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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

GONE WITH THE POPE -- Movie Review by Derek

It was 1976. Our young country was celebrating its 200th birthday, stronger than ever. The "Whip Inflation Now" craze had reached a fevered pitch. "I Will Survive" had yet to become the anthem for women everywhere. It was the year before Star Wars, and the people were still relying on primitive, low-tech films such as The Godfather and Chinatown for their blockbuster entertainment.

And in Palm Springs, California, a legend was about to meet his destiny. Duke Mitchell, lounge singer/comedian/voice actor/auteur, was working on his second film, GONE WITH THE POPE, a gritty crime drama. The film is described as his version of "The Godfather." Unfortunately, the limited budget was running out, and he could not complete his vision.

Five years later, he passed away. His film had been lost forever... Until the mid-90's. A young film editor named Bob Murawski had recovered more than a dozen reels of film and soundtrack. In between jobs, he worked on assembling the pieces Mitchell had filmed until he had a completed film to screen. In between that, he won the Oscar for his editing on The Hurt Locker. And now you know the rest of the story.

Duke Mitchell joins such honored directors as Ed Wood, Coleman Francis, Harold P. Warren, and Tommy Wiseau. The auteurs with a strong vision, a very limited budget, and a great deal of determination... who also make completely mind-boggling movies. For GONE WITH THE POPE, 24 years belatedly, will enter the collective consciousness alongside THE ROOM, "MANOS" THE HANDS OF FATE, and RED ZONE CUBA.

The movie takes place in some sort of hazy dream world where normal logic doesn't apply. It centers on Duke Mitchell's Paul, a small-time mob hitman brought out of jail to perform 7 hits in 2 cities. He is introduced as some sort of Gandhi or Jesus, beloved by all of the prisoners and giving them all long wet kisses on the cheek. In exchange for the hits, he gets three of his closest friends, disciples if you will, release from jail with him.

 When he completes his job, he is able to escape on his private yacht with his friends. While sailing from Los Angeles, he decides that they should all go to Italy to kidnap the Pope. Eventually, he figures he can hold the holy man hostage for $1 from every Catholic in the world per day.

Like THE ROOM, it's a little hard to describe the insanity without spoiling all of the surprises. If you've seen the trailer, you know there's a nude 400 pound woman in the movie. The context is equally bizarre and perhaps the "highlight" of the movie. Paul's friend wants to get laid. Paul's solution? Pick up the first woman he sees in the park. She's hot and ready. Paul and his friend strip down and wrestle with her for several minutes before running out of the room giggling. The nude 400 pound lady proceeds to break the door off of its hinges.

But perhaps you're not a chubby chaser, and this scene is not your cup of tea. Perhaps you would prefer Paul's out-of-place rants against Pope Pius' lack of action against the Holocaust. And maybe you'd like a side of his promise to kill 100 priests for all of the Jews that died in the Holocaust. And then the plot to kidnap the Pope is as childish and idiotic as the plot to kidnap Hitler in HITLER DEAD OR ALIVE. Perhaps the film takes place in the same universe as THE INVENTION OF LYING, where people's words are taken at face value.

And not unlike THE ROOM or PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, the film stumbles around like a drunk person, occasionally crashing into a plot point and unable to stop rambling about its feelings. The film seems about half an hour longer than it actually is. I started to nod off, further degrading the line between dream and reality. The plot itself sort of dies a slow death. They kidnap the Pope, chit-chat with him, rant about the Holocaust, and then let him go, like a fish back into the sea.

Nothing, however, can prepare you for the incredible, shocking ending of GONE WITH THE POPE. No one will be allowed admission for the last 10 minutes. If you die from fright, you will receive a free coffin.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Is this the face of the new American Godzilla?

These photos appeared on Monster Zero Message Boards yesterday from a Flickr account. A message under these photos read:
"great detail I was told by a good friend in the movie biz. that this was one of the design's they were considering for the new 3D Godzila....! if you have new info on this movie, i would like to post it . thanks "

Considering the Godzilla 3D project was the brainchild of GODZILLA (2012) executive producer Yoshimitsu Banno, it's possible Legendary films may have access to use these molds (and considering how Toho considers that anything done on Godzilla eventually reverts back to them, it's extremely likely). Does that mean that they will be used or even considered? No, but it does offer some potential ideas of what the new Godzilla design may look like, considering they come from a project headed by one GODZILLA's (2012) executive producers.

The Wonderful World of Joesph Lai: An Exclusive Interview by Mike Leeder

The Wonderful World of Joesph Lai: An Exclusive Interview with Mike Leeder

Mike Leeder was kind enough to grant us and one other blog the exclusive rights to print the unedited version of his interview with IFD Head Joesph Lai which appeared in condensed form in Impact Magazine. This is the only actual interview that has even been done with Joesph Lai, most things you read about Joesph Lai and IFD around the internet has been made up by loons, liars, and people who don't know the first thing about IFD. Mike also sent along some great images which I'll be adding a little later today into the body of the article.

You might not recognise his name straight away, but trust me when I say you’ve probably seen several of his movies. Joseph Lai (Lai Sun-lan) is the head of the Hong Kong based Production & Distribution Company IFD Films & Arts. Yes, the company that gave the world all those Ninja movies starring Richard Harrison and various ‘gwailo’ actors and martial artists. Lai also gave many Hong Kong action directors including Phillip Ko (Ko Fei), Paul Wong (Wong Kwan) and Ridley Tsui (Tsui Po-wah) their first shots at directing movies. He also gave western martial arts actors including Bruce Fontaine, Kenn Goodman, Steve Brettingham, Michael Miller, Wayne Archer and even myself the opportunity to play leading roles in his movies. Lai, currently the Vice Chairman of the Hong Kong Movie Producers Association, is fully aware of the limitations of his movies; he doesn’t regard his movies as high art and doesn’t expect other people to. But as anyone who worked on any of his movies will admit, they were great fun, and they’re very entertaining to watch. I caught up with Joseph Lai at his Tsing Yi based office for the following interview.


