Thursday, December 27, 2012

Friday's best pop song ever

Gerry Anderson 1929 - 2012

The enclosed universe that Gerry Anderson created with his run of Supermarionation TV series was so seamless and meticulous in its detail that one would have to assume it was the product of a singular, obsessive vision. This makes it all the more surprising that Anderson's role as master of marionettes wasn't so much a calling as something that was thrust upon him -- specifically when, in 1957, he was commissioned to bring the doll-like hero of children's author Roberta Leigh's The Adventures of Twizzle to British television screens. The truth is that Anderson started out wanting to make films with actual people in them, just like a real boy, but soon found himself overseeing an operation scaled exclusively for stringed stars of less than three feet tall.

Still, whatever brought him to them, there's no question that, when viewed against the generally shoddy background of commercial children's programming then and now, Anderson's puppet series stand out for their high level of craft, imagination and commitment to technical excellence. They also stand out for being strange. My first exposure to them came via Saturday morning viewings of Fireball XL5, at a time when I was just old enough to recognize that what I was seeing was not a cartoon, but nowhere near worldly enough to guess at what was giving apparent life to the odd figures within. These wobbly beings would pleasantly haunt me from that point on, drawing me toward their every new iteration. And while their origins remained mysterious to me, I nonetheless recognized them as gifts. Anderson's generosity reached a peak of sorts with Thunderbirds, an hour long show that -- with it's hyper-real color, globe spanning action, large cast of characters, wide array of futuristic vehicles, and reliable doling out of massive explosions at regular intervals -- seemed like an epic scale, no-expense-spared attempt to stimulate every last pleasure center within the brain of the average ten year old boy.

In both his autobiography and the interviews with him that I've read, Anderson struck me as being something of a melancholy sort, and that darkness eventually started to express itself through his work. UFO, his first live action series, expanded upon the paranoid alien invasion scenarios and creeping police state fantasies of his puppet series Captain Scarlet with characteristically addictive results. A flawed masterpiece, the show countered its shiny futuristic trappings with stories focused on intractable moral dilemmas, Pyrrhic victories, and heroes who were not only not always likeable, but whom often seemed to not even like each other all that much. Like the Altamont to Star Trek's Woodstock, UFO was TV space opera adapted to the darkening expectations of the late 60s and early 70s, and with it Anderson resoundingly made good on his potential to create futuristic television fantasy within a distinctly adult context.

Gerry Anderson's passing at the age of 83 strikes a personal chord with me, because his work  contributed to my adult life its most abiding nerd totems. This at one point extended to my driving up an enormous credit card debt in the accumulation of a large collection of vintage Thunderbirds merchandise. Most of that's gone now, except for the one token of Anderson devotion that I allowed myself to keep: a die-cast toy of Lady Penelope's bubble-topped pink Rolls Royce that I can see on the shelf as I'm writing this. Obviously, those afternoons spent watching Thunderbirds on the living room floor left an impression on me. It's not that I had more to escape from than any other kid my age at the time, but that, when I needed it, the escape Gerry Anderson offered me was so total. Like magical gatekeepers, his puppet heroes asked for a leap in the suspension of disbelief that, once made, kept you in happy orbit, momentarily free from the cares of an unstrung world.

The 10 Most Arbitrarily Numbered Random Things of 2012













Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Infernal Brains Podcast, Episode 15

Tars Tarkas and I have covered a lot of cinematic territory in our respective writings, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not (*cough* Fred Olen Ray *cough*). But I think that, in our boyhoods, we were both drawn to film via the same avenue: cheesy ass monsters. In honor of that, we use up our latest podcast and approximately 45 minutes of your precious life discussing one of the cheesiest (and tongue-iest) of them all, The Braniac, aka El Baron Del Terror. As per usual, we have an overwhelming array of two options by which you can subject yourself to this auditory nightmare. Either download it here, or feast your eyes upon the below version accompanied by a slideshow that's brought to you in brain sucking 0.00 fps.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Kommissar X Jagt Die Roten Tiger, aka FBI Operation Pakistan (Germany/Italy/France/Pakistan, 1971)

Die Roten Tiger, the seventh and final Kommissar X film, appears to be the most neglected and hard to find entry in the series. I’m not even sure if, like the other films, it was ever dubbed into English, but, if it was, I certainly couldn’t find evidence of it. This state of affairs left me, after a long period of resistance, at the mercy of the untranslated German language version most commonly found on the collector’s circuit.

