Monday, September 29, 2008

Bruce, Kung Fu Girls (Taiwan, 1977)

Wu Jiao Wa--given the courtly English title Five Pretty Young Ladies, and later rechristened with the nonsensical but paradoxically more descriptive Bruce, Kung Fu Girls--is another dose of amiable kung fu silliness from Polly Shang Kwan. It probably goes without saying that it has nothing to do with Bruce Lee, or anyone named Bruce, for that matter, so fans of Bruce Boxleitner are doomed to walk away from it disappointed.

In it, Polly portrays a kung fu instructor at a health spa who is recruited by her police superintendent uncle--along with four of her star pupils--to assist in tracking down a robber with the power of invisibility. Along the way she falls for a handsome young student (Lu Ming) who is responsible for creating the invisibility formula.

Despite its relatively brisk ninety minute running time, this is far from an exercise in lean filmmaking. There are comedic hijinks, pointless scenes of the girls frolicking and even a sequence in which Polly sings--or, at least, lip-synchs--a song. It also has the clear feeling of having been made up as the filmmakers went along, exemplified by the way it suddenly seems to shift to being all about the women having to guard the moon rock.

Man, the fucking moon rock. I remember being dragged to see that thing when I was a kid. For those of you that missed it: It was a rock. I'm sure I would have found it more worth waiting in that long line for if the thing had been guarded by a squad of hot Asian women in black leather hot pants. But, sadly, the past is written--and in these more sophisticated times, people can't be conned into standing in long lines to look at a rock, unless maybe it was in IMAX.

Anyway, because she is sparring with actual humans, rather than flying sharks or men dressed as lobsters, Polly really gets to show her stuff in the fight scenes, and they are uniformly good. That, the dopey concept (an early precursor to The Heroic Trio? Ummm, probably not), and the kinky outfits add up to making this either a classic for the ages or an enjoyably fluffy little time-waster. I'll let you decide.

The Black Rose strikes again, again

I originally wrote my review of Chor Yuen's The Black Rose for my website The Lucha Diaries back in November of last year. I then posted a revised version of it on Teleport City's Jet Set Cinema in March, though it ended up getting a bit buried. Now it's been posted as a full feature review over at Teleport City with the addition of a number of screen caps. That's all good with me, because, as far as I'm concerned, the film is a criminally under-recognized (in the West) classic of Hong Kong cinema that is also woefully unavailable, and, as such, it would be impossible for it to be over-hyped or exposed. Check out my full review here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Wow. The Mother of Tears really isn't very good, is it?

You know what I hate? I hate when the reviews for a highly anticipated film are nearly unanimous in their disappointment, and then, months later, when I finally get around to watching that film, it turns out that they're right. Who'd have thought?

That's not to say that The Mother of Tears isn't entertaining. It is, but something seems very wrong about that also. Bad Dario Argento movies are supposed to be boring and unwatchable, not enjoyably so. The Mother of Tears, on the other hand, comes to us stocked with so much pure cheese that you can't help sticking with it just to see how much more ripe it could possibly get. We're talking something that at times calls to mind risible straight-to-cable erotic thrillers from the nineties... or even (and this is the nuclear option, people) Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf.

Some items of note:

1. The witches who descend upon Rome in the aftermath of the Mother of Tears' resurrection, who look and act like the type of people you might have seen at a screening of Rocky Horror back in the day (That is, if you ever went to a screening of Rocky Horror. Which you never did. Ever.), and who are presented as being every bit as menacing as those people probably would've liked to have thought of themselves as appearing, even though they were obviously lame.

2. The fact that, while the entire population of Rome has been driven into a blood-lusting frenzy and are tearing one another to pieces in the streets, Asia Argento is still able to get a cab.

3. That the Mother of Tears, upon being brought back to life after her long slumber, apparently immediately ran out and got the worst pornstar boob job imaginable, making you wonder why they didn't just cast Jenna Jameson in the role.

Asia Argento, on the other hand, has lovely boobs, but they can only be appreciated--during the brief shower scene in which they are presented to us--in those few precious seconds before it sets in that this is a movie directed by her dad. Eeeewwww.

Asia, once again, proves herself every bit the dutiful daughter and, even though she's capable of much better in movies produced outside the influence of her family (her mother--and Dario's ex--Daria Nicolodi also appears in this film as the ghost of her murdered mother), returns to provide yet another awkward and unnervingly ungrounded performance at her father's bidding. Impressively, even this fails to reduce her quirky appeal, and her presence is another factor that keeps the movie engaging against the odds.

Seemingly deserted by his old sense of visual invention and poetry, the senior Argento seeks to make up the difference by delivering gore in surplus, but this only serves to undermine any sustained sense of mood he's trying to create. The notion of a mother driven by forces beyond her control to throw her own child off of a bridge has obvious horrifying possibilities, but when you go that extra Troma-like step of showing the baby dummy bouncing off an abutment on the way down, you've passed irretrievably into the realm of sick comedy.

