Friday, October 31, 2008

Boxer (India, 1965)

The credits of the Dara Singh B feature Boxer, apropos of the title, roll over a montage of boxers in the ring. At their conclusion, we're treated to a scene of a match in which Dara, playing an up-and-coming young fighter, goes at and ultimately defeats an opponent. At this point, one could reasonably assume that he or she has been delivered into a standard issue sports melodrama, and can safely look forward to a comfortably lived-in feeling narrative in which Dara's character, through sheer grit and determination, fights his way up from the bottom to the very top of the fight game, perhaps encountering along the way such familiar pitfalls as racketeers pressuring him to take a fall or disapproving loved ones who'd rather he became a doctor or violinist.

However, the fact that Dara's character is a boxer ends up being so incidental to Boxer's story that the film's title could rightly be seen as a canny exercise in misdirection. Soon after we're introduced to him, Dara boards a plane bound for Australia, the site of an upcoming, much ballyhooed match with the reigning champ. In flight, he makes the acquaintance of a beautiful stewardess (I think you'll agree, after seeing how these female "flight attendants" are presented, that the sixties parlance is more appropriate here) played by his frequent co-star, Mumtaz. No sooner have they gotten cozy than the plane goes down in a dizzying collage of mismatched stock footage. Dara and Mumtaz, apparently the only survivors of the crash, find themselves stranded in the jungle and are soon captured by a band of grunting movie savages. Dara is forced to wrestle the leader of the savages to protect Mumtaz's honor (there may not be a lot of boxing in Boxer, but, being a Dara Singh movie, you can rest assured that there's an awful lot of wrestling) and wins, and is made king of the savages as a result.

Meanwhile, back at home, things are really going to shit. Dara's blind sister, thanks to a sight-restoring operation that Dara has devoted all of his winnings toward paying for, regains her sight only to see their mother drop dead from shock at the news of Dara's crash. A kindly friend of the family then takes her in, but when that friend's wife voices objection to the girl's presence, a fight ensues and the friend accidentally kills his wife. With her mother dead and her brother presumed so, and her other source of support now thrown in the slammer for the foreseeable future, the abject young girl hits the road, ultimately ending up in a brothel where she is forced to take up the debased profession of nautch girl to make a living. At the same time, the two small-time hustlers turned promoters who have been steering Dara's career are run out of town by their creditors after Dara's failure to appear at the Australian bout. As fate would have it, they also end up in the same town as Dara's sister and, after seeing the girl dance, hire her to be the main attraction in the carnival they are creating, completely unaware of her relation to the fighter they had hitched their fortunes to.

Meanwhile, Dara and Mumtaz escape from the jungle by boat and end up on a desert island where they must flee on horseback from a murderous band of Arab bandits. Once they have reached safety, they collapse by a river bank, where they are found by an expatriate Indian professor who nurses them back to health. Dara then asks the professor to stage a wrestling match so that he and Mumtaz can use the prize money to pay for their return trip to India. One very long wrestling sequence later, the pair are back in India, and Dara has before him the task of figuring out what the hell happened to his family. Somehow they end up making their way to the carnival, and during the course the show, not only does Dara recognize his sister, but Mumtaz recognizes her long-lost sister among the dancers as well. Finally, all that is left is for Dara to settle the hash of the two promoters, who, though I thought they were just meant to be comic ne'er-do-wells, turn out to actually be evil, murderous rogues. A protracted brawl ensues, which makes ample use of all the hostile potentialities presented by rickety carnival rides.

Boxer's plot is so sprawling and convoluted that I imagine, if director Radhakant had left the production for some reason midway through filming and had been replaced by Manmohan Desai, that master of masala excess would have been all like, "Woah, we need to reign this thing in here!" This is especially surprising given the movie's poverty row pedigree, as Bollywood's B movies, in my experience, are generally a lot more simplistic and straightforward in their plotting than are its A features. On top of this--and in addition to all the wrestling--the movie, which features a score by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, contains a whole lot of musical numbers, including one in which Mumtaz shimmies to the modern sounds of Ted Lyons and His Cubs and another orientalist novelty featuring my new favorite item girl, Bela Bose. (Thanks, by the way, to reader Michael Barnum for identifying that actress in his comments to my Wahan Ke Log review.) The result of all of this is that Boxer is a thoroughly compelling, if somewhat vexing, viewing experience. There's a careening, off-the-rails randomness to its machinations that simply renders you unable to tear your eyes away from it.

