Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975)

by Jimmy "The One-Fisted Boxer" Callaway

An old roommate of mine first told me about this movie, and I woulda swore he was out of his mind if I didn't know he was already. No way a movie this cool could really exist. But sure enough, he bought a bootleg copy of it for twenty or thirty bucks (oh, Internet, how did we ever get along without you?) and we watched it in our dank bachelor pad.

Before we get into the whys and wherefores, I have a general question of the kung fu genre in general. How is it that they can choreograph such beautiful fight sequences, and then the actual deaths are so hokey? Two guys beat the shit out of each other and look like ballet dancers, but when one of them dies, they roll around and do that goofy herky-jerky move, and it just yanks you right out of it. It's a lot like how the cityscapes in Godzilla movies look so realistic, yet the monster is clearly a dude in a suit. It's very weird.

Anyways, let's fuck some Chinese guys up. Master Fung is really, really pissed because his two disciples got killed in the last movie. So he swears vengeance using his signature weapon, the flying guillotine, which is basically your grandma's lampshade on a chain with these razor-sharp blades inside. Also, when you throw it, it makes a sound like a bullet ricocheting in a John Ford movie.

After the best opening credits music in the world, we come to the One-Armed Boxer's school where he teaches his students to control their breathing to become weightless. I really appreciate kung fu movies that give me at least a little something to suspend my disbelief with, and this fact only makes Flying Guillotine that much more cooler than Crouching Tiger. It's just a shame Liu couldn't teach his students to control their breathing to make their dubbing better.

Meanwhile, Master Fung, after catching a quick haircut and throwing on his Nazi apron, starts beheading every one-armed guy he comes across. Which seems a bit rash to me. Granted, the guy is blind, but that doesn't stop him from throwing his deadly hat around. First, he decapitates some one-armed drunk trying to dine and dash, which I'm sure every server has dreamed of doing. Then, old Fung shows up at the big martial arts tournament and quilting bee.

The tournament is really the big show in this flick, pretty much comprising the whole second act. It is by far some of the baddest-ass fight scenes you're ever gonna see (minus the afore-mentioned hokey deaths), and a sure forerunner for the Street Fighter/Mortal Kombat video games that swept the globe back in the early '90s. They even got an Indian guy who can stretch his arms like Dhalsim. And the best part is when two guys go at it in the Nest of Thorns, which is where they fight on top of a series of posts with spikes underneath to run through the loser when he falls. Way more hardcore than a lotta kung fu I've seen, and that's for sure.

When another hapless one-armed guy gets done pummeling his opponent, Fung shows up with his scary incidental music and rips the guy's head off. Wrong guy again, but Fung doesn't seem to mind. He could do this stuff all day.

Liu, the One-Armed Boxer, beats a hasty, one-armed retreat to regroup and figure out a way to stop this blind lemon peel. But then the Thai boxer shows up and throws a monkey wrench into his shit. There seems to be a deep distrust of foreigners in this flick, and I'm not up on enough on my Pan-Asian politics to be able to tell if that's just representative of attitudes in the 1730s or if the Chinese just don't have much of a problem with xenophobia in their flicks. The Thai boxer (who, from his dubbing, appears to be from the Brooklyn borough of Thailand), the Dhalsim guy, and the Japanese guy (who is something of a dirty fighter) all seem to be these kinda straw men, y'know? Of course, Master Fung is Chinese himself, so maybe I'm reading too much into it. Wouldn't be the first time.

The third act is all full of fight scenes and general good times. As Master Fung and Liu engage in their showdown, Liu leads him into an aviary where all the birdies confuse Fung's remaining senses, and since they're doves (I'm pretty sure), it's a nice ironic touch done long before John Woo strangled that particular piece of imagery.

So, in all, even though revenge is the motive that drives the plot, it's really a bunch of well-choreographed fight scenes that keep this movie going. This is not a complaint, mind you. It just seems to leave me with little more to say than "Bad-ass!"

