Sunday, July 27, 2008
It appears that the X-Files movie is receiving a pretty thorough drubbing from reviewers -- and, while I disagree with those reviewers' sentiments, I can't say that I'm all that surprised by them. Even as I was sitting in the theater, thrilling to every mournful, low-key minute of I Want to Believe, I kept thinking to myself, "My God, so many people are going to hate this".
The film defies all Hollywood logic as to what a big summer release based on an established property should be. There is not a single explosion, nor are there any instances of flashy CGI effects. Instead, in an impressive feat of risk-taking, Chris Carter has taken the opportunity to deliver a meditative, bittersweet postscript to the series he created, and in the process provide us with an intimate view into the lives of his beloved protagonists, Agents Mulder and Scully, these six years on from when we last encountered them.
There is an emotional honesty -- as well as a very unspectacular everyday-ness -- to this portrait that feels almost discomfitingly personal within this context. Furthermore, it's wrapped around a story that is about as terrestrial as could be, rooted in the indiscriminate betrayals of the human body, the extremes that people can be driven to by the fear of loss, and the desperate questioning of faith that those things can inspire. It's a slow-burning narrative, one that evidences, on the part of its creators, enough confidence in its audience to take the occasional pause to speak to the mind and heart, rather than just the gut.
Given this, it's understandable that the film will come as an unwelcome slam on the brakes for many of us riding the non-stop rollercoaster of thrills that this summer's offerings have been so single-mindedly delivering. Hey, I've been enjoying that ride myself, and I Want to Believe definitely demanded an unexpected amount of reconfiguring of my expectations. Still, as a fan of the series (an important deciding factor in whether you will love or hate this movie), I ended up -- after an initial brain sputter -- not only welcoming that demand, but being thrilled that it was being made in the first place.
The way things are looking right now, I'm bracing myself for the inevitability that I Want to Believe is going to be widely referred to as a "failure". But the film is in every sense such an anti-blockbuster -- right down to its desolate, wintry setting and borderline despairing tone -- that it's impossible to imagine that those involved had their sights set on an Iron Man-scale success in the first place. Rather, given the messy implosion that the original series suffered during its final seasons, it feels like Carter is finally gifting fans of The X-Files with the opportunity to give Mulder and Scully the proper farewell that they deserve. And that's something to be grateful for.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Goldface is the type of movie whose vision of the Swinging Sixties leaves no doubt as to precisely what it was that was swinging, buttressed by the kind of jazz pop chorale soundtrack -- all folks going "bwap-wa-waa" and "dooba-dibba-dip" -- that screams out "I'm a cheerfully sexist Italian movie from the 60s, dammit!". On the other hand, vintage can neither excuse nor prepare one for the appearance of Goldface's faithful sidekick, Gotar, a large, bare-chested black man who wears a crocodile tooth necklace, spouts gibberish while making moon eyes, and calls Goldface "Bwana". This character is just one of Goldface's many instances of intentional camp, but the movie lacks any of the sophistication that might suggest we should give it any more weight than any of the other kitschy anachronisms that are glibly trotted out for our amusement. So shame on your racist gold face, Goldface!
Goldface's foe here is a fellow called The Cobra, who runs an outfit called Cobra, which is involved in something called Operation Cobra. As you might imagine, The Cobra is prone to making super villain speeches that are extremely repetitive -- so much so that, after a point, every time he started talking, all I could hear was "cobra cobra cobra cobra cobra" -- but he does have one great line, in a scene where he executes one of his minions, saying, "You are guilty of being and acting incredibly stupid". The Cobra also wears a cloak with a wraparound collar that covers his face up to his eyes, which gives him an appearance reminiscent of Mort from the old Bazooka Joe comics.
Despite an obviously tiny budget, Goldface does an admirable job of keeping things moving along, giving us a variety of vehicle chases and a lot of fist fights in addition to the requisite two wrestling matches (one of which, following a grand lucha movie tradition, involves an evil Goldface impostor). The film even manages an acceptable pass at the old 007-style "climactic siege upon the villain's compound", employing some tricky editing that disguises the fact that there were only about eight people involved.
