Friday, September 12, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Capoeira Won the War

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody is currently visiting Brazil, so he sandwiched kaiju and action between a couple picks with Brazilian flavor.


Stories about inspiring teachers having a great impact on the lives of their inner-city students have been popular dramatic fodder for decades. Lean On Me. Stand and Deliver. To Sir, with Love. Blackboard Jungle. Dangerous Minds. As I was growing up, the most popular of this type of film in my household was director Sheldon Lettich's Only the Strong... Which has a bit of a different approach than those other teacher movies I mentioned.

When you take into account that Lettich, who co-wrote the screenplay with Luis Esteban, had recently cultivated a successful working relationship with Jean-Claude Van Damme, working with the "Muscles from Brussels" on Bloodsport, Lionheart, and Double Impact, it's no surprise that his entry in the inspirational teacher sub-genre has a heavy focus on martial arts.

Louis Stevens, the teacher at the head of Lettich's story, isn't even officially a teacher. Played by martial arts champion Mark Dacascos, Louis is a former Green Beret who returns to his hometown of Miami, Florida as the film begins after being stationed in South America for four years, a tour of duty that was supposed to be about training indigenous peoples to rise up against the drug cartels but didn't accomplish much when it was all said and done. What Louis did get out of his time in South America, specifically in Brazil, is something that the indigenous people taught him - a martial art called Capoeira, which mixes music, dance, and acrobatics in with the self-defense moves.

Louis had a troubled childhood, but his life was turned around by his eleventh grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Kerrigan (Geoffrey Lewis). Visiting his mentor at Lincoln High School, Louis finds Kerrigan on the verge of giving up. He can no longer reach the kids in his class, the school is falling apart and covered in graffiti, 75% of the students are armed, 45% are on drugs, only 12% of them will graduate... Kerrigan feels that things have gotten hopeless.

But when Louis uses his Capoeira skills in front of the student body to take down a group of gang members who were roughing up a kid who hasn't been meeting his drug-selling quota, he gets the attention of the students. And Kerrigan sees a glimmer of hope.

With the support of Kerrigan and his high school sweetheart turned high school teacher Dianna (Stacey Travis), Louis forms a program based out of a long-abandoned fire station that finds him training the twelve worst, most at-risk students from Lincoln, prime drop-out material, in the art of Capoeira.

It's rough going at first, these tough-talking kids have no respect for Louis and no interest in this funny-looking martial arts stuff, but he gradually wins them over, gets them into Capoeira, improves their lives, and gets them to realize that the world is bigger than their crime-ridden neighborhoods. They can branch out and have success, they don't have to let their current living conditions drag them down.

While Louis is winning the kids over, he also reconnects with Dianna, although their romantic subplot is given the bare minimum of screen time.

And then the movie takes a different path than the likes of most other teaching movies. It's not building up to the kids getting good grades on an important test or even performing in a tournament like The Karate Kid. Instead, the third act of the film is all about the war that escalates between Louis and the gang that has been bringing drugs in Lincoln and which counts family members of some of his students as members. In fact, it's run by a man named Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto), cousin of the student who was most resistant to Louis.

A native of Brazil, raised in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Silverio knows Capoeira himself, and Louis's mission to improve the lives of his students and his battle with Silverio's gang culminates in a Capoeira-on-Capoeira fight between the two men.

The mash-up of "inspirational teacher" and "martial arts gang fight" plotlines makes for an odd mix and Only the Strong is a rather cheesy movie overall, but it is highly entertaining and has its heart in the right place.

Mark Dacascos brings a lot of energy and warmth to the role of Louis Stevens. The character isn't a strict tough guy as he deals with these troubled youths, he's empathetic, trusting and understanding, which is nice to see, and Dacascos isn't a stoic hero, he's not afraid to enjoy himself and allow a big smile to break out.

