Sunday, July 27, 2008

A note on the X-Files movie

[No spoilers. You're welcome.]

It appears that the X-Files movie is receiving a pretty thorough drubbing from reviewers -- and, while I disagree with those reviewers' sentiments, I can't say that I'm all that surprised by them. Even as I was sitting in the theater, thrilling to every mournful, low-key minute of I Want to Believe, I kept thinking to myself, "My God, so many people are going to hate this".

The film defies all Hollywood logic as to what a big summer release based on an established property should be. There is not a single explosion, nor are there any instances of flashy CGI effects. Instead, in an impressive feat of risk-taking, Chris Carter has taken the opportunity to deliver a meditative, bittersweet postscript to the series he created, and in the process provide us with an intimate view into the lives of his beloved protagonists, Agents Mulder and Scully, these six years on from when we last encountered them.

There is an emotional honesty -- as well as a very unspectacular everyday-ness -- to this portrait that feels almost discomfitingly personal within this context. Furthermore, it's wrapped around a story that is about as terrestrial as could be, rooted in the indiscriminate betrayals of the human body, the extremes that people can be driven to by the fear of loss, and the desperate questioning of faith that those things can inspire. It's a slow-burning narrative, one that evidences, on the part of its creators, enough confidence in its audience to take the occasional pause to speak to the mind and heart, rather than just the gut.

Given this, it's understandable that the film will come as an unwelcome slam on the brakes for many of us riding the non-stop rollercoaster of thrills that this summer's offerings have been so single-mindedly delivering. Hey, I've been enjoying that ride myself, and I Want to Believe definitely demanded an unexpected amount of reconfiguring of my expectations. Still, as a fan of the series (an important deciding factor in whether you will love or hate this movie), I ended up -- after an initial brain sputter -- not only welcoming that demand, but being thrilled that it was being made in the first place.

The way things are looking right now, I'm bracing myself for the inevitability that I Want to Believe is going to be widely referred to as a "failure". But the film is in every sense such an anti-blockbuster -- right down to its desolate, wintry setting and borderline despairing tone -- that it's impossible to imagine that those involved had their sights set on an Iron Man-scale success in the first place. Rather, given the messy implosion that the original series suffered during its final seasons, it feels like Carter is finally gifting fans of The X-Files with the opportunity to give Mulder and Scully the proper farewell that they deserve. And that's something to be grateful for.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Karisma <3s the beat

A few months back, when I reviewed the Bollywood Child's Play redux, Papi Gudia, I bemoaned the fact that no clips of Karisma Kapoor's, er, exuberant musical numbers from that film were available on YouTube. Well, now some generous member of the YouTube community has rectified that situation, so beat it! (And if you start to feel beaten down by Karisma's love of the beat, make sure you at least skip forward so that you can see the mirrored bodysuit that she rocks during the last couple of minutes.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Italian Superhero Roll Call: Goldface

Goldface, the Fantastic Superman (1967). Dir. by Bitto Albertini. Along with 3 Dev Adam, Goldface, the Fantastic Superman is a perfect example of the international influence of the Santo films. Something of a Spaghetti Lucha, if you will. Robert Anthony portrays the crime fighting masked wrestler Goldface. Of course, because this is 1967 -- and the influence of the Batman TV series cannot be escaped -- Goldface is also provided with a secret identity, a departure from standard lucha movie procedure that tells me such conventions were too weird even for the Italians. That alter ego, Dr. Villar, is a horndog scientist with a bevy of giggling, nubile lab assistants. (We know that he's a scientist because, at one point, he looks up from a microscope and spews some nonsense about the "sex organs" of a certain "species" of "microbes". We know that he's a horndog because anything any of his young female assistants says provides an opportunity for him to toss off some kind of witty double entendre, usually something on the level of "Yeah, in my pants!")
Goldface is the type of movie whose vision of the Swinging Sixties leaves no doubt as to precisely what it was that was swinging, buttressed by the kind of jazz pop chorale soundtrack -- all folks going "bwap-wa-waa" and "dooba-dibba-dip" -- that screams out "I'm a cheerfully sexist Italian movie from the 60s, dammit!". On the other hand, vintage can neither excuse nor prepare one for the appearance of Goldface's faithful sidekick, Gotar, a large, bare-chested black man who wears a crocodile tooth necklace, spouts gibberish while making moon eyes, and calls Goldface "Bwana". This character is just one of Goldface's many instances of intentional camp, but the movie lacks any of the sophistication that might suggest we should give it any more weight than any of the other kitschy anachronisms that are glibly trotted out for our amusement. So shame on your racist gold face, Goldface!
Goldface's foe here is a fellow called The Cobra, who runs an outfit called Cobra, which is involved in something called Operation Cobra. As you might imagine, The Cobra is prone to making super villain speeches that are extremely repetitive -- so much so that, after a point, every time he started talking, all I could hear was "cobra cobra cobra cobra cobra" -- but he does have one great line, in a scene where he executes one of his minions, saying, "You are guilty of being and acting incredibly stupid". The Cobra also wears a cloak with a wraparound collar that covers his face up to his eyes, which gives him an appearance reminiscent of Mort from the old Bazooka Joe comics.
Despite an obviously tiny budget, Goldface does an admirable job of keeping things moving along, giving us a variety of vehicle chases and a lot of fist fights in addition to the requisite two wrestling matches (one of which, following a grand lucha movie tradition, involves an evil Goldface impostor). The film even manages an acceptable pass at the old 007-style "climactic siege upon the villain's compound", employing some tricky editing that disguises the fact that there were only about eight people involved.
At the film's close, there's a wrestling match where Goldface's aggressive love interest jumps into the ring to challenge him -- and, after she pins him, we learn she meant "with tongues". Those crazy Italians!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Feline Noir

