Monday, January 28, 2013

Amir Arsalan-e Namdar (Iran, 1966)

Amir Arsalan-e Namdar’s director, producer and writer, Esmail Kushan, was a driving figure behind escapist Iranian cinema, which enjoyed a golden age of sorts following the CIA backed coup d’état of 1953. During the enforced stability of the decades that followed, Kushan -- and then his sons -- churned out dozens of low budget entertainers under the banner of Kushan’s production company, Parsfilm. Today these films are frowned upon and derided by Iran’s post-revolutionary critics and intelligentsia, seen as part of the smokescreen of benignity in which the Shah’s corrupt regime hoped to envelop itself. And, hey, they’re not wrong. Suffice it to say that revivals of these films are unlikely to play to rapt crowds at Cannes.

Based on a popular Persian legend, Amir Arsalan-e Namdar tells the story of Arsalan (Mohamad Ali Fardin), a young Egyptian man of exceptional skill and apparently humble origins who learns that he is in fact the son of the deposed Ottoman ruler. Unfortunately, he learns this at the same time as does King Patras, the European despot whom his dad was dethroned and murdered by, who demands that Arsalan be returned to Constantinople to be murdered also. In order to spare his mother, adoptive father and adopted country from Patras’ wrath, Arsalan returns voluntarily. But rather than surrender himself, he uses his preternatural skills as a warrior and leader to seize back the throne and route the invaders, thus taking his rightful place as king.

Now, all of the above could make for a pretty thrilling screen adventure, but Kushan chooses instead to skim over this part of Arsalan’s tale via some hasty opening narration prattled over a series of illustrated title cards. This leaves us to pick up at a later point in the original narrative, with the triumphant Arsalan falling in love -- as per Laura's Dana Andrews -- with a young woman depicted in a portrait he’s found lying around the castle. This infatuation provides the impetus for the movie’s first song, a serenade that Mohamad Ali Fardin sings to the portrait -- because Amir Arsalan-e Namdar, like many Iranian pop films of its day, is also a musical. I should mention, however, that it is a very stripped down musical, with nothing that a film fan raised on Bollywood could advisably call an actual musical number; just one star or other (almost always Mohamad Ali Fardin) walking around singing with, at the most, a couple of extras shifting listlessly from foot to foot in the background. I should also mention that these songs might prove somewhat difficult musical terrain for those whose Western ears are unaccustomed to the glottal ululations of Farsi singing.

That enchanting woman in the portrait is soon revealed to be none other than Farrokh Lagha (Farzneh), the daughter of King Patras, a fact which in no way dampens Arsalan’s ardor for making her his main hang. In short order, he has stolen his way into Patras’ kingdom, where we see that, conveniently, Farrokh has also fallen in love with a portrait of him, which I guess just happened to be laying around. Less conveniently, we learn that Farrokh’s father has pledged her hand to Prince Hooshang (Jamshid Mehrdad), the son of a rival ruler. Undaunted, Arsalan seeks to insinuate himself into events via the adoption of a series of disguises, ranging from that of a humble servant to a masked swashbuckler after the example of Zorro. Meanwhile, the King’s Wazir, Ghamar (Hossein Mohsen), pretends to befriend Arsalan, but is in reality determined to thwart his efforts through the application of dark magic (or magicks, if you prefer).

Amir Arsalan-e Namdar’s action sees Mohamad Ali Fardin -- a star who is something of a Persian legend in his own right -- scaling up and rappelling down castle walls, engaging in sword fights, and lustily laughing in the face of danger in a manner common to swashbuckling movie heroes of every era and nationality. The fact that his lusty laugh is braying and insistent to the point of being almost creepy should be factored in, but otherwise, Ali Fardin -- who looks like Farley Granger in one light and Dean Martin in another -- acquits himself well as the poor Iranian man’s answer to Douglas Fairbanks. At the same time, Amir Arsalan-e Namdar’s material limitations -- it’s obviously tiny, paint and clapboard sets, backyard locations, and tinny instrumental score executed on a lone organ -- reduce much of this pageantry to the level of anti-spectacle.

