Friday, January 28, 2011

Mad Max (1979)
--- science fiction

Dir: George Miller

Dystopian futures are an easy sell for audiences. They are the one of the best uses of the science fiction genre, as a signpost to the dangers of not only where society is, but where we are headed. Within this sub genre we've had classics. Coming out of the 60's where threat of nuclear war was as imminent as visible storm clouds on the horizon, many filmmakers steered clear of the Totalitarian or Communist messages (such as "Alphaville", "Logan's Run", or "THX 1138") and more toward a believable future oblivion. These futuristic visions would spotlight a decayed complete collapse of any structure whatsoever. George Miller's "Mad Max" begins here.

The "Mad Max" trilogy (soon to be expanded with a sequel) has the unique distinction of chronicling the decay of a society. This first film is simply dystopian future of specific date, where outlaw biker gangs and psychopathic drivers roam free on the highways of Australia. The police force, while seemingly sparse, still manages to enforce law and order. Our introduction to this bleak future is through a patrol car tasked to take down a violent AC/DC-quoting driver who calls himself "The Nightrider"; a character straight out of a Carsploitation film. When the patrol vehicle is totalled during a harrowing high speed chase, the hero of our tale emerges; Max Rockatansky (played by a young and relatively unknown Mel Gibson). His Main Force Patrol vehicle appears to be a standard yellow, blue, and red, but the other vehicle had a code emblem of PURSUIT, and Max's has one V8 INTERCEPTOR (a converted Ford Falcon). This is the same vehicle that will turn up in the sequel, except it will be painted black, much like the "Nightrider".

"Nightrider" doesn't turn out to be much of a threat when Max catches up to him and his girl. They end up crashing and destroying their vehicle, and Max is saluted for his fine job of taking out the maniac. We're taken to Max's home life where we see he's a new father. It also is apparent he's a reluctant hero, who isn't so comfortable in his celebrity status. Soon we're also shown Max's car in the shop, being prepped by a mechanic to suped-up capabilities. Also, the politics from the insides of the "Halls of Justice" don't really even care to celebrate Max's contribution to the force, as we learn that isn't prone to staying a cop. Max's superior informs him a new foe has emerged from the "Nightrider"s death, when a biker named "Toecutter" (played to the hilt by a convincing Hugh-Keays Byrne) rears his ugly head with his gang in tow. They just as soon declare vengeance against Max and the rest of the MFP. To cement their threat, the gang molest a young couple outside of town and Max and his partner biker The Goose get called to respond. The damage is done and the gang is long gone, but they leave a one of their own behind, in a delirious Johnny the Boy spouting the same insane rhetoric about "Nightrider", allowing Max and The Goose to put two-and-two together.

They arrest Johnny the Boy, but after having him locked up in the shanty headquarters of their police station for awhile, the bureaucratic system releases him when no one shows for his trial. The Goose gets irate over this mockery of justice, and wants to take Johnny the Boy apart himself. The officers, still in disbelief watch as he is set free on the streets, but their superior allows them the officers to do whatever necessary so long as it's on paper. We soon see as Johnny the Boy returns to "Toecutter", he has to pay for his release, with the blood of one of the officers. So Johnny the Boy is coerced to go after the Main Force Patrol, and he targets The Goose. When The Goose is burnt alive and left for dead, Max goes on a temporary sabbatical in the country with his family. They enjoy the open freeway and head toward the beach where they visit with a family member. Unfortunately the solace is cut short when the "Toecutter"'s gang harrass Max's wife and child, and later hunt her down ultimately killing both. Driven to madness, Max takes matters into his own hands, taking his new INCEPTOR out of the shop and hitting the road with only one thing in mind . . . revenge.

Filmed on the very desolate outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, "Mad Max" is a film that came at a time in the Seventies when cinema was all about exploitation of all kinds. They ramped up sex and violence, and skewed toward fetish-esque niche markets like Blaxploitation, slasher films, revenge epics, carsploitation films, you name it. Mad Max fits in a couple of those sub genres quite nicely. The score was supplied by composer Brian May, that effectively amps you up with the roar of the engines and screeching of tires. It became a hallmark of Australian cinema. In the end film is a dark commentary on the anxiety of the late Seventies and the changing cynical outlook of our future. Borrowing from the influence of George Lucas' uber-successful "Star Wars", with the use of Joseph Campbell's 'Hero With A Thousand Faces' (as well as the swipe transitions in editing), Miller creates a new mythological hero in Max. Having placed a broken man in an equally broken society. With a dystopian landscape, Miller would soon help pave the way for the next decade in a slew of post-apocalyptic films, that were not only inspired by this film, but its sequel.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Kansen (Infection) (2004)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Masayuki Ochiai

This film plays somewhere between your typical gross-out J-horror and a morality tale. The morality being, always tell the truth, as malpractice will always catch up with you. I suspect this film to be a social commentary on the Japanese healthcare system. "Kansen" takes place in a sort of out-of-the-way, short-staffed hospital. For the first hour or so, we are introduced to all the main characters. It often feels like a boring medical drama in the style of "ER" or "Grey's Anatomy", luckily, the horror elements do kick in. First off, with a suspicious elderly woman who claims to see dead people in reflective surfaces. The real horror begins, however, when an ambulance tries to press a patient with a peculiar rash, on the hospital.

