Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Best First Time Viewings: 2019
(part # 2 of 3)

11. Don
(Chandra Barot, 1978)

Nearly five years after I first cracked the spine of Todd Stadtman’s essential Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema, I finally found at least a few hours this year to start acquainting myself with the cinematic territory the author so diligently maps out therein, beginning in the most obvious place possible with what has become far and away the best known ‘70s Bollywood crime movie amongst Western viewers (‘best known’ being very much a relative proposition in this instance), Chandra Barot’s 1978 Amitabh Bachchan vehicle ‘Don’.

What an absolute joy it was to sit in my living room on some militantly ring-fenced weekend afternoon earlier this year, curtains drawn against the sun, and to take this thing in in its correctly sub-titled entirety. It was all I could have hoped for.

What sticks in my mind most strongly from this 166 minute marathon of head-spinning plot convolutions and all-purpose sensory overload, I wonder? Bachchan’s assorted scenes of rough n’ tumble, seemingly Shaw Bros-inspired, ass-kicking mayhem, as he faces up to what must be one of the most intimidating line-ups of goons in motion picture history? Or, his exuberant hymn to the joys of chewing betel leaves (that one certainly came out of leftfield)? Perhaps ubiquitous Bollywood dancer Helen’s pneumatic gyrations, as Asha Bhosle gives voice to Kalyanji-Anandji’s mind-blowing ode to fornication, Yeh Mera Dil? Or Zeenat Aman’s unforgettable turn as an implacable female avenger?

All of these highlights are trumped though, I think, by the pivotal scene in which Bachchan, playing a humble good guy impersonating the titular Don, who happens to be his exact doppelganger (don’t ask) crashes his crime syndicate’s big party wearing an over-sized tiger head, delivering a song in celebration of his own basassery. As ever, written descriptions can only go so far when it comes to conveying the multitudinous pleasures of Bollywood, but thankfully in this instance, Youtube provides. If you’ve yet to enter the world of ‘Don’, consider the above links my new year’s gift to you.

12. The Blood Drinkers
(Gerardo de Leon, 1964)

From April:

“Originally filmed in the Tagalog language under the slightly more poetic title ‘Kulay Dugo Ang Gabi’ [“Blood is the Colour of the Night”] and re-cut and re-dubbed for U.S. audiences shortly thereafter, ‘The Blood Drinkers’ turns out in fact to be an under-appreciated masterwork of world-wide weird gothic cinema – a uniquely oneiric excursion into monster movie dream-space, in which ‘logic’ and ‘narrative’ are reduced to distant, blurry figures waving vainly from the far-off hills, whilst de Leon instead conjures a pungent, indelible atmosphere that at various points bears comparison to the work of Jean Rollin, José Mojica Marins, and the productions of Abel Salazar’s Cinematográfica ABSA in Mexico.

So, yes, basically what I’m saying is, if you were to boil down all of your old Mondo Macabro DVDs into a magic potion, drinking it would probably produce a vision rather like ‘The Blood Drinkers’. I hope I’m not over-selling it, but seriously folks, this is great stuff.”

13. Brawl in Cell Block 99
(S. Craig Zahler, 2017)

I confess I’ve been a bit slow in checking out S. Craig Zahler’s follow ups to the excellent Bone Tomahawk – indeed, ultra-macho, ‘hard man’ subject matter and online mutterings of right wing sympathies have caused a certain amount of hesitation on my part – but I’m glad I final took the plunge, because ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’, like his aforementioned debut, is as fine and rewarding a piece of no nonsense popular cinema as the 21st century has thus far managed to offer.

The basic plotline here is just as much of an unashamed b-movie throwback as the film’s splendidly lurid title; most of it could have been ported straight in from a ‘70s Jack Hill movie and/or some late ‘80s kick-boxing flick. The action meanwhile leans heavily on OTT horror movie gore, but for all the wanton bone-cracking and head-stomping, Zahler’s careful pacing and subtle, naturalistic approach to storytelling – together with legit, seriously intended performances from Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Carpenter – lend the material a sense of dramatic intensity and actual, honest-to-god poignancy that it could never have been expected to achieve in the hands of a less committed filmmaker.

