Sunday, February 18, 2007

Oscars, Schmoscars: The Devil's Sword rules!

So here it is, the week before the Academy Awards. You'd think I'd be analyzing some of the members of this year's filmic Winner's Circle in acknowledgement.

But no. Instead, I'm watching The Devil's Sword for the third time. And with each successive minute of re-watching I become more convinced--in all sincerity--that it's a perfect moviegoing experience. Not in some staid conventional sense a la your typical Oscar bait, mind you, but by that most all-important film viewing standard: This 1983 Indonesian action/fantasy promises you the moon, then delivers that big glowing orb on a platter--with arterial sprays of blood, beheadings, crocodile men, kung fu and all-around dementia to spare.

The Devil's Sword stars Barry Prima (Indonesia's greatest movie action hero) as Mandala, an ancient warrior who offers to rescue a beleaguered bride's candy-assed husband from the clutches of the Evil Crocodile Queen. The biggest thorn in Mandala's side is Banyu Jaga, an evil warrior who once studied alongside Mandala at the feet of their mutual kung fu master. Mandala and Jaga emerge as the front runners in the race for The Devil's Sword (a super-powered blade forged from a meteorite by Mandala's mentor). The lusty sequins-and-spangles-clad Croc Monarch and a gaggle of oddball bad guys, meanwhile, hunt for the enchanted piece of cutlery as well.

This, friends, is but the most meager of jumping-off points--truth be told, no linear plot summary can begin to do The Devil's Sword justice. Even if you've been around the cult cinema pike several times, nothing--nothing--can prepare you for the rattle-trap craziness that ensues herein. Director Ratno Timoer pilfers pieces from martial arts films, Conan the Barbarian, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ray Harryhausen movies, various strains of Asian mythology, and God knows what else, then hurls all of those elements into a very cheap high-speed blender set to maximum frappe. Yeah, by convergent mainstream standards this is very, um, amateurish filmmaking. But there's also an innocence, an utterly blithe disregard for budgetary limitations--and a palpable love of movies--that renders the whole hyperactive, gaudily-colored swirl totally irresistible, and the outstanding Mondo Macabro DVD (replete with eye-poppingly beautiful transfer and fun extras) provides the icing on the cake. Dear Lord in silk jammies, I love this movie.

Lest my flowery prose fail to induce you into RUNNING AT TOP SPEED to your nearest video store to snap up The Devil's Sword DVD, perhaps it's best to contrast a laundry list of the movie's many joys--scorecard-style--and to graphically demonstrate how a random sampling of some of this year's Oscar contenders measure up.

Beheadings, Arm-Choppings, and Leg Amputations:
The Devil's Sword-- Approximately 19.
Little Miss Sunshine--None.

Number of Male Slaves Engaged in Fully-Clothed Groping of the Local Female Ruler in a Fully-Clothed Orgy Scene: The Devil's Sword--Eight.
The Queen--None.

Minutes of Running Time Devoted to Gravity-Defying Kung Fu Battles:The Devil's Sword--Approximately 57.
Letters from Iwo Jima--None

Number of Rubber-Headed, Kung-Fu-Practitioning Crocodile Men: The Devil's Sword--Twelve.
The Departed--None.

Number of Scaly Cyclops Monsters who Get a Blade in the Eyeball from Their Film's Lead Actor:The Devil's Sword--One.

Key Male Lead Performances:

The Devil's Sword--Barry Prima, a muscular and mulleted hero who lops heads off Crocodile Men, beats up at least two dozen guys, shoots laser beams from his hands, and hacks his surrogate father's legs off to save the old duffer from gangrene.

Blood Diamond--Leonardo DiCaprio, a baby-faced Hollywood ponce who jabbers out his dialogue in a crappy South African accent.

Key Female Lead Performances:

The Devil's Sword--Pida Loca, a bereaved bride who nonetheless manages to use kung fu on Crocodile Men and thugs, and umbrella fu (don't ask--just watch) on evil Banyu Jaga.

Notes on A Scandal, The Queen, and Little Children--Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Kate Winslet respectively; three prissy English women, none of whom practice kung fu OR umbrella fu.

Key Male Supporting Performances:

The Devil's Sword--Banyu Jaga, who kicks boulders and rides them like surfboards, hacks guys' hands and heads off, and eviscerates a Guillotine Hat-throwing Gallagher lookalike.

The Departed--Mark Walberg, a lumpy-faced ex-rapper who scowls a lot.

Key Female Supporting Performances:

The Devil's Sword--A Black-Toothed Whip-Wielding Kung Fu Hag who reconnects her body after being chopped in half, and is affectionately dubbed "Polluted Bitch-Hound" by her fighting rivals.

Dreamgirls--Jennifer Hudson, who sings real good but possesses no whip-wielding or kung fu skills; ability to regenerate after being chopped in half also doubtful.

So, Cinema Snobs of the world, you can have your high-brow British movies, your multi-layered examinations of the human condition, your earnest World War II dramas, your sharply-observed family drama-dies, and your mean-street-trolling Scorsese thrillers. I'll take The Devil's Sword over all of 'em--unless Helen Mirren perfects a serious kung fu kick.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

First Look at a Classic: La Dolce Vita

Hard to believe that tonight marked my first look at a complete Federico Fellini film. Go figure.

