Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Amitabh Collection: Just in time for Summer

Be-Sharam is a brisk and somewhat trashy distillation of everything that's fun about Amitabh Bachchan's action films from his late 1970s heyday. For the uninitiated, that means you get a driving Hindi-funk score, lots of two-fisted action, and some truly mind-blowing menswear. See my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Smashes spies on contact

Casus Kiran is a Turkish remake of the old Republic serial Spy Smasher. I guess it hews pretty close to the original, only it's sexier and a lot more Turkish. Read my review at Teleport City.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Super Robot Red Baron: More like this, please

I'm ecstatic that BCI is releasing all of these old Japanese Tokusatsu shows on DVD. Still, I have to admit that, while I enjoyed their last release, Iron King, I was a little disappointed by it. I understand that Iron King is noteworthy for the ways in which it departs from the standard Tokusatsu series formula, so I guess that the fact that I mostly missed all of those things that it departed from makes me something of a conservative as Tokusatsu fans go. One of the main things I felt the lack of in Iron King was the presence of your usual Science Patrol-style paramilitary group; I mean, what is a Japanese giant hero show without a pitifully small and overmatched band of humans in colorful and uncomfortable looking futuristic uniforms piloting all kinds of cool-but-completely-unairworthy-looking vehicles for the monster to swat at? Furthermore, the whole idea of making the comic relief sidekick, rather than the dashing lead, the hero's alter ego just forced me to pay a lot more attention to the comic relief sidekick than I would normally want to. Lastly, there didn't seem to be much variation in the designs of the monsters-of-the-week, which left less to look forward to from episode to episode.

Still, that whole constant cropping up of the hero Gentaro's "issues" with women was interesting--and if you wanted to explore the series' gay subtext, you could probably really go to town. But I just want to watch men in giant monster suits squashing toy tanks while other men in chafing polyester uniforms strike stylized action poses and point toy ray guns at them. Is that simply too much to ask for?

Well, of course it isn't. And BCI's recent DVD release of the 1973 series Super Robot Red Baron has now come to my rescue. Red Baron is a show that's all about chunky-looking giant robots fighting each other and thrashing lots of model buildings, which is a formula that's pretty hard to find fault with. But Red Baron really seals the deal for me with its inclusion of the Super Science Institute, an elite group of young people who have been trained as "modern day ninjas" and whose high-tech headquarters is concealed within an auto body shop (where they all also work in their civilian guises). Each of the five members of the SSI have things to recommend them, but, for obvious reasons, my favorite is the mini-skirted female member who drives a rocket-firing muscle car. With each episode dividing it's action between robot fighting and the SSI having kung fu fights with armies of costumed goons to brassy seventies action music, Super Robot Red Baron is one big catalog of awesome.

The series' premise is set up when an international robot expo--at which giant robots from every nation are being exhibited--is attacked by a group called the Iron Alliance, who steal all of the robots and take them to their undersea headquarters. The Iron Alliance's goal is to create a world ruled by robots, which everybody on the show seems to just assume would be so horrible, though, as far as I'm concerned, that's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. While I'm conservative in my taste in Tokusatsu series, I'm far more open minded to untested ideas in the political realm. I mean, given how non-robots have been handling world governance lately, would it really be so bad to just give the Iron Alliance's program a try? I'm just saying. Anyway, the Iron Alliance has managed to get all of the robots except for the one they really, really wanted, which is Super Robot Red Baron. Unfortunately for them, Red Baron's creator has bio-encoded Red Baron's controls so that he can only be piloted by his brother Ken, who happens to also be a member of the SSI. This leaves the alliance no choice but to attack with what they have on hand, and so, with each episode, a new, goofy looking giant robot is sent forth to smash miniature cities and do battle with Red Baron--which again is, as far as I'm concerned, a can't lose formula.

As you'd expect, there is a lot of miniature work in Red Baron, and from what I've seen it's quite good. And by "good", I don't mean "convincing", but instead fun and imaginative, which is really what it's all about. I also really like how the robot designs hark back to the more caricatured, pot-bellied look of the original Gigantor/Tetsujin 28 cartoon, rather than trying to emulate the more streamlined look then being made current in animated shows like Mazinger-Z. (The sequel series to Red Baron, Super Robot Mach Baron tried to incorporate that look to a greater degree.) As such, our hero Red Baron looks something like a skyscraper-sized red fireplug with arms and legs, a whimsical touch that imbues him with a quirky personality, despite the fact that his onscreen behavior is pretty much limited to stomp, stomp, punch, stomp, stomp.