Joseph Lai



Mike Leeder

Mike Leeder: Mr. Lai, thanks for talking to me. How did you first get involved in the film industry?

Joseph Lai: I’ve always been interested in movies, since I was a little kid, I used to watch all the old black & white Cantonese & Mandarin movies. As I got older and went to college, I got more and more interested in drama. I studied all aspects of theatre and drama, from performance to theory, front stage and back stage, all of which has served me well over the years. As for getting into the film industry, it’s thanks to my sister Terry Lai, who owns Intercontinental Film Distributors (one of the largest independent distributors of non Chinese movies in Hong Kong). They were starting to make the move into producing their own films, shot in Hong Kong but with English dialogue and featuring Western cast’s aimed for the international market. They hired American actors like Chris Mitchum (‘Fatal Score’, ‘Lethal Hunter’) for these films, and brought me in as an assistant director initially, but I also helped with translating, scriptwriting and many other things. It was hard work, but a great opportunity to learn everything I needed for the film industry. In about 1973, we also started to buy European films for distribution in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and so on. We did quite well with these films, but I also began to realize there was a gap in the market that we could fill. At this point there were very few Hong Kong companies that did much in the way of international distribution, and I knew that these films had a lot of potential for distribution in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.

Mike Leeder: IFD was very much of the first Hong Kong companies to get proper worldwide distribution for their movies. Why do you think that was?

Joseph Lai: I think that too many companies were short-sighted, they were concentrating only on the local market and thought that international distribution was either an impossible dream, or just too much hassle. In fact, IFD was the first Hong Kong Production Company to attend film markets likes Cannes, MIFFED and the American Film Market (AFM). IFD was the first Hong Kong company to become an AFM member, Golden Harvest had become a member earlier but that was through registering itself in America, but we were the first Hong Kong registered company to become a member. At that time the AFM had very strange policies, such as your membership was only allowed if you were making English language films, and at that time we were the only company in HK making English language movies.

We couldn’t compete in Hong Kong with companies like Golden Harvest and the Shaw Brothers, they owned their own cinema chains throughout the territory, but we were the first company to really get good distribution deals overseas, soon followed by co-productions. One of first major co-production partners was Korea, they really liked Chinese Kung Fu action, and we found that it was cheaper to shoot there than in Hong Kong. We raised financing and cast some of the most popular Kung Fu actors at the time including Chen Hsing, Carter Wong and this Korean guy, Casanova Wong, in our very first production there, ‘The Magnificent’. The film did very well, and we went on to make many more co-productions with Korea, movies with Dragon Lee, Gordon Liu, Carter Wong and then later we did co-productions with Taiwan, Thailand and many other countries, At first we were just making Kung Fu movies, and I began to realize that only having Mandarin dialogue versions with subtitles wasn’t enough, some countries wouldn’t buy subtitled movies. So we started dubbing our films into English, I think that was another first for our company, to start offering English language versions of all our movies. The way we looked at it was, that there are many more people around the world who speak English, and would rather hear dialogue than read it. So we hired a lot of British people from the Radio & Television companies to come and work for us, ‘moonlighting’ as dubbers and doing the English dialogue for us. Looking back now, I can say that we could have done better sometimes, but at the time and with very limited budgets, I think we did a good job, and our films sold very well.

Mike Leeder: Why do you think that your films sold so well in the international market, when even now there are so many ‘prestigious’ Hong Kong movies have never officially been released in the West?

Joseph Lai: I think that because we were realistic when it came to selling our movies, we didn’t ask for outrageous prices or try to impose restrictions on companies. If you wanted to buy only the video rights for our movies for your country, that was not a problem to us. Some Hong Kong companies, would insist that if you bought their films, the film would have to get at least a limited theatrical release first and then after so many months it could be released on video. You can’t do that in every country or with every company, that can affect your relationship with buyers if you are imposing restrictions on them like that. We also built lasting relationships with distributors, they would come back to us time and time again for product. Our films might not have been the best films of all time, but people knew what they were getting with our films. We delivered on everything we offered them, so distributors came back for more.

Mike Leeder: Now initially IFD comprised yourself, Thomas Tang and Godfrey Ho, who was pretty much your director for all seasons. How did the three of you come to work together?

Joseph Lai: I knew Thomas from college, so I brought him into the business first and we were working together and then Godfrey came along, he was this very young enthusiastic director at the time. He’d worked for companies like Shaw Brothers and for other independent companies and producers. He came to us at IFD, and we worked as a team for several years on a lot of different movies and projects, before eventually Thomas and Godfrey left and set up their own companies, with Thomas setting up Filmmark and Godfrey continuing to do some work for us both before forming his own company. Godfrey has done so many projects, he is teaching Film now at Hong Kong Polytechnic!

Mike Leeder: IFD was the first company to really take advantage of the marketability of those hooded assassins, the Ninja, after the first Cannon Ninja films began to do well, and the Ninja would go on to play an important role for your company and its filmography.

Joseph Lai: How do you know that? You know too much! (Laughing) I know we made so many different Ninja movies, ‘Ninja Terminator’, “Ninja Squad’, ‘Ninja Hunt’, ‘Ninja this’ and ‘Ninja That’..I really can’t remember all of them. When I travelled overseas I would always check out the cinemas and video shops in Europe and America to see what the audiences were responding to..I saw this movie by Cannon Films, called ‘Enter the Ninja’ And I didn’t really think it was very good, the action wasn’t special but the audience really liked it and it did very well for them. I thought that we could make movies like this very easily, Hong Kong is the best place for Kung Fu or martial arts action movie making, we know how to shoot martial arts action very well. We can always double someone for special moves, it’s even easier if they are wearing a mask! We can double them for everything!

