Monday, August 31, 2009

Taking aim at Suzuki



I promised that I would report back on my viewing of Seijun Suzuki's Take Aim at the Police Van, which is included in the newly released "Nikkatsu Noir" box set from Criterion. Unfortunately, I don't find myself having all that much to say about it. Not that the film is bad, mind you. As I suspect many of Suzuki's early films are, it is a thoroughly engaging and deftly executed little potboiler, though in this case a fairly low key one that doesn't distinguishes itself over other early works -- such as Underworld Beauty and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! -- that I have covered extensively elsewhere. I will say that I was very glad to see Underworld Beauty's Michitaro Mizushima returning in yet another affably put-upon noir hero role, as well as another supporting turn by Beauty's Mari Shiraki.

Of course, being a Suzuki film, Take Aim at the Police Van looks fantastic. So, rather than taking up this space with a lot of inconclusive hemming and hawing on my part, I thought it might be better to devote it to a few choice screen grabs. Almost make you wish real life was in black and white, don't they?












Thursday, August 27, 2009

Friday's best pop song ever

R.I.P. Ellie Greenwich, 1940 - 2009.

Shameless product worship

I just got my Criterion "Nikkatsu Noir" box set in the mail and wanted to commemorate the beginning of what I expect to be a long and beautiful relationship. Look at how shiny it is! I'm hoping to carve out some time to watch Seijun Suzuki's Take Aim at the Police Van this weekend. If I do, I'll be sure to report back to you on the experience.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fearless Fighters (Taiwan, 1971)

Fearless Fighters is further evidence of 1970s Taiwan's steadfast refusal to make a normal kung fu film. As such, it's one of those martial arts films that will undoubtedly separate the "purists" -- who, let's face it, are quite a sad lot, really -- from those less discriminate thrill seekers who will simply be delighted by the film's employment of all kinds of silly and exotic weaponry with names like "The Devil Ripper", as well as by the appearance of people wearing bear claws on their hands for no reason. This is definitely not the movie to turn to if you're looking for authentic fight scenes, but if you have a high tolerance -- like I do -- for low-budget special effects and abundant wire-assisted flying, I think it will give you a big happy.

A wayward faction of the Eagle Claw Clan lead by the evil To Pa (Wong Jun) steals a shipment of royal gold that is being escorted by a wizened old master known, for reasons that quickly become apparent, as "The Lighting Whipper" (Ma Chi), mortally wounding the old whipper in the process. Learning of the crime, righteous Eagle Claw disciple Lei Ping (Yee Yuen) sets out to protect the clan's good name by stealing the gold back from To Pa with the intention of returning it to the authorities. Unfortunately, all that Lei Ping gets for his trouble is to be framed for the original robbery, earning him the enmity of the Lightning Whipper's son and daughter, Chen (Kong Ming) and Mulan (Cheung Ching Ching), who have inherited their dad's signature weapon and know how to use it.

With Lei Ping stowed away in jail, To Pa and his gang descend upon Lei Ping's homestead in search of the gold, slaughtering almost all of his assembled family members when they offer resistance. Only Lei Ping's young son survives, thanks to the last minute intervention of a mysterious lone swordswoman in white named Lady Tieh (Wu Ming Hsia). Lady Tieh sets off with the boy to reunite him with his father. In the course of the journey, she encounters Chen and Mulan, whom she informs of Lei Ping's innocence. Chen then helps Lei Ping to escape from jail, after which Chen, Lei Ping, and Mulan, aided by Lady Tieh, band together to seek vengeance against To Pa.

Confronted with such formidable opposition, To Pa seeks to augment his gang by taking an ad out in the Martial World version of Craigslist, with the result -- as in real life -- that every freakazoid with some kind of zany and impractical weapon within a hundred mile radius shows up at his doorstep. These include a fellow calling himself "The One Man Army" (Chan Hung Lit), a pair of twins who wield solar ray shooting mirrors, and a gang of "Vampire Phantoms" who wear novelty fangs and blackface.

