Monday, November 29, 2010

'Stranglers of Bombay' is an excellent
Hammer adventure film

Stranglers of Bombay (1959)
Starring: Guy Rolfe, George Pastell, Allan Cuthbertson, Marne Maitland, Andrew Cruickshank, Roger Delgado, Jan Holden, Davis Spenser, and Tutte Lemkow
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An officer of the East India Company (Rolfe) battles ignorance and classism among the Indians as he tries to unlock the mystery behind mass disappearances across India, as well as the growing number of vanishing merchant caravans. He soon becomes a target himself, when the death-worshiping Thugees behind the disappearances decide to sacrifice him to their goddess Kali before he reveals they have infiltrated every layer of Indian society, even the British East India Company itself.

"Stranglers of Bombay" is a classic classic pulp-fiction style adventure tale with a heroic protagonist battling against dark and sinister forces that everyone else is either too ignorant or too scared to confront. It's also got a chilling horror vibe running through it, sparked by the hero being the only person who seems to want to take the threat of the Kali cult seriously and ignited fully when viewers get to witness the evil brutality of the cultists in the name of their goddess and the long reach of their leaders. The film takes on an even more frightening tone when one considers that it is based in part on actual historical facts.

Some out there with heightened sensitivities to political correctness may watch this movie with growing indignation over the "racism" present, what with a valiant White Man fighting to save civilization from Dark-skinned Savages. As is so often the case, those viewers will be too busy looking for offense to pay attention to what is really going on in the film.

Out of all the characters in the film, there is one single person who gives a damn about the victims of the Thugees and that is Guy Rolfe's obsessive truth-seeker Captain Lewis. The English merchants and troops employed by the East India Company only care about profits, the Indians don't care so long as victims aren't of their caste or religion, and every major character in the film except Lewis is complicit in their own way in allowing the Kali cult to operate and spread. One could make the case that Indian society would not have degenerated to the point where its people were incapable of mustering even the smallest degree of human compassion across religious and societal divisions if not for the commercial influences of the British Empire from the 17th century onward, but then one would be taking the same stance the film does; "Stranglers of Bombay" is even-handed in its indictment of British and Indian society of the time.

As for the film itself, it's a product of Hammer's Golden Age of Gothic. (Which would be something else those busily finding reasons to be offended might miss; the "corrupting alien other" is part and parcel with the genre this film belongs to.) It's therefore no surprise that Terence Fisher, the man responsible for Hammer's other great gothic adventure-tinged horror tales--even if the emphasis here is more on adventure than horror--was in the director's chair for this one as well. The film benefits tremendously for Fisher's talent for capturing exactly the right images and performances, as well as his ability to make even the cheapest movie look like it was made for ten times the budget.

While cast is okay, there is no one here who truly stands out the way Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or even Andrew Keir did. Guy Rolfe is a decent enough actor, but he works primarily in the role because the audience quickly develops deep sympathy for him because he is working under idiot superiors who are more concerned with a person's social standing than competency--as demonstrated when Lewis is set aside for an unqualified high-born officer when it comes to leading the investigation into the disappearances--and who believe that their social rank alone makes them competent. Rolfe works because Allan Cuthbertson and Andrew Cruickshank project the snobbery and gross ignorance of their characters so clearly that viewers dislike them more than the film's viler villains, the Kali cultists.

As for the cultists, they are okay, but not spectacular. George Pastell is passable as the evil high priest, but even for 1959 he was a bit on the tame and gentile side. Marne Maitland is similarly okay in his role as a displaced Indian "headman" who seems to have allied himself with the Thugee out of a thirst for revenge more than anything--and I'm not giving away the plot here... at this late date, it would be a surprise if he wasn't in league with the villains--but that's it. The most interesting villain is a mute bit-player--the busty Marie Devereux--who is the only woman seen in the Kali temple or at their rituals. She reportedly had a bigger role in the film before the British censors decided to protect the world from her leering excitedly at the sight of men being tortured, but I doubt there would have been more of an explanation as to what she was doing at the rituals than we got. One can't help but wonder; how twisted and evil would a girl have to be to get a place at the heart of a male dominated death cult?

Marie Devereux as Kali's breast--um--best girl!

"Stranglers of Bombay" is available in the four-movie pack "Icons of Adventure," and it is actually one of the lesser offerings in that set. Check it out to see that Hammer Films could tackle adventure films as effectively as they could horror movies and thrillers.