At the film's close, there's a wrestling match where Goldface's aggressive love interest jumps into the ring to challenge him -- and, after she pins him, we learn she meant "with tongues". Those crazy Italians!
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Friday, July 18, 2008
Exhibiting a brazenness comparable to 3 Dev Adam's in it's attitude toward international copyrights, La Mujer Murcielago has Maura Monti -- in her role as secret agent and masked wrestler Bat Woman -- costumed almost identically to TV's Batgirl. I say "almost" because -- while the mask, cape and boots she wears are indistinguishable from her American inspiration -- where Batgirl would wear a skintight bodysuit, Bat Woman just wears skin. Now, I don't need a whole lot more than that, and the makers of La Mujer Murcielago have shown an eerie prescience by providing me with just that: very little more than Maura Monti padding around in a miniscule bikini for 85 minutes. And, while I am grateful, it pains me to say that, despite the very forgiving attitude I brought to the film, I did find La Mujer Murcielago slow going in some parts.
If you have read any of my other reviews on The Lucha Diaries, there may have been times when you regarded my description of something that happened in a film with skepticism. And you should do. In many cases here I am describing, without the aid of a re-viewing, films that I watched many weeks previous. And the condition in which I originally watched them was often one of either somnolence or compromised sobriety. As a result, there are "reviews" here in which I freely admit to remembering very few of the subject film's details, or in which I unwittingly invent those details because I confused that film with another one that I watched in an equally inattentive state. I say this because, in his entry regarding La Mujer Murcielago in his fine book The Mexican Masked Wrestler and Monster Filmography, Robert Michael "Bobb" Cotter describes the process by which the mad scientist creates the goldfish man as involving putting a fish and a G.I. Joe doll in an aquarium together and boiling the water. I thought that this sounded just too good to be true. However, I should not have doubted the generosity of a film that would give us a seagoing vessel named Reptilicus, for, when I watched the film, what Cotter described is precisely what I saw.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Monday, July 14, 2008
Given his upbringing, it's not surprising that little Mithun II grows up to be good at little other than pummeling people with his fists. But what struck me is how, when it comes time to earn his keep -- and despite him not having any apparent musical ability -- he easily gets a job as a drummer in a disco band. I want to mock this particular development, but, hey, I've been in my share of bands, and it's totally true: Even the most mallet-fisted thug, no matter how un-musical, is only a pair of drumsticks away from filling that position. It's a drummer joke!
As those in the know have probably already guessed, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki is yet another collaboration between actor Chakraborty, producer/director Babbar Subhash, and composer Bappi Lahiri, with all of the ugliness and stupidity that that implies. If you need further proof, check out this clip:
Naseeb is also famous for a sequence that became the inspiration for the touted all-star party scene in Farah Khan's recent Om Shanti Om. While the similarities are obvious, one difference that struck me was that -- while, in Om, Shahrukh was playing a Shahrukh-like superstar who could party with the assembled gods and goddesses of the screen on equal terms -- Amitabh plays a lowly waiter who has to serve the crowd of Bollywood royals, which includes some of his famous co-stars from previous movies. So, as much as I love the aforementioned scene in Om, I've got to say that Amitabh wins out over Shahrukh in terms of humility and good sportsmanship. I also loved that the event ostensibly being celebrated in Naseeb was the golden jubilee of Dharam-Veer, which occasioned the banquet hall being decorated by a giant standee of Dharmendra in his leather miniskirt.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Anway, whatever. If you want to read more awesome reviews of Mexican wrestling movies like the one below, that's where you go. Or you can just "imagine" them. 'Cause I bet that would just be so much fun.
