Got an interesting film suggestion? Know of something good in the works? Just want to tell me I’m rubbish? Drop me a line at dave@chud.com, and I’ll respond to any letters in future columns.

TALES FROM THE ODD WEST

I had a great time slapping together the “theme” section of last week’s column (about flicks featuring capable women – read it HERE), so here’s another section in a similar vein. I’m a huge fan of westerns, especially those with a macaroni flavor, but rather than tread familiar territory I decided to pull some random curiosities of the genre from the stacks of my increasingly ridiculous movie library.

FistWhen people hear the name of Sergio Leone, they probably immediately think of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” trilogy or the masterful Once Upon a Time in the West, but rarely mentioned is A Fistful of Dynamite, the last spaghetti western Leone would ever direct (at least in an official capacity – he’d also get behind the camera for uncredited work on My Name is Nobody and A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe). Which is a shame, as the film is a blast (pun mostly intended). Set during the Mexican Revolution, A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker, a recurring line of dialogue in the film), has Rod Steiger as Juan, a scruffy Mexican bandit who roams and pillages with his brood of sons (whose precise origins elude him). He hoodwinks John (James Coburn doing his best bad Irish accent), a fugitive IRA activist with a fondness for demolitions, into robbing a bank with him. But Juan discovers he’s the one who’s been conned when he finds only POWs stored in the vaults instead of gold, and upon the captives’ liberation he is suddenly hailed as a hero of his country, a role he’s not particularly comfortable with. Although it contains a fair amount of drama, explosions and bloodshed (thanks to lots of machineguns and TNT), the film is really more of a whimsical buddy flick (complete with a weird, bouncy score by Ennio Morricone) about a pair of flawed freedom fighters from different backgrounds who inadvertently end up on the same side. It’s not as technically or stylistically impressive as Leone’s other works, but the dynamic between the two charismatic leads goes a long way.

WelchStraddling the last column’s theme of able femmes with this one is Hannie Caulder, a revenge tale rarity about a woman tracking down her transgressors with nothing but leaded retribution on her mind. The divine Raquel Welch (who, before Lynda Carter jiggled her way into my impressionable youth as Wonder Woman, first prompted my obsession with the female form thanks to Saturday afternoon showings of Fathom, One Million Years BC, 100 Rifles and Fantastic Voyage) is the title character, a frontier woman violated by three outlaw brothers as sadistic as they are moronic. Seeking ballistic payback, she enlists the services of notorious gunslinging bounty hunter Tom Price (Robert Culp), who takes her to the Mexican retreat of a gunsmith acquaintance (Christopher Lee) and begins the physical and psychological training she’ll need to slay the villains. Although hundreds of westerns precluded it, what sets Hannie Caulder apart is that it’s the first real example of a vindictive and competent leading female rather than the submissive collection of prostitutes most common in the genre (it’s probably no coincidence the movie was made when fem-powered exploitation was on the rise). Even with the nasty circumstances compelling her character, Welch is at the height of her appeal: a pistolero goddess in tight trousers, poncho and little else. Sure her story is predictable, but at least she’s surrounded with a remarkable cast – Culp is unexpectedly good as the composed killer, and with western veterans like Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin as the brutal bungling brethren, it’s hard to ask for more from the genre.

Except maybe kung fu.

CleefBut long before Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson met, the Shaw Brothers helped fix that little oversight with The Stranger and the Gunfighter, a loopy martial arts western with the omnipresent Lee Van Cleef and chopsockey master Lo Lieh (of Five Fingers of Death). Van Cleef plays a sly robber whose explosives accidentally kill a Chinaman during a bank heist, and Lo Lieh is dispatched from China to recover his deceased relative’s riches. However, the dead man has tattooed directions to the secret stash onto the backsides of several mistresses, so Van Cleef and Lo Lieh basically travel around examining bountiful buttocks in search of the (monetary) booty. Unfortunately for them, a fanatical preacher with a penchant for using bullets to separate sinners from the righteous is also seeking the treasure. But since Lo Lieh is pretty much the only individual in the Old West whose kung fu is strong, he basically spends the film walloping everyone (complete with screwy sound effects) while Van Cleef nonchalantly plugs the occasional adversary. Great fun.