It probably goes without saying that the German animated thriller Felidae isn't a movie to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much in it to like. If you're curiousity's gotten the better of you, please see my full review, which has just been posted over at Teleport City.

Friday, July 18, 2008

From The Lucha Diaries Vaults: La Mujer Murcielago (Mexico, 1968)

With this edition of "From The Lucha Diaries Vaults", I decided to use the occasion of the opening of the new Batman movie to draw attention to the long and proud tradition of movies featuring bat-persons that it continues. As I'm sure you'll agree, it has a lot to live up to.


Exhibiting a brazenness comparable to 3 Dev Adam's in it's attitude toward international copyrights, La Mujer Murcielago has Maura Monti -- in her role as secret agent and masked wrestler Bat Woman -- costumed almost identically to TV's Batgirl. I say "almost" because -- while the mask, cape and boots she wears are indistinguishable from her American inspiration -- where Batgirl would wear a skintight bodysuit, Bat Woman just wears skin. Now, I don't need a whole lot more than that, and the makers of La Mujer Murcielago have shown an eerie prescience by providing me with just that: very little more than Maura Monti padding around in a miniscule bikini for 85 minutes. And, while I am grateful, it pains me to say that, despite the very forgiving attitude I brought to the film, I did find La Mujer Murcielago slow going in some parts.

This is not to say that there aren't some nods toward plot and the corresponding elements of same. To justify long sequences of Bat Woman scuba diving and -- as already mentioned -- padding around, we have a mad scientist (quelle surprise!), his assistant Igor (Parents, please! Don't you realize that naming your child Igor dooms him to an adulthood spent in servitude to a mad scientist?), and their killer goldfish man. Now this may be something that was lost to me in the non-translation, but the mad scientist here appears to have the most un-secret hideout in film history. Said hideout is a large ship -- named, I'm delighted to report, Reptilicus -- that's anchored conveniently just offshore from the seaside resort where our heroine is stationed. Whenever Bat Woman and her male cohorts want to spy on the doctor, or tussle with his henchmen, or throw acid in his face, they just take the short boat ride out to the Reptilicus and tuck in. However, despite all of the doctor's obvious criminal activity, they never take any of these opportunities to just haul him in. Of course, these are 1960s movie secret agents we're dealing with, so they'd be remiss in their duties if they didn't hold off on closing the case until the opportunity arose to have the villains and their hideout consumed by an enormous explosion. (Is that a spoiler?) La Mujer Murcielago also has wrestling matches, but, since Maura Monti is not a professional wrestler, a considerably more chunky double is used for these scenes (and, since the substitution is glaringly obvious, the scenes are very brief).

If you have read any of my other reviews on The Lucha Diaries, there may have been times when you regarded my description of something that happened in a film with skepticism. And you should do. In many cases here I am describing, without the aid of a re-viewing, films that I watched many weeks previous. And the condition in which I originally watched them was often one of either somnolence or compromised sobriety. As a result, there are "reviews" here in which I freely admit to remembering very few of the subject film's details, or in which I unwittingly invent those details because I confused that film with another one that I watched in an equally inattentive state. I say this because, in his entry regarding La Mujer Murcielago in his fine book The Mexican Masked Wrestler and Monster Filmography, Robert Michael "Bobb" Cotter describes the process by which the mad scientist creates the goldfish man as involving putting a fish and a G.I. Joe doll in an aquarium together and boiling the water. I thought that this sounded just too good to be true. However, I should not have doubted the generosity of a film that would give us a seagoing vessel named Reptilicus, for, when I watched the film, what Cotter described is precisely what I saw.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Listening to: The Chap "Mega Breakfast"

It's to The Chap's credit that I've invested so much time in trying to figure out just what it is that they're on about on their new album Mega Breakfast. The sound here is an airless bedroom dance pop similar to that delivered by Hot Chip or Fujiya & Miyagi, and a lot of what I've read about the group has attributed their lyrical content to an opaque and dada-esque sense of humor. But am I also hearing in their music some of the sharp-eyed cultural criticism and deconstructionist aesthetics of Entertainment! era Gang of Four and their ilk? Lines like "Come into my bathroom-showroom/Approach me slowly, visit my body" certainly seem to speak to the commoditization of the self, but are also so absurdly on-the-nose that they could just as easily be a complete pisstake. Anyway, whether they are purveyors of cerebral agit-pop or simply a bunch of snarky smart-asses, the fact remains that I can't stop listening to their album. So they've won either way, basically.

