Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mie Hama in King Kong Escapes (1967)

There's no getting around it but, objectively speaking, 1967's King Kong Escapes is a pretty crappy film. As a 7-year-old watching it on TV, I was a bit disappointed with the shoddy men-in-suits effects as I was already a fan of the original Kong which featured stop motion animation by Willis O'Brien. And Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad pictures were in the theaters at the time which made me an even bigger fan of stop motion animation as opposed to the men-in-suits monster movies that Japan sent our way in the 1960s and 1970s.

But looking back now, I feel a great deal of affection for this film. The score is nice and the miniatures are quite well done. And it's got a robot Kong!

King Kong Escapes operates with a kind of child's logic: the multiracial UN Science Team rides around on a cool sub with a hovercraft investigating monsters and fighting the "international Judas" Dr. Who (Hideyo [Eisei] Amamoto). Despite its faults, the film bears the creative touch of director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and, without question, King Kong Escapes is superior to the kaiju eiga films that would follow in the 1970s.

When I was a kid I can remember thinking how cute Linda Miller was as Susan, the nurse on the UN submarine that Kong takes a shine to. There's something about the dubbing that made her even cuter. The American girl had been a model in Japan, according to various sources, and this is one of her few films. I have no idea why her English was dubbed but it adds a weird level to her performance.

But now that I'm a bit older, it's Mie Hama as the villainess Madame Piranha that attracts me. The one-time Bond girl is having a blast in this nonsense and she rocks an impressive set of outfits doing it.

I venture to say that in 1967 the kids were looking at perky Susan Miller while their dads were checking out the seductive charms of Mie Hama.

[Photos: Universal Pictures/Toho Co., Ltd.]

Friday, July 30, 2010

Young Lovers (1979) with Derek Yee

I went into my viewing of Young Lovers (1979) with very low expectations but -- and here's the thing -- even a bad Shaw Brothers film from this era will usually provide some pleasure. In this case, it's a lot of location shots of Hong Kong circa 1978 and 1979.

Okay, so Derek Yee plays poor college student Junming who is love with rich girl Lamjin (Candice Yu). Her parents -- Goo Man Chung playing a modern character for a change and the ubiquitous Ouyang Sha-Fei -- disapprove. Junming's brother is involved in a murder case and the drama ratchets up from there.

To help support his family, Junming gets a job at the Holiday Inn (in Tsim Sha Tsui?) and meets the lovely Yili (Lam Yi-Wa) while busing tables. She's "a rich man's toy" (to quote a Luke Haines song) and now Derek is in love with two different rich girls.

Anyway, the film takes a decidedly weird turn with a slow-motion wet T-shirt scene involving the girl -- the result of Junming's turning the garden hose on her. Is Young Lovers a sex comedy or a distaff Romeo and Juliet like the DVD case promised?

So, because of the crime his brother is associated with -- a crime that gives the producers an excuse for a brothel scene with some surprising full frontal nudity for a HK film -- Junming has to flee to his relatives' house on Lantau Island and Candice Yu comes along.

There's more class drama, doomed romance, and copious nudity from Lam Yi-Wa.

Really, it's hard to recommend Young Lovers for anything beyond the nudity and views of Hong Kong streets circa 1979.

This was a fairly early release in the Shaw Brothers reissue series and, unsurprisingly, it's not anamorphic widescreen. However, it is a bit surprising that a 1979 film is not presented with a Cantonese language track as surely this was shown in Cantonese in Hong Kong when originally released, right?

You can order Young Lovers on DVD here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Death Valley with Angela Yu Chien

This 1968 Lo Wei-helmed extravaganza opens with an exciting robbery foiled by swordsman Yueh Hua and watched over by comic shopkeep Lee Kwan. Death Valley then kicks off as Yueh Hua takes to the road after paying for the burial of the guys he's just slaughtered. The credits roll and the film begins in earnest.

I've watched some Shaw Brothers stuff lately that felt like work and with something like Death Valley I feel like my enjoyment will hopefully introduce films like this to one or two more people out there. For every weak 1970s Shaw kung fu flick, there's probably a good wuxia flick from the 1960s and it's probably starring Yueh Hua.

Director Lo Wei also stars as a teacher of a martial arts school where the cute Angela Yu Chien is a star pupil. Her perkiness in a yellow outfit in a sea of guys in grey probably helps her chances in this school.

Chiu Jien Ying (Angela Yu Chien) wants to inherit the martial arts school from her uncle (Lo Wei) but the imminent arrival of her cousin Jin Fu seems to put an end to that idea as the guy is set to take over the school.

