Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bolly-Lucha

As far as I can tell, Dara Singh is the closest thing to Santo that Bollywood has to offer. True, he never wore a mask, but there are plenty of other striking similarities. Much like his Mexican counterpart, Dara Singh achieved stardom as a professional wrestler during the 40s and 50s and, as his middle years approached, moved into film, starring in a prolific series of low budget, B action movies throughout the 60s. These movies typically contained a sprinkling of oddball fantasy elements and featured a host of other pro wrestlers in their casts in order to give Dara ample opportunities to show off his moves.

Of course, being that they were Bollywood movies, they were also musicals -- but, as fans know, Santo's producers weren't averse to including the occasional song and dance number in his movies, either. Like Santo in Santo contra la Invasion de los Marcianos, Dara Singh even brought his formidable arsenal of scissor holds and headlocks to bear upon hostile invaders from Mars -- in his case in the loopy 1967 entry A Trip to the Moon, a very rare instance of Bollywood making a pass at the space opera genre.

Dara would eventually move up to starring in the occasional big budget mythological feature (including the 1965 classic Mahabharat) and, in 1985, would be cast by Manmohan Desai as Amitabh's father in Mard. But, of his early B movies, one of the few available on English subtitled DVD is 1964's Aaya Toofan. The film borrows its plot from the 1962 American feature Jack the Giant Killer -- which itself was an attempt by director Nathan Juran to recapture the magic of his earlier, Ray Harryhausen-fueled special effects extravaganza The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Like its model, Aaya Toofan tells the story of a humble village boy (Dara) who saves a princess (Helen) from a giant ogre sent by an evil wizard to abduct her. However, to pad the yarn out to acceptable Bollywood length, the makers provide a considerably greater amount of obstacles to the budding romance between Dara and Helen's characters and even include a love triangle involving the King's mistress.

Fans of Santo movies might find themselves a bit dismayed by the amount of actual story contained within Aaya Toofan, but will no doubt be right at home with the abundance of charming, old school special effects and sweaty two-fisted action featured in the film's first and final acts. As for Bollywood fans, the inclusion of Helen in the cast -- and doing what she does best in a generous assortment of energetic musical numbers -- is alone enough to warrant giving this one a look.

The aforementioned A Trip to the Moon also offers a lot to love, with Dara portraying a sort of Bollywood version of Flash Gordon and Helen playing a high-hoofing Martian princess. Unfortunately, the only way that I know to see that one currently is as an unsubtitled stream from the Bollywood.tv site. Hopefully, more of these trashy treasures from Dara Singh's filmography will be made available in a format friendly to English speaking Bollywood fans in the future. Because, from what I've seen, they definitely merit further investigation.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Zodiac Fighters (Taiwan, 1978)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sometimes nothing quite hits the spot like a truly effing weird old school kung fu movie, and the 1978 Taiwanese Polly Shang-Kwan vehicle Zodiac Fighters certainly fits the bill. If you're a rational human, all I need to tell you about this movie to make you want to see it is that it features Lo Lieh in a flying-shark-launching palanquin fighting against Polly and a gang of oddly costumed martial artists that includes a girl in a bunny suit.

Oh, and at one point the bunny lady rides one of the flying sharks.

And Lo Lieh's henchmen have lobster claws.

Happily, rather than being a mere container for these isolated moments of transcendent insanity, Zodiac Fighters is fun throughout, maintaining a brisk pace and a staunch dedication to being as silly as possible for its entire, brief running time. And as you can see from my screen caps, Criterion has done a fantastic job of restoring it for their extra-laden, three-disc special edition release.

Okay, that last bit was just a cruel joke on my part. You're going to have to scour the gray market for this one, but it's well worth the effort.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Goths vs. Jocks: The Cecil B. DeMille version

This month the B-Masters Cabal is holding a silent movie-themed review roundtable, which means that I actually had to watch a silent movie--and then write about it! Fortunately, Cecil B. DeMille's last silent feature, The Godless Girl, contains a lot of elements that I've become well familiar with in my time writing for Teleport City, including sacrilege, violent juvenile delinquency, women behind bars, and gruesome tortures inflicted upon the innocent. Check out my full review here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Black Falcon (Hong Kong, 1967)

I hadn't heard much that was good about The Black Falcon, the general consensus seeming to be that it paled in comparison to most of the other 1960s spy efforts turned out by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio. Given that, I was surprised to find that it was actually one of the most solidly plotted and engaging of the lot. I was even more surprised to discover that it was a close remake of Sergio Sollima's Eurospy film Passport to Hell, which was made just two years earlier.

Passport to Hell was obviously quite popular in Hong Kong during its day--or at least popular with the creatives at Shaw Brothers. The distinctive, projectile-firing compact used by Seyna Seyn in the film would show up in carbon copy as Lily Ho's signature weapon in the 1971 Shaw production The Lady Professional, and The Black Falcon, while omitting that particular gadget (perhaps they were saving it for later) plays Passport almost scene-for-scene. The original starred George Ardisson as a secret agent given the task of insinuating himself into the affections of an attractive young woman whose father is believed to be the head of a freelance spy organization known as "The Organization". Things ultimately turn out to be not quite as they seem, however, thanks to some internecine power struggles within The Organization staged in part by Seyn's character, the vicious and cunning Jackie Yen.