Things look up for us a bit during the film’s second half, when Arsalan -- presumably through some witchery of Ghamar’s -- finds himself in a desert wasteland inhabited by a menagerie of odd creatures. There is a giant demon to be vanquished, a hirsute dwarf thing, a talking dog, a town filled with people turned to stone, a hatchet faced crone who lives in a well, and people flying about as convincingly as crude process shots will allow. A giant dragon puppet even makes a heartbreakingly brief appearance. None of these are realized any more expertly than what I’ve previously described, but, as compared to the drearily prosaic sight of actors trying to pull off acrobatic sword fights in a set the size of a gas station bathroom, there’s just something much more intrinsically wonderful about phantasmagoria done on the cheap.

Mind you, if it’s cheapjack Asiatic visual wonders you want, much of what you see in Amir Arsalan-e Namdar can also be seen in the countless Arabian Nights-style stunt films produced during the same period by India’s B movie industry -- which, though perhaps not any more accomplished in their presentation, are at least without the unsavory political context that Kushan’s films carry. That is, of course, provided you’re even aware of that context. Pictures like Amir Arsalan-e Namdar were valued by the Shah’s regime more for their manifest lack of political content than for any propagandistic value, which may explain why Kushan seems to glance over the one aspect of the story -- it’s exceptionalism in depicting a character whose inborn superiority destines him to rule others -- that the Shah might have found most flattering. Without that, what we’re left with is a storybook fantasy that is no less casually diverting for being silly and manifestly low rent. Of course, being merely silly in times that cry out for revolution is, for some, as great a crime as any.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Slade in Flame (England, 1975)

Slade inhabits an estimable place in rock history alongside other British acts -- The Move and The Jam, to name a couple -- who failed to “break America” despite achieving massive commercial success at home. Part of that is because the populist end of the glam rock spectrum that Slade occupied never really caught on here in the States. While artier glam acts like Bowie and Roxy Music attained a foothold on American album-oriented radio, stompers like Slade never really made inroads to the U.S. teenage audience for whom their music was most suited (at least not until they did so secondhand via cover versions like Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel the Noize”). Yet, while Slade’s self-penned tunes were indeed as mindless and football chant-ready as those of any other soldiers in the glitter army, the band itself had an authenticity born of its organic, yobbo roughness that put it in good stead when compared to more manufactured seeming acts like The Sweet or Mud.

When their success poised Slade to make their screen debut in 1974, the choice they faced was that seemingly faced by every pop act determined to make a cinematic cash grab since the days of the Beatles. And that was whether to play fictional versions of themselves in a mock, “day in the life” style documentary a la A Hard Day’s Night, or to play fictional versions of themselves dropped into the middle of a freewheeling satirical romp a la Help! A script for a film based on the latter model -- titled The Quite a Mess Experiment, in a spoofing reference to The Quatermass Experiment (a sign that Slade had at this point resigned themselves to their irreducible Englishness) -- was even proposed, but ultimately rejected. Instead, with Slade in Flame, Slade chose to take a very different route: that of portraying a sort of fictional every-band whose experiences serve as a dark expose of the British music industry. Suffice it to say that no one could have expected something as bleak, sober and heartbreaking as this movie from the band who sang “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”.

It’s easy to see Slade in Flame as autobiographical, although Slade has made clear that a lot of what it depicts is anecdotal rather than directly experienced. Nonetheless, the members of the band share the same working class roots as their fictional counterparts -- Slade hailing from the West Midlands, while Flame haunts an industrial North recognizable from the Red Riding films. Additionally, for a good portion of Slade’s career -- a long stretch that lasted from the group’s inception in 1966 until they had their first hit in 1971 -- they were a rough-knuckled “working” band in much the same mold as Flame. It’s just such bands, unsophisticated and hungry from years of thanklessly treading the boards one night into the next, that are the grist for the corporate machinations that Slade in Flame depicts -- and if its events don’t match up point for point with its stars’ actual experiences, it’s hard to imagine that there aren’t at least a few scores being settled.

The film opens upon three quarters of Flame playing a series of dreary wedding and supper club gigs as the backup for an aging Elvis wannabe (a potential figure of fun who‘s portrayed with great empathy by Alan Lake). In a mildly disorienting turn, Stoker, the character played by Slade frontman Noddy Holder, makes his first appearance as the singer of a rival group, a corny shock-rock outfit whose stage antics are clearly modeled on Screaming Lord Sutch. With his formidable mutton chops, wily demeanor, and rabid cat’s squall of a voice, Holder can’t help but be a larger-than-life -- and frequently laugh-out-loud funny -- presence. But what’s surprising here is how naturalistically he performs during the film’s more low key moments. Nonetheless, it falls upon Slade’s drummer, Don Powell -- another natural -- to play the real everyman of the group; Charlie, the band’s drummer, who toils in an iron works by day and gigs by night, all while living with his elderly parents in a tiny flat and dodging payments for his rented kit.