Probably the one thing that I could relate that would most succinctly sum up Aranas Infernales is the fact that it steals its special effects footage from Plan Nine from Outer Space and Teenagers from Outer Space. As much as this is equivalent to copying the slow kid's homework, it still guarantees that Aranas Infernales' special effects are immeasurably better than those of Blue Demon contra las Invasoras. Still, for the viewer (or, at least, this viewer) there's nothing like the sudden recognition of, not just the fact that you're watching a movie that aspires to pass off footage from what is popularly considered one of the worst films of all time as its own, but that you immediately recognized that footage as such, to make you most acutely feel the corresponding, rapid draining of the sands of time from your mortal hourglass.
This, combined with the fact that all of the scenes in Aranas Infernales that aren't filmed outside or set in a wrestling arena look like they were filmed inside a really small box, could really send me into a funk. But then here comes Fernando Oses, challenging Blue Demon in the ring with a ridiculous looking spider puppet on his hand, and all is forgiven. A sublime moment like this, occurring in a film's final minutes, is enough for me to see the total time invested, no matter how freighted with inanity, as well spent.
As for the spiders, they're not all that infernal. And, dovetailing fortuitously with the film's obviously limited effects budget, they're not all that spidery, either. It seems that the aliens' choice to assume human form was for the purpose of blending in, so that they could walk among their intended prey undetected. But they kind of defeat that purpose with their insistence on wearing sparkly capes with big pointy collars. Their vanity is their ultimate undoing.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
But without subtitles, it's really impossible for an English speaker like myself to make sense of the various intrigues that make up 8 Lhiem, 12 Kom's crime caper plot. And the result is that all you're left with is a random collection of 1970s B action movie tropes. Wait... Ha! I said that as if it was a bad thing.
So yes, it's all here: Wide-assed ties, muscle cars, funk-lite porno music (that strays at times into weirdly minimalist synth explorations), motorcycle stunts, bad kung fu, a healthy amount of gratuitous nudity, mirror-lined bedrooms, poofy hair and, of course, big bushy mustaches. All Thai style! (Which means Asian women in big afro wigs, among other things -- which I'm sure, now that I've mentioned it, is some kind of fetish. Welcome to you, new batch of vaguely disappointed Google pervs!)
Sombat's mini-skirted female co-stars also gets to engage in some Cleopatra Jones-style action by way of some not terribly well choreographed fights. And there's a visual gag involving a women eating a sausage that's worthy of a Wong Jing movie. But, aside from that, all I get is that Sombat appears to have been involved in stealing a briefcase full of sparkly jewels, and now there's some skullduggery going on between the members of his gang for its possession. But wait: at the end, the villain, who I thought was just a run-of-the-mill gangster, turns out to have a big, control panel-filled underground lair - and Sombat and his female accomplices stage a raid on it aided by a bunch of those movie-mad Thai policemen. So I guess that Sombat wasn't the anti-hero that I thought and is instead more of a hero-hero. And is this a spy movie?
Understanding of the dialog and the plot might or might not render this a pretty good movie, but it's certainly no worse than many subpar old Hong Kong action movies that are readily available to English speaking audiences. At the very least I can be thankful to it for keeping me away from the few remaining unwatched Sompote Sands movies that I have left in the stack. And besides, I could have done worse: Sombat is one charismatic dude, there was some lovely period design on display, and I loved the gritty urban settings.
All of which is to say that you can look forward to more thumb-tongued blind gropings in the world of vintage Thai cinema from me in the future.
Well, I'm glad that at least somebody is happy about it.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Like so many Bollywood films of its era, Yaadon Ki Baaraat is a "lost and found" story, telling the tale of three young brothers who are separated following the murder of their parents by a ruthless outlaw. The problem so often with these type of films is that, once the family at their center is split, so is the narrative, and the parallel stories that get told are not always of equal interest. Thankfully Yaadon is a rare exception, focusing primarily on two diverging narrative threads that, while quite different in tone, are both just as involving -- and which, even more impressively, end up re-entwining in a thoroughly satisfying manner.
