Monday, March 31, 2008

Crime does not pay

My passion for the obscure and underappreciated in pop culture is seemingly boundless, extending well beyond just the world of film--and no less ardent on even those occasions when I have to begrudgingly share its objects with a large number of obviously cooler people who discovered them long before I did. Case in point: While I left comic book fandom behind me in my teens (when I sold my Spider-man collection to buy my first bass guitar, thus beginning my own journey to obscurity and underappreciation) I still found myself irresistibly and wholly predictably drawn to the work of Fletcher Hanks, a sort of comic book auteur who briefly both wrote and drew comic stories for lower rung publishers during the beginning of that medium's golden age, between 1938 and 1941. I'm obviously far from alone in that fascination, because soon after I stumbled across samples of his work over at the Stupid Comics website, I learned that Fantagraphic books had published a collection of Hanks' comics, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, way back in the glorious summer of '07. Despite this overwhelming evidence that I did not personally rediscover the work of Fletcher Hanks--which, if I had, would have had to have been simply floating entirely of its own accord out there in that complicated system of tubes called "The Internet"--that won't stop me from crowing on about it like a clueless old man.

It's tempting to compare Hanks to Ed Wood, but while Wood hitched his technical incompetence to a palpable and infectious enthusiasm, Hanks combined his equally epic artistic shortcomings with an equally palpable paranoia and rage. Fletcher Hanks' comics, it seems, were his revenge against the world. The typical Hanks comic features an omnipotent and all-seeing super hero (such as his Stardust, The Space Wizard or the skull-faced Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle) who boasts powers that are both limitless in scope and wholly unexplained. Since any villain that appears in these comics is completely powerless against these god-like beings, the usual cliff-hanging exploits are dispensed with, freeing up panel space for what Hanks really excels at: Feverishly imagined and tortuously involved scenarios of grimly enacted karmic retribution. The intermittently microcephalic Stardust, for instance--whose nemesis is usually some kind of enormous, globe-spanning consortium of nihilistic racketeers or "gigantic fifth column"--will often use his amazing space powers to simultaneously project hundreds of his foes through space, perhaps to be frozen for a waking eternity within arms' reach of a fortune in gold, or combined into one man to be more easily fed to a golden octopus. Or, he might just take the gang's leader, make his body absorb into his head, then hurl that head toward a gigantic headless space creature who will then take that head and absorb it into his own headless body. Which is what happened this one time.

Fantagraphics' I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! is a lovingly packaged tribute that presents 15 of Hanks' complete stories in all their astonishing ineptitude and alcoholic fury. Editor Paul Karasik also provides a comic afterword that includes what scant biographical details about Hanks he was able to unearth--and it's almost as starkly depressing as Hanks' comics themselves. Yeah!

Fletcher Hanks I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! official website.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mmm, delicious ginseng

Ah, ginseng: Restorer of vigor, bulwark to the libido, aid to digestion--a gift of nature no matter how ingested, be it in pill form, a yummy tea, or in those little glass ampules you get in Chinatown that come with a little scoring stone. But best of all is when the ginseng root itself shrinks itself down from it's ungainly human size and launches itself into your mouth on a shaft of golden light. What?

It's been a while since I've watched a batshit insane fantasy kung fu film, and 1986's Magic of Spell really hit the spot. It has everything I could ask for in such a feature: lots of eighties metal band hairstyles, cartoon laser beams shooting out of everything, life-sized skeleton puppets, and folks swinging around on wires at pretty much all times. There was even a boulder monster reminiscent of the beloved watermelon monster from Taoism Drunkard. But what really won my heart was the thousand year old ginseng root, played by a kid in a suitmation ginseng costume, who was constantly in danger of being eaten by the other characters. Since these type of movies tend to blur together in the mind like one long, half-remembered hallucination, it's good to have such touchstone moments; That way I can now think, "Oh yes, Magic of Spell: Ginseng Boy!", just as I think "Holy Flame of the Martial World: attacking airborne Chinese characters!", or "Kung Fu Wonder Child: farting baby hopping vampire!".

Magic of Spell was produced in Taiwan and stars Lin Hsiao Lan, a female star who played young boy heroes in a number of these type of films, including the aforementioned Kung Fu Wonder Child. Here she plays Peach Boy, a very loose interpretation of the popular Chinese folk hero who, in this incarnation, has a pair of giant attack peaches that come to his aid in a pinch. Fortune Star/Joy Sales has released the film on VCD, and if you're a fan (like I am) of films like Kung Fu From Beyond the Grave or the Shaw Brothers' Buddha's Palm, it's one you should definitely be stumbling all over yourself to get a hold of.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Khon Nuer Khon aka Top Secret (Thailand, 1967)

Reviewing Top Secret is going to be an interesting proposition, because I can't say for sure that I actually saw Top Secret. I mean, the slip case said "Top Secret", the VCD itself said "Top Secret", and that VCD definitely contained digital information that translated into some kind of image on my screen, but for the most part that image looked like this:



So it's sort of like one of those grainy, out of focus photos of a purported UFO sighting; one person can look at it and see the northern lights, another a paper plate on a string, and another the real deal. It's subjective. Assuming this is Top Secret, though, I've got to say that this is the most abused Thai film of its era I've yet to see (and if you've read any of my other pieces on 1960's Thai cinema, you know that's saying a lot).