I expected that Dara would eventually make his way back into the ring for a climactic fight, but closing the narrative circle in such a manner seems to have been something those behind Boxer deemed not worth bothering with. This is no doubt for the best, because, by this point, Dara's pugilistic exploits would have been rendered somewhat pedestrian by the death-defying, globe-trotting adventures we've been watching him undertake over the course of most of the film. Still, the result is that Boxer ends up being a boxing film whose relationship to its putative subject matter is so absurdly tangential that you have to wonder why the connection was even attempted. Was it just a matter of boxing films being popular in India in 1965? Whatever the case, it's of little importance, because, whatever Boxer is--and I'm not even going to hazard a guess in that direction--it can't be denied that the experience of watching it is, if not a knock-out, than, at least, a real kick in the head.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Italian Superhero Roll Call: Argoman

Fantastic Argoman aka The Incredible Paris Incident (1967) Dir. by Sergio Grieco. The body is weak, but Italian Superhero Roll Call will not be denied. And so I bring you Fantastic Argoman. This is actually one of the best of the sub-Diabolik Italian comic book movies of its day, graced with snappy pacing, a breezy satirical tone, a colorful production design, and pretty darn respectable production values considering the scattered telltale signs of a fairly modest budget. Helmed by Sergio Grieco, director of a number of superior Eurospy efforts (including the 077 entry Special Mission Lady Chaplin), the film presents exactly the kind of fantasy-driven, enclosed reality you hope for with this kind of movie, complete with a psychedelic supervillain lair staffed with robots and costumed goons, a plethora of goofy looking superweapons, and, for the hero, a futuristic bachelor pad that makes the interior of Barbarella's spaceship look like that of a modest bungalow. The only place where the movie falls short is in the Argoman costume itself, which is about the saddest looking thing you've ever seen--a circumstance which may explain why the script is structured to allow star Roger Browne to perform a good deal of his heroics out of costume. After all, Browne is a damn good looking man, and Argoman looks, well, stupid.

Fantastic Argoman is, in part, a spoof of an earlier Italian superhero film, 1966's Superargo versus Diabolicus, which was popular enough to spawn a 1968 sequel, Superargo and the Faceless Giants. I have yet to conjure the spiritual fortitude to cover the Superargo films in Italian Superhero Roll Call. This is because they are a textbook example of that unique Italian ability to combine elements that sound like surefire excitement (Costumed superheroes! Mad scientists! Espionage! Wrestling!) into films that are as dull as watching beige paint dry while eating a jack cheese on white bread sandwich and listening to an endless loops of hits by the group Matchbox 20. (They're really dull.)

Like Superargo, Argoman has telekinetic powers and an Indian mystic for a sidekick, but the similarities pretty much end there. Argoman is a lot less solemn in his pursuit of justice, for one thing, and is even not above dabbling on the other side of the law, an attribute that makes him kin to such fumetti anti-heroes as Kriminal and Diabolik. His criminal exploits are not so much a matter of maintaining a living as they are a result of his taste for the finer things in life, which is exemplified by the fact that he has the original Mona Lisa prominently displayed on the wall of his home. (Why return it, he reasons, when the public seems perfectly happy with the copy he replaced it with?) Another thing that separates Argoman from Superargo is a story gimmick by which he loses his powers for six hours after having sex--a state of affairs which proves to be quite problematic, because Argoman, he really like-a the ladies.

Argoman's alter ego is a foppish aristocrat by the name of Sir Reginald Hoover, who, when he's not out stealing priceless masterpieces or chasing down super criminals, spends his days lounging around in the aforementioned super-swank pad on his own private island. He is roused from his lazy routine of slo-mo bacchanalian revelry, however, with the appearance on the scene of a flamboyant female criminal mastermind referring to herself as Jennabelle, the Queen of the World (Dominique Bochero). Jennabelle, it seems, is after a freakishly gigantic diamond in the possession of the French government which has mysterious destructive powers. Because her criminal methods are similar to that of Argoman (as a way of announcing herself to the world, she steals the Crown of St. Edward from the Tower of London), a characteristically baffled Scotland Yard calls upon the aid of Sir Reginald, due to his known association with the costumed anti-hero. Of course, before moving on to her main endeavor, Jenabelle first personally sees to it that she gets that six hour head start on Argoman.

