Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot - Voyage Into Space

                                                Director: Minoru Yamada
                                      Starring: Mitsunobu Kaneko, Akio Ito

We all have things that we grew up with as kids that we retain a certain nostalgic affection for, be it a favorite toy, a place we liked going to,a particular song, maybe even a breakfast cereal. For me, it was all about television and being a child of the 1970s (the early 70s, that is), there were some interesting options. Saturday mornings were dominated by Sid and Marty Kroft with the likes of Puff n Stuff, Lidsville and especially Land of the Lost. But the real fun was to be had weekday afternoons. This is where a selection of English dubbed Japanese imports were flooding the airwaves. There were cartoons like Kimba, Speed Racer and Marine Boy. But even more interesting (well, for me) were the live actions shows. Ultraman was the most popular as well as The Space Giants (aka Ambassador Magma). But out of all of these shows, the one that left the most indelible impression and the one that I feel the greatest nostalgic affection for was a program called Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot (aka Giant Robot).

Created by Mitsuteru Yokoyama (who had previously created the similarly themed Tetsujin 28 aka Gigantor) for Toei in 1967, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot in it's English form, told of the evil alien Emperor Guillotine and his Gargoyle Gang. Their objective (wait for it): to conquer Earth. They forced an American (German perhaps?) scientist to build a hundred foot tall robot to assist them in their conquest. However, the remote control (located inside a wristwatch) falls into the hands of a ten year old kid (played by the late child actor Mitsunobu Kaneko who had previously starred in Akuma Kun). With the robot now under his control, he joins a local, slightly futuristic group of fighters/secret agents called Unicorn. In each of the 26 episodes, The Unicorns foil the Gargoyles plans while Johnny has the robot battle whatever giant monster that Guillotine and his minions bring forth.

Looking back on it now with (slightly) more adult eyes, I see just how cheap and ridiculous this show was. It was Toei's attempt to compete with Toho's more popular Ultraman, but on less than 1/5 the budget. It's amazing that such an ambitious program was even attempted under that much restriction. The traveling mattes are the worst I have ever seen and apparently only a dozen or so monster costumes were created and then repeated (with only the slightest of changes) for the remaining episodes. The plots were also pretty brainless. The Unicorns always got caught or tricked not because The Gargoyles were so clever (they weren't) but because the Unicorns were so extraordinarily stupid. Then The Unicorns would escape only through the incredible carelessness of The Gargoyles. Maybe not so obvious when seen as a five year old, but plenty obvious for... well anyone over five...

Still, there are three major things about the show which has kept it as the strongest of childhood memories. First and foremost was the robot itself. It was a terrific, totally no-nonsense creation. Originally, the head was to resemble that of a samurai, but the weight of it was too much for the actor inside to keep steady. As a result, the sides were shaved down considerably until it more resembled the Egyptian Sphinx. For me that robot was it, the greatest thing ever. And that "Mosh" sound it makes when going into action entered into the subconcious permanently. The second was the idea of this giant, nearly idestructible robot being under the control of a small boy. What youngin' couldn't relate to something like that?! The third reason? Violence! Unlike Ultraman, this show contained a jaw dropping amount of human violence. Because ray guns with animated beams couldn't be afforded, machine guns were used in their place! Most episodes featured dozens of lackeys from both sides being (bloodlessly) gunned down. Even Johnny himself is shot in the final episode (he ends up being O.K. though)! The censors must have been been napping off big time, because none of it was cut. Plus the most unheard of aspect of all, the robot dies, kamikaze style in the final episode! WTF?! I'm pretty sure that many lil' tykes out there were utterly traumatized by it because after a few runs (at least in my area) the last episode was pulled from the air.

Released by AIP in the U.S. in 1969 to limited markets, the show went national in 1971 (which is when I first saw it) and became a huge favorite here; bigger even than in it's country of origin. To help promote it, in 1970 AIP edited five episodes together (including the first and last) to create a made for T.V movie called Voyage Into Space (a real head scratcher of a title since the entire series took place on Earth). This provided the introduction to the show for many viewers (I was too young when the movie version first ran and caught it a couple of years later). For these fans, Voyage Into Space has become quite a cult item with many having even fonder memories of it in this incarnation than as a series.

Now, nearly forty years later and despite the inherent goofiness of it all, I can still watch Johnny Sokko and Voyage Into Space with the kind of (admittedly self conscious) thrill that could only be afforded by something with so strong a nostalgic value. Ah, sweet memories...