Dr. Akiba refuses, claiming the hospital simply cannot care for him due to the fact they do not have the proper facilities. Akiba rushes to a critical patient upstairs in room #3. The patient falls unconscious and the responding staff fear losing him. Akiba then calls for potassium calcium chloride (which is used in lethal injections to stop the heart) instead of calcium chlorate. In other words they misdiagnose, and the patient ends up dying on them.

The doctors and two other nurses plot to cover-up for the accidental death, and it is from here on out that the green ooze begins to infect the main staff randomly. It is unfortunate that the remainder of "Kansen"s plot is scattershot. While that may work for some films, this has too many subplots and characters to deal with, and resulting in no real solution. Sure, it does tie up character arcs, but you end up feeling an empty loss for the events of the film as they pull you every which way but loose. Director Ochiai does a decent job attempting to balance the film, through use of color themes and freaky camera angles. Beyond that, I can't recommend much here.

"Kansen" was billed as the inaugural release of a proposed 6-part J-Horror film series, from producer Takashige Ichise. One original entry from a different director each time. Unfortunately, it would appear we only got three of those, including this film "Yogen" (Premonition), and "Sakebi" (Retribution).

Fortunately, it would seem the other planned directors made their films anyway, they just didn't include it under the banner of this J-Horror film series. As of this writing, I have not seen all of them, though from what I've seen they all share a similar mind-bending climax. Unfortunately none of the films are highly original in any way, as they were simply conceived to cash-in on the Japanese horror fade quickly.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Hercule et la Reine de Lydie (Hercules Unchained or Hercules and the Queen of Lydia) (1959)
ITALY/ SPAIN --- fantasy

Dir: Pietro Francisci

In this direct follow-up to the 1958 film "Hercules", Steve Reeves returns for his second and final portrayal as the mythological muscleman Hercules. Also returning is the beautiful Sylva Koscina as Hercules' now wife Iole and Gabriel Antonini playing a young Ulysses. We catch up with the trio on a horse-drawn chariot en route to Thebes. They soon run into danger, when an arrogant brute harasses them with intent. Confronted by Hercules, they realize their tormentor is more than meet the eyes as Ulysses councils Herc that he may be Antaeus son of the Earth goddess. His defeat must come by his separation from solid ground, so Herc tosses him in a body of water nearby.

When they arrive in Thebes, Hercules finds the blind king Oedipus prepared for death. He has been dethroned by his two sons Eteocles and Polynieces, who agreed to switch off duties annually, but that agreement has soured as both plot to destroy each other by any means necessary. Hercules willing plans to intercede for the brothers in an attempt to restore peace on the land. His good intentions, however, are interrupted as he leaves Iole behind with Eteocles' camp to serve as messenger with Ulysses. En route, Hercules drinks from the waters of Lethe (one of the of the five rivers of Hades, being the river of forgetfulness), and is seduced by what sounds like Iole singing. He is lured to a ravine where he passes out, but Ulysses finds he is surrounded by soldiers. He wisely plays the part of the deaf mute, as they are captured.

The soldiers bring Hercules and Ulysses to the beautiful sorceress queen Omphale (played by French model Sylvia Lopez). When Herc awakens, he finds himself surrounded by a bevy of female servants and the queen swimming. He asks of Omphale his identity, as she tells him that he is king of the land and that she is his bride. Soon, Ulysses must help Hercules restore his memory before Omphale has him killed, by way of suspended animation. To make matters worse, the warring brothers are preparing to strike and the populace of Thebes are growing restless. Sending word for help by carrier pigeon, Ulysses finally does pull Herc out of the grasp of Omphale, with the help of the Argonauts. After they escape, Hercules and the group must get back to Thebes, and rescue Iole before bloodshed erupts.

"Hercules Unchained" is loosely based on the Aeschylus' "The Seven Against Thebes" as well as other various Grecian myths. Let me be honest with you. Of all the countries in the world to have a operating film industry, Italian cinema are on the bottom rung for me. The very fact that they refuse to record on set sound as a collective stylistic choice and most of their films are cheap ripoffs of Hollywood fare is just baffling to me. Having said that, all of this has its expected charms. Spaghetti westerns is a favorite sub genre of myself and many others, and I like even some of the esoteric films that most would not sit through. These Sword & Sandal epics are in the same boat. An good-looking imported American lead actor, a convoluted plot, and lots of action. That pretty much sums up Italian cinema in my opinion.

