Monday, January 26, 2009

Shikar (India, 1968)

I might have already mentioned that I'm lazy, which is why, when I saw that Memsaab had already reviewed Shikar over on her blog, I considered skipping on writing it up entirely. Hey, I want to be the lead singer here, not part of a chorus (okay, lazy and egotistical), and Memsaab, in her typically entertaining fashion, has already told you everything you need to know about Shikar. So (yaaawn, stretch) why bother? I ultimately decided, though, that, because I enjoyed this combination jungle adventure/mystery thriller so much, it was worth me putting in the small amount of effort required to raise its Google profile by a tiny-to-the-point-of-being-virtually-imperceptible increment. Plus, the temptation to make all kinds of screencaps was just to much to resist.

Shikar is blessed with a compelling story, a glamorous cast, and a fantastic look. It's one of those films where the orchestration of camera, lighting, and art direction gels perfectly into a striking visual expression of mood. It actually reminded me a lot of the later Faraar for how it drives home its themes of deception and intrigue by frequently featuring shots of its cast members partially hidden behind lattice work, gauzy curtains and other expressionistic set elements.

The similarity was so great that I was a little surprised to find that Shikar's cinematographer, V.K Murthy, and Art Director, Souren Sen, had no involvement in Faraar. I guess that this was just a popular visual technique during the period.

And the cast! Dharmendra, Asha Parekh, Helen, Sanjeev Kumar, and the fabulous Bela Bose, here quite confusingly playing a part that seems like it was written for Tun Tun. (Granted, the whole "amorous fat girl" shtick is both unfunny and offensive, but it's impossible to see what the hoped for response might have been here to the spectacle of Johnny Walker's hapless dimwit character being ardently pursued by as exquisite a specimen as Ms. Bose -- other than palm-gnawing envy on the part of the guys, of course.) Adding to the enjoyment that comes from simply seeing all of these stars sharing the screen is the fact that Shikar captures all of them in their late Sixties prime, looking thoroughly iconic and hot.

Plus, we're even treated to a brief dance-off between Helen and Bela, such an explosive aggregation of item girl awesomeness that, had it gone on any longer, I might not have survived.

But its Helen's femme fatale turn that really steals the show here. Not to mention the fact that, though her character is just a lowly secretary, she has an apartment that's to kill for, which is entered by way of a slide-away Picasso.

And comes complete, as any bachelorette pad should, with it's own light-up disco floor -- an appointment that almost raises Helen's digs to "lair" status.

Here Dharmendra plays Ajay, the manager of a jungle estate owned by Naresh (Ramesh Deo). On the same night that Naresh is murdered by an unknown assailant, a jeep crashes outside of Ajay's house, and a beautiful young woman is ejected from the wreck. Ajay brings the unconscious woman inside, but, upon returning after discovering Naresh's body, finds that she has vanished. He later encounters Kiran (Parekh), the daughter of the retired police commissioner, who is a ringer for the mysterious girl but also has an airtight alibi for the evening in question. Suspecting that Kiran's apparent double had some involvement in Naresh's murder, Ajay becomes obsessed with finding her.

However, there are plenty of other suspects to go around, including Veera (Helen), Naresh's slinky secretary, who is obviously up to something with Robbie (Manmohan), an accomplice of hers who has come to the estate posing as a big game hunter. The murder scene also holds no shortage of telltale clues -- including a red rose, a mysterious envelope, and a monogrammed handkerchief -- any of which could lead Ajay and Police Inspector Rai (Kumar) to the murderer's true identity. Things are further complicated when an old woman shows up and confesses to the crime, saying that she was protecting the honor of her niece, who, for similar reasons, she refuses to identify.

I found Shikar to be uncharacteristically well-constructed for a Bollywood mystery, given that such films typically seem more concerned with appropriating a mystery movie atmosphere than they are with taking the trouble to make the mysteries at their center capable of holding up to even the most casual scrutiny. It resists the temptation to cheat, has a solution that isn't naggingly obvious, features some interesting twists, and, most importantly, manages to tie up most of its loose ends in a logical -- if not entirely plausible -- manner. I was surprised to find myself being drawn into the film's who-dunnit aspects, but the way in which all of the suspects and clues are so neatly laid out for us invites that kind of involvement, and gives the entire proceedings the feeling of a particularly lurid and toe-tapping game of Clue. I especially liked how some of the aforementioned twists seemed to depend on our expectations of what a typical Bollywood movie would do as a kind of misdirection, leading us down a familiar path only to surprise us all the more when the truth of the situation is revealed to be less dictated by convention than we would have thought.