After a bonding session over the course of a night spent in jail, Stoker agrees to replace Flame’s singer, and soon thereafter alienates the group’s sleazy booking agent, Harding (Performance's Johnny Shannon), with his frank assessment of his character. This clears the stage for the newly vivified band to come to the attention of Seymour (Tom Conti, in an early star turn), a slick corporate marketing type who sees in them an opportunity for a quick payday. After a particularly cynical publicity stunt puts the group in the public eye, a hit record is not long to follow. The resulting smell of money then brings Harding back onto the scene, binding contract in hand, putting the group at the center of a tug of war between his and Seymour’s opposing camps. A product of the same hardscrabble milieu as the boys, Harding quickly proves willing to take the fight to the lowest level possible, employing a pair of sociopathic cockney goons straight out of a Ted Lewis novel for the purpose. Some dark and ugly business follows.

Despite their top billing, Slade becomes increasingly peripheral to Flame’s action during its final half, which is only as it should be. The film is admirably hard-nosed in its depiction of the band as an object of exploitation, and as such deprived of agency -- a product to be unceremoniously cut loose once everyone has made their profit, even if integrity, friendships, and illusions are to be shattered in the process. At the same time, director Richard Loncraine takes care to contrast against the gritty industrial “before” of the group’s day-to-day world the antiseptic boardrooms and prim society parties that make up Seymour’s upper class universe -- two worlds as far removed from one another as the monochrome Kansas of The Wizard of Oz’s prologue and what follows it. Conti’s Seymour is no caricatured fat cat, to be sure, but simply a man so sheltered by privilege and driven by class imperatives that he could never hope to connect with these young men whose lives his actions are so profoundly to affect. (Asked by the group’s bass player if he even likes their music, Seymour sniffs that he doesn’t smoke but has nonetheless sold a lot of cigarettes.) It is just this cloistered mindset that leaves Seymour woefully unprepared when the violent world of Harding, whom he has failed to take seriously, suddenly starts to encroach upon his own.

Slade’s songs for Slade in Flame were composed at a time when the group, in the face of dwindling sales, was retooling its rowdier early sound toward a slicker, pop rock style. The tunes are enjoyable for the most part, but fans are nonetheless unlikely to look to the film as a document of the band at its musical peak. Slade in Flame does, however, provide an opportunity for those fans to see Slade in a new light. While the film met with a mixed reception upon its release, it has since undergone a positive reappraisal, and has even been lauded by some as being among the best British pop films ever made. Some of this can be credited to the band members themselves (including, in addition to Holder and Powell, bassist Jim Lea and lead guitarist Dave Hill) who, while not counting an Olivier among them, bring to the screen the humanity necessary to drive home the story’s ultimately tragic dimensions. True, the picture may have sunk once and for all the group’s good time image, but in the interest of a movie as solid as Slade in Flame -- whose charms easily outlive those of misspelled song titles and weird facial hair -- that’s a tradeoff that now looks pretty reasonable.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Nuthin' but a Tweet-a-thon

Once again the Annual 4DK Search Term Tweet-a-thon proved that treating bizarre keyword searches divorced from any mitigating context like found poetry is the absolute best use to which Twitter could possibly be put. And once again -- thanks to the united forces of horniness, borderline illiteracy and the dementia that comes from abusing office cleaning products -- we had quite an array of terms to choose from.

Some search terms presented a possibility that we’d never considered and then made us desperately wish that it was a reality:
  fred williamson supermarionation 
 While, in other cases, a simple misspelling lead to accidental genius:
 poos in boots toys 
Sometimes we saw a term that perhaps cast too wide of a net…
 ugly tarzan 
 …later refined to better produce the desired result
 fugly tarzan 
And then there were those curious trends that announced themselves, the sort that prompt the question, “seriously, what the fuck, internet?”
 best cyclops ever 
 cyclops mustache 

cyclops Olympics 

did cyclops die 

famous Cyclops 

inbred Cyclops 
And finally…
 side clops 
This year also saw quite a lot of participation of the part of our friends and colleagues in the glamorous world of movie blogging, with some representative highlights below. (New bands in search of a name, take note.)

