interesting film and is also available on DVD.

The First Run Features DVD release of Daniella By Night is best described as adequate. It’s quite watchable and we probably should be grateful that a movie like this is available at all.

Friday 18 June 2010

Violated Paradise (1963)

If you’re looking for offbeat cult movies then they don’t come much more offbeat than Violated Paradise, a 1963 documentary/drama by Marion Gering. It’s a bizarre example of what might be called colonial film-making.

Russian-born Gering had been a Hollywood director in the 20s and 30s. Violated Paradise was based on the work of Italian anthropologist and photographer Fosco Maraini. Maraini had written accounts of his journeys to Tibet in the 1930s but his real obsession was to be Japan, and in particular the Ainu people, the indigenous inhabitants of northern Japan.

Violated Paradise follows the adventures of a half-Japanese half-Ainu girl. It’s a kind of fictionalised documentary, or perhaps it’s documentary-style fiction. What it’s attempting to be is an anthropological investigation of both the old and the new Japan. Like a National Geographic article filmed but with actors and a fictional storyline.

There’s no synchronised sound, but there are two voiceover narrators. The first one we hear is supposed to be the young woman who is the subject of the film. She tells us about the curious customs of the Ainu, their worship of their bear god, and their sacrifice of a bear cub to his deity. The young woman wants to sample life in modern Japan and sets off for Tokyo. On the way she stops off at a village to watch the ama divers.

At this point the movie crosses over into one of the most curious of Japanese exploitation genres, the ama film. The appeal of the ama to film-makers isn’t difficult to work out. The ama divers, who dived for pearls and various seafood delicacies, are all young women. And traditionally they do their diving wearing nothing but a very brief loin-cloth. It’s a perfect opportunity to get away with a lot more nudity than could be shown in any other Japanese movie in the 1950s which is when the ama film gene first appeared. These movies continued to be made into the 1970s.

For Gering this was an equally perfect opportunity to show a great deal of naked female flesh in the guise of a serious anthropological study. And conveniently this is an anthropological move about Japanese sex habits. Our young heroine soon arrives in Tokyo and discovers that the metropolis is the sex and sin capital of the word, or so the movie would have us believe. At this point a typical male omniscient narrator takes over temporarily, in the remarkably pompous style so prevalent in documentaries of that era.

We are then treated to a serious discourse on the decline of the geisha into no more than a glorified prostitute, as our heroine finds that the only employment available in the wicked city is in a geisha house. When she discovers she is expected to have sex with her clients she is shocked and runs away. Meanwhile we are taken on a tour of Tokyo’s fleshpots.

Our plucky heroine is not doomed however. A nice boy from the ama village arrives in Tokyo to marry her and take her home. She is saved from the wickedness of the city and is now free to embrace her new career, as an ama diver. Which offers an opportunity for her to take her clothes off for Gering’s ever-ready camera.

It’s the sort of movie that represents a point of view that will be extremely difficult for a modern audience to comprehend. It reflects an extraordinary vision of Japan as a primitive paradise being corrupted by western sexual mores. We are assured that in traditional Japanese cultures nakedness is next to godliness (yes, in those very words). This healthy view of nudity is contrasted with the depravity of the bar and night-club culture of Tokyo. It reflects the virtuous ethos of traditional rural life as compared to the sinfulness and corruption of cities and of modernity.

The one is staggeringly condescending. One shudders to think what Japanese audiences must have made of this strange little film.

With all its many many flaws it’s an intriguing window into an age that viewed pe-industrial societies in a bizarrely naïve and patronising manner.

It’s greatest asset thing is probably the extensive and truly fascinating footage of Tokyo nightlife in the early 1960s.

This weird little movie is included as an extra on Something Weird’s DVD release of The Notorious Concubines. I believe it’s public domain and that it’s widely available for download. It’s a must-see for anyone with an interest in the way the west viewed non-western cultures at the time, and the way movies portray those non-western cultures. For anyone else it’s an amusing oddity.

Thursday 17 June 2010

The Notorious Concubines (1969)

The Notorious Concubines is based on the 12th century Chinese erotic novel Jin Ping Mei (known in the west as The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus), a novel still apparently banned in China although widely regarded now as a literary classic. It’s not an entirely successful film but it’s worth a look.

