2019: After the Fall of New York (1983)

In the depths of obscure cinema lay the some of the cheesiest, the cheapest, and in an objective sense, the worst among the B movie crowd. In fact, there are many examples of truly terrible knock-off films, and in that respect, this film is one of the worst examples. One of many Italian-made post-apocalyptic knock-offs that came out during the 1980’s, Sergio Martino’s genre flick is a bizarre attempt to somehow rip off Escape from New YorkMad Max and Planet of the Apes at the same time. Naturally, it failed at all of that, and scuppered whatever little potential it had.

The plot of this film is simple enough. It’s the year 2019, and human civilisation has been reduced to rubble in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and society is now ruled by the Euraks, a hybrid race that rules through fear and regularly tortures and conducts experiments on people. Meanwhile in Nevada, a mercenary named Parsifal (who I prefer to call Solid Snek) is asked by the Pan-American Confederacy to go into the ruins of Manhattan with two other men to rescue the only fertile woman left on Earth in order to repopulate mankind.

As simple and unpretentious as it is, it’s muddled and poorly written, and half the cast is pretty much vestigial in terms of the film’s lacklustre plot. Nearly every cliché you could think of is thrown into the film like badly thrown darts. Right off the bat the film opens with an obviously cheap diorama of New York, then lots of meaningless plot turns are jammed between the opening and ending. To the producers’ credit, the film at least started out in “so bad it’s comical” territory, before descending into blatant ridiculousness to the point of having completely broken all sense of immersion.

The characters aren’t great either, and in fact, the acting is quite simply atrocious. It’s worse than you can expect from most 80’s anime dubs, and it’s almost as if the actors were being paid minimum wage. Sometimes you get the occasional moment of humorously hammy acting, but the script had all the life sucked right out of it, and evidently so did the actors’ enthusiasm. I wouldn’t blame them, after all this was a project I’m sure nobody had any enthusiasm for back in the day.

Usually this is when the presentation compensates for a film’s other deficiencies, but not this time. The costumes are extremely ridiculous and seem utterly out of place, as do a lot of characters in this ill-conceived budget flick. The set pieces and special effects look so cheap that the film would have looked brand new in the 1960’s. The choreography is so noticeably awkward that it’s as though they didn’t even try, and not even the music score is exciting. In fact, sometimes the same sound effect is used throughout an entire scene, and it breaks all sense of immersion.

In short, the film was a total bust, but believe it or not, this film still has its fans. Honestly, I find it hard to say anything good about it. There’s films that are cheesy and that’s the whole point, and then there’s films that are simply badly made, and this was one of them. Probably the only cool thing about the film was the poster, and let that be a lesson. Never watch films just because the poster looked nice.

  • Score: 38%
  • Grade: E

Thief (1981)

I’ve got to be honest, I had heard of Michael Mann’s film through its composer, the electronic band Tangerine Dream, though in all fairness, this was quite a gem of a film. Often billed as a neo-noir film, it is based on the writings of a real-life jewel thief, who wrote “The Home Invaders” (the book on which the film is based) under the name of Frank Hohimer (incidentally, the protagonist of the film is also called Frank). Whether this makes the film necessarily realistic is up for debate, but there is no denying that this is a fine quality film that, in my opinion, has aged very well. In terms of its direction in particular, it’s a hardboiled crime thriller with a fine touch of sophistication.

The story centres around a professional safecracker and jewel thief named Frank, who agrees to do one last job so that he can have enough money to start a normal family life with his new girlfriend Jessie. But in order to do so, he has to work with a greedy mafia boss named Leo, who offers to make him a millionaire within four months. After this job he plans to retire from criminal life, but he finds himself in debt to and being ripped off by Leo, who is determined not to let Frank out of his hands.

Some viewers might be a little put off but its slow pacing, but for two hours it’s actually a pretty well-paced film, with a distinctly chilled character. Michael Mann’s Thief isn’t exactly your standard heist film, as it has none of the fake tension and vestigial string orchestras that normally accompanies the stock-in-trade films of genre. Every part of the story is certainly convincing enough for me, and I think that is due mainly to the merits of Michael Mann’s directorial ability, which is impressive considering this was his debut feature film.

