Review: What We Left Unfinished (Afghanistan/USA/Qatar 2019)

Anybody looking for a window into the utter chaos Afghanistan is facing as the US pulls out in the face of Taliban advances would do well to watch What We Left Unfinished, a documentary about the aborted film industry that briefly flourished during the chaotic years between 1978-1991. While the current regime is propped up by the US instead of the Soviets – and hopefully at least slightly less cynically colonial – the fragility and barely tamped down violence, and the hopes of the artistic community, remain strikingly similar.

Mariam Ghani, visual artist and daughter of the current President, here takes as her subject five unfinished films partially shot during the that interim period – post-monarchy and pre-Taliban. A period when communist regime succeeded communist regime and coup followed coup, with three successive leaders assassinated within the span of just a few years.

Ghani not only recovered footage from the films – thrillers and action pics depicting the rise of the new regime and battles against lawless elements (let us be clear, these were meant to be popular cinema) – but was able to interview many of the key figures involved, directors, actors and actresses, cinematographers, in order to assemble a snapshot of what was and what could have been.

Part of the fascination lies in the contrasts between the pictures painted by the filmmakers – the brutality of the communist takeover (one filmmaker talks of filming the table where former Pres. Daoud and his family were massacred and how that footage was confiscated later by the Soviets) versus the increased funding and quasi-freedom for filmmakers. Some evoke a type of Weimar Republic, with a flowering of cinema and funding, while others better remember the contemporaneous reign of terror, people being disappeared for criticizing the government and Soviet “advisors” with total editing discretion.

There can be no question that the films were funded for propagandistic purposes – the villains were drug traffickers, mujahedeen, and Pakistani spies, enemies of the regime. But yet, even as they dance around that, all the filmmakers have such affection for their work – even as they worked within the system they felt they were showing truth, as much as possible.

And the resources – Afghan Film studio briefly had incredible access to the military allowing for impressive special effects and explosions, the kind of military-friendly films you see in China now with movies like Operation: Red Sea or in the US with flicks like Top Gun. Of course, filming with soldiers sometimes became an actual battle, as real bullets were fired and actors were killed during filming. And as intelligence agents wrote scripts and coup leaders inserted themselves into the films.

Ghani has assembled these materials with a deft touch, almost Herzogian in her use of editing and music. The film is elegiac yet hopeful, much like the interviewees. At least, no matter what happens in the coming weeks, we’ll always have this document of a unique period.

What We Left Unfinished opens in US theaters and on demand on Friday, August 6, from Dekanalog.

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Review: Cutie Honey (Japan 2004)

Now THAT’S how to do a comic book superhero movie. Total live action cartoon full of bizarro touches and cheesecake, it’s genially sleazy in an old fashioned pin-up kind of way but maybe 1/10th as perverted as the original Go Nagai manga. And the costumes and effects and villains and songs are all delightful.

But man, it’s nice to see a Hideaki Anno project that doesn’t smack of massive depression. I’ve been on a bit of an Anno kick, finally powering through Evangelion and reading Insufficient Direction, so it’s fun to see him so happy. Can’t believe it took me so long to see this.

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Review: Phantom of Death aka Off Balance (Italy 1988)

Man, ‘80s-era Ruggero Deodato is so batshit crazy. Stellar cast (Michael York, Donald Pleasence, Edwidge Fenech) and crew (Pino Donaggio does the music!) in service of a semi-nonsensical giallo about York as a professional pianist/part-time ninja (yes, you read that right) who goes on a murder spree after contracting the world’s worst case of progeria. Plenty of boobs, knives, black gloves, and confused Italian police ensue. 

Oh, and ninjas.

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Review: Zulu Dawn (UK 1979)

If the British clinging on by a thread in Zulu (1964) pissed you off, this is the movie to watch. A prequel to Zulu, Zulu Dawn shows the British stumbling into the absolute fiasco that was the Battle of Isandhlwana, as a combination of greed and arrogance leads British colonial forces to a crushing defeat at the hands of the Zulus.

