Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Go here for more overlooked films.

When twenty-something slacker Sho (Eita) is informed that his aunt Matsuko, long estranged from his family, has been murdered, he travels to her home to clean out her apartment and recover her personal belongings. When he arrives, he finds that she has been living as a recluse in a rundown, garbage-strewn riverside apartment. Her neighbors call her an outcast and her own brother calls her life meaningless. However, through a series of flashbacks we see that Matsuko's life was anything but meaningless as we follow her downward spiral, from an idealistic young girl to a disgraced school teacher to her tragic final days. We get to see Matsuko's life as it's affected by bad choices and bad luck, from abusive boyfriends to prostitution and a prison stay. Through it all Matsuko tries to stay optimistic, seeing the events of her life as a series of cheerful, colorful fantasy musical numbers.

While many of Matsuko's misfortunes can be chalked up to some truly terrible life choices, the viewer is always on her side, due in no small part to the amazing performance of Miki Nakatani.  As Matsuko she is so totally likable that we can't help but root for her even as we see her dig herself deeper into a pit she can't possibly hope to get out of. It's a tour de force performance, going from light comedy to tragedy and even some singing and dancing. It's also a beautiful film to look at. Director Tetsuya Naskashima has filled the film with pastels and bright colors, allowing us to get inside Matsuko's head and to see the world through her optimistic point of view. 

MEMORIES OF MATSUKO was never given a proper theatrical or home video release in the US, only playing in select film festivals. Right now the best option for English speaking viewers is the recently release Blu-ray from the UK by Third Window films. It's affordable, is not region locked and most importantly, shows the film off in it's most impressive light. In the meantime here's hoping that some adventurous company steps up and gives this wonderful film a much deserved release in the States. I urge everyone to see this film however you have to go about it. It's dark in spots but manages to never be depressing. It's a terrific, life-affirming piece of work that will make you think twice about the people who manage to fall through the cracks of our society.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Drive

For more overlooked films go here.

It's a sad fact that dozens of terrific films fall through the cracks each year, receiving only screenings through film festivals or getting only the most basic direct to video releases. Such was the case with Steve Wang's DRIVE (1997), one of the best action films almost no one has seen.

DRIVE features Mark Dacascos as Toby Wong, a Chinese soldier implanted with a device that increases his stamina and reaction time (in order to create the perfect assassin, of course). Wong wants none of this assassin business and hightails it to the USA in order to sell the device to an American corporation and live a normal life. Along the way he hijacks a failed songwriter (Kadeem Hardison)  to drive him from San Francisco to Los Angeles, all the while being chased by hitmen who have instructions to recover the implant.

The plot of DRIVE is completely beside the point. Director Steve Wang doesn't take any of it seriously and the film exists only to move from one action scene to the next as well as to show why Mark Dacascos was once considered to be the Next Big Thing in action cinema. He moves with the grace of a young Jackie Chan and even more importantly he can act. For once the character-driven moments are just as much fun as the action set pieces because Dacascos and Hardison interact so well, both together and with Brittany Murphy, who plays the manager of a motel they visit on their travels.  They all look like they're having a great time and their enjoyment is infectious.

DRIVE wasn't done any favors by Simitar Home Video who gave the film it's US direct to video premier in 1998 via an ugly, full-frame transfer which cut its Panavision framing almost in half. In addition, they cut the film by sixteen minutes, excising just about all the character driven moments that make the film special, including most of Murphy's role. The result was a film that looked like every other direct to video action film of the era: lots of car crashes and explosions but very little in the way of character or logic. The only was to properly appreciate this film is through the British DVD from Medusa, which not only restores the film's proper framing but also all the missing character beats.

DRIVE is a wonderful movie, a near-perfect combination of action and comedy. It has no pretensions toward being anything important. It just wants to keep you entertained and amused for two hours, which is really all you can ask of this type of film. It's a crime that inferior films like RUSH HOUR, which this film superficially resembles, are able to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue while DRIVE is collecting dust on your video store shelf. How can you not love a film that has a recurring joke about a TV show called WALTER THE EINSTEIN FROG ("That's one smart frog!")? Check it out if you can. I love this film and chances are you will too.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Skidoo

I have been invited by Todd Mason of the Sweet Freedom blog to participate in this weekly blog ring celebrating films and television that have been unjustly forgotten or in some cases rightly buried. Special thanks to him. Visit his blog here for a full list of participating blogs.