Angela plots her scheme and I'm pretty sure that her seductiveness will play some role in it.

Soon, there's a sex scene with an American surf-style tune playing on the soundtrack and Angela has got her patsy (Chiu Hung).

Chiu Yu Lung (Yueh Hua) partners up with Jin Fu (Chen Hun-lieh) for an exciting fight in a gambling den with Lee Kwan providing a bit of comic relief under the tables.

It would be silly to recount the plot of Death Valley as there are the usual crosses-and-doublecrosses, mistaken identities, inn duels and arguments, and other devices typical of these wuxia flicks.

The charms of this film are Angela Yu Chien's seductive ones, Yueh Hua's agility and wit, and an effective-and-not-overused musical score.

Death Valley is not a classic but it's not a bad genre picture. And, significantly, Angela Yu Chien is a bit sexier here than other Shaw starlets in other films of this era. A hint of the stuff the studio would do later? Maybe. She has fun with her role and the effect is like Ann Margaret doing an action movie. Sexy but playful.

Lo Wei was an economical director and he doesn't seem to waste a lot of time here. There's not much depth to any of the characters and there's not much of an explanation for Angela's attempts to get the school for herself.

But I like stuff like this and if it seems routine, sometimes the routine is refreshing. The very fact that the Shaw Brothers studio could crank out so many similar films in the 1960s is something I respect.

And a final mountaintop standoff with Yueh Hua is particularly bloody and memorable -- one of the better uses of a real location that I can recall in a wuxia film from the Shaw studios in this era.

You can buy Death Valley on DVD here.

Monday, July 26, 2010

New Manics Single on The BBC

I guess I should be more excited but I'm not. I love the Manic Street Preachers but, after playing the new single 3 or 4 times already via YouTube, I have to confess that it still sounds like a bunch of Manics impersonators to me.

But, hey, I didn't like "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" when I first heard it either.

I *am* excited about the prospect of a new album from the Welsh heroes so soon after their last one.

And the tracklisting for the thing was posted to their site today and it's the usual sort of pretension and preciousness that I like so much about the band.

The album, Postcards From a Young Man, is out 20 September in the UK but I'm not sure about a US release date yet.

"(It's Not War) - Just The End of Love"

"Postcards From A Young Man"

"Some Kind of Nothingness"

"The Descent - (Pages 1 and 2)"

"Hazleton Avenue"


"Golden Platitudes"

"I Think I've Found It"

"A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun"

"All We Make Is Entertainment"

"The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever"

"Don't Be Evil"

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sinatra In The Studio

I always like to look at photographs of Frank Sinatra in the studio as they show the artist at work. This is a nice contrast with that kind of swaggering asshole persona he sometimes projected in films and on television.

For someone like me, who grew up in the 1970s and watched Sinatra on those Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, this is like seeing an altogether different person.

These photographs are all from the book The Sinatra Treasures: Intimate Photos, Mementos, and Music From The Sinatra Family which I found in the bargain bin at the bookstore yesterday.

(All photographs remain the property of the original rights holders.)

Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra in the studio...

Quincy Jones, Count Basie, and Frank Sinatra with the sheet music of "Hello Dolly! on the rostrum...

The great songwriter Sammy Cahn watches Frank on a television program...

Frank at work on the Great Songs from Great Britain (1962) album with Brit conductor Robert Farnon and orchestra...

Two geniuses at work: Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra review arrangements...

Guitarist Al Viola and Frank model some hats and rehearse...

Not a studio shot but a reminder of lost glory: Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra on the set of High Society (1956)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab Takes Us On A Solo Trip

It's going to be impossible to review the first solo album from Laetitia Sadier without mentioning Stereolab so let's get that right out of the way.

Stereolab had the unique ability to sound totally original and a bit retro at the same time. When I first heard them in 1992, they certainly sounded like some kind of break with the then current big indie trends of grunge and shoegaze, as well as a leap forward from the kids still trying to harness the Spirit of C-86.

And let's look at that retro label for a sec: a band like The Pipettes -- the great Rose Elinor Dougall's former band -- took an old style and redid it with a nod-and-a-wink.

Oasis, despite their Beatles name-dropping, really just took bits from other artists -- a T.Rex guitar-crunch-and-foot-stomp here, a Slade snarl there -- and mashed them into something fairly straightforward and anthemic.

Stereolab managed to somehow sound like the past and future at the same time; more precisely: they managed to sound like a late 1960s band trying to sound futuristic.

