Monday, November 28, 2011

Khufia Mahal (India, 1964)

The use of special effects in Indian films was one of the many things pioneered by producer/director D.G. Pahlke, who employed primitive optical effects to depict fantastical scenes from the Hindu religious epics during the early silent era. These techniques were further explored in the coming years by adventurous technicians like Babubhai Mistry, who used them not only in the production of mythologicals, but also in “Arabian Nights” style fantasy films and Italian Peplum inspired stunt films like Dara Singh’s King Kong.

Still, despite all of this practice, one could be forgiven for observing that these effects didn’t appear to grow all that much more sophisticated come the 1960s, or even the 1970s. This is in part due to the fact that, in India as in America, fantasy films were usually confined to the realm of B cinema, where budgets and schedules were tight and –- perhaps more importantly -- audience expectations were correspondingly low. As evidence of the latter, take for example 1964’s Khufia Mahal, whose opening credits boast a cavalcade of “Wonders” that include a “Flying Horse”, an “Apeman”, and a “Gorilla”.

Mind you, the credentials of Khufia Mahal director Aakkoo are not to be questioned where primates are concerned, as he was also the director of the sole starring vehicle for 4DK’s primary totem animal, Pedro, as well as a film simply titled Gorilla. But beyond the trotting out of various members of the animal kingdom, most of the movie magic in Khufia Mahal -- whose “Trick Photography” is credited to R.R. Ramarao -- involves crude double exposures that combine actors, boats, carpets, men in genie costumes and model palaces with aerial or undersea backdrops to make them appear, to those most charitable in their willingness to suspend disbelief, as if they are either flying or sinking. There is also an appearance by an awesome killer fish that, as its victim fights for his life, appears to be swinging from the soundstage rafters like a piñata.

Viewed alongside similar low budget Indian fantasies of its day like Hawa Mahal or Magic Carpet, Khufia Mahal appears to tick off a list of what were essentially generic plot elements. There is a wicked, all-powerful sorcerer (Sheikh) who, smitten with a beautiful princess (Zimbo’s Chitra), abducts her in his flying palace, much to the displeasure of her manly suitor (P. Jairaj), who, along with his comic sidekick (?), endeavors to defeat the sorcerer’s powerful magic with muscle alone. Along the way we have the aforementioned genie, who gets shrunken by the sorcerer and imprisoned in a bird cage, the aforementioned flying horse, and lots of magic auras projecting from people’s hands by way of someone drawing them directly onto the film.

Among Khufia Mahal’s more or less natural wonders is Hungarian wrestler and regular Dara Singh nemesis King Kong, who shows up during the final act to throw down against the advertised Apeman and Gorilla. The former is a fellow in an ape mask and a shiny black bodysuit, while the latter is a guy with no ape mask but a full-on gorilla suit. Way to maximize on that costume rental, people.

The fact that I have very little to say about Khufia Mahal itself shouldn’t reflect poorly upon it. It has all the naïve charms of most of the other crudely-realized old Indian B movie fantasies I’ve seen -- which comprise quite a lot by now -- those charms being considerable, provided one has a high tolerance for flying everything realized via dodgy process shots (which I do). Sure, there’s little that distinguishes it, and all of that flying about begins to blur together after a while. But, as with all of these films, there’s the added benefit that, if you nod out and wake up during it, you might actually think that you’re having some kind of monochrome, print-damaged hallucination. Then again, if you don’t buy my usual “Indian stunt films as cheap high” argument, I’m afraid I’ve got nothing for you.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ram Bharose (India, 1977)

Cameos are fun, but they can also be cruel. Case in point: Ram Bharose, wherein the scant time afforded Dara Singh onscreen only tempts us to imagine what the film -- by Bollywood standards a fairly well financed spy thriller in glorious Eastmancolor, certainly more well appointed than related genre efforts fronted by the third billed Dara Singh in his heyday -- might have been like if the wrestling star turned stunt film king had been given it all. Instead what we get is lesser Kapoor family scion Randhir hogging the screen in his central role as a complete staggering idiot.