In The Black Falcon, Ardisson's character is portrayed by Paul Chang Chung, fresh from his lead role in the Shaw's wan Bond imitation The Golden Buddha, while Jenny Hu Yan-Ni plays the daughter of the supposed leader of The Organization--here called The Black Falcons--and Margaret Tu Chuan plays the femme fatale role originally essayed by Seyna Seyn. Passport to Hell is a standout in the Eurospy genre, in great part due to star Ardisson's commitment to some pretty intense and gritty physical action. Chang Chung steps up considerably in that regard, showing a vast improvement in his fighting skills in contrast to the lackluster display he put on in The Golden Buddha. Falcon even mirrors Passport's fight between Ardisson and the over-sized Dakar by pitting Chang Chung against the giant actor--and Shaw regular--Siu Gam in a brutal match-up.

Beyond that, most of Passport's major set pieces are represented here, from the bar scene featuring a weird arm wrestling match involving the contestants gripping a beer mug between them (though without Passport's groovy addition of having Kinks songs playing on the jukebox) to the scene in which two flatbed trucks attempt to sandwich Chang Chung's car between them. Of course, this being a Shaw spy film, director/screenwriter Daai Go-Mei also has to work in a space age secret lair for The Black Falcons and a silly, comic book-style supervillain outfit for Margaret Tu Chuan, even though those things are pretty much at odds with the otherwise relatively down-to-earth espionage plot laid out by the film's model. Still, the director, wisely hewing closely to the example set by the tightly-structured Passport, does a much better job at maintaining a persistent pace and coherent narrative thread than his colleague Lo Wei did in his own numerous contributions to Shaw's spy movie catalog.

So I'm going to style myself as a lone voice in the wilderness here and say that, despite what you may have heard about The Black Falcon, it really is worth checking out. And if you're a fan of Passport to Hell--or, for that matter, the Eurospy genre as a whole--I think you'll find a lot that's of interest in this Hong Kong take on the form.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dharmendra vs. Fantomas

Saazish (India, 1975)

The Bollywood action thriller Saazish is sloppily constructed, incoherent, low budget trash. But it's also kind of fun if you're in the right mood. More importantly, it provides the answer to a question posed by Keith on the Teleport City forum many, many months ago -- that question being, "Who the heck is that blue guy on the cover of the Bombay the Hard Way, Volume 2: Electric Vindaloo CD?" Well it turns out that he is Saazish's chief heavy, Mr. Han (or, if you're Jim Kelly, Mr. Han Man), who is clearly inspired by the venerable French pulp villain Fantomas (who made an equally copyright-flaunting appearance in the 1969 Turkish film Iron Claw the Pirate).

The first half of Saazish takes place in Hong Kong, where Indian beauty queen Sunita (Saira Banu) has just won the title of Miss Cosmos. With barely enough time to bask in the warm attentions of the painfully stiff, English-speaking representatives of the press swarming around her, she is whisked away to perform her first order of duty, which is to present the trophy at an international racing competition. Here she meets and instantly falls in love with hunky race car driver Rai (Dharmendra). This leads to her relentlessly stalking him all over the island and singing at him, with the predictable--by Bollywood standards--result that he eventually wears down and falls hard for her, as well. (I was glad to at least see a gender reversal in this scenario, for once.)

All goes swimmingly, until a fateful trip on the ferry results in Sunita inadvertently learning of an international criminal gang's plot to smuggle two billion dollars worth of stolen gold out of the country. This, in turn, results in Sunita being relentlessly hunted down by the gang, which includes Madan Puri--making about as convincing a Chinese as Warner Oland--playing a character called Mr. Wong. Separated from his lady love, Rai is captured by the gang and taken to the big boss, Mr. Han. Somewhat surprisingly, Rai offers to kill Sunita himself (I mean, that breathy, Jane Mansfield impersonation that Saira Banu is doing is pretty annoying) in exchange for his life and a sizable chunk of cash. But is Rai on the level, or is this just a clever ruse? Rai's uncle (Iftekhar) is an inspector for Interpol, after all. Or IS he? Finally, Rai convinces Sunita to flee the country with him on a cruise ship, which happens to be the very cruise ship on which the gold is being smuggled. Also on board is the predictable assortment of eccentric characters, including, happily, Helen as both the ship's onboard entertainer and the film's delightful locus of female villainy.

Like International Crook before it, Saazish appears to have been filmed over a long period of time, with Dharmendra's girth, hair and acting style frequently changing dramatically from shot to shot. While this practice is not radical to the point of providing the dizzying sense of hopping back-and-forth through time that International Crook did, it does contribute to the film having a cobbled together feel, as if it was assembled from parts of two or three different films. Furthermore, much of the technical execution shows clear evidence of haste: For instance, the stunningly lazy use of rear projection in an early chase scene that makes Saira Banu's car appear to be traveling sideways through traffic--or the opening car race, which offers some of the most ham-handed blending of stock and studio-shot footage I've seen.

Still, the film has enough of a balance of scrappy energy and affably goofy elements to make it entertaining for the undemanding viewer... or, to be more specific, me. In fact, it's worth watching simply to behold Dharmendra, as only he can, throwing his hands on his hips, puffing out his chest, and telling Fantomas what time it is.


