Saturday, April 18, 2015

Movie Reviews: Last Knights, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires

Last Knights
directed by Kazuaki Kiriya
Imagine 47 Ronin redone for a world where people of different races all live together in the same area marrying, loving, hating and killing each other without regard to skintones. Imagine a A Game of Thrones subtheme (a man too proud and rigid in his definition of good refusing to play the game and bringing ruin onto his family) brought to the big screen. That is Last Knights. There is a continual conflict between deontology and consequentialism in life. If we discover that a little league team championship baseball team has inadvertently(?) broken the rules should we remove their title? If the text of a law creating health care subsidies has a glaring mistake within should we invalidate the law though that will harm millions of people? Should a proud and good lord refuse to pay bribes to a greedy minister and then call out the corruption even though by doing so he insults the emperor? Does anyone really believe "Let justice be done though the heavens fall"? Yes, some people do believe that. We may consider such people to be heroic martyrs or dangerously rigid idealists.

Although few people are absolute deontologists, those who tend towards deontologist mindsets tend to have tremendous respect for rules, codes and laws whether they be externally imposed or internally accepted. A man's gotta have a code pretty much sums up their outlook. They will think long and hard before breaking such strictures and will usually support punishing those who do, even themselves. A deontologist believes that a person should do the "right" thing and/or follow the rules regardless of the consequences. Doing the right thing is reward enough. Giving consequences serious consideration doesn't factor heavily into a deontologist's moral calculus.

This is especially true of deontologist types who happen to be warriors. For them obedience unto death is a job description. These are the sort of people, who if ordered to guard their lord's children or to make a hopeless last stand, will grimly do so with no complaint and no expectation of survival. On the other hand, a consequentialist, or rather a utilitarian, will have much less faith in rules or codes and much more interest in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So for example if they must falsify evidence to convict a clearly guilty rapist, or occasionally turn a blind eye to some smaller corruption to avoid war or save the lives of loved ones or keep quiet in order to live and fight another day they will do so. Neither position is necessarily "good" or "bad". Moral and immoral people can be found at every point on and between these two poles. Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman) is definitely a deontologist. The Stark Bartok clan is an old proud much respected family that has produced many great warriors and leaders. But times are changing. Lord Bartok has no son to inherit his name and sword. His biological sons predeceased him. The Emperor (Payman Maadi) is centralizing power. The Emperor uses his execrable minister Geza Mott (Aksel Hennie) to do this. 

Mott, with a wink and nod from the Emperor, shakes down the various noble families for extortionate bribes. Refusal to pay a bribe is disrespecting Mott. Disrespecting Mott is disrespecting the Emperor. The Emperor has a highly negative response to anyone challenging his power or authority. The arrogant Mott has finally ordered Lord Bartok to come to the capital. Obviously Geza is expecting a bribe and can't wait to boast how he made the old warrior Lord Bartok bow and scrape.

Lord Bartok arrives at the capital, along with his personal guard of hardcore warriors led by Commander Raiden, (Clive Owen) his foster son and most loyal and feared retainer. But after a brief oblique discussion with Raiden about the nature of right and wrong and the future of their clan, Bartok tenaciously holds true to his beliefs. There is a high price paid. Although everything that happens next is legal everyone knows that legal or not, Winter Revenge is Coming. It's only a question of when or if Raiden will pull himself out of depression and self-hate to put the band back together. The action scenes are well shot but nowhere near as graphic or as exciting as films like Hammer of the Gods or Ironclad. Cliff Curtis does his normal solid work as Raiden's second, Lt. Cortez. Park Si-Yeon is Hannah, Geza Mott's long suffering wife. The Iranian actress Shoreh Aghdashloo is Lord Bartok's wife. As with any good war or heist movie there is the requisite number of betrayals, the cocky young kid looking for an opportunity to prove himself as a man among men, the honorable enemy who dislikes his evil master's orders but is sworn to obey them, damsels in distress and grim boasts. This was an okay film but clearly Freeman and Owen are capable of better. I liked the multiple races/ethnicities employed. Last Knights was blandly enjoyable but aside from a few exceptional setpiece battles this film wasn't something that was going to stay in your mind after the ending. I do like revenge movies though. You've heard of comfort foods? This was a comfort movie.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

directed by Spike Lee
This is a remake/reinterpretation of a movie, Ganja and Hess, which I haven't seen. Perhaps if I had seen that film I would have a different, complete or better understanding of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (DSBJ) but we can only play the hand we were dealt. I am not interested in seeing Ganja and Hess now. The good part about DSBJ is the cinematography. I don't know if there is another American director of any race who routinely shows black people in such beautiful lighting and settings. Chocolate, mahogany, caramel, cafe latte, ebony, all are shown here in exquisite loving detail. You could make a coffee table artbook from the photos. Obviously good looking actors and actresses of any race are going to look well, good, but Spike Lee always brings that something special. And he does so here. The fact that he made this film via Kickstarter for a relatively small amount of money makes me more impressed with his visual skills. The film looks very rich and colorful. Unfortunately the bad parts about DSBJ include almost everything else. To be polite I would say that that this movie was outre and challenging. 

To be honest I would say the film was virtually incoherent. The music, normally a strong point in Lee films, was WAY too loud and intrusive. The music chosen was often completely wrong for the scenes. It took the viewer away from what was going on in the shot instead of emphasizing it.