JoeThe Van Cleef/Lo Lieh pairing fares slightly better than the kung fu western My Name is Shanghai Joe (aka Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe), which finds the not entirely charming Chen Lee as a wandering Chinaman facing “Chink” prejudice as he seeks opportunity in America. After handing out a succession of thorough thrashings to racist cowpokes and building a reputation, Joe is recruited by a prosperous Texas rancher. When he learns of the ruthless baron’s harsh mistreatment of Mexican immigrant workers, Joe revolts and soon finds a variety of bounty hunters (including a vicious cameo from Klaus Kinski, who filmed more westerns than Levi’s made jeans) on his trail, culminating in a confrontation with a mercenary martial arts expert from Joe’s former temple. A more cheerless chopsockey noodle western than the tongue-in-cheek Stranger, Shanghai Joe keeps the comedy to a minimum and instead aggrandizes extreme violence (Joe mercilessly cracks limbs, plucks out one gentleman’s eyeball and jabs his hand into another guy’s ribcage), but could have benefited from a protagonist with personality to match his asskicking skills.

BlueberryIn the more recent “spirit western” Blueberry (which arrives on American DVD with the inexplicably Lorenzo Lamas-like title Renegade), Frenchman Vincent Cassel (rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors) plays lawman Mike Blueberry who spends his time trying to woo a local filly (simian actress Juliette Lewis) and venturing into the wilderness to engage in metaphysical conversations with his Indian "brother" (Temuera Morrison), while a greedy German (the distinctly non-German Eddie Izzard) and other assorted scoundrels seek a hidden treasure. There’s a great cast (including Ernest Borgnine, Michael Madsen, Djimon Hounsou and a burly Colm Meaney) and about an hour of good movie in Blueberry, which is unfortunately otherwise padded with interminable peyote hallucinations of digital centipedes and other CGI nonsense that makes the third act of 2001: A Space Odyssey seem as straightforward as a Tim Allen movie. And director Jan Kounen, who also paired with Cassel (and his fantastic wife) on the hyper heist flick Dobermann, has an irritating predilection for helicopter shots of landscapes matched only by the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. For anyone enamored with the high noon showdown, it’s difficult to be satisfied with an experimental, psychedelic western where the hero vanquishes the villain with a potent drug trip.

BalasAlex de la Iglesia is probably better known for edgy fare like the fierce Perdita Durango, the devilish Day of the Beast or the lunatic sci-fi flick Accion Mutante, but (much like Tarantino did with his grindhouse/martial arts opus Kill Bill) he writes his own contemporary love letter to spaghetti westerns with the Spanish-language 800 Bullets. A mischievous young lad ventures out to visit his unhinged grandfather Julian (Sancho Gracia) hoping to bond with the him after learning of his mysterious past as an actor/stuntman in spaghetti westerns, but only discovers a boozy old man that has fallen from grace, now barely eking out a living performing for tourists in a Wild West stunt show. But when Julian’s avaricious daughter-in-law seeks to raze the authentic location for a real estate venture, he and his sundry hermanos take up arms in the name of all that is Clint Eastwood for a last stand. With such a lively cast and quirky premise, 800 Bullets is an affectionate (if not terribly subtle) tribute to the poncho-clad gunslingers of the American Old West who arrived by way of Europe.

CEL BIOLOGY

FireAs much as I adore Pixar’s rendered tales and some of the current Cartoon Network offerings, it saddens me that an entire generation may be unaware that animation wasn’t always handled by mouse-jockeys or Flash maestros toiling on exorbitantly priced graphic machines.

Ralph Bakshi targeted adults instead of the Disney audience with his animated films, among them Fire & Ice, a post-Lord of the Rings collaboration with legendary painter Frank Frazetta. Evil sorcerer Nekron is pushing a gargantuan glacier across the land toward the peaceful realm of Firekeep, right through the homeland of farmboy Larn. While he’s on the run from Nekron’s subhuman footsoldiers, Firekeep’s scantily clad princess Teegra (who possesses the type of wonderfully exaggerated shape favored by Frazetta) is kidnapped from their castle. The two each escape their pursuers and meet only to be separated once again, so Larn teams with enigmatic warrior Darkwolf to rescue his new love from Nekron’s clutches and put an end to his frigid reign.