One half of Yaadon's story involves middle brother Vijay (Vijay Arora), who we find -- upon meeting up with him again in young adulthood -- has been adopted by a kindly old man who works as groundskeeper at a wealthy family's vacation home. Vijay becomes involved, after a fashion, with that family's pampered daughter (Aman), who, visiting the home for the first time, is unaware of his humble circumstances. But this relationship is less of a romance than it is a weirdly obsessive juvenile rivalry, involving some fairly cruel pranks on the part of both parties. This mean-spiritedness adds some welcome vinegar to what easily could have been a typically saccharine Bollywood tale of young love, and also provides interest as we watch how each becomes trapped by their own deceptions once feelings for one another that they are, at first, only feigning turn out to be real. It also doesn't hurt that both stars are disarmingly appealing here (and, in Aman's case, even more kittenish than usual), a fact which makes it easy to root for them to overcome the well-orchestrated odds that the screenwriters have so meticulously lined up against them
On the other hand is Dharmendra, playing the eldest brother Shankar, who has grown up to be a thief -- though a thief of that movie variety that has a staunch moral code and an inability to separate himself from his troubled past. Dharmendra does a lot of what would normally be his standard bad-ass shtick here, but he seems to be putting a lot of soul behind it in this case, portraying it more as behavior arising from character than from just Dharmendra being Dharmendra, and it's all the more gratifying as a result. Things start to get extra complicated for Shankar when, without his knowing, he becomes involved with a gang lead by Shakaal (Ajit) the man who murdered his parents -- who, in the intervening years, has gone from being a regular outlaw to a standard Bollywood supervillain with a lair that looks like a cross between a wood-paneled basement rec room in a 1970s suburban home and the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
Finally there is the youngest brother, Ratan (Tariq), who is there less to provide a story of his own than to serve up some a-w-e-s-o-m-e musical numbers in his guise as a guitar-slinging nightclub entertainer, such as this one featuring a cameo by Neetu Singh as a scat-singing go-go girl:
Yaadon Ki Baaraat is no less predictable than other movies of its type. But somehow director Hussain just manages to hit all the right beats, making the emotions of even the most hardened cult movie blogger dance like an especially eager-to-please organ grinder's monkey despite his better judgment. (I'm not mentioning any names, of course.) I've already said more than I wanted to say about it, as my original intention was just to post a couple of clips and bugger off for a sandwich or something (see what love will do?), so just see the thing already.
*When I mentioned this movie to Beth over at Beth Loves Bollywood, she hipped me to the fact that the role of the young Ratan is played by a very young Aamir Khan, and indeed it is! Thanks, Beth! You've provided me with a possible way to trick my wife -- who loves AK, but not so much 70s Bollywood movies beyond the standard classics -- into watching this movie. I think she'll forgive me.
Monday, July 7, 2008
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Saturday, July 5, 2008
Avenger X (1967). Dir. by Piero Vivarelli. Avenger X is appropriately named, because soon after I popped it in I said "Why?" and then went ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. And if you think that the only reason I'm reviewing it is so that I could use that joke... well, sadly, you're right. This movie is a perfect example of the unique ability of Italian genre directors of the day to take something that seemed guaranteed to be at least moderately engaging and, against the odds, turn it into something quite dull. Avenger X is more of an anti-hero in the Kriminal/Diabolik vein, and in order to insure that his film wouldn't flirt with the notion of actually being exciting, an actor was cast to play him who looked like Dick Cavett -- which would be capital if you were planning to have Avenger X interview Gore Vidal, but not so much if he's meant to strike fear into the heart of the underworld. Add lots of nailed-down camera work, talking head exposition, pedestrian plotting, and a purveying chintzy-ness in terms of actually showing our main character doing what is ostensibly his purpose for being -- meaning, wearing his costume and engaging in daring feats -- and you've got the perfect recipe for thrill-repellent. In fact, this film often seems pleasure-averse to the point of absurdity, with even the standard ski lift sequence, once set up, stubbornly refusing to give us any kind of action payoff. Avenger X, you may be a criminal genius and a master of disguise, but you suck!
