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A Wicked Ghost

Back around the turn of the century, there were few directors as committed to the maligned Hong Kong horror genre as Tony Leung. Unfortunately, Tony Leung wasn’t a very good filmmaker. And double unfortunately, he wasn’t a bad enough filmmaker. Everything he made had an air of middling, uninteresting near-competency about it, the work it seemed of a talented amateur or an untalented professional. Now before you fire off an angry email (do people still use email?) telling me how great Tony Leung is, keep in mind that I am not referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Ashes of Time. Nor am I referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Tom, Dick, and Hairy. Oh wait, that’s both Tony Leungs. Oh, you know the guys: Chiu-wai and Kar-fei. And maybe that third Tony Leung, action choreographer Tony Leung Siu-Hung (Bloodmoon, Superfights).

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Fireball

Since the day Tony Jaa, Prachya Pinkaew, and Panna Rittikrai suddenly popped up on fight film fans’ radars, Thailand has become the go-to place for the hyperactive, bone-jarring, stunt filled, totally ridiculous style of film making that defined the Hong Kong action film industry in the 1980s. The arrival of Thailand on the martial arts movie scene was a breath of fresh air, or if not fresh air, it was at least a second wind that gave us hope in a time when Hong Kong action cinema was basically dead, and the only place cranking out halfway decent action films was, weirdly enough, France. Ong Bak was like a long lost star quarterback showing up to save his team in the final minutes of a big game, and we rejoiced. What was even better was that Jaa’s success spawned a bunch of imitators in his native Thailand and seemed to light a fire under the ass of Hong Kong film makers, inspiring them to maybe think about making fun movies again.

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Centurion

Neil Marshall has basically been making the same movie his entire career, tweaking the formula here and there, refining the process, but ultimately still turning in survival horror about a group of well-trained individuals who find themselves facing overwhelming odds behind enemy lines. Dog Soldiers saw British special forces troops besieged by werewolves in a remote farmhouse. The Descent pitted cavers against subterranean beasts in the wilds of Appalachia. Doomsday threw a crack military squad into a post-apocalyptic Scotland. And then comes Centurion, a movie that is basically “what if it was Doomsday, but in Roman times?” Lucky for me and Marshall, I’ve enjoyed all his films. I liked Dog Soldiers a lot, absolutely loved The Descent, thought Doomsday was  wonderful, and was pretty damn happy with Centurion. As far as I’m concerned, he can keep on making the same movie for another ten years or more, and I’ll keep watching.

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Aloha from Hawaii

Elvis Presley didn’t like his own movies, except maybe Flaming Star and King Creole. He idolized “angry young man” actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean and always hoped that with the right coaching, he might be able to count himself among their ranks. And maybe he could have. King Creole certainly shows impressive flashes. It’s entirely likely that if the proper director or producer had taken the young singer under wing and pushed him along in the right direction, Elvis could have picked up where James Dean left off, or at least gotten close. We’ll never know, unfortunately, because while Elvis dreamed of being the next Dean or Brando, his manager (the eternally villainous Colonel Parker) and studio executives saw him as little more than a bubblegum sweetheart and refused to cast him in anything but family-friendly Frankie Avalon roles.

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Cultural Gutter: Death to Life Day

My latest Frolic Afield over at The Cultural Gutter, and my last there for 2013. What better way to close out my first (half) year with The Cultural Gutter than with one of the worst things around. From Bea Arthur torch songs to wookie porn, Death to Life Day spoils the holidays by reminding you of the Star Wars Holiday Special.

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Reparata and the Delrons

Reparata and the Delrons were a girl group that spent a long career plumbing the lower echelons of the American pop charts – a fact that even a cursory listen to any survey of their many singles renders somewhat unbelievable. Like fellow East-coasters the Shangri-las, their early repertoire was heavy on teenage melodrama and heartbreak. But as the 60s wore on, and the girl group sound fell out of fashion, they branched out, and as a result ended up covering an intriguing spectrum of contemporary pop sounds, in the process recording a healthy number of shoulda-been hits and unrecognized classics.

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My Old Kentucky Home on the Bowery

Kentuckians grow up with Stephen Foster. He wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” our state song, and The Stephen Foster Story has been playing at My Old Kentucky Home State Park for over fifty years. Although “America’s first composer” was born in Pennsylvania and later lived in Ohio (albeit in Cincinnati, which is just across the river from Kentucky), he is by right of his music an honorary Kentucky boy and a part of the fabric of the state. I’d been taught his songs since I was old enough to learn — “My Old Kentucky Home,” of course, but also “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” They’re what we learned in elementary school music class when we weren’t mangling “Greensleeves” in accompaniment to a classmate awkwardly tooting it out on a recorder. I had no idea until recently that he lived — and died — just a stone’s throw from where I work now in New York City, on a block that is packed with New York history both glamorous and sordid.

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Burt Bacharach: Casino Royale

Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is probably the least maligned aspect of producer Charles Feldman’s 1967 film version of Casino Royale. For connoisseurs of cinematic disaster, the problems that beset that production are well familiar. Kaufman, who held the movie rights to Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, intended to make a canonical James Bond film, but upon failing to secure the cooperation of Eon Productions, decided instead to mount a spoof on a grand scale. The film’s star, Peter Sellers, was fired halfway through production, requiring that the remainder of the already loosely structured film be written and shot around his absence. On top of that, multiple directors were engaged, each delivering a “chapter” of the film marked by their own individual sensibility. The result has been railed against as a shamefully self-indulgent work of anti-cinema, a triumph of – not style over substance – but style as substance.

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Kara Murat Fatihin Fermani

The character of Kara Murat first appeared in 1971, in a comic strip featured in the Turkish daily Gunaydin. Created by artist Abdullah Turhan and writer Rahmi Turan, he went on to stand beside figures like Tarkan as one of the most popular Turkish comic book heroes of the era. The transition of such characters from comic to screen was a natural one in the Turkish cinema of the day, and it was not long before producer Turker Inanoglu, a friend of Turan’s, purchased the rights to Kara Murat with the intention of doing just that.

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Festivities, Revels, & Nocturnal Dalliances

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