Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Infernal Brains Podcast, Episode 5

In this latest episode of the Infernal Brains, Tars Tarkas and I wrap up our lively discussion of Turkish superhero movies. You can download the podcast here, or stream it with a nifty slideshow below.

And if you missed part one of the discussion, look no further...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Zagor: Kara Korsanin Hazineleri (Turkey, 1971)

Though I doubt any of you have been feeling a gaping, Zagor sized hole in your lives, the fact is that, back when I reviewed Zagor: Kara Bela, I promised that I would also review its sequel, Zagor: Kara Korsanin Hazineleri, and dammit, that is a promise I plan on keeping. To refresh your memory, this is a Turkish film adaptation of an Italian comic book depicting frontier life in the old American west we’re talking about, so be sure to take notes for your next history exam. The 19th century superhero Zagor returns, along with his trusty hatchet and his staggeringly racist sidekick, Chico, a fat Mexican stereotype who again sleeps and eats his way through the entire picture and also has a hilarious bit we’re he snores exaggeratedly. Moving on…

Some English speaking viewers might bemoan Zagor: Kara Korsanin Hazineleri’s lack of subtitles, but not I, as that lack allowed me to coast through the film’s various convolutions swathed in a cocoon of ignorance. I can’t really tell you what it was about -- though there were pirates involved -- but I think that my inability to focus on the particulars of plot enabled me to see all the more clearly Zagor: Kara Korsanin Hazineleri’s true strengths. Compared to it’s predecessor, I’d say that the film has a near perfect balance of talky-ness and fighty-ness, in that, while the talking parts are quite talky, the fighting parts are also very fighty, and also plentiful. I actually began to wonder if star Levent Cakir had a background in professional wrestling, so profligate was his employment of flying scissor holds and the like. It was almost like watching a Dara Singh movie, except with way more cartwheels.

But just as much strangling.

So, yes, there are pirates, as I mentioned, and a pirate’s treasure (in fact, the title translates as something like “The Treasure of the Black Pirate”), as well as a lead actress with tremendous hooters (not mentioned in the title) who spends most of the film being captured and/or imperiled. What is sadly lacking is a villain clad in a black hood, like the one seen in Zagor: Kara Bela, for easy identification. Instead what we get seems to be a little more complex, with an assortment of shady interests competing to get the treasure, and Zagor helping the authorities maintain law and order by thumping everybody in succession. At one point a gang lead by a fellow in a bowler hat and gondolier’s shirt tries to shut down a lighthouse in order to make a ship crash into the rocks, until Zagor comes along. Thump thump thump thump.

You're welcome.

Don’t let my glib assessment lead you to believe that I didn’t enjoy Zagor: Kara Korsanin Hazineleri. I did. It’s just that, given that the film was made during the same year as it’s predecessor -- and likely back-to-back with it, from the looks of things -- there probably wasn’t much thought given to shaking up the formula beyond a little streamlining pacing-wise. It’s pretty safe to assume that no Zagor themed focus groups had been conducted, nor was the term “reboot” kicked around. It’s basically just more of the same -- which, in the case of Zagor thumping people with his hatchet, is a good thing, and, in the case of Chico stuffing half chickens into his mouth while saying the Turkish equivalent of “aye carumba”, is bad.

Never have it said I don’t keep my promises.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fantomas unmasked

At the risk of giving short shrift to literally everything else on Earth, there are few things cooler than Fantomas. How cool is he? So cool that, even when he is placed at the center of a somewhat fluffy French adventure comedy, he still retains his awesomeness. Andre Hunebelle's 1964 Fantomas is just such a film, and, given that this year marks the French master criminal's 100th birthday, I thought it deserved my undivided attention. Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lake of the Dead (Norway, 1958)

Norway has recently made itself a flashing beacon on the cult cinema map with films like Troll Hunter and Norwegian Ninja, which have both been very favorably reviewed by, among others, my colleague Keith over at Teleport City. Never one to be above bandwagon jumping, I thought I’d pipe in with a review of an example of Norwegian genre cinema from the past, undeterred by the fact that I know little about the country beyond that it is where some of Aqua are from. Fear not, however, that I will be padding out this review with Aqua-related trivia –- though I will say that Lene’s solo album was criminally underappreciated, especially that song about how it’s your duty to shake that booty, be it small, fat, or round and juicy.

