Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Thoughts on Superman II (1981) - The Donner Cut

You know, I didn't see Superman II (1981) in the theater when it was new despite my love of the first Superman film. I don't rightly know why but I think the reviews didn't win me over; in the pre-internet world, I think the fanboy-irking moments of the film were already the stuff of some discussion.

I read about it, of course. But the summer of 1981 was also when I was at the peak of my Marvel Comics fandom. I was always a Marvel guy first and foremost so going to see a Superman flick was always a bit like an exercise in wondering how the same special effects and film techniques could be applied to a film about Captain America or The Fantastic Four.

When I read about the Richard Donner cut of Superman II I wanted to see it but didn't make a big effort to do that.

Well, since the film was on On-Demand from Comcast, I finally decided to give it a shot.

I'm not going to elaborate all of the differences between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner versions of the film. You can read all that stuff here.

Okay, in many ways, Superman II: The Donner Cut is a better film. There is no denying that. The addition of Marlon Brando's footage alone guarantees that this film is instantly more serious in tone than the original Superman II (1981).

Frankly, it always strained believability for me that the producers would rewrite the plot to simply remove Jor-El entirely. Really, that kind of stupid decision prejudiced me against the film back in 1981 and was probably a big reason why the 14-year-old me was more content to see Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) additional times that summer rather than see Superman II (1981) at least once on its first release.

Still, I really miss the Eiffel Tower sequence.

And the loss of Superman's "General, would you care to step outside?" line irritated me.

(The line is rewritten to something about the freedom of the press here. It's as awkward as that Storm line to Toad in 2000's X-Men.)

And while I enjoyed all of the new Lois and Superman scenes near the end of the film, I was sorry to not see that great, silly, and patriotic scene where Superman returns the American flag to The White House.

(I'm never as patriotic as I am when watching a Superman film, for some reason. Maybe next summer's Captain America flick will give me a similar pleasure?)

Okay, if you, like me, have not watched Superman II: The Donner Cut until now, I'd say it's worth your time.

Still, it's just as goofy and sloppy in spots as the original flick was, despite some wonderfully dramatic moments between Christopher Reeve's Superman and Marlon Brando's Kal-El hologram in the Fortress of Solitude.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Kidnap (1974) with Lo Lieh

At two hours, it's a bit too long but Kidnap (1974) is a fairly solid Shaw Brothers action drama. I'd go so far as to say it's a classic in some ways. Clearly more of a crowdpleaser than an attempt to further any particular genre, the film succeeds largely on the strength of the main leads who make up the gang of criminals.

The plot comes together with the introduction of hot-headed truck driver Tung Lam, gambler Lam Wai Tiu, and Fan Mei Sheng. Oh and did I forget leading man Lo Lieh? Not sure what his job is in the film but he's a bit of a scoundrel, shown by his shooting an air rifle at Hu Chin's ass at an amusement park.

Fan Mei Sheng's job involves gluing pubic hair onto strippers. Something like that. Hu Chin is a stripper too.

It's a blast seeing the actress in modern -- well, 1970s -- clothes and not some period piece sort of get-up. She and Lo Lieh look great in a sequence where they step out on the town.

Unfortunately, Lo Lieh gets humiliated -- and thrown down a flight of steps! -- by Danny Lau. He doesn't unleash a colossal kung fu beatdown on the guy which is a surprise.

No, he goes home to plot his revenge with his cronies.

Fan Mei Sheng's character goes back to his day job: a makeup artist at a film studio. He does that so he can get some prop guns and outfits and makeup for whatever heist Lo Lieh is planning.

The kidnapping plan doesn't go so smooth and soon the gang is blackmailing the victim's father Cheng Miu.

No more spoilers. Kidnap is a solid action flick set in 1974 Hong Kong. There's plenty of period flare and flavour here, and Lo Lieh is still somehow likeable even when playing such an obvious criminal.

Look for Ching Feng as a police detective.

An unusually strong ending makes Kidnap (1974) required viewing for fans of what the Shaw Brothers were doing in the modern setting in the 1970s.

You can order Kidnap on DVD here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Key Figures, Live at The RTX, 11/27/10

The Key Figures (and Ambition Burning) rocked the house last night at a free afterhours show at The Record and Tape Exchange in Fairfax, Virginia.

(I worked at the original RTX in College Park, Maryland 23 years ago, and that job lead to the gig at my beloved Record Co-Op where I worked with a very good friend who now works at this RTX on a part-time basis!)

These guys have a great very American punk rock sound: equal parts early Cheap Trick and Black Flag.

The band has already recorded a CD with D.C.'s legendary Don Zientara and it's got me wanting to hear more.

For now, check out the band's website:

The Key Figures

I shot a couple of minutes of footage last night. I should have shot more but the camera is new to me.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

Perhaps the only way for me to really appreciate Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) is to remember what it was like to watch the film when it was new and I was 8. I am pretty sure I saw this one in the theater -- or at the drive-in -- the mind blurs as a lot of the 1970s Godzilla titles got reissued and rereleased under different titles in the States during the course of the decade.