Putting the tasty Italian icing on the deliciously daffy slice of cheesecake that is Fantastic Argoman is a typically ebullient score by the great Piero Umiliani, who also did the honors on Goldface, the Fantastic Superman. This, of course, consists of lots of enthusiastic wordless vocalizing by a mixed gender swing chorus, and if you'd like to sing along at home, the theme tune goes as follows:

Bwa-dap daaaa!
Bwa-dy-ya bwap daa!
Bai-yap dap dada dai-yap dap doo-waaah!
Or, if you really need actual words, you can sing these alternate lyrics that I composed myself:

Keep it in your pants!
Or else you cannot save the world todaaaay!
Anyway, I imagine it's pretty obvious that I like this movie, so I won't go into any further detail, other than to say that it's one I'd recommend, not only to those who enjoy this kind of wacky sixties superhero caper, but also to those who enjoy those entries on the more colorful and phantasmagorical end of the Eurospy genre. In fact, hell, I'd recommend this movie to anybody. And if you don't like it, you need to figure out why, because the problem's obviously with you, buddy.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Yog-Sothoth: Superstar

With The Dunwich Horror, American International decided to sex up H.P. Lovecraft for today's swinging youth. ("Today", in this case, being 1970.) Paradoxically, they also decided that the lead actors best suited to generating the desired heat and steam were former Gidget star Sandra Dee and former child star turned ferret-y one-man creepshow Dean Stockwell.

Read my full review at Teleport City.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

More movies I watched while I was sick

Here's another one of those posts--the type that I excel at, if I do say so myself-- that will have you asking yourself why in the hell you read this blog in the first place. Why in the hell, for instance, would you want to read a bunch of half-assed capsule reviews of movies I watched while I was sick--keeping in mind that I was so drugged up and swathed in self pity while watching them that any observations about them I might make would be highly suspect and riddled with inaccuracies?

I'm okay with such questions, though, because blogging about obscure genre movies that no one in their right mind cares about isn't always about the answers. Sometimes its about shining the light of interrogation back upon the reader, and perhaps, in the process, providing an opportunity for both of us to learn a little more about ourselves. Or, on the other hand, perhaps it just provides an opportunity for you to piss away another few minutes you could've otherwise spent working. Either way, I'm good.

The Bat (US, 1959). Crane Wilbur's snappy take on this Depression era "old dark house" favorite" (previously brought to the screen by director Roland West in both 1926 and 1930) is one of those intermittent glimmers of light that encourages slaves of the Mill Creek 50 Movie Pack like myself to continue the slog despite the overwhelming argument those massive compendiums of public domain mediocrity provide for doing exactly the opposite. Slick, witty and impressively lean, with a slew of game and engaging performances by a cast that includes Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, this one's a perfect rainy day entertainer. Moorehead plays a successful mystery author who rents an old mansion only to find that its owner has stashed somewhere within it a fortune in embezzled funds. A number of suspicious characters begin to make their presence known, and when a masked figure known as The Bat begins to roam the halls, killing anyone who comes between him and his quest for the loot, Moorehead resolves to get to the bottom of things. Moorehead's character, Cornelia van Gorder, is a hoot, and I enjoyed seeing such a calmly authoritative, fiercely intelligent middle-aged female character being placed at the center of a film of this type. In fact, Gorder and her loyal maid, Lizzie (Lenita Lain), end up coming across like a sort of female Holmes and Watson. Recommended.

Hero's Blood (??). Most sources list this as a Malaysian movie made in 1991, except for the Hong Kong Movie Database, which lists it as a South Korean movie made in 1970, which is what it looks like. In any case, it's an odd and interesting little film, though one that will disappoint anyone expecting the type of chop-socky movie its dollar dvd packaging suggests. Basically a sort of Harlequin romance in wuxia trappings, it tells the story of a noblewoman who suffers a series of love affairs that end in tragedy. Eventually, she ends up as a sort of black widow figure, luring unsuspecting men to her foreboding mansion, only to seduce them and have them executed by her minions. This all goes swimmingly for a while, until an assassin sent by a rejected suitor from her past arrives at her door, and the two fall deeply in love. Not great, but somewhat surprising, and nice to look at.