I was really glad to finally have the opportunity to see Red Baron. In one of my past lives I dealt in vintage Japanese toys, which gave me a familiarity with most of these Tokusatsu characters, even though I had never actually seen most of the series that so many of the toys I traded in were based on. Toys, by their nature, have a way of sparking the imagination, and I suspect that a lot of the expectations I built up about some of these series as a result of this would be hard to meet. Super Robot Red Baron, however, did not disappoint.


Red Baron "Light-up" figure by Takatoku, Japan c. 1973

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bombay 405 Miles (India, 1980)

The long form reviews of Bollywood movies that I do for Teleport City--like the one I just posted of Toofan--always take a lot out of me. Hell, sometimes just watching those movies is exhausting, let aside writing about them in painstaking detail. Given that, I probably won't be giving director Brij's 1980 film Bombay 405 Miles the full treatment any time soon. Still, I did want to mention it, as it provides a perfectly enjoyable way to piss away a Sunday afternoon, while holding a couple particular points of interest for Bollywood fans.

The main reasons to check out Bombay 405 Miles are a great cast and an excellent soundtrack. The film stars the sultry Zeenat Aman, rugged sex symbol Vinod Khanna, the mighty Pran, and Shatrughan Sinha in leading roles, and features Amjad Khan (Sholay's Gabbar Singh) in one of his more ruthless bad guy turns. The great Helen even makes a cameo, though, sadly, not one that involves any dancing. Despite the 1980s vintage, that odd Bollywood time lag that also accounted for the film Disco Dancer being made several years after the disco craze ended insures that this is a film with a solid 1970s feel, and, as such, we get to see all of these stars parading about in some typically head-slap worthy period finery. And isn't that exactly how we like to remember them?

Bombay 405 Miles' musical score is by the team of Kaylanji-Anandji, who have become something of a staple of hipster Bollywood music comps thanks to their hard hindi-funk soundtracks to films like Don and Qurbani, and here they firmly uphold their rep. In fact, the wah-wah drenched aural porn of Bombay 405's own "Na Na Na Yeh Kya karne Lage Ho" staked out a deservedly prominent place on last year's Bombay Connection CD, and curiosity about how that particular number might be "picturized' on screen is probably enough for many to merit giving the film a try. In addition to their pimpastic instrumentals, the team has a gift for writing catchy pop-flavored songs, and while most of those featured in this film aren't among their most memorable, they are all possessed of a buoyant charm that at least prevents them from slowing down the action.

In the film Aman, Khanna, Pran and Sinha play a fractious group of smalltime con artists who, through typically convoluted circumstances, find themselves in charge of a lost toddler who, unknown to them, is the survivor of a brutal revenge killing against her family. Thinking that the child might have been the subject of a kidnapping, the group hold onto the little girl, hoping to somehow get in on the payday. Of course, the warming powers of winsome tyke-dom eventually serve to melt these crooks' cynical hearts, and they decide to do the right thing--though not before they've done some pretty despicable things that no Hollywood film would ever dare have characters intended to be seen as sympathetic even consider.

The child actor who plays little Munni gets some pretty rough treatment over the course of the film, receiving a very close view of several wild fistfights while being held in whichever of Khanna's or Pran's arms they're not swinging at the time. One I-can't-believe-they-went-there moment even drew an audible gasp from me. It all goes to show that, when a Bollywood film wants to wring tears from its audience, no child, elderly mother or small animal is safe. Bombay 405 Miles does have its slow moments, but there are enough instances of colorful nonsense and outlandish action to provide the sort of "what on Earth could be next" anticipation needed to pull you through them. All in all, not a classic--and certainly not a good intro for the Bollywood novice--but, for the rest of us, a perfectly engaging way to enjoy some pleasantly familiar faces and good tunes.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

No fan of Toofan

When Keith over at Teleport City says jump, I say "How high?" So when Keith asked me to review the 1989 Amitabh Bachchan superhero masala Toofan, I agreed, even though I had already seen the film and knew that, despite that one amazing clip on YouTube, it was a bit of a steamer. Still it's not without its points of interest. For one thing, it's one of the first films that Bachchan made after his disastrous venture into Indian parliamentary politics, at a time when the sheen of superstardom was rapidly fading and he desperately needed a hit. Needless to say, Toofan would not be that hit. Read my full review here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A treasure trove of Pinoy pulp cinema

Blogging about old, locally produced B movies from non-English speaking countries is fun because, in a lot of cases, there's not a lot that's been written in English about them, and you can really feel like you're making some small contribution to promoting awareness of them to an audience that's potentially prone to their many charms.

