Monday, November 29, 2010

Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics Episode 2: The Fantastic Argoman

Here, as promised, is the second installment of Steve Mayhem's Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics, this time guest hosted by yours truly. The subject: One of my favorite Italian costumed hero misadventures from the 60s, The Fantastic Argoman.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tars and Todd talk Taiwanese Monsters Part 2

Part 2 of my joint podcast with Tars of TarsTarkas.Net has just been posted over at Tars' site. With this episode, our rambling discussion continues, this time focusing in particular upon Taiwanese monsters and the annoying flying children who kill them.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sleepless (Egypt, 1958)

Sleepless (aka La Anam, or I Don't Sleep) is not only a classic of Egyptian cinema's golden age, but also one of the first Egyptian features to be shot in color. As the screen caps below clearly demonstrate, director Salah Abu Seif knew how to use Eastman Color's saturated hues to startling effect, and that makes this a film that's hard for me to resist. Be it the work of Bava, Chor Yuen, or Douglas Sirk, a Japanese exploitation film from the 70s or a Thai classic from the 60s, I've always been a sucker for a movie with a hyper-real color palette, and I'm no less mesmerized by Sleepless, a melodrama whose characters appear to be going through their life struggles while trapped inside an over-rich dessert.

The film, based on a controversial novel by author Ihsan Abd Al-Quddus, tells the story of Nadia, the pampered only child of a wealthy family who has been raised by her divorced father from the age of two. By the time we catch up with Nadia at the age of 16, it's become disconcertingly clear that, with her sexual awakening, her attachment to her father has taken on a romantic cast, and that her tolerance for being anything but the only woman in dad's life is nonexistent. Thus, when her father marries an adoring model housewife by the name of Safia (played by the very Anglo Mariam Fakhr Eddine), Nadia does everything in her power to sabotage the relationship, ultimately conjuring up an invented affair between Safia and her young uncle Aziz that drives her father to banish both parties from his home.

At the same time, Nadia attempts to sublimate her feelings by entering into an affair with Mostafa, a much older playboy with a modern apartment whose every accoutrement -- especially when held in contrast to the riot of bourgeois classicism on display in Nadia's family home -- virtually screams "cad". Nonetheless, she is racked with guilt over the unhappiness her deceptions have wrought upon her father, and attempts to set things right by introducing him to Kawthar, a sultry friend of hers from school (Hind Rostom, coming across here like the Arab world's answer to Rita Hayworth). Unfortunately, it's not until after dad has fallen for and married the young woman that Nadia discovers that Kawthar is merely on the grift, and already has a boyfriend on the side. Perversely determined to preserve her dad's marital happiness at all costs, Nadia decides that she must go to any length to conceal the affair, even going so far as entering into a sham marriage with Kawthar's lover.

Sleepless was a big hit in its day, due in no small part to its all star cast. Nadia is played by the legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, who -- given the intimations of emotional incest and the queasy, age inappropriate pairings she's depicted in -- we can at least be thankful was 25 at the time. And yes, that is Hamama's then-husband, a young and dashing Omar Sharif, in the role of uncle Aziz, then near the height of his stardom in Egyptian cinema, but still a few years off from making his English language debut in Lawrence of Arabia. On the whole, the cast commit themselves admirably to the overwrought proceedings, a feat made even more impressive by just how outrageous the subject matter must have seemed at the time.

Throughout Sleepless we hear Nadia speaking in voiceover, engaging in a one-way conversation with God in which she alternately begs Him for answers as to why she does the things she does and beseeches Him, in his role as "mighty avenger", to punish her for her sins. Whatever we think of Nadia's behavior, it is clear that she is suffering, and that, while she is fully aware of the destructive consequences of her actions, she feels nonetheless helplessly compelled to commit them. Given this, I was curious to see whether Sleepless, in its conclusion, would take a therapeutic or moralistic approach to Nadia, though I was not all that surprised to see it take the latter. Nadia's god, it turns out, is indeed merciless, and Sleepless, despite its challenging subject matter, is not quite as modern as its surface might at first lead you to think.

To say the least, I was disappointed to see the film ultimately show such a lack of compassion -- that a female character so well drawn could, in the end, not be seen for the wounded child that she was and instead had to be dealt with as being simply a destructive force worthy of divine retribution. Still, I have to admit that, as a visual stylist of unquestionable mastery, Salah Abu Seif still seduces, rolling out his creation with one stunning composition after the next. It's just a shame that, while we can still enjoy what he has so meticulously rendered in an aesthetic sense, in the end we have to do so with our heads and hearts on hold.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hitlar (Pakistan, 1986)

Pakistani action god Sultan Rahi would prove his invincibility in over 500 Punjabi language films over the course of his career. (Real life assassins would prove otherwise in 1996, but that's a subject for another, much sadder post.) Given that, you can't blame his producers for occasionally wanting to up the stakes a little. And what better way than to pit their star against the most hated villain of the 20th century... or, at least, his son?

Nonetheless, despite the novelty of its concept, Hitlar plays out like pretty much every other Sultan Rahi movie from its period, which means that we have Sultan and Mustafa Qureshi trying to yell each other to death for two hours before Qureshi bloodily dies in the final reel, while Anjuman shows up periodically to perform an energetic item number to a song voiced by Noor Jehan. And if you think that constitutes a spoiler, you have obviously never watched one of these movies.

For those of us who have, though, there is so much of the familiar in Hitlar that you might think it would be easy to lose sight of the unique gravity of the threat our hero faces. That is, if the film didn't see the need to constantly remind us. This it does by way of a liberally employed "Hitler" theme song, which is both thrillingly disco-fied and completely infectious (seriously, you will find yourself singing it in the streets, no doubt to appalled looks from passers by) and by having echo-laden, off-screen voices shout "HITLER!" at moments of particularly heightened drama -- which means pretty much all the time. And in case there is any doubt in your mind as to whether it is really that Hitler that's being referred to, there are the numerous, swastika-featuring portraits of the man himself that adorn our villain's lair, which essentially serve as the filmmakers' way of saying, "Yes, we totally went there".

And that villain, of course, is Hitlar, the ill-fitting Shirley-Temple-meets-Louis-XIV wig wearing son of Hitler, who, as a shouty prologue narration informs us, fled Germany following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (by Germany, apparently) and found happiness in the arms of a Pakistani woman somewhere in the Punjab. (I owe a great debt, BTW, to Omar Khan for his review of Hitlar over at The Hot Spot Online, which was indispensable as a guide to the finer details of the un-subtitled film's plot.) Old Adolph appears to have passed on sometime between then and the events of this film, but that does not prevent young Hitlar from seeking the counsel of his dad, whom he refers to as "Master", via frequent soliloquies directed toward those aforementioned portraits.

As is typical of the villains portrayed by Mustafa Qureshi in these films, there is a tragic aspect to Hitlar, and a history that frames his despicable acts as being as much the product of pain as malicious intent. Clearly Hitlar has his own scores to settle, as well as his own steely sense of honor to uphold, which means that, as it has been since the two actors first paired off against each other in the classic Maula Jatt,  Qureshi and Rahi are depicted as being, to some extent, two sides of the same coin. In flashback, we see that life in Pakistan has not always been Springtime for the Hitlers. As a child, Hitlar was forced to watch as his beloved uncle was murdered in cold blood by a fearsome local bandit, thus leading to the boy's first, embryonic attempts at the throaty bellowing of bone curdling, vengeful oaths.

In present time, this seething lust for payback has translated into Hitlar terrorizing the people of his small village by having his thugs repeatedly raze the place and assassinate its most prominent citizens. This scenario has a rural-centric aspect to it that reminds me of  the Filipino Darna films. The idea that the offspring of one of history's most coldblooded seekers of empire would be content to exercise his thirst for domination over a dusty patch of rural Pakistan seems much like those films in which invaders from another planet seem to have specifically targeted for conquest the tiny, jungle-bound village in the Philippines that  the superheroine Darna's alter ego calls home.

In any case, the first encounter between the forces of Hitlar and "Sultan" -- the virtuous, mother-loving village boy played by an anything but boyish Rahi -- occurs at the center of what appears to be a stunt racing track, where Sultan witnesses one of the gang's assassinations. This creates the opportunity for one of those fights, rich with flipping, flying kicks and exaggerated Superman leaps, that are the bread-and-butter of Hitlar, while giving us the simultaneous spectacle of a beat-up car somewhat pointlessly circling the combatants at 90 degree angles.

Once Sultan has been established as a threat to Hitlar and his gang, the son of Hitler decrees that he should be eliminated... by bears. We are thus gifted with a scene in which Sultan Rahi fights for his life against a trio of guys in shabby bear costumes, which is so awesome that I won't even attempt to describe it beyond that. Suffice it to say that the attempt is unsuccessful, thanks in part to the intervention of a notorious bandit leader by the name of Rustam Khan, who, for the benefit of those who feel that Hitlar does not have enough plot already, is later revealed to be Sultan's father.

The bear attack sets off the cycle of alternately yelling and punching-based confrontations between Hitlar and Sultan that will make up the bulk of Hitlar's running time, the most stirring of these being a fight that takes place atop a people-mover. Like many of Rahi's movies, Hitlar proceeds as if its script was just one big exclamation point, its every scene the buildup to an apocalyptic crescendo that is endlessly postponed. To the resultant furious tempo, helmer Idrees Khan's unique directorial quirks add an element of the fevered. In addition to the usual tilty-cam style of cinematography, the director has a fondness for psychedelic optical effects that ensure the viewers eyes no respite from assault. Nor will that viewer's ears be spared, thanks to the traditional employment of thunder crashes, non plot-driven sirens, and everyone's lusty shouting being made to sound like the voice of god thanks to liberal use of the echo-plex.

On the merciful side, those ears will be happy to learn that most of the songs in Hitlar are actually quite nice, and Khan's picturizations of them often quite interesting as well. This compliments the director's particular approach to visual symbolism, which seems to center around a yen for depicting large groups of any one particular item -- feathers, oranges, scarves, discs baring Hitlar's name -- floating through the air in slow motion.

Of course, all of that is just garnish, the meat of the dish being that this is a movie in which Sultan Rahi fights the son of Hitler, and that the son of Hitler is depicted therein as being a strangely effeminate, adult incarnation of Little Lord Fontleroy who is nonetheless capable of besting an opponent with a flying kung fu kick. It sounds too good to be true, I know, but the fact is that the end product is deliriously entertaining. And for those moments where you feel your brain pulling away from the proceedings, convinced that what it is perceiving cannot actually be, the film's soundtrack is always happy to offer a helpful reminder: "HITLAAAR!!"

Friday, November 19, 2010

Battle of the babbling bloggers... from Hell!

So, Tars Tarkas and I got together a few days back and had a VERY rambling conversation that mostly concerned Taiwanese fantasy martial arts films with people wearing rubber monster costumes in them... and now YOU, you lucky devil, can listen to it in all its lo-fi glory, thanks to the podcast that Tars has just posted over at his site, Thrill as we fill the air with random and unfounded speculation -- in some cases about movies that we haven't even seen -- and digress onto a variety of topics that include Korean knock-off toys and Sean Connery's diaper. Truly, the internet will never be the same.

Weird weird movie

Have you ever sat down and really thought about just how fucking weird the movie Wild Wild Planet is? I have, and you can now view the results of my ruminations, which have just been posted over at Teleport City.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics Episode 1: Lunatic Frog Women

As promised, here's the debut episode of my pal Steve Mayhem's video blog Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics, this time dealing with the extremely well-named, cheapjack Taiwanese actioner Lunatic Frog Women. (And, hey, isn't that Cheng Pei Pei in the role of chief frog woman?) As mentioned earlier, I'll be acting as an on-again-off-again guest host on the vlog starting with Episode 2, which I'll be posting in two weeks time. In the meantime, both Steve and I are eager to hear your feedback, so please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Asesinos de Otros Mundos (Mexico, 1971)

For me, Asesinos de Otros Mundos was the movie that started it all. That’s not to say that is was the first Santo film I ever saw; in fact, far from it. But, for some reason, it was the first Santo film I ever saw that made me slam my fist decisively on the arm of my sofa and declare that I simply had to document my reactions to it in writing. As such, it became the first film reviewed for The Lucha Diaries, the project that would launch me on my illustrious career as a guy writing about movies that nobody cares about on the internet for no money or prestige.

Now, while elegant in its own way, my initial review of Asesinos was done in the elliptical, self-obsessed fashion typical of my early Lucha Diaries efforts, and as such doesn’t shine as much light on its putative subject as I would become accustomed to doing once I became more, er, seasoned. Given that –- and following upon a recent re-viewing of this treasure –- I decided it was time to give Asesinos de Otros Mundos its due. And so it begins…

A madman is holding Mexico in a grip of terror, his weapon a creature at once so baffling and terrifying that its confused victims don’t know whether to scream or piss themselves laughing:

If you guessed “marauding space blob realized by way of roughly a dozen people scurrying around clumsily underneath a shabby looking tarp”, give yourself a big 4DK pat on the back.

Asesinos de Otros Mundos is that rare Santo film that jumps right into the action, and so, following the opening credits, we are immediately shown a rapid series of hilarious deaths, after which the authorities determine that there is only one man to deal with the situation: El Enmascarado de Plata, SANTO! No sooner has El Santo arrived at the office of National Police Chief O’Connor (Marcos Antonio Campos), than the aforementioned madman, Malkosh (waxy font of villainy Carlos Agosti), appears on the TV demanding $10 million in gold within 24 hours or else. Then he laughs. MWA HA HA HA!

Santo, Chief O’Connor and some other officials take advantage of the 24 hour deadline to argue amongst themselves in a conference room decorated with a photo of Marilyn Monroe and essentially do nothing of consequence. As a result, the deadline passes and more random people have the flesh stripped from their bones by the space blob. It is then decided that perhaps it might be best to pay Malkosh the ransom. But the authorities have a trick up their sleeve: SANTO!

Our hero stows away aboard the plane delivering the loot, and when Malkosh and his cronies arrive to greet it, he emerges like a whirlwind of slightly paunchy, middle-aged fury. Unfortunately, Santo underestimates his foe somewhat, and when Malkosh takes to a car to make his getaway, Santo finds that running directly toward it while waving his arms is not sufficient to make it stop.

Santo is knocked out by the force of Malkosh’s car driving directly into him at high speed and, when he wakes up, he finds himself in Malkosh’s lair, where he is forced to do battle with a couple of gladiators on the same set where they faked the moon landing.

Lucha movie novices may be confused by the epic length of this gladiator sequence, but keep in mind that, in Asesinos de Otros Mundos, this stands in for what, in any other Santo movie, would be a lengthy, statically shot and totally non-plot-driven sequence of Santo fighting some anonymous opponent in the ring. So consider yourselves lucky.

Anyway, when Santo proves more than a match for the gladiators, Malkosh decides to call in a guy in a heat suit with a flamethrower to make things interesting. However, Santo makes short work of pretty much everybody by grabbing a machine gun away from one of Malkosh’s guards and letting loose. Malkosh himself is mortally wounded, but before he dies, he takes Santo to his lab to show him the moon rock from which the space blob came. (On an autobiographical, human interest note: When I was eight, I waited in line for an hour to see the moon rock. It was totally boring, and by that I mean in a “not at all having a ravenous, rapidly evolving space bacteria attached to it” kind of way.)

Sadly for Malkosh, he is eaten by the escaped blob before having the pleasure of dying from his many Santo-inflicted bullet wounds. And thus it would seem that, only a third of the way into Asesinos de Otros Mundos, we have lost our villain, but it is of no matter. For word has gotten out, and now every bad guy in town wants to have a murderous space blob of his own. Chief among these is the frothing gangster Licur (Juan Gallardo), who keeps both captives and minions alike –- including his girlfriend -- in check by means of locked collars that emit poison gas at his command.

Licur goes about achieving his goal by kidnapping Professor Bernstein (hey, it’s Santo’s manager, Carlos Suarez), a noble scientist who’s in possession of another blob-bearing moon rock, along with Bernstein’s daughter Karen (Sasha Montenegro, in a shattering array of psychedelic cat suits). Fortunately, Santo is able to take one look at some dirt found on the shoe of one of Licur’s captured henchmen and determine exactly where his hideout is. Now all that lies between him and glory is a greasy expanse of pulsating plastic sheeting,

Now, if I understand correctly, the blob here is described as being sort of like a tumor, which means that Asesinos de Otros Mundos itself could be described as the film in which Santo punches cancer in the face -- or, at least, you might think so. The fact is, however, that Santo never actually fights the blob in Asesinos de Otros Mundos. You see, given that Santo’s super power is wrestling, an amorphous mass of tissue makes for a particularly poor opponent, thanks in no small part to the difficulty inherent in assessing its weak points. As I pointed out in my first review, even if Santo was able to lift the blob up and twirl it around over his head, how would he know which end of it to then slam down upon the mat? Surely head-butting it would be inadvisable.

So what Santo instead does when confronted with the blob is run away. A lot. He also fulfills his role as protector mainly by encouraging those in his charge to also run away from the blob whenever possible. Now that I think of it, this may be the main thing that director Ruben Galindo -- who also directed Santo vs. Las Lobas, a film in which Santo gets quite scared by, and then runs away from, some dogs -- contributes to the whole Santo mythos: this whole idea of Santo as a super hero who employs the tactic of getting frightened and running away as part of his whole crime fighting bag of tricks.

Anyway, in a manner that some might describe as predictable (cuh!), Santo makes his way to Licur’s hideout, making quick work of him and his minions before ultimately leaving them all to die by their own evil creation! He then frees Karen and her father, setting the stage for Asesinos de Otros Mundos’ thrilling, 100% running away finale.

For some reason, in my first review of Asesinos de Otros Mundos, I described it as being something of a terrible movie. However, upon watching it again, I now find it to be a warm slice of pure B movie bliss. This is perhaps because, in the intervening years, I have seen just how bad a Santo movie can be, and have adjusted my standards accordingly. But really, I think that you, too, will share my appreciation for Asesinos de Otros Mundos if you are willing to take part in the following, thoroughly undemanding little brain exercise : Think of The Creeping Terror. Now think of The Creeping Terror, but with a masked wrestler beating up bad guys added to it. See? It’s a clear case of the perfect made perfect-er.

On top of that, Asesinos de Otros Mundos generously affords me one of the greatest joys of watching Santo movies, and that’s seeing our star repeatedly acting upon what are quite obviously the shouted instructions of his director in absolutely the most literal-minded manner possible. (“OK, Santo, now run toward the car and wave your arms!”) There’s really no “lose” here. And so I must congratulate myself, once again, for giving my fledging interwebs film writing project such an appropriate and auspicious start. After these long years, Asesinos de Otros Mundos has become like the sickening, pulsating blob that now sits where my heart used to be.