The Exterminating Angel (Mexico, 1962). Despite this being a long-time favorite, and a staple of my nascent ventures, during my surly and pretentious post-adolescence, into film snobbery (thanks to countless screenings at theaters such as San Francisco's Strand, Castro and Roxy, not to mention the old UC Theater in Berkeley), it had been quite a while since I watched this Bunuel masterpiece. My prolonged confinement to the couch gave me the opportunity to check out the barebones Arrow DVD of it that I purchased a while back. What struck me anew about the film was the novelty of seeing such lucha movie regulars as Claudio Brook (Santo in the Wax Museum, Neutron vs. the Death Robots) and Augusto Benedico (Santo vs. the Vampire Women, Santo vs. the King of Crime) in a recognized classic of arthouse cinema (and at the same time demonstrating what fine and versatile actors they both were). Beyond that, The Exterminating Angel still packs the same jagged punch. Wickedly, acidly hilarious, yet at once viscerally horrifying, this is a work borne of undiluted rage that blossoms into a thing of dark, convulsive beauty.

The Guy From Harlem (USA, 1977). Actually, I only made it through about a third of this one. While I wouldn't normally review a movie that I hadn't watched all the way through, The Guy From Harlem really seemed to merit being flagged for the benefit of anyone who might stumble upon it unwittingly. To give you some idea of the territory we're in here, many of the reviewers who've written it up on IMDB have chosen to bring out the big guns and single it out as "The Worst Movie of All Time", or words to that effect. To me, that phrase is a sort of critical nuclear option, and not one that I feel I have enough of a breadth of film knowledge to ever apply authoritatively. That said, asserting that The Guy From Harlem, if hypothetically subjected to a meticulous and thorough process in which it was compared to every single example of narrative cinema ever produced since the invention of the medium, would probably not emerge as quite the absolute worst is pretty much the only positive thing that I can say about it. This Florida-produced piece of nada-budget blaxploitation is the type of movie that anyone who thinks Plan 9 From Outer Space represents the worst the medium has to offer really need to spend some quality time with. As those most dedicated to mining the depths of trash cinema know, incompetence can be married to a number of other attributes--enthusiasm, delusion, vision, the habitual use of cleaning solvents as inhalants--and produce winning results. It is only when incompetence is married to those twin devils of apathy and imaginational poverty that you get the kind of bottom level, unwatchable, flat-out badness that is exemplified here. Does that mean that I won't be tackling those final two thirds of The Guy From Harlem sometime in the near future? Ah, if that were only the case.

Deadly Duo (Hong Kong/Taiwan, 1978). Don't even ask me what this one was about, because I watched it at the height of my medication-induced stupor. I do remember that it provided a great showcase for Angela Mao's fighting skills, though, which is all that I was really looking for. Now, why I wanted to watch this particular type of entertainment at a time when my own body felt like a liberally employed punching bag raises issues I'd care not to discuss. Let's just say that it speaks to my complexity.

Jeepers Creepers (US, 2001). Mac and PC go on a road trip in this extended Apple promo. However, the PC we encounter here is not the self-effacing, passive-aggressive doughboy we've grown accustomed to welcoming into our homes, but an earlier incarnation in the form of a snarky teenage girl whose lips are poised to issue the word "buttmunch" at the slightest provocation. As a result, the banter between the two brands is of a much more shrill nature than what we've become used to. Finally--and mercifully--the two encounter a third, much more efficient model that ends up cannibalizing them for parts. Where do I line up to get that one?

Seriously, I'd heard that this one was better than average for a modern American horror picture, and it is. There are some good scares, some real surprises, and a resolutely downbeat ending just like they used to do in the good old days. The film loses big points, though, for its inclusion of a magical black person, which is my absolute least favorite modern Hollywood convention.

Afraid to Die (Japan, 1960). I love Yasuzo Masumura's Giants & Toys, but my further forays into that director's filmography have brought me close to concluding that I'm not really much of a fan of his work as a whole. While I always end up admiring his style, movies like Blind Beast, Black Test Car and now Afraid to Die just don't end up leaving me with much in the way of a lasting impression. In this film, legendary cultural fetish Yukio Mishima takes the lead as a young Yakuza who, upon his release from prison, is hunted down by members of a rival faction eager to settle an old score. Now I'm not one of those people who think that, in order for a movie to be good, you have to "care" about the characters, but I admit that, as portrayed by Mishima, the character Takeo presented a real stumbling block to my involvement in Afraid to Die. He's thick-witted, cowardly, and prone to using his girlfriend as a punching bag, and Mishima doesn't give us enough of a sense of anything going on beneath the surface for us to have any concern over what fate may hold for him. For anyone drawn by the novelty of seeing Mishima onscreen, I'd instead recommend watching Black Lizard, in which the author doesn't have nearly as much to do, but looks marvelous, which is really what's most important, right?