Blogging about old, locally produced B movies from non-English speaking countries sucks because, in a lot of cases, there's not a lot that's been written in English about them, which makes it hard to find accurate information, and increases the potential for your own writing about them to be either inaccurate or incomplete in its details.

However, blogging about old, locally produced B movies from non-English speaking countries is both fun and humbling because, once you launch these bundles of inaccurate or incomplete information out into the blogoshpere, they act as a shining beacon of ignorance, summoning those more knowledgeable to come to your aid.

Case in point: My review at Teleport City a few weeks back of the Filipino spy film Tony Falcon, Agent X-44: Sabotage. It turns out that I had most of the details right, except for the small matter that I had gotten the film's actual title completely wrong. (Sabotage was the international release title of a film that was originally titled Sabotage 2, though I had identified it as Last Target--which is, in fact, a completely different film from the Tony Falcon series.) Fortunately, Andrew Leavold came to my rescue with the correct information.

Andrew--a filmmaker and critic, as well as the founder of Australia's Trash Video--is currently working on a documentary on Filipino B movies, but in the meantime the magnificent fruits of his obsession can be seen at his fantastic blog The Search For Weng Weng. This blog is a must for anyone curious about Filipino action cinema of the sixties and seventies, not the least for the incredible wealth of original posters, lobby cards and promotional materials that Andrew has on view. This is one you could get lost in for a good long while.

Plus the guy really knows his shit... which is more than I can say for some people sometimes. (That's right me, I'm talking to you.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

ohhh....

Yesterday I posted about the apparently potty-mouthed French electropop singer Yelle and linked to the video for her song "A Cause Des Garçons", which shows her singing to a bunch of dancing household appliances. Ever since then I haven't been able to stop thinking that I've seen that somewhere before. Today it dawned on me:



Yelle, Connie Chan may look sweet in her movies, but I doubt that she'd take too kindly to you biting her style like that. It's best that you just start funneling all of your royalties and concert proceeds to her right away before there's some kind of ugly, cross-generational international incident involving various combinations of kung fu, lawyers and awkward but charming interpretations of the watusi.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jong-arng Payong (Thailand, 1971)


Jong-arng Payong is a classic Thai action film starring Sombat Methanee, Suthisa Pattanuch and Lee Ling Ling. It's your basic martial arts revenge tale about a group of kids who witness the slaughter of their parents at the hands of a gang of bandits and grow up to wreak bloody vengeance with their finely honed fighting and swordsmanship skills. The film features a lot of long scenes of spoken exposition, which can make for some dull viewing for non Thai speakers like myself. Also, as with many low budget martial arts films of the period from Hong Kong and Taiwan, a lot of its action scenes take place in nondescript open fields and forests, and the film definitely lacks the visual pop that I've come to expect from watching so many Thai films from the sixties. Still, when the action comes, it's gratifyingly feverish and insane, depending a lot on the use of the old just-out-of-frame trampoline and a surprising amount of really silly gore. Though I wouldn't recommend the film, it didn't scare me off of exploring further into these type of Thai films--and I have to admit that I enjoyed the scenes where people's arms kept flapping around after they'd been lopped off.

Listening to: Yelle "Pop Up"

These days it seems that the contemporary music I most often augment my steady diet of sixties pop of all flavors and nationalities with is electropop, which leads me to the question: for the love of christ, do I have any god damned edge left at all? Or could it be that this music is my equivalent of those mysterious Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass albums nestled in between Frank Sinatra and Patti Page in my parents' record collection? (All records, by the way, that I would--and often do--happily listen to today; I love me some "Lonely Bull".) To be honest, I think what draws me to music that's so synthesized, structured and rigid in its conventions is that it appeals, not only to my sweet tooth, but also to this infantile god complex of mine that makes me feel kinship with artists who are able to create completely enclosed worlds, the kind that conform to their own rules without risk of being compromised by the hazard and happenstance of the actual organic world beyond their totally made-up borders. (I guess in that sense it's a type of music that should be a suitable choice to accompany a Chor Yuen wuxia film... or an episode of Thunderbirds.)

Anyway, what I'm listening to now is "Pop Up" by Yelle, and compounding my humiliation is the fact that its U.S. release is being heavily promoted by MTV. I take comfort, however, in the knowledge that Yelle's lyrics are incredibly dirty, even though I have absolutely no idea what she's saying. Though there's definitely much to love here for fans of Annie, what Yelle's frothy French faux-eighties electropop most reminds me of is the frothy French actual-eighties electropop of Lio. (WARNING: by clicking on this link you are consenting to watch a film of a cute Belgian girl dancing badly while singing an extremely catchy yet very stupid song, accompanied by one of the laziest visual double-entendres in the history of music video).

