Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: Tấm Cám: The Untold Story (Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể)

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Tấm Cám: The Untold Story (aka Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể)
Directed by Veronica Ngo (aka Ngo Thanh Van)
VAA Productions / BHD Vietnam Studios / Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Visual
115 minutes, 2016 / 2017

Well, I must say, this is my first Vietnamese film viewing that has nothing to do with the action there during the 1960s and early ‘70s. This is more the sweeping epic kind of period story one would expect from either Japan, or especially China; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) comes to mind.

Asia has a history of taking Western stories and Easternizing them, such as Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957) and King Lear (Ran, 1985). Then again, the West has taken the Eastern stories as well, and either transplanted them (The Magnificent Seven, 1960; A Fistful of Dollars, 1964;, more recently The Ring, 2002), or merely placed themselves in the story in Asia (Shogun, 1980 and The Great Wall, 2016, for example).

For this release, it is in part a reimagining of the Cinderella story, set in the magical past of Mainland Southeast Asia.  We see sweeping vistas and mountain castles as the camera swoops and flies in both the real and digital realm, and it’s all beautiful and lush (and easy to distinguish between the two, but that’s alright).

Ha Vi and Isaac
Even before the credits, the handsome prince with Spock-like eyebrows, Thái Tử (translated as “Prince”; Isaac), is all bedecked in gold armor while racing to see his dying father. He and his posse almost runs over Tâm (“Center”; Ha Vi), and it is love at first sight. But, as the story goes, he takes off without finding out who she is, which he will later regret.

While pretty accurate to the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, there is also a lot of minor tweaking along the way. For example, along with the evil step-mother Dì ghẻ (“Step Mother”; director Veronica Ngo), there is only one nasty step-sibling, Cảm (“Cold”; Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc), who is a horribly spoiled brat. Also, rather than a fairy godmother, there is a fairy godfather, But (“Shoes”; scene stealer Loc Thanh), who is obviously based on the Robin Williams’ Genie character from the animated Aladdin (1992). He has a nasty sense of humor and also mentions things that have no place in the story or time, such as the Energizer Bunny. Dressed like the White Wizard phase of Gandalf (sans hoodie), with eyebrows that go down to his chin, he is quite hysterical.

The Cinderella part is actually quite abbreviated, even if it gets the most credit, with the entire story taking only the first 30 minutes. For example, the whole “fit the foot to the shoe” bit takes place at the initial ball when Tâm first walks in dressed in her fine outfit.

People may not remember this, but fairy tales were often quite dark, such as in the original Cinderella story, one of the step-sisters cuts off part of her foot to try and make the shoe fit. Here, while nothing this gruesome visually occurs, there ae some sad and surprising moments with death, the threat of murder, and war never far away. You may certainly begin to wonder about the “Happily Ever After” part.

Huu Chau
There are many layers of fantasy here, including ghost stories, reincarnation, and a bit of another Fairy Tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m not necessarily up on my Tales since I haven’t read them (or had them read to me) since I was a small kinder, but there is much in the way of intrigue, betrayal and resurrection. And like many Tales, this is a bit over the top; honestly, though, this is the kind of production that is built for it. When I was in Xi’an, China, a few years ago, I saw an opera/ballet called A Song of Everlasting Sorrow, about the first Emperor of China and his Concubine; there are some similarities here, as well. This also is a story of love that goes beyond death, treachery and friendship.

As for the betrayals, some come as a surprise (as they should be in the true definition of the word), but the obvious one is the main villain, a Fu Manchu-ish, Saruman-like Magistrate, Thừa Tướng (“Prime Minister”; Huu Chau). He is more cartoonish in a Ming the Merciless way, though the main difference is that he is actually is played by an Asian actor (unlike anyone in the West who has played Mr. Merciless).

Ngoc Trai
Along with the character But, my favorite is Nguyên Lực (“Resources”; Ngoc Trai): who is a friend to the prince, and also an outstanding comic relief. Trai is never ridiculous to the point of losing credibility, sort of in the way that Donald O’Connor would play to the likes of Gene Kelly.

