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Hu hao shuang xing (1976)
Run-of-the-mill chopsocky production
Even with fight choreography by Liu Chia-yung, "The Savage Killers" marked a steep plunge into mediocrity for former superstar Wang Yu. Having been the top banana in Hong Kong's first million-dollar grossing film ("The One-Armed Swordsman") for Shaw Brothers Studio and then putting its emerging rival Golden Harvest on the map, Wang was directing himself in independently-produced Taiwanese cheapies by the middle of the Me Decade. This film, a standard revenge melodrama in which practitioners of the tiger and crane styles join forces to defeat a common foe, is representative of the downward trend of its star's career: the fight scenes are competent but short and uninspired, and Wang looks like he'd rather be somewhere else. Liu Chia-yung does double duty in a supporting role, while Lung Fei's broad, mustache-twirling portrayal of the villain is the film's only real bright spot. (Future "Five Deadly Venoms" star Kuo Chui, aka Philip Kwok, has a very small bit part; blink and you'll miss him.) Four and a half stars.
The Boogey Man (1980)
Neat little film with an interesting pulp horror premise
"The Boogey Man" won't change your life, but if you've got eighty minutes to fill on a lazy summer evening, you could do a lot worse. The story revolves around pretty, charismatic Suzanna Love and her brother, who suddenly find themselves tormented by memories of a traumatic past. When they were children, the brother killed their mother's abusive lover...who comes back to haunt the siblings in just about the oddest conceivable manner. Derivative in spots, with a few subpar performances, but Love ably carries this relentlessly eerie film; horror icon John Carradine has a cameo as a psychiatrist who tries to convince our heroine that there is a rational explanation for the increasingly strange events in her life. Not the stuff of classics, but pretty good of its type.
The Skull (1965)
Flawed but interesting chiller based on a story by Robert Bloch
"The Skull" is an atmospheric--if somewhat monotonous--vehicle for Peter Cushing, the Gentleman of British Horror and my favorite star of fright films. He plays a collector of occult objects whose shady, unscrupulous dealer (Patrick Wymark) offers to sell him the ultimate rarity: the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Naturally, Cushing is unable to resist...but he soon realizes that something within the skull is still very much alive, and exerting a murderous influence over him. Director Freddie Francis surrounds Cushing with an exceptionally able supporting cast (including Christopher Lee as a fellow collector of morbidities and Michael Gough as an auctioneer), but pacing is a major problem in this film: there are lengthy, dialogue-free stretches during which the viewer will find his attention wandering. This renders "The Skull" less than entirely effective as a horror flick, but the tense, disturbing dream sequence midway through makes it worth seeing. Terrific off-kilter cinematography by John Wilcox, and a nail-biting Elisabeth Lutyens score. Six and a half stars.
Unflinchingly grim look at the seamy side of stardom
Allen Coulter's "Hollywoodland" is a fine film which people have invented all kinds of silly reasons to dislike. Chief among them, of course, is that the mystery of George Reeves's death remains unresolved. (Never mind that the particulars of the "Adventures of Superman" star's demise are still being debated as hotly in real life as they are in the movie: audiences crave a tidy ending above all else.) But this film is not a murder mystery in the generally accepted sense of the term; nor is it a conventional period piece. It's a movie with an overtly ethical message and a dark, tragic tone to match, like a Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald novel. Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins give powerful, impressive performances, and even the smaller roles are perfectly cast: Jeffrey DeMunn is especially memorable as Reeves's gentle, kindhearted agent. If you enjoy "Hollywoodland" as much as I do, you'll immediately want to see it again. If you balk after the first half-hour and turn your attention to a video game, well...I think you're missing out on a deeply worthwhile film. Just one reviewer's opinion.
Sugata Sanshirô (1943)
Generally strong debut from Kurosawa
"Sanshiro Sugata" is a martial arts film with a conscience. It falls a little flat in places, but is for the most part a solid debut from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa's approach to his craft, which later won him global renown with masterpieces like "Rashomon" and "The Seven Samurai", is already evident in this story of a young man who begins his journey as an awkward, uncertain student, becomes a bullying hellion, and finally assumes the status of a champion judoka who has learned to fight honorably. Susumu Fujita is convincingly green and inexperienced as Sugata, and Ryunosuke Tsukigata cuts an imposing figure as his arch-opponent, Higaki; their climactic confrontation on a windswept mountainside is one of the truly great moments in martial arts cinema. If you've watched and enjoyed Kurosawa's more famous films, check out "Sanshiro Sugata" to see where it all began. Seven and a half stars.
Engrossing concert film
It's hard to find fault with "Celebration Day", Dick Carruthers's document of Led Zeppelin's reunion concert on December 10, 2007. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham play just about every song you'd expect to hear (unless you were counting on a selection from Zep's final studio album "In Through the Out Door"), from 'Stairway to Heaven' to 'Whole Lotta Love', and even manage a deft first-time live rendition of 'For Your Life'. There are a few shaky moments but, to the band's credit, these were not corrected with overdubs; for the majority of the two-hour show, everybody's in top form. By the time they launch into 'Kashmir', Led Zeppelin are firing on all cylinders, and the grandeur of their performance is such that the 27 years which had elapsed between the group's last full-length concert and this one simply evaporate. It's a stunning moment to witness, even for those of us who weren't there in person. My only beef with "Celebration Day" is that the bass guitar is often buried in the mix: John Paul Jones's doomy intro on 'Dazed and Confused' sounds like it's coming from miles away. Jones, and the song, deserve better.
