Wednesday, October 29, 2014

TSUI HARK'S VAMPIRE HUNTERS


I was first introduced to the cinema of Tsui Hark in the late 1980s when my buddy Kelly Greene and I saw the Hong Kong sword and sorcery/fantasy/action/adventure film ZU WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983) sometime in the late 1980s at the long gone but never to be forgotten Dobie Theater. We were both blown away by the over-the-top, wildly choreographed and orchestrated sword fights, martial arts battles and the utterly baroque and bizarre visual style of the film. Did it all make any sense? Hell no. Did we love it? You betcha.

Tsui Hark, who graduated from the University of Texas in 1975 (I enrolled there in 1974 so we were on campus at the same time), began his career as a Hong Kong filmmaker in 1979 with THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS. He's still making films today with his latest production, THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN, released this year. In between, he's produced an astonishing body of work as a director, writer and producer of some of the greatest Hong Kong action films ever made. Kelly and I saw Hark's PEKING OPERA BLUES (1986) and his magnum opus ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991), ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II (1992) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA III (1993). What, no ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA WALKS AMONG US?

Hark and fellow Hong Kong filmmakers John Woo and Ringo Lam formed a holy trinity of action directors whose films ranged from modern day shoot-em-ups to sword and sorcery fantasias set in distant worlds and times. These films began to make their way to the U.S. in the late '80s and early '90s and when they landed in Austin, they were screened at either the Dobie Theater or on the UT campus at either Hogg Auditorium or the Texas Union theater.

Kelly and I made a point of seeing as many of these films as we could. We became instant fans of this bold, brash, go-for-broke style of cinema. It was something fresh, new and invigorating and we loved almost every film we saw. I often thought that discovering those Hong Kong films in the late '80s and early '90s was akin to what film fans must have experienced in the '60s when the Italian made Spaghetti Western films hit urban cinemas across the nation.

Tsui Hark himself was on hand in a UT classroom following the screening of one of his films and for the life of me, I cannot remember which one it was (Kelly, when you read this, if you remember the film, help me out). I do recall that Kelly and I attended the screening and then hustled over to the building where Hark was scheduled to hold court. I remember him being a short, slender man who was very gracious and patient with his fans and the multitude of questions and comments we all had to offer.

I found a copy of TSUI HARK'S VAMPIRE HUNTERS in a thrift store the other day for a buck. I hadn't seen a Hong Kong action film in many years and I figured it would be fun to revisit this genre that I found so richly rewarding those many years ago. Besides, the price was right.

Tsui Hark is credited with writing and producing VAMPIRE HUNTERS (released in Hong Kong as THE ERA OF VAMPIRES) while the directing credit goes to Wellson Chin. It's not as good as 100% Hark but it's a serviceable exemplar of the kind of horror/action/comedy film that could only be made in Hong Kong.

Yes, there are vampires in this film, but they're vastly different than the kind found in European and American films. There are also zombies (and a zombie wrangler to boot!). The plot concerns four young warriors and their ancient mentor who devote themselves to battling the undead wherever they find them in 17th century China. There's plenty of sword fights, marital arts battles,and bodies spin through the air courtesy of some good-but-not-great wire work. There are pretty girls, blood and guts and a few laughs here and there. But it's far from the greatness of the early Hark masterpieces. Maybe if the master himself had directed it, VAMPIRE HUNTERS would have been a better film. As it is, it's a fun movie and I enjoyed spending an afternoon with a celluloid friend whose acquaintance I'd missed over the years.

If you're a fan of Hong Kong cinema, check out TSUI HARK'S VAMPIRE HUNTERS. If you're a newcomer, you might want to start with some of the earlier films listed above before watching this one. You'll enjoy it more with some experience and exposure to the wild, wild world of Hong Kong action films under your belt.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

HUSBANDS AND WIVES


I watched Woody Allen's HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992) for the second time the other day. The first time I saw this film was when it was released in 1992. I don't recall liking the film very much at that time but when I watched it again last week for the first time in twenty-two years, I found it to be a singularly unpleasant film.

It pains me to write that about a Woody Allen movie. While I haven't seen all of his films, I've seen a lot of them and for a long stretch of years, I made it a point to see every new Allen film in the theater upon its' release. I stopped doing that several years ago and I've missed most of his output of the last dozen or so years. I'm sure I've missed some great films. I'm equally sure I've missed some bad ones.

It's the law of averages. When you write and direct a new movie every year for the past 40+ years as Allen has, you're bound to hit an occasional home run every now and then just as you're bound to strike out every so often. HUSBANDS AND WIVES is one big swing and a miss.