Things look bad for our heroes, especially once To Pa's gang manages to dispatch Lei Ping by tossing him off a steep cliff. However, unknown to them, Lei Ping has been rescued by one of those old, mountain-dwelling kung fu masters, who replaces Lei Ping's crippled limbs with deadly tear-away prosthetics that come complete with all kinds of concealed spikes and blades. This leads to a bizarre final confrontation with To Pa that seems to leave even Lei Ping's fellow heroes at a loss for words.

Fearless Fighters' threadbare charms are augmented considerably by the fact that it is actually quite competently directed by Mo Man-Hung. Its frenetic pace never slackens, while, at the same time, an over-populated story that many similar films would have rendered incomprehensible remains refreshingly transparent and easy to follow. Still, the movie isn't without it's loose threads, in particular the mystery surrounding Lady Tieh's identity and motivations, which ends up never being addressed. I don't actually care about that, mind you, but, since I have my movie reviewer hat on at the moment, it seemed appropriate to point it out. There is also a good chance that this omission is the result of whatever cutting the film underwent in preparation for its American release.

And speaking of which, while looking for information about the movie over at the Hong Kong Movie Database, I came across this nifty American release poster that they had posted, which of course bears very little resemblance to anything or anyone that actually appears in the movie. (For instance, while the film does indeed boast a pair of ass-kicking female leads, they are never seen clad in anything even remotely resembling the barely-there, bottomless micro-gis worn by the women depicted. Hey, don't shoot the messenger!)



The print of Fearless Fighters from which the $1 DVD of it that I watched was mastered was severely distressed, which, in this case, enhanced rather than impeded the viewing experience. It made it that much easier to imagine that I was watching the movie along with a boisterous and vocal audience in an old 42nd Street grindhouse back in 1971. For even greater verisimilitude, you might want to wear a wreath of urinal cakes around your neck and hire an unhinged neighbor to stare menacingly at the back of your head while you watch it. Whatever floats your boat, really. In any case, I think you'll find this one a good source of cheap and funky kung fu thrills.

Watching Zombie Lake and crying

Chances are that, even if you haven't seen Zombie Lake, there is very little I could tell you about it that you didn't already know. That's because, of all of the bad films that have been widely reviewed on the internet, Zombie Lake is one of the most ubiquitous, as well as probably the worst. It is for this reason that, when this month's B-Masters Round Table topic -- calling on its participants to address embarrassing gaps in their cult cinema watching resumes -- came around, I felt duty bound to take a dip. Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What he said

So I finally got around to watching Pyasa Shaitain. Keith has already eloquently made the case for this masterpiece over at Teleport City, so I will keep my comments about it brief -- with my primary bullet point being that you should not only go read Keith's review of the film right now, but also head over to the ever-reliable Induna.com and secure a copy for yourself. You won't be sorry -- that is, unless you don't order some other stuff from them and end up paying $15 postage for a $1 VCD. So load up!

In short, Pyasa Shaitan serves as a potent tonic for the jaded cult cinema fan; an undiluted shot of strangeness for those for whom overexposure had seemingly sapped all potential for true strangeness from the movie-watching experience. It also manages to be an effectively unsettling little horror film in its own extremely peculiar way. I agree with Keith's comparison of the film to wild Cat III Hong Kong horrors like The Seventh Curse and Seeding of a Ghost. I also found the way it uses an unrelenting barrage of naive special effects to create a dreamlike, otherworldly atmosphere to be highly reminiscent of both Obayashi's Hausu and certain films by Guy Maddin.

Of course, my suspicion is that this effect is less intentional than it is the result of Pyasa director/writer/star Joginder Shelly's idiosyncratic take on the traditional "everything turned up to eleven" Indian approach to horror filmmaking. Despite the presence of Tamil superstar Kamal Hassan, the film bears a good deal of those telltale sleazy elements that suggest it was most-likely a fairly mercenary, hastily constructed affair. Essentially we're in the same off-kilter ambient horror territory as with the rapidly-becoming-legendary Shaitani Dracula, though in this case with a more sure-handed narrative and visual approach. Mind you, when speaking in relative terms, a film can easily be both more sure-handed and coherent than Shaitani Dracula while still being very close to none of either.