Though the hardest truth I have ever had to face is that I will never realize my dream of representing the U.S. in the Eurovision Song Contest (because, honestly, even if America was part of Europe, they would have pried us off and set us sailing years ago), I at least have bloopy, incomprehensible la-la-la music like this to live vicariously through.

Video: Yelle "A Cause Des Garçons"

Monday, April 14, 2008

Nikkatsu Action retrospective: just grazed

Outcast Cinema's Nikkatsu Action Cinema retrospective finally made its way to San Francisco last weekend and, as luck would have it, I had to be out of town for most of it, though I did manage to catch the first night's showing of director Takashi Nomura's 1967 film A Colt is My Passport. Like a lot of people, my only exposure to the venerable Japanese studio Nikkatsu's hardboiled crime films of the 60s has been through the work of (say it with me) "maverick director" Seijun Suzuki--specifically films like Branded to Kill, Underworld Beauty, Tokyo Drifter, Gate of Flesh, and Youth of the Beast (though I've also seen Suzuki protege Yasuharu Hasebe's lovably loony Black Tight Killers). Though it does share some of the offbeat qualities of Suzuki's more well known films, A Colt is My Passport is a considerably more subdued affair, and as such didn't grab me with the immediacy that those other movies did. Still, I found it interesting, and would like to have the chance to see it again before forming a full opinion on it. The film is an across the board exercise in genre minimalism, from its basic story and sparse dialog to its stark, nondescript settings, and the combination results in the film, despite its gritty subject matter, having a somewhat dreamlike tone--though one that's punctuated by periodic eruptions of highly stylized violence. Nikkatsu regular Joe Shishido (see my review of Asiapol) is always reason enough on his own to see a picture, and in this one he's as stylish, unflappable and compelling as ever.

Hopefully A Colt is My Passport and the other films presented as part of Outcast's retrospective will find release on DVD in the near future, because the fleeting taste provided by this one screening--as well as Mark Schilling's companion volume No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema, which I was able to pick up there--has definitely made me want to explore this particular part of the studio's output further.

Rum, sodomy, and the lash?

Living in a town like San Francisco, you get pretty good at separating the faux from the real pirates--and Iron Claw the Pirate is no pirate. What he is is another masked hero from another thrill-a-minute slice of 1960s Turkish action cinema. But lest you should think, "Wait a minute, a Turkish action movie that's free of flagrant copyright violations?", let me assure you that the villain here is none other than that dastardly French import... Fantomas! Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Friday, April 11, 2008

MLF?!

You may not have heard of her, but if you're a bad guy, Suet Nei is probably going to kill you. In my latest contribution to Teleport City , I take a fond look at the Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa films, a series of wild and violent "Jane Bond" entries from the swinging Cantonese cinema of the 1960s.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

One more hand for Mr. Han Man

Within days of posting my somewhat goofy tribute to Sek Kin and Amrish Puri, I stumbled upon this very informative three-part post about Sek Kin over at the wonderful blog Electric Shadows (links below). These focus a lot on Sek Kin as a martial artist, which is of course something that I completely failed to mention, due to the fact that I couldn't find any parallels that I could make with Amrish Puri's career--though I'm pretty sure that Puri could send someone into a back flip with one of his eyebrows.

Mr. Han, Man: The Awesome Villainy of Shek Kin, Part I

Mr. Han, Man: The Awesome Villainy of Shek Kin, Part II

Awesome Kung Fu of Shek Kin

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Death piano, the piano that eats

Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 film Hausu is one of the most unique horror films I've ever seen, and the girl getting eaten by a grand piano is just part of it. Obayashi takes the manic feel-good vibe of an early seventies Saturday morning cartoon and hitches it to one of the most feverish cinematic bad trips imaginable, providing an experience that, whether you love it or hate it, won't easily be forgotten. For my part, I'm going to step out on a limb and say that I consider it a masterpiece. A masterpiece, I tell you! To read my full review, head on over to Teleport City.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Leer meets The Sneer

International genre cinema would be nothing without its villains, and today I decided to pay tribute to two of the best of them. Despite obvious differences of time and place, Amrish Puri and Sek Kin actually have a lot in common. Though both accumulated massive and varied filmographies over the course of their hardworking careers, they are primarily known for their larger-than-life bad guy roles, and both put in a lot of time serving as sort of in-house Snidely Whiplashes for their respective national film industries. In the case of Puri, that was the Bollywood of the eighties and nineties, while with Sek Kin it was the Cantonese language cinema of Hong Kong during the sixties.