Long hu zheng ba (1981)
Workmanlike kung fu film that's pretty good for Bruceploitation
The Bruce Lee imitators were old news by the time this film was made, which meant that director Lin Kuo-hsiang could focus on actually making a movie and not just an assemblage of motifs in which the fighting is almost incidental. Bruce Le is simply 'David', a taciturn figure who struts through the era of Sun Yat-sen in a polyester disco suit (with a talking parrot on his shoulder, believe it or not, and an ultimately treacherous girlfriend named Fanny). Initially, he and Wang Piao (Bill Louie, who co-starred with Jackie Chan's real-life sifu, Yu Chan-yuan, in "The Old Master") are at odds with one another, but finally they team up to foil a plot to steal funds from the Chinese Nationalists. When I say that "Bruce vs. Bill" is workmanlike, I mean that the script and direction are tolerable, and that the fights are adequately choreographed. There's absolutely nothing exceptional about the action in this film, but that's strangely comforting for lifelong fans of chop-socky. You expect stolid heroes, big, mean-looking villains and numerous battles to the death, and that's what you get here. (Best fight: Bill Louie against the snarling, paunchy bald guy at the end of the movie. It gets downright brutal when they scuffle their way into what looks like a primitive water treatment facility.) Average by most standards, but above par for a Bruceploitation flick. Five and a half stars.
Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)
One of Adamson's worst
Nobody watches an Al Adamson film in the expectation of seeing a masterpiece, but he occasionally rose above the schlock margin to craft a neat little flick ("Nurse Sherri") or at least a couple of interesting scenes ("Blood of Ghastly Horror"). "Dracula vs. Frankenstein", however, was not one of those occasions. Producer Samuel M. Sherman has noted that this is the most popular of the many horror and exploitation films that he and Adamson made together, and I have no reason to doubt him...but god, it's one jumbled mess of a movie. Mute, sweaty Lon Chaney Jr. and glass-eyed J. Carrol Naish looking as old and sickly as they were, Anthony Eisley in ludicrous hippie garb, a Dracula (Zandor Vorkov) with all the charisma of a garden hose, and the absolute worst-ever makeup job for Frankenstein's Monster (played by two different actors, John Bloom and Shelly Weiss): these are just a few of the tidbits that will delight fans of grade-Z cinema. It has in spades the vibe that permeates all of Adamson's work, but "Dracula vs. Frankenstein" lacks a certain something which the director was able to conjure from time to time.
Dead Men Walk (1943)
Poverty Row silliness
"Dead Men Walk" would not qualify as a great film in any universe, but with a bigger budget it might have been worth seeing more than once. George Zucco plays twin brothers, one a straight arrow and the other a black sheep who tinkers with the occult; the straight arrow kills his evil twin, who is resurrected as a vampire with the help of his bug-eyed servant (Dwight Frye). Predictable horror shenanigans ensue. If you've seen the dour, dignified Zucco in any of his more lavishly-budgeted pictures, like "Dr. Renault's Secret" or "The Mad Ghoul", then you know that he was perfectly capable of carrying a film...but "Dead Men Walk" refuses to be carried. It's shabby-looking, packed with the kind of tight shots favored by Poverty Row studios and which made their films look as if they'd been lensed in a single corner of someone's tiny house. The dialogue is conspicuously purple, even for a horror flick, and occasionally almost schizophrenic: in one breath a character solemnly reflects on "vampires lying in unholy repose, their teeth stained with the blood of the living", but drawls, "Shucks! I'm scared as the dickens!" in the next. (I'm not quoting directly from the film, but I'm not far off, either.) The acting is competent but utterly lacks conviction; even Dwight Frye is phoning it in. These folks were making a stinker and they knew it.
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
Enjoyable if you're not expecting fidelity to the source material...
...And since A.) the source material is a story by H.P. Lovecraft, and B.) the film was made in 1965, there's absolutely no way that anyone would expect a faithful adaptation, right? "Die, Monster, Die!" is so ridiculously un-Lovecraftian that it makes Roger Corman's Poe films look like exact replicas of the tales on which they were based, but you can't go wrong if you approach it in the spirit of fun. It's an AIP monster flick, after all, and the presence of Boris Karloff lends it considerably more dignity than it would otherwise have had. Nick Adams and Suzan Farmer are adequate as the obligatory young-couple-in-peril, while Frieda Jackson and Patrick Magee are on hand to bring an extra touch of British class to the proceedings. What remains of Lovecraft's classic story 'The Colour Out of Space' is the meteor and its frightening effects; everything else was concocted by screenwriter Jerry Sohl, but you'll have a good time anyhow (and that's coming from a staunch HPL fan). "Die, Monster, Die!" was Corman set designer Daniel Haller's first film as a director.