April 22, 2009

Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975)

FOLLOWING THE MASSIVE SUCCESS of Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon in 1973, the remainder of the decade saw an explosion of kung fu films come out of Hong Kong. These films played in theaters and drive-ins across America during the ‘70s, then landed airtime on American TV in the ‘80s thanks to programs like USA Network’s Kung Fu Theatre:

In the new millennium, I once again found ‘70s kung fu films on TV, this time on a local independent TV station. And it was there, amongst the largely awful glut of these films, that I was introduced to the superior Master of the Flying Guillotine.

• In 1730 China, an elderly blind follower of the Ming Dynasty (Kang Kam) vows revenge for the deaths of his two disciples by a one-armed revolutionary and martial arts teacher (Jimmy Wang Yu). The blind man’s weapon of vengeance: the flying guillotine (think a giant yo-yo with a beekeeper’s hat at the end, but with buzzsaw-like teeth lining the inside).
• Meanwhile, a local martial arts school is having an open-invitation kung fu tournament. Martial artists from all over the world enter the tournament (much like Enter the Dragon), including an Indian with extendable arms and a guy who’ll literally whip your ass with his extra-long ponytail.
• Add to this mix a cocky but skilled Thai fighter who eventually sides with the vengeful blind man, and you have several engaging story paths coming to a head (a little guillotine humor there).

Let me start by saying this about Master of the Flying Guillotine: Citizen Kane it ain’t. Guillotine suffers many of the same clichéd flaws of other ‘70s kung fu movies: poor dubbing, comically exaggerated sound effects, superhuman feats like walking on walls and leaping to ridiculous heights, and so on. (To be fair, wall-walking and super-jumping can also be seen in more recent, respected martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Ong-Bak.)

However, subjectively speaking, Master of the Flying Guillotine may very well be the Citizen Kane of ‘70s kung fu films, for several reasons:

• It has a decent plot, including a revenge theme (a favorite of mine).
• It features well-choreographed action by the legendary Lau Brothers.
• The beheading scenes featuring the flying guillotine are one part cool, one part hilarious.
• The martial arts tournament is crazy to witness; it plays like a rough blueprint for the Mortal Kombat video games and movies that came 20 years later.
• The film’s climax is a tense, clever, cat-and-mouse showdown in a coffin-maker’s shop.

Bottom line: In the cheesy, low-budge world of ‘70s kung fu, Master of the Flying Guillotine is a cut above the rest. Stop me before I pun again.

Original U.S. theatrical trailer:

Not to be confused with 1974’s supposedly awful The Flying Guillotine.

Did you know? Star Jimmy Wang Yu (who also wrote and directed Guillotine) has quite a colorful history:
• In 1981, he was charged with murder in Taiwan, but freed due to lack of evidence.
• In 1999, he refused to sign divorce papers for his second wife because he believed she was unfaithful. Instead, he organized a bust with police and caught his wife in bed with another man (a criminal offense under Taiwanese law).

Chinese, with dubbing/subtitles.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
Despite the cheese factor, kids may think that the different martial artists in the tournament are pretty cool to watch, as if they sprung out of one of their video games. Still, people are impaled, beheaded, and beaten to death, so maybe hold off until your kids are able to view the violence as cartoonish and not traumatic.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who likes ‘70s kung fu movies, so I’m predicting this is one for when you’re alone or hanging with the guys.

Tiiiiickle, tickle-tickle-tickle...

Master of the Flying Guillotine
* Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
* Screenwriter: Jimmy Wang Yu
* Stars: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kam Kang, Tsim Po Sham, Chung-erh Lung, Pai Cheng Hau
* MPAA Rating: R (graphic violence)

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April 16, 2009

The Lion King 1½ (2004)

I’M NOT A FAN OF direct-to-video movies. Whether it’s true or not, the perception is that they are less than great and weren’t worthy of big-screen releases.

So when my wife brought home a copy of The Lion King 1½ from our local Once Upon a Child, I wasn’t exactly pumped to watch it. But since Dash wound up watching it every day for a whole week, I figured I should check it out.

