Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Towering Looker from San Sebastian

I'm often surprised by what's available among the free on-demand movies offered by my cable service. Recently, I had an opportunity to revisit three films, one each from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s: Guns for San Sebastian, The Towering Inferno, and Looker.

Guns for San Sebastian (1968) is often described as a Spaghetti Western, though it was made in Mexico and none of the four stars are Italian. But, hey, Ennio Morricone composed the score, so it sounds like a Spaghetti Western. Anthony Quinn stars as an outlaw who seeks sanctuary in a church to avoid capture. When the priest (Sam Jaffe) who protects him is exiled to a remote desert village, Quinn accompanies him. Shortly after their arrival, the priest is killed and the villagers--and bad guy Charles Bronson--mistakenly assume that Quinn is the new priest. I thought this was a spiffy premise with lots of potential, but, alas, Guns for San Sebastian squanders its opportunities and settles for being a routine action film. Quinn seems to be willing to do more with his role, especially during the film's first half. Bronson, whom I've always liked, and Jaffe are respectable, though their characters are pretty one-dimensional. As Quinn's quasi-love interest, Anjanette Comer is dreadful and appears to own an impressive stash of cosmetics for a peasant girl. Our on-demand grade: C.

Newman and McQueen discuss how
to extinguish the big blaze.
The Towering Inferno (1974) has an interesting backstory: After Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure cleaned up at the box office, Warner Bros. bought the rights to The Tower, a novel about a burning skyscraper. Around the same time, 20th Century-Fox obtained the rights to The Glass Inferno, which featured a similar plot. Concerned that their competing movies would cancel each other out with moviegoers, the two studios opted to co-produce The Towering Inferno and put the film in Allen's hands. It features an all-star cast of screen vets (William Holden, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire), then-current stars (Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Steve McQueen), and even one of the The Brady Bunch kids (Mike Lookinland). It's as if The Towering Inferno wants to offer something for viewers of every age. What it lacks is a strong narrative, which is odd considering that Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure, In the Heat of the Night) penned the script. Poseidon worked well because it focused on one group's quest to survive and featured a dynamic performance from Gene Hackman as its leader. In contrast, Inferno comes across as a series of vignettes and we never spend long enough with any of the characters to really care about their fates. There are some suspenseful sequences, especially when Newman and Holden are trying to evacuate party guests from a top floor. But, in the end, the film doesn't gel and we're left with lots of 1970s orange-colored decor and Maureen McGovern singing "We May Never Love This Way Again" (a limp variation of "The Morning After"). Believe or not, Fred Astaire--who looks mostly bored--earned his only Oscar nomination for The Towering Inferno. Our on-demand grade: B- (I like orange...and Fred)

Susan Dey and Albert Finney.
About once every ten years, I feel compelled to watch Michael Crichton's Looker (1981). When it's over, I always wonder:  Why did I waste my time watching it again? I think the problem is that I remember the premise (intriguing) and forget the execution (which is ludicrous). Albert Finney plays a plastic surgeon whose latest clients are beautiful women seeking minor facial changes so they'll look "perfect." When a couple of these women end up dead, Finney begins an investigation (while he comes under suspicion by the police). Finney's sleuthing leads to a mysterious company called Digital Matrix, a sneaky politician played by James Coburn, and something called Light Occular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses (hey, it spells "looker"!). He also meets a model played by Susan Dey in the horrible period in her career between The Partridge Family and L.A. Law. She and Finney have negative chemistry! Plus, they appear to be in different kinds of movies: he's doing a serious suspense film and she's acting in a playful mystery. Ultimately, intriguing ideas are spewed all over the place and I'm never quite sure what the heck the movie is about. Sadly, though, I'll probably watch it again in about ten years. Our on-demand grade: D.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jackie Outdoes Himself in “Armour of God II: Operation Condor”

Jackie (Jackie Chan), also known as Condor, is a man who, in the style of Indiana Jones, secures (and occasionally steals) rare artifacts. When a Baron is commissioned by the UN to recover 240 tons of gold, purloined and hidden by the Germans during World War II, he sends Jackie to locate the sequestered fortune. Ada (Carol “Do Do” Cheng) of the UN and Elsa (Eva Cobo de Garcia), a descendant of the German officer ordered to hide the gold, accompany Jackie. Trekking through the deserts of Africa, Jackie and the team search for an underground base, with Momoko (Shoko Ikeda) joining them along the way. In the course of their journey, they must battle hapless treasure hunters, as well as mercenary soldiers working for a mysterious man in a wheelchair (Aldo Sambrell).

Armour of God II: Operation Condor (1991/Fei ying gai wak), which Chan also co-wrote and directed, is a sequel to Chan’s 1987 film, Armour of God (Long xiong hu di), but it sometimes gives the impression of a remake. Chan is playing the same character, though he is called Asian Hawk in Armour of God and referred to as Condor in the second film. Both movies have similar openings, with Jackie stealing from an African tribe and narrowly escaping (a small plane in the original, a giant inflatable sphere in the sequel). In the first film, Jackie needs to trade the Armour of God for the safe return of his ex-girlfriend, Laura (Rosamund Kwan). There are five pieces, and he borrows three of them from a Count, played by the same actor who plays the Baron in Operation Condor, although they are evidently two different characters. In Armour of God, the Count sends his daughter, May (Lola Forner), along with Jackie, much like Ada being assigned to the mission in the sequel. Both films have elaborate car chases before the seeking of the treasure begins.

