Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Supermen Against The Orient (Italy/Hong Kong, 1974)

The numerous international co-productions that Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio involved themselves in may not have resulted in many actually good motion pictures, but they certainly provided for some interesting juxtapositions. In 1974’s Supermen Against The Orient, for example, they result in us seeing the type of prodigiously mustached and bountifully blow-dried macho Mediterraneans you’d see in the typical Italian police thriller of the era running around on Shaw’s familiar Movie Town sets with the likes of Lo Lieh and Shih Szu. And to this I can only exclaim: “Hey, you got your cheesy 1970s Italian action movie in my classic SB martial arts film!” Now, whether these are two tastes that taste great together is another matter entirely.

Back in December, as part of my Italian Superhero Roll Call series, I reviewed the first of the Three Fantastic Supermen films, a long-running franchise of which Supermen Against The Orient is one subsequent part. While the debut entry featured Kommissar X’s Brad Harris and Tony Kendall in the leads, this one features a character by the name of Robert Malcolm, along with another named Antonio Cantafora and stuntman Sal Borgese (the lone constant in the Supermen films) in the titular roles. This was the Supermen film designed to cash in on the then red-hot kung fu craze, and the participation of Shaw guarantees, not only the presence of some familiar kung fu faces, but also action choreography that’s a cut well above that of most strictly Western passes at the genre.

Malcolm here plays FBI agent Robert Wallace, who is dispatched to Asia in order to locate six American agents who have been captured by the drug lord Chen Lo (Tung Lam). Wallace’s job doesn’t end up involving much in the way of investigation, this being the type of movie whose lazy plotting insures he need only sit in a darkened bar or nightclub long enough for some mysterious figure to surreptitiously hand him a note detailing exactly what he needs to do next. It is by this means that a completely superfluous travelogue sequence shot in Thailand is brought to a close, with Wallace jetting off to Hong Kong to meet with a kung fu master by the name of Tang (Lo Lieh). It turns out that two of Tang’s students are Max (Cantafora) and Jerry (Borgese), a pair of professional burglars who are old friends of Wallace’s -- though how such a relationship got skipped over during Wallace’s FBI screening I can’t imagine.

Predictably, Wallace ends up recruiting his two old pals to help him with his mission, less predictably promising to help them rob the safe at the American consulate in return. Under Tang’s tutelage, they begin to train for their coming confrontation with Chen Lo, a regime that involves much plunging of their extremities into braziers full of hot coals... and really not that much else, now that I think of it. (Don’t try this at home, aspiring kung fu masters.) Tang and his associate Lilly (Shih Szu) are ultimately revealed to be law enforcement agents themselves, and when the day of reckoning arrives, they too join in on the fun. It is at this point that Wallace produces his secret weapon, the bright red super suits we saw in the first film, which make their wearers indestructible. This time around there are enough suits available for Lo Lieh and Shih Szu to also wear them, and if I don’t say that this is probably the most ridiculous that Lo Lieh has ever looked, it is only because I am thinking of him riding around on that shark-launching palanquin in Zodiac Fighters.

I have to admit to finding the Three Fantastic Supermen films somewhat mysterious. Their sheer abundance seems to indicate that they were popular, though the basis of their popularity is hard to guess at. It certainly wasn’t star driven, since, aside from Borgese, they seldom featured the same leads from one entry to the next. Perhaps, then, it was the series’ central concept of normal men being rendered indestructible via the donning of super suits -- though, if it was, it’s hard to see why an installment like Supermen Against The Orient would give that concept such conspicuously short shrift, only having its heroes don those super suits during the movie’s final minutes.

It’s also a possibility that the serial replication of these films is the result less of audience demand than of the Italian film industry of the era simply turning its tendency to carbon copy back upon itself. In any case, I have to say that, to my tastes, the Three Fantastic Supermen series is not one that ages particularly well. While the abundance of swinging sixties style evident in the first film charmed me enough to make all the broad slapstick go down with relative ease, the mid 1970s, with all of its ugly clothes, music and design offers little by way of mitigation.

Not surprisingly, it is those parts of Supermen Against The Orient that most look like a Shaw Brothers film that end up being the most enjoyable -- for one thing because the familiar stars and surroundings bring back memories of countless other, much better films, but also because, thanks to the participation of Shaw’s fight choreographers, the action is fairly snappy and well staged. Sadly, in the spaces between, what we are most likely to find are repetitive comic relief sequences involving either Jacques Dufilho as a fey and high-strung American ambassador – sequences that include Nixon references that are seemingly intended to be funny merely by virtue of them being Nixon references – or Sal Borgese’s character Jerry.

As with Borgese’s character in the first film, Jerry is portrayed as a jabbering deaf-mute idiot -- and with a degree of sensitivity that should prove just as offensive to self-respecting idiots as to the hearing impaired. Still, given that the comedy in the Shaw Brothers’ films was itself not always of the most sophisticated variety, I guess it would be unfair for me to single out the Italians for censure in this regard. Nonetheless, it is not hard to suspect that it is in these aforementioned comedic scenes that writer/director Bitto Albertini – he of the unrelated Goldface, the Fantastic Superman and the even more unrelated Black Emanuelle – had the most free hand.

The final thing that I need to report to you about Supermen Against The Orient is that it has a theme song which is astonishing in its awfulness. I’m still undecided as to whether this is a strike against or in favor of the movie, because the truth is that, if I had the song on my iPod, I would most likely keep it on constant repeat, due to the fact that even multiple consecutive listenings would leave me in a state of stunned disbelief as to just how horrible it is. Given it’s one of those Italian movie themes that’s sung in English by a vocalist who doesn’t sound like he’s too familiar with the language, it’s difficult to make most of the lines out, but one of them is “I cream ‘em and ream ‘em, and then I redeem ‘em.” If the rest of Supermen Against The Orient had lived down to this level of badness, it might indeed have been something truly noteworthy. But, as is, it neither creamed nor redeemed me. Although it might have reamed me just a little bit

Monday, March 30, 2009

Nuns with guns

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. I mean, honestly, you're going to decide whether or not you'll watch They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong based entirely on this picture of Marrie Lee firing a shotgun while dressed in a nun's habit, and what I have to say about it really doesn't matter. So why bother? Oh, well. Too late. Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Blade, My Life (Taiwan, 1982)

My Blade, My Life (in my head, I hear that title spoken in the voice of a sassy black lady) looks to have had a somewhat more generous budget than the typical Pearl Cheung Ling starrer of its day, coming as it does on the heels of three of Pearl’s most simultaneously threadbare and patently insane contributions to Kung Fu cinema – i.e. Dark Lady of Kung Fu, Wolf Devil Woman and Miraculous Flower. Though produced in Taiwan by I Film Co., it has the look of a more modest Shaw Brothers production, an impression enhanced by the presence in the cast of such Shaw regulars as Yueh Hwa, Lo Lieh, and Nancy Yen Nan-see.

In fact, if you squint a little, you might even mistake My Blade, My Life for one of Chor Yuen’s later Ku Long adaptations. It features a large and ever-shifting cast of characters, confusing rivalries between exotic clans, swordfights on fog enshrouded marshes, and a theme that seems to emphasize the spiritual cost of the Martial World’s routine of endless rivalry upon the heroes honor-bound to observe it. Thankfully, though, Pearl Cheung Ling is here to bridge the gap between MBML and what came before, bringing to the proceedings her signature sword-wielding violent bag lady persona – the type of character who might pop up momentarily in one of Chor’s films, but certainly would never be put front and center – driving home the crazy with an outfit that includes a rough wool tunic that makes her looks like she has an entire sheep – perhaps still living – draped across her torso.

While MBML gives the surface appearance of having some pretty intricate plotting, boiled down to its essence it’s a fairly simple revenge tale. Pearl plays a grim itinerant swordsman going by the name Lone Traveler Lu. I use the term “swordsman” advisedly, because, in that grand and endlessly confusing wuxia movie tradition, Pearl is taken at face value by everyone she meets to be a man, despite the fact that she is very obviously… well, Pearl Cheung Ling. The movie even plays the final reveal of her true gender as a sort of shock moment, despite the fact that… well, I repeat myself.

In any case, Pearl is traveling from kingdom to kingdom in search of a hero called Peerless Swallow whom she has sworn vengeance upon. Over the course of this search, she reveals herself to have a bit of a temper, and is quick to slaughter anyone who gets in her way in the most gory way possible. This aspect of the story proves once and for all that, despite its stately trappings, My Blade, My Life is, at its heart, a Pearl Cheung Ling film, a fact no better proven than by scenes in which Pearl slices a guy’s entire lower jaw off and drives a pair of chopsticks through another’s face.

This adherence to the PCL brand identity also means that we get to see our heroine take part in some crazy wire-assisted swordplay accompanied by weird outer space sound effects. The best example of this occurs in a scene set in the lair of the evil Yin-Yang clan – a wonderful set that sticks very literally to it’s theme, with a stark black and white color scheme and lots of yin-yang motifs. That this particular fight scene reminded me of nothing so much as Infra-man will be recognized by all who know me as about the highest compliment I could possibly bestow upon it. Unfortunately, such scenes are not quite as plentiful as one might hope, because MBML indeed spends a good deal of time going about the business of being a wuxia in the Ku Long mode, introducing lots of random characters and intrigues that don’t really end up seeming to have much significance to its basic storyline.

My Blade, My Life was written and directed by Chan Ming-wa, who, as I mentioned in my review of his China Armed Escort, seemed to have only helmed films in which Pearl starred, though I have no clue as to what their relationship was. In the final analysis, it’s a good looking and reasonably enjoyable film – well worth watching for its best moments, but never quite living up to the promise that those moments suggest. And, in case you’re not clear on it, by “best” I mean “strangest”. If you’re a fan of Pearl’s, like I am, you may be mildly disappointed by it in the long run, but you’ll still be glad not to have missed that fight scene in the Yin-Yang lair, or her pushing those chopsticks through that guy’s face. At least that is my sober and well-considered opinion.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

London calling Bombay

I don't anticipate having a lot of time for writing reviews this week, but I wanted to post a few images I liked from the 1967 Bollywood film Night In London, most of which showcase the distinctly Orientalist glamor of sixties starlet Malu Sinha. Directed by the tersely-named Brij, who also gave us Bombay 405 Miles, and starring -- in addition to Sinha -- Bishwajeet, Johnny Walker and Shetty in a larger-than-usual role, the movie combines elements of travelogue romances like An Evening in Paris and Love In Tokyo with the obvious influence of the Bond films. All in all, a diverting little caper, complete with a potentially world-destroying secret formula hidden in a much-coveted diamond necklace, narrow escapes from spike-walled torture chambers, helicopters galore, and a couple of dazzling song and dance numbers from Helen. Todd says check it out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival came through town this week, but by the time I had finished typing out the festival’s full name, it had already ended and I had missed everything. Because its name is quite long, you see. Are you following the humor here?

But I kid, of course. I saw everything. Everything! …Well, five things. I think that there were probably more than five movies on the program, but I’ll have to check. Anyway, here’s what I saw:

The Chaser (South Korea, 2008. Dir. Na Hong-jin)

This thriller from first-time director Na Hong-jin has that uniquely South Korean quality of being able to maintain an almost unbearable level of tension while at the same time being frequently hilarious. There is comedy, pitch black and bone dry as it is, but never comic relief. Overall, the film takes me back to those heady days a few years back when it was hard to keep up with all the first rate genre films coming out of Korea – and comparisons to the best of Park Chan-wook and, especially, Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder are definitely warranted.

The Chaser also appears to draw from some well-known Hollywood sources – Silence of the Lambs and Seven in particular – but only, it seems, for the purpose of raising some audience expectations that it will later dash with malicious enthusiasm. At this point, I wouldn’t have thought that I could imagine anything more dreary and played out than the serial killer sub-genre, but Na actually succeeds to some extent in making that old horse dance to a new tune.

In the film, Kim Yoon-suk plays Kim Jung-ho, a disgraced-cop-turned-pimp who races to find the lair of a captured serial killer – and the evidence that will tie that killer to the murder of several of Kim’s girls – before police incompetence and corruption puts him back on the street again. The character of Kim Jung-ho is fascinating precisely for how little we know about him. Na’s screenplay does us the favor of not providing him with a tidily wrapped-up back-story, and we are only given a few fleeting clues as to why, in the course of one evening, he goes from being the petty, ruthlessly self-involved figure that we see at the film’s beginning to behaving as if his very existence depended on him finding the truth and, more importantly, the killer’s latest victim, who may still be alive.

At once gritty, ultra-violent and relentless, The Chaser is also, as indicated above, rife with mordant humor, as well as a not inconsiderable amount of genuine poignancy. These qualities combined may not make it one for the faint of heart, but for those despairing of ever again seeing South Korea produce a truly great thriller, it’s an absolute must see.

Heaven on Earth (Canada, 2008. Dir. Deepa Mehta)

If you’re one of those people who’s always wanted to see Preity Zinta getting slapped across the face repeatedly, this film may indeed be Heaven on Earth. For the rest of us, though, it might be a bit of an ordeal. In Deepa Mehta’s latest, Zinta portrays a young Punjabi woman who migrates to Canada to join a family she’s become part of through an arranged marriage. Soon the overcrowded three-generation household reveals itself to be a hotbed of dysfunction, and her husband (Vansh Bhardwaj) a rage-fuelled control freak who habitually abuses her.

Mehta has in the past presented us with the stories of women trapped in some direly oppressive circumstances, but, to my mind, never before has that presentation been so free of air and light as it is here. From the point when Zinta’s character arrives in Canada, we spend the majority of the film’s running time trapped with her in the claustrophobic confines of the family home, frozen in grim anticipation of her next inevitable beating at the hands of her husband. By the time, late in the film, when Mehta introduces some magical realist elements into the mix, I suspect that many in the audience might already be too ground down for it to register much.

For Zinta’s part, she seems to walk through the action in a state of shell shock, which – while quite believable for a character whose life has obviously not prepared her in the least for such an ordeal – doesn’t provide us much emotional entryway, with the result that our relationship to the very real-life drama transpiring onscreen becomes one of stark spectatorship. I have a lot of respect for Zinta’s performance here, but – and I realize this may peg me as being somewhat reactionary in my response to Heaven on Earth – I have to admit that, the next night, when she popped up in a cameo in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, happily boogalooing alongside Shah Rukh Khan in a colorful, 70s themed musical number, I had the feeling that all had been set right in the universe.

Fruit Fly (USA, 2009. Dir. H.P. Mendoza)

Songwriter/director/screenwriter H.P. Mendoza comes one step closer to becoming a brand name with this follow-up to Colma: The Musical, which, like it’s predecessor, inhabits a micro-genre all its own. What to call it? The Frisco-centric gaysian (his word) bedroom musical? Time will tell, I suppose. (And, yes, I know, San Franciscans – self included –loathe the term “Frisco”, but I was looking for something catchy and easy on the tongue there.)

Mendoza, at this point, is a better songwriter than he is a filmmaker. But to say that is not to shortchange his filmmaking abilities much, since, as a songwriter, he’s world class. He writes lyrics that are clever in a way you thought lyrics just weren’t anymore. And while his songs would be plenty effective as mere vessels for his wit, he goes the extra distance by crafting melodies that are both stubbornly adhesive and frequently beautiful.

Mendoza’s songs are the glue that hold both Colma and Fruit Fly together – more so than in the case of other musicals, I think, because, if you were to take away Mendoza’s songs, what’s left of the films that contain them can look a bit uneven in their execution. Like Colma, Fruit Fly has its fair share of moments of inspired – and hilarious – invention, but also at times slips into instances of sitcom banality. In addition, it sometimes seems like the emotional journeys that Mendoza’s characters are obviously supposed to be going through are not as clearly defined for the audience as they might be in Mendoza’s head.

Still, I’m a fan. Songs aside, Fruit Fly is infused with enough charm, sly humor and antic energy to carry us through any of its rough patches with minimal jostling, and is a markedly more assured production than its predecessor besides. I don’t know how much play these films get outside of the Bay Area, given their regional specificity, but if the answer is “not much”, then we San Franciscans are getting a real treat. Clearly Mendoza’s best work is ahead of him, but that we get to delight in these joyfully rough-edged steps he takes along the way is a privilege.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (India, 2008. Dir. Aditya Chopra)

I knew that last year’s featured Bollywood film, Om Shanti Om, was going to be hard to top, and this SRK-by-the-numbers romantic comedy certainly wasn’t the film to do it. Shah Rukh plays nerdly Surinder, who shows up at the home of a beloved teacher for the marriage-for-love of said teacher’s lovely daughter, Taani (Bollywood newbie Anushka Sharma). Surinder falls for Taani on the spot, which could be problematic, but then Taani’s beloved is killed on his way to the wedding. Yes! Unfortunately, Taani’s father then has a heart attack upon hearing the news – but it’s that kind of Bollywood heart attack that enables him to bid lengthy farewells to his loved ones and make arrangements for Surinder to marry Taani so that she won’t be left alone.

Surinder and Taani’s marriage is loveless but cordial on her part, and lovelorn and miserable on his. When Taani enrolls in a dance class – geared mostly, it seems, toward training dancers for hoochified Bollywood item numbers – Surinder sees his chance, and has his hairdresser friend give him an extreme makeover, transforming him into… hey, it’s Shah Rukh Khan! Assuming the guise of carefree and studly party animal Raj, Surinder enrolls in Taani’s class and starts to worm his way into her heart, all the while maintaining his buttoned-down identity as Surinder at home. Hilarity ensues.

Okay, some hilarity really does ensue, to be honest, and the dance class setting does provide the opportunity for some toe-tapping, if not-too-memorable, musical numbers. So Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi wasn’t a complete waste of time. In truth, I probably would have embraced it more for the mildly engaging bit of fluff that it is had it not been my second screening of the day, occurring late on a Sunday night. In any case, I’m definitely glad I didn’t miss its central show-stopping number, a sort of mini version of Om Shanti Om’s most self-referential moments featuring cameos by some of SRK’s most glamorous female costars – Kajol! Preity! Rani! – in a series of vignettes illustrating Bollywood’s different eras, from the Raj 50s, to the Shammi 60s, to the WTF 70s, and beyond. Unlike OSO, however, I would have much preferred to watch this one at home, where I could have parsed out my saccharine intake by taking it in at brief intervals of my own determination.

Tokyo! (France/Japan/South Korea/Germany, 2008. Dirs. Boong Joon-Ho, Leos Carax, Michel Gondry)

This sedately odd trio of short films by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong is so low key that its title should perhaps have been punctuated with an ellipsis rather than an exclamation point. Contrary to that moniker’s implied enthusiasm, the tone of each of these three gaijin filmmakers’ takes on the titular metropolis seems to be one more of bemused pondering than celebration, which is perhaps appropriate.

Perhaps the best of these entries is Gondry’s, which tells the story of Hiroko and Akira, an arty young couple who arrive in Tokyo with hopes of establishing a new life. Their experiences will be familiar to anyone who made similar moves during their youth, regardless of geography – the endless couch surfing and resultant taxing of friends’ goodwill; the awful low wage jobs taken out of desperation, etc. – though each of these are exacerbated by circumstances peculiar to the city in question (for instance, Hiroko and Akira have to sleep virtually nose-to-nose with the increasingly exasperated friend who is hosting them, due to the pillbox-like scale of said friend’s miniscule one-room apartment). As often happens in these cases, the experience drives a wedge between the lovers and, as she become increasingly isolated, Hiroko (played by Ayako Fujitani, who played the psychic girl in Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera movies) begins to go through some bizarre, and very Gondry-esque, changes.

Unfortunately, Carax’s Merde, which starts out strong but very quickly wears out its welcome, sits right in the middle of Tokyo! like an impassable cinematic logjam. I think this one might have gotten a few more chuckles than it deserved from the San Francisco audience, due to the fact that its title character, a mangy sewer dweller with an oddly bohemian dress sense who emerges from the bowels of the city to terrorize and gross-out its residents, looks like every third person you see on Market Street. Following on its heels, Bong’s quietly surreal Shaking Tokyo, the story of an obsessive compulsive shut-in and his encounter with an equally oddball pizza delivery girl, may not command the scrupulous attention it deserves, its audience having been exhausted by their struggle through the preceding entry.

Of the five movies I saw at SFIAAFF, Tokyo! inhabits the exact middle-ground. It’s a movie that’s very hard to be passionate about, though there’s enough of interest there that I would not not recommend it. However, I might suggest that you wait for its arrival on DVD, because, like many anthology films, it seems like exactly the type of thing that the fast forward button was invented for.

Altar, Cuneyt Arkin, and Turkish E.T. too!

Deniz Pizar from Istanbul sent me a link to his new blog, which looks really promising. It features a collection of posters, lobby cards and stills from classic Turkish pulp cinema – all of which can be bought by you with your own hard earned dollars. I’m pretty sure I heard Jim Cramer say on CNBC last night that old Turkish movie posters were your best investment during these tough financial times, so come on. Check it out!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Dwarf Sorcerer aka Magic Kid (Taiwan, 1974)

Hint: If you’re selling something on eBay, and you want me to buy it, call it The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid). It doesn’t matter if it’s a ShamWow or a collection of confederate flag beer coasters; I will find it impossible to resist.

Fortunately, what The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid) really is is neither of those things, being that it is instead a busted up old Taiwanese fantasy kung fu movie. Unfortunately, despite its essential awesomeness, I am unable to present you with any screengrabs from the movie, due to the fact that the print from which the DVD-R I got was made was so distressed that it looked like it might actually have been used by an obsessive-compulsive swami to shammy out his own intestinal tract. But un-unfortunately, I was able to find the text-adjacent poster image over at the wonderful Hong Kong Movie Database, which shows you many of the film’s highlights, along with a bunch of stuff that totally wasn’t in the movie at all. There were, for instance, no dinosaurs or dragons in The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid), though the stupid-looking apeman that is prominently featured on the poster is indeed present and accounted for, which more than makes up for the absence of the former.

The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid) is noteworthy for taking the standard kung fu plot and giving it a bit of an interesting twist. Just as at the beginning of countless martial arts films before it, The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid) begins with a small child witnessing the murder of his parents at the hands of a gang of evildoers – in this case, a band of kung fu demons dressed like cavemen, who mix things up a bit by only killing the father and taking mom captive. Said child then narrowly avoids being murdered by the evildoers himself – in this case by being carried off by a giant, deliciously phony-looking bird puppet – and comes under the care of a wizened old kung fu master, who proceeds to subject him to a rigorous training regime that will ultimately lead to him setting out, armed with a hard won set of near-supernatural kung fu skills, on a mission of vengeance against the evildoers.

Now, in most martial arts films, this aforementioned training process takes up a number of years in our young hero’s life, seeing him into adulthood and insuring that, when he does finally face-off against his enemies, it is on fairly equal ground in regard to age and physical stature. But what if it only took, say, a few weeks? What you would then have is a kung fu abled five-year-old squaring off, in his quest for bloody vengeance, against a host of adult-sized demons and people in weepingly threadbare monster costumes, which is exactly what The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid) gives us. And to clear up any confusion caused by the film’s alternate titles, let me clarify that the lead here is portrayed by an actual child. So I guess you’re simply meant to choose the title you prefer based on how convincing you found his performance.

As you might imagine, the kung fu action in The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid) is not very realistic. Martial arts purists, you have been forewarned. What you basically get here is a little kid being slung around on wires while feebly waving a sword, and all of the adults in the vicinity half-heartedly pretending that they’re being gravely injured by him. The filmmakers have chosen to give the kid that classic “so fast his opponents don’t even know they’re dead" kung fu mojo, so that all he does is glide by with his sword, after which his victim appears momentarily befuddled before realizing that his guts are pouring out of a huge slash wound in his abdomen. Further evening the stakes is the fact that the kid has the ability to fly like Superman and tunnel under the ground like a mole, this last skill offering occasion for him to burst up out of the ground and stab a not-as-vigilant-as-he-should-have-been opponent in his wrinklies.

You can probably guess from the scenarios described above that The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid), despite starring a child, is not a film for children. Or, at least, not for your children, if you’re anything like most of the parents I know. Indeed, seeing The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid) might have just enough of a detrimental effect on your child to veer him away slightly from his destiny of becoming the single most important person in the universe, which is why we were all so desperately counting on you to procreate in the first place. (Well, and also because I was still able to traverse the block of 24th Street between Noe and Castro while narrowly avoiding having my foot being run over by a twin-loaded baby carriage. I mean, where’s the danger and excitement in that?)

I myself have selfishly denied the world the privilege of being home to my spawn, but if I were to sire a child, I am confident that he would be much like the hero of The Dwarf Sorcerer (Magic Kid). Unfortunately, after the years of grueling training at the hands of a wizened old kung fu master that it would take to get him to that point, the first thing he would probably do with his newly acquired skills would be to burst up out of the ground and stab me in the groin. Fucking kids, I’m telling you.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Singing Dara's praise

With a rubber-suit dinosaur worthy of a Japanese kaiju eiga, fake-boulder-throwing men in furry hot pants right out of an Italian peplum, and wrestling sequences that would fit just as easily in a Santo movie, King Kong provides evidence of a Bollywood that has remained largely hidden from more casual observers. As an added surprise, it also contains no King Kong… or, at least, not the King Kong that you were expecting. Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Important news for the lucha-based decision maker in your household

Since reaching a stopping point in my whole Lucha Diaries project, I haven’t been keeping much of a watch on new DVD releases in the Mexican wrestling genre, and now I turn around to find that some lucha classics that were previously tough to find even on the gray market are now available as legit DVD releases. All of these are “no frills” releases, with adequate but unremarkable transfers, no extras to speak of and, worst of all, no English subtitles, but they are still an improvement over what’s been available so far. While I’m not in the business of providing consumer guidance, I’m eager to have you spend your hard earned money on crap just like I do, especially in these desperate financial times. So, come on! Be me!

The most exciting of these new discs is Zima Entertainment’s release of Santo’s 1963 horror-musical hybrid Santo vs. El Estrangulador, aka Santo vs. The Strangler, which before now you’d be lucky to find on a spectral nth generation VHS dub if you could find it at all. Coming on the heels of Santo’s classic gothic horrors Santo contra las Mujeres Vampiro and Santo en el Museo de Cera, El Estrangulador is not near those two’s level of awesomeness, but, with its tale of a Phantom of the Opera-like killer terrorizing a cast of variety show performers, it’s still a lot of fun, especially if you’re not averse to having your cheesy B movie thrills mixed in with an awful lot of musical numbers – which here include such chestnuts as “Fever” and “16 Tons” sung en espanol. Again, this is not a pristine transfer, but compared to what was available before, it’s Criterion quality.

Televisa has recently released a whole slew of 1960s lucha films as part of their “Coleccion Mexico en Pantalla” series, the most interesting of these being Blue Demon Destructor de Espias and Pasaporte a la Muerte, two Bond-influenced spy films in which Blue Demon co-starred with Carlos East and Maura Monte. These 1968 films have been elusive for collectors searching for them on DVD, and, while the gray market copies I eventually tracked down were of decent quality, the colors on the Televisa discs have a lot more pop to them – though, again, be forewarned that we’re not talking about any kind of loving restoration here. These are films that definitely could have benefited from subtitles, but seeing as they share the same colorful, pop art look as Blue’s earlier Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales, they make for diverting eye candy nonetheless. Probably the best feature of these particular releases is their packaging, which features the films’ original poster artwork on both the slipcases and the cases themselves.

Other releases in Televisa’s “Coleccion Mexico en Pantalla” series that I haven’t yet had a chance to check out include a couple of discs featuring our old pal Neutron. One of these spotlights the third Neutron film Neutron contra el Doctor Caronte, while another triple feature disc includes the first two films of the series (including the wonderful Neutron contra los Automatas de la Muerte, aka Neutron vs. The Death Robots) along with Neutron’s disappointing 1964 swan song Neutron contra los Asesinos del Karate. Yet another multi-film disc pairs Blue Demon’s previously available Blue Demon contra las Invasoras with El Enmascarado de Plata, a 1952 serial that was intended to be Santo’s film debut but instead became a one-shot vehicle for El Medico Asesino -- and that, most importantly, is one of the earliest examples of lucha cinema.

So far, I have only been able to find these discs on eBay, but I imagine that the eBay-averse could find them elsewhere with a little dedicated digging. Of course, all of these films mentioned are titles that will appeal more to collectors and completists – i.e. woefully misguided and desperately sad people like myself – than they will to the lucha cinema novice, for whom I’ve created a special series of posts all their own right over here.

As the last water buffalo fades into the sunset

Many of you -- well, one of you -- have asked me what I'm going to do now that I've wrapped up Thai-style Kaiju, my long series of reviews covering the work of Thai special effects pioneer Sompote Sands. Well, for now I'm just going to write about what other people -- well, one other person -- have written about Thai-style Kaiju. By which I refer to the wonderful overview of the series that Wise Kwai has posted over at his Thai Film Journal. Wise Kwai has done a far better job of summing-up, organizing and putting these reviews in context than I ever could, and I really appreciate his effort -- especially since having to type one more word about Sompote Sands would have forced me to hit myself in the side of the head with an industrial stapler until I forgot that there was even a country called Thailand, much less a person living there by that name.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Masala death trap! Warrant's terrible room of clocks

I'm a bit skeptical about whether Warrant's terrible room of clocks, if put in practice in the real world, would work as demonstrated. Then again, maybe it only works on Dev Anand because he's so old. All of those clocks could simply be reminding him that Wheel of Fortune is coming on in five minutes and that he's going to miss it because he's locked up in Ajit's basement.

Dev becomes the subject of this particular torment when he falls into the hands of Ajit's character The Master and his rollerskating right hand woman Saloni. What do they want? Information! And obviously the lengths they will go to get it are limited only by their imaginations -- which, admittedly, are fairly limited. First, Dev is fastened to a chair and doused with some cold water, and when that doesn't break him, The Master orders Saloni to "enmesh" him in her "web of love", which turns out to be far less interesting than it sounds.

Finally it's determined that only the room of clocks can crack a tough customer like Dev. After fitting his victim with a pair of earphones, The Master holds forth about his "latest scientific invention", telling Dev that, once started, the ticking of the room's many clocks will become gradually louder, within just sixty seconds reaching the point where his "eardrums will burst" and his "brain nerves will break". All of this suggested to me that The Master doesn't really have a firm grasp of the nature of scientific invention. What exactly is he claiming to have invented? Clocks? The idea of sound amplification?

Once things have been set in motion, The Master and Saloni, in true Bollywood villain fashion, retire to a more comfortable part of their underground lair to drink highballs.

Meanwhile, Dev tries desperately to drag his chair over to the control panel so that he can shut the device off. But it's too late! The torture has begun!

...and it's not very long at all before we see Dev succumbing to its effects.

My favorite thing about the terrible room of clocks is how it doesn't have just one kind of clock in it. In fact, it looks like someone raided Goodwill and took every clock they had.

You'll also notice that each of the clocks is set to a randomly different time. They don't even perform the normal clock function of telling you what time it is, which just makes the room of clocks that much more evil.

Ultimately Dev is able to free himself from the room of clocks with the help of a special wristwatch loaded with secret gimmicks that we didn't previously know he had. Why he had this watch is unclear, given that his character is just a jailer and not a secret agent or an international master criminal, but it's certainly a stroke of luck that he did. He then makes his escape from The Master's lair by stealing Saloni's roller skates and performing lots of obviously stunt-doubled backflips.

The terrible room of clocks exists on the opposite end of the death trap spectrum from the one in Main Balwaan in that, while obviously a lot of thought went into Main Balwaan's death trap, Warrant's was just as obviously made up on the spot -- influenced, no doubt, by the large number of clocks that could be found in the prop department. Still, this does not take away the fact that it is every bit as weird as the Main Balwaan death trap, and every bit as deserving of its place here. Terrible room of clocks, Masala Death Trap! salutes you!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Thai-style Kaiju: The films of Sompote Sands part X

Krai-Thong II (1985)

I had plenty of reasons to be apprehensive about this final installment of Thai-Style Kaiju. After all, over the course of these ten reviews, the catalog of Thai special effects pioneer Sompote Saengduenchai/aka Sompote Sands has offered very little to look forward to. On the one hand there were dull-as-rice-cakes entries like Pandin Wippayoke, whose central intrigue revolved around the disputed ownership of a certain water buffalo, while on the other there were sleaze-infused Japanese superhero mash-ups like Hanuman and the 5 Riders, which harbored at their core such a fundamental indecency that I had to wonder if I could be arrested just for watching them. Today’s chosen subject, Krai-Thong II, being the sequel to the solidly underwhelming Krai-Thong I, seemed to offer little hope of a break in that trend, and, as a result, I have been stricken with an overwhelming desire to drag my heels, which I’m sure you all will understand.

Still, I had to wonder if my procrastination in this matter was based simply on dread, and whether it was not instead the result, at least in part, of another set of feelings entirely. Could it be, I asked myself, that I was afraid of letting go? Given that my brain has been locked in combat with Sompote Sands for the better part of a year now, it is conceivable that ridiculing his movies has become a part of who I am -- that, without those movies, I might be rudderless, stripped of a facet of my identity without which I might be incapable of feeling whole. Such a feeling might explain the tinge of anxiousness that had, in recent days, crept into what, under normal circumstances, would have been just a leisurely bout of lollygagging on my part.

This whole episode came to a head with a dream that I had a couple of nights ago. In it, I was standing on a beach. The overcast sky above was like one big, lurid bruise, and the little light that was able to filter through imparted upon everything a dull, jaundiced glow that was evocative of neither day nor night. Beyond me was a troubled sea, the surface of which was blanketed as far as the eye could see with a layer of oily black pearls, and the tail wing of a 757 could be seen to intermittently break through, always in a different place, as if the passenger jet was swimming in circles just beneath the waves like some cyclopean metallic shark. And then there were the children; hundreds of them, eyeless, all standing silent and stock still, sentry-like, as if waiting to sense my presence and react.

As I surveyed this scene I could hear the desolate tones of Little Jimmy Scott singing “Someone to Watch Over Me”, so loud and enveloping that the entire landscape seemed to exist within them. Hearing the song as a warning, I tried to make my escape, but the sand beneath my feet was so yielding that every step sent me knee-deep into it, and I was only able to extricate myself with tremendous effort. Finally, just as panic began to take me in its grip, I saw a lone figure appear on the horizon, walking toward me. This was Sompote Sands. Though I had never seen him in reality, in my dream I could see, as he came into view, that he looked like a cross between George Takei and Minya from the Godzilla movies, only with tufts of coarse, dark hair all over his body like Feroz Khan. As he neared me, he smiled reassuringly and reached out.

I once had a blind man put his hand on my shoulder as he was asking directions and was struck by the disarming gentleness of his touch, as if his dependence upon this kind of contact had given him the innate ability to instantly put any stranger at ease. This was what Sompote Sands’ touch felt like as he put his hands on my shoulders and stared deeply into my eyes. “It’s going to be alright,” he said, in a voice that at once soothed and commanded. “Imagine that you are the crocodile from Crocodile, swimming inexorably forward, eating everything that you must eat in order to clear your path, be it man, skinny-dipping woman or child. Your proportions and scale will change with whatever perspective you are viewed from. Your puppet head can be either as big or as small as the task set before it requires. You will get through this.”

The crocodile from Crocodile features prominently in Krai-Thong II, just as it did in Krai-Thong I, which now makes two films – aside from, of course, Crocodile – in which the appearance of the crocodile from Crocodile is actually warranted, seeing as the Krai-Thong movies actually concern crocodiles. Of course, appropriateness was never high on the list of considerations when it came to Sompote Sands dragging out his giant puppet crocodile for a cameo in one of his pictures; The thing obviously represented a considerable investment of time and money for him, and could always be counted on to provide a little evidence of production value in even those films in which the sudden appearance of a giant crocodile made absolutely no sense at all. In this case, however, the happy circumstance of the beast being provided with a justifiable context inspired Sands to new heights of crocodile-themed profligacy, with the result that we end up getting an awful lot of face time with the rubbery critter.

Clearly the lesson that Sands learned from the first Krai-Thong’s success was that his audience loved to see crocodile attacks, and so, with Krai-Thong II, he decided to reward that audience for their support with a film that included almost nothing but. It’s quite funny until it starts to become repetitive, and then it becomes so repetitive that it becomes funny again. Time and time again, a peaceful village scene erupts into chaos as a boat containing two hapless villagers is tipped over by the croc, with the one straggler who doesn’t go into the drink right away being swept overboard by the creature’s wildly out-of-scale tail, after which we see him struggling mightily while clamped between the jaws of the giant puppet crocodile head. Occassionally, to mix things up, we’re given a scene of the croc chomping on some recreational swimmers, which begins to seem like more and more of an unlikely scenario once we’ve seen a dozen or so such attacks. Exactly who are these people who think that taking a leisurely dip is advisable when there is so obviously a 100% risk of a crocodile attack happening within the next two minutes?

Eventually, Sands and co. decide to spice things up by upping the gore quotient, and a group of willing amputees are recruited to smear their stumps with butcher’s remnants and scream “My leg! My leg!” or what have you, while reaction shots of people gasping in horror and averting their eyes drive home the tragic human dimensions of what we’re being presented with, despite the fact that it will invariably be followed by a “comedic” scene in which the crocodile repeatedly tries to bite a guy’s ass or a lady’s pants get pulled off during her death struggles. Of course, amid all of this heartwarming pageantry, we still have time for those signature moments that indelibly mark Krai-Thong II as Sands and Chaiyo Productions’ own. That’s right, those of you who thought we were going to get out of Krai-Thong II without seeing a child gorily killed or a water bufallo graphically shitting on a guy’s head were obviously living in some kind of delusional fairyland.

This is not to say that attempts aren’t made to tie Krai-Thong II in with the story of its Thai-folklore based predecessor, or indeed to provide Krai-Thong II with a story at all, because there sort of is one. Given that the diamond-toothed King of the Crocodiles played, in his human form, by Sombat Methanee was dispatched by our hero, the young Crocodile slayer Krai-Thong (Sorrapong Chatree), in the first film, we are now given a new upstart young pretender to the throne – and judging by his insatiable appetite for Thai villager cru, he’s quite a hungry one at that. As Krai-Thong has an extended cram session with his mentor to get his crocodile-slaying mojo back, the deadly new croc in town reaches for new heights of villainy by abducting one of Krai-Thong’s two lovely young wives, taking her back to his underwater cave (where all of the crocodiles assume human guise) to add to his own impressive collection of spouses.

Meanwhile, Sombat’s Crocodile King somehow manages to reincarnate himself in order to put his young rival in his place. A magical kung fu fight between the two ensues, replete with lots of subpar wire work and crude animated effects. Then it’s Krai-Thong’s turn to whup crocodile butt. After handily disposing of the junior croco-man, he takes Sombat on in yet another enchanted martial arts battle, and yet more of the same subpar wire work and crude animated effects are employed with much the same effect. So, essentially, Krai-Thong II sees out it’s final act in the guise of a bad 1980s kung fu movie. Still, I think the thing that you’ll ultimately take away from it is the fact that you’ve just seen about five hundred crocodile attacks perpetrated by a giant puppet in very rapid succession, which I imagine is something you will be able to say about few movies other than Krai-Thong II.

The fact that I kind of enjoyed Krai-Thong II on it own absurd and desperately idiotic terms serves as a reminder of the easy-to-forget fact that, amid the maelstrom of badness that Sands’ Chaiyo Productions unleashed, there are indeed bright moments to be found. For instance, Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, the film that kicked off my whole obsession with the man in the first place, is undeniably entertaining, while, within the body of his work that was not co-produced with the Japanese, his colorful, Ramakien-based mythological The Noble War proved to be a very pleasant surprise. On top of that, Tah Tien showed me a giant suitmation frog smoking a big cigarette, while Magic Lizard offered my eyes a giant frill-necked lizard who was able to fly by spinning his frill like a helicopter rotor. Ah, the wonders I have seen.

But now, at last, it is over. Never again will my eyes experience anew the dubious visual magic that comprised Sompote Sands’ life calling. As the bright, broad horizon of a Sands-free world opens up before me, I am reminded that, while it is true that one man’s dream can be another’s nightmare, sometimes, in the wake of such nightmares, one can find that his experience of life’s beauty has been heightened all the more. For this I owe Mr. Sands my heartfelt thanks.