Shikar came down the pike as part of my recent steady diet of Bollywood jungle adventures -- which has also included the similarly titled Shikari and the Zimbo movies -- and, while it definitely leans more toward the mystery end of the spectrum, it still has its share of wild animal attacks and embarrassing, spear-chucking minstrelsy. One thing these Bollywood jungle flicks have all over their Hollywood counterparts from the period is that, because Indian filmmakers had easier access to actual wild animals in their natural habitat, you see a lot less of those scenes of people pointing at stock footage. Here, when you see Dharmendra and Asha Parekh running away from a stampeding herd of elephants, it's the real deal, which may be why they look so authentically scared.

So there you have it, people: My proverbial two cents regarding Shikari. It's a great looking, fun movie that I'd recommend to anyone with eyes. And with that effort out of the way, I'm off to take a nap. So exhausting...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mil Mascaras: Big Man on Campus

Mil Mascaras: Resurrection doesn’t come to us by way of the normal channels one might expect a Mil Mascaras movie to come through. In fact, it may very well be the only Mexican wrestling film whose writer-producer holds a Ph.D. in robotic engineering from Oxford. Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Friday's best pop song ever

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Zimbo Comes to Town (India, 1960)

Okay, let's start off by getting this out of the way...

This moment of moral instruction brought to you by SHEMAROO!

Back in the days before movie sequels had catchy titles like Zimbo II: Moose on the Loose or whatever, they were instead just given titles that described what happened in them, like, for instance, Zimbo Comes to Town. There is indeed a town, and Zimbo does, in fact, come to it. But, ah, the convolutions that must first take place before said visitation can occur -- that, my friends, is where Zimbo Comes to Town's fascination truly lies. For this is less a simple follow-up to the earlier Zimbo than it is a retelling of that story with elements of King Kong unaccountably mashed into it for extra seasoning.

Somehow since we last saw him, Zimbo, the fair-of-face but thick-of-wit lord of the jungle, has been transformed into a fugly and savage beast-man. When he's encountered by a trapping expedition lead by lady lion tamer Sarang, the unscrupulous Sarang decides to capture him and make him an attraction in her circus. This is easier said than done, however, because Zimbo is a wild and untamed thing, and can only be soothed into submission by the song of the circus's star trapeze artist, Manasi (Chitra, returning from Zimbo, though as a different character, albeit one who is strikingly similar to her character in Zimbo).

Happily, the circus doctor has a medicine that can cure beast face. Once the treatment is completed successfully, Zimbo's old irresistible sexual magnetism kicks in, and the ladies are all like, "Thank you, doctor saab!" To tell the truth, though, Azad looks to have put on a good bit of flab since last playing Zimbo a couple years earlier, which makes me a little scared to watch the next Zimbo movie, which was shot a full six years after this one. In any case, handsome or not, if he's planning to rule the big top, Zimbo's gonna have his work cut out for him, because the circus's star attraction is none other than...

...Pedro! Pedro-watchers will be happy to know that Pedro, who is this time billed as "Pedro, the Ape Bomb", plays an even greater part in the action this time around than he did in Zimbo. In fact, this whole show pretty much belongs to Pedro, as he seems to get more screen time than Zimbo himself. This means that, over the course of Zimbo Comes to Town, we will see repeated demonstrations of how Pedro loves to do all of those things that we humans love to do...

Like wave guns around...

Sullenly down highballs...

Drive jeeps (preferably after downing those highballs)...

Subject others to second hand smoke....

Compose moving photo essays about the lives of inner-city schoolchildren...

Rock the maracas...

And lick microphones...

In addition to other, more traditional activities that I think we can safely call "monkeyshines".