(The preview for "Stranglers of Bombay", included as a bonus feature in the set is a lot of fun by itself. "See mongoose battle snake for a man's life ... in Strangloscope!")

Mohammed Monday: Coffee, the Nectar of Allah?

Here's a fun little cartoon from New Zealand's Brandon Wright in which he reveals the intimate relationship between coffee, Islam, and the Prophet Mohammed (may beans be upon him). Click to see it full size and read the text.

Coffee may be solid proof that Mohammed WAS indeed a prophet of some sort of divine entity... and that the divine black liquid drives his followers into frenzies both murderous and amorous, as it did Him, while it causes the sex drive and genitals of Christian men to wither.

This simple cartoon may explain why the Muslim population is exploding around the world (in any meaning you choose to take that) and Western populations are shrinking. Maybe the Mormons have it right--coffee is eeeeevil!

Or maybe the Prophet Mohammed was just a whack job, and British men had queer ways in the 17th century (in any meaning you choose to take that).

To see more Brandon's artwork, visit his website by clicking here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Everyone's a suspect, even the chimpanzee!

Curtain at Eight (aka "Backstage Mystery") (1933)
Starring: C. Aubrey Smith, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Dorothy Mackaill, Natalie Moorehead, Herman Bing, Russell Hopton, and Syd Saylor
Director: E. Mason Hopper
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When the lights are suddenly turned off, obnoxious stage actor Wylie Thornton (Cavanagh) is shot to death at his own backstage birthday party. Homicide detectives Havney and Gallagher (Smith and Hardy) have their work cut out for them, as everyone in the building--including the trick-shooting trained chimp--had numerous reasons for wanting Thornton dead.

"Curtain at Eight" is a neat mystery film that meticulously sets up its suspects and murder victims in the first half, including the gun-wielding chimp, and then unleashes an odd-couple of detectives on them during its second half. It's the standard formula for this genre and it's well implemented here, even if the second half is just a little bit too comedic for my tastes.

Stars Paul Cavanagh (as the womanizing, self-centered actor who is his own biggest fan), C. Aubrey Smith (as the experienced, sharp-eyed and sharp-minded police detective), and Sam Hardy (as the inexperienced, dimwitted colleague he has been saddled with) are all perfect in their parts. While Hardy is at times a bit too much to take with his moronic cop antics, more effective comedic bits come from supporting players Herman Bing and Syd Saylor helps the more unpalatable aspects of his character easier to swallow. The steady parade of 1930s eye candy provided by the stylish female members of the cast also goes a long way to making the film enjoyable for fans of old time movies.

And, of course, it's a must-see if you are as obsessed with monkeys and apes as low-budget movie producers in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to be. This one, the ape is actually a real ape, rather than some guy in a suit. And even if you aren't obsessed with apes, I think this might be a film that will stick in your head as "the one where the chimp as a gun".

"Curtain at Eight" was one of the many movies from small studios of the 1930s that was considered lost. A print was uncovered, however, when the advent of DVDs (and the relatively cheap and easy duplication methods involved, once a film's been digitized) sent people scurrying into attics, basements, janitorial closets, and dusty vaults looking for misplaced movies. I recommend you take advantage of this digital age to experience that which was lost and now has been found. It's a pleasant way to spend an hour.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Thanksgiving Birds

Getting a turkey for the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner wasn't always as easy as Adele August makes it look.

The early settlers in the United States, the Pilgrims, had to struggle for food and survival. If left to their own devices, they might well have starved to death.

Fortunately, the Wampanoag Indian tribe came to the aid of the Pilgrims. In 1621, the two communities shared a Thanksgiving feast that started a tradition that continues nearly 400 years later.

On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans gather with friends and families to give thanks for the bountiful blessings in our lives and to admire great-looking birds.

I hope all my American readers have a pleasant and safe Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family tomorrow. The hope of a safe day goes double for the men and women in the military and law enforcement who put themselves on the line to protect the rest of us.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mohammed Monday: Silly Mo!

The cartoon below originally appeared on this blog as part of the international celebration of freedom of expression that was Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. It makes me wonder who is sillier... Mohammed or the idol-worshipers (the Mo-rons) who threaten to murder anyone who draws a picture of their false god.