Of course, there must be sweeping battle scenes, and there are a few, which are very well composed and shot. Yeah, they fly through the air with the greatest of ease, though not always getting the outcome you might expect. Once again, there is a strong mix between real, harnesses, and digital. The end and inevitable battle between good and evil is nearly all Digi, and it looks a bit silly and great at the same time.  

The story is, well, a Fairy Tale, and I wonder how much of it is based on Vietnamese folklore that I haven’t a clue about. I mean, while someone in the West may wonder, what?!, I’m betting there’s probably somebody saying the same thing there about a story of someone who is nailed to a piece of wood and comes back to life three days later. It’s all perception and culture.

The only extras on this disk are the trailer and the chapters.

The lovely director Ngo, who can also be seen in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), does a splendid job with her second directed film in bringing this all together, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her output.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: Devil’s Trail

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Devil’s Trail
Directed by Henrique Couto
New Dynamic Pictures
73 minutes, 2017

The New Jersey Devil is rumored to be in the wild nature preserve called the Pine Barrens, which occupy the lower southeast third of the state. You never heard of the creature? Where did you think the name of the hockey team came from? Nearly every state has its own version of the Yeti, or Loch Ness Monster. In Joisey, it’s da “devil.” You can find out more about it on Wikipedia, but I digress…

For our story here, we meet Dallas (John Bradley Hambrick) and Hank (director Henrique Couto), who are filming themselves for a survivalist show, where people live in the wild for 21 days with only three items. Even though it’s October, no one thinks of gloves (which is actually addressed in the story), but again I digress… The spot they choose, of course, is the rough and tumble Pine Barrens.

As they stumble around, increasingly getting on each other’s nerves (as familiar companions do), they try their best to find food and water, goad each other, and run into some nude witches. Oh, didn’t see that coming? First day out (and very early into the film), they find themselves in the company of some “Wiccans” (as our intrepid wannabe heroes call them; the women sort of shrug the term off) in the middle of a ceremony. Other than the nudity, they do serve a few purposes to the story, including filling in the role of the “locals who warn.” Rather than the old guy or the gas station attendant who says, “Turn back before it’s too late!!!” these women (Joni Durian, Rachel Redolfi and Erin R. Ryan) take the role on with their robe off.

Hambrick and Couto, with the Jersey Devil's Triangle
As the guys wander over the river and through the woods to eke out some kind of reality star existence, there are the red eyes and screaming in the woods at night that only one of them sees (along with us).  The other meets this with skepticism; is he playing some kind of joke on the other? Well, the title cards at the beginning and night vision camera sensors tell the audience that there is something else afoot.

Yeah, this is a found footage [ff] release, and if you’ve anywhere familiar with my reviews, you’ll know it’s not one of my fave subgenres. But before you think, “okay, he’s going to tear this release a new one,” it’s actually quite good. I’ve had a discussion with Couto about ff, and we generally agree on why it’s a pain in the ass, and he does quite well to avoid many of the pitfalls. For example, rather than just having a camera with batteries that are never exhausted, as most of them do, Hank explains that he has 21 days’ worth of batteries in his backpack. And while there is some running around in the wood in the dark, rather than the light from the camera, they actually have some decent flashlights.

Night visitation
What’s also nice is that they both have tripods which they use as selfie-sticks held to their waists. We get to see the flip back and forth between both cameras, and it’s easy to tell which we are watching because one has more of a blue filter, and one is skewed towards a yellowish green.

The cast and crew is part of an Ohio group of filmmakers centered around Dayton that often work together (e.g., Ryan is in many of Couto’s releases), so they have a way of playing off each other that is an advantage to the audience, not to mention they all have some skill in improvisation that gives more of the feeling of spontaneity than just sounding stupid and uncomfortable with dialog, as do many freewheeling ff films.