Occasionally in martial arts movies, you might see a tournament fighter who does Capoeira moves, but as far as I know Only the Strong is the only martial arts movie that really focuses on Capoeira. It's a fun art to watch, very lively and full of impressive movements set to the beat of music. I have gone many years in between viewings of this film since I first watched it twenty years ago, and yet the songs that play during the Capoeira training sequences have never left my head.

Because of this movie, I've always regarded Capoeira as something very cool. In recent years, I've become close friends with someone from Brazil, the blog's own Priscilla, and when discussing Only the Strong with her recently, I was blown away to discover that she used to practice Capoeira herself.

The film did eventually lapse out of my regular viewing rotation, but it got a ton of viewings back the mid-'90s, starting when it first hit VHS in probably early 1994 and continuing as it played on the cable movie channels for the next few years.

Many of the viewings I had of the film were initiated, as most of my martial arts movie watching was, by my older brother, who became a big fan of it after renting it from the local video store and rented it multiple times after that. When my brother liked a movie, he would watch it over and over again, and Only the Strong was one that got that honor from him. I liked the movie a lot myself, but I wouldn't have chosen to watch it as often as I did because of my brother.

A few years later, I was at a friend's house when Only the Strong came on one of the movie channels and my friend, who had clearly seen it many times himself, notified me that it was his favorite movie. This flick may not have been a massive breakout hit, but it certainly got a lot of appreciation from people in my neck of the woods.

Revisiting it now, it shows some cracks and comes off as more silly than it did to me in my youth, but it will always have a place in my heart. And its songs will always have a place in my brain.


Released in its native Japan as Mothra 2: The Undersea Battle, this sequel is screenwriter Masumi Suetani's continuation of the new take on the Mothra storyline that he crafted with the previous year's Rebirth of Mothra (which just titled Mothra in Japan). Taking over as director of this installment of the Mothra series was Kunio Miyoshi, who has no other directorial credits listed online.

As a protector of Earth, Mothra is brought into action whenever something is being done to harm nature. In Rebirth of Mothra and the unrelated Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, the primary reasons for Mothra's activity were deforestation. At the center of this film's story is the pollution of the ocean.

Mothra Leo's companions, two tiny women of the Elias race named Lora and Moll, are first clued in to the fact that there's something strange going on in the Pacific by the appearance of unusual creatures around Japan; fishing in the area is being disrupted by acid-spewing starfish creatures called Barem, while a group of children discover a fuzzy little furball creature they name Ghogo, a creature which has gold objects stuck on its tail.

For a bit of bathroom humor, it turns out that Ghogo has the ability to heal wounds by urinating on them.

Ghogo's gold is from the treasure of the Nilai-Kanai Temple, home to the monarchs of the continent Atlantis/Mu, which sank into the sea 12,000 years ago. Legend has it that the treasure has the capability of making miracles happen for whoever possesses it, so Lora and Moll's evil sister Belvera soon shows up, riding on the back of her small dragon Garu Garu, to steal Ghogo from the children, even if she has to kill the kids to get the little guy. To protect the youngsters, Lora and Moll ride in on the back of their miniature Mothra called Fairy to again do battle with their twisted sister, who wants to take over the world.

Digging into the history of the sunken continent, the characters figure out that the Barem are produced by a creature called Dagahra, which was created by the Atlanteans through mixing the DNA of ancient marine animals with cells of bacteria that eat toxins, the idea being that Dagahra would consume the pollution in the oceans and keep the sea clean. The production of the Barem as a result of its pollution consumption was an unexpected and dangerous aspect of the creature. Dagahra is clearly active again, and if it isn't stopped the world will be buried in a sea of Barem. The magical treasure of the Nilai-Kanai Temple will be needed to put an end to Dagahra.

With two men who are working for Belvera on their trail, the children venture out to sea to search for the treasure while Lora and Moll call on Mothra Leo to fight Dagahra, who can almost move about on land and fly. The ancient creature proves to be a formidable foe for Mothra, and our winged hero has a tough time trying to keep the monster at bay long enough for the kids to find the treasure. Even once the children gain access to the Nilai-Kanai Temple, which rises from the sea, it's hard to locate the treasure inside the massive structure with maze-like corridors.