Arguably one of the best parts about the film is the much-lauded performance of lead actor James Caan, who struts his character around with a sense of cool that defies explanation. The rest of the main cast performed also well, with Tuesday Weld as the girl who is slowly involved in Frank’s life, Robert Prosky as the cold, unscrupulous Leo, and a range of support characters that shine through in their own way.

Above all else, what stands out is the film’s sense of style. The film is slick, dark and realistic in tone, in contrast to many heist films before it. In fact, I’d say it’s something of a precursor to the kind of lengthy yet stylish crime films we would see later in the 1980’s and 1990’s. At the core of the film’s style was the then-cutting-edge electronic stylings of Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, with its pulsating synth lines. And then of course there’s the action. It has been said that this film represents a transition from the character-based crime drama of the 1970’s to the flashy action-oriented cop films of the 1980’s, but I don’t really see that. I do however appreciate the subtlety that is Thief’s action scenes, which are fairly infrequent, but well-executed.

By no means is Thief a perfect masterpiece, but I’d say it’s an underrated film that in my opinion doesn’t get enough attention, which is a shame because it’s quickly become perhaps one of my favourite crime films so far. I feel like there ought to be more films like this one. Hollywood could definitely use some actually good quality films in its dying years.

  • Score: 83%
  • Grade: B

The Hunters of the Golden Cobra (1982)

golden cobraSteven Spielberg’s classic Raiders of the Lost Ark has seen its fair share of imitators and blatant knock-offs, certainly during the early 80’s when it was fresh. In this case, we have an Italian-made knock-off that plays out like a made-for-TV film. It’s essentially a low-budget knock-off of Indiana Jones, but with only tiny fraction of the charm. It’s pretty silly on the whole, and to be completely honest, it’s not that great of a matinee film, considering how much it looks like a cheaply made carbon copy.

The film’s story, which is set in 1944, involves two textbook action heroes, an typically rugged American solider named Bob Jackson, and a stereotypically British intelligence agent David Franks. Together they’re on a mission in the Philippines to track down an ancient relic called the Golden Cobra, teaming up with a woman searching for her missing sister.

Honestly, there’s not much to say about the story, but it’s a bit jumbled and gets off to a frenetic and silly start. It’s mildly entertaining for a while, but then get into a lot of weird nonsense that seems like it was jammed into the film in order to distinguish it from Indiana Jones, which ultimately fails because the film is so much like Indiana Jones and so cliché-ridden that it’s downright comical. Even the climactic final showdown is rendered impotent by poor choreography.

The characters are pretty much plain stock characters, but they have their quirky moments. Indeed, the British character was so ridiculous that he’s actually moderately funny. However the film is ruined by some terribly bad acting. A lot of the characters come across as remarkably hammy, like they got people who don’t do much acting, and only did one take. It also sounds like they dubbed the voices over the movie. I assume this to be the case, given that the film was originally released in Italy and eventually got an English language release a few years later. I also noticed that there are a number of background characters that look like they don’t really belong in the film, like a sailor who looks a bit like John Candy.

I have to assume the film must have had a low budget, because the film looks cheaply made. I’m not sure, but I think there might have been a few cardboard props. Unique to this film, however, is that sometimes you’ll see a few scenes that are kind of like spaghetti Western scenes (specifically, these are gunplay scenes), just a lot cheesier. Everything in the film is the cheesier version of Indiana Jones, like taking a loving tribute to old school B-movie and turning it into an actual C-movie.

I’m not entirely sure if this film could have been much better, considering it’s basically a knock-off. In other words, this film was clearly pointless. I sometimes wonder why I subject my eyes and ears to films like these, perhaps so you don’t have to. Either way, if only I were paid to this.

  • Score: 48%
  • Grade: D

2LDK (2003)

A few years ago I got the chance to see a film called Aragami. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, it was an experimental film which only involved two actors, each of whom fought each other to the death for over an hour, and it was an amazing film. I learned that Aragami was made as part of the Duel Project, a challenge issued to two directors by producer Shinya Kawai to see who could make the best film with only two principal actors in a single setting in the span of one week. This film is director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s response to that challenge, though while this was certainly an ambitious project, it wasn’t as good as Aragami was.

