Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Whole World At Our Feet (2015)

Kazakhstan isn't a country with a big cinematic legacy, but in recent years it's been trying to shift that. And in 2015, they gave us The Whole World at Our Feet. Some sources say it's one of the highest grossing Kazakh movies of all time (citation needed). The film features an all-star cast of the crime/action world, with Armand Assante, Michael Madsen, Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Bolo Yeung, and even Peter O'Toole! How bad could that possibly be?...

In the ex-Soviet state of Kazakhstan, gangsters rule, and warlord Musa has paid handsomely for a special gemstone. In a double cross, it's stolen along with his money, and he sends his dogs of war to get them back. Meanwhile, a young man is searching for his missing girlfriend, and finds her embroiled right in the centre of this mess, and strives to get her out. But can they escape the country, with the money? Or will they be hunted down first?...

The Whole World at Our Feet (aka Diamond Cartel) is a movie I was very curious to see. Not because I had any illusions it would be good, but because I was interested what it was even like, with its ethnic origin and 'star-studded' cast. Now that I've finally seen it, I can report that Whole World at Our Feet is not a good movie like I was hoping, but it is everything I was expecting, which means it at least didn't disappoint me.

The film is a crime/action picture, with the neo-Tarantino feel that you'd see a lot in his wake. Trenchcoats, guns, 'clever' narration, 'witty' dialogue, etc. An overriding desire to be cool, and inevitably failing. If I were to compare this to two films that did it right, there's Eşkıya from Turkey, and Kazakhstan's own Needle. Both of those are post-modern crime flicks with rough tough heroes, gunfire, and ambiguous plots.

The story is very simple in some ways, yet also labyrinthine in others, and there were times where I was a little lost. We're thrust into this world with little warning, and while you can understand plenty through context or narration, some of it is a bit head-scratching.

Events are a little out of order sometimes, with heavy use of flashbacks. This isn't handled terribly, except some important scenes are only seen in brief flashbacks, leading to confusion. Then there's the obnoxious narration, which drones on and on! I wanted this girl to shut up so much! It'd be interesting seeing the film play out without her incessant nattering.

This all leads to a twisty climax, where allegiances change, and everyone battles in a free-for-all. Admittedly some of these are pretty good! Not sure how much sense they make, but still. Then we get double twists, and ridiculous contrivances, which are just mind-numbing! This all culminates in what seems like a happy ending, although admittedly I got two characters mixed up and thought Arman had survived and was secretly good all along.

The film's portrayal of Kazakhstan is comically exaggerated, which is impressive considering this is a Kazakh film. It's potentially insulting, but I imagine locals wouldn't really take it that seriously, and so I'll be lenient, but it still kinda rubs me up the wrong way just how much the narration plays up like Kazakhstan is a lawless wasteland where dreams go to die, and massacres are just another day at the zoo. I mean, God, the worst they have to deal with is government corruption, it's hardly Hell on earth!. It does a worse job at representing Kazakhstan than Borat, and that was meant to be a joke!

The lead character is named Aliya, not that you'd know it with how rarely her name comes up. It's she who narrates the film, though her narration doesn't fit the character we see. Some of the lines are also annoyingly snarky and detached, or vague. "Maybe I do have a heart of stone, and that's why my life is like this." Like what?

She's not the worst, but I didn't find her that likeable, and frankly didn't think she was worth the trouble for Ruslan. She vanishes on him and rides another guy's dick for two years without so much as a by-your-leave. We get a La Femme Nikita style flashback as she tells Ruslan her story, and amusingly his only takeaway is that she slept with Arman.

Ruslan meanwhile is a nice enough dope, who's sweet, though really annoying to have asked Aliya's workplace for her every night a year after she's vanished! He's also not naive either. These qualities, plus their childhood connection, are enough to warm her heart. Together they seek to escape their country, leaving behind a clear trail of evidence.