File under: SOLVED!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thai-Style Kaiju: The films of Sompote Sands Part VII

Yod Manut Computer / aka Computer Superman (1977)

Attention dour academics: If you're looking for an example of folkways polluted by the insidious influence of Western pop culture, look no further than Yod Manut Computer. This 1977 film from Thai special effects pioneer Sompote Saengduenchai's Chaiyo Productions starts out as a Seven Chinese Brothers-like tale that has all the feel of an oft-told traditional yarn, but then takes a radical detour in its middle half and becomes a cash-strapped counterfeit of the then-popular American TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, complete with needle-dropped musical cues from the original. Along the way, Saengduenchai dishes up a surfeit of exactly the type of primitive movie magic we've come to expect, which goes a long way toward mitigating the film's other considerable shortcomings.

Throughout the punishing endeavor of surveying his films, I've thrown a lot of grief in Sompote Saengduenchai's direction -- most of it, to my mind, both retaliatory and justified. But, still, I've got to say that there is one way in which the man has rarely let me down. You see, I'm a man with a passionate love for bad special effects. On any given day, I'd rather watch an episode of Terrahawks than any one of the Star Wars movies. And even if your movie is crap, if you show me some horrible, rubbery prosthetics; or woefully undetailed, poorly-scaled miniatures; or pathetically obvious rear projection, I will probably end up reserving for it a warm and cozy spot within my otherwise glacial heart.

True to form, with Yod Manut Computer, Sompote delivers all of these aforementioned cinematic delights, elevating the film -- to my mind at least, and despite it exhibiting Chaiyo's trademark digressive approach to narrative and grating instances of juvenile humor -- from being totally unwatchable to only mostly unwatchable. Despite this ringing endorsement, however, I must warn fans of the crocodile from Crocodile that the film's pre-1981 vintage excludes it from containing a cameo by that rubbery critter. Seriously, if you've become as accustomed to seeing him pop up in these productions as I have, his absence is unexpectedly jarring. It's sort of like watching a John Cassavetes movie that doesn't have Gena Rowlands in it.

Yod Manut Computer begins on a stormy night in a small Thai village, where some dodgy looking miniature shacks are being assaulted by some particularly iffy looking cartoon lightning bolts. On this night, four brothers are born... four brothers who will grow up to be somehow, well, different. One brother has gigantic ears, the size and shape of which he can change at will, while another has gigantic hands, and a third brother can produce prodigious amounts of unusually adhesive snot from his nose. The final brother merely has a tail -- well, more of a rear-mounted horn than a tail, really -- which you would think would make him less special than the others, unless you think of the inability to sit down as being some kind of super power. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to these brothers as Ear Boy, Hand Boy, Snot Boy and Tail Boy. Interestingly, it turns out to be Tail Boy who is the main player in our story.

Tail Boy is played by Thai actor Yodchai Megsuan, who I mistakenly identified as Sombat Methanee when referring to this movie at the end of my review of Krai-Thong. Yodchai Megsuan was probably used to this in his day, because, based on my experience, his job seemed to be to play the lead in those few Thai movies made during the 1970s that didn't star Methanee. Sometimes, to make things extra confusing, they both starred in the same film, as they did in Killer Elephants.

Anyway, the first half of Yod Manut Computer follows Tail Boy and his freaky brothers through a series of whimsical episodes -- at times with the proto-sythpop song "Popcorn" percolating disturbingly on the soundtrack. These include a fishing adventure in which Ear Boy uses his ears as sails to power the fishing boat, Hand Boy uses his big ol' hands to scoop the fish from the river, Tail Boy pokes a hole in the bottom of the boat with his butt-horn, and Snot Boy seals the hole with his super snot. Finally comes that fateful night when Tail Boy's girlfriend, to the accompaniment of a needle-dropped section of George Martin's instrumental score from Help!, gorily cuts off Tail Boy's tail while he sleeps. Because of the lack of subtitles, I'm unsure what her motivation was for doing this, but I doubt that her intention was for Tail Boy to run off into the forest and bleed to death. Which is what he does.

Fortunately for Tail Boy, a goofy scientist wearing a nineteenth century British naval officer's uniform happens upon his exsanguinated body and takes him back to his laboratory, where he and his hapless assistants, working in "funny" sped-up motion, labor to turn him into a bionic man. When Tail Boy revives, he finds himself able to pry cardboard doors from their hinges and outrun poorly rear-projected trains -- all of which is to the good, because in his absence, a nasty gang of bandits has taken over the village and thrown all of the brothers' women into a cage. With newfound purpose, Tail Boy does that -- ch ch ch ch ch ch ch! -- slow-motion-means-fast-motion $6m man run back to the village, where he gathers up Ear Boy, Hand Boy and Snot Boy to do battle against the interlopers. And that's as much of a plot summary of Yod Manut Computer as you're going to get out of me.

To be fair, the story of Yod Manut Computer, while incredibly stupid, is told in a much more focused and linear manner than that exhibited in many of the other Chaiyo movies I've watched. Whether this is typical of the efforts of director Santa Pestoni or not, I couldn't say. After all, I only know that this movie was directed by Santa Pestoni because it is, for some reason, one of the very few vintage Thai films that actually has an All Movie Guide entry. That aside, the fact that this one moved at a somewhat more sprightly clip than its peers, combined with those many aforementioned visual wonders on view, placed it on the safe side of excruciating, and well beyond the fearsome reach of its evil brethren Magic Lizard. In fact, I even laughed on several occasions while watching it, which indicates to me that perhaps even those whose viewing habits aren't motivated by some extravagant sense of penance might find it good for a drunken har har.

