Saturday, June 30, 2018

Jaka Sembung (1981)

... aka: Jaka, der Rebell
... aka: Jaka Sembung sang penakluk
... aka: Jaka Sembung the Conqueror
... aka: La guerrier
... aka: Warrior, The
... aka: Warrior: El guerro, The

Directed by:
Sisworo Gautama Putra

After leading a peasant revolt and refusing to pay property taxes levied on them by the Dutch, the impossibly stoic and zen Parmin aka Jaka Sembung (Barry Prima) and ninety others are captured by soldiers and taken to a prison camp where they'll be forced to do hard labor by armed guards. Overseeing the camp is Captain Van Schram (Dicky Zulkarnaen), who believes in obedience and discipline, even if it means starvation, cruelty and death for prisoners. His daughter Maria (Dana Christina) implores him to have more compassion but fat chance of that happening as her dad is actually a sadistic nut. Jaka and the other men are taken to a rock quarry where they're mistreated by guards and refused water, which leads Jaka to lead yet another riot. Many are shot and killed but some, including our hero, manage to escape. When word gets back to the Captain that Jaka was responsible yet again, he orders a reward for his capture and / or death to entice bounty hunters into tracking him down.

Big, bald Kobar (S. Parya, who also did the art direction and special effects) is more than happy to answer the ad. He's not only a brute but he also has the ability to breathe fire and his skin is impervious to bullets and metal weaponry. And to prove his worth, he's more than willing to wrestle and kill a bull with his bare hands! When he starts hassling and slapping around Jaka's girl Surti (Eva Arnaz), Jaka shows up for a fight and finally puts him down by impaling his head with a bamboo pole.

After that humiliating defeat, the Captain's cohort, Meneer Van Allen (S. Subyabrata), brings in a "voodoo expert" (H.I.M. Damsyik) with a really jacked up grill who claims to be able to resurrect the dead. To demonstrate his supernatural abilities, he lifts up a skeptical guard (Rukman Herman) and then spins him around in a circle. Meneer accompanies the voodoo master to a graveyard, where he shoots spinning fireballs out of his hands and levitates a coffin. Inside is a headless body, which he manages to resurrect. They then go and find the head hanging from a tree. It's brought back to life and reattached to the body. Now powerful black magician Ki Hitam (W.D. Mochtar) is back together and ready to battle. He too has a personal vendetta against Jaka as he was the student of a teacher who used his powers against him.

Using phantom kung fu, Hitam is able to knock out Jaka, who is then chained up, forced to carry a heavy log over his shoulders and paraded through the streets before all of the Indonesian people. A woman even tries to give him a drink of water on his way but is stopped. To further solidify the Jesus parallels, he's taken back to the Captain's palace, placed in the dungeon where he's denied food and water and is crucified against the wall.

Tired of her father's bs, having fallen in love with Jaka and wanting to help the Indonesian people fight against social inequality and economic oppression, Maria slaps on a black ninja suit, breaks into the dungeon, kung fu's a half dozen guys and then tries to helps Jaka escape. However, her father ("The cruelest ruler of human souls since Caligula!") shows up with his guards. He beats her and, in a rage, takes his sword and gouges out both of Jaka's eyes! Surti has finally had enough ("To hell with the Christians!") and shows up to try to spring Jaka herself but is easily captured and thrown into the dungeon herself.

When all hope seems lost, there's only one thing left to do: Pray! A "Praise be, almighty Allah!" later and Jaka has the strength to pull the spikes out of his hands, break his chains, push open the prison bars and pull down an entire wall! But waiting for him outside are Captain Van Schram and Hitam. Hitam immediately uses his powers to transform Jaka into a pig and he's chased off by dogs. Surti runs after him and gets shot in the back. The two end up in the jungle and stumble upon a kindly old shaman (Syamsuddin Syafei) who takes them in. He turns Jaka back into a human, performs an emergency eye transplant ritual and teaches Jaka some of his magic, which will come in handy when he returns to the village to take on the evil magician, the captain and a slew of guards.

It's easy to see why this concept (action / fantasy / horror with strong doses of history and religion) resonated so strongly in its home country. Jaka was pretty much the perfect hero. He loves his country. He loves his people. He loves his girl(s). And he loves his Allah. He's strong, honest, noble and brave and all he really wants to do is free his people from the oppression of the Dutch so they can all live in peace. This is a very nationalistic picture in that it celebrates the Indonesian people and their culture, Muslim spirituality and successful battle for independence and identity. And it does so in the least subtle and most heavy-handed manner imaginable!