                                              **** / **** (Nostalgia Rating)

Friday, April 22, 2011

13 Poles From Shaolin (aka War of the Shaolin Temple)

                                                Director: Lin Dah Tsao
               Starring:  Chen Kin Cheung, Chan Kian Ching,  Chan Kian Ho, Mark Long

The year was 1987 and I found myself roaming around in my local mom and pop run video store (remember those?). As always, I checked out the martial arts section first. At that particular time, I was starting to get just a little burned out on Chinese kung fu movies, having watched nearly three hundered in the past two years alone. Plus, I had recently been burned by a few really lousy titles and wasn't in the mood to get burned again. But I learned that the store had a few new ones in this week (courtesy of Ocean Shores Video) and I figured I'd give them a glance. The one that caught my eye was titled War of the Shaolin Temple (which I later found out was originally titled 13 Poles From Shaolin). I decided to throw down my two bucks and bring it home. I'm glad I did.

Lensed in Taiwan in 1980, 13 Poles From Shaolin is a Sung Dynasty saga detailing a young fighter named Wang Ng Lung who retrieves the Sung Emperor's Seal from invading Manchu General Chao Ming and hides at Shaolin Temple. There he becomes a monk and learns martial arts, but gets no help from the head Abbott who wants nothing to do with ouside conflict. However, the Manchus aren't far behind. Chao Ming has been looking for a reason to destroy Shaolin and it's 3,000 fighting monks and sees this as a perfect opportunity.

Director Lin Dah Tsao takes this otherwise well worn story and infuses it with great pacing and a high energy level, making this one of the best independently made kung fu movies. The film deftly meshes it's basically very serious tone with comedic elements that do not exist for their own sake. This especially works during the sequence where our hero visits the "crazy monk", an ex Abbott who has gone rougue and spends his time in a cave mixing wine. Wang cleverly tricks him into teaching him his unique martial arts style. The scenes featuring the two of them are surprisingly charming and well handled. Sure, it veers into silliness, but not overly so.

Then there's the fight choreography. Simply put, this has some of the very best late seventies style kung fu fighting that I've seen. The forms are terrific and the battles are gripping. Chen Kin Cheung makes for a good hero and veteran genre fave Mark Long (Seven Grandmasters, Mystery of Chess Boxing) makes for a formidable villian. Aside from Long, most of the cast are made up of relative unknowns, but all are good actors and tremendous fighters. One exceptionally recognizable face is that of the late Chiang Sheng. Sheng apparently took a hiatus from the "Venom Mob" series and returned home to Taiwan to film a brief, but very welcome cameo.

Interestingly, this terrific low budget epic seems to have served as the basis for the film, The Shaolin Temple. This was The People's Republic of China's first martial arts film from 1981 and featured the debut of a very young Jet Li. Though that film has gone on to be revered among martial arts movie enthusists, I always found this bigger budgeted epic to be less impressive and entertaining then the film it was seemingly influenced by.

13 Poles From Shaolin (the title referring to a special group of staff weilding monks that our hero joins) is great, rousing entertainment. If you like your Shaolin tales, this one's as good as it gets.

                                                           ***1/2 / ****

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tarkan Altin Madalyon (Tarkan and the Golden Medallion)

                                                 Director: Mehmet Asian
                                         Starring: Kartal Tibet, Eva Bender

This wasn't the first Turkish film I saw (hell, it wasn't even the first Tarkan film), but it is the one that first sparked my interest in the wild and crazed world of Turkish pop cinema of the 70s. As I mentioned in my review of Battal Gazi Geliyor, I was first introduced to Turkish films roughly ten years ago thanks to Pete Tombs' absolutely essential book, Mondo Macabro. It was his chapter devoted to Turkey that really sent my head spinning. Of all the bizarre sounding films that he wrote about, it was the Tarkan films that for some reason I was most interested in seeing.

Tarkan first appeared in a local comic book. He was a medieval warrior who was raised by wolves, whom he came to regard as his family. He basically was a cross between Conan the Barbarian and Hercules (or Machiste). There were plenty of supernatural elements that played well into the stories and helped establish Tarkan as a big time comic cult hero.

It only made sense that a film series should follow. There were five films made between 1969 and 1972 (though I should point out that I heard from at least one source that there may have been as many as seven) with the stories getting wilder and more intensely psychotronic with each entry. This one, 1972's Tarkan and the Golden Medallion was the fourth in the series and is probably the most extreme of the bunch.

The story (or at least as much as I'm able to make of it since it has yet to be subtitled) involves an evil, yet decidely goofy Ceaser-like king who uses an occultist to revive an ancient witch/sorceress in order to (I assume) help rule the land. To accomplish this (in the film's eyebrow raising opening scene), a nun and a topless dancer are kidnapped and brought and tied to a secret altar. They are both stabbed, with the collective bloodletting reviving the witch. Enter our ever stoic, sword wielding hero, Tarkan who along with his faithful wolf, Kurt (portrayed by a friendly looking German Sheppard, complete with obviously phony overdubbed barking) investigates the nasty goings on. On this particular adventure, he is aided by what appears to be an acrobat troup with whom he first has a somewhat playful bout (probably to initially confuse the audience as to whether they are friend or foe). The highlight here is Tarkan's first encounter with the witch. He passes out from her (genuinely scary) stare and finds himself ensnared in a giant spider web. This is probably the most memorable moment in the entire series.