Lake of the Dead, aka De Dødes Tjern, is actually a quite well known and highly regarded film -- in Norway, that is, where, in 2001, it was judged to be one of the five best Norwegian films of all time by a panel of 101 critics. This puts Norway well ahead of its neighbor Denmark, where a panel twice as large judged the film Reptilicus to be that country’s greatest cultural export. (Note: totally not true.) The film is based on a popular book by poet and novelist André Bjerke. Bjerke, in fact, appears in the film. But, in a very forward looking bit of serpentine meta-ness, he portrays the character of Mørk, a literary critic, while another actor, Henki Kolstad, portrays a novelist by the name of Bernhard Borge, a pseudonym used by Bjerke to write his mystery novels, who, in the film, writes a book based on the film’s events. (Wes Craven, eat your heart out.)

This aside, the character who is truly central to Lake of the Dead, as played by the actor Erling Lindahl, is Kai Bugge, the sleuthing psychologist whom Bjerke made a recurring protagonist in his stories. Bugge is basically the personification of Bjerke’s abiding interest and faith in the power of Freudian psychoanalysis, which, in 1942, when the novel was conceived, would have been a lot more radical a stance than it would be today, when it would likely come off as somewhat reactionary. Being the voice of rational science, Bugge sits back and observes while the other characters jump to rash conclusions about the events happening around them, though he is always happy to step forward and patiently cast doubt upon their less enlightened opinions.

Happily, Lake of the Dead is much more of a real mystery than a whodunit, and while Bugge does eventually -- through using tools of his trade like dream analysis, hypnosis, and seeing everything as being vaguely dirty -- put forward a prosaic solution to the central puzzle, other, more unsettling questions are left tantalizingly unresolved.

The film starts, like so many scary tales both good and bad, with a group of friends heading off to a remote cabin in the woods for some much needed R&R. These friends, however, might be a little more long in the tooth than what you’re accustomed to, consisting of the middle-aged Bugge, the author Borge and his wife Sonja (Bjørg Engh), the critic Mørk, and the lawyer Gran (Georg Richter) and his wife Liljan (played by André Bjerke’s real life wife, the actress Henny Moan). It is Liljan whose brother, Bjørn, owns the cabin, and, as the group makes their way by train to the location, she frets over the fact that she has been unable to reach him.

Sure enough, upon arriving at the cabin, the group finds that Bjørn is nowhere to be seen, and soon discover evidence pointing to the likelihood that he walked into the nearby lake and drowned himself. This conclusion is bolstered by some eerie folklore surrounding the place, involving a murder and subsequent haunting at the cabin, and a mysterious undertow that has caused a number of people to be presumably drawn to their deaths beneath the lake’s surface. All of the guests divide up into separate camps of opinion on the matter, with Liljan accepting the verdict of suicide, Mørk leaning toward a supernatural explanation, and Gran suspecting foul play. Bugge, of course, sagely withholds judgment, but is not above making cryptic statements that shift the mystery from what happened to Bjørn to whatever it is Bugge thinks happened to Bjorn. Meanwhile, the troubled Liljan begins to show signs of herself being irresistibly drawn toward the lake.

While Lake of the Dead has all of the traditional means of creating spooky atmosphere at it’s disposal -- Gunnar Sønstevold’s ominous orchestral score, Ragnar Sørensen’s moody, black & white cinematography -- cinematographer turned director Kåre Bergstrøm achieves the most through his use of stillness and silence, emphasizing the otherworldly calm and isolation of his characters’ surroundings. In fact, as the movie progresses, and we become more and more convinced of the lake’s malevolent pull, nothing unnerves quite so much as the frequent, twilit shots of it’s unmoving, leaf strewn surface. At the same time, the director is deft at conjuring up images of creeping, insidious power, like that of Henny Moan, in her flowing white nightgown, mutely sleepwalking her way through the brush as she makes her way toward the beckoning lake -- or, for that matter, the stop motion animated crow that, at one point, taunts the cast from its perch atop the cabin’s chimney.

All in all, Lake of the Dead is a hugely enjoyable film. It combines all the fun of a well constructed potboiler with a haunting lyricism that points toward far more murky depths beneath its polished surface. Viewed in the wee hours, and in an appropriately receptive state, it could definitely give you a deliciously good scare. As such, it’s easy to see why it holds such a hallowed place in the cinematic history of its country of origin. All the more impressive is how, in a manner sadly atypical of its genre, it manages to accomplish its humble aims with such subtlety and nuance.