And on that note:


Friday, November 12, 2010

The Virgin Spring (1960)

by Eric "The Swede" Beetner

That’s right. I went there. A black-and-white Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman. Hell yeah. What does that have to do with cinematic revenge? you say.

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Full disclosure here: I went to film school. I worked in a video store all through high school. I had seen The Virgin Spring by my junior year. Yep, I was that much of a film geek that I would subject myself to a ponderously slow meditation on faith and the price of vengeance on a man’s soul all in the name of cinematic art. I intentionally watched Fellini and Godard right alongside stuff current in the theater back then like Gremlins or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. My walls were adorned with horror movie posters like Basket Case and Pieces while my VHS collection included David Lynch and Ken Russell.

Am I suggesting you go rent The Virgin Spring if you like the ultra violent crime films usually discussed here? No, I’m not. You’ll be bored silly. What I’m suggesting is that you know it exists.

Like I said--it’s slow. Beyond slow. Swedish slow, and brother, that is a special kind of slow from a land where sometimes it takes a few months for the sun to rise.

But at its core The Virgin Spring is a brutal revenge story. It is common knowledge that it formed the basis for Wes Craven’s early Last House On The Left, which is surely one of the seediest, grimiest, most unforgiving horror/crime films ever made. Watch that one and it won’t wash off you with a bucket of ammonia and a steel brush.

The story is simple. A Swedish farm house headed by a simple farmer played by Max Von Sydow (Father Merrick in The Exorcist) is rocked when their comely daughter heads off into the woods to make the long trek to church to light a candle for the Virgin Mary (Yep, it’s a deeply religious film. You’ve been warned). Along the way, she meets three traveling goat herders, two adult and one a young boy, who are as back woods scary as anyone in the cast of Deliverance. They’ve got rape and murder on their feeble minds as soon as they see the beautiful girl and before long--well, actually, it does take a very long time to get there, it takes a long time to get anywhere in this film--the girl is dead in a ditch and the men are on the run through the Swedish countryside.

A rape scene is nothing easy to watch, even in the hands of the greatest cineastes. When it’s done in such a matter-of-fact, single take, no music, no dialogue way it is even creepier. The entire film, by the way, has about as much dialogue as any ten pages of a Tarantino script. This movie does seem ripe for a QT remake. It’s essentially a blank slate with a kick-ass framework.

More full disclosure: I am a film editor by trade. It’s what I do every day. I’d love to get my hands on this film and turn it into a 20 minute short. Then I might actually recommend you see it, even though it did win a Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 1961.

Slow bits aside, let’s focus on the story. In a fantastic plot twist, the three killers seek refuge in the home of Von Sydow’s farmer. The killers don’t know they’ve wandered into the dead girl’s house; the farmers don’t know who the men are. Slowly but surely (and a little more slowly thrown in for good measure), the farmer realizes who the men are.

Now the best part of a revenge film can kick in: the moral questioning before the flurry of violence. Von Sydow plays a deeply faithful man who calls out his God for letting such a thing happen to his virginal daughter. He also questions the feelings of rage and violence his heart.

What can a father do? Well, he can jump the boys as they sleep and stab them to death with a giant knife, the hilt inlaid with a carving of the face of a demon skull. Sure, why not? Wouldn’t you?

Sounds like a kick-ass scene, right? Did I mention the fire he throws a guy into? And do I need to remind you that one of the trio is about 8 years old?

What I should remind you is that this is Ingmar Bergman film. The scene plays out in an oddly silent way. It does not invite you to revel in the actions of revenge. There is no music, no heroic score. There is no dialogue. The father never asks the men why, only goes about his duty to dispatch the zaken (a very bad word in Swedish. Look it up.) who killed his flesh and blood. When faced at last with the young boy who did not rape and did not kill his girl, only sat by and watched when it happened, he still murders him. Throws him across the room in a rage, in fact.