Jin Ping Mei is an immensely long book so the movie concentrates on selected episodes. Its biggest weakness is that it’s perhaps overly ambitious in trying to tell the entire story through flashbacks as an old man recounts the story to a dying younger man. The story is not easy to keep track of, and the narrative flow is inevitably disjointed.

Pan Chin Lien is married to an unprepossessing street vendor. Her husband’s brother Wu Sing is an important figure in the Imperial service and he’s handsome and dashing. Pan Chin Lien lusts after his body, and she lusts after the power and status that marriage with such a man would bring. It doesn’t come as a great shock when her husband meets with an unfortunate accident. Wu Sing doesn’t take this very well, and his violent reaction sees him imprisoned. He escapes and becomes leader of a gang of bandits.

Pan Chin Lien meanwhile has found herself a wealthy powerful husband, Hsi Men Ching. He has four other wives already but she’s confident she can soon dominate both the household and her new husband. Thee are various intrigues involving the other wives, and while this is happening Wu Sing is wreaking havoc and planning revenge.

Koji Wakamatsu was one of the most celebrated film-makers to emerge from the world of the Japanese pink film. The great thing about the pink film was (and to some extent still is) that as long as you include a reasonable quantity of sex and nudity you could have almost total artistic control. Koji Wakamatsu had ambitions to be both a political and an avant-garde movie-maker and the pink film gave him the opportunity to do so.

The Notorious Concubines was a more commercial project although the director still manages to use it to some degree to advance his radical political agenda.

The fairly low budget meant that the limited sets had to be augmented by the use of matte paintings. This turns out to be a plus as it enhances the feel of unreality, of listening to someone telling a tale rather than watching actual events unfold. Visually the movie works well.

The acting is competent, with Tomoko Mayama as Pan Chin Lien being particularly good. She’s a femme fatale but this was a work in which women had to be ruthless in using their beauty. It was their one chance to gain power and we cant help feeling some sympathy for her even while being horrified at times by her methods. Juzo Itami is also impressive as the cruel and depraved Hsi Men Ching.

Given the insanely strict Japanese censorship codes the sex and nudity are both very restrained. They’re PG-13 level at most. On the other hand there are some fairly graphic scenes of Hsi Men Ching flogging his wives which are definitely not PG-13. In any situation where you have strict censorship of sexual material you’re going to have film-makers compensating by upping the violence level. In this case Koji Wakamatsu manages to add a political subtext to these exploitation scenes.

The Jin Ping Mei was also filmed by Shaw Brothers in the 1970s under the title The Golden Lotus. I’m inclined to think the Shaw Brothers version is the better film overall.

Koji Wakamatsu’s version is worth seeing, especially given that so few 1960s Japanese pink films have survived. This one survived because it was one of the few to get a US release, being picked up by exploitation king Harry Novak. The US dubbed version is the only version now existing.

The Something Weird DVD release is jam-packed with extras including an entire short feature film which I’ll be watching next. And it includes some bizarre but fascinating Japanese short films.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Thunderbirds Are GO (1966)

Although I love Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi TV series from the 60s and 70s, the one series that I haven’t bothered re-watching for years is Thunderbirds. Possibly because I just watched too much of it when I was young. And surprisingly I’d never seen the 1966 movie version, Thunderbirds Are GO. An omission that I’ve now rectified.

Making a feature film starring puppets was possibly an even bolder step than the TV programs. Whether it was a good idea or not is hard to say. The biggest problem seems to have been that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who wrote the script, weren’t really used to writing for the cinema so what we get feels a bit too much like a standard 50-minute episode of Thunderbirds padded out to around 90 minutes.

The model effects are superb of course, but another problem is that the crew (and the movie was made using the all the same technical people as the series) had become so good at doing the special effects for their TV programs that the movie doesn’t represent a huge step forward. And to make a movie version special it needs to offer something more than the TV version.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t fun in its way. The plot is a stock-standard Thunderbirds plot, but with even more explosions than normal. The first manned mission to Mars falls victim to sabotage. The spaceship, the Zero-X, is rebuilt and another attempt is to be made. This time International Rescue will be on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong. Thanks to International Rescue’s glamorous secret agent Lady Penelope a second sabotage attempt is foiled, but this is Thunderbirds so you just know something is going to go wrong eventually.