The film’s plot revolves around two actresses, Nozomi and Rana, who share an apartment in Tokyo. They have auditioned for the same role in a movie, and only one of them can land the role. As they wait through the night to find out which one of them got the part, they wind up tormenting each other until they reach breaking point, and then they battle each other to the death.

I liked the idea of the story, but my main issue was with the pacing and the lack of action in the plot. For the first quarter of the film the two characters do nothing but talk, though as the film progresses tensions rise until they reach boiling point. This slow boil approach isn’t too bad, but there are aspects of the film that don’t make sense. For instance, there are a few instances where one of the characters dies, and in the next scene comes back to life. That said, however, I think the conversation scenes were somewhat interesting, in that they flesh out the characters quite well.

The two actresses deliver a rather neat performance. The characters are still rather strange though, but they successfully convey a sort of aggressive rivalry between them, which eventually turns into a creepy relationship between the two, and they really let loose when they’ve reached the inevitable boiling point, and pointing their rage in unexpected directions. In find that their interactions more or less resemble the twisted, next logical step up from an old slapstick comedy show, though here it’s not supposed to be comedic, so it has a decidedly different effect

The atmosphere is fairly sober, or at least it gets this way overtime. The film certainly starts with a light tone that gets more and more grim until the end. More importantly, the fight choreography is convincingly raw, with the two main characters guided only by adrenalin. I was half expecting the two girls to hate each other as soon as they’re eyes locked together, and then they fought each other for an hour with knives or swords. The direction Tsutsumi went with wasn’t a bad one, though it does leave you wondering about a number of questions that remain unanswered. If the Duel Project was a challenge to see which of two directors could make the best film with limited conditions, I’d say Ryuhei Kitamura was definitely the winner.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C

Last Action Hero (1993)

lastactionheroI’m not surprised that Last Action Hero was maligned by critics back in its day, and is still generally ignored by the public at large today. It was a ludicrously ridiculous action flick in a time when action films were just starting to go out of vogue. Of course, I’m certain this was intended as a satire of Hollywood action films (particularly the ones set in L.A.), and in that spirit it’s certainly more well-produced than a similar film named Loaded Weapon 1 (a cheesy National Lampoon parody of Lethal Weapon). It wasn’t a bad film, but perhaps it was a bit too silly for your average moviegoer.

A big problem is the ridiculousness that is the film’s main premise. A movie-obsessed young boy is given a magic ticket, and he’s somehow transported into the latest entry in the “Jack Slater” series, where he gets to see the world of a badass action hero, and Jack realises that he is just a film character. For me, the film could have been more satirical if the whole film played out like an action film that didn’t always take itself seriously, as opposed to the whole “magic ticket” approach. As it stands however, it’s essentially a matinee film with a goofy plot and wasted potential.

To be fair there’s plenty of humorous moments where the film essentially deconstructs its own genre, but that’s hampered by an often hackneyed script that, sadly, tends to rub off on the characters. Arnold Schwarzenegger still managed to play the lead role effectively, but mainly in his capacity as an action film star. The other characters seem to wilt in the background for the most part, if that is they aren’t hamming their way out of it. One silver lining I can count on is the skilful performance of Charles Dance in the role of the lead villain. A lot of times he unapologetically steals the show, even though he’s not immune to the iniquities of the film’s numerous script problems.

The way I see it, the problem with a setting that gives the characters licence to act like they’re in a Hollywood movie is that they always take it too far. To take this film for what it is requires not so much a suspension of disbelief, but a complete silence of disbelief, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable fantasy films that constantly skirt the issue of suspension of disbelief, often to the point that they risk butchering it, but we still enjoy them. Besides, I kind of like the film’s obvious ridiculousness, which sometimes has a weird comic charm, but I think that comes from the fact that I’m familiar with it (having seen it roughly four times to date).

It also helps that the film had some good production values on its side, but I think they used way too much special effects, which lead to the film having a bloated budget so big that the seemingly plentiful box office returns could be considered a disappoint (a film needs to make more than double its budget to turn a profit, and Last Action Hero costed $85 million to produce).