The differences in Operation Condor, however, are marked improvements. One of the most notable distinctions is the treatment of women. In many of Jackie Chan’s early films, female characters are rarely seen or insignificant. In Armour of God, May boasts of winning a marksman championship, but not only does she miss an opportunity to fully display her skill, Jackie also mocks her champion status, suggesting that only two people competed. Laura is little more than the woman to be rescued, and she even proves a deterrent when she is freed only after being brainwashed by her captors. In contrast, Ada, Elsa and Momoko are strong supporting characters, even superior to Jackie’s male companion in Armour of God, Alan (Alan Tam). Ada is intelligent and knowledgeable of deserts, Elsa’s familial background is an asset, and Momoko is helpful by having befriended the locals in Africa.

Jackie’s relationship with the women is one of the film’s most rewarding components. He acts as a protector, but without a sexual tie to any of the women, there is no machoism to his constant safeguarding. In fact, his protection comes across as paternal. In one sequence (which was excised from the U.S. version), the group is being led across the desert by armed men. When they are refused water, Jackie crawls to each lady (having all collapsed from the heat) and allows them access to a hidden water pack in his jacket with a thin tube. He tries to hide it from the other men, giving the appearance of Jackie embracing each woman. The men initially attribute their actions to lust, but the scene is in actuality more akin to a mother feeding her children. Later in the film, during a monumental fight scene, the ladies are being chased by one of the soldiers, and they call for Jackie, who is occupied with three villains. Ada, Elsa and Momoko persevere and subsequently knock unconscious one of Jackie’s opponents. Jackie smiles at the three women, like a proud parent. Additional instances include Jackie leading the women away during chases and, at one point, helping keep Ada covered when she’s draped in only a towel and held at gunpoint.

Regarding the female characters as Jackie’s “children” is not meant to undermine them as women. It’s well established that none of them have experience in combat, and it’s therefore refreshing that they don’t spend the film shrieking and cowering in fear. Their sheer determination is strength enough, as, for instance, Ada and Elsa do not even entertain the idea of giving up a key when being pursued by armed soldiers. The most significant element to the ladies’ fight with the aforementioned soldier is that, after knocking down the three women (viewers only witness the outcome), the man is apparently shocked to see Ada, Elsa and Momoko stand up again. What holds more weight than their unified force is their tenacity, as they are unwilling to stay down. A standout moment is another soldier, having been struck by all three women, slapping each lady. He is visibly surprised when Momoko returns to him an expression of defiance. In the very basic sense, the soldiers desire control, but the women never yield.

In a country where most films are made quickly, Jackie Chan has long been notorious as a perfectionist, meticulously working on his movies until he is satisfied. (The studio typically doesn’t complain, as the box office returns are exceptionally profitable.) Nevertheless, the well known wind tunnel sequence near the end of Armour of God II required a lengthy shoot even by Chan’s standards. Though it runs at a little more than 10 minutes, the scene took an astounding four months to complete. Production was plagued with many problems, the most interesting of which was the filmmakers accused of counterfeiting, after some of the film’s artificial currency (stamped with Golden Harvest, the studio) made it off the set. Armour of God II cost an estimated 115 million Hong Kong dollars (roughly 15 million U.S.) to make, which at the time was the most expensive film produced in Hong Kong.

Armour of God II received American theatrical release in the summer of 1997, after Chan’s films were playing to great success on U.S. screens. It was titled simply Operation Condor and was dubbed, re-scored, and missing approximately 15 minutes of footage, most of it at the beginning and resulting in some of the narrative making little sense (including an early introduction to both Elsa and Momoko, so that the recut version makes it look as if Momoko is a random hitchhiker that the team picks up in the desert). The first Armour of God has memorial sequences but is probably best remembered as the film that nearly killed its star: a routine jump resulted in Chan falling and receiving a serious head injury. This explains a continuity error, in which Chan’s character inexplicably has longer hair because, as Chan has stated, he needed to cover the hole in his head. Following the U.S. theatrical distribution of Operation Condor, Armour of God was released on VHS and DVD, recut and confusingly retitled Operation Condor II: The Armor of the Gods.

At the time of Armour of God II, Carol Cheng was one of the more prolific actresses working, but by the mid-90s, her cinematic output waned. In 2000, she starred in the popular Hong Kong sitcom, War of the Genders, on the network, TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited). She won a TVB Anniversary Award (similar to an Emmy) for her role in the series and was awarded again in 2005 as host of the game show, Justice for All. Cheng was also the host of Hong Kong’s version of The Weakest Link, and she co-hosted the TVB Anniversary Awards ceremony in 2010.

This is one of many of Chan’s films to feature Ken Lo, the actor’s former bodyguard and member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team (reportedly the professional relationship between the two ended badly). Lo is the redheaded villain in the wind tunnel with Chan in Armour of God II. The actor and martial artist is prominently featured in much of Chan’s filmography, including the immensely popular final fight sequence in Drunken Master II (1994/released in the U.S. in 2000 as The Legend of Drunken Master), one of the villains in Police Story III: Supercop (1992), and even a notable character in Chan’s first hit of his U.S.-made films, 1998’s Rush Hour (he’s the one who proudly admits to kicking Chris Tucker in the face). Lo has also starred with Jet Li in Corey Yuen’s My Father is a Hero (1995/in the U.S. as The Enforcer) and in the Japanese film, Dead or Alive: Final (2002), helmed by cult director Takashi Miike.