The paradoxical thing about watching a film that's in this advanced a state of decay is that it makes you feel fortunate to be able to see it at all, no matter how underwhelming it might actually be behind that noisome curtain of funk. In a way, it gains that "survivor" aura that we Americans seem to value so much. In the case of Top Secret, assuming that the VCD was made from the best print available, the film looks to have had only a couple months before turning into celluloid dust, so it really is a kind of minor miracle that it can be viewed. Because of that I felt honor bound to watch it, even though the experience was akin to watching a satellite transmission from Mars with my head wrapped in grimy cellophane.

Another reason that I stuck with Top Secret is that, at times, when I could see it, it looked like this:



So you have Thai mega-star Mitr Chaibancha in all his pompadoured glory, doing his best James Bond impression against a groovy pop art back drop, which is exactly what I signed on for. I'm easy that way.

Top Secret pairs Chaibancha up with the other great action star of Thai pop cinema's golden age, Sombat Methanee. Both play secret agents--Methanee working from the inside, posing as a member of the bad guys' gang, and Chaibancha working from the outside--and it's a straight up 007 clone. In fact, just like in Goldfinger, Mitr spends a large part of the film imprisoned by the villain while the supporting cast steps up to move the plot forward.

I'm not going to pretend that I even bothered to try to follow that plot, but from what I could see, it looked like it could be a fun film if watched in a context that didn't threaten permanent eye damage. There's a squadron of female karate commandos, a cool mod villain's lair with all kinds of hidden doors and booby traps, and plenty of shootouts between our very similar looking heroes and the villain's uniformed, tommygun toting hench-army. The production values are quite good, with an impressive display of military hardware on hand. (I've concluded that either the Thai government was very supportive of the film industry, or their military was just movie mad.) Finally, it's also something of a musical, with characters taking time out from the action to burst into song, and as such has it's own, equally distressed, audio track--which you can't always count on with Thai films of this vintage.

So here's my--undoubtedly naive and completely unfounded--hope: That Wisit Sasanatieng's upcoming revival of Insee Daeng (aka The Red Eagle) will be so awesome that it will inspire renewed interest in both the films of Mitr Chaibancha and 1960's Thai cinema in general, and that as a result we'll finally get to see more of these older films restored--if that's even possible--and subtitled on DVD.

Don't let me down Wisit. You've got me a little nervous, because The Unseeable kind of sucked.

Top Secret, like all of the Thai films I review here, is available from the ever-reliable eThaiCD.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tahalka... now not just a powder. Apparently.

"Patriotic" Bollywood action movies are those in which you're likely to find courageous young Indians with rocket launchers single handedly taking on the entire Pakistani military... or righteous everymen serving up payback to some kind of fanciful super-villain who serves as a stand-in for every real and perceived threat to the homeland. Tahalka is neither that specific, nor that fanciful, but it sure is angry about something. In any case, what you really need to know is that Tahalka is a film that features scenes of Mogambo/Mola Ram himself, Mr. Amrish Puri, singing and shaking his booty. Read my review at Teleport City.

Monday, March 24, 2008

SFIAAFF

The 26th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend. I was able to catch several films, including some that I hadn't gotten a chance to catch up on on DVD over the last year, as well as some exclusives. Here's a brief overview in the order that I saw them:

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (US, 2008): John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg's follow-up to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is as raunchy and raucous as fans of the first film (like me) could hope for, and is also one of the most sincerely and movingly patriotic American films I've seen in a long time. When Kumar sums up his defense of the American way of life with an outraged cry of "Fuck you! Donuts are awesome!", it nearly brought a tear to my eye.

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (Korea, 2006): Well, what do you know? I'm a Cyborg turned out to be just as disappointing as most people said it was. Park Chan-wook seems almost to be going for a Kamikaze Girls style of FX-enabled, Amelie-influenced magical realism, but doesn't have the well-drawn characters or storyline to hang it on. It also doesn't help that the movie exhibits a painfully antiquated view of mental illness, one that would be more at home in a Hollywood movie of the forties or fifties. Not that Hollywood's current over-earnest and patronizing approach to the subject would be an improvement, of course, but I think that anyone who has had any personal experience with the mentally ill will find Park's depiction of a mental hospital filled with lovable, funny hat-wearing goons a little hard to take.