Couto quite dressed down for this role
As with most ff, there is a lot more footage presented between the red eyes and people appearing out of nowhere, but they fill that gap with giving tips about surviving in the wilderness, which is actually more interesting than sheer nonsense time filler. You get more of a feeling of being with them, rather than spying on them. This is something so many ff releases lack. Usually, by the time something happens, I’m bored, but here, the interest is kept present by the two protagonists.

Through all the squabbling and breakdown into insanity over time, stick with it, because the ending actually took me by surprise – in a good way.

What I like about Couto as a filmmaker is that he is solid meat and potatoes. He doesn’t go in for the Fancy Feast, he goes for the Purina, meaning he tends to strip the story down to the bare bones and gives us something to gnaw on. Be it a western, a love story or horror, whatever the genre, he sticks to the essentials, and the film is the better for it (and having the talented Ryan in most of them doesn’t hurt).

Couto has been doing more acting lately, including in other director’s works, and the practice carries over into his own films, as he is one of the two leads here. Both him and Hambrick hold the story and present a solid package. Yeah, the genre still annoys me, but it’s great to see someone actually using it well.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: The Sword and the Claw

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Sword and the Claw (aka Kılıç Aslan, aka Lion Man)
Directed by Natuch Baitan (aka Natuk Baytan)
AGFA / MVD Visual
109 minutes, 1975 / 2017

Recently, I reviewed a trio of top-of-the-line action films in the gangster genre by Japanese director Takashi Miike. So now, to go down the ladder a bit, I’m about to watch a Turkish delight known as The Sword and the Claw, among other names. To tell ya the truth, I’m just as excited. Miike makes films that are cinematically well-focused and a tad off the wall, but here, who knows what to expect.

During the 1970s, the first boom of kung fu films started flowing into the West after the popularity of the television show “Kung Fu” (1972-1975) took just about everyone by surprise. The mostly Chinese releases were cheesy and good fun, and the best were period pieces set in the early days of the Shaolin period. Turkish cinema is long known as having a “cash-in”/”ride the wave” philosophy, with unintentionally funny remakes of stuff like Star Wars and “Star Trek.” 

Please note that I am not in any way trying to insult the Turkish film industry, rather the opposite. I find it great fun and worth seeking out for the very nature of the releases. This is a film I’m not familiar with, especially since while I enjoyed the whole cinematic kung fu invasion, it was not a genre in my field of expertise; besides, most of those original films were pretty laughable in their own right, as people flew through the air, caught shurikens with their bare hands, and beheaded people with hats.

What I did grow up with was the old Italian sword and sorcery-type gladiator films, like Hercules Unchained (1959), which were arguably even cheesier than the kung fu films. Again, I watched and enjoyed them whenever they came on television (though in all honesty, I don’t own a single one in VHS, DVD, or digital).

The Original Poster
Not surprisingly, the opening battle scene is one of the Turkish Army fighting the Crusaders from Europe (i.e., Christians). It’s all on horseback, where every one-on-one fight is a single slash or fist blow, accompanied by a grunt (it sounds like a few used over and over). Every group on the European front is apparently involved, as it looks like there are Vikings, Knights Templar in black robes, and even a leather-covered gladiator. The soundtrack playing over it all is some lighthearted music that you might expect to be heard to welcome spring. You know right from the onset this is going to be a hoot.

After the battle, King Solomon (who looks a lot like a bearded Guy Williams) is seduced by the blonde European Princess, Maria, who states, “I am also attracted to you as a man.” The King is assassinated by the Westerners, led by the villain of the piece, Antoine. Meanwhile, Solomon’s wife, Amelia (also blonde) bears his son in the woods. Suleyman Sah (Cüneyt Arkin, who goes by Steve Arkin in the dubbed version) – aka “The Claw” of the title – has the same elaborate “birthmark” on his shoulder as Solomon. He gets raised by a den of lions, Tarzan-style. His brother by Maria, Alkar – aka, “The Sword” – is raised Moses-like as the son of Antoine, to whom Maria was forced to marry. For the story, I’m not going to go too far into details beyond this point, but suffice it to guess that the brothers are going to meet at some point.