The film is pretty weak but it seems unfair to say that since this is the last film directed by Ishiro Honda. And the presence of Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube is welcomed despite the fact that it sounds like he's reusing themes from his earlier scores.

The short -- 83 minutes -- film concerns the resuscitation of Mechagodzilla -- destroyed in an earlier film by some aliens from the Third Planet of the Black Hole. At least that's how the subtitles describe the planet.

First, the daughter (Tomoko Ai) of a scientist seems to be under the control of the aliens.

The girl is really some kind of half-cyborg and the scientist is using her and Mechagodzilla due to some grudge against mankind that he's carrying around. He partners with the aliens but that relationship is not exactly clear.

What is clear is that it is his technology that is allowing the aliens to control the sea creature Titanosaurus. The big monster is a sort of mind control test case before Mechagodzilla is brought back to life.

The one memorable moment in the film occurs with Godzilla's sudden and unexpected reappearance. By now, the monster is the hero of these films but it still carries a degree of menace.

Here, he shows up at night -- like a giant Batman -- just standing on the edge of the city before joining the fight with Titanosaurus. The imagery -- probably intentionally -- echoes some of the best scenes from the first Godzilla film in 1954.

The only other moment that really appealed to the adult me was near the end when Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla have buried Godzilla under a mound of dirt. Providing the flip to the earlier sinister emergence of the monster in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964), Godzilla emerges from underground revitalized and ready to breathe fire on Mechagodzilla.

Yeah, it's a silly moment but the Godzilla films in the 1970s were increasingly silly by this point.

And this was the last one until 1985.

[Photos: Toho/Columbia]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Condemnded (1976) with David Chiang and Lily Li

Working from a script from Chang Cheh's screenwriter -- oh no -- David Chiang both acts in, and directs, 1976's The Condemned.

In what looks like a pre-revolution China, David Chiang plays a lovable pickpocket who runs afoul of a town's powerful gang and then gets shipped off to prison.

It's worth noting that film takes its sweet time getting to David Chiang's character. If anything, The Condemned wastes a bit too much time early on delineating the town's villains and the corrupt officials in charge of the prison.

After an introduction to David Chiang's life as a pickpocket, the guy pays a visit to his girl, Baoying (Lily Li), in a nicely shot scene.

Ku Feng -- surprise, surprise -- plays Mr. Sheng, the main villain of the piece.

Gee, I wonder if the end of this will involve David Chiang kicking his ass?

Luckily, 'cause that revenge plot is a tired one, Hu Chin shows up as the madam of the brothel where Baoying works.

Ku Feng's Mr. Sheng wants Lang Yin (David Chiang) to kill the guy's prison roomie, played by Tsai Hung. But Tsai Hung is innocent.

Up until this point, Tsai Hung had been attempting to murder his annoying cellmate but when David doesn't poison the guy, and instead alerts him to the plot, the two team up.

The man reveals his name as Feng Dagang and the two strike the pose -- the handclasp -- shown on the DVD cover.

Why do I think that both David Chiang and Tsai Hung will be kicking Ku Feng's ass at the end of this picture?

They break out of the prison and begin the search for revenge.

So David's Yan Ling tries to go up against Ku Feng alone, fails, and his girl is taken away from in front of his eyes. Not only that, but she gets her top ripped off in an obvious body double scene. Poor Lily Li.

Meanwhile, Tsai Hung's Feng is scouting the same locales on his own and taking out some of the same goons.

In a weird choice for director David Chiang, he has blood run down the lens when Tsai Hung kills a guy in this scene. Not so much that the victim's blood has somehow splattered onto the lens like water, or one of those deals where the screen turns red. No, it's little trickles of blood that run down the lens as Tsai Hung shoves his hand into a guy's neck across the courtyard.

I shouldn't be too hard on The Condemned as the same material in the hands of a director like Chang Cheh would have resulted in a thoroughly heavyhanded film. No, David Chiang keeps things moving, and he doesn't hog the spotlight. He knows his own strengths as an actor and doesn't try to dominate the fight scenes -- his Yang Lin gets his ass kicked while Tsai Hung's guy kicks ass in the subsequent scene.

A standard revenge flick with a nice prison subplot, The Condemned is not a masterpiece but it delivers some good action scenes -- mainly involving a shirtless Tsai Hung -- and has some nice moments from David Chiang in front of the camera.

You can order The Condemned on DVD here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Golden Buddha (1966) with Lo Wei and Fanny Fan

You know, if I said that The Golden Buddha (1966) was a silly spy flick, you might think I meant that as an insult. No, it's not meant that way. Lo Wei's The Golden Buddha is a largely solid tale of mistaken identity, switched briefcases, and girl spies set in Thailand.

That leaden leading man Paul Chang Chung manages to carry this thing along is another accomplishment.

I'd be doing a potential viewer a disservice if I recounted the entire plot with all of its twists and turns so I'll just elaborate on the basics.

Businessman Paul Cheung (Paul Chang Chung) boards a flight to Singapore, finds old friend Chung Cheung (Cheung Pooi-Saan) across the aisle from him, and attempts to catch up on old times.

Chung Cheung is getting off at Thailand and he accidentally takes Paul's briefcase instead of his. The plane gets delayed in Thailand and Paul spends some time tracking down his old friend once he opens the guy's suitcase and finds some mysterious items in it -- notably that titular golden Buddha which is one of three needed for some nefarious purpose.

The Golden Buddha, like the previous year's Crocodile River, uses a mix of real Thailand locations and studio sets to convey the large scope of the picturesque spy story.

The addition of Fanny Fan is another picturesque plus. The voluptuous actress actually has one of her better roles here. My knowledge of her work is still fairly limited but at least here she gets to play normal in the train-set meeting with Paul Chang Chung and then super-sexy when he shows up at her hotel room and he -- and we -- get a shot of her bare backside.

She's just ridiculously sexy in this film. As always, check out duriandave's blog for more on the bombshell.

There's more spy stuff with Paul switching spiked drinks with Fanny Fan after she's seduced him. Really, The Golden Buddha may have been the Shaw Brothers' answer to James Bond but it's closer in spirit to that great episode of "The Flintstones" where Fred and Barney get taken to that island by the spy-lady who calls them "darlings".

I mean that in a good way.

Soon, Paul finds Jeanette Lin Tsui tied up in a closet. The lovely actress once possessed one of the three golden Buddhas so now the goons are after her too. Good thing Paul Chang Chung recognized her from an earlier meeting on that train through Thailand. It does seem awfully convenient that he finds her in the same hotel that he's staying in but, hey, that's the sort of thing that happens all the time in this sort of 1960s flick.

As Paul and Mei-Nan (Jeanette Lin Tsui) search for the other Buddha, the scene shifts to the stronghold of some gold-wearing villain and his girl army. Seems Fanny Fan was "Number 4" in the troops and she's in trouble for mixing with Paul and letting him get away.

Time for the dimestore James Bond tortures to begin! She's put on a table and tortured with what looks like a light you could use to cook Curly Fries in an Arby's restaurant kitchen.

Meanwhile, Paul and Mei-Nan are enjoying a bellydancing show in Bangkok and they spy the other Buddha on the stage as part of the dancer's act.

There's a halfhearted escape from some goons and the two are then gliding down the river in a boat scene not unlike the one pictured on the cover of Crocodile River (1965). As the films share the same director, I wonder if Lo Wei re-used footage from the earlier film in this one?

Anyway, there's more nonsense when Paul shows up at the stronghold.

The plot of The Golden Buddha is inconsequential as the film's main appeal is in providing a lot of retro thrills. I don't know how viewers in 1966 saw this film -- as a cheap Bond knock-off? -- but in 2010, it is just the same sort of pleasurable experience that those Matt Helm flicks are.

Had the film been about 10 minutes shorter, it would have been even more fun.

And, while I'm not going to spoil the ending of this film, let me just say that when the main villain -- the guy in the cape with the all girl army -- takes off his disguise and reveals his real identity, the moment is beyond ridiculous -- you can't help thinking "How was that the same guy as...?" for the last few minutes of the film.

Check out Brian's review here.

The Golden Buddha (1966) is out-of-print on DVD but you can order the VCD here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Patti Smith Reads From Just Kids

Kudos to Patti Smith for winning the National Book Award for nonfiction this week.

I sort of reviewed Just Kids way back in July and I liked the book for somewhat sentimental reasons. I think I wanted more rock-n-roll anecdotes but that's not necessarily what her memoir was about.

Now you can hear Patti read from Just Kids via KQED's weekly series, The Writers' Block.

I've embedded the player below but you can also click here for the Patti Smith episode of the podcast.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Kumi Mizuno in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

This follow-up to Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) is not quite as much fun. Still, the presence of the sultry Kumi Mizuno in a key role makes Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) a pleasurable experience.

Kumi Mizuno plays the mysterious Miss Namikawa who works for a toy company on Earth but is really an alien woman. In fact, on her Planet X, all of the women look like her.

For a good overview of the career of Ms. Mizuno, check out this biography from the Cult Sirens website.

Additionally, I recommend this blog post from Eiji Tsuburaya biographer August Ragone.

Astronauts Nick Adams and Akira Takarada journey to Planet X on the far side of Jupiter and encounter the inhabitants who promise a cure for cancer if they can "borrow" Godzilla and Rodan to fight Ghidorah -- Monster X -- on their planet.

As can be expected, the aliens with their Devo shades are not to be trusted and soon they are plotting a takeover of Earth.

That's all after they transport Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X to fight Ghidorah -- it's a draw -- and then the monsters are all back on Earth wrecking havoc.

Kumi Mizuno dies early in the film after confessing her identity to Adams.

Invasion of Astro-Monster, even in the Japanese version that I watched recently, didn't hold up as well for me as an adult. I found the film a bit disjointed.

However, the effects are pretty good and the fight scenes are fun, especially those on the surface of Planet X with Jupiter looming in the background.

[Photos: Toho/Columbia]