Or perhaps not. See, as much as I want to prove that I can be even-handed in reviewing these movies, I just can't bring myself to flat-out recommend this one. That's simply too much responsibility for any one man to shoulder.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Maha Badmaash (India, 1977)

I was convinced that I needed to see Maha Badmaash for myself by the brilliant, Comics Digest style recap of it over at MemsaabStory -- despite Memsaabstory coming far short of recommending it, of course. It's a film filled with mystery, intrigue, and, unfortunately, naked racism potent enough to make your head snap back like a well-aimed haymaker. It is also a film that features an early instance of a Bollywood villain being named Mogambo. Because of that -- and in disregard of all of the evidence to the contrary that Maha Badmaash presents -- I decided to view the movie as a prequel to 1987's Mr. India, as if Mogambo were Hindi cinema's answer to Hannibal Lecter. However, it's likely that the real truth of the matter is that someone thought Mogambo was simply too good of a villain name to use only once. Or, like me, they just liked hearing people say "Mogambo" a lot.

The Mogambo of Maha Badmaash is a villain whose identity, motives, and plans are not revealed until the movie's final moments, presenting the filmmakers with quite a challenge in terms of having to convince us, their audience, that we should give a toss in the first place -- and it's a challenge that they ultimately prove unable to meet. Whatever scheme Mogambo has in mind, however, the one thing that is clear is that he really wants Vinod Khanna's Ratan -- a renowned "thug" and operator of a Bombay casino -- to carry it out. To this end, he sends forth from his African hideout his "black" henchman, Mamba, who is portrayed by Indian actor Rajan Haksar sporting an afro wig, fake muttonchops and green face paint.

Ratan has a right-hand-man named Reddy who is a pure idiot, and, when Mamba shows up at the casino, he is quick to notify Ratan of the presence of a "negro" in his establishment. (Granted, I am relying on the English subtitles here, and given the Yoda-like syntax that they display throughout the film, I certainly wouldn't vouch for the accuracy of their translation.) Ratan is quick to unmask Mamba as a card cheat, and violently ejects him from the casino -- while, according to the subs, repeatedly referring to him as "black man". Later, Mamba is found murdered, and Mogambo, now in Bombay, uses photographs of Ratan's confrontation with the man to blackmail him into carrying out his mysterious plan. For the task of overseeing the rigorous training that Ratan must undergo in preparation for this mission -- which mostly involves him holding his breath for a long time and sitting in a deep freeze -- Mogambo recruits Pinky (Neetu Singh), another innocent whom he has coerced into service by dastardly means.

Though quite short at just two hours, Maha Badmaash still seems to spend a lot of its middle section spinning its wheels, and once the caper that it has not been doing a very good job of building anticipation for finally transpires, it turns out to be pretty much of a letdown. There aren't even any crappy miniatures on display to give it that Parvarish-like something extra. On top of that, the confusion of identities that results from the introduction into the plot of twins and numerous red herrings, rather than providing that loopy masala movie sense of fun that we might hope for, only ends up taxing our ability to care.

As far as the look of the movie, I know that I've repeatedly used phrases like "comic book palette" and "cartoon color scheme" to describe 1970s Bollywood movies, so I won't go there. I'll just say, in all honesty, that there were parts of Maha Badmaash that literally made my eyes hurt. The film contains combinations of pink and green that simply never should have happened. On the plus side, the driving, guitar twang-heavy instrumental score by Ravindra Jain is outstanding, and, for the ladies, there's a nice scene of Vinnod Khanna in tight swimming trunks. You can save yourself a lot of pain and rage by simply checking out the clip of it on YouTube here. (Don't say I never did you any favors, y'all.)

So Maha Badmaash brought the hurt, but it was a pain that I endured for the greater good of achieving a wider knowledge of 1970s Bollywood action cinema -- a pursuit that has, on balance, provided me with far more pleasure than it has agony. I guess sometimes you just have to take the hits.


And Robert Downey Jr. as "Mamba"

Monday, August 18, 2008

Venus between us

Made at the height of both the cold war and the space race, The Silent Star -- an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's first novel Astronauci -- was the first science fiction film produced by East Germany's state run DEFA studio. While some B movie fans might have an over-familiarity with it in its drastically altered, MSTK-mocked incarnation as First Spaceship on Venus, seeing it in its original form offers another experience entirely. Read my full review at Teleport City.

Happy Monday

Like Robocon, I'm a robot who's not afraid to show his emotions, which is why I'd like to start the week off by thanking Wise Kwai from the bottom of my painted on little heart for his generous mention of my Operation Black Panther review on his Thai Film Journal blog. In the same post, Wise Kwai also linked to a review of Insee Thong over at the blog Coffee Coffee and More Coffee, which further gave me all kinds of annoyingly warm and fuzzy feelings inside. It's great to see more being written in English about the joys of vintage Thai popular cinema, and Peter over at CC&MC really gives this Mitr Chaibancha costumed hero romp its due. If you'd like to check out my own take on that film -- as well as the series of Red Eagle films of which it is a part -- you can do so over at my second home, Teleport City. Now, get back to work!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Operation Black Panther (Thailand, 1977)

Operation Black Panther (aka Yeh Nuat Sua) is one of those films that saw Thai action legend Sombat Methanee doing double duty as both star and director. As usual, my ignorance of the Thai language prevents me from providing you with much detail regarding its plot, but I can tell you that the movie contains two brilliant bits, one of them being the gang of super-criminals who all wear full-head rubber panther masks.