I came back to Hong Kong and told Godfrey ho that we were going to make Ninja movies, and he didn’t really know what ‘Ninja’ were at that time. We worked out we could shoot the fight scenes with really skilled fighters and stuntmen, and then shot pick ups with the real actors, it would be easier that way. Ninjas wearing hoods, it really made it easier to shoot spectacular action and then have an actor pop up for dialogue and close ups.

Mike Leeder: Now the man who became immediately identifiable with your Ninja movies was Richard Harrison, a former Spaghetti western actor, he’d previously worked in Hong Kong on the Shaw Brothers ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘Boxer Rebellion’ movies. You used him as the ‘Hollywood’ star of such films as ‘Ninja Terminator’, ‘Ninja Hunt’, ‘Ninja Squad’, ‘Ninja Silent Assassin’ and so many movies. When you first hired him, did he have any idea of how many movies he would be starring in?

Joseph Lai: I don’t think he knows exactly how many movies we would end up using him for. (Laughing) It’s even hard for me to say just how many movies he appeared in for us, we did everything from ‘Ninja Thunderbolt’, ‘Ninja Operation’, ‘Ninja Dragon’, ‘Ninja this’ & ‘Ninja that’. At the time, the market was so strong, the demand for action and martial arts and especially Ninja movies was almost too much. Even though we could work fast, we couldn’t supply enough movies to met demands and that was when we began thinking of some of movies we already had in our vaults, or movies from countries like Korea and Thailand for instance, could we update or change them by editing new footage into them by adding Ninjas or western actors, so we could market them internationally. Back then some buyers didn’t want movies with all Chinese or all Asian leads, they wanted movies with Western leading actors. So we bought a lot of Korean and Thai movies and began to redevelop them, try and package them so we could sell them internationally by changing certain ideas and adding new elements.

Richard Harrison wasn’t a really big star, but he was marketable, distributors knew who he was and said he was recognisable. Godfrey had worked with him on the movie for Shaw Brothers and had been able to keep a little bit of contact with him. We got in touch with him and invited him to come to Hong Kong and work on some movies for us. I think he enjoyed being in Hong Kong, and seemed happy to stay longer and do more movies for us. At that time, we had so many movies we were trying to remarket that one of my production team suggested that we should use Richard for all of them. He was very easygoing, he didn’t charge us too much money and he was in Hong Kong, so why don’t we use him as much as we can? And we did! He would shoot a couple of days a week for each movie, I think we did at least 20 movies with him this way. But he knew what we were doing, he might not know the exact number of movies we released that feature him, but he knew that is what we were doing, we were resourceful, we only had limited budgets.

Mike Leeder: Your movies might never be classified as ‘high art’ but they’re always entertaining, even if they can sometimes be hard to follow, with various subplots etc. I remember watching Golden Harvest’s ‘Hot War’ movie a few years ago, and thinking that while it had a big budget and a big name cast. The film came across like an approximation of an IFD movie, but one that took itself far too seriously and wasn’t half as enjoyable as many of your movies.

Joseph Lai: We have never said that our films are the best, that our films are the biggest and most epic movies of all time. But our films have always delivered on much of what they promise. We make our films for the audience. I believe that film can be an art form at times, but not every film, only a limited number can be regarded as art. It’s called the film industry, you have to provide the product that the audience and the distributors want in order to survive. You might make the most thought provoking, incredible movie of all time, but nobody goes to see it. We roll with the audience, they want kung fu, we’ll give them kung fu, they want Ninja’s, we’ll give them Ninjas! They want Kickboxing a few years later, we turned to making Kickboxing movies. Why? Because that’s what the audience wanted. Action is a universal language, drama is much harder to sell internationally. A lot of our audience isn’t really there for anything but the action, they don’t want the story to get in the way of the action. The buyers from the Philippines & Korea, you know how they used to be, they would time the action sequences, the gaps in between the action, they knew that the audience wanted to see action! Our films have probably sold to many more territories than a lot of other Hong Kong companies films have done. The films were warmly received by the audience, and especially by the distributors.

Mike Leeder: Now you also gave a lot of stuntmen and action actors such as Phillip Ko, Paul Wong, Ridley Tsui, and Hung Yan-yan etc their first chances to officially action choreograph and direct, working for IFD.

Joseph Lai: I think we were the first company to give Philip Ko the chance to direct. He had done a lot of 2nd unit or action unit work for companies, choreographing the action scenes and we gave him the chance to direct dramatic scenes too. It was the same thing with Tsui Po-wah (Ridley Tsui), he had been doing some work for us as a stuntman and action performer in some of our movies, I felt that he had a lot of skill as a stuntman and fight choreographer, but that he would also be able to handle directing dramatic scenes. I told him if you want to be a real director, you must do more than just action.

Mike Leeder: Now the demand for ‘Ninja’ movies changed after a certain Jean-Claude Van Damme burst onto the market with ‘Bloodsport’ & ‘Kickboxer’, and following the success of those movies. You also started making kickboxing movies yourself.

Joseph Lai: Yes, those two Van Damme movies did very well internationally. And several distributors started asking us if we had any kickboxing movies for them. It was very easy for us to make this kind of movie, so we put down our Ninja weapons and picked up some boxing gloves for these kind of films. We started hiring many of the Western martial artists and actors who were in Hong Kong at the time, I think a lot of them were your friends, people like Bruce Fontaine, Kenn Goodman, Nick Brandon, Steve Brettingham etc. We hired them to come in and work on our movies as the leading actors, and filmed new footage with them. We built a boxing ring at our studio and started making these kind of movies.

Mike Leeder: I remember shortly after I first arrived in Hong Kong, I visited the old IFD offices in the Garley building on Nathan Road, so I could drop off my information and Bruce Fontaine (‘Kickboxer King’, ‘Operation Condor’) was there and he showed me a file that contained photographs and resume from a young man, who was named Jean-Claude Van Varenberg when he dropped off his materials to you.