For those new in these parts, Mohammed Mondays will continue at least through the end of 2010. It was started as a response to psychopathic Muslims and Mo-rons and their enablers in the American press forcing the lady who inspired Everybody Draw Mohammed Day into hiding. Click here for background information.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

'The Mystery Train' deserves attention

The Mystery Train (1931)
Starring: Marceline Day, Hedda Hopper, Nick Stuart, Al Cooke, Carol Tevis, and Bryant Washburn
Director: Phil Whitman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sociopathic socialite Marion Radcliffe (Hopper) helps Joan (Day), a beautiful convicted criminal, escape from custody and makes her part of an elaborate scheme to force her to marry millionaire bachelor Ronald Stanthorpe (Stuart). Marion hopes to gain control of Ronald's fortune to replace her own lost fortune, but her plans start to unravel when Joan and Ronald truly fall in love, and it turns out that Joan was actually framed for her supposed crime and the authorities are not seeking her to put in her prison but to exonerate her.

"The Mystery Train" is an intrigue- and action-packed tale that packs more romance, comedy, and suspense into its 62-minute running time than many movies with twice the length manage to offer. The script is tight and lean, with not a scrap of padding in evidence as its characters move through the effectively paced and well-filmed scenes and story twists involving a train wreck, blackmail, cat-and-mouse with police detectives, stolen jewels... all of it leading to a suspenseful climax on a runaway, decoupled passenger train car that is carrying both heroes and villains to a certain doom.

Hedda Hopper does a nice job playing the vicious, scheming Radcliffe and Marceline Day is perfect as the innocent girl she is trying to use as her way back to unlimited wealth. Nick Stuart is a notch above the usual male leads in films like this, coming across as likable and charming rather than annoying or bland as is typical. The comic relief has even held up better to the passage of time than that in most B-movies of this vintage, with Al Cooke and Carol Tevis playing a pair of train-riding, barely newlyweds whose marriage is already on the rocks.

But this film isn't as good as it is just because because of the talented cast being served by a well-written script. Unlike many other films from this period set on trains, some effort was actually made by the director and effects people to make it seem like the actors are actually onboard a train. Using sound and motion, and even some unsteady steps as actors move through hallways, laudable and successful attempts to create the illusion of being on a moving train are made.

All in all, "The Mystery Train" is one of the many movies from the early days of talkies that doesn't deserve the obscurity it fell into. I recommend it to lovers of classic detective stories and dramas.

Friday, November 19, 2010

'The Maltese Falcon' is a mystery classic

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Gladys George, and Elisha Cook Jr.
Director: John Huston
Rating: Ten of Ten Starts

When private detective Sam Spade (Bogart) tries to solve the mystery surrounding the murder of his partner, he finds himself drawn into a struggle between eccentric treasure hunters (Greenstreet and Lorre) and a beautiful con artist who may or may not also be a coldhearted killer (Astor). At stake is the Maltese Falcon, a treasure of almost unimaginable value.

"The Maltese Falcon" is one of the few movies that truly deserves the label "classic." It's a perfectly paced detective story, with just the right mix of suspense and humor to bring out the maximum effectiveness of both elements as they play off each other.

The characters are quirky and unpredictable to the point where the final outcome of the story remains in question until the final few minutes of the film, and each actor is perfectly cast in their role. Even better, every line of dialogue is perfectly crafted and delivered with spot-on timing.

In fact, everything in this film is about as perfect as a film could possibly be. If you're a fan of the hardboiled detective genre or mysteries in general and you haven't yet seen this masterpiece, you owe it to yourself to change that.

Humphrey Bogart as the deeply flawed hero Sam Spade is particularly excellent in the part, as a man with questionable moral values yet a firm personal code of honor who finds a woman (Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy) who at first seems capable of bringing out the best in him, but who ultimately may end up bringing out the absolute worst in him. While Spade is constantly fighting verbally and physically with the Lorre, Cook and Greenstreet's villains, it is Brigid who is Spade's main foil and she turns out to be one of the screen's greatest femme fatales, because Astor brings a vulnerability to a character who may be the hardest of any of the hard cases that populate this story that goes a long way to keeping the mysteries swirling through the plot open questions until the very end. As amusing and dramatic as Lorre and Greenstreet's performances are, it is Astor who is the true driver of the story, providing a great portrayal of a character that is almost as important as Bogart's Sam Spade when it comes to the success of this film.

There are only a handful of movies that I've watched more than once. "The Maltese Falcon" is one of those. Check it out, and I'm sure you'll see why.

Trivia: "The Maltese Falcon" was the third adaptation of the Hammett novel by the same title. This goes to show that not all remakes are bad. Some are even improvements on the original film. (Although, by all accounts, the 1931 and 1936 versions are pretty good, too, with the 19365 version being a spoof. I haven't seen either of those older movies yet, but both other versions are included in the DVD edition I've linked to above while the Blue-Ray edition only includes the 1936 comedy version, "Satan Met a Lady".)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Attack of the Astro-Zombies!