@houseinrlyeh david warbeck toilet fight

@CulturalGutter rick moranis boycott

@TarsTarkasnet wizard of smurfs

@bethlovesbolly Distraught.

@_JohnGarden lobster filmbox

@pbngialli frankenstein nude

@fisty what kind of beer is tom towles drinking in night of the living dead 1990?

Thanks, all. It was a crazy ride. We'll see you again next year.

Friday, January 18, 2013

It's the 4th Annual 4DK Search Term Tweet-a-thon!

My annual survey of the search terms that bring people to 4DK teaches me things both good and bad. For one thing, it reminds me of what exquisite taste you readers have, and that I am far from alone in my love for figures like Dara Singh, Suzzanna and Jyothi Laxmi, or in my belief that Anjanette Abayari is smokin' hot. On the other hand, it shows me that there are a lot of people out there who don't know how boobs work.

Of course, we're not here to celebrate those people. Wait. What's that? We are here to celebrate those people? Shuh. Well ain't that just the way of the world.

Yes, loverlies, the 4DK Annual Search Term Tweet-a-thon is upon us once again. Starting at 5pm this coming Sunday, January 20th, I will begin tweeting all of the most misbegotten, misspelled and les miserable internet queries that saw confused seekers washing up upon the shore of my humble site. And barring extradition or a well placed sniper's bullet, I WILL NOT STOP until 5pm the following night. Is it even possible to make Twitter stupider than it already is, if only just for one day? Come on, people. We can be heroes.

As usual, all you web masters and mistresses out there are urged to join along with your own search based word salad. I will retweet any and all contributions made in like spirit. At the same time, please be advised that, in order to insure that my Twitter feed is one impenetrably anti-grammatical scream of desperation for the duration, I will not be responding to any tweets. For this same reason, I have once again considered devising a hashtag for the event and once again decided not to, due to my own creepy notions of purity. Feel free to designate your own contributions as you see fit, however, or simply direct them to me at @fourdk.

4DK's Twitter account can be accessed here. No one will know but us that our accounts haven't been taken over by seizing sentient spambots with lactation fetishes.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra (Mexico, 1968)

Were I bereft of all hope and happiness, the fact that, just when I think I’ve seen every giddy Mexican comic book fantasy movie from the 60s there is, I stumble upon something like Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra, would alone be enough to keep me turning the mortal page. And were that the case, I would also owe Andrew Leavold MY LIFE, for he is the one who steered me toward this minor gem. Of course, some might find the film’s limited scope and episodic structure wearing. But -- given this is a film that contains mad science, black magic, vampires, sexy lady zombies, ray guns, exploding skyscrapers, satans and cut rate spy movie intrigue -- it is for me precisely one robot and one go-go dancing number shy of perfection. (Perhaps Los Rockin’ Devils were unavailable.)

The character of Dr. Satan was introduced to the screen in 1966’s auspiciously named Dr. Satan, as here played by Joaquin Cordero. The ensuing years saw a change in directors -- from Miguel Morayta to Rogelio A. Gonzalez Jr. -- and a very welcome and well exploited transition to color. Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra’s apparent debt to the classic Republic serials leaves open the question of whether the series was influenced by William Witney’s The Mysterious Doctor Satan, though surviving publicity materials testify to a Spanish language release of that well regarded serial, so I’m just putting it out there. If that is the case, however, that means that The Mysterious Doctor Satan provided the seeds for both these films and Turkey’s The Deathless Devil, which is a very impressive legacy indeed.

Anyway, this particular iteration of Dr. Satan is an evil mortal who has been saved from Earthly justice by the Devil himself, who demands in exchange that the doctor do his bidding on Earth. Adding a somewhat halfhearted air of tragedy to the character is the fact that the Devil is holding him in a suspended state of tortured immortality -- suggesting a vestigial but never really demonstrated sense of Catholic guilt on the Doctor’s part -- with the peace of death held at bay pending satisfaction of Old Scratch’s not all that clearly delineated requirements. In this particular case, those requirements are that the Doctor head up top and take part in a Spy-vs.-Spy battle of the super-villains with a new creep on the block whose schemes threaten to grant him power greater than even that of The Beast himself.