• We open with Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) in background silhouette in a screening room, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. They’re watching the original Lion King, when Timon announces that it needs more of them in it – so they go “way back, to before the beginning” to tell the story of how he and Pumbaa first met…
Timon is the black sheep of his meerkat community – accidentally collapsing tunnels being dug by his fellow brethren, botching his turn at sentry duty and letting hyenas run wild on the meerkat terrain, etc.
• Frustrated with the limits of his meager meerkat surroundings (and urged by his mother, The SimpsonsJulie Kavner), Timon sets out to find his place in the world.
In his travels, he runs into Pumbaa, and together they head to a patch of paradise just on the other side of Pride Rock (or “the big pointy rock,” as they call it).
• Along the way, they insert themselves, Forrest Gump-like, into events from the original Lion King: the birth of Simba, a couple of musical numbers, the elephant graveyard, the wildebeest stampede, etc.
• After reaching their paradise hideaway, they save Simba from dying in the desert after he fled the aftermath of the original Lion King’s wildebeest stampede. It’s at this point that The Lion King 1½ syncs up with the original film.
• Timon and Pumbaa continue telling their story in narration mode, with several humorous interruptions along the way.

• Kudos to Disney for bringing back all of the original performers from the original Lion King for The Lion King 1½ – including Lane, Sabella, Matthew Broderick (Simba), Robert Guillaume (Rafiki), Moira Kelly (Nala), Whoopi Goldberg (Shenzi), Cheech Marin (Banzai), and Jim Cummings (Ed). The film even features new music by Elton John and Tim Rice.
The animation is surprisingly good – very fluid and seamless, much like theatrical Disney releases.
There are several in-jokes based on Lion King lore, including two of my favorites:
1) When Timon and Pumbaa pass Simba’s birth ceremony at Pride Rock, Pumbaa asks about Rafiki, “What’s he holding up?” Timon: “Eh, it’s not important.”
2) When an ominous cloud rolls across the night sky, Timon says, “C’mon Pumbaa, let’s go, that cloud’s really coming to a head.” As they turn away, Mufasa’s likeness appears in the cloud.
The Lion King 1½ won a 2004 Annie Award for Best Home Entertainment Production – beating out, among others, Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster.
• There are also fun references to classic Disney characters and songs (with a final scene that has to be seen to be believed), plus pretty funny homages to Fiddler on the Roof, Apocalypse Now, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Though my interest tapered near the end, The Lion King 1½ was a solid, fun, watchable film. Direct-to-video releases have been spared my wrath…for now.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
Like I said at the beginning, my wife bought it one weekend, Dash watched it every day after school for a week, and then still wanted to watch it with me the following weekend. I think it’s safe to say he liked it.

Will your kids like it?
I’d say yes, if Dash is any indication. Even his 3-year-old little brother couldn’t get enough of it. There wasn’t anything scary or too intense for either of them. (Scatological alert: There is a running gag of Pumbaa’s chronic flatulence, and all the jokes that come with it.)

Will your FilmMother like it?
My FilmMother liked The Lion King 1½ because it was “cute and harmless” – which, coincidentally, are the opening words of the latest user comment for The Lion King 1½ at the Internet Movie Database.

In the jungle, you can't blame the dog.

The Lion King 1½
* Director: Bradley Raymond
* Screenwriter: Tom Rogers
* Stars: Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Julie Kavner, Jerry Stiller, Matthew Broderick, Robert Guillaume, Moira Kelly, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings
* MPAA Rating: G

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April 9, 2009

Meme: Top 10 Favorite Film Characters

SEEMS I'VE BEEN roped in by KeegsMom at Kids’ Flix to participate in a meme. The topic? My 10 favorite film characters. Not actors…characters. I’m supposed to name them, briefly explain why they’re on my list, then tag 5 unsuspecting bloggers to do the exercise as well.

So without much ado or further adieu, I present my list in no particular order…

1. Major Calloway, The Third Man (1949)
Most people know The Third Man as “an Orson Welles movie” featuring his famous cuckoo-clock speech. Truth is, Welles didn’t direct it (Carol Reed did) and he doesn’t appear until the last 30 minutes. The true glue of The Third Man is Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway – a British officer overseeing the English-ruled section of post-WWII Vienna who is glad that Welles’ black marketer Harry Lime is dead (or is he?) following a car accident. Calloway’s dialogue is crisp, clever, and occasionally hilarious. Why Howard didn’t get an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor is beyond me.