Of course, it being a Kommissar X movie, language comprehension was fairly inessential to understanding Die Roten Tiger’s plot. As with previous installments, once its exotic location was established, events followed along a fairly rote trajectory. That location, in this instance, is Lahore, Pakistan, with a detour into Afghanistan for the film's action packed third act. The corresponding need to throw a sop to South Asian audiences sees Pakistani star Mohammed Ali cast in the role of a heroic police superintendent, along with a part for his wife Zeema, a star of equal luster who was often cast opposite him in Urdu language films. (In fact, there is a Pakistani cut of the film, under the title Tiger Gang, in which Ali and Zeema are given greater prominence, and which also features traditional Lollywood style musical numbers.) Of the series’ constants -- and in addition to stars Tony Kendall and Brad Harris -- we have German hyphenate Theo Maria Werner, a producer of the six previous Kommissar X movies who’s here credited as a writer. As for director Harald Reinl, he is new to the franchise but not the territory, having directed three of the Jerry Cotton Eurospy films and a fair share of Krimis.

Die Roten Tiger (which includes among its known aliases FBI Operation Pakistan and The Red Tiger Gang) sees heroes Joe Walker and Tom Rowland on the trail of the titular Red Tiger, a ruthless gang of heroin smugglers lead by a mysterious, unseen Mr. Big. Harris’s Rowland arrives in Lahore after the assassination of an Interpol agent, only to find Kendall’s Walker already there investigating another murder that appears to be related to the case (I think). The usual “meet cute” follows, with the two characters’ jokey antagonism toward one another being broad enough to transcend any language barrier. The two then set about finding the murdered agent’s secretary, Jackie Clay, who, being played by Kommissar X series veteran Gisela Hahn, is key to this operation for being leggy and blonde at the very least.

As is so often the case, whatever it is that Walker and Rowland are looking for, we soon know that they are on the right track from the fact that everyone is trying to kill both them and anyone who talks to them virtually all of the time. A helpful morgue attendant is blow-gunned by a hit man masquerading as a corpse, a gift is made of an exploding book, a cobra is hidden in Joe Walker’s bathrobe, and Walker later has a narrow scrape with a truck loaded with barrels of Explodium. All of which is to say that this movie is as gleefully dedicated to nonstop action at the expense of plausibility as any other Kommissar X film. The only downside to this is that director Reinl consistently chooses to speed that action up, giving the finished product a sort of unwelcome Keystone Cops vibe. Thankfully, he compensates for that by providing a generous showcase for Brad Harris’s ample skills as a stuntman and screen fighter, staging a series of extended and particularly bone crunching brawls in which the actor gets to show his stuff.

Stylistically, Die Roten Tiger is unmistakably a film made in the 1970s. Kendall and Harris are both modishly shaggy haired and look like they stepped out of a period Van Huesen catalog. Series mainstay Francesco De Masi’s score, though still swinging, has an undeniable “me” decade, easy listening vibe to it. Still, as much as I miss the mid-century trappings of the earlier films, I can’t say that this one’s aesthetic really clashes with the sensibility of the series overall. The caddish Joe Walker, in particular, seems like a character made for the 70s -- a man whom, had society condoned it, would have been flaunting it in loudly patterned shirts unbuttoned to the navel long prior. I also have to say that it was refreshing to see the Kommissar X series’ colorful, swinging style set against the backdrop of the Muslim world, as, were it a Western film made today, it would undoubtedly have been shot through a yellow filter that made everything look sun bleached and set to a score of mournful Arabic wailing.