How to make an awesome video

I really like about half of Volume One, the debut album from She & Him, a duo comprised of M. Ward and singer/actress Zooey Deschanel (who I really wish was on Weeds this season, BTW). But I love the new video for their song "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?", because it combines two of my favorite things: chirpy 1960s-style radio pop and loads of stupid gore.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Smirk, Tony Kendall, Smirk!

It will surprise absolutely no one that I consider Kill, Panther, Kill! to be pretty much the best movie title ever. In fact, the only way that it could be better, IMHO, is if you were to take the word "panther" out of it and substitute another "kill" in its place. And then maybe add another exclamation point. This may have something to do with my unresolved anger issues. Fortunately, I don't have time to go into that here, because my main order of business is to tell you that my review of the fifth film in the Kommissar X series, KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL!!!!!!! -- er, I mean, Kill, Panther, Kill! -- is now available for your quiet enjoyment over at Teleport City.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (India, 1984)

I don't have kids, but if I did -- and I was completely out of my fucking mind -- I might rely on a film like Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki for tips on how to raise them. For starters, there's Amrish Puri as the uncle who -- in an attempt to gain the inheritance due his nephew -- raises the lad to be a gibbering idiot by making him repeat the phrase "I am mad" hundreds of times every day. Then there is the maid who serves as the closest thing to a mother figure in that lad's life, who tells the naive boy (at this point played by Mithun Chakraborty) that, on his wedding night, when his bride says no, she really means yes. Finally there is that unfortunate bride (Smita Patil), who -- once her husband has been murdered outright by the treacherous uncle -- vows to pump her unborn son full of hatred so that he will become a remorseless engine of vengeance, and who, once that son is grown (and played, again, by Mithun Chakraborty) provides a model of love at its most utterly conditional by telling him that the day he loses a fight will be the day she turns her back on him. Furthermore, when, at the film's climax, Mithun's wild-eyed mother orders him to kill the target of her vengeance -- who at this point is lying prone at his feet -- it doesn't provide an opportunity for any kind of moral quandary on the part of Mithun's character -- or even an epiphany about what a manipulative psycho his mom is -- but rather, once the deed is done, just a neat and tidy path to what the film presents as a happy and just resolution for all surviving. Not that this is a surprise, given that the film's dedication salutes those mothers everywhere who want to raise strong sons (presumably in the patented, mouth foaming, thousand-mile-staring Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki way).

Given his upbringing, it's not surprising that little Mithun II grows up to be good at little other than pummeling people with his fists. But what struck me is how, when it comes time to earn his keep -- and despite him not having any apparent musical ability -- he easily gets a job as a drummer in a disco band. I want to mock this particular development, but, hey, I've been in my share of bands, and it's totally true: Even the most mallet-fisted thug, no matter how un-musical, is only a pair of drumsticks away from filling that position. It's a drummer joke!

As those in the know have probably already guessed, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki is yet another collaboration between actor Chakraborty, producer/director Babbar Subhash, and composer Bappi Lahiri, with all of the ugliness and stupidity that that implies. If you need further proof, check out this clip:

Oh no! Looks like somewun's gunna git blowed up!

More Plot Views

It occurred to me that it was kind of stupid of me (stupid! stupid! stupid!) to take the trouble to make all of those lovely screen caps from Chor Yuen's Murder Plot only to render them postage-stamp size when I posted them with my review of the film on Teleport City. To mitigate that I'm posting a few of my favorite images below in a somewhat larger size. These serve nicely to provide examples of Chor's distinctive use of color (which Liz over at And You Call Yourself A Scientist! noted as being very Bava-esque) and the surreal artificiality of his sets.

Naseeb (India, 1981)

Naseeb is a huge, sprawling picture -- one that, for better or worse, gives Manmohan Desai, the king of over-stuffed 1970s masala movies, the opportunity to give free reign to his most extravagant impulses. It's so huge, in fact, that, on several occasions when Amitabh Bachchan showed up on screen, I realized that I had completely forgotten that he was in the movie. This is understandable when you consider that the film, not content to give us just one villain, gives us all of Amrish Puri, Amjad Khan, Prem Chopra and Kader Khan to torment our heroes, and also provides overlapping love stories that involve various combinations of Amitabh, Shatrughan Sinha and Rishi Kapoor and Hema Malini, Reena Roy and Kim. For a good part of Naseeb, it simply feels like plot elements are being unreeled like an endless fishing line without any of it ever coalescing into an actual plot, but then a hurried attempt to tie everything together in the final hour sends the narrative rocketing into the stratosphere. As a result, the viewer is rewarded for his endurance with a surplus of frantic spectacle, the highlights including some actually pretty competent for the time, Towering Inferno-style special effects, and a dramatic entrance by all three heroines, arriving to save the day on the back of a motorcycle that crashes through the exterior of Singha's fabulous glass-walled mansion (in slow motion, of course).