Very much unlike this:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics Episode 10: 077: Killers are Challenged

In our tenth episode of Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics, series producer Steve Mayhem takes on the Antonio Margheriti joint 077: Killers are Challenged, and, in the process, gives us a handy dandy primer on the Eurospy genre. And, by the way, is it really sporting for a super spy to go up against killers who are "challenged"?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Aventuras al Centro de la Tierra (Mexico, 1965)

I confess I've never read Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, and that my only exposure to its story has been through that Filmation cartoon from the 60s, that movie starring James Mason, Pat Boone and a Dimetrodon played by a monitor lizard with a fin taped to its back, and that 3D movie with Brendan Fraser. Okay, you're right; I wouldn't have seen that Brendan Fraser movie even if it meant the fate of the free world. But my point is that, despite never having read the book, my suspicion is that Verne's classic has not been served well by the popular media. Could it be that the Mexican film Aventuras al Centro de la Tierra is the first adaptation to truly get it right? Well, given that Verne doesn't even get a nod in the credits, probably not.

Aventuras is a movie that seems to exist primarily to take advantage of a spectacular natural set, that being the Cacahuamilpa Caverns in Guerrero, Mexico, one of the world's largest natural cave systems. The film even opens on a guided tour of the caverns, during which a pair of hot-to-trot young lovers break off from the group, only to fall into a deep crevice and get attacked by a mysterious monster. In response to this, an expedition into the caverns is organized, headed by the distinguished Professor Diaz (Jose Elias Moreno) and his muy caliente assistant Hilda (Kitty De Hoyos). To prepare the members of the expedition for their adventure, Diaz shows them a film of some dinosaurs fighting. Interestingly, none of them asks him either (a) how he got a film of dinosaurs fighting, or (b) why he just showed them a bunch of borrowed special effects footage from at least two other movies.

Once the gang arrives at the caverns, it's time for the human drama to begin, with the first order of business being everyone pairing off into romantic couples. Hilda cozies up to the dashing Dr. Pena (Carlos Cortes), while the journalist Rios (Javier Solis) decides to pitch his tent with Dr. Laura Ponce (Columba Dominguez), the unscrupulous geologist. (She's all about the gold and diamonds, you see. Fucking geologists!) Once Ponce discovers a hidden diamond deposit, which she tries to keep a secret between herself and Rios, famed hunter Jaime Rocha (David Reynoso, non-masked star of the awesome Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales) also tries to insert himself into the mix, paving the way for much murder, betrayal and skulduggery later on.

Alongside these characters, the movie also introduces a number of red shirt types to provide the necessary beast feast. Of course, this being a Mexican film, the inevitable dispatch of each of these faceless ciphers is greeted with much throaty lamentation on the part of the woman folk, even though we aren't even told their names until after they've adventured on into the hereafter. We are also introduced to a character who is only referred to by the others as either "the black man" or "the black servant". I was curious to see whether this would end up being some kind of plot point, but, once the character had been casually picked off a couple of reels later, realized that the overt racism, as is its tendency, was merely there to irreparably mar and make less enjoyable that which contained it.

As is so often the case with these Mexican creature features, Aventuras ultimately saves itself by giving the impression that those behind it were just as excited about cheesy monsters as you were when you were eight years old. Fairly early on, a vampire cyclops makes an appearance, and then, for the final act, an amorous half man/half bat creature takes a shine to Hilda and absconds with her for what seems like a hasty, on-the-fly recap of the plot to Creature from the Black Lagoon. While the bat-man's flying sequences have their dignity preserved by way of some intentionally (I presume) murky photography, the monster suits themselves live up entirely to the scrutiny the camera gives them. For all it's other flaws, Aventuras certainly can't be faulted for not giving good beast.

It's hard to escape the impression that Aventuras al Centro de la Tierra is a film that was made up entirely as its participants went along, with each of its episodic events existing solely to give the actors something to do between all of those shots of them climbing around in the caverns. And, despite the beauty and alien allure of that natural setting, those shots do end up getting pretty tedious. We are constantly told that the expedition party are moving ever closer to the "center of the earth", while at the same time falling prey to the sneaking suspicion that we are merely seeing the same several formations over and over and over.