Astro-Zombies are murderous, science-created monsters that have been featured in three (so far) movies from B-movie auteur Ted V. Mikels. You can click here to read about the production of 2002 film "Mark of the Astro-Zombies", and here to read my reviews of both "Astro-Zombies" and "Mark of the Astro-Zombies".

Here's the best Astro-Zombie art from a gallery that is located at Dating from around 2003, the illustrations are by some of the best comic book artists working then and now. You can click on the individual illos to see larger versions, and if the artist has a website with more of his work, click on his name to visit it.

No matter what you might think of Mikels' movies, these are great drawings.

By "Buzz"
By Adam Hughes
By Frank Brunner
By Mike Hoffman
By Jerry Bingham
By Sal Velluto

By Mike Grell
By Norm Breyfogle

By Mike Deodato Jr.
By Kevin Conrad
By Tom Nguyen

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mohammed Monday:
The Joy of the Prophet Muhammad Painting

Originally presented as part of the world-wide Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, this cartoon first appeared at It's a spoof of the famous Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" instructional television show and books. (And if more Muslims decided to exchange painting for their current hobbies of mayhem and murder, the world would be far, far better place.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

'Nova' is mediocre 1970s sci-fi/superhero comics

Essential Nova (Marvel Comics, 2006)
Writers: Marv Wolfman and Len Wein
Artists: John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Frank Giacoia, Tom Palmer,
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Some comic book series start start out strong and die whimpering. The majority start in mediocrity and end in mediocrity, and that is the case with the series "A Man Called Nova", which is presented in its entirely, along with Nova's guest appearances in "Amazing Spider-Man" and "Marvel Two-in-One", in this entry in Marvel's massive, low-cost reprint book series "Essential Marvel."

Created and written by Marv Wolfman, "A Man Called Nova" centers of Richard Rider, a perfectly average high-schooler who is chosen by a dying alien soldier to be the inheritor of his mantle and his powers. Rider's first excursion as a superhero pits him against the destroyer of the distant alien world of Xandar, where his benefactor originated, and he later battles against the enigmatic Sphinx, the high-flying Condor, the bizarre Corruptor, the mad Blacklight, and many other colorful foes. Eventually, Rider is drawn into outer space, a war with the Skrull, and a race between the Sphinx and the insane machine-man Dr. Sun to control the living computers of far away Xandar.

For most of 500+ pages of comics that are presented in the book, Richard Rider/Nova place a distant, boring second to the villains he faces. Rider is simply TOO average to be interesting, and the same is true of his super-hero identity: He can fly really fast, he's super-strong, he can take a punch like nobody else... and his helmet folds like cloth when he takes it off. And that about sums it up.

The villains he fights would almost all make better stars of a comic book than he does with the Condor--a would-be kingpin of crime whose main shtick is super-science--and the Sphinx--who is questing for the secrets of the universe so he might end his immortal existence--making Nova look particularly boring when they squared off against him.

It isn't until the series is about to be cancelled that it started getting interesting, and even mildly at that. Although, like so many superhero titles, "The Man Called Nova" flirted with science fiction, the last 1/8th of the book starts moving completely in that direction. A few of the earlier stories in the book--and the best ones, by the way--had drawn heavily on sci-fi, but the majority of them were tepid super-hero stories "the Marvel Way." I suspect that if Wolfman had gone with the sci-fi angle consistently from the outset, and moved more quickly toward the Sphinx/Xandar/Skrull War storyline (which seems to have been planned from the outset), I think the original series may have been able to find an audience.

Trivia: Nova became the object of a copyright suit filed by Marv Wolfman against Marvel Comics. He wanted the rights back to the character, because he had originally created one that was very similar while a fan. He lost his case. (Let that be a lesson to all you creative out there: If you think you love a character well enough that you want to keep it yours forever, DON'T use it or some close approximation of it to fill obligations you enter into under work-for-hire agreements.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday Giveaway #1:
Win "150 Movies to (Die Before You) See"

Identify the movie that still is from and win a copy of my soon-to-be-in-bookstores tongue-in-cheek movie review book "150 Movies To (Die Before You) See." Full of trivia, capsule reviews, and descriptions of films that are either flawed, failed, or F-ed up in some other way, it's sure to be the new favorite bathroom reading in any household!