The superiority of Armour of God II: Operation Condor over Armour of God is not an anomaly in Chan’s oeuvre. One of the actor/director’s most popular films is a sequel: Drunken Master II. Additionally, some fans tend to prefer Police Story III: Supercop over Chan’s international breakthrough hit, Police Story (1985) -- likely due to the pairing of Chan and Michelle Yeoh -- and others may argue that Project A (1983) is surpassed by 1987’s Project A II (favoring that sequel is debatable, but I’m of the opinion that Chan topped his ‘83 classic). Even his U.S. film, Rush Hour 2 (2001), was more comparable to his Hong Kong movies than the original.

Jackie Chan has named silent film star Buster Keaton as a strong influence in his work. Certainly his choreographed stunts are reminiscent of Keaton’s movies, and Chan has stated that the wind tunnel scene in Armour of God II was inspired by the cyclone sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), especially the moments when Keaton tries walking against the heavy winds. But Chan, like Keaton, did not make films comprised solely of stunt work. His movies are filled with lively characters and comedy that’s delivered in forms other than action -- in Armour of God II, for instance, while in the German base, a missile’s warhead falls from a crate and slowly rolls across the floor, as every person freezes, cringes as it clangs against the wall, and sighs with relief before the fighting resumes. Chan is well known for his stunts, but he is also a gifted actor and an accomplished comedian, and he entertains on a multitude of levels.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cynthia Khan Steps In and Takes Over in “In the Line of Duty”

In 1985, Michelle Yeoh rose quickly to stardom, along with American actress Cynthia Rothrock, in the Hong Kong action film, Yes, Madam! Yeoh’s equally successful follow-up, Royal Warriors (1986), was released in other territories as In the Line of Duty, while Yes, Madam! was, interestingly enough, given a sequel title, In the Line of Duty 2. D & B Films retained the title to continue as a series, but by 1988, Yeoh had retired to marry producer Dickson Poon (the “D” in D & B).

Looking for a new leading lady, D & B Films chose Cynthia Khan. Born Yang Li-Ching in Taiwan, the actress’ stage name is an amalgamation of Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Khan (Yeoh’s screen credit before her retirement). Like other female action stars, she’d previously trained in dance. Though Khan was taking over the lead, she was not portraying the same character as Yeoh, who played two different characters in Yes, Madam! and Royal Warriors.

The plot to 1988’s In the Line of Duty III is similar to Royal Warriors: vengeance-minded Japanese criminals (Stuart Ong and Michiko Nishiwaki) are targeting Madam Yeung (Khan) and others, while a Japanese cop (Hiroshi Fujioka) is looking for retribution against the villains. Both movies have an additional villain who enters the plot midway through, action scenes set in night clubs, and end in warehouses with the female protagonist fighting alone and various tools as weapons. Khan even looks like Michelle Yeoh, in similar Don Johnson-inspired outfits and matching boyish haircut. Fortunately, the series progressed, and by the sixth film (before Yeoh’s return to cinema screens), Khan’s hair is considerably longer and she’s taken to wearing short skirts or shorts and knee-high boots.

Though setting up Khan as a replacement for Yeoh, In the Line of Duty III does establish Khan’s character as a strong woman. A man at the beginning mocks Madam Yeung when she tries to write him a ticket. Though he degrades police officers in general, the implication is that he’s questioning her authority as a female. When a robber runs past, Yeung chases him, but her knee-length skirt (part of her police uniform) is so constricted that she tears it along the side. This allows her to run faster and, more importantly, use her legs freely against the criminal. It’s almost as if Yeung is freeing herself from the limitations that some may associate with working women. But it’s also the woman utilizing unconventional methods to capture the robber: she is unable to retrieve a pistol from another officer (a male cop who proves to be a hindrance), due to the lanyard tied to the weapon, and so an unarmed woman must stop an armed criminal.

In the Line of Duty III was an entertaining action film and a grand introduction to Khan’s female cop protagonist. In her subsequent film, In the Line of Duty IV (1989), a man, Luk (Yuen Yat-Choh), is sought by criminals for having photographic evidence of a CIA operative’s involvement in selling drugs, unaware that Luk lost the film almost immediately. Madam Yeung teams up with another officer (Donnie Yen) to protect Luk, also marked for death simply for being a witness. Michael Wong, who starred in Royal Warriors with Yeoh (he’s playing a different character), co-stars as a CIA agent.