The main villain is ostensibly Musa, who spurs on the film's events by really wanting a diamond, for $30 million reasons (though we never learn why it's so important to him). He's a crazy asshole, an ex-general turned crime lord, and seeks to control everyone else in the film. He's a suitably cheesy villain, spending most of the movie in his office. While not the most active, he does have some amusing and occasionally weird villain habits, like having a gaggle of blindfolded musicians to serenade his cells, as well as the tendency to point at things when he's on the phone.

The more active villain is Arman A 'friend' since childhood who's been Aliya's sort-of-boyfriend the last year, and wants her back. He works for Musa, but isn't happy about it, and we quickly see he's got other allegiances, and other plans in mind.

The other characters are a crazy bunch. There's a rival crime lord who is a deranged drug addict one minute, then calm the next. There's a variety of assorted henchmen. Then there's one character amazingly named Catastrophe! Not that you'd notice though, when the only one who says his name is the very French villain, and it comes out more like Cuttazov. He's a pretty interesting character. Seemingly Musa's put-upon lackey, he seems to be planning his own scheme (which would have been more of a surprise had the narration not flat-out told us so). Equally enigmatic is Aliya's handler, who trains her in the art of being an assassin. Though I wish he looked less like Arman, because I kept getting them mixed up!

Now to discuss the cast, one of the more interesting aspects of this film, and no doubt a big reason why many have even heard of it. If you believe the marketing this stars all manner of 'washed up' Hollywood talent, though really they're little more than extended cameos and minor roles.

The true stars are Kazakh locals, who I'm at least glad not to see overshadowed. Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova (there goes my keyboard!) and Alexey Frandetti are pretty good leads visually, and I thought Frandetti handled emotion quite well, even if he couldn't stop smiling at times. Their dub acting is really something though. It sounds distractingly American, and the performances, particularly the woman's, get so overblown. The dubbing overall sounds really weird, like its recorded in an echo chamber.

Armand Assante is pretty much the only western actor to get more than a cameo, and honestly he should probably be considered the lead with how much screentime he gets. This turns out to be a mixed blessing, because he delivers an absolutely awful performance! He delvers his lines in a strange French(?) accent that renders much of his dialogue unintelligible. Even his visual mannerisms are just bizarre, like he's high on something.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa chews the scenery in a medium role. Michael Madsen and Tommy Lister show up for precisely one scene, and just when you think they might play a decent role, they're killed in that same scene. Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, kickboxer extraordinaire, plays a mob boss for only 2 or so short scenes, and is badly dubbed. Bolo Yeung barely appears, and only gets a single fight at the end.

Cinematic titan Peter O'Toole also appears in what would be one of his last roles, released posthumously. It's a bizarre performance, where he doesn't even get to use his own voice! Instead he's dubbed over with what sounds like Darth Vader. What I'd like to know is how this happened! How drunk did Peter O'Toole get to fly to Kazakhstan to shoot a 3 minute part, and not even use his voice? Although let's be honest, this probably isn't the worst film Peter O'Toole has ever appeared in, or the worst performance he's ever given.

The direction here by Salamat Mukhammad-Ali is surprisingly good! Shot composition and cinematography go hand in hand to produce some really neat images, big and small. The editing is sometimes odd. There are strange cuts, often within the same frame. There are some cool effects and transitions. The film is also liberal with title cards, which I appreciate, although it's often redundant. I get it movie, we're in Almaty. That's what the last title card said and we never left!

The action in Whole World is overblown, loud, nonsensical, and oddly still in places, it's trying so hard to be cool, and failing for the most part. The best action sequence has gotta be the car chase. It's so ridiculous, with miniguns and grenade launchers involved yet everyone still misses.There's an effective car flip, and a genuinely awesome moment when Arman exits the toppled car.

The soundtrack here is mixed. There's a lot of generic pieces, with some pretty bad licensed songs. Maybe they'll appeal to some, but they're the kind of aggressively loud screamo metal that makes me reach for the earplugs. There's also some ethnic wailing music mixed with techno, which are...interesting in their own way.