The cinematography of Mario Bava allows the viewer some eye candy besides the oiled-up men and scantily clad women. The musical interludes makes the film feel very dated and the dance sequences are pretty much designed for a popcorn/restroom break. Costumes and production design in general are once again admirable, and given the source material and locale, it should be. Unfortunately, as it goes for these films, this is top notch. Steer clear if your not an aficionado of Italian cinema, Greek mythology, or just plain old MST3K style films on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
--- science fiction

Dir: Stanley Kubrick

Never has the future looked so creepy, bleak, and in hindsight unnervingly believable but it's a far cry from apocalyptic. Though, in some scenarios, other people can be considerably worse than no people. Based on the controversial 1962 novella by Anthony Burgess, "A Clockwork Orange" certainly set the standard for dystopian films. The novel and the film pose the question of what exactly is freewill? How can one judge another human being when we all have fallen from certain subjective morals? Taking a long dark look into the iris of our collective youth, this masterpiece from director Stanley Kubrick, continues to be an alarm clock to society.

Taking place in the near-future in England, the film focuses on teenage juvenile delinquent Alex DeLarge, (played by a young and blankly sinister Malcolm McDowell) who leads a gang called "droogs" that goes terrorizing upper class citizens. They do not go to any formal kind of school and adorned in white rugby suits, black bowlers and canes, they spend most of their time drinking "milk plus" (a concoction of milk mixed with drugs) at the Korova Milk Bar, brutally torturing or molesting random innocent people. With a penchant for Ludwig Von Beethoven and violent carousing, Alex is a classified menace to society, but he isn't alone. Alex and his "droogs" also get into fights with other gangs. Alex and his "droogs" partake in what we would now legally classify as "Home invasion" on an older couple brutally beating the husband and raping his wife.

Later, Alex uncovers dissension in his group of "droogs", and takes care of the rabble-rousers himself in an alpha-male effort to regain control of the gang. They decide to go out for another night of harassment and mark an older woman's home. Alex is the one who breaks into the flat solo, and beats the woman to death with a large sculpture of a penis. He frantically escapes at the sound of sirens and and makes it outside to his gang of "droogs", who turn on him by knocking him upside the head with a bottle of milk. Alex is taken into the authorities. Here, he is informed by his probation officer that the woman died, and that he's going to serve time. Off to the prison Alex goes.

In prison he is forced to read and learn the bible and sings Christian songs along with the other unrepentant inmates, but Alex begins to feel he needs more. When questioned by Alex on how to go further in repentance, the chaplain informs him of an experimental scientific process that will rehabilitate him to unconditionally reform himself. He agrees to undergo the state-funded experiment. Submitting to a torturous viewing of violent footage while droplets of a liquid serum are put in his forced-open eyes, Alex does become rehabilitated. Violence completely turns him off, even his favorite Ludwig Von becomes detestable to him. Upon release, Alex is a new man. He also has a dubious celebrity status, as all the news reports of his so-called miraculous government-funded change. The world is a little less believing in him as he is. His family has all but forgotten him, not even keeping his room for him. There's also by chance or happenstance the comedic karma of running into people he once did wrong, like a homeless drunkard he harassed, his old "droogies" who are now bona fide policemen, and one of the victims he crippled. This all leads to a conclusion that surprises us, as Alex appears to once again find himself.

Stanely Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" is essentially a gangster film with EC comics sentimentalism. It could easily be shown in a marathon along with "Goodfellas", "Menace to Society", or "Boyz n Hood", and fit right in. Yet the film remains a satiric commentary on societal youth in revolt, and we get the underwhelming feeling the kids will not be alright after all. "A Clockwork Orange"will never go down in history in but a descriptive few words, it ends up allowing the audience to not just be disgusted by the terrible actions of Alex, but the subjugation he submits to under the hands of the governmental scientists. You cannot easily take a side with this film, there ends up being a sympathy for Alex leading up the finale. This parallels the deep discussions we all get into about Capital Punishment and Abortion.

Chock full of Kubrick's painfully beautiful shots and verve of classical music swimming throughout the piece. Malcolm McDowell's unflinching bad boy performance of Alex allows us a no-holds-barred almost documentary peek into this dystopian mindset. Burgess' strange yet credible poppy dialogue may have went on to inspire even Philip K. Dick's "Cityspeak" from "Blade Runner". The future in this film inspired a darker prophecy, with such things as the "punk/goth", "gangsta/hip-hop"movements, and others. The fact is we were warned. As a science fiction film, the film isn't as revolutionary as Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". He deliberately had a lesser budget and like Godard's "Alphaville", used contemporary beat-up London as a stand-in for a dilapidated future. The technology is far outdated by now, and the production has a strict kinda Sixties futurism design to it. The fact is, if you're looking for all that, you're completely missing the point.