Though a writer-director who pits a white, male hero with an American flag proudly planted on his front lawn against a coterie of Hispanic villains abetted by an evil East Asian abortionist is inevitably going to have some questions to answer in our current climate of cultural warfare, Zahler’s ability to frame such potentially contentious details as natural outgrowths of the story he is telling and the characters he is creating generally convinces, and the lengths he goes to to establish his protagonist as a respectful, thoughtful man rather than a mere rage-choked killing machine also helps create a far more nuanced and open-ended set of relationships than a basic plot synopsis might suggest on paper.

(Obvious though it may be to point this out meanwhile, judicious use of an excellent soul revival soundtrack also does a good job of undercutting the film’s potential to devolve into the dour, desaturated testosterone freak-out its marketing has tended to imply.)

I’ve not quite steeled myself for ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ yet, but ‘Brawl..’ at least leaves Zahler two-for-two when it comes to making artistically ambitious yet solidly entertaining contemporary genre movies, whose ability to deliver the goods on all levels almost puts me in mind of a young John Carpenter [steady now, let’s not get carried away here – Ed.].

14. Morocco
(Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg’s first American feature, made shortly after they wowed the folks back home with ‘The Blue Angel’, ‘Morocco’ takes the kind of throwaway romantic escapism for which Hollywood was (and is) often derided and raises it to an exquisite level of artistry, essentially minting the perennial formula which would give us both ‘Casablanca’ and ‘To Have and Have Not’ (the movie, not necessarily the book) a few years later, as well as creeping into higher cultural echelons via such works as Paul Bowles’ ‘The Sheltering Sky’.

You know the deal - star-crossed First World lovers thrown together in an exotic and treacherous locale (a North African city for preference), getting into scrapes with an oppressive authoritarian regime and lounging around in an elegant, multi-cultural bar/cabaret type environment, and so on. More specifically, the story here sees Dietrich’s mysterious, world-weary-yet-fragile nightclub singer falling for Gary Cooper’s happy-go-lucky French Foreign Legionnaire, with social and political forces and romantic rivalries pushing then hither and yon as the sparks of passion fly.

Dietrich, needless to say, is magnificent – not least in the notoriously provocative night club scene which sees her kissing a flapper-ish young lady full on the lips as part of her act - and Cooper is very likeable here too, in spite of his apparent insistence on playing his scenes ‘cowboy style’, with one foot raised on a table or box and his hands resting on his knee.

We should also spare a thought meanwhile for the character whom I thought represented one of the film’s most interesting divergences from cliché, Adolphe Menjou as the older, richer rival for Dietrich’s affections. Rather than the moustache-twirling villain we might reasonably have expected, Menjou remains courteous and gentlemanly throughout, humbly acknowledging his losing role in the film’s love triangle, and sincerely wishing his lady love the greatest of happiness. What a good egg, and such a rare thing to see in a melodrama like this – I was quite touched.

The real star of the show though is the film’s production design - the chiaroscuro lighting and highly detailed, claustrophobic sets mustered by von Sternberg to recreate the splendours of Morocco on the Paramount backlot are an incredible achievement, retaining the grand excess and technical sophistication of the late silent era, even as the film moves full speed ahead toward the darker, more complex undertones and literary allusions enabled by the coming of sound; about as fine a draught as the cinema had to offer in 1930, I’d venture.

15. The Asphyx
(Peter Newbrook, 1973)

Though it ostensibly falls under the banner of the “British horror film”, Peter Newbrook’s ‘The Asphyx’ feels in some ways like something else entirely – a morbid, ingenious and authentically disturbing venture, unique in terms of both its atmosphere and subject matter.

