Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: 18 Bronzemen (1976)

Joseph Kuo was one of the leading independent directors of Hong Kong kung fu movies. Mystery of Chess Boxing, Blazing Temple and 7 Grandmasters are considered his best work. Before those films, one of his early successes was 18 Bronzemen.

Set during the Manchu invasion, 18 Bronzemen opens with an attack on the household of a notable Ming general. The general is killed, and his infant son Shao Long is passed into a family of Ming loyalists, where he begins kung fu training and brutal beatings to give him strength. The Manchu continue to terrorize the surviving Mings, and so the boy is sent to the safety of the Shaolin Temple for further training. Before his training can be considered complete he must pass through the 36 Chambers and face the 18 Bronzemen, or die in the attempt...

This was one of several kung fu films to focus on the Shaolin Temple and the 36 Chambers of testing in particular, two years before Lau Kar-Leung's famous The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The success of this film would lead to two sequels (well, same actors, different characters...): Return of the 18 Bronzemen and the aforementioned Blazing Temple (8 Masters). Carter Wong (Thunder from Big Trouble in Little China) plays the "big brother" role, the serious student who helps the bumbling Shao Long through his training.

For an independent film of the time, the production quality is fairly high. The sets of the Temple, especially the training areas, are impressive. The town setting must have been filmed at one of the studio backlots, but is very effective, and the teahouse fight scene is really good. Carter Wong's fight scenes are the highlight of the film.

One lingering question: What are the 18 Bronzemen? Automatons? Shaolin masters in gold paint?

The first two-thirds of the movie--involving the Temple and the training--work the best. Once they leave, the film starts to fall apart. It's almost as if it's rushing to move the story along. The editing of some scenes can leave the viewer wondering who people are and what is going on. I think that's a problem both with the dubbing and with cultural differences. When Polly Shang first appears, it is implied that she is disguised as a man and Shao Long is fooled by the disguise, although to the viewer it's obvious that she isn't. I got it, that it's a cultural convention for these types of stories, but the casual viewer might take it literally. There's also one of the worst jump-cuts I've seen in a kung fu film, where the fight between our heroes and the Manchu warlord goes from a city street to a mountain valley in one cut.

Odd story and editing choices aside, the film is worth seeing as a great example of the independent kung fu films outside the major studios (i.e., Shaw Brothers) and the early "old-school" productions.

I watched the Tai Seng/Mei Ah DVD released in 2002 with Mandarin dialogue and English subtitles. It can also be viewed in 10-minute parts on YouTube.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Upcoming DVD releases

I haven't been keeping up with DVD release news for about five weeks now, so -- wouldn't you know it? -- that's the time when there are some big announcements.
Hammer fans can now get the DVD of The Creatures the World Forgot from Sony's Screen Classics Manufactured-On-Demand series. The last of the three prehistoric epics from Hammer (including One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth), Creatures... is notable for the near-total lack of dialogue. The story is told through the actions of the characters (no stop-motion dinosaurs, either). It was released on VHS years ago but has only been available recently as a download or streaming rental through Amazon Video on Demand.
The Warner Archive continues rolling out great films from the vault through their MOD program. One of the latest releases is the Rankin/Bass-produced film The Last Dinosaur, which has special effects by Tsuburaya Productions. From the IMDB:
Science has announced the discovery of a lost land hidden inside the warm pocket of a dormant volcano under the polar ice cap. Masten Thrust, a billionaire oil tycoon and big-game hunter, is recruited to lead a team there to study the last living dinosaurs. Upon arriving, Thrust and his team find that the hidden world is populated with both dinosaurs and prehistoric humans. While the humans give the explorers a fair bit of trouble, the real danger is the hungry tyrannosaur intent on making lunch out of the Great White Hunter and his crew.
This was originally planned as a theatrical release but was shown in the US as a TV-movie. I only remember vague mentions of this; I don't believe I ever saw it on TV.

Speaking of MOD discs, Sony has made an agreement with Warner Brothers to sell their Screen Classics on Demand from the Warner Archive web store. It makes sense -- Warner Archive has become the MOD powerhouse among the studios and (even better) Warner Archive has regular sales and coupon codes. MGM's own foray into the made-on-demand business had some false starts with Amazon, although it appears that MGM MOD discs are being made available now through Screen Archives Entertainment, the fine folks who bring us Film Score Monthly limited edition soundtrack CDs and other treasures.

Legend Films has released various movies from the Paramount back-catalog, and on May 3rd we get an excellent British horror treat: a Blu-ray double-feature of Hammer's The Man who Could Cheat Death and Amicus Productions' The Skull. Legend released these two on DVD previously. Severin Films has Amicus' The House That Dripped Blood in prep for eventual release.