And that closing shot, man...

So, yes, The Mother of Tears is definitely good for a laugh. But to say that about a film by the man who gave us Suspiria and Phenomena gives me no joy whatsoever.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A beacon in a sea of ignorance

From now on, I'm going to be using this blog alone as my source for information about mainstream Hollywood movies.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Biff Bang Dishoom!

"Holy writer's block, Turkish Batman! It looks like some kind of links post."
Shut your hole, Turkish Robin! Who asked you? And, yes, you're right: It's a links post. What can I say? I got nuthin'.

Nick over at has been doing an impressive job of spelunking to the depths of world pulp cinema, evidenced by his recent posting of a very detailed--and clip laden!--review of the typically copyright-flaunting Turkish superhero spectacle Bedmen Yarasa Adam.

Durian Dave, a notorious provocateur, has ignited yet another controversy over at his vintage Chinese cinema blog Soft Film with a photo of Hong Kong star Carrie Ku Mei and a certain Thai actor. What do you think, classic Thai cinema fans? Is that Mitr Chaibancha... or someone else? Even if you don't know, the post is worth checking out for the lead photo of Ku Mei in some kind of crazy Thai costumed hero picture. I think it's called Dark Heroine of the Distressingly Asphyxiating Looking Corset. Or something.

Over at Beth Loves Bollywood, Beth has posted a poll asking her readers to identify what they consider to be "foundation" masala films. For those of you less invested in all thing Bollywood, masala films are those sprawling, colorful entertainers made up of equal parts family melodrama, two-fisted action, romance, criminal intrigue, comedic hi-jinks and any other potentially crowd-pleasing element that could be squeezed into them that, while still made today, seemed to thrive especially in the seventies. So far the responses have been both fascinating and informative, and have resulted in numerous titles being added to my already bloated list of Bollywood must-sees.

And If you're interested in more on that subject, Rum offers a delightful travelogue of the various regions of Masala-land on her blog Roti Kapada Aur Rum.

While you're busy perusing the above, I'm going to be polishing up my upcoming Teleport City review of In The Dust of the Stars, an East German space opera that comes across like a combination of an episode of Star Trek, a Jess Franco film, and ABBA: The Movie. Intrigued? Of course, you are!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Here's looking at you

The subject of my latest Teleport City review is a film about a steely-eyed beauty driven by a molten core of white-hot rage; a woman who lashes out with sudden and devastating violence at all who dare cross her. No, it's not a Naomi Campbell biopic; it's Jailhouse 41, the second film in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, and you can read my full review here.

Flying Saucer Rock and Roll: Wahan Ke Log (India, 1967)

My dipping into the sixties Indian B movie well continues to yield rich rewards. That said, my latest watch, Wahan Ke Log, might have benefited from English subtitles, because the lack thereof made the more exposition-heavy middle section lag a bit. On the other hand, that might have been for the best, because it gave my brain a rest. Had Wahan Ke Log continued to deliver the volume of sheer face-rocking awesomeness that its opening act provided, I might not have survived. The combination of flying saucers, secret agents, mad scientists and a sci-fi themed go-go number featuring Laxmi Chhaya (the "Jaan Penechaan Ho" girl from Gumnaam, dude) is, after all, a lot to foist upon an easily excited man of my advanced years.

Flying saucers are terrorizing India, and CID agent Rakesh--played by golden age leading man Pradeep Kumar at the beginning of his late sixties slump--is put on the case. Apparently the Martians--as they identify themselves--are recruiting Earth scientists to assist in their evil plans, communicating with them through small flying discs that keep showing up out of nowhere. Chief among these human emissaries is the diabolical Anil, played by the film's producer/director, N.A. Ansari, who also played one of the numerous Mogambo red herrings in Maha Badmaash. Anil's first order of business is to eliminate Rakesh, and the two lovely femme fatales in his employ, Sofia and "Miss Margaret", are more than up to the task. I'm not sure who the actress portraying Sofia is (is it Nilofar?), but she's quite exquisite, and part of her seduce-and-destroy mission involves her doing an item number featuring a chorus line of guitar strumming white women. (I love the use of Caucasians as exotics; it's a nice bit of turnaround.)
Another scientist more reluctantly put into service of the invaders is the father of Sunita (Tanuja), Rakesh's girlfriend, and his recalcitrance eventually leads to the space-suited Martians kidnapping both him and his daughter. With the clock ticking, Rakesh must now locate the evil Anil and his intergalactic buddies' subterranean base of operations in order to save Sunita and thwart the Martians plan to... what, exactly? And are the Martians really Martians, after all? See Wahan Ke Log ("The Aliens") and find out. Or if, like me, you don't speak Hindi, see Wahan Ke Log and piece together as best you can what happened, cobbling together a patchy version of events that is probably rife with inaccuracies. Anyway, there are explosions. Yay!