2. Jonathan Mardukas, Midnight Run (1988)
Older fans know Charles Grodin from his string of ‘70s hits (The Heartbreak Kid, Heaven Can Wait, Seem Like Old Times), and younger ones probably only know him as the curmudgeonly host of his self-titled ‘90s CNBC talk show. But wedged in between was this pitch-perfect performance as a mob accountant dragged cross-country by bounty hunter Robert DeNiro. The hysterical (and largely ad-libbed) exchanges between DeNiro and Grodin are priceless and infectiously repeatable. I’ve been saying them for 20 years.

3. Jason Bourne, The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)
The action films that required others to smarten up or look glaringly stupid. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, an amnesia-stricken agent trying to find out who he is, has us pulling for him at every turn. These films, and his actions, stay on the safe side of preposterous, so viewers can say, “Wow, that was smart. I wouldn’t have thought of doing that.” If pressured, I’d pick The Bourne Supremacy as the best of the three, for its intelligent script, the riveting climactic car chase, and Bourne’s great last line of dialogue.

4. Clarence Boddicker, Robocop (1987)
They say appearances can be deceiving. Look no further than diminutive, bespectacled, balding Clarence Boddicker. Watch Robocop, and those descriptors turn to sleazy, ruthless, unpredictable…and highly entertaining. Kurtwood Smith’s Boddicker is one of the most underrated bad-asses of all time, and doubters should move past Robocop’s goofy title and get a glimpse of a truly villainous scumbag whom you can’t wait to see get his comeuppance. (My favorite scene is when Robocop loses his sh*t and reads Boddicker his rights while hurling him through multiple windows.) [Audio NSFW]

5. Quint, Jaws (1975)
There are too many reasons to list here, but Robert Shaw’s Quint is an essential primer on how to act in a supporting role (another Oscar travesty – Shaw didn’t even get a nomination). Quint’s Captain Ahab to the great white’s Moby Dick, his great dialogue (including the famous “USS Indianapolis” speech), and a screen presence you simply can’t ignore. It’s not all in his eyes, but they sure as hell play a large part.

6. Ed Wood, Ed Wood (1994)
This is the film that made me officially recognize Johnny Depp as the amazingly talented actor he is. Wood’s unbridled enthusiasm and confidence in anything he does is inspiring, endearing, and tragic. And in true Depp fashion, he immerses himself in Wood to the point that you forget you’re watching an actor at work and become wholly involved in the character. A better compliment probably can’t be paid.

7. Michael Corleone, The Godfather (1972)
Some people may say this is a lazy or obvious choice. Those people are invited to bite it. Watching Al Pacino’s slow, calculated transformation from the little kid brother (and non-mobster) of the Corleone family to its all-powerful don is something to behold.

8. Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)
I’ve never gone insane, but I’d guess this is pretty much what it would be like. Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of an alienated, cab-driving Vietnam vet in 1970s New York is a character study like no other. Bickle is disturbingly unforgettable for several reasons, one of which is his unpredictability: He’s a walking powder keg with an ever-shortening fuse – but since he doesn’t explode for most of the film, we’re forced to deal with the tension surrounding his spiral into madness. [Audio NSFW]

9. Jim Malone, The Untouchables (1987)
Another supporting role with highly quotable dialogue. Sean Connery was perfectly cast as Irish cop Jim Malone in Prohibition-era Chicago, hand-picked by Elliot Ness to help bring down Al Capone’s lucrative and popular illegal booze racket. Pick any of Malone’s scenes from David Mamet’s brilliant script: Malone telling Ness, in church, how to get Capone; Malone verbally testing rookie George Stone at the police academy; Malone “interrogating” a dead mobster to get a live one to talk. I’ll stop there. And unlike the aforementioned travesties of Howard and Shaw, Connery was nominated – and deservedly won – a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role.

10. The Stranger, High Plains Drifter (1973)
A nameless stranger rides into the small western town of Lago, and in the first 15 minutes he’s killed three men and raped the town tramp. Amazingly, the townsfolk then hire him to protect them from a returning trio of outlaws who have a score to settle with the town. Eastwood’s Stranger is an antihero for the ages, and High Plains Drifter is a dark morality tale that just happens to be a western. Once you begin to see the allegory unfold as to what (and where) Lago really is, it becomes all too clear who The Stranger embodies – an “avenging devil” who’s come to collect on the sins of the town’s past.

And now, I hereby tag the following blogmeisters to name their 10 favorite film characters:
The 21st Century Man
The B-Movie Film Vault BLOG!
Dinner with Max Jenke
Luke, I Am Your Father
The Moviezzz Blog

Release the hounds!