The story is a cracked alternate history of sorts, in which aristocratic paranormal researcher and early pioneer of moving pictures Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), left distraught after his wife and son are killed in an on-camera boating accident, discovers that a new lighting device he has invented to aid his photography allows him to witness the manifestation of an ungodly creature – which he names “the Asphyx” – that descends to suck the life force out of each living creature at the moment of death. Each soul, it transpires, has its own personal Asphyx – so if Sir Hugo could only find a way to trap it once it appears, preventing from reaching its target, what then…?

Needless to say, this bizarre metaphysical speculation, combined with the ghastly Frankensteinian atrocities which ensue as Sir Hugo undertakes perilous experiments, blasting assorted varieties of light at his subjects in the seconds before their bloody demise in order to try to gift them with artificial immortality, makes for a heady and unsettling brew.

On a more down-to-earth, cinematic level meanwhile, ‘The Asphyx’ also proves a bit of an oddity. Seemingly made by a cast and crew who otherwise never ventured near the horror genre, it is notable for almost entirely eschewing the usual ‘effects’ and familiar faces, despite the well-realised Victorian setting. Instead, it often plays like a straight costume drama gone very, very wrong; the opening scenes could almost be an Austen-esque comedy of manners, until Sir Hugo casually mentions to his guests that he’s been photographing dead people on behalf of The Psychic Research Society, and… suddenly we’re not just taking tea in the drawing room and traipsing through the flower gardens any longer.

British horror fans rarely seem to discuss this film – and I can kind of see why, to be honest – but it’s certainly one of the strangest, darkest and most thought-provoking outliers in the field, and is well worth a look.

16. A Return to Salem’s Lot
(Larry Cohen, 1987)

There’s so much going on in this name-only sequel to Tobe Hooper’s Stephen King adaptation that I’ve been trying to piece together a review for much of this year, but just haven’t been able to really get an angle on the whole thing.

Entirely jettisoning the ostensible source material from the outset, Cohen instead has the audacity to open his movie with what looks like some off-brand outtake from ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, as Michael Moriarty’s reckless, alpha male anthropologist attempts the document an Amazonian tribe’s human sacrifice rituals, setting the stage for the unsettling exploration of moral relativism which continues through the rest of the film.

After family responsibilities call him back to ‘civilisation’, he finds himself attempting to bond with his estranged son, setting up home in the titular New England town, which, in this version of the mythos, is a seemingly idyllic, old fashioned / old moneyed community whose dusty elders are in fact a coven of respectably turned out, socially conservative vampires, literally feeding off any young and unruly interlopers who are unwise enough to hit the city limits after dark. Cohen certainly goes all out in his depiction of this generational/cultural conflict, and if the queasy sight of a bunch of society ladies in Nancy Reagan-style get-up sinking their teeth into an unfortunate, Madonna-esque ‘punk’ girl must have been a bit “on the nose” for a late 80s audience, well, it’s no less startling for that.

Things soon get even weirder meanwhile, as no less a personage than Sam Fuller himself rocks up, cigar clenched in his teeth and a silver-plated luger in his fist, in search of fugitives from the Third Reich. “I’m not a Nazi hunter, I’m a Nazi KILLER,” he proudly declares.

Though ‘Return..’s relentlessly oddball plotting, questionable special effects, comedic banter and slap-dash action sequences may leave viewers who tuned in for a straight horror sequel feeling pretty non-plussed, us Larry Cohen fans on the other hand are in for an absolute treat – against all the odds, this stands as one of the most personal and uncompromising works of the great man’s career.

In true Cohen style, the script represents a multi-pronged mess of unsettling socio-political allegories, whilst the interplay between Fuller, Moriarty and Moriarty’s son as they bond into an ersatz family unit of vampire hunters is both funny and extremely touching. The director, who became a close friend of Fuller in the last years of the latter’s life, clearly put a great deal of himself into this multi-generational group of cantankerous, idiosyncratic male trouble-makers (working class, Jewish NY backgrounds entirely optional), and it’s difficult not to care for them just as much as he does as they set out together to kick the ass of some particularly hoity-toity, old moneyed New England evil.