They Live By Night (USA, 1948). Nicholas Ray's debut feature shows the director in full command of his distinctive style right out of the gate. A touching love story set in an unforgiving noir universe, Night captures an emotional moment so fragile that it seems to exist within the space of a single suspended breath. Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell play the doomed innocents who discover love only after fate has erased any chance of them being able to live a normal life together, and both performances are revelatory. That's saying a lot in the case of Granger, who, for me, is usually the type of actor who is just there, at best. To tell you the truth, I don't know why I'm even writing about this one. There are plenty of other bloggers out there who will tell you that this is a classic, and I could better dedicate this space to something like, oh…

Shaolin Death Squad (Taiwan, 1978). I'm not ashamed to admit that I prefer my Polly Shang Kwan vehicles cheap, crude and weird. That said, there's probably nothing wrong with this movie at all. It's just that, to me, it came off as a little too staid; a Shaw-lite wuxia with a lot more complex plotting than I was willing to dedicate my attention to in my compromised state. Had it contained some lobster warriors or a flying-shark-launching palanquin, I might have been more forgiving.

And then I watched this one where Parveen Babi gets
chased around by a sasquatch... Hey, where is everybody?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Inkaar (India, 1977)

Kurosawa's High and Low is, hands down, one of my very favorite films of all time, so it's only natural that I would be all over this Bollywood remake starring Vinod Khanna as soon as I learned of its existence. Director Raj N. Sippy and screenwriter Jyoti Swaroop stick fairly close to their source material here, only really mixing things up with the introduction of a two-fisted, take-no-prisoners police detective in the person of Khanna's Inspector Amar Gill, who provides quite a contrast to the super-efficient but relatively faceless group of law enforcement functionaries in Kurosawa's version. The effect is to combine the Japanese master's sprawling, Dickensian social drama--an examination of those inevitable points where the various strata of society, giving the lie to their façade of mutual exclusivity, meet and fret like overlapping tectonic plates--with a Dirty Harry style police actioner, a marriage of disparate elements that ends up being surprisingly successful.

The story, adapted from the Ed McBain novel King's Ransom, concerns a wealthy chief executive of a shoe company (Shreeram Lagoo) who, faced with the threat of ouster by a rebellious board of directors, is on the verge of a dramatic takeover of the company using borrowed company funds. Before he can complete the stock purchase, however, he receives word that his son has been kidnapped, with the abductors setting the ransom at the exact amount needed for the buyout. It turns out that the kidnappers have made a major mistake, however, and rather than snatching the executive's son Guddu (Master Rajesh), have instead ended up with Bansi (played by uncanny Weng Weng doppelganger Master Raju), the son of the exec's faithful chauffeur. Once this is established, the exec initially refuses to pay the ransom, but is soon driven by his conscience to change his mind, thus putting the financial future of the company he has struggled to build from the ground up in serious jeopardy. His only hope is that Inspector Gill (Khanna) and his men can track down the culprit, a disgruntled former employee named Raj Singh (Amjad Khan), and recover both the child and the money before it is too late.

Inkaar's close adherence to its model makes for a much grittier type of crime film than you'd typically see coming out of Bollywood in the 70s. The underworld that its bad guys inhabit is a far cry from the glamorous demimonde of other such films, exemplified by the fact that Amjad Khan's hideout, rather than the lavishly appointed lair we're used to seeing him kitted out with, is nothing more than a dingy bungalow--and his haunts, rather than those gaudy monuments to decadence that usually stand in for the underworld denizens' habitats of choice, are simply squalid little dives (one of which plays host to a wonderful and appropriately debauched item number from Helen). Furthermore, this is a Bollywood crime film in which we get to see detectives doing actual detective work--though, of course, not at the expense of them also doling out a liberal amount of the dishoom dishoom--which is quite striking. That, combined with a generous amount of grimy urban location shooting, gives Inkaar an exhilarating feeling of authenticity that makes it really stand out from other contemporary examples of its genre.

At times, Inkaar's makers see fit to simply follow Kurosawa's film shot-for-shot, such as in the tense and haunting sequence in which the executive makes delivery of the ransom by tossing it from a moving train to the kidnapper's emissary standing on an embankment below. It's hard to argue with this choice, because to do anything otherwise would be an attempt to improve upon perfection. What's important is that, whether sticking close to the template or veering from it, the creative team creates a consistent look that never undermines the forward momentum of the narrative or jars with the maintenance of cohesive tone. Finally, credit also has to go to Rajesh Roshan for his instrumental score, a tense funk built on reverbed-out, staccato guitar jabs that Kalyanji Anandji would have been proud to put their names on.