Given its apparent stepchild status, I was a little surprised by how much Die Roten Tiger conformed in spirit to the other Kommissar X entries. True, like Three Golden Serpents before it, it does venture a bit farther than its predecessors into hard exploitation territory, especially in terms of gore and violence. A couple of documentary style sequences depicting the horrors of drug addiction --  including some very graphic and realistic shots of needle injection --  in particular clashed jarringly with the surrounding, more lighthearted material. Even so, the franchise’s trademark self parodying humor and sense of absurd fun was enough in evidence to establish the dominant tone, leaving the viewer with an impression of the film being far more of a care free romp than a stone cold bummer.

Sadly, due to reported rights issues, Die Roten Tiger won’t be among the excellent series of Kommissar X DVDs currently being issued by Koch Media. This fact does not, however, quell my hope of one day finding an English friendly version. When that day comes, I’ll be sure to amend this review for inclusion in Teleport City’s comprehensive survey of all things Joe Walker and Tom Rowland related. Until then, consider this a place holder.

UPDATE (4/8/16):  An English dubbed version of this film has indeed turned up and is, as of this writing, available on YouTube under the title The Tiger Gang. Thank you to the anonymous commenter who pointed this out.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Yellow Fangs, aka Rimienzu: Utsukushiki Yuusha-tachi (Japan, 1990)

The snow runs red in Yellow Fangs, and if that doesn’t make it a Christmas movie, it’s still the closest you’ll get to one here at 4DK. (Now eat your gruel!) In truth, the film is Sonny Chiba’s directing debut, one that he funded largely out of his own pocket -- a circumstance which, once the film failed to perform at the box office, lead to Chiba going into a bit of a financial sinkhole. That’s a shame not only because Sonny Chiba is awesome, but also because Yellow Fangs, despite some undeniable flaws, has a lot going for it.

The film is inspired by a series of savage bear attacks that afflicted a handful of settlements in Hokkaido over the course of a couple weeks in the winter of 1915. In the film, the culprit is a gargantuan brown bear by the name of “Red Spots”, who, while slaughtering settlers indiscriminately, maintains the finicky habit of only dining on their women folk (not, as far as I can tell, an actual historical detail). As opposed to his factual forebear (a pun which, admittedly, I could have avoided), his reign of terror lasts beyond a couple weeks and extends more into a period of years.

While the bear attacks provide Yellow Fangs with a series of reliably spaced action set pieces, the film overall seems to be more of a rumination on the men charged with stopping them. At a time when protecting the settlements from their wild surroundings was a full time job, these bear hunters -- lead here by the great Bunta Sugawara, of Battles without Honor and Humanity fame -- have emerged as their own sort of tribe-within-a-tribe, with their own unique sense of masculine calling and specific code of honor. At the same time, as we join the story, encroaching modernity has begun to herald these men’s obsolescence; the constant dynamiting of the surrounding hills by copper mining interests seem to be doing a good job of decimating the animal population on its own. And when officials from a nearby prefecture descend upon the village, one of their number calls the hunters “passé” and suggests that they’d be better off seeking work in the mines.

For this reason, Yellow Fangs seems a lot more like a late period Western than it does the Jaws inspired “animal attack” film it’s often characterized as. To drive that association home, Chiba gives us an unmistakable homage to Once Upon A Time in the West’s iconic crane shot when first introducing us to the village. This, in a further parallel to Leone’s film, is done from the perspective of the film’s female protagonist, whose prominent positioning forces a more engaged appraisal of the masculine archetypes whose actions to this point have seemed to be driving the story. This is Yuki (Mika Muramatsu), a sturdy and independent young girl who seeks to join the bear hunters after her whole family is massacred by Red Spots. The hunters refuse, citing their code’s prohibitions against women participating in the hunt, and Yuki is forced to strike out on her own, eventually becoming so obsessed with her pursuit of Red Spots that she ends up living a sort of feral existence in the woods.