I was really pleased by how generously Wahan Ke Log delivered upon its concept. There is even a climactic battle between the flying saucers and the Indian Air Force that's pulled off with all the technical flare of Plan 9 from Outer Space (though, to be fair, the flying saucer interior set and the full-sized mock-up saucer that are used are, production value-wise, leagues beyond Plan 9). Add to that all the sub-Bondian hi-jinks and N.A. Ansari walking around cackling like a low rent Dr. No and you have all of the ingredients for a deeply satisfying piece of pulp cinema, something that would make an excellent double bill with Santo contra la Invasion de los Marcianos. Hopefully someone will get around to putting this one out in a subtitled version so that it can enjoy the international cult status it deserves.

Fury of the Silver Fox aka Matching Escort (Taiwan, 1983)

As a kung fu star, Pearl Cheung Ling was less of a martial artist than an actress, and less of an actress than a comedian, and that probably only inadvertently. But whatever she was, you could be guaranteed that, whenever she appeared on screen, she'd be at the center of some fairly unusual goings on.

One of the problems with writing about the kind of movies that I do is that you very quickly run out of synonyms for "cheap" and "weird", and few films tax the vocabulary in that regard like Fury of the Silver Fox, the retitled American video release of the Pearl Cheung Ling vehicle Matching Escort. Directed by Pearl herself, the film is every bit as much of a head scratcher as her other auteur efforts Wolf Devil Woman and the nigh-unwatchable Dark Lady of Kung Fu (itself a remake of the Shaw Brothers' The Black Butterfly), in that it is a perfect storm of gore, terrible overacting, unhinged fantasy elements and painfully obvious wire work.

As the movie opens, we see Pearl's character as a child being chained into a pair of heavy cement boots. When she reaches adulthood, we will see that this has somehow honed her agility to the point where she can run across treetops and rivers as if she were, I don't know, suspended by some kind of wire or something. This skill will come in handy when an evil warlord slaughters her entire family and she is forced to flee for her life.

In the course of her flight, Pearl falls down a well and ends up in a psychedelic cave filled with gigantic poisonous flowers that's inhabited by a reclusive kung fu master. She begs the master to train her so that she can exact revenge for her family, and he eventually agrees. However, from what we see, this master's particular teaching method doesn't involve any actual physical training, but instead requires Pearl to eat poisonous mushrooms, bathe in magical vapors, and have caustic substances rubbed in her eyes. Once this abuse is over, she is ready for her mission, and it is one that involves much decapitation, head stabbing, throat slashing, and anything else that will result in the walls of cheap but highly bizarre looking sets being drenched in arterial spray.

Throughout all of this, Pearl Cheung Ling furiously mugs and over-gesticulates like some kind of live action cartoon character, and while you may not call it acting, it is--to me, at least--certainly endearing. It also helps Pearl to project a personality big enough to overcome any amount of lackluster English dubbing. This is a film that really doesn't benefit from translation--even if you do get to savor lines like, "I am the most tortured soul on this Earth!"--and if you can find it, I'd highly recommend going for the unsubtitled Chinese language version. Some things just transcend language, and the wonderfully wacked-out phenomenon that is Pearl Ling is definitely one of them.

Wait, behind you...urghh!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ape Girl (Taiwan, 1979)

Directed by Jackie Chan cohort Chi-Hwa Chen (Half a Loaf of Kung Fu), Ape Girl bears a title that, for an old school kung fu film, is refreshingly blunt and descriptive--something that the movie's US home video distributors remedied by rechristening it with the much more misleading appellation Lady Iron Monkey. Fung Ling Kam--who also appeared in Super Dragon and the Taiwanese Chor Yuen knock-off 36 Shaolin Beads--does indeed play a girl who is half human and half simian. Discovered cavorting in the forest by an old kung fu master and a pair of his bumbling disciples, she is taken back to the master's school, where her natural monkey-style fighting skills are honed to deadly perfection.

Now exactly why Kam's character, Ming Ling Shur, is half monkey is--at least in the cut of Ape Girl that I saw--never explained. It's not that she's just a feral child raised by monkeys in the Tarzan tradition. She actually looks like a monkey, right down to the tail. In fact, as portrayed by Fung Ling Kam, what she really is is a distaff version of the Monkey King from the classic Ming era novel Journey to the West, especially as he's portrayed in the popular Shaw Brothers adaptations of those novels made during the 1960s. Like that character, Ming Ling Shur is a formidable warrior who hides behind the demeanor of a sprightly prankster, her constant comic capering and scratching further belying her stealth and skill.