To win, you have to a) be the first person to correctly identify the movie in the comments section of this post; c) be willing to give me your snail-mail address, so I can get the book sent to you, and d) have a working email address linked to your profile (or that you include in the reply) so I can contact you..

The contest remains open until 11/17, or the movie is identified correctly. Good luck! (If this one goes off, I'll do another give-away.)

(Hint: It's a film directed by Jack Hill.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

'Seventeen Ninja': A film as hidden as the ninja?

Seventeen Ninja (1962)
Starring: Jushiro Konoe, Ryutaro Otomo, and Satomi Kotaro
Director: Yatsuo Hasegawa
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

As the Shogun lays dying, seventeen Iga clan ninja are sent to infiltrate the impenetrable fortress where his youngest son is preparing to storm Edo Castle and name himself Shogun by force of arms. They are to either steal the documents that will eventually give him lawful claim to rulership, or they are to assassinate him. But even before they reach the castle walls, they find their every move countered by a ruthless ninja hunter in the employ of the would-be usurper (Konoe), who not only knows their every tactic but knows the exact make-up of their team thanks to his own spies within Edo Castle. As the Iga Ninja fall one by one, the mission's success or complete failure--where failure will result in a bloody war of succession--comes to hinge on a single young and inexperienced ninja (Kotaro).

Interestingly, although a friend alerted me to the "classic status" of this film--it's thought of very highly of by those well-versed in the ninja genre (a sentiment verified at the site I grabbed the still from, Vintage Ninja)--it's not listed in IMDB. I'm used to films I write about "not existing," but I'm always surprised when I find a classic that's not in their database, even a foreign one like this. Especially when it's deserving of the label "classic" like this film is.

"Seventeen Ninja" was one of the earliest movies to portray ninja in a realistic light. There are no spells, no flying sword-fights, and no magic beans/pellets that allow the ninja to mysteriously disappear in puffs of smoke. There are just guys in black outfits fighting Japanese samurai with big shoulder pads. The ninja in this movie are masters of disguise, infiltration, and covert murder. They are, as they were historically, spies and guerrilla fighters who rely on specialized skills and equipment to get their dirty work done.

The life of a ninja, as portrayed in this film, is one of anonymous servitude, to the ninja clan first and to the lords who hire them second. The life of a ninja is also cheap, and, although every ninja is resigned to the fact that they might be called upon to sacrifice themselves at any moment, the film gains some depth from the fact that the leader of this band of ninja (Ryutaro Otomo) has grown frustrated with seeing his men die, especially while performing missions that he feels uncomfortable with. Like the one that claims his team in this movie. The character takes a couple of surprising actions born from his frustration, actions that are against the stereotype of the hardbitten ninja master and they will keep you guessing as to what the final outcome will be.

Another character that is more complex than is usual is the "anti-ninja expert" portrayed by Jushiro Konoe. He plays a character very much like the bitter ninja slayer from "Ninja Hunt", Wada, except that here he is the villain. Like "Ninja Hunt", however, there is not much in the way of a moral distinction between the "good guys" (the ninja assassins trying to infiltrate the castle) and the "bad guys" (the samurai and their "new retainer" that are trying to stop them). Both sides are killers, and both sides view human beings primarily as disposable assets that are there to be sacrificed on the whim of their "betters." There might have been a bigger gulf between the ninja heroes and their opponents if the viewer didn't feel a growing sympathy for Konoe's character, even as he's causing the deaths of the film's heroes; he is working for people so full of themselves and their self-perceived stature that they time and again disregard the very expert advice they hired him to provide.

Aside from the multi-faceted chief antagonists in the film, "Seventeen Ninja" is blessed with some great cinematography where the black-and-white medium is used to its fullest dramatic potential and the drama is heightened even further by expert framing of shots. It's a movie that's just great to look at.

On the downside, it slants a little too heavily toward melodrama, with just enough speeches being delivered with too much emphasis on each and every word and just too many pregnant pauses to make the film feel draggy during its first half. Things get more exciting when the impossibility of the Iga Ninjas' mission becomes apparent, and more focus is placed on Jushiro Konoe and Ryutaro Otomo's characters, but that first hour requires a little patience.

It's the second-best movie in the "Ninja Collection Vol. 1" set, and combined with the aforementioned "Ninja Hunt" is what makes the set worth buying, especially if you're a fan of Japanese movies.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Note: While looking alternative titles for this film, I discovered that there's another blogathon going on featuring ninja movies (and Japanese movies in general). It's a real blogathon, not like my one-man show here. Click on this link to check it out.