Of course, as soon as he has done the deed he falls into deep regret. There is a lot of staring at his hands and asking questions to God. When they trek to the woods to find the body, he promises to build a church as penance for his deeds. Possibly the only time in film history a father has done anything other than toss off a quippy bon mot as he lights a cigarette after snuffing the life out of the scumbags who killed his daughter. Max Von Sydow is no Charles Bronson.

It’s powerful stuff. Or it could be were it not so stillborn. Story-wise though, you can’t beat it. And certainly there are many fans. I’ll admit to liking the film quite a bit. It’s just so . . . so . . . Swedish. There’s nothing quite like it.

Let’s go back to Deliverance. Backwoods hicks with no other purpose than to torture anyone who ventures into their neck of the woods. Victims whose only crime is wandering off the marked trail. And what next? Why, bloody vengeance of course. But watch the two side by side and you see what an odd film The Virgin Spring really is. Is Deliverance more fun? Hell yes. Will The Virgin Spring stay with you longer? Could be.

And what of Last House On The Left? It may be the same genesis of a story but it’s apples vs. oranges. Or more like black-and-white with subtitles vs. an open throat gushing blood. Similar and yet so far.

It may sound like I’m slagging on the film but I’m really not. It happens to be one of those artifacts that influenced a generation who now have influenced another and possibly even two, so the true impact of The Virgin Spring can never be recreated. You certainly can’t see anything as bluntly brutal and methodical in U.S. cinema before 1959. That it calls such big questions of faith and humanity into what could be just a pulpy revenge tale is what drew so many American filmmakers to the Europeans at the time. Big themes like that were never so overtly on the surface in American cinema. Hollywood likes to dress up its metaphors in costume and colors. The Virgin Spring is different, and different is good.

So you may be tempted to check out the Criterion edition and now you know to be stocked with No-Doz and crystal meth to help you get through it. But if you do you’ll see a seminal work in the revenge film lineage, and for a foreign film, you don’t even have to read much. Just bask in the stately Sven Nykvist cinematography.

Yep, still a nerd. I didn’t even have to look that up.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oldboy (2003)

by Kevin “I want to tell you my story. Could you please delay your death?” Dillon

Abducted and locked away in a hellish private prison for 15 years, his life stolen from him forever for no discernible reason, average Korean Joe, Oh Dae Su is suddenly released into the world and has been given 5 days to discover the identity and motives of his mysterious tormenter.

The 15 long years of tortuous captivity have awakened within Oh Dae Su a monstrous killing machine. He has honed his rage and his obsessive urge for retribution to a degree that he is now barely recognizable as human. Unable to feel fear or pain, unhampered by and oblivious even to catastrophic injury, he is a deeply damaged, single-minded tsunami of violence, a true angel of vengeance leaving a remarkable trail of bodies in his wake. You know, like Dick Cheney, only more Asian.

To reveal too much more would be to risk ruining many of the twists, turns, and unpleasant surprises awaiting you in this deeply disturbing tale of vengeance and revenge for vengeance, and revenge for avenging vengeance for vengeance’s sake. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Refreshingly so, in this film lover’s humble opinion. As the more complete saying goes, “Revenge is a dish best served so confusingly that one wonders what said revenge is for, who it’s from, and why it’s served on a bed of Rice-a-Roni in a pith helmet. Oh, and cold also. You should definitely serve your revenge cold.” I think that’s from The Count of Monte Cristo. But don’t quote me.

Filled with artsy fartsy flourishes aplenty and a wonderfully dark cinematic style, each scene is as meticulously designed as the grand revenge scheme that’s slowly revealed. A scene where Oh Dae Su is released from within a large, black and purple velvet lined suitcase into a day glow, bright green rooftop garden, fully clothed in fancy black duds, immerses the viewer into poor Dae Su’s confusion and madness as the camera swirls around trying desperately to get its bearings.