For its first half hour, Ape Girl plays out like a typical late 70s kung fu comedy, complete with goofy music and numbingly obvious physical humor, and it was only the novelty of its concept and the amusement provided by Fung Ling Kam's silly monkey make-up that kept me from giving up on it entirely. But then I found myself becoming at once drawn into the story and charmed by Kam's portrayal. Hopelessly at sea in the human environment she now finds herself in, and ostracized for her freakish appearance, Ming Ling Shur is so child-like and eager for acceptance that she is practically destined to become a pawn of any powerful interest unprincipled enough to exploit her. When she falls for a scheming prince (Sing Chen) who is determined to wrest the throne from his competing heirs, the wheels are set in motion. The Prince recruits Ming Ling Shur as his bodyguard, and cynically encourages her affections in order to insure that she unquestioningly employs her abilities toward the furtherance of his aims.

It is only after she has gone to great lengths to shed her simian appearance that Ming Ling Shur discovers that the Prince has been playing her for a fool. Needless to say, big time payback follows (after all, a monkey woman scorned...). Fortunately, her transformation from beast to beauty stopped short of ridding her of her tail, and that appendage ends up playing an interesting part in the action to follow.

I wasn't really able to find any information at all about Fung Ling Kam. If the internets are to be believed, she only appeared in a small handful of films. That's a shame, if true, because I really enjoyed her performance in Ape Girl. Being mostly physical in nature, it transcends the film's typically dire English dub job, and hits enough of the right notes of comedy and pathos to keep you invested in her character, as outlandish as she may be. That and an engaging story combine to make Ape Girl something of a minor gem, one that I imagine will provide a pleasant surprise to anyone who comes upon it hiding in the dollar bin.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Return of Mr. Superman (India, 1960)

Long before more notorious Bollywood interpretations of Superman there was Return of Mr. Superman, a no-budget feature written, produced and directed by Manmohan Sabir. Unfortunately for Sabir, there was also Superman, another take on the apparently not so-all-American-hero directed by Mohammed Hussain during the very same year, which, like Return of Mr. Superman, also featured Jairaj in the title role, in addition to Nirupa Roy. Sabir's film originally bore the same title as Hussain's, but after that film's producer, Ram Dayal--evidencing a very selective attitude toward the primacy of intellectual property rights--raised objections, Sabir changed it to the somewhat confusing moniker that it's known by today. I say "confusing" because Return of Mr. Superman is by no means a sequel, and devotes quite a lot of time to the retelling of the already oft-told tale of how the Man of Steel came to be.

But before that retelling, Return opens in classic Z movie fashion, greeting the audience with a deluge of miscellaneous stock footage that lasts a full seven minutes. Much of this is comprised of "savage nature" type scenarios in which animals are shown attacking one another in the wild, and, sadly, the VCD's lack of English subtitles prevents me from relating to you just how exactly the voice-over narration ties all of that into the story that follows. Once the film library has apparently been exhausted, we're shown how little Jai crash lands on Earth and is taken in by a kindly farmer who raises him as his own. In the following scenes depicting the early manifestations of Jai's nascent superpowers, audience expectations are lowered appropriately in preparation for the special effects-free anti-spectacle to come--this being a Superman film in which we don't get to actually see Superman fly until the very end, and then only very briefly. Young Jai, it seems, is able to wrestle children who are slightly older than him quite well, and also to cause a stock footage cobra to slither away by blowing at it. Oh, and there's also the X-Ray vision.

Jai, we'll see, never loses his baby fat, and grows up to be portrayed by Jairaj. Now a big city reporter, Jai spend his downtime romancing his comely office mate Usha--the film's version of Lois Lane played by Shiela Ramani--but when trouble rears its ugly head, dons his Superman garb and takes to... well the nearest anonymous-looking rural location for some pretty uninspiring fisticuffs with some amateurish stuntmen. Interestingly, Jai's super garb is comprised of an aviator's cap and goggles and coveralls, which makes this version of Superman look--if you'll allow me to go into Full Nerd for a moment--more like the World War II era comic book hero Spy Smasher. My guess is that this change is the result of a desire less to avoid infringing copyrights than to avoid the expense of making a Superman suit by just using whatever was at hand. Anyway, the villains here are that unstoppable scourge of India, smugglers, and, as Superman foes go, they're a pretty pedestrian lot--nowhere near the caliber of Lex Luthor, though certainly more appropriate to the downsized scale of this particular rendering of our hero.