It's also easy to see why this resonated with many horror and exploitation fans. It's action packed, bizarre and frequently gory as hell. Hands, legs and heads are hacked off and sometimes reattach themselves. Eyes are gouged out, squeezed out and float through the air. A body is cut in two. People are slashed, speared, impaled, shot, stabbed and disemboweled. This is all enough to at least partially offset the other areas where this is lacking.

The third highest grossing film in Indonesia in 1981, this was followed by four sequels (all starring Prima): Begola Ijo (1983), Si Buta lawa Jaka Sembung (1983; UK title = The Warrior and the Blind Swordsman), Bajing Ireng dan Jaka Sembung (1985; UK title = The Warrior and the Ninja) and Jaka Sembung dan Dewi Samudra (1990; aka Jaka Sembung and the Ocean Goddess). These were based on a series of popular 1960s comics by Djair Warni. There was also a spin-off movie featuring the blind swordsman character from one of the sequels called Neraka perut bumi (1987; aka The Blind Warrior).

When Prima wasn't playing this guy, he was often playing very similar characters with very similar names (Jaka Baruna, Jaka Tuak and Jaka Pratama...) in other very similar but not as well-produced fantasy movies. However, truth be told, his one-note performance really doesn't impress much here, though this is the film that made him the biggest film star in Indonesia. Mochtar, on the other hand, is great.

An English-dubbed version has been around for awhile and was released to video in the UK but this wasn't distributed here in the U.S. at all until Mondo Macabro released it on DVD in 2008. The first two sequels were also English dubbed for British release yet haven't been released in America.


Friday, June 29, 2018

Bad Influence (1990)

... aka: Cattive compagnie (Bad Company)
... aka: Sob a Sombra do Mal (Under the Shadow of Evil)
... aka: Todfreunde (Death Friends)

Directed by:
Curtis Hanson

Most people of a certain age remember the whole Rob Lowe sex scandal. I was just a little kid and even I vaguely remember it being in the news. 1988, Atlanta, DNC convention, lots of alcohol, hotel, two guys, two girls, sex, video camera. Afterward, one of the girls took the tape and a bunch of copies started making the rounds. Controversy followed not just for the actual act itself being caught on camera but because one of the female participants was 16 years old at the time of filming. While that was above the age of consent in the state of Georgia, Lowe was still hit with a civil suit by the girl's mother and the case was settled out of court. This was one of the very first instances of a celebrity sex tape being mass distributed, except back then it wasn't quite the same as it is now. Over a decade later, we'd start seeing those of dubious talent like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian basically launch their careers on the backs of "accidentally" (uh huh) leaked sex tapes. But in the late 80s, this was uncommon and bad press for Lowe. Soon after, he went to rehab, got married, had kids and eventually overcame all of it by spoofing his image and the tape on shows like Saturday Night Live.

In June 1989, shortly after the sex tape started gaining traction in the mainstream press, Bad Influence began filming. It was released to theaters at the height of all the controversy in March of the following year. The timing was pretty much a producer's dream come true. Here they had a celebrity whose name was all over the news for doing something naughty playing another naughty boy in his first release since a much talked about sex tape came to light. However, none of that ended up making this film a big hit. Perhaps it made more than it otherwise would have but a middling 12 million on a theatrical wide release wasn't significant even back in 1990. Ironically, part of the main problem with the film is miscasting, particularly in the case of Lowe.

Michael ("Mick") Boll (James Spader) is an executive who seems to have it made. He's already in a high-ranking / paying position at work and poised to go even higher as a senior analyst... and he's not even 30 yet. He has a hot sports car and a luxurious, spacious apartment. And he's set to be married to the classy and wealthy Ruth Fielding (Marcia Cross); who comes from good stock being a millionaire doctor's daughter and all. The one thing he sorely lacks is a backbone.