Tarkan was played in all five (?) films by Kartal Tibet. Tibet was an established leading man who turned his attention toward action roles, both modern and period. This role became an iconic one for Tibet, along the lines of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. After his acting career wound down, he turned his attention toward directing with equally successful results.

The role of the witch/sorceress went to Swedish actress Eva Bender. Bender had a twenty year career in Turkish films and had last appeared in the previous film in this series, Tarkan Viking Kani (Tarkan and the Blood of the Vikings, aka Tarkan vs the Vikings). In that film, she portrayed a "good" female viking who aids Tarkan in his battle against a legion of "bad" male vikings. In this film, she is given a larger and certainly more eye opening role. She essentially owns this film and is not shy about baring it all. One scene in particular finds our hero a captive of the baddies. Bender's witch does some sort of ritualistic dance, completely in the buff. The scene is equally arousing and... kind of awkward. In real life, she reportedly is married to Turkish filmmaker Halit Refig.

Filled with some particularly freaky imagery and punctuated with sloppily silly, yet highly energetic action and swordplay, Tarkan and the Golden Medallion makes for a true Turkish delight for those who are game.

*Rewind Alert* during the final battle in a castle, there is a subplot involving a captured child who is rescued by the acrobat troup. This is accomplished by one member tossing the hapless kid across the room to another. It appeared as though the second acrobat missed and the kid was sent head first to the ground! The scene cuts just a mili-second before his cranium makes contact with the concrete! I found myself laughing in total disbelief... and then rather ashamed of myself for doing so.

                                                          ***1/2 / ****

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Duel to the Death

                                              Director: Ching Siu Tung
                         Starring: Lau Chung Yan, Tsui Siu Keung, Eddie Ko


This is one of my favorite martial arts movies and maybe the definitive Chinese vs. Japanese swordplay film.

1982 marked a turning point in Hong Kong cinema where modern day action comedies were starting to become all the rage and period kung fu movies were being fazed out. Leading the way in this movement was Golden Harvest and their big name stars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Local audiences were simply tired of "old school" martial arts epics at this point (despite some great ones still being cranked out at rival Shaw Bros. studio).  This film, Duel to the Death was to be yet another in the long list of period actioners. In fact, it's basic story of good Chinese vs. bad Japanese fighters is one of the oldest cliches in the genre. Feeling they had little to lose, G.H. turned the reigns over to first time director, Ching Siu Tung. Ching had acted in many a kung fu movie over the years, usually as second lead fighter or occasionally comedy relief. For his directorial debut, Ching proved to be a visionary and transformed what would have been just another kung fu flick into a wild, amazing, visual phantasmagoria. A kind of throwback to the sword films of the sixties, Duel to the Death combined the best of both those films and the empty handed fight fests that were to follow. It also threw in what was then something new to Chinese films, Japanese Ninja! In fact, this has some of the best Ninja action I've ever seen in a kung fu movie (rivaled only by the Shaws' Five Element Ninja from the same year). Highlights include ninja on kites and a giant, twenty foot ninja that (in true psychedelic fashion) breaks up into several, normal sized ones.

The story involves a fabled duel that takes place every ten years between China's and Japan's top martial artists. Word gets around that there is a kindnapping plot and it is up to the top Chinese swordsman (played by Lau Chung Yan) and Japan's number one samurai (played by Tsui Siu Keung) to get to the bottom of it.

The two lead actors generally play well off each other, but Tsui's samurai comes off as much more charismatic than his stoic, almost expressionless counterpart. Hard to tell whether this is due to the two performers themslves or merely the way the characters were drawn.

The only disappointment I felt was the lead in to the final battle. Not to give too much away, but after all they'd been through, it seemed like our two heroes had put their er, differences behind them. The way it plays out made it seem like a cheap excuse to film their ultimate one on one battle. But that's a minor quibble and the finale (filmed on and around a cliff and mountain top) is simply one of the most incredible sword duels ever committed to celluloid. It is at once, both breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly brutal and bloody. It says something that with all of the amazing moments that came before, this final one on one confrontation is still the most memorable thing to be found here.

Needless to say, Duel to the Death is a must see.

Ching Siu Ting would go on to have a long career as one of Hong Kong's most visionary directors. He teamed with Producer Tsui Hark for the even more visually arresting cult favorite, A Chinese Ghost Story.

                                                             **** / ****

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Virgins of the Seven Seas (aka Enter the 7 Virgins) (aka The Bod Squad)

Director: Kuei Chih Hung/Ernst Hofbauer. Kuei
Starring: Sonja Jeannine, Diana Drube, Tamara Elliot, Gillian Bray,Deborah Ralls

Oh, those naughty Shaw Brothers...