And while I know the Cocteau Twins and Stereolab fanbases share some members, Stereolab showed more variation and risk-tasking within their self-imposed limited choice of options where the Cocteaus kind of redid the same act with different flourishes or production effects on each record.

So all that talk of retro-ism and memorable singers brings us to the first proper solo album from Stereolab's unmistakable vocalist, Laetitia Sadier.

Sadier's The Trip, out 21 September 2010 in the States on Drag City, sounds like the singer on those Stereolab classics and at once entirely more direct and -- dare I say it? -- human!

I think there was a tendency -- even in a real Stereolab fan of 18 years' standing like myself -- to hear the stuff on a 'Lab record first; it was sometimes if the vocals were an afterthought to whatever intricate, retro concoction was being offered.

I say that knowing it's not entirely true. I'm just making a broad point to get at how warm this record sounds.

Yeah, over the course of 34-or-some minutes you Stereolab fans will get what you want: "Natural Child" sounds like something off of 2001's Sound-Dust, for instance; Opener "One Million Year Trip" would not have been entirely out-of-place on 1999's Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night; and so on.

But the two standout tracks for me are both covers that Laetitia manages to transform almost entirely.

She takes the 1969 Wendy and Bonnie song "By The Sea" and speeds up the tempo and turns a mournful neo-folk ballad into a propulsive gallop over landscapes of regret and into some new emotional turf. Where the original was sighing, this one purrs.

That song gives way -- after a short instrumental called "Unfasten" -- to a sublime cover of French rock giants Les Rita Mitsouko's "Un Soir, Un Chien".

Okay, let me just say that even if I had not listened to almost everything Stereolab released in the last 18 years, I think I would still run out and grab all of Laetitia's recordings after hearing this one cover -- it's that good!

Frankly, Laetitia has never sounded sexier. Whatever sense of holding back and conforming-to-form one heard on many Stereolab records -- no matter how experimental -- is gone now as Laetitia positively coos her way through this song!

Interestingly the album gets less and less like Stereolab as it progresses and, whether that's intentional or not, that's a good thing.

A late cover of George Gershwin's "Summertime" confirms that the world does need another cover of this old standard provided the cover is doing something new and this version is.

That cover morphs into the closing instrumental snippet "Release, Open Your Little Earthling Hands" and The Trip comes to a close.

If Laetitia Sadier is not entirely breaking with her Stereolab heritage, she is pushing the sides of that stylistic cage and -- in "Un Soir, Un Chien" -- clearly doing something wonderfully new and exciting.

It's worth noting that April March is on this somewhere but, as my advance copy did not have liner notes, I was at a bit of a loss in hearing her voice in the mix.

The Trip from Laetitia Sadier is out on 21 September 2010 from Drag City. Until then, check out Laetitia's Drag City page:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Asia-Pol with Jimmy Wang-Yu

There are two big problems with 1967's Asia-Pol: 1) Jimmy Wang-Yu. Or should I say Jimmy Wang-Yu in a modern setting? Hell, I find his period wuxia films boring so there was not much chance that he was going to have the slight hint of wit necessary to play a James Bondish secret agent.

2) The film is so clearly, so obviously, and so insistently trying to be an Asian version of a Bond film that it becomes a tiny bit distracting. The director, Matsuo Akinori, also did The Lady Professional (1971) with Lily Ho but that film was light on its feet and Lily vastly more appealing than Jimmy Wang-Yu.

Asia-Pol feels like an American TV rip-off of the Bond franchise only transplanted to an Asian setting. There's no wit or style! And, let's be clear about this, I have a hard time sitting through any of the James Bond films all the way through despite the eye candy on display; I'm more likely to enjoy the parodies, like the Matt Helm series, than the real thing.

Anyway, Jimmy Wang-Yu is a Japan-born secret agent/international police officer chasing some guy through Japan and Hong Kong and Macau.

It was at about the halfway mark, when Jimmy was interrogating a Western stripper/secret agent who had sneaked into his room, that I asked myself:

"Why am I reviewing all these Shaw films? This is starting to feel like work!"

Okay, new rule: no more Wang-Yu.

Brian has a short but informative review here.

The DVD is out-of-print but you can Asia-Pol on VCD here or you could just e-mail me and I'd probably sell you mine.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Patti Smith's Just Kids (And The Spring of 1987)

It's hard to criticize someone who made such a profound impression on you as a kid.

And my criticisms of Patti Smith's book, Just Kids (2010), have less to do with the book's content and more to do with my preconceptions going into reading this thing.