The Whole World At Our Feet is a bad movie. I think it could've been good if only it'd tried to be more of its own thing, and wasn't so obsessed with being flashy and cool. It's a fun curio for fans of trashy action cinema, but if you're expecting something good you'll be disappointed...

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Wild East (1993)

Following the success of arthouse crime film Needle, Kazakh director Rashid Nugmanov's next project was a semi-remake of the Magnificent Seven...But with a twist! Do you ever feel the original was great and all, but needed more dwarves?...

A farming community of dwarves known as the Solar Children are being victimised by a bandit gang. To save their hides they manage to locate a down-on-his-luck mercenary, who convinces 6 more desperados willing to work for nothing to join their mission. Between a beatnik, a stuntman, and a Mongol eagle trainer, can this ragtag bunch save the day?...

The Wild East is an odd film, which is exactly what I was after. Some Central Asian gonzo cinema! But after watching it, I can't help but feel a little disappointed.

The film is a wild mish-mash of genres, sometimes described as a post-apocalyptic punk samurai comedy western (or Ostern as they're sometimes called when over east). Some of these titles are a little exaggerated, and calling it post-apocalyptic may be a bit of a stretch, but the movie definitely has a lot. Whether or not it suffers from this or not is debatable.

The setting is ambiguous, and never given much detail. This could well be a semi post-apocalyptic landscape, along the lines of Mad Max 1. Bandit gangs are rampant, civilians form their own communities, and there's no semblance of law and order here. On the other hand, there's enough infrastructure to go to the cinema, or buy a fancy new tractor, so things can't be all bad! I don't mind that the film doesn't give us a complicated and unnecessary explanation for why the world here is how it is, but it would've been nice to know if it even was.

Where The Wild East really held promise, and disappoints perhaps the most is its sense of comedy. Given what's at stake, I don't mind that the dwarf community isn't treated like a farce, even though the idea of a post-apocalyptic dwarf town may sound goofy on paper. The humour comes from the idiosyncracies of the characters, and some of the bizarre locales, like whatever the hell the bandits are doing in their nightclub! I mind that there's not enough of it! What we get is pretty weak, and few and far-between.

The film does justify itself at least by showing that if you leave the Kazakhs to their own devices, they can make a well made film. It may have needed a bit of extra spice in one department, or less in another, but it's competent.

The plot here is a pared-back version of Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, which has enough remakes, but I think this has enough new elements it could've brought to the table to be worthy. I'm not really sure it did it for me though. It lacks the depth, and it's a story we know inside and out. And it basically confirms that most of the 7 heroes will bite the dust!

The Solar Children, despite their cool name and circus backstory, are just some random villagers. Iona has the most depth to him, and is an ok kid. It's the seven who get more detail, though they're pretty basic archetypes. The noble loner, the tough woman, the strong but silent type, the crazy one, etc. They each get fun introductions, but mostly blend together.

Where they disappointed me as heroes was when they get tricked and lose easily without a fight! Worst of all is what happens to the poor eagle! Struck down in his prime, offscreen, before seeing even a bit of combat! I wanted to see him peck out bandits' eyes, and scratch them to pieces! Is that too much to ask?

Beatnik is a fairly standard hero, and despite the name is more of a cowboy. Marilyn is a spunky gal, and car enthusiast. She develops a nice connection with Iona, and her final moments are decent, but how it happens is pretty dumb. Half the major character deaths happen with little fanfare, including one guy who withstands like 5 direct hits like a champ, then just disappears in-between shots.

The villains are pretty standard wasteland raiders, with a bizarro nightclub where people stick plastic bags on their heads and are served by corpulent naked women. They're simultaneously tough, yet weak.
After being beaten the first time, the heroes strike back with ludicrous efficiency, managing to annihilate their HQ with one explosion. Somehow there are still villains left, who team up with some bikies for another assault, before the survivors of each side return to the bombed-out HQ one last time. Beatnik wastes all his ammo on mannequins like an idiot, then takes part in the weird villain's game, beating it in a clever way! I also question who grabs a knife mid-air by the handle, but it's still badass!