A Bollywood remake of High and Low is, by its nature, guaranteed to be such a completely different animal that any qualitative comparison between it and its inspiration would be largely pointless. Suffice it to say, however, that Inkaar has far from replaced the original in my heart. Still, to my mind, it is something of an ideal remake; respectful of the original, but at the same time adding enough of its own elements to enable it to stand alone. It's a solid example of 70s Bollywood action cinema at its best, and one that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of whether or not they'd seen the classic film it was modeled upon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

And then there was time...

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I have a pretty formidable stack of yet-to-be-viewed media sitting by my TV, comprised of various region DVDs, gray market DVD-Rs, countless dollar store two-fer discs, unsubtitled VCDs from an assortment of exotic countries, and even the odd VHS tape. Often I look at this stack and think, "If there was only time." But, alas, the requirements of work, maintaining meaningful relationships with other human beings, and the brute mechanics of sustenance have, until recently, kept me away from my dream of endless hours of uninterrupted viewing. What I needed, it turned out, was to contract a respiratory illness that would knock me flat on my ass for a period of weeks, leaving me no other choice but to lie in a half-conscious state of forced spectatorship from dawn to dusk. Never mind that I would be both too absorbed in my own misery and too doped up on various medications to comprehend a lot of what I was seeing. The point was to finally chip away at that stack and eventually, of course, share the fruits of that experience with you in the form of a series of half-baked capsule reviews full of questionable insights and no doubt erroneous detail. Here, now, are the first of those, focusing exclusively on the Bollywood films I watched during my convalescence, with the rest to follow.

Bond 303 (India, 1985). A fairly trashy Bond knock-off starring Jeetendra as CID Agent Bond 303 (honest, that's how he refers to himself), Parveen Babi in a good girl/bad girl double role, and Prem Chopra as the baddie. Sadly, the high point for me was probably a low point in the tragedy-marred career of Parveen Babi: a scene in which the actress is chased around a mad scientist's laboratory by a fellow in a screamingly awful sasquatch costume. All in all, a pretty painful exercise that rewards low expectations with a few instances of transcendent cheesiness, and also hits all of the required genre touchstones (most notably, the big bad guy base that go-a kaboom at the end) with the expected low level of ambition. Remarkably, still much better than A View to a Kill.

Jangal Mein Mangal (India, 1972). A film notable for featuring Pran in multiple roles, among them a hippy, a beardy college professor, an old lady, and, in the film's most egregious example of type casting, a gnarled piece of driftwood in the shape of a manatee. Two groups of students on a field trip in Southern India, one male and one female, cavort around endlessly and without point, with a cloaked figure in a skull mask occasionally showing up to make things interesting by killing someone. I would only recommend this one to Pran completists, of which I'm sure there are many.

Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (India, 1952). Homi Wadia's adaptation of this classic tale was the absolute perfect film to watch in my recumbent state. It has a comforting patina of age, a familiar story, and, thanks to fantastic imagery rendered via charming old school special effects, a dream-like feel that's perfect for taking in while drifting in and out of consciousness.

Lalkar (India, 1972). World War II adventure set in a Bollywood version of the 1940s in which everyone dresses like it's the 1970s. Dharmendra and Rajendra Kumar are brothers who are both in the Indian armed forces, D as an Army commando and Rajendra as an Air Force pilot. Rajendra is shot down and captured while on a mission to bomb a Japanese airstrip just over the border with Burma and Dharmendra is sent in with a small commando unit to rescue him. Mala Sinha plays the woman that both men are in love with, and the adorable Kumkum (for my money, the best part of the movie) plays a tribal princess whose love for Dharmendra drives her to play a heroic part in the climactic raid. Enjoyable 1970s action silliness with plenty of the dishoom dishoom, exploding model airplanes, red paint gore, and an OTT evil Japanese general with an eye patch played by an obviously non-Japanese actor. Capped off with yet another great Kalyanji Anandji score that features a particularly nasty little number by Kumkum (something about her resisting her lover "all night long" or something).