Another thing that both men have in common is that each would be completely unknown to mainstream Western audiences if not for one iconic bad guy role. For Sek Kin that would be the role of Han in 1973's Enter the Dragon, and for Puri that of Mola Ram in 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Whenever one of these gentlemen appeared in a picture, you seldom had to wonder who to root against; it was just a matter of following either the twitching pencil mustache or the ominously furrowing brow.

Recommended viewing:

Amrish Puri: Mr. India
Read my review at Teleport City

Sek Kin: Girl in Red
Read my review at Movie-fan Princess

Friday, April 4, 2008

Delicious Friday filler

That's right, I don't really have anything to talk about here. I just wanted to close the week with one final pointless use of the word "delicious" before I begin to annoy and exhaust even myself.

So, um... welp... tap tap tap... Oh! I know. How about a preview of what I've got coming up over at Teleport City? The next review I'll be posting will be of Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 Hausu, a film which comes about as close to melding the sensibilities of Dario Argento and Syd & Marty Krofft as you're ever likely to see. This one is a favorite of mine and highly recommended. After that I'll be doing an overview of the Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa movies, a trio of 1960s Cantonese language "Jane Bond" films that are ripe for wider cult appreciation, due in no small part to the totally badass mean girl persona of their star, Suet Nei.

Of course, those reviews are ones that have already appeared on my site The Lucha Diaries, though I have revised and tarted both of them up for their Teleport City debut (my review of Hausu, for instance, seemed like a good place to launch into a brief tirade about how crap contemporary Japanese horror films are, apropos of my recently being bored to the point of weeping by Nightmare Detective). Upcoming exclusive reviews for TC will include my first forays into writing about Turkish pulp cinema, including a review of Iron Claw The Pirate, which was recently released on DVD by the wonderful Onar Films, and then, sometime after that, Yilmaz Atadeniz's Casus Kiran aka Turkish Spy Smasher.

From there I'll be returning to familiar territory with a review of the Bollywood film Toofan, an eighties film starring Amitabh Bachchan as a crossbow touting superhero. The film is an artifact of what was a sort of strange "lost" period for the Big B, when he was getting a little too long-in-the-tooth for those "angry young man" roles he became famous for and started branching out into some pretty strange territory. Finally, somewhere along the line I'll be getting around to reviewing Hanuman vs the Seven Ultramen (aka The 6 Ultra Brothers vs. the Monster Army), a 1970s Thai/Japanese coproduction that pairs Ultraman and his Ultra Brothers with the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.

All of these reviews will of course appear alternately with those written by Teleport City overlord Keith Allison, in which Keith will no doubt continue his current obsessions with guys in skeleton suits and German Krimi films. So, in short, lots of good times ahead. Now eat your peas!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Girl gangs, yakuza, and delicious corn

(NOTE: Someone recently challenged my use of the word "delicious", so in churlish retaliation I plan to use it in the titles of as many posts as possible. My apologies to any innocent parties who may be unjustly annoyed as a result of this practice.)

I know that a more appropriate screencap to accompany a post regarding the Delinquent Girl Boss films would be one of Reiko Oshida punching someone in the head, but this one of her eating corn on the cob was just too adorable to resist. To read my review of the first film in that series, 1970's Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams (just released on DVD by Media Blasters) head on over to Teleport City.

Insee Daeng: You know you want it

I've mentioned a few times now that Wisit Sasanatieng is working on a new film based on the Thai costumed hero Insee Daeng (Red Eagle), who was originally personified on screen by Mitr Chaibancha back in the sixties. I came across a link to the film's official site over at Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal and thought I would pass it along:

There's not much up there right now other than a couple of slick graphics, but I imagine it's worth keeping an eye on, since the movie is scheduled for release some time this year. Wise Kwai also has a few posts detailing the announcements that have been made about the film so far, which are worth a peek.

Given Sasanatieng's obvious love for classic Thai cinema--something he demonstrated with great virtuosity and style in the wonderful Tears of the Black Tiger--he's the perfect person to be helming this project, and it's one that's well worth getting excited about. In fact, if you're not already excited about it, it's only because you're afraid someone's going to see you getting excited about it and think you're a big geek, so just get over it.

Geek.