Generally considered the favorite of Khan’s In the Line of Duty films, the fourth entry, in addition to allowing Khan to break away from Yeoh’s cinematic persona, was directed by famed Hong Kong filmmaker Yuen Woo-Ping and featured an early performance from future superstar Donnie Yen. Though he’s only known in the U.S. for choreography (the Wachowski Bros.’ The Matrix in 1999, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies in 2003-04, etc.), Yuen was a successful director in Hong Kong, directing and choreographing such stars as Jackie Chan (in his first legitimate hit), Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. Yen has been popular for a number of years, for films including Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) and Iron Monkey (1993/directed by Yuen), but his productivity in the last several years has been amazing, appearing in a host of award-winning films. He has also proven himself a competent action director, earning a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography for The Twins Effect (Vampire Effect in the U.S.) in 2004, SPL: Sha Po Lang (Kill Zone in the U.S.) in 2006, and Flash Point (also a Taiwan Golden Horse Film Award) in 2008. (Yuen won in said category for the years in between, 2005 and 2007.)

Next in the series was In the Line of Duty V: Middle Man (1990). In this film, Madam Yeung’s cousin, David (David Wu), is on leave from the Navy. When David’s criminal friend, Alan, is killed from a botched drug deal, his ties to the selling of U.S. intel convinces the CIA that David is equally guilty of espionage. Yeung must keep her cousin out of prison, as well as protect David from men who believe he possesses an incriminating diary that belonged to Alan. Though not as good as its predecessor, Middle Man is an admirable film and yet another showcase for Khan’s talents.

Cynthia Khan, along with actresses such as Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima, is known for frequently appearing in films of the “Girls with Guns” subgenre. However, the In the Line of Duty films focus on hand-to-hand combat. Many of the times, Khan’s character (as well as other police officers) is outgunned, armed with a police-issued revolver while dodging bullets from automatic weapons. Ultimately the villains run out of bullets, and it comes down to physical prowess, of which Madam Yeung is more than capable.

Two more sequels followed, both released in 1991 (though the latter film was apparently produced in 1990). Despite neither movie utilizing the In the Line of Duty title, Khan is reprising her character in each film. In Forbidden Arsenal, Khan and her team halt a transaction of illegal arms, ensnaring two of the men (Waise Lee and Do Siu-Chun) in the process. Both men, however, claim to be police officers -- one from Taiwan, the other from mainland China -- working in Hong Kong. The men are not authorized to work the case, which doesn’t stop them from attempting to do exactly that. Yeung spends much of the time babysitting the two, who occasionally come across as oafish: one has a penchant for perusing adult magazines, while another learns the hard way that tin cans should not be heated in a microwave. This not only expresses Yeung’s superiority over the two as a woman, but also as a Hong Kong cop. A unique quality of this film is the first (and only) sign of romantic interest for Madam Yeung. It seems out of place, but at least her potential suitor earns it (e.g., he has a long wait until the closing credits).

Sea Wolves begins with Vietnam refugees attacked at sea, murdered for their valuables. John (Simon Yam), part of the thieving, murderous crew (and brother to the ship’s captain), recognizes a refugee, Gary (Gary Chow, who was also in Forbidden Arsenal), and saves him from a similar fate. Gary is injured and subsequently develops amnesia. Once the ship reaches the shores of Hong Kong, he escapes, and John does what he can to keep his brothers in crime from killing his friend. Unfortunately, Khan is a supporting player in this entry, as there are stretches of time without Madam Yeung, while most of her scenes act as reminders of an ongoing investigation. On its own, Sea Wolves is an adequate action thriller, but as In the Line of Duty 7, it’s a disappointing conclusion to the series. Philip Kwok of Chang Cheh’s Venoms was the martial arts director of the sixth and seventh films (co-credited in Forbidden Arsenal). He also had roles in both films.

Though they are loosely connected -- the common denominators being Khan’s Madam Yeung and D & B Films as producers -- these films are generally considered the In the Line of Duty series. Various alternate titles, however, cause a great deal of confusion. Khan plays a vengeful bride sporting an uzi in Queen’s High (1991), which has also been called In the Line of Duty 5: In the Beginning. In the Line of Duty IV was released on UK DVD as In the Line of Duty, while Middle Man is sometimes known as In the Line of Duty 2. The series entries additionally have varying Yes Madam titles, with Khan appearing in the unrelated films, Yes Madam (1995), Yes Madam 5 (1996) -- she does play a cop named Yeung -- and A Serious Shock! Yes Madam! (1993/aka Death Triangle) with Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima.

Attempting to link the seven In the Line of Duty movies (or even just the five starring Cynthia Khan) with anything concerning a plot is irrelevant. Audiences were just happy to see a familiar face, and Kahn made the series her own before the credits of her first film even rolled. Loyalty in action films lies with the protagonist. So as the storyline falls by the wayside, viewers will focus all their love and energy on the character who’s still standing at the end. One of the most vital ingredients to any film’s success is the star, and Cynthia Khan was one of the brightest.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My Favorite Films: From 70 to 61

Last month, I covered 80-71 of my favorite movies. This month, the countdown continues with an eclectic mix of films ranging from a B-mystery to a famous film noir with everything—a French classic, a George Stevens’ Western, jungle natives, and Spencer Tracy’s final screen appearance—in between. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

70. The Scarlet Claw - One of the best of all Sherlock Holmes films, this smart little mystery finds Holmes and Watson chasing a “phantom” over the marshes of Canada. The murderer, a former thespian, is a master of disguises—which sets the stage for several tense sequences. Nigel Bruce adds just the right amount of humor in this one and director Roy William Neill keeps the atmospheric proceedings moving at a snappy pace. This is easily my favorite Basil Rathbone Holmes film, to include the more expensive 20th Century-Fox pictures.