Said creep is Yei Lin (played by the great Noe Murayama, of Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales) who is described as being some kind of Eastern warlock. It’s never mentioned, but Yei Lin is also a vampire in every aspect except for those that might provide a stumbling block for the screenwriter. He’s got the fangs, the cape, and the ability to turn into a bat, and is clearly observed biting people on the neck, yet is able to walk around freely in the daylight without demonstrating any real dependence on drinking blood for his survival. Perhaps this is an adaptation due to Yei Lin being, like Dr. Satan, something of a mad scientist in addition to a sorcerer. In any case, Yei Lin is in Mexico with his gang -- which includes Aurora Clavel as his dragon lady-like right hand woman and perpetual lucha movie goon Nathaniel “Frankenstein” Leon -- to steal a formula that will turn lesser metals into gold, which he handily does by cold bloodedly murdering the professor in charge of transporting it.

For his part, Dr. Satan brings to the task of defeating Yei Lin the same mixture of pulp science and folk magic that makes the tone of Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra overall so enjoyable -- if admittedly uneven. His primary weapon in this regard is a duo of attractive young women -- Luz Maria Aguilar as “Erato” and Sonia Furio as “Medusa” -- whom he has turned into superhuman zombies. Like the best Mexican horrors of its era, Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra benefits greatly from the straight faced application of some very old school spook show trappings (in short, if you’re a fan of “fog enshrouded everything”, this is the movie for you). Of course, this practice inevitably wanders into kitsch territory, as with the poorly piloted prop bat that more flops end-over-end than actually flies. Yet, for all the camp value to be mined from lady zombies in short skirts and go-go boots, there is still at times something haunting and discomforting about these two dead eyed slave women -- and that in stark contrast to the adolescent fantasy of compliant fembots so frequently proffered by films of this make and vintage.

While Dr. Satan and Yei Lin are both undisguisedly ee-vil, Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra leaves us in no confusion as to who we’re meant to root for. The Doctor, after all, is suave and handsome, with a bitchin’ red sports car and a way with the ladies, while Yei Lin is foreign, goateed and prone to maniacal laughter. Like James Bond, Dr. Satan is a master of the modern world, while Yei Lin, with all his vampirish accoutrements, is distinctly Old World -- something made all the more plain by his reliance on a medieval folk science to accomplish his world dominating scheme. As if to drive this point home even further, the movie’s primary representative of law and order, Interpol inspector Bianchi, is played by Carlos Agosti, whom I have seen in countless Mexican films, but never until this instance as anything other than the most unctuous of heels. In the end, however, Bianchi is left with little to do, as the film’s true conflict lies well outside the domain of cops and robbers, only to be settled in blood between our two warring malefactors.

Once its macguffin is established, Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra’s action follows a template that will be familiar to anyone with a sophomore knowledge of cheap 60s spy films. The coveted formula continually changes hands between our two antagonists, Dr. Satan and his zombies all the while evading Yei Lin and his gang’s repeated attempts to rub them out, with everything coming to a head in a spirited brawl inside a science-y lair. The ritualistic repetition of this scant menu of happenings -- perhaps exacerbated by the small cast of characters and limited, albeit cool looking, sets -- could prove to be an insurmountable sin in the eyes of some viewers, but to those of us for whom they are beloved tropes, they are like a cozy blanket. I should also mention that the Devil himself, magnificently bat winged and long of horn, pops up during all this business, which is not something that you see in the average Kommissar X entry. In short, I see it as my duty to whisper in your ear that you must track down and see this movie. Whether I am the angel on your shoulder or the devil is yours to decide.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Dyesebel (Philippines, 1953) and Dysebel, aka Si Dyesebel at ang Mahiwagang Kabibe (Philippines, 1973)

It seems that, for most of Filipino comic maestro Mars Ravelo’s career, his creations had a direct line to the nation’s theater screens. Due to the breadth of Ravelo’s work, this goes not only for obvious superhero properties like Darna and Captain Barbell, but also melodramas like 1951’s Roberta, the adaptation of which provided the ailing Sampaguita pictures with a much needed hit just when it was on the verge of collapse. Another of Ravelo’s beloved and often revisited comic-to-screen creations is the mermaid Dyesebel (pronounced “Jezebel”), who seems to owe some debt of inspiration to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. The major departure here, of course, is that, in Ravelo’s version, his mermaid heroine is the spawn of human parents who is made outcast from the human community due to her difference.