The cast is a big one, with what I can only assume are all the dwarves in Kazakhstan. I like that the film doesn't make a big joke out of this community. I think little people can be absolutely adorable, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it can be a little patronising when that's the only portrayal you ever see. The remainder of the actors range from decent, to overly cheesy (with the villain getting the worst moments). The film is performed in Russian, though a few of the cast get to speak in their own languages, namely the eagle man.

Despite its low budget, The Wild East is a good looking film. It's directed well, with nice choice of locations. There's a nice sense of visual scale, and the mix of area and lighting for the final showdown is really good. A perfect balance of dark blue, without being hard to see, making for some really effective confrontation.

The effects here range from cheap to effective. Gunshot wounds are alright, and flying body parts resemble mannequins. My favourite was the HQ explosion. It's one of those effects where if you know a thing or two, you can guess how it was done, but that only makes you more interested seeing it play out. There's also a little bit of random but cool stop motion.

Overall this is an ok film, and passes the time if you just want some mindless action. It's also interesting as a cultural artifact. The Wild East was well-received on its release, but director Nugmanov would mostly retire from the cinema scene (barring an ill-advised remix of Needle, with jarring new footage spliced in and baffling new plot twists). It is a shame he wasn't able to make it anywhere like Timur Bekmambetov, or continue in his home country, but hey, at least he hasn't become some jaded rich asshole who cosies up with Russian mobsters! So for that we can be all grateful!...

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Electric Dreams (1984)

Movies and music have always made a perfect combination, especially when songs are composed directly! Two great examples are of course Flash Gordon and Highlander, where Queen not only scored incidental tracks, but proper songs too, with the latter getting classics like Princes of the Universe, Who Wants to Live Forever, and A Kind of Magic. Sometimes however the song is so good and the film so underseen that it's eclipsed entirely! Just like today's film, Electric Dreams...

Miles is a chronically late architect, trying to make a breakthrough. To help be more focused, he buys a state of the art computer, but after spilling wine on it something strange happens. Apparently glitching at first, it soon turns out to have gained sentience, and begins speaking with Miles. Its unique musical talent also gets the attention of neighbour Madeline, who believes Miles to be responsible. This soon leads to a relationship, but the computer grows to love Madeline too, and becomes jealous at his skills being used to woo her...

Together in Electric Dreams is a classic song of the 80s, but the movie's reputation is small enough that most peoples' reactions are "Wait, there was a movie?". Yes there was, and 1984s Electric Dreams is more than a pleasant surprise, it's really good!

The film is like Cyrano de Bergerac with a robotic twist, telling a story of romance, regular and unrequited, and how artificial intelligences discover emotion, namely love. The story is well written, taking itself seriously while keeping a fanciful and lighthearted tone. It shows off its romantic side quite sincerely too.

Electric Dreams has a technology-centric focus, and some interesting themes as a result, making for an interesting time capsule. The movie is quite prescient in the part PC's would soon play in modern life, as well as topics like technology meets loneliness, and surveillance. Without realising, the film also foreshadows current debates in a small way, when Miles says how computers could soon be doing art, and Madeline responds with "What's wrong with artists?".

It is odd seeing how Miles immediately outfits his entire house with all these little gadgets that link directly to the PC. And it's also amusing how spilling some fizzy drink is enough to grant the computer sentience! Then there's all the wild and wonderful things it can do with its newfound intelligence. While the movie may be prescient regarding how we would come to rely on computers, and technology culture, it vastly overestimates the capabilities they posses, at least in 1984!

We have a trio of lead characters. Mild mannered architect Miles is ostensibly a nerd, despite having good looks and a chiselled face and build. He's a likeable enough guy, and despite his awkwardness, and sometimes putting his foot in it quite badly, he does well with his new beau. His growing reliance then conflict with his computer is fun to watch, and everything culminates well.