Om Shanti Om (India, 2007): While I can agree with some of the criticisms leveled at Farah Khan's much-anticipated follow-up to Main Hoon Na, that doesn't change the fact that seeing it with a packed and vocally enthusiastic crowd at San Francisco's Castro Theater was one of the best movie going experiences I've had in recent memory. Of course, Shahrukh's six pack got one of the night's biggest ovations--which included a lot of lusty female screaming--and his shout out to San Francisco in the "Pain of Disco" song brought the house down. Om Shanti Om's biggest flaw is that it delivers a first act so wonderful that it would be virtually impossible for whatever followed it to live up--and that's a criticism I wish I could make about more contemporary Bollywood films. Make no mistake, though, the film is furiously entertaining from first frame to last. With this film I celebrated the completion of my journey with Shahrukh Khan, one that started out with resistance, then moved on to exhausted tolerance, then reserved fondness, and now ends with me embracing the big ham as an essential and welcome part of the Bollywood experience.

A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Japan, 2007): A Gentle Breeze in the Village, which we saw the next night, was about as far from Om Shanti Om as you could possible get: A sweet story told on a small scale and at a leisurely pace, utilizing poignant silences and finely observed details as much as dialogue. This latest film from Linda Linda Linda director Nobuhiro Yamashita--based on the manga by Fusako Kuramochi--was easily the high point of the festival for me; rich, beautiful and utterly charming.

The Unseeable (Thailand, 2006): Yeah, it would be neat if you could make a horror film that was all scares from the first frame to the last, but chances are it would just end up being exhausting and annoying like Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog director Wisit Sasanatieng's latest, The Unseeable. Sasanatieng plasters his film with wall-to-wall ominous music and sound design and delivers a "boo" moment seemingly every sixty seconds, all at the expense of building any of the kind of real tension that would result in the kind of payoff he's looking for, not to mention story and character. Furthermore, what story there is seems to be cribbed from certain Hollywood films, the mentioning of whose titles would constitute a spoiler in itself. By the time the film got around to the rapid series of largely unnecessary flashbacks that fills out its final 15 minutes, I was ready to scream "enough" at the screen. Disappointing as this was, though, I'm still really looking forward to Sasanatieng's update of The Red Eagle.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Falcon, Tony Falcon

Tony Falcon: Who is he? A pro skateboarder? A lounge singer in Branson? Nope. He's the Philippines' answer to James Bond, y'all. I'm guessing that 1978's Tony Falcon, Agent X-44: Last Target is not the best entry in this series, but it's all that I could find at the moment. Check out my review at Teleport City.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spy Lucha A-go-go

Mexican spy movies from the sixties are generally pretty weird, and Cazadores de Espias just may be the weirdest of them all. This 1969 effort, which stars the fabulous Maura Monti, sets its action in a combination go-go-club/wrestling arena, a situation that provides for lots of masked luchadores, shimmying go-go girls, ridiculously uniformed super-villains, spy hijinks and musical numbers by Mexican pop acts of the period. See my full review of Cazadores de Espias as Teleport City's Jet Set Cinema.

Boo! I'm a skeleton!

In keeping with Teleport City's commitment to providing comprehensive coverage of any movie featuring a grown man dressed as a skeleton (see Kriminal, Kilink), my review of the 1966 Sonny Chiba sci fi/super hero oddity Golden Bat (aka Ogon Batto) is now available for consumption. If this is a subject you'd like to bone up on (I'm killing myself over here!), please do check it out.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Review of The Black Rose at Jet Set Cinema

The 1965 film The Black Rose is an early work by director Chor Yuen (Killer Clans, The Magic Blade) that, though criminally unknown in the West, is a true classic of Hong Kong cinema. Check out my review at Teleport City's Jet Set Cinema.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wild, Wild Rose (1960)

Big thanks to David Wells over at Movie-Fan Princess for turning me on to the 1960 Cathay production The Wild, Wild Rose. The film is a loose update of Bizet's Carmen that's rich with film noir atmosphere, its action playing out against the backdrop of a smoky nightclub in modern day Hong Kong. Having only seen Cathay superstar Grace Chang previously in Air Hostess--where she played a nice girl who really, really wanted to be a stewardess (even if she did at times fail to be mindful of her service attitude)--I found her lead performance here to be a revelation. It's a ferocious portrayal that starts out in classic femme fatale territory but reveals more complexity as the story progresses. The music, which includes some reworkings of songs from the original opera, is also excellent. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Review of Dharam-Veer at Teleport City