I wish I could say that any of the Zulus have huge roles, but at least they are portrayed as competent, courageous, and strategically-minded, while the Brits are the very embodiment of the proverb “pride goeth before a fall.” 

The main reasons to watch this, though, are the stunning, large scale action sequences and the deep cast bench. You’ve got Peter O’Toole as the icy, patrician colonial commander, Burt Lancaster as a swashbuckling cavalryman, Bob Hoskins as a gruff sergeant, Denholm Elliott as an officer out of his depth, and on and on. Not essential viewing, or entirely successful, but aficionados of historical war films will find much to enjoy. And it certainly lead me down a fascinating Wikipedia hole.

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Review: Death Promise (USA 1977)

Gritty NYC! Halfway into this, I legit had to check to make sure Death Promise wasn’t a modern parody along the lines of Black Dynamite. Nope, near as I can tell all this low budget action insanity is for real, as Charles Bonet teams up with his buddies to kung fu murder a group of evil landlords in extremely ‘70s NYC. This feels exactly like a Dirk Diggler movie, only without the porn. And it is GLORIOUS!

Highlights include:

– The slammin’ 70s wardrobe.

– Super silly deaths.

– Our hero’s buddy creating a distraction by jumping out onto the villain’s lawn and singing “Girl from Ipanema”

– Crackling expository dialogue like this from the cops guarding one of the evil landlords: “After all, the Judge is a pretty good guy, we’ll take care of him while he’s laying there.”

– All the evil landlords discussing how they’ll spend their ill-gotten gains in typical ways – investments, buildings, women, cars – except the mob boss, who pipes up about how he’s always dreamed of traveling and seeing Turkey.

– Kung fu vocalizations that make Dolemite seem normal. 

– The theme song! 

Seriously, this is Miami Connection lost treasure good.

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Review: Lupin the Third: The Legend of the Gold of Babylon (Japan 1985)

We all know that auteur Hayao Miyazaki polished his chops on a work for hire Lupin film, the delightful Castle of Cagliostro. But what about the OTHER auteur who slaved in the Lupin salt mines? That’s right, Seijun Suzuki, following his long blacklist, co-directed his own Lupin flick, the much weirder and rather less delightful Gold of Babylon.

Oddly, where Cagliostro felt like a dry run for the lyrical sentiment and whimsy of Miyazaki, for its first third at least, set in NYC, Babylon feels like Ralph Bakshi went on vacation to Japan and knocked out a PG-13 Lupin in between Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, full of local color and bizarre caricatures. 

After that it mostly settles into more standard Lupin hijinks, with a wild international treasure hunt and Zenigata leading a team of sexy (and vastly more competent) Interpol policewomen after our heroes – albeit with an absolutely bizarre storyline involving space gods looking for gold. It’s decent enough, and has plenty of fun moments, but it never transcends its origins like Cagliostro.

By the way, minor quibble, but I find the way this film animates women’s lips very offputting.

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Review: Space Battleship Yamato (Japan 1974-1975)

Watching the original 1974-1975 Space Battleship Yamato series (presented in bowdlerized form as Star Blazers in the US) is a little like unearthing the first Homo Sapiens, the ur-text, you can see its DNA in everything (Macross/Robotech, Evangelion, hell, I’m watching the relatively recent Gurren Lagann and the influence is plain as day).

The plot is suitably epic, the Yamato and its crew must travel across the universe to save Earth and defeat the evil Gamilan space fascist empire. And while the story can occasionally get a little saggy in the middle, the last batch of episodes hit like a real punch, with some incredible action and genuine pathos/tragedy.

The animation is definitely crude on occasion and the characters aren’t as well drawn as I’d like. And the sexism and silly fan service were already there – Yuki, the only significant female crew member, has to be both nurse and coffee maker, and spends too much of her time being sexually harassed by R2D2 or having her clothes disappear during warps. But the space opera and massive cosmic battles are impressive and exciting, prefiguring Star Wars by a couple years, and the Leiji Matsumoto designs and backgrounds, especially for the Yamato itself, are absolutely gorgeous.

I’d recommend this to anyone with more than a casual interest in anime or space opera, especially if you can find the full original Japanese version. And while there are various sequels and remakes, the 1974-1975 story is absolutely complete in itself and leaves no dangling story threads, so you can watch this without committing to some larger watch.

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Review: Full Moon Scimitar (Hong Kong 1979)

I was not expecting this to start with an actual ballad about the titular scimitar that lays out the story. Sample lyrics “The full moon, the smooth scimitar, The moon knows my heart’s desire. The scimitar would join two loving hearts.”

A beautiful wu xia in the classic Chu Yuan/Gu Long manner, with absolutely gorgeous sets and costumes, and impeccable style, even by Chu Yuan standards. Here, we find latter day Chu Yuan protagonist Derek Yee as a hero single-mindedly focused on pursuing fame in the martial world. After a dastardly trick by an opponent (Wang Jung) derails him, he is saved by the beautiful Lisa Wang, and starts his climb again. 

That sounds straightforward, but Scimitar is an odd duck. Rather than the usual elaborate alliances and murder mysteries, this is more of a fairy tale/morality play, which sees Yee’s protagonist struggling more with doing the right thing than with actual opponents. It’s heady stuff, though not in the top tier of Chu Yuan’s work – Jade Tiger better combines the wu xia world with real life concerns. 

Look also for great villainous roles by Wang Jung, Norman Chui, and Wang Lung.

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Review: Death Force (USA/Philippines 1978)

Cirio Santiago week!

That was strangely classy for a Santiago movie. James Iglehart (Savage!) is strong as a Vietnam vet betrayed by his buddies and left to die on an island inhabited solely by Filipinos playing long lost Japanese WW2 soldiers. Joe Mari Avellana is weird as hell playing Japanese, it always sounds like he’s fighting to speak, but it’s an oddly engaging performance – his relationship with Iglehart is the heart of the film as he trains Iglehart in the way of the samurai while Santiago cuts between island life and the betrayers massacring their way to top. 

All leading to Iglehart’s kill-crazy, limb-lopping sword rampage when he makes it home and finds out that not only have these guys tried to kill him and conquered LA, they’re also after his wife (the beautiful Jayne Kennedy). It’s a little (a lot) too long, but Santiago gives the island scenes room to breath, and builds to a bananas climax.

Vic Diaz report: Blink and you’ll miss him as a member of the smuggling group working with the protagonists.

Does the plot involve saving someone’s sister? No, unless you count saving a soul sister.

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Review: Hired to Kill (USA 1990)

Nico Mastorakis’s Hired to Kill is another cheesy Distaff Dirty Dozen, in the vein of Mankillers but with slightly more appropriate combat garb (not booty shorts and tank tops), with soldier of fortune Brian Thompson masquerading as a fashion designer and leading a team of sexy female commandos disguised as sexy fashion models to defeat dictator Oliver Reed on a thinly veiled Cyprus. Lots of swimsuits and explosions ensue, with a light shower of bullets, boobs and pecs.

It’s really a showcase for character actor Thompson, usually notable in bit parts as “that muscly guy” – you may not know his name, but you know him from a million ‘80s and ‘90s flicks and TV shows, alien bounty hunter on The X -Files, helicopter pilot on Miracle Mile, and most entertainingly the villain of Cobra. He’s not the greatest actor in the world but he does have an entertaining intensity and glower – I like him.

Some scattered thoughts:

1. Mastorakis is better known to me for the deeply unpleasant Island of Death, which can best be described in emoji form thusly:
👨 ❤️ 🐐 🍑 

2. Also starring George Kennedy(!), whose main role is exposition and sending a pivotal fax. At one point he gets such a close up you can pick out individual Kennedy nose hairs.

3. Throughout the extremely ‘80s love scene, sweat is visibly dripping off Thompson’s nose, and I kept thinking how that would probably land right in the leading lady’s eyes (that is, if the actors were actually in the same shot together, which they definitely were not).

4. Oliver Reed Report: No nude wrestling, but he does have a John Bolton walrus moustache and kisses Brian Thompson, possibly with tongue.

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