From start to finish, Return of Mr. Superman's brims with visual evidence of poverty row production values, from the cramped cardboard sets to the aforementioned tendency to stage action sequences in indistinct open fields like in a low-end old school kung fu movie. Those action scenes, furthermore, are very few and far between--certainly much less that one might expect in a movie putatively concerned with Superman--and lead to a lot of padding in the form of long scenes of dialog, as well as quite a few musical numbers. The songs, credited to "Santosh-Bakshi-Kaif-Sabir", are mostly pleasant but unremarkable, though Jairaj and Ramani share an acappella number that is quite lovely and disarmingly sweet in its picturization. Choreography is, not surprisingly, bare bones--and those lured to this one by the promise of Helen will be disappointed. Despite most sources--including the VCD sleeve--crediting her as a performer, she's nowhere to be seen. (She is, I believe, in the Mohammed Hussain Superman film, which I think accounts for the confusion.)

Though the siren song of Return of Mr. Superman's novelty might be hard to resist, I'd file this one in the "Todd watched it so I don't have to" pile. It has its share of ramshackle charms, but I think you'll find that they've been stretched mighty thin by the end of the two hour running time.

Superman mocks your attempts to watch his movie.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Spy in Rome (India, 1968)

Mainstream Bollywood spy films of the sixties like Aankhen and Farz tried to wrestle the format of the Bond films into service of the typical "patriotic" film agenda, while at the same time pasting standard masala movie elements (family drama, comedic subplots, etc.) into the formula for good measure. 1968's Spy in Rome, on the other hand, comes off more like a straight-up Bond knock-off, though one saddled with some obviously pretty grievous budgetary limitations. We're definitely in B movie territory here, and if it's rough-edged, low budget thrills you're looking for (yes, please) Spy in Rome has more than enough to fit the bill.

Though the currently available VCD of Spy in Rome doesn't have English subtitles, the movie's plot falls squarely enough within the parameters of sixties spy movie 101 to qualify as international language. There is an Indian scientist, Dr. Sharma (Brahm Bhardwaj), who has developed a medical procedure which, in the opening scene, is demonstrated to transform a wizened old couple of 80 into a pair of dewy and dimpled twenty-somethings. There is an evil genius, Dr. Chang (K.N. Singh), who lives in a fab evil genius lair staffed by an assortment of minions in brightly colored radiation suits. He wants Dr. Sharma to assist him in creating a race of supermen, and has his foot soldiers kidnap the doctor when he won't come willingly.

Enter Indian super agent XX7 (Dev Kumar), who, once assigned to the case, travels to Rome--the ostensible location of Chang's hideout--with Sharma's beautiful daughter, Kamini (Jaymala), in tow. Following his supervillain manual to the letter, Dr. Chang sends forth wave after self-incriminating wave of henchmen with the mission of eliminating XX7, but the wily spy, quick of both wit and trigger finger, thwarts them at every turn. Perhaps not wanting to get too ahead of the curve, XX7 then sees fit to call for the assistance of an inept and bumbling comic relief assistant in the form of Agent 005 (Rajendra Nath). Hilarity ensues, followed by lots of other stuff.

Another aspect of Spy in Rome that renders subtitles fairly unnecessary is the fact that it's pretty much wall-to-wall action from start to finish. Even Laxmikant-Pyarelal's songs get short shrift, with only two picturizations over the course of the two hour-plus running time. Now, mind you, most of this action is shoddy and cheap-jack in nature, with liberal employment of obvious dummies and terrible rear projection, but that just serves to enhance the film's trashy charm. After all, when a Bollywood film of this vintage is struggling so mightily--and against such great odds--to provide the same thrill-a-minute pacing as an entry in the lavishly-appointed James Bond franchise, I'm willing not only to forgive sloppily staged fights and jerkily edited chase scenes, but to embrace them, especially when they're conducted with such spazzy enthusiasm.

Further keeping things interesting is a generous helping of silly fantasy elements, including an electrical collar that turns one of Dr. Chang's henchman into an indestructible superman, a machine that appears to produce lingerie-clad white women who emerge from it via slides, an evil swami with a levitating fez, and a statue that looks like the Cryptkeeper that can hypnotize people with its one glowing eye. Add to this an ambitious arsenal of Bond-style gadgets--laser-firing canes, exploding hats, bulky communicator rings, amphibious cars--and you have all the ingredients for an enjoyable evening of rinky-dink sub-Kommissar X level spy movie hokum.

If I weren't so well versed in Santo and Cantonese Jane Bond movies, some of Spy in Rome's cost-cutting measures might actually have drawn a gasp from me. For instance, there is one scene in which the captive Dr. Sharma is forced by Dr. Chang to watch a spectacle that the diabolical mastermind has staged in his honor, which turns out to be some stock footage of the Ice Capades with "Telstar" by The Tornadoes playing underneath it. Elsewhere, the producers cheat Laxmikant-Pyarlel out of an honest dollar by scoring much of the action with needle-dropped musical cues from Goldfinger. Sets in many places are of Plan 9 caliber (though, as mentioned above, Dr. Chang's lair is pretty sweet), with the mocked-up interior of the "helicopter" that Dev Kumar and Jaymala ride in during the climax being a standout.