I mean, I set out to simply review this book by Patti Smith but I can't do that without getting a bit personal.

See, in 1987, right around the time I turned 20, I had a little nervous breakdown and heard Patti Smith for the first time. Did one precipitate the other? No, of course not, but what I was feeling -- what I was writing -- at the time seemed to echo the kind of fevered poetry-set-to-music contained on those first 3 Patti Smith Group albums.

Mental illness bears too much of a stigma in this country and my mental illness at the time seemed pretty bad but wasn't really too extreme. When I admitted myself into a good mental hospital later that spring, I suddenly realized that I wasn't nearly as "messed up" as the poor denizens in the place: I didn't have a drug addiction; I hadn't been arrested (though I had come close once); I wasn't a stalker; and I wasn't a nearly catatonic schizophrenic.

But I had some guilt and self-harm issues and I'm thankful for my time in the facility.

That's a long way of saying how amazing Patti Smith sounded to me at that time. There have only been two other times when I've heard something that felt exactly like what I was feeling during my breakdown -- or whatever it was -- and those two times were hearing the first Throwing Muses album later in 1987 and -- years later -- getting my first copy of the Manic Street Preachers' 1994 album, The Holy Bible.

But, in the spring of 1987, having just dropped out of Bible college for the second time and yet retaining my faith -- despite being wracked with guilt over my current relationship at the time -- I devoured Horses and Easter like a foreigner in a crowded American bus depot hearing his home language being suddenly shouted at him out-of-nowhere.

In 1987, songs like Babelogue and Rock N Roll Nigger seemed exactly like what I was trying to write before my little collapse and during my summer of recovery.

Just Kids deals largely with Patti's time with Robert Mapplethorpe and the book succeeds as a paean to a lost NYC. That New York City seen in Midnight Cowboy (1969) is the setting as the duo carve out a path towards artistic freedom.

If Patti comes off as more ersatz hippy than proto-punk, so be it; she always did straddle that line didn't she?

Certainly Patti is more complex than the picture provided from her early work and Just Kids shows us the human, womanly side.

What seemed like so much anger on those early releases was really the product of years in the wilderness choosing a path and cultivating her work.

One big complaint with the book is that years are rarely mentioned. What starts in roughly 1968 continues on and on and it's only the mentions of celebrity deaths, or a man walking on the moon, that give the narrative a sense of time and place. As this is not a traditional work of biography, I guess that can be forgiven.

Another very glaring error is when Patti makes some comment about someone's film tastes and says something about being able to compare Ozu or Bresson to Paul Schrader which would have been an impossibility in 1968, 1969, or 1970 as the guy hadn't even written any film scripts, let alone directed any, yet.

Maybe the anecdote was meant in general terms about the person later in her life? Still, it was quite distracting.

The parts about Jim Carroll are interesting as the guy who ended up sounding like Tom Verlaine and Television clearly predated those guys -- at least as a poet and author.

And a late journey to Rimbaud's Charleville in 1973 is quite moving.

I owe it to Patti Smith's work that I got into Rimbaud and for that I'm thankful still.

In a recent post about Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), I reflected on how in 1987 that film's soundtrack had helped me to get further into the works of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto. And it seems now that in 1987, I changed quite a bit as a person largely due to the influences of the things I was reading and listening to.

An easy read that sounds like Patti's best work, Just Kids provides a glimpse into an odd couple in a lost world and I enjoyed that.

And the book pulls back the curtain on an artist that in some small adolescent way I'm forever grateful for.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ye Gods! Anthony Hopkins Is Not Odin

Yeah, it's time for fanboy snark again. Look, I don't care that much about the Thor movie -- the character is not near to my heart like the Fantastic Four were; I never was a big reader of the comic on a regular basis --- though I did read it around issues 250 to 300 fairly regularly -- but that was the era when I reading nearly every monthly Marvel title! -- and, let's face it, it will be well nigh impossible to translate Thor successfully to the big screen. Frankly, I would have just had him appear in The Avengers film without a lot of backstory as the silliness of the obligatory origin story could be too much.

Jack Kirby drew Thor and his crew, including Odin, with a certain space-y-ness that I appreciated even if I didn't read the stuff firsthand when I was a kid. It's not quite at Conan-levels of sword-and-sorcery grittiness, nor is it totally cosmic like the Silver Surfer, but there's a unique vibe in the best Thor issues that bears the stamp of Kirby's earlier work.

So, as Twitch and are reporting, the first shot from the film has been released and it shows Anthony Hopkins as Odin (smiling like a stoner), Chris Hemsworth as Thor to the left, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki to the right.