Naseeb is also famous for a sequence that became the inspiration for the touted all-star party scene in Farah Khan's recent Om Shanti Om. While the similarities are obvious, one difference that struck me was that -- while, in Om, Shahrukh was playing a Shahrukh-like superstar who could party with the assembled gods and goddesses of the screen on equal terms -- Amitabh plays a lowly waiter who has to serve the crowd of Bollywood royals, which includes some of his famous co-stars from previous movies. So, as much as I love the aforementioned scene in Om, I've got to say that Amitabh wins out over Shahrukh in terms of humility and good sportsmanship. I also loved that the event ostensibly being celebrated in Naseeb was the golden jubilee of Dharam-Veer, which occasioned the banquet hall being decorated by a giant standee of Dharmendra in his leather miniskirt.

Friday, July 11, 2008

From The Lucha Diaries Vaults: Aranas Infernales (Mexico, 1966)

Hey, kids! Did you know that there's a whole world of fun and adventure that you can visit any time you like, no matter where you are? You did? Do you know what it's called? Your imagi-what? No! I was talking about The Lucha Diaries. God! So disappointed right now.

Anway, whatever. If you want to read more awesome reviews of Mexican wrestling movies like the one below, that's where you go. Or you can just "imagine" them. 'Cause I bet that would just be so much fun.


As wild as a lot of these Mexican wrestling films are, it sometimes seems like not a lot of imagination goes into their titles. There's definitely a strict limit on adjectives. Then again, it might just be that I'm jealous, because I simply don't live on the scale that these guys do. None of the opposing forces that I encounter in my life could without irony be called "infernal" or "diabolical". If Santo and Blue Demon were forced to live in my world, their movies would have titles like Blue Demon vs. the Condescending Waiter or Santo versus the Stubborn Screwcap. And, to be honest, while I might be able to relate more to one of those films on a personal level, I'd really rather watch something called Aranas Infernales - which, happily, happens to be the title of the Blue Demon entry that I will be considering here.

Probably the one thing that I could relate that would most succinctly sum up Aranas Infernales is the fact that it steals its special effects footage from Plan Nine from Outer Space and Teenagers from Outer Space. As much as this is equivalent to copying the slow kid's homework, it still guarantees that Aranas Infernales' special effects are immeasurably better than those of Blue Demon contra las Invasoras. Still, for the viewer (or, at least, this viewer) there's nothing like the sudden recognition of, not just the fact that you're watching a movie that aspires to pass off footage from what is popularly considered one of the worst films of all time as its own, but that you immediately recognized that footage as such, to make you most acutely feel the corresponding, rapid draining of the sands of time from your mortal hourglass.

This, combined with the fact that all of the scenes in Aranas Infernales that aren't filmed outside or set in a wrestling arena look like they were filmed inside a really small box, could really send me into a funk. But then here comes Fernando Oses, challenging Blue Demon in the ring with a ridiculous looking spider puppet on his hand, and all is forgiven. A sublime moment like this, occurring in a film's final minutes, is enough for me to see the total time invested, no matter how freighted with inanity, as well spent.

On top of all the aforementioned pilfering and claustrophopia, Aranas Infernales has a really extraordinary number of wrestling sequences (I honestly lost count). Fortunately, due to Blue Demon's typically spirited commitment to his role's physical demands, these are all pretty good, as are all of the plot-related brawls.

As for the spiders, they're not all that infernal. And, dovetailing fortuitously with the film's obviously limited effects budget, they're not all that spidery, either. It seems that the aliens' choice to assume human form was for the purpose of blending in, so that they could walk among their intended prey undetected. But they kind of defeat that purpose with their insistence on wearing sparkly capes with big pointy collars. Their vanity is their ultimate undoing.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

8 Lhiem, 12 Kom (Thailand, definitely the 1970s)

I want to keep reviewing these old Thai movies, I really do. But I imagine that sooner or later you're going to get sick of me saying, "Well, I have no idea what this movie was about, but bla bla bla.. ooh, pretty colors... bla... Mitr Chaibancha.. bla."

Take, for example, the 1970s Sombat Methanee action film 8 Lhiem, 12 Kom. As presented on the Triple X VCD, it has that jittery, severely distressed look that I've come to expect -- and which I've come to enjoy as sort of an otherworldly ambient viewing experience. Remember that scene in Quatermass and the Pit where they hooked a machine up to Barbara Shelley's head so that they could look at garbled images of her channeled memories of a genocide that took place on Mars millions of years ago? That's the sort of look I'm talking about. Only, instead of looking through a curtain of visual noise at insectoid Martians that look like they were made out of toothpicks and cocktail olives killing one another, you're looking through a curtain of visual noise at a drunken Mitr Chaibancha being held steady by Petchara Chaowarat.