The most enjoyable parts of the movie are two sequences in the middle, both involving Lady Penelope. The first of these sequences has Lady Penelope and her faithful butler/chauffeur Parker pursuing one of the saboteurs. Lady P’s famous high-tech pink Rolls-Royce turns out to have some surprising capabilities, but more interesting is her ruthlessness. This is something I’d either forgotten, or perhaps this quality was downplayed in the TV series. After shooting doe the bad guys’ helicopter and watching it crash into the ocean Lady P remarks casually but with considerable satisfaction that, “I don’t think there’s any point in looking for survivors.” Then she and Parker have a bit of chuckle about this. This woman is a total badass.

The second fascinating sequence is a strange dream interlude. Alan Tracy is peeved to hear that after the launch of the Zero-X his brothers Scott and Virgil went off night-clubbing with Lady Penelope. He’s the baby of the Tracy brothers and he tends to be sensitive to implied slights and he also tends to feel left out. He dreams about a fabulous night of clubbing with Lady P. The dream sequence includes an odd but engaging musical number by Cliff Richard and the Shadows (represented by puppet duplicates of themselves but performing themselves on the soundtrack).

A musical big production number is certainly unexpected, but even more intriguing is the implication that Alan may be nursing a bit of an unrequited love thing for Lady P. With definite hints of some sexual fantasies as well! The Alan-Lady P thing gets even more disturbing later on - one can’t help feeling he’d happily give up piloting Thunderbird 3 to be her toy boy!

Despite a few weaknesses the movie is generally entertaining. And it’s a must if you’re a fan of the TV series.

The Region 4 DVD release includes a terrific commentary track done by Sylvia Anderson (who produced as well as co-writing the screenplay) and director David Lane. Apart from offering some great insights into the process of making such a film Sylvia Anderson has some amusing anecdotes, including one about Stanley Kubrick trying to poach the Thunderbirds technical crew for a new movie he was planning called 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Monday 14 June 2010

Sholay (1975)

I’m quite fond of spaghetti westerns, and I’m developing a taste for Bollywood movies, so the idea of a “curry western” was something I couldn’t resist. Sholay, released in 1975, is regarded as the first of this genre. It also happens to be the highest grossing Bollywood movie of all time.

If you’re expecting something resembling a spaghetti western you’re in for some major shocks. It’s possibly debatable that it’s even a western at all. It isn’t set in the American West; it’s set in central India. And it’s set in modern times. On the other hand the main plot is a classic western revenge plot and the basic structure of the movie, and more importantly the whole ethos of the film, makes it absolutely a western.

Being a Bollywood movie it naturally has more than just the central revenge plot. There are certain elements that have to be included in any Bollywood film, and this is no exception. There’s singing and dancing, of course. There are lengthy comic interludes. And there has to be a love story. Since this movie has two heroes, it has two love stories. You might think that would make for a fairly long film, and you’d be spot on. Sholay clocks in at no less than 204 minutes.

The major plotline concerns a policeman, known as the Thakur, and two thieves, Veeru and Jai. The policeman captured the two thieves several year earlier. He was bringing them in by train when the train was attacked by bandits. The two thieves offered to help fight off the bandits. They had the opportunity to escape but it would have meant abandoning the wounded police officer. When the Thakur, now retired, finds himself in need of some hired muscle he remembers the two thieves who fought so bravely and showed such an unexpected sense of honour. They accept the mission he offers them, to bring to justice the notorious bandit Gabbar Singh. The Thakur has a personal score to settle with Gabbar Singh.

Veeru and Jai soon find themselves in a position familiar to any hero of the western genre - the Thakur’s village is being ruthlessly plundered and terrorised by Gabbar Singh’s bandits. In between fighting off bandit attacks and planning the capture of this unpleasant outlaw both thieves find time to fall in love. Jai falls for the Thakur’s widowed daughter-in-law; Veeru loses his heart to a talkative horse-cart driver. The struggle against the bandits takes on the dimensions of a small war and builds to a finale that contains both some expected and some unexpected elements.