Most of the above is relayed via flashback, and when we meet up with Yuki a year later, it is on the occasion of a chance encounter with Eiji, one of the young apprentice hunters who, back in happier times, had engaged with her in a nascent, flirtatious relationship. Eiji is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who, along with other performers in the cast, is an alumnus of Chiba’s Japan Action Club, to which Yellow Fangs is dedicated in commemoration of that famed stunt group’s 20th anniversary. This framing of Yellow Fangs as a tribute to the JAC makes it tempting to see it as the impetus behind the aging Chiba’s elegiac treatment here of a particular dying breed of masculinity, but I won’t go there beyond that vague speculation. Sanada also contributes to Yellow Fangs an anachronistic, keyboard and saxophone heavy new age score that, in its favor, is not always obtrusive, but definitely misses the mark more than it hits it.

Sanada's score is definitely one of the film’s flaws, but before cataloging those, I’d like to first focus on some its virtues. For starters, Yellow Fangs is beautifully shot, making magnificent use of some breathtaking mountain locations in all their dramatically snow-swept glory. In addition to Chiba, credit for this must go to cinematographer Saburo Fujiwara -- as well as, I suspect, to a behind-the-scenes player who was perhaps Chiba’s secret weapon: director Kinji Fukasaku, who’s credited with planning and supervising the movie overall. The acting in the film is also strong across the board, especially in the case of the aforementioned Bunta Sugawara. Mika Muramatsu undermines her character’s steeliness a bit with a tendency to go on manipulative crying jags, but that could just as easily be the result of poor direction, and doesn’t prevent her from being on balance a powerful and sympathetic presence.

As for Yellow Fangs’ other major player -- namely, the bear -- he’s played by the combination of an actual bear and an actor in a bear costume that, sadly, no amount of quick cutting and visual obfuscation can disguise as being anything but shitty looking. Now, in the case of a more uniformly haphazard film, I would gleefully regard a shabby bear costume as the icing on the cake, but I get no such joy in this instance. Because, to be honest, Chiba does a really good job of anticipating those bear attack scenes, insuring that, even in the movie’s quietest moments, we’re haunted by a sense of impending sudden violence. And then when those attacks come, and we come face to face with that tattered rug of a costume, it’s as if all the air is suddenly let out of that threat, rendering all the previous work of tension building a wasted effort.

Of course, how much this particular aspect of Yellow Fangs ruins the film for you depends on what expectations you bring to it. I suspect that if I had expected the movie to be what I now, having seen it, consider it to actually be -- essentially a remake of Once Upon A Time in the West in which Henry Fonda is replaced by a bear -- I probably would have been fine. Because, let’s face it, that’s an amazing concept. On the other hand, “nature strikes back” movies featuring vengeful beasts are a dime a dozen, and really need that extra dose of verisimilitude to get the edge on the competition. I may be arguing against all good sense and sanity for people to give Yellow Fangs a chance. But as its reception seems to have discouraged Chiba, despite a worthy effort, from retaking the director’s seat for almost two decades, I think it’s perhaps worthy of a forgiving reappraisal.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Iodo, aka Io Island (South Korea, 1977)

With Iodo, Kim Ki-Young, director of The Housemaid and Woman After a Killer Butterfly, once again explores the realms of the sexes as alien spheres, this time placing a beleaguered male protagonist within an isolated community of women. It’s a story that owes a seeming debt to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, though injected with enough of Kim’s labyrinthine weirdness to make it indelibly his own.

Kim Jeong-cheol plays Sun Wu-hyun, an ad man who, at the film’s opening, stages a cruise for a boatload of journalists as a publicity stunt to promote a new hotel. When Sun announces that the cruise’s destination is to be Iodo, not only the name of the hotel but also a mythical island known for capturing the spirits of male fishermen, one of the passengers, a young journo by the name of Cheon Nam-Seok (Choi Yun-seok) becomes agitated, accusing the exec of mocking the legends of his people. That evening, Cheon goes missing from the ship after a sharp exchange with Sun, who ends up being suspected of foul play in the matter. When it’s later learned that the young man hailed from a remote island where many men were fabled to have been claimed by Iodo, including those from successive generations of Cheon’s family, Sun, accompanied by Cheon’s editor, sets off to the island to investigate and, hopefully, clear his name.

