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BLACK VENUS, IT, THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY, TIDELAND, THE HOT ROCK, DIAMONDS OF KILAMANDJARO, GOLDEN TEMPLE AMAZONS, THE HIRED HAND, DAY OF THE JACKAL, and DUCKMAN THE COMPLETE SERIES

Friday, July 8, 2011

13 ASSASSINS: SAMURAI FILM AT ITS BEST

I’ve always loved martial arts films, perhaps because I grew up when Bruce Lee was all the rage. Having seen him on TV in THE GREEN HORNET and then in a theater with the greatest martial arts film of all time, ENTER THE DRAGON, I was hooked. It wasn’t until later that I had the chance to see a film genre similar to this, the samurai film. Made popular by director Akira Kurosawa, the films were similar in that they came from an Asian country and featured action figures prone to skilled violence. But samurai films offered something else.

Instead of the usual high leaps, swinging arms and 2x4 slapping sound effects, they offered deeper stories. Two in particular caught the eyes of other directors who turned them into westerns. THE SEVEN SAMURAI was westernized into THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and YOJIMBO became A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. These then inspired people to seek out the originals and they weren’t disappointed.

From time to time more samurai films have been released, but rarely with the anticipation of Takashi Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS. The director noted for his extreme films like AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER could have gone the usual route his films do featuring buckets of blood but instead he made a more classic samurai film and it is simply amazing.

The story takes place around 1844 and revolves around a group of assassins who have determined that to save their country they must remove the heir apparent to the current Shogun. Lord Naritsugo is a cruel ruler who finds entertainment in the thing he does to his people. Be it killing a family one at a time in front of the others (including children) or slicing the limbs from a young woman, keeping her alive and then sexually abusing her when it suits him, this man feels it is his responsibility to keep his people in line by making sure they are always put in their place on the social scale.

A member of the Shogun’s staff knows something must be done but due to the way things are done can do nothing on his own. Instead he imposes on Shinzaemon Shimada to handle the situation for him. A samurai of the highest order, Shinzaemon knows what must be done and after seeing the after effects of what Naritsugo has done, elects to assassinate him. But it will require the help of a few trusted men to aid him.

There is little action in the film at the start. Shinzaemon takes his time assembling the men who will help him. Each has a reason for accompanying him on this task be it boredom in a world where samurai have little cause to find battle or to make money. In the end, each of them follows the way of the warrior, of honor, and takes on the cause of saving their country.

There is plenty of story to this film. The build up of Shinzaemon’s team is part of it but there is also the political intrigue that goes on behind the scenes as well. Losing face is an important part of the way things happened then, thus Shinzaemon’s being brought in to begin with. Then there is the situation that arises when it is learned that the leader of the guard protecting Naritsugo is Hanbei Kitou, an old rival who has always thought that Shinzaemon was the reason he was a step down on the social scale. These two warriors plot against one another, one on the attack the other protecting an evil man, and in the end only one can win.

All the build up takes time but the payoff is amazing to see. The last 50 minutes of the film is non-stop action. Shinzaemon must stop Naritsugo from reaching the Akashi domain or all is lost. He diverts him to a town he has taken over and turned into a death trap. Expecting Naritsugo and a company of perhaps 75 men, he learns too late that there is more like 300. But that doesn’t prevent him or the other 12 men from following the duty they have sworn to follow. The result is a sword swinging, blood flowing, explosive rending battle that leaves few standing by the end of the film.

The thing about samurai films is that there may be blood and violence involved, but they aren’t just tossed in for effect. These men truly believed in honor and a way of doing things, they did follow their conscience and stood for something. The battle with a blade was not one that involved going back and forth so much as seeking a finish with as few moves as possible. There was a beauty to it.

Miike has done it again, surprising many who thought his film career had reached its high point. Instead he gives us a movie that shows there is still potential in all that he does. The acting is wonderful even if it offers little visible emotion. That was the way of the samurai, not to show fear or emotion. And yet there are subtle signs visible in the way these actors play their parts.

In the end you have an amazingly satisfying film. One that tells a story, that offers plenty of action and that entertains on so many levels. 13 ASSASSINS is not a film that you’ll toss aside once it finishes. This is a movie to set on the shelf and come back to from time to time, enjoying each viewing.

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN: GRINDHOUSE TRIBUTE

A few years back Quentin Tarrantino and Robert Rodriquez made a film called GRINDHOUSE. The film featured two movies that paid tribute to the type of film known as grindhouse films, exploitation films that played in the cheap theaters of New York’s Times Square and across the country in most drive ins. They usually featured copious amounts of blood, breasts, gore, violence and were usually in pretty poor condition physically with scratched prints galore. The two directors also included fake previews of coming attractions in their film. Which led to a contest.

The contest was to see if online readers could make their own coming attraction preview in the grindhouse mode. I honestly don’t recall what the winner received with the exception of being known online as the winner. In this case the winner was Jason Eisner and his preview was for HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. From that short preview Eisner found backing to make it into a feature film and switched from an unknown to movie star Rutger Hauer in the lead role. The film remains true to the preview and offers one of the goriest films ever made.

Shot in an extra bright seemingly psychedelic palette of colors, the film opens with Hauer riding the rails and stopping to get off in a town renamed Scum Town via spray paint on the original sign. This town looks bad from the start. Trash fills the street, people are covered in dirt and grime and everyone seems to walk around in a daze.