Roland Toutain and Jean Renior.
69. The Rules of the Game - Best described as a "comic tragedy," Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece focuses on three themes: the relationship between and among the frivolous upper-class and their servants; the complex emotions between men and women; and the boundaries and expectations of society (the "rules of the game"). I first saw it in a college film class in the 1970s and it left a lasting impression. Although some contemporary audiences may find parts of it dated, it’s easy to see why critics often rank Rules alongside Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films ever made.

68. The Road Warrior – Originally called Mad Max 2¸ this sequel surpasses the original in every way. Whereas 1979’s Mad Max drowned in a bleak view of a post-apocalyptic future, The Road Warrior creates a mythic portrait of its hero and presents a world with a glimmer of hope. It also doesn’t hurt that it features some of the most exhilarating chase scenes ever filmed and a star-making turn by Mel Gibson. It’s a near-perfect action film and the thematic parallels with Shane (see below) don’t hurt either.

67. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – It’s easy to find flaws in this not-very-controversial film about a young interracial couple who plan to marry despite the objections of both sets of parents. I suppose that audiences in 1967 might have been more shocked if the groom-to-be wasn’t a handsome, educated do-gooder played by Sidney Poitier. But even if it’s simplistic, this last pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is a heartfelt, impeccably-acted tale of love and understanding. It always leaves me with a good feeling.

66. The Naked Prey – Cornel Wilde (who also directs) plays an unnamed jungle safari guide who works for a cruel ivory hunter. When the ivory hunter offends a tribe of natives, the members of the hunting party are killed or captured and tortured to death...except for Wilde. He is stripped and sent into the veldt, with a slight head start and a group of warriors in hot pursuit. The rest of the film is a brutal saga of survival, as Wilde struggles to find food and water in addition to fending off his ever- present pursuers. Not for the squeamish, this unique action film relies on visual storytelling with minimal dialogue.

65. The Dirty Dozen – A recurring motif among my list of favorite movies is what I call the “Robin Hood theme” in which disparate characters come together to form a team. I don’t know…there’s just something entertaining about watching a bunch of folks bond en route to saving a village, overthrowing an evil prince, or defeating the Nazis. That leads us to The Dirty Dozen, which finds the defiant, but effective, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) faced with a dubious mission on the eve of D-Day. He must train twelve hardened military convicts to go behind enemy lines and assassinate a group of German generals cavorting in a well-guarded chateau. With an amusing first half and an exciting second half, The Dirty Dozen plays to the strength of its terrific cast, which includes Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine.

Edward Fox as The Jackal.
64. The Day of the Jackal – This taut tale of a 1962 plot to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle is potent example of the power of cinema. Despite knowing that the assassin—known only as The Jackal—is the villain, I find myself admiring his meticulous planning and (temporarily) rooting for him to accomplish his mission. Fortunately, a plot development late in the film always reels me back in so that I’m relieved when persevering detective Michael Lonsdale foils the Jackal at the final second. A clever plot, fine performances, and Fred Zinnemann’s expert use of European locations make this is a first-class thriller.

Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.
63. Laura – Otto Preminger’s film noir classic seems to improve with every viewing. What’s not to like? It features: one of the most memorable characters in the history of cinema (Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker); a stunning plot twist involving the equally stunning Gene Tierney; a haunting music theme courtesy of David Raksin; and a detective hero whose obsession with the murder victim would be almost creepy in any other film.

62. The Charge of the Light Brigade – Often criticized for its historical inaccuracies, this Warner Bros. classic is nonetheless a top-notch historical action film. Against the backdrop of the Crimean War, Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles play brothers vying for the affections of Olivia de Havilland. An early scene informs us that Olivia’s character, though engaged to Flynn, has secretly fallen in love with Knowles. This knowledge causes us to empathize with Flynn’s British officer as his emotions evolve from disbelief to anger to understanding. I think it’s one of Flynn’s finest performances. The climatic charge, directed by Michael Curtiz, is an incredible sequence (although it resulted in many complaints over the mistreatment of horses).

61. Shane – I’m a sucker for a good tale of redemption and Shane is one of the best. Alan Ladd plays the former gunslinger who unexpectedly finds a home when he stops at a struggling farm. Shane fills a void in the life of each family member. For Joe, Shane is a “man’s man” willing to work or fight beside him—whether it’s a barroom brawl or the war against a villainous cattle baron. For the wife Marion, Shane is the attentive suitor, who notices the little things that her reliable, but bland husband never does. And for little Joey, Shane is a substitute father who takes time to bond with him—something his busy father has had little time to do. Like many of the great Westerns, the importance of family triumphs over all.

Next month, I’ll reach the halfway point of this list with two Malcolm McDowell movies, two films with snowy settings, a colorful Judy Holliday classic, and the only feature directed by a classic film star.

Trivia Time - Part 81

Here are last week's answers:

1. Name the film which the Who Said This? quote ("Why do you have to wake me up every time I'm on a date with Ann Sheridan!") is from, as well as the co-stars.

Answer: DKoren correctly said that Who Said This? was Ronald Reagan in Desperate Journey, but neglected to name the co-stars. They included Errol Flynn, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy and Raymond Massey.