But without subtitles, it's really impossible for an English speaker like myself to make sense of the various intrigues that make up 8 Lhiem, 12 Kom's crime caper plot. And the result is that all you're left with is a random collection of 1970s B action movie tropes. Wait... Ha! I said that as if it was a bad thing.

So yes, it's all here: Wide-assed ties, muscle cars, funk-lite porno music (that strays at times into weirdly minimalist synth explorations), motorcycle stunts, bad kung fu, a healthy amount of gratuitous nudity, mirror-lined bedrooms, poofy hair and, of course, big bushy mustaches. All Thai style! (Which means Asian women in big afro wigs, among other things -- which I'm sure, now that I've mentioned it, is some kind of fetish. Welcome to you, new batch of vaguely disappointed Google pervs!)

Sombat's mini-skirted female co-stars also gets to engage in some Cleopatra Jones-style action by way of some not terribly well choreographed fights. And there's a visual gag involving a women eating a sausage that's worthy of a Wong Jing movie. But, aside from that, all I get is that Sombat appears to have been involved in stealing a briefcase full of sparkly jewels, and now there's some skullduggery going on between the members of his gang for its possession. But wait: at the end, the villain, who I thought was just a run-of-the-mill gangster, turns out to have a big, control panel-filled underground lair - and Sombat and his female accomplices stage a raid on it aided by a bunch of those movie-mad Thai policemen. So I guess that Sombat wasn't the anti-hero that I thought and is instead more of a hero-hero. And is this a spy movie?

Understanding of the dialog and the plot might or might not render this a pretty good movie, but it's certainly no worse than many subpar old Hong Kong action movies that are readily available to English speaking audiences. At the very least I can be thankful to it for keeping me away from the few remaining unwatched Sompote Sands movies that I have left in the stack. And besides, I could have done worse: Sombat is one charismatic dude, there was some lovely period design on display, and I loved the gritty urban settings.

All of which is to say that you can look forward to more thumb-tongued blind gropings in the world of vintage Thai cinema from me in the future.


Well, I'm glad that at least somebody is happy about it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Yaadon Ki Baaraat (India, 1973)

Man, what is there not to like about Yaadon Ki Baaraat? It's simply one of the most entertaining 70s masala films I've seen, thanks to great performances by Dharmendra, Zeenat Aman and Vijay Arora, a fantastic score by R.D. Burman, a tight script by the hit-making team of Salim-Javed, and the shameless -- and expert -- manipulations of director Nasir Hussain. In fact, rather than writing about it, I think I'll just go watch it again. Here, watch this clip:

Like so many Bollywood films of its era, Yaadon Ki Baaraat is a "lost and found" story, telling the tale of three young brothers who are separated following the murder of their parents by a ruthless outlaw. The problem so often with these type of films is that, once the family at their center is split, so is the narrative, and the parallel stories that get told are not always of equal interest. Thankfully Yaadon is a rare exception, focusing primarily on two diverging narrative threads that, while quite different in tone, are both just as involving -- and which, even more impressively, end up re-entwining in a thoroughly satisfying manner.

One half of Yaadon's story involves middle brother Vijay (Vijay Arora), who we find -- upon meeting up with him again in young adulthood -- has been adopted by a kindly old man who works as groundskeeper at a wealthy family's vacation home. Vijay becomes involved, after a fashion, with that family's pampered daughter (Aman), who, visiting the home for the first time, is unaware of his humble circumstances. But this relationship is less of a romance than it is a weirdly obsessive juvenile rivalry, involving some fairly cruel pranks on the part of both parties. This mean-spiritedness adds some welcome vinegar to what easily could have been a typically saccharine Bollywood tale of young love, and also provides interest as we watch how each becomes trapped by their own deceptions once feelings for one another that they are, at first, only feigning turn out to be real. It also doesn't hurt that both stars are disarmingly appealing here (and, in Aman's case, even more kittenish than usual), a fact which makes it easy to root for them to overcome the well-orchestrated odds that the screenwriters have so meticulously lined up against them

On the other hand is Dharmendra, playing the eldest brother Shankar, who has grown up to be a thief -- though a thief of that movie variety that has a staunch moral code and an inability to separate himself from his troubled past. Dharmendra does a lot of what would normally be his standard bad-ass shtick here, but he seems to be putting a lot of soul behind it in this case, portraying it more as behavior arising from character than from just Dharmendra being Dharmendra, and it's all the more gratifying as a result. Things start to get extra complicated for Shankar when, without his knowing, he becomes involved with a gang lead by Shakaal (Ajit) the man who murdered his parents -- who, in the intervening years, has gone from being a regular outlaw to a standard Bollywood supervillain with a lair that looks like a cross between a wood-paneled basement rec room in a 1970s suburban home and the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

Finally there is the youngest brother, Ratan (Tariq), who is there less to provide a story of his own than to serve up some a-w-e-s-o-m-e musical numbers in his guise as a guitar-slinging nightclub entertainer, such as this one featuring a cameo by Neetu Singh as a scat-singing go-go girl:

Yaadon Ki Baaraat is no less predictable than other movies of its type. But somehow director Hussain just manages to hit all the right beats, making the emotions of even the most hardened cult movie blogger dance like an especially eager-to-please organ grinder's monkey despite his better judgment. (I'm not mentioning any names, of course.) I've already said more than I wanted to say about it, as my original intention was just to post a couple of clips and bugger off for a sandwich or something (see what love will do?), so just see the thing already.