If you’re a newcomer to the world of Bollywood you might find the extraordinarily long running time rather daunting. Personally I found that the movie had no difficulty keeping me interested but whether you’ll share my experience or not probably depends on how much tolerance you have for the musical interludes and the comic relief. Both are present in very large quantities.

The movie’s two biggest strengths are director Ramesh Sippy’s visual flair and the exceptionally good acting performances. There are some impressive action set-pieces with the opening bandit attack on the train being a highlight. Amjad Khan as Gabbar Singh is one of the great movie villains, a thoroughly menacing character with a taste for rather sadistic murders. It’s an immensely entertaining performance. Amitabh Bachchan, who plays Jai, is one of Bollywood’s superstars and it’s easy to see why. Dharmendra is equally good as Veeru. There’s an obvious Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid influence in the relationship between the two loveable rogue thief-heroes.
Hema Malini as Basanti doubles as both the chief source of comic relief and as the love interest for Veeru. She does become somewhat annoying in the former role but her character is gradually developed in more depth and displays considerable courage and resourcefulness. The scene in which she has to dance for Gabbar Singh in order to save Veeru’s life is truly inspired.

Another disquieting habit of this movie, if you’re not used to Bollywood, is the way it constantly and abruptly switches back and forth between gritty drama, comic scenes and musical numbers. Along with the leisurely pacing it’s one of the things that you either learn to accept or you don’t.

This is a big movie in every sense of the word. It’s not going to be for everyone. Personally I loved it.

Eros Entertainment’s DVD release is disappointing. It’s fullframe and the colours are not exactly vibrant, and there are no extras. But it’s the only available DVD of this movie and if you have a taste for Bollywood it’s pretty much a must-buy in spite of those problems.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Lifeforce (1985)

Approaching Lifeforce, the notorious naked space vampire movie from 1985 directed by Tobe Hopper, the man responsible for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, my expectations were very low indeed. In fact while it’s every bit as bad a piece of film-making as you’d expect from someone with such a pedigree, there is one huge difference - Lifeforce is tremendous fun!

It’s based on Colin Wilson’s totally insane 1976 novel The Space Vampires, with a script by Dan O’Bannon. He’s best known as the writer of Alien, but perhaps more relevant here is the fact that he also penned John Carpenter’s delirious sci-fi black comedy Dark Star. Most of the interestingly bizarre ideas from Wilson’s novel have been dropped, but that was probably inevitable. Those kinds of off-the-wall philosophical musings are not particularly cinematic, and in any case would be well beyond the range of someone like Tobe Hooper.

What the movie does retain is at least a hint of the psycho-sexual weirdness of Wilson’s book.

An Anglo-American space mission encounters a gigantic alien spacecraft. Inside this ship are what appear to be three perfectly preserved naked corpses, two male and one female. The mission commander, Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback), cannot contact mission control but decides on his own initiative to bring the three bodies back to Earth. But are they really dead?

It soon transpires that the answer to that is, not exactly. These are creatures that, even when dead, can drain a person’s lifeforce. And then come back to life. As an unfortunate guard finds out when he has his lifeforce drained completely by Naked Vampire Space Girl (Mathilda May). And Naked Vampire Space Girl has other talents. She can swap bodies. She escapes from custody and soon the bodies start to pile up. And her victims have some disturbing habits as well, coming back to life after two hours and then (if they are unable to find a convenient lifeforce to exploit) self-destructing spectacularly.

Luckily the British can call on the services of dashing and unflappable SAS hero Colonel Kane (Peter Firth). Although he can’t stop the plot from spiralling wildly out of control. But it doesn’t matter. This movie is at its weakest when it tries to be serious science fiction. Fortunately it hardly ever does so. The crazier it gets, the better it gets.