Hanabari (India, 1952). A Bengali mystery/horror film concerning an old mansion "haunted" by a guy in a gorilla suit. Astute viewers of Scooby Doo will suss out early on that the "monster" is actually no such thing, which makes watching the rest of the cast's ponderous efforts to get to the bottom of things a chore by even the most charitable standards. Basically an old-fashioned parlor mystery with most of its action relegated to two sets, this one has its odd moments of artfully established creepyness, but ultimately taxes more than it rewards.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Among the living (more or less)

Sorry I haven't posted for a while. It appears that I've succumbed to something called the Pneumonia, which involves spending long days in bed drifting in and out of consciousness while delving into dark reaches of those Mill Creek 50 Movie Packs I never thought I would go (only to lapse into disturbing fever dreams involving George Zucco). It's also given me the opportunity to half-watch a number of those discs in the pile that I've been avoiding over the past months, and I will half-review those that I half-remember when I return to full lucidity. In the meantime, please enjoy this musical interlude:

Monday, October 6, 2008

Teleport City review: Battle Beneath the Earth

They're down there, crawling around like ants. Can't you hear them? JUST LIKE ANTS, I TELL YOU!

Read my full review at Teleport City.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lootera (India, 1965)

It's time to dip once again into the filmography of that other professional wrestling champ turned 1960's B movie star--the one who's not from Mexico and doesn't wear a mask--Dara Singh. 1965's Lootera was produced by Raj Kumar Kohli, who, as a director, would later give us the colorful fantasies Nagin and Jaani Dushman (as well as, most recently and notoriously, Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani), and boasts production values a bit more on the lavish side than those of the other Dara Singh vehicles I've watched. There are a number of opulent sets, and the whole business is rendered in glorious Eastman Color.

In fact, this film has a great deal in common with yet another colorful fantasy film made years later, Manmohan Desai's Dharam Veer. As with that film, Lootera's period setting is a dizzying mash-up of both medieval and eighteenth century Europe and ancient Rome, with rebellious galley slaves, high seas pirates and jousting matches in castle courtyards all sharing the same crowded temporal space. To add an extra bit of One Million B.C.-like flavor, Lootera also introduces into the mix a treacherous river of molten lava encircling the kingdom where much of the action takes place. That lava river gets so much play in the first act, with all kinds of people falling or nearly falling into it, that I was sure it would end up playing some dramatic role in the climax, but, sadly, by the time we get to the movie's halfway point, the screenwriters seem to have forgotten that it existed.

Also like Dharam Veer (Which, as I may have mentioned elsewhere, I love. Have I mentioned that I love it? I love it, love it, love it. I -- what? Shut up?), Lootera features a hero named Dharam, a goateed Jeevan as its villain, an upbeat Laxmikant-Pyarelal song score, and a plot involving lost-and-found family drama. On the other hand, what it has that Dharam Veer does not have is the ever-welcome Helen and lots and lots of wrestling, which makes deciding the relative merits of the two difficult. (Hmmm... Dharmendra in a mini-skirt vs. Helen... and wrestling? Lord, give me strength.) In fact, there are enough of Dara Singh's professional wrestling buddies on hand to insure that you will never see anything but regulation holds in any of the film's many scenes of hand-to-hand combat.

Because I watched Lootera without subtitles, I'll refrain from trying to give much in the way of plot synopsis for fear of sounding like this. I'll just say that Dara Singh/Dharam is one of those aforementioned rebellious galley slaves, and that his manly, rebelling ways, while less popular with the rest of the royal family, end up winning him the heart of a beautiful princess, After being thrown into a dungeon to rot, Dara discovers his long lost mom, who is promptly killed while trying to defend him during an escape attempt. Vowing revenge, he flees with the princess, and the two of them embark together on a life of frilly-shirted piracy on the high seas. (Yes, there are lady pirates in this movie, which is awesome.) A lot more stuff happens than that, but I won't even try to parse it, other than to say that there's also a pirate king who, unknown to Dara, is actually his father.

Fortunately, there is enough swashbuckling action, dazzling color, and rousing song in Lootera to render comprehension of its storyline little more than a luxury. In other words, its a nice to have, but not a need to have in terms of making it an enjoyable viewing experience. Actually, there are a few instances where it's probably best not to know why a certain event took place, such as the scene where Dara Singh and his men perform a musical number in drag--while miming to female playback singers, no less. (Which prompts me to return to that earlier question: In an admittedly nauseating match-off between Dharmendra in a mini-skirt and Dara Singh in drag, I'd definitely have to go with Dharmendra.) Add to those previously enumerated charms the gallons of cherry red fake blood that are painted all over everyone and everything during the final battle scene and you've got a formula for pure B movie fun.