Flashman (1967). Dir. by Mino Loy. Ah, now this one is more like it, with a hero in a prize-winningly ridiculous costume, a garage-y farfisa and electric guitar soundtrack, a plot involving a colorful group of gangsters with an invisibility serum, and a self-effacingly goofy tone throughout. Flashman, in his civilian identity ("known only to corpses and friends" as he puts it at one point) is a foppish English lord, and his crime fighting entourage includes his butler, as well as his kid sister, Sheila, a flower child who sports psychedelic face paint and an assortment of outfits that grow increasingly outrageous as the film progresses. Maybe not so great when taken on its own terms, this one benefits greatly from being viewed in close proximity to something as flat as Avenger X. It's every bit as cheap as that film, but at least shows a little bit of spirit and imagination. Flashman, I'm flashing you the thumbs up!
'Til next time, arrivederci!
Friday, July 4, 2008
So today I was thinking that perhaps the musicals of Umetsugu Inoue might provide a safe, cushiony introduction for fans of vintage Bollywood to the glories of vintage Hong Kong cinema. Granted, the films of Bollywood leave their fans with a pretty high expectation in terms of catchy, quality songs and stunning choreography, two things that are sometimes MIA in Inoue's films. But what his films may lack in terms of irresistibly catchy tunes and dazzling hoof-work, he makes up for with eye-popping color, lavish style and dazzling old-fashioned star power.
In my review of Asia-pol, I touched upon the practice of Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio of importing directors and technicians from Japan during the sixties and early seventies -- a time when the diminished fortunes of the Japanese film industry made overseas work attractive to many of its personnel. At the time Japan was Asian cinema's standard bearer in terms of craftmanship and artistry, and studio boss Run Run Shaw sensibly thought that these artists would not only improve the quality of his product in the short term, but also improve the performance of his Hong Kong-based crew in the long term through their exposure to the Japanese craftsmen's refined techniques and outstanding discipline.
There were a number of Japanese directors who helmed multiple films for the Shaws -- often doing so under assumed Chinese names to avoid falling afoul of anti-Japanese sentiment on the part of HK's filmgoing public. But no doubt one of the most prolific was Umetsugu Inoue, who ended up directing 17 films while working exclusively for the studio over the course of several years. While other of his fellow countrymen, like the Nikkatsu-bred Matsuo Akinori, brought with them a proficiency for hardboiled action, Umetsugu had a light, whimsical touch and an obvious eye for glamour that translated into a series of lighter-than-cotton-candy musicals and youth-oriented comedies made between 1967 and 1971. While the years would see Inoue's aesthetic veer away from lush, elegantly-realized eye candy and more toward eye-straining day-glo kitsch, there is plenty of frothy fun to be found throughout his catalog.
Probably the best place to start with Inoue is his first film for Shaw, the 1967 Musical Hong Kong Nocturne. The film starred three of the higher profile faces in the studio's touted galaxy of female stars, each departing from their usual martial arts roles to portray one of three singing sisters who decide to break up their nightclub act and pursue their own individual paths to fame. Ching Pei Pei, who had the previous year starred in King Hu's groundbreaking Come Drink With Me played sister Chuan Chuan, while Lily Ho (Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, The Lady Professional) played Tsui Tsui, and Chin Ping (Trail of the Broken Blade) played Ting Ting. The film's show biz milieu seems to have been a frequently recurring one in Inoue's movies, and largely dictated the staging of his musical numbers, many of which are either colorful depictions of his characters' stage acts or surreal fantasy sequences. In the case of Hong Kong Nocturne, that the plot surrounding this musical content is an admixture of family-driven soap opera, broad comedy and morality play will make this one an easy ride for Bollywood fans.