2. This early '30s score is credited by some with changing the face of film music forever. Name the film and the composer.

Answer: King Kong, Max Steiner

3. George Stevens gave Rock Hudson his choice of two leading ladies for Giant. He picked Elizabeth Taylor; name the other actress he could have chosen.

Answer: Grace Kelly

And here's another short version of Trivia Time for the 81st edition of the game; have fun!

Who Said This?
"It's hard to think straight when you have a crooked mind." Who Said This?

1. Lloyd Bacon directed Allen Jenkins in one film with Edward G. Robinson and in another with Errol Flynn. Name both films.

2. This 1936 film is a landmark in British flim history due to its story, production design and score. Name the film and the composer.

3. Actress Leigh French had a semi-recurring role on The Smothers Brothers Show. Name her character.

4. On George of the Jungle's cartoon show, what was the name of Tom Slick's race car?

5. What was the name of the arch-villian on The Beany and Cecil cartoon show (aka Matty's Funnies with Beany and Cecil)?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Blind Vengeance Takes Center Stage in "Master of the Flying Guillotine"

Vengeance! That's what blind kung fu teacher Fu Sing Wu Chi has in mind when he receives news that two of his pupils were killed by a one-armed revoluntionary. Fu Sing Wu Chi promptly blows up his remote cabin in the mountains and sets out--armed with his "flying guillotine"--to kill his adversary.

Liu Ti Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu), the "one-armed boxer," heads a martial arts school where he tries to keep a low profile ("Don't attract attention from government officials," he warns his students). In the same village, a bigwig is hosting a large-scale martial arts tournament. Liu Ti Lung refuses to enter the tournament, but decides that his students could learn from watching the participants.

A tournament participant readies for
her first blow.
After several exciting fighting matches (all to the death--unfortunately for the losers), Fu Sing Wu Chi shows up. He kills the tournament's host and, with the help of some of the fighters, seeks out Liu Ti Lung to gain his vengance.

No plot summary could do justice to Master of the Flying Guillotine, one of the funkiest and most popular films to emerge from the kung fu craze of the 1970s. Released in 1976, the film just missed out on the kung fu fad in America. Over the years, though, American fans have elevated it from cult status to the point where it has been championed by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino.

Part of the film's appeal comes from the tournament scenes, which pit fighters from different martial arts disciplines against each other. Indeed, Master of the Flying Guillotine is known as the protoype "tournament film," although it wasn't the first of its kind. In fact, director-star Jimmy Wang Yu actually borrowed the concept from his earlier One-Armed Boxer (aka The Chinese Professionals), which--although it didn't feature a tournament per se--boasted a plethora of martial artists from different counties and with different fighting styles.

Fighters perched on poles...with
blades protruding from the ground.
That said, the tournament matches in Master of the Flying Guillotine are superior in every way. Not only are they more imaginative (e.g., two fighters perched on top of poles as they battle each other), but the direction and presentation are more stylish. I even like how a paper fan is ripped in half (with musical accompaniment) when a winner is announcement. And, there's some offbeat humor, too, such as when two fighters kill each other and an official directs the tournament staff to "take the two winners away."

Wang Yu narrowly avoids death
by flying guillotine.
Of course, Master of the Flying Guillotine is more than just a filmed tourament...and that leads us to Fu Sing Wu Chi and his flying guillotine--a unique, lethal, but not very practical weapon. It can be best described as a hat attached to a chain that drops a mesh over the head of its victims There are razor-sharp blades at the bottom of the mesh, so when the chain is pulled tight, the victim is beheaded. Since Fu Sing Wu Chi is blind, he uses his flying guillotine on any one-armed fighter he encounters. This is bad news for a bum at a restaurant who poses as Liu Ti Lung in order to get a free meal!

There are subplots aplenty in Master of the Flying Guillotine, but my favorite involves a female martial artist whose father (the tournament host) is murdered by Fu Sing Wu Chi. A Japanese teacher offers to take care of her and teach her karate. However, she rejects his offer, stating: "All I want to do now to take revenge on that blind man." The Japanese teacher's terse response: "Don't're not enough."

Wang Yu plots his next move during
the fight in the coffin shop.
The film's only glaring liability is Jimmy Wang Yu. Although his direction is stylish and his choice of settings creative (e.g., a fight in a coffin shop), his acting is uninspired. He simply lacks charisma and, although it's fun to watch his one-armed fighting for awhile, his repetitive movements eventually become boring. Still, there's no denying that--as a director and actor--he was a major influence on the kung fu films of the 1970s.

For anyone interested in martial arts films, Master of the Flying Guillotine is required viewing. For those curious to explore the genre beyond the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, this funky, stylish picture is a great place to start.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bond Is Forever: “You Only Live Twice”

A U.S. space shuttle is in orbit when a carrier of unknown origin skyjacks the shuttle and communication is lost. The American government believes that, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union is responsible, but the UK has received intelligence which suggests that the culprit is Japan. MI6 turns to its best agent, James Bond (Sean Connery), who has recently manufactured his own death while on assignment in Hong Kong. With the help of Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and Japanese SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), 007 infiltrates the offices of Osato (Teru Shimada), who is most likely compiling the ingredients for rocket fuel. Bond and another agent, Kissy (Mie Hama), track the villains’ possible rocket launch to a small island and soon learn that the person behind the conspiracy is SPECTRE head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), with aspirations to incite a war between the U.S. and Russia and to establish a new world power.