*When I mentioned this movie to Beth over at Beth Loves Bollywood, she hipped me to the fact that the role of the young Ratan is played by a very young Aamir Khan, and indeed it is! Thanks, Beth! You've provided me with a possible way to trick my wife -- who loves AK, but not so much 70s Bollywood movies beyond the standard classics -- into watching this movie. I think she'll forgive me.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Gay for Chor

Anyone who knows me in my capacity as a film geek knows that I am obsessed with the films of Hong Kong director Chor Yuen -- specifically with the series of wuxia films that he directed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. I'm so enamored with those films, in fact, that until now I have been reluctant to write about them for fear that my words would not be able to do them justice. Well, I finally just sucked it up and modeled through -- and, as a result, my review of Chor's 1979 film Murder Plot is now available for viewing over at Teleport City.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Milap (India, 1972)

Milap is another Reena Roy snake lady movie. Only here she doesn't play an actual snake-turned-lady, but rather a lady whose lover from a past life has been reincarnated as a snake. When that snake, upon reaching the age of 100, assumes human form and has sexual congress with her, she will become -- well, I'm not quite clear on that really, but it's something that her current lover, played by Shatrughan Sinha, desperately wants to avoid happening. An alarmingly fresh-faced Danny Dezongpa plays a snake charmer who is competing for Roy's affections, and Sarita plays a heroin-smoking hippy chick who is helping Sinha to circumvent Roy's scaley fate. Directed by Brij Bhooshan, this relatively compact (at two hours) film doesn't have the wild color and weird effects of Rajkumar Kholi's wonderful Nagin, but is mildly interesting for an overall dour and foreboding tone that is reminiscent of American horror films of its era. Sinha's character is presented as a rootless and seeking product of the modern world whose staunchly secular mindset is challenged by his encounter with the supernatural world. An early montage showing his history of vice is well worth seeing, especially for a shot of him smoking as a ten year old boy, which is framed by an iris of lit butts. In other highlights, the potential titillation of a climactic scene in which Roy is forced to disrobe by her snakey lover is amusingly foiled by the fact that she is wearing about 500 layers of clothing. I will say that this is one to avoid if you're at all squeamish of snakes, because there are a lot of them (real ones) on display, and Bhooshan manages to make them look extra slimy.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Italian Superhero Roll Call: Avenger X and Flashman

Between 1966 and 1968, the Italian film industry occasionally took time out from making countless cut-rate James Bond knock-offs to make cut-rate comic book movies inspired by both the international success of the Batman TV series and by homegrown fumetti heroes like Diabolik and Kriminal. And I hate them for it. Because I feel irresistibly compelled to watch those movies, even though almost all of them are awful beyond imagining. For that reason, while Italian Superhero Roll Call will be a recurring feature on 4Dk, it will probably not be a frequently recurring one, because the process behind it involves some very necessary recovery time.

Avenger X (1967). Dir. by Piero Vivarelli. Avenger X is appropriately named, because soon after I popped it in I said "Why?" and then went ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. And if you think that the only reason I'm reviewing it is so that I could use that joke... well, sadly, you're right. This movie is a perfect example of the unique ability of Italian genre directors of the day to take something that seemed guaranteed to be at least moderately engaging and, against the odds, turn it into something quite dull. Avenger X is more of an anti-hero in the Kriminal/Diabolik vein, and in order to insure that his film wouldn't flirt with the notion of actually being exciting, an actor was cast to play him who looked like Dick Cavett -- which would be capital if you were planning to have Avenger X interview Gore Vidal, but not so much if he's meant to strike fear into the heart of the underworld. Add lots of nailed-down camera work, talking head exposition, pedestrian plotting, and a purveying chintzy-ness in terms of actually showing our main character doing what is ostensibly his purpose for being -- meaning, wearing his costume and engaging in daring feats -- and you've got the perfect recipe for thrill-repellent. In fact, this film often seems pleasure-averse to the point of absurdity, with even the standard ski lift sequence, once set up, stubbornly refusing to give us any kind of action payoff. Avenger X, you may be a criminal genius and a master of disguise, but you suck!