The mid 70s was an interesting period for the Shaws. Having had already hooked up with England's Hammer studio for Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires and Shatter, Sir Run Run and Runme decide to follow it up with this 1974 East German co-production that mixes martial arts, sex, nudity and a decidedly goofy atmosphere to produce a true one of a kind experience.

In the film, five Western women (not seven as indicated by the British retitling) are kidnapped by Chinese pirates and sold to a brothel. They are rigorously "trained" and brought at night to The King for "entertaimnment". Two locals take mercy on them and help plot their escape while teaching them various useful martial arts tricks, the highlight of which is using pits as projectile weapons. The training sequences (both sex and combat) are jaw dropping in their "matter of fact" presentation.

This is an odd mixture of light comedy and somewhat darker soft core nudity that is usually seen in WIP type films. This undoubtedly is due to the fact that two very different directors are credited; Kuei Chih Hung and Ernst Hofbauer. Kuei would direct some rather unorhodox kung fu films like Coward Bastard and Killer Constable. Hofbauer is credited for the popular Schoolgirl Report series. Exactly who directed what here is unclear, but it works despite (or maybe because of) some noticeable shifts in tone.

The five actresses (Sonja Jeannine, Diana Drube, Tamara Elliot, Gillian Bray and Deborah Ralls) who make up the Virgins of the title (though as it's discovered, only three of them have yet to be deflowered) are all not only extremely easy on the eyeballs, but also are a surprisingly personable group who (aside from the nastier abuse scenes) appear to be genuinely enjoying themselves (of course, who knows if they actually were). At least two of them appear to actually know martial arts which is unusual for white actresses. The one who stands out among the five is the leader (played by Bray), a six foot tall brunette actress who simply will not go along with anything the nasty King and his minions have planned for them. Her character is shown as tough and sexually dominant and it is no coincidence that she is the only one of the five who does not suffer some sort of physical degradation.

Veteran Hong Kong actor/fighters Yueh Hua and Lau Wai Ling give very good support as the brother and sister pair who help the Virgins escape and ultimately get revenge. The two actors lend a notably strong, stoic presence considering all the shenanigans that go on.

All in all, Virgins of the Seven Seas adds up to wild, gleefully wrongminded entertainment. Now if only someone could locate the five Virgins themselves for interviews and behind the scenes info. A dvd commentary by them would certaintly be interesting...

                                                       *** / ****

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Return of Daimajin (aka Return of Giant Majin)

                                                   Director: Kenji Musumi
                                       Starring: Kjiro Hingo, Shiho Fujimura


First just to get it out of the way, this is actually the second in the Daimajin trilogy. The company that released them in America "A.D. Vision" had apparently swapped the second and third titles by mistake, titling this one "Wrath..." and the third one "Return" when it should be the other way around. Aargh! O.K. now on to our story...

In 1966, Daiei (Gamera's home studio) embarked on an expensive and ambitious trilogy of period films that were variations of The Golem legend. Each (free standing) film told the story of an evil Warlord suppressing his people only to have them avenged by a giant samurai statue that comes dramatically to life in the final twenty minutes.

Essentially it was three variations of the same story, with each film reinterpreting the legend. This second version was the one that impressed me the most. It has the strongest religious overtones as Majin is literally referred to as "God". At the climax, the High Priestess is tied up, Crucefix style and set ablaze while her followers are made to watch helplessly (like I said, the Warlord is a real S.O.B.). Then, the lake begins to stir (the statue had earlier been blown to pieces, it's head sent sailing into said lake). The once inanimate statue rises and comes to life by placing it's clenched hands over it's face, revealing a furious blue faced visage (this stern, cleft chinned face was reportedly modeled on actor Kirk Douglas!). The waters part around him ala The Ten Commandments and he proceeds to rescue the Priestess and lay waste of the Warlord and his samurai.

The film was directed by the venerable Kenji Misumi who lensed (among many, many others) four of the six Lone Wolf and Cub/Baby Cart features (all six of which are personal favorites) as well as a good many of the Zatoichi films. He brings his customary high style and grace to the proceedings always keeping the story moving at a good pace (no mean feet considering the convoluted nature of the story and the many characters that inhabit it).

The very impressive finale featured strong special effects work by Yoshiyuki  Kuroda and was puncuated by what may be the most majestic score of master composer Akira Ifukube's career (and that's saying something). Incidentally, the actor in the Majin costume was Riki Hashimoto who would later play the main Japanese baddie in Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury.

For the clip below, I chose a still picture that ultizes maestro Ifukube's full, uninterrupted score. Even now, listening to this intense theme causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand.

                                                            ***1/2 / ****