Overlooked Films

By Wes Hazard

Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon (Dir. Michael Schultz, 1985, 109 Minutes)
PN1997 .L3783 2005
What do you get when you mix blaxploitation and martial arts, throw in a heaping dose of 80s style, and then soundtrack the entire thing with late-period Motown music? Unmitigated awesomeness, that's what. Yes, financed and produced by Berry Gordy in the mid 80s, primarily as a musical showcase for the then current roster of Motown artists, The Last Dragon is fun, energetic, insane and just plain earnest enough to make you forget about the underlying ridiculousness of the entire plot. Leroy Green (martial artist Taimak) is a Harlem kid and rising Kung-Fu master who idolizes Bruce Lee, helps out at his parents' pizza shop, and has no knowledge whatsoever about girls... he also eats popcorn with chopsticks. Leroy (Bruce Leroy on the streets) becomes the target of the evil Sho'nuff (the Shogun of Harlem, seriously), who wants to prove that he's the baddest fighter in the city, and Eddie Arkadian, the Mafioso video game kingpin who's trying to force Leroy's TV-dance-show-emcee love interest into signing a contract for him. If that sounds a bit crazy it doesn't even begin to describe how out-there this movie can seem, all while still making you care about the characters. A hands down cult classic with great fights, better music and dialogue to quote for days. Definitely see this movie.

Moon Child (Dir. Takahisa Zeze, 2003, 119 Minutes)
PN1993.5 .J3 M66 2006
People like to think that Stephenie Meyer introduced us to sensitive vampires with moral dilemmas, a passion for fashion, and prominent cheekbones. That's not the case... it was actually Anne Rice. However, somewhere between the two of them this oddity got made in Japan and it's definitely worth a watch if you like wistful gangster movies with endless gunfights and somber reflections about the depths of friendship. And yes, svelte vampires. Starring two of Japan's biggest pop idols at the time (Hyde Takarai and Gackt Camui) Moon Child is set in the dystopian near-future where an economic collapse has caused huge chunks of Japan's population to scatter to gang-run pockets of China to scrap for survival. There a group of young pickpockets meet up with a perpetually-young but listless protector and come of age battling it out against a variety of street gangs. That description manages to say pretty much everything and nothing about the movie. A hugely ambitious, if not always successful, blend of genres with a melancholy core and a LOT of shootouts Moon Child is something of a modern day obscuro classic.

The King of New York (Dir. Abel Ferrara, 1990, 106 Minutes)
PN1997 .K5646 2004
With all due respect to the man himself, here in 2011 we've gotten to the point where Christopher Walken appearing in a movie is as much parody as it is acting. The speech pattern, the facial tics, the gameness to appear in pretty much any role with any half-baked dialogue -- these are all reasons why Walken has become one of the most prominent and beloved character actors of the last few decades. But they're also why he's become fodder for countless hack stand-up impressions and why a lot of uncreative directors cast him in movies just so he can do his "crazy-Walken-thing" and (hopefully) sell some tickets. The King of New York is a great reminder of just how intense, serpentine and appealingly crazy Walken could (and still can) be when given the right movie. In it he's Frank White, a New York kingpin, recently released from prison who has a Robin Hood complex and more than a few scores to settle. You've seen the crime-boss-on-the-make movie before, probably many times. What makes this film so worthwhile is the style. The attitude and aesthetics of its director (Abel Ferrara, who did the original Bad Lieutenant) are over the top in the best way possible. The racial dynamics of Frank's gang and the cops who go up against him are endlessly fascinating. Add in a stellar supporting cast (Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Buscemi, etc.) and you have one of the better crime films of the 90s. Continually referenced by the Notorious B.I.G. in his lyrics this is a total gem among New York mob pictures.

Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (dir. Bret Wood, 2003, 91 Minutes)
TL152.6 .H44 2003
Nowadays in driver's ed classes instructors stress the importance of being careful and responsible on the road by quoting accident statistics and using anecdotes about the tragic consequences of inattention and bad decisions. From 1959-1979 they just cut to the chase and showed American high school students endless 16mm footage of the most grisly and gore-filled real life car wrecks imaginable. I'm not sure if this actually caused a net reduction in motor vehicle deaths, but it certainly did a lot to permanently scar a generation of wide-eyed kids trying to get their learners' permits. Hell's Highway is a weirdly gripping documentary about a very specific slice of American public education that many people have forgotten or just plain choose not to talk about. Looking at the postwar social factors (such as the emergence and empowerment of "teenagers" as a demographic to be reckoned with) that led to the (perceived) need for these educational films, and including interviews with those who made them and the educators who showed them, this documentary sheds light on a phenomenon that many today might not be aware of. Incorporating copious footage from vintage accident filmstrips, Hell's Highway is as informative, and as lurid, as the very films it dissects. Well worth a watch. (Note: The special edition 2 disc DVD contains several vintage full length 16mm gore shorts).