The gang also has a live panther on hand to dine on those members of the organization whose performance falls short of expectations. The other brilliant bit is Sombat's car, which looks to be made out of two Mini Cooper front ends welded together, complete with opposite facing steering wheels. This allows Sombat to drive the car from either end, something that is demonstrated to amusing effect in an early chase scene where he keeps hopping from one seat to the other to extricate himself from whatever apparent dead-end his pursuers have backed him into. (Yes, I know there's such a thing as reverse, but what's the fun in that?) A later chase in an underground parking garage sees Sombat and his female accomplice (played by Aranya Namwong) each taking control of one of the car's steering wheels and working in tandem to evade the bad guys who are baring down on them. Finally, a well placed burst of machinegun fire from one of the heavies separates the two halves of the car, leaving Sombat and Aranya to complete the chase by each driving their own truncated half-cars with the back ends dragging noisily against the pavement.



If this all sounds extremely silly, it is, and it's obviously intentionally so. Centering on a performance by Sombat as a sort of bungling James Bond character, Operation Black Panther is clearly a spoof, one that keeps its tongue firmly planted in cheek throughout its running time -- from the colorful opening credits that liberally borrow footage from the Pink Panther cartoons to the deliciously atrocious miniature effects of its "spectacular" action climax (okay, well, maybe those weren't so intentional).

This might signal rough waters ahead for those familiar with what usually passes for humor in old Thai movies, but the amazing thing is that Sombat actually kind of manages to pull it off. This is in large part due to the fact that he doesn't make his performance rely too much on klutziness and mugging, instead balancing it with his usual action hero panache to create a character who is more of an everyman than a figure of fun, and who is very easy to root for as a result. Sombat is also so obviously having a good time poking fun at his image that it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit of things to some extent.




Where the director/star also succeeds is in delivering a film that lampoons action movie conventions while still standing up as a solid action movie in its own right. To this end, the middle part of the film is one long chase sequence, leading from the aforementioned pursuit involving Sombat's reversible wonder car to an uphill foot chase during which both Sombat and the villains have to periodically stop to rest, to a stunt-filled sequence featuring Sombat trying his best to maneuver a motorcycle with a sidecar through heavy traffic.



I also have to admit that I found some of the gags at the expense of typical spy movie business kind of funny. How often have we seen that scene where the hero, after stealing his way into the villain's high tech lair, dispatches one of his henchman by garroting him from behind? (For one thing, it always makes for an easy screen capture.) A lot -- which makes the blackly comic little bit where, after doing just that, Sombat has to release the henchman's death grip on his ducktail by gingerly prying away his fingers one-by-one worthy of an appreciative chuckle. Another bit in the Panther gang's lair, where Sombat keeps bumping his head on the low ceiling of a secret corridor despite being repeatedly warned by Aranya not to do so, is the kind of bit that is stupid when done just once, but somehow becomes funnier with repetition.

Operation Black Panther also boasts a funky, blaxploitation-style score that, while most likely needle-dropped (check the instrumental version of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground"), still serves to make the goofy action that it wraps around go down that much more easily.





While I definitely liked the film, I can't pretend that the lack of subtitles didn't present some obstacles to my enjoyment. For example, I never really got a clear idea of who Sombat was supposed to be, or why the villains were chasing him -- or, for that matter, what his relationship to Aranya Namwong's character was supposed to be. Still, I had a lot of fun watching it, and am adding a subtitled version of it to the release schedule of my imaginary DVD company that I run inside my mind.

That company is called "Onus", because I realize that, in reality, it would bring me nothing but financial heartbreak -- and its imaginary release schedule also includes subtitled versions of The Dark Heroine Muk Lan-Fa Shattered the Black Dragon Gang and Hausu, and maybe one of the early Red Eagle movies. Welcome to the roster, Operation Black Panther.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A woman of conviction



I generally try not to cover movies that have already been written about to death, but the sheer awesomeness of Shunya Ito's Female Prisoner Scorpion films beckoned and I had to follow. My review of the first film in that series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is now available for perusal over at Teleport City, with reviews of the second and third film to follow some time over the next few months.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Parvarish (India, 1977)

1977 was a very good year for Manmohan Desai. The director helmed four massive hits during that year, including one undisputed classic (Amar Akbar Anthony), one personal favorite of mine (Dharam Veer), one film that I know virtually nothing about (Chacha Bhatija), and Parvarish, a film that I watched over this past weekend.

Parvarish has pretty much everything you'd expect from a Manmohan Desai masala film: redistributed siblings who only discover their true parentage during the final fifteen minutes of the film, a villain with a lavishly appointed high-tech lair, primitive yet weirdly evocative special effects, and a star-stuffed cast -- including Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Shammi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Shabana Azmi and Amjad Khan.

Shammi Kapoor actually has top billing here and, though he's well into the beardy obesity of his mid-life career, takes part in one musical number that allows him to show flashes of the goofy old Shammi that earned him that tribute. Amitabh and Vinod play the brother gone right and the brother gone wrong, respectively, and Neetu and Shabana play their love interests. The two female stars also provide a contrast to Bachchan and Khanna's brother roles by portraying sisters whose characters are so indistinguishable from one another that, if not for the need to pair them off with the male stars, they might as well have been one person. (Though if this was by design, or simply the result of a hasty writing job, I'm not entirely sure.) Finally, Amjad Khan plays the... oh, come on, you know what Amjad Khan plays.