Mohammed Monday:
At the Department of Islamic Development

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Restored 'Metropolis' airs on TV tonight!

"Metropolis," one of the greatest sci-fi movies will be airing tonight (Sunday, November 7) at 8pm on Turner Movie Classics. There are a myriad of cuts of this film floating around, but this one contains about half an hour that hasn't been seen anywhere for decades.

Here are a couple of stills to celebrate.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

'Ninja Hunt' is a dark and violent event

Ninja Hunt (aka "The Ninja Hunters") (1964)
Starring: Jushiro Konoe, Kei Sata, Yamashiro Shingo, and Kokuo Hojo
Director: Tetsuya Yamanouchi
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A group of sinister Koga ninja are hired to pave the way for the corrupt Tokugawa Shogunate to seize the property and wealth of the Matsuyama clan. Four masterless samurai (ronin), who saw their lieges lose power and wealth at the hands of the same ninja through the same gambit, are hired to expose any ninja spies and prevent them from disrupting out the ninja spies. Led by Wadda (Konoe), this "special anti-ninja unit" sets about hunting and exposing spies and would-be assassins with fanatic ruthlessness and brutality that eventually forces the ninja master out from behind his disguise and into a final confrontation that perhaps none of them will survive.

"Ninja Hunt" is a surprisingly violent and amazingly suspenseful film that plays like a cross between a samurai film and a film noir thriller. It's a dark, well-crafted film that grabs you and keeps your attention from the opening scenes through the final fade-out. It's also a film that will keep you guessing as to what is coming next.

The excellence of this film starts with its characters. The "heroes" are a group of men with nothing to lose who are driven first and foremost by revenge, striving to save a noble house to whom they have no particular allegiance and who views them as completely expendable, so long as the Koga ninja are stopped. There is almost nothing that distinguishes the heroes from the villains in this movie, as the unbridled ruthlessness, as each side is equally willing to terrorize, torture, and murder to achieve their ends. While lip service is occasionally paid to duty and honor, it's clear that both the ronin and the ninja just doing tasks assigned to them by rival government factions, and that their extends no further than that. As for honor, any of the characters seem to care about is that their reputation be such that is scares others into submission before they actually have to act. There is virtually no mortal distinction between the heroes and their ninja enemies, nor necessarily between the lords of the Matsuyama clan and the Shogunate functionaries who are targeting them, and the film presents various faces of the cruel and oppressive nature of Japanese feudal society rather than a dichotomy of good vs evil.

The film is strengthened by solid directing, great cinematography and flawless editing. Nearly is perfectly staged for maximum dramatic effect and tension, and, although many scenes are draped in heavy shadow--especially the final battle between the ronin and the ninja inside a sealed burial crypt--at no time does it become difficult to tell who is whom and what is going on. (That's a frequent problem I have with ninja films... the director, camera men, and editors seem to be overwhelmed by all the running around that takes place in these films and fail to capture the action and story in a clear manner. Not so here. At no time did I get the sense the crew couldn't manage the film.)

The only major flaw in this otherwise perfect and engaging film is the scene where one of the ronin confronts and unmasks a female ninja spy within the Matsuyama palace complex itself. He knows she's a deadly killer and yet he allows himself to be "seduced" by her and/or decides to take the opportunity to engage in a little rape just for the hell of it. The stupidity that the character displays in this scene seems out of step with everything else in the movie, as does the whole tenor of the scene. To make it worse, what I suspect the filmmakers thought was dramatic ends up playing like a parody of overly melodramatic, drawn-out death scenes. I couldn't help but wonder if that scene wasn't along the lines of the rape scene got added to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed because some film executive wanted to "sex up" the picture. (There's also the minor issue of the chief ninja's martial arts speciality--he spits needles at great velocity. While I find that a little too fantastic and silly for an otherwise grounded and serious picture like this, it is a staple of the genre.)

As far as I've been able to determine, the only place "Ninja Hunt" is available in the United States on DVD is in the "Ninja Collection, Vol. 1" ten movie set. It is by far the best film included in it, and it is almost worth the $18 purchase price by itself.

Trivia: "Ninja Hunt" (origial Japanese title "Ninja Gari") was the directorial debut for Tetsuya Yamanouchi. IMDB credits him with directing seven films between 1964 and 1978. He passed away at the age of 75 on April 2, 2010.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ninjas strike in 'Empowered'!