Hulking and boney-faced, Dev Kumar wears a white suit well and acquits himself satisfactorily in the fight scenes, but looks just wrong enough for his suave superspy role to come off like some kind of malevolent alternate universe take on the archetype. Even more jarring is his enthusiasm for rough-handling the ladies, which is just too far afield from the mother-loving, good boy Bollywood heroes I'm used to for me to overlook it. True to its trashy roots, the film is actually quite violent--if in a predictably cheesy and wholly non-visceral way--and XX7, accordingly, is fitted with a sadistic streak a mile long, even literally rubbing salt in one of his enemy's wounds at one point. Of course, misogyny and cruelty of this type are rampant in the Western films that Spy in Rome is modeled upon, and the film can't be singled out for special censure just because it presented them with less judgment-clouding finesse.

The closing credits to Spy in Rome, further echoing the traditions of the Bond films, trumpet an impending further installment in the adventures of XX7 titled Operation America. So far I haven't been able to find any indication that Operation America was ever actually made, but, given the off-the-radar nature of these types of films, that's no reason to assume it wasn't. As my thirst for absurd sixties trash of this type is seemingly never slaked, you can rest assured that, if it's out there, I'll track it down.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Watermelon Monster is love

I'm planning to do a series of posts cataloging the crème de la crème of just plain effin' weird old school kung fu movies--and, to whet your appetite, I thought I'd post some clips from a few that are sure to be included.

Like, for instance, Taoism Drunkard:

Magic of Spell? Hells yeah.

Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave, you had me at....

Thursday, September 11, 2008

From The Lucha Diaries Vaults: Neutron contra los Automatas de la Muerte (Mexico, 1960)

Since this week's review fare seemed to tip largely toward the underwhelming, I thought that--for this installment of From The Lucha Diaries Vaults--I'd repost a review of a movie I actually enjoyed. In doing so, I inadvertantly stumbled upon the reason why Chunaoti and The Drifting Classroom both failed to live up to their potential: Neither of them featured a wrestling superhero who looked like a lighting bolt-adorned version of The Gimp from Pulp Fiction.


To be honest, I've been avoiding Neutron ever since watching his first film, Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro. As much as I like the old black & white, early 60s lucha movies, I found that particular one a bore, mainly because it featured a whole lot of talk and very little Neutron. Still, someone must have enjoyed Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro, because the character was brought back for no less than four more features. And that fact has made Neutron a little hard for me to avoid. Finally I decided to just suck it up, tuck in, and not come up for air until I'd watched the lot of them. My starting point was Neutron contra los Automatas de la Muerte.

Now, given that Los Automatas de la Muerte is one of those instant sequels, filmed back to back with the first film and with the same cast and crew (as was the next film Neutron contra el Doctor Caronte), I had little hope that I'd be seeing much variation from el Enmascarado Negro. But the happy fact is that, because Los Automatas de la Muerte starts right where El Enmascarado Negro left off, and the previous film did all of the hard work of establishing all of the characters and situations, Los Automatas de la Muerte has the luxury of dispensing with all of that and simply cutting to the chase, which it does in fine style.

Probably the best thing about Los Automatas de la Muerte is that it affords us ample opportunity to really savor the wonder and strangeness that is Neutron's nemesis, Dr. Caronte. As perfect a specimen of a hysterical megalomaniac as you could ask for, Caronte prowls his vast laboratory in an outfit that bespeaks of a certain career ambivalence, equal parts wrestling togs and surgeon's scrubs, affectionately leading his freaky uni-browed dwarf assistant Nick by the hand as he proclaims and declaims in a booming voice about his various dastardly designs.

Caronte needs lots of human blood in order to keep alive the collection of talking, disembodied brains--harvested from captured scientists--from whom he hopes to learn the secrets of the much coveted Neutron Bomb (which, as far as I can understand, is not a bomb that just kills Neutron, but more like a regular bomb, only better somehow). To do this he will use his army of Death Robots, a bunch of faceless, ape-like zombies in coveralls that Caronte appears to bake in giant pizza ovens.

Now, granted, there's not a lot here that we haven't seen before (well except for the robots being baked in pizza ovens, which is... well, holy shit), but the fact is, when something like this is done right, you really feel like you're watching a maniacal villain in a wrestling mask having a conversation with a roomful of disembodied brains harvested from kidnapped scientists for the very first time. And, what I'm saying is, Los Automatas de la Muerte really does it right. This is quite a well made film, exhibiting all of those qualities present in the most well-appointed and technically proficient of the early lucha films: Rich black and white photography, moody night-for-night shooting, and camera work that makes the most of some impressive and atmospheric set designs--basically the same Film-Noir-meets-Universal-monster-movie look we see in great early Santo films like Santo en Museo de Cera and Santo contra las Mujeres Vampiro.