All of this, of course, comes with the territory. And, if you're someone like me, who thinks that there can never be too many cheesy old B science fiction movies of this type, you'll be happy with the modest addition to the canon this one makes. As for Jules Verne, I'm afraid that, as of yet, his grave is still emitting that distant spinning sound, with the author's corpse perhaps burrowing its way to the center of the Earth even as we speak.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dukhda Khame Ee Dikri (India, 1981)

Watching Dukhda Khame Ee Dikri proved that a second dip into the filmography of Gujarati superstar Naresh Kanodia on my part perhaps wasn’t entirely necessary. Then again, the disc was there, and –- given that this is one of those rare instances where I actually found a film I wanted to review on Netflix –- the longer it remained so meant a continuing logjam in my queue, meaning that it would also be that much longer before I received Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore or whatever.

My experience with the first Naresh Kanodia film that I reviewed, Sorat No Saavaz, lead me to expect that Dukhda Khame Ee Dikri would be a similar mix of cartoony swashbuckling and chest-thumping revenge melodrama. Instead it was something else altogether: a maudlin chronicle of naggingly detailed yet ultimately unexamined female suffering of the type that, though common in Indian cinema, I have so far been pretty successful at avoiding.

This time around, Kanodia, unlike in Sorat No Saavaz, plays the child of privilege, Halaji, whose love interest is the lowly but lovely Chandan (Anjana). Hilaji and Chandan wish to be married, but Hilaji’s ma refuses to allow it, because Chandan’s father is suspected (wrongly, it turns out) of murdering ma’s brother many years previous. This leaves Chandan vulnerable to the machinations of her evil landlord, who, in return for forgiveness of a debt, strong-arms her father into promising her hand to the landlord’s wicked son Ruda. Hilaji and Chandan are determined to be wed, however, and end up pulling a wedding day switch-a-roo. As a result, Ruda unwittingly ends up married to Jivli, a village belle whom he ditched after robbing her of her honor, yet who still wants to marry him because she is now damaged goods and has no other options.

Chandan, for her part, ends up moving into Hilaji’s family home, where she is treated like a slave by Hilaji’s mother and sister-in-law while Hilaji is out gallivanting around with his comic relief sidekick who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to needlessly explain plot points to the audience. Throughout, we are treated to a mournful, endlessly repeated song about how it is a woman’s place in this world to make sacrifices. Somewhere in all of this, Chandan rescues a cobra from a hunter, and in return the cobra bites her, giving her the gift of ESP. I know that sounds like something I made up to make this movie sound more interesting, but it’s not. And while you’d think it would bode well for the remainder of D.K.E.D., the sad fact is that this device only ends up being used to hurtle over a couple of minor narrative gaps later in the story.

Finally, the vengeful Ruda and Chandan’s nasty sister-in-law decide to steal a golden naag statue from a shrine in Hilaji’s home and frame Chandan for the crime. Ruda’s father casts further suspicion on the girl by insisting upon lending her father an exorbitant sum of money to pay Chandan’s dowry, and then later denying it. Faced with this denial, Hilaji chooses to believe the word of the father of his sworn enemy over that of his own wife, presumably because Ruda’s father doesn’t have a vagina. Hilaji then goes home and hits Chandan.

As opposed to Sorat No Saavaz, in which he was quite the high-kicking stunt machine, him slapping poor Anjana around is about the only evidence on view of Kanodia’s status as a man of action. Okay, he does have a couple of major fight scenes, one near the beginning and one at the end of the movie, and in both he ends up getting his ass resoundingly kicked. At the end, it is only due to Chandan’s ESP that he ends up being rescued from being buried alive by the bad guys. Once this is accomplished, and with all misunderstandings cleared up, Chandan is happy to fall back into his once again welcoming arms -- because, hey, he’s the “hero” and she is but a mere woman, even if she does have ESP and Hilaji can't fight his way out of a threadbare sock.

As I said, I’m aware that films of Dukhda Khame Ee Dikri’s breed are not uncommon in Indian cinema, the only difference between it and other examples being that I had done a much better job of seeing those others coming. Thus, I guess D.K.E.D. should at least be given credit for sneaking under my radar and giving me a face full. Hey, they can’t all be gems. But they also don’t have to be this.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Just a reminder that the Teleport City co-sponsored benefit for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, A Dram For Japan, will be taking place this Saturday, April 2nd, at Ward III in NYC. If you're in the New York area -- or are simply the type who is prone to traveling on the spur of the moment for a good cause -- you should certainly attend. I, sadly, will not be attending, which, depending on your feelings about this blog, will either be a selling point or a cause for barely registered, vague disappointment.