Intentions aside, however, the point is that Pyasa Shaitan is a film that will blow your little mind and rock your plastic fantastic world down to its very core. Chemical accompaniment may be appropriate, though those who choose to take hallucinogens while watching it risk living out their golden years in a rubber room. You've been warned!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kabeela (India, 1976)

According to Kabeela, Gypsies -- despite the fact that they wear colorful scarves, love to sing and dance, and have a rakish, devil-may-care attitude toward life -- are bad. Of course, this is a difficult position to sell when the gypsies are represented by the late, great Feroz Khan at his man-furriest mid 70s peak, so you would be correct in guessing that Kabeela is really trying to have it two ways at once.

Feroz plays Mangal, son of the chief of a gypsy tribe who heed not the laws of mainstream Indian society. This heeding not extends to them being a bit bandit-y, as they often steal treasure at the behest of the whiskey swilling, van dyke sporting big city bad guy Mr. Dildaar (Trilok Kapoor). As gypsy prince, Mangal has a rival for succession to his father's seat in the form of the scheming Durjan (Imtiaz Khan), who will stop at nothing -- nothing! -- to seize control of the tribe.

This being Feroz Khan that we're dealing with here, Mangal's rakish, devil-may-care attitude also applies to upper body wear, and so we get ample opportunities to marvel at our star's richly upholstered torso. In fact, this particular tribe turns out to be an ideal milieu for Feroz, as much time is consumed with the men-folk engaging in various competitions to prove their manliness. At one point, a drinking contest between Mangal and his father devolves into the two of them drunkenly hurling knives at each other as the rest of the tribe cheers them on. Good times.

One day when the members of the tribe are in a nearby village plying their snake oil and ill-gotten gains, a runaway bull storms through the marketplace, and Sobha (Rekha), a village belle, falls directly into its path. Mangal beats the bull up and sends it scurrying away, which of course spells instant attraction for Sobha. Unfortunately, the laws of the tribe decree that Mangal cannot marry outside of it, and so the two must carry on their romance in secret. Later, when Dildaar orders Durjan to kidnap Sobha to be his concubine, Mangal disguises himself as a sort of minstrel pirate -- black face, eye patch -- in order to rescue her. This is a cool scene because, when Dildaar pulls out a sword and challenges Mangal, Mangal says that he doesn't need a sword, then takes off his shoe and beats Dildaar with it.

At some point in his relationship with Sobha, Mangal decides that, not just those laws restricting his marriage choices, but all of the tribal laws are bad, and that, for the good of Indian society as a whole, the tribe should subject itself to the laws of its mother country. Not surprisingly, this puts him at odds with pretty much everyone else in the tribe, especially once he starts aiding the determined policeman Inspector Ajay (Sudhir) in his quest to shut down the gypsy's criminal activity. Such perceived betrayal offers Durjan the perfect opportunity to poison Mangal in his father's eyes and thus secure his place as heir to the throne -- or fancy blanket, or whatever the gypsy chief sits on. I didn't do a lot of research for this review.

Among the supporting cast of Kabeela we have Bindu, who plays Bijli, the tribal bad girl who has her sights set on marrying Mangal. Bijli ends up meeting with one of the most ignominious fates I've ever seen befall a secondary female character in one of these films -- keeping in mind that such secondary female characters, especially if played by Helen, typically have a very slim chance of making it to the end credits alive. Once Mangal has been sent packing by the tribe, Bijli charges off on horseback into the dark of night to look for him, only to summarily smack her head against a low hanging tree branch and die. Kabeela really doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to tying up loose ends.

Kabeela is a solidly entertaining film, though, as with a lot of Bollywood films from the 70s, it's choppiness can be a bit distracting. For instance, Mangal's change of heart comes across as happening very abruptly, as if it transpired off-screen while we were busy watching something else. Still, the film has no shortage of swashbuckling thrills and colorful gypsy revelry, and comes complete with a set of appropriately rousing campfire rave-ups by songsmiths Kalyanji-Anandji. If you're looking for a Feroz fix -- and you've already seen Qurbani, Apradh and Kaala Sona -- you could definitely do worse.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Italian Superhero Roll Call: Superargo

I've already given Superargo extensive coverage over at Teleport City, but in the interest of making Italian Superhero Roll Call as useful a scholarly resource as possible, I felt he should have his own entry. Along with the Three Fantastic Supermen, Superargo shares the distinction of being one of the few superheroes of 1960s Italian cinema to feature in more than one film -- proof that the practice of Italian commercial filmmakers of the era of simply churning out as many films in one genre as possible in the hope that something would stick actually, on occasion, resulted in something sticking. Not only that, but he even made a big enough blip on the cultural radar -- in Europe at least -- to be lampooned in the 1967 film Fantastic Argoman, aka The Incredible Paris Incident.