Parvarish was just okay for me. It was a suitably diverting way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon, but it lacked the wild plot convolutions and lysergic production design that made Dharam Veer so irresistibly compelling. Nor did it quite approach the level of overheated comic book narrative drive of another one of my favorite Desai films, Mard. What it did have, however -- in the form of Amjad's icicle-bedecked HQ with its red scrimmed perpetual go-go girls -- is one of the greatest supervillain lairs in the history of masala movies, right behind Sunil Dutt's wax-figure-laden, bubble-sauna-equipped digs in Geetaa Mera Naam. In addition to that, Neetu and Shabana perform a pistol-packing song-and-dance bit sure to please fans of the "Girls With Guns" genre. And finally, there is a Thunderball-inspired climactic scuba battle that packs all the overwhelming mitigating power of the Amitabh vs The Airplane sequence in Toofan (and yes, I really will use any excuse to link to that clip). And since Parvarish has nowhere near Toofan's number of sins to compensate for, that adds up to one big win-win.

Here, for your Monday enjoyment, is a brief sample of Parvarish's thrilling underwater action:


*The above poster comes from the fantastic Hotspot Online, a real rabbit hole of a site for dedicated fans of offbeat films in all their wonderful variety that'll suck you in for life if you're not careful.

Friday, August 8, 2008

From The Lucha Diaries Vaults: Night of the Bloody Apes (Mexico, 1968)

Okay, here's the deal: In addition to writing for Teleport City and maintaining this blog, I also have a site called The Lucha Diaries which contains more reviews of masked Mexican wrestler movies than anyone in their right mind could ever want. At regular intervals, I repost one of those reviews here -- not out of laziness, mind you, but as a service. Now, enjoy your damn bloody apes.

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In my fantasy you are begging me to review Night of the Bloody Apes. "Please," you moan. "Tell us about the dirty lucha movie. The one with boobies." Needless to say, I am unmoved by your tears -- did I mention that you were weeping? -- and toy with you mercilessly. "What? You mean Now, Voyager?" "NO!", you wail. "The one that's just like Las Luchadoras contra el Medico Asesino, but with titties! Good God, man! The titties!"

It's at this point that I realize that, as much as I pride myself on being a hardened sadist, there are depths of self abasement that even I find a little nauseating. And so I relent. It's a classic control fantasy, really, one where I take all of the feelings of powerlessness and suffering that I endured at the hands of Night of the Bloody Apes and project them onto you. And seeing as you've been such a good sport about it -- I mean, you're still reading, aren't you? -- it's only fair that I give you the thing that I've imagined you asking for. Even though, in reality, you probably want it less than a sack of cold sores and Monday mornings.

The plot of Night of the Bloody Apes is one of lucha cinema's most often told tales. It made it's first appearance in 1956 in the sublime Ladron de Cadaveres, then reappeared in 1963's Las Luchadoras contra el Medico Asesino and then continued evolving downward until it came to rest within the damp confines of La Horripilante Bestia Humana aka Night of the Bloody Apes. In all three movies, monstrosity ensues when a mad scientist performs a gorilla to human organ transplant. In Ladron, only the local constabulary are available to combat the rampaging beast man, but Las Luchadoras introduces a pair of civic-minded wrestling women, with policemen boyfriends in tow, to aid in the fight. Night of the Bloody Apes, while more similar to Las Luchadoras than Ladron, strips things down by only featuring one policeman-dating wrestling woman, and, while she wears a cute devil girl outfit and appears in a couple of gingerly choreographed wrestling matches, she ultimately proves to be of absolutely no consequence to the plot.

However, it's not what Night of the Bloody Apes gives us less of that distinguishes it, but rather what it adds to the formula. It was a practice in the Mexican film industry at the time to occasionally spice up films for import release by inserting bits of female nudity that were not available in the domestic versions. Night of the Bloody Apes, the U.S. cut of La Horripilante Bestia Humana, is a rare extant example of one of these sexo versions of a lucha movie, though there were apparently others made. It strives to increase its appeal to decadent foreign interests by also inserting numerous shots of explicit gore, including some pretty nauseating footage of real surgery. These scenes are actually quite extreme for the time, though the staged shots are also laughably inept, combining the hasty, no-budget improvisation and stark utilitarian prurience of H.G. Lewis with the curiously liquid notion of bodily integrity exhibited in The Story of Ricky. Bodies break apart and separate like warm loaves of bread, an eye-gouging exposes the shockingly high foam rubber content of the human head, and, best of all, a "scalping" scene is accomplished by dragging a stage-blood-soaked toupee across the head of a Dr. Phil look-alike, revealing the grizzly horror of his male pattern baldness.

Most of these shots are inserted pretty clumsily, and the resulting abrupt transitions between them and the typically affable goofiness of the lucha movie that contains them can make watching Night of the Bloody Apes a jarring experience for those used to being lulled by the genre's familiar tropes. (The film was directed by Rene Cardona and -- when it's not shoving grue in your face -- has the same colorful production look as other of his luchadore films from the time, such as La Mujer Murcielago.) As for the nudity, as much as I'm wholeheartedly in favor of there being more female nudity in Mexican wrestler movies (and, come to think of it, maybe less of the male kind), it pains me to say that it being so inextricably intertwined with the gore in Night of the Bloody Apes makes it pretty unappealing. Other than in some boudoir scenes of star Norma Lazareno, all of the female bodies that are bared here are so done in the process of being broken. Granted, in some of these scenes there's certainly amusement to be had from the Benny Hill-like ridiculousness of the ease with which these women become relieved of their clothing in the process of fleeing or fending off the monster. But it's just not titillating.