The film focuses on two married couples, Gabe and Judy Roth (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, respectively) and Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis). At the beginning of the film, Jack and Sally announce to Gabe and Judy that they are separating. This bit of news causes some uneasiness to come between Gabe and Judy. Jack soon takes up with Sam (Lysette Anthony), a young, blond bimbo, while Judy plays matchmaker for Sally by introducing her to Michael (Liam Neeson), a handsome young graphic designer. The trouble is, Judy is secretly in love with Michael and wants the budding relationship between the two to fail.

Meanwhile, Gabe, who teaches writing at Columbia University, becomes enamored with one of his young students, Rain (Juliette Lewis). He thinks she has real talent as a writer and he shows her the manuscript he's been working on. Rain, it turns out, is some kind of magnet for older men, with a series of affairs under her belt.

In the end, Jack and Sally get back together. Gabe and Judy divorce. Judy and Michael get married. Gabe is tempted to sleep with Rain but resists the urge. He's left alone, the odd man out, at the end of the film.

My problems with the film are many. To begin with, Allen shoots everything with a handheld camera that's constantly in herky-jerky motion. In almost every scene, his camera whirls around rooms and open spaces, darting here, zooming there, sometimes focusing on the character that's speaking, sometimes leaving them off screen. There are also multiple quick, jump cuts within scenes. All of this visual hugger mugger is, of course, meant to reflect the inner states of the characters. They're in turmoil over the disruptions their lives and relationships are undergoing. But the effect is tiresome and wearying after a very short while. To make matters worse, Allen does lock down his camera for scenes where the main characters address the camera straight on as subjects being interviewed by an unseen documentary film maker. Who this person is and why he wants to document the lives of such screwed up, morally reprehensible characters, is never explained. It's a narrative device that gives Allen (and the audience), a chance to catch our breaths from the visual roller coaster and let the characters have their say about their situations and philosophies.

The three main women in the film, Farrow, Davis and Lewis, are all, to my eye, aggressively unattractive. I've never understood Allen's attraction to Farrow and Judy Davis, while a talented actress, is far from attractive. Juliette Lewis has a larger forehead than Paul Begala and is ready made to play the part of Exeter in a remake of THIS ISLAND EARTH. I've always thought Lewis gives off a major skank vibe in every film I've seen her in.

HUSBANDS & WIVES contains very few laughs. Allen doesn't leaven the marital train wrecks on display with much humor. There are some jokes, but they're not good or memorable ones.

Surprisingly, HUSBANDS & WIVES received two Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Davis) and Best Original Screenplay (Allen). Neither one won an Oscar but the film did receive much critical acclaim at the time. Go figure.

Finally, HUSBANDS & WIVES, is yet another Woody Allen film about extremely successful, uber-neurotic New Yorkers who lead such insular lives that it's hard to relate to any of the characters as real people. The themes of adultery, marital infidelity, failed relationships, unfulfilled desires and thwarted passions, are once again front and center. Allen seems obsessed with this material along with his increasingly creepy attraction to younger women. Hey Woody, if you're going to have a relationship with someone younger than you, at least pick someone better looking than Juliette Lewis.

I still admire Woody Allen. Films such as ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, rank as some of my all-time favorite movies. He is truly one of the great American filmmakers of both the 20th and 21st centuries. But he can't produce a masterpiece every time. HUSBANDS & WIVES is a stinker.

WIZARD WORLD AUSTIN COMIC CON TREASURES 10

Cover for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Western, 1964 series) #12

I scored a nice copy of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA #12 (May, 1968) at Wizard World. This is one of several nice Gold Key books I got at a nice price from a very friendly dealer. Based on the ABC-TV series of the same name, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA ran for 16 issues beginning in December 1964 and ending in April 1970. It outlived the Irwin Allen produced television series by a couple of years.

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA premiered on ABC on September 14th, 1964 on Monday night. It moved to Sunday night for the second season and remained there until September 1968. The first season episodes were broadcast in black and white while all subsequent episodes were in color. I have the complete Season One on DVD as well as the feature film that the series was based on.

VOYAGE was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid. It started out as a fairly straightforward science fiction adventure series with some elements of espionage and intrigue. By the time it was over, it had become a "monster-of-the-week" show with the underwater monsters becoming more and more ludicrous. Still, I loved it and I love the comic books based on this fondly remembered program.

Friday, October 24, 2014

WIZARD WORLD AUSTIN COMIC CON TREASURES 9

Cover for Turok, Son of Stone (Western, 1962 series) #38

At the recent Wizard World Austin Comic Con, I stopped into a very small, cramped booth where a guy was selling vintage comics. He didn't have a very large inventory but I figured it was worth a try.

"Got any Dell or Gold Key comics?" I asked.

"I've got an issue of TUROK. Want to see it?"

That exchange is verbatim and it's fascinating (and slightly troubling). One, the guy knew his stock. He knew he had exactly one issue of TUROK SON OF STONE in one of his long boxes and he knew exactly where it was. And it was the ONLY Dell or Gold Key comic he had for sale. The only one!