Anyway, because Manasi is the only one who can control Zimbo, he is put in her care, and soon, thanks to her civilizing influence, has stopped eating her make-up and throwing his poop at people. (Okay, he never really did that last thing.) In no time, he has turned into a proper gentleman and has become Manasi's partner in her trapeze act. Love blossoms, much to the chagrin of Sarang, who, as any woman with a pulse obviously would, wants all of Zimbo's sweet Zimbo love for herself. Zimbo feels differently, of course, which prompts Sarang to go all homicidal and make with the kidnappings and the bull whipping and the crony-assisted beatings. Fortunately, there's a monkey on hand who's not only an accomplished stunt driver but also none-too-shy about putting a cap in people, so we know things are ultimately going to turn out in Zimbo and Manasi's favor.

God, the Zimbo movies are awesome. Even if Azad ends up looking like Nash Bridges-era Don Johnson in the next one, I'm going to check it out, because there's always enough else going on to make the experience well worthwhile. By which I mean...

Aw, yeah.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Please stand by

Have no fear, Teleport City readers, and thank you for your expressions of concern. Here's the official word on the site's status from the ruthless overlord himself:
"Apparently this is Teleport City’s birthday, because my domain just expired. So thank you, people who alerted me. We should be back up and running as soon as the credit card payment gets processed."
So, though TC is currently MIA, rest assured that we will be coming back with power, power any day now.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I think not

Is it wrong that, instead of watching Bush's farewell address last night, I watched this? (See above)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Friday's best pop song ever

XTC, "Towers of London"


I took a break from the rigors of my Teleport City duties and the upkeep of this blog to write a brief piece for the online journal Exterminating Angel Press in which I answer some questions from editor Tod Davies about musicians and MySpace. Lest anyone should mistake me for some kind of authority on the topic, the only thing that qualifies me to do so is the fact that I am a musician, that I have a MySpace page -- albeit one that I've criminally neglected for most of the last 12 months -- and that I was the guy who Tod asked the questions to. This is a special, music-themed issue for EAP, and it also features, among other things, an interview by filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) with electro musician Kid Carpet and an interview with my pal Dan Wool about his film soundtrack work, so do please check it out if you're so inclined.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota (India, 1972)

Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota was my first Telegu action film, and I stumbled into it quite by accident. What attracted me to it initially was the fact that it gave top billing to both Helen and Laxmi Chayya, although neither turned out to have much screen time. (To be honest, I couldn't even place Laxmi Chayya among the cast, and Helen only popped up for one item number during the final hour.) I was not disappointed by this, however, because what Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota is really all about is being a showcase for Telegu action heroine Vijaya Lalitha.

The best way I can think of to describe Vijaya Lalitha is as a cross between the aforementioned Ms. Chayya and Dara Singh. In one scene she goes from go-go dancing with hip-swinging abandon to one of the film's twangy guitar and Farfisa organ-drenched musical numbers to being in a wild bar fight in which she's doing all kinds of acrobatic wrestling moves and crazy backflips. The many, many fights in this movie are totally insane -- more the kind of thing I would expect from the Turkish cinema of this period -- and Vijaya both doles out and receives more punishment than you would ever see a traditional Bollywood heroine do -- and all without mussing her helmet of flaming red hair or any of her many brightly colored Annie Oakley jumpsuits.

The plot of the movie is fairly easy to follow, despite the lack of subtitles; basically a revenged-themed Western with Vijaya gunning for the gang of cattle rustlers who killed her dad and raped her sister. On the other hand, the fact that virtually all of the male actors in the movie sport greasy pompadours and mustaches did make sorting their characters out a bit confusing. The style of acting is OTT to the point of making Saira Banu look like a master of nuance by comparison, and, just in case all the agonized mugging doesn't get the point across, the filmmakers use gimmicks like shining a red spot on Vijaya's face to tell you when she's really, really angry. This is a straight up comic strip movie, pure and simple, as colorful and two dimensional as anything you'd find on the inside of a Bazooka Joe wrapper -- which, if you know me, is a compliment. To top it off, Satyam's song score, which is marked by a couple of super catchy, garage combo style tunes, is a real kicker.

Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota is one of those films where just writing about it makes me want to run back and watch it again. It's a crazy good time, and you can bet I'll be seeking out more of Ms. Lalitha's efforts from this point on. She totally kills.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Puppet Africanus

Interster (1981)

Okay, so 4DK's parade of communist cowboys, Filipino wonder women and Bollywood kaiju movies has left you cold, and I'm left feeling like a man trying to stop a baby crying who's run out of funny faces to make. How about this, babies: A South African children's television series made during the final years of the Apartheid regime that's modeled very closely on the puppet series of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. It indeed seems like no country's young sprouts were immune to the hypnotic appeal of freaky-looking marionettes framed within a fiery landscape of exploding miniatures. And thank God for that. After all, it's things like this that, despite our differences, bring us all a little closer, isn't it?

I could find very little written in English about the Afrikaans language series Insterster other than a modest-sized Wikipedia entry and what's written about it on the blog of one Mike Cane. Those sources tell me that Interster came into being as a result of the South African Broadcasting Corporation's inability to acquire broadcast rights to the Anderson's Thunderbirds, prompting them to try their hand at producing a puppet sci-fi series of their own. The result is a very close approximation, coming more than a decade after the Andersons stopped producing their patented Supermarionation series (moving instead into live-action fare like Space: 1999 and UFO) and a couple of years before Gerry Anderson tried to jump back into the game with the underwhelming Terrahawks. The puppets in this case, rather than being stringed marionettes like those used by the Andersons, appear to be internally wired puppets that are operated from underneath, and I was happy to see that they emulate the big-headed, caricatured look of the puppets from Thunderbirds and Stingray, rather than the dead-eyed, ambulatory mannequins seen in later Anderson series like Captain Scarlet.

I would love to say that I saw all kinds of subtextual echoes of South Africa's then-current political situation in Interster, but having thus far only seen two of its half-hour episodes, I'd have to say that that would require a pretty fanciful reading. There is, however, a captive alien prince, who is being held hostage indefinitely by the ostensible good guys -- themselves one side in a simmering interplanetary conflict -- in order to maintain an uneasy, coercive peace. Once freed by his people, this prince leads them in a stealthy, undercover war against his former captors. Could this perhaps be a reflection of the Afrikaners' anxieties about Nelson Mandela and the ANC? Perhaps not, but that aside, it's certainly difficult to ignore the physical resemblance of one of the show's villain puppets to then-prime minister P. W. Botha.

While the above is all conjectural, I can tell you with absolute certitude that Interster contains most of the elements that could be found in the Anderson's most successful shows, such as a square-jawed (and, come to think of it, square-headed) puppet hero with a trusty side-kick; a futuristic defense force -- in this case headquartered in a megalopolis-like 21st century Cape Town; all kinds of nifty vehicles and gadgets; lots of neato miniature work, and, of course, plenty of explosions. The only thing sorely missing is the grandiosity that one of Barry Gray's thundering orchestral scores might have bestowed upon the proceedings, as what we're left with is some pretty cheesy synth disco and wan electronic noodlings that give an air of ponderousness to much of the action.

The plots of Interster's brief episodes are, as might be expected, pretty basic, but not without their interesting elements. The war between Earth's Space Force and their alien enemies, the Krokons, is a cold one, waged under the cover of an interplanetary peace treaty, a situation that forces the show protagonists, lead by the aforementioned square-jawed hero Bruks De La Rey, to act with more consideration for the appearance of diplomacy than we see in the battles that play out in typical space operas. I also thought it was a neat twist that the Krokons' secret human collaborator on Earth is one Gorman (the aforementioned Botha ringer), a corrupt weapons magnate who makes money coming and going by supplying armaments and machinery to the Space Force while demanding hefty prices from the Krokons for his services as a spy.

But these hints of complexity aside, what I really enjoyed about Interster are the same things that I've always enjoyed about Thunderbirds and the Andersons' other puppet shows: the unfading and mesmerizing strangeness of the human-like puppets, the cool miniature work, the very apparent dedication to craft on the part of all involved, and the unique, completely closed reality that these all combine to create. That said, the show does feel a bit colder than Thunderbirds, and as a result lacks that series' inherent charm, instead hewing more closely to the somber, militaristic tone of the later Captain Scarlet. Of course, this perception on my part might be colored by my perception of the malignant system that was in place at the time of the show's production. I mean, escapism is one thing, but no mere television show should be entertaining enough to make you forget that. Still, I'm fascinated enough by Insterster to seek out more episodes... at least until that fascination fades in the face of some new, fleeting obsession.