Some of the out-of-print single-disc Midnite Movies from MGM appear to be back this month, albeit in a different form. Cover photos were spotted at DVDPlanet (and apparently available on Amazon). There are at least two four-movie sets. One has Morons From Outer Space/Alien From L.A./The Man From Planet X/The Angry Red Planet, the other includes The Land That Time Forgot/The People That Time Forgot/Panic In Year Zero/The Last Man On Earth (that's a steal at $10). Let's hope MGM/Fox re-packages some of the other OOP Midnite Movies titles. It appears that a few single-movie MM discs are on the way from their MOD program.

Public domain-content provider Film Chest has restored and released Roger Corman's 1963 film The Terror as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The movie was made in a matter of days using the magnificent sets left over from Corman's Poe film The Raven, and extra time left on Boris Karloff's contract. It's impressive considering the circumstances of the shoot. I have a soft spot for The Terror, as I remember it being a staple of Saturday afternoons as a kid. If one of the Corman Poe films were being shown, it was likely to be The Terror -- probably due to its public-domain status. With this high-def release it gets the restoration it deserves.
Finally, there has been some buzz about an official DVD release of Godzilla vs. Megalon. As with The Terror, Megalon has been a mainstay of public-domain releases. Nearly every PD video company put out a cheap VHS tape during the '80s and '90s. So far it appears to be speculation. I'm sure there is more to the story, and like many others I hope we see an official release soon.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen, RIP

We learned today (thanks to Norbert) that Elisabeth Sladen, who portrayed Sarah Jane Smith on Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Chronicles, passed away at the age of 63.

There have been a number of obituaries and tributes posted, all of which do more justice than I could. You will find that the thread running though all of them is her graciousness, talent, humor and class, and the genuine affection for her from the fans and those who worked with her.

** Update: these three are some of the more touching tributes on the web **
Newsarama: Elisabeth "Sarah Jane" Sladen, Queen of Companions, RIP

Kasterborous: Elisabeth Sladen

Kasterborous: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith
** (includes video tributes)

Many Who fans talk about "their" Doctor--the actor they grew up watching. I remember watching Doctor Who on WTTW-11, the PBS station in Chicago. I saw some of the later Jon Pertwee episodes, most of the Tom Baker episodes and Peter Davidson shows, and a handful of the Sylvester McCoy shows. Tom Baker's first episode, "Robot", might have been my first. My favorites were Pertwee and Baker, and Baker was always "my" Doctor. Sarah Jane was almost everyone's favorite Companion.

Elisabeth Sladen and Third Doctor Jon Pertwee
Elisabeth Sladen and Fourth Doctor Tom Baker

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rules for a Conan RPG

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Kaiju was chatting with a friend and former colleague. He said that he would be interested if I planned to run a Conan RPG in the future. I haven't talked to him for a while, and I was very flattered that he suggested it.

Our current Freeport campaign will be wrapping up soon, although I'm not sure when I might be able to start up another campaign. He is also starting his own game very soon.

There are several RPG settings that I would like to run. Freeport was one of those, and the Hyborian Age of Conan is at the top of the list. We had great fun in the game(s) that S. ran. I've been putting together background notes for a Conan game since at least 2005, and regularly think about ideas for it. It's the setting that I feel most comfortable with running, particularly for improv riffing and winging it. In my mind, it's as real as any fantasy setting could be.

The uncertain part of my planning has always been what rules system to use. At various points I've considered:

There are four main points that I'm looking for in a rules system:

Rules that play quickly and resolve smoothly. In my experience, the best RPG moments involve the storyline and the interaction of all the players, not necessarily crunching numbers. The suspense of a crucial die roll or card flip is great, and can ratchet up the tension. That's not what I'm referring to here. I'd rather that the rules help facilitate the role-play rather than cause us to spend time looking up obscure rules in several books. I've tried to be better about making a ruling and moving on, and looking it up later, but I still need practice in that area.

Rules that simulate pulp action. Howard's Conan stories are prototypical sword-and-sorcery and firmly rooted in the pulp tradition. Pulp action, in an RPG, should have that over-the-top feeling. "Cinematic" is used often when referring to RPG rules. I think pulp is similar. The PCs should be heroic, in the sense that they are better than the average human in abilities. Pulp generally follows what is often called "gritty", as it's more human-focused than the usual fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, orcs and the like. I'm also very enamored with some of the mechanics from the pulp RPG Spirit of the Century, especially the idea of Aspects. I'd like to use that or something with the same literary style to play up the trappings of the genre.

Give a variable level of "crunch" to those who want it. I would like to use a system that allows players some latitude on how detailed they want their stats and special abilities to be. It should be simple for the players to add extra detail to their characters, as add-ons (feats, special abilities, etc.) beyond the standard, if they wish to do so.

In-print and available or, even better, free? Used copies of out-of-print rulebooks are possible to find, although it can make things complicated. It's much easier if the books or documents required to play are readily available, particularly if the game is currently in print and actively supported by both the publisher and the fan community. Additionally, I do not want players to feel that they need to buy books in order to play. Players may want their own rulebook or player's guide but it shouldn't be necessary. I can make table copies available. Even better if the system is free to download, where as many copies as needed can be printed for all.