The computer, Edgar as he's eventually named, is a colourful presence. Helpful, annoying, intrusive, and devious at times. He helps Miles at first, and asks him questions about humanity, sometimes unsatisfied with the vague answers he gives. He also know how to get his own way, however immaturely. As we see in a creative fight he and Miles have, despite one of them being on a different plane of existence.

Madeline's a nice gal. She's a bit odd in her first scenes, like when she barges into Miles' apartment while he's nude in a towel, and continues holding a conversation with him despite this. I can't help but laugh thinking about how this scene would play out if the genders were reversed! Then there's how she's clearly into Miles and inviting him on little dates, yet also kinda has a boyfriend? It's unnecessary, and it's a relief when he gets kicked to the curb for being a dickhead. While not discovering Edgar till near the end, Madeline shares some good moments with him.

The direction captures the technology aspect very well, with some scenes playing out with the aid of cameras, or TV displays. It's a fun thematic touch, without going overboard with it. We get some neat angles too! The movie ends on some nice visuals, kinda like a mini music video.

The soundtrack to Electric Dreams is real special! It's got a period-appropriate sound to it, with plenty of upbeat electronic tracks, and beep-booping, as well as traditional ones. Then there are Edgar's musical moments, including the mutual symphony, which combines classical music and digitised/electronic sounds to a fantastic degree. The whole scene has a magical quality.

And then of course there are the songs themselves. There are a few, and they're nice enough 80s pop tracks. But the highlight is Together in Electric Dreams, by Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder, which closes the film out on a real high! It's honestly no wonder this song overshadowed the film when it's this good.

The cast here is fairly small, but good. Lenny Von Dohlen is a fine lead, cutting a romantic figure. Not sure how well he succeeds at making his character nerdy, but that might just make him more convincingly human, so no complaint here. Virginia Madsen is a nice co-star and love interest, and has some good emotional moments. Bud Cort gives a bit of a weird performance, but a different one as the computer, getting plenty of heart, confusion, and zaniness across with only his voice. I only with the sound quality had come out better. Maxwell Caulfield does alright, but his role is too small to really shine.

Electric Dreams is a minor gem, and well worth checking out, especially if you love the 80s, and classic pop music! You can't go wrong with a film like this...

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Black Neon (1991)

For years I thought Australia's DTV action star Edward Stazak had only ever starred in two films. Day of the Panther and Strike of the Panther (as muscly hero Jason Blade). But there was one last film he appeared in before his retirement from film. 1991s crime flick Black Neon...

Tom Maranta is a bouncer at a nightclub, and is sick of the whole business. The sleaze, the drunks, and the violence. Recurring nightmares of a violent encounter have left him near breaking point, yet he still finds it hard to quit the lifestyle. When news comes that his nemesis Pharaoh has come out of prison and is in the area again, this only makes things worse, until another confrontation is unavoidable...

Black Neon is an interesting little movie, with a tough history. One of the more obscure Aussie films out there, it was broadcast once on Channel 9. No theatrical release, no VHS, not even a DVD! The film was considered lost for years, until some enterprising fella who taped it way back when uploaded the whole film onto Youtube.

Black Neon is a low-budget film, and not the best out there, but I found it an interesting little watch. It gets off to a good start, introducing us to its characters and their dilemmas quickly enough. With decent use of voiceover and flashbacks, we get a nice psychological portrait of the lead character.

The film has an unflattering portrayal of nightclub life and culture, though positive to bouncers themselves. It effectively portrays PTSD-How a single event can leave someone scarred mentally, and how they deal with it. Tom's nightmares are a distortion of his fears and reality, forcing him to relive the event. This is shown in a good way, and I appreciate that it doesn't just show the same flashback each time.