Still, there is something bracing about the very sleaziness of Night of the Bloody Apes for me. Having become perhaps overly familiar with the formula of these movies, it was nice to see it get such a violent shake up here, and, in the process, to be reminded that all the cartoonish violence and juvenile innuendo usually on display is just a family friendly face put on some darker, more complex impulses roiling behind the camera's eye. That's the kind of thing we depend on extreme cinema for, and it's something that it often does best when it's at its crudest.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Thai-Style Kaiju: (The horrible return of) the films of Sompote Sands Part VI

Krai-Thong (198?)

Thanks to overwhelming demand on the part of the hectoring demon voices inside my head, I'm back with yet another installment of Thai-Style Kaiju, my survey of the films of Thai special effects pioneer Sompote Saengduenchai -- aka Sompote Sands -- and his Chaiyo Productions. (For the full skinny on Sompote, check out my review of his Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen over at Teleport City.)

To be truthful, I've sampled a few of Sompote's works since writing my last entry in this series -- including Ka Kee and Pra Jao Sua: Pun Tai Nor-A-Sing -- but all of those were so crushingly devoid of anything noteworthy that writing about them would have constituted a spelunking to depths of pointlessness lower than even my lavishly compromised spirit could endure. Krai-Thong, however, seemed to deserve some mention, because it was enough of a success in its day to merit both a sequel a couple years later and a remake in 2001. I've seen the film variously described as being based on a Thai legend and a popular novel. I'm going to go with "legend", based not only on the archetypal nature of the story's elements, but also on the fact that an actual novel might have provided the filmmakers with a little more guidance as to how to fill screen time between the introduction of plot points than they obviously had.

Because the Tiga VCD of Krai-Thong comes complete with intermittently visible English subtitles, I'm able to give you a somewhat more coherent than usual recounting of what the film is comprised of, as well as -- thanks to the credits being subbed as well -- a little more info on who did what behind the scenes. The film was produced by Amnaj Saengduenchai, whom I believe is one of Sompote's sons, and directed by someone called Neramit, while Sompote himself is credited with "technical and special effects". If this is the true extent of Sompote's contribution, the man must have had a lot of kick-back time, because -- true to Chaiyo's thrift-conscious filmmaking ethos -- a number of the effects shots are recycled from previous films.

And speaking of recycling, you've just got to wonder where Sompote would be without his crocodile. His 1981 Crocodile, after all, did more to boost his international profile than any of his other films, and after its completion he was apparently incapable of leaving the big, fake crocodile puppet he constructed for it at home. It seems to make an appearance -- either in person or by way of re-used footage -- in every subsequent film he made, and Krai-Thong is no exception. The film even features that delicious, oft-revisited shot from Crocodile of the crocodile cavorting amongst some miniature boats and huts that place its size at roughly football field length, despite all of the subsequent shots revealing it to be just larger-than-average-crocodile size. Krai-Thong, of course, has the advantage of actually being about crocodiles, which gives those scenes a markedly lower WTF quotient than they had in other of his 1980s films, in which they crop up as apparently drug-inspired visual non sequiturs.

Krai-Thong introduces said rubbery reptile in a sequence that I like to think of as "The Crocodile on Tour", because it features the crocodile methodically travelling down river and, along the way, popping up at various points in the village to chomp on people. Having supped on a suitable cross-section of the village's inhabitants, both young and old, the croc then heads to a paper mache underwater cave where it suddenly assumes the well-sculpted human form of Thai superstar Sombat Methanee. Sombat, we learn, is Shalaman, the diamond-toothed King of the Crocodiles, and it is only in this "Golden Cave" that he and his croco-subjects -- which include his two pulchritudinous croco-wives -- can assume human guise. The cave also renders them immortal and capable of surviving without food, which means that Shalaman's whole chomping on the villagers thing is just something of a hobby. However, despite his wise grandfather -- who perches upon a throne shaped like a giant crocodile head -- expressing the croco-mmunity's disapproval of his hobby, Shalaman shows no inclination to stop. He is the king, after all, and bored besides. And, as if to prove he can do whatever the hell he wants, he crocs his way back up to the village and kidnaps one of the village elder's young daughters to add to his increasingly Warren Jeffs-like collection of wives.

In response to this act, the village elder offers the hand in marriage of his remaining daughter to whoever can kill the crocodile. However, being that Shalaman is the immortal, diamond-toothed King of the Crocodiles, it will take a magical Crocodile Wizard to do the job. Just such a wizard was the father of young villager Krai-Thong (Sorrapong Chatree), but, unfortunately, Shalaman already ate him. So Krai-Thong decides to seek out a master and learn to become a Crocodile Wizard himself. Visions of rousing, Shaolin-style training sequences are conjured in the mind of the audience and then quickly quashed by the uninvolvingly plodding nature of the actual sequences that follow. Meanwhile, hapless attempts to kill Shalaman are undertaken by a series of oafish contenders for the hand of the elder's daughter, all of which end with said contenders throwing themselves unconvincingly between the jaws of a giant fake crocodile head.

Krai-Thong is marked throughout by the typical inability of the Chaiyo team to conjure up anything resembling narrative momentum, which instead becomes a casualty to that team's equally typical, ADD-like desire to throw onscreen whatever sleazy and juvenile thing strikes them at the moment. Surprisingly, there are no long-winded skinny dipping scenes, but in their place we get two scantily-clad women having a slow motion slap fight complete with echo-plexed slapping sound effects, homoerotic humor between an older man and an underage boy, and what appears to be an instance of appalling animal cruelty. (This last would prevent me from recommending Krai-Thong even if it was good. Which it isn't.) All of this combines to inspire the creation in the viewer of a defensive wall of torpor unbreakable even by the prodigious employment of hand-launched cartoon laser beams and cheesy head rollings.