In terms of ridiculous matinee fair, Last Action Hero isn’t actually as bad as people say it is. I’d say it’s mediocre, but with more than a few good moments. The problem, however, is that the producers wasted a lot of the potential that might have been capitalised on to great effect, and the end result can’t be anything better than a mildly humorous parody film with a choppy script.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

hansel_and_gretel_witch_hunters_There are those who would defend this movie on the basis of it being “pure escapism”, or “unpretentious entertainment”. Did any of the film’s defenders actually sit down and watch it, or did they focus on that scene where one of the characters gets naked? With all seriousness, however, this film was truly awful stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen worse films, but few films could ever expect to sink lower than this dribble. In this regard, the biggest problem is the film’s unbearably hackneyed writing. I’ve seen films with blatantly terrible writing, but let it be known, this film has the absolute worst writing I’ve ever seen.

Back when it was new, the film followed the reprehensible trend of gritty, action-oriented fantasy retellings of public domain stories. In this case, it pretends to be a continuation of the story of Hansel and Gretel, but this film bastardizes the story so badly that it made its own events for before the story (which make so little sense that it’s simply baffling). The script itself is an intense atrocity, but what’s even worse is how the film exploits every possible cliché from the Hollywood playbook, including a drawn out final showdown.

Another thing I noticed is that it seemed as if they were aiming to create a strong female lead working alongside the male lead (not that either are particularly good examples), but the film’s writers, the hacks that they are, bungled the opportunity. Towards the end, the writers figuratively beat her to a bloody pulp so that the lead male could have all the glory in saving the day. It’s truly an example of terrible writing, plagued by shoehorned clichés that are long past their sell by date. It doesn’t help that the characters are played by people who don’t even know how to act.

The other big thing that bothers me is the visuals and props. This film is essentially the unholy lovechild of Van Helsing and Wild Wild West, with deliberately anachronistic weapons, costumes and accents. The action scenes should have been the best part of the film, but instead, they feel so empty and badly done that they serve no purpose other than for the sake of adding in gratuitous violence wherever the writers can. These are all the cries of a truly talentless film-maker as he drowns in his pitiful mediocrity for all eternity, just like this film in all its tawdriness.

I can safely say on behalf of the entire cinema-going public that this goes beyond B-movie territory. In fact, this is the kind of film that belongs on Syfy, or at best Channel 5, rather than the silver screen. I know that Blades of Glory is still worse on a different level, but this film is so deeply mindless and devoid of substance or artistic merit that it shouldn’t exist, nor should I have laid eyes upon it, almost as if reviewing bad movies had at one point become a depressing pastime in my life. It may in fact be the worst action film of all time.

  • Score: 5%
  • Grade: F

The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)

sword_and_the_sorcererposterA lot of American fantasy films back in the 1980’s essentially boiled down to Conan the Barbarian clones, and sadly this film was no exception. As implied by its very title, The Sword and the Sorcerer is basically a by-the-numbers sword-and-sorcery fantasy film, with all the tropes that one might expect, and there isn’t a lot that makes up for it either, save for one rather mediocre gimmick. It wouldn’t have been too bad as a made-for-TV movie, and might have actually been better as a TV show, but as a feature film, it is very underwhelming.

The story of this film sees the fictional, prosperous kingdom of Ehdan being taken over by the brutal despot Titus Cromwell, who uses the power of the sorcerer Xusia of Delos to take over the kingdom with little opposition. Years later, a young mercenary named Talos, who wields a three-bladed sword that can fire off its extra blades with the push of a button, discovers that he was a prince of Ehdan, and takes on a quest to help the princess Alana rescue her brother Mikah and restore the kingdom, and exchange he will have one night in bed with her.

It is pretty much typical a fantasy yarn, but if there’s anything good about it, it would be the fact that it’s only 99 minutes long, and that’s not saying much, considering the film’s meandering pace. The story is boring, but it’s not tastelessly bad. It’s the kind of writing I would probably expect from a TV show, which is a shame because I haven’t seen many TV shows like it. Not even the few interesting twists (and believe me, there are) can save a mediocre plot from the clutches of its own mediocrity. Also, the three-bladed sword literally across as a pointless gimmick. I’m a connoisseur of fantasy, and even I can’t suspend my disbelief for this, and if a sword that fires extra blades like missiles doesn’t convince a fantasy nut, you know you’ve failed.