On top of that, the action in Los Automatas de la Muerte is virtually nonstop--and always outlandish. My favorite scene has got to be the one in which a fleeing Death Robot, on the brink of being captured by Neutron and his pals, commits suicide by pulling off his own head. But there's a lot of competition in that department, especially when you have so many scenes featuring little freaky Nick scurrying around and barking orders at the Death Robots in a screechy, overdubbed voice (there really is something genuinely disturbing about the little dude).

Happily, the film ends on an uncertain note, cluing us in that Dr. Caronte and Nick will be back for the next installment (cluing us in further is the fact that the next installment is called Neutron contra el Doctor Caronte, so duh). That I'm actually looking forward to that, despite all of my initial ambivalence, is a testament to the amazing, life-transforming power of Neutron contra los Automatas de la Muerte.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Drifting Classroom (Japan, 1987)

Keith over at Teleport City has expressed a similar sentiment in the past, and while I don't mean to bite his style, it's one that I clearly share: I get no joy out of disliking movies. True, I've employed the lash with more than a few deserving turkeys in my day, but I've also found within many of those same films enough hidden virtues -- accidental or otherwise -- to make the time spent watching them seem worthwhile. You see, I think of myself as bringing to every movie I watch a predisposition toward liking it, and the tortuous internal bargaining that I sometimes have to go through in order to reach that goal is for me one of the pleasures of the movie watching experience. In the end, it's always about enjoyment. I'm not one to seek out a movie that I know is going to suck just so that I can get some hollow form of satisfaction out of feeling superior to the people who made it. That, to quote Porter, is my idea of nothing to do.

That said, I had an even larger than usual investment in wanting to like Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1987 film The Drifting Classroom. I really love Obayashi's debut film, Hausu -- so much so that I referred to it as a "masterpiece" in one of my posts and, in a corresponding Teleport City review, praised Obayashi for his daring vision. Having stuck my neck out in such a manner, I naturally would like to have Obayashi's subsequent films validate my assessment of him as being some kind of transgressive visionary. So far, though, no luck. The Little Girl Who Conquered Time was too stultifying to even bother writing about, and The Drifting Classroom is, in fact, so dismal that it tempts me to reconsider my judgment of Hausu altogether.

This is in part because Classroom actually shares many elements of Hausu: The oppressively kitschy sentimentality, broadly stereotyped characters, and naive special effects among them. But here Obayashi doesn't contrast those saccharine elements -- as he did in the earlier film -- with others that are disturbing in equal measure, but instead actually softens significantly the horrific elements of his source material. This leads me to suspect that the director, with Hausu, might not have been using those elements quite as sardonically and self consciously as I had originally thought. Instead, it may just be that Obayashi is just a crazy guy with really awful taste, and that Hausu is only so awesome due to a confluence of happy accidents.

The Drifting Classroom is based on the highly regarded horror manga of the same name by Kazuo Umezu, a source that could have provided Obayashi with plenty of instances of visceral horror to choose from had he chosen to go in that direction. The story involves an entire elementary school that is, for reasons unexplained, suddenly transported into a harsh, post-apocalyptic wasteland in the distant future. In the comic, what then transpires is a brutal power struggle involving adults and children alike in which some elements strain to achieve a semblance of civilized order while others surrender to savagery, paranoia and panic.

This is depicted in shocking detail in the manga's frames, with not even the youngest children being spared from either perpetrating or being on the receiving end of acts of violent cruelty (in this sense the Manga both follows in the footsteps of Lord of the Flies and prefigures Battle Royal). Obayashi, however, shies away from this aspect of the story (which also might be described as being, at least in part, the actual point of the story) and completely omits or tones down most of those incidents, instead seemingly trying to steer the narrative toward being more of a lightweight kids' adventure story along the lines of The Goonies.

But the decision that most hampers the film version of The Drifting Classroom was the baffling choice to change the setting from a typical Japanese elementary school to an international school where the students, regardless of nationality, all speak in English. This is not a crippling blow in itself, but when you factor in that most of this English dialog is being spoken by children who are obviously not professional actors -- and who, in many cases, are non-English speakers who appear to be reciting their lines phonetically -- you get some sense of how much of a liability this becomes. You also have to consider that all of this English dialog is crushingly terrible -- even when spoken by a pro like 1960s Hollywood heartthrob Troy Donahue, who plays one of the teachers:

HE: Penny for your thought? (pause) That means, if you tell me what you're thinking, I'll give you a penny.

SHE: What a nice expression!