Flashman (1967). Dir. by Mino Loy. Ah, now this one is more like it, with a hero in a prize-winningly ridiculous costume, a garage-y farfisa and electric guitar soundtrack, a plot involving a colorful group of gangsters with an invisibility serum, and a self-effacingly goofy tone throughout. Flashman, in his civilian identity ("known only to corpses and friends" as he puts it at one point) is a foppish English lord, and his crime fighting entourage includes his butler, as well as his kid sister, Sheila, a flower child who sports psychedelic face paint and an assortment of outfits that grow increasingly outrageous as the film progresses. Maybe not so great when taken on its own terms, this one benefits greatly from being viewed in close proximity to something as flat as Avenger X. It's every bit as cheap as that film, but at least shows a little bit of spirit and imagination. Flashman, I'm flashing you the thumbs up!

'Til next time, arrivederci!

Friday, July 4, 2008

A-Go-Go!: The Hong Kong musicals of Umetsugu Inoue

Man, there's been so much Feroz Khan up in this joint over the past month that it's starting to smell like a locker room. It's obviously long past time for me to move on to something less rugged, something less hairy... something more feminine. After all, it's always been one of my intentions with this blog to mix things up -- and hopefully, in the process, introduce fans of certain types of world cinema to others that they may not yet have sampled (for instance, fans of copyright-flaunting Turkish pulp cinema to copyright-flaunting Filipino pulp cinema, or fans of Japanese man-in-a-skeleton-suit movies to Italian man-in-a-skeleton-suit movies.)

Hong Kong Nocturne (1967)

So today I was thinking that perhaps the musicals of Umetsugu Inoue might provide a safe, cushiony introduction for fans of vintage Bollywood to the glories of vintage Hong Kong cinema. Granted, the films of Bollywood leave their fans with a pretty high expectation in terms of catchy, quality songs and stunning choreography, two things that are sometimes MIA in Inoue's films. But what his films may lack in terms of irresistibly catchy tunes and dazzling hoof-work, he makes up for with eye-popping color, lavish style and dazzling old-fashioned star power.

In my review of Asia-pol, I touched upon the practice of Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio of importing directors and technicians from Japan during the sixties and early seventies -- a time when the diminished fortunes of the Japanese film industry made overseas work attractive to many of its personnel. At the time Japan was Asian cinema's standard bearer in terms of craftmanship and artistry, and studio boss Run Run Shaw sensibly thought that these artists would not only improve the quality of his product in the short term, but also improve the performance of his Hong Kong-based crew in the long term through their exposure to the Japanese craftsmen's refined techniques and outstanding discipline.

Hong Kong Nocturne (1967)

There were a number of Japanese directors who helmed multiple films for the Shaws -- often doing so under assumed Chinese names to avoid falling afoul of anti-Japanese sentiment on the part of HK's filmgoing public. But no doubt one of the most prolific was Umetsugu Inoue, who ended up directing 17 films while working exclusively for the studio over the course of several years. While other of his fellow countrymen, like the Nikkatsu-bred Matsuo Akinori, brought with them a proficiency for hardboiled action, Umetsugu had a light, whimsical touch and an obvious eye for glamour that translated into a series of lighter-than-cotton-candy musicals and youth-oriented comedies made between 1967 and 1971. While the years would see Inoue's aesthetic veer away from lush, elegantly-realized eye candy and more toward eye-straining day-glo kitsch, there is plenty of frothy fun to be found throughout his catalog.

Probably the best place to start with Inoue is his first film for Shaw, the 1967 Musical Hong Kong Nocturne. The film starred three of the higher profile faces in the studio's touted galaxy of female stars, each departing from their usual martial arts roles to portray one of three singing sisters who decide to break up their nightclub act and pursue their own individual paths to fame. Ching Pei Pei, who had the previous year starred in King Hu's groundbreaking Come Drink With Me played sister Chuan Chuan, while Lily Ho (Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, The Lady Professional) played Tsui Tsui, and Chin Ping (Trail of the Broken Blade) played Ting Ting. The film's show biz milieu seems to have been a frequently recurring one in Inoue's movies, and largely dictated the staging of his musical numbers, many of which are either colorful depictions of his characters' stage acts or surreal fantasy sequences. In the case of Hong Kong Nocturne, that the plot surrounding this musical content is an admixture of family-driven soap opera, broad comedy and morality play will make this one an easy ride for Bollywood fans.

Hong Kong Nocturne (1967)

I've been entertaining the notion that fate has cheated me out of spending my adulthood as a resident of mid-1960s Hong Kong. It's a notion that has nothing to do with reality, of course, and everything to do with my watching Wong Kar Wai movies and old classics like Hong Kong Nocturne. In Nocturne, the city is depicted as a bubbling metropolis whose citizens spend their nights in an endless, gin-soaked, club-hopping celebration of a life filled with glitz and unbounded possibility. Dressed with rich color and pop art lighting effects, its a vision that makes for an intoxicating visual cocktail. Tell me, who wouldn't want to just jump into the screen and join that party?