Suleyman is hysterical, being dressed in loincloth; plus he kills with his bare hands. He hits you with his open palm and nails, and you’re in heaven, Valhalla, Jannah or whatever is viewed as the hereafter in this period of Turkish history (I’m assuming Muslim, but other than the bad guys having a cross, religion proper is never mentioned).

The Lion Man and Ida
The love interest is the lovely (raven-haired) Ida, who is a leader of the Turkish rebels. The love interest of whom? Or both? That remains to be seen by you. She reminds me a bit of a mix of the sultry Yvonne Romain in 1961’s Curse of the Werewolf, and just-post Elvis-era Priscilla Presley. She’s a strong woman, but of course she’s put in harm’s way all the time, but all things considered, she also defends herself more than most cinematic women elsewhere in the world at that time. To be fair, women in action films tend to fare better than those in most other genres.

Yeah, the story is ridiculous, but it’s actually more complex than I was expecting. There are quite a few different subplots and a large number of characters that are fortunately easy to distinguish. Of course, men outnumber women by quite a large number, but if you take out the hundreds of extras who are killed, it evens it out more: by my count, there are 4 (in total) women in the story, and 7 (key) men. I was also surprised, considering its locale, that nearly all the women were the aggressors when it comes to the bedroom (a common Turkish fantasy? I really don’t know, I’m curious), and in one case there is an ample showing of cleavage. Other than Akins, no character is listed in the credits, so I don’t know who was playing whom.

The most common comments I’ve seen about the film, other than its complete preposterousness3` – and yes it is, but in a very fun way – is the way it’s dubbed into English. Honestly, I don’t see much difference between this and most of the period-piece kung fu stuff coming out of China and Samurai material from Japan around the same time. Meaning, yes of course it’s badly done, but they all were. Part of the charm, as far as I’m concerned.

This film was huge in Turkey when it was released, and made Arkin a big star there. There is also a sequel to the film, which would have made sense to add as a second feature rather than the one included (I say that before seeing it), but I’m happy to have had the opportunity to have viewed this one.

Most people have compared this film to the Conan franchise, but I disagree wholeheartedly; I believe its solid Tarzan meets kung fu mixed with the sword and sandal genre. Either way you look at it though, it’s a blast to watch. You may laugh at it, or you may laugh with it, but I guarantee, you will enjoy yourself, if this is the kind of film you looking for on a rainy weekend. I know I did.

Along with a truly fun group of “super” European trailers, the other extra is an entire second film, reviewed below.

The Brawl Busters (aka Sa-dae-tong-iue-moon aka Dragon From Shaolin)
Directed by Tommy Kim (aka Jeong-young Kim)
82 minutes, 1978 or 1981 / 2017

You know this is going to be fun when one of the first title card reads: “The Chinese Black Belt Society and Extraordinary Films presents Black Jack Chan.” I kept hearing that line from The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977): “We are building a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude!”

While it would have been nice to have had the sequel to the film above, it’s interesting to see one from South Korea, an area where my film knowledge is up-to-now virginal. Oh, and to be brutally honest, I didn’t get the joke of the title I until the beginning of actually starting to watching it.

It kind of makes sense when you realize the basic plot: During the dynasty era (yes, a period piece), a nobleman named She-Ya is assassinated by Kow-Ying Len, the leader of a quintet of female killers from Very Tea Lodge, who is a master in Tornado Feet Kung Fu; err, considering the locale, shouldn’t that be Cyclone Feet? At least she’s not using Jazz Hands Kung Fu. Meanwhile, She-Ya’s son, the villainous She-Hao, vows revenge. At the same time, a young buck (Bruce Cheung, aka the Black Jack Chan of the title card) has been tutored (off camera; no training montage) by a wise older master, and is on the road. You just know the guy and the woman at some point will eventually team up.

Essentially, this is a story about revenge told in a long and convoluted way that kinda makes sense, though why the original wrong took place is confusing. But what the hell, this has numerous fights, arguably nearly as much time as not.