Only through convincing the magical image of the Princess of Nilai-Kanai will any of the characters be able to attain the treasure, and while the children and her sisters tell the Princess they seek the treasure so they can destroy Dagahra, Belvera tells the Princess she wants it so she can destroy the human race with the help of Dagahra. Will the Princess side with humanity or with her culture's out-of-control creation?

Although I would say it's a lesser film than its predecessor in nearly every way, from the script to the production value and even its entertainment level, Rebirth of Mothra II is still an enjoyable, kid-friendly monster movie. Possibly even more kid-oriented than the very family-friendly first Rebirth of Mothra.

You may think that fighting a monster that lives primarily underwater may be the most impossible mission a winged kaiju could be given, but Mothra Leo has some big time tricks up his non-existent sleeves.

Dagahra is a cool creature, at times so cool that I wished I was watching him fight Godzilla rather than Mothra... At least until I had the realization that he's sort of just a reworking of Godzilla villain Hedorah the Smog Monster.

Rebirth of Mothra II isn't great, but it's a decent watch, and would probably be a fun kaiju movie for parents and their children to watch together.


No Turning Back isn't just the subtitle to the third film in the Best of the Best series, it could also be taken to be the franchise's attitude about continuing further into the action genre as it went on. The first movie had simply been a sports drama about a martial arts tournament. The second movie entered the world of underground tournaments, and in doing so also got the characters mixed up with gun-toting criminals. As it turns out, Best of the Best II was a transitional film of sorts, a bridge between the original's world of sports and the action-oriented sequels.

The third film finds Korean American martial arts expert Tommy Lee (series star and producer Phillip Rhee, who also directed this time out), the only character to return from the previous two movies, arriving in the small Southern town of Liberty to visit his sister Karen and her family. Almost immediately upon entering the town, Tommy has a run-in with members of the white supremacist group that has taken hold of Liberty, harassing the non-white citizens, defacing property, even murdering an African American preacher who spoke out against their hateful ideology and burning down his church. After the preacher's death, Karen and her husband take in his young son, Luther.

Tommy's first encounter with the group is merely awkward and uncomfortable. As the white supremacists begin to target his family members, with no consideration given to the fact that Karen is married to the town sheriff, Tommy's altercations with these homicidal racists quickly escalate into violence and action sequences. Between showing the bad guys the error of their ways, Tommy finds time for some romance with his nephew Justin's schoolteacher Margo, played by Gina Gershon, who also catches grief for repeatedly standing up against the group in public.

Although the white supremacists are actually the congregation of a church led by televangelist Preacher Brian (an uncredited R. Lee Ermey, best known for Full Metal Jacket and Texas Chainsaw Massacre '03), who preaches that the races should be separate and unequal, his right hand man, a very despicable guy named Donnie (The Shawshank Redemption's Mark Rolston) has different plans for the group's future, turning their base of operations, a guarded compound, into a training ground. Brian is trying to run a church, but Donnie is building a heavily-armed militia... And is so determined to make it happen that he's even willing to kill Brian when he tries to put an end to his schemes.

All of the violence and aggression culminates in Donnie's men kidnapping Justin and Luther. To rescue the children, Tommy, Margo, and Karen's husband Jack (Christopher McDonald) must raid the group's compound, three people taking on a small army.

The screenplay for Best of the Best 3 actually started off as an original spec script by Barry Gray entitled No Turning Back, in which the main character was an African American man returning home from the military to find his town overrun by white supremacists. Rhee purchased it with the idea of making it a Best of the Best sequel and gave Deborah Scott, who had been an associate producer on the first film and a co-producer on the second, the job of retrofitting Tommy Lee into the lead.

While writing Tommy into the script, Scott did include the element that the character is haunted by the fact that he actually killed the villain of part 2, a shocking and very out-of-character moment, even if he was defending himself. This bit of mental torment doesn't get much importance assigned to it, though, and certainly doesn't keep Tommy from delivering a beating to the deserving.