Ram Bharose exploits that most well trod of 1970s masala movie plots; that of the brothers set by fate upon opposing moral paths. In this case those brothers are Ram (Kapoor) and Bhanu, the latter played by Sholay’s Gabbar Singh himself, the great Amjad Khan. Growing up in dire straits has left each of the two with very different approaches to life. Ram, openhearted and devout, has embraced the cause of justice, and intends to follow in his late father’s footsteps by joining the police force, despite being by all appearances retarded and having no aptitude for the task. Bhanu, by contrast, is cynical and ruthlessly materialistic, worshipping money at the expense of god and Mother India. This has lead Bhanu to, without his family’s knowledge, take employment with one of those many high-living Indian movie baddies who is known only as “Boss”, in this case played by Madan Puri and serving the interests of some unnamed and nefarious “foreign country” represented by token Caucasian weasel Tom Alter.

When C.I.B. Agent 1107 (Dara Singh) steals out of said foreign country with an incriminating microfilm, Boss and his goons are hot on his tail, finally forcing a wounded 1107 to pass the film off to the hapless Ram during a chance encounter. Thus is set in motion the string of events that will lead the brothers to face each other from opposite sides of the law, and ultimately offer Bhanu a final chance at redemption. And, yes, this is yet another one of those “reluctant secret agent” movies, and being that it’s also a 1970s Bollywood movie, we can rest assured that, no matter what else happens, it will all end with a big fight in an exploding lair.

While Ram Bharose, at least superficially, stacks its moral debate in Ram’s favor, it ultimately doesn’t make a very good case for virtue. I think we’re meant to be charmed by what director Anand Sagar and Randhir Kapoor himself consider to be Ram’s childlike innocence. But what he really comes across as is a freakish, creepily desexualized man-child; basically Baby Huey without the diaper. Thus, whenever he does one of his wide-eyed takes at the oh so mysterious workings of the adult world, or uncomprehendingly lets one of the femme fatale’s obvious come-ons fall clatteringly to the floor in the space between, all we want to do is smack him across his stupid face. By contrast, it is Amjad Khan’s Bhanu, as the more complex of the two characters, who provides most of the film’s real heat and excitement. And it’s nice to see the often underused Khan playing a somewhat more dimensional version of his usual heavy -- one who, despite being bad, is at least given reasons for being so, as well as a chance at redemption, even if that ultimately involves his heart’s icicles being unconvincingly melted by Ram’s insipid goodness.

Also on hand here is Rekha as Kiran, the daughter of one of Boss’s enemies who was kidnapped by the villain in her infancy and raised to be a kung fu fighting “Mafia Queen”. It’s a fun bad girl role that sees her tasked with vamping the coveted microfilm away from the naïve Ram, at one point by disguising herself in a sexy nurse’s outfit. Of course, Kiran’s background makes her also ripe for redemption and, sadly, ultimately not immune to the mysterious thawing power of Ram’s Keane-eyed guilelessness. Another performer worth noting for his receiving a little more of the limelight than usual here is Keshto Mukherjee, 1970s Bollywood’s favorite comedy drunkard, who gets a fairly meaty sidekick role opposite Kapoor, albeit one that requires him to act drunk for a good portion of the time.

As for Dara Singh, Ram Bharose’s action keeps him confined to the Boss’s underground dungeon for a good portion of the film, though not without affording him a nice iconic moment during the climax. A good few years past his Hercules days, the star proves still adept at pretending to bust heavy chains with his heaving pectorals, just as he did during the final moments of countless Bollywood proxy peplums during the previous decade. In this sense, Dara is here in Ram Bharose to play what is essentially a quote from a Dara Singh movie, and that fact in turn testifies to his beloved status within Indian popular culture. It’s a wise choice by the filmmakers in this case, because, to my mind, his appearance is one of the few things that make this otherwise unremarkable masala worth mentioning.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Our fathers will cry in hell...

Sometimes a movie is so poorly made yet so entertaining that it threatens to upset the balance between good and terrible in the world. That's when I step in. Yes, that's right; I am The Stabilizer. And this movie is about me. Please read my full review, which has just been posted over at Teleport City.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mechte Navstrechu, aka A Dream Come True (USSR, 1963)

Among the wave of Soviet Bloc sci-fi films made during the early days of the space race, Mikhail Karzhukov and Otar Koberidze's Mechte Navstrechu stands alongside East Germany's The Silent Star as one of the most visually imaginative. Both films are examples of the impressive level of technical achievement that could be accomplished when the humble space opera, during that era consigned by most filmmaking cultures to the B movie genre ghetto, was treated as an A list property. Of course, it should be said that, when it isn't dazzling our eyes, Mechte Navstrechu is often propagandizing to the point of self parody. On several occasions, patriotic-sounding songs well up on the soundtrack to urge its cosmonaut heroes onward, so stiffly sung that they make the "Trololo" guy sound like Iggy.