Dharmendra in a leather skirt! Zeenat Aman rocking mediaeval gauchos! And, of course, Sheroo the Wonder Bird. Thrill to it all in my review of the Manmohan Desai Bollywood spectacle Dharam-Veer, now up at Teleport City.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Review of Interpol 009 at Jet Set Cinema

Interpol 009 has everything you'd want in a 1960s spy movie--except for a memorable villain, a spectacular crime, and audacious action set pieces. On balance that leaves you with attractive stars, lots of nicely photographed scenes shot in glamorous locations, some nice cars, and a lot of fun gadgets. Fortunately, thanks to its amiable tone and sure-handed technical delivery, that's enough to make Interpol 009, if far from a dazzling entertainment, at least a pleasant way to wile away an hour or so with a cocktail (or two)...

Read the full review at Teleport City's Jet Set Cinema

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Chucky Aaja

It occurs to me that a lot of my reviews of Bollywood movies focus on films that serious fans and proponents of Indian cinema probably think would best be ignored. It's not as if I think that these films are all there is to Bollywood, or all that's worth mentioning. It's just that, to tell the truth, my taste in so-good-they're-good Bollywood movies is pretty boring. I don't think the internet needs one more person writing about how great Dil Se, Deewaar, Mother India and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam are. (Though if you want to read something I wrote about a classic Bollywood movie that I love, love, love, go here.) On the other hand, mining the nether-reaches of Bollywood for overlooked jaw-droppers and then writing about them is a hell of a lot of fun.

That said, I just don't feel like I have the energy to give the 1996 film Papi Gudia the full review treatment. Doing so would just entail me trying to describe in detail a lot of things that would be best just witnessed firsthand. But I do feel that Papi Gudia should be remarked upon. The film--a spectacular box office failure, from what I've heard--is a remake of the Hollywood film Child's Play, and it comes to us complete with special effects that are just about as special as they could be, and Mithun-caliber song-and-dance bits featuring that snappy dresser Karisma Kapoor.

It's rare to see a mainstream Bollywood film from this era that tries to tackle the horror genre, and Papi Gudia abounds with evidence of filmmakers who were working in very foreign territory. They seem to have grasped onto just a couple of common devices and then clung to them for dear life, never letting a moment of screen time pass in which the audience isn't being pummeled with them. For instance, rather than trying to build tension through judicious use of music and sound design, they plaster the soundtrack wall-to-wall with overwrought creepshow music and demonic sound effects. The goal seems to have been to create a sense of omni-ominousness and, not just foreboding, but during- and after-boding as well.

Karisma Kapoor's musical numbers do serve to break up that mood a bit, though. I can best describe them by saying that they take the aesthetic of a 1980s Pepsi Super Bowl commercial, root around in it for what precious vestiges of taste and restraint can be found, and then eliminate those with extreme, spandex-clad prejudice. In short: Fans of Disco Dancer will find much to love here.

Papi Gudia
is also noteworthy for how, in a cinema so demonstrably in love with the use of the shock zoom, it stand out for its profligacy. In one scene alone, where we first see Karisma lay eyes on Avinash Wadhavan, we get three consecutive matching pairs of his-and-hers shockers, insuring we can't miss the fact that--doiiinggg! doiiinggg! doiiinnng!--this is not the first time they have met. This actually caused me to yell "I Get It!" at the screen, which is something I always thought people only wrote about doing in reviews of cult movies, but never actually did. Now I know.

Lastly, Papi Gudia distinguishes itself from its inspiration by having a social agenda. A title card--in English--at the top of the film reads:


" The story idea of the film is to create positive feeling in children which will make them careful against similar situations in future and also to warn them against blind faith or surrender to alien things be it a doll or computer toys, robots, etc."

Papi Gudia is not a good movie, but it made me laugh until I cried. And then I cried until Papi Gudia taught me to laugh all over again. Sadly, I could not find a YouTube clip of any of the musical numbers from the film, though this number from another Karisma Kapoor film of the same vintage very well could have been in Papi Gudia:

Review of Four Gentlemanly Flowers at Movie-Fan Princess



Hey, what do you expect from a blog called Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! if not a review of a film called Four Gentlemanly Flowers? This charming family sit-com is the subject of my latest guest review for the Connie Chan appreciation site Movie-Fan Princess. In addition to Connie Chan, the film stars two other female superstars of 1960s Cantonese cinema, Nancy Sit and the recently departed Lydia Shum. Like most sit-coms, Four Gentlemanly Flowers, despite its cheery facade, gives us an interesting peek into the particular anxieties of its age and place, as well as some prime sixties kitsch in the form of a dance number Chan performs that comes off like a Les Baxter album cover brought to life. Check the review out here.