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Dir. Nam Nai Choi, 1991, 91 Minutes)
PN1993.5 .J3 R55 1993
Pretty much everything about this movie is absurd. The atrocious dubbing, the hammy acting, the cheap (yet inspired) special effects and, most of all, the downright cartoonish violence will all lead you to shake your head in disbelief at various points throughout the film... but you won't look away. OK, maybe in the third act, when yet another henchman has his abdomen punched through with an accompanying geyser of blood, maybe then you'll look away for a brief second, but you'll be smiling as you do it. There is, up to a certain point, a plot involved in all of this. But it's largely irrelevant. Suffice it to say that a noble and near-invincible martial arts master finds himself in a privatized prison with a sadistic drug-dealing warden and a bunch of evil inmate lackeys. Fighting ensues. In the end, for all of its gore, there really is no other way to approach this movie than with smiling bemusement. If you absolutely can't deal with onscreen blood, it's probably best to stay away from Riki-Oh. But if you enjoy mind-blowingly bombastic fight scenes and have an appreciation for the more "out there" examples of the martial arts genre you really can't go wrong with this.

Diva (dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981, 123 Minutes)
PQ2675 .D5 D5 2000
She's a world famous opera star who refuses to be recorded. He's too much of a fan to resist making a surreptitious tape of a concert. They both end up threatened by a crooked French cop and a gang of murderous Taiwanese opera fanatics. There's also a mysterious art collector/armchair detective and his gamine companion who drop in to offer assistance and advice. Wonderful. Truly. This movie, against all the odds, takes itself completely seriously and ends up fun, memorable, touching and sincere (It includes one of the most charming and most chaste date scenes in memory). You certainly don't have to be an opera fan to enjoy it, but you may end up one.

The Terrorist (Dir. Santosh Sivan, 1998, 95 Minutes)
PN1993.5 .I8 T44 200
This movie has, unfortunately, become only more relevant since it was made in 1998. Since then, politically motivated suicide attacks have become a staple news story, occurring with startling frequency. We've all probably wondered at some point just what goes through the head of someone in the weeks and days before they carry out such a mission. There is no definitive "answer" to that question, but The Terrorist offers a glimpse into what one young woman might experience in just such a situation. The film follows Malli, 19, a committed warrior for the cause (the name, motives and goals of her organization are never disclosed) with a matter-of-factness and objectivity that is note-perfect for the piece. We know that Malli has grown up immersed in this world "30 missions, all successful", but the politics involved aren't discussed at all. This movie is about a girl who's chosen to die before she's old enough to have really lived and the things she learns as she prepares herself during the first days of her existence that are not spent in a guerilla jungle camp. Just before her attack Malli stays with the sage (if goofy) farmer Vasu and his comatose wife. He doesn't know her purpose but his effortless wisdom stirs thoughts in her that are alien to the lifelong soldier. You begin to wonder if she'll go through with it after all, but won't know until the last moment of the film. On the way there you'll be treated to one of the most beautifully shot movies imaginable. It has an almost fetishistic obsession with rain, water, and Malli's eyes and the requisite technical skill to make it worth it. Thoughtful, non-judgemental, authentic and necessary.

The American Astronaut (Dir. Cory McAbee, 200, 94 Minutes)
PN1997 .A647 2005
A space-western/musical... you just don't see a lot of those. Set in outer space among random asteroid dive bars and outposts in the bad part of Venus, this movie has the feel of a zero-G B western. It's filled with seedy watering holes and vigilantes and drunks looking to fight in saloon bathrooms (but only after they've given you an elaborate song and dance routine). Created by and starring members of the band The Billy Nayer Show this is about as eccentric of a movie as you can hope to see, crammed with more glorious what just happened? moments than we deserve. Shot on a shoestring budget in stark black and white, the movie follows Curtis, a down and out space courier as he attempts to complete a 3-way transfer involving a dead body, the all-female planet of Venus, and the only boy from Jupiter to have ever seen a woman. Loaded with great musical scenes and featuring an incredibly obsessive and thoughtful villain this is a film for anyone who likes their cinema on the weird side.

Wes Hazard, Media Services Assistant, O'Neill Library