Mechte Navstrechu -- along with director/effects man Karshukov's first film, Nebo Zovyot -- was part of a package of Soviet sci-fi films purchased by Roger Corman during the early 60s. Under Corman's aegis, director Curtis Harrington would later use virtually all of its special effects footage, many of its establishing shots, and much of its non-dialogue scenes that didn't feature astronauts with prominent "CCCP" markings on their spacesuits for his 1966 feature Queen of Blood, filling out the remainder with dialogue scenes shot on a Los Angeles sound stage with an American cast that included John Saxon, Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper.

Like a significant number of other Communist space epics (DEFA’s The Silent Star, In the Dust of the Stars and the aptly named Signals among them), the original version of Mechte Navstrechu starts with the receipt of a mysterious signal from outer space. As the personnel of a well appointed scientific center puzzle over its meaning, a similar signal, generated by our planet, is received by the residents of the distant planet Centurion. In an impressive model sequence, Centurion then launches a mammoth space probe, manned by a crew of two men and one woman, to investigate. Unfortunately, the craft runs into trouble, making a forced landing on Mars, and an SOS beacon of sorts is sent to Earth containing a filmed document of the crash. In response, a crew of heroic young cosmonauts is dispatched from a base on the Moon to rescue the survivors.

Mechte Navstrechu takes place in a post-Cold-War world of international cooperation, but it is clear that some rivalries still remain. Krylov, head astronomer at the scientific center, has a good natured ongoing argument with “Mr. Laungton”, another scientist there, about whether alien life will prove friendly or hostile once encountered. Laungton insists upon the latter, and, within the utopian framework of the film, it is clear that his are meant to represent the warlike, anti-progressive ideas of the old order, and that his Western sounding name was likely no arbitrary choice on the part of the screenwriters. Nonetheless, this very question lingers tensely in the air as the space travelers grow ever closer to their first close encounter with the mysterious Centurions. This only to make more triumphant the rebuff of Laungton that occurs in the film’s final moments, once the crew, after great sacrifice, has successfully rescued the benevolent female Centurion and returned with her to Earth. “You were wrong, Mr. Laungton!” gleefully barks one of the cosmonauts, addressing what appears to be the entire world over some kind of global public address system.

Despite its optimistic tone, Mechte Navstrechu boasts a look that is, to a great extent, markedly somber and eerie. For all the scientific advancement on display, no one seems to have quite mastered the technology of indoor lighting. Thus the interiors of space ships and pretty much the whole of the Centurions’ planet are forests of murky shadows. This contrasts interestingly with the stereotypical Soviet utopianism of the early Earthbound scenes, in which human crowds are rendered tiny by the massive triumphalist architecture enclosing them. Centurion, for its part, seems to be cloaked in an abysmally deep, perpetual night, making all the more tantalizingly alien all of the mysterious structures and gadgetry we see on display there. Compounding this is the fact that the Centurions are always depicted as mute, moving slowly and silently through their surroundings as if in a somnambulant trance.

In making Queen of Blood, Curtis Harrington stuck surprisingly close to Mechte Navstrechu’s story in scripting his first and second acts. Mechte Navstrechu, however, was a film that made its point very quickly, and as such came in at barely over an hour. Thus, with no more of Mechte Navstrechu left to work with, Harrington took the opportunity to take off from its ending and go in a completely different direction. In his version, the astronauts, in the course of transporting back to Earth the rescued alien woman (Florence Marly, dressed and made up to resemble the character played by T. Pochepa in the original), find that she is not the friendly E.T. advertized, but instead an animalistic monster who hypnotizes the crew members one by one before gorging on their blood. Because of this, Queen of Blood almost feels like a rebuttal to Mechte Navstrechu, as if playing the untrusting and cynical Mr. Laungton to the original’s Dr. Krylov. Could it be that optimism in the face of the unknown was a value that was considered just too commie for American audiences at the time?