This movie is a visual feast with many pretty parsley sprigs of tiny detail to garnish the great, oozing corpse that is this film’s main course of horror and mutilation. It’s definitely one of those films you can’t ‘unsee’ once you’ve seen it, so be warned. (I once ignored a very similar warning about Can’t Stop the Music. To this very day I still see Steve Guttenberg in short shorts whenever I close my eyes.)

In the capable directorial hands of revenge auteur Chanwook Park, this beautifully ugly, blood-soaked character study nimbly sidesteps the torture porn trap it could have so easily fallen into and heads for higher ground as some kind of new-fangled Arthouse Revenge Flick. The bloodletting has an almost manga-like quality, elegant, graceful and gorgeous to look at even as you wince at the sheer (shear?) brutality of it all. Somehow it’s all very real feeling, too, not at all like the funhouse violence of say your Shogun Assassin or your Fist of the North Star.

And as in his other films, vengeance itself is the compelling force that moves the various pieces across the board and gives life to the plot. Discovering the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of Oh Dae Su’s trajectory of ultimate revenge and commiserating with him as he follows the twists and turns of his labyrinthine predicament is a journey into the very madness that is the perpetual motion machine we call ‘vengeance’.

In the Oldboy universe (aka South Korea), this is the one unifying and compelling force of nature: to get back at the people who have wronged you. Intentionally or not, whether someone scuffs your Adidas or rapes your grandpa, you are now beholden to an unspoken law that requires you to craft a revenge scheme as astounding in its detailed planning and unlikely execution as it is in its perfection of appropriateness in punishing the original crime.

While this makes for gripping cinema, I can’t help but insert here that I’m more than a tad grateful that real life does not often resemble the hyper reality of this movie (aka Korea, again). It’s not just that I’m lazy, which I most certainly am. It’s mainly that I have neither the time nor the creative chops to craft ideal karmic retributions. A 40 hour work week alone precludes the possibility that the bully who broke my nose in middle school and the Burger King Corporation’s infernal 10 cent charge for dipping ranch can ever be adequately avenged.

Even scarier, my 35 years on this planet of nerdy, doughy white privilege have no doubt left large swathes of wronged acquaintances, betrayed friends, co-workers with constantly missing salad dressings, high school girlfriends dumped on answering machines, and one egregiously cheated Magic the Gathering player in my wake (Sorry, Magic Dan, wherever you are). In this film’s paradigm, I could be in a constant state of being avenged upon day and night for decades and there would still remain plenty for me to account for, and I’m only mildly amoral.

I guess you could say I’m happier and much safer back here in real life (aka not South Korea) where, as we like to say, “The best revenge is farting in your crappy roommate’s pillow while he isn’t home. And then living well. You should try to live well, also.” I think that’s from Antigone. But don’t quote me.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Death Rides a Horse (1967)

by Jimmy "On a Steel Horse I Ride" Callaway

See, the thing about the western genre, what could keep it relevant if more writers/artists wanted to, is that there are no social constraints. The wild, wild west, regardless whether it's a colonial fiction, was where individuals were forced to survive as individuals. The trappings of civilization, like an effective system of justice, were all but negligible. Therefore, the western is the perfect vehicle for explorations of retaliation and justice, revenge and vengeance.

The spaghetti western seems to take this most to heart, utilizing the charcoal-gray morality of a time and place in which you had to worry more about being eaten by mountain lions than which fork to use at the dinner table. When it comes to the action-revenge flick (which this li'l ol' site will be concentrating on), you needn't go much further than Roma in the late '60s.

Death Rides a Horse features who I would consider the quintessential spaghetti western star (not counting Ennio Morricone)(who also happens to "star" in this): Lee Van Cleef. Or as I often refer to him: "Fuckin' Lee Van Cleef, man!" Yeah, I know Eastwood and all that, but Van Cleef was way more of a bad-ass in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Sure, Clint looked tough with that cigarillo, but Van Cleef could smoke a pipe and make it look tough. Do you have any idea how difficult that is?