That Island, Parang, turns out to be inhabited solely by women, though it’s far from the amazonian utopias we so often see depicted in B movies. Those men who have not been taken by Iodo have had to flee the island in order to escape its curse, leaving the women to subsist on what they can make by diving along its shores. Unfortunately, that proves to be an increasingly fruitless pursuit, as the accelerating pollution of the waters has decimated the island’s sea life. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Cheon, despite leaving Parang, was drawn back to it on more than one occasion, and on the last time, in an attempt to stave off famine, squandered thousands of dollars of the islander’s money on an abalone farm that ultimately failed.

At the same time, the women of the island have a fertility problem beyond that of having no men to procreate with. The onus for solving this falls upon Parang’s resident shaman, who conducts a series of rites to affect the return from the sea of those recently claimed by Iodo. It is believed, apparently, that only the still valid sperm of these freshly dead can successfully impregnate their widowed women. To this end, Sun’s arrival finds the Shaman petitioning the spirits to deliver Cheon’s corpse, which leads to Iodo’s dramatic crescendo incorporating a surprisingly graphic depiction of necrophilia.

Where Iodo comes down in terms of the veracity of its supernatural content I’ll leave for you to discover. Though I will say that, if it’s not a horror film, it’s indeed a deeply disquieting one. Its tone is one achieved more through the use of stillness and incongruous beauty than the occasional jolt. As such, the simmering malignancy of the island women’s deteriorating collective mindset is made all the more so by the breathtaking setting against which it takes place, the wide expanse of blue ocean surrounding them as much an isolating barrier as a promise of escape. At the same time, the women’s growing suspicion of the two male visitors becomes a source of ever increasing tension, threatening to explode in ways that those of us familiar with The Wicker Man find too easy to imagine. (Oh no! Not the bees! -- sorry, I meant the other Wicker Man.)

All of the above makes Iodo a bit of a slow burner, requiring more patience than other of Kim Ki-Young’s films -- such as, say, Woman After a Killer Butterfly, which practically pulls your eyes out with its ever increasing piling on of what-the-fuckery. But if you want to be left haunted by your cinema experience, here’s your ticket. Of the Kim films I’ve seen, this one made me see most clearly his influence upon the directors of Korea’s contemporary new wave -- in particular Kim Ki-Duk, whose 2000 The Isle showcases a similar intermingling of the poetic and the grotesque. True, Iodo’s eerily mournful conclusion might leave you shaking your head, but, as with that other Kim’s film, you’ll be doing so more in hopes of preventing it from making a home in your subconscious than out of incredulity.

(Iodo can be streamed free online via the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ebn Hamido (Egypt, 1957)

With the likelihood of rainy afternoons increasing and, with it, the need for cozy and undemanding entertainment, I’m here once again to point out that there are more exotic alternatives to the usual roster of Hollywood chestnuts on TCM. Consider, for instance, Ebn Hamido, a classic crowd pleaser from Egyptian cinema’s golden age. Provided you don’t mind your romantic comedies delivered with a lot of shouting, it could just prove an invaluable weapon in your war against the holiday blues.

Ebn Hamido stars the beloved Egyptian comic™ Ismail Yassin -- this time, for you ladies, paired up with the undeniably pretty Ahmed Ramzy, who is as smoldering as he is perpetually bare-chested. The two stars play, respectively, friends Hamido and Hassan, who, as the film begins, arrive in the city of Suez on a putative search for work as fishermen. Almost immediately, they encounter the boisterous sisters Azeeza and Hamida, the daughters of the city’s “Chief Fisherman”, and, almost immediately after that, become engaged with them in a spirited screaming match.