Of course, if there is a triumph of capitalism to be found in Queen of Blood, it is in the fact that, thanks to the high caliber of its borrowed design and effects work, it manages to look like a million bucks despite having cost executive producer Corman considerably less. The man knew quality when he saw it, and one doesn’t have to look too hard at Mechte Navstrechu to see that it’s a visual feast of a kind rare within its genre.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The zenith of world culture has been achieved

I know that most of you have probably already seen both of these videos, but I feel that I would be remiss in not posting them here, because they are literally two of the best things I've seen all year.

The first is the trailer for the Ghanaian sci-fi epic 2016:

The second is the trailer for the latest effort from Dinosaur Worldwide, the folks who brought us Italian Spiderman, and it contains literally everything that a piece of filmed entertainment should:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Oh Islam! (Egypt/Italy, 1961)

One of the most lavish Egyptian productions of its day, Oh Islam! is a swoony mix of history, folklore and plain old Hollywood style hogwash. The Egyptians have proven themselves adept at this kind of thing, but in this case they turned to the real experts, hiring American director Andrew Marton, a television mainstay who also served as either an AD or 2nd unit director on such A-list epics as Ben-Hur, Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Italians were also involved in Oh Islam!, though to what extent is a little more difficult to say. The IMDB entry for the film is one of that site’s more Frankensteinian, and whether that’s more indicative of the basic nature of the IMDB or of Oh Islam! I will momentarily withhold judgment. What I can say is that the version of Oh Islam! that was eventually released in Italy, under the title La Spada dell’Islam (The Sword of Islam), was altered to the extent that some of its original Egyptian stars were replaced by Italian ones, most notably Italian screen siren Silvana Pampanini, who was substituted for famed belly dancer and actress Taheya Cariocca in the prominent role of Shagrat al-Durr.

Why look, here’s a photo of Cariocca in the role, followed by one of Pampanini, standing beside Egyptian actor Imad Hamdi, essaying the same role in a still from the Italian cut:

The primary credited director for La Spada dell’Islam was Enrico Bomba, who also has a production credit. The IMDB credits Marton and Bomba as co-directors of Oh Islam!, even though Marton alone is given onscreen credit as director in the original Arab language version. This is likewise the case for Italian cinematographer Marcello Masciocchi, whom the IMDB credits alongside Egyptian cinematographer Wahid Farid, despite the latter having sole screen credit in the original.

This above information is repeated on a number of other sites which obviously used the IMDB as their source. And while it’s certainly plausible that all of the named parties worked alongside one another on the original Arab language version of Oh Islam!, I nonetheless want to be cautious of becoming part of an ongoing misinformation loop where the film is concerned. Further undermining my confidence in the internet’s ability to supply me with solid, incontrovertible facts is Wikipedia’s assertion that the film was submitted as Egypt’s bid for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1961 under the title Love and Faith. This is contradicted by the IMDB’s listing of Egypt’s Oscar submissions, which claims that the country’s 1961 entry was something called Teenagers, while also erroneously including on the list a 1973 film called Love and Faith which was actually Japanese. FFFUUU…

Thankfully, a much clearer picture is yielded by watching Oh Islam! itself. And what becomes most immediately apparent is that it boasts a dazzling constellation of Egyptian star power well worthy of its monumental subject. On hand are such familiar faces as Lobna Adel Aziz and Roushdy Abaza -- both stars of the previously reviewed Bride of the Nile -- as well as “The Beast” himself, Farid Chawki, who here gets to truly unleash his trademark ferocity in the role of an irredeemable villain. Shoring up the frontline, along with Cariocca, is Egyptian screen heartthrob Ahmed Mazhar, who plays the male romantic lead opposite the radiant Aziz.

At the center of Oh Islam! is the Battle of Ain Jaloot, a decisive confrontation in 1260 AD that saw the Egyptian military successfully drive back the invading Mongol forces, thus beginning the reversal of a tide of Mongol conquest that had swept the majority of the Islamic Middle East. At the same time, the film dramatizes the rise and fall of Egypt’s first female ruler, the Sultana Shagrat al-Durr, a role that offers the diva-ish Taheya Cariocca ample opportunity for lusty scenery chewing. And if this wasn’t already enough to fill your narrative plate to overflowing, we’re also offered a romance that takes a pinch of historic detail and mixes it with a generous helping of Bollywood-style “lost and found” drama -- as well as a fistful of jackhammer-subtle patriotic symbolism.

The film begins with the fall of Afghanistan to Mongol forces, in this case lead by Farid Chawki as the wild-eyed Boltai. Because Boltai cannot claim the country’s throne until every other heir to it has been killed (because invading barbarians always respect the order of ascension of the countries they conquer, I guess), the Sultan has his counselor Salama steal away with his young daughter Jihad and her cousin Mahmoud. Before she escapes, he tells Jihad that hers is not a name, but a “duty… a destiny”, and that one day she will unite the Muslim peoples against their common enemy. From this point on, Boltai continues popping up in the path of the fleeing children like an armor clad, medieval version of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, necessitating that they disguise themselves and blend in with a procession of slaves being lead to market by their Mongol captors. Jihad is ultimately sold off to serve in the harem of Shagrat al-Durr, while the feisty Mahmoud is bought by Prince Ezz El Din Aibak (Imad Hamdi) to serve in his military forces.

Mahmoud, who in his adult form is played by Ahmed Mazhar, turns out to be a fictionalized version of Saif Ad-Din Qutuz, the man who, as Sultan, would lead Egypt to victory at Ain Jaloot. In Oh Islam!’s climactic portrayal of that battle, it is Jihad, played in her adult form by Lobna Adel Aziz, who urges the forces onward by seizing a trampled flag and repeatedly shouting “Oh Islam” while perched atop a rock -- a feat which actual history argues was performed by Qutuz himself. In this sense, Jihad is as much of a phantom as the character played by Aziz in the fanciful Bride of the Nile, albeit of a different sort. It wouldn’t be much less subtle if this completely invented character were simply perched upon Mahmoud’s soldier with a tiny sword and a set of wings.

Meanwhile, Shagrat al-Durr -- who’s governing philosophy could be succinctly summed up by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Batman Returns bon mot “life’s a bitch now so am I” -- is fighting to maintain power against those many powerful men who’d rather not see Egypt ruled over by a woman. Once Mahmoud and Jihad are tracked down by the now blind Salama and reunited as kissing cousins, the Sultana uses her ownership of Jihad as leverage to force Mahmoud to do her political dirty work, which mostly involves killing folks. Somehow this all leads to the final battle at Ain Jaloot, which sees further complications arise when an army of Spanish Crusaders arrives on the scene (something that apparently actually happened).

Whoever the hell directed and shot Oh Islam!, they did a fine job, seeing as the mandate was obviously to create a Hollywood caliber period spectacle as seductive to the eye and spirit as it is historically dubious. The climactic battle sequence is indeed as spectacular and rousing as one could hope for, employing an awe inspiring legion of extras and an abundance of credible looking costumes and weaponry. Panoramic widescreen compositions are employed to full breath-capturing capacity, as is the intensely vibrant color palette typical of Egyptian epics of the period. Truthfully, this work is as credibly that of Marton and Wahid Farid as it is of any Italian genre veterans of the day granted the appropriate generous budget; Bomba, after all, was no stranger to Peplums, as he also had a hand in producing Romulus and the Sabines, and Maciocchi lensed everything from sword-and-sandal flicks to Antonio Margheriti space operas to Yor, Hunter from the God Damned Future. Hopefully some day I will have the answers to just who did what on Oh Islam! and when, but now I am tired.

Honestly, being a human of middling age, if you had told me twenty years ago that there would one day be a resource as wondrous as the Internet Movie Database, I might not have believed you. And if you had further told me that a large portion of that technological gift-from-god’s most habitual users would end up doing nothing but complaining about it, I would have dismissed you altogether. Yet I have to admit that it’s difficult not to resent the perilous rabbit holes one often gets sent down thanks to a healthy skepticism regarding the IMDB’s version of the facts. Indeed, a couple of the sites I landed upon as a result of Googling the title of Oh Islam! in the original Arabic likely got me added to some kind of FBI watch list. Come to think of it, given the current sad climate, merely reproducing that title in English might be enough to raise some hackles.

And on that note, I must say that it might serve the average Islamophobe well to watch Oh Islam!, as it would allow him or her to thrill along to what is an understandably proud moment in the history of Islam while offering the comfort of being as corny and overblown in its celebration of same as anything John Wayne ever put his name on. By the end, it’s stirring enough to have even the most dedicated yahoo jumping up and down on his chair and shouting “Allahu Akbar!”