It’s no surprise that screenwriter Roy Thomas worked on Marvel’s Conan and Star Wars comics, resulting in a reasonably derivative fantasy with stock sword & sorcery characters (naïve hero, sexy princess, vile wizard, mysterious rogue) and scenarios (the attack on the villain’s stronghold mirrors the Death Star assault, but with dragons), Fire & Ice showcases subject matter (barbarians, babes, monsters) right in line with Frazetta’s style and some gorgeous animation thanks to Bakshi’s “rotoscoping” process, where live actors are filmed and then painted over. In addition to incredibly fluid movement and expressive posturing, this affords what would be huge money sequences in live-action films, such as the impressive jungle chase during Fire & Ice’s nearly wordless first act. It’s disheartening that considering the lucrative pixel-and-polygon method now preferred by studios, the technique is a relic we’ll likely never see used again.

NOCTURNAL EMISSIONS

Night WatchIn the blockbuster Russian supernatural thriller Night Watch (not to be confused with the Ewan McGregor/Nick Nolte flick), the eternal struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness basically resulted in a truce during medieval days, when two opposing groups of armored warriors realized they were equally matched and instead drew up a treaty. Now, hundreds of years later, each side has their own secret organization dedicated to making sure the other doesn’t stray from the accord.

Anton is one of these members of the Night Watch, charged with keeping their adversaries in line until an ancient prophecy of a “chosen one” comes to fruition (while the Day Watch minds the white hats). Recruited twelve years ago when he maliciously hired a witch to snuff the unborn result of his wife’s adulterous relationship, Anton is now called upon to use his unique talents to rescue a young lad from a den of bloodsuckers. While tracking the boy on the subway, he also encounters a cursed female who requires follow-up investigation, as she’ll ultimately cause a “funnel” that serves as the catalyst for an impending apocalypse.

There’s all sorts of groovy weirdness in the dense flick (Anton’s female partner was formerly a stuffed owl, and his nemesis fashions a melee weapon out of his own spine), which otherwise tends to seem pretty convoluted. Adapted by Sergei Lukyanenko from his own novel (the first of a trilogy — the others are also in production), the film is overloaded with information and yet clarifies very little, particularly concerning terminology and Anton’s comrades (although all the various ingredients do eventually converge through circuitous routes). Director Timur Bekmambetov must have graduated from the same school of slick, energetic filmmaking that unleashed the likes of Michael Bay — I was surprised by the film’s production values, as I guess I ignorantly assumed only Hollywood chucked so much money at the screen. The stylish presentation and core components of the film are certainly compelling (even if the basic premise has already been touched upon many times before – I can’t be the only fan of G vs. E), but when Fox remakes the film and its sequels for American audiences, they might want to regulate coherence and reel some of the subplots closer to center.

BlowSTEAM

Thanks to all for your letters of non-hatred. Send me more comments, suggestions, and coupons for Russian brides to dave@chud.com, and I’ll reply to any letters in future columns. Thanks for reading and writing!

You might have mentioned this before.. I can’t remember everything you’ve talked about. But I had to email about the movie Beyond Hypothermia. I think it should have been mentioned in your GRRL Power thread. I guess its an assassin/love story but the ending is bloody enough with its gunplay that it will make you say WOO!

I had heard nothing of this movie before hand. Surprisingly my wife found it for rental off the Time Warner Cable digital Cable service. We read the description that it was a HK flick and the fact my wife wanted to see it was a major turn on. But I digress… Anyway Beyond Hypothermia was a pretty good 1996 movie starring Wu Chien-lien. Yes it was more of a love story than I had hoped but the sniper stuff and mafia interplay kept me as a guy happy. If you havent seen it. Check it out. Not a waste of money at all.