April 2, 2009

Bobbie Jo and The Outlaw (1976)

I DON’T HAVE a witty, topical lead-in to this review, except to say I watched Bobbie Jo and The Outlaw as a download from the now-defunct Cultra Rare Videos, which was a great place for free downloads of rare movies and movie trailers.
(UPDATE 2/22/12: Bobbie Jo and The Outlaw is now available for instant viewing at Netflix; see the link at the end of this post.)

Against a New Mexico landscape, we meet loner Lyle Wheeler (Marjoe Gortner) as he makes a fast buck winning a quick-draw contest.
• Later at a gas station, he steals a car and crashes it into a pursuing police vehicle, escaping in his hot ride while totaling the cop car.
• Lyle then pulls up at a drive-in diner and is served by Bobbie Jo (Lynda Carter). She lives with her widowed mom (Peggy Stewart), who gets on Bobbie Jo’s case about staying out late and “letting boys kiss her.”
• To feed her rebellion later that day, Bobbie Jo hops into Lyle’s stolen car as he sits in it, stalker-like, across the street from her house. Next thing we know, they’re walking arm in arm across a countryside, then sitting down as Bobbie Joe serenades Lyle – which leads to small talk and some sweet, sweet casual ‘70s lovemaking by the fire.
• After Lyle’s spotted driving the stolen car by a local cop, he and Bobbie Jo (along with Bobbie Jo’s friend Essie (Belinda Balaski)) go on the lam, seeking help from Bobbie Jo’s stripper sister Pearl (Merrie Lynn Ross) and her club’s cokehead owner, Slick (Jesse Vint).
Help is the last thing they get from Slick, as he gets Lyle to try and help him steal a semi-truck, with Slick killing a security card in the process. Bobbie Jo, Lyle, Essie, Pearl, and Slick then wind up on the run as a group, pursued across the state by tobacky-chewin’, appropriately-named Sheriff Hicks (Gene Drew) – who vows to bring Lyle in, dead or alive.

Bobbie Jo and The Outlaw was directed by Mark L. Lester. If you don’t know him, you probably know his work – many guilty-pleasure, B-movie exploitation flicks, as well as high-profile films like Firestarter and Commando.
Bobbie Jo was Carter’s film debut, and at times it shows. Her Southern twang comes and goes, and when somebody close to her is killed, her emotional delivery is subdued, to be generous. (Funny flub: When she’s paying for food at a grocery mart, she’s actually handing over the money before saying, “How much do I owe you?”) Still, it was weirdly entertaining watching the future Wonder Woman spout off profanities that would make Wonder Girl blush.
• The film’s big claim to fame/infamy is Carter’s topless scenes. To paraphrase the slogan of a certain spaghetti sauce, “They’re in there!” Actually, “it’s in there” would be more accurate, for her nude scenes are all, strangely, only her left breast in side profile. (Balaski obliges both boobs in an extended scene where Essie, Bobbie Jo, and Lyle are tripping on mushrooms in a pond.)
• The film features quite the twangy ‘70s country soundtrack, featuring Bobby Bare’s grating “Those City Lights” four times during the film. (If I never hear that song again, it’ll be too soon.)
Bobbie Jo does follow the on-the-run framework of Bonnie & Clyde and the imitators that came in the 9 years between that film and this one. But here, it was hard to engage myself with what was going on. I felt a bit detached, despite all the gunplay and T&A (well, mostly T). By the time the movie picked up steam in the last 25 minutes, it was simply too little too late.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
Today's kids have probably never heard of this film, or even Carter’s late-‘70s stint as TV’s Wonder Woman. Still, keep children and young teens away from Bobbie Jo and The Outlaw: There’s boobs, drugs, and cussin’ a-plenty. Today’s high-school-age kids should be fine with what’s shown, but would probably wind up mocking the film anyway.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Only if she’s a fan of ‘70s exploitation, southern style. It’s not a very good movie, but unfortunately not bad enough to make watching it a spectator sport.

"Heh-heh, heh..."

Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw
* Director: Mark L. Lester
* Screenwriter: Vernon Zimmerman
* Stars: Marjoe Gortner, Lynda Carter, Belinda Balaski, Jesse Vint, Gene Drew, Merrie Lynn Ross
* MPAA Rating: R (nudity, adult situations and language, and violence)

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Watch Bobbie Jo and The Outlaw instantly on Netflix >>


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