Ah, Hollywood in the late 1960s. Like everything else in the country at that time the movie industry was in a state of flux. Costs were up and attendance was down. Stars and directors were in danger of losing their relevance.  In desperation, the studios turned to the one demographic they hadn't already exploited to death: the youth market.  The decision of these studio executives to exploit the freedom suddenly afforded to them by the disbanding of the Hayes Code as well as make movies targeted to a segment of the audience that most of them knew nothing about resulted in some of the most fascinating cinematic train wrecks in film history.

Which brings us to Otto Preminger's SKIDOO (1968). It must have looked great, or at least profitable, on paper. You've got established stars like Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx and Mickey Rooney for the grownups.  Frankie Avalon was there for the kids and Preminger even got his BATMAN co-villains Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and Frank Gorshin to show up in cameos. Add a healthy dose of hippie and drug humor to make it topical and you've got a sure-fire recipe for success, right? Well, not really. It's clear that Paramount had absolutely no clue how to sell the resulting fiasco, as can be seen from the trailer hosted by none other than Dr Timothy Leary.

Jackie Gleason is Tony Banks, a retired mob enforcer living the suburban good life with his annoying wife Channing and their hippie loving daughter, played by Alexandra Hay.  However, just when Tony thought he was out he gets pulled back in when he's recruited by mob boss Groucho Marx (playing a character named God) to kill his old pal Mickey Rooney, who's currently in jail and planning to turn state's evidence. Tony gets himself sent to the slammer where he bunks with draft dodger and occasional chemist, Fred (Austin Pendleton). When Tony borrows some of Fred's stationary to write a letter to his family he finds that the envelopes have been laced with LSD. Tony's trip turns him into a peacenik so he plans a prison break which involves dosing the entire prison with acid and escaping via hot air balloon. Soon Tony and his daughter's hippie friends, led by John Phillip Law (looking very Manson-esque) are en route to God's yacht for the "hilarious" finale. By the time Carol Channing shows up doing an impersonation of George Washington crossing the Delaware while singing the film's horrible theme song you'll either be praying for death or mildly amused by the sheer audacity of it all.

Truth be told, it's not all bad.  There's a certain amount of entertainment to be had by watching some of the most idiotic acid trip sequences ever committed to film (Gleason hallucinates being attacked by giant metal screws with Groucho's head attached to them). Some of the Harry Nilsson songs peppered throughout the movie are kind of catchy and Nilsson has a goofy cameo as a tripping prison guard. The movie's rarely boring and for fans of cinematic misfires it's certainly an interesting watch. It's no surprise that just about everyone involved with this film would like to see it buried but honestly, most of them have probably done worse. I'll sign off with the most interesting part of the movie, the end credits, which are completely sung.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

RIP Tura Satana 1938-2011

As much as I hate to begin this blog on a down note it would be remiss of me not to mention the passing of one of the legends of exploitation cinema, Tura Satana on February 4, 2011 at the age of 72.  Although her cinematic output was light (only 10 films in a 47 year career plus a handful of TV appearances) she left an indelible mark on anyone who encountered her work.

Born in 1938 in Hokkaido, Japan to parents of Japanese/Filipino and Cheyenne/Scots-Irish descent, her family soon emigrated to the US. Her early years were filled with racism and violence, including spending World War II in a California internment camp and a brutal rape by a gang of neighborhood boys. Satana soon found herself in Los Angeles where she parlayed her exotic looks into a career as a dancer and model. She managed to score bit parts in IRMA LA DOUCE and WHO'S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED?  but in 1965 she made the film for which she would be known for the rest of her life, Russ Meyer's FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! As Varla, the karate-chopping, back-breaking she devil she's both frightening and sexy, seductive one minute but able to turn deadly in an instant.

Satana next teamed up with filmmaker Ted V. Mikels for the ultra low budget THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (1968), notable mainly for being co-written and financed by future MASH star Wayne Rogers. She teamed up with Mikels again in 1973 for THE DOLL SQUAD which was ripped off a few years later by Aaron Spelling as CHARLIE'S ANGELS. Satana then retired from showbiz to pursue a career as a nurse only to be lured back by Mikels in 2002 for the sequel MARK OF THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES. Satana spent most of her later years making personal appearances on the convention circuit but in 2010 she did manage to film the third (!) in the ASTRO-ZOMBIES trilogy.

I only met Tura Satana once, very briefly, at a horror convention in the late 1990s.  From a distance she was very intimidating. It looked like even in her 60s she would have no problem kicking my ass. However, up close she was as charming and friendly as she could possibly be, the complete opposite of her tough as nails persona. She will be missed.