You Only Live Twice (1967) was the first 007 movie directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would direct later films in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). It was partly filmed on location in Japan, with the famed Toho Company, Ltd., supplying sound stages and cast/crew. Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name, the final Bond novel published in the author’s lifetime, shares few similarities with the film version (character names and the Japan setting two minor components that survived the transfer to screen).

You Only Live Twice can be split into two distinctive parts (which seems appropriate, considering the title). The movie begins with 007’s mock murder in Hong Kong, followed by his burial at sea. His “body” is taken aboard a submarine, where he is greeted by Miss Moneypenny (the always engaging Lois Maxwell) and meets with M (Bernard Lee) in an office that looks much like MI6 headquarters. This breezy, vivacious approach is a welcome trek through coventional 007 terrain and is even maintained during Bond’s time in Japan as he works with Aki and Tanaka. Upon Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) arrival, Bond receives one of the few gadgets of the film, “Little Nellie” (an autogyro), and flies over an island associated with a cargo ship, the Ning-Po, and, by extension, Osato.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film is little more than 007 training, in preparation of traveling to the island and locating Blofeld and the probable spacecraft. Bond “poses” as a Japanese man, with his hair dyed black and his eyebrows teased. (Despite telling Moneypenny that he’s studied “Oriental” language, the extent of 007’s knowledge of Japanese discourse seems limited to thanking people -- though to be fair, English is the movie’s primary language, even in Japan.) As Bond hones his skills in the Japanese martial arts, there are a couple of assassination attempts, one of which results in an agent being killed. Frustratingly, 007 expresses fleeting concern over the deceased person (who is, essentially, dead because of an affiliation with Bond) and focuses most of his energy ensuring that the woman pretending to be his wife is particularly attractive. Kissy is to the agent’s liking, based on his visible reaction, and it comes to no surprise that he tries to seduce her almost as soon as they reach the island.

A Bond with minimal gadgetry is not a flaw. Such an approach works to great effect in films like Dr. No (1962), For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Casino Royale (2006). However, these movies contained additional attributes, such as suspenseful scenes of investigation (Dr. No and Casino Royale) or action (For Your Eyes Only). Regrettably, Bond sans gadgets has nothing to lend support in You Only Live Twice. By the film’s second half, all Bond truly has left to accomplish is to unearth Blofeld’s base of operations, and, sadly, it takes an inordinate amount of time for the agent to make it there. Once inside, the movie still plods along until finally reaching an explosive action sequence, which is admittedly quite sensational, even if it arrives a bit late.

Wakabayashi and Hama appeared in a series of Japanese spy films in the 60s, Kokusai himitsu keisatsu (aka International Secret Police). The fourth in the series, Kagi no kagi (1965/aka Key of Keys), which starred both actresses, was reedited, redubbed and re-scored, forming the bulk of Woody Allen’s 1966 What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (some of the third entry, 1964’s Kayaku no taru -- which translates to “a keg of powder” -- was also edited into Allen’s movie). The character of Aki was originally named Suki, but, purportedly at Wakabayashi’s recommendation, it was changed, as the actress’ name in What’s Up, Tiger Lily? was Suki Yaki.

Screenwriter Roald Dahl is perhaps better known for his children’s stories, including James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. You Only Live Twice was Dahl’s first produced screenplay. He co-wrote another adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in 1968. The film was produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and featured the celebrated villain, the Child Catcher (portrayed by Robert Helpmann), a Roald Dahl creation.

The title song was written by composer John Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse and sung by Nancy Sinatra. “You Only Live Twice” is one of my favorite Bond songs, a beautiful, moody piece with haunting vocals from Sinatra, and Barry retains the title’s elegance throughout the film’s score. Popular British singer Robbie Williams sampled “You Only Live Twice” for his 1998 hit “Millennium.” His song helped him achieve some success in the States, and his James Bond-inspired music video garnered an MTV Music Video Award nomination for “Best Male Video.”

During filming of You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery announced that he would be leaving the role of 007. George Lazenby took over the lead in the subsequent Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but Connery returned for 1971’s Diamonds are Forever. Though Blofeld was a character in previous Bond outings, You Only Live Twice was the first time that his face is shown. The film is also the first of the “Blofeld Trilogy,” and the last of the novels’ Trilogy, following Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and discounting The Spy Who Loved Me between those two). Interestingly, Charles Gray, who plays Henderson, Bond’s contact in Japan in You Only Live Twice, would portray Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever.

As was typical for Bond films, You Only Live Twice was one of the top ten grossing U.S. films in 1967. While it’s not my least favorite of the series, I place it at the bottom of my list for the 007 movies starring Sean Connery. It has its moments, but there simply are not enough for the near two-hour duration, and much of the film is lethargically paced. But with capable allies (Aki in particular), Pleasence as a first-rate Blofeld (he’s my personal favorite of the actors who portray the villain), and a wonderful title song, there is always something to relish.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with Licence to Kill (1989).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

MacGyver: Season One

Richard Dean Anderson as the resourceful MacGyver.
He can make a bomb out of chewing gum and a clothes hanger. He can escape from a maximum security prison with some duct tape and a rapier wit. He’s James Bond, if Bond was an equal rights-loving American with no fashion sense and a stubborn cow lick.