He apologized for not having more of the comics I was looking for. "I've got more of those at my shop but space is limited, booths are expensive and I've got to bring what I know, or think I know, will sell," he explained.

I bought the comic, of course. If he'd had more Dell and Gold Key titles, I would have bought more. But this beauty, TUROK SON OF STONE #38 from March, 1964 is now mine. I was nine-years-old when this issue hit the stands. I don't recall buying it then but I did buy TUROK on a semi-regular basis. It's one of my all-time favorite comic book series. My inner nine-year-old kid still loves the concept of American Indians and dinosaurs thrown together in a lost world. Great stuff!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

MAJOR WEST, MEET MAJOR WEST


The year was 1965. The network was CBS. The month was September. On Wednesday, September 15th at 6:30 p.m. Central Time, LOST IN SPACE premiered. Among the cast was Mark Goddard who played Major Don West. Then, two nights later, on Friday, September 17th and also at 6:30 p.m. Central, THE WILD, WILD WEST debuted with Robert Conrad in the title role as Major James West.

It's fun to imagine that perhaps the worlds of THE WILD, WILD WEST and LOST IN SPACE were somehow linked with Major Don West being a descendant of Major James West.

Oh, and let's not forget HONEY WEST starring Ann Francis which also debuted on Friday, September 17th on ABC-TV at 8:00 p.m. Central. Maybe she was also a member of the television West family.

Thanks for playing TV Trivia Time. We have some lovely parting gifts for you and our fabulous home version for you and your family to enjoy.

See you next time!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

HEY KIDS! IT'S TV TRIVIA TIME!


Hands up if you remember when television sets looked like this! Our first color television was a Zenith model very similar to this one. We bought it in 1967 from Bond's Television on West Lynn in Austin, Texas. What fond memories this picture brings. But enough reminiscing. Let's get to the trivia.

On one network during the same year, the same month, hell, the same week (!), two brand new television series made their debuts. The shows were totally unrelated in every way but one. They both had a character with this name.

Think you know the answer? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN


Time is broken in Mark Hodder's new novel, THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN (2014). It's the fifth book in his Burton & Swinburne sf/steam punk/time travel series. The series is comprised of the following books: THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING-HEELED JACK (2010), THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN (2011), EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (2012) and THE SECRET OF ABDU EL YEZDI (2013). Of those, I've read SPRING-HEELED JACK and ABDU EL YEZDI, as well as his stand alone science fiction novel  A RED SUN ALSO RISES (2012).

The series relates the adventures of Sir Richard Francis Burton and his friend Algernon Swinburne, real people who lived in England during the Victorian age. The stories also include appearances by other real people from history, a tradition which continues in DISCONTINUED with guest stars H.G. Wells and the late sf author Mick Farren.

The Burton and Swinburne novels also rely heavily on time travel and alternate histories and Hodder once again returns to those tropes here. At the beginning of the book, Burton experiences hallucinatory visions of other time lines and other realities which all share one common event: an experiment in 1860 using technology scavenged from a time travel suit from the future. In one of these alternate time lines, Burton travels to the far distant future of 2032 where his consciousness inhabits the body of one Edward Oxford, a traveler from the future whose journey to the Victorian Age in  SPRING HEELED JACK, caused time to split into an infinity of parallel time lines.

Burton and Swinburne, along with a team of chrononauts, outfit a dirigible with a time machine and set off into the future to set things right. They make stops along the way in 1914, 1968 and 2020 before reaching their final destination, the world of 2032, a nightmare dystopia of haves and have-nots ruled by the iron fist of a mechanical despot. Burton discovers that Oxford's consciousness has taken up residence within the body of the mechanical man and the two engage in a fight to the death.

During the battle, Burton is shown his real history, the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton as it really occurred in history. It's nowhere near as exciting and dramatic as the adventures that he has experienced in these novels. Spoiler Alert: Burton dies (at least his body does) but his consciousness is transferred to the mechanical man and the novel ends with the new Burton and a cloned Swinburne looking out over the landscape of 2032.

Where does this series go from here? Will Burton and Swinburne remain in the future and explore this brave new world or will they return to their original place in time? Your guess is as good as mine but you can bet I'll read the next episode in this series.

DISCONTINUED MAN is a page turner full of cinematic sweep and an epic vision of possible futures. The ideas are well developed, the action fast and furious when it comes and there's just enough humor to lighten some of the darker moments. There are too many secondary characters clogging the plot however. While they do serve to advance the narrative, none of them are given enough space and time to be as fully developed as Burton and Swinburne are. And, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I have to admit that it does all seem a bit too familiar. Hodder seems obsessed with telling as many different time travel variations involving Burton, Swinburne, et al. as he possibly can. They're novel and exciting but it may be time to move this series into an entirely new direction. Will that happen?

Only time will tell.