The first screen treatment of Dyesebel -- Gerardo De Leon’s Dyesebel, released in 1953 -- provided a star-making turn for the beautiful young actress Edna Luna, and is today so rare that, as I understand it, the only available copies are made from a print unearthed in Southeast Asia minus its entire audio track. The film show us the story of Dyesebel’s birth to normally limbed parents -- the result, apparently, of her mother paying too much attention to a calendar illustrated with pictures of mermaids. (No, really.) Her unusual physiognomy inspires hostility and ridicule in the inhabitants of her small village and makes life difficult for her folks, to the extent that her father at one point contemplates killing the child in her sleep.

Once she grows old enough to recognize the strain her parents have been put under, the pre-adolescent Dysebel slips away in the night and heads off to sea, where -- in a twist reminiscent of another famous Anderson tale -- she meets up with a community of mermaids living on the ocean floor. Though Dyesebel immediately finds herself on the bad side of a hag-like mermaid called Dyaangga, she is otherwise welcomed and accepted by this group. Still, she continues to make visits to the human world, where she eventually falls for a handsome two-legger by the name of Fredo (Jamie de la Rosa). Fredo’s conniving ex-girlfriend Betty (Carol Varga), however, has other plans for Dyesebel, which include having her kidnapped by pirates and sold to a sideshow. Here she is forced by a whip wielding trainer to perform for the jeering crowds until Fredo and his pal effect a rescue. The solution to her and Fredo’s primary romantic obstacle is finally provided by a magical conch shell, which grants Deysebel’s wish to become a full bodied human girl.

Though it’s impossible to assess in its current condition, this version of Dyesebel struck me as being surprisingly dark. Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising; coming as it does from the future director of Terror is a Man. There was something about the way that the mermaids were forced to laboriously drag themselves along by their elbows when on land that was disturbingly abject and debased, reminding me, among other things, of the deformed sideshow denizens crawling through the mud at the end of Browning’s Freaks. (There’s also a moment of poetic retribution at the end of the film that drives that association home even further.) Perhaps my impression of how mermaids are represented in contemporary culture is based too much on Happy Meal toys and sparkly stickers, but it was nonetheless jarring to see them portrayed here as somewhat cursed creatures; not just other than, but less than human.

De Leon’s Dyesebel is also dark in the traditional noir sense. Carol Varga’s Betty is a classic man eater, and the sideshow that Dyesebel ends up in is every bit as sinister as the one in Nightmare Alley. Furthermore, when it’s time to resolve things, this shadowy back alley milieu guarantees that guns will be involved, as well as a protracted slug fest that prefigures the later excesses of Filipino “Goon” cinema. I don’t know how true this all was to Ravelo’s original vision, but it was clear that, in depicting the state of the mermaids as lowly, the filmmakers had no intention of idealizing the bipedal world by contrast.

In 1964, De Leon reassembled his cast -- with the addition of soon-to-be Darna Eva Montes in the role of Dyesebel and Fredo’s daughter, Alona –- for a direct sequel to Dyesebel in the form of Anak Ni Dyesebel. Following belatedly upon that, 1973’s Dyesebel (aka Si Dyesebel at ang Mahiwagang Kabibe, or “Dyesebel and the Magic Conch”) is what would today be referred to as a reboot, with beloved Filipino star Vilma Santos taking over in the title role. Mars Ravelo would make 1973 a very busy year for Santos, as she had also made her debut as Darna that year, in Lipad, Darna, Lipad!, and would go on to complete a second Darna feature before the year was out. As did the Darna pictures, this Dyesebel benefits greatly from the undeniable raw charm of Santos, who, in place of Edna Luna’s ethereal glamour, provides a likeable and approachable portrayal of the mermaid heroine as a loveable and trouble prone naïf.

This new Dyesebel, directed by Emmanuel H. Borlazza, takes even further than its predecessor the idea of the mermaids as something feared and reviled by the human world. This is illustrated in a scene where a group of them comes ashore only to be met by a maniacal, sword-and-pitchfork wielding mob. A graphically violent fight follows, with much blood spilled and many a fin brutally slashed (I think that would count as “HMV” for “Human on Mermaid Violence”, for those keeping track.) In addition to this bracing infusion of gore, Dyesebel also welcomes us to the 1970s with a generous display of boobs (none of them Santos’s) and an absurdly confident rolling out of bush league special effects. Among these last are a giant seahorse upon which Dyesebel and Fredo (Romeo Miranda) ride during a romantic interlude and an adorable giant octopus from which Dyesebel is saved by a helpful swarm of puppet electric eels.