Of course, Superargo himself, at least in his first film, appears as if he might have been intended as a deadpan parody of Santo and his masked Mexican wrestling compadres. Like Santo, he never removes his mask, and at the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus he is indeed shown to be a professional wrestler. Unfortunately, he is a professional wrestler who is not very good at judging his own, obviously considerable, strength, and as a result ends up killing one of his opponents in the ring. This somber turn of events leads to Superargo spending a lot of time moping around in his office in his tights and mask and drinking a bit too much. Finally Superargo's girlfriend and best friend end up getting him a job with the secret service, basically because they feel sorry for him. (Not made up.) Once set up in his new career as a masked superspy, Superargo is revealed to have a freakish metabolism that enables him to do stuff like heal extra quickly, endure extreme temperatures, and hold his breath for a really long time.

No explanation is ever really given as to why Superargo has these powers, which is pretty typical of Italian superhero films like this. Providing an origin story was obviously seen as adding too much ungainly narrative weight to a film that was likely just going to be a one-shot deal anyway. For instance, we never learned why exactly Flashman chose to wear that ridiculous costume, or how Argoman got his ability to levitate sexy women, or, for that matter, why Avenger X decided to parlay his ability to do absolutely nothing of interest into a career as a masked crimefighter. One might wish for the opportunity to ask the makers of those films for the answers to such questions, but only if one might enjoy being enveloped in a cloud of secondhand cigar smoke as his questionee guffaws heartily in his face.

Despite what I may have said elsewhere, Superargo vs. Diabolicus, directed by Nick Nostro, is a high water mark in the spaghetti superhero genre, blessed with impressive production values, sprightly pacing, and lovely widescreen photography by Francisco Marin. Sadly, it's sequel, Superargo and the Faceless Giants, is a whole 'nother story. Much of this can be blamed upon the film's obviously reduced budget and flat direction by Paolo Bianchini (The Devil's Man -- 'nuff said), but there is no doubt in my mind that, even with those shortcomings, Superargo and the Faceless Giants would have been made immeasurably better by the inclusion of some of those faceless giants advertised in the title. Instead there are just a bunch of stocky androids in stocking masks. Pretty weak, but still Superargo has to be credited for his longevity, given that most in his field never even came close to getting a second shot at the big screen.

Anyway, to those of you who already felt that they had heard as much about Superargo from me as they could possibly stand, thanks for bearing with me. You must understand that this was the only way for me to put off having to write about Phenomenal.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ghostly Face (Taiwan/Indonesia, 1972)

This obscure co-production between Taiwan and Indonesia -- which also goes by the title Lem Mien Kuel, aka Pandji Tengkorak, aka Karate a Bali -- is a far cry from the kung fu vehicles starring Polly "Don't Ask Me To Play Mama" Shang Kwan that I typically review on this blog. While it does have a few vague fantasy overtones, absent are the giant rubber octopuses, lobster men and other "Shaolin Puff'n'stuff" absurdities of Polly's later films like Zodiac Fighters and Little Hero. Instead we have a grim and uniquely atmosphered take on the genre marked by fight scenes that are about as brutal and bloody as they come, serving as a welcome reminder that Polly, in addition to being kung fu cinema's most accommodating good sport, was also a serious martial artist of formidable skill.

By the way, that appellation I threw out earlier was inspired by the documentary Deadly China Dolls, in which a forty-something Polly, looking for all the world like a kung fu version of Little Edie in her leopard print fur coat, answers the question of whether she'd ever return to the screen by saying that yes, she would, adding "But don't ask me to play mama. I want to fight." How can you not love this woman?