In one absolutely absurd moment, Tommy manages to jump kick three men off of three different dirt bikes during one bit of air time. By the end of the movie, he's throwing knives into people, firing guns at them, and igniting explosions/

Phillip Rhee is always a likeable screen presence in the role of Tommy, and the supporting cast Rhee got for himself do fine work in their roles. Horror regular Dee Wallace especially has some strong moments as the mother of a new recruit into the white supremacist group, a mother that deeply disagrees with the choice her son has made, but as with Tommy's troubled conscience, her character drama is given the bare minimum of screen time.

As he did in the first movie, where he played a redneck bar patron, and the second movie, where he was working security at a Las Vegas club, stuntman/Jason Voorhees performer Kane Hodder makes an appearance in the third Best of the Best, this time as one of the compound guards.

No Turning Back hasn't gone down as a direct-to-video action classic and isn't going to, but its story, action and fight sequences are decent and entertaining enough to make it worth watching from time to time.


Having set his feature film debut Mud Zombies deep in the swampland of the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, independent filmmaker Rodrigo Aragão again took the horror genre into the Espirito Santo backwoods for his follow-up film, this time pitting his characters against a cryptozoological abomination. The legendary goat sucker.

At the core of the story Aragão crafted is a Hatfield and McCoys type of blood feud, two families - the Silvas and the Carvalhos - who have long hated each other, living in close proximity to each other in the woodsy Espirito Santo mountains. In fact, the land the families share used to belong entirely to the Silvas, but the family patriarch handed most of it over to the Carvalhos to quell their feud.

The Silvas and Carvalhos have had an uneasy truce for years... but now there's something lurking in the woods, something monstrous and bloodthirsty, and when members of the families start being affected by this creature, some falling ill from eating the meat of animals it has killed, another turning up dead, each blames the other, tension boils over and a war erupts.

Father Silva knows there's a chupacabra stalking the land, he has seen it with his own eyes and is obsessed with hunting it down, but no one believes his story of a devil in the woods until it's too late. While the Silva and the Carvalho men are busy shooting at each other, the chupcabra, a man-sized reptilian creature, reveals itself, emerging from the night and attacking anyone it can get its hands and bloodsucking maw on.

To heighten the intensity of the terror seqeunces, Aragão wrote the heroine of the piece (played by Mayra Alarcón, who he has since married) to be an expectant mother who has nearly reached the delivery date. Viewers definitely won't want to see a pregnant woman get mauled by a chupacabra, or even to be bitten by one, because who knows what that could cause? However, there is already something strange about her situation, a medicine she takes that her unborn child's father isn't happy about at all. A character element that light is fully shed on by the end of the film.

Although the movie's low budget is rather apparent in the production value, Aragão overcomes it. The movie, although a bit too long, just like Mud Zombies was, at 107 minutes, is fast paced, exciting, and weird. The action sequences are well handled, with guns blasting some nice muzzle flashes and good squibs going off when the shots hit their targets. Aragão also does his own special effects, and his work in that field is quite impressive. The night of the chupacabras is a messy one, filled with blood and gore. And a little projectile vomiting to add some extra flavor.

Aragão's direction is lively, with some great shots and camera moves. His biggest influence in getting into filmmaking was Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, and that influence clearly shines through in his work. At one point, there's even a P.O.V. shot reminiscent of something Raimi's Evil Dead II co-writer Scott Spiegel, who has directed films like Intruder and From Dusk Till Dawn 2, might do, as Spiegel is known for inserting some crazy P.O.V. angles into his films, like a shot from inside a rotary phone or a vampire's mouth. Here, Aragão treats the audience to a shot from within a wound that's being stitched up. Spiegel would certainly approve.

A Noite do Chupacabras, as the title goes in its native Portuguese, is a very fun, entertaining creature feature, and with it Rodrigo Aragão continues to prove that he's a filmmaker to keep an eye on, especially for fans of the horror genre. He's doing some interesting work out there in the Brazilian countryside.

No comments:

Post a Comment