Though passing over the story of Dyesebel’s birth completely, Borlazza’s take otherwise follows along fairly closely with what we’ve seen in the 1953 version. And in keeping with that -- and in spite of Vilma Santos’ winsome presence -- this is no carefree ride. Santos’ tearstained reprise of her happy mermaid song -- sung under duress as she is mercilessly whipped by her carnival keeper -- would give Anne Hathaway a serious run for her money. In addition, the utter cold heartedness of Fredo’s ex, Betty, is here made all the more explicit by first having her and her shrewish mother kick and stomp upon Dyesebel as she pathetically tries to crawl past them in one scene, and then, later, by having her calmly plunge an ice pick into a lover’s back.

For some reason I thought that the Dyesebel films would be children’s movies. And, given the vagaries of Filipino children’s films (even nonsense like Biokids boasts no shortage of adult nightmare fuel), I’m not saying they’re not. But the truth is that there seems to be something inescapably and glumly adult about them, that their flights of fantasy come across less as fanciful than they do as indictments of the cruelties and shortcomings of the non-fantastical world. That’s a point of view you can certainly aim at kids, but it nonetheless one redolent of frustrated adult expectations. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid presented humanity as a prize to be won at the cost of great sacrifice, when Dyesebel, at her story’s conclusion, sprouts legs to better walk among her former persecutors and abusers, we have to wonder if Ravelo and company might have seen her as the victim of a con.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

International Gorillay, aka International Guerillas (Pakistan, 1990)

Any Westerner with an awareness of International Gorillay can likely thank this notorious clip depicting Salman Rushdie laser-ed to death by flying Korans. The film was made at the height of the Muslim world’s furor over The Satanic Verses, with Ayatollah Khomeini having pronounced his fatwa against Rushdie little over a year previous. Because of the crude venom exhibited within that weathered clip -- a weathered-ness that makes it appear all the more appropriately remote and foreign -- some who are looking for such things have taken it as emblematic of a perceived, intrinsic violence and intolerance within the Muslim faith. Because what are three minute YouTube clips for if not for making sweeping conclusions about thousands of years old religions practiced by a significant portion of the world’s population?

But what one really needs to ask with International Gorillay is how much it is an exploitation of that faith rather than an expression of it. For an exploitation film is truly what it seems to be at heart, with more interest in roiling passions toward commercial ends than spiritual ones, and that within the undeniably mercenary context of a big, dumb action movie. In fact, it’s sometimes easy to forget while watching it that you’re not watching one of those overblown Bollywood actioners from the 80s fronted by an aging Dharmendra. In portraying Rushdie, actor Afzhaal Amad seems to be channeling the effetely urbane masala villains of Ajit or Madan Puri more than going for any kind of impression of the man himself, his every threatening utterance delivered in a tone dripping with mock solicitude. And then there are the many, many explosions, the back flipping extras, and the kung fu, all of which I’m pretty sure are extraneous to the Koran.

The film centers around three brothers, the eldest of whom is Mustafa, a police officer. Mustafa is played by Mustafa Qureshi, whom we traditionally see getting beaten to within an inch of his life by Sultan Rahi in Punjabi films ranging from the iconic Maula Jat to the moronic Hitlar. It’s nice to see Qureshi play a putative good guy role for a change, even if his performance, which involves a lot of righteous hollering, doesn’t vary all that much from his others. Ghulam Mohiuddin and Javed Sheikh play Mustafa’s younger brothers, a pair of small time hoods. If you think this divergence of moral paths causes tension within the family, you’re right -- until the three decide to set aside their differences and band together to kill Salman Rushdie following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Their resolve is further strengthened when Mustafa’s two college age children -- Pappo and Baby -- are shot down by corrupt police during a demonstration against Rushdie. “I want Salman Rushdie’s head”, gasps Baby with her dying breath.

