Monday, August 29, 2011

Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (Philippines, 1965)

Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 contains a number of elements that, empirically speaking, appear to be fairly standard to the many spy spoofs fronted by beloved Filipino comic Dolphy during the 1960s. As in the later James Batman and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six, Dolphy plays a double role, and there is the same combination of slapstick and straightforward action that’s likely to make any of these films a bumpy ride for the uninitiated.

Also, the level of satire on display is once again solidly of the Mad magazine caliber; the high comic concept here seemingly arising from some (perhaps stoned?) person thinking that, if a Chinese guy named Genghis were to replace James Bond, he could then be called Genghis Bond, and that that would be hilarious. And I’m not saying that it’s not -- because, as is so often the case, the film’s lack of English subtitles prevents me from confirming my overwhelming suspicion that it probably isn’t.

In the first scoop of his thespian double dip, Dolphy portrays Agent Bond, a top operative for the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation -- or NBI -- who sports a uniform of checkered suit and matching trilby very similar to the one Dolphy wore in James Batman. Agent Bond doesn’t do much during the movie’s first act other than be endlessly hectored by his girlfriend’s shrewish mom. Then he falls afoul of a diamond smuggling ring run by a Mr. Big figure by the name of Gaspar and is captured in short order.

This turn of events opens the door to Dolphy’s second character, Genghis, an unassuming East Asian funeral home proprietor. Genghis wears a full Fu Manchu mustache and goatee. But in case that’s not enough of a blunt signifier for you, his every entrance is accompanied by the stereotypical Asian piano riff. Inseparable from Genghis is a clownish assistant by the name of Babalu, who is in fact played by a comic performer by the name of Babalu, here making his screen debut in a starring role. Babalu -- aka Pablito Sarmiento –- would go on to appear as a sidekick to Dolphy in a series of films before making the jump to his own starring vehicles in the 1970s. From what I can gather, his shtick involves having a huge chin and a lot of exaggerated crying and carrying on, though, again, the lack of translation prevents me from truly divining the root cause of his putative appeal. Nor does it allow me to ascertain why the same low piano note thrums on the soundtrack every time Dolphy slaps him -- which is often.

Need I explain at this point that Genghis, as the result of an improbable series of circumstances, is ultimately called upon by Agent Bond’s superiors to impersonate Agent Bond? Or that hilarity ensues? Or that, as a result, a little man finds within himself reserves of courage and poise that he had previously not thought possible? Of course not. But what I will tell you is that none of these things are presented in all that interesting of a manner, thanks to Genghis Bond being woefully cheap, even by the already threadbare standards of 1960s Tagalog cinema. Seriously, by comparison to the settings here -- which generally appear to be the result of filming in disused corners of someone’s house or apartment -- James Batman’s goofy papier mache sets look positively lavish. And, even worse, the film evidences none of Napoleon Doble’s quirky stylistic flourishes by way of compensation, with director Luis San Juan instead opting to use a nailed down, point-and-shoot approach to filming what little action there is.

Of course, it’s not as if the mechanics of plot, of their presentation, are the top order of business here in the first place. To the contrary, Genghis Bond mainly serves as a loose framework by which to string together a series of miscellaneous bits of crowd-pleasing business, much like a variety show. There are quite a few musical interludes, including one in which a bunch of teens in bathing suits go-go dance to a Filipino surf band called The Sociables, who play an English language cover of Jan and Dean’s “Little Old Lady From Pasadena”. Elsewhere, there is a lengthy training sequence that mainly serves as a showcase for the cameo-making Roberto Gonzales, who was at the time known as Filipino cinema’s “Karate King”. And then there is a cat fight between two of Gaspar’s shapely female minions that erupts, as it ends, completely out of nowhere, leaving not even the slightest plot ripple in its wake. (Genghis Bond boasts in its credits the appearance of “44 Bikini Girls”, which should give you a pretty clear idea of the type of entertainment we’re engaging with here.)

It’s obvious that no one behind Tagalog pop movies like Genghis Bond felt they were creating something for the ages, and their disposable nature is underscored by just how many of them have been disposed of in the intervening years. Even Genghis Bond seems to have barely survived; it’s original opening credits are missing, and what remains is marred by numerous scratches, pops, and missing frames. As such, it seems a little unfair to subject it to any kind of formal critical scrutiny, much as it would be for Mr. Blackwell to come into your home and critique the outfit you’ve chosen to wear while watching TV.

Yes, as that statement indicates, I see this as something akin to a private matter: something to be shared between the filmmakers and their particular audience at a particular place and time. That watching Genghis Bond at such a great remove from that original context would prove unsatisfying shouldn’t be too surprising. And, as such, I’m certainly not going to complain about it. At least not much.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Friday's best pop song ever

Drive-In Mob tonight: Switchblade Sisters and Big Bad Mama

For you trend watchers out there, the Drive-In Mob is like a flash mob -- only less flashy, thanks to it being text-based and there being, as of yet, no Twitter equivalent of line dancing. Tonight, starting at 8 pm EST., we tweet along to a double bill of 1970s exploitation classics, the first being Jack Hill's ingenious girl gang reimagining of Othello, Switchblade Sisters; the second being the Roger Corman produced gangsters-in-garters epic Big Bad Mama. Other obligations sadly prevent me from joining in for the first feature, but I fully plan to be on board for Big Bad Mama. You, too, can both join in and follow along by using the #DriveInMob hash tag on Twitter. Be sure to check out the Drive-In Mob site for full details.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

El Chupacabras (Mexico, 1996)

As with Weng Weng, I assume that, if you don’t know by now what El Chupacabras is, it’s because you don’t care. That mythical creature’s currency as a pop cultural punch line is so long ago expired that to remind anyone of his/her/its heyday seems like an “I love the 90s” act of premature nostalgia. Back in those days, the creature was the impetus for any number of low budget straight-to-video/cable quickies from both sides of the border, including the film under consideration here, El Chupacabras. As an extra blast-from-the-past bonus, El Chupacabras also reminds us that, in 1996, The X-Files was very popular.

Given its obvious cheapie origins, El Chupacabras should be commended for the ambitious geographical scope of its narrative, which spans the Americas. The film opens in Mexico, where a rancher and his family are killed by a mysterious, unseen creature. From there, we head to Canada, where we meet Jorge Carrasco (bull-necked action star Jorge Reynoso), a scientific investigator with the U.S. government, who, when we join him, appears to be on the trail of bigfoot (who, I’m happy to say, makes a much welcome cameo). Also on Bigfoot’s trail is Duncan MacGregor (played by the film’s director, Gilberto De Anda), a world famous hunter whose catchphrase appears to be “fuck you”.

Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, reporter Amanda (Lina Santos) narrowly escapes death when she and her guide are attacked by another unseen creature while exploring a cave containing the skeleton of a strange, unearthly animal. And bringing it all home back in Mexico, police commandant Roman Hurtado (muscle-bound Miguel Angel Rodriguez in a very tight shirt) is, along with his on-the-job-and-off partner, a red headed lady forensic investigator (maybe Isabel Andrade?), trying to get to the bottom of the killings along with the attendant rash of livestock mutilations, all the while trying to keep a lid on rampant speculation that the legendary Chupacabras is to blame. Complicating things further is a crazy priest who shows up from time to time to shout something about “prophecy” at anyone who will listen.

If you, kind reader, have prophesied that all of the above far-flung characters will eventually converge upon Officer Hurtado’s small Mexican town in search of the Chupacabras, you are to be commended. But don’t be too hasty in investing in your own psychic hotline. El Chupacabras moves along at an energetic pace, driven forward by the momentum of its own predictability. There are many well worn tropes to be trotted out, after all, and dammit, we are going to race breathlessly from one to the next in order to get them all in. At the same time, the film does strive for extra credit with a couple of mildly interesting twists, including a red herring in the form of a human serial killer and some events that point to the possibility of the Chupacabras being extraterrestrial in origin.

And then there are the welcome moments of unintentional hilarity, such as the scene where Reynoso’s investigator character grimly peruses an imposing looking tome from his library…

…only for an over-the-shoulder shot to reveal that what he’s staring at is a Frank Frazetta (Sorry! It's Boris Vallejo; I stand corrected) print featuring one of that artist’s trademark bubble-butted barbarian babes.

Once in Mexico, Reynoso teams up with Hurtado’s ginger partner, and the two proceed to Mulder and Scully their way to the bottom of things. All leads to the entire cast ending up in a misty -- break out those halogen flashlights! -- sheep carcass filled ruin where El Chupacabras, which has been stingy with its monsters up to this point, finally seals the deal, though in a manner every bit as chintzy as its Sci-Fi channel level budget would lead you to expect.

While the X-Files references in the film are plentiful and obvious, I have to say that the one notable thing El Chupacabras adds to the formula is its insane level of machismo. The combined testosterone of the three man mountains in its lead roles is enough to be detected from space, making it surprising that any extraterrestrial would have even come within striking distance. This conspicuous chemical imbalance also guarantees that, in addition to the two women in the film who actually get to do stuff, there is also a generous number of Rubenesque ladies in impossibly tight skirts for these gentlemen to ogle and indiscriminately manhandle. Hulk want!

This also means that, despite the effort put into establishing an atmosphere of mystery and unearthly dread, things can’t be settled without having two guys run away from a tremendous explosion. The truth is out there. BOOM!

Friday, August 19, 2011

4DK and Masala Zindabad take on THE BEASTS OF BOLLYWOOD!

Once again I've had the honor of being a guest on Beth and Amrita's wonderful Masala Zindabad podcast. This time around the topic of discussion is Indian cinema's veritable arkload of animal stars, a topic that longtime readers of 4DK will know I'm well familar with. The episode can be streamed for a limited time directly from the Masala Zindabad homepage, and can also be downloaded via iTunes. Hurry; if you pass this episode up, you risk making Moti the dog cry, and Pedro the Ape Bomb drunker and angrier than he already is!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I'll buy that for a dollar: Cassandra Cat (Czechoslovakia, 1963)

It’s come time again for the least recurring of 4DK’s recurring features, I’ll Buy That For a Dollar -- the reason for the delay being that I haven’t found myself doing much dollar DVD diving of late. That state of affairs, given the current state of our economy, is, of course, susceptible to sudden and drastic change, as dollar DVDs containing fuzzy transfers of forsaken public domain films might soon be all that we’re able to afford.

Thankfully, my long experience of dollar bin foraging has taught me that the above scenario is not as dire as it may sound. A life of being limited to dollar discs does not necessarily consign you to a cinematic diet of Taiwanese kung fu films starring Carter Wong and the dregs of Fred Williamson’s oeuvre exclusively. For example, look what I found just recently: a disc featuring a dubbed print of a film from the Czechoslovakian New Wave by director Vojtech Jasny! Granted, I had to rifle through a lot of Carter Wong and Fred Williamson titles to find it, but I prefer not to dwell on that.

Vojtech was at one time a booster of Checkoslovakia’s communist regime, but had begun to sour upon it by the time of making Cassandra Cat in 1963. By the time of the Soviet invasion in 1968, he had become outspoken in his dissent, as expressed through one of his most acclaimed films, All My Good Countrymen, which was banned soon after the takeover. Vojtech would leave the country not long afterward, and would eventually, with help from fellow Czech New Waver Milos Forman, land a teaching position in Columbia University’s film department.

With Cassandra Cat, Vojtech uses a deceptively simple, fairytale like narrative in which to couch his antiauthoritarian allegory, and the result, as is often the case when such a strategy is employed, is an uneasy mix of cynicism and whimsy, sort of like a bedtime story read by a bitter, alcoholic dad. The story, set in a small town, is narrated by Oliva, the town’s old custodian, who begins the film by looking down upon his fellow townsfolk from his perch atop the clock tower, bemusedly enumerating their various foibles and peculiarities for us as he casually breaks the fourth wall. Whether Oliva strikes you as a wry observer in the mold of Our Town’s Stage Manager or simply a judgmental windbag depends, I suppose, on what you bring to the table.

Oliva is just one facet of a dual role performed in the film by Jan Werich, who was not only a well respected Czech actor, but also a politically engaged author and playwright. Despite all of those accomplishments, Werich may be best known among English speaking film fans for a performance that never even made it to the screen: that of Blofeld in the Bond film You Only Live Twice, whom Werich portrayed briefly, only to be unseated by Donald Pleasance once the producers deemed him too grandfatherly for the part. (A picture of Werich on YOLT’s volcano lair set, holding a cat much more iconic than the one in the film currently under discussion, can be seen here.)

During the film’s opening moments, Werich’s Oliva regales a room full of school children with a tale of his allegedly true encounter with a magical, bespectacled cat. Once this cat’s cheaters were removed, he tells them, all humans within its gaze were rendered in colors that revealed their true natures: the cowards yellow, the lovers red, the liars gray, etc. And in telling this story, it seems that Oliva has brought it to life, as no sooner has he finished than a traveling magician (also played by Werich) and his troupe arrive in town, among their number a four-eyed tabby just like the one in the story. The magician and his crew then treat the townsfolk to a performance that mostly consists of thinly veiled satirical jibes at them and their various hypocrisies.

For a rousing show closer, the Magician’s ever leotard-clad assistant Diana (Emilia Vasaryova) takes off the kitty’s tiny specs and gives him a good long gander at the berg’s assembled citizenry. As promised, the assembled are instantly cast in a wide variety of unflattering hues, exposing them for the assortment of craven crumbums that they are. That is, except for the lovers, who, in a surreal and balletic sequence, waltz joyously with one another as the rest freak out in pantomime around them. In the ensuing fracas, the cat escapes into the countryside, setting off a race between some of the town’s more unsavory adult elements, who wish to hunt it down and kill it, and the more virtuous inhabitants -- the children especially -- who wish to hold it and pet it and call it George. Or something.

Leading those aforementioned unsavory adults is the Schoolmaster, played by Jiri Slovak, who we last saw as the sympathetic male lead in Vaclav Vorlicek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? With this character, Vojtech demonstrates the efficiency of his fairytale approach as a means of ruthlessly cutting to the satirical bone, painting, with minimal strokes, a chilling portrait of malignant banality. A hunting and taxidermy enthusiast, the Schoolmaster is seen near the beginning of the film shooting down a stork which we’ve just seen flying over the town, much to the horror of some of the more principled onlookers. In his defense, he guilelessly protests about what a fine specimen the bird will make once stuffed. Later, once that process has been accomplished, he has his assistant run around his office with the stuffed and mounted animal in a mimicry of flight, clapping with childish delight all the while.

In telling his tale, Vojtech utilizes a visual vocabulary that blurs the line between high surrealism and the playfully indulgent theatricality of children’s fantasy films. Because of that, the one aspect of its dollar DVD presentation that least serves Cassandra Cat is easily its washed out color scheme, which leaves just enough of a glimmer of the original’s hues to let us know just what a very colorful affair it once was. This is frustrating for a number of reasons. While its charms are more than few, it’s unlikely that many of today’s viewers need an allegory like Cassandra Cat to illuminate the queasy relationship between tyranny and the truth. As such, I think it’s primary appeal lies in its status as a visual feast.

That said, it shouldn’t be forgotten the power that Cassandra Cat likely held in its original place and time, especially in light of the Soviets’ violent suppression of the Prague Spring a few years later. After all, I suppose the measure of any cat, once it’s out of the bag, is the amount of force brought to bear upon putting it back in again. Verdict: Well worth the dollar!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Zambo, King of the Jungle (Italy, 1974)

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we’re condemned to periodically bow at the altar of Tarzan, so ubiquitous are his representations in world cinema. In the past, I’ve focused a lot on Tarzan type films from the developing world, which seem to often enfold anxieties about encroaching modernity and urbanization. In today’s case, however, we’re dealing with a Tarzan type film from Europe, which means that, while it pays some lip service to those concepts, it’s basically just about how awesome white people are.

The white person in the spotlight in Zambo, King of the Jungle is the immensely likable American born actor and stuntman Brad Harris, who fans of European genre cinema well know was quite prodigiously employed in the Italian film industry of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Here Brad is a few years past wrapping up the enjoyable Kommissar X Europsy series, but still looks impressively buff and light on his feet. In fact, in his rough-cut leather tunic and conspicuous pants-less-ness, Harris seems to be making a bit of a return to the Peplum roles that first brought him fame in the 60s.

However, it must be said that the duties Harris’s Zambo undertakes as King of the Jungle seem less action oriented than one might hope, and more of the bureaucratic nature one might expect from an actual monarch, or mayor even. In lieu of swinging on vines and hollering at elephants, a lot of his time is spent pantslessly settling the natives' petty disputes and tending to their healthcare needs. Of course, there do come those moments when he has to beat up upon marauding white slavers and rampaging gorilla suits, and, at those moments, Harris flings himself into the action with his characteristic verve. It’s just a shame he doesn’t do so more often.

Harris starts out the film as George Ryan, the son of a wealthy (I’m assuming) South African family who has been wrongly convicted of murder, having taken the rap for a no good dame. In transit by train to a prison located deep in the jungle, he and a fellow prisoner make a break for it and disappear into the dense foliage. His companion soon dies after eating poison flora, and George is subsequently captured and caged by a tribe of natives.

And at this point, having shown us as much as it cares to of the origins of Zambo, Zambo the movie then proceeds to tell us the rest in the form of an extravagantly half-assed verbal information dump disguised as dialog between two characters that we’ve just been introduced to. This basically boils down to one saying to the other, “Did you hear about that prisoner that escaped? Seems he got captured by some natives who later made him their leader. Further seems they now call him Zambo, King of the Jungle.” And the other replying, “We’ll don’t that beat all”, or some such.

Meanwhile, a quite obviously unscrupulous hunter by the name of Juanez (Raf Baldassarre) is hired as a guide by Professor Woodworth (Attilio Dottesio) and his requisite comely niece Grace (Gisela Hahn). The Woodworths want Juanez to help them find Zambo, because it is only Zambo, they believe, who can guide them through the uncharted jungle in which they hope to find the fabled lost city that is the true object of their expedition. Little do they know, however, that Juanez has already accepted the job of hunting down and killing Zambo from craven representatives of The Man who fear that he will lead a native revolt.

When these explorers finally come upon Zambo, he gives them the standard line about how life among the so-called "savages" is less savage than it is in the so-called "civilized" world, and that he is hence happy to trade the former for the latter. Yet, in so calling it, Zambo seems to be overlooking just how responsible his civilized upbringing is for the sweet deal that he has with the natives. To call the depiction of these natives “child-like” would be charitable. And it seems that Zambo’s introduction of isopropyl alcohol, which the natives call “magic water”, has been the primary impetus for them to so wholeheartedly hand over their autonomy to him.

Furthermore, even Zambo’s most off-the-cuff expressions of enlightened Western thinking strike these grinning primitives as bolts of pure revelation from on high. At one point, when asked to settle a dispute involving an arranged marriage, Zambo basically says that arranged marriages are stupid and that consenting adults should be allowed to marry whomever they want. And with that, the tribe abolishes arranged marriage on the spot. Yay! (Seriously, the natives all raise their spears and say “Yay”.)

Zambo, quite surprisingly, was actually filmed on location in Tanzania and Uganda, a circumstance that allows for camerawork that is a bit more sweeping and scenic than that seen in your standard set bound and stock footage dependent jungle potboiler. Of course, a less workmanlike director than Bitto Albertini might have made more of this, but those of us who have walked the Tarzan trail so many times before will take what we can get. That said, the plane tickets to Africa seem to have been where the production expenses stopped, as what there is of Zambo above the dirt it treads on is fairly impoverished looking. Once the lost city is discovered, its exterior is established by having the characters point off-screen and verbally describe it, and once we’re within its walls, the cardboard sets used to represent its interiors are best left both unseen and undescribed.

Nonetheless, once the pins are all in place, Zambo hits all the expected beats: Grace, right on cue, falls hard for Zambo’s earthy charms; the lost city’s riches inspire a wave of greed on the part of the city folk; and, in a rousing climax, Zambo calls upon the beasts of the jungle to exact justice upon the dastardly Juanez. This last bit doesn’t quite makes sense, since it’s not clear why Zambo, having only been in the jungle a few years at most, would have achieved dominion over all of its animals. It’s not like they, like the natives, would be as easily swayed by the healing properties of rubbing alcohol, after all. In any case, the film concludes with enough loose ends dangling to suggest that a sequel was planned. It doesn’t appear that one was ever made, though, which is a good thing.