Let’s talk a bit about the fighting (okay, I will). First of all, as with many releases in this genre, there is no logic, or physics for that matter. People fly through the air, bounce among the trees – though not as well as in larger budgeters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Another example is more than once someone will throw, say, some shurikens, and the intended target will hold up a small hand-held object that all the pointed thingies will stick to, even though the person isn’t moving. Unlike some movies where it looks graceful, here the action often looks clumsy and obviously either shown in reverse or sped up. For example, one of the villains wears a full length cape when he’s fighting. Even though he uses it to his advantage at one point, it still hinders rather than helps.

Personally, I believe that the filmmakers weren’t really trying to be rocket scientists about it, just to rush out a movie to sell to the foreign market for as inexpensive as posssible. This is the same philosophy of many of the B-films of the 1940s through ‘60s, such as the Frankie and Annette beachers, Noir detective stories, and those that fall into the psychotronic subgenre. But as you know, those styles were also a lot of fun. So is this.

Now, about the dialog and vocals. Due to some pieces of the film being missing, probably broken off between reels in the editing and reediting process in the projector rooms, there are some gaps and definitely harsh jumps. But it’s the dialog that is the most crazy, with the likes of, “When a woman kills one of our people it look very bad,” and “Her kung fu is excellent. It’s hard to believe she’s a woman!” “Bastard” and “bitch” seem to be used as much as the word “the.” To add to the head scratching is the dubbing itself, as the voices sound American, British and Crocodile Dundee-level Aussie (Kiwi?).

I haven’t found a link to a trailer, but this is worth seeing for the experience. Bad acting, bad writing, and bad dialog all adds up to – what else – a fun film. If you like Ed Wood and that ilk, you’re bound to find something for you here. If you’re you prefer the likes of Jet Li’s Hero (2002), well why hell are you reading this?

Friday, January 5, 2018

Review: Truth or Dare – A Critical Madness

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Truth or Dare: A Critical Madness
Directed, and written by Tim Ritter
Sub Rosa Studios
87 minutes, 1986 / 2010

Around the time VCRs came into fashion during the early to mid-1980s, the top two sellers / renters at video stores were porn and horror. This opened up a whole new genre of cinema, the made-for-video release. Most of the time these were shot on low budget, making some of Roger Corman’s films look expansive, on inferior quality stock and with actors who were, well, lets just say not exactly of Meryl Streep's caliber.

Director Tim Ritter was 18 or 19 when he directed this film, shot entirely on 16mm which gave it a grainy, ‘70s television feel (the main character driving a ’77 Firebird helps with that image; I kept expecting Dolemite to exit the car). The Chicago company that helped finance the project tried to take it away from him when they found out his age, but with a lawsuit, he retained "custody." In the meanwhile, they undermined him at every turn by changing plot points, actors, and even core storyline on second string shooting, making this an inconsistent mess as far as continuity, so the viewer must go beyond suspension of disbelief, and enter a land of no limits, to the level of Gilligan’s Island. A well-discussed point is that the main villain (there is no mystery on who the killer is from the first scene) keeps coming up with weapons out of nowhere, including machine guns, a (very fake looking) mace, a machete, and a large bolt-cutter.

Okay, that being said, if one is willing to accept the film for what it is and the period it was birthed, this is a fun popcorn-chomper. It really is a time capsule when the rules for straight-to-video product had not yet been written, and anything was possible. For this subgenre at that time, Truth or Dare is a fun ride almost because of the sheer ridiculousness of it all, and I do not mean this as a put-down at all. It is what it is, and this film is no better or worse than, say, 1978’s The Tool Box Murders (sans Pamelyn Ferdin, of course).

Lead nutcase Mike Strauber, acted at first as nerdy and rising to full insanity, is played by John Brace, whose previous credit is as a member of the Burt Reynolds’ Playhouse in Jupiter, Florida (near where this film was shot). His only other credit listed is also from 1986, which is an appearance on Cheers. Brace does some serious scenery chewing, but he manages to be one of the more professional actors in the picture; though I wonder how much he was actually there since during the last half he is wearing a full-face mask made of copper (wouldn’t that get really hot in Florida?) and his body shape and hair changes often, as his character is obviously being played by stunt people.