Meanwhile we see that a massive criminal consortium is engaging in a plot to destroy Islam, all the better to prevent the Muslim world from uniting and putting an end to the vice and corruption that is the crooks’ bread and butter. (Which might sound extravagantly paranoid, but really isn’t any more farfetched than some of the ideas put forth in the current crop of evangelical potboilers on the US DTV market.) Pakistan is seen as a keystone in this operation, and Rushdie the gang’s not-so-secret weapon. In light of this, the author has been smuggled away to a private island in the Philippines, where he lives surrounded by liquor and ladies in a heavily fortified palace. Here Rushdie indulges all his basest impulses, laughingly executing the captured jihadis who have come for him with a stroke of his sword, then taking a deep whiff of the blood soaked cloth once he’s wiped the blade clean. Naturally, he is also surrounded by a retinue of grotesque minions, such as his right hand man, the maniacal Chief Batu Batu (Saeed Khan Rangeela). And then there are the pair often referred to simply as the “Jews”, an Israeli army commander called JC and his sister Dolly (Barbra Sharif), a femme fatale whose eyes have a special gift for “seeing” Muslims.

I’m sure it will surprise no one that International Gorillay falls a bit short of examining both sides of the Satanic Verses issue. There’s no debate over whether Rushdie should be killed in the first place, only how much, how soon, and how much torture should be involved first. In fact, if Mustafa and his guerillas have one strategic weakness, it’s that -- like any Pakistani movie heroes worthy of their mustaches -- once they get their target in sight, they spend a lot of time bellowing blood curdling oaths at him and shouting about all of the awful ways they’re going to bring about his end instead of just following through. (My favorite of these smack lines is “If everyone in the world looked like you, we would have to kill everyone!” There’s also something about feeding Rushdie’s tongue to the dogs.) Thus is the multiple Booker Prize winner offered ample opportunity to either escape or turn the tables on his captors. In similar fashion, Mustafa’s wife Zeenat repeatedly works herself into literal ecstasies talking about just how dead she wants Rushdie.

The only thing leavening all of this bloodlust is the question of just how seriously International Gorillay is taking itself. For the film is not just a dumb action movie, but a dumb comedy also. There are many terrible verbal gags, as well as a pair of broadly caricatured Middle Eastern Sheikhs on hand to seemingly provide both cross-cultural chuckles and an example of bad Muslims. Furthermore, the guerillas themselves don an assortment of wacky disguises in the course of their operations -- including that of masked surgeons with comical oversized syringes, hippie street musicians, and one instance of drag. Why, at a climactic moment, the group decides to don what look like baggy, Halloween store Batman costumes is anyone’s guess, but it nonetheless provides the film with another one of its most widely disseminated -- and mocked -- images. (Batman knock-off completists should gird themselves for disappointment, however, due to both the brevity of this sequence and its late appearance. Better to redouble your efforts in finding a copy of Super Batman & Mazinger V.)

Of course, the most hilarious thing about these Bat get-ups is how resoundingly they fail in terms of performance enhancement for the guerillas, ultimately only making their flight from Rushdie and his forces that much more clumsy. Finally, this knack on the part of our heroes for getting captured means that god has to fight his own battles, though not before those heroes engage in much protracted sung beseeching for his intervention. Only once this has reached an appropriately fevered pitch does the film deliver upon its promise of avenging Korans descending valkyrie-like from the heavens. And, all in all, it’s a fitting end to a story that basically boils down to a competition between two books; after all, The Satanic Verses may have been critically well received in the West, but it was never demonstrated to fly or shoot lasers. Still, a perhaps more jaw dropping aspect of this scene for more jaded viewers will be the spectacle of the Jewish femme fatale Dolly instantaneously converting to Islam once a white veil, born upon the wind, wraps itself around her head and shoulders.

Unlike the Pashto and Punjabi language Pakistani films that I typically review on this site, International Gorillay is in the Urdu language, and thus that much closer to the mainstream of Pakistani cinema. This is not meant to imply, however, that all Pakistani films are as insane and wrong as International Gorillay; they’re not. It’s just that it’s much more enjoyable for me to write/warn you about films like it and Haseena Atom Bomb than it is to consider a sober Urdu family drama or historical. At the same time, I don’t want to de-emphasize the fact that International Gorillay was quite popular in its country of origin in its day. The film even made inroads into the West, thanks in part to the unlikely intervention of Salman Rushdie, who publicly opposed a ban on it by the British Board of Film Classification out of principle. On a less magnanimous note, Rushdie also referred to the film as “a piece of crap”.