Yes, Mick is somewhat of a push-over. He lets co-worker Patterson (Tony Maggio), who's competing for the same promotion, sabotage him by hiding a 60 million account he's been working on and doesn't put up much of a fight. He lets Ruth call the shots about setting the wedding date and even determining when they'll have children. In other words, he's letting her map out his future. Michael has become complacent in the cold, cutthroat corporate world in which he lives and his unhappiness is starting to wear him down physically, as well. Something important is missing. Something like excitement and unpredictability. But, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

To escape his boredom, Mick starts going to seedy bars after work to drown his sorrows. At one of those, a man gets violent with him, but a knight in shining armor appears with a broken bottle to save the day. That guy turns out to be Alex (Lowe), who's suave, well put together, a hit with the ladies and seems to know all the right people in all the right places if one's interested in experiencing the exciting underbelly of the city. Despite the fact he likely also swiped his wallet when he "saved" him, Mick starts hanging out with him, anyway. Alex is a man of mystery. He doesn't appear to have a job, nor his own place, nor his own car, nor any other friends or relationships. People sometimes call him "Tony." People sometimes call him "Maxwell." And no one seems to know the first thing about him, his history, where he comes from or anything else. And neither will you by the time this film ends.

Hanging out with Alex gives Mick the courage and confidence to start standing up for himself and going after the things he really wants. He puts the conniving co-worker in his place and gets his missing files back. He also decides to start sleeping around on his fiance with a club girl named Claire (Lisa Zane). Alex wants to "help" Mick and asks him to tell him what he wants and what he's afraid of. When Mick has doubts about taking a big gamble at work that's unethical but not illegal, Alex encourages him to do it and it pays off. When he expresses fears about his upcoming marriage, Alex makes sure to take care of that problem, too. But then things take a criminal / violent turn.

Alex drags a drunken Mick along as he robs a diner and a liquor store, then makes a pit stop at the work rival's place to beat him within an inch of his life so he'll withdraw himself for consideration for the promotion. Once Mick finds out what they've done, he kicks Alex out of his apartment and tries to cut off all ties but Mick refuses to go away. He cleans out Mick's apartment, stalks him, taunts him, blackmails him, keeps hounding him at work and even tries to implicate him in a murder. Things eventually deteriorate into sub-Hitchcock suspense scenes of Mick and his pothead older brother Pismo (Christian Clemenson) attempting to dispose of a body in the La Brea Tar Pits, plus multiple potentially deadly run-ins with Alex.

Comparisons between this and the later Fight Club (1999) make perfect sense as both feature a timid, upper class white collar type getting involved with a charismatic, mysterious drifter who introduces a much-needed element of excitement (read: danger) into the uptight and predictably stuffy life of the protagonist. However, this has even more in common with Martin Donovan's APARTMENT ZERO (1988), an infinitely more interesting and insightful (and far better directed, written and acted) movie dealing with the same two male archetypes. Bad Influence, which is seemingly more focused on being late 80s / early 90s "hip" and glossy than substantive, just comes off as shallow and forgettable by comparison.

Monochromatic coloring, noir lighting, lots of promiscuous and "kinky" underground bit characters and "urban chic" types posturing around in nightclubs, art galleries and ultra fancy apartments don't make this any less empty nor does it make the characters any more interesting. This project also never feels remotely believable as it's too calculated and obvious. Of course this just had to throw some videotaped sex (which Alex sneaks into the VCR at a party being held at Mick's future in-laws home) into the works, which was clearly both a nod to Lowe's troubles and to recall the acclaimed (and, again, vastly superior) Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989) that Spader had just starred in.

The acting? Well, Lowe is pretty bad in this. The tone of his voice, the line delivery, the deer-in-headlights eyes, the facial expressions, the constant Cheshire Cat grin... just nothing seems to ring true about his portrayal of a psycho / sociopath. And just wait until you see him pretending to pass himself off as Francois the Frenchman! I guess playing the bland square was a change of pace for Spader at the time, though the character isn't at all sympathetic. Then again, generating sympathy for a protagonist in one of these yuppie nightmare / rich-person-problems flicks is next to impossible. Zane is used as nothing but window dressing, while a few good character actors like Kathleen Wilhoite (secretary) and John de Lancie (boss) show up only to be wasted. The cast also includes Rosalyn Landor (The Devil Rides Out), David Duchovny (who I don't even remember seeing), Lilyan Chauvin and Brendan Hughes (HOWLING VI) is small parts.

Hanson went on to make the financially successful The Hand That Rocks the Cradle in 1992 and finally made the critics happy after two decades in the business with L.A. Confidential in 1997, which garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Director and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Brian Helgeland). Outside of those and perhaps Wonder Boys (2000), he has a pretty unexceptional resume. His early exploitation psycho-killer flick Sweet Kill (1973; aka The Arousers) for producer Roger Corman is actually a lot more interesting than this more polished and far bigger budgeted one.

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