Tom is a likeable enough protagonist. Caring and loyal, but a bit closed off with his emotions, and a man of few words (which is more of an informed attribute, since we hear him speaking all the time). The poor dude just wants things to work out better, and you feel bad for him. Although I've got no idea why the hell he doesn't just quit! It's just a bouncing job. Tell your boss to stuff it! Whenever Tom tries asking him about it, he raises a big fuss, as if it's the hardest thing in the world to find another bouncer.

Tom's wife Celeste is nice enough, and patient with Tom despite his tough job. Although she seems pretty crazy in a couple of montage flashbacks!

Tom's friend Jack is a bit of a wreck, after a collapsed marriage of his own, torn apart thanks to his job. despondent, sleeping around, and drinking a bit too much, Jack is like a twisted future image of Tom. Despite his troubles though, he's still there for his friend, and jumps back into the fray when needed.

I like how their friendship is portrayed, where they're best mates, but not afraid to give each-other a bit of constructive criticism. Being mates shouldn't blind you to someone's flaws after all, and trying to help them overcome them is part of true friendship.

The villain of the film even when not physically present, is Pharaoh, a small-time gangster who stabbed Tom years prior. Now out of prison, he's intent on rebuilding his empire. Given everything we hear about him being small-time, and the lack of resolution, we were probably better off without those scenes, but then that would eliminate most of his screentime.

Black Neon is pretty light on action, but that's ok. If you go in expecting Road House, or even Return of the Panther, you'll be disappointed, but the movie never tries being something it's not. The fights we do get are decent enough. Mainly some bouncing, breaking up bathroom brawls, or carpark encounters.

It's the climax which has the biggest action setpiece of the film. It gets a bit abstract with the direction. I'm not sure if the quick-cuts were on purpose, to highlight the chaotic psychological nature of the struggle...or if maybe it was just an attempt to make it look cool. It's not the most visually satisfying scene, and it's a bit hard to see what's going on, but at least we know who's who, generally, and it's satisfying seeing Pharaoh get the shit kicked out of him. The sequence ends really abruptly though, without any real resolution to the whole Pharaoh story.

It's the ending where I lose patience with the film though. It's such a needlessly depressing moment, and made me feel such a dislike for Celeste! Like, I get her husband getting beaten up at work isn't exactly ideal, but there are other solutions beyond packing your bags! Especially when the poor guy's trying to quit! It's not his fault he was jumped by psychotic European gangsters. But no, instead she leaves him, and all his fears come true. The end. *sigh*

The acting here is quite good. It'd have to be given what a character piece this is! The performances feel natural, and they sell the good times as well as the turmoil they face. Stazak is a good lead, getting to stretch his dramatic muscles, while Zale Daniel plays a small but important role as Tom's psychiatrist. Kristof Kaczmarek's performance as Pharaoh is amusingly over the top, especially with his evil accent. Not quite sure it fits the tone of the movie, but he doesn't do badly. And lastly, as burly best friend Jack is director and co-writer James Richards. At first I thought Zale was the only Panther connection, until I realised Richards is Baxter! Here sporting a massive yellow mane, that made me piss myself laughing after realising who he was.

The music is a high point. We've got a moody techno main theme, and effectively distorted pieces during some of the nightmare sequences. The music that plays over the ending credits is really pleasant, too (albeit short and looping). It ends the film with a happy sort of melancholy feeling.

The direction by James Richards is pretty neat! There are many well framed images, and a dark use of lighting that lives up to the title. Some scenes may be a little too dark blue, to the point where it's a little hard to make out what we're seeing. But it's not unwatchable. And hey, a lot of that might be down to the crummy print.

Overall, Black Neon is alright. Nothing amazing, but as far as late night movies on Channel 9 go, you could do worse. There's enough to warrant a watch for those into moody crime dramas, especially the homegrown West Aussie variety!

Black Neon would prove to be Edward Stazak's last foray into film. He soon received an injury and retired from acting after it didn't work out. This all sounds like a gloomy epitaph for Stazak's career, I know, but he would then turn to music full time, and has been an accomplished accordionist in the Perth scene for the last couple of decades. So things can end on a bit of a happy note!...