17. Magic Cop
(Wei Tung, 1990)

More pretty-much-perfect pre-handover Hong Kong cinematic entertainment here as the late, great Lam Ching-Ying transposes his much-loved ‘Mr Vampire’ character to the realm of the contemporary cop thriller, playing a ghost-busting Taoist super-cop from a remote island province who travels to the big city to take on a zombie-wrangling ancient sorceress who seems to be using a drug gang as cover for her attempt to unleash an unspeakable demonic evil upon the world.

Needless to say, some breathtakingly choreographed, high velocity action, imaginative / improvised folk-magic shenanigans, crazed pyro/wind machine-based destruction mayhem and lashings of the inevitable goofball, low-brow humour all ensue, alongside some splendidly atmospheric, quasi-psychedelic Asian horror stylings.

To be honest, I find it difficult to come up with much to say about HK movies beyond the obvious (which is why I never manage to afford them full length reviews), so let’s just stick with the obvious state that this one’s a corker; if you’re looking for a good entry point into commercial cinema from this particular time and place, you could do a lot worse.

18. Eastern Condors
(Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, 1987)

“It's the American’s fault. They got us into this. Idiot Americans, fucking America, goddamn America!”
“When this is over, where do you think you'll go?”
“Back to America!”

This one can probably be best appreciated I think by entirely bypassing the issue of whatever comment it may or may not have been trying to make on the Vietnam war as experienced from a Hong-Kong Chinese perspective; instead, it can probably be enjoyed on a similar basis to Quentin’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ – a war movie about war movies, in which Sammo Hung and his all-star pals pay garrulous tribute to every one of the damned things they can remember (‘Deer Hunter’, ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – they’re all in here somewhere), decamping to the familiar terrain of Nam-in-The-Philippines to leap, blast, kick, slide, punch, stab and scrap their way through one of the most irreverent, out-of-control action extravaganzas the HK film industry ever produced.

The ‘Dirty Dozen’-derived plot sees an uncharacteristically slim n’ straight-faced Sammo leading an all-star contingent of Asian-American misfits (including such luminaries as Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-Ying) into the heart of the Mekong Delta to neutralise a cache of missiles thoughtlessly abandoned by the yanks, and may seem over-busy, whilst the Cantonese comedy banter threatens to become even more impenetrable than usual… but just let is slide - as soon as the bullets and/or fists start flying, this thing is ON, and there’s no looking back. The big finale on the ‘missile silo’ set in particular is stunning - surely one of the most extraordinary feats of long-form fight choreography ever realised.

19. Dark August
(Martin Goldman, 1976)

From October:

“The first thing which struck me about the film is its uncanny mixture of stylish, technically accomplished filmmaking (particularly in terms of its editing, camerawork and presentation of the natural environment), and candid naturalism in terms of its performances, plotting and character interactions. A very ‘70s combination, I would suggest, but one which was rarely attempted, let alone achieved, by filmmakers outside of the artier end of the Hollywood industry.

Far away from the work of even the most sophisticated of ‘70s independents (Romero, Hooper etc), ‘Dark August’ instead feels more like a distant cousin to such studio-backed quasi-horror films as Altman’s ‘Images’, Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ (definitely a conscious influence, I suspect), or even Philip Kaufman’s remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (which admittedly was made a few years later, but still).”


“To put it simply, ‘Dark August’ is excellent. If you’re a fan of subtle, slow-burn horror with a folk-magic / witchcraft element or independent ‘70s U.S. cinema in general, I would recommend obtaining a copy of Arrow’s new transfer and watching it post-haste.”

20. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood
(Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

To be honest, I think I probably spent quite enough time sifting through what I did and didn’t like about this shallow and divisive, yet techncially awe-inspiring and hugely entertaining, retromantic epic back in August.

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