Most of the cast is amazingly amateurish, in a fun way, though. Raymond Carbone plays a wild police detective named Rosenberg who is obviously from the Chicago area (and a real ex-cop), Terence Andreucci plays the comic relief cop who is way too old and physically stiff for his part (it’s fun watching him try to crouch behind, say, a small rider mower), and Kerry Ellen Walker portrays a baffling hitchhiker (though her brief role soon becomes clear) who was obviously hired more for her cleavage, boxy figure, and big hair then for her acting talent (this is her only credit). And practically the entire Duff family makes an appearance in various roles (perhaps since the film was cast by Priscilla Duff?). I was especially laughing at the “teen punks” who were obviously in their overweight 30s. Then there is the wonderfully named actor Asbestos Felt, one of the only people in this film that has an upcoming credit.

The only on-camera cast-person who had a somewhat healthy career is Mary Fanaro, who played Stauber’s wife, though her many credits seem to peter out in 1999. Of course, there is an infamous cameo by a then-tween A.J. McLean, who would go on to have silly facial hair in the Backstreet Boys.

Perhaps because of the time period before MTV was influencing everything with music video style editing, or maybe it was that Ritter just didn’t really know what he was doing, the edits are kept to a minimum, with shots lasting much longer than one would expect these days, lingering in imaginative ways. For example, when Mike leaves his house after finding his wife in bed with her boss (hey, the first shot is of them in action, so no spoiler alert needed here), he storms out with his wife standing at the door. The camera stays steady on her back and the door as he storms out of frame for a few seconds, and then his car appears backing out of the driveway into the street. With such slow editing and pacing, more drama is built up. Sure, Sergei Eisenstein said that editing equals action, but in these days of 2-second cuts, this works by doing the opposite.

Yes, there is gore and appliance special effect, and some of them are well done, though most of kind of cheesy, of course. A majority of the action is done off-camera, such that the viewer will see the knife come down, and then the next shot the limb is already cut in CSI full gore. It’s rare to actually see the action itself rather than the aftereffect, and yet it still retains a nice blood-to-gore ratio.

There are a lot of enjoyable holes in the story, of which my favorite – even more than the mysterious appearing weapons – being that the police have trouble finding Mike, even though he drives around in his ’77 Firebird, wearing a full-face copper mask (surely a nod to Jason and the Shape), with his blinkers on throughout the whole film. And I won’t even go into him shooting three people at a bus stop with a machine gun while traffic continues to flow around him on a busy street.

There are some obvious comedy set pieces, as well as the unintentional, such as the use of the text crawl under the image of the Sunnydale Mental Institution, or the complaining neighbor who rants, oblivious to Mike loading up on weapons from the car.

The music deserves some comment: wow. Tacky ‘80s synth (usually one bar repeated over and over) for the tense moments, lame piano twinkling (probably also the synth) for the softer emotional parts, and the final credit song, “Critical Madness,” which is just, well, bad (in a fun way), sung occasionally on key by Kay Reed with the Church of Our Savior Choir (I kid you not), from Chicago.

There are extras on this DVD. Trailers for this and the next two (shot on video) Truth or Dare sequels (fourth is currently in production) – they look more like porn S&M tapes – and an interesting Behind-the-Scenes documentary, which is essentially Ritter talking over clips, like a commentary. And speaking of commentaries, there is a full length one by Ritter and a couple of the actors. Now, don’t go expecting a shot-by-shot analysis, but the conversation is pretty interesting about getting funded, the lawsuit, and the like, to keep it from getting dull (like any of the Farrelly Brothers’ or Kevin Smith bore-fest talks).

The word classic has been bandied about for this film, and in its way, it is. It was one of the first of a new direct-to-video genre, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s more than adequate if one is willing to take the step to just accept it for what it is. I probably won’t be the only one to say this, but: go ahead a get this film… I dare you.

This review was originally published in