Eventually Krai-Thong finishes his training and is ready to face off against Shalaman. It's all over surprisingly quickly, but then Krai-Thong offers up a remarkable coda in which Krai-Thong travels back to the Golden Cave and starts loving-up one of Shalaman's sexy wives. He magically grants her the ability to retain her human form outside of the cave, then takes her back to the village to become another one of his wives -- being that he has apparently already shacked up with, not only the daughter promised as his reward, but also the kidnapped one that he rescued. The village elder's daughters, however, don't take kindly to this new addition to their family, and soon the croco-wife has returned to her croco-form and is exchanging tearful goodbyes with Krai-Thong in about the most strangely tacked-on feeling tragic ending ever. This whole bit seems to suggest some potentially interesting parallels between the characters of Shalaman and Krai-Thong that you might hope would be better explored in the 2001 remake, but apparently that one blew too.

I'd like to say that I've laid to rest Thai-Style Kaiju once-and-for-all with Krai-Thong. Unfortunately, there's this other Chaiyo movie featuring Sombat as a bionic man that demands to be explored. It also has a guy with giant elephant ears in it. That one just has to be good.

See you next time.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Any similarity to "High School Musical" is purely coincidental

Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom takes the two most terrifying things known to man -- girls and high school -- and combines them in a sleazy, ultra-violent package that's appropriate for the whole family -- provided your whole family is made up entirely of seedy old men with panty fetishes. Read my depressingly mostly SFW review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Terminagin



Clearly, clearly, I need to give Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani the full, multi-thousand-word Teleport City treatment. It is, after all, the ill-fated product of a man's love for his son, and if that story doesn't deserve an epic presentation, I don't know what does. In the meantime, I'll just say that, despite its reputation, JDEAK is not the worst Bollywood movie I've ever seen. I've seen plenty of other Indian films that were just as poorly acted, scripted and constructed as this one, and many of those were boring, while JDEAK proved impossible for me to look away from.

I think what happened here is that Raj Kumar Kohli, rather than updating his style, simply made the same film he would have made in the seventies, and then tried to make it palatable to 21st century audiences by grafting onto it elements taken of a piece from various contemporary Hollywood blockbusters. The way that these rote homages pop up with absolutely no rhyme or reason (why, for instance, does the ancient snake demon suddenly start buzzing and whirring like Robocop, or turn into molten steel like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 -- or, for that matter, start affecting the sartorial style of Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix?) almost makes JDEAK function as a broad, Scary Movie-style parody of 1990s action movie tropes, and I imagine that if every producer in Hollywood were forced to watch it, many of them would be shamed into avoiding such tropes in the future.

As for the rest of the film, Kohli uses the same type of bright, cartoonish palette and stagey, artificial sets that he did in the 1976 Nagin -- the film which JDEAK is more or less a remake of, despite bearing the name of a completely different Kohli hit from the seventies. Even JDEAK's appalling computer effects can be seen as simply the state-of-the-art equivalent of the bizarrely primitive effects used in the earlier film. While all of this gives most of JDEAK a quirky, anachronistic look that I find vastly preferable to the slick, MTV-inspired look of most of its contemporaries, I can totally understand why audiences of the time hated it. For my part, though, I can't put that much passion behind what negative feelings I have toward it. Neither can I claim to have found it lacking in certain stupid charms -- such as the way Sunny Deol showed such a predictably dogged commitment to settling the hash of the ancient supernatural evil with his meaty fists.

So, despite all my masochistic bluster, my viewing of Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani was nowhere near the punishing experience that I had anticipated. I only hope that Houseinrlyeh over at The Horror!? fared as well. It was I, after all, who suggested that he match my effort by watching Papi Gudia -- and I fear that, by doing so, I may have, in my own small way, worked to undermine the goodwill on the part of the German people that Barack Obama has recently worked so hard to engender.

He did, on the other hand, suggest the idea of watching Dhoom to me, so I suspect that things are going to end up balancing out in the end.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Gaaaaa!

I might talk a good game, but I'm neither a man's-man nor a risk-taker. If I was, I imagine that I'd sit around with other man's-men and, between grunting appreciatively at videos of women in bikinis firing automatic weapons, occasionally toss out random challenges like, "Hey, bro, I'll put this cigar out in my nostril if you open that canned ham with your face". Because isn't that what being a man's-man is all about -- constantly having to prove your manliness by way of blindingly pointless and potentially self-harming physical stunts?

I wouldn't know, really. Because, you see, I'm a movie geek, and movie geeks are more likely to toss out challenges like, "Hey, I will watch Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, reputedly the worst Bollywood movie ever made, if you will watch Papi Gudia, a 1990s Bollywood remake of Child's Play featuring Karisma Kapoor in a series of musical numbers that are probably among the most unpleasant and unendurable ever committed to film." You see, watching these films is basically the movie geek's equivalent of Jackass.

Anyway, it is just such a proposition that I made to Houseinrlyeh over at The Horror!? a couple of weeks ago. And now -- with fresh, steaming copies of Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani and Papi Gudia arriving on our respective doorsteps with eerie simultaneity earlier this week -- it's time to throw down. All I can say is: Mommy!