While picking up bottles to trade for cash, the Hobo watches as a man runs down the street begging for help, handcuffed and wearing what appears to be a manhole cover around his neck. Caught by a pair of bad guys doing their best Tom Cruise impersonations, their boss/father shows up. The Drake is mean with a capital M. This is his brother and he’s unhappy with him but rather than give him a break, he drops him in a hole, puts a barb wire noose around his neck and after attaching the other end to his son’s car decapitates him. The blood flows freely and excessively, a geyser of red that covers The Drake’s scantily clad companion.

The Hobo runs into the pair of sons again and enters their club unseen. He watches as a young woman named Abby stands up to the leader of the two and saves her from them; placing himself in danger should he be caught later on. Abby later befriends the Hobo and he tells her all he wants is enough money to buy a lawnmower and start his own business.

Instead when he goes to buy the mower after making enough money, a trio of robbers enters the pawn shop where he’s at and threatens everyone there. He makes a quick decision and walks past the lawnmower to the shotgun on the wall and opens up on the trio. The result is more flowing blood and gore. The Hobo becomes a hero of sorts, walking around town in broad daylight and shooting every violent miscreant that walks the streets.

Of course this catches the eye of The Drake and he sends his sons out to take care of the situation. More gore, more blood and plenty of violence follows until the final showdown happens.

If you understand the word Troma, then you’ll know what to expect here. Outlandish simplistic plot, an overabundance of gore/blood and acting that is more often than not sub-par. There is no depth to the story here and people with necks sawed with a tree saw survive to fight again, people with broken limbs feel no pain after a face full of cocaine and the world continues to look crummy even as the end credits role.

Fans of this sort of film and of Troma (who surprisingly had nothing to do with this film) pictures will adore this movie. Those who like more mainstream films will find their jaws dropping into their laps as they watch scene after scene. And those like me, somewhere in the middle, will appreciate the attempt at making a grindhouse epic while at the same time wondering why? Not only that, we’ll wonder why an actor of Hauer’s stature would think this was worth being in. Has he truly landed on hard times? I can think of no other reason than the sheer novelty of being in this movie.

A word of warning: this movie is DEFINITELY not for kids. The extreme gore scenes while played out in all their bright colored glory are not for the sensitive nor for young eyes.

MANNIX SEASON 5: BLAST FROM THE PAST

Remember when TV shows had theme songs? I mean real theme songs that you could hum if you wanted, that you could remember. There’s even been CD compilations released of these old themes. Today’s shows don’t seem to have them any more. I remember seeing a joke online about LOST’s theme song. It was one stretched out note.

The shows were different then too. Less edgy, more standard fare that offered us good guys we looked up to. Joe Mannix was one of those. A private investigator who always fought the good fight, Joe took on murders and criminals each week whether he had a paying customer or not. And in season five of MANNIX, just release, we get the chance to see Mannix throw down with those bad guys once again.

Mike Connors was the actor who took on the role of Joe Mannix. His dark hair and rough good looks made him an ideal leading man. And he played the character straight rather than go for the signs of the time. No bell bottoms or long hair, instead Mannix was fond of plaid suits and ties. A subtle item this made sense as chances are a businessman would be more likely to send work his way than the stereotypical hippie of the time.

I’m sure Mannix was different in some ways than most private eyes on TV, but for me it didn’t seem so when I grew up in the sixties. Looking back now I can see the differences. First off Mannix was all for racial equality. This was one of the first shows to feature a black leading actress, Gail Fisher as Mannix’s secretary Peggy. Peggy was not only his secretary but his friend as well.

The other thing MANNIX was known for was as one of the most violent shows on TV at the time. Compared to what we watch today it’s hard to believe. There were always plenty of car chases, gunplay and somehow Mannix always got the jump on the bad guy…literally. He always seemed to find himself above the bad guy and jumped down on him. It was even one of the scenes shown during the opening credits.

The series stared with Mannix working for a high tech firm that employed the use of plenty of electronics, but Mannix was the one who caught the bad guys using the instincts of the man at the scene. As the series progressed he went to work for himself and must have done well seeing the cars he drove and the office he had.

Season 5 had Mannix helping all sorts of people from old friends being set up for murder to new ones about to be kidnapped. Each week starts with the set up followed by that popular theme song composed by Lalo Schifrin (who also did the themes for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, MEDICAL CENTER and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) with blocked images like a puzzle put together showing Mannix in action.

The guest stars were a whose who of popular actors at the time. Rosemary Forsythe, Robert Foxworth, Victor Jory, Ina Balin, Eric Braeden, Joanna Pettet, Andrew Duggan, Milton Berle, Jessica Walters, William Marshall, Lou Rawls, Marriette Hartley and Elsa Lanchaster, while not names most youngsters today will recognize, all appeared during this season on the show. And Robert Reed appears in a number of episodes as a police detective friend of Mannix.

Each episode offered a decent mystery to be solved and had you guessing till the last segment. Sure on occasion you could figure it out, but the clues that are offered didn’t always come together until the last few pieces were presented. Not surprising once you discover (as I did watching this for the first time in decades) that the series was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, the two men responsible for the acclaimed series COLUMBO and MURDER SHE WROTE.

Having the chance to go back and watch this series was a joy. Fans will be glad that they now have the chance to relive fond memories. Those of us to young at the time to appreciate the show will have a chance to enjoy it on a whole new level. And for those who’ve never seen it, take a trip back in time and see what TV was like back in the late sixties/early seventies. You’ll be glad you did.