And then the zombies turn up. Where did they come from? No-one knows, but presumably someone suggested they should have zombies and Tobe Hopper was happy to go along with that since it meant he could add more explosions. Because, you know, if you have zombies you have lots of stuff exploding. And in this movie almost anything can explode at any moment. Tobe Hooper has a touching, almost child-like faith in the idea that if you want excitement in a movie, blow stuff up. His approach to the movie is like a kid with an insanely expensive train set. Except it’s a train set you can blow up.

Strangely enough this is a British movie, even though both writer and director are Americans. It has a few interesting ideas, lots of very 1980s special effects, lots of explosions, and lots of nudity. Mathilda May spends 99 percent of her screen time completely naked. In spite of this I couldn’t honestly say the nudity is gratuitous. Most of her nude scenes are taken directly from the book, and these are vampires that to a considerable degree feed off human sexuality. You could say that the vampires find humans to be perfect victims because human sexuality is essentially vampiric.

So the sexual element was not added just to spice the movie up. Although of course Mathilda May’s spectacular physical assets certainly helped to sell the film!

The acting is absolutely atrocious but I rather suspect this was deliberate. I’m convinced Peter Firth was playing Colonel Kane with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He plays him as an old-fashioned square-jawed British Boys’ Own Adventure hero. He’s not affected by Naked Vampire Space Girl’s physical charms because Boys’ Own Adventure heroes are pure in mind and body. They’re too busy thinking about manly things like playing cricket to bother about sex.

As for Mathilda May, well she looks good. To be fair it’s a role that doesn’t really call for much in the acting department. The other actors mostly overact outrageously. It’s the correct approach.

Movies don’t get much cheesier than this one, but if you like your movies big, silly, dumb and extremely entertaining you’re not likely to find much cause for complaint.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Logan's Run (1976)

The decade before Star Wars was in some ways a golden age of science fiction movies. It produced a diverse crop of interesting and thoughtful movies in the genre, movies like Colossus: the Forbin Project, The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, Solaris, Westworld, A Clockwork Orange, Five Million Years to Earth, Demon Seed and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Unfortunately that decade also produced turkeys like Logan's Run. It’s not that Logan's Run isn’t fun. Much of it has a genuine so-bad-it’s-good quality to it, and the first half can now be enjoyed as classic 70s camp kitsch. Visually it’s like a bad episode of Star Trek, only worse. The costumes are without doubt the worst in the history of science fiction movies (although some people might feel that a scantily-clad Jenny Agutter almost makes it all worthwhile) . It’s not the lack of modern special effects that’s the problem, it’s the fact that the visuals are so badly thought out. A city of the future that looks like a 1970s disco.

In this city of the future people live purely for pleasure. They have everything provided for them, and they can have lots of guilt-free sex. The only downside is, you’re only allowed to live to the age of thirty. When you hit that milestone you participate in a bizarre ritual called the Carousel, which offers the promise of rebirth. If you don’t want to accept this arrangement your only option is to become a runner, in which case you’ll be hunted down by the Sandmen. Logan 5 is a Sandman, and like most of his fellow Sandmen he enjoys hunting down runners. Then he finds himself about to run out of time, faced with the choice of termination or becoming a runner.

Michael York does a reasonable job as Logan, despite the deficiencies of the script and some truly embarrassing dialogue. Jenny Agutter is extremely good (and looks absolutely gorgeous) as Jessica 6, a young woman who may be able to help Logan find an escape route.

Peter Ustinov is astonishingly annoying as an old guy who teaches Logan and Jessica the Important Moral Lesson of the film – that living for pleasure is bad and that they need to return to Traditional Family Values and get married. And Jessica should start having babies as soon as possible. He’s so annoying that you start to think that killing people before they get old isn’t such a bad idea after all.

The movie drags on and on until it finally reaches an inept and completely unsatisfactory, but by that time I was just relieved it was finally over. Most of the second hour of the movie could, and should, have ended up on the cutting room floor. Including all of Peter Ustinov’s performance.

Fans of 1970 TV will want to look out for Farrah Fawcett in a small role.

It’s not the worst science fiction movie of the 70s. It’s nowhere near as awful as George Lucas’s THX-1138. And unlike that excruciating mess it does at least have the potential to be enjoyed as a classic bad but fun popcorn movie.

Silly fun if you're in the right mood.