-David

DAVE SAYS: Beyond Hypothermia is indeed a decent flick with plenty of melodrama and exaggerated action (how about that ending?), but I just didn’t really buy Jacqueline Wu as a tough contract assassin. I had a similar problem with the adorable Michelle Reis as the hired killer of The Other Side of the Sea. But then again, So Close was one of my fave movies of last year and expected us to believe cutie Shu Qi and the gorgeous Vicky Zhao were capable of whirlwind martial arts and gunplay, so maybe I should revisit them both…

BlowDave, Thanks for the review of Immortel. I was finally able to watch the movie on a DVD import I purchased. While I don’t normally buy movies I have not ever seen, I was intrigued with Immortel enough to take the chance. after watching it I felt much the same way as you. It just seems to me that it was either made specificly for those familiar with the graphic novels or it was edited down from a MUCH larger film. There are so many references to things and events that are never explained. and the whole CG characters kept pulling me out of the movie. My final critisism is that for a movie that seems to go out of its way to make the plot difficult to follow, the use of languages the viewer cannot understand doesn’t help one bit. I would have loved to know what the gods were saying and, while I could figure out the gist in those instances, the French spoken at the end with no subtitles was just a kick in the junk. I am sure it was important but I’ll never know.

Despite all of this rambling, I still enjoyed watching the movie. Visually there are some great scenes and I am hoping, with continued viewings, I will be able to make more sense of the plot. Or, then again, maybe not.

- Kirk

DAVE SAYS: I more or less felt the same: stimulating visuals and design work in an incomprehensible film (to a lesser degree, I felt the same about Night Watch up there). I sorta viewed the CG characters as the future evolution of today’s plastic surgery — it made their presense easier to swallow.

BlowDave,

Great work on this column. It’s by far the best part of CHUD. As an aside, you should definately highlight the work of Tsui Hark in a future installment. Peking Opera Blues, Zu, Green Snake, Once Upon a Time in China; the guy is without a doubt, the best director to ever come out of Hong Kong. As much as I love King Hu, John Woo, Chang Cheh, Ringo Lam and of course, Wong Kar-Wai, simply nobody else’s filmography compares to the insanity and energy of Hark’s. Consider it!

- Matt

DAVE SAYS: Glad you’re enjoying me rambling about various films from my collection that I usually select randomly. I like Tsui Hark, but he’s becoming less reliable — Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a classic, but I found the recent follow-up Legend of Zu to be unintelligible digital overkill. Time and Tide is one of the better Hong Kong style action movies of the past decade, but the less said about Black Mask 2, the better.

DOWN BELOW

I’d like the UNDERGROUND to also be an environment for smaller filmmakers (in budget, scope and height – I don’t discriminate, wee folk) to publicize their wares, particularly genre material. Everyone deserves a chance, yeah? After all, even Oscar winner Peter Jackson started with an independent sci-fi horror flick that featured spilled brains and vomit tasting. So if you’ve got an independent film and you want to expose yourself, drop me a line at dave@chud.com. Put some pants on first.

AaaaaHHHH!!!!!Just a reminder that the new horror film "13 Seconds" will be available on Special Edition DVD in video stores everywhere in the US and Canada on October 19th.

This is the film that Joe Bob Briggs of UPI and TNT’s MonsterVision declared "a technical tour-de-force that turns every horror cliche upside down. This film is disturbing."

Best-selling author of The Relic, Douglas Preston declared "13 Seconds" a "terrifying film, startling, riveting, with a marvelous and completely unpredictable twist at the end."

We were awarded Best Independent Feature at the Calgary International Horror Film Festival. We were also awarded Best Horror Feature at the New York Independent International Film Festival. And we were awarded by Ramsey Campbell at the Fantastic Festival of Films. Also, we were awarded Best Picture at the Bare Bones International Film Festival.

For a list of reviews, other awards and festival appearances, please check us out at www.rainstorm-pictures.com

Or to download the trailer, please check out http://rainstorm-pictures.com/trailer.htm

Sincere thanks,
Jeff Thomas
Rainstorm Pictures

Thanks for digging into this edition of DAVE’S UNDERGROUND, be back soon with more treats from beneath eye level. Feel free to send any suggestions or comments to dave@chud.com!

Dave's Underground