Azeeza is played by Egyptian screen bombshell Hind Rostom, who, throughout much of the film, wears a sheer, form fitting shift that makes her come across like the Arab world’s answer to Sophia Loren. Rostom’s Azeeza may strike you as either delightfully sharp-tongued or unbearably shrill, depending on your inclination, though I definitely found her the former. As for Hamida, she’s played by the comedienne Zenat Sedky, who was something of a stock player in Yassin’s films during this period. As their similar names unsubtly indicate, Hamida and Hamido are destined for attraction, something that sets in immediately even with all the shouting going on. We also see some amorous sparks fly between Hassan and Azeeza.

In dispute is a fish that the sisters allege Hamido and Hassan swiped, which they did. In order to resolve the matter, the four go before the girls’ father, Hanafi (the wall-eyed Abdel Fatah Al Kasri, who was the Abbot to Yassin’s Costello in Haram Alek). But Hanafi is so pleased to see the attraction between Hamida and Hamido that he instead offers the men room and board. (The quirkier looking Sedky is apparently meant to be playing the “ugly” daughter.) He then arranges for them to buy a ramshackle fishing boat that, after an absurdly jubilant christening ceremony, immediately sinks.

The sale of said boat was brokered by Al-Baz (Tewfik El Dekn), an unctuous local operator whose wealth has bought him the promise of Azeeza’s hand in marriage from her parents. Azeeza, for her part, can’t stand him, and has sought to slow things down by decreeing that she won’t marry until Hamida has -- making Hamida what would, in contemporary parlance, be referred to as the “grenade”. This makes Hanafi that much more eager to hurry a union between Hamido and Hamida, while Azeeza, seeing hope of a reprieve in Hassan, is sadly informed that Hassan has some kind of mysterious “mission” he must complete before considering matrimony.

The drama in Ebn Hamido decidedly kicks up a notch when a jealous Al-Baz plants a brick of Hashish on Hassan and Hamido, leading to them being arrested as drug traffickers. This forces them to reveal to the local authorities that they are in fact undercover policemen, and that they are in Suez to investigate a drug trafficking ring that Al-Baz himself is involved in. This last would be a satisfying and unexpected twist had you not previously read anything written about Ebn Hamido on the internet, or on its DVD case -- or, for that matter, in this review (sorry!). In any case, it adds to the movie’s already agreeable mix of eye candy, romantic comedy, and gratuitous belly dancing numbers a welcome element of low intensity crime thriller atmosphere. It also provides the opportunity for some well landed, if somewhat predictable, humor -- such as a junior officer, whose deference threatens to blow Hamida and Hassan’s cover, showering them with a torrent of verbal abuse whenever anyone comes within earshot.

Directed by Fatin Abdel Wahab (who helmed the also quite enjoyable Bride of the Nile, as well as the less so The Haunted House), Ebn Hamido is as slickly accomplished as we’ve come to expect from Egypt’s studio system of this era, and is imbued with no small amount of comic energy and generous good humor. Ismail Yassin is his dependably rubber-lipped self, playing, as is so often the case, a character whose slow witted demeanor masks a deceptively shrewd intelligence -- even if it is a bit hard to buy him as a sure-footed undercover cop. Furthermore, Ahmed Ramzy and Hind Rostom bring to the film an undeniable A-list glamour, providing satisfying weight where an admittedly frothy script does not. And, hey, even those wary of cultural dissonance will be heartened by the film’s attitude toward arranged marriage, which appears to be on the progressive side -- although a later sequence, in which the wife of a perpetually henpecked husband reacts with jubilation when he slaps her, will understandably undo a lot of that.

Ebn Hamido’s climax combines the old “will they make it to the wedding on time” rom com gambit with a scrappy fight sequence that’s one part slapstick and one part classic B movie roughhouse, as such providing a neat summation of the genre alchemy at work throughout the movie as a whole. And, as a whole, it’s the type of unpretentious crowd pleaser that’s capable of provoking demon nostalgia in even those too young to know better. It’s no masterpiece, mind you, but certainly an enjoyable trifle. Especially in those moments when only a trifle will do.