Joseph Lai: Oh yes that’s true! (Laughing) Yes, Van Damme did come to our office many many years ago when he first came to Hong Kong, he was very enthusiastic and hungry to make martial arts movies. He had a good look and very good skills, he offered us the chance to sign him up for some films at a very good price. But at that time we were already deluged with so many projects, we were making so many films and had contractual obligations to various distributors that we had to fulfil. I couldn’t just stop making those movies so I could do films with him. I remember talking to him about this, and saying we would have to think things over and develop the right project for him. I think back then he felt, we should have and could have dropped everything we were doing to start shooting movies with him the next day. (Laughing) So he went away and in Hollywood, through Cannon Films he got to make ‘Bloodsport’ and then ‘Kickboxer’, both of which shot in Hong Kong, and then of course we ended up making movies that were influenced by his films. It’s just the way the world is sometimes.

A lot of the western martial artists we used on films, worked on movies like ‘Bloodsport’ & ‘Kickboxer’, and then did movies for us. There was a Thai boxer, he looked like Sylvester Stallone, we called him Bruce Stallion I think. He was in ‘Bloodsport’ with Van Damme, and many movies for us. (Joseph is referring to Paula Tocha, who was credited as Bruce Stallion in several movies for IFD, and faced off against Jean-Claude Van Damme in ‘Bloodsport’, as well as later on “Death Warrant’ and ‘In Hell’)

Mike Leeder: Now in addition to the Kickboxing & Ninja movies, you experimented with gangland dramas like ‘Euro Crossing’, prison movies like ‘Soldier Champion’ and even costumed superheroes in ‘Catman 1 & 2’, and even ‘Robocop’ with ‘Robo-Kickboxer’.

Joseph Lai: You know too many of our movies! (Laughing) I think you worked on some of these, yes? (Laughing) We wanted to make more varieties of movies, so we started experimenting within the action movie genre. It’s like for the last few years we have done a lot of cartoon based projects and not so much live action martial arts. The market has changed somewhat, it’s no longer all about Stallone, or Schwarzenegger or Van Damme, now a lot of the time its real actors and they also make action movies. We had to diversify, or we’d go under.

Mike Leeder: How did you find working with the Western martial arts actors and stuntmen you used on so many of these films, people like Bruce Fontaine, Steve Brettingham, Jonathan Isgar, Kenn Goodman, Nick Brandon etc.

Joseph Lai: It’s funny, you could always tell which people were the ones who really wanted to be actors or stunt performers, and the ones who were just doing it for fun. Sometimes we’d be shooting, and people who had been hired for an important role wouldn’t turn up as they had made other plans. I preferred working with the professional western action actors.

There were two Americans, Bruce Fontaine and Kenn Goodman, they did a lot of work for us at IFD, they did several films in supporting roles for us, and then when we made ‘Kickboxer King’, they played the leading characters, and we also let them do some of the fight choreography for that film. I think it was the first time they really got to do any choreography. Both of them were very talented martial artists, they both went on to work for Jackie Chan on ‘Operation Condor’. But I think they probably got to show more of what they could do action wise in some of our films, then many of the bigger movies they made.

There was an Australian actor, Jonathan Isgar? I think that was his name, he did a few movies for us, a couple were action comedies where he played an old man, and he was also the star of the two ‘Catman’ movies we made. (Laughing)No, don’t laugh, those two movies sold very well, people liked the character! He also worked with Jackie Chan!

Nick Brandon, he did a few films for us as a supporting actor like ‘Kickboxer King’, and was the lead in ‘Robo Kickboxer’, but I think he liked being behind the scenes more. He was one of the sailors on ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’, in the opening fight.

Another English guy, Steve Brettingham. He also did a lot of movies for us, he played supporting roles and then got to be the lead in a few films. He was in ‘Kickboxer King’, ‘Year of the Kingboxer’, ‘Kickboxer from Hell’, he did a lot of films for us. He was trying to be the new Van Damme, he had a very good physique like a bodybuilder, but he could fight too! But he was funny, he wanted to be in the movies, and especially as the star, but then he was always complaining about them.

I know you also did a few movies for us too?

Mike Leeder: Your last major film (at time of interview) was a co-production with Germany, ‘Royal Destiny’. How did this project come about and are you still interested in co-productions for future projects?

Joseph Lai: Ah yes, ‘Royal Destiny’ was our co-production with a German company. It featured a German leading actor and actress, and we supplied local talent including Byron Mann (‘The Corrupter’, ‘Invincible’), and Ridley Tsui for the film, who handled the action scenes and some of the drama. It was interesting having a German crew working side by side with the Hong Kong crew, I think we both learnt something from each other. As for future co-productions, if the projects are interesting, there is always an opportunity for co-productions.

Mike Leeder: Do you see IFD moving back into live action movie making?

Joseph Lai: Yes, we are looking into it. The trend for realistic action is coming back, people want to see real action, not overly exaggerated or lots of special effects. If it’s a science fiction movie like ‘The Matrix’, people can understand the action being unrealistic, but if you’re doing a movie that’s set in the real world, sometimes if the action is too big, it can pull you out of the movie, you don’t believe in it anymore. Trends move in a circle, and I think IFD will be back on the screen again soon.

Thanks to Mr. Joseph Lai for taking the time to talk to me.


An edited version of this interview appeared in Impact magazine In addition to serving as Far Eastern Editor for Impact, Hong Kong based Producer/Casting Director Mike Leeder has worked in front and behind the camera on such projects as Jet Li’s ‘Fearless’, ‘Rush Hour 3’, Yuen Woo-ping’s “True Legend’, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’, ‘Bodyguards & Assassins’, ‘Ip Man 2’, ‘The Bodyguard: A New Beginning’, ‘Underground’, ’10 Dead Men’ and many other projects.

Leeder can be found online at and and be contacted at bigmikeimpact @

For more IFD & Filmark related interviews and reviews, log onto the one and only


Monday, March 29, 2010

Godzilla is Back! Warner Brothers and Legendary Productions announce a new US Godzilla film!