What really cinches it for me when it comes to Lootera, though, are the gloriously awful miniature effects. Man, I can't help it. I love old school Bollywood special effects. Those people would have had no qualms whatsoever about depicting the Battle of Orleans with some Weebles and a fort made out of an overturned Happy Meal box. But, wow, talk about the sum being more than its parts:

No one will be able to remain seated during Lootera's spectacular climactic battle.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Kalabaaz (India, 1977)

I decided a while ago that I couldn't stand Dev Anand in anything made after 1970. He's just creepy, especially when he's paired with a much younger actress like Parveen Babi or Zeenat Aman, which is always. I'm not quite talking Woody Allen creepy, but creepy nonetheless.

That said, I ended up really liking Kalabaaz. I say "ended up" because I found myself dozing off a couple of times during its first hour. It turned out, though, that Kalabaaz is one of those many Bollywood movies that executes a complete switcheroo halfway through its running time, in this case going from being an oddball romance set against a circus backdrop with a theme of spiritual awakening to becoming a ripping good little adventure yarn.

Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman play a pair of trapeze artists in love, one of whom is young and nubile and one of whom is old and creepy and whose body would snap in half like a twig if he were to actually try to perform any of the physical stunts he's depicted as performing here. But never mind that! What's important is that Zeenat is a woman with a deep faith in God and Dev is a man who believes that his fate is controlled by him alone.

Sadly, it is Zeenat who pays for Dev's hubris, because, as a result of his arrogance, he misses a catch during their act that results in her literally falling flat on her face. The resulting diagnosis, according to the doctor with the best bedside manner in all of India, is that she "will be ugly forever and ever". Not wishing to inflict her fuglitude upon Dev, Zeenat slips away, leaving him heartbroken, forlorn, and, of course, suddenly religious.

When thugs kidnap a priest from an ancient temple that is of special importance to Zeenat's family--and in the process, presumably steal the valuable statues of Radha and Krishna that reside there--Dev sees an opportunity to prove both his love and newfound piety to Zeenat, and recruits three of his circus pals (G. Asrani, Tarun Ghosh and Hercules) to go after the bandits. And once that happens, man, does this movie get good.

It turns out that the priest was nabbed by a gang lead by a character called King Mong, and Dev and company's attempts to flush him out involve them going to a series of psychedelically tricked-out underworld watering holes and getting involved in wild bar fights filled with all kinds of ridiculous acrobatic stunts. Finally they end up at King Mong's lair, and it turns out that he's Dev Kumar sporting some truly fearsome mutton chops, a lime green velvet leisure suit, and a pet leopard on a leash.

Dev and his pals rescue the priest, only to be told by him that, before being captured, he hid the precious statues in a cave located somewhere in the treacherous mountain region between India and Burma. And so an expedition is mounted which includes Zeenat's father (played by Pradeep Kumar, who we last saw kicking alien butt in Wahan Ke Log) and also Zeenat. Zeenat has had reconstructive surgery by this time--represented, for some reason, by her being given seriously plucked eyebrows and lipstick that makes her lips look like they're the same color as her skin--and, for reasons I won't go into, is pretending to be her cousin in order to fool Dev.

This whole section of Kalabaaz is marked by true thrill-a-minute pacing, with Dev and his party racing to find the statues while being thwarted at every turn by a competing party lead by the villainous King Mong. Adding to the danger and intrigue, there is yet another, mysterious party who are after the same prize, and they will stop at nothing--nothing, I tell you!--to get it. All of this leads to a classic you-won't-believe-your-eyes masala movie action climax involving Dev and Zeenat employing their trapeze skills on a rickety footbridge stretched precariously over some raging rapids.

To top things off, Kalabaaz comes complete with a thumping, catchy-as-all-get-out song score by my favorites, Kalyani-Ananji. To me, their tunes were the saving grace of the somewhat sleepy first act, especially in the number where Dev stalks Zeenat through the streets of Bombay on the back of an elephant.

So, all in all, Kalabaaz was pretty great, and so full of action, color, and foot-tapping songs that I barely noticed the creepy old man at its center.

Fear of a polyester planet

You'd think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. Read my full review at Teleport City.

And as an extra added bonus, here's a clip of the cast of In the Dust of the Stars performing one of the film's many musical numbers:

Okay, not really.