I have often watched foreign films and wished that I could speak the spoken language, but The Drifting Classroom is the first film to make me wish I couldn't understand English. And this may be as it was meant to be, because I can't imagine that this dialog, as spoken, was meant to be understood by the film's intended audience. The film includes onscreen subtitles for all of it, after all, which I'm assuming allowed Japanese viewers to treat it as just so much aural ambience without it necessarily presenting an impediment to enjoyment of the film. For an English speaker, though, it's a real deal breaker, and renders the film, if not virtually unwatchable, virtually unlistenable.

Add to this that I couldn't even enjoy those whimsical visual flourishes of Obayashi's that I'd enjoyed so much in Hausu -- thanks to them here being unmoored from any ironic counterpoint that might have mitigated their unalloyed cheesiness -- and The Drifting Classroom comes up pretty much a complete bust. All in all, it was exactly the type of dispiriting exercise that I studiously try to avoid, and I would rather have spent the time wandering naked through the streets begging for someone to shoot me in the face.

But you know what? Fuck it. I still really like Hausu.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tuesday Feroz Khan two-fer: Chunaoti and Dharmatma

Chunaoti (India, 1980)

Chunaoti is another Feroz Khan/Danny Dezongpa curry western following in the bootprints of Kaala Sona and Khotte Sikkay. It also stars Dharmendra in what is billed as a "Dynamic Special Appearance". I think that means "In a wig". It also might mean, "Hey, Dharmendra has a break from that movie he's shooting across the way -- can we squeeze him into this one somehow?", because his character seems pretty superfluous and somewhat awkwardly tacked onto the proceedings.

This film definitely comes out the least in comparison to its aforementioned predecessors thanks to its pasted-together feel and some fairly anemic plotting. Basically, Feroz, Dharmendra and Neetu Singh are all out to get Danny Dezongpa's bandit character, Ajay Singh, and somehow manage to take two hours and forty-five minutes to do it, despite him not appearing all that elusive or inaccessible. Of course, a simple story like this can be satisfying when fleshed out with interesting character development and relationship arcs -- but, sadly, Sholay this is not.

Feroz here plays a pious, teetotaling bounty hunter, which is a lot less fun than the hard-drinking, hellraising Feroz so readily available in other masala movies from this period. Just how saintly is he? Well, pilgrim, he's so saintly that all the proceeds from his man-hunting go toward the upkeep of an orphanage built with his own sweat and blood (as well as, I imagine, some more conventional building materials -- not that I mean to cast doubt upon the mortar-like hardiness of Feroz's manly secretions). This orphanage provides the film with a Mr. India-like surfeit of cloyingly adorable urchins for the purpose of further demonstrating what a great guy Feroz is. One of the orphans is named "Chimpu", which is cool because, you know.. ha ha! Chimpu!

Rounding out the cast, Dharmendra -- in a wig, remember -- plays a reformed bandit who is trying to make an honest living farming the land and Neetu Singh plays a sort of Annie Oakley character out to get revenge for the murder of her parents. On the plus side, the two-fisted, tough girl role affords Neetu the opportunity to dole out a good share of the dishoom dishoom, which is pretty entertaining. Also, the fact that Danny Dezongpa and his female second-in-command are both masters of disguise adds a cool Fantomas-like touch to their otherwise pretty rote villain portrayals. Still, on the whole, the film is pretty forgetta... wait, what was I talking about?

Dharmatma (India, 1975)

Feroz Khan's directing debut, Dharmatma, is the actor's re-imagining of The Godfather, and, as such, corrects for Francis Ford Coppola's oversight in not including any motorcycle stunts in the original. The similarities to Dharmatma's source material are easy to see, as long as you can imaging a version of The Godfather in which Michael Corleone spends the middle third of the movie in Afghanistan chasing around gypsy girls and fighting with Danny Dezongpa.

This aforementioned middle act was, admittedly, a bit slow going for me, but once Feroz gets back to India and is seeking revenge for his father's murder by a rival gang we kick into exactly the type of non-stop, crazy action that the director/star delivered so plentifully in his classic Qurbani. Backing up Feroz in this endeavor is none other than Dara Singh himself in a very-special-guest-starring turn as the Godfather's chief enforcer. The highlight for me, however, was Ranjeet and Sudhir playing hitmen for the rival gangleader (Jeevan), cousins who wear a breathtaking range of matching outfits -- from baby-sized black mesh shirts to aqua sportsjackets worn over bare chests. Ranjeet alone is enough of a sartorial sideshow for any movie, so just imagine him in duplicate.

*Poster image from

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Weng Weng vs. Master Raju!

In the world series of love? No, ewww, that's gross. I just wanted to post their photos next to each other. So sue me.

Seriously, though, the only difference between Weng Weng and Master Raju is that Weng Weng is slightly more leathery and Master Raju is maybe--just maybe--an actual child. Aside from that, pretty much exactly the same person. I rest my case.