Empowered, Vols. 3 & 4 (Dark Horse, 2008)
Story and Art: Adam Warren
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

"Empowered" is a series of graphic novels written and drawn by Adam Warren in his one-of-a-kind "manga-esque" style. The books detail the adventures and misadventures of the title character, a superheroine that is insecure in just about every conceivable way, except in her sense of right and wrong, and her unwavering impulse to always do whatever is most heroic and selfless in just about any given situation. In every other way, she's a neurotic mess, especially when it comes to her body image... and it doesn't help her that she gets her powers from a skin-tight suit that is easily damaged. Fortunately for her, she's got her boyfriend--a reformed criminal known as Thugboy--and her best friends--Ninjette, a ninja princess on the from her ninja clan, and the Caged Demonwolf, an extradimensional god who lives on her coffee table--to support her and help her through her troubles.

"Empowered" is one of the best superhero spoofs to ever come along. According to creator Adam Warren, the strip got its start as a series of bondage/fetish gag cartoons, which is why poor Empowered is captured by the villains and tied up again and again. The purely off-color origins were very obvious in the first volume, and there continues to be a relatively high degree of jokes and other content based around bondage and sexuality, but Adams continues to develop characters with emotional depth and superhero-themed story-lines that are as dramatic as they are funny. Although these are a series of books that most certainly have fun with just about every superhero trope you care to mention, they present stories far better than what you'll find in the average "real" superhero comic.

In Volume 3, in between Emp's part-time job impersonating herself as part of a band of cos-payers who perform at malls, her encounter with a new ongoing character (Ocelote) who will become her greatest "frenemy", her struggles to impress other heroes on the Superhomey team and avoid drawing the wrath of Sistah Spookey--who hates Emp for just being Emp--the book is driven by a plot line that sees Ninjette stalked by vengeful members of the ninja clan she turned her back on. They have come to return her to the fold, dead or alive, and it will take not only all of Ninjette's ninjitsu skills and magic, but also assists from Thugboy and Emp. And still, they might not succeed in saving her, because the ninjas in the "Empowered" universe have great magical power and a vicious ruthlessness that would make the ninjas in most Godfrey Ho movies tremble in fear. As Ninjette struggles for survival, the reader can easily understand why someone of her cheerful disposition ran away from home, as well as why she drinks as much as she does. Readers will also be treated to some truly dark and suspenseful storytelling, as Warren continues to guide "Empowered" away from "adult entertainment" and toward "mature entertainment".

In Vol 4, the aftermath of Ninjette's encounter with her fellow ninja color the first half of the book while the second half is devoted to Empowered being nominated for a Capey Award. It's with this book that Warren manages to completely move past the series' origins and a full-fledged superhero universe every bit as vibrant as anything you've seen before emerges. Yes, it's still a satire of superhero comics, and there is still a high degree of sexual content and humor, but almost every character but the most minor figures feel fleshed out and real within the context of the what superheroes were assholes just like most people?" world of "Empowered".

While the plot with Ninjette is interesting, and the continuing development of Thugboy's back story and the growing menace of super-villain Willy Pete lend additional weight to the book, it is the subtle, interwoven build-up to the book's cataclysmic final chapters that really show Warren't story-telling genius. The man has an ability to use foreshadowing--both in and across individual volumes--that few other comic book story tellers have. One of the best aspects of this book, and which makes it worth reading a second and third time, is the way the funny adventures of Empowered and the rest of Superhomeys--including an eight page color story--all add up to making the suspense and unbridled superhero action of the book's final few chapters seem even greater. Finally, Empowered comes into her own, and she ends up saving the day on a massive scale. (The final chapters also show more of Warren's talent for dark story telling, as he balances action, humor, and outright horror with a deftness few creators are able to do.

If you're a fan of manga, superheroes, and just great storytelling, "Empowered" is a series you should be reading. It's terrific, terrific stuff (for adults, both because of the sexual content and because I don't think most kids will get the subtle humor, pathos, and charm of much of the book's cast.)

Click here to read my reviews of "Empowered" Vols. 1 & 2.

If you like traditional, paper-based roleplaying games (specifically, the classic "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" game, click here to see how Ninjette looks in that system.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Once upon a time, ninja dueled in the clouds...