DSBJ is about addiction more than vampirism. There are many themes. There's questions about black masculinity and femininity, African history, AIDS, black upper class guilt, homosexuality, white cultural theft, capitalism, religion, the black church, wealth, assimilation, forgiveness, sexual abuse and many many more social issues. I didn't think that these elements were mixed together very well. The film also ran about thirty minutes too long. It felt more like a play than a film. There's an iciness and distance that pervades the entire movie. There's no tension or fear or character development. You won't identify with anyone. Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is a wealthy anthropologist and art collector who splits his time between Martha's Vineyard and NYC. Greene is a cold and distant man. One night at his home Greene is attacked and murdered by his depressed research assistant/fellow anthropologist Dr. Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), who afterwards commits suicide. It's unclear as to why Hightower was suicidal and murderous. He may have had unrequited sexual feelings for Greene. Who knows? 

Although Hightower stabbed Greene in the heart with an ancient Ashanti dagger, Greene is shocked to find himself returned from the dead. He also has a sudden lust for human blood, which he temporarily slakes by drinking from Hightower's body. Greene sprouts no fangs and doesn't spontaneously combust when the sun touches his skin. He doesn't sleep in a coffin.
After a short period of preying upon Black and hispanic single mothers and hookers in NYC, Greene returns home one day to find Hightower's estranged, brassy and beautiful English wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) demanding to know where her husband is. But Greene falls in love with Ganja. This film isn't the first work of art to make a connection between the religious doctrine of transubstantiation and the needs of someone who is addicted to blood. That is found in vampire stories from Stoker's Dracula to King's Salem's Lot. DSBJ uses this theme but it never really decides what it wants to say about it. If vampires are just blood addicts should they be pitied or destroyed? This film can't decide. In fact it's not interested in even asking that question. It doesn't really take a moral side. So this was a movie during which I found myself constantly checking how much time was left, not because I didn't want it to end but because I did. There is full frontal nudity here from both genders. If you could not live without seeing Felicia Pearson (Snoop from The Wire) nude then this is a film for you. The hair stylist Nate Bova makes her acting debut but (fortunately? unfortunately?) it's in an extremely explicit, detailed and lengthy lesbian scene. I think this film might be more of interest to film students who can appreciate the technical challenges of low budget filmmaking than it would be to the casual viewer who is just looking for an engaging story. But as with everything YMMV. Katherine Borowitz (aka Mrs. John Turturro), Rami Malek, Joie Lee, Cinque Lee, Raphael Saadiq, Valerie Simpson, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Donna Dixon have roles.

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires

directed by Chang Cheh and Roy Ward Baker
"Everybody was kung-fu fighting/Those kicks were fast as lightning"
In the late seventies the Rolling Stones jumped on the disco bandwagon with Miss You. In the eighties Aerosmith reignited their career by doing a version of their song Walk This Way with the then hotter rap group Run-DMC. Similarly in 1974 Hammer Films was reeling financially. Its bosomy period horror flicks were out of style. So the Hammer producers and studio execs tried to duplicate what was popular. Hong Kong kung fu movies were popular. Motivated by pure profit based opportunism, Hammer tried to revive its fortunes by co-producing a horror/kung fu movie with the famous Hong Kong Shaw Brothers Studio. It didn't work. Perhaps the usual Orientalist aspects of Hammer productions didn't mesh with the more independent, modern and proud Chinese Shaw Brothers approach. Perhaps it didn't work because the Chinese and English crews couldn't really understand each other and didn't get along that well when they did. Perhaps it didn't work because kung fu horror wasn't what people wanted, then or now. Peter Cushing did his normal good work as the eternally doubted vampire hunter Van Helsing but he's really in the wrong film.

Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) looks and sounds very much like he wandered in from La Cage Aux Folles. He's about as scary as Count Chocula. Perhaps recognizing a camp Dracula doesn't work, the directors mostly keep Dracula offscreen. They do this by having Dracula possess the body of a Chinese villain which is ironic considering this is basically what Hammer was trying to do with the kung fu genre.

In the 1800s an evil Chinese monk goes to Transylvania to ask for Dracula's help in restoring the power of seven Chinese vampires. In the 1900s Van Helsing lectures at a Chinese university about the legend of vampires who have terrorized a remote Chinese village for centuries. It's not explained why the villagers didn't just move. But if that question comes to mind the horror genre isn't for you anyway. The professors and students dismiss Van Helsing as a nut and leave. Everyone departs except for Hsi Ching (David Chiang) the leader of a band of kung fu expert siblings. He tells Van Helsing that the legend is true. His grandfather killed a vampire. Hsi Ching wants Van Helsing's help in eliminating the other vampires. Hsi Ching thinks that with his family's kung fu skills and Van Helsing's knowledge, they can't lose. The wealthy Norwegian widow Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) agrees to fund the expedition but only if she can come along. She's got eyes for Hsi Ching. Her character only exists to show off impressive cleavage. Throughout the film more and more articles of her clothing either get wet or come off though Ege apparently (unless there's an unedited edition available) had a no toplessness clause in her contract, something the Chinese extras didn't. When someone asked Baker why he cast Ege he incredulously asked the person to look at her. Ege had been Miss Norway and a Penthouse Pet. Fair enough.

Special effects and cinematography are surprisingly worse than Hammer's work fifteen years before this film. Heck, they're worse than Universal did FORTY(!) years before this film. I'm talking obvious fake bats on strings and stop motion decaying deflating vampires. The film looks very very cheap. The picture and colors lack definition. I wonder if the director of photography was drunk. The indifferent dubbing only makes matters worse. The fight scenes are ok and of a piece with the times. No one is going to mistake this for Five Deadly Venoms (a later Shaw Brothers masterpiece) or Enter the Dragon. The Chinese siblings, with the exception of Hsi Ching and his sister, who likes Van Helsing's son, are never differentiated from one another. Still they are the best part of the film, particularly in an early set piece where the entire family joyously runs to meet the enemy. Aside from that I was joyous when this film concluded. I'm not including the trailer because Hammer actually ineptly revealed the entire ending in the trailer. You're not missing much though.
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