Anyways, this also features a young John Phillip Law. When I first saw this about five years ago, I remember being impressed by how good he was compared to twenty years later in Space Mutiny. But as so often happens, I was dead wrong. Still, at least Reb Brown's not in this.

The story is fairly simple, but I like it's two-pronged approach to frontier justice. Back at the Mesita Ranch, young Bill's family is slaughtered before his eyes by a group of hoods for being really blonde. It's not the most disturbing murder/almost-rape scene ever, but it's pretty gross, and it has that zoom-effect with tense music as Bill memorizes a little something about each (a scar, an earring, etc.), so it can be played back to us later on in case we're dumb (which we are, speaking personally)(and for most of you). A kind stranger pulls Bill out of the burning ranch so he can grow up and be our protagonist.

Fifteen years later, Ryan gets out of the joint, and he's looking to get even with his gang who double-crossed him and landed him in hard labor. Natch, this is the same gang Bill is looking to settle the score with, and it becomes kinda like The Cannonball Run to see who can get revenge on each of these guys first.

What struck me the most about watching this again is how well-balanced these characters are despite their major differences. At first, it looks like Ryan is gonna win out since not only does he have more experience with this life than does young Bill, but he's also more dispassionate about it. He's looking to bleed these guys for their cash, and not for their...well, blood. Bill, on the other hand, is driven by these hateful emotions, and while one certainly can't blame him, early on we see how destructive this sort of thing is, when Bill ditches out on a fine woman and a good job in order to hunt these guys down.

Ryan beats Bill to Cavanaugh's saloon and braces him for fifteen large. It's just business here: one thousand dollars for every year Ryan was in prison. Of course, Cavanaugh is a little reticent to pony up, so he hires a drifter to kill Ryan. But whoops, that drifter is Bill. Once young Bill puts two and two together (it takes him a while, y'know, education wasn't so important back then), he puts a round or three into Cavanaugh, and now Ryan's out that dough.

Next up is Walcott, the head bastard, who is now a big-time banker and politician as a front for his ne'er-do-well-ness. A lot of these flicks, having been produced in those tumultuous 1960s, often make a show of this corruption in authority, but really, that sort of thing transcends that time for me. Walcott is a lot smarter than his underlings, so he manages to see Ryan coming and sets him up to hang for bank robbery. And here we see the downside of Ryan's way of thinking: if he had just shot Walcott like Bill had planned instead of trying to blackmail him, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble. So even though going with your gut often seems irrational or leads to irrational behavior, in this case Ryan outsmarted himself. Luckily, young Bill springs him from prison, and the race is on again.

Bill ends up in a little Mexican village, which happens to be under the sway of a band of outlaws, who also happen to be Walcott and his gang. They get the jump on Bill, even though he manages to take out yet another of his tormentors. They give Bill the old Indian burial, up to his neck in the dirt and leave him to die. But Ryan shows up and saves him.

By this point, it's obvious that these two are just going to have to put their differences aside and work together. So they do the big Santo Poco thing and get the villagers to help and to help themselves. Without giving away the ending, we see that the path to revenge is largely a foolish one, an egomaniacal one. What Bill finds out is that even given the horrendous events of his childhood, not everything was as black and white, these-boys-need-killin' as he thought. And speaking generally, the actions of the evil will eventually be their own undoing. Sure, they may get away with it for a long time, but basically, if you do evil shit, evil shit will more than likely happen to you. It's not karma, really; it's just logic.

What I think really brings this out well in the film is the use of the wind and duststorms at the end. Because of all the turbulence and detritus, Bill's vision is obscured, and he lashes out blindly. Once the wind stops and the dust settles, he sees where he was mistaken, where things look a lot different. That may be a long way to go for an above-average spaghetti western, but it's there to be seen.

This movie was a little more boring than I remembered it from years back, but I still highly recommend it. Try and get a decent copy, though. Mine is from the cut-out bin, public-domain style, so it's a really terrible transfer/pan-&-scan version. But if you find it for a buck down at the Big Lots, grab it up.