1960's La Dolce Vita is less a straightforward narrative than a series of random episodes in the life of directionless Italian gossip reporter Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) as he drifts, loves, and observes (in abject detachment) his way through several surreal, uncomfortable, funny, and heady vignettes. It's a significant, and in some ways textbook, example of Italian neo-realistic cinema of the early sixties, and while it didn't rock my world the way it has so many others', it's still a pretty spellbinding piece of work. This won't be the last time I take in a film by the Italian director.

Forty-seven years of world cinema have somewhat blunted the profundity of Fellini's vision--a cynic could readily argue about how hammily heavy-handed so much of the structural and visual symbolism plays today. And I suppose some of the movie's characters could use a breath of humanity in their almost clinically allegorical shells.

But it's impressive to see a movie from the era that touches on disillusionment with traditional forms of societal comfort (monogamy, family, religion, etc.) so directly--it took American cinema years to catch up with Italian cinema on this front. And La Dolce Vita brims with ravishing visual episodes, all of which cumulatively form a resonant and sometimes profound mirror into Marcello's (and by extension, Fellini's) soul: The sweeping opening shot of a helecopter toting a giant statue of Christ; Marcello pursuing Sylvia, a fickle yet somehow beguiling Amazon of a movie star (Anita Ekberg), up a spiral staircase; the orgiastic rock and roll party, so resonant with Italian fear of American pop cultural infection; Sylvia's stroll through Trevi Fountain; paperazzi swarming around the characters at several points like a swarm of flies (talk about serious prescience on Fellini's part); and the bizarre incident with the beached squid that forms the film's coda. Sure, some of these sequences draw way too much indulgent attention to themselves. But it's like watching a really beautiful person scrutinizing themselves in a mirror. If the object of admiration is sufficiently luminous, such indulgent self-examination seems not only forgiveable, but mandatory.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

America's Sweetheart through Filter of Virulent Sickness

So I get my first full day off of work in a couple of weeks--a Monday, no less--and right on cue a serious bout of the flu gobsmacks me with hurricane force. I spend nearly all of the day (and a good chunk of the next) in a comatose, shuddering trance, doing my best to hit my own personal Petri Dish 101 (degrees, that is: for the record, I reached a mere balmy 100).

As anyone who's been in such a state can doubtless relate, one generally expends minimal effort when eking out sick-day entertainment: You turn on the TV, collapse in a heap in the ol' Barcalounger, and let that sense of sickbed surrealism carry you through your moments of semi-consciousness. It should therefore come as no surprise that the already-screwy 2007 Miss America Pageant, rebroadcast repeatedly over the course of Monday and Tuesday, soared to Dali-esque heights of weird via that magic mucous carpet ride. The repeated rebroadcasts, and the fact that Rita and I caught it in out-of-sync pieces over a day-and-a-half, morphed the pageant into some Cheetos-and-frilly-white-trash-lace version of Memento.

Miss America may still be, as the organization crows repeatedly, America's greatest source of scholarship money for young women, but it's far from the Big Event that it used to be when I was a kid. The pageant used to be eagerly aired live on the major networks in the seventies and eighties, but today Miss America hangs out in the run-down cable trailer park that is the CMT Network. And in the interest of maintaining a brief two-hour run time, the telecast trimmed away a lot of the usual pageant fat: the presentation was bereft of musical guests, the contestant Q and A was truncated even by the crepe-paper-thin standards of the Miss America Q and A, and the always-thrilling talent competition was confined to the Top Five Contestants as opposed to the Top Ten of years past.

Them's the more cogent, coherent thoughts that snapped around in my head while watching. Most of the time, my skull felt like the inside of an aircraft hangar filled with Yoplait Yogurt. Isolated moments bobbed above my influenza-fueled haze like apples in a barrel of metallic blue model paint:

*The dimples of host Mario Lopez, which (to quote my ever-loquacious wife) were "big enough to drive a Cadillac through."

*Miss Mississippi, whose massive predatory mouth and glassy bright eyes had me hallucinating that she was gonna distend her jaw and swallow a rodent, whole.

*Miss Georgia's talent routine, which started out with her flailing and stomping spastically to a busy techno track. Then the sound of...tapping...came up. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Miss America audience enjoyed a hearty snifter of techno-tap dancing. It was either a moment of subversive performance art brilliance, or one of the most delectably lousy talent displays that the show's ever excreted. Kinda like the Miss America Talent Competition equivalent of The Apple.

The crown was ultimately taken by Miss Oklahoma, a vacant blonde who nattered on about faith and sang with a reedy church choir voice that made Kathie Lee Gifford sound like Aretha Franklin. And instead of serenading her out with that venerable old theme song, Mario ceded that honor to the late Bert Parks, whose voice echoed eerily over the Hall's cavernous sound system. The bedheaded loon dominating my consciousness kept hoping that someone would be shameless enough to CGI in Parks strutting about and spectrally crooning into his long-retired microphone. Maybe next year--If I'm violently ill, barely cognizant, and sporting lips so cracked and split that I'd nail an audition as an extra in Ben Hur's big Leper Colony Scene then, I'll sure as hell be back for more.