Godzilla is back!

As first reported early in the year by Blood Disgusting and confirmed today by Variety Online (and several other Hollywood news sites): Warner Brothers and Legendary Productions are making an all new Godzilla film! Apparently Yoshimitsu Banno, the director of Godzilla vs the Smog Monster will serve as one of the executive producers.
The official press release from Legendary includes quotes from the three key players in the deal.

Thomas Tull, Chairman and CEO of Legendary:

"Godzilla is one of the world's most powerful pop culture icons, and we at Legendary are thrilled to be able to create a modern epic based on this long-loved Toho franchise. Our plans are to produce the Godzilla that we, as fans, would want to see. We intend to do justice to those essential elements that have allowed this character to remain as pop-culturally relevant for as long as it has."

Hideyuki Takai, President of Toho Co., Ltd.:

"Godzilla is a signature Japanese character which we have nurtured over the years. It is a great honor to reach an agreement with Legendary Pictures, the parent to many a blockbuster film, and we are delighted in rebooting the character together to realize its much anticipated return by fans from all over the world. We are anxious to find out where Godzilla's new stomping will take us."

Jeff Robinov, President, Warner Brothers Pictures Group:

"Godzilla is emblematic of the kind of branded, event films for which Warner Bros. and our partners at Legendary are best known. We have enjoyed a great deal of success together to date and this newest opportunity represents yet another chance for us to collaborate on a property that is very clearly in their wheelhouse."

Stay tuned to HK AND CULT FILM NEWS for all the latest news on this developing story.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Carter Stevens' Guide to TCM This Week (March 29-April 5)

March 29th

6 count them, Six! Marx Brothers movies in a row. Either heaven or hell depending how you feel about the Marx Brothers. To me it's a bit much of a good thing but I'll try to catch one or two at least.

March 30

Three Kurosawa film is a row including the Magnificent RAN. Just in case you missed his retrospective last week.

1:45am Ran(1985)
An aging lord's decision to retire brings out the worst in his sons.
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu Dir: Akira Kurosawa C-163 mins

Kurosawa's version of King Lear. Not to be missed. And followed by...(See below)

March 31

4:30am King Lear (1971)
An aging king mistakenly exiles the one daughter who loves him and divides his kingdom between the other two.
Cast: Paul Scofield, Irene Worth, Cyril Cusack, Susan Engel Dir: Peter Brook BW-138 mins, TV-PG

Shakespeare and Scofield a match made in Heaven.

April 1

8:00pm Adam's Rib (1949)
Husband-and-wife lawyers argue opposite sides in a sensational women's rights case.
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell Dir: George Cukor BW-101 mins, TV-G

Tracy and Hepburn at their best. Throw in Judy Holliday and you have a film you can watch over and over.

2:15am To Have And Have Not(1944)
A skipper-for-hire's romance with a beautiful drifter is complicated by his growing involvement with the French resistance.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Moran Dir: Howard Hawks BW-100 mins, TV-G

Bogart and Bacall. Do I really have to say more? OK, have you ever been stung by a dead bee?

4:15am The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks(1973)
Film clips and an exclusive interview capture the career of Hollywood's most efficient director of Westerns and screwball comedies.
Cast: Cary Grant, John Wayne, Howard Hawks Dir: Richard Schickel BW-55 mins, TV-PG

I have no idea if this is any good or not but the subject is my hero and one of the greatest directors who ever worked in Hollywood. Screw the Tivo I'll be staying up just to see it.

April 2

Nothing I'm interested in...Hey, it happens.

April 3

12:00pm Little Big Man (1970)
An American pioneer raised by Indians ends up fighting alongside General Custer.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan Dir: Arthur Penn C-140 mins, TV-14

"Sometime the magic works and sometimes it doesn't." In this case it does. If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about you need to watch this film. If you do you will want to watch it again.

10:00pm Point Blank(1967)
A gangster plots an elaborate revenge on the wife and partner who did him dirty.
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O'Connor Dir: John Boorman C-92 mins, TV-14

Stark (OK, Westlake) via Marvin and Boorman. I have never figured out why in all the versions of the Parker books they have never called him Parker in the movies. He's Walker in this outing but he's still bad assed Parker.

11:45pm Friends Of Eddie Coyle, The (1973)
An aging hood turns police informer, with deadly results.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Peter Boyle Dir: Peter Yates C-102 mins, TV-MA

One of the great underrated gangster pictures. Don't see it often but when it pops up on TCM make sure you catch it.

1:30am Serpico (1973)
A rookie risks his life going undercover to ferret out police corruption.
Cast: Al Pacino, Tony Roberts, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe Dir: Sidney Lumet C-130 mins, TV-MA

Lumet takes on the New York Police Department. I must admit I like Prince of the City better but this runs a close second.

April 4

Easter specials all damn day..

8:00am Godspell (1973)
Contemporary hippies relive the story of Christ's ministry and crucifixion.
Cast: Victor Garber, David Haskell, Lynne Thigpen, Jerry Sroka Dir: David Greene C-102 mins, TV-G

The only one that even interests this New York Jew boy a little.

April 5

12:15pm Fury (1936)
An innocent man escapes a lynch mob then returns for revenge.
Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Spencer Tracy, Walter Abel, Bruce Cabot Dir: Fritz Lang BW-93 mins, TV-G

One of the few great Hollywood productions by this master German film maker.

6:00pm Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)

A one-armed veteran uncovers small-town secrets when he tries to visit an Asian-American war hero's family.
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger Dir: John Sturges C-82 mins, TV-PG

Spencer Tracy proves he can out act almost every actor in Hollywood with one arm tied behind his back.

1:30am Shane (1953)
A mysterious drifter helps farmers fight off a vicious gunman.
Cast: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon de Wilde Dir: George Stevens C-118 mins, TV-G

Is there anybody who doesn't know that this film didn't work when it was about the love between the mother and the stranger until they re-cut it as a love story between the stranger and little boy... Come back Shane, Come back.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Spanish director Fernando Arrabal has what some would call a "skewed" outlook on life, a fact that's quite obvious to anyone who's encountered any of his paintings or films. While I've not seen his first three films, VIVA LA MUERTE, I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE, and THE TREE OF GUERNICA, trailers and various clips hint that his earlier output is the most aggressively bizarre. With THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION 2, Cult Epics has assembled the remainder of the director's works--which run the gamut from the almost-but-not-quite conventional to the unremittingly strange--in a set that his fans will no doubt want to add to the first one.

Arrabal's CAR CEMETERY, aka Le cimetière des voitures (1983), is a punk-dystopian retelling of the Christ story, replete with nudity, sado-masochism, graphic depictions of a laundry list of other perversions, bizarre surrealistic imagery, and an irreverent (though somehow non-blasphemous) sense of humor. But despite all this, Arrabal's oddly ineffectual film adaptation of his own play comes off as a low-budget cross between JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and GODSPELL as conceived by Ken Russell.

In a post-nuclear society where fascist police search the ruins for rebellious young punks who still believe in peace and love and all that stuff, a leather-clad rock 'n' roll messiah named Emanou (Alain Bashung, who died in March '09) gathers his followers in an auto graveyard to dispense divine wisdom and perform miracles. His true believers are a motley bunch given to bacchanalian excess while availing themselves of the carnal wares of fat pimp Milos as he presides over his bustling auto-brothel.

Milos' star attraction is the beautiful Dila (Juliet Berto), who still turns tricks although her heart and soul belong to Emanou. In one of the film's loveliest images, Dila performs as a mermaid in Milos' prized pre-apocalypse water tank along with some dolphins. She also allows herself to be dressed as a human wedding cake and wheeled around to attract potential customers. Dila receives holy messages from a tiny guitar-plucking angel she keeps in a glass jar (I'm not sure, but it looks like Arrabal doing a cameo), although it's not clear how she happens to possess such a thing.

An apparent disciple shortage limits us to two rather sorry specimens, the derby-domed Topé (Boris Bergman), resident Judas equivalent, and Fodère (Dominique Maurin), who seems just as faithless and doubting as his associate. We know Fodère is meant to remind us of Peter, since in an early scene he idly muses something about how he thinks that soon, he may deny Emanou three times before the cock crows. This statement just comes out of nowhere and the character does nothing else to remind us of anybody in particular, much less an ardent disciple.

Much time is spent depicting the lecherous indulgences of characters both beautiful and grotesque, although I don't recall any of this sort of thing still being all that shocking in 1983. From time to time Emanou will amaze everyone by performing a resurrection, healing the afflicted, or re-enacting various other passages from the New Testament as his onlookers "ooh" and "aah" and groove on how cool he is. In one scene, he blandly performs highlights from the Sermon on the Mount while standing on a wrecked car, and in another, he feeds the hungry mulitude not with two loaves and two fishes, but with two Big Macs. (He neglects to ask anyone if they'd like fries with that, however.)

As all this is going on, two members of what pass as the police are roaming the scorched countryside in a bulldozer searching for the right car cemetery where the rebellious punks and their anarchist messiah are hiding out. A tall, matronly woman and a wiry bulldog of a man, the two comical cops supply most of the film's humor as she incessantly urges him to work out to utter exhaustion in order to beat some unknown record, while he plies her non-stop with ardent sexual pleas. "My giant is crying," he implores her. "Smell my candelabra, Lasca."

An amusing flashback shows us Emanou's birth in a garage, where he's visited by three wise beauty pageant contestants (Miss Myrrh, Miss Oro, and another whose banner I couldn't read though I assume she's Miss Frankincense or something) bearing gifts. There's the obligatory Last Supper, not all that different from Leonardo da Vinci's depiction save for the guy with the saxophone and the fact that Dila has her head in Emanou's lap.

And, of course, after Topé betrays him to the cops with a (French) kiss, there's the crucifixion, which consists of Emanou being chained to a wrecked motorcycle and hoisted aloft. We then skip the resurrection (an unfortunate omission reflecting JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR's secular tone, which this film, interestingly, has largely avoided) and go straight to the ascension, depicted by a badly-animated cartoon dove, and the fadeout, which is surprisingly anti-climactic.

The Cult Epics DVD is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital French-language soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras consist of trailers for the Arrabal films contained in the first collection (THE TREE OF GUERNICA, VIVA LA MUERTE, and I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE). The film lacks the sort of driving rock music soundtrack I expected, although the song Emanou performs during his final concert does have a catchy bass line.

Despite the extremely garish trappings, the Biblical events are recounted in a relatively straightforward manner, so rather than being satirical I think Arrabal is more interested in drawing a parallel between Christ's persecution and that of his own father, who was imprisoned for political reasons at the start of the Spanish Civil War (a subject which dominates his earlier work as well). Beyond that, CAR CEMETERY is mainly an exercise in absurdity and excess that didn't engage me on an emotional level. Most of its impact as a story is diluted by the main character, Emanou, since he's pretty much a cold fish without any kind of charisma whatsoever. Even during the Passion, he lacks passion.

I think I remember seeing a VHS copy of Arrabal's THE EMPEROR OF PERU, aka L'odyssée de la Pacific (1982), in a budget bin somewhere once, with a different name and a really crappy-looking cover, and thinking that it was just about the last thing in the world I'd even think of watching. Now I'm glad I got a chance to see it, but I really wish I'd seen it when I was a kid.

This low-budget French-Canadian production starts out looking like one of those obscure foreign children's movies that your local station might've pawned off on you on Saturday afternoon along with PIPPI LONGSTOCKING or SUPERBUG. Certain elements, however, raise this odd effort above the norm as it matter-of-factly explores some rather serious territory while often veering into a pleasingly headscratching surrealism.

Toby and his older sister Liz are a couple of playful, somewhat spoiled kids living with their rich uncle and aunt, who also take on a Cambodian refugee named Hoang for the summer as he awaits placement in foster care. The three children become fast friends and have many biking adventures in the woods, where they meet a crippled old former railroad engineer named Tubo (Mickey Rooney) living in a vine-covered freight car converted into a hermit's shack.

Toby discovers a derelict locomotive engine near an abandoned roundhouse, and with Tubo's help the children restore it to working order. Their plan is to travel to Cambodia and find Hoang's mother, who had to give him up during their flight from oppression, so that he can marry her. This is complicated when the mayor shows up and announces that the city council has voted to place Tubo into a rest home for his own good. As the police descend on his secluded shack with lights flashing, the children scramble to prepare the locomotive for their escape.

Much of the film's running time is devoted to depicting Toby's wild flights of fantasy in which sees himself as a champion drag racer, a dashing astronaut, a celebrated orchestra conductor, and a courageous fire chief braving the raging flames to rescue his beloved duck, Federico, from a burning building. The segments are narrated by a breathless play-by-play commentator ("Braver than Popeye! Braver than Joan of Arc!" he exclaims) and also feature a deadpan Hoang as trenchcoated ace reporter Bumphrey Gokart. This is the usual kid-fantasy stuff done in a light and entertaining style and is quite amusing.

Taking the film beyond such fluff, however, are Hoang's startlingly serious flashbacks of life in Cambodia, one of which shows sadistic soldiers invading his village and holding a child upside-down by his feet, threatening to shoot him. We also learn that his father has been taken away to a concentration camp, and witness Hoang's traumatic separation from his mother during their escape from Cambodia. She makes him promise that he won't cry, which explains why Hoang always seems so solemn and stoic--he's still trying to keep his promise.

In a quietly intimate conversation late at night in Hoang's bedroom, he reveals to Liz his intent to find his mother and marry her. Liz asks, "And when you marry your mommy, will you know how to kiss her? Like in the TV ads?" In an accompanying flashback, his mother's comforting face is replaced by that of Liz herself. This is the kind of thought-provoking stuff Uncle Walt probably wouldn't have felt inclined to include in his version of the story.

As in those old Swedish PIPPI LONGSTOCKING movies (which I love), adults are either sympathetic allies who are themselves childlike, or absurdly officious nincompoops. Mickey Rooney's "Tubo" is the former, introducing himself as the Emperor of Peru when they first meet and offering the kids a cigar. When told that cigars give you cancer, he retorts, "That's not true! Doctors with all their hogwash. I'll tell you what gives you cancer--soap and water! Washing all the time! That gives you cancer, only faster." Toby responds brightly, "I'll have a cigar!"

Clearly, this isn't one of those films intent on pounding sundry lessons into young viewers' heads. The kids are shown having outrageous adventures free of adult supervision and doing pretty much whatever they want, existing in their own world which operates by their own rules. They even discover an old coal mine thanks to some indigent circus performers they encounter and start mining coal for the locomotive's steam engine, which the severely screw-loosed Tubo thinks is simply grand.

Rooney, one of the greatest actors who ever lived, has a ball in his role, clearly ad-libbing much of his dialogue and letting his own vast stores of natural nuttiness fully round out the character. In Tubo's own fevered fantasies, he's either a bewigged emperor with an army of midgets or, fittingly enough, Napoleon, and in one segment reminiscent of the old TV faith-healer shows we get to see him rising joyously from his wheelchair thanks to Toby, the world's greatest doctor. "Marry your mother?" Tubo bellows in response to Hoang's plan. "Why, if more of my subjects had only married their mother, we'd have had less divorces!"

This movie has been released on VHS with such titles as ODYSSEY OF THE PACIFIC and TREASURE TRAIN. The only other DVD version I could find online was called LITTLE CHAMP and was paired with Shirley Temple's THE LITTLE PRINCESS as a two-fer. The DVD from Cult Epics is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen with both English and French soundtracks and English subtitles. There are no extras. Edith Butler's musical score contains both the usual jaunty kid-movie music and some nice New-Agey stuff.

THE EMPEROR OF PERU falls a tad short of strict political correctness, and may actually be a little weird, but I think sometimes that's good for kids. It causes them to form their own thoughts instead of simply absorbing someone else's. And the strangely open-ended fadeout--which reminded me, believe it or not, of the end of RUNAWAY TRAIN--will probably leave you wondering what the heck you just watched, no matter how old you are.

Disc three in the set contains a trio of shorter films, each about an hour long. 1992's ADIEU, BABYLONE! is shot on video and tells the story of a strange, radically non-conformist young woman (Lelia Fischer) who roams the streets of New York carrying a velveteen rabbit and a giant pencil. She begins to murder people whom she decides don't deserve to live, bewitching them and applying garish makeup to their faces before ceremoniously gutting them like carp and scampering away. "All that flows in your veins is the blood of the most insipid turnips!" she tells one of her potential victims. Since she resembles a demented Elaine from "Seinfeld", these images are doubly strange. "I walk, a herring beneath my dress; I am nauseous," she writes in her diary. "What a life--I wish I were shipwrecked."

At one point, she recalls her childhood with a Cambodian refugee named Hoang, and we see a scene of them together which is taken from THE EMPEROR OF PERU. Is this Liz grown up? Weird. Arrabal's bizarre stream-of-consciousness narrative is an endless barrage of surreal verbage matched by the dazzling montage of images he's photographed and strung together, accompanied by some quacky, hilariously chipper little songs.

Next comes JORGE LUIS BORGES: UNA VIDE DE POESIA (Borges, a Life in Poetry, 1998), in which video of the blind, elderly Brazilian writer's final address before an audience is interspersed with Arrabal's usual surreal images and music. It's slow going, but Borges is such an interesting character that listening to his philosophies on art and life is a rewarding experience.

The final film, ARRABAL, PANIK CINEASTE (2007), features the director himself talking about his films and how his life experiences have influenced his art, and recounting the formation of the Panic Movement with like-minded iconoclasts Roland Topor and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Also appearing are actress Nuria Espert, who played his mother in the autobiographical VIVA LA MUERTE, Alain Bashung of CAR CEMETERY, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. The film, while very informative to anyone interested in Arrabal, is deadly dull. But after seeing clips from his earlier efforts, I have to concur with Henri Chapier when he asserts: "Many psychoanalysts have taken an interest in Arrabal's work."

THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION 2 comes in three separate keepcases housed in a heavy cardboard box which, along with disc 3, is illustrated with Arrabal's own intriguingly odd artwork. A grab-bag of mostly worthwhile efforts, it should provide fun viewing for those seeking the rare and unusual.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

THE GREAT CHALLENGE -- movie review by porfle

In THE GREAT CHALLENGE, aka Les fils du vent (2004), Burt Kwouk, who played Inspector Clouseau's constantly-attacking butler Cato in the PINK PANTHER series and was "Mr. Ling" in GOLDFINGER, is a millionaire business tycoon named Wong who's also a big boss in the Triad. He's giving an elegant garden party at the foot of the Wong Building in beautiful downtown Bangkok, when suddenly, in one breathtaking shot, the camera pans upward and zooms in on two black-clad figures doing a "Human Fly" routine up the side of the building.

In the next few minutes, one figure will engage three business-suited guards with fists, feet, and swords, while the other steals a priceless Red Dragon statue from Wong's office. Doffing their masks, they are revealed as brother and sister Kien and Tsu. The camera follows their slow-motion escape amidst gunfire as they dash toward a window, shooting holes in it as they go, and then crash through into the rain-drenched night. It's a nifty pre-titles sequence, and barely five minutes into the movie I was already impressed.

Kien and Tsu are half-breeds--only half-Chinese--and are rejected by all except the Yakuza, whose acceptance Kien is struggling to attain. Tsu, however, feels that their mother didn't raise no criminals, and acts as Kien's conscience, preventing her brother from giving himself over wholeheartedly to the dark side. Her rebelliousness, however, keeps them both in constant hot water with Kitano, the Yakuza boss who also just happens to be Mr. Wong's son-in-law and is scheming to take over control of the city from him. It appears that an all-out war between the Triad and the Yakuza is imminent.

Into this volatile situation come the Yamakasi, a real-life group of incredible athletes led by Laurent (Laurent Piemontesi), who wishes to open up a gym for street kids in Bangkok. Their sport involves running and jumping and flipping around the outside of buildings and stuff, often several stories in the air--you've got to see it to believe it--with emphasis on, as Wikipedia puts it, "aesthetics and complete freedom of movement from point A to point B." (This is the second film featuring the group--the first, YAMAKASI:LES SAMOURAIS DES TEMPS MODERNES, was released in 2001.) Their motto, it seems, might be "leap before you look." The title sequence illustrates this beautifully as two opposing groups compete to get from one rooftop to another first. It doesn't take long to notice that these people never heard of stairs, elevators, or caution, and watching them hurl themselves about from place to place over dizzying heights with total abandon is thrilling.

Unfortunately, Laurent has had unfriendly dealings with the Yakuza in the past and his new Yamakasi group is doomed to confront them. In an early scene they're having a workout on some bamboo scaffolding surrounding a building under construction, when Kien and some Yakuza thugs attack This leads to another amazing sequence of stunts, and when Tsu shows up to try and stop the fight, she encounters Logan (Charles Perrière), the Yamakasi she is destined to fall in love with. Their Romeo-and-Juliet romance will provide a lot of the drama between the fights, shoot-outs, etc. that appear frequently throughout the rest of the film.

They're all pretty exciting, too. The Yamakasi acrobatics give a new dimension to the usual martial arts displays and gunfights, and it's all thrillingly staged and performed. The wirework is only occasionally obvious--most of the time we get to see real, amazing stuntwork, and the best thing about it is that it's mostly done by the lead actors themselves. It's almost like watching a movie with an all-Jackie Chan cast. Some of it is tricked-up, of course, since the producers didn't want any of their lead actors getting killed or ending up in traction during filming, but for the most part, what you see is what you get.

Julien Seri directs it all with a great degree of style--some of his dramatic sequences come close to the aesthetic beauty of great anime', and the cinematography is often exquisite. Christian Henson's original score combines driving techno-style beats with lush orchestral passages that remind me of Joe Hisaishi's music for Hayao Miyazaki epics like SPIRITED AWAY. The editing, however, could've been a bit less frenetic in some scenes--the stuntwork and fight choreography are so good here that I'd like to have seen some of it play out without so many rapid-fire shots coming at me. Plus, the dubbing takes a bit of getting used to.

Most of the actors in this movie have interesting faces--they're fun to look at--and the director fills each scene with dramatic close-ups of them. In particular, Châu Belle Dinh as Kien and Elodie Yung as his sister, Tsu, have very expressive faces which dramatically convey their emotions. Charles Perrière is similarly intense as Logan, my favorite character among the Yamakasi. Santi Sudaros as Kitano, the Yakuza boss, is a formidable actor as well. And then, of course, there's Burt Kwouk as Mr. Wong, whose very presence makes the movie more fun to watch.

A plot by Kitano to kidnap Wong's only son and heir sets up the big finale, which will pit the collective muscle of the Triad and the Yakuza against each other in a wild free-for-all of guns, swords, and kung fu, with the Yamakasi right in the middle of it all, trying to fight their way out. It reminded me of The Bride vs. the Crazy 88's in KILL BILL, but without the ironic self-awareness or black humor--just tons of non-stop action. And the ending is pretty cool--everything's tied up nicely, and I felt thoroughly entertained.

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HK Flix