Ninjitsu (aka "Torawakamaru, the Koga Ninja") (1957)
Starring: Sentaro Fushimi, Ueki Motoharu, Nakajirô Tomita, and Chie Ueki
Director: Tadashi Sawashima
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Teenaged wizard-ninja Torawakamaru (Fushimi) of the Koga Clan must unmask the treachery of traitors working with members of the nefarious Iga Ninja Clan and rescue and rescue a princess (Ueki) from deadly danger. Along the way, he befriends a young Ninja wanna-be (Motoharu), who just happens to be the son of Torawakamaru's main foe (Tomita). Someone's not going to have a happy ending when it's all over....

Much like zombies got a popular culture make-over in the 1960s--being transformed from relatively passive creatures of Voodoo spells, as seen in films like "White Zombie" into the spontaneously rising, murderous undead creatures that are the norm today, starting with "Night of the Living Dead"--so did Ninja morph from brightly clad war-wizards into the masked, shadow-draped assassins we are familiar with today.

"Ninjitsu" is one of those old-style ninja tales set within the context of the Warring States period in Japanese history, with the good guy Koga ninjas working for the righteous Toyotomi Clan and the evil Iga Mountain ninjas doing dirty work for the nefarious warlord Tokogawa. Countless ninja movies are set during this period, as it is here the historical roots of the ninja legend were planted, as the Koga and Iga clans provided talented mercenaries and spies for whichever warlord was willing to pay for their services. In fact, the Koga might be heroes in one movie (as they are here), but the most vile villains in another movie.

The heroic nature of the Koga Ninja in this film is highlighted by their unwavering dedication to honor, duty, and to their devotion to developing both their martial and magical skills to the highest possible degree. On the other hand, the Iga can only triumph through treachery and double-dealing, kidnapping children and holding them for ransom and even cheating during ninja duels! To solidify their evil, the head of the Iga Clan is even a bad father.

Whether they are of the Koga or Iga Clans, the ninja in this film rely first and foremost on sorcery and on martial arts swordplay second. They have shape-shifting powers, teleportation powers (both for themselves and others), telekinesis, telescopic vision, and other magical abilities that come or go as the plot requires them. And, naturally, they can sword-fight while flying through the air, and ultimately stand in the clouds for their final confrontation.

It's the nonsensical ninja magic that drives this movie, along with the rather sweet subplot about a young boy who wants to be a ninja and who loves his father, no matter how cruel he is. Although it's got wall-to-wall ninja action, it's not quite what we're used to these days, so viewers will either be put off by this aspect or amused by it. I fall into the latter category, so I found the film very entertaining. The gorgeous black-and-white photography also helped make the running time of just over an hour fly by.

If you're looking for a light-hearted fantasy romp that you can watch with young kids--and that they will probably find more entertaining than you will--this film is a fine choice.

The deadliest of blogathons....

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Manning, Tarzan, and Dinosaurs!

One of the greatest newspaper strip artists of all time was Russ Manning. He also happens to be one of the greatest Tarzan artists of all time. The man also drew some mean dinosaurs!

For more illustrations of Tarzan by master artists, including Manning, visit Rip Jagger's Dojo for the "Tarzan Black & White!" gallery post.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Street Angel never cuts Ninjas a break!

Street Angel, Vol 1 (Slave Labor Graphics, 2006)
Story and Art: Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

In the ninja-infested slums of Angel City, one name strikes an equal mix of fear and irritation in the hearts of ninjas and law enformcement alike: Street Angel.

Street Angel is Jesse Sanchez, a homeless, teenaged orphan who has grown up on the meanest streets of Angel City. She has spent her young life battling corrupt city officials, dirty cops, bizarre supervillains, truant officers, and lots and lots of ninjas. Armed only with her world-class skateboarding skills, superior martial arts abilities, fiery temper, and sardonic sense of humor, she is an unstoppable force for justice in a city where justice can usually only be obtained with cash or credit cards.

"Street Angel" Vol 1 reprints all the individual comic books published by Slave Labor Graphics, along with cover reproductions, pin-ups by range of different artists, and never-before scene conceptual art by series artist Jim Rugg Street Angel appeared in a comic book series of the same name from Slave Labor Graphics. The stories are all fast-paced, well-drawn, and full of chuckles, despite the apparently depressing set-up.

I recommend the "Street Angel" collection highly if you are a fan of quirky superhero comics with a Golden Age flair and a touch of nuttiness. Street Angel's team-up with retired Seventies black superhero Afrodesiac is not to be missed!

(If you like the "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" roleplaying game, you want to check out my adaptation of Jesse "Street Angel" Sanchez to that system.)

The deadliest of blogathons....

Mohammed Monday: Jesus and Mo

Here's another of my favorites from the long-running "Jesus and Mo" strip.