Looking at the cast list, I'm dying to know how the plot explains a black guy as a Norse god and why Tadanobu Asano is in this thing -- he does a lot of movies!

Fingers crossed but not losing sleep over this one if it turns out to be a failure...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Clan of Amazons with Ling Yun and Yueh Hua

A masked swordsman in red thwarts the plans of various warriors at the start of 1978's Clan of Amazons. Raids are disrupted, thievery averted, and the leaders of various clans are plotting moves against this masked man who embroiders while he waits to strike.

Jin Juiling (Ling Yun) guesses that the masked avenger might be a woman in baggy clothes and he and Lu Xiaofeng (Anthony Lau Wing) decide to investigate but after Lu greets his lovely romantic interest, Xue Bing (Ching Li). The ladies of the palace -- yes, Ouyang Sha-Fei is in this! -- determine the source of the embroidery.

Qingxia (Shih Szu) enters the film to help Xiaofeng and Xue Bing in their quest.

The film turns into a mystery of sorts as the duo looks for the maker of the silk left at the scene of the attacks by the masked embroider. Then there's some fighting but nothing particularly memorable.

By the time the amazons of the title show up, the film has taken a turn for the fantastical. I say that but Clan of Amazons still seemed largely forgettable to me. Have I seen too many Shaw films from this era? Probably not.

It's just that there's no strong lead and the action in the second half is set at night and murky. Yueh Hua is barely in this, Ching Li was used better in earlier action films, and Ling Yun was past his prime by the time this film was made.

Normally I would post a link to buy the DVD but it looks like Clan of Amazons is out-of-print on both VCD and DVD.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Lizard with Connie Chan

What little I know about Connie Chan I probably read on duriandave's wonderful blog, Soft Film. So going into a viewing of 1972's The Lizard with limited knowledge of Connie Chan's career could be a good or a bad thing: I either watch the film without any preconceived notions or I watch it not having a clue as to what I'm supposed to be paying attention to.

The Lizard, a cat burglar in an all black outfit, finds himself trapped in a house as a Western couple engage in a very 1970-ish sex scene. We cut to Connie Chan practicing kung fu in a courtyard. The cute Xiao Ju almost impales servant Wu Ma with a thrown knife; she may look like an innocent, but she's a deadly martial artist.

Xiao Ju's grandpa (Goo Man Chung) is stumped by the Lizard and the bandit's constant preying on Westerners. It's up to Connie and family friend -- her fiance? -- Yueh Hua to catch the titular villain.

There's a lot of gambling stuff once Yueh Hua enters the film but this gives way to Connie Chan fighting a bunch of guys in a marketplace after she is harassed by one of them.

Compared to Cheng Pei-Pei, Connie -- at least here -- seems more forceful, the lack of swords or weapons making the scene seem more dramatic.

Soon, there's a big banquet and the Lizard makes an appearance -- or does he? Clearly, we are led to believe that Lo Lieh is the Lizard but in a rooftop confrontation with Lo Lieh, it's Yueh Hua under the Lizard's mask as a pilfered Pink Floyd track -- "One Of These Days" -- plays on the soundtrack.

After Lo Lieh attempts to root out the Lizard from a closed-door party scene -- look for a funny Lydia Shum here -- Yueh Hua confronts Connie Chan in the Lizard suit only she quickly reveals herself to the guy after a few minutes of routine fighting.

Later, Connie raids Lo Lieh's house in an attempt to rescue Wu Ma's kidnapped wife. As she battles Lo Lieh, the Clark Gable-ish cad stops and sweettalks her but the girl keeps swinging and kicking. This scene was the highlight of the film for me as there was a real playfulness here that was a quality sorely missing from most 1970s Shaw Brothers martial arts films. Maybe it's an echo of an earlier era, maybe it's an effect that Connie Chan's fans would have expected in one of her films, but the scene delivers thrills without the dour seriousness of a Chang Cheh film, or the rote traditionalism of a Ti Lung genre picture (even though this was directed by frequent Ti Lung collaborator Chor Yuen).

The films shifts to comedy again when Connie disguises herself as a Japanese woman to infiltrate a rich Japanese woman's home as the woman is a possible target of the Lizard.

The Lizard would have been more fun had it been shorter. Part comedy, part martial arts fest, the film flits between styles a bit too much but as a nice introduction to what Connie Chan was like on a film screen, it's a fun film.

There's a review from YTSL on Brian's site here.

Unfortunately, The Lizard is out-of-print on both VCD and DVD at the moment.