The Ghostly Face of the film's title is in fact a hero, albeit one who sports a fugly buck-toothed fright mask in his fight against those who would prey upon the common folk. However, when we first see him, he appears to be engaging in an act of villainy, fighting his way into a fortress to steal a weapon known as The Precious Sword and, in the process, murdering Hua, Polly's father. This spurs Polly, who refers to herself throughout only as "Fightress Hua", to set off on a mission of vengeance. It turns out, however, that this Ghostly Face is an impostor, a member of a vicious gang of pirates lead by Tang (Chan Bo Leung), who plans to frame the hero for his crimes.

As Polly's quest goes on, she charters a boat to take her downriver and ends up having a pretty spectacular fight with an army of pirates, who come at her both from across the water in a fleet of catamarans and from underneath it via the employment of some primitive Martial World snorkeling gear. In the process, she rescues a young woman named Anny Ma (Indonesian starlet Lenny Marlina), who, it turns out, is also looking for the Ghostly Face, but for very different reasons. It seems the Face had earlier saved Anny's village from an attack by Tang and his men, but not before her brother, the village chief, had been killed. She is now seeking out the hero in the hope that he will help her track down Tang and settle things with him for good.

Polly also finds that she is being shadowed by a mysterious protector in the handsome form of Pan Chih (Indonesian actor -- and, more recently, politician -- Deddy Sutomo), who, as will surprise absolutely no one, is soon revealed to be the Ghostly Face himself. Sadly, and despite all of the evidence before her, Polly proves to be frustratingly slow on the uptake when it comes to the matter of the Face's innocence, and when the final showdown with Tang comes, she proves to be as much of an obstacle as an aid.

I realize that all of this sounds like the standard stuff of martial arts revenge drama, but what really sets Ghostly Face apart from other such films is, not only the novelty of its Indonesian locations, but, more importantly, the several long, dialogue-free sequences depicting traditional Indonesian ceremonies that crop up throughout the film, each of which provides a sort of meditative pause between the ferocious action scenes. The most striking of these is a seaside funeral procession that ends with Polly kneeling silently on the beach and watching as a towering funeral pyre slowly burns and collapses. I realize that such "travelogue" sequences were most likely just meant to provide some local color and will just be seen as annoying filler by many viewers. But to me they add a sense of brooding poetry to the proceedings and, in combination with the film's minimalist overall aesthetic, give Ghostly Face an appropriately haunted feeling.

I would highly recommend Ghostly Face to anyone who's interested in seeing a different, less manic kind of oddball martial arts film. While it is certainly a low budget production, with all of the seams and limitations that go along with that, there is something about it that really sticks with you. A lot of these Taiwanese cheapies tend to just blur together in one's mind, but I feel pretty confident in saying that this one will ferret out a weird little space all its own.

UPDATE 8/11/09: Reader Ash, in his comment to this post, kindly provided me with a good deal of background info on Ghostly Face. The film was based on a popular Indonesian comic book called Panji Tengkorak (rough translation "Panji the Skull Face") that was created by artist Hans Jaladara in 1968. The comic would also provide the basis for another feature film that was produced in 1985, as well as an Indonesian television series that aired in the mid 90s. Given that the character referred to as Ghostly Face in the version of the film I watched was so obviously the central character in the comic, I have to wonder if there is an Indonesian cut of the film that gives more play to that character, as well as to Indonesian actors Deddy Sutomo and Lenny Marlina.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Jessie's Girl

The title of the Czech comic book romp that's the subject of my latest Teleport City review asks the question, Who Wants To Kill Jessie? The answer, as local newscasters are fond of saying, just might surprise you. Check out my review here.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hip-MO-tized!

Not long ago it would have been hard for me to imagine myself finding one of Babubhai Mistry's Bollywood fantasy films to be sort of rote and uninvolving -- that I'd be all like, "Yeah, Helen on a flying carpet. YAWN." But I have to admit to feeling that way a little bit about Sunehri Nagin (probably because no dinosaurs. Grrrr.) Still, I did enjoy this one very special special effects sequence in which villain Anwar Hussain puts the whammy on Helen: