Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mystery Thai Theater Part 1

The good news is that a pal of mine returned from his trip to Thailand with an armload of VCDs for me. The bad news is that, thanks to the fact that all of the writing on these VCDs is in Thai –- and that the discs themselves are not subtitled -- I have only been able to identify a very few of them. As for the remainder, I’ve decided to go ahead and review them as best I can, under made-up titles that I nonetheless feel reflect 100% journalistic accuracy as far as the actual contents of the films. If anyone, upon reading these descriptions, feels that they can provide any more information on the titles in question, please get in touch.

Punched by a Girl (Thailand, 198?)

This one was a bait-and-switch of the lowest order. The illustration on both the sleeve and the disc itself depicts two women in colorful masks and black cat-suits brandishing pistols, which lead me to believe that it would be a cheesy but potentially fun costumed hero caper. In reality what it is is an utterly generic action film starring Jarunee Suksawat, who made a good many such films back in the day. And because it’s a Thai film made in the 80s, whatever god Sorapong Chatree offended decrees that he also must be in it, and that he must do so swathed from head to toe in acid washed denim.

As far as the plot, I can’t tell you much other than that it begins with Jarunee and her (I think) sister’s (I think) mom being killed by a bunch of thugs, which leads to the (I think) sisters seeking vengeance upon the thugs with the help of the (I think) policeman played by Chatree. To the film’s credit, it jumps right into the action from the get go. Unfortunately, that action consists entirely of tepidly staged fights, shootouts and foot chases set in nondescript clearings. By the end of the film we’ve never seen the masks depicted on the sleeve -- nor have we seen the also depicted giant diamond, or the pick-up truck leaping through a massive explosion while itself also exploding. It’s almost like the makers of this VCD wanted my friend to buy it despite its subpar contents. I suspect some kind of profit motive was involved.

Love Me, Love My Guitar (Thailand, 199?)

A boy and a girl are in love. They talk on the phone, walk through parks very slowly, and rendezvous at gazebos. A guitar is present for much of this, though it is never played. Meanwhile, a goofy kid with an awesome MC Hammer wardrobe returns home to his parents after an apparent long absence. His mom is played by an obvious tranny. (Oh Thailand!) All of this is accompanied by instrumental versions of a scrotum-shriveling assortment of 70s and 80s light rock hits: “Nights in White Satin”, “A Woman in Love”, “All By Myself”, “I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again”, Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” and -- oh, what the hell, why not throw in “The Theme from Shaft” while we’re at it.

(Sigh.) High-waisted jeans are worn. A bottle of Black Label is consumed. Sad things, happy things, and even putatively hilarious things happen; life’s rich pageant. Example: a girl is crippled in a car accident -- and the boy is responsible! She becomes bitter and spends the rest of the movie crying. That is (spoiler!), until she suddenly finds herself able to walk again for some reason. I think it has something to do with the power of love.

Despite the fact that the lack of subtitles made it utterly impossible for me to understand what was going on, there is nothing you could say to convince me that this is not a horrible movie. I don’t blame my friend, though, because the VCD sleeve has a picture of a guy rocking out on a guitar while a stock car flies over his head. Fuck you, Thailand.

King Mustache (Thailand, 197?)

The sleeve for this disc sports an illustration of a guy with a truly magnificent mustache. However, once we pop the disc into our player what we see is Sorapong Chatree crawling through a field, trying not to awaken a pair of sleeping gunmen and ultimately doing a face plant in a big pile of animal dung. Dammit, this is that fucking Sompote Sands movie about the water buffalo. There is no way I’m watching that again.

Violence Man (Thailand, 197?)

In this one Sorapong Chatree comes home to the humble shack inhabited by his parents only to find that they have been murdered by a gang of vicious thugs who were apparently seeking information about some kind of hidden treasure or something. And, OMG, you’ll never guess what happens: Sorapong and his fringed jacket set out to bring the thugs to justice with the power of violence. Ears are lopped off, faces enthusiastically spin-kicked, eyes gouged and… well, let’s just say that, this being a Thai action film, no hut is safe from the ravages of fire and various combustibles.

Sorapong finds an ally in his violencing in the form of fellow Thai superstar Sombat Methanee, who has had problems of his own with the thugs. Sadly, those thugs eventually catch up to Sombat, killing his wife and forcing him and his small son to go on the run. At this point the movie develops something resembling an actual plot and thus becomes hopelessly incomprehensible. Somehow Sorapong and Sombat end up involved with different factions that are both competing to find whatever buried thing it is that everyone is trying to find. This gives us the opportunity to witness a Sorapong vs. Sombat throw-down before Thailand’s heavily militarized police force shows up to blow the fuck out of all the huts that have been left undamaged during the previous two hours. (I was weighing the option of giving this movie the alternate title Shack Attack!)

To its credit, this movie has more than its fair share of gore, violence, exploding huts, kung fu, nudity, soft-core sex, and exploding huts. Still, the best thing I can say about it is that it’s the most enjoyable out of this particular batch of films, which is known as either “damning with faint praise” or “conducting a taste test where the only thing you’re tasting is various kind of poo”. If not the actual title, I hope that someone can at least provide me with the name of the Godfrey Ho ninja movie that this film undoubtedly later found itself cobbled into.

That’s all the muddled incomprehension there is for now, folks. But be sure to watch for the next exciting installment of Mystery Thai Theater!

UPDATE 1/1/2012: Well, once again, being loudly ignorant on the internet has reaped rich rewards -- this time as a result of the efforts of the marvelous Ninja Dixon and Regis of ThaiWordView.  Regis informs me that, in the case of the films I dubbed Punched by a Girl and Violence Man, the VCDS are the product of an outfit called Lepso, who are notorious for their misleading packaging, often using text and artwork for either a completely different film or using artwork that is a mash-up of images from several different sources. ThaiWorldView has an extremely helpful page detailing a number of Lepso's releases, identifying both the actual titles of those releases and, where applicable, the titles of the films represented by their packaging.

Though it pains me to let go of that title, Regis tells me that Punched by a Girl is actually a film whose Thai title Google Translate helpfully renders as Crystal Rose, while it's packaging -- featuring the two masked heroines -- pertains to another Jarunee Suksawat/Sorapong Chatree film from 1983 whose title Google Translate was much less helpful withA review of that latter film appears on this page of ThaiWorldView. As far as Violence Man, Regis informs me that that is actually a 1981 film whose Thai title Google Translate puckishly asserts would be Tire Scheme, perhaps if coined by an autistic English speaker with an advanced sense of whimsy. Again, ThaiWorldView has provided a review of that film, which can be found on this page.

I will return with another update once I've been gifted with additional information from other parties who, like Regis and Ninja, are not only less lazy, but also considerably more generous and more well informed than myself.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Alupihang Dagat (Philippines, 1975)

In the Philippines you need only call him “FPJ”, but, to outsiders, Fernando Poe Jr. might need a bit more of an introduction. One of the most iconic stars of Tagalog cinema, Poe was also among the first Filipino actors to seize the reigns of production for himself, producing upward of a hundred self-starring pictures under his FPJ Productions banner and others. Poe was also a frequent director of these films, the 1975 hit Alupihang Dagat being just one of many he helmed under the pseudonym Ronwaldo Reyes.

In Alupihang Dagat, FPJ plays Gomer, the son of a humble fishing village where the men sail out to sea and the women stay behind to dive for sponge. At the story’s outset, we learn that the village has been troubled by a spate of disappearances on the part of its seafaring youngsters. Gomer learns of this upon returning from an extended voyage, and soon sets out in his tiny skiff to get to the bottom of things. Eventually he stumbles upon the island hideout of a band of modern day pirates who, under the leadership of a female captain named Odessa (Elizabeth Oropesa, who would later appear in a considerably more buttoned-down role as the wife of Ramon Revilla in The Killing of Satan), are responsible for kidnapping and enslaving many of Gomer’s friends and neighbors.

As observed by Gomer, the pirates reveal themselves to be a savage and imbecilic lot, fighting amongst themselves for sport and, at one point, staging a fight between two randy male horses that, while foreshadowing a climactic moment in the film, makes Alupihang Dagat guaranteed unpleasant viewing for animal lovers. Eventually Gomer is captured by the brutes and put at the mercy of Odessa, who wastes no time in subjecting him to a series of sexually charged humiliations. However, seeing as FPJ is blessed with the chiseled features and powerful physique that say “matinee idol” in any language (not to mention that he has some truly awe inspiring sideburns), it is not long before Odessa has fallen for Gomer and freed him from his bonds. This act ends up having unfortunate consequences for her, and the film’s last act sees Gomer fighting to rescue Odessa from a vengeful band of her former compatriots lead by the ever-cretinous Vic Diaz.

Poe scores high marks as a director with Alupihang Dagat. He captures the day-to-day life of Gomer’s village with an affectionate attention to detail while making great use of the film’s rugged seaside locales. At the same time, there is a palpable air of melancholy hanging over these opening scenes that, even without the aid of English subtitles, communicates that the villagers have seen happier times. While I don’t have a broad enough experience of Filipino cinema to say for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Poe’s downcast and gritty depiction of the lives of the working poor here was influenced by the recent work of Lino Brocka. The film then neatly switches gears in its final third to become a definitive example of Filipino “Goon” cinema, with seeming armies of mustachioed stuntmen being hurled this way and that as Poe and Oropesa let loose on some especially imposing looking machine guns.

Poe the actor also makes a definite impression here, though I have to admit that, for me, he was somewhat overshadowed by Elizabeth Oropesa in the role of Odessa. I must further admit that this is in no small part due to the wide assortment of short-shorts and fetish boots that the fetching Oropesa wears throughout the film, not to mention the fox stole that she at one point, for some reason, rocks as a hat. (Shades of Wolf Devil Woman.) I am not alone in being moved by Oropesa, it seems, as, soon after Alupihang Dagat’s successful run, she was picked to reprise her role as Odessa –- this time front and center -- in Mariposang Dagat. For those eager to keep apace, recent years have seen the actress reveal a lifelong ability to see spooks and predict the future, embarking on a new career as a spiritual healer and medium, so there’s also that.

As some readers have been quick to remind me, I am long overdue in introducing FPJ to the pages of 4DK. Now that I have -- and have in fact found the process quite enjoyable, with or without Elizabeth Oropesa’s booty shorts -- I hope that it will be the beginning of a long and happy relationship. Alupihang Dagat is a truly engaging piece of Pinoy pop cinema, combining a populist heart with a cineaste’s eye for style while at the same time never forgetting to deliver those oh-so-important cheap thrills.

International man of knowing stuff about things

Recently I was interviewed by Helena Gustavsson for the Swedish weekly ETC on the topic of spy films from many lands -- a topic about which you, and now Helena, know that I can go on at epoch-spanning length. The mercifully condensed results can now be seen here. Interested readers of the non-Swedish-speaking variety will have to rely on Google Translate, but I think the gist of it is still gettable. Njut!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Friday's best pop song ever

Santa mob tonight!

Tonight the Drive-In Mob is going to get all seasonally-appropriate with a Santa Claus theme. Fortunately for us, all movies concerning Santa Claus are of an unassailably high quality. Exhibit 1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Science fiction or science fact? Fire it up on Netflix Instant at 8pm EST and judge for yourself. Second up at 9:30 EST, and also on Netflix Instant, is Santa Claus -- or, if you want to get racial about it, "Mexican Santa Claus". If you didn't see this movie as a kid, congratulations! That's just that many more nightmares that you didn't have.

As always, those who want to tweet or follow along need only use the #DriveInMob hashtag on Twitter. Be sure to check out the official Drive-In Mob site for all the details. Sleigh you there!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Kosmicheskiy Reys, aka Cosmic Journey (USSR, 1935)

Whether or not you’re a retro-future fetishist like myself, you’ve got to admit that the farther away cinema was from the actual nuts and bolts of space travel, the better it made it look. Despite some obvious nods to the scientific realism of Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond, the 1935 Soviet silent Kosmicheskiy Reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella (The Space Voyage: A Fantastic Story) seems to model its idea of space exploration on the comparatively more prosaic earthly pursuit of travel by ocean liner, with astronauts packing heavy suitcases for their trip and boarding massive, streamlined “space planes” via gangplanks while wearing their Sunday best. This is a future I want.

Kosmicheskiy Reys was originally conceived by director Vasili Zhuraviyov in 1924, but only saw production in the early 1930s due to the urging of the Communist Union of Youth, who wanted a film to inspire interest in space travel on the part of Soviet youngsters. Despite this chronology, I have to wonder if some filming had not been completed on Kosmicheskiy Reys previous to that time, as, while a few silent films were still being released in the U.S.S.R. in 1935, the lack of soundtrack combined with the under-cranked look of much of the film makes it seem pretty anachronistic, sophisticated effects notwithstanding.

The film centers around the efforts of Sedych (Sergie Komarov), a grandfatherly scientist at the U.S.S.R.’s Institute of Interplanetary Communication who has decided that it would be a good idea to use one of the giant spaceships they have lying around to go to the moon, thus opening “the way to space”. For this journey he recruits the handsome young post grad Victor (Nikolai Feoktistov), not knowing that Victor has been recruited in turn by the Institute’s director, Professor Karin (Vasili Kovrigin), to put a stop to Sedych’s plan -- the stated reason being that Sedych is too old to withstand the as of yet untested rigors of space travel. Karin would instead prefer to continue launching experimental probes manned by hapless bunnies and kitty cats until he can be assured that such a mission would be safe for humans. Sedych, with all the impatient candor of a man whose mortal horizon is clearly in view, says that he thinks this is “bullshit” and that Karin is a “pussy” (admittedly I was lip reading Russian there, so those may not have been his exact words, but that’s the gist).

Fortunately, Victor’s teenage brother Andriusha (Vassili Gaponenko) is made from all the good, progressive Soviet stock that was so obviously in short supply when his turncoat brother was forged, and outs Victor to Sedych. Come the day of the launch, the kid then arrives at the site with a troop of his fellow scouts (I’m guessing these are Young Pioneers, rather than Communist Union of Youth scouts, due to their young ages) who physically prevent both Karin and Victor from interfering. With a cry of “long live youth”, Sedych then boards the ship to the delighted cheers of the children, though not before Andriusha can sneak aboard with him. Sedych’s assistant Marina (K. Moskalenko) is also along for the mission, meaning that, in this film, the first humans on the moon will be an old man, a woman, and a little kid. Whine as much as you want about this being propaganda, but that’s still cool as shit.

As indicated above, Kosmicheskiy Reys’ special effects sequences are ambitious and, for their time, impressively executed. Quite understandably, Zhuravlyov spends a lot of time lingering on them, and, for the most part, they stand up to the scrutiny. It’s not so much that they fool the eye, but that they so effectively contribute to the film’s overall sense of grandeur. The miniature work powerfully communicates the mammoth scale of the space ship, and the scenes of the astronauts giddily flying from one end of the craft’s interior to the other, despite a visible wire here and there, depict the experience of weightlessness with an infectious sense of euphoria. Finally, those scenes of the crew traversing the moon’s surface –- which involve a lot of buoyant leaping across crevasses and up and down peaks -- are realized by way of some really delightful stop motion animation work. Not that theose scenes look in any way “real”, mind you, but they nonetheless add a welcome playfulness to a film that might otherwise be weighted down by its solemn sense of import. (Though, according to Wikipedia, those animated sequences, and their failure to conform to the tenets of “socialist realism”, were cited by Soviet censors as the reason they removed Kosmicheskiy Reys from circulation soon after its release. Oh, well.)

Even with all of its pomp and bold stroke revolutionary allegory, it’s hard not to get caught up in Komicheskiy Reys’ enthusiasm for the human project of space exploration -- especially, I think, for someone like me who has childhood memories of the excitement that surrounded the original moon landing and the missions leading up to it. In the end, after a brief episode of peril on the moon’s surface, the triumphant cosmonauts return to a spontaneous parade and the adulation of an adoring public. Even the haters who initially stood in their way are now all smiles. Wesley… er, I mean Andriusha in particular ends up being the hero of the day, cementing this as a movie that I would have absolutely loved to death when I was a little kid.

By the way, Komicheskiy Reys places its action in the far off year of 1946. As we all know, a lot happened between 1935 and 1946 to distract us from the project of manned space travel (except for those Nazis, of course, who apparently sent flying saucers to the moon). But, who knows? Perhaps, had fate not intervened, we might have been shooting off to the cosmos in flying ocean liners during the Truman administration. Probably not, though. And, in any case, it likely wouldn’t have looked nearly as cool as it does in this movie.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Friday's best pop song ever: FHx2

Because choosing just two was hard enough.

Drive-In Mob tonight!: a note from the VP

The VP, of course, being Vincent Price, who will be the subject of tonight’s Drive-In Mob, starting up promptly at 8pm EST. First up will be The Conqueror Worm, which I’m pretty sure is the movie that the Ohio Players song “Funky Worm” came from, though don’t quote me on that. Second up is The Last Man on Earth, which will provide a nice point of comparison to last week’s Drive-In Mob feature, The Omega Man, which was, like it, also based on Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”. Both films are available from Netflix Instant. To follow and/or tweet along, simply use the Twitter hashtag #driveinmob. (Though, in this case, you might just want to watch along, as these are both pretty good movies.) Please check out the official Drive-In Mob site for full details.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Los Demonias del Desierto (Mexico, 1990)

Okay, show of hands: Who else felt a little empty inside after reading my review of La Venganza de los Punks, knowing that that would likely be the last they heard of the cartoonish anti-protagonists of that film and its predecessor, Intrepidos Punks? Well, it turns out that the threat posed to Mexico by roving bands of punk rock bikers who worship Satan and The Road Warrior in equal measure was greater than we thought. Because, while not employing the same personnel, 1990’s Los Demonias del Desierto (Demons of the Desert) follows the template set by the Punks films so closely that we can safely consider it a sequel in spirit, if not in fact.

Yes, it’s true; gone is the gang’s luchadore-masked leader, Tarzan. But in his place we now have the wild-eyed cultist played by Sergio Bustamante, Father Damien, in a performance that seems like a desperate warning to the future concerning Brando’s Dr. Moreau. And to be honest, Father Damien seems like just the guiding hand that the formerly somewhat scattershot punks needed, channeling their putatively youthful energies toward a clearly defined goal. That goal, in this case, is the overthrow of our corrupt, consumerist society, the method, apparently, being the occupation of people’s hearts and minds. By bullets.

Just how bad is this band of satanipunks, you ask? Oh, I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of one of its members SHOOTING HIS OWN MOTHER at Damien’s urging -- an opening scene that, if unsubtle, at least does an economical job of orienting us within the film’s moral universe. Later the gang will ambush a nice nuclear family on their road trip, then shoot dad and grandpa before dragging mother and son back to their camp. Oh, but first our lead punkette -- whose blue fright wig makes her look like she has a tribble on her head -- has to get sexy with the dad’s corpse, because Los Demonias del Desierto is just classy like that.

Fortunately for the punks -- or so it would seem -- the police officers assigned to their case are surely the two most elderly on the force. These are brothers Carlos and Tony, played by brothers Fernando and Mario Almada. Both Amadas are perennial stars of Mexican action cinema, with Mario especially appearing in a whole mess of narcotraficante movies. Clearly their reputations are meant to precede them here, because when we look at Carlos and Tony, we are meant to see, not two men who have clearly chosen on-the-job coronaries over retirement, but 100% stud material. To this end, we see these codgers effortlessly putting the beat down on hoodlums young enough to be their grandchildren and romancing a pair of beauties easily 40 years their junior. In what I’m guessing is a further attempt to bolster their manliness, we are also this time given a designated gay punk biker for Carlos and Tony to call “faggot” and “queer” all over the place; meaning that, like the Punks movies before it, Los Demonias achieves the staggering feat of making its heroes even more repellent than its villains.

Carlos and Tony’s ladies are named Linda and Julia, and given the time-saving requirements of Los Demonias’ skeletal narrative, we can be assured that, once we have met them, it is not long before their peace and safety will be compromised. And, sure enough, it is only in the next scene that they are accosted by the punks at a lonely roadside spot. Julia is killed, and Linda is taken back to the camp for later sacrifice. Once there, we see that it may be Father Damien’s in-house medium, Samantha, who is really calling the shots, seeing as she determines each of his moves via the draw of the tarot -- and is also responsible for dishing out the brainwashing potion that turns their young captives into mother-killing degenerates. No woman, however, is any match for the double fisted, geriatric power slam that is the team of officers Carlos and Tony, especially now that the gang has messed with their love supply.

Los Demonias del Desierto will not disappoint fans of the Intrepidos Punks films who come to it expecting a sleazy, ridiculous piece of crap. It’s just that good. My only complaint is that the musical score doesn’t reach for the same level of authenticity as that of Intrepidos Punks, which featured an at-least-trying-to-be-punk theme by the Mexican group Three Souls In My Mind. Instead what we get is a hideous marriage of synth and sax that could have graced any of Kenny Loggins’ shitty movie songs from the 80s -- all the more reason to hate these Demons, seeing as having horrible taste in music is the worst sin that a punk could commit. Other than that, the outfits didn’t reach the level of outlandishness of the previous films, but I’m not going to split hairs. I mean, why be a punk about it, right?