Currently l'm considering:

A retro-clone? Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Castles & Crusades, OSRIC... one of the old-school games might give the proper vibe.  Related to this is ZeFRS, the free retro-clone version of TSR's Conan rules.

Shadow, Sword & Spell. I first learned about this system from Zach's posts on RPGBlogII, and I was so impressed by his comments about it that it was number one on my list to investigate at Gen Con last year. It's a human-centric sword-and-sorcery RPG with Howard, Lovecraft, Smith and Leiber as direct influences.

OpenQuest d100. I have experience with Basic Roleplaying as the system behind Call of Cthulhu, and its use in RuneQuest seems like a good system for pulp fantasy. OpenQuest is a project to create an open d100-based fantasy RPG using the RuneQuest SRD along with the best ideas from Chaosium's RuneQuest and Stormbringer.

Crypts & Things. A recent development from the folks that brought us OpenQuest; a Swords & Wizardry variant using house rules, changes and additions to promote a pulp fantasy feel to the game.

Maybe even Action Cards?

Plenty to think about...

Update: I forgot to mention Barbarians of Lemuria in the list above. I haven't read it yet, although it has received great reviews.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: House (1977)

This week's review is a step outside my usual random picks. I had wanted to watch House for some time now, and as I was returning one disc to Netflix, I added House to my queue at #1 to get it in time for the weekend.

I've been a fan of Japanese film and pop culture for as long as I can remember. House was a hit sensation in Japan, although somehow I had never read anything about it until it was released on DVD and Blu-ray recently by The Criterion Collection.

I'm not sure if this is the strangest or weirdest film I have ever seen, but it may be in the top five. I'm not qualified to decide if it is the strangest film ever produced (I still haven't seen Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain yet). Somehow, I doubt it.

Here's the synopsis from Criterion:
How to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s indescribable 1977 movie House (Hausu)? As a psychedelic ghost tale? A stream-of-consciousness bedtime story? An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava? Any of the above will do for this hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other ghoulish visions, all realized by Obayashi via mattes, animation, and collage effects. Equally absurd and nightmarish, House might have been beamed to Earth from some other planet. Never before available on home video in the United States, it’s one of the most exciting cult discoveries in years.
That says it all, really. I especially like the part about being beamed from another planet. I've used that analogy before when talking about some foreign films, and that's how it felt sometimes watching Japanese giant monster films -- or Italian crime dramas, or Russian fairy tale movies -- late at night on out-of-town UHF TV stations. "What is this? Is anyone else seeing what I'm seeing?" It's comforting to see this as a response from someone else.

Is it a love story? Is it a cautionary tale? Is it nothing more than a fun haunted-house romp? I'm still not sure I can answer that. I found the film fascinating to watch, particularly the different camera tricks and special effects used, the music, and the editing. The first half of the movie seemed much more strange and unique. Perhaps, with the distance of time and all of the other films that have used House as inspiration, some of the later elements didn't appear as fresh to me. This is not a criticism of the movie itself, as I feel that a work should be judged in the context of the time it was created.

If you are looking for a unique film experience, enjoy Japanese film (particularly fantasy or horror), or are interested in film-making styles of the 1970s, take a look at House. I highly recommend the recently-created mini-documentary "Constructing a 'House'", featuring Obayashi and his daughter, included on the Criterion disc.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Link Cleanup

I hope to have a chance this weekend to reorganize some of the site links on the left sidebar, which I've been wanting to change for a while. I will not remove any (and likely add more), only put them in more concise headings. I would also like to add a separate page with a gaming-related blogroll, however it doesn't appear that Blogger lets you drop widgets on a static page. I may have to dig deep for the coding and paste it into the HTML directly.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Michael Gough, RIP

Although I'm late in commenting on this, I would be remiss if I did not mention that actor Michael Gough passed away on March 17th.

I'm prompted to do so because many of the news stories online have summed up his career with the phrase " know for his performance as Alfred the butler in the Burton/Schumacher Batman films..." That may be true in America and some other international markets, but he's also had a prolific and distinguished acting career on stage, screen and television.

His acting caught the eye of Sir Laurence Olivier, and he was cast in Olivier's film adaptation of Richard III, worked alongside Sir Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit and won the Tony Award for Best Actor in 1979. He could move from serious dramatic works to B-movies and back again. He appeared in many British horror films of the era, including his role as Arthur Holmwood in Horror of Dracula, the villainous D'Arcy in Phantom of the Opera, Horrors of the Black Museum, Konga, The Skull, The Curse of the Crimson Altar (The Crimson Cult) with Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele, The Legend of Hell House, and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, among others.

On television, he appeared in Blakes' 7, The Avengers, Brideshead Revisited, Smiley's People, and several times on Doctor Who, most notably as The Celestial Toymaker.

In later years he appeared in the Batman films, Top Secret, Out of Africa, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Age of Innocence, and Sleepy Hollow, just to name a few.