Or so the legend goes.

MacGyver is the laidback title character of an ABC show which ran from 1985 to 1992. He’s a secret agent for a private company, the Phoenix Foundation, who has contracts with the federal government. He’s a mix of sincerity and deadliness, an adult boy scout who uses low tech solutions for high tech complications.

Many episodes pit him against a dangerous, malfunctioning machine or an insane villain who wants to play a deadly game of cat and mouse. MacGyver famously defeats them all with whatever is handy--chocolate candy bars to fix an acid leak, a baking soda and vinegar bomb to block images on a surveillance camera, or, yes, even some gum just to chew while he thinks up something awesome.

The Ladies

Sometimes when the lead is a handsome, single guy, he might have a love interest who will never reenter his life after the credits roll. For television, this is called “The Bonanza Curse,” and it’s the only thing I cannot stand about MacGyver.

The obligatory kisses and such are just boring, forced and gratuitous. The episodes are often provided with female characters who are just as compelling as MacGyver. Great! But do they all have to become infatuated with the guy only to disappear forever?

In one episode, there’s an madman on the loose, who somehow instantly kills people from the inside of their bodies. He’s after a lady because she knows too much, but does our hero care? Not for the minute and a half they spend on a rushed romance which doesn’t lead anywhere.

It’s maddeningly unnecessary for the characters to find each other attractive. The lead is solid enough, the female interesting enough, the villains are crazy enough and the situation urgent enough to entertain the audience without the bland erotic element--the way they do it, it’s bland--to waste our time. Did I mention the bad guys kill people instantly and in weird, unknown ways? Who thinks of romance at a time like that?

Which leads me to my favorite first season episode because it introduces my favorite first season MacGyver lady.

"Every Time She Smiles ”

In this episode,  Penny Parker (Teri Hatcher) already has a boyfriend that she’s nuts about, so Mac gets off scott-free from amorous entanglements, for the most part. Penny discovers that her boyfriend unknowingly gave her rare jewels which belong to the Soviet government. Thinking that Penny and the guy next to her in line at the airport (MacGyver) are spies, government officials begin a chase that lasts throughout the episode.
Ms. Hatcher plays vacuous very well, staying close to the line of being annoying without actually irritating. Penny is a nicely balanced, teddy bear of a character, who tends to see the good in unexpected places, but she does not excuse evil. She’s not knowingly self-assured, she just is self-assured, which is refreshing in any show with strong characters.

MacGyver and the Movies

Plenty of these first season episodes seem like mini versions of movies, not just for the physical stunts, exotic locales and action-packed segments, but the plots themselves seem ripped out of the cinema. One episode, “Trumbo’s World,” involves a British guy--wearing jodhpurs--with a plantation off the beaten path, who must deal with a horde of ants that threatens to overtake his place; it’s like something out of The Naked Jungle. 
Another episode revolves entirely around a train full of people being held captive with certain death in the air ; this is reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), where a train full of people is stopped by snow on the tracks and a murder occurs. Another episode has a car chase scene in a city’s aqueducts, a dramatic stunt which can be found in many mainstream films. And of course, there’s “The Heist,” which sees MacGyver not only donning a tux and playing for high stakes at a casino, but actually pretending to be James Bond while dressing for the evening.

What’s great about the first season is that you can see all of the basic elements for which the show is known. [Some would say the pilot episode shows everything you need to know.] A few tweaks would come as the years passed, but essentially it’s all there--the stunts, the crazed villains, the compelling women, the ingenuity, his aversion to guns, his inability to punch (although he tries), his altruistic spirit, and his aw shucks-ness. It’s all right there from the very beginning.

For fun, in-depth analysis of episodes from MacGyver:Season One, read "MacGyver Monday" at Rental Rehab.

This review by written by guest blogger Java from Java's Journey.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 80

Late again, we're having health issues around here, nothing too serious.

Here are the answers to TT79:

Who Said This? "He's so low that when they bury him, they'll have to dig UP!" Who Said This?

Answer: Connie Emerson (Audrey Meadows' character) said this about Everett Beasley (John Astin's character) in That Touch of Mink.

4. Besides Advance to the Rear, name another film for which The New Christie Minstrels sang the opening title song.

Answer: The Wheeler Dealers, starring James Garner and Lee Remick.

6. Name a Sidney Lumet (R.I.P.) film featuring Dan O'Herlihy.

Answer: Fail Safe.

And for no particular reason (except perhaps to please some of the ladies). here is a picture of Errol Flynn. This one was contributed by Becks, sent to us in email (sorry Becks, we just saw the email!, JoAnn says "Thanks so much!")

Here is TT80; it's short and sweet!

Who Said This? "Why do you have to wake me up every time I'm on a date with Ann Sheridan!" Who Said This?

1. Name the film which the above quote (Who Said This?) is from, as well as the co-stars.

2. This early '30s score is credited by some with changing the face of film music forever. Name the film and the composer.

3. George Stevens gave Rock Hudson his choice of two leading ladies for Giant. He picked Elizabeth Taylor; name the other actress he cold have chosen.

4. Aaron Copeland composed the scores for two films that took place in California. Name them.