I've been entertaining the notion that fate has cheated me out of spending my adulthood as a resident of mid-1960s Hong Kong. It's a notion that has nothing to do with reality, of course, and everything to do with my watching Wong Kar Wai movies and old classics like Hong Kong Nocturne. In Nocturne, the city is depicted as a bubbling metropolis whose citizens spend their nights in an endless, gin-soaked, club-hopping celebration of a life filled with glitz and unbounded possibility. Dressed with rich color and pop art lighting effects, its a vision that makes for an intoxicating visual cocktail. Tell me, who wouldn't want to just jump into the screen and join that party?
The songs in Hong Kong Nocturne are mostly pleasant and fun, and don't seem to aspire to being anything more than that. Still there are no real clunkers, unlike in Nocturne's deliciously gaudy 1968 follow-up Hong Kong Rhapsody, which equips Peter Chen Ho with an ear-rending signature tune that, for all its royal badness, weirdly compliments the manic cheese-fest that it adorns. As for the dancing, its a bit surprising that a studio like Shaw, who was at the forefront of action choreography, would play it so safe when it came to plain old choreography choreography, but mostly what you get here is limited to lots of spokesmodel hand gesturing and standard variety-show pageantry. This would also vary according to who was being required to do the moves, be it the trained dancer Ching Pei Pei, or a less light-footed star like Betty Ting Pei, who you can practically see counting the beats in her head during some of the numbers in Inoue's 1971 film The Yellow Muffler. In any case, perhaps such restraint is for the best, because anything more audacious might distract from these film's musical numbers' true stars: their surreal sets, which often look like hidden wings of Barbie's dreamhouse rendered life-sized.
Most of Inoue's films have been released on Region 3 DVD as part of Celestial Pictures' Shaw Brothers collection. However, since Celestial discontinued their Shaw Brothers releases, I've noticed that some shops have started to clearance these titles, which means they might not be available much longer. So if Umetsugu Inoue's dizzying musical landscape looks like one you might like to explore, you might want to hop on the train sooner than later.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
In the case of the 1974 Bollywood film International Crook starring Dharmendra and Feroz Khan, the movie had three things very strongly in its favor: namely that it was a Bollywood film made in 1974, that it starred Dharmendra and Feroz Khan, and that -- probably most importantly -- it was called International Crook. All of these had me primed and ready for a dizzying tale of pleather-clad cads living a decadent criminal lifestyle accessorized by space-age underground lairs, day-glo lycra-clad nautch girls and curving plexiglass bars ornamented by gigantic bottles of Johnny Walker Red. Perhaps even Ranjeet would show up to model some horrific baby-size leatherwear of some kind.
But the problem is that, despite its 1974 date, most of International Crook appears to have been filmed a lot earlier -- by the look of the styles on display, and of Feroz and Dharmendra themselves, some time in the late sixties. Now, I don't know why, but apparently once this footage was shot, the production of International Crook was put on hold for a good long time. But for someone, the dream of International Crook never died, and at some much later point, Feroz Khan and Dharmendra were both brought in to complete the movie, though without anyone bothering to style their hair, clothes -- or, for that matter, their acting -- to match the footage already shot. The result is that you're presented with the curious spectacle of 1960s Dharmendra stepping into a car and then stepping out of it as 1970s Dharmendra, and of 1970s Feroz Khan talking on the phone to 1960s Dharmendra. Even the whole sensibility of the movie shifts randomly as a result, with Khan, playing a typically clean cut and upstanding 1960s police officer in a spic-and-span uniform for most of the movie, showing up at one point with shaggy hair and his shirt open to the navel to beat a confession out of a suspect Dirty Harry-style.
1960s Dharmendra and Feroz Khan in International Crook
1970s Dharmendra and Feroz Khan in International Crook
While all of this certainly adds an element of novelty to International Crook, I'm sad to say that it is merely just a symptom of a larger pattern of haphazard neglect evidenced in International Crook's overall half-assed construction. Still, the film does have a few things to recommend it. For one, there is the theme song, which goes like this:
Crook. Crook. Crook. Crook. Crook.