Hong Kong Rhapsody (1968)

The songs in Hong Kong Nocturne are mostly pleasant and fun, and don't seem to aspire to being anything more than that. Still there are no real clunkers, unlike in Nocturne's deliciously gaudy 1968 follow-up Hong Kong Rhapsody, which equips Peter Chen Ho with an ear-rending signature tune that, for all its royal badness, weirdly compliments the manic cheese-fest that it adorns. As for the dancing, its a bit surprising that a studio like Shaw, who was at the forefront of action choreography, would play it so safe when it came to plain old choreography choreography, but mostly what you get here is limited to lots of spokesmodel hand gesturing and standard variety-show pageantry. This would also vary according to who was being required to do the moves, be it the trained dancer Ching Pei Pei, or a less light-footed star like Betty Ting Pei, who you can practically see counting the beats in her head during some of the numbers in Inoue's 1971 film The Yellow Muffler. In any case, perhaps such restraint is for the best, because anything more audacious might distract from these film's musical numbers' true stars: their surreal sets, which often look like hidden wings of Barbie's dreamhouse rendered life-sized.

The Yellow Muffler (1971)

Most of Inoue's films have been released on Region 3 DVD as part of Celestial Pictures' Shaw Brothers collection. However, since Celestial discontinued their Shaw Brothers releases, I've noticed that some shops have started to clearance these titles, which means they might not be available much longer. So if Umetsugu Inoue's dizzying musical landscape looks like one you might like to explore, you might want to hop on the train sooner than later.

A dispatch from the boiler room

I finally got around to updating my Blogger template, so 4DK should be all the more navigable, thanks to features like a "labels" list and "older posts" and "newer posts" links at the bottom of the pages -- all things that I imagine you had come to expect years ago as being something that any normally functioning blog would have. What can I say? It's not that I don't care. It's just that I care more slowly than other people.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More Geetaa

I know I've been focusing on the Bollywood to the exclusion of pretty much all else this week, but I couldn't resist posting just one more clip from Geetaa Mera Naam. And this one not only gives us Feroz Khan punching people, swinging from vines, wooing both Sadhana and Helen, and feeding some monkeys, but also features an awesome song, "Mohabbat Hi Mohabbat", which has been stuck in my head for like a week. Check it out!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

International Crook (India, 1974)

I've yet to learn that the question "How could this possibly be bad?" is a dangerous one. Because there's almost always an answer. Still, watching the convolutions that a potentially awesome movie will go through in order to suck can be just as thrilling as watching the machinations of a finely crafted thriller unfold. There's no end to the level of ingenuity and the number of surprises that you will encounter.

In the case of the 1974 Bollywood film International Crook starring Dharmendra and Feroz Khan, the movie had three things very strongly in its favor: namely that it was a Bollywood film made in 1974, that it starred Dharmendra and Feroz Khan, and that -- probably most importantly -- it was called International Crook. All of these had me primed and ready for a dizzying tale of pleather-clad cads living a decadent criminal lifestyle accessorized by space-age underground lairs, day-glo lycra-clad nautch girls and curving plexiglass bars ornamented by gigantic bottles of Johnny Walker Red. Perhaps even Ranjeet would show up to model some horrific baby-size leatherwear of some kind.

But the problem is that, despite its 1974 date, most of International Crook appears to have been filmed a lot earlier -- by the look of the styles on display, and of Feroz and Dharmendra themselves, some time in the late sixties. Now, I don't know why, but apparently once this footage was shot, the production of International Crook was put on hold for a good long time. But for someone, the dream of International Crook never died, and at some much later point, Feroz Khan and Dharmendra were both brought in to complete the movie, though without anyone bothering to style their hair, clothes -- or, for that matter, their acting -- to match the footage already shot. The result is that you're presented with the curious spectacle of 1960s Dharmendra stepping into a car and then stepping out of it as 1970s Dharmendra, and of 1970s Feroz Khan talking on the phone to 1960s Dharmendra. Even the whole sensibility of the movie shifts randomly as a result, with Khan, playing a typically clean cut and upstanding 1960s police officer in a spic-and-span uniform for most of the movie, showing up at one point with shaggy hair and his shirt open to the navel to beat a confession out of a suspect Dirty Harry-style.

1960s Dharmendra and Feroz Khan in International Crook

1970s Dharmendra and Feroz Khan in International Crook

While all of this certainly adds an element of novelty to International Crook, I'm sad to say that it is merely just a symptom of a larger pattern of haphazard neglect evidenced in International Crook's overall half-assed construction. Still, the film does have a few things to recommend it. For one, there is the theme song, which goes like this:

Crook. Crook. Crook. Crook. Crook.
Crook. Crook. Crook. Crook. Crook.
International crook!

And which also includes the line, "If they had their way, they would even sell god!"

And then there is this rather remarkable outfit worn by Saira Banu (seen here with 1960s Dharmendra).

And 1960s Dharmendra's living room set, which is to die for.

Don't say you haven't been warned.