The characters aren’t too convincing either. The hero of the story comes across as the producers’ attempt at creating a knock-off Han Solo and failing. Given that the man playing him, Lee Horsley, had plenty of experience as a TV actor, his character might have worked better on TV than on film. I can say the same thing for the other characters, who seem to have been written rather lazily as clichéd stock characters. The acting is fairly decent, but it’s the at least they’re trying kind of acting, and it’s not that hard to tell in this film.

The special effects aren’t too bad, but they aren’t exactly stellar either. The film looks and sounds like a made-for-TV production, just with a bigger budget than most. The music sounds rather generic, but then, the action scenes have the same quality, with an added air of ridiculousness. How am I meant to believe that the hero, after being crucified, can muster up the strength to free himself without causing unbearable pain to himself? All in all, while not a terrible disaster of a film, it certainly wasn’t very good either, and it seems more like a disservice to a genre already stuffed with cheap genre films.

  • Score: 58%
  • Grade: D

Mr. Vampire (1985)

MrVampirePosterAs far as vampire-related films go, this film is definitely a rare species. Though not as compelling as others, this one is definitely more bizarre than many others, and is certainly a hilarious alternative. Apparently popular enough to spawn a line of sequels and spin-offs, and though its not the first of its kind, the film’s popularity effectively kickstarted a trend of Chinese comedy-horror films. Though it essentially plays out like a genre film, it takes its chosen genre in a creative and interesting way.

The film’s story is themed around the jiangshi – the hopping corpses in Chinese folklore that are sometimes described as vampires. In the film, a Taoist priest named Master Kau is given the task of removing the father of a wealthy businessman and rebury it. However, the exhumed body reawakens as a savage hopping corpse, threatening the safety of the other villagers, so it’s up to Master Kau and his two inept disciples to stop the bloodthirsty corpse.

When I first saw the hopping corpses I thought they were part of the comedy, until I read up about the folklore and this began to make sense. Of course, the way the hopping corpses are depicted is hilarious. The story is pretty much written much like a typical horror film, but in a very irreverent way. I saw a review where this film is compared to one of my more recent picks, A Chinese Ghost Story, where the reviewer say that Mr. Vampire is more demented by comparison, and that would certainly be accurate. The story is a bit muddled, but it’s mainly action-driven, with a blend of slapstick humour and martial arts, and its packaged neatly into a fast-paced film.

Right off the bat, the characters come across as goofy, but then, I think I ought to blame the badly translated subtitles, some of which were hilarious anyway. The acting is already, and the performances are suitably camp, which kind of works for this film for some reason. From what I can tell, the actors weren’t necessarily trying to be serious, and that’s the point. It’s not necessarily a serious horror film, in fact it’s irreverent tone is what makes this film so enjoyable in the first place.

The only thing I criticise would be the special effects, which look pretty cheap, or maybe it aged badly, or maybe its quality I’ve seen the film at (note to self, I should stop using low-quality videos online for too long). In a way, the special effects sort of add to the comedy, but if you’re a fan of the frenetic craziness of Hong Kong action films, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the film’s ably choreographed action scenes, which are very typical of this kind of film. All in all, I’m not as much of a fanatic about this film as others are, I did enjoy the film, if mainly because of its silly take on vampire horror, and the charmingly irreverent way in which this unique approach was executed.

  • Score: 69%
  • Grade: C

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

chineseghoststoryTonight’s film of choice is a peculiar one, in that it’s not a film you can easily put into a box. If you believe Wikipedia then this is a horror film, but although it has horror elements, it’s not quite a horror film. It’s more like a romantic folklore-based fantasy with a humorous touch. That’s about the best way I can describe it, and it’s actually quite a good film. Unabashedly original and teeming with flair, this film is perhaps a very good choice for those who get a good kick out of well-done fantasy. In other words, this is my sort of film.

The story revolves around a man named Ning Tsai-Shen, a debt collector who arrives in a small town to carry out his job. Of course, nobody gives him shelter for the night when it rains, so he spends the night in a haunted temple. While there, a Taoist swordsman, Yin Che-Hsia, warns him to stay out of trouble, and he also meets a beautiful woman named Nieh Hsiao-Tsing, who he falls in love with. However, she is a ghost bound for all eternity to serve an evil tree demon for as long as she remains buried near the tree.

In all honesty, I think the premise reads like an interesting tale, keeping in mind that this isn’t an overly serious film. Of course, since the film was released in Hong Kong, it was nice that I found a subtitled version, and the translations were actually quite consistent, though I don’t know if they were necessarily accurate. In terms of substance, the film’s intermittent comedic approach seems to help the film, since I don’t really believe it’s a horror film, not if it has upbeat music on the title screen.

Regarding the characters, I think the actors performed rather well. The main actors did a good job, though I think the best performance came from the man who played the swordsman Yin, if mainly because of the hilarious musical number he does in the middle of the film. It seems like it would be jarring, but it’s so ridiculous that it actually scored big laughs from this reviewer.

The film’s speciality is definitely presentation. There’s certainly plenty of stylish set pieces, and the film’s flair maintains a constant presence throughout. The special effects were actually quite good, and compared to other similar films I’ve been seeing over the past two months, its a marked improvement. Added to that would be lovely musical score, along with the typical Hong Kong-style action choreography, which comes into play irregularly, but it’s evident that the producers implemented them with care.

All in all, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but its certainly a film you ought to see, with its unusual blend of romance, comedy, action and horror elements into a film that’s one of a kind. At any rate, I certainly enjoyed the film, both for its serious and its less than serious qualities, and I would strongly recommend it for any serious film buff.

  • Score: 75%
  • Grade: B

Mo (1983)

600full-the-boxer's-omen-posterI don’t quite know what to make of this film, which I must say is more than meets the eye. It’s more like an action movie than a straight-up horror film, and its certainly an interesting and abstract specimen. Apparently the film has a reputation for being one of the more bizarre films to be produced by the Shaw brothers, and in many ways it lives up to that reputation. However, I felt kind of flustered by the film’s direction and inconsistent pacing, and ultimately the film was a bit too scattershot for it to be a truly effective horror film.

The film revolves around the quest of a boxer seeking to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of a corrupt boxer, and then gets caught up in an intricate web of religion and magic. I’ve heard that this is a follow-up to another Shaw brothers film called Bewitched, but I haven’t really found much corroborating information. It also appears to be the kind of film that’s so bizarre that reading into it its abstraction is a task on its own.

The film opens much like a revenge film, but then it turns into a horror film, and turns from that into a supernatural adventure film. The first problem right away is the film’s inconsistency. The plot was actually quite decent, but it suffered from sloppy pacing, and inconsistent writing. There’s a certain level of craziness I’m willing to tolerate before I start to think “dude, this is making absolutely no sense”.

What strikes me is the fact that the producers apparently couldn’t decide whether they were making a horror film or an action/adventure film, and so they ultimately tried for a film that was both, but without integrating the two seemingly disparate genres in an effective or even cohesive fashion. Added to that is the characters. Thankfully the film came with subtitles that, from the looks of it, were decently translated (not that I’m any authority on translating from foreign languages), but the characters weren’t exactly gripping, and the acting, well, let’s just say that’s one of the reasons why the film tends to be more of an accidental comedy. The other reason would be the number of insane plot twists and supernatural special effects.

The film is loaded with amusing special effects that are put to good use in depicting some of the magical creatures in the film. Sadly, the fact that they often resemble figures from a Ray Harryhausen film is a source of accidental humour, and seems to reinforce the impression of an abstract film with no real direction. The sad part is that it could have worked, and I can’t help but think that they should have pitched this as a comedy film, or at least a less than serious horror film. It certainly wasn’t very convincing as a horror film, and not